Pre-Islamic Arabia or the Jahiliyyah (before 610 AD).
- The Socio-Economic Context
Contrary to belief, pre-Islamic Arabia and the early desert Bedouins were not isolated from the rest of the world, being stoop in ignorance. Still, they had contact with ancient and contemporary civilizations, including Greece, Rome, Byzantium, and Persia. Even before Islam’s rise, Mecca owed its existence to both trade and pilgrimage, writes M.J. Kister. Bernard Lewis, in his excellent book “The Arabs in History,” writes;
“The merchants of Quraysh had trading agreements with the Byzantine, Ethiopian, and Persian border authorities and conducted an extensive trade. Twice a year they despatched great caravans to the north and the south. These were co-operative undertakings organized by groups of associated traders in Mecca. Smaller caravans were also sent at other times of the year, and there is some evidence of sea trade with Africa… The government of Mecca was described by Henri Lammens as a merchant republic governed by a syndicate of wealthy businessmen. But this phrase should not mislead one into thinking of organized republican institutions on the Western model… The functioning of the Meccan leadership was well exemplified in the struggle against Muhammad and again in the conflicts under his successors. The commercial experience of the Meccan traders gave them powers of co-operation, organization, and discipline which were rare among the Arabs and of unique importance in administering the vast empire soon to fall under their rule. It was in this milieu that Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, was born.”
- Nomadic Culture and Poetry
Like later cultures in the region, the Bedouin tribes placed massive importance on poetry and oral tradition to communicate. Poetry was used to communicate within the community and sometimes promoted tribal propaganda. Tribes composed verses against their adversaries, often questioning their people or their combat abilities. Poets kept sacred places in their tribes and communities because they were thought to be divinely animated. Poets often wrote in classical Arabic, which differed from the standard tribal dialect. Poetry was also a form of entertainment, as many poets constructed prose about nature and beauty surrounding their nomadic lives. This formulaic oral way of reciting and memorizing odes and poetry was also a literary technique used to instill a literary history that would aid people in being reminded of what was considered sacred and meaningful.
Arabian music extended from the Islamic peoples in Arabia to North Africa, Persia, and Syria. Although the major writings on Arabian music developed after the dawn of Islam (622 CE), music was already cultivated for thousands of years. Pre-Islamic Arabian music was essentially voiced, and it may have developed from simple caravan songs (huda) to a more complex secular song (nasb). Instruments were frequently used alone and worked only to guide the singer. The short lute (‘ud), long lute (tunbur), flute (qussaba), tambourine (duff), and drum (tabl) were the common prevalent devices.
- Men & Women
In pre-Islamic Arabia, men were responsible for protection and provision for their families and tribe, while the women’s daily tasks varied widely according to the laws and cultural norms of the tribes in which they lived. In the Arabian Peninsula’s flourishing southern region, Christianity and Judaism’s religious edicts influenced family structures and daily tasks among the Sabians and Himyarites. In other places, such as Mecca’s city, and the nomadic Bedouin tribes, tribal law determined women’s rights and favored a patriarchal system. Therefore, there was no single definition of women’s roles and ownership before Islam’s advent. The author acknowledges that the Prophet of Islam contributed positively to women’s rights and privileges and afforded a more liberal yet, affirming tribal stature to the woman of his time.
- Religious Context
Religion in pre-Islamic Arabia was a mix of polytheism, Christianity, Judaism, and Iranian religions and mythologies. Arab polytheism, the dominant belief system, was based on deities and other supernatural beings such as djinn. Gods and goddesses were worshipped at local shrines, such as the Kaaba in Mecca. Some scholars postulate that Allah may have been one of the Meccan religion gods to whom the shrine was dedicated, although it seems he had little relevance in Islam’s religion. Many of the pre-Islamic gods’ physical descriptions are traced to idols, especially near the Kaaba, which is believed to have contained up to 360 of them. Bernard Lewis in his excellent book “The Arabs in History” writes:
“The religion of the nomads was a form of polydaemonism related to the paganism of the ancient Semites. The beings it adored were in origin the inhabitants and patrons of single places, living in trees, fountains, and especially in sacred stones. There were some gods in the conventional sense, transcending in their authority the boundaries of purely tribal cults. The three most important were Manat, ‘Uzza, and Allat, the last of whom was mentioned by Herodotus. These three were themselves subordinate to a higher deity; whose name was Allah. The religion of the tribes had no real priesthood; the migratory nomads carried their gods with them in a red tent forming a kind of ark of the covenant, which accompanied them to battle. Their religion was not personal but communal. The tribal faith centred around the tribal god, symbolized usually by a stone, sometimes by some other object. It was guarded by the Sheikhly house, which thus gained some religious prestige. God and cult were the badge of tribal identity and the sole ideological expression of the sense of unity and cohesion of the tribe. Conformity to the tribal cult expressed political loyalty; apostasy was the equivalent of treason.”
