Each society has its own vocabulary that divides classes and segments according to the provisions of wealth and power. The discrepancies within monarchies and in living standards among pre-Islamic Arabs led to major social distinctions between members of the same tribe - particularly the urbanites - which led to the division of the free members of the tribe into rich and poor. This was of course in addition to the pre-existing division between the free tribespeople and the slaves.
During the Jahiliyyah period, Arab society was divided into three classes according to economic circumstances and social status, while each class was in turn divided into sub-classes.
The Upper Class
This class includes tribespeople who were connected by blood, marriage, or common lineage, forming the basis and foundation of the tribe. In his book, “A History of Pre-Islamic Arabs”, Mohamed Suhail Takkoush said that members of this class were dedicated to the demands of the tribe, and were loyal to it, whether at times of injustice by or oppression of the tribe. In return, the tribe would strive to protect them, and granted them the highest vestige of honor and prestige in the form of ‘Ijara’, or granting of asylum. This was a system whereby a person is placed under the protection of this tribe member, who in turn forces the remainder of the tribe to do the same. This often led to many problems arising, imparting a great deal of responsibility and sacrifice on the tribe. The protector would openly declare his protectorship by saying: “I claim your protection, and I prohibit you what I prohibit myself, my people, and my children.”
The Arab aristocracy was made up by the heads of tribes, their notables, and their relatives, among whom were traders and owners of large herds in the metropolises, and agricultural and pastoral areas. The majority of wealth was concentrated in the hands of this class.
Members of this class were distinguished from the poor and destitute tribespeople in a number of aspects, most notably their ownership of a wide variety of cattle, particularly camels. Additionally, they owned large areas of pastoral land.
Takkoush noted in his book that this level of financial penetration had an effect on the psychology of the members of this class. This effect was apparent in the payment offered in exchange for the lives of members of this class, which could be as high as 1,000 camels, while the price for the life of the poor or destitute amongst the tribe would barely reach half of that.
They were also distinguished by erecting tents that overlooked the remaining tribe members. They were moreover able to acquire precious rugs, expensive metal and glass tableware, the most effective weaponry, and the most attractive saddles.
Further, in his book “Al-Mafsal fi Tarikh Al-’Arab qabl Al-Islam” (The Division in the History of Pre-Islamic Arabs), scholar Jawad Ali said that religious figures played a fundamental role in this class. They had special privileges, having been considered the messengers of the gods on earth, as well as the authorities over what was permissible and what was forbidden. As such, they had wealth and assets, as well as rights over the people that they were at liberty to revoke. Moreover, their interests were tied in with the interests of the rulers.
The Middle Class
The freed serfs formed the backbone of this class. Desirė Sakkal, in her book “Arabs in the Jahiliyyah Era”, said that the freed serfs, or “mawaly” were those who were released by the tribe, as such rising from the bottom to the middle class.
Profligates were also a vital part of this class; that is those who were kicked out of their tribes due to their ill-repute. This “disownment” would occur publicly, in markets or gatherings. This entailed disavowing the tribe member, whereby the tribe would not defend the person, nor would the tribe bear the consequences of this person’s actions. This disavowal was the harshest punishment that the tribe could administer to an offender, whereby this disowned member can be likened to a person exiled by their government nowadays. Sakkal noted that disavowed members could seek the endorsement of another tribe, by honoring all commitments to that new tribe.
Vagabonds also belonged to the middle class. Takkoush stated that these were members of the lower class who became separated through the distribution of wealth and social distinction. They broke with their tribes in protest of the poverty, hunger, deprivation, hardship, and scorn they were subject to, taking up stealing to compensate themselves with the riches they were deprived of.
The “aghriba” (Arab crows) were also part of this class; they were dark-skinned Arabs born to slave mothers. According to Takkoush, their fathers refused to recognize them, as they did not have pure Arab blood.
The Lower Class
This class formed a large part of tribal society in the Jahiliyya period, and includes dark-skinned slaves, as well as light- and dark-skinned serfs. Jawad Ali noted that slaves were the spoils of wars; if a person fell prisoner during a war or invasion, they fell into the ownership of their imprisoner. The owner, as such, had the right to kill the slave, or to keep them, or gift them to someone, or sell them.
Trade was another method that provided the pre-Islamic Arabs with slaves. Traders would bring serfs from different places and sell them for profit.
Among the slaves were those who were indebted to their employers and were unable to pay off their debt, and so were sold as serfs. Also among them were those who were unable to make good on money owed, such as the case in which Abo Lahab and Al-’Auss bin Hisham bet on the loser becoming the winner’s slave, resulting in the latter becoming a slave to the former.
It is said that many slave owners were ruthless towards their slaves, and did not allow them to keep any prizes captured during wartime, instead taking their shares. Slave owners were also distrustful of their slaves, and so slaves overwhelmingly spited their owners, and would join the ranks of their enemies if given the opportunity, out of hope of ameliorating their situation. When the Prophet Muhammad besieged Ta’if, he called out: “Whichever slave comes out, he is free, and his loyalty is to himself and his prophet.” Subsequently, a number of them came out and submitted to the faith, thus safeguarding their freedom in doing so.
In his book, Takkoush states that slaves lived in poverty, in deplorable conditions, as a result of hunger and deprivation. They were moreover stripped of all their rights, and had exhausting tasks imposed on them, depriving them of their sense of humanity, and creating an ever-widening gulf between them and the bare minimum requirements for a decent living. Slaves did not have the right to marry without the permission of their masters, and could only marry other slaves.
Bedouins: A Classless Society
The class divisions that characterized urbanites were nonexistent among the nomadic bedouin community. Ali stated in his book that this community was simplistic, and was not complicated by differing classes, noting that the desert shaped its people and simplified their lifestyle, thereby shrinking any class differences. As such, the lands occupied by bedouins were not characterized by marked differences in people’s dwelling places. Class differences were concentrated into the leaders of the tribes, their supervisors, and the supervisors of the livestock, who had money and slaves to help them.
As for the tribes’ majorities, they were spread out across the lands in small, scattered, and separate communities, due to the lack of resources. This prevented tribe members from congregating in one place, thus disallowing the development of different crafts and professions, which formed the bases for urban communities.
The tribe leaders had assets in the form of camels, from which they obtained milk and meat. Leaders alone were able to travel to towns and cities and other urban areas to reside there for some time, and purchase commodities, before returning to their homes to attend to their belongings, Ali noted.
The nomads also employed slaves, although not to the extent that urbanites did, as demand for them was not as high. Ali moreover stated that slaves in bedouin communities were better off than those in urban areas, and enjoyed more freedoms. This was because the desert did not require the same type of hard labor, nor did the nomads know the different crafts that were present in urban areas. As such, the bedouin-owned slaves undertake far less work than those in villages, and they were far closer to their owners than their urban counterparts, to the point where they were treated almost as though they were tribe members.