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What was the socio-political structure of Mecca at the time of the Prophet (saw)?

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Islamic researcher, graduated from Al-Azhar University, Islamic Studies in the English language. I also studied at Temple University in the US.
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In a Nutshell: Mecca was divided into politically independent tribal units, connected by kin and benefits of trade and wealth. Everyone sought leadership (even if nominal) of the tribe and were split into two political allied parties, Banu Umayya and banu Makzum, both of whom were potentially prepared to fight at any time. The religious status of Mecca prevented this from happening, importantly disruption to their trade in the event of conflict.

Socio-Political Units

Scholars of Arab lineage (nasab) identify seven (or according to some six or eight) strata for each place and tribe. These lineages go back to one ancestor from whom they started to divide into subdivisions, which in turn could result in another new lineage stratum when they become wider and larger. (Suwidi, Saba'ik al-Dahab fi Ma'rifat Qaba'il al-Arab, p. 17)

There are generally seven strata: Sha'b (the origin of a given tribe), Qabeelah, Imarah, Battn, Fakhdh, Asheerah and Faseelah.

Scholars disagree on the definition and the identification of each, but they all agree each category is an independent socio-political entity (state or polity) falling under another larger one.

The core social units were tribes and clans, which unlike a modern clan or family, were more akin to small autonomous states with their own elites, army, land, rights and so on.

For a more detailed answer concerning these categories, read this answer.

Historical Background

It is difficult to speak about the pre-Islamic period in Arabia as it comprised communities that did not document events in a manner that could be transmitted over the centuries.

Recently, several investigations reveal ancient human residence in Arabia allowing us to be reasonably sure of an outline of key events and some details before revelation. (Jawad Ali, al-Mifsal fi Tarikh al-Arab, Vol. 1, p. 107)

The important history of Arabia starts with the migration of Ibrahim (as) and his wife Hajar (as) with her son Isma'eel (as) to Mecca. The latter married a woman from Jurhum (a contemporary tribe who are classically called al-Arab al-Aaribah) and had a number of sons (classically called al-Arab al-Musta'ribah). They let their maternal uncles lead political life in Mecca.

A while later, a Yamani tribe (Khuza'ah) migrated to Macca, before the second half of the fifth-century, fighting Jurhum for the leadership. Khuza'ah expelled Jurhum and the sons of Isma'eel (as) – from whom Quraysh descended – from the city and occupied their homes. (Ibid, Vol. 2, pp. 5-23)

Khuza'ah was more like a gang than an organised state destroying the city, including the Ka'ba and the Zamzam wall. Their leader Amr ibn Luhai also brought idols from Yamen and put some of them around the Ka'bah. They did not like to trade but to raid caravans. These policies led to the suspension of the Meccan hajj and trade and ended monotheism (or Hanafiyah) from the belief of the masses in Mecca and the neighboring areas. (Al-Shireef, Makka wa al-Madinah, pp. 110-116, Ibn Hisham, al-Seerah al-Nabawiyyah, Vol. 1, pp. 125-130)

Qusai ibn Kilab, an ancestor of Quraysh, was taken to Syria after his father passed away. When he learnt of his origin, he migrated to Mecca and targeted leadership of Mecca and the return of his tribe. He became a wealthy merchant and his status was grew in Mecca leading to marrying the daughter of the Meccan leader Hubay.

During the early fifth century AD, Mecca was leader of the Khuza’a, a Yemeni tribe. When Hubay, its leader, passed away, without any children to inherit his rule, Qusai claimed the legal inheritance of the Ka'ba's keys and Mecca's leadership. When Khuza'ah opposed him, he called his armed clans and they defeated Khuza'ah and their allies, expelling them from the sanctuary (haram) and building their homes for the first time immediately around the Ka'bah. Qusai's house was the Meccan council known later as Dar al-Nadwah, where Quraysh would resolve its problems and take important decisions. (Al-Shireef, pp. 117-119)

Qusai who went on to unite the various clans to form Quraish that went on to become the largest trading tribe of the city.

Qusai introduced several institutional practices that were new and revolutionary leading to rapid commercial growth. These institutions were:

  • the rifada (the provision of food to pilgrims);
  • the siqaya (the provision of water to pilgrims);
  • the dar al-Nadwa(a chamber where clan leaders deliberated important issues);
  • the sadaqa (voluntary charitable alms);
  • the rifada and siqaya practices (a system of wealth distribution);
  • the qiyadah (general leadership);
  • the riyasah (leadership in the council);
  • the liwaa (flag in the war) and
  • sadanah (taking care of the Ka'ba requirements)

This system not only affected pilgrims, but also the poorest sections of the population of Mecca along with caring for pilgrims and merchants and promoting the city to visitors.

