Pre Islamic Arabia Essay Typer

In Arabia, the period before the emergence of Muhammad was a time of many different and varying religious practices.

To understand the religious beliefs and practices of the time, it is necessary first to have some basic appreciation of Arabia as a whole. The Arabian Peninsula can be divided into two distinct climactic and geographical zones: North and South. In the South was an area along the coast of the Arabian Sea that received regular rain and was heavily populated by sedentary populations living in cities and relying on agriculture. North of this area was one of the most inhospitable areas in the world. Its arid environment and rare precipitation meant that agriculture was impossible.

Thus, the inhabitants of this harsh area lived in a Nomadic tribal existence, wandering with their animals in search of water and scarce resources. Despite this, there were &#;towns&#; that developed around certain oases, and some tribes grew more settled here amongst the resources; although which specific tribe was settled there was often a cause for inter-tribal conflict and competition. Such towns became trade centres, as the main economy of Arabia was trade between South and North. The greatest example of this was Mecca: the centre of Arabian commerce owing to its prime location on the caravan routes and, as the name suggests (which means &#;temple) the centre of pre-Islamic religious worship.

The majority of Arabs did not belong to any formal religion but believed in a combination of supernatural forces, some of which they identified as spirits and others as Gods. This is known as Bedouin polytheism. The spirits were believed to inhabit natural objects such as rocks and trees and to have influence of human lives, whereas the gods were often identified with natural phenomena such as the sun, moon and rain. Many Arabs viewed the god of moon and travelling, named Allah (literally, &#;The God&#;) as the ancestor and leader of the others, of which the goddesses al-Lat and Man&#;at also inspired popular religious cults.

Such diverse idolatry shows exactly how individual each Bedouin tribe was. Indeed, each tradition and emphasis was passed down through story telling and the &#;Murawah&#; (community spirit) of the tribe. Perhaps the only aspect that these varying beliefs had in common was pilgrimage. Many tribes would make pilgrimage to Mecca, where the Ka&#;bah (meaning house of God) was situated. The Ka&#;bah was a temple-like building where the different tribes would present their respective idol as a representation of their deity. When Muhammad captured it in CE there were reportedly different idols within the Ka&#;bah; this is the first and only suggestion of organised worship in pre-Islamic Arabia. More recently, some historians have rejected the idea of Meccan polytheism, claiming the subject of their pilgrimage was trade, not religion, and that the Ka&#;bah grew up as a consequence of their visitation. &#;From the beginning, religion was inseparable from trade&#; M.A Shaban.

The pre-Islamic Arabs did not have a detailed and moral and ethical code of the kind that was developed in Islamic, Christian and Jewish theology, nor did they commonly believe in life after death. Instead they were governed by rules of honour, courage and hospitality. In the absence of a belief in the afterlife, the primary way to attain immortality was to live heroic lives full of extravagant acts of valour and generosity, which were then rendered into verse by tribal poets. The Arabs were in awe of the power of poetry and poets and viewed them as supernaturally possessed figures to be both feared and revered, not only as artists but also as tribal historians.

In addition to poets, two other figures carried great respect in pre-Islamic Arab society. The first was the soothsayer, who would foretell the future and attempt to solve problems as diverse as those of curing infertility and finding lost animals. The other was the judge, whose job it was to intercede in conflicts with a tribe, and, more importantly, between tribes, as a way of avoiding violence. All these offices hold relevance for early Islamic history because, during his career as a prophet, Muhammad displayed qualities of all three, enabling his critics to label him as a poet or soothsayer in order to dismiss his religious claims.

There were some instances of Judaism and Christianity in pre-Islamic Arabia. Many Jews had fled from the Babylonians, and later from the Romans into Arabia. Their presence was more dominant around the agricultural city of Medina than Mecca, and it is a possibility that Medina was a Jewish city and leader of a Jewish trade network. In addition, there was much evidence of early Christianity in Arabia. Monks and hermits would often be found wandering the desert and Muhammad&#;s wife Khadijah had a Christian cousin.

