By the time Muhammad died in 632 BC he had had a huge impact on large areas of the Middle East and had left a legacy which would change the world forever. By examining the society and culture of the Arabic peoples before and after the advent of Islam we can identify significant changes as well as interesting continuities.
The Traditional Muslim View of Pre-Islam
Traditional Muslim historians perceive a drastic and abrupt change between the Middle East before Islam and the Middle East with it. The period before the introduction of Islam, known as the Jahiliyya, is seen as one of paganism, chaos, disorder and spiritual ignorance. In contrast the Middle East after Muhammad is seen as civilized, cultured, ordered and monotheistic.
This perception of a wholesale change of society ties into the Islamic belief that the three generations of Muslims to follow Muhammad were the best and purest Muslims to ever exist.
Western historians look at the changes to the 7th C Middle Eastern society in a different way. To them it is seen more in terms of continuity instead of change, as they look at existing social structures which continue into the Islamic world.
The Pre-Islamic Middle East
The organisation of pre-Islamic society worked on a tribal basis often with a patriarchal figure, such as a sheik, as the leader. Tribes tended to consist of no more than 600 people, any bigger than this and they would split into different groups. The tribe society fostered a complex clan system with extended kinship groups. This strengthened tribes and families as other members of the clan line could be called upon for aid. This system of tribes, clans and families continues after Muhammad.
One of the larger impacts that Islam had on the tribal system was by taking the role of justice-giver and law maker away from the clan’s sheik. By converting to Islam the tribes moved to a system of written law codes, instead of an oral legal tradition.
Changes and Continuities to Middle Eastern Law
Historians can use evidence from Islamic lawyers to understand what the Middle East was like before the advent of Islam. It is necessary when using these sources to realise that they were criticising the pre-Islamic world and using the assumption that it was chaotic and unreligious to condemn their contempory’s who engaged in prohibited practises. For example social events for nomads would involve drinking tents and would often result in fighting; this was condemned by the lawyers as wrong because it harked back to pre-Islamic life.
Alongside the introduction of written law codes there remained a tradition of desert laws which stemmed from the old pagan society. These included such things as the hospitality culture, ideas of nobility and generosity, as well as the Bedouin values of honour and vendettas. Early Islamic laws are particularly interested in breaking the cycle of vendettas which tribes would engage in, as this was damaging to a stable society.
Pagan Elements Within Islam
Certain pre-Islamic beliefs remain entrenched in the Islamic faith. Angels, soothsayers and the Jinn are religious concepts which are found in pre-Islamic belief but due to their inclusion in the Qur’an they are a part of the Islamic faith.
The Nomad Lifestyle
The nomads were always part of a militaristic culture as it was seen as necessary for their survival in a resource-scarce land. This militarism still existed after the nomads had been converted to Islam, but it was funnelled in a different direction. It was among the nomads that the Arab-Muslim army first began recruiting, so their militarism was used to expand the boundaries of the Islamic state.