Friday, April 17, 2015

The Religious Life of Pre-Islamic Arabia

To supplement my reading of the Qur’an, and deepen my understanding of Islam, I’ve begun reading a book by scholar Reza Aslan called No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. I’ve read other works by Aslan, and I love his clear and engaging writing style, plus his massive knowledge of religious history.  Today, I read a chapter about the religious life of pre-Islamic Arabia.  

What was the religious climate of Arabia before Islam?  Put another way, what was the religious world that the prophet Muhammad was born into?  Jesus was born into first century Judaism, and it was this religious worldview that produced Christianity.  What religious worldview was Muhammad born into that formed the foundation of Islam?  

Muhammad was born in Mecca, around the year 570.  At this time, in Mecca, the center of religious devotion was the Ka’aba, the big black cube that was thought to have been built by Adam, destroyed by the flood, re-built by Noah, and later re-discovered by Abraham.  At this time, the Ka’aba housed hundreds of Arabian and near eastern deities, the most important of which was Allah, who had three daughters named Allat, al-Uzza, and Manat.  Also included in the Ka’aba were statues of Jesus and Mary, right alongside Hubal (Syrian god of the moon), al-Kutba (Nabatean god of writing and divination), and a host of other gods.    

Al-lat, daughter of Allah.

Put simply, the religious life of pre-Islamic Mecca may be described as “polytheistic.”  But that word doesn’t really do justice to the plurality of religious people and ideas that passed through Mecca, which was both a religious and economic center.  There were Jews who lived in the Arabian peninsula, some of whom had migrated there after the Babylonian exile, and later the destruction of the Jerusalem temple by Rome in 70 C.E.  As previously mentioned, Jewish religious figures like Adam, Noah, and Abraham were an important part of the mythology surrounding the Ka’aba.

There were also Christians living in pre-Islamic Arabia.  In Yemen, the city of Najran was the hub of Arab Christianity.  A number of Arab tribes had, in fact, converted to Christianity.  Before the Council of Nicea established “official” orthodoxy, there were many Christianities: Modalist, Nestorian, and Gnostic Christianity, to name a few.  After the Council of Nicea, many of these sects were declared “heresies,” but some still lived on in places like Arabia.  

There was also a Zoroastrian presence in the Arabian peninsula.  The Lakhmids and the Persian Sasanians were Zoroastrian, which means they followed the teachings of the prophet Zarathustra, who taught about Ahura Mazda (The Wise Lord), who produced two opposing spirits: Spenta Mainyu (the good spirit), and Angra Mainyu (the bad spirit).  There was also the counterpart to the Wise Lord named Ahriman, the God of Darkness, who became the archetype for Satan.  

Portrait of Zarathustra.

Reza Aslan characterizes the religious life of pre-Islamic Arabia as “henotheism” which means a belief in a single “high God” without rejecting the existence of other, subordinate gods.  Aslan writes: “By the 6th century C.E., henotheism had become the standard belief of the vast majority of sedentary Arabs, who not only accepted Allah as their High God, but insisted that he was the same god as Yahweh, the God of the Jews.”

Perhaps the closest ancestor to Islam was an Arab monotheistic movement known as Hanifism, which involved a rejection of polytheism (i.e. idolatry), belief in an absolute morality, and a Day of Judgment—all important features of what would become Islam.  An important prophet of Hanifism was Zayd, a kind of preacher/poet.  Some have seen him as a kind of John the Baptist figure, preparing the way for Muhammad.  In fact, some biographers of Muhammad record a meeting between a young Muhammad and the sage Zayd, in which the two exchanged ideas.

Aslan writes, “The picture that emerges from this brief outline of the pre-Islamic Arabian religious experience is that of an era in which Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Judaism intermingled in one of the last remaining regions in the Near East still dominated by paganism, albeit a firmly henotheistic paganism.”  In short, Muhammad was born into a environment rich with religious influences.

The Qur'an Surah 34: Sheba

The following is from a work-in-progress called The Qur'an: a Book Report, in which I read each surah of the Qur'an and write about what I learn. 

This surah takes its title from a story told about the people of Sheba, another name for the ancient Kingdom of Saba in southern Arabia, in modern-day Yemen.  The Sabean Kingdom lasted from about 1200 B.C.E. to about 275 C.E., which means that, by the time the Qur'an was written in the 600s B.C.E., the Sabeans were an important, but distant, memory.

"Sheba" gives a religious explanation for why that ancient kingdom fell.  Basically, God blessed them with two bountiful gardens, and asked only that they showed him gratitude.  But, like the ancient Israelites complaining about God's provision in the wilderness of Sinai, the Sabeans were ungrateful.  So God sent a flood, which destroyed the two bountiful gardens.  In their place, there rose up "others that yielded bitter fruit, tamarisk bushes, and a few lote trees."  Lote trees are notoriously thorny.  Probably because of the unproductivity of the land, the Sabeans were scattered, and their kingdom fell.