Thus, it can be seen that socially, economically and in terms of religion, Arabia was certainly ready for change. This, in combination with the diversity of religious practice, is seen by many Muslim authors as God preparing the way for Allah and the emergence of Islam. Indeed, only by studying Arabia at such a time can we appreciate the sheer sense of unification that Islam brought to Arabic life.

Religion in pre-Islamic Arabia was a mix of polytheism, Christianity, Judaism, and Iranian religions. Arab polytheism, the dominant form of religion in pre-Islamic Arabia, was based on veneration of deities and other rituals. Gods and goddesses, including Hubal and the goddesses al-Lāt, Al-‘Uzzá and Manāt, were worshipped at local shrines, such as the Kaaba in Mecca. Different theories have been proposed regarding the role of Allah in Meccan religion.[1][2][3][4][5] Many of the physical descriptions of the pre-Islamic gods are traced to idols, especially near the Kaaba, which is said to have contained up to of them.[6]

Other religions were represented to varying, lesser degrees. The influence of the adjacent Roman, Aksumite and Sasanian Empires resulted in Christian communities in the northwest, northeast and south of Arabia. Christianity made a lesser impact, but secured some conversions, in the remainder of the peninsula. With the exception of Nestorianism in the northeast and the Persian Gulf, the dominant form of Christianity was Miaphysitism. The peninsula had been a destination for Jewish migration since Roman times, which had resulted in a diaspora community supplemented by local converts. Additionally, the influence of the Sasanian Empire resulted in Iranian religions being present in the peninsula. Zoroastrianism existed in the east and south, while there is evidence of Manichaeism or possibly Mazdakism being practised in Mecca.

Polytheism and indigenous beliefs[edit]

Background, belief systems and sources[edit]

Until about the fourth century, almost all Arabs practised polytheistic religions.[7] Although significant Jewish and Christian minorities developed, polytheism remained the dominant belief system in pre-Islamic Arabia.[1][8] The religious beliefs and practices of the nomadic Bedouin were distinct from those of the settled tribes of towns such as Mecca.[9] Nomadic religious belief systems and practices are believed to have included fetishism, totemism and veneration of the dead but were connected principally with immediate concerns and problems and did not consider larger philosophical questions such as the afterlife.[9] Settled urban Arabs, on the other hand, are thought to have believed in a more complex pantheon of deities.[9] While the Meccans and the other settled inhabitants of the Hejaz worshiped their gods at permanent shrines in towns and oases, the Bedouin practised their religion on the move.[10]

The contemporary sources of information regarding the pre-Islamic pantheon include a small number of inscriptions and carvings,[8] remnants of stone idol-worship,[citation needed] references in the poetry of the pre-Islamic Arab poet Zuhayr bin Abi Sulma and pre-Islamic personal names.[11] Nevertheless, information is limited[8] and while scholars believe that the dominant traditions of the pre-Islamic Arabia were polytheistic, there is little certainty about the nature of pre-Islamic polytheism and considerable debate.[citation needed] According to F.E. Peters, "one of the characteristics of Arab paganism as it has come down to us is the absence of a mythology, narratives that might serve to explain the origin or history of the gods." [12]

The majority of extant information about Mecca during the rise of Islam and earlier times comes from the text of Quran itself and later Muslim sources such as the Prophetic biography literature dealing with the life of Muhammad and the eighth-century Book of Idols.[13] Alternative sources are so fragmentary and specialized that writing a convincing history of this period based on them alone is impossible.[14] Several scholars hold that the sīra literature is not independent of Quran but has been fabricated to explain the verses of Quran.[15] There is evidence to support the contention that some reports of the sīras are of dubious validity, but there is also evidence to support the contention that the sīra narratives originated independently of the Quran.[15] Compounding the problem is that the earliest extant Muslim historical works, including the sīras, were composed in their definitive form more than a century after the beginning of the Islamic era.[14] Some of these works were based on subsequently lost earlier texts, which in their turn recorded a fluid oral tradition.[14] Scholars do not agree as to the time when such oral accounts began to be systematically collected and written down,[16] and they differ greatly in their assessment of the historical reliability of the available texts.[15][16][17]

