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Islam Is Repackaged Polytheism: Documentation

The Hajj, F. E. Peters, p 3-41, 1994

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Islam: Truth or Myth? start page



(The Hajj, F. E. Peters, p 3-41, 1994)

The Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca and the holy places,



The Qur'an does not explain or accept pagan ritual as such, of course, but it does offer clues. What was done at Mecca in the name of religion in the days before Islam was in part the work of a debased paganism, but it also bore some trace of what Islam's holy book calls "the religion of Abraham" (2:130), the practices that God had earlier commanded should be instituted in connection with His House in that city. The Quran says nothing, however, about the remote origins of a holy place at Mecca; it speaks only of the era of Abraham and of Ishmael there, and of the providential construction of the Ka'ba, this "sacred House" (5:100), this "ancient House" (22:29), that sat in the midst of the town. But Islamic tradition did not rest on that scriptural testimony alone. Later generations of Muslims who had access, through Jewish and Christian converts to Islam, to a vast body of stories and legends about the earliest times of God's dispensation, were able to trace the history of the Ka'ba and its sanctuary back to the very beginning of Creation, and even before.

Abraham and Ishmael in Mecca

The Quran traces the progression of God's will through the history of mankind from Adam to Abraham, with special emphasis on Noah. But Noah has no link with Mecca, and it is not until the thread of Sacred History reaches Abraham that biblical history converges with the Quran. The Quran's Abraham is called both a muslim and a hanif, terms that, in this context at least, appear to mean the opposite of an "associator," a pagan polytheist. Abraham's father and other relatives were such; and although the Quran is neither a history nor a treatise in systematic theology, we are given a fairly clear idea of the paganism from which the Patriarch had liberated himself. like the Meccans of Muhammad's day, the family of Abraham worshiped idols (Quran 21:56-65).

The Quran passes directly from Abraham's "conversion" from the paganism of his father to God's command to construct the Ka'ba. There is no mention in the sacred text of Hagar or Sarah, or of the Bible's elaborate story of the births of Ishmael and Isaac. It was left for the later tradition, which possessed more detailed and sophisticated information, to spell out the events that brought Abraham and Ishmael from the land of Palestine to distant Mecca in the Hijaz. More than one Muslim version recounts how that occurred, and the historian Tabari presents a conflation of a number of them. I

According to... al-Suddi: Sarah said to Abraham, "You may take pleasure in Hagar, for I have permitted it." So he had intercourse with Hagar and she gave birth to Ishmael. Then he had intercourse with Sarah and she gave birth to Isaac. When Isaac grew up, he and Ishmael fought. Sarah became angry and jealous of Ishmael's mother. . . . She swore to cut something off her, and said to herself, "I shall cut off her nose, I shall cut off her ear-but no, that would deform her. I will circumcise her instead." So she did that, and Hagar took a piece of cloth to wipe the blood away. For that reason women have been circumcised and have taken pieces of cloth (as sanitary napkins) down to today.

Sarah said, "She Will not live in the same town with me." God told Abraham to go to Mecca, where there was no House at that time. He took Hagar and her son to Mecca and put them there....

According to ... Mujahid and other scholars: When God pointed out to Abraham the place of the House and told him how to build the sanctuary, he set out to do the job and Gabriel went with him. It was said that whenever he passed a town he would ask, "Is this the town which God's command meant, 0 Gabriel?" And Gabriel would say. "Pass it by." At last they reached Mecca, which at that time was nothing but acacia trees, mimosa, and thorn trees, and there was a people called Amalekites out-side Mecca and its surroundings. The House at that time was but a hill of red clay. Abraham said to Gabriel, "Was it here that I was ordered to leave them?" Gabriel said, "Yes. " Abraham directed Hagar and Ishmael to go to al-Hijr,' and settled them down there. He commanded Hagar, the mother of Ishmael, to find shelter there. Then he said, "My Lord, I have settled some of my posterity in an uncultivable valley near Your Holy House ... that they may be thankful" (Quran 14:37). Then he journeyed back to his family in Syria, leaving the two of them at the House.

At his expulsion from Abraham's household, Ishmael must have been about sixteen years old, certainly old enough to assist his father in the construction of the Ka'ba, as is described in the Quran and is implicit from the last line of the Tabari's narrative from Mujahid and others. Tabari's version of what next occurred is derived from Genesis 21:15-16, transferred from a Palestinian setting to a Meccan one. The object is now clearly to provide an "Abrahamic" explanation for some of the landmarks of the Meccan sanctuary and the features of the pilgrimage to it. The helpless Ishmael sounds much younger than sixteen in the tale, and some Muslim versions of the story in fact make him a nursing infant, 3 which means, of course, that Abraham will have to return on a later occasion to build the Ka'ba with him. 4

Then Ishmael became very thirsty. His mother looked for water for him, but could not find any. She listened for sounds to help her find water for him. She heard a sound at al-Safa and went there to look around and found nothing. Then she heard a sound from the direction of al-Marwa. She went there and looked around and saw nothing. Some also say that she stood on al-Safa praying to God for water for Ishmael, and then went to al-Marwa to do the same.

Thus the origin of the pilgrimage ritual of "running" back and forth between the two hills of Safa and Marwa on the eastern side of the Meccan sanctuary. Tabari continues:

Then she heard the sounds of beasts in the valley where she had left Ishmael. She ran to him and found him scraping the water from a spring which had burst forth from beneath his hand, and drinking from it. Ishmael's mother came to it and made it swampy. Then she drew water from it into her waterskin to keep it for Ishmael. Had she not done that, the waters of Zamzam would have gone on flowing to the surface forever. (Tabari, Annals 1.278-279 = Tabari 11: 72-74)

Abraham the Builder

Though the Quran knows nothing of Adam's connection with Mecca or the Ka'ba there, it is explicit on the subject of Abraham as the builder of God's House.

Remember We made the House a place of assembly for the people and a secure place; and take the station of Abraham (maqam Ibrahim) as a prayer-place (musalia); and We have a made a pact with Abraham and Ishmael that they should sanctify My House for those who circumambulate it, those using it as a retreat, who bow or prostrate themselves there.

And remember Abraham said: My Lord, make this land a secure one, and feed its people with fruits, those of them who believe in God and the Last Day...

And remember Abraham raised the foundations of the House, yes and Ishmael too, (saying) accept (this) from us, for indeed You are All-hearing and MI-knowing. (Quran 2:125-127)

And again:

Behold, We gave to Abraham the site of the House; do not associate anything with Me (in worship)! And sanctify My House for those who circumambulate, or those who take their stand there (qa'imun), who bow or prostrate themselves there. (Quran 22:26)

What the Muslims were told on divine authority about the ancient cult center at Mecca is summed up in those verses. It was left to later generations of Muslims to seek out additional information. And many of them did. The authority here is Zamakhshari (d. 1144 C.E.), commenting on Quran 2:127:

Then, God commanded Abraham to build it, and Gabriel showed him its location. It is said that God sent a cloud to shade him, and he was told to build on its shadow, not to exceed or diminish (its dimensions). It is said that he built it from five mountains: Mount Sinai, the Mount of Olives, Lebanon, al-judi, and its foundation is from Hira. Gabriel brought him the Black Stone from Heaven.

It is said that Abu Qubays brought it forth,5 and it was taken out of the place where it had been hidden during the days of the Flood. It was a white sapphire from the Garden, but when menstruating women touched it during the pre-Islamic period, it turned black.

It is said that Abraham would build it as Ishmael would hand him the stones.

"Our Lord" (2:127) means that they both said "Our Lord" [that is, not Abraham alone], and this activity took place in the location where they erected (the House) in (its) position. Abdullah demonstrated that in his reading, the meaning of which is: "The two of them raised it up, both of them saying, 'Our Lord."' (Zama-khshari, Tafsir, 311)

Zamakhshari does not pretend to add historical detail; he simply fleshes out the story at one or another point, as does the commentator Tabarsi (d. 1153 C.E.) on Quran 2:125. Tabarsi was by then convinced, as were all of his contemporaries, that the Quran's not entirely self-evident reference to a "station of Abraham" referred to a stone venerated in the Mecca Haram.

God made the stone underneath Abraham's feet into something like clay so that his foot sunk into it. That was a miracle. It was transmitted on the authority ofabu Ja'far al-Baqir (may peace be upon him) that he said: Three stones were sent down from the Garden: the Station of Abraham, the rock of the children of Israel, and the Black Stone, which God en-trusted Abraham with as a white stone. It was whiter than paper, but became black from the sins of the children of Adam.

"Abraham raised the foundations of the House" (2:127). That is, the base of the House that was [already there] before that, from Ibn Abbas and Ata, who said: Adam was the one who built it. Then its traces were wiped out. Abraham ploughed it (in the original place to establish the foundations). That is the tradition from our Imams. But Mujahid said:

Abraham raised it up (originally) by the command of God. AL-Hasan used to say: The first to make the pilgrimage to the House was Abraham. But according to the traditions of our comrades, the first to make the pilgrimage to the House was Adam. That shows that he was [the one who built it] before Abraham. It was related on the authority of al-Baqir that he said: God placed four columns beneath the Throne.... He said: the angels circumambulate it. Then, He sent angels who said, "Build a House like it and with its measurements on the earth." He commanded that whoever is on the earth must circumambulate the House. (Tabarsi, Tafsir 1.460,468)

This, then, is how most later Muslims understood the proximate origin of the Ka'ba, as alluded to in the Quran: to wit, the patriarch Abraham, on a visit to his son Ishmael in Mecca, put down, on God's command, the foundation of the House on a site already hallowed by Adam.

The beginning of the Hajj

Once the building of the Ka'ba was completed, God ordered Abraham to make public proclamation of the pilgrimage to be performed there.

Announce to the people the pilgrimage. They will come to you on foot and on every lean camel, coming from every deep and distant highway that they may witness the benefits and recollect the name of God in the well-known days (ayyam ma'lumat) over the sacrificial animals He has provided for them. Eat thereof and feed the poor in want. Then let them complete their rituals7 and perform their vows and circumambulate the Ancient House.

Such is it [that is, the pilgrimage]. Whoever honors the sacred rites of God, for him is it good in the sight of his Lord. (Quran 22:27-30)

It is clear from these and similar Quranic texts that the original pilgrimage rituals were not so much being described to Abraham as alluded to for the benefit of a Meccan audience that was already quite familiar with them.' It was once again left for later commentators to fill in the details, not of the Hajj, to be sure, which was well known to all, but of Abraham and Ishmael's connection with it. The authority here is al-Azraqi (d. 834 C.E.), who, though not a Quranic commentator, was one of the earliest historians of Mecca and so an expert whose interests were somewhat different from those of Zamakhshari or Tabarsi. In this passage he describes how Abraham, at God's urging, performed that original pilgrimage ritual.

