New research suggests that the population of Mecca was only a few hundred people when the Prophet Muhammad first began preaching the Islamic religion during the first decades of the seventh century.
Majied Robinson, an Honorary Lecturer at the University of St Andrews, came up with the estimate after examining a ninth-century source about the genealogy of the Qurashī clan that lived in Mecca and using a statistical method known as Poisson distribution. The work appears in the journal Der Islam.
Robinson’s work focuses on the Nasab Quraysh of al-Zubayrī (d. 848/851), which was a very thorough examination of several generations of the Qurashī clan before and after the time of Mohammed. This source names 131 Qurashī adult males during Mohammed’s generation. which Robinson believes would have been a very accurate accounting. Robinson further applies the Poisson distribution, a theory developed in the nineteenth century to understand the probabilities of an event occurring, to show that this number of 131 adult males would have been very close to the estimated population growth for that particular generation.
With the adult male Qurashī population known, Robinson further calculated how many females, children and non-Qurashī peoples there would have been, including slaves. He comes up with a figure that 552 individuals living in Mecca at the time of Muḥammad. This number could be higher by a few hundred people, but no lower than about 300.
Robinson writes that this is a:
critical finding because it confirms something that scholars have long suspected: Mecca was small. Not only this, we now know how small. Until now historians have been forced to describe Mecca as ‘a town’ or ‘a settlement’ and this can mean a lot of things depending on a person’s experience of towns and settlements. ‘A few hundred people’ on the other hand can only ever mean ‘a few hundred people’.
The article goes further to ask “how did such a small population wield such enormous influence?” While several previous theories are noted, Robinson believes that even before the time of Muhammad the Qurashī was fully aware of their precarious position – with the Mecca region having no agriculture and being dependent on the trade of its neighbours – and sought out alliances and connections through marriages to other clans to build up their position.
As Robinson concludes, “through this we understand with greater clarity what it was that the Quraysh brought to the Islamic project; namely, an enormous depth and breadth of knowledge of how to balance the competing demands of powerful interest groups from a position of relative weakness. It was this open-minded pragmatism that allowed Islam to survive and thrive after the death of its founder and gave the members of this tiny tribe the skills they needed to lead a series of multi-ethnic, multi-faith polities for centuries to come.”
Majied Robinson’s article, “The Population Size of Muḥammad’s Mecca and the Creation of the Quraysh” appears in Der Islam. Click here to read it. You can also read Robinson’s other research through his Academia.edu page.
Top Image: Illustration with Madrasa Sulaimānīya in Mecca, in Ottoman manuscript dated from 1709 in Berlin Staatsbibliothek (Ms. or. oct. 1602, f.44r)