Mecca and Meccan Society Before Islam
Mecca has been a significant social, economic, and political hub in the Middle East since the ancient period. Before the rise of Islam, Mecca mainly served as a commercial and religious center in the Middle East. Mecca was strategically located along major trade routes that linked the Middles East, North Africa, Mediterranean, and Europe (Belyaev and Gourevitch 2-5).
The word Mecca means a busy place that attracts huge crowds of traders and worshippers. After the rise of Islam, Mecca developed exponentially. This paper discusses the Meccan society before the rise of Islam.
The Rise of Mecca
According to the traditions of the Muslims, the progenies of Ishmael founded Mecca. Many Muslims link the rise of Mecca to a pilgrimage that was conducted annually in the Valley of Baca (Belyaev and Gourevitch 12-14). The origin of Mecca has been interpreted through the teachings of Psalms in the Old Testament (Reuven 36).
During the fifth century, many nomadic tribes inhabited Mecca, but the Quraysh tribe was the most dominant (Reuven 7-8). Members of the Quraysh clan became prosperous merchants. They commanded many resources that enabled them to dominate other tribes, such as the Bedouins. “The Quraysh tribe was subdivided into small clans, which included Banu Hashim and Banu Ummaya” (Muller 13).
Political Organization in Mecca
Before the beginning of Islam, there was no specific political system of administration in Mecca. The Quraysh tribe was the largest in Mecca. The Quraysh tribe dominated other tribes economically. Indeed, Yemen was the only part of the Middle East that had a basic kind of political organization. Most of the Arab communities detested political authority. In the absence of laws and political authority, Mecca was marred with chaos since disputes were settled in battlefields.
In the absence of leaders and courts, communities protected their members. Thus, all tribes had the responsibility of protecting their members from aggressive neighbors. Indeed, there was a lot of emphasis on tribalism such that members of a given community could protect their own criminals. Therefore, there was serious moral decay due to a lack of ethics. A community that could not defend its members became vulnerable to attacks from hostile neighbors.
Since Mecca lacked a system of governance, any slight provocation led to conflict. In this case, conflict was institutionalized among the Arabs. Scarcity of basic resources such as water and pasture often led to conflict since each community wanted to access the limited resources (Muller 23-25).
Apart from the reasonable causes of conflict, Arabs engaged in warfare as a type of dangerous game. Some war events attracted cheerful crowds because people liked fighting. Young Arab men demonstrated their tactics in the battlefields (Belyaev and Gourevitch 167). Therefore, it is evident that most conflicts did not have serious causes. To some extent, these conflicts point out the origins of the persistent conflicts in the contemporary Middle East.
According to Muller, “the Quraysh of Mecca considered themselves superior to the Bedouins, but the latter had only contempt for the town-dwellers who for them were only a nation of shopkeepers” (Muller 15-16). After the rise of Islam, the Quraysh tribe formed a political dynasty that ruled Mecca for several centuries.
Muller also notes that the Arabs were extremely arrogant, proud, callous, and dishonest. The extreme arrogance of the Arabs made it difficult for them to acknowledge any form of authority. Thus, they did not have political leadership (Muller 16-17). After the rise of Islam, there were many conflicts in Mecca since each tribe struggled to dominate its rivals (Reuven 15-16).
Economic Organization in Mecca
Trade was the predominant economic activity of the people of Mecca. Communities that settled close to trade routes participated in trading activities. Trading activities were carried out at village, regional, and international levels (Muller 145). The caravan trade was the most lucrative venture in Mecca. Merchants formed caravans and often traveled together to avoid attacks from hostile desert tribes such as the Berbers. During summer, many merchants made voyages to Syria.
Conversely, many merchants took their goods to Yemen during winter. Merchants from Mecca also traveled to Bahrain, North Africa, and Iraq. Wealthy traders dominated the caravan trade because they had many resources.
The arrival of merchants in Mecca was often a significant occasion because they brought exotic goods from other parts of the world (Belyaev and Gourevitch 53). Indeed, many people invested in camels and horses. These animals carried goods across the deserts of the Middle East. Thus, whenever caravans arrived, there were dramatic changes in the economy of Mecca.
Besides caravan trade, the Quraysh and the Bedouin tribes in Mecca practiced usury. The caravan trade demanded huge capital, and this compelled most traders to seek loans. High interests were charged on loans because the caravan trade was risky. Despite high-interest rates, many traders were convinced that they could make some profits and pay debts.
Thus, some wealthy merchants engaged in both caravan trade and usury to make more profits. Moneylenders survived on interests. The teachings of the Koran later condemned the practice of usury because it led to serious exploitation of the poor by the rich. Merchants and financiers occupied the highest social class in Meccan society. They became rich through exploitation of people (Muller 67-68).
Slavery was another lucrative venture, which was practiced by the people of Mecca. Slaves were acquired through various mechanisms. Those who failed to pay loans were subjected to slavery (Belyaev and Gourevitch 169-170). “Both men and women could be subjected to slavery” (Muller, 48). Slaves were subjected to harsh working conditions (Belyaev and Gourevitch, 134-135). Indeed, slavery was practiced in many parts of the world, including Africa before the rise of imperialism in the 19th century.