Qusai asked the Arabian tribes to each bring one of their idols and fix them in the Ka'ba to attract the hajj pilgrims. All these positions brought in a lot of wealth and prestige. Qusai controlled all of them and gave them to his son Abd al-Daar after his death. (Ibid, pp. 128-133.)

The Tribal Structure

What was the socio-political structure of Mecca at the time of the Prophet (saw)?

The Ashirah of Quraysh was resident in two main positions in Mecca and they were called:

  • al-Butahaa and
  • al-Dhawahir.

The former included most of the Qurayshi clans who lived around the Ka'ba (Jawad Ali, Vol. 7, pp. 26-27, Rasa'il al-Jahidh, p. 156, Ibn Saad, al-Tabaqat, Vol. 1, p. 71, al-Mas'oodi, Muruj al-Dhahab, Vol. 1, p. 58):

  • Banu Hashim ibn Abd Manaf with Banu Abd al-Muttalib,
  • Banu Umayyah ibn Abd Shams,
  • Banu Nawfal ibn Abd Manaf,
  • Banu Abd al-Daar ibn Qusai,
  • Banu Asad ibn Abd al-Uzza ibn Qusai,
  • Banu Uday ibn Lu'ay,
  • Banu Zamrah ibn Ka'b,
  • Banu Jumah ibn Ka'b, and
  • Banu Makhzum ibn Ka'b.

The latter (al-Dhawahir) included the remaining four clans who lived on the outskirts of Mecca (Ibid):

  • Banu Bagheed ibn Amir ibn Lu'ay,
  • Banu al-Adram ibn Ghalib,
  • Banu Muharib ibn Fihr, and
  • the majority of Banu al-Harith ibn Fihr.


Social Classes

There were three main social classes in Mecca:

  • al-Surahaa (free Qurayshi families with no break in lineage going back to Fihr ibn al-Nadr alone),
  • al-Mawali or al-Hulafaa or al-Ahabeesh (the allies of Quraysh who lived or traded in Mecca) and
  • al-Ariqaa or al-Abeed (slaves and prisoners of war).

We could potentially add a fourth category, the foreigners outside Arabia who worked or traded in Mecca coming from Rome or Persia. (Jawad Ali, al-Mifsal fi Tarikh al-Arab, Vol. 7, pp. 18-45)

The first category are those secured by their tribe, whose blood could not be shed by anyone, nor even oppressed. They were first-class citizens who could even provide others with a binding ijarah (personal protection), supporting someone even regardless of whether they were right or wrong. As one poet said:

"They don't ask their brother about proofs (or reasons) when he calls them (for support) in hardships." (Dinuri, Uyun al-Akhbar, Vol. 1, p. 285)


Principles and Values

The tribal community is underpinned by a number of principles and values, upon which rests rule. The main principles included:

  • ancestralism,
  • tribal loyalties (asabiyyah) and
  • religious pluralism.

Ancestors (such as Qusai) would establish a rule, custom or tradition in a certain matter and it would be followed without any change for centuries. Anyone who went against them (documented and fixed laws) would be rejected and condemned, forget about anyone seeking to introduce a new trajectory for the society that completely differed with ancestral trajectories.

Allah described this principle:

"And when it is said to them, "Follow what Allah has revealed," they say, "Rather, we will follow that which we found our fathers doing." Even though their fathers understood nothing, nor were they guided?" (Qur'an 2:170)

It is narrated an Arabian poet once organised a couple of stanzas rebuking Qusai. Quraysh was angered by it and looked to launch a war but to avert it, his tribe violated the strict asabiyyah and gave up the poet to Qusai's clan to beat and even kill him. After having been beaten, the poet had to create a poem to say the contrary and praise Qusai or he would be killed, the man did exactly that to save his life.

Asabiyyah was also very important to them, protecting the clan and tribe as well as their members in cases where they were right or wrong.

Religious pluralism meant Quraysh did not oppose others who sought to practice their religion as long as it pertained to the personal realm. They had alliances with the Jews in Medina and its neighbours, Christian empires (such as Rome and Ethiopia), Persia who worshipped other idols, as well as other entities. They even brought idols other than theirs and added them to the Ka'ba for pilgrims.

They did not even oppose members of their tribes if they sought to change their faith whether they adopted Hanafiyah or Christianity (such as Waraqah ibn Nawfal) as long as they kept it as personal faith. They opposed the Prophet (saw) because he sought to upend their way of life, presenting Islam as a complete way of life that rejected all forms of social arrangement rooted in anything other than revelation.

