Makkah has been described in the
Quran by the noble title of Umm al-Qura - 'the mother
of cities.' At the dawn of prophethood it had already developed
into an urban city which was governed by self-governing clans
who, by mutual agreement, saw to the administrative, civil and
religious functions of its inhabitants and pilgrims. The Banu
Haashim clan had the honour of providing water for the pilgrims.
Similarly, other tribes saw to the upkeep of the Ka'bah, the administration
of the House of Assembly, etc.
Makkah was the centre of trade. Merchants
and caravans would proceed from Makkah to Africa and Asia and
would return with all the necessities and luxuries. Gold, ivory,
resin and ebony were imported from Africa. Spices, saffron, hides
and incense were imported from Yemen. Oils, armour, silk and wine
came from Egypt and Syria. Cloth was brought from Iraq. Precious
stones, ivory and gold were brought from India. (3)
Makkah was regarded as the home of
the Arabic language. The dialect of Arabic spoken here was the
standard. The elegant expressions and untainted purity forced
its neighbours to regard Makkan Arabic in the highest esteem.
Culturally, the Makkans were attracted
to genealogy, poetry and astrology. Horsemanship was an art dear
to their hearts. They would preserve the breed of the Arabian
horse and were masters at every aspect when it came to their horses.
Religious Condition in Arabia
The Arabs had been followers of the
Abrahamic religion of old and were fortunate enough to have the
house of Allah, the Ka'bah, in their midst. A number of the true
teachings of the Prophet Ibrahim Alaihis Salaam had remained intact,
such as the pilgrimage to the Ka'bah. In addition, Arabia had
been the birth-place of many prophets. Hud had been sent to the
nation of Aad which, according to historians, was close to Hadramaut.
Saalih was sent to the tribe of Thamud between Tabuk and Hijaz.
Similarly, Ismail, Shuaib and other prophets lived in Arabia.
Unfortunately, the people had been
led astray by idol worship. It was the chief of the Khuzaá
tribe, Amr Ibn Luhai, who brought idol worship to Arabia. He was
a man who was renowned for his piety and kindness. On one of his
journeys to Syria he came across people worshipping idols. He
liked the idea and brought back with him an idol and placed it
in the Ka'bah. As a leader people respected and obeyed him and
readily agreed to follow him in worshipping it. In a short time
many more idols were introduced and idol worship spread all over
Arabia. At the time of the Prophet Sallallahu Alaihi Wasallam
idolatry had reached its peak in Arabia with every clan and family
having an idol of their own. Three hundred and sixty idols had
been installed in the Ka'bah itself. Hubal was the chief idol
and occupied the central spot in the Ka'bah. Is'af and Na'ila
were two idols that were placed in front of the Ka'bah. (5)
Idols came to be venerated and honoured
in different ways. People supplicated to them, sought refuge with
them and pleaded to them for all of their needs. Prostration and
pilgrimage to them was considered a great act of worship. Devotees
would make sacrifices of food, crops and cattle to them.
Along with idol worship astrologers,
soothsayers and diviners played an important role in the social
setup of the Arabs. Superstitious beliefs also played an important
role in every day life. As an example, they believed that the
soul of a murdered person would fly in the wilderness and would
never come to rest until revenge was taken for his death.
These conditions together with the
barren rugged terrain of Arabia and its deficiency of resources
discouraged any conquering nation from casting a second glance
at it. In the midst of this corruption a prophet would be born,
who would rescue the Arabs from the gloom that had overpowered
Story telling was common amongst
the Arabs and groups of men would assemble around a man well-versed
in the art and spend the entire night listening with rapt attention.
The evils of wine and gambling had also become a way of life for
Women were regarded as symbols of
honour. They were protected by their tribes and families and blood
was often shed in her defence. However, in many other ways a woman
was regarded as a worthless commodity. She had little control
over her affairs. Prostitution and sexual immorality was common.
Adultery was prevalent amongst all social classes of men. A man
could marry as many wives as he wanted and would divorce his wives
when he felt like. Female children were considered a burden to
the family and the father would bury his daughter alive to avoid
the shame of rearing a girl.
Tribalism was an integral component
of the society. A Bedouin had deep emotional attachment to his
clan. His tribal pride would lead him to avenge any act which
brought disrepute to his tribe. This would sometimes result in
war which would drag on for forty of more years.
In short, the Arabs were uncultured
and uncivilised. They did not even know the difference between
camphor and salt. The Arab Muslims, when their days of conquest
came, conquered cities and palaces where they found rooms filled
with gold and silver. They found camphor in large amounts. Thinking
it to be salt they used it in their dough. They found it to be
very bitter and only then did they realize their mistake. (6)
The Arabs were then an alienated
nation. The super powers of the day, the Romans and the Persians,
did not consider the possibility of conquering the cities of Arabia
due to the miserable plight of its inhabitants. They were steeped
in moral decay. Their tribal feuds, which lasted for many years,
caused havoc in their social set-up. Arabian society was fragmented
into numerous tribes and clans making any possibility of a government
The status of the pre-Islamic Arabs
amongst the rest of humanity can be better understood from the
opinion of their neighbours regarding them.
Yezdigird, the emperor of Persia
said to Mughira ibn Shuba, a Muslim ambassador to Persia : 'I
do not know of any nation on earth which is worse than you, which
is smaller in number than you and which has stone-hearted enmity
as you. We had assigned to you the outlying cities so that we
could remain safe from you, so that the Persians would not wage
war against you and so that you would not intend rising to them.
If your numbers are large then do not be deceived by us. If difficulties
afflict you we will stipulate quantities of food to supplement
you. We will honour you. We will clothe you. We will appoint a
ruler over you who will be kind to you.'
Mughira ibn Shuba replied: 'O King!
You have described us with such qualities that you do not know.
With regards to your description of evil conditions, no condition
could have been worse than ours. Our hunger did not resemble hunger.
We used to eat dung beetles, scarabaeus, scorpions and snakes.
These we regarded as food. Our houses were the surface of the
earth. We used to wear clothing spun from the fur of camels and
the hair of goats. Our religion was to murder and oppress each
other even though it meant one of us burying his daughter alive
disliking the idea that she would eat from his food. This was
our condition until yesterday. Then Allah sent to us a man...'
Noble qualities of the Arabs
Despite the paganism, superstition
and inter-tribal wars that weakened their societies, the Arabs
were characterised by a number of praiseworthy attributes.
1. Strong will and determination
- If an Arab was convinced of the truth of a cause he would place
everything, even his life, in realising it.
2. Simple mindedness - Being accustomed
to the desert terrain they were free from many evils that accompanied
an urban lifestyle. They were frank and practical in their dealings.
They had become used to a hard life on horseback with little water
3. Justice and honesty - An Arab was
a man of his word. When he made a promise he would keep it even
if it meant sacrificing his family, children and his wealth in
4. Language - The Arabs took great pride
in their language. Poetry was a cherished art with them. Despite
the vastness of their deserts Arabic was always the common language
of the Bedouins.
5. Hospitality and generosity - When
it came to their guests they would spare nothing in entertaining
them. They would themselves remain hungry and would even incur
debt but their guest had to be honoured in the best possible way.
6. Courage and bravery - They were an
extremely brave nation and did not consider it difficult to fight
a war with an enemy. (8)