In Mecca, the practice of agriculture was very limited due to the lack of arable land. In addition, most communities in Mecca were nomadic; thus, they could not practice farming (Muller 156). Peasants mainly reared animals because they never engaged in trading activities.
Today, Mecca is popularly known to be an important religious center where Muslims conduct important annual prayers. However, before the rise of Islam, people visited Mecca for very different reasons. Before the introduction of Islam, people worshipped Idols in Mecca (Fazlur 289-290). Many Arabs visited Mecca every year to participate in the pilgrimage, which entailed worshiping of deities. Since Mecca was a city, it attracted thousands of wealthy traders. People engaged in immoral activities such as fornication, alcoholism, and gambling.
In the absence of ethics, people engaged in uncivilized practices. Women were inhumanly treated and never had rights. Men could marry as many women as possible, and they could divorce their wives. Newborn girls were killed or buried alive because women were not valued in the Meccan society (Reuven 17-18).
“Mecca was an extremely patriarchal society, and women were treated like sex objects” (Fazlur 289-300). “When a man died, his son had the freedom to inherit all his wives with the exception of his mother” (Muller 45). Relationships between men and women were not sustainable since men abused women.
Before Islam, there were many religious practices in Mecca, which included the following. Worshiping of deities was prevalent in Mecca. “Polytheism was commonly practiced because many people believed in many gods” (Belyaev and Gourevitch 34). Each community had its own deities. Hubal was the main deity worshipped by the Quraysh.
In Mecca, the worshipping of idols took place in a designated place of worship called Kaaba. “Islamic tradition holds that Kaaba was originally built by Adam, but the Qur’an states that its foundations were raised by Abraham and his son Ishmael” (Fazlur 289-301).
Some individuals worshipped their wealth because they believed in materialism. Some individuals practiced Christianity. Roman traders are believed to have introduced Christianity in Mecca (Fazlur 290). A few individuals in Mecca practiced monotheism before the beginning of Islam. Monotheists never worshipped deities and were mainly supporters of Prophet Abraham.
Most members of the Bani Hashim clan, from which Muhammad the founder of Islam descended, practiced monotheism. Some individuals also worshipped stars. They were called Sabines. Last, Zoroastrianism was practiced in some parts of Mecca.
In terms of education, many people in Mecca were illiterate before the emergence of Islam. Very few people in Mecca could read and write because people were not motivated to learn. In the absence of writing, verbal communication and use of signs were the main means of exchanging ideas.
Poetry was a significant academic achievement of the people of Mecca (Belyaev and Gourevitch 167). Formal education began in Mecca after 630 A.D, when Muhammad began spreading Islamic teachings, which later led to the rise of Islamic civilization (Belyaev and Gourevitch 169).
This discussion has revealed that Mecca was one of the most developed places in the Middle East before the rise of Islamic teachings. However, the lack of political organization in Mecca led to many conflicts. Lack of courts and security officers led to an emphasis on tribalism because there were no proper mechanisms for punishing criminals. In terms of economic organization, the people of Mecca mainly practiced trade and usury. Nonetheless, other economic activities, such as farming were practiced by a few individuals.
It is evident that the economic organization of Mecca was better than its political organization. The Meccan society was very patriarchal, and this led to the abuse of women and female children. Moreover, the absence of formal education might have contributed to the serious moral decay and lawlessness in Mecca. Thus, Mecca had very weak social, political, and economic institutions before the rise of Islam. During 630 A.D, Muhammad began preaching against polytheism and gradually converted people to Islam.
The rise of civilization among the Arabs began after the introduction of Islam. Islam led to the transformation of social, economic, and political practices in Meccan society. Today, Mecca plays a dominant role in the religious organization of the Muslims. Therefore, Mecca has developed gradually since the ancient period due to religious practices and economic activities.
Annotated Works Cited
Belyaev, Evgeny and Adolphe Gourevitch. Arabs, Islam and the Arab Caliphate in the early middle ages. London: Oxford University Press, 1969. Print.
This book traces the origins and development of Arab communities from the ancient time. The social, political and economic organization of the people of Mecca has been discussed in details in this book.
Fazlur, Rahman. “The Religious Situation of Mecca from the eve of Islam up to the Hijra.” Islamic Studies 16:4 (1977): 289-301. Print.
This journal article is about religious practices in Mecca before the introduction of Islam. It discusses how the rise of Islam brought fundamental changes in religious practices in Mecca.
Muller, Herbert. The loom of history. London: Sage, 1959. Print.
This book focuses on the ancient history of the Middle East. Mecca is one the ancient cities in Arabia that has been discussed in this book. The emergence and development of Islam in Mecca is analyzed in this book. The development of Mecca after the rise of Islam is widely covered in most of the chapters.
Reuven, Firestone. “Abraham’s Journey to Mecca in Islamic Exegesis: A Form-Critical Study of a Tradition.” Studia Islamica 76:2 (1992): 5-24. Print.
This journal mainly discusses the origin of the city of Mecca. The early communities in Mecca have been discussed extensively in this article. The development of Mecca as a religious and commercial hub in the pre Islamic Middle East has been given much attention by the author.
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