Arabia Before Islam: People and History, Political, Social and Religious Conditions



The Land of Arabia:

Arabia is a vast peninsula in the south-west corner of Asia with a total area of 12,00,000 mile2. It is one of the biggest peninsulas of the world. It is one of the hottest and driest lands, an arid and forbidding land, one third of which is a strong desert. Arabia has three major deserts. Nifud in the North, Dahna, and Rab’al Khali (the Empty Quarter) being the largest desert. Rab’al Khali is devoid of any type of fauna and flora.

Arabia on the world Map:

Arabs call their country, Jazir al Arab: the Island of Arabia. It is surrounded by water from three sides and by the sand on the fourth. In its West lie,. Red sea, in the south Indian Ocean, in the East the Persian Gulf, and in the North is Syrian Desert. These land and water boundaries make its isolate from the rest of the world. As Arabia is surrounded by fertile lands of Iraq, Syria and Egypt in the East, North and west respectively, the Arab people have always been attracted to these rich and fertile lands and moved either by peaceful migration or by invasion and conquest.

People of Arabia:

On the basis of socioeconomic standpoint, the people of Arabia are classified into two categories.

  1. Bedouins:

Bedouins are the dwellers of the desert and a great majority; more than 80% of Arabian population was Ahl-ul-Badiya, Bedouins. They were divided into tribes, families and small groups; each family had head and those heads chose chief of the tribe; the patriarchal system was the backbone of the society. The selection of Shaikh depends upon the age, nobility, influence of the nominated people. Shaikh was responsible for the affairs of the tribe and must consult heads of the families and other notable persons before making an important decision. The Shaikh had to lead the tribe in wars and crisis and only that Shaikh was obeyed who won the war for the tribe. The Bedouins were nomadic and pastoral people and had nothing in chatted except their animals (usually goats & camels) and their household. The camel was most important animal for the Bedouin and they called it “Ship of the desert”. They were used for transport, getting milk and meat. The hairs of camel were used to make cloths. The dung being used for fuel after drying. All in one, they were the parasites of camels. Bedouins travelled from place to place in search of pasture for their animals and water and often fought for the hold of areas. So, they were burn raiders and fighters.

2. Ahl-ul-Hadharch; The Town People:

The town dwellers were known as Ahl-ul-Hadharch. Like Bedouins, they were also divided into tribes, families and clans. They did not have to move from place to place in search of basic needs. They were settled in one place and were more civilized than Bedouins and hence they have always provided the leaders of the Arab nation. In the history of Islam, they had been the General, Commanders, and Rulers, while the Bedouins had been the rank of soldiers and warriors.

History of the Arabs:

The history of the Arabs has seen divided into the periods.

  1. The ancient Arabic period, beginning from the earliest times to about 450 A.D.
  2. The Jahiliya period, from about 450 A.D. to the rise of Islam.
  3. The Islamic period from 570 A.D onwards.
  1. Ancient Arabic period (— 450 A.D):

Ancient Arabia:

Though Arabia’s neighbours, Egypt and Iraq, became civilized about two thousand years before Christ but the Arabia remained in isolation and darkness till the rise of the ancient kingdom of South of Arabia (Saba). It is said that Negroid race was settled in Arabia which were attacked, destroyed and forced to the desert of Rabal Khali by the Banu Qahtan. The Qahtanite Kingdom of Saba Flourished from 950 B.C to 115 A.D.

They built many castles, palaces, and above all the dams. These dams irrigated rest lands in South Arabia on which flourished many towns and tribes of the Banu Qahtam.

  1. Rise of the Himyarites Kingdom of Sana:

In 115 A.D., a Branch of the Banu Qahtan khown as the Himyars, rose into prominence and power.

Like the Qahtanites before them, the Himyarites kings built so many castles or forts that the Yemen came to be called the “land of the castles”. The most famous of these castles was the Castle of Ghumdan, which had twenty stories the first skyscraper in human history.

The ancient Arabs were also great traders, or to be more exact, international traders, as they carried out the trade with south Asia and Persia in the East and the Rome provinces of Syria, Palestine and Egypt in the West.