Abu al-Walid related to us ... (from) Uthman ibn Saj: Muhammad ibn Ishaq reported to me: When Abraham the Friend of the Merciful finished building the sacred House, Gabriel came and said: "Circle it seven times!" and he circumambulated it seven times with Ishmael, touching all the corners during each circumambulation. When they had completed seven, he and Ishmael prayed two prostrations behind the stone [maqam].

He said: Gabriel got up with them and showed him all the ritual stations: al-Safa, al-Marwa, Mina, Muzdalifa, and Arafat.

He said: When he left Mina and was brought down to (the defile called) al-Aqaba, the Devil appeared to him at Stone-Heap of the Defile (jamrat al-Aqaba). Gabriel said to him: "Pelt him!" so Abraham threw seven stones at him so that he disappeared from him. Then he appeared to him at the Middle Stone-heap (al-jamra al-wusta). Gabriel said to him: "Pelt him!" so he pelted him with seven stones so that he disappeared from him. Then he appeared to him at the "Little Stone-heap" (al-jamra al-sughra). Gabriel said to him: "Pelt him!" so he pelted him with seven stones like the little stones for throwing in a sling. So the Devil withdrew from him.

Then, Abraham finished the pilgrimage and Gabriel waited for him at the ritual stops and taught him the ritual stations up through Arafat. When they arrived there, Gabriel said to him: "Do you know your ritual stations?" Abraham answered: "Yes." He said: It is called "Arafat" because of that statement: "Do you know your ritual stations?"'

He said: Then Abraham was commanded to call the people to the pilgrimage. He said: Abraham said: "O Lord, my voice will not reach (them). " God answered: "You call! The reaching is My responsibility."

He said: So Abraham climbed onto the stone [maqam] and looked out from it. He became (as high as) the highest mountain. The entire earth was gathered for him on that day. the mountains and plains, the land and the sea, the humans and the jinn so that everything heard him,

He said: He stuck a finger in each ear and turned to face the south, the north, the east, and the west, and he began with the southern side. He said: "0 you people! The pilgrimage to the ancient House is written as an obligation for you, so answer your Lord!" So they answered from the seven regions, and from the east and the west to the broken soil: "At Your service, 0 God, at Your service.

He said: The stones were as they are today except that God desired to make the stone [maqam] a sign, so his footprint remains on the stone [maqam] to this day...

He said: Everyone who has made the pilgrimage to this day was one of those who answered Abraham. Their pilgrimage (today) is a result of their response on that day. Whoever makes the pilgrimage twice has answered positively twice, three pilgrimages, answered thrice.

He said: Abraham's footprint on the stone [maqam] is a sign, which is demonstrated by the verse: "In it are dear signs [such as] the maqam Ibrahim. Whoever enters it is secure" (Quran 3:97). (Azraqi 1858:33-34)"

As these accounts attempt to demonstrate, the complex ritual the Muslims call the Hajj or Pilgrimage can be traced back, in general and in each specific detail, to Adam and, more proximately, to Abraham, whose intent and practices Muhammad was to restore so many centuries later. For the non-Muslim, however, the Meccan rituals are striking remnants of a pagan, albeit Semitic, past in Arabia, which the Prophet of Islam permitted to survive by incorporating them into his own prescriptions. For the Muslim, it is Abraham who transforms those same rites into an authentic Muslim cultus. Abraham, the first of the submitters (muslimum: Quran Z:13i, and elsewhere), was also the first of the generation after the Flood to perform the rites, and Muslims are simply commemorating what the Patriarch himself had done under God's guidance."


Midway in the Arabian peninsula, between the Jordanian border on the north and that of Yemen on the south, forty-five miles inland from the Red Sea port of Jidda, stands the city of Mecca and, in its midst, an unusual building called simply al-Ka'ba or "the Cube." The flat-roofed building rises from a narrow marble base on mortared courses of a local blue-gray stone, and its dimensions are not exactly cubical: it is fifty feet high, and while its northeast wall and its southwestern mate are forty feet long, the two "side" walls are five feet shorter. It is the corners rather than the walls that are oriented toward the compass points. The northeastern face is the facade in the sense that in it is the only door of the building, about seven feet above ground level. Inside is an empty room with a marble floor and three wooden pillars supporting the roof. There are some inscriptions on the walls, hanging votive lamps, and a ladder leading up to the roof Built into the eastern corner of the Ka'ba, about four feet above the ground, is a blackish stone of either lava or basalt, which is fractured and now held together by a silver band. The building is draped with a black brocade cloth embroidered in gold with Quranic texts; the bottom edge can be raised or lowered by a series of cords and rings.

The Ka'ba stands in the midst of an open space enclosed by porticoes. This is the Haram, the "sanctuary," and there are some other constructions in it. Facing the northeastern facade wall of the Ka'ba is a small domed building called the Station of Abraham (maqam Ibrahim), a title that applies equally to the stone that it enshrines and in which human footprints are impressed. Behind this building is a colonnaded wellhead called Zamzam, and next to that a pulpit.

For hundreds of millions of Muslims the Ka'ba is the holiest building in the world, and its holiness, like that of the Zamzam and the Station of Abraham and, indeed, of the entire sequence of pilgrimage rituals that surround them and the environs of Mecca, derives, as we have already seen, from their connection with Abraham, the biblical patriarch. It is to this shrine complex that we now turn.

The Haram

Mecca the haram, the holy place, appears to antedate Mecca the city. The later Muslim authorities credit establishment of the latter to Qusayy, who, if he is a historical personage, must be dated in the late fourth or early fifth century C.E." That there was a shrine before a settlement in that inhospitable valley we assume simply from the circumstances of the place: Mecca possessed none of the normal inducements to settlement, none, certainly, that would give the place a history or even a long tradition of contested possession. A holy place, on the other hand, requires little beyond the sanctity of the site, a sanctity connected with a spring, a tree, or a mountain. Only its sanctity, however obscure the origins of that holiness, explains the existence of Mecca, and only a shrine linked to other considerations-social, economic, or political-explains the eventual presence of a city there.

It was the Zamzam, then, or perhaps the two high places called Safa and Marwa, 13 that established the sanctity of the site of Mecca, though how long before Qusayy we cannot say. Our sources, as we have seen, trace the sanctity of the Meccan Haram exclusively to the Ka'ba, the edifice built at God's express command by Abraham and Ishmael. In the face of this unyielding unanimity in the literary sources, there are two ways to approach the shrine at Mecca: to compare the evidence of ancient Semitic cult centers that seem similar to the arrangement in Mecca; and to examine more contemporary evidence in the expectation that some of the older practices survived the advent of Islam. What we know of early practice comes chiefly from literary sources like Ibn al-Kalbi (d. 821 C.E.), and such information will be noted in due course. As for archeological evidence, it is sparse indeed, particularly from Arabia, where excavation is still in its very early stage and the sparse results are speculative in the extreme. 14

At least for the time being, then, we are left with the Muslim literary authorities. More promising than archaeological tidbits are other examples of the shrine phenomenon, some from ancient sources and some reflecting more contemporary practice in Arabia, which can be used to understand and interpret the often random information supplied by the early Muslim authors.

Before Islam, Arab law was what it continued to be in many places even after Islam, namely, customary law, a set of procedures that governed the behavior of one member of a tribe toward all other members of the same tribe. This "internal" law was neither divinely prescribed nor supernaturally guaranteed but was rather constituted by a type of mos majorum, defined by constant usage within the tribe and reinforced by the tribe's willingness to impose sanctions on its own members.

No such system prevailed among the tribes, however, and the Arab version of international law had to appeal to other, more universal grounds. We are less certain of how this larger order operated, under what aegis tribe met tribe and conducted social and economic business or resolved differences in an atmosphere of security. We can find no divinely revealed or guaranteed law and order prevailing among tribes, yet the religious component seems more apparent on this international scale than it does within tribes. The tribes came together in sacred months, on sacred terrain, and often under the (temporary) tutelage of what are clearly religious figures.

There was and is more than one holy domain at Mecca. At the heart of the present city, and of the settlement for as long as we have records, there is a holy building, the ka'ba, which is venerated by a series of ritual acts but which is apparently no more taboo than the space that surrounds it: entry is not restricted, for example, as it was in the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem." The Ka'ba is in turn surrounded by two larger areas, both defined in the manner of a temenos and both marked by prohibited and privileged behavior within them. The one immediately surrounding the Ka'ba is called the "sacred shrine" (al-masjid-haram) and was regarded in Muslim times as a mosque. A third and far larger area, the true haram and called simply by that name, extends well beyond the settled area of Mecca city and is defined by stone boundary markers (ansab al-haram)." This is the sacred territory prohibited to non-Muslims throughout its history.

The Ka'ba

The Quran's interest in the history of the Ka'ba, "the House," as the sacred book often calls it, extends no further than Abraham and Ishmael's role in its construction. But God's Book gave it a central place in the new Islamic cult, both as the continuing center of certain rituals, such as the circumambulation long practiced in Mecca, and as the qibla, or focal point, to which every Muslim would turn in the new liturgical prayers prescribed by Islam. With that incentive, Muslims turned to reconstructing out of their own memories, and out of the stuff of legend, a history of "the House." The task was neither simple nor direct: between Abraham's original construction and the building remembered by the earliest Muslims were a series of possessions at the hands of various pagans who had occupied Mecca. Consequently, there was a strong likelihood that the building had been modified to one degree or another.17

In a chapter entitled "The Building of the Ka'ba by the Quraysh in the Age of Barbarism," the Meccan historian at-Azi-aqi (d. 834 C.F.) collected some of the traditions still extent on the early appearance of the House before its substantial reconstruction during the early manhood of Muhammad.

Some men from quraysh sat in the sanctuary ... and were remembering the building of the Ka'ba and they described how it was before that time. It was built of dried [unmortared] stones and not with clay or mud. Its door was on ground level and it had no roof or ceiling. The curtain (kiswa) was hung on its wall on one side and was tied to the top of the center of the wall. On the right as one entered the Ka'ba there was a pit where gifts of money and goods for the Ka'ba were deposited. In this pit sat a snake to guard it, which God had sent at the time of the (tribe of) jurhum.... The horns of the ram that Abraham had slaughtered (in place of Isaac or Ishmael) were hanging on the wall facing the entrance. The were ornaments hanging in it which had been given as gifts. (Azraqi 1858: 106)

Tabari tells a story from Ibn Ishaq that casts a little more light on the earlier building:

The, reason for their [the Quraysh's] demolition of the ka'ba (early in the seventh century C.E.) was that at this time it consisted of loose stones rising to somewhat above a man's height, and they wished to make it higher and roof it over since some men, Quraysh and others, had stolen the treasure of the Ka'ba, which was kept in a well in its interior. (Tabai-i, Annals 1.1130 = Tabari vi: 51)

By this account the Ka'ba does not appear to be a house at all but rather some kind of enclosure built around a pit or dry well, an enclosure that was, however, draped with a cloth curtain (kiswa) in a manner to give it the appearance of a tent. Some Arab authors in fact called the early Ka'ba by the same name used to describe the Israelites' tent or tabernacle in the desert." It is unlikely, however, that such a rude enclosure would be called, as the Meccan edifice was for as long as we have a historical tradition, "the cube," for that is indeed what ka'ba means. A tent like structure makes more sense, and it has been plausibly suggested that the later cubiform stone building, the ancestor of the one that stands in Mecca today, succeeded a square or quadrangular tent and so was distinguished from the round tents of the inhabitants of the settlement.19 The sequence would not be very different, then, from the Israelite one: the Ark of the desert wanderings continued to be housed in a tent even after its transfer to urban Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:17); and when it was finally housed in a stone building, that "holy of holies" was likewise a ka'ba, twenty cubits in length and width and height (1 Kings 6:20).

