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Books Section > Muhammad the Prophet by Maulana Muhammad Ali > Chapter 1: The Dark Age
The Dark Age:
"Certainly the first house appointed for men is the one at Makkah, blessed and a guidance for the nations" (3:96).
The land known as Jazirat al-Arab, or the Arabian Peninsula, occupies a central position in the hemisphere comprising the continents of Asia, Africa and Europe. It forms the heart, so to speak, of the Old World. This is the country that gave birth to Muhammad (may peace and blessings of God be upon him), the last of the great religious reformers to found a religion. The Indian Ocean washes its coast on the south, the Mediterranean and the Red Sea on the west. To the east lie the Persian Gulf, the Tigris and the Euphrates, the latter two rivers traversing its northern part as well. According to ancient historians and geographers, it comprises within its boundaries the strip of land known as Iraq (Mesopotamia) as well as Arabian Syria. The map of the modern world, however, does not show these forming an integral part of Arabia. Leaving them aside, the country yet covers an area of twelve hundred thousand square miles. About a third of this is covered by sandy deserts, the largest being the one known as al-Dahna, lying in the middle of the southern part. There are practically no rivers worthy of mention in the country. Small streams, however, are met with here and there. Some of these lose themselves in the desert sands, while others wind their way to the sea. From south to north runs a chain of mountains known as Jabal al-Sarat, the highest peak of which is eight thousand feet. Dates are the main produce. In ancient days, Arabia was famous for its gold, silver, precious stones and spices. Of the animals found here, the camel is the most valuable and useful, while the Arab horse has no match in the world for beauty, stamina and mettle.
As a matter of fact, Iraq and Arabian Syria form an integral part of Arabia, though modern political distribution shows them as distinct from the mainland. Of these, Iraq stretches adjacent to Iran. The towns of Basrah and Kufah, which long remained centres of Islamic learning, were founded here during the caliphate of Umar the Great. Arabian Syria lies to the north, extending right up to Aleppo. Arab geographers have, therefore, shown the Euphrates as the northern boundary of Arabia. In this part lies Mount Sinai, where Moses received Divine revelation. The Amalekites once had a mighty kingdom here.
Arabia proper is subdivided into a number of parts. Of these, Hijaz is the province in which the sacred land of Haram is situated. The Haram (sacred or forbidden territory) is so called because from time immemorial the place has been held in the highest veneration, and every kind of warfare is forbidden therein. It is within the precincts of the Haram that the sacred house of Kabah stands. The Torah, sacred book of the Jews, speaks of Hijaz by the name of Paran. Its chief towns are Makkah, Madinah and Ta'if. This province extends along the Red Sea in a rectangular strip. Jeddah and Yenbo are its two main sea-ports, where pilgrims for Makkah and Madinah respectively land. On the east, Hijaz is bounded by the province of Najd and, on the south, by Asir, part of Yaman.
The second main province is Yaman, which lies in the south of the Peninsula. Hadzramaut and Ahqaf form parts of this province. It is the most fertile tract in the country and has consequently been the most civilised. Even to-day relics of some most magnificent buildings are met with here. Huge embankments were once constructed here to control the springs of water from the mountains and utilise them for purposes of irrigation. The most famous of these was Ma'arib, the destruction of which is mentioned in the Holy Quran [The Quran, 34:16]. Yaman was, moreover, the centre of the trade in minerals, precious stones and spices for which Arabia was once so famous. The mighty empire of Ad, of which the Quran speaks [The Quran, 7:65], was established here. This particular area is known as Ahqaf. Hadzramaut is that part of Yaman which lies in the extreme south, along the shore of the Indian Ocean. Sand is the capital of the province and Aden its chief port. To the north of Sand lies Najran, where Christianity had spread before the advent of Islam. The well-known Christian delegation, that waited upon the Holy Prophet and which was allowed to stay in the Prophet's Mosque, came from this place. To the north of Najran lies 'Asir.
The third great part of Arabia is Najd, which extends from Jabal al-Sarat eastward across the interior of the country. It is a rich and fertile plateau, some three to four thousand feet above sea-level. Here lived the clan of Ghatafan, for whose chastisement the Holy Prophet had once to lead an expedition. The desert bounds it on three sides, while in its south lies Yamamah. The Banu Hanifah, of which tribe came Musailimah, the impostor, lived here.
In the south-east of Arabia, and along the coast of the Gulf of Uman, stretches the tract of land known as Uman. Its capital is Masqat, where a nominally independent Sultan has now been established. To the north of Uman lies the port known as Bahrain also called al-Ahsa, famous for its pearls. Close by is Hirah, once a kingdom.