  1. The Decline of the Himyarites Kingdom and the beginning of the Hahiliya period:-

The Himyarist kingdom flourished in 45 A.D till fourth century A.D. when it declined due to few causes. Firstly, their economic and trade monopoly had been depreciated by the Romans and they become hand to mouth. Secondly, the burst of famous dam “Ma’rib” is considered an important reason in ending their rule.

  1. The Breaking of Ma’rib Dam:

Simultaneously with the threat of Romans, the Himyars also faced internal threat in the form of breach in ma’rib dam. It is difficult to exactly tell the time when the first breach was happened, but it is said that it happened in the third century A.D. The second breach created in 450 A.D and the third and last in 540 A.D, which the Arab historians have called, “The bursting of the great Dam”. With the bursting of dam by flood, huge number of people displaced from their homelands and started migration towards the North of Arabia, where branch of Arab musta’riba’, Banu modhar were settled and the wars between the two tribes started.

  1. Fall of The Himyarites Kingdom:

During the fifth century A.D., both the Christianity and Jewish religions spread in south Arabia, Himyarites kingdom. The last Himyars king, Dhu Nuwas, was a jew. He persecuted the people who appealed to Byzantine king Justin 1 for aid. Justin wrote to Negus, the Emperor of Abyssinia. The emperor sent a large army of 70,000 against Dhu. He was defeated killed in 525 A.D. The ambitions of Byzantine Kingdom completed and the Himyarite kingdom came to an end. Later in 570 A.D., the Abyssinian Emperor, Abraha attacked the Makkah to destroy its increasing importance as a national temple to the Arabs. But his army was decimated by small-pox and he failed in his objective. Later, the Yemeni Arabs overthrow the government of Abyssinian Emperor with the help of the rival imperialism of Persia. But soon found they had merely exchanged one imperial master for another.

  1. The Jahiliya period (450-570 A.D):-

The period of two centuries before the advent of Islam is known as the “Jahiliya period”, stone age or the age of ignorance. This was the period of crisis. The imperial intrigues of Rome and Persia, the materialism of Arabia, the breakdown of matriarchal system, migration of Arabs (Yemenis) from Southern Arabia to Northern Arabia which resulted in intensification of inter-tribal wars were the reasons/causes of breakdown of ancient Arab society and crisis, which was resolved only by the advent of Islam.

Conditions of The Arabs During the Jahiliya Period:

Socio-Economic Crisis:

The Arabs were living a semi-communalistic life in the Jihaliya period. The Bedouin were nomadic people moving from place to place in search of pastures for their animals. They did not have much in their personal possessions except their tents and household. The town people were also no exceptions which were few in numbers then. But gradually the change began and new generations of money-conscious and aristocratic tribes arouse who flourished under the rule of Himyarites Kingdom. They were trader and had greed for money. So, eventually the trade flourished and the Makkah became the epicenter and emporium of trade to every part of the Arabia from East to West, and North to South. Caravans went to trade and the economic activities grew fastly and tremendously. In the days of Himyarites, the epicenter of trade was changed from Yemen to Hijaz due to the rivalry and depredation of imperialistic Rome & Persia. The nomadic tribes also took part in that trade by proving their surplus food in the form of dates and meats and in exchange getting oil, grain, textiles, swords and weapons etc. The Quraish became the leading mercantile tribe of the age. The Christian wine-makers and Jewish farmers joined Quraish and they started exporting their goods to the towns of Syria. Their they exchanged their products mostly with the Roman gold and silver because the Byzantines had little else to exchange for Arabic merchandise. As a result the Quraish and other tribes collected handsome amount of wealth in the form of gold and silver. The money economy acted as a solvent to their social norms and ethical values. Their customs and traditions degraded inducing matriarchal system. Their moral principles and values undermined and greed and hunger of both Bedouins and town people intensified which led to brutal wars and fights among clans. This socio-economic crisis further deepened by the migration of South Arabian Yemenis to the Northern part of Arabia. These causes made the life of the Jahiliya Arabs more and more nasty and brutal.

