THE MIDDLE EAST ON THE EVE OF ISLAM
1.1 The Byzantine Empire
The Byzantine, or Eastern Roman Empire was known to the Arabs simply as Rûm. It and Persia were the two world super-powers just before the rise of Islam. Its capital, Constantinople, was founded by the Emperor Constantine in 330, but separated from the West only at the death of Theodosius I in 395. Thereafter the East developed and prospered, while the West became prey to the invasion of the Vandals, who even sacked Rome, and ushered in the "dark ages" of Europe.
The national basis of Byzantium was Greece, but the empire spread over parts of eastern Europe, all of modern Turkey (not yet inhabited by Turks), Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Egypt and the north coast of Africa. The language of the empire was Greek, which had taken root in most of the Middle East from the time of Alexander's empire in 333 B.C. Greek remained the market language during the period of Latin Roman domination (in the time of Christ), and was the sole imperial language after the Byzantine separation from the West.
The predominant religion since the time of Constantine was Orthodox Christianity. The East always had its own liturgical practices, different from the West, but was united with Rome until the schism of 1009. The following areas were parts of the Byzantine empire neighbouring Arabia, and were involved in the rise of Islam.
Egypt was known to the Arabs as Misr (Hebrew: Misrâyim), a word meaning a fortified city, and today used by the Egyptians as a name for the capital, Cairo, as well as for the country as a whole. Egypt was ruled by the Persians from 525 to 400 BC, then by the Greeks from the time of Alexander the Great. It passed to the Romans in 30 BC and was thus inherited by the Byzantines. The indigenous people are the Copts, and their language is called Coptic. Note that the consonants g-p-t of Egypt are a variation of c-p-t of Copt, showing, according to the structure of Semitic words around 3 root consonants, that the two words are really the same, transformed only by passage from one language to another. While Coptic was spoken at home, the language of the market and of international communication was Greek.
Christianity was the predominant religion of the country, while there was a sizeable Jewish community and survivals of traditional pagan cults (which remain even to this day). The foundation of the Church is attributed to St. Mark. The Jews were the first to accept Christianity in the 1st century; then came the Greeks of Alexandria in the 2nd century, and finally, beginning in the 3rd century the mass of the Coptic people. The liturgical language was Coptic, with many Greek phrases. (Today Arabic replaces Coptic in most of the liturgy because very few people understand Coptic any more.)
The Patriarchs of Alexandria were important figures: St. Athanasius took the lead in the Council of Nicaea in 325 which condemned Arianism. Arius had taught that Christ had only a human nature, although he was supreme among all creatures. St. Cyril played a leading role in the Council of Ephesus in 431 which condemned Nestorianism. Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, said that Christ had both a human and divine nature, but the two were not united in one person. Therefore, the popular invocation of Mary as (Mother of God), was inappropriate, since she only gave birth to the human Jesus, not to the divine Jesus who is someone else. Cyril succeeded in having this opinion condemned and Nestorius deposed from the Patriarchate of Constantinople. By now tension was riding high between Alexandria and Constantinople, and Cyril's successor, Dioscorus, campaigned against Flavian, the next Patriarch of Constantinople, and got him deposed for not enforcing the Ephesus decree on his priest Eutyches. Pope Leo I then intervened and condemned Dioscorus for unfair procedure. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 deposed Dioscorus for defiance, and also charged him with Monophysitism, meaning that Jesus had only one, divine, nature. When it became clear that the Egyptians did not believe this, the charge was changed to Monothelitism, meaning that Jesus had only one will, a divine will, and no human will of his own. (Yet even this opinion has no official backing in the Egyptian Church of today.) The Egyptians never accepted the Council of Chalcedon because it affronted their national pride. The doctrinal dispute between the Copts and the Orthodox was mostly a matter of terminology, and was really a cover-up for the political struggle between Egypt and the imperial centre of Constantinople. Since Church and State were so intertwined in the Byzantine Empire, Egyptian nationalism would naturally express its opposition in the form of religious or theological differences.
At the advent of Islam, Egyptian Christianity had the weakness of being divided into two feuding Churches, the Orthodox, comprising the Greeks who lived in Egypt, and the Coptic, which included the mass of the Coptic people. Although weakened by this division and persecution, the Coptic Church still had the strength, first, of a vernacular tradition, so that the people had a fair understanding of their faith, and secondly, of the institution of monasticism. Communities of monks in the deserts were centres of prayer and learning which attracted people in spiritual need and provided some preachers and all the bishops of the Coptic Church. Because of these two strong points, the Coptic Church has been able to survive under Muslim rule until the present day, even though diminished from its former numbers.
