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Islam Is Repackaged Polytheism: Documentation

Mohammed, Maxime Rodinson, 1961, translated by Anne Carter, 1971, p 16-17, 38-49

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Islam: Truth or Myth? start page



Mohammed, Maxime Rodinson, 1961, translated by Anne Carter, 1971, p 16-17:

The Beduin do not seem to have had much time for religion. They were realists, without a great deal of imagination. They believed the land was peopled by spirits, the jinns, who were often invisible but appeared also in animal form. The dead were thought to live on in a dim and ghostly state. Offerings were made to them and stelae and cairns of stones erected on their graves. Certain trees and stones (especially meteorites and those shaped to resemble human forms) housed spirits and divinities. Divinities dwelt in the sky and some were actually stars. Some were thought to be ancient sages made divine. The list of these divine beings, and above all the importance with which each was regarded, varied from one tribe to the next; but the chief of them were to be found all over the peninsula. This was especially true of Allah, 'the God, the Divinity', the personification of the divine world in its highest form, creator of the universe and keeper of sworn oaths. In the Hejaz three goddesses had pride of place as the 'daughters of Allah'. The first of these was Allat, mentioned by Herodotus under the name of Alilat. Her name means simply 'the goddess', and she may have stood for one aspect of Venus, the morning star, although hellenized Arabs identified her with Athene. Next came Uzza, 'the all-powerful', whom other sources identify with Venus. The third was Manat, the goddess of fate, who held the shears which cut the thread of life and who was worshipped in a shrine on the sea-shore. The great god of Mecca was Hubal, an idol made of red cornelian.

Certain places where divine presence manifested itself became sacred. Bounds were set, and inside these no living creature could be killed. As a result they became places of asylum, where those pursued by an avenger could take refuge. They were tended by priestly families. Homage was paid to the divinity with offerings and the sacrifice of animals and perhaps, occasionally, of human beings. Certain sanctuaries were the object of pilgrimage (hajj) at which a variety of rituals were performed, consisting notably of ceremonial processions around the sacred object. Certain prohibitions had to be observed during these rites, such as in many cases abstention from sexual relations. The blood taboo was particularly widespread. Boys were ceremoniously circumcised. The Arabs practised divination from the flight of birds, or from the direction taken by animals. They sought oracles from the gods by shooting arrows. The truth could be discovered by means of ordeals. Magic was common. People feared the evil eye and protected themselves with amulets.

The members of these scattered, wandering tribes - half-starved and extremely anarchic - were in fact striving to conform to a moral ideal of their own, in the formation of which religion played no part. The ideal man possessed in the highest degree the quality known as muruwa, which can be literally translated as 'virility'. This comprised courage, endurance, loyalty to the group and to one's social obligations, generosity and hospitality. The feeling which drove a man to conform to this ideal was one of honour ('ird). Infringements of the moral code of the desert rendered him liable to insult, and hence to loss of honour. It has been amply demonstrated that among the Arabs the sense of honour took over many of the ordinary functions of religion. None of these ideals, none of the forces which ordered the life of society or the individual had any supernatural basis. What they all came down to was man. Man was the ultimate measure of things. But man in this context meant social man - man as a member of his clan and his tribe. That is why W. Montgomery Watt calls this concept 'tribal humanism', and the term seems to fit. The only limit to man's activities and potential was that represented by the intervention of blind fate (dahr).

(Mohammed, Maxime Rodinson, 1961, translated by Anne Carter, 1971, p 16-17)


Mohammed, Maxime Rodinson, 1961, translated by Anne Carter, 1971, p 38-49

Birth of a Prophet

No one knows exactly when Muhammad, who was to become the Prophet of Allah, was born. It was believed to have been during the reign of Khurso Anosharwan, that is before 579, which seems probable. It was said to have been in the Year of the Elephant - the year, that is, in which the birds of the air routed the army of Abraha before Mecca - but that is certainly untrue. The precise date, arrived at by means of some highly dubious calculations, varies between 567 and 573. The most commonly accepted year is 571.

