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Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hung. Volume 52 (3–4), 243–276 (1999)




Andrey Korotayev, Vladimir Klimenko, and Dmitry Proussakov



The authors suggest to view the origins of Islam against the background of the 6th century AD Arabian socio-ecological crisis whose model is specified in the paper through the study of climatological, seismological, volcanological and epidemiological history of the period. Most socio-political systems of the Arabs reacted to the socio-ecological crisis by getting rid of the rigid supra-tribal political structures (kingdoms and chiefdoms) which started posing a real threat to their very survival. The decades of fighting which led to the destruction of the most of the Arabian kingdoms and chiefdoms (reflected in Ayyam al-`Arab tradition) led to the elaboration of some definite "anti-royal" freedom-loving tribal ethos. At the beginning of the 7th century a tribe which would recognize themselves as subjects of some terrestrial super-tribal political authority, a "king", risked to lose its honour. However, this seems not to be applicable to the authority of another type, the "celestial" one. At the meantime the early 7th century evidences the merging of the Arabian tradition of prophecy and the Arabian Monotheist "Rahmanist" tradition which produced "the Arabian prophetic movement". The Monotheist "Rahmanist" prophets appear to have represented a supratribal authority just of the type many Arab tribes were looking for at this very time, which seems to explain to a certain extent those prophets' political success (including the extreme political success of Muhammad). 

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Key-words: Islam, Arabia, ecology, political anthropology, history, climate, evolution


South Arabian puzzle

For many years we were a bit puzzled by a strangely quick collapse of the South Arabian Empire of the "Kings of Saba and dhu-Raydan and Hadramawt and Yamanat and Their Arabs in the Highland and the Coastal Plain" (mlk S1B’ w-d-RYDn w-HDRMWT w-YMNT w-’`rb-hmw TWDm w-THMT) in the second half of the 6th century AD.

Of course, at the beginning of this century South Arabia experienced a series of rather turbulent events: dhu-Nuwas' coup, violent persecutions of the Christians, Ethiopian invasions and conquest, rebellion (successful) of the Ethiopian soldiers deployed in Yemen, their leader (Abraha) getting the royal power etc. – see Sabaic inscriptions C 621; Ry 507; 508; 510; Ja 1028; as well as: Pirenne and Tesfaye (1982); Carpenter (1869); Møberg (1924); Berzina and Kubbel' (1990:203–249); Shahid (1971); Lundin (1961); Kobishchanov (1980:10–88); Pio­trov­skij (1985:17–23); Smith (1954); Robin et al. (1996) etc. Then, however, under Abraha's rule the Em­pire seems to have stabilized and achieved reasonable florescence by the end of the 540s: Abraha managed to organize the successful repairs of the famous Marib Dam (`RMn [C 541]), campaigns to Central and Northern Arabia etc. (Ry 506; Va­sil'ev 1907; Kobishchanov 1980:64–89; Piotrovskij 1985:23–24 etc.).

And then in the second half of the century the Empire (together with the 1500-year-old South Arabian civilization) simply collapses without any appar­ent serious reason. The study of this collapse is further complicated by the fact that the catastrophe appears to have been so profound that the written texts seem to have stopped to be produced in South Arabia – since the 7th decade of the 6th century (this decade including) we have no authentic dated South Ara­bian texts up to the Islamic Age – which stands in a sharp contrast with the comparatively well documented first 5 decades of the Century.[1]

The collapse seems to have been so profound that when in AD 570 (Shahid 1995:365) Khusraw [I] Parwez reluctantly sent (as a sort of punishment) a few hundred convicted criminals to put Yemen into the Persian sphere of influence (considering this such an adventure that it would be wiser not to risk with the proper troops), they (the convicted criminals) did manage to overthrow the dy­nasty of Abraha, though, of course, not without the help of the Yemenites opposed to the dynasty – see e.g. al-Tabari (1964:950–956).


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North Arabian puzzle


Of course, it is evident that what happened in the 6th century Yemen was not an isolated event. Already if we look at Arabia as a whole, we shall get a bit different perspective.

To begin with, in the Soviet Islamology up to the 1980s the dominant theory of the origins of Islam connected it with the crisis and degeneration of the clan-tribal system in the 6th – early 7th century Arabia, the process of the state and class for­mation (Tolstov 1932; Smirnov 1954:180f.; Beljaev 1965; Petrushevskij 1966:5–11; Mavljutov 1974; Zhukov 1974:29; Fil'shtinskij 1977:22,107; Negrja 1981 etc.; a preliminary critique of this point see e.g. Bol'shakov 1989:40). A somewhat strange theory, we must say, as the very well-known facts show quite clearly that the actual processes were simply contrary to the ones described above. The clan-tribal systems in pre-Islamic Arabia were strengthening and consolidating, where­as these were precisely the state structures which degenerated and disintegrated in the first century before al-Hijrah. Indeed at the beginning of the 6th century we see a few kingdoms controlling most of the Arabian territory: the already mentioned huge Kingdom of the tababiah in Yemen (dominant not only over the whole Ara­bian South but also considerable parts of Central Arabia), the second Kindite Kingdom (the vassal of the first one) in Central Arabia, the Lakhmid Kingdom (dependent on the Sassanid Empire) in the Arabian North-East (controlling also considerable parts of Northern and Central Arabia), and the Ghassanid Kingdom (dependent on the Byzantine Empire) in the North-West – see e.g. Nöldeke (1879; 1888); Roth­stein (1899); Olinder (1927); Pigulevskaja (1964) etc.