1.3 Syria, Palestine & Iraq
This whole area was known to the Arabs as Sham (from "Shem"; compare "Semite"). It also had been a Greek cultural zone from the time of Alexander the Great. It was occupied by Rome in 63 BC and later inherited by the Byzantine empire. The indigenous language was Syriac, which is the same as Aramaic. The Aramaic language had replaced local languages in the region, including Hebrew, by the time of the Jewish exile, and was the common language of the towns and cities of the Fertile Crescent. Arabic, however, was the common language of the nomads of the desert. In addition, Greek was the international language of culture and marketing in the cities.
In the early centuries of the Christian era this area became mostly Christian. The Jews were the most significant other religious group. At the same time and for the same reasons as Egypt, most of the dioceses of this area rejected the Council of Chalcedon and were considered Monophysite heretics. Only Lebanon remained orthodox. At the advent of Islam, Christian culture was at a high point. There were schools, especially in Iraq, which taught theology and all branches of philosophy, medicine, history and literature. Aramaic was the language of teaching, but Greek texts were freely used and translated.
1.4 Jewish Christianity
The early inhabitants of this land were the Canaanites. When the Jews under Joshua conquered the land after the Exodus, the Canaanites were not expelled but gradually assimilated; ethnically they were the majority. During the Apostolic age of Christianity large numbers of Jews became Christians. At the time of the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 70 AD Jewish Christians along with the Jews had to flee to the desert, but later many came back and the Church grew. The second Jewish revolt of 132 brought about the destruction of the Temple and another temporary expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem. The Romans did not undertake a mass deportation of Jews from the Holy Land; the diaspora of Jews throughout the Mediterranean world began centuries before as they took advantage of economic opportunities, for example in Tunisia, Morocco, Spain, Rome. The reason why Jews became a small minority in the Holy Land can be attributed to conversion, as Eusebius (d. 340) says: "Many thousands of the Circumcision [Jews] came to believe in Christ".
The Church of Palestine, however, became predominantly a Greek speaking Church, as shown by the lists of the early bishops of Jerusalem, for two reasons: 1) Most Jewish or Aramaic speaking Christian communities merged with the Judaeo-Christians who insisted on the Mosaic Law along with the acceptance of Christ, as is narrated in the Acts of the Apostles. The Judaeo-Christians were refuted theologically by St. Paul, and were politically outbalanced by the numerical superiority of Gentile Christians. 2) The Roman authorities were more tolerant of Greek speaking Christians at a time when the Jews were considered seditious rebels.
The distinction between the two Christian communities is reflected in their names. "In Antioch the followers of Jesus were first called Christians" (Acts 11:26). This became the common name in the Greek and Roman world. The older name retained by the Jewish Christians was "Nazarenes", from the Aramaic word nasraya, derived from Jesus' town of Nazareth (Aramaic: Nasrath); cf. Acts 24:5; 22:8; Jn 19:19. Tertullian said, "The Jews call us Nazarenes".
Judaeo-Christianity did not disappear as a result of Paul's condemnation, but continued to propagandize the legend that James was the head apostle, assisted by Peter who bitterly opposed the heretic Paul. The continued existence of Judaeo-Christianity is attested by references to various forms of it by Church Fathers such as Justin (d. 165), Irenaeus (d. 202), Origen (d. 255), Eusebius (d. 340), Hippolytus (d. 235), Epiphanius of Cyprus (d. 380), and Jerome (d. 419). "Judaeo-Christians" is a generic term which included Ebionites (from the Hebrew , "poor") and Elkasites (mentioned by Hippolytus and Origen, most likely from the Semitic root gh-s-l, "to wash", hence "baptists" from the practice of daily ablutions).
