History Islam

Pre-Islam­ic Ara­bi­an Thought

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Shaikh Inay­at­ul­lah

Tak­en from M. M. Sharif, A His­to­ry of Mus­lim Phi­los­o­phy, Vol. 1, Bk. 1, part 2, ch. 6. Com­piled by Asif Iqbal

In the present chap­ter, we are con­cerned only with the peo­ple of Ara­bia who lived in the age imme­di­ate­ly pre­ced­ing the rise of Islam. The ancient civ­i­lized inhab­i­tants of south­ern Ara­bia, the Sabaeans and Him­yarites, have been left out of account, not only because the rel­e­vant mate­ri­als at our dis­pos­al are scanty and frag­men­tary, but also because they are far removed from the Islam­ic times, with which the present vol­ume is pri­mar­i­ly and direct­ly concerned.

We can­not hope to under­stand prop­er­ly the reli­gious or philo­soph­i­cal ideas of a peo­ple with­out com­pre­hend­ing their eco­nom­ic and social back­ground. A few words about the social struc­ture of pre-Islam­ic Arabs should, there­fore Form a suit­able and help­ful pre­lude to a descrip­tion of their reli­gious outlook.

The land of Ara­bia is main­ly a sandy plain, which is part­ly steppe-land and part­ly desert. Except in the oases which are few and far between, the land is bare and monot­o­nous, unfit for cul­ti­va­tion and unable to sup­port set­tled com­mu­ni­ties. From times immemo­r­i­al, its inhab­i­tants have been of neces­si­ty nomadic, liv­ing on the pro­duce of their camels and sheep. The major­i­ty of the ancient Arabs were, there­fore, pas­toral­ists who were con­stant­ly on the move in search of grass and water for their herds and flocks. Rest­less and root­less, with no per­ma­nent habi­ta­tions, they stood at a low lev­el of cul­ture and were inno­cent of those arts and sci­ences which are asso­ci­at­ed in our minds with civ­i­lized life. The art of read­ing and writ­ing was con­fined only to a few indivi?duals in cer­tain com­mer­cial cen­tres, while illit­er­a­cy was almost uni­ver­sal among the sons of the desert. Their men­tal hori­zon was nar­row, and the strug­gle for exis­tence in their inhos­pitable envi­ron­ment was so severe that their ener­gies were exhaust­ed in sat­is­fy­ing the prac­ti­cal and mate­r­i­al needs of dai­ly life, and they had lit­tle time or incli­na­tion for reli­gious or philo­soph­ic spec­u­la­tion. Their reli­gion was a vague poly­the­ism and their phi­los­o­phy was summed up in a num­ber of pithy sayings.

Although the ancient Arabs had no writ­ten lit­er­a­ture, they pos­sessed a lan­guage which was dis­tin­guished for its extra­or­di­nary rich vocab­u­lary. In the absence of paint­ing and sculp­ture, they had cul­ti­vat­ed their lan­guage as a fine art and were just­ly proud of its enor­mous pow­er of expres­sion. Accord­ing­ly, the poets and ora­tors who could make an effec­tive and aes­thet­ic use of its won­der­ful resources were held in espe­cial­ly high esteem among them.

Judg­ing by the evi­dence fur­nished by the pre-Islam­ic poets, polem­i­cal pas­sages in the Qur’an and the lat­er Islam­ic lit­er­a­ture, idol­a­try based on poly­the­ism pre­vailed through­out ancient Ara­bia. Almost every tribe had its own god, which was the cen­tre of its reli­gious life and the imme­di­ate object of its devo­tion. The ancient Arabs, how­ev­er, at the same time believed in the exis­tence of a Supreme God, whom they called Allah. But this belief was rather vague and their faith in Him was cor­re­spond­ing­ly weak. They might invoke Allah in time of dan­ger, but as soon as the dan­ger was over they for­got all about Him. They also rec­og­nized and wor­shipped a large num­ber of oth­er sub­or­di­nate gods along with Him, or at least thought that they would inter?cede for them with Him. Three deities in par­tic­u­lar, viz., al-‘Uzza, al-Man­at, and al-Lat, were accord­ed spe­cial ven­er­a­tion as the daugh­ters of Allah. It was this asso­ci­a­tion of sub­or­di­nate deities with Allah which is tech­ni­cal­ly known as shirk (asso­ci­a­tion of gods with Allah) and which was con­demned by the Prophet as an unpar­don­able sin. Shirk was held in spe­cial abhor­rence, as it obscured belief in the one­ness of God.