Hijr, the home of the Thamud, among whom Salih was raised as a prophet, is another place of note. It lies to the north of Madinah. On his march to Tabuk, the Holy Prophet happened to pass by this place. To the west of Hijr lies Madyan, the home of the prophet Shuaib. To the north of Madinah is Khaibar, once the strong-hold of the Jews.
The three chief towns of Hijaz, as previously mentioned, are Makkah, Madinah and Ta'if. Ta'if owes its fame to the fact that, situated as it is at the foot of the mountains, it is cool and rich in verdure, with innumerable springs of water and abundance of fruit. It lies to the east of Makkah and is the general summer resort of the Hijaz nobility. But the most famous towns of Hijaz are Makkah and Madinah. Makkah is also known as Umm al-Qura (Mother of Towns). On all four sides it is enclosed by mountains. Its present population numbers fifty thousand. From days of hoary antiquity it has been the spiritual and religious capital of Arabia, for here stands the sacred House of God, known as Kabah, which has been the resort of pilgrims from every corner of Arabia from prehistoric days. Sir William Muir thus comments on the antiquity of the House in his Life of Muhammad: "A very high antiquity must be assigned to the main features of the religion of Mecca .... Diodorus Siculus, writing about half a century before our era, says of that part of Arabia washed by the Red Sea, there is in this country a temple greatly revered by all the Arabs. These words must refer to the holy house of Mecca, for we know of no other which ever commanded the universal homage of Arabia.... Tradition represents the Kabah as from time immemorial the scene of pilgrimage from all quarters of Arabia: from Yaman, Hadzramaut, and the shores of the Persian Gulf, from the desert of Syria, and from the distant environs of Hirah and Mesopotamia, men yearly flocked to Mecca. So extensive a homage must have had its beginning in an extremely remote age. "
To establish the antiquity of the Kabah, Muir has drawn upon historical facts and oral traditions. The Quran also points to the same. It speaks of the Kabah as "the first house appointed for men; [The Quran, 3:96]" in other words, the first house on the face of the earth assigned to the worship of God. The rays of Divine revelation emanated first of all from this place. And it is a remarkable coincidence that this same place enjoys the distinction of giving birth to the last of the prophets. Makkah owes its importance to this house. As early as 2,500 years B.C., it was a halting-station for caravans plying between Yaman and Syria. The Quran also confirms that the sacred house was in existence before Abraham [The Quran, 2:125]. When leaving his son Ishmael there, the great patriarch prayed: "Our Lord, I have settled a part of my offspring in a valley unproductive of fruit near Thy Sacred House... [The Quran, 14:37]" These words show that the Kabah was there even at that remote date.
Madinah was originally called Yathrib. Later, when it was adopted by the Holy Prophet as his residence, it came to be known as Madinat al-Nabi (the Prophet's Town), which was gradually contracted into al-Madinah. This, too, is an ancient town. Historical evidence suggests its foundation as early as 1600 B.C. It was originally inhabited by the Amalekites, after whom came the Jews, the Aus and the Khazraj. When the Holy Prophet came to settle here, these three peoples formed the population of the town. It was the latter two who, later, came to be known by the name of Ansar (Helpers). In the fourteenth year of his mission, the Holy Prophet emigrated from Makkah to Madinah where he spent the remaining days of his life. Here it was that he breathed his last, and here stands his tomb to this day. Madinah lies 270 miles to the north of Makkah and, unlike the latter, is not barren. Besides rich cultivation, it has an abundance of fruit-bearing trees. In winter it is comparatively cooler than Makkah.
The Ad, Thamud, Tasm and Jadis are the most ancient races of Arabia, as far as can be traced, the first two having been spoken of in the Quran. These aboriginal races are known as the Baidah (ancient Arabs). The destruction of the tribe of Noah was followed by the rise of Ad, whose settlements spread far and wide beyond the limits of Arabia. Historical evidence proves their domination over Arabia, Egypt, and many other places. On the fall of this race, the Thamud rose to power.
Then came the rise of the Banu Qahtan, whose homeland was Yaman. In their days, they too attained to great power and ascendancy. The Aus and the Khazraj were the offshoots of this tribe. All these races are known as the Aribah (pure Arabs).