Political Life: The wars of the Ayyam-Al Arab:

Arabia was never united into a single state or kingdom during ancient or jahiliya period. The small states of Saba and Sana were destroyed by powerful Romans and Persians. There were innumerable tribes, each with a Shaikh as their head. The tribal system had some flaws as well as advantages. It was the only system which binded the people together into tribes and there existed a deterrence to fight or attack the people because that could invite the wrath of other tribes and one could be punished severely. There were some rules and customs in every tribe which must be followed by the tribesman. If one has killed the other, the killer should be killed or if he has escaped then any relative of his has to be sacrificed. The blood money and pardon also existed but never preferred. The tribal spirit of unity “Asabiyah” and the fear of inviting retaliation from the other tribes were the restraining forces which prevented disputes and injury on the men and property of the neighbouring tribes. But even then wars were too frequent among them.

Ayyam al Arab: Or the Wars of the “Days of the Arab”:

Owing to the socio-economic reasons such as greed and hunger of money, barrenness of Arabia, disintegration of tribal customs and traditions, imperialism of Rome and Persia etc, the Arab society of Jahiliya period was in crisis. The Arabs lost their values and virtues and used to quarrel over petty matters such as boundary of pastures, right over stream water etc. If men or animal of one tribe has hurt the other, the war was imminent. The war between tribes and within tribes continued for years and could even extend to decades. The tribal proud, natural warrior and instinct to fight, and the piercing poems of the poets were the few major reasons for so long wars. The people of the Arab call this Ayyam al-Arab, Days of the Arab. There was no central force or government which could stop them from attacking each other. As a result, the war once begun didn’t end until both the sides were either exhausted or finished.

A single tribesman cannot survive. He must have the support of his own tribe or of some other. The moment one comes out of the tribe, one might be killed by the other tribe or by his own tribe. The Arab people are vindictive and doubt forgiving anyone for their mistake and try to revenge as hard as they could. The tribe or clan was the political unit; but even then it was not a stable or permanent unit. Whenever a tribe reached a fairly large size, it split up into two or more tribes or clans which were as ready to fight among themselves as with other tribes.

Sir William Muir put it as,

“Though united by blood or interest, they were also ever ready on some insignificant cause to separate and abandon themselves to an implacable hostility”.

I would like to put the example of War of Basus: originated from a quarrel over a she camel owned by an old woman named Basus. Her camel was wounded by a chief of Taghlip tribe, for which she taunted her Banu Bakar tribe to fight with the Tayhlib tribe. The war lasted for 40 years. Such an imprudence and vindictiveness was part of the Arab mentality.

Social and moral Life:

As the greater part of the Arabia was barren desert and arid, agriculture was not Arab’s chief occupation. The Bedouins were nomadic and postural, and town people were mainly traders. The society was tribal and matriarchal or patriarchal with customs and traditions very much strict and bold. They also had few slaves, who were the prisoners of war, captured on the battlefield. The male slaves were put to work, while the female slaves were made domestic servants and combines.

Position of the Women:

The position of the women presents same duality as other aspects of the Jahilian period do. The women of the Arab enjoyed great status and respect in the Bedouin as well as town people. They had great influence in matriarchal as well as patriarchal system of Arab-tribes. But as the socio-economic and traditional norms disintegrated, this privilege and honour vitiated. The women were treated worse than animals. They had no rights, no voice, no prperty, nor any respect. They were considered chattels who were passed from one person to the other. On the death of father, sons marriage their step-mothers and in case of death of brother, his wife goes in custody of brothers. Men were the masters and women slave. Men were polygamous who could marry as many women as one could afford and divorce them whenever he wanted to. The most tragic scenario was of female infanticide partially due to honour and secondly due to prevailing hunger in the Arab. The women were like cattle’s for the men and society. The women were sold to the rich people or married to the elite men of Arabia who were lechers and just wanted to satisfy their desires. The women were subjected to brutal sex and were not more than merely an object of pleasure for the Arab men. It was Islam which brought tremendous amelioration to the social status and honour of women and provided that gender with the rights they utterly needed to live a life free of fears and chains of tradition and barbaric customs.

Cultural Life:

The Arabs of the Jahiliya period knew nothing of arts, culture and learning, except of Arabic language and poetry which flourished tremendously partially due to some basic reasons like tradition and need to stimulate the spirit of warriors.

