The Semitic Race and the Background of Islam
The Arabs belong to the Semitic race. Of all the various races in the world, the Semitic people have perhaps contributed the most to the civilization of Man. Arabia, the birth place of Islam, is considered to be the probable cradle of the Semitic race. In the course of time these Semitic people migrated into different parts of the Fertile Crescent and became known as the Babylonians, Assyrians, Chaldaeans, Amorites, Phoenicians, Canaanites, and the Hebrews of history.
It was the people of the Semitic race who gave the world its three greatest monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The term Semite is derived from Shem, the eldest son of Noah and the progenitor of the Semitic people.
According to historians, the first migration of the Semitic race occurred around 3500 B.C. and carried these people from their original homeland in Arabia (perhaps around Najd) to the regions of Egypt, Canaan, and Mesopotamia.
One branch of the Semitic people went to Egypt which was then populated by the Hamitic people, a branch of the white race. The amalgamation of the Hamites and the Semitic migrants produced the Egyptians of history.
Another branch of the Semitic people went to the southeastern part of Mesopotamia which was then populated by the Sumerians. The admixture of these two peoples gave rise to the Babylonians of history.
Another branch of the Semitic people settled down in the Canaan region, and later, on the coastal strip of Sidon and Tyre, and gave rise to the Canaanites and Phoenicians of history.
Around 2500 B.C., another migration of the Semitic people, called the Amorites, started from the Canaan Phoenicia area and reached the eastern part of the Fertile Crescent, producing the Assyrians of history.
The early civilization in the Tigro Euphrates area consisted of city states. The first known king of Sumer was Etana (3000 B.C.), while Akkad was ruled by the Akkadian dynasty founded by Sargon I.
Then, around 2100 B.C., Hammurabi of the Amorites united the entire Akkad Sumer region and renamed it as Babylon. Hammurabi was a great administrator and legislator. He established a proper code of conduct for the people which is known today as the “Code of Hammurabi”. This code is perhaps the oldest code known to man and deals with the rights and duties of the various classes of people living in the Babylonian Empire.
After the death of Hammurabi, the Babylonian Empire started to decline till the 8th century B.C. when it was conquered by the Assyrians from the north.
The Assyrians were a group of Semitic people who had established themselves over the northern region of the Mesopotamian valley. Through warfare and aggression, the Assyrians conquered a vast territory, including Babylonia.
In 722 B.C., Sargon II, an Assyrian king, conquered Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Sargon II carried away as captives the most influential men of the Ten Tribes of the Hebrews. These captives are known in history as the Lost Ten Tribes.
Sennacherib (705 681 B.C.) and Ashurbanipal (668 626 B.C.) were the other two famous kings of the Assyrians. Ashurbanipal was the greatest king of Assyria and the entire western Asia acknowledged his authority. On his death, the Assyrian Empire started to decline and in 612 B.C. Ninevah, the capital of Assyria fell to the conquering Medes of Persia.
On the fail of Assyria, the Babylonian Empire rose to prominence again under the Chaldaeans dynasty (625 538 B.C.). Nabopolassar was the founder of this New Babylonian dynasty and his son, Nebuchadnezzar, was its greatest king. It was under him that Babylon recovered its ancient splendour and glory. In 586 B.C., he defeated the Hebrew king of Judah, destroyed the city of Jerusalem and exiled the Jews from the city. It was Nebuchadnezzar who built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon for the pleasure of his wife. In 539 B.C., the Chaldaeans Empire was overthrown by the Medes of Persia under their king Cyrus. Cyrus then allowed the exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem and start the restoration of their sacred city.
The branch of the Semitic race known as the Hebrews lived in the Canaan region around 2100 B.C. When Joseph became governor of a province of Egypt, many Hebrews migrated to that land. The later kings of Egypt, however, mistreated the Israelites who spent the next three hundred years in bondage and servitude under their Egyptian masters. Finally, in 1445 B.C., the Israelites left Egypt in an Exodus under the direction of Moses and eventually returned to their original homeland in the Canaan area. The later history of the Hebrew people is described in some detail in this book under the title Judaism.
All the Semitic peoples share not only a common ethnic heritage but their languages also form a common speech group. To the Semitic languages belong the Akkadian (the language of ancient Babylon and Assyria), Canaanite (of which ancient Phoenician and Hebrew are variant forms), Aramaic (which survives today in the form of Syriac), and Arabic. A common feature of all these Semitic languages is a system of derivation from roots which normally consist of three consonants. The Arabic language today is considered to be the closest to what scholars believe was the primitive form of the Semitic speech.
Arabia at the Time of Prophet Muhammad’s Birth
The Holy Prophet Muhammad was born in Mecca to the year 570 A.D. The city of Mecca is located in the western part of the Arabian Peninsula which is a rectangular shaped block of land surrounded on three sides by the waters of the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea. To the north lies another formidable barrier, the Syrian Desert. For this reason the inhabitants of Arabia used to refer to their land as al-Jazirah, the Island.
