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Arabia before Islam

By: Ayatullah Ja'far Subhani
To know the conditions prevailing in Arabia before the advent of Islam we can avail ourselves of the following sources: The Old Testament (notwithstanding all the alterations that have been made in it), Writings of the Greeks and the Romans during the Middle Ages.
Islamic history as recorded by Muslim scholars, and Ancient relics, which have been obtained through excavations conducted by the orientalists, which reveal facts to some extent.
Notwithstanding the above-mentioned sources, numerous matters relating to the history of Arabia have not yet become fully clear and continue to remain an insoluble enigma. However, as the study of the conditions of Arabia before the advent of Islam constitutes a preamble to our discourse; but our real aim is the analysis of the life of the Holy Prophet of Islam, therefore we give below a condensed account of some particular and well known aspects of the life of pre-lslamic Arabs.
It is an admitted fact that since times immemorial the Arabian Peninsula has been inhabited by many tribes, some of which have become extinct in the course of time. However, in the history of this land, the following three tribes, which were later sub-divided into different clans, have attained greater fame than others:
1. The Ba'idah: Ba'idah means extinct and these people are so named, because, owing to their continuous disobedience, they were obliterated from the face of the earth, as a consequence of celestial and terrestrial calamities. Possibly these were the very tribes of 'Ad and Thamud which have been mentioned time and again in the Holy Qur'an.
2. The Qehtaniyans: They are the descendants of Ya'rab bin Qehtan. They inhabited Yemen and other parts of southern Arabia and are called the full-blooded Arabs. The Yemenites of today and the tribes of Aus and Khazraj, which constituted two big tribes of Madina in the early days of Islam, are of Qehtaniyan descent. The Qehtaniyans possessed many states. They made strenuous efforts for the development of Yemen and have left a number of civilisations as their memorial. Their inscriptions are being studied now, according to scientific methods, the Qehtaniyan history has thus been revealed to some extent. Whatever is said about pre-lslamic culture and civilisation of Arabia is totally related to this group of the Arabs and is confined to the region of Yemen.
3. The Adnaniyans: They are the descendants of Isma'il, son of the Prophet Ibrahim. A detailed account of the genealogy of this tribe will be given at a later stage, but, briefly speaking, the position is this: Prophet Ibrahim was ordained by Allah to settle his son Isma'il and his mother Hajar in the land of Makkah. He, therefore, moved them from Palestine to a deep valley (Makkah) which was absolutely barren. Almighty Allah was kind to them and favoured them with the spring of Zamzam. Isma'il married in a tribe named Jarham, who had pitched their tents at a place near Makkah. His offspring were numerous. One of them was Adnan, who was removed a few generations from Ismai'l
The descendants of Adnan were sub-divided into many tribes. The tribe which acquired fame from amongst them was that of Quraysh, and Bani Hashim formed a part of it.

What we mean by this are the social morals and manners which prevailed amongst the Arabs before Islam. Some of these customs were usually followed by all Arabs. The common and praiseworthy qualities of the Arabs may generally be summarised thus in a few sentences
The Arabs of the Age of Ignorance (period before the advent of Islam) and especially the descendants of Adnan were generous and hospitable by nature. They seldom committed breach of trust. They considered violation of promise to be an unpardonable sin. They were very much devoted to their faith and were fully endowed with the quality of eloquence. They possessed remarkably sharp memory. They could easily learn verses and speeches by heart. In the art of versification and poetry they excelled all others. Their bravery was proverbial. They possessed great skill in horsemanship and archery. They considered fleeing from the enemy to be very odious and abominable.
We could also perhaps recount some more good qualities of theirs. However, as opposed to this, a series of their immoral and mean habits which had, to some extent, assumed the shape of second nature with them, obliterated the splendour of all their achievements and, if a window had not been opened for them from the invisible, the scroll of their human life would have been rolled up and they would have fallen precipitately into the dreadful abyss of non-existence. In other words, if the soul-nourishing sun of Islam had not shone on their hearts in the middle of the 6th century of the Christian era, you would not have seen any trace of the Arabs today and the story of Baidah Arabs would have been repeated.
On account of lack of proper guidance and instruction and prevalence of immorality and superstitions the Arabs were leading a life similar to that of beasts. History has recorded for us stories of their fifty-year wars and hundred-year wars and those, too, for very small and insignificant reasons.
This anarchy, lack of law and order and absence of an authoritative government which might control the situation and deal properly with the rebels, became the reason for the Arabs leading a nomadic life and for their migrating every year along with their animals to places in the deserts where water and fodder could be found. Whenever they came across water and greenery at any place they pitched their tents round it. However, as soon as they could locate a better place, they resumed their wanderings in the desert.
These wanderings and the state of homelessness were occasioned by two things; first of them being the unwholesome geographical conditions of the area and the other being their indulging in excessive bloodshed which obliged them to undertake constant travelling and migration.

