CulturePre-Islamic Arabia


Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Social Structure of Pre-Islamic Arabia
  3. References
(By: Mohanad Bahshwan)


Pre-islmaic Arabia is often referred to as the jahliiya period, which translates as "ignorance," as the people of Arabia did not know Muhammad’s message--of the one true God. The people of pre-Islamic Arabia lacked some of the social codes or law (sharia) that Islam provided. They participated in some very brutal practices (such as female infant burial). The practices during this time-period appear to confirm this notion of ignorance. However, its important to understand, that while this period was characterized by some ideals or practices that are now socially unacceptable, this period also had many positive aspects. Nomadic tribes were highly sophisticated cultures, with tribal law and allegiances. They had vast cultural contributions, and implemented a way of life (nomad-pastorialism), raising cattle in a very sustainable manner. [Back to Top]

(By: Bethany Sala)
Indeed the people of Pre-Islamic Arabia were primitive by all accounts but they still posessed skills that allowed them to live in highly functional socities .During this period the region was dominated by two great empires the Byzantine Empire and the Persian empire [Back to Top]

By: Kole Reece

Social Structure of Pre-Islamic Arabia:

The Tribe 566.jpg

The Tribe was a crucial aspect of Pre-Islamic Arabia. “Tribal affiliation provided a cohesion that was passed down through generations.” The term asabiy, refers to the powerful connection that one shared in being apart of a tribe. The Tribe is comprised of the immediate family which share one tent (a clan), outside of the immediate family is and extension of other family members and their tents. Many of these tents gathered together (or clans), with familial relations comprise a tribe. Often times, clans are comprised of family members, but it is not uncommon for a tribe to take in a non-related member and give them familial status. Tribes provided a means of protection for its members, death to one clan member meant brutal retaliation. Non-members of the tribe were viewed as outsiders or even enemies. Tribes shared common ethical understandings and provided one with an identity. Muhammad originated from the Quarysh tribe, which was a very powerful and influential tribe. [Back to Top]

(By: Bethany Sala)


The majority of the population in Pre-Islamic Arabia were nomad-pastoralists,Bactrian_camel.jpg which comprised of many different tribes. Pastoralism is defined as: “Those who are dependent chiefly on their herd of domestic stock for subsistence.” Pastoralists generally have small herds of goats, sheep, camels, horses, or other animals that are able to physically sustain yearly migrations, although Arabs primarily raised sheep and camels. These animals provide the pastoralist with meat, milk, cheese, blood, fur/wool, ect. Nomads partake in migrations based on seasons and resources available in the surrounding areas; migrations vary upon clan and the type of herd.
Arabs not only maintained herds, but also practiced hunting, serving as bodyguards, escorts to caravans, or as mercenaries. Some tribes traded with towns in order to gain goods, while others participated in raids to acquire wealth. “The raiders particularly hoped to capture camels, horses, slaves (especially women), gold, fine fabrics, and other luxury items but often had to settle for much less.” The raid is referred to as ghazwa, and often occurred when more powerful tribes attacked less-powerful tribes. Nomadism actively involved the whole family, as raising a herd of animals required many different skills and tasks. Furthermore, the products received from the animals of the herd were transformed into other products. For instance, hair from the camel, was twined into rope by many female nomads, cheese Kurds were also a popular product to make. Pastoralist learned from an early age how to hunt and be skilled warriors. Each tribe was responsible for taking care of the herd, even if that meant protecting in from other raiding tribes.
Many nomads are seen as barbaric, however this stereotype is not true for several reasons. First, the Nomad was able to use resources in a very sustainable manner. The nomad used land, which was not suitable for other means, as the soil and the surrounding areas were extremely arid. Animals grazed on low growing plants. These plants were ideal for animal grazing, and greatly benefited from it. The grazing fertilized the plant, helped promote seeding, and also limited over-growth. Pastoralists migrated from location to location, never over-grazing an area. Schedules were implemented that dictated when each tribe should bring their flock to a grazing location. The most powerful tribe had access to the better grazing areas and oasis prior to weaker or smaller tribes. What's more, the Nomad was very skilled in understanding the nature of the land and the dynamics of herd life. Many Nomads were gifted with prose and could play musical instruments. [Back to Top]
(By: Bethany Sala)


