Pre-Islamic Religion on the Arabian Peninsula
The peoples of Arabia were predominately polytheistic, and Mecca was the place of their most important sanctuary, the Ka’ba (see below). Its ancient origins are unknown but, since all accessible deities were represented there, it was a place of annual pilgrimage for all tribes. At one time there were said to have been as many as three hundred and sixty idols in and around the Ka’ba. This, too, was under the control of the Quraysh, who wisely established a non-violent zone that was Haram (sacred, forbidden), radiating for twenty miles around the sanctuary, and made Mecca a place where any tribe could enter without fear and where they were free to practice both religion and commerce.
The Ka’ba was the most important holy place in Arabia even in pre-Islamic times; it contained hundreds of idols representing Arabian tribal gods and other religious figures, including Abraham, Jesus and Mary. It is a massive cube believed to have been built by the Prophet Abraham – the ancestor to the Arabs through his first son Ishmael – and dedicated to al-Lah (The God who is the same God worshipped by the Jews and Christians); it stands in the centre of the Sanctuary in the heart of Mecca. Embedded in the Ka’ba’s granite matrix is the famous Black Stone, which tradition says was originally cast down from Heaven as a sign for Adam.
The Zam-Zam holy well is nearby and is believed to have quenched the thirst of Hagar and her child, Ishmael, in the wilderness. (Genesis 21:19). Arabs from all over the peninsula made an annual pilgrimage to Mecca, performing traditional rites over a period of several days. Mohammad eventually destroyed all the idols in and around the Ka’ba, and re-dedicated it to the One God, Allah, and the annual pilgrimage became the Hajj, the rite and duty of all Believers.
“The usual form of worship is for pilgrims to circle the Ka’ba seven times at a trot and then to drink from the holy spring. This rite seems to have a straightforward interpretation, with the square Ka’ba symbolizing the four corners of the earth which is circled seven times, just like the seven planets (or spheres of heaven) which were believed to circle the earth. We still live today in a yearly calendar ordered by these ancient beliefs, from the names and numbers of our days of the week, to the four weeks that form our lunar months and the stellar signs of the zodiacs.” (The Prophet Muhammad: A Biography, Barnaby Rogerson.)
Like other pre-Axial societies, pre-Islamic Arab beliefs involved a pantheon of accessible deities with whom people could communicate. They also believed in darh or fate which probably helped them adapt to the high mortality rate. Above all of the lesser Gods was the one remote God, al-Lah – the God who was the same God worshipped by the Jews and Christians. He was beyond the reach of ordinary people. Lesser deities were represented in the Ka’ba and in shrines to their individual honor scattered throughout the peninsula. These gods would be prayed to for rain, children, health and the like and would intercede on their behalf to Allah – the God in times of dire need.
This pre-Islamic attitude towards religion provided a framework that was open to ideas and interpretations. The Sasanian presence in the Arabian Peninsula had brought with it the influence of Zoroastrianism, in which Ahura Mazda and Ahriman, the Gods of Light and Darkness, were in constant battle for the souls of humanity. Jewish presence in the area dates possibly from as early as the Babylonian Exile in 597 BCE and certainly from the time of the Great Revolt in AD 70, almost six centuries before Mohammad. Scholars note that a symbiotic relationship existed between the two peoples: Jews were Arabized and Arabic speaking and over the centuries Arabs had absorbed Jewish beliefs and practices. There were Jewish merchants and Jewish Bedouin, farmers, poets and warriors. What today is the center of Islam, the Ka’ba in Mecca, has ancient Semitic roots: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and others were associated with it long before the rise of Islam. Both Jews and Arabs were believed to be descendants of Abraham, an idol of whom could be viewed inside the pre-Islamic Ka’ba.
