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The Pre-Islamic Arabs

Muslim theologians and historians present a pretty dark picture of pre-Islamic Arabia. Its people, we are told, were unrepentant pagans and polytheists unware of the Unity of God and the succession of his Prophets. They believed that Allah, the one and only True God, stood in need of partners who could mediate between him and his creatures. Worse still, they gave daughters to Allah while they preferred sons for themselves. They worshipped stones (authan) and statues (aSnam) and offered sacrifices to satans. They had had no Prophet (Rasul) and possessed no scripture (Kitab) of their own. Consequently, they were ignorant of the Last Day (Qiyamat), as also of Heaven (Jannat) and Hell (Jahannam). They revelled in blood feuds, and buried alive their female infants. Sons married their step-mothers, and the same man two or more uterine sisters. And so on, till the conviction grows on the readers or listeners that the pre-Islamic Arabs were despicable barbarians.

Christian theologians and historians follow suit. They do not endorse Muhammad as a prophet; in fact, they call him an impostor. All the same, they prefer him to the pagans and polytheists whom he fought and subdued. They do not concede that Muhammad’s message was spiritually sound or morally adequate. Yet they hail his teachings as a marked improvement on the mode of worship and morals which prevailed earlier. Thus they stand solidly, though negatively, united with their Muslim counterparts in denouncing the state of affairs in pre-Islamic Arabia.

And there is no dearth of Hindu scholars, even Hindu saints, who join the chorus. Even those Hindus who are by no means enamoured of Islam and distrust or despise it as a religion, regard it none-the-less an immense improvement over what went in Arabia before its advent. They say that Islam united the ‘Arab rabble’ into a ‘nation’, and gave them at least the ‘rudiments of culture’. It never occurs to these Hindus that Muslim scholars who denounce pre-Islamic Arabia view pre-Islamic India also as an ‘area of darkness’ to which Islam brought ‘illumination’ for the first time. Though Hindus have been victims of Islamic aggression for several centuries, few of them feel sympathy for victims of the same aggression elsewhere.

The pre-Islamic Arabs seem to have no case simply because no one and almost nothing has survived to tell their side of the story. Unlike the Hindus who have survived the onslaught of Islam and can compare what they had with what was brought in by Islam, the pre-Islamic Arabs have passed into what is more or less a total oblivion. The Prophet of Islam and his rightly-guided Caliphs saw to it that no trace was left of the pre-Islamic religion and culture of Arabia, not even in the consciousness of the converts. Franz Babinger writes vis-a-vis the pre-Islamic Sabaean civilization of Arabia: ‘The new creed had the greatest interest in obliterating all recollection of the pagan period, not only in stone monuments which still survived the natural weathering–these were destroyed to provide material for new buildings, or burned for lime or sometimes out of sheer vandalism–but also in literature, and even in consigning the ancient language to oblivion.’1 Whatever could not be wiped out was converted so completely as to look like a contribution of Islam. The Ka’ba and the Hajj ceremonies provide excellent examples. So does the Arabic language which, although it retains its old sounds and syntax, has been made to convey meanings and concepts which were foreign to it in its pristine state.

The greatest blow which pre-Islamic Arabia has suffered is the perversion of its history. An overwhelming majority of the Arabs had never heard of Abraham before Muhammad started mentioning him; those few who had, had no reason to like him in view of the contempt which his people, the Jews settled in Arabia, had continued to pour on the Arabs. Moreover, it was not long before the birth of Muhammad that the king of Yemen who had converted to the creed of Abraham had massacred thousands of Christianised Arabs. Therefore, the Arabs who were extremely tolerant in matters of belief could not but have looked askance at the very name of Abraham.2 Yet the Prophet proclaimed that the Arabs were the progeny of Abraham through his elder son, Ismael! He went much farther. He ‘discovered’ that the foremost Arab temple, the Ka’ba at Mecca, had been built by Adam, renovated by his son, Seth, and rebuilt by Abraham! He accused the Arabs of having usurped, for polytheistic worship, a place which was originally meant to be a mosque! The theologians and historians who followed, abolished the real forefathers of the Arabs altogether and linked them to lineage of the Jews. Small wonder that every comprehensive history of Arabia written by pious Muslim chroniclers starts with Adam and Eve, and fills its spaces with the progeny of Abraham.3

