How was life in Arabian Peninsula before Islam? Could you please give information about the belief systems of that time?
Submitted by on Sun, 10/01/2010 - 00:11
Dear Brother / Sister,
Arabs lived as nomads in the Arabian Peninsula before Islam. Their livelihood was based on animal breeding, and some Arabs were engaged in farming in oases in the inner parts of Arabia. In addition to this, one of the most important ways of livelihood was also robberies of caravans which were the custom of the desert. The way of being organized of Arabs before Islam was the classical Badawi system (nomadic way of living).
According to that system, there was a committee whose members were respectable persons of tribe. In tribal life, rules were formed according to the ancestors’ way of living and there was no private land. Meadows, waters, and sometimes even herds were common property of the tribe. Makkah turned into a commercial center because of its convenient position and people were settled there. The settled life, development of trade, and private riches earned as a result of it accelerated the collapse of tribal life.
Tribal ties became loose. Economic concerns and the idea of earning more replaced tribal solidarity. The fact that Makkah was getting urbanized more and more and due to the hierarchy among tribes and members of tribes, a new separate regime emerged. According to that regime, the city was governed by a council. As for the council, it consisted of ten leaders who had different roles inside that regime and whose powers inherited from father to son. Thanks to the Kaaba which was worshipped, Makkah was considered as Holy Land. Among tribes, peace was announced by the city government for development of trade and tribes went on pilgrimage by visiting the temple in Makkah in that period. Loots and robberies against caravans which were the cornerstones of trade still went on although if they decreased within that period. The continuing wars and tribalism, though they were about to disappear, were the biggest obstacles to social life and trade. There was a need for an institution which would organize life and relationships among tribes. That would be a state.
Tribal life in Arabia started to be shaken to the foundation. However, there was no slavery in progress. After primitive communal society, the next step as a result of natural development would be slavery society. However, slavery had not developed, that is, labor of slaves had never been crucial to social development and production. Although there were slaves owned by people within the society, they were mostly used for housework, protection of caravans, and as concubines (female slaves). It was rare to see labor of slaves in the production.
Dominant religion before the rise of Islam was paganism. Each tribe had many idols each of whom were symbol of a god. The idols had been sculptured as figures such as a woman, bird, lion etc. the inside Kaaba, which was considered holy by all tribes. It was full of idols and there were also about one hundred temples far from the Kaaba in Arabia. Judaism and Christianity had also entered Arabia through merchants. However, Arabs did not show interest in those religions that they did not see close to themselves. Those religions had very little support within Arabia. Islam, unlike Christianity, arose within those historical conditions. When Christianity arose, the state of Rome was a slavery society. Christianity also existed by rejecting the authority of that state and giving hope to the oppressed class. However, tribal system was still dominant although it was about to collapse in the conditions in which Islam arose. Therefore, Islam’s development process would be different from Christianity.
As it is known, our Prophet was born in 570 (or 571) on the Gregorian calendar, on a Monday corresponding to the twelfth day of the month Rabi al- Awwal . When we search for religions and belief systems, we meet some strange faith types as far as we understand from the Holy Qur’an.
The most important ones of them are as follows:
1. Hanif (monotheism): They were persons who continued the remains of the religion of Abraham. It is accepted that most of Arabs believed in that religion until idolatry was spread. They had accepted the belief in One God via Ismail. When the Prophet (pbuh) was born, those who believed in One God believed in Oneness of Allah and the Day of Judgment, refused to worship idols, and did not accept many customs of Jahiliyya. They had no military or political power.
2. Star-worshipping: There were people who worshipped stars in Yemen, Arab Peninsula (near Damascus according to some), Hurran valleys, and upper parts of Iraq. They were called Sabiis. Although we do not accurately know when and how star-worshipping had begun within Arab society, we can understand that this belief was available in the time of Suleiman from the anecdote of Suleiman and Balkis, the Queen of Sheba, which is mentioned in the Qur’an (The Ant (an-Naml), 27/20-24). They maintained their existence till the time of our Prophet. They are mentioned in the Qur’an as follows: “Among His signs are the night and the day, and the sun and the moon. But do not prostrate yourselves before the sun or the moon; rather prostrate before Allah, who created them both, if it is He whom you worship.” (Detailed (Fussilat), 41/33)
However, those people were in the minority and had no military and political power.
