Notes from the Qalam Institute Seerah Podcast (Episode 3)

Continuing on with the Qalam Institute Seerah Podcast, here are notes from Episode 3.

    • Unless you understand the circumstances that were present at the time of the Prophet, you can’t understand the impact that he made, peace and blessings be upon him.
    •  Understanding the Arabs help answer the question why the Prophet peace and blessings be upon him was sent to these people.
    • 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 word Arab is never used in the Qur’an. Forms of the word Arab are used.
    • The Arabs  were very clear in their speech, very articulate in their language. Very passionate people. Had great admiration for hilm, being calm and serene.
    • Also had chaos around them. Did not a systematic form of economics, government, religion.


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

b) Arabs who remained. Also known as migrated Arabs

  •  The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him comes from the progeny of the Arabized Arabs.

Geography

  • Arabian peninsula surrounded by water. This meant that from a land perspective, they were very internal. Only one entrance to the Hijaz by land through the Syrian desert. Difficult, severe  journey. The environment left the Hijaz very isolated from many outside influences of religion, culture, language.  So the Hijaz was a hotbed of deep cultural tradition. A treasure of linguistic nuances, literary nuances.
  • At the same time, it was a very external, exposed region. Because it was a peninsula, it was a trade route to strategic places. It was an epicentre of trade and business. So 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.

Political

  • Regions that bordered the Hijaz. Yemen had been in conflict for a long time. Nearby Abyssinia was Christian. Iraq, southern part was called Hira and had Persian influences.  Syria in the north was called Balad al Shaam and was a Christian region. We’re talking about a time when there was a synchronicity between religion and government. 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 was not a concern to tribal leaders, you had a difficult life and did not have many rights.
  • Chaotic region, had no governance. Often times Arabs belonging to other regions, bordering other empires were seen as inferior to larger empires. But in the Hijaz, though things were chaotic the Arabs had a lot of dignity and honour. They lived in freedom and autonomy. 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. See cultural roots or seeds of Islamic mode of behaviour here.

Social Life

  •  Arabian society was a mix of different things.
  • Negative features: There was a lack of fair equal treatment of society. Slavery existed and slaves were treated in inhuman ways. 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.
  • Two opposite extremes. Slaves had horrible status and women had 2 different experiences.

Moral/Ethical Culture

  • 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. But not true for everyone. Relationships outside of marriage existed.
  • Family relations and tribe were considered deep and sacred. They were maintained and kept.

Economics

  • 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. Vicious cycle between political and economic instability. There was a lot of warfare. Poverty and hunger were common trends in pre-Islamic Arabia. No middle class. You were either very wealthy or very poor. The poor predominately made up society.

Positive Ethics

  • Hospitality was an important ethic and value. Hospitality was a big deal 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
  • 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 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.
  • Simplicity was important. Though there was extravagance, there was still simplicity. A leader would sit amongst people, would sacrifice his own animals.

Cultural Traditions

  • Were largely illiterate
  • Were not even 20 literate people at the time of the birth of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him
  • 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 never felt the urgency for literacy.
  • Genealogy was an expertise for the Arabs. Would memorise genealogies. They would even have and know genealogies for horses.
  • Rhetoric, poetic skills of Arabs was an important part of the culture
  • Wars started with poems. Hajj was a gathering that had poetry. Best poems were hung near the Kaaba. Called the Mu’allaqat. A big reason why the Qur’an is the primary miracle that the Prophet peace and blessing be upon him brough,t is the importance of language to this culture.
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