Pre-Islamic Arabia And Its Socio-Religious Condition

Professor of the History of the Islam, Centre for the Service of Sunnah and Sirah, Islamic University Madina, Saudi Arabia. Excerpts from Sirat Al Nabi and the Orientalists: With Special Reference to the Writings of William Muir, D. S. Margoliouth and W. Montgomery Watt. Compiled by Adam Rodrigues

The Background: The Land and The People

Arabia is the largest peninsula on the surface of the earth, being nearly one-third of Europe in size. It forms the southwestern wing of Asia, joined with Africa by the Sinai desert and Egypt. It is surrounded on three sides by waters-the Red Sea to the west, the Arabian (Persian) Gulf to the east and the Arabian Sea to the south. Its northern boundary may be said to be an imaginary line from the Gulf of al-Aqaba in the west to the Tigris-Euphrates valley in the east. Geographically the deserts of Syria and Iraq form part of the peninsula. Geologists think that it once formed a continuation of the Sahara desert on the one hand and the Central Iranian and the Gobi Desert on the other; and that subsequently it became separated by the depression of the Red Sea which, however, could not alter its arid nature.

The Arabian Peninsula is skirted in the south and west by mountain ranges of varying heights, reaching some 14000 feet in the south and some 10000 feet in the north. Beginning from Hadramaut in the south these ranges run almost parallel to the coastline, through Yaman, the Asir region and all along the Hijaz including the towns of Makka and Ta’if and meeting the ranges in the Sinai, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. There are small ranges in the eastern region also, particularly in Oman where the Al-Akhdar Mountain rises to a height of about 10000 feet. On the west the mountains rise rather steeply, leaving a narrow coastal belt of plain and comparatively fertile lands. From the mountainous region in the west, which averages an altitude of about 4000 feet at about one hundred and fifty miles inland, the country to the east is a vast plateau, highlighted by the plateau of Najd, sloping gradually to the east coast.

The mountain ranges in the south and north prevent respectively the monsoon rains from the Indian Ocean and the winter rains from the Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea from reaching the interior of the land. Hence rainfall is generally scanty in most parts, though there might be occasional heavy downpours at many places including Makka, Madina, Ta’if and Riyadh. In dim antiquity the land was probably more humid and rainfall more plenty, as indicated by the existence of numerous waddis or streambeds. Of the desert proper, there are three main regions: Al-Nufud in the north, Al-Rub’ al-Khali (the Vacant Quarter) in the south, which in itself is almost the size of France, and Al-Dahna, which is a sort of a corridor of desert linking the two above mentioned northern and southern deserts and running by the east central region. The rest of the peninsula is steppe land, together with vast areas of fissured lava lands, particularly in the central, western and northern regions. The steppe lands are sprinkled with numerous fertile oases and settlements. There are some remarkably fertile regions in the west and south, as also along the coast. In general Arabia is one of the hottest and driest countries of the world. The climates are rather extreme. It is very hot during the summer, and quite cold in the winter. In the winter season the temperature in some places in the north and south falls far below zero degrees centigrade.

A look at the map would at once make it clear that Arabia forms a link by land as well as by sea between Asia, Africa and Europe – the three continents that till the geographical discoveries of the 15th / 16th centuries were thought to constitute the entire world. Arabia is situated in the middle of this world. Not only that. From time immemorial it has been surrounded by a belt of ancient civilizations – the Nile Valley (Egyptian) civilization in the west, the Phoenician and Assyrian civilizations in the north, the Tigris-Euphrates Valley (Babylonian) civilization, the Persian civilization and the Indus Valley civilizations in the north-east and east. Further east-north-east laid the Chinese civilization. Arabia in ancient times was thus very much in the middle of the then “civilized” world. Modern researches show that it was the Semitic emigrants from the heart of Arabia who participated in building up the Egyptian, the Phoenician, the Assyrian and the Babylonian civilizations. And since dim antiquity Arabia also remained in constant trade and commercial contacts with the lands of Asia, Africa and Europe. Ships from India and the “Far East” touched its southern ports and sailed up the Red Sea; while land routes connected it with all the three continents. It lay on the highroad of world commerce and its inhabitants were the middle-men between the traders of the outer world. The geographical situation of Arabia has made it strategically and commercially important throughout the ages.

