Jāhilīyya (Arabic: الجاهلیة) or the Age of Ignorance is a terminology of the Qur'an and hadiths that refers to the lifestyle, conducts and beliefs of Arabs before the emergence of Islam in Arabia. The word "jahiliyya" is derived from the word "jahl" (ignorance) which, along with its cognates, were used in the Arabic poetry before Islam. The word literally means lack of knowledge, but this usage does not have such implications; rather it refers to a sort of conduct that is so arrogant and self-centered that does not obey any power, be it human or divine, right or wrong.
On the whole, hadiths in this regard imply that the Prophet (s) and Imams (a) sought to counter and reform the residual practices of Jahiliyya. They sometimes criticized the Jahiliyya bias or zealotry and sometimes its specific manifestations and instances.
According to some hadiths, lack of knowledge about imamate amounts to Jahiliyya: one who dies without knowing the Imam of one's time, dies as if one has been living in the age of Jahiliyya. This has been mentioned in supplications too.
The word "jahiliyya" is derived from the word "jahl" (ignorance) meaning either the state of being ignorant or a group of people who are ignorant.
In the Qur'an
The word "Jahiliyya" is used four times in the Qur'an, and in all cases it is reproached and disapproved. Such a disapprobative tone is present in some other Qur'anic verses in which other cognates of the word, such as "yajhalūn" (یجهلون , they ignore) and "jāhilūn/jāhilīn" (جاهلون/جاهلین , the ignorants), are used. In general, the Qur'an points to a certain period of the Arabic history before Islam and calls it the Age of Ignorance (Jahiliyya) because people displayed ignorant (jahili) conducts.
- The Qur'an, 3:154, "they think of Allah thoughts that were not true, the thought of ignorance (jahiliyya)", reproaches some people because of untrue thoughts about God. Al-Tabari takes the verse to refer to hypocrites who thought wrongly about God and the Prophet (s). Al-Tabrisi takes the "thought of ignorance" to be the thought entertained by hypocrites to the effect that God will not help the Prophet (s) and his companions. However, 'Allama Tabataba'i maintains that the "thought of ignorance" refers to the thought entertained by some Muslims that because they converted to Islam, they should definitely win all the battles, and God is required to unconditionally help His religion and its followers.
- The Qur'an, 5:50: "do they then seek after a judgment of ignorance (jahiliyya)?" The judgment of ignorance refers to a sort of whimsical judgment not based on any revelation or a book. The verse encompasses anyone who seeks after a judgment other than that of God. 'Allama Tabataba'i appealed to a hadith from Imam al-Sadiq (a) to conclude that judgments are either divine or out of ignorance (jahiliyya).
- The Qur'an, 33:33: "make not a dazzling display, like that of the former times of ignorance". The Prophet's (s) wives, as well as other Muslim women, are prohibited by this verse from displaying themselves the way women in the Age of Jahiliyya displayed themselves, such as arrogant walking or showing their ornaments to men.
- The Qur'an, 48:26: "when the unbelievers established in their hearts zealotry, the zealotry of ignorance (Jahiliyya)". The "zealotry of ignorance" refers to the bigotry of Arabs in the Age of Ignorance for their idols preventing them from enlightened thinking, such as thinking about the Prophet's (s) message. According to Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, zealotry is a bad personal character, and "zealotry of ignorance" is doubly so.
Some Traditions and Practices of Jahiliyya
Here are some traditions and practices of Jahiliyya that the Qur'an has referred to:
- Mistreating one's parents
- Killing one's children out of poverty
- Coercing bondwomen to commit adultery
- Burying one's daughters alive
- Contempt for women
- Azlam (games of chance or divination by arrows)
- Sanctification of some animals, such as Bahira (a slit-ear female camel).
The way the word "jahiliyya" is used in hadiths shows that it was a common word used to refer to certain mores and conducts before the bi'tha of the Prophet (s). In general, hadiths imply that the Prophet (s) and Imams (a) sought to counter the residues of Jahiliyya thoughts and practices among Muslims. They sometimes reproached its foundations, such as Jahiliyya biases and zealotries, and sometimes illustrated and criticized particular instances of its associated thoughts and practices.
