Pre-Islamic Arab Religion in Islam

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A Pre-Islamic basmala found in Yemen in 2018 and written in South Arabian Script. Right-to-left, the top line reads "bsmlh rḥmn rḥmn rb smwt", which has been interpreted by Ahmad al-Jallad as "In the name of Allāh, the Raḥmān, have mercy upon us, O lord of the heavens" (with the second rḥmn interpreted as rḥm-n)[1]

This article discusses the monotheistic religion of Islam and its pre-Islamic Arab heritage. While the Quran was composed in extensive dialogue with the theology and Judeo-Christian legends of the late antique period, the legacy of its more immediate surroundings continue to this day in terms of names, rituals and some specific beliefs.

History of the name Allah and the Basmala

The Book of Idols by Hisham ibn al-Kalbi (d. 819 CE) is a series of distantly remembered folk tales describing the outright idolatry of the pre-Islamic Arabs, with an overall narrative that this came to an end with the rise of Islam. Academic scholarship today recognises this as a false narrative, serving to bring the immediately pre-Islamic period into a sharper contrast with Islam.[2][3] Our understanding of the religious landscape in pre-Islamic Arabia is being transformed in the 21st century by the study of epigraphic evidence (inscriptions on rocks, rock art, and their archaeological contexts), complemented with careful study of Quranic internal evidence and early Islamic sources, independent of later histographic works.

From the fourth century CE when Himyar began to embrace Judaism, pagan deities almost completely disappear from the epigraphic record of the South Arabian script family, commencing what is known as the monotheistic period in that southern part of Arabia. In their place, a single god, Rḥmnn (literally, The merciful) starts to appear, which eventually becomes the Quranic epithet al-Rahman (more on this below).[4] Professor Ahmad al-Jallad, who is renowned for his work on the languages and writing systems of pre-Islamic Arabia, notes that the name raḥmān appears in a number of south Arabian pre-Islamic inscriptions and is derived from Jewish Aramaic raḥmānā.[5] Sigrid Kjær observes that the use of Rahman (or Rahman-an with the definite article suffix) becomes truely monotheistic only in the sixth century CE, previously used in a monolatric context (the sole object of worship, even while other deities are acknowledged). The Quran has a chronological progression in the use of theonyms, with Rabb (lord) in the earliest phase, then al-Rahman, and later an almost exclusive use of the name Allah.[6]

The word Allāh first appears in the epigraphic record as the name of one of many Nabataean deities in 1st century BCE or 1st century CE northern Arabia.[7] The word possibly might have come from a contraction of al-ʾilāh (the god), though there are some linguistic difficulties with this idea. In any case it was the name of a deity at that time and there is no indication that it was associated with the monotheistic Judeo-Christian god. The name Abd Allah (like the name of Muhammad's father) first appears in a Nabataean pagan context. There they used the same construct also for other gods, for example ʿAbdu Manōti, "servant of Manāt". In Safaitic inscriptions (a script used in the north Arabian desert), the name Allāh is occasionally invoked, though other deities much more so. By the sixth century CE the name Allāh is applied in a monotheistic context around the Hijaz and at some point merges with the Christian al-ʾilāh (the god). Allah appears equated with al-Rahman (who in the south was associated with the Judeo-Christian God) in a pre-Islamic basmala inscription discovered in Yemen, as discussed in the next section below.[8] Al-Jallad writes, "In contrast to South Arabia, the North Arabian monotheistic traditions of the 5th and 6th c. CE invoked al-ʾilāh/allāh. While al-ʾilāh is attested in clear Christian contexts, allāh is rarer and found in confessionally ambiguous contexts. It is impossible at this moment to decide whether the distinction between the two was simply regional or whether it betokened a confessional split. What is clear, however, is that “Raḥmān” was not used in pre-Islamic times in North Arabia."[9]

The Basmala

The Islamic bismillah, "In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful" (Bismillah Ar-Rahman Ar-Raheem), is recited before the start of each surah and begins the al-Fatiha prayer. Within the surahs themselves, it occurs once only, in Quran 27:30.

