Bible History Online
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
a-ra'-bi-a (`arabh, Arabia):
I. NAME AND SITUATION
2. Situation and Configuration
II. PHYSICAL FEATURES
1. The Desert
5. Oases and Wells
III. POLITICAL DIVISIONS
1. Ancient Divisions
2. Modern Divisions
3. Political Situation
4. Chief Towns
IV. FLORA AND FAUNA
2. Extinct Tribes
3. South Arabian Tribes
4. Migration of Tribes
5. North Arabian Tribes
6. Other Tribes
7. Foreign Elements
2. The Ka`bah, Pilgrimages and Fairs
6. Seekers after Truth: Islam
I. Name and Situation.
The Hebrew word `arabh always denotes, strictly speaking, not the country, but the people of Arabia taken collectively, and especially the nomadic Arabs. The name of the country does not occur in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament it is used to denote the Syrian desert or the peninsula of Sinai.
2. Situation and Configuration:
Surrounded as it is on three sides by the sea--by the Indian Ocean on the south, and its two branches, the Red Sea on the west and the Persian Gulf on the east--and on the fourth side by the desert of Syria, the country of Arabia is to all intents and purposes an island; and it is named by its inhabitants and by those who speak their language "the Island of the Arabs." In configuration the country is roughly of the form of a parallelogram, about 1,000 miles in length by 500 or 600 miles broad. This parallelogram is not of uniform altitude, but the generally even surface is tilted to one corner in such a way that the most southerly point contains mountains rising to 10,000 feet in height, whilst the Northeast corner is almost on a level with the sea. The altitudes of the intervening portions are in proportion to their situation with respect to these extremes. Thus the mountains of the Southeast corner have an altitude of from 5,000 to 6,000 feet, those of the Northwest of 4,000 or 5,000, whereas those which are situated near the middle of the West coast rise to 8,000 feet, and the plateau which forms the northern half of the interior of the peninsula is between 3,000 and 4,000 feet above sea-level. In consequence of this configuration the main watershed of the country runs parallel to the West coast at a distance of between 50 and 100 miles from the sea, with a subsidiary watershed running along the south; and the principal outlets for the drainage run in a Northeast direction. The whole of Arabia stretches from about 13 degrees to about 36 degrees north of the equator, and it lies between 33 degrees and 60 degrees east of Greenwich. Its area is about eight times that of the British Isles, or nearly 1,000,000 square miles.
II. Physical Features.
1. The Desert:
Although Arabia is considered by geographers as part of the continent of Asia, it belongs in almost every respect to Africa. The great bulk of the country is desert, of fine sand in the southern part, but consisting of coarse sand (the nefud), gravel and flints in the northern. It is in fact an offshoot from the great African Sahara. Of the southern half little is known, and it has never been crossed by the foot of European. The northern has been traversed in many directions; it has numerous caravan routes, and some important towns are situated in the heart of it. Arabian fancy has peopled the desert with strange creatures not of human kind (compare Isa 13:21; 34:14), and fancy has been justified by the common phenomena of the mirage and the Fata Morgana (Isa 35:7; 49:10). To the keen sight of the nomad the glowing desert heat is visible as a fine gossamer (Isa 18:4). Perhaps this is the meaning of sharabh in Isa 35:7; 49:10 also. It is quite certain, however, that the whole of Arabia and especially the northern borders in the neighborhood of the Sinai peninsula and eastward to the south of Israel and the country of Edom, were at one time very much better watered than they are at the present day. For centuries a constant process of desiccation has been going on. Indeed, persons now living can remember the existence of wells one or two generations ago, where now there are none. It follows that this district must formerly have supported a very much larger population that it does at present.
It will be obvious that the climate of Arabia must vary greatly in its different parts, the temperature and rainfall depending not so much upon latitude as upon latitude, so that within a few miles the greatest extremes co-exist. In the southern angle where the mountains are highest there are two rainy seasons, one in spring the other in autumn, so that this province well deserves its Grecian name of Arabia Felix. In the higher reaches of this province, for example, at its capital San`a, snow falls in December; while on the coast of the Red Sea at Loheia, scarcely 100 miles distant, thermometer rarely falls below 80 degrees. In the Red Sea 93 degrees is a common reading in the shade in summer, while the heat of the Persian Gulf, owing to its steep shores and great evaporation, is hardly endurable by a European. In the Northwest province, in which are situated the two sacred cities of Mecca and Medina, the rainfall is unreliable and takes the form of heavy thunder showers which occasion frequent floods in the former town, and are, owing to the arborial denudation of the country, of little use for the purpose of agriculture or irrigation. These winter rains may commence as early as September, and by December at latest the new pasture will have covered the ground. Hence the true spring in northern Arabia, or in Syria, falls in our autumn, but there is not the distinction of former and latter rain (compare Hos 6:3) which obtains in Israel. The climate of the northern central plateau is described by Palgrave as one of the most salubrious in the world.