This Islamic version of Arab history would have continued to prevail if modern scholarship had not rescued the true version by means of painstaking research. ‘Our knowledge of the history,’ writes F. Hommel, ‘we owe partly to inscriptions found in the country, partly in contemporary literatures and monuments of other nations (Babylonians and Assyrians, Egyptians, Hebrews, Greeks and Romans) and partly also (for the centuries immediately preceding Muhammad) to early Islamic tradition. As early as the 3rd millennium BC the old Babylonian inscriptions mention a king Manium (also in the fuller form Mannudannu) or Magan of East Arabia; there is much to be said for the view that Magan was only a Sumerian rendering of an Arabic Ma’an and that from this centre was founded (at a date unknown to us) the South Arabian kingdom of Ma’an (later vocalisation Ma’in) or the Minaean state which perhaps in the beginning embraced the whole of South Arabia. In addition a district named Melukh is mentioned as lying further off, probably covering Central and North West Arabia from which as well as from Magan the Sumerians e.g. Gudea of Sirgulla (about 2350 BC) imported a large quantity of products (wood, stone and metals) for their temples.’4

The same sources tell us about the Sabaeans who flourished in Arabia from 800 BC onwards, till they were ‘swept away by the wave of Muhammadan conquest.’ They practised ‘an ancient natural religion’ in which ‘the sun, the moon and the planets’ figured prominently. They ‘believed in the migration of the soul and in great world periods constantly renewed in an everlasting revolutions,’ which remind us of the Hindu theories of rebirth and the yugas. They built ‘massive temples’ and ‘handsome gold and silver statues of their chief gods.’5 The Greeks and the Romans knew ‘Saba and three other South Arabian kingdoms as the areas which produce frankincense, myrrh, cassia and cinnarnon’6 and praised them ‘as brave soldiers, industrious tillers of the soil and traders and skilful sailors’ who ‘sent out colonies or at least trading settlements into foreign lands, especially India.’7 Modern archaeology has exposed ‘sculptures and remains of colonnades, palaces, temples, city walls, towers, public works, especially water-works etc., which confirm the brilliant picture of Sabaean culture.’8

Similar is the story of the Nabataeans who arose in North Arabia or Arabia Petraea about the same time as the Sabaeans in Arabia Flex or South Arabia, and extended their sway upto the frontiers of Hijaz. They were ‘never completely subjected either by the Assyrians, or the Medes, Persians or the Mecedonian kings.’ It was the Romans who conquered for the first time a part of the Nabataean kingdom in the north in AD 106 and named it Provincia Arabia. The Nabataeans too were great traders who ‘attained the position of monopolists in Near Asia.’9 In their pantheon, which we know ‘mainly from tombs and votive inscriptions the principal God was Dushara (Dhu’l-Shara), the principal goddess Allat.’10

None of the Minaean or Sabaean or Nabataean inscriptions mentions Abraham or Ismael or any term indicative of the Judeo-Christian belief system which Muhammad will impose on the Arabs in the form of Islam. It is only towards the end of the pagan period that a South Arabian inscription dated AD 542-543 mentions for the first time ‘the power and grace and mercy of the Merciful (RaHmanan) and his Messiah and the Holy Spirit.’11 The inscription was set up by Abraha, the Governor of South Arabia, on behalf of the Christian king of Abyssinia. How Abraha became what he became is an interesting story which explains the repugnance felt by the pagan Arabs for both Judaism and Christianity, as also for the names and terms associated with these creeds.

The Monophysite sect of Christianity had found refuge in Najran, a province of South Arabia, after it was expelled by the official Church from the Byzantine territory in the reign of Justinian I (AD 527-565). Some Arabs of Najran had also become converts to Christianity. Around the same time, Dhu Nuwas, king of Yemen which included Najran, had embraced Judaism. He declared war on the Christians of Najran when he found them unwilling to come into the fold of his own creed. ‘Dhu Nuwas,’ writes Ibn Ishaq, ‘came against them with his armies and invited them to accept Judaism, giving them the choice between that or death: they chose death. So he dug trenches for them; burnt some in fire, slew some with the sword, and mutilated them until he had killed nearly twenty thousand of them.’12

