Women in pre-Islamic Arabia

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There is very scarce information regarding women who lived during the pre-Islamic time period.

According to Islamic history itself, the first wife of Muhammad, Khadija, was a prosperous business woman and actually proposed to Muhammad. Additionally from Islamic sources themselves, the wife of his chief-rival Abu Sufyan (Hind) was also politically active and was present at the Battle of Badr including conflicting accounts of her personally defiling the body of one of Muhammad's uncles.

According to the traditional Islamic narrative women in Pre-Islamic Arabia had almost no rights. They were not considered equal to men and were thus dictated under a strict patrilineal system. They were viewed as objects and were constantly humiliated. Women had very little control over their marriages and could not inherit property. In the family, their purpose was nothing more but for bearing children although they did not have any rights to them. When a female baby was born it was considered a disgrace to the family and female infanticide was a common response.

Legal Status and Treatment of Women in Pre-Islamic Arabia[edit]


Many assumptions have been made about Pre-Islamic law due to discrepancies in the understanding of how law was enacted within the Arabian society. The main functional unit of the Arabian society, the tribe, was composed of those who had connections to a common relative. Many of these tribes were of patrilineal decent and therefore were only formed by male links traced down from each generation . Due to this patrilineal pattern, it isn’t a surprise that females had absolutely no right to succession.[1] In the tribe, women had no right to dictate who they chose to marry.[2] However, the tribe did offer the woman protection if she was maltreated by her husband.[3]

The tribe itself was tied together by a mutual understanding of spoken rules. These rules were enforced by the tribal leader who was not placed into that position by choice, but rather placed there due to injury. The leader also mediated the discussion of new laws. Individuals within the tribe were allowed to suggest new rules, but they would not be enacted until a consensus had been reached by the entire group.[1]

During the Pre-Islamic times between 3500 and 3000 B.C.E. many of the city-states, which contained the individual tribes, continually changed who had the authority to dictate. Much of this change occurred due to the tribal warfare taking place among these tribes. As the governmental power continued to be overturned and replaced, the laws towards women only became more ruthless and limiting as time went on. For some time husbands had the right to pawn their wives and children, beat them mercilessly, or pull their hair, without being penalized for these actions. The only chief right a woman had during these times was stated in the Code of Hammurabi in 1752 B.C.E., “women could obtain a divorce only with great difficulty. If a woman so hated her husband, that she has declared, ‘you may not have me’, her record shall be investigated at her city council”.[4] The quote further goes on to state that if the court does not find the wife to be at fault, then she will be allowed to return to her father’s home.


The laws on veiling have been misunderstood due to the high activity of veiling currently within the Islamic state. During Pre-Islamic times the Assyrian law clearly depicted within their written regulation who was allowed to veil. Those women who were family to “seigniors” had to veil as well as those who were previously prostitutes but now married. Laws on veiling were so strict that intolerable consequences were enacted upon these women, some of which included beating or cutting their ears off. While many people are under the impression that all women in Pre-Islamic Arabia took part in the tradition of veiling, prostitutes and slaves were prohibited from taking part in this practice. The veil was not only used to classify women according to their status, but it also labeled them based on their sexual activity and marital status.[4]

Women of Upper Class Status[edit]

While the general population of women in Pre-Islamic Arabia did not enjoy the luxury of having many rights, those women of upper-class status did. They not only became married into money, but many became ‘naditum’ or priestesses which would in turn give them even more rights. These women were able to own property and even inherit when they became deceased would of course end up back to the patriarchal family. In addition to these luxuries, the naditum were able to play an active role in the economic life of their community.[4]


Before Islam, women experienced limited rights, except those of high status. They were treated like slaves and were incessantly at the mercy of men. They were not considered human and had almost no rights at all. Women were not considered "worthy of prayer" and played no role in the religious aspect of life before Islam.[5] It is said that women were treated no different from “pet goats or sheep”.[5] Women could not make decisions based on their own beliefs, and had little control over their marriages. They were never bound by contract for marriage or custody of children and their consent was never sought. Women were seldom allowed to divorce their husbands and their view was not regarded for either a marriage or divorce.[6] If they got divorced, women were not legally allowed to go by their maiden name again.[6] They could not own or inherit property or objects, even if they were facing poverty or harsh living conditions.[7] Women were treated less like people and more like possessions of men. They, however, could be inherited and moved from home to home depending on the wants and needs of their husband and his family. Essentially, women were slaves to men and made no decisions on anything, whether it be something that directly impacted them or not. If their husband died, his son from a previous marriage was entitled to his wife if the son wanted her. The woman had no choice in the matter unless she was able to pay him for freedom, which was impossible in most cases.[7]

