The Ka’abah And The Abrahamic Tradition

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 story of Prophet Ibrahim’s migration from Babylonia to Syria-Palestine (Kan’an), then to Egypt, then his return to Palestine and subsequently his coming with his wife Hajar and son Isma’il to Makka is well-known. These epoch-making travels took place roughly at the beginning of the second millennium B.C. Ibrahim had at first called his own people to abandon the worship of idols and other objects like the heavenly bodies and to worship the One Only God.1 They, however, instead of responding to his call, put him to various vexations and ultimately to the test of fire from which God protected and saved him.2 Only his wife Sarah and nephew Lot believed and accepted his call. Under God’s directive3 Ibrahim, accompanied by Sarah and Lot first migrated to Haran (in Syria) and then on to Kan’an (Palestine). At both the places he preached God’s message and called the people to worship Him alone. Next he travelled to Egypt where the reigning monarch initially designed evil against him but was subsequently attracted to him and respected him. The ruler presented Hajar to Ibrahim and Sarah. Hajar was originally a princess and queen to another ruler but was captured in a war by the Egyptian monarch.4

With Hajar Ibrahim returned to Palestine and subsequently married her. Ibrahim had hitherto no child. So he prayed to God for a son. God granted his prayer and gave him the good news that a forbearing son would be born to him.5 As Hajar became pregnant Sarah grew jealous of her; but God blessed her. According to the Old Testament an angel visited her and gave her the good tidings that she would give birth to the first son to Ibrahim and that she should name the son Isma’il.6

In due course she gave birth to a son, the first-born to Ibrahim, and the child was named Ismail. Ibrahim was at that time 86 years old.

Until Ibrahim’s return from Egypt Lut had all along been with him. Then Lut was called to Prophethood and was directed to preach to the people inhabiting the then prosperous region lying to the southeast of the Dead Sea. The sinful people rejected his repeated appeals to reform themselves and to obey Allah. Ultimately Allah destroyed the intransigent population and their habitat, saving Lut and a few of his believing followers.7 This happened some 12 or 13 years after the birth of Isma’il. The scenes of destruction and devastation are still visible in the region.

After Isma’il’s birth Sarah grew all the more jealous of Hajar so that Ibrahim found it necessary to separate her and the child from near Sarah. Under Allah’s directive and guidance he travelled with Hajar and Isma’il all the way from Palestine to the valley of Makka and left the mother and the child, with some provisions and water, at the spot near which the Ka’ba stands. It was then an uninhabited place. Hajar of course enquired of Ibrahim why he was leaving them there. In reply he said that he was doing so according to Allah’s directive and desire. The virtuous and believing Hajar willingly submitted to Allah’s will, expressing her confidence that Allah would not then let them down.8

Allah of course did not let Hajar and Isma’il down. As the little amount of water with them was soon exhausted Hajar went in search of water. She ran frantically between the nearby Safa and Marwah hills in search of water. As she thus completed seven runs between the two hills, the angel Jibril appeared before her by Allah’s command and caused the well of Zamzam to gush forth from the ground for Hajar and Isma’il. The provision of this well for them was indeed the beginning of their peaceful existence there. For water in those days (as also subsequently) was the most valuable wealth in desert Arabia. Soon a Qahtani tribe of Yaman was passing by the region. Noticing that a bird was flying over the spot of Zamzam they correctly guessed that there was water there. They reached the spot and sought and obtained Hajar’s permission to settle there.9

Thus the spot was settled and it soon grew to be an important trading centre, lying conveniently on the trade route from Yaman to the north and vice-versa. Isma’il grew up among the Jurhum tribe, learning the pure Arabic tongue from them. When grown up he successively married two ladies from the Jurhum tribe, the second wife being the daughter of Mudadd ibn ‘Aim, leader of the Jurhum tribe.

In the meantime Ibrahim continued to visit Makka from time to time to know about the well-being of his son and wife.10 On one such occasion, when Ismail had reached the age of understanding, Ibrahim received Allah’s command in dream to sacrifice his dear and only one son. He disclosed it to Isma’il. The virtuous son of the virtuous father, who himself was to be a Prophet of Allah; Isma’il unhesitatingly consented and asked his father to carry out Allah’s behest. Accordingly Ibrahim took Isma’il to a suitable spot.11 The Qur’an specifically states that both father and son submitted to Allah’s will12 made him lie on the ground, face downward, and was about to strike his neck with knife when Allah’s call reached Ibrahim saying that he had already passed the test and that he should instead sacrifice an animal.13

The test was for both father and son and both had creditably passed it. It was as a reward for having passed this test that Allah further blessed Ibrahim and gave him the good tidings that He would favour him with another son by his first wife Sarah, though both he and she had grown quite old14. Thus another son, Ishaq, was born to Ibrahim by Sarah when Isma’il was about 14 years old. On another occasion when Ibrahim visited Makka Allah bade him build a house for His worship15. Accordingly he built the Ka’ba, assisted by his son Isma’il. As they raised the foundation they prayed to Allah to accept their good deed, to render them submissive to His will, to raise from among their progeny a people submissive to Allah and to raise from among them a Prophet who would purify them and recite unto them His scripture and directives
16. Further they prayed Allah to make Makka and its vicinity a land of peace and security and to feed its people abundantly – “such of them as believe in Allah and the Last Day.” (Qur’an, 2:126).

When the building of the Ka’ba was completed Allah commanded Ibrahim to proclaim to mankind the duty of pilgrimage to the House (Ka’ba)17. So Ibrahim introduced the rite of pilgrimage to the Ka’ba.

The Qur’an as well as the Bible state that Allah especially blessed Ibrahim and both his sons, Isma’il and Ishaq, intimating that their descendants would multiply into nations18. Indeed, it was according to the Divine plan that the two sons were settled in two different lands. Ibrahim lived long to see his sons grow into maturity, establishing their respective families. According to the Old Testament Ibrahim lived for 175 years and when he died both Isma’il and Ishaq together buried him19.