Ishmael and his
Last of all came Ishmael, whose progeny goes by the name of Mustaribah (naturalised Arabs). In obedience to a divine behest, he was left by his father, Abraham, along with his mother Hajirah, at the place, where stands the Kabah [The Quran, 14:37; 2:125]. There is little truth in the belief that they were banished by Abraham at the instance of his second wife, Sarah. The idea is emphatically repudiated in a saying of the Holy Prophet which says that on Hajirah's question whether Abraham was leaving them there in obedience to a Divine behest, the Patriarch replied in the affirmative. The account given in the Quran also leads to the same conclusion. Later, father and son reconstructed, at the Divine injunction, the Sacred House of Kabah which, it seems was in a dilapidated condition [The Quran, 2:127]. This done, together they addressed the Lord with a prayer which the Quran reports in these words: "Our Lord, raise up in them a Messenger from among them ... [The Quran, 2:129]" This prayer found fulfilment in the person of the Holy Prophet Muhammad. For this reason, the Holy Prophet is reported as saying: "I am the prayer of my father Abraham." Ishmael's progeny multiplied and ramified into numerous tribes. One of these is known as the Quraish which is descended from Nadzr. This tribe was later subdivided into a number of clans, the Holy Prophet being a scion of one of these, known as the Banu Hashim.
The period preceding the advent of the Holy Prophet has been designated as the Dark Age. The Quran gives it the name al-Jahiliyyah, (Ignorance or the time of Ignorance) [The Quran, 33:33, 48:26]. The picture drawn in the verse "corruption has appeared in the land and sea ... [The Quran, 30:41]" portrays the fallen state of Arab idolaters, Jews, Christians and followers of other religions alike. It avers that corruption was rampant throughout the world. This does not, however, imply that the world had never witnessed a better state of things; but whatever civilisation and moral awakening had ever sprung up anywhere through the various prophets sent from time to time among different peoples had by that time utterly disappeared in consequence of the lapse of long ages. Every nation of the world had at the time fallen into a state of decrepitude. These words found utterance through the mouth of one who was, no doubt, quite illiterate. He had had no opportunity of going round the world to study the condition of different countries; nor had he the benefit of the publicity systems of today that might have acquainted him with the state of the world at that time. Nevertheless, a reference to the pages of history corroborates the truth of the assertion in a striking manner. Barring the fact that Europe had a mighty Empire towards its south-east - the Christian Empire of Rome - it was sunk in barbarism. Asia, of all the continents of the world, had once been the nursery of civilisation. But a study of the various countries of this cradle of philosophies and religions shows that here, as elsewhere, rank immorality was the order of the day. India, once the centre of ancient Eastern culture, presented the same horrid picture. Foul, base and heinous things were attributed even to those whom the people regarded as their gods. Evil had taken so great a hold on them, that even the virtuous were painted in dark colours. Persia and China, too, were in the same plight. This no doubt was due to the fact that centuries had elapsed since the advent of former teachers; and whatever reformation had been previously brought about had become gradually weak and finally extinct. The Quran says that "time was prolonged for them, so their hearts hardened... [The Quran, 57:16]"
A modern writer, J.H. Denison, who has studied the different systems of religion and the civilisations that grew up therefrom has come to exactly the same conclusion in his Emotion as the Basis of Civilization: "In the fifth and the sixth centuries, the civilized world stood on the verge of chaos. The old emotional cultures that had made civilization possible ... had broken down and nothing had been found adequate to take their place.... It seemed then that the great civilization that it had taken four thousand years to construct was on the verge of disintegration and that mankind was likely to return to that condition of barbarism where every tribe and sect was against the next, and law and order were unknown....The new sanctions created by Christianity were working division and destruction instead of unity and order .... Civilization like a gigantic tree whose foliage had over-reached the world... stood tottering... rotted to the core.... It was among these people that the man [The reference is to the Holy Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him.] was born who was to unite the whole known world of east and south."
Christianity in a Decrepit
Jesus was the prophet most proximate to the Holy Prophet Muhammad in point of time. One would have naturally expected amongst Christians some relics of virtue and morality. But what was the state of Christianity at the time? Let us quote Christian writers themselves on the point. Drawing a picture of those days, a bishop says that the heavenly kingdom was utterly upset, and a state of veritable hell had been established on the earth, in consequence of inner corruption. Sir William Muir writes to the same effect: "Moreover, the Christianity of the seventh century was itself decrepit and corrupt. It was disabled by contending schisms, and had substituted. the puerilities of superstition for the pure and expansive faith of the early ages."
