November 19, 2017

The disintegration of pre-Islamic society in North Arabia

The decline of the many municipal religions of the city-states of North Arabia created the opening for the establishment of Islam as the national religion of the Arab people.

From Towards a Unified Science, The Ecologist Vol. 1 No. 18, December 1971.

We know very little about the city states of South Arabia. One thing is certain: they achieved what we would regard as a high level of civilisation. Their decline was probably due in part to a shift in the main trade routes used by Roman traders transporting goods from India to the rich cities of Phoenicia. When they passed through South Arabia, they were a source of consider­able income to its inhabitants, but, eventually, this trade shifted to the Red Sea.

It was also the result of the incessant struggle between the two great empires of the time: the Byzantine and the Sassinid which had South Arabia as its theatre.

With the decline of South Arabia, the focus shifted to the Hedjaz, whose principal cities, Mecca, Medina and Tanif, slowly succeeded in taking over a good deal of the trade between India and Byzantium, now lost to their Southern brothers and they grew rich on the proceeds. Unfortunately, however, this wealth was short lived. Decay soon began to set in, and the civilisation of these North Arabian cities gradually broke down.

Why did this decay occur? Are there any lessons to be learned that might be of use to us in understanding the current decay of our own society? In this short paper I shall try to answer these two questions.

First, however, let us see how North Arabian society was organised in these pre-Islamic times. Surprisingly enough, the pre-Islamic city was very much like the Hellenic city of antiquity. Its population was divided up into tribes, which in turn were sub-divided into clans. The more important of these lived in the centre of the city from where they directed matters of public importance. They constituted, in fact, a political aristocracy. The less influential clans inhabited the area towards the periphery of the city.

The city itself was self-governing and was the seat of a municipal religion. Power was in the hands of a council of elders called the Djamaa, an assembly made up of all the adult males capable of bearing arms, which was the real sovereign body. Occasionally chiefs, (referred to as Amin or Kabir) were elected but these did not appear to wield any absolute power.

Decisions were taken unanimously or at least with the general consent of the assembly. The latter possessed legislative, administrative and judicial powers and its decisions were implemented by the heads of the clans and of the individual families. To enable them to do this, the latter could levy fines and had the power to exile those who refused to obey the traditional law. This, as we know, is the most severe penalty that can be meted out in simple, stable societies. The exiled man excluded from all public ceremonies and from his own family and community was reduced to the status of a despised isolate: a fate worse than death.

The institutions of self-government, according to Lammens [1] were in fact very highly developed. At Mecca there was a sort of senate called the Gar-Al-Nadwa, which met when important decisions had to be taken. There was also a council or Mala, representing the different tribes. Above all, there was a strong tradition of public service, without which a stable society cannot conceivably survive.

Mecca was an important commercial centre and apparently the Suq or Mawsim, rather than fulfil the function for which it is today famous i.e. that of a Bazaar, was in those days more like the Agora in the Hellenic city. As Chelhod writes writes:

“In addition to the bargaining and the commercial transactions which one finds in all fairs, all important affairs of state were dealt with here. It was here that treaties of alliance were concluded or cancelled, disputes between groups and individuals settled, and the principal religious festivities, in particular those connected with pilgrimages or sacrifices, were celebrated.” [2]

As we know from Robertson Smith, [3] the religion of the Bedouin was primarily ancestor worship; so it was in the pre-Islamic North Arabian city. Each family undoubtedly had its own domestic cult as did each clan and each tribe and the municipal god was, in fact, nothing more than the supreme ancestor, dominating a hierarchy of lesser deities, constituting a pantheon closely approximating in structure that of its earthly subjects.

It is precisely in these terms that Lafcadio Hearn describes the pantheon of the Japanese. [4] It is in these terms too that Fustel de Coulanges describes the gods of the Greek and Roman city state. [5] Chelhod describes the Arabic city thus:

“It is a seat of a political confederation. It is also a cultural centre and a highly hierarchised political unit bound by the same religion and worshipping the same local divinities. It is made up of different clans, each having its own independent organisation, its own ancestor and its own group in the assembly of notables or elders that deals with public affairs.” [6]

This description fits that of any city at this particular level of organisation. It may now be asked how did a universal religion such as Islam succeed in establishing itself in what would appear to be such unpropitious conditions? The answer is that the social structure we have described broke down in the ensuing chaos. Islam provided a new cultural pattern for the socially and culturally deprived masses, just as did Christianity in the case of the disintegrating Roman Empire, and Marxism with the break-down of preindustrial society at the turn of the 19th century.

The social structure of the pre-Islamic city could only be maintained in given environmental conditions. It could not resist the radical changes which occurred in the aftermath of the disintegration of South Arabian culture. Let us try to see what happened.

