Lesson 2 - Pre-Islamic Arabia

Course: Introduction to Islam

Lecture: Pre-Islamic Arabia

I. Arabia in the Sixth Century: The Land of Traders and Raiders

The second lecture begins to explore pre-Islamic Arabia. We’re going to start out with a historical perspective. We’re beginning to now go back. More or less, at the beginning, we’ve had a general introduction of the Qur’an, the importance of the Qur’an, the role of the Qur’an, why we should study Islam. We’ve already completed two of our great Qur’anic passages, but now we want to actually start the historical development of the Islamic religion and go back to the beginning. In order to do that, we would go back to Arabia in the 6th century and talk about what was Arabia like at the time Mohamed was born and try to paint a little bit of a historical picture here. It’s what I call the Land of Traders and Raiders. I think that’s a nice summary of what it was like if you lived on the Arabian Peninsula at that time.

If you go back to the 6th century and think about this territory in terms of world travel, you can appreciate the fact that Arabia is really, in many ways, isolated from the world. Look at the imposing body of water that completely surrounds Arabia. You have the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, and you have what is today called the Persian Gulf, which more or less encircles the entire area. In the north, you have the mountains of Asia Minor, the Persian mountains to the east, and of course the Mediterranean and Red Sea to the west. This is a great example of phase and geography as latent history. We generally refer to this whole area, in this surrounded by these bodies of water, as the Hejaz.

II. Mecca as a City of Religion

Hejaz is the term for what, today, we roughly call Arabia, the geographic designation. The inhabitants of Arabia prior to the birth of Mohamed were primarily Bedouin desert dwellers with very loose tribal structure not unlike today. The Arabian Peninsula is very arid, and the oases and habitable regions are extremely sparse. The main contact that Arabians had with the outside world was through the caravan trade. The Medina and Mecca, these two big cities in Arabia are both places where there are big major oases. It was because of that that you have the traveling of caravans that traveled – if I can draw a crude map here – if this is the Arabian Peninsula and you have Medina and you have Mecca and then you have, and of course the body of water is all around, you had a juncture point which is actually Edessa, which is up in Syria. There was a caravan route that connected Arabia with the Silk Route. The Silk Route traveled from Edessa all the way to China, and Edessa was the point where Europe and the western world met at this point, and there was trade going on from Arabia and then going all the way to China. This is sometimes called one of the extension routes of the Silk Route that went down into the heart of Arabia. There was a major caravan route that traveled back and forth that eventually Mohammed becomes a part of, as we’ll see later on. So, trading was very important to Mecca and Medina and the peoples of this area. You can imagine, if you were living in any of these desert regions that connected these are very – the word Arab, just simply means “desert”, that’s what the word means.

These are considered to be desert peoples, today we call them Arabs. And Arabia, the land of the desert, these are not very well-populated areas. So, you knew that a caravan was passing through… what do you do if you know a caravan is about to pass through? You hide behind a sand dune and when the caravan passes through, you attack it. And you get all the goods. This is a really easy way to make a living. Why should you go to all the trouble to buy and sell when you can just raid the caravans? This whole raiding and trading is a very big part of – and you’ll find it right in the Qur’an, this comes out quite a bit in the discussion of the Qur’an – this is why Mohammed is in the cave when he received the revelation of the Qur’an. It was because they had a truce on the raiding during the ninth month of the Arabic calendar. But basically, the point I want to make now is that because these raids are going on, these tribes would enter into various kinds of allegiances with each other, to protect the caravan trade. So, you might have a tribe that will, say, be responsible for this part of the caravan route. They would essentially sign an agreement, it wasn’t really signed, but they would enter into an agreement with the caravan trade, and they would protect it from being raided during this particular stretch. If they did that, they would be given a little bit of the proceeds, a little bit off the top. They entered into a business arrangement basically to protect the caravan trade. This was a very big part of this society, in terms of who benefited from the caravan trade, how it traveled, and the whole connection with the east and the west is happening. For that matter, there developed in Arabia, kind of an east-west issue, which, even to this day is present in Arabia. There’s contact with the outside world on the western side. There’s no contact over here (on the eastern side). You typically had tribes over on this side that mistrusted these people – they had new ideas, they were exposed to the larger world, and they were viewed as a threat. There were tensions between these tribes, these were the ones that would do a lot of raiding. Because these were typically more backwards people, less exposed to the outside world. These were people who were more conversant with outside ideas. You have a whole group of Christians and Jews that migrated down this same route because you had Christians that were expelled from the empire because of heresy, you had Monophysites, which we’ll look at in a moment.

