The Arabian Peninsula is enclosed in the west by the Red Sea and Sinai, in the east by the Arabian Gulf, in the south by the Arabian Sea -which is an extension of the Indian Ocean- and in the north by old Syria and part of Iraq. The area is estimated between 1 and 1.25 million square miles.
Arabs have been divided according to lineage into three groups:
Perishing Arabs: The ancient Arabs whose history is little known, and of whom were ‘Aad, Thamood, Tasam, Jadis, Emlaq and others.
Pure Arabs: The Arabs who originated from the progeny of Ya‘rub ibn Yashjub ibn Qahtan. They were also called Qahtanian Arabs.
Arabized Arabs: The Arabs who originated from the progeny of 'Isma'il u. They were also called ‘Adnanian Arabs.
When talking about the Arabs before Islam, we deem it necessary to draw a mini-picture of the history of rulership, princeship, sectarianism, political, economic and social situations as well as the religious dominations of the Arabs, so as to facilitate the understanding of emergent circumstances when Islam appeared.
Rulership and Princeship among the Arabs
When the sun of Islam rose, rulers of Arabia were of two kinds: crowned kings, who were in fact not independent but were subservient to the Persians or Romans; and heads of tribes and clans, who enjoyed the same authorities and privileges possessed by crowned kings and were mostly independent, though some of them may have shown some kind of submission to a crowned king. The crowned kings were only those of Yemen, Hirah and Ghassan, all other rulers of Arabia were not crowned.
The tribes dwelling near Hirah were subordinate to the Arabian king of Hirah, while those dwelling in the Syrian semi-desert were under the domain of the Arabian Ghassanide king, a dependency that was in reality formal, rather than actual. However, those living in the hinder deserts enjoyed full autonomy.
In fact, the heads of these tribes were chosen by the whole tribe, and therefore was a demi-government based on tribal solidarity and collective interests in defence of land and property.
Heads of tribes enjoyed dictatorial privileges similar to those of kings, and were rendered full obedience and subordination in both war and peace. However, rivalry among cousins for rulership often drove them to outdo one another in entertaining guests, affecting generosity, wisdom and chivalry for the sole purpose of outranking their rivals and gaining fame among people - especially poets, who were the official spokesmen at the time.
Religions of the Arabs
Most of the Arabs had complied with the message of Prophet 'Isma'il u and professed the religion of his father Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) u . They had worshipped Allah, professed His Oneness and followed His religion, until a time came when they forgot part of the original message. However, they still maintained fundamental beliefs like monotheism as well as various other aspects of Prophet Ibrahim’s religion until the time when a chief of Khuza‘a, namely ‘Amr ibn Luhai introduced them to idol-worship. ‘Amr ibn Luhai was renowned for his righteousness, charity and reverence for religion, and was granted unreserved love and obedience by his tribesmen. Once, on his return from a trip to Syria where he saw people worshipping idols (a phenomenon he approved of and believed to be righteous since Syria was the locus of Messengers and Scriptures), he brought with him an idol (Hubal), which he placed in the middle of Al-Ka’bah (the Sacred House) and summoned people to worship it. Readily enough, paganism spread all over Makkah and then to Hijaz (the region of western Saudi Arabia bordering the Red Sea). A great many idols, bearing different names, were introduced into the area.
Polytheism and the worship of idols became the most prominent features of the religion of pre-Islamic Arabs, despite the alleged profession of Prophet Ibrahim’s religion.
Traditions and idol-worship ceremonies had been mostly introduced by ‘Amr ibn Luhai, and were deemed as 'good innovations' rather than deviations from Prophet Ibrahim’s religion. Some features of their idol-worship were:
Devoting themselves completely to the idols, seeking refuge with them, acclaiming their names, beseeching their help in hardship and supplicating to them for fulfilment of wishes, hoping that the idols would mediate with Allah for the fulfilment of their wishes.
Performing pilgrimage to the idols, circumambulating around them, self-abasement and even prostrating themselves before them.
Seeking the favour of idols through various kinds of sacrifices and immolations.
Consecration of certain portions of food, drink, cattle and crops to idols. Surprisingly enough, portions were also consecrated to Allah Himself, but the misguided people often found reasons to transfer parts of Allah’s portion to idols, but never did the opposite.
The Arabs believed that such idols or heathen gods would bring them nearer to Allah, lead them to Him and mediate with Him for their sake, to which effect, the Qur'an responds:
"And they worship other than Allah things that hurt them not, nor profit them, and they say: ‘These are our intercessors with Allah.’" [Qur'an 10:18]
Another divinatory tradition among the Arabs was casting of Azlam (i.e. featherless arrows which were of three kinds: one showing ‘yes’, another ‘no’ and a third was blank), which they used to cast while deciding about serious matters like travel, marriage and the like. If the lot showed ‘yes’, they would go ahead, if ‘no’, they would delay the matter for the next year. Moreover, they used to have a deep conviction in the tidings of soothsayers, diviners and astrologers.
Such was the religious life in Arabia: an ignominious saga of polytheism, idolatry and superstition.
The migration of the Jews from Palestine to Arabia passed through two phases: First, as a result of the persecution to which they were exposed at the hands of King Nebuchadnezzar, who destroyed their temple and took most of them as captives to Babylon. In the year 587 CE some Jews left Palestine for Hijaz and settled in the northern areas. The second phase started with the Roman occupation of Palestine under the leadership of Roman Buts in 70 CE. This resulted in a tidal wave of Jewish migration into Hijaz, Yathrib (Al-Madinah), Khaybar and Tayma’, in particular. When Islam dawned on that land, there already existed several famous Jewish tribes — Khaybar, Al-Mustaliq, An-Nadhir, Qurayzah and Qainuqa‘. According to some historical versions, the Jewish tribes were as many as twenty.
Christianity first made its appearance in Arabia following the entry of the Abyssinian (Ethiopian) and Roman colonists into the country. The Abyssinian colonization forces in league with Christian missionaries entered Yemen as a retaliatory reaction for the iniquities of Dhu Nawwas, and started to propagate their faith ardently. They even built a church and called it the "Yemeni Ka’bah" with the aim of directing the Arab pilgrimage caravans towards Yemen, and even made a failed attempt to demolish the Sacred House in Makkah.
The principal tribes that embraced Christianity were Ghassan, Taghlib, Tai’ and some Himyarite kings as well as other tribes living on the borders of the Roman Empire.