Map and Background Info: Geography and History of the Arabian Peninsula, and Overview of Islam

Overview: The purpose of this activity is to provide students with background information on the context of the Arabian Peninsula during the sixth and seventh centuries of the Common Era.


Students should be able to:

  • locate the Arabian peninsula on a map and identify surrounding bodies of land and water, fertile regions, trade routes and major cities.
  • explain the importance of the Arabian peninsula in terms of its location between major trade routes of the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean and the western end of the Silk Road.
  • describe the role of the Makkans in trans-Arabian trade and list several goods that Quraysh caravans transported and sold.
  • explain the rise and spread of Islam and major characteristics of Muslim civilization.
  • identify the basic beliefs and practices of Islam, including the Five Pillars and explain their relationship to Muslim life, culture and civilization.


  1. Have students study the map (Handout 1:2b) and, using an atlas if needed, name waterways, landmasses, fertile regions and trade routes; preview places mentioned in the film, including lands such as Arabia, Yemen, Syria, and cities such as Damascus, Jerusalem, Makkah, and Madinah; the geographic features and cities on the outline map provided. (Handout 1:2c)
  2. Assign students to read the brief background (Handout 1:2a) of the Arabian Peninsula and answer the questions individually or as a group. The reading provides evidence that the Arabian Peninsula was not an isolated place; it was involved in hemispheric cultural and economic interactions well before the rise of Islam in the region. The geographic features of the peninsula--especially the desert areas--were intimidating, which isolated the region from the surrounding areas, but also protected it from invasion.
  3. ADAPTATION: For lower level students, use the handout only up to the point before the verse Quraysh, and use only the first four questions. This can be done by folding the third page onto the lower half of the second page for photocopying.
  4. This activity can be used if the class is not already studying an introduction to Islam, or it may be useful as a substitute for a longer chapter. Assign Handout 1:2c, "Overview of the History and Teachings of Islam," and study questions. Its purpose is not in-depth study but a brief overview as background information. It may also be used as a wrap-up to a longer, more in-depth study of Islam.
  5. The Five Pillars activity helps to show how Islamic beliefs and practices relate to Muslim lives, cultures, and civilizations past and present. It should be done after students have read basic information on Islam, such as Handout 1:2c. Using the blank grid from Handout 1:2d and its suggested key, the teacher leads discussion on the basic meaning of the Five Pillars, their spiritual and worldly, individual and communal implications, and finally, the kind of cultural and historical institutions and developments this practice of worship fostered. If the class is studying Islam over a longer period of time, this graphic organizer may be completed over several class periods, beginning with the first three columns in connection with learning the meaning of the Five Pillars, and continuing with the individual and communal dimensions as the students study Muslim cultures around the world, and finally, the last column may be filled in as students learn about the history of Muslim civilization through time.
  6. ADAPTATION: Small groups may each be assigned one of the rows, i.e. one pillar as a research project, so that the entire class would complete the chart as a collective activity. For younger students or due to time limitations, it may be feasible to complete only the first three columns, or some combination of columns as the teacher sees fit. Some teachers may wish to provide examples to help students get started by filling in a different column in each row, photocopying the partially completed chart.


The Arabian Peninsula is a large land bridge suspended between Africa and Asia. It is among the largest peninsulas on earth, and is surrounded by water on all four sides. To the north lies the Mediterranean Sea and to the west lies the Red Sea. To the east is the Persian (or Arabian) Gulf, and to the south is the Arabian Sea, which is also part of the Indian Ocean.

About three-quarters of the Arabian Peninsula is covered by deserts. Geographers think that the region had changed from savannah, or grasslands to desert by about 8,000 B.C.E., along with the neighboring Sahara Desert in North Africa. Artifacts from hunter-gatherer groups and early settled cultures have been found at many sites. Traces of the earliest towns, cities and civilizations in the Fertile Crescent along the Mediterranean Sea have also been found. The Arabian Peninsula is mostly arid with inhospitable terrain and fertile regions nearly all around the periphery. Along the mountainous Arabian Sea coast to the south, rain-fed and irrigated highland areas support a rich agriculture. These mountains continue up to the Red Sea coast, but they do not receive the monsoon rains, and are mostly arid.

