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Islamic Society (01 Aug 2018 NewAgeIslam.Com)

The Myth of Jahiliyyah

By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam

01 August 2018

As Muslims, we have always been told that life in pre-Islamic Arabia was barbaric, nasty, brutish and short. We are told that before the advent of Islam in that part of the world, girls were buried alive, men could have as many wives as possible and that generally the status of women was very low. Rules were seldom maintained and it was Islam which brought order within such a chaotic society. This characterization of pre-Islamic Arabian society has been so much drilled into the consciousness of an average Muslim psyche that questioning it has become difficult even when there are manifest clues to the contrary.

The age of Jahiliyyah (ignorance), as it came to be called was very nearly a period of darkness. And just as Enlightenment delivered Europe into modernity through the dark ages, Islam delivered geography and its people through darkness into a new dawn. In its modern reading according to Syed Qutb and Maududi, large parts of the world are still in the age of Jahiliyyah and are waiting for Islam to deliver them from their self-imposed darkness. Just as the Europeans convinced us that colonialism was good for us, Islamists are out to prove that Islam will be good for the entire world. The claim rests on the assertion that Islam brought humanity to the Arabs and one measure of that humanity was its treatment of women.

But how accurate is this narrative? It seems that in our zeal to associate everything praiseworthy with Islam, we have falsified history and the Arabs in particular have belittled their own historical past. There is certainly a sense in which some of the laws and practices of the pre-Islamic period continued into Islamic times. For example, hajj was made possible every year because of the tribal mores that forbade killing within that month. Before the pilgrimage was Islamised as the ‘hajj’, the society therein had evolved some laws which they put into practice. If the society was so anarchic, as claimed by Muslims, then certainly the annual pilgrimage which later became the hajj would not have been possible. After the Prophet proclaimed Islam and made the hajj, he was protected by the same tribal values of people who were not only not Muslims but also hostile to the new religion.

It is true that pre-Islamic Arabian society resolved their conflicts through blood feud. It is also true that Islam tried to control some of this conflict. But then, throughout the world, blood feud was a common method of conflict resolution in tribal societies. Moreover, even Islam could not put a moratorium on such perpetual inter-generational conflicts. The descent into violence immediately after the death of the Prophet can only be understood as falling back on the tribal ways of conflict resolution.

Another important contention has been that Islam improved the status of women in Arabian society. Now it might be the case that female infanticide was practiced in Arabia at that time. But then it was by no means unique to the region. Various tribal and non-tribal societies have had this practice and most of them did not need Islam to overcome this horrible practice. It just died its own death.

The special privilege that Islam claims as the reason why this practice stopped is therefore unfounded. Also, the contention that men in pre Islamic society could take as many wives as they desired seems untrue. What seems to be the case is that there were many types of union which were possible earlier. The specific contribution of Islam seems to be the introduction of a new normativity in marriages which was called Nikah. In making Nikah as the standard form of marriage, Islam considerably lowered the diversity which was practiced earlier in terms of recognised sexual unions.

The claim that Islam gave an exalted status to women is also an exaggeration. Muslim scholars are quick to point out that the first wife of the Prophet, Khadija, was a highly successful businesswoman and this is cited as a proof that the adoption of Islam led to women’s empowerment. What we forget however, is that the marriage between Khadija and the Prophet took place during pre-Islamic times. So, Khadija was a successful businesswoman not because of Islam but despite it. The very fact that she inherited wealth also belies the claim of those Islamists who argue that Islam gave property rights to women. The case of Khadija demonstrates that property rights for women existed in pre-Islamic Arabia; Islam merely re-affirmed this practice. It must also be pointed out that the proposal for marriage was initiated by Khadija and not from the Prophet’s side. This again tells us that women in pre-Islamic Arabia were considerably independent and did not depend on men to take important decisions.

It should also be borne in mind that till the time Khadija was alive; the Prophet did not take another wife. While this is regarded as Prophet’s devotion to his wife,  it can also be read in another way. Marriage contracts were not the specific contribution of Islam; it existed even before Islam. Women were free to put conditions in that contract, a practice which Islam continued when it became the dominant power. It is not entirely unfeasible to think that the Prophet was bound by a contract which forbade him from taking another wife till the time Khadija was alive. We know that the Prophet married many times after the death of his first wife, and not all of them were for reasons of making political alliances as many Muslim apologists tell us.

