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Islam Is Repackaged Polytheism: Documentation

God and Man in The Koran, Toshihiko Izutsu, Chapter 4: Allah, p96-119, 1980

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God and Man in The Koran, Toshihiko Izutsu, Chapter 4: Allah, p96-119, 1980




I. The Word Allah, Its 'Basic' And 'Relational' Meanings:

As I have pointed out repeatedly in the course of the previous account, Allah is the highest 'focus-word' in the Koranic system, which is surpassed by no other word in rank and importance. The Weltanschauung of the Koran is essentially theocentric, and quite naturally in this system the concept of Allah reigns over the whole from above, and exerts a deep influence on the semantic structure of all the key-words. Whatever aspect of the Koranic thought one may wish to study, it is necessary that one should have from the outset a clear idea as to how this concept is structured semantically. This is why I have decided to devote a whole chapter to a somewhat detailed analysis of the concept before entering upon the consideration of our major problem, that of the fourfold relation between God and man. It goes without saying that the real semantic structure of the word Allah will become fully clear only after we have analyzed this God-man relation, because, as I said at the beginning of the last chapter, God in the Koranic Weltanschauung does not subsist in His glorious self-sufficing solitude and stand aloof from mankind as does the God of Greek philosophy, but deeply involves Himself in human affairs. Leaving this latter aspect of the problem to the following chapters, I would like to concentrate in the present chapter on the more specific subject of the pre-Koranic history of tile concept of Allah. This will put us in a better position to see what is really original in the Islamic concept of God, and will thereby serve as a good preliminary to the analysis that will come later of the fundamental relation between God and man in the Koranic thought.

Let us begin by remarking that the name itself of Allah is common to Jahiliyyah and Islam. When, in other words, the Koranic Revelation began to use this word, it was not introducing a new name of God, a name strange and alien to the ears of the contemporary Arabs. The first problem, then, that we must answer is: Was the Koranic concept of Allah a continuation of the pre-Islamic one, or did the former represent a complete break with the latter? Were there some essential-not accidental-ties between the two concepts signified by one and the same name? Or was it a simple matter of a common word used for two different objects?

In order to be able to give a satisfactory answer to these initial questions, we will do well to remember the fact that, when the Koran began to use this name, there immediately arose serious debates among the Arabs of Mecca. The Koranic usage of the word provoked stormy discussions over the nature of this God between the Muslims and the Kafirs, as is most eloquently attested by the Koran itself.

What does this mean from the semantical point of view? What are the implications of the fact that the name of Allah was not only known to both parties but was actually used by both parties in their discussion with each other? The very fact that the name of Allah was common to both the pagan Arabs and the Muslims, particularly the fact that it gave rise to much heated discussion about the concept of God, would seem to suggest conclusively that there was some common ground of understanding between the two. parties. Otherwise there, could have been neither debate nor discussion at all. And when the Prophet addressed his adversaries in the name of Allah all, he did so simply and solely because he knew that this name meant something and something important to their minds too. If this were not, so, his activity would have been quite pointless in this respect.

Speaking more generally, a name, i.e., a word, is a symbol of something; a name is always the name of something. So when a man addresses another using a particular word, and the latter understands his speech and even gives a retort, we may reasonably suppose that the name points at least to some conceptual element which is common to both parties, however much they may differ from each other in their understanding of the name as regards all other elements. And this common semantic element in our particular case must have been something referring to an extremely important aspect of the concept of Allah, seeing that it raised such a keen and crucial issue among the Arabs of that time.

Now the problem is: What was this common element? We may answer this question conveniently in terms of the methodological distinction between 'basic' and 'relational' meaning. In other words, the common semantic element of which we are talking now may be sought for in two different directions.

Let us begin with the 'basic' side of the matter, keeping well in mind that the 'basic' meaning does not exhaust the common element in question.

As regards the 'basic' meaning of Allah, we may remark that many Western scholars have compared rightly -to my mind- the word in its formal aspect with the Greek "Ho Theos" which means quite simply 'the God'. On such an abstract level the name was common to all Arab tribes. In pre-Islamic times each tribe, as a rule, had its own local god or divinity known by a proper name. So, at first, each tribe may have meant its own local divinity, when it used an expression equivalent to "the God"; this is quite probable. But the very fact that people began to designate their own local divinity by the abstract form of "the God' must have paved, the way for the growth of an abstract notion of God without any localizing qualification and then, following this, for a belief in the supreme God common to all the tribes. We meet with similar instances all over the world.

