In order to understand the rapid rise of Islam in its first 100 years, we have to know the conditions it was born into which facilitated this growth.
Geography: Barren land free from foreign invasion. Even Roman Empire and Persian Empire couldn't conquer it
Throughout the ages the Arabian lands have been inaccessible to foreigners and invaders thanks largely to its deserts and arid areas and lack of permanent rivers or water life. The harsh, barren peninsula was known as "Jazirat al-Arab" (Islands of the Arabs) by pre-Islamic Arabs in reference to how isolated it was from the outside world. Even today, with the advancement of logistics, technology, and science, there are still many places in the peninsula devoid of any population.
Such are the difficult geographical condition of the lands, the peninsula has been largely free from invasion despite the presence of two neighbouring great empires, the Roman Empire and the Persian Empire. Both empires were the most powerful rulers in the ancient world. The Romans dominated the Mediterranean Sea while the Persians ruled to the north and east of the Arabian Peninsula. They clashed in their attempt to dominate the area, with the lands of Syria and Iraq serving as the front lines. The ongoing battles neutralised their power and contributed to their eventual decline. Neither of them were able to extend their control into Arabia itself, which freed the Arabs to develop their own independent culture, free from any foreign influence or dominance.
Thanks also to its strategic position with quick access to the Eastern and Western worlds, the Arabian Peninsula became a centre for trade, culture, religion and art.
Society: Patriarchal and inter-clan wars
Nomadic Bedouin tribes dominated the Arabian Peninsula before the rise of Islam. Arab society was very male-dominated. The older male members of the clan were accorded the supremacy. And, although women among the social elite were held in high esteem, other women were treated as marketable commodity. Prostitution and indecency were widespread. Many women sold sex to make their living since there was little else they could do. These women flew flags on their houses, and were called "dhat-er-rayyat" (ladies of the flags). Female infants were buried alive, even if the parents did not want to do this, to maintain the 'honour' of their custom.
Women accompanied the men in wars. The victors would freely have sexual intercourse with such women, but a lifetime of disgrace would follow the children conceived this way. There were also no limit on the number of wives a man could have. They could marry two sisters at the same time, or even the wives of their fathers if divorced or widowed. Adultery prevailed among all social classes except for a few men and women whose self-respect prevented them from committing such an act. But the great majority of pre-Islamic Arabs did not feel ashamed of committing this evil. Drunkenness and gambling were also common traits.
Another aspect of Arab life was the bedouin's tribal alliance. This was total. Regardless of whether their compatriot was the oppressor or the oppressed, they would support them. One reason for this strong alliance was the unforgiving desert. Reliance upon family and friends (and by extension, the tribe) was fundamental to fight against famine and heat which threatened their survival. The absence of police, courts, judges,or political organisation in any form also meant that in the event a crime was committed, the injured party would take the law in their own hands and get 'justice'. This further strengthened the clan system and as such family was the major unit in an Arabian society. The tribe gave an individual their identity. Inter-tribal relationships were fragile and weak due to continual inter-tribal wars and they were further hampered by the fact that the Arabs were extremely ambitious and competitive.
The tribe had an obligation to protect its members even if they had committed crimes. Tribalism or 'asabiyya' (the clan spirit) took precedence over ethics. A tribe that failed to protect its members from their enemies, exposed itself to ridicule, obloquy and contempt. Ethics, of course, did not enter the picture anywhere.
Such family and tribal ties were the saving grace for Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) who was protected by his uncle Abu Talib even though he didn't convert to Islam. Nevertheless, supporting oppression was contrary to Islamic belief which states that you should stop an oppressor from carrying out aggression, regardless of who they are.
3 groups of Arabs
Arab people have been divided into three groups according to their lineage:
- Perished Arabs = Ancient Arabs whose history is little known
- Pure (or Qahtanian) Arabs = The descendant of Ya'rub bin Yashjub bin Qahtan. They originally lived in Yemen
- Arabized (or Adnanian) Arabs = The descendent of Prophet Ismael (peace be upon him). The Quraish, Prophet Muhammad's tribe, came from this group
Economic: Deprived of basic necessities
If the social condition were bad, the economic condition were no better.
The Bedouin tribes were mainly nomadic pastoralists who relied on their herds of goats, sheep, and camels for meat, milk, cheese, blood, fur/wool, and other sustenance. They also hunted, served as bodyguards, escorted caravans, worked as mercenaries, and traded or raided to gain animals, women, gold, fabric, and other luxury items.