Poetry was a significant aspect of Pre-Islamic Arabia. Especially since the people were of a oral culture. Poetry was thought to have been divinely inspired. “Poetry had its roots in religion, especially in the rhymed prose of the Kahin, a sort of shamanistic practitioner who attunement to surrounding
Islamic Poetry
s and people, plus a gift from trance and ecstasy, enabled him or her to divine the future, find lost camels, and heal.” The poet was looked on with respect and seen as one that has connection with the divine. Therefore the poet maintained a sacred place among the tribe or community in which he lived. Each stanza of poetry that was constructed, was treasured among Arab peoples. The language of the poet, was different from everyday tribal dialect, and is now referred to by scholars as classical Arabic.
Furthermore, poetry was used as a means to communicate to the community and even promote tribal propaganda.Tribes constructed verses against their enemies, often discrediting their people or fighting abilities.Poetry was also a form of entertainment, as many poets constructed prose about the nature and beauty surrounding their nomadic lives.
Poetry was a very important and influential means of communication. [Back to Top]
(By: Bethany Sala)


Islam transformed the entire religious system of the Middle East . It is clear however that the people of this region had some form of religion before the revelation . Historical evidence suggests that there were many polytheistic societies. TheKIV_pagan_idol_2_Kashirin.jpgre was a large presence of Idolatry in the Pre-islamic world.In addition to the worship of idols heavenly bodies were also held sacred as well as trees and dead heroes of tribes. People worshiped numerous deitis but they did however recognize the existence of a Supreme God who they called Allah . The Ka'aba an ancient sanctuary was a major part of Arab idolatry. ".It was the site of a major anmistic cult that attracted worshippers from western Arabia ". It also housed 360 idols some of which included "Hubal, the Syrian god of the moon; al-Uzza, al-Kutba, the Nabataean god of writing and divination; Jesus, the incarnate god of the Christians, and his holy mother, Mary". "Some Arabs held the beleif that that certain places and times of year were sacred and should be respected". During these times certain rituals were carried out . Mecca was a major religious site in Pre-Islamic Arabia and was also the site of an annual pilgrimage. During this time pilgrims would sing songs and worship their gods. According to Raza Aslam in the book Sanctuary in the Desert pilgrims would " gather as a group and rotate around the Kaaba seven times, some pausing to kiss each corner of the sanctuary before being captured and swept away again by the current of bodies." [Back to Top]
by Kole Reece

