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Prompt 1 (5 pages): How would you explain the emergence of sectarian divisions within the Islamic community, and what were the most important social and political consequences

up to the thirteenth century


For this prompt, begin with a general intro about how islam got broken up into sectarian divisions such as Sunnis and Shi’is over ideological differences and how all of these divisions had major political implications as each sect recognized their own leaders and denounced others. The thesis sentence should introduce the main argument which should sound something like, “ideological differences among believers led to multiple splits within the Muslim community, resulting in a complex mosaic of religio-political entities”. The end of the intro paragraph should introduce examples, each of which should get their own body paragraph if possible.

The specific divisions you should use as examples of sects emerging with sociopolitical consequences are…

the split between shi’is and sunnis,

the Ismaili sect and their establishment of a rival caliphate,

the Hanafi sect’s support for the seljuks and their adoption and spread of it,

the maliki sect,

and the ibadi state at tahert.

Be sure to give an explanation of the history and causes of the emergence of each sect while also addressing the political implications that came with it. The main focus should be about the social and political histories of these sects.

A short conclusion paragraph is preferred

There are no specific sources for this prompt however it should not be too difficult to google search the topics and follow the outline in these instructions. For example, for the maliki sect (as well as all the other stuff) you could just google Maliki, find good sources that discuss the circumstances surrounding their emergence as well as the sociopolitical implications surrounding their emergence, and cite them properly if necessary.

PROMPT 2 (4 pages): How did the nature of political legitimacy among Muslims change from the tenth century C.E. onward?

For this prompt, begin with a general intro about the fall of the abbasid empire and lead into how it led to political/religious fragmentation where sultans increasingly organized the military-political regimes, rather than caliphs. The thesis should say something about the variation of governing styles that emerged.

The rest of the paper should discuss the political landscape of the Muslim world with some emphasis on the difference between the caliphate and the sultanate.

Although I don’t have as much of a defined outline, if you follow the sequence of events and ideas from the source I attach, the essay format will work itself out. Attached you will find a book titled, the prophet and the age of the caliphates. Chapter 7 in this book is directly relevant to this prompt and as such, all information can come from this chapter. This essay could essentially just be a four page summary of the chapter (Ch 7) with emphasis on the parts about politics and political legitimacy shifting away from caliphs and more towards sultans.

