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Chapter 1

Humanity at the
Dawn 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 womans 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 Dad, on the authority of Aishah 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. The man meant would have to accept. The fourth kind was that a
lot of men would have sexual intercourse with a certain woman. 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.
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
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 Dad reported: A man stood up in front of Prophet
Muhammad [(PBUH) and said: O Prophet of Allh! 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.

Humanity at the Dawn of Islam

With respect to the pre-Islam Arabs 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 bedouins 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 tribalpride. 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 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.

The Economic Situation

The economic situation ran in line with the social atmosphere. The Arabian ways of living would
illustrate this phenomenon quite clearly. Trade was the most common means of providing their needs of life. The
trade journeys could not be fulfilled unless security of caravan routes and inter-tribal peaceful co-existence were
provided two imperative exigencies unfortunately lacking in Arabia except during the prohibited months within
which the Arabs held their assemblies of Ukaz, Dhil-Majaz, Mijannah and others.
Industry was alien to the Arabian psychology. Most of available industries of knitting and tannage in
Arabia were done by people coming from Yemen, Heerah and the borders of Syria. Inside Arabia there was
some sort of farming and stock-breeding. Almost all the Arabian women worked in yarn spinning but even this
practice was continually threatened by wars. On the whole, poverty, hunger and insufficient clothing were the
prevailing features in Arabia, economically.

We cannot deny that the pre-Islam Arabs had such a large bulk of evils. Admittedly, vices and evils,
utterly rejected by reason, were rampant amongst the pre-Islam Arabs, but this could never screen off the
surprise-provoking existence of highly praiseworthy virtues, of which we could adduce the following:



They used to emulate one another at hospitality and take utmost pride in it. Almost half of their poetry
heritage was dedicated to the merits and nobility attached to entertaining ones guest. They were generous and
hospitable on the point of fault. They would sacrifice their private sustenance to a cold or hungry guest. They
would not hesitate to incur heavy blood-money and relevant burdens just to stop blood-shed, and consequently
merit praise and eulogy.
In the context of hospitality, there springs up their common habits of drinking wine which was regarded
as a channel branching out of generosity and showing hospitality. Wine drinking was a genuine source of pride

Humanity at the Dawn of Islam

for the Arabs of the pre-Islamic period. The great poets of that era never forgot to include their suspending odes
the most ornate lines pregnant with boasting and praise of drinking orgies. Even the word grapes in Arabic is
identical to generosity in both pronunciation and spelling. Gambling was also another practice of theirs closely
associated with generosity since the proceeds would always go to charity. Even the Noble Qurn does not play
down the benefits that derive from wine drinking and gambling, but also says,
And the sin of them is greater than their benefit. [Al-Quran 2:219]


Keeping a covenant:

For the Arab, to make a promise was to run into debt. He would never grudge the death of his children
or destruction of his household just to uphold the deep-rooted tradition of covenant-keeping. The literature of that
period is rich in stories highlighting this merit.


Sense of honour and repudiation of injustice:

This attribute stemmed mainly from excess courage, keen sense of self-esteem and impetuosity. The
Arab was always in revolt against the least allusion to humiliation or slackness. He would never hesitate to
sacrifice himself to maintain his ever alert sense of self-respect.


Firm will and determination:

An Arab would never desist an avenue conducive to an object of pride or a standing of honour, even if it
were at the expense of his life.


Forbearance, perseverance and mildness:

The Arab regarded these traits with great admiration, no wonder, his impetuosity and courage-based life
was sadly wanting in them.


Pure and simple bedouin life:

Still untarnished with accessories of deceptive urban appearances, was a driving reason to his nature
of truthfulness and honesty, and detachment from intrigue and treachery.
Such priceless ethics coupled with a favourable geographical position of Arabia were in fact the factors
that lay behind selecting the Arabs to undertake the burden of communicating the Message and leading mankind
down a new course of life.
In this regard, these ethics per se, though detrimental in some areas, and in need of rectification in
certain aspects, were greatly invaluable to the ultimate welfare of the human community and Islam has did it
The most priceless ethics, next to covenant-keeping, were no doubt their sense of self-esteem and
strong determination, two human traits indispensable in combatting evil and eliminating moral corruption on the
one hand, and establishing a good and justice-orientated society, on the other.
Actually, the life of the Arabs in the pre-Islamic period was rich in other countless virtues we do not need
to enumerate for the time being.

Pre-Islamic Arabia and Its Socio-Religious Condition

Arabia is the largest peninsula on the surface of the earth, being nearly one-third of Europe in size. It
forms the southwestern wing of Asia, joined with Africa by the Sinai desert and Egypt. It is surrounded on three
sides by waters-the Red Sea to the west, the Arabian (Persian) Gulf to the east and the Arabian Sea to the
south. Its northern boundary may be said to be an imaginary line from the Gulf of al-Aqaba in the west to the
Tigris-Euphrates valley in the east. Geographically the deserts of Syria and Iraq form part of the peninsula.
Geologists think that it once formed a continuation of the Sahara desert on the one hand and the Central Iranian
and the Gobi Desert on the other; and that subsequently it became separated by the depression of the Red Sea
which, however, could not alter its arid nature.

