When the Prophet Muhammad was born, the Arabian Peninsula was squeezed by three large empires

The Arabian Peninsula in the 6th century (Thomas Lessman)

In the breakdown of world history, the period when Muhammad lived is commonly referred to as late antiquity. This era, based on the conventions of Western historians, lasted from the 3rd to the 8th century.

The classical antiquity was marked by a colossal transformation of classical Greek and Roman cultural heritage in the west and the Persian Empire in the east. Both were great civilizations that have succeeded for thousands of years before.

The classical cultural heritage was then continued by the Byzantine Empire which was the successor to the Roman Empire. Some historians even nicknamed it the Last Roman Empire. The capital of the empire was in Constantinople, now Istanbul, which was the center of Eastern Christianity as well.

Around the time of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, the Byzantine Empire was so dominant in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Politically, the empire inherited the ambitions of the Roman Empire which liked to conquer the surrounding territories and, in the case of bureaucracy, continued the administrative skills of its predecessor.

In the classic book Byzantine Civilization, historian Steven Runciman revealed how the Byzantine Empire was very neat in managing the country for the size of the era. Very few countries at that time had organized themselves as well as the Byzantine Empire which was very careful in preventing power from being in the hands of incompetents.

Meanwhile, at the same time, in the eastern hemisphere, the Sasanian Empire prided itself on its long tradition as the successor of the ancient Persian Empire. The majority of people in this empire embraced Zoroastrianism.

Primary sources about the Sasanian Empire, also known as the Neo-Persian Empire, are very few compared to the Byzantine Empire, but at least, various references said the empire controlled vast areas around Iran, Iraq, Central Asia, to the eastern Arabian Peninsula.

The dominance and socio-political influence of the Sasanian Empire in the eastern hemisphere could be said comparable to the Byzantine Empire in the west. The striking difference between the two lay in the centralization and integration of power.

The Sasanian Empire did have the highest authority in the form of the emperor,—the most famous was Koshrow I or Anushirvan—but he did not have effective administrative authority. Many powerful aristocratic families opposed him.

However, as a large empire, the Sasanian Empire remained the strongest political and military entity in the eastern hemisphere. This made the Byzantine Empire more careful about taking expansion steps.

A Sasanian fortress in Derbent

In fact, there was another great political force at the time: the Kingdom of Aksum. It was located just in the west of the Arabian Peninsula across the Red Sea. Its territories included northern Ethiopia and present-day Eritrea.

Compared to the Byzantine and Sasanian Empires, the influence and reach of the Kingdom of Aksum's power were very limited. The Kingdom of Aksum also followed the Byzantine Empire more because of religious equality. Furthermore, there are very few sources of this kingdom.

For centuries, these two great powers fought over influence and territory. Many wars erupted. Likewise, there was a lot of cultural contact between them.

A deer between two elephants

Exactly in the midst of battles and tensions between the empires, Arabic culture existed in its own world. There was no great kingdom in this peninsula at the end of the 6th century. It was like a deer between two warring elephants.

A caravan crossing ad-Dahna Desert (Mohammad Nowfal)

But after all, the Arabian Peninsula was not an isolated place unattainable by great civilizations. The region remained integrated socio-culturally with the world around it.

Historian Fred Donner wrote in his controversial work Muhammad and the Believers that the Arabian Peninsula at that time, in the 6th century, was not an isolated place but was part of a vast cultural world that included the Near East and the Eastern Mediterranean regions.

The last major political entity on the Arabian Peninsula was the Himyarite Kingdom in Yemen which only lasted for four centuries, collapsing in 525.

Due to the absence of an empire, coupled with limited agricultural resources, the political power of the Arab world was divided into many tribes and clans.

Donner continued that in much of the Arab world, social and political rules were formed around families that bound the community in solidarity and mutual defense.

The ruin of Palmyra in 2010 (Bernard Gagnon)

In the midst of such a geopolitical context, the Prophet Muhammad was born. He then changed the political arena on the Arabian Peninsula and won a separate place in world history.