The Arabs were a tribal people with deep-rooted cultural habits and practices that governed most aspects of their lives including tribal conflicts, nobility, rulership and political power struggles over leadership positions.
When Allah chose Muhammad to be a Prophet and Messenger he was from amongst the elite of his people since he had the blood of two noble families. The family of Abdu-Manaf on his father's side and Zuhra on his mothers side. So he was from amongst the nobles of the tribe of Quraish and from the tribe of Bani Hashim which was the most noble bloodline of the Arabs. Muhammad was also known to be very well mannered, generous and kind natured. Far from having any of the defects in his character that the people commonly boasted about in their ignorance and untouched by any blemishes on his reputation because Allah the Most High was always protecting him and guarding him from every suspicion or short coming.
However in spite of all that, he did not become leader of his tribe for many reasons related to age and other circumstances on the one hand, and on the other because of Allah's divine wisdom and secret protection of the message of Islam from being mixed up with worldly ambitions that insincere people are drawn to. As a result one of the reasons the pagan Arabs rejected Islam was because they wondered amongst themselves why Muhammad was chosen for this mission.
That was because they did not fully realize the virtue of his moral excellence and the special quality of his personality. Therefore they were not of the opinion that he was better than them or their equal rather they thought that such and such person from the great, important men of distinction from one of the tribes should have been chosen to bring the message. Allah the Most High says:
And they say: "Why is not this Qur'an sent down to some great man of the two towns (Mecca and Ta'if)?" [Surah Az-Zuhruf:Verse 31]
They did not intend with their saying a specific person as we find in some (inauthentic) ahadith where the names of certain important men in the city of Mecca are mentioned such as Al-Waleed ibn Al-Mughira Al-Makhzuwmi or Utba ibn Rabe'ah. They even used to call Al-Waleed 'Preserver of the Quraish'! The names of certain important men in the city of Ta'if were also mentioned in these narrations such as Habib ibn 'Amr Ath-Thaqafi or Ibn Abdu Yaleel or Urwa ibn Mas'ud or Kanana ibn Abd as well as others.
Obviously the pagan Arabs had no business trying to involve themselves in the matter of Allah's divine choosing of whomever He wills as a Prophet. Especially since they, with their corrupt souls and confused intellect and bad natures, refused to even follow the chosen Prophet of Allah!
They even went to the extreme of requesting (from Allah) that every single one of them be raised to the position of a prophet and messenger and that angels come to them and that they be given revelation! As if each one of them could never follow anyone else! Allah the Most High says:
And when there comes to them a sign (from Allah) they say: "We shall not believe until we receive the like of that which the Messengers of Allah had received." Allah knows best with whom to place Message. Humiliation and disgrace from Allah and a severe torment will overtake the criminals (polytheists, sinners) for that which they used to plot. [Surah Al-An'a:Verse 124]
They attached great importance to themselves and haughtily refused to follow another human being even if he was a prophet who received revelation from the heavens. Their arrogance was so great that it even led them to ask Allah to send angels to them or that they be allowed to see Allah with their own eyes! The consequence of their arrogance was that they would be punished with humiliation and disgrace in this world and in the hereafter and that they would be gathered together in the fire of Hell. Allah the Most High said in the above verse:
"Humiliation and disgrace from Allah and a severe torment will overtake the criminals (polytheists, sinners)?"
Allah, the Mighty and the Majestic, also says:
And those who expect not a meeting with us (i.e. those who deny the Day of Resurrection and the life of the Hereafter) said: "Why are not the angels sent down to us, or why do we not see our Lord?" Indeed they think too highly of themselves, and are scornful with great pride." [Surah Al-Furqan:Verse 21]
Therefore those arrogant ones amongst the pagan Arabs were really refusing to follow another human being, just as those who disbelieved from the previous nations refused to follow another human being by saying:
"If you were to obey another human being like yourselves, then verily you indeed would be losers." [Surah Al-Mu'minun:Verse 34]
According to these statements, if the messenger sent to them from Allah was a human being the pagan Arabs did not want to follow him. Even if he was from the elite of his people and one of their chieftains and was considered, according to their own customs, as deserving or worthy to be followed and obeyed! Obviously this argument does not justify their rejection of the message of Islam and it fails to refute the truth that the prophets and messengers conveyed.
As a result of the importance of adhering to tribal customs regarding leadership, the people who were from the same sub-tribe as the Messenger Muhammad refused to follow him arguing that he was not a chieftain of their sub-tribe nor was he one who held a leadership position amongst them. Meanwhile those who were from a different sub-tribe refused to follow Messenger Muhammad in order to protect the status of their own sub-tribe. And those who were from a different tribe altogether rejected the message of Islam hoping to protect the status of their tribe by not following someone from a different tribe!
