British-American historian Bernard Lewis said: “He [Muhammad (PBUH)] had achieved a great deal. To the pagan peoples of western Arabia, he had brought a new religion. With its monotheism and its ethical doctrines, it stood on an incomparably higher level than the paganism it replaced.” Jahiliyyah was rampant in pre-Islamic Arabia. Jahiliyyah or Jahiliyat refers to the age of ignorance. Islam brought about an immense change to the way of life of the Arabs. Islam was a blessing from Allah that changed the lives of the Arabs.
Allah refers to Jahiliyyah in the Holy Quran. Allah mentions this Arabic word a few times. He referred to it in surahs aal-Imran, al-Ma’idah, al-Ahzab, and al-Fath. This term usually refers to some barbaric practices during the pre-Islamic period. However, people also use it to refer to general practices such as idol worship. Islam brought about change in the lives of women, children, the poor, etc. The Prophet (PBUH) and Islam had a beneficial impact on society in several ways.
The reason why Islam was able to do all this is that it was not merely about theology. Islam is not limited to the concept of worship. Instead, the idea of God and religion is supposed to be ingrained in all parts of society. Islam is a complete way of life. Humanity needs guidance, and Islam provided that. Allah’s guidance and instructions were the catalysts for Arabia’s turnaround from Jahiliyyah.
Jahiliyyah, infanticide, and women’s rights
The way Islam dealt with the status of women is possibly the most significant societal change in Arabia. In the pre-Islamic age, infanticide was common. The Arabs yearned for sons. Hence, daughters were considered burdens. They were unwanted, and therefore, they were often killed soon after birth. Usually, this was via being buried alive. Allah says in the powerful Surah at-Takwir: “And when the girl [who was] buried alive is asked for what sin she was killed…”
People valued women less as members of the community in general. Women had few rights. They were simply there for men to use as they wished. They had few, if any, rights relating to marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc. Only the women of high social status had more rights and were on a more proper footing. Men could marry and divorce as they wished. Women usually did not have any inheritance rights. They rarely received much formal education. Similarly, they were rarely contributing members of society from an economic viewpoint.
Islam completely forbids any form of infanticide. Allah condemns the concept of wishing for sons rather than daughters. The Prophet (PBUH) put heavy emphasis on raising daughters well. He said that parents who properly raise three daughters would receive a great reward. Islam made marriage into a proper institution. It emphasized the importance of dowry and set limits for the number of wives. Allah also clearly defined inheritance laws in the Quran. He allocated a certain portion of inheritances for female heirs. Women were also allowed to take part in social affairs. The second caliph, Umar (r.a.), involved women in leadership positions in the marketplace and sought their advice.
The Islamic view on slavery
During Jahiliyyah, it was common for people to have slaves. The disbelievers considered slaves as sub-humans and afforded them little to no rights. They treated them like cattle. Their only objective was to be served by the slaves. They did not view them as human beings who had certain rights. The owners had complete ownership of them. If a slave had a child, that child would also be a slave. Masters would even prostitute female slaves for monetary benefit
Slavery was so deeply entrenched into the society that abolishing it entirely was a difficult task. However, Islam focused on uplifting their lives. Islam urged kindness toward them. The Prophet (PBUH) emphasized that they were human beings who deserved to be treated as such. At the same time, Allah discusses freeing slaves in the Quran. This was a very noble act. It also served as an expiation for sins. Hence, Islam helped to turn around the lives of slaves in Arabia completely.
Some slaves were among the earliest people to accept Islam after Jahiliyyah. Some of them did so in private. Among them were the likes of Sumayyah and Bilal (r.a.). Sumayyah went on to become the first martyr in Islam. Abu Jahl killed her after she failed to renounce Islam. Bilal is famous in Islam for being the muezzin of the Muslims. Earlier, a tyrant had enslaved him. The tyrant, furious with Bilal for accepting Islam, tortured him. Eventually, Abu Bakr (r.a.) took pity on Bilal and freed him.
Abu Bakr was one of the companions of the Prophet (PBUH), who freed several slaves. He sacrificed much of his wealth, paying exorbitant amounts to the slave owners. However, as with any wealth spent in the way of Allah, that only raised his status.
The Arab community after Jahiliyyah
Islam put immense emphasis on the importance of family. The family system revolves around a stable society. A healthy society is built on justice and the rule of law. All of these things were missing in pre-Islamic Arabia. Theft, adultery, usury, murder, and all types of crimes were prevalent. Besides that, of course, the Arabs worshiped idols. They worshiped something that couldn’t help or harm them.
Once the Prophet (PBUH) shifted to Madinah and set up an Islamic state, the real revolution began. Allah revealed the laws for the state. He defined the Sharia for Muslims. Islam defined strict punishment for crimes. Muslims were to give importance to education to ensure equilibrium in the community.
Besides laws, Allah also emphasized the importance of endorsing good and forbidding evil. This promotes good habits in the community. Similarly, evil habits are to be discouraged. The Prophet (PBUH) was a reformer. He condemned all evil practices. The reform affected all levels of society. Muslims had to adjust to a completely new system. They abolished the past systems of Jahiliyyah.
Once Islam spread, the Sharia spread to all parts of Arabia. This helped to ensure that the word of Allah reached all corners of the land. Soon, Islam prevailed over Arabia, and Muslims populated most of Arabia.
Reform wasn’t limited to society. The Muslim leadership had a completely different role than the past leaders of Jahiliyyah. They had to dispense justice. Alongside that, they had to ensure the social welfare of the Muslims. With charity, taxes, etc., they had to ensure that no one slept hungry. In an ideal Muslim state, no people should starve or undergo immense hardship no matter what.
The Ummah and morality
During Jahiliyyah, the people of Arabia were fractured. They had lots of differences and problems with each other. Fighting among them was very common. Additionally, they did not adhere to any proper morals. Instead, they behaved as they wished to. Islam changed Arabia immensely from this perspective.
Islam introduced the concept of the Ummah. That the Muslims were all brothers to each other. Islam united tribes from all over Arabia under one banner. They gave up all their prejudices against each other. They stopped opposing one another. Indeed, they all fought together against enemies as well. Islam based the brotherhood of the Ummah on faith and ideas. This also opened the path to leadership for everyone. It was not only the elite who could be rulers. A person’s social standing did not affect their chances of becoming a leader.
Besides that, Islam completely changed their way of living. The Arabs gave up habits such as drinking, fornicating, etc. Allah commanded the Muslims to worship Him and to give up all negative traits. This was a key requirement for Muslims. Indeed, the closest companions of the Prophet (PBUH) were among the best humans to live on Earth. Others also mostly complied with Islamic laws.
Most historians and students of history agree that Islam changed Arabia immensely. Many changes took place during the rule of Muhammad (PBUH) and the four caliphs. It is notably the concept of social welfare that has brought admirers from all over the world. Allah puts great emphasis on the needy, and that resonates with people of all types. Jahiliyyah was an era of immense darkness and depravity. Islam was akin to light in the dark time and changed the course of the Arabs and the world.