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Pre-Islamic Arabia



The literary sources in Arabic dealing with pre-Islamic Arabia are copious, but rarely give direct answers to questions which are of interest to modern research. Arabian society was tribal and included nomadic, semi-nomadic and settled populations. The biography of Muhammad provides further evidence of the cooperation between the nomadic and settled populations. The Arab idol worshippers were polytheists, but they also believed in a High God called Allah whose house was in the Kaba and who had supremacy over their tribal deities. In Medina, which was in many ways different from Mecca, idols were associated with various levels of the tribal organization. The Byzantines and Sasanians conducted their Arabian affairs through their respective Arab buffer kingdoms, Ghassan and al-Hira. Caravan trade was often behind the cooperation between certain nomadic tribes and the Sasanians. In addition to trade, the entrepreneurial Qurashis invested in agriculture. Since conditions in Mecca itself were uninviting for agriculture, they looked for opportunities elsewhere.
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Pre-Islamic Arabia
michael lecker
Tribal historiography
The literary sources in Arabic dealing with pre-Islamic Arabia are copious, but
rarely give direct answers to questions which are of interest to modern
research. Still, the following had to be based on these sources since Arabian
archaeology is only emerging; one hopes that signicant Arabian pre-Islamic
sites incur no damage before they are excavated.
Arabian society was tribal and included nomadic, semi-nomadic and settled
populations. The settled populations had genealogies similar to those of the
nomads and semi-nomads, identifying them as either northernor southern
through the identity of their presumed eponyms. Not only did genealogy
dene the individual tribe, it also recorded its links with other tribes within
families of tribes or tribal federations, each including several or many tribes.
.ammads tribe, Quraysh, for example, was part of the Kinana, and hence
the other tribes of the Kinana were its closest relatives. The settled popula-
tions, which probably included more people than the nomadic and the semi-
nomadic populations put together, do not receive a proportionate share in the
literary sources because the limelights are typically on the nomads, more
precisely on their military activities, no matter how insignicant. Tribal
informants focused on the military activities since the performance of town
dwellers in the realms of trade and agriculture were less spectacular, and
hence less contributive to tribal solidarity.
After the Islamic conquests the tribes underwent signicant changes, but
they preserved their genealogy and their rich oral heritage that was insepa-
rable from the genealogy. The amount of the materials that were transmitted
and preserved was naturally aected by the size and political inuence of the
individual tribes. It stands to reason, however, that tribes that lived in or
around the main centres of intellectual endeavour, such as Bas
.ra and Kufa,
stood a better chance of having their heritage recorded when oral accounts
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became written literary history. Regarding the time of Muh
.ammad, the
coverage of individual tribes was uneven since it was also aected by their
role at that time. Tribes such as Ghifar, Muzayna, Juhayna and others roaming
around Mecca and Medina (pre-Islamic Yathrib)
are better known to us than
much stronger tribes such as Asad and Ghat
.afan, simply because the former
played a more central role in Muh
.ammads history.
The attention given in the literature to the military activities of the nomads
led to an unrealistic and unbalanced perception of pre-Islamic Arabian society.
While Mecca and Medina are described in much detail, many other settle-
ments that were perhaps larger, wealthier and more populous than these two
towns, such as H
.ajr (present-day Riyadh), which was the central settlement in
the al-Yamama area, are hardly taken into account in scholarly descriptions of
pre-Islamic Arabia.
Much of the source material regarding Arabia goes back to tribal genealo-
gists, each of whom specialised in a specic tribe or group of tribes. The tribal
genealogists also mastered the tribal history and poetry, because they were
both extensions of the genealogical information. Let us take for example the
Taghlib. Al-Akhzar ibn Suh
.ayma was an early Taghlibı¯ genealogist who
transmitted part of the information on his tribe later incorporated in the
genealogy books. Between the early genealogists and the philologists of the
second/eighth century there were intermediaries who usually remained
unidentied. But expertise in Taghlibı¯ genealogy and tribal history was not
an exclusive Taghlibı¯ domain. The most famous genealogist and philologist of
early Islam, Ibn al-Kalbı¯ (d. 204/819), learned about Taghlibı¯ matters from
AbuRaqshan Khirash ibn Ismaqı¯l of the qIjl tribe who compiled a monograph
about the tribal federation of Rabı¯qa that included both his own tribe, the qIjl
and the Taghlib. Khirash also reported about a battle that took place in early
Islam (the battle of S
.iı¯n, 37/657), which indicates that his scholarly interests
covered both the pre- and early Islamic periods. Indeed, tribal genealogists,
and in their wake Muslim philologists whose scope was much wider, consid-
ered the pre- and early Islamic history of the tribes as an uninterrupted whole.
The members of each tribe shared a notion of common descent from the
same eponym. The eponyms in their turn were interconnected by an intricate
network of family links that dened the tribal system across Arabia; tribal
alliances were often concluded along genealogical lines. From time to time
genealogy uctuated according to changing military, political and ecological
** Both the tribes and their territories are referred to by the Arabic term b
adiya; one speaks
of the b
adiya of such-and-such settlement.
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circumstances. There were prestigious and famous lineages beside less presti-
gious ones. For example, detailed information about the BanuZurara, a leading
family of the Tamı¯m, is included in a dialogue between a member of this family
and an old man who lived in the south-eastern corner of Arabia who never-
theless had an impressive command of the intricacies of Tamı¯mı¯ genealogy.
By denition, tribal informants were biased and acted in an atmosphere of
intertribal competition or even hostility. The formal state of truce that followed
the tribesconversion to Islam generally stopped their resort to violence. But
polemics and friction, especially in the garrison cities of Iraq, were often
The bias of tribal informants must be taken into account and lead to greater
prudence in using their reports. It can be demonstrated by the intertribal
polemics surrounding the Arab bow of Tamı¯ms illustrious pre-Islamic leader
ajib ibn Zurara, which holds a place of honour in Tamı¯ms pre-Islamic history.
