Pre-Islamic Arabia

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Nabataean trade routes in pre-Islamic Arabia.

The history of pre-Islamic Arabia can be traced back to the time of Assyrian inscriptions and reliefs from the year 853 BC. Chr. To prove.


The records of the Assyrian King Shalmaneser III. report mainly about military campaigns, but also give information about everyday life and religion. For example, on the reliefs of the northwest palace of Nineveh from the time of Aššurbānipal, Arabs are shown riding camels in pairs and shooting arrows at the Assyrian troops. The front rider steers the camel, which is only attached to a simple blanket attached to the neck and tail by straps, with a staff. The riders have shoulder-length hair and a short full beard and are only dressed in a voluminous loincloth.

At the Battle of Karkara in 853 BC Between the Shalmaneser III. and a coalition of twelve Syrian states, Gindibu , King of the Arabs ( Arbāyu ) with 1000 camel riders also took part. Again and again, Assyrian inscriptions from the 7th and 8th centuries BC mention BC rulers of the "Aribi" who pay tribute to the Assyrians or provide them with auxiliary troops .

The history of the Arab tribes is heterogeneous. The first Arab states were not formed in the Assyrian sphere of influence, but in the southwest of the Arabian Peninsula . This development was favored by the monsoon rains there , which made agriculture, sedentarism and the emergence of cities possible.

The Arab caravans traded with the north and the regions of the eastern Mediterranean via the incense route . These caravans are also mentioned in Genesis.

Around 312 BC BC Antigonus , a diadoche of Alexander the great , undertook a campaign against the Nabataeans . These reached their zenith in power and expansion in the first century BC. BC, whereby the area they controlled extended from the Hejaz over the entire area east of the Jordan to the eastern Mediterranean and into the Syrian heartland. The Nabataeans came into conflict with the Egyptian Ptolemies on the Red Sea , and at the same time contact with the Roman Empire became closer. When this finally the constant rivals of the Nabataeans, the Judeans defeated, Jerusalem destroyed and Palestine declared a Roman province, it initially looked for a benefit for the Nabataeans. But they too were finally defeated by the Romans in 106. The Nabatean Empire became a Roman province as Arabia Petraea .

The Himyars , who had already founded colonies on the North African coast, were the first Arabs to meet the Romans. They tried to penetrate into southern Arabia in order to get the sea trade route to India ( Roman-Indian relations ) completely under Roman control. 25/24 BC The Roman expedition to Arabia under Aelius Gallus failed . The Romans divided Arabia into three parts: Arabia Felix (the happy Arabia), Arabia Deserta (the desert-like Arabia) and Arabia Petraea (the stone Arabia), with Petra as the capital. Arabia petraea only became the home of large states much later than the privileged south-west.

111 to 114, the Romans built the Trajan Road from north to south through the Arab provinces from Bostra to Petra and Aela . From 244 to 249, Philippus Arabs was even a Roman emperor of Arab origin.

The Arab state of Palmyra owed its rise as a trading center to the decline of Petra. As residents of the transition region between Romans and Persians, they were able to develop into a major regional power. This great power status was promoted by the Romans, especially under Hadrian , who visited the country in 129. Through increasing independence and power, the Palmyrians were able to defeat the Persians in 260 and reached their heyday under Queen Zenobia . But when their son Vaballathus assumed the title "Caesar Augustus" and had coins minted under this name, the Romans felt that their striving for hegemony had been hurt. Emperor Aurelian finally invaded Palmyra, took Queen Zenobia prisoner and ended the existence of the Palmyric state in 272/273.


Just as Arabic culture and history were inconsistent, so were language and writing. The southern Arabs used their own language and script, which later became the Semitic languages ​​and scripts of Ethiopia . The Northern Arabs adopted many of their neighbors' influences into their culture. The Nabataeans wrote with an alphabet derived from the Aramaic , from which the Arabic script later developed. The Palmyrians also used an Aramaic-inspired script.

Until the beginning of the work of Mohammed , the majority of the Arabs lived in almost complete isolation from the rest of the world. In search of grazing grounds, they traversed the Arabian Peninsula and engaged in endless tribal feuds. This may explain the fact that the Arabic used at that time was linguistically closer to the archaic Akkadian, which was extinct in the first century AD , than to the Canaanite or the Aramaic. Due to the almost complete absence of external influences and the continuation of the original way of life, the archaic structure of Arabic was retained. Various dialects were spoken at that time, apparently divided into an eastern group around the Persian Gulf and a western group with the dialects of the Hejaz .