Whereas Orthodox Christianity and the heresies of Arianism, Monophysitism and Nestorianism are well known because they flourished among educated Greek speaking peoples of the cities who left us abundant literature on their history, Judaeo-Christianity is hardly known, because it flourished on the margins of society, in remote desert settlements and among the nomads in the land beneath the Fertile Crescent (e.g. in present-day Jordan). Our principal source about it are the Pseudo-Clementine writings. It seems to have spread even into the Arabian peninsula, at least in a folkloric form; that is, people heard some Biblical stories and knew of some Christian customs without really understanding the faith. The importance of Judaeo-Christianity is that it was the form of Christianity most closely known by the Arabs at the time of Muhammad. They hardly knew of Greek Christianity, whether in its orthodox or heretical forms. Evidence for this can be found in many parallels between Judaeo-Christianity and the form of "Christianity" adopted by the Qur'ân, as can be seen in the following points:
1. Epiphanius describes Judaeo-Christians as "neither Christians nor Jews nor Greeks (pagans), but something in between". A similar description is made of the ideal Muslim in the person of Abraham in Qur'ân 3:67: "Abraham was not a Jew nor a Christian, but a hanîf, submissive to God (muslim) and not an idolater." The word "anîf" derives from the Syriac hanpé, which was the Christian term for a pagan. It was also used of devotees of Greek philosophy and culture who were monotheistic. The Arabs borrowed the term with this meaning and the Qur'ân gave it the meaning of "a primitive monotheist".
2. The Qur'ânic word for Christians is nasârâ, deriving from the Aramaic word nasraya, indicating Arab contact with the Aramaic and probably Judaeo-Christian world, rather than Greek Christianity.
3. The Judaeo-Christians, like the Samaritans, accepted no prophets between Aaron and Christ. If they sometimes referred to Isaiah, Jeremiah etc., they did not consider them inspired. These prophets are likewise unknown in the Qur'ân. The Judaeo-Christians, however, probably accepted David, as did the Qur'ân.
4. The Judaeo-Christians accepted as inspired Scripture only the Torah (in part) and the Gospel according to Matthew in a revised Hebrew translation. They likely also recognized the Psalms. Besides, they had, according to some, a heavenly book delivered by Jesus to their alleged founder Elxai. Similarly the Qur'ân recognizes only the Torah, the Psalms and one Gospel revealed to Jesus.
5. In the books of the Old Testament that they accepted they rejected some passages as false which contained anthropomorphic descriptions of God or tales of immoral deeds of the Patriarchs. This was their answer to Marcion, who rejected the Old Testament in its entirety. Likewise, the Qur'ân considers the Bible corrupt and tampered with.
6. As for the nature of Jesus, Judaeo-Christians did not say he was divine, but some admitted that he preexisted as an angelic creature and had the titles "the great king" and "Son of God". Irenaeus says they denied Jesus' virgin birth from Mary, but later Jerome says they admitted this; Origen says they were divided on this question. According to the Pseudo-Clementines, they held he was son of God by adoption at his baptism, that he was the Prophet foretold by Moses (Dt 18:15-22) who fulfilled and reformed the Law, eliminating sacrifice altogether, not even proposing the atoning sacrifice of his own death. Similarly the Qur'ân says that Jesus is not divine, was born of the virgin Mary, was not a saviour and did not die on the cross, and that he reformed the Mosaic Law.
7. The Holy Spirit was an angelic creature and, because rûh (spirit) in both Hebrew and Arabic is a feminine (as well as masculine) noun, they said he was the sister of Jesus. According to Epiphanius, the Holy Spirit was identified with Jesus. In the Qur'ân the Holy Spirit appears at one point (16:102) to be a creature of God (identified in Muslim tradition with Gabriel); elsewhere he is identified with Jesus (4:171).
8. Judaeo-Christians, as Jews, prayed facing Jerusalem. This also was the first qibla of the Muslims, although direct Jewish contact could also explain this practice.
9. The Judaeo-Christians were devoted to daily ablutions to obtain cures from illnesses, deliverance from demon-possession, and forgiveness of sin. Islamic ablutions bear some resemblance to this practice, although this practice and all the resemblances indicated above only point to an environmental inspiration in which Judaeo-Christianity was a chief factor; Islam transformed all these elements and gave them a new meaning consistent with the overall Islamic message.
Monasticism was another feature of Christianity in the deserts bordering on Arabia. Both Orthodox and other Christians took up life in the desert as hermits or in small communities, dedicated to prayer and fasting in order to overcome the power of the devil. The people of the Middle East complained widely of possession or infestation by devils, as is seen in the Gospels. The deliverance they received through early Christian preachers was one of the major reasons for their conversion to Christianity. The dwellings of the monks also served as places of hospitality for travelers through the desert. Muhammad himself visited such monks on his trips to Syria.
