The Life of Muhammad: Arabia Before Islam (Chapter 1)

Muhammad: Physical Features of Arabia

Arabia Before Islam: Physical features of Arabia

Between the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf lies a continent, arid and well nigh waterless, save where an occasional flood lends to the scene the freshness and charm of an oasis. Most of it is an uninviting place, unfriendly too, from the physical point of view. For miles around there appears to be no end to barren hills, no end to the glittering, blazing desert; no respite from the fiery heat except for the few green places which abound in palm and water and provide rest to the wandering tribes of the Arabs. The streams are few and seldom reach the sea. Most of them come to existence only when swelled by occasional rains and disappear in the sandy plains.

The peninsula was divided by the ancient geographers into "Arabia Petraea", "Arabia Felix," and "Arabia Dersta". "Arabia Petraea" corresponded to the present Hijaz and eastern part of Najd; "Arabia Felix" to Yemen and Hadramaut, and "Arabia Deserta" comprised the rest of the country. In the north lies the hilly tract, once inhabited by the Edomites and Midianites of the Hebrew Testament. Then comes Hijaz proper which extends along the Red Sea between Syria in the north and Yemen in the south. In this part are situated the famous cities of Mecca, Medina and Jeddah and is traversed by hills extending from the isthmus of Suez to the Indian Ocean.

There were but a few points at which, in ancient times, Arabia touched the outer world. The northern region, stretching from Syria to Euphrates, was occupied, in the second century, by some of those tribes which had, according to native tradition, about that time immigrated from the south and of whom we frequently hear in the later annals of the Roman empire. To the west, in the Syrian desert with their capital at Palmyra, was the dynasty of the Ghassanides; and to the east on the banks of the Euphrates, the kingdom of Hira: the former, as a rule, adhered to the Roman, the latter to the Persian Empire. (1)

The ancient records of Arab history eloquently speak of the fact that it was but the farther outskirts of the peninsula which came into contact with the civilized world. "The rest of Arabia was absolutely unknown; and, excepting thorugh the medium of countrymen engaged in merchandise, or settled on the confines of Syria, the Arabs themselves had but little knowledge of anything beyond their own deserts." (2)

Within the bounds of the country, the city of Mecca occupied a prominent position. It was but a small town, nestling in a plain amid arid, volcanic rocks, some fifty miles away from the shores of the Red Sea, from which the ground rises gradually towards the great table land of inner Arabia. As a commercial centre and as a sanctuary of great holiness, the Ka'bah attracted innumerable people from all parts of Arabia every year.

The control of the Ka'bah had been the chief object of ambition for the Arab tribes on account of the great influence its directors exercised over the whole of Arabia. There had been, therefore, constant struggle to secure the eminent position of the custodianship of the "House of Allah".

As far as history reveals, we find that the Ishmaelites remained the guardians of the Ka'bah for a long time. Afterwards it passed on to the Jurhamites and then to the Amalekites. Later on, the Ishmaelites and the Jurhamites united their forces to expel the common foe, i.e., the Amalekites, from Mecca and having succeeded in doing so, the Jurhamites finally became the guardians of the Ka'bah.

Banu Bakr and Banu Khuza'ah envied this privilege of the guardianship of Ka'bah and united their forces and fought against the Jurhamites, dispossessing them of the charge of the Ka'bah and taking its control in their own hands. After this Qusayy conspired with Bani Kin'anah, defeated Banu Bakr and Banu Khuza'ah and established their own authority over Mecca and the Ka'bah.

Thus the control of the Ka'bah and Mecca was restored to the Qurayshites after the lapse of about four hundred years.

Next, the guardianship of the Ka'bah passed first to 'Abd al-Dar and then to his sons and grandsons. To cite Muir:

The house of 'Abd al-Dar originally possessed all the public offices; but in the struggle with Hashim they were stripped of several important dignities, their influence had departed, and they were now fallen into a subordinate and insignificant position. The offices retained by them were still, undoubtedly, valuable; but divided among separate members of the family, the benefit of combination was lost; and there was not steady and united effort to improve their advantages towards the acquisition of social influence and political power. The virutal lordship of Mecca, on the other hand, was now with the descendants of 'Abd Menaf. Among these, again, two parties had arisen-the families, namely, of his sons Hashim and 'Abd Shams. The grand offices of giving food and water to the pilgrims secured to the house of Hashim, a commanding and permanent influence under the able management of Muttalib, and now of 'Abd al-Muttalib who, like his father Hashim, was regarded as the chief of the Sheikhs of Mecca.(3)

Thus at the time of Muhammad's birth this honour was enjoyed by his family, and his grandfather was the venerable chief of the theocratic commonwealth which was constituted round the Ka'bah. According to P. De Lacy Johnstone:

Medina, according to Arab tradition, was originally settled by the Amalekites, but these gave way in very early time to Jewish invaders, driven from their own land (probably) by the national disasters wrought by Nebuchadnezzar and later conquerors. Prominent among them were the Nazir, Quraiza, and Qainuqaa tribes. About 300 A.D., the Aus and Khazraj tribes, of Azdite stock, struck back south from their kindred in Ghassan, and at first lived on good terms with Jews who had hospitably welcomed them. But when they grew in numbers and felt their power, they, about the end of the fifth century, rose against their Jewish partners, in the Governmetn, massacred the chiefs, seized the best of their lands, and reduced the tribes to subjection. The treachery and massacre was avenged by Abu Karib, a prince, who slew the leaders, and devastated the cultivated lands, but had then to retire. Thereafater followed twenty years of strife btween the rival clans; a truce for half a century, then renewed war, ending after a terrible battle at Buath in 616 A.D. (where the strength of Jews divided between the contending tribes, and desert allies joined in the fray) in triumph of the Khazraj, whose chief, Abdullah ibn Ubai, was about to be raised to the kingship of Medina, when the exile from Mecca changed the fortunes of the city.(4)

Before the recent gush of oil and the gold that it has brought, the Arabs were living a life of extreme poverty. Their soil was poor; and constant tilling enabled them to wring only a precarious subsistence. They earned their livelihood either by rearing camels, horses, cattle, and sheep, pitching their tents within certain limits, where water and pasturage were most abundant, or they were engaged in the transport of merchandise along the trading routes through the desert.

1. William Muir, The Life of Muhammad, (1912) p. lxxx.

2. Ibid., p.xciii.

3. William Muir, op. cit., p. ciii.

4. P. De Lacy Johnstone, Muhammad and His Power (New york 1901), pp. 35, 36.

Muhammad: The Arab Character

Arabia Before Islam: The Arab Character

They were no doubt poor, yet they took life lightheartedly. They were in fact free from all the inner tensions and stresses which are so peculiar to our times. Men of strong passions were they, fiery of temper, ardent in love and bitter in hate, delighting in war, in the chase, and the banquet, not sparing the wine-cup at the feast, but of unmatched forbearance for cold, thirst and hunger when need arose. They were generous in their tongues, and eloquent in their utterances. They could be easily touched by every form of poetry, in praise of themselves, their kindred and their friends, or bitter shafts of blame and satire against their foes.