Muhammad, or Mahomet as we sometimes call him, was born in Mecca of a father called 'Abdallah and a mother whose name was Amina. He belonged on his father's side to the clan of Hashim of the tribe of Quraysh. These traditional statements, while not wholly incontestable, may reasonably be regarded as sure.

Mecca lies in a gorge in a range of mountains running parallel to the coast. The mountains are black and yellow, `unbelievably bare, rocky crags with no scrap of soil, sharp, jagged, broken edges, sheer from top to bottom'., The valley, which runs in a north-easterly direction, has been carved out by a wadi which, in particularly violent rainstorms, still overflows from time to time, flooding the city and its shrine so that the pilgrims have to swim their way out -as happened for instance in 1950- In this arid but well-placed valley, some fifty miles from the sea, is the famous well of Zamzam. The place may have been a sanctuary of long standing. The geographer Ptolemy, in the second century, described the region as the site of a place he called Makoraba. This could well be a transliteration of the word written in South Arabian characters (which omit the vowel sounds) as mkrb, in Ethiopic mekwerab, meaning `sanctuary', from which perhaps, by abbreviation, we get the historical name of the city.

At some date - not known to us - Mecca became a trading centre, probably as a result of its admirable situation at the junction of a road going from north to south, from Palestine to the Yemen, with others from east to west, connecting the Red Sea coast and the route to Ethiopia with the Persian Gulf. The sanctuary ensured that the merchants would not be molested. It was held initially by the tribe of Jurhum and afterwards passed into the hands of the Khuza'a. Towards the end of the fifth century, perhaps, a strong man by the name of Qusayy succeeded either by force or trickery in gaining control of the temple. He belonged to the tribe of Quraysh, an assemblage of several clans which, through him, supplanted the Khuza'a. There may be some foundation of truth in the story that Qusayy had travelled in Syria, and had brought back from there the cult of the goddesses al- 'Uzza and Manat, and had combined it with that of Hubal, the idol of the Khuzaca. It has been suggested that he may actually have been a Nabataean.

In this way, Quraysh (the name means `shark' and may have been derived from an ancient tribal emblem) acquired an ascendancy which was to grow unceasingly; and the history of the ensuing five hundred years may be seen in the light of the expansion of this one tribe to the dimensions of a world power. Quraysh was in fact composed of a number of individual clans. They were known as the Quraysh az-Zawahir, the `outer Quraysh',, who dwelt on the periphery, and the Quraysh al-Bata'ih, who settled in the valley bottom, immediately around the well of Zamzam and the curious shrine which stood beside it. This was like a small house, in the shape of a square box, called the Kaba, which means the cube. The object of especial veneration was a black stone, of meteoric origin, which may have been the cornerstone. Stones of this kind were worshipped by Arabs in most parts and by the Semitic races generally. When the young Syrian Arab Elagabalus, High Priest of the Black Stone of Emesa, was Emperor of Rome in 219, he had the holy thing transported solemnly to Rome and built a temple for it, much to the horror of the old Romans. The Ka'ba at Mecca, which may have initially been a shrine of Hubal alone, housed several idols; a number of others, too, were gathered in the vicinity.

Later tradition tells how the four chief sons of 'Abd Manaf, one of Qusayy's sons, divided among themselves the areas where trade could be developed. One went to the Yemen, another to Persia, the third to Ethiopia and the fourth to Byzantine Syria. The tale is probably only legend, but it does reflect the truth. The Banu Quraysh did everything possible to foster the commercial development of their city. As we have seen, they were assisted by outside events. By about the end of the sixth century, their efforts had been rewarded by something like a position of commercial supremacy. Their caravans traveled far and wide to the cardinal points of international trade, represented by the four areas mentioned earlier. The chief merchants of Mecca had grown very rich. Mecca itself had become a meeting-place for merchants of all nations, and a fairly large number of craftsmen were to be found there. The holy place was attracting a growing number of pilgrims, who performed complicated rituals around the Ka`ba and the other small shrines round about. Judicious marriage alliances assured Quraysh of the support of the neighbouring nomadic tribes. There can be no doubt that money and, where necessary, arms provided an added incentive for friendship. Quraysh also had a part to play in international politics. What little we know points to a basic policy of neutrality, tempered by a slight leaning towards the Christian powers, Byzantium and Ethiopia. Abraha marched against the Meccans, however, and his object may have been to break their commercial hold which was damaging South Arabia. During the period 580-590 the Quraysh were at war with the tribe of the Hawazin; a dependant of the Quraysh on one occasion killed a chieftain of the Hawazin, who was leading a caravan for Nu'man, the pro-Persian king of Hira.

