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Superstitions and Myths of the Arabs before Islam

By: Ayatullah Ja'far Subhani
The Holy Qur'an has mentioned the objectives of the prophetic mission of the Holy Prophet of Islam in short sentences. One of those precise sentences, which deserves careful scrutiny, is this: He shall relieve them of their burdens and of the shackles that weigh upon them. (Surah al-A'raf, 7:151) viz. the Prophet of Islam relieved them of difficult exercises and removed the chains with which their hands and feet were tied. Now it should be clearly understood as to what is meant by the chains with which the hands and feet of the Arabs of the Age of Ignorance were tied at the time of the dawn of Islam. Certainly they do not mean iron chains and shackles, but denote the very groundless beliefs and superstitions which had restrained their intellects from making any advancement. And the fact is that the chains and cords which are tied to the intellect of man are more dangerous and harmful than the iron chains themselves, because after some time has passed the iron chains are removed and the imprisoned man emerges into life once again with a healthy mind, free from all extravagant ideas, but the chains of superstitions and futilities which wrap up human intellect and reason, like tangled thread, keep man fastened till his very death and prevent him from making any effort - even an effort to remove these ties and shackles. And whereas a man with a healthy mind can contrive to break any iron chains or bars with the help of his reason and intellect, the activities and efforts of one devoid of healthy reasoning and imagination come to nought and remain absolutely futile.
One of the greatest honours and distinctions of the Holy Prophet is that he fought against superstitions, extravagant beliefs and myths, and cleansed the human intellect and reason of the disgusting faith of superstitions. He used to say "I have come to strengthen the intellectual power of human beings and to put up a strong fight against all types of superstitions, even though they may be helpful for the advancement of my mission".
Politicians of the world who have no aim or object other than ruling over the people always use every occurrence to their own advantage. So much so that if ancient myths or superstitious beliefs of a nation are helpful for their state and government they do not hesitate about propagating them. And if they are reflective and logical persons, then they lend support to irrational myths and superstition under the presence of appreciation of common thinking and respect for the beliefs of the majority. However, the Holy Prophet of Islam not only repressed the superstitious beliefs which were harmful for himself and for the society but even if a local myth or a baseless idea was helpful for the advancement of his mission he campaigned against it with full force and endeavoured that people should follow truth and not myths and superstitions.
Ibrahim, a male child of the Holy Prophet passed away. The Prophet was sad and grieved on account of his demise and tears trickled from his eyes involuntarily. Solar eclipse took place on the day the child died. The superstitious and myth-loving Arabs considered the eclipse to be a sign of the greatness of the affliction of the Holy Prophet and said "The sun has been eclipsed on account of the death of the son of the Prophet". The Holy Prophet happened to hear these words. He mounted the pulpit and said: 'The sun and the moon are two great signs of the Omnipotence of Allah and obey His orders. They are not eclipsed on account of the death or life of anyone. Whenever solar or lunar eclipse takes place offer signs prayers". Having said this he dismounted the pulpit and offered signs prayers along with others."[9]
Although the idea that the solar eclipse had taken place on account of the death of the son of the Holy Prophet could strengthen the belief of the people in him and could consequently help in the advancement of his mission, he did not at all like that his position should be strengthened in the hearts of the people by means of a superstition.
His campaign against myths and superstitions, an outstanding example of which is the fight which he put up against idol-worship and all kinds of spurious divinity, was not peculiar to the period of his prophetic mission. He had fought against superstitions throughout his life - even during his childhood days.
One day, when the age of the Holy Prophet Muhammad did not exceed four years, and he was spending his days with his foster-mother Halimah, he expressed a desire to accompany his foster-brothers to the jungle. Halimah says "On the following day I bathed Muhammad, oiled his hair and put collyrium in his eyes. I also put round his neck, for the sake of his safety, a Yemen bead, which had been fixed in a thread, so that he might remain immune from the evil spirits. Muhammad removed the bead from his neck and spoke thus to me: "Dear mother! Be comforted. My God who is always with me is my Protector and Preserver!"[10]