Isma’il also lived long for 137 years and left behind him twelve sons from whom twelve tribes arose20. They and their descendants lived at Makka; but as their numbers increased they scattered over the other parts of Arabia. Of the tribes who arose out of the twelve sons of Ismail, those from the eldest two, Nabat and Qaydar[21] became more prominent. The descendants of Nabat migrated from Makka towards the north where, in the course of time, they founded the famous Nabatian Kingdom (sixth century B.C. to 105 A.C.) with Petra as its capital. The descendants of Qaydar continued to live at Makka and its vicinity for long till the time of ‘Adnan, probably the 38th in descent from Qaydar. The descendants of ‘Adnan through his son Ma’dd and grandson Nizar multiplied so greatly that they were in the course of time divided into numerous tribes and spread over all parts of Arabia including Bahrayn and Iraq. Most of the tribes who subsequently attained prominence traced their descent from ‘Adnan and thus called themselves ‘Adnanites. Such famous tribes as Taghlib, Hanifah, Bakr ibn Wa’il, Qays ibn ‘Aylan, Sulaym, Hawazin, Ghataffan, Tamim, Hudhayl ibn Mudrikab, Asad ibn Khuzaymah, Thaqif, and Quraysh (sons of Fihr ibn Malik ibn al-Nadr ibn Kinanah) all traced their descent from ‘Adnan and through him from Isma’il and Ibrahim.

Indeed, this Abrahamic tradition was the most important and universal feature in the social life of the Arabs. It was the symbol of their unity and identity, despite their division into numerous independent tribes. It found expression in their practical life in various ways. Each and every tribe meticulously maintained their genealogy tracing it ultimately to Isma’il and Ibrahim. They universally practised circumcision as an Abrahamic tradition (Sunnah). All the peoples of all the tribes believed the Ka’ba to have been built by Ibrahim and they considered it as their spiritual centre. They even placed images of Ibrahim and Isma’il along with other images, in the Ka’ba. In pursuance of the Abrahamic tradition all the Arabs used to perform pilgrimage to the Ka’ba and Makka, to make sacrifice of animals in connection with that rite, and to circumambulate the Ka’ba. And despite their relapse into gross idolatry they did not forget the name of Allah, Whom they regarded as the Supreme Lord – a faint remnant of monotheism which Ibrahim and Isma’il had taught. And most important of all, when the Prophet asked them, through the Qur’anic text, to revert to the true faith of their forefather Ibrahim (millata ‘abikum Ibrahim) they did not controvert him on this point of their ancestry going back to Ibrahim, although they were only too ready to oppose the Prophet on all conceivable grounds. This is worth emphasizing; for nothing was more obnoxious to an Arab than to ascribe a false or imaginary ancestry to him.

Regarding The Abrahamic Tradition

(a) Consideration of Muir’s views

Of greater import are the opinions of the orientalists about the Abrahamic tradition. Generally they deny that Prophet Ibrahim(P) ever came to Makka, that Hajar and Isma’il(P) were ever left there by him and that the Ka’ba was built by him. They also assert that it was Ishaq(P) and not Ismail(P), who was intended to be sacrificed. These views are as old as orientalism itself. It was Muir, however, who gave those views their modern form and pattern. And ever since his time others have mainly reproduced his arguments and assumptions.[22] “The connection of the Abraham myth with the Ka’bah”, writes Margoliouth, “appears to have been the result of later speculation, and to have been fully developed only when a political need for it arose.”[23]

Of the others who reiterated and elaborated the same views mentioned may be made of J.D. Bate and Richard Bell. The former prepared an independent monograph entitled Enquiries Into the Claims of Ishmael[24] in which he set forth almost all that the orientalists have to say on the theme including the question of the sacrifice of Isma’il. The latter, Richard Bell, suggested that the relevant Qur’anic passages on the subject are “later” revisions during the Madinite period of the Prophet’s mission[25].

Clearly, the subject calls for a separate treatment. The scope of the present work, however, necessitates confining the present section to a consideration of Muir’s views that are mainly elaborated and reiterated by his successors.

On the basis of the information contained in the Old Testament Muir says: “Hager, when cast forth by Abraham, dwelt with her son in the wilderness of Paran, to the north of Arabia.”[26]. He further says that the “divine promise of temporal prosperity” in favour of Isma’il was fulfilled and his twelve sons became “twelve princes” whose descendants were founders of numerous tribes. These tribes, and also other Abrahamic and collateral tribes lived, according to Muir, in northern Arabia extending “from the northern extremity of the Red Sea towards the mouth of the Euphrates.”[27]

He admits, however, that the Abrahamic tradition and the legend connected with the Ka’ba were widely current and accepted in Arabia and Makka before the rise of Islam[28] but he holds that these traditions, though earlier than Islam, grew there much subsequently to the time of Ibrahim. Muir mentions in this connection that though “a great proportion of the tribes in northern and central Arabia were descended from Abraham, or from collateral stock, we have no materials for tracing their history from the era of that patriarch for nearly two thousand years.”[29]. Therefore he proceeds to “conjecture”[30] the “facts” as follows.

He says that there were earlier settlers at Makka, many of whom were natives of Yaman. They brought with them Sabeanism, stone worship and idolatry. “These became connected with the well of Zamzam, the source of their prosperity; and near to it they erected their fane [the Ka’ba], with its symbolical Sabeanism and mysterious blackstone. Local rites were superadded; but it was Yemen, the cradle of the Arabs, which furnished the normal elements of the system.”[31] Subsequently, an Isma’ilite tribe from the north, “either Nabataean or some collateral stock”, was attracted there by its wells and favourable position for caravan trade. This tribe carried “in its train the patriarchal legend of Abrahamic origin” and engrafted “it upon the local superstitions.” “Hence arose the mongrel worship of the Ka’ba, with its Ishmaelite legends, of which Mahomet took so great advantage.”[32].

