In The Name of Allaah, The Most Merciful, The Bestower of Mercy
Allaah conferred a great favour on this Ummah by sending Muhammad [sallal-laahu-alayhi-wasallam] and the knowledge [of the religion], truth and guidance he brought. Allaah said in Surah Aal Imran:
لَقَدۡ مَنَّ ٱللَّهُ عَلَى ٱلۡمُؤۡمِنِينَ إِذۡ بَعَثَ فِيہِمۡ رَسُولاً۬ مِّنۡ أَنفُسِهِمۡ يَتۡلُواْ عَلَيۡہِمۡ ءَايَـٰتِهِۦ وَيُزَڪِّيہِمۡ وَيُعَلِّمُهُمُ ٱلۡكِتَـٰبَ وَٱلۡحِڪۡمَةَ وَإِن كَانُواْ مِن قَبۡلُ لَفِى ضَلَـٰلٍ۬ مُّبِينٍ
Indeed Allah conferred a great favour on the believers when He sent among them a Messenger (Muhammad) from among themselves, reciting unto them His Verses (the Qur’an), and purifying them (from sins by their following him), and instructing them (in) the Book (the Qur’an) and Al-Hikmah [the wisdom and the Sunnah of the Prophet (i.e. his legal ways, statements, acts of worship, etc.)], while before that they had been in manifest error. [Surah Aal Imraan’ Aayah 164]
And Allaah [The Most High] said in Surah Al-Jumu’ah:
هُوَ ٱلَّذِى بَعَثَ فِى ٱلۡأُمِّيِّـۧنَ رَسُولاً۬ مِّنۡہُمۡ يَتۡلُواْ عَلَيۡہِمۡ ءَايَـٰتِهِۦ وَيُزَكِّيہِمۡ وَيُعَلِّمُهُمُ ٱلۡكِتَـٰبَ وَٱلۡحِكۡمَةَ وَإِن كَانُواْ مِن قَبۡلُ لَفِى ضَلَـٰلٍ۬ مُّبِينٍ۬
He [Allaah] is Who sent among the unlettered ones a Messenger (Muhammad) from among themselves, reciting to them His Verses, purifying them (from the filth of disbelief and polytheism), and teaching them the Book (this Qur’an, Islamic laws and Islamic jurisprudence) and Al-Hikmah (As-Sunnah: legal ways, orders, acts of worship, etc. of Prophet Muhammad). And verily, they had been before in manifest error. [Surah Al-Jumu’ah Aayah 2]
They used to be in a state of Al-Jaahilyyah [Ref A] – they neither possessed knowledge nor had a book revealed by Allaah. No warner [i.e. Messenger] came to them for a very long time, then this noble Messenger [Muhammad (sallal laahu alayhi wasallam)] came to them whilst they were the most ignorant and misguided people; but Allaah guided them and saved them from the fire of hell through Muhammad’s Dawah and Messengership, as Allaah said:
وَٱذۡكُرُواْ نِعۡمَتَ ٱللَّهِ عَلَيۡكُمۡ إِذۡ كُنتُمۡ أَعۡدَآءً۬ فَأَلَّفَ بَيۡنَ قُلُوبِكُمۡ فَأَصۡبَحۡتُم بِنِعۡمَتِهِۦۤ إِخۡوَٲنً۬ا وَكُنتُمۡ عَلَىٰ شَفَا حُفۡرَةٍ۬ مِّنَ ٱلنَّارِ فَأَنقَذَكُم مِّنۡہَاۗ
And remember Allah’s Favour on you, for you were enemies one to another but He joined your hearts together, so that, by His Grace, you became brethren (in Islamic Faith), and you were on the brink of a pit of Fire, and He saved you from it. [Surah Aal Imraan Aayah 103]
They used to be upon the evilest state of affairs –in a state of enmity, hatred, animosity and disunity. They committed robbery and pillage, and created a state of anarchy; so Allaah saved them through Muhammad [sallal laahu alayhi wasallam] in this worldly life and they became the most advanced nation- established the most virtuous civilization ever known to humankind and became the best of all nations amongst humankind, who enjoined good, forbid evil and believed in Allaah, just as Allaah and His Messenger praised them. The Messenger said:
The best of the people are those living in my generation, then those who come after them and then those after them.’’ [Bukhaari 2651] [Ref 1]
Ref A: What is Al-Jaahiliyyah? Shaikh Saaleh Al-Fawzaan [may Allaah preserve him] said: Al-Jaahiliyyah: It is derived from al-Jahl (ignorance). It is an absence of knowledge, and the intent behind it is the before Islaam. The before the advent of Muhammad (sallal-laahu-alayhi-wasallam) is (referred to as) Jaahiliyyah because they were in ignorance and misguidance in the affairs of worship, dealings, food, drink, marriage and other than that. They were in ignorance and misguidance due to the long period between Eesaa and Muhammad (i.e. the absence of a messenger).