Nor was Mecca's the only Such building in Arabia. An early Muslim historian of the antiquities, Hisham ibn al-Kalbi, reported the presence of other ka'bas in and around the peninsula:

The Banu al-Harith lbn Ka'b had in Najran a ka'ba which they venerated. It is the one mentioned by al-A'sha in one of his poems. It has been claimed that it was not a ka'ba for worship, but merely a hall for people mentioned by a poet. In my opinion this is very likely the case since I have not heard of the Banu al-Harith ever mentioning it in their poetry.

The Iyad had another ka'ba in Sindad, (which is located) in a region between Kufa and Basra (in Iraq). It is mentioned by al-Aswad ibn Ya'fur in one of his poems. I have, however, heard that this house was not a place of worship. Rather it was just a famous building and it was for that reason that al-Aswad mentioned it.

A certain man of the Junayna named Abd al-Dar ibn Hudayb once said' to his people, "Come, let us build a house, to be located in a spot in their territory called al-Hawra, with which we might rival the Ka'ba (at Mecca), and so attract to ourselves many of the Bedouin. " They deemed his suggestion very grave and refused his request. (Ibn al-Kalbi 1952: 38-39)

As Ibn al-Kalbi somewhat reluctantly testifies, in Mecca we are in the presence of a not unusual type of Arabian, or perhaps even Semitic, temple building. The Meccan exemplar is unusual only in that it housed no deity. Unhappily, all the evidence is literary: we have no preserved examples save the Meccan one of what might reasonably be called a ka'ba. We cannot say, then, how typical the obviously crude Meccan structure was. But whether typical or not, its primitive and makeshift architecture comes as no surprise: not only was it situated in a wadi, and so vulnerable to the normal destructive consequences; but the Meccan Ka'ba was also built to serve people who were originally nomads and who had, even by the late sixth century, so little skill at construction that they required the assistance of a foreign carpenter to put a timber roof on the edifice. But for all that, it was a temple and had all the primary characteristics of such: a quadrangular cella oriented to the cardinal compass points, 20 a sacred rock and sacred spring, a characteristic haram with the usual privileges of the right of asylum, and so on. 21

In most ancient temples, in obvious contrast to later synagogues, churches, and mosques, whatever ritual was required was practiced outside the building, generally in the form of sacrifice upon an altar. The inner parts of the building might be entered; but because they were regarded as the domicile of the god, entry was denied to the profane, those who stood "before the shrine." Indeed, at that other Semitic temple in Jerusalem, access to the ka'ba, the cube-shaped Holy of Holies, was severely limited to the high priest, and then under strictly controlled circumstances. Although it is true that the primary liturgy connected with the Mecca building, the ritual circumambulation, was performed outside, there is almost no trace, either before or under Islam, of the notion that the interior of the Ka'ba was in any way more sacred than the surrounding Haram. Access to it was controlled, as we shall have many occasions to see, but exclusively, it would appear, on the grounds of political privilege. People, including Muhammad himself, prayed both inside and outside the Ka'ba 22 and visited it whenever the privilege was granted to them. The Ka'ba was not, then, a more sacred haram within the larger Haram that surrounded it. The truly profane non-Muslims were kept out of Mecca, or even Arabia at times, and no Muslim might approach the precincts of Mecca as a pilgrim without having previously entered, like a Jerusalem high priest, a state of ritual purity.

The Black Stone

Built into the southeast corner of the Ka'ba, about four feet from the ground, is the Black Stone. According to Muslim tradition, this had been a part, though not a structural part, of the building from the beginning, that is to say, from Adam's original construction of the House of God. But the tradition also remembered that the stone had come from Abu Qubays, a mountain overlooking Mecca." The two strands of tradition were harmonized in an account whereby the stone was concealed on Abu Qubays during the era of the Flood, when Adam's original Ka'ba was destroyed, and then restored to Abraham for inclusion in his version of the Ka'ba. 24

But the harmonization was not perfect. Other traditions recollected that the Black Stone, or at least its inclusion in the Ka'ba, was of much more recent origin. Ibn Sa'd says that the Quraysh brought it down from Abu Qubays only four years before Muhammad's first revelation. 21 In another account, from al-Fakihi, it is traced back to the Quraysh's first reconstruction of the building, possibly at the time of Qusayy. 26

Was the Black Stone part of the construction of the Ka'ba from the beginning? The sources are obviously uncertain on the question, and so too are we, though the probability seems high that it was. On one account, the gathering of local idols into the Meccan sanctuary goes back to the time of the pre-Quraysh ruler Amr ibn Luhayy;27 and as a sacred stone from Abu Qubays, the Black Stone too would have been part of Amr's religious synoikism.21 But if, as seems equally likely, the stone was originally one of the portable betyls of the early settlers at Mecca, its incorporation into the structure of the Ka'bal like the depiction of similar stones on the walls of temples at Madain Salih and elsewhere, would signal the decision of nomads to make a fixed settlement."

The Hijr

Opposite the northwestern face of the Ka'ba is an area of special sanctity defined by a low semicircular wall (hatim). The area is called the hijr, and Muslim tradition identifies it as the burial place of Ishmael and Hagar.10 Not much is said of it in pre-Islamic times. The area first becomes prominent when Ibn al-Zubayr, a seventh-century Muslim ruler of Mecca, incorporated it into the Ka'ba by connecting the hatim to the building. His work was shortly undone, and the hatim was left a free-standing wall, as it is today. There are few plausible explanations of why there should be a wall there in the first place. It has been suggested, for example, that a low wall, and so the hijr enclosure, once surrounded the Ka'ba on all sides and marked the area within which the idols were worshiped through sacrifice,31 or, more enticingly but less convincingly, that the hatim represents the remains of the apse of a Christian church oriented toward Jerusalem, which, it will be seen, was the direction in which once Muhammad prayed while he was still at Mecca.31

The word hijr itself means "inviolable" or "taboo," and it occurs once in that sense in the Quran (6:137-139), in reference not to the area near the Ka'ba but to animals and crops earmarked as belonging to the gods, a sense that supports the contention that the hijr, whatever its original extent, may have served as a pen for the animals destined for sacrifice to the idols around the Ka'ba.33 Whether it was so used in Muhammad's own lifetime seems doubtful, however, at least on the evidence of the Muslim authorities. As the hijr is portrayed in Muhammad's day, it was a place of common assembly where political matters were discussed, or people prayed, or, as it appears, slept.34

We may be misreading the evidence, however. The sleepers in the hijr are generally dreamers, and their dreams have a divine purport: Abd al-Muttalib was inspired to discover the Zamzam while sleeping there, the mother of the Prophet had a vision of her son's greatness, and Muham-mad was visited by Gabriel there before beginning his celebrated Night journey all commonplace examples of inspiration in the course of an incubation, that is, sleeping in a sacred place. 35 The latter example is particularly striking in light of the fact that Jacob's dream of the ladder reaching to heaven (Genesis 28:ii-ig) took place at the "House of God" and the "gate of heaven," a spot that the Jewish tradition identified as the place where Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac or Ishmael, as the Muslims sometimes had it-and where the Temple was later located. Ishmael too, the Muslims claimed, had been promised by God that a gate into heaven would be opened for him in the hijr. 36

Another Stone: The Maqam Ibrahim

The Black Stone was not the only venerated stone in the Meccan sanctuary. In Islamic times visitors were shown one bearing the footprint of Abraham himself and called the "station" or "standing place" of Abraham (maqam Ibrahim). The latter expression occurs twice in the Quran. The mention at 3:97 is connected with a place called Bakka, apparently the site of the House 37 and the place in which are God's manifest signs, including the Station of Abraham, an allusion that suggests a place within the Haram. In 2:125 the believers are urged to "take the maqam Ibrahim as a place of prayer (musalla)," or, more literally, "take some place from the maqam Ibrahim as a place of prayer," a mode of expression that suggested to some commentators that the "station of Abraham" might refer to the entire sanctuary or even the entire area of the pilgrimage.31 In the end, however, the consensus settled upon the free-standing stone also located within the sanctuary.

As with much else connected with the sanctuary there was no great assurance on why this particular stone was called the Station of Abraham.39 Although it made easy sense to suggest that Abraham stood upon it while building the Ka'ba, a far more likely explanation traces it back to Abraham's place of prayer. indeed, there is an explicit reference in Genesis 19:17 to just such a place: "Abraham rose early and went to the place where he had stood (maqom) in the presence of the Lord." The Talmud cites this passage (BT Berakhot 6b) when it recommends that each believer should have a personal maqam for prayer. 40

Whatever was being referred to in the Quranic verse, there was a stone in the Haram at Mecca, measuring roughly two feet by three feet; and as we shall see, it had a history in the Islamic era. Part of that history was the discovery (or rediscovery) in 870 C.E. that there was writing on the stone. The occasion was a refurbishing of the stone-it had earlier become cracked and the parts pinioned together-and there was a very good witness present, the subsequent historian of the city, al-Fakihi, who recorded the events of that occasion in his Chronicle of mecca.

When the stone was brought on the 1st of I Rabi' to the government house ... people examined it closely. And I looked on with them.

Fakihi noted a variety of lines and geometric shapes on the stone and an inscription:

There is an inscription on the stone in Hebrew, but some say it is in Himyari script. It is the inscription which the Quraysh found in the Age of Barbarism. I copied the inscription from the maqam on the order of (the governor) Ali ibn al-Hasan with my own hand. I copied it (exactly) as I saw it inscribed on the stone and I spared no effort. And this is what I copied.

The Fakihi manuscript reproduces three lines of the inscription. The rest was unclear to him, and he did not copy it. He inquired among other scholars as to the meaning of the lines, and Abu Zakariyya al-Maghribil an expert in Egyptian hieroglyphics, translated it for him:

"I am God, there is no deity except Me" <first line>
"a king who is unattainable" <second line>
"Isbaut" <third line>.