As has been indicated above, the backbone of the peninsula is the mountain range which runs down its western side. In its northern parts this is said to be an extension of the limestone ranges of the Lebanon and Anti-Libanus. In its midmost reaches it attains an elevation of between 8,000 and 9,000 feet, and at its southern extremity it spreads out into the plateau of Arabia Felix, where its highest peaks have an altitude of as much as 11,000 feet. In the Southeast corner of the peninsula the range of Jebel Akhdar runs parallel to that on the West, and is connected with it along the South coast by a range of less elevation. In the interior the northern plateau is intersected by numerous irregular mountain ranges of moderate length, of which the most frequently mentioned are Jebel Aja and Jebel Selma, which face one another in the Shammar country.
The course of the rivers is determined by the direction of the mountain ranges. As has been said the drainage is mainly from West to East, but the fact is that Arabia is a land almost without rivers. The only quarter in which perennial streams are found is Arabia Felix, and to some extent they occur along the South coast. The rest of the peninsula is destitute of rivers and lakes. The scour (seyl) from the winter thunder showers cuts out for itself a torrent bed (wadi), which, however, may be filled only once or twice in a generation, and even so dries up as soon as the rain ceases. The most important of these wadis is the West Sirhan, which runs from the Hauran in a Southeast direction to the Jauf (see DUMAH), the West el-Kora to the North of Medina, the West el-Hamth between Medina and Mecca, and the West Duweisir to the South of Mecca. Larger than any of these however is the West er-Rumma, which extends from the neighborhood of Medina to the head of the Persian Gulf. It has never been explored, and is filled with water only at long intervals.
5. Oases and Wells:
In these circumstances the Arabs have to seek their water supply elsewhere than in their rivers. In many places the surface of the country sinks into a depression down to the level of permanent water, thus forming an oasis, which word is probably none other than the Arabic wadi. The best known of these occur at Kheibar and Teima (see TEMA) to the North of Medina, and also at Tabuk to the Northwest. The West Duweisir is itself practically an oasis of a length of three days' journey. In addition to these natural depressions there are also dotted over all the inhabited parts of Arabia and along the caravan routes numerous wells, these routes following naturally the course of the wadis. These wells are plentiful in the West Sirhan, and a number were sunk by command of Zubeida the wife of Harun al-Rashid, along the Pilgrim way from Persia to Mecca; but the most famous of all is the well of Zemzem in the Holy City itself. It is said that the water in it flows, so that it is probably one of those subterranean rivers which are not uncommon in Arabia. Its water, however, is heavy and brackish and causes indigestion, and the sweetest water obtainable in Mecca for drinking purposes was originally brought by Zubeida from a source some 15 miles distant. The purest water of all is that which collects after rain in the hollows of the numerous outcrops of lava which occur at frequent intervals and in great masses along the western mountain ranges. A spot where lava predominates is called a harrah (from the Arabic verb "to be hot"), and several of these volcanic regions still show signs of activity.
III. Political Divisions.
1. Ancient Divisions:
The peninsula of Arabia was divided by the ancient geographers into three parts: Arabia Petrea, Arabia Deserta and Arabia Felix. The first of these names, which is found in Ptolemy, means, not Arabia the Rocky, but that part of Arabia in which is situated the city of Petra (see SELA), and it also includes the peninsula of Sinai. It is identical with the desert of the Wanderings. Arabia Deserta is a translation from the Greek Arabia eremos of Strabo (circa 24 AD). It denotes the extreme north of the continent of Arabia which is thrust in like a wedge between the fertile lands which drain into the Euphrates on the East and into the Jordan valley on the West. It is thus equivalent to the Syrian Desert. The third term, Arabia Felix, is also a translation from the Greek--Arabia eudaimon--which is again a translation, or rather a mistranslation of the Arabic El-Yemen. This last name denotes the country to the right hand, i.e. the S, just as the Arabic Es-Shem (Syria) means the country to the left hand, or to the North El-Yemen, however, was interpreted as equivalent to El-Eyman, the Fortunate or Happy, a name which the district truly deserves.
