Severe drought in ancient Arabia may have contributed to the rise of Islam


A period of severe drought that may have dragged on for decades, culminating in the destruction of the main kingdom of Arabia during antiquity, may have been one of the key factors behind the origins of Islam, a new study claims. The political and economic disarticulation brought about by the climatic event would have opened space for the religious movement created by Mohammed to become dominant in the region.

The data that support the hypothesis are in an article in the latest issue of the American journal Science. Researchers led by geochemist Dominik Fleitmann, from the University of Basel, Switzerland, and by historian John Haldon, from Princeton University (USA), obtained detailed information about the comings and goings of the Arab climate over the centuries from a stalagmite.

The structure, which is a projection that appears on the floor of caves because of the action of water on limestone rocks, was found in the Hoti cave, which is located in the Sultanate of Oman (that is, in the southeast of the Arabian Peninsula).

As the formation process of stalagmites is usually very slow and constant, they can function as a kind of time capsule, storing in their chemical composition the environmental characteristics that prevailed over centuries and millennia. In the case of the structure found in the Hoti cave, for example, the researchers calculate a growth rate of around 0.23 millimeters per year. In addition, the rock formation also carries radioactive variants of chemical elements, which change into other elements at a known rate. This equates to a “tick” constant enough to accurately date the age of each piece of stalagmite.

The cave’s climate records, which span the last 2,600 years, indicate that the region experienced the worst drought of any period between the 500s and 530s of the Christian Era, about 50 years before the birth of Muhammad.

“The Oman record normally holds for the whole of southern Arabia at the very least, but we have other indications of a broader effect on the entire peninsula and other regions of the Eastern Mediterranean. several years,” Fleitmann told Sheet in a videoconference interview.

“Conditions have clearly become drier than they are today” — of course, bad news for the population at the time, considering how little rain falls in the region today. According to him, the causes of the phenomenon are still unclear — it could have been a simple medium-term fluctuation in the climate, for example.

The dating of the stalagmite is suggestive because it coincides with the events that led to the destruction of the kingdom of Himyar, which had emerged centuries earlier in present-day Yemen and, until that time, functioned as the hegemonic power in Arab territory.

“In its heyday, Himyar exercised substantial influence over southern and central Arabia, and its power extended to the Hejaz as well. [onde ficam as cidades de Meca e Medina, centros de origem do Islã]”, explains Haldon. “It is clear that these regions were important to Himyar politically and economically, and vice versa.”

Himyar has strengthened its power over the centuries by acting as a center for the trade in spices and luxury items (especially aromatic plant-based products such as frankincense and myrrh, mentioned in the Bible). Because of its geographical position, the kingdom also played a role as an intermediary between the merchants of present-day Ethiopia, the Eastern Roman Empire, and the Persian Empire (in present-day Iran). And the rains that the region received, both from the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean (the so-called monsoons), were sufficient for considerable agricultural development, with the construction of dams and irrigation canals.

All this means that Himyar was very connected to the political and cultural evolution of the ancient world. In the centuries before the great drought, the most important element of this evolution was the strengthening of Christianity, adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire and the Ethiopian kingdom of Axum a few decades before 400 AD Missionaries and diplomats linked to the new faith began to exert their influence. in Himyar, but the kingdom’s elite, apparently with the aim of not being politically tied to the Christian powers, decided to convert to Judaism.

However, the Ethiopian Christians of Axum ended up invading Himyar and turning the kingdom into a vassal state in the year 525. Himyar never managed to rise again after that, ceasing to exist around the year 570. The hypothesis of the new research is that the drought weakened Himyar. irreversibly, and that the end of this hegemony would have opened space for the strengthening of other poles of power in Arabia, such as the center of trade and pilgrimage in Mecca, home to the clan in which Muhammad was born.

“It is necessary to take into account that it is a region that is normally already very fragile and marginal for agriculture. So, climatic disturbances on this scale are capable of causing economic and social disintegration that is difficult to repair”, says Fleitmann. “It is not an immediate process, but it seems to have been something that extended over this century, creating a vacuum that was filled”, completes the researcher, who is responsible for a course on the relationship between climate and historical events at the university. where you teach

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