- Polytheism in Pre-Islamic Arabia
Before the rise of Islam, most Bedouin tribes practiced polytheism and animism. Animists believe that non-human entities (animals, plants, and inanimate objects or phenomena) possess a spiritual essence. The author acknowledges that some remnants of Animistic beliefs prevailed and spilled over into Islam practice. Interestingly totemism and idolatry, or worship of totems or idols representing natural phenomena, were standard religious practices in the pre-Islamic world. Statues were housed in the Kaaba, an ancient sanctuary in the city of Mecca. There are features from Arabian Paganism that spilled over and influenced Islamic practices and beliefs. We will examine some of these practices below, but allow the author to name one example for now: The emphasis on fate or fatalism, which was an important concept connected to Manat’s goddess. Everything was predetermined and controlled by Allah and the influence of his daughter Manat.
The most well-known monotheists were the Hebrews, although the Persians and the Medes had also developed monotheism. Judaism is one of the oldest monotheistic religions. A thriving community of Jewish tribes existed in pre-Islamic Arabia and included both sedentary and nomadic communities. Jews migrated into Arabia, starting Roman times. Arabian Jews spoke Arabic and Hebrew, and Aramaic and had contact with Jewish religious centers in Babylonia and Palestine. The Yemeni Himyarites converted to Judaism in the 4th century, and some of the Kindah, a tribe in central Arabia who were the Himyarites’ vassals, were also reformed in the 4th/5th century. There is evidence that Jewish converts in the Hejaz were regarded as Jews by other Jews and non-Jews alike and sought advice from Babylonian rabbis on attire and kosher food matters. In at least one case, it is known that an Arab tribe agreed to adopt Judaism as a condition for settling in a town dominated by Jewish inhabitants. Some Arab women in Yathrib/Medina are said to have vowed to make their child a Jew if the child survived since they considered the Jews to be people “of knowledge and the book.” Historian Philip Hitti infers from proper names and agricultural vocabulary that Yathrib’s Jewish tribes consisted mostly of Judaized clans of Arabian and Aramaean origin.
After Constantine conquered Byzantium in 324 CE, Christianity spread to Arabia. The principal tribes that embraced Christianity were the Himyar, Ghassan, Rabi’aRabi’a, Tagh’abTagh’ab, Bahra, and Tunukh, parts of the Tay and Khud’aKhud’a, the inhabitants Najran, and the Arabs of Hira. Traditionally, both Jews and Christians believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, for Jews the God of the Tanakh, for Christians the God of the Old Testament, the creator of the universe. Both religions reject the view that God is entirely transcendent and separate from the world, as the pre-Christian Greek Unknown God. Both faiths also reject atheism on the one hand and polytheism on the other. The main areas of Christian influence in Arabia were on the north-eastern and north-western borders and in what was to become Yemen in the south.
The northwest was under the influence of Christian missionary activity from the Roman Empire, where the Ghassanids, residents of a client kingdom of the Romans, were converted to Christianity. In the south, particularly at Najran, a center of Christianity developed due to the influence of the Christian kingdom of Axum based on the other side of the Red Sea in Ethiopia. Both the Ghassanids and the Christians in the south adopted Monophysitism. The spread of Christianity was halted in 622 CE by the rise of Islam, though Mecca’sMecca’s city provided a central location for intermingling the two cultures. For example, in addition to the animistic idols, the pre-Islamic Kaaba housed Jesus’s statues and his holy mother, Mary.