Writing, of course, there was little or none; the literature of the desert was preserved 'living on the lips of men and graven on the tablets of their hearts'; the perfect warrior was also the famous poet, and the name of many a poetess adorns the Arab bead-roll of glory:

The staple of their poetry is, however, largely a description of the joys of battle, the struggle for mastery, and the perils of the long, dark journeyings through the waste; the noble horse and camel, the keen flashing sword in the battle, the deadly lance and arrow; the swift, sudden storms that sweep over mountain and plain, driving the goats and wild antelopes in panic fear to their fastness, while the lightning flashes and thunder roars, and the rain-torrents hurry down the stony watercourses-these are the themes of their songs. And prefaced to nearly every one of t longer poems is a wail of lament over the ashes of a long-deserted encampment, once the home of a beloved maiden, a tearful note of human sorrow to attune the heart of softened melancholy. One type, one theme, is strangely absent from it all, -the devotional. Praise or prayer is seldom heard, though wild and terrible oaths are not wanting. The old Arab was, above all things, self-centered, self-reliant, confident that the cunning of his own strong right hand could conquer fate. His worship did not greatly pervade his life or his thoughts. The warrior would take the arrows of divination, but if the answer squared not with this desire, he could hurl them back wrathfully and scornfully in the face of his idol. (1)

We reproduce here some of the snatches of songs which would give a very clear idea to the readers about the sensuous delight of the Arab, his pleasures and pains, and his metaphysical beliefs:

He is a young boy of charming countenance;
He looks promising and is growing with the perfection of Harith
Age and youth blended together.
They are best of men,
What of their fine great ancestors
They are the best drunkards. (2)
When she flashes across the eyes of old hermit,
He who lies on the peaks of hill,
He too is enchanted by her beauty,
Lends ears toher and comes out of his hut.
Were not a human being, you would
Have been a full moon. (3)

There are innumerable verses of pre-Islamic Arabic poetry which are indicative of the fact that despite love for sensuous pleasures, the Arabs were very brave and had the courage to meet all kinds of situation manfully:

Roast flesh, the glow of fiery wine,
To speed on camel fleet and sure.
As thy sould lists to urge her on
Through all the hollow's breadth and length.
White women, statue-like, that trail
Rich robes of price with golden hem,
Wealth, easy lot, of no dread of ill,
To hear the lutes complaining string,
These are life's joys. For man is set
The prey of Time, and Time is change.
Life strait or large, great store or nought
All's one to time, all men to deaths. (4)

Now follow part of the dirge which a brave chief sang for himself when, before his death, he faced the foes that had overwhelmed him:

Upbraid me not, yet twain: enough is the shame for me,
To be as I am, no gain upbraiding to you or me.
Know ye not that in reproach is little that profits men?
It was not my wont to blame my brother when I was free.
Mulaika, my wife, knows well that time when I stood forth
A lion to lead men or face those that rushed on me.
Yea, many a slaughtered beast I gave to the gamers, oft
I journeyed along where none would venture to share my way;
And of times I slew, to feast fellows, the beast I rode,
And of times I rent my robe in twain for two singing girls.
And when 'neath the stress of spears our steeds plunged and broke and backed,
Yet mine were the fingers deft then turned from our line their steel.
And hosts like the locusts swarm have swept upon me alone,
And my hand it was that stemmed and gathered in one their spears.
Now am I as though I ne'er had mounted a noble steed,
Or called to my horsemen charge! Gain space for our men to breathe,
Or brought for a wealth of gold the full skin of wine or cried
To true hearts at play-Heap high the blaze at our beacon fire! (5)

These verses which have been taken from Hamasah, speak eloquently of the ideal of Arab virtue which can be expressed in terms of muruwwah, (manliness) and ird (honour). "It is not mere chance," observes Reynold A. Nicholson, "that Abu Tammam's famous anthology is called the Hamasah, i.e., 'Fortitude', from the famous anthology is caleed the Hamasah, i.e., 'Fortitude', from the title of its first chapter, which occupies nearly half the book. Hamasah denote the virtues most highly prized by the Arabs - bravery in battle, patience in misfortune, persistence in revenge, protection of the weak and defiance of the strong; the will, as Tennyson has said, "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield".

As types of the ideal Arab hero we may take Shanfara of Azd and his comrade in foray, Ta'abbata Sharr. Both were brigands, outlaws, swift runners, and excellent poets:

Of the former it is said that he was captured when a child from his tribe by the Banu Salaman, and brought up among them; he did not learn his origin until he had grown up, when he vowed vengeance against his captors, and returned to his own tribe. His oath was that he would slay a hundred men of Salaman; he slew ninety-eight, when an ambush of his ene mies succeeded in taking him prisoner. In the struggle one of his hands was hewn off by a sword stroke, and, taking it in ithe other, he flung it in the face of a man of Salaman and killed him, thus making ninety-nine. Then he was overpowered and slain, with one still wanting to make, up his number. As his skull lay bleaching on the ground, a man of enemies passed by that way and kicked it with his foot; a splinter of bone entered his foot, the wound mortified, and he died, thus completing the hundred.(6)

The following passage is translated from Shanfara's splendid ode named Lamiyyatu'l Arab in which he describes his own heroic character and the hardships of a predatory life:

And somewhere the noble find a refuge afar from scathe,
The outlaw a lonely spot where no kin with hatred burn.
Oh, never a prudent man, night-faring in hope or fear,
Hard pressed on the face of earth, but still he hat room to turn.
To me now, in your default, are comrades a wolf untired,
A sleek leopard, and a fell hyena with shaggy mane:
True, comrades: they ne'er let out the secret in trust with them,
Nor basely foresake their friend because that he brought them bane! (7)

The Arabs were also fully conscious of the blessings of unity and they always exhorted their clans to stand together:

Woe be upon you that you are scattered
Whereas the others are united.
The princes of Persia rally together to attack you
They care not the defence of forts,
They are marching upon you armed to the teeth.
They wil inflict disgrace upon you,
Gird up your loins and fall upon them.
The one who can stun others finds safety
Select your chief one who is courageous and brave
Who is not indulgent and can admirably stand the
Onslaughts of hardships
One who is experienced
Who knows how to serve and be served
Strong and formidable
Mature of age, neither old nor weak.(8)

These verses describe the rudiments of Arabian virtues of courage, hardness and strength. "Arab courage is like that of the ancient Greeks, dependent upon excitement and vanishing quickly before depression and delay." (9) Hence the Arab hero is defiant and boastful, as he appears, e.g.,in the Mu'allaqa of 'Amr b. Kulthum. (10).

A study of the poetry of the pre-Islamic Arabs will reveal that the Arabs wer generally cheerful; but whenever they thought of old age, their cheerfulness at once gave place to despondency. An old poet, Harith B. Ka'b, while lamenting over his youth, sings the dirge:

I consumed my youth bit by bit and it was no more:

I wasted hundreds of months

I have seen withmy eyes the passing of three generations.

They were gone; gone for ever

Alas, I have grown old, one:

Who can neither eat to his heart's content

Nor walk easily; a victim to the helplessness,

I spend my sleepless night in counting starts, (11)

Nabighah also sings with great pathos:

The man longs to live longer,

But the long life is painful for him;

He is deprived of the cheerfulness of his countenance,

And the cup of life is filled with grief,

The age betrays him terribly

And he finds little joy in life. (12)

Generosity and hospitality were also greatly cherished in the desert and are still prominent virtues of the Arab. A large heap of ashes and bones outside the tent was a mark of high excellence in a chief, for it meant that he had entertained many guests. "The Bedouin ideal of generosity and hospitality is personified in Hatim of Tay of whom many anecdotes are told." (13)

Hatim was himself a poet. The following lines are addressed to Muawiyah, his wife:

O, daughter of 'Abdullah and Malik and him who wore
The two robes of Yemen stuff - the hero that rode the roan.
When thou has prepared two meals, entreat to partake thereof.
A guest - I am not the man to eat, like a churl, alone:
Some traveller; thro' the night, or house-neighbour for in sooth.
I fear the reproachful talk of men after I a am gone.
The guests' slave am I, 'tis true, as long as he bides with me,
Although in my nature also no trait of the slave is shown. (14)

The Arab's generosity consists in ungrudging assistance to people who seek it:

He is generous and gives unhesitatingly
And bears all the oppressions boldly. (15)

This generosity was shown not only to the human beings, but even the animals and the beasts:

I traversed many a valley on the camel-back
Valleys where even the bravest would die,
There we heard the voices of the owl
As the bells rang in the darkness of night,
There emerge before us the tops of the hills
Near our hearth there came a wolf;
I threw bone at him and I showed no niggardliness to my companion;
The wolf turned back moving its joyful head
And looked to be a brave warrior coming back
Proudly with his booty. (16)

Another aspect of the Arab's life which deserves mention is the Bedouin's deep-rooted emotional attachment to his clan. Family, or perhaps tribal pride, was one of the strongest passions with him.

