What does Jahiliyah mean?

Islam calls the pagan life of Arabs `Jahiliyah’ (ignorance). This label specifically identified the lifestyle to be found in the land of the Arabs before the Islamic Mission began. It included the beliefs and customs of the pagan Arabs who lived in a most decadent and perverse manner. This stage in history was full of chaos and corruption, and witnessed a decline in the sociology and ideology of the age. This was because the signs of truth had disappeared in that dark historical stage. `Jahiliyah’ (ignorance) is a way of life. It has its own faith, way of thinking, and lifestyle including social manners, worship, values and concepts, viewpoint towards life, method to create civilization, and a direction for human activities in areas such as culture, art, literature, politics, economy, power, law and order, etc.

In the Name of Allah, The Most Gracious, The Most Merciful

"Is it (then that) the judgement of (the time of pagan) ignorance they desire?
And who (else) can be better than Allah to judge for a people of assured faith."
Holy Qur’an (5:50)

"Judgement is of two kinds -the judgement of Allah- the Great and Almighty – and
the judgement of the people of the ignorance (jahiliyah). So, whoever misses
Allah’s judgement, surely will judge according to the judgement of the people of
jahiliyah." Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq (a.s.)

What does Jahiliyah mean?

1. Islam calls the pagan life of Arabs `Jahiliyah’ (ignorance). This label
specifically identified the lifestyle to be found in the land of the Arabs
before the Islamic Mission began. It included the beliefs and customs of the
pagan Arabs who lived in a most decadent and perverse manner. This stage in
history was full of chaos and corruption, and witnessed a decline in the
sociology and ideology of the age. This was because the signs of truth had
disappeared in that dark historical stage.

The aspects of deviation from truth and justice had become embodied in the
society, much in the same manner as the perverse practices of Sodom and Gommorah
in the time of Prophet Lot, so that evil was acknowledged as good and good was
acknowledged as evil.

2. Islam calls this lifestyle of the Arabs desert dwellers, `Jahiliyah’, to
identify the ideological and social nature of that age and to compare it to
general `jahiliyah’ of nations and peoples that have arisen during man’s
evolution. Therefore, where we have written `jahiliyah’ with a capital "J" we
mean specifically the Age of Ignorance of the Arabs in the pre-Islamic age, and
when it is specified with a "j" it refers to global ignorance at any stage in
man’s evolution where ignorance has buried truth, as is found in our social and
ideological values today.

3. Islam calls that miserable historical period of Arab lifestyle `Jahiliyah’
because it is a word which represents ignorant beliefs, practices, rules, laws,
customs, values and behavior of a perverse society.

4. Islam does not call the Arabs, `Jahiliyah’, before the emergence of its
blessed mission because of academic ignorance, nor does it call them ignorant `jahilin’
because of illiteracy nor for backwardness in the areas of sciences, so we
understand that `Jahiliyah’ had a specific and special meaning.

5. Islam called the Arabs of that age `jahiliyah’ because even in the presence
of academic and artistic knowledge, the social manner and behavior of the people
and its acceptable lifestyle were such that the word, `Jahiliyah’, is suitable
for them. The Holy Qur’an has told us about other nations with capabilities in
science, engineering, and skills. Still, it regarded them as `jahiliyah’
(ignorant).

6. The Qur’an describes nature as equal among nations of `jahiliyah’. In the
Qur’anic viewpoint, all of these nations were ignorant. We are able to
understand this equality clearly through the comparison which the Qur’an has
made between the backward state of Arabs and the developed state of nations
before them.

7. Allah, the Exalted, says:

"What! have they not travelled in the earth and seen how was the end of those
before them? They were more (in number) than those and mightier in strength, and
greater are the relics (of their power) in the earth, but availed them not what
they were earning. And when came unto them their apostles with clear proofs (of
their truthfulness), exalted they in what they had with them of knowledge, but
encompassed them that which they were wont to scoff." Holy Qur’an (40:82-83)

"Have they travelled not in the earth and seen how was the end of those before
them? They were stronger than them in strength; and they dug up the earth and
built on it more than what these did build; and there came unto them their
apostles with clear proofs (miracles); (for) it is not Allah Who should do them
(any) injustice, but they did injustice to their own selves. Then evil was the
end of those who wrought evil, for belied they the signs of Allah, and at them
they used to mock." Holy Qur’an (30:9-10)