At the time of the dawn of Islam the beliefs of all the nations and societies of the world were entwined with different sorts of superstitions and myths and the Greek and Sasanian mythologies ruled the minds of the nations which were considered to be the most advanced in those days. And even now many superstitions are in vogue amongst the developing nations of the East and the modern civilisation has not been able to eradicate them from their minds. However, the growth of myths and superstitions is in proportion to the extent of knowledge and learning in a society. The more backward a society is in the matter of education and learning the larger would be the number of superstitions prevalent in it.
History has recorded a large number of myths and superstitions pertaining to the Arabs and Sayyid Mahmud Alusi, the author of the book "Bulughul adab fi ma'rifat ahwalil 'Arab"[11] has collected many of them in that very book, along with a chain of authorities who have referred to them in their verses. Going through this and other books one comes across a multitude of superstitions. This baseless train of groundless beliefs was one of the reasons for this nation lagging behind others. It was absolutely natural that a nation, the number of whose literate persons in the centre of the region of the Hijaz did not exceed seventeen,[12] should be preoccupied with superstitions and myths.
These myths were the greatest impediment in the way of the progress of Islam and for this reason the Holy Prophet endeavoured his best to eradicate the signs of 'ignorance' which consisted of these superstitions and myths. While sending Mu'az bin Jabal to Yemen he gave him the following instructions: "O Mu'az! Remove from amongst the people the signs of ignorance and the superstitious ideas and beliefs and revive the traditions of Islam which call upon us to reflect and be reasonable."[13]
As against the great masses of Arabs who had been ruled for ages by superstitious beliefs, the Holy Prophet used to say: "All the traces of ignorance are under my feet" i.e. by the advent of Islam all the baseless customs, beliefs and means of distinction have been annihilated and have been trampled under my feet.[14]
Now, in order to elucidate the worth of the teachings of Islam, we give below a brief account of the beliefs of the Arabs of the age of ignorance:

Many areas of the Arabian Peninsula are usually faced with drought. To ensure coming of rains the people of such places used to procure the branches of the trees named Sala' and 'Ushr which catch fire easily. They tied these branches to the tail of a cow and drove it to the top of a mountain. Later they set fire to these branches. On account of the presence of inflammable material in the branches of 'Ushr flames rose from the fire and burnt the body of the cow. Owing to the pain caused by burning, the cow began running and crying. These people committed this foul act treating it as a token of resemblance with the celestial thunder and lightning. They treated the flames of fire and the cries of the cow as representing lightning and thunder respectively and considered this act as effective for rainfall.

The Arabs took the cows and the oxen to the bank of a stream for making them drink water. At times it so happened that the oxen drank water but the cows did not. Thereupon they thought that this was due to the evil spirits which had accommodated themselves between the horns of the oxen and which did not permit the cows to drink water. In order, therefore, to drive away the bad spirits they hit on the faces of the oxen.

If a disease appeared amongst the camels or ulcers or blisters were observed on their lips or throats a healthy camel was procured and its lips, upper leg and thigh were branded so as to prevent the disease spreading to other camels. However, the reason for such action is not clear. It may be considered probable that this action has a preventive aspect and was a sort of scientific treatment, but in view of the fact that out of many camels only one was selected for being subjected to such affliction it may be said that this too was a superstitious practice and was resorted to on fictitious grounds.

When a person of distinction died a camel was confined in a pit near his grave and was not given any water or fodder so that it might die and the dead person might be riding on it on the Day of Judgement and might not rise on foot.

Keeping in view the fact that a person, while alive, used to slaughter camels to entertain his kinsmen and guests and as a mark of respect and recompense to him his successors cut off the feet of a camel near his grave in a manner very painful to the animal.

Such acts (besides the fact that none of them conforms with logic and scientific reasoning, because rains do not fall by kindling fire, striking an ox does not have any effect on a cow, branding a healthy camel does not cure sick camels etc.) are a sort of cruelty to animals. If we compare these beliefs and actions with firm rules prescribed by Islam for the protection of animals we shall certainly say that this religious law had declared an open war against the thinking of the society.
There are numerous Islamic regulations regarding the protection of animals and it may be mentioned in this behalf that the Holy Prophet has said "An animal for riding has six rights on its master
: (1) When he breaks his journey he should provide the animal with fodder. (2) If and when he passes by water he should let the animal drink it. (3) He should not strike the animal on its face. (4) When he indulges in a lengthy conversation with someone else he should not remain seated on the back of the animal. (5) He should not load excessive burden on the animal. (6) He should not compel the animal to traverse a distance which is beyond its capacity".[15]

