The message of Islam started over 1400 years ago and it came as the complete religion that governs the social, economic, and political systems of humans. The era preceding the message of Islam was one of the most important eras to study. It is that era that Islam fought first and aimed to change. That era is known as the Age of Jahiliyya (Ignorance).
At first look, one might say that Islam fought and changed the people during Jahiliyya, but given our current technological and scientific era, things are different. Upon examining Jahiliyya deeper, it will be very evident how our world today is very different from the world back then on the surface, but at their cores they are exactly the same. Understanding these similarities is key if we are to follow the right path, enjoin the good, and forbid the evil.
Tribalism and Nationalism
During Jahiliyya, people used to take pride in belonging to a specific tribe. This strong sense of belonging was translated into belittling those who belonged to other tribes. Each tribe started seeing itself as the best for whatever reason. These reasons can include pedigree, wealth, power, army force, trade, recognition, and so on.
Belonging to a tribe soon started a trend of inducing injustice in society. For example, those who belonged to a superior tribe were not punished for doing wrong. Furthermore, it led to having the social standard for respect and fear to be the name of a tribe. Finally, tribalism led to destructive wars under the flag of revenge-seeking. If a man from tribe A kills another man from tribe B, tribe B will aim to punish the whole of tribe A. At times, the killer escapes but his whole tribe will have to pay for his actions. Why? Because he belongs to them.
Islam changed all that. Being the best became independent of which tribe one belonged to. Instead, piety was the measuring stick. Allah says in the Holy Qur'an, "O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you." (49:13)
As for respect and fear, those with knowledge and wisdom were the ones who gained high status in Islam. In the Qur'an, Allah says, "Allah will raise those who have believed among you and those who were given knowledge, by degrees." (58:11)
Finally, punishment was only imposed on the wrongdoers. It did not matter who they were or which tribe they belonged to. No one is exempt and this is what we find in the lives of the Ahlul Bayt (peace be upon them).
With all those observations, when we look around ourselves today, we can find that a new form of tribalism emerged – nationalism.
Today, people who belong to specific countries are seen as superior to others. They are given more freedom. They get more job opportunities. They simply get more attention. Why? Because of their passport! This is tribalism, just with a different face.
Even though 1400 years have passed since tribal life, here we are again, allowing our nationality to control us and lead us to disaster after disaster.
Slavery and the Poor Class
The economy in the past was built upon livestock, crops, and slaves. During Jahilyya, many slaves were treated miserably by their masters. Slaves would be assigned tasks beyond their abilities. They would be punished for small mistakes. They would be physically tortured for various reasons. Their food was unlike their masters'. They lacked support. They lacked comfort. And above all, they were owned by others and could not resign. They could not just leave when they were unhappy.
Even more, slaves were not given the freedom to make their own decisions. Even when slaves wanted to join Islam, their masters tortured them and went to extremes in order to force them into disbelieving.
Islam came and it changed all that. Islam defined a distinct system that governs "slavery". The Prophet and his Holy Household (peace be upon them all) taught us how to deal with slaves. They taught us how treat them. They even emphasized the importance of freeing them. After all, Allah created us as free humans.
Today, the slavery system is nonexistent. However, the different non-Islamic economical structures have divided societies in multiple classes – mainly rich, middle, and poor classes. If we examine the poor class, we see how they struggle to make a living. Many of the employees that belong to the poor class are overworked beyond their capacity. They are mistreated in the workplace. They are forced into below average lives. Their "rich masters" are always applying pressure on them. In a time when they need appreciation, they do not find it. But they are trapped and cannot just stop going to work, because the need money. Yes, they may not be referred to as slaves, but they surely live like ones.
Of course, today, it is not only the poor class employees. Slavery-like systems exist in the form of servants, maids, and cheap labor to name a few. It is 1400 years after Jahiliyya, but here we are reinstating their systems directly and indirectly.