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The Arabian Peninsula is skirted in the south and west by mountain ranges of varying heights, reaching
some 14000 feet in the south and some 10000 feet in the north. Beginning from Hadramaut in the south these
ranges run almost parallel to the coastline, through Yaman, the Asir region and all along the Hijaz including the
towns of Makka and Taif and meeting the ranges in the Sinai, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. There are
small ranges in the eastern region also, particularly in Oman where the Al-Akhdar Mountain rises to a height of
about 10000 feet. On the west the mountains rise rather steeply, leaving a narrow coastal belt of plain and
comparatively fertile lands. From the mountainous region in the west, which averages an altitude of about 4000
feet at about one hundred and fifty miles inland, the country to the east is a vast plateau, highlighted by the
plateau of Najd, sloping gradually to the east coast.
The mountain ranges in the south and north prevent respectively the monsoon rains from the Indian
Ocean and the winter rains from the Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea from reaching the interior of the land.
Hence rainfall is generally scanty in most parts, though there might be occasional heavy downpours at many
places including Makka, Madina, Taif and Riyadh. In dim antiquity the land was probably more humid and rainfall
more plenty, as indicated by the existence of numerous waddis or streambeds. Of the desert proper, there are
three main regions: Al-Nufud in the north, Al-Rub al-Khali in the south, which in itself is almost the size of
France, and Al-Dahna, which is a sort of a corridor of desert linking the two above mentioned northern and
southern deserts and running by the east central region. The rest of the peninsula is steppe land, together with
vast areas of fissured lava lands, particularly in the central, western and northern regions. The steppe lands are
sprinkled with numerous fertile oases and settlements. There are some remarkably fertile regions in the west and
south, as also along the coast. In general Arabia is one of the hottest and driest countries of the world. The
climates are rather extreme. It is very hot during the summer, and quite cold in the winter. In the winter season
the temperature in some places in the north and south falls far below zero degrees centigrade.
A look at the map would at once make it clear that Arabia forms a link by land as well as by sea
between Asia, Africa and Europe the three continents that till the geographical discoveries of the 15th / 16th
centuries were thought to constitute the entire world. Arabia is situated in the middle of this world. Not only that.
From time immemorial it has been surrounded by a belt of ancient civilizations the Nile Valley civilization in the
west, the Phoenician and Assyrian civilizations in the north, the Tigris-Euphrates Valley civilization, the Persian
civilization and the Indus Valley civilizations in the north-east and east. Further east-north-east laid the Chinese
civilization. Arabia in ancient times was thus very much in the middle of the then civilized world. Modern
researches show that it was the Semitic emigrants from the heart of Arabia who participated in building up the
Egyptian, the Phoenician, the Assyrian and the Babylonian civilizations. And since dim antiquity Arabia also
remained in constant trade and commercial contacts with the lands of Asia, Africa and Europe. Ships from India
and the Far East touched its southern ports and sailed up the Red Sea; while land routes connected it with all
the three continents. It lay on the highroad of world commerce and its inhabitants were the middle-men between
the traders of the outer world. The geographical situation of Arabia has made it strategically and commercially
important throughout the ages.
The internal geographical features of Arabia and its climate prevented any foreign intrusion into it.
Consequently, its inhabitants have through ages retained their ethnic purity. Historians are agreed that Arabia is
the cradle and habitat of the Semitic population . As P. K. Hitti observes, though the term Semitic has of late
come to be used in the West more generally with reference to the Jews, because of their concentration in
America, it is more appropriately applicable to the inhabitants of Arabia who, more than any other group of
people, have retained the Semitic characteristics in their physical features, manners, customs, habits of thought
and language. The people of Arabia have remained virtually the same throughout all the recorded ages.
Arab historians and traditions classify the inhabitants of Arabia into two broad divisions, their extinct
ancestors and the surviving people. The extinct ancestors are called al- Arab al-Baidah who lived and flourished
in dim antiquity but who have gone almost entirely out of existence. Examples of these extinct Arabs are the Ad,
and the Thamud, the Tasm, the Jadis, the Amlaq and others of whom virtually no survivors are found. The
Quran makes repeated references to those bygone peoples, particularly to the Ad and the Thamud. The former
flourished in south Arabia and the latter in north Arabia, particularly in the region of Al-Hijr. The Prophets Hud and
Salih were sent respectively to these two peoples. Recent excavations have unearthed archaeological remains
that go only to confirm the truth of what the Quran, the ancient Arab traditions and the Arab historians state in
respect of these extinct ancestors of theirs. The Thamud are mentioned by name in an inscription of the Assyrian
King Sargon II, dated 715 B.C. They are also mentioned by Ptolemy and Pliny.

Humanity at the Dawn of Islam

The surviving people are divided into two categories, al- Arab al- Aribah or the Aboriginal Arabs and
al-Arab al-Mustaribah or the Naturalized Arabs. The first are the descendants of Yarub son of Yashjub, son of
Qahtan . They are therefore more generally called Qahtanite Arabs. Their habitat was Yaman. The famous
Sabaean and Himyarite kingdoms and their high degree of civilization were the work of these Qahtanite Arabs.
The Quran makes special mention of the Sabaeans.
Since time immemorial, however, many Qahtanite Arabs had migrated from their original habitat and
spread over all parts of the Arabian Peninsula. More lately the process of migration received an increased
impetus due to the first bursting of the Dam of Marib and the Roman displacement of the Arabs in the maritime
trade in the first century A.C. Of those who thus migrated from time to time mention may be made of the tribe of
Azd. One branch of this tribe, Banu Thalabah ibn Amr, first settled in the region of Al-Thalabiyyah but
subsequently moved on to Madina. Their descendants were the famous Aws and Khazraj tribes who in the
course of time became the Helpers (ansar) of the Prophet.
Another branch of the Azd tribe, Banu Harithah ibn Amr settled in the Hijaz and came to be better
known as Banu Khuzaah. They in the course of time occupied Makka displacing its earlier inhabitants, Banu
Jurhum. Another important Qahtanite tribe, Banu Lakhm, settled in Al-Hirah where they founded a buffer state
between Arabia and the Persian Empire .Another powerful tribe, Banu Ghassan, settled in lower Syria and
founded the Ghassanid kingdom there, playing a similar role of a buffer state between the Byzantine Empire and
Arabia. The Ghassanid state came to an end on account of the Sasanid Khusraw Parwezs capture of the region,
including Damascus and Jerusalem, in 613-614 A.C.
Two other powerful Qahtanite tribes who settled in Arabia were Banu Tayyi and Banu Kindah. The
former settled in north Arabia, in the region between the Aa and Salma mountains, which are for that reason
better known as the Tayyi Mountains. The famous Hatim al-Tayyi belonged to this tribe. Banu Kindah, on the
other hand, settled in central Arabia and established a kingdom there. Their rulers, unlike the others, bore the
title of king.
The Naturalized Arabs, al-Arab al-Mustaribah, were the descendants of Prophet Ibrahim through his
eldest son Prophet Ismail. It must not be supposed that they were later in coming to Arabia than the above
mentioned Qahtanite tribes from the south. In fact Prophet Ismail and his mother settled at Makka long before
the dispersal of the above mentioned Qahtanite tribes in different parts of Arabia. It should also be noted that
Prophet Ibrahim was no non-Arab or non-Semitic person. He descended from the same Semitic Arabs who had
long previously migrated and settled in the Tigris-Euphrates valley . In that sense his coming to Makka and
settling his son and wife there was a sort of return to the original home of his ancestors. The descendants of
Ismail are called naturalized Arabs not really because they were originally non-Semitic outsiders, but mainly
because their ancestors had long before left the land.