Trade was the most common form of livelihood. However, trade journeys could not be undertaken unless security was granted to caravan routes and there was peaceful co-existence between the tribes - which was rare. Poverty, hunger and deprivation of basic necessities like food and clothing were the prevailing economic features in Arabia.
Although the majority of pre-Islamic Arabia was nomadic, there were several important cities that came into being as centers of trade and religion, such as Makkah, Madinah (also called Yathrib), Karbala (in present-day Iraq), and Damascus (in present-day Syria). The most important of these cities was Makkah, which was an important center of trade in the area as well as the location of the Ka'bah, one of the most revered shrines in polytheistic Arabia. After the rise of Islam, the Ka'bah became the most sacred place in Islam.
Political: Leadership provided by kings and head of tribes as no government ever existed
Prior to the advent of Islam, there were two types of rulers in Arabia: crowned kings, and heads of tribes and clans. Crowned kings were not independent, while the heads of tribes and clans were. They enjoyed the same authorities and privileges possessed by crowned kings and were mostly independent, though some of them may have shown some kind of submission to a crowned king.
The crown kings were found in Yemen, Shaam (ancient name for Syria), the family of Ghassan (in present-day Jordan) and the monarchy of Heerah (in present-day Iraq). Everywhere else the rulers of Arabia were tribal heads.
Remarkably, before Islam, the Arabian peninsula had no government at any time in their history, with the exception of Yemen in the south-west https://www.al-islam.org/restatement-history-islam-and-muslims-sayyid-ali-ashgar-razwy/arabia-islam. Their only source of authority were the tribal chiefs. And this too rested, in most cases, on their character and personality, and was moral rather than political.
The modern student of history finds it incredible that the Arabs lived, generation after generation, century after century, without a government of any kind. Since there was no government, there was no law and no order.
...But the Arabs possessed many positive qualities
Though the social vices were widespread and regular features of pre-Islamic Arabia, the Arabs themselves possessed many highly praiseworthy qualities. The foremost among these, arguably, was their hospitality. Arabian culture was world renowned for looking after guests and protecting their family. Guests were to be given automatic protection if they ask for it, even if fleeing from an enemy http://lostislamichistory.com/what-was-special-about-pre-islamic-arabia/.
Very few Arabs could read and write. Most were not interested in learning these arts https://www.al-islam.org/restatement-history-islam-and-muslims-sayyid-ali-ashgar-razwy/arabia-islam. But they compensated this by mastering poetry. Since much of Arabic custom prior to Islam was based on oral tradition, the Arab people excelled in speaking.
The greatest intellectual accomplishment of the pagan Arabs was their poetry. They claimed that God had bestowed the most remarkable qualities of the head upon the Greeks (its proof is their science and philosophy); of hand upon the Chinese (its proof is their craftsmanship); and of the tongue upon the Arabs (its proof is their eloquence). Their greatest pride, both before and after Islam, was their eloquence and poetry.
The poetic nature of the Quran fit perfectly in with the poetic nature of the Arabs. For a society which prized poetic ability more than anything else, and where poets constantly competed with each other in writing perfectly rhythmical verses, the Quran proved to be far superior to any poetic ability of any human. Had the Quran been sent to a group of people who were not as poetically inclined, it would not have been seen as a miracle worth following. But for the Arabs, there was no doubting the divine nature of the holy book, which created a strong fervor in their hearts to spread this message that they wholeheartedly believed to be true.
Amr bin Luhai brings idol worship to Makkah from Syria
Religiously, most of the Arabs professed the religion of Prophet Ibrahim (peace be upon him), i.e. Oneness of Allah. They followed this for a long time - until a chief of Khuza'ah (one of the main ancestral tribes of Makkah), Amr bin Luhai, came back from a trip to Syria. Amr was renowned for his rightousness, charity, devotion and care for religion, and was granted unreserved love and obedience of his tribesmen. In Syria Amr saw people worshipping idols. He approved of this and believed it to be righteous, especially since Syria was a holy land of the advent of Messengers and their Scriptures. Amr bought with him an idol, Hubal (the Syrian god of the moon), which he placed in the middle of the Ka'bah and summoned people to worship it. Soon, idoltary spread all over Makkah and neighbouring areas. A great number of idols began to be introduced into the area bearing different names. On Prophet Muhammad's conquest of Makkah, 360 idols were found around the Ka'bah which attracted visitors from all over Arabia. He broke them down and had them removed and burned.
