Chapter One : the Arabian Peninsula;

its Geographical, Social and Cultural Status

The Arabian Peninsula, located in the south-west of Asia, is the world's largest Peninsula. Extended from the north-west towards southeast, it resembles an irregular trapezoid[^1] with an area of three million and two hundred thousand square kilometers[^2]. The present Saudi Arabia covers nearly four-fifths of this Peninsula;[^3] the rest, in accordance with the present political demarcation, is occupied by six political states of Yemen, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait.

It borders the Aden Gulf, Bab al-Mandab Strait, the Indian Ocean and the Sea of Oman. It borders the Red Sea on the west, the Gulf of Oman, the Persian Gulf and Iraq on the east; and on the north borders a widespread desert extending to the valley of the Euphrates on one side, and Syria on the other. Since there are no natural borders, such as rivers or mountains, in this Peninsula, geographers have not been able so far to mark its northern border.[^4]

The Arabian Peninsula is surrounded by the Persian Gulf, the Sea of Oman, the Red Sea, and the Mediterranean except for its southern sections. Nevertheless, it suffers from severe lack of water and is considered one of the driest and hottest areas of the world. It even lacks a large river or a navigable waterway. Instead, it has lands which are sometimes flooded with rainfalls.

The existence of a mountain range, which starts from the Sinai Peninsula and extends all over the western border of Arabia, acting as a lofty wall, and which winds around the southwest corner of the peninsula to go around the southern and eastern sectors of Arabia as far as the Persian Gulf is the main reason for the extreme dryness of this Peninsula. Thus, Arabia is surrounded, on three sides, with this lofty mountain-wall and this hinders humidity of the seas from entering this land.[^5]

On the other hand, the extent of the neighboring water is so insufficient that it could not modify the warmth and dryness of these vast African-Asian lands which are low in receiving humidity. This is worsened by the blowing of the poisoning Monsoon winds inside Arabia which stops the rain-carrying winds from the Indian Ocean coming from the south from entering the Arabian Peninsula[^6].

Divisions of the Arabian Peninsula

Both Arab and non-Arab geographers have divided the Arabian Peninsula on the basis of the natural elements (such as weather) and on the basis of races and tribes.[^7] Some contemporary scientists have divided it into three main sections in the following manner:

The central section, which is called the Arab Desert; The northern section, which is called Hijaz;

The southern section, which is called Yemen.[^8]

Division on the Basis of Natural Conditions (The south and the North)

Besides these divisions, there has been, in recent years, another division proposed for Arabia which fits in well with the purposes of this book. This division is based on the life sustaining conditions which have had a tremendous effect on the lives of people, living things and plants of this region.

These conditions have influenced the individual and social traits of these people and have brought forth some changes which were in existence up to the advent of Islam. There exist two drastic conditions in the Arabian Peninsula: either there is water, or there is no water. This parameter has had tremendous effects on life patterns of people: it sets apart the southern section, i.e. Yemen, from the central and northern sections.

Life Conditions in the Southern Section (Yemen)

Looking at the map of this land, we find a triangle-shaped territory in the southwestern part of the Arabian Peninsula. The Arab Sea forms the eastern side of this triangle, while the Red Sea forms the western border. A line drawn from Dhahran (in the west) to Khazra’ Mount (in the east) forms the third side of this triangle.

Inside this huge triangle lies a territory, called Yemen since old times. Due to the abundance of water and the regular rainfall, this region has enjoyed lucrative agriculture and dense population; in this regard, it contrasts with both the north and central part of the Peninsula.

On the other hand, a dense population needs a permanent residence. For this very reason, villages and cities came to existence. The concentration of people in cities and villages creates interaction among people which is unavoidable. These modes of interaction bring forth laws and regulations (even the primitive ones), and, as we know, the establishment of laws causes the creation of government. For this reason, centuries prior to the birth of Jesus Christ (s), governments had in this region and established some civilizations.[^9] The governments which have been established in this region are:

(1) The Ma`in State: This government was in existence between 1400 and 850 BC and fell with the creation of the Saba' State. (2) The Hazramawt State: This state existed between 1020 and 65 BC and fell to the Saba' State. (3) The Saba' State: This state was in existence between 850 and 115 BC and ended due to the establishment of the Himyari Saba' and Ridan government. (4) The Qataban State: This state existed between 865 and 540 BC and came to an end with the establishment of the Saba' State. (5) The States of Saba', Ridan, Hazramawt and the vicinity of Yemen, whose vocal dynasties were called Tubba` and lived between 115 BC and 523 AD, their capital was ²afar.[^10]