The innu­mer­able deities, which the pagan Arabs wor­shipped, form a long series and are the sub­ject of a mono­graph, writ­ten by ibn al-Kalbi, who flour­ished in the sec­ond cen­tu­ry of the Islam­ic era and is count­ed among the lead­ing author­i­ties on Ara­bi­an antiquity.[1] A few of them have been inci­den­tal­ly men­tioned in the Qur’an also.

These Ara­bi­an deities, which were of diverse nature, fell into dif­fer­ent Cate?gories. Some of them were per­son­i­fi­ca­tions of abstract ideas, such as jadd (luck), sa’d (for­tu­nate, aus­pi­cious), rida’ (good-will, favour), wadd (friend­ship, affec­tion), and man­af (height, high place). Though orig­i­nal­ly abstract in char­ac­ter, they were con­ceived in a thor­ough­ly con­crete fash­ion. Some deities derived their names from the places where they were ven­er­at­ed. Dhu al?-Khalasah and Dhu al-Shara may be cit­ed as exam­ples of this kind.

The heav­en­ly bod­ies and oth­er pow­ers of nature, ven­er­at­ed as deities, oc?cupied an impor­tant place in the Ara­bi­an pan­theon. The sun (shams, regard­ed as fem­i­nine) was wor­shipped by sev­er­al Arab tribes, and was hon­oured with a sanc­tu­ary and an idol. The name Abd Shams, Ser­vant of the Sun,” was found in many parts of the coun­try. The sun was referred to by descrip­tive titles also, such as shariq, the bril­liant one.” The con­stel­la­tion of the Pleiades (al-Thu­rayya) , which was believed to bestow rain, also appears as a deity in the name Abd al-Thu­rayya. The plan­et Venus, which shines with remark?able bril­liance in the clear skies of Ara­bia, was revered as a great god­dess under the name of al-‘Uzza, which may be trans­lat­ed as the Most Mighty”. It had a sanc­tu­ary at Nakhlah near Mec­ca. The name Abd al-‘Uzza was very com­mon among the pre-Islam­ic Arabs. The Ara­bi­an cult of the plan­et Venus has been men­tioned by sev­er­al clas­si­cal and Syr­i­ac authors. There were cer­tain Ara­bi­an deities whose titles in them­selves indi­cate that they occu­pied a posi­tion of supreme impor­tance in the eyes of their votaries. Such deities were : al-Malik, the King” (com­pare the per­son­al name, Abd al-Malik); and Ba’l or Ba’al, the Lord” which was very com­mon among the north­ern Semites.

The deities of hea­then Ara­bia were rep­re­sent­ed by idols, sacred stones, and oth­er objects of wor­ship. Sacred stones served at the same time as altars ; the blood of the vic­tims was poured over them or smeared over them. At the peri­od with which we are deal­ing, the Arabs sac­ri­ficed camels, sheep, goats, and, less often, kine. The flesh of the sac­ri­fice was usu­al­ly eat­en by the wor?shippers, the god con­tent­ing him­self with the blood alone. Orig­i­nal­ly, every sac­ri­fice was regard­ed as food to be con­sumed by the god con­cerned or at least as a means of paci­fy­ing him. The sac­ri­fice was, thus, believed to bring the wor­ship­per into close con­nec­tion with the deity. Hence the Ara­bic terms, qur­ba and qur­ban (derived from the root, QRB, to be near), which are used for a sacrifice.

The Arabs, like the Hebrews, were in the habit of sac­ri­fic­ing the firstlings of their flocks and herds (fara’) . Soon after the birth of an infant, his head a shaven and a sheep was sac­ri­ficed on his behalf. This prac­tice has sur­vived among the Arabs and oth­er Mus­lim peo­ples to the present day under the name of aqiqah. Per­haps, this was orig­i­nal­ly a ran­som, offered as a sub­sti­tute for the child himself.

