The Origin and Development of Islam An essay on its socio-economic growth

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The Origin and
Development of

The Origin and
Development of
An essay on its socio-economic growth
* ”,
Jit ”V^
^•.-U; v V
Asghar Ali Engineer
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1 The Scope and Purpose of the Study/1
2 Arabian Society Before Islam/11
3 Islam’s Origin in Mecca/37
4 Islam and Medinese Developments/83
5 The Caliphate, Outward Expansion and
Civil War/127
6 Heterodoxies-Politico-Economic Genesis/163

To the memory of my father,

who always encouraged me
in my search
for the truth,
however unpalatable
it might be
The present work is based on years of study and research. I have tried to understand various socio-economic and historical forces which gave birth to the religion of Islam. Undoubtedly any new religion is a spiritual phenomenon which provides a new moral vision to mankind, as Islam did. But to say this is not to explain the phenomenon.
My purpose, in this book, is to examine Islam’s origins in the’ light of various social and economic factors, as it is my tirm belief that any spiritual phenomenon, however unique it may be, is rooted in the society in which it arises. In my opinion Marxism provides a methodology which is most effective and most helpful in explaining socio-religious phenomena, and it is for this reason that I have preferred to use this methodology. My only motive in undertaking this study has been to understand the unique phenomenon called Islam. Though this book was written before the significant current events in the Islamic world, it may prove a useful background for the better understanding ot what is called the new Resurgence of Islam.

The Scope and Purpose of the Study
Islam originated m the beginning of the seventh century of our era, as what I would prefer to call an ideological movement. Ideology, to be sure, is a value-loaded term, and includes a whole system of belief. To be precise, it is the body of doctrine, myth, symbols, etc., of a social movement, class, or similar large group. It may even include (and it does so in the case of Islam) the devices for putting the movement into operation. As interpreted by the French ideologists, ideology was limited to accounting for individual representations by a causal psychology. However, to Marx and Engels, the phenomenon under study became a collection of representations characteristic of a given epoch and society. ”Marx,” says Henri Lefebvre, ”aimed at formulating a theory of general, i.e., social representation; he defined the elements of an explanatory genesis of ’ideologies’ and related the latter to their historical and sociological conditions.”’
Again, Marx draws our attention to the fact that ideology is an inverted, truncated and distorted reflection of reality. In ideologies, men and their conditions appear upside down, like images on the lens of a camera; undoubtedly this reversal has biological reasons, similar to the physical ones which account for the way images are reversed on the retina. In their mental representations, which constitute the elements of an ideology, individuals grasp their reality, in Marx’s phrase, ”upside down”. Human beings do not perceive themselves as they are, but through a web of complex ideas and illusions which may or may not be grounded in reality. An ideology, therefore, can, if torn out of context, mean or refer to false representations of history or abstractions from history, and, in that sense, an ideology can be a collection of errors, illusions and mystifications, which can be
1. Henri Lefebvre, The Sociology of Marx, translated from the French by Norbert Guterman (London, 1972), p. 60.

2 The Origin & Development of Islam

accounted for by reference to the historical reality the ideology distorts and transposes.
Unless it is examined and seen in the context of the concrete and specific situation, an ideology cannot be seen the right way up. This study is an attempt to see the epoch-making movement of Islam in its concrete and specific situation. An attempt has been made to examine and analyse, as far as possible, all the relevant factors-political, social, and historical-as well as the socio-economic formations of the period, in order to understand the complex forces operating on the eve of Islam’s birth. It is an onerous task-I am aware of it-to try to comprehend a society as a whole, with its structure, attitudes, systems of values, cultural idioms or institutions. It becomes all the more difficult when the society involved is a religious society encumbered with its own dogmas,values and attitudes. Islam is a religious ideology which completely transformed the society of its birth, while yet retaining those of the society’s essential features which did not clash with Islam’s new value system.
Every person understands things from a certain angle or from a specific and pronounced outlook. This need not rule out (and does not in my own case) other points of view, or cross-linkages with other perspectives. I have striven to try and understand social developments in the light of historical materialism, as this approach convinces and appeals to me.2 This term, ”historical materialism”, calls for some caution. First ot all, as stated above, its dogmatic application is not intended here: neither is it intended to be applied mechanically.
Marx, with whom the modern methodology of historical materialism originated, was himself aware of this danger. He made a disclaimer-and a very strong one-of such dogmatism with respect to the application of his analysis to Russian developments. In 1877, he wrote the following in his letter to an editor of a Russian journal:
(My critic) feels himself obliged to metamorphose my historical sketch of the genesis ot capitalism in Western Europe into an histonco-philosophic theory of the marchc generate imposed by
2. Using the methodology of historical materialism to explain the origin and development of a religion does not necessarily mean to compromise one’s faith in that religion as is often thought by the rigidly orthodox followers of that religion. Even the learned theologians explain many scriptural verses in the historical context. Similarly the socio-economic context also provides a useful ingredient for explaining certain religious institutions. An enlightened faith would certainly admit of what is rejected by unthinking or rigidly orthodox followers. It must also be noted that religionism or scientism, when stretched to its farthest extreme, can lead to a blind alley.
The Scope and Purpose of the Study 3
fate upon every people, whatever the historic circumstances in which it finds itself, in order that it may ultimately arrive at the form of economy which will ensure, together with the greatest expansion of the productive powers ot social labour, the most complete development of man. But I beg his pardon. (He is both honouring and shaming me too much). Let us take an example. In several parts of Capital I allude to the fate which overtook the plebeians of ancient Rome. They were originally free peasants, each cultivating his own piece of land on his own account. In the course of Roman history they were expropriated. The same movement which divorced them from their means ot production and subsistence, involved the formation not only of big landed property but also of big money capital. And so one fine morning there were to be found on the one hand tree men, stripped of every thing except their labour power, and on the other, in order to exploit this labour, those who held all the acquired wealth in possession. What happened?’ The Roman proletarians became not wage labourers but a mob ot do-nothings more abject than the former ’poor whites’ in the southern country of the United States, and alongside of them there developed a mode of production which was not capitalist but, taking place in different historic surroundings, led to totally different results. By studying each of these forms of evolution separately and then comparing them, one can easily find the -clue to this phenomenon, but one will never arrive there by the universal passport of a general historicophilosophical theory, the supreme virtue of which consists in being super-historical.3
Those who apply a preconceived or ”super-historical” model to the study of Islam-and this is so with most Marxists-view the historical reality mechanically, and end up by imposing ”feudal” socio-economic formations on seventh century Arabian society. Here is an example. In A Short History of the World, the authors say about Arabia at the beginning of the seventh century: ”The emergence of feudal relations in the Arabian Peninsula and the immediately adjacent territories took place in the middle of the 1st millennium A.D.. with the gradual collapse of slave-holding societies in the south and south-east of the peninsula, and the disintegration of the primitive clan system of the nomads in other areas.”
3. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Correspondence 1846-1895 (New York, 1934), pp. 354-5. The letter was never sent and was later found among Marx’s papers.