Most of the Arabian Peninsula is a desert land of scorching sun with oases and settlements scattered here and there. There is not a single river in Arabia which flows perennially and reaches the sea. None of its streams are navigable. Longer than man can remember, Bedouin tribes have inhabited this region, constantly moving in search of food and pastures. Caravan routes cross the desert in all directions. In ancient times, caravans carried spices from Mecca to the city of Damascus in Syria.
The Meccans trace their ancestry back to Ishmael who, along with his father Abraham, rebuilt the Ka’ba some 4,000 years ago. The Arabs were largely an idolatrous people worshiping many gods. It is said that the Ka’ba contained some 360 idols, one for each day of the year. Even in pre Islamic days, Mecca enjoyed a certain importance among the Arabs who used to come there for their annual pilgrimage and for performing sacrifices to their gods.
Although Allah was the Supreme God of the Arabs, they also believed in a number of other deities. Following is a list of some of the principal deities of the Arabs before Islam:
Allah – the Supreme God
Hubal – the chief of the minor deities
al-Uzza – identified with the planet Venus
al-Lat – a female deity located at Ta’if
Manat – a large sacrificial stone
Taghut – an idol in the shape of a lion
Wadd – a statue in the form of a man
Suwah – an idol in the form of a woman
Ya’uq – worshiped in the form of a horse
Nasr – worshiped in the form of an eagle
Yaghuth – an idol worshiped by the tribe of Murad
Isaf – an idol that stood on Mount Safa
Naila – an image on Mount Marwa
Duwar – a favourite idol with the young women
Of the above Arab deities, the names of al Uzza, al Lat and Manat are mentioned in Surah al-Najm (53:20-21), and the names of Wadd, Suwah, Ya’uq, Nasr and Yaghuth are mentioned in Surah Nuh (71:24).
Aside from the idolatrous Arabs, there were Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, and Hanifs Living in Arabia. Zoroastrianism was the ancient religion of Iran and Hanifs were a small group of monotheistic people who traced their religion back to the Prophet Abraham. The Tradition of the Holy Prophet indicates that his natural religious inclination was towards the Hanifite beliefs before the advent of Islam.
While the Peninsula of Arabia was ruled by different tribes with their own recognized territories, the world outside was more organized. To the east existed the Sasanid Empire of Iran, to the north the Christian Byzantine Empire and to the west, across the Red Sea. The Kingdom of Abyssinia.
The Sasanid Empire came into being in the year 226 A.D. and the Sasanid dynasty ruled over Iran for four centuries. The last king of the dynasty was Chosroes Pervez who ascended the throne in 590 A.D. He was a contemporary of the Byzantine Emperor, Heraclius and of the Holy Prophet Muhammad. The official religion of the Sasanid Empire was Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic faith founded by the Prophet Zoroaster around 1500 B.C.
The Byzantine Empire (also called the Eastern Roman Empire) consisted of Syria, Palestine, Egypt and part of southeastern Europe. The Empire was named after Byzantium, a Greek city on the Bosporus which is a narrow strait connecting the Black Sea with the Mediterranean. In 327 A.D. Byzantium was made the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire by Constantine the Great and the city was renamed Constantinople. Today the city of Constantinople is called Istanbul. During the time of the Prophet Muhammad, Heraclius was the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire. The armies of Chosroes and Heraclius were constantly at war throughout the lifetime of the Prophet.
The Abyssinian Kingdom was ruled by King Negus, or Najashi as the Arabs used to call him. At the time of the Holy Prophet, the Kingdom of Abyssinia was at its height and an ally of the Byzantine Empire. Like the Byzantine Empire, the religion of the Abyssinian Kingdom was Christianity.
It is said that around the year 570 A.D., the Christian Chief of Yemen, named Abraha, attempted to invade Mecca with the intention of destroying the Ka’ba. Abraha’s army rode on elephants and in the Arab history the year 570 A.D. is known as the Year of the Elephant. Abraha did not succeed in his mission and his army was destroyed by an epidemic of disease and a terrible storm. The Quranic Surah al Feel refers to this event.
The Arab culture was a strange mixture of extreme moral defects and some admirable qualities. On the one hand drinking, gambling, personal vendettas and burying alive of baby girls were commonplace. On the other hand, the Arabs were well known for their hospitality, honour, bravery and love for Arabic poetry. It was among such people that the Holy Prophet of Islam was born.
Prophet Muhammad’s (sa) Early Life
Prophet Muhammad was born in 570 A.D. in the Hashemite branch of the tribe of Quraysh. His father’s name was Abdullah and his mother’s Aminah. His grandfather, Abdul Muttalib, was the chief of Mecca at the time of Abraha’s invasion. Shortly after his marriage, Abdullah went to Yathrib (Medinah) in pursuit of trade. He died there a few months before the Prophet was born.
