Arabia Before Islam: Religion of the Pre-Islamic Arabs
No history of pre-Islamic Arabia would be complete without an account of the religion of the Arabs. Unfortunately the material which we possess does not enable us to form a complete and vivid picture of the religion of the ancient Arabs. Whatever we know about it comes to us through isolated statements of Greek writers and from Greek or Semitic inscriptions, poetical compilations of the old poets, the few anecdotes and traditions embedded in the later Islamic literature. Some information may also be gathered from polemical allusions in the Qur'an. Much credit goes to a few early Muslim scholars who laboriously collected and handed down to posterity, in a systematic form, information on heathen mythology and ritual. Among these scholars a specially prominent place must be assigned to Hisham al-Kalbi, usually known as Ibn al-Kalbi (819-920 C.E.), the author of Kitab al-Asnam (The Book of Idols).
Judged by the scanty evidence available, it suffices to show that Muhammad's (may the peace of Allah be upon him) contemporaries and the generations immediately preceding them, had little of any religion.
To spiritual impulses he (the pagan Arab) was lukewarm, even indifferent. His conformity to religious practice followed tribal inertia and was dictated by his conservative respect for tradition. Nowhere do we find an illustration of genuine devotion to a heathen deity. A story told about Imru 'al-Qays illustrates this point. Having set out to avenge the murder of his father he stopped at the temple of dhual-Khalasah to consult the oracle by means of drawing arrows. Upon drawing 'abandon' thrice, he hurled the broken arrows at the idol exclaiming, "Accursed One! Had it been thy father who was murdered thou wouldst not have forbidden my avenging him." (1)
The Arabs were undoubtedly indifferent towards religion, but that should not lead any one to conclude that they had no notion of religion whatsoever. They had had an idea of an All-Supreme power controlling the Universe, His Wrath and Favour, the life after death and the angels. But all these ideas had been adulterated with idolatry - that yearning of the baser self in a man for a visible object of devotion, something that the eye can see and the hands can touch, which finally develops into the worship of the creature more than that of the Creator. That the Arabs had a concept of an All-Powerful Lord can be illustrated from so many verses. Nabigha, for instance, says:
I took an oath and left no margin of doubt for who else can support man, besides Allah. (2)
Zahir b. Abi. Salma in his well-known couplet affirms his faith in the day of judgement:
The deeds are recorded in the scroll to be presented on
The day of judgement;
Vengeance can be taken in this world too; (3)
The Holy Qur'an eloquently testifies the fact that the unbelievers and polytheists of Arabia did not deny the existence of a Supreme Power, nor did they deny the fact that Allah is the Sole Creator of the heavens and the earth; or that the whole mechanism of nature is operated in accordance with His Command, that He pours down the rain, drives the winds, controls the sun, the moon, the earth and everything else. Says the Qur'an:
And if you ask them, Who created the heavens and the earth and constrained the sun and the moon (to their appointed task) they would say: Allah. How, then, are they turned away? (29:61)
And if thou were to ask them, Who causeth water to come down from the sky, and wherewith reviveth the earth after its death? they would verily say: Allah. (29:63)
And if you ask them Who created them they will surely say: Allah. How then are they turned away? (43:87)
And if you should ask them, Who created the heavens and the earth? they would most certainly say: The Mighty, the Knowing One has created them. (43:9)
These verses make it abundantly clear that the Arabs of pre-Islamic period believed in the existence of one Great Deity, but at the same time they entertained the notion that the All-Powerful Lord delegated His powers to some of His sacred personalities and objects - both animate and inanimate - who serve as the media through which the worshipper could come in contact with Him and thus earn His pleasure. It was under this misconception that they worshipped the idols of saintly persons, heavenly bodies and stones which were sometimes regarded not as divinities, but as the incarnations of Divine Being.
