Aspects of Pre-Islamic Arabian Society

After the research we have made into the religious and political life of Arabia, it is appropriate to speak briefly about the social, economic, and ethical conditions prevalent therein.

Social Life of the Arabs

Arab society presented a social mixture, with different and diverse social levels. Women among the social elite were accorded a high degree of esteem, and enjoyed considerable free will. Their decision would be enforced and they were so highly cherished that blood would be easily shed in defense of their honor. In fact, they were the most decisive factors that held the key to bloody fighting or friendly peace. These privileges notwithstanding, the family system in Arabia was wholly patriarchal, according supremacy to the older members of the clan. The marriage contract rested completely in the hands of the woman’s legal guardian whose words with regard to her marital status could never be questioned.

On the other hand, there were other social circles where prostitution and indecency were widespread and in full operation. Al-Bukhari and others reported on the authority of `Aishah (May Allah be pleased with her) that there were four kinds of marriage in pre-Islamic Arabia:

The first was similar to present-day marriage procedures, in which case a man gives his daughter or the woman under his responsibility in marriage to another man after a proposal and a dowry has been agreed on. In the second, the husband would send his wife (after the menstrual period) to cohabit with another man in order to conceive. After conception, her husband, if he desired, would have a sexual intercourse with her.

A third kind was that a group of less than ten men would have sexual intercourse with a woman. If she conceived and gave birth to a child, she would send for these men, and nobody could abstain. They would come together to her house. She would say: `You know what you have done. I have given birth to a child and it is your child’ (pointing to one of them). The man indicated in this manner would have to accept. The fourth kind was that a large number of men would have sexual intercourse with a certain woman (a prostitute), who would not prevent anybody. Such women used to affix a certain flag at their gates to invite people in. If this prostitute got pregnant and gave birth to a child, she would collect those men, and a seeress would tell whose child it was. The appointed father would take the child and declare him/her his own.

When Prophet Muhammad (May the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) declared the advent of Islam in Arabia, he cancelled all these forms of sexual contact except that of the present Islamic marriage.

Women always accompanied men in their wars. The victors would freely have sexual intercourse with such women, but disgrace would follow the children conceived in this way all their lives.

Pre-Islam Arabs had no limit to the number of wives they could take. They could marry two sisters at the same time, or even the wives of their fathers if divorced or widowed.

``And marry not women whom your father married, except what has already passed; indeed it was shameful and most hateful, and an evil way. Forbidden to you (for marriage) are: your mothers, your daughters, your sisters, your father’s sisters, your mother’s sisters, your brother’s daughters, your sister’s daughters, your foster mother who gave you suck, your foster milk suckling sisters, your wives’ mothers, your stepdaughters under your guardianship, born of your wives to whom you have gone in -- but there is no sin on you if you have not gone in them (to marry their daughters), -- the wives of your sons who (spring) from your own loins, and two sisters in wedlock at the same time, except for what has already passed; verily Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.’’ [4:22-23]

To a very great extent, divorce was in the power of the husband.

The evil of adultery prevailed among all social classes except for a few men and women whose self-respect prevented them from committing such an act. Free women were in much better conditions than the female slaves who bore the brunt of this shameful practice. Apparently, the great majority of pre-Islamic Arabs did not feel ashamed of committing this evil. Abu Dawud reported: A man stood up in front of Prophet Muhammad (May the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) and said: “O Prophet of Allah! That boy is my son. I had sexual intercourse with his mother in the pre-Islamic period.’’ The Prophet said:

``No claim in Islam for pre-Islamic affairs. The child is to be attributed to the one on whose bed it was born, and stoning is the lot of a fornicator.’’

The story about Sa`d bin Abi Waqqas and Abd bin Zama’ah disputing over Abdur-Rahman bin Zama’ah, the son of Umm Zama’ah is well known.

With respect to the pre-Islam Arab’s relation with his offspring, we see that life in Arabia was inconsistent and presented a dark picture of contrasts. Whilst some Arabs held children dear to their hearts and cherished them greatly, others buried their female children alive because an imaginary fear of poverty and shame weighed heavily on them, and they would kill their children for fear of poverty and hardship.

``And do not kill your children because of poverty -- We provide for you.’’ [6:151]
``And when the news of (the birth of) a female (child) is brought to any of them, his face becomes dark, and he is filled with inward grief! He hides himself from the people because of the evil of that whereof he has been informed. Shall he keep her with dishonor or bury her in the earth? Certainly, evil is their decision.’’ [16:58-59]
``And do not kill your children for fear of poverty. We provide for them and for you.’’ [17:31]
``And when the female (infant) buried alive shall be questioned.’’[81:8]

We should not think, however, that the act of killing infants was commonplace and widespread, simply because they needed sons to fight with them against their enemies.

Another aspect of Arab life which deserves mention is the bedouin’s deepseated emotional attachment to his clan. Family, or perhaps tribal-pride, was one of the strongest passions with him. The doctrine of unity of blood was the principle that bound the Arabs into a social unit, and it was formed and supported by tribal-pride. Their undisputed motto was: “Support your brother whether he is an oppressor or oppressed’’ in its literal meaning; they disregarded the Islamic amendment which states that supporting an oppressor brother means preventing him from aggression.