The narrow isthmus of Suez, near the Sinai Peninsula, joins the Arabian Peninsula to Africa. Today, the Suez Canal cuts through that connection, allowing ships to pass from the Mediterranean into the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. The peninsula is connected to Asia from the Mediterranean coast along the Tigris-Euphrates River system to the head of the Persian Gulf. Arabia is part of a region geographers now call Southwest Asia. On a map, you can see the Arabian Peninsula at the center of the eastern hemisphere’s continents and waterways. It forms a land bridge between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, and a crossroads between Africa, Asia, and Europe. The Arabian Peninsula is at the center of a huge region of desert stretching from North Africa to Central Asia, called the Great Arid Zone.

People settled in areas where they could farm, and herded flocks of sheep and goats in areas where they could graze on seasonal plants. During the first millennium B.C.E., domestication of the camel allowed pastoral nomads to inhabit even more arid parts of the peninsula. More important, the camel allowed people to cross the driest deserts between wells. Camels can travel at a steady rate and withstand the harsh desert climate for long periods without drinking. Invention of a practical camel packsaddle allowed it to carry hundreds of pounds at once. The camel caravan opened the Arabian Peninsula to regional and long-distance trade during the early centuries of the Common Era (C.E.).

The Arabs were skillful in transporting goods safely across the wide barren stretches, guided by signs of nature just as mariners navigated the seas. Seaports along the Arabian coasts linked the peninsula with the Mediterranean trading system, the Indian Ocean and Africa. Towns at caravan stops at oases developed along the overland trade routes, such as the inland towns of Makkah and Madinah, and the older town of Ubars. In the northern part of the peninsula, cities such as Jericho, Jerusalem and Damascus developed during biblical times. During classical times, city-states like Palmyra and Petra grew wealthy from trade on the eastern end of the Asian silk roads. Although the inner regions of the Arabian Peninsula were too difficult to conquer, the caravan routes and their towns in the region were not completely isolated. Arabian camel cavalry fought in imperial armies for the Persians and the Romans. Improvements in the camel saddle during the early centuries of the Common Era increased their strength as a military force and gave them control of the caravan trade. Trade and migration brought them luxury goods, wealth and ideas, including monotheistic belief systems such as Judaism and Christianity, though most tribes in the area remained polytheistic until the rise of Islam.

Nomadic herders, settled farmers, and townspeople shared an interdependent society. They depended upon one another for food, defense and trade. Understanding the relationship between nomadic groups, farmers and townspeople is as simple as bringing together the parts of a sandwich. Herders supplied meat, milk and leather from their animals. Farmers supplied grain for bread as well as dates. Sprinkle salt or spices on the sandwich and trade becomes part of the relationship. Traders needed desert guides and pack animals, and all three groups benefited from long-distance trade goods like silk, wool and cotton cloth, spices, perfumes, jewels, gold, silver and iron goods. The wealth of the townspeople gave them a leading position, which could still be challenged by the desert warriors. Pastoral nomads became guides for townspeople, acting as a shipping service for merchant groups, and providing skilled warriors and riders as security guards for the caravans. If we think of the Arabian Peninsula as a land bridge among the waterways that connect Afroeurasia, we must also think of it as a sand sea that caravan trade crossed like the ships of maritime routes.

For the taming of Quraysh

For their taming, we cause the caravans to set forth in winter and summer.