The internal geographical features of Arabia and its climate prevented any foreign intrusion into it. Consequently, its inhabitants have through ages retained their ethnic purity. Historians are agreed that Arabia is the cradle and habitat of the Semitic population (descended from Sam, son of Nuh(P)). As P. K. Hitti observes, though the term “Semitic” has of late come to be used in the West more generally with reference to the Jews, because of their concentration in America, it is more appropriately applicable to the inhabitants of Arabia who, more than any other group of people, have retained the Semitic characteristics in their physical features, manners, customs, habits of thought and language. “The people of Arabia have remained virtually the same throughout all the recorded ages.”[1]

Arab historians and traditions classify the inhabitants of Arabia into two broad divisions, their extinct ancestors and the surviving people. The extinct ancestors are called al- ‘Arab al-Ba’idah (the extinct Arabs) who lived and flourished in dim antiquity but who have gone almost entirely out of existence. Examples of these extinct Arabs are the ‘Ad, and the Thamud, the Tasm, the Jadis, the ‘Amlaq and others of whom virtually no survivors are found. The Qur’an makes repeated references to those bygone peoples, particularly to the ‘Ad and the Thamud. The former flourished in south Arabia (Hadramaut region) and the latter in north Arabia, particularly in the region of Al-Hijr. The Prophets Hud(P)[2] and Salih(P)[3] were sent respectively to these two peoples. Recent excavations have unearthed archaeological remains that go only to confirm the truth of what the Qur’an, the ancient Arab traditions and the Arab historian’s state in respect of these extinct ancestors of theirs. The Thamud are mentioned by name in an inscription of the Assyrian King Sargon II, dated 715 B.C. They are also mentioned by Ptolemy and Pliny.[4]

The surviving people are divided into two categories, al- ‘Arab al- ‘Aribah or the Aboriginal Arabs and al-‘Arab al-Musta’ribah or the Naturalized Arabs. The first are the descendants of Ya’rub son of Yashjub, son of Qahtan (Joktan of the Old Testament)[5]. They are therefore more generally called Qahtanite Arabs. Their habitat was Yaman. The famous Sabaean and Himyarite kingdoms and their high degree of civilization were the work of these Qahtanite Arabs. The Qur’an makes special mention of the Sabaeans[6].

Since time immemorial, however, many Qahtanite Arabs had migrated from their original habitat and spread over all parts of the Arabian Peninsula. More lately the process of migration received an increased impetus due to the first bursting of the Dam of Ma’rib and the Roman displacement of the Arabs in the maritime trade in the first century A.C. Of those who thus migrated from time to time mention may by made of the tribe of Azd. One branch of this tribe, Banu Tha’labah ibn ‘Amr, first settled in the region of Al-Tha’labiyyah but subsequently moved on to Madina. Their descendants were the famous ‘Aws and Khazraj tribes who in the course of time became the Helpers (ansar) of the Prophet.

Another branch of the Azd tribe, Banu Harithah ibn ‘Amr settled in the Hijaz and came to be better known as Banu Khuza’ah. They in the course of time occupied Makka displacing its earlier inhabitants, Banu Jurhum. Another important Qahtanite tribe, Banu Lakhm, settled in Al-Hirah (modern Kufa region in Iraq) where they founded a buffer state between Arabia and the Persian Empire (roughly 200-602 A.C.). Another powerful tribe, Banu Ghassan, settled in lower Syria and founded the Ghassanid kingdom there, playing a similar role of a buffer state between the Byzantine Empire and Arabia. The Ghassanid state came to an end on account of the Sasanid Khusraw Parwez’s capture of the region, including Damascus and Jerusalem, in 613-614 A.C.