Abu-1-Hasan al-Faridi quoted from the Tafsir of Sunayd a passage for the elucidation of the meaning of the transliterated but untranslated Isbautas corresponding to al-Samad, "the Eternal," in Arabic." Al-Fakihi then records a tradition traced back to Ibn Abbas stating that there is an inscription on the maqam saying: "This is the House of God, He put it on the quadrangles of His throne, its sustenance will come from this and that, its people will be the first to suspend its sanctity." 42

The Zamzam

Close by the Ka'ba is a well from whose depths water can be drawn for the benefit of the pilgrims who cherish the well-attested blessings that come to those who drink it. If pilgrims are drawn to it, so too are historians, who see in the source called Zamzam a plausible explanation of why there was a sanctuary in the wadi of Mecca in the first place. In the nineteenth century Julius Wellhausen pronounced the Zamzam "the only spring of Mecca and so likely the origin of the holy place as well as the city," and other authorities have generally been inclined to agree. 13 There are problems, however. Other wells quenched Mecca," as Ibn Ishaq reveals when speaking of the Zamzam.

Zamzam utterly eclipsed the other wells from which the pilgrims used to get their water, and the people went to it because it was in the sacred enclosure and because its water was superior to any other; and also because it was the well of Ishmael, son of Abraham. Because of it the Banu Abd Manaf behaved boastfully towards the Quraysh and the other Arabs. (Ibn Ishaq 1955: 65)

The Zamzam was not, then, unique; it was simply superior, and the basis of that superiority-leaving aside the debated question of the quality of its water-was that its origin went back to Abrahamic days, when, as we have seen, it was miraculously discovered and saved the life of Ishmael. Zamzam, it was argued, was thus mentioned in the Bible, particularly if one accepted its identification with the miraculous life-saving spring mentioned in Genesis 21:19. 45

The Zamzam was said to have been hidden by the pagan Jurhum who succeeded Ishmael, and it remained unknown and unused down to the days of Abd al-Muttalib, Muhammad's grandfather. Abd al-Muttalib was a descendent of Abd Manaf, the son to whom Qusayy, that founder of Quraysh-and Meccan-fortunes, handed on as a hereditary trust the office of siqaya, the privilege of supplying water to the Meccan pilgrims.

On the face of it, this possibly lucrative honor could have had nothing to do with the Zamzam, because the well was unknown to Qusayy and every member of Abd Manaf down to Abd al-Muttalib. Did the Zamzam replace the other wells of Mecca at some point, perhaps at some very late date in the history of the city, when the Abrahamic story began to circulate? There are grounds for thinking so, not the least of which is the lack of any essential connection between the Zamzam and its water and the pre- or post-Islamic Haji . 46

Safa and Marwa

Somewhat to the east of the Ka'ba were two low hills, which have since disappeared under the leveling topography of modern Mecca. The one on the south was called Safa and that on the north Marwa, and there occurred between them one of the ritual acts connected with the religious life of Mecca. It was, in fact, another form of circumambulation, a circling back and forth between the two places, part of which had to be conducted at a run, whence its later name, "the running" (say). The practice was later incorporated into the Umra and the Hajj, though obviously not without some objection, as is manifest from the Quran's reference to it:

Indeed, Safa and Marwa are among the indications of God. So for those who make the Hajj to the House or the Umra, there is no sin in circumambulating them. (Quran 2:158)

This is as much as the Quran says. But the Muslim tradition offers two explanations for the practice, one "pagan" and one "Abrahamic." As we have already seen, the latter simply identifies Hagar's frantic search for water for the infant Ishmael with the ritual running between the hills before her providential discovery of the Zamzam. What is obviously an older and more primitive explanation has to do with two humans named Asaf and Na'ila, members of the jurhum:

(The Quraysh) adopted Asaf (or Isaf) and Na'ila by the place of Zamzam, sacrificing beside them. They were (originally) a man and a woman of jurhum ... who copulated in the Ka'ba so God transformed them into two stones .... But God alone knows whether this is the truth. (Ibn Ishaq 1955: 37)

Despite Ibn Ishaq's explicit misgivings, the colorful story became current in the Muslim authors and has been the point of departure for a wide variety of attempts to explain the reality, if any, behind the story and its connection with the "running" ritual .17 The names, which have to do with stones, appear to be Aramaic rather than Arabic and so have suggested foreign origins. What were transparently sacred stones, or perhaps stone idols-the jurhum story may reflect an etiological myth or be a distant echo of some form of ritual prostitution at the Ka'ba or nearby 48 were originally worshiped atop the "high places" of Safa and Marwa and then brought down somewhere in the vicinity of the Ka'ba by Qusayy himself. The circumambulation ritual continued to be performed at the two hills, but thereafter sacrifices were offered at the new sites of the idols. 49


The Muslim Arab authorities were not at all certain who of the early Arab intruders, the Jurhum or the Khuza'a, was first or chiefly responsible for turning Ishmael's holy place into a pagan city. More, their version of the degradation of the Meccan cultus has to do principally with the cult of idols, though we are assured by somewhat wider evidence that who was being worshiped in Arabia, and how and why, were much broader questions than our eighth- and ninth-century sources were willing to allow. The inhabitants of Arabia assuredly had a religious tradition before Islam, and although we are not particularly well informed about it, that tradition appears to have been quite complex. And this is what we would expect to discover in societies that were splintered into tribes and clans of widely varying sizes, some of them sedentary and some of them nomadic, with a number of the latter ranging seasonally over enormously broad terrains.

The inhabitants of the Hijaz worshiped the way they lived: the small settled population at fixed shrines in oases; the Bedouin in transit, carrying their gods with them.50 The objects worshiped were principally stones and trees and heavenly bodies,51 or rather, the gods thought to reside in them, or possibly -and here we begin to enter a world we do not fully understand -the gods represented by them.51 What is reasonably clear is that in the more recent Arabian past sacred stones were more often being shaped into human likenesses rough or fine,53 perhaps, it has been surmised, because of the extension of Hellenistic styles into the peninsula.54 lbn al-Kalbi describes what one of them might have looked like, on the authority of his scholar-father, who poses the question in this passage.

I requested Malik ibn Haritha, "Describe to me (the god) Wadd in such a way which would make it appeal- vividly before me. " Malik replied: "It was the statue of a huge man, as big as the largest of human beings, covered with two robes, clothed with the one and cloaked with the other, carrying a sword at his waist and a bow on his shoulder, and holding in one hand a spear to which had been attached a standard, and in the other a quiver full of arrows." (Ibn al-Kalbi, Book of Idols, 56 = Ibn al-Kalbi 1952: 49)

However the devotees thought of it, Arabian cultus was highly volatile. The deities often shared characteristics, or were harmonized into families, or passed into the possession now of this tribe and now of that. There is a distinctly tribal notion to the Arabs' worship of the gods. On the basis of the South Arabian evidence, with which the more meager Arab tradition concurs, each tribe or tribal confederation had a divine patron whose cult gave the group a focus for its solidarity. And in a practice that points directly to what was occurring at Mecca, each of these "federal deities" was the "lord" of a shrine that served as the cult center of the federation.

What seems to be clear is that the bedouin came into the towns to worship at the fixed shrines of the gods there. The incentive may have been principally commercial-fairs are a consistent feature of such urban shrines-and there was undoubtedly conscious policy at work: the movement of the effigy of a popular god into a town shrine meant that its worshipers would eventually follow, if certain conditions could be guaranteed. The chief of those was security. Bedouin were ill at ease in very close quarters: a vividly remembered network of tribal vendettas and blood feuds incurred from earlier collisions on the steppe made any tribal encounter potentially dangerous. The solution was the usual one of the "truce of God," sacred months when hands and weapons were restrained by divine injunction. Under such security, tribes came together, worshipped, and traded, and then returned to their more normal ways.

Sacred shrine, sacred truce, worship, and trade is a combination with a venerable history. Small wonder, since it worked to everyone's advantage, and not least to that of the guardians of the shrine-the Quraysh at Mecca, for example.

How Paganism and Idol Worship Came to Mecca

One aspect of the worship of the pre-Islamic Arabs that attracted the attention not only of Greek and Latin authors who came in contact with Arab society but also of later Muslim authorities on the Age of Barbarism was a widespread cult of stones. For both sets of observers it seemed odd to venerate stones, whether they were totally unshaped or fashioned into some kind of very rudimentary idol. It was not, of course, the stones that were being worshiped but an animated spirit within them. 55 The practice is testified to among sedentarized Arabs like the Nabateans of Petra and the priestly Arabs of Emessa in Syria, who had enshrined one such stone within their temple- which their high priest Elagabalus carried off to Rome with him when he became emperor -as well as among the nomads who carried stones enclosed in portable shrines into battle with them. 56

Later Muslims had some idea of these practices, and they traced them back to the earliest history of Mecca, when the sons of Ishmael lapsed into paganism. Ibn al-Kalbi, who made a special study of the pre-Islamic past of Arabia in his Book of Idols, connected idol worship directly to the degeneracy of the Banu Ishmael:

The reason that led them [the descendents of Ishmael] to the worship of images and stones was the following. No one left Mecca without carrying away with him a stone from the stones of the Sacred House as a token of reverence to it, and as a sign of deep affection to Mecca. Wherever he settled he would erect that stone and circumambulate it in the same manner he used to circumambulate the Ka'ba (before his departure from Mecca), seeking thereby its blessing and affirming his deep affection for the Holy House. In fact' the Arabs still venerate the Ka'ba and Mecca and journey to them in order to perform the pilgrimage and the visitation, conforming thereby to the time-honored custom which they inherited from Abraham and Ishmael.
In time this led them to the worship of whatever took their fancy, and caused them to forget their former worship. They exchanged the religion of Abraham and Ishmael for another. Consequently they took to the worship of images, becoming like nations before them.

At this point, Ibn al-Kalbi ties his story to an explanation of Quran 71:20-24:

Noah said: "O Lord, they rebel against me, and they follow those whose riches and children only aggravate their ruin." And they plotted a great plot, and they said, "Forsake not your gods; Forsake not Wadd and Suwa', nor Yaghuth and Ya'uq and Nasr." And they caused many to err.

Ibn al-Kalbi's text continues:

They sought and determined what the people of Noah had worshiped of those images and adopted the worship of those which were still remembered among them.

It was important, however, in the light of Muhammad's own adoption of certain of the cult practices in the Mecca of his day, to maintain some kind of continuous link with the authentic Abrahamic past.

Among these devotional practices were some which had come down from the time of Abraham and Ishmael, such as the veneration of the House and its circumambulation, the Hajj, the Umra [or lesser pilgrimage], the "standing" on Arafat and Muzdalifa, sacrificing she-camels, and raising the voice (tahlil) (in acclamation of God) at the Hajj and Umra, but they introduced into the latter things that did not belong to it.

Ibn al-Kalbi then supplies an example of just such an "unorthodox" pre-Islamic "acclamation" (talbiyya):

Here we are, 0 Lord! Here we are! Here we are! You have no partner save the one who is Yours; You have dominion over him and whatever he possesses.