2. Modern Divisions:
Since before the time of Mohammed (6th century) Arabia has been divided into seven or eight tribal or political states, the boundaries of which are for the most part clearly defined by intervening deserts or uninhabited tracts. The most important of these from a religious point of view is the Hijaz, which may be described as the northern half of the western coast, stretching from the Red Sea to a distance of between 100 and 200 miles inland. The whole of the coast line, indeed, where the land is low lying is called the Tihama. This may, however, be considered as belonging to the adjacent high land beneath which it lies. Hijaz means "Barrier," and the district is so called because it consists mainly of the mountain ranges which separate the great northern central plateau from the Tihama. This last name is connected with a root meaning "to be unwholesome." Whether the district gave its origin to the verb, or the verb gave its denomination to the district, the name is equally appropriate. The chief importance of the Hijaz arises from the fact that in it are situated the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina--the cradle and the grave of the Prophet. It is thus the religious center of the Islamic world. The Yemen forms the southern corner of the peninsula. It is identical with Arabia Felix, and its physical characteristics have been described above. The Hijaz often fell to the sovereign of Egypt, but for the last four centuries it has, like Egypt, been subject to the Turk. It is only within the last fifty years, on the other hand, that the sultan has attempted to enforce his sovereign rights in the Yemen. The southern coast of Arabia is generally designated as Hadramaut, although in strictness that appellation is properly applicable to a section of it only. The eastern corner of Arabia is taken up by Oman, a state which has generally claimed and secured a position of independence. Both it and the southern states are now under the protection of the Indian government. The country adjacent to Oman toward the North formed the province of El-Bahrein ("the Two Seas"), but this name is now restricted to a large island at the western end of it and some smaller islands famous for their pearl fishery. The remaining province of El-Hasa is occupied by practically independent tribes. From many points of view the most interesting province of Arabia is the great northern central plateau called Nejd, that is, "high land." From its situation it is least susceptible to foreign influence. It contains some fairly large towns, but the bulk of its population live, as their fathers have done from time immemorial, the life of the Bedawi. Two small provinces remain to be noticed. Between the Yemen and the Hijaz lies the district of `Asir, which largely resembles the first-named province in its physical features. To the East of Nejd lies the district of Yemama, which used to be the territory of an important tribe.
3. Political Situation:
On the whole the political situation in Arabia today bears a considerable resemblance to that which obtained immediately before the mission of Mohammad. At that time (about 600 AD) the Northwest parts of the peninsula were more or less subject to the Byzantine emperor, while the whole East and South coasts were under the sway of Persia. Today the West coast of Arabia is again subject to Constantinople, and the East and South coasts are under the protection of an eastern power--in this case the government of India.
4. Chief Towns:
The principal towns of Arabia and the other centers of population owe their existence to the natural features of the country and have probably remained the same in all ages, just as those of Israel have, and even their population does not seem to have altered much. Thus Mecca owes its existence to the presence of the famous well Zemzem; Teima, Kheibar and Tabuk to their oases; Mascat, the capital of Oman, to its natural harbor; and so on. An exception is the ancient town of Saba (see SHEBA) or Marib, which probably sprang up as the result of the building in prehistoric times of a gigantic dam for the purposes of irrigation. When the dam burst in the 2nd or 3rd Christian century, the population dispersed. Owing to the absence of a census it is not possible to make accurate statements regarding the population of an eastern town, and estimates by European travelers always vary greatly. Speaking generally, the cities of Arabia of the first magnitude appear to have some 35,000 inhabitants, though Mascat is said to have as many as 60,000.
IV. Flora and Fauna.
The peninsula of Arabia belongs, as has been said, in its physical features to Africa, and its flora and fauna are those of that continent. Of all the products of the soil by far the most important is the date palm. It flourishes in every oasis. In the Wadi Duweisir alone it is said one may ride straight on for three days without leaving the shelter of the palm groves. The dates, which are the staff of life of the Arab, differ in quality in each locality, each district producing a variety of its own. In the Yemen, with its varied altitudes, almost every kind of fruit and vegetable known in temperate latitudes is cultivated on the terraced mountain sides. Vines are grown, as Ibn Khaldun remarks, for the sake of the berry, not for the purposes of wine making. The vine is common to Arabia and Israel, whereas the date palm has almost gone out of cultivation in the latter country. On the other land the olive, which is so important in the northern country is almost unknown in the southern. The olive is constantly referred to in the Bible (Jdg 9:8 and often), the date never. From the South coast especially are exported frankincense, balsam, myrrh and other aromatic plants; and cotton is cultivated in the province of Oman. Cereals flourish in the Yemen and tobacco is grown wherever possible in Arabia The coffee of the Yemen is famous; it is exported to Constantinople and named from the port of export Mokha coffee; but the bulk of it is consumed within Arabia itself. Coffee and tobacco are the only two articles of consumption which are used in Arabia today, and which have not been used from time immemorial. Coffee was probably introduced into Arabia from Gallaland on the African mainland two or three centuries ago. The Arabs are most inveterate coffee drinkers. Tobacco was probably first brought from English ships at Constantinople in the reign of James I. It is cultivated in every oasis, unless in the interior in Nejd, where its use is discouraged on religious grounds. There is only one other point in regard to which the Arabs of today differ from the Arabs of Mohammed's time--the use of gunpowder. Except in respect of the three commodities just mentioned, everyday life in the desert today goes on exactly as it did 1,600 years ago. Forest trees are extremely rare in Arabia, but a species of tamarisk called ghada which grows in the northern nefud is proverbial for the quality of charcoal it affords and is a favorite food of the camel. An acacia called katad is likewise a by-word on account of its long spines. The wood is used for making camels' saddles; it grows in the Tihama. As in Israel and in most countries which have been inhabited for many thousands of years, the larger trees have long been cut down for fuel or for building purposes.