The gods of hea­then Ara­bia were rep­re­sent­ed not only by rude blocks of stone (nusub, pl. ans­ab) , but also by stat­ues, made with more or less skill. The usu­al word for a divine stat­ue, whether of stone or wood, was sanam. The oth­er word used for this pur­pose was wathan, which seems pri­mar­i­ly to mean noth­ing more than a stone. Exam­ples of tree-wor­ship are also found among the ancient Arabs. The tree known as dhat al-anwat, that on which things are hung,” received divine hon­ours ; weapons and oth­er objects were sus­pend­ed from it. At Nakhlah, the god­dess Uzza is said to have been wor­shipped in the form of three trees.

The gods of the hea­then Arabs were most­ly rep­re­sent­ed by idols, which were placed in tem­ples. These tem­ples served as places of wor­ship, where offer­ings and sac­ri­fices were made by their votaries. The tem­ples were by no means impos­ing build­ings like those of the Egyp­tians or the Greeks. They were sim­ple struc­tures, some­times mere walls or enclo­sures marked by stones. Not only the tem­ples were ven­er­at­ed as holy places, but some­times the sur­round­ing areas were also treat­ed as sacred and invi­o­lable (hima) , and were sup­posed to be under the spe­cial pro­tec­tion of their respec­tive gods.

In con­nec­tion with sev­er­al tem­ples, we read of priests who served as their cus­to­di­ans (sadin, pl. sadana). They received the wor­ship­pers and gave them admis­sion to the shrine. The office was gen­er­al­ly hered­i­tary, since we read of priest­ly fam­i­lies which were attached to par­tic­u­lar tem­ples. Anoth­er word used for a priest was kahin, a term which was employed for a sooth­say­er as well. The priests were believed to be under the influ­ence of the gods and to pos­sess the pow­er of fore­telling future events and of per­form­ing oth­er super?human feats. In this way, their pro­nounce­ments resem­bled the ancient Greek ora­cles and were like­wise vague and equiv­o­cal. In course of time, the priest who was in the begin­ning sim­ply the cus­to­di­an of the tem­ple devel­oped the char­ac­ter of a sooth­say­er as well, and thus the term kahin came to acquire the sense of a sooth­say­er and seer. There were female sooth­say­ers as well. Ara­bic lit­er­a­ture has pre­served many sto­ries about kahin and many utter?ances are attrib­uted to them. These utter­ances were usu­al­ly made in rhymed prose, and are inter­est­ing not only in respect of their con­tent but also with regard to their style. Their pro­nounce­ments con­sist­ed of a few con­cise sen­tences, which end­ed in words hav­ing the same rhyme. This mode of expres­sion was known as saj‘. The same style is found in the ear­li­est rev­e­la­tions received by the Prophet which now con­sti­tute the last chap­ters of the Qur’an. It is, there­fore, not sur­pris­ing that the con­tem­po­raries of the Prophet called him a kahin, a posi­tion which he firm­ly repu­di­at­ed. While in the begin­ning, the Qur’an adopt­ed the style pecu­liar to saj‘, it raised the con­cep­tion to a lev­el far beyond the imag­i­na­tion of the sooth­say­ers. There is anoth­er point of sim­i­lar­i­ty which should be not­ed here. The utter­ances of the kahins were pref?aced by oaths, swear­ing by the earth and sky, the sun, moon, and stars, light and dark­ness, and plants and ani­mals of all kinds. These oaths offer an interest?ing point of com­par­i­son with the oaths used in the Qur’an.

The tem­ples of the hea­then Arabs were for them not only places of wor­ship but also places of pil­grim­age. They assem­bled there peri­od­i­cal­ly at cer­tain times of the year, when these assem­blies assumed the char­ac­ter of fairs and festivals.

