In the days before the advent of Islam, Arabia had become a corrupt environment, steeped in idolatry and injustice. There were still a few solitary individuals who adhered to the true faith established centuries ago in Arabia by Abraham and Ishmael (peace be upon them both). These people eschewed worshiping idols and all that idolatry involved.
One of these people was Zayb b. `Amr b. Nufayl. He would never offer sacrifices to idols or eat carrion and running blood. He used to say:
Is there one Lord or yet a thousand Lords
For me to worship in my many woes?
I turn away from Lât and from al-`Uzzâ
I am one who's patient and endures.
I worship not al-`Uzzâ nor her daughters,
Nor the two idols held by Ibn `Amr,
Nor Ghanam who had been for us a Lord
From ancient times until but recently.
I worship God, the Beneficent Lord
So He, Forgiving Lord, might waive my sins.
He also said:
I turn to Him who Abraham appealed to
For refuge, facing the Ka`bah, standing in prayer,
Saying: I am humble, resolute
Whatever must befall me I'll endure.
These verses paint the picture of a Muslim who presses his will to the service of Allah, who is pleased with Allah’s decree, hoping for good from his Lord and turning to Him in refuge from what he fears. People like Zayb b. `Amr b. Nufayl were strangers among their people. They faced the severest form of estrangement in that time of ignorance, when believers in the truth were few.
Muhammad (peace be upon him) had met Zayd b. `Amr b. Nufayl. This was well before Muhammad had started to receive revelation.
The Prophet was served a meal and refused to eat from it. It was then presented to Zayd who also refused to eat from it, and said: “I do not eat what you people slaughter over your idols. I only eat meat over which Allah’s name has been invoked.”
Zayd b. `Amr b. Nufayl used to reprove Quraysh for their animal sacrifices, saying: “The sheep was created by Allah. Allah sent down the rains for it. He brought forth for it the vegetation from the Earth. Then you go ahead and sacrifice it invoking other than Allah’s name.” These words of his both rebuke their actions and glorify Allah at the same time.
It is related from Ibn `Umar that Zayd b. `Amr b. Nufayl traveled to Syria in search of a religion to follow. He met a Jewish scholar and asked him about his religion saying: “Perhaps I will embrace your faith, so inform me of it.” He said: “You will not be on our religion until you take your share of Allah’s wrath.”
Zayd responded: “I flee from naught save the wrath of Allah! And I will not bear Allah’s wrath if I am able to avoid it. Can you guide me to something else?”
Then the Jewish scholar said: “I know of nothing except for you to be a Hanîf.”
Zaid asked: “What is a Hanîf?”
The scholar answered: “The religion of Abraham,. He was neither a Jew nor a Christian and he worshipped none save Allah.”
Then Zayd went forth until he came to a Christian scholar and made the same enquiry. The scholar replied: “You will not be on our religion until you take your share of Allah’s curse.”
Zayd responded: “I flee from naught save the curse of Allah! And I will not bear Allah’s curse nor His wrath if I am able to avoid it. Can you guide me to something else?”
Then the Christian scholar said: “I know of nothing except for you to be a Hanîf.”
Zaid asked: “What is a Hanîf?”
The scholar answered: “The religion of Abraham. He was neither a Jew nor a Christian and he worshipped none save Allah.”
When Zayd saw what they had to say about Abraham (peace be upon him), left. When he went out, he raised his hands and said: “O Allah, I bear witness that I am on the religion of Abraham.”
Asmâ’, the daughter of Abû Bakr, said:
I saw Zayd b. `Amr b. Nufayl standing with his back against the Ka`bah saying: "O assembled tribesmen of Quraysh, no one from you is on the religion of Abraham except for me.”
He used to save the lives of newborn girls destined to be buried alive. He would say to a man who wanted to kill his daughter: "Do not kill her. I will support her." He would then take her. After she grew up, he would say to her father: "If you wish, I will return her to you, or if you wish I will continue to support her on your behalf." [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (4/232-233)]
Zayd b Nufayl was not alone among the Arabs. There were a few others like him who worshipped Allah alone, followed the way of the Messengers, and eschewed the ways of polytheism. Likewise, there were still some Jews and Christians who remained steadfast on their religion.
All of those people were strangers in their times, living in a world of confusion, contradiction, and division. Indeed, Zayd's own uncle, Khattab ibn Nufayl, was one of his main tormentors, despising him for not worshipping his tribes idols or eating the meat that they slaughtered.
When Allah sent Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) as a Messenger to the world, the Prophet's message came to aid the truth that those people adhered to, just as it came to the aid of the persecuted believers – those who followed the previous scriptures as well as others. It also came in support of all the previous Messengers of Allah (peace be upon them).
This is part of the meaning of Allah’s statement: “We will without doubt help Our messengers and those who believe both in the life of this world and on the Day when the witnesses will stand forth.” [Sûrah Ghâfir
Zayd b. `Amr b. Nufayl lived during the time before Islam, so he is not numbered in the history books among the Prophet Muhammad's Companions. However, his son, Sa'îd b. Zayd, would become one of the most illustrious of the Prophet's Companions. He was one of the ten Companions who were given the glad tidings of Paradise while they were still alive.