Except for Nestorianism in the northeast and the Persian Gulf, the dominant form of Christianity was Monophysitism. Nestorianism, a Christian sect that originated in Asia Minor and Syria stressing the independence of Christ’sChrist’s divine and human natures and, in effect, suggesting that they are two persons loosely united. The schismatic sect formed following Nestorius’sNestorius’s condemnation and teachings by the ecumenical councils of Ephesus (431 CE) and Chalcedon (451 CE). In Christianity, Monophysites believed that Jesus Christ’s nature remains divine and not human even though he has taken on an earthly and human body with its life cycle, life, and death. Monophysitism asserted that the person of Jesus Christ has only one, divine nature rather than the two natures, divine, and human, that was established at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
It is the author’s opinion that the earliest Islamic Influence and tension was not with Orthodox Christianity, but rather with early Gnostic sects that fled the persecution of the early Catholic Church. Nowhere do I find evidence in the Qur’an or the Hadith literature that the Prophet of Islam discerned the difference nor contended with partiality to this concern. The Qur’an in the author’s opinion is a polemic level against some of these later sects and it sufficiently relies greatly on secondary sources like the Nag Hammadi Scriptures rather than the Bible and the Jesus of Orthodox Christianity.
What are some of the remnants still evident in the religious life and duties of Islam?
Let me add that when we reflect upon certain aspects of Islam, we can recognize the incorporation of certain Pre-Islamic practices kept in the Muslim Ummah’s legacy and religious life. Religious syncretism exhibits the blending of two or more religious belief systems into a new system or incorporating a religious tradition of beliefs from unrelated traditions. Islam unashamedly incorporated some beliefs from the ancients and incorporated these practices into their religious ideas. Here are a few examples:
Worship at the Ka’aba
According to the hadith, the Ka’aba in Mecca was a center of idol-worship, with the Ka’aba housing 360 idols:
Narrated ‘Abdullah bin Masud: The Prophet entered Mecca and (at that time) there were three hundred-and-sixty idols around the Ka’aba. He started stabbing the idols with a stick he had in his hand and reciting: “Truth (Islam) has come and Falsehood (disbelief) has vanished.”
Sahih Bukhari 3:43:658
The Prophet Muhammad discarded the 360 idols but retained for Islam, the Ka’aba with its Black Stone, justifying it with the claim that Abraham and Ishmael originally constructed it. However, there is no historical or archaeological evidence for the existence of the Ka’aba
beyond a few hundred years before Muhammad’s lifetime. In fact, the Quran contradicts this connection between Abraham, Ishmael, and the Ka’aba. The Quran says Abraham built it:
Remember We made the House a place of assembly for men and a place of safety, and take ye the station of Abraham as a place of prayer; and We covenanted with Abraham and Isma’il, that they should sanctify My House for those who compass it round, or use it as a retreat, or bow, or prostrate themselves (therein in prayer).
One hadith claims Muhammad says it was built 40 years prior to the Temple at Jerusalem:
Narrated Abu Dhaar: I said, “O Allah’s Apostle! Which mosque was built first?” He replied, “Al-Masjid-ul-Haram.” I asked, “Which (was built) next?” He replied, “AlMasjid-ul-Aqs-a (i.e. Jerusalem).” I asked, “What was the period in between them? He replied, forty years.
Sahih Bukhari 4:55:636
The Temple at Jerusalem was built by Solomon around 958-951 BC. This implies that if Muhammad were to be believed, the Ka’aba must have been built approximately 998-991 BC. But Abraham is alleged to have lived around 2000 BC so both Abraham and Ishmael would
have been dead by then. The traditions of the hadith and the Quran are mutually contradictory and do not align with other traditions about Abraham and Ishmael. Rather than being the creation of Abraham, Egyptian Professor and authority on Arabic literature, Dr. Taha Husayn, said the following:
The case for this episode is very obvious because it is of recent date and came into vogue just before the rise of Islam. Islam exploited it for religious reasons as quoted in Mizan al-Islam by Anwar al-Jundi, on page 170.
