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In Defense of Pre-Islamic Arabian Culture
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Updated: September 2010

The pre-Islamic epoch in Arabia has become commonly known as the age of Jahiliyya, meaning the age of barbarism, darkness, and ignorance of God’s guidance. The word jahiliyya appears in the Quran  (3:154, 5:50, 33:33, 48:26). The absence of reliable historical sources and evidence, aside from Islamic traditionists' sources, make ascertaining the truth about the pre-Islamic way of life and culture daunting.
On poetry, an important window into pre-Islamic way of life and culture, Taha Hussain, the eminent Egyptian scholar, philosopher, historian; doyen of Arabic Literature, contended in 1926 that the “great majority of the poetry reputed to be pre-Islamic had been forged by Muslims of a later date and has nothing to do with Jahiliyya. Such poetry, Professor Taha Hussein continues, is Islamic, representing the life of the Muslims, their predilections and inclinations more than the life of the Jahilis (On Jahilyya Poetry, p. 19). These poems were committed to memory, wrote Philip K. Hitti, transmitted by oral tradition from one generation to the next and finally recorded in writing during the second and third centuries after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (History of the Arabs, 1970, p. 92).
The ulama has had a vested interest in promoting a terrible image of pre-Islamic religious beliefs, culture, values, and way of life. The reason is simple; contrast a Jahili age of darkness with the enlightened age under Islam. The ulama succeeded in depicting the pre-Islamic period as an age of polytheism, licentiousness, adultery, polyandry, prostitution, gambling, drunkenness, plundering, and girl-infanticide, among a long list of other vulgarities. They also succeeded in painting their Jahiliyya colors over not only the Prophet’s habitat in pagan Mecca but also over the geographic entirety of the Arabian Peninsula, despite the existence in the northern parts of Arabia at the time of the Prophetic mission of Jewish tribes in Medina, Fadak, and Khaybar and of Christian settlements in Najran and the southwest of the Peninsula as well as in Byzantine Syria to the north. Even in the Prophet’s household in Mecca Christianity appears to have been known. According to Sahih Al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, a cousin of the Prophet’s wife Khadija, Waraqa Bin Nofal, was a Christian old man when Muhammad’s Prophetic mission started and that Khadija took Muhammad to Waraqa to seek his advice on her husband’s future religious mission (The Six Books, Dar Al-Salam for Publishing and Distribution, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia,  Sahih Al-Bukhari, tradition 3, p. 1 and Sahih Muslim, tradition 403, pp. 704-705).

Astronomical amounts of writings and sermons have proclaimed the great reforms bestowed by Islam upon mankind. This article is not concerned with these declarations. This article is concerned with addressing a specific question: Was the pre-Islamic way of life and culture so terrible?

To answer, a comparison would be made between what the Quran tells us about certain aspects of the pre-Islamic way of life and how the same aspects have become basically a part of the Islamic way of life; such as: Beliefs about monotheism, the ritual of the Mecca pilgrimage, beliefs in Jinn and angels, treatment of women, wine drinking, slavery, lunar calendar, and blind obedience to authority.

On monotheism, although the pre-Islamic pagan Arabs worshipped many deities, they recognized a supreme God, “Allah.” The Quran testifies that the pre-Islamic Arabs recognized Allah’s awesome powers:

In 29:61, if you asked “. . . Who created the heavens and the earth and set the sun and the moon to work, they will certainly reply, Allah.”

In 29:63, if you asked “. . . Who sends down rain from the sky and gives life to the earth after its death they will reply Allah.”

In 39:3: “Those who take for protectors other than Allah say: we only serve them in order that they may bring us nearer to Allah.”

Abdullah Al-Udhri noted that, “when Khalid Bin Sinan’s daughter heard the Prophet reciting the Al-Ikhlas Sura (Quranic Chapter 112, composed of four Verses), she said: ‘O Messenger of Allah, this is what my father used to say.’ The Prophet did not contradict her and praised her father” (Abdullah, A. Y. Al-Udhari, 1991, Jahili Poetry Before Imru Al-Qais, Ph.D dissertation, School of Oriental and African Studies, London University, p. 73).