So let them worship the Lord of this House,

Who provides them with food against hunger and with security against fear. (Qur’an, 106:1-4)

This early Makkan surah, or chapter from the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book, is called "Quraysh," after the leading tribe of Makkah. It describes how the caravan trade allowed the Quraysh to live in prosperity and security through their leadership of these trading groups. Their caravan journeys of winter and summer made their wealthy life in the towns possible. This surah contains an important hint about geography. The winter and summer journeys were timed to the monsoon winds on the Indian Ocean, which brought ships laden with goods from India, East Africa and China to the ports of Yemen in one season, and allowed the caravans to regularly buy goods which they transported to Syria and its Mediterranean ports during the opposite season. For this reason, the Arab tribes owed gratitude to God, as the third verse states. God is the Lord of the Ka’bah in Makkah mentioned in the third verse. The annual pilgrimage to the Ka’bah also brought wealth and prestige to the city, a tradition reaching back centuries among the Arab tribes. These short verses provide an interesting window on the life of the Arabian Peninsula at the beginning of Muhammad’s mission.

Comprehension Questions:

  1. In two sentences, describe the location and topography of the Arabian Peninsula.
  2. Identify the different types of people who inhabited the Arabian Peninsula, and describe their relationship to one another. Role-play a conversation between a townsperson, a farmer and a nomad on a market day in one of the oasis towns.
  3. What role did trade play in Arabian economy and society, and why was the geographic location of the peninsula important for trade? What role did the monsoon play in bringing luxury goods to Arabia?
  4. What religious groups lived in Arabia before Islam?
  5. What activities and social values gave importance to the tribe of Quraysh at Makkah?
  6. On a map, locate the Silk Roads, and describe how they connected with northern Arabia.
  7. How might Arabia’s location between India, China and the Mediterranean affect the cultural life on the peninsula?


Map key: Trade Routes


Islam is the third of the three major monotheistic faiths, meaning those based on belief in One God. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam trace their origins to the teachings of prophets-- messengers who received holy scriptures. Their adherents believe that their holy scriptures are the word of God, or were inspired by God.

Based on the teachings of their holy book, the Qur’an, Muslims trace the origins of Islam to the first prophet, Adam. The Qur’an teaches that God sent many prophets to humankind with the same basic message to believe in One God, to worship and to act according to moral standards. Muslims also honor as prophets Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, as well as others known and unknown. Islam teaches that the earlier scriptures were sometimes lost or altered, and that a final prophet, Muhammad, completed God’s message to humankind and the religion of Islam.

The word Islam means "peace through submission to God" and a Muslim is a follower of Islam, "one who seeks peace through submission to God." The Qur’an teaches that all prophets were Muslim in the sense that they were models of submission to God and seekers of truth. Muslim practice is defined by the Qur’an (holy scripture) and the Sunnah (example set by Prophet Muhammad), transmitted through the Hadith (the recorded words and deeds of Muhammad). The Islamic requirements of worship are called the Five Pillars, which are:

(1) shahadah -- to state belief in One God and the prophethood of Muhammad,

(2) salat -- to pray the five obligatory prayers each day,

(3) siyam -- to fast from dawn to sunset during the month of Ramadan each year,

(4) zakat – to pay a percentage of goods or money as obligatory charity each year,

(5) hajj -- to make the pilgrimage to Makkah once in a lifetime.

Islamic teachings lay out a way of life based on moral values and just relations among people in the family, community, and the world. Islamic law, or Shari’ah, is a system of interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunnah based on scholars’ study of the Islamic sources and related disciplines, including logic and Arabic grammar.

Historically, the origin of Islam is the revelation received by Prophet Muhammad, who was born on the Arabian Peninsula in about 570 CE, in the city of Makkah, a caravan stop inland from the Red Sea on a trade route between Yemen and the Mediterranean. Makkah was also the site of an important house of worship called the Ka’bah, which the Arabs associated with the Prophet Abraham (Ibrahim) and his son Ishmael (Ismail).

The revelations he reported receiving at Makkah and Madinah came over 23 years, between about 610 and 622 CE. The revelations were transmitted by Muhammad to his followers in Arabic, and they were memorized and written down during his lifetime. These words were known as the Qur’an, literally, "the recitation." Muslims believe it to be the direct word of God, Whose name in Arabic is Allah. Both the names Islam and Muslim were given in the Qur’an.