Ibn al-Kalbi continues his own remarks:

Thus they declared His unity through the talbiyya and at the Same time associated their gods with Him, placing their [that is, their gods'] affairs in His hands. (Ibn al-Kalbi, Book of Idols, 6-7 = Ibn al-Kalbi 1952: 4-5)

Stone worship is not quite the same thing as idol worship, as even Ibn al-Kalbi understood. According to most authorities, including Ibn al-Kalbi ' the pagan practices in Mecca took a new turn when Khuza'i intruders under their leader Amr ibn Luhayy-who had married the daughter of Amr ibn al-Harith, the jurhum chief-replaced the Jurhum as the paramount tribe in the settlement.

When Amr ibn Luhayy came (to Mecca) he disputed Amr ibn al-Harith's right to its custody, and with the aid of the Banu Ishmael he found the Jurhumites, defeated them and cleared them out of the Ka'ba; he then drove them out of Mecca and took over the custody of the House after them.

Amr ibn Luhayy then became very sick and was told: There is a hot spring in Balqa in Syria.57 If you go there, you will be cured. So he went to the hot spring, bathed therein and was cured. During his stay there he noticed that the inhabitants of the place worshiped idols. So he questioned them: "What are these things?" To which they replied, "To them we pray for rain, and from them we seek victory over the enemy." There-upon he asked them to give him (some) and they did. He took them back with him to Mecca and erected them around the Ka'ba. (Ibn al-Kalbi, Book of Idols 8 = Ibn al-Kalbi 1952: 7)

Later Ibn al-Kalbi turns his attention to the cult of the idols:

Every family in Mecca had at home an idol which they worshiped. Whenever one of them purposed to set out on a journey, his last act before leaving the house would be to touch the idol in hope of an auspicious journey; on his return, the first thing he would do was to touch it again in gratitude for a propitious return....

The Arabs were passionately fond of worshiping idols. Some of them had a temple around which they centered their worship, while others adopted an idol to which they offered their adoration. The person who was unable to build himself a temple or adopt an idol would erect a stone in front of the Sacred House [the Ka'ba at Mecca] or in front of any other temple he might prefer, and then circumambulate it in the same manner in which he would circumambulate the Sacred House. The Arabs called these stones "betyls" (ansab), but whenever these stones resembled a living form they called them "idols" (asnam) and "images" (awthan). The act of circumambulating them they called "circumrotation" (dawar).

Whenever a traveler stopped at a place or station (to spend the night), he would select for himself four stones, pick out the finest of them and adopt it as his god, and then use the remaining three as supports for his cooking pot. On his departure he would leave them behind, and would do the same at the other stops.

And, like many other Muslims, Ibn al-Kalbi was convinced that Arab paganism was simply a degenerate form of the rituals of the Ka'ba:

The Arabs were accustomed to offer sacrifices before all these idols, betyls and stones. Nevertheless, they were aware of the excellence and superiority of the Ka'ba, to which they went on pilgrimage and visitation. What they did on their travels was merely a perpetuation of what they did at the Ka'ba, because of their devotion to it. (Ibn al-Kalbi, Book of Idols, 32-33 = Ibn al-Kalbi 1952: 28-290)

The Meccan Pantheon

Ibn Ishaq provides a kind of catalog of which tribes worshiped which idols and where:

Quraysh had an idol by a well in the middle of the Ka'ba called Hubal. And they adopted Asaf and Na'ila by the place of Zamzam, sacrificing beside them. They were a man and woman of Jurhum-Asaf ibn Baghy and Na'ila bint Dik-who copulated in the Ka'ba and so God transformed them into two stones. 5' Abdullah ibn Abu Bakr ... on the authority of Amra bint Abd al-Rahman ... that she said, I heard Aisha [one of the wives of Muhamniad] say, "We always heard that Asaf and Na'ila were a man and a woman of jurhum who copulated in the Ka'ba so God transformed them into two stones." But God alone knows the truth.

Al-Lat belonged to the Thaqif in Ta'if, her overseers and guardians being the Banu Mu'attib of the Thaqif Manat was worshiped by the Aws and the Khazraj, and such of the people of Yathrib who followed their religion, by the sea-shore in the direction of al-Mushallal in Qudayd. (Ibn Ishaq 1955: 38-39)


Among the gods worshiped by the Quraysh, the greatest was Hubal, this on the expert testimony of Ibn al-Kalbi: 

The Quraysh had several idols in and around the Ka'ba. The greatest of these was Hubal. It was made, as I was told, of red agate, in the form of a man with the right hand broken off It came into the possession of the Quraysh in this condition, and they therefore made for it a hand of gold.... It stood inside the Ka'ba, and in front of it were seven divinatory arrows. On one of these was written the word "Pure," and on another "associated alien." Whenever the lineage of a new-born was doubted, they would offer a sacrifice to Hubal and then shuffle the arrows and throw them. If the arrows showed the word "Pure," the child would be declared legitimate and the tribe would accept him. If, however, the arrows showed "associated alien," the child would be declared illegitimate and would reject him. The third arrow had to do with divination concerning the dead, while the fourth was for divination about marriage. 
The purpose of the three remaining arrows has not been explained. Whenever they disagreed concerning something, or proposed to embark upon a journey, or undertake some other project, they would proceed to Hubal and shuffle the divinatory arrows before it. Whatever result they obtained they would follow and do accordingly. (Ibn al-Kalbi, Book of Idols 28-29 = Ibn al-Kalbi 1952: 23-24)

Some additional details on this cleromantic deity, the most powerful of the pagan idols of Mecca, is supplied by the Meccan historian Azraqi. Abraham, as we have seen, had dug a pit inside the Ka'ba, and it was here that the Khuza'i Amr ibn Luhayy set up the idol of Hubal:

Amr ibn Luhayy brought with him (to Mecca) an idol called Hubal from the land of Hit in Mesopotamia.59 Hubal was one the Quraysh's greatest idols. So he set it up at the well inside the Ka'ba and ordered the people to worship it. Thus a man coming back from a journey would visit it and circumambulate the House before going to his family, and he would shave his hair before it.

Muhammad ibn Ishaq said that Hubal was (made of) cornelian pearl in the shape of a human. His right hand was broken off and the Quraysh made a gold hand for it. It had a vault for the sacrifice, and there were seven arrows cast (On issues relating to) a dead person, virginity and marriage. Its offering was a hundred camels. It had a custodian (hajib). (Azraqi 1858: 73-74)

Finally, among the pictures that decorated the interior of the Ka'ba in pre-Islamic days, there was one, as Azraqi says, "of Abraham as an old man." But because the figure was shown performing divination by arrows, it seems likely that it was Hubal. The suspicion is strengthened by the fact that when Muhammad finally took over the sanctuary, he permitted the picture of Jesus to remain but had that of "Abraham" removed with the dry comment, "What has Abraham to do with arrows?""

Has Hubal depicted as "Abraham the Ancient" anything to do with the "Ancient House," as the Ka'ba is often called? Or, to put the question more directly: Was it Hubal rather than Allah who was "Lord of the Ka'ba"?" Probably not. The Quran, which makes no mention of Hubal, would certainly have raised the contention. Hubal was, by the Arabs' own tradition, a newcomer to both Mecca and the Ka'ba, an outsider introduced by the ambitious Amr ibn Luhayy, and the tribal token around which the Quraysh later attempted to construct a federation with the surrounding Kinana, whose chief deity Hubal was. Hubal was introduced into the Ka'ba, but he never supplanted the god Allah, whose House it continued to be.


If the Quran is silent on Hubal, it often adverts to three other deities of the many worshiped at Mecca in pre-Islamic days: Manat, al-Uzza, and al-Lat, called collectively by the Quraysh the "daughters of Allah." "What," the Quran complains, "has Allah taken daughters out of His creation and allowed you the choice of sons?" (43:16), an odd arrangement indeed in a society in which female infants were often left to die. One of the characteristics of Arab paganism as it has come down to us is the absence of a mythology, stories that might serve to explain the origin or history of the gods. Rather, the gods are cult objects, and we have only the cult, and an occasional nominal qualifier, to instruct us about them. Thus we have no idea why the Quraysh should have assigned them their filial roles, save perhaps simply to introduce some order into the large and somewhat chaotic Meccan pantheon. Nothing we know suggests that Allah was otherwise thought to have had daughters or that the three goddesses possessed any family relationship. They often swapped characteristics and shared shrines, but Manat, Uzza, and Lat were quite discrete divinities, and the best examples, by all accounts, of the personified worship of heavenly bodies. 62

Even though their principal shrines lay north and east of Mecca, al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat were all worshiped by the Quraysh of Mecca, and at least al-Uzza numbered no less than Muhammad himself among her worshipers. 63 The same three goddesses appear -and then disappear-in an extremely curious and much-discussed place in Sura 53 of the Quran. The exact context is unknown, but Muhammad was still at Mecca and was apparently feeling the pressures of the Quraysh resistance to his message:

When the Messenger of God saw how his tribe turned their backs on him and was grieved to see them shunning the message he had brought to them from God, he longed in his soul that something would come to him from God that would reconcile him with his tribe. With his love for his tribe and his eagerness for their welfare, it would have delighted him if some of the difficulties which they made for him could have been smoothed, and he debated with himself and fervently desired such an outcome. Then God revealed (Sura 53) ... and when he came to the words "Have you thought al-Lat and al-Uzza and Manat, the third, the other?" (VV. 19-20) Satan cast on his tongue, because of his inner debates and what he desired to bring to his people, the words: "These are the high-flying cranes; verily their intercession is to be hoped for."
When the Quraysh heard this, they rejoiced and were happy and delighted at the way in which he had spoken of their gods, and they listened to him, while the Muslims, having complete trust in their Prophet with respect of the message which he brought from God, did not suspect him of error, illusion or mistake. When he came to the prostration, having completed the Sura, he prostrated himself and the Muslims did likewise.... The polytheists of the Quraysh and others who were in the mosque [that is, the Meccan Haram] likewise prostrated themselves because of the reference to their gods which they heard, so that there was no one in the mosque, believer or unbeliever, who did not prostrate himself ... Then they all dispersed from the mosque. The Quraysh left delighted at the mention of their gods. (Tabari, Annals 1.1192-1193 = Tabari vi: 108-109)

This is the indubitably authentic story-it is difficult to imagine a Muslim inventing such a tale--of the notorious "Satanic verses." It has profound implications for Islamic scriptural theology and jurisprudence, but what is important here is what it reveals of the contemporary regard for the three goddesses. What was first granted and then rescinded was permission to use the three goddesses as intercessors with Allah. It was, as has been suggested, a critical moment in Muhammad's understanding of the distinction between Allah as simply a "high god," the head of the Meccan or Arabian pantheon within which the lesser gods and goddesses might be invoked as go-betweens," and the notion that eventually prevailed: Allah is uniquely God, without associates, companions, or "daughters." The goddesses were, as the revision (Quran 53:23) put it, "nothing but names," invented by the Quraysh and their ancestors.

