Qur'anic Attitudes to Pre-Islamic Society and Customs
...We were a people of Jahiliyyah, worshipping idols, eating the flesh of dead animals, committing abominations, neglecting our relatives, doing evil to our neighbours and the strong among us would oppress the weak...
“We were a people of Jahiliyyah, worshipping idols, eating the flesh of dead animals, committing abominations, neglecting our relatives, doing evil to our neighbours and the strong among us would oppress the weak…”1
To begin, let us first examine the dominating theme of the Qur'an from which any further attitudes can be grasped; the theme of Tawhid (Islamic monotheism). The Qur'anic message is clear: it is to this purpose that mankind was created and to its propagation the Prophet Muhammad sent:3
So far, all of this may seem irrelevant to the title at hand. However, we will realize it - through the course of this essay - to be central to our discussion as, in short, this message would be pivotal in the shaping of the Quran’s attitude to Pre-Islamic Arabia.
The most obvious of these features of the Jahili society was shirk, namely idolatry, which despite being considered a theology, cannot be secluded from the social analysis of Jahiliyyah. In fact it was very much included, and determined various norms and customs of the Arabs, the Ka’bah and Hajj being two of the most obvious symbols. It influenced Arab life from illness to journeys to battles.10 Thus, shirk, being in direct conflict with Tawhid, was explicitly rejected and received the harshest of treatments. In the Qur'an it has been unsurprisingly ranked as the most heinous of sins, unforgivable should the perpetrator die upon it11, and hence, is dealt with the sentence of eternal Hell.12
Even though this denunciation would fall squarely on those that practiced such customs, Banna’s view can be reconciled with that of Bashier’s; as all acknowledged and tolerated these customs, so all deserved criticism. The same can be said for the many other traditions that existed at the time.
Tolerance in Jahiliyyah was also shown to practices of zina (fornication/adultery). According to Muhammad Ali, women were often viewed as ‘a mere chattel’19, while prostitution and other sexual customs were recognized and accepted in the crudest of forms20. Although all types of zina were rejected generally in the Qur'an, others were specifically rebuked in the Qur'an such as the forcing of handmaids to prostitute in order to provide capital for their owners21, and the marrying of close relations.22
While we can continue to explore those aspects of Jahiliyyah that were wholly rejected, there were features of Pre-Islamic Arabia that were reshaped to fit the new era. The Hajj would be the foremost example in this category. The Islamic version continued many of the rites of the Hajj of Jahiliyyah, with the tawaf being perhaps the most obvious, as well as the timing of the Hajj season. In brief, the Hajj was one of the practices that survived into Islam in ‘revalorized form’23, according to Jonathan Berkey. The justification is noted in the Quran24; Hajj was a pilgrimage ordained by God to the House of God and is to be restored to its Abrahamic roots. Despite these continuations, certain aspects were rejected such as that of the method of prayer through ‘whistling and clapping’25, the Tawaf around the sanctuary naked26, and of course, the idolatry, as Muir summarizes it: “The rites of the Kaaba were retained, but stripped of all idolatrous tendencies”27 (this would also apply to other forms of worship such as the making of the Qasam (oath) or Nadhr (vow). Originally made in the name of an idol, now it was only to be used in the name of Allah28).
Fighting in Jahiliyyah was not rare. Earlier, Muhammad Ali painted a picture of Jahiliyyah indulged in zina. This portrayal is challenged by Mubarakpuri who excludes the upper-class woman from this representation, but nevertheless points out another problem; she was so ‘highly cherished’ that wars would be fought as a result. This was just one aspect of the social and political strife that existed. Arabia was a highly tribal land governed by tribal politics29. It is true that the Qur'an denounced blood ties in favour of those of faith, thus ‘achieving the impossible….the union of these warring faction’30 with the concept of Islamic brotherhood. Nevertheless, the tribal practice continued for several generations after Islam31 and was commended within the circle of faith:
As for the language and poetry of the Arabs, then much can be learnt from the fact that the Quran describes itself as an “Arabic Quran”37, revealed in the “plain Arabic language”38 that challenges the linguistically boastful nation to produce verses like it. The Qur'an itself was a spectacle of words, in a period that Arabian idioms and poetry were celebrated as a core cultural component39 at its ‘zenith’40, the Mu’allaqaat at the ka’bah being evidence for that41. Although poetry of ill nature, such as those used to attack Islam was rejected42, poetry itself was not, and was employed by the Prophet (peace be upon him) himself through a versifier, Hassan ibn Thaabit, to combat the opposition in a battle of words.
1. Z. Bashier, The Makkan Crucible (Leicester: The Islamic Foundation, 1978), p25.
2. J. Berkey, The Formation of Islam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p39.
3. M. Cook, Muhammad (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), p5.
5. W. Muir, The Life of Mahomet (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1894), p xcii
6. M. Cook, pp37-9.
8. J. Berkey, p xii.
9. EMQ 16:120-3.
10. R. Aslan, No God but God (London: Arrow Books, 2005), p7.
11. EMQ 4:48.
12. EMQ 5:72.
13. S. Mubarakpuri, The Sealed Nectar (London: Darrussalam International Publications, 2002), p348.
14. M. A. Wahhab, Kitab At-Tauhid (Riyadh: Dar-us-Salam Publications, 1996), pp 49, 101, 106, 110.
15. EMQ 81:8-9.
16. S. Mubarakpuri, p47.
18. (EMQ 16:58-59).
19. M. Ali, Muhammad the Prophet (London: Ahmadiyyah Anjuman Isha’at Islam, 1972), p27.
20. S. Mubarakpuri, p45.
23. J. Berkey, p42
26. H. Banna, The Seerah of the Final Prophet (Swansea: Awakening Publications, 1999), p32.
27. W. Muir, p xciii
28. M. A. Wahhab, pp 57, 139.
29. M. Ali, p25-6.
30. M. Ali, p26.
31. J. Berkey, p67.
33. Z. Bashier, pp 24-36.
34. H. Banna, 31.
36. Bashier p25.
39. I. Shahid, ‘Pre-Islamic Arabia’, The Cambridge History of Islam, vol. 1 (1970), p28.
40. M. Ali, p22.
41. A. Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1991), p13.
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