The Socio-Religious Condition: Jahiliyyah

The dual nature of the population and the dual aspects of their economic life seem to be matched by a
dualism in the Arabs religious beliefs and practices prior to the rise of Islam. The core of their religious beliefs
and practices was characterized by unmistakable traces of the Abrahamic tradition. No other people of the time
or subsequently so well remembered the Abrahamic tradition and so closely performed the Abrahamic rites as
did the Arabs. Yet, at the same time, they had succumbed to polytheism and idolatry with all its concomitant
usages and superstitions.
For a long time indeed the descendents of Ismail continued to follow the faith and rites in their original
forms as introduced by him and his father. With the passage of centuries, however, they gradually deviated from
the original faith and succumbed to the natural tendency of the crude and unsophisticated mind to find an easily
approachable god for support in times of distress and for redress of wrong, to the tendency to idolize a hero or
ancestor, to the sense of helplessness in the face of the forces of nature and, above all, to the influence of the
practice of those who were regarded as superior, intellectually, physically or materially.
The civilized peoples who surrounded the Arabs in the past as well as contemporaneously were all
engrossed in polytheism in some form or other. Wherever the pre-Islamic Arabs turned, as Ismail R. al-Faruqi
states, they saw the transcendence of God violated. Those Arabs who inclined in that direction became bolder
by the example of their neighbours. It was their Byzantine Christian neighbours who sold them the human
statues of the Kaba.

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Polytheism was introduced at Makka after its occupation by Banu Khuzaah, particularly by their leader
Amr ibn Luhayy. According to Ibn Hisham Amr once went to Syria where he observed the people worshipping
idols. He enquired of them of the reasons for their doing so and they replied that they did so because those idols
caused the rains to fall for them and victory to attend them as they grayed to the idols for these things. Amr was
impressed and asked them whether they would give him one for his people to worship it. Accordingly they gave
him the idol of Hubal which he brought to Makka, placed it near the Kaba and asked his people to worship it. As
they considered him their leader and wise man they started worshipping the idol. According to Ibn al-Kalbi, Amr
once fell seriously ill and was told by someone that if he took bath in a special spring in Syria he would be cured.
So he went there, took bath in that spring and was cured. As he observed the people there worshipping idols he
asked them the reason for their doing so, etc.
The story illustrates the fact that polytheism found its way among the descendants of Ismail from their
neighbours and others. A modem scholar, giving support to the story, states that even the Arabic word for idol,
sanam, is clearly an adaptation of Aramaic selem.
According to another report Amr ibn Luhayy introduced also the worship of the images of Wadd, Suwa,
Yaghuth, Yauq and Nasr, the gods of Prophet Nuhs unbelieving people. It is said that a jinni informed Amr that
the images of those gods were to be found at a certain place at Jeddah and asked him to bring them from
thence and to worship them. Accordingly, he went to Jeddah, found the images at the place indicated, brought
them to Makka and asked the people to start worshipping them.
These gods were indeed worshipped by Prophet Nuhs people, as the Quran clearly states . They
represented certain cults relating to astral worship or worship of the forces of nature or deification of some
human qualities, prevalent in ancient Assyria and Babylonia, the land of Nuhs people.
A report attributed to Ibn Abbas says that these names were originally borne by some prominent
persons among the people of Nuh, who subsequently idealized and idolized them. Once again, these reports
emphasize, on the one hand, how the descendants of Ismail gradually succumbed to the polytheism of their
predecessors and others and, on the other, the role of Amr ibn Luhayy in the process. Once introduced,
however, polytheism spread among the Arabs in various shapes and forms. Ibn Ishaq gives an explanation of the
spread of stone worship thus. He says that when the descendants of Ismail were for various reasons obliged to
disperse from Makka, each group, as they left it, took with them a stone from the sacred precincts as souvenir
and memento of the Kaba. They placed those stones at suitable spots in their new domiciles, circumambulated
them as they used to circumambulate the Kaba and treated them with various marks of reverence. Gradually
their succeeding generations began to worship not only those stones but any stone that especially impressed
them. Thus they forgot the original Abrahamic religion and degenerated into stone and image worship.
Ultimately each and every tribe and clan, in fact every family, had their special idol to worship. On the
eve of the Prophets emergence some 360 idols were placed in and around the Kaba. The most important of
these was Hubal. It was a big statue in human form of which a hand having been broken the Quraysh had it
remade with gold. Two of the idols in the Kaba compound were Isaf and Naila, placed originally on the spot of
the Zamzam well but subsequently removed to a spot near the hills of Safa and Marwah. According to preIslamic belief, Isaf and Naila were originally a man and a woman of Banu Jurhum who were turned into stones
on account of their having desecrated the sacred precincts by making love in there.
Besides thus making the Kaba the principal dormitory of their numerous idols the Arabs had developed
a number of subsidiary Kabas , so to say, at different places in the land, each with its presiding god or goddess.
They used to visit those shrines at appointed times, circumambulate them and make sacrifices of animals there,
besides performing other polytheistic rites. The most prominent of these shrines were those of AI-Lat at Taif, Al
Uzza at Nakhlah and Manat near Qudayd. The origins of these idols are uncertain. Ibn al-Kalbi says that Al-Lat
was younger than Manat, while Al-Uzza was younger than both al-Lat and Manat. But though Al-Uzza was
thus the youngest of the three; it was nonetheless the most important and the greatest idol with the Quraysh
who, along with Banu Kinanah ministered to it.
The Quran specifically mentions these three goddesses of the Arabs . Some of the other semi-or demiKabas were those of Dhu al-Khalsah at Tabalah, of Fils at a place between the Tayy Mountains, the Riam at
Sana in Yaman, the Ruda in the territory of Banu Rabiah ibn Kab, a group of Kabas at Sindad in the land of
Banu Bakr and Banu Taghlib and the Kaba of Banu al-Harith at Najran.