Monophysites and Nestorians – these were Christians who had heterodox theology – they were expelled from the main body of the western church, so they settled in the Arabian Peninsula. Mohammed is growing up with a contact with a whole wide range of Christians with very different kinds of theologies and Christologies. You also had Jews in the area that had been expelled. There’s a lot of interplay of ideas and beliefs on this western side of Arabia. He was exposed to monotheism of Judaism, Trinitarianism of Christianity, the dualism of Zoroastrianism (which is from Iran). All of this is flowing into the Arabian Peninsula through trade. We also have traces even of eastern religions, because again the connections of the Silk Route. We have Buddhist ideas that are present there. We found Hindu, Daoist, Confucianist – that doesn’t compare to the Jewish-Christian influences, granted, but there is a quite a wide variety of ideas that are present and typically, the Arabian view of the east and north is more parochial, the west and the south were considered more cosmopolitan and sophisticated. That issue becomes very important.

The other point I want to make is that in Mohammed’s time, even though the city is called Medina – and that’s what we call it today – in those days, the city was not called Medina, it was called Yathrib. Yathrib is the ancient name for this city, the word Medina means “City of the Prophet”. It was changed once Mohammed came there, but prior to that time, it was known as Yathrib. Even that city was probably at least 50% Jewish, in the days of Mohammed. That’s a lot of Jewish people living around that oasis. You can imagine the Jewish presence – the Jews mainly controlled the main bazaars and the oasis there in Yathrib. A little picture of the geography here, what it looks like at the time of Mohammed.

We need to make a special point to talk about Mecca. This is the birthplace of Mohammed. Mecca, which is found on the southwestern coast of Arabia is a particularly important city, as you know, to this day, this is the heart of the Muslim world. All Muslims, when they pray, they pray towards Mecca, this is the place where they go to pilgrimage. This is a very, very important city. As Jerusalem is to the Jews, Mecca is to the Muslim. It’s very important to paint a picture of what Mecca looks like, as Mohammed is born and brought into the world. Mohammed, as we’ll see, was born near 580 AD, so we’re still looking at “What does 6th century Mecca look like?”

A. The "time of ignorance"

According to Muslim theology today, Mecca was in a time of, what they call, ignorance, Jahiliyyah. Jahiliyyah literally refers to the Time of Ignorance – this is almost an exact equivalent of the Pauline expression in the book of Acts, where Paul says in Acts 17:30, “In the past, God overlooks such ignorance,” and he refers to the “time of ignorance”: the chronous tes agnoias – the time of ignorance, Acts 17:30. This is the Time of Ignorance, the Muslims believe the time of 6th century AD was a time of ignorance when the Arab people had no knowledge of the truth, no knowledge of true religious belief.

Mohammed belonged to a particular tribe known as the Qur’aish tribe. The Qur’aish tribe is the ethnic group from which Mohammed descended. This is his ancestral tribe. At this point in the course, it’s not that important, but will become very important later in the course because eventually when Islam arises, you have major disputes among the tribes. The Qur’aish tribe, their position in this whole debate is very important. Just make a note that Mohammed is from the tribe of Qur’aish.

