Historicizing Muhammad and Late Antiquity Arabia

This is an exercise in historical writing for “a time before there were authors” (Robinson, 14). I will be focusing on Late Antiquity Arabia in an effort to describe what history is. Therefore, the form of this essay, along with the actual historical content, are both equally as important.


A narrative on Muhammad inevitably involves looking at him as he was, as a man of his time. Although it is inescapable that we describe Muhammad’s life with a degree of agency, this is only the fault of our own imaginations. Even greater, it is also the fault of our own narratives. All historical events can be said to be intimately linked to everything before it; this much is obvious. Therefore, it is the historian’s role to delineate which events were formative in history, and which were less so. In other words, which events allow us to view history in motion? – And how are these events situated in relation to another? Little can be said about the continuity of history with any certainty and, as historians, we are left fumbling to find causation.

As Isiah Berlin writes in his seminal essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, “we will never discover all the casual chains that operate: the number of such causes is infinitely great, and the causes themselves infinitely small” (Berlin, 44). Therefore, all historical writing ultimately takes the form of a kind of narrative, none of which are “true” in any objective sense [1]. Rather, they are approximations of a historical reality; all history is the history of approximations, some of which are closer than others, naturally, but they all have a desire to reign in history as an effort to ground it. Walter Benjamin so eloquently writes of this in his Theses on the Philosophy of History: “To articulate what is past does not mean to recognize ‘how it really was.’ It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger” (Benjamin, VI). Any writing of history is such an exercise.

Appropriately, a discussion on the context of pre-Islamic Arabia (and the greater Middle East) before the rise of Muhammad involves privileging certain causalities as more crucial to historical progression than others. Because of this, it is central that a historian examines structures in relation to particulars, rather than just particulars [2] – in other words, we must not look at Muhammad only as a man; we must look at the social fabric in which he was thrown into, and the great powers that shook his conscience so heavily that it demanded he act. Therefore, I will speak of Muhammad through what he did, but we must be cognizant there is no “being” doing anything; everything is happening, and unfolding, in an infinite amount of ways. I propose an account of Muhammad, not as an individual agent [3] but rather as an agent of history, of a force greater than himself, who is irrevocably linked to the material conditions which produced him. In this sense, he is not an actor – he is merely acting. It is on this account that we begin by introducing the world that Muhammad would soon inhabit.

I.  The Material Conditions That Preceded Muhammad

The Arabian Peninsula is vast, “nearly as big as one third of Europe, but very sparsely populated” (Rodinson, 11). The entire region is mostly desert, with low rainfall and dunes that stretch several miles in length and hundreds of feet into the air.  Oases dot the landscape as a refuge for vegetation, along with coastal regions which enjoy agricultural development unlike the majority of the region. It was during these early centuries, before Christ and until a century or two before Muhammad’s birth, that the “the way of life was [solely] dictated by the land.” The majority of inhabits were nomadic, unless they were living in a lush, hydrated area to settle (Rodinson, 12). Therefore, some degree of symbiosis was necessary for social order between the farmers in the lush regions, the Bedouin nomads, and the townsfolk of the surrounding villages. A loose system of protection was developed, where communities purchased safety from the herdsmen. The economic relationship was based in trade, helped by the domestication of the camel, which provided a link between the Fertile Crescent, the caravans, and the bustling communities growing deep within South Arabia. This produced a cultural exchange, hastened through trade, with goods passing through from “India, East Africa, and the Far East on the one hand, and from all over the Mediterranean on the other” (Rodinson, 13). A social structure had emerged – and it lay in the stationary communities alongside oases and the coast which enjoyed all of these cultural treasures that passed through it from all over the known world. The riches flowed into Arabia, especially Southern Arabia, and “the growth of Mediterranean civilizations had the corresponding effect of increasing the wealth of their South Arabian suppliers” (Rodinson, 21). Arabia, therefore, was not a “pure seed in a rotten earth” as it were; it was very much connected to the cultural developments of its time (Rodinson, 24).

It was from the land that basic units of life and of civilization were created – tribes, kinship, and genealogies served as the only foundation with which to grow as a community (Donner, 28). For those living in the Hejaz, life was immensely difficult; they lived on “the verge of famine, drought, and death” (Brown, 3). The tribe and its customs were the only protection an individual possessed in such a tumultuous environment and, naturally, some clans possessed more clout and wealth than others. However, Arabia was still relatively poor – class differences were felt, but in times of war or catastrophe, all social classes were equal in their wretchedness. The instability of life, and the possibility of death and ruin, was the ultimate equalizer.

South Arabia proved to be more fortunate than its northern counterpart, but it is likely that its influence spilled over to its common Arab neighbors. Here, skilled architects built large palaces and monuments. Art was realized, infused by Roman, Hellenistic, and even Indian influences. Luxury commodities began taking form. Writing took shape on social, legal, and administrative questions. All of these developments were in continuous contact with the northern peoples of Arabia. A social divide was thusly being created between the settled peoples of South Arabia and the Arabs in the northern periphery hundreds of years in the making before Muhammad’s birth (Rodinson, 21- 23).