Thus what we call Jahiliyyah may not after all be a period of darkness. Like any other society, women belonging to different classes had different rights and statuses. What seems to have happened might just be the opposite. That in trying to make one standard rule for all, Islam in the process diminished some of the rights which women enjoyed earlier.  

Arshad Alam is a columnist with NewAgeIslam.com

URL: http://www.newageislam.com/islamic-society/arshad-alam,-new-age-islam/the-myth-of-jahiliyyah/d/116003

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  • Nawaz saheb,
    I have summarized what my understanding of progressivism is. The philosophy behind it is inherent in the definition itself and can be understood as a desire to maximize rationality and to have beliefs which are fully consonant with the times while remaining faithful to Islam's fundamental affirmation of righteousness.

    By Ghulam Mohiyuddin - 8/25/2018 12:34:07 PM

  • Dear Mr.Mohyiuddin.
    Thank you for your response.I wanted to know from you the philosophical ans socio-cultural  basis of your divide and not any self-styled  definition. Thanks

    By Kazi Wadud Nawaz - 8/25/2018 6:07:30 AM

  • Nawaz sahib,
    Progressive Muslims reject obscurantism and promote rationality. They are not afraid of modernity and science. They support gender equality and respect the belief systems of others.

    By Ghulam Mohiyuddin - 8/24/2018 10:19:02 PM

  • Dear Mr. Mohiyuddin,
    Can you please tell me what is the basis of such divide among the Muslim Community-
    " progressive"and "Reactionary" Muslims?

    By Kazi Wadud Nawaz - 8/24/2018 5:50:26 PM

  • Shaheen Sb,

     Without religion, we would have been without a standard of right and wrong. Over a period, moral values given to us by religion, permeated society and became part of our laws. So, it is not surprising that we find many people who may not be outwardly religious, but are kind, honest, just etc and many displaying outward piety who are scoundrels.

     Belief for many people is simply cheap talk or worse hatred for others who do not believe as they do, and often irrelevant to what makes one "righteous". "Religions are, for the most part, bad– but religion is not." So, please do not confuse religion with the nonsense that goes with it but try to understand religion in its essence. It is religion which has given even the atheists the criterion of right and wrong and without religion, we are without an anchor and will drift into ways that will spell our destruction. The role that religion has played, is examined in the following article: Science and Religion

     Who is to blame when the Quran endorses several religions and paths, but our scholars have developed a theology of exclusivism? The Quran endorses even Buddhism which is agnostic about the existence of God but has a strong moral code. Who is to blame when the Quran values deeds above beliefs, but our scholars place mere verbalising of beliefs once in our lifetime as guaranteed to make us enter Heaven?  So, there is a religion of the Book (which is all that is good) and a religion of the people and what they have made of it which is for the most part bad. The part that is good will always guide those who seek guidance, and these will be successful in this life and the Hereafter. The world is a place of testing to find those who are best in their deeds and this test is not a simple one except for those who have a heart that is sound/pure.

     إِلَّا مَنْ أَتَى اللَّهَ بِقَلْبٍ سَلِيمٍ 

     (26:89) "But only he (will prosper) that brings to Allah a sound heart.

     There is an impulse for good and an impulse for evil and those who respond to the impulse for good and resist the impulse for evil are those who will believe and strive on the path that is steep. This is true for everyone irrespective of their religion.

     I have argued before, that if we believe that Islam is the best religion, then all other things being equal, a muqallid Mushrik is superior to a muqallid Muslim, because inspite of following Islam, the Muslim is only equal to a Mushrik in his deeds. So, who is better, depends on who is better in his deeds, and who has made progress on the path of purifying his heart and his beliefs.

    By Naseer Ahmed - 8/9/2018 12:40:03 AM

  • Bringing common sense, rationality, humanity and modernity into religions is not a waste of time. However making false claims in the name of religions as well as attempts to generate hate against religions are both  equally reprehensible.

    By Ghulam Mohiyuddin - 8/8/2018 11:53:26 AM

  • You are right Naseer Saheb: religion can only do so much "only polish the diamonds but cannot turn brass into gold. ...."
    But then the question arises: what is the value of religion? Aren't even unpolished diamonds good enough? What is needed is to turn brass into gold. And religion cannot do that. Quran itself states this explicitly, as you point out.
    No wonder, anecdotally speaking, the few really nice people one meets in daily life, the tolerant, the pluralistic,  the gentle, the honest, are the irreligious, the secular, the atheist, the deist, etc.  Of course, not all the secular are nice, nor are all the religious bad. Basically, religion would appear to be irrelevant in terms of human conduct, in terms of a civilsational input. Diamonds can polish themselves. It's the brass we mostly deal with and there is no way to turn them into gold. Should we make so much of religion then? The amount of energy we expend as humanity on studying and following and fighting for and against religions would appear to be stupid if this is the case. We should probably stop making such a big deal of religions, giving them so much weight and time-space in our minds.