And what precisely are we to understand by "exalted cranes"? The Muslim authorities were uncertain about the meaning of gharaniq, as are we. 65 But what they did know was that this was the refrain that the Quraysh used to chant as they circumambulated the Ka'ba: "Al-Lat, and al-Uzza and Manat, the third, the other; indeed these are exalted (or lofty, 'ula) gharaniq; let us hope for their intercession." 66 It is as close as we shall come, perhaps, to a Qurashite prayer formula offered up to Allah-clearly not the goddesses in question-as the devotees moved in a processional liturgy around His Holy House.


Muhammad no more invented Allah than he did al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Maiiat. The Cult of the deity termed simply "thc god" (al-ilah) was known throughout southern Syria and northern Arabia," and it was obviously of central importance in Mecca, where the building called the Ka'ba was indisputably his house. Indeed, the Muslim profession of faith, 11 there is no ilah except al-ilah," attests to precisely that point: the Quraysh are being called upon to repudiate the very existence of all the other gods save this one. It seems equally certain that Allah was not merely a god in Mecca but was widely regarded as the "high god," the chief and head of the Meccan pantheon, perhaps the result, as has been argued, of a natural progression toward henotheism or of the growing influence of Jews and Christians in the peninsula." The most convincing piece of evidence that the latter was at work is the fact that of all the gods of Mecca, Allah alone was not represented by an idol.

How did the pagan Meccans view their god Allah? The Quran provides direct and primary evidence.

If you ask them [the pagan Quraysh] who created the heavens and the earth and made subject the sun and the moon, they will certainly reply "Allah.". . . And indeed if you ask them who sends down the rain from the sky and so restores life to the earth after its death, they will certainly reply, "Allah." (Quran 29:62, 63)

And if you ask them who created them, they will certainly reply, "Allah." (Quran 43:87)

Say: Who is it who sustains you from the sky and from the earth? Or who is it who has power over hearing and sight? And who is it who brings out the living from the dead and the dead from the living And who is it who rules and regulates all affairs? They will soon answer, "Allah."

If you ask them who created the heavens and the earth, they will certainly say "Allah." Say: Those (female) things you call upon apart from Allah, do you think that if God wills evil to me, they can remove this evil, or, if He wills mercy to me, they can hold back this mercy? (Quran 39:38)

In this latter verse the "high god" relationship is quite marked. On the one hand, there is Allah, the creator, sustainer, and ruler of the universe, and on the other, a host of minor deities-the "daughters of Allah" among them-who intercede with the lord of the gods, precisely the view that is attacked in the Quran:

They serve apart from Allah that which neither harms nor benefits them, and they say, "These arc our intercessor's with Allah." Say.- Are You informing God of something He knows not in the heavens or on earth? Glory be to Him! He is far above any partners. (Quran 10:18)

When they embark upon ships, they call upon Allah, putting their faith in Him (alone); but once He has delivered them safely back to land, they associate (others With Him). (Quran 29:65)

The Quran is our most certain testimony to the religious life in Mecca before the appearance of Islam. At least at the beginning of his career, Muhammad was concerned not with regulating the life of a community of believers, as he later was in Medina, but rather with reforming the beliefs and practices of his fellow Meccans. "Reforming" is a more appropriate term than "converting," because the Quran also reveals, as we have seen, that the worship of Allah was already well established there before Muhammad. What was at question, then, was not simply belief in or worship of Allah, which the Quraysh certainly did, but the Meccans' " association," as the Quran calls it, of other deities with Allah, a practice that seemed to accept the existence of other gods in the "exalted assembly" while at the same time denying that they had any autonomous power, though perhaps they could help men if God so willed. So it appears, at any rate, in some parts of the Quran:

Say. Call upon those whom you assert [to be gods] apart from Allah. They do not have so much as the weight of a mote in the heavens nor on the earth. They have no partnership in either of them, nor does He depend on any of them for support. Intercession will avail nothing with Him except for him to whom He gives permission. (Quran 34:22-23)

Some verses of the Quran openly concede the existence of such gods, simply pointing to the fact that they are Allah's creatures (25:3) and that, rather than being Allah's partners, they are His servants:

What, do they associate (with Allah) that which creates nothing, but are themselves created, and which have no power to help them, nor (even) to help themselves.... Those on whom they call other than Allah are [His] servants just as you are. Ifyou are speaking the truth, just call on them and let us hear them answer you. Do they have feet, so that they walk, or hands, so that they pick things up, or eyes, so that they see, or ears, so that they hear? Go, call on your "god-partners" and let them do their worst to me, without let-up. (Quran 7:191-195)

Finally, Allah's position vis-a-vis the other gods whose existence even the Quran seems to acknowledge is illuminated by one of the epithets applied to Him, together with a self-gloss, in Sura 112., itself a basic statement of Quranic monotheism: 69

Say: He is Allah: One; He is Allah: the samad. He is neither begotten, nor was begotten, And no one is equal to Him. (Quran 112)


Like their Semitic and Arab fellows elsewhere in the Near East, the Arabs of the Hijaz used sacrifice as a primary way of forging and maintaining a relationship with the realm of the divine. "To every people," the Quran says, "did We appoint rites of sacrifice that they might celebrate the name of God over the sustenance He gave them from animals" (22:34). This is said with clear approval, but immediately preceding these verses is a considerably more obscure passage, though apparently on the same subject:

But if someone holds in esteem the (sacrificial) tokens (sha'air) of God, that esteem should come truly from piety of the heart. In them [the sacrificial animals?] you have benefits for an appointed term, but then their place (of sacrifice) is toward the Ancient House. (Quran 27:32-33)

Then follow more precise directions on the benediction and the consuming of the animal sacrifice, again reflecting on what seems to have been the current practice:

For your benefit We have made the sacrificial camels one of the signs from God; there is much good for you in them. So pronounce the name of God over them as they line up (for sacrifice), and afterwards as they lie slain, eat of them and feed such as already have food and such as beg in humility. Thus have We made animals subject to you, that you might be grateful. (Quran 22:36)

The sacrifice of animals, which disappeared out of the Mecca Haram in Islamic times but continued to be practiced at Mina during the Hajj," was but one form of sacrifice known to the Arabs. The Arab authorities tell us of animals simply consecrated to the gods and kept within their sacred precincts without being sacrificed, and the Quran seems to refer to the practice of animal offerings as part of a repertoire of pagan ritual practices:

And was it not God who made the (custom of) a slit-ear she-camel, or a she-camel let loose for free pasture, or sacrifices for twin births, or stallion camels (freed from work)? (Quran 5:106)

Each devotee offered his own victim. Although animals sacrificed in the desert sometimes might be simply left behind, as they often were at Mina throughout Islamic times, in town the animal was usually cooked and eaten as part of a common meal, a practice that created problems for Muslims as it had earlier for Christians. Among the things forbidden to the believer by the Quran is "that which has been sacrificed upon a stone (nusub)" (5:4). Such stones (ansab) are described as "abominations" and the "work of Satan" (5:93). These are familiar objects indeed, already known from the story of Jacob's beryl in Genesis (35:14). Stones on which one poured out the blood of sacrifice were widely used among the ancient Arabs, not only as here in the vicinity of the Ka'ba, but even as tomb-stones and boundary markers for sacred enclosures. 71 With the coming of Islam, their use constituted a form of idolatry, and the believer might not share in the food.

Pilgrimage and Other Festivals

From our perspective, which is shaped by the Quran's own view, the best-known pagan ritual at Mecca was the pilgrimage. The Quran did not qualify it as pagan, of course-it was affirmed as a genuine remnant of Abrahamic practice-but beyond question it was performed, in one form or another, by both Meccans and visitors to their shrine city before Muhammad received the revelations that were to incorporate it into Islam. Only at a relatively late date, when the triumph of Islam was assured, were pagans prevented from making pilgrimage (Quran 9:17-18). "The months for the pilgrimage are matters of common knowledge," the Quran declares (2:197), as surely they were.

The pre-Islamic pilgrimage was not a single act but a complex of rituals joined in a manner, and for reasons, we cannot easily discern. The later Muslim tradition "harmonized" the Islamic version of the complex by identifying each of its elements with some incident in the Abraham legend, which was itself enriched by association with otherwise inexplicable practices in the Hajj ritual. The construction of the Ka'ba is described in the Quran as the work of Abraham and Ishmael (2:127), and the circumstantial evidence suggests that this may have been a common belief among the pre-Islamic Quraysh. Yet there is no evidence, Quranic or circumstantial, that such a claim was made by Muhammad or had been accepted by the pagan Quraysh for the various Hajj rituals. Their association with Abraham appears to have occurred well after the Hajj had been embraced as an acceptable and meritorious way for a Muslim to worship God (Quran 2:197; 3:97).

Absent the Abrahamic motif, the Hajj of Muhammad's Mecca disintegrates into an obscure series of acts centering not on Mecca but on the mountain called Arafat, eleven miles east of the city The Hajj, it has been maintained, originally had nothing to do with Mecca, as even the Islamic version of the ritual testifies: the climax of the Muslim Hajj was and is the "standing" at Arafat, followed by a procession to Mina and sacrifice there, after which the pilgrim was free to remove the ritual vestments." More, it was common knowledge that not the Quraysh but the Sufa, and later the Tamim, held the religious offices, the so-called "permission" (ijaza), at Arafat and Mina." And not only was Mecca not part of the original Hajj; there may have been no trading in the city in connection with its own rituals. Such, at any rate, one might conclude from the fact that the famous pilgrimage fairs-and Mecca is never numbered among them-are associated with Arafat and Mina and that the Quraysh seem to play no major role in them. 14 Thus the Meccan ritual was at some point joined to the Hajj, probably by Muhammad himself.

The Quran brings up the question of whether Muslims, who focused their religious orientation toward Mecca and were not accustomed to linking commerce with ritual, were permitted to indulge in trade, as did the Hajj habitués of Arafat and Mina. In this context the revelation preserved in Quran 2:198 was made public: "It is no fault for you if you seek the bounty of the Lord." There is little doubt that these verses refer to the pilgrimage season. Someone apparently had objected to mixing commerce and the pilgrimage ritual, a practice for which Muhammad then announced God's explicit permission. We obviously do not know every-thing behind the objection,15 but what does seem reasonably clear is that previously pilgrimage trading had been restricted to the fairs, of which Mecca apparently was not one.7' After the revelation of this verse at Medina, Mecca was sanctioned as a pilgrimage trading center, even though the Muslims could not take full advantage of the permission until the capture of Mecca shortly before Muhammad's death.77

If the Hajj was not Meccan, the Quraysh had their own holy days, including the spring festival called 'umra and celebrated in the month of Rajab .71 In Islamic times the Umra lost its seasonal aspect with the ban on intercalation, and some of its distinctive character its sacrifices, for example 72 disappeared in its combination with the Hajj." But it preserved its special, and peculiarly Meccan, identity well into Islamic times, as we shall see.

