ASPECT OF PRE-ISLAMIC ARABIAN SOCIETY
After the research we have made into the religious and political life
of Arabia, it is appropriate to speak briefly about the social, economic
and ethical conditions prevalent therein.
The Arabian Society presented a social medley, with different and heterogeneous
social strata. The status of the woman among the nobility recorded an
advanced degree of esteem. The woman enjoyed a considerable portion of
free will, and her decision would most often be enforced. She was so highly
cherished that blood would be easily shed in defence of her honour. In
fact, she was the most decisive key to bloody fight or friendly peace.
These privileges notwithstanding, the family system in Arabia was wholly
patriarchal. The marriage contract rested completely in the hands of the
woman’s legal guardian whose words with regard to her marital status could
never be questioned.
On the other hand, there were other social strata where prostitution
and indecency were rampant and in full operation. Abu Da’ûd, on the authority
of ‘Aishah(May Allah be pleased with her) reported four kinds of marriage
in pre-Islamic Arabia: The first was similar to present-day marriage procedures,
in which case a man gives his daughter in marriage to another man after
a dowry has been agreed on. In the second, the husband would send his
wife – after the menstruation period – to cohabit with another man in
order to conceive. After conception her husband would, if he desired,
have a sexual intercourse with her. A third kind was that a group of less
than ten men would have sexual intercourse with a woman. If she conceived
and gave birth to a child, she would send for these men, and nobody could
abstain. They would come together to her house. She would say: ‘You know
what you have done. I have given birth to a child and it is your child’
(pointing to one of them). The man meant would have to accept. The fourth
kind was that a lot of men would have sexual intercourse with a certain
woman (a whore). She would not prevent anybody. Such women used to put
a certain flag at their gates to invite in anyone who liked. If this whore
got pregnant and gave birth to a child, she would collect those men, and
a seeress would tell whose child it was. The appointed father would take
the child and declare him/her his own. When Prophet Muhammad (Peace be
upon him) declared Islam in Arabia, he cancelled all these forms of sexual
contacts except that of present Islamic marriage
Women always accompanied men in their wars. The winners would freely
have sexual intercourse with such women, but disgrace would follow the
children conceived in this way all their lives.
Pre-Islam Arabs had no limited number of wives. They could marry two
sisters at the same time, or even the wives of their fathers if divorced
or widowed. Divorce was to a very great extent in the power of the husband.
The obscenity of adultery prevailed almost among all social classes except
few men and women whose self-dignity prevented them from committing such
an act. Free women were in much better conditions than the female slaves
who constituted the greatest calamity. It seemed that the greatest majority
of pre-Islam Arabs did not feel ashamed of committing this obscenity.
Abu Da’ûd reported: A man stood up in front of Prophet Muhammad (Peace
be upon him) and said: “O Prophet of Allâh! that boy is my son. I had
sexual intercourse with his mother in the pre-Islamic period.” The Prophet
(Peace be upon him) said:
“No claim in Islam for pre-Islamic affairs. The child is to be
attributed to the one on whose bed it was born, and stoning is the
lot of a fornicator.”
With respect to the pre-Islam Arab’s relation with his offspring, we
see that life in Arabia was paradoxical and presented a gloomy picture
of contrasts. Whilst some Arabs held children dear to their hearts and
cherished them greatly, others buried their female children alive because
an illusory fear of poverty and shame weighed heavily on them. The practice
of infanticide cannot, however, be seen as irrevocably rampant because
of their dire need for male children to guard themselves against their
Another aspect of the Arabs’ life which deserves mention is the bedouin’s
deep-seated emotional attachment to his clan. Family, or perhaps tribal-pride,
was one of the strongest passions with him. The doctrine of unity of blood
as the principle that bound the Arabs into a social unity was formed andsupported
by tribal-pride. Their undisputed motto was: “ÇäÕÑ ÃÎÇß ÙÇáãÇ Ãæ ãÙáæãÇ
— Support your brother whether he is an oppressor or oppressed” in its
literal meaning; they disregarded the Islamic amendment which states that
supporting an oppressor brother implies deterring him from transgression.
Avarice for leadership, and keen sense of emulation often resulted in
bitter tribal warfare despite descendency from one common ancestor. In
this regard, the continued bloody conflicts of Aws and Khazraj, ‘Abs and
Dhubyan, Bakr and Taghlib, etc. are striking examples.
Inter-tribal relationships were fragile and weak due to continual inter-tribal
wars of attrition. Deep devotion to religious superstitions and some customs
held in veneration, however, used to curb their impetuous tendency to
quench their thirst for blood. In other cases, there were the motives
of, and respect for, alliance, loyalty and dependency which could successfully
bring about a spirit of rapport, and abort groundless bases of dispute.