After thirteen years of teaching and persecution at Makkah, the Muslims migrated to Madinah in an event called the Hijrah, which marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar, in 622 CE (Common Era). The years following the Hijrah were marked by conflict between Quraysh and the Muslims, including several major battles and a treaty. Muhammad lived for ten more years, during which the Muslim community grew from a few hundred to many thousands, developed a stable community with a system of beliefs, practices and leadership, and secured a bloodless victory over Makkah. During the ten years at Madinah, Islam attracted followers throughout Arabia, and came to the attention of major regional powers, the Byzantine and Persian Empires.

At the time of Muhammad’s death in 632 CE, the Muslim community already represented a growing political, military and religious force in the region. Four successors to Muhammad’s political power, called the "Rightly Guided Caliphs," carried on the legacy of Muhammad’s leadership, but not his prophethood or revelation. During the century after his death, Muslim armies conquered a huge territory extending from North Africa to Central Asia. The Persian Empire fell, and the Byzantine Empire lost much territory. The early state of the "Rightly-Guided Caliphs" gave way to a civil war over the succession in 660 CE, resulting in the founding of the Umayyad dynasty, with its capital at Damascus, Syria. The end of unified rule over all Muslim lands ended in 750 CE. A revolution against the Umayyads resulted in the founding of a new Abbasid dynasty, with its capital at Baghdad. It lasted until 1258 CE, but other states also broke away to form separate Muslim states--a few at first, then many. Muslim Spain was one of the most important of these states.

During the centuries following the rise of Islam and the expansion of the Muslim state, Islam spread among the population of Muslim-ruled territory in parts of Africa, Europe and Asia. The growth of cities was both a cause and effect of the spread of Islam and economic growth in Muslim-ruled areas. Cultural developments in literature, arts and sciences, manufacturing and trade accompanied the spread of Islam and its influence on religious, intellectual, economic and political life in those regions. Although unified Muslim rule lasted only about a century, Islam kept spreading and Muslim culture and society flourished. By 1500, Islam had spread to West and East Africa, to western and coastal China, and to India and parts of Southeast Asia, and was moving into southeastern Europe Only in the Iberian Peninsula did Muslims experience permanent loss of territory. The Reconquista by the Spanish and Portuguese was the cause of this loss. After a long period of multi-religious life under Muslim rule, the new Christian rulers converted or expelled Muslims and Jews.

Between 1500 and 1800 CE, Islam continued to spread in several regions, notably Eastern Europe, Central Asia, West Africa and Southeast Asia. Successor states to the short-lived Mongol empire formed Muslim states, which were marked by military conquest, encouragement of trade, and patronage of learning, arts and architecture. Three major states and a number of smaller regional powers were important political, economic, and military forces during this time. In India, the Mughal Empire, heir to the Central Asian conquerors Timur and Babur, ruled in the Northern part of the subcontinent. The Safavid Empire and its successors ruled Iranian and other Persian-speaking territories.

Important cultural expressions of these regional powers were magnificent crafts and urban architecture. Both influenced urban and courtly culture in Africa, Asia, and Europe. Italian and Indian stone artisans, Chinese and Iranian painters, ceramic and textile artisans, as well as artisans working in steel, bronze, silver and gold circulated among the royal courts and commercial workshops. As Afro-Eurasian trade began to link with European and then American trade after the voyages of European mariners, luxury goods for the middle classes were important exports from Muslim ports.

It is fair to say that some of Europe’s emerging industries served their apprenticeship to manufacturing in these regions. The ceramic industry in Europe learned from Turkish, Persian and Chinese manufacturers. Asian and African cloth manufacturers served as models for early European textiles. Indian and Chinese textiles were among the goods most in demand. Indian weavers and dyers produced such variety and quality of cottons, silks and woolens that common textiles today still bear specialized names from the exporting regions. Calico, muslin, canvas, (later khaki), seersucker, chintz, voiles, toile, velvet, satin, cashmere (from Kashmir), damask. Persian and Turkish carpets are still sold for high prices in the West.

