Cradle of Civilization

A Blog about the Birth of Our Civilisation and Development

Pre-Islamic Arabic civilization

Posted by Fredsvenn on June 6, 2016

Pre-Islamic Arabia refers to Arabic civilization in the Arabian Peninsula before the rise of Islam in the 630s. The study of Pre-Islamic Arabia is important to Islamic studies as it provides the context for the development of Islam.

Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) denotes the first stage in early Levantine and Anatolian Neolithic culture, dating around 9,500 to 8,000 BC. Archaeological remains are located in the Levantine and upper Mesopotamian region of the Fertile Crescent.

The time period is characterized by tiny circular mud brick dwellings, the cultivation of crops, the hunting of wild game, and unique burial customs in which bodies were buried below the floors of dwellings.

PPNA archaeological sites are much larger than those of the preceding Natufian hunter-gatherer culture, and contain traces of communal structures, such as the famous tower of Jericho. PPNA settlements are characterized by round, semi-subterranean houses with stone foundations and terrazzo-floors.

Like the earlier PPNA people, the PPNB culture developed from the Earlier Natufian but shows evidence of a northerly origin, possibly indicating an influx from the region of north eastern Anatolia.

The culture disappeared during the 8.2 kiloyear event, a term that climatologists have adopted for a sudden decrease in global temperatures that occurred approximately 6200 BCE, and which lasted for the next two to four centuries.

In the following Munhatta and Yarmukian post-pottery Neolithic cultures that succeeded it, rapid cultural development continues, although PPNB culture continued in the Amuq valley, where it influenced the later development of Ghassulian culture.

Work at the site of ‘Ain Ghazal in Jordan has indicated a later Pre-Pottery Neolithic C period which existed between 6,200 and 5,900 BP. Cultures practicing this lifestyle spread down the Red Sea shoreline and moved east from Syria into southern Iraq.

Juris Zarins has proposed that a Circum Arabian Nomadic Pastoral Complex developed in the period from the climatic crisis of 6200 BCE, partly as a result of an increasing emphasis in PPNB cultures upon animal domesticates, and a fusion with Harifian hunter gatherers in Southern Palestine, with affiliate connections with the cultures of Fayyum and the Eastern Desert of Egypt.

The Ubaid period (ca. 6500 to 3800 BC) is a prehistoric period of Mesopotamia. Ubaid culture originated in the south of Iraq, but still has clear connections to earlier cultures in the region of middle Iraq.

The appearance of the Ubaid folk has sometimes been linked to the so-called Sumerian problem, related to the origins of Sumerian civilisation, the first ancient urban civilization in the historical region of southern Mesopotamia, modern-day southern Iraq, during the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze ages.

Modern historians have suggested that Sumer was first permanently settled between c. 5500 and 4000 BC by a West Asian people who spoke the Sumerian language (pointing to the names of cities, rivers, basic occupations, etc., as evidence), a language isolate.

Whatever the ethnic origins of this group, this culture saw for the first time a clear tripartite social division between intensive subsistence peasant farmers, with crops and animals coming from the north, tent-dwelling nomadic pastoralists dependent upon their herds, and hunter-fisher folk of the Arabian littoral, living in reed huts.

In South Mesopotamia the period is the earliest known period on the alluvial plain although it is likely earlier periods exist obscured under the alluvium. In the south it has a very long duration between about 6500 and 3800 BCE when it is replaced by the Uruk period.

In North Mesopotamia the period runs only between about 5300 and 4300 BCE. It is preceded by the Halaf period and the Halaf-Ubaid Transitional period and succeeded by the Late Chalcolithic period.

Previously, the Syrian plains were not considered as the homeland of Halaf culture, and the Halafians were seen either as hill people who descended from the nearby mountains of southeastern Anatolia, or herdsmen from northern Iraq.

However, those views changed with the recent archaeology conducted since 1986 by Peter Akkermans, which have produced new insights and perspectives about the rise of Halaf culture.

The new archaeology demonstrated that Halaf culture was not sudden and was not the result of foreign people, but rather a continuous process of indigenous cultural changes in northern Syria, that spread to the other regions.

Spreading from Eridu the Ubaid culture extended from the Middle of the Tigris and Euphrates to the shores of the Persian Gulf, and then spread down past Bahrein to the copper deposits at Oman.