Among beasts of prey panthers, wolves, hyenas, jackals and (it is said) even lions are found in Arabia Many of the tribes are named after these and other animals. The wild ox or oryx (see UNICORN) is rarely seen, but gazelles are plentiful. Apes abound in the Yemen, as they do all along the North of Africa, and are kept as pets (compare 1 Ki 10:22). By far the most important domestic animal is the camel. Without it many parts of the country would be uninhabited. It is commonly supposed that the best breed of horses comes from Nejd, but this appears to be an error. In Nejd the camel is the indispensable beast of burden and mount; horses are comparatively useless there. The best Arabian horses are reared in Mesopotamia. Studs are, indeed, kept by the emirs of Nejd, but the horses are small and of little use. The pedigrees of the best horses go back, according to tradition, to the time of Solomon (1 Ki 10:28). Dogs are trained to hunt the wild ox, to tend sheep and to watch the camp. All domestic animals--dogs, horses, mules, asses--receive names as with us. The ostrich is rarely met with, but is found as far north as the Jauf; it no doubt found its way into Arabia from Africa. A common bird is the kata or sand grouse. It is noted for going straight to its watering place. "Better guided than a kata" is a common proverb. Hawks and falcons are found, and falconry among the Arabs was a favorite sport. In Arabia the locust, so far from being a scourge wherever it appears, is a valuable article of food. It is eaten not only by human beings (Mt 3:4), but also by dogs, horses and even beasts of prey. As might be expected in a rocky and sun-scorched land like Arabia, scorpions and various sorts of serpents abound. The chameleon (Lev 11:30) is common here. It is used as a simile for fickle people and those who do not fulfill their promises. It may be regarded as a substitute for thermometer, as on very hot days it ascends trees or any high places. Another sign of extreme heat is that the vipers writhe on the ground.
The Persian Gulf, especially the Bahrein archipelago, is famous for its pearls, while the Red Sea is noted for its coral reefs, which have caused many a shipwreck. It is believed that in the interior of Hadramaut there are many mineral deposits including gold.
The inhabitants of Arabia are divided into three classes. There are in the first place a number of tribes which became extinct, and which are not connected genealogically with those which survived. The latter are divided into two great stems, the south Arabian and indigenous branch descended from Kahtan, and the north Arabian or immigrant tribes descended from Ishmael, the son of Abraham. There is naturally a good deal of inconsistency in the various traditions of the origins of these tribes and their subsequent history.