An impor­tant sanc­tu­ary of this kind was locat­ed at Mec­ca, a town in west­ern Ara­bia, which was sit­u­at­ed at a dis­tance of about fifty miles inland from the Red Sea. The town lay on the trade-route which led along the sea from the Yemen to Syr­ia, and its sit­u­a­tion may have been part­ly deter­mined by the pres­ence of a well, called Zamzam, which has a con­sid­er­able and fair­ly con­stant sup­ply of water. The sanc­tu­ary con­sist­ed of a sim­ple stone struc­ture of cube-like appear­ance, which was called the Ka’bah by the Arabs. One of the walls con­tained a black stone (al-hajar al-aswad) . Inside the Ka’bah was the stat­ue of the god, Hubal. At its feet, there was a small pit in which offer­ings to the tem­ple were deposit­ed. Besides Hubal, al-Lat, al-‘Uzza, and al-Man­at were also wor­shipped at Mec­ca and are men­tioned in the Qur’an. At the rise of Islam, the tem­ple is said to have con­tained as many as three hun­dred and six­ty idols. It seems that in course of time the var­i­ous Arab tribes had brought in their gods and placed them in the Ka’bah, which had con­se­quent­ly acquired the char­ac­ter of the nation­al pan­theon for the whole of Arabia.

From times immemo­r­i­al, the Ka’bah at Mec­ca had been the cen­tre of a great pil­grim­age, in which the most diverse tribes from all over Ara­bia took part. But this was pos­si­ble only when peace reigned in the land. For this pur­pose, the month of Dhu al-Hij­jah in which the rites and cer­e­monies con?nected with the pil­grim­age were per­formed and the pre­ced­ing and suc­ceed­ing months of Dhu al-Qa’­dah and Muhar­ram alto­geth­er three con­sec­u­tive months were regard­ed as sacred months, dur­ing which trib­al war­fare was pro­hib­it­ed. This peri­od was suf­fi­cient­ly long to enable the tribes from the remotest cor­ners of Ara­bia to vis­it the Ka’bah and return to their homes in peace. The ter­ri­to­ry around Mec­ca was also treat­ed as sacred (haram); and the pil­grims laid aside their weapons when they reached this holy ter­ri­to­ry. The pil­grim­age was called hajj.

Dur­ing the pil­grim­age, the pil­grims had to per­form a num­ber of rites and cer­e­monies, which last­ed for sev­er­al days and which can be described here only with the utmost brevity.

As soon as the pil­grims entered the sacred ter­ri­to­ry, the haram, they had to prac­tise self-denial by observ­ing a num­ber of pro­hi­bi­tions : they had to abstain from hunt­ing, fight­ing, sex­u­al inter­course, and cer­tain oth­er things. They cir­cum­am­bu­lat­ed the Ka’bah, and also kissed the Black Stone which was fixed in one of its walls. An essen­tial rite of the hajj was a vis­it to the hill of Arafat on the ninth of Dhu al-Hij­jah, when the pil­grims assem­bled in the adjoin­ing plain and stayed there till sun­set for the pre­scribed wuquf (the stays or halts). The hill of Arafat is said to have borne anoth­er name, Ilal, which may have been the name of the shrine or rather of the deity wor­shipped there in ancient times.[2] The pil­grims then went to Muz­dal­i­fah, which was con­se­crat­ed to Quzah, the thun­der god. Here they spent the night, when a fire was kin­dled on the sacred hill. At sun­rise the pil­grims left for Mina, an open plain, where they sac­ri­ficed the ani­mals, camels, goats, and sheep, which they had brought with them for the pur­pose. The ani­mals meant for sac­ri­fice were dis­tin­guished by spe­cial cov­er­ings or oth­er marks. Dur­ing their stay at Mina, the pil­grims also used to throw stones at three pre­scribed sites as a part of the pil­grim­age cer­e­mo­ni­al. After stay­ing at Mina for three days, the pil­grims left for their homes. Women took part in the pil­grim­age along with men.

The hajj as described above was retained by the Prophet as a major reli­gious insti­tu­tion of Islam, with cer­tain mod­i­fi­ca­tions of its cer­e­mo­ni­als which were intend­ed to break the link with their pagan asso­ci­a­tions. While the posi­tion of the Ka’bah was empha­sized as the house built by the Patri­arch Abra­ham for the ser­vice of Allah, the halts (wuquf) at Arafat (along with the one at Muz­dal­i­fah) was retained as an essen­tial fea­ture of the Islam­ic hajj.