In naming their children, the pre-Islamic Arabs often preceded the name of a preferred deity by the word Abd (meaning slave, servant) as a sign of respect, fear, or subservience. Indeed, the name of the Prophet’s father was Abd Allah.  

Therefore, in making the first article of the Islamic faith “La ilaha illa Allah,” meaning: “There is no God (deity) but God,” in designating Allah as the only omnipotent God, Islam did not invent a new deity. The Prophet “Muhammad contended himself with ridding the heathen Allah of His ‘companions’ subjecting Him to a kind of dogmatic purification” [Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, s.v. Arabs (Ancient)].

On rituals, Encyclopedia of Islam (New Edition, s.v. Kaaba) states: “It is incontrovertible” that Islam took from the pagan Arabs “an entire pre-Islamic ritual, previously steeped in paganism.” This ritual is the veneration of and the pilgrimage to the Kaaba at Mecca. For the pre-Islamic Arabs, “the Kaaba was the center of worship where the Jahilis prayed and went round it seven times. The Jahilis went on pilgrimage to the Kaaba once a year in Dhul-Hijja for a week, and they performed the Waqfa on Mount Arafat” (Al-Udhhri, 1991, 77). In their ritual, the Pre-Islamic pilgrims halted at Muzdalifa, stayed at Mina, made seven runs between Safa and the Marwah Hills, sacrificed animals, and shaved their heads.They performed the lesser pilgrimage (umrah) outside the month of Dhul-Hijja.

Islam adopted the entire ritual. It recognized the Kaaba as the temple of God and the center of worship, retained the Black Stone, consecrated the Haram sanctuary, and ordered Muslims to perform the pilgrimage, if possible, once in a lifetime on the eighth day of the last month of the Islamic lunar year, Dhul-Hijja. Muslims today, like their pre-Islamic ancestors, circumambulate the Kaaba seven times, halt at Muzdalifa, stay at Mina, make seven runs between Safa and the Marwah hills, sacrifice animals, stone the devil, shave their heads, and wear a special simple garb. They perform the lesser pilgrimage (umrah) outside the month of Dhul-Hijja.

Islam has also in common with the pre-Islamic Arabs their belief in djinn. The pre-Islamic Arabs were “fully convinced,” in the existence of shadowy, crafty, mischievous, even destructive beings called jinn (Watt and Bell, Introduction to the Quran, 1977, p. 153). While usually invisible, the jinn are capable of assuming forms of snakes, scorpions, lizards, and other creeping things or mad humans (Ibid.). Surat al-djinn (Quranic Chapter number 72, composed of 28 Verses), is dedicated to these spirits. Other parts of the Quran recognize djnn’s existence: “They link Him with jinn by lineage” (37:158); that God created djinn from fire (55:15), and that djinn’s end, like men’s, is to serve and worship God (51:56). The Quran reveals also that God sent messengers to djinn and men (6:130), and teaches that djinn may believe in God and His Holy Book: (72:1), as well as that djinn may be unbelievers as well (6:130). Djinn promised that they will not “Associate in worship any gods with our Lord” (72:2).

The Quran speaks in 41:14 as if the conception of angels had been known and accepted by pagans: “They said, if our Lord had so pleased, He would certainly have sent down angels.”

On the treatment of women, the ulama class succeeded in creating the perception that Islam was the liberator of the pre-Islamic woman. To this end, the ulama created a barbaric image of the personal and family lives of the pre-Islamic Arabs, depicting them as practitioners, among other dreadful things, of unlimited polygamy and of treating women like chattel. A closer look, however, shows that Islam allows unlimited polygamy and treats women like chattel all the same. In allowing the Muslim male to marry four wives simultaneously and, divorce any one of them at will without giving cause, in giving the woman one-half the weight of the man in an Islamic court of law in testimony and as a witness and in inheritance, in instituting for Shi'ites the mut’a marriage (the man "marries" the woman for a specific period of time and pays for her companionship during the specified period), and for Sunnis the misyar marriage (the man visits his misyar "wife" at her parents home without financial obligation), Islam has sanctioned adultery, encouraged promiscuity, and reduced the woman to a piece of property.