Christianity In Pre-Islmic Arabia
True and accurate information on the role of Christianity in pre-islamic Arabia is considered hard to come by, partly due to the heavy reliance on information stemming essentialy from muslim historians. Who may give the impression as argued by Neal Robinson in his book "Christ in Islam and Christianity"; "that apart from the large settlements of Jews at Kahybar and Yathrib, the population was predominantly pagan. It is possible, however, that they deliberately down played the presence of Christianity for apologetic reasons". Understandable however would be the litexternal image Byzantine%20Dress%20in%20Constantinople%20adopted%20by%20later%20islamic%20societies%20wikipedia%20org_thumb%5B3%5D.jpgtle appeal orthodox Christianity may have had to the Arabs due to its associations with Byzantine Imperialism in pre-Islamic times. Yet the presence of Christianity and its influences on Arabs in pre-Islamic times; whether in organized,mainstream, and orthodox forms or not is undeniable. Infact some scholars like Dr Taj Hargey a devout and liberal Sunni Muslim leader who is also a recognised Islamic historian and theologian go as far as to say "Upper class Byzantine women, like their Sassanian Persian counterparts in pre-Islamic times, covered their faces in public to hide themselves from the hoi-poloi, the ordinary folk. This elitist foreign tradition was then incorporated into Arab tribal culture and later adopted by segments of the expanding Muslim empire". (See Image Right) "While there are suspect reports in the hadith (the sayings of Muhammad) that the Prophet of Islam ordered his wives to conceal themselves completely in public, this is not ordered anywhere in the Holy Qur'an," he states. Islam only requires modest dress from both genders when in public. Despite the discrepencys in the accounts of the degree and level of the presence of Christianity in pre-Islamic times we can see that influences of Christianity on Arabs and pre-Islamic Arabia are relevant and a integral part of Islamic debates to this day. external image kaaba.jpgInterestingly there are a number of other factors including trade and caravan routes, jewsih and other cultural settlements, and even the tendencies of refugees to seek sanctuary in Arabia that can provide hints as to the impact of Christianity in pre-Islamic Arabia. While there is no evidence of organized Christianity in Mecca during the pre-Islamic era, Meccans controlled much of the bustling trade travelling up and down the Western-Arabian fringe. "Putting them in direct contact with Christians in Syria and Najran as well as christian towns and monastaries along the caravan route" as noted by Robinson. Robinson also observes the presence of individual Christians including Abysynian slaves and Syrian merchants who resided here. Which would then suggest atleast a minimal familiarity with; if not influence of Christian practices on traders, merchants, and other important Meccans. This theory of exposure to Christian virtues and practices would then bear some significance in not only understanding the presence of Christianity in pre-Islamic Arabia but also the possible influences of Christianity on Islam as Mecca would later essentialy become the Muslim heartland. Interestingly Robinson also speaks of a handful of Arabs who were drawn to monotheism even before the advent of Islam but did not formerly attach themselves to Judaism or Christianity thus suggesting the presence of an intrest in monotheism pre-Islam. This fact is of great interest and significance in the study of pre-Islamic Arabia due to the immense stress Islam puts on monotheism and oneness of god upon its advent. The Holy Kaaba (see above) now the holiest site for and source of pilgrimage to Muslims around the world, interestingly, in pre-Islamic times was known to contain many various idols and even depictions of Jesus and Mary. These were then consequently abolished from the Holy Kaaba upon the instituionalization of Islam due to its forbidding of all forms of idol worship. Also most interistingly, according to the traditions preserved in the Muslim holy book "Sahi Bukhari", at one stage Khadija the prophet's wife takes him to meet her cousin Waraqa who had converted to Christianity in pre-Islamic times. The source of great debate however is the time of death of Waraqa; as some traditions say Waraqa passes away during his revelations to Muhammad thus explaining his lack of conversion to Islam, while others mention his survival for several more years. This key discrepancy has shaped many a debate between scholars regarding the interactions of Islam and Christianity in pre and post-Islamic Arabia. As it is not known historicaly the form of Christianity subscribed to by Warqa or an accurate time of death, thus making it impossible to determine what Muhammad may have been able to gain about christianity from Waraqa or why Waraqa did not convert to Islam in post-Islamic times. Thus, despite the many difficulties and debates on accurate information on the role of Christianity in pre-Islamic Arabia, it is apparent that the interactions between the two religions are fine, immense and intertwining and the presence atleast of Christianity in various forms throughout pre-Islamic Arabia undeniable.
By Kumayl Ahsan
[Back to Top]


Although many societies were polytheistic there were also some forms of monotheism.evo01.jpg Monotheistic groups were found in Arabia but they were independent of any church organization. It is suggested that such groups may have been offshoots of Christianity and Judiasm .The principal tribes that embraced Christianity were Himyar, Ghassan, Rabi'a, Tagh'ab, Bahra, Tunukh, part of the Tay and Khud'a, the inhabitants of Najran, and the Arabs of Hira. The most well-known monotheists were the Hebrews, although the Persians and the Medes had also developed monotheism.The Byzantine empire was also another well known monotheistic society . Constantine had conquered Byzantium in 324 and became the first great protector of the Christian faith The spread of Chrisiatnity was halted in 622 by the rise of Islam.The Jews were present in the Sasanian Empire, Yemen and some communities of Medina.According Daniel Brown the most significant settlement of Jews took place in Babylon After the Babylonians destroyed the temple in Jerusalem in 586.The rise of Judaism coincided with a rise in immigration to the Hejaz.Furthermore there were also lesser known monotheisit such as the Hanifs who referred to God as al-Rahman [Back to Top]

by Kole Reece


The status of women in pre-Islamic Arabia differed substantially after the advent of Islam. Although some researchers claim that the sources for women’s status were inadequate, other have came up with a general conclusion of the roles that women played in pre-Islamic Arabia. In Pre-Islamic Arabia (or Jahiliyyah), men were considered superior to women. Thus, tribes used to brag about the number of their male children only. Not even that, but it was commonly considered a shame on a family if a female baby were born. The act of burying a (female) child was very common among some Arabian tribes in Mecca during the era of ignorance. However, probably what had scholars to argue about women during Jahiliyyah, was that women actually also played important roles within the societies. As is universally the case, most of the typical Arabian women’s primary roles during that period of time were those of being a house wife and a mother. But in other situations, women were important in the social life of the tribes as feuds and even battles arose over them. The reason for such battles is that to some extent, women were considered as some kind of a property for some men of those tribes. Nevertheless, women played important roles during warfare. They were not armsbearers, however, but served by taking care of the wounded and joining together in coteries to urge for the warriors on victory. [Back to Top]