In support of this “conjecture” Muir advances a number of other suppositions. He says that though the existence of the Abrahamic tradition was extensive and universal, it is “improbable” that it “should have been handed down from the remote age of the patriarch by an independent train of evidence in any particular tribe, or association of tribes”. According to him, “it is far more likely that it was borrowed from the Jews, and kept alive by occasional communication with them.”[33] Having said so he states that so “extensive a homage,” i.e., homage to the Ka’ba “must have its beginnings in an extremely remote age; and similar antiquity must be ascribed to the essential concomitants of the Meccan worship, – the Kaaba with its blackstone, sacred limits, and the holy months.”[34] He then attempts to prove the great antiquity of the Ka’ba and its rites by mentioning that the Greek historian Herodotus (5th century B.C.) speaks of one of the chief goddesses of the Arabs and mentions her name as Alilat which “is strong evidence of the worship, at that early period, of Allat the Meccan idol.”[35]

Next Muir points out that the Greek author Diodorus Siculus, writing in the first century B.C., spoke of a “temple” in Arabia which was “greatly revered by all the Arabs”. Muir observes that this must refer to the Ka’ba, “for we know of no other which ever commanded the universal homage of Arabia.”[36] Finally, Muir suggests that the practice of idolatry was old and widespread in Arabia and, on the authority of Ibn Hisham (Ibn ‘Ishaq), points out that idolatrous shrines were “scattered from Yemen to Duma [Dumat al-Jandal] and even as far as Hira, some of them subordinate to the Kaaba and having rites resembling those of Mecca.”[37]

On the basis of such facts and arguments Muir states that there “is no trace of anything Abrahamic in the essential elements of the superstition. To kiss the black stone, to make the circuits of the Ka’ba, and perform the other observances at Mecca, Arafat and the vale of Mina, to keep the sacred months, and to hallow the sacred territory, have no conceivable connection with Abraham, or with ideas and principles which his descendants would be likely to inherit from him”[38] These were according to him “either strictly local” or being connected with the system of idolatry prevailing in the south of the peninsula, were imported to Makka by Banu Jurhum and others.

And when the Abrahamic legend was grafted on “the indigenous worship, the rites of sacrifice and other ceremonies were now for the first time introduced, or at any rate first associated with the memory of Abraham”[39] and once the legend was thus established at Makka, its “mercantile eminence” which “attracted the Bedouins of Central Arabia” to it, “by degrees imparted a national character to the local superstition, till at last it became the religion of Arabia.”[40]

Finally, suggests Muir, the Prophet only took his stand on this “common ground”, and effected a bridge between the “gross idolatry of the Arabs and the pure theism of Israel”. “The rites of the Kaaba were retained, but stripped by him of every idolatrous tendency?”[41]

Clearly, this thesis of Muir’s is based on four assumptions, namely, (a) that polytheism and polytheistic practices existed at Makka before the migration of the Isma’ilite tribe there; (b) that the Ka’ba and the rites connected with it are polytheistic and are of south Arabian origin, “having no conceivable connection with Abraham”; (c) that an immigrant Isma’ilite tribe superimposed the Abrahamic legend on those rites and (d) that the combined system was then by degrees adopted by the Arab tribes as the national religion.

The facts and arguments adduced by Muir do not, however, substantiate any of the four above-mentioned elements of the theory. With regard to the first assumption Muir mentions three facts. First, he says that the fifth century B.C. Greek historian Herodotus speaks of an Arabian goddess Alilat. Muir notes that Herodotus does not speak specifically about Makka but maintains that Alilat should be identified with the well-known Makkan (in fact Ta’ifan) goddess Al-Lat. It should be pointed out that Herodotus in fact speaks with reference to north Arabia. Even taking his statement to apply to Arabia in general, and accepting the identification of Alilat with Al-Lat, the evidence would take us back only to the 5th century B.C., that is, by Muir’s own admission, to a period some one thousand and five hundred years subsequent to that of Ibrahim. Muir’s second fact is that the first century B.C. Greek writer Diodorus Siculus speaks of a universally venerated Arabian “temple”.

Muir rightly takes it to refer to the Ka’ba; but this evidence takes us back still less in point of time. i.e., only to the first century B.C. Muir’s third fact is that polytheism and polytheistic shrines were widespread all over Arabia. He cites this fact on the authority of Ibn Hisham (in fact Ibn Ishaq). It should be pointed out that the latter speaks of a state of affairs that prevailed prior to the emergence of the Prophet. Neither Ibn Ishaq nor any other authority implies that the situation obtained from time immemorial.

Thus, none of the facts mentioned by Muir takes us back beyond the fifth century B.C. It cannot be suggested that the supposed migration of the Isma’ilite tribe to Makka took place so late as the fifth century B.C. or even after that; for, Muir himself admits that the descendants of Kedar, son of Ismail, became so widespread in northern and central Arabia that the Jews, i.e., the Old Testament, used to speak of the Arab tribes generally of those regions as Kedarites[42]. According to modern critics, the extant Old Testament was composed not later than the fifth century B.C. As it speaks of a state of affairs already prevailing in northern and central Arabia, which includes Makka, for a long time, and not of a recent dispersion of the Kedarite tribes over those regions, the Isma’ilite tribes must have been settled at Makka long before the fifth century B.C.

