Jerusalem Archaeological Park
The Arabian Peninsula before the Rise of Islam

Most of our knowledge on the Arabian Peninsula derives from numerous inscriptions found in South Arabia and its vicinity: Thamudic inscriptions from the center of the peninsula; Safaitic inscriptions in the northern part of the peninsula; and Nabatene inscriptions in Transjordan and Sinai. The Thamudic and Safaitic inscriptions are in a South Arabian script and North Arabic dialects. The Nabatene script is alphabetic, similar to the Aramaic script that later developed into the Arab script.
The inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula during the centuries before the rise of Islam were Bedouin nomads, farmers and merchants. The Bedouins dominated the Arabian populace. They were organized in tribes, headed by a Sheik that acted as a judge as well, assisted by the tribe's magistrates. The Bedouins' religious rituals included the pilgrimage to holy rocks, such as the Ka`aba in Mecca. These pilgrimages were associated with commercial fairs. The most prominent amongst the gods worshipped at Mecca was Allah.
The Arabian tribes of the peninsula were composed of two main groups: the Yemenites in the south and the Nizars in the north. This distinction was observed for generations, leaving its impact on the internal politics of the Arabic Empire. Albeit the distinction, the tribes shared a cultural unity that was best expressed in their mutual poetic language. At the fringes of the peninsula were Arabic tribes with a different social structure, e.g., the Nabateans and the Zinabs. During the Byzantine period Christian-Arabic (Bedouin) towns were established along the borders. Prior to Muhammad's activities in the peninsula, there were a few independent cities inhabited by rich merchants, the most prominent being Mecca, which was governed by the Quraysh tribe (the prophet's tribe). Foreign settlements - of Ethiopians, Christians and Jews - also inhabited the peninsula, the dominant ones being the Christian settlement of Najaran and the Jewish settlement of Yathrib (later known as Al-Madina), settled by the descendants of the Heimar Empire of the fifth century CE. These foreign settlements, and especially the Christians and the Jews, considerably influenced the religious beliefs of the neighboring tribes. The Hanifs, who preceded Muhammad, were the first to ask for a god that was superior to the desert idols, and they were the first to acknowledge the new monotheistic religion.
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