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Was Mecca ever on any Trade Route?*

Trade Route Theory - Dr. Watt

20th century Muslims scholars and Western Orientalists had a problem explaining how Mecca got its wealth, since it is in such an arid place, and far from anywhere important. How could such a backward city become important and then be the basis for the subsequent Islamic Empires of the Umayyads and the Abbasids?

This dilemma was supposedly solved by Dr Montgomery Watt, a well known Orientalist. He suggested that due to the wars between the Sassanian (Persian) and the Byzantine (Christian) empires in the 5th – 7th centuries, the trade route which normally went through the Persian Gulf was shut down, and had to be redirected south, across the Arabian Sea, to the city of Aden (in what is today Yemen), where the goods were taken off the ships and were transported overland by camels 1250 miles up via the Western Plateau of Arabia to Gaza in the north. This finally solving the problem of Mecca’s importance, since, according to him, Mecca controlled that trade, and that is where the city made its wealth, and thus could be the basis for the subsequent Muslim empires.

At then end of the last century, Dr. Patricia Crone, a leading scholar on the Middle East, saw problems with this theory, which no one seemed to have noticed before. To begin with, Mecca was not situated correctly to be on a trade route which followed the Western plateau, because it sits to the west of the plateau, over 1,000 meters below the plateau. In order for the camel caravans to pass through Mecca, they would have to leave the plateau at Taif, and head down 1,000 meters to Mecca, which was barren, with very little water, and thus could not have accommodated caravans of large herds of camels. What’s more they would then have to go back up over 1,000 meters to get up to Yathrib (now Medina), which was also on the plateau.

But more troubling was the suggestion by Watt also suggested that having already crossed the Arabian Sea on boat, they would then take off all their goods at Aden, and then head up the Arabian peninsula, to Gaza, which was over 1250 miles away. Why didn’t they just continue to keep the goods on the ships and float freely up the Red Sea? Crone found that taking a ton of goods only 50 miles by land would cost the same amount as taking that same ton of goods 1250 miles by Sea! It would have been prohibitively expensive to take their goods by land. All of the trade, from the 2nd century onward was all maritime (by Sea); that none of it went by land, and that there were no Arabs who controlled the sea trade. It was the Adalusians, from Eritrea, in Africa whose names were on the trading documents, and no Arab names, proving that the trade had more to do with Africa than Arabia. In one fell swoop, she had debunked Dr Watt’s trade Route theory, proving that Mecca had nothing to do with the trade at all.

So, then how did Mecca become famous and important and rich? Well, it never was, at least not in the 7th century or before. Mecca only became powerful and important once Islam was taken over by the Abbasids, who made it the center for their sanctuary, after 749 AD, that is over 100 years after Muhammad lived there.

Dr. Montgomery Watt

William Montgomery Watt (14 March 1909 – 24 October 2006) was a Scottish Orientalist, historian, academic and Anglican priest. From 1964 to 1979, he was Professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Edinburgh.

Watt was one of the foremost non-Muslim interpreters of Islam in the West, and according to Carole Hillenbrand “an enormously influential scholar in the field of Islamic studies and a much-revered name for many Muslims all over the world”. Watt’s comprehensive biography of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, Muhammad at Mecca (1953) and Muhammad at Medina (1956), are considered to be classics in the field.

Watt on right Photo: Aaabdolrashidi

Dr Patricia Crone

Dr. Patricia Crone (March 28, 1945 – July 11, 2015) was a Danish-American Orientalist, and historian specializing in early Islamic history. Crone was a member of the Revisionist school of Islamic studies and questioned the historicity of the Islamic traditions about the beginnings of Islam.

The major theme of Patricia Crone’s scholarly life was the fundamental questioning of the historicity of Islamic sources which concern the beginnings of Islam. Her two best-known works concentrate on this topic: Hagarism and Meccan Trade. Three decades after Hagarism, Fred Donner called Crone’s work a “milestone” in the field of Orientalist study of Islam.

In their book Hagarism (1977), Crone and her associate Michael Cook, both then working at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, provided a new analysis of early Islamic history. They fundamentally questioned the historicity of the Islamic traditions about the beginnings of Islam. They tried to produce a picture of Islam’s beginnings only from non-Arabic sources. By studying the only surviving contemporary accounts of the rise of Islam, which were written in Armenian, Greek, Aramaic, and Syriac by actual witnesses, they reconstructed a story of Islam’s beginnings that differs from the story told by Islamic traditions. Crone and Cook claimed to be able to explain exactly how Islam came into being by the fusion of various Near Eastern civilizations under Arabic leadership. She maintained the basic results of her work:

  • The historicity of Islamic sources on Islam’s beginnings has to be fundamentally questioned.
  • Islam has deep roots in Judaism, and Arabs and Jews were allies.
  • Not Mecca but a different place in northwestern Arabia was the cradle of Islam.

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Cameling in the holy land since forever