Islam Is Repackaged Polytheism: Documentation
Islam and the Arabs, Rom Landau, 1958 p 11-21
Islam: Truth or Myth?start page
(Islam and the Arabs, Rom Landau, 1958 p 11-21)
ARABIA BEFORE THE PROPHET
EARLY Arab history is a mixture of fact and fantasy; a fate shared by the early histories of all peoples., The old Norse legends show a striking similarity to those of the ancient Arabs. Climate has lent support to the turn these legends have taken. While Swedish frost-giants were created by a 'warm influence', coming into contact with snow and ice, Arab jinn were made of pure fire unmixed by smoke.
Tradition tells us that Allah made the jinn two thousand years before He made Adam. Though invisible, they loved and married, begat children and died. In the beginning, all jinn were good, but long before the time of Adam they rebelled against their settled existence and tried to change the order of things. During the course of the revolt, one of the evil jinn, Iblis, gained great power and became the Satan of the Arab world. Iblis retained his power even after the angels of Allah had quelled the rebellion.
Jinn haunted ruins and dwelt in rivers and oceans. The Arab saw them in whirlwinds and waterspouts. The jinn's main abode, how-ever, was a mysterious mountain called Kaf which, in the imagination of the Arab, was founded on an immense emerald. Indeed, this sparkling gem gave the azure tint to the sun's rays so often in evidence over desert regions.
Before the birth of Jesus, jinn were allowed to enter any of the seven heavens. Since then, they were excluded from the first three and, after the birth of Muhammad, they were forbidden the other four. Nevertheless, jinn continued to go as close to the lowest heaven as possible, and when an Arab saw a 'shooting star' he said that it was the angels chasing an inquisitive jinn from the 'pearly gates'.
The pagan Arabs practiced polytheism. They worshipped nature, stones. angels and demons. Particular reverence was accorded the three 'daughters of God', and various national, local and family idols. Each tribe gave allegiance to a special protector: one god to whom it turned in time of distress.
Our modern altars may have had their beginnings in the stone worship of the ancients. One stone still holds a revered spot in the Arab heart. This is the stone that fell from paradise at the fall of Adam. Pure white it was and housed in a temple built by Seth, Adam's son, until a great flood ravaged the land, destroyed the temple, and buried it under the mud and debris. Tradition relates that the stone remained hidden until Abraham sent his wife Hagar into the desert with their infant son Ishmael. One day, weakened by thirst, Hagar laid her baby on the sand to rest. His fitful thrashings uncovered a spring of clear water near the site of the lost relic. It is told that an angel descended from heaven and helped recover the sacred stone and that Ishmael rebuilt the holy house of Seth with the assistance of Abraham and the archangel Gabriel. This, in brief, is the story of the Kaaba,' holiest building in Islam.
Mecca, home of the Kaaba, has long held a prominent position in Arab life. Picture, if you will, the desert caravans moving sluggishly across the tortured miles, from oasis to oasis, towards this city, an important stopping place on the great spice route. Clouds of dust engulf camels and riders in a swath of grit. A fierce sun pounces with unbearable heat on the weary traders. Throbbing eyes gaze towards the shimmering horizon for the first sight of Arabia's richest metropolis. Parched throats echo the hope of succour it affords from the driving desert winds. Mecca gave balm to body and soul. Here a man could find good food, wine, and, for a small sum, his visit to the Kaaba, a pantheon with more than 365 idols, was assured. While Roman gold and Indian spices exchanged hands, Christianity, Judaism, Magism and idolatry exchanged minds.
Although idolatry was the prevailing religion in early Arabia, the idea of One Supreme God was not unknown to the Arabs. Jews and Christians, of course, professed monotheism and the Sabians recognized One God, but they associated many lesser deities with Him. The Magians believed in a good god, Ormuzd, and an evil god, Ahriman. Each of these two gods was continually fighting for the possession of the world. All the Magian had to do to reconcile himself to monotheism was to believe that Ahriman was the creature of Ormuzd in revolt against Him. Certainly an easier transition than that which had to be made by the idol-worshipping Greeks and Romans in accepting Christianity.