There were however many good values such as generosity, bravery, hospitality, tribal loyalty, honesty in promises and other ethics that shaped their society


The Political Realm

We could see from the number of soldiers in the battles against the Prophet (saw) that the Mecca's population was about 5-10 thousand members (including women, slaves and foreigners) at the time of the Prophet (saw). (Hashim Yahyah, Tarikh Makka, p. 84) But H. G. Wells argued their number was between 20-25 thousand members. (Wells, the Outlines of History, p. 595)

The political realm in Mecca was complex. Qusai gave all the leading and honourable jobs to his beloved son Abd al-Daar marginalising his other sons. Banu Abd Manaf (their cousins) tried to take leadership resulting in conflict and a spilt in the Meccan solidarity. As each clan prepared to war, they constructed alliances (Al-Shireef, p. 139):

  • Banu Abd Manaf allied with Banu Asad ibn Abd al-Uzza, Banu Zuhrah ibn Kilab, Banu Taym ibn Murrah and Banu al-Harith ibn Fihr (it was called the alliance of Mutayibeen),
  • Banu Abd al-Daar allied with Banu Makhzum, Banu Sahm, Banu Jumah and Banu Uday (it was called the alliance of Ahlaf), and
  • Banu Amir and Banu Muharib joined neither.

The elites (al-Malaa) gathered in Dar al-Nadwah fearing destruction of Mecca. They assigned Rifadah and Siqayah to Banu Abd Manaf, keeping the rest for Banu Abd al-Daar. Whilst they came to an agreement, they retained the alliances they had formed. (Jawad Ali, Vol. 7, pp. 58-59)

Later, Quraysh created ten additional roles (Al-Shireef, p. 135):

  • al-Imarah (taking care of the public environment around the Ka'ba where no noise or insults should be),
  • Hijabah (carrying the keys of the Ka'ba and opening it to visitors),
  • al-Mashurah (taking no decision without consultation),
  • al-Ashnaq (responsible to gathering the required money for blood or debt),
  • al-Qubah (weapons tent),
  • al-A'inah (the leadership of horsemen in war),
  • al-Sifarah (embassy – relationship and negotiation with foreign tribes),
  • al-Aysar (arrows or azlam used in divination before Hubal), and
  • police to prevent minor conflicts.

The sixteen roles were later distributed amongst the clans with each clan electing an elite to be responsible for it.

However overall leadership (even if nominal) was with Banu Abd al-Daar with other clans eyeing the position.

Abu Jahl cited this when explaining why he rejected Islam, despite believing the Prophet (saw) was not lying:

"By Allah, I know what Muhammad says is true but something prevents me; Bani Qusai (the Prophet's clan) said 'we are entitled with the honour of janitorial of Mecca' and we agreed.

They then said 'we are entitled with the honour of watering the pilgrims' and we agreed.

They then said 'we are entitled with the honour of meeting council,' and we agreed.

They then said 'we are entitled with the honour of banner,' we agreed.

They feed (pilgrims) and we do, and after we reached an equal honourable status, they said: we are honoured by a Prophet from us.

By Allah, I would not believe (in him)." (Ibn Hisham, Vol. 1, p. 315)

Dar al-Nadawah was no longer a place where an individual such as Qusai rendered judgments, rather the process was undertaken by the malaa (Meccan elites and leaders of clans). They only discussed issues relating to the general welfare of the tribe or disputes between clans. They judged by urf (custom) and immutable laws inherited from their forefathers. (Jawad Ali, al-Mifsal fi Tarikh al-Arab, Vol. 7, pp. 47-50)

Whilst ruling was based on shoora (consultation) it had no highly binding authority over the other asha'ir; each one could easily refuse when the decision harmed their interests. But the clans tended to agree on basic matters and avoided disagreements that could lead to disorder (that, in turn, would harm their trade and wealth). For example, asha'ir such as Banu Zuhrah and Banu Uday did not agree to engage in the battle against the Prophet after the agreement in Dar al-Nadwah (Al-Shireef, Makka wa al-Madinah, pp. 126-127)

There were however often disagreements. Twenty years before ba'thah (revelation), they were about to wage war because some elites oppressed pilgrims. War was averted as they held a council (Hilf al-Fudool) agreeing a treaty prohibiting harming and oppressing visitors and pilgrims.

Mecca remained the only unoccupied city state untouched by foreign Empires. It had treaties and alliances with almost all the Arabian tribes around it as well as empires like Persia, Rome and Ethiopia.

Mecca was the holy city for all Arabs, a beloved city and centre for all.

Following revelation, there were rebellions of Arabian tribes against Rome and Persia, seeking independence. They sought alliances with Quraysh, happy to be even led by Quraysh, as it could gather a huge army from its allies (similar to al-Ahlaf). Quraysh had the strongest man'ah and shawkah bolstered by its religious status. (Al-Shireef, Makka wa al-Madinah, pp, 156-170)

For that reason, we find the Prophet (saw) focused on trying to win over Quraysh for over ten years.