The Christians of Najran appealed for help to the Negus, the Christian king of Abyssinia. An Abyssinian army under Aryat descended on Yemen, defeated and killed Dhu Nuwas, and occupied the land. Under orders from the Negus, a third of the women and children of Yemen were captured, sent to Abyssinia, and sold into slavery.13 The Arabs who had embraced Judaism were massacred. In due course, Abraha succeeded Aryat as the Abyssinian Governor of Yemen. He set up the aforementioned Christian inscription. Later on, he swore that he would destroy the Ka’ba, the foremost temple of the pagan Arabs. He led an army to Mecca in AD 570, the same year in which Muhammad was born. The Ka’ba, however, escaped unhurt because of a miracle which turned away the Abyssinian horde and which the Arabs credited to Allah, the presiding deity of their pantheon. Meanwhile, the pagan Arabs had had a first hand experience of what Judaism and Christianity stood for.

The religious strife which these alien creeds had brought to Arabia was unknown to the pre-Islamic Arabs who, like all pagans, were very liberal in matters of belief and modes of worship. They witnessed how the two exclusive creeds had combined to cause not only large-scale bloodshed but also a foreign invasion, entailing enslavement of Arab women and children and occupation of Arab territory by an alien army. The name of Abraham was associated with both the creeds, as also the word ‘RaHman’. Naturally, the Arabs could not be expected to be fond of either the name or the word.

The historians of Islam mention Abraha’s march on Mecca, as also his frustration and retreat in the face of a miracle. But they conceal the fact that the Ka’ba at that time was a place of pagan worship crowded with numerous idols of Gods and Goddesses. Instead, they lie and credit the miracle to the God of Abraham. That God, however, was nowhere near the Ka’ba during that period. Allah who presided over the pagan pantheon had not yet been hijacked by Muhammad and converted into the exclusive God of Islam. In fact, it was the pagan character of the Ka’ba which had invited the attack by a Christian iconoclast. And it was the God of the pagans who had performed the miracle.

Character of Pre-Islamic Arabs

Modern scholars have not only salvaged pre-Islamic Arab history; they have also pieced together a picture of the pagan Arabs among whom Muhammad was born. For the latter purpose they have had to depend solely on Islamic sources. They have done a creditable job in view of the fact that these sources were deliberately intended to black out or blacken whatever functioned in Arabia before the birth of Islam. They have succeeded in gleaning some good glimpses of people who stood up to Muhammad and challenged his claim of monopoly over truth. The material they have collected is meagre. Yet it does help us meet some men and women of sterling character and heroic bearing. The adversaries of Muhammad score over him and his companions hands down so far as qualities of head and heart are concerned.

This is not the occasion to go into greater detail about the shape of pre-Islamic society and culture in Arabia. In the present context, we have to confine ourselves to its pre-Islamic religion which Muhammad destroyed root and branch and replaced with alien prescriptions. So far as Muhammad’s adversaries are concerned, let a professor from Pakistan speak, even though his views are coloured considerably by the historical lore of Islam:

‘Although religion had little influence on the lives of pre-Islamic Arabs,14 we must not suppose them to be an altogether lawless people. The pagan society of ancient Arabia was built on certain moral ideas, which may be briefly described here. They had no written code, religious or legal, except the compelling force of traditional custom which was enforced by public opinion; but their moral and social ideals have been faithfully preserved in their poetry, which is the only form of literature which has come down to us from those old days.

‘The virtues most highly prized by the ancient Arabs were bravery in battle, patience in misfortune, loyalty to one’s fellow tribesmen, generosity to the needy and the poor, hospitality to the guest and the wayfarer, and persistence in revenge. Courage in battle and fortitude in warfare were particularly required in a land where might was generally right and tribes were constantly engaged in attacking one another. It is, therefore, not a mere chance that in the famous anthology of Arabian verse, called the Hamasah, poems relating to inter-tribal warfare occupy more than half of the book. These poems applaud the virtues most highly prized by the Arabs-bravery in battle, patience in hardship, defiance of the strong, and persistence in revenge.