This is a picture of Christianity concerning its general state. Belief in the Oneness of God had disappeared long since. The doctrine of Trinity had given rise to numerous complications. Diverse schisms and sects vied one another in the exercise of their ingenuities in the disentanglement of the riddle how man became God or how three made one and vice versa. This led to the production of a mass of polemical works, taking man far from the true purpose of religion. Gibbon, commenting on the event of the famous library at Alexandria having been set on fire by intolerant Christians, makes a significant observation in this connection: "But if the ponderous mass of Arian and Monophysite controversy was indeed consumed in the public baths, a philosopher may allow, with a smile, that it was ultimately devoted to the benefit of mankind." The general evils - drinking, gambling and adultery - were in full swing even in those days. Dozy quotes the Caliph Ali as speaking of the Taghlib, a Christian tribe, in the following significant words: "All they have borrowed from that Church is the practice of a wine-bibbing." In short Christianity - last of the revealed religions of the world - was practically defunct. It had lost all driving force towards moral reformation.
As to Arabia itself, it is true that Arab poetry was at its zenith, and pre-Islamic poetry displays a high degree of ability and skill. It is also true that the art of writing was not unknown to the Arabs; but they seldom turned it to useful purpose. Even their poetry was not preserved in writing. Poetical compositions of the Dark Age have all come down to us through oral tradition with the solitary exception of the pieces known as the Muallaqat which were committed to writing and hung on the walls of the Kabah. As regards Arab development of the art of poetry, it is enough to say that mere poetry, as such, affords no sure criterion of a people's stage of civilisation. Interest in poetry is observed in almost every stage of society, however crude and primitive. And the reason is not far to seek. Primitive people have very few interests, which multiply only with the growth of civilisation, and hence their exclusive devotion to the only available form of fine art - poetry. But Arab poetry is devoid of the breadth of vision and loftiness of thought which come only with culture. Beauty of language is all it can boast of.
There were, no doubt, certain noble traits in the Arab character. Hospitality, love of freedom, daring, manliness, tribal fidelity and generosity were some of the qualities in which the Arab had no equal. But a few virtues, by themselves, especially when overbalanced by the weight of barbarity and brutality can hardly be taken to constitute civilisation. Side by side with the most hospitable treatment accorded to a guest, it was common practice to rob a wayfarer. The sentiment of tribal patriotism, though highly commendable in itself, had also been abused and carried to excess. Trifling disputes between individuals would lead to terrible conflagrations of war and blood-feuds extended from generation to generation.
No doubt, the Arabs professed faith in the unity of God, but their belief was shallow. Their practical life belied their profession. They were given to idolatry, thinking that the Almighty had entrusted the discharge of the various functions of the universe to different gods, goddesses and idols. They therefore turned to these, invoking their blessings in all their undertakings. Thus their belief in the Unity of God was an empty dogma, finding no place in the system of their practical life. Besides, idols, they looked upon the air, the sun, the moon and the stars as the controllers of their destinies, and worshipped them as such. They had fallen as low as to worship pieces of stone, trees and sand-heaps. They prostrated before any fine piece of stone they might come across. Should they fail to find a piece of stone, they would worship a sand hill, after having milked their she-camel thereon. They looked upon angels as the daughters of God! Even men of fame were worshipped, images being carved out in their names. It was not necessary to have the stones properly carved or shaped; even rough, unhewn ones served the purpose.
Going out on a journey, they would carry four stones along with them, three to make a hearth, and the fourth to serve as an object of worship. Sometimes no separate one for purposes of worship would be carried. The cooking done, any of the three would be pulled out and worshipped. Besides the three hundred and sixty idols set up in the Kabah, every tribe had an idol of its own. In fact, one was kept in each and every household. Idol-worship had, in short, become second nature with them and it influenced their everyday life in all its detail. The central idea of their faith was that God had made over the control and administration of the universe to others in whom He had vested all powers, such as healing the sick, granting children and removing famine and epidemic. Divine favour could not be obtained but through the intercession of these idols. They would prostrate before them, circumambulate them, offer sacrifices to them, and set apart some of the produce of their fields and their animals as offerings to them.
From such debasing idolatry, the Holy Prophet Muhammad uplifted the whole of Arabia in the brief span of twenty years. Not only was idolatry extirpated root and branch from the soil of Arabia, but such enthusiasm for the Unity of God was kindled in the hearts of the self-same Arabs that it carried them far and wide over the length and breadth of the then known world to uphold the name of the One God. The weaning of a whole country extending over a vast area of twelve hundred thousand square miles from the curse of idol-worship, to which it was hopelessly wedded by long-established traditions and heredity, in no more time than a fifth of a century, so far as to win for it the title of iconoclast - is not this the mightiest miracle that the world has ever witnessed?