Two other powerful Qahtanite tribes who settled in Arabia were Banu Tayyi’ and Banu Kindah. The former settled in north Arabia, in the region between the ‘A’a and Salma mountains, which are for that reason better known as the Tayyi’ Mountains. The famous Hatim al-Tayyi’ belonged to this tribe. Banu Kindah, on the other hand, settled in central Arabia and established a kingdom there. Their rulers, unlike the others, bore the title of king (malik).

The Naturalized Arabs, al-‘Arab al-Musta’ribah, were the descendants of Prophet Ibrahim(P) through his eldest son Prophet Isma’il(P). It must not be supposed that they were later in coming to Arabia than the above mentioned Qahtanite tribes from the south. In fact Prophet Isma’il and his mother settled at Makka long before the dispersal of the above mentioned Qahtanite tribes in different parts of Arabia. It should also be noted that Prophet Ibrahim was no non-Arab or non-Semitic person. He descended from the same Semitic Arabs who had long previously migrated and settled in the Tigris-Euphrates valley (Babylonia). In that sense his coming to Makka and settling his son and wife there was a sort of return to the original home of his ancestors. The descendants of Isma’il are called “naturalized Arabs” not really because they were originally non-Semitic outsiders, but mainly because their ancestors had long before left the land.

The Socio-Religious Condition: Jahiliyyah

The dual nature of the population and the dual aspects (agriculture and commercial) of their economic life seem to be matched by a dualism in the Arabs’ religious beliefs and practices prior to the rise of Islam. The core of their religious beliefs and practices was characterized by unmistakable traces of the Abrahamic tradition. No other people of the time or subsequently so well remembered the Abrahamic tradition and so closely performed the Abrahamic rites as did the Arabs. Yet, at the same time, they had succumbed to polytheism and idolatry with all its concomitant usages and superstitions.

For a long time indeed the descendents of Isma’il continued to follow the faith and rites in their original forms as introduced by him and his father. With the passage of centuries, however, they gradually deviated from the original faith and succumbed to the natural tendency of the crude and unsophisticated mind to find an easily approachable god for support in times of distress and for redress of wrong, to the tendency to idolize a hero or ancestor, to the sense of helplessness in the face of the forces of nature and, above all, to the influence of the practice of those who were regarded as superior, intellectually, physically or materially.

The “civilized” peoples who surrounded the Arabs in the past as well as contemporaneously were all engrossed in polytheism in some form or other. Wherever the pre-Islamic Arabs turned, as Ismail R. al-Faruqi states, they “saw the transcendence of God violated. Those Arabs who inclined in that direction became bolder by the example of their neighbours. It was their Byzantine Christian neighbours who sold them the human statues of the Ka’ba.”[7]

Polytheism was introduced at Makka after its occupation by Banu Khuza’ah, particularly by their leader ‘Amr ibn Luhayy.[8] According to Ibn Hisham ‘Amr once went to Syria where he observed the people worshipping idols. He enquired of them of the reasons for their doing so and they replied that they did so because those idols caused the ‘rains to fall for them and victory to attend them as they grayed to the idols for these things. ‘Amr was impressed and asked them whether they would give him one for his people to worship it. Accordingly they gave him the idol of Hubal which he brought to Makka, placed it near the Ka’ba and asked his people to worship it. As they considered him their leader and wise man they started worshipping the idol.[9] According to Ibn al-Kalbi, ‘Amr once fell seriously ill and was told by someone that if he took bath in a special spring in Syria he would be cured. So he went there, took bath in that spring and was cured. As he observed the people there worshipping idols he asked them the reason for their doing so, etc.[10]

The story illustrates the fact that polytheism found its way among the descendants of Ismail from their neighbours and others. A modem scholar, giving support to the story, states that even the Arabic word for idol, sanam, “is clearly an adaptation of Aramaic selem.”[11]

According to another report ‘Amr ibn Luhayy introduced also the worship of the images of Wadd, Suwa’, Yaghuth, Ya’uq and Nasr, the gods of Prophet Nuh’s unbelieving people. It is said that a jinni informed Amr that the images of those gods were to be found at a certain place at Jeddah and asked him to bring them from thence and to worship them. Accordingly, he went to Jeddah, found the images at the place indicated, brought them to Makka and asked the people to start worshipping them.[12]