"And how many of the generations We did destroy before them, they were (even)
better in riches and in splendor. Say you (O Our Apostle Muhammad) As to those
who are in error, the Beneficent (Allah) will certainly lengthen the span (of
their) life; until they behold what they were promised, be it the chastisement
(in this world) or the Hour (of Doom); Then shall they know who is worse placed
and (who is the) weakest in forces!" Holy Qur’an (19:74-75)

In this manner, the Qur’an has revealed the depth and content of those nations
to stress that scientific development of man and his civil advancement are not
able to save him from the claws of deviation and take him out of the fangs of
ignorance as long as he embellishes ignorant faith and embodies the same
abnormal ignorant behavior of the general society.

Although these ignorant deviated nations are scattered throughout history and
are different in scientific and civil levels, they share common factors. One
mental state combines them together and unifies their deviated course. Allah,
the Exalted, says:

"And those (pagans) who have no knowledge say: `Why does not Allah speak to us
or a sign come to us?’ Even thus said those before them, the like of what they
say; their hearts are alike; We have indeed made clear the signs to people who
are certainly sure." Holy Qur’an (2:118)

This similarity among the hearts of the deviated nations and peoples and the
unity of the mental trend, which the Qur’an has revealed, is the common line
which identifies all aspects of the pre-Islamic period of ignorance and is the
center from which all activities of the ignorant man begins.

This similarity is the factor forming the identity and personality of this
pre-Islamic nation. Also this description may be applied to all stages of human
history whose generations have evolved into a devious and deviated system and
refused to follow the straight path of truth and peace-the straight path of
Allah, the law of the Lord, and the message of salvation.

When we examine Islamic texts and phrases about identifying and describing the
life of (pre-Islamic period) ignorance, we are able to understand the meaning of
the idiom `Jahiliyah’ and the reason why the Qur’an has used it. Also we are
able to understand why the same idiom has been applied to other nations
throughout history.

We are able to understand this terminology and labelling once we learns of the
ignorance in the history of past nations and its connected parts, when we follow
the unity of the line and trends which associated `ahiliyah’ through its effects
and remains, and when we study the description of the Qur’an about the most
important aspects of `Jahiliyah", its ways of thinking, and its psychological
and behavioral trends.

When we reach this awareness, we find that `jahiliyah’ means error, going
astray, deviation from Allah’s straight path, and negligence in His worship.
That is because `jahiliyah’, in the Qur’anic viewpoint, means a religion and
lifestyle that follows a line contrary to the line of Islam in nature and aim.
It follows the line of deviation from the path of true religon and Allah’s `shari’ah’
(law) which guides man.

`Jahiliyah’ (ignorance) is a way of life. It has its own faith, way of thinking,
and lifestyle including social manners, worship, values and concepts, viewpoint
towards life, method to create civilization, and a direction for human
activities in areas such as culture, art, literature, politics, economy, power,
law and order, etc.

8. In order to unveil the ugly face of `jahiliyah’ and discover the thread that
entwines current ignorant international thoughts, it is better to return to the
Holy Qur’an which describes `Jahiliyah’, and its people, and the dimensions of
their lifestyle and the features of their civilization and social system. Also
it denotes their general framework and the basic rules of their formation. The
Qur’an says:

"And none but the guilty led us astray." Holy Qur’an (26:99)

"And indeed they have led many astray, and nothing increases to the wrongdoers
except perdition." Holy Qur’an (71:24)

"But if they answer you not, know that they only follow their low desires. And
who is more erring than he who follows his low desires without any guidance from
Allah? Surely Allah guides not the wrongdoing people." Holy Qur’an (28:50)

"But they rejected him, so We delivered him and those with him in the ark,…"
Holy Qur’an (10:73)

"Then, after him We sent messengers to their people. They came to them with
clear arguments, but they would not believe what they had rejected before. Thus
do We seal the hearts of those who exceed the limits." Holy Qur’an (10:74)

"Then after them We sent Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh and his chiefs with Our
signs, but they were arrogant, and they were a guilty people." Holy Qur’an
(10:75)

