South Arabian civilization collapses before the rise of Islam

Sometime during the 7th century CE, the first Muslims entered what is now Yemen. Not only did they bring the new religion of Islam, but also the language of Arabic. What they found there were abandoned palaces, fortresses, and temples. On the walls of these ancient structures they saw hundreds upon thousands of inscriptions, written in a script they couldn’t decipher and a language they didn’t know. To them, it must have felt like eons had passed, but it was less than a century since South Arabian civilization had come to an end. 

The map of the Arabian Peninsula
The map of the Arabian Peninsula based on Claudius Ptolemy’s Geographica

For centuries, Yemen had been the center of Arabian civilization before Islam. But just decades before the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, this civilization collapsed. Political and religious tensions with the Ethiopians on the other side of the Red Sea had finally reached a boiling point during the middle of the 6th century, leading to the massacre of South Arabia’s Christian population and a retaliatory Ethiopian invasion followed.

I want to know how South Arabian society changed right before and right after the coming of Islam. Because direct evidence for this time is sparse, I rely on different sources of information: firstly, the pre-Islamic inscriptions, written in a distinct group of languages called “Ancient South Arabian”. These languages, although distantly related to Arabic, were still very different. Secondly, comments by medieval Muslim travelers and scholars who had an interest in this area and its history, and thirdly, descriptions of Arabic dialects spoken in Yemen today.

South Arabian art. French ministry of culture / Paul Yule, Heidelberg University Expedition, 2008

These sources allow us to draw some important conclusions. On the one hand, we know that around the time Islam came into being, people were no longer writing things down. But at the same time, the languages themselves survived for centuries afterwards. And even now, in the Arabic of Yemen you can hear traces of these now long-extinct languages. How do we solve this paradox?

My research shows that this period was marked by both change and continuity. Change, because the loss of writing suggests massive social disruption: societies only tend to lose literacy when political and economical elites become completely displaced. But it is also marked by continuity, because the languages themselves survived, and would continue to survive for centuries. 

But what’s most exciting is that the evidence suggests these social changes set in before the founding of Islam. In turn, this tells us that the coming of Islam was not sudden, but a process which took centuries to form and crystallize. It was not a cause of social changes on the Arabian Peninsula, but a witness. This is how linguistic evidence helps shed light on a part of history we are just beginning to understand.

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