‘The tribal organization of the Arabs was then, as now, based on the principle of kinship or common blood, which served as the bond of union and social solidarity. To defend the family and the tribe, individually and collectively, was, therefore, regarded as a sacred duty; and honour required that a man should stand by his people through thick and thin. If kinsmen sought help, it was to be given promptly, without considering the merits of the case. Chivalrous devotion and disinterested self-sacrifice on behalf of their Kinsmen and friends were, therefore, held up as a high ideal of life.’15

The king of Persia had said to one of the pre-Islamic Arab princes that the latter’s people were inferior to every other people. The prince had replied, ‘What nation could be put before the Arabs for strength or beauty or piety, courage, munificence, wisdom, pride, or fidelity?. So liberal was he that he would slaughter the camel which was his sole wealth to give a meal to the stranger who came to him at night. No other nation had poetry so elaborate or a language so expressive as theirs. Theirs were the noblest horses, the chastest women, the finest raiment. For their camels no distance was too far, no desert too wild to traverse. So faithful were they to the ordinances of their religion that if a man met his father’s murderer unarmed in one of the sacred months he would not harm him. A sign or look from one of them constituted an engagement which was absolutely inviolable. If other nations obeyed a central government and a single ruler, the Arabs required no such institution, each of them being fit to be a king, and well able to protect himself, and unwilling to undergo the humitiation of paying tribute or hearing rebuke.’16 One is reminded of the republican clans in north Uttar Pradesh and Bihar among whom the Buddha was born, as also of those in Punjab and Sindh who robbed Alexander of his reputation of invincibility when they blunted his sword and turned him back. The Arabs who got regimented as Muhammad’s mujahids (holy warriors) lost this sense of honour and love of freedom. Treachery towards whomsoever the Prophet chose as his enemy, became their stock-in-trade. On the other hand, a mere frown from the Prophet made them cringe and crawl.

If a society and culture is to be judged by the status of its women, the pre-Islamic Arabs come out with flying colours. The very fact that they had many Goddesses in their pantheon, made them give a place of pride to their women. ‘Institutions of paganism,’ observes Margoliouth, ‘were not unfavourable to the prominence of those women who had the requisite gifts of courage or insight. And the ensuing narrative will show examples of women acting with originality and resolution, when there was room for the display of these qualities.’17 Muhammad’s first wife, Khadijah, provides an excellent example of the independence which women enjoyed, and the enterprise they could display in the pre-Islamic Arab society. She was not only a wealthy merchant who managed her own business; she was also in a position to turn down proposals from powerful suitors and marry the man of her own choice. Hind, the wife of Muhammad’s chief adversary, Abu Sufyan, was herself a firebrand who opposed Muhammad, tooth and nail. She followed her husband to the battlefield and sustained his morale in peace. When Abu Sufyan surrendered Mecca to Muhammad without a fight, she caught hold of him in the market-place and cried, ‘Kill this fat greasy bladder of lard! What a rotten protector of the people!’18 She was at her best when circumstances forced her to embrace Islam. The Prophet who baptised her asked her not to commit adultery. ‘Does a free woman commit adultery, O apostle of God?’ she asked. Next, the Prophet advised her not to ‘kill your children.’ She said, ‘I brought them up when they were little and you killed them on the day of Badr when they were grown up, so you are the one to know about them.’19 It was Islam which robbed women of their high station in society and put them behind the veil or buried them in the harem. Ever since, the language of Islam has bracketed women (zan) with personal property (zar and zamin) of the male. Chapters on marriage (nikah) and divorce (talaq) in orthodox collections of Hadis, and other standard works such as the Hidaya and the Fatwa-i-‘Ãlamgiri, tell the true story of what Islam has done to women.

But the one great virtue for which the pre-Islamic Arabs put the Prophet and his companions to shame, was their catholicity in matters of religious belief and practice. The respect they showed towards other people’s persuasions was fully in keeping with their pagan spiritual tradition. Ibn Ishaq testifies, ‘When the apostle openly displayed Islam as God ordered him, his people did not withdraw or turn against him, so far as I have heard, until he spoke disparagingly of their gods.’20 The Meccans made a very reasonable offer when Abu Talib, Muhammad’s uncle and protector, was on his death-bed. ‘You know,’ they said, ‘the trouble that exists between us and your nephew, so call him and let us make an agreement that he will leave us alone and we will leave him alone; let him have his religion and we will have ours.’ It was Muhammad who remained adamant. ‘You must say,’ he demanded, ‘There is no God but Allah and you must repudiate what you worship beside him.’21 It cannot be held against the Meccans that they refused to be bullied. Abu Talib himself stands out as an embodiment of the pagan virtue in this respect. He protected Muhammad to the end, without himself agreeing to renounce the religion of his forefathers. His only fault-and that has been the fault of all pagans-was his failure to understand that what his nephew was selling was not religion but something else.