These gods were indeed worshipped by Prophet Nuh’s people, as the Qur’an clearly states (Q. 71:23). They represented certain cults relating to astral worship or worship of the forces of nature or deification of some human qualities, prevalent in ancient Assyria and Babylonia, the land of Nuh’s people.[13]

A report attributed to Ibn ‘Abbas(R) says that these names were originally borne by some prominent persons among the people of Nuh, who subsequently idealized and idolized them.[14] Once again, these reports emphasize, on the one hand, how the descendants of Isma’il gradually succumbed to the polytheism of their predecessors and others and, on the other, the role of ‘Amr ibn Luhayy in the process. Once introduced, however, polytheism spread among the Arabs in various shapes and forms. Ibn Ishaq gives an explanation of the spread of stone worship thus. He says that when the descendants of Isma’il were for various reasons obliged to disperse from Makka, each group, as they left it, took with them a stone from the sacred precincts as souvenir and memento of the Ka’ba. They placed those stones at suitable spots in their new domiciles, circumambulated them as they used to circumambulate the Ka’ba and treated them with various marks of reverence. Gradually their succeeding generations began to worship not only those stones but any stone that especially impressed them. Thus they forgot the original Abrahamic religion and degenerated into stone and image worship.[15]

Ultimately each and every tribe and clan, in fact every family, had their special idol to worship. On the eve of the Prophet’s emergence some 360 idols were placed in and around the Ka’ba. The most important of these was Hubal. It was a big statue in human form of which a hand having been broken the Quraysh had it remade with gold. Two of the idols in the Ka’ba compound were ‘Isaf and Na’ila, placed originally on the spot of the Zamzam well but subsequently removed to a spot near the hills of Safa and Marwah. According to pre-Islamic belief, ‘Isaf and Na’ila were originally a man and a woman of Banu Jurhum who were turned into stones on account of their having desecrated the sacred precincts by making love in there.[16]

Besides thus making the Ka’ba the principal dormitory of their numerous idols the Arabs had developed a number of subsidiary Ka’bas (tawaghit), so to say, at different places in the land, each with its presiding god or goddess. They used to visit those shrines at appointed times, circumambulate them and make sacrifices of animals there, besides performing other polytheistic rites. The most prominent of these shrines were those of AI-Lat at Ta’if, Al ‘Uzza at Nakhlah and Manat near Qudayd. The origins of these idols are uncertain. Ibn al-Kalbi says that Al-Lat was “younger” (‘ahdath) than Manat, while Al-‘Uzza was “younger” than both al-Lat and Manat.[17] But though Al-‘Uzza was thus the youngest of the three; it was nonetheless the most important and the greatest (‘azam) idol with the Quraysh who, along with Banu Kinanah ministered to it.[18]

The Qur’an specifically mentions these three goddesses of the Arabs (Q. 53:19-20). Some of the other semi-or demi-Ka’bas were those of Dhu al-Khalsah at Tabalah (about “seven nights’ journey” from Makka), of Fils at a place between the Tayy’ Mountains, the Ri’am at San’a’ in Yaman, the Ruda’ in the territory of Banu Rabi’ah ibn Ka’b, a group of Ka’bas (Dhu al-Ka’abat) at Sindad in the land of Banu Bakr and Banu Taghlib and the Ka’ba of Banu al-Harith at Najran.[19]

In addition to these subsidiary Ka’bas there were a number of other shrines of specific idols scattered throughout the peninsula. Of these mention may be made of the shrine of Suwa’ at Ruhat (Yanbu’), that of Wadd at Dumat al-Jandal, that of Yaghuth at Jurash (in the Banu Tayy’ territory), that of Ya’uq at Hamdan in Yaman (“two nights” from San’a in the north), that of Nasr in the land of Himyar (Balkha’) in Yaman, that of ‘Umyanis or ‘Amm ‘Anas at Khawlan and that of Sa’d at Tanufa.[20]

