Women in the Jahiliyyah (Pre-Islamic Arabia)

Women in the Jahiliyyah (Pre-Islamic Arabia)

(above image : Depiction of the costumes of Arab women in the 4th-6th centuries. Under the customary tribal law existing in Arabia before the rise of Islam, as a general rule women had virtually no legal status; fathers sold their daughters into marriage for a price, the husband could terminate the union at will, and women had little or no property or succession rights.)

By Amina Abdullah Abu Shehab 

The time of the jahiliyyah is very important to Islamic thinking with regard to the position of women, as old Islamic sources (and contemporary ones) tend to compare their position in Islam with that of the jahiliyyah period. What is known about women in the pre-Islamic period is recorded in classic Arabic poetry and in other ancient literary forms of expression, such as narratives, which were recorded in the Islamic era. Principally, however, considerable data exists in the Quran and the hadiths. By means of the Quranic social and legal laws regarding women and the family, one can conclude the former absence of any legal status for women and their vulnerable social situation. The Quran describes the agony of the Arab fathers upon the birth of a baby girl (Q.16:59).

Three other passages (81, 17, 6) record the practice of the infanticide of female children. The Quran condemns the cruelty of Arab fathers who buried alive their young daughters for fear of poverty and out of concern for the pollution of their honour. The killing of baby girls became not only a sign of barbarity and ill judgment, as the Quran demonstrates, but a crime against God Himself. From the verses that are concerned with the reformation of women’s circumstances in marriage we learn that women were sold into marriage by their wali (guardians) for mahr, an amount of money paid to the wali by the suitor. Women were, thereby, purchased and made the husband’s exclusive property. When the husband died the widow became part of the inheritance. The dead person’s son, taking advantage of the privileges of the mahr paid by the dead person, claimed the widow and he either married her or passed his rights over her to other relatives who could then marry her in his place (Q.4:19, 22). Islamic legislation not only put an end to the practice of women being inherited but women as daughters, mothers, and wives were given the right to inherit. ‘Unto the men (of a family) belongeth a share of that which parents and near kindred leave, and unto the women a share of that which parents and near kindred leave, whether it be little or much, a legal share’ (Q.4:35). So women were entitled to have succession rights and to share with men in their fortunes, in addition to the right to hold and manage their own property, including the mahr which became their property and not that of the father or the husband. With regard to marriage, the consent of the woman was a precondition for the validity of the marriage. Therefore, marriage became a contract between husband and wife, whereas in pre-Islamic times it was a contract between husband and guardian, with the wife as the sale object. Concerning the termination of marriage, in the jahiliyyah period, it was entirely up to the husband, who, having purchased his wife, could get rid of her at will by a pronouncement of the formula of dismissal. In Islam, the husband’s power to terminate the marriage bond immediately and at will is restricted by the introduction of (idda) a three months’ waiting period and a fixed financial compensation. Further, the Islamic sources affirm that there was no limit to the number of wives a man could have. Islam limited the number of wives that a husband could be married to at a time to four (Q.4:3).

By emphasizing the degrading situation of women in the jahiliyyah period, the traditional Islamic sources present Islam as a compelling force of emancipation that radically modified the tribal customs of jahiliyyah by the introduction of concrete Quranic provisions in the interest of women. Islam is claimed to have elevated the position of women from that of a chattel to an independent individual and member of the ummah with inalienable rights and duties that are written in the Quran. In the hadith, Omar Ibn Al-^&ttab, the powerful companion of the Prophet who became the second caliph, is reported to have said about the attitude of Arab men towards women:’By God, we used not to pay attention to women in jahiliyyah until God said about them in the Quran what is said, and gave them their share in matters (Bukhari). Medina witnessed a contest between Muslims and neighbouring Jewish tribes who were reported by Islamic sources to have practiced the isolation of menstruous women: it was narrated by Anas Ibn Malek: ‘The Jewish men did not eat nor socialize with their menstruating women. The Prophet was asked by his companions to give his view. He said:’Do everything with your women except for the sexual intercourse. When the Jews heard about what the Prophet said they commented: This man likes to oppose us in everything’ (Nasa’i). The concept of the impurity of women and the idea of the opposition of the sexes on the basis of impurity is absent in the Islamic holy texts. The Islamic concept of pollution is not gendered, in that it involves the body’s functions of elimination and excretion. Hence, what emerges from the human body in the form of gas, urine, fecal matter, menstrual blood, sperm, blood, and pus cause men and women to lose their original purity and become unable to perform the rituals of worship, unless carrying out the process of taharah ( purificatory) rituals.