As a result of his studies about the conditions of the Arabs of the age of ignorance, the author of the book entitled "Tamaddun-i Islam wa Arab', has concluded that they had been civilised for ages. According to him the dignified and lofty buildings erected by them in different parts of Arabia and their commercial relations with the various advanced nations of the world testify to their being civilised, for a people, who were in a position to construct such grand edifices even before the appearance of the Rornans, and had trade relations with the great nations of the world, could not be called barbarians.
Again, at another place, he has cited the literature of the Arabs and their possessing a perfect language as evidence in support of his claim that they owned a deep-rooted civilisation. He says: "Supposing that we had not known anything about the ancient history of the Arabs we could, even then, reject the theory of their being an uncivilised people, because whatever applies to the language of a nation also applies to its civilisation and culture. It is possible that they may make their appearance all of a sudden, but their elements are undoubtedly very ancient and take shape gradually during a long span of time. It is not possible that an excellent language related with its literature should spring up without any premise. Furthermore, establishment or relations with civilised nations is always a means of progress for a talented people".
The said author has allocated a number of pages of his book to prove the existence of an expansive civilisation amongst the Arabs of the pre-lslamic age and has placed reliance in this connection on three things namely (1) their having had an excellent language (2) establishment by them of relations with advanced nations and (3) wonderful buildings of Yemen mentioned by Herodote and Artemidor, the two renowned historians who lived before the birth of Prophet 'Isa as well as by Mas'udi and other writers of Islamic history.[3]
There is no doubt about the fact that there did exist civilisations of short duration in different parts of Arabia, but the arguments advanced by the said author are not sufficient to prove that civilisation and culture were present in all parts of this land.
Firstly, the perfection of a language is accompanied by other traces of civilisation, but basically Arabic cannot be treated to be an independent language, not related with Hebrew, Syriac, Assyrian and Chaldean, because, as confirmed by the philologists, all these languages were inter-connected at one time and had branched out from one language. In the circumstances the possibility is that Arabic attained perfection along with Hebrew and Assyrian and appeared as a separate language only after achieving such perfection.
Having trade relations with developed nations of the world is, of course, an evidence of the progress and civilisation of the Arabs. However, the question is whether all parts of Arabia had such relations with other nations or possibly the Hijaz was devoid of them? Furthermore, relations with Iran and Byzantium of the two provinces of 'Hira' and 'Ghassan', situated in the region of the Hijaz do not also serve as evidence of their possessing a civilisation, because their position was that of satellites, which may virtually be called colonies. Even today there are many countries in Africa which form a part of the colonies of western powers, but do not possess any trace of European civilisation and culture. Nevertheless, it is not possible to deny that there existed a wonderful civilisation in Saba and Ma'arib in the region of Yemen. For, besides what has been said about it in the Old Testament and by Herodote and others, the renowned historian Mas'udi says thus about Ma'arib "It was surrounded on all sides by beautiful buildings, shady trees and running brooks. The area of this region was so extensive that even an agile horseman could not cover its length and breadth within a month; and a traveller, whether riding or walking on foot did not see the sun while traversing the country from one end to the other, because the roads were covered up on both sides by shady trees. The land was developed and prosperous and water was abundant. And its stable government was well known throughout the world". [4]
It should, however, be kept in mind that these instances do not guide us to a civilisation which should have prevailed in all regions of Arabia and especially in the Hijaz, which certainly did not possess any trace of this civilisation. So much so that even Gustave Le Bon says thus in this behalf 'with the exception of its northern frontiers Arabia remained immune from the raids of foreigners and none could occupy it. The great conquerors of Iran, Rome and Greece, who ransacked the entire world, did not pay the least attention to Arabia".
And even if it is supposed that these stories are true with regard to all regions of the Arabian Peninsula, all that can be said with certainty is that at the time of the dawn of Islam no trace of those civilisations was extant, as the Holy Qur'an mentions this subject and says: O Arabs! Before accepting Islam you were on the brink of an abyss of fire. He saved you through Islam. (Surah Ale Imran, 3:103)
The pages of Nahjul Balaghah, while narrating the conditions of the pre-lslamic Arabs, bear living testimony to the effect that from the point of view of way of life, intellectual decadence and moral deterioration, they were in a very deplorable state. Here we quote an illuminating statement of All the Commander of the Faithful. In one of his sermons he sets forth the state of affairs in pre-Islamic Arabia in the following manner "The Lord appointed Muhammad to warn the people of the world and to act as the trustee of His revelation and His Book. And you Arabs were spending your days with the worst faith and in the worst places. You were residing in stony places and amongst deaf snakes (which did not move because of any sound). You drank muddy water and ate coarse food (e.g. lizards and flour of date-palm stones). You shed the blood of one another and sought separation from your kith and kin. You had installed idols amongst you. You did not refrain from sins" (Nahjul Balaghah, sermon 26).[5]
Here instances of the barbaric conditions of Arabs of the Age of Ignorance have been quoted. As a specimen we reproduce below the story of As'ad bin Zurarah, which throws light on various traits of the people of the Hijaz.