By: Mohanad Bahshwan

Language and Trading

Pre-Islamic Arabia was considered to be the region " bounded on the north by the so called fertile crescent and thus included the desert areas between the Euphrates and the rift valley which stretches north from Aqaba ".To gain some insight into the language of pre-Islamic Arabia we need to rely on inscriptions that were left behind by indigenous people .The language was nearly dominated by South Semitic Script with an alphabet comprising of 27 or more letters.In the extreme north there was North west Semitic type from which classical Arabic evolved .There were also several tribes that had there own distinct langauges .Trading in Pre-Islamic Arabia was one of the most prominent features of this period .Trading had the indirect effect of creating cities that would serve the carvans on the trade routes . Among the most prosperous of these trading cites was Petra in Jordan and Palmyra in Syria and Mecca .This also led to increase in contact with the outside world. [Back to Top]
By Kole Reece


The south and the north, were homes to two entirely separate Semitic peoples: the Sabaeans in the south and the Arabs in the north.
The Sabaeans
Also called the Himyarites or the Yemenites, the Sabaeans had from a very early period adopted a sedentary way of life in the relatively lush climate of southern Arabia. Eventually, the south came under the control of city-states ruled by priest-kings called mukkarib whose functions may have been very similar to the earliest kings of Sumer and Akkad. By the first millenium AD, however, these priest-kings had largely given way to a secular monarchy, the malik. The Sabaeans, however, lived on two major two trade routes: one was the ocean-trading route between Africa and India. The harbors of the southwest were centers of commerce with these two continents and the luxury items, such as spices, imported from these countries. But the Sabaean region also lay at the southern terminus of land-based trade routes up and down the coast of the Arabian peninsula. Goods would travel down this land-route to be exported to Africa or India and goods from Africa and India would travel north on this land-route. This latter trade route had tremendous consequences for the Arabs in the north and the subsequent history of Islam. For all along this trade route grew major trading cities and the wealth of the south filtered north into these cities. It was in one such Arabian city, Mecca, that Islam would begin.
The Arabs
The Arabs of the north were ethnically one people but were composed of two culturally opposite groups: nomadic and sedentary Arabs. The harshness of the environment forced on Arabs a nomadic, tribal existence. Agriculture was out of the question; instead, the nomadic Arabs, called Bedouins, were pastoralists and moved their herds from place to place in search of scarce resources and water. They lived in small, tightly-knit hereditary tribes. Sedentary Arabs were themselves Bedouin who had settled the oases that surround the periphery of the Arabian desert—many of these settlements were very recent. Because the oases represented a concentration of scarce resources, the control of these areas were the result of military campaigns and this control was regularly threatened. Since the oases were both at the periphery of Bedouin migrations and represented scarce resources, the Bedouin were unable to seize possession of these areas until more powerful political rivals, such as Mesopotamia and the Sabaeans, had become weaker or more diffuse. It really was not until the first millenium BC that the many of the major sedentary Arab settlements were established. So by the time of Islam, the culture of sedentary Arabs was still very close to that of their nomadic cousins. [Back to Top]

(Kiara Cross)


Arabian music refers to that of the Islamic peoples of Arabia and also, in its broad sense, to that of Islamic peoples in North Africa, Persia, and Syria. Although the major writings on Arabian music appeared after the dawn of Islam (AD 622), music had already been cultivated for thousands of years. The music of pre-Islamic Arabia was primarily vocal. It is alleged that singing originated with the caravan song (huda), from which developed a more sophisticated secular song (nasb). Instruments were generally used alone and served only to accompany the singer. The short lute ('ud), long lute (tunbur), flute (qussaba), tambourine (duff), and drum (tabl) were the most popular. [Back to Top]
(Kiara Cross)


Styles of dance vary widely throughout the Middle East and North Africa. I have listed some of the more common ones below. Realistically any region/village will have a number of dances and each style of dance will have a number of variations. Many dances have been lost. [Back to Top]