Inevitably, the Qurayshite clans were struggling for supremacy amongst themselves. The principal ones to come to the fore were the clans of Hashim and 'Abd Shams, both of whom were sons of 'Abd Manaf. Hashim's son, 'Abd al-Muttalib, seems to have had the upper hand at one time, at approximately the date of Muhammad's birth; but Hashim lost it before long to the family of Umayya, the son of 'Abd Shams.

In general the Qurayshites were wise enough not to allow their internal squabbles to disrupt their unity in the face of the outside world. Decisions concerning them all were taken by a kind of senate, the mala', an assembly of the chiefs and notables of the principal clans. But this can have been no more than a device aimed at producing agreement by discussion. There was no means of making one clan bow to the decisions of the rest except by persuasion, or compulsion of a more or less pacific nature.

'Abd al-Muttalib may have owed his position to the fact that he was at the head of one of the coalitions formed by the Meccan clans in their struggle for power. Two of these groups were in a state of constant rivalry, while a third remained neutral. 'Abd al-Muttalib traded with Syria and the Yemen and had obtained certain profitable privileges at the shrine of Mecca. It was he who supplied the pilgrims with food and water. He is said to have entered into negotiations with Abraha when the army with its elephants appeared outside Mecca. There may be some reference here to an attempt on the part of one group of clans to win support from outside. He had a number of wives from different tribes who gave him ten sons, Muhammad's father and uncles, as well as six daughters. Some of these we shall meet again.

One of these children was 'Abdallah, his son by Fatima bint 'Amr of the Qurayshite clan of the Banu Makhzum. We are told that 'Abdallah was a handsome fellow. His father, no doubt seeking an alliance with the clan of the Banu Zuhra, asked for the young Amina bint Wahb as a bride for his son, and at the same time for her cousin, Hala bint Wuhayb, of the same tribe, for himself.

In accordance with the Arab custom, Amina seems to have remained with her own people and been visited there by 'Abdallah. Muhammad was the first and only child of this marriage. While it can obviously have no historical value, it may perhaps be of interest here to cite one of the stories which circulated about Muhammad's conception. This is in striking contrast to the Christian concern at making the birth of Christ as nearly as possible unconnected with any sexual relations whatever.

`Abdallah went to the house of another wife he had besides Amina bint Wahb. He had been working in the clay on some land he possessed, and he still had some splashes of clay left on him. He made some advances to her, but she put him off on account of the clay that was on him. He left her and washed himself, and cleaned off the clay. Then he went out again, to go to Amina. He again passed by the other woman, who called to him; but he put her off and went to Amina. He went in to her and possessed her. She then conceived Muhammad, may God's blessing and peace be upon him. Then he went back to the other woman and asked her if she were willing; she said: 'No. When you passed by me there was a white light between your eyes. I called to you and you rejected me. You went to Amina and she has taken away the light.'

Another version of the story makes this woman not another of 'Abdallah's wives but a sister of the hanif Waraqa ibn Nawfal, [A hanif was a man of monotheist tendency, who sought the One God, but was not willing to be enrolled in the ranks of Christianity or Judaism. See below, pp. 64-5.] or another woman who, like Waraqa, was versed in the scriptures. Seeing the light of prophecy upon `Abdallah, she offered him a hundred camels to gain his favours. He refused her and, when he came away from Amina, the light had gone.

Abdallah died, either during his wife's pregnancy or shortly after her delivery, while on a business trip to Medina on his way home from Gaza. He left his wife very little, only one slave, five camels and a few sheep. Amina cared for her son; but before long, when the child was only six years old, she too was dead.

