The Arab tribes were spread out widely, and the land of Arabia was not as viable to live on as the Fertile Crescent, so I would expect the population to be lower. But, how much in an estimated range was the population exactly before Islam and its conquests according to historians?

As a related question, how many people spoke Arabic at the time in and outside of Arabia?

As a follow up question, how much of a role did the population play in the ability of the Arabs to conquer what they did?

  • Note that a lot of the Arab populations taking part in the Islamic conquests were not from Arabia, but from neighboring places like Syria, Mesopotamia etc. Only the core groups of Arabs were from the region around Medina, a lot more joined with them when they started having success. – Denis Nardin Mar 3 '19 at 19:41
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    @Denis Nardin. Arabs from outside Arabia? – John Dee Mar 3 '19 at 20:10
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    @JohnDee Yes, or at least people culturally Arabs (speaking the Arabic language, and tracing their lineages more or less reliably through the same "ancestors" as the people living in Arabia). I did not think this was a controversial thing, it's not like the desert had custom checkpoints – Denis Nardin Mar 3 '19 at 21:50
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    @JohnDee From Kennedy's The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphate "In southern Iraq,Arabs lived in the deserts along the lower Euphrates and colonized a few towns,like Ḥīra along the fringes of the alluvial plains.Further north, Arab nomads were found in the area between the Tigris and the Euphrates known as the Jazīra or “Island",a vast expanse of sparse grazing which could support a considerable population of pastoralists.On the western,Syrian edge of the desert [...] many Arabs had become more or less integrated into the Byzantine state and mingled with non-Arabic-speaking groups" – Denis Nardin Mar 3 '19 at 21:56
  • @Denis Nardin. So you mean on the fringes of the Arabian desert. Anyways, your explanation about joining him after successes seems to be from the koran. The consolidation of Arabia had more to do with events in the prior century and Persian conquest. – John Dee Mar 3 '19 at 23:00

According to Colin McEvedy and Richard Jones, at the beginning of the Christian era it was about 2 million, and in the next 2 pairs of centuries it geometrically rose to about 2 2/3 million, then nearly 4. It had climbed to a high of about five and a quarter million around the time of Muhammad, a high-water mark that was receded from a bit to about 4.5 million within the first two Islamic centuries, not to be reached again until the Modern Era.

For this entire period, about half of this amount they place in The Yemen, the balance of the other half in the interior, and only trivial numbers on the Gulf coast and Oman. However, large amounts of the half in Yemen would not have spoken Arabic, but rather an assortment of related South Arabian (Semitic) languages.

For the region, these weren't gigantic numbers, but they were very respectable, and it was probably rather a lot for them. On population alone the Arabian peninsula was in the same league as the contemporaneous existing power centers in the boundaries of what today are Turkey and Persia*. McEvedy and Jones' text speculates that the high numbers likely put strain on the resources of this relatively poorly-resourced area, and that might partially explain its seemingly sudden foreign adventurism.

In Colin's excellent New Pengiun Atlas of Medieval History, he points out that the relatively easy victories the early Islamic armies had in the region may have been a reflection of the inhabitants not having a lot of fondness for the Greeks and Persians who had been fighting over their territory for centuries. Exploring this idea further, its worth noting that even if the locals didn't necessarily speak Arabic, Arabic is a Afroasiatic language, and such languages at the time were the language of the common people across the Levant and north Africa. So there was certainly at least some level of cultural affinity with Arabs that there would not have been with Greeks and Persians (both speaking Indo-European languages).

Pre-Islamic distribution of Afroasiatic language families Pre-Islamic Afroasiatic Image taken from Expansion of Afroasiatic Languages video on Youtube, based "loosely" on the work of Harold Flemming.

Distribution of Semitic Languages enter image description here

* - The boundaries of modern Turkey at that time they put at around 6 million, and Iran at about 5.

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  • I can't quite read the key, what is the population of Arabic in the last image? I read 150m but that can't be right. – The Z Mar 3 '19 at 23:12
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    @TheZ - If you click the link on the title, you can get access to larger versions of the image. That being said, I'm not going to bother, because I was unable to find an exact date to go with this image (I'm not sure it even properly has one), and without that any population number you derive from it is going to be useless. I really only included it to demonstrate how closely related the native languages of the region were. (Hebrew and Arabic are actually closer related than what is spoken in Yemen!) Looking at it again, I think the numbers might be for modern native speakers. – T.E.D. Mar 3 '19 at 23:15
  • You are right. I was hoping for a reliable source about Arabic speakers at that time, but I don't expect I will find it. Anyway, good answer. – The Z Mar 3 '19 at 23:28
  • @T.E.D. The map is mixing languages that have no current native speakers like Ge'ez and languages that have no ancient speakers like Maltese. And who knows which version of Hebrew, Aramaic, etc this is. – Hasse1987 Mar 4 '19 at 0:50
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    @Hasse1987 - That's why I suspect the numbers are for modern native speakers. Notice that all the extinct languages marked with an x in their dot have the smallest possible circle (presumably 0 modern native speakers) – T.E.D. Mar 4 '19 at 5:01

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