Cry me a Jāhiliyya: Muslim Reconstructions of Pre-Islamic Arabian Culture—A Case Study [chapter]

2020 Islam at 250  
For all the complexities and evidential complications historians confront when reconstructing the spread of Islam in the Middle East, there is a substructure upon which the whole edifice of early Islam stands, which is yet even more knotty and in need of pressing attention. This historical conundrum is the concept known in Arabic as al-Jāhiliyya. Most commentators interpret al-Jāhiliyya as the pre-Islamic Arabian world into which Muḥammad directed his prophetic messages, and al-Jāhiliyya
more » ... al-Jāhiliyya thereby embodies both Islam's formative milieu and the lore of Islam's pre-history, making it a logical starting point for any study that seeks to understand how Islam emerged in Arabia. Yet al-Jāhiliyya is a conundrum because the world of pre-Islamic Arabia is very difficult to conceptualise. The most detailed accounts were recorded by Muslims after an effluxion of several centuries following Muḥammad, and while the Arabic literature offers us a vast store of information, its interpretation presents a double-edged difficulty. First, we do not know quite how accurately the Muslim-era stories about al-Jāhiliyya map onto the real cultures and societies of pre-Islamic Arabia, particularly those of al-Ḥijāz, the region where Muḥammad was born.1 And second, we do not yet understand the discourses behind the Muslim recording of pre-Islamic lore, and hence we do not know what kinds of grains of salt we need to take when interpreting the texts. Since both pre-Islam's empirical history and the Muslim literary narratives about it are obscure, positivists, narratologists and historians of other persuasions grapple with Arabic literature about al-1 The efforts to reconstruct the history of the seemingly "empty Ḥijāz" are summarised in James Montgomery, "The Empty Ḥijāz," in Arabic Theology, Arabic Philosophy: From the Many to the One: Essays in Celebration of Richard M. Frank, ed. James Montgomery (Leuven: Peeters, 2006), 37-97. Recent archaeological surveys have revealed little substantive material dating between the mid-fourth century and the time of Muḥammad (
doi:10.1163/9789004427952_013 fatcat:xickrh7shnh7dgum5gdqkt2lfa