Pre-Islam­ic Ara­bia And Its Socio-Reli­gious Condition

The Back­ground : The Land and The People

Ara­bia is the largest penin­su­la on the sur­face of the earth, being near­ly one-third of Europe in size. It forms the south­west­ern wing of Asia, joined with Africa by the Sinai desert and Egypt. It is sur­round­ed on three sides by waters-the Red Sea to the west, the Ara­bi­an (Per­sian) Gulf to the east and the Ara­bi­an Sea to the south. Its north­ern bound­ary may be said to be an imag­i­nary line from the Gulf of al-Aqa­ba in the west to the Tigris-Euphrates val­ley in the east. Geo­graph­i­cal­ly the deserts of Syr­ia and Iraq form part of the penin­su­la. Geol­o­gists think that it once formed a con­tin­u­a­tion of the Sahara desert on the one hand and the Cen­tral Iran­ian and the Gobi Desert on the oth­er ; and that sub­se­quent­ly it became sep­a­rat­ed by the depres­sion of the Red Sea which, how­ev­er, could not alter its arid nature.

The Ara­bi­an Penin­su­la is skirt­ed in the south and west by moun­tain ranges of vary­ing heights, reach­ing some 14000 feet in the south and some 10000 feet in the north. Begin­ning from Hadra­maut in the south these ranges run almost par­al­lel to the coast­line, through Yaman, the Asir region and all along the Hijaz includ­ing the towns of Mak­ka and Ta’if and meet­ing the ranges in the Sinai, Pales­tine, Jor­dan, Syr­ia and Lebanon. There are small ranges in the east­ern region also, par­tic­u­lar­ly in Oman where the Al-Akhdar Moun­tain ris­es to a height of about 10000 feet. On the west the moun­tains rise rather steeply, leav­ing a nar­row coastal belt of plain and com­par­a­tive­ly fer­tile lands. From the moun­tain­ous region in the west, which aver­ages an alti­tude of about 4000 feet at about one hun­dred and fifty miles inland, the coun­try to the east is a vast plateau, high­light­ed by the plateau of Najd, slop­ing grad­u­al­ly to the east coast.

The moun­tain ranges in the south and north pre­vent respec­tive­ly the mon­soon rains from the Indi­an Ocean and the win­ter rains from the Atlantic and the Mediter­ranean Sea from reach­ing the inte­ri­or of the land. Hence rain­fall is gen­er­al­ly scanty in most parts, though there might be occa­sion­al heavy down­pours at many places includ­ing Mak­ka, Mad­i­na, Ta’if and Riyadh. In dim antiq­ui­ty the land was prob­a­bly more humid and rain­fall more plen­ty, as indi­cat­ed by the exis­tence of numer­ous wad­dis or streambeds. Of the desert prop­er, there are three main regions : Al-Nufud in the north, Al-Rub’ al-Khali (the Vacant Quar­ter) in the south, which in itself is almost the size of France, and Al-Dah­na, which is a sort of a cor­ri­dor of desert link­ing the two above men­tioned north­ern and south­ern deserts and run­ning by the east cen­tral region. The rest of the penin­su­la is steppe land, togeth­er with vast areas of fis­sured lava lands, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the cen­tral, west­ern and north­ern regions. The steppe lands are sprin­kled with numer­ous fer­tile oases and set­tle­ments. There are some remark­ably fer­tile regions in the west and south, as also along the coast. In gen­er­al Ara­bia is one of the hottest and dri­est coun­tries of the world. The cli­mates are rather extreme. It is very hot dur­ing the sum­mer, and quite cold in the win­ter. In the win­ter sea­son the tem­per­a­ture in some places in the north and south falls far below zero degrees centigrade.

A look at the map would at once make it clear that Ara­bia forms a link by land as well as by sea between Asia, Africa and Europe — the three con­ti­nents that till the geo­graph­i­cal dis­cov­er­ies of the 15th /​16th cen­turies were thought to con­sti­tute the entire world. Ara­bia is sit­u­at­ed in the mid­dle of this world. Not only that. From time immemo­r­i­al it has been sur­round­ed by a belt of ancient civ­i­liza­tions — the Nile Val­ley (Egypt­ian) civ­i­liza­tion in the west, the Phoeni­cian and Assyr­i­an civ­i­liza­tions in the north, the Tigris-Euphrates Val­ley (Baby­lon­ian) civ­i­liza­tion, the Per­sian civ­i­liza­tion and the Indus Val­ley civ­i­liza­tions in the north-east and east. Fur­ther east-north-east laid the Chi­nese civ­i­liza­tion. Ara­bia in ancient times was thus very much in the mid­dle of the then civ­i­lized” world. Mod­ern research­es show that it was the Semit­ic emi­grants from the heart of Ara­bia who par­tic­i­pat­ed in build­ing up the Egypt­ian, the Phoeni­cian, the Assyr­i­an and the Baby­lon­ian civ­i­liza­tions. And since dim antiq­ui­ty Ara­bia also remained in con­stant trade and com­mer­cial con­tacts with the lands of Asia, Africa and Europe. Ships from India and the Far East” touched its south­ern ports and sailed up the Red Sea ; while land routes con­nect­ed it with all the three con­ti­nents. It lay on the high­road of world com­merce and its inhab­i­tants were the mid­dle-men between the traders of the out­er world. The geo­graph­i­cal sit­u­a­tion of Ara­bia has made it strate­gi­cal­ly and com­mer­cial­ly impor­tant through­out the ages.