Deities and system of worship[edit]

Main article: List of pre-Islamic Arabian deities

The pre-Islamic Arab religion was polytheistic, venerating many deities and spirits through statues, baetylus and natural phenomena. According to the Book of Idols, there are two known types of statues; idols (sanam) and images (wathan). If the statue were made of either wood, gold, or silver, after a human form, it would be an idol,&#;but if the statue were made of stone, it would be an image.[18]


Main article: Allah

Some scholars postulate that in pre-Islamic Arabia, including in Mecca, Allah was considered to be a deity, possibly a creator deity or a supreme deity in a polytheistic pantheon.[19] The word Allah (from the Arabic al-ilah meaning "the god")[20] may have been used as a title rather than a name.[2][3][4][21][22] The concept of Allah may have been vague in the Meccan religion.[22][23] Pre-Islamic texts, Meccans and their neighbors believed that the goddesses Al-lāt, Al-‘Uzzá, and Manāt were the daughters of Allah.[1][2][3][24]

Regional variants of the word Allah occur in both pagan and Christian pre-Islamic inscriptions.[5][25] Muhammad's father's name was ʿAbd-Allāh, meaning "the servant of Allah".[23]

Al-lāt, Al-‘Uzzá and Manat[edit]

Al-lāt, Al-‘Uzzá and Manat were common names used for multiple goddesses across Arabia.[2][26][27][28][29][30][31]G.R. Hawting states that modern scholars have frequently associated the names of Arabian goddesses Al-lāt, Al-‘Uzzá and Manāt with cults devoted to celestial bodies particularly Venus, drawing upon evidence external to the Muslim tradition as well as in relation to Syria, Mesopotamia and the Sinai Peninsula.[32]

There are two possible etymologies of the name al-lāt.[33] The etymology best reflecting the Arab lexicographical tradition derives the name from the verb latta (to mix or knead barley-meal). It has also been associated with the "idol of jealousy" erected in the temple of Jerusalem according to the Book of Ezekiel, which was offered an oblation of barley-meal by the husband who suspected his wife of infidelity. It can be inferred from al-Kalbi's Book of Idols that a similar ritual was practiced in the vicinity of the idol of Al-lāt in Mecca.[33] The second etymology, which is more in line with Semitic traditions in general, takes Al-lāt to be the feminine form of Allah.[33] The word al-Lat was used as a name and title for multiple pre-Islamic goddesses of Arabia and was used for either a wife of Allah or a daughter depending on the region. It was used as a title for the goddesses Asherah and Athirat.[34][35][36] The word is akin to Elat, which was the name of the wife of Semitic deity El.[37] Al-‘Uzzá was meanwhile associated with the Mesopotamian goddesses Nanai, Inanna and Ishtar.[35] Manat was apparently associated with the Greek goddess Nemesis. A similar word Menītu/Menūtu was used as a title for Ishtar.[38][39]

History and regional variations[edit]


According to the Greek historian Herodotus in the 5th-century BC work Histories, the Arabs at the time only believed in two gods; Orotalt (whom he identifies with Dionysus) and Alilat (identified with Aphrodite Ourania).

They believe in no other gods except&#;Dionysus&#;and the Heavenly Aphrodite; and they say that they wear their hair as Dionysus does his, cutting it round the head and shaving the temples. They call Dionysus,&#;Orotalt; and&#;Aphrodite,&#;Alilat.[40]

West Arabia[edit]

The Kaaba[edit]

The Kaaba, whose environs were regarded as sacred (haram), became a national shrine under the custodianship of the Quraysh, the chief tribe of Mecca, which made the Hejaz the most important religious area in north Arabia.[41] Its role was solidified by a confrontation with the Christian king Abraha, who controlled much of Arabia from a seat of power in Yemen in the middle of the sixth century.[42] Abraha had recently constructed a splendid church in Sana'a, and he wanted to make that city a major center of pilgrimage, but Mecca's Kaaba presented a challenge to his plan.[42] Abraha found a pretext, presented by different sources alternatively as pollution of the church by a tribe allied to the Meccans or as an attack on Abraha's grandson in Najran by a Meccan party.[42] The defeat of the army he assembled to conquer Mecca is recounted with miraculous details by the Islamic tradition and is also alluded to in the Quran and pre-Islamic poetry.[42] After the battle, which probably occurred around , the Quraysh became a dominant force in western Arabia, receiving the title "God's people" (ahl Allah) according to Islamic sources, and formed the cult association of ḥums, which tied members of many tribes in western Arabia to the Kaaba.[42]