"But, on account of the fear of Pharaoh and their chiefs persecuting them, none
believed in Moses except a few of his people. And Pharaoh was truly high-handed
in the land; and surely he was extravagant." Holy Qur’an (10:83)

"They said: O Hud, you have brought us no clear argument, and we are not going
to desert our gods for your word, and we are not believers in you." Holy Qur’an
(11:53)

"Say: O people, if you are in doubt as to my religion, (know that) I serve not
those whom you serve besides Allah,…" Holy Qur’an (10:104)

"And when he holds authority, he makes effort in the land to cause mischief in
it and destroy tilth and offspring; and Allah loves not mischief." Holy Qur’an
(2:205)

"The life of this world is made to seem fair to those who disbelieve, and they
mock those who believe…" Holy Qur’an (2:212)

"And they say: Our Lord, we only obeyed our leaders and our great men, so they
led us astray from the (right) path." Holy Qur’an (33:67)

9. If we want more clarity about this collapsed civil situation, let’s consider
carefully the sermons of Imam Ali (a.s.) from Nahjul- Balagha, in which he
explains the formation of `Jahiliyah’ and analyses the form of its life and
faith as follows: "Allah sent Muhammad (s.a.w.) as a warner (against vice) for
all the worlds and a trustee of His revelation, while you people of Arabia were
following the worst religion and you resided among rough stones and venomous
serpents. You drank dirty water and ate filthy food. You shed blood of each
other and cared not for relationship. Idols are fixed among you and sins are
clinging to you."

Then, he (a.s.) speaks about the situations and conditions that preceded the
Holy Prophetic mission as follows: "At that time people had fallen into vices
whereby the rope of religion had been broken, the pillars of belief had been
shaken, principles had been sacrileged, the system had become topsy turvy,
openings were narrow, passages were dark, guidance was unknown and darkness
prevailed.

Allah, The Most Beneficent, was being disobeyed. Satan was given support and
belief had been foresaken. As a result, the pillars of religion fell down, its
traces could not be discerned, its passages had been destroyed and its streets
had fallen into decay. People obeyed Satan and tread his paths. They sought
water from his watering places. Through them Satan’s emblems were flying and his
standard was raised in vices which trampled the people under their hoofs, and
treaded upon them with their feet.

The vices stood on their toes (in full stature) and the people immersed in them
were astrayed, perplexed, ignorant and seduced as though in a good house with
bad neighbors. Instead of sleep they had wakefulness and for antimony they had
tears in the eyes. They were in a land where the learned were bridled (mouths
forced shut) while the ignorant were honored."( )

In another place, he (a.s.) says:

"Allah sent the Prophet at a time when the people were going astray in
perplexity and were moving here and there in mischief. Desires had deflected
them and self-conceit had swerved them. Extreme ignorance had made them foolish.
They were confounded by the unsteadiness of matters and the evils of ignorance.
Then the Prophet (s.a.w.) did his best in giving them sincere advice, himself
trodding on the right path and called (them) towards wisdom and good counsel."(
)

"I bear witness that Muhammad is His servant and His Messenger whom He deputized
when the people were collecting in the abyss and moving in bewilderment. The
reins of destruction were dragging them and the locks of malice lay fixed on
their hearts." In another place of his sermons and sayings, we read another
analysis of the nature of the ignorant man and his moral and psychological
character. Imam Ali (a.s.) sheds bright light on the nature of this man in each
period and stage and makes these sick symptoms as distinguishing qualities for
the ignorant man and society.

Imam Ali (a.s.) speaks about evil, deviation and the call of Satan. He (a.s.)
denotes that the followers of this call are ignorant:

"And the followers of fanaticism, the brothers of fanaticism and the horsemen of
haughtiness and ignorance proved him (Prophet Muhammad, (s.a.w.)) to be true."

In another speech concerning `Jahiliyah’, we read another analysis of this
restless social situation and discover another dimension in its structure. He (a.s.)
says:

"The conditions were full of distress. The hands were scattered. The majority
was divided. They were in great anguish and under layers of ignorance. They
buried their daughters alive, worshipped idols, disregarded kinship and
practised robbery."( ) Imam Ali (a.s.) is not statisfied with speaking about `Jahiliyah’,
analysing its structure, and discovering the meanings of civilization and life
therein. Rather, he warns people against the bad background of those ignorant
thoughts. He says:

"Do not be like those rude people of `Jahiliyah’ who did not exert themselves in
religion nor use their intellects in the matter of Allah. They are like the
breaking of eggs in the nest of a dangerous bird, because their breaking looks
bad but keeping them intact would mean production of dangerous young ones."

