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