One of the most extraordinary practices that took place was that if a husband died, his son could inherit his wife (his own mother) to be his own wife. If the son of a deceased husband (his deceased father) did not want his wife (own mother), the woman was forced to leave her home and live in a hut for one year. The huts were kept dark with very poor air circulation. After one year, the woman was allowed to come out of the hut, and people were permitted to heave camel excrement at her. People in Mecca would blame her for refusing to sleep with her own son.[8]

In 586 AD women were acknowledged to be human.[9] Although this appears to be a change in the status of women in Arabia, they were only acknowledged as human with the sole purpose of serving men.[9] They were considered human, but were not given the same rights as men and were not treated equallyn. It was common for a new father to be outraged upon learning that his baby was a female. It was believed that girls ensured a bad omen and men thought that daughters would bring disgrace to the family.[7] Because baby girls were thought to be evil, many of them were sold or buried alive.[7]

Marriage Practices[edit]

In Pre-Islamic Arabia a variety of different marriage practices existed. The most common and recognized types of marriage at this time consisted of: marriage by agreement, marriage by capture, marriage by purchase, marriage by inheritance and "Mot'a" or temporary marriage.[10]

Marriage by Agreement[edit]

Marriage by agreement consisted of an agreement between a man and his future wife's family. This marriage could be within the tribe or between two families of different tribes. In the case that involved a man and woman of two different tribes, the woman would leave her family and permanently reside within her husband. The tribe of the husband then kept the couples children, unless a different arrangement was previously made which returned the children to their mother's tribe. In other cases women were forbidden from marrying outside of the tribe and had to either marry another member or a stranger who would agree to live within her tribe. The reason for inter-tribal marriages was to ensure the protection and possession of the children the couple would produce.[11] Women in inter-tribal marriages received more freedom and retained the right to dismiss or divorce their husbands at any time. The women had precise rituals they used to inform their husbands of their dismissal, such as this: "if they lived in a tent they turned it around, so that if the door faced east, it now faced west, and when the man saw this, he knew that he was dismissed and did not enter".[12]

Marriage by Capture[edit]

Marriage by capture, or "Ba'al", was a common pre-Islamic marriage practice. Most often taking place during times of war, marriage by capture occurred when women were taken captive by men from other tribes and placed on the slave market of Mecca. From the slave market these women were sold into marriage or slavery. In captive marriages men bought their wives and therefore had complete control over them. Women in these marriages had no freedom and were subjected to following their husbands orders and bearing his children. These women became their husbands property and had no rights to divorce or dismissal of her husband and therefore completely lost any previous freedom. Her husband had absolute authority over her, including the exclusive right to divorce. The husbands of these marriages were classified as their wife's lord or owner and had complete rights to his wife and her actions.[11]

Marriage by Purchase[edit]

Marriage by purchase was a more traditional marriage practice. These marriages consisted of a woman's family paying a man "Mahr", or a dowry, to marry their daughter. The dowry usually consisted of items like camels and horses.[10] Women in purchase marriages faced the same oppression as the women who were forced into marriages by capture. This practice may have led to a decrease in female infanticide due to the profit a family could incur for selling their daughter. Women in these marriages were subject to their husbands control and had very little rights or freedom of their own.[11]

Marriage by Inheritance[edit]

Marriage by inheritance, thus incestuous relationships between a son and his own mother was "a widespread custom throughout Arabia, including Medina and Mecca".[10] This practice involved the possession of a deceased man's wife being passed down to his son. In such a case, the son has several different options. He could keep her (own mother) as his wife, arrange a marriage by purchase for her to enter into from which he would receive a dowry for her, or he could simply dismiss her and had the right to forbid her to remarry. In these cases, as in the majority of marriage practices at this time, the woman had little or no rights and was subjected to follow the orders or her inheritor.[11]

Family Structure and Motherhood[edit]

Research on the family structure of Pre-Islamic Arabia has many ambiguous views so it becomes difficult to know the exact structure of the family during this time period. Family structure that may have been of a typical tribe during Pre-Islamic Arabia was patriarchal and the relations in the family were between other relations with men. It was vital for families to have boys rather than girls because men were viewed as superior to women. Within the family the women did not have any parental rights over their children even if the father had died, and women had no rights of inheritance. One of the most important roles of the mother within the household was for her to give birth to children, and to produce male offspring. Even though women had little rights within the household they did partake in few roles within society. Some of the activities the women did were making meals, milking animals, washing clothes, preparing butter, weaving material for tents, and spinning wool.[13]