Now there dwelt in Mecca a god called Allah. He was the provider, the most powerful of all the local deities, the one to whom every Meccan turned in time of need. But, for all his power, Allah was a remote god. At the time of Muhammad, however, he was on the ascendancy. He had replaced the moon god as lord of the Kaaba although still relegated to an inferior position below various tribal idols and three powerful goddesses: al-Manat, goddess of fate, al-Lat, mother of the gods, and al-Uzza, the planet Venus.
Numerous Biblical references are made to the Arabs. Through Ishmael the Arabs look back to the same ancestor as the Jews. Both groups regard Adam, Noah and Abraham as their fathers. job was an Arab; the 'kings' of the prophet Jeremiah may have been Arabian sheikhs; and the 'wise men of the east' who followed the star to Jerusalem were possibly Bedouins from the Arabian-desert rather than Magi from Persia.
In 1255 B.C.. the Hebrew tribes had stopped for a forty-year period in Sinai and the Nufud on their trek from Egypt to Palestine. Tradition recounts the marriage of Moses to an Arabian woman who worshipped an austere desert-god named Yahu, later called Jehovah. This Arabian woman instructed Moses in the ways of her god and may have started, thereby, a chain of events that links Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
Shem, eldest son of Noah, gives his name to the term 'Semite', the assumption being that these people are his descendants. In scientific terms 'Semite' is applied to him who speaks a Semitic language. The Assyro-Babylonian, Phoenician, Aramaic, Hebrew, Ethiopic and Arabic languages probably spring from a common tongue. The social institutions, religious practices, psychological traits and physical features of these peoples reveal impressive points of resemblance. It may be reasonably assumed that, in ages past, their ancestors formed one community, spoke the same language and occupied the same locale.
The peoples of ancient Arabia spoke many Semitic dialects. While the Arabs of the north and south had written languages, those of the desert remained unlettered. In early times the languages of the south probably enjoyed the prestige associated with an advanced civilization but, as this civilization declined, the language of the north gained prominence and finally world renown; for this was the language of the Prophet Muhammad.
Poetic use of speech represented the only cultural asset of the early Arab tribe, and their poets held an honoured position in the community. It was thought that the fate of the tribe depended upon the poet's choice of words. He was the Arab propagandist, satirist, oracle and historian. His vitriolic attacks could blunt the enemy swords and raise the victory standards of his home encampment. Whatever sense of unity existed among the pagan tribes may be traced to language as expressed in poetry.
The Arab poet never tired of singing the praises of his tribe's hospitality, and, while competition for water and pasturage caused war, hospitality for the traveler was a necessity in his barren land. The poet came into his own at the numerous local fairs held throughout Arabia. In Amman, Hajar, Ukaj, and other cities, the best poems were hung out for all to see, if not to read. It was at these fairs that the political differences among the tribes were accentuated.
There was, and is, little tillable land in Arabia. The Arab was therefore inept at farming. He was primarily a herdsman and a trader. The Bedouin, or desert nomad, personifies the best adaptation of human life to its environment; he does not wander aimlessly across the desert wastes but seeks grass for his herds wherever it might grow.
The clan, the basic element in Bedouin society, has lasted through-out the period of empire and exists down to the present day. Usually the senior member of the clan is chief and all members of the clan swear allegiance to him. A number of clans make up a tribe. An Arab tribal leader, the sheikh, is chosen by a council of clan chiefs and reigns by their sufferance; he is more a mediator and peacemaker than a ruler. Because desert society levels all men to the personal worth of the individual, each Arab meets his sheikh on equal footing.
The desert Arab built his freedom on the absence of restraints in personal affairs. A warrior had recourse to the sword in avenging injuries. This 'eye for an eye' justice often led to blood feuds which sometimes were carried on for years.
Arab tribes demanded unconditional loyalty. The worst thing that could happen to a desert Arab was loss of tribal affiliation, a loss that led to complete ostracism by his kin. Entry into another tribe was the only salvation., Hereditary rights and rank had no place among the Bedouins. However, even in earliest times, in Mecca and Medina, the tribal structure evolved into aristocratic government.
Dates and milk were the chief staples of the Bedouin's diet. The camel was his 'staff of life'. The multiplicity of uses to which he put this beast was astounding: it provided him with means of transportation and with food; its hair was used for the making of tents and clothes; and its urine for that of medicine, hairdressing, and as a skin lotion for protection from the sun.