4 The Origin & Development of Islam

The authors further say:
By that time a large part of the herds and pastures were in the hands of the clan nobility, while there was land hunger among the poorer nomad tribes, particularly as subsistence livestockbreeding was not sufficient to support the growing population. Inter-tribal wars for land began, m the course of which various alliances were drawn up The urge to achieve territorial expansion at the expense of neighbouring tribes grew steadily stronger. Another factor which promoted this drive towards unification was the increasing number of economic and political links between the more developed regions of Arabia where feudal patterns were already taking shape and between these regions and the nomad peoples.
A movement towards the unification of all the Arabs began which coincided with the feudahsation of both the nomad and settled peoples; the movement soon took on a religious character as well, propagating the new religion of Islam.4
Now, to any student of Islam, this analysis of the socio-economic formations at the time of the birth of Islam would appear to be quite out of touch with historical reality As we shall see later, Islam was born in the highly commercialized milieu of Mecca, which was an international centre of commerce as well as of high finance. Many of the Koranic verses bear testimony to this histonal fact, of which even bourgeois historians have taken note. In fact, neither in the nomadic tribes of the Arabian desert, nor in the commercial town of Mecca, were there any traces of the feudal mode of production or of feudal relations. It is also not correct to say that inter-tribal wars were fought in order to seize land or for territorial expansion. Such a position is untenable in the light of what is definitely known about the Bedouin tribes of Arabia. Agricultural production was totally unknown in and around the area where Islam was born; even pastures were not a perennial feature, as the precipitation was very scanty. Inter-tribal fights more often than not took the form of raids or forays. The Soviet historians quoted above have not been very careful in analysing the available material on the history of pre-Islamic Arabia. They have rather understood the socio-economic formations of Arabia of that time mechanically. Marx refers to such mechanical application of his theory in the passage quoted above.
Ahmad El Kodsy, an Arab Marxist, has also criticized such an

4 A Z Manfred (ed.), A Short History of the World, Vol. 1 (Moscow, 1974), pp 183-4

The Scope and Purpose of the Study 5
approach, which is based on a totally wrong interpretation of the reality as it prevailed in Arabia He says, ”The picture, widely accepted not only among many foreigners but also among too many Arab Marxists, of an Arab world which is rural and feudal, is one of these commonplaces without any scientific basis which arises from an oversimplified kind of Marxism In reality, the Arab world was very different from the Europe of the Middle Ages Within this Arab world, moreover, one can still distinguish, today as always three zones that differ widely from each other in social structure and in political and economic organisation, the Arab East (in Arabic called Al Mashraq), embracing Arabia, Syria (meaning the present-day states of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel), and Iraq, the countries of the Nile (Egvpt and the Sudan), and the Arab West (called in Arabic Al Maghreb), stretching from Libya across Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Mauritania In this group, Egypt alone, which divides the Arab world in two, has always been and still is a peasant civilisation (I do not say a feudal one), whereas the social formations of the Mashraq and of the Maghreb alike have not been, essentially, formations based on the cultivators of the soil.” 5
This book, as far as possible, will try to avoid stereotypes or the mechanical application of any theory, ideology or model. Reality, whether it be social, political or ideological, is much more complex than the superficial approach seems to assume. It needs careful analysis, avoiding the pitfalls of stereotyping or dogmatic application This is more so in the case of a religious ideology, as the issues are more confused, and beliefs held much more steadfastly and dogmatically than in other ideologies. It is the firm belief of this author that no single theory, model, or hypothesis, whatever its scientific degree of authenticity, can comprehensively eocplam the various aspects of a reality. Marxist theory, if applied mechanically, as pointed out above, can lead to ridiculous results in flagrant contradiction to historical reality. What is most laudable, according to me, in the Marxist theory, is its methodological approach, which can be called the historical materialist approach. I choose Marxist methodology precisely because it enables me to understand, better than any other methodology, various historical enigmas in all their complexity. To me, therefore, what is more important than Marxism’s dogmas or beliefs-which I reject if they have not evolved organically from the concrete situation-is its methodological approach
5 Ahmed el Kodsy, Nationalism and Class Struggles in the Arab World, a special of Monthly Review (Vol 22, July-August, 1970), p 4