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In addition to these subsidiary Kabas there were a number of other shrines of specific idols scattered
throughout the peninsula. Of these mention may be made of the shrine of Suwa at Ruhat , that of Wadd at
Dumat al-Jandal, that of Yaghuth at Jurash , that of Yauq at Hamdan in Yaman , that of Nasr in the land of
Himyar in Yaman, that of Umyanis or Amm Anas at Khawlan and that of Sad at Tanufa.
The pre-Islamic Arabs used to worship these idols or gods and goddesses in various ways. They used
to make supplication to them, prostrated themselves before them, made offerings to them, beseeched their
favour, sought to please or propitiate them in the belief that they were capable of doing good or harm to man,
sacrificed animals on altars dedicated to them, made pilgrimages to their shrines, circumambulated them and
drew arrows of divination by them or in their shrines. They also used to name themselves after these gods and
goddesses, such as Abd Yaghuth, Abd al-Uzza, etc. But though thus engrossed in extensive polytheism and
idol-worship the pre-Islamic Arabs did not develop any elaborate mythology or involved theology around their
gods and goddesses as did the ancient Greeks and the Hindus. No trace of such things can be found in the preIslamic poetry and traditions. This fact further indicates that polytheism and idol worship were not indigenous to
the Ismailite Arabs but were grafted on to the Abrahamic tradition.
Nothing illustrates this fact better than the existence of unmistakable traces of the Abrahamic faith in the
medley of polytheistic beliefs and practices. Of these the most remarkable was the existence of a belief in Allah
as the Supreme God , coupled with the belief in the existence of angels and jinn. At times of extreme peril the
pre-Islamic Arabs even directly invoked Allahs mercy and succour . Sometimes they used to swear by Allah
besides frequently naming themselves Abd Allah. The recent discovery of a number of inscriptions, particularly
in northern Arabia, containing the name of Allah, which inscriptions are all post-Abrahamic, is a decisive proof of
the prevalence of the notion of Allah among the Arabs since distant antiquity. P. K. Hitti, after referring to the
inscriptions, to some of the relevant Quranic passages and to the existence of the name Abd Allah among the
Quraysh, states that evidently Allah was the tribal deity of the Quraysh.
The remark is both misleading and untenable. Neither did the inscriptions he cites belong to the
Quraysh nor was the name Abd Allah exclusive to them. Not to speak of many others outside the Quraysh
circle, the leader of the Hypocrites at Madina was Abd Allah ibn Ubayy!
Other residue of the Abrahamic tradition was their universal reverence to the Kaba at Makka, their
circumambulation of it, their making of lesser pilgrimage (umrah) and the pilgrimage (hajj) to it, their
performance of such Abrahamic rites in connection with the pilgrimage as the standing at Arafat, the halt at
Muzdalifa, the stay at Mina, the sacrificing of animals on the occasion, their making seven runs between the
Safa and the Marwah hills and their shaving of their heads. Some other remnants of the Abrahamic rites were
their universally practising circumcision and their fasting on the day of Ashura.
The coexistence of the Abrahamic tradition with the polytheistic beliefs and practices over long
centuries did not however lead to the growth of any syncretic system of belief. The total picture that emerges is
merely that of an ill-assorted amalgam with a number of peculiar by-products of that amalgam. One such byproduct was the pre-Islamic Arabs notion that their worshipping of the gods and goddesses would take them
nearer to Allah , that those gods and goddesses were their intercessors with Him , and that some of their
goddesses, the angels and even the jinn were Allahs daughters . Another outgrowth of the amalgam was their
foolish practice of setting apart a portion of their crops and cattle for their gods and goddesses, and another
portion for Allah . Other instances were their mixing up polytheistic clauses in the formula of Response while
performing the circumambulation of the Kaba the Makkans not going up to Arafat at the time of Hajj but only up
to Muzdalifa on account of a notion of their religious superiority and of their being the inhabitants of the sacred
territory, their generally not allowing anyone to circumambulate the Kaba except in garments provided by them
and their even circumambulating it in a naked state. With reference to such mingling of polytheistic beliefs and
practices with recognition of Allah as Supreme Lord the Quran declares: And most of them believe not in Allah
without associating with Him.
The Arabs polytheism and worship of idols together with their mistaken notions about Allah determined
their whole attitude to life and society. They considered life in this world to be the be-all and end-all of human
existence. They worshipped and propitiated the gods and goddesses and recognized Allah for that purpose
alone. They did not believe in resurrection, reward and punishment and life after death. There is nothing but our
life in this world; we shall die and live but shall never be raised up again, so they believed and declared.