During a severe drought H
ajib asked for Khusraus permission to graze his
tribes herds on the fringes of the sown land in south-western Iraq. As a
guarantee of good conduct H
ajib pledged his bow, an unsophisticated item
which nonetheless acquired great value through the eminence and authority of
its owner. The Tamı¯m were very proud of this pledge, which showed the
Sasanian emperor adopting their tribal values. Tamı¯ms adversaries in their turn
attempted to belittle the importance of the gesture. Had they not been in my
opinion of less value than the bow, I would not have taken it,the emperor is
made to say,
as if explaining why hedid not take Tamı¯mı¯ hostages instead of a
worthless bow. Other anti-Tamı¯mı¯ informants downgraded the authority with
whom H
ajib had negotiated. One version mentions Iyas ibn Qabı¯s
.a al-T
was Khosros governor in charge of H
.ı¯ra and the Arabs in its vicinity;while
other versions mention the head of the as
awira, or heavy cavalry, charged with
guardingthe border between the Arabs and the Persians
and one of Khosros
ans, or one of his (military, but also civil) governors.
Obviously, tribal
polemicists were at work here, and they were anything but innocent.
466 Abu l-BaqapHibat Allah al-H
.illı¯, al-Man
aqib al-mazyadiyya, ed. S
.Musa Daradika and
.ammad qAbd al-Qadir Khrı¯sat, 2vols. (Amman, 1404 AH [1984]), vol. I, p. 353. The
late H
.amad al-Jasir wrote a monograph entitled B
ahila al-qabı¯la l-muftar
(Riyadh,1410 AH [1989]). Tribal genealogies remain a delicate matter in contemporary
Saudi Arabia.
467 Abu Mans
ur al-Thaqalibı¯, Thim
ar al-qulub f ı¯ l-mud
af wa-l-mansub, ed. Muh
.ammad Abu
.l Ibrahı¯m (Cairo, 1965), p. 626.
468 Baladhurı¯, Ansab al-ashraf (MS Süleymanie Kütüphanesi, Reisülküttap Mustafa
Efendi, 597,598), 960a.
469 Abu l-Baqap,al-Man
aqib al-mazyadiyya, vol. I, p. 61.
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Yet another example of tribal bias relates to Muh
.ammads tribe, Quraysh,
which was considered northernfrom the genealogical point of view;
unsurprisingly, many sources reveal a pro-Qurashı¯ bias. Regarding the
takeover of the Kaqba in Mecca by Muh
.ayy, it is
reported that a member of the Khuzaqa tribe, which is usually considered
asoutherntribe, sold the Kaqba to Qus
.ayy. As usual, there are several
versions regarding the mode of the takeover. However, the specicsale
version that concerns us here did not come from an impartial party: it was
reportedly promulgated by people fanatically hostile to the southern
The Khuzaqa did not remain indierent to this hostile description
of a crucial chapter in their tribal history: the historian al-Waqidı¯(d.207/823)
concludes a variant of this version with the statement that it was denied by
the elders of the Khuzaqa.
.un [Joktan]
southern Arabs
Arfakhshad [Arphaxad]
-m [Shem]
-laj [Peleg]
four generations
. [Noah]
‘A-bar [Eber]
-lakh [Shelah]
-m [Abraham]
various generations
-l [Ishmael]
northern Arabs
1. The northernand southernArabs
470 Al-Wazı¯r al-Maghribı¯, al-
as f ı¯qilm al-ans
ab, bound with Ibn H
.abı¯b, Mukhtalif al-qab
a, ed. H
.amad al-Jasir (Riyadh, 1980), p. 114:fa-yaqulu l-mutaqas
.ibuna qala
l-Yamaniyya inna Qus
.ayyan shtara l-miftah
471 Taqı¯ al-Dı¯n Muh
.ammad ibn Ah
.mad al-fası¯, Shif
am bi-akhb
ar al-balad al-h
ed. qUmar qAbd al-Salam Tadmurı¯, 2vols. (Beirut, 1985 ), vol. II, p. 87.
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The nomadic and settled populations
Pre-Islamic Arabia was not lawless or wild since an unwritten legal code
controlled the life of its people. The law of talion and various security
arrangements protected the lives of tribesmen outside their tribal territories.
The boundaries of these territories were generally acknowledged; tribes-
men were supposed to know when they left the territories belonging to their
tribes. But just like tribal genealogies, tribal boundaries uctuated to reect
changing circumstances on the ground. A tribes territory often included
enclaves belonging to other tribes, which necessitated cooperation between
the tribes involved; indeed, such enclaves could only survive where a clear
legal code prevailed.
Although the number of literate people was limited even in the settle-
ments, resort to written documents during the conclusion of alliances and
transactions was common.
The so-called Constitution of Medina con-
cluded by Muh
.ammad shortly after the hijra shows that complex legal
documents and legal terminology in Arabic had existed in Arabia before
the advent of Islam.
The genealogical variegation of the settled populations was probably
greater than that of the nomads; indeed, one expects the population of a
settlement to include several or many tribes. This was the case with the
Christian tribal groups living in al-H
.ı¯ra, collectively referred to as al-qIbad,
that preserved their original tribal aliations. Pre-Islamic Medina provides
further evidence of this: several towns in the Medina area were inhabited
by jumm
aq,orgroupsfromvarioustribes.ThepeopleofZuhra(ahl Zuhra)
and thepeopleofZubala,togivebuttwoexamplesofsuchtowns,were
described as jumm
The crucial relationship between the nomadic and settled populations
across Arabia took many forms. Due to the size of their territory and their
millstone-like roaming around their grazing grounds and water places, the
Tamı¯m were one of the so-called millstones of the Arabs(arh
472 See M. Lecker, A pre-Islamic endowment deed in Arabic regarding al-Wah
.ı¯da in the
.ijaz, in M. Lecker, People, tribes and society in Arabia around the time of Muh
(Aldershot, 2005), no. IV.
473 qAlı¯ ibn Ah
.mad al-Samhudı¯, Waf
a, ed. Qasim al-Samarrapı¯, 5vols. (London and
Jedda,2001), vol. I, pp. 3068.
474 Ibn Saqı¯d al-Andalusı¯, Nashwat al-t
.arab bi-taprı¯kh j
ahiliyyat al-qarab, ed. Nas
.rat qAbd al-
.man, 2vols. (Amman, 1982), vol. I, p. 415.