All of this brings us to the 6th century where multiple events transformed the Middle East and, to some, signified apocalyptic proportions. The great Byzantine and Sassanid empires were competing for economic mastery of world. As Maxime Rodinson writes,

From 502 to 505 there had been war under the reforming King of kings [Kavadh I]. He resumed it in 527 over the Caucasus, and it was continued by his son [Khosrau I], who offered to make an eternal treaty of peace with Justinian in 532, But war broke out again in 540 and Antioch fell to [Khosrau I]…. an armistice was signed in 545… however, war broke out again in 572 (Rodinson, 26).

The ruling tribes of Arabia looked at this with envious eyes, for it was them that, too, wanted the fertile lands of Syria and Mesopotamia. Soon, the Arabs settled in these regions found themselves forced to take sides rather than simply assimilate. Because of a lack of resources, the Byzantines and Sassanians established indirect control over parts of Arabia through alliances with its tribes “in exchange for cash subsidies, weapons, and titles” (Donner, 31). Many became auxiliary units, fighting for either ruling power that was willing to give them a reward. And it is certain that culture permeated through these interactions – Christianity had begun to make headway among the Arabs (Rodinson, 28). Christianity’s foothold in Arabia only served to intensify the ongoing war and, by association, now implicated the entire region into the world conflict [4] if it had not been before.

Although it is difficult to personify this 6th century power struggle, its vast implications were felt under the rule of Yūsuf Dhū Nuwās [5] in South Arabia who began persecuting Christians Monophysites in an effort to appeal to Persian power. Byzantine attempted to provide protection to these Christians through Ethiopian auxiliary units in 512, but they were crushed. Thousands were murdered under the rule of Dhū Nuwās consequently. It was to be known as a period of pillage and general indiscriminate slaughter (Rodinson, 32). This undoubtedly made a strong impression in Arabia; for those that had not realized it already, it revealed the serious stakes that were at play.

Everything was changing and history had begun to accelerate in ways previously unseen in the decades before Muhammad’s birth which, according to Islamic accounts, was in the year 570CE. South Arabia became the center of intense conflict, a type of proxy war between Persia and Byznatium, because of its pivotal trading position into the Indian Ocean basin (Donner, 33). Pro-Persian Arabs, the old supporters of Dhū Nuwās, began attacking Southern Arab communities; Abraha came to power in Southern Arabia with the help of Ethiopian soldiers who still remained there, whose successors took a strong anti-Persian stance; Khurso I allied with the Turks and deepened Persian hegemony in Central Asia. All of Arabia felt the pull of history ripping it apart. Southern Arabia felt it most violently, with bloody factionalism draining its wealth and strength (Rodinson, 33-35).  Petty feudal lords began to fill vacuums of power and the Bedouin nomads profited from the chaos by charging more for their protection services. Now with capital and profit, communities soon became centers of Bedouin operations and prospered during regional chaos. All of Western Arabia underwent incredible economic expansion, most notably Mecca and as south as Medina, where new Jewish settlements created an agricultural life previously unfound (Donner, 35). In Mecca, cultivation was unsustainable because of the poor climate; instead, the Meccan tribe of Quraysh turned to commerce and traded with regions as vast as “Yemen, eastern Arabia, and Southern Syria” that were in perpetual need of supplies (Donner, 36). Mecca, and the Quraysh tribe specifically, was now in a position to network with tribes across Arabia and establish joint commercial ventures. It was in the midst of this economic transformation that Justin II declared war on Persia in 572 CE which only further expanded this emerging economic hub (Rodinson, 33).

From the shell of traditional, nomadic Arab society emerged a new form of organization: a mercantile economy. And with it, the tribal structure could not contain itself anymore.  It had begun its slow decline as its values became unintelligible within the new market system. In an environment of panic, a thirst for something new was in the air as some Arabs began to turn to universalist religions as a means of solace, as a means to make sense of the chaos. Yet, these religions – Christianity, Judaism, and all its sects – still seemed foreign; it was not of the land, and could in no way propel Arabia beyond the great powers that were collapsing. Something else was needed. It was at this precise historical moment, amidst an unprecedented shift in Arab consciousness, that Muhammad was thrown into the world to make it his own.

II. The Movement of Ideas

Ideas cannot be separated from their historical moment nor can be they seen wholly separate from the material conditions that produced them. Therefore, ideas Muhammad transformed for his own movement were not entirely new, but they came at a time when there was the historical “space” for them. Muhammad’s ideas would have had no currency had the situation not been so dire, had the entire social order not been slowly uprooted by new economic necessities. The conditions were ripe for Muhammad’s religion to materialize.