The pre-Islamic Arabs used to worship these idols or gods and goddesses in various ways. They used to make supplication to them, prostrated themselves before them, made offerings to them, beseeched their favour, sought to please or propitiate them in the belief that they were capable of doing good or harm to man, sacrificed animals on altars dedicated to them, made pilgrimages to their shrines, circumambulated them and drew arrows of divination by them or in their shrines. They also used to name themselves after these gods and goddesses, such as ‘Abd Yaghuth, ‘Abd al-‘Uzza, etc. But though thus engrossed in extensive polytheism and idol-worship the pre-Islamic Arabs did not develop any elaborate mythology or involved theology around their gods and goddesses as did the ancient Greeks and the Hindus. No trace of such things can be found in the pre-Islamic poetry and traditions. This fact further indicates that polytheism and idol worship were not indigenous to the Isma’ilite Arabs but were grafted on to the Abrahamic tradition.

Nothing illustrates this fact better than the existence of unmistakable traces of the Abrahamic faith in the medley of polytheistic beliefs and practices. Of these the most remarkable was the existence of a belief in Allah as the Supreme God (Q. 23:84-89; 31:25), coupled with the belief in the existence of angels and jinn. At times of extreme peril the pre-Islamic Arabs even directly invoked Allah’s mercy and succour (Q. 10:22; 31:32). Sometimes they used to swear by Allah (Q.6:109) besides frequently naming themselves ‘Abd Allah. The recent discovery of a number of inscriptions, particularly in northern Arabia, containing the name of Allah[21], which inscriptions are all post-Abrahamic, is a decisive proof of the prevalence of the notion of Allah among the Arabs since distant antiquity. P. K. Hitti, after referring to the inscriptions, to some of the relevant Qur’anic passages and to the existence of the name Abd Allah among the Quraysh, states that “evidently’ Allah was “the tribal deity of the Quraysh.”[22]

The remark is both misleading and untenable. Neither did the inscriptions he cites belong to the Quraysh nor was the name ‘Abd Allah exclusive to them. Not to speak of many others outside the Quraysh circle, the leader of the “Hypocrites” at Madina was ‘Abd Allah ibn Ubayy!

Other residue of the Abrahamic tradition was their universal reverence to the Ka’ba at Makka, their circumambulation of it, their making of lesser pilgrimage (‘umrah) and the pilgrimage (hajj) to it, their performance of such Abrahamic rites in connection with the pilgrimage as the standing at ‘Arafat, the halt at Muzdalifa, the stay at Mina, the sacrificing of animals on the occasion, their making seven runs between the Safa and the Marwah hills and their shaving of their heads. Some other remnants of the Abrahamic rites were their universally practising circumcision and their fasting on the day of ‘Ashura.[23]

The coexistence of the Abrahamic tradition with the polytheistic beliefs and practices over long centuries did not however lead to the growth of any syncretic system of belief. The total picture that emerges is merely that of an ill-assorted amalgam with a number of peculiar by-products of that amalgam. One such by-product was the pre-Islamic Arabs’ notion that their worshipping of the gods and goddesses would take them nearer to Allah (Q. 39:3); that those gods and goddesses were their intercessors with Him (Q. 10:18); and that some of their goddesses, the angels and even the jinn were Allah’s daughters (Q. 16:57). Another outgrowth of the amalgam was their foolish practice of setting apart a portion (usually a major portion) of their crops and cattle for their gods and goddesses, and another portion (usually a minor portion) for Allah (Q. 6:136). Other instances were their mixing up polytheistic clauses in the formula of “Response” (talbiyah) while performing the circumambulation of the Ka’ba[24] the Makkans’ not going up to ‘Arafat at the time of Hajj but only up to Muzdalifa on account of a notion of their religious superiority and of their being the inhabitants of the sacred territory, their generally not allowing anyone to circumambulate the Ka’ba except in garments provided by them (hums) and their even circumambulating it in a naked state. With reference to such mingling of polytheistic beliefs and practices with recognition of Allah as Supreme Lord the Qur’an declares: “And most of them believe not in Allah without associating (others as partners) with Him.” (Q. 12:06)