    By Sultan Shahin - 8/8/2018 7:43:11 AM

  • It is to the eternal credit of the Muslims, that they never took slaves from among the Meccans who remained free even after the fall of Mecca to the Muslims. In previous battles, the prisoners of war were let off on payment of ransom or even without ransom if they could not afford to pay it. No prisoner of war from among the Meccans, was ever killed or enslaved. Neither were the Meccans looted or deprived of their property  when the Muslims returned triumphant.

    The prophet never took any revenge or destroy the idols. It is the people who accepted Islam who destroyed their own idols as they had no further use for the same.

    It wasn't booty that attracted the people to fight against the oppression. On the contrary, the people were quite reluctant to fight. The fact is that every battle took place near Medina and not near Mecca which establishes the Meccans as the aggressor. The last major battle was the siege of Medina itself by a large army of the Meccans and their allies. The city was saved by digging a trench around it, impeding the progress of the enemy and holding them off in a stalemate. How the Islamophobes lie!

    By Naseer Ahmed - 8/7/2018 11:51:02 PM

  • Hats Off is using this article as an opportunity to vent his intense animus towards  Islam. Such hateful spurning of Islam may be permissible on an apostate site but it does not belong here.

    By Ghulam Mohiyuddin - 8/7/2018 11:04:17 PM

  • the pre-islamic tribes of arabia tolerated a presumptuous man with auditory hallucinations who kept up a constant stream of abuse, denigration and humiliation against the religion and practices of the arabian tribes for more than ten years.

    that his abuse was tolerated for so long before they took action goes to prove how peaceful the tribes were.

    when his abuse of their religions became unbearable, they thought the only way to get rid of his constant abuse is to turn him out of town.

    nothing could have justified the prophets constant tirade of abuse and humiliatuion meted out to the practices and idols and dieties of the tribes.

    the prophet had his revenge when he destroyed all the idols in the kaba. and got still more revenge by raiding caravan parties and looting their wealth. he used to retain 1/5 of the loot and distributed the rest among the others no wonder people were making a beeline to the new religion which made it mainstream and respectable to raid caravans, take sex slaves and generally have a wonderful time.

    must have been a totally peaceful dude.

    By hats off! - 8/7/2018 5:31:43 PM

  • The state of jahiliya before Islam, refers to ignorance of the religion of Allah among the pagan Arabs, but does not refer to the Jews and the Christians simply because they are the people of the Book. This definition is beyond debate. It does not refer to the state of the accomplishments of the people in any field, be it the arts, or the sciences.

    The people who became Muslims, came from among the people of Jahiliya mostly. The sterling character of persons such as Umar bin Khattab and Abu Bakr Siddiq or the villainous character of people like Abu Jahl and Abu Lahab is common to all people. People like Umar bin Khattab, Abu Bakr Siddiq and other Vanguard Muslims, were attracted to Islam because of their inherent good qualities which Islam polished further to make them what they became. A religion can only polish the diamonds but cannot turn brass into gold. This limitation is explicitly stated in the Quran. There are people “who will not believe” no matter what, and every person in whom God finds any good, will be made to listen to the message (8:23).  The others are as if their hearts are sealed and they are deaf and blind. (45;23) “Then seest thou such a one as takes as his god his own vain desire? Allah has, knowing (him as such), left him astray, and sealed his hearing and his heart (and understanding), and put a cover on his sight. Who, then, will guide him after Allah (has withdrawn Guidance)? Will ye not then receive admonition?”

    By Naseer Ahmed - 8/7/2018 12:52:14 AM

  • Jahiliya means ignorance and the article is based on the author’s ignorance. Sample the following:

    “For example, hajj was made possible every year because of the tribal mores that forbade killing within that month. Before the pilgrimage was Islamised as the ‘hajj’, the society therein had evolved some laws which they put into practice.

     Kaba was built by Ibrahim (AS) and Ismail (AS) and the hajj was ordained by Allah and was practiced since the day the Kaba was built. The rituals and practices were also as prescribed. The four-month period of Hajj during which all violence and killing was prohibited or also goes back to the practice since the days of Ismail. Kaba was a place of sanctuary ever since it was built.