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But even the powerful Tamı¯mı¯s were vulnerable to outside pressure since
they had to rely on the settlements for part of their subsistence. Their
massacre in the battle of Yawm al-Mushaqqar could only take place because
of their annual visit to Hajar on the coast of the Persian Gulf in order to receive
their provisions.
Sometimes the nomads roaming around a certain settlement and the
people of the settlement belonged to the same tribe. The third/ninth-
century geographer qArram al-Sulamı¯s description of the stronghold of
Suwariqiyya south-east of Medina is generally true for pre-Islamic times
as well. He says that Suwariqiyya belonged to the Sulaym tribe alone and
that each of the Sulamı¯s had a share in it. It had elds, dates and other kinds
of fruit. The Sulamı¯s born in Suwariqiyya lived there, while the others were
adiya and roamed around it, supplying food along the pilgrim roads as far
as D
.ariyya seven daysjourney from Suwariqiyya.
In other words, the
Sulamı¯farmersofSuwariqiyya tilled the land and tended the irrigation
systems, while the Sulamı¯ nomads tended the beasts aboveallthecamels,
which require extensive grazing grounds, and hence cannot be raised in
signicant numbers by farmers.
The biography of Muh
.ammad provides further evidence of the cooperation
between the nomadic and settled populations. When the Jewish Nad
.ı¯r were
expelled from Medina several years after the hijra, they hired hundreds of
camels from a nomadic tribe roaming the vicinity of Medina; in normal
circumstances these nomads would be transporting goods on behalf of the
475 AbuJaqfar Muh
.ammad ibn Jarı¯r al-T
.abarı¯, Taprı¯kh al-rusul wa-l-muluk, ed. M. de Goeje et
al., 15 vols. in 3series (Leiden, 18791901), series I, p. 985:This was close to the days of
the luq
.[the picking up of dates from the stumps of the branches of palm-trees after
the cutting oof the dates]. The Tamı¯m used to go at that time to Hajar to get
provisions and collect the dates left on the trees (li-l-mı¯ra wa-l-luq
.).Hajar was the
largest date-producing oasis in northern Arabia. On the connection between al-mı¯ra
wa-l-kayl, or provisions, and obedience, see M. J. Kister, al-H
.ı¯ra: Some notes on its
relations with Arabia,Arabica,15 (1968), pp. 14369,at168. The Bedouin who came to
Yamama in the holy months (in which no warfare took place) in order to get provisions
were called al-saw
.:AbuqUbayda Maqmar ibn al-Muthanna, al-Dı¯b
aj, ed. al-Jarbuq
and al-qUthaymı¯n (Cairo, 1991), p. 53:wa-kana l-sawaqit
.min qabapil shatta wa-summu
.li-annahum kanuyaptuna l-Yamama f ı¯ l-ashhuri l-h
.urum li-l-tamr wa-l-zarq.At
the time of the Prophet, when a certain Tamı¯mı¯ came to Hajar in the holy month of
Rajab in order to get provisions for his family (yamı¯ru ahlahu min Hajar, i.e. as he used
to do every year), his wife escaped from him; see e.g. Majd al-Dı¯n Ibn al-Athı¯r, Man
alib f ı¯ sharh
al al-ghar
apib, ed. Mah
.mud Muh
.ammad al-T
.ı¯ (Mecca, 1983), pp.
476 qArram al-Sulamı¯, Asm
al tih
ama,inqAbd al-Salam Harun (ed.), Naw
adir al-makht
2nd edn, vol. II (Cairo, 1973), pp. 4312;Yaqut al-H
.amawı¯, Muqjam al-buld
an (Beirut, 1957),
s.v. al-Suwariqiyya.
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.ı¯r. When the people of al-Khaybar cut othe fruit of their palm trees, the
nomads would arrive with their camels and carry it for them to the villages,
one camel load after the other (qurwa bi-qurwa, literally: one loop of the camel
load after the other). The nomads would sell the fruit, keeping for themselves
half of the return.
In the battleeld, nomads fought against other nomads, while settled people
fought against other settled people. A verse by the ProphetsCompanion,the
poet H
.assan ibn Thabit (who was of the Khazraj, a southerntribe) demon-
strates this:
Our settled men spare us the village dwellers,
while our bedouins spare us the bedouins of the Maqadd [i.e. the northern
During the ridda wars that followed Muh
.ammads death there was a dispute
within the Muslim army in al-Yamama between the settled (ahl al-qur
ing the muh
ajirun and the ans
ar) and the nomads (ahl al-b
adı¯), with
each accusing the other of cowardice. The settled people claimed that they
knew better how to ght against their like, while the nomads said that the
settled people were not good ghters and did not know what war was.
The military aspect was dominant in the relationship between the settled
and the nomads, as shown by accounts dealing with Muh
.ammad and his
Companions. Friendly nomads were considered Muh
adiya, with
reference to their military role. Two tribes living near Medina once asked for
.ammads permission to build themselves a mosque in Medina similar to
the mosques of other tribes. But he told them that his mosque was also their
mosque, that they were his b
adiya while he was their h
.ira, or their settled
counterpart (lit., people dwelling by waters), and that they should provide
him with succour when called upon to do so.
The hijra of one of the b
meant that he had to provide succour when called upon to do so (an yujı¯ba idh
duqiya) and to obey orders.
AgoodBedouin diered from a badone in
that the former provided military aid. When qA
¯pisha mentioned certain
Bedouin, pejoratively calling them aqr
ab, Muh
.ammad corrected her: They
477 Samhudı¯, Waf
a, vol. II, p. 35.
478 H
.assan ibn Thabit, Dı¯w
an, ed. W. qArafat, 2vols. (London, 1971), vol. I, p. 462, no. 287:
.iruna yakfunanasakina l-qura [space———], wa-aqrabuna yakfunana man
479 Al-T
.abarı¯, Taprı¯kh, series I, pp. 1946,1947.
480 Ibn Shabba, Taprı¯kh al-madı¯na al-munawwara, ed. Fahı¯m Muh
.ammad Shaltut, 4vols.
(n.p. [1979]; repr. Beirut, 1990), vol. I, p. 78.
481 AbuqUbayd al-Qasim ibn Sallam, Kit
ab al-amw
al, ed. Muh
.ammad Khalı¯l Harras (Cairo,
1976), p. 280, no. 538.