According to tradition, the Kaaba was a cube-like, originally roofless structure housing a black stone venerated as a fetish.[41] The sanctuary was dedicated to Hubal (Arabic: هبل‎), who, according to some sources, was worshiped as the greatest of the idols the Kaaba contained, which probably represented the days of the year.[6]Ibn Ishaq and Ibn Al-Kalbi both report that the human-shaped idol of Hubal made of precious stone came into possession of the Quraysh with its right hand broken off and that the Quraysh made a hand of gold to replace it.[43] A soothsayer performed divination in the shrine by drawing ritual arrows,[41] and vows and sacrifices were made to assure success.[44]Marshall Hodgson argues that relations with deities and fetishes in pre-Islamic Mecca were maintained chiefly on the basis of bargaining, where favors were expected in return for offerings.[44] A deity's or oracle's failure to provide the desired response was sometimes met with anger.[44]

Allah and Hubal[edit]

Different theories have been proposed regarding the role of Allah in Meccan religion. According to one hypothesis, which goes back to Julius Wellhausen, Allah (the supreme deity of the tribal federation around Quraysh) was a designation that consecrated the superiority of Hubal (the supreme deity of Quraysh) over the other gods.[5] However, there is also evidence that Allah and Hubal were two distinct deities.[5] According to that hypothesis, the Kaaba was first consecrated to a supreme deity named Allah and then hosted the pantheon of Quraysh after their conquest of Mecca, about a century before the time of Muhammad.[5] Some inscriptions seem to indicate the use of Allah as a name of a polytheist deity centuries earlier, but we know nothing precise about this use.[5] Some scholars have suggested that Allah may have represented a remote creator god who was gradually eclipsed by more particularized local deities.[4] There is disagreement on whether Allah played a major role in the Meccan religious cult.[1][20] No iconic representation of Allah is known to have existed.[20][45]


The three chief goddesses of Meccan religion were Al-lāt, Al-‘Uzzá, and Manāt, who were called the daughters of Allah.[1][2][3][24] Egerton Sykes meanwhile states that Al-lāt was the female counterpart of Allah while Uzza was a name given by Banu Ghatafan to the planet Venus.[46]

Allāt (Arabic: اللات‎) or Al-lāt was worshipped throughout the ancient Near East with various associations.[47]Herodotus in the 5th century BC identifies Alilat (Greek: Ἀλιλάτ)[48] as the Arabic name for Aphrodite (and, in another passage, for Urania),[49] which is strong evidence for worship of Allāt in Arabia at that early date.[50] According to the Book of Idols, her idol and shrine stood in Ta'if.[51] Al-‘Uzzá (Arabic: العزى‎) "The Mightiest" was a fertility goddess[52] or possibly a goddess of love.[53] Her principal shrine was in Nakhla, a day's journey from Mecca.[54][55][56] Manāt (Arabic: مناة‎) was the goddess of fate. According to the Book of Idols, an idol of Manāt was erected on the seashore between Medina and Mecca.[51] Inhabitants of several areas venerated Manāt, performing sacrifices before her idol, and pilgrimages of some were not considered completed until they visited Manāt and shaved their heads.[51]

Other gods[edit]

Manaf (Arabic: مناف‎) was another Meccan god whose idol was caressed by women. Menstruating women were forbidden from coming near his idol.[note 1] The Meccans were accustomed to name their children Abd Manaf. Muhammad's great-great-grandfather's name was Abd Manaf which means "slave of Manaf".[58][59][60] He is thought by some scholars to be a sun-god.[61]

