Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Book: Muhammad - Mecca pt. 1

Mecca in the time of Mohammed was something of an unusual place. The Meccans had carved out a living and made their city a thriving center of trade when most Arabs were nomadic by necessity.

The vast terrain of Arabia was barren - only a few places were suitable for agriculture - Yathrib and Ta'if, the later of which supplied Mecca with most of its food. Elsewhere farming was impossible and so the people lived nomadic and difficult lives.

The nomadic life was hard and as a consequence the Bedouin spent most of their time on the edge of starvation. The ghazu or acquisition raid was a vital part of life. It was a regular feature of the nomadic lifestyle and done with great care - the raiders wanted to come away with camels, cattle and slaves but they did not want to kill anyone. A death would incite a vendetta and those (as I'm certain everyone realises) could get way out of hand and go on forever. You kill one of my tribe and I kill one of yours. Then your tribe comes back and retaliates and on and on and on until there's nothing but blood and sand.

'The Bedouin were not very interested in conventional religion. They had no hope of an afterlife and little confidence in their gods, who seemed unable to make any impact on their difficult environment. The tribe, not a deity, was the supreme value, and each member had to subordinate his or her personal needs and desires to the well-being of the group, and fight to the death, if necessary, to ensure its survival. Fantasy was useless in the steppes; they needed pragmatic, sober realism. But they had evolved a chivalric code, which, by giving meaning to their lives and preventing them from succumbing to despair in these harsh conditions, performed the essential function of religion. They called it muruwah, a complex term that is difficult to translate succinctly. Muruwah meant courage, patience, endurance; it consisted of a dedicated determination to avenge any wrong done to the group, to protect its weaker members and defy its enemies. To preserve the honor of the tribe, each member had to be ready to leap to the defense of his kinsmen at a moment's notice and to obey his chief without question.'

Muruwah made a virtue of the necessity of sharing ones 'wealth' with other members of the tribe. The karim - the 'generous hero' - was one who cared little for his material goods. He would evince no concern for where his food or shelter or livelihood would come from tomorrow and had to be prepared to squander everything he had in one night in order to put on a lavish feast for his friends. Of course this led to a lot of families yo-yoing between having enough to care for themselves and then being thrown into abject poverty at the drop of a hat.

The only solidarity encouraged by muruwah was tribal solidarity. The generosity and care of the poor only extended as far as ones own tribe - there existed no concept of universal human rights. One lived and died with ones tribe and with the traditions and way of life (sunnah) of that tribe. The tribe was all - to deviate from the way that things had always been done was death. Desert nomads could not afford to innovate. To ignore the shari'ah was to invite disaster - if your ancestors had been following the same path to the water hole you should follow that same path because that way was known and sure. Any other path could lead your whole family and possibly the tribe to death.

The Bedouin men were proud and aggressive. It was considered a virtue to respond violently to any perceived threat or slight. The karim were encouraged to be self-reliant to the point of recklessness.

The only way to escape this harsh lifestyle was to find a place that was suitable for settling. One could do that by taking over an oasis as the tribe of Thaqif had done in Ta'if. Or one could become an intermediary between two more powerful civilizations in the region. The Ghassan tribe did this - they converted to Christianity and formed a buffer state between Byzantium and Persia.

In the sixth century the Bedouin invented a better saddle for their camels. It allowed them to carry heavier loads and merchants began to use these camel caravans to transport their merchandise and to take the road through Arabia rather than the longer paths around. And they hired the Bedouin to guard their merchandise, drive the camels and guide them from one oasis to the next.

Mecca became a station for these northbound caravans. Conveniently centrally located it was important because it had an underground water source - Zamzam. The miraculous existence of this water in such an arid place made the site sacred to the Bedouin long before there was a city there.

The Kabah may originally have been a part of the cult of Zamzam. The spring and the sanctuary (haram) went through the control of numerous different tribes but in the early sixth century controlled rested in the hands of the Quraysh - Mohammed's tribe.

Unlike other tribes that had controlled the area the Quraysh were able to abandon the nomadic lifestyle. They managed to monopolise the north-south trade and to control the mercantile activity within Arabia that had been stirred by the influx of international commerce. Several fairs were held throughout the region through the year - they cycled in a clockwise fashion with the last five fairs being held in the area in and around Mecca. This fair was held right before the month of hajj - the traditional pilgrimage to Mecca and the Kabah.