1.5 The Persian Empire
Persia was originally a small kingdom on the Persian Gulf. It became a great power under the Achaemenid dynasty, founded by Cyrus (559-529 BC) and continued by Darius (522-486) and Xerxes (486-465). It then covered the whole Middle East, including Egypt, Syria-Palestine, Turkey and Macedonia.
This empire was conquered by the Greek, Alexander the Great (336-323 BC), who then divided it among his generals. Persia was left to Seleucus and his descendants, while Ptolemy ruled in the West. From 145 BC Roman pressure weakened the Seleucids, and Persia (what is now Iran and Mesopotamia) was taken over by the Parthians. In 226 AD a Persian soldier, Ardashir, overthrew the Parthian monarchy and founded the Sassanid dynasty, which he considered a restoration of the Persian Achaemenid dynasty. This empire successfully resisted conquest by Rome.
In 610 AD Heraclius became emperor of Byzantium at a time when this empire was in shambles because of civil war. Taking advantage of the situation, Chosroes II of Persia conquered Syria-Palestine in 613-14 and Egypt in 616. Heraclius mobilized his army and, by-passing the Persian force, marched straight on the Persian capital and took it in 624. Because of this debacle, the Persian nobles deposed Chosroes and made peace with Heraclius, restoring the conquered territories to Byzantium in 629. Heraclius reclaimed the relics of the True Cross taken by Chosroes, and restored them to Jerusalem in a solemn ceremony. An echo of the Persian-Byzantine conflict is found in Qur'ân 30:1-3:
Ghulibat / ghalabat ar-Rûm fî adnâ l-ard
wa-hum min bad ghalabi-him sa-yaghlibûn/ sa-yughalbûn.
These verses can be translated in two ways, depending on whether the verbs are read as active or passive. The original non-vocalized writing of the Qur'ân makes either reading possible, but common Islamic tradition has adopted the first of the following:
1) The Romans were defeated not far from our borders, but a few years after their defeat they will be victorious.
2) The Romans were victorious not far from our borders, but a few years after their victory they will be defeated.
The first translation may refer to the Persian invasion of 613-14 and Heraclius' victory in 624. The verse is posterior to 624; so the reference to a future victory could be to continued Byzantine superiority over the Persians.
In the second translation the Byzantine victory may be Heraclius' defeat of Chosroes or the Byzantine victory over the Arab invading force at Mu'ta in 630. In this case the verse would be looking forward to a future defeat of the Byzantines at the hands of the Arabs.
The religion of Persia was mainly Zoroastrian. This was founded by Zarathustra around 600 BC, who left some Scriptures called the Avestas. Zoroastrians were also known as Magi (Mâjûs of the Qur'ân; see also Matthew 2:1). Zoroastrianism was the religion of the Achaemenid dynasty, and was made the state religion by the Sassanids in 226 AD.
Zoroastrians believe in Ahura-Mazdah as supreme God and creator. Later Zoroastrianism became dualistic, with Ahura-Mazdah the author of life and goodness, while Ahrimon was the creator of evil and death. Zoroastrians were therefore not ascetical, because any negation of the body would be a concession to Ahrimon. Their daily worship consisted of recitation of passages from the Avestas and keeping a perpetual fire going in their temples. Therefore corpses of the dead were placed on top of "towers of silence" for birds to eat. After the Arab conquest most Zoroastrians became Muslim, but some remain to this day, although they have abandoned some of their dualism.
Christianity also was established in Persia and had missions as far as Mongolia and China, but it was always a minority. One reason for its lack of success in the East was the fact that Christianity was adopted as the official religion of the Byzantine Empire. Christians in Persia were suspected of sympathy for the Byzantine enemy, and many Christians were put to death. The political reason why the Church of Persia adopted Nestorianism was to dissociate itself from the Byzantine Church and empire, and thus escape persecution at home.
Another important religion in Persia was Manichaeism, founded by Mani in the 3rd century AD. It was also dualist, and held that the soul was part of a divine light imprisoned in the body. Only by renouncing sin and strict asceticism could someone be saved and rise back to God. Mani and his successors gave their movement a firm hierarchic structure and a well organized missionary program, which was very influential.