We have seen earlier that the Arabs had deep-rooted love for the tribe to which they belonged. This belief in the greatness and excellence of their tribe led them to carve a deity of their own and they sang hymns in its praise in order to win its favour. The tribe called Kalb worshipped Wadd, the Hudhayl worshipped Suwa. The tribe of Madh'hij as well as the people of Quraysh worshipped Yaghuth, the Khaywan worshipped Ya'uq. The last-named idol was placed in their village called Khaywan at a distance of two nights' journey towards Mecca. Similarly the tribe of Himyar adopted Nasr as their god and worshipped it in a place called Balkha. The Himyar had also another temple (bayt) in San'a. It was called Ri'am, the people venerated it and offered sacrifices to it. (4)
The most ancient of all these idols was Manah. The Arabs named their children after them as 'Abd Manah and Zayd Manah. Manah was erected on the seashore in the vicinity of Mushallal in Qudayd, between Medina and Mecca. All the Arabs used to venerate her and offer sacrifices to her. The Aus and the Khazraj were her most faithful devotees. (5)
Another goddess which was ardently worshipped by the Arabs was known as al-Lat. "She was a cubic rock beside which a certain Jew used to prepare his barley porridge (Sawiq). Her custody was in the hands of Banu Attab Ibn Malik of the Thaqif who had raised an edifice over her. She was venerated by the Quraysh and almost all the tribes of Arabia and they named their children after her, e.g., Zayd al-Lat and Taym al_Lat. The Arabs worshipped her till the tribe of Thaqif embraced Islam. It was on this occasion that Muhammad (may the peace of Allah be upon him) sent al-Mughirah ibn Shu'bah to destroy this idol. It is recorded that when al-Lat was demolished, Shaddad ibn 'Arid-al-Jushmai gave in verse a grim note of warning to the tribe of Thaqif:
Come not for help to al-Lat, Allah has doomed her to destruction.
How can you be helped by one who is not victorious,
Verily, that which, when set on fire, resisted not the flames.
Nor saved her stones, inglorious and worthless.
Hence when the Prophet will arrive in your place,
Not one of her devotees shall be left at the time of his departures. (6)
Still another goddess who was venerated by the Arabs is known as al-Uzza. She was introduced to the people by a person known as Zalim ibn As'ad. Her idol was erected in a valley in Nakhlat al-Shamiya called Hurad alongside al-Ghumyayr to the right of the road from Mecca to Iraq about Dhat-Iraq and nine miles from al_bustan. A grand superstructure was raised around it where the people would sit and receive oracular communication. It was a common practice with the Arabs to name their children after this goddess. The Quraysh were sent to circumambulate the Ka'bah and sing hymns for these goddesses whom they called 'the daughters of Allah': (7)
By al-Lat and al-Uzza, and Manah,
The third idols beside, verily they are the most exalted females.
Whose intercession is to be sought after.
The Holy Qur'an has vehemently repudiated such foolish ideas and said in unequivocal terms:
Have ye seen Lat and Uzza and another? The third (goddess) Manah? What? For you the male sex and for Him, the female? Behold, such would be indeed a division most unfair.
These are nothing but names which ye have devised, ye and your fathers - for which God had sent down no authority (whatever). They followed nothing but fancy and what their own souls desire. Even though there has already come to them guidance from the Lord. (53: 19-23).
The Quraysh also had several idols in and around the Ka'bah. The greatest of these was Hubal. It was carved out of red agate, in the form of a man with the right hand broken off. It stood inside the Ka'bah. Beside him stood ritual arrows used for divination by the soothsayer (Kahin) who drew lots. On one of these arrows the word Sarih was inscribed and on the other was written the word Mulsaq, which means 'consociated alien'. Whenever the legitimacy of a new-born babe was questioned the Arabs would shuffle the arrows and then throw them. If the arrow shoed the word pure, it was finally decided that the child was legitimate. If, unfortunately, the arrow bearing the word 'Mulsaq' was drawn, the child was condemned as illegitimate. There were also some other arrows which could help the Arabs in the divination concerning marriage, death or the success or failure of the intending journey. (8)
The idol of Hubal was widely venerated by the Arabs, especially by the people of Mecca. It was the same idol which Abu Sufyan ibn Harb addressed when he emerged victorious after the battle of Uhud saying: "Hubal! be though exalted (i.e. may thy religion triumph)." At this the Prophet replied: "Allah is more Exalted, and more Majestic." (9)
Among other idols Usaf and Na'ilah are well-known. One of them stood close to the Ka'bah, while the other was placed by the side of the Zamzam. Later, both of them were set together near the sacred fountain and the Arabs offered sacrifices to both of them. Ibn al-Kalbi writes:
The Arabs were passionately devoted to the idols and worshipped them with fervour. Some of them erected a temple around which they centered their worship, whereas the others adopted venerated idols. A person who was devoid of means to build the temple for himself or carve an idol to worship it, would fix a stone in front of the sacred House or any other temple according to his desire and then circumambulate it in the same manner in which he would circumambulate around the Ka'bah. (10)
They were so deeply attached to them that when any one amongst them intended to go on a journey, his last act before saying goodbye to the house, would be to touch the idol in the hope of an auspicious journey, and when he returned home the first act that he would perform was to touch it again with reverence in gratitude for a propitious return. (11)
The Arabs called these stones to which they shoed veneration as ansab. Whenever these stones resembled a living form they called them idols (Asnam) and graven images (awthan). The act of circumambulating them was called circumrotation (dawr). (12)
The Arabs were, however, fully conscious of excellence and superiority of Ka'bah to which they turned their steps for pilgrimage and visitation. The worship of the stones during their travels meant to perpetuate the religious ceremonies which they had performed at Ka'bah because of their immense devotion to it.