Muir’s second assumption that the Ka’ba and its rites are polytheistic, that they are of south Arabian (Yamani) origin and that they have “no conceivable connection with Abraham” is both incorrect and misleading. The Ka’ba and its rites must of course be assigned a very high antiquity, as Muir emphasizes. But that in itself does not prove them to be pre-Abrahamic in point of time, nor that they are south Arabian in origin. Muir does not advance any evidence to show that the Ka’ba is of south Arabian origin. If it was established in imitation of anything like it existing in Yaman, we should have found some trace of that original temple or some mention of it in ancient accounts; and it should have been initially more important and more venerated than its supposed imitation temple at Makka. But the existence of no such old or venerable temple is known, neither in Yaman nor elsewhere in Arabia, from any source, not even from the writings of the ancient Greek authors. To cite the evidence of Diodorus again. He speaks of only one universally venerated “temple” in Arabia, not of anything else like it or superior to it. The existence of a number of idolatrous shrines throughout Arabia before the rise of Islam to which Ibn Ishaq refers and of which Muir speaks, including even the “Yamani Ka’ba” of Abrahah, were all established subsequently to and in imitation of the Makkan Ka’ba, not before it. Muir simply attempts to put the cart before the horse when he draws attention to the existence of these Ka’ba-like idolatrous shrines in order to suggest that the Makkan Ka’ba was originally one such idolatrous establishment. Even then he is forced to admit that many of those idolatrous shrines were subordinate to the Ka’ba “having rites resembling those at Mecca”.

In fact none of those shrines was older than the Ka’ba, nor was any one of them regarded by the Arabs as of similar antiquity and commanding comparable veneration. This fact alone proves that those shrines were established in imitation of the Ka’ba. That they were devoted to idolatrous gods or goddesses was also naturally in imitation of the idolatry which had in the meantime been installed at the Ka’ba, not vice-versa, as Ibn Ishaq and others very distinctly mention. Idolatry had of course been prevalent in many of the surrounding countries since a much earlier period; but to prove that the Ka’ba was originally built as an idolatrous temple requires some more relevant evidence than what Muir has adduced. All that he has mentioned, to repeat, takes us back only to the fifth century B.C. He cannot imply that the Ka’ba was built so late as the 5th century B.C. or around that time.

Muir admits that the Abrahamic tribes of Arabia “originally possessed knowledge of God.” They indeed did; and it has been noted earlier that despite their declension into gross idolatry they had not lost sight of Allah (God) as the Supreme Lord of the universe. And it is remarkable that throughout the ages the Arabs used to call the Ka’ba the “House of Allah” or Bayt Allah. While all the other shrines were each named after some specific god or goddess, such as the shrine of Al-Lat, that of AI-‘Uzza, that of Wadd and so on, the Ka’ba was never called after any such idolatrous deity, not even after the Quraysh’s principal idol Hubal. If the Ka’ba was originally built for any idolatrous deity, the name of that deity would have remained associated with it. It cannot be supposed that the name of that deity was obliterated when the immigrant Ismailites allegedly superimposed the Abrahamic tradition upon the “temple”. If such subsequent superimposition had at all taken place, it is more in accord with reason that the name of that idolatrous deity would have been conjoined with Allah at the time of the supposed integration of the Ka’ba with the Abrahamic tradition.

To prove the supposed idolatrous origin of the Ka’ba Muir states that the “native systems of Arabia were Sabeanism, Idolatry and Stone worship, all connected with the religion of Mecca.”[43] This is a highly misleading statement. The religious systems mentioned were of course prevalent in Arabia at different places and at different times, not equally and everywhere at the same time. Sabeanism with its worship of the heavenly bodies prevailed in south Arabia. Muir does not show how this system was “connected with the religion at Mecca” except saying that as late as the fourth century “sacrifices were offered in Yemen to the sun, moon and stars” and that the “seven circuits of the Kaaba were probably emblematical of the revolutions of the planetary bodies.”[44] It is not understandable how sacrifices offered in Yaman “to the sun, moon and stars” could be connected with the religion at Makka. The Makkan unbelievers did of course offer sacrifices to their idols; but they did never do so by way of worshipping the sun, the moon and the stars! Indeed the practice of sacrificing animals, or even human beings, for gods and goddesses, had been prevalent among many ancient peoples before even Prophet Ibrahim’s(P) intended sacrifice of his son to Allah. But none would therefore suggest that such sacrifices by the other ancient peoples or by Ibrahim were only symbolical of Sabeanism! In fact the term Sabeanism is derived from the Sabaeans who emerged on the scene of history much subsequently to the generally assigned date of the Ka’ba. More specifically, worship of the heavenly bodies was prevalent among the ancient Greeks, among others. In that perspective Sabeanism was only a south Arabian manifestation of Hellenism.

More strange is Muir’s statement that the “seven circuits of the Kaaba were probably emblematical of the revolutions of the planetary bodies”. There is no indication whatsoever that the Sabaeans or other ancient worshippers of the heavenly bodies used to make seven circuits around any object as part of their astral worship. It is also quite unreasonable to suppose that the ancient Makkans or others of the time were aware of “the revolutions of the planetary bodies”. If they had such modern astronomical knowledge, they would not have worshipped the heavenly bodies at all.

With regard to idolatry and stone worship Muir, after referring to what Ibn Ishaq says about the existence of idolatrous shrines in Arabia and how the Isma’ilites, when dispersing from Makka, used to carry with them a stone from the sacred precincts, states that this widespread tendency to stone worship probably “occasioned the superstition of the Kaaba with its black stone, than that it took its rise from that superstition.”[45]

As shown above, the evidence adduced by Muir does in no way show that the idolatrous shrines in Arabia and the attendant worship of stones or stone images came into existence before the erection of the Ka’ba. And Muir is grossly wrong in supposing that the Black Stone at the Ka’ba was symbolical of stone worship. Whatever the origin of the Black Stone and whatever the origin of stone worship in Arabia, the pre-Islamic Arabs, neither of Makka nor of the other places, are never found to have worshipped the Black Stone of the Ka’ba. The kissing of the Black Stone was no worship of the stone itself; it marked only the start of making the circuit around the Ka’ba. This circumambulation was not done for any specific idol in the Ka’ba or around it. It was to all intents and purposes a circumambulation of the House of Allah. And it is only an instance of the peculiar coexistence of the Abrahamic traditions and idolatry which the Makkan religion represented on the eve of the rise of Islam. It should be noted here that it was very much the practice of Ibrahim(P) that in the course of his travels from one land to another he set up, wherever he halted, a stone to mark a place dedicated to the worship of Allah (“an altar unto God” as it is put in the English versions of the Old Testament)[46].

