Islam, the second most followed religion in the world, is one of the religions of monotheistic Abrahamic faith. The religion that started with a forty-year-old Arab named Muhammad ibn Abdullah claiming that a Wahy (divine revelation) has been revealed to him by Jibraeil (Gabriel in Biblical references) in the first half of 7th century CE. Later, Islam as a religion, spread throughout the globe being at the centre of power in mighty regimes of Abbasids in Iraq, Ottomans in Asia Minor and Sultans and Mughal emperors in the subcontinent. Here, we shall discuss the significance of Islam as an ideology that brought social and political changes in the society that existed in the Hejaz before Muhammad’s declaration of prophethood.
Noted economist and Nobel Prize laureate Prof. Amartya Sen asserts in his works that to determine the change of some particular set of principles brought to a society, comparative approach to justice should be applied. This implies that the present status of society might be compared with its initial position to figure out how just or unjust it has become. To apply this method to the Arabian context we must analyse the lifestyle of Arab tribes before the spread of Islam.
The pre-Islamic Arabia was inhabited by Bedouin tribes who, probably, migrated to the plateau from the North African region. The different tribes of Bedouin settlements engaged in constant conflicts amongst themselves. The society was controlled by unwritten patriarchal and biased rules that were amended by tribal leaders for their own convenience. Lawlessness was the only law in the land of Arabia, the tribe with comparatively greater manpower and wealth dominated the whole settlement. Likewise, Mecca, where Muhammad was born, was controlled by the leaders of Quraysh tribe. In the words of French historian Maxime Rodinson, “blood for blood and life for life was the only rule of Bedouin society.”
Elitism was one of the foremost social evils that existed in the Bedouin Arab society. Wealthier households or individuals enjoyed distinguished positions and were entitled to make rules for the so called lower class citizens even arbitrarily. One of the very first objections that were raised on Muhammad was based on the argument that if God had to nominate a human as its messenger than why was it an orphan with comparatively poorer background while there were many aristocrats who inhabited Mecca at that time. So, depicting Muhammad as the leader, Islam opened its first front against the common perception that considered power to be the scale of superiority.
Discrimination on the basis of skin colour was also prevalent when Muhammad declared himself to be the messenger of God. Black men and women were bought and sold for slavery with almost no rights and were believed to be liable to suffer inhumane treatment. One of such slaves was Bilal ibn Rabah who accepted Islam in its very initial days, and after taking control of Mecca, Muhammad asked Bilal to deliver the first ever Adhaan (calling people to prayer), now those who once considered Bilal inferior had to follow his call after accepting Islam. In his later life Bilal served the Islamic state at many prominent positions. In Islamic law slavery is not abolished altogether but slaves are empowered with some specific rights that their masters are bound to provide them.
Islam has always been subjected to criticism because of its “biased” inclination towards men. The reasons for this are, firstly, lack of explanation from an Islamic point of view and secondly, misinterpretation of Islamic laws by clerics, who are majoritarily men, for their personal interest. The Bedouin society was no less than hell for a woman. Alongside other patriarchal principles, like inheritance being valid only for male offsprings, female infanticide was also extensively common in Arab. A grave was dug even before the child was born and its gender decided whether it would live or be buried alive. The tribal society had some reasons to justify this act – a woman was considered to be an economic burden for their inabilities in being used in conflicts and business, and there was also a tradition to cease women of the opponent tribe as hostages after a conflict by the dominant tribe which was looked at as dishonour by the submissive tribe.
Another provision in Islamic law that is often termed as anti-femininist is polygamy, but in pre-Islamic Arabia there was no fixed number of marriages for men. Something more humiliating was wives being passed as inheritance like any other non living thing, i.e., land and wealth. A son was allowed to marry wives of his dead father except his own mother. On the other hand Islam had introduced a written code to administer the rights of both husband and wife in a marriage, it specified whom one can marry and fixed the number of marriages to four wives at a time.
Apart from these social reforms, Islam also initiated some political and economic reforms. After taking over the control of the Hejaz, Muhammad laid the foundation of a unitary state with a written set of laws. After his death, the Islamic empire was controlled by the Caliph who was described as the custodian of the state treasury and not its owner. Caliphs (or governors at provincial level) were responsible to distribute state wealth amongst citizens as per their share, and can be held accountable for any failure in doing so. Muhammad and other administrators in the rule of Rashidun caliphs lived a simple life as a gesture of social justice. Islamic law also introduced regulations to be followed by army men during a war and the rights of prisoners.
Conclusively, even they who do not believe in the concept of God in Islam and deny Muhammad’s prophethood will have to agree that through his ideology and strong stand against social evils and against anarchy, he tried to establish a just and politically stable system. In his lifetime he was subjected to numberless hardships yet he never tried to avenge, even when in power. Nothing got between his patience and determination for this greater cause of reforming the society.
Syed Mohammad Ali is a student pursuing Economics from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Edited by: Farzan Ghani