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Religion in Arabia before Islam

By: Ayatullah Ja'far Subhani
When Prophet Ibrahim hoisted the standard of the worship of Almighty Allah and raised the foundations of the Holy Ka'bah with the assistance of his son Isma'il some people gathered round him and the rays of his sun-like personality illuminated their hearts. However, the extent to which this great soul could combat with idol-worship and form compressed rows of the worshippers of Allah, is not known for certain.
During many periods, and especially amongst the Arabs, belief in the worship of God was mostly accompanied by polytheism and by the faith that idols were manifestations of the Deity. Out of their various beliefs the Holy Qur'an has mentioned one such belief saying, If you ask them who created the heavens and the earth they are bound to answer: "The Almighty the All-knowing, created them," (Surah al-Zukhruf, 43:9). We serve them (i.e. idols etc.) only that they may bring us nearer to God. (Surah al-Zumar, 39:3 ).
Ali, the Commander of the Faithful, describes the religious conditions of the Arab peoples in the following words
"People of those days possessed various creeds and different heresies and were divided into many sects. One group likened Allah to His creatures (and believed that He possessed limbs). Others brought about changes in His names (for example the idol-worshippers who had adopted 'Lat' from Allah and 'Uzza' from Aziz). There was also a group who pointed to those other than Him. Later He guided them through the Holy Prophet and made them conversant with the knowledge of Divinity" (Nahjul Balaghah, Sermon 1)
The enlightened people amongst the Arabs worshipped the sun and the moon. The renowned Arab historian Kalbi who died in the year 206 A.H. writes thus "The tribe named Bani Malih worshipped the genii, and the tribes of Humayr, Kananah, Tamim, Lakham, Tai, Qays and Asad, worshipped the sun, the moon, the Dabran (a star in the sign of the zodiac named Taurus), the Jupiter, the Canopus, the Dog-star and the Mercury respectively. However, the degraded section of the society which formed majority of the inhabitants of Arabia, besides worshipping the idols of their own families and tribes, worshipped another 360 idols and ascribed the daily happenings to one of them".
The reasons for the birth of idol-worship in the areas of Makkah after the passing away of the Holy Prophet Ibrahim will be discussed later. However, it is an admitted fact that in the early days this practice was not so perfect. In the beginning the Arabs considered the idols to be mere interceders and gradually imagined them to be possessing power. The idols arranged round the Ka'bah were entitled to affection and respect by all tribes, but the idols of the tribes were adored by a particular group only. Every tribe allocated a specified place to its idols to ensure their safety. The office of custodian of the keys of the temples in which idols were installed was hereditary and was handed down from one person to another.
Family idols were worshipped by the members of a family every day and night. While proceeding on journey they rubbed them with their bodies. While travelling they worshipped the desert stones. When they reached a halting place they selected four stones. Out of these they worshipped the most beautiful one and used the remaining three as a stand for the fire-place to cook food.
The people of Makkah had great attachment for the sanctuary. While proceeding on a journey they picked up stones from its precincts and installed and worshipped them, whenever they broke the journey. Possibly these were the very 'ansab' (the installed ones) which have been interpreted as smooth and amorphous stones. As opposed to these were the 'awthan' which meant well shaped and painted idols made from hewn stones.
As regards 'asnam', however, they were idols made with moulded gold or silver or carved out of wood.
Humility of Arabs before the idols was really surprising. They believed that by offering sacrifices they could win their good-will. And after offering sacrifice of an animal they rubbed its blood on the head and the face of the idol. They also consulted the idols in big and important matters. This consultation was through sticks on one of which they wrote 'Do' and on the other 'Don't do'. Then they stretched their hand, picked up one of the sticks and acted according to the writing on it.