The inter­nal geo­graph­i­cal fea­tures of Ara­bia and its cli­mate pre­vent­ed any for­eign intru­sion into it. Con­se­quent­ly, its inhab­i­tants have through ages retained their eth­nic puri­ty. His­to­ri­ans are agreed that Ara­bia is the cra­dle and habi­tat of the Semit­ic pop­u­la­tion (descend­ed from Sam, son of Nuh(P)). As P. K. Hit­ti observes, though the term Semit­ic” has of late come to be used in the West more gen­er­al­ly with ref­er­ence to the Jews, because of their con­cen­tra­tion in Amer­i­ca, it is more appro­pri­ate­ly applic­a­ble to the inhab­i­tants of Ara­bia who, more than any oth­er group of peo­ple, have retained the Semit­ic char­ac­ter­is­tics in their phys­i­cal fea­tures, man­ners, cus­toms, habits of thought and lan­guage. The peo­ple of Ara­bia have remained vir­tu­al­ly the same through­out all the record­ed ages.“Philip. K. Hit­ti, His­to­ry of the Arabs (first pub­lished 1937), 10th edn (1970, 11th print. 1986), pp. 8 – 9

Arab his­to­ri­ans and tra­di­tions clas­si­fy the inhab­i­tants of Ara­bia into two broad divi­sions, their extinct ances­tors and the sur­viv­ing peo­ple. The extinct ances­tors are called al- Arab al-Ba’i­dah (the extinct Arabs) who lived and flour­ished in dim antiq­ui­ty but who have gone almost entire­ly out of exis­tence. Exam­ples of these extinct Arabs are the Ad, and the Thamud, the Tasm, the Jadis, the Amlaq and oth­ers of whom vir­tu­al­ly no sur­vivors are found. The Qur’an makes repeat­ed ref­er­ences to those bygone peo­ples, par­tic­u­lar­ly to the Ad and the Thamud. The for­mer flour­ished in south Ara­bia (Hadra­maut region) and the lat­ter in north Ara­bia, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the region of Al-Hijr. The Prophets Hud(P)Surah XI of the Qur’an is named after him. See espe­cial­ly its ayahs 50 – 60. See also 7:65 – 72 ; 25:123 – 140 and 46:21 – 26. and Sal­ih(P)See Q. 7:73 – 79 ; 11:61 – 68 ; 24:141 – 159 ; 27:45 – 53
were sent respec­tive­ly to these two peo­ples. Recent exca­va­tions have unearthed archae­o­log­i­cal remains that go only to con­firm the truth of what the Qur’an, the ancient Arab tra­di­tions and the Arab his­to­ri­an’s state in respect of these extinct ances­tors of theirs. The Thamud are men­tioned by name in an inscrip­tion of the Assyr­i­an King Sar­gon II, dat­ed 715 B.C. They are also men­tioned by Ptole­my and Pliny.First Ency­clo­pe­dia of Islam 1913 – 1936, VIII, p. 736

The sur­viv­ing peo­ple are divid­ed into two cat­e­gories, al- Arab al- Arib­ah or the Abo­rig­i­nal Arabs and al-‘Arab al-Mus­ta’rib­ah or the Nat­u­ral­ized Arabs. The first are the descen­dants of Ya’rub son of Yashjub, son of Qah­tan (Jok­tan of the Old Tes­ta­ment)Qah­tan was the son of Abir, son of Sha­likh, son of Arfakhshad, son of Sam, son of Nuh(P). They are there­fore more gen­er­al­ly called Qah­tan­ite Arabs. Their habi­tat was Yaman. The famous Sabaean and Him­yarite king­doms and their high degree of civ­i­liza­tion were the work of these Qah­tan­ite Arabs. The Qur’an makes spe­cial men­tion of the SabaeansSurah 34 of the Qur’an is named after them. See espe­cial­ly its ayahs 15 – 21. See also 27:22..

Since time immemo­r­i­al, how­ev­er, many Qah­tan­ite Arabs had migrat­ed from their orig­i­nal habi­tat and spread over all parts of the Ara­bi­an Penin­su­la. More late­ly the process of migra­tion received an increased impe­tus due to the first burst­ing of the Dam of Ma’rib and the Roman dis­place­ment of the Arabs in the mar­itime trade in the first cen­tu­ry A.C. Of those who thus migrat­ed from time to time men­tion may by made of the tribe of Azd. One branch of this tribe, Banu Tha’labah ibn Amr, first set­tled in the region of Al-Tha’labiyyah but sub­se­quent­ly moved on to Mad­i­na. Their descen­dants were the famous Aws and Khazraj tribes who in the course of time became the Helpers (ansar) of the Prophet.

Anoth­er branch of the Azd tribe, Banu Harithah ibn Amr set­tled in the Hijaz and came to be bet­ter known as Banu Khuza­’ah. They in the course of time occu­pied Mak­ka dis­plac­ing its ear­li­er inhab­i­tants, Banu Jurhum. Anoth­er impor­tant Qah­tan­ite tribe, Banu Lakhm, set­tled in Al-Hirah (mod­ern Kufa region in Iraq) where they found­ed a buffer state between Ara­bia and the Per­sian Empire (rough­ly 200 – 602 A.C.). Anoth­er pow­er­ful tribe, Banu Ghas­san, set­tled in low­er Syr­ia and found­ed the Ghas­sanid king­dom there, play­ing a sim­i­lar role of a buffer state between the Byzan­tine Empire and Ara­bia. The Ghas­sanid state came to an end on account of the Sasanid Khus­raw Par­wez’s cap­ture of the region, includ­ing Dam­as­cus and Jerusalem, in 613 – 614 A.C.