2. Extinct Tribes:
Of the extinct tribes the most familiar name is that of Amlak or Amlik (Amalek). By the Arabian genealogists he is variously described as a grandson of Shem and as a son of Ham. In Gen 36:12 he is a son of Esau's son, Eliphaz, by Timna. They are said to be first met with in Chaldea, from which they were expelled on the rise of the Assyrian power under Nimrod. They migrated into Ar, occupying in turn the Bahrein, Oman, the Yemen, and finally the Hijaz, where they are said to have been the first settlers at Yathrib (Medina) and also to have occupied land round Mecca and Kheibar. In the time of Abraham they were expelled from Mecca on the arrival of two new tribes from the South, those of Jurhum and Katura (Gen 25:1). Later, it is said, David, during the rebellion of Absalom, took up his quarters in Kheibar and ruled over the surrounding districts. According to another tradition Moses sent an expedition against the Amalekites in the Hijaz, on which occasion the Israelites, disobeying his orders, spared their king Arkam (compare Rekem, Nu 31:8; Josh 13:21)--a reminiscence of the incident in the life of Saul (1 Sam 15). In any case the Amalekites were supplanted in the northern Hijaz by Jewish tribes, who continued there until the time of Mohammad. The Amalekites migrated into Egypt and southern Israel. The Pharaohs of the time of Abraham, Joseph and Moses are represented to have been Amalekites. Finally, broken up by Josh, they fled into northern Africa, where they are said to have grown into the Berber races. The rest of the tribes which became extinct like the Amalekites are of less interest for the present purpose, being unconnected with the Bible narrative. They are mentioned in the Koran, in which book their destruction is attributed to their idolatrous proclivities and to their rejection of the monotheistic prophets. The best known and most important are `Ad and Thamud `Ad is variously named the son of Amalek and the son of Uz (Gen 10:23). The tribe dwelt in the deserts behind the Yemen. They became polytheists; the prophet Hud was sent to them; they rejected him, and were destroyed by a hurricane. The remnant grew into a new tribe, whose chief, Lokman, built the great dam at Marib. In the end they were conquered by a tribe of Kahtan. Thamud was closely related to `Ad, being a son of Aram the father of Uz. They were driven out of the Yemen and settled in the northern Hijaz; they rejected their prophet Salih and were destroyed by an earthquake accompanied by a loud noise. The rock-cut sepulchral monuments of Medain Salih in the Wadi el-Kora are still pointed out as their dwellings. They were, therefore, considered to have been troglodites like the Horites of the Bible. A second pair were the brother tribes of Tasm and Jadis, grandsons of Aramaic Tasm oppressing Jadis, the latter rose and almost exterminated the former, only to be in turn destroyed by a king of the Yemen. Their home was Yemama.
3. South Arabian Tribes:
The southern Arabs claim to be descended from an ancestor called Kahtan son of `Abir, son of Shalikh, son of Arfakhshad, son of Shem, son of Noah. Kahtan is undoubtedly the Biblical Joktan (Gen 10:26), and the names of his descendants reappear as Arabic place names. Indeed the tenth chapter of Gen throws much light on the earliest history of Arabia and the movements of the tribes. Thus the fact that Sheba and Dedan appear as grandsons of Cush, that is, as Abyssinian tribes descended from Ham, in Gen 10:7 and again as descendants of Keturah and Abraham in Gen 25:3 points to the fact that parts of these tribes migrated from the one country to the other. Havilah in Gen 10:7 may similarly be connected with Havilah in Gen 10:29, the intercourse between Southwest Arabia and the opposite coast of Africa being always very close. Among the sons of Joktan are mentioned Almodad, Hazarmaveth, Uzal (Izal), Sheba, Ophir, Havilah. In Almodad we have probably the Arabic El-Mudad, a name which occurs among the descendants of Jurhum, son of Yaktan (Joktan). Hazarmaveth is obviously Hadramaut. Uzal is the ancient name of San`a, the capital of the Yemen. Sheba is the Arabic Saba or Marib. Ophir and Havilah were probably in South or East Arabia. In Gen 10:30 it is said that the camping grounds of these tribes stretched from Mesha as you go toward Sephar, the mountain of the East, that is, probably from the North of the Persian Gulf to the center of South Arabia, Sephar being Zafar, the capital of the South Arab kingdom near to the present Mirbat.
4. Migration of Tribes:
Many of the most illustrious tribes are descended from Kahtan, and some of them still survive. A constant stream of migration went on toward the North. Thus the tribe of Jurhum left the Yemen on account of drought and settled in the Hijaz and the Tihama, from which they drove out the Amalekites, and were in turn driven out by Koda`a, another Kahtanite tribe. After that they disappear from history and are reckoned among the extinct tribes. Koda'a was a descendant of Himyar. The Himyarites founded, about the 1st century BC, a kingdom which lasted for five centuries. The king bore the title of Tubba`, and the capital was successively Marib (Saba), Zafar and San`a. One of their monarchs was the queen Bilkis whom the Arabian historians identify with the queen of Sheba who visited Solomon, though she must have lived much later. The story of the meeting is given in the Koran, chapter 38. A chief occasion on which many of the tribes left the district Northeast of the Yemen was the bursting of the great dam, built by Lokman at Marib, about the 2nd century AD. A section of these grew into the Arabian kingdom of Ghassan, whose capital was Damascus and many of whose kings bore the name Al-Harith (Aretas, 2 Cor 11:32). This kingdom lasted till the time of Mohammad (7th century) and was in alliance with the Roman and Greek empires. On the opposite side of the Syrian desert the Lakhmid kingdom of Al-Hira on the Euphrates (also of Kahtanite origin) was allied to Persia. The two Arabian "buffer-states" were almost constantly at war with one another.