In 2018 the first known pre-Islamic Basmala inscription was found on the side of a cliff in Yemen, reading in South Arabian Script, "In the name of Allah, Rahman; Rahman lord of the heavens" (bsmlh rḥmn rḥmn rb smwt). The rest of the inscription reads, "satisfy us by means of your favor, and grant us the essense of it (i.e. wisdom) to number our days". Writing about the discovery, Ahmad al-Jallad dates the inscription to the late 6th or early 7th century CE and observes that overall the inscription has a psalm like quality, likely impacted by Jewish or Christian liturgy. He interprets the second rḥmn as rḥm-n ("have mercy on us")[10] He also notes that al-Rahman was originally a distinct deity to Allah, and not a mere descriptor of him seen in the Islamic basmalah. Maslamah, a Yemenite rival prophet to Muhammad, worshipped al-Rahman, the deity of ancient Himyar. Al-Jallad proposes that the basmala was used to synchronize the two monotheistic poles of Arabia, Allah in the north (where other deities completely disappear from the epigraphic record by the sixth century CE) with al-Rahman in the South. This equivalence was probably introduced during the Himyarite northward excursions in the sixth century. This regional difference is echoed in Quran 17:110. Ar-Raheem (the merciful) would then be an Islamic innovation appended to al-Rahman of the pre-Islamic Basmala which by then had come to represent an adjective describing Allah. [11] This pre-Islamic basmala and many other pre-Islamic inscriptions bear similarities with phrases and terminology found in the Quran.[12] Rb smwt in the inscription ("Lord of the heavens") is similar to South Arabian inscriptions in the Sabaic language (mrʾ smyn w-ʾrḍn) a phrase which appears also in verses such as Quran 19:65 ("Lord of the heavens and the earth"; rabbu l-samāwāti wal-arḍi).[13]


Allāh is written lh in this pre-Islamic basmalah inscription found in Yemen, which is a spelling also found in north Arabia where bilingual Safaitic-Greek inscriptions confirm it was vocalised as allāh.[10][7] In 2022, an expedition by al-Jallad together with Hythem Sidky discovered that in 6th to early 7th century pre-Islamic inscriptions, the spelling on inscriptions between Medina and Tabuk is ʾlh (which was also the Nabatean spelling), or lh, or when used in construct (iḍāfah), lhy. However, the double lām spelling ʾllh occurs on inscriptions in the region between Mecca and Taif, which is significant in terms of the spelling found in the Quran. In terms of orthography, the double lām spelling of allāh as found in the Quran is an unusual orthographic practice, since in semitic scripts a doubled consonant is not written twice.[14][7]

Beliefs of the Quranic Mushrikeen

Historian Patricia Crone in a detailed article on the Quranic mushrikeen pointed out that many believed in Allāh as the Judeo-Christian creator god, but associated with him one or more lesser partners, usually described as gods but sometimes his offspring, and that he took female angels for himself. Sometimes these gods are named, most of which have also been found in rock inscriptions. The mushrikeen also believed in jinns and demons, and some worshipped heavenly bodies. Ahab Bdaiwi adds that only rarely is outright paganism found of the kind described in later sources (like Ibn al-Kalbi).[15][16][17]

Allāh in pre-Islamic poetry

Nicolai Sinai notes in his 2019 paper Rain-Giver, Bone-Breaker, Score-Settler: Allāh in Pre-Quranic Poetry, that Allāh also appears in authentic pre-Islamic poetry as the name of an extremely powerful, perhaps best described as a 'high god' of the pagans, and not just the Christian-Judeo God as recognised by Crone. As previous scholars have recognized, for the Qur'anic pagans, Allāh was a creator god with a wide range of powers. In pre-Islamic Arabic poetry we see they considered Allāh a creator of the heavens and Earth, the master of human destinies, provider of rain, and as a God who will avenge oaths not kept. Prayers and Sacrifices were addressed to Allāh, who determines outcome of present goings-on, which overlaps with the Qur'ans proclamation of the pagan opponents. And similarly the Qur'anic pagans, nor the mainstream of pagan pre-Islamic poets, view Allāh as playing an eschatological role (i.e. - the idea of a universal judgment of the resurrected).[18]