This was a period of over four hundred years during which the divine message stopped. The divine message was obscured, and ignorance and misguidance became widespread. The people worshiped idols, trees, stones, false deities, the Jinn and humans. They worshiped the Angels, the Awliyaa and the righteous people, and they were upon divergent paths with regards to acts of worship.
And with regards to the affair of halaal and haraam, they did not distinguish between good and filth; rather they used to deal with usury. The Ribaa Al-Jaahiliyyah (The Pre-Islamic Usury) was: When they used to settle a debt with a debtor, they would say: either you settle the debt, or we increase the debt and double the time it (should be paid). This was the Pre-Islamic Usury and it used to be predominant in their dealings. They used to gather wealth through forbidden means–through pillage, plunder, robbery and devouring people’s wealth through falsehood.
And with regards to food, they made dead animals and blood lawful; they used to eat dead animals, blood and repugnant things. And with regards to their relationship between one another, they used to kill and fight one another over the most trivial thing. They neither had a leader nor a state–they were either under the authority of tribal systems or under the authority of the Persians and the Romans. The powerful used to encroach upon (the rights of the weak), and the oppressor used to transgress the limits, and no one stopped him.
This was the in Jaahiliyyah (The Pre-Islamic Period of Ignorance). They were upon ignorance in all aspects (of life) and the greatest of that (ignorance) was with regards to worship and creed. They used to be upon the creed of Shirk and they rejected the (Resurrection) and the Divine Message (of the Messengers). (Allaah said that) they used to say: [مَا أَنْزَلَ اللَّهُ عَلَىٰ بَشَرٍ مِنْ شَيْءٍ – Nothing did Allaah send down to any human being (by revelation) 6:91]
This was their state in Jaahiliyyah (The Pre-Islamic Period of Ignorance); then, Allaah (Glorified Be He) sent Muhammad (sallal-laahu-alayhi-wasallam) with the Guidance and the Religion of Truth. Allaah stated:
[هُوَ الَّذِي أَرْسَلَ رَسُولَهُ بِالْهُدَىٰ وَدِينِ الْحَقِّ – It is He Who has sent His Messenger (Muhammad) with Al Hudaa (the Guidance) and Deenul Haqq (the religion of truth -Islaam) 9:33]
‘Hudaa’ is beneficial knowledge and ‘Deenul Haqq’ is righteous action. Allaah (Glorified Be He) sent His prophet (sallal-laahu-alayhi-wasallam) with beneficial knowledge and righteous action–so with the sending of the Messenger (sallal-laahu-alayhi-wasallam) Jaahiliyyah (pre-Islamic ignorance) ceased to exist for ever walil-laahil Hamd, and knowledge and guidance arrived.
The ‘Jaahiliyyah Aamma’ (The Pre-Islamic ignorance that was widespread in the world and touched every aspect of life) has ceased to exist; but it remains with some people or with some of the tribes, or in some of the lands. This is Jaahiliyyah Juz-i (a portion of Pre-Islamic Ignorance), (but) as for the ‘Jahiliyyah Aamma’, this has ceased to exist with the sending of the Messenger (sallal-laahu-alayhi-wasallam), but some characteristics of Pre-Islamic ignorance remain with some of the people due to saying of the Prophet (sallal-laahu-alayhi-wasallam): ”Among my people there are four characteristics belonging to pre-Islamic period which they do not abandon: boasting of high rank, reviling other peoples’ genealogies, seeking rain by stars, and wailing (i.e. for the dead)’’ (reported by Muslim).” This remains, but it is a portion, (but) as for the Jaahiliyyah Aamma, it has ceased to exist.
So due to this, it is not permissible to say that the people are in Jaahiliyyah (Pre-Islamic ignorance). Some (people) say: (the people) are in a state of Pre-Islamic ignorance that is more severe than the one before the sending of the Prophet (sallal-laahu-alayhi-wasallam)…. The meaning of this (statement of theirs) is a denial of what the Messenger (sallal-laahu-layhi-wasallam) came with; it is a denial of the Qur’aan, the Sunnah of the Prophet and the abundant knowledge within our hands. Its meaning is that we are in Jaahiliyyah (Pre-Islamic ignorance). This is a mistake, the people are not in Jaahiliyyah, walil-laahil Hamd, but there remains some of the characteristics of Jaahiliyyah in some individuals, in some nation states and in some tribes; but this is a specific Jaahiliyyah. Therefore, it is incumbent to be acquainted with this affair. [Ref 2]
Ref 1: Marhaban Yaa Taalibal Ilm pages 144-146. abridged and slightly paraphrased