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Pre-Islamic Arabia and Pagan Foundations of Islam

While many today would consider Islam to be a fiercely monotheist and purist religion absent of all pagan roots an examination of the historical record reveals a much more immediate past with several originally pagan practices still being practiced today under the guise of monotheism. Islam, like many other world religions, was created to unify a disintegrated tribal region for purposes of power and was less a revelation of one god then it was a form of henotheism masquerading as monotheism. We will find that many fundamental Islamic practices such as reverence and prayer toward the Kaaba, the very nature of Allah, and the the Hajj to Mecca all find their way to pagan beginnings.

While other monotheist religions may have been influenced by pagan cults in their beginning the difference in Islam is that these pagan practices continue up until today, arbitrarily without explanation or extensive scriptural support, and these ceremonies have not been purged. This may come as a startling revelation to some, considering the virulent strain of fundamentalist Islam that has risen to prominence in the late twentieth and twenty first century preaching a strict monotheism and intolerance or violence toward those who do not accept the one true god “Allah.”

Doctors Richard Hooker and Richard Hines of Washington State University paint a compelling image of the landscape of pre-Islamic history. Before the Arabs became unified Arabia proper was comprised of warring tribes bound together by no permanent central government. As no major rivers ran through this region no large permanent cities became viable prospects, with large settlements such as Riyadh only becoming recently possible with modern technology. As a consequence the Arab peoples became nomadic herders of cattle who oversaw the domain of large pastures.  For the purposes of this research we will focus on the pastoralist Bedouin tribes which comprise inner Arabia of the Pre-Islamic classical era and when “Arabs” are referenced we are specifically not including Arab kingdoms near the Levant and southern coast such as the Nabataean and Sabean empires.

While at times the Arabs would momentarily unify to raid Persia or the immensely wealthy Yemenite coast they mostly warred amongst each other, especially in the form of caravan raids, for the Arabs were prolific traders, and this was their primary source of wealth.

The commerce these tribes were concerned with was the Indian to Mediterranean trade which passed through Southern Arabia on its way to Byzantium. The Arab tribes served as intermediaries to facilitate such a trade and profited as being couriers of such goods or by simply taking up the warpath and raiding the goods from other tribes which tended to cooperate.

During the time of Mohammed, what has come to be known as the classical era, al-Arabiyya or classical Arabic became widespread and became the language of poetry and culture, allowing for the soon to be transmitted Koran. Muru’a or the Arabic equivalent to the Greek arête and Roman virtus, the virtue of manliness and excellence, was soon hailed as vital to heroic leadership. The cultivation of this virtue in tribal society transformed the Arab people who already had a disposition to war into a formidable expansionary force with a powerful leadership, a framework which would make it easier to equate kinship ties with military hierarchy and allowed for the formation of a sprawling Arab empire in years to come.

Pre-Islamic religious practice was comprised of two principle sources: local animist tradition in the form of grove, rock and meteorite worship as well as veneration of a vast pantheon of gods mainly derived from western Semitic sources, to which the tribes celebrated a form of henotheism locally. When the Quraysh captured Mecca circa 500 C.E. following in the wake of the recent Arab militarization they proclaimed Hubal, the tribal head god who was known to have subordinate to him his goddess daughters al-Lat (cognate to Allatu, the Carthaginian underworld goddess originating from Ereshkigal), al-Uzza, and al-Manat (the same goddesses who famously appear in the “satanic verses” of Sura 53), as lord of the temple city (Occhigrosso 394-397). To the Quraysh this Hubal was often referred to as “Allah” for “Allah” is not a proper name but actually a contraction of “al-” and “-ilah” meaning “the god (Jeffery 85, Brill 302, Peters 3-41).” Even the word “Ilah” has a deeper meaning as “Il” or “Ilah” refers to an even earlier primeval lunar god worshipped by the Arabs which by the time of the Quraysh had become a general name for “god.” According to Carelton Coon “…under Mohammed’s tutelage, the relatively anonymous Ilah became Al-Ilah, The God, or Allâh, the Supreme Being. (Coon 399).”

This is not simply a matter of semantics: “Allah” does not mean “God” but “the god,” the first implies that there is a singular god and second meaning implies that this god is a god of prominence amongst others. Allah was not a revelatory name as discovered by Mohammed but instead a common term used by his tribe, and possibly the other tribes of Inner Arabia, to refer to the chief god amongst others.

