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.

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