Some hadiths show that the Prophet's (s) companions sometimes reviewed the memories of their lives and culture during the Age of Ignorance. The Prophet (s) told them that if they rightly commit to Islam, they will not be punished for what they did during the period of Jahiliyya, though he ordered them to be committed to pacts they had made during Jahiliyya.
Some of Imam 'Ali (a)'s sermons imply that during Jahiliyya, people of Arab had unpleasant foods and drinks as well as inappropriate family and social relations; in general, they had inappropriate, disgusting life styles. Similar remarks are made by Ja'far b. Abi Talib—the head of Muslims in the migration to Abyssinia—to the king of Abyssinia. Similar points are also made by Fatima al-Zahra (a) in her speech in the Prophet's Mosque after his demise.
In Shiite hadiths, the following are mentioned as instances of Jahiliyya practices:
- Jahiliyya zealotry
- Taking sides with wrongdoers of one's own tribe over righteous people from other tribes when there was a quarrel between the two
- Making no will before one's death
- Rubbing the blood of 'aqiqa (an animal, such as a sheep or a cow, slaughtered for charity purposes after the birth of a baby) on the newborn's head
- Eating food in the house of a person who was mourning the loss of his loved one.
The Relation between Imamate and Jahiliyya
According to Shiite hadiths, ignorance of one's Imam is equivalent to Jahiliyya. The theme also appears in some supplication; for example, in the supplication for the Occultation of Imam al-Mahdi (a), God is asked not to let one die with the death of ignorance.
Also some Shiite hadiths took enmity with Imam 'Ali (a) to cause the death of Jahiliyya. Moreover, according to some hadiths, when Imam al-Mahdi (a) appears, just like the Prophet (s) in the early days of Islam, he will try to combat Jahiliyya.
The Views of Orientalists
Contemporary Orientalists, and in particular, researchers in Islamic and Arab studies as well as the Prophet (s) and Qur'anic studies, shed more light on the concept of Jahiliyya.
The Hungarian Orientalist, Ignác Goldziher, who studied the poetry and culture of Jahiliyya, took "jahl" here not to mean ignorance as opposed to knowledge, but rather to be opposed to "hilm" (Arabic: حلم) which means wisdom and rationality. Therefore, the period of Jahiliyya is not a period of lacking knowledge, rather it was the period of barbarism and rebellion, that is, violence, arrogance, selfishness, absurd talks, and the like.
Although Goldziher's view was later put into doubt, and later translators of the Qur'an did not take his view into account when they translated the word "jahl" and its cognates, his research as well as newer researches about the Arabic culture before Islam provided material for later researchers.
In his book, Ethico-religious concepts in the Qur'an, the Japanese scholar of Islamic studies, Toshihiko Izutsu, drew upon a research based on Qur'anic verses and evidence from hadiths and history to develop Godlziher's view, and he arrived at the conclusion that in the Qur'anic usage, the word "jahl" and its cognates refer to the hostility of the Prophet's (s) opponents to monotheism; they thought that monotheism was a strict and onerous belief. During the period of Jahiliyya, people of Arab did not take Allah to be the only god; rather they believed that there was a hierarchy of gods none of whom was to be obeyed in an absolute manner. Thus the belief that Allah was the only god would make a drastic change in their conception of the relation between God and humans, because it requires that one be unconditionally obedient of one and the same God. In fact, such obedience requires that one give up one's arrogance and selfishness, whereas Jahiliyya requires the idea of human autonomy. Drawing on Qur'anic verses, Izutsu took arrogance to be the origin of all characters of Jahiliyya.
Régis Blachère, the French Orientalist, concerned himself with the psychology of primitive Arabs by an appeal to data from the history of Arabic literature. In his view, individual and social characters of Arabs in the period of Jahiliyya included violence, arrogance, irritability, pugnacity, seeking fame, ambition, vengeance, the need to exhibitionism, bragging about one's wealth, and prodigality.