Mecca – despite being called, today, the time of ignorance – at that time, was a city where religion was a big business. There were many early tribal religions that found a home in Mecca. There was a very important shrine in the city of Mecca, which is still there today, in fact it’s the centerpiece of Islamic pilgrimage. In those days, it was a little different: there was a shrine in the city of Mecca that was known as, and you see various spellings of this, so I’ll try to give the major spellings of this, the Kaaba. This Kaaba is the term for a particular structure that was found in Mecca, and to this day is in Mecca, you’ll often see something like this al-ka`bah. There have been no universally agreed upon conventions around transliterating Arabic into English. Western writers tend to use one version and some people from the east write using another version. It’s one of the troubling things about working with eastern languages. It’s the same with Sanskrit and other languages from the east. You don’t have a convention of how to transliterate. You might as well get used to this because you’ll find a lot of this kind of loose transliterations that are being done, even in our own textbooks. This Kaaba was a cube-like building in Mecca, which housed a number of images – the traditional number is 360 images – so this is a stone structure, and inside this stone structure which has doorways on two sides of it, you have 360 images inside this Kaaba. One of the images inside this cube-like structure is an image that’s known as “The Black Stone”, which is today, housed in the southeastern corner of the Kaaba. In fact, the only thing left in the Kaaba today is that particular image. But in those days, there were 360 images in the Kaaba and they represented all the deities of the Hejaz. Every tribe would have their deities represented there. There was a lot of what Paul would say in Acts, “to an unknown God”, there was some of that there where they had images to unknown gods.

B. Gods and theisms in sixth century Mecca

There were many, many tribal deities. This was a matter of great horror to Mohammed later on, that these images were there. This is where – according to tradition – there were 360 idols, each was represented by pagan priests, who received fees from worshippers. Mecca was essentially the center of idol worship in the Arabian Peninsula. This is where people went to worship idols. This is why it’s called the Jahiliyya, the Time of Ignorance. Mohammed said Arabian peoples were caught up in pagan cults, polytheism, animism, and he denounces this period later on as he gets to be older. The black stone is a particular stone, which is in an oval shape. Today it is encased up on a wall, a beautiful silver casing, and has important significance because Muslims believe it represented an altar or a stone to the one true god, a monotheistic being. One of the traditions is that this stone was the stone that Abraham laid and on this spot, Abraham is the original builder of the Kaaba. You will note when you get into the Qur’anic reading, the Qur’an teaches that Abraham and his firstborn son, Ishmael, made their way from Palestine down to Arabia. And in the Qur’an, you have the construction of the altar to the one true god. They believe this stone represents the monotheistic stone – as you would find in Judaism, the parallel with Judaism is so obvious – they used stones to symbolize where God met them. This is the place where they believe God met with Abraham and reaffirmed that He was the one true god, which in their case, Yahweh, in Arabic, Allah. There are other traditions that believe that actually precedes Abraham and even goes back to Adam. You’ll find traditions that state that the Black Stone originates when God creates the human race, that Adam built an altar to the one true God, and that Abraham is simply the one who rediscovered the stone. Others say, no, it fell out of heaven and was presented to Abraham. There are different versions of this story. But there’s no question that the stone has quite a history to it. There are stories of its miraculous powers. There was a belief that it was once a white stone and blackened over grief over people’s sins. One thing that everybody agrees on is that the Kaaba is the first structure built to a monotheistic deity. This is a strong belief by Muslims that it represents a very ancient place of worship for the one true god that had become corrupted over the years by the addition of all these hundreds of tribal deities that essentially encroached upon Abraham’s monotheistic place of worship.

1. Gods – Wadd, Su’ah (Sowa), Yaqhuth, Ya’uq, Nasr

Now, Mecca is a very fluid place for religious ideas and practice, and as I said, every tribe brought their deities to Mecca, most reflecting tribal loyalties and traditions or gods, and many of these reflecting various aspects of nature. You have belief in various figures of not only gods but what is called djinn. I mention djinn only because you’ll find this in the Qur’an so much. This is kind of a term, which can be translated, maybe like “spirit” or in some cases it almost falls into angel category, but it doesn’t quite have that clear cut. It can be a good spirit like an angel or a bad spirit like a demon. It can fall in that whole spectrum of beings, in that middle category, neither god nor man. In that sense, the word djinn is used quite broadly, and you’ll find this in the Qur’an quite a bit. But my main point is to bring out some of these ideas of god in Mecca, and there were at least five major gods worshipped on the Arabian Peninsula: the Wadd, the Suwa`, the Yaghuth, the Ya’uq, and Nasr. These are five major deities that are worshipped on the Arabian Peninsula at the time of Mohammed. Now there are 360 deities in the Kaaba as I mentioned, but these are fairly prominent deities that are worshipped that archaeologists have discovered are fairly widespread.

