Home Geography Arabic-Islamic views of the Latin West : tracing the emergence of medieval Europe
The Pre-Islamic and Early Islamic Period
Political developments during the two centuries preceding the rise of Islam were crucial in the formation of Arabic-Islamic perceptions of the Roman Empire. The western and eastern halves of the empire drifted apart at the latest from the end of the fourth century onwards. In addition, so-called ‘barbarian’ elites began to assume power in all parts of the west. Consequently, the flux of people, goods, and ideas characteristic of the preceding centuries decreased considerably. Justinian’s efforts at restoring the former unity of the empire by campaigning against Vandals in North Africa, Ostrogoths in Italy, and Visigoths in the Spanish Levant in the middle of the sixth century, (re-)established Roman-Byzantine hegemony in the Mediterranean. This created a buffer as well as an intermediary between the emerging post-Roman polities in the West and the Arab sphere. When Muhammad began preaching the message of Islam, Byzantium represented the Roman Empire. 
This geopolitical constellation characteristic of the sixth and early seventh centuries is reflected in pre-Islamic and early Islamic written sources. Contemporary epigraphic material and pre-Islamic prose texts on papyri do not lend themselves to a reconstruction of how Arab groups in the sixth century perceived the Roman Empire.5 However, pre-Islamic Arabic poetry as well as later historiographical accounts dealing with the pre-Islamic period contain enough references to the empire as to facilitate analysis. The Qur’an as well as later Muslim historiography about the early formative period of Islam provide the material to reconstruct how the early Muslims perceived the Roman Empire before they began to control large parts of the Mediterranean from the 630s onwards.
Insofar as they can be regarded as authentic expressions of a pre-Islamic worldview, given that they were only put down in writing later, pre-Islamic sources of the sixth century refer to the Roman Empire in the terms ‘Caesar’ (qaysar) and ‘Romans/Byzantines’ (al-Rum). It is portrayed as a hegemonic power meddling in Arab affairs that forces the latter to position themselves either with or against it. In a poem probably composed in the first half of the sixth century, the poet ‘Abid b. al-Abras al-Asadi criticizes his contemporary Imru l-Qays b. Hujr for having demanded imperial support, implicitly denigrating those who bowed to imperial power, i.e. ‘the Syrians’:
Didst thou say that thou wouldst seek to Caesar (qaysar) for help? — then shalt thou
surely die a Syrian (Shdmi) [i.e. a subject to the empire]!
In a poem dated around 550 ce, the poet al-Akhnas b. Shihab al-Taghlibi lashes out against the Banu Ghassan for drawing back on imperial support, since this proved that they were not able to fight for themselves:
And Ghassan — their strength, all know, is other than in their kin — for them fight the
legions and the squadrons.
Rome represented more than a political force. The conversion of several Arab groups, in particular the Banu Ghassan and the Banu Lakhm, was the result of missionary efforts emanating from the empire’s provinces.10 It created ecclesiastical ties with the empire’s Christian infrastructure and forced Christianized Arab groups to position themselves vis-a-vis Byzantium’s religious policy.n Conversion entailed the adoption of a Christian collective memory that assigned an important role to the Roman Empire. Christian scripture even mentions the Roman West, e.g. the emperor Augustus in the gospels or Roman Spain in Paul’s letter to the congregation of Rome.12 Pre-Islamic Christianized Arabs could not have ignored that the early history of Christianity had unfolded within a wider Roman Empire.
To a certain extent, this also applies to the early Muslims whose environment was exposed to Christian influences. An Arabic idiom for the preaching of the gospel, created by Christian Arabs in direct contact with both Byzantium and the early centres of Islam/3 ensured that, by the sixth century, Christianity had penetrated the Arabian Peninsula. 14 Admittedly, Qur’anic references to Christianity are completely devoid of historical information. Jesus never appears in a historical, i.e. Roman, context/5 The sura dedicated to the Seven Sleepers of Ephesos (sura 18: ahl al-kahf), identified in Christian sources as seven Christians fleeing Roman persecution under the emperor Decius/6 only refers to their plight and an ensuing miracle without providing any indications as to the place, time, or historical circumstances of the event/7 However, Qur’anic allusions to the past generally lack historical context and require that listeners and readers reconstruct the historical framework of a particular episode. 1® Muslim tradition as represented by Ibn Hisham’s (d. 213/828 or 218/833) biography of Muhammad or the sayings and deeds of the prophet collected by al-Bukhar! (d. 256/870), claims that contemporaries considered Muhammad’s relative Waraqa b. Nawfal an expert on Jewish and Christian scripture.w It seems plausible that Muslim addressees with a thorough knowledge of Christianity would be able to contextualize Qur’anic allusions to Jesus and to place early Christian protagonists within (vol. 1, p. 416) that explicitly connects this verse to ‘al-Rum’: ‘yaqul hum mulukun wa-lam yakunu kathiran: wa-kanat al-Rum tuwalihum wa-tuqatilu anhum fa-izzuhum fi ghayrihim’.