The Arabs’ polytheism and worship of idols together with their mistaken notions about Allah determined their whole attitude to life and society. They considered life in this world to be the be-all and end-all of human existence. They worshipped and propitiated the gods and goddesses and recognized Allah for that purpose alone. They did not believe in resurrection, reward and punishment and life after death. “There is nothing but our life in this world; we shall die and live but shall never be raised up again”, so they believed and declared[25].

This attitude led to a sense of ultimate unaccountability and a desire to enjoy the worldly life in all possible ways and without any restrictions. Licentiousness, prostitution, adultery, fornication and unbridled indulgence in wine, women and gambling were thus widely prevalent.[26] Unlimited polygamy was in vogue and a sort of polyandry, in which a particular woman was used as wife by a number of men (less than 10), was not uncommon. If a child was born in such a case, it was to be accepted by the person whom the woman declared to be its father.[27] Sometimes a person allowed his wife to go to other persons for the sake of having a son.[28]

The woman’s position in society was indeed unenviable, though she participated in many a social and economic activity and though we sometimes find glowing tributes paid to sweethearts in pre-Islamic poetry. In general, women were treated as chattels. There was no limit to a man’s taking as many wives as he liked. Similarly he divorced his wives at will and quite frequently. There was no rule of prohibition; so a man could and did marry irrespective of blood-relationship. Often two sisters were joined as wives to a man at the same time. Sons married their father’s ex-wives or widows (not mothers). There was no recognized rule for a woman to inherit from her ancestors or husband. Birth of a daughter was regarded as inauspicious and disliked (Q. 16:58-59). Most inhuman was that many Arabs, out of a false sense of honour and for fear of poverty buried alive their young daughters (Q. 6:137; 6:151). On the eve of the rise of Islam this barbarous practice seems to have somewhat waned in and around Makka; but it was quite widespread in other parts of Arabia. The Qur’an speaks of its having been the practice with “many polytheists” (Q. 6:137). Qays ibn Asim of Banu Tamim, who embraced Islam in 9 H., confessed that he had previously buried alive as many as 8 or 12 of his daughters[29].

The sense of unaccountability also lay at the root of frequent killing of human beings without any qualms of conscience or remorse, and of stealing, plundering and spoliating others of their properties and possessions. The only check to such acts was tribal vengeance and retaliation. A number of superstitions and unconscionable practices also were prevalent among them. They believed in the utterances of soothsayers and astrologers and often decided upon a course of action, for instance a marriage or a journey, by means of divination by drawing or shooting arrows in a specified manner or near specific idols. Gambling and raffling were extensively in use. They even decided their respective shares in a particular thing, for instance the meat of a slaughtered animal, by casting lots with arrows. The meat was divided into unequal and preferential shares, these were indicated on arrows and these were then drawn, like the drawing of modern lottery tickets. Another peculiar practice was habal al-habala, or the selling of a pregnant camel on condition that the price was to be paid when she gave birth to a she-camel and that she-camel herself became pregnant.[30]

Another superstitious and polytheistic practice was the tabooing of certain camels, goats or oxen, calling them al-sa’ibah, al-bahirah, al-wasilah and al-hami. A she-camel consecutively giving birth to ten female calves without the intervention of any male calf was tabooed and was named al-sa’ibah. She was not to be used for riding or carrying any load, her hair was not to be trimmed and her milk was not to be drunk except by a guest. If she subsequently gave birth to another female, that “daughter” of hers was called al-bahirah and was similarly tabooed. A she-goat similarly giving birth consecutively to ten females in five conceptions was likewise tabooed and called al-wasilah. A bull fathering consecutively ten female calves was also tabooed and called al-hami.[31] The Qur’an condemned such practices (Q. 5:103; 6:139). These practices and beliefs of the Arabs, particularly their polytheism, licentiousness, adultery, gambling, stealing, plundering, their burying alive of young daughters, their tribal spirit and excitability (hamiyyah), etc., were collectively referred to in the Qur’an and the traditions as jahiliyyah.[32]

