Here’s part I of an essay which explores the historical conditions on the Arabian peninsula which led to the rise and spread of Islam.
A quick perusal of history reveals a plethora of individuals who have impacted the historical narrative in profound ways. The underlying question that remains concerning these great persons of history is was it the greatness of the individual which changed the course of history or was it the perfectly clicking together of circumstances which put the great individual in the right place at the right time? The prophet Muhammad appeared on the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century A.D. calling the Bedouins of the harsh desert into submission to the one and only God – Allah. His prophetic calling forged the beginnings of Islam which has more than a billion adherents spread out over the globe. The unmistakable impact of Islam on the world begs this same question: was it the ‘man’ or the ‘circumstances’? The pre-Islamic Arabian Peninsula displayed many characteristics indicating that the time was ripe for a change, and Muhammad became the agent of that change.
The Bedouin lifestyle made the nomads of Al Hijaz – the northern Arabian region on the Red Sea – receptive to the newly formed Islamic religion. The Bedouins were nomads who raided for sustenance and plunder (Hitti 23). They lived in brutally harsh conditions daily fighting off the elements of sun and sand. They survived in a state permanently bordering on the verge of starvation (Hitti 89). They were rugged and individualistic. However, the Bedouins also had an acute awareness that they could not survive merely on their rugged individualism. They became completely dependent on the clans and tribes which they individually belonged to. The Bedouins displayed an unflinching loyalty to their clan; the threat of losing affiliation with their tribe would have been the absolute worst thing that could possibly have happened to them (Hitti 26-27). With the introduction of Islam, the brotherhood felt amongst Muslims and the loyalty displayed in Islam’s message would have given a Bedouin a sense of belonging and of being part of something bigger. In addition, living in a common enclave of Arabian men with the same newly found religion would have given a Bedouin a feeling of security that he may not have felt before. He no longer would need to buy protection or worry so much about raiding parties. Under Islam, the common blood-bond between Arabs and Bedouins would be replaced by the bond of religious brotherhood (Hitti 120). The small Bedouin clan was exchanged for the increasingly widespread Islamic brotherhood. The new religious message of Islam was attractive and the transformation of society was inevitable.
The religious constructs of the Arabian Peninsula at the time preceding Muhammad also created a perfect platform for Muhammad’s message. The vast majority of pre-Islamic Bedouins were animistic who had no structured religious practices (Hitti 96-97). However, there were some already established religious constructs that Muhammad would use to make the new religion more local and under-standable. In Muhammad’s birthplace of Mecca, there had long been the pre-Islamic belief in the creator Allah (Hitti 101). In addition, at the time of Muhammad’s birth, the city of Medina had Jewish and Christian settlers both of which practiced monotheism (Hitti 107). Another Arabic group called the Hanifs entertained the idea of monotheism as their pagan concepts no longer satisfied their spiritual pursuits (Hitti 107-108). Monotheism was already an established practice by other Semitic people groups, so it was not a foreign concept by the time Islam appeared. It is not a difficult step to see how Muhammad’s preaching and teaching could have become a rallying cry for Arabs. Many would willingly embrace the new brand of monotheism which would continue using pre-Islamic religious practices such as the pilgrimage to the Ka’bah (Hitti 100).
The Arabic love of language established another cultural characteristic that would make the acceptance of Islam more prevalent. The Arabs have always had a very strong admiration for poetry and literary expression (Hitti 90). This fact coupled with the Muslim recitation of prayers and reading of the Koran would have been a strong attraction to the Bedouins – a people who have never had any prophetic book or unifying historical document of their own. The focus of the Koran was quite narrow; it spoke in a realistic manner to the people from a point of view that was very local and centralized (Hitti 93). The localized message of the Koran was also very simplistic and easy for people to grasp. The Koran expressed a very simple yet enthusiastic faith in the supreme and transcendent rule of the one God (Hitti 129).
In addition to their attraction to the Koran, the Bedouins would have been dramatically impacted by the impressive display of solidarity and social equality which was displayed prominently each week in the congregational prayers of the new religion (Hitti 132). It would no longer be a single clan against the world. Being a Muslim was being part of something uniquely Arabic – an attractive counter influence to the enclosed enclaves of Jews or Christians who they were not like. The people of Al-Hijaz were open to the right message presented at the right time.