In addition to these tribal dialects, a poetic, cross-tribal Arabic developed during this period, which is preserved in the poems of the Mu'allaqat . In these poems from the sixth century, mostly in the form of Qasida , praise of one's own tribe, mockery of the enemy, satire and criticism, but also panegyric and description of natural phenomena played the decisive roles. In Ukaz near Mecca there were already poetry competitions at fairs at that time. At that time, Arabic already had a very rich vocabulary.


The Arab pantheon essentially consisted of the Semitic star deities moon ( Almaqah with the Sabaeans , Aglibol with the Palmyrians or Sin in Hadramaut ) sun (Shams) and Venus ( Athtar ). Other important goddesses were Allāt and Manāt , al-ʿUzzā (the Almighty, perhaps ʿAṯṯara), Kusrā, the moon goddess of the Hawkum in the area of ​​Ḥarîb and the Nabataean Kutbā. al-ʿUzzā is known from Nabataean and South Arabic inscriptions. Byzantine authors equated her with Aphrodite . She was also worshiped in Mecca in ancient times . It seems to have been connected to the planet Venus, like the Babylonian Ištar .

Ruḏā (rḏw) was an important pre-Islamic goddess. She is mentioned, together with Nahī, in numerous North Arabian and Safaitic (rḏw / rḏy) inscriptions; one asks her here, among other things, for rain, but she also seems to have been a goddess of war . Representations of a naked goddess are often interpreted as rḏy. A Thamudic inscription calls her "mistress of death". From Islamic sources it is known that a statue of the Ruḏā in the area of ​​the Thamūd was destroyed on the orders of the Prophet, so its veneration has been preserved for at least 1200 years. Her name is derived from ʾrd, earth, so she was probably a vegetation goddess . A goddess ʾArṣai was also known from Ugarit as the daughter of Ba'al .

A state inscription of Assurhaddon reports how his father Sennacherib captured statues of the goddesses Atarsamlin, Dâa, Nuhâa, Rudâu (ruldayu), Abirillu and Atarqurumâ, among others, in the oasis of Admutu, which he had brought to Nineveh . Later, the Arab king Hasael of Assurhaddon was able to obtain the return of the statues, although the name of the god Aššur and king Assurhaddon had been carved on it beforehand . In addition, his tribute was increased by 65 camels and 10 donkeys and the great king put Tabuâ at his side as queen.

A black stone was worshiped in the Kaaba of Mecca, which attracted numerous pilgrims . Among the Arab nomads , gods were far less common as objects of worship than ghosts , goblins and bewitched places. In order to make “bad” spirits gracious and protective spirits favorable, sacrifices and offerings were made.

Priests served as “mouthpieces” for the gods, and oracles and prophecies were also components of faith. But Christianity and especially Judaism also had an influence on the ancient Arab religion. In the north, entire tribes of Arabs had adopted Judaism. The "Hanif", the non-denominational among the Arabs at the time, were considered to be seekers of meaning. Their pursuit played a role in the emergence of Islam, which was encouraged by the general religious disorientation.


  • Franz Altheim , Ruth Stiehl : The Arabs in the old world. 5 volumes. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin 1964–1969.
  • Maria Höfner : The pre-Islamic religions of Arabia. In: Hartmut Gese, Maria Höfner, Kurt Rudolph: The religions of Old Syria, Altarabia and the Mandaeans. ( The religions of mankind, 10, 2) Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 1970.
  • AG Lundin: The Arab goddesses Ruḏā and al-'Uzzā. In: R. Stiegener (Ed.): Al-Hudhud. Festschrift Maria Höfer. Karl Franzens University, Graz 1981, pp. 211–217.
  • Alfred Schlicht: History of the Arab World . Reclam , Stuttgart 2013.

Individual evidence

  1. ^ A b Alfred Schlicht: History of the Arab World . Reclam Stuttgart 2013, p. 15
  2. Das vorislamische Arabien page 58 ( Memento of the original from October 15, 2009 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was automatically inserted and not yet checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. (PDF; 998 kB) @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  3. a b Schlicht, 2013, p. 16
  4. Schlicht, 2013, p. 16 f.
  5. Schlicht, 2013, p. 19.
  6. Schlicht, 2013, p. 18.
  7. Schlicht, 2013, p. 20.
  8. Schlicht, 2013, p. 25.
  9. ^ Joshua Blau : The Emergence of Middle Arabic. Chapter I in: The Emergence and Linguistic Background of Judaeo-Arabic: A Study of the Origins of Neo-Arabic and Middle Arabic . Oxford University Press 1965. 2nd edition 1981. ISBN 965-235-010-9 . Pp. 1-3.
  10. Schlicht, 2013, p. 26 f.
  11. a b Schlicht, 2013, p. 27
  12. Schlicht, 2013, p. 27. f.