In addi­tion to the innu­mer­able gods, the hea­then Arabs also believed in the exis­tence of demons, shad­owy beings, which they called the jinn (vari­ant : jann). The word prob­a­bly means cov­ered or hid­den. Hence the jinn meant beings invis­i­ble to the eye. They were regard­ed as crafty and mis­chie­vous, almost malev­o­lent, and were con­se­quent­ly held in fear. They were sup­posed to haunt places dread­ed either for their lone­li­ness or for their unhealthy cli?mate. The fear of the jinn, there­fore, gave rise to var­i­ous sto­ries, in which they are said to have killed or car­ried off human beings. Like many oth­er prim­i­tive peo­ples, the hea­then Arabs believed in demo­ni­a­cal pos­ses­sion. The jinn were sup­posed to enter human beings and even ani­mals, ren­der­ing them pos­sessed” or mad. Accord­ing to the tes­ti­mo­ny of the Qur’an, the Mec­ca­ns believed that there was a kin­ship between Allah and the jinn, and that they were His part­ners. Accord­ing­ly they made offer­ings to them and sought aid from them.

In spite of the bewil­der­ing mul­ti­plic­i­ty of the sub­or­di­nate gods whom the pre-Islam­ic Arabs ven­er­at­ed, they believed in the exis­tence of a Supreme God whom they called Allah. The word Allah is found in the inscrip­tions of north­ern Ara­bia and also enters into the com­po­si­tion of the numer­ous per­son­al names among them. There are a large num­ber of pas­sages in the poet­ry of the hea­then Arabs in which Allah is men­tioned as a great deity. Allah also occurs in many idiomat­ic phras­es which ere in con­stant use among them. The Qur’an itself tes­ti­fies that the hea­thens them­selves regard­ed Allah as the Supreme Being. Their sin, how­ev­er, con­sist­ed in the fact that they wor­shipped oth­er gods besides Him. It was against this shirk that the Prophet waged an unre­lent­ing war. In any case, it is impor­tant to note that the Qur’an­ic monothe­ism did not find it nec­es­sary to intro­duce an alto­geth­er new name for the Supreme Being and, there­fore, adopt­ed Allah, the name already in use.

Even before the advent of Islam, old poly­the­ism was los­ing its force in Ara­bia, since the Arabs notion of their gods had always been vague. With the decline of old pagan­ism, a num­ber of men had appeared in var­i­ous parts of the coun­try who had become con­vinced of the fol­ly of idol­a­try, and were seek­ing anoth­er more sat­is­fy­ing faith. They were fair­ly numer­ous and were called Han­i­fs. The Qur’an uses this term in the sense of a monothe­ist, and describes Abra­ham the Patri­arch as the first Hanif. But none of these Han­i­fs had the vision and force of con­vic­tion and the pros­e­ly­tiz­ing zeal which distin?guished the mis­sion of Muhammad.

The ancient Arabs believed that the human soul was an ethe­re­al or air-like sub­stance quite dis­tinct from the human body. As such, they con­sid­ered it iden­ti­cal with breath. This iden­ti­fi­ca­tion was so com­plete in their view that the word for breath, nafs, came to mean human per­son­al­i­ty itself. They were con­firmed in this belief by their expe­ri­ence that death result­ed when a human being ceased to breathe. At the time of death, breath along with life itself escaped through its nat­ur­al pas­sage, the mouth or the nos­trils. When a per­son passed away on his death-bed, his soul was said to escape through his nos­trils (mata hat­fa anfi­hi), and in the case of a vio­lent death, e. g., on a bat­tle-field, through the gap­ing wound.