"All the virtues," remarks Professor Nicholson, "which enter into the Arabian conception of honour were regarded not as personal qualities inherent or acquired, but as hereditary possessions which a man derived from his ancestors, and held in trust that he might transmit them untarnished to his descendants. It is the desire to uphold and emulate the fame of his forbears rather than the hope of winning immortality for himself, that causes the Arab 'to say the say and do the deeds of the noble.'… Anacestral renown (hasab) is sometimes likened to a starong castle built by sires for their sons, or to a lofty mountain which defies attack. The poets are full of boasting (mafakhir) and revilings (mathalib) in which they loudly proclaim the nobility of their own ancestors, and try to blacken those of their enemy without any regard to decorum." (17)

The doctrine of unity of blood as the principle that bound Arabs into a social unity was formed under a system of mother kinship, "the introduction of male-kinship was a kind of social revolution which modified society to its very roots." (18)

"Previously house and children belonged to the mothers; succession was through mothers and the husband came to wife, not the wife to the husband." (19) Whatever might have been the nature of kinship, one thing emerges clearly that kinship among the Arabs means a share in the common blood which is taken to flow in the veins of every member of a tribe, in one word, it was the tribal bond which knit men of the same group together and gave them common duties and responsibilities from which no member of the group could withdraw. This bond was a source of great pride for them.

The tribal constitution was a democracy guided by its chief men, who derived their authority from noble blood, noble character, wealth, wisdom, and experience. As a Bedouin poet has said in a homely language:

A folk that hath no chiefs must soon decay,
And chiefs it hath not when the vulgar sway.
Only with poles the tent is reared at last,
And poles it hath not save the pegs hold fast.
But when the pegs and poles are once combined,
Then stands accomplished that which was designed. (20)

The enthusiasm with which the tribes' men have been urged to stand united and elect as their leader one who is wise, sagacious and brave, can be seen from the following verses:

Nothing can be achieved without the leader,
The leadership of the ignorant is not leadership,
The maters are set aright by the consent of the wise men.
Or fall in the hands of mischief-mongers. (21)

An Arab was no doubt wedded to his tribe and was deeply attached to his leaders but was not prepared to give up his individuality and follow them blindly. Every many ruled himself, and was free to rebuke presumption in others. If you are our Lord (i.e., if you act discreetly as Sayyid should) you will lord over us, but if you are prey to pride, go and be proud (i.e., we will have nothing to do with you).

The tribal solidarity was sometimes extended to a kind of confederacy amongst the various tribes. This alliance of the tribes was "brought through either hilf (confederacy, mutual oaths) or jiwar (the formal granting of protection). For many purposes the hilf and the jar, the 'confederates' and the 'client' were treated as members of the tribe in order to maintain it in existence.

While the tribe or confederation of tribes was the highest political unit, there was also a realization of the fact that the Arabs were in some sense a unity. This unity was based on common language (though with variation of dialect), a common poetical tradition, some common conventions and ideas, and a common descent. Language was possibly the original basis of the distinction between Arabs and 'foreigners' - 'Arab' and 'Ajam'. (22)

The Arabs had a keen sense of their being distinct from the other peoples and showing their superiority to them but there is not gainsaying the fact that it was the tribal solidarity which formed the bedrock of their unity and governed the actions of the best people. One should not, however, lose sight of the fact that even this solidarity was never absolute. An Arab is an individualist to the marrow of his bone and never accepts the position of an automaton which could work ungrudgingly at the gesture of his master.

Loyalty and fidelity were also the important virtues [of the Arabs]. Ideally a man ought to be ready to spring to the aid of a fellow tribesman whenever he called for help; he should act at once without waiting to inquire into the merits of the case. (23)

If the Arab was, as we have seen, faithful to his tribe and its leader and was prepared to risk his all for the sake of its honour, 'he had in the same degree an intense and deadly feelig of hatred towards his enemies. He who did not strike back, when struck, was regarded as a coward.' (24)

Humble him who humbles thee, close tho' be your kindredship;
If thou canst not humble him, wait till he is in thy grip.
Friend him while thou must; strike hard when thou hast
Him on the hip. (25)

The obligation of revenge lay heavy on the conscience of the pagan Arabs:

Vengeance, with them, was almost a physical necessity, which if it be not obeyed, will deprive its subject of sleep, of appetite, of health. It was a tormenting thirst which nothing could quench except blook, a disease of honour which might be described as madness, although it rarely prevented the sufferer from going to work with coolness and circumspection. (26)

The were in fact obliged to exercise their arms frequently, by reason of independence of their tribes, whose frequent jarrings made wars almost continued; and they chiefly ended their disputes with the help of the sword.

"The whole law of the old Arabs really resolves itself into a law of war - blood-feud, blood-wit and booty are the points on which everything turns." (27) The true Arab feeling is expressed in verses like these:

With the sword will I wash my shame away,
Let God's doom bring on me what it may. (28)

We may sum up the Arab character by saying that the pagan Arab "is a cynical materialist with a keenly logical outlook, a strong sense of his own dignity, and a consuming avarice. His mind has no room for romance, still less for sentiment; he has very little inclination for religion and takes but slight heed of anything which cannot be measured in practical values. His sense of personal dignity cannot be measured in practical values. His sense of personal dignity is so strong that he is naturally in revolt against every form of authority. On the other hand he is loyal and obedient to the ancient traditions of his tribe; the duties of hospitality, alliance in war, of friendship, and such like, are faithfully performed on the lines of recognized precedent, he keeps punctiliously the letter of the law, that is to say, of the unwritten law of his own tribal custom, but owns no obligation outside the strict letter." (29)

The Arabs had developed no great art of their own except eloquence and perfect skill in their own tongue. "If the Greek gloried primarily in his statues and architecture, the Arabian found in his ode (qasidah) and the Hebrew in his psalm, a finer mode of self-expression. The beauty of man, declares and Arabic adage, 'lies in the eloquence of his tongue.'

"Wisdom," in a late saying, "has alighted on three things: the brains of the Franks, the hands of the Chinese and the tongue of the Arabs. Eloquence, i.e., ability to express oneself forcefully and elegantly in both prose and poetry, together with archery and horsemanship were considered in the Jahileyah period the basic attributes of the perfect man (al-Kamil). (30) Their orations were of two sorts, metrical and prosaic, the one being compared to pearls strung, and the other to loose ones.

Poetry was esteemed more than prose. It was indeed a great accomplishment with them, and a proof of ingenious extraction, to be able to express themselves in verse with ease, and elegance on any extraordinary occurrence; and even in their common discourse they made frequent applications to celebrated passages of their famous poets. In their poems were preserved the distinction of descendants, the rights of tribes, and their achievements, the memory of great actions, and the propriety of their language.


1. P. De Lacy Johnstone, Muhammad and his Power (New ¥ork 1901), pp. 35,36.

2. Ibn Qutaybah, al-Shi'r wa'al-Shu'ara', ed. Ahmad Muhammad Shakir, Cairo (1367 H). Vol. 1, p. 109.

3. Ibid., p. 114.

4. Charles James Lyall, Translations from Ancient Arabian Poetry, (Edinburgh 1885), p. 64.

5. Charles James Lyall, p. ct., p. 64.

6. A Literary History of the Arabs (Cambridge 1933), p. 79.

7. Reynold A. Nicholson, op cit, pp. 79-80. English translation of the Lamiyya by G. Hughes (London 1896), quoted in ibid., p. 80.

8. Ibn Qutaybah, op.cit., pp., 153-154.

9.Mahaffy: Social Life in Greece, quoted by Nicholson, op.cit., p. 82.