Polytheism (i.e. belief in multiple gods) and idol worship became norm among pre-Islamic Arabs, even though they professed allegiance of Prophet Ibrahim's religion. Most of the traditions and ceremonies of idol worship were introduced by Amr bin Luhai himself. They were deemed as "good innovations" rather than deviations from the religion of Ibrahim. These customs included:
- Seeking help from the idols and uttering oaths in their name
- Performing pilgrimage to the idols, and even prostrating before them
- Seeking favours of idols through various sacrifices in their name, and vowing to offering crops and cattles to them
- Allocating certain portions of food, drink, cattle, and crops to idols
- Dedicating certain animals to idols, which meant sparing those animals from useful work
In addition to idoltary, superstitions was rife. The Arabs practised divine arrows, or azlam, to decide on serious matters. They also had deep conviction of soothsayers, diviners and astrologers to forecast the future and gain answers to the unknown. However, the Arabs did still retain some of the Abrahamic traditions such as devotion to Al-Ka'bah, circumambulation (i.e. going around Ka'bah seven times), observance of pilgrimage, the stay at Mount Arafat and offering sacrifices.
Migration of Jews to Arab land
During this period there was large migration of Jews from Palestine to Arab. In 587 B.C. some Jews left Palestine for Hijaz and other northern areas of Arabia to escape the persecution they were subjected to, the destruction of their temple, and avoid being taken captives to Babylon at the hand of the King Bukhtanassar.
In 70 C.E. with the Roman occupation of Palestine there was further tidal wave of Jewish migration into Hijaz and Yathrib. Here they converted many tribes to their faith, built forts and castle, and lived in villages. Prior to the advent of Islam, there were several famous Jewish tribes such as Khabeer, Al-Mustaliq, An-Nadeer, Quraizah and Qainuqa.
Economically, the Jews were the leaders of Arabia. They were the owners of the best arable lands in Hijaz, and they were the best farmers in the country. They were also the entrepreneurs of such industries as existed in Arabia in those days, and they enjoyed a monopoly of the armaments industry.
Christianity, Magianism (Zoroastrianism) and Sabianism gain followers
Christianity first made its appearance in Arabia following the entry of the Abyssinian (Ethopian) and Roman colonists. The Abyssinian presence lasted from 340-378 C.E. and again in 525 C.E.. The principal tribes that embraced Christianity were Ghassan, Taghlib, Tai and some Himyarite kings as well as other tribes living on the borders of the Roman Empire.
Magianism (also called Zoroastrianism) was popular among the Arabs living in the region of Persia, Iraq, Bahrain, Al-Ahsa and some ares on the Arabian Gulf coast. Sabianism - where the followers worshipped sun, moon, and stars - was popular among the Kaldanian people, the Syrians and Yemenis. However, with the advent of Judaism and Christianity, Sabianism began to decline.
The religions prevalent at the time played merely a marginal role in the life of the Arabs before the advent of Islam. The polytheists, who pretended to adhere to the religion of Abraham, were far removed from its principles and inherent ethics. They indulged in disobedience, ungodliness, and peculiar superstitions that left a deleterious effect on the religious and socio-political life in Arabia.
Judaism turned into a system of repulsive hypocrisy and the struggle for power. Rabbis turned into lords to the exclusion of the Lord. Their sole ambition was gaining wealth and power even if it was at the risk of losing their religion, or the emergence of atheism and disbelief.
Likewise, Christianity opened its doors wide to polytheism, and turned too complicated to comprehend. As a religious system, it developed a peculiar mix of beliefs regarding man and God. It exercised no influence whatsoever on the souls of the Arabs who accepted it, simply because it did not concern itself with their lifestyle and did not have the least relationship with their practical life.
People of other religions were similar to the polytheists with respect to their inclinations, dogmas, customs and traditions.
Saifur-Rahma Al-Mubarakpuri, author of 'The Sealed Nectar' (1979)
Period of 'al-jahiliyyah' (ignorance)
From a Muslim perspective, the period prior to the advent of Islam is known as 'al-jahiliyyah' (the age or condition of ignorance). It refers to two things that are combined in this period: jahl (ignorance) and jahaalah (foolishness). The Arabs were engrossed in activities which were paralysing their spiritual growth. Greed, power and selfishness governed their actions. They lacked social and historical depth and their life was devoid of meaning, puropose and direction.
But this was about to change - forever.
What is meant by Jahiliyyah is the time before the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) was sent, because at that time the people's ignorance was great; it included ignorance both of the rights of Allah and the rights of His slaves.
Shaykh Muhammad ibn Salih al-'Uthaymeen (may Allah have mercy on him)