Pre-Islamic Arabia

Nabataean trade routes in Pre-Islamic Arabia

Pre-Islamic Arabia[1] refers to the Arabian Peninsula prior to the rise of Islam in the 630s.

Some of the settled communities developed into distinctive civilizations, and are limited to archaeological evidence, accounts written outside of Arabia and Arab oral traditions later recorded by Islamic scholars. Among the most prominent civilizations were the Thamud which arose around 3000 BCE and lasted to about 300 CE and Dilmun which arose around the end of the fourth millennium and lasted to about 600 CE. Additionally, from the beginning of the first millennium BCE, Southern Arabia was the home to a number of kingdoms such as the Sabaeans and Eastern Arabia was inhabited by Semitic speakers who presumably migrated from the southwest, such as the so-called Samad population. A few nodal points were controlled by Iranian Parthian and Sassanian colonists.

Pre-Islamic religion in Arabia consisted of indigenous polytheistic beliefs, Ancient Arabian Christianity, Nestorian Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. It is called the period of Jahilliyyah that is the age of ignorance.


Scientific studies of Pre-Islamic Arabs starts with the Arabists of the early 19th century when they managed to decipher epigraphic Old South Arabian (10th century BCE), Ancient North Arabian (6th century BCE) and other writings of pre-Islamic Arabia. Thus, studies are no longer limited to the written traditions, which are not local due to the lack of surviving Arab historians' accounts of that era; the paucity of material is compensated for by written sources from other cultures (such as Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, etc.), so it was not known in great detail. From the 3rd century CE, Arabian history becomes more tangible with the rise of the Ḥimyarite, and with the appearance of the Qaḥṭānites in the Levant and the gradual assimilation of the Nabataeans by the Qaḥṭānites in the early centuries CE, a pattern of expansion exceeded in the Muslim conquests of the 7th century. Sources of history include archaeological evidence, foreign accounts and oral traditions later recorded by Islamic scholars—especially in the pre-Islamic poems—and the Ḥadīth, plus a number of ancient Arab documents that survived into medieval times when portions of them were cited or recorded. Archaeological exploration in the Arabian Peninsula has been sparse but fruitful; and many ancient sites have been identified by modern excavations. The most recent detailed study of pre-Islamic Arabia is Arabs and Empires Before Islam, published by Oxford University Press in 2015. This book collects a diverse range of ancient texts and inscriptions for the history especially of the norther region during this time period.

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