It is difficult to accurately determine the time of the emergence of Islam. On the one hand this is due to the scarcity of non-Islamic sources that talk about this subject, and on the other hand due to the lack of credibility of Islamic sources. Islamic sources did not begin to appear until about one hundred and fifty years after the date given for the death of the Prophet of Islam. 


ONE CANNOT RELY on these sources because they were not written for the purpose of history, but mostly for the purpose of honouring and glorifying Islam and its Prophet. Most are filled with legendary stories such as the tale of the Prophet’s chest being cut open as a child and washed him with snow water in order to cleanse him of polytheism.

What makes the task even more difficult is the late emergence of writing in the Arabic language. The written language did not emerge until the fifth century AD, and at first lacked diacritical points and other punctuation marks, a fact which led to confusing many of the words written. It was therefore necessary to place reliance on the sources written in the Greek, Aramaic, and Syriac languages, and some sources written in Latin.

The scene of events at the beginning of the seventh century AD (the date determined for the emergence of Islam) was dominated by the Christian religion. This was the state religion in the Byzantine Empire, whose control extended over the Fertile Crescent all the way from Gaza, through Palestine and Syria, to Asia Minor. The region of Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and the Euphrates, belonged to the Sassanid Empire, whose official religion was Zoroastrianism.

One cannot rely on these sources because they were not written for the purpose of history

After losing control of the Nineveh region in the year 627, the Sassanid Empire receded and along with it Zoroastrianism, to be replaced by Christianity. The region of Persia became Christian and boasted a huge cathedral rivalling that at Constantinople itself, while the Al-Hirah region in Iraq became the centre of Christian education, where the Bible was translated into the Syriac (Aramaic) language. Aiding the translation project at Al-Hirah was Emperor Justinian’s  closing of the Athenian Academy in Constantinople in 529, an event which forced professors of Greek philosophy to have recourse to Al-Hirah to continue their work, seeing as the Greek language was no stranger to that region. Rusafa was also a major seat for the followers of the Christian doctrine of St. Sergius of Rusafa.[1]

In the fourth century AD the Sasanians under the leadership of Shapur II occupied eastern Arabia down as far as the Yamama region, and then went on to occupy Christian Yemen in the year 572 after expelling the Christian Abyssinians. The whole region of Yemen was Christian, along with a presence of Judaism, and Christianity began to spread among the tribes of eastern Arabia. The rest of the Arab tribes in the Hijaz were mostly pagan, alongside a presence of Christian tribes such Tayy, Najran, Mudar, Quda’a (the first Arab tribe to convert to Christianity), Tamim, and the tribes of the Jordan region with its capital at Petra or Sela.[2] The remainder of the Bedouin tribes were pagan, but some of their members were acquainted with the monotheistic belief known as Hanifiyya, in relation to Abraham, who deviated (hanaf) from the pagan religion of his fathers (the word hanifiyya means ‘deviation’). The Orientalist scholar Yehuda Nevo argues that that the upper classes among the Arabs professed the religion of monotheism, but they were not Muslims.[3]

Traditional writers in the Islamic heritage claim that Muhammad entered onto this Christian theatre in about the year 622, after his migration to Medina, and in only ten years was able to subdue all the Arab tribes to Islam. This claim is difficult to credit. They then claimed that Mu’awiya Ibn Abi Sufyan, along with his father Abi Sufyan Ibn Harb, was one of the staunchest enemies of Islam and did not embrace the new faith until the eighth year of the Hijra, that is, two years before the death of Muhammad. He is then to have become, directly and without any preliminary introduction, a scribe of Muhammad’s Revelation, so that Muslims began the tradition of saying ‘May God be pleased with him’ after every mention of his name.

Did the Muslims really occupy the Levant during the caliphate of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab?

What was the revelation that this Mu’awiya wrote down and which Muslims can rely on? As for this Mu’awiya – we cannot find a single word in the Islamic heritage about him, nor do we know anything about him prior to his becoming a writer of the Revelation, and subsequently a potentate over the Levant. Did the Muslims really occupy the Levant during the caliphate of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, that is, within a period of five to eight years following the death of Muhammad?

Here we must rely on non-Islamic sources. Mu’awiya became ruler of the Levant in the year 640, after Byzantium had abandoned Syria for economic reasons that had turned the Levant into a burden. Constantinople’s treasury was emptied of funds after Justinian I had squandered it in the building of the Hagia Sophia basilica, which cost the treasury some 320 pounds of gold. As a result the state teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. Subsequently, Emperor Heraclius spent what remained on his wars with the Sassanians, resulting in his having to abandon the Levant. This was an opportunity for the Christian Arab tribes in the Levant to take power. Among these Mu’awiya was prominent, perhaps for his political or military skill, or a combination of the two. 

