It was in the fertile valleys of the Euphrates the Tigris and ancient Mesopotamia that man first built cities and extended a form of governmental authority over surrounding settlements. These city-states were the first bastions of civilisation that allowed their people the protection and luxury to develop the social and cultural skills necessary to assure some semblance of control over large populations. It was here that concepts of social privilege for the ruling classes were born. The revenues from the urban communities, which were based on agriculture, were used to establish a class of aristocracy who ruled these lands by dint of hereditary rights.

There also arose a need to exemplify the status of these rulers by deeming them representatives of higher authority, such as the gods of local myth and legend. Priests and holy-men gave credence to such legends. Temples were built and an enormous effort was put into creating a system of belief, which protected the place of the king in the society.

In such an agrarian-based culture the peasant was deemed worthy of only having the barest essentials for existence. The bulk of the produce went to those who served to maintain internal order, protect the state from external aggression, trade essential material to and from the city or specialise in other important tasks. Those who controlled the revenues patronised all that was refined in cultural life. The fine arts of leather, cloth, wood ornamentation, jewellery making and poetry writing blossomed in the confines of these cities under the patronage of the well to do. Traders and merchants found it hard to sell their wares in times of low agricultural production. The life in the citied settlements was based on a peasant-driven agrarian economy.

Major changes in urban civilisation came in 800-200 BC, sometimes referred to as the Axial Age. Before this time lettered scripts were used by only a select priestly class who guarded and developed their literature in strict isolation. After this Age the lettered tradition passed to the bourgeoisie and intellectuals especially among the Greeks and later the Romans. This development spurned a division of the known Old World into distinctive sub-groups and cultures based as much on geographical factors as cultural ones.

The Axial Age

The Greeks regarded the area between the Atlantic and the Pacific and between the equator and the north as the ‘inhabited quarter’ of the world or the ‘Oikoumene’. This Oikoumene remained the setting of most historical life in the hemisphere down to Modern times. This area also remained based on an agrarian culture till such a time that other industries began to fuel the economies of the society. However this only happened in the beginning of the 18th century at the start of the ‘Technological Age’.

In the Old World the Axial Age ushered in the development of four major complexes of civilised tradition:

The European complex included the core area from Anatolia to Italy along the north of the Mediterranean Sea. Greek and Latin were the classical languages spoken in this complex.

The Middle Eastern complex included the region from the Nile to Oxus

and extended from centre of the Fertile Crescent to the Iranian highlands. Semitic and Iranian languages were spoken in this area.

The Indic complex included the Indian area and the lands to the south-east of it. Sanskrit and Pali were spoken in this area.

The Far Eastern complex included China and its neighbouring lands. Chinese was spoken in this area.

These regions were in close contact, therefore, mutual influence and even sharing of common heritage in commerce, art, religion and science occurred in these areas.

By the eighth and seventh century BC, the people of the Afro-Eurasian landmass began to develop a system of inter-dependency. They were tied to each other by trade networks and military and social allegiances. The area of the Fertile Crescent also began to boast a diverse mix of people such as the Sumerians, Akkadians, Hurrians, Hittites and Urartians who over the time developed into a cosmopolitan regional high culture. Once the originally binding empires had disintegrated, the market became the major focus of the high culture and trade an important determinant of the region’s prosperity. This area was to be the birthplace of the future Irano-Semitic traditions.

Hellenic Influence in the Fertile Crescent

During the Assyrian influence in the Irano-Semitic area, Aramaic became the language of the merchant class and later of the court as well as the common peasantry. This tradition asked its followers to conform to a moral order that looked to the attainment of social justice and equality as the supreme goal in civilised life. The Aramaic tradition began to characterise the people of the Fertile Crescent. It became a unifying force for future empires in the region (e.g. the Achaemenid Persian Empire).

It was in 300 BC that Hellenic tradition from the Northwest entered the Fertile Crescent with the invading armies of Alexander. The Hellenic tradition revered the external nature of the individual and sought justice in cosmic harmony. It was in this context that later the natural sciences, centring on mathematics and astronomy, became associated with the Hellenistic aspect of culture in the region. This was to remain so till the time of the Islamicate Civilisation’s beginning.

The Confessional Religions

The confessional religions were organised religious traditions that looked for personal adherence to moral beliefs embodied in a collection of sacred scriptures.

The fundamental postulate of these religions was that a comprehensive solution to man’s problems would involve a world beyond death. The Ibrahimic religious communities, that were chiefly Jewish or Christian, could be traced back to the traditions of Hebrew prophets. They both recognised the act of faith of IbrahimR.A as their point of origin. Out of these two major religious traditions, the religion of Judaism and Christianity started. The latter managed to establish political representation and even official status in the Roman Empire.

The development and spread of other confessional religions such as Zoroastrian and Mazdeism in Persia, Vaishnaism and Shaivism in India and Buddhism in China ensured that religious allegiances would now form the basis for greater regional demarcation and political identity.

