All historians are agreed that the highest manifestation of the development of Arab culture in the century preceding Islam was poetry which was not known before that time. A well known historian named Ya'qubi has written that poetry among the Arabs had taken the place of science, philosophy, history and everything else. If an Arab had a bright idea he would give it the form of a few verses and thus express it. Thus if someone should question what Arab culture was at that time, the answer would be 'a few stanzas of poetry'.
The Arabs were a people with a poetic bent even though their land was no land of flowers and nightingales, but only thorns and sand, yet it nurtured many a poet. As poetry was esteemed by them to be the highest manifestation of culture, their poets were on the lookout for a suitable spot to present their poems.
The finest of their poems were then inscribed on posters and hung on the walls of the Ka'aba in the annual rendezvous of the Arabs. They called these posters 'Mu'allaqat' meaning 'hanging verses'.
Such display on the walls of the Ka'aba was the the reward for the poets, who as a result became famous. Amra' al-Qais and other contemporary poets of early Islam were among the poets thus honoured. They were the authors of 'the seven hanging pieces' that had found place of honour on the walls of the Ka'aba and in history Beside poetry there was another cultural source in the Arabia of that time, namely Jewish culture which will be discussed in detail later on.
The leading aspect of the Arabs economy of that time from the viewpoint of production was animal husbandry and agriculture wherever it was possible. As far as trade and exchange were concerned, their main trade was with foreign lands. Both the Arabs of Yemen and Hejaz were engaged in this activity, but since foreign trade must have links with home trade in order to exchange home-made products with foreign goods, the Arabs of that age resorted to the same practice in keeping with the level of their civilisation as they do in modern times.
In the developed world of today one of the most significant essential and effective of economic practices is the organising of commercial and industrial fairs.
The Arabs, too, at that time arranged fairs in the form of seasonal bazaars In the same way that today in each season a fair is held in a city or locality in relation to local conditions, the Arabs, too, followed the same practice at different times and in particular places. A few examples of the extensive and famous exhibitions which were held in Hejaz and Najd were as follows:
The 'Dumatul-Jandal Fair', held in the month of Rabial-Awwal under the auspices of two local tribes of Ghassan and Kalb near Shaam.
The Mashqar Fair' held in the month of Jamadi-al-'Ula in a place of the same name, under the auspices of Banu-Tim tribe.
The 'Sahar Fair', held on the first of the month of Rajab.
The 'Ria Fair' following their Sahar Fair' in the same month of Rajab, under the patronage of the Jalandi tribc and its ruler.
The 'Aden Fair', held at the beginning of the month of Ramadhan, According to historians since this fair dealt exclusively with perfumes and scents, it was the great market of perfumers.
The 'San'a Fair', held in the middle of Ramadhan
The 'Rabia Fair', held in the present Hadamut.
The 'Ukaz Fair', held in the month of Dhil-Qa'dah near Ta'if
The 'Dhil Majaz Fair', held when all other fairs had concluded and the merchants who had been busy making a round of these fairs during those months, finally headed to Mecca, making a pilgrimage to the Ka'aba in the month of Dhil Hajjah, and dispersed after performing the Hajj ceremonies. These fairs and seasonal bazaars were the most valuable and cherished commercial events in Arabia of those days. The merchant class who profited from those fairs did their best not to let them become mere exhibitions.
They organised colourful ceremonies and musical shows and other celebrations as well as exhibits of literary works, poetry and arts. Thus these exhibitions were show places worth a visit both for those who intended to buy new and fineries and goods, or listen to the latest and the finest pieces of verse, or fine music. Thus the poets, too, were drawn to these exhibitions to recite their poems before judges who judged their poems. In this manner the fairs served both as commercial shows and literary societies.
Form of Government in Pagan Times
Sociologists say that in those days when man lived alone (if indeed there were such days!) he had no need of a master, since he was his own master and servant; his own ruler, his own government and his own nation. But as soon as he emerged from this solitary state and formed a family, and as soon as their number rose to four, there rose the question of who headed the family and who was the chief.
Sociologists claim that in most parts of the world headship belonged to the men while in certain parts to the women, that is to say the father acting as the head in the former case, and the mother in the latter. As the family grew larger, several families formed a group, called tribe, the family then acquired a tribal form. Thereby the question of the chief, the elder, the senior and the 'grey-beard' of the tribe came up who should settle the affairs of the group.
When several tribes took form, the issue became more extensive and there came into existence national government, and the issues in turn became international though yet such a government has not appeared.
With the rise of several tribes, these tribes that lived alongside each other neither knew their common ancestors nor did they regard each other as kith and kin. As they coexisted in one area and shared common interests, they found that they had need for a government in order to preserve their social system.
