The Arabian Peninsula is enclosed in the west by the Red Sea and Sinai, in the east by the Arabian Gulf, in the south by the Arabian Sea, which is an extension of the Indian Ocean, and in the north by old Syria and part of Iraq. The area is estimated between 1 and 1.25 million square miles.
Arabs have been divided according to lineage into three groups:
– Perishing Arabs: The ancient Arabs whose history is little known, and of whom were ‘Ad, Thamûd, Tasam, Jadis, Emlaq and others.
– Pure Arabs: Who originated from the progeny of Ya‘rub bin Yashjub bin Qahtaan. They were also called Qahtaanian Arabs.
– Arabized Arabs: Who originated from the progeny of Ismaa’eel, may Allah exalt his mention. They were also called ‘Adnanian Arabs.
When talking about the Arabs before Islam, we deem it necessary to draw a mini-picture of the history of rulership, princeship, sectarianism, political, economic and social situations as well as the religious dominations of the Arabs, so as to facilitate the understanding of emergent circumstances when Islam appeared.
Rulership and Princeship among the Arabs
When the sun of Islam rose, rulers of Arabia were of two kinds: crowned kings, who were in fact not independent but were subservient to Persians or Romans; and heads of tribes and clans, who enjoyed the same authorities and privileges possessed by crowned kings and were mostly independent, though some of them may have shown some kind of submission to a crowned king. The crowned kings were only those of Yemen, Heerah and Ghassaan, all other rulers of Arabia were not crowned.
The tribes dwelling near Heerah were subordinate to the Arabian king of Heerah, while those dwelling in the Syrian semi-desert were under the domain of the Arabian Ghassanide king, a dependency that was in reality formal, rather than actual. However, those living in the hinder deserts enjoyed full autonomy.
In fact, these heads of these tribes were chosen by the whole tribe, which was a demi-government based on tribal solidarity and collective interests in defense of land and property.
Heads of tribes enjoyed dictatorial privileges similar to those of kings, and were rendered full obedience and subordination in both war and peace. However, rivalry among cousins for rulership often drove them to outdo one another in entertaining guests, affecting generosity, wisdom and chivalry for the sole purpose of outranking their rivals and gaining fame among people — especially poets, who were the official spokesmen at the time.
Heads of tribes and masters had special claims to spoils of war such as a quarter of the spoils, whatever he chose for himself, that which he found on his way back or even the remaining undivided spoils.
Religions of the Arabs
Most of the Arabs had complied with the message of Ismaa’eel, may Allah exalt his mention, and professed the religion of his father Ibraaheem, may Allah exalt his mention. They had worshipped Allah, professed His Oneness and followed His religion for a long time, until a time came when they forgot part of what they had been reminded of. However, they still maintained fundamental beliefs like monotheism as well as various other aspects of Ibraaheem’s religion, may Allah exalt his mention, until the time when a chief of Khuza‘a, namely ‘Amr bin Luhai introduced them to idol-worship. ‘Amr bin Luhai was renowned for his righteousness, charity and reverence for religion, and was granted unreserved love and obedience by his tribesmen. Once, on his return from a trip to Syria where he saw people worshipping idols (a phenomenon he approved of and believed to be righteous since Syria was the locus of Messengers and Scriptures), he brought with him an idol (Hubal), which he placed in the middle of Al-Ka‘bah (the Sacred House) and summoned people to worship it. Readily enough, paganism spread all over Makkah and then to Hijaz (the region of western Saudi Arabia bordering the Red Sea). A great many idols, bearing different names, were introduced into the area.
Polytheism and worship of idols became the most prominent feature of the religion of pre-Islamic Arabs, despite the alleged profession of Ibraaheem’s religion, may Allah exalt his mention.
Traditions and idol-worship ceremonies had been mostly introduced by ‘Amr bin Luhai, and were deemed as ‘good innovations’ rather than deviations from Ibraaheem’s religion. Some features of their idol-worship were:
- Devoting themselves completely to the idols, seeking refuge with them, acclaiming their names, beseeching their help in hardship and supplication to them for fulfillment of wishes, hoping that the idols (i.e. pagan gods) would mediate with Allah for the fulfillment of their wishes.
- Performing pilgrimage to the idols, circumambulating around them, self-abasement and even prostrating themselves before them.
- Seeking the favor of idols through various kinds of sacrifices and immolations.
- Consecration of certain portions of food, drink, cattle and crops to idols. Surprisingly enough, portions were also consecrated to Allah Himself, but the misguided people often found reasons to transfer parts of Allah’s portion to idols, but never did the opposite.
It has been authentically reported that such superstitions were first invented by ‘Amr bin Luhai.
The Arabs believed that such idols or heathen gods would bring them nearer to Allah, lead them to Him and mediate with Him for their sake, to which effect, the Quran says (what means): “And they worship other than Allah things that hurt them not, nor profit them, and they say: ‘These are our intercessors with Allah.’” [Quran 10:18]
Another divinatory tradition among the Arabs was casting of Azlam (i.e. featherless arrows which were of three kinds: one showing ‘yes’, another ‘no’ and a third was blank), which they used to cast while deciding about serious matters like travel, marriage and the like. If the lot showed ‘yes’, they would go ahead, if ‘no’, they would delay the matter for the next year. Moreover, they used to have a deep conviction in the tidings of soothsayers, diviners and astrologers.
Such was the religious life in Arabia: an ignominious saga of polytheism, idolatry and superstition.
However, Judaism, Christianity, Magianism and Sabianism found their ways easily into Arabia.
The migration of the Jews from Palestine to Arabia passed through two phases: First, as a result of the persecution to which they were exposed at the hands of King Nebuchadnezzar, who destroyed their temple and took most of them as captives to Babylon. In the year B.C. 587 some Jews left Palestine for Hijaz and settled in the northern areas. The second phase started with the Roman occupation of Palestine under the leadership of Roman Buts in 70 A.D. This resulted in a tidal wave of Jewish migration into Hijaz, Yathrib (Madeenah), Khaybar and Tayma’, in particular. When Islam dawned on that land, there already existed several famous Jewish tribes — Khaybar, Al-Mustaliq, An-Nadeer, Quraizah and Qainuqa‘. According to some historical versions, the Jewish tribes were as many as twenty.
Christianity first made its appearance in Arabia following the entry of the Abyssinian (Ethiopian) and Roman colonists into the country. The Abyssinian (Ethiopian) colonization forces in league with Christian missions entered Yemen as a retaliatory reaction for the iniquities of Dhu Nawwaas, and started to propagate their faith ardently. They even built a church and called it the “Yemeni Ka‘bah” with the aim of directing the Arab pilgrimage caravans towards Yemen, and then made a failed attempt to demolish the Sacred House in Makkah.
The principal tribes that embraced Christianity were Ghassaan, Taghlib, Tai’ and some Himyarite kings as well as other tribes living on the borders of the Roman Empire.
Such was the religious life of the Arabs before the advent of Islam. The role that the prevalent religions played was marginal.