Besides, we must remember, there were the Jews and the Christians with whom the Arabs had constant opportunities of a close cultural contact. And naturally these Jews and Christians both used the same word Allah to denote their own Biblical God. This must have exerted a great influence on the development of the pre-Islamic concept of Allah among the Arabs towards a higher concept than that of a mere tribal divinity, not only among the town-dwellers but also among the pure Bedouins of the desert.

However this may be, it is certain from the Koran alone, that by the time Muhammad began to preach, the pagan Arabs had come to cherish at least a vague idea, and perhaps also a vague belief, in Allah as the highest God standing above the level of local idols.

This much we may reasonably assume as the 'basic' meaning, of the word Allah in Jahiliyah. And this much meaning, at least, must the word have carried into the Islamic system when the Koran began to use it as the name of the God of Islamic Revelation. For otherwise, as I have said, even a polemic discussion on this Islamic God could not have been possible between the Muslims and the Meccan pagans.

However, this is not the whole picture. We would commit a grave mistake if we imagined that this 'basic' meaning was the sole point of contact between the two conceptions of God. The thing did not occur in such a way that the pure concept of Allah with its simple 'basic' meaning or which is suggested by its formal structure -Allah = ho theos - came straight into the Islamic conceptual system falling down, so to speak, from some metaphysical world of pure concepts. But actually, i.e. historically, it came into the Islamic system through another system, namely, the pre-Islamic system of religious concepts, however crude the latter might have been. Before the name came into Islam, it had already long been part of the pre-Islamic system, and a considerably important part, too.

What does this fact imply, semantically? It implies before anything else that this word, in. addition to its 'basic' meaning, had acquired in the Jahili system a great deal of 'relational' meaning peculiar to the Jahili Weltanschauung. And all these 'relational' elements must have been present in the minds of the people of Mecca who listened to the Koranic recitation, at least in the first period of Muhammad's prophetic career, because they were still completely heathen, and were still living in the old traditional Jahili system of concepts. To put it in another way, when the Islamic Revelation began, the pagan Arabs of Mecca could possibly have no other way of understanding the word Allah than by associating with it all the semantic elements that were already present in their minds. This was the first big semantic problem which faced the Prophet Muhammad when he started his prophetic career.

Now the problem is: What were these relational semantic elements which the word had acquired in the Jahili system? and How did Islam react to them? Did it reject them altogether as essentially incompatible with the new conception of God, as one might be tempted to suppose? All the historical evidence that has come down to us speaks eloquently against this view. Since Jahiliyyah and Islam have always been put in sharp contrast, we are almost instinctively inclined to think that there must have occurred a complete break in every respect between the two when Islam arose. However, the Koran itself bears abundant testimony to the fact that the matter was not so simple.

Certainly, of all the 'relational' elements that had grown around the concept of Allah in the system of Jahiliyyah, Islam found some quite erroneous, incompatible with its new religious conception, and it fought strenuously against them and against those who upheld them. The chief of those objectionable elements was the idea that Allah, although admittedly the supreme God, allowed of the existence of so-called "associates" shuraka' besides Him.

But apart from this polytheistic element and some other less important points, the Koran acknowledges that the general concept of Allah entertained by the contemporary Arabs was surprisingly close to the Islamic concept of God. The Koran even wonders in a number of important verses why those people who have such a right understanding of God can be so obstinate in refusing to admit the truth of the new teaching, as we shall see presently.

In considering the problem of the development among the pre-Islamic Arabs of the 'relational' meaning of the word Allah, I think it is essential that we should distinguish between three different cases and examine the matter very carefully from the three different angles.

(I) The first is the pagan concept of Allah, which is purely Arabian-the case in which we see the pre-Islamic Arabs themselves talking about "Allah" as then, understand the word in their own peculiar way. The interesting point is that pre-Islamic literature is not the only source of information we have at hand on the subject; full first-hand information is obtainable from an extremely vivid description of the actual situation given by the Koran itself.

