Islam today is a multinational faith, with a variety of sects and movements (of whom shiis and sunnis are only the most broad division). One of the so-called ‘Abrahamic’ religions, it draws on ancient Near Eastern material also present in Judaism and Christianity, and figures such as Abraham, Soloman, and Moses feature prominently. Despite these common roots and the many permutations Islam has undergone over the course of its encounters in places as diverse as West Africa and Indonesia, however, Islam remains a quintessentially Arabian religion.
This, however, raises the question of just what the religious environment looked like before Islam, and before the Prophet Muhammad’s revelations, in the centuries before the year 600. The Arabic term used to describe this period is jahiliya, a complex word variously translated as ignorance, lawlessness, paganism–even, in later times, apostasy. When these associations are taken together, we can comfortably describe jahiliya as the absence of Islam, as a divine revelation and as the motive force of an ordered society.
Because of this strongly negative perception on behalf of the earliest Islamic chroniclers, historical accounts are generally silent about the beliefs and accomplishments of this period (except to blacken them.) Thanks to recent discoveries by archaeologists, celebrated in the Roads of Arabia exhibit currently at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery, however, it has become easier to visualise this fascinating and elusive time.
It is evident from these finds that ancient Arabia was not only politically and linguistically, but also religiously diverse. Artefacts such as the al-Hamra cube (perhaps a pedestal or an altar) display religious motifs shared with Egypt and Mesopotamia, such as the bull-god Apis, while a large number of incense burners and altars evoke the sacrificial spirituality which characterises the old Testament. This plurality continued well into the Christian era, with the Byzantines exerting their influence from the north and a number of Jewish communities noted throughout the peninsula.
Even the most holy site of Islam–the Kaba–was once a polytheist temple, filled, according to the Qur’an, with the idols of false gods. The dual identity of this site–pagan in Muhammad’s time, but thought of by later Muslims as the site of Abraham’s sacrifice–may hint at early monotheistic influences.
A major point of difference between the Islamic and Jahiliya periods can also be seen in the artwork. Many ancient pieces, from the abstract funeral stelae to the statues of Lihyanite kings and the metalwork inspired by the Greco-Roman world, willingly engage with the human figure. By the time of the earliest Muslim tombstones recovered from Mecca, however, the Islamic aesthetic has already been defined through the use of refined calligraphy and elegant floral patterns.
In some ways, however, Jahiliya Arabia exhibited many continuities with its Islamic successor. In a varied and inhospitable landscape, oases and water sources became the foundations for cities–of which Medina and Mecca were representative.
Trade in the valuable incense, gold, and even leather goods produced on the peninsula was also significant in both periods, as is suggested by Muhammad’s early occupation in life: that of a merchant. At times, the same roads that carried ancient loads of incense were also used in later centuries to bring pilgrims to the sacred landscape of the Hijaz.
Finally, the same Arabic script revered by Muslims as the vehicle for divine revelation can be glimpsed in its earliest forms during the Jahiliya. The Nabataeans–who ruled an area of northern Saudi Arabia and modern Jordan–for example, wrote in an early Arabic and an Aramaic language in their own Nabataean script. This, combined with another script–Syriac–became the Arabic of the Muslim expansion. For scholars today, it is the remains of inscriptions carved by wayfarers on stone that have allowed us to trace these developments, just as they must have formed part of early Muslims’ sense of place and history.
Thus, by exploring the contours which demarcated the Jahiliya from the Islamic culture which followed, we can sharpen our sense of Muhammad’s own social and cultural landscape. It also demonstrates, however, the truly revolutionary effect of his message upon this landscape, as centuries-old continuities yielded to a new religion that would come to thoroughly define all subsequent communities on the peninsula.
Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, ed. Al-Ghabbban, Ali Ibrahim, et al (Paris, 2010), is the exhibition catalogue which I drew on for this post, with many essays about the pieces mentioned above as well as the conditions of early Arabia. Since this is all but unavailable to most people, I would also recommend the Saudi Aramco World article featuring the exhibition.
Readers may also be interested in:
Berkey, Jonathan Porter, The Formation of Islam: Religion and Society in the Near East 600-800 (New York, 2003)
Donner, Fred M., Muhammad and the Believers at the Origins of Islam (Cambridge, M.A., 2010).