The archaeological record shows that Arabian Bifacial/Ubaid period came to an abrupt end in eastern Arabia and the Oman peninsula at 3800 BCE, just after the phase of lake lowering and onset of dune reactivation.

At this time, increased aridity led to an end in semi-desert nomadism, and there is no evidence of human presence in the area for approximately 1000 years, the so-called “Dark Millennium”. That might be due to the 5.9 kiloyear event at the end of the Older Peron.

Some theories put the origin of the Semitic languages in the Arabian Peninsula. However, recent Bayesian analysis identified an origin for Proto-Semitic language in the Levant (modern Syria and Lebanon) around 3750 BC.

The earliest written evidence of them are found in the Fertile Crescent (Mesopotamia) 3000 BC, an area encompassing Sumer, the Akkadian Empire and others civilizations of Assyria and Babylonia along the Tigris and Euphrates (modern Iraq, northeast Syria and southeast Turkey), followed by historical written evidence from the Levant, Canaan, Sinai Peninsula, southern and eastern Anatolia and the Arabian Peninsula.

Semitic languages are attested in written form from a very early historical date, with East Semitic Akkadian and Eblaite texts (written in a script adapted from Sumerian cuneiform) appearing from the 2900 BC and 2500 BC in Mesopotamia and the northern Levant respectively.

Slowly, however, they lost their political domination of the Near East due to internal turmoil and attacks by non-Semitic speakers. Although Semitic speakers eventually lost political control of Western Asia to the Achaemenid Empire, the Aramaic language remained the lingua franca of Assyria, Mesopotamia and the Levant.

Aramaic itself was replaced by Greek as Western Asia’s prestige language following the conquest of Alexander the Great, though it survives to this day among Assyrian Christians (a.k.a. Chaldo-Assyrians) and Mandeans in Iraq, northeast Syria, southeast Turkey and northwest Iran.

The Nabataeans were an Arab people who inhabited northern Arabia and the Southern Levant, and whose settlements, most prominently the assumed capital city of Raqmu, now called Petra, in AD 37 – c. 100, gave the name of Nabatene to the borderland between Arabia and Syria, from the Euphrates to the Red Sea.

Their loosely controlled trading network, which centered on strings of oases that they controlled, where agriculture was intensively practiced in limited areas, and on the routes that linked them, had no securely defined boundaries in the surrounding desert.

Diodorus Siculus (book II) described them as a strong tribe of some 10,000 warriors, pre-eminent among the nomads of Arabia, eschewing agriculture, fixed houses, and the use of wine, but adding to pastoral pursuits a profitable trade with the seaports in frankincense, myrrh and spices from Arabia Felix (today’s Yemen), as well as a trade with Egypt in bitumen from the Dead Sea.

The brief Babylonian captivity of the Hebrews that began in 586 BCE opened a minor power vacuum in Judah (prior to the Judaeans’ return under the Persian King, Cyrus the Great), and as Edomites moved into open Judaean grazing lands, Nabataean inscriptions began to be left in Edomite territory.

Nabataeans became the Arabic name for Aramaeans, whether in Syria or Iraq, a fact which was thought to show that the Nabataeans were originally Aramaean immigrants from Babylonia. Proper names on their inscriptions suggest that they were ethnically Arabs who had come under Aramaic influence.

An ally of the Roman Empire, the Nabataean kingdom continued to flourish throughout the 1st century. Its power extended far into Arabia along the Red Sea to Yemen, and Petra was a cosmopolitan marketplace, though its commerce was diminished by the rise of the Eastern trade-route from Myoshormus to Coptos on the Nile.

Under the Pax Romana they lost their warlike and nomadic habits, and were a sober, acquisitive, orderly people, wholly intent on trade and agriculture. The kingdom was a bulwark between Rome and the wild hordes of the desert except in the time of Trajan, who reduced Petra and converted the Nabataean client state into the Roman province of Arabia Petraea.

By the 3rd century, the Nabataeans had stopped writing in Aramaic and begun writing in Greek instead, and by the 5th century they had converted to Christianity.

The language of the Nabataean inscriptions, attested from the 2nd century BC, shows a local development of the Aramaic language, which had ceased to have super-regional importance after the collapse of the Achaemenid Empire (330 BC). The Nabataean alphabet itself also developed out of the Aramaic alphabet.

The Aramaic language was increasingly affected by the Arabic language, as Arab influence grew in the region over time. From the 4th century, the Arabic influence becomes overwhelming, in a way that it may be said the Nabataean language shifted seamlessly from Aramaic to Arabic. The Arabic alphabet itself developed out of cursive variants of the Nabataean script in the 5th century.

