The word jahiliyya, rendered as ignorance or barbarism, occurs several times in the Qur˒an (3:148; 5:55; 33:33; 48:26). Used pejoratively to describe pre-Islamic Arabia, it means the period in which Arabia had no dispensation, no inspired prophet, and no revealed book.
The seven Mu˓allaqat, written down in Umayyad times, are believed to be a collection of prize-winning pre-Islamic poems on the courage and endurance of its warriors, recited in contests at the annual fair at ˓Ukaz. Fragments of similar poems are also found in the Kitab al-aghani of al-Isbahani (d. 967). The ideal Arab virtues referred to in this literature are muru˒a (courage, loyalty, and generosity). and ˓ird (honor). Courage was reflected in the number of raids undertaken, and generosity in the readiness with which one sacrificed one's camel for a guest. Killing was discouraged. Murder resulted in blood feuds and vendetta. Three months of the year (Rajab, Dhu-l-Qa˓da, and Dhu-l-Hajj) were pronounced sacred, however, when no fighting or raiding were permitted.
Trade had brought wealth to some, but the poverty of many was disregarded, and there was no strategy to care for them. Females were regarded as a burden and many were killed at birth. Muhammad viewed this attitude as ungodly. The religion of the pre-Islamic Bedouin was primarily animistic, while urban populations, such as the Meccans, worshiped a supreme God, al-Ilah, and its three daughters, al-˓Uzza, al-Lat, and Manat. Hubal was the chief deity of the Ka˓ba. Women were required to circumambulate the Ka˓ba in the nude. Various tribes in different regions identified with different gods to whom they turned for immediate favors. There was no belief in an afterlife or a day of judgment. Muhammad, who preached the existence of one, invisible God, taught that man would be judged for his actions, and rewarded accordingly. He fought to establish Islam in Arabia, and had the pre-Islamic idols systematically destroyed. Thus, he claimed, Islam brought an end to jahiliyya. Nevertheless, several pre-Islamic observances have been incorporated into Islamic ritual, such as the circumambulation of the Ka˓ba, and the running between Saffa and Marwa, with new significance attributed to them.
In the twentieth century, jahiliyya took on a new meaning. Writing from Pakistan, Abu l-A˓la˒ Maududi (d. 1979) had considered aspects of modern life reflecting Muslim imitation of the West, as comparable to jahiliyya. On the same lines, the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966) asserted that the world consisted of but two cultures, Islam and jahiliyya, which included both the West and the atheistic communist world. The polytheistic societies of Asia, and Christian and Jewish societies, were now considered "ignorant" or jahili because of their movement away from God, as were the Muslims who accepted Western elements into the Islamic system. For Qutb the only antidote to jahiliyya was hakimiyya, that is, the adherence to the belief that governance, legislation, and sovereignty belong only to God.
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Hodgson, Marshall G. S. The Venture of Islam. Vol. 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.