On the Origin and Nature of Patriarchy (9)

Organized, Monotheist Religions (Contd)

9. Pre-Islamic Arabia

At the time of the appearance of Islam, the Bedouins of Arabia were going through the period of passage of the matrilineal system to the patrilineal one. Some lived in viriarcho-matrilineal tribes, others, in patriarchal tribes (Henninger, 1959.) Contrary to the townspeople, the desert Bedouins practised polygyny and added to their wives the slaves they captured in raids. Also, the custom of burying the female infants after their birth prevailed only in the years of famine and among a very limited number of clans that were poor and / or involved in perpetual wars, which could meet only the needs of warriors, essential to their survival. Nonetheless, the pre-Islamic Bedouin women played a much more important role than among the Islamised Arabs. They were harshly treated, yet enjoyed greater freedom and respect. In aristocracy there existed, in the words of Bichr Fares,

‘’a phenomenon of the authority of woman, who in the same capacity as the man supports all expenses and participates in all activities. … She was a true Bedouin lady leading the members of the community, who obeyed her orders, especially when she was a mother.’’ (Fares, n.d., P.21)

Women of the aristocratic clans, including Khadija, first wife of Prophet Mohammad, managed considerable wealth for their own consumption and participated in commercial investments. Some, when married, even had the possibility of keeping or repudiating their husband. Certain facts testify to respect for women. If one of them raised a tent, fugitive warriors who could hang on to her ropes had to be spared. A fugitive was in safety if a woman threw her coat on him; he became her dependent (Gaudefroy-Demombynes, 1957:746).

The simultaneous existence of two relations of matrilineal and patrilineal lines of descent as well as the reign of feminine spirituality of the goddesses Al-Lat, Al-Uzza and Al-Manat, guaranteed a certain freedom as well as privileges and rights to the pre-Islamic Bedouin women. In the pantheons of Bedoins, there were women who were called ‘’happy mothers’’ and ‘’sages,’’ who served the believers as advisers, initiators, and prophets. The Ka’aba, a cube-shaped building in Mecca, was a temple of the goddess, which was kept by the city’s priestesses. In the course of the festivity of Ka’ aba, a spring and fertility celebration, women received, in this sacred house, men who came from different regions of Arabia to the pilgrimage of Ka’ aba. Prophet Mohammad said, in the Koran,  “’They even worship female gods besides Him; as a matter of fact, they only worship a rebellious devil.” (Surah 4, Al-Nessa: Verse 117).

According to Reynold A. Nicholson, the eminent scholar of both Islamic literature and Islamic mysticism, there are indications that women held high positions in the society and exerted great influence. They freely chose their husbands, had the right to divorce, and could return to their own people if they were not happy or well-treated. In some cases, they even proposed marriage. Many women had the gift of poetry, which they often dedicated to the dead. An example of a brave woman from this era, mentioned by R. A. Nicholson, is Fukayha who protected a man seeking refuge in her tent while being pursued by the enemy. She courageously covered him with her smock, and with her sword drawn, prevented his pursuers from capturing him until her brothers came to his defense, thereby saving his life. In general, women were regarded as equals, not as slaves and were the inspiration of many poets and warriors.

The diversity of sexual unions in pre-Islamic Arabia is described by al-Bukhari, a specialist of the Islamic tradition, as well. He says:

‘’Marriage in the Jahiliyah was of four types: One was marriage of people as it is today (patriarchal). … Another type was where a man said to his wife when she was purified from her menses, go to that other man and ask to have intercourse with him. … He acts thus simply from the desire for a child. … Another type was where a group of less than ten men used to visit the same woman and all of them to have intercourse with her. …The fourth type is where many men frequent a woman, and shedoes not keep herself from any who comes to her.’’ (Al-Bukhari, Book 67,Chapter 31, P.422.)

In three out of four marriages described by al-Bukhari, one did not seem to assign any importance to physical fatherhood and, consequently, the concept of feminine chastity did not exist. Two of these types of marriage were polyandrous (having more than one husband) and the woman.could have as many husbands as she wished. A fifth type of marriage.mentioned by Bukhari is Mut’ah marriage, a temporary or fixed-term.marriage contract, which was only for sexual pleasure. According to al-Bukhari:

“’If a man and a woman agree to live together, their partnership lasts three nights and if they want to extent it, they extend it, and if they decide to part, they part.”’(Al-Bukhari, Book 67, Chapter 31, P.423)

Robertson Smith explains further the nature of this type of marriage in Pre-Islamic Arabia:

“’Mut’ah in short is simply the last remains of that type of marriage which corresponds to a law of mother-kinship and Islam condemns it and make it ‘the sister of harlotry’ because it does not give the husband a legitimate offspring, i.e., an offspring that is reckoned to his own tribe and has right of inheritance with it.” (Robertson Smith, 1963:85)



Al-Bukhari, Muhammad.1868 (846). Sahih al-Bukhari, Book 67, Chapter 31.

Fares, Bichr. S.d. La femme et la pensée arabo-islamique, thèse présentée à la Sorbonne, Paris.

Gaudefroy-Demombynes, Maurice. 1957. Mahomet, Albin Michel, coll. “L’évolution de l’humanité”, Paris.

Henninger, J. 1959. La Société bédouine ancienne. Publication de l’Université de Rome.


Nicholson, R.A. 1966 (1907). A Literary History of The Arabs, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Smith, William Robertson. 1963 (1885). Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia, Stanley A. Cook (ed.), Beacon Press, Boston.


Image: Arabian Goddess Al-Uzza, Petra, Jordan.



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