The Muslims later made a careful distinction between 'umra -a word whose exact literal meaning is unclear -and hajj or pilgrimage properly so called, but it may not always have been thus. On the model of the two Jewish spring and fall haggim of Passover and Sukkoth, to which both Arab festivals appear to be closely related, the Umra and (Muslims') Hajj were both originally hajj. It may well have been Muhammad himself who determined that the Arafat ritual was the "Great Hajj" and the Umra the "Lesser," a distinction nowhere apparent in pre-Islamic times.

The distinction between Umra and Hajj is already present in the Quran (2:197), but the latter ritual, which became an obligation for every Muslim, may be a composite of several different cult activities some at Mecca, some at shrines outside the city, woven, whether by Muhammad or by someone earlier, into a single liturgical act. The "running" between Safa and Marwa, for example, originally belonged to neither the Umra nor the Hajj, and some Muslims in fact protested its inclusion in either, objections that were presumably silenced by the revelation of Quran 2:158.

There is no evidence that Muhammad substantially altered any of the basic rituals of the Meccan pilgrimages, whereas he did modify the chaotic "overflowing" (ifada) from Arafat and the time of the departure from Muzdalifa for Mina." So we may assume that the donning of special clothing and the entering into a taboo state was practiced in pre-Islamic Mecca as it was elsewhere in the Semitic world. The ritual in the Haram had chiefly to do with a circumambulation of the Ka'ba, which in Islamic days included the "greeting of the Black Stone," a gesture of touching, pressing, or kissing with abundant precedents in pre-Islamic practice, though of a very different import, as we shall see. Outside the Haram, ritual required the devotee to run back and forth, another type of "circumambulation,"" between the two hills of Safa and Marwa, the sites of the well-known idols of Asaf and Na'ila in pre-Islamic days. This latter ritual ended with the offering of sacrifices at Marwa."

Pilgrimage Fairs

Sura 106 of the Quran, the one called "The Quraysh," played a critical role, perhaps the critical role, in the later Muslims' understanding of their ancestors at Mecca and, through them, on the modern interpretation of the entire Meccan enterprise before Islam.

For the covenants of security of the Quraysh, The covenants (covering) the journey of winter and of summer, Let them worship the Lord of this House, Who provides them with food against hunger and security against fear. (Quran 106)

This is the currently standard translation/interpretation of the sura, which might be paraphrased as: "Because the Lord granted (or perhaps guaranteed) the treaties enjoyed by the Quraysh, treaties which have made possible their annual commercial journeys, let the Quraysh recognize this and worship the Lord of the Ka'ba, who has, through these treaties and their consequences, provided the Quraysh with both sustenance and security." This is intelligible in English, but the Arabic of the sura has posed serious linguistic and syntactical problems that have bothered commentators from the beginning. 84 And not everyone read the celebrated "two journeys" of Sura 106 as an expanded opportunity for trade. The commentator al-Razi (d. 1209) for one thought that the "journey of winter and of summer" referred to the travel of pilgrims to Mecca, the one referring to the Umra of the month Rajab and the other to the Hajj of the month Dhu al-Hijja. 85

If it was a guess, it may have been an inspired one. Muslim commentators, who lived in an era and a society without intercalation and so with-out seasonal festivals, would have had difficulty imagining the seasonal pilgrimages, as all such were in pre-Islamic days. Such pilgrimages would surely have been "eased" if they took place under the authority and protection of the now saintly Quraysh. Thus, on this reading of Sura 106, every year, twice a year during the sacred months, pilgrims were drawn to Holy Mecca on pilgrimage, and their fee of homage was the supply of provisions on which the Quraysh and the other Meccans lived. Trade enters nowhere in this equation, particularly not the long-distance trade read by some of the commentators into the second verse of the sura.

Trade may have been a background issue, however, or rather the Quraysh's participation in it. Some members of Muhammad's audience appear to have opposed it, or such seems to be the sense of the already cited Sura 2:198: "It is no fault for you if you seek the bounty of the Lord." Detailed prescriptions regarding the pilgrimage "in the well known months" immediately precede and follow that verse. Muslim historians had a good deal of information on the circumstances and places where the "Lord's bounty" was reaped by interested parties, namely, the holy-day fairs (mawasim). That trade should be tied to the pilgrimage was natural to most of the participants, save perhaps to the puritanical Hums, who, as we shall see, had a fierce and exclusive devotion to Mecca. Peoples who for reason of danger or distance did not normally associate came together under the protection of the truce of God to worship and, it seems clear, to trade.

Azraqi's is the most detailed sketch of the market fairs:

The Hajj was in the month of Dhu al-Hijja. People went out with their goods and they ended up in Ukaz on the day of the new moon of Dhu al-Qa'da. They stayed there twenty nights during which they set up in Ukaz their market of all colors and all goods in small houses. The leaders and foremen of each tribe oversaw the selling and buying among the tribes where they congregate in the middle of the market.

After twenty days they leave for Majanna, and they spend ten days in its market, and when they see the new moon of Dhu al-Hijja they leave for Dhu al-Majaz, where they spend eight days and nights in its markets. They leave Dhu al-Majaz on the "day of tawarih, " so called because they depart from Dhu al-Majaz for Urfa after they have taken water (for their camels) from Dhu al-Majaz. They do this because there is no drinking water in Urfa, nor in Muzda-lifa.

The "day of tawarih" was the last day of their markets. The people who were present at the markets of Ukaz and Majanna and Dhu al-Majaz were merchants, and those who wanted to trade, and even those who had nothing to sell and buy because they can go out with their families. The non-merchants from Mecca left Mecca on the "day of tawarih. " (Azraqi 1858:129)

It is not easy to make sense of this description, particularly in its relationship to the pilgrimage. Although the actual location of the markets is uncertain, all the places mentioned seem to be close to Mecca-though, significantly, not in Mecca-and to be connected to the Hajj." And the sequence seems carefully arranged, possibly by the Quraysh, so that no two occasions coincided: from the first to the twentieth of Dhu al-Qa'da was the fair of Ukaz; from the twenty-first to the twenty-ninth, that of Majanna; from the first to the eighth of Dhu al-Hijja, that of Dhu alNfajaz; on the ninth and tenth the Hajj took place; and finally, from the eleventh to the thirteenth, the fair of Mina."

Pilgrims on the pre-Islamic Hajj thus traded at various locations in the vicinity of the Hajj sites and, it seems likely, at Mina and Arafat as well, before performing their rituals, a practice that did not extend, as we shall see, to Mecca. Thus the wealth of the pre-Islamic Quraysh had nothing to do, as it certainly did in the Islamic era, with trading with pilgrims at Mecca during the Hajj season. If Meccans traded, they did so elsewhere, at the fairs outside of Mecca-fairs they did not control"-or else as a function of the regional trading network set up as a result of arrangements with the bedouin and the Quraysh's own status as a holy tribe, a condition that had been formally institutionalized not long before Muhammad's birth by the confederation known as Hums.

The Hums

The Meccan historian Azraqi provides a succinct definition of the pre-Islamic religious sodality that the Muslims later remembered as Hums.

We are the people of the Haram. We do not leave the Haram. We are Hums, and the Quraysh become Hums and all who are born to the Quraysh. Humsis and the tribes that became Humsis with them were so called because they were strict fundamentalists in their religion, and so an ahmasi [sing.] Is a man who is religiously conservative." (Azraqi 1858: 115) Ibn Ishaq adds many more historical and ritualistic nuances to the portrait:

I do not know whether it was before or after the Year of the Elephant [traditionally, 570 C,E.] that the Quraysh invented the idea of Hums and put it into practice. They said, "We are the sons of Abraham, the people of the holy territory, the guardians of the temple and the citizens of Mecca. No other Arabs have rights like ours, or a position like ours. The Arabs recognize none as they recognize us, so do not attach the same importance to the outside country as you do to the sanctuary, for if you do, the Arabs will despise your taboo and will say 'They have given the same importance to the outside land as to the sacred territory."' So they [the Hums] gave up the halt at Arafat and the departure from it, though they recognized that these were institutions of the Hajj and the religion of Abraham. They considered that other Arabs should halt there and depart from the place, but they said, "We are the people of the sanctuary, so that it is not fitting that we should go out from the sacred territory and honor other places as we, the Hums, honor that, for the Hums are the people of the sanctuary." They then proceeded to deal in the same way with the Arabs who were born within and without the sacred territory. Kinana and Khuza'a joined them in this. (Ibn Ishaq 1955: 87)

The Hums were, then, fellow tribesmen of the Quraysh, the Kinana, the Khuza'a, and the Amir ibn Sa'sa'a. They had embraced, or perhaps had even newly embraced, what is called "the religion of Abraham," which the members closely identified with the cult of the Ka'ba in Mecca, even to the exclusion of the other pilgrimage rituals, chiefly the Hajj, which was focused on places like Mina and Arafat." On this view, and we have no reason to doubt it, the original Hajj had nothing to do with the "religion of Abraham," and the Quraysh as Hums did not recognize the Hajj because some of its rituals took place outside the Haram. This passage from Ibn Ishaq seems to draw the Hums' definition of the Haram somewhat short of Arafat.

The Hums used to say, "Do not respect anything profane and do not go outside the sacred area during the Hajj," so they cut short the rites of pilgrimage and the halt at Arafat, it being in the profane area, and would not halt at it or go forth from it. They made their stopping place at the extreme end of the sacred territory at Namira at the open space of al-Ma'ziinan, stopping there the night of Arifat and sheltering by day in the trees of Namira and starting from it to Muzdalifa. When the sun turbaned the tops of the mountains, they set forth. They were called Hums because of the strictness of their religion. (Ibn Ishaq 1955: 89)

These limited cult excursions outside of Mecca may have been by way of concession to to some of the bedouin members of the solidarity or to new comers who found it difficult to break old habits. Other reports stress the Hums' narrower definition of their sacred zone as the area immediately around the Ka'ba, as in this from Muqatil ibn Sulayman:

The Hums-they were Quraysh, Kinana, Khuza'a and Amir ibn Sa'sa'a-said: "Safa and the Marwa do not belong to the sacred sites of Allah. " In the Age of Barbarism there was on the Safa an idol named Na'ila and on the Marwa an idol named Asaf 91 They [the Hums] said: "It is improper for us to make a turning (tawaf) between them," and there-fore they did not make a turning between them. (Muqatil, Tafsir, ms. 1.25b9')

If we are to believe this, the Hums attempted, perhaps not entirely successfully,93 to exclude even Safa and Marwa, within a stone's throw from the Ka'ba, from their own particular rites. Or perhaps not. Muslim commentators continuously sought to supply the historical background for the Quran's great number of verses without context. One such verse directly addresses Safa and Marwa and what appears to be a group of Meccans who hesitated to accept the cult there:

Safa and Marwa are among the indications of Allah. It is therefore no sin for him who is on pilgrimage to the House of God, or visiting it, to go round them. (Quran 2:158)

This is a classic example of a Quranic answer without the question. We, and Muqatil ibn Sulayman, must supply it: "Is it a sin to perform the tawaf around Safa and Marwa?" And its two possible implications: Is it or is it not permissible in your new religious system to continue the current practice of performing the "turning" between Safa and Marwa? Or, as a member of the Hums might ask: Must we discontinue our present "Abrahamic" practice and revert to the old pagan custom of running between Safa and Marwa Muqatil's report neatly supplies the context of the Quran's unasked question: Muhammad was breaking with the Hums' characteristic limitation of Allah's ritual to the Ka'ba alone.