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This attitude led to a sense of ultimate unaccountability and a desire to enjoy the worldly life in all
possible ways and without any restrictions. Licentiousness, prostitution, adultery, fornication and unbridled
indulgence in wine, women and gambling were thus widely prevalent. Unlimited polygamy was in vogue and a
sort of polyandry, in which a particular woman was used as wife by a number of men , was not uncommon. If a
child was born in such a case, it was to be accepted by the person whom the woman declared to be its father.
Sometimes a person allowed his wife to go to other persons for the sake of having a son. The womans position
in society was indeed unenviable, though she participated in many a social and economic activity and though we
sometimes find glowing tributes paid to sweethearts in pre-Islamic poetry. In general, women were treated as
chattels. There was no limit to a mans taking as many wives as he liked. Similarly he divorced his wives at will
and quite frequently. There was no rule of prohibition; so a man could and did marry irrespective of bloodrelationship. Often two sisters were joined as wives to a man at the same time. Sons married their fathers exwives or widows . There was no recognized rule for a woman to inherit from her ancestors or husband. Birth of a
daughter was regarded as inauspicious and disliked Most inhuman was that many Arabs, out of a false sense of
honour and for fear of poverty buried alive their young daughters . On the eve of the rise of Islam this barbarous
practice seems to have somewhat waned in and around Makka; but it was quite widespread in other parts of
Arabia. The Quran speaks of its having been the practice with many polytheists . Qays ibn Asim of Banu
Tamim, who embraced Islam in 9 H., confessed that he had previously buried alive as many as 8 or 12 of his
The sense of unaccountability also lay at the root of frequent killing of human beings without any
qualms of conscience or remorse, and of stealing, plundering and spoliating others of their properties and
possessions. The only check to such acts was tribal vengeance and retaliation. A number of superstitions and
unconscionable practices also were prevalent among them. They believed in the utterances of soothsayers and
astrologers and often decided upon a course of action, for instance a marriage or a journey, by means of
divination by drawing or shooting arrows in a specified manner or near specific idols. Gambling and raffling were
extensively in use. They even decided their respective shares in a particular thing, for instance the meat of a
slaughtered animal, by casting lots with arrows. The meat was divided into unequal and preferential shares,
these were indicated on arrows and these were then drawn, like the drawing of modern lottery tickets. Another
peculiar practice was habal al-habala, or the selling of a pregnant camel on condition that the price was to be
paid when she gave birth to a she-camel and that she-camel herself became pregnant.
Another superstitious and polytheistic practice was the tabooing of certain camels, goats or oxen,
calling them al-saibah, al-bahirah, al-wasilah and al-hami. A she-camel consecutively giving birth to ten female
calves without the intervention of any male calf was tabooed and was named al-saibah. She was not to be used
for riding or carrying any load, her hair was not to be trimmed and her milk was not to be drunk except by a
guest. If she subsequently gave birth to another female, that daughter of hers was called al-bahirah and was
similarly tabooed. A she-goat similarly giving birth consecutively to ten females in five conceptions was likewise
tabooed and called al-wasilah. A bull fathering consecutively ten female calves was also tabooed and called alhami. The Quran condemned such practices .These practices and beliefs of the Arabs, particularly their
polytheism, licentiousness, adultery, gambling, stealing, plundering, their burying alive of young daughters, their
tribal spirit and excitability , etc., were collectively referred to in the Quran and the traditions as jahiliyyah.
While this was the general socio-religious scene, other religious systems like Christianity, Judaism,
Mazdaism and Sabaism had made their way into the peninsula in a limited way. Christianity was introduced in
some northern tribes, particularly among the Ghassanid and in Hira mainly at the instance and initiative of the
Byzantine authorities. Some princes of Hira had embraced it. In the south it was introduced in Yaman mainly
after the first Abyssinian occupation of that land . In its neighbouring region of Najran Christianity of the
Monophysite type was introduced by a missionary from Syria named Faymiyun. A number of people of the area
embraced that faith. There was also a sprinkling of Christian immigrants and converts at Makka at the time of the
Prophets rise.
So far as Judaism was concerned it found its place in the peninsula not so much by conversion as by
immigration of the Jews into it. This immigration took place mainly at two periods one after the Babylonian
occupation of Palestine in 587 B.C. and for a second time after the Roman conquest of the land and the
destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 A.C. A number of Jewish tribes migrated into Arabia and were settled at
places like Yathrib (Madina), Khaybar, Tayma and Fadak. Not that they remained completely inactive in the
matter of propagation of their faith. According to tradition they made a convert of the Himyarite king (Tubba) Abu

