RELIGIONS OF THE ARABS
Most of the Arabs had complied with the call of Ishmael (Peace be upon
him) , and professed the religion of his father Abraham (Peace be upon
him) They had worshipped Allâh, professed His Oneness and followed His
religion a long time until they forgot part of what they had been reminded
of. However, they still maintained such fundamental beliefs such as monotheism
as well as various other aspects of Abraham’s religion, until the time
when a chief of Khuza‘a, namely ‘Amr bin Luhai, who was renowned for righteousness,
charity, reverence and care for religion, and was granted unreserved love
and obedience by his tribesmen, came back from a trip to Syria where he
saw people worship idols, a phenomenon he approved of and believed it
to be righteous since Syria was the locus of Messengers and Scriptures,
he brought with him an idol (Hubal) which he placed in the middle of Al-Ka‘bah
and summoned people to worship it. Readily enough, paganism spread all
over Makkah and, thence, to Hijaz, people of Makkah being custodians of
not only the Sacred House but the whole Haram as well. A great many idols,
bearing different names, were introduced into the area.
An idol called ‘Manat’, for instance, was worshipped in a place known
as Al-Mushallal near Qadid on the Red Sea. Another, ‘Al-Lat’ in Ta’if,
a third, ‘Al-‘Uzza’ in the valley of Nakhlah, and so on and so forth.
Polytheism prevailed and the number of idols increased everywhere in Hijaz.
It was even mentioned that ‘Amr bin Luhai, with the help of a jinn companion
who told him that the idols of Noah’s folk – Wadd, Suwa‘, Yaguth, Ya‘uk
and Nasr – were buried in Jeddah, dug them out and took them to Tihama.
Upon pilgrimage time, the idols were distributed among the tribes to take
back home. Every tribe, and house, had their own idols, and the Sacred
House was also overcrowded with them. On the Prophet’s conquest of Makkah,
360 idols were found around Al-Ka‘bah. He broke them down and had them
removed and burned up.
Polytheism and worship of idols became the most prominent feature of
the religion of pre-Islam Arabs despite alleged profession of Abraham’s
Traditions and ceremonies of the worship of their idols had been mostly
created by ‘Amr bin Luhai, and were deemed as good innovations rather
than deviations from Abraham’s religion. Some features of their worship
of idols were:
“And that which is sacrificed (slaughtered) on An-Nusub (stone-altars)”
- Self-devotion to the idols, seeking refuge with them, acclamation
of their names, calling for their help in hardship, and supplication
to them for fulfillment of wishes, hopefully that the idols (i.e., heathen
gods) would mediate with Allâh for the fulfillment of people’s wishes.
- Performing pilgrimage to the idols, circumrotation round them, self-abasement
and even prostrating themselves before them.
- Seeking favour of idols through various kinds of sacrifices and immolations,
which is mentioned in the Qur’ânic verses:
Allâh also says:
“Eat not (O believers) of that (meat) on which Allâh’s Name has
not been pronounced (at the time of the slaughtering of the animal).”
“And they assign to Allâh a share of the tilth and cattle which
He has created, and they say: ‘This is for Allâh according to their
pretending, and this is for our (Allâh’s so-called) partners.’ But
the share of their (Allâh’s so-called) ‘partners’, reaches not Allâh,
while the share of Allâh reaches their (Allâh’s so-called) ‘partners’.
Evil is the way they judge.” [6:136]
- Consecration of certain portions of food, drink, cattle, and crops
to idols. Surprisingly enough, portions were also consecrated to Allâh
Himself, but people often found reasons to transfer parts of Allâh’s
portion to idols, but never did the opposite. To this effect, the Qur’ânic
“And according to their pretending, they say that such and such
cattle and crops are forbidden, and none should eat of them except
those whom we allow. And (they say) there are cattle forbidden to
be used for burden or any other work, and cattle on which (at slaughtering)
the Name of Allâh is not pronounced; lying against Him (Allâh).”
- Currying favours with these idols through votive offerings of crops
and cattle, to which effect, the Qur’ân goes:
“Allâh has not instituted things like Bahira ( a she-camel whose
milk was spared for the idols and nobody was allowed to milk it)
or a Sa’iba (a she camel let loose for free pasture for their false
gods, e.g. idols, etc., and nothing was allowed to be carried on
it), or a Wasila (a she-camel set free for idols because it has
given birth to a she-camel at its first delivery and then again
gives birth to a she-camel at its second delivery) or a Hâm (a stallion-camel
freed from work for their idols, after it had finished a number
of copulations assigned for it, all these animals were liberated
in honour of idols as practised by pagan Arabs in the pre-Islamic
period). But those who disbelieve, invent lies against Allâh, and
most of them have no understanding.” [5:103]
- Dedication of certain animals (such as Bahira, Sa’iba, Wasila and
Hami) to idols, which meant sparing such animals from useful work for
the sake of these heathen gods. Bahira, as reported by the well-known
historian, Ibn Ish, was daughter of Sa’iba which was a female camel
that gave birth to ten successive female animals, but no male ones,
was set free and forbidden to yoke, burden or being sheared off its
wool, or milked (but for guests to drink from); and so was done to all
her female offspring which were given the name ‘Bahira’, after having
their ears slit. The Wasila was a female sheep which had ten successive
female daughters in five pregnancies. Any new births from this Wasila
were assigned only for male people. The Hami was a male camel which
produced ten progressive females, and was thus similarly forbidden.