The Prophet and the Age
of the Caliphates
Third Edition
The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates is an accessible history of the Near East
from c. ad 600 to 1050, the period in which Islamic society was formed. Beginning with the life of Muhammad and the birth of Islam, Hugh Kennedy goes
on to explore the great Arab conquests of the seventh century and the golden
age of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates when the world of Islam was politically and culturally far more developed than the West. The arrival of the Seljuk
Turks and the period of political fragmentation which followed shattered this
early unity, never to be recovered.
This new edition is fully updated to take into account the considerable
amount of new research on early Islam, and contains a completely revised bibliography. Based on extensive reading of the original Arabic sources, Kennedy
breaks away from the Orientalist tradition of seeing early Islamic history as a
series of ephemeral rulers and pointless battles by drawing attention to underlying long-term social and economic processes.
The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates deals with issues of continuing and
increasing relevance in the twenty-first century, when it is, perhaps, more
important than ever to understand the early development of the Islamic world.
Students and scholars of early Islamic history will find this book a clear, informative and readable introduction to the subject.
Hugh Kennedy is Professor of Arabic at SOAS, University of London. His
previous publications include The Armies of the Caliphs: Military and Society in
the Early Islamic State (2001), The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam
Changed the World We Live In (2007) and (as editor) Warfare and Poetry in the
Middle East (2013).
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The Prophet and the Age
of the Caliphates
The Islamic Near East from the sixth
to the eleventh century
Third Edition
Hugh Kennedy
This edition published 2016
by Routledge
2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN
and by Routledge
711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017
Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business
© 2016 Hugh Kennedy
The right of Hugh Kennedy to be identified as author of this work
has been asserted by him in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the
Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or
utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now
known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in
any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing
from the publishers.
Trademark notice: Product or corporate names may be trademarks or
registered trademarks, and are used only for identification and explanation
without intent to infringe.
First published 1986 by Pearson Education Limited
Second edition published 2004 by Pearson Education Limited
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Kennedy, Hugh (Hugh N.)
The Prophet and the age of the caliphates : the Islamic Near East from
the sixth to the eleventh century / Hugh Kennedy. — Third Edition.
  pages cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
1. Islamic Empire—History—622-750. 2. Islamic
Empire—History—750-1258. I. Title.
DS38.5.K38 2015
ISBN: 978-1-138-78760-5 (hbk)
ISBN: 978-1-138-78761-2 (pbk)
ISBN: 978-1-315-67351-6 (ebk)
Typeset in Bembo
by Apex CoVantage, LLC
In memory of my daughter, Susannah Louise,
who died far too young.
Loved and remembered every day, bright star.
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List of maps ix
List of genealogical tables x
Preface to the third edition xi
Preface to the second edition xii
Preface xiii
Notes on names, titles and dates xiv
1 The matrix of the Muslim world: the Near East in the
early seventh century
2 The birth of the Islamic state
3 Conquest and division in the time of the Ra-shidu-n caliphs
4 The Umayyad caliphate
5 The early ‘Abbasid caliphate
6 The middle ‘Abbasid caliphate
7 The structure of politics in the Muslim commonwealth
8 The Buyid confederation
9 The Kurds
10 The Hamdanids
11 Bedouin political movements and dynasties
12 Early Islamic Egypt and the Fatimid empire
Postscript: the coming of the Seljuks 295
Principal sources for the history of the Near East, 600–1050 298
Suggested further reading 332
Glossary 341
Index 345
Provinces of the early Islamic world
Syria, Palestine and the western Jazira
Iraq and western Iran
Genealogical tables
Muh.ammad and the descent of the caliphs
The Umayyad caliphs
The ‘Abbasid caliphs
The principal Buyid rulers
The ‘Uqaylids of Mosul
The Hamdanids of Aleppo and Mosul
Preface to the third edition
In this third edition I have again taken the opportunity to update the text in the
light of the very considerable amount of new research, and to completely revise
the bibliography to try to bring it up-to-date. I am grateful for the suggestions
made by friends and colleagues and for the support of the new publishing team
at Routledge.
H. Kennedy, SOAS, University of London, March 2015
Preface to the second edition
I have taken advantage of this new edition to incorporate the results of research
– n,
published since the 1986 edition, especially in the chapters on the Ra- shidu
the Umayyads and the Middle ‘Abbasids.The discussion of the sources has been
revised and the bibliographies have been brought up-to-date.
I am grateful to many reviewers and colleagues who have drawn my attention to deficiencies in the first edition. I owe a very great debt of gratitude to
Paul Cobb, who generously took the time and care to bring numerous glitches
to my attention and suggest improvements: I have acted on almost all of them.
H. Kennedy, St Andrews, April 2003
This work is intended as an introduction to the history of the Near East in the
early Islamic period, from the time of the Prophet to the vast upheaval caused by
the arrival of the Seljuk Turks in the mid-fifth to eleventh centuries. In it I have
attempted to strike a balance between a presentation of factual material, which
may seem too dry, and speculative interpretation. Some will no doubt find this
approach traditional and unadventurous, but I have tried to bear in mind the
needs of the reader who is approaching the history of the Near East for the first
time and requires a basic framework of chronological narrative. At the same time
I have tried to avoid the impression that Islamic history is full of ephemeral rulers and pointless battles and to devote space to long-term social and economic
changes and to the positive aspects of Muslim government and the immense
achievements of the period, which are too often neglected in Western writing.
Whether I have reached the right balance is for the reader to judge.
In writing this book, I am deeply conscious of the debt I owe to many scholars who have worked on the period. I have been especially helped by the works
of W.M. Watt on Muh.ammad and F.M. Donner and M. Morony on the Islamic
conquests. The articles of G.M. Hinds on the reign of ‘Uthm-an and the battle of
S·iff ı̄n are of fundamental importance. For later periods, I have been greatly helped
by the work of J. Lassner and F. Omar on the ‘Abbasid caliphate, R.M. Adams on
the economic and archaeological background to the breakup of the caliphate and
the works of R. Bulliet and R. Mottahedeh. Although we may disagree on some
interpretations, I owe much to the teaching of M. A. Shaban. I should also draw
attention to the excellent and wide-ranging studies of W. Madelung and C.E.
Bosworth, both of whom have contributed greatly to our understanding of the
It is inevitably invidious to single out individual authors, and there are many
others to whom I owe much. The list of secondary sources at the end of this
volume gives details of works I have found useful. I must emphasize that all the
errors in this work are my own.
I owe particular debts of gratitude to Professor P. M. Holt, who has edited
this volume with the greatest care and saved me from numerous mistakes.
I would also like to thank friends and colleagues who have encouraged me, and
especially Helen and Robert Irwin for friendship and hospitality in London.
H. Kennedy, St Andrews, February 1985
Notes on names, titles and dates
Names and titles
There was an elaborate system of nomenclature among the Arabic-speaking
peoples in the early Islamic period. In full, each individual’s name could consist
of four elements:
1. The personal name (Arabic, ism). This was most commonly Arabic (e.g.
Ah.mad, Fa-t.ima) or Qur’a-nic (e.g. Ibra-hı̄m, Mu-sa-).With the arrival of Turks
in the service of the caliphate, Turkish names became common among
the military (e.g. Uta-mish, Alptakı̄n); the correct form of these names is
often difficult to determine, and variant spellings may be encountered.The
Buyid family often used Persian names, e.g. Bakhtiya-r, and a particular
problem attaches to the transliteration of Persian names ending in u-ya; this
can also be transliterated as -wayh, so Bu-ya becomes Buwayh, H.asanu-ya
becomes H
. asanwayh, etc. In general the -uya usage is becoming more common, but readers should be aware of both forms.
2. The kunya, sometimes inaccurately called the patronymic, which takes the
form Abu- — – and Umm ——, i.e. “Father of ——”, “Mother of ——”.
In early Islamic times this usually denoted actual parentage, e.g. the Prophet’s kunya was Abu-’l-Qa-sim, from the name of his son al-Qa-sim, who died
in infancy.This was a more intimate way of addressing a ruler than a formal
title, and some ‘Abbasid caliphs with very common isms were generally
known by their kunyas, e.g. al-Mans·u-r, whose ism was ‘Abd Alla-h, was generally known as Abu- Ja‘far after his eldest son. Likewise al-Mu‘tas·im, whose
ism was Muh.ammad, was known as Abu- Ish.-aq.
3. The patronymic (nasab) indicating the individual’s father or extended pedigree. This takes the form ibn —— or bint ——, i.e. “son of ——”, “daughter of ——”, abbreviated to b. The plural form banu-, literally “sons of ”,
indicates a tribe or clan.
4. The generic epithet (nisba) indicating a tribe or area to which an individual
belonged, e.g. al-Sulamı̄ meaning “from the tribe of Sulaym”, al-Khura-sa-nı̄
meaning “from the province of Khura-sa-n”.The nisba was an adjective ending in ı̄ (masc.) or iyya (fem.) and several might be appended to a name.
Notes on names, titles and dates
A ruler, a member of a ruling group or a dignitary might have a title or
honorific (laqab) prefixed to his name. The Ra-shidu-n and Umayyad caliphs
were simply known by their isms, but both ‘Abbasids and Fatimids adopted
regnal titles indicating the fact that they were supported by Allah or that they
were upholders of the Faith (dı̄n) and it is by these titles, or shortened versions
of them, that caliphs are generally known, e.g. al-Mans·u-r, al-Mu‘izz. From the
fourth/tenth centuries onwards, members of successor dynasties used titles of
the form ‘Ima-d al-Dawla, Rukn al-Dawla meaning “Support or Pillar of the
(‘Abbasid or Fatimid) State”, and this nomenclature became widespread. For
a full discussion of titles and their development, see the article Lak.ab by C.E.
Bosworth in the Encyclopaedia of Islam (new edition).
The part of the name which is conventionally used by modern writers,
including this one, is quite arbitrary and is more dependent on convention than
The Muslim era opens with the Hijra (often spelt Hegira), i.e. the emigration
of Muh.ammad from Mecca to Medina in ad 622. Muslim years are therefore
indicated by the abbreviation ah (Anno Hegirae). The Muslim year consists of
twelve lunar months and is therefore approximately eleven days shorter than
the solar year of the Western calendar. This also means that the months do not
always occur in the same seasons of the year. There is no Muslim equivalent of
bc dating. To find the ad equivalent to Muslim ah dates and vice versa, conversion tables are necessary. A useful compendium is G.S.P. Freeman-Grenville,
The Muslim and Christian Calendars, London 1963. It should be noted that the
Muslim day begins at sunset and thus straddles part of two Western days.
R. Indu
H. R
Bukhara Sanarqand
. .
r is
R. Tig
R. E
R Ar R K
AR s
am YJ TA
J adh AN
I B an
Bab al-Abwab
e lm
Map 1 Provinces of the early Islamic world
100 mls
200 km
Map 2 Syria, Palestine and the western Jazira
Map 3 Iraq and western Iran
Map 4 Egypt
Table 1 Muh. ammad and the Descent of the Caliphs
Table 2 The Umayyad Caliphs (reigning caliphs are numbered with dates of accession)
Table 3 The ‘Abbasid Caliphs (reigning caliphs are numbered with dates of accession)
Table 4 The Principal Buyid Rulers (with dates of accession)
Table 5 The ‘Uqaylids of Mosul
Table 6 The Hamdanids of Aleppo and Mosul
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The matrix of the Muslim
world: the Near East in the
early seventh century
The Near East before the coming of Islam was dominated, as it had been for
the previous half-millennium, by two great empires, the Roman–Byzantine to
the west and the Persian to the east. The frontier between these two empires
had fluctuated considerably during this time. In the late sixth century, the last
period of stability before the upheavals of the seventh century, the frontier had
run roughly from north to south, through the wild uplands of eastern Anatolia
and bisecting the fertile and well-populated plains of the land between the
middle Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the prairie and steppe country which the
Byzantines called Mesopotamia and the Arabs were to know as al-Jazı̄ra,
“the Island” between the two great rivers. On the Byzantine side of the frontier lay the massively fortified towns of Amida (now Diyarbakır) and Dara,
while the Persians held the ancient cultural centre of Nisibis (Nis·ı̄bı̄n). On the
Euphrates the frontier zone was marked by the sixth-century Byzantine fortress of Zenobia. It was in this zone of the frontier that campaigns between the