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are not aqr
ab but our b
adiya, while we are their h
.ira; when summoned, they
provide us with succour.
A fuller version of this tradition makes it clear that
the commitment to give succour was reciprocal.
With regard to the relationship between the nomadic and settled populations
the question of ascendancy arises. The conquest of settlements by nomads
must have been rare because the latter did not wish to become farmers. But
.ammads history shows that in themajor military confrontations of histime
the initiative was in the hands of his Qurashı¯ enemies, and later in those of
.ammad himself; this suggests that the ascendancy belonged to the settled
people. Let us take for example the military activity of the Sulaym at that time:
rst they fought with Quraysh against Muh
.ammad, then they fought with
.ammad against Quraysh.
In both cases the initiative was not theirs,
and the same is true of the ridda wars and the conquests.
Closely linked to the question of ascendancy is that of the food allocations
grantedbythesettledpeopletothenomads.Atrst glance they appear to indicate
the ascendancy of the latter, but this was not the case. The people of Medina
granted an annual share of their date produce to the strong tribal leader of
the qA
¯mir ibn S
.aqa, AbuBarapqA
¯mir ibn Malik (nicknamed Mulaqib al-Asinna,
or the one playing with spears). He received from them annually a certain
amount (kayla)ofdatesinreturnforaguaranteeofsafeconductfortheMedinans
travelling in Najd.
While protecting the lives and goods of these Medinans, the
grant did not give the nomadic BanuqA
This state of aairs remains unchanged when other terms are employed in similar
contexts. In connection with the conquest (or rather temporary takeover) of
Fadak by the nomadic Kalb around 570 CE it is reported that the Kalbı¯leader
involved was entitled to a payment (jaq
ala) from the people of Fadak. A jaq
ala is a
payment for services such as the return of a missing camel or a fugitive slave. The
Tamı¯m transported Khusraus caravan from al-YamamatotheYemeninreturn
for a jaq
ala, and the Kalb may well have earned their jaq
ala for providing similar
services. Also, the leader of the Fazara tribe, qUyayna ibn H
.n, received an annual
482 Ibid., no. 539.
483 Ibn H
.ajar al-qAsqalanı¯, al-Mat
alib al-q
aliya bi-zaw
apid al-mas
anı¯d al-tham
aniya, ed. H
.man al-Aqz
.amı¯, 4vols. (Kuwait, 1973), vol. IV, p. 144, no. 4185.
484 See M. J. Kister, On the wife of the goldsmith from Fadak and her progeny,Le Mueon,
92 (1979), pp. 32130; repr. in M. J. Kister, Society and religion from Dj
ahiliyya to Islam
(Aldershot, 1990), no. 5.
485 M. Lecker, The Banu Sulaym: A contribution to the study of early Islam (Jerusalem, 1989),
pp. 1367.
486 H
.assan ibn Th
abit, Dı¯w
an, vol. II, p. 176. The term kayla is derived from the root k.y.l.,
which denotes a measure of capacity.
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grant from the date produce of Medina. The term used in his case, it
sometimes means a tribute or tax. But here it designates an annual grant in
kind to a nomadic leader, similar to those referred to by the terms kayla and jaq
Medina and the other settlements could aord to grant part of their huge
surplus of dates to the leaders of large nomadic tribes in order to secure their
good will. The size of the grants must have varied according to the harvest and
the changing political circumstances on the ground; but even where they
amounted to a sizeable part of the annual produce they did not indicate
nomadic ascendancy.
Idol worship
The pre-Islamic Arabs were united by their love of poetry; many of them
could probably appreciate the artistic value of the poems recited during major
tribal gatherings, for example at the qUkaz
.fair, not far from T
apif. In their daily
life, however, they spoke a large number of dialects. Many of them acknowl-
edged the sanctity of the Kaqba in Mecca and made pilgrimage to it, travelling
under the protection of the holy months during which all hostilities ceased.
The Arab idol worshippers were polytheists, but they also believed in a High
God called Allah whose house was in the Kaqba and who had supremacy over
their tribal deities.
Despite the diversity in the forms of idol worship, on the whole it was a
common characteristic of pre-Islamic Arabian society. In the centuries preced-
ing the advent of Islam Christianity and Judaism were competing with each
other for the hearts of the Yemenite polytheists. Medina had a large Jewish
population, while al-Yamama and eastern Arabia had a large Christian one.
Christianity, and to a lesser extent Judaism, penetrated several nomadic tribes.
The celebrated h
.anı¯fs, or ascetic seekers of true religion who abandoned idol
worship, were probably few; moreover, the identication of some of them as
.anı¯fs is questionable. Several early Tamı¯mı¯ converts to Islam were former
Zoroastrians. However, on the eve of Islam idol worship prevailed, with the
prominent exception of the Yemen, considered by medieval Muslim histor-
ians to have been predominantly Jewish.
Idols of every shape and material were ubiquitous, and their worship
showed no signs of decline. Many conversion stories regarding both former
custodians of idols and ordinary worshippers specically refer to a shift from
idol worship to Islam.
The most common deity was the household idol. Several conversion
accounts that prove the proliferation of household idols in Mecca are
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associated with its conquest by Muh
.ammad (8/630). Al-Waqidı¯ adduces
legendary accounts about the destruction of household idols. While the
accounts aim at establishing the Islamic credentials of their protagonists, the
background details are credible. One account has it that after the conquest of
Mecca, Muh
.ammads announcer ordered the destruction of every idol found
in the houses. So whenever qIkrima ibn Abı¯ Jahl (who belonged to the Qurashı¯
branch Makhzum) heard of an idol in one of the houses of Quraysh, he went
there in order to smash it; it is specically stated in this context that every
Qurashı¯ in Mecca had an idol in his house. In al-Waqidı¯s account we nd that
the announcer proclaimed that every idol had to be destroyed or burnt, and
that it was forbidden to sell them (i.e. to sell wooden idols to be used as
rewood). The informant himself saw the idols being carried around Mecca
(i.e. by peddlers); the Bedouin used to buy them and take them to their tents.
Every Qurashı¯, we are told, had an idol in his house. He stroked it whenever
he entered or left the house to draw a blessing from it.