In mention of this, the Qur’ânic verses go:
Allâh also says:
“And they say: What is in the bellies of such and such cattle
(milk or foetus) is for our males alone, and forbidden to our females
(girls and women), but if it is born dead, then all have shares
It has been authentically reported that such superstitions were first
invented by ‘Amr bin Luhai.
The Arabs believed that such idols, or heathen gods, would bring them
nearer to Allâh, lead them to Him, and mediate with Him for their sake,
to which effect, the Qur’ân goes:
“We worship them only that they may bring us near to Allâh.” [39:3],
“And they worship besides Allâh things that hurt them not, nor
profit them, and they say: These are our intercessors with Allâh.”
Another divinatory tradition among the Arabs was casting of Azlam (i.e.
featherless arrows which were of three kinds: one showing ‘yes’, another
‘no’ and a third was blank) which they used to do in case of serious matters
like travel, marriage and the like. If the lot showed ‘yes’, they would
do, if ‘no’, they would delay for the next year. Other kinds of Azlam
were cast for water, blood-money or showed ‘from you’, ‘not from you’,
or ‘Mulsaq’ (consociated). In cases of doubt in filiation they would resort
to the idol of Hubal, with a hundred-camel gift, for the arrow caster.
Only the arrows would then decide the sort of relationship.If the arrow
showed (from you), then it was decided that the child belonged to the
tribe; if it showed (from others), he would then be regarded as an ally,
but if (consociated) appeared, the person would retain his position but
with no lineage or alliance contract.
This was very much like gambling and arrow-shafting whereby they used
to divide the meat of the camels they slaughtered according to this tradition.
Moreover, they used to have a deep conviction in the tidings of soothsayers,
diviners and astrologers. A soothsayer used to traffic in the business
of foretelling future events and claim knowledge of private secrets and
having jinn subordinates who would communicate the news to him. Some soothsayers
claimed that they could uncover the unknown by means of a granted power,
while other diviners boasted they could divulge the secrets through a
cause-and-effect-inductive process that would lead to detecting a stolen
commodity, location of a theft, a stray animal, and the like. The astrologer
belonged to a third category who used to observe the stars and calculate
their movements and orbits whereby he would foretell the future. Lending
credence to this news constituted a clue to their conviction that attached
special significance to the movements of particular stars with regard
The belief in signs as betokening future events, was, of course common
among the Arabians. Some days and months and particular animals were regarded
as ominous. They also believed that the soul of a murdered person would
fly in the wilderness and would never rest at rest until revenge was taken.
Superstition was rampant. Should a deer or bird, when released, turn right
then what they embarked on would be regarded auspicious, otherwise they
would get pessimistic and withhold from pursuing it.
People of pre-Islamic period, whilst believing in superstition, they
still retained some of the Abrahamic traditions such as devotion to the
Holy Sanctuary, circumambulation, observance of pilgrimage, the vigil
on ‘Arafah and offering sacrifices, all of these were observed fully despite
some innovations that adulterated these holy rituals. Quraish, for example,
out of arrogance, feeling of superiority to other tribes and pride in
their custodianship of the Sacred House, would refrain from going to ‘Arafah
with the crowd, instead they would stop short at Muzdalifah. The Noble
Qur’ân rebuked and told them:
“Then depart from the place whence all the people depart.” [2:199]
Another heresy, deeply established in their social tradition, dictated
that they would not eat dried yoghurt or cooked fat, nor would they enter
a tent made of camel hair or seek shade unless in a house of adobe bricks,
so long as they were committed to the intention of pilgrimage. They also,
out of a deeply-rooted misconception, denied pilgrims, other than Makkans,
access to the food they had brought when they wanted to make pilgrimage
or lesser pilgrimage.
They ordered pilgrims coming from outside Makkah to circumambulate Al-Ka‘bah
in Quraish uniform clothes, but if they could not afford them, men were
to do so in a state of nudity, and women with only some piece of cloth
to hide their groins. Allâh says in this concern:
“O Children of Adam! Take your adornment (by wearing your clean
clothes), while praying [and going round (the Tawaf of) the Ka‘bah".
If men or women were generous enough to go round Al-Ka‘bah in their clothes,
they had to discard them after circumambulation for good.
