Islam and Early islamic History: Part 1 (An Introductory Chapter)

by Dr Salah Zaimeche, BMHC

‘It was a revelation revealed.
The Lord of great strength taught him.
He stood in the high Heaven,
Then He came lower and lower
Till He was two bowshots away or less,
Then he revealed to His servant what He revealed.’

(Qur’an 53: 4-10).

Pre-Islamic Arabia and its Surrounding

Geographically, the Arabian Peninsula has the shape of an irregular rectangle. Palestine and the Syrian desert constitute its boundary to the north; The Kingdom of Hirah, the Euphrates and Tigris and the Gulf do the east; whilst to the south, it is bordered by the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of `Adan; and to the west by the Red Sea. The natural isolation of the Peninsula combined with its size contributed to protect it against invasion. The Peninsula has an equal length and width: over a thousand kilometres. 1 This vast expanse is utterly uncultivable, without a single river, and without any consistent rainy season around which any agriculture could be organised (for rainfall, see map 1). With the exception of fertile and rainy Yemen in the southwest, the Peninsula consists of plateaus, valleys and deserts devoid of vegetation (also map 1). 2 The Arabian Peninsula in the past allowed only desert life; and desert life demands the adoption of the camel as a means of transport, and continuous movement in search of pasture. The well sought-after pastures grow around springs whose waters have collected from rainfall on the surrounding rocky terrain, allowing a scarce vegetation to grow in the surrounding vicinity. 3

The desert, nomadism, and the tribal bond are the essential features of the most ancient and authentic Arab way of life, Gabrieli explains. 4 The first represents the premises of the natural world, which conditions the life of this and other related peoples. The Arabs introduced the domestic use of the camel, and with it they were able to resolve problems of communication and alimentation, and survive the harsh environmental and climatic conditions. Although nomadism prevailed in large sways of land, there were also settled areas, with organised farming and trade. 5 The tribal bond was the only solid and accepted social structure in that environment and that stage. 6 The Bedouin society is entirely dependent on the principle of tribal solidarity and authority; it is organised in flexible and varied genealogical groups. The tribe is the self-sufficient cell of the embryonic political and social life, it is the only structure to which the Bedouin is inclined; it guarantees support, solves property disputes and blood feuds, offers protection, 7 The affairs of common interest are discussed and decided by the assembly of the entire tribe where great prestige is attached to the wisdom of old age, prowess in war, and to eloquence and skill in poetry. 8

In this period prior to Islam, the Arabs lived through what is commonly known as the Jahilya (The Age of Ignorance.) During that time, the people practiced widespread idolatry. Some of them conducted their worship around temples they had adopted for generations, whilst others adopted and adored in equal measures various idols. 9 The Arabs worshipped so great variety of divinities none of which was able to rise above the others. 10 In Makkah (Mecca) itself there were three hundred and sixty idols in the Ka’aba (Ka’bah), including Hubal. 11 Yaghuth was worshiped under the form of a lion; Sawa of a woman; Ya’uk of a horse; Nasr of an eagle. 12 The extent of Arab superstition and idolatry is well caught in the following story. 13 Sometime in 605, Quraish decided to roof the Ka’aba, which it appears had hitherto consisted of only four walls with no covering. An examination of the masonry, however, raised doubts as to whether the existing walls would be strong enough to carry a roof. It was suggested that the walls be demolished and that the whole edifice be rebuilt, so as it could support the additional weight. There was some fear, however, that the gods and goddesses might resent this and vent their anger on the workers. At length, one man, bolder than the rest, advanced against the wall with a pickaxe, crying aloud meanwhile: ‘Oh Goddess! Don’t be afraid! Oh Goddess! We intend only what is for the best.’

A page from the qu'ran

A page from the qu’ran

The people of Makkah lay awake that night, wondering if some thunderbolt from the gods would strike down the sacrilegious demolisher of their shrine. As however, he arrived on the work again next morning with a pickaxe, the Makkans assumed that their gods were pleased with their enterprise, and were looking forward to the occupation of better accommodation. 14

Christianity was established centuries prior to Islam, and some of its impact was felt in many parts surrounding and even in Arabia itself. However, the scattered branches of the Christian Church in Asia and Africa were divided into various sects, and every sect divided into factions, each of which held a different opinion concerning the religion and its principles and bases. 15 They were engaged in perpetual controversies and were torn to pieces by the disputes of the Arians, the Sabeians, Nestorians, and Eutychians 16 Some of them denied that Jesus ever had a body other than a ghostly shadow by which he appeared to men. Others regarded the person and soul of Jesus as related to each other with such extraordinary ties that only the most fastidious imagination could grasp what they meant. While some worshiped Mary, others denied that she remained a virgin after the birth of Christ. 17 One of the monks of the Church wrote describing the situation of his day, said:

‘The city and all its precincts were full of controversy-in the market place, in the shops of apparel, at the changers, in the grocery stores. You ask for a piece of gold to be changed at the changers and you find yourself questioned about that which in the person of Jesus was created and that which was not created. You stop at the bakery to buy a loaf of bread and ask concerning the price, only to find the baker answer: Will you agree that the Father is greater than the Son and the Son is subordinate to the Father? You ask your servant about your bath, whether or not the water is warm, and your servant answers you: The Son was created from nothing.’ 18

As regard to influence, from its base in Roman Egypt, Christianity reached to independent Abyssinia and thence to the Red Sea. Christianity moved from Syria and Palestine once it had converted their people to the adjoining Arab tribe of Ghassan and the shores of the Euphrates. There it converted the Arabs of Hirah, the Banu Lakhm, and Banu Mundhir who had migrated thence from the desert but whose history evolved between independence and Persian tutelage. 19

In Persia, Zoroastrianism was prey to the same problems that affected local Christianity, without the belief in the One and Supreme Creator. Although fire worship continued to give the various factions a semblance of unity, the religion and its followers divided into sects in conflict with each other. All the sects sought the Emperor’s protection, which he readily gave in order to increase his own prestige and power, and thus prevail in the advent of conflict with either other pretenders or opponents. 20

Christianity and Zoroastrianism, the West and the East, each allied with a number of smaller states, surrounded the Arabian Peninsula at the beginning of the sixth century, and entertained its own ideas of colonialism and expansion. Yet, the Arabian Peninsula remained secure against conquest except at the fringes, where only very few of its tribes had answered the call. 21 Pagan beliefs dominated the Arab Peninsula.
Happy with their idol worship, the Arabs of the Age of Ignorance were very keen to offer sacrifices before all their idols. 22 The cruel deed was a long practice among the Arabs; in the third century (CE), a boy was annually sacrificed by the tribe of the Dumatians; and a royal captive was slaughtered by the Arab prince, who was the ally and soldier of the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian. 23

‘A parent,’ says Gibbon ‘who drags his son to the altar exhibits the most painful and sublime effort of fanaticism: the deed, or the intention, was sanctified by the example of saints and heroes; and the father of Mahomet (Mohammed (PBUH) himself was devoted by a rash vow, and hardly ransomed for the equivalent of a hundred camels.’ 24

The Arabs did not believe in the creation of the world, nor in a future state for it, but concluded that the formation of the universe was due to nature, and its future destruction to time. 25 Its people lived in the shadow of retributive justice. They repulsed attack by attack, and they sought to prevent aggression by the fear of counter-aggressions. In that context, the weaker sections of the population had no chance unless taken under the protection of a strong party. 26 Law breaking and robbery prevailed everywhere, and since death was seen as the end of existence, people only cared about getting everything they could out of this world, and did not care who they hurt to achieve their goals. The multiplicity of wandering tribes, each with its petty prince and petty territory, but without a national head, produced frequent conflicts. Revenge, too, was almost a religious principle among the tribesmen. 27 Violence was carried to extremes quite often. The Bedouin gloried in the name of brigand, and regarded the capture of a caravan as the principal object of life, and it was not unusual for him, after plundering the dead, to mutilate them with a brutal malignity, and he tested guilt or innocence by ordeals of fire and water. 28

The pagan Arab loved to get drunk, and was proud of his ability to hold it. There were some princes who obtained an unenviable immortality by drinking themselves to death. 29 Gambling was so popular in the desert that the Bedouins often staked their freedom on the toss of a pebble. 30 The prosperity, affluence, and luxury, which Makkah afforded its citizens gave them a certain sense of superiority over other tribes. They indulged in wine consumption and all forms of revelry this brought. They satisfied their lust for pleasure in the company of slave girls, which they traded and who invited them to ever-increasing excesses. 31 Dancing and singing, as in other Eastern countries, were practiced by a class of women occupying a servile position. They were called Kiyan, or in the singular, Kayna, and whose immorality was proverbial. Yet they were held in the highest estimation and the greatest chiefs paid public court to them. 32 Greek and Persian slave girls, imported from Syria and Iraq, beguiled the idle hours of the rich with their dancing and singing, or ministered to their vices. The moral depravity of the people is evidenced by the fact that these women used to give receptions which were attended by all the men of light and leading in the city. 33 The poet, whose poems formed the pride of the nation, sang only to the joys of the present life, and encouraged the immorality of the people. ‘And no one reminded themselves of the morrow.’ 34