Two oth­er pow­er­ful Qah­tan­ite tribes who set­tled in Ara­bia were Banu Tayyi’ and Banu Kin­dah. The for­mer set­tled in north Ara­bia, in the region between the A’a and Salma moun­tains, which are for that rea­son bet­ter known as the Tayyi’ Moun­tains. The famous Hatim al-Tayyi’ belonged to this tribe. Banu Kin­dah, on the oth­er hand, set­tled in cen­tral Ara­bia and estab­lished a king­dom there. Their rulers, unlike the oth­ers, bore the title of king (malik).

The Nat­u­ral­ized Arabs, al-‘Arab al-Mus­ta’rib­ah, were the descen­dants of Prophet Ibrahim(P) through his eldest son Prophet Isma’il(P). It must not be sup­posed that they were lat­er in com­ing to Ara­bia than the above men­tioned Qah­tan­ite tribes from the south. In fact, Prophet Isma’il and his moth­er set­tled at Mak­ka long before the dis­per­sal of the above men­tioned Qah­tan­ite tribes in dif­fer­ent parts of Ara­bia. It should also be not­ed that Prophet Ibrahim was no non-Arab or non-Semit­ic per­son. He descend­ed from the same Semit­ic Arabs who had long pre­vi­ous­ly migrat­ed and set­tled in the Tigris-Euphrates val­ley (Baby­lo­nia). In that sense his com­ing to Mak­ka and set­tling his son and wife there was a sort of return to the orig­i­nal home of his ances­tors. The descen­dants of Isma’il are called nat­u­ral­ized Arabs” not real­ly because they were orig­i­nal­ly non-Semit­ic out­siders, but main­ly because their ances­tors had long before left the land.

The Socio-Reli­gious Con­di­tion : Jahiliyyah

The dual nature of the pop­u­la­tion and the dual aspects (agri­cul­ture and com­mer­cial) of their eco­nom­ic life seem to be matched by dual­ism in the Arabs’ reli­gious beliefs and prac­tices pri­or to the rise of Islam. The core of their reli­gious beliefs and prac­tices was char­ac­ter­ized by unmis­tak­able traces of the Abra­ham­ic tra­di­tion. No oth­er peo­ple of the time or sub­se­quent­ly so well remem­bered the Abra­ham­ic tra­di­tion and so close­ly per­formed the Abra­ham­ic rites as did the Arabs. Yet, at the same time, they had suc­cumbed to poly­the­ism and idol­a­try with all its con­comi­tant usages and superstitions.

For a long time indeed the descen­dants of Isma’il con­tin­ued to fol­low the faith and rites in their orig­i­nal forms as intro­duced by him and his father. With the pas­sage of cen­turies, how­ev­er, they grad­u­al­ly devi­at­ed from the orig­i­nal faith and suc­cumbed to the nat­ur­al ten­den­cy of the crude and unso­phis­ti­cat­ed mind to find an eas­i­ly approach­able god for sup­port in times of dis­tress and for redress of wrong, to the ten­den­cy to idol­ize a hero or ances­tor, to the sense of help­less­ness in the face of the forces of nature and, above all, to the influ­ence of the prac­tice of those who were regard­ed as supe­ri­or, intel­lec­tu­al­ly, phys­i­cal­ly or materially.

The civ­i­lized” peo­ples who sur­round­ed the Arabs in the past as well as con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous­ly were all engrossed in poly­the­ism in some form or oth­er. Wher­ev­er the pre-Islam­ic Arabs turned, as Ismail R. al-Faruqi states, they saw the tran­scen­dence of God vio­lat­ed. Those Arabs who inclined in that direc­tion became bold­er by the exam­ple of their neigh­bours. It was their Byzan­tine Chris­t­ian neigh­bours who sold them the human stat­ues of the Ka’­ba.“Isma’il R. al-Faruqi and Lois Lamya al-Faruqi, The Cul­tur­al Atlas of Islam (New York, 1986), p. 63

Poly­the­ism was intro­duced at Mak­ka after its occu­pa­tion by Banu Khuza­’ah, par­tic­u­lar­ly by their leader Amr ibn Luhayy.Bukhari, nos., 3521, 4623 – 4624 ; Mus­lim, no. 2856 ; Mus­nad, II, 275 – 276 ; III, 318, 353, 374 ; V. 137 Accord­ing to Ibn Hisham Amr once went to Syr­ia where he observed the peo­ple wor­ship­ping idols. He enquired of them of the rea­sons for their doing so and they replied that they did so because those idols caused the rains to fall for them and vic­to­ry to attend them as they grayed to the idols for these things. Amr was impressed and asked them whether they would give him one for his peo­ple to wor­ship it. Accord­ing­ly, they gave him the idol of Hubal which he brought to Mak­ka, placed it near the Ka’­ba and asked his peo­ple to wor­ship it. As they con­sid­ered him their leader and wise man they start­ed wor­ship­ping the idol.Ibn Hisham, I, 77 Accord­ing to Ibn al-Kalbi, Amr once fell seri­ous­ly ill and was told by some­one that if he took bath in a spe­cial spring in Syr­ia he would be cured. So he went there, took a bath in that spring and was cured. As he observed the peo­ple there wor­ship­ping idols he asked them the rea­son for their doing so, etc.Ibn al-Kalbi, Kitab al-Asnam, ed. Ahmad Zaki Pasha, Cairo, 13431924, p. 8