During pre Islamic Arabian times the child mortality rate was very high, and it was very common for parents to lose a child in infancy or during the child’s childhood due to certain diseases and ailments.If the infant survived the community would hold a social feast in celebration of the infant's survival where they would name the child, and slaughter a sheep in honor of the child's birth.Children were not at fault for the same criminal punishments as adults.[14] During this time period it was seen as high importance for women to produce male offspring because they were seen as superior and also as the most fundamental component to be able to fight in the difficult desert conditions.[13]

Family planning was very important and certain aspects are put into place before anything takes course, but the family planning did not apply to everyone. People were concerned with circumstances that may impact their family and or the community. The process of planning the family structure is mutually between the husband and wife. An important aspect of the family structure is determining the number of children the mother has, and spacing out the pregnancies as a way to make sure the health of the mother and children are not at risk, and also strengthen the well-being of the family.[15] People also enforced the importance of having the mother breast-feed, which was an infant's basic right for two years.[14]

Female Infanticide[edit]

Accusations of infanticide in the Pre-Islamic era have been passed down through generations of Arabs legitimizing these actions, however many of the allegations are unsubstantiated and arbitrary. There is a great deal of scholarly debate concerning the prevalence of infanticide, more specifically female infanticide in Pre-Islamic Arabia. The Pre-Islamic era, known as the age of Jahiliya, meaning the age of barbarism, darkness, and ignorance of God's guidance comes directly from the Quran (3:154, 5:50, 33:33, 48:26).Pre-Islamic era is the time before the birth of Muhammad and the rise of Islam. The absence of reliable historical sources and factual information, aside from Islamic traditionists' sources and stories, make ascertaining the truth about the pre-Islamic way of life and culture almost impossible to substantiate.[16] Some scholars rely on the Quran and Hadith to gain information about pre-Islamic Arabia. Since there was no fully developed system of writing in Arabia during this time period, the sources are limited to traditions, legends, proverbs and above all to poems; most of which were not recorded in writing for an additional two to four hundred years later, during the second and third centuries of the Hijrah.[17] There has been no found source of infanticide in remaining recorded Arabic poetry. Although the practice of infanticide most probably existed on some level, it has taken on a mythical legend that is most probably misunderstood as a result of conflicting historical and cultural perspectives..

Historically, the various cultural purposes of the practice of infanticide in other societies over time has been the reduction of population numbers, removal of defectives which includes babies with physical abnormalities and sick infants, elimination of social illegitimates, manipulation of sex ratio, or reactions to the loss of the mother during childbirth.[18] Specifically, The Quran mentions the presence of infanticide in the Arabian society during Jahiliya. Infanticide in the Quran is referred to as “qatl al-awlad” which mean killing children both males and females however it includes broader actions like coitus interruptus, called “wad khafiyy” or hidden infanticide, and abortion known as “ijhad”,[19] as well as to kill a newborn whereby the practice to bury the infant alive so no blood was shed was considered humane and hence not murder.[20] A description is given of digging a hole next to the mother and when it gives birth to an unwanted female child, although on occasion it might also be a male child, the newborn was directly buried in the hole). Other ways of committing infanticide have been mentioned in the fiqh collections, as well the hadith reports that include hurling infants off of cliffs and dorwning them in wine and leaving them in the woods for wild animals.[21]

According to interpretations of the Quran, infanticide was a means for the prevention of poverty and considered to be solution for the liability of a female child. Some sources indicate that males were considered stronger in pagan tribal societies and females were an economic burden especially during times of famine because they were less useful.The father’s disappointment and fear of the female being held captive by an opposing tribe which would bring shame to the family.[22]


Before Islam, Arabia was clearly a patriarchal society where women’s sole purpose was to serve man. In fact, the importance of producing male offspring to perpetuate their superiority and ability to fight was paramount. There are many assumptions about Pre- Islamic laws and customs, about their family structure and about issues relating to infanticide. It is important to recognize that much of the scholarly debate on the status of Pre- Islamic women during the age of Jahilya, where there was an absence of reliable historical sources and factual information.

See also[edit]

Women in Arab societies

Women in Islam


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