Following in Semitic tradition many Arabs named their children as “servant” or “slave” of their chief god, the famous Carthaginian “Hannibal” translates to “grace of the Lord (Baal)” (Baal = El) for example. One such named individual was Abd Allah, Mohammed’s own father who died before Mohammed was even born (Andrae 13-30). Numerous others were named after “Allah” before the revelation of Islam occured including such significant figures of Pre-Islamic history such as Quraysh kinsmen Abd-Allah ben Djahsh, Ubayd-Allah, Abd-Allah ben Djudan and the sons of Umar: Abd-Allah and ‘Ubayd-Allah. The presence of such names in the historical record alludes to the notion that “Allah” was worshipped before Mohammed’s time and was in reverence of the god Hubal (Peters 3-41, Brockelmann 8-10).

It can be conjectured that Mohammed chose “Allah” as the “God” of Islam because the name rang true amongst his clansmen (Andrae 13-30) and the other Arab tribes who had come to respect Hubal as the chief god of Mecca, with the passing of time eventually centralizing the cult into the belief that “Allah” had always been the one God. Surely when Mohammed began referring to his new god as “Allah” it must have caused no immediate alarm amongst his Arab brethren as the term was not then used a proper noun but simply a substitute for a name of reverence (similar to the western Semitic Baal which simply means Lord and is not the proper name of the God being identified), in the case of the Quraysh: Hubal. This ingenious use of language was only made possible by a previous event in Pre-Islamic history which made the worship of Hubal familiar to the Arabs visiting Mecca: the conquest of the city by Mohammed’s tribe.

Connected with the worship of Gods was also the worship of stones and idols. When the Quraysh captured Mecca they installed atop the Kaaba an idol of Hubal, marking him most prominent amongst the reportedly three hundred and sixty god idols of the Cube (Armstrong 11). For the next one hundred and twenty years the cult of Hubal (up until Mohammed’s conquest of Mecca in 620 C.E.) was centralized and Arabs visiting Mecca during the Hajj would have become familiar with the god’s prominent position atop the other lesser deities represented at the holy city. A less likely report made in Sarwar’s Muhammed the Holy Prophet claims that “Amr bin Lahyo bin Harath bin Amr ul-Qais bin Thalaba bin Azd bin Khalan bin Babalyun bin Saba” of Hijaz had placed the Hubal idol even earlier, four hundred years before the birth of Mohammed (Sarwar 18-19). Regardless of who installed the Hubal idol in its prime location at Mecca what is surely known is that the Quraysh named the god chief amongst others. The Quraysh would have expected visiting Arabs to pay special homage to the “Lord” of the city upon their pilgrimage and to respect Hubal as the chief god while within the city. While these provisions did not destroy the polytheism of Arabia it may have reinforced henotheistic notions which would allow for a shift to monotheism to be not as startling as it would have been in past times and would have made Arabs familiar with the name of “Allah,” a phrase which by that time had become synonymous with Hubal.

History shows that as societies become increasingly wealthy, literate and militarily powerful they become increasingly monotheistic, a trend which may have been increasingly apparent in the years approaching Mohammed’s birth as made possible by the economic virtues of the classical Arabic era. Mohammed’s declaration of Shahadah can be interpreted as a final declaration of Hubal’s primacy and his destruction of the idol cults within Mecca during 620 C.E. more of a political showing of power rather than a religious statement. Mohammed’s centralization of the cult can be paralleled with the King Hezekiah’s religious reforms of the seventh century B.C.E., reforms with religious overtures more so designed to increase the monarch’s power from tribal overlord to king proper by means of national ideology (as proposed by Professor Robert Beckford in his Channel 4 documentary Who Wrote The Bible?).

While the Islamic god has roots in the worship of the lunar god Hubal so does the veneration of the Kaaba have ancient pagan roots. The original black stone which the Kaaba was built around to protect was most likely a meteorite connected with the worship of baetyli or sacred stones, a common practice of the pre-Islamic Arabs. As the ancient Arabs primarily worshipped gods representing astrological entities such as the moon, sun and Venus, the principal deity before Hubal being the worship of the lunar goddess al-Lat, these meteorites were considered to be actual pieces of the gods themselves and the places where they landed were considered the most sacred places of ancient Arabia. These places were considered to be areas to which the spirit and material world met, linking the heavens and earth, metaphorically referred to as the Gates of Heaven (Armstrong-2 221). Other Kaaba structures existed during the classical period such as the “red stone”, the deity of the south Arabian city of Ghaiman, and the “white stone” in the Ka’ba of al-Abalat (near the city of Tabala, south of Mecca) (Grunebaum 24). The worship of these stones was not only connected to the worship of primeval lunar gods but also even earlier animist traditions in accordance with the belief in stone fetishes, magical mountains, ponds, groves, special rock formations and “trees of strange growth” to which the Arabs believed were possessed by spirits which afforded them special protection or blessings in war and in economic ventures, according to Grunebaum among others (Brockelmann 8-10, Van Ess 29, Martin 96, Rodinson 16-17).

