On the Eve of Islam: Archaeological Evidence from Eastern Arabia

Article excerpt


'Few events in human history have transformed the face of such a large part of the globe as rapidly and as decisively as did the expansion of early Islam' is Fred Donner's somewhat Churchillian assessment of the historical significance of the early Islamic conquests (Donner 1981: 3). There is no doubt, though, that he is right. The emergence, from the sparsely populated and relatively under-developed Arabian Peninsula, of the force that was utterly and irrevocably to transform the face of antiquity is amongst the most extraordinary of historical phenomena.

Little is known about the conquests and there is still considerable scholarly disagreement about their nature: but whether one believes that they were a deliberate strategy conceived and organised under the banner of Islam (Donner 1981) or, at the other extreme, an attempt to reclaim the Promised Land inspired by Jewish messianism (Crone & Cook 1977), it is clear that the key to our understanding of the rise and early spread of Islam is to be found in the development of Arabia during the Late Antique period.

This is a difficult period for the historian because the related historiographical problems are almost insurmountable. Briefly stated, the relevant Islamic sources are based on oral traditions that began to be written down only about 150 years after the events that they describe, by which time the Islamic state had come into being and had developed its own political ideology and religious and cultural identity. The early history of Islam was, therefore, reconstructed by or for those with vested interests in this state in a way that was useful or meaningful to them (Humphreys 1991: 69-103; Robinson 2003: 39-54). The Jewish, Christian and Zoroastrian sources that could in theory be used to corroborate the Islamic tradition are all problematic because they are either entirely lacking for the period concerned, or are ignorant or potentially prejudiced about events within the peninsula. Inscriptions and poems survive but are brief and treat only a limited range of subjects; they certainly do not provide a sustained narrative of events (Hoyland 1997). The historical problems are compounded by the fact that the archaeology of late pre-Islamic and early Islamic Arabia is still in its infancy.

Nonetheless a number of theories exist about this period. For example, Watt has proposed that the rise of Islam was related to social tensions caused by the booming Meccan trade economy (Watt 1953). Crone, by contrast, has suggested that it was part of a nativist reaction to the advancing colonisation of the peninsula by the Byzantines and Sasanians (1987: 245-50). It has also been argued, more recently, that a sixth-century ecological crisis led to a breakdown in Arabian tribal structures and created a socio-political vacuum that was filled by Islam (Korotaev et al. 1999).

In order to address this question, the present paper will examine the archaeology of the Sasanian and early Islamic periods in historical 'Uman (modern Oman and the United Arab Emirates) where the archaeological record is considerably better than for elsewhere. In particular, it will examine a series of recently excavated sites that have begun to provide some tentative insights into developments in the centuries leading up to the Islamisation of this particular region (Figure 1).


Between the third and the seventh century Eastern Arabia came under Sasanian influence. After Ardashir's c. AD 240 campaign the area between modern Qatar and Kuwait was, for the most part, controlled by the Sasanian clients, the Lakhmids who were based in Hira (Kister 1968) but the nature of Sasanian control over 'Uman itself is less clear. The province was listed by Shapur I (241-72) as part of his empire but control may have already been lost by the end of the third century (Maricq 1958; Gignoux 1971: 93). Control was reasserted early in the reign of Khusraw Anushirawan (531-78/9). …