When Mu’awiya came to power in Syria, Emperor Heraclius imposed on him a treaty according to which Mu’awiya was to pay annually three thousand pieces of gold, horses, and slaves.[4] Can it be that the victor pays tribute to the defeated, if we are to believe the Islamic accounts that hold that the Muslims defeated Heraclius’ forces and occupied the Levant?

Can it be that the victor pays tribute to the defeated, if we are to believe the Islamic accounts?

If the Muslims had indeed been victorious in the battles mentioned in the Islamic heritage, should we not expect that historians of that period in the Levant, Constantinople, or Al-Hirah would have written something about those battles, given that historical writing wa widespread in those countries? Yet Syriac sources, right up to the eighth century AD, fail to mention anything at all about these battles.[5]

In the memoires of one of the monks writing in the Syriac language, we find the statement: 

“On the twenty-fourth day of December in the year 633, in a monastery outside Damascus, a luxurious copy of the Bible was written, despite the gathering of clouds that foreshadowed the advent of dark years.” [6]

This monk, who made mention of a copy of the Bible being written and the gathering of dark clouds, failed to mention the battle of Muta in 629, nor any battle between Muslims and Christians. As for the Armenian historian Sebeos, writing a History of Heraclius in the seventh century AD, he made a few simple mentions about two battles between the Arabs and Christians of the Levant at that period, but did not name those battles, which contemporary scholars believe were the sites of Yarmouk and Qadisiya mentioned in the Islamic heritage.

However if we take, for example, Joshua the Stylite’s memoirs which cover the period from 395 to 506, we find that the Hebrew religious sources mention all the battles and skirmishes in amazing detail. Why is it, then, that the Hebrew sources mentioned all these details while the Syriac-Syrian sources fail to give any description of the battles the Muslim Arabs fought against their own country? Of course, if these battles actually took place as Islamic sources claim, Syriac historians would certainly have written about them. 

Suggested Reading

When did Islam emerge? – 3

The Khuzestan Chronicles, which are notes by an author whose name is unknown, describe the history of the church between the years 670 and 680 and contain a lot of information about the battles between the Byzantines and the Sassanids. Yet they only make a few mentions of battles of the Arabs in the Levant.[7] We have seen in part 1 of this essay how all the coins that were struck during the reign of Mu’awiya, and all the inscriptions on walls, failed to mention either Islam or Muhammad. Can we believe that Mu’awiya was indeed a Muslim and was sent by ‘Umar bin Al-Khattab to rule the Levant on his behalf?

The only source that says something that might suggest that the Arabs ruling Syria in those days might have been of non-Christian faith is what the Nestorian bishop Isho’yahb wrote in the year 659, that is, the period of Mu’awiya:

But these Arabs, whom God as granted dominion over the land these days … do not attack Christianity, but rather respect it and protect our churches and respect our priests.[8]

As mentioned above, some historians believe that the Arabs were people professing a non-specific monotheism, but were not Muslims. Moreover, the author of the book The Life of Maximus the Confessor, who was living in hiding during the days of Heraclius’ control over the Levant due to being accused of heresy, came to the Levant during the days of Mu’awiya and began preaching openly and without fear.[9]

[1] See Karl-Heinz Ohlig and Gerd-R Puin (Edd.), The Hidden Origins of Islam, p. 19. See this work in the Almuslih Libraryhere.

[2] Louis Cheikho,  النصرانية وآدابها بين عرب الجاهلية (‘Christianity and its Literature among the Pre-Islamic Arabs’), p.34.

[3] Yehuda D. Nevo, Judith Koren, Crossroads to Islam: the Origins of the Arab Religion and the Arab State, Prometheus Books, Amherst New York 2003, p.207.

[4] Karl Heinz-Ohlig, Op. cit., p.51.

[5] Crossroads to Islam, p.106.

[6] Sebastian Brock, Syriac Sources for Seventh Century History, p.13. Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Vol 2 (1976), 17-36. Blackwell. See the work in the Almuslih Library here.

[7] Crossroads to Islam, p.107.

[8] Crossroads to Islam, p.216.

[9] Crossroads to Islam, p. 214.

Main image: The ruins of the basilica of St. Sergius at Rusafa.

Read Part 1 of this essay here

Petra, capital of the Christianised Arab tribes of the Jordan