a historical setting. Notwithstanding, historical information on the Roman context of Christianity—as opposed to its theological message—was certainly of secondary importance to the early Muslim audience of the Qur’an.20
How to judge the Byzantine Empire from a religious point of view is a recurrent topic in sources on the early formative period of IslamH The Qur’an contains a complete sura entitled ‘al-Rum’ (sura 30), which dates from the Meccan period (610-22 ce) and contains two passages of interest. At the beginning, the sura reads:
The majority of later Muslim commentators claim that these verses reacted to the Byzantine defeat after the Persian conquest of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt in the second decade of the seventh century. It predicted a future Byzantine victory over the Persians and defined such a victory as a cause for joy. Regardless whether the term ‘believers’ applies to Byzantines or MuslimsTh the verses in question would express early Muslim sympathy for the cause of ‘al-Rum’, a people spiritually akin, whose victory, in the words of Nadia El Cheikh, ‘signifies the triumph of the Book over polytheism’.24
Alternative readings of the sura feature the verb forms ‘ghalabat’ (instead of ‘ghulibat’) and ‘sa-yughlabuna’ (instead of ‘sa-yaghlibuna’), thus producing the following translation:
(2) The Rum have been victorious (ghalabat) / (3) in the lands nearby, but after their victory they will be defeated (sa-yughlabuna) / (4) in a few years — command is due to God before and after, and on this day the believers (al-mu minun) will rejoice / (5) in God’s help, he gives victory to whom he willsA
Al-Tabari (d. 310/923), one of the most comprehensive and influential commentators, regards this reading as false, but provides supporting material nevertheless. According to the latter, the verses predict the Muslim conquest of Byzantine territory and assure the Muslims of God’s support.26 Rudi Paret and Nadia El Cheikh both believe that the second reading developed from the first reading, thus docu-      
26 Paret, Kommentar (2005), p. 388.
menting a shift in the Muslim perception of the Byzantines from brothers in faith to spiritual and military rivals.27
Several verses later in the same sura, an invective against those who promote religious factionism may refer to Christianity in the Byzantine Empire of the early seventh century^8 warning the early Muslims not to be divided in religious matters:
(31) and fear Him, perform the ritual prayers and do not be like those who ascribe partners unto Him (al-mushrikin), (32) who have divided their religion, thus becoming various sects, every faction rejoicing in what it has.29
Later Arabic-Islamic historiographers stress the prophet’s links to the divine sphere and position themselves vis-a-vis the theological and sociopolitical currents of their lifetime. It is unclear what they really knew about Byzantine-Arab relations in the early period of Islam. However, in the absence of alternative sources, such works as al-Waqidi’s (d. 207/822) kitab al-maghazi and Ibn Sa'd’s (d. 230/845) kitab al-tabaqat al-kubrai    may shed some light on what the Byzantine Empire meant to the early Muslims a few years before the expansion.