By the 1600’s, Europeans bought the products of Asia with silver and gold from its growing colonies in the Americas and Africa. Spices and food products from the Afro-Eurasian trade combined with new products from the Columbian exchange and stimulated imports and changes in diet and agriculture across the whole world during this period. An enormous trade in sugar, coffee, and tea was another important influence that originated in trade with Muslim and other economic centers in Afroeurasia.

During the nineteenth century, European colonization of Muslim regions increased the economic and political effects of the growing shift in manufacturing and trade toward Europe’s favor. Europe’s military and industrial powers were twin forces that gradually weakened Muslim states, as it did other states in the Americas, Africa and Asia. By the early years of the twentieth century, the strongest Muslim power, the Ottoman Empire, had been overpowered. After World War I, Ottoman territory in the Middle East and North Africa had been divided up among the French and the British, including Palestine, the Holy Land of all three monotheistic faiths. Turkey, in Asia Minor, was all that remained sovereign of the former Ottoman Empire.

After World War II, nearly all of today’s modern Muslim countries had achieved independence from European powers, which grew weak after two huge wars. Palestine had been divided by Britain and the United Nations so that Israel could be created, and after 1967, Israel occupied all the land that could serve as a Palestinian state in keeping with United Nations intentions and resolutions. Algeria did not gain its independence until the 1960s after a brutal resistance against French colonialism. African Muslim countries also gained independence and suffered many economic problems. Development experts and Western governments emphasized the need for Muslim societies to become secular, which often came to mean repression rather than freedom of religion. The need for oil in the industrial countries of the world brought wealth to the oil-producing nations of the Persian Gulf, but also put these countries in the geo-strategic spotlight. Iran struggled against a Western-favored regime, and in 1979, religious and secular revolutionaries appealed to the Shi’i Iranian population to overthrow the Shah, and established the Islamic Republic of Iran. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Central Asian Muslim states, like other former Soviet regions, threw off Russian rule, and promised to become new oil and gas producers for the world if pipelines could be built.

At the beginning of the third millennium CE, there are more than 50 countries with Muslim majorities, and dozens more with significant minorities. Several countries in Europe have large Muslim minority populations, such as Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany--mostly from former colonies. Several countries in the Americas have growing minorities of Muslims, including between 4 and 7 million living in the United States. About 40% of Muslim Americans are of African American heritage.

Despite oil wealth in some countries, repressive governments and lack of strong economic development and social and political change haveled to great frustration in Muslim societies. Domestic and international critics point to the failure of many autocratic or militarist regimes in the region that claim to be secular governments. Dissatisfaction has led to the rise of political parties emphasizing a return to Islamic principles of law as a basis for governance, calling with many other groups for more democratic and representative government. In many countries, political parties whose platform called for such Islamic goals and values won significant support from the voters. Electoral victories by such Muslim parties were met with acceptance by some governments, and with repression by others. Political movements both within and outside governments spoke in the language of Islam against injustices, using jihad to justify violent means. They managed to attract some sympathy at home and provoke fear abroad. The use of prisons, torture and denial of civil liberties stoked the radicalization of these groups, along with their growing frustration over outside intervention by Western nations, particularly the United States. The issue of Palestine grew more violent on both sides for lack of a just and lasting peace, and the lack of balance perceived in the US role in that conflict was shown to be a major source of discontent among Muslims of the world.

The rise of terrorism committed in the name of Islam came to a head in the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, causing many to confuse the widely held peaceful teachings of the faith with modern, radical interpretations. On the other hand, in the name of fighting against terrorism, the United States seemed determined to dominate the Middle East as the US war against Iraq was waged as a pre-emptive and liberating effort against the regime of Saddam Hussein. This open-ended war seemed to many Muslims to be a war against Islam itself, with a population of more than a billion worldwide, although US leaders insisted it was not. The major struggle of the new century for Muslims was to achieve positive social change and build modern, economically and politically strong societies based on enduring Islamic principles and values of the faith. As has happened many times in the 1400 years of Islam, Muslim scholars and ordinary people have tried to re-center Muslim thought to restore the balance between rigid or extreme interpretations of Islam, and rejection of the most vital principles of faith.