It is, therefore, nothing short of slanderous to say that the pre-Islamic Arabs were barbarians devoid of religion and culture, unless we mean by religion and culture what the Muslim theologians mean. They were nothing of the sort. The fact that they failed to understand the ways of Muhammad and could not match his mailed fist in the final round, should not be held against them. It was neither for the first nor the last time that a democratic society succumbed in the face of determined gangsterism. We know how Lenin, Hitler and Mao Tse-tung succeeded in our own times. Nor should the image of what the Arabs became after they were forced into the fold of Islam be confused with what they were before. The crimes committed by the Islmaized Arabs should not be blamed on the pagan Arabs. For it was Islam which brutalized the Arabs and turned them into bloodthirsty bandits who spread fire and sword, far and wide. In the majority of mankind, the baser drives of human nature are never far from the threshold. Islam brought them to the fore in case of the majority of Arabs.


  1. First Encyclopaedia of Islam 1913-1936, Leiden, 1987, Vol. VII, P. 15. 

  2. See D.S. Margoliouth, Mohammed and the Rise of Islam, London, 1905, New Delhi Reprint. 1985, p. 73, ‘To the Meccans,’ he says, ‘he [Abraham] was not even a name.’ 

  3. Converts to Islam in every other land follow the pattern. They disown their real forefathers and link themselves to this or that tribe of Jews or Arabs. Muslims of Afghanistan and Kashmir for instance regard themselves as descended from some lost tribes of Israel. Muslims of Bangladesh have produced learned treatises tracing their descent to Islamized invaders. But for the labours of Firdawsi, the Muslims of Iran would not have known that their infidel forefathers were great and glorious. 

  4. First Encyclopaedia of Islam, op. cit., Vol. I, p. 377. 

  5. The Encyclopaedia Americana, New York, 1952, Vol. XXIV, p. 77. 

  6. First Encyclopaedia of Islam, op. cit., Vol. VII, p. 5. 

  7. Ibid., p. 7. 

  8. Ibid., p. 17. 

  9. Ibid., Vol. VI, p. 801. 

  10. Ibid., p. 802. 

  11. Ibid., Vol. I, p. 377. 

  12. Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasul Allah, translated into English by A. Gillaumne, OUP, Karachi, Seventh Impression, p. 17. Ibn Ishaq (d. AD 767) was the first biographer of Muhammad. 

  13. Ibid., p 19. 

  14. This statement has no basis, as we shall see. The pagan Arabs fought Muhammad in defence of a religion which they cherished. They had no other reason to quarrel with the Prophet. 

  15. Shaikh Inayatullah, former Professor of Arabic in the University of the Punjab, Lahore, ‘Pre-Islamic Arabian Thought’, an article in A History of Muslim Philosophy, edited by M.M. Sharif, Lahore, 1961, Vol. I, pp. 133-34. The legend of Hatim Tayy, poet and knight, is still popular among Muslims. He represents the ‘ideal type of the Pre-Muhammadan Arab’ because he ‘displayed in a high degree the virtues of Muruwa. particularly hospitality and liberality in the practice of which he paid no regard to his own needs’. His ‘generosity has become proverbial’ (First Encyclopaedia of Islam, op. cit., Vol. III, p. 290. 

  16. D.S. Margoliouth, op. cit, pp. 2-3. 

  17. Ibid., p. 30. 

  18. Ibn Ishaq, op. cit., p. 548. 

  19. Ibid., p. 533. It is a despicable lie that the pre-Islamic Arabs killed their children. Muhammad asked the Arabs not to commit this crime simply because the Jewish prophets had spoken against it, and not because he saw the Arabs committing it. Hind gave a fitting reply. 

  20. Ibid., op. cit., p. 118. Muslim apologists may say that abusing other people’s Gods not intolerance because that is what Islam means. But that is a different proposition. 

  21. Ibid., p. 191-92.