6 The Origin & Development of Islam

To elucidate my methodological approach, I would like to quote here from W. Montgomery Watt’s paper, ”The sociologist and the prophet-reflections on the origin of Islam”.
A relig’on, both in its origin and in its growth, is a social phenomenon. The prophet preaches to people belonging to a society with a distinctive structure. The sociologist can study the classes in the society to which the prophet appeals immediately, those to whom he appeals at a later stage in his preaching, and the class changes brought about by the acceptance of his preaching. In so far as he is concerned with the sociology of knowledge, he also studies the relation between the ideas proclaimed by the prophet and the distinctive interests of each class. In these respects, and others which could be mentioned, the sociologist, if he is doing his work correctly, is making true statements about the preaching of the prophet. He could say, for example-to take an instance which is not fully historical-that the prophet, in attacking wealth, was trying to promote the interests of the underprivileged against the rich.6
A sociologist looks for the roots of a movement in the total social structure of a society. In contradistinction to this, the theologian employs a different idiom, one on the intellectual and ideational plane, to describe the same reality. Montgomery Watt expresses it as follows:
Thus, while the theologian is fundamentally concerned with men’s beliefs and ideas about aspects of reality, the sociologist is concerned with a complex consisting of a way of life embodied in a society and having its appropriate values, mores, social structures and ideas, all these being interdependent. The sociologist is thus operating with something like a ’coherence theory’, except that he is not dealing solely w*ith ideas and beliefs, but also with various social facts. 7
To put it in Marxist terminology, the superstructure is to be understood and explained in terms of its economic base. However, one rnu^t not be led to believe that there is a direct correspondence
6 W Montgomery Watt, The Sociologist ami the Prophet-Reflections on the Origin of Islam in Malik Ram and M D Ahmed (eds.), Arshi Presentation Volume, P 31
7. ibid p 34
The Scope and Purpose of the Study 7
between this ”economic base” and the social institutions. There is a tortuous mediating process in between, to which A. Labnola has rightly drawn our attention.
The underlying economic structure, which determines all the rest, is not a simple mechanism, from which institutions, laws, customs, thought, sentiments, ideologies emerge as automatic and mechanical effects Between this underlying structure and all the rest, there is a complicated, often subtle and tortuous, process of derivation and mediation, which .aay not always be discoverable 8
The economic base, undoubtedly, plays an important role in the determination of superstructural institutions, but it is by no means the onlv factor Rehgio-cultural institutions, born out of the productive forces and production relations of earlier epochs, acquire an autonomy of their own and continue to exercise their influence on the socio-economic institutions of later ages If anyone tries to establish a one-to-one correspondence between the economic base and the superstructural institutions, his task will either be hopeless or full of pitfalls Engels was fully aware of the dangers of a mechanical application of Marxism, and duly warned his readers of
Marx and I are partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it We had to emphasise the mam principle vi<;-a-vi<; our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to give their due to the elements involved in the interaction 9
In the present book, if there is an emphasis on the economic factor, it is partly because this factor has hitherto been mostly, if not altogether, ignored while studying the complex forces which gave birth to one of the most powerful movements of history It is not my intention-and this will be clear during the course of the book-to impress on my readers that the economic factor is, in the final
8 The laterMarxists like Lukacs tried to develop a theory of mediation which is in sharp contrast to the dogmatic interpretation of Marxism, according to which there is a supposedly direct relationship between the base and the superstructure
9 Engels, ”To C S Schmidt, 27 October, 1980” from Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, (Moscow, 1975) p 500

8 The Origin & Development of Islam

analysis, the only determining one; far from it. I have endeavoured, to the best of my capacity, to account for other factors, those of a religious and psychological nature, as well.
An underlying problem in discussions of this kind is philosophic in nature, and concerns the relationship of men’s thoughts to the world at large and to the actions they perform. The commonsense explanation of these relationships is not very illuminating. According to this commonsense approach,10 we look at the world carefully and closely, gathering and measuring all the facts, and then we work out the most obvious solution and execute it. There are, by implication, a limited number of facts These are unambiguous and relatively easily identified, and, if we have done our preliminary work adequately, the solutions follow. All reasonable men will follow the course of reasoning involved, and voluntarily approve the solution, since it is ”obvious”, given the factual information. The facts, as it were, dictate their own solution, and sensible men merely act as passive catalysts in this process. At a generalized level, if history is made by sensible men, it becomes inexorable and inevitable, an unfolding process m which sensible men are passive connecting links between the facts and action The connecting link is devious because nonsensible men have ”clouded” judgements or have imperfectly examined the facts The elements clouding their judgement are seen as emotions or prejudices or vested interests or other extraneous factors Also, we have ideals, and we set out to achieve them. It is usually suggested that ”ideals” are the kind of aims which are, in their pure form, unrealizable However, in seeking them, we do succeed in changing the world a little towards them, in achieving some approximation. The ideals are given. They come from nowhere, but are a datum
Commenting on the above approach, Nigel Harris says.
I would suggest that both models of the relationship between ideals, the world and action are a bit nonsensical, not least because m no single respect do they fit what we might, on reflection, see as the process whereby we reach certain conclusions and seek to act upon them. For most of us, making a decision is an extremely complex matter, in which accidents, ad-hoc considerations, play a role, and where a multitude of different, often implicit, considerations come into play ll [My italics.]
10 What follows is an account from Nigel Harris, Beliefs in Society-the Problem of Ideology (London, 1971), pp 10-11
11 ibid p 11
The Scope and Purpose of the Study 9
Any situation, historical or otherwise, with which men interact, is extremely complex, much more so when ideals and beliefs are involved-and therefore, cannot be grasped by any single formula or thought pattern All one can do is to establish some dominant factors or trends However, it should also be realized that though m a normal situation the process of decision making is extremely complex and is influenced by many factors ad-hoc or otherwise, in a moment of revolution, the ideological factor does tend to become predominant at least for those who have a strong commitment to the ideology Much, however, depends on the degree of commitment In a historical study of a religion like Islam, bristling with contradictory viewpoints, beliefs, and ideas, such an attitude of mind is very important, as it avoids the pitfalls of stereotyped thinking When I strive to see historical developments from the Marxist viewpoint, what I have in mind is the broadest Marxist approach, especially its methodology, as pointed out earlier, and not any rigid pattern conceived a priori
Sartre points out that ”The real content of these typical concepts is always past knowledge; but today’s Marxist makes of it an eternal knowledge His sole concern, at the moment of analysis, will be to ’place’ these entities The more he is convinced that they represent truth a priori, the less fussy he will be about proof ”12 Moreover, says Sartre
There is no longer any question of studying facts within the general perspective of Marxism so as to enrich our understanding and to clarify action. Analysis consists solely in getting rid of details, in forcing the signification of certain events, in denaturing facts or even in inventing a nature for them in order to discover it later underneath them, as their substance, as unchangeable, fetishized ’synthetic notions’ The open concepts of Marxism have closed in They are no longer keys, interpretive schemata, they are posited for themselves as an already totalised knowledge.13
The present study, as far as possible, tries to avoid the dangers pointed out above, i.e., it does not use unchangeable, fetishized, synthetic notions. Reliance is placed on thorough analysis, and no resort is sought to be made to sweeping generalizations on issues
12 Jean Paul Sartre, Search jor a Method, translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Vintage Books, USA (I960), p 27
13 ibid p 27