The sto­ry illus­trates the fact that poly­the­ism found its way among the descen­dants of Ismail from their neigh­bours and oth­ers. A modem schol­ar, giv­ing sup­port to the sto­ry, states that even the Ara­bic word for idol, sanam, is clear­ly an adap­ta­tion of Ara­ma­ic selem.“Philip. K. Hit­ti, A His­to­ry of the Arabs, 1986 reprint, p. 100 and n. 2

Accord­ing, to anoth­er report Amr ibn Luhayy intro­duced also the wor­ship of the images of Wadd, Suwa’, Yaghuth, Ya’uq and Nasr, the gods of Prophet Nuh’s unbe­liev­ing peo­ple. It is said that a jin­ni informed Amr that the images of those gods were to be found at a cer­tain place at Jed­dah and asked him to bring them from thence and to wor­ship them. Accord­ing­ly, he went to Jed­dah, found the images at the place indi­cat­ed, brought them to Mak­ka and asked the peo­ple to start wor­ship­ping them.Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari, VI634

These gods were indeed wor­shipped by Prophet Nuh’s peo­ple, as the Qur’an clear­ly states (Q. 71:23). They rep­re­sent­ed cer­tain cults relat­ing to astral wor­ship or wor­ship of the forces of nature or deifi­ca­tion of some human qual­i­ties, preva­lent in ancient Assyr­ia and Baby­lo­nia, the land of Nuh’s peo­ple.See for a dis­cus­sion the First Ency­clo­pe­dia of Islam, 1913 – 1936, 1, 379 – 380 ; A. Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur’an : Text Trans­la­tion and Com­men­tary, Islam­ic Foun­da­tion, Leices­ter, 1975, pp. 1619 – 1623 (Appen­dix XIII to Surah 71)

A report attrib­uted to Ibn Abbas(R) says that these names were orig­i­nal­ly borne by some promi­nent per­sons among the peo­ple of Nuh, who sub­se­quent­ly ide­al­ized and idol­ized them.Bukhari, no. 4920 Once again, these reports empha­size, on the one hand, how the descen­dants of Isma’il grad­u­al­ly suc­cumbed to the poly­the­ism of their pre­de­ces­sors and oth­ers and, on the oth­er, the role of Amr ibn Luhayy in the process. Once intro­duced, how­ev­er, poly­the­ism spread among the Arabs in var­i­ous shapes and forms. Ibn Ishaq gives an expla­na­tion of the spread of stone wor­ship thus. He says that when the descen­dants of Isma’il were for var­i­ous rea­sons oblig­ed to dis­perse from Mak­ka, each group, as they left it, took with them a stone from the sacred precincts as sou­venir and memen­to of the Ka’­ba. They placed those stones at suit­able spots in their new domi­ciles, cir­cum­am­bu­lat­ed them as they used to cir­cum­am­bu­late the Ka’­ba and treat­ed them with var­i­ous marks of rev­er­ence. Grad­u­al­ly their suc­ceed­ing gen­er­a­tions began to wor­ship not only those stones but any stone that espe­cial­ly impressed them. Thus they for­got the orig­i­nal Abra­ham­ic reli­gion and degen­er­at­ed into stone and image wor­ship.Ibn Hisham, 177

Ulti­mate­ly each and every tribe and clan, in fact, every fam­i­ly, had their spe­cial idol to wor­ship. On the eve of the Prophet’s emer­gence, some 360 idols were placed in and around the Ka’­ba. The most impor­tant of these was Hubal. It was a big stat­ue in human form of which a hand hav­ing been bro­ken the Quraysh had it remade with gold. Two of the idols in the Ka’­ba com­pound were Isaf and Na’i­la, placed orig­i­nal­ly on the spot of the Zamzam well but sub­se­quent­ly removed to a spot near the hills of Safa and Mar­wah. Accord­ing to pre-Islam­ic belief, Isaf and Na’i­la were orig­i­nal­ly a man and a woman of Banu Jurhum who was turned into stones on account of their hav­ing des­e­crat­ed the sacred precincts by mak­ing love in there.Ibn Hisham, 1, 82. Ibn al-Kalbi, op. cit., 929

