Muslims use the term ‘Jahiliya’ to refer to the time period and state of affairs of pre-Islamic Arabia. The word, which translates to “the age of ignorance”, holds a negative connotation. The Arabs of this era are believed to have conducted themselves in destructive and sinful ways, frequently practicing gambling, drinking wine, usury, and fornication. Polytheism, too is often negatively mentioned as characteristic of the time period. Virtually the only positive thing the Islamic tradition attributes to Jahiliya is the poetry of the time.
Our knowledge of Jahiliya mostly stems from surviving traditions, legends, and poems, as written sources on the time period are limited. In addition, we rely on Islamic sources such as the Quran and Hadith. Nonetheless, by using all available information, it is possible to paint a picture of pre-Islamic life in Arabia.
Tribal Life in Pre-Islamic Arabia
The Arabs of Jahiliya organized themselves along tribal lines. Each tribe tended to be named after a prominent leader from whom its members claimed descendance. Tribes consisted of smaller familial groups called clans, which were often in fierce competition for wealth and status. When a larger threat presented itself, however, clans would typically stop their quarrels and unite against it.
Clans were led by sheiks who were selected for their seniority, generosity, and courage. These clan leaders usually led a council tasked with making important decisions and passing judgment. When intertribal conflict took place, clan councils would come together to try and resolve it.
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During the time period of Jahiliya, there were no established laws. Arabs were judged arbitrarily, with partisanship and bribery being commonplace. If a case came to be discussed in a tribal council, it was often the better-connected party that would be acquitted.
Oftentimes when a crime was committed, the wronged party tried to punish the perpetrator without due process. The accused tended to seek shelter with his tribe, which had a duty to protect its members. If the accused belonged to a tribe that was more powerful than that of the wronged party, the former often escaped punishment.
Arabia’s prominent tribes held authority over regions of land. Among the possessions of tribes were tents, watery places, pasturage, and cultivable land. Some tribes, and clans within tribes, were richer than others. No matter the extent of their wealth, however, tribes and clans always had to be wary, as raids were common during the time.
Although the empires of antiquity mostly considered Arabia’s desert lands of minor importance, the tribes that inhabited the region did not fully escape participation in the larger political games played.
The Byzantine and Sassanid empires protected their southern borders by using Arab tribes as vassals. The Byzantines employed the Ghassanid tribe and the Sassanians the Lakhmid tribe. As allies and clients, Arab forces were part of Byzantine and Sassanian armies and regularly fought each other on the battlefield.
On many occasions, Arabs refused to wage war on other Arabs when approached to do so by foreign powers. However, if a tribe was already in conflict with another tribe, it tended to ally itself with outside powers if it deemed it advantageous.
On occasion, empires staged campaigns into Arabia, sometimes to avenge raids, and sometimes to conquer territory. Outside powers did find it difficult to establish a permanent foothold in Arabia and tended to be repelled by Arab forces within a few decades.
Trade was the primary way through which the Arabs of Jahiliya connected to life beyond the peninsula. Caravans of men, camels, horses, and donkeys frequented markets in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Ethiopia, selling hides, raisins, and silver. Their safe return was a celebrated event as many Arabs invested in the caravan trade and made hefty profits.
Christian traders and missionaries are believed to have first entered Arabia traveling with the trade caravans. Another development linked to commerce was urbanization, with the caravans sustaining the populations of cities, including Mecca and Medina.
In the 5th and 6th centuries, the trade caravans became even more important in the context of sea routes becoming increasingly dangerous due to war and piracy. As a result, Arab tribes that controlled the overland routes grew richer and more powerful.
To facilitate trade, seasonal markets were held at different locations throughout Arabia. These were considered safe places where Arabs from all over the peninsula met to do business. Poets and missionaries, too, assembled at the markets to engage each other and speak to the crowds. The markets were also a place where slaves were bought and sold, and where predatory money lenders operated.
Accounts of usury during Jahiliya are widespread. Many Arabs borrowed money to participate in the profitable caravan trade. If the caravan returned safely, the high-interest rate could be paid off with profits. However, if it did not return, it spelled economic disaster for the borrower. Sources mention interest rates of 100 percent to be common during Jahiliya.