Philosophies were constantly in flux in the Near East and their influence was felt deep within Arabia, starting hundreds of years before Muhammad’s birth. Many of them became infused with indigenous cultures in the region, but this would reach its ultimate conclusion with the establishment of Muhammad’s movement. We must first understand Arabia’s own way of life, however, in order to fully comprehend how these other foreign ideas fused with it. The most widespread means of native expression in this largely nomadic society, still unstructured, was through words – poetry was highly prized as a means of persuasion, for it showed wit and vitality, not to mention it being incredibly useful within tribal politics (Rodinson, 15). It was a culture of “mainstream orality and marginal writing, where poetry and other forms of oral performance were Arabian tokens of pride” (Robinson, 11). Muhammad must have encountered these orators, for he was a man with a gift for persuasion. He was a “remarkably able diplomat, a capable of reasoning with clarity, logic, and lucidity” (Rodinson, 53).

Arabia also lacked a cohesive moral structure before Muhammad’s movement. There was nothing uniting the Arabs in social, political, or moral terms which would allow them to assert their power effectively. Communities had moral standards, but these were not inspired by religion; they were “realists” in this sense, and mostly believed in what would create order. The most prized personality was one who had virility and this was maintained through honor. If a man did not act with courage and compassion towards his kin, he would disrespect his honor within the tribe (Rodinson, 17). None of these social organizations had any real supernatural basis that was felt strongly. Many Arabs were, however, polytheists – but some also nurtured an ancient legend of the one God, the God of Abraham, especially those living in the Hejaz. Symbolically, Mecca also had the Kaba “which was a shrine built ages ago by Abraham as the ‘first house of worship appointed to men’” (Brown, 4). Despite these appeals to a greater divine order, for most living in Arabia, man was the measure of all things. In such a harsh environment, there was no time for meditations on the infinite. Muhammad would be responsible for changing the equation; Instead of man being the measure of all things, it would be God.

However, which ideas entered the collective consciousness of those living in Arabia around the 6th century? – And from where did they come? South Arabia was the first to experience an influx of new ideas, but by the 6th century this had begun to spread to all fringes of the desert and even to Bedouin nomads themselves. Aramaic and Hellenistic influences were felt most strongly. This is even demonstrated through the language used in Southern Arabia, where Arabic “had assimilated Greek, Latin, and other foreign words, for the most part through the channel of Aramaic” (Robinson, 25). It was also around the 6th century that Arab paganism began “receding in the face of a gradual spread of monotheism” (Donner, 30). After the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem around the year 70CE, communities of Arabic-speaking Jews began to spread into Arabia and were especially prominent in Yemen and the northwest. Christianity, too, began to penetrate into Arabia and its communities settled in Yemen (with the help of Byzantine influence), eastern Arabia and the northern fringes bordering Iraq and Syria (Donner, 30). Monotheist religions and their philosophies were being felt throughout all of Arabia; they constituted a kind of “religio-cultural matrix” which was a continuum of “belief, ritual and practice, overlapping multiplicities of Neoplatonism, monotheism and polytheism” which avoided being formalized into any idea that could concretely take hold across all of Arabia (Robinson, 6). All of these philosophies lacked the impetus to catch the entire region in its imagination on their own. This would require someone that was of the land, who was deeply in tune with Arabic traditions, and who would make these monotheist religions accessible to Arabs while also transforming it into their own project.

III. The World-Historical Moment Through Images

To the common people of Arabia and the greater Middle East, the war between the Sassanian Empire and Byzantine Rome signified apocalyptic proportions. It had begun in the 6th century but such feelings continued well until the mid-7th century and the establishment of a new major power, the Rashidun Caliphate. Muhammad was forced to reconcile these early cataclysmic events with his conception of the divine, for it seemed as though God was Himself intervening and accelerating history — and to Muhammad this signified a change in the very direction of what was to come.

IV. The Role of Muhammad in This Historical Moment

As been demonstrated many times over now, Muhammad was not born in a vacuum. There were world powers vying for hegemony in Arabia and the entire Near East, which situated Muhammad in a historical moment and propelled him into a role almost without his choosing. God chose him; and, if we take this for its deterministic implications, history had chosen him as well, even without him consciously choosing.

However, what was Muhammad’s historical “role?” He was situated in a context that demanded him to take on certain responsibilities, divinely-inspired no less, but he still had serious material concerns for the well-being of his contemporaries. Still, the question of “’Who was this Muhammad?’ … was a question posed already during his lifetime” (Robinson, 4). Above all, he claimed he was just a man, which further grounded him in the material conditions of his time. And, just as importantly, he was “the seal of the prophet” whose aim was to remedy the abundance of philosophies that were flowing into Arabia and make them one whole. Muhammad’s role as totalizing all these particulars which were in constant conflict (the many sects of Christianity, Judaism, etc.) was a direct response to the moral panic that ensued during the instability of the 6th century – Arabs were being humiliated abroad; tribal customs were outliving their worth; no one know which gods to worship; and the rich began to trample on the disenfranchised (Rodinson, 66). The Second Rome was expected to fall and apocalyptic catastrophe, Judgement Day, seemed imminent. Muhammad was necessary to stem the tide, so to speak, and to prevent Arabia, and supposedly the world, from succumbing to its rampant vices and violence.