The "moral" of the story is quite clear--give proper gratitude to God for what you have.  Of course, the real reasons for the fall of the Sabean Kingdom were more complex, involving many sporadic civil wars between rival dynasties.  But where's the moral in that?

Here is a bust of a Sabean priestess, who intercedes with the sun goddess on behalf of the donor. (1st century C.E.)

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Religion of Prehistoric People

Anyone who has followed my blog over the past year knows that I’ve taken a keen interest in religion.  Last year, I read the whole Bible and wrote The Bible: a Book Report.  Currently, I’m reading the Qur’an for a project I call The Qur’an: a Book Report.  To further understand the interesting phenomenon of religion in the world, I’ve begun reading scholar Mircea Eliade’s epic three-volume A History of Religious Ideas.  I get a real thrill from taking big and complex ideas and trying to make them more communicable via my blog and zines.  Thus, I’m going to try to sum up what I learn from Eliade’s books in a series of blog posts I’m calling A Brief History of Religion.  Here’s my first report, on the religion of “prehistoric” humans.

The term “prehistoric” strikes me as a bit misleading, as it implies that people living before the advent of written language somehow don’t count.  But this is an arrogant view.  Certainly, human beings were living full and imaginative lives before they started writing things down.  And, as Eliade points out, the people we classify as “prehistoric” actually did leave us a wealth of “documents” in the form of tools, weapons, cave paintings, burial sites, sculpture, and other clues regarding their understanding of themselves and their world.  These people were, undoubtedly, religious, even if we don’t fully understand their spirituality.  I’d like to discuss a few of these prehistoric “documents” and what they suggest about the religious lives of our oldest human ancestors.

Burial Sites

The burial of the dead has long been regarded as a practice laden with spiritual significance.  Numerous prehistoric burial sites have been discovered and they suggest profound religious significance.  Some of these sites show human remains buried in the fetal position, suggesting hope of rebirth.  Others show burials oriented toward the east, to connect the fate of the soul with the course of the sun, again suggesting a belief in rebirth, or even an afterlife.  Some notable examples of burials with religious significance include: the Neanterthal child discovered at Teshik Tash, buried surrounded by several ibex horns, the remains found at Mt. Carmel (Israel) showing evidence of humans buried with flowers, and the so-called "Old Man" found at La Chapelle aux-Saints in France.

Burial site at Mt Carmel (Israel) dating to 13,700 years ago (with artist re-creation).

Cave Paintings

I was recently re-introduced to the beauty and mystery of prehistoric cave paintings by the recent Werner Herzog documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which focuses on 30,000 year old Chauvet cave paintings in France.  These exquisitely beautiful and well-preserved paintings have a kind of poetry and mysticism about them.  Depictions of animals, hunters, dancers, and human/animal hybrid characters suggest a kind of "spiritual solidarity" between humans and animals, a belief still held by cultures which practice shamanism.  One interesting feature of the Lascaux caves is a scene of a man and bison in an activity that suggests a kind of shamanic seance, an ecstatic experience.

Cave painting from Chauvet.

The Trois Freres cave paintings in France show a human/animal hybrid creature that reflects belief in a kind of deity which anthropologists have called the "Lord of the Wild Beasts" or "The Sorcerer," a figure common in hunting and pastoralist cultures.  The fact that these cave paintings are often difficult to reach and are relatively inhospitable has led some scholars to describe them as religious sanctuaries, perhaps even sites of ritual and initiation.

Female Figurines (or, Venuses)

Sculptures of prehistoric female figurines (suggesting goddesses/dieties) have been found in France, Italy, and as far away as Siberia.  These female figurines have been described as fertility figures, mythical ancestresses of tribes, spiritual protectors, and as "portable sanctuaries."  Notable examples of these "Venus" female/goddess figurines include the "Venus of Brassempouy" which is around 25,000 years old and is the oldest realistic representation of a human face.  Others include the Venus of Willendorf, and the Venus of Dolni Vestonice, the earliest discovered use of ceramics (about 30,000 years old).

The Venus of Brassempouy.

Anthropologist Andre Leroi-Gourhan, who studied these various "documents" of prehistoric peoples has written: "The representations cover an extremely complex and rich system, a system far richer and more complex than had been previously imagined.  Reflecting on the religious legacy of "prehistoric" peoples, Mircea Eliade writes: "Ecstasy of the shamanic type appears to be documented in the Paleolithic.  This implies, on the one hand, belief in a "soul," able to leave the body and travel freely through the world and, on the other hand, the conviction that, during such a journey, the soul can meet certain superhuman beings and ask them for help or a blessing."

Andre Leroi-Gourhan.



The Qur’an Surah 33: The Joint Forces

The following is from a work-in-progress called The Qur'an: a Book Report, in which I read each surah of the Qur'an and write about what I learn. 

This is a Medinan surah that takes its title from a reference to the Battle of the Trench, in which an army of various tribes besieged Medina, where Muhammad and his followers were living after the hijra (or migration) from Mecca.  The out-numbered Muslims dug a trench, which the joint forces were unable to cross.  After a powerful sandstorm, they retreated.  This victory was seen as a sign of divine favor.  Like many Medinan surahs, this one also gives various laws and regulations dealing with marriage, family, and communal life.

