Aspects of Pre-Islamic Arabian
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
The Arabian society presented a social mixture, with different and diverse social levels. The status of the woman among the nobles recorded an advanced degree of esteem where the woman enjoyed a considerable portion of free will, and her decision would most often be enforced. She was so highly cherished that blood would be easily shed in defense of her honor. In fact, she was the most decisive key to bloody fight or friendly peace. These privileges notwithstanding, the family system in Arabia was wholly patriarchal, having the supremacy of 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 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 menstruation 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 meant would have to accept. The fourth kind was that a lot of men would have sexual intercourse with a ccrtain woman (a whore). She would prevent anybody. Such women used to put a certain flag at their gates to invite in anyone who liked. If this whore 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 se declared Islam in Arabia, he cancelled all these forms of sexual contacts except that of the present Islamic marriage (1) Women always accompanied men in their wars. The winners 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 limited number of wives. 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)
 Sahih Al-Bukhari no. 5127. Abu Dawud, The Book of Marriage, the chapter on the
view of marriages that were contracted by the people of ignorance.
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
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
Allâh is Oft-Forgiving. Most Merciful.” (4:22-23] Divorce was to a very great extent in the power
of the husband.  The evil of adultery prevailed almost among all social classes except few men and women whose self-dignity prevented them from committing such an act. Free women were in much better conditions than the female slaves who constituted the greatest calamity. It seemed that the greatest majority of pre-Islam Arabs did not feel ashamed of committing this evil. Abu Dawud reported: A man stood up in front of Prophet Muhammad and said: “O Prophet of Allâh! that boy is my son. I had sexual intercourse with his mother in the pre-Islamic period.” The Prophet centres 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 the time and Abd bin Zama’ah disputing over Abdur-Rahman bin Zama’ah, the son of Umm
pronouncements of divorce. This is what is mentioned by the scholars of Tafsir about the causes of the revelation of Allâh’s Saying: “Divorce is twice.” (2:229) Abu Dawud – Chapter “The child is to the one on whose bed it was born.”.
Zama’ah is well known. (1) 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” (16:5859
“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 of the great need they had for sons to fight with them against their enemies.
(1) See Sahih Al-Bukhari with Al-Fath 4/343 and others.
Another aspect of the Arabs’ life which deserves mention is the bedouin’s deep-seated emotional attachment to his clan. Family, or perhaps tribal-pride, was one of the strongest passions with him. The doctrine of unity of blood as the principle that bound the Arabs into a social unity was formed and supported by tribalpride. 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, keen sense of competition and ambition to excel others often resulted in bitter tribal warfare despite their being 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 and destructive inter-tribal wars. Deep devotion to religious superstitions and some customs held in esteem, however, used to control their reckless tendency to quench their thirst for blood. In other cases, there were the motives of, and respect for, alliance, loyalty and dependency that could successfully bring about a spirit of affinity, and end 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 the dark and ignorance, 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 their chiefs’ selfish policies.
The Economic Situation
The economic situation was very much similar to the social atmosphere. The Arabian ways of living would illustrate this quite clearly. Trade was the most common means of providing their needs of life. The trade journeys could not be undertaken unless security of caravan routes and inter-tribal peaceful co-existence were there – 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 available industries of knitting and tanning in Arabia were done by people coming from Yemen, Heerah and the borders of Syria. Inside Arabia there was some sort of farming and livestock industry. Almost all the Arabian women were qualified in yarn spinning but even this practice was continually threatened by wars. On the whole, poverty, hunger and insufficient clothing were the prevailing economic features in Arabia.
We cannot deny that the pre-Islamic Arabs practiced a large number of evils. Admittedly, vices and evils, utterly rejected by reason, were widespread among the pre-Islamic Arabs, but this could never screen off the surprising existence of highly praiseworthy virtues, of which we may mention the following:
1. 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. A guest would visit a man suffering from severe cold and hunger, the host having no wealth besides a shecamel upon whom the lives of his entire family depended. So, he would slaughter it to feed his guest. They would not hesitate to incur heavy blood money and relevant burdens just to stop bloodshed, and consequently merit 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 pampering the soul For such reasons the grape vine itself was called Karm, the same word used for honor, and wine was called the daughter of Karm. When looking at the collection of odes and poems of the preIslamic period, one discovers it full of chapters upon chapters of praise and boasting Gambling was also another practice of theirs closely associated with generosity since the proceeds would always go to charity. Even the Noble Qur’ân does not play down the benefits that derive from wine drinking and gambling, but also says:
and Í “And the sin of them is greater than their benefit.” [2:219)
2. Keeping a covenant: For the Arab, to make a promise wKeeping a covenantas to run into debt. He would never care for the death of his children or destruction of his household, all for the sake of upholding the deep-rooted tradition of covenant-keeping. The literature of that period is rich in stories highlighting this merit.
3. Sense of honor and denial of injustice: This attribute developed mainly from excess of courage and a keen sense of self-esteem. The Arab was always in revolt against the slightest hint to humiliation or disregard. He would never hesitate to sacrifice himself to maintain his ever-alert sense of self-respect.
4. Firm will and determination: An Arab would never lose an opportunity contributing to an object of pride or a standing of honor, even if it were at the expense of his life.
5. Forbearance, perseverance and mildness: The Arab regarded these qualities with great admiration, no wonder his impulsive ness and courage-based life was sadly in need of them.
6. Pure and simple bedouin life: That was still clean from the accessories of deceptive urban appearances, and was a driving reason behind his nature of truthfulness and honesty, an detachment from intrigue and treachery. Such priceless ethics coupled with a 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 mankind 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 greatly invaluable to the ultimate welfare of the human community with the necessary reformations, and it was this task of reformation that Islam performed. The most priceless ethics, next to covenant-keeping, 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. Actually, the life of the Arabs in the pre-Islamic period was rich in other countless virtues we do not need to enumerate for the time being.