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The Middle East before Islam

Empires and monotheisms

Main points
Political landscape of the Fertile Crescent before Islam: other Empires Other Monotheisms Arabia before Islam Concept of jahaliyya in Islamic thought: importance of the past More continuity than rupture? The importance of origin stories in religious history

Empire and the Fertile Crescent: the

Achaemenids (6th-4th century BCE)

Alexanders short-lived Empire (4th century BCE)

The Roman Attempt (2nd century CE)

Sasanid Iran (3-7th century CE)

Byzantium in the 6th century

Pre-Islamic Arabia: on the margins of the ByzantineSasanid struggle, controlled through buffer states

Monotheism (or who else believed in

only one God when Islam arose?)


Judaism (scattered throughout ancient world) Christianity (affiliated with Byzantine Empire, split due to Christological debates)

Zoroastrianism (state religion of Sasanians)


Sabians of Harran ( in northern Iraq) (clever polytheists who cite Quran in their favor) Hanifs (pre-Islamic Monotheists)

The Jews in Exile (Babylonian)

The Jews in Exile (II): Diaspora

The spread of Christianity

Zoroastrianism/Manicheanis m

Religious trends in the centuries before Islam


hardening of the communal boundaries between Jews and Christians -> rise of Christianity precipitates increased tensions increased definition of what it means to be a Jew and a Christian (rabbis acquire authority, Christological debates) doctrinal and therefore social/political splintering of the Christian world (Council of Chalcedon in 451) religious identity increasingly determining social and political identity decline of paganism/influence on Monotheistic traditions -> belief in magic, other world, Hellenism

The Presence of Judaism and Christianity in Arabia


Jewish presence in Arabia attested to at least from the 2nd century onwards; conversion of Dhu Nuwas, Himyarite king from South Arabia to Judaism in 6th century and his subsequent persecution of Christians in Najran -> he died at the hands of Ethiopian Christians Both the Lakhmids and the Ghassanids North Arabian kingdoms were Christian (albeit Monophysite) Zoroastrianism also present in Arabia, though not as much

The monotheists of Arabia

Our source: Ibn Ishaq (d. 767), author of Sirat al-Nabi, the earliest comprehensive biography of the Prophet Some current scholars argues for this group being the result of Jewish influence

Ibn Ishaq depicts them as reaching this state independently

Four men who broke with polytheism . . .


One day when the Quraysh had assembled on a feast day to venerate and circumambulate the idol to which they offered, this being a feast which they held annually, four men drew apart secretly . . . They agreed that the people had corrupted the religion of their father Abraham, and that the stone they went round was of no account . . . So they went their several ways in the lands, seeking the Hanifiya, the religion of Abraham. (98-9)

One of whom, Zayd, was told of the coming of a prophet . . .


. . . he went through the whole of Syria until he came to a monk in the high ground of Balqa . . . He asked him about the Hanifiya, the religion of Abraham, and the monk replied, You are seeking a religion to which no one today can guide you, but the time of a prophet who will come forth from you country which you have just left has drawn near. He will be sent with the Hanifiya, the religion of Abraham, so stick to it, for he is to about to be sent now and this is his time. (103)

The time of ignorance and the role of Abraham

Jahiliyya: an ignorance of God, depending on context, a willful ignorance


Abraham believed by Muslims to have built the Kaba with his son Ishmael thus, Islam will be seen not as something new so much as re-establishing of a truth already revealed