2. Surah 71:21-23

If you turn to Sura 71, Ayah 21, you’ll notice that Mohammed actually makes reference to these gods in the Qur’an, which is quite remarkable. If you look down at 21 through 23 – I say Mohammed, but this is actually a quotation, according to Mohammed, from Noah, but we’ll have to look at this later – Noah said: “Lord, my people disobey me and follow those whose wealth and offspring will only hasten them to perdition. They have devised an outrageous plot and have said to each other, ‘Do not renounce your gods, do not forsake Wadd, Suwa, Yaghuth, Ya’uq, and Nasr.’ They have led numerous men astray. You surely draw the wrongdoers to further error.”

You have, as part of the Noah story, Mohammed adopting these central Jewish figures – like Abraham, Noah, even Christ himself. They were brought into the Qur’an, but placed in Islamic context. So, you have Noah concerned before God about the Arabian deities, which are of course part of God’s judgment against the world. Mohammed himself makes reference to these deities and I noticed that mine has a footnote, which says “names of idols”. That’s a pretty pejorative statement because in fact even though yes, they are idols, from our point of view, certainly from their point of view, these were not idols at all. These were in fact deities that they worshipped, and they believed had control over certain realms of nature, etc. In that sense, it’s only from a Muslim point of view that they’re called idols.

3. Goddesses - Lat (Sun), Manāt (Fortune), and Al-ʻUzzā (Venus)

In addition to all of these gods, there are also three goddesses, and I have them also in the handout: you have a goddess of the sun, of fortune, and of Venus – Lat, Manāt, and Al-ʻUzzā. These goddesses are important because, not only are they referred to in the Qur’an, they are believed to be the daughters of Allah. Now here we must fully absorb the importance of this. Here you have the belief that there is a god known as Allah, who has three daughters, of the sun, fortune, and Venus. This goes against everything we can possibly imagine regarding Allah today. This is absolutely blasphemy to say Allah has daughters or anything like that.

Therefore, this reveals the antiquity of the word “Allah”. Now, let’s be careful here because this is a difficult area in the scholarship of Islam, so I’m trying to make this as simple as possible, but I think we can start on what everybody does agree on. Everybody agrees, without exception, to my knowledge, that the term “Allah” precedes Mohammed as a reference to deity. Of that, there’s no fundamental disagreement. There’s nobody who believes that Mohammed is the one that, even though he grew up in a polytheistic context, he is the first to articulate in the Arabic language, the reference to the one true god. No one takes the step and says Mohammed invented the word “Allah”. Of that, everyone is pretty much in agreement. The disagreement comes in two areas: one, what is the origin of the word “Allah”, and secondly, in the area of whether or not this term “Allah” had any kind of tendencies or associations to a supreme being, like you might find in Africa where it’s been proven that long before Muslims or Christians arrived, a particular African tribe had a name for a supreme deity. If you go to Nigeria, for example, that they worshipped Olódùmarè. Olódùmarè was a term for a supreme god. So, some have argued, maybe Allah fits in that category, Allah is a supreme being and had become degenerated into having daughters and Mohammed is merely restoring an ancient tribal view of God. I personally don’t think that’s – I’ve never been convinced by that theory. There have been several books written about pre-Islamic monotheism in Arabia, a guy named Dr. Gibbs wrote a very famous book on this. There’s been a lot of discussion on this. I find that argument the least compelling, but there are many who believe that, that Mohammed is restoring this original monotheism.