armies of the two empires took place; the heavy, slow-moving forces could not
hope to cross the waterless stretches of the Syrian desert to the south.
South of the Euphrates, there was no firm frontier. During the second half
of the sixth century both Byzantines and Sasanians had reached arrangements
with leading clans among the Arab bedouin tribes, the Ghassanids and the
Lakhmids respectively, who provided an element of administration in the frontier areas as well as defence against their opposite numbers on the other side
of the desert. This reliance on pastoral peoples for the defence of the empires
testifies to their growing importance along the desert margins and the inability
of the settled people to provide their own defence.
In the year 600, the Byzantine empire presented a superficial picture of ageless continuity. The emperor of the day, Maurice, bore the title of Augustus
and claimed to be the successor of that first Augustus who had established his
personal power in Rome over 600 years before. It is true that the capital had
since moved to Constantinople and that Christianity had become the official
religion of the empire, but the emperor still ruled with the assistance of the
senate, consuls were still appointed, the laws of the empire were based on Justinian’s great codification of classical practice and Latin was still used as an official
2 The matrix of the Muslim world
language, although it was increasingly being replaced by Greek for administrative purposes.
This impression of continuity, however, masked a large number of changes,
and the Roman empire was continually evolving in response to fluid circumstances. Many of the features which had seemed central to the classical empire
were no longer in evidence. Until the fourth and fifth centuries, the eastern half
of the empire had at least in theory boasted a large number of self-governing
towns which managed their own affairs under their own councils and collected
taxes from the surrounding countryside. This urban government had brought
great prosperity to some cities and resulted in a burst of civic architectural
activity which can have had few parallels and which created the great monumental baths, theatres and colonnaded streets whose ruins remain so impressive
today. By the sixth century this picture had substantially changed; the cities had
lost their political and financial autonomy; their councils had been superseded
by governors appointed by the imperial authorities and their civic revenues
had been confiscated for the benefit of the imperial treasury. While churches
and monastic buildings continued to be constructed, large-scale civic building
effectively came to a halt.
The sixth century saw further blows to the urban culture of late antiquity.
In 541, bubonic plague struck the eastern empire for the first but by no means
the last time; it was to recur with horrifying frequency throughout the sixth
and early seventh century. Mortality is impossible to gauge with any accuracy,
but using contemporary accounts and comparing them with the much better documented Black Death of 1348 onwards, it seems probable that at least
a third of the population was lost. Furthermore it is likely that the highest
mortality was in densely populated urban areas, while the nomad populations
were comparatively unaffected. There certainly seems no evidence that the
plague spread into the Arabian peninsula. This massive loss of population was
compounded by a further series of disasters, both natural and man-made. The
mid-sixth century saw a number of devastating earthquakes which effectively
destroyed Beirut, until then a flourishing intellectual and legal centre, and other
cities on the Lebanese coast. At the same time, the Persians launched a series
of very destructive invasions of the Syrian provinces, including the sack of the
great city of Antioch in 540 and of Apamea in 573. In 582 the major provincial
capital of Bostra (now Bus·ra-) in the H.awrān was sacked by the followers of
the Ghassanids, protesting the arrest of their chief by the Byzantine authorities.
These incursions were paralleled elsewhere; in Italy most of the lands which
Justinian had painstakingly retaken from the Visigoths were lost to the empire
when the Lombards invaded from the north in the second half of the sixth
century. Nearer the capital, the Balkan provinces were devastated by the attacks
and settlements of Avars and Slavs.
These catastrophes had a fundamental effect on the Byzantine empire. Most
obviously it was weakened militarily – the loss of population and the constant
wars reduced the army greatly; the system of limitanei, frontier guards who
performed military service in exchange for land, was largely abandoned, and it
The matrix of the Muslim world
seems that by the early seventh century, imperial armies were increasingly composed of people from the fringes of the empire, Armenians and Arabs, rather
than the settled inhabitants of the central areas. In addition, the empire was
becoming a rural and agrarian society, not just in Italy and the Balkans, but also
in the Near East, where urban life was slightly more resilient. There was still
Mediterranean trade until the end of the sixth century, notably in grain from
Egypt and in pottery, but the cities of the Syrian and Palestinian coasts seem to
have lost much of their commercial vitality. In so far as trade was carried on,
it was likely to be centred on fairs attached to pilgrimage centres rather than
on large urban markets, and it is possible that monasteries and churches had
replaced urban notables as the most important landowners. Nor were there
any traces left of local self-government. For both administration and defence,
the people of the Byzantine Near East were dependent on imperial armies
and officials. By the end of the sixth century the Byzantine Near East had
effectively lost its classical aspect and was going through a series of profound
economic and social changes not dissimilar to those which occurred in western
Europe at the same time. It is against this background that the achievements of
the Islamic conquest and Muslim state-building must be measured.
In addition to these general changes, Syria and Egypt had a number of problems which made them rather different from the rest of the empire. The first
was one of language and ethnic identity. Both countries were essentially lands
of two cultures, the one urban, Greek-speaking and influenced by classical cultural norms and lifestyles. This culture was at its strongest in the great urban
centres like Antioch and Alexandria, but thrived also in many lesser coastal
and inland towns. The other culture was vernacular, Coptic in Egypt, Aramaic
or, increasingly, Arabic-speaking in Syria. This was the culture of the villages
and the pastoral peoples, who had no access to the traditions of the classical
world and little taste for the amenities of urban life. For almost a millennium,
since the conquests of Alexander the Great, these two lifestyles had coexisted in
mutual incomprehension. Now, with the relative decline of urban populations
and prosperity, the vernacular world was in the ascendant.
These cultural differences were reflected in religious ones. During the sixth
century, the bulk of the rural populations of Egypt and Syria (but not, it would
seem, of Palestine) became attached to the Monophysite faith, in distinction to
the official, imperial, Diophysite view.The differences between these two views
concerned the nature of Christ. The Diophysites maintained that He had two
complete natures, one human, like our humanity, and one divine, miraculously
fused in one person. The Monophysites refused to accept this, holding that
Christ had one, divine, nature, that His humanity was not as ours, to them a
blasphemous idea, but only an aspect of His divine nature. Superficially, the differences may seem to be trivial, but in fact they show a fundamentally different
way of looking at the Incarnation, and they stem from different religious traditions: the Diophysite looks back to the Hellenistic tradition of humanizing the
divine, whereas the Monophysite looks to aspects of the Jewish tradition with
its deep distrust of any representations of divinity.
4 The matrix of the Muslim world
The differences of theological opinion would probably have remained talking points among theologians if they had not reflected the broader cultural
distinctions. The Monophysite church used vernacular languages for liturgy,
theological debate and general literature – Syriac (a literary form of the Aramaic dialect of Edessa) in Syria and Coptic in Egypt; both of these languages,
incidentally, remain in use as liturgical languages to the present day. The Monophysite church, too, was essentially rural, at least in Syria, where its leaders,
although they took the ancient title of patriarch of Antioch, always lived in
monasteries far from the city itself. The differences were greatly exacerbated by
the fact that the Byzantine authorities, in a struggle to enforce ideological uniformity, began the systematic and often brutal persecution of the Monophysite
church, especially in Syria.The Monophysite church had, however, powerful lay
supporters in Syria, notably the Ghassanids who controlled the desert frontier
and provided both money and refuge for persecuted members of the sect when
they were forced to flee from the centres of population.The significance of this
for the longer-term history of the Near East was that it meant that a significant
proportion of the population was alienated from the ruling class both culturally and because the church they were devoted to was regarded as heretical
and subject to dire official sanctions. It is important, at the same time, not to
overestimate the significance of this: there is no evidence that either the Copts
or the Monophysites of Syria actually cooperated with the Islamic conquests.
What can be said is that they felt little enthusiasm for the Byzantine cause. In
some parts of Syria the conquerors were actually welcomed; in no part was
there significant and prolonged resistance from the local population, as there
was, for example, in the Anatolian highlands, Armenia or the province of Fārs
in southern Iran.
The long-term weaknesses of the Byzantine empire in the Near East were
revealed in the series of catastrophes which followed the death of the Emperor
Maurice in 602. Maurice, a capable and energetic soldier, if a slightly ham-fisted
politician, had devoted his reign to the maintenance of the frontiers of the
empire. In doing so he had been greatly aided by a long-term alliance with
the Persian King Khusrau II Parvēz, whom he had previously helped to the
throne. This breathing space in the east had allowed Maurice to devote his
attentions to securing the frontiers of the state in the Balkans. In 602 he was
murdered, along with all his family, by a brutal and incompetent usurper called
Phocas. Not only did Phocas prove totally unable to continue his predecessor’s work in the Balkans, but his action gave Khusrau II the pretext to launch
a major invasion of the Byzantine empire to avenge his dead benefactor. The
effect was catastrophic: the Persians penetrated much farther than ever before;
not only were Antioch (613) and Jerusalem (614) taken, and with them all the
provinces of Syria and Palestine, but so was Egypt, and much of the Anatolian
uplands were devastated by raids; recently discovered archaeological evidence
testifies to the extent of destruction of Anatolian cities at this time. Meanwhile,
in 610 Phocas was himself deposed, by a soldier from the Byzantine territories
in north Africa, Heraclius. Heraclius was altogether more effective than his
The matrix of the Muslim world
predecessor. In 622, the same year that Muh·ammad made his Hijra from Mecca
to Medina, he set off from the beleaguered capital at Constantinople and led
an expedition through the Black Sea to take the Persians from the rear. In a
series of brilliant campaigns, he destroyed the Persian army and marched into
the heartlands of the Sasanian empire in Iraq. Khusrau was deposed, and in 628
(the year Muh·ammad reached agreement with the people of Mecca), Heraclius
entered the Sasanian capital at Ctesiphon. The Persian conquests in Syria and
Egypt were restored to Byzantine control and the relic of the True Cross, taken
by Khusrau, was restored to Jerusalem.
The appearance of a return to normality was deceptive. The long years of
warfare had accelerated and confirmed the tendencies of the previous century
towards demographic and urban decline. Many previously settled areas on the
fringes of the Syrian desert were now deserted, their inhabitants being dead,
in exile or converted to pastoral lifestyles more easy to sustain in the chaotic
conditions. Furthermore, a whole generation had grown up which had no
memory or experience of Byzantine rule: those who were adults at the time
of Heraclius’ triumphs had been children when the wars began, and they can
have had little residual loyalty to the Byzantine state. Heraclius was faced with
a multitude of problems, none of which he had time to solve. The military and
administrative organization of the recovered provinces can hardly have been
developed and, apart from Arab tribesmen, taken on as allies, there was no
chance to develop the sort of local defence unit, the theme, which was to prove
so effective in Anatolia. City walls and fortifications were probably in drastic
need of repair. The emperor also failed to resolve the religious issue. In Syria
he attempted to reach a compromise between Diophysite and Monophysite
views, putting forward a formula known as Monotheletism. This was to form
the intellectual basis of Maronite Christianity, and as such still survives to this
day, but at the time it served to please no one, least of all the wild and truculent
monks who led the Monophysite party. In Egypt he was unwise enough to
appoint, as both patriarch and governor of Alexandria, a militant Diophysite,