That these places of worship were symbolized by stones erected as pillars is clear from Gen. 28:10, 18-22, which informs us that Jacob [Ya’qub(P)], when he journeyed from Beer-Sheba to Haran, halted at night at a certain place and in the morning took the stone he had used as his pillow and “set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. And he called the name of that place Beth-el.” He further declared: “And this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house.”[47] In fact these stone pillars were in the nature of foundation stones laid at different places where houses for God’s worship were intended to be erected. The Black Stone of the Ka’ba was one such stone with which the patriarch Ibrahim(P) laid the foundation of the House of Allah (Beth-el).[48]

Neither was the Black Stone of the Ka’ba symbolical of stone worship, nor were the Prophets Ibrahim(P), Ishaq(P) and Ya’qub(P), by any stretch of the imagination, stone worshippers on account of their erection of stone pillars as “altars unto God”.

The dogmatic assertion that the rites connected with the Ka’ba “have no conceivable connection with Abraham, or with the ideas and principles which his descendants would be likely to inherit from him”, is a downright misstatement. So far as the Black Stone is concerned, its connection with Ibrahim and with the ideas, practices and principles that his descendants were likely to inherit from him, are indubitably demonstrated by the above-mentioned testimony of the Old Testament. That the institution of sacrifice also is very much in line with the Abrahamic tradition admits of no doubt, the incident of the intended sacrifice of his son being so clearly narrated in both the Old Testament and the Qur’an. In this case too the coexistence of Abrahamic rites with idolatrous practices is noticeable. While the unbelieving Arabs used to sacrifice animals on various idol altars at different places, their sacrificing of animals at Mina at the time of the pilgrimage was only in pursuance of the Abrahamic tradition. It was no sacrificing for any particular idols or their idols in general. Neither any idol nor any altar was there at Mina or ‘Arafat. Indeed the pilgrimage, the staying at Mina, the standing at ‘Arafat and the sacrifices made on the occasion were not done for any idol or idols. These were performed purely in accordance with the Abrahamic tradition. Muir’s remarks about sacrifice are somewhat confusing. In attempting to show the supposed connection of Sabeanism with the Makkan religion he states, as mentioned earlier, that as late as the fourth century A.C. sacrifices were offered in Yaman “to the sun, moon and the stars”. But while suggesting that the Abrahamic tradition was grafted on the supposedly preexisting Ka’ba and its rites by an ‘Isma’ilite tribe he states that “the rites of sacrifice and other ceremonies were now for the first time introduced, or at any rate associated with the memory of Abraham.”[49] This statement of Muir’s constitutes in fact a confession of the weakness of his theory and an admission that the “rites of sacrifice and other ceremonies” were very much connected with the Abrahamic tradition.

Indeed Muir’s third and fourth suggestions, namely, that the Abrahamic tradition was superimposed on the supposedly pre-existent and idolatrous Ka’ba and its rites by an ‘Isma’ilite tribe subsequently settling there, and that this tradition was still more subsequently adopted “by degrees” on the part of the Arab tribes because of the commercial pre-eminence of Makka which attracted them thither, are more illogical and absurd. Both these assumptions run counter to his other statement that so “extensive a homage” to the Ka’ba and its rites “must have its beginnings in an extremely remote age.”21

The Ka’ba and its rites of course go back to a very remote antiquity. And it is also noted that Muir makes a distinction between the prior existence of the Ka’ba and the extensive homage to it on the one hand, and the Abrahamic tradition on the other, which according to him was superimposed on it and its rites. But that does not resolve the inconsistency and difficulty involved in his proposition. If the Arab tribes had since antiquity been paying extensive homage to the Ka’ba and its rites, they would not simply add to these institutions only the name of Ibrahim at a subsequent stage -for that is in essence what Muir suggests – just because an Isma’ilite tribe came to settle at Makka and imposed Ibrahim’s name on the existing institutions. In all likelihood, such an illegitimate attempt on the part of an Isma’ilite tribe would have met with universal resistance, both from the preexisting idolatrous population of Makka as well as from the Arab tribes.

Muir seems to have foreseen the difficulty. Hence he recognizes, on the one hand, the fact that the Arab tribes of northern and central Arabia were by and large of Abrahamic origin so much so that both the Jews and the Old Testament spoke of them as Kedarites (i.e., descendants of Isma’il’s son Kedar or Qaydar) and, on the other, attempts to make room for his theory in the situation by suggesting that it is “improbable” that the memory of the connection with Ibrahim “should have been handed down from the remote age of the patriarch by an independent train of evidence in any particular tribe, or association of tribes”. As noted earlier, he suggests that “it is more likely that it was borrowed from the Jews, and kept alive by occasional communication with them.”22 Now, it is highly unlikely that an acknowledged conservative people like the Semitic Arabs, who of all people were the most attached to their ancient traditions, remembering their individual genealogies going back to a distant past, would have continued to venerate the Ka’ba and its rites as belonging to their common past, and at the same time forgetting the real fact of their descent from Ibrahim.

