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A Critical Analysis of Gustave Le Bons View of the Period of Jahiliyah before the Advent of Islam

By Mazaher Muraj

It is through the use of conjecture that we discover the conditions of history, however due to advances in the modern world, new definitions for a society are being suggested causing division among scholars. This essay considers the civilization of the Arabs before the advent of Islam with regards to the conclusion derived by Gustave Le Bon and seeks to question whether the Arabs were a civilized people or not according to the definition of a civilized nation proposed by Vere Gordon Childe.

The condition of the Arabian Peninsula before the advent of Islam has raised much debate with regards to the civility of the population and has prompted modern day thinkers to draw their conclusions in response to this question. Gustave Le Bon (d. 1931) was a French thinker responsible for many works including La Civilisation des Arabs translated into English as The Civilization of the Arabs and among many thinkers who contributed to the matter. He concludes that the period known as the age of ignorance or jahiliyah was actually a period of civility for reasons which will be discussed in the main discussion. The methodology that will be assigned in order to analyse the arguments is critical rationalism. In the advancement of this methodology I will aim to critically analyse the arguments put forward by Le Bon in order to determine whether or not the age of ignorance was in fact an age of ignorance at all. Upon having conducted this, an analysis will take place investigating the character traits of a civilized nation proposed by Vere Gordon Childe and whether the arguments of Le Bon hold any validity within the definition given.

The author of the book, The Civilization of the Arabs proposes the theory that the Arabs of pre-Islamic Arabia were civilized and had been civilized for a long period of time. For this conjecture of his, he has dedicated many pages in the aforementioned book expressing three main arguments; The evidence given that the Arabs were civilized are; (1) there existed in the areas of Yemen and other parts of Arabia, tall and wonderful erected buildings, (2) established trade relations with adjacent nations and (3) the possessing of an excellent language and literary culture indicates an inherent civilization [1]. In order to determine the validity of these arguments, it is important that they be critically analysed:
1. The existence of wonderful buildings as an indication of a

civilized nation. The existence of wonderful buildings cannot be denied in parts of Arabia and may act as a clear indication which provides evidence of the civility of the Arabs. This is because the construction of buildings is not an easy task which indicates intellectual traits such as the understanding of mathematics, organisational skills and teamwork. Furthermore, for a nation to erect buildings there is a need for planning as well as the need for the necessary tools. These traits, if present within individuals, automatically denote a civilized society. Although traits such as the above may indicate that the Arabs were capable in the construction of wonderful buildings a question that must be asked is that why, even after having such an attractive land, did the Byzantine or Sassanid empire not make a bid in order to capture the land? Both empires were powerful and constantly at war with each other and it may be logical to assume that expanding into the Arabian Peninsula may have provided them with an additional territorial advantage as well as an increase in military personnel. Questions such as these may indicate that although buildings existed, they only existed in some parts of Arabia and so the whole region was not familiar with a civilization capable of constructing buildings. However such questions do not eliminate the fact that as a result of the presence of such

buildings, an intellectual presence was prevalent in some areas thus due to this Le Bon may have been led to conclude that pre-Islamic Arabia was civilized.
2. The establishment of successful trade relations between

adjacent nations. Trade relations between large nations may be viewed as a certain indicator of a civilized nation. This is because having a successful relation with regards to trade involves a degree of trust because when engaging in trade, it involves the exchange of ownership from one party to another which. This means that only the correct goods being exchanged will make the counter party want to engagement in trade again in the future. The engagement of trade between nations also requires a high level of diplomacy in order to ensure that certain terms and conditions are met when engaging in the trade. Other potential indicator of intelligence among the Arabs is their ability to conduct business. Therefore, Le Bon on this argument may have reasonable grounds to conclude that the people of pre-Islamic Arabia were a civilized nation. However, a question that may be asked is that although there is evidence of successful trade with adjacent nations, especially Syria, was trade just as successful within Arabia itself? The reason this question is asked is due to the ample amount of evidence, as witnessed in the books of history, which suggests that a hobby of the Arabs was looting and warring against each other [2]. 3. The possession of an excellent language and a literary culture. Languages are developed over a lengthy period of time and thus the Arabs having possessed a language that was complete for them to be able to engage in activities such as trade and to effectively communicate through the art of poetry suggests that the Arabic language was perfect. Having a perfect language may be an indicator of a civilized Arab population. An argument to disprove the Arabic language as perfect may be that it is not an independent language since it is made up of a number of languages including Hebrew and Syriac. However this further proves the point of Le Bon that due to the passing centuries, the Arabic language developed as its own language even though it contains hints of others. A further point to demonstrate the validity of this argument is that all languages contain words or phrases from other languages e.g. Entrepreneur is originally a French word, however is commonly used in

English. This doesnt make Arabic, pre-Islam, any less of a perfect language since languages are constantly developing according to the needs of a society. A perfect example is the Oxford dictionary which adds new words with every edition.