In addition to idol-worship, which was the order of the day, star-worship had taken as firm a root in the soil of Arabia. Human destiny was associated with the movements of various stars and the phenomena of nature affecting the fortunes of man for good or evil were attributed to their influence. Whereas on the one hand the worst form of idolatry had its hold on the Arab mind in general, there were also some who had no faith in the existence of God, the immortality of the human soul and the day of retribution. To them all religion was mockery. They held up to ridicule the very idols they professed to adore. It is said of the famous poet, Imra' al-Qais, that on the murder of his father he consulted an oracle in accordance with the traditional practice among the Arabs, to decide whether or not he should avenge the murder. The process consisted in marking two arrows, one with the word naam (yes), the other with la (no), to indicate respectively whether the undertaking should be entered upon or not. A blank one was also put in, which if drawn, advised the lot to be drawn afresh. Imra' al-Qais drew the arrows three times and each time the negative one came out. In a fit of rage he flung the arrow in the face of the idol, saying: "O Wretch! Had it been the murder of thy own father thou wouldst not have forbidden me to avenge it."
Such was the state of irreligion and idol worship in Arabia! Social life presented no better a picture. The Arabs were ignorant of the very rudiments of social virtues. Their manner of life made the evolution of any social virtue impossible. Tribal feuds engaged their whole attention. A settled and peaceful mode of life, indispensable to the cultivation of social qualities, was unknown to them. The prospect of hostilities with another clan that might break out at any time was ever present before their minds. They led a nomadic life, wandering with their cattle from place to place. They would set up their tents of camel-skins wherever they found water to drink and forage for their cattle. Only a small minority of them had settled in villages and still fewer in towns. How was it possible, under such circumstances, that the blessings of an ordered and settled society should accrue to them?
No Law and
There was no central government to enforce law and order in the country, which was rent into innumerable petty states, each clan forming a separate and independent political unit. They were too weak to enforce justice; to wrench one's rights from another, one had to depend upon one's strength of arm. Each tribe had a chief of its own, its leader in battle; but there was no law whatsoever binding the tribe to the nation. Each was independent, owing no allegiance to any central authority until Islam came with its unifying force. William Muir says that "The first peculiarity, then, which attracts our attention is the subdivision of the Arabs into innumerable bodies, governed by the same code of honour and morals, and exhibiting the same manners, speaking for the most part the same language, but each independent of the others; restless and often at war amongst themselves; and even where united by blood or by interest, ever ready on some insignificant cause to separate and give way to an implacable hostility. Thus at the era of Islam, the retrospect of Arabian history exhibits, as in the kaleidoscope, an ever-varying state of combination and repulsion, such as had hitherto rendered abortive any attempt at a general union .... The problem had yet to be solved, by what force these tribes could be subdued, or drawn to one common centre; and it was solved by Muhammad."
The Quran sums up succinctly this utter deterioration that embraced every phase of life in a single sentence: "You were on the brink of a pit of fire... [The Quran, 3:103]" Hostilities once breaking out continued for generations. Trifles, such as a word of contempt, or a slight mischief in a horse race, led to the slaughter of thousands and the eternal bondage of the vanquished. It was this fallen humanity whom the Holy Prophet raised to the highest level of moral rectitude. He welded these discordant elements into a brotherhood unique in the history of the world. A mighty transformation! A miracle, as a modern writer calls it in his Ins and Outs of Mesopotamia: "A more disunited people it would be hard to find, till, suddenly, the miracle took place. A man arose who, by his personality and by his claim to direct Divine guidance, actually brought about the impossible namely the union of all these warring factions."
Woman occupied a very low position in Arab society. Despite love-songs in praise of the beloved, which were the outcome of carnal lust, woman was accorded no better treatment than the lower animals. Polyandry, which is a characteristic of the very primitive stages of human society, was also in vogue; yet neither was there a limit to the number of wives a man could take. Besides a plurality of wives, he could have illicit relations with any number of other women. Prostitution was a recognised profession. Captive women, kept as handmaids, were forced to make money for their masters in this debasing manner. Married women were allowed by their husbands to conjugate with others for the sake of offspring [This practice was called Istibdza; and was similar to the practice of Niyoga still prevalent among Hindus.].