This practice originated in the custom of men carrying a stone from the sacred enclosures of Mecca when they set out on a journey, out of reverence for the Ka'bah and withersoever they went they set it up and made circumambulations round about it as is made around the Ka'bah till at the last they adored every goodly stone they saw, forgot their religion, and substituted the faith of Ibrahim and Isma'il with the worship of the images and the idols.
It will not be out of place to mention briefly some of the practices at the Ka'bah. Amongst these practices, it is interesting to note that some came down from the time of Ibrahim and Isma'il such as the veneration of the House and its circumambulation, the pilgrimage, the vigil (al-Wukuf) on 'Arafah and al-Muzdalifah, sacrificing she-camels and raising the voice in the acclamation of the name of the Lord (tahlil) but the Meccans had polluted all sacred performances with idolatrous practices, for example, whenever they raised their voices in tahlil (13) they would declare their implicit faith in the unity of the Lord through the talbiyah, but it was not unity pure and simple. It was alloyed with the association of their gods with Him. Thus their talbiyah was expressed in these words:
Here we are, O Lord! Here we are! There is no associate for Thee except one who is thine. Thou has full supremacy over him and over everything that he possesses. (14)
The Arabs, both men and women, circumambulated the Ka'bah in a state of nudity with their hands - clapping, shouting and singing (15) and it was thought to be an act of highest piety. The argument which they advanced to justify such an indecent act was that it was unfair on their part to perform this sacred ceremony in those very clothes in which they had committed sins. They vehemently stressed this point by saying: "We will not circumambulate with the dress in which we perpetrated crimes. We will not worship Allah in the attire in which we committed heinous acts. We will not circumambulate in attire in which we disobeyed our Lord.(16)
The history of pre-Islamic Arabia brings into light the fact that the Arabs, besides the worship of idols, worshipped the heavenly bodies, trees and dead heroes of their tribes. "The Sun (Shams) construed as feminine, was honoured by the several Arabian tribes with a sanctuary and an idol. The name 'Abd Shams is found in many parts of the country. In the North we meet with the name Amr-I-Shams, "man of the Sun". For the worship of the raising sun, we have the evidence of Abd-al-Sharq "servant of the Raising one." (17) The heavenly bodies, especially worshipped were Canopus (Suhail), Sirius (al-Sh'ira), Aldebaran in Taurus with the planets Mercury (Utarid), Venus (al-Zuhra) Jupiter (al-Mushtri) and Sale states that the temple at Mecca was said to have been consecrated to Saturn (Zuhal). (18)
The Arabs' devotion to the Sun, Moon and other heavenly bodies is unquestionable; but it is wrong to infer from this that the religion of the Arabs or even of the Semites entirely rested upon the worship of the heavenly bodies. This theory is not supported by facts. The Arabs had so many deities which cannot be explained as astral powers. (19) There were not a few deities which were supposed to possess animal forms, e.g., Ya'uq represented by a horse and Nasr thought to have the figure of a vulture (Nasr). Yauq is said to have been god of the Hamdan or of the Morad or of both tribes. (20) "Nasr, the vulture-god is said to have been an idol of Himyarites." (21)
Some of the Arabian deities seem to be personifications of abstract ideas, but they appear to have been conceived in a thoroughly concrete fashion. In particular, it is to be noticed that the Arabs, form a very early period, believed in the existence of certain supernatural powers which shaped their destiny. Thus, for instance time in the abstract form was popularly imagined to be the cause of all earthly misery. The Holy Qur'an also refers to this wrong belief of the Meccans:
"And they say: what is there but life in this world? We shall die and we live, and nothing but time can destroy us. But of that they have no knowledge. They merely conjecture." (45:24)
The Arab poets had also been alluding to the action of Time (dahr, Zaman) which brings sorrows and adversities. Then there is a fate which determines course of life and irresistibly drives them to their destined ends. No one can change the pattern wrought by fate and no action, howsoever concentrated, can alter that which is unalterable. There is, however, one other expression, Maniyah, which often appears in poetry and throws a good deal of light on the fatalist views of the Arabs. The Meccans believed that he universe had been created by the Lord, but after bringing it into existence He had retired to the position of a silent spectator and now it was the driving force of time and fate which was moving it to its destined end and bringing into being new events and episodes of life. (22)
In addition to these deities the pagan Arabs looked upon their priests with the same reverence as they had for their gods. In this class figured high the care-takers of temples and other sanctuaries. The priest or temple-guard (the Arabic word is Sadin), was, like the Nordic Code, a venerable man who was regarded as the owner of the sacred precinct. As a rule this privilege of ownership and direction belonged to a clan whose chief was the actual priest, but any member of the tribe could carry out the priestly functions, which, in addition to the guarding of the sacred grove, building of the idols, and the treasury where the votine gifts were stored, consisted of the practice of casting lots to determine the will of God, or to obtain His advice concerning important undertakings. The Priest also served as an intermediary between the mortal and his Master.