The Makkans loved to hold their celebrations and their drinking parties’ right in the center of the city around the Ka’bah. There, in the proximity of three hundred or more idols, owned by an equal number of tribes, the elders of the Quraish and the aristocracy of Makkah held their parties and exchanged new tales of trips across desert or fertile lands, which their caravans criss-crossed. 35 Makkan pastimes consisted of exchanging these tales of drinking wine, and of preparing for a big night around the Ka’bah or in recovering from such a night. 36 The revellers were confident in the protection of their idols since these conferred upon the Ka’bah a sense of sanctity and peace. The protection, however, was mutual, for it was the obligation of the Makkans never to allow a scripturist, that is a, “man with a book or scripture,” i.e., a Christian or a Jew, to enter Makkah except in the capacity of a servant and under the binding covenant that he would not speak in Makkah either of his religion or of his scripture. 37 Consequently, there were neither Jewish nor Christian communities in Makkah, as was the case in Yathreb and Najran. The Ka’bah was then the holy of holies of paganism and securely protected against any attack against its authorities or sanctity. 38 Thus Makkah, just as the rest of the other tribes, were unyielding in their sense of independence. However, no tribe ever thought of forming an alliance with another or more tribes in order to form a superior force to Makkah, and none ever entertained the thought of conquering her. The tribes remained separated, leading a pastoral nomadic existence but enjoying to the full the independence, freedom, pride, and chivalry, as well as the individualism, which desert life afforded. 39

Pre-Islamic society was also noted for its harsh treatment of new-born girls, which in many instances were deemed to be a catastrophe to their families. The custom of burying girls alive was normal, to ‘retain honour’. As said by Smith: ‘The most barbarous practice of these `times of ignorance,’ was the burying alive of female children as soon as they were born; or worse, still, as sometimes happened, after they had attained the age of six years. The father was generally himself the murderer. ‘Perfume and adorn’, he would say to the mother, ‘your daughter, that I may convey her to her mothers.’ This done, he led her to a pit dug for the purpose, bade her look down into it, and then as he stood behind her, pushed her headlong in, and then filling up the pit himself levelled it with the rest of the ground.’ 40 In this environment there came Islam.

Reading List

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A page from Qur’an.


  1. A.H. Haykal: The Life of Muhammad; tr. From Arabic by I.A. Al-Faruqi; The Islamic Book Trust, Selangor, Malaysia; 2008; p. 9.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. F. Gabrieli: Muhammad and the Conquests of Islam; World University Library, London; 1968; p. 26.
  5. Ibid; p. 27.
  6. Ibid; p. 30.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid; p. 31.
  9. Hisham Ibn al-Kalbi: The Book of Idols; tr. from Arabic by N.A. Faris; Princeton University Press; 1952; p. 16 f.;
  10. F. Gabrieli: Muhammad and the Conquests of Islam; op cit; p. 39.
  11. Syed Ameer Ali: The Spirit of Islam; Methuen; London; 1967 ed pp. lxvi.
  12. R. B. Smith: Mohammed and Mohammedanism; London; Smith Elder; 1876 ed; p. 102.
  13. J.B. Glubb: The Life and Times of Muhammad; Hodder and Stoughton; 1970; London; p. 79.
  14. Ibid.
  15. A.H. Haykal: The Life of Muhammad; op cit; p. 6.
  16. J. Davenport: An Apology for Mohammed and the Koran; J. Davy; London; 1869; p. 3.
  17. A.H. Haykal: The Life of Muhammad; op cit; p. 7.
  18. Ibid.
  19. A.H. Haykal: The Life of Muhammad; op cit; p. 8.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Hisham Ibn al-Kalbi: The Book of Idols; tr. from Arabic by N. A. Faris; Princeton University Press; 1952; p. 16 f..
  23. E. Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; vol 5; ed. W. Smith; London, 1858; pp. 329-30.
  24. Ibid.
  25. J. Davenport: An Apology; op cit; p. 2.
  26. A.H. Haykal: The Life of Muhammad; op cit; p. 11.
  27. Washington Irving: Mahomet and his Successors, New York and London; 1970; p. 9.
  28. S.P. Scott: History of the Moorish Empire; in 3 vols; The John Lippincott Company; Philadelphia; 1904; p. 23.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid.
  31. A.H. Haykal: The Life of Muhammad; op cit; p. 46.
  32. W. Durant: The Age of Faith, Simon and Shuster, New York; 6th printing; 1950; pp. 167 ff; Syed Ameer Ali: The Spirit of Islam; op cit; p. lxiv.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Ibid.
  35. A.H. Haykal: The Life of Muhammad; op cit; p. 46.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Ibid.
  39. Ibid.
  40. R. B. Smith: Mohammed; op cit; pp 95-6.