Study Questions:

  1. How long was the period in which the Muslim community developed under the leadership of Muhammad?
  2. How long did the following groups rule--the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, the Umayyad Dynasty, the Abbasid Dynasty?
  3. How did the breakup of unified rule affect the spread of Islam and the development of Muslim culture?
  4. What role did trade play in Africa and Eurasia during the period of Muslims’ greatest strength and development? What role did trade play in the weakening of Muslim regions in contrast to Europe and the United States?
  5. How did the two world wars impact Muslim regions? How were these impacts affected by colonialism and imperialism?
  6. What problems have recently independent countries faced over the past fifty years?







Cultural Influences





































Handout 1:2d: THE FIVE PILLARS HAVE MANY DIMENSIONS (next 2 pages)







Cultural Influences


Profession of the creed:

There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God (Allah)

Acknowledges that there is One Creator, and that He has sent messengers and revelation to humankind

Islam forbids worship of idols or images, which also means bowing to false gods or humans; places limits on materialism

Focuses on the individual’s direct relationship with God, without any intermediaries

One simple message universal to time and place; reverence for the prophets and earlier scriptures like Bible & Torah; acceptance of earlier religions

-There is no central religious authority in Islam, no theocracy since no one can claim knowledge of God over others

-Limitation on the power of worldly authority over Muslim societies;

Islamic jurisprudence = Islamic law system developed

-Arabic language of Qur’an spread


Five obligatory prayers at the time and in the way taught by Muhammad

Obedience to God’s command to worship;

Regular purification during each day

Physical act and spiritual act joined; healthful exercise and mental relaxation

--Self-dsicipline and self-renewal woven into life pattern

--Opportunity to seek forgiveness and ask God for help

--Binds society together in regular worship and contact

-- Established regular pattern to daily and weekly social life

--Establishment of masjids (mosques) everywhere groups of Muslims went; architecture, decoration and sacred art

--need to set prayer times led to study of astronomy, math, geography to set prayer times and direction--rise of colleges & universities for science and religion


Giving to the poor and those in need a percentage of wealth beyond basic needs

Purification of wealth by giving a portion away--"a loan to God"

Constant and dependable stream of charity available to Muslim society

Limitation on greed and accumulation of wealth

Stimulated both required and voluntary additional charity

Early development of charitable institutions and foundations; collective public works free from state control, tax exempt

(WAQF) charitable foundations developed as permanent source of funding for mosques, schools & colleges, universities, hospitals, wells and travelers’ accommodations, institutionalized help for the poor


Fasting from dawn to sunset during the month of Ramadan (9th lunar month

Fasting is a tradition of prophets; purpose is coming near to God; annual renewal of spirit

Fasting is said to contribute to health, rid the body of poisons

Self-discipline & sense of achievement; breaking up bad eating habits; God-consciousness

Whole community participates, visits, shares food, renews contact

--Additional prayers & Quran readings

--Ramadan is an international celebration all over Muslim world

--Stimulated math & astronomy for setting lunar calendar


Making the journey to Makkah to perform the rites during the pilgrimage season

"Dress rehearsal for Judgment Day"

Standing before God; recalls obedience of Abraham

Orients Muslims even in remote places toward a world community; encourages travel and communication

--Developed sense of individual being accountable to God

--Gave people the desire to travel, think beyond own backyard

--Brought people together to trade and exchange knowledge

--Organized huge pilgrim caravans from each city; established roads, wells, ports for better travel

--Contributed to the mobility & connectedness of Muslim society over 14 centuries

-- Renewed common beliefs and practices, overcoming local traditions

--Increased trade & scholarship