Pre-Islamic Arabia

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.

Arabia is like a tilted land: the western side is tilted up while the eastern side is tilted down. So the Persian Gulf is shallow and as you get to the shore it slowly rises for thousands of miles across Arabia, until it's broken up by the Red Sea. Makkah (sometime spelt Mecca) - the city of Prophet Muhammad's birth - is by the Red Sea but not exactly on the coast. It's inland. It was in a low place so was very hot, arid, and had no agriculture. It was a town that was dependent on trade and pilgrimage.

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 Byzantine Empire and the Persian Sassanid 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.

Another reason was that Arabia was not an organised, governed state. 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'. It was not like the situation that existed during the life of Jesus Christ (peace be upon him) who lived in a Roman Empire, a large organised state with rule of law and its own order. There wasn't a state of anarchy. Here, every Arabian clan was independent. There were 200 tribes but each of the tribes did not function as a state. Rather, the tribes would be composed of number of clans and these clans would function as a state. So there was a tribal situation that existed in Arabia - a vital background fact to remeber when trying to understand the life of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

The absence of a organised state 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.

Makkah and its surrounding areas were within the boundaries of the sacred enclosure where it was not permissable to make war. As such it was in state of perpetual peace. But the tribe that inhabited Makkah was often at war with their neighbours and the tribes in Arabia were at war with each other.

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.

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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.

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 (previously 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, which was remote from the place where the Prophet lived. 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.

Arabia had no history of institutional organisation. The city of Makkah was a mercantile republic - but a very rudimentary one. It wasn't a republic like the ancient Athens or ancient Roman, that would give it too much institutional organisation. It was more like the Hopi Indian villages where various officials carried out various duties. These were usually hereditary officials. It was hereditary in Arabian clan that one was the war chief with the power to command a war. But in reality people would choose to obey or not obey his decision according to their choice. So other than summoning people to war, the war chief had no power at all. There also existed a counsel of elders or senate who would need to discuss issues sometime. But the clan was self-governing. There was no major organisation. This applied to other places in Arabia too.

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.

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  • Arabs believed in Allah before Islam came along

    Religiously, most of the jahili Arabs professed the religion of Prophet Ibrahim (peace be upon him), i.e. Oneness of Allah. So they believed in the same god as Muslims believe in now. By the same name, the same attribute - that is, Allah. They never depicted Allah as an idol. They made idols of others but not Allah because they knew Allah could not be represented by an idol. They knew Allah was their creator, their originator, and their sustainer. Their paganism is not like modern day paganism. So when the Prophet is coming to them, he's not coming to them with a new god, a new deity. They already knew Allah created them.

    Beginning of paganism in Arabia

    Arabs followed the belief in Allah 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 abroad. Amr was renowned for his rightousness, charity, devotion and care for religion, and was granted unreserved love and obedience of his tribesmen. While abroad - popularly believed to be Syria, though others have suggested Moab in the land of Balqa' in Transjordan and Hit in Mesopotamia - Amr saw people worshipping idols. He approved of this and believed it to be righteous, especially since that nation was a holy land of the advent of Messengers and their Scriptures. Amr bought with him an idol, Hubal (god of the moon). This was a statue of a male figure with a golden arm and had seven divination arrows in front of it. Amr placed Hubal in the middle of the Ka'bah and summoned people to worship it. It became the main idol of Makkah. A custodian guarded the statue, received the offerings and sacrifices and conducted future-forecasting to pilgrims such as marriage, death, apology, lineage, etc. Even Abdul-Muttalib, the paternal grandfather of Prophet Muḥammad (pbuh), shuffled the divination arrows in order to find out which of his ten children he should sacrifice in fulfilment of a vow. The arrow pointed to his son Abdullah, father of Muḥammad (pbuh).

    Soon, idoltary spread all over Makkah and neighbouring areas. A great number of idols began to be introduced into the area bearing different names. Among these were Al-Lat (in Taif), Manat (Makkah), and al-Uzza (Makkah), which were considered the three "daughters of Allah".

    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.