The O & Development of Islam

which cannot be subst fted by all available facts. There are, of course, areas as yet llltia” plored; I have tried to be cautious in hazarding opinions ab,fexljhem. The totalizing of investigation has not given way to a scl’1 ’^/ticism of totality, as Sartre has very aptly put it. The scientific; s,last^of investigation, in the sense of humanly possible objectivity (w^ Certain implicit philosophical suppositions unavoidable) is the; ^ enforce of any seriously intended study. However, in certain a,’5 * in the interest of objective investigation, it is desirable-not to’is’ necessary-to suspend our philosophical presuppositions provisjV ^ ly in accordance with methods that can be approved by all inv^st|I|al*/rs, however different their philosophical viewpoints may be. ’(to
Lastly, I would like t, ^ ke it very clear at the outset that this book is a humble attempt to^^am the origin and development of Islam in the light of socio-econ.’PJ25; factors. It is my belief that the religious point of view, though ,tl’c important, cannot, by itself, explain the historical events in %H !rv r complexities. I have written whatever I felt to be true acco^di ’r ? the methodology adopted, without any intention to prove any j tcy point of view wrong, much less the point of view of those whc, a,Jler/e to Islam as a faith. In my opinion such an attempt enhances QUter^erstanding of Islam in its sociological perspective, as no religlnc*;>r ideology can be fully understood if it is not seen in its concrete’11 °* eu> It does not necessarily imply that such a study stands opposed ^’lam as a religion which even today moves millions of its follove,
Arabian Society Before Islam
Islam, as everyone knows, originated in Arabia, more particularly in Mecca. It is, therefore, necessary-more so if we want to understand it in the light of historical materialism-to study its sociological background along with other factors such as the geographical, historical, political and economic ones. Mecca was an important township in the otherwise vast Arabian desert known as ”al-Rab ’ AlKhali” (an empty quarter). Mecca in fact lies to the north-west of this desert, near the western coast. Al-Rab ’Al-Khah is almost impenetrable and greatly dreaded. Mr. Bertram Thomas, a young English orientalist, crossed it for the first time in January 1931, and bared the secrets of one of the largest blank spots that was left on the world’s map.1 More recently, another British national, Wilfred Thesiger, also crossed it; he has. described his adventures in his book Arabian Sands.
The desert around Mecca, the birthplace of Islam, is extremely inhospitable, and dictates a way of life which is hardy and primitive. Philip K. Hitti, in his celebrated book, History of the Arabs, observes very pertinently, ”The surface of Arabia is mostly desert with a narrow margin of habitable land round the periphery. The sea encircles this periphery. When the population increases beyond the capacity of the land to support it, the surplus must seek elbow room. But this surplus cannot expand inward because of the desert, nor outward on account of the sea-a barrier which in those [preIslamic] days was well-nigh impassable. The over-population would then find one route open before it on the western coast of the peninsula leading northward and forking at the Sinaitic peninsula to the fertile valley of the Nile.”2 Here it must be mentioned that by the
1 Philip K Hitti, History of the Arabs, 8th edn. (London, 1965), p. 7.

2. ibid. p. 10

The Ongtn & Development of Islam

time of Islam’s birth, the sea route referred to by Prof Hitti had no longer remained ”well-nigh impassable” The first few Moslems who were forced to flee to Abyssinia to seek refuge had to use this sea route The developing trade had necessitated improvement in the science of navigation Later on, too, the Arabs made a great contribution to this important science, and built their own war fleets There are repeated references to navigation in the Koran Mr Aly Mohomed Fahmy, in his book, Muslim Sea-Power in the Eastern Mediterranean, draws our attention to the fact that ”No less than forty passages relate to the grace of God who has put the sea at the service of mankind A special proof of this is shown by the fact that God has given man power over waters (sakhara), so that his ships can sail upon them Navigation seems to have made a profound impression ’Your lord is He who speeds the ships for you in the sea that you may seek of His grace, surely He is ever Merciful to you ’
”The purpose for which ships plied on the sea and the kind of work carried on bv the Arabs are described as follows ’And He it is who has made the sea subservient that you may eat fresh flesh from it and bring forth from it ornaments which you wear, and you see the ships cleaving through it, and that you might seek of His bounty and that you may give thanks
”The passage (verse) clearly indicates that the Arabs sailed principally to catch fish, gather pearls and coral, and carry a profitable cargo from one country to another The tradition extols the sea too. praising its martyrs and giving every encouragement for sea trade ”3
Thus we see that not only was the sea, on the eve of Islam, not impassable, but in fact extensive use was made of it for food and trade Navigation became the Arabs’ torte in developing trade as well as in expanding their conquests
Mecca, the birthplace of Islam, as already said, was on the periphery of a vast desert This desert was sparsely inhabited by people called the Bedouins Ethnically of Semitic stock, the Bedouins are nomadic tribes, a few of whom occasionally settle down near oases and lead a sedentary life For most Bedouins, however, nomadism is a passion Just as industrialized society has produced certain habits, and a way of life, and terms of reference, nomadic society too, develops its own institutions, habits and culture One may even agree with Prof Hitti that nomadism in the Arabian desert is as ”scientific” as industrialism in Detroit or Manchester, in its operation according to its perceived reality
3 Aly Mohomed Fahmy, Muslim Sea Power m the Pastern Mediterranean (London