For much of his life, Muhammad was situated in Mecca which was booming economically. The tribe of Quraysh had raised themselves to dominance. They held many Ethiopian slaves and those who settled in Mecca could become clients of their power (Brown, 6). Those who flocked to Muhammad’s words were oftentimes the most alienated in Meccan society. These included adolescents who wanted fresh ideas, those who were dissociated from the social system, those critical of Meccan power, the impoverished, and many others. The Quraysh looked at this amusingly at best and, at worst, “there was a certain contempt for the low social status of those involved” (Rodinson, 102). Whether Muhammad had formalized it or not, what he was doing was creating a power in direct opposition to the elites – and “perhaps Muhammad thought that Allah would make use of the fortunes of war between Byzantium and the Persians” and use it to rally his people to create a new society (Rodinson, 123).

Muhammad, therefore, took on a very social role that was very much intertwined with the politics of his day. He was an arbitrator between different classes, an orator of the divine, and a mediator in times of conflict. After arriving in Medina, the first thing he did was write up a written agreement with the townsfolk and his believers (Brown, 27). The very material basis for his actions is even evident in the Qur’an itself, for “not only did the Qur’an provide guidance for dealing with the poor; it also dominated much of the thought and behavior concerned with economic activity” (Bonner, 392). This is no coincidence. For Muhammad, every ‘social’ act was a means of worshiping God and would form the foundation for a new social order.

History knows no true narrative, and no real causality, but we are forced to create them for the sake of relevancy.  Although history cannot be personified through any single individual, the phenomenon of the “holy man” or “prophet” is precisely about acting as if one is this personification. As Peter Brown writes in The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity:

What is decisive, and puzzling, about the long term rise of the holy man is the manner in which, in so many ways, the holy man was thought of as having taken into his person, skills that had previously been preserved by society at large (Brown, 100).

Muhammad encapsulated this phenomenon by being the vehicle through which his long-view of history could be realized. In this sense, he was the living embodiment of the events that tore apart his time. Muhammad, thus, can be said to be the personification of the entire sum of his society, all that preceded him. It is by this account that we can begin to construct a history without agency, and without a Great Man to direct it. Just as God spoke to Muhammad to push towards what was divinely inevitable, we, too, can play with this language and characterization – we can speak freely of God, an ever-present force said to guide us, as synonymous with the incessant march of history forward. If it is not God who we serve as determined beings, then maybe it is God who serves history, for whom Muhammad was the vehicle towards what He deemed as salvation.

***

[1] “Objectivity” is a difficult concept to even conceive of, especially in historical writing. Surely, there are “facts” that are true, but how do these facts fit into the greater narrative? Is there one correct narrative? It is on these grounds that I discount “objective” or “scientific” history as being impossible.

[2] By particulars here, I mean individual actors and events. It would be foolish to stress these without placing them within the structure from which they were conceived.

[3] Once again, language fails us here. I will be speaking of Muhammad as a “man,” sometimes even discussing his actions, but this is only because it is rhetorically useful; if we abstract too much, we might be left with absolutely no narrative at all. We just must remember that his actions are not wholly his own.

[4] In the context of the time, this was most definitely a “world conflict” or “world-historical moment” in the sense that this encompassed what was the known “world” at the time, or the center of it at least.

[5] Interestingly enough, Yūsuf Dhū Nuwās was of the Jewish faith allied with Persian power which showed that religion was perhaps more fluid during this time than it is now.

Bibliography

  • Berline, Isiah. Russian Thinkers. 22 – 81. The Viking Press, New York. 1978.
  • Benjamin, Walter. On the Concept of History. Dennis Redmond. 2005. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/benjamin/1940/history.htm
  • Rodinson, Maxime. Trans. Anne Carter. Pantheon Books, New York. 1971.
  • Donner, Fred M. Muhammad and the Believers. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 2010.
  • Brown, Jonathan A.C. Brown. Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Robinson, Chase F. History and Heilsgeschichte in Early Islam: Some Observations on Prophetic History and Biography. City University of New York.
  • Bonner, Michael. Poverty and Economics in the Qur’an. Journal of Interdisciplinary History. Pp. 391 – 406. XXXV:3 (Winter, 2005).
  • Brown, Peter. The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity. The Journal of Roman Studies. Pp. 80 – 101. Vol. 61 (1971)

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