Moreover, in contrast to the idea held by ‘the people of the Book’, the Quran presents a different picture of Eve: a woman who did not tempt Adam to eat from the forbidden tree. In the Old and the New Testaments, Eve is the temptress and seductress of Adam. She holds responsibility for their expulsion from Paradise. God cursed her for her transgression. The people of the Book read in their holy scriptures:

’I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow, thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee (Genesis 3:16, quoted by Stowasser, 1984).

St Paul states:

‘Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. Notwithstanding, she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety (The First Epistle to Timothy, chapter 2, quoted by Stowasser, 1984).

The Quranic version of the question of transgression and consequent expulsion from Paradise is told in chapter 7 of the Quran:

Allah said to Adam: Dwell thou and thy wife in the garden and eat therefrom wherever you wish, but approach not this one tree lest you become wrongdoers. But Satan tempted them so that he might make known to them that which was hidden from them of their nakedness, and said to them: Your Lord has forbidden you this tree only lest you should become angels or should live for ever. He assured them with oaths: Surely, I am your sincere counsellor. Thus he brought about their fall by deceit, when they tasted of the tree their nakedness became manifest to them and they started covering themselves with the leaves of the garden. Their Lord called out to them: Did I not forbid you that tree and say to you: Satan is surely your declared enemy? They pleaded: Our Lord we have wronged ourselves, and if Thou forgive us not and have not mercy on us, we shall surely be of the lost. Allah said: Go forth, some of you will be enemies of others.

The myth as narrated in the above verses does not portray Eve as the temptress and seductress of Adam. In the Quran Adam’s female partner, like Adam himself, is generally portrayed as the victim of Satanic wiles, and like him, shares fully in the consequences of her own submission to temptation. Moreover, all three Quranic passages which narrate the myth state that Adam and Eve were created from a single soul. The Quran does not indicate any problem or defect with the original mother of humanity in terms of her physical or mental nature.

The Quranic provisions concerning women’s moral conduct, in particular, with regard to chastity and purity, played a significant role in the overall argument about Islam’s elevation of the position of women over that of the jahiliyyah period. There is a firm conception that Islam (karram al-mar’ah) conferred honour and high rank upon women, by terminating the practices of jahiliyyah in which femininity was abused and exploited for immoral ends. In the Quran, the jahiliyyah is characterized by moral anarchy, to which women were closely connected: women’s beauty was used for display (Q.33:33), some women practiced unlawful sexual relations, and they were forced to engage in prostitution (Q.4:33). Aishah, the knowledgeable wife of the Prophet, is reported in all hadith collections as saying the following about forms of promiscuity in jahiliyyah:

The first of these sexual unions is like the marriage of today, where a man betroths his ward or his daughter to another man, and the latter assigns a bridewealth to her and then marries her. Another type was where a man said to his wife when she was purified from her menses, send to N. and ask to have intercourse with him; her husband then stays away from her and does not touch her at all until it is clear that she is pregnant from that (other) man with whom she sought intercourse. When it is clear that she is pregnant, her husband has intercourse with her if he wants. He acts thus simply from the desire for a noble child. This type of marriage was (known as) nikah al-istibda\ the marriage of seeking intercourse. Another type was where a group (raht) of less than ten used to visit the same woman and all of them to have intercourse with her. If she became pregnant and bore a child, when some nights had passed after the birth she sent for them, and not a man of them might refuse. When they had come together in her presence, she would say to them, ‘You (pi.) know the result of your acts; I have borne a child and he is your (sing.) child, N.’ – naming whoever she will by his name. Her child is attached to him, and the man may not refuse. The fourth type is where many men frequent a woman, and she does not keep herself from any who comes to her. These women are the baghaya (prostitutes). They used to set up at their doors banners forming a sign. Whoever wanted them went in to them. If one of them conceived and bore a child, they gathered together to her and summoned the physiognomists. Then they attached her child to the man whom they thought (the father), and the child remained attached to him and was called his son, no objection to this course being possible. When Muhammad God bless and preserve him came preaching the truth, he destroyed all the types of marriage of the jahiliyyah except that which people practise today


