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Islam: Truth or Myth? start page



Excepts from:

  1. Encyclopedia Britannica, Arabian Religions, p1057, 1979
  2. Encyclopedia Britannica, Arabia, History of, p1045, 1979

Click to ViewEncyclopedia Britannica, Arabian Religions:

History of pre-lslamic Arabia. South Arabia. The kingdoms of South Arabia, known to have flourished from the 1st millennium Bc, included the kingdoms of Ma'in, Saba, Qatabdn, Awsdn, Hadramawt, and Himyar. With a decline in economic fortunes after the 1st century BC because of changes of Greco-Roman trade routes to India, the centre of population and cultural influence shifted northward from the Yemen to the Hejaz, which was ruled in the early Christian centuries by Ethiopia. Though the religion of South Arabia was polytheistic, the monotheistic communities of Jews and Christians in the Hejaz gained in influence. The break of the Ma'rib Dam in the Yemen (C. AD 575), which brought about the collapse of irrigation in the area, was an event which later Islamic tradition saw as dramatizing the eclipse of ancient South Arabian culture.

Northern and central Arabia. The northern and central Arabian Peninsula contained both cities, at oases and on the desert perimeter, and nomadic populations. The name "Arabs" appears in historical sources during the 1st millennium BC; the Assyrian Shalmaneser III mentions "Gindibu the Arab" in an inscription commemorating the battle of Qarqar in Syria (854 BC). In an inscription of the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III (died 727 BC) a kingdom of "Aribi" is mentioned. On the desert fringe of the Persian, Greek, and Roman empires, the caravan and oasis cities prospered. Most notable of these were Petra, the capital of the Nabateans, which flourished in the 1st centuries BC and AD; and the oasis of Palmyra, northeast of Damascus, which reached its zenith in the 3rd century AD. Arab kingdoms also arose on the frontiers of Persia: Characene in lower Mesopotamia and Mesene (Gerrha) on the Persian Gulf. From the 3rd to the 6th centuries the Lakhmid dynasty ruled al-Hirah, a buffer state of the Sasanian Persians and a centre of Arab Christianity, while the rival Byzantines sponsored the Ghassdnid dynasty in 6th-century Syria.

Pre-Islamic deities. Pre-Islamic Arabian religion is commonly understood to be polytheistic. Of the many Arabian deities, only some of the more important will be mentioned here.

South Arabian deities. In the official cults of the South Arabian kingdoms, the devotees venerated most highly a triad of deities that were astral in character: the moon god, the sun goddess, and the god equated with the planet Venus. Each of these deities bore a variety of names, depending on the region, or on a particular attribute of the divinity. Chief among the triad was the moon god, who was the protector of the principal cities. The people of the various kingdoms and areas referred to themselves as his offspring, each under a different name: the Sabaeans were the children of Ilumquh ("God Is Power"), the Minaeans the children of Wadd ("Love"), the Qatabdnians the children of 'Amm ("Uncle"), and the people of Hadramawt the offspring of Sin (the name of the moon god in ancient Babylonia). In each region other names of the moon god appear, derived from aspects of the lunar cycle or other attributes. Next among the triad was Venus, the morning and evening star, named 'Athtar, who also had a variety of attributes. Third was the sun goddess, whose principal name, Shams, was common to the various kingdoms, like 'Athtar, but whose paired epithets, describing contrasting aspects, varied locally.

Despite the prominence of the name elsewhere among Semitic peoples, the god Il (EI) appears to play a comparatively minor role in the South Arabian inscriptions. Some modem scholars have sought to explain this circumstance by equating Il with the moon god, but this opinion has not prevailed.

The remaining list of South Arabian deities is long, and many of them appear to have had a more particularized function than that of the major triad. Some were guardians of clans or of places, and two Qatabanian deities watched over boundaries and irrigation, respectively. Other deities' names, to cite only a few, were attributes, such as Yitha' ("Saviour"), Nasrum ("Eagle"), Ra'at ("He Who Instills Fear"), Dhli 'Awdhdn ("He Who Preserves"), and Mutibaqabt ("He Who Guarantees the Harvest").