Besides thus mak­ing the Ka’­ba the prin­ci­pal dor­mi­to­ry of their numer­ous idols the Arabs had devel­oped a num­ber of sub­sidiary Ka’bas (tawaghit), so to say, at dif­fer­ent places in the land, each with its pre­sid­ing god or god­dess. They used to vis­it those shrines at appoint­ed times, cir­cum­am­bu­late them and make sac­ri­fices of ani­mals there, besides per­form­ing oth­er poly­the­is­tic rites. The most promi­nent of these shrines were those of AI-Lat at Ta’if, Al Uzza at Nakhlah and Man­at near Qudayd. The ori­gins of these idols are uncer­tain. Ibn al-Kalbi says that Al-Lat was younger” (ahdath) than Man­at, while Al-‘Uzza was younger” than both al-Lat and Man­at.Ibn al-Kalbi, op. cit., 16, 17. The writer in the First Ency­clo­pe­dia of Islam (Vol. I, 380) sup­pos­es that Ara­bi­a’s Al-Lat was the ori­gin of the Greek god­dess Leto, moth­er of the Sun-god Apol­lo But though Al-‘Uzza was thus the youngest of the three ; it was nonethe­less the most impor­tant and the great­est (azam) idol with the Quraysh who, along with Banu Kinanah min­is­tered to it.Ibn Hisham, I, 83 ; Ibn al-Kalbi, op. cit., 18

The Qur’an specif­i­cal­ly men­tions these three god­dess­es of the Arabs (Q. 53:19 – 20). Some of the oth­er semi-or demi-Ka’bas were those of Dhu al-Khal­sah at Tabal­ah (about sev­en nights’ jour­ney” from Mak­ka), of Fils at a place between the Tayy’ Moun­tains, the Ri’am at San’a’ in Yaman, the Ruda’ in the ter­ri­to­ry of Banu Rabi’ah ibn Ka’b, a group of Ka’bas (Dhu al-Ka’a­bat) at Sin­dad in the land of Banu Bakr and Banu Tagh­lib and the Ka’­ba of Banu al-Harith at Najran.Ibn Hisham, I, 83 – 89 ; Ibn Kalbi, op. cit., 30,4447

In addi­tion to these sub­sidiary Ka’bas there were a num­ber of oth­er shrines of spe­cif­ic idols scat­tered through­out the penin­su­la. Of these men­tion may be made of the shrine of Suwa’ at Ruhat (Yan­bu’), that of Wadd at Dumat al-Jan­dal, that of Yaghuth at Jurash (in the Banu Tayy’ ter­ri­to­ry), that of Ya’uq at Ham­dan in Yaman (“two nights” from San’a in the north), that of Nasr in the land of Him­yar (Balkha’) in Yaman, that of Umya­nis or Amm Anas at Khawlan and that of Sa’d at Tan­u­fa.Ibn Hisham, I, 78 – 83

The pre-Islam­ic Arabs used to wor­ship these idols or gods and god­dess­es in var­i­ous ways. They used to make sup­pli­ca­tion to them, pros­trat­ed them­selves before them, made offer­ings to them, beseeched their favour, sought to please or pro­pi­ti­ate them in the belief that they were capa­ble of doing good or harm to man, sac­ri­ficed ani­mals on altars ded­i­cat­ed to them, made pil­grim­ages to their shrines, cir­cum­am­bu­lat­ed them and drew arrows of div­ina­tion by them or in their shrines. They also used to name them­selves after these gods and god­dess­es, such as Abd Yaghuth, Abd al-‘Uzza, etc. But though thus engrossed in exten­sive poly­the­ism and idol-wor­ship the pre-Islam­ic Arabs did not devel­op any elab­o­rate mythol­o­gy or involved the­ol­o­gy around their gods and god­dess­es as did the ancient Greeks and the Hin­dus. No trace of such things can be found in the pre-Islam­ic poet­ry and tra­di­tions. This fact fur­ther indi­cates that poly­the­ism and idol wor­ship were not indige­nous to the Isma’ilite Arabs but were graft­ed on to the Abra­ham­ic tradition.

Noth­ing illus­trates this fact bet­ter than the exis­tence of unmis­tak­able traces of the Abra­ham­ic faith in the med­ley of poly­the­is­tic beliefs and prac­tices. Of these the most remark­able was the exis­tence of a belief in Allah as the Supreme God (Q. 23:84 – 89 ; 31:25), cou­pled with the belief in the exis­tence of angels and jinn. At times of extreme per­il the pre-Islam­ic Arabs even direct­ly invoked Allah’s mer­cy and suc­cour (Q. 10:22 ; 31:32). Some­times they used to swear by Allah (Q.6:109) besides fre­quent­ly nam­ing them­selves Abd Allah. The recent dis­cov­ery of a num­ber of inscrip­tions, par­tic­u­lar­ly in north­ern Ara­bia, con­tain­ing the name of Allah[21], which inscrip­tions are all post-Abra­ham­ic, is a deci­sive proof of the preva­lence of the notion of Allah among the Arabs since dis­tant antiq­ui­ty. P. K. Hit­ti, after refer­ring to the inscrip­tions, to some of the rel­e­vant Qur’an­ic pas­sages and to the exis­tence of the name Abd Allah among the Quraysh, states that evi­dent­ly’ Allah was the trib­al deity of the Quraysh.”[22]

The remark is both mis­lead­ing and unten­able. Nei­ther did the inscrip­tions he cites belong to the Quraysh nor was the name Abd Allah exclu­sive to them. Not to speak of many oth­ers out­side the Quraysh cir­cle, the leader of the Hyp­ocrites” at Mad­i­na was Abd Allah ibn Ubayy !

