An old Arab tradition tells of Abraha, a powerful Christian warrior from Abyssinia, who was set to besiege Mecca just after the middle of the sixth century. Abraha wanted to destroy the ka'ba, the main shrine of Mecca, along with its idols.

When soldiers tried to get Abraha's elephant, Mahmud, to join in the campaign, Mahmud refused. Instead, he bowed in prayer toward the holy shrine, which Muslims believe was built by Abraham.

Despite the embellishment, this story illustrates that the Arabian peninsula was home to Christian, Jewish, and pagan traditions prior to the birth of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. While this tale ends with a peaceful twist, contact between the faiths has more often involved searing conflict.

Mobile melting pot

By the fourth century, Christianity had a major presence in Africa and a lesser presence in southern Arabia. By the fifth century, a sizeable Jewish population also lived throughout Arabia. In the early sixth century, Dhu Nuwas, a Jewish leader, ruled part of Arabia, and Christians were at peril under his reign. In the town of Zafar, 200 Christians were burned inside their church. Paganism thrived outside the enclaves of the two monotheistic faiths.

Muhammad was born about 570. His father died near the time of his birth, and he lost his mother when he was 6. He was cared for briefly by his grandfather and then raised by Abu Talib, his uncle, who was also head of the prominent Hashim clan in Mecca.

In the closing decades of the sixth century, a thriving trade network spread from Saudi Arabia north to Syria, east as far as India, and into northern Africa. Early Muslim histories report that Muhammad traveled with his uncle on trading journeys as far as Syria.

Muhammad most likely learned about Christianity ...

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