Yet another account in the same source has it that when Hind bint qUtba
(the mother of the future Umayyad caliph Muqawiya) embraced Islam, she
started striking an idol in her house with an adze, cutting oblong pieces from
She probably destroyed her wooden idol using the very tool with which
it had been carved. The authors of the legendary accounts about qIkrima and
Hind sought to emphasise the zeal of these new converts, but the background
information is accurate: idols were found in all Meccan households.
In Medina, which was in many ways dierent from Mecca, idols were
associated with various levels of the tribal organisation. A house idol made of
wood was an obstacle for AbuT
.a of the Khazraj when he proposed to his
future wife. She refused to marry one who worshipped a stone which did
neither harm nor good and a piece of wood hewed for him by a carpenter.
Several young Medinans from both of the dominant Arab tribes of Medina, the
Aws and Khazraj, smashed the idols found among their fellow tribesmen.
Here too household idols were the most common form of idol worship. We
have some evidence about the attributes of one of the Medinan household
idols. Before one of them was destroyed with an adze, it had to be brought
down, which indicates that it had been placed in an elevated place such as a
shelf; the same idol had a veil hung over it.
One level up from the household idols we nd those belonging to noble-
men. Every nobleman in Medina owned an idol that had a name of its own.
487 Muh
.ammad ibn qUmar al-Waqidı¯, Kit
ab al-magh
azı¯, ed. Marsden Jones, 3vols.
(London, 1966), vol. II, pp. 8701.
488 Ibn Saqd, al-T
at al-kubr
a,8vols. (Beirut, 19608), vol. VIII, pp. 4256.
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[153–170] 26.10.2009 9:40PM
In addition, bat
.ns, or small tribal groups, had idols which, similarly, had names.
The bat
.ns idol was placed in a sanctuary (bayt) and belonged to the whole bat
aqati l-bat
.n). Sacrices were oered to it. One level above the bat
tribal system of Medina stood the major subdivisions of the Aws and Khazraj.
Evidence has so far emerged regarding the idol of one such subdivision: the Banu
arith ibn al-Khazraj had an idol called Huzam that was placed in their majlis,
or place of assembly, similarly called Huzam. One assumes that sacrices were
also oered to Huzam, since sacrices were oered to the lower-level idols of the
.ns. The idol al-Khamı¯s was worshipped by the Khazraj,
while al-Saqı¯da,
which was located on Mount Uh
.ud north of Medina, was worshipped, among
others, by the Azd no doubt including the Aws and Khazraj, which belonged to
the Azd.
At the top of the hierarchy of the idols worshipped by the Aws and
Khazraj stood Manat. A descendant of Muh
.ammads Companion SaqdibnqUbada
reports that Saqds grandfather annually donated ten slaughter camels to Manat.
Saqdsfatherfollowedsuit,andsodidSaqd himself before his conversion to Islam.
Saqds son, Qays, donated the same number of camels to the Kaqba.
The report
is not concerned with idol worship as such but with generosity, prestige and tribal
leadership. Saqds donation of sacrice camels to Manat before his conversion to
Islam shows that its cult continued to the very advent of Islam.
Household idols were ubiquitous in Medina, as in Mecca; noblemen,
.ns and major Aws and Khazraj subdivisions had idols. The Khazraj as a
whole worshipped a special idol; the Aws and Khazraj were among the
worshippers of another, and they were still worshipping their main idol,
Manat, when Muh
.ammad appeared. All this does not indicate a decline in
idol worship.
Expressing his opinion about the inuence of monotheism on the Arabs
before Islam, Ibn Ish
aq says that it was merely supercial; the Arabs were
illiterate and what they heard from Jews and Christians had no eect on their
lives. With regard to idol worship his statement is trustworthy.
Foreign powers
Pre-Islamic Arabia and its tribes were not isolated from the great empires
of Byzantium and Persia, with the latter probably playing a more signicant
489 Al-T
.abarı¯, Taprı¯kh, series I, p. 1085.
490 Muh
.ammad ibn H
.abı¯b, Kit
ab al-muh
.abbar, ed. Ilse Lichtenstaedter (Hyderabad, 1361
[1942]; repr. Beirut, n.d.), pp. 31617.
491 Ibn qAbd al-Barr, al-Istı¯q
ab f ı¯maqrifat al-as
ab, ed. qAlı¯ Muh
.ammad al-Bijawı¯, 4vols.
(Cairo, n.d.), vol. II, p. 595.
Pre-Islamic Arabia
[153–170] 26.10.2009 9:40PM
role. The Byzantine emperor, for example, is said to have been instrumental in
the takeover of Mecca from the Khuzaqa tribe by Muh
.ammads ancestor
The Byzantines and Sasanians conducted their Arabian aairs through their
respective Arab buer kingdoms, Ghassan and al-H
.ı¯ra. The king of al-H
appointed governors to the frontiers from Iraq to Bah
.rayn, each of whom
ruled together with a Bedouin leader who was in fact his subordinate.
The same pattern was found in Oman: a treaty between the Sasanians and
the Julanda family concluded in the second half of the sixth century stipulated
that the Sasanians were entitled to station with the kingsof the Azd four
thousand men including marzb
ans (military, but also civil, governors) and
awira (heavy cavalry), and an q
amil or ocial. The Sasanians were stationed
in the coastal regions, while the Azd were kingsin the mountains, in the
deserts and in the other areas surrounding Oman.
In other words, authority
was divided between the Arabs and the Sasanians along geographical lines.
In Bah
.rayn there was an Arab governor, with a Sasanian superior.
Al-Mundhir ibn Sawa al-Tamı¯mı¯ is said to have been the governor of
.rayn. But the historian al-Baladhurı¯ (d. 279/892) draws a clear line at this
point between Sasanians and Arabs: The land of Bah
.rayn is part of the Persian
kingdom and there were in it many Arabs from the tribes of qAbd al-Qays,
Bakr ibn Wapil and Tamı¯m living in its b
adiya. At the time of the Prophet,
al-Mundhir ibn Sawa was in charge of the Arabs living there on behalf of
the Persians.
At the same time Bah
.rayn had a Sasanian governor who was
al-Mundhirs superior, namely Sı¯bukht, the marzb
an of Hajar.