Humanity at the Dawn of Islam

Karib Asad Kamil (385-420 A.C) when he visited Madina in the course of a northern expedition and sent with
him two rabbis to propagate Judaism in Yaman. The extent of the success of these Jewish missionaries in
Yaman is not clear; but a descendant of Asad Kamils, Dhui Nuwas, proved to be a vigorous champion of
Judaism. He persecuted the Christians not only of Yaman but even massacred the Christian community of
Najran, throwing a large number of them in a deep ditch full of fire. His intolerance brought about a joint
Byzantine-Abyssinian intervention in Yaman leading to the end of Dhu Nuwass rule and the beginning of the
second Abyssinian occupation of the land under Abrahah. As noted earlier, Abrahah determined to Christianize
the whole land, built a gigantic cathedral at Sana and led a campaign against Makka in 570-7 1 A.C. to destroy
the Kaba.
Mazdaism or Zoroastrianism, which prevailed in Persia, found some converts in the eastern coastal
region and Bahrayn. Some persons in Yaman also embraced it after the Persian occupation of the land in 525
A.C. Sabianism or Sabaism, to which the Quran makes reference, probably represented an ancient faith of
either Babylonian or south Arabian origin consisting of astral worship. Its votaries were very few at the time of the
rise of Islam. At any rate, it was considered a foreign religion; for whenever a person abandoned his ancestral
faith the Arabs used to say that he had turned a Sabian.
All these religions, however, had very little effect upon the life and society of the Arabs in general.
Particularly Christianity and Judaism had compromised their positions by their conflicts and intolerance of each
other, by their internal dissensions and by their deviation from the original teachings of Jesus and Moses. To the
discerning Arab, Christianity, with its doctrines of incarnation and the Trinity, besides the worship of the images of
Jesus and Mary, appeared little better than his worship of the idols together with a recognition of Allah as the
Supreme Lord. Similarly Judaism, with its exclusivity and its claim of Uzayr being the son of God appeared
equally polytheistic. This is highlighted by the fact that on eve of the rise of Islam a number of people came out in
search of the true Abrahamic faith and went by the appellation of Hanifs. Even if the emergence of these men is
regarded as the outcome of an interaction between the existence of the Abrahamic tradition on the one hand and
the presence of Christianity and Judaism in Arabia on the other, the fact that almost all the Hanifs turned their
faces away from both these religions only illustrates their inefficacy on the mind of knowledgeable Arabs of the

Women in the Pre-Islamic Societies and Civilizations

Women suffered great injustices in the pagan Arab society and were exposed to diverse kinds of
humiliation prior to the mission of the Messenger of Allah (Peace be upon Him). They were treated like material
property to be disposed of at the whim of the male guardian. They were not entitled to inherit from their parents
or husbands. Arabs believed inheritance should only be granted to those who had martial abilities, like being
able to ride a horse, fight, gain war booties and help protect the tribe and clan territory.
Since women in the pagan Arab society did not generally have these qualities, they were themselves
inherited like any moveable commodity after the death of an indebted husband. If the deceased husband had
adult sons from other marriages, the oldest son amongst them had the right to add her to his household, just as
a son inherits other chattels of his deceased father. She was unable to leave the house of her stepson unless
she paid a ransom. As a general practice, men had the freedom to acquire as many wives as they desired with
no set limits. There was no system of law and justice that would forbid a man from committing any injustice
towards his wives. Women had no right to choose, or even consent to being chosen as a partner for marriage;
they were simply given away. Women were forbidden to remarry if a husband divorced them.
In the pre-Islamic era of Arabia, fathers commonly became extremely angry and disgraced with the birth
of a female child into their family. Some considered it an evil omen. Allah, the Exalted, describes the fathers
reception of the news about the birth of a daughter:
(When the news of (the birth of) a female is brought to any of them, his face becomes dark, and he is
filled with inward grief! He hides himself from the people because of the evil (and shame) of that which he has
been informed. Shall he keep her with dishonor, or bury her in the dirt? Certainly, evil is their decision...) [16:59]
Women were not even able to practice some of the most natural of rights. For instance eating certain
types of foods was allowed only for males. Allah, the Exalted, records this in the Glorious Quran:


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(And they say: What is in the bellies of such cattle (whether milk or fetus) is for the male alone, and forbidden
from our females, however, if it was born dead, then all have shares therein...) [6:139]
The hatred of female babies prompted Arabs to bury them alive. Allah, the Exalted, states in the
Glorious Quran with reference to the Day of Requital:
(And when the female buried alive shall be questioned: for what sin was she killed?) [81:8-9]
Some fathers used to bury their female children alive if the child was leprous, lame or with birth defect.
Allah (The Almighty) states in the Glorious Quran:
(And kill not your children for fear of poverty. We provide for them and you. Surely, the killing of them is a great
sin.) [17:31]
The one honor afforded to women during the pre-Islamic era was the protection of her person, family
and tribe, and the revenge against any who humiliated or dishonored her, but even this was more for male pride,
dignity and tribal honor than a concern for the female gender.
This situation of women in the Arab society led Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second Caliph of the Muslims
to say, as reported by Muslim:
By Allah, we didnt use to think that women had anything until Allah revealed about them what He revealed in
the Quran, and distributed to them what He distributed...

It is in these hard times of post September 11 when Arabs and Muslims are being bashed throughout
the West that it becomes imperative to explain the various valuable Arab contributions to the West. In fact, unlike
any other region in the entire world, the Arab region provided the West with 3 major contributions:
1. The Arabs Semitic ancestors in the Fertile Crescent and Egypt produced 5 brilliant ancient
civilizations, which benefited the earliest Western civilizations of Greece and Rome. These 5 are: the Iraqi
Sumerian and Babylonian civilizations; the Egyptian Pharaonic civilization; the Lebanese Phoenician civilization;
and the Palestinian Canaanite civilization.
2. The 3 Semitic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were all born in the Arab region.
3. The Post-Islamic Arab civilization contributed handsomely to the European Renaissance.

Arab Civilization before Islam

Contrary to some popular Western misconceptions propagated by many Western experts and
authorities on the Arab world alleging that Arabs did not have any civilization before Islam, or that Arabs were
nothing more than a collection of nomadic warring primitive tribes, confined solely to the Arabian Peninsula, who
spent most of their existence looking for food and water, the historical record proves otherwise. In fact, centuries
before the birth of Islam, the Arabs had several civilizations, not only in the Arabian Peninsula itself, but also in
the Fertile Crescent, some of which were highly advanced with elaborate development and culture. Although
Arab civilization before Islam might not have had a noticeable impact on Greece and Rome, it is nonetheless
important to briefly mention here the following pre-Islamic Arab civilizations in order to dispel this wrong
conventional Western notion that Arabs had no civilization before the birth of Islam, were nothing but wandering
nomads, and were confined only to the Arabian Peninsula.