As South Arabian culture broke down, a large number of tribes migrated to the Hedjaz. Among these were the Khozas who made their way to Mecca, and the Aws and the Khazraj who ended up in Medina. Their arrival upset the established balance between the tribes dominating these cities. This gave rise to incessant civil wars, which had the effect of seriously weakening the tribes.

One of the results of these wars was that the Qorays succeeded in establishing their dominion over the other tribes of Mecca. This upset the traditional political organisation of the city and also permitted it to expand commercially at the expense of its two rivals whose leading tribes were still busily engaged in civil wars.

With the rise in the importance of Mecca came a corresponding rise in the importance of its particular religious pantheon, at the head of which was Allah, who was probably the original tribal god of the Qorays. It is clear that before the rise of Mohammed, a national religion was slowly developing pari passu with the establishment of the quasi-imperial status of the Qoray tribe. In the meantime the Qorays proved themselves to be brilliant businessmen and slowly Mecca was transformed into an international commercial centre.

With the increasing importance of its local religious cult, it succeeded in attracting pilgrims from the whole of the Arab world. This also considerably increased its revenue. One of the principal effects of this prosperity was to attract all sorts of people – foreigners from every part of Arabia and elsewhere, mainly the unattached and the unwanted.

Among these were a large number of Christians who built their own cemetery and their own church. This process was accentuated by the total disdain with which the proud Arab regarded manual labour which rendered essential the importation of foreigners to fulfil all menial functions in this fast-developing centre.

At the same time, increasing wealth led to the degeneration of the Qorays themselves. They became idle, pleasure loving and permissive. The strict and austere life style prescribed by the traditional law or Forf slowly ceased to be observed, and material gain to be spent on luxuries and short-term entertainments must have slowly displaced concern with the fulfilment of family, clan, tribal and city obligations as society’s principal occupation.

In these conditions it is impossible for social stability to be maintained, and slowly Meccan society broke down and chaos reigned. Man does not like social chaos. He needs to be a fully integrated member of a family and community. He needs to have a precise identity and cannot bear just being someone in a crowd. To be alone in a big chaotic city is far more intolerable than to be alone in a desert.

There is thus a tendency in times of social breakdown for religio-political movements to develop, usually around the person of someone with charismatic appeal – a messiah of some sort. He will predict an ideal society which can be brought about by following his instructions carefully. Such movements tend to be aggressive. A group of people must be singled out as responsible for the people’s plight and their extermination is often a necessary step towards achieving the ‘ideal’ society. [7]

At Mecca countless such movements appeared among the demoralised masses of the city, who probably lived in hideously over-crowded conditions, and whose social behaviour pattern must have corresponded very much to that of the inhabitants of our modern industrial slums.

Just as in the social chaos of the disintegrating Roman Empire there was also a plethora of similar movements, among those that developed in the Hedjas were Judaism (which had already made many converts in Saudi Arabia), Christianity, Manicheism [8], and Hanifism, which Andrae defines as the cult of a Hanif,

“. . . a man who, without belonging to a precise religious community, directs himself in accordance with his natural inclinations and dispositions, which God has given him, deviating in his way from popular paganism.”

Such men included many prophets, among them the poet Omayya Ibn ‘abi Celt. Another was Khalid Ibn Sinan [9]. The most important was apparently Abu-l-Qasim.

The tenets of these cults shared a belief in the apocalypse, a general feeling that the end of the world was at hand and a desire to believe that their particular messiah would lead them to salvation.

Though he is not normally classified as a Hanif, it is not quite clear in what way Mohammed differed from them, except, of course, that he was the most successful. Mobilising the demoralised and culturally deprived hordes of the oppressed against the citizens of Mecca, he brought about the end of what remained of its municipal religion and of the other institutions and beliefs that had previously maintained it as a self regulating social unit and thereby laid the foundations of that vast universal religion that is Islam.


1. Lammens, l’Arabie Occidental avant l’Hegire. Imprimie Catholique, Beyrouth, 1928.
2. Chelhod, Introduction a Ia sociologie de l’Islam. GP Maisonneuve, Paris 58. My own translation.
3. Robertson Smith, Lectures on the Religion of the Semites. A. & C. Black, 1914.
4. Lafcadio Hearn, Japan: an Interpretation. The Macmillan Company, New York, 1904.
5. Fustel de Coulanges, La Cite Antique. Librarie Hachette.
6. Chelhod, op.cit. My own translation.
7. See Norman Cohn’s Pursuit of the Millenium, Macmillan 1970; and Vittorio Lantenari’s Religion of the Oppressed, McGibbon & Kee 1961.
8. See Andrae T., Mohamet: sa vie et sa doctrine. Adrien Maisonneuve, Paris 945.
9. See Goldziher, Dogme et loi de Islam. P. Greuthner, Paris.
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