In the past decades, epigraphy related to the South Arabian area has led to astonishing results which could severely shake the Arabs’ traditional view of the JÃ¢hiliya. According to the epigraphy, we can discern in Yemen three phases in the development from polytheism to monotheism:
— Around 350, the Aksumite king Ezana converted to Christianity and zealously spread it in his lands. He had coins minted with Christian inscriptions, was concerned with the building of churches, and sponsored the translation of the most important Christian literary monuments into ancient Ethiopian. This first Christianizing impetus lasted until 380 on both sides of the Red Sea.
— From 380 to 520, we encounter the phenomenon of a “non-partisan” monotheism, which does not choose to settle on either Judaism or Christianity. It could be said that it is a form of “natural theology” which, by means of human reason, identifies a God from things created, and thereby achieves a certain assurance about divine existence. The origin of so-called Hanifism could never be completely clarified. Later Islamic apologetics saw in the hanÃ®f an archetype of ancestor Abraham, who changed in the Koran to Ibrahim. Syrian linguistics, however, contradicts this finding: here, the hanpe are the “pagans”, ergo, the polytheists. Rather, in the “god-seekers” it is possible to recognize those Arabs who renounced paganism, would not be proselytized because of the severity of Jewish law but also — out of political considerations — did not want to convert officially to Christianity. In the 4th and 5th centuries, Christianity in south Arabia was the religion of Ethiopians and Byzantines — to which not every Arab wished to belong. So things remained in limbo for many people of faith: no longer pagan, not yet Jewish or Christian, but simply “religious.” The third decade of the sixth century was shaped by the reign of the Jewish king, Joseph (dhÃ» NuwÃ¢s), who ruled from 522 to 530 and — with the backing of the Persian Zoroastrians — conducted a forced Judaization among Arabic tribes. Jewish satellite states, together with the Sassanids, were said to control the Horn of Africa and cut off Byzantium from its trade routes to India.
— In 530, Abraha, the Negus of Ethiopia, struck back with all his might, broke the resistance of the Jewish tribes in several hard campaigns, and established new provinces in San”Ã¢ and NajrÃ¢n. By 570, one may correctly speak of a Christian Yemen. This phase of the Christian restoration found expression in striking church buildings, then ended abruptly with the invasion of the Persians, which — coming from Oman — drove out the Ethiopians, took possession of Yemen, and fought its way northward toward Mecca. Christianity had now lost its most important political buttress in the Arabian Peninsula. The subsequent Persian-Byzantine war is not part of our theme, but it led to a long-term weakening of both empires which were to fall to the Arabic drive to expansion in the 7th century. In Mohammed’s time, Arabic Christianity was already severely weakened. The Ethiopian prisoners of war could no longer maintain a regular church life. An open mission among the Arabs in the previous manner could no longer be contemplated, to say nothing of a learnÃ¨d theology as practiced in Alexandria or in the centers of Mesopotamia at that time.
Regarding the religious melange before the appearance of Islam, the question seems not to have been whether, but simply when monotheism would take hold and finally establish itself in the HijÃ¢z and central Arabia. There can be no thought of an epoch of godless darkness before Mohammed in the checkered religious history before Mohammed. Strictly speaking, early Islam also did not bring an end to ancient Arabian paganism, as Wellhausen still thought.  Rather, it perpetuated it in the form of pilgrimage, of worshipping a black stone and of an archaic image of a prophet.
Especially revealing in a religious-historical respect is Arethas” martyrdom in southern Arabian NajrÃ¢n. This occurred during the Jewish campaign against the Ethiopians. King Joseph (YÃ»suf dhÃ» NuwÃ¢s) conquered ZafÃ¢r, killing the Abyssinians there, moved to the coastal plain and on his way burned all the Christian churches. Next, he besieged NajrÃ¢n, stormed the city, and had the largely Christian population massacred. The martyrdom speaks of 4,252 murdered, which probably corresponds to historical facts. Later Muslim tradition tells of 20,000, among them HÃ¢rith (Grecized Arethas), the Christian mayor of the city. 427 persons had sought refuge in the church and were burned by the Jewish rebels. No bishop is mentioned in the sources. Paul had already been dead two years, so he was spared the sight of his desecrated house of worship. The lesser cleric, the priest and the deacon who are mentioned, reflect the three faiths as well as the three peoples united in martyrdom — Persians, Byzantines and Ethiopians. The names of the lay martyrs are predominantly Arabic — a real treasure trove for Christian prosopography. During the trial, the Jewish commander, MasrÃ»q, demands an act of apostasy from the prisoners of war in the following words:
“Follow my words and renounce Jesus Christ, the son of Mary! For he is only a son of man and mortal like everyone. Spit on this cross and become Jews with us! Then you will live. However, if you do not heed my words, by Adonai-Allah, then I will torment you with fire and your life will be lost in it, for you are praying to a mortal man who, although he was only a human child, called himself the son of the merciful God (alÃ¢hÃ¢ rahmÃ¢nÃ¢). And now, you see, his false teaching has spread, but let all lands know that he is human and not God.”