Besides priesthood, there was a certain guild of seers whose members received their esoteric knowledge from spirit. Kahins, as they were called, were supposed to possess the power of foretelling the coming events and of performing other superhuman feats. Any one who was eager to known what the future had in store for him would go in their presence with presents of food and animals. Sacrifices were offered at their feet and Kahin would then lend his ear to a mysterious "voice from the heaven" known as the "oracle" and communicate it to the person concerned. (23)
The pagan Arabs included the poet also in the category of those mysterious beings who are endowed with supernatural knowledge, "a wizard in league with spirits (Jinn) or satans (Shayatin) and dependent on them the magical powers which he displayed…the pagan Sha'ir is the oracle of his tribe, their guide in peace and their champion in war. It was to him they turned for counsel when they sought new pastures; only at his word would they pitch or strike their 'house of hair'. (24)
Not only the idols, the stars and the saints, were worshipped in Arabia, but the demons and jinn also were venerated in every section of their society. "These jinn differed from the gods not so much in their natures as in their relation to man. The gods are, on the whole friendly; the jinn, hostile. The latter are, of course, personifications of the fantastic notions of the terrors of the desert and its wild animal life. To the gods belong the regions frequented by man, to the jinn belong the unknown and untrodden parts of the wilderness." (25)
The Arabs also adored the graves of their forefathers and sought assistance from the departed souls in the hour of distress. They believed that the souls of the dead person had the power to incarnate itself in different bodies, both human and non-human.
The belief in signs as betokening future events, was, of course, found no less among the Arabs than among other peoples. Some birds were regarded as auspicious, other as ominous. The animals that crossed a man's path and the direction in which they moved alike conveyed a meaning. Many of these signs were such as every one could understand; others were intelligible only to persons especially trained. One peculiar art consisted in scaring birds and drawing omens from their flight; this operation was known as Zajr. (26)
The pages of history reveal the fact that fire was also worshipped in Arabia as a symbol of divine power. This practice seems to have penetrated in the Arab lands from their neighboring country Persia, where it had been rooted deeply. The Magian religion was popular particularly with the tribe of Tamim.
The Jews who fled in great numbers into Arabia from the fearful destruction of their country by the Romans made proselytes of several tribes, those of Kinanah, al Harith Ibn Ka'bah, and Kindah in particular, and in time became very powerful, and possessed of several towns and fortresses. "But the Jewish religion was not unknown to the Arabs at least about a century before. Abu Qarib Asad who was the king of Yemen introduced Judaism among the idolatrous Himyarites."(27)
Christianity had likewise made a little progress amongst the Arabs before the advent of Muhammad (may the peace of Allah be upon him). How this religion was actually introduced into this land is uncertain, but the persecutions and disorders which took place in the Eastern Church soon after the beginning of the third century, obliged great number of Christians to seek shelter in that country of liberty. "The principal tribes that embraced Christianity were Himyar, Ghassan, Rabi'a, Tagh'ab, Bahra, Tunukh, part of the Tay and Khud'a, the inhabitants of Najran, and the Arabs of Hira. As to the two last, it may be observed that those of Najran became Christian in the time of Dhu Nuwas" (28)
Christianity as a religion could not, however, succeed in making a permanent hold in Arabia and could not supersede idolatry. The Christian anchorites, dwelling in their solitary cells in the country aided in gaining scattered converts amongst the Arabs. This failure of the Christian monks in spreading the Gospel among the people of Arabia may be attributed to the fact that by the time of its penetration into Arabia, it had ceased to be a living force. It was a mere hotchpotch of dogmas and transcendental hopes having no relationship with the practical life. Its promoters, the clergymen, had degenerated themselves into a class of selfseekers:
The clergy by drawing the abstrusest niceties into controversy, and dividing and subdividing about them into endless schisms and contentions, they had so destroyed that peace, love and charity from among them which the Gospel was given to promote, and instead thereof continually provoked each other to that malice, rancour, and every evil work, that they had lost the whole substance of their religion, while they thus eagerly contended for their own imaginations concerning it, and in a manner quite drove Christianity out of the world by those very controversies in which they disputed with each other about it. In those dark ages it was that most of those superstitions and corruptions we now just abhor in the Church of Rome were not only broached but established, which gave great advantages to the propagation of Muhammadanism. The worship of the saints and images, in particular, was then arrived at such a scandalous pitch that it even surpassed whatever is now practised amongst the Romanists. (29)
Such were the real religious conditions of the Arabs before Muhammad (may the peace of Allah be upon him). "Causes are sometimes conjured up", observes Muir, "to account for results produced by an agent apparently inadequate to effect them. Muhammad arose, and forthwith the Arabs were aroused to a new and a spiritual faith; hence the conclusion that Arabia was fermenting of the change and prepared to adopt it. To us, calmly reviewing the past, pre-Islamic history belies the assumption. After five centuries of Christian evangelisation, we can point to but a sprinkling here and there of Christian converts, the Bani Harith of Nairan; the Bani Hanifa of Yemena; some of the Bani Tay at Tayma; and hardly any more. Judaism, vastly more powerful, had exhibited spasmodic efforts at proselytism; but, as an active and converting agent, the Jewish faith was no longer operative. In fact, viewed in a religious aspect, the surface of Arabia had been now and then gently rippled by the feeble efforts of Christianity, the sterner influences of Judaism had been occasionally visible in a deeper and more troubled current; but the tide of indigenous idolatry and Ishmaelite superstition setting strongly from every quarter towards the Ka'bah gave ample evidence that the faith and worship of Mecca held the Arab mind in a rigorous and undisputed thraldom." (30)
1. Phillip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs (London, 1951), p. 96
2. Ibn Qutayba, al-Sh'r-wa'asl-Shu'ara, p. 110.
3. Ibid., p. 88
4. Hisham Ibn Al-Kalbi, Kitab al-Asnam, edited by Ahmad Zaki Pasha. (Cairo, 1927), pp. 9-14.
5. Ibid., p. 14.
6. Hisham Ibn Al-Kalbi, op. cit., p. 17.
7. Ibid, pp. 26-28.
8. Hisham Al-Ibn Kalbi, op. cit., p. 28.
10. Hisham Ibn Al-Kalbi, op. cit., p. 33.
12. Ibid., p. 33
13. The formula of the tahlil is - La-ilaha illa-Allah (There is no god but Allah).
14. Ibn Kathir, al-Bidaya, wa'al-Nihaya (Cairo, 1932), Vol. II, 188.
15. This seems to be implied in the Qur'anic reference to the pagan Meccan: Their prayers at the House are nothing else than whistling through the fingers, and clapping of hands." (8:35).
16. Dr. Jawad Ali: Tarikh al-Arab Qabl al-Islam, Matba'al-Ilm al-Iraqi (1955), Vol. V, p. 225.
17. Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, Article "Ancient Arab", Vol. 1, p. 661.
18. J.W.H. Stobbart, Islam and its Founder, p. 32.
19. Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, Article "Ancient Arab"
20. W. Robertson Smith: Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia, p. 208.
21. Ibid, p. 209.
22. Sayyid Mahmud Shakir al-Alusi: Bulugh al-Irb-fi Ahwal al 'Arab (Cairo), Vol. II, pp. 220-21.
23. Dr. Jawad Ali: Tarikh al-Arab, Vol. V, p.177.
24. Nicholson: A Literary History of the Arabs, pp. 72-73.
25. Hitti, History of the Arabs, p. 98.
26. Jawad Ali: Tarikh al-Arab, Vol. V, p.40.
27. Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, Vol. I, p. 667 "Arabs, Ancient", (N.Y., 1908).
28. E.M. Wherry, A Commentary of the Qur'an, (London, 1882).
29. E.M. Wherry, A Commentary of the Qur'an, (London, 1882), Vol. I, pp. 61-62.
30. William Muir, Life of Muhammad p. lxxxv.