     The people later paganised the kaba. Religion followed the familiar path of commercialisation and pandering to the people’s weaknesses. “Shirk” is the greatest and most unforgivable sin because in its purest form, it is pandering to one’s own desires and lusts or paying obeisance to anything that promises to satiate one’s desires and dreams without a thought to what is right.  The attractiveness and commercial value of a place of pilgrimage is maximised following the very familiar model of successful marketing. To sell successfully, the customer must be provided with a wide variety of choice and merchandise advertised as guaranteed to fulfil the desires and dreams of the people in this world itself.

    Muhammad (pbuh) restored the original position of Kaba as a place of worship for the One and only God. There was no need to alter the practices that did not change since the days of Ibrahim and Ismail. If the author had read the Quran, or had some knowledge of it, he would have known this.

     Take the relationship between Hazrat Khadija and Muhammad (pbuh). Hazrat Khadija was the first to accept Islam, the foremost among its supporters and one who gave all she had to Islam. She was a wife in the best of Islamic traditions, who honoured her husband and had implicit faith in him more than he had in himself. It was Khadija who reassured him that he was a true prophet when he was in doubt. The regard for Khadija continued after she died, and she remained the most loved one amongst all his wives. Now to speculate in the manner the author has done on the relationship, is to expose himself as an ignoramus at best, or as just another Islamophobe.

     It was George Bernard Shaw who said that marriage is legalized prostitution. A person of similar bent of mind is likely to say that “Mehar” is the “vulva price”. Such notions are not derived from the Quran and are a product of profane minds. What if the profane mind belongs to some Maulana and what he says, finds itself into the Books of the Muslims? The test of whether Islam teaches the same is whether such notions are found in the Quran.

     Ghulam Mohiyuddin Sb is quite right. There is nothing original in the author’s article or in the comments of Mr Hamza. They say what the anti-Islam Christian Missionaries have been saying for the last 200 years and what the Islamophobes among the atheists have since picked up from the same sources.

    By Naseer Ahmed - 8/7/2018 12:07:43 AM

  • Hats Off's analysis is a bundle of fanciful lies. 

    If pre-Islamic societies were so tolerant, why did the Prophet and his followers have to flee Mecca to save their lives? 

    All reputable Western historians acknowledge Islam's contribution to the advancement of women's rights. The fact that we did not keep moving them forward is unforgivable and begs to be corrected right now.

    The warlike nature of Arab tribes cannot be blamed on Islam. There is no evidence that these tribes were more peaceful before.

    And the burning of female newborns is not a big testimonial to the humane conditions in Jahiliyya.

    This topic is of interest only to those who want to besmirch Islam and who have made spreading anti-Islam hate their life's main mission.

    By Ghulam Mohiyuddin - 8/6/2018 11:33:15 PM

  • Arshad Alam's article is a good effort at dispelling the idea of jahilliya among Muslims. Of course, evils and social ills had plagued the region as they had plagued other continents of the world in those years but at the same time, the language and literature of Arab was very rich and developed in pre Islamic days. This could not have been possible if it was really a period of jahillia in every sphere of life. Social ills were there because of any religious force prevalent in the period in Arab in those years. Not only Hadhrat Khadija but also there were many women personalities in various fields in pre Islamic periond. However, it is also true that Islam brought a system in Arabs' life. It is also true that Hadhrat Khadija lost her enterpreneurial status gradually after accepting Islam because she devoted more time now to her husband's mission rather that expanding her own business and contributing to the growth of the economy of Arab world.
    By arshad - 8/6/2018 10:30:36 PM

  • jahiliyya is a tool designed to denigrate all pre-islamic cultures, tribes and peoples en masse.

    the inherent intolerance, violence and oppression that is apparent in almost all islamic countries is proof that pre-islamic societies were not only better, but also inherently tolerant of people sucgh as the prophet who made a practice of denigrating all other pre-islamic religions.

    if is lam gave rights to women, just look at the women in any islamic country.

    lies cannot ever pass off as arguments.

    another thorn on the flesh if moderate liars is the ridda wars.

    if islam gave freedom of religion why the need to slaughter all those who wanted out of the oppressive sword enforced "new" religion?

    in any case islam is just judaism v.3. just as discriminatory, violent and intolerant as the v.1

    By hats off! - 8/6/2018 6:04:34 PM

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