North of Yemen, the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th
century did not have any states or formal government. Individuals had only their families and tribes to rely on for protection. Society at the time did not have police or courts. Rather, there was the tribal social structure. In order to enjoy security one had to be affiliated with a tribe. Although they are not identical, one can compare the function of tribes in Arabia to that of gangs in the modern world. People had absolute and blind loyalty to their tribe because they depended on it for their survival. That is why we find the famous statement of the Arabs “Support your brother whether he is oppressed or the oppressor.”9
Islam challenged the tribal system by insisting that all humans are equal before God and that one should stand for justice even if it is against one’s nearest kin. For example, the Qur’an 4:135 states,
“O you who believe, uphold justice and bear witness to God, even if it is against yourselves, your parents, or your close relatives. Whether the person is rich or poor, God can best take care of both. Refrain from following your own desire, so that you can act justly. If you distort or neglect justice, God is fully aware of what you do.”
Women, orphans, and slaves were the most vulnerable in 7th
-century Arabia. The Prophet Muhammad’s call to equality and justice was unprecedented. Justice and equality were central themes of his message.10
When he heard of an elderly woman who was treated violently in a neighboring land, he stated, “How would God sanctify a nation that does not protect its underprivileged from its powerful?”11
The Qur’an and Sunnah instituted an order in which justice and basic rights belonged to all, even non-Muslims, and were guaranteed by the government,12
which the Prophet ﷺ called “the guardian of those who have no guardian.”13
The shift from a tribal system that favored certain tribes over others to a universal Muslim community did not happen overnight, however. Instead, it was a gradual process that took place over several years.
In Arabia of the 7th century, there was a way for outsiders to be integrated into the tribal system, and this would prove crucial for transitioning from the tribal system of jāhiliyya to the rule of law in Islam. Foreigners, Arabs who had moved from other areas, and other unattached individuals could become affiliates (mawlā, plural mawālī) of a tribe. This was also the status given to free slaves. When a member of an Arab tribe freed their slave, the slave would become an affiliate of the tribe. Freed slaves did not originally belong to the tribe but they still maintained an affiliation to it. In the early decades of Islam, the term mawālī could mean people outside the tribal system who had been integrated into it or freed slaves.
As the Muslims expanded outside of Arabia, both meanings of the term mawālī found much greater use. When more people from outside the Arabian Peninsula began accepting Islam, the Ḥijāzī Arabs integrated them into the fabric of Arab Muslim society using the mawālī system. A patronage system was developed to manage the many new converts spread over a vast area. A non-Arab convert would become the mawlā of an Arab patron. As Muslims entered the civilized lands of the Mediterranean and Persian worlds, where slavery had long been an important part of the economy and the slave trade was robust, the Arab Muslim conquerors also found themselves with many captives, and they were also given slaves by allies as tribute. This was a much larger number of slaves than they had seen in Arabia. Following the Qur’an and the Sunnah, the early Muslims freed many of their slaves, especially those who had become Muslim, and so a large portion of the new mawālī class of Muslims were former slaves or their children. For example, Sulaymān ibn Yasār (d. 107/725), was of Persian origin and the freed slave of the Prophet’s last wife Maymūna bint al-Ḥārith رضي الله عنها. He eventually became one of the seven famous jurists of Medina, alongside the grandchildren of Arabs like Abū Bakr and Ibn Masʿūd رضي الله عنهما.
policy was established by the Umayyad dynasty, and its initial form was controversial. It retained some of the prejudice of the old tribal system. Non-Arab converts to Islam were all referred to as mawālī
and, though they were Muslims, they had a lower status than Arab Muslims.14
The Umayyad government’s preference for Arab Muslims caused contention because it went against the Qur’an’s affirmation that all Muslims are equal. Non-Muslims who lived in the Umayyad dynasty paid a tax called a jizya,
which absolved them from any military obligations. If a non-Muslim converted to Islam this tax was no longer applicable to them. However, giving fiscal equality to new Muslims was not in the interest of the Umayyad state, and they required them to continue paying the jizya.
and pious Muslims objected to this policy and argued that Arabs and non-Arabs were equal. The pious Umayyad caliph ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz (d. 101/720) ended laws discriminating against the mawālī
. The early Umayyads had used tribalism as a tool of politics, and the mawālī
posed a threat to the tribal system.15
But, by the middle of the Umayyad period, the tribal system had imploded as a tool for organizing the vast Muslim Umayyad empire. The later Umayyad caliphs turned to the mawālī
as a new pillar of support.
Some modern scholars have questioned whether the jizya
was levied on the mawālī.
Jamal Juda has argued that the idea that non-Arab converts to Islam still had to pay the jizya
comes from that term being used at times for both the tax levied on non-Muslims and the land taxes imposed on everyone. This situation was simplified when the caliph ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz issued a decree that taxes on land would remain the same regardless of the owner, Muslim or non-Muslim.16
Whatever the anxieties of the early Umayyad state, by the 720s CE the mawālī had mostly started speaking Arabic, intermarrying with Arabs, and becoming major figures in business, scholarship, and society. When the Abbasid family took over the caliphate, they soon eliminated all remaining policies that distinguished between Arabs and mawālī, and they were no longer considered an inferior class of society.
They achieved social, educational, and economic equality with Arabs in several ways. First, the scholarly class spoke against the idea that Arabs are superior to non-Arabs. Additionally, children of enslaved mothers resolved their liminal positions by re-defining themselves as completely Arab in a similar way that children of immigrants will eventually identify as American rather than as from their country of origin.17
needed to demonstrate that they were true Muslims who were loyal to the empire and Islamic scholarship. They used their mastery of Arabic language and scholarship to obtain political and religious positions. As the Abbasid period went on, Arab and non-Arab stopped mattering as ethnic or tribal distinctions. Islamic culture became the shared identity of all, with Arabic becoming the mother tongue of millions and the language of royal courts and scholarship alike.