By contrast, Khadija, the Prophet’s first wife, we are told, was the best born in Quraish, a successful businesswoman and, too, the richest. Khadija employed young Muhammad and proposed marriage to him. He was 25 years old. She was 40 years old and twice a widow. For their 25-year marriage, until Khadija died in 620, the Prophet remained monogamous to her.

In comparison with Khadija, Aisha, probably the Prophet’s favorite wife, whom he married after the death of Khadija, was a small child of nine years of age, too young to have known what was happening to her, let alone to have had a say in the marriage. According to attributions to Aisha as recorded in Sahih Al-Bukari, Sahih Muslim, and Sunan Abi Dawood, Aisha reportedly said that the Prophet married her when she was six years old (possibly seven years old according to some accounts), and consummated their marriage when she was nine years old, and that she became a widow after nine years. The Prophet was in his early fifties when he married Aisha. She was one of nine simultaneous wives of the Prophet when he died. For the extra five wives, beyond the four allowed, God had supposedly granted the Prophet a dispensation. In 33:50: “We have made lawful for you, O Prophet, wives to whom you have given their dower, and God-given maids and captives you have married... This is a privilege only for You and not for the other believers.”

If Khadija were the prototype of the pre-Islamic woman, then pre-Islamic women had had superior basic human rights to what Islam granted them. For more on this subject, see the article below: "Is Muslims' Treatment of Women Islamic?"

Pre-Islamic Arabs spoke of wine drinking, and Islam declared in Verse 47:15 that: “The semblance of Paradise promised to the pious and devout is that of a garden with rivers of water incorruptible . . . rivers of wine, delectable to drink; and rivers of honey pure and clear.” But Islam prohibited in 2:219 wine drinking on the Earth.

Islam institutionalized pre-Islamic slavery. However, the Quran instructed that slaves should be treated humanely (2:177) and their manumission (24:33) was made into a pious act. Saudi Arabia’s government did not abolish slavery officially until 1962.

Muslims share with the pre-Islamic pagans the lunar calendar (Hitti, History of the Arabs, 1970, p. 94).

Further, Islam shares in common with desert living a culture of blind obedience to hierarchical authority. Survival in the burning heat of desert days, freezing winter nights, and scarcity of food and clean water necessitates obedience to tribal hierarchy, if the tribe’s scant resources are not to be wasted in internal quarrels. The Prophet, being a product of desert living, enshrined blind obedience to authority in the Islamic Creed. God orders in 4:59: “Obey God and obey God’s messenger and obey those of authority among you.” Similar wording occurs twenty times in the Quran. Also, according to Book 20, Chapter 8 of the Hadith compilation in Sahih Muslim the Prophet is reported to have said: “He who obeys me obeys God; he who disobeys me, disobeys God. He who obeys the ruler, obeys me; he who disobeys the ruler, disobeys me.”

The belief in Monotheism could have helped Islam’s adoption of blind obedience to authority. Monotheism transferred in one swoop all the powers that had been the preserve of the many gods of the pre-Islamic polytheists into the hands of the one and only omnipotent god, Allah. As the Messenger of Allah, the Prophet was divinely inspired. Being divinely inspired, the Prophet’s authority became rooted in Allah’s unlimited and absolute powers.

From the above, it may be concluded that Jahili society was not the barbaric society the ulama made it out to be. Taha Hussein again: “No, the Jahilis were neither ignorant nor stupid, they were not rough and did not live primitively; rather, they were people of knowledge and intelligence, of sensitivity, delicate emotions, refinement, and affluent living conditions (On Jahiliyya Literature, 1927, p. 74).
It is fair to say that the pre-Islamic way of life and culture incorporated Islam rather than the other way around.