The Arabian peninsula is almost entirely desert or semi-desert. The Rub al-Khâlî in the south and the Nufûd in the north are particularly formidable. Farming is possible only in Yemen and parts of the southern coast where there is sufficient rainfall, and in isolated oases which have ground water. Elsewhere rains are irregular and provide grass for the animals herded by the nomads. The uncertainty of rains and draughts disposes the people to attribute these to special intervention of God or some superior forces.
Before Islam there was no centralized government or state in Arabia. Only in the south, as in Yemen, did the Arabs have anything like kings. The nomads governed themselves by a clan or extended family structure. The clan system had authority also in the towns or oases, except that Mecca, for example, also had a council of leading men for the general supervision of the town. Raiding and robbing was an endemic pastime of the Arabs, and protection could be found only in solidarity with one's clan. If any killing occurred there would be a family feud, which could be settled only by the payment of diyya, an indemnity which consisted either of the blood of the culprit or a compensation in money or goods. Courage against enemies, in other words bravery or manliness (murû'a) was thus a virtue the Arabs much admired. They also had great esteem for hospitality, or kindness to one's friends or to friendly strangers, and a man's reputation depended on how lavish he could be to his guests.
The traditional livelihood of the Arabs consisted in grazing animals and a little farming and horticulture, particularly of date palms. Formerly trade between India and China on the one hand and Europe on the other passed through the old "silk route" from Asia through Persia and Syria. The Byzantine-Persian wars blocked this route and forced it to divert to the Indian Ocean. Goods were carried by ship as far as Yemen (The Red Sea was hard to navigate because of shallowness and lack of wind), then unloaded and sent by camel caravan up the Arabian peninsula and across to Egypt and beyond. This diversion put Mecca right in the path of an international trade route, and its merchants became wealthy independent middlemen in this trade. More nomads were attracted to settle in the cities, exacerbating the social problems. These were: 1) the lack of an authority to control feuding clans who were now living in close quarters instead of the vast expanse of the desert, and 2) a privatization of life, so that rich people exploited or did not take care of the poor of their clan, particularly in the case of orphans.
In the Arabian Traditional Religion people believed in an overall God called Allâh (= al-ilâh, corresponding to the Hebrew 'El, plural 'Elohîm), but turned mostly to lesser divinities or spirits for their needs. These had shrines in various places which were centres of an annual pilgrimage; al-Lât, for instance, was worshiped in at-Tâ'if. The Kaba in Mecca was an even more important shrine and pilgrimage centre. It was surrounded by a demarcated sacred area in which various activities, such as hunting and fighting, were prohibited. The Arabian Traditional Religion was weakening before the time of Muhammad because of foreign religious influence and because of the social changes resulting from urbanization.
Judaism was another important religion established in Arabia, particularly in the oases of Yathrib (Medina) and Khaybar. These Jews were originally converts, but became clans unto themselves. Christianity had also come in. The Ghassânids in the northwest and the Lakhmids in the northeast professed a kind of Monophysite Christianity. This was also strongly established in the Najrân area of Yemen, because of Ethiopian influence. These Christians had suffered some persecution at the hands of the Jews prompted by the Persians, and Ethiopia came to their rescue. They had a fine cathedral in Sanâ`a which was once defiled by some Arab traditionalists who urinated in it. The Ethiopians thereupon sent an army against Mecca, but failed to enter the city because of a desert storm. This incident is referred to in the Qur'ân, sûra 105, called "The Elephant", because the Ethiopian army used an elephant in battle. Besides these Christian centres, there were Judaeo-Christians scattered here and there in the desert areas, and there were numerous individual converts among the Arabs of the cities, for instance, Waraqa, the cous0in of Muhammad's wife Khadîja.
Arab cultural life was dominated by oral literature. A primitive form of writing did exist, but was used mainly for monumental inscriptions, such as found on certain rocks, and for keeping business accounts; the Qur'ân itself presupposes this kind of literacy when it preaches to the people about the Last Judgement in terms of papers listing each one's debits and credits. When it came to entertainment in the evenings or on the occasion of pilgrimages or trade fairs, however, oral literature held sway. Poets could go on at length about love and war and the exploits of their ancestors or tribal great men. A simpler form of entertainment was story-telling. This included the telling of religious stories. The Arabs could not read the Bible (It was not translated into Arabic), but in their wide contacts heard many Biblical and Apocryphal stories, which they told and retold, changing and adapting them to their audience every time. Many of these are retold in the Qur'ân, again transformed and adapted to convey an Islamic message.