The nature of “living tradition” is not that it should have been handed down “by an independent train of evidence in any particular tribe, or association of tribes.” It is handed down from generation to generation by “popular memory”, not by the memory or evidence of any particular individual or tribe. It is also just not correct to say, as Muir does, that the Arab tribes having supposedly forgotten their descent from Ibrahim “borrowed” the memory “from the Jews” and it was “kept alive by occasional communication with them.” No people who had forgotten their common ancestor would accept the ancestor of another people as their ancestor too because the latter stated so, without further and an “independent train of evidence.” The fact is that the Arab tribes of central and northern Arabia were not merely on “occasional communication” with the Jews. Throughout the ages till almost the beginning of the Christian era the Jews and the Kedarite tribes of northern and central Arabia were on constant contact with one another and they very much constantly remembered their common descent from Ibrahim. But leaving aside all these questions and going with Muir all the way, it is only reasonable to suppose that if the Jews at any point of time reminded the Arab tribes of their descent from their common patriarch Ibrahim, they would also have been told that that patriarch was no polytheist and that the (supposedly) pre-existing Ka’ba and its rites had no connection with him. Therefore the Arab tribes would not associate the Ka’ba and its rites with the memory of Ibrahim even when they were reminded of their actual ancestor. But, since the Arab tribes, by Muir’s admission and by all the available evidence did in fact associate the Ka’ba and its rites with Ibrahim for long before the coming of Islam, a natural corollary of Muir’s suggestion is that the Jews, when reminding them of Ibrahim, must also have told them that the Ka’ba and its rites were of Abrahamic origin.

The unreasonableness of Muir’s proposition does not end here. He says that the Isma’ilite tribe, when it came to settle at Makka, brought “in its train the patriarchal legend of Abrahamic origin” and engrafted “it on the local superstitions.” Thus by Muir’s own statement, when the Isma’ilite tribe came to Makka, they had not forgotten their Abrahamic origin. It is therefore reasonable to add that they had also not lost sight of the fact that Ibrahim was no polytheist. Hence they would not have desecrated the sacred memory of their ancestor by associating it with the (supposedly) pre-existing and polytheistic Ka’ba and its rites, the more so because these institutions had long been commanding the homage of the Arabs. In such a state, if they intended to integrate themselves with the Arab tribes, or vice versa, they would have simply allowed the Abrahamic memory to remain in the background and would have accepted the Ka’ba and its rites as they were; for by so doing they would not have lost anything, neither their domicile nor the profitable trade of Makka. Since they did not do so, but accepted, as it is said, the Ka’ba and its rites as of Abrahamic origin, notwithstanding their having retained the memory of their descent from Ibrahim, and since also the Arab tribes accepted the Ka’ba and its rites as of Abrahamic origin, notwithstanding their constant touch with the collateral branch of Ibrahim’s descendents, the Jews, the natural conclusion is that they did so because they knew that the Ka’ba and its rites were of Abrahamic origin. Thus a rational analysis of even Muir’s theory of subsequent migration to and settlement at Makka by an Isma’ilite tribe, together with the other assumptions he makes and the facts he admits, leads to the unavoidable conclusion that the Ka’ba and its rites were of Abrahamic origin.

(b) About the Old Testament evidence

Muir’s above discussed theory and assumptions proceed from his understanding of the information contained in Gen. 21:21. He says: “Hagar, when cast forth by Abraham, dwelt with her son in the wilderness of Paran, to the north of Arabia.”23 The above mentioned passage of the Genesis simply says that Ismail and his mother “dwelt in the wilderness of Paran”. The clause, “to the north of Arabia”, is Muir’s own statement based understandably on the identification of Paran made by other Christian writers and exegetes of the Bible. Paran is mentioned in connection with other events at three other places in the Old Testament.24 But in none of all these places it is clear what exactly is the locality meant by the name Paran. The answer to the question where, according to Genesis 21:21, Hajar and Isma’il settled thus depends on a correct identification of Paran.

The subject was in fact exhaustively dealt with by Syed Ahmed Khan Bahadur shortly after the appearance of Muir’s work25. As the arguments on either side have not advanced much since that time, it would be worthwhile to recapitulate the main points made by him, adding to them such other facts or points as bear on the subject. He drew attention to the fact that the early Muslim geographers speak of three different places bearing the same name of Paran, namely, first, the wilderness where Makka now stands, together with the mountainous region adjacent to it; secondly, those mountains and a village that are situated in Eastern Egypt or Arabia Petra and; thirdly, a district in Samarkand.26 He further pointed out that the Christian scholars and exegetes advance three different identifications of Paran. One view is that it comprised a vast area extending ‘from the northern boundary of Beer-Sheba as far as Mount Sinai’; the second view is that it was identical with Beersheba, which was also called Kadesh; and the third view is that it was the wilderness lying on the “western slopes of Mount Sinai.27

As regards these identifications the first two are obviously wrong, because the descriptions of the Old Testament itself clearly show Paran to be a distinct and different area, not a vast wilderness including many others such as the first identification would suggest, and also different from Beer-Sheba/Kadesh.28 The third identification, that of Paran being a locality on the western slopes of Mount Sinai, tallies with one of the Paran mentioned by the Muslim geographers, but the locality was in all likelihood not known by the name of Paran at that time. For Moses, in the course of his journey with the Israelites from Egypt to Sinai, does not make any mention of Paran although he passed through the same locality and mentioned the places on the way. Most probably the place came to be known as Paran at a period subsequent to that of Moses on account of the settlement there of a branch of Banu Pharan, a Qahtanite tribe.29