10. Nicholson, Ibid., p. 52.

11. Ibn Qutaybah, p. 52.

12. Ibid., p. 111.

13. Nicholson, op.cit., p. 85.

14. Hamasah, 729, quoted ibid, p. 87.

15. Ibn Qutaybah, p. 84.

16. Ibid., p. 164.

17. Nicholson, op. cit., p. 100.

18. W. Robertson Smith, Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia, (2nd Edition London 1903), p. 182.

19. Ibid., p. 172.

20. Nicholson, op.cit., p. 83.

21. Ibn Qutaybah, p. 145.

22. W. Montgomery Watt, Muhammad At Mecca (Oxford 1960), pp. 17-18.

23. W. Montgomery Watt, op. cit. p. 21.

24. Nicholson, op. cit., p. 92.

25. Hamasah, p. 321 quoted by Nicholson, op. cit., p. 93.

26. Nicholson, op. cit., p. 93.

27. W. Robertson Smith, Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia, p. 55.

28. Hamasah, quoted by Prof. Nicholson, op. cit., p. 93.

29. De Lacy O'Leary, Arabia Before Muhammad, pp. 20-21.

30. Philip K. Hitti, History of Arabs, pp. 90-91.

Muhammad: Social Life Of The Arabs

Arabia Before Islam: Social Life of the Arabs 

To keep up an emulation among their poets, the tribes of Arabia held once a year, a general assembly, at 'Ukaz a place between Nakhlah and Ta'if. This fair, however, revived the scenes of Rome's greatest glory in gaiety and licentiousness. Warriors of all tribes, sworn blood enemies for generations, sat in open-air cafes and taverns. Wine goblets were filled and emptied with alarming rapidity. Amidst this merrymaking the poets recited their poetical compositions, contending and vying with each other for the coveted first honour. A poet made a name for himself here or nowhere.

Drinking had in fact become a second nature with the Arabs. Wine and woman go together, and as a result of licentious drinking, fornication was very rampant. The caravans which radiated from Mecca with native merchandise to the Byzantine Empire, Syria, Persia, and India, returned therefrom with all luxurious habits and vices and imported slave girls from Syria and Iraq who afforded vast opportunities of sensual pleasures to the rich with their dancing and singing and all corruption which usually goes with them. We reproduce below some of the verses which would give an idea of the immoral life which the Arabs of pre-Islamic period were habituated to lead:

Either evening or morning will bid farewell,
To thee, so do thou resolve to what state thou wilt resort.
Verily the engagement with fondling woman from under the curtain
(having) lovely eye (with) languor in it -
who are profusely anointed with musk (1) and whom fine apparel, easy
life and silk (garments) lend charms, like the marble statues in the
niches or like the egg (ostrich) in the garden whose flowers are
blooming -
Does not become thee now and thou hast grown sober-minded and
The sign of hoariness has appeared in thy temple.
Turning white of the black (hair) is amongst the warnings of Evil (2)
And is there, after it, any warning for the living? (3)

This relish for sensual pleasures had made the Arabs profligate voluptuaries. The members of the tribe, including male and female, young and old often met together in order to enjoy drinking, dancing and gambling. Those who shunned such evil practices were considered mean, stingy and unsociable:

And when I die, marry not one who is humble, weak or who does
Not gamble, and avoids people.

This is the will left by a husband to his widow. A poet of that time describes the pleasures of these parties:

So, come, let us greet our band of drinkers aglow with wine
And wash from our hearts sour speech of wisdom with cups abrim
And cut short the ills of life with laughter and joy! (4)

The old Arab poetry has so many tales to narrate of the drinking orgies of the people of Arabia before the advent of Islam. Their parties were in fact wine-bubbling springs converted into a sort of gambling-den. The Arab found solace in wine and felt proud on drinking it:

Sometime in wine was my solace. Good wine I drank of it,
Suaging the heat of the evening paying in white money
Quaffing in goblets of saffron, pale-streaked with ivory
Hard at my hand their companion, the flask to the left of me.
Truly this bidding squandered half my inheritance;
Yet was my honour a wide word. No man had wounded it. (5)

Decency and modesty had been swept away from the society by these drinking revelries, so common and so frequent, and by the absence of any social discipline; the heathen Arabs had little regard for the sanctity of matrimonial relations. They took pride in flouting them and describing publicly their adulterous adventures. Imra al-Qays, for instance, brazenly states:

Many a fair one like thee, though not like thee virgin,
Have I visited by night,
And many a lovely mother have I diverted from the care of her
Yearning in fact adorned with amulets,
When the suckling behind her cried
She turned round to him with half her body,
But half of it, pressed beneath my embrace, was not turned from me. (6)

There was in fact no notion of conjugal fidelity among most of the Arab tribes. "In old Arabia, the husband was so indifferent to his wife's fidelity, that he might send her to cohabit with another man to get himself a goodly seed. (7) There was no stain of illegitimacy attached to the child of a harlot.

The custom of polyandry, i.e., a custom of marriage under which a woman receives more than one man as her husband was very common in Arabia. The oldest and most direct evidence is that of Strabo which throws a good deal of light on the family life of the pagan Arabs: (8)

Brothers have precedence over children, the kinship also and other offices of authority are filled by members of the stock in order of seniority. All the kindred have their property in common, the eldest being lord; all have one wife and it is first come first served, the man who enters to her leaving at the door the stick which it is usual for everyone to carry; but the night she spends with the eldest. Hence all are brothers of all (within the stock) they have also conjugal intercourse with mothers; and adulterer is punished with death; and adulterer means a man of another stock. (9)

Under such conditions when a woman is considered to be the property of the whole tribe and she has no right to withhold her favours from any of the kinsfolk, "the idea of unchastity could not exist; their children were all full tribesmen, because the mother was a tribeswoman, and there was no distinction between legitimate and illegitimate offspring in our sense of the word."  (10) Individual fatherhood is a comparatively modern notion which is fully defined and enunciated by Islam. The pagan Arabs "were in fact reckoned to the stock of their mother's lords before they were one man's children." (11)

Social life in Arabia is paradoxical and presents a gloomy picture of striking contrast. The Arabs, on the one hand, were generous and hospitable even to the point of fault, and took pride in entertaining liberally not only human beings, but also animals and beasts. On the other hand, the impending fear of poverty weighed so heavily upon them that they buried their female children alive, lest they should be impoverished by providing for them. In the same way, they had, on the one hand, little or no regard for chastity and would proudly narrate obscene accounts of their immoral exploits. On the other hand there had sprung up in them an utterly false sense of honour that impelled them to the practice of female infanticide, the underlying idea being that womenfolk, particularly daughters, were objects of disgrace.

The famous commentator Zamakhshari in his note on Sura Al-Takwir, verse 8, gives an account of how female infants were buried alive in the graves:

When the girl attained the age of six, the husband said to the wife: 'perfume her and embellish her with ornaments.' He would then carry the female babe to the relatives of his wife and set forth to the wilderness. There a pit was dug. The child was made to stand by it. The father said, 'Fix your eyes on it' and then pushed her from behind so that she fell in the pit where the unfortunate soul wept bitterly in a state of utter helplessness. The ditch was covered with clay and then levelled to the ground. (12)

It was said proverbially, "The despatch of a daughter is a kindness," and "the burial of the daughters is a noble deed." (13) Perhaps the most touching lines in Arabian poetry are those in which a father, oppressed by the thoughts of poverty and disgrace, wishes that his daughter may die before his very eyes and thus spared the pangs of hunger and indignation:

But for Umayma's sake I ne'er had grieved to want nor braved
Night's blackest horror to bring home the morsel that she carved,
Nor my desire is length of days because I know too well
The orphan girl's hard lot, with kin unkind enforced to dwell,
I dread that some day poverty will overtake my child,
And shame befall her when exposed to every passion wild,
She wishes me to live, but I must wish her dead, woe, me;
Death is the noblest wooer a helpless maid can see,
I fear an uncle may be harsh, a brother be unkind
When I would never speak a word that rankled in her mind. (14)

As to the extent to which child murder was practised as late as the time of the Prophet, we have some evidence in the fact that Sa'sa'a claimed to have saved a hundred and eight daughters. (15)

It is recorded that when Muhammad (peace be upon him) conquered Mecca and received the homage of the women in the most advanced centre of Arabian civilization, he still deemed it necessary formally to demand from them a promise not to commit child murder. (16)

It was due to the teachings of Islam that this custom of female infanticide, so prevalent amongst the Arabs and so many other nations of the world, came to an end. Mark with what force the Qur'an condemns this inhuman practice:

Surely lost are they who slay their offspring foolishly and without knowledge and have forbidden that which Allah had provided for them; a fabrication against Allah. Surely they have strayed and have not become guided ones. (6:141)

And slay not your offspring for fear of want. We it is Who provide for you and them. (6:152)

And slay not your offspring for fear of want. We provide for them and for yourselves. Verily their slaying is a great crime. (17:33)

And when the girl buried alive shall be asked for what sin she was slain. (81:8)

The weaker sex was in fact an unwelcome figure for the Arabs. The news of the birth of a daughter was received with a terrible shock in the family and the whole clan was rocked with anger. The Holy Qur'an has in its own eloquent style drawn a vivid picture of this sad event:

They attribute daughters unto God - far be it from Him! And for themselves they desire them not. When a female child is announced to one of them, his face darkens wrathfully with shame; he hides himself from his people, because of the bad news he has had! Shall he retain it on (sufferance and contempt) or bury it in the dust? And what an evil (choice) they decided on. (16:59-61)

Not only were the female infants buried alive, but those who were spared led a life of unspeakable misery and wretchedness. They were a sort of marketable commodity which could be sold in the open market to the highest bidder. At the time they were transferred to the custody of the husband their position was still worsened. Marriage for them was a kind of bondage and the marital rights of the husband were a kind of overlordship, and he was free to treat and dispose of his property as he liked. There is a very instructive passage as to the position of married women, which commences by quoting two lines spoken by a woman of the Banu Amir ibn Sa'sa'a married among the Tay:

Never let sister praise brothers of hers; never let daughter
Bewail a father's death,
For they have brought her where she is no longer a free woman
And they have banished her to the farthest ends of the earth.

