Adonis Diaries

Matriarchal: Pre-Islam Arab cultures in Arabic Peninsula?

Posted on: July 9, 2010

Matriarchal: Pre-Islam Arab cultures?

In a previous article I stated that:

First,  Arabic tribes are as ancient as antiquity; it appears that the first time the word “Arab” was discovered in manuscripts was in 853 BC as a coalition of Arab tribes, associated with Syria and a few Israelite tribes in northern Palestine to counter an Assyrian incursion in the Levant (Near East region of current Syria, Lebanon and Palestine).

Second, many “Arabic” stories and myths were altered and recounted by bordering Empires to fit their environment and culture.

Third, Arabic tribes extended to the desert region between the Euphrates and Tiger Rivers, to the vast stretch of land bordering the Red Sea, to Southern Palestine and Jordan, to the Sinai Peninsula, and to the lands bordering the Persian Gulf.

Fourth, the Arabic tribes languages and cultures were influenced by the urban civilization in Yemen, the various Persian Empires and India, and the various Western Empires of Greek, Roman, and Byzantium Empires before the advent of Islam. I am inclined to believe that India civilization was the most influential, particularly in the separation of genders at home and in public, and the “hareem” tradition…

Fifth, the dominant Empires at every period paid tributes to coalition of Arabic tribes in return of keeping the peace on demarcation borders, facilitating trade caravans, and for gathering intelligence on the enemy as advance signs of changing policies, and for joining in battles.

In the origin, ancient Arabic tribes had matriarchal social structures.

A tribe had higher standing compared to others when its matriarch owned more husbands, particularly, captured enemy men.  It was women who took the initiative of selecting their men.  More often than than not, disputation for acquiring men resulted in tribal wars.

The Command of a tribe was in the hand of the woman who had the most of husbands.

Thus, it was common for the victor tribe to mutilate the husbands of vanquished tribes. It is no enigma why the three most venerated idols were women warriors such as Manat, Uzzat, and Lat.  It is no enigma why the Prophet Mohammad was ready to strike a compromise with the tribes of Mecca, before being chased out of the city, to considering the three goddesses as valid supporters to the all-encompassing God Allah.

Fact is, there was an idol called Allah who was considered to be above all idols, but he had no particular talents for business and didn’t generate donations to the clan that owned it.  It is no surprise that most love poems alluded to female camels and horses that had names .

With time, women realized that it was not a good policy to mutilate “enemy” men, but that sexual attraction skills were more beneficial in wooing husbands.  Thus, the development of garment, aromatic, and jewelry industries.  Textile art witnessed great expansion; mainly in veils to guard against sun rays and desert dust.

Public duels within a tribe were among women who danced best and seduced most men.

Belly dancing (raksa) were restricted to women who knew the language of the message to send.  The raksa was based on fast paced rhythm of monochord percussion instruments.  For example, choreographic dances were selected according to the alphabetic string of characters forming a word or a sentence.

This dance language was known by women.  Men were totally ignorant of what was being said or discussed in the dances.

Most probably, patriarchal structures supplanted the previous structure due to influences of Jewish tribes and the tribes that settled in Syria and Iraq. Thus, more male idols were imported to strengthen patriarchal societies within Arabic tribes.

Thus, as you read about pre-Islam cultures of Arabic tribes you should keep in mind thousand of years of traditions and customs.  Pre-Islam Arabic cultures are lumped by the new emerging Islam as “Period of Ignorance (Jahilyya)” meaning ignorance of the One and Unique God Allah.

Fact is, many Arabic tribes were already Christians or what is labelled “heretic” Christians, because they had dogmas different from the Byzantine Orthodox dogma.  Fact is, many Arabic tribes were Jewish;

Fact is,  many more believed in Mazda (the dominant religion in Persia.)

Fact is, most of the idols that Arabic tribes venerated were imported from Syria, Persia, and India.  Islam became the common denominator religion among Arabic tribes during the Prophet Muhammad life.

I might describe a few of the pre-Islam poets and cultures in a third articles.  What follows are a few pre-Islam saying extracted mostly from “The enigma of Qaf” by Alberto Mussa:

“When I tell a lie, am I not restoring an ancient truth?”  (The Arabic Scheherazade)

Two write:  The one with a lousy memory and the other who lacks verbal expression skills”

“I love women who, when naked, are never totally nude” (Poet Imru2 al Qayss)

“Honor is but another form of fear” (Poet Shanfara)

“Is there any greater glory than being ignored by hyenas?” (Poet Amru ben Kulthum)

Three are stupid:  the one who does not know that he doesn’t; the one who knows that he doesn’t; and the one who doesn’t know that he knows.”  (Poet Labid or Lubad)

“Having respect for your enemies is celebrating a cult to the dead.” (Poet Antara)

“O beauty! O Women! O desert!” (Anonymous)

Three possess faith: The Persian in his horoscope, the Jew in his laws, and the Arab in his camel.”

Two are innocents:  A beautiful girl and an armed man.”