RAQS SHARQI, (literally, ‘Eastern Dance’) is the classical, popular and folk dance of Egypt. It is rooted in pre Islamic times and its traditions have been passed on over the centuries. It is taught within the family as a social grace, and ornaments many celebrations. It has always survived in its folk form, but there have been periods in the history of Egypt when the classical dancehas been exalted and refined, particularly in the Islamic courts of the 10th and 11th centuries, and in the 18th century courts of the Ottoman rulers of Egypt. Egyptian dance and music have had a close link and a rich relationship throughout
history. Much Egyptian music consists of “aghani”, or songs, which are constructed on strong rhythmic patterns, and lend themselves easily to dance.


(Kiara Cross)

Henna Tattoos

SKIN decoration in the Arab world is practiced mostly by women and takes the form of designs on hands and feet using henna, which fades away after a few weeks.The complex patterns seen throughout the Middle East are normally achieved using stencils which can be bought cheaply in the souqs (markets).
Increasingly, street artists in resorts such as Marrakesh and Sharm al-Sheikh provide henna decoration of varying quality for visiting tourists of both sexes.




(Kiara Cross) [Back to Top]

Pre-Islamic Artifacts

Some Yemeni and other pre-Islamic artifacts are shown below:
[Back to Top]

Art of Hadramaut (yemen)
external image Griffon_hadhramaut.jpg

Pre-Islamic Arabic Exibits (Istanbul Archeological Museums)
external image Ancient_Orient_Museum_Istanbul_2008_%289%29.JPGexternal image Ancient_Orient_Museum_Istanbul_2008_%2812%29.JPG

Art of Qataban (yemen)
external image Qataban_lion_bronze.jpg

(by: Mohanad Bahshwan)

References [Back to Top]
Kiara Cross
"Pre-Islamic Arabic Culture." Islam. 26 Feb. 2010. <>
"Traditional/Classical Music: Arabian Music."
Music Paradise. 22 Feb. 2010. <>
"Styles." Layali El Sharq Music. 26 Feb. 2010. <>
"Henna and Tattoos." Arab-Islamic History. 26 Feb. 2010. <>
"Temporary Tattos." Henna Tattoos Az. 26 Feb. 2010 <>

Kole Reece
A New Introduction to Islam -Daniel W Brown
Pre-Islamic Arab Converts to Christianity in Mecca and Medina - Ghada Osman
The Sanctuary in the Desert: Pre-Islamic Arabia -Reza Aslan
Languages of Pre-Islamic Arabia A. F. L. Beeston
A History of the modern middle East - William L Cleveland Saudi Arabia - PreIslamic Period

Bethany Sala
"Aspects of Pre-Islamic Arabian Society." Witness-Pioneer . N.p., 16 Sept. 2002. Web. 21 Feb. 2010. <>.
Barfield, Thomas.
The Nomadic Alternative. Facsimile ed. Alexandria, VA: Prentice Hall, 1993. Print.
Burton, Sir Richard F.. "Literature."
Home | Cornell University Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2010. <>.
Denny, Frederick Mathewson.
Introduction to Islam (4th Edition) (Mysearchlab Series for Religion). 4 ed. Alexandria, VA: Prentice Hall, 2010. Print.
"On Pre-Islamic Poetry & The Qur'an."
Islamic Awareness. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2010. <>.
"Pre-Islamic Arabic Culture."
Washington State University - Pullman, Washington. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2010. <>.

Mohanad Bahshwan
"Women, Religion and Social Change" by Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and Ellison Banks Findly <>
Philip Hitti, History of the Arabs. London, McMillan and Co., 1961

Kumayl Ahsan

Neal Robinson, "Christ in Islam and Christianity". New York, State University of New York Press, 1991


"Aspects of Pre-Islamic Arabian Society." Witness-Pioneer .
N.p., 16 Sept. 2002. Web. 23 Feb. 2010. //

Ghada Osman, "Pre-Islamic Arab Converts to Christianity in Mecca and Medina: An Investigation Into the Arab Sources" , Sandiego, The Muslim World, Vol.95, Jan 2005
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UK imam challenges anti-jihadist Dutch MP Geert Wilders to debate" Adriana Stuijt
N.p, 21 Apr. 2009 Web. 24 Feb 2010.