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.

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