(II) The case in which we observe the Jews and the Christians of pre-Islamic times using the very word Allah in referring to their own God. In this case "Allah" means of course the God of the Bible, a typically monotheistic concept of God. Exceedingly interesting examples are found in this respect, for instance, in the work of 'Adi b. Zayd, a, well-known Arab Christian, the Court poet of al-Hirah.

(III) Lastly, the case in which we see the pagan Arabs - non-Christian, non-Jewish pure Jahili Arabs - handling the Biblical concept of God under the name of "Allah". This happens, for instance, when a Bedouin poet finds occasion, as he often does in Jahiliyyah, to compose a poem in praise of a Christian king, his patron. In such a case, he is using the word "Allah", consciously or unconsciously, in the Christian sense and from the Christian point of view, despite the fact that he himself is a pagan. Quite apart from the problem as to how deep was the degree of the Arab understanding of the Christian concept of God in general, it is, I think undeniable that very often in such cases, particularly when the poet happened to be a man of keen intellectual curiosity like al-Nabighah and al-A'sha al-Akbar, or a man of a deep religious nature like Labid, that considerable effort was exerted on their part, if not consciously and intentionally, at least unconsciously to put themselves in a Christian position temporarily by a sort of empathy. And this empathic attitude, whether its core was a deep religious emotion or but a superficial understanding of a foreign belief, must have been powerful enough to influence the conception of God not only of the poet himself but more generally of his listeners, and thereby modify, in however slight and almost imperceptible a degree, the Arab concept of Allah in the direction of monotheism.

This last case is, as is easy to see, the most interesting and the most important of the three. But it seems to have escaped the attention of those who have dealt with the problem of the influence of Christianity on pre-Islamic Arabia.

In any case, these three different ways of approach seem to have been gradually moving in the last years of Jahiliyyah towards a point of convergence they were preparing the way for the coming of a new concept of Allah, that of Islam. It will be well to recall in this connection that the Arabs, in the sixth and seventh centuries, were no longer living in primitive cultural conditions as one might be tempted to imagine. On the contrary, Arabia at that time was an open stage of lively cultural contact and international competition of between peoples of ancient civilization, and the Arabs themselves were beginning to take an active part in this competition, as we shall see more in detail later. Under such conditions, we should rather be greatly surprised if the concept of God among the Arabs remained just as it had been in the days of primitive paganism.

To the three cases we have just mentioned we may add one more case- in extremely special one-which remained to the last independent of and somewhat aloof from, the others until Islam arose and brought it suddenly into the brilliant light of history. I am thinking of the concept of Allah peculiar to a very particular group of men in Jahiliyyah, known under the name of Hanifs, and represented, in our case, by the poet Umayyah b. Abi al-Salt, who, although he was neither a Jew nor a Christian, held religious ideas that were strikingly monotheistic in nature, and who must have made in many ways an important contribution to the permeation of Arabia by Jewish and Christian ideas. He was indeed an extraordinary figure in late Jahiliyyah. And the way he used he word Allah is most interesting from the Islamic point of view.


Let us now turn to the first of the four cases as distinguished above, that the autochthonous concept of God in pre-Islamic Arabia. I would begin by pointing out that even without having recourse to non-Koranic literature, that is, relying solely on the testimony of the Koran itself, we can ascertain the very important fact that not only did the concept of Allah exist in the religious view of the pre-Islamic Arabs, but, furthermore, the concept had already a well-developed inner structure of its own, namely:

(1) Allah in this conception, is the Creator of the world.

(2) He is the Giver of rain, i.e., more generally, the Giver of life to all living things on earth.

(3) He is the One who presides over the most solemn oaths.

(4) He is the object of what we might justly describe as "momentary?' or "temporary" monotheism, the existence of which is evidenced by the recurrent expression in the Koran "making (momentarily) their faith pure for Him alone"

(5) Finally, Allah is the Lord of Ka'bah.

These five fundamental points are discernible in the structure of the concept of Allah in the weltanschauung of Arabian paganism; this we know by the testimony of the Koran. And of course no stronger testimony could there be oil this point. These are, roughly speaking, the major elements of the relational meaning attached to the word Allah in Jahiliyyah, that the Koran did not find incompatible with its new religious conception. Here follows a brief explanation of these points.

As his been casually mentioned in the preceding section, the concept of Allah that was prevalent among the pre-Islamic Arabs on the eve of the Islamic era, was, in general, surprising close in nature to the Islamic one, so close, indeed, that the Koran sometimes even wonders why such a right understanding of God does not finally lead the disbeliever's to acknowledging the truth of the of the new teaching.

In Surah al-'Ankabut, for example, we read:

"if you ask them (i.e. the pagan Arabs) 'Who has created the heavens and the earth, and has imposed law and order upon the sun and the moon- They will surely answer, 'Allah!''

And immediately following this passage.

"If you ask them 'And who sends down rain from the sky and revives there with the earth after it has been dead' They will surely answer, 'Allah!' .

Apparently, then, Allah was, already in the conception of the pre-Islamic Arabs the Creator of the world and the Giver of rain, i.e., the Giver of life to all that exists on earth. The only serious complaint brought against them by the Qur'an in this respect was that the pagans failed to draw the only reasonable conclusion from the acknowledgment of Allah's being the Creator of the heaven and the earth: that they should serve Allah alone and none else. The Koran expresses this sentiment by such phrases as "How, then, can they be turned aside (from the right direction)?" and "But most of them do not know how to exercise their intellect (i.e. how to draw the right conclusion)".

Even of greater interest than this in this respect is the fourth of the above-mentioned points. It is a singular phenomenon which I have called 'temporary monotheism', and which the Koran describes by a no less singular phrase: "making their religion sincere, or, pure, for Him, i.e., for Allah alone".

In many passages of the Koran we are told that the pagan Arabs, when they find themselves in danger of death, with almost no hope of escape, particularly on the sea, call upon Allah for help and "make their religion pure for Allah". Only one example may suffice.

"And when waves enshroud them like dark clouds, they cry unto Allah making their faith pure for Him alone".

It is indeed remarkable that this expression implies that in an emergency when they really felt that their own life was in mortal danger, the pagan Arabs used to have recourse to 'temporary monotheism' apparently without any reflection on the grave implication of such an act. That the phrase "making one's religion pure for Allah" in contexts of this kind means what we might call 'momentary -or temporary- monotheism', and not simply "sincerity" or "earnestness" in one's prayer is clearly shown by the fact that in the majority of the verses in which this expression is used the Koran adds the remark that these pagans, as soon as they reach the shore and feel sure of absolute safety, forget about all that has passed and begin again "to ascribe partners to Allah", i.e., fall back into their original polytheism.

"But when He brings them safe to land, behold, they begin to ascribe partners".

That the jahili Arabs were prone to neglect the worship of Allah in ordinary, daily conditions, but were always reminded of His name whenever they found themselves in an unusual and serious situation is shown also by the fact that, according to the Koran, the most sacred and solemn oaths used to be sworn in Jahiliyyah in the name of Allah.

"And they swore by, Allah their most earnest oath".

Of particular importance in determining the place occupied by Allah in the Jahili system of concepts is the fact that He was considered the 'Lord of Ka'bah' the highest sanctuary of Central Arabia. This we can prove by ample evidence from pre-Islamic poetry, but nothing, of course, can be more decisive and authoritative than the Koran itself. In the very famous Surah al-Quraysh which is admittedly one of the oldest pieces of Revelation, the Quraysh are urged strongly to worship 'the Lord of this House', who causes the two annual caravans, in winter and summer, to be equipped, and takes good care of them with a view to making them live in peace and security. Here the idea of Allah's being the Lord of Ka'bah is simply taken for granted as something natural and generally acknowledged. It suggests that at least the religiously more enlightened ones of the people of Mecca were conscious of worshipping Allah at this shrine.

Allah, in this particular capacity, was known among the pre-Islamic Arabs under the name of the "Lord of the House" (Rabb al-bayt), "Lord of Ka'bah" (Rabb al-Ka'bah) or "Lord of Mecca" (Rabb Makkah). Pre-Islatnic literature furnishes ample evidence to show that the conception of Allah as the Lord of the Meccan sanctuary was exceedingly wide-spread among the Arabs even outside the narrow confines of the town of Mecca. Here I give one of the most interesting examples. The following is a verse by the very famous pre-Islamic Christian poet of al-Hirah 'Adi b. Zayd. The verse is in one of his odes which he composed in the prison into which he had been thrown by the King al-Nu'man III.

The poet complains to the king saying that the malignant slanderers did everything they could do in order to sow discord between him and the king.

"The enemies tried hard against me", he says, "without desisting from doing anything that could harm me, by the Lord of Mecca and the ' Crucified".

[footnote: Many people would feel inclined to translate the last word in the verse "salib" as "Cross", not "Crucified" as I have done. I prefer my interpretation because it makes the expression livelier and more colorful in that it places two different "Lords"- Christ and Allah-side by side. If we adopt the alternative interpretation, the reference to Christ becomes slightly less direct and the expression. seems to lose thereby the nakedness, so to speak, and become less forcible In either case, however, the general meaning remains exactly the same.]

In this verse 'Adi b. Zayd claims his complete innocence and says that the misunderstanding on the part of the king has been produced only by the machination of the slanderers envious of his good fortune, and in order to give special weight to this declaration he swears by the Lord of Mecca and Christ putting together the two "Lords" into a single oath.

What is important to remember regarding this verse is that the poet 'Adi b. Zayd was an Arab Christian, but he was neither a simple Arab nor an ordinary Christian. He was a man of the highest culture of his age. He was brought up and educated in a high Persian society at the time when the Sassanian culture was at its apogee under Kisra Anushirwan; he occupied a high official position, went to Constantinople in the capacity of a diplomat, so to speak, when the Emperor Tiberius II was at the head of Byzantium and came to know Christianity more deeply at this big center of Christianity. And as an Arab poet, he was justly regarded as the greatest of the whole tribe of Tamim.

The fact that this man of highest culture and education put in one of his solemn oaths the Lord of Mecca and Christ together is significant, in My view, in two different ways: it is of importance, first of all, in connection with the problem of the relational meaning of the word Allah in its purely Arabian aspect. That a highly educated Christian, not a pagan Arab, living in Hirah, away from Mecca, did use this concept of the Lord of Ka'bah in this way shows better than anything else how wide-spread and influential was this particular connotation of Allah.

But it is also significant, and perhaps even more significant-albeit more delicate and subtle -in connection with the second case as distinguished above, that is, the problem of the purely Christian conception of Allah that was, prevalent among the Arab Christians of that age.

The example of 'Adi b. Zayd's verse would seem to suggest, at least to my mind, that there was in the Christian psychology an unconscious tendency or inclination towards identifying -their Christian concept of Allah with the purely pagan Arabian concept of Allah as the Lord of the Meccan shrine. I would not say: a complete identification, but at least the first step towards it, i.e., a non-incompatibility between the two. Otherwise the expression would have been merely a most strange and bizzar combination of ideas.

And if this understanding of mine is right, then perhaps we might say with some confidence that this kind of attitude on the part of the Arab Christians must have placed an extremely important role in the development of a lofty and spiritualized concept of God among the pagan Arabs themselves.

However this may be, we do not have to attach so much importance exclusively to this very particular problem of the partial identification of Allah, the Lord of Ka'bah and Allah the Christian God. More generally, the very fact that the Christian's -and the Jews, for that matter- used the same word Allah in reference to their Biblical God, this fact alone must have been very influential on the religious development of the conception of the pre-Islamic Arabs, particularly so in the case of those of the more enlightened type represented by poets like al-Nibighah, al-A'sha al-Akbar and Labid, those Arabs, that is, who although pagan, had a good first-hand knowledge of the Christians and the Jews, their creed and their custom, a knowledge they owed to their close personal contact with them. This last point will be dealt with in more detail a few paragraphs later. In any case, the verse we have just examined will serve as an excellent introduction to our next topic which is presented by the case in which we see the word Allah used by the Jews and Christians according to their own conception of God.


The main problem of this section need not be dealt with at length in view of the fact that the general cultural situation of the Jews and the Christians in Jahiliyyah is a matter of common knowledge among the Orientalists. I shall restrict myself to some points of direct relevance to the topic of the present chapter.