On the eve of
Islam the Yemen was under direct Sasanian control.
Roughly until the middle of the sixth century Medina was controlled by a
an whose seat was in al-Zara on the coast of the Persian Gulf. The Jewish
tribes Nad
.ı¯r and Qurayz
.a were kings, and exacted tribute from the Aws and
492 Ibn Qutayba, al-Maq
arif, ed. Tharwat qUkasha (Cairo, 1969), pp. 6401; quoted in M. J.
Kister, Mecca and the tribes of Arabia, in M. Sharon (ed.), Studies in Islamic history and
civilization in honour of David Ayalon (Jerusalem and Leiden, 1986), p 50; repr. in Kister,
Society and religion, no. 2Cf. qUthman ibn al-H
.uwayriths attempt to gain control of
Mecca on behalf of the Byzantine emperor: Kister, al-H
493 Abu l-Baqap,al-Man
aqib al-mazyadiyya, vol. II, p. 369.
494 J. C. Wilkinson, ArabPersian land relationships in late Sasanid Oman,inProceedings
of the Seminar for Arabian Studies,3(1973), pp. 41,447.
495 Al-Baladhurı¯, Futuh
., ed. M. J. de Goeje (Leiden, 1863 6), p. 78:wa-kana qalal-qarab biha
min qibali l-furs.
496 His name and title appear in connection with a letter allegedly sent by the Prophet to
both al-Mundhir ibn Sawa and Sı¯bukht marzb
an Hajar, calling upon them to embrace
Islam or pay the poll-tax.
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[153–170] 26.10.2009 9:40PM
Khazraj on behalf of the Sasanians. In the last quarter of the sixth century the
king of al-H
.ı¯ra, al-Nuqman ibn al-Mundhir, declared a member of the Khazraj,
qAmr ibn al-It
.naba, king of Medina or of the H
At that time the Jews were
no longer kingsand tribute collectors, but tribute payers. qAmrsappointment
shows that Sasanian control in western Arabia continued in the latter half of the
sixth century. Sasanian control there is also associated with al-Nuqman ibn al-
Mundhirs father, al-Mundhir III (c.50454): the Sasanian emperor Khusrau I
Anushirwan (r. 53179) made him king of the Arabs living between Oman,
.rayn and al-Yamama to al-T
apif and the rest of the H
Caravan trade was often behind the cooperation between certain nomadic
tribes and the Sasanians. The Sulaym and the Hawazin used to conclude pacts
with the kings of al-H
.ı¯ra, transport the kingsmerchandise and sell it for them at
the fair at qUkaz
., among others.
With regard to the above-mentioned battle of
Yawm al-Mushaqqar it is reported that Khusraus caravan, having travelled from
Ctesiphon via al-H
.ı¯ra, was escorted by the Tamı¯m from al-Yamama to the Yemen.
The evidence regarding military cooperation (or indeed any other form of
cooperation) between the tribes and the courts of Ctesiphon and al-H
reveals a certain tension between the wish to praise the tribes military
exploits, even those carried out in the service of a foreign power, and the
claim of independence from the same power; tribal historiography attempted
to distance the tribes from the inuence of the courts, while at the same time
boasting of the close contacts between them.
Many Arabs probably saw the local representatives of the great power from
behind bars: the kings of al-H
.ı¯ra practised widespread incarceration as punish-
ment and as a means of pressure. There were jails or incarceration camps at al-
ana in south-western Iraq and at al-H
.ı¯ra itself.
The Tamı¯m, the Taghlib and others took part in the institution of rid
(viceroyship) to the king of al-H
.ı¯ra, which was essential in establishing al-
.ı¯ras control over the tribes. The ceremonial and material privileges asso-
ciated with it (perhaps exaggerated by the tribal informants) helped in buying
497 Kister, al-H
.ı¯ra, pp. 1479; Lecker, People, tribes and society in Arabia, index. It would
seem that at that time Medina was no longer controlled from al-Zara but directly from
498 Al-T
.abarı¯, Taprı¯kh, series I, pp. 9589.
499 Abu l-Baqap,al-Man
aqib al-mazyadiyya, vol. II, p. 375.
500 AbuH
atim al-Sijistanı¯, al-Muqammaruna, bound with Al-Was
aby the same author,
ed. qAbd al-Munqim qA
¯mir (Cairo, 1961), pp. 202.qAdı¯ ibn Zayd was jailed at al-
.innayn: al-T
¯, Taprı¯kh, series I, p. 1023. A poet who lived in the transition period
between j
ahiliyya and Islam (mukhad
.ram) was jailed by the Sasanians at al-Mushaqqar:
Ibn H
.ajar al-qAsqalanı¯, al-Is
aba f ı¯ tamyı¯z al-s
aba, ed. qAlı¯ Muh
.ammad al-Bijawı¯, 8vols.
(Cairo, [1970]), vol. II, p. 513.
Pre-Islamic Arabia
[153–170] 26.10.2009 9:40PM
opotentially dangerous tribes. Through trade, military cooperation and
diplomacy Arab tribal leaders and merchants became acquainted with the
courts of the buer kingdoms and the great empires.
Mecca: trade and agriculture
Mecca and Medina, thanks to their association with the history of the Prophet
.ammad and the rise of Islam, are better known to us than many other
settlements in Arabia that may well have been larger, wealthier and more
Mecca and its dominant tribe, Quraysh, reveal a high degree of internal
cohesion; but Meccas stability was in fact based on the preservation of a
balance of power between two rival alliances of Quraysh rather than on any
sense of tribal solidarity. As one can expect, in accounts of Meccas pre-Islamic
history for example, concerning the establishment of its international
caravan trade the Prophets ancestors receive more credit than is due to
them. In any case, this trade was not a myth, but was Meccas main source of
revenue, regardless of the items and the income involved. In Arabian terms
Mecca was a major trade centre, although it is impossible to establish whether
or not it was the largest of its kind in Arabia.
Crossing evidence shows that the Prophet himself had been a merchant
before receiving his rst revelation. Trade partnerships were a signicant
aspect of the economic cooperation between Quraysh and the tribe control-
ling T
apif, the Thaqı¯f. Reportedly, the Qurashı¯Abu Sufyan and the Thaqaf ı¯
Ghaylan ibn Salama traded with Persia, accompanied by a group of people
from both tribes.