The richest Arab merchants were often both traders and usurers. They grew richer while those who borrowed grew ever poorer. Islam rose to prominence in the context of raising inequality and speaks out against it. Common themes in Muhammed’s messages and the Quran are the condemnation of usury and the promotion of distributing wealth to the poor.
Quran 3:130: O believers! Do not consume interest, multiplying it many times over. And be mindful of Allah, so you may prosper.
The people of pre-Islamic Arabia were predominantly polytheistic. Christians were concentrated in the south of the peninsula in modern-day Yemen, with small groups as well as monks and hermits living in the desert. Jewish communities too lived in Arabia and were mostly situated in villages and cities.
The Arabs of Jahiliya did not adhere to a uniform polytheistic religion. Often, different clans worshipped different deities, and even households could have their distinct religious practice.
The Islamic scholar Ibn al-Kalbi, who lived in the 8th century, relates a story of Arabs deifying their ancestors at the time of Jahiliya. He writes of the relatives of five deceased men approaching a sculptor to immortalize the men in stone. After the statues were worshipped by the men’s ancestors for three centuries, the statues were held in such high regard that they were deemed intermediaries between the people and God.
The Arabs of Jahiliya visited oracles and shamans, whom they believed to be able to connect to deities through visions and dreams. Various methods of divination were also practiced to contact gods and spirits. One such method involved posing a question to a deity and throwing arrows on the ground. The answer to the question was then interpreted by analyzing the position in which the arrows had fallen.
Tribes in Arabia also worshipped statues of their deities, a practice they may have adopted from the ancient Mesopotamians. The statues were installed in sacred places and brought offerings. Before Muhammad established Islam as the dominant religion in Mecca, the people of the city worshipped as many as 360 deities. Upon taking Mecca in 630, Muhammed destroyed all the idols, forbidding the practice of polytheism.
Poetry was a widely practiced art and a highly regarded skill among the Arabs. Jahili poetry was valued to such an extent that Muslims preserved and taught it for centuries after the emergence of Islam.
Through poetry, the Arabs challenged authority, praised individuals and tribes, commemorated battles, and elevated the activities of their everyday lives. Topics of renowned Jahili poems are various, ranging from lamenting the death of beloved, to elaborate descriptions of the poet’s camels. There were no strict rules when it came to poetry. As such, each Jahili poet had their unique style and was free to decide on topics of their choice.
Poetry also played a role in conflict situations. When tribes clashed, poets defended the honor of their tribe by reciting carefully constructed verses and directing them at their rivals. This poetic warfare allowed for expressing grievances without bloodshed.
While prohibited from engaging in physical warfare and occupying tribal leadership positions, women were allowed to be poetesses, the art giving them a voice in a context of strictly defined gender roles.
Much Jahili poetry has survived on account of the importance attributed to it by the Arabs. Initially solely through vocal transmission and later through writing they kept their legacy alive. Muslims, however, consider that with the revelation of the Quran, all previous Arab poetry had been surpassed in literary quality.
The Rise of Islam, the End of Jahiliyyah
The advent of Islam in the 6th century brought an end to the era of Jahiliya. Muhammad introduced a new way of life which came with profound changes.
Under Islam, women gained rights and freedoms. Tribal convention had been to minimize the rights of women and subject them to the interests of the men. Islam promotes honoring women and establishing their rights in scripture. Going forward they could claim the divine right to own property and make their own decisions to a greater extent. Importantly, women gained a say over whom they married and the ability to initiate divorce.
The Arab people united as one community under Islam, decreasing the pervasiveness of an inequitable tribal system. The society also stabilized on account of Muhammad and the Quran establishing a legal framework, ending the anarchy of Jahiliya.
The rise of Islam was an earth-shaking development. It involved a complete overhaul of Arab society. Divided desert tribes which had been in perpetual conflict with each other banded together and conquered much of the known world in a time span of decades. The rise to prominence of the Arabs speaks to the effectiveness of Islam as much as it does to the restrictiveness of Jahiliya.