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Debating Islam ( 30 Apr 2021, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Muslim Construction of Pre-Islamic Arabia

By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam

1 May 2021

Was Islam A Radical Break From Its Supposedly Pagan Past Or Were There Continuities?


1.    The perceived picture of pre-Islamic Arabia as polytheistic and regressive may not be so black and white.

2.    The personhood of Khadeeja provides ample evidence to suggest the presence of string independent women at the time.

3.    The Islamic concept of monotheism itself might have roots in the pre-Islamic notions of divinity.


Normally when we listen to any Muslim scholar, one gets a fairly simple and straight forward narrative about pre-Islamic Arabia. The story goes that before the advent of Islam, the Arab society was steeped into polytheism. Every tribe had their own gods and goddesses whom they prayed to everyday and on special occasions. Moreover, the social norms of the society were extremely regressive; the practice of female infanticide being rampant. We are told that the advent of Islam changed all that for the better. And not just in terms of religion but also in terms of the associated social and cultural norms. No wonder then, pre-Islamic era was referred to as Jahiliyya or the age of ignorance. But how far are these assertions a matter of historical record? Or should we just believe them because Islamic scholars want us to? Historical evidence suggests that Islam might not be the rupture which many of us believe it was; there were significant continuities between pre-Islamic and post Islamic Arabic society.

But first it is important to demystify the word Jahiliyya itself. The victors always get to write the history from their own perspective. As it happens most victors tell us a story which justifies and legitimizes their own conquest. Modern Europe developed a narrative of bringing Enlightenment to the slave and other colonies in order to justify their conquests. The Blacks and Asians were to be conquered for their own good: in order that they are civilized by the Whites. Much earlier, early Islam seems to have adopted the same trope in order to justify its subjugation of the peoples that it ruled over.

The period before the advent of Islam was declared to be that of wholesale ignorance. It was as if pre-Islamic Arabia was devoid of any merit and the only good thing that happened in that geography was the coming of Islam. There are obvious problems in this narrative. The vehemence with which Islam denounced the ‘pagan’ practices meant that any cultural artefact of this past was hard to find and even if it was there, no attention was paid to it. We know for example that pre-Islamic Arabia had a rich oral tradition and that poets had high esteem. There were impromptu sessions of poetry and some of the best compositions were publicly displayed on the walls of the Kaba. It is not surprising therefore that one of the first challenges that Quran faced was from this robust poetic tradition. The Quran’s claims to be divinely inspired and therefore being of an unparalleled aesthetic composition was challenged by different poets at that time. The Quran, in different verses [11:13, 17:88, 2:23], seems to addressing such concerns. The very fact that the Quran had to answer to these challenges means that it was in contest with other expressions of aesthetic fulfilment. It is not without reason therefore that when Islam became powerful enough, it eliminated these poets through sheer physical force.

Islam also made certain to proclaim to the world that it came as the liberator of women. Early Muslim writers condemned pre-Islamic Arabs of practicing female infanticide and presented Islam as a great deliverer from this sinful practice. This view also seems to be highly exaggerated. The practice of female infanticide appears to be limited to some specific tribes rather than being a widespread practice. If the practice was as widespread as it is claimed to be, then we would not have strong personalities like Khadeeja who was an independent woman in her own right. The first wife of the Prophet not only proposed marriage to him but ran her own business and Muhammad was in her employment. For many, this fact exemplifies that Islam gave high status to women. But the matter is a bit complicated. The episode in fact exemplifies the high status of women in pre-Islamic Arabia. We must remember that Khadeeja got married to Muhammad before the onset of revelations and hence before the establishment of Islam. In fact, Muhamad did not marry any other woman till the time Khadeeja was alive and he did not inherit anything after her death. This certainly points to the fact that the marriage must have been according to a special contract drawn by Khadeeja and accepted by the Prophet. All subsequent marriages of the Prophet meant the domestication of his wives as we do not hear any example of any of his wives being engaged in non-domestic pursuits. Islam, far from giving more rights to women, might have ended up taking away some of the earlier rights which they customarily possessed. The practice of drawing up of marriage contract continued but an ideal Muslim woman was now expected to be tied to the household and conduct herself as an appendage to the husband.

There are other continuities between pre-Islamic and Islamic Arabia. The widespread belief that all of Arabia was polytheistic is simply not true. The presence of Judaism and Nestorian Christianity is well documented. It is true that different tribes had different gods and goddesses whom they prayed to. But as Ahmad al Jallad has pointed out, there was also the al-Ilah (the God) which was extremely popular not just in the Hejaz but also in parts of what is now Yemen. It was generally understood that al-Ilah was a God who was without any partners and was also understood as the underlying principle behind different divine manifestations. Thus, monotheism and its underlying foundations was not entirely absent from the pre-Islamic non-Semitic Arabs. The Islamic concept and even the name (Allah) of the divine is basically a further elaboration of al-Ilah. The Quran [4:48] tells us that Allah despises Shirk, which basically means associating partners to Him. This certainly is a development on the concept of al-Ilah, the one who did not have any partners. It is also possible that pre-Islamic Arabs continued to worship al-Ilah along with minor deities specific to their tribes. The Quranic commandment against Shirk makes perfect sense in such a context. Rather than Islam inaugurating a break within the religious episteme of Arabs, it appears more plausible that there were significant continuities between pre-Islamic and Islamic contexts.      

But in order to proclaim a fundamental newness, Islam had to invent a past. And this past had to be denigrated in order that Islam is heralded as this progressive and modernizing force. Of course, the past, as always, was denied a voice in its own characterization. It is up to Muslims now to correct this lopsided view of their history. Such an exercise need not necessarily lead to questioning the basic tenets of the faith as some suspect; it will only tell us a bit more about how we have reached here. 


Arshad Alam is a columnist with


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