Thus the formation of a government from the viewpoints of history and sociology began with the tribes' realisation of a need for a guardian to safeguard their common interests and social system. This guardian then became their government.
From the viewpoint of political process, this was the most critical phase, namely the transfer of power from the tribal system and tribal chief to a central government. This critical phase had been accomplished in Yemen many centuries before Islam where a central government in its true sense had been formed and this was also the case in Ghassan and Hira where governments ruled. On the other hand in the interior of Arabia such a governments did not exist except in very rare instances.
Ya'qubi says in his book of history: "The tribal disputes or problems between individuals were usually settled by a number of persons known to be wise and far-sighted as well as unprejudiced and impartial. They settled the disputes through elderly intervention and arbitration. Such arbitrators were called magistrates. Ya'qubi mentions in his book of history (Vol. 1, p. 337) the names of a large number of such magistrates, who were not heads of a government but only arbitrators who adjudicated in the matters of disputes.
In the history of the corresponding period in Arabia we come across only one or two cases when government is mentioned in connection with the interior of Arabia, namely in Hejaz and Najd. Among these accounts a Jewish historian writes that in the fifth century A.D., that is one century before Islam, Abu Karab, king of Yemen had assigned his son as the regent of Median. Since this governor had been installed by the ruler of Yemen, it could hardly be called the government of Medina.
Thus at that time while there existed governments along the borders outside of Arabia, such as the Chassanis and Mundherian, and those who had remained in Yemen and in the coastal regions of the Persian Gulf, no progress had been made from a tribal society towards a central government in the central parts of Arabia.
Role of Judaism and Christianity
In order to make a thorough study of the history of Islam, we should also make a survey of the part played by Judaism and Christianity in side Arabia.
We are not altogether certain of the date of the Jews migration to Arabia, however the writer of the 'History of Judaism' writes in this connection: "There are different views concerning the migration of the Jews to Arabia and its causes and factors, but there is little doubt that most of the Jews abandoned their homes owing to the oppression of Roman rulers and sought refuge in Arabia.
If the Jews had been denied peace and tranquility in Palestine, Europe and in the Roman holdings, in Arabia on the contrary their living conditions were satisfactory, since there they were no longer subjected to threats and persecution by Christian priests, being treated kindly by their neighbours.
What is certain is that owing to the remoteness of the Hejaz and Najd regions, a number of Jews had migrated to Arabia centuries before the birth of Islam, and in all probability concurrent with the appearance of Jesus (a s.) Christ or in the second and third centuries A.D.
According to the existing books of history, their migrations to the Hejaz must have begun at least about five centuries before Islam, that is to say by the end of the first century A.D. The Jews had realised that in that region they could live freely far removed from the oppression of Roman governors. The most important center of Jewish settlements was Yathrib, the present Medina.
The Jews who came to Arabia, found that there was land and water in the Yathrib region, so they built a fort for themselves and settled down. In Mecca, too, the Jews were present but in small numbers.
Those who migrated from the north to the south found their way to Yemen, where the number of the Jews was not so great, but there occurred an event as a result of which Judaism became the official religion of Yemen. It so happened that Abu Karab's son was the governor of Yathrib, when his father was king of Yemen in the fifth century A.D. The inhabitants of Medina rose in revolt against this governor and killed him.
Abu Karab, despite being engaged in a war with the kings of Iran over Yemen, on his way came to Yathrib and in order to punish the Jews and Arabs of Yathrib who had risen against him, and thereafter to proceed to the war with Iran. When he reached Yathrib, the inhabitants went inside their forts and shut the gates and took refuge within: Abu Karab besieged the forts, and as the siege drew on, the people in the forts were faced with acute shortage of food.
At this time a number of Jewish rabbis came out of the forts and approached Abu Karab and declared that only four foolish men had killed his son, and begged the king for his forgiveness. In this meeting they started reciting some Jewish teachings for Abu Karab who was a heathen; their ardor so influenced him that he embraced Judaism and at once returned to Yemen.
When Abu Karab and his courtiers accepted Judaism as their religion, they began to propagate that faith. After Abu Karab died some time later, one of his sons, named 'Dhunavas' or 'Dhunuvas' became the king of Yemen and formally and zealously propagated the Jewish faith in Yemen and so it became the official religion of Yemen where they set about building a number of synagogues for the Jews. This happened about eighty or a hundred years before the rise of Islam.
Thus we witness that in the Arabia of that time, in the north existed the Jews and Christians, in the east the Zoroastrians and followers of Mazdak, the Iranians' religion, in the south and in a part of Yathrib the Jews, and in other parts were idolaters and Sabeans and followers of numerous other religions.