1950) p 57

Arabian Society Before Islam
The Bedouins are a hardy lot, and tenacity and endurance are their principal virtues, whereas lack of discipline and respect for authority are their main failings These failings, as we will see later, created gigantic problems for the nascent Islamic state Owing to inhospitable desert conditions and a lack of resources, the Bedouins have been historically conditioned to lead an utterly austere life They wear a long garment called a thaub, with a belt, and a flowing upper garment (aba) The head is covered by a shawl (kufiyya) held by a cord (’iqal) Trousers are not in vogue and footwear is rare Their food is equally austere, generally consisting of dates and a mixture of flour, or a roasted ear of corn, with water, camel’s milk or goat’s milk They live in tents and, with tp ir herds of camels, goats or sheep, are constantly on the move seeking pasturage or even avoiding a possible raid by a rival tribe By their experience, they can tell from the footprints or droppings of a camel which tribe has travelled their route before them
Apart from tending camels, sheep and goats, making raids on other tribes is an economic necessity for them, so much so that ghazwa (razzia, or mter-tnbal raiding) is raised to the rank of a national institution Just as in the jungle, life lives on death, so in the Arabian desert, one tribe lives by raiding another The Prophet of Islam, immediatelv after his migration to Medina, made use of this institution to humble his Meccan enemies, unfortunately, owing to a lack of knowledge of the custom on the part of Western scholars, this has caused much misunderstanding, and the Prophet has even been denounced as a brigand Such raids were, however, quite naturally dreaded by the sedentary population of oases or other towns Ibn Khaldun, that historical genius of the fourteenth century, has, in the Muqaddimah, his introduction to history, denounced the Bedouins for these barbarous raids, and even dubs them enemies of civilization He
that the Bedouins are a savage nation, fully accustomed to savagery and the things that cause it Savagery has become their character and nature They enjoy it, because it means freedom from authority and no subservience to leadership Such a natural disposition is the negation and antithesis of civilization All the customary activities of the Bedouins lead to wandering and movement This is the antithesis of stationarmess, which produces civilization The very nature of their existence is the negation of building, which is the very basis of civilization

14 The Origin & Development of Islam

Furthermore, it is their nature to plunder whatever people possess. Their sustenance lies wherever the shadow of their lance falls. They recognize no limit in taking the possessions of other people. Whenever their eyes fall upon some property, furnishings, or utensils, they take them .. . .4
Ibn Khaldun also points out certain other characteristics of the Bedouins which are important from our point of view, and have a bearing on the treatment of the subject. He tells us:
Furthermore, the Bedouins are not concerned with laws, or with deterring people from misdeeds or with protecting some against others. They are only for the property that they might
take away from people through looting and imposts
Under the rule of Bedouins, their subjects live as in a state of anarchy, without law. Anarchy destroys mankind and ruins civilisation, since, as we have stated, the existence of royal authority is a natural quality of man. It alone guarantees their existence and social organisation.5
I have quoted at length from Ibn Khaldun in order to show the severity of the problems Muhammad had to face in disciplining the Bedouins, and in subordinating them to the central state authority which he subsequently created. Also, the Islamic laws of crime and punishment, which we will discuss at some length in subsequent chapters, must be seen in this light in order to understand them in the proper historical-sociological context.
The Bedouins are mainly dependent on the camel, and therefore move around more and have to make ever deeper inroads into the desert in search of pasturage, as the hilly pastures with their plants and shrubs do not provide enough subsistence for camels. In fact, camels are so important for these Bedouins that there are said to be about one thousand names in Arabic for the camel in its numerous breeds and various stages of growth, a number rivalled only by the number of synonyms used for the sword. Thus, through the sheer necessity of seeking food for their camels, the Bedouins acquired the rare expertise required for penetrating the formidable Arabian deserts, and were the only suitable people to man the long distance trade caravans passing through the deserts of western Arabia.
4. Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, translated from the Arabic by F. Rosenthal and abridged by N.J. Dawood (London, 1958), p. 83.
5. ibid. p. 119.
Arabian Society Before Islam
It is important to note the structure of governance of these tribes. According to Prof. R. A. Nicholson, ”The tribal constitution was a democracy guided by its chief men, who derived their authority from noble blood, noble character, wealth, wisdom, and experience. The chiefs, however, durst not lay commands or penalties on their fellowtribesmen. Every man ruled himself, and was free to rebuke presumption in others. ’If you are our lord’ (i.e., if you act discreetly as a sayyid should), ’you will lord over us, but if yot^are a prey to pride, go and be proud!’ (i.e., we will have nothing to do with you).”6
”Loyalty” in the mouth of the pagan Arab did not mean allegiance to his superiors, but faithful devotion to his equals; and it was closely connected with the idea of kinship. The family and the tribe, which included strangers living in the tribe under a covenant of protectionto defend these, individually and collectively, was a sacred duty. Honour required that a man should stand by his own people through thick and thin.7 If kinsmen sought help, it was given promptly without regard to the merits of giving it; even if they did wrong, it had to be suffered in silence as loyalty and honour demanded.
The Bedouins, formally speaking, had no religion; they did not worship or pray to any deity, although they believed in some sort of fate. They had their own moral system and values. In a pastoral or nomadic society, tribal collectivism and its unwritten, yet rigidly observed, code of conduct, prevents conflict between individuals, though inter-tribal conflicts generate prolonged spells of bellicosity and war. In a tribal society, since individualism is at a discount and collectivism reigns supreme, conflict between tribe and individual is minimized. Such a society, therefore, does not produce great plays or epic poetry, as there is an absence of individual conflict which is so necessary for producing them. The pre-Islamic jahiliyyan poetry also lacks the drama of individual conflict and instead sings the glory of tribes and expresses the ethos of bravery, generosity, honour and genealogical superiority.
W. Montgomery Watt, a noted scholar of Islam, says:
The religion by which the Arabs really lived may be called tribal humanism. According to this the meaning of life consists in the manifestation of human excellences, that is, all the qualities that go to make up the Arab ideal of manliness or