The martyrdom of Arethas is in the Syrian language, but the trial was conducted in Arabic. Crystallized in MasrÃ»q’s mouth is what one would today all too likely categorize as “Koranic Christology”: Jesus is only the son of Mary, not of God; he is created, mere man and mortal like anyone. At least there is the admission from the side of the Jews that Jesus identified himself as the “son of the merciful God.” The divine sonship does not appear here as the post-Easter invention of the apostolic church, but the claim traces back to Jesus himself. From the Jewish standpoint, it represents a false doctrine that must be resisted by all means possible. Striking, too, is the traitorous terminology: the Jewish Adonai is identified in MasrÃ»q’s oath formula with the Arabic Allah (Syrian alÃ¢hÃ¢). The divine attributive, rahmÃ¢nÃ¢ (arab. ar-rahmÃ¢n) is pre-Islamic. In nucleus to be sure, it goes back to the El rahum wa-hanun in Ex 34, 6, but, as epigraphy shows, it has a long history in the Arabic language area, reaching back into the Palmyra empire. And finally, the cross is consistently offensive not only to the Yemeni Jews, but also to the Muslims of later times. In a way, Yemeni Judaism passed on its hatred for the cross and Jesus’ divine sonship.
After everything that has been said, Jewish-Yemeni, Christian-Ethiopian and simply pagan-archaic influences on rising Islam are not to be denied. Even if one does not wish to follow LÃ¼ling’s and Luxenberg’s theories on an Aramaic original Koran, it is uncontested fact that Syrian sacred language directly influenced the Arabic of the Koran. Basic religious concepts like fasting, praying,, even the word “Koran” all have a Christian-Syrian pre-history. Other key words come from the Ge’ez — ancient Ethiopian, which, considering the widespread Aksumite Christianity on the Arabian Peninsula, is not really surprising. And it is no coincidence that we hear nothing of an Arabic translation of the Bible in pre-Islamic time. To explain this astonishing circumstance, oriental Christians tell a rather confused tale of a caliph who asks a Syrian bishop for an Arabic Gospel that he, too, could read — a Gospel in which there was to be no mention (sic!) of the divinity of Christ, of the Cross and of baptism. With the bishop’s answer that such a gospel did not exist, the first Christian-Islamic “debate” in Damascus came to an abrupt end. What we can learn from this strange oriental tale is as follows: There was no Arabic Bible before Mohammed. Christianity among the Arabs was strong, but not exclusively Syrian-influenced, and had lasted into the eighth century. The lingua sacra among the Arabs was Syrian, and it is not a mistake to assume that it was tolerably well understood by the individual tribes in the Fertile Crescent. In the early times, Arabic was not the language of the liturgies but was used as written language by Christian poets, some of whom created quite modest literary monuments. Ancient Arabian Bedouin poetry, on the other hand, has an exclusively profane character. Essentially, it celebrates the beauty of women, the swiftness of camels and the heroic deeds of tribal warriors. In the multiplicity of rhythmic forms of expression and the monotonous variation of the same, perpetual repetitive poetic materials, it decisively influenced the lyric passages of the Koran.
Peter Bruns is Professor at the Zentrum fÃ¼r Mittelalterstudien, Otto-Friedrich-UniversitÃ¤t, Bamberg, Germany. This article appeared in German in Forum Katholische Theologie, 26 (2010) 1., pp. 1-23.
 In this regard, cf. Christian J. ROBIN, Le judaisme de Himyar, in: Arabia I (2003) 92-172.