In those days, the Arabs lived surrounded closely by great Christian powers. Abyssinia, to begin with, was Christian; the Abyssininas were Monophysites. The Byzantine empire, whose high civilization was greatly admired by the Arabs was of course Christian. The dynasty of Ghassan who served as a kind of outpost in Arabia for the Greek Emperors of Constantinople was Christian, from the second king 'Amr I, famous for having built the monasteries of Hali, Ayyub, and Hannad, down to the close of the dynasty in A.D. 637, when the last king Jabalah II was dethroned by the Muslim conquerors. The Ghassanids, too, were Monophysites.

Al-Harah, on the other hand, which was the Persian vassal-state and which exercised a great influence on the life and conception of even the desert Arabs, Was, as is well-known, an important center of the East Syrian, i.e., Nestorian, Church. And as a, result of their direct contact with these big centers of Christianity, some of the big nomadic tribes were in the process of Christianization. Furthermore, as noted above, many of the Arab intellectuals of the age had a considerable knowledge of Christianity. The great poet al-Nibighah is an outstanding example. Another great poet of Jahiliyyah, e1-A'sha al-Akbar had an intimate personal contact with the Bishops of Nairan, and his knowledge of Christianity was far from being a superficial one, as his Diwan shows clearly and conclusively.

It would be a mistake to suppose that the people of Mecca remained entirely uninfluenced by such a situation, if only for the reason that they, as professional merchants, traveled on business so often to these Christian centers. Besides, in Mecca itself, there were also Christians, not only Christian slaves, but Christians of the clan of Banfi Asad b. 'Abd al-'Uzza.

As to the Jews, quite a number of Jewish tribes had settled in Arabia. Yathrib, Khaibar, Fadak, Tamya', and Wadi al-Qura being some of the most important centers settled by immigrant Jews or Jewish proselytes. And although in Mecca there seems to have been practically no Jew, the Meccans must have: been familiar with some at least of the basic ideas and concepts of Judaism.

Both the Jews and the Christians in Arabia used Arabic as their vernacular, and, as I have pointed out earlier, referred to their Biblical God by the very word Allah, which was something quite natural seeing that the 'basic' meaning conveyed by this word was a very abstract one that would correspond roughly to the Greek ho theos. This conceivably provided a good opportunity for the convergence of the two different concepts of God into a certain kind of unity, albeit a very vague one, in the Jahili minds.

In general, Judeo-Christian religious concepts were, so to speak, in the air at that time, ready to influence both sides, I mean, both the jahili Arabs. and the Jews and Christians in their understanding of the position of each other. This is clearly reflected in many important traditions. I will take up here one of them as an interesting example. It is a famous tradition about Waraqah b. Naufal connected with Muhammad's first appearance on the stage of history as. Prophet and Messenger of God. Al-Bukhari records it in his chapter on "How revelation began to visit the Prophet" in his Hadith collection. The story runs like this:

When the very first Revelation "Recite in the name of thy Lord who created" came to the Prophet in a very strange and awe-inspiring form, ' the Prophet who had never experienced such a thing before, naturally got panic-stricken. He lost all self-confidence; he was uneasy, nervous, and distressed. In short he himself did not know how he should understand this strange experience.
His wife Khadijah not only reassured him, but sought stronger reassurance for him from an authority. This authority was her cousin, the very famous. Waraqah b. Naufal b. Asad. Here is the text of the main part of the story as it has been handed down to us by, al-Bukhiri:
"Then she (i.e. Khadijah) took him to Waraqah b. Naufal b. Asad b. Asad al-'Uzza, her cousin. Now this man who had been converted to Christianity in the days of paganism was thoroughly conversant with Hebrew and had made a copy of a considerable portion of the Evangel in Hebrew. He was at that time a very old man and had already lost his eyesight. Khadijah said, 'O my cousin, listen to the son of your brother'. Waraqah asked him, 'Son of my brother what have you seen?' Thereupon the Apostle of God told him about what he saw."

There is no positive reason for doubting the authenticity of this tradition; on the contrary, the very occurrence of the word namus, which is evidently non-Koranic, instead of the common Koranic term tawrat (Torah) argues very strongly for its authenticity and genuineness. The word namus, which is indeed the pivotal point of the story, is clearly the Greek nomos for law i.e. the exact equivalent of the Hebrew Torah.

In any case the story tells us that Waraqah who was well-known for his Christian religion and his good knowledge of Hebrew scripture as soon as he heard from Muhammad what had happened to him, identified this apparently strange experience of Muhammad as something authentic belonging to the tradition of the Judeo-Christian monotheism. And this identification, to all appearance, gave confidence to Muhammad's mind. All the preceding consideration would seem to lead us towards the only reasonable -to my mind at least- conclusion that by the time Islam arose, in Mecca, a considerably lofty conception of Allah had already been developed among the Arabs, or was developing gradually, as a converging point of two, originally different concepts of God.

On the one hand, the Arabian paganism had been gradually developing the concept of Allah, as the Creator of the heaven. and the earth, the Giver of rain which causes the earth to produce all the good things for the benefit of mankind, the Mighty God who 'watches over the sacredness of oaths, the Founder of some of the old religious customs, and the Great Lord (Rabb) having the whole world in his hand. For this much we have the undeniable testimony of the Koran itself. And there is no cogent reason to deny that all this was part of the autochthonous religion of Arabian paganism, although this was evidently only the highest and best part of this religion.

On the other hand, the monotheistic concept of God was spreading steadily among the Arabs, who, if they did not accept it as a matter of personal belief and faith, must have been at least well aware of the existence of some such concept of God among their neighbors and must have been quite familiar with it.


In the last two sections we have examined, first, the purely, pagan concept of Allah, and then, the Judeo-Christian concept of Allah. We have seen how these two were gradually tending to converge into one in the latter years of Jahiliyyah. There was also something very important which served, as it were, as a bridge between the two shores. And with this we turn to the third case as distinguished above, namely, the case in which the Arabs, that is, the pagan Arabs who professed neither Christianity nor Judaism, had to talk about the latter, had to refer in their talk to things pertaining to these monotheistic religions. And we might safely surmise seeing the general cultural situation of the time, such cases must have occurred not infrequently. Although we have no faithful contemporary records of what the Arabian people were saying among themselves on these matters, we find at least some interesting evidences in the work of the poets, particularly of those who used to compose in praise of their patrons, whether Christian kings of Hirah or of Ghassan.

And this is even far more important still than those cases in which we see the Christians and the Jews using the word Allah in reference to their God, because after all that is, in itself, something natural, too natural to give us any valuable clue to anything of real importance.

The case is quite different when, for example, al-Nabigliali, a simple Bedouin poet, addressing the Christian king of al-Hirah, al-Nu'mah b. al-Mundhir, and singing in praise of the latter, uses the word Allah in this way:

"Allah has completed upon him the best of his favors and let him gain victory and power over mankind"

This Lakhmi prince al-Nu'man, widely known as Abu Qabus, whose reign fell roughly between 580 A.D. and 602 A.D., was a Christian who had been caught up in the Christian family of the very famous the father of the poet 'Adi b. Zayd whom we have just met. So when the poet al-Nabighah uses the word Allah in saying that the king owes his Wonderful prosperity, wealth and power to the great favor of Allah, he must naturally mean by this the Christian God. At least this must be his intention.

We have a confirmatory evidence in another verse by the same poet. Al-Nabighah, having lost the royal favor of al-Nu'man, went to Ghassan and was warmly welcomed and honored there by King 'Amr b. al-Harith al-Asghar, and began composing panegerics on this new patron and his family, known today under the name of "Ghassan encomia" Ghassanyyat. In one of the most famous hassaniyyat, we find the following two verses that are far more interesting r our purpose than the one I have just quoted.

Here in praise of the Christian Ghassin he says, "They have a nature like which Allah has never given to any other man, that is generosity accompanied by sound judgement that never deserts them. Their Scripture is that of God (al-Ilah, the original form of Allah), and their faith is steadfast and their hope is set solely on the world to come.

This phenomenon is of particular relevance to our present topic in two important ways.

(1) When the poet used the word Allah in this way-and, we must re-member, he did not do it only once, but very frequently-something must have occurred in his psychology. It may have been, in the beginning, simply a slight change of nuance or a slight shift of view-point; in any case, something of no small consequence to his religious outlook must have been growing in his mind. For it is difficult to imagine that this way of using the word Allah did not exercise, unconsciously if not consciously, any influence on his image of God particularly when it repeated itself so often. And this, again, may very well have cast its reflection on his conception of Allah even when he was using the same word in reference to the non-Christian, purely Arabian God.

