Does the mega-drought of the 500s in Yemen help explain the rise of Islam?


Ann Arbor (Informed Commentary) – A new article in the journal Science testifies to a prolonged drought in the Kingdom of Himyar (now believed to include Yemen, southern Saudi Arabia and Oman) in the 500s. Since the Prophet Muhammad is traditionally said to have been born in 567 or 570, any new information about the 500s in the Arabian Peninsula is of potential interest as a backdrop to the rise of Islam.

I discuss the rise of Islam in my book,

A team led by Dominick Fleitmann of the University of Basel, professor of environmental sciences, investigated a stalagmite from Hoota Cave in Oman. Stalagmites are rock formations that rise from the floor of a cave when precipitation, carrying calcium residues, lava, sand and other materials, flows from the ceiling. Fleitman and his colleagues were able to establish rainfall rates in the cave over the past 1500 years and showed that there was almost no stalagmite growth for several decades into the 500s.

What we now call the Middle East was both familiar and foreign in the 500s. The Eastern Roman Empire, with its capital at Constantinople, held what is now Turkey, Syria, Lebanon , Jordan, Israel-Palestine and Egypt, administering these provinces in Greek and generally favoring Chalcedonian Christianity, although some emperors had other tastes.

The Sasanian Empire ruled Iran, what is now Pakistan, part of Central Asia and Iraq.

By 500 CE (AD) what is now Yemen was ruled by the Himyarite dynasty, as it had been for many centuries. The Himyarites were caught between the Eastern Romans and the Sasanian Iranians, just as today’s Yemen is an arena of conflict between the United States and its allies on one side and Iran on the other.

Across the Red Sea from Yemen, in what is now Eritrea and northern Ethiopia, the Christian kingdom of Aksum ruled. He adopted Miaphysite theology in opposition to Chalcedonian and used the ancient Ethiopian Ge’ez language. The kingdom had Greek as the language of certain administrative decrees and its theologians studied Greek in Alexandria.

The Himyarite dynasty seems to have turned against the old gods around 380, ceasing to frequent their temples, which had fallen into disuse. The kings of Himyar instead started making inscriptions to the All-Merciful, Rahmanan. Sometimes their inscriptions seem explicitly Jewish, but other times they appear to be monolatrists, worshiping the Merciful God; an inscription suggests that these Rahmanists sometimes recognized other deities, such as the Jewish Yahweh. In the early 500s, an explicitly Jewish king, Yūsuf Asʾar Yathʾar, known as Dhu Nuwas, came to power and persecuted Christians in his environment. He may also have leaned geopolitically towards Iran, since the Sassanids were Zoroastrians often at war with the Christian Eastern Roman Empire.

Around 620, the king of Aksum, Kaleb, launched an invasion of Himyar. the Indian Ocean and the commercial warehouse of Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

Dhu Nuwas responded by slaughtering Christians in Najran in 523, creating legendary martyrs whose stories caused grief in Christendom. Eventually the Aksumite armies defeated him and killed him. For a while, General de Kaleb,
Sumūyafa Ashwa, became the viceroy of what is now Yemen. Around 531, he was deposed by an Aksumite general, Abraha, who made himself independent king of Yemen. He persecuted Jews and promoted Christianity, probably dying around 668. He was in turn succeeded briefly by two sons, who fell out, and one of them allied with the Sassanids. Around 570 an Iranian naval expedition conquered Yemen and Iran ruled the region until the descendants (abna’) of Iranian admirals and other officers garrisoned there embraced Islam in the end from the 620s, according to the later historian Tabari.

The great classic, GW Bowersock told this story in one of my favorite books, The Throne of Adulis.

Thus, Professor Fleitmann’s stalagmite may help explain the end of the Himyarite kingdom and rule in place of Aksumite generals for much of the 500s.

That is to say, Aksum had long been interested in dominating what is now Yemen, but it was a tall order. The country is rugged and Himyar has prospered, with dams and irrigation works. The Romans called it Arabia Felix, Happy Arabia, with the implication of “prosperous”. Wanting to dominate her and being able were not the same thing.

But if, in the 520s, Himyar were in the grip of a prolonged drought, the irrigation canals would have dried up and the crops would have withered, and the agricultural villages that could have supplied Himyar with his troops would have been starved and weak. Yūsuf Asʾar Yathʾar was probably defeated so easily by the armies sent by Kaleb of Aksum because his sources of wealth and power had dried up during the drought.

The establishment of Christianity as the state religion in Yemen was in turn fatal to the religious history of the Tihama, the literal Red Sea from Yemen through the Hijaz to southern Transjordan. Even as Transjordan was Christianizing and abandoning the old gods, Yemen was Christianizing, disfavoring the old elite of the Jewish court.

Successive conquests would have created refugees and slaves in Mecca and Medina, the cities of the Prophet Muhammad, first Jews in Medina fleeing the persecutions of Kaleb and Abraha, then Christians from 570 fleeing domination Zoroastrian. Some of the Quran’s audience was from the lower class and slaves of Mecca, and was probably significantly Christian.

Professor Fleitmann and his colleagues have solved another piece of the pre-Islamic Yemen puzzle, adding an important archaeological find to the work on the Christian Robin and Iwona Gajda inscriptions.


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