The pantheon of the Quraysh was not identical with that of the tribes who entered into various cult and commercial associations with them, especially that of the hums.[62][63] Christian Julien Robin argues that the former was composed principally of idols that were in the sanctuary of Mecca, including Hubal and Manaf, while the pantheon of the associations was superimposed on it, and its principal deities included the three goddesses, who had neither idols nor a shrine in that city.[62]

Political and religious developments[edit]

The second half of the sixth century was a period of political disorder in Arabia and communication routes were no longer secure.[64] Religious divisions were an important cause of the crisis.[65] Judaism became the dominant religion in Yemen while Christianity took root in the Persian Gulf area.[65] In line with the broader trends of the ancient world, Arabia yearned for a more spiritual form of religion and began believing in afterlife, while the choice of religion increasingly became a personal rather than communal choice.[65] While many were reluctant to convert to a foreign faith, those faiths provided intellectual and spiritual reference points, and the old pagan vocabulary of Arabic began to be replaced by Jewish and Christian loanwords from Aramaic everywhere, including Mecca.[65] The distribution of pagan temples supports Gerald Hawting's argument that Arabian polytheism was marginalized in the region and already dying in Mecca on the eve of Islam.[65] The practice of polytheistic cults was increasingly limited to the steppe and the desert, and in Yathrib, which included two tribes with polytheistic majority, the absence of a public pagan temple in the town or its immediate neighborhood indicates that polytheism was confined to the private sphere.[65] Looking at the text of Quran itself, Hawting has also argued that the criticism of idolators and polytheists contained in Quran is in fact a hyperbolic reference to other monotheists, in particular the Arab Jews and Arab Christians, whose religious beliefs were considered imperfect.[15][66][67] According to some traditions, the Kaaba contained no statues, but its interior was decorated with images of Mary and Jesus, of prophets, angels, and trees.[5]

To counter the effects of anarchy, the institution of sacred months during which every act of violence was prohibited, was reestablished.[68] During those months, it was possible to participate in pilgrimages and fairs without danger.[68] The Quraysh upheld the principle of two annual truces, one of one month and the second of three months, which conferred a sacred character to the Meccan sanctuary.[68] The cult association of hums, in which individuals and groups partook in the same rites, was primarily religious, but it also had important economic consequences.[68] Although, as Patricia Crone has shown, Mecca could not compare with the great centers of caravan trade on the eve of Islam, it was probably one of the most prosperous and secure cities of the peninsula, since, unlike many of them, it did not have surrounding walls.[68] Pilgrimage to Mecca was a popular custom.[69] Some Islamic rituals, including processions around the Kaaba and between the hills of al-Safa and Marwa, as well as the salutation "we are here, O Allah, we are here" repeated on approaching the Kaaba are believed to have antedated Islam.[69] Spring water acquired a sacred character in Arabia early on and Islamic sources state that the well of Zamzam became holy long before the Islamic era.[70]


Medina, then called Yathrib, was home to two polytheistic tribes; Banu Aws (which was also known as Aws Manat or "the Gift of Manāt") and Banu Khazraj. Both tribes were devout worshippers of the goddess Manat.[18]

South Arabia[edit]

The civilizations of South Arabia had the most developed pantheon in the Arabian peninsula.[71] Evidence from surviving inscriptions suggests that each of the southern kingdoms of Qataban, Saba, Hadhramaut, Ma'in and Himyar had its own pantheon of three to five deities, the major deity always being a god.[72] For example, the pantheon of Saba comprised Almaqah, the major deity, together with Athtar, Haubas, Himyam, and Dhat-Badan[72]

The main god in Ma'in and Himyar was Athtar, in Qataban it was Amm, and in Hadhramaut it was Sin.[72] Amm was a lunar deity and was associated with the weather, especially lightning.[73] One of the most frequent titles of the god Almaqah was "Lord of Awwam".[74]

A drawing of the Kaaba's black stone in fragmented form, front and side illustrations.
Sculpture of a Sabaean priestess raising her hand to intercede with the sun goddess on behalf of a donor. Probably first century.
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