5. North Arabian Tribes:
Among the Arabs Ishmael holds the place occupied by Isaac in the Hebrew tradition. It was to the valley, afterward the site of the town of Mecca, that Abraham conducted Hagar and her son, and that Ishmael grew up and became the father of a great nation. The locality is full of spots connected by tradition with his life history, the ground where Hagar searched for water, the well Zemzem of which Gabriel showed her the place, the mount Thabir where Abraham would have sacrificed his son (Ishmael), and the graves of Hagar and Ishmael. The Jurhum, among whom Ishmael grew up, gave him seven goats: these were the capital with which he began life. He married a woman of Jurhum. He had twelve sons (Gen 25:16) of whom Kaidar and Nabat are the best known, perhaps the Cedrei and Nabataei of Pliny; other sons were Dumah and Tema (which see). The subsequent history of the Ishmaelites is lost for several generations until we come to `Adnan, who is said to have been defeated by Nebuchadnezzar, when the latter invaded Arabia. All the Ishmaelite tribes are descended from `Adnan. They are the north Arabian tribes, as opposed to the Kahtanite or south Arabian. One of them, Koreish, under their chief, Kosay, became master of Mecca, driving out Koda`a. Later, as the tribe of the Prophet, they became the rulers of Arabia and the aristocracy of the Muslim empire; and the descendants of Mohammad remain to this day the only hierarchy known to Islam.
6. Other Tribes:
There are one or two other branches which are not included in the above classification: such are the Nabateans (see NEBAIOTH), and the descendants of Esau and Keturah. The Nabateans are not generally reckoned among the Arabian tribes. They were an Aramean stock, the indigenous inhabitants of Mesopotamia, and spoke not Arabic but Aramaic. They founded a kingdom in Arabia of which the capital was Petra (see SELA). This was the most famous of their colonies, and it endured, at first in alliance with the Romans and later in subjection to them, for 500 years--from the 2nd century BC to the 3rd century AD. Petra was an important trading emporium, but, when the trade left the overland routes and was carried by way of the Red Sea, it quickly fell into poverty and oblivion. The descendants of Esau are named in Gen 36:1 ff; they were allied to the Hittites and Ishmaelites. Among the tribes descended from Keturah are Jokshan and Midian, Sheba and Dedan (Gen 25:2 ff).
7. Foreign Elements:
In Arabia there was and still, in spite of religious disabilities, is a large Jewish population. Before the age of Mohammad they lived chiefly in the Northwest, the two best known tribes--An-Nadir and Koreiza--occupying Yathrib (Medina). After the rise of Islam they were expelled from Arabia; but at the present time there are probably some 60,000 Jews in the Yemen alone. There has always been a close connection between the South and West of Arabia and the opposite African coast. Especially in the 6th century there was a large influx of Abyssinians into the Yemen, as there still is into the western districts. A like intermixture of population went on between Zanzibar and Oman.
The religion of the greater part of the Arabs before the time of Mohammad consisted of a vague deism combined with a primitive form of stone-worship. This is chiefly true of the Ishmaelite tribes descended from Modan, a great-grandson of `Adnan, and among them it is especially true of Koreish. The origin of this stone worship may have been that as each family was forced to hive off from the main stock and quit the sacred territory around Mecca, it carried with it a stone as a monument of the homeland. This stone soon became a fetich. It was worshipped by stroking it with the hand. Before setting out on a journey a man would perform this religious duty, and also immediately on his return, before even visiting his wife and family. The best known idols of the pagan Arabs, from the mention of them in the Koran, are Al-Lat, Al-Ozza and Al-Manat (Kor 53 19.20), worshipped by the Thakif at Taif, by the two tribes of Medina, the Aus and the Khazraj, and by Koreish, in a shrine near Mecca, respectively. Koreish had also a great idol named Hubal in the "house of God" at Mecca, which contained other idols besides. The deity in each case was probably at first a large boulder of stone, then a portable image was made, apparently in human form. They were regarded as feminine and called the daughters of God. Indeed, Al-Lat is apparently merely the feminine of Allah (God). The deities mentioned in the Koran (71 23), Yaghuth, Ya`uk and Nesr, were worshipped in the Yemen. It is certain, however, that the idolatry of the Arabs of "the Ignorance" (Jahiliyah, "roughness," "ignorance"; compare Acts 17:30)--so native writers name the ages before Mohammad (Koran 3 148, etc.)--has been greatly exaggerated by Mohammadan historians. It is remarkable that the words denoting an idol, sanam and wethen, are not Arabic roots, and the practice of idolatry seems also to have been an importation from without. Even the idolatrous Arabs believed in a supreme deity, whose daughters the idol deities were, and with whom they had powers of intercession. They therefore were rather images of saints than of gods. As Renan has said, the desert is monotheistic; it is too empty to give birth to a pantheon, as the fruitful plains of India could do. At the present day the desert Arabs are more strictly monotheistic than the Muslims themselves. Their religion consists in nothing save a vague belief in God.
