Ismaili History 304 - Pre-Islamic conditions
Demoralised state is perhaps the most comprehensive phrase through which the pre- Islamic world can be concisely picturised. The whole world lay in the fast grip of paganism, savagery, debauchery, anarchy and other vices. Autocracy and despotism prevailed at an extreme in every religion. The poor were trampled down and persecuted by the rich and humanity groaned under the curse of inhumanity. Under this heavy incubus of religious was Arabia groaning when Islam suddenly and unexpectedly appeared.
The period preceding the advent of Muhammad has been designated the Dark Age by the Koran (vide 33:33 & 48:26), which epitomizes in two words. Virtually, the whole Arabia was enjoying complete independence, and the neighbouring empires of Byzantine and Iran paid no attention to Arabs who were thought to be barbaric, poor and hungry. There was no central government to enforce law and order in the peninsula. The whole Arabia was rent into innumerable petty states, each clan forming a separate and independent political unit. Each tribe had a chief of its own who would lead it in battle against a hostile tribe to vindicate its rights. Tribal prejudice was common and small incidents would lead to bitter feuds which continued for generations. But there was no law whatsoever, binding the tribe to the nation. The whole peninsula was thus like a hornet's nest.
The daily life of a Bedouin was nothing more than that of a shepherd, obtaining their livelihood from the rearing of animals, pitching their tents within certain limits and wandering in quest of water and pasture. Some, however, being more disposed to a settled life, congregated together, formed villages and the number of these still further increasingly grew into towns and cities. Their time was occupied in tillage, in the cultivation of palm tree and of other trees and plants whose fruits sustained their life.
The social condition of Arabs was deplorable as it was steeped in immorality. Human sacrifice was commonly practised. Ancient Arabs literature is stunk with wine and other strong liquors, containing a treasure of its expressions. During a state of drunkenness, acts of the most shameless vice and profigacy were indulged in by the whole assembly. Rum-shops were well decorated. Gambling was the next favourite pastime for them. Adultery was another vice to which the whole of Arabia was hopelessly wedded. The enemies were burnt alive, pregnant women had their bellies slashed, innocent babes and children were massacred. Usuary was in vogue. The women, having no right and no social respect, were the worst sufferer in the society. They were regarded as chattels and were looked with bitter contempt. A man was free to marry any number of women and could divorce as he wished. Women were deprived of the right of inheritance. The Arabs were embarrassed at the birth of daughters and sometimes, the fathers buried them alive in spite of soul-harrowing cries. It was a custom for the eldest son to take as a wives his father's widows, inherited as a property with the rest of the estate. Slavery was another curse having a firm hold on the Arab society. The masters possessed the authority of life and death over them. The worst type of obscene language was used in expressing sex-relations. Stories of love and illicit relationships were narrated proudly and with utter want of shame in verses of the most indecent kind. In sum, women were accorded no better treatment than lower animals. Robbery, pillage and murder were also of common occurrence; human blood being almost daily shed without remorse or horror. On the death of any person, the custom was to tie his camel to his tomb and suffer it to be starved to death, and this camel they called baliyah. Neverthless, the Arabs possessed certain natural virtues that marked them out in the post-Islamic age. They were the most eloquence nation, plain of speech, strong of memory, firm of determination, superb horsemen, loyal and trustworthy.
Religiously the Arabs were idolatrous. There were separate god and godess for each city, tribe and locality and were figured according to the fancy of worshippers. The Kaba alone was housed with 360 idols, each personifying a representative deity of its respective tribe. Lat was a idol fixed at Taif as the deity of Thaqif tribe. Uzza was the god of Qoraish and Kanna tribes in Mecca, and the Manat was the deity of Aws and Khazraj tribes in Medina. Among them, Hubal was regarded as a biggest, and it stood on the summit of the Kaba. Within the Kaba was placed the images of Abraham, having arrows, called azlam in his hand, and a lamb standing beside him; as well as of Ismail in the same position painted on the walls of the temple. Either a statue of Mary, having Jesus Christ in her lap, was placed on the walls of temple, or her likeness in that position was painted on the walls. Besides, the Humayr of Yamen were the sun worshippers and the Kanna worshipped the moon. Human destiny was associated with the movements of the stars. Phenomena of nature affecting the fortunes of man for good or evil were attributed to their influence.
The Jews migrated and settled in Arabia probably in 5th century B.C. They gained their foothold at Khaibar and began to propagate their faith. About the 3rd century B.C., the king of Yamen, Dhu-Nawas by name, embraced Judaism. This added fresh momentum to the Jewish movement, and in the course of time Judaism won considerable ascendancy in Arabia. But the Arab nation as a whole remained addicted to its ancestral religion of idol-worship.
The Christian missionaries also began pouring into Arabia in the 3rd century A.D., and settled in Najran. Their activities were supplemented a good deal by the political influence of the two Christian powers in the neighbourhood of Arabia, the Abyssinian to the west and the Roman empire to the north. Beyond this Christianity could make no headway and had a very little impact on the rotten society of the Arabs.
Unlike the rest of the Arabs, only the Hashimite family, the descendants of Abraham, adhered to their ancestral faith of monotheism, known as the Hanif. It was a small band of earnest men who discarded idolatry.
The corrupt morale of the Arabs reached its zenith, rather to a catastrophe of their ethical death. The whole Arab society was submerged in social evils, and life had no worth to them, neither was their conduct governed by any ethical code. Wine, gambling, slaughter and all inhuman indulgences were just synonymous to the very name of Arab.