Also, according to a sahih hadith of Bukhari, Muhammad even considered dismantling it:
Narrated Aswad: Ibn Az-Zubair said to me, “Aisha used to tell you secretly a number of things. What did she tell you about the Ka’ba?” I replied, “She told me that once the Prophet said, ‘O ‘Aisha! Had not your people been still close to the pre-Islamic period of ignorance (infidelity)! I would have dismantled the Ka’ba and would have made two doors in it; one for entrance and the other for exit.” Later on, Ibn Az-Zubair did the same.
Sahih Bukhari 1:3:128
Worship at the Ka’aba and the kissing of the Black Stone are according to the Islamic tradition one of many practices adopted from the 7th-century paganism of the Meccans and repackaged within monotheistic Islam.
Veneration of the Black-stone
The pagan gods of pre-Islamic Arabia were worshiped in the form of rectangular stones or rocks. For example, the pagan deity ‘Al-Lat’, mentioned in Quran 53:19, and believed by pre-Islamic pagans to be one of the daughters of Allah, was once venerated as a cubic rock at Ta’if
in Saudi Arabia according to Islamic sources on the subject written after the rise of Islam. An edifice was built over the rock to mark it apart as a house of worship.
Al-lat stood in al-Ta’if and was more recent than Manah. She was a cubic rock beside which a certain Jew used to prepare his barley porridge (sawiq). Her custody was in the hands of the banu-‘Attab ibn-Malik of the Thayif, who had built an edifice over her. […]She is the idol which God mentioned when He said, “Have you seen Al-lat and al-‘Uzza (Surah 53:19)?
In the Kitab Al-Asnam (The Book of Idols), on page 14 it is mentioned:
“A principal sacred object in Arabian religion was the stone, either a rock outcropping or a large boulder, often a rectangular or irregular black basaltic stone… of numerous baetyls, the best known is the Black-stone of the Ka’aba at Mecca which became the central shrine object in Islam”.
The Encyclopedia Britannica reports about these sacred stones that;
The Black Stone seems to have been one among many stones and idols venerated at the Ka’aba by the pre-Islamic pagans of Arabia. The Black Stone was kissed during pre-Islamic pagan worship. Though Muhammad is asserted to have thrown out 360 other objects at the Ka’aba, he retained this Black Stone and continued the practice of kissing it. It is this same stone that the pre-Islamic pagans once kissed, that Muslims kiss today when visiting Mecca.
Praying 5 Times Towards Mecca
Pagans prior to Islam would pray five times per day towards Mecca.10 Muhammad retained for Islam, this pre-Islamic practice, sanctioning it with a story of a night trip to heaven on a mythical beast called al-Burqa. In heaven, the Hadith tells us that Allah demanded 50 prayers
per day per Muslim. Upon advice from Moses, Muhammed bargains with Allah and successfully reduces it to five prayers per day. Zoroastrians are also expected to recite their (kusti) prayers at least five times a day having first cleansed themselves by washing (ablution). These Islamic practices show a Zoroastrian influence. But, contrary to the Muslims, Zoroastrians pray in the direction of the Sun (at
each time of the day) and/or of the Holy Fire (if they are in a Fire Temple).
Fasting on the 10th of Muharram
Muhammad’s pagan tribe, the Quraish, fasted on the 10th of Muharram. Though optional, Muhammad retained this practice from the pagan past too.
Narrated ‘Aisha: ‘Ashura’ (i.e. the tenth of Muharram) was a day on which the tribe of Quraish used to fast in the pre-lslamic period of ignorance. The Prophet also used to fast on this day. So, when he migrated to Medina, he fasted on it and ordered (the Muslims) to fast on it. When the fasting of Ramadan was enjoined, it became optional for the people to fast or not to fast on the day of Ashura.
Sahih Bukhari 5:58:172
Tawaf between Safa and Marwa
Doing Tawaf between Safa and Marwa is an Islamic ritual associated with the pilgrimage to Mecca. Safa and Marwa are two mounts, located at Mecca. This ritual entails Muslims walking frantically between the two mounts, seven times. According to a hadith in Bukhari, this was originally a pagan pre-Islamic practice. Muhammad retained it for Islam, sanctioning it with yet another Qur’anic revelation.
