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Arabs Before Islam or the Incompleat History of Pre-Islamic Arabs

This article refers to Arabs of the period from just before 325 BCE to 651 CE and its purpose is to provide information about Arabian Pre-Islamic history and culture. Some of the following information may be considered speculative. The purpose of this article is to collect a list of references on the Internet to more information on Arab culture before Islam. It is a part of my on-going research on Arabian history.

At first, the researcher of Arabic culture will be puzzled before a phenomenon existing also in China and India. It is the case of a people who have reached the peak of growth in the world by population, while remaining abysmally primitive in the Middle East. A people who have not exceeded the most primordial levels of existence, and indeed, remain far below them in certain areas of behavior.

Yet the confusion vanishes after scrutinizing the past of this people, and the reason that this zenith of population has combined with this nadir of primitiveness is revealed.

At the fall of the Achaemenid Empire founded by Cyrus the Great in 550 BCE, it was 330 BCE. Both Aramaic and Greek were spoken throughout the Middle East and Asia Minor, along with Persian, Median, Akkadian, Elamite and Sumerian, though the latter four languages were dying out due to the predominance of Greek, Aramaean and Old Persian.

As a result of the dominance of the Achaemenid Empire, Aramaic was spoken in Judea later during Jesus' time. Prior to 539 BCE, Aramaic was the lingua franca of the Fertile Crescent due to the dominance of the city-states of Damascus, Hamath and Arpad in ancient Syria. The Aramaic script contributed to the development of the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets.

As the last of Arses had been killed by Bogoas along with Artaxerses III, possibly due to the influence of Darius the Great, Philip of Macedonia planned to invade by uniting Greece to the cause. However Philip was assassinated in 336 BCE, so it was up to his son Alexander the Great to invade Persia and defeat Darius.

After his death, Alexander's once massive Hellenistic empire was dividep by his ambitious generals (the Diadochi) and succeeded in becoming a few smaller empires, the largest of which was the Seleucid Empire, ruled by the generals of Alexander and their descendants. They in turn would be succeeded by the Parthian Empire when the Seleucid Empire fell in 63 BCE.

In 312 BCE the Seleucid Empire arose, consisting of all of Asia Minor including Anatolia (most of present-day Turkey), a part of Central Asia, and reaching as far as the Indus River. Mesopotamia was also included in the Empire. Aramaic, Greek, and Old Persian were lingua franca in the courts of Seleucid kings.

In the region of Northern Arabia and the Levant, between the Sinai Peninsula and the Arabian Peninsula, arose the Nabatean Kingdom. Established in 168 BCE, its inhabitants were originally nomadic pastoralists from the Negev and the Sinai Peninsula circa 4th Century BCE.

During Aretas III's reign from 87 to 62 BCE the kingdom had reached its territorial zenith.

In 64 BCE, Marcus Aemilius Scaurus convinced Aretas to end the siege of Judea during the civil war between the brothers Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II, heirs of the Hasmonean Dynasty.

Also Pompey had asked Sampsiceramus I of Emesa to capture and kill in 64 BC, the second last Seleucid King Antiochus XIII Asiaticus. As a result, the Seleucid Kingdom had ended and became another client-kingdom ruled by Philip II Philorhomaeus who was cousin to Antiochus. Possibly Pompey had tired of bribery attempts by both Antiochus and Philip II, but considered Antiochus to be more of a threat to stability in the region.

By 63 BCE, Judea had become a client kingdom paying tribute to Rome with both Hyrcanus and Aristobulus becoming pawns in a power play between Pompey and Julius Caesar.

Defeated by a Roman army commanded by Scaurus in 62 BCE, the Nabatean Kingdom also became a client kingdom of the Rome Empire. After accepting a 300 talent bribe, Scaurus relieved his siege of Petra.

Circa 56 BCE Philip was betrothed to Cleopatra's sister Berenice IV of Egypt. After realizing that he was not a truthworthy client king, Pompey may have asked Roman governor of Syria Aulus Gabinius to eliminate Philip since a union between the Seleucid Empire and Egypt might have threatened the Roman Empire. From that time on, Syria was made a province of Rome.