Oth­er residue of the Abra­ham­ic tra­di­tion was their uni­ver­sal rev­er­ence to the Ka’­ba at Mak­ka, their cir­cum­am­bu­la­tion of it, their mak­ing of less­er pil­grim­age (‘umrah) and the pil­grim­age (hajj) to it, their per­for­mance of such Abra­ham­ic rites in con­nec­tion with the pil­grim­age as the stand­ing at Arafat, the halt at Muz­dal­i­fa, the stay at Mina, the sac­ri­fic­ing of ani­mals on the occa­sion, their mak­ing sev­en runs between the Safa and the Mar­wah hills and their shav­ing of their heads. Some oth­er rem­nants of the Abra­ham­ic rites were their uni­ver­sal­ly prac­tis­ing cir­cum­ci­sion and their fast­ing on the day of Ashura.[23]

The coex­is­tence of the Abra­ham­ic tra­di­tion with the poly­the­is­tic beliefs and prac­tices over long cen­turies did not how­ev­er lead to the growth of any syn­cret­ic sys­tem of belief. The total pic­ture that emerges is mere­ly that of an ill-assort­ed amal­gam with a num­ber of pecu­liar by-prod­ucts of that amal­gam. One such by-prod­uct was the pre-Islam­ic Arabs’ notion that their wor­ship­ping of the gods and god­dess­es would take them near­er to Allah (Q. 39:3); that those gods and god­dess­es were their inter­ces­sors with Him (Q. 10:18); and that some of their god­dess­es, the angels and even the jinn were Allah’s daugh­ters (Q. 16:57). Anoth­er out­growth of the amal­gam was their fool­ish prac­tice of set­ting apart a por­tion (usu­al­ly a major por­tion) of their crops and cat­tle for their gods and god­dess­es, and anoth­er por­tion (usu­al­ly a minor por­tion) for Allah (Q. 6:136). Oth­er instances were their mix­ing up poly­the­is­tic claus­es in the for­mu­la of Response” (tal­biyah) while per­form­ing the cir­cum­am­bu­la­tion of the Ka’ba[24] the Makkans’ not going up to Arafat at the time of Hajj but only up to Muz­dal­i­fa on account of a notion of their reli­gious supe­ri­or­i­ty and of their being the inhab­i­tants of the sacred ter­ri­to­ry, their gen­er­al­ly not allow­ing any­one to cir­cum­am­bu­late the Ka’­ba except in gar­ments pro­vid­ed by them (hums) and their even cir­cum­am­bu­lat­ing it in a naked state. With ref­er­ence to such min­gling of poly­the­is­tic beliefs and prac­tices with recog­ni­tion of Allah as Supreme Lord the Qur’an declares : And most of them believe not in Allah with­out asso­ci­at­ing (oth­ers as part­ners) with Him.” (Q. 12:06)

The Arabs’ poly­the­ism and wor­ship of idols togeth­er with their mis­tak­en notions about Allah deter­mined their whole atti­tude to life and soci­ety. They con­sid­ered life in this world to be the be-all and end-all of human exis­tence. They wor­shipped and pro­pi­ti­at­ed the gods and god­dess­es and rec­og­nized Allah for that pur­pose alone. They did not believe in res­ur­rec­tion, reward and pun­ish­ment and life after death. There is noth­ing but our life in this world ; we shall die and live but shall nev­er be raised up again”, so they believed and declared[25].

This atti­tude led to a sense of ulti­mate unac­count­abil­i­ty and a desire to enjoy the world­ly life in all pos­si­ble ways and with­out any restric­tions. Licen­tious­ness, pros­ti­tu­tion, adul­tery, for­ni­ca­tion and unbri­dled indul­gence in wine, women and gam­bling were thus wide­ly prevalent.[26] Unlim­it­ed polygamy was in vogue and a sort of polyandry, in which a par­tic­u­lar woman was used as wife by a num­ber of men (less than 10), was not uncom­mon. If a child was born in such a case, it was to be accept­ed by the per­son whom the woman declared to be its father.[27] Some­times a per­son allowed his wife to go to oth­er per­sons for the sake of hav­ing a son.[28]

The wom­an’s posi­tion in soci­ety was indeed unen­vi­able, though she par­tic­i­pat­ed in many a social and eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty and though we some­times find glow­ing trib­utes paid to sweet­hearts in pre-Islam­ic poet­ry. In gen­er­al, women were treat­ed as chat­tels. There was no lim­it to a man’s tak­ing as many wives as he liked. Sim­i­lar­ly he divorced his wives at will and quite fre­quent­ly. There was no rule of pro­hi­bi­tion ; so a man could and did mar­ry irre­spec­tive of blood-rela­tion­ship. Often two sis­ters were joined as wives to a man at the same time. Sons mar­ried their father’s ex-wives or wid­ows (not moth­ers). There was no rec­og­nized rule for a woman to inher­it from her ances­tors or hus­band. Birth of a daugh­ter was regard­ed as inaus­pi­cious and dis­liked (Q. 16:58 – 59). Most inhu­man was that many Arabs, out of a false sense of hon­our and for fear of pover­ty buried alive their young daugh­ters (Q. 6:137 ; 6:151). On the eve of the rise of Islam this bar­barous prac­tice seems to have some­what waned in and around Mak­ka ; but it was quite wide­spread in oth­er parts of Ara­bia. The Qur’an speaks of its hav­ing been the prac­tice with many poly­the­ists” (Q. 6:137). Qays ibn Asim of Banu Tamim, who embraced Islam in 9 H., con­fessed that he had pre­vi­ous­ly buried alive as many as 8 or 12 of his daughters[29].