The other theory, which I think is much more likely, is that Allah was a god that was associated with something which transcended tribal loyalties. Something like the weather, for example, this has often been cited, that Allah could very well have been a weather god. Therefore, no one tribe had a particular claim to Allah, but Allah was no different than any other tribal deities. What happened was that the word “Allah” was probably the most exalted of the terms they had, so when it came time for choosing the Arabic word for God, then this word was naturally present. The belief there is that you have two origins of the word “Allah”, you have the Hebrew El, which is the Hebrew word for God in the singular and you have in Babylon the same equivalent for God is the term Il. These are equivalent terms, linguistically, Babylon Il, Semitic Hebrew El. It’s believed that the term Il, particularly that version of it, migrated into the Arabian Peninsula as a word for God and was given the suffix typical of Arabic: illah. Illah becomes Allah, what we would say today is Allah. This is one of the many different ways people have tried to argue how this particular word was chosen for a larger conception of God. These are some of the discussions around the word, but there’s no question that it precedes Mohammed, that’s the main thing to know, and that even Mohammed acknowledges in the Qur’an there is a belief that he denounces but nevertheless there is a belief at the time that Allah had daughters, these three daughters.

Why is this important? Why do we spend so much time on this? It’s important because it is significant to the modern-day discussion about whether or not Christians could or can or should use the word “Allah” when they worship God in the Arabian Peninsula, or for that matter, across the entire Muslim world, the whole Arabic-speaking world. Is it appropriate for Christians to worship “Allah” as the father of our lord Jesus Christ? Does the Arabic word for God essentially transcend Mohammed and therefore we don’t have to be stuck in Islamic connotations on the word Allah? This is actually an important discussion, important to be aware of this in that discussion because we’ll come back to this later in the course. I want to make sure we refer to this that there is this context to the name “Allah” that precedes Mohammed.

4. Surah 53:17-23

If we can quickly look at Sura 53, Ayah 17 and following, where Mohammed condemns this view. I’m looking where it starts, this is 21, “Have you thought on al-Lat and al-'Uzza and thoroughly on Manat? Is He [this is referring to Allah] to have daughters and you sons? This is indeed an unfair distinction.”

This gives a little interesting insight into Mohammed’s views of daughters versus sons, but it does at least indirectly demonstrate Mohammed is acknowledging that there were people on the Arabian Peninsula at that time claiming that Allah had daughters, which is absolutely, literally the unpardonable sin today to believe that God has partners, the Doctrine of Shirk. We’ll look at this later on in the course, but definitely, we see dramatic development in the concept of Allah in Mohammed’s time, to essentially purge it of beliefs and connotations that Mohammed finds unacceptable to true monotheism. He’s essentially trying to bring a term like “Allah” in conformity with Jewish monotheism. That’s what he’s trying to do. Essentially, anything that is not conforming to Jewish monotheism is rejected, and he is essentially going to be declaring war on these non-Jewish conceptions around the Arabic word he wants to save for God. Mohammed’s own father, by the way, is known Abd Allah, which is the servant of Allah, where we get our word today Abdullah. Abdullah, I’m sure you’ve heard that name, that name means Abd Allah, servant of Allah, servant of God. This is Mohammed’s father’s name. There’s no doubt that the name Allah was known, and even children were named after Allah. The questions are how high a god was Allah and whether or not it was the corruption of a pure form, it was a god that was becoming purified over the time. There is some dispute in the literature.

C. Jewish and Christian presence in sixth century Arabia

The Jewish-Christian presence in the 6th century Arabia is quite profound. There are many Jews and Christians there, but we don’t know a lot about them because there is no Arabic paper trail. These were non-indigenized people groups that were living their lives in Arabia, essentially cut off from Arabic-speaking peoples. Again, no mention in the Bible in the Arabic, everything is oral tradition. We know that Christians were already in Damascus, in the book of Acts because Paul goes there, Saul of Tarsus, to stamp out Christians. We know Christians are moving southward from Damascus before the close of the first century. There were clearly Christian communities in Arabia probably, at least, two to three hundred years before Mohammed was even born. That makes it very embarrassing, quite frankly, that the Christians were not better known, had not translated the Bible into Arabic or had not had more serious impact on the Arabian people. We’ll actually look, with more care, in a later lecture about the actual kind of Christians.