Since their earliest times Christian groups were established in Syria and Mesopotamia. In AD 313, the Emperor Constantine made Christianity legal and it became accepted as the imperial religion by Rome. The First Council of Nicaea in AD 325, declared Christ to be both fully God and fully man and established belief in the Trinity which represented God as three in one: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Those who disagreed with this new orthodox position, Nestorians, Gnostics, and Arians for example, were excommunicated and declared heretics. Many fled from persecution, beyond the reach of the Byzantine Empire into the Persian and Arab worlds. Theirs was a proselytizing faith and as they spread throughout the Peninsula a number of tribes were converted. The Ghassanids, who wintered on the border of Byzantium, became the largest early Christian tribal community, the Nabateans another, and by the sixth century the Yemenite city of Najran was a center of Arab Christianity.
The distance from both empires enabled beliefs in the Arab Peninsula to evolve and flourish independently, especially in Mecca. According to Fred M. Donner, Professor of Near Eastern History at the University of Chicago, by the sixth century paganism was receding in the face of the gradual spread of monotheism. Hanifism arose in Mecca and spread throughout the Hijaz. Its members “turned away from” idolatry, seeking to follow the original, essential monotheism of Abraham, before the establishment of either Judaism or Christianity.
Prophets and spiritual Teachers are not born in a vacuum. The influences and practices of contemporary and historical thinkers and prophets fuel their reactions to the world around them. Jesus, for example, was likely influenced by the theological and ethical teachings of Jeremiah and Hillel, the latter died in his youth and both prophets’ views were at the time, well known in the area. In Hanifism we find a key to Mohammad’s prophetic inspiration. To quote Barnaby Rogerson again: “As Muhammad grew in wealth and wisdom he joined a select group of thinkers in Mecca known as the hanif, the seekers. The hanif searched for a coherent religious identity for the Arabs, a clear doctrine to replace the welter of deities and the shambles of blood sacrifices held around the temple at Mecca. They focused their attention on the all-encompassing father god Allah whom they freely equated with the Jewish Yahweh and the Christian Jehovah.”
The Hanifs regularly spent some of their time away from the polytheist environment and made retreats to nearby hills to meditate, contemplate and pray, as did Mohammad. One such hill was Hira’ the location where Mohammad would receive what is known as his first revelation. Hanifs, in common with the directives given in the Qu’ran, worshipped only the one God, who required commitment to a moral code: believers had to strive to be morally upright, mindful of an afterlife when one’s choices would be judged.
The Qur’an has several entries that mention Hanif, for example: 22:31 Be hanif in religion towards Allah, and never assigning partners to Him: if anyone assigns partners to Allah, it is as if he had fallen from heaven and been snatched up by birds, or the wind had thrown him into a distant place.
The History of Mohammad
Less than one hundred years after Mohammad’s death in 632 the first Muslim historians began to write about his life. These were Muhammad ibn Ishaq (d. 767), Muhammad ibn ‘Umar al-Waqidi (d. c. 820); Muhammad ibn Sa’d (d. 845); and Abu Jarir at-Tabari (d. 923). These scholars reconstructed their narrative from oral traditions and early documents, and through their effort we know more about Mohammad than we do any other Prophet.
Nevertheless we need to keep in mind that the stories of Mohammad’s life were written to satisfy contemporary norms and included miraculous and legendary stories that might be misinterpreted today. As we have noted with the stories surrounding the Axial Sages, the Old Testament and the Gospels, such accounts are not to be taken literally. According to Reza Aslan they “function as prophetic topos: a conventional literacy theme that can be found in most mythologies. Like the infancy narratives in the Gospels, these stories are not intended to relate historical events, but to elucidate the mystery of the prophetic experience. They answer the questions: What does it mean to be a prophet? … It is not important whether the stories describing the childhood of Muhammad, Jesus or David are true. What is important is what these stories say about our prophets, our messiahs, our kings: that theirs is a holy and eternal vocation, established by God from the moment of creation.” (No god but God, The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, Reza Aslan.)
