The Early Islamic Period

Saudi Arabia Table of Contents

The Saudis, and many other Arabs and Muslims as well, trace much of their heritage to the birth of the Prophet Muhammad in 570 A.D. The time before Islam is generally referred to as "the time of ignorance"; this probably reflects the fact that God had not yet sent the Arabs a prophet.

Muhammad was born in Mecca at a time when the city was establishing itself as a trading center. For the residents of Mecca, tribal connections were still the most important part of the social structure. Muhammad was born into the Quraysh, which had become the leading tribe in the city because of its involvement with water rights for the pilgrimage. By the time of Muhammad, the Quraysh had become active traders as well, having established alliances with tribes all over the peninsula. These alliances permitted the Quraysh to send their caravans to Yemen and Syria. Accordingly, the Quraysh represented in many ways the facilitators and power brokers for the new status quo in Arabian society.

Tribes consisted of clans that had various branches and families, and Muhammad came from a respectable clan, the sons of Hashim, but from a weak family situation. Muhammad's father Abd Allah had died before his son was born, leaving the Prophet without a close protector. The Prophet was fortunate, however, that his uncle Abu Talib was one of the leaders of the Hashimite clan. This gave Muhammad a certain amount of protection when he began to preach in 610 against the Meccan leadership.

Everything we know about Muhammad's life comes from Muslim historiography. The Prophet worked for Abu Talib in the caravan business, giving him the opportunity to travel beyond Arabia. Travel gave the Prophet contact with some of the Christian and Jewish communities that existed in Arabia; in this way he became familiar with the notion of scripture and the belief in one god. Despite this contact, tradition specifies that Muhammad never learned to read or write. As a child, however, he was sent to the desert for five years to learn the beduin ways that were slowly being forgotten in Mecca.

Muhammad married a rich widow when he was twenty-five years old; although he managed her affairs, he would occasionally go off by himself into the mountains that surrounded Mecca. On one of these occasions, Muslim belief holds that the angel Gabriel appeared to Muhammad and told him to recite aloud. When Muhammad asked what he should say, the angel recited for him verses that would later constitute part of the Quran, which means literally "the recitation." Muslims believe that Muhammad continued to receive revelations from God throughout his life, sometimes through the angel Gabriel and at other times in dreams and visions directly from God.

For a while, Muhammad told only his wife about his experiences, but in 613 he acknowledged them openly and began to promote a new social and spiritual order that would be based on them. Muhammad's message was disturbing to many of the Quraysh for several reasons. The Prophet attacked traditional Arab customs that permitted lax marriage arrangements and the killing of unwanted offspring. More significant, however, was the Prophet's claim that there was only one God, because in condemning the worship of idols he threatened the pilgrimage traffic from which the Quraysh profited.

By 618 Muhammad had gained enough followers to worry the city's leaders. The Quraysh hesitated to harm the Prophet because he was protected by his uncle, but they attacked those of his followers who did not have powerful family connections. To protect these supporters, Muhammad sent them to Ethiopia, where they were taken in by the Christian king who saw a connection between the Prophet's ideas and those of his own religion. Following his uncle's death in 619, however, Muhammad felt obliged to leave Mecca. In 622 he secretly left the city and traveled about 320 kilometers north to the town of Yathrib. In leaving Mecca, Muhammad chose to abandon the city where he had grown up to pursue his mission in another place; thus, the event often has been used to illustrate a genuine commitment to duty and sacrifice. This emigration or hijra marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar. Muslims use a lunar calendar, which means that their twelve-month year is shorter than a solar one.

The Quraysh were unwilling to leave Muhammad in Yathrib, and various skirmishes and battles occurred, with each side trying to enlist the tribes of the peninsula in its campaigns. Muhammad eventually prevailed and in 630 he returned to Mecca, where he was accepted without resistance. Subsequently he moved south to strongholds in At Taif and Khaybar, which surrendered to him after lengthy sieges.

By his death in 632, Muhammad enjoyed the loyalty of almost all of Arabia. The peninsula's tribes had tied themselves to the Prophet with various treaties but had not necessarily become Muslim. The Prophet expected others, particularly pagans, to submit but allowed Christians and Jews to keep their faith provided they paid a special tax as penalty for not submitting to Islam.

After the Prophet's death, most Muslims acknowledged the authority of Abu Bakr (died in 634), an early convert and respected elder in the community. Abu Bakr maintained the loyalty of the Arab tribes by force, and in the battles that followed the Prophet's death--which came to be known as the apostasy wars--it became essentially impossible for an Arab tribesman to retain traditional religious practices. Arabs who had previously converted to Judaism or Christianity were allowed to keep their faith, but those who followed the old polytheistic practices were forced to become Muslims. In this way Islam became the religion of most Arabs.

The Prophet had no spiritual successor inasmuch as God's revelation (the Quran) was given only to Muhammad. There were, however, successors to the Prophet's temporal authority, and these were called caliphs (successors or vice regents). Caliphs ruled the Islamic world until 1258 when the last caliph and all his heirs were killed by the Mongols. For the first thirty years, caliphs managed the growing Islamic empire from Yathrib, which had been renamed Madinat an Nabi ("the city of the Prophet") or Al Madinah al Munawwarah ("the illuminated city"). This is usually shortened simply to Medina--"the city."

Within a short time, the caliphs had conquered a large empire. With the conclusion of the apostasy wars, the Arab tribes united behind Islam and channeled their energies against the Roman and Persian empires. Arab-led armies pushed quickly through both of these empires and established Arab control from what is now Spain to Pakistan.

The achievements of Islam were great and various, but after 656 these achievements ceased to be controlled from Arabia. After the third caliph, Uthman, was assassinated in 656, the Muslim world was split, and the fourth caliph, Ali (murdered in 660) spent much of his time in Iraq. After Ali, the Umayyads established a hereditary line of caliphs in Damascus. The Umayyads were overthrown in 750 by the Abbasids, who ruled from Baghdad. By the latter part of the seventh century the political importance of Arabia in the Islamic world had declined.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress