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Islam Is Repackaged Polytheism: Documentation

History Of The Arabs, Philip K. Hitti, 1937, p 96-101

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(History Of The Arabs, Philip K. Hitti, 1937, p 96-101)

The Pre-Islamic Age:

Bedouin heathenism

Judged by his poetry the pagan Bedouin of the Jahiliyah age had little if any religion. To spiritual impulses he was lukewarm, even indifferent. His conformity to religious practice followed tribal inertia and was dictated by his conservative respect for tradition. Nowhere do we find an illustration of genuine devotion to a heathen deity. A story told about linru'-al-Qays illustrates this point. Having set out to avenge the murder of his father he stopped at the temple of dhu-al-Khalasah 3 to consult the oracle by means of drawing arrows.' Upon drawing "abandon" thrice he hurled the broken arrows at the idol exclaiming, "Accursed one! had it been thy father who was murdered thou wouldst not have forbidden my avenging him"."

Other than the poetical references, our chief sources of information about pre-Islamic heathenism are to be found in the remains of paganism in Islam, in the few anecdotes and traditions embedded in the late Islamic literature and in al-Kalbi's (t 819-2o) al-Asnam (the idols). The pagan Arabian developed no mythology, no involved theology and no cosmogony comparable to that of the Babylonians.

The Bedouin religion represents the earliest and most primitive form of Semitic belief. The South Arabian cults with their astral features, ornate temples, elaborate ritual and sacrifices represent a higher and later stage of development, a stage reached by sedentary society. The emphasis on sun-worship in the cultured communities of Petra and Palmyra implies an agricultural state where the association has already been made between the life-giving rays of the sun and the growth of vegetation.

The Bedouin's religion, like other forms of primitive belief, is basically animistic. The striking contrast between oasis and desert gave him perhaps his earliest definite conception of the specialized deity. The spirit of the arable land became the beneficent deity to be catered to; that of the arid land the maleficent, the demon, to be feared.'

Even after the conception of a deity was formed, natural objects such as trees, wells, caves, stones, remained sacred objects, since they formed the media through which the worshipper could come into direct contact with the deity. The well in the desert with its cleansing, healing, life-giving water very early became an object of worship. Zamzam's holiness, according to Arabian authors, was pre-Islamic and went back to the time when it supplied water to Hagar and Ishmael. Yaqut, and after him al-Qazwini, speak of travellers carrying away water from the Well of ' Urwah and offering it as a special present to their relatives and friends. Caves became holy through association with underground deities and forces. Such was originally Ghab-ghab in Nakhlah, where the Arabians sacrificed to al-'Uzza.b Ba'l represented the spirit of springs and underground water and must have been introduced into Arabia at the same time as the palm tree. The word left an interesting survival in the Moslem system of taxation, where a distinction is drawn between what Ba'l waters (i.e. land that needs no irrigation) and what the sky waters.

The Bedouin's astral beliefs centred upon the moon, in whose light he grazed his flocks. Moon-worship implies a pastoral society, whereas sun-worship represents a later agricultural stage. In our own day the Moslem Ruwalah Bedouins imagine that their life is regulated by the moon, which condenses the water vapours, distils the beneficent dew on the pasture and makes possible the growth of plants. On the other hand the sun, as they believe, would like to destroy the Bedouins as well as all animal and plant life.

One characteristic feature of all elements of religious belief is their tendency to persist in some form when a higher stage of development has been attained. The survival represents a compromise between these two stages of religious development. Hence Wadd (Koran 71 :22), the moon-god who stood at the head of the Minaean pantheon. Ibn-Hisham and al-Tabaril speak of a sacred palm tree in Najran. Gifts were offered to the tree in the form of weapons, garments and rags which were suspended from it. Dhat-Anwat (that on which things are hung), to which the Makkans resorted annually, was perhaps identical with the tree of al-'Uzza at Nakhlah. Al-Lat in al-Ta'if was represented by a square stone,' and dhu-al-Shara in Petra by a quadrangular block of unhewn black stone four feet high and two feet wide. Most of these deities owned each a reserved grazing-land (hima).

The Bedouin peopled the desert with living things of beastly nature called jinn or demons. These jinn differ from the gods not so much in their nature as in their relation to man. The gods are on the whole friendly; the jinn, hostile. The latter are, of course, personifications of the fantastic notions of the terrors of the desert and its wild animal life. To the gods belong the regions frequented by man; to the jinn belong the unknown and un-trodden parts of the wilderness. A madman (majnun) is but one possessed by the jinn. With Islam the number of jinn was increased, since the heathen deities were then degraded into such beings.'

Among the urban population of al-Hijaz, and only about seventeen per cent of the population was such, the astral stage of paganism was reached early. Al-'Uzza, al-Lat and Manah, the three daughters of Allah, had their sanctuaries in the land which later became the cradle of Islam. In a weak moment the monotheistic Muhammad was tempted to recognize these powerful deities of Makkah and al-Madinah and make a compromise in their favour, but afterwards he retracted and the revelation is said to have received the form now found in surah 53:19-20. Later theologians explained the case according to the principle of nasikh and mansukh, abrogating and abrogated verses, by means of which God revokes and alters the announcements of His will; this results in the cancellation of a verse and the substitution of another for it (Koran 2 :100). Al-Lat (from al-Ilahah, the goddess) had her sacred tracts (hima and haram) near al-Ta'if, whither the Makkans and others flocked for pilgrimage and sacrifice. Within such an enclosure no trees could be felled, no game hunted and no human blood shed. Animal and plant life therein partook of the inviolability of the deity there honoured. Of similar origin were the cities of refuge in Israel. Herodotus mentions this goddess under the name Alilat among the Nabataean deities.

Al-'Uzza (the most mighty, Venus, the morning star) had her cult in Nakhlah east of Makkah. According to al-Kalbi, hers was the most venerated idol among the Quraysh, and Muham-mad as a young man offered her a sacrifice. Her sanctuary consisted of three trees. Human sacrifice characterized her cult. She was the Lady 'Uzzay-an to whom a South Arabian offered a golden image on behalf of his sick daughter, Amat-'Uzzay-an4 (the maid of al-'Uzza). 'Abd-al-'Uzza was a favourite proper name at the rise of Islam.

Manah (from maniyah, allotted fate) was the goddess of destiny' and as such represented an earlier phase of religious life.' Her main sanctuary consisted of a black stone in Qudayd on the road between Makkah and Yathrib (later al-Madinah) and she was especially popular with the Aws and the Khazraj, who rallied to the support of the Prophet on his fateful Hijrah from Makkah. As an independent deity her name, associated with dhu-al-Shara, appears in the Nabataean inscriptions of al-Hijr.' To the present day Arabic versifiers blame all misfortunes on al-manyya or al-dahr (time).

Since the mother's blood rather than the father's formed the original bond of kinship among the Semites and because the family organization was first matriarchal, the Arabian goddess preceded the god as an object of worship.

Hubal (from Aram. for vapour, spirit), evidently the chief deity of al-Ka'bah, was represented in human form. Beside him stood ritual arrows used for divination by the soothsayer (kdhin, from Aramaic) who drew lots by means of them. The tradition in ibn-Hisham, which makes 'Amr ibn-Luhayy the importer of this idol from Moab or Mesopotamia, may have a kernel of truth in so far as it retains a memory of the Aramaic origin of the deity. At the conquest of Makkah by Muhammad Hubal shared the lot of the other idols and was destroyed.

The pagan Ka'bah, which became the Palladium of Islam, was an unpretentious cube-like (hence the name) building of primitive simplicity, originally roofless, serving as a shelter for a black meteorite which was venerated as a fetish. At the birth of Islam the structure was that rebuilt in 608 probably by an Abyssinian from the wreckage of a Byzantine or Abyssinian ship destroyed on the shore of the Red Sea. The usual sacred territory (haram) spread around it. Annual pilgrimages were made thither and special sacrifices offered.

Moslem tradition maintains that the Ka'bah was originally built by Adam according to a celestial prototype and after the Deluge rebuilt by Abraham and Islimael. Its custody remained in the hands of the descendants of Ishmael until the proud banu-Jurlium, and later the banu-Khuza'ah, who introduced idol worship, took possession of it. Then came the Quraysh, who continued the ancient Ishmaelite line. While engaged in the rebuilding Ishmael received from Gabriel the Black Stone, still set in the south-east corner of the structure, and was instructed in the ceremonies of the pilgrimage (hajj).

Allah (allah, al-ilah, the god) was the principal, though not the only, deity of Makkah. The name is an ancient one. It occurs in two South Arabic inscriptions, one a Minaean found at al-'Ula and the other a Sabaean, but abounds in the form HLH in the Lihyanite inscriptions of the fifth century- B.C. Lihyan, which evidently got the god from Syria, was the first Centre of the worship of this deity in Arabia. The name occurs as Hallah in the Safa inscriptions five centuries before Islam and also in a pre-Islamic Christian Arabic inscription found in umm-al-Jimal, Syria, and ascribed to the sixth century . The name of Muhammad's father was 'Abd-Allah ('Abdullah, the slave or worshipper of Allah). The esteem in which Allah was held by thepre-Islamic Makkans as the creator and supreme provider and the one to be invoked in time of special peril may be inferred from such koranic passages as 31 : 24, 31; 6 : 137, 109; to : 23. Evidently he was the tribal deity of the Quraysh.

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Though in an inhospitable and barren valley with an inclement and unhealthy climate this sanctuary at Makkah made al-Hijaz the most important religious centre North Arabia.

Other pagan deities such as Nasr 3 (vulture), 'Awf (the great bird) bear animal names and suggest totemic origin.


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