Not much is known about his early childhood, but according to tradition Mohammad was born in Mecca in 570, the year known as the year of the Elephant, in which Mecca was miraculously saved (see below). He was a Quraysh from the clan of Hashim. Many stories surround his childhood and birth, which was announced in a tale similar to the Christian story of Mary: Mohammad’s mother, a widow named Amina, one day heard a voice say to her: “You carry in your womb the lord of this people, and when he is born, say: ‘I place him beneath the protection of the One, from the evil of every envious person’, then name him Muhammad.”
The Year of the Elephant
Tradition tells that Abraha, the Abyssinian Christian ruler of Yemen, attacked Mecca with a herd of elephants imported from Africa. Abraha’s goal was to destroy the Ka’ba and make the Christian church at Sana’ the new religious center of the Arab world. The terrified Quraysh had never seen an elephant, much less a whole herd, so they ran to the mountains to escape, leaving the Ka’ba with no defense. But just as it was about to be attacked, the sky went dark as a flock of birds, each carrying a stone in its beak, rained down on the invading army which was forced to retreat.
Mohammad was orphaned at the age of six when his mother died, and went to live with his grandfather Abd-Al-Muttalib, who was in charge of providing the water of the Zam-Zam to pilgrims. But by the time he was eight years old, his grandfather, too, had died and Mohammad was taken in by his Uncle Abu Talib and employed in his successful caravan business, so he was saved from a life of slavery or indebtedness experienced by so many orphans at the time. In a story that resembles that of Samuel in the Old Testament and others of that genre, it was on a trading expedition to Syria, when Mohammad was only nine years old, that a Christian monk named Bahira recognized him as “the Messenger of the Lord of the Worlds.”
At twenty-five, when Mohammad was still unmarried and dependent on his uncle, he met a very distant cousin, Khadija, a beautiful widow, then probably in her late thirties. Khadija was unusual for a woman of her time, she was a respected member of Meccan society and a very successful businesswoman in her own right. In spite of his tenuous social circumstances, according to Ibn Hisham, Mohammad had a reputation for “truthfulness, reliability, and nobility of character,” and Khadija entrusted him to take a caravan of goods to Syria and sell it. When he returned home with more profits than she anticipated, she proposed marriage to him and he accepted, thus acquiring status and entry into Meccan society. Although polygamy was the norm at the time, Mohammad and Khadija were in a monogamous marriage for twenty-five years until her death. They had six children.
As an orphan himself, Mohammad would have been aware of just how easy it was to fall outside Mecca’s religio-economic system. With his marriage and his businesses doing well, he now had access to the prosperous life. He saw firsthand that although the leading families of the Quraysh believed in the one God, this belief was not relevant to their lives; they had forgotten that everything depended upon Him. Now that they were rich, they adhered to the very worst aspects of murawah and had thrown away the best: they were arrogant, reckless, niggardly and egotistical; they had become self-centered, no longer believing in anything but riches and took no responsibility for people outside their immediate, elite circle.
Mohammad saw the decline in traditional values as a threat to the very existence of his tribe. He was sure that social reform had to be based on a new spiritual foundation for it to actually take effect. As a trader, Mohammad came in frequent contact with Jews and Christians. According to the scholar Ikbal Ali Shah, Mohammad made “an exhaustive study of other religions.” He was aware that his own people, although they believed in al-Lah, lacked a sacred book of their own. “The people of the Book” had codified Laws that were both religious and social, governing their behavior from dawn to dusk. His own people had no such thing and because of this their lives were in chaos, many were suffering and destitute, and the whole tribe was in danger of extinction.
Before the revelations, he had no idea that his destiny would be to implement these vital changes. He was from a minor clan, the Hashim, and scholars point out that, in common with other prophets before him, he initially wanted nothing to do with what was happening to him and was extremely upset, so much so that without Khadija’s intervention “Mohammad might have gone through with his plan to end it all, and history would have turned out quite differently.” (Reza Aslan)