It is likely that the Kaaba we know today, the one which houses the black stone, was one of the few if not the only shrines to be constructed out of stone and to which a major cult of worship developed. Mecca would soon come to be known as a holy ground to which warring tribes could meet peacefully and settle their differences (Grunebaum 18), a practice which would lead to regular pilgrimages to the site, visits which eventually become known as the Hajj. The Kaaba is mentioned by several ancient historians including the second century C.E. historian Ptolemy who refers to it as Macoraba, a “south Arabian foundation created around a sanctuary” (Wensinck 318). The first century B.C.E. historian Diodorus Siculus also mentions the Kaaba in his Bibliotheca Historica saying “and a temple has been set-up there, which is very holy and exceedingly revered by all Arabians (Gibbon 223-224).”

While Mecca was considered a sacred site during this ancient period it had more implications as sanctified ground useful for peaceful convergence than it had as a religious temple, the latter implication was brought about with the Quraysh invasion and the primacy of Hubal in an attempt at centralizing the tribe’s regional power (Grunebaum 19). The Quraysh solidified the notion of the Kaaba as a religious temple and also a major spice, leather, jewelry, blacksmithing, textile and perfume (Heck) trading center (Armstrong-2 221-222) which greatly increased the power and prestige of the tribe and organized yearly pilgrimages to the site, formalizing the Hajj into a ritualized custom.

These arbitrary reverences based in pagan superstitions, goddess worship, tribal infighting, idol worship and animism would come to form some of the fundamental rituals of Islam, foundations which were supposedly revealed to Mohammed by the angel Gabriel. In actuality it can conjectured that Mohammed reinvented pagan institutions which had already existed for hundreds or even thousands of years in hopes of creating a seductive, tribally accepted imperial ideology designed to form a strong unifying backbone for the Arab empire to come, to which Mohammed was supremely successful.

Works Cited

Andrae, Tor. Mohammed, the Man and His Faith. Dover, England: Dover Publications

Inc., 2003.

Armstrong, Karen. Islam: a Short History. New York: Modern Library, 2002.

Armstrong-2, Karen. Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths. New York: Ballantine Books,

1997.

Brockelmann, Carl. History of the Islamic Peoples. Ontario, Canada: Capricorn Books,

1973.

Coon, Carleton S. Southern Arabia. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian, 1944.

Brill, E.J. Encyclopaedia of Islam 1913-1936, E.J. Brill’s First. Boston: Brill

Academic Pub, 1993.

Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Volume V). New York:

Everyman’s Library, 1994.

Grunebaum, G.E. Von, Classical Islam: a History, 600 A.D. to 1258 A.D. Edison: Aldine

Transaction, 2005.

Heck, Gene W. “‘Arabia Without Spices’: an alternate hypothesis: the issue of ‘Makkan

trade and the rise of Islam’.” The Journal of the American Oriental

Society 123.3 (July-Sept 2003): 547(30). General OneFile. Gale. Suffolk Community College – SUNY. 11 Dec. 2007 
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Hooker, Richard, and Richard Hines. “Pre-Islamic Arabic Culture.” Washington State

University’s World Civilizations. 6 June 1999. 8 Dec.-Jan. 2007 .

Jeffery, Arthur. Islam: Muhammad and His Religion. Indianapolis: The Liberal Arts

Press, 1958.

Martin, Richard C. Islamic Studies: a History of Religions Approach (2nd edition). New York: Prentice

Hall, 1996.

Occhiogrosso, Peter. The Joy of Sects. New York: Image, 1997.

Peters, F.E. The Hajj: the Muslim Pilgrimage to Mecca and the Holy Places. Princeton:

Princeton University Press, 1994.

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Sarwar, Hafiz Ghulam. Muhammad the Holy Prophet. Lahore, Pakistan: Ashraf, 1967.

18-19.

Van Ess, John. Meet the Arab. London, England: Museum Press, 1943.