Cyrus, bishop of Phasis, in the Caucasus (hence his Arabic name, al-Muqawqis).
Cyrus proved to be both incompetent and intolerant, and the restoration of
Byzantine rule in Egypt was marked not by the restoration of Christian unity
but by the systematic alienation of the majority of the population from the
government. If Heraclius and his successors had been able to enjoy the fruits of
their triumph for a few decades, it is possible that a new structure would have
emerged in the Byzantine Near East. But this was not to be; the Islamic armies
arrived when Byzantine rule was recent, shaky and widely resented.The Islamic
conquest of Syria and Egypt was as much a product of the decline of Byzantine
civilization in the area as the blow which destroyed it.
The Sasanian empire of Persia of the late sixth century was, like the
Roman–Byzantine empire, heir to an ancient imperial tradition. The great
Achaemenid empire of Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes had flourished when Rome
was a village, and the Sasanian family were well aware of the fact that the Persian empire had existed since remotest antiquity.The ruling family had come to
6 The matrix of the Muslim world
power over 300 years before; the first member of the dynasty, Ardashı̄r Pa-paga-n,
was the sub-king of Fa-rs, the area of southern Iran which had been the cradle
and centre of the Achaemenid dynasty. Even though Achaemenid power had
vanished 600 years previously when Alexander the Great took and burned
Persepolis, Ardashı̄r chose to have his achievements commemorated among the
great monuments of that vanished supremacy.
Unlike the Byzantine empire, power in the Sasanian empire was essentially
dynastic. In Byzantium, it was possible for a family, like that of Constantine in
the fourth century, to establish control of the empire for several generations,
but a dynastic ideology never developed. In Iran, on the other hand, by the
sixth century, the Sasanian house was held to have a divinely given right to the
throne, and when, from the late sixth century, generals of non-dynastic origins challenged and usurped this right, they could not command the necessary
prestige to hold the empire together. In Byzantium, a successful usurper like
Heraclius could be, and was, accepted as legitimate sovereign. In the Sasanian
empire, rebels like Bahra-m Chōbı̄n (590–591) and Shahrbara-z in 628, although
both were of aristocratic descent and proven military ability, failed to win general acceptance because they were not of the ruling dynasty. In the crisis conditions which prevailed in the empire after the deposition and death of Khusrau
II Parvēz in 628, this weakness made it difficult for an effective sovereign to
emerge; in the years 628–632 there were at least ten different kings or would-be
kings, and by the time that Yazdgard III, a scion of the Sasanian house who
had been discovered hiding in the ancient capital of Is·t·akhr in Fa-rs, had been
established on the throne, the Muslim armies were already attacking the empire.
There were other ways in which the Sasanian imperial style differed from the
Byzantine. Both claimed to rule by divine pleasure, and the Sasanian sovereigns
claimed the support of Ahura- Mazda-, the Good God. But they also claimed
divinity for themselves, and the ancient Near Eastern idea of the God-King
remained very much part of the imperial ideology. With it went a vastly elaborate court ceremonial, a hierarchy of offices at least as formal as anything
devised in Constantinople and a concern to distance the sovereign from even
the greatest of his subjects. There was also a different imperial iconography: the
Byzantine emperor, like Justinian in the Ravenna mosaics, tends to appear as
a formal, distant, immobile figure, almost always in civilian dress. Khusrau II
Parvēz, in the rock reliefs he caused to be carved at T·-aq-i Busta-n, had himself
portrayed as a mighty hunter, on horseback in pursuit of game; it was an imperial image which dated back to the Assyrian monarchy of the first half of the
first millennium bc. In a real sense the Sasanian was the last of the great monarchies of the ancient Near East.
At the end of the sixth century, the Persian empire controlled virtually the
whole of the Iranian plateau and all of modern Iraq. On the west its frontiers coincided with the edge of the settled lands, and the Sasanian clients and
allies, the Banū Lakhm of H
. ı̄ra, extended this influence over a confederation of
bedouin tribes.To the north, the Persians held Nisibis (Nis·ı̄bı̄n) and their influence was preponderant in Armenia. Under Khusrau I Anūshirva-n (531–579),
The matrix of the Muslim world
the northern frontier had been established in the Araxes valley, at Tblisi in
Georgia and at Darband, the great fortress on the Caspian coast which controlled the eastern flanks of the Caucasus; in this area the Muslims inherited
Sasanian political geography, manning the same frontier fortresses and settling
in the same cities as their Persian predecessors. The northeastern frontier was
always disturbed and far from the heartlands of Iranian power. The lands of the
Oxus valley and beyond had been invaded from the fourth century by a Hunnic people known as the Hepthalites. In around 560, Khusrau I, in alliance with
the Turkish nomads who also inhabited the region, defeated the Hepthalites
and their kingdom was broken up. From this time the Sasanian frontier was
established at Marv, where a frontier official called the marzba-n was established.
Recent archaeological research has revealed remains of the great Gurgan Wall,
a well-planned military installation with regular forts along it, which demonstrates the power and efficiency of the Sasanian military machine and rivals any
of the systems of fortifications constructed by the Romans. Beyond that, various independent principalities were ruled by Hepthalites or Soghdians, a largely
settled people of Iranian origin. The steppe lands and deserts of this area were
the province of the Turks, pagan, horse-based nomads whose domain stretched
as far as the borders of China and who were destined to play an immensely
important part in Islamic history. In the southeastern direction, the frontiers of
the empire seem to have coincided roughly with those of the eastern frontiers
of modern Iran, including Sı̄sta-n, where there was a marzba-n at the capital
Zaranj when the Arabs arrived, and Kirma-n.
In the sixth century, Sasanian influence was not confined to Iran and Iraq.
Some areas of the Arabian peninsula, notably Bah·rayn and al-Yama-ma and from
572 Yemen in the southwest, were also controlled by the Sasanians or their
allies and they encouraged a trade in the Gulf which was to continue after the
Muslim conquest.
Despite the impression of great antiquity and the appeals to a great imperial
past, the Sasanian empire, like the Byzantine, was by no means static; during
the sixth century it had gone through remarkable and deep-rooted changes.
The history of the Sasanian monarchy can be interpreted as one of constant
tension between the attempts of the dynasty to establish a centralized authority on the one hand and the determination of the higher aristocracy and local
kinglets to maintain their rights and independence. The Parthian monarchy,
which had preceded the Sasanians, had been little more than a confederation
of minor kingdoms. The early Sasanian monarchs tried to create a more centralized regime, but during the fifth century this process was largely reversed
and there was something of an aristocratic reaction. This, in turn, provoked the
Mazdakite uprisings of the late fifth and early sixth centuries. Mazdakism seems
to have been a religious movement with strong social overtones. Its enemies,
whose accounts are the only ones we have, portray the Mazdakites as campaigning for the abolition of private property and class distinctions and for the
holding of women in common; the last is probably in part a malicious slander,
but may also reflect opposition to the conventional Iranian aristocratic view
8 The matrix of the Muslim world
of marriage as vital for the transfer of property and the production of heirs.
At first perhaps surprisingly, the movement had the backing of the then king,
Kava-d I (488–531), who saw it as a way of reestablishing royal control over the
fractious aristocracy. However, he was temporarily deposed and on his return
to power, with the help of the Hepthalites he began to distance himself from
these revolutionaries.
During the last part of his reign he came increasingly under the influence of
his son and heir, Khusrau, who persuaded him to take serious measures against
the Mazdakites, who were outlawed and many of them massacred. The movement is of great interest, however, partly because of its avowedly egalitarian ideology but also because it gives an all too rare insight into the social discontents of
Iran. It is worth, perhaps, noting in this context that the Western Roman empire
had been disturbed by a series of peasant revolts during the fifth century but
that these do not seem to have had any counterparts in Syria, Anatolia or Egypt.
The Mazdakite movement also left an ideological legacy. In Umayyad and early
‘Abbasid times, there were a number of revolts – the most famous of which was
led by Ba-bak in Azarbayja-n at the beginning of the third/ninth century – which
are usually referred to by the name of Khurramiyya or Khurramdı̄niyya and
which seem to have been influenced by radical Mazdakite ideas.
Khusrau I Anūshirva-n (The Immortal Soul), who came to the throne in his
own right on the death of his father in 531, was essentially the architect of
the Sasanian state as it existed in the second half of the sixth century. He was
determined to crush the Mazdakites without allowing the aristocracy to take
over again. In order to do this, he introduced a series of administrative reforms
which seem to have been, ultimately, dependent on the reforms Diocletian had
introduced into the Roman empire in the late third century and which were
reflected in contemporary Byzantine practice. Basically this consisted in a systematization of the land tax, which had probably existed before. This was now
collected, not as a proportion of the harvest, but at a fixed rate depending on
the area. With the money, he began to institute a paid army of horsemen and
foot in place of the unreliable feudal levies which had existed before.The details
of the reforms are vague, but it seems clear that the system of taxation paying
for a regular army now became a central feature of Sasanian administration and
as such was to have a profound effect on early Islamic practice.
Much of the land, especially in Iraq, however, was state land on which the
cultivators paid up to a third of their produce, since this was both rent and
taxes, a forerunner of the ·sawa-fı̄ of the early Islamic state. In addition, Khusrau
organized the payment of a poll tax which was to be levied on all members of
society according to their wealth, except the aristocracy and the priests of the
official religion. In this way, paying the poll tax acquired a social stigma which
seems to have remained after the Muslim conquest, when the basis for paying
the poll tax became religious (that is to say that only non-Muslims paid) rather
than social.
At the same time he regularized the system of provincial administration.
The whole empire was divided into four quarters – north, east, west and
The matrix of the Muslim world
south – under supreme military commanders.These quarters disappeared at the
time of the Muslim conquest, with the exception of the eastern quarter, known
as Khura-sa-n, which remained virtually intact under early Islamic rule and was
consequently larger and more powerful than the other provinces of Iran. Below
the quarters were some thirty-seven provinces, known as ōsta-ns or, in Iraq, kūras,
and these units tended to survive the Muslim conquest, with modifications, and
became the basis of the new Muslim provincial organization. He also extended
the system of appointing marzba-ns along the frontiers and of settling populations of marginal people as peasant soldiers in vulnerable areas, again a reflection of Byzantine practice.
Urban life and institutions probably played a smaller part in the life of the
Sasanian empire than of the Byzantine. Before the coming of the Sasanians,
some towns had had some administrative autonomy, inherited from Seleucid
days when Greek urban institutions had been spread in the Macedonian colonies of Asia. By the sixth century, however, such institutions had long since
vanished. In the Sasanian empire, as in Byzantium, the cities were centres of
local government and sometimes of upper-class social life, but they had no
self-governing institutions. In contrast to the Byzantine empire, the main religious institutions, including the great fire temple at Shiz (Takhti Sulayman),
where the Sasanian kings were inaugurated, were situated in mountainous areas,
well away from the main urban centres. It is perhaps necessary to stress this
because it is often suggested that Islam is somehow hostile to the development
of local councils and urban autonomy, but before accepting such assertions, it
is worth noticing that no such institutions existed in the cities the Muslims
conquered. Khusrau I took pains to develop towns, notably the Iraqi capital at
Ctesiphon (Ar. al-Mada-’in), which became the effective capital of the empire,
a fact still witnessed by the surviving ruins of the great palace at the T· a-q-i
Kisra-. He did this at least in part by settling prisoners taken from the Byzantine empire when he conquered Antioch in 540, and it would seem that they
brought not just increased population and no doubt industrial skills, but also
ideas of urban life, including public bath-houses, which had not until then been
widely known in the Persian empire but were, of course, an important part of
urban life in both the Roman and Muslim worlds. By and large, Sasanian cities