Both were Muh
.ammads contemporaries.
In addition to trade, the entrepreneurial Qurashı¯s invested in agriculture.
Since conditions in Mecca itself were uninviting for agriculture, they looked
for opportunities elsewhere. It can be argued that the Qurashı¯ expansion in
Arabia preceded the advent of Islam.
There is a legendary story about the death of H
.arb ibn Umayya, the father
of the above-mentioned Abu Sufyan and the grandfather of the caliph
Muqawiya. He was reportedly killed by the jinn at al-Qurayya north-west of
Mecca, since together with a local partner he disturbed the jinn or killed one
of them by mistake. This occurred while they were clearing a thicket in order
to prepare the land for cultivation. The story probably owes its preservation to
501 Abu Hilal al-qAskarı¯, al-Aw
apil, ed. Muh
.ammad al-Mis
.rı¯ and Walı¯d Qas
ab, 2vols.
(Damascus, 1975), vol. II, p. 228.
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[153–170] 26.10.2009 9:40PM
the legendary elements; but the background details are no doubt factual.
There is rich evidence of pre-Islamic Qurashı¯ involvement in agriculture in
apif, the town that supplied (and still supplies) most of Meccas demand
for fruit;
hence its appellation bust
an al-h
.aram, or the orchard of the sacred
territory of Mecca.
Side by side with the locals who cultivated small tracts
of land, Qurashı¯ entrepreneurs developed large estates in the valleys of T
before the advent of Islam. Many Bedouin of the Qays qAylan and other tribes
earned their living by transporting T
apif ı¯ products to Mecca. At Nakhla north-
east of Mecca a caravan carrying wine, tanned skins and raisins
on its way
from T
apif to Mecca was attacked shortly after the hijra by the Prophets
The best known and perhaps the largest Qurashı¯ property in the vicinity of
apif is al-Waht
., which is located in the valley of Wajj. The father of the
Prophets Companion qAmr ibn al-qA
.owned this estate before Islam. qAmr
further developed it by raising the shoots of many thousands of grape-vines on
pieces of wood made to support them.
Numerous other Qurashı¯s owned estates near T
apif. They included, among
others, Abu Sufyan, qUtba and Shayba sons of Rabı¯qa ibn qAbd Shams, the
Prophets uncle al-qAbbas and al-Walı¯d ibn al-Walı¯d ibn al-Mughı¯ra (the
brother of the famous general Khalid ibn al-Walı¯d).
The Muslim conquests in Palestine and elsewhere are unlikely to have
been accompanied by large-scale devastation of agricultural land and facili-
ties, since qAmr ibn al-qA
.and the other Qurashı¯ generals had previous
experience with agriculture and appreciated the economic value of culti-
vated land.
Medina: a precarious balance
The cluster of towns or villages known before Islam as Yathrib was called
after the town of Yathrib on its north-western side. Under Islam the cluster
502 After the hijra it was one of Muh
.ammads companions, T
.a, who introduced the
sowing of wheat in Medina, while another companion, qAbdallah ibn qA
¯mir, was
famous for his talent for discovering water sources.
503 Muh
.ammad ibn qAbd al-Munqim al-H
.imyarı¯, al-Rawd
ar f ı¯ khabar al-aqt
ar, ed.
.san qAbbas (Beirut, 1975), p. 379a.
504 Muh
.ammad ibn Ish
aq al-fakihı¯, Akhb
ar Makka, ed. qAbd al-Malik ibn qAbdallah ibn
Duhaysh, 6vols. (Mecca, 1987), vol. III, p. 206.
505 Waqidı¯, Magh
azı¯, vol. I, p. 16.
506 fakihı¯, Akhb
ar Makka, vol. III, p. 205 (read qarrasha instead of gharasa); Yaqut, Buld
s.v. al-Waht
Pre-Islamic Arabia
[153–170] 26.10.2009 9:40PM
became known as al-Madı¯na. Major political and military upheavals preced-
ing the hijra contributed to Muh
.ammads success there in ways that are not
yet fully clear.
Medinas large Jewish population was dispersed in both the Sala, or Lower
Medina. in the north and the qA
¯liya, or Upper Medina, in the south. The
.a and Nad
.ı¯r are said to have inhabited the qA
¯liya, while a third large
tribe, the Qaynuqaq, lived in the Sala. But the Nad
.ı¯r probably owned estates
outside the qA
¯liya as well: the town of Zuhra is dened as the town of the
.ı¯r (qaryat banı¯ l-nad
.ı¯r); moreover, one of their notables, Kaqb ibn al-Ashraf,
owned land in al-Jurf north-west of Medina, at the upper part of the qAqı¯q
The oldest stratum in the Arab population of Medina was made up of
members of the Balı¯ and of other tribes, many of whom converted to
Judaism. The Aws and Khazraj, who settled in Medina at a later stage,
became known under Islam by the honoric appellation al-ans
ar (the help-
ers). Unlike the earlier Arab settlers, most of the Aws and Khazraj remained
idol worshippers. When they settled in Medina, their position vis-à-vis the
Jewish tribes was weak. But gradually they gained strength, built fortresses
and planted date orchards. The ans
ar were ridiculed by other tribes for
their initial subjection by the Jews, particularly with regard to the Arab
Jewish king al-Fit
.yawn, the owner of Zuhra(s
.ib Zuhra),
who report-
edly practised the ius prima noctis on the Arab women. No wonder that al-
.yawn gures prominently in ans
arı¯apologetic historiography. Admitting
their initial weakness, they claimed that it came to an end with the killing of
.yawn by a member of the Khazraj; from that moment onward the Jews
were at the mercy of their former clients. However, ans
shouldbetakenwithagrainofsalt.TheJewssuered a setback, or the
Khazrajı¯qAmr ibn al-It
.naba would not have become the king of Yathrib in
the last quarter of the sixth century. But by the advent of Islam the main
Jewish tribes Nad
.ı¯r and Qurayz
.a had regained their power, as is shown by
their victory at the battle of Buqath (615 or 617), together with their Awsı¯
allies, over the powerful Khazraj.
qAmr ibn al-It
.naba and al-Fit
.yawn were not the only kings in Medina before
Islam. Several generations before Islam there lived there a king called Ama ibn
.aram of the Khazraj subdivision called Salima whose powers included the
conscation and redistribution of agricultural land.
