In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Pre-Islamic Arabia/The Jahiliyya

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Definition and Perspective
  • Sources and Evidence in Translation
  • Trade and Economic Life
  • Culture
  • Politics and External Relations

Islamic Studies Pre-Islamic Arabia/The Jahiliyya
Gerald Hawting
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 April 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0142


Although sometimes used synonymously, the phrase “pre-Islamic Arabia” and the Arabic al-jahiliyya have different connotations. The English phrase implies only a temporal relationship to Islam. The Arabic expression (meaning literally “the age or condition of ignorance”), on the other hand, indicates an evaluation of selected parts of earlier Arabian history from a strongly Islamic perspective. The idea of the Jahiliyya is a construct of Islamic thinkers, developed for particular purposes. It ignores much of great interest for modern scholarship on the Arabs and Arabia and focuses on the immediate background of Islam, the life of the Arabs of western central Arabia (the Hijaz) in the century or so up to and including the early career of the prophet Muhammad (d. 632). This bibliography entry concentrates on aspects of pre-Islamic Arabia that are usually seen as relevant for understanding the rise of Islam, and it does not attempt to cover in any detail those many aspects of Arabian history that do not obviously relate to Islam. Although this entry sometimes goes beyond what has been traditionally included in the notion of the Jahiliyya, it is not concerned substantially with pre-Islamic Arabia in the wider sense.

General Overviews

The most important reference work for all aspects of the study of Islam, including pre-Islamic Arabia and the Jahiliyya, is the second edition of Encyclopaedia of Islam (Bearman, et al. 1954–2006). Following Islamic historical tradition, most works on Islamic history begin with a discussion of the Jahiliyya, although they often go beyond the Islamic treatment of it. These are often good entryways into the subject for the beginner. Donner 1981 is notable for its comparative and anthropological awareness. Some more recent works on Islamic history (notably Berkey 2003), while still treating pre-Islamic Arabia, reflect an understanding that the rise of Islam needs to be considered in a wider historical and geographical context. There are many works devoted entirely to discussions of the history of the Arabs and Arabia before Islam, ranging much more widely than the traditional understanding of the Jahiliyya. Hoyland 2001 is approachable for English readers, although Retsö 2003 goes into greater detail. Volumes that collect various studies that first appeared in scholarly journals or other specialist publications, such as Peters 1999 and Kister 1980, are useful not merely for the studies they contain but sometimes for the editor’s introduction and consolidated bibliography. Shahid 1984 argues that the role of the Arabs in late Antiquity and the importance of the spread of Christianity among them has been undervalued.

  • Bearman, P., et al., eds. Encyclopaedia of Islam. 2d ed. 12 vols. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1954–2006.

    Contains numerous articles on the history, geography, culture, and personalities of pre-Islamic Arabia. For introductory surveys, see the articles “Djahiliyya,” “al-ʿArab,” and “ʿArab (Djazirat al-).” But because these articles appear in the early volumes, they are now inevitably dated, and “Djahiliyya” is somewhat limited.

  • Berkey, Jonathan P. The Formation of Islam: Religion and Society in the Near East, 600–1800. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    Part 1 contains a chapter “Arabia before Islam” in the broader context of “The Near East before Islam.” Excellent textbook that reflects informed scholarship on the rise of Islam.

  • Donner, Fred McGraw. “State and Society in Pre-Islamic Arabia.” In The Early Islamic Conquests. By Fred McGraw Donner, 11–50. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981.

    A thoughtful interpretative survey of geography, tribal life, economic and political conditions.

  • Hoyland, Robert G. Arabia and the Arabs from the Bronze Age to the Coming of Islam. London: Routledge, 2001.

    Extending from prehistory to the coming of Islam, this covers all areas inhabited by Arabs before Islam. Also has chapters devoted to economy, society, religion, and other aspects of culture and discusses the issue of Arab identity. Extensive bibliography of sources and secondary literature. Readable and judicious.

  • Kister, Meir J. Studies in Jahiliyya and Early Islam. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1980.

    From the Variorum Collected Studies Series, along with Society and Religion from Jahiliyya to Islam (1980) and Concepts and Ideas at the Dawn of Islam (1997), this contains all the important articles devoted to the Jahiliyya and early Islam by a leading scholar in the field, renowned above all for his encyclopedic knowledge of the Islamic source material.

  • Peters, F. E., ed. The Arabs and Arabia on the Eve of Islam. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1999.

    A selection of studies by different authors on various aspects of pre-Islamic Arabia with a useful orientation and bibliography by the editor.

  • Retsö, Jan. The Arabs in Antiquity: Their History from the Assyrians to the Umayyads. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.

    Covers much the same ground as Hoyland 2001. Although it is much more detailed than Hoyland, its controversial general thesis has generally been rejected by scholars and Retsö’s scholarship, philologically driven, has been widely criticized. Useful, but use with caution.

  • Shahid, Irfan. Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fourth Century. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 1984.

    Subsequent works with the same general title treat the 5th and 6th centuries. The author’s scholarly method has been criticized and his conclusions seen as exaggerated, but the works are valuable as an indication of the amount of possible evidence available on the Arabs in the centuries before the rise of Islam.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.