None of these three localities, however, could have been the domicile of Hajar and Isma’il. For, in the first place, no local traditions exist to the effect that they settled in any of those localities. Secondly, though Moses and his followers are stated to have proceeded further from Sinai and having passed through “Taberah”, “Kibrothhattaavah” and “Hazeroth” next halted at the wilderness of Paran30 the exact course taken by them is not clear. The Christian scholars themselves suggest as many as five different directions. Moreover, their statement that the descendants of Isma’il spread over the area “from ‘Shur to Havilah’, or across the Arabian peninsula, from the borders of Egypt to the mouths of the Euphrates” is based on an incorrect identification of “Havilah” mentioned in Gen. 25:18. They, guessing on a slender similarity in sound, identify Havilah with Aval or Auwal of the Bahrayn islands. In reality, as Syed Ahmed points out, Havilah is a locality in the vicinity of Yaman, lying at Lat. 17 degrees 30′ N and Long. 42 degrees 36, E, and called after Havilah, one of the sons of Joktan (Qahtan)31. It is thus evident “that the Ishmaelites settled in the wide tract of land extending from the northern frontiers of Yemen to the southern borders of Syria. This place now bears the name of Hedjaz, and it is identical with Paran”, as mentioned by the Muslim geographers.32 It is further noteworthy that an Arabic version of the Samaritan Pentateuch edited by R. Kuenen and published at Lugduni Batavorum, 1851, says in a note that Pharan and Hejaz are one and the same place.33

Thirdly, a close look at Gen. 21:14-15 would make it clear that the two consecutive passages do not really speak of one and the same occasion. The statement in Gen. 21:14 that Hajar “wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba” does not mean that she wandered only there and proceeded no farther. Nor does the statement in Gen. 21:15, “And the water was spent in the bottle, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs”, mean that the incident took place in or in the vicinity of Beer-Sheba. Nor does it mean that the same water in the bottle with which she had left her home “was spent” and therefore she was obliged to “cast the child under one of the shrubs”. Beersheba was a place well known to her, Ibrahim having lived there with her for long. There were also a number of wells scattered over the region and dug by different persons, as the Old Testament very clearly states at a number of places. The well at Beer-Sheba itself was dug by Ibrahim. All these could not have been unknown to Hajar. She could therefore have obtained further water, after a little search, from any of the many wells in the area.

In fact the Old Testament writer here describes, in two very short and consecutive passages, the long and arduous wanderings made by Hajar, of which the beginning was her wanderings in Beer-Sheba and the last stage was at such a place where she could get no water, nor replenish her bottle in any way. So in utter distress and despair she cast the child under one of the shrubs. The two passages speak of two different stages of her wanderings, separated by not too small gaps of time and place.

Fourthly, the causes and circumstances that led to Hajar’s and Isma’il’s banishment from home, as described in the Old Testament, also indicate that they travelled to a land quite away from the area where Sarah and Ibrahim continued to live. According to the Genesis, Sarah wanted that Isma’il should not be heir with her son Ishaq. So also, according to the Genesis, it was God’s plan that Ismail and his descendants should settle in and populate another land. The Genesis very graphically describes the situation thus:

“11. And the thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight because of his son.”

“12. And God said unto Abraham, Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of the bondwoman; in all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall thy seed be called.”

“13. And also the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is thy seed.”

“14. And Abraham rose up early in the morning, took bread, and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar…”, etc. (Gen. 21:11-14)

Thus it is very clear from the Genesis that it was not really because of Sarah’s desire but decisively because of God’s plan and assurance of a fruitful future for Isma’il communicated to Ibrahim, and His command to him, that he banished Hajar and Ismail to a different land. God’s words to Ibrahim, “for in Isaac shall thy seed be called”, was a consolation as well as an assurance that the banishment of Ismail did not mean an end to, or a constriction of the line of Ibrahim’s descendants. The statement, “in Isaac shall thy seed be called” meant that Ibrahim’s progeny will continue there where he was at that time, through Ishaq; whereas the other statement was an emphasis on the fact that Isma’il was his seed (“he is thy seed”) but his progeny will be multiplied and made into a nation in another region. By the very nature of this plan of God’s (and Sarah’s desire to exclude Isma’il from his father’s immediate possessions was itself part of God’s plan), Hajar and Ismail could not have been settled in any place in the region of Beer-Sheba and Sinai, which were very much then within the sphere of Ibrahim’s and Sarah’s activities. Hajar and Isma’il could only have been, and were indeed consigned to a far-away and unsettled land. The Paran/Faran mentioned in the Genesis as their domicile could not simply have been any Paran in and around Beer-Sheba and Sinai, as the Christian scholars imagine.

Fifthly, as regards the exact location of Hajar’s and Isma’il’s domicile Genesis 21 also furnishes a clue. Thus, when Hajar in her utter distress and helplessness prayed unto God and also the child Ismail cried out of hunger and thirst, God responded to them. Says the Genesis:

(Gen. 21:17-19)

17. And God heard the voice of the lad; and the Angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her, What aileth thee, Hagar? Fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is.”

“18. Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him in thine hand; for I will make him a great nation.”

“19. And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink.”

Thus God provided Hajar and Isma’il with a well of water; on the spot where they were (“God has heard the voice of the lad where he is.”) Hajar did not have to look around and walk any distance to find the well. “God opened her eyes”, i.e., God made her open her eyes (Obviously Hajar was deeply absorbed in prayer with her eyes closed), “and she saw a well of water.” It was not simply a temporary relief. It was God’s especial gift for them to be the means of their sustenance and settlement there in accordance with His plan and promise to “make a nation” out of Isma’il. This divinely provided well cannot be identified with any well in Beer-Sheba and its surrounding region for the simple reason that none of these wells is mentioned in the Old Testament as God-given. On the contrary they are very distinctly described as the work of human hand. Nor is there any local tradition pointing to the existence there, now or in the past, of any divinely caused well. To attempt to identify the well given by God to Isma’il and Hajar with any of the wells in the Beer-Sheba region would be an affront to the clear wording and purport of the text of the Genesis. This well is unmistakably the Zamzam well by the side of the Ka’ba. Ever since the time of Hajar and Isma’il it has continued to be a perennial source of water for the descendants of Isma’il and others who repair there, except for a short period of human tampering with it.