Nothing is known for certain about Muhammad's childhood. The void has gradually become filled with legends which grow ever more beautiful and edifying with the passage of time. Even the earliest -and most moderate accounts must be treated with great caution. When Islam became the religion of a powerful state, precepts were needed to regulate social life. Divergent opinions and interests naturally existed. Political parties also grew up, centred round the Prophet's family and Companions. In addition, a great many people - impelled by curiosity, piety or even historical interest - demanded information about Muhammad's life. Men began to appear who were professional repositories of traditions; they would spread a tale to satisfy this curiosity or that piety, or to provide a ruling as occasion demanded; for the Prophet's deeds had an exemplary value. When he acted in a particular way, it was to show his followers that this was the way all men should act, whether in serious matters such as the finer points of laws of succession (the principles of which were laid down by God himself in the Koran), or on the smallest details of everyday behaviour, like proper table manners. Like our modern historians, the keepers of tradition were expected to quote their sources; but these were oral ones. Such a story came from such a one who in turn had it from another, and so on all the way back to one of the Prophet's contemporaries who had seen him do it or heard him say it. It was of course a simple matter to make up false traditions (the Arabic word is Hadith, meaning `narratives') to sup-port one's own party or opinion. The great Arab historians and jurists knew this perfectly well. They tried to do away with the false traditions - those, for example, where the chain of authorities cited was manifestly impossible - but they made no claims to any degree of certainty. Instead, they were content to repeat contradictory traditions on the same subject, one after the other, quoting their sources for each. It was up to the reader to decide which one he liked to believe. `But God knows best,' they would often add.

The oldest collections of historical traditions available to us date from about 125 years after the Prophet's lifetime. Much imagination may have gone to work in the meantime. And yet many facts can be established, as the parties who differ most widely are agreed on the main events of the Prophet's life, the names of his Companions and his wives, their kinship and genealogy, as well as on a great many other things, even down to details which are far from remarkable which nobody would have deemed worth inventing. But there are many points on which we are very far from certain; in particular, it is clear that little was known about the early years of Muhammad's life, and that much has been made up about it. I shall occasionally quote some of these tales, whose only virtue from an historical point of view is that they create a picture of a world not unlike that in which the young Muhammad must have grown up, besides giving us some idea of the way in which later Muslims pictured the life of their prophet.

According to the Qurayshites' custom, the young Muhammad had a nurse from a nomadic clan. In this way, it was thought, the children of Quraysh would be filled with the pure air of the desert and grow strong. It was also a way of maintaining contact with the nomads - no small consideration, when we remember that foster-brotherhood was regarded as a powerful bond between two men. Muhammad's nurse was a woman called Halima, of the clan of the Banu Sald, a branch of the great tribe of Hawazin. She may have been the one mentioned in a traditional story, which I will quote here simply as a typical example of the amazing liveliness of these tales, which is however no guarantee of authenticity. It is recorded in the history of the Prophet and his Companions set down in writing by Ibn Sa 'd at the beginning of the second century of the hegira (the ninth century A.D.).

We have it from 'Abdallah ibn Numayr al-Hamdani who had it from Yahya ibn Sa 'id al-Ansari, that Muhammad ibn al-Munkadir used to tell how a woman knocked on the door of the Prophet whose nurse she had been. When she went in he cried out, `Mother, Mother!' and, fetching his cloak, spread it before her, and she sat on it.

There is another tale about how the nurse came to choose the child.