The Arabs explained away this difficult philosophical problem in this manner: After the death of a person his soul comes out of his body in the shape of a bird called `Hamah wa Sada' which resembles an owl and it laments continuously by the side of the corpse, its lamentations being very dreadful and frightening. When the dead person is buried, his soul takes up its abode, in the aforesaid manner, by his grave and stays there for ever. At times it goes and sits on the roof of the house of his children to get itself acquainted with their conditions.
If a person dies an unnatural death the said bird incessantly cries "Asquni Asquni" (i.e. quench my thirst with the blood of my murderer) and does not become quiet till revenge is taken on the murderer.
It is here that the real position becomes crystal clear to the esteemed reader and he learns that the history of Arabia before Islam and that after the dawn of Islam are antithetical to each other. Whereas the former is the tale of killing and burying alive of female children, plundering, woe and misery and idol-worship, the latter tells us about kindness to orphans, generosity and sympathy for humanity and worship of the One.
Of course, a group of the Jews and the Christians also lived in the same society but displayed aversion to idol-worship. The principal seat of the Jews was Yathrib, whereas the Christians resided in Najran. Unfortunately these two communities had also become involved in deviations with regard to the Oneness of Allah.

The best means of analysing the spirit and intellect of a nation is the literary works and stories inherited by it. The literature, poetry and stories of every community represent its beliefs, serve as criteria for its culture, and display its way of thinking. Literature of every nation is like a painted tableau which makes us visualise the life of a family as well as a chain of natural scenes and tumultuous multitudes or theatres of war and plunder.
The poetry of the Arabs and the proverbs current amongst them can, more than anything else, show the real character of their history. A historian desirous of becoming fully acquainted with the real spirit of a nation should not, as far as possible, ignore its various intellectual monuments like poetry, prose, proverbs, stories etc. Fortunately the Muslim scholars have, as far as possible, recorded the literature of the Arabs pertaining to the age of ignorance.
Abu Tamam Habib bin Aws (died 2 31 A.H.) who is reckoned to be one of the Shi 'ah men of letters and has to his credit verses in praise of Shi'ah leaders of faith, has collected a large number of poems composed during the age of ignorance and has arranged them in ten sections as Epic poems -Threnodies Literature - Lyric poems pertaining to the period of youth - Satires of individuals and tribes - Verses appropriate for hospitality and generosity - Eulogies - Qualities, natural disposition and character - Wit and humour; and Maligning women.
The Muslim scholars and literary men have written many commentaries on this book to explain the meanings of the words and the intent of the poets. The book itself has been translated into many foreign languages, some of which have been mentioned in Mu'jamul Matbu'at (page 297).

There is no doubt about the fact that the Arabs possessed extraordinary martial spirit and excelled many other nations in the art of warfare. This spirit was certainly commendable and worthy of appreciation, so much so that even Islam made wide use of this tendency of theirs after harmonising it. And it is a matter of great honour for Islam that after making proper adjustments in the tendencies of various nations it utilised them for the achievement of very noble aims and objects. However, before the appearance of Islam, this spirit of the Arabs was always put into action to destroy the structure of life of different tribes and did not produce any result except bloodshed, murder and plunder.
The Arabs had developed the habit of bloodshed and pillage to such an extent that at the time of self-glorification they counted plunder as one of their honours. This fact is quite evident from their poetry and literature.
One of the poets of the Age of Ignorance, while observing the lowly condition and humbleness of his tribe in the matter of murder and plunder, felt very much aggrieved and expressed his aspirations in these words: "O' that instead of belonging to this weak and worthless tribe I had been the member of a tribe, whose men, whether mounted or on foot, always indulged in pillage and plunder, and put an end to the lives of others".

We have now acquired a general idea of the civilisation of the Arabs of the Age of Ignorance. In the meanwhile it has also become clear that no just and well-informed person can accept the view that the social conditions of the Hijaz, with all the chaos, savagery and general moral degradation, could give birth to such a great universal movement which should assimilate all the apparent intellectual powers of the world of that time and should restore peace and order in that troubled area by means of a sublime programme. And it has also become evident that the assertion made by some short-sighted persons that Islam was a natural outcome of that society is really surprising. Such a view would, of course, have been justified if this great movement had made its debut in some civilised regions, but it would be mere wishful thinking to make such a claim about the Hijaz.
Now with a view to complete our discussion on the subject we give below an account of the beliefs and thinking of the Arabs of the Age of Ignorance about different matters.

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