Byzantium certainly demanded respect. According to al-Waqidi, the early Muslims were well aware of Byzantium’s power. They had been able to estimate Byzantine strength during commercial travels, feared this enemy and kept informed about affairs in Byzantine Syria:
The Saqita, that is the Nabateans (al-Anbat), used to come to al-Madlna with fine flour and oil in the times of ignorance (al-jahiliyya) as well as after the conversion to Islam. Consequently and because of the great number of Nabateans coming, news from Syria was available to the Muslims every day . . . . Thus, news arrived. They reported that the Rum had assembled their troops in Syria, that Heraclius had provisioned his companions for the period of one year and that he brought the tribes Lakhm, Judham, Ghassan and ‘Amila with them, that they had approached and brought their vanguard to al-Balqa’ and camped there, whereas Heraclius had been kept behind in Hims. This was not true, however, but something that had been said to them and that they had passed on. However, there was no enemy feared more by the Muslims, this because of what they had seen regarding their numbers, their equipment and their arms when they had set foot in their territory as tradersA
The early Muslims also knew that Byzantine culture was more developed materially. According to Ibn Sa'd, the future caliph 'Umar b. al-Khattab (d. 23/644) contrasted the prophet’s modest furnishings—a simple floor mat and a leather cushion filled with fibre—to the silk and brocade used by the rulers of Byzantium and Persia.32
Several anecdotes deal with the reactions of Byzantines and Byzantine allies to the message of Islam as presented in letters sent by the prophet.33 The emperor Heraclius (qaysar; Hiraql) allegedly summoned Roman grandees in a church of Emesa/Hims to adopt the religion of ‘this Arabian prophet’. Following the latter, Heraclius stated, would be true to the message of Jesus and guarantee divine guidance, stability, and prosperity to the empire. In view of the grandees’ unfavourable reaction to his request, Heraclius declared that he had only wanted to test their religious steadfastness.34 The Ghassanid ruler Harith b. Abi Shamr in Damascus is said to have accorded friendly treatment to the prophet’s messenger only when he received corresponding orders from the emperor.35 Farwa b. 'Amr al-Judhami, the emperor’s governor in 'Amman allegedly converted to Islam without having been invited to do so,36 while the Ghassanid ruler Jabala b. al-Ayham is said to have converted and then to have apostatized.37 The sources even deal with the reactions on the part of a Byzantine subject (Rumi) of inferior status: Muri, gatekeeper to the Ghassanid ruler in Damascus, reportedly cried when he heard Muhammad’s message, identifying him with the prophet announced in the gospels.38
Ibn Sa'd also describes how tribesmen from the Arabian Peninsula regarded Byzantium. A certain Qays b. Nusaybah of the Banu Sulaym praised the superiority of Muhammad’s message to everything he had heard among ‘al-Rum’, the Persians etc., and decided to preach Islam to his tribe.39 More materialistic is the reaction of a certain Tamim, a convert to Islam from the delegation of the Dariyyin, seemingly a Christian subgroup of the Banu Lakhm from Palestine.40 On the prophet’s inda l-muslimin minhum, wa-dhalika li-ma ayanu minhum—idh kanu yaqdimuna alayhim tujjaran— min al-'udad wa-l-'udda wa-l-kura'’; Wellhausen, Muhammed (1882), p. 391.
return from a campaign to Tabuk in 9/630, he asked the latter to confer two Byzantine villages called H ibra and Bayt 'Aynum on him as soon as Syria had been conquered.    Muhammad may have occasionally incited such an attitude. According to al-Waqidi, he tried to convince a certain Abu Wahb al-Jadd b. Qays to join the raid to Tabuk, asking him if he did not wish to acquire some Byzantine girls (banat al-Asfar).42
This sketchy and fragmentary overview cannot but convey an impression of what the pre-Islamic Arabs of the sixth century, as well as the first Muslims of the early seventh century, may have seen in the polity and society represented by the terms ‘qaysar’ and ‘al-Rum’. More systematic research could enlarge the spectrum of perceptions, elaborate on nuances, and subject the above-mentioned texts, which all date from later periods, to rigorous criticism. For the time being, they provide an idea of how the Arab sphere of the sixth and early seventh centuries acted and reacted in the shadow of its giant neighbour.
In short, these texts suggest that the pre-Islamic and early Islamic Arabs’ knowledge about the Roman Empire was limited to their immediate experiences with Byzantium. Historical knowledge about the Byzantine neighbour—as opposed to the Arabs’ much longer tribal memory43—was largely restricted to the collective memory of a few generations. Apart from a few references to the life of Jesus and the persecution of Christians in the Qur’an, the extant sources primarily refer to contemporary issues and never mention events of the distant (as opposed to the very recent) past. It is noteworthy that Arab experiences with the Byzantine orbit are always shrouded in implicit poetical allusions or prose anecdotes. Arab groups of this period were accustomed to dealing with the neighbouring empire. Notwithstanding, their intellectual preoccupation with it was obviously not as systematic as is the case in later Arabic-Islamic historiography of the ninth century. As will be shown, these earliest systematic treatments of Roman history depend on sources provided by Oriental Christians, Jews, and other groups, not on the collective memory of pre-Islamic Arabs.44
The above-mentioned sources also suggest that the Roman West was non-existent in the pre-Islamic and early Islamic Arab collective memory of the sixth and early seventh centuries. Knowledge, which may have been available thanks to Roman- Arab relations before the fifth century or to Arab groups in touch with Constantinople, does not seem to have survived the transition from a pre-Islamic Arab to a specifically Arabic-Islamic collective memory.45 From an Arabic-Islamic perspective, Rome as a historical category of, geographically speaking, Euromediterranean dimensions only seems to have emerged forcefully as soon as the expansion led the Muslims westwards.
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