Confining cult rituals to the Haram of Mecca was only one aspect of Hums observance. There were also dietary and domestic taboos and a great deal of emphasis upon the clothes connected with the ritual:"

The Hums went on to introduce innovations for which they had no warrant. They thought it wrong to eat cheese made of sour milk or clarify butter while they were in a state of ritual taboo. They would not enter tents of camel-hair or seek shelter from the sun except in leather tents while they were in this state. They went further and refused to allow those outside the Haram to bring food in with them when they came on the great or little pilgrimage. Nor could they circumambulate the House except in the garment of the Hums. If they had no such garments they had to go round naked. If any man or woman felt scruples when they had no Hums garments, then they could go round in their ordinary clothes; but they had to throw them away afterwards so that neither they nor anyone else could make use of them. The Arabs called these clothes "the cast-off " They imposed all these restrictions on the Arabs, who accepted them and halted at Arafat, hastened from it, and circumambulated the House naked. The men at least went naked, while the women laid aside all their clothes except a shift wide open back and front. (Ibn Ishaq 1955: 87-88)

When the Quraysh let an Arab marry one of their women, they stipulated that the offspring should be an ahmasi following their religion.... The Hums strictly observed the sacred months and never wronged their proteges therein nor wronged anyone therein. They went round the

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He was the first who practiced tahannuth at Hira.... When the moon of Ramadan appeared he used to enter Hira and did not leave till the end of the month and fed the poor. He was distressed by the iniquity of the people of Mecca and would perform circumambulation of the Ka'ba many times. (Baladhuri, Ansab al-Ashraf 1.84 101)

Another tradition from the same source speaks more generally of the Quraysh:

When the month of Ramadan began people of the Quraysh-those intending tahannuth-used to leave for Hira and stayed there a month and fed the poor who called on them. When they saw the moon of Shawwal they (descended and) did not enter their homes until they had performed the circumambulation of the Ka'ba for a week. The Prophet used to perform it [this custom]. (Baladhuri, Ansab al-Ashraf 1.105'02)

Tahannuth was, then, a Quraysh practice in the month of Ramadan somehow connected with Mount Hira-how or why we do not know. It included both deeds of charity, such as feeding the poor or freeing slaves, and ritual acts, such as the circumambulation of the Ka'ba. It was, in a sense, a novelty, an innovation, or at least a complex of practices restricted to a few of the Quraysh. Nor was it the only unexpected turn in the religious life of Mecca. Another had to do with the cult of the Lord of the Ka'ba, Allah.

Pre-Islamic Monotheism

Allah, we can be sure, was neither an unknown nor an unimportant deity to the Quraysh when Muhammad began preaching his worship at Mecca. What is equally certain is that Allah had what the Quran disdainfully calls "associates": other gods and goddesses who shared both his cult and his shrine. The processional chant of the pagans of the Age of Barbarism was, we are told, "Here I am, O Allah, here I am; You have no partner except such a partner as You have; You possess him and all that is his." 103 The last clause may reflect what we have already seen was an emerging tendency toward henotheism, the recognition of Allah as the "high god" of Mecca. But it was not sufficient for Muslims, who put in its place their own manifestly monotheistic hymn: "Here I am, O Allah, here I am; You have no partner; the praise and the grace are Yours, and the empire; You have no partner."

On the prima facie witness of the Quran, it was Muhammad's preaching that introduced this new monotheistic urgency into the Meccan cult. The Quraysh are relentlessly chastised for "partnering God"; and from what we otherwise know of Muhammad's Mecca, the charge is not unjust, But a closer look reveals that the matter was by no means so simple. While he was still at Mecca,"' Muhammad had begun to invoke the example of Abraham, as in this verse that establishes the continuity of the "religion of Abraham" through the line of the prophets to his own preaching:

He has established for you the same religion that He enjoined on Noah-and which We revealed to you-and that He enjoined on Abraham, Moses and Jesus-namely, that you remain steadfast in the religion and make no divisions in it. (Quran 42:13)

The "religion of Abraham," to use a phrase that Muhammad began to invoke later at Medina, must not have been an unknown concept at Mecca. There are traditions that others in the city had connections with Abraham, connections that centered, as Muhammad's own did, on the Meccan Ka'ba, the House that Abraham built. 115 The statue of Hubal was inside the building during the Age of Barbarism, but the ritual performed there was the Abrahamic one of circumcision. 106 A great many Abrahamic associations, all of them pre-Islamic, clustered around the ka'ba. 107

The origin of these associations is difficult to trace through every stage of their development, but there are scattered signs along the way. It was widely known that the pre-Islamic Arabs circumcised their young, though not on the eighth day as the Jews did, and Josephus was confident that he knew where they had gotten the custom: the Arabs "circumcise after the thirteenth year because Ishmael, the founder of their nation, who was born to Abraham of the concubine (Hagar), was circumcised at that age." 108 Josephus was not telling his readers something of which they were unaware: that the Arabs were descended from the biblical Ishmael and had lapsed from their original faith into forms of idolatry was a commonplace in the history of both the post-Exilic Jews and the Christians" 109 though it is not nearly so certain that Muhammad shared this idea." 110

The Hanifs

In emphasizing the Abrahamic strain in Islam, the Quran calls Abraham a hanif, a somewhat mysterious term,"' but one that the Quran contextually identifies with muslim in referring to Abraham. Like Abraham himself, a hanifis explicitly distinguished from Jews or Christians on the one hand and from idolators or "associators" on the other, all summed up in a single verse of the Quran:

Abraham was not a Jew, nor yet a Christian, but was a hanif, a muslim, and was not one of the "associators." (Quran 3:67)

And it is precisely in Abraham's footsteps as a hanif that Muhammad and his followers are commanded to worship God:

They say. "Become Jews or Christians if you want the guidance." You say. "No, I prefer the religion of Abraham the hanif, who was not one of the 'associators."' (Quran2:135)

God speaks the truth: follow the religion of Abraham, the hanif, who was not one of the "associators." (Quran 3:95)

Who can be better in religion than one who submits (asiama) his self to God, does good and follows the religion of Abraham the hanif, for God took Abraham as a friend. (Quran 4:125)

Muslim scholars took the word and its abstract noun, hanifiyya, in two senses: first, as a synonym for historical Islam, the religion revealed to Muhammad and practiced by Muslims; and second, in the sense that the Quran meant it, as a form of "natural" monotheism of which Abraham was the chief, though not the sole, practitioner. In this latter sense, the Muslim tradition recalled that there were in Mecca and environs just such monotheists without benefit of revelation before Islam. Ibn Ishaq presents them in what is obviously a schematized setting:

One day when the Quraysh had assembled on a feast day to venerate and circumambulate the idol to which they offered sacrifices, this being a feast which they held annually, four men drew apart secretly and agreed to keep their counsel in the bonds of friendship. They were Waraqa ibn Nawfal ... ibn jahsh ... Uthman ibn Huwarith ... Huwarith ... and Zayd ibn Amr... They were of the opinion that their people had corrupted the religion of their father Abraham, and that the stone they went around was of no account; it could neither see, nor hear, nor hurt, nor help. "Find yourselves a religion," they said; "for by God you have none." So they went their several ways in the lands, seeking the hanifiyya, the religion of Abraham.

Waraqa attached himself to Christianity and studied its Scriptures until he had thoroughly mastered them. Ubaydallah went on searching until Islam came; then he migrated with the Muslims to Abyssinia, taking with him his wife who was a Muslim, Umm Habiba, the daughter of abu Sufyan. When he arrived there, he adopted Christianity, parted from Islam and died a Christian in Abyssinia.... After his death the Prophet married his widow Umm Habiba. Muhammad ibn Ali ibn Husayn told me that the Apostle sent Amr ibn Umayya to the Negus to ask for her and he married him to her. He gave her as a dowry, on the Apostles behalf, 400 dinars.

Uthman ibn Huwarith went to the Byzantine emperor and became a Christian. He was given high office there.

Zayd ibn Amr stayed as he was: he accepted neither Judaism nor Christianity. He abandoned the religion of his people and abstained from idols, animals that had died, blood and things offered to idols."' He forbade the killing of infant daughters, saying that he worshiped the God of Abraham, and he publicly rebuked the people for their practices. (Ibn Ishaq .r955: 98-99)

This and similar accounts of "natural" monotheists have not been universally accepted by modern scholars. Some are doubtless the result of special pleading ---for example, the stories surrounding Waraqa ibn Nawfal, Khadijds cousin, who serves as a kind of John the Baptist in the accounts of Muhammad's early revelations. But others ring quite true, particularly when they have to do with persons known to have opposed Muhammad to the end.'13 And if they are true, we have another important clue to the existence of what Johann Fuck identified as "a national Arabian monotheism which was a preparatory stage for Islam and which, in any examination of the possible stimuli that made themselves felt on Muhammad, cannot be ignored." 114

Two prominent opponents of Muhammad who are also described as hanifi are Abu Amir Abd Amr ibn Sayfi and Abu Qays ibn al-Asiat." 5 The first was a prominent Aws leader at Medina who was identified with the man behind the mysterious affair-mysterious to us, though doubtless well known to the Quran's audience-of the "mosque of schism" built at Medina "in preparation for one who warred against God and His Apostle aforetime" (Quran 9:107). According to Ibn Ishaq, Abu Amir used to practice tarahhub and was called al-rahib, both apparent references to the practice of some kind of Christian asceticism. 116 Other accounts connect his hanifiyya with beliefs and practices close to Jewish ones.

It appears, then, that hanifiyya was in fact the "religion of Abraham" extolled in the Quran, to which were connected, as we might well expect, a veneration of the Meccan Ka'ba, doubtless as the Holy House built by Abraham, and, perhaps crucially for the development of Islam out of this matrix, a devotion to the Quraysh as the authentic guardians of the sacred precinct in Mecca."' Where the hanifs, and Muhammad, may have differed from the Quraysh was in their refusal to "associate" other gods with the Lord of the Ka'ba, a difference that was apparently acceptable to the Quraysh. What eventually separated Muhammad from the hanifs was their view of the Quraysh.


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