So, in contrast to the irregular morality of jahiliyyah, ideal womanhood in Islam is connected with chastity, fidelity and virtue: Muslim women became the embodiment of the morality of the community as their honour was enhanced by putting an end to immoral sexual practices and by enacting laws fortifying marriage and motherhood, and also the rules of modesty that were concerned with coverage, and with women’s movement in the public space. The general picture that is to be concluded from the Islamic sources is that Islam rescued women from the abyss of jahiliyyah.

It is worth noting that the period of jahiliyyah which is described in the Islamic sources as a time of total anarchy is represented in modern academic literature as a period of radical and profound transformation in the kinship systems. One of the earliest anthropological analyses of the kinship and marriage system in Arabia (and of anywhere in the world) is given in the work of the British anthropologist W. Robertson Smith, first published in 1855. Smith’s book is an ideal example of the dominant trend in the discipline of social anthropology in the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. At that time Darwinism had a strong impact on the social sciences. Human societies were thought to resemble biology in terms of the laws of evolution. Robertson Smith adhered to the evolutionism of his time, where it was supposed that matriliny preceded patriliny. Therefore, an attempt is made in the book to reconstruct a matriarchal past in Arabia where the sixth and seventh centuries are considered to be a transitional period with two kinds of kinship system. This was done on the basis of what was recorded in the jahiliyyah’s poetry and what was written by early Muslim scholars.

The matrilineal model of the jahiliyyah constructed by Robertson Smith supposed an overall picture of the dominance of the mother’s group as the source of the alignment of individuals. The evidence advanced is that many famous Arab tribes and individuals were known as sons of females. The property was held communally by the matrilineal group and was controlled by the women’s uterine brothers or her mother’s brothers. The marriage was uxorilocal and husbands visited wives. In his view, in the period of the sixth and seventh centuries there existed two kinds of marriage systems conflicting with each other: a matrilineal marriage which the Arabs used to call sadic marriage and a patrilineal marriage which was called ba’al, or dominion marriage. In sadica marriage the children belong to the woman’s tribe and the woman retained the right to dismiss the husband. The ba’al marriage was characterised by the attribution of the offspring to the father and by the husband being the ‘lord’ of the wife.

Several works dealing with the position of women in Islam are shaped by the notion of Arabia’s matriarchal past and of the transformation supposed to have taken place towards patriarchy one century before Islam.  The Ka’ba, which is associated in Islam with God and Abraham and hence became a patriarchal site, was a polytheistic pantheon prominent in which were the Triple Goddesses worshipped by pagan Arabs. ‘Islam fulfills the patriarchal mission in removing all trace from its own community of the connection between woman and the Divine’ (1983:41). Austin emphasizes that the positive attitude of Islam towards women in terms of the spiritual equality and privileges and rights not enjoyed by Christian women until the 19th century is inspired by an archetype of ideal womanhood, in particular the maternal aspect.  In this context, several scholars connect important Islamic concepts with the matriarchal past. The most important of these relics is the ummah. The root of the term is umm (mother). In addition, the term for kinship in the Quran is Rahim, which properly means womb. In general, then, Islam is seen to accelerate the passage from the matriarchal age and to represent the ideology of the patriarchal system.

One has to point out that the assumptions regarding the pre-Islamic matriarchal past contain, of course, a fundamental weakness as they were primarily founded on guesswork. There is no reason to infer that the Arabs reckoned descent in the female line before they reckoned it in the male line. The indication which is presented as evidence of the shift from matriliny to patriliny are in many ways consistent with agnatic systems observed today. For example, it is not rare amongst present Arab tribes to take female names. In addition, as the anthropological observations show, there is no correlation between the matriliny and women’s high status and also no correlations between women’s sexual freedom and their being goddesses and social, economic and political power.


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