History of Islam

Social Life of the Arabs

The Arabian Society presented a social medley, with different and heterogeneous social strata. The status of the woman among the nobility recorded an advanced degree of esteem. 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 defence of her honour. 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. 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 strata where prostitution and indecency were rampant and in full operation. Abu Da’ûd, on the authority of ‘Aishah [R] reported 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 in marriage to another man after 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 would, if he desired, 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 certain woman (a whore). She would not 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 [pbuh] declared Islam in Arabia, he cancelled all these forms of sexual contacts except that of present Islamic marriage. [Abu Da'ud - The Book of marriage]

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. Divorce was to a very great extent in the power of the husband. [Abu Da'ud - The Book of marriage]

The obscenity 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 obscenity. Abu Da’ûd reported: A man stood up in front of Prophet Muhammad [pbuh] 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 [pbuh] 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." [Abu Da'ud - Chapter "The child is to the one on whose bed it was born]

With respect to the pre-Islam Arab’s relation with his offspring, we see that life in Arabia was paradoxical and presented a gloomy picture of contrasts. Whilst some Arabs held children dear to their hearts and cherished them greatly, others buried their female children alive because an illusory fear of poverty and shame weighed heavily on them. The practice of infanticide cannot, however, be seen as irrevocably rampant because of their dire need for male children to guard themselves against their enemies.

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 tribal-pride. 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 implies deterring him from transgression.

Avarice for leadership, and keen sense of emulation often resulted in bitter tribal warfare despite descendency 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 inter-tribal wars of attrition. Deep devotion to religious superstitions and some customs held in veneration, however, used to curb their impetuous tendency to quench their thirst for blood. In other cases, there were the motives of, and respect for, alliance, loyalty and dependency which could successfully bring about a spirit of rapport, and abort groundless bases of dispute. A time-honoured custom of suspending hostilities during the prohibited months (Muharram, Rajab, Dhul-Qa‘dah, and Dhul-Hijjah) functioned favourably 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 an animal-like life. The woman was a marketable commodity and regarded as a piece of inanimate property. Inter-tribal relationships were fragile. Avarice for wealth and involvement in futile wars were the main objectives that governed their chiefs’ self-centred policies.

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