“What you don’t own, steal it” (Ali Baba)

Why ask of God what I can buy on the market?” (Mundhir)

“The greatest merit of an atheist is that he does not believe in demons.”

Four are pleasures: laughing, eating, loving, and knowing.”

I love the concept of woman, and only that concept. This one woman, the other one: Who can tell me the difference?” (Poet Imru el Qayss)

“True wise men can never be happy.”

Even talking about a single evident fact requires that you have read a thousand book.” (Malika)

“Ask the dead if they really want peace!” (Poet Tarafa)

“Realising your desires is the work of an imbecile.” (Aladin)

“I have never forgiven: I have not the pretension of possessing a virtue attributed to God.”

Nothing is that grand to merit being taken seriously.” (Poet Al Aasha the dim sighted)

“We don’t kill a pork without soiling the knife.”

“I love the tribe of bats:  Every female is beautiful.”

“The best in life are those that we have no use of them.” (Poet Zuheir)

I am immortal: I will never know when I died.” (Harith bi Hilliza)

“I don’t like everything that I possess, but I possess everything that I love.” (Poet Nabigha al Zubyani)

“The best of blind people are those who want to see.”


4 Responses to "Matriarchal: Pre-Islam Arab cultures in Arabic Peninsula?"

[…] About Part Two. Pre-Islam Arab cultures: Matriarchal? […]

Some of what is written here is inaccurate and at times makes no sense. First off, ancient Arabians were a culturally diverse group. Some were matriarchal but others were not, though one could argue that matriarchy was much more common in Arabia in the distant past. It’s possible some tribes may have been led by women or matriarchs. Take the matriarch of the Qirfa tribe, Umm Qirfa for example who was murdered by Muhammad’s apostles for criticizing him. Though whether a woman led a tribe had NOTHING to do with how many husbands she had. Although polyandry or the marriage of multiple husbands at the same time was practiced by some Arabian tribes, it was not practiced by all. Plus, the mutilation of enemy men was done by the men NOT women and Arab women usually would not have any desire for defeated enemy warriors because they are considered weak. That said, there were many women who fought as warriors though I find it strange you mention none. Just a few examples would by Queen Zenobia who fought against the Romans, Princess Halima of the Ghassanid who fought the Lakhmids, Khawlah Bint al-Kindiyyah who fought against the Greeks, and Hind al-Hunud who fought against Muhammad and his forces. As far as religion, the only goddess of the great three who was a warrior was Al Uzza. Most of the idols in Mecca were NOT foreign although some probably were. The practice of purdah or segregation of women did NOT come from India either but was adopted long before the Indians adopted it. At least you mentioned the women poets who were especially revered, though I think you should also talk about the pre-Islamic Kahinas (Arab female shamans).

good addition. Most of the women worriers were Christians (the Ghassasina), or Romains (Zenobia)… Maybe Hind was an excellent example and an equal to Mohammad in leading people… The piece was not meant to be an exhaustive essay… As for the practice of purdah, I think that I could be correct because India was the main trading partner to all the countries in Indian Ocean and the disseminator of its culture and civilization… The Kahinas were predominant in northern Africa, before the Arab Moslems occupied the coastal shores…

India may have been a major trading partner with Arabia but so too was east Africa, and India did not disseminate much of its culture to Arabia the way it did to Southeast Asia–both Hinduism and Buddhism. I’m unaware of India spreading any cultural practices in the treatment of women other than that found in the religions I mentioned. As far as purdah is concerned, the Indians actually had no widespread practice of purdah among them until THEY were invaded by Muslims! In fact, before the Islamic invasions, Indian women not only mingled with men out in public but they also went about topless like the men!! The only Indian women who covered themselves were those who lived in the northernmost areas which are cooler. Also, the only women who covered their heads in public were high status women which is no different from many cultures. In fact, the practice of purdah in Arabia was actually adopted from Jews and especially Christians from the eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) as cited by historian Hatoon al-Fassi in her book ‘Women in Pre-Islamic Arabia: Nabataea’, although the practice may have older roots from Assyrian conquest and influence see historian Max Dashu’s website ‘Suppressed Histories’ and specifically her article ‘Some thoughts on the Veil’. It’s interesting to note that the prophet Muhammad commanded Muslim women in general to simply cover their bossoms (apparently many Arab women went about topless too!!), yet the prophet told his own wives to cover themselves entirely and wear veils. India may have been patriarchal during the beginning of the 1st millennium when it did trade with Arabia but it certainly was not the source of purdah in Arabia! As for the kahina, I think you are confusing the similar practice in North Africa per the famous Dahia with the native tradition in Arabia. ‘Kahina’ itself is an Arabic word that means ‘priestess’ and was a title given to the Berber Dahia though the North African Berber term is different. In Arabia, the kahina was a priestess who could commune with the gods, jinn and other spirits. These kahina presided in sacred areas where these spirits were said to dwell but were demonized by Muhammad as sahira (witches) and were slaughtered.

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July 2010

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