Moreover, woman was looked upon as a mere chattel. She was entitled to no share of the legacy of her deceased husband, father or other relations. On the contrary, she was herself inherited as part of the property of the deceased. The heir was at liberty to dispose of her as he would. He could even marry her himself, or give her in marriage to anybody he chose. On the death of his father, a son would even marry his step-mother, she being a part of the inheritance. The practice of divorce in vogue among them was no less barbarous. A thousand times could a man divorce his wife and take her back within a prescribed period (known as iddah). Sometimes he would swear he would not go near her, sometimes he would announce that he would look upon her as his mother, thus leaving her in a state of suspension, being neither wife nor yet divorced. These methods were adopted simply to harass her. She had no way out of her sad plight.
The most obscene language was used in expressing sex relations. Stories of love and illicit relationships were narrated proudly and with utter absence of shame in verses of the most indecent kind. Women of high families were openly addressed in love-songs. Considering the state of things obtaining among the Arabs with regard to the status of woman, it is not difficult to judge what a heavy debt of gratitude woman owes to Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, who lifted her up from the depths of lowliness to a position of respect and dignity [Even modern European civilisation, which has a superficial respect for the gentle sex, fails to grant those rights to women which Islam has given them. Genuine respect for the female sex lies in having proper regard for its chastity and the equality of its rights with man, neither of which is, unfortunately, met with anywhere in Western society.].
Let us turn to the amelioration wrought in the condition of woman by Islam. The Quranic injunction, "Women shall have the same rights over men as men have over them, [The Quran, 2: 228]" was the Magna Carta, so to speak, of women's franchise. In the same strain observed the Holy Prophet: "The best of you is he who treats his wife best." To implant veneration for woman in a soil where it was regarded as a mark of nobility to bury female offspring alive is surely no mean service to humanity. On hearing of the birth of a daughter, the father's face would turn black with grief and rage. He had either to bury her alive or put up with social disgrace [The Quran, 16:58, 59]. He would take his daughter to the desert, throw her into a pit dug there beforehand and bury alive the screaming child with his own hands underneath a heap of earth! The Prophet when informed of one such incident burst into tears of pity. Sometimes an explicit agreement was made at the nuptial ceremony that female offspring was to be killed, in which case it was the duty of the mother herself to commit the barbarous deed. She had to do it in the presence of all the female members of the family, especially invited to attend the grim function. All these cold-blooded brutalities were ended, at a single stroke, by the Quranic words: "And when the one buried alive is asked for what sin she was killed .... [The Quran, 81:8, 9]" Never thereafter even in a single instance was the horrible cruelty repeated. In this respect, Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, stands unrivalled in the history of the world for his service to mankind.
Drinking was another vice to which the whole of Arabia was hopelessly wedded. Intoxicating liquors were served several times daily. There was not a household but had a number of wine pitchers in store. No sooner, however, was the Quranic prohibition proclaimed [The Quran, 5:90] than the very pots used for storing liquor were broken to pieces and thrown away; and, it is related, wine flowed like rain-water in the streets of Madinah. The centuries-old habit of drinking was thus rooted out in no time, and utter abstinence became the order of the day.
Gambling was another curse which had a firm hold on the Arab society. It was indulged in as a common daily pastime. Those who abstained were looked down upon as miserly. The Holy Prophet Muhammad's spiritual force made short the work of this as well, and relieved Arabia of another longstanding evil.
There was no education worthy of mention among the Arabs. Those able to decipher a script could be counted. Ignorance bred superstition, and they were given to all sorts of queer beliefs. They had faith in the existence of genii and evil spirits, whom they would conjure up in solitary places: To these they attributed certain diseases, to escape which they would make use of charms and incantations. In times of drought, they would fasten dry blades of grass and undergrowth to a cow's tail, set fire thereto and drive the animal to the mountains. They thought the flame of fire resembled a flash of lightning and would, by reason of similarity, attract rainfall. In case a calamity befell them, they would enter the house by the back door. From the flight of birds they took good or evil omens. If a bird crossed their way from left to right, it was regarded as a good omen; from right to left it was a bad omen. Those who believed in a life after death would tie a camel to a tomb and starve it to death, thinking the deceased would mount it on the day of resurrection. They held the human soul to be a tiny creature which entered a man's body at the time of his birth and went on growing. At his death it assumed the form of an owl and kept hovering over his tomb. In the event of violent death, the owl would keep droning "Give me water, Give me water," until the murder had been avenged. They believed in soothsayers and fortune tellers, and had implicit faith in whatever they told them. In short, these and a hundred and one other superstitions were believed in by the Arabs of the pre-Islamic days. In the course of a few years, the Holy Prophet Muhammad emancipated them from all these shackles of hereditary bondage and elevated them to the pinnacle of morality, learning and culture. History will vainly turn its pages to point to a parallel of the wholesale reformation and elevation of a fallen people such as the Arabs were. A mighty achievement indeed!