What is more, even in the territories outside the direct control of the above-mentioned kingdoms we normally find what should be more correctly de­scribed as chiefdoms rather than true tribes. Their heads often explicitly call themselves amlak (sg. malik) "kings" – see e.g. Negrja (1981:103–104).

The situation at the beginning of the next century (say, at the time of the beginning of Muhammad's Prophecy) differs dramatically. All the above-mentioned great Arabian kingdoms had disappeared together with most smaller ones. There were almost no "kings" left in Arabia; and where there were chiefdoms a century before, now we see true free tribes.[2]

Some neglected causes of the crisis

It appears that the 6th century AD evidenced a simultaneous global climate deterio­ration and the peak of the tectonic and volcanic activity in the whole world (in­cluding the Mediterranean region [see Appendix C for detail]). Of course, on the face of it, it is not quite self-evident what this has to do with the 6th century AD Arabian crisis. Naturally, the earthquakes affected in some way the evolution of the 6th – early 7th cent. AD Arabian societies, leaving even some trace in al-Quran – cf. e.g. the beginning of the famous Earthquake surah ([XCIX:] {1.} idha zulzilati 'l-ardu zilzala-ha {2.} wa-akhrajati 'l-ardu athqala-ha {3.} wa-qala 'l-insanu ma la-ha "When the earth is shaken with an earthquake, and the earth lifts its loads, and the man asks: `What has happened to it?`" etc.). Stoo­key (1978:22) and Grjaznevich (1994:34) have already proposed to connect the fi­nal decline of the pre-Islamic South Arabian civilization with the seismic activity – indeed it may well have produced the final deadly blow to the most ancient civi­lization centers of the edges of the internal Yemeni desert, which were already on the brink of final collapse by the 6th century AD and which depended heavily on relatively large-scale irrigation structures that could be significantly affected by the earthquakes. But this does not seem to be the case with the kingdoms and chiefdoms of the Arabian North which could not be apparently affected by the earthquakes to a criti­cal extent. Thus, the most significant outcome of the seismic activity seems to be volcano eruptions rather than earthquakes. Again, it is not self-evident how, say, the volcano eruptions on the New Britain Island near New Guinea could affect the evolution of the Arabian communities. Again, what is significant here is not the di­rect effect though some of the South Arabian sites were destroyed just in this way (though not necessarily in the 6th century – see e.g. Müller and Wissmann [1976]). What is really important are volcanic gases and tephra which are thrown to the atmosphere in great quantities during such eruptions. And this could affect signifi­cantly really huge areas. E.g. sulphuric aerosols would halt partially solar radiation, causing the cooling of the Earth surface and, hence, droughts, or otherwise floods, and various disbalances in the ecological systems, which could result in the out­bursts of the numbers of the epidemic disease bearing animals, plague fleas etc., and the causal link between the tectonic and volcanic activity and the epidemics was noticed long ago.

However, the most significant factor seems to be the droughts – and there are documented cases when, say, changing solar activity or massive volcano eruption, resulting in a global climatic shift, caused severe droughts in various parts of the world (naturally, North Arabia could have been affected in such cases too [see Appendix C for detail]).

Hence, global climate deterioration and the peak of the tectonic activity produced such an array of primary, secondary, and tertiary factors (earthquakes and volcano eruptions themselves, epidemics, droughts, barbarian invasions caused by the socio-ecological crises on the barbarian peripheries) which could pose a deadly threat for the survival of most of affected civilizations of the time. We ourselves came to terms with the sudden death of the 1500-year-old pre-Islamic South Arabian civilization when we realized that this happened simultaneously with the severe crisis in the Byzantine Empire which put it on the brink of an almost complete collapse (the early 7th to early 6th century comparison would produce for Byzantine results rather similar to the ones ob­tained above for the Arabian North and South in any case). And what was an almost deadly blow for strong Byzantine appeared to have been just a deadly blow for the weaker South Arabian civilization as well as for most Arabian kingdoms.

[1] The last dated Sabaic text (C 325 – see Müller 1991) is (see line 5) of year 669 of the "Himyarite" Era ~ AD 554/555, or much more likely AD 559/560, depending on the solution of the problem of the beginning of this era – for the current state of this question see de Blois (1990); Shahid (1994); Kitchen (1994:1–9); and especially Robin et al. (1996).

[2] Even for the 6th century Mecca there seem to be some grounds to suspect the transformation of a quasi-chiefdom polity into a tribal confedera­tion (e.g. Dostal 1991:193–199; al-Tabari 1964:1083–1100). At the age of Muhammad local kings are still attested in al-Yamamah (see e.g. ibn Hischam 1858–1860:II:971), but even there at this age we seem to observe a clear trend towards the replacement of the "royal" authority with a political authority of quite a different type (see below in the section on "Origins of Islam: socio-political context").


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