The sense of unac­count­abil­i­ty also lay at the root of fre­quent killing of human beings with­out any qualms of con­science or remorse, and of steal­ing, plun­der­ing and spo­li­at­ing oth­ers of their prop­er­ties and pos­ses­sions. The only check to such acts was trib­al vengeance and retal­i­a­tion. A num­ber of super­sti­tions and uncon­scionable prac­tices also were preva­lent among them. They believed in the utter­ances of sooth­say­ers and astrologers and often decid­ed upon a course of action, for instance a mar­riage or a jour­ney, by means of div­ina­tion by draw­ing or shoot­ing arrows in a spec­i­fied man­ner or near spe­cif­ic idols. Gam­bling and raf­fling were exten­sive­ly in use. They even decid­ed their respec­tive shares in a par­tic­u­lar thing, for instance the meat of a slaugh­tered ani­mal, by cast­ing lots with arrows. The meat was divid­ed into unequal and pref­er­en­tial shares, these were indi­cat­ed on arrows and these were then drawn, like the draw­ing of mod­ern lot­tery tick­ets. Anoth­er pecu­liar prac­tice was habal al-habala, or the sell­ing of a preg­nant camel on con­di­tion that the price was to be paid when she gave birth to a she-camel and that she-camel her­self became pregnant.[30]

Anoth­er super­sti­tious and poly­the­is­tic prac­tice was the taboo­ing of cer­tain camels, goats or oxen, call­ing them al-sa’ibah, al-bahi­rah, al-wasi­lah and al-hami. A she-camel con­sec­u­tive­ly giv­ing birth to ten female calves with­out the inter­ven­tion of any male calf was tabooed and was named al-sa’ibah. She was not to be used for rid­ing or car­ry­ing any load, her hair was not to be trimmed and her milk was not to be drunk except by a guest. If she sub­se­quent­ly gave birth to anoth­er female, that daugh­ter” of hers was called al-bahi­rah and was sim­i­lar­ly tabooed. A she-goat sim­i­lar­ly giv­ing birth con­sec­u­tive­ly to ten females in five con­cep­tions was like­wise tabooed and called al-wasi­lah. A bull father­ing con­sec­u­tive­ly ten female calves was also tabooed and called al-hami.[31] The Qur’an con­demned such prac­tices (Q. 5:103 ; 6:139). These prac­tices and beliefs of the Arabs, par­tic­u­lar­ly their poly­the­ism, licen­tious­ness, adul­tery, gam­bling, steal­ing, plun­der­ing, their bury­ing alive of young daugh­ters, their trib­al spir­it and excitabil­i­ty (hamiyyah), etc., were col­lec­tive­ly referred to in the Qur’an and the tra­di­tions as jahiliyyah.[32]

While this was the gen­er­al socio-reli­gious scene, oth­er reli­gious sys­tems like Chris­tian­i­ty, Judaism, Maz­daism (Zoroas­tri­an­ism) and Sabaism (or Sabi­an­ism) had made their way into the penin­su­la in a lim­it­ed way. Chris­tian­i­ty was intro­duced in some north­ern tribes, par­tic­u­lar­ly among the Ghas­sanid and in Hira main­ly at the instance and ini­tia­tive of the Byzan­tine author­i­ties. Some princes of Hira had embraced it. In the south it was intro­duced in Yaman main­ly after the first Abyssin­ian occu­pa­tion of that land (340378 A.C.). In its neigh­bour­ing region of Najran Chris­tian­i­ty of the Mono­physite type was intro­duced by a mis­sion­ary from Syr­ia named Faymiyun[33]. A num­ber of peo­ple of the area embraced that faith. There was also a sprin­kling of Chris­t­ian immi­grants and con­verts at Mak­ka at the time of the Prophet’s rise.

So far as Judaism was con­cerned it found its place in the penin­su­la not so much by con­ver­sion as by immi­gra­tion of the Jews into it. This immi­gra­tion took place main­ly at two peri­ods — one after the Baby­lon­ian occu­pa­tion of Pales­tine in 587 B.C. and for a sec­ond time after the Roman con­quest of the land and the destruc­tion of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 A.C. A num­ber of Jew­ish tribes migrat­ed into Ara­bia and were set­tled at places like Yathrib (Mad­i­na), Khay­bar, Tay­ma’ and Fadak. Not that they remained com­plete­ly inac­tive in the mat­ter of prop­a­ga­tion of their faith. Accord­ing to tra­di­tion they made a con­vert of the Him­yarite king (Tub­ba’) Abu Karib As’ad Kamil (385420 A.C) when he vis­it­ed Mad­i­na in the course of a north­ern expe­di­tion and sent with him two rab­bis to prop­a­gate Judaism in Yaman.[34] The extent of the suc­cess of these Jew­ish mis­sion­ar­ies in Yaman is not clear ; but a descen­dant of As’ad Kamil’s, Dhui Nuwas, proved to be a vig­or­ous cham­pi­on of Judaism. He per­se­cut­ed the Chris­tians not only of Yaman but even mas­sa­cred the Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ty of Najran, throw­ing a large num­ber of them in a deep ditch full of fire[35]. His intol­er­ance brought about a joint Byzan­tine-Abyssin­ian inter­ven­tion in Yaman lead­ing to the end of Dhu Nuwas’s rule and the begin­ning of the sec­ond Abyssin­ian occu­pa­tion of the land under Abra­hah. As not­ed ear­li­er, Abra­hah deter­mined to Chris­tian­ize the whole land, built a gigan­tic cathe­dral at San’a’ and led a cam­paign against Mak­ka in 570 – 7 1 A.C. to destroy the Ka’ba.