The Kingdom of Saba (or Sheba)

One of the earliest and most important of all pre-Islamic Arab civilizations is the Qahtani Kingdom of
Saba or Sheba (10th century BCE 7th century CE), which had an elaborate civilization, legendary in its
reputation of prosperity and wealth. The Kingdom of Saba was located in the southwestern mountainous rainy
parts of the Arabian Peninsula in what is known today as the regions of Aseer and Yemen. Envious of its wealth,
the Romans named it Arabia Felix .
The Sabaean capital, Marib, was located near Sana, todays capital of Yemen, which was reportedly
founded by Noahs eldest son Shem from whose name the word Sami in Arabic or Semitic in English comes.

Humanity at the Dawn of Islam


In addition to their domains in the Arabian Penisula, the Sabaean kings controlled for a long time some parts of
the East African coast across the Red Sea where they established the Kingdom of Abyssinia, which is Eritrea
today. It should be indicated here that the name Abyssinia comes from the Arabic word Habashah. One of the
most famous rulers of the Sabaeans was Queen Balgais. This mystic Arab Queen of Sheba was well known for
her beauty, grace, wealth, charm, and splendor. She reportedly had a famous impassioned encounter with the
Hebrew King Solomon when she took a special trip to Jerusalem
The Sabaean Kingdom produced and traded in spices, Arabian frankincense, myrrh, and other Arabian
aromatics. The Sabaeans excelled in agriculture and had a remarkable irrigation system with terraced
mountains, incredible huge water tunnels in mountains and great dams including the legendary Marib Dam,
which was built around 2000 BCE. This Arab dam was considered to be one the greatest technological wonders
of the ancient world. However, the tragic breaking of the Marib Dam around 575, as indicated in the Quran, was
an event of very traumatic proportions in the collective consciousness of all Arabs at the time and of later

The Kingdom of Himyar

The Arab Kingdom of Himyar , which was also located in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula,
had a sizable number of Arab Christians and Arab Jews . The most prominent Arab Jew of this kingdom was
King Dhu al-Nuwas who persecuted his Arab Christian subjects. He reportedly incinerated some of them alive in
retaliation for their persecution of Arab Jews in neighboring Arab Christian Najran.
From their capital city, first at Zafar and later at Sana, the powerful Himyarite kings executed military
plans which resulted in the expansion of their domains at times eastward as far as the Persian Gulf and
northward into the Arabian Desert. However, internal disorder and the changing of trade routes eventually
caused the kingdom to suffer political and economic decline. In fact, after several unsuccessful attempts, the
African Abyssinians finally invaded the Arab Himyarite Kingdom in 525. In 570, the year Prophet Mohammad
was born, the Abyssinian governor Abraha sent an army of elephant-borne troops in an unsuccessful attempt to
attack the city of Makkah and destroy its Kabah. In 575 the Persians invaded Himyar and ended the Abyssinian
presence in Himyar. But the Persians did not last long there either. Soon thereafter Islam swept the entire
Arabian Peninsula.

The Nabataean Kingdom

The Arab Nabataean Kingdom was established in the 6th century BCE. It was located south of the
Dead Sea and along the eastern shores of the Gulf of Aqaba in the northern parts of the Hejaz. The Nabataeans
had their capital city in Petra that was a flourishing center of commerce and civilization. The Nabataeans great
achievements and culture are still echoed in the magnificent carved-in-the-mountains monuments they left
behind. Thousands of tourists from all over the world are attracted every year to this Arab region to see these
monuments not only at Petra in Jordan but also in Saudi Arabias Madain Salih . The small Arab neighboring
Kingdoms of Ad, Thamud, and Lihyan - all also with brilliant monuments and achievements mentioned in the
Quran - came under the Nabataean suzerainty for a while.
The Arab Nabataean Kingdom, which at its zenith ruled much of the Syrian interior including Damascus,
later became a vassal Roman state and eventually fell victim to European colonialism when it was absorbed into
the Roman Empire as the Provincia Arabia in 195 CE. In fact, the Roman Emperor Philip, who ruled from 244
to 249, was ethnically an Arab from this Arab Nabataean region. Incidentally, this Roman Emperor who was
known as Philip the Arab, was preceded to the Palatine Hill in Rome by a series of Arab empresses, half-Arab
emperors, and the fully Arab Elagabulus of Emesa. It is also believed by some scholars that Philip the Arab was
really the first Roman Christian emperor (244-249 CE) rather than Constantine I who ruled the Roman Empire
(312-337 CE) 63 years after him.

The Kingdom of Tadmor (or Palmyra)

Another important Arab civilization before Islam was the famous Kingdom of Palmyra ,which is now
Hims in Syria. Although mentioned in some history books as early as the 9th century BCE, Tadmor became only
prominent in the 3rd century BCE when it controlled the vital trade route between Mesopotamia and the
Mediterranean. The Tadmorians had a great civilization and excelled in international trade. However, like the


Advanced Islamic History & Culture

Nabataeans, they eventually came under the control of the expanding Roman imperialism by becoming another
client Arab state of Rome.
In 265 the Tadmorian Arab King Udhayna was rewarded by the Romans to become a vice-emperor of
the Roman Empire because of his assistance in their war against Persia. However, King Udhaynas widow
Zainab , the famous strong Arab queen wanted nothing less for Palmyra than a complete independence from
Rome. She succeeded in temporarily driving the Roman invaders out of most of the Fertile Crescent and
proclaimed her son Wahballat to be the true emperor of a new independent Arab Palmyra. Queen Zainabs
Arabian independent spirit, however, deeply angered the Romans and eventually resulted in the destruction of
the Tadmorian Kingdom in 273 by a powerful force of the Roman imperial army. As part of the Roman victory
celebration, queen Zainab was brutally taken to Rome in golden chains.