North Arabian deities. Among the peoples around the northern perimeter of Arabia, "god," in the most generic sense, was El, or in a longer form of the same name, Ilah. His veneration at a very early stage is attested by his appearance in theophoric names, that is, personal names of which one element is a divine name (the biblical name Gabriel is an example). Among nomadic tribes in particular, a residual sense of El as being the god par excellence remained until the time of Islam.

Astral or local deities, however, tended to displace El in the Nabataean and Palmyrene kingdoms. Although El was preserved in early Nabataean theophoric cornpounds, in Palmyra a more central place in the cult went to Bel (Baal, "Lord"), and in both Petra and Palmyra to Belshamin ("Lord of the Heavens"). With Bel, sometimes in a triad, the Palmyrenes associated Yarhibol, a solar deity, and Aglibol, a lunar deity; while Belshamin stood in a triadic relationship with the gods Malakbel, also a solar deity, and Aglibol.

AI-Lat, AI-'Uzza, and Manat. Among the Qur'an's references to its 7 th-century pagan milieu are three goddesses, called daughters of Allah: AI-Lat, AI-'Uzza, and Manat; these are also known from earlier inscriptions in northern Arabia. Al-Lat ("the Goddess") may have had a role subordinate to that of El (Ilah), as "daughter" rather than consort, but at at-Ta'if and a number of other sites in northern Arabia she is mentioned as al-Lat-of-a-particular-place, as the local deity. At Palmyra she was equated with Athena. As for her two partners in the Qur'anic triad, the goddess al-'Uzza ("Strong") was known among the Nabataeans, while Mandt ("Fate") was associated at Palmyra with the Greek Nemesis. Another principal goddess was Ruda, whose name is the feminine form of Arso, a deity whom Herodotus had mentioned in the 5th century BC along with al-Lat as the sole recipients of worship among the Arabs.

Other indigenous deities. Other indigenous deities included the Nabataean Dhil-Shard and Shai'-ha-Qawm ("Protector of the People"), who also were invoked among neighboring nomads. Local protectors were the deities named Gad ("Fortune"), often specified as the Gad of a particular place or, especially among the nomads, of a particular tribe. (Britannica, Arabian Religions, p1057, 1979)


Religious objects, practices, and institutions. Sacred stones. A principal sacred object in Arabian religion was the stone, either a rock outcropping or a large boulder, often a rectangular or irregular black basaltic stone without representative sculptural detail. Such stones were thought to be the residences of a god-hence the term for them employed by Byzantine Christian writers in the 5th and 6th centuries: baetyl, from bet 'el, "house of the god."

Of the numerous baetyls, the best known is the Black Stone of the Ka'bah at Mecca, which became the central shrine object of Islam. But there were others: Ibn al-Kalbi wrote of the square stone central to the cult of al-Lat at at-Ta'if. Suidas, the compiler of a Greek lexicon and encyclopaedia Of C. AD 1000, described the baetyl of Dhu-Shara at Petra as a rectangular black stone on a gold base. There were a number of baetyls at Ramm, southeast of Petra, of which the baetyl of al-Lat-of-Bostra was in the form of a pedestal.

Just how sophisticated the Arabian peoples were in distinguishing the image from the deity is a matter of evaluative judgment. Perhaps the pedestal form indicated that the baetyl was the dwelling or throne of the god; a Nabataean term meaning "seat" apparently implies so, as does the etymology of baetyl itself, while the South Arabian term "the seat of the deities" may also imply the location of their images in the temple. Some sources, however, associate the name of the deity with a word for stone or baetyl; some South Arabic texts refer to 'Athtar as Hagar, "Stone." And a particular baetyl, or the whole form as such, might have been venerated in and for itself; northern Syrians were reported to have venerated "Symbaetylos Leon"; i.e., baetyl and lion in association. An inscription on an altar at Doura-Europus (Dura-Europos) on the Euphrates indicates that it was dedicated by a Syrian soldier to the ancestral god Zeus-Baetyl.