seem to have been small country towns rather than great metropolises, and it
is indicative that for nearly a quarter of a century Khusrau II Parvēz did not
live in his capital but at a rural palace at Dastagird in the Zagros mountains;
it would have been unthinkable for a Byzantine emperor to leave the city of
Constantinople in that way. As far as we can tell, the aristocracy was based in
their rural estates, and the main fire temples were on hills in the country or
remote mountain sites rather than in the heart of cities like the cathedrals of the
Byzantine towns of Syria.
If the towns were not especially important, the aristocracy was. The Sasanian aristocracy was divided into many different classes, but apart from the royal
family it can be divided into two distinct groups. The first was the upper aristocracy, composed of a few great families, some of whom claimed that they
10 The matrix of the Muslim world
were descended from the Parthian kings and could claim the title of sub-kings.
Among these were the Suren family based in Sı̄sta-n, the Ka-ren family of Media
and the Mihra-n family from the Rayy area. It was against these families that the
sixth-century rulers had to be on their guard, and it was one of them, Bahra-m
Chōbı̄n from the Mihra-n family, who temporarily deposed Khusrau II at the
start of his reign. This suspicion of the great magnates may account for Khusrau’s subsequent, and very ill-advised, decision in 602 to abolish the Lakhmid
buffer kingdom of H
. ı̄ra which guarded the desert frontier of Iraq. The second
group were the lesser aristocracy of dihqa-ns, a word which can almost be translated as gentry. Some of these were urban, absentee landlords, but many others
lived in villages and formed a link between them and the government. Unlike
the higher aristocracy, some of them, especially in Iraq, were not Persian at all
but Aramaean or even Arab. They seem to have provided a counterweight to
the higher aristocracy, and it was they who formed the foundation of Sasanian
power. It was also the dihqa-ns who were the main mediators of Persian culture
and administrative systems to the Arabs, since, unlike the higher aristocracy and
the royal family, they retained much of their power after the Islamic conquest.
Many administrators as late as the third/ninth century were drawn from dihqa-n
families of Iraq.
Like the Byzantine empire, the Sasanian had a state religion, Zoroastrianism, which was administered by a caste of priests called Magi, from which
the followers of the religion are sometimes called Magians. Worship and ritual
concentrated on the fire temples, fire being a pure and sacred element, and
were much concerned with ritual purity and formal practice. The Magi themselves administered vast estates which were attached to the fire temples and on
which they were responsible for justice in these areas as well as the collection of
rents and revenues. The Magian religion was attached to a number of practices,
especially the exposure of the dead to be picked clean by birds and beasts, and
the encouragement of incestuous marriages, which were deeply repugnant to
members of other faiths. The religion seems to have had only limited popular
support; somewhat like the paganism of imperial Rome, it was more concerned
with the proper performance of ceremony and the administration of its properties than it was with the more personal needs of the worshippers. Hence, again
like the religion of Rome, it was increasingly challenged by other faiths, notably
Christianity, and it would seem likely that, in Iraq at least, practising Magians
were in a minority by the sixth century.
Of the religions which challenged the Magian state organization, the most
widespread was the Church of the East (sometimes referred to, misleadingly,
as the Nestorian Church), especially strong in Iraq but also active as far east as
Sı̄sta-n and the eastern frontiers of the empire. By the sixth century, the Church
of the East had developed an organized hierarchy of bishoprics and a network
of monasteries and religious schools. In the main, the Sasanian rulers tolerated
the Church of the East, and while none of them were themselves converted,
they married Christian wives. Evidence suggests that by the end of the sixth
century, Christianity was making converts from Zoroastrianism in Iraq even
The matrix of the Muslim world
from those, the Persian upper class, who might have been expected to remain
loyal to the imperial faith. These conversions, along with the fear that the followers of the Church of the East were secret sympathizers of the Byzantines
(unlikely in reality, for “Nestorianism” was a heresy even more severely proscribed than Monophysitism in Byzantium), led to intermittent outbreaks of
persecution and martyrdom which culminated in a more general attack during
the long struggle with Byzantium between 602 and 628. The Church of the
East was also challenged, at least in northern Iraq, by the rival Monophysite
church, which began making numerous converts during the sixth century but
does not seem to have spread widely elsewhere in the empire.
Along with the Christians, there was a well-established Jewish community
which seems to have been in existence since the time of the Exile and which
produced the great commentary on Jewish law known as the Babylonian Talmud. It would seem that Jews formed a majority of the population around the
ancient city of Babylon, in the lands later known as the Sawa-d of Kūfa. Like
the Christians, their relations with the Sasanian authorities in the sixth century
were not always easy.There had been intermittent persecutions in the fifth century, which were renewed from 581 onwards by Hormizd IV. This led Jewish
leaders to join the revolt of Bahra-m Chōbı̄n in 590–591, and when this failed,
they were subject to more violent attacks from the triumphant Khusrau II.
Other religious communities consisted of pagans and Manichaeans who had
survived the persecutions of their dualist faith. Christianity had almost entirely
eliminated paganism in the Byzantine empire by the sixth century, but it is
likely that ancient beliefs lingered on in Iraq and many areas of upland Iran.
In their great struggle with the Muslims after the loss of Syria and Egypt, the
Byzantines were sustained by the possession of a common faith; no such shared
beliefs inspired the Sasanian resistance.
This mixture of religious beliefs was paralleled by an ethnic and linguistic
diversity more widespread than anything in the Byzantine world. The Persians
formed the ruling class but they were almost certainly a minority in the empire.
Even today, there are large numbers of non-Persian-speaking people within
the borders of Iran and there can be no doubt that this was the case under
the Sasanians; we know that there were Kurds in the Zagros mountains and
Daylamites in the north of Iran, and no doubt there were Lurs and Baluchis as
well as other ethnic minorities in rural areas. In Iraq the position is much better documented. Here most of the settled population were Aramaic speaking,
including most of those who were Jewish and Christian. There were also considerable numbers of Arabs, in the Lakhmid controlled kingdom of H
. ı̄ra and in
the pastoral lands of al-Jazı̄ra. In Iraq the Persians seem to have been confined
to the cities and to certain frontier areas like Nis·ı̄bı̄n in northern Iraq, where
they were settled as garrisons against the Byzantines.
For most of the people in Iraq, and for many of those in Iran, the Sasanian
empire with its attendant religion was alien and often oppressive and hostile.
Many, if not most, of the people shared neither language nor religion nor custom with their political masters. It is unsurprising therefore that few of them,
12 The matrix of the Muslim world
except in areas like Fa-rs where the Persian element was dominant, were prepared to struggle to preserve the old order once the imperial armies had been
As in Byzantium, these long-term weaknesses had been exacerbated by
short-term problems, notably the violent and unpredictable policies of Khusrau
II Parvēz and the struggle for his succession. Khusrau II Parvēz, unlike his great
namesake Khusrau Anūshirva-n, was not a great administrator or politician. His
attempts to assert the power of the central monarchy led to the alienation of
much of the upper class; even after the suppression of the rebellion of Bahra-m
Chōbı̄n at the outset of his reign, he faced a ten-year rebellion in Khura-sa-n
and later executed the governor of Nimruz (Nēmrōz), the southern quarter
of the empire, so making an enemy of his family. Most damaging of all, his
determination to assert his authority led to the arrest and eventual execution
of al-Nu‘ma-n, the last of the Lakhmid kings of H
. ı̄ra, and his replacement by a
Persian governor. It was perhaps to deflect attention from these internal problems that Khusrau in 602 began the great war with the Byzantines, which was
to prove so catastrophic for both empires. The initial stages of the war saw the
extension of Persian power to Syria, Palestine and Egypt, but after 622 the tide
began to turn. In 627–628 Heraclius advanced through Iraq. Unlike his great
rival, Khusrau was not himself a distinguished general and he failed to lead any
effective resistance to the enemy, who took the capital at Ctesiphon.There were
other problems too, such as extensive floods in the irrigated area of southern
Iraq, and it is possible that the resistance of the empire had been weakened
by the plague which caused so much devastation in Byzantium. As if flood,
plague and foreign invasion were not enough, a murderous rivalry for succession began between the ailing king’s sons. The details are obscure, but it seems
that Khusrau’s failings as a military commander eventually led to his deposition
and the proclamation of the ten different kings already mentioned. Ten years
previously, the Persian empire had seemed stronger than at any time since the
Achaemenids 1,000 years before, now it was ruined and bitterly divided. In the
circumstances it is perhaps surprising not that the Persian armies were defeated
but that they fought as well as they did.
In the territories it inherited from the Sasanians, as in those it took over from
Byzantium, Islam came into contact with a rapidly changing society. Despite
the superficial continuity of empire and monarchy, both Byzantine and Sasanian states had undergone far-reaching and fundamental changes in the century
before the coming of the Muslims. Many of the social, economic and structural developments, like the increased importance of pastoral peoples and the
absence of civic autonomy, which are usually associated with the development
of Islamic society, were in fact already under way in the sixth century if not
before. The idea that the Muslim conquest broke up an age-old, changeless,
deeply conservative world order is far from the truth; it would be more accurate
to say that it entered an already changing world and shaped and accelerated
some of the existing trends.The dynamic development of the Islamic world can
only be understood against this background.
The birth of the Islamic
The Islamic state was created by the Arabs during the course of the seventh
century ad, and its political organization and the dissensions which troubled it
had their origins in the Arab background. In order to understand the development of this state, we have to begin with a discussion of Arab political society
as it existed at the time of the coming of Islam.
Arabia in the sixth century
At the beginning of the seventh century the Arabs inhabited the Arabian peninsula and its northward extension, the Syrian desert. Apart from some areas
of south Arabia, where pre-Arabic languages were still spoken, Arabic was
the language of the pastoral peoples throughout the Arabian peninsula and
as far north as the Euphrates. There was also some limited Persian settlement
in Yemen and on the eastern, Gulf shore of Arabia. In the north, the frontier
of the Arabic-speaking peoples coincided roughly with the borders between
the steppe lands and the areas of settled agriculture. In southern Iraq, Arabs
lived in the deserts along the lower Euphrates and colonized a few towns, like
. ı̄ra along the fringes of the alluvial plains. Further north, Arab nomads were
found in the area between the Tigris and the Euphrates known as the Jazı̄ra or
“Island”, a vast expanse of sparse grazing which could support a considerable
population of pastoralists. On the western, Syrian edge of the desert, the picture
is complicated by the fact that many Arabs had become more or less integrated
into the Byzantine state and mingled with non-Arabic-speaking groups. In
the century before the Islamic conquest, Arab nomad tribes had penetrated
into previously settled areas in northern Syria around Aleppo (Beroea) and
Qinnasrı̄n (Chalcis), in the lands to the east of the Jordan and the southern borders of Palestine. In addition much of the population of such cities as Damascus
and Homs on the edge of the desert was of Arab origin. The divisions between
Arab and non-Arab in these areas were blurred, and while we can probably
assume that most of the nomadic pastoralists in the area were Arabic speakers, so
too were the inhabitants of some of the settled areas. Some regions by contrast
seem to have been almost completely unaffected by Arab immigration before
the coming of Islam. These include the alluvial plains of southern Iraq, known
14 The birth of the Islamic state
as the Sawād, the mountain and coastal areas of Palestine and Syria and, in the
north, the mountains of southeastern Anatolia. Neither Egypt nor Iran was in
any sense an Arab country at this time.
These Arabic-speaking populations were united by a common language and
the idea of a common kinship. There must have been widely differing dialects
of Arabic over so vast an area, although little evidence of them has survived in