Ten women of the Banu Sa'd came to Mecca to look for infants to nurse. All found them, except for Halima bint `Abdallah, who had with her her husband al-Harith ibn `Abd al- `Uzza who was called Abu Dhu'ayb and their child `Abdallah ibn al-Harith whom she was suckling and [their daughters] Anisa and Judama, she of the beauty spot who [later] carried Muhammad with her mother and bore him on her hip. The Envoy of Allah was shown to her, but she said: 'An orphan! And with no money! And what can his mother do?' And the women departed and left her behind. Then Halima said to her husband: 'What do you think? My companions have gone and there is no boy left in Mecca to nurse except this orphan. Shall we take him? I should not like to return home with nothing.' Her husband said to her: `Take him! Perhaps Allah will make him a blessing to us.' So she returned to the mother and took the child and set him on her lap and gave him her breast until milk trickled down from it. And the Envoy of Allah drank until he was satisfied. And his [foster] -brother also drank. Now this brother was not asleep because he was hungry [because his mother had little milk before this]. And the mother [Amina] said: `Nurse, question me about your [foster]-son, because he will be great.' And she told her what she had seen and what had been said at the time of his birth.... Halima was happy and rejoiced at all she heard. Then she departed to her own place with the babe. They saddled their she-ass, and Halima mounted, holding the Envoy of Allah before her. Al-Harith rode on their aged camel. They caught up with their companions at Wadi Sirar. . . . `Halima,' they said, 'what have you done?' And she answered: 'By God, I have taken the fairest babe that ever I saw, and he with the greatest baraka [a "blessed virtue", a mys-terious, wonder-working force coming from God].' The women said, 'Is not that the child of `Abd al-Muttalib?' She answered, 'Yes.' 'Before we left that place,' Halima added, ` I saw envy in [the faces of] several of our women.'

It is to these years spent in the desert that a marvellous experience, assigned by other authors to different points in the Prophet's life, has been said to relate. Two angels came and, opening his breast, drew out the heart which they cleaned scrupulously before returning it to its place. Then they weighed him, putting in the other side of the scales first one man, then ten, then a hundred and then a thousand. Then one said to the other: `Let be. Even if you were to set his whole community (umma) in the scale, he would still outweigh it.'

Amina died on the way home from a journey to Medina with her slave Umm Ayman and young Muhammad. The boy was six years old. His grandfather, the venerable 'Abd al-Muttalib, who was then eighty years old, took him to live with him. But he died two years later. Muhammad was then taken in by one of his uncles, ~Abd Manaf, who is more generally known later by his kunya, or second name, Abu Talib. (An Arab's second or more familiar name means 'father of ', and generally referred to his eldest son.) In fact the meaning of his first name was idolatrous, signifying `servant of the goddess Manaf'. He was a merchant in comfortable circumstances, the son of the same mother as Muhammad's father 'Abdallah, and is said to have been the person who took over the leadership of the Hashim clan - said to predominate at Mecca at this time - after his father's death.

The story goes that Abu Talib sometimes travelled into Syria leading a caravan. On one occasion, at least, he is said to have taken his nephew. They came to the town of Bostra (Busra), the first big junction on the caravan route travelling in this direction, a meeting place of five important roads, and a great centre of Christianity. A fine cathedral had been built there not long before, and there were other impressive monuments, such as the Roman theatre which can still be seen today, and also no doubt the poor-house erected by Justinian. It was also the official residence of the Monophysite bishop, whose authority extended over the desert Arabs and whose appointment the Ghassanid phylarch al-Harith had obtained from the Empress Theodora in 543. It was at Bostra that an incident is said to have taken place, one version of which the historian Tabari recounts as follows:

When the company halted at Bostra in Syria, there was a monk named Bahira, who dwelt in a hermitage there and who was well-read in the learning of the Christians. There had always been a monk in this hermitage, who used to extract this learning from a book which, they claimed, had been handed down as an heirloom from one to another. This year, when the caravan halted near Bahlra, he prepared much food for them. While he was in his hermitage, he had seen the Envoy of Allah among his companions; and a cloud covered him with its shadow. They came forward, and halted in the shade of a tree that was near Bahira. He looked at the cloud, but the tree gave shade and its branches leaned down over the Envoy of Allah so that he was always in their shade. When Bahira saw this, he came out from his cell and sent word to invite them all. When Bahira saw the Envoy of Allah, he watched him very closely, and noted the details of his person.... When the party had finished eating and were about to take their leave, he questioned the Envoy of Allah about the things he felt when he was awake or asleep. The Envoy of Allah answered him. Bahira found all this according to the description which he had in his possession. Then he examined his back and found the seal of prophecy between his shoulders. Then Bahira said to his uncle Abu Talib : `What relation is this boy to you?' And Abu Talib answered: `He is my son.' Bahira said to him: `He is not your son. This boy's father cannot be living." He is my nephew,' Abu Talib told him then. The monk asked: `What became of his father?' `He died while his mother was pregnant.' `You speak the truth. Go back then to your own land and keep him safe from the Jews. By Allah, if they see him and get to know what I know about him they will try to harm him. '

