Traditional Islamic history places the life and events of Muhammad and proto-Islam in and around Mecca, a wealthy centre of trade and pilgrimage deep in the heart of Arabia that supported the mercantilist activities of Muhammad’s clan (Surah 106). However, these assertions are once again entirely dependent on late Islamic commentaries from the time of the Abbasids some 200 years after the facts. When we look at independent sources of information, Mecca is missing from this time period. This is not to say it did not exist, but it was totally irrelevant to trade and influence to the point where it is missing from all documents. This is why Mecca is not mentioned in the Qur’an (there is a single mention of a mysterious Bakkah, but not Mecca) and why we have no objective historical evidence of Mecca’s existence in any Greek, Roman, Syriac, Aramaic, Coptic or other literature until 741AD. The heyday of Arabian spice trade was during the Greek and early Roman eras around the time of Christ, not 600 years later.
Mecca had no timber, no ships, no port, no water, and no agriculture. It was on no trade crossroads and appeared on no maps of trade routes or in any classical references to trade routes. It is 83km inland from a major global sea trade route at a time when sea transport up and down the Red Sea was ten times cheaper than land transport, and far faster. By the 1st Century shipping and navigation had developed to the point where it dominated all trade between Rome and India, via the Red Sea.
So what luxury goods did Meccans trade that could compensate for their cost and geographic disadvantage? As it turns out, nothing. The most exotic spices and aromatics, frankincense and myrrh had long dropped off in trade due to the Christianising of Europe and stiff completion from North Africa, especially Ethiopia, which militarily took control of South Arabia in 525AD. The only products coming out of South Arabia in the 7th Century were leather, silver and pepper. Silver was the only land transported commodity as it had to go to Persia, not to the Mediterranean. Mecca was definitely no trading “mecca”, and therefore the thesis that it could have constituted the source of the Muhammad’s family wealth and the vast funds and armies required to conquer the world so radically within such a short space of time is highly suspicious.
When the Qur’an talks about events, people, power struggles and trade, this must have been happening much further away around two known centres of trade. Either in the north-east at Al-Hira in Persia, or north-west around Nabataea, Palestine and Syria. Historical records abundantly verify such activity for the latter option, especially from the Red Sea to Petra in Nabataea and up to Syria. In fact the records richly verify the trading activities and prosperity of the Arab traders in the region of Syria who are even said to have constituted Muhammad’s tribe.
According to the thoroughly researched book, In the Shadow of the Sword, Mecca only slowly became a centre of pilgrimage from the time of Abd al-Malik’s 691AD military expedition into the Hejaz region of the Arabian Peninsula to deal with the opposition to his rule coming from Ibn al-Zubayr, a rival to his leadership. Zubayr’s final stand was in a place called the House of God, which was destroyed along with its defenders. Given that all Arab houses of worship faced Petra up until this point in time it is logical this house of God was in that vicinity. To secure his authority in the restive Hejaz region, Abd al-Malik undertook a pilgrimage in 693AD down into that same region, While there he visited Medina and Ta’if, the birthplace of his father. From there he apparently visited the tiny settlement of Mecca, anointing it as the new House of God, and moving the sacred Nabataean Ka’ba and its sacred black stone meteorite 1,300km south to its present site. From this point in history Arab houses of worship slowly started turning south, from Petra to Mecca, a city that absolutely does not fit the description of it provided by the Qur’an. Sixty years later Kharijite sermons would still be damning Abd al-Malik for destroying the House of God.