According to Vere Gordon Childe, a social scientist, the character traits a nation must possess in order to be considered a civilization and distinguish it from other nations are , by their means of subsistence, types of livelihood, settlement patterns, forms of government, social stratification, economic systems, literacy and other cultural states [3]. Of the traits mention by Childe, only Le Bons argument of language and literacy would fall into the definition to define the Arabian Peninsula as a civilization however it may not fully comply since literacy also includes the ability to read and write. The other characteristics mentioned by Childe which indicate that the Arabian Peninsula was not a civilization and thus its people not civilized is that of (1) forms of government, (2) social stratification and (3) cultural states. 1. Forms of government. According to most historians, Arabia was devoid of any form of government or political organisation [4]. Therefore the absence of a government indicates an absence of law. A nation not possessing either of these cannot be considered a civilization according to Childe. It can be argued that the institution called Dar al-Nadwah, which was constructed by an ancestor of the Prophet (pbuh) in order for tribes to

solve their problems, can be considered a type of political establishment [5]. However this does not provide sufficient evidence of a civilization since it was only present in parts of Arabia e.g. Makkah whilst most other areas may not have been influenced by such an establishment. 2. Social stratification. The Arabs were divided into many classes which may not be so different from civilizations found around the world today; upper and lower class. However the problem of division didnt lay within classes but categories of people especially women and slave workers. The social condition of women would be regarded as degradation in any society and the Quran pays testimony to their treatment from birth, When the female (infant) buried alive, is questioned. For what crime was she killed [6]. Therefore the treatment of some sections of society may indicate that the Arabs were not civilized. 3. Cultural states. Each civilization has certain cultural activities it engages in which distinguish it from others. The culture of the Arabs was to engage in the expression of poetry and this is where Le Bons argument regarding language is considered valid. However the culture of the Arabs is also known to engage in superstitious activities such as burning firewood in order to produce rain and the treatment of the sick was bizarre [7].

There are other definitions given for what may be considered a civilization in which Le Bons arguments fare better however problems still persist. The characteristics of a civilization given by Childe are appropriate for this paper since Le Bon and Childe lived in a similar age.

In this paper I have sought to critically analyse the arguments advanced by Le Bon regarding the status of the Arabs of pre-Islamic Arabia. In order to determine the status of the Arabs, I have via the use of critical rationalism put taken into consideration the arguments of Le Bon and tested it against a suitable definition of what determines a nation to be considered a civilization thus civilized, given by Childe. After critically analysing the arguments of Le Bon, a nation would be considered civilized if it possessed a perfect language, the intelligence to construct wonderful buildings and the ability to establish successful trade relations with large nations. However Le Bons conclusion of an Arab civilization fails to consider important elements which contribute to the civility of a population. This is discussed within the analysis section where the main point highlighted is the social stratification of the Arab nation. Also due to the failure of Le Bons arguments to meet all of the criteria suggested by Childe the Arab Peninsula by many historians will still be considered uncivilized. In conclusion, Le Bons conclusion is a valid one only with regards to the issue of the Arabs possessing a perfect language however it is incomplete

in relation to the rest of the criteria set out by Childe in the determination of a Civilization.

[1] Le Bon, G, 1884. The World of Islamic Civilizations. pg 78-102: Tudor. [2] Razawy, A. A., 1997. A Restatement of the History of Islam and Muslims. 1st ed. pg 14-18: The World Federation of KSIMC. [3] Wikipedia. Civilization. [ONLINE] Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civilization#Characteristics. [Last Accessed 25 January 12]. [4] Razawy, A. A., 1997. A Restatement of the History of Islam and Muslims. 1st ed. pg 14-18: The World Federation of KSIMC. [5] Subhani, J, 1999. The Message. 2nd ed. pg 90: Prima Printers, Karachi. [6] Quran 81:8-9, Translator: Yusufali. [7] Subhani, J, 1999. The Message. 2nd ed. pg 45-47: Prima Printers, Karachi.