Women: Then and Today
One of the very controversial topics when examining the Jahiliyya era is women. Allah reveals in the Qur'an few aspects concerning women in Jahiliyya. He says, "And when one of them is informed of (the birth of) a female, his face becomes dark, and he suppresses grief." (16:58) In another verse, Allah says, "And when the girl (who was) buried alive is asked, For what sin she was killed." (81:8-9) These two verses refer to the act of burying alive female newborns.
As shown in the aforementioned verses, women during Jahiliyya were viewed as a disgrace and burden upon the family. Killing their female newborns was one of their cruel ways of ridding themselves of this "shame".
Even more, women were usually viewed as products meant for pleasure. Simply put, women were not given the respect they are entitled to. They were either slaves or sources of pleasure.
Looking at today reveals the exact same truth. Although female infanticide is no longer common, there are still people whose cultures have taught them to be disappointed when a female is born.
However, the highlight of the similarities between Jahiliyya and today is how today, women are being used as products and means to ends. Women are focused on in advertising and the media. Unfortunately, the focus is usually not on the woman's intellect; it is the woman's body.
Women in revealing clothes and sensual poses are on the front covers of magazines, books, movie posters, and even products including electronics, furniture, clothing, automobiles, and many other products.
A woman is used like that to help engage emotions of people (attraction in men, competitiveness and jealousy in women). The major aim, however, is to increase sales and get the product noticed.
Of course, it goes without saying that women are abused even further through prostitution and "nightlife routines".
Today, as during the time of Jahiliyya, women are being used as means to an end; whether the end is money or pleasure.
The final aspect of Jahiliyya to be discussed is one of the major foundations of that time – idol-worshipping. Many of the people who lived during that time worshipped stone idols and deviated from worshipping Allah.
Idol-worshipping is mainly a byproduct of a lack of intellect and contemplation. People at the time carved idols from stones and bowed to them. In essence, they created their own god and worshipped it. Moments of contemplation would lead the mind to questioning the authenticity of these gods. Yet, idols were widespread signaling that people followed traditions blindly.
Today, some religions are based on idol-worshipping. However, this is not where the resemblance with Jahiliyya ends. There are far more dangerous idols that many people – even the Muslims – are in danger of worshipping.
Yesterday, these idols were called Hubal, Lat, Ozza, Manat. Today, these idols are called money, fame, power, and one's own self.
Some people accumulate money and will go to any extreme to protect it. In essence, they become slaves to money. Money controls their health. Money controls their ethics. Money controls their social and familial ties. Money controls their lives.
Alongside money, power and reign have their share of controlling people's lives. Those in power will be drowning in fear of losing their prestige and their status. Anything that threatens their chair will be eliminated. They will kill. They will imprison. They will torture. They will spread fear amongst those living under their rule. Keep in mind that power and reign are not only limited to political positions. They can be in the form of company bosses, business owners, parents, teachers, and other such positions of authority.
But the most dangerous form of idolatry is the one that Allah warns us against in the Qur'an. This idol is none other than our own selves and desires. Allah says, "Have you seen he who has taken as his god his (own) desire." (45:23)
When we transform ourselves into idols that we worship, we will be trapped. We will come to think of ourselves as being in power. We will consider ourselves the richest. We will see ourselves as the best that there is. We will cross limits to achieve what we want. All this has been seen before in history. Oppressors and tyrants are among the best examples.
It is this idol that takes us back to Jahiliyya. It is present, and we have to be very careful.
In the Light of Islam
Today does tie back to the era of Jahiliyya in many ways. Yes, not everyone living back then was corrupt. There were those who were filled with the light of guidance from Allah. And afterwards, the light of the Prophet and Ahlul Bayt spread far and wide to fight against all the corruption of Jahiliyya. We should hang onto this light and guidance and seek the pleasure of Allah.
Surely, it is in that that we can overcome all the practices of Jahiliyya today and set the stage for the appearance of our Imam al-Hujja (may Allah hasten his reappearance).