“Behold! Safa and Marwa are among the Symbols of Allah. So if those who visit the House in the Season or at other times, should compass them round, it is no sin in them. And if anyone obeyeth his own impulse to good,- be sure that Allah is He Who recogniseth and knoweth.” – Quran 2:158
The Hadith affirms it as well:
Narrated ‘Asim: I asked Anas bin Malik: “Did you use to dislike to perform Tawaf between Safa and Marwa?” He said, “Yes, as it was of the ceremonies of the days of the Pre-lslamic period of ignorance, till Allah revealed: ‘Verily! (The two mountains) AsSafa and Al-Marwa are among the symbols of Allah. It is, therefore, no sin for him who performs the pilgrimage to the Ka’ba, or performs ‘Umra, to perform Tawaf between them.’ ” (2.158)
Sahih Bukhari 2:26:710
This Hadith states that Muhammad adopted this pagan ceremony from the pre-Islamic “period of ignorance” and justified it with yet another convenient Qur’anic revelation. A tradition also exists about Hagar running between these two mounts in search of water until she found the Zamzam Well.
Requirement of Ihram
Ihram is a state a Muslim enters into for his pilgrimage to Mecca. It involves a series of procedures like ritual washing, wearing ‘Ihram garments’, etc. Ihram was according to Sahih Bukhari originally a pagan requirement for worshiping idols during pre-Islamic times. Muhammad retained this practice for Islam. Muslims assume Ihram to perform the Hajj or Umrah.
Narrated ‘Urwa: I asked ‘Aisha : …But in fact, this divine inspiration was revealed concerning the Ansar who used to assume “Ihram” for worshipping an idol called “Manat” which they used to worship at a place called Al-Mushallal before they embraced Islam, and whoever assumed Ihram (for the idol), would consider it not right to perform Tawaf between Safa and Marwa.
Sahih Bukhari 2:26:706
The Al Mi ’Raj: Muhammad’s Nocturnal Ascension
The story of Muhammad’s nocturnal ascent has obvious parallels in other religious legends and writings dating from some centuries before Islam. There are records in the Jewish Haggidah that are similar to the Mir`aj and narratives in the dreams of the Midrash are also analogous to it. Nonetheless, it is from Zoroastrian works that the closest parallels can be drawn. In an old Pahlavi book known as The Book of Arta Viraf there is a story of a saintly priest from whom the book gets its name, Arta Viraf, who went into a trance one night. His spirit immediately went up to the heavens under the guidance of an archangel named Sarosh and it passed from one utopia to the next until it finally reached the presence of Ormazd, the great deity of the whole universe. When Arta Viraf had seen everything that was in the heavens and the happy state of their many inhabitants Ormazd commanded him to return to earth as his messenger and he commanded him to tell the Zoroastrians all that he had seen and heard.
The parallels between this story and the Mi’raj are so obvious that it must be presumed that the latter event is an adaptation of the earlier one and that it has simply been given an Islamic content. The Zoroastrians also taught, long before Islam, that there is a marvelous tree in Paradise called humaya in Pahlavi which corresponds very closely to the sidrah, the lote-tree of Islam. The coincidences are too many and so prominent that it can hardly be doubted that Islam is indebted to Zoroastrianism for its Mi`raj narrative. In a similar Zoroastrian work, the Zerdashtnama, there is also an account of how Zoroaster himself ascended into the heavens before he obtained permission to visit hell where he found Ahriman, the devil. As these works predate Islam by some centuries it must be presumed that the Mi`raj, as so graphically described in the Hadith, is really only an adaptation of similar fanciful stories found in other religious legends.
I find it very ironic that some of the earliest religious duties evident within foreign religious constitutions are now absorbed and seen as normative in Islamic practice. Muslims usually contend that there were remnants of the Islamic faith evident before Islam and the Prophet was a solemn call back to Allah’s original intent. This as an argument unfortunately does not correspond with the temperament and intention of the previous religious adherents.
Studies in Jahiliyyah. M.J. Kister. Pg.76.
The Encyclopedia of Islam (edited by Eliade) P. 303FF
Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 763-
Joseph H. Peterson – GAHS (prayers for each period of the day) – Avesta Zoroastrian Archives, accessed May
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