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
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).