Endorsing Goldziher's view, Blachère says that all these psychological manifestations were as a whole called "Jahiliyya". William Watt has talked about all these characters as "tribal humanism".
Moreover, Rosenthal has—in addition to a lexicological investigation of the word "jahiliyya"—compared Jewish sources and Qur'anic verses in this regard.
Jahiliyya after Islam
According to evidence from the Qur'an and hadiths, as well as scholarly researches, Jahiliyya did not end by the emergence of Islam, rather many of its residues remained among early Muslims such that the early centuries of the Islamic history can rightly be called the period of conflict between the culture of Jahiliyya and new Islamic values.
Ibn Taymiyya's View
In his book, Iqtida' al-sirat al-mustaqim mukhalafat asḥab al-jahim (that the right path requires the opposition to people of the Hell), Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1327-8) called the ignorance before Islam the "absolute Jahiliyya" as opposed to the ignorance during the Islamic period which he called "partial Jahiliyya". He referred to some of its instances in his own time, such as practices by Muslims in their religious celebrations which were similar to those of unbelievers.
Muhammad b. 'Abd al-Wahhab's View
Muhammad b. 'Abd al-Wahhab (the founder of Wahhabism, d. 1206/1791-2) believed that people around the world, or at least people in Arabia, were still in the period of Jahiliyya because their beliefs and practices were not based on revelation.
Muhammad 'Abduh and Muhammad Rashid Rida
In the early 20th century, some Islamic reformists such as Muhammad 'Abduh (d. 1323/1905-6) and Muhammad Rashid Rida (d. 1354/1935-6) talked about modern Jahiliyya in their Tafsir al-manar. They maintained that some Muslims in the contemporary period exhibit behaviors that are, in religious and ethical respects, worse than what was practiced in the period of Jahiliyya.
The idea of "modern Jahiliyya" was revived as an independent concept by some scholars in recent decades, mainly as a result of the encounter between the Islamic world and the modern world. For the first time in 1318sh/1939-40, Sayyid Abu l-A'la al-Maududi (d. 1358sh/1979-80), the Pakistani religious leader and politician, talked about modernity as the modern Jahiliyya. He intended the term to include all governmental systems and socio-political viewpoints that are incompatible with Islamic ethics and cultures. He considered both the Communist and the Western worlds to be examples of modern Jahiliyya. Mawdudi's views were circulated in the Arabic world by the translation of his works into Arabic in 1950s.
Sayyid Qutb's View
The Egyptian religious scholar and political activist, Sayyid Qutb (d. 1346 Sh./1967-8), remarkably developed the notion of modern Jahiliyya. In his view, all ideas, beliefs, cultures and laws in today's world are instances of Jahiliyya. In this view, Jahiliyya is one human serving and obeying another human, whereas Islam is one human serving and obeying God. Thus the two are irreconcilable, and in order to establish an Islamic society we should move from Jahiliyya to Islam.
Muhammad Qutb's View
Sayyid Qutb's brother, Muhammad Qutb (d. 1344 Sh./1965-6), also maintains that Jahiliyya consists in the psychological attitude of refusing to accept any guidance from God and a behavioral attitude which rejects performing in accordance with divine laws. In other words, Jahiliyya consists in whimsical judgments that may occur in any period and by any ethnicity. He held that Arab's Jahiliyya was simple and superficial, but modern Jahiliyya is based on science, research, theorization, and in general, what has come to be called progress and modern civilization. Muhammad Qutb took the twentieth century Jahiliyya to be the outcome of Jahiliyya in all periods of the Western history. In his view, the way to be liberated from the modern Jahiliyya is the liberation from its two tenets, that is, Capitalism and Communism, and the return to Islam.
'Ali Shari'ati has also talked about Jahiliyya in some of his works, such as Bazgasht (The return) and Ba mukhatabhayi ashna (With familiar audiences).
- The material for this article is mainly taken from جاهلیت in Farsi Wikishia.