The new Arab invaders who soon pressed forward into their seats found the remnants of the Nabataeans transformed into peasants. Their lands were divided between the new Qahtanite Arab tribal kingdoms of the Byzantine vassals the Ghassanid Arabs and the Himyarite vassals the Kindah Arab Kingdom in North Arabia.

Originally, “Arabs” were synonymous with the Tribes of Arabia, until the Arabization of people outside the Arabian peninsula, mostly during the Abbasid Caliphate. Therefore, all uses of the word “Arab” prior to the sixth century, and most of those prior to the 13th century, refer specifically to Arabians.

The earliest documented use of the word “Arab” to refer to a people appears in the Monolith Inscription, an Akkadian language record 900 BC Assyrian conquest of Aram, which referred to Bedouins of the Arabian Peninsula under King Gindibu, who fought as part of a coalition opposed to Assyria.

The scope of the term at that early stage is unclear, but it seems to have referred to various desert-dwelling Semitic tribes in the Syrian Desert and Arabia.

Listed among the booty captured by the army of king Shalmaneser III of Assyria in the Battle of Qarqar are 1000 camels of “Gi-in-di-bu’u the ar-ba-a-a” or “[the man] Gindibu belonging to the arab (ar-ba-a-a being an adjectival nisba of the noun ʿarab).

The oldest surviving indication of an Arab national identity is an inscription made in an archaic form of Arabic in 328 using the Nabataean alphabet, which refers to Imru’ al-Qays ibn ‘Amr as “King of all the Arabs”.

The most popular Arab account holds that the word Arab came from an eponymous father called Ya’rub who was supposedly the first to speak Arabic.

Abu Muhammad al-Hasan al-Hamdani had another view; he states that Arabs were called Gharab (“West”) by Mesopotamians because Bedouins originally resided to the west of Mesopotamia; the term was then corrupted into Arab.

Yet another view is held by al-Masudi that the word Arabs was initially applied to the Ishmaelites of the “Arabah” valley.

In Biblical etymology, “Arab” (in Hebrew Arvi) comes both from the desert origin of the Bedouins it originally described (Arava means wilderness).

The root ʿ-r-b has several additional meanings in Semitic languages—including “west/sunset,” “desert,” “mingle,” “merchant,” and “raven”—and are “comprehensible” with all of these having varying degrees of relevance to the emergence of the name.

It is also possible that some forms were metathetical from ʿ-B-R “moving around” (Arabic ʿ-B-R “traverse”), and hence, it is alleged, “nomadic.”

Petra, originally known as Raqmu to the Nabataeans, is a historical and archaeological city in the southern Jordanian governorate of Ma’an that is famous for its rock-cut architecture and water conduit system. Another name for Petra is the Rose City due to the color of the stone out of which it is carved.

Established possibly as early as 312 BC as the capital city of the Nabataeans, it is a symbol of Jordan, as well as Jordan’s most-visited tourist attraction. It lies on the slope of Jebel al-Madhbah (identified by some as the biblical Mount Hor) in a basin among the mountains which form the eastern flank of Arabah (Wadi Araba), the large valley running from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba.

Petra has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985. UNESCO has described it as “one of the most precious cultural properties of man’s cultural heritage”. Petra was named amongst the New 7 Wonders of the World in 2007 and was also chosen by the Smithsonian Magazine as one of the “28 Places to See Before You Die”.

The Nabataeans used to represent their gods as featureless pillars or blocks. Their most common monuments to the gods, commonly known as “god blocks”, involved cutting away the whole top of a hill or cliff face so as to leave only a block behind.

However, the Nabataeans became so influenced by other cultures such as those of Greece and Rome that their gods eventually became anthropomorphic and were represented with human features. They were later converted to Christianity.

The gods worshipped at Petra were notably Dushara and Al-‘Uzzá, who became one of the three chief goddesses of Arabian religion in pre-Islamic times and was worshiped by the pre-Islamic Arabs along with Allāt and Manāt as the three chief goddesses of Mecca.

The Nabataeans equated her with the Greek goddess Aphrodite Ourania (Roman Venus Caelestis). She assumed attributes of Isis, Tyche, and Aphrodite and superseded her sisters in importance

A stone cube at aṭ-Ṭā’if (near Mecca) was held sacred as part of her cult. She is mentioned in the Qur’an Sura 53:19 as being one of the goddesses that people worshiped. Al-‘Uzzá, like Hubal, was called upon for protection by the pre-Islamic Quraysh.

