Abdulrahman al-Eryani interviewed me on his InBoundTalk show on YouTube (link below) about my book,
Mr. al-Eryani is from Yemen and is particularly interested in the Yemen angle in my book. Below I have excerpted a few related passages:
From Juan Cole, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace amid the Clash of Empires:
- “The trade route from Mecca to Roman Arabia appears to have revived in last third of the sixth century. In part, this development reflected the unusual prosperity of Transjordan in this era. In part, it derived from the Iranian invasion of Yemen in the early 570s, when they dethroned the previous Ethiopian Christian dynasty in favor of local pagans and Jews. The Sasanians thus controlled the mouth of the Red Sea, the Bab al-Mandab, which opened Roman maritime commerce with Africa and Asia to interference and piracy, thus increasing the profitability of overland commerce. The Roman and Sasanian Empires had for centuries engaged in a globe-straddling contest for dominance, and throughout Muhammad’s lifetime this imperial struggle would intensify in its savagery, powerfully shaping his world and his views on the desirability of peace.
Hejazis like Muhammad, who could not stand the cold of the Levant in December, instead went south to Yemen for winter wheat. Mecca, as a neutral city-state, could bring Indian Ocean goods up from the port of Aden, and then take them to the Roman Near East. Since by treaty Iran limited the cities that could trade with Rome and charged its enemies in Constantinople a 25 percent tariff on desirable Asian luxury goods, Mecca could offer these commodities at a discount by acting as a third party. The Quraysh likely were willing to undercut others’ prices because of their food insecurity, bringing back staples like grain, as well as raisins, wine and Damascene swords. The substantial expenses of overland caravan trade include the feeding and caring for the animals, paying the caravaneers, and the cost of security. It therefore requires lightweight luxury items. The Hejazis were known for their silver, gold and copper mines, and small nuggets of precious metals may have been their most important export. They called the mines near Medina the “Cradle of Gold,” and they also gained renown for their beautifully worked jewelry. The Roman Empire had to pay large sums of gold annually to Iran to keep the peace after losing several key campaigns, and consequent Roman thirst for the precious metal may have increased the profitability of the caravan trade. They probably also traded in leather, perfumes, high-quality dates, ivory from Ethiopia, and discounted transshipped Asian goods such as silk via Yemen. Occasionally they may have brought wealthy Jews from Yemen up to Palestine, transporting their deceased loved ones in a temporary ossuary, for burial in the holy land.
There is reason to think that in these years the prophet led Khadija’s caravans down to Yemen on urgent missions to purchase winter wheat. He would have found the Iranian garrison commanders in Sana’a and Aden supercilious and exulting about their army’s victories in the north. They offered up magnificent sacrifices at the barracks fire temple, an unadorned square building with a Persian arch on either side and a ritual flame in the center, honoring Ohrmazd and his angels. Muhammad may have seen some similarities between the biblical traditions and Iranian religion. Zoroastrians held that the great God of good, Ohrmazd was engaged in a cosmic war with the evil principle, Ahriman. Ohrmazd sent his messenger, Zarathustra (called Zoroaster in Greek) to teach human beings that every time they lied or sinned, they strengthened the god of evil against the God of good. In the end. a savior, Saoshyant, would arise to transfigure the world, and Ohrmazd would ultimately defeat his nemesis.
Muhammad and the other Hejazi traders may have suffered some humiliation at the hands of the Iranian military. Zoroastrians in the Sasanian period firmly distinguished between Iran and non-Iran, looking down on external barbarians, and the warrior caste entertained a poor opinion of merchants. The vocabulary of the Qur’an shows that nevertheless Muhammad discussed things with and likely preached to Zoroastrian audiences. The Qur’an uses a Persian word for the notion of “religion.” It calls Muhammad a Messenger, like Zarathustra.
Muhammad will also have associated with Arab Yemenis of various faith traditions, pagan, Jewish and Christian. Indigenous Yemeni inscriptions call the one God “the All-Merciful” and contain the name “Muhammad.” Since both terms are used in the Qur’an, it seems likely that Islam has a Yemeni context to some extent. Yemen’s startling religious history in late antiquity is mainly known from somewhat cryptic inscriptions, but it seems clear that from about 380 CE the ruling elite of the kingdom of Himyar adopted some form of monolatry (the worship of only one deity), centered on a supreme deity they called “the All-Merciful.” Its state-sponsored temples to the many gods abruptly fell into desuetude, though commoners continued pagan worship. Jewish and Christian inscriptions also call God “the All-Merciful” in Yemen, but it seems most likely that the royal family followed a homegrown cult. Some of their inscriptions call on both the Himyarite All-Merciful and on the lord of the Jews, which does not sound exactly like monotheism but certainly is not Judaism. By the 500s, some princes and commoners had converted to Judaism and others to Christianity, and those two biblical communities fell to warring with one another. In this struggle the Christians, backed by Ethiopia and the Roman Empire, prevailed in the 520s through about 570. Then Iran invaded and dethroned the Ethiopian Christian elite, depending politically instead on local Yemenis, whether pagans, pagan monotheists or Jews.
That Muhammad spent time in Yemen in the teens, perhaps more time than usual given the turmoil in Syria, is suggested by the Qur’an’s use of the typically Yemeni epithet “the All-Merciful” for God in some chapters thought to be from this era. While there, Muhammad celebrated the children of Israel, displaying clear pro-Jewish sentiments. The Qur’an thus sees Jews as God’s chosen people and objects of divine grace. The Hobbling 45:16 says, “We bestowed scripture, judgment and prophethood on the children of Israel and nourished them with good things, and preferred them above the nations.” Muhammad clearly knew some of the Palestinian Talmud, and it has been argued that the middle chapters of the Qur’an show knowledge of rabbinical forms of argumentation, suggesting dialogue and discussion with learned Jews.
In his down time in the highlands of Sana’a amid its gingerbread multi-storied stone buildings or in the steamy Arabian Sea port of Aden with its nacreous coral homes, Muhammad wrote out some passages of his Qur’an (literally, “book of recitations”) and shared them with Jewish friends among the Himyarite rabbis. The Poets 26:192-99 says of the Qur’an, “In truth, it is a revelation of the lord of the nations, which the faithful spirit has made to descend upon your heart, so that you might be a warner. It is in a clear Arabic, written in the script of the ancients. Is it not a sign to them that the scholars of the children of Israel recognize it? If we had revealed it to someone who did not speak Arabic as a mother tongue, and he had recited it to them, they would not have believed in it.” It has been argued that the “script of the ancients” to which the Qur’an refers here was the one used for southern, Sabaic Arabic by literate Himyarite Jews, and Muhammad held out their ability to read the new scripture in it and their affirmation of its similarity to the Bible as proofs of its validity. The Qur’an configures Yemeni Jews as a symbol of Arab cultural authenticity and sees their positive response as confirmatory of Muhammad’s own Arabic-language revelation, implicitly contrasting them to the Christian missionaries from Syria, with their heavy Aramaic accents.”