A Prosperous Civilization in the South of Arabia

Historians have admired the Yemeni bright civilization. An example is Herodotus, the great Greek historian of the fifth century BC, who mentions the civilization of this land which embodied lofty castles in Saba' with doors engraved with precious stones; these castles contained golden-ware and silver-ware and beds made of precious metals.[^11] Some historians refer to a glorious, twenty-floor castle, called Qur'an in Sana’a, which consisted of one hundred rooms with externally high walls and mirror-decorated ceilings.[^12] Strabonn, a famous Roman tourist, paid a visit to this city. Referring to the civilization in this land, he writes:

The city of Ma'rib was a strange city because the ceilings of its castles were made of ivory with gilded scripts and jewels. The elegant Kitchenware made any human being wonder.[^13]

Likewise, the Islamic historians and geographers, Mas`udi (died 346 AH), and Ibn Rustah (one of the scholars of the third century AH) talk of the luxurious life of people in this region and of its prosperous life patterns prior to the advent of Islam.[^14]

Archeological investigations in the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as the research of historians, have all located valid documents concerning the glorious civilization in this ancient land. The remaining ruins in Aden, Sana’a, Ma'rib and Hazramawt all attest to an Arab civilization in the south, i.e. in Yemen, and the neighboring lands. This civilization had been a rival for the Phoenician and Babylonian civilizations. One of the features of the ancient civilization in Yemen was a huge dam, called Ma'rib.[^15]

Being constructed in accordance with rigorous geometrical calculations, this dam attests to a profound knowledge on the part of the engineers and constructors of this dam. This dam could make agriculture prosper in that area.[^16]

Besides agriculture, the Yemenis were engaged in trade. The Sabaeans were trade agents between the east and the west because in those days the country of Yemen rested among several civilized countries. The Indian traders used to take their merchandise to Yemen and Hazramawt through the Indian Ocean and then the Yemeni traders used to take them to Ethiopia, Egypt, Phoenicia, Palestine, The cities of Madyan, Adwam, Al-`Amaliqah and the western lands and the Meccan Arabs used to take the same merchandise and carry them over land to the then advanced cities of the world.[^17]

The Yemenis used to carry out trade with the Far East for a long time.[^18] The navigation problems and hardships on the Red Sea had led the Sabaeans follow land routes. For this reason, they used to travel between Yemen and Damascus along the western shore of the Arabian Peninsula. This road, crossing Mecca and Petra, used to divide towards Egypt, Damascus and Iraq.[^19]

The Destruction of Ma'rib Dam

Due to the spread of corruption among the southerners and because of the internal turmoil, the star of Yemenite civilization gradually declined and the Yemenis and their kings could not repair the Ma'rib Dam which was in terrible need of repair, and then through the destruction of this dam, a devastating flood inundated all the villages and the farms and drought prevailed in the surrounding regions, destroying agriculture. This led people to emigrate from their land[^20].

The Holy Qur'an refers to the nation of Saba' in two occasions: once, on the occasion of mentioning the Queen of Saba' (Sheba) and Solomon's letter to her:

And he tarried not long, and then said: I comprehend that which you do not comprehend and I have brought to you sure information from Sheba. Surely, I found a woman ruling over them, and she has been given abundance and she has a mighty throne. (27:22-23)”

On another occasion the Qur'an refers to Sheba in connection with the destruction of the Ma'rib Dam and the flow of a devastating flood due to the corruption of that tribe:

Certainly, there was a sign for Saba' in their abode; two gardens on the right and the left; eat of the sustenance of your Lord and give thanks to Him: A good land and a Forgiving lord! But they turned aside, so We sent upon them a torrent of which the rush could not be withstood and in place of their two gardens We gave to them, two gardens yielding bitter fruit and growing tamarisk and a few lute-trees. This We requited them with because they disbelieved; and We do not punish any but the ungrateful.