The contract of marriage entitled the husband to a certain property right which was absolutely his to enjoy, or to transfer at his will. Indeed this right could even be inherited by his heir. It is recorded that in pagan Arabia, widows were inherited by the heirs of the deceased as goods and chattels. It was generally the eldest son who had the strongest claim to lay upon them. But in the cases, where there were no sons, the widows were passed on to the brother of the deceased or to his nephews. (17) Sometime a sheet of cloth was cast on them in order to secure their property rights.(18) The heirs in such cases either took them as their own wives or married them to the other people by getting a good price for them or kept them in confinement unless they redeemed themselves by paying off handsomely. It is this evil practice which has been condemned in the Holy Qur'an in the following verse:

O ye who believe. It is not allowed unto you that ye may heir the woman forcibly. (19) (iv: 19)

Females were allowed no share in the inheritance of their husbands, parents and other relatives. "So far as the widow of the deceased is concerned, this is almost self-evident; she could not inherit because she was herself not indeed absolutely, but qua wife, part of her husband's estate, whose freedom and hand were at the disposal of the heirs.

There was no check on the number of wives that a man could take. One could marry as many women as he liked and dismiss them according to his own sweet will. No restriction was imposed upon man's lust. The pregnant woman was turned out of her husband's house without any claim and was taken by others under agreement with her former husband.


1. It was apparently considered a sign of luxury that ointments were applied in excess.

2. viz., death

3. Abi B. Zaid al-Ibadi (480 A.D.), Early Arabic Odes by Dr. S.M. Husain (Dacca) 1938, pp. 172-73.

4. Charles James Lyall, op. cit., p. 72.

5. The Seven Golden Odes of Pagan Arabia, translated by Anne Blunt (London MDCCIII).

6. Diwan Imr- al-Qays edited by Muhammad Abul Fazl Ibrahim, (Cairo, 1958), p. 12.

7. W. Robertson Smith, op. cit., p. 116.

8. Ibid., p. 128.

9. Quoted by W. Robertson Smith, op. cit., p. 133.

10. Ibid., pp. 139-40.

11. W. Robertson Smith, op. cit., p. 147.

12. Al-Kashshaf, Ed., Mustafa Hussain Ahmad, Cairo, iv. p. 708.

13. Freytag, Arabum Proverbia. Vol. 1 p. 229, quoted by Prof. Nicholson, in his A Literary History of the Arabs, p. 91

14. Hamasah, p. 150: Prof. Nicholson writes: Although these verses are not pre-Islamic and belong in fact to a comparatively later period of Islam, they are sufficiently pagan in feeling to be cited in this connection (p. 92.).

15. W. Roberston Smith, op. cit., p. 282.

16. Ibn al-Athir (Bulaq ed.), II p. 105.

17. Quoted by Ibn Jarir Tabari in his famous Tafseer on the authority of Muhammad b. 'Ammar, edited by Muhammad Shakir and Ahmad Shakir, Cairo, Vol. viii, P. 107.

18. Ibid, p. 107.

19. "Forcibly" is a mere statement of fact, not a condition precedent. The parctice of taking widows in heritage was actually carried on against their will. There is no suggestion here that the would become any more the lawful, if the widows submitted to it willingly. (A Commentary of the Holy Qur'an [English] by Maulana 'Abdul Majid Daryabadi, Vol. I p. 152).

Muhammad: Economic Life

Arabia Before Islam: Economic Life

On examining closely the literature of Sirah and Hadith one can form a clear idea of the economic life of pre-Islamic Arabia. It should, however, be borne in mind that while it is convenient to speak of "Arabia", we are mainly concerned only with one region of it - the areas surrounding Mecca and Medina, Hijaz in the wider sense and the adjoining steppe-land of Najd.

The nomads who formed an overwhelming majority of Arab population depended upon stock-breeding, especially the breeding of the camel for their sustenance. Agriculture was practised in the oasis and certain favoured spots high up in the mountains. "The chief crop at the oasis was date, while in the mountains, as at al-Ta'if cereals were important. Yathrib (later known as Medina) was a large and flourishing oasis in the time of Muhammad (peace be upon him). There were several Jewish agricultural colonies such as Khaybar. At Mecca, on the other hand, no agriculture at all was possible. The Yemen or Arabia Felix, was a fertile agricultural country where artificial irrigation had been practised from early times." (1)

Mecca, Muhammad's home for half a century, as we have observed earlier was not fit for agriculture: "The town that had grown up around the well of Zamzam and the sanctuary of Ka'bah, was advantageously placed "at the extreme ends of the Asia of the whites and the Africa of the blacks, near a breach in the chain of the Sana, close to a junction of roads leading from Babylonia and Syria to the plateaus of theYemen, to the shores of the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. (2)

To Mecca, therefore, the nomad came for the goods brought from the four points of the compass by caravans. Originally the Meccans themselves were probably only middlemen and retailers and not the importers and entrepreneurs who organised caravans. But by the end of the sixth century A.D. they had gained control of most of the trade from Yemen to Syria - an important route by which the West got Indian luxury goods as well as South Arabian frankincense. (3)

Various charges were levied upon the traders who passed through the route of Mecca; for example, tithes were paid for entering the city, a special tax for securing permits to stay there, and a departure tax while leaving the town. In short, foreign merchants were entangled in a very intricate fiscal system, whether they settled in Mecca, or only passed through it, especially those who did not obtain the jiwar or guarantee of a local clan or notability. (4)

Mecca may rightly be called a merchant republic. The financial operations of considerable complexity were carried on in the city. The nobility of Mecca in Muhammad's time besides the religious heads, and Sheikhs of clans, comprised of "financiers, skilful in the manipulation of credit, shrewd in their speculations, and interested in any potentialities of lucrative investment from Aden to Gaza or Damascus. In the financial net that they had woven not merely were all of the inhabitants of Mecca caught, but many notables of the surrounding tribes also. The Quran appeared not in the atmosphere of the desert, but in that of high finance.(5)

The women shared these commercial instincts: Abu Jahl's mother ran a perfumery business. The activities of tadjjra Khadijah are well-known. Hinda the wife of Abu Sufyan, sold her merchandise among the Kalbis of Syria. (6)

Riba in all its ugliness formed the backbone of the pre-Islamic financial and economic system. The usual method adopted for lending and then of its repayment was highly exploitative. The money-lenders lent money to the people on heavy rates of interest, and when the money borrowed was not paid at the stipulated time, it was doubled and then trebled at the expiry of the third year. This is how it was enhanced with the passage of time.(7)

In case when the debtor failed to pay loans along with the amounts of interest the creditor sometimes took possession of the borrower's wife and children.

Speculation too was rampant, on the rates of exchange, the load of a caravan which one tried to buy up, the yield of the harvests and of the flocks and lastly the provisioning of the town,. Fictitious associations were formed and sales were made on which loans were borrowed.(8)

The other important town, which was commercially the rival of Mecca is known as Ta'if, the capital of an important tribe Thaqif. It had an advantage over Mecca, that, along with its business activities, it had fertile lands. "The surrounding valleys supplied its export trade with ample materials, particularly easy to market in a region so unfavoured by nature as the Hijaz; wine, wheat and wood. Its bracing climate, its fruits, its grapes, the famous Zahib suggested this city to belong to Syria rather than to the bare landscapes of western Arabia.