When a per­son was mur­dered, he was sup­posed to long for vengeance and to thirst for the blood of the mur­der­er. If the vengeance was not tak­en, the soul of the mur­dered man was believed to appear above his grave in the shape of an owl con­tin­u­al­ly cry­ing out, Give me to drink” (isquni) , until the mur­der was avenged. The rest­less soul in the form of a screech­ing owl was sup­posed to escape from the skull, the skull being the most char­ac­ter­is­tic part of the dead body. Cer­tain rites of bur­ial, preva­lent among the pre-Islam­ic Arabs, show that they believed in some sort of future exis­tence of the soul. In order to show hon­our to a dead chief, for instance, a camel which had been pre?viously ham­strung was teth­ered near the grave and was left to starve. This usage can be explained only on the hypoth­e­sis that the ani­mal was to be at the ser­vice of the dead man. The cus­to of slaugh­ter­ing ani­mals at the graves of elders has been kept up in Ara­bia to the present day. Ancient poets often express the wish that the graves of those whom they love may be refreshed with abun­dant rain. Sim­i­lar­ly, their some­times address greet­ings to the dead. It may be that expres­sions of this kind are not mere­ly rhetor­i­cal fig­ures of speech ; they prob­a­bly indi­cate their belief in the sur­vival of those who have depart­ed from this world.

Although there are indi­ca­tions that the ancient Arabs hard some notion, how­ev­er hazy, of the sur­vival of the human soul after death, they had no clear notion of life after death. As stat­ed in the Qur’an, they could not under­stand how a human being, after his bones had been reduced to dust, could be called to life once again. Since life after death was some­thing beyond their com­pre­hen­sion, the ques­tion of ret­ri­bu­tion for human deeds did not arise in their minds.

The Qur’an uses the word ruh (spir­it) as well as nafs for the human soul. Accord­ing­ly, the Mus­lim the­olo­gians do not make any dis­tinc­tion between the two terms in des­ig­nat­ing the soul. The ancient Arabs were gen­er­al­ly fatal­ists. They believed that events in the lives of human beings were pre­or­dained by fate, and, there­fore, inevitable. How­ev­er hard they might try, they could not escape the des­tiny, that was in store for them. The course of events was believed to be deter­mined by dahr or time, so that suruf al-dahr (the changes wrought by time) was a most fre­quent expres­sion used by the Arabs and their poets for the vicis­si­tudes of human life. The same feel­ing is expressed in sev­er­al of their proverbs and max­ims. This view was prob­a­bly born of their prac­ti­cal expe­ri­ence of life.

In no part of the world is human life quite secure against the sud­den changes of for­tune, but in the pecu­liar milieu of Ara­bia man seems to be a help­less vic­tim to the caprice of nature to an unusu­al degree. The sud­den attack of a hos­tile neigh­bour­ing tribe or a mur­rain in his herds and flocks may reduce a rich man to dire pover­ty almost overnight ; or in the case of a pro­longed drought, he may be brought face to face with fear­ful famine and death. The pecu­liar cir­cum­stances of desert life, thus, seem to have encour­aged the growth of fatal­is­tic ten­den­cies among the Arabs. Bear­ing in mind the exis­tence of these ten­den­cies among the ancient Arabs, it is not sur­pris­ing to find that sim­i­lar views pre­vailed in the first cen­turies of Islam and that the dog­ma of pre­des­ti­na­tion was almost uni­ver­sal­ly accept­ed among the Mus­lim mass­es. Pre­de­ter­mi­na­tion was, how­ev­er, divorced from dahr.

The feel­ing of utter help­less­ness in the face of inex­orable fate has prob­a­bly giv­en rise to anoth­er idea among the Arabs ; the idea of res­ig­na­tion as a com?mendable virtue. Pos­si­bly, it has a sur­vival val­ue for those who adopt a sub?missive atti­tude towards the hard­ships and adver­si­ties of human life. Instead of fret­ting and fum­ing and hurl­ing one­self in vio­lent revolt against the decree of fate and thus run­ning the risk of com­plete dis­in­te­gra­tion, there seem com­par­a­tive safe­ty and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of ulti­mate sur­vival in accept­ing calm­ly and patient­ly the dic­tates of fate. The incul­ca­tion of res­ig­na­tion as a virtue, thus, seems to be a nat­ur­al corol­lary to the dog­ma of predestination.

