Challenges posed by the Prophet (saw) to the jahiliyyah society of Makkah

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Rajab 14, 1422 2001-10-01


by Zafar Bangash (Features, Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 15, Rajab, 1422)

Last month the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT) convened an International Seerah Conference in Pretoria, South Africa (September 21-23, 2001). In this issue, we publish an extract from the Keynote Paper, The Seerah as a model for the total transformation of society, by ICIT Director ZAFAR BANGASH.

The ideological challenge

Clashes occur within or between societies when ideological differences emerge. The pre-Islamic Makkan society was based on idol-worship; into this environment was introduced the message of tawheed, the Oneness of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala, embodied in the kalimah. Naturally, the Makkans saw this as a direct challenge to the prevalent system. As Syed Qutb so perceptively observed in his book Milestones, the Prophet neither attempted to mobilize people on the basis of class or economic divisions, nor along tribal lines. Given the immense economic disparity in which a small tyrannical class dominated society and imposed its will on the majority who were poor, the Prophet could easily have aroused the down-trodden in the name of social and economic justice and risen to power in Makkah, but he did not do so. Neither did he mobilize his own clan, the Banu Hashim, which enjoyed immense prestige in Makkah, to rally around him. Had he done so, the Prophet would have saved himself the wrath of people like Abu Lahab, Abu Jahl and Abu Sufyan, who were three of his most implacable foes.

He also did not appeal to people on the basis of Arab nationalism to confront the Persian and Roman empires which dominated the southern and northern regions of the Arabian Peninsula respectively. It would have appealed to the Arabs’ sense of pride if the Prophet had issued a call to rid the Peninsula of alien powers. Yet it was not part of the divine scheme to fight the Roman and Persian taghoots by replacing them with Arab taghoot, even if the Prophet planned to make the people submit to Islam later. This reflects an important principle of Islam: it is not permissible to use wrong means even to achieve noble ends. All these motives would have proved potent weapons in the hands of the Prophet to mobilize people. Once he had acquired power, he could have used his enormous prestige and authority to guide them to submit to the one God, Allah, but he did not do so. Rather, Allah did not want him to adopt such means. Instead, the more difficult but universal approach of proclaiming the kalimah was adopted to challenge the dominant ideology in society. This meant facing the wrath of the vested interests in Makkah and indeed the whole of the Arabian Peninsula, but there was no compromise on principles.

Islam’s ideological challenge was not confined to the mushrikeen alone; even those who became Muslims were not automatically cleansed of all their jahili characteristics. One was their attachment to the Ka’aba, which was based more on cultural rather than Islamic reasons. Thus Allah designated Masjid al-Aqsa as the Muslims’ first qibla to break their cultural attachment rooted in tribal customs and traditions. When the Ka’aba was restored as the qibla, the Qur’an made it clear that it was also meant to test and determine those who truly obeyed and followed the Prophet rather than their customs and traditions (2:143). The function of the ideological challenge is thus to sharpen rather than blur divisions and contradictions in society, especially pertaining to faith, so that people are able to distinguish between right and wrong. Islam does not compromise with ideologies opposed to the divine order, whether they are based on nationalism, tribalism or family and class interests. This is a lesson unfortunately lost on many Muslims today.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that today Muslim societies are not only ruled by alien ideologies but also deeply penetrated, and in some cases controlled, by the kuffar. Whenever and wherever the Islamic movement embarks on the process of restoring Islamic values in society, the real opposition will come from the kuffar. According to Syed Qutb, the Muslim world today cannot be considered dar al-Islam (abode of Islam) because it is not govemed by the Shari ‘ah, but as part of dar al-harb, or the state of jahiliyyah. Syed Qutb’s understanding is of course based on the well-known hadith of the noble Prophet which says that one must either live in the Islamic state or strive to establish one, otherwise one dies a death of jahiliyyah.

The social challenge

After the ideological challenge, the issue that most irked the Makkan aristocracy was the Prophet’s rejection of the established social order in society. The principle of equality of all human beings regardless of birth, tribe, wealth or colour was viewed with alarm by the Quraish. They had created a hierarchy based on wealth and power; the leading figures used to congregate in Dar an-Nadwa, the council chamber of the Makkan elite, to discuss issues affecting them. Dar an-Nadwa was established by Qusay, the great-grandfather of the Prophet (saw), who had united all the tribes of Makkah and was proclaimed as their leader. Naturally, the call in which the poor, the slaves and women were given equal voice and rights was seen as a threat to the privileged classes. But that is precisely the function of the social challenge; it creates a breach in the ranks of the established order. The Makkan chiefs were not going to tolerate this.

While the majority of those who accepted Islam in its early days were the young and downtrodden, there were also several who belonged to powerful Makkan families. The Prophet’s own family was divided: his cousins Ali and Ja’far accepted Islam but their brother Aqeel ibn Abi Talib did not do so until much later; his uncle Hamza became a Muslim in the sixth year while Abbas was initially lukewarm until he accepted Islam after the battle of Badr. Among his uncles, Abu Lahab was openly hostile and did everything to disrupt the mission of the Prophet. Abu Talib stood by him until he died, although tribal pride prevented him from declaring the shahadah publicly. Abu Sufyan’s daughter Um Habiba had also entered the fold of Islam, as had Abu Hudhaifa, the son of Utba ibn Rabi’a who together with Abu Jahl led the Quraish army in Badr. Abu Sufyan’s wife Hind was the daughter of Utba ibn Rabi’a. Then there was Uthman ibn Affan, a youth from the Umayyad clan, also related to Abu Sufyan. Mus’ayb ibn ‘Umair was the scion of a rich and powerful family, but repudiated family wealth for the sake of Islam. It is reported that before Islam he was well-known for wearing expensive clothes in Makkah. The Quraish chiefs saw their own children rejecting the comforts of life they had worked so hard to provide them by becoming Muslims.