D. The Hanifs in sixth century Arabia ("The Hunafa")

We’ll talk a little bit more about the influence on Mohammed after he’s born – Monophysitism, Nestorianism – we’ll come back to that issue a little bit later, but I want to mention also the Hanifs. This is very, very important because we’re looking at monotheistic influence on Mohammed: you have Jews who are monotheistic, you have Christians who are Trinitarianally monotheistic, and then you have a group called the Hanifs. In Mecca, they were called the hunafa, which literally means “those who turn away”, meaning turn away from idolatry. They are also called “those who are upright”, “those who are pure-seekers”, sometimes that’s what they are referred to. These are Arab peoples who are opposed to the idol worship in Arabia. We believe that the Hanifs had four central beliefs. You can only stand in amazement at the influence this had on Mohammed because these are a pre-Mohammed group who believe four things:

Number one, they believe there is only one god. They are monotheistic. These are monotheistic people who are neither Christian nor Jew. They are monotheistic Arabs who are believing in the one true God. This is often called a neo-Abrahamic movement. In other words, there may have been some influence from Judaism onto this group, they accepted monotheism, but they did not identify themselves as God-fearers or in any part connected like Cornelius would or some other Gentile would. These are people who are a separate movement who accepted the basic doctrine of monotheism. That’s important.

Secondly, they accepted the sacredness of the Black Stone. They believed that an angel Gabriel, and this becomes important because Mohammed himself comes back to the Doctrine of Gabriel in his own writings. They believe that Gabriel gave Abraham this black stone. This once again shows a pre-Mohammed view of the Black Stone being monotheistic in its orientation. What we’ll eventually see is that Mohammed really did not have any new ideas. He’s bringing together – he’s a leader of many ideas, which are already quite prevalent on the Arabian Peninsula.

Thirdly, they believe that the Kaaba itself had been built in heaven, and that Abraham and his son Ishmael built this one as a direct copy of the one in heaven. This is a platonic idea that has definitely influenced the Hanifa. They believe in kind of a tight-form distinction that was very prevalent in the time of Christ and which certainly have been widely believed and accepted by groups in that part of the world. They kind of had in their writings this idea of a Kaaba, which is sacred in the heavens and reproduced on earth, and that Abraham and Ishmael built it. So, the whole Abraham and Ishmael thing is coming up. Of course, this is a dominant theology in Arabs in general. They cannot understand why Jews consistently say the first-born son is Isaac when even the Jewish texts say he was not. So, it’s a measure of dispute because of course, from the Jewish understanding, he is the first-born son of promise, and that becomes a major arguing point among Arabs and Jews to this day. You find this doctrine not unsurprisingly coming out as Abraham and Ishmael.

Finally, fourthly – by the way, these four points come right into the Qur’an – they believed that a prophet would someday appear and reestablish the Kaaba as God’s true earthly home. This is a Messianic kind of theology, which comes out – and this is, of course, not called “messianic” by them – but it is what Muslims will later call the Mahdi theology, which simply says there will be a figure that will restore true religion to the earth. Of course, Mohammed is a part of that; he plugs into this theology because he’s very well-acquainted with Hanif beliefs as he grows up. We still have yet to get into the birth of Mohammed, but we find already in the Hanifa: they are monotheistic, they have a prophetic messianic hope, they believe in the centrality of Abraham, they believe in a central place of divine worship – all of those are distinctly Jewish themes, as you’re well aware. We eventually have a young boy whose name is Abu al-Qasim, who is born in Mecca in the year 570 AD, and this of course is the person who becomes the most important figure in the history of Islam, and that is Mohammed.