Methodology and History
The study of history is part and parcel of studying the Quran. Problems only arise when politically charged and largely fabricated sayings are elevated to the position of Scripture. This is prohibited.
Learning about history itself, however, is not prohibited at all. The Quran’s commandments were clearly contextual and intended primarily for a 7th-century Arab audience–although, overall, their principles are universally applicable:
“We have revealed the Quran to you in the Arabic language so that you could warn the people of the Mother Town (Mecca) and those around it of the inevitable Day of Resurrection when some will go to Paradise and others to Jahannam.” 42:7
It is with this in mind that I have decided to study pre-Islamic Arabia, and to consider mainstream narratives in light of historical evidence.
Wikipedia’s page on “Women in Pre-Islamic Arabia” contains a few questionable statements regarding their alleged status, with “unverified sources.”
I looked at the ‘unreliable source’ (citation #5) mentioned above. It references an article by Mufti Usmani:
It seems that Mufti Usmani was so bent on painting pre-Islamic Arabia as a time of murder, savagery and female oppression that he insisted upon describing women’s treatment as that of “pet goats.” Needless to say, such assertions are baseless.
Pre-Islamic Arabs possessed an oral culture that placed great emphasis on spoken-word poetry and recitation. They kept no written records of their own. This is why it’s so difficult to uncover information about their civilization.
Most “historical records” related to pre-Islamic Arabia were composed by Islamic scholars and rooted in hadith. There is precious little actual historical information regarding this time period. Instead of presenting an accurate viewpoint, “Islamic scholarship” portrays pre-Islamic Arabs as tribal savages who engaged in constant warfare and buried female children alive purely because they hated women.
Is this even logical?
The inconsistencies continue to pile up. If, as Islamic scholars tell us, pre-Islamic Arab men each married hundreds of women, collecting harems, where did these women come from? Considering that they supposedly buried all their female daughters alive, surely they must have suffered from a surplus of unmarried men?
If Arabs were such evil savages, whence came their lovely poetry? They were well-known as skillful and magnificent poets, holding frequent competitions, in which women likely also participated. Are tribal savages capable of such art?
If women were so collectively oppressed, treated as worthless aesthetic chattel, then why was the Prophet’s first wife a rich businesswoman who employed him and sent him to Damascus to trade goods for her? Where did this woman’s independence come from?
Colonialism and the Logic of Victors
When we think about it, it becomes increasingly apparent that Muslim scholars’ degradation of the “Jahiliyah” period mirrors Western colonialist narratives. After all, why was Afghanistan invaded? Why, because we (the United States) needed to save those terrorist savages from themselves! And we needed to save the women, too. Afghan men must have been so oppressive.
Afghan women were treated like chattel! They simply HAD to be rescued. We must have saved their lives. They’re probably so grateful to us now.
The same logic is consistently employed where pre-Islamic Arab women are concerned. We (the Muslims) saved them from the evil men oppressing them! We did a huge favor to women across the world!
They Were Human, Too
Pre-Islamic Arabs have been fully dehumanized by modern-day Muslim scholars. What we often forget is that they were human, just like us. Their society was multilayered and fascinating, buried beneath history. But, from what I have managed to dig up in terms of research, it was nothing like the narratives we are are fed.
With regards to social hierarchy, their community was highly diverse. Women in upper-class tribes sometimes engaged in polyandry (having multiple husbands) and were not seen as unchaste. Men occasionally engaged in polygyny, but this was largely restricted to leaders with power and access. The paternal lineage of children was often not considered to be of great importance.
Islam set limits on multiple marriages, almost completely curtailing polyandry and restricting polygyny, and establishing monogamy as an ontological norm.
Women in lower tribes led more difficult lives. They were sometimes designated as inheritance and given in marriage to their deceased husbands’ brothers, a practice which the Quran ended (4:19). Questionable methods of divorce also abounded, such as zihar (“To me, you are like your mother’s back”–this statement made a woman sexually unlawful but did not legally release her from marriage). The Quran stopped this as well (58:1-4).
Overall, it seems that women held many different positions throughout pre-Islamic Arabia. The Quran gave women in lower classes greater rights and afforded them better protection, while upper-class women may not have been affected at all. In other words, broadbrushing this entire civilization of women as “oppressed” is misleading and dishonest.
In pre-Islamic Arabia, upper-class women were known to veil. Veils were a symbol of status and respect. Prostitutes and slaves almost never veiled their faces or hair, and it is plausible that there were punishments for doing so.
It is possible that the tradition of veiling “respectable” women continued into Islam. Slave women, however, did not cover. In fact, Caliph Omar ibn Al-Khattab prohibited slave women from veiling themselves during his rule.
It appears that the custom of veiling and secluding upper-class women filtered into Islam and became conflated with the Quran’s verses on modesty (which, while commanding ‘modest’ dress, do not mention covering the face or hair at all).