The Kingdom of Kindah

Kindat al-Muluk was a famous Arab kingdom, which originated in the southern Arabian Peninsula near
Yemens Hadramawt region. Its capital city, al-Fau, was excavated northeast of Najran in Saudi Arabia in 1972
by Saudi archaeologists from King Saud University in Riyadh. The Kingdom of Kindah became prominent around
the late 5th and early 6th centuries CE when it made one of the earliest and successful efforts to unite several
Arab tribes under its new domain in Najd in central Arabia.
The traditional founder and ruler of Kindah was Hujr Akil al-Murar. However, the most renowned of all
Kindah kings was al-Harith ibn Amr, Hujrs grandson, who extended his kingdoms domain north by invading Iraq
and temporarily capturing al-Hirah, the capital city of the Arab Christian Kingdom of Lakhmid. But in 529 al-Hirah
was liberated by its Christian Arabs who killed King al-Harith along with 50 members of his family. After alHariths death, the Kindah Kingdom split up into four factions - Asad, Taghlib, Kinanah, and Qays - each led by a
prince. The famous pre-Islamic Arab poet Imru al-Qays (who died around 540) was the prince of Qays. The
continuing feuding between these Arab factions, however, eventually forced the Kindah princes by the middle of
the 6th century to withdraw to their original place in southern Arabia next to Yemen. Nevertheless, after Islam
was established throughout the Arabian Peninsula, many descendants of the Royal Kindah continued to hold
powerful political positions within the Islamic state. In fact, one branch of the Royal Kindah was even successful
in gaining great political influence in far away Arab Andalusia in the European Iberian Peninsula.

The Kingdom of Lakhmid

The Arab Christian Kingdom of Lakhmid, which originated in the 3rd century CE, reached the height of
its power during the 6th century under King al-Munthir III (503-554). Its domain covered from the western shores
of the Persian Gulf all the way north to Iraq where its capital city, al-Hira, was located on the Euphrates River
near present day Kufah. Working in close cooperation with the Zoroastrian Persian Sasanian Empire to which
the Lakhmid Kingdom was a vassal state, al-Munthir III raided and frequently challenged the pro-Byzantine Arab
Kingdom of Ghassan in Syria. His son King Amr Ibn Hind was patron of the legendary Arab poet Tarfah Ibn alAbd and other poets associated with the seven Muallaqat of pre-Islamic Arabia. The Lakhmid dynasty eventually
disintegrated after the death of its great Arab Christian King an-Numan III in 602.

The Kingdom of Ghassan

As the Lakhmid Arab Kingdom was Christian so was its Arab neighbor to the west, the Kingdom of
Ghassan, whose capital city was Damascus. This Syrian Ghassanid Kingdom was prominent in the 6th century
and was an ally of the Byzantine Empire. It protected the vital spice trade route from the south of the Arabian
Peninsula and also acted as a buffer against the desert bedouins.
The Ghassanid King al-Harith Ibn Jabalah who was a Monophysite Christian, supported the Christian
Byzantine Empire against the Zoroastrian Sasanian Persian Empire and successfully opposed the Arab Kingdom
of Lakhmids, which sided with Persians. As a result, King al-Harith was given the title of Patricius by the
Byzantine emperor Justinian.
Like the Lakhmids, the Ghassanids patronized the arts and many literary geniuses such as al-Nabighah
al-Thubyani and Hassan Ibn Thabit. Great Arab poets like them were frequently entertained in the royal courts of
the Ghassanid kings. After the emergence of Islam in the 7th century, most inhabitants of the Kingdom of

Humanity at the Dawn of Islam


Ghassan became Muslim. One of the most prominent poets of the Kingdom of Ghassan was Hassan Ibn Thabit.
Ibn Thabit, who espoused Islam, wrote several famous and beautiful poems in praise of Prophet Mohammad.

The Jahiliyyah (Pre-Islamic Arabia)

Even in the period of Jahiliyyah the Arabs also had a great cultural literary civilization. Its great classical
belles letters could very easily be compared to the best literary treasures developed during the later golden age
of the Arab/Islamic civilization of the Abbasids and Andalusia. The Jahiliyyah era witnessed a vibrant golden age
of Arab poetry and odes. Among the top pre-Islamic Arab poets, whose poems are still studied in college and
pre-college curricula throughout the Arab world, are the seven legendary poets of the Golden Odes, known as
the Seven Muallaqat . These seven pre-Islamic Arab poets who belonged to different Arab tribes included:
Prince Imru al-Qays of the Kindah Kingdom; Tarfah , Zuhair; Labid; Antar , Amru Ibn Kalthoom; and al-Harith Ibn
Hillizah. Each one of these seven great Arab poets wrote magnificent lengthy poems accentuated with passion,
love, eloquence, courage, and sensuality. Their seven golden odes, considered to be the greatest literary
treasure of pre-Islamic Arabia, were accorded the highest honor by the critics of the times in the annual poetry
fair in Ukaz near Makkah. Their works were inscribed in gold letters and hung on the door and walls of the
Kabah for the public to read, enjoy, and appreciate. To these seven incomparable Jahiliyyah Arab poets one
must add the following four geniuses in poetry: an-Nabighah al-Thubyani, Hassan Ibn Thabit, al-Hutayah, and
al-Khansa (a female).
Although most of pre-Islamic Arabia during the Jahiliyyah period was largely nomadic and tribal where
bedouin wars and conflicts were the norms among the disunited Arab tribes and where most people believed in
pagan religions and superstitions, the two important cities of the Hejaz, Makkah and Ukaz, stood as shining
spots in the entire Arabian Peninsula. In fact, Makkah was the religious, political, economic, intellectual, and
cultural center of pre-Islamic Arabia. The Kabah in Makkah and Mount Arafat outside it had been important
religious sites for annual pilgrimage centuries before the coming of Islam.