Unless you understand the circumstances that were present at the time of the Prophet, you can’t understand the impact that he made. Understanding the Arabs help answer the question why the Prophet was sent to these people.
Arab: Basic understanding of this word is that it is something that runs, something that flows. The word ‘Arab’ would refer to clarity of speech. The opposite is a person who when they speak, they babble. An Arab is someone who speaks clearly.
The Arabs believed that their speech was superior because it flowed. The Arabs were very clear in their speech, very articulate in their language. To the extend that they call non-Arab people as ‘A’jam’. The word does not mean that someone that cannot talks, but it means that someone that talks in bables, not clear.
Another meaning from the word ‘arab’ is passionate. Arab is a very passionate people. When they talks, they can be boisterous. That’s why they have a great admiration for hilm, being calm and serene because it is seldom. This meaning also carries element of ‘love’ inside it. That’s why in 56:37, Allah mentions about the nymph in heaven: عُرُبًا أَتْرَابًا. The nymph would be loving and they would be passionate being.
As mentioned, the rootword ‘arab’ means flowing, which can describe streams of water, like river. River has chaos around them. The way the river flows, it could get anywhere, through many different locations. Chaos. This can also be referred the Arabs. They did not a systematic form of economics, government, religion.
Thus, all three elements can be said to be describing the Arabs. Which are: clarity of speech, passionate and chaos.
History of the Arabs
Genealogists divide Arabs into 2 primary groups
a) Ancient Arabs/Perished Arabs – Arabs of Ad and Thamud – Did not remain/not much known about them. If they were not mentioned in the Quran, we wouldn’t know about them.
b) Arabs who came to Arab lands and had remained. Also known as migrated Arabs. They were not originated from Arab, but they had migrated and has become Arabs.
The Prophet comes from the progeny of the Arabized Arabs. This is important to remember.
Arabian peninsula is surrounded by water – that’s why it is called ‘peninsula’. This mean that from a land perspective, they were very internal. It is hard to enter by land. Only one entrance to the Hijaz by land which was through the Syrian desert. So, it was a difficult, severe journey. The environment left the Hijaz very isolated from many outside influences of religion, culture, language. And it was hard to be occupied by the military of the other regions. So the Hijaz was a hotbed of deep cultural tradition, because they are isolated from other influence. A treasure of linguistic nuances, literary nuances.
At the same time, it was a very external, exposed region. Because it is accessible by the sea. Because it was a peninsula, it was a trade route to strategic places. It was an epicentre of trade and business. So, there are two interesting dynamics taking place at the same time where the region was a very internal and very exposed place at the same time. There is a very strategic positioning to the Hijaz.
There are a few regions that bordered the Hijaz. One of them is Yemen. Yemen had been in conflict for a long time between Jews and Christians. Judaism has taken root in Yemen. Nearby Abyssinia was Christian. There has been a lot of fightings for kingship of Yemen.
Whereas, in Iraq, on the southern part was called Hira at that time and had Persian influences. Musyrikin support them and won.
Syria in the north was called Balad al Shaam and was a Christian region. Roman influence.
We’re talking about a time when there was a synchronicity between religion and government. They were influenced by religion. The Arabian peninsula had no central government. Region was ruled by tribal law. Different tribes were constantly at war with one another. Personal conflicts became tribal conflicts. Tribal leadership had certain similarities to kingship. Leadership often passed through families and rulings of tribal leaders were not questioned.
If belonged to a demographic that if you do not have affiliation to tribal leaders, you had a difficult life and did not have many rights.
So, that time it was a Chaotic region, it had no governance. Arabs belonging to other regions, bordering other empires were seen as inferior to larger empires. They are second and third class citizens. But in the Hijaz, though things were chaotic, the Arabs had a lot of dignity and honour. They lived in freedom and autonomy. They were the envy of the Arabs who borders the other regions.
Leaders were held in great esteem. They were also seen as religious leaders. Leader of the the tribe of Quraysh for instance, made rulings, made decisions that were final, but was also seen as the custodian of the Sacred Sanctuaries. Tribes would fight to get these rights. Would fight about who would get to serve water to pilgrims.
Arabian society was a mix of different things.
Negative features: There was a lack of fair equal treatment of society. Slavery was prevalent at the time and slaves were treated in inhuman ways. Worst than animals. Two different dynamics existed when it came to the status of women. Women in certain social circles were treated very badly, treated like commodities/property. But in another segment of society, the elite in society, women of a high status were held in great esteem. Women in elite families held money and land. Khadijah, the wife of the prophet is one example. We already know she was a wealthy woman and well respected in that society.
So we have two opposite extremes. Slaves had horrible status and women had 2 different experiences.
If you committed wrong to someone of higher status, would probably be killed for it. If you committed wrong to someone of lesser status, you would likely get away with it.
For a segment of society, family, marriage was held very sacred. A man would propose to marry a woman and he would take care of her and his family. But not true for everyone. Because there are four types of relationships. Relationships outside of marriage existed. It was somehow expected and assumed to happened. A woman might have relationship with more than one man. A woman might also be able to marry more than one man.
Family relations and tribe were considered deep and sacred. They were maintained and kept. This is siraturrahim. Even existed pre-Islamic.
Trade and business with outside regions were the primary way of making a living. Some farming existed, but the area had limited natural resources.
Because of tribal instability, economics would often suffer. And because of economic, they have wars. Vicious cycle between political and economic instability. There was a lot of warfare. Poverty and hunger were common trends in pre-Islamic Arabia. Same thing with third world today.
No middle class. You were either very wealthy or very poor. The poor predominately made up society.
Hospitality was an important ethic and value. Hospitality was a big deal then because the moment you travelled you were instantly a guest. There were no hotels, no grocery stores, no restaurants. You were dependent on people’s goodwill. In the pursuit of hospitality, Arabs would sometimes harm and jeopardize their own Family so that they can satisfy their guests. They would go to extreme and to a fault. Meaning they do bad things to do a good thing. They sometimes offered their women to their guests. Offered liquor.
Sanctity of a person’s word. The Arabs were people of their word. They had no government, and so people’s word was very important. Honour was considered very sacred. Once someone had given their word they would do anything to keep it. They are not rich, so they only their words to rely on. That’s the only thing they have.
They had a strong sense of honour and conceptually were opposed to injustice, even though injustice was rampant. We see this in the Hilf ul fudul. This was when the people signed a treaty promising to defend the honor of those oppressed. The prophet signed this treaty and he said, even though after Islam, he would sign again it if he is asked. Because it
Simplicity was important. Because they don’t have much. Though there was extravagance at the elite level, there was still a lot of simplicity at normal people. A leader can sit amongst people, would sacrifice his own animals, cook and serve his people and they are okay with it.
Were largely illiterate.
There’s not even 20 literate people at the time of the birth of the Prophet,
Arabs placed great premium on knowledge, but they had an oral tradition.
Partly they were illiterate because they had great memories and an oral tradition. Because of oral tradition, they never felt the urgency for literacy. So it’s a vicious circle.
Genealogy was an expertise for the Arabs. Would memorise genealogies. A child of 4 years would memorize his genealogy that goes back 20 generations. They would even have and know genealogies for horses. That’s how deep they are into genealogy.
They are very into poetry. They would have competitions amongst the poets. They would stop war to have this event. They would hang the winning poetry on Kaabah and crowned the winner as the king of poet that year.