And We made between them and the town which We had blessed other towns to be easily seen, and We apportioned the journey therein: Travel through them nights and days, secure. And they said: O our lord! Make spaces to be longer between our journeys; and they were unjust to themselves; so We made them stories and scattered them with an utter scattering; most surely there are signs in this for every patient, grateful one. (34:15-19)

The destruction of this dam is reported by Hamzah Isfahani to have taken place in 400 before Islam.[^21] According to Abu-Rayhan al-Bayruni, it took place 500 years prior to the advent of Islam.[^22] And Yaqut al-Hamawi mentions the destruction of this dam to be the result of Abyssinian domination. Some historians consider it to have occurred between the years 542 and 570 AH because the Abyssinian's domination was highest during the middle of the sixth century.[^23] But the destruction of the dam must have been gradual: it fell apart after several repairs. In the Holy Qur'an, reference is made to the nation of Tubba` and their final days on two occasions:

Are they better or the people of Tubba`[^24] and those before them? We destroyed them, for surely they were guilty. (44:37)

Others before them rejected prophets: the people of Noah and the dwellers of al-Rass and Thamud, and `ad and Pharaoh and Lut's brethren and the dwellers of the grove and the people of Tubba`; all rejected the apostles; so, My threat came to pass. (50:12-14)

The Effects of the Fall of the Southern Civilization on Arabia

The fall of states in the southern sections, the decline of the civilization in this part of the Arabian Peninsula, and the destruction of the Ma'rib dam—all had their effects on the social changes in this region, because the southern section of the Arabian Peninsula lost its glamour and the fields died away due to drought and a group of the dwellers on the vicinity of this dam had to emigrate from their land.

Due to these dispersions, the Tanukh branch of the Yemenite tribe, called Azd, emigrated to Hirah (Iraq) and established the government of Lakhmian there. The branch called al-Jafnah went to Damascus and established a government at a place to the east of Jordan. They called themselves the Ghassanians.[^25] The tribe Aws and Khazraj emigrated to Yathrib (Medina), and Khuza`ah went to Mecca and its suburbs; the tribes Bujaylah and Khath`am and some other groups went to the region of Sarawat and dwelt there,[^26] each initiating a series of events.

The Conditions of the Northern Section of the Arabian Peninsula (Hijaz)

Hijaz is a dry land, receiving only sporadic rains and except for the mountainous terrain and the narrow shore-areas, it has extremely hot weather. These climatic conditions have had tremendous effects over the life-pattern of its dwellers. This is because the Arab residents of this region, contrary to the southerners, due to small numbers of pastures could not keep cattle except for tiny animals and camels which are tolerant beings. They prepared their food and clothing mainly from camels.

Because this cattle raising and husbandry was based on wandering life-patterns, the establishment of a stable political institution seemed to be impossible. For this reason, contrary to the southerners who were city-dwellers and farmers, the dwellers of the north of the Peninsula lacked civilization and were mainly nomadic wanderers, and the cities there (except for Mecca which, for reasons we will present later, was a little advanced at the advent of Islam) did not carry any significance.

Due to these natural hardships and communication problems, the people of Hijaz did not communicate with the civilized world at those days. These natural and geographical hardships caused this land to remain immune against the aggressions of conquerors. This fact attested the lack of interest on the part of Ramses II in the 14th century BC, Alexander of Macedonia in the 4th century BC, and Gallous at the time of August, the Roman Emperor, in the first century AD, to conquer this land nor did the Iranian kings show any interest to conquer this region. For this very reason, the people of Hijaz continued their nomadic life without any external interference.[^27] Concerning this, a historian writes:

When Demetrius, the Greek army-general (after Alexander) arrived at Petra to conquer it, the Arab desert-dwellers said to him, “O great Prince, why have you come to fight us? We are living on a desert with no comfort of life whatsoever. We have chosen life here to remain our own masters, not to receive orders from anybody.

Now accept our gifts and return home from where you have come. If you do so, we shall remain your most devoted friends. However, if you decide to fight us and refuse to accept our peace proposal, you have to destroy your life-comforts. You cannot change our life-modes to which we have grown accustomed since our childhood. You would not benefit, either, to take some of us as prisoners-of-war. This is because those captured ones shall never become your slaves.”

Having considered this, Demetrius accepted their gifts and returned home, refusing to partake in a war which did not offer anything except for hardships and nuisances.[^28]

A scientist has observed:

“The Arab Island is a complete example of dependence of man over land. Inside countries such as India, Greece, Italy, England, and the United States, we have always seen some adventurous conquerors who have ventured to defeat the native dwellers and to make them obedient. There has never occurred in the history of Arabia any conqueror who has decided to occupy this land.[^29]


Since the major sections of the northern territory of the Arabian Peninsula (Hijaz) consists of deserts, most Arabs were desert-dwellers and nomads prior to the advent of Islam. The nomads, being deprived of assets of life due to the severe conditions under which they lived, continued to live mainly on animal husbandry on a very limited scale.