Because the Quraysh had become men of peace - they couldn't grow their own food in Mecca, the ground was unsuitable for it so if their trade failed they would starve and be forced to abandon control of Mecca - they had to make Mecca a place where merchants and traders could come without fear of attack. They made special agreements with the Bedouin tribes so that they would not attack the caravans during the trade fair season. In return the Bedouin were permitted to act as guides and protectors of the merchants - compensating them for the loss of income they suffered for not raiding the caravans.

Trade and religion were inextricably combined in Mecca. The pilgrimage was the climax of the fair cycle and the Quraysh reconstructed the cult and architecture of the sanctuary so that it became the spiritual center for all the tribes. Even though the Bedouin didn't put much stock in the power of their gods each tribe had its own presiding deity with a stone effigy to go along with it. The Quraysh collected all of the totems of the tribes that belonged to their cooperative group and placed them in the Kabah so that in order to worship their ancestral deities the tribesmen had to come into Mecca.

'When they reached the Kabah, surrounded by the 360 tribal totems, they began to perform the traditional rites in Mecca and its environs, which may originally have been devised to bring on the winter rains. They jogged seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwah, to the east of the Kabah; ran in a body to the hollow of Muzdalifah, the home of the thunder god; made an all-night vigil on the plain beside Mount 'Arafat, sixteen miles outside the city; hurled pebbles at three pillars in the valley of Mina; and finally, at the end of their pilgrimage, sacrificed their most valuable female camels, symbols of their wealth and - hence - of themselves. The most famous ritual of the hajj was the tawaf, seven circumambulations of the Kabah in a clockwise direction, a stylized enactment of the trade route round Arabia, which gave the Arabs' mercantile activities a spiritual dimension.'

Any of that sound familiar to anybody? I find it interesting that all of the rituals of hajj existed in pagan form. Of course it's a question of chick and egg I guess. If you believe in the Qur'an then you believe that these rituals existed because Abraham and Ishmael brought them there in their pure form of worship of God and that they were corrupted by later generations. If you don't then you believe that Mohammed co-opted the existing rituals for his own religion.

The Meccans had become settled but they hadn't managed to escape the old ways entirely. They had lost the old communal spirit but had kept the arrogance and greed. Families vied with each other for wealth and prestige. Those who had hoarded it and those who hadn't 'made it' were pushed aside and looked down upon.


  1. I'm glad you wrote all this history again. I remember finding much of it quite intriguing when I read this book several weeks ago.

    Whenever Muslims talk about how Christmas and Easter have pagan roots, I need to remember that so does their hajj! Although as you said they will tell me Abraham and Ishmael instituted it "because the Quran says so."

    "The Bedouin men were proud and aggressive. It was considered a virtue to respond violently to any perceived threat or slight. "

    This sounds like a number of 'tribes' that make the news even now, doesn't it?

    Enjoyed this! Hope you are liking the book thus far.

  2. Susanne,

    I do love history! It's so fascinating.

    It's just more proof that history is really very subjective. What you see as historical truth depends on what you already believe much of the time.

    This sounds like a number of 'tribes' that make the news even now, doesn't it?

    Oh, it sounds like pretty much all men everywhere since forever. :)

  3. "Oh, it sounds like pretty much all men everywhere since forever. :)"

    For sure! I thought this sounds like the children of Israel and how they treated tribes that messed with them. And, yes, quite universal. :)

  4. I think it may have been worse in desert societies because life was so hard they were all living on the edge of endurance for much of the time anyway. So they grew more aggressive in order to give their genetics, their tribe the better chance of longer term survival.

    I'm not sure what the excuse of modern day man is. General genetic stupidity perhaps... ;)

  5. Holy crap that was fast! Are you stalking me?

    *eyes Susanne suspiciously*

  6. Yessssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss!

  7. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!

    *runs and hides*

  8. I hope you are still hiding as I pretend to not see you so you will keep your pesky self out of my way.Hehehe

    Oops, did I say that to my adorable Little Sis?

  9. *puts last pillow on the pillow fort into place* Now I'm safe from you! *giggle*

  10. Ah, kids.So innocent and cute. Night, Lil' Sis. Have fun in your fort! :)

  11. *peers out of fort* It's like being in a cave...

  12. LOL!! You can come out now, Amber. I'll quit stalking and scaring you. Hope you slept well in that fort. :)

  13. It was very comfy. I had Murdock in here with me and some juice and snacks... :)

    Fine though. I'll come out and do some work or something...


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