In a hasan hadith narrated upon the authority of Al-Mughira ibn Shu'bah who said: "'The first time that I became aquainted with the Messenger of Allah. I was walking with Abu Jehl ibn Hisham through some of the streets of Mecca. When we met the Messenger of Allah he said to Abu Jehl: 'O Abu Al-Hakam! Come to Allah and to His Messenger. Verily I am inviting you to the religion of Allah.' Abu Jehl replied: 'O Muhammad, have you finished insulting our gods? Do you want anything more than that we bear witness that you have conveyed the message? Even if I were certain that what you say is the truth I would not follow you!' When the Messenger of Allah departed from us Abu Jehl turned to me and said: 'I swear by Allah that I know that what he says is the truth but Bani Qasi said: 'Are we not the gatekeepers (of Mecca)?' We replied: 'Yes.' They said: 'Do we not have a council of leaders?' We replied: 'Yes.' They said: 'Are we not united by a common bond?' We replied: 'Yes.' They said: 'Do we not provide water for the for the Mecca pilgrims?' We replied: 'Yes.' Then Bani Qasi served food and we ate until when we became firmly united as if we had already mounted our fastest horses they said: 'Is there a prophet from among us? No, by Allah I will not accept this!'"
This is how the real reasons for their rejection of Islam were exposed and the matter became clear. Abu Jehl turned away from Islam because he felt that tribal honor and sovereignty were more important. Especially since the tribe of Bani Qasi were the only gatekeepers of the city of Mecca, and were exclusively responsible for providing water for the Mecca pilgrims. They also had a council of leaders, and were united by a common bond? It simply would not be possible for them to maintain their monopoly of power if they accepted Prophet Muhammad and the message of Islam because if they did it would bring the criticism of the tribe of Quraish and the rest of the pagan Arabs as well.
In another similar narration we learn that Abu Jehl and Abu Sufyan and Al-Akhnas ibn Shareeq listened to the Qur'an night after night. One morning Al-Akhnas ibn Shareeq went to Abu Jehl and asked: ' O Abu Al-Hakam what do you think about that which you have heard from Muhammad?' He replied: 'What have I heard? He disputes with us and the honorable tribe of Abdu Manaf: they provided food and we have provided food, they have carried a burden and we have carried a burden, they gave and we gave until we became firmly united as if we had already mounted our fastest horses. They said: 'Is there a prophet from amongst us who receives revelation from the sky! When will we ever understand this? By Allah we will never listen to him and we will never believe in him.' Then Al-Akhnas ibn Shareeq arose and departed from Abu Jahl.
The distress and concern that the Messenger of Allah caused the pagan Arabs was very difficult for a society so overwhelmingly influenced by tribalism. A society in which each family celebrated all festivities in its own special place and a society in which all of the tribes competed with each other for status, honor and leadership. Therefore the close relatives of Messenger Muhammad refused to follow him because he was not one of the chieftains of his tribe and the others refused to follow him because he was from a different sub-tribe or from another tribe altogether.
In an authentic hadith narrated upon the authority of Ibn Abbas who said: "When Allah revealed the verse:
"And warn your tribe (O Muhammad) of near kindred." [Surah Ash-Shu'ara, verse 214]
The Prophet went out, and when he had ascended As-Safa mountain he began shouting: "O Bani Fihr, O Bani 'Adi" addressing various sub-tribes of the Quraish till they were all assembled. Those who could not come themselves, sent their messengers to see what was there. Abu Lahab and other people from the Quraish came and the Prophet then addressed them saying: "Suppose I told you that there is an (enemy) cavalry in the valley that intends to attack you, would you believe me?" They said: "Yes, for we have not found you telling anything other than the truth." He then said: "I am a warner sent to you before the coming of a severe punishment." Abu Lahab said: "May your hands perish for the rest of this day. Is this why you have gathered us here?" Then Allah revealed the verse:
"Perish the hands of Abu Lahab (an uncle of the Prophet) and perish he! His wealth and his children will not benefit him!" [Sura Al-Masad, verses 1-2]
When he made that proclamation the world was divided into two camps: the camp of disbelief and shirk comprised of the vast majority of mankind; Arabs and non-Arabs, slaves and common people, dwellers of nearby lands as well as those who dwell in distant lands. And the camp of faith and belief comprised of Muhammad ibn Abd-Allah who was alone except for one free man, one slave, one boy, and one woman! At that time they were the only ones willing to sacrifice themselves and their wealth for the cause of Allah's religion. This in and of itself was a severe hardship for the early Muslims. Additionally the pagan Arabs of the tribe of Quraish, as well as all of the inhabitants of the city of Mecca at that time, played a major role in trying to prevent the light of Islam from spreading to other people which is the fifth reason for the difficulties that the early Muslims faced.