A time-honoured custom of suspending hostilities during the prohibited
months (Muharram, Rajab, Dhul-Qa‘dah, and Dhul-Hijjah) functioned favourably
and provided an opportunity for them to earn their living and coexist
We may sum up the social situation in Arabia by saying that the Arabs
of the pre-Islamic period were groping about in the dark and ignorance,
entangled in a mesh of superstitions paralyzing their mind and driving
them to lead an animal-like life. The woman was a marketable commodity
and regarded as a piece of inanimate property. Inter-tribal relationships
were fragile. Avarice for wealth and involvement in futile wars were the
main objectives that governed their chiefs’ self-centred policies.
The economic situation ran in line with the social atmosphere. The Arabian
ways of living would illustrate this phenomenon quite clearly. Trade was
the most common means of providing their needs of life. The trade journeys
could not be fulfilled unless security of caravan routes and inter-tribal
peaceful co-existence were provided – two imperative exigencies unfortunately
lacking in Arabia except during the prohibited months within which the
Arabs held their assemblies of ‘Ukaz, Dhil-Majaz, Mijannah and others.
Industry was alien to the Arabian psychology. Most of available industries
of knitting and tannage in Arabia were done by people coming from Yemen,
Heerah and the borders of Syria. Inside Arabia there was some sort of
farming and stock-breeding. Almost all the Arabian women worked in yarn
spinning but even this practice was continually threatened by wars. On
the whole, poverty, hunger and insufficient clothing were the prevailing
features in Arabia, economically.
We cannot deny that the pre-Islam Arabs had such a large bulk of evils.
Admittedly, vices and evils, utterly rejected by reason, were rampant
amongst the pre-Islam Arabs, but this could never screen off the surprise-provoking
existence of highly praiseworthy virtues, of which we could adduce the
- Hospitality: They used to emulate one another at hospitality and take
utmost pride in it. Almost half of their poetry heritage was dedicated
to the merits and nobility attached to entertaining one’s guest. They
were generous and hospitable on the point of fault. They would sacrifice
their private sustenance to a cold or hungry guest. They would not hesitate
to incur heavy blood-money and relevant burdens just to stop blood-shed,
and consequently merit praise and eulogy.
- In the context of hospitality, there springs up their common habits
of drinking wine which was regarded as a channel branching out of generosity
and showing hospitality. Wine drinking was a genuine source of pride
for the Arabs of the pre-Islamic period. The great poets of that era
never forgot to include their suspending odes the most ornate lines
pregnant with boasting and praise of drinking orgies. Even the word
‘grapes’ in Arabic is identical to generosity in both pronunciation
and spelling. Gambling was also another practice of theirs closely associated
with generosity since the proceeds would always go to charity. Even
the Noble Qur’ân does not play down the benefits that derive from wine
drinking and gambling, but also says,
“And the sin of them is greater than their benefit.” [2:219]
- Keeping a covenant: For the Arab, to make a promise was to run into
debt. He would never grudge the death of his children or destruction
of his household just to uphold the deep-rooted tradition of covenant-keeping.
The literature of that period is rich in stories highlighting this merit.
- Sense of honour and repudiation of injustice: This attribute stemmed
mainly from excess courage, keen sense of self-esteem and impetuosity.
The Arab was always in revolt against the least allusion to humiliation
or slackness. He would never hesitate to sacrifice himself to maintain
his ever alert sense of self-respect.
- Firm will and determination: An Arab would never desist an avenue
conducive to an object of pride or a standing of honour, even if it
were at the expense of his life.
- Forbearance, perseverance and mildness: The Arab regarded these traits
with great admiration, no wonder, his impetuosity and courage-based
life was sadly wanting in them.
- Pure and simple bedouin life, still untarnished with accessories of
deceptive urban appearances, was a driving reason to his nature of truthfulness
and honesty, and detachment from intrigue and treachery.
Such priceless ethics coupled with a favourable geographical position
of Arabia were in fact the factors that lay behind selecting the Arabs
to undertake the burden of communicating the Message (of Islam) and leading
mankind down a new course of life.
In this regard, these ethics per se, though detrimental in some areas,
and in need of rectification in certain aspects, were greatly invaluable
to the ultimate welfare of the human community and Islam has did it completely.
The most priceless ethics, next to covenant-keeping, were no doubt their
sense of self-esteem and strong determination, two human traits indispensable
in combatting evil and eliminating moral corruption on the one hand, and
establishing a good and justice-orientated society, on the other.
Actually, the life of the Arabs in the pre-Islamic period was rich in
other countless virtues we do not need to enumerate for the time being.