The bleak representation of pre-Islamic Arabia was less an accurate description, it seems, than a literary metaphor to emphasize the unifying and enlightening power of Mohammed’s message.
Reexamination of works by Muslim and Christian chroniclers in recent years, as well as finds like the one in Saudi Arabia, are producing a much more elaborate picture, leading scholars to rediscover the rich and complex history of the region before the rise of Islam.
Further consternation may have arisen when realizing that these texts are not only the legacy of a once-numerous Christian community, but are also linked to the story of an ancient Jewish kingdom that once ruled over much of what is today Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Christians in the desert While the Koran and later Muslim tradition make no bones about the presence of Jewish and Christian communities across the peninsula in Mohammed’s day, the general picture that is painted of pre-Islamic Arabia is one of chaos and anarchy.
The region is described as being dominated by The decades immediately before the start of the Islamic calendar (marked by Mohammed’s “hijra” – migration – from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE) were marked by a weakening of societies and centralized states in Europe and the Middle East, partly due to a plague pandemic and the incessant warfare between the Byzantine and Persian empires.
Headquartered in what is today Yemen, Himyar had conquered neighboring states, including the ancient kingdom of Sheba (whose legendary queen features in a biblical meeting with Solomon).
In a recent article titled “What kind of Judaism in Arabia?
In the middle of the sixth century, one of its rulers, Abraha, marched through Bir Hima, leaving on the stones a depiction of the African elephant that led his mighty army. Some scholars, like the 19th century Jewish-French orientalist Joseph Halevy, refused to believe that a Jewish king could persecute and massacre his Christian subjects, and dismissed the Himyarites as belonging to one of the many sects in which Christianity was divided in its early days.
Behind the low-key announcement of the find, one can almost sense the mixed feelings of Saudi officials faced with an important discovery for their heritage, which, however, seems to connect the origins of the alphabet used to pen their sacred book to a Christian context, some 150 years before the rise of Islam.
One of the key, but often forgotten, players in Arabia at the time was the kingdom of Himyar.
Established around the 2nd century CE, by the 4th century it had become a regional power.
The dozen or so engravings had been carved into the soft sandstone of the mountain passes around Bir Hima – a site about 100 kilometers north of the city of Najran, which over millennia has been plastered with thousands of inscriptions by passing travelers and officials.
Conveniently, at least two of the early Arabic petroglyphs that were discovered cited dates in an ancient calendar, and expert epigraphists quickly calculated that the oldest one corresponded to the year 469 or 470 CE.