Prophets appeared in various parts of Arabia before the dispensation of the patriarch Abraham as well as after. References to some of them have been made in the Quran. Hud was deputed for the reformation of the tribe of Ad that settled in a part of Yaman, known as Ahqaf, and Salih was raised for the Thamud, inhabiting the part called Hijr, to the north of Madinah. Both these reformers preceded Abraham; while two others, Ishmael and Shuaib, who appeared in Yaman and Madyan respectively, came after him. Traditions as well as inscriptions show that the Adites were a very mighty people. They had founded a great empire which extended far beyond the confines of Arabia. It seems that prophets had been sent among them even before the advent of Hud, who made his appearance at a time when the nation was sunk very low. They turned a deaf ear lo this prophet and were severely punished. Their destruction was wrought by a dust-storm from the desert which lies to the north of Ahqaf and goes by the name of the Rub Khali (the Barren Quarter). The Thamudites, therefore, betook themselves to the mountains, where they carved homes for themselves out of the rocks [The Quran, 26:149]. But since the doom was sealed, strongholds could not save them. They perished in an earthquake. A look at the map of Arabia shows that, of these four, the mission of Hud and Ishmael was confined to the south, and that of Salih and Shu'aib to the north of Arabia; the middle portion, known as Hij'az, remained without a prophet. But Abraham's visiting Makkah and leaving Ishmael there, and afterwards his building the Kabah, have preserved to this day the association of Abraham's name with certain places there.
During the dispensation of the Israelite prophets, idol-worship had reached its highest pitch in Arabia. A queen of Yaman was converted to the doctrine of the Unity of God by Solomon. This was followed by another feeble ripple on the religious deep of Arabia. Jews migrated and settled there, probably about the 5th century B.C., when Nebuchadnezzar, drove them out of their homelands. Prophecies as to the appearance of the Last Prophet from the soil of Arabia were current among them. Therefore they took up their abode there, and Khaibar became a purely Jewish settlement. When they had gained a firm footing, they began propagating their faith and about the 3rd century B.C., the King of Yaman, Dhu Nawas by name, embraced Judaism. This added fresh momentum to the Jewish movement of proselytism and in the course of time Judaism won considerable ascendancy in Arabia. But the Arab nation as a whole remained addicted to its ancestral religion of idol-worship, and after a short-lived career the Jewish religious movement died a natural death, leaving the Arabs as a nation of idolaters.
A second wave of reformation followed. Christian missionaries began pouring into Arabia in the 3rd century A.D. and settled in Najran. Their proselytising activities were considerably supplemented by the political influence of the two Christian powers in the neighbourhood of Arabia, the Abyssinian to the west and the Roman Empire to the north. Consequently the entire province of Najran, which lies between 'Asir and San'a, accepted Christianity. Barring just a bare sprinkling of converts here and there, little impress was made by Christianity on Arabia proper. Thus ended in utter failure the second attempt at the reformation of Arabia.
The third reformatory wave set in motion was internal. Just a little before the advent of Islam, there had sprung up a new school of thought known as Hanif. It was a small band of earnest men who discarded idolatry but were not disposed towards Judaism or Christianity. They worshipped only one God, but did not trouble themselves at all about reformation in the social life of their country. Feeling aversion for idol-worship, some of them did no doubt join the fold of Christianity, such as Waraqah, Khadijah's cousin, and Abd Allah ibn Jahsh, Hamzah's nephew, but their number was insignificant. The majority of them found no satisfaction in either Christianity or Judaism. Of these, the noteworthy were Zaid ibn Amr ibn Nufail, 'Umar's uncle, and Umayyah, a renowned poet and the chief of Ta'if. These people had little zeal for promulgating their newly-conceived notions. Nevertheless they made no secret of their abhorrence of idolatry, and openly avowed Unitarianism as their faith, which they professed to be the religion taught by Abraham. Feeble though the movement was, it was undoubtedly there. But, like its predecessors, this internal movement also failed to go below the surface, leaving Arab society as unaffected as ever. In fact, it was more feeble than either the Jewish or the Christian movement.
The Jews had family affinity with the Arabs. Both came of the same stock. Their language, their manners, their customs had much in common. Both held the great patriarch Abraham in high esteem. A king of Yaman, the most fertile province of Arabia, had accepted the Jewish religion. Thus to all human calculations, these various forces in favour of Judaism had a cumulative effect potent enough to secure the conversion of the whole of Arabia. But Arabia proved adamant to all these influences.