The Battle of the Trench

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Qur'an Surah 32: Prostration

The following is from a work-in-progress called The Qur'an: a Book Report, in which I read each surah of the Qur'an and write about what I learn. 

This surah takes its title from verse 15, which states: "The only people who truly believe in Our messages are those who, when they are reminded of them, bow down in worship, celebrate their Lord's praises, and do not think themselves above this."  Prostration means bowing down completely to the ground (face down) in prayer. 

Prayer is one of the "Five Pillars of Islam" and it is called salat.  Muslims are supposed to pray five times a day in a very ritualistic manner that involves full prostration and specific prayers.  How different this is from modern Christian ideas of prayer, which are more casual.  Never in my life have I prayed in "full prostration" mode.  It seems really intense, but also potentially really meaningful.

The most intense example of religious prostration I've heard of involves certain Buddhist monks who make a pilgrimage to the Bodhi tree in India where the Buddha was enlightened.  These monks travel thousands of miles, over the Himilayan mountains, prostrating themselves all the way.  They will take one step, lay face down, get up, take another step,  and so on.  For literally thousands of miles.  Now that is some serious prostration.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Qur'an Surah 31: Luqman

The following is from a work-in-progress called The Qur'an: a Book Report, in which I read each surah of the Qur'an and write about what I learn. 

This surah takes its title from a man called "Luqman the Wise" a black pre-Islamic prophet from Ethiopia. A sensitive and perceptive man, Luqman was always watching the animals and plants of his surroundings, and trying to understand the world based on what he saw. One day, while sleeping under a tree, an angel came to him and said that Allah wanted to bestow a gift upon Luqman: either wisdom or being king. Luqman chose wisdom, and when he woke from his slumber, he was aware that his senses and understanding had sharpened. He felt in complete harmony with nature and could understand the inner meaning of things, beyond their physical reality.  Luqman is much like the biblical figure of Solomon, in that he chose wisdom over power, and he is known for his wise sayings.  In this surah, here is some cousel Luqman gives his son:

God is self-sufficient and the only true God.

God knows everything.

Keep up your prayers.

Do what is right, and not what is wrong.

Bear your troubles steadfastly.

Don't be arrogant.

Be moderate.

Speak softly, not loudly.

There are many stories about Luqman in Arabic and Turkish literature, most notably the Tafsir ibn Kathir and Stories of the Qur'an by Ibn Kathir.  A famous story involves Luqman being captured and sold as a slave, but winning the respect of his master on account of his great wisdom.  The Bahá'í holy writings also make reference to Luqman.  

I suspect that one of the reasons so many prominent African Americans involved in the Civil Rights movement became Muslim (like Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali) was because Islam is a faith that respects people of color, like Luqman the Wise.

Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Qur'an Surah 30: The Byzantines

The following is from a work-in-progress called The Qur'an: a Book Report, in which I read each surah of the Qur'an and write about what I learn. 

The title of the 30th surah of my English translation of the Qur'an is "The Byzantines."  The actual Arabic title is "Ar-Rum" or "The Romans."  That's right--both the Bible and the Qur'an have books called "Romans."  As it turns out, the connections between Christianity and Islam run deep in this surah.

The context of "The Byzantines" is a defeat of the Eastern Roman Empire (also called Byzantium) by the Persians in 613 at the Battle of Antioch (in Syria).  The Qur'an laments this defeat because the Byzantines were Christians and fellow monotheists.  That's right--at this time, Christians and Muslims were friends and allies.  Their common "enemies" were polytheists like the Persians and Meccans.

This surah offers comfort and hope to both the defeated Byzantine Christians and the emerging Muslim community.  The prophet predicts an ultimate victory for their fellow monotheists.  The surah begins: "The Byzantines have been defeated in their nearest land.  They will reverse their defeat with a victory in a few years' time: God is in command, first and last.  On that day, the believers will rejoice at God's help."

The tone of this surah is one of encouragement and hope amidst difficult times.  The prophet reminds his audience of all the wonderful signs of God in the world: in the creation of human beings, in the "love and kindness" between spouses, in "the diversity of your languages and colors" (That's right--ethnic and cultural diversity is a sign of God's grace), in sleep, in lightning, in water, in the heavens and the earth.  In light of God's generosity and goodness, the prophet encourages generosity to "the needy, and the wayfarer." 

Like the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel, Muhammad says that God has the power to bring life out of death: "Look, then, at the imprints of God's mercy, how he restores the earth to life after death: this same God is the one who will return people to life after death; he has power over all things...so be patient, for God's promise is true."

As it turned out, the prophet was correct.  In 622, the Byzantines rallied their forces and defeated the Persians during Heraclius' campaign of 622.  This was also the same year that Muhammad and his forces scored an unlikely victory against the Meccans at the Battle of Badr.  622 was a good year for monotheism.

Battle Between Byzantines (under Emperor Heraclius) and Persians (under Emperor Khosrau II) by Piero della Francesca.