Through contemplating deeply on these Islamic analyses and texts-the verses and
sermons-and analysing their ideas, one will know the features of `Jahiliyah’
society, recognize the clearest characteristics of the life in it, and know the
most common elements among the various `jahiliyah’ nations.

These texts altogether denote that the society of `jahiliyah’ is deviated from
what is right; it does not follow the teachings of religion, nor it seeks light
from its system, nor it conforms to the principles of its law. Besides, they
(the texts and verses) focus on the aspects and the common features among the
international beliefs in the attitude towards the Divine Messages, in behavior,
and the psychological situation of these ignorant beliefs.

These ignorant beliefs refuse and doubt the messages of Prophets, and insist on
disbelief, going astray, and following low desires.

The definite result of this rejection is that the refusing person has followed a
material, animalistic direction. Thus, lust overcomes him, pleasures lead him,
because he has broken off his relation with Allah. So he has inclined to the
earth, deified the volatile world of lust, and worshipped the turns of the self.

It is natural that this material and ignorant life is full of corruption,
crimes, and vanity.

We have read that the Qur’an describes these ignorant thoughts and noted their
diseases and corrupt aspects. The Qur’an has shown the most prominent, sick
aspects of those ignorant thoughts as: oppression, crime, haughtiness,
extravagance, arrogance, deviation, doubt, corruption and destruction on earth,
bloodshedding, sneering at truth, blindly following the leaders of deviation and
corruption, and following lusts and low desires.

After this Qur’anic discussion, we have read that Imam Ali (a.s.) has analyzed
the most prominent aspects of `Jahiliyah’life. He (a.s.) has stressed those
aspects which the Qur’an has stressed such as: decline, degradation, behavioral
and ideological fall. He (a.s.) refers to bloodshedding, disbelieving in Allah,
refusing the messages of the Prophets, ignorance in religion, shaky pillars of
religion, going astray, bewilderment, haughtiness, spite, fanaticism, victory of
lust and low desires, and so on.

With this Islamic analysis which we have read in the Qur’anic texts and Imam
Ali’s sermons, we are able to know that the pre-Islamic society is the one which
refuses to believe in Allah and deviates in its behavior and life system from
Allah’s right path, irrespective of being an ignorant society like the Bedouins
and pastorals or being a society which lives in the age of the atom, computer,
space travel, etc.

`Jahiliyah’ is a civil situation having behavioral, psychological, and physical
elements. It has no relation to the degree of science and knowledge existing in
the society. It is just as Imam Ali (a.s.) says:

"The worst religion, and the worst house."

Whenever this mark of evil and corruption, is found in faith, the social system
and the method of life, then we are able to call the person who lives in its
shade as ignorant `jahili’, and we are able to describe the human life following
it as `jahiliyah’. For this reason, the Holy Qur’an calls the deviated person,
`dhal’ (one who has gone astray), and those who deviate `dhaloon’. `Dhal’ is the
person who does not know the way and blunders far away from the truth and
guidance whether in his thinking and faith or in his worship, life system, and
way of his dealings.

Describing the ignorant life and society, Imam Ali (a.s.) has often used the
word `hayara’ (bewildered) in his sermons. That is because bewilderment, worry,
estrangement, uneasiness, etc., are the most prominent morbid symptoms from
which the ignorant person suffers. All these diseases hit him because he is
deviated from Allah’s path and His law.

Thus estrangement, bewilderment, going astray, and uneasiness are the
distinguishing and essential marks of the ignorant society which is full of
vanity, oppression, corruption, and low desires.

Islam has shown that the ignorant person is deviated, lost, bewildered and
restless, for such a person suffers from mental disorders. This condition has an
influence on all aspects of his life.

So, man finds himself standing before two ways in every period or age. These two
ways are: 1) The way of guidance and belief; and, 2) The way of ignorance and
misguidance.