Shortly after the Conquest of Mecca, Muhammad began aiming at eliminating the last idols reminiscent of pre-Islamic practices. The temple dedicated to al-‘Uzzá and the statue itself was destroyed by Khalid ibn al Walid in Nakhla in 630 AD.

Allat, also spelled Allatu, Alilat, Allāt, and al-Lāt, which is Arabic for “Goddess” appears to indicate that she was the pre-Islamic consort of Allah, and therefore the Arabic equivalent of Elat or Asherah, the traditional consort of the Semitic god El.

In older sources, she is identified with the Sumerian goddess Ereshkigal. Especially in older sources, Allat is an alternative name of the Mesopotamian goddess of the underworld. She was reportedly also venerated in Carthage under the name Allatu.

Allatu (Allatum) is an underworld goddess modeled after the Mesopotamic goddess Ereshkigal and worshipped by Western Semitic peoples, including the Carthaginians. She also may be equate with the Canaanite goddess Arsay.

The Nabataeans of Petra and the people of Hatra equated her with the Greek Athena and Tyche and the Roman Minerva. She is frequently called “the Great Goddess” in Greek in multi-lingual inscriptions.

The Nabataeans believed al-Lāt was the mother of Hubal, a god worshipped in pre-Islamic Arabia, notably at the Kaaba in Mecca, and hence the mother-in-law of Manāt.

The shrine and temple dedicated to al-Lat in Taif was demolished on the orders of Muhammad, during the Expedition of Abu Sufyan ibn Harb, in the same year as the Battle of Tabuk (which occurred in October 630 AD).

The destruction of the idol was a demand by Muhammad before he would allow any reconciliation to take place with the tribes of Taif, who were under his siege.

The pre-Islamic Arabs believed Manāt to be the goddess of fate. The followers prayed to her for rains and victory over enemies. She was possibly connected to the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar, who also had the title Menītu/Menūtu.

She was known by the cognate name Manawat to the Nabataeans of Petra (in Jordan), who equated her with the Graeco-Roman goddess Nemesis, and she was considered the wife of Hubal. There are also connections with Chronos of Mithraism and Zurvan mythology.

The ruling tribes of al-Madinah, and other Arabs, continued to worship Manat until the time of Muhammad. The temple of Manat was raided and the idol was destroyed on the orders of Muhammad, in the Raid of Sa’d ibn Zaid al-Ashhali in the vicinity of al-Mushallal in 630 AD.

The origins of the cult of Hubal are uncertain, but the name is found in inscriptions from Nabataea in northern Arabia (across the territory of modern Syria and Iraq). The specific powers and identity attributed to Hubal are equally unclear.

Access to the idol was controlled by the Quraysh tribe. The god’s devotees fought against followers of the Islamic prophet Muhammad during the Battle of Badr in 624 CE. After Muhammad entered Mecca in 630 CE, he removed the statue of Hubal from the Kaaba along with the idols of all the other pagan gods.

John F. Healey in The Religion of the Nabataeans (2001) accepts the Nabataean origins of the god, but says there is little evidence of Hubal’s mythological role, but that it is possible that he was closely linked to Dushara in some way.

According to the early Christian bishop Epiphanius of Salamis (c. 315–403), Chaabou or Kaabu was a goddess in the Nabataean pantheon—a virgin who gave birth to the god Dusares.

However, Epiphanus likely mistook the word ka’abu (“cube”, etymologically related to the name of the Kaaba), referring to the stone blocks used by the Nabateans to represent Dusares and possibly other deities, for the proper name of a goddess.

His report that Chaabou was a virgin was likely influenced by his desire to find a parallel to the Christian belief in the virgin birth of Jesus, and by the similarity of the words ka’bah and ka’ibah (“virgin”) in Arabic, a language closely related to that spoken by the Nabateans.

Dushara (“Lord of the Mountain”), also transliterated as Dusares, was a deity in the ancient Middle East worshipped by the Nabataeans at Petra and Madain Saleh (of which city he was the patron).

In Greek times, he was associated with Zeus because he was the chief of the Nabataean pantheon as well as with Dionysus. His sanctuary at Petra contained a great temple in which a large cubical stone was the centrepiece.

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