507 In due course Muh
.ammad himself owned agricultural land in al-Jurf.
508 Abu l-Faraj al-Is
.fahanı¯, Kit
ab al-agh
anı¯,24 vols. (Cairo, 1927 74), vol. III, p. 40.
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[153–170] 26.10.2009 9:40PM
On the eve of Islam a member of the Khazraj, qAbd Allah ibn Ubayy, was
nearly crowned. Masqudı¯ reports: The Khazraj were superior to the Aws
shortly before the advent of Islam and intended to crown qAbd Allah ibn
Ubayy ibn Salul al-Khazrajı¯. This coincided with the arrival of the Prophet and
his kingship ceased to exist.
Ibn Ubayy did not ght against the JewishAwsı¯ coalition at Buqath,
where his tribe, the Khazraj, was defeated. After Buqathhewasthestron-
gest leader among the Khazraj, and he showed great diplomatic skill in
re-establishing the system of alliances that had existed before Buqath. In this
‘Umar ibn
six generations
Abd al-‘Uzza
- Bakr T
Abd al-Mut
Abd al-Mana
Abd Alla
Abd Shams
- Sufya
2. The Quraysh
509 Quoted in Ibn Saqı¯d, Nashwat al-t
.arab, vol. I, p. 190.
Pre-Islamic Arabia
[153–170] 26.10.2009 9:40PM
system the Nad
.ı¯r were allied with the Khazraj,
while the Qurayz
allied with the Aws. At the time of the hijra the Nad
.ı¯r and Qurayz
the main owners of fortresses and weapons in Medina, which made them
the dominant power there.
510 Samhudı¯, Waf
a, vol. I, pp. 3878, provides valuable evidence on the aftermath
of Buqath.
The New Cambridge History of Islam
... However, it does have some motivating factors, including a sustained increase in nomadic wealth or inequalities, prolonged belowsubsistence conditions, or as a technique for maintaining rather than breaking up large units (Khazanov 1984: 157-8;Planhol 1968: 443-69;Butzer 1957: 359-71;Barth 1964). The kind of sedentarization that is historically most associated with the rise of Islam occasioned a deep involvement in and dependence on trade for survival (Lecker 2010). This trade emerged out of a surrounding context of a resourceless nature and an originally nomadic society and world outlook. ...
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The chapter explores the society and culture of West Central Arabia around the dawn of Islam. It notes in particular the tension between nomadic and sedentary ways of life, the role of world trade in fostering sedentary settlements, and the relationship between economic conditions, political structures, and patterns of solidarity in giving rise to spiritual experimentation. The chapter traces the fortunes of a few pre‐Islamic experiments in giving shape to a new and broader concept of “society,” upon which an Islamic edifice was eventually built.
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In Arabia, the first half of the sixth century CE was marked by the demise of Himyar, the dominant power in Arabia until 525 CE. Important social and political changes followed, which promoted the disintegration of the major Arabian polities. Here, we present hydroclimate records from around Southern Arabia, including a new high-resolution stalagmite record from northern Oman. These records clearly indicate unprecedented droughts during the sixth century CE, with the most severe aridity persisting between ~500 and 530 CE. We suggest that such droughts undermined the resilience of Himyar and thereby contributed to the societal changes from which Islam emerged.
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This paper proposes a way to study the prologue paratexts, which have not been worked as a whole in the case of Arab-Islamic historiography. The aim is to study the paratexts themselves, but also in relation to the analysis of Latin and Byzantine prologues in order to establish comparisons and contrasts and identify peculiarities between East and West in the general framework of the late and medieval historiographies and the influences from the mediterranean, allowing to appreciate its value as a “circulation space” of knowledge and traditions that imply the continuity of a common intellectual register. In other words, to analyze texts in their contexts. In this sense, we assess these circulations in the context of the so-called “mediterranean consonance” concerning the writing of history between the 4th and the 10th centuries. It is in this space that mediates between the 7th and 9th centuries that the bridge connecting those worlds is built thanks to the islamic conquest of the Medieval Near East, where the greco-roman tradition had already deeply penetrated, and the consolidation of the Islamic Empire after the Battle of Talas and the conquest of North Africa in the Umayyad era.
Studies in Islamic history and civilization in honour of David Ayalon
  • M J Kister
Ibn Qutayba, al-Maq arif, ed. Tharwat qUk asha (Cairo, 1969), pp. 640-1; quoted in M. J. Kister, 'Mecca and the tribes of Arabia', in M. Sharon (ed.), Studies in Islamic history and civilization in honour of David Ayalon (Jerusalem and Leiden, 1986), p 50; repr. in Kister, Society and religion, no. 2 Cf. qUthm an ibn al-H. uwayrith's attempt to gain control of Mecca on behalf of the Byzantine emperor: Kister, 'al-H. ı ¯ra', p. 154.
Arab-Persian land relationships in late Sasānid Oman
  • J C Wilkinson
J. C. Wilkinson, 'Arab-Persian land relationships in late Sas anid Oman', in Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies, 3 (1973), pp. 41, 44-7.
Cf. qUthm an ibn al-H . uwayrith's attempt to gain control of Mecca on behalf of the Byzantine emperor: Kister
  • M J Kister
Ibn Qutayba, al-Maq arif, ed. Tharwat qUk asha (Cairo, 1969), pp. 640-1; quoted in M. J. Kister, 'Mecca and the tribes of Arabia', in M. Sharon (ed.), Studies in Islamic history and civilization in honour of David Ayalon (Jerusalem and Leiden, 1986), p 50; repr. in Kister, Society and religion, no. 2 Cf. qUthm an ibn al-H. uwayrith's attempt to gain control of Mecca on behalf of the Byzantine emperor: Kister, 'al-H. īra', p. 154.
A pre-Islamic endowment deed in Arabic regarding al-Waḥīda in the Ḥijāz
  • M Lecker
Nawādir al-makhṭūṭāt
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Labbayka, allāhumma, Labbayka: On a monotheistic aspect of a Jāhiliyya practice
  • M J Kister