The intellectual milieu of seventh-century Mecca and Medina into which the Qur'an came was rustic, and bore no resemblance to the environment of the urbanised, far more literate societies of the organised empires of the Romans and Persians to the north. While literacy was nowhere widespread in early medieval times, it seems to have been especially lacking in the Arabian peninsula, where the prevalent Arabic language appears not to have possessed a written literature before the seventh century. On the other hand, the groundwork for Islam had apparently been laid orally, for the Qur'an presupposes a society of a certain sophistication of thought. Part of this sophistication was a familiarity with monotheism (Qur'an 29:61, 63; 31:25; 39:38; 43:9, 87), despite the well-entrenched and confident paganism native to the Arabs. While Arab familiarity with the monotheistic idea is unmistakably the fruit of centuries-old contact with Judaism, Christianity and Zoroas-trianism, Arab isolation persisted, and knowledge of the abstract thought of the neighbouring high cultures was limited.

Such a situation of illiteracy and isolation provided the opportunity for the emergence of a new religious movement, precisely because the Arabs were not already committed to one of the existing literate traditions. This opportunity was realised when the Prophet Muhammad began to proclaim a new message from God, first privately at Mecca, and then publicly in that city, and finally from 622 in Medina. Muhammad taught that the true religion was that of Abraham, who had been neither Jew nor Christian (3:67), and he proclaimed that the revelation he now bore represented the true, original and unchanging religion established by God for humankind since the beginning of the human story. The older religions of Judaism and Christianity, whose followers were to be styled ''People of the Book'' (ahl al-kitab), were seen as equally divine in their origin, but corrupted or misinterpreted by their latter-day followers

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