the literary sources; but during the sixth century there had developed, partly
at the court of the Arab kings of H
. ı̄ra, a common poetic language, generally understood throughout the Arabic-speaking lands. The possession of this
common language was of vital importance for the development of the Islamic
state. It meant that the fundamental teachings of Islam, as enshrined in the
Qur’a-n, were comprehensible to many different tribes and that communication was possible among groups from many different areas. If the Arab tribes
had not enjoyed this common language, the achievements of the conquests
and the Muslim empire would have been impossible. The Arabs also seem to
have shared the idea that they came from one, or perhaps two, common ancestors, the second being introduced to account for the widespread cultural and
later political differences between the northern (Qays/Mud.ar) and southern
(Yaman) Arabs. Later genealogists worked out elaborate structures to explain
the kinship between different groups and, though these were in part later
rationalizations, they could only have been developed if there was already an
idea of common kinship.
Despite this linguistic and ethnic unity, the Arabs had no central political
organization or administration. In previous centuries there had been Arab kingdoms with some form of government, but these had usually been on the fringes
of the Arab lands and under the patronage or protection of outside powers.The
most famous of these were the Nabatean kingdom of Petra, taken over by the
Romans in ad 106, and the third-century kingdom of Palmyra (Tadmur), both
of which derived much of their wealth from the control of caravan routes and
were heavily influenced by Greek and Roman culture. In the extreme south of
the peninsula, there were other kingdoms, based on the settled lands of south
Arabia and Yemen but, like their northern counterparts, deriving much of their
wealth from the organization of trade. In the fifth century ad, with the support
of the Himyaritic rulers of south Arabia, the kings of Kinda established control
over the tribes and commerce of much of central Arabia. By the second half
of the sixth century, however, the kingdom of south Arabia had disintegrated
and been taken over by Ethiopian and Persian invaders, while the tribes of
central Arabia lacked any form of political authority. On the frontiers of the
great empires, Arab client states had been established in the sixth century – the
Ghassanids in Syria and the Lakhmids on the frontiers of Iraq. The Ghassanids,
who organized much of the Syrian steppe for the Byzantines, were the leaders
of a confederation of Arab tribes who lived a pastoral, nomadic existence along
the borders of the settled lands. The Lakhmids had a fixed capital at H
. ı̄ra; their
kings enjoyed close relations with the Sasanian rulers of Iran and they managed the trade routes of much of eastern and central Arabia. By the beginning
The birth of the Islamic state
of the seventh century, however, these systems had been swept away because of
changes of policy by both the Byzantines and the Sasanians and by the long,
gruelling war between the two great powers from ad 602 to 628. The nascent
Islamic state was faced by no rival power among the Arabs, and indeed it arose
in part to fill the recently created political vacuum.
Such organized kingdoms were always, however, marginal to the lives of
most nomad Arabs, for whom the tribe was the largest grouping to which they
owed allegiance. In theory the tribe was considered to be the descendants of
a remote common ancestor from whom its members took their names. Thus
the descendants of a, probably mythical, Tamı̄m were referred to as the Banū
Tamı̄m, or sons of Tamı̄m, and individuals would take the tribal designation
al-Tamı̄mı̄ as the last element in their names. Anthropological research suggests that in practice, tribal connections and genealogical links are developed to
explain existing alliances and that if two groups wish to establish close links for
pastoral, commercial or political reasons, they will tend to do so by “discovering” a common ancestor.
Not all tribes were equal in numbers, status or internal organization. Some
tribes, notably those with a settled focus or nucleus, like the Quraysh of Mecca
and the Banū H
. anı̄fa of Yamama in eastern Arabia, seem to have had a considerable degree of group solidarity. Others, like the Tamı̄m in northeastern
Arabia and the Ghat.af a-n in the H
. ijaz, for example, lacked any common unity
of leadership or purpose. Some tribes seem to have been in the process of
disintegration; the Bakr b. Wa-’il, again in northeastern Arabia, never acted as a
unit, and the most important groups were subdivisions like the Shayba-n, whose
leaders played a dynamic role in the conquest of Iraq. In the circumstances of
pre-Islamic Arabia, most tribes never acted together, either for defence or for
seeking pasture, nor was there any meeting place for the entire group. Instead,
for most purposes the bedouin of the seventh century, like the bedouin of the
present day, identified with the much smaller lineage or clan which claims a
common descent, often for five generations, and may share the ownership of
wells vital for survival through the rainless summer, or with the tenting group
who may or may not be related but who camp together and defend their
members against attack. Early Islamic history is often described in terms of
tribal rivalries, as if tribes had a common purpose and ambition. In fact both
detailed study of the early sources and the experience of modern anthropologists make it plain that tribes have no such unity and that, while tribal loyalties
may help to cement an alliance, lineages and tenting groups make decisions
according to their own perceived interest, rather than out of blind allegiance to
a tribal leadership. Converts to Islam, for example, usually came as individuals
or small groups, almost never as entire tribes. On the other hand, the ideological
justification for alliances is often given in terms of kinship and a genealogical explanation produced. Thus early Muslim writers may present in genealogical terms – that is, in terms of tribal solidarity and rivalry – conflicts that
were in reality more concerned with down-to-earth matters like grazing
and access to political power.
16 The birth of the Islamic state
This kinship system, the identification of each individual with a group which
would protect him against a rival group, is a logical response to the condition
of ungovernment. In pre-Islamic Arabia, there was no law enforcement agency
to protect persons and property, and safety was provided not by the state but by
the kin and the principle of retaliation; if a man was robbed or murdered, then
his kin were obliged to seek revenge or compensation. In this way a measure
of security for life and property was obtained without any formal structure of
government, but it meant that the obligations of kinship were very important,
since no one could survive without being a member of, or protected by, an
effective kin.This system applied not only to the bedouin but also to the settled
populations of such towns as Mecca and Yathrib (Medina) as well. One result
of this method of maintaining order was that Arab society was a society geared
to warfare; among full members of the tribe (as opposed to slaves and others
of low status) there were no “civilians”. All adult males, and sometimes females,
could be mobilized to defend the camp or participate in raids. At the time of
the Islamic conquests, most Arab men would have had military training and
experience, in contrast to the peoples of much of the Byzantine and Sasanian
empires, where the peasant and urban populations took little part in military
Power within the tribe was invested in the hands of chiefs. Leadership in
traditional Arab society was both hereditary and elective. Leaders were chosen
from ruling kin or a lineage within the tribe, but among the members of the
lineage, power was exercised by the most able and effective, rather than by the
eldest son of the previous holder of power. Chieftainship might be held jointly
among several members of the same clan, while a large tribe might have a number of different leaders, as the Tamı̄m seem to have had in Muh.ammad’s time,
and no paramount chiefs at all. In other cases there were rival lineages which
contested the chieftainship of the tribe, as in the Shayba-n, where the different leaders sought alliance with either Muh.ammad or the Persian authorities
to strengthen their positions. The powers of the chief were very limited and
were dependent on his abilities for their maintenance. His functions were to
arbitrate in disputes, to find adequate grazing for his followers and to defend
their wells and beasts against the depredations of rivals. He was also expected
to be generous and to entertain visitors and his followers, and to this end he
was sometimes allowed to collect contributions from the tribe. A reputation
for generous hospitality had an important function, encouraging visitors who
would provide information about grazing, the movement of other groups and
other news vital for making effective choices of action. In general there was
not, in purely pastoral societies, an overwhelming difference in wealth between
chiefs and others, since vast f locks and large sums of money were difficult to
safeguard and provided no great advantage. A reputation for wisdom and generosity brought more power and influence than the accumulation of treasure
or animals. The tribal chief had no coercive power. He could, if called on, give
judgement in a case involving two parties within his own tribe, but there was
no mechanism for enforcing it except insofar as public opinion sustained his
The birth of the Islamic state
verdict and put pressure on the parties concerned, since a man who consistently
defied the opinion of his kinsmen would find himself friendless and exposed
in time of danger. This lack of effective power has led to desert society being
described as democratic and egalitarian, and there is some truth in this. Each
family head had his own means of subsistence, his flocks, and could make his
own decisions about where he camped and with whom he arranged marriage
alliances. At the same time, there was a significant difference between the chief
who was able to entertain guests to feasts and his poorer followers who could
only scrape a meagre and insecure subsistence.
The pattern of tribal life was drastically changed by the Islamic conquests
and the settlement often in large urban communities which followed. In some
ways, tribal solidarity was enhanced because of the government policy of settling members of the same tribe in the same quarters of cities. Thus Tamı̄mı̄s
who were settled in the Tamı̄m quarter of Kūfa might find themselves next
door to fellow tribesmen they had never met before but with whom they
now had, for the first time, interests in common. As time passed, however, and
the Umayyad government became more effective, tribal solidarity became less
important, and men could pursue their own economic interests protected not
by their kinsmen but by agents of the government.
The other important change caused by the post-Islamic settlement was to
increase the distance between the ordinary tribesmen and the chiefs, the men
the early Muslim writers refer to as the ashra-f (sing. sharı̄f ). From the fourth/
tenth century, if not before, this term is used for members of the Alid family,
and tribal leaders are referred to as masha-yikh (sing. shaykh).The ashra-f were able
to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the newly won lands and
wealth and above all from their position as intermediaries between the government and their followers. It was they who arranged for the distribution of salaries and assignment of land while they acted as channels through which their
followers could bring their complaints and petitions to the governor or caliph.
They also had opportunities for acquiring great wealth from government office
and military campaigns and investing it in land, much more secure and easier
to safeguard than flocks. In some cases tribal chiefs seem to have bartered tribal
lands in Arabia for estates in Iraq which became their own property. All this
led to the development of social tensions within the tribe which had seldom
existed in the circumstances of pastoral life. Especially in Iraq, hostility to the
newly acquired power and wealth of the ashra-f was a constant source of violent
In inner Arabia, most of the Arabs were pagans. Their paganism took different forms and seems to have been fairly basic – the worship of local idols and
the practice of various techniques of divination. As far as the bedouin were
concerned, attachment to the honour of both individual and kin and to the
ideals of generosity and military prowess, a set of ideals sometimes referred to as
“tribal humanism”, was probably more important than attachment to any deity.
The pagan deities seem to have been very localized and to have demanded
favours and gifts more than worship and commitment. In Mecca itself, ideas
18 The birth of the Islamic state
of monotheism were not unknown before the coming of Muh.ammad, but the
worship of the idols of the Ka‘ba was too important to the prosperity of
the community to be challenged seriously. Elsewhere, Christianity was by far the
most important religion among the Arabs. The tribes of the Syrian steppe and
those of the Jazı̄ra seem to have been almost entirely Christian, mostly of the
Monophysite creed – indeed, the Ghassanids had been among the most important patrons of Monophysite Christianity when it had been under attack from
the Byzantine authorities in the sixth century. There were both Christians and
Jews in the H
. ijaz as well, the Christians settled mostly in the south at Najran
on the Yemeni borders, while the Jews were concentrated in Yathrib and the
nearby oases.