If a person was bitten by a snake or by a scorpion, gold ornaments were put round his neck. They believed that if such a person carried copper or tin on his body he would die. As regards rabies (i.e. the ailment which is caused by dog-bite) they treated it by rubbing a small quantity of the blood of the chief of the tribe on the wound. And in case signs of madness appeared in anyone, he took refuge in dirt and dirty rags and bones of the dead were hung round his neck to drive away the evil spirit.
To ensure that their child should not sustain injury from the evil spirits they tied the teeth of a fox and cat to a thread and put it round his neck. As and when a child developed boils or pimples on his body, his mother put a sieve on her head and went round the houses of the tribe to collect bread and dates, which she gave to the dogs, so that the boils and pimples of her child might be healed. Other women of the tribe took care that their own children did not eat those dates and bread lest they too should contract the same ailment.
If a person contracted a skin disease (for example, a disease which had a rasping effect on the body) he used to treat it by rubbing his saliva on the spot.
If the illness of a person was prolonged they imagined that the patient had killed a snake or some other animal having connections with the evil spirits. In order to beg forgiveness of the evil spirits, therefore, they prepared clay images of camels and loaded them with barley, wheat and dates. They left all these things opposite a hole in a mountain and then visited that place on the following day. If they found that the said things had been consumed they considered it a sign of the acceptance of the presents by the evil spirits and concluded that the patient would be cured. If, however, the position was otherwise they thought that the presents being insignificant the evil spirits had not accepted them.

Islam campaigned against these superstitions in various ways. There were some nomadic Arabs who used to treat their sick with magical appendages and collars studded with stones and bones. When they appeared before the Holy Prophet and endured the treatment of the sick with herbs and medicines, the Holy Prophet said "It is necessary for every sick person to find out the medicine, because Allah who has created an ailment has also created a medicine for it.[16]
And when S'ad bin Abi Waqqas developed heart trouble the Holy Prophet said to him "You should go and see Harith Kaldah, the famous physician of Thaqif". Later the Holy Prophet himself suggested a particular medicine to him.[17]
There are other narratives also declaring the magical appendages to be devoid of any effect whatsoever. Here we quote two of them: "A person whose son was suffering from pain in his throat came before the Holy Prophet with magical appendages. The Holy Prophet said to him, "Do not frighten your children with these magical appendages. You should treat this ailment with aloe-wood oil''.[18]
Imam Sadiq has said "Most of the amulets and appendages amount to polytheism".[19]
By guiding the people to the use of numerous medicines (the particulars of all of which have been collected by the great Muslim narrators of Hadith under the headings Tibur Rasul (Medicine of the Prophet), Tibur Rida (Medicine of Al-Rida, etc.) the Holy Prophet and his Holy successors once again hit out against these superstitions and had, so to say, collared the Arabs of the Age of Ignorance.

They employed the following means to ward off anxiety and fear: Whenever they arrived in a village they were afraid of some contagious disease or evil spirits. To get rid of this fear they brayed ten times like a donkey at the gate of the village. At times they also hanged the bones of a fox round their necks. If they lost their way while travelling in the desert, they wore their shirt after turning it inside out. While travelling they feared immorality on the part of their women. To gain assurance in this behalf they tied a thread to the stalk or branches of a tree. If the thread was intact at the time of their return they were satisfied that their women had not been guilty of immorality. If, however, they found the thread untied or missing they slandered their women.
If the teeth of their children fell they caught them with two fingers and flung them towards the sun saying "O sun! Give him better teeth than these".
In case the children of a woman did not live (i.e. died during infancy) they believed that her children would live if she walked seven times over the slain body of a distinguished person.
This is a brief account of the innumerable superstitions which had darkened the lives of the Arabs of the Age of Ignorance and had restrained their intellects from flying high.
[9] Biharul Anwar, vol. XXII, page 155.
[10] Biharul Anwar, vol. Vl, page 92
[11] Biharul Anwar, vol. II, pp 286 - 369
[12] Vide 'Futuhul Buldan' Balazari' page 458
[13] Tuhaful 'Uqul, page 29
[14] Seerah-i Ibn Hisham, vol. III, page 421
[15] Man la Yahzaruhul Faqih, page 228
[16] at-Taj, vol. III, page 178. The Holy Prophet meant to say that the appendages were not an effective treatment.
[17] at-Taj, vol. III, page 179
[18] at-Taj, vol. Ill, page 184
[19] Safinatul Bihar, root word raqa

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