The matter of slaves was even more irritating for the Quraish. Sumayya, her husband Yasir and son Ammar were mercilessly tortured for embracing Islam, as were Lubina, Nahdiyya, Zanira and Um Ubais, all slave-girls. Bilal and Khabbab ibn al-Aratt, too, suffered the same fate. Sumayya, of advanced age, was tortured to death, becoming the first martyr of Islam. The Prophet’s proclamation that upon uttering the shahadah no difference remained between the slave and his or her master was something the prejudiced minds of the Makkan aristocracy could not accept. Despite subjecting them to much persecution, the Muslims remained steadfast. In fact, it helped create greater awareness and brought them closer to each other.

It is interesting to note that the Prophet did not use the platform of Dar an-Nadwa to propagate the message of Islam even though he approached members of the Makkan aristocracy individually. Instead, the Muslims used to gather in Dar al-Arqam, a house belonging to one of the companions. This was a clear rejection of the jahili system and laid down the principle that its institutions cannot be used to advance the cause of Islam. Muslims struggling to transform their societies today need to bear this in mind; the ruling systems in Muslim societies have little or nothing to do with Islam even if they are run by Muslims. This is a point not clearly understood by many Muslims, including some leaders of the Islamic movement.

Again, Islam’s social challenge was not confined to the established order in Makkah alone. Even those who became Muslims still carried the germs of jahiliyyah based on the false notion of superiority based on birth or tribal affiliation, described as “the jahili spirit” by Malek Bennabi (Malek Bennabi: Islam in History and Society, Kuala Lumpur, 1991). These resurfaced immediately after the period of the Khulafa ar-Rashidoon, with devastating consequences for the Ummah. As the Muslim political and social personality was being constructed, it had to be cleansed of the jahili spirit simultaneously. In Makkah all Muslims were oppressed, so their common experience united them; in Madinah, the Muhajiroon were destitute and outsiders. The brotherhood established between the Ansar and the Muhajiroon laid the foundations of a socially-balanced community in which everyone shared with others according to their capacity. Equally dramatic was the marriage of Zaynab, the Prophet’ s cousin belonging to the cream of the Banu Hashim clan, to Zayd ibn Haritha, the freed slave and adopted son of the Prophet. Social taboos were broken by dramatic action in which the Prophet himself took the lead. Similarly, the Prophet’ s appointment of Zayd ibn Haritha as commander of the army for the Muwata expedition in 8 AH was designed to wipe out any remaining traces of jahiliyyah, such as superiority based on class or birth; he was martyred in this campaign. Serving under him were the Prophet’s own cousin, Ja’far ibn Abi Talib, as well as Khalid ibn Walid, an outstanding soldier and strategist. In the tenth year, Zayd’s son Usama, barely 18 years old then, was appointed commander of the Muslim army; again, many leading companions served under him. All these moves by the Prophet, and after him by his companions, were designed to shake off any lingering traces of jahiliyyah based on birth or tribal superiority. Such traits are present in those not properly grounded in Islamic teachings, and were the reason for the murmuring protest, at the time of the liberation of Makkah, by the newly-converted Makkan chiefs when the Prophet asked Bilal to climb atop the Ka’aba to give the adhan. They felt that one of them should have been chosen for this honour instead of a former slave! The Qur’an identifies taqwa as the only basis for achieving closeness to Allah (49:13). It was the elimination of such artificial barriers that led to the creation of a community truly attuned to the message of Allah.

The economic challenge

We must now turn our attention to the economic challenge. Had Islam been just another religion that did not threaten the vested interests of the mushrikeen, there would probably have been little opposition to it. After all, there were Christians living in and around Makkah; some even from among the Quraish, such as Waraqa ibn Nawfal, had accepted Christianity. Then there was a large concentration of Christians in Najran. The Makkan aristocracy had no problem with them; nor did they have any problems dealing and trading with the Jews in Madinah. So it was not religion per se that the mushrikeen in Makkah objected to; rather, their primary concern was with Islam as a value system which challenged the very foundations upon which their priveleges and economic prosperity were built.

The mushrikeen realized that if Islam gained a foothold, they would lose their privileges. Similarly, the Prophet’s condemnation of idol-worship alarmed them because their economic well-being was directly linked to it. The most important trade fairs in the Arabian Peninsula were held in and around Makkah, at the time of Hajj. In addition to the trade fair at Dhumatul Jandal near the Syrian border, which lasted for the entire month of Rabi al- Awwal, other fairs were held at Ukaz, Dhul Majaz (between Ukaz and Makkah)and Min. Fairs were held throughout the year but the one at Ukaz was the largest and was attended by the Quraish, Hawazin, Ghatafan, Aslam, Ahabish, Adl, ad-Dish, al-Haya and al-Mustaliq tribes. The Quraish benefited from these greatly both in trade as well as due to pilgrimage. As it turned out, Islam neither banned the trade fairs nor prevented people from performing the pilgrimage, but it shifted the focus in which the privileges of the Makkan aristocracy were curtailed and replaced by the egalitarian values of Islam. The Quraish, however, were bound to be affected both economically as well as politically once they lost their privileges based on injustice and exploitation.

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