Last but not least, the name of Makka, which is also called Bakka in the Qur’an (Q. 3:96), finds mention in the Psalm of David, together with the well too. Thus Psalm 84:6 says:

“Who passing through the valley of Baca make it a well; the rain also filleth the pools.”

‘Baca’ in the above passage is clearly Bakka of the Qur’an, and the well spoken of is the well of Zamzam. It is also noteworthy that ancient works on history and geography make mention of floods being caused at Makka by occasional heavy rains, a feature not quite unknown even in modem times -thus completing the identification with Makka – “the rain also filleth the pools.”

Thus, despite some obvious discrepancies in the description of the Genesis, it is in consonance with all the essential features in the Qur’anic and Islamic accounts; and they combined prove that Hajar and Isma’il were settled at Makka, according to the Divine plan and provision.

[21] Kedar of the Old Testament.

[22] See for instance, A. Guillaume, Islam, London, 1964, pp. 61-62; P. Lammens, L’Islam, Croyance et Institutions, Beirut, 1926, pp. 28, 33

[23] D.S. Margoliouth, Mohammed and the Rise of Islam, 3rd ed. (London, 1905), p. 104. This specific comment has been discussed at a subsequent stage in this work, infra, Ch. XIV, see I & II

[24] First published, London, 1926; republished in 1984

[25] R. Bell, The Sacrifice of Ishmael, T.G.U.O.S., Vol. X, pp. 29-31; and The Origin of the Id al-Adha, M. W. (1933), pp. 117-120

[26] W. Muir, The Life of Mahomet, 1st edn, Vol. 1., London, 1858, p. cxi, citing Gen. XXI: 25; XXV: 18

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., pp. cxv; cxxv

[29] Ibid., p. cxvi

[30] Muir specifically uses this term twice, once at p. cxxv and again at p. cxxvi. He also designates his account as the “supposed history of the rise of Mecca and its religion”. See side-note on p. ccxiv of the first edition and p. civ of the third revised edition by T.H. Weir, London, 1923

[31] Ibid., 1st edn., p. ccxv

[32] Ibid., pp. cxxv-cxxvi

[33] Ibid., p. cxv. See also pp. cxxiv-cxxv

[34] Ibid., p. ccxii

[35] Ibid., p. ccx

[36] Ibid., p. ccxi

[37] Ibid., p. ccxiii

[38] Ibid., p. ccx

[39] Ibid., p. ccxvi

[40] Ibid., p. ccxv

[41] Ibid., ccxviii

[42] Ibid. See also Isaiah 21:16-17

[43] Muir, Op. Cit., p. ccxii

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid., pp. ccxiii-ccxiv

[46] Gen. 12:6-8; 13:4; 13:18. See also Gen. 25:25 which speaks of Ishaq’s similarly setting up an ‘altar unto God’.

[47] Gen. 28:10, 18-19

[48] See Muhammad Sulayman Mansurpuri, Rahmatullil-‘Alamin, (Urdu text), Delhi, 1980

[49] Muir, Op. Cit., p. ccxvi. See also supra, p. 72

Footnotes

  1. Qur’an, 6:74, 80-83; 19:41-50; 21:51-71; 26:70-82; 29:16-18, 24-25; 37:83-98 []
  2. Qur’an, 21:68-70 []
  3. Qur’an, 21:71 []
  4. Ibn Khaldun, Tarikh, II/I / 79; Ibn Sa’d, I, 48, 49 []
  5. Qur’an, 37:99-100 []
  6. Genesis 16:7-11 []
  7. Qur’an, 6:86:7:80-84; 11:77-83; 15:57-77; 21:74-75; 26:160-175; 27:54-58; 29:26, 28-35; 37:133-138; 51:31-37; 54:34-39; 66:10 []
  8. Bukhari, no. 3364 []
  9. Bukhari, no. 3365 []
  10. Ibid. []
  11. Some reports say it to be at Mina; some others think it to be near the Marwah hill.
    []
  12. Qur’an, 37:103 []
  13. Qur’an, 37:102-107 []
  14. Q.37:112-113 []
  15. Bukhari, no. 3365 []
  16. Qur’an, 2:127-129 []
  17. Qur’an, 22:27 []
  18. Genesis 12:2; 16:10 []
  19. Genesis 25:7-9 []
  20. The Old Testament, after mentioning the names of the twelve sons of Ismail, states:

    “These are the sons of Ishmael, and these are their names, by their towns, and by their castles; twelve princes according to their nations.” (Genesis 25:16) []

  21. Muir, Op. Cit., p. ccxii []
  22. See supra, p. 71 []
  23. Muir, Op. Cit., p.cxi. Muir mistakenly cites in his footnote Gen. 21:25. It ought to be Gen. 21:21 []
  24. See Gen. 14:6; Num. 10:12; Num. 12:16 []
  25. Syed Ahmed Khan Bahadur, Essay on the Historical Geography of Arabia (London, Trubner & Co., 1869) []
  26. Ibid., p. 74. See also Yaqu, Mu’jam al-Buldan, under Faran []
  27. Syed Ahmed, op. cit., p.76, citing Kitto’s Cyclopedia of the Bible and The Peoples’ Bible Dictionary []
  28. Syed Ahmed, op. cit., pp. 77-79. See also Gen. 14:5-7; Deut. 33:2; Hab. 3:3; Num. 10:12; 13:1-3, 6 []
  29. Syed Ahmad, Op. Cit., p. 85 []
  30. See Exod. 15:32; 17:8; 18:5; 19:2 and Num. 10:12; 11:34; 12:16; 13:26 and 14:25 []
  31. Syed Ahmad, Op. Cit., p. 80. See also Gen. 10:29 []
  32. Syed Ahmad, Op. Cit., p. 80 []
  33. Ibid., pp. 75-76 []

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