Only scattered fragments of ancient Arabia exist in archaeological findings. A few Paleolithic and Neolithic sites show occupation from he Old Stone Age. Prehistoric skeletal remains suggest at least three racial stocks: Negroid, Armenoid and Mediterranean.
Historians place the home of the Semites on the Arabian Peninsula.
The argument for immigration by civilized peoples lacks substance, and is, in general, opposed to the trend of cultures in world history. There is no evidence to support the theory of retrogression from agriculture to herd culture or from settler to nomad. On the contrary, it is reasonable to assume that nomadic Semites emigrated from Arabia as population increased and food became scarce. We have, in fact, documentation of a number of these emigrations dating from 3500 B.C. In that year one Semitic group amalgamated with the native Hamitic population of Egypt and another engulfed the Sumerian civilization of Mesopotamia to give us the Babylonians of a later era. A thousand years later another major migration carried the Amorites from Arabia into Syria. These were the Phoenicians of Greek history. Between 1500 and 1200 B.C., a third exodus introduced the Aramaeans into the areas around Damascus. As Canaanites, Hebrews and Aramaeans, in Phoenicia, Palestine and Syria, the desert peoples mingled with the native races.
Egypt's interest in the Arabian Peninsula may be traced back five thousand years. In 3000 B.C., a small contingent of Egyptians set mining operations for copper and turquoise at Yathrib (Medina). A campaign of Alexander the Great against Babylonia helped open the peninsula to trade. His. successors in Egypt, the Ptolemies, encouraged trade on the Red Sea and opened trading ports on the African and Arabian coasts.
The first positive reference to the Arabians extant occurs in an inscription of the Assyrian, Shalmaneser III, who speaks of the capture of a thousand camels from Gindibu, the Arabian, in 854 B.C. There is little doubt that civilizations flourished on the peninsula long before that time, particularly in the south where a favourable climate and adequate rainfall combined to make it 'Happy Arabia, the 'Arabia Felix! of the Romans. The barren central desert provided a line of demarcation, a curtain of sand, drawn between the cultures of north and south.
Four names of southern peoples have come down to us. The Minaeans were probably the oldest group, followed by the Sabaeans, Qatabanis and Hadhramantis. Of these the Sabaeans were the most famous. Their principal city, Saba, showed a high. degree of political organization. Here was a kingdom built by powerful aristocratic families but with no strong central administration. The legendary Queen of Saba (Sheba) may have come from here, although the Jewish historian Josephus (born A.D. 37) points out the existence of Saba in Africa which may have been her home. She is reported to have visited Solomon in Jerusalem with a complete retinue of soldiers and courtiers,' no mean feat in an era of unpaved highways and no hotels. The fate of these southern civilizations is unknown; their decline unrecorded by history. Classical writers speak of the peoples of the south-west as Himyarites, a generic designation for related cultures of the area. By A.D. 350, Yemen and Himyar were colonies of Abyssinia. For over two hundred years Abyssinia retained a precarious grip over them. Frequent uprisings among the natives weakened the hold of Abyssinia, and the rising might of Byzantium hastened its fall. Byzantine legions brought Christianity to Abyssinia, and the Abyssinians into South Arabia. Religion became a 'political football' in this southern arena. Judaism gained many adherents among the people, more as a political protest against their Christian masters than from any deep-rooted religious convictions.
Jewish colonies had already existed in the south, and were well-established by the time of the Abyssinian invasion. They were, how-ever, numerically weak, and offered little threat to the government until the advent of Christianity. Then their power became so great that it is possible that the last abortive Abyssinian military expedition may have been sent specifically to avenge Jewish mistreatment of the Christian population and to break the sway of Judaism in the region.
Meanwhile, a second world power, Persia, threatened the dominance of Byzantium in South Arabia. In the fourth century A.D., the Persians had occupied Oman and had extended their influence westward without difficulty. The history of all Arabia in the few centuries preceding Muhammad is a story of the struggle between East and West, Persia and Byzantium: the five-hundred-year contest between two giants with pygmy Arabia in the middle. The effect of this conflict was relatively slight upon the south. Its full effect was felt in the north, where both powers established 'buffer states' in Arab territory. Neither Rome, predecessor of Byzantium, nor Persia made an extended successful penetration across the Euphrates, and each needed a 'buffer' to hold its territories intact and to repel the sporadic raids of the desert nomads.