While this was the general socio-religious scene, other religious systems like Christianity, Judaism, Mazdaism (Zoroastrianism) and Sabaism (or Sabianism) had made their way into the peninsula in a limited way. Christianity was introduced in some northern tribes, particularly among the Ghassanid and in Hira mainly at the instance and initiative of the Byzantine authorities. Some princes of Hira had embraced it. In the south it was introduced in Yaman mainly after the first Abyssinian occupation of that land (340-378 A.C.). In its neighbouring region of Najran Christianity of the Monophysite type was introduced by a missionary from Syria named Faymiyun[33]. A number of people of the area embraced that faith. There was also a sprinkling of Christian immigrants and converts at Makka at the time of the Prophet’s rise.

So far as Judaism was concerned it found its place in the peninsula not so much by conversion as by immigration of the Jews into it. This immigration took place mainly at two periods – one after the Babylonian occupation of Palestine in 587 B.C. and for a second time after the Roman conquest of the land and the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 A.C. A number of Jewish tribes migrated into Arabia and were settled at places like Yathrib (Madina), Khaybar, Tayma’ and Fadak. Not that they remained completely inactive in the matter of propagation of their faith. According to tradition they made a convert of the Himyarite king (Tubba’) Abu Karib As’ad Kamil (385-420 A.C) when he visited Madina in the course of a northern expedition and sent with him two rabbis to propagate Judaism in Yaman.[34] The extent of the success of these Jewish missionaries in Yaman is not clear; but a descendant of As’ad Kamil’s, Dhui Nuwas, proved to be a vigorous champion of Judaism. He persecuted the Christians not only of Yaman but even massacred the Christian community of Najran, throwing a large number of them in a deep ditch full of fire[35]. His intolerance brought about a joint Byzantine-Abyssinian intervention in Yaman leading to the end of Dhu Nuwas’s rule and the beginning of the second Abyssinian occupation of the land under Abrahah. As noted earlier, Abrahah determined to Christianize the whole land, built a gigantic cathedral at San’a’ and led a campaign against Makka in 570-7 1 A.C. to destroy the Ka’ba.

Mazdaism or Zoroastrianism, which prevailed in Persia, found some converts in the eastern coastal region and Bahrayn. Some persons in Yaman also embraced it after the Persian occupation of the land in 525 A.C. Sabianism or Sabaism, to which the Qur’an makes reference[36], probably represented an ancient faith of either Babylonian or south Arabian origin consisting of astral worship. Its votaries were very few at the time of the rise of Islam. At any rate, it was considered a foreign religion; for whenever a person abandoned his ancestral faith the Arabs used to say that he had turned a Sabian.[37]

All these religions, however, had very little effect upon the life and society of the Arabs in general. Particularly Christianity and Judaism had compromised their positions by their conflicts and intolerance of each other, by their internal dissensions and by their deviation from the original teachings of Jesus(P) and Moses(P). To the discerning Arab, Christianity, with its doctrines of incarnation and the Trinity, besides the worship of the images of Jesus and Mary, appeared little better than his worship of the idols together with a recognition of Allah as the Supreme Lord. Similarly Judaism, with its exclusivity and its claim of ‘Uzayr being the son of God appeared equally polytheistic. This is highlighted by the fact that on eve of the rise of Islam a number of people came out in search of the true Abrahamic faith and went by the appellation of Hanifs[38]. Even if the emergence of these men is regarded as the outcome of an interaction between the existence of the Abrahamic tradition on the one hand and the presence of Christianity and Judaism in Arabia on the other, the fact that almost all the Hanifs turned their faces away from both these religions only illustrates their inefficacy on the mind of knowledgeable Arabs of the time.