On the Prophet’s Wives
Within the vein of mainstream narratives, I think it’s fitting to bring up stories surrounding the Prophet’s wives and the uncertainty within them. Scholars disagree on how many wives he had over his lifetime (estimates range from nine to fifteen; see biographer Ibn Ishaq’s Sira’at Rasulullah).
Scholars even disagree on whether some of the women were his wives or not; debates still rage over the slave/wife status of Mariyah the Coptic and Saffiyah the Jew, among others. (Although seeing as the Quran prohibits concubinage, I am inclined to assume that they were married to him.)
Walk into a traditionalist sermon, and you will be regaled with petty tales of the Prophet’s household, and of his wives’ jealousy in particular. These stories are used as an underhanded means of degrading women. Sayyida Aisha, you will hear, was the most jealous and vindictive of them all (although they will venerate her in the same breath as they vandalize her legacy). Hafsa was envious–oh, and scholarly, too. Aisha was a virgin. She was the Prophet’s favorite, because she was a virgin. Virgins, you know. So beautiful.
Aisha was jealous of Khadijah, you will be told. Tales of honey and deception and Khadijah’s pearl necklace will be wrought. Zainab was lovely. Umm Salama was talkative. Aisha argued with everyone. Sauda and Maymunah were charity cases. And Mariyah and Saffiyah–oh, don’t even get me started on them.
The Quran gives very few details regarding the Prophet’s marital life. This is enough to show me that the stories are irrelevant. They are so conflicted it is impossible to ascertain the truth. History has been rewritten.
The condescension astonishes and disappoints me. It shocks me how scholars can make a mockery of the Prophet’s wives as a means of subtly degrading women. These women lost family and relatives in battle, the likes of which we can NEVER imagine. Their lives and possessions were destroyed. They were caught in a revolution. It is downright horrific to ridicule their alleged “jealousy” and “vindictive desire” for the Prophet’s exclusive affection against a backdrop of widowhood, destruction and warfare. Yet this is what “Islamic scholars” have done, making a Kardashian-esque comedy out of noble lives.
How does this tie in to pre-Islamic Arabia, you ask? Because these women, the wives of the Prophet, were largely born during the pre-Islamic era. This was their origin and the origin of our maternal ancestors. Yet we do not hesitate to declare “Jahil” Arabs as universally evil, inhuman even. Are we any better than them when we slander them like this?
On Female Infanticide
Did pre-Islamic Arabs kill their children? Yes, they did, on occasion. It’s called qatl al-walad in Arabic.
But here’s the catch. They killed male children, too.
Their motivation for infanticide was poverty. The Quran alludes to this:
“And do not kill your children for fear of poverty. We provide for them and for you. Indeed, their killing is ever a great sin.” 17:31
Female children were killed more often because they were vulnerable and seen as a liability. It was not because the Arabs hated women. It was because they feared for their lives.
The Quran specifically condemns the murder of female children, although it acknowledges male infanticide as well (see 17:31; here “children,” awlad, is in the masculine plural). The Quran alludes to the look of grief and distress on a father’s face when a daughter is born:
“When good news (Arabic: mubashiran) is brought to one of them, of (the birth of) a female (child), his face darkens, and he is filled with inward grief!” 16:58
This look of grief, as clarified in other verses, was not (only) because daughters were regarded as weak liabilities, but also because men feared for their children’s livelihoods. The Quran condemns every kind of infanticide, assuring the Arabs categorically that God would provide for their children.
According to hadith, after the Quran’s revelation, a young woman took her (younger) male slave to bed. Umar was horrified, and helpfully informed her that she had deliberately misinterpreted the message of the Quran, despite the fact that according to his own interpretation, men could have sex with female slaves.
If the Quran is read selectively to allow for sex slavery, it follows that women can also take men to bed, since the verses about “what your right hands possess” (maa malakat aymaanakum) are not gender-specific, and there is an allusion to women owning male slaves (24:31; maa malakat aymaanahunna). Thus, according to Umar’s own understanding of the Quran, the young woman had not done anything wrong! Yet still, he rebuked her. Double standards indeed.
Umar then accused her of behaving like Jahil women. This seems to confirm that concubinage was a known institution for pre-Islamic Arabs, although its details are difficult to ascertain. The Quran encouraged Arabs to free slaves and marry those who were suitable for them, but did not abolish slavery in any single commandment.
Pre-Islamic Arabia was multilayered and diverse. We know little of its history, but its erasure is nothing short of shameful. Instead of painting an entire culture as savage in order to justify a false narrative, Muslim scholars should focus on honesty.
Islam improved many facets of pre-Islamic women’s lives, but had little effect on others. Some women might even have been frustrated by the advent of Islam, since it established a punishment for adultery (whereas some pre-Islamic women were known to have complete sexual agency).