Saracens appear in Western narratives circa 1st Century CE. In time their name came to represent Arabian people and after the fall of the Roman Empire, was used to describe Islam and Muslim in 17th Century Europe. This is thus a Eurocentric term that died out by the 20th Century.

In the 1st and 2nd Centuries, Petra — lying in the Jordan Rift Valley, 80 kilometres south of the Dead Sea — rose to become a thriving urban community. The gods worshipped at Petra were notably Dushara and al-‘Uzzá.

Originally, Nabateans represented their gods as unadorned pillars or blocks. Most commonly, they would create a god-block out of the top of a hill or cliff face, leaving only a block behind. Under influence of the Greeks and Romans, they soon added anthropomorphic features to their depictions of their gods, often adding
human features

In 127 CE Arabia Petraea was annexed to the Roman Empire. It consists of the Sinai Peninsula, most of Palestine, and later the northern part of the Hejaz region of the Arabian Peninsula.

Originally Arabia Petraea was known as Achaemenid Arabia, and refers to the land between Egypt and Mesopotamia.

In the 2nd century the Kingdom of Araba arose, covering an area from south Jordan to northeastern Iraq, consisting of Arab cities running from Hatra, in the northeast, via Palmyra, Baalbek and Petra.

During the 2nd and 3rd Century, the Royal family of Emesa was associated with Severus and his dynasty. Emesa was a client kingdom that paid tribute to Rome. Originally they were Arabs who spoke Aramaic, which was the lingua franca before Greek was adopted after 127 CE. Originally Emesesi were Bedouins who had settled in Orontes Valley and south of the Apamea region in ancient Syria circa 1st Century BCE. Later, through trade with the Seleucid Empire, Emesesii spoke Greek, and after becoming part of the Roman Empire, spoke Latin. Their sun-god was called El-Gabal, who was later called Elagabal, possibly due to Hellenization of gods indigenous to Syria.

Since the fall of the Seleucid Empire in 63 BCE, Greek became a common tongue due to immigration of Macedonian people into the Near East, replacing Nabatean and Aramaic as lingua franca. Indeed, Arabs and Jews born in Petra at the time would have been considered Roman citizens and given Roman names at birth.

It is likely that Arabs of Medina and Mecca just before Islam would have been familiar with Greek, Latin and Persian due to the annexation of Arabia Petraea to the Roman Empire and the expansion of the Lakhmid kingdom and contact with Persians and Greeks through trade with the Seleucids and later, the Sassanids. The Lakhmids paid tribute to the Sassanids, which inspired them to attack Palestine and Syria while the Nabatean people also had become Roman citizen of Rome by 127 CE after their defeat by Roman forces almost 200 centuries earlier. Thus the Arabs before Islam were already formidable foes as pagans.

As well, it is likely the sedentary Arabs of southern Mesopotamia maintained worship of Allat and Shamiyyah (or Shamiya) since Arabian princes ruled the Arab cities running from Hatra, in the northeast, via Palmyra, Baalbek and Petra, in the southwest along the western border of the Parthian kingdom.

Syria was settled by Ghassanid Christians from Yemen circa early 3rd Century. In the 200s CE the Ghassanids migrated Syria due to a dam flooding their villages in Yemen.

Syria's Bashar al-Assad and his peoples are descendants of Arabs, Turks, Romans, Normans, French and English people due to the Crusades. The Lakhmids are the forerunners of the Arabic peoples in what is called Iraq today. Indeed, they are not foreigners like the Saudis are, but they are Arabs. Iraq is also home to Syriacs and Kurds.

The Middle Persian name for the Sassanian Empire Ērānshahr and Ērān which evolved into the New Persian names, Iranshahr and Iran.

al-Hira was the capital of Lakhmid, the first Arabian kingdom in south Mesopotamia, a client of the Sassanids for containing the nomadic Arabs to the south of Mesopotamia.

Lakhmid was founded by 'Amr, of the Arab tribe Banu Lakhm who had migrated to south Mesopotamia from Yemen.

His son Imru' al-Qais succeeded him as king and may have been a Nestorian Christian.