Although reli­gion had lit­tle influ­ence on the lives of pre-Islam­ic Arabs, we must not sup­pose them to be an all togeth­er law­less peo­ple. The pagan soci­ety of ancient Ara­bia was built on cer­tain moral ideas, which may be briefly described here. They had no writ­ten code, reli­gious or legal, except the com?pelling force of tra­di­tion­al cus­tom which was enforced by pub­lic opin­ion ; but their moral and social ideals have been faith­ful­ly pre­served in their poet­ry, which is the only form of lit­er­a­ture which has come down to us from those old days.

The virtues most high­ly prized by the ancient Arabs were brav­ery in bat­tle, patience in mis­for­tune, loy­al­ty to one’s fel­low-tribes­men, gen­eros­i­ty to the needy and the poor, hos­pi­tal­i­ty to the guest and the way­far­er, and per­sis­tence in revenge. Courage in bat­tle and for­ti­tude in war­fare were par­tic­u­lar­ly required in a land where might was gen­er­al­ly right and tribes were con­stant­ly engaged in attack­ing one anoth­er. It is, there­fore, not a mere chance that in the famous anthol­o­gy of Ara­bi­an verse, called the Hamasah, poems relat­ing to inter-trib­al war­fare occu­py more than half of the book. These poems applaud the virtues most high­ly prized by the Arabs-brav­ery in bat­tle, patience in hard­ship, defi­ance of the strong, and per­sis­tence in revenge.

The trib­al orga­ni­za­tion of the Arabs was then, as now, based on the prin?ciple of kin­ship or com­mon blood, which served as the bond of union and social sol­i­dar­i­ty. To defend the fam­i­ly and the tribe, indi­vid­u­al­ly and collec?tively, was, there­fore, regard­ed as a sacred duty ; and hon­our required that a man should stand by his peo­ple through thick and thin. If kins­men sought help, it was to be giv­en prompt­ly, with­out con­sid­er­ing the mer­its of the case. Chival­rous devo­tion and dis­in­ter­est­ed self-sac­ri­fice on behalf of their kins­men and friends were, there­fore, held up as a high ide­al of life.

Gen­eros­i­ty and hos­pi­tal­i­ty were oth­er virtues which were great­ly extolled by the Arab poets. They were per­son­i­fied in Hatim of the tribe of Tayy, of whom many anec­dotes are told to this day. Gen­eros­i­ty was spe­cial­ty called into play in the fre­quent famines, with which Ara­bia. is often afflict­ed through lack of rain. The Ara­bi­an sense of hon­our also called blood for blood. Vengeance for the slain was an oblig­a­tion which lay heavy on the con­science of the pagan Arabs. It was tak­en upon the mur­der­er or upon one of his fel­low-tribes­men. Usu­al­ly this end­ed the mat­ter, but some­times it led to a reg­u­lar blood-feud, which last­ed for a long peri­od and in which many per­sons lost their lives. The fear of ret­ri­bu­tion had a salu­tary effect in restrain­ing the law­less instincts of the Bedouin ; but the vendet­ta in some cas­es was car­ried to extreme lim­its and involved a great loss of human life.

In the cen­tu­ry before Muham­mad, Ara­bia was not whol­ly aban­doned to pagan­ism. Both Judaism and Chris­tian­i­ty claimed a con­sid­er­able fol­low­ing among its inhab­i­tants. Almost every calami­ty that befell the land of Pales­tine sent a fresh wave of Jew­ish refugees into Ara­bia, some­times as far as the Yemen. They had prob­a­bly tak­en refuge there after the con­quest of Pales­tine by Titus in 70 A. D. Jew­ish colonists flour­ished in Med­i­na and sev­er­al oth­er towns of north­ern Hijaz. In the time of the Prophet, three large Jew­ish tribes, viz., Nadir, Quraizah, and Qain­uqa, dwelt in the out­skirts of Med­i­na, and the fact that the Prophet made an offen­sive and defen­sive alliance with them for the safe­ty of the town shows that they were an impor­tant fac­tor in the polit­i­cal life of those times. These colonies had their own teach­ers and cen­tres of reli­gious study. Judg­ing by the few extant spec­i­mens of their poet­ry, these refugees, through con­tact with a peo­ple near­ly akin to them­selves, had become ful­ly Ara­bi­cized both in lan­guage and sen­ti­ment. They, how­ev­er, remained Jews in the most vital par­tic­u­lar, reli­gion, and it is prob­a­ble that they exert­ed a strong influ­ence over the Arabs in favour of monotheism.