"Ta'if was also an industrial town and leather was manufactured in its tanneries, which were so numerous, as we are told, as to render the air around foul. At the entrance and exit to the sea of the sands, Ta'if offered the ships of the desert provisions in the varied produce of the soil and loads in the products of its industry.

"There was a kind of entente cordiale between Mecca and Ta'if, an entente cemented by matrimonial alliances between Quraysh and Ahlaf. Many Meccans lived in Ta'if and has estates there. (9)

The way in which Median is favoured by nature forms a striking contrast to Mecca. Its noteworthy feature is richness in water unusual in Arabia. The soil is of salty sand, lime and loamy clay and is everywhere fertile, particularly in the South. It was, therefore, called the city of farmers. The people of Medina were highly skilled cultivators and efficient in the methods of transplantation. There is a tradition in the Sahih of al-Bukhari, narrated on the authority of Abu Huraira, which sheds a good deal of light on the occupations of the people of Mecca and Medina during the time of the Holy Prophet. He observes: "My brethren muhajirin (after their migration to Medina) were occupied in buying and selling goods in the market, whereas my brethren Ansar remained busy in cultivation and gardening." (10). The Jews of Medina were, however, interested in trade and industry besides cultivation.


1. W. Montgomery Watt, Muhammad at Mecca, p. 2.

2. Encyclopeaedia of Islam, Vol. III, Article 'Mecca' (1936).

3. W. Montgomery Watt, op. cit., p. 3.

4. Encyclopeaedia of Islam, Vol. III, Article 'Mecca' (1936).

5. W. Montgomery Watt, op. cit., p. 4.

6. Encyclopeaedia of Islam, Vol. III, Article 'Mecca'.

7. Tafsir Tabari, Vol. IV, p. 55, in connection with Sura 3: A'yat 130.

8. Encyclopeaedia of Islam, Vol. III, Article 'Mecca'.

9. Encyclopeaedia of Islam, Article, 'Ta'if'.

10. Bukhari, Kitab al-Muzara'

Muhammad: Religion Of The Pre-Islamic Arabs

Arabia Before Islam: Religion of the Pre-Islamic Arabs

No history of pre-Islamic Arabia would be complete without an account of the religion of the Arabs. Unfortunately the material which we possess does not enable us to form a complete and vivid picture of the religion of the ancient Arabs. Whatever we know about it comes to us through isolated statements of Greek writers and from Greek or Semitic inscriptions, poetical compilations of the old poets, the few anecdotes and traditions embedded in the later Islamic literature. Some information may also be gathered from polemical allusions in the Qur'an. Much credit goes to a few early Muslim scholars who laboriously collected and handed down to posterity, in a systematic form, information on heathen mythology and ritual. Among these scholars a specially prominent place must be assigned to Hisham al-Kalbi, usually known as Ibn al-Kalbi (819-920 C.E.), the author of Kitab al-Asnam (The Book of Idols).

Judged by the scanty evidence available, it suffices to show that Muhammad's (may the peace of Allah be upon him) contemporaries and the generations immediately preceding them, had little of any religion.

To spiritual impulses he (the pagan Arab) was lukewarm, even indifferent. His conformity to religious practice followed tribal inertia and was dictated by his conservative respect for tradition. Nowhere do we find an illustration of genuine devotion to a heathen deity. A story told about Imru 'al-Qays illustrates this point. Having set out to avenge the murder of his father he stopped at the temple of dhual-Khalasah to consult the oracle by means of drawing arrows. Upon drawing 'abandon' thrice, he hurled the broken arrows at the idol exclaiming, "Accursed One! Had it been thy father who was murdered thou wouldst not have forbidden my avenging him." (1)

The Arabs were undoubtedly indifferent towards religion, but that should not lead any one to conclude that they had no notion of religion whatsoever. They had had an idea of an All-Supreme power controlling the Universe, His Wrath and Favour, the life after death and the angels. But all these ideas had been adulterated with idolatry - that yearning of the baser self in a man for a visible object of devotion, something that the eye can see and the hands can touch, which finally develops into the worship of the creature more than that of the Creator. That the Arabs had a concept of an All-Powerful Lord can be illustrated from so many verses. Nabigha, for instance, says:

I took an oath and left no margin of doubt for who else can support man, besides Allah. (2)

Zahir b. Abi. Salma in his well-known couplet affirms his faith in the day of judgement:

The deeds are recorded in the scroll to be presented on
The day of judgement;
Vengeance can be taken in this world too; (3)

The Holy Qur'an eloquently testifies the fact that the unbelievers and polytheists of Arabia did not deny the existence of a Supreme Power, nor did they deny the fact that Allah is the Sole Creator of the heavens and the earth; or that the whole mechanism of nature is operated in accordance with His Command, that He pours down the rain, drives the winds, controls the sun, the moon, the earth and everything else. Says the Qur'an:

And if you ask them, Who created the heavens and the earth and constrained the sun and the moon (to their appointed task) they would say: Allah. How, then, are they turned away? (29:61)

And if thou were to ask them, Who causeth water to come down from the sky, and wherewith reviveth the earth after its death? they would verily say: Allah. (29:63)

And if you ask them Who created them they will surely say: Allah. How then are they turned away? (43:87)

And if you should ask them, Who created the heavens and the earth? they would most certainly say: The Mighty, the Knowing One has created them. (43:9)

These verses make it abundantly clear that the Arabs of pre-Islamic period believed in the existence of one Great Deity, but at the same time they entertained the notion that the All-Powerful Lord delegated His powers to some of His sacred personalities and objects - both animate and inanimate - who serve as the media through which the worshipper could come in contact with Him and thus earn His pleasure. It was under this misconception that they worshipped the idols of saintly persons, heavenly bodies and stones which were sometimes regarded not as divinities, but as the incarnations of Divine Being.

We have seen earlier that the Arabs had deep-rooted love for the tribe to which they belonged. This belief in the greatness and excellence of their tribe led them to carve a deity of their own and they sang hymns in its praise in order to win its favour. The tribe called Kalb worshipped Wadd, the Hudhayl worshipped Suwa. The tribe of Madh'hij as well as the people of Quraysh worshipped Yaghuth, the Khaywan worshipped Ya'uq. The last-named idol was placed in their village called Khaywan at a distance of two nights' journey towards Mecca. Similarly the tribe of Himyar adopted Nasr as their god and worshipped it in a place called Balkha. The Himyar had also another temple (bayt) in San'a. It was called Ri'am, the people venerated it and offered sacrifices to it. (4)

The most ancient of all these idols was Manah. The Arabs named their children after them as 'Abd Manah and Zayd Manah. Manah was erected on the seashore in the vicinity of Mushallal in Qudayd, between Medina and Mecca. All the Arabs used to venerate her and offer sacrifices to her. The Aus and the Khazraj were her most faithful devotees. (5)

Another goddess which was ardently worshipped by the Arabs was known as al-Lat. "She was a cubic rock beside which a certain Jew used to prepare his barley porridge (Sawiq). Her custody was in the hands of Banu Attab Ibn Malik of the Thaqif who had raised an edifice over her. She was venerated by the Quraysh and almost all the tribes of Arabia and they named their children after her, e.g., Zayd al-Lat and Taym al_Lat. The Arabs worshipped her till the tribe of Thaqif embraced Islam. It was on this occasion that Muhammad (may the peace of Allah be upon him) sent al-Mughirah ibn Shu'bah to destroy this idol. It is recorded that when al-Lat was demolished, Shaddad ibn 'Arid-al-Jushmai gave in verse a grim note of warning to the tribe of Thaqif:

Come not for help to al-Lat, Allah has doomed her to destruction.
How can you be helped by one who is not victorious,
Verily, that which, when set on fire, resisted not the flames.
Nor saved her stones, inglorious and worthless.
Hence when the Prophet will arrive in your place,
Not one of her devotees shall be left at the time of his departures. (6)

Still another goddess who was venerated by the Arabs is known as al-Uzza. She was introduced to the people by a person known as Zalim ibn As'ad. Her idol was erected in a valley in Nakhlat al-Shamiya called Hurad alongside al-Ghumyayr to the right of the road from Mecca to Iraq about Dhat-Iraq and nine miles from al_bustan. A grand superstructure was raised around it where the people would sit and receive oracular communication. It was a common practice with the Arabs to name their children after this goddess. The Quraysh were sent to circumambulate the Ka'bah and sing hymns for these goddesses whom they called 'the daughters of Allah': (7)

By al-Lat and al-Uzza, and Manah,
The third idols beside, verily they are the most exalted females.
Whose intercession is to be sought after.