Most of the Arab population in pre-Islamic times depended on pastoralism, the rearing of camels or sheep and goats for their subsistence. The camel
nomads were mostly found in the heartlands of Arabia, and the literature of
the period makes very clear the importance of camels for both transport and
subsistence. We hear much less about sheep-rearing tribes but it would seem
likely that many bedouin, then as now, depended on flocks for their living.This
is especially true in the semi-desert bordering the settled areas of Syria and Iraq,
partly because the sheep are better adapted to the more moderate climate and
partly because sheep products need a nearby market. Many members of the
shepherd tribes, like the Tanūkh and Taghlib along the Euphrates, probably lived
in villages for at least part of the year, and the distinction between the nomad
and the sedentary was often blurred. But although sheep and camels alike could
provide milk, meat and wool, the pastoral life was not self-sufficient, and even
the camel nomads of inner Arabia needed to be able to acquire dates, weapons
and other goods from outside their own circle. This meant that the tribesmen
needed a source of wealth apart from their own herds. This wealth could be
acquired in a number of ways. They could exchange the products of pastoralism – wool, meat, cheese and hides – at market towns. While those who lived
near markets could probably provide for themselves in this way, it was much
more difficult for the inhabitants of remoter areas. They could raid other tribes.
These raids, called ghazw, were exciting and served to confirm the unity of the
kin group and give its members military experience; they could also be profitable, but often resulted in a pattern of mutual raids which left no one much
better off.
Another way of improving the standard of subsistence was by extracting
taxes from the settled people, either by raiding and pillaging or by establishing
protection and receiving payment in exchange; thus in the century before the
advent of Islam, the Ghassanids in Syria had established themselves as protectors of the settled population, and their leaders had become wealthy and distinguished chiefs, patrons of poetry and builders of palaces. On a smaller scale,
many tribes must have collected dues from the peoples of the small oases, but
opportunities of this sort were limited and settled communities comparatively
few. The last option was the taxation of traders. The relationship between traders and nomads was a very close one. Often the merchants were themselves of
The birth of the Islamic state
nomad stock, like the Quraysh merchants of Mecca, but they also needed the
protection of the nomads through whose areas they passed. A trade route could
only be successful if the organizers could rely on a network of agreements with
local tribes to secure the safe passage of goods in exchange for a subsidy. Such
arrangements were still in operation as late as the nineteenth century when the
subsidies paid by the Ottoman government to secure the safe passage of the h.ajj
(pilgrimage) were an important source of income for H
. ijazı̄ tribes.
The nomad pastoral society was inherently unstable for economic reasons.
Any government which sought to pacify the tribes, establish peace in Arabia
and abolish the ghazw had to find a substitute; if the tribesmen were not to
attack each other, then they had to attack someone else.
It would be wrong, however, to imagine that all the inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula were nomads, that livestock were the only means of subsistence or tribal leadership the only basis of authority. There were areas like
Yemen and parts of ‘Uma-n where the rainfall in the mountains was sufficient
to allow settled village agriculture, and even away from the mountains and the
water-bearing monsoons of the south coast there were oases where date palms
grew in abundance or crops could be cultivated. Such were settlements like
Tayma- and Khaybar in the northern H
. ijaz – or Yathrib, later known as Medina,
further south, with its date palms and barley fields cultivated by settled folk
living in permanent houses. In the hills just to the east of Mecca lay the town
of T· a-’if, where the upland climate allowed wheat and vines to be grown. In
eastern Arabia too there were areas of settled habitation, notably in Yama-ma,
where the Banū H
. anı̄fa grew wheat and dates and had a permanent settlement
at H
. ajar, both a shrine and a trading centre, as their capital. Despite their settled way of life, the people of these oases did not produce centralized states of
the sort that were common in other settled areas in the Near East; they were
too small and scattered. They maintained close contacts with the neighbouring nomads and a pattern of society divided into tribes and lineages – indeed,
some tribes, like the Banū H
. anı̄fa of Yamama, for example, had both a nomad
and a settled division. On the whole, the agriculturalists were looked down on
by their nomad neighbours and were not regarded as truly noble. Thus in the
early Islamic period, the people of Medina, despite their great contribution to
the success of Islam, were never able to produce an important political leader
from their own ranks.
However, it was neither a nomad community nor an agricultural community
which produced the Prophet Muh.ammad. Probably since the beginning of the
first millennium bc, Arabia had been an important highway for commerce, and
this commerce had profoundly affected the history and society of the people of
the area. In classical times the commerce was of two main kinds. The first was
transit trade in goods imported by the Roman empire from the Indian Ocean
basin.This meant above all spices but also other sorts of perfumes and high-value
luxury products. The routes by which these goods reached the shores of the
Mediterranean varied according to political circumstances. The easiest and most
logical was by ship to the head of the Gulf and thence by the Euphrates route and
20 The birth of the Islamic state
entrepôts like Palmyra and Edessa to the cities of Syria and the Mediterranean
ports. But this route lay through the heart of the Persian empire; it was frequently
interrupted by war, and even in times of peace the Persians extracted considerable
tolls. It was this which made the harder, western routes more attractive. The Red
Sea could be used for shipping, but navigation was very hazardous and much of
the commerce passed overland from south Arabia, through the H
. ijaz to the Syrian markets, Petra during the early Roman empire, but later Gaza and Bostra (or
Bus·ra-, on the edge of the desert, about 80 miles south of Damascus).
The other kind of trade was in the products of south Arabia, called Arabia
Felix by classical writers on account of its great prosperity.This meant above all
frankincense and myrrh, which were in vast demand in the Roman empire for
ritual and funerary purposes. These precious perfumes were gathered from the
trees of the south Arabian hills, and there is no doubt that their cultivation contributed greatly to the prosperity of the inhabitants of the area and those who
controlled the camel caravans which transported these products from there to
the markets in the north.
This traditional trade in high-value luxury products seem to have declined by
the end of the sixth century. The economic problems of the Byzantine empire
in the second half of the sixth century coupled with the almost complete collapse of the Italian and western European urban economies can have left little
money for importing incense, cloves and pepper, and even where such commerce did survive it was on a much reduced scale.The sources for the late sixth
and early seventh centuries give few details about the nature of the trade, but it
seems to have been essentially the exchange of locally produced goods. Ha-shim,
Muh.ammad’s great-grandfather, is said to have received permission to bring
skins and textiles (probably from Yemen) to Syria, and the Prophet himself is
said to have traded in skins. In exchange the merchants brought back grain and
wine from Syria. In Iraq too, we are told that the tribes along the borders of the
settled lands bought supplies from the kings of H
. ı̄ra, presumably in exchange
for animal products. In fact, the trade of Muh.ammad’s time seems to have been
more the exchange of the products of pastoralists and agriculturalists than the
large-scale international trade of previous centuries. It seems likely, however,
that trade was vital to the livelihood of the people of Mecca among whom
the Prophet grew up and that he himself went on trading expeditions to Syria.
Recent research suggests that there may have been another factor at work.
Historical and geographical sources mention a number of gold and silver mines
in the Arabian peninsula, mostly, but not entirely, in the H
. ijaz area. Archaeological work has confirmed the existence of extensive mining operations which
flourished from the fifth century ad to the early ‘Abbasid period. More research
is needed to substantiate the evidence, but it appears as if the development of
precious-metal mining was a fundamental part of the emergence of Mecca as a
commercial centre: the Arab population of the area now had money to spend
on importing agricultural products and other luxuries. This supply of gold and
silver certainly would account for the frequent mentions of large cash sums
which we find in the traditional Arab accounts of the early history of Islam.
The birth of the Islamic state
The control of these trade routes and the enjoyment of the profits they produced were perhaps the most important factor in the pre-Islamic politics of the
Arabian peninsula. The main problem faced by anyone attempting to organize
the caravan traffic was to ensure the passage of valuable goods through the lands
occupied by nomad tribes. Because of the vast distances and the difficulty of
finding supplies, sending a large armed escort with each party was not a practical proposition. The alternative was to reach some sort of agreement with the
tribes whereby the caravans would be allowed to pass in exchange for favours,
support or protection.
At the beginning of the sixth century, the south Arabian kingdom was strong
enough to be able to organize the caravan trade. To do this, a client tribal kingdom of Kinda was supported in central Arabia and seems to have arranged for
the passage of caravans. During the first half of the sixth century, however, this
system broke down. This was partly because Ghassanid–Lakhmid rivalry in the
Fertile Crescent made trade unsafe, but it may also have reflected the impoverishment of the Mediterranean market, which resulted in reduced profits. The
kingdom of Kinda disappeared leaving central Arabia in chaos, while in south
Arabia itself the indigenous Himyaritic kingdom was taken over by the rulers of Ethiopia, probably acting in alliance with the Byzantines to forestall an
attack by the Persians or their Lakhmid protégés. The period of Ethiopian rule,
from about 530 to 575, saw attempts by various parties to reconstitute the system. The Lakhmid rulers of H
. ı̄ra attempted to maintain a series of agreements
with neighbouring tribes, notably the Tamı̄m and Bakr b. Wa-’il in their own
immediate vicinity but also with the Sulaym, who could ensure the passage of
Lakhmid caravans to the H
. ijaz and the markets of western Arabia.The Lakhmid
system was based on treaties, subsidies and diplomacy backed up by occasional
raids, but despite Persian military support the kings of H
. ı̄ra could never enforce
their authority much beyond the boundaries of the settled lands.
In Yemen, the Ethiopian viceroy, Abraha, attempted to revive a system based
on the old Sabaean kingdom. Abraha was essentially independent of the ruler
at Axum, and despite his attack on Mecca, he receives a good reputation in the
Muslim sources. He repaired the great dams at Ma-rib in an attempt to revive
the agricultural economy and his attack on Mecca was a clear indication of his
intent to bring eastern Arabian trade under his control. In the 570s, however, his
successors were removed by a rebellion of the local people aided by a Persian
f leet under one Vahrı̄z, who eventually stayed on as Persian viceroy until after
628. Persian rule does not, however, seem to have been as strong as Ethiopian,
and an attempt to control Arabian trade on a H
. ı̄ra–Yemen axis and so bring
it all under the indirect control of the Sasanian empire was frustrated by the
feebleness of H
. ı̄ra and the Persian rulers of Yemen, as well as the rising power
of a new trading centre, Mecca.
The site of the sanctuary at Mecca is without doubt an ancient one. The
role of the sanctuary, known in Arabic as the h.aram, was very important in
pre-Islamic Arabia, and similar institutions, under the name of h.awt.a, still exist
in many areas of south Arabia today. In the conditions of tension and hostility
22 The birth of the Islamic state
which often existed between neighbouring tribes, it was essential to have some
neutral area where members of different groups could meet to exchange goods
and settle disputes: the h.aram or h.awt.a fulfilled this role. The h.aram was originally founded (often on the borders between tribal territories or at the junction
of several wa-dı̄s) by a holy man who declared it neutral ground. This inviolability extended not just to the shrine itself, usually a very simple structure, but also
to the immediately surrounding area, often demarcated by stone posts. Within
this area, no violence or killing was permitted and enemies could meet together
confident of their security. The holy man (mans·ab is the modern term) could
also be resorted to for arbitration and accepted as a judge. Naturally markets
grew up in the h.aram, where the property of the various merchants would be
safe. Those who used the h.aram and were attached to it were obliged to pay the
holy man dues for his services, and in exchange the holy man would feed and