Desire for leadership, a keen sense of competition and ambition to excel others often resulted in bitter tribal warfare despite having descended from one common ancestor. In this regard, the continued bloody conflicts of Aws and Khazraj, `Abs and Dhubyan, Bakr and Taghlib, etc. are striking examples.

Inter-tribal relationships were fragile and weak due to continual, destructive inter-tribal wars. However, a deep devotion to religious superstitions and some esteemed customs used to control their reckless tendency to quench their thirst for blood. In other cases, factors like the respect for alliances, loyalty and co-dependency could successfully bring about a spirit of affinity and put an end to groundless bases of dispute. A time-honored custom of suspending hostilities during the prohibited months (Muharram, Rajab, Dhul-Qa`dah, and Dhul-Hijjah) functioned favorably and provided an opportunity for them to earn their living and coexist in peace.

We may sum up the social situation in Arabia by saying that the Arabs of the pre-Islamic period were groping about in ignorance and darkness, entangled in a mesh of superstitions paralyzing their mind and driving them to lead a cattle-like existence. The woman was a marketable commodity and regarded as a piece of inanimate property. Inter-tribal relationships were fragile. Greed for wealth and involvement in useless wars were the main objectives that governed the selfish policies of their chiefs.

The Economic Situation

The economic situation was very similar to the social atmosphere, which was clearly illustrated by the Arab way of life. Trade was the most common means of providing a livelihood. However, trade journeys could not be undertaken unless security was granted to caravan routes and there was peaceful co-existence between the tribes — two necessities lacking in Arabia, except during the Sacred Months within which the Arabs held their assemblies of `Ukaz, Dhul-Majaz, Majannah and others.

Arabia was the farthest of lands from industry. Most of the industries like knitting and tanning were done by craftsmen coming from Yemen, Heerah and the borders of Syria. There was a primitive farming and livestock industry within Arabia. Almost all Arab women were adept at spinning yarn, but even this practice was continually threatened by wars. On the whole, poverty, hunger and deprivation of basic necessities like food and clothing were the prevailing economic features in Arabia.


We cannot deny that the pre-Islamic Arabs were involved in numerous evil practices. Social vices and evils, utterly rejected by reason, were widespread among the pre-Islamic Arabs, but this could never overshadow the highly praiseworthy virtues that were found simultaneously, of which we may mention the following:

Hospitality: They used to compete with each other in hospitality and take utmost pride in it. Almost half of all their poetry was about the praiseworthy or improper manners of entertaining one’s guest. For example, if a guest were to visit a man suffering from severe cold and hunger, having no wealth besides a she-camel upon whom the lives of his entire family depended, even so, he would slaughter it to feed his guest. They would not hesitate to incur heavy blood money and other related burdens just to stop bloodshed, and consequently, be the object of praise and eulogy.

Among their foremost qualities was their praise of wine drinking, not because it was worth boasting of by itself, but because it was a means of displaying hospitality and indulgence. For this reason, the grape vine was called Karam — the same word used for honor — and wine was called the daughter of Karam.

Looking at the collection of odes and poetry of the pre-Islamic period, one discovers that it is filled with chapters upon chapters of praise and boasting.

Gambling was also another of their practices closely associated with generosity since the proceeds would always go to charity. Even the Noble Qur’an does not play down the benefits that are derived from wine drinking and gambling, but also says:

``And the sin of them is greater than their benefit.’’ [2:219]

Keeping a covenant: For the Arab, to make a promise was to run into debt. He would not care for the death of his children or the destruction of his household, all for the sake of upholding the deep-rooted tradition of keeping one’s oath or pledge. The literature of that period is rich in stories highlighting this merit.

Sense of honor and denial of injustice: This attribute developed mainly from a surfeit of courage and a keen sense of self-esteem. The Arab was always in revolt against the slightest hint to humiliation or disdain. He would never hesitate to sacrifice himself to maintain his ever-alert sense of self-respect.

Firm will and determination: An Arab would never lose an opportunity that contributed to keeping up an object of pride or a standing of honor, even if it were at the expense of his life.

Forbearance, perseverance and mildness: The Arab regarded these qualities with great admiration, no wonder his impulsiveness and audacious lifestyle was sadly in need of them.

Pure and simple bedouin life: This lifestyle was still clean from the trappings of deceptive urban appearances, and was a driving reason behind his nature of truthfulness and honesty, and detachment from intrigue and treachery.

Such priceless ethics coupled with the favorable geographical position of Arabia were the factors that lay behind selecting the Arabs to undertake the burden of communicating the Message (of Islam) and leading humanity down a new course of life.

In this regard, these ethics by themselves, though harmful in some areas, and in need of modification in certain aspects, were invaluable to the ultimate welfare of humanity, and it was this task of reformation that Islam performed.

The most priceless ethics, next to keeping one’s covenant, were no doubt their sense of self-esteem and strong determination — two human qualities indispensable in combating evil and eliminating moral corruption on the one hand, and establishing a good and justice-orientated society, on the other.

To sum up, the life of Arabs in the pre-Islamic period was rich in other countless virtues which do not need to be enumerated.

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