The Holy Qur'an has vehemently repudiated such foolish ideas and said in unequivocal terms:

Have ye seen Lat and Uzza and another? The third (goddess) Manah? What? For you the male sex and for Him, the female? Behold, such would be indeed a division most unfair. 

These are nothing but names which ye have devised, ye and your fathers - for which God had sent down no authority (whatever). They followed nothing but fancy and what their own souls desire. Even though there has already come to them guidance from the Lord. (53: 19-23).

The Quraysh also had several idols in and around the Ka'bah. The greatest of these was Hubal. It was carved out of red agate, in the form of a man with the right hand broken off. It stood inside the Ka'bah. Beside him stood ritual arrows used for divination by the soothsayer (Kahin) who drew lots. On one of these arrows the word Sarih was inscribed and on the other was written the word Mulsaq, which means 'consociated alien'. Whenever the legitimacy of a new-born babe was questioned the Arabs would shuffle the arrows and then throw them. If the arrow shoed the word pure, it was finally decided that the child was legitimate. If, unfortunately, the arrow bearing the word 'Mulsaq' was drawn, the child was condemned as illegitimate. There were also some other arrows which could help the Arabs in the divination concerning marriage, death or the success or failure of the intending journey. (8)

The idol of Hubal was widely venerated by the Arabs, especially by the people of Mecca. It was the same idol which Abu Sufyan ibn Harb addressed when he emerged victorious after the battle of Uhud saying: "Hubal! be though exalted (i.e. may thy religion triumph)." At this the Prophet replied: "Allah is more Exalted, and more Majestic." (9)

Among other idols Usaf and Na'ilah are well-known. One of them stood close to the Ka'bah, while the other was placed by the side of the Zamzam. Later, both of them were set together near the sacred fountain and the Arabs offered sacrifices to both of them. Ibn al-Kalbi writes:

The Arabs were passionately devoted to the idols and worshipped them with fervour. Some of them erected a temple around which they centered their worship, whereas the others adopted venerated idols. A person who was devoid of means to build the temple for himself or carve an idol to worship it, would fix a stone in front of the sacred House or any other temple according to his desire and then circumambulate it in the same manner in which he would circumambulate around the Ka'bah. (10)

They were so deeply attached to them that when any one amongst them intended to go on a journey, his last act before saying goodbye to the house, would be to touch the idol in the hope of an auspicious journey, and when he returned home the first act that he would perform was to touch it again with reverence in gratitude for a propitious return. (11)

The Arabs called these stones to which they shoed veneration as ansab. Whenever these stones resembled a living form they called them idols (Asnam) and graven images (awthan). The act of circumambulating them was called circumrotation (dawr). (12)

The Arabs were, however, fully conscious of excellence and superiority of Ka'bah to which they turned their steps for pilgrimage and visitation. The worship of the stones during their travels meant to perpetuate the religious ceremonies which they had performed at Ka'bah because of their immense devotion to it.

This practice originated in the custom of men carrying a stone from the sacred enclosures of Mecca when they set out on a journey, out of reverence for the Ka'bah and withersoever they went they set it up and made circumambulations round about it as is made around the Ka'bah till at the last they adored every goodly stone they saw, forgot their religion, and substituted the faith of Ibrahim and Isma'il with the worship of the images and the idols.

It will not be out of place to mention briefly some of the practices at the Ka'bah. Amongst these practices, it is interesting to note that some came down from the time of Ibrahim and Isma'il such as the veneration of the House and its circumambulation, the pilgrimage, the vigil (al-Wukuf) on 'Arafah and al-Muzdalifah, sacrificing she-camels and raising the voice in the acclamation of the name of the Lord (tahlil) but the Meccans had polluted all sacred performances with idolatrous practices, for example, whenever they raised their voices in tahlil (13) they would declare their implicit faith in the unity of the Lord through the talbiyah, but it was not unity pure and simple. It was alloyed with the association of their gods with Him. Thus their talbiyah was expressed in these words:

Here we are, O Lord! Here we are! There is no associate for Thee except one who is thine. Thou has full supremacy over him and over everything that he possesses. (14)

The Arabs, both men and women, circumambulated the Ka'bah in a state of nudity with their hands - clapping, shouting and singing (15) and it was thought to be an act of highest piety. The argument which they advanced to justify such an indecent act was that it was unfair on their part to perform this sacred ceremony in those very clothes in which they had committed sins. They vehemently stressed this point by saying: "We will not circumambulate with the dress in which we perpetrated crimes. We will not worship Allah in the attire in which we committed heinous acts. We will not circumambulate in attire in which we disobeyed our Lord.(16)

The history of pre-Islamic Arabia brings into light the fact that the Arabs, besides the worship of idols, worshipped the heavenly bodies, trees and dead heroes of their tribes. "The Sun (Shams) construed as feminine, was honoured by the several Arabian tribes with a sanctuary and an idol. The name 'Abd Shams is found in many parts of the country. In the North we meet with the name Amr-I-Shams, "man of the Sun". For the worship of the raising sun, we have the evidence of Abd-al-Sharq "servant of the Raising one." (17) The heavenly bodies, especially worshipped were Canopus (Suhail), Sirius (al-Sh'ira), Aldebaran in Taurus with the planets Mercury (Utarid), Venus (al-Zuhra) Jupiter (al-Mushtri) and Sale states that the temple at Mecca was said to have been consecrated to Saturn (Zuhal). (18)

The Arabs' devotion to the Sun, Moon and other heavenly bodies is unquestionable; but it is wrong to infer from this that the religion of the Arabs or even of the Semites entirely rested upon the worship of the heavenly bodies. This theory is not supported by facts. The Arabs had so many deities which cannot be explained as astral powers. (19) There were not a few deities which were supposed to possess animal forms, e.g., Ya'uq represented by a horse and Nasr thought to have the figure of a vulture (Nasr). Yauq is said to have been god of the Hamdan or of the Morad or of both tribes. (20) "Nasr, the vulture-god is said to have been an idol of Himyarites." (21)

Some of the Arabian deities seem to be personifications of abstract ideas, but they appear to have been conceived in a thoroughly concrete fashion. In particular, it is to be noticed that the Arabs, form a very early period, believed in the existence of certain supernatural powers which shaped their destiny. Thus, for instance time in the abstract form was popularly imagined to be the cause of all earthly misery. The Holy Qur'an also refers to this wrong belief of the Meccans:

"And they say: what is there but life in this world? We shall die and we live, and nothing but time can destroy us. But of that they have no knowledge. They merely conjecture." (45:24)

The Arab poets had also been alluding to the action of Time (dahr, Zaman) which brings sorrows and adversities. Then there is a fate which determines course of life and irresistibly drives them to their destined ends. No one can change the pattern wrought by fate and no action, howsoever concentrated, can alter that which is unalterable. There is, however, one other expression, Maniyah, which often appears in poetry and throws a good deal of light on the fatalist views of the Arabs. The Meccans believed that he universe had been created by the Lord, but after bringing it into existence He had retired to the position of a silent spectator and now it was the driving force of time and fate which was moving it to its destined end and bringing into being new events and episodes of life. (22)

In addition to these deities the pagan Arabs looked upon their priests with the same reverence as they had for their gods. In this class figured high the care-takers of temples and other sanctuaries. The priest or temple-guard (the Arabic word is Sadin), was, like the Nordic Code, a venerable man who was regarded as the owner of the sacred precinct. As a rule this privilege of ownership and direction belonged to a clan whose chief was the actual priest, but any member of the tribe could carry out the priestly functions, which, in addition to the guarding of the sacred grove, building of the idols, and the treasury where the votine gifts were stored, consisted of the practice of casting lots to determine the will of God, or to obtain His advice concerning important undertakings. The Priest also served as an intermediary between the mortal and his Master.