entertain the tribesmen. In a country without a centralized law enforcement
system, the h.aram played a vital role in the social and economic life of the people, and the holy man could become a figure of great political power and influence. After his death, the authority usually passed to his family, who became
thereby a “holy lineage”. They took over the duties of guarding the h.aram,
ensuring its inviolability and entertaining visitors and pilgrims. The foundation
of the h.aram at Mecca is ascribed by the Muslims to Abraham, but though the
original founder had long since passed away, the h.aram was held and administered by a series of lineages which became holy families for several generations
before being replaced by new lineages who felt that they had a better right to
the position.This happened probably in the first half of the sixth century when
the existing guardians of the h.aram at Mecca were replaced by one Qus·ayy, who
installed himself and his tribe, the Quraysh, as guardians and whose descendants
became the new holy family. Among his direct descendants was Muh.ammad
b. ‘Abd Alla-h, the Prophet of God, and it is impossible to understand his background or success without remembering his position with regard to the h.aram.
Although the h.aram at Mecca was very ancient, the commercial network of
which it was the centre by the early seventh century was comparatively recent.
It does not seem that there was any city to speak of when Qus·ayy and the
Quraysh took over the h.aram, and the urban development of Mecca must be
seen as a phenomenon of the second half of the sixth and early seventh centuries.The foundation of the trading network probably belongs to the generation
of Qus·ayy’s grandsons. Under the protection of the h.aram, fairs were held at
‘Uka-z. a few miles east of Mecca, where goods, as well as poetry and ideas, could
be exchanged between groups who would normally be at war. The traditional
Muslim account, which probably has at least a symbolic accuracy, shows the
four brothers all establishing commercial relations with different areas; ‘Abd
Shams in Abyssinia, Ha-shim in Syria, al-Mut.t.alib in Yemen and Nawfal in Iraq,
and all the brothers except ‘Abd Shams are said to have died in the countries
they made contact with, Ha-shim in Gaza. Until this point the h.aram at Mecca
had been simply one of a number serving the surrounding tribes; even in the
immediate vicinity there were others like it managed by the Thaqı̄f at T· a’if and
The birth of the Islamic state
one at Nakhla between Mecca and Medina, where the holy family came from
the tribe of Sulaym. The commercial expertise of the Quraysh, both the direct
descendants of Qus·ayy and other clans, most notably the Makhzūm, transformed this position.They made the city the centre of what has been described
as the “Meccan commonwealth”, a commercial and diplomatic network which
enabled caravans organized in Mecca under Quraysh patronage to travel to
Syria, Iraq and Yemen in comparative security. This was done by a variety of
means. There were tribes which recognized the religious status of the h.aram
and the sanctity of the holy months, when violence was not supposed to be
practised; these included not just the Quraysh but probably also the Khuza-‘a,
Thaqı̄f and Kina-na, who controlled the route south to Yemen, although the lists
given in the sources are somewhat contradictory. Among those tribes who were
not attached to the Ka‘ba in this way the Quraysh entered into partnership.The
alliance with other tribes who considered themselves part of the Mud.ar group,
like the Asad and especially the Tamı̄m, with whom the Quraysh established
close links and who frequently acted as judges in the fair at ‘Uka-z. , helped in
this process. With them and other tribes – the T· ayy, for example – they entered
into profit-sharing agreements, called ı̄la-f, with the chiefs, who were guaranteed
payment in exchange for securing the passage of the caravans. The commonwealth was held together by the prestige of the sanctuary at Mecca and of its
holy family, along with diplomacy, tact, payment and self-interest. The Quraysh
had no army with which to enforce their rule, although they did occasionally
go to war to defend their interests, as for example in the case of the war of Fija-r,
which occurred when the Prophet was a young man, the object of which was
to ensure that caravans from Yemen to Iraq came under the patronage of the
External circumstances seem to have increased the importance of the Meccan commonwealth in the early seventh century. In 602 with the assassination
of the Emperor Maurice there began a generation of savage warfare between
the Byzantines and the Sasanians, which meant that direct trading links across
the frontier between the two empires must have become impossible. In 602 as
well, the Persians executed al-Nu‘ma-n III, the last of their client kings of H
. ı̄ra,
and H
. ı̄ra ceased to be an important independent political force in the northeast of Arabia. Tribes like the Tamı̄m, which had had close contacts with H
. ı̄ra,
now began to look to Mecca and the Quraysh for trading partners and even
for arbitration in their quarrels. The victory of the Arab tribes over the Persian
armies at Dhū Qa-r in 611 meant the final end of any pretensions of the Persians
to exert authority over northeast Arabia and left the way open for the expansion of Quraysh influence. So during the lifetime of the Prophet, the Quraysh
network, based on the h.aram at Mecca, had become the leading commercial
organization in northern and western Arabia but it must be remembered that
its success was ultimately based on the prestige of the h.aram and the popularity
of the fairs that took place under its protection at ‘Uka-z. . If the position of the
h.aram were to be challenged in any way, then the whole position of the city
would be put in jeopardy.
24 The birth of the Islamic state
Trade was no luxury for the people of Mecca. The site of the city is barren
and rocky and no agriculture was possible except with great expense and difficulty. The water supply was dependent on wells, notably the sacred well of
Zamzam, the maintenance of which played a large part in city life. This meant
that virtually all food had to be imported. In the early days of Quraysh domination, no doubt much of the population remained nomadic pastoralists living
from the produce of their herds, and the agriculture of the neighbouring towns
of T· a-’if and Yathrib probably sufficed for their needs. In about 570, for example,
the Prophet’s grandfather possessed a herd of 200 camels as well as commercial
interests in Mecca. But during the life of Muh.ammad there is no doubt that
much of the population consisted of sedentary townspeople and merchants
who produced no food themselves. The population was probably increasing
with the prosperity of the city and in addition there was the burden of feeding the visitors and pilgrims whose visits were so vital to the prosperity of the
town. These factors meant that Mecca was dependent on imported foodstuffs,
not just from the surrounding area but from as far afield as Yama-ma in the east
and Syria and even Egypt to the north. Keeping the trade routes open was vital
to the survival of the people of Mecca.
The inhabitants of Mecca were not, of course, a homogeneous group. There
were many slaves and others who were not members of the Quraysh and therefore did not share in the wealth and prestige of the tribe. Among the Quraysh
there were lineages with greater or lesser prestige and wealth, and there can be
no doubt that by Muh.ammad’s time there were very sharp divisions between
the richer and poorer members of the tribe. Despite their urban and sedentary
way of life, the Quraysh still retained their tribal organization. There was no
system of public justice, no police and no courts; safety and security of goods
and person depended, as it did in the desert, on the lineage, and a man from a
weak lineage or one who lost the support of his close relations was in a very
vulnerable position. Among the clans or lineages of the Quraysh, the descendants of Qus·ayy held pride of place, and it was they who had inherited responsibilities in the h.aram though there were other clans, notably the Makhzūm,
whose commercial success had put them among the leaders of Meccan society.
Qus·ayy had left the guardianship of the h.aram to his son ‘Abd al-Da-r, but ‘Abd
al-Da-r and his descendants had failed to sustain their position against the claims
of the more dynamic clan of ‘Abd Mana-f, and by the time of the Prophet they
had largely fallen out of the leading group. As always in Arabia, leadership was
both hereditary and elective. No one who was not of the Quraysh and the clan
of Qus·ayy could claim to lead the holy family, but among that group, leadership lay with the strong and the shrewd, not necessarily with the eldest or with
the father’s choice. ‘Abd Mana-f in turn had four sons whom tradition credits
with establishing the fortunes of the Quraysh: ‘Abd Shams, Nawfal, Ha-shim
and al-Mut..talib. These four shared out among themselves the various offices
connected with the h.aram and the pilgrimage. As might be expected, there
developed a rivalry between the clan of Ha-shim (supported by the weaker
descendants of al-Mut..talib) and the clan of ‘Abd Shams (later called after his son
The birth of the Islamic state
Umayya, usually but not always supported by the Nawfal and Makhzūm) for
power and influence in Mecca which was to have profound and far-reaching
effects on the early Islamic state.
The early life of Muh.ammad1
Muh.ammad belonged to the clan of Ha-shim. The status of the clan in the
years immediately before the emergence of Islam is not entirely clear and Western historians have suggested, perhaps wrongly, that the early Islamic sources
exaggerated its importance in an attempt to magnify the social position of the
Prophet. Ha-shim was certainly a man of great importance among the Quraysh;
besides being connected with the opening up of the Syrian trade route, he is
also said to have been responsible for the feeding and watering of the pilgrims
and people of Mecca, a man of wealth and generosity, in contrast to his brother
‘Abd Shams, who was constantly away on trading expeditions and was said
to have been a poor man with a large family. After Ha-shim’s death, however,
the status of the clan seems to have declined. In contrast to the increasing
commercial success of ‘Abd Shams, the clan of Ha-shim suffered a number of
disappointments. His son ‘Abd al-Mut..talib was clearly a person of some consequence, however; at the time of Abraha’s expedition against Mecca – known
to the Muslims as the Day of the Elephant (probably around 570) – he appears
as the spokesman for the Quraysh in negotiations with Abraha. He was also
responsible for the reopening of the well Zamzam, again emphasizing the close
connections of the clan with the h.aram. ‘Abd al-Mut..talib had four sons, ‘Abd
Alla-h, who died young, al-Zubayr, Abū T· a-lib and Abū Lahab, who succeeded
each other as head of the clan. It was shortly after ‘Abd al-Mut..talib’s death (in
the late 570s?) that the clan became one of the leading members of the h.ilf
al-fud.ūl or “Confederation of the Virtuous”. This was probably an association
of the less successful clans to ensure fair trading and prevent the establishment
of trading monopolies by ‘Abd Shams and other dominant clans. This suggests
that despite their close association with the h.aram, the Banū Ha-shim were no
longer among the wealthiest or most politically powerful of the Meccan clans
and that considerable social tensions were developing in the city between the
richest clans and their poorer kinsmen.
It was into this family, direct descendants of Qus·ayy, members of the holy
family of Mecca and closely connected with the h.aram, that Muh.ammad b.‘Abd
Alla-h b. ‘Abd al-Mut..talib b. Ha-shim was born probably around the year 570
when Abraha the Abyssinian made his ill-fated attack on Mecca. Despite his
illustrious family background, his immediate circumstances were not especially
prosperous. His father had died before he was born, on a trading expedition
to Syria, and his mother Amı̄na and his grandfather ‘Abd al-Mut..talib supervised his early childhood. In accordance with Quraysh customs he was found
a wet-nurse, H
. alı̄ma, from the Hawazin bedouin tribe and spent his early years
with them in the desert; the Muslim sources relate how reluctant the bedouin
women were to take on an orphan with no economic prospects. His early life
26 The birth of the Islamic state
was further clouded by the deaths of his mother when he was six and of his
famous grandfather, ‘Abd al-Mut..talib, when he was eight, but the clan looked
after him, and his uncle Abū T· a-lib, now its head, saw to his upbringing. We
have few details of his early life. He lived through a period of growing Meccan prosperity and influence; he is said to have taken part in the war of Fija-r to
secure the Quraysh hold over the trade route of western Arabia and is pictured
on a caravan expedition to the Syrian city of Bostra, where his future greatness
was recognized by the Christian monk Bah.ı̄ra. It was also a period of increasing
social tensions, and as a child he was said to have been present at the foundation
of the h.ilf al-fud.ūl.
It was natural that the young man sought to make a career for himself in
commerce. Because of his honesty and trustworthiness he was taken on, when
in his twenties, as business manager for a wealthy Qurashı̄ widow, Khadı̄ja,
whom he married shortly afterwards. His marriage to Khadı̄ja brought him
material security and children, including Fa-t.ima, whose descendants were to
prove so important in later Islamic history. It also seems to have been a genuinely companionate marriage, Khadı̄ja bringing him comfort and moral support in times of difficulty.
Thus far Muh.ammad’s career had been quietly …
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