Sanctuaries. Characteristically, a Semitic sanctuary was a rectangular enclosure known as a haram, "reserved space." Portions of it could be covered or roofed over with porticoes. An altar was central. There often was a well or cistern with water for ablutions, and a sacred tree on which might be hung offerings of visitors or trophies of war. The haram served as a place of asylum for all living beings, including both men and animals. The trees growing in the area were likewise inviolate. The larger temples that have been excavated had many rooms, some denoted by words that imply kneeling, others implying burning. In small shrines, and particularly in household usage, one room might suffice for all such activity

In North Arabian temples the image of the deity sometimes stood in the open air, or could be sheltered in a qubbah, a vaulted niche. Such a niche might be portable; a portable shelter is represented graphically on a Palmyrene relief. Not to be confused with the qubbah is the word ka'bah, for a cube-shaped walled structure, which, though not portable, was constructed possibly after the shape of tents and served as a shelter for the sacred stones.

Considerable attention was given in Arabia to funerary practices and structures. Tombs were often as substantially built as temples, even more substantially in the case of the Nabataeans, who hollowed their tomb-facades out of the solid sandstone of the cliffs surrounding Petra. A standing stone, erected over the tomb, or at Palmyra often a mausoleum tower, was called a nefesh ("self" or "soul"), and symbolized the presence of the departed soul.

Ceremonies and customs. A principal public celebration of the Arabians was an annual pilgrimage, in which tribes who shared a common bond of worship of a deity at a specific sanctuary would reunite there. A pattern of ceremonial procession around the baetyl was common, and this pattern may be seen in the surviving Islamic custom of the pilgrimage to Mecca. Processions played a great part in ritual, and divine images were sometimes brought out of the sanctuary and carried in them.

Another practice that left its influence on Islam was ceremonial abstinence. The South Arabian festival of Halfan was a moratorium on the use of weapons. Certain times were specified for fasting and abstention from sexual relations.

Burnt offerings and sacrifices were common. Some inscriptions mention numbers of animals sacrificed as high as 30 to 40. Sacrifices sometimes took place in a pilgrimage context, following the ceremonial procession around the baetyl; the blood of the animal victim, or in some instances milk as a substitute, was placed on the altar or baetyl. Incense and libations also were used.

At public ceremonies in South Arabia the congregation stood, except for sacrificial banquets, when benches were used. Ritual banquets occurred in the northern areas, too. The Palmyrenes celebrated them reclining on couches, as depicted in their tomb reliefs; and "in the presence of the god," according to one text. Stone-carved benches suitable for banquets have been found at Petra and at other Nabataean sanctuaries.

Individual devotions included worship of household gods, and devotions to the astral deities were performed on the roof terraces of South Arabia. In many cases individuals made votive inscriptions, accompanied by drawings or symbols; some of these inscriptions are stylized in form, suggesting that the public ceremonial also followed a liturgy, though its text is not preserved. Among the many Bedouin graffiti in the northern regions are prayers that the deity will grant health and safety, booty and prosperity, and vengeance on enemies, or will blind anyone who effaces the inscription. South Arabian inscriptions likewise indicate concern for personal and public prosperity, including thanksgiving, but also seek expiation for transgressions, many of them ritual. People sought answers by means of divination through the use of dice, oracles, dreams, and visions. Amulets also were used, some of them not only bearing designs but naming the deity.

Religious personages and institutions. In northern Arabia, certain tribes looked after particular sanctuaries. In the role of custodian, a man would be known as a kahin "priest," but such personnel were not, as far as is known, set apart by ordination. In some circumstances, the head of a family or the chief of the tribe served as the chief officiant in religious functions; in cities such as Palmyra, it is more likely that the priestly function was carried out by specialized personnel.

The South Arabian temples had three ranks of priests and assistants. The interrelation of the priestly with the political organization in the ancient kingdoms can be noted in the title miikarribs (probably "procurators"), of Saba' who were among the first to develop a centralized political power.