Anoth­er reli­gious fac­tor which was strong­ly opposed to Ara­bi­an pagan­ism was the Chris­t­ian faith. How ear­ly and from what direc­tion Chris­tian­i­ty first entered Ara­bia is a ques­tion which it is dif­fi­cult to answer with cer­tain­ty ; but there is no doubt that Chris­tian­i­ty was wide­ly dif­fused in the south­ern and noth­ern parts of Ara­bia at the time of the Prophet. Chris­tian­i­ty is said to have been intro­duced in the val­ley of Najran in north­ern Yemen from Syr­ia, and it remained entrenched in spite of the ter­ri­ble per­se­cu­tion it suf­fered at the hands of the Him­yarite king, Dhu Nawas, who had adopt­ed the Jew­ish faith. The Prophet received at Med­i­na a dep­u­ta­tion of the Chris­tians of Najran and held dis­cus­sions with them on reli­gious ques­tions. Chris­tian­i­ty in the south-west of Ara­bia received a fresh stim­u­lus by the inva­sion of the Chris?tian Abyssini­ans, who put an end to the rule of Dhu Nawas. There were Chris­tians in Mec­ca itself ; Waraqah ibn Nau­fal, a cousin of Khadi­jah, the first wife of the Prophet, was one of them. Chris­tian­i­ty was also found among cer­tain tribes of the Euphrates and the Ghas­san who lived on the bor­ders of Syr­ia. Their con­ver­sion was due to their con­tact with the Chris­t­ian pop­u­la­tion of the Byzan­tine Empire. The Ghas­sanids, who were Mono­physites, not only defend­ed their Church against its rivals but also fought against the Mus­lims as the allies of the Byzan­tine emper­ors. The Chris­tians were also found at Hirah, a town in the north-east of Ara­bia, where Arab princes of the house of Lakhm ruled under the suzerain­ty of the Per­sian kings. These Chris­tians, who were called Ibad or the Ser­vants of the Lord”, belonged to the Nesto­ri­an Church, and con­tributed to the dif­fu­sion of Chris­t­ian ideas among the Arabs of the Peninsula.

By the sixth cen­tu­ry, Judaism and Chris­tian­i­ty had made con­sid­er­able head way in Ara­bia, and were extend­ing their sphere of influ­ence, leav­en­ing the pagan mass­es, and thus grad­u­al­ly prepar­ing the way for Islam.


[1] Ibn al-Kalbi, Kitab al-Asnam, ed. Ahmad Zaki Pasha, Cairo, 1914.

[2] Well­hausen, Reste Ara­bis­chen Hei­den­tums, 2nd ed., Berlin, 1897, p. 83. Al-Qur’an ; ibn al-Kalbi, Kitab al-Asnnam, ed. Ahmed Zaki Pasha, Cairo, 1914 ; Mah­mud Shukri al-Alusi, Bulugh al-‘Arab fi Ahw­al al-‘Arab, 3 Vols., Bagh­dad, 13141896 ; Jawad Ali, Tarikh al-‘Arab qabl al-Islam, Vols. V & VI, Bagh­dad, 1955 – 56 ; J. Well­hausen, Reste Ara­bis­chen Hei­den­tums 2nd ed., Berlin , 1897 ; Th. Nold­eke, Ancient Arabs,” in Ency­clopae­dia of Reli­gion and Ethics, Vol. I, Edin­burgh, 1908 ; W. Robert­son Smith, Reli­gion of the Semi­tes, 2nd ed., Lon­don, 1894 ; Ign. Gui­di, L’Ara­bie Anteis­lamique, Paris, 1921 ; De Lacy O’Leary, Ara­bia Before Muham­mad, Lon­don 1927 ; G. Levi Del­la Vida, Pre-Islam­ic Ara­bia,” in The Arab Her­itage, ed. N.A. Faris, Prince­ton, 1944.Endmark

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