A Glimpse into Pre-Islamic Arabia 

A Glimpse into Pre-Islamic Arabia

The pre-Islamic Arabs possessed certain natural virtues that marked them out in their contemporary world. They were unrivalled in eloquence and in the skillful use of language. Freedom and honour they valued above their lives. They were superb horsemen. They were ardent, bold, chivalrous, plain of speech, strong of memory, fraternizing, plain, hardy, determined, truthful, loyal and trustworthy.

But centuries of isolation in the peninsula a morbid insistence on the faith of their forefathers had severely undermined their moral and spiritual health. The sixth century CE found the Arabs steeped in depravity, perversion and dark idolatry and indulging in the characteristics of primitive life.

Pre-Islamic Idols

The belief in an over-ruling Providence had grown very feeble among them. It was confined to a select few, while the religion of the masses was gross idolatry. The idols that had originally been introduced to serve as devotional mediums had been elevated to the status of Divinity. Homage was still paid to the One Transcendent God, but only verbally; in their hearts a host of deities were enthroned, whose goodwill they sought to propitiate and displeasure avert.

Each tribe, city and locality had its own god. Al-Kalbi stated that every household in Makka had its own idol. When a Makkan set out on a journey, his last act at home would be to invoke the blessings of the family deity, and the first thing he did on his return was to pay reverence to it.[1]

People used to compete with one another in collecting idols and constructing temples. Those who could afford neither planted a slab of stone in front of the Ka’bah and performed the ritual of circumambulation around it. Such stones were called Ansâb. In the words of Abu Raja’ al-‘Utaridi, as reported in the Sahih of al-Bukhari: “We worshipped stones. When we found a better stone than the one we had, we took it up and threw away the old one. Where no stones were available, we made a sand-mound, milked a goat over it and worshipped it.”[2] When a traveller halted at a place, he used to collect four stones, worship the most beautiful of them, and used the other three to rest his pot on for cooking.[3]

Angels, stars, jinns and other objects of veneration found in polytheistic faiths were adored as divine beings by the Arabs. The angels, they believed, were the daughters of God, whom they besought to intercede with Him on their behalf. Jinns were regarded as the co-sharers of the Almighty in the practical control of the world.[4]

Al-Kalbi says that Banu Malih, a branch of the tribe of Khuza’ah, worshipped the jinns,[5] and Sa’id reports that the tribe of Himyar worshipped the sun; the tribe of Kinana adored the moon; the tribe of Tamim worshipped ad-Dabaran; the Lakhm and the Judharn, Tayy, Banu Qays and Banu Asad worshipped Jupiter, Canopus, the Dog-star and Mercury, respectively.[6]

Social Debasement

The Arabs’ social habits were outrageous. Alcoholic drink was so common that even their literature stunk of it. The wealth of expressions contained in the Arabic language for the “daughter of the vine”, and the delicate variations of meaning these expressions convey, reveal how passionately the Arabs were in love with it. Banners were flown over liquor-shops. Gambling was a matter of pride and it was considered dishonourable to decline a gambling bout. A Tabi’i theologian, Qatadah, stated that often a gambler would stake his entire household on a single bet, and would walk away in sorrow as he saw it pass into the hands of his rival. Such incidents would sometimes lead to bitter feuds.[7] 

Usury was indulged in callously and adultery was considered a minor vice. A great interest was taken in the various attitudes and postures of sexual intercourse. Prostitution was rampant and brothels were freqnently maintained.

The Position of Women

The position of women was extremely lamentable in pre-Islamic Arabia. The right of inheritance was denied. Widowed and divorced women were not pennitted to remarry. It was a common practice for the eldest son to take as wives his father’s widows inherited as property with the rest of his estate. They were discriminated against even in matters of food, men reserving certain dishes for themselves.

Daughters were buried alive at birth, since pride and poverty had introduced the abominable crime of female infanticide among all Arab tribes. Haitham ibn ‘Adi tells us that one out of every ten men was guilty of it.[8] Kind-hearted tribal chiefs often bought infant girls to save their lives. Sa’sa’ah ibn Najiyah says that before the dawn of Islam he had rescued as many as three hundred from this terrible fate by paying compensatory money to their fathers.[9] Sometimes a young girl who had escaped being killed at birth or during childhood (due to her father being away from home or some other reason) would be taken to a lonely spot by her father and killed, Several incidents of this nature from their past lives were narrated by the Companions after they had embraced Islam.[10]

Tribal Prejudice 

Tribal prejudice was very strong. The horizon of life was painfully limited by the narrow concepts of tribal organization. A maxim among the Arabs said: “Stand by your brother, be he the oppressor or the oppressed”, and they adhered to this with great passion. 

Everyone thought that he came from the most noble stock. Some families considered it degrading to participate with others even in religious congregations. The Quraysh, for example, kept their distance from other pilgrims during some of the Hajj rites. They took the lead in performing the ritual of halting at ‘Arafat, in order to avoid coming into contact with other pilgrims.[11] There was, they thought, a class of born masters, another of born toilers and a third of the common people and the “people of the street”. 

Warlike Temperament 

In keeping with their primitive, desert environment, the Arabs had a very warlike temperament. War, in some respects. was for them a necessity but, more than that, it was a pastime. Their poets portrayed war as a thing of great joy. An Arab poet says: 

“If an enemy tribe we do not find, 

We go to war with a friendly tribe, 

And our lust for war is quenched.”[12]

Another poet says: 

“May a war break out among the tribes 

When my colt is grown up for riding, 

That I may get a chance to show 

The worth of my colt and sword.[13]

The most trivial incident could spark off a bitter inter-tribal war. The war, for instance, between the descendants of Wa’il, Bakr and Taghlib dragged on for forty years in which there were innumerable casualties. An Arab chief, Muhalhil, thus depicted its consequences: “Both the tribes have been exterminated; mothers have become childless; children have become orphans; the flow of tears does not cease; the dead are not buried.”[14]

The Arabian peninsula was like a hornets’ nest. One never knew when one would be robbed or assassinated. People were kidnapped while travelling with caravans, even in the presence of their companions. Powerful kingdoms of the day needed strong escorts and guarantees of safe passage from tribal chiefs for their caravans and delegations to travel from one place to another.[15]

[Islam and the World by Shaykh Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi, p.16-20]


[1] Kalbi: Kitâb al-Asnam, p. 33.

[2] Bukhari: Kitâb al-Maghâzi.

[3] Kitâb al-Asnám.

[4] Ibid., P. 44.

[5] Ibid., P. 34.

[6] Sa’eed Andulusi: Tabaqât al-Umam, p. 430.

[7] Tabari, Tafseer.

[8] Maidani.

[9] Kitáb al-Aghâni.

[10] Sunan of ad-Dârimi, vol. 1.

[11] (Qur’an 2:199)

[12] Al-Hamâsah.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Aiyyam al- ‘Arab.

[15] Tarikh Tabari, Vol.II, p.133.

Previous articleBook Recommendations On Islamic Civilization
Next articleThe Sealed Nectar by Safiur Rahman Mubarakpuri