Maz­daism or Zoroas­tri­an­ism, which pre­vailed in Per­sia, found some con­verts in the east­ern coastal region and Bahrayn. Some per­sons in Yaman also embraced it after the Per­sian occu­pa­tion of the land in 525 A.C. Sabi­an­ism or Sabaism, to which the Qur’an makes reference[36], prob­a­bly rep­re­sent­ed an ancient faith of either Baby­lon­ian or south Ara­bi­an ori­gin con­sist­ing of astral wor­ship. Its votaries were very few at the time of the rise of Islam. At any rate, it was con­sid­ered a for­eign reli­gion ; for when­ev­er a per­son aban­doned his ances­tral faith the Arabs used to say that he had turned a Sabian.[37]

All these reli­gions, how­ev­er, had very lit­tle effect upon the life and soci­ety of the Arabs in gen­er­al. Par­tic­u­lar­ly Chris­tian­i­ty and Judaism had com­pro­mised their posi­tions by their con­flicts and intol­er­ance of each oth­er, by their inter­nal dis­sen­sions and by their devi­a­tion from the orig­i­nal teach­ings of Jesus(P) and Moses(P). To the dis­cern­ing Arab, Chris­tian­i­ty, with its doc­trines of incar­na­tion and the Trin­i­ty, besides the wor­ship of the images of Jesus and Mary, appeared lit­tle bet­ter than his wor­ship of the idols togeth­er with a recog­ni­tion of Allah as the Supreme Lord. Sim­i­lar­ly, Judaism, with its exclu­siv­i­ty and its claim of Uza­yr being the son of God appeared equal­ly poly­the­is­tic. This is high­light­ed by the fact that on eve of the rise of Islam a num­ber of peo­ple came out in search of the true Abra­ham­ic faith and went by the appel­la­tion of Hanifs[38]. Even if the emer­gence of these men is regard­ed as the out­come of an inter­ac­tion between the exis­tence of the Abra­ham­ic tra­di­tion on the one hand and the pres­ence of Chris­tian­i­ty and Judaism in Ara­bia on the oth­er, the fact that almost all the Han­i­fs turned their faces away from both these reli­gions only illus­trates their inef­fi­ca­cy on the mind of knowl­edge­able Arabs of the time.

Pro­fes­sor of the His­to­ry of the Islam, Cen­tre for the Ser­vice of Sun­nah and Sir­ah, Islam­ic Uni­ver­si­ty Mad­i­na, Sau­di Ara­bia. Excerpts from Sir­at Al Nabi and the Ori­en­tal­ists : With Spe­cial Ref­er­ence to the Writ­ings of William Muir, D. S. Mar­go­liouth and W. Mont­gomery Watt. Com­piled by Adam Rodrigues

[21] See for instance F.V. Win­net, Allah Before Islam”, M.W., XXVIII (1938), pp. 239 – 248

[22] Hit­ti, op. cit., 101

[23] Bukhari, no. 3831

[24] Ibn Hisham, I, 78

[25] Q. 23:37. There are indeed many pas­sages in the Qur’an, which refer to this notion of the unbe­liev­ers. See for instance, 6:29 ; 17:49 ; 17:98 ; 23:35 ; 23:82 ; 37:16 ; 37:53 ; 37:58 – 59 ; 44:35 ; 50:3 ; 56:47 and 64:7. Sim­i­lar­ly, the Qur’an is replete with pas­sages to bring home the theme of res­ur­rec­tion and the Day of Judgment.

[26] The Qur’an con­demned and pro­hib­it­ed these prac­tices. See 5:3 ; 5:90 ; 17:23 ; 24:2 – 3 ; 25:68 and 60:12

[27] Bukhari, no. 5127

[28] Ibid.

[29] Al-Numayri (al-Bas­ri), Abu Zayd Umar ibn Shab­bab (173262 H.), Tarikh al-Mad­i­nat al-Munawwarah, ed. F.M. Shal­tut, Part II, sec­ond print, Mad­i­na, n.d., p. 532 ; Usd al-Ghabah, IV, 220 ; Al-‘Isabah, 111, 253 (No. 7194). See also Al-Dari­mi, I, Intro­duc­tion, 3 – 4

[30] Bukhari, no. 3843. The Prophet pro­hib­it­ed such dealings.

[31] Ibn Hisham, I, 89

[32] Q. 3:154 ; 5:50 ; 33:33 ; 48:26 and Bukhari, no. 3524

[33] Ibn Hisham, I, 31 – 34

[34] Ibn Hisham, I, pp. 26 – 27

[35] This inci­dent is referred to in Q. 85:4

[36] Q. 2:62 ; 5:69 ; 22:17

[37] Bukhari, no. 3523 ; Mus­nad, III, 492 ; IV, 341 ; Ibn Hisham, I, 344

[38] Infra, Ch. XIII, see I.Endmark






One response to “Pre-Islam­ic Ara­bia And Its Socio-Reli­gious Condition”

  1. Hisham Abbas Avatar
    Hisham Abbas

    Hello…Man i just love your blog, keep the cool posts comin..holy Saturday

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