Although sometimes used synonymously, the phrase “pre-Islamic Arabia” and the Arabic al-jahiliyya have different connotations. The English phrase implies only a temporal relationship to Islam. The Arabic expression (meaning literally “the age or condition of ignorance”), on the other hand, indicates an evaluation of selected parts of earlier Arabian history from a strongly Islamic perspective. The idea of the Jahiliyya is a construct of Islamic thinkers, developed for particular purposes. It ignores much of great interest for modern scholarship on the Arabs and Arabia and focuses on the immediate background of Islam, the life of the Arabs of western central Arabia (the Hijaz) in the century or so up to and including the early career of the prophet Muhammad.
period of ignorance and darkness. Probably no other country or culture in the world has deliberately written off a 2,500 year period of their own history by systematically stamping out and snapping all links with the past. They have wiped the memories of pre- Muslim era off their minds. So while they chose to remain ignorant of their past ironically enough it is they who dub the pre-Muslim era as a period of ignorance.
Fortunately we can still trace the history of that pre- Islamic Arabia. It is a well known adage that there is no such thing as foolproof destruction of all evidence.
The most important reference work for all aspects of the study of Islam, including pre-Islamic Arabia and the Jahiliyya, is the second edition of Encyclopaedia of Islam (Bearman 1954–2006). Following Islamic historical tradition, most works on Islamic history begin with a discussion of the Jahiliyya, although they often go beyond the Islamic treatment of it. These are often good entryways into the subject for the beginner. Donner 1981 is notable for its comparative and anthropological awareness.
Some more recent works on Islamic history (notably Berkey 2003), while still treating pre-Islamic Arabia, reflect an understanding that the rise of Islam needs to be considered in a wider historical and geographical context. There are many works devoted entirely to discussions of the history of the Arabs and Arabia before Islam, ranging much more widely than the traditional understanding of the Jahiliyya. Hoyland 2001 is approachable for English readers, although Retsö 2003 goes into greater detail. Volumes that collect various studies that first appeared in scholarly journals or other specialist publications, such as Peters 1999 and Kister 1980, are useful not merely for the studies they contain but sometimes for the editor’s introduction and consolidated bibliography. Shahid 1984 argues that the role of the Arabs in late Antiquity and the importance of the spread of Christianity among them has been undervalued.