For quite a long time a furious war had been raging between the tribes of 'Aws' and 'Khazraj' (of Yathrib). During this time As'ad bin Zurarah, one of the chiefs of Khazraj made a journey to Makkah for strengthening the power of his tribe. His intention was to seek military and financial assistance from Quraysh to subdue his one hundred years old enemy (i.e. the tribe of Aws). Owing to his old relations with 'Atbah bin Rabiyyah he stayed with him. He told him the purpose of his visit and requested him for help. His old friend ('Atbah), however, replied in these words: "Just at present we cannot accede to your request because we ourselves are in a strange fix. A man has risen from amongst ourselves. He insults our gods, considers our ancestors to have been frivolous and stupid. With his sweet words he has attracted some of our young men and has thus created a deep cleavage amongst us. Except the Haj period he spends most of his time in Sha'b (Mountain Pass) of Abu Talib. During Haj period, however, he emerges from there and takes his place in Hajar-i Isma'il. There he invites people to his faith.
As'ad decided to return home without contacting other chiefs of Quraysh. However, in keeping with the old Arab custom, he decided to perform the pilgrimage of the House of Allah (the Ka'bah) before his departure. But 'Atbah warned him lest, while he was going round the Ka'bah, he should hear the bewitching words of the new Prophet and be attracted to him. To solve this problem 'Atbah suggested to As'ad to thrust cotton in his ears so that he might not hear the Prophet.
As'ad slowly stepped into Masjidul Haram and began going round the Ka'bah. During the first round he glanced at the Holy Prophet and saw him sitting in Hajar-i Isma'il, while a number of Hashimites were guarding him. Fearing the magic of the Prophet's words he (As'ad) did not go to him. Eventually, however, while going round the Ka'bah, he reflected within himself and felt that he was doing a very foolish thing in avoiding the Prophet, because people might question him about this affair on his return to Yathrib and it would be necessary for him to give them a satisfactory reply. He, therefore, decided to obtain first-hand information about the new religion without any further delay.
He came forward and saluted the Prophet with the words An'am Sabahan (Good Morning), according to the custom prevalent in the Age of Ignorance. The Holy Prophet, however, said to him in reply that Allah had prescribed a better form of salutation. He said that when two persons meet each other they should say, Salamun Alaykum. Then As'ad requested the Holy Prophet to explain and clarify to him the aims and objects of his religion. In reply the Holy Prophet recited for him two verses: Muhamad, say, Let me tell you about what your Lord has commanded: Don't consider anything equal to God; Be kind to your parents; Don't murder your children out of fear of poverty (for We give sustenance to everyone), Don't even approach indecency either in public or in private. Don't murder for no reason, anyone whom God has considered respectable. Thus, your Lord guides you so that you may think. Don't handle the property of the orphans except with a good reason until they become mature and strong. Maintain equality in your dealings by the means of measurement and balance. (No soul is responsible for what is beyond it's ability). Be just in your words even if the party involved is one of your relatives; and keep your promise with God. Thus, does your Lord guide you so that you may take heed.
(Surah An'am, 6 152 - 153) which, in fact, draws a true picture of the mentality and ways of life of the Arabs of the age of ignorance. These two verses, which mention the ailment as well as the remedy for a people who had been at logger-heads with one another for as many as one hundred and twenty years, made a very deep impression on As'ad. He embraced Islam immediately and requested the Holy Prophet to send some one to Yathrib in the capacity of a missionary of Islam.
We feel that if we go deep into these two verses it will be sufficient to make us dispense with discussions and studies about the conditions of the Arabs of the Age of Ignorance, for they abundantly clarify the extent to which chronic moral ailments were threatening the very existence of those people. We give below the contents of those verses with very brief explanation: I have been sent on my Prophetic Mission to obliterate polytheism and idol-worship.
Goodness to parents occupies the top-most place in my message.
According to my sacred law, killing of children due to fear of poverty is the worst possible deed.
I have been appointed to restrain human beings from doing bad deeds and to keep them away from every uncleanliness, whether it be open or hidden.
My law provides that man-slaughter and bloodshed, without just cause, are absolutely forbidden.
Misappropriation of property belonging to orphans is prohibited.
My law is based on justice. Hence, according to it, selling under-weight is unlawful.
I do not charge anyone with more than he can bear.
The tongue and speech of man, which are a resplendent mirror reflecting his mentality, should be utilised in support of truth and reality and a person should speak nothing but the truth, even though it may cause him loss.
Be true to the covenants which you have made with Allah. This has been ordained by your Lord and it is essential for you to follow it.[6]
From the contents of these two verses and the manner in which the Holy Prophet conversed with As'ad, it can very well be realised that the Arabs had developed all these base qualities and for this very reason the Holy Prophet read but, at the very outset, these two verses for As'ad, as the aim of his mission. In the circumstances is it possible to agree to the claim made by some persons that an expansive civilisation existed for ages in all parts of Arabia?
[3] Tamaddun-i Islam wa Arab, pp. 78 - 102
[4] Murujuz Zahab, vol. 111, page 373
[5] This book is published in English by the Islamic Seminary under the caption: Peak of Eloquence.
[6] A'lamul Wara', pp. 35 - 40 and Biharul Anwar, vol.XIX, pp. 8 -11

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