WHEN MUHAMMAD, THE PROPHET OF ISLAM, WAS born in August, 570, of the Christian era, at Mecca, the principal town of Arabia, the civilizations associated with the names of’ Egypt, Babylon, and Greece were already matters of history‑. They awaited the researches of the archaeologist, the antiquary, and the scholar to be rescued from oblivion.
Europe was still largely pagan, devoted to the worship of Nordic, Teuton, and a host of other gods. In South Asia, Brahmanism and Buddhism had long passed their prime and had entered upon a placid and prolonged old age.
In the Far East, the homely philosophy of Confucius and the “way” of Lao‑Tze pursued a sluggish and somnolent course. They had earlier been stirred by the advent of Buddhism into China, but had fallen back into passivity, along with Buddhism. Chinese scholars, feeling that a period of decline and decay had set in made sporadic efforts at revival.
The two great empires of Iran and Byzantium were interlocked in a struggle which ultimately resulted in death for both. The sudden end of one and the slow expiration of the other followed in due course, though the final blows in each case proceeded from a quarter entirely unexpected.
Religion, philosophy, and learning were at a low ebb. The spirit, the mind, and the intellect languished. Mankind had entered upon a decline. The earth seemed to be dying. It was the darkest period of the Dark Ages. There was only an occasional glimmer of light here and there. As the Quran says: “Corruption had overtaken both land and water, in consequence of that which the hands of men had wrought” (30:42).*
* “Land” here signifies peoples who did not profess belief in any Divine revelation, while “water” refers to peoples who professed belief in such revelation.
In Arabia the gloom was almost unrelieved. The peninsula was an outlying and neglected region, its inhabitants innocent of learning, philosophy, and science. Although indifferent toward both the arts of peace and the regulations of war, the Arabs were good fighters. The hard and unrelenting struggle for existence in a waste and arid region left little margin for any other pursuit.
The need of water to sustain human and animal existence was urgent and insistent, and largely determined the pattern of life. With the exception of a few townships, Arab life throughout the peninsula was tribal and nomadic. Each tribe moved with its few belongings, its camels and sheep, in search of water and pasture, within a roughly defined area, according to the season of the year and the vagaries of the rainfall.
Mecca, forty miles from the Red Sea, enjoyed a degree of preeminence on account of the Sanctuary attached to the Ka’aba, the House of God, a pilgrim resort traditionally built or rebuilt by Abraham and his son Ishmael. Meccans claimed descent from Abraham through Ishmael. They revered Abraham as patriarch and prophet, and had vague notions of a Supreme God. They believed, however, that it was not possible for ordinary mortals to obtain access to Him save through intercessors. Abraham, being a Holy Man, had direct access to God, they conceived, but for themselves they sought the aid of gods and goddesses, whom they worshiped in the form of idols (39:4). For such intercession, it is related, they had installed as many as three hundred and sixty idols in the Ka’aba itself. Other towns had their own major and minor gods and goddesses. Such idolatry was prevalent throughout Arabia.
The Arabs possessed certain types of virtue. They had a lively sense of honor, and were very sensitive about anything that they deemed touched this honor. The virtue of hospitality was practiced to an exaggerated degree. A guest was entertained and protected to the utmost limit of the host’s capacity. Notions of chivalry were sometimes carried to fantastic lengths. Courage and bravery were called for and were displayed in every exigency of their stern and austere life.
Fighting broke out frequently and tribal raids were common. Brutal and savage deeds, such as cutting off the ears and noses of the enemy dead and tearing out their hearts and livers, were not only practiced, but were gloried in.
Little was known of art. The main channels of artistic and emotional outlet were furnished by poetry and oratory. In consequence, though writing was little known, spoken Arabic had been developed to a very high degree of excellence.
The Arabs were not familiar with any of the then known sciences, but being a people under the necessity of traveling at night ‑particularly during the hot season‑across pathless deserts, they were interested in the elements of astronomy and had acquired a certain degree of proficiency in them.
Their principal vices were indulgence in liquor and gambling, and promiscuity in sexual relations. Woman was held in little honor, and among certain families who prided themselves on their status, the practice of infanticide of females was common. In fact, woman was regarded more as a chattel than as a companion or helpmeet, occupying a position only slightly above that of a slave. When a man died his sons inherited all his wives, except the mothers of the sons. Each son, however, was responsible for the welfare of his own mother.
Slavery was a familiar and widespread institution, and there was no limit to the hardship and indignity to which a slave might be exposed. The condition of slaves was a cycle of wretchedness and misery, terminated only by death,
The wealth and substance of the nomadic tribes consisted of horses, camels, sheep, and goats, all of which were highly valued on account of their useful qualities. They served as means of transport and sustenance, and they provided protection in the form of tents and clothing fashioned from their wool, hair, and hide.
The town dwellers carried on considerable trade through caravans, which plied not only between the townships of Arabia proper, but as far north as Syria, including Palestine, and also to the countries immediately to the east and west of the northern part of the peninsula. There was a certain amount of trade with India; Indian swords were highly prized.
Dates and liquor were among the products of Arabia, of which the former were much appreciated outside Arabia also. A certain amount of sericulture was carried on in Yemen and other parts of the peninsula, and silk cloth and stuffs were manufactured.
The political situation was confused and unstable. At the time of the birth of the Prophet, control over Yemen was exercised by Ethiopia, from across the Red Sea. Only that year‑A.D. 570- Abraha, Ethiopia’s Viceroy in Yemen, had led an expedition against Mecca, with the declared intention of destroying the Ka’aba. The expedition proved an utter failure. Abraha’s forces, which included an elephant, were struck by a virulent epidemic that destroyed large numbers of them during their encampment in a valley a few miles outside Mecca. The remainder of the group retired in confusion and terror. The year of that expedition is still known as the Year of the Elephant. The event is the subject matter of a brief chapter in the Quran (ch. 105)
Some years later Yemen appears to have passed under the sovereignty of Iran. It was the Iranian Viceroy of Yemen who was directed by the then Emperor of Iran to arrest the Prophet (who by then had migrated to Medina) and to forward him under guard to the Emperor. For this purpose the Viceroy sent emissaries to Medina. When the Prophet was apprised of their mission, he‑wishing time for prayer and reflection‑asked them to wait a day or two. During that time the assassination of the Emperor of Iran was revealed to the Prophet. When he informed the emissaries of his revelation and pointed out that the Emperor’s orders could no longer have effect, the astonished men hastened back to Yemen to communicate to the Viceroy the Prophet’s words‑words soon confirmed by dispatches from the Iranian capital. This incident led the Viceroy and his court as well as large numbers of the people of Yemen to embrace Islam.
The Christian tribes in the north of the peninsula were in treaty relations with Byzantium, and enjoyed the protection of the Byzantine Emperor.
Mecca itself was a sort of oligarchy. Its affairs were administered by a Council of Elders, composed of the heads of the leading families of the Qureish, the principal tribe inhabiting Mecca. The Council met as occasion demanded within the precincts of the Ka’aba, in a structure known as the House of Consultation, for the transaction of business relating to the affairs of the town. Different families of the Qureish had been assigned various functions in connection with the service of the Ka’aba, the regulation of the pilgrimage, and the administration of the city (9:19).
The Ka’aba and its enclosure were then, as they are now, the center of life in Mecca.
The prosperity of Mecca depended upon the veneration accorded throughout Arabia to the Ka’aba, which was a center of pilgrimage, and upon the profits derived from the trade caravans plying regularly to Yemen in the south, to Syria in the north, and even farther afield on occasion (106:2‑3).