The uncle, much impressed, hurried back to Mecca with the precious child. Is there any kernel of truth in this story? We cannot be sure. There can be no doubt that some of the motives behind it are apologetic. It was important to have the Prophet recognized as such by one of the great monotheistic religions from which Islam claimed descent. The Christians took up the legend, seeing the supposedly heretical monk as the Arab prophet's inspiration, so as to deprive him of all originality. There is nothing intrinsically improbable in the journey to Bostra or in any other journeys. Attempts have been made to gather evidence that Muhammad was acquainted with many lands; but on the other hand it has been observed that he seems to have had no first-hand knowledge of the rites of the Christian faith. If he had been present, even once, at one of its services, it would certainly have left some impression. The Arab poets who visited Hira and its churches describe them with much more animation.

Tradition lays great stress on Abu Talib's fondness for his nephew and his good care of him. It has been suggested that here, too, hagiography may have twisted the facts. At all events, Muhammad no doubt had to perform the small services expected of a child. One day, long afterwards, when some people passed the Prophet carrying the fruits of the arak tree, a thorny bush used to feed camels and other animals, Muhammad is supposed to have told them: `Take care of the black fruit. It was those I gathered when I used to lead the sheep out to graze.' They said to him: `Envoy of Allah, were you then a shepherd of sheep?' He answered: `Yes, and so have all prophets been.'? The story was told to humble the pride of the great nomad camel herds, who despised the shepherds of more humble flocks.

This is virtually all we know about the childhood and young manhood of the future Prophet, at least from earlier sources, before the proliferation of legends of all kinds grew out of all reasonable control. Obviously it is not very much, and we are on very shaky ground. And yet it would be interesting and, from a historical point of view, extremely valuable to know what kind of education he had. Muslim tradition insists that he had no dealing with the pagan cults of his native city. This seems unlikely, and there are clear indications in his later life to suggest that, like everyone else, he practised the religion of his fathers. We are told elsewhere that he sacrificed a sheep to the goddess al- 'Uzza. One little-known tradition has him offering meat which had been sacrificed to idols to a monotheist, who refused it and rebuked him. He is said to have belonged to the ,hums, a brotherhood which practised its own special rites at Meccan ceremonies and observed additional taboos. Whatever Arabic tradition may have assumed from a wrong interpretation of a word in the Koran, it seems certain that Muhammad learned to read and write. But except for a few vague and unreliable pointers in his life and work we have no way of knowing the extent of his learning. More will be said of this further on.

Muhammad seems to have remained a bachelor for longer than was usual among his people. The reason for this was probably poverty. He asked, it is said, Abu Talib for the hand of his cousin Umm Hani. Marriages between cousins were approved of in Beduin society; but the suitor was rejected, probably in favour of a more illustrious rival. Long afterwards Umm Hani, then widowed, would have been glad to have her cousin renew his offer, but Muhammad was no longer inclined; they remained, however, on good terms. He was sleeping in Umm Hani's house the night he made his nocturnal voyage to heaven.

Fortune soon favoured him. Without falling into the traditional exaggerations which make him as early as this period a model of physical, intellectual and moral perfection, the qualities he displayed later are enough to show that he must have made a favourable impression on those with whom he came in contact. Even at this stage, people must have been struck by his intelligence, and his calm, confident and balanced manner of conducting himself both in his own affairs and in his dealing with others. It was probably this quality which led Khadija bint Khuwaylid, a widow no longer in her first youth, who had already been twice married and had several children, to engage him in her employ. She was rich, and equipped caravans to travel into Syria to bring back Byzantine merchandise for sale on the Mecca market. Khadija seems to have sent her new employee with the caravans to deal with purchasing. If this was so, Muhammad must have revisited Syria;

(Mohammed, Maxime Rodinson, 1961, translated by Anne Carter, 1971, p 38-49)

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