Besides priesthood, there was a certain guild of seers whose members received their esoteric knowledge from spirit. Kahins, as they were called, were supposed to possess the power of foretelling the coming events and of performing other superhuman feats. Any one who was eager to known what the future had in store for him would go in their presence with presents of food and animals. Sacrifices were offered at their feet and Kahin would then lend his ear to a mysterious "voice from the heaven" known as the "oracle" and communicate it to the person concerned. (23)

The pagan Arabs included the poet also in the category of those mysterious beings who are endowed with supernatural knowledge, "a wizard in league with spirits (Jinn) or satans (Shayatin) and dependent on them the magical powers which he displayed…the pagan Sha'ir is the oracle of his tribe, their guide in peace and their champion in war. It was to him they turned for counsel when they sought new pastures; only at his word would they pitch or strike their 'house of hair'. (24)

Not only the idols, the stars and the saints, were worshipped in Arabia, but the demons and jinn also were venerated in every section of their society. "These jinn differed from the gods not so much in their natures as in their relation to man. The gods are, on the whole friendly; the jinn, hostile. The latter are, of course, personifications of the fantastic notions of the terrors of the desert and its wild animal life. To the gods belong the regions frequented by man, to the jinn belong the unknown and untrodden parts of the wilderness." (25)

The Arabs also adored the graves of their forefathers and sought assistance from the departed souls in the hour of distress. They believed that the souls of the dead person had the power to incarnate itself in different bodies, both human and non-human.

The belief in signs as betokening future events, was, of course, found no less among the Arabs than among other peoples. Some birds were regarded as auspicious, other as ominous. The animals that crossed a man's path and the direction in which they moved alike conveyed a meaning. Many of these signs were such as every one could understand; others were intelligible only to persons especially trained. One peculiar art consisted in scaring birds and drawing omens from their flight; this operation was known as Zajr. (26)

The pages of history reveal the fact that fire was also worshipped in Arabia as a symbol of divine power. This practice seems to have penetrated in the Arab lands from their neighboring country Persia, where it had been rooted deeply. The Magian religion was popular particularly with the tribe of Tamim.

The Jews who fled in great numbers into Arabia from the fearful destruction of their country by the Romans made proselytes of several tribes, those of Kinanah, al Harith Ibn Ka'bah, and Kindah in particular, and in time became very powerful, and possessed of several towns and fortresses. "But the Jewish religion was not unknown to the Arabs at least about a century before. Abu Qarib Asad who was the king of Yemen introduced Judaism among the idolatrous Himyarites."(27)

Christianity had likewise made a little progress amongst the Arabs before the advent of Muhammad (may the peace of Allah be upon him). How this religion was actually introduced into this land is uncertain, but the persecutions and disorders which took place in the Eastern Church soon after the beginning of the third century, obliged great number of Christians to seek shelter in that country of liberty. "The principal tribes that embraced Christianity were Himyar, Ghassan, Rabi'a, Tagh'ab, Bahra, Tunukh, part of the Tay and Khud'a, the inhabitants of Najran, and the Arabs of Hira. As to the two last, it may be observed that those of Najran became Christian in the time of Dhu Nuwas" (28)

Christianity as a religion could not, however, succeed in making a permanent hold in Arabia and could not supersede idolatry. The Christian anchorites, dwelling in their solitary cells in the country aided in gaining scattered converts amongst the Arabs. This failure of the Christian monks in spreading the Gospel among the people of Arabia may be attributed to the fact that by the time of its penetration into Arabia, it had ceased to be a living force. It was a mere hotchpotch of dogmas and transcendental hopes having no relationship with the practical life. Its promoters, the clergymen, had degenerated themselves into a class of selfseekers:

The clergy by drawing the abstrusest niceties into controversy, and dividing and subdividing about them into endless schisms and contentions, they had so destroyed that peace, love and charity from among them which the Gospel was given to promote, and instead thereof continually provoked each other to that malice, rancour, and every evil work, that they had lost the whole substance of their religion, while they thus eagerly contended for their own imaginations concerning it, and in a manner quite drove Christianity out of the world by those very controversies in which they disputed with each other about it. In those dark ages it was that most of those superstitions and corruptions we now just abhor in the Church of Rome were not only broached but established, which gave great advantages to the propagation of Muhammadanism. The worship of the saints and images, in particular, was then arrived at such a scandalous pitch that it even surpassed whatever is now practised amongst the Romanists. (29)

Such were the real religious conditions of the Arabs before Muhammad (may the peace of Allah be upon him). "Causes are sometimes conjured up", observes Muir, "to account for results produced by an agent apparently inadequate to effect them. Muhammad arose, and forthwith the Arabs were aroused to a new and a spiritual faith; hence the conclusion that Arabia was fermenting of the change and prepared to adopt it. To us, calmly reviewing the past, pre-Islamic history belies the assumption. After five centuries of Christian evangelisation, we can point to but a sprinkling here and there of Christian converts, the Bani Harith of Nairan; the Bani Hanifa of Yemena; some of the Bani Tay at Tayma; and hardly any more. Judaism, vastly more powerful, had exhibited spasmodic efforts at proselytism; but, as an active and converting agent, the Jewish faith was no longer operative. In fact, viewed in a religious aspect, the surface of Arabia had been now and then gently rippled by the feeble efforts of Christianity, the sterner influences of Judaism had been occasionally visible in a deeper and more troubled current; but the tide of indigenous idolatry and Ishmaelite superstition setting strongly from every quarter towards the Ka'bah gave ample evidence that the faith and worship of Mecca held the Arab mind in a rigorous and undisputed thraldom." (30)


1. Phillip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs (London, 1951), p. 96

2. Ibn Qutayba, al-Sh'r-wa'asl-Shu'ara, p. 110.

3. Ibid., p. 88

4. Hisham Ibn Al-Kalbi, Kitab al-Asnam, edited by Ahmad Zaki Pasha. (Cairo, 1927), pp. 9-14.

5. Ibid., p. 14.

6. Hisham Ibn Al-Kalbi, op. cit., p. 17.

7. Ibid, pp. 26-28.

8. Hisham Al-Ibn Kalbi, op. cit., p. 28.

9. Ibid.

10. Hisham Ibn Al-Kalbi, op. cit., p. 33.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid., p. 33

13. The formula of the tahlil is - La-ilaha illa-Allah (There is no god but Allah).

14. Ibn Kathir, al-Bidaya, wa'al-Nihaya (Cairo, 1932), Vol. II, 188.

15. This seems to be implied in the Qur'anic reference to the pagan Meccan: Their prayers at the House are nothing else than whistling through the fingers, and clapping of hands." (8:35).

16. Dr. Jawad Ali: Tarikh al-Arab Qabl al-Islam, Matba'al-Ilm al-Iraqi (1955), Vol. V, p. 225.

17. Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, Article "Ancient Arab", Vol. 1, p. 661.

18. J.W.H. Stobbart, Islam and its Founder, p. 32.

19. Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, Article "Ancient Arab"

20. W. Robertson Smith: Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia, p. 208.

21. Ibid, p. 209.

22. Sayyid Mahmud Shakir al-Alusi: Bulugh al-Irb-fi Ahwal al 'Arab (Cairo), Vol. II, pp. 220-21.

23. Dr. Jawad Ali: Tarikh al-Arab, Vol. V, p.177.

24. Nicholson: A Literary History of the Arabs, pp. 72-73.

25. Hitti, History of the Arabs, p. 98.

26. Jawad Ali: Tarikh al-Arab, Vol. V, p.40.

27. Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, Vol. I, p. 667 "Arabs, Ancient", (N.Y., 1908).

28. E.M. Wherry, A Commentary of the Qur'an, (London, 1882).

29. E.M. Wherry, A Commentary of the Qur'an, (London, 1882), Vol. I, pp. 61-62.

30. William Muir, Life of Muhammad p. lxxxv.