Then came Christianity with quite a new message. Its so-called Unitarianism resembled the Arab concept of Godhead. The idolatry obtaining among the Arabs was akin to Greek idol-worship under the influence of which the Christian doctrine of Trinity had taken birth. St. Paul, the real founder of the Church religion as we have it, had given such an idolatrous form to the monotheistic teaching of the Israelite prophets as to make it fascinating for the idolatrous peoples of his day. Consequently, Christianity secured large numbers of converts from among the Arabs. It had another feature particularly attractive to them. It dispensed with the necessity of observing the law - a licence quite in keeping with the Arab mode of life. Having no religious or secular code of laws to regulate their conduct, these wild children of the desert had given themselves up to unbridled debauchery. Christianity allowed ample latitude for the gratification of their licentious propensities. It was therefore a creed offering the least line of resistance, and hence the easiest for them to adopt. In addition to these inherent attractions, Christianity had the advantage of temporal power to commend it to the Arabs. The great Roman Empire to the north, the Abyssinian kingdom to the west, the conversion of one of the provinces of Yaman and the hold acquired by Christianity over the states of Hirah and Ghassan - these were the manifold influences in favour of Christianity. Under such circumstances, the conversion of the peninsula seemed but a matter of days. Nevertheless, the Church failed to make any appreciable impression on Arab society.
The third movement, that of the Hanifs was purely internal in origin and had little to do with the social reformation of Arabia, confining its aims to one single object - the supplanting of idolatry by Unitarianism. Notwithstanding such an unambitious programme, it found the soil of Arabia far less congenial than had the preceding movements. It proved the weakest of all, perhaps, for the reason that it was backed by no worldly power.
It is remarkable that before the appearance of the Holy Prophet, three different movements were set afoot, all aiming at the reformation of Arabia. Keeping at work for centuries with all the advantages that worldly power can afford, all these movements vanish in smoke. But then arises an individual who achieves, single-handed and in a state of utter helplessness, what they had all failed to achieve. In the course of a few years, he brings about a transformation unparalleled in the history of the world. Not only is the debasing superstition of the country -idolatry - eradicated, but the entire social fabric is reclaimed and released from long-standing and deep-rooted corruption.
Arabia Impervious to
In view of all this, a critical eye cannot fail to perceive that, behind the scenes, it was the mighty hand of the Lord that helped the Holy Prophet Muhammad in working such a radical transformation in the religious, social and moral life of Arabia within the brief span of twenty years - a transformation that stands unique in the history of the world. William Muir, by no means a friendly critic of the Prophet, has to admit this miraculous regeneration of Arabia in the following words: "During the youth of Muhammad, the aspect of the Peninsula was strongly conservative; perhaps reform never was at any period more hopeless. Causes are sometimes conjured up to account for the results produced by an agent apparently inadequate to effect them. Muhammad arose, and forthwith the Arabs were aroused to a new and a spiritual faith. Hence the conclusion that Arabia was fermenting for the change, and prepared to adopt it. To us, calmly reviewing the past, pre-Islamite history belies the assumption. After five centuries of Christian evangelization, we can point to but a sprinkling here and there of Christian converts."
"In fine, viewed thus in a religious aspect, the surface of Arabia had been now and then gently rippled by the feeble efforts of Christianity; the sterner influence of Judaism had been occasionally visible in a deeper and more troubled current; but the tide of indigenous idolatry and of Ishmaelite superstition, setting strongly from every quarter towards the Kabah, gave ample evidence that the faith and worship of Mecca held the Arab mind in a rigorous and undisputed thraldom."
Further on, the same critic observes that "the prospects of Arabia before the rise of Muhammad were as unfavourable to religious reform as to political union or national regeneration. The foundation of the Arab faith was a deep-rooted idolatry, which for centuries had stood proof, with no palpable symptom of decay, against every attempt at evangelization from Egypt and Syria."
Thus the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) was sent as a warner to a people who were proof against all warning. They had baffled all previous attempts at their regeneration. But phenomenal success attended his labours in bringing about the reformation of that self-same, incorrigible race. It is to this miraculous transformation of idolatrous Arabs, and through them of the followers of other religions, that the Quran prophetically refers: "Those who disbelieve from among the People of the Book and the idolaters could not have been freed till clear evidence came to them - A Messenger from Allah, reciting pure pages, wherein are (all) right books. [The Quran, 98:1-3]"
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