As an institution, the temple received gifts both in money and in kind, including harvest offerings and tithes. The gifts in kind might be buildings, lands (which would yield revenue), slaves, animals, images and furnishings, spices and incense, and other supplies. Among the temple's functions was included a legal one: because the gods were witness to judgments and contracts, the temple was the repository of legal and regulatory documents.

Monotheism in Arabia. Despite all that has been said, present scholarly knowledge of ancient Arabia remains fragmentary and is based on arguments that fill in the unknown by an assumption of continuity with the known. These continuities often cut across long time spans and depend on assumed constant patterns of religious beliefs and practices among the Semitic peoples-an assumption that may ignore the tracing of developments, difficult when inscriptions are not easily datable.

Pre-Islamic Arabian monotheism. Yet on one topic, namely monotheism, the views of many scholars show a marked interest in developmental change. This topic arises in two contexts: the possibility of an original monotheism anterior to Arabian polytheism, and the possibility of a monotheism as a late development out of Arabian polytheism.

Arguments for an original monotheism are based largely on the ubiquity of the word il, ilah, for "god" in Semitic languages. Each tribe started with its own single god, it has been argued, and a polytheistic pantheon was derived from a situation where tribes, failing to identify others' deities with their own, expanded the list. Whatever the speculative possibilities of such a theory, the Arabian situation was polytheistic at the time of the first surviving records of it.

More fascinating and more tangible are the indications that in the last few pre-Islamic centuries an Arabian monotheism developed. There were, of course, monotheistic influences from outside Arabia. Christian missionaries and traders from Syria, Mesopotamia, and Ethiopia brought a variety of teachings, and a Christian settlement flourished at Najrdn near the Yemen. There were Jewish communities at San'a' in South Arabia, and at Khaybar, Yathrib (Medina), and Tayma' farther north. In the 4th and 5th centuries AD, a few Sabaean inscriptions appear to have ascribed all supreme functions to Ilah, calling him Merciful, and Lord of Heaven or Earth. One text calls him the Great One of Judah, and another speaks of his son Christ the Victorious. Other traditions were also in a position to have influence in Arabia, notably Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism in Mesopotamia. Despite the possibility of such influence, it has not so far been demonstrated in the inscriptions.

The hanif. It may well have been the presence of Christians and Jews that set the stage in the Hejaz for the so-called hanifs, men who found the old cult of the gods inadequate to their level of spirituality and monotheistic ideals, and who repudiated what they could not associate with Ilah. A couple of Muhammad's relatives, and early supporters, were reported to have been hanifs. Hanifs were not Christian; the word hanif appears to be a Christian Syriac loanword meaning "heathen." But they were evidently monotheists, and, coming on the eve of lslam, they mark the passing of the old Arabian religion.

(Britannica, Arabian Religions, p1059, 1979)

Click to ViewEncyclopedia Britannica, Arabia, History of:

Commenting on the evolution of religion in Arabia: "Another significant change was that a monotheistic religion, with "the Lord of Heaven and Earth" as the sole god, had become the faith of the state. Formerly the religion of South Arabia had been basically stellar, with 'Athtar holding the senior place as the patron of land and agriculture and, in Ma'in, even of trade. Each state or tribe had had its own moon god under a national or local name. The temples had been centres of religious life, and the priests of the moon gods had normally provided oracle services. Pilgrimage had been performed to certain temples of the moon gods, with rituals similar in many details to those of the pre-Islamic and Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. Minor deities of agriculture and irrigation had been known, especially in Saba', as well as house gods and genies. The tribe Amir had practiced a semi-monotheistic religion-that of Dhii-Samdwi (Lord of Heavens). They worshipped no other god, although they paid homage to the gods of other communities in which they occasionally found themselves. The god's name resembles that of the "Lord of Heaven and Earth" of the monotheistic religion that emerged in the 5th century, but it is not known whether the latter developed from it." (Britannica, Arabia, History of, p 1045, 1979)

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