Arabia on the Eve of Islam

From AD second century, the dynamics of the region began to change due to demographic, cultural & geopolitical shifts. Initially, the region witnessed the arrival of large Jewish trader & refugee community from the west. Meanwhile, waves of Arabs(Arabia) from the area around the modern Riyadh began to encroach into neighboring territories.  One branch is pushed into Yemen & Oman.  The records suggest growing Arab assertiveness against the local clans as their number grew.

Arabia First signs of Proselytization

Around this time, the Byzantines (The eastern Roman Empire with its capital in Constantinople, modern Istanbul) become enthusiastic and proselytizing Christians, & geopolitics took on a religious color. The Byzantine emperor Constantius (337-361) dispatched ambassadors & the missionary Theophilus the Indian to the Himyarite court demanding permission to build churches & proselytize.

Ethiopia was one of the countries that were profoundly affected by this churn in geopolitics & religion in AD fourth century. Around the middle of AD fourth century, the Ethiopians captured two Christian teenagers from a merchant sea on the red sea. They were taking slaves to the King. Later they came tobe trusted and were promoted to high office with their freedom. The New King education was entrusted to them. The former slaves now used their position to actively promote Christianity, and eventually, under Arabia the influence of his tutor, the young King Erazanes too converted to the faith. Thus Ethiopia came to be a Christian country.

Yemen in war for religion

In the early sixth century, Ethiopian King attacked Yemen and placed a Christian king on the Himyar throne. Once the Ethiopians withdrew, there was a revolt against the Christians led by the Jews and the pro-Persian faction, and the country plunged into bloody Civil war. A Jewish war lord called Yusuf captured the throne & attacked the chain of fortifications around the straits of Bab-el-Mandeb(Arabia). Contemporary accounts tell us that the raid left 12500 dead & 11000 captives.

Ethiopian King assembled a large army and attacked Yemen again. Yusuf & his allied were killed & a Christian king was again placed on the throne. Ethiopians also left behind a garrison & stipulated that Yemeni had to pay a tribute every year. As before, After Ethiopians left, the garrison went rogue & replace the king with their own candidate. Eventually, some order was restored with Persian help to evict Ethiopians. After some more disputes, the region was put under direct Persian control.

Yemen geographical Position

The main reasons for these campaigns in Yemen were part of an attempt by the Byzantine-Ethiopian alliance to take control of sea route to India & bypass the rival Persian Gulf sea route. As a contemporary Byzantine put it – ‘For it was impossible for Ethiopians to buy silks from Indians. since the Persian merchants always locate themselves in the very harbors where the Indians first put in, as they inhibit the adjoining country and are accustomed to buying the whole cargo.’

Plague of Justinian

The plague of Justinian was first reported in Egypt around AD 541. Egyptian grain ships then take it to Byzantine capital where it is said to have killed half the population. It soon spread across the Mediterranea. And the Middle East where over a few decades it killed an estimated 25-50 million people. Thus when the seventh century dawned, the middle east was exhausted.

These were the circumstances in which a completely new force emerged – Islam(arabia ).

(The article is based on the book “The ocean of churn” by Sanjeev Sanyal.)

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