    Shirk (associating others unto Allah), the gravest sin in Islam

    Ironically, the Arabs worshipped the idols so they can become closer to Allah. They considered the idols as intermediaries in their pursuit to achieve closeness to the ultimate creator. They treated the idols as holy beings and considered themselves as too sinful or impure to approach Allah directly.

    But that is where they went wrong.

    In Islam, Muslims have direct access to Allah. No intermediaries are required. No prophets - including Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) - angels, sheikhs, scholars, holy men, statues, etc., are required for a Muslim to connect with Allah. Associating a partner with Allah - known as shirk - is the ultimate sin in Islam. And the Arabs practised this shirk by going to Allah indirectly via the idols and not directly to him.

    Customs

    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

    For Makkah, pagianism was a major source of income.

    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.

  • 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.

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    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)

  • 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)

  • The question remained: Why did Allah choose Arabia if it was so bad and in such poor state? Why did He not choose the Romans who were the mightiest civilisation or Persians who had an ancient civilisation? Why Arabia which had a nomadic lifestyle, didn't have a script, didn't have a mature developed civilisation, didn't have anything, not even a government? Why this society?

    There are many wisdoms behind the reason as to why Allah chose the Arabian Peninsula as the venue for his Final Revelation. Here are some of those wisdom:

    Arabia located perfectly between two superpowers

    Arabia was located in between two major superpowers of the time: Roman Byzantine Empire and Persian Sassanid Empire. Wars were taken place above Arabia, in the Syrian land for 400 years between those two superpowers. So geographically it was unique. It was connected to the two greatest international superpowers, yet it was distinct. In 30 - 40 years after the passing of Prophet (pbuh) Arabia conquered these two superpowers. It was the first few lands the Muslim conquered. Had Arabia been located far away, it possibly wouldn't have conquered these two empires, at least not so quickly.

    No history of colonialism

    Arabs did not have a history of colonialism or aggressive behaviour. Because they were too busy fighting among themselves, they never challenged anybody else. So when the Muslim armies first marched towards the Roman and Persian empires, they were mocked by them. They treated the Arabs like kids as they couldn't believe that a group of conquerors were coming from Arabia. So it was a complete surprise to the foreigners when Arabs set out to rule the world.

    Introduction of civilisation

    Arabs did not have their own unique civilisation. For example, they had no unified government which is the benchmark of a civilisation. They did not have or excel in literature, arts, or architecture. They had poetry but not written literature as they had no reading or writing. And, unlike the Persians and Romans, the Arabs did not have buildings nor built anything of lasting significance.

    It was only with the advent of Islam did Arabia become the topmost nation. Before that, they were considered a backward nation in many ways. Islam came and changed that forever.

    Laqad anzalnaaa ilaikum Kitaaban feehi zikrukum afalaa ta'qiloon

    Surah 21 Al-Anbya (The Prophets), ayat 10

    We have certainly sent down to you a Book in which is your mention. Then will you not reason?

    So the fact that Arabia did not have a civilisation or all factors that make up a developed nation, when Islam came it made it easier for the Arabs to develop their own unique culture and civilisation. There was no competition. It was a clean slate. If Islam had come an already mature society, for example the Romans, it would've been very problematic. They have their entire structure up and running and for Islam to come there, it would've had to fight the status quo. In Arabia there was somewhat of a vacuum. There was no status quo to fight. So when the Prophet unites the Arabs for the first time in their history, the wars that he was undertaking were relatively small. There's no mighty unified government that is attacking him.

    Islam bought to Arabia its own uniqueness, be it in language, literature, script, coinage, architecture etc.

    Surprise factor

    Because of the internal warfare among the Arabs and their relative backward state, the rise of a political entity from Arabia was completely unexpected. Nobody could have predicted there would be a political force coming from Arabia. In modern day context, it's like saying the lowest GDP nations would in 20 years time became the global superpowers. So the Persians and Romans and other mighty rulers were completely unprepared for the Arabian conquest.