The Nabataeans, originally from Transjordan, founded the first settled Arab civilization in the north. For a time during the Hellenistic period, their capital, Petra, controlled the caravan trade between north and south and became famous enough to be mentioned in non-Arab history. The first fixed date in Nabataean chronology is 312 B.c., when an attack by Antigonus, one of Alexander's successors, was repulsed.' Petra already boasted heavy fortifications and showed a high degree of civilization affirmed, as this was, by widespread irrigation, by impressive temples carved out of solid rock, and by a pottery distinguished by great beauty.
The Nabataean. civilization was basically Arabian, retaining its tribal characteristics and Arabic speech despite its close association with Rome. For over a hundred years, Petra prospered under Roman tutelage. But after the conquest of Mesopotamia by Persia, the trade routes shifted northward, and Petra lost its usefulness as a protector of Roman trade. In the second century A.D., Petra was incorporated into the Roman Empire, becoming Provincia Arabia.
Palmyra, a city founded near an oasis in the Syrian desert by a few Arabian tribes, stood astride the new northern trade route. Early in the Christian era the inhabitants of Palmyra had acknowledged the sovereignty of Rome and had received a subsidy for their support. As trade increased, the city's merchants prospered and achieved some measure of political prestige in the process. A war between Rome and Persia resulted in the appointment of a Palmyrene chief as vice-emperor over Egypt, Syria, North Arabia and possibly Armenia. Upon the death of the chief, Zenobia, his widow, took the title 'Queen of the East' and defied Roman domination. Thinking herself secure in her isolated desert region and underestimating the strength of her Roman masters, Zenobia launched an aggressive rebellion that pushed the Palmyrene banner almost to the borders of Byzantium. The Roman Emperor, Aurelian, stirred out of his lethargy by this threat to his territory, gathered his forces and destroyed Palmyra in a series of hard-fought battles. Zenobia was captured, taken to Rome, and marched through the streets in golden chains manacled to the chariot of the victorious Emperor. Thus ended the brief but startling sway of Palmyra over much of the Middle East.
As the sun of Palmyra sank below the horizon, a South Arabian tribe, the Qahtanis of Yemen, was working its way northward. One branch of the tribe, the Ghassan, founded a kingdom near the site of modem Damascus. Under the dominion of Byzantium they achieved power and wealth in the role of a 'buffer state' and adopted the Christianity of their rulers. In A.D. 195, another branch, the lakhmids, established the kingdom of Hira near the ruins of ancient Babylonia. While serving as a 'buffer' for Persia, many of its people remained pagan under the non-proselytizing policy of Persian Zoroastrianism.' Nevertheless some important elements among the Lakhmids became Nestorian Christians.
In the sixth century A.D., Byzantium and Persia, weak and worn out by centuries of struggle, reduced their subsidies to Ghassan and Hira, and these two states underwent a rapid decline. As the Byzantine and Persian Empires retrenched, a power vacuum was created between them that was to last for a hundred years. The Arabs returned to their primitive ways.
Meanwhile the seed of monotheism had been sown all along the Arabian Peninsula. Judaism had made converts in the north and south, and Byzantine influence was felt from Yemen to Syria. Christian and Jewish traders exchanged religious ideas with pagan Arabs along the caravan routes. Mecca enjoyed a rising prestige among the Arab cities, and Allah, lord of the Kaaba, was rising with it. The time was ripe for a religious revival.
Now, during the life of Abd al Muttahb, there ruled in Yemen a viceroy of the Prince of Abyssinia whose name was Abraha. It is written that this Christian viceroy set out with an imposing force to destroy the Kaaba. An elephant in the Abyssinian train struck terror in the hearts of the Arabs and they fled to the hills, leaving the Kaaba to the protection of Allah. A plague decimated the invading army and saved Mecca from destruction.'
Tradition tells us that in the 'Year of the Elephant' was born Muhammad, the Prophet, to Abdullah, son of Muttalib.
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