After the Sassanid Empire arose in 225 CE, Lakhmid soon became a client kingdom charged with keeping the nomadic bedouin Arabs at bay.

Then the Sassanids fell to the Muslims in 651 CE.

In conclusion, Islam paid no part in their conquest of the Middle East and Near East. Rather, Christians and Jews made enemies of the pagan Arabs who soon would be back with Islamic verses on their lips, and proselyting by the sword on their minds. Islam does not make a Muslim an enemy since like Christianity and Judaism before it, Muslims are people of a holy book that guides them closer to God.

Even if a few Muslims become kaf'r (apostate as in falling out of the state of grace offered freely by God according to Christian sources), that should not be cause for concern since the social control of Muslims is absolute by a council of imams or mullah but is fair. What is unfair is how a Muslim society practices sharia with the common people resorting to "an eye for an eye while the imam calls for less violent means. That is because it is a patriarchal society which still considers women and children to be chattel, despite lip service in the name of equal rights as taught in the Koran.

If Arab society followed Mohammad completely according to the Koran, then there would still be need to recall Hadiths that guide them to carry the right Sharia law justly without rationalizing cause and effect rather than resorting to the Law of Hammurabi.

Indeed, that ancient law is the law of the land in the Middle East. Just as Aramaic became the lingua franca before Roman annexation, so too did ancient Babylonia law. Today, that law is king in the Maghreb, in southern Spain which used to be Muslim, in Sicily and Calabria, Albanian, Bosnia, and Kosovo, Turkey, the Middle East, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Malaysian, Indonesia, Mindanao, Brunei and a few islands in the Indian Ocean. Though in Indonesia and Malaysia, it sometimes abused by politicians.

Overall though, the law of Hammurabi guides the Muslim nations more likely than people realize, and more often than Islamic law, because the Arabs have been there since Babylonian times in the 8 Century BCE. When a woman is oppressed, that is like Hammurabi guiding a Muslim man to abuse his wife and beat his children, not sharia. Thus, domestic violence is not in the Koran. If it appears in sharia, then that is because of a pagan law that allowed a woman to be treated like something a husband owned. It even was a vital part of ancient Greek life, a pagan society that the Muslims borrowed knowledge of science and of the arts.

Thus today's Muslim world is a syncretism that took the underlying Aramaean language that preceded Neo-Babylonian times, mixed in Mohammad's interpretation of Christianity and Judaism due to their lengthy experiences with Byzantine Christians and Jews of the Levant and the Middle East and latern bits and pieces of European Marxism and its influence on democratic socialism as well as Nazism.

Can one wonder why Sayyid Qutb responded by criticizing American women and penned the literature that Islamists take literally? This is upon which al-Qaeda is founded, and also why the Egyptian Islamists who aspired to be jihadi joined al-Qaeda, only for their current leader to lead them to terrorize Iraq.

I only mention current events in the Middle East to show that history repeats itself until great men and women arise to help humanity to learn from their mistakes. These men and women are neither famous nor notorious, but one of them may be you.

Originally posted: January 16, 2014 1:22 AM


Achaemenid Empire:


History of the Arabic alphabet:


Nabatean Kingdom:

Civil war between Aristobulus and Hyrcanus:
Ptolemy Mennæii, son of Mennæus:
Marcus Aemilius Scaurus:

Royal Family of Emesa:



Pre-Islamic Arabia:

Arabia Petraea:


Hatra, capital of the Arabian kingdom west of Parthia:

Araba, tentative first Arab kingdom outside Arabia::

al-Hirah, first historical Arab kingdom to contain the southern Arabian for the Sassanids:

Lakhmid, an Arabic empire centred in al-Hirah:

Lakhmid bandits were raiding Syrian towns:


Sayyid Qutb's "The America I have Seen":


Radha Santadharma said...

Information about Ghassanids and Lakhmids circa 500-700 CE:

Stephen Kawamoto said...

The Tayy:, a Christian Arab tribe related to the Ghassanids.

Stephen Kawamoto said...

The Tayy:, a Christian Arab tribe related to the Ghassanids.