Arabia is a peninsula of deserts. Before the founding of Islam, most Arabs were Bedouins, that is, wandering camel herdsmen. Their main source of livelihood was pastoralism and the produce of the desert oases such as dates. Craft production was very limited, trade was sluggish and urban development minimal. In the second half of the 6th century, the economy picked up some momentum due to a shift in long distance trade routes.
There was an ongoing war between the two dominant neighboring empires of Arabia, namely the Roman and the Persian. Because of these wars, Arabia became a safer transit route than others for caravans going between Africa and Asia. This encouraged the growth of some important towns that took advantage of this trade.
The most prominent of these was Mecca which lay on the junction of some major trade routes. Mecca’s position also derived from its local religious importance since the Kabah, a pilgrimage shrine was located here. The Kabah at that time served as a centre of worship for diverse Arabian clans and tribes. This shrine was controlled by the Quraysh tribe which played a powerful role in the economic life of Mecca.
A brilliant civilisation arose in Arabia in the Medieval Period which influenced a large section of the world population. It owed its emergence to the birth of Islam, which was a significant development in world history.
Prophet Muhammad who spread Islam was born in Mecca into the Quraysh tribe in 570 AD. He was brought up by his uncle since he was orphaned early in life. He grew up to be a prosperous trader, entering the service of a rich widow Khadija, whom he later married. Polytheism or belief in many Gods was replaced by a strict monotheism or belief in one God which became the basis for this new religion known as Islam and Muhammad was hailed as a ‘Prophet’.
At first, he was not very successful in gaining many converts amongst the Quraysh, except for a limited few including his wife Khadija. Meanwhile, representatives of another town in the north called Yathrib invited Prophet Muhammad to come and resolve their local rivalries. In 622 AD, Muhammad with his followers migrated to that town. That year of migration was called Hijrah and the town was renamed as Medina.
He continuously began to organise his converts into a political as well as religious community. In an attempt to spread his faith to Mecca, he and his followers conducted raids on caravans of the Quraysh. He finally succeeded in 630 AD and entered Mecca after defeating the Quraysh. The Quraysh submitted to the new faith and the Kabah henceforth became the main shrine of Islam. After the defeat of Mecca, other tribes throughout Arabia accepted the new faith.
Islam has simple doctrines. The word ‘Islam’ means absolute submission to God and adherence to faith. The followers of this faith are knows as Muslims. Islam teaches that there is only one God. Prophet Muhammad is believed by Muslims to be the last and greatest prophet of God. They also recognise the prophets of the Jews and Christians.
Muslims believe in the Day of Judgement when the pious would be granted eternal life in paradise and the wicked would be damned. Quran is the holy book of the Muslims which is a compilation of the revelations that Prophet Muhammad was believed to have received from God. These steps include dedication to a life of morality and compassion, adherence to some set religious observances like prayer and fast at stipulated times, charity, pilgrimage to Mecca and frequent recitation from the Quran.
Apart from the Quran, the Sunna or Practices of the Prophet and Hadis or Sayings of the Prophet also set the norms for desirable behavior among Muslims.
In Islam, there are no intermediaries between the individual and God. Instead of priests there are only religious scholars who have the authority to comment on the religion and religious laws. Islam also preaches equality of all. Islam has many similarities in doctrine and beliefs with Judaism and Christianity.
Arab Philosophy was based on the study of earlier Greek thought. Greek Philosophy was cultivated by philosophers who believed in rationality. These philosophers apart from their philosophical speculation were also distinguished in studying Natural Sciences. They practiced Astrology and Medicine. Their astrology was based on accurate astronomical observation.
In medicine, they not only studied the medical writings of the Greeks carefully but went much beyond that. Ibn Sina, known to the West as Avicenna, discovered the infectious nature of tuberculosis and described several types of nervous ailments. Al-Razi, known to the West as Rhazes, one of the greatest clinical physicians of the Medieval World discovered the difference between measles and smallpox. Other Arabic physicians also diagnosed cancer of the stomach and prescribed antidotes for cases of poisoning.
An interesting feature about the Arab people is that they excelled over all other medieval cultures in the organisation of hospitals. There seems to have been at least 34 hospitals located in important cities of Persia, Syria and Egypt organised on remarkably modern lines.
The Arabs also excelled in Optics, Chemistry and Mathematics. Physicists founded the Science of Optics and drew a number of significant conclusions regarding the velocity, transmission and refraction of light.
In chemistry, these people are credited with the discovery of various new substances and compounds like carbonate of soda, alum, saltpeter, nitric and sulphuric acids among other things. There were also the first to describe the chemical processes of distillation, filtration and sublimation.
In mathematics, the greatest accomplishment of Arabs was to bring together the Geometry of the Greeks and the Number System of the Indians. In fact, the use of the Indian Number System spread so widely through the Arabs that the west named them ‘Arabic Numerals’. With a synthesis of all this existing knowledge, the Arabs were able to make great progress in Arithmetic, Geometry and Trigonometry. These Indian numerals are even now used all over the world. They have not now come to be known as European numerals.
The Arab Civilisation was also noted for its Literature particularly poetry. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is an example of poetry that is remembered to this day.
Arab Art also represented a beautiful synthesis of various styles like the Byzantine and the Persian. Architecture was the most important of the Arab arts. Examples of Arab architecture include mosques, palaces and madrasas. Its principal features were domes, minarets, arches ,etc.
In short it may be said that at a time when the West was lagging far behind, Arab Civilisation was at its peak intellectually and artistically. The establishment of a vast empire brought the Arabs into contact with diverse cultures such as Arab, Persian, Turkish, Indian and African. With these diverse elements it created a splendid society leaving behind a legacy of discoveries and achievements.