[1] Philip. K. Hitti, History of the Arabs (first published 1937), 10th edn (1970, 11th print. 1986), pp. 8-9

[2] Surah XI of the Qur’an is named after him. See specially its ayahs 50-60. See also 7:65-72; 25:123-140 and 46:21-26.

[3] See Q. 7:73-79; 11:61-68; 24:141-159; 27:45-53

[4] First Encyclopedia of Islam 1913-1936, VIII, p. 736

[5] Qahtan was the son of ‘Abir, son of Shalikh, son of Arfakhshad, son of Sam, son of Nuh(P)

[6] Surah 34 of the Qur’an is named after them. See especially its ayahs 15-21. See also 27:22.

[7] Isma’il R. al-Faruqi and Lois Lamya al-Faruqi, The Cultural Atlas of Islam (New York, 1986), p. 63

[8] Bukhari, nos., 3521, 4623-4624; Muslim, no. 2856; Musnad, II, 275-276; III, 318, 353, 374; V. 137

[9] Ibn Hisham, I, 77

[10] Ibn al-Kalbi, Kitab al-Asnam, ed. Ahmad Zaki Pasha, Cairo, 1343 /1924, p. 8

[11] Philip. K. Hitti, A History of the Arabs, 1986 reprint, p. 100 and n. 2

[12] Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari, VI, 634

[13] See for a discussion the First Encyclopedia of Islam, 1913-1936, 1, 379-380; A. Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur’an: Text Translation and Commentary, Islamic Foundation, Leicester, 1975, pp. 1619-1623 (Appendix XIII to Surah 71)

[14] Bukhari, no. 4920

[15] Ibn Hisham, 1, 77

[16] Ibn Hisham, 1, 82. Ibn al-Kalbi, op. cit., 9, 29

[17] Ibn al-Kalbi, Op. Cit., 16, 17. The writer in the First Encyclopedia of Islam (Vol. I, 380) supposes that Arabia’s Al-Lat was the origin of the Greek goddess Leto, mother of the Sun-god Apollo

[18] Ibn Hisham, I, 83; Ibn al-Kalbi, op. cit., 18

[19] Ibn Hisham, I, 83-89; Ibn Kalbi, op. cit., 30,44-47

[20] Ibn Hisham, I, 78-83

[21] See for instance F.V. Winnet, “Allah Before Islam”, M.W., XXVIII (1938), pp. 239-248

[22] Hitti, op. cit., 101

[23] Bukhari, no. 3831

[24] Ibn Hisham, I, 78

[25] Q. 23:37. There are indeed many passages in the Qur’an, which refer to this notion of the unbelievers. See for instance, 6:29; 17:49; 17:98; 23:35; 23:82; 37:16; 37:53; 37:58-59; 44:35; 50:3; 56:47 and 64:7. Similarly the Qur’an is replete with passages to bring home the theme of resurrection and the Day of Judgment.

[26] The Qur’an condemned and prohibited these practices. See 5:3; 5:90; 17:23; 24:2-3; 25:68 and 60:12

[27] Bukhari, no. 5127

[28] Ibid.

[29] Al-Numayri (al-Basri), Abu Zayd ‘Umar ibn Shabbab (173-262 H.), Tarikh al-Madinat al-Munawwarah, ed. F.M. Shaltut, Part II, second print, Madina, n.d., p. 532; ‘Usd al-Ghabah, IV, 220; Al-‘Isabah, 111, 253 (No. 7194). See also Al-Darimi, I, Introduction, 3-4

[30] Bukhari, no. 3843. The Prophet prohibited such dealings.

[31] Ibn Hisham, I, 89

[32] Q. 3:154; 5:50; 33:33; 48:26 and Bukhari, no. 3524

[33] Ibn Hisham, I, 31-34

[34] Ibn Hisham, I, pp. 26-27

[35] This incident is referred to in Q. 85:4

[36] Q. 2:62; 5:69; 22:17

[37] Bukhari, no. 3523; Musnad, III, 492; IV, 341; Ibn Hisham, I, 344

[38] Infra, Ch. XIII, see I.

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