Intellectual Forces and Ferment in Ancient Arabia:

The Arabs were always on their foot to more. The desert- dwellers, Bedouins were in search of water and pastures and town-dweller for trade. This natural movement of people from one place to another helped in improving the language of the Arabs although, at first, the language of the Southern Yemenis was bit different from North Arabian Banu Qahtan tribe. The language flourished in the Jahalian period and all the credit goes to the Arab poets and narrators. The Arabs loved their language. There is an old Arab proverb that, “the beauty of the man lies in the eloquence of tongue together with archery and horsemanship”. That is why every Arab individual put all his efforts to learn proficiency in language to become a good poet, orator or narrator. Every Arab man is a good orator because he loves to speak as well as he can and tell the story the way he has heard. So, they’re also good storytellers by birth. They are good memorizer of things which obviously contributed to the maturation of their language. There was a custom of arranging fairs of narration and poetry in the days when wars were forbidden, before offering pilgrimage of Makah. The most import fair was Ukaz fair. Ukaz had gained the status of Arab national language academy. It was here that national congress of poetry was held and judges awarded prizes to the winners. If Greeks had demonstrated their national genius in sculpture and architecture, the ancient Hindus in their methodology, while the Ancient Arabs manifested in their language. The language played an important role in the spread of Islam as Prof. Hittie has remarked, “The triumph of Islam was to a certain extent triumph of a language, more particularly of book.”

Arabic Poetry before Islam:

Another achievement of Arabs of Jahaliyan period was the development of their poetry. This was due to the basic reason that Arabs loved their language, camel and clan. The Arabs are parasite of their camels due to their utter dependence on camels for tramport in both peace and war. The Arabian poets sang in their love for their camels. They praised their obedience to their masters and their services. The poetry in Arabia also gained heights from the fields of war. The poets and most probably orators used to stand in front rows with the warriors/ soldier boost their spirit by singing songs of praise and bravery for them while pouring countless abuses and invectives on their enemies. They fought with their words if not with swords and had a great psychological effect onto the warriors/fighters. In Arab, one war ends for the preparation of another. So, the poets become indispensible for the Arabs. In war, they sang of the bravery  and powers of soldiers while in peace they song of the glorious deeds of their tribes, praised their past achievement, traced their genealogical tree right up to himself, or at least up to Ibraham and Ishamael, and molded public opinion in favour of their patrons. The poet of Jajhilyan period was a composite personality. He was a scientist, preachers, warrior, historian, press agent, propagandist and what not. He had no means of modern communication devices/systems but the words of his lips one day were the words of all lips the other day and each and every word of him spreaded life fire in the jungle.

Moral Life:

The moral life of Arabs represents a dichotomy of the Jahiliya period. The good and bad, the evil and spirit, the noble and ignoble were mixed in the character of the Arabs. They were brave, courageous, hospitable and loyal to their family, clan and tribe. They held in great esteem four moral virtues i.e., Ziyafah- hospitality or liberty, hamash- enthusiasm, muru’ah- courage, ird- honour and asabiyah- a boundless and unconditional loyalty to one’s clan. These virtues were vitiated by some equally evil tendencies such as Arab individualism and vindictiveness followed by lying, lechery, breaking promises etc.

  1. Virtues:-
  • Brave
  • Courageous
  • Hospitable
  • Loyal to family, clan and tribe.
  • Helping the poor
  • Protecting the orphans and helpless.
  • They considered right of asylum a sacred duty.
  • Protection of the fugitive.
  1. Vices:-
  • Law of Moses “i.e.” an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. They did not forget to avenge and revenge from their tormentors.
  • Individualism and vindictiveness.
  • Virtues carried to excess and became vices. For example, liberty to prodigality, courage into revengefulness, manliness into senseless brutality and barbarity,… etc.

Religious Life:

The religious beliefs ranged from the worship of one supreme God, which they called Allah to the worship of rough stones, heaps, tress, moon, sun and anything which they could find. They were polytheists, having many gods and goddesses. The famous idols were Al-Lat (the goddess of fertility), Al Uzza (goddess of power and strength) etc.

The Arabs were very superstitious. They believed that Jins and spirits dwelt in every part of the desert. A mentally sick person was considered to be possessed by Jins. There were several religions during the Jahylian period like Christianity, Judaism, Magianism (fire worshipers) and Sabaeanism (Star worshipers). Each religion has affected the Arabs.


“The stage was set; the moment was ripe for the rise of a great religious and psychological leader. The prophet came as a mercy towards the Arabs from a fallen state to the highest pitch of glory.



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