The Pre-Islamic Religion of the Arabs
By Evan Ploeckelman / Arab America Contributing Writer
While the pre-Islamic Arabs practiced many different religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism, they actually did have their own native religion. This religion also had a significant impact on the development of Islam and subsequent Arab culture.
What is the Pre-Islamic Arab Religion?
The pre-Islamic Arab religion was polytheistic, meaning that they believed in and worshipped many different deities. Some of these deities included natural forces, such as the sun, or shams. Other deities represented more abstract concepts. However, the specific deities worshipped depended on whether one lived in an urban or rural area. The Bedouins of the desert usually worshipped deities that represented natural forces and typically involved totems or idols in their worship. Arabs who lived in cities tended to worship a pantheon of deities, similar to the Greek or Roman pantheon, and typically worshipped in shrines.
The supreme god of the Arab pantheon was Allah, who is usually associated with creation. Little is known about the origin of Allah or any particular mythology surrounding this deity. This is either because of the destruction of these sources after the advent of Islam or because there were not any sources at all. What is known is that Allah had three daughter goddesses: al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat. Al-Lat is generally associated with war, peace, and the moon; al-Uzza with might, love, and fertility; and Manat with fate. The Arabs worshipped other spirits and deities, including the spirits of ancestors. Like with Allah, we have very few sources of mythology to really understand these deities beyond simple epithets.
Practices of the Pre-Islamic Arabs
There is, however, much more information on the practices of the pre-Islamic religion. Stones were of particular importance to the Arabs and were often thought to house deities, jinn, or spirits. As such, they were often venerated. These stones can still be seen in places like Petra. Eventually, the Arabs added idols to their worship alongside these sacred stones. While most deities had idols dedicated to them, we have no evidence that any idol was dedicated to Allah.
In urban areas, these stones and idols began to be placed in shrines, or haram or muhram. The most well-known of these is the Kaaba, which is currently the holiest place in Islam. Prior to Muhammad’s revelations, the Kaaba housed up to 360 idols and a sacred stone, denoting Hubal, the god of divination. A common practice at the Kaaba was to throw arrows at the statue, and the direction the arrows faced upon landing indicated one’s destiny. Circumambulation, or marching around the shrine, was also a common practice.
Pilgrimage to shrines, or hajj, was a common practice among the pre-Islamic Arabs. These included places like the Kaaba, but also shrines to other deities, such as al-Lat or other minor deities. The months in which these pilgrimages took place were supposed to be violence-free, which mirrors the Islamic months where violence is forbidden. These pilgrimages generally involved prayer and ritual sacrifice.
Animal sacrifice was particularly common, especially of camels, sheep, and cattle. Oftentimes, they were sacrificed by slitting their ears and letting the animal die a natural death. Other times, the animals were sacrificed directly on an altar. After the sacrifice, the community typically held a feast. On rare occasions, a prisoner of war may have been sacrificed, but this is disputed.
The pre-Islamic Arabs believed in jinn or supernatural beings. Contrary to current Islamic beliefs, jinn were not inherently evil; there were both positive and helpful ones, evil and negative ones, and ambivalent ones. The positive ones are said to have inspired pre-Islamic poets and philosophers. The evil ones were called ghouls, which comes from the Arabic word ghala, to seize. They are said to be ugly and have the appearance of a donkey. Some descriptions of ghouls show them as graveyard dwellers who feast on corpses and lure in humans to kill and eat them. Other accounts show that they lived in desolate areas, and would attack and eat passersby in the form of a hyena. When someone encounters a ghoul, they are supposed to say: “Oh ass-footed one, just bray away, we won’t leave the desert plain nor ever go astray.” Jinn were sometimes worshipped by the rural Bedouins, but less so by urban Arabs.
Similarities between the Pre-Islamic Religion and Islam
Some pre-Islamic religions were actually monotheistic. Some groups only worshipped Allah, such as the South Arabians, where he is referred to as Rahman, or “The Most Merciful”. However, this deity was not yet associated with the Abrahamic God until the establishment of Islam. They were also less monotheistic in the sense that there were still other Gods, but the only one worthy of worship was Allah or Rahman.
In the modern era, no one practices this pre-Islamic religion. However, many aspects have lived on in Islam. The Kaaba, the hajj, the concept of things that are haram, the name of God, Allah, and the existence of jinn are all parts of Islam that originate from the pre-Islamic faith. As such, one could say that Muslims around the world still recognize some aspects of the ancient religion.
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