• fortitude. The bearer of this excellence is the tribe rather than

6. From the Hamasa, quoted by R.A. Nicholson in A Literary History of the Arabs (Cambridge, 1907), p 83.
7. ibid. p. 83.

16 The Origin & Development of Islam

the individual. If they are seen in the life of an individual, thatis because he is a member of a tribe which is characterised by them. The thought that is uppermost in the mind of the individual is that of the honour of the tribe. Life is meaningful for him when it is honourable, and anything involving dishonour and disgrace is to be avoided at all costs.8
To illustrate as to how much importance the Bedouins give to certain qualities such as bravery, courage and honour, it would be best to narrate an incident given by Glubb Pasha in his book The Life and Times of Muhammad:
Duraid ibn al-Simma was a famous warrior and poet, who lived into Muslim times as a very old man. One day, when he was still young, he was leading a raiding party against Beni Kinana. Topping the pass in the bare mountains of the Hijaz, he saw in an open valley beneath him a horseman, lance in hand, leading by its headrope a camel, on which a woman was mounted. Duraid called up one of his men and told him to overtake the lone rider and shout to him to leave the woman and the camel and to escape for his life, as a raiding party was coming’down the pass. The man galloped down into the plain, calling out as he had been instructed. The rider, however, quietly handed the headrope to the girl, wheeled his horse, galloped straight back at his pursuer and, running him through with his lance, flung him violently from the saddle. Then, cantering after the lady, he took the headrope from her hands, and the two rode quietly on at a walking pace, as if nothing had happened.
As Duraid rode down the pass with the remainder of the raiding party, he lost from sight the two figures of the man and the woman, riding along together on the plain below. As however, his messenger did not return, he sent after him another horseman, with whom the lone rider dealt in the same manner. Duraid followed him with a third who met the same fate, but on this occasion the lone horseman’s lance broke in his hand at the moment of impact. Though now he was unarmed, he once again overtook the lady and the pair rode on quietly together.
As they rode side by side, the rider recited the following verses to his lady:
8. W. Montgomery Watt, Muhammad, Prophet and Statesman (London, 1961), p. 51
Arabian Society Before Islam 17
Ride on in peace, my lady fair,
Secure and safe and calm.
Be confident and debonaire
And free from all alarm.
I cannot flee from a foe
Except he taste my arm,
The boldness of my charge he’ll know
Who seeks to do thee harm.
Mystified by the disappearance of his three messengers, Duraid himself galloped out on to the plain. He came upon the body of his first messenger, then that of the second and that of the third. In front of him he could see the horseman, unarmed, riding quietly at a walking pace, leading the lady’s camel by its headrope.
Duraid, full of admiratipn for so gallant a cavalier, even though an enemy, rode up to him and cried, ”O horseman, such a man as you does not deserve death. But my men are just behind me, and you are unarmed. Take my lance, my friend, and I will see that my men do not pursue you. 9
From the point of view-of the analysis we are going to attempt, it is necessary to throw some light on the hospitality and generosity of the Arabs. Again, it can best be done by narrating an incident recorded by Glubb Pasha. He writes:
One of the most famous Bedouin personalities in the years immediately preceding Islam was Hatim ibn’Abdullah of the tribe of TaT. Hatirn was an orphan brought up by his grandfather. As soon as he was of age and inherited his father’s flocks, he slaughtered so many animals for his guests that he soon found himself a poor man. One day, when visited by three men, he killed three camels for their dinner. It so happened that the three men were famous poets and one of them, Nabigha alDhobiani, immediately improvised a poem in praise of their young host and his tribe. ’My idea was to do a kindness to you,’ said Hatim, ’but your poem has put me in your debt.’ Whereupon ’he insisted that the poets accept as a gift all the camels in his possession.
Soon afterwards, his grandfather hastened to the scene and asked indignantly what had become of his camels. ’I gave them
9. John Bagot Glubb (Glubb Pasha), The Life and Times of Muhammad (London, 1970), pp. 31-2.

The Origin & Development of Islam

away,’ Hatim replied. ’If I had’kept them, they would all have been dead in twenty years. But in exchange for them, I have won a poem in praise of our family, which will-pass on from mouth to mouth until the end of time.’ ’°
Hafiz bin Kathir has also narrated an episode about Hatim Tal in a separate chapter on him. Hatim Ta”r, he says, when questioned whether there was among Arabs anyone more generous (ajwad) than himself, he replied that the whole Arab nation was generous and then narrated a story. ’I once stayed with an orphan boy who had 100 goats. The boy slaughtered one for me and, when I came to eating its brain I praised it foF its excellent taste. The boy went on bringing more of it, until I told him that it was enough. When I got up in the morning he had slaughtered all his flock and nothing was left with him. When I asked the boy why he had done this he replied, ”How could I deserve your gratefulness without doing anything.?” Thereupon I gave away the best of the hundred camels from my flock.’ ”
Though Hatim’s generosity was not the rule, it was not an exception either. It would be more correct to say that it indicated a trend which was prevalent and is still prevalent among the Bedouin Arabs. However, just before Islam’s advent, generosity was going by default in Mecca-an important urban conclave on the international trade route-as commercial society has its own norms and ethics as against those of a pastoral and nomadic society. It is very important to understand this contrast in order to see Islam in its correct sociological perspective.
Whereas northern and central Arabia were predominantly nomadic and devoid of any civilization-with a few exceptions such as Mecca, Ta’if or Medina-south Arabia, though in ruins at the dawn of Islam, was an important centre of an ancient civilization. It had its own distinct features. In fact the division between the south and the north was very deep rooted indeed. Joel Carmichael says in his book The Shaping of the Arabs: ”The division maybe rooted in the factual situation of the nomadism of the peoples of the north and the sedentary and agricultural condition ot the south. This division v/as felt to be so strong indeed, that it served the fourteenth century Arab historian Ibn-Khaldun as the framework of his whole view of world history, which he conceived of as the result of the reciprocal
10. ibid. pp. 32-3.
11. Hafiz. Ibn Kathir, Al-BiJayah wa Al-Nihayah Vol.1, (Dar al-Fikr al-’Arabi,, Cairo, n.d.), p. 216.
Arabian Society Before Islam
interaction between the Bedouin and the city dwellers.”12 Joel Carmichael refers in the above passage to the fact that Ibn Khaldun has based his history on the fundamental differences and reciprocal interaction between the .Bedouins and the city dwellers, and it is rightly so. In fact Ibn Khaldun gives a great deal of emphasis to this difference, because before the dawn of Islam and even during the period when Ibn Khaldun lived, in fact until today in certain regipns of Arabia, this interaction between the sedentary and the nomadic peoples threw up many social, economic and political problems. This interaction, in many ways, greatly influenced the origin and development of Islam. Emphasizing this difference, Ibn Khaldun writes:
We have mentioned that the Bedouins restrict themselves to the bare necessities in their way of life and are unable to go beyond them, while sedentary people concern themselves with conveniences and luxuries in their conditions and customs. The bare necessities are no doub prior to the conveniences and luxuries. Bare necessities, in a way, are basic, and luxuries secondary. Bedouins are thus the basis of, and prior to, cities and sedentary people. . . . The toughness of desert life precedes the softness of sedentary life. Therefore, urbanisation is found to be the goal to which the Bedouin aspires.13
Even the Koran, the holy book of the Muslims, is full of references to the Bedouins and the city dwellers, and emphasizes the difference between the two. The Koran says, ”The desert Arabs surpass the town-dwellers in unbelief and hypocrisy, and have more cause to be ignorant of the laws which Allah has revealed to His apostle. But Allah is wise and all-knowing. Some desert Arabs regard what they give for the cause of Allah as a compulsory fine and wait for some misfortune to befall you. May ill-fortune befall them! Allah hears all and knows all.”14 In these verses, as is the wont of city-dwellers, there is contemptuous denunciation of the nomadic Bedouins and a sense of distrust in them. Muhammad was a town-dweller and naturally had some reservations about the Bedouins, and it is also true that being used to the freedom of the desert, they were not easily prepared to submit to the discipline Muhammad wanted to impose upon them;
12. Joel Carmichael, The Shaping of the Arabs-A Study in Ethnic Identity (London,

