Muhammad and the Origins of Islam: The Pre-Islamic World

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Muhammad and the Origins of Islam: The Pre-Islamic World

Jahiliyyah, “The Time of Ignorance”

By the end of the sixth century the weakness of muruwah was apparent: each tribe had its own inherited rules, many of which led to reckless and extreme behavior. By this time, too, Yemen had become a province of Persia. With no hope of anything better, the Bedouin saw themselves in a life of struggle—relieved only by moments of pleasure, often taken in the oblivion of date wine—and constantly vulnerable to exploitation by the two Empires. There was thought to be nothing wrong with stealing, injuring or murdering people outside one’s own tribe, so peace depended on a fragile stability created through alliances and affiliations between tribes. This depended more on the threat of retaliation and the comparative strength of each than on anything else.

One can imagine that many tribes’ members, especially the weak, the old, women and children, lived in constant terror. Chaos was spreading all over the Arab Peninsula. Incessant ghazu raids now led to what seemed to be a constant state of warfare between tribes, a condition that was exacerbated by unprecedented drought and famine.

With no hope of anything better, the Bedouin saw themselves in a life of struggle—relieved only by moments of pleasure, often taken in the oblivion of date wine—and constantly vulnerable to exploitation by the two Empires.

A state of mind prevailed that the Prophet Muhammad called jahiliyyah, which, according to Karen Armstrong, translates as: “violent and explosive irascibility, arrogance, tribal chauvinism.”  This same word would later be understood to mean the pre-Islamic historical period itself, translated as “The Time of Ignorance.”

The Quraysh had been in control of Mecca (Makkah) since the fourth century. Situated in the middle of the Hijaz, a region in the west of present-day Saudi Arabia, it had become a major commercial center at the crossroads of trade caravans linking Arabia with India, Persia, China, and Byzantium, and had its own Red Sea port at Shu‘ayba. Unlike other tribal settlements developed around water sources, Mecca’s stony infertile ground made agriculture impossible, so survival centered around commerce. During the last years of the sixth century the Quraysh had become extremely successful at this, but by the mid-seventh century ruthless capitalism had eroded their traditional egalitarian way of life. Quraysh society was now stratified, with its wealth confined to a few ruling families; the weaker, poorer, marginalized clans and individuals were left, lost and disoriented on the outside.


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