They used to live under tents woven out of goat's hair and camel's wool; they would inhabit anywhere they could locate some water or pastures; and they would move to other regions as soon as they were out of provisions. The nomadic Arabs could not raise cattle, except for small herds and a few camels at most, due to the shortage of pastures and plants. There is a maxim to the effect that “in a desert, the nomadic power, camels and dates rule.” If we added the power of sands to these three powers, we would get four main factors which play a significant role in desert life.

Shortage of water, extreme heat, difficult roads, and scarcity of foods and supplies, which are man's great enemies under normal conditions, would turn into man's closest friends at times of war. Thus, when we observe that an Arab and his desert have never bowed to the enemy's power, we would not be amazed that the continuous dryness of the desert had had its permanent effect on the Arab's body and mental abilities. Nomadic Arabs considered it beyond their dignity to be involved in either agriculture or other crafts and industries.[^30] They would belittle the civilized states and their regulations; they used to prefer desert life to city life.[^31]

The desert Arab was the son of nature and the infinite and borderless desert. No building could ever interfere with the clean air of his environment; the sun's everlasting rays fell over him without the hindrance of the clouds. He had erected no dam against rain or torrents. Everything was kept in the form it was created by God.

Thus, the desert’s son was as free as his environment. Neither farming nor engagement in any industry could deter him from his freedom; nor could the city crowds bother him in any way. He cared for freedom because he had lived in it. No rules or regulations could mar his freedom. He used to fight with anybody who tried to deprive him of his freedom. He was bound by two things only: the principles of idolatry and its ceremonies on the one hand and his tribal customs on the other. However, his commitment towards his tribal customs had deep roots.[^32]

La Mense, the Belgian Orientalist, writes:

The Arab was an example of democracy and freedom, but an extreme form which had no limits. The Arab rebellion against any power which intended to limit his freedom (even when this limit was in his favor) reveals the roots of the crimes which fill most of Arab history.[^33]

The Tribal Order

Prior to the advent of Islam, the Arabs of Hijaz obeyed neither a government nor a political institution. For this reason, their social life differed greatly from that of the Iranians and Romans. This is because in these two countries, i.e. Iran and Rome which bordered Arabia, there were unified central governments which ruled all over the country. However, there was no central power in Hijaz or in any other city (in the north or center of the Arabian Peninsula as a whole).

The tribe was the social unit of the Arabs and the tribal system prevailed everywhere. In such a system, the identity of individuals was determined only through their affiliation with a tribe. The tribal elements could be observed among not only the desert dwellers but also the city-dwellers. In that region, every tribe looked like an independent country and the interrelations among them resembled those among nations in the new world.

Racial Affiliation

In those days, nationality was not based on factors such as unity of religion, language or history. A tribe was defined as a collection of some affiliated families and the bonds which brought relatedness among them were the familial bonds, and the unity of common ancestors. This is because the members of a tribe considered themselves as of the same blood.[^34]

The combination of some families would create a tent and a combination of several tents would bring forth a tribe. Even the composition of big association, such as that of the Jews, was based on consanguinity and common ancestors. These groups would set up their tents in such a way as to form tribes of several thousand people each. Then, they would migrate from one place to another, following their cattle.[^35]

The Tribal Chief

The head or representative of the tribe was called Shaykh.[^36] This Shaykh was usually the most advanced in age. He had this position because of his personality, experience, bravery, defense of the tribe’s interests and sometimes because of the abundance of his wealth.[^37] In the election of the Shaykh, some traits, such as generosity, bravery, patience, wisdom, humility and eloquence, were taken into consideration.[^38]

The Shaykh did not use force or coercion in judicial, military and other general affairs. He used to consult with the tribal consultative committees. This latter managerial body elected the Shaykh who continued to keep his job as long as his electorates were happy with him.[^39] However, in accordance with the tribal tradition, everybody had to obey the head of the tribe. When a Shaykh died, either his eldest son or another elderly man who possessed the same traits would be the tribal leader.

Islam fought against the tribal system and did away with it. It did not consider race or clan as significant as it built the newly established Islamic society on the basis of “unity of faith,” which is the strongest social bond. In this way, Islam substituted common faith for consanguinity. Islam called all the believers as brethren (the Holy Qur'an, 49:10). In this way, the foundation of the Arab social structure was changed.