1969), p. 10

13. Khaldun, op. en., p. 93.
14. The Koran, chapter on ’Repentance’, Verses 97 and 98.

The Origin & Development of Islam

and hence this expression of subdued hostility towards them. However Muhammad was not completely averse to them and was determined to briug them into the fold of Islam. They havfe, therefore, been addressed, exhorted and reminded of Allah’s bounties to them in a number of Koranic verses. ”Allah has given you houses to dwell in, and the skins of beasts for tents, so that you may find them light in your wanderings and easy to pitch when you halt for shelter; while from their wool, fur, and hair, He has given you comforts and domestic goods,” declares the Koran, addressing the Bedouins.15 Again it says, ”In cattle too you have a worthy lesson. We give you to drink of that which is in their bellies, between the bowels and the blood-streams: pure milk, a pleasant beverage for those who drink it. We give you the fruits of the palm and of the vine, from which you derive intoxicants and wholesome food. Surely in this there is a sign for men of understanding. ”16
Thus it is clear that the Koran distinguishes between the nomads and the town-dwellers, and addresses both of them with a view to inducing them to follow the laws enjoined by Allah, advancing, for this purpose, naturalistic arguments. These verses also reveal the kind of economy these Bedouins had.
Coming back to our point about southern Arabia, we must bear in mind that in that area there had been highly developed civilizations, Sabaean, Minaean, and Qatabanian, based on agriculture and traffic in spices; and that trade with the outside world had brought prosperity to its people more than a thousand years before the Christian era. The Arab kingdoms in the south dammed the water courses, built castles and temples, and developed the agriculture of their country to a remarkable degree. Although these southern civilizations were based on agriculture, there do not seem to be traces of a feudalism of the European type. The ruling kings appeafto be more akin to Egyptian rulers who had some kind of spiritual and priestly pretensions. The French Islamicist, Maxime Rodinson, in his biography Mohammed, says, while discussing south Arabia:
Yet another contrast with the lands of the Saracens was in the existence of a widespread religious belief. There were many rich temples, which were served by a priesthood which played an important role in society. Worship took the form of offerings of perfumes and animal sacrifices, of prayers and
15. ibid, chapter on ’The Bee’, Verse 80.
16. ibid, chapter on ’The Bee’, Verses 66, 67.
Arabian Society Before Islam
pilgrimages, in the course of which sexual relations were unlawful. Any infringement of one -of the ’numerous prescriptions concerning purity and impurity had to be paid by a fine and a public confession, which was inscribed in bronze tables and set up in the temple. The dead were buried with vessels and household objects. Stelae or monuments carried stylized representations of the deceased. Libations may have been made to them.17
The Arabs of the south worshipped a number of gods and goddesses, most important among whom was ’Athtar, who was supposed to be the personification of the planet Venus. They also worshipped a lunar god who was known as Almaqah in Saba, ’Wadd (’love’?) in Ma’in, ’Amm in Qataban, and STn in the Hadramawt. The sun was also worshipped in the form oij” the goddess Shams (meaning The Sun). Different gods and goddesses were worshipped at different places, each one having its own devotees/The temples were made of stone, and were rich in their architecture. American archaeologists have discovered, during their excavations in the Sabaean city of Ma’rib, an ancient temple erected to the great Sabaean god Almaqah. The name of the temple was Awwam and it was comprised of a huge oval-shaped precinct probably 30 feet high, approximately 300 feet long and 250 feet broad. It is reported to have an ornate portico and an adjoining building with a row of eight columns. The Koran also refers to the wonders of the rich Sabaean civilization. The queen of Sheba, according to the Koran, was quite rich and ruled with great pomp and glory. Her kingdom was about to be invaded by the Israelite king Solomon when she decided to submit. She sent her envoy with gifts. Referring to this, the Koran says, ”And when her envoy came to him, Solomon said: ’Is it gold that you would give me? That which Allah has bestowed on me is better than all the riches He has given you. Yet you glory in your gifts. Go back to your people: we will march against them with forces they cannot oppose, and drive them from their land humbled and condemned’.”18 This verse clearly shows that both in the south as well as in the extreme north (the Fertile Crescent) there were civilizations with a prosperity that enabled them to develop architecture and construct elegant structures. It is also interesting to note here that the Arabs in central Arabia (as there was no institution of kingship there, or eVen
17. Maxime Rodinson, Muhammad, translated from th» French by A. Carter (London, 1974), p. 22.
18. The Koran, Chapter 27, Verse 44.

