By Varsha Sharma, New Age Islam
30 April, 2014
Generally, Islamic scholars use a term pre-Islamic and maintain that it was the “age of ignorance” (Jahiliya). They mention that with the advent of Islam the ‘age of ignorance’ came to an end. First of all, the division of human history into Pre-Islamic and Post-Islamic eras is an intellectually unjustified interpretation of history. As regards Jahiliya, the holy prophet and his companions were of the opinion that Jahiliya was a condition of the mind and did not refer to any specific period in history. The Qur’an had changed the minds of its followers and accordingly a new era had been formed. Ignorance can disappear only when the teachings of Islam are whole-heartedly accepted and dutifully followed. That is the reason that the intellectually and socially backward atmosphere in the Arabia which existed 1400 years is still prevailing.
A cursory glance at the history of the Arabia in the sixth century A.D. shows that the Arabs were then deeply entrenched in utter ignorance and extreme darkness. It will be explicitly clear if we take a critical analysis of the conditions in the Pre-Islamic Arabia.
Arabs before Islam
The divine message of Tawheed (belief in oneness of God) had been conveyed to the Arabs by one of the former prophets of Islam, Hazrat Ibrahim (peace be upon him). The Prophet Ibrahim had settled his elder son Ismail (a.s) in Mecca and both had built the Ka’ba some 2-1/2 thousand year before the birth of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). But just a few centuries after the demise of the two Prophets, Ibrahim and Ismail (peace be upon them), the Arabs were introduced to idol worship. Although they paid verbal homage to the Supreme Being, the Almighty, countless deities were enthroned in their minds and hearts. The pagan Arabs invoked the blessings of their respective deities. Each Arab tribe had its own specific idol such as Laat, Manaat, Uzza, Yaghus, Yauq, Nasr, Wud etc.
Albeit the deep-rooted evils, the Arabs possessed certain virtues that distinguished them from other tribes and peoples of their era. They were immaculate, skilful and eloquent in the use of the Arabic language and literature. They set great value upon individual freedom and laid down their lives for the sake of it. Honesty, generosity of spirit and hosting and entertaining guests were among their superb personality traits. They were passionate, courageous, chivalrous, strong-built, truthful, loyal, trustworthy, strong in determination and sharp and vivid in memory.
Most of the Arabs were Bedouins and nomads who knew of no settlements. They had no organized government except in Yemen which was under the control of Iranians. A group of families living in tents made a clan and a group of clans made a tribe. Each tribe had its own code of conduct. Loyalty to the tribe was considered an indispensible individual responsibility. Despite that, majority of the Arabs were socially backward and morally corrupt. They were inclined towards war, crimes, clashes and inter-tribal conflicts which sometimes lasted for ages.
Shorn of moral values, the nomadic Arabs were plunged in outrageous habits and social evils and obnoxious vices. They were addicted to wine so much so that a tribal chieftain is reported to have surrendered the keys of the Ka’ba for only one leather bag containing liquor. They felt proud of their inhuman customs and malpractices such as female infanticide, gambling, usury and wanton killing of the innocent people. Adultery and prostitution were rampant. Women were treated as mere sexual objects. Except from some women from privileged backgrounds, they had no right to education, inheritance or property and hardly any social status. Divorced or widowed women had no permission to remarry and thus they were deprived of the basic human right of decent life. False notions of pride and fear of poverty gave rise to female infanticide. Most of the female infants were buried alive just as the widowed women were burnt alive in India. Many young and poor girls served as concubines to be used in the popular Arab sex trade. The trade of slavery was also at its peak in many parts of Arabia. The slaves were considered beasts and inhuman treatment was meted out to them.
One of the deeply entrenched evils was the tribal prejudice. Every tribe assumed that it originated from the noblest lineage. By nature, Arabs were war-mongers and blood-thirsty murderers. Killing, warring and murdering were inherent in their veins and temperament. War had been an integral part of their daily life. Even trivial issues would lead to an endless inter-tribal war. The fear of insecurity was so prevalent that no one knew when or where he/she would be killed, looted or raped.
The only thing that the Arabs could boast about was their good flair for writing, poetry and other literary pursuits. But a large part of their poetry dealt with baser instincts, carnal pleasures and false pride. Thus, Arabs did not endeavour, on any ground, for the human development, advancement of culture and civilisation or for the betterment of global society.
Arabs after the Advent of Islam
This is an eternal truth that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) brought about the greatest revolution to the human history. He was born and brought up among the Arabs who were the most intense in “Jahiliya” and plagued with moral and intellectual backwardness. But history is witness to the fact that the same ignorant and backward people took a giant leap into a brighter world of virtues, humanity, morality, education and wisdom, when the Prophet (pbuh) advanced his educational and humanitarian mission. They came out of their “Jahiliya zone” and moved forward to the fountain of Ilm and knowledge (Al-Suffa, the first Islamic educational seminary established by the Prophet Muhammad pbuh). The divine message of the Prophet (pbuh) changed their very being and just within generations they became the torch-bearers of the human civilization and a bright Islamic culture.
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was sent to the Arabs to take them out of ignorance and bring them to the enlightenment. In fact, the sole purpose behind God’s revelation to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was: “leading the people from the darkness to the light” (Surah Ibrahim: 14), which means directing them towards enlightenment from the state of utter darkness (Jahiliya).
During his lifetime, the Prophet (pbuh) spiritually prepared and morally trained everyone who became his companion (Sahabi). Through the divine message of the holy Quran and his own noble character, the Prophet (pbuh) educated his companions about all walks of life including moral, spiritual, economic, educational, political and domestic affairs.
Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) taught his companions that the religion which was revealed to him was not a new faith but the earliest religion (Deen) which was revealed to the earlier prophets and messengers. The Prophet (pbuh) asserted that since the earlier revelations were overlooked or completely forgotten, God revealed and refreshed His eternal message (the holy Quran) to the mankind through him. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) never claimed that he was the founder of a new religion.
Varsha Sharma is an occasional contributor to New Age Islam. She is pursuing M.A in Comparative Religions from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.