Judaism in Arabia
The author of the 'History of Judaism' has recorded that the Arabs treated the Jews kindly and associated with them treaty resulting in frequent intermarriages among them. On the whole the Jews exerted a great influence upon the Arabs since, firstly, they were well versed in economics and could hence manage the economy of those regions and, secondly, compared to the Arabs lettered and a people of the Book and consequently possessed higher learning than the Arabs who were quite illiterate.
They could narrate tales and talk about many topics with the Arabs and hence gained considerable respect. While the Arabs could neither read nor write, most of the Jews were familiar with reading and even writing to some extent. Judaism exerted such a strong influence that a group of the Quraish tribe, namely Banu Kunanah had embraced Judaism.
Christianity in Arabia
The position of Christianity was a special one in Hejaz and in the Arabian peninsula. This religion had not made any inroads into Arabia till about the time of the Prophet of Islam, that is to say about a century and a half before the birth of Islam. Just as today the Christian missionaries go to African and South American lands and penetrate into the forests to propagate their faith, at that time, too, they went to the dry deserts of Arabia with the object of spreading their religion. The first group of Christian missionaries went to the Najran area.
They so greatly influenced the people there that the first Christian sector took shape in Arabia. The Christians of Najran commenced their missionary work, and alongwith other missionaries who arrived from outside, founded a center of propagation in the interior of Arabia. At this time, as it has already been stated, Dhunuvas, the King of Yemen had embraced Judaism.
Then there occurred a collision between this Jewish king who applied much pressure to spread Judaism in Arabia and the Christians of Najran. This clash had a political background in that the Emperor of Abyssinia coveted Yemen, the neighbour across the sea. To retaliate this clash, Dhunuvas came to Najran to wipe out the Christians of Najran. Thhis episode has been narrated in the holy Qur'an under the title of "the story of Ukhdood" where this deed has been condemned.
Dhunuvas killed many of the Najran Christians and burnt a number of them alive. This roused the Christian Emperor of Abyssinia as well as the Roman Emperor to come to the aid of the Najran Christians.
But as the Emperor of Rome was too far from Yemen he asked the Emperor of Abyssinia for help and asked him to take the revenge of this massacre from Dhunuvas and the people of Yemen. That is how the episode of Abraha and the Abyssinian campaign to Yemen occurred. Abyssinian troops reached Yemen and captured it. Dhunuvas and a large number of Yemenese were killed, and thus Christianity replaced Judaism in Yemen By the order of the Abyssinian governor officially churches were built there, eventually resulting in the story of Abraha and 'Amul-Feel.'
In this way, in Arabia at the time of the rise of Islam, Judaism took the first place, Christianity the second, Zoroastrianism third, Sabeans, who followed a kind of idol worship reaching as far back as the creeds of the time of the Prophet Abraham (a.s.) came fourth and some local faiths followed fifth in place as mentioned in the holy Qur'an. Thus from the viewpoint of religion, the Arabian peninsula of that time was under of influence of multiple faiths.
To get better acquainted with the peculiar conditions prevailing in Mecca, Medina and Ta'if, the three cities closest to the birthplace of Islam, further explanations are in order As already stated, in the second and third centuries A.D. the Qahtani Arabs migrated to various parts of Arabia, and a group of them named Banu Khuza'ah went to Mecca and seized the reins of affairs there however, before the arrival of Banu Khuza'ah group, various Isma'ili tribes of the 'Adnani Arabs had dominated that region, the most important of whom were the Quraish tribe.
Till that time however, this tribe had not assumed the importance it gained later on. When Banu Khuza'ah gained predominance in Mecca and secured control over the affairs of the Ka'aba, a child was born in the house of Quraish named Qussi bin-kalab, whose mother was of Banu Khuza'ah and father from belonged a branch of the Quraish tribe.
As Qussi grew up, he decided to take back from the non-Quraish all the positions which had been taken away from the Quraish family at whatever the cost. This included the custody of the keys and coverings of the holy Ka'aba, positions that were highly esteemed and which position should have been inhabited by his uncle on the mother's side. Qussi's uncle was a drunkard and a libertine.
Qussi as it happened, bought this position from his own uncle for a wine skin and one camel to barbecue and this idiotic deal became proverbial in the history of Arabia, thus the phrase 'Qussi Deal' implying an infamous and a stupid deal. Qussi was a competent youth who gradually came to dominate Mecca completely and took control over all its affairs.
From the time of Qussi bin Kalab onward, although no government had been formed, however a set up in Mecca takes shape as a result of his policies and ideas. According to his views the various tribes of Mecca, especially the branches of the Quraish tribe were involved into creating a central organisation and establishing a relative order in the society.