Khusrow Nushirvan

Early in the Sasanian period the empire became based on firm principles of Mazdeism. The religion envisioned social justice in harmony with an aristocratic social order. Agriculture was considered the noblest of occupations. The peasant was in principle, greatly respected. He was not expected to understand the subtleties of religion. Such matters were reserved for a higher body of hereditary and aristocratic priests. In practice the monotheistic traits of the Mazdean tradition were always threatened by compromise on the top social levels for the Sasanian state religion. Once the official Mazdeism became clearly established, unrecognised communities were allotted an inferior position. The empire was committed to the agrarian gentry because it provided it with its primary armed forces.

By the late fifth century, Mazdak, a leader who was against the social order under Mazdeism, persuaded the then monarch Qubad to undermine the nobles growing power and withdraw their social privileges. Many nobles lost their property while the commoners were raised to high positions. All this resulted in only more chaos and turmoil.

Khusrow Nushirvan, who was successor to Qubad, reversed these orders. Mazdak and many of his followers were massacred. The old official Mazdeism was restored. The nobles could never fully regain their lost position. This gave Nushirvan the opportunity to reorganise the whole empire and set taxation on a more commercial basis. He used Arab tribesmen, who were independent of links to the gentry, and accustomed to fighting. He developed a strong army. The Arab pastoral society was inherently fragmented and hence less of a threat as compared to that posed by the nobles.

Nushirvan’s time is considered to be the peak of Sasanian literary culture. He was remembered as a model king of a model dynasty and Muslim scholars are proud to note that Muhammad (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) was born during his reign.

The Bedouins and the Arabs

Camel nomads or Bedouin as they were later known became well established in the margins of Syria and Yemen. Camel nomadism was a highly specialised form of life. These nomads had special technical and social skills.

It was only after the domestication of the camel, in the second millennium that they were able to move out into arid regions. They developed and enhanced their trade links considerably in the Arabian Peninsula. This area covered arid steppe lands interspersed with great reaches of rock. It was visited in the winter and spring by sporadic rains that supported transient vegetation. The Bedouins had to frequently keep themselves on the move looking for newer pastures. They could maintain their herds from the land and also survived on milk and meat from the flock. They supplemented their stocks by buying wheat and dates from farmers in the oasis in return for animals and specialised products.

All this was due to the camel, which allowed a large scale pastoral life in the desert. The political situation also made fertile ground for the development of Bedouins Arabia. At the time of the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) much of the transit trade between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean basin

was passing through Arabian overland routes. This was partly due to the long sequence of wars between the Roman and Sasanian empires. The enterprise of neutral merchants who could by pass troubled frontiers was greatly welcomed and thus encouraged.

This allowed some of the Bedouins to settle down and live on the dates and grain grown in the oases. These settlers called themselves ‘Arabs’. The Arabs were people who owned camels and lived of the produce of the cultivable land. It was a sign of prestige to be an ‘Arab’ rather than a Bedouin and in the end it was these few who began to reap the benefits of the increased commerce with their neighbours.

The Arabs also became mercenaries and allies in the great power struggles. The development of camel nomadism had reached a point where it had started to impinge importantly on the surrounding lands.

The Quraysh

‘Adnan’, a descendant of Isma’il had many children. Among Adnan’s descendants Fihr ibn Malik, in particular, was a distinguished chief of the tribe. From Fihr’s descendants Qusayy ibn Kilab emerged. He ruled Makkah and held the keys to the Ka’bah. He was the guardian of the waters of Zamzam and was responsible for feeding the pilgrims. He presided at the assemblies where the nobles of Makkah gathered for consultation. He alone controlled the affairs of Makkah.

Among his sons, Abd Manaf was the most illustrious, while his eldest son, Hashim became a great man of the people. He provided food and water for the pilgrims coming to Makkah. He was the father of Abdul Muttalib, the Messenger of Allah’s grandfather. His popularity outstripped that of his ancestors.

The Quraysh were organised on Bedouin principles. They had no king or any other municipal institution. They used an assembly of notables of all the clans for non-binding consultation and decisions. The threat of blood-feud guarded the peace. The Quraysh had maintained solidarity and had made effective use of their resources. They also controlled the north-south trade and grew rich by it. They first won a secure diplomatic position among the tribes of the Hajjaz and then controlled the trade in the area.

They were the custodians of the Holy Ka’bah and guarantors of protection to the worshippers in pilgrimage to the city, therefore their position was institutionalised in religious forms.

They had acquired prestige as a tribe of dependable and independent honour.

The Islamic Era

The early Islamic era was unique among the great civilisations of its time. The classical Greek and Latin were read in Europe, Sanskrit and Prakrit in India and Chinese in the Far East. However the Muslims in original knew none of the great ancient works. The Muslims developed their own classical models afresh and marked a breach in the cultural continuity of the region. The impulses, which formed the Islamic culture proved to be exceptionally comprehensive and self-sufficient. The Islamicate society not only became the direct heir, but in significant degree also provided positive continuation to the earlier societies in the lands from Nile to Oxus.

Unlike any before it the Islamicate civilisation became so widely dispersed over the hemisphere that it ceased to be associated exclusively with a single region. It became dominant even in the heartlands of the older Greek and Sanskrit traditions.