3. Zoroastrianism: There were some groups which believed in Zoroastrianism in Iraq and Bahrain. They worshipped fire. The Iranian emperor who was Zoroastrian protected them. Later on, along with Jewish people, they played a crucial role by setting Muslims against each other and casting doubt on Islamic beliefs.
4. Christianity: There were some Christian groups among Taghlib, Qudaa, and Ghassan tribes in the north of Peninsula and the South of Yemen. They also had no political or military power. Within the Peninsula, there were also some Christian groups but they were very little in number. Christianity entered Arabia as from beginning from the year 340 as a result of the invasions of Romans and Ethiopians. (Mubarakfuri 1980, 47)
5. Judaism: There were Jewish people in Yemen, Wadil Qura, Khyber, Tayma and Yathrib (Madinah’s name before Islam). Jewish people had economic, political, and military power unlike the orher groups. They were predominant. They called themselves as the elite nation of God and believed that God would make them authorize to manage people. Therefore, they expected that the last prophet would be born among their own nation. Upon the invasion of their country by Buhtunnasr in 587 B.C, they had migrated to Arabia. (ibid , 46)
6. Idolatry: It had spread all around Arab Peninsula. It was more effective and more common than all the other belief systems. There are different views about when it had entered Arabia and how it had been common. The most common one of them is that idolatry entered Arabia via a man named Amr Bin Luhai. This person, the leader of the tribe Huzaa, was a person who was famous for his honesty and interest in religions. The people of that time saw him as one of great scholars of his time. Amr who caught a kind of skin disease was recommended to go to Hurran, located in Damascus, and to have a bath with water there. Keeping the advice, Amr went to that place, had a bath and recovered. He saw there that people worshipped idols and he liked it. Taking an idol called Hubal with him, he put into Kaaba and began to worship it. He also wanted his people to worship it. In the course of time, this worshipping had become so common that among Arabs that each tribe had its own idol. When the Prophet (pbuh) conquered Makkah, there were 360 idols in the Kaaba; destroying all them, our Prophet cleaned the Kaaba from idols.
Another account says: “when Ismail’s children grew up and had to go outside Makkah because of lack of enough food, they took some Haram soil with them to remember their father and later showed respect to it very much. In the course of time, it changed into worshipping by accepting it as holy. Thus, idolatry was founded and it developed in the course of time.
Since the most common faith was idolatry in Hejaz District in which the Prophet was actually brought up, the Prophet primarily fought against idolatry. The most well-known ones of idols, some of which are also mentioned in the Qur’an are as follows:
Manat: It was in a place called Al-Musallal between Makkah and Madinah. Ansar tribes such as Saad, Huzaa etc. worshipped it.
Lat : it was in Taif. People of Taif worshipped it. Our Prophet, after the conquest of Makkah, made it break down by sending Abu Sufian bin Harb and Mughira bin Shuba.
Uzza: It was the idol of the tribes Ghatafan, Ghani, and Bahila. Our Prophet made it break down by sending Khalid.
Hubal: it was the biggest idol of Quraysh. It was made of red agate.