When the Makkans were in a pilgrimage consecration state, they would
not enter their houses through the doors but through holes they used to
dig in the back walls. They used to regard such behaviour as deeds of
piety and god-fearing. This practice was prohibited by the Qur’ân:
“It is not Al-Birr (piety, righteousness, etc.) that you enter
the houses from the back but Al-Birr (is the quality of the one)
who fears Allâh. So enter houses through their proper doors, and
fear Allâh that you may be successful.” [2:189]
Such was the religious life in Arabia, polytheism, idolatry, and superstition.
Judaism, Christianity, Magianism and Sabianism, however, could find their
ways easily into Arabia.
The migration of the Jews from Palestine to Arabia passed through two
phases: first, as a result of the pressure to which they were exposed,
the destruction of the their temple, and taking most of them as captives
to Babylon, at the hand of the King Bukhtanassar. In the year B.C. 587
some Jews left Palestine for Hijaz and settled in the northern areas whereof.
The second phase started with the Roman occupation of Palestine under
the leadership of Roman Buts in 70 A.D. This resulted in a tidal wave
of Jewish migration into Hijaz, and Yathrib, Khaibar and Taima’, in particular.
Here, they made proselytes of several tribes, built forts and castles,
and lived in villages. Judaism managed to play an important role in the
pre-Islam political life. When Islam dawned on that land, there had already
been several famous Jewish tribes — Khabeer, Al-Mustaliq, An-Nadeer, Quraizah
and Qainuqa‘. In some versions, the Jewish tribes counted as many as twenty.
Judaism was introduced into Yemen by someone called As‘ad Abi Karb. He
had gone to fight in Yathrib and there he embraced Judaism and then went
back taking with him two rabbis from Bani Quraizah to instruct thpeople
of Yemen in this new religion. Judaism found a fertile soil there to propagate
and gain adherents. After his death, his son Yusuf Dhu Nawas rose to power,
attacked the Christian community in Najran and ordered them to embrace
Judaism. When they refused, he ordered that a pit of fire be dug and all
the Christians indiscriminately be dropped to burn therein. Estimates
say that between 20-40 thousand Christians were killed in that human massacre.
The Qur’ân related part of that story in Al-Buruj (zodiacal signs) Chapter.
Christianity had first made its appearance in Arabia following the entry
of the Abyssinian (Ethiopian) and Roman colonists into that country. The
Abyssinian (Ethiopian) colonization forces in league with Christian missions
entered Yemen as a retaliatory reaction for the iniquities of Dhu Nawas,
and started vehemently to propagate their faith ardently. They even built
a church and called it Yemeni Al-Ka‘bah with the aim of directing the
Arab pilgrimage caravans towards Yemen, and then made an attempt to demolish
the Sacred House in Makkah. Allâh, the Almighty, however did punish them
and made an example of them – here and hereafter.
A Christian missionary called Fimion, and known for his ascetic behaviour
and working miracles, had likewise infiltrated into Najran. There he called
people to Christianity, and by virtue of his honesty and truthful devotion,
he managed to persuade them to respond positively to his invitation and
The principal tribes that embraced Christianity were Ghassan, Taghlib,
Tai’ and some Himyarite kings as well as other tribes living on the borders
of the Roman Empire.
Magianism was also popular among the Arabs living in the neighbourhood
of Persia, Iraq, Bahrain, Al-Ahsâ’ and some areas on the Arabian Gulf
coast. Some Yemenis are also reported to have professed Magianism during
the Persian occupation.
As for Sabianism, excavations in Iraq revealed that it had been popular
amongst Kaldanian folks, the Syrians and Yemenis. With the advent of Judaism
and Christianity, however, Sabianism began to give way to the new religions,
although it retained some followers mixed or adjacent to the Magians in
Iraq and the Arabian Gulf.
Such was the religious life of the Arabians before the advent of Islam.
The role that the religions prevalent played was so marginal, in fact
it was next to nothing. The polytheists, who faked Abrahamism, were so
far detached from its precepts, and totally oblivious of its immanent
good manners. They plunged into disobedience and ungodliness, and developed
certain peculiar religious superstitions that managed to leave a serious
impact on the religious and socio-political life in the whole of Arabia.
Judaism turned into abominable hypocrisy in league with hegemony. Rabbis
turned into lords to the exclusion of the Lord. They got involved in the
practice of dictatorial subjection of people and calling their subordinates
to account for the least word or idea. Their sole target turned into acquisition
of wealth and power even if it were at the risk of losing their religion,
or the emergence of atheism and disbelief.
Christianity likewise opened its doors wide to polytheism, and got too
difficult to comprehend as a heavenly religion. As a religious practice,
it developed a sort of peculiar medley of man and God. It exercised no
bearing whatsoever on the souls of the Arabs who professed it simply because
it was alien to their style of life and did not have the least relationship
with their practical life.
People of other religions were similar to the polytheists
with respect to their inclinations, dogmas, customs and traditions