The Origin & Development of Islam

the concept of a well developed state) did not approve of kingship This is obvious from a verse in the same chapter in which it is said: ”(She) said ’when a king invades a city he ruins it, and the honourable ones are demeaned and they will do the same thing.’ ”19 Of course these words have been uttered by the queen of Sheba but what matters is the attitude of Prophet Muhammcd towards kings. It is essentially the attitude of the Arabs.
Southern Arabia, especially Yaman, has been famous from all antiquity for the happiness of its climate, its fertility and riches (vide Dionysius, Peneges. v. 927) which induced Alexander the Great, after his return from his Indian expedition, to make preparations for its conquest, though his death soon after stayed the execution of his invasion. Yaman was an important trading centre on the route to Mecca, the trading ports of northern Arabia and finally the eastern empire of Byzantium. Many people mistakenly thought that the merchandise which they received from the Arabs was produced in Arabia. Actually, as students of history know, it really came from India, China and the African coast. Owing to its impassable deserts, the Greeks and Romans knew very little about Arabia. In fact, because of its importance, repeated attempts were made by the rival powers to subjugate Yaman. Prof. Hitti tells us that ”Masters of the world as they were, the Romans failed to fasten the yoke upon Arabian necks. Their famous expedition of 10,000 men conducted from Egypt under the leadership of its prefect Aelius Gallus in 24 B C .during the reign of Augustus Caesar, and supported by their Nabataean allies, proved a signal failure. Its object was admittedly to capture those transport routes monopolized by the South Arabians and tap the resources of al-Yaman for the benefit of Rome.”20 However, the Roman army could not penetrate the frightening desert of Arabia and the expedition ended in utter ignominy. Thereafter the Romans never made any such attempt. But later on, the entry of Roman shipping into the Indian Ocean ruined the South Arabian prosperity, and economic decline, in its wake, brought political ruin.
The Abyssinians and Sasanids of Persia also had their eyes on Yaman. There was an invasion from Abyssinia during the period A.D

340-78. But thereafter the native Himyarite kings resumed their independent rule. In fact, if legend is to be believed, the best known Himyarite king, called Shammar Yar’ash, is said to have conquered

19. ibid. Chapter 27, Verse 34.
20. Hitti, op. cit., p. 46.
Arabian Society Before Islam
Samarqand which, according to this legend, derives its nafrie from him. However, Abyssinia, after its first invasion referred to above, did not give up its ambition and launched further attacks. The introduction of Judaism and Christianity into Yaman made the political situation more complex. The native religion of South Arabia, as referred to earlier, was essentially based on what Prof. Hitti calls a ”planetary astral” system. The cult of the moon god was most widespread. (The Islamic calendar is also based on”lunar movements.) The moon, as stated earlier, was known as STn in Hadramawt, as ’Wadd to the Minaeans, as Almqah to the Sabaeans and as ’Amm (paternal uncle) to the Qatabanians. Actually ’Amm stood at the head of the pantheon and was considered to be a male deity. It is interesting to note that this moon god took precedence over the sun goddess Shams who was his consort. In the Arabic language, the sun has the feminine gender. The explanation, partly, if not wholly, could be found in the seasonal pattern of Arabia. It being very hot, the cool moonlit nights had a greater attraction, and consequently the moon as a deity took precedence over the sun, whose scorching heat was dreaded. In a non-agricultural society like that of central Arabia,.it is not important that particular seasons fall in particular months, as there is nothing like sowing or harvesting to necessitate a regularity of seasonal pattern. That is why a solar calendar, which ensures this regularity, was never evolved in Arabia. Lunar movements being easy to observe, the lunar calendar was adopted.
The introduction of Christianity and Judaism into South Arabia had, in one way or the other, political motives. Both the Roman and the Persian empires were interested in establishing their sphere of influence over the area. It is not definitely known when Christianity entered South Arabia, but there are indications that the first Christian embassy was sent there around A.D. 356 by the emperor Constantius under the leadership of Theophilus Indus who was an Arian. However, the possibility that the persecuted missionaries from Syria fled to the south at an unknown time cannot be ignored. The motive of the Christian mission from Rome was political, and after some time Theophilus succeeded in establishing a church at ’Adan (now Aden). Ibn Hisham21 and Tabari22 also tell us the legend of an ascetic who was of the Monophysite communion, and was
21. Ibn-Hisham, Sin, ed. F. Wustenfeld (1958-60), pp. 20-22.
22. Taban, Ta’nkh al-Rusul wa’l Muluk, ed. M.J. de Goeje, Vol. 1 (Leiden, 1897 onwards), pp. 919-25.’

The Origin & Development of Islam

captured by an Arab caravan and brought to Najran around A.D. 500.!
As for Judaism, it found its foothold during the reign of the second Himyarite king. In the early 6th century, Judaism became very strong in Yaman. The last Himyarite king dhu-Nuwas, became its votary, and rivalry between the two monotheistic faiths became intense and acquired political overtones. Dhu-Nuwas, who represented the nationalistic spirit, patronized the Jewish faith because he intensely hated Abyssinian rule, which was identified with Christianity. He persecuted the Christians and, at Najran in October A.D. 523, massacred many of them. Emperor Justin I of Rome, who was considered to be the protector of Christians everywhere, on being implored, directed the Nagus or ruler of Abyssinia to take action. The Negus is reportedHo have sent a force of 70,000 Abyssinians across the Red Sea. Here the entire gamut of international politics was involved. Byzantium, through the Abyssinians, sought to dominate the Arabian tribes and use them against the Persian empire. The Abyssinians were victorious and the Negus’s deputy Abraha chased away dhu-Nuwas, who is reported to have jumped, along with his steed, into the Red Sea.23 Thus came to an end the glorious period of the Himyarite Kings in Yaman.
Abraha, according to some sources, continued to rule over Yaman up to the late sixth century and converted it into an Abyssinian colony. He built in the city of San’a” what was considered to be one of the most magnificent cathedrals of that period. Here it is interesting to note that the motive for building this cathedral was religioeconomic, perhaps more economic than religious. Ibn Ishaq, the first biographer of the Prophet says, ”Then Abraha built the cathedral in San’a’, such a church as could not be seen elsewhere in any part of the world at that time. He wrote to the Negus saying: ’I have built a church for you, O King, such as has not been built for any king before you. I shall not rest until I have diverted the Arabs’ pilgrimage to it’.”24 Mecca, with which we will deal later in greater detail, was a centre of international trade and also a religious centre for the pagan Arabs. A large number of Arabs were attracted to Mecca for trade as well as to pay homage to the pagan deities. Thus it was a source of lucrative income. Abraha wanted San’a’cathedral to outdo the pagan Ka’ba and make San’a’ a rival centre of trade as well as religion. He partly succeeded in this aim. This religio-economic rivalry, according to a local tradition, caused two Meccan Arabs, belonging
23. ibid. pp. 124-5.
24. The Life of Muhammad-A translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah A. Guillaume (Oxford University Press, Karachi, 1978) p. 21.
Arabian Society Before Islam
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