Tribal Zeal and Devotion

Extreme zeal was considered as the very soul of the tribe and showed that an individual was devoted to the tribal interests. As a general rule, tribal devotion among the desert-dwellers resembled extreme nationalism in the modern world.[^40] Whatever a civilized man does for his country, religion or race, a nomadic Arab did for his tribe. He would do anything possible for his tribe; he would even sacrifice his own life for it.[^41]

An Arab used to be over-protective of his family members, such as brothers, nephews and other relatives. He used to protect his relative be he good or tyrant. In the Arab's ideology, if anybody refrained from helping his brother or nephew, his honor would be marred and damaged. Regarding this, they would say:

Help out your brother whether he is an oppressor or oppressed.

An Arab has written the following poem in this regard:

When a man is asked by his brothers to help them, he would not delay helping them out.[^42] In this way, if a tribal member was insulted, the whole tribe would feel this insult. Therefore, all tribal members had to participate in obliterating this spot of dishonor.[^43]

Islam has condemned this kind of nonsensical prejudice, dogmatism and harmful zeal and has called it irrational:

When those who disbelieved harbored in their hearts feelings of disdain; distain of the days of ignorance. (48:26)

The Holy Prophet has stated:

“Anybody who invites others to engage in a dogmatic piece of affair or bears prejudice stays out of Islam.”[^44] “Anybody who engages in prejudice or is shown irrational sympathy stays out of religion.”[^45] The Holy Prophet once said, “Help out your brother, whether he is an aggressor or is an oppressed.” People remarked, “It is evident that an oppressed one should be helped out? How should we help out an oppressor?” The Holy Prophet replied, “Stop his aggression.”[^46]

Tribal Revenge

Since there was neither central government, nor any judicial system in those days in Arabia to settle people's conflicts and to establish justice anybody who was the victim of an injustice had the right to engage in the act of taking-revenge. If the offender belonged to another tribe, the oppressed had the right to take revenge on any member of the other tribe and this was a common practice with the Arabs of those days.[^47] This was because one member's sin was considered collective, belonging to the whole tribe, and because of the whole clan and consanguinity. The act of taking revenge was carried out first by close relatives, and later on by the whole members of the tribe if it was felt urgent.

If anybody was killed, the act of taking revenge would fall upon the shoulders of the closest relative[^48] and if the murdered one belonged to another tribe, the custom of revenge-taking would be carried out and any one of the murderer’s tribal member was at the risk of losing his life. This was because the dominating dictum of the desert would say: “Blood is washed off only with blood.” No blood-money was accepted.

Once, a nomadic Arab was asked, “Are you ready to let go of anybody who has wronged you?” He replied, “I will take revenge and then go to hell.”[^49]

Tribal Rivalries and Boastings

Another feature of the Arab's life in those dark days was rivalry and boasting. An Arab would bask in the dominant values of those days which were generally absurd. Besides bravery in the war-fields, other traits, such as generosity, loyalty, wealth, number of children and dependency towards tribal values, were considered significant. The Holy Qur'an re-states their statements, condemning them at the same time:

And they say: we have more wealth and children, and we shall not be punished. Say: surely my Lord amplifies the means of Subsistence for whom He pleases and straitens (for whom He pleases), but most men do not know. And not your wealth nor your children are the things which bring you near Us in station, but whoever believes and does good, these it is for whom is a double reward for what they do, and they shall be secure in the highest places. (34:35-37)

Once, Khosrow, the Iranian king, asked al-Nu`man Ibn al-Mundhir, the king of Hirah, “Is there a tribe among the Arab tribes, which is superior to others in dignity and honor? He answered, “Yes, there is.” When he was asked for the reason, al-Nu`man replied, “Anybody who has three of his ancestors as the tribal chiefs consecutively and the fourth chief from his own tribe will have the next chief from his own tribe as well.”[^50]

The Arabs at the time of ignorance used to boast about the numbers of their tribe members; in this way, they disheartened rival tribes.

One day, there was an argument between two tribes; each enumerated his tribal points of honor and claimed that the number of the dignified persons and the sheer number of the members was superior to that of the rival tribe. They started calling heads of all tribal members. The counting of the living members did not help. So, they went to the cemetery to count the dead.[^51] The Holy Qur'an has condemned such ignorant and irrational boastings:

Abundance diverts you, until you come to the graves, Nay! You shall soon know. (102:1-3)