The Qur’an highlights this in the following verse:

"Is it then the judgment of ignorance that they desire? And who is better than
Allah to judge for a people who are sure?" Holy Qur’an (5:50)

Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq (a.s.) has stated:

"Judgement is two kinds: the judgement of Allah, the Great and Almighty, and the
judgement of the people of ignorance `Jahiliyah’. So, whoever misses Allah’s
judgement, surely will judge according to the judgement of `Jahiliyah’." To give
man a clear idea of the aims and purposes which Islam strives to achieve, the
Qur’an tells him about these aims and purposes:

"And thus did We reveal to you an inspired Book by Our command. You knew not
what the Book was, nor (what) Faith (was), but We made it a light, guiding
thereby whom We please of Our servants…" Holy Qur’an (42:52)

"…and We have revealed the Book to you explaining all things, and guidance and
mercy and good news for those who submit (themselves to Allah)." Holy Qur’an
(16:89)

The Qur’an also describes the faithful believers, those who follow the way of
faith and know the right path. It has shown that they are guided aright and live
in safety, security, and peace: "Those who believe and mix not up their faith
with iniquity -those are they for whom is security and they are (the ones)
guided aright." Holy Qur’an (6:83)

That is because they have believed in Allah and the light that has come from
Him. They have followed the way of righteousness and have not mixed their belief
with oppression nor deviated from Allah’s path and His `shari’ah’. Rather they
have conformed to Allah’s laws, commands and teachings. Therefore, they are
rightly guided, safe, and happy here and in the Hereafter.

Unlike the true believers, those who have led themselves towards error,
deviation and misguidance and turned away from Allah’s remembrance, have turned
their lives into an inferno and a torment. The Qur’an describes their life and
end as follows:

"And whoever turns away from My monition, verily his shall be a life straitened,
and We shall raise him up on the Day of Judgment, blind. He shall say: `O, my
Lord! why have you raised me blind? Whereas indeed I was seeing (before)?’
(Allah) will say: `Thus (is the recompense) for did come to you Our signs but
you did ignore them; and even so are you forsaken this Day.’"

Holy Qur’an (20:124-126)

Because of their turning away from Allah’s remembrance, refusing and disobeying
the true will, they have gone astray. They have blundered in the darkness of
ignorance and deviation. Allah, the Exalted, says:

"…and whoever disobeys Allah and His Apostle, indeed he has strayed off a
manifest straying." Holy Qur’an (33:36)

"Have you then seen him who takes as his god his vain desires, and Allah has
allowed him to be astray (with his), knowing (it), and set a seal upon his ear
and his heart and caused upon his eyes a veil; who can guide him after (his
being allowed to stray by) Allah? What! Will you not then reflect?" Holy Qur’an
(45:23)

So, this is the reality of `jahiliyah’, i. e., deviation from the religion of
Allah, refusing His message, disobeying His Apostles, adoring lusts and
temptations, and obeying the tyrants and the aggressors. Finally, if we study
similar ideas of ignorant life, we will reach the following conclusions:

`Jahiliyah’ (Global ignorance) was a social disease. It was a psychological
state afflicting individuals, peoples, and nations in each period and
generation. The aspects of this ignorant life are quite similar regardless of
time and place. Allah, the Exalted, says:

"In their hearts is a disease, Allah increases their disease,…" Holy Qur’an
(2:10)

"And say those (pagans) who know not: `Why does not Allah speak to us or a sign
come to us?’ Even thus said those before them; the like of what they say. Their
hearts are all alike; We have indeed made clear the signs to people who are
certainly sure." Holy Qur’an (2:118)

The evidence to this similarity is the long history of mankind, the succession
of nations and offsprings, the appearance of the symptoms of the ignorant life
in many generations and nations in each period of history, and the deviation
from the right path and the call to guidance and the Prophets.

On the pages of history and life’s stage, we see standing examples belonging to
the past and present life of mankind-we see atheism, oppression, tyranny,
terrorism, bloodshedding, loss of truth, persecution of the oppressed,
exploiting the poor, and widespread vices.

These are the reflections of the ignorant current on the life of mankind. This
current represents deviation from the truth, justice, belief. Consequently,
bewilderment, going astray, and deviation from the straight path are the most
important marks of `Jahiliyah’ from which man suffered too much crises and
endured their pains.


Source: Selected excerpt from

Man and Ignorance
by Al Balagh Foundation

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