Apart from those, they had idols named Isaaf, Naila, Wadd, Suwa, Yaghus, and Yauq etc., some of which have been mentioned in Arabic poems. For example, Amr bin Humama ad-Dusi, when he burnt the idol called Dhulkaffain, read this couplet:
“Oh Dhulkaffain! I am not from the time of your father.. My birth is before your birth. I filled your heart with fire. (Shukri, 2/209)
Arabs made their idols of stone, wood and other; they also made them of food. For example, the tribe Sons of Hanifa ate a big idol that they had made of flour and dates during a famine so they were criticized by the poet of the rival tribe as follows:
Sons of Hanifa ate their gods, when the time of famine came. (Qalaji 1998, 2)
When someone saw that a fox peed on an idol which he built in the garden of his house, he burst with anger by saying how one who could not protect itself in such a condition could be a god and said the following:
“Is he a god over whose head a fox peed? Pay attention; those over whom foxes peed are despised.” (ibid)
As far as we understand from those kinds of verses above and some verses in the Holy Qur’an, idolatry did not satisfy most of the Arabs. Since they originally had the belief of Ismail and Abraham (pbuh), they believed in the existence of an Almighty God. Thus, some verses in the Holy Qur’an refer to it. For example:
If you ask them: 'Who has created the heavens and the earth?' They will reply: 'Allah.' Say: 'Praise belongs to Allah!' But most of them do not have knowledge. (Luqman, 31/25)
“‘We only worship them so that they will bring us near to Allah’ (they say)” (the Troops (az-Zumar), 39/3)
But those whom you invoke, other than Allah do not create anything, they are themselves created. (The Bee, 16/20)
As it is seen, Arabs had some contradiction about that issue. In the Qur’an, that contradiction is mentioned in many verses. For example:
Is He (Allah) who creates as he (idols) who does not create? Will you not remember? (the Bee (an-Nahl), 16/17)
We can shortly classify Arabs’ ways of worshipping and ceremony as follows: begging and praying in front of idols, wishing that they ease their worries when they are in trouble or sick; visiting idols inside the Kaaba, prostrating themselves in front of them, circumambulating them, and praying; sacrificing an animal for them in order to be close to them, which has been banned in the Qur’an by saying “you are forbidden (to consume)………….of animals sacrificed on stones (to idols).” (al-Maida, 5/3)
Idolater Arabs gave a part of their foods or crop and livestock to idols or Allah. The holy Qur’an mentions it and bans it:
They set aside for Allah a share of what He has created of tilth and cattle saying: 'This is for Allah so they claim and this for our associates (gods).' The share of their associates never reaches Allah, but the share of Allah reaches their associates. How evil they judge! (Cattle (al-Anam), 6/136)
Arabs made a vow to idols, too. When they decided to go for a long journey or to start an important work, they came to the Kaaba and sacrificed an animal for idols; the oracle who was there took out a bag in which there were fortune-telling arrows and told their fortunes. On some of those arrows “Do”, over some “do not do”, over some “empty” were written. If it was “do”, they would do what they wanted to do; if it was “do not do”, they gave up; if it was “empty”, they drew again. Islam banned those, too. In Islam, when somebody cannot decide over what he or she will do, there are some methods which are called consultation (istishara) and seeking goodness from Allah (istikhara)
Arabs in that period did not believe in the Day of Judgment and resurrection after death. Thus, someday, one of the notable persons of Quraysh, Umayya Ibn Khalaf, by holding two decayed bones in his hand, came to the Prophet; breaking them into small pieces, he asked: “Oh Muhammad! Do you think that Allah can vitalize these, too?” Replying him, the Messenger of Allah said, “Yes, Allah will kill you, later vitalize, and then burn you in Hell.” That incidence is mentioned in the Qur’an as follows:
“Has the human not seen how We created him from a drop (of sperm)? Yet he is a clear opponent. And he has struck for Us a parable, and forgotten his
own creation. He asks: 'Who will quicken the bones after they have decayed?’ Say: 'He will quicken them who originated them the first
time; He has knowledge of every creation.” (Ya Seen, 36/77-79)
Despite all of the corrupt belief systems, we see that there were those who believed in the Day of Judgment affected by Christianity and Hanif (monotheism). Thus, one of the poets of Jahiliyya Period, Al-Akhnas Ibn Shihab at-Tamimi writes the following in one of his poems:
“There is no doubt that Allah will reward people in the Day of Reckoning because of their good deeds.” (Qalaji, 18)
Prof. Dr. Hüseyin Elmalı
Questions on Islam
- life of Arabs in Arabia
- The State of Arabia
- Before the Lord of the Universe (pbuh) was given the duty of prophethood, how was religious, moral and social state of humanity and world?
- What was the religious, ethical and social situation of the humanity and world like before Hz. Muhammad (pbuh) was given the duty of prophethood?
- What kinds of faiths were present in Makkah before the prophethood of Hz. Muhammad (pbuh)?
- How did idolatry start in Makkah first and how did it continue?
- Why did the majority of the prophets emerge in Middle East? Were there prophets sent to all communities?
- What does “I am from Abraham’s nation” mean? Can you give some information about Hanif religion?
- What are the examples of dialogue during the time of our Prophet (PBUH) and his tolerance towards the followers of other religions?