The Leaders and Elites of Mecca

The main important leading jobs at the time of the Prophet (saw) were at the hands of al-Butahaa clans above who elected one of them to lead the job. They were al-Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib (Siqayah), Abu Sufyan ibn Umayah (Qiyadah), al-Harith ibn Amir ibn Nawfal (Rifadah), Uthman ibn Talhah ibn Abd al-Daar (al-Liwaa, Sadanah, Hijabah and the honorary Riyasah in Dar al-Nadwa), Yazeed ibn Zam'ah ibn al-Aswad (al-Mashurah), Abu Bakr al-Sideek (al-Ashnaaq), Khalid ibn al-Waleed (al-Qubah and al-A'inah), Umar ibn al-Khattab ibn Uday (al-Sifarah), Safwan ibn Umayah ibn Jumah (al-Aysaar) and al-Harith ibn Qays ibn Sahm (the police and gods' money). (Al-Shireef, Makka wa al-Madinah, pp. 135-137)

We see here the sons on the position of leadership in the tribe because the elders were preparing them for such positions at their life where they were also in control. These positions were also relatively not binding, as each clan is a state in its own (as I said above).

Hashim developed the trade and the perfected the relationship with the other kingdoms who allowed Quraysh to trade. Later on, his son Abd al-Muttalib (the grandfather of the Prophet) who, as the owner of Siqayah, re-dug the well of Zamzam that was destroyed by Kuza'ah (it made it easy for Meccans to drink and deliver water to pilgrims) and tried to stop the Ethiopian troops when all the city fled (in the year of the elephant). All of these efforts provided the clan of Banu Hashim and Banu Abd al-Muttalib with the utmost respect and honour of the Meccans. It was the elevated status inherited by their descendants and allowed the Prophet (saw) a relatively safe environment for dawa.

Some of the other leading figures who were honored and authoritative in their clan as well as in Dar al-Nadwah, such as were For Abd Manaf, after al-Muttalib, Harb ibn Umayah led the clan, but after his death, they were split into two clans: Banu Hashim who included other leading Afkhadh such as Abu Talib, Hamzah and al-Abbas; Banu Umayah who included Abd Yazeed ibn Hashim; Banu Nawfal who included al-Mut'am ibn Adi; Banu Asaad included Uthman ibn al-Huwayrith and Khuwaylid ibn Asad. Al-Aswad ibn Abd al-Muttalib was also one of the leading elites but he opposed the Prophet (saw) and was killed in the battle of Badr. (Jawad Ali, al-Mifsal fi Tarikh al-Arab, Vol. 7, pp. 91-93)

Others could be also added, such as Abdullah ibn Ja'daan was the cousin of Abu Bakr but died before the ba'thah but his clan inherited his honour who had a very respected and honoured position in Mecca; al-Aswad ibn Yaghuth who used to mock the companion (ra) whenever he would see them and say 'the kings of the earth are passing in front of you;' Yazeed ibn Zam'ah ibn al-Aswad who hold the Mashurah and embraced Islam and he was martyred in Ta'if; Abu al-Hakam ibn Hisham (Abu Jahl) whose father one of the key leaders on Mecca; al-Waleed ibn al-Mugheerah who opposed the Prophet (saw) severely; Abu Ahihah Sa'eed ibn al-Aas ibn Umayah; al-Aswad ibn Amir ibn Abd al-Daar; Qays ibn Saad ibn Sahm and Suhayl ibn Amr (Jawad Ali, al-Mifsal fi Tarikh al-Arab. Vol. Vol. 7, pp. 94-113, al-Baladhuri, al-Ansaab, Vol. 1, p. 131)

Conclusion

Mecca was divided into politically independent tribal units, connected by kin and benefits of trade and wealth.

Everyone sought general leadership (even if nominal) of the tribe and were split into two political allied parties (al-Mutayibeen and al-Ahlaf), both of whom were potentially prepared to fight at any time. The religious status of Mecca prevented this from happening, and importantly disruption to their trade in the event of conflict.

References

Al-Baladhuri, Jumal min Ansaab al-Ashraaf
Al-Mas'oodi, Muruj al-Dhahab
Al-Shireef, Makka wa al-Madinah
Dinuri, Uyun al-Akhbar
Hashim Yahyah, Tarikh Makka
Ibn Hisham, al-Seerah al-Nabawiyah
Ibn Saad, al-Tabaqat
Jawad Ali, al-Mifsal fi Tarikh al-Arab
Rasa'il al-Jahidh
Suwidi, Saba'ik al-Dahab fi Ma'rifat Qaba'il al-Arab
Wells, the Outlines of History


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