2. The Ka`ba, Pilgrimages and Fairs:
Though there were many houses of God in the country, the chief religious resort even before the time of Mohammad was Mecca. The House of God (see BETHEL) here was called the Ka`ba, which is the English word "cube," the building being so called from its shape. It was believed to have been built by Abraham and Ishmael. The honor of acting as guardians of the House was a subject of rivalry among the tribes. The office was held consecutively by the tribes of Jurhum, Koda`a and Koreish, and last by the grandfather and uncles of Mohammad. These, therefore, correspond to the tribe of Levi in Israel. It is said to have contained a large number of images, but it is remarkable that the nearer our authorities get to the time of Mohammad the smaller is the number of images mentioned. The chief of these, Hubal, is not named in the Koran. The worship took the form of circumambulation (tawaf), running or marching round the sanctuary (compare Ps 26:6). An annual visitation was and still is made by those living at a distance, and sacrifices are offered. This is the hajj or pilgrimage; the same name is used for the corresponding rite among the Hebrews (Ex 10:9 and often). These religious assemblies were combined with fairs, at which markets were held and a considerable trade carried on. Before the time of Mohammad the great annual fair was held at Okaz, a place still pointed out about three days' journey East of Mecca and one day West of Taif. Here were not only all kinds of commercial transactions carried on--auctions, sales, settling of accounts and payment of blood-wit, but an academy was held at which poets recited their odes, and received judgment upon their merits. These fairs were generally held in the sacred months, that is, the first, seventh, eleventh and twelfth months, in which fighting was forbidden. They had therefore a great civilizing and pacifying influence.
Before the time of Mohammad Judaism prevailed extensively in Arabia, especially in the Hijaz. It began no doubt with the migration of families due to disturbed political conditions at home. The conquest of Israel by Nebuchadnezzar, by the Seleucids, by the Romans under Pompey, Vespasian and finally Hadrian, drove many Jews to seek peace and safety in the deserts out of which their forefathers had come. Thither Paul also withdrew after his conversion (Gal 1:17). Two of these emigrant tribes, the Nadir and Koreiza, settled at Medina, first in independence, then as clients of the Aus and Khazraj. In the end they were harried and destroyed by Mohammad. The Jewish colony at Kheibar met the same fate. Several free Arab tribes also professed the Jewish faith, especially certain branches of Himyar and Kinda, both descendants of Kahtan, the former in southern, the latter in central Arabia. Judaism was introduced into the Yemen by one of the Tubbas, probably in the 3rd century AD, but it was not until the beginning of the 6th century that it made much headway. At that epoch the Tubba Dhu Nuwas became a fierce protagonist of this creed. He seems to have attacked the Aus and Khazraj to whom the Jews of Yathrib (Medina) were subject. He instituted against the Christians of Nejran, a territory lying to the Northeast of the Yemen, a persecution which brought upon him the vengeance of the Byzantine emperor and of the Negus of Abyssinia and involved his kingdom and dynasty in ruin.
Judaism did not hold such a large place in Arabia as did Christianity. The apostle Bartholomew is said to have carried the gospel thither. One of the Jurhum kings who may have lived about the beginning of the 2nd century AD is named Abd el-Masih ("Christ's slave"). There is said to have been a representation of the Virgin Mary and her Son in the Ka`ba. The Christian emperor Constans (337-50) sent the Bishop Theophilus into South Arabia in order to obtain toleration for the Christians. The mission was successful. Churches were built at Zafar, at Aden, and on the shore of the Persian Gulf. The emperor's real object was doubtless political--to counteract the influence of Persia in these regions. Most of the Yemenite tribes were at this time pagan: they worshipped the idols mentioned above (Koran 71 23). Some time after we find the Abyssinian sovereign describing himself in the inscriptions at Axum as king of the Himyarites. This supremacy would be favorable to the spread of Christianity. One of the chief seats, however, of the Christian religion, was at the above-mentioned Nejran, the territory of the tribe Harith ibn Ka`b, whom ecclesiastical writers seem to denote by Arethas son of Caleb. It was this tribe that Dhu Nuwas, Tubba of the Yemen, on his conversion to Judaism, attacked. He threw all the Christians who held by their faith into a trench of fire in which they were burned (Koran 85 4). News of this atrocity was either carried by those who escaped or sent by the Lakhmid, king of Al-Hira, to the emperor Justin I, who, in turn, either directly or through the patriarch of Alexandria, invoked the cooperation of the Axumite king. The result was that the Abyssinians invaded the Yemen and overthrew the Himyarite dynasty. Christianity then became the prevailing religion of South Arabia. The Abyssinians were in their turn, however, expelled by the Persians, under whom all religions--Christianity, Judaism and paganism--were tolerated, until they all disappeared before Islam. Several of the Lakhmid kings of Al-Hira, although they were from circumstances under the influence of the Persian Zoroastrianism, professed Christianity. Nu`man I who reigned at the end of the 4th and beginning of the 5th century, perhaps under the influence of Simon Stylites, retired from the world and became an ascetic. Mundhir II, in the middle of the 6th century, seems to have come temporarily under the influence of the Eutychian heresy. Nu`man V, one of his successors, was also converted to Christianity. But the kingdom in which Christianity flourished most was naturally that in closest contact with the Byzantine empire--the kingdom of the Ghassanids, although it seems not to have been until after the conversion of Constantine that this was the case. From his reign date the monasteries of which the ruins are still visible in the Ghassanid country. The powerful Ishmaelite tribe of Taghlib, whose settlements were in Mesopotamia was also converted to Christianity through similar influences, but not until the end of the 6th century. Some members of the Kahtanite Koda`a professed the same religion, as did the Kelb in the Jauf.