When the Prophet Muhammad was two years old, he was sent to a nurse named Haleema of the tribe of Banu Sa’d. Living in the desert he learned from this tribe the purest and most classical form of the Arabic language. In his later years the Holy Prophet used to tell his companions:
“I am the most Arab among you, for I am of the tribe of Quraysh and I have been brought up among the tribe of Banu Sa’d.”
In the sixth year of his life, Prophet Muhammad was returned to the care of his mother who took him to Yathrib to meet other relatives. On the way back from Yathrib, his mother fell ill and died.
Prophet Muhammad’s grandfather, Abdul Muttalib, was very fond of him and took him under his own care. But the guardianship of his grandfather lasted only two years and when the Prophet Muhammad was eight years old, his grandfather also passed away. On his deathbed, Abdul Muttalib entrusted his grandson to the care of one of his sons, Abu Talib.
Although Abu Talib took the Prophet Muhammad under his own care, he was not a rich man and had to support his own family as well. When the Prophet grew older, he started earning his own living by modest business transactions but mostly as a shepherd. In his early teens the Prophet accompanied his uncle Abu Talib on a journey to al Sham (Syria). In connection with this trip the biographers relate young Muhammad’s encounter with a monk named Bahirah who recognized in him the signs of prophethood and advised Abu Talib to take good care of him.
While the Prophet Muhammad was in his teens, the valley of Mecca saw a bloody fighting erupt among the various tribes. Many persons were killed in these tribal feuds which lasted many years. These wars were fought during the sacred months when fighting was prohibited among the Arabs. For this reason these wars are known in history as the Fijar or “Sacrilegious” Wars. After the fighting was finally over, some energetic youths from the various tribes made a pact among themselves to maintain peace and order in the area and help the poor and the oppressed people. Prophet Muhammad was a member of this agreement which was named Half al-Fadhool, or the Alliance of Fadhals, in memory of an ancient society instituted with similar objectives by four persons named Fadhl, Fadhal, Mufadhal and Fudhayl.
Family Tree of the Holy Prophet and the Various Caliphate Dynasties
The first two caliphs are not shown below. Abu Bakr belonged to the Banu Taym branch and Omar to the Banu Adi branch of the tribe of Quraysh. The third and fourth caliphs are shown by numbers. The first four caliphs of the Umayyad dynasty are shown by numbers in brackets.
Marriage to Khadijah
Even in his youth the Prophet Muhammad was well known for his honesty, sincerity and truthfulness. At the time there lived in Mecca a rich lady by the name of Khadijah who was twice widowed. On hearing of Muhammad’s fame, she invited him to her house and requested him to take charge of her business. Muhammad traveled to Syria in charge of Khadijah’s business and the expedition met with great success and brought unexpected profits. Khadijah made a proposal of marriage to Muhammad which was accepted. At the time of his marriage, Muhammad was twenty five years old while Khadijah was forty.
From his marriage to Khadijah, the Holy Prophet had seven children: three sons and four daughters. All the Prophet’s sons died in infancy. The four daughters reached womanhood and got married but all died before the age of thirty. Only Fatimah outlived her father and that by six months. Following are the names of the Prophet’s children from his first marriage:
- Zaynab married to Abul A’s
- Ruqayyah married to Utbah, a son of Abu Lahab. Marriage ended in divorce. She then married Uthman, who became the third
Successor of the Holy Prophet.
- Umme-Kalthum married to Utaybah, another son of Abu Lahab. This marriage ended in divorce too. She also married Uthman,
after the death of Ruqayyah.
- Fatimah married to Ali, son of Abu Talib.
After the birth of his first son, Prophet Muhammad took on the kunniyat of Abul Qasim, meaning the Father of Qasim, and was usually addressed by the people by this name.
A Disputre Resolved
Prophet Muhammad’s desire for maintaining peace and averting conflict is quite evident from an incident that occurred when he was about thirty five years old. The Quraysh of Mecca decided to rebuild the Ka’ba after some cracks had appeared in its walls. All the families of the Quraysh assisted in this effort. As the walls rose from the ground and the time came to replace the sacred black stone in its place, a dispute broke out. Each of the four main families of the Quraysh wanted this honour exclusively for themselves and the construction of the Ka’ba came to a halt. After many days of suspended work, the Quraysh assembled again and decided that the first person to enter the Ka’ba’s courtyard will be chosen to settle the dispute. Muhammad happened to be that person. Muhammad quickly grasped the situation and asked that the black stone be placed on a sheet of cloth. He then asked the four families of the Quraysh to hold each comer of the cloth and raise the stone to its place. Thus Muhammad, through his wisdom, averted the conflict and resolved the dispute in a manner acceptable to the Quraysh.