(2) Equally important is the fact that in Jahiliyyah the social position of the poet was very high. The words uttered by a poet, especially a well-known great poet, were feared, venerated or loved according to cases as a real spiritual force; and they had all the weight of a valuable social, or even sometimes national, asset. Poetry at that time was not a simple matter of personal expression of thoughts and emotions. It was a public phenomenon in the full sense of the word.

Impressive words uttered by a famous poet were propagated immediately within the tribe and beyond the tribe to the comers of the Arab world, "flying faster than an arrow" as they said. The poets were literally leaders of the public opinion.

So the fact that a great poet like al-N'abighah used the word Allah in the Christian acceptation, putting himself, at least at that very moment, in a Christian position by empathy, should not be taken as a mere matter of personal liking or inclination. On the contrary, it must have influenced in an indirect and unconscious way the religious outlook of his pagan contemporaries. It must have taught them how to understand the word Allah in its Biblical acceptation; more important still, it must have, further, induced them gradually to identify almost unconsciously their own pagan concept of God with that of the Christians.


[several pages deleted, start page 118-]

Keeping in mind the main points we have just examined, let us go back to the problem that was raised in the first part of this chapter concerning the way in which the Koran presented the Islamic concept of Allah to the pagan auditors. I think we are now in a somewhat better position to understand why the Koran, whenever it mentions the name of Allah, does not show any sign of hesitation or apprehension, any sign, that is, of offering something quite alien and unknown to the hearers. On the contrary it urges the pagan Arabs to be more strictly consistent in their belief in Allah, and blames them for being logically so inconsistent. In addition to the examples already adduced, we may quote, for instance:

"Say: 'Whose is the earth and whoever is in it, if you have the capacity to understand rightly?' They will say: 'Allah's'. Say: 'Will you not then remember?' (i.e. will you still refuse to come to your senses and awake to the Truth which is already there in your hearts in a latent form?)"

This expression "Will you not then remember-" (a-fa-la tadhakkaruna), like a similar one which is also very often used "Will you not exercise your intellect" (a-fa-ls ta'qiluna), implies, in contexts of this kind, blaming and reproaching the pagans for being unable to draw, or perhaps even being unwilling to draw, the final and most important conclusion about Allah despite the fact that they have already such a right understanding of His nature.

The next passage is even more explicit on this point.

"Say: 'In whose hand is the supreme dominion over all things and He protects while against Him no one can protect anybody, if you know?' They will say: 'Allah's'. Say: 'How then are you bewitched?' "

We should notice this last forcible expression "How then are you bewitched". It expresses surprise at the sight of the people who know and acknowledge that Allah has in His hand the supreme dominion over the whole world of being, and yet do not worship Him as He should be. Their attitude is not understandable unless you suppose them all to be bewitched.

Such an argument would lose its point completely if we do not suppose that the Koran assumes from the outset in those to whom Muhammad is to convey the Divine message at least some vague conception of Allah, which, although quite erroneous in many essential points from the standpoint of Islam, contains also a number of good and right elements that are quite acceptable. It is remarkable that the Koran, far from combating the latter, tries to make these elements more precise and impressive by force of logic.

Page 103-104: 

In pre-Islamic times each tribe, as a rule, had its own local god or divinity known by a proper name. So, at first, each tribe may have meant its own local divinity when it used an expression equivalent in meaning to "the God"; this is quite probable. But the very fact that people began to designate their own local divinity by the abstract form of "the God" must have paved the way for the growth of an abstract notion of God without any localizing qualification and then, following this, for a belief in the supreme God common to all the tribes. We meet with similar instances all over the world. ...Before the name [Allah] came into Islam, it had already long been part of the pre-Islamic system, and a considerably important part, too...the pagan concept of Allah, which is purely Arabian—the case in which we see the pre-Islamic Arabs themselves talking about "Allah" as they understand the word in their own peculiar way.

(God and Man in The Koran, Toshihiko Izutsu, Chapter 4: Allah, p96-119, 1980)


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