In the Koran a third creed is bracketed with those of the Jews and Christians as entitled to toleration--that of the Sabians. These are monotheists who also worshipped the stars or the angels. The name Sabian has no connection with Sabean which is derived from the name of the town of Saba. An account of their religion, taken from Abu'l Faraj (Bar Hebraeus), the Jacobite bishop, who wrote about the middle of the 13th century, will be found in Sale's Koran, Preliminary Discourse, section I. Sale, however, identified Sabianism with the primitive religion of the Arabs, which Mohammad sought to supplant. This is impossible, however, in view of the fact that Mohammad tolerated the one and proscribed the other. Since the publication of Chwolson's Ssabier und Ssabismus it has been recognized that under the term Sabians are included two very different groups of people. In the first place the devotees of the old Semitic idolatry which flourished at Harran assumed the name Sabian to enable them to claim the protection afforded by the Koran. It is the tenets of these Harranians of which Chwolson's work contains an exposition. The true Sabians, however, were a survival of primitive Christian Gnosticism; whence they were also called Mandeans. From their frequent ablutions they received their name derived from the Aramaic tsebha`, to "baptize," the `ayin being softened to 'aleph, and connected with John the Baptist.
The Jews, Christians and Sabians are called in the Koran "the people of the book," that is, those to whom a revelation had been vouchsafed, and who were in consequence of this tolerated. In one passage of the Koran (22 17) a fourth religion is added to these--the Magian, or Zoroastrian, introduced from Persia.
6. Seekers after Truth: Islam:
Shortly before the appearance of Mohammad a number of thinking persons had become dissatisfied with the old Arabian religion of their ancestors, and yet had not joined the Christian or Jewish faith. They gave up the worship of idols, studied the various sacred books, and sought to find out the true way. They are considered in the Koran as having been of the true faith even before Mohammad had appeared. About a dozen are mentioned by the historians, of whom the most important are four--Waraka the cousin of Mohammad's wife Khadija; Othman who became a Christian; Obeidallah who became a Christian and then a Muslim; Zeid who traveled in pursuit of Truth, but did not attach himself to any one faith. The Hebrew prophets and those who accepted their doctrines are regarded as belonging to the same class. A person who is a monotheist, and who yet does not attach himself to any particular creed is called in the Koran a Hanif. This pure religion is called the religion of Abraham. Mohammad claimed to restore this primeval religion in Islam. By John of Damascus Mohammad was regarded as the founder of a Christian sect. It is probable that but for his appearance Christianity would have spread over the whole of Arabia.
Causinn de Perceval, Essai sur l'histoire des Arabes; Sprenger, Die alte Geographie Arabiens; Hamdani, ed., Muller, Geographic der arabischen Halbinsel; Niebuhr, Travels through Arabia; Burckhardt, Travels in Arabia; Wellsted, Travels in Arabia; Burton, Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah; Palgrave, Journey through Central and Eastern Arabia; Blunt, A Pilgrimage to Nejd; Hurgronje, Mecca; Doughty, Travels in Arabia Deserta; Harris, A Journey through the Yemen; Brunnow and Domazewski, Die Provincia Arabia; Musil, Arabia Deserta; Glaser, Skizze der Geschichte und Geographic Arabiens.
Thomas Hunter Weir
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Definition for 'arabia'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". bible-history.com - ISBE
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