 On the “godly work of barbarian conversion” as the Greek forefathers understood it, cf. Heinz-Gerd BRAKMANN, To para tois barbarois ergon theion. Die Einwurzelung der Kirche im spÃ¤tantiken Reich von Aksum (Bonn 1994).
 So, for instance, the popular crescent moon disappears, which is replaced on the coin by a cross, cf. the illustration 5 in BRAKMANN, Einwurzelung. From an iconographic viewpoint, therefore, Islam consciously returns to pre-Christian paganism.
 The change from Abraham to IbrÃ¢hÃ®m is another good example that the “original Koran” was not vocalized and that the consonantal elements of the proper name were not correctly differentiated by dots.
 As may be seen, the recourse to a Syrian pre-history is not always successful. There are many a “false friends” among the Semitic languages.
 Cf. WELLHAUSEN, Reste 234. Cf. also p. 74: “The holiness of the Ka’ba, therefore does not come from the fact that an idol stood there. The black stone was the real shrine […] .” The Ibrahim legend propagated by early Islam represents the classic example for a successful cult etiology. Only by this means could the local cult around the El of Mecca, Hubal, be suppressed and the Hajj founded.
 The author of the Koran did not know the writing prophets of the old confederation, even though Mohammed as a standard feature is designated a nabi. In fact, he is much closer to the category of the ancient Arabic soothsayer (kÃ¢hin) who also tended to swear by the earth deities. Despite a common root, the kÃ¢hin is different in meaning from the Hebrew kÃ´hÃªn, and even more so from the Syriac kÃ¢hnÃ¢ which designated the Christian sacrificer priest.
 Cf. HAINTHALER, Christliche Araber, 121-127.
 We translate here according to the Syrian text from the edition of Alex MOBERG, The Book of the Himyarites. Fragments of a hitherto unknown Syriac work (Lund / Leipzig 1934) 13a.
 In this connection, cf. the examples given in ROBIN, Judaisme, 115-117.
 Cf. FRITSCH, Islam und Christentum, 119: “Der leidende Christus is dem Muslim etwas Unbegreifliches / The Passion of Christ is something incomprehensible to a Muslim.” All those involved recently in the Kermani affair had to have known this. On the author’s purported belief in the Cross, cf. SÃ¼ddeutsche Zeitung May 15, 2009.
 Islam is not originally an ascetic religion. Muslims learned fasting (Ã§Ã»m) by observing Jews and especially Christians, cf. WELLHAUSEN, Reste, 143.
 The Arabic word for ritual prayer derives from Syriac Ã§lÃ´tÃ¢. The nightly prayer especially could have been learned from the traveling ascetics. Cf. WELLHAUSEN, Reste, 23: “The unsociable rÃ¢hib in his lonesome cell, with his lamp that lighted the way for caravans at night is a popular figure in Arabic poetry.”
 Originated from Syrian qeryÃ¢nÃ¢, which means the lectio divina. Other foreign words are the Arabic furqÃ¢n from the Syriac equivalent of “salvation,” or the perversion of Syriac sÃ¢hdÃ¢ (martyr) to Arabic shÃ¢hid, one who has fallen in jihÃ¢d. The list can expand at will.
 Cf. WELLHAUSEN, Reste 232, note 1. The Koranic Wishing-Table story (sura 5, 112-115) has a corrupted eucharistic background, because the table (mÃ¢”ida) is originally not Arabic furniture, but has come into the Koran by way of Ethiopia. Ordinarily, one ate hunkering on the ground. The author of the Koran could apparently not make much sense of the altar as a mensa Domini, cf. also BELL, Commentary, I, 173. Also the Koranic word for ascension-to-heaven (mi”rÃ¢j) is of Ethiopian origin and was in use by the Christians of Abyssinia and Yemen long before Mohammed.
 Also HAINTHALER, Christliche Araber, 14, note 6.
 Cf. FranÃ§ois NAU, Un colloque du patriarche Jean avec l”Ã©mir des AgarÃ©ens et faits divers des annÃ©es 712-716, in Journal Asiatique 5 (1915) 225-279.
 “Evangelium” [Gospel] is always encountered in the singular, an indicator that the author of the Koran did not know the four Gospels (Tetraevangelium). Presumably there were still in circulation some copies of Tatian’s Gospel Harmony, the Bible of the Syrian church fathers Aphrahat and Ephrem.
 Cf. GRAF, Geschichte, I, 32-33.