The Seventh Century A.D.
Around 600, the city of Mecca, in modern-day Saudi Arabia, had blossomed into a prosperous oasis town. Benefiting from its position at the intersection of two major caravan routes and its status as a religious/cultural center, the city became very wealthy. As shrewd businessmen, Mecca's ruling tribe, the Quraish, used their resources to provide legendary hospitality to travelers and pilgrims alike.
The Culture of Mecca
As a religious center, Mecca was home to the famed Ka'ba, a cube-shaped building that housed 360 statues of Arabian gods. Each year, pilgrims from across Arabia traveled to Mecca, paying homage to the gods by offering animal sacrifices and making several laps around the Ka'ba. In addition, worshipers revered the Ka'ba's mysterious black stone (possibly a meteorite) by kissing it during their march around the sacred building. As the vast majority of Arabs were polytheistic, many rituals and beliefs reflected their desire to appease the gods and repel spirits known as jinn.
As a cultural center, Mecca was home to artisans, poets, and musicians who made their living from the city's reliable flow of traders and pilgrims. Of all the local artists, poets were the most respected. In fact, poetry was the most popular form of entertainment, making talented orators comparable to modern-day Hollywood stars. From romantic stories of brave warriors to the hilarious accounts of foolish men, spectators paid performers according to their skill. Verbal masters also received handsome sums for their freestyle flattery of wealthy individuals. With magical monologues and ingenious imagery, Meccan poets amazed the masses with rhythmic rhyming.
“I will grant you three wishes . . . ” The popular Western image of the genie in the lamp was inspired by the ancient Arabian belief in beings known as jinn. These humanlike spirit beings were thought to wreak havoc on unprotected humans, even entering their bodies at times.
Although most Arabs in the early seventh century were polytheistic, several other traditions found their way into this region. Several shades of Christian thought (likely including some obscure groups deemed heretical by the Byzantine Church) had made their way into the Arabian Peninsula. Judaism was also a noticeable movement within Arabia. Not only had Jews gained prominence in the city of Yathrib, along the Yemen-to-Syria trade route, but they also controlled the northern oasis town of Khayber. In addition, the former kingdom of Saba’ (in present-day Yemen) saw many polytheists convert to Judaism, including the king.
As monotheists settled in oasis towns and moved across Arabia's trade routes, some Arabs questioned the existence of one all-powerful God, as others leaned in the opposite direction. A mysterious group, known as the Hanifs, moved toward a more monotheistic view. Although the details of their exact theology are hazy, it seems the Hanifs elevated one deity, known as “The God” (Allah in Arabic), to the highest position above lesser Arabian gods and goddesses. Although the Hanifs didn't gather many followers, times were changing, as new ideas simmered in the desert.
It was in this divergent religious environment that Muhammad ibn Àbdullah, a forty-year-old Meccan from the Quraish tribe's Hashemite clan, began to question his family's traditions. Were there many gods, one God in charge of lesser gods, or one singular deity? If only one God existed, who was following the right path, the Jews or the Christians? To find answers, Muhammad secluded himself in the mountains near Mecca, fasting and meditating for weeks on end. Then one day everything changed!