    Makkah, the city with the first house built for worshipping Allah

    Makkah was the site of the first house built for the worship of Allah. It was the place of Ibrahim and Ishmael, therefore it was most appropriate that Makkah become the place of first universal religion. Muslims believe that Islam was revealed for the whole world, whereas other revelations prior to that were for a specific nation or set of people. For example, Jesus Christ came for the Children of Israel, Moses was sent for the Jews, etc. Yet Muhammad (pbuh) was sent for the entire world. So it is befitting that his place be the place of the first house of worship, the first masjid built on earth. It's befitting that the first universal call come from that very same valley, from that very sanctuary, from that very house.

    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 which made them receptive to the message. 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.

    The Arabs had purity of spirit. They were not polluted by philosophical indoctrination. They were simple people, and this attribute has its own positives and negatives. One of the positive is that when the truth comes you accept it more easily. The Arabs were not clouded by philosophical baggage. They had sincerity and innocence which made it easier for them to accept the truth.

    The Arabs were also people accustomed to hardship. Lack of food, and lack of water was not uncommon. This helped the Muslim armies in the early stage of their conquest. Persian and Roman troops were used to better supply lines and high standard of living and armoury. The Arabs had none of this. They were used to travelling long distance in the harsh desert with small amount of food and water. And early Muslim conquest thrived off that stamina that the Arabs possessed and the Persians and Romans lacked.

    Arabs also had other characteristics that were very beneficial. They had bravery. They were proud, which can be both positive and negative depending on the context. They were honest people. They hated lying. They were sincere in their oaths. If they gave a promise they would uphold it. They were people of their word, and they abided by it. Hence there were no written contract in Arabia until Islam came. There was no need for it. If a man said it, he would abide by it. There was no need for witnesses. He'll not retract his words. So treachery was considered an evil among the Arabs.

    Islam, a religion of the settled people not 'bedouin religion'

    One of the wrong stereotype about the beginning of Islam is that Islam is a 'bedouin religion', representing bedouinism. It's a religion of the desert and everything is black and white because of that. That's false. Islam is a religion of the settled people. In Arabia the nomads were never the majority population - not then, and certainly not now - as nomadic life cannot sustain that much population. It's the the people who lived in the oasis and planted crops who constituted majority population. And when you consider there was also Yemen, a completely agricultural land, this further strengthens this fact.

    Even when nomadic is considered, you have to remember that nomadism in discourse about Islam is a continuation of anti-Semitic stereotype which has to do with European anti-Jewish, anti-Semitism of the stereotype of the wandering Jew. Which is like, the Jews are a population which has no rootedness in any place, no loyalty to any place, who wander from one country to another and live off the fruits of the labour of the honest people of every other country, and so on, and [so] let's go get them.

    After the holocaust we largely got rid of that with regards to the Jews. But it has been transferred to some extinct to explanation about Islam because we have the idea that the nomads did not deserve the land they lived on because they were just wandering around, so they were detached to any place. False. All nomadic life is, all it means is, that the area is too arid for you to stay in one place. So instead of agriculture you have to move your animals around in pastures and those pastures would be areas defined that belonged to you. So all of Arabia was divided into properties essentially.

    That doesn't mean it was accepted by everyone. There were constant struggles going on over the rights of the various pastures among the nomads themselves.

    Dr. Khalid Yahya Blankinship, American historian who specialises in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies

    Arabs were best horse riders and had best horses

    Arabs were the best horseman and had the best breed of horses. There's even an authentic hadith where the Prophet praised the Arabian horses as the best in the world - and this is clearly evident today. The riders of Arabia were not only the best, but also accustomed to the most brutal wars. They weren't accustomed to heavy armours but they were used to riding long distances and fight a difficult type of war which the Romans and Persians were not.

    Powerful Arabic language

    There was also the issue of the Arabic language itself. As a semitic language, like Hebrew, Aramaic, and Syriac, Arabic was far more powerful and eloquent than languages based in Latin.

    Very few Arabs could read and write. Most were not interested in learning these arts. 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.

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    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.

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    ...But the main reason is:

    Arabia, especially Makkah, was chosen to fulfil the dua (supplication) of Prophet Ibrahim (peace be upon him). This is the main reason and most obvious reason why Arabia was selected by Allah as the location of the Final Revelation.

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