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9 replies on “Pre-Islamic Arabia and Pagan Foundations of Islam”

Very interesting. I have already read about the pagan adoptions before. What I think is important is that you have quoted references for what you say.
Khalid Islan also mentions the above in his book ‘No God but God”. I am pretty sure that most Muslims don’t know about this !
It would be interesting to know more about the conditions and rights of women in pre Islamic Arabia too. The prophet’s first wife Khadija was a trader – and rich- even before she married him.

Sima:

I wrote this essay a few long time ago – since then i’ve not only finished my history degree but also went on to grad school. It would be irresponsible for me to chime in on this topic, but i’m sure you’ll find the answers you’re looking for if you check my original sources for this paper. They were invaluable.

– Chris

Wasn’t No God but God wriiten by Reza Aslan? … I am not sure how you came to the conclusion that Islamic practices has pagan roots especially based on the references you have used, in particular Karen Armstrong and G Heck. The main argument from the Non Muslim scholars for the success of Muhammad comes from the argument that there was already monotheistic feelings ‘in the air’ giving rise to movements such as Hanifiyya. Muhammad came to establish what was already established by Abraham (according to Muslim scholars) the pagans were practicing idol worship as well as following practices left behind by Abraham. So Muhammad removed the idol worshipping but retained the Abrahamic practices. Hubal wasn’t the main God according to the Pagans, Allah was the main God but they associated others with ‘The God’.

Muslim and Non Muslim scholars relied on pre Islamic Arabian poetry such as AlQays Imru to interpret the multilayered meaning of the Quran. Al Qays died 150 years befor Muhammad and in his poetry he has cited Allah many times. Therefor the Hijazis were aware of Allah as the Main God and were aware of Abrahamic practices but naturally with changes in the society, ideas move on.Muhammad never claimed to bring anything new but to reaffirm the the words of the father of Ishmael.

I am surprised by the wholesale assertion that “difference in Islam is that these pagan practices continue up until today, arbitrarily without explanation or extensive scriptural support, and these ceremonies have not been purged”. Have you had a look at Catholic saints lately? Many of the early saints are thinly disguised pagan gods, to the point that Frazer remarked drily about some saint or other that “…having died twice as a pagan god [Greek and Roman], he now lives eternally as a Christian saint”.

Most of it’s right, but the part about Ilah/Allah being a moon god is not. Allah is the Arabian etymological equivalent of the Canaanite god El, who was a creator god not a moon god. It is even said that the pagan Arabians thought of Allah as the creator of the universe (father of sun, moon, stars etc), not as a simple moon god. The Hilal (Crescent moon) imagery associated with Islam is not relative to Allah.

Western scholars look through the prism of Abrahamic religions and miss a lot of research material.
For eg, it is well known that Vedic religion (aka Sanatana dharma or as wrongly termed today, Hinduism) was widely prevalent for many centuries before christ and continues to be a thriving religion (albeit in a distorted form) today. It was spread over a vast landmass that would include today’s India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and beyond. It is not inconceivable that through many centuries of trade with India (India being a very important center), Arabs would have come into contact with the Vedic religion in a pre-islamic arabia and adopted many of its practices.
In fact, they did just that.
The following are the facts which point to a Vedic influence in pre-islamic Arabia:
1. Mecca was a spiritual center of the time where people from all over Arabia came and worship the main deity, Allah and other deities that were personal to the Tribes.
2. The ritualistic purification by bathing, wearing sacred clothes (white is a sign of purity), circumambulating the temple (then a temple, now the main mosque at Mecca), sacred water (Ganga or Ganges as distorted by the Westerners in India and Zamzam water in Arabia) etc all point to Vedic influence.
3. All the pre-islamic Gods have their equivalent in Vedic Gods. I won’t go into the detail and this would be long and cumbersome to read.
4. Muslims do not believe in idol worship but there is a sacred black stone in the main mosque in Mecca. I do not know about Jewish or other religions but I do know that there is a black stone that is still worshipped in India and is called Linga that represents the creative energy of Shiva.
One interesting feature about this stone at Kaba:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Stone
(Some writers remark on the apparent similarity of the Black Stone and its frame to the external female genitalia,[13][14] and this to its earlier association with fertility rites).
Interesting! Shiva linga is black with a central phallic structure and surrounded by what looks like female genitalia.
Anyways, my point is: Western scholars are missing a lot by being biased and closing their mind to other options.

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