General Judeo-Christian Monotheism in Arabia

At the time of Muhammad, the two largest Near-East Empires at the time were the Byzantine (Roman) Empire, of which Christianity was the state religion,[19]and Judaism was still practised.[20] And the Sasanian (Persian) empire where the Nestorian/Church of the East, although not the state religion, was practiced,[21] as was Judaism.[22]These had extensive contact with Arab tribes in the centuries leading up to Islam.

There is certainly evidence of increasing use of probably nomadic Arabs in military units. During the fifth century, numerous Greek and Syriac sources testify to Rome and Persia subsidizing Arab tribal nomads along the frontier, probably for no other reason than because both empires’ financial resources were mostly diverted elsewhere and these nomads would otherwise raid sedentary areas. "Saracen” military units did, however, serve in other campaigns, and the ca. fourth century Roman administrative document Notitia Dignitatum mentions that they served in Egypt, Palestine and Phoenecia. After the battle of Adrianople in 378, Arab forces are reported to have played a role in repelling the Goths from Constantinople. Following the peace of 363, the maintenance of frontier forces was neglected, and it was not until the sixth century that Arab tribesmen would serve in the proxy wars between the Sasanians and Romans closer to home.
Tribal Poetics in Early Arabic Culture: The Case of of Ashʿār al-Hudhaliyyīn. Nathan A Miller. 2016. pp. 52

This is particularly documented with the pro-Roman and Sasanian Arab factions led by two dynasties, the Jafnids or “Ghassānids,” and the Naṣrids or “Lakhmid”,[23] who are depicted in many other non-Arabic sources.[24]

And to the South lay the Himyarite Kingdom (centred in modern day Yemen), in which Christianity and Judaism gained large footholds since the 4th century,[25] with rulers converting.[26]

As alluded to, regardless of tracing exact terms, academic scholarship has long recognised the penetration of Judeo-Christian Monotheism into the Arabian peninsula and among Arab tribes long before Islam. These would have provided both the stories and general concepts to the Hijaz, whether through Christian and Jewish tribes living side-by-side with the Quran's initial community, or simply through travellers telling stories and/or proselytizing, the movement of slaves who knew them, trade and commerce, pilgrimage etc.

The religious milieu of the Ḥijāz, in which the Qurʾan reportedly arose, was well aware of both Judaism and Christianity and the same was also true of other regions frequented by Arabic speakers. Finster (2011, 70–74) has provided a detailed overview of the reported presence of Christianity among the Arab tribes. By the end of the sixth century CE substantial numbers of Arabs in the Levant, Mesopotamia, and Arabia had converted to Christianity: Najrān, an important Arab city 1,000 kilometers to the southeast of Mecca, was predominately Christian by the time Islam arose; the kingdom of Ḥimyar in the south had been under Christian rule for fifty years during the sixth century (Robin 2012); the region of Bet Qaṭraye off the East Arabian coast in the Persian gulf had a Christian presence from the fourth to the ninth century (Witztum 2011, 259); and Petra, the former Nabataean capital, and later southern capital of the Byzantine province of Palaestina Tertia, whose influence spread south into Arabia (Nehmé 2017, 149) and north into the Levant, included a Christian community from at least the third century CE: Asterius, Bishop of Petra, was reported to have attended the Council of Alexandria in 363 CE (Wace and Piercy 1999, 123). The datable Jewish presence in the Arabian Peninsula goes back at least to the first century BCE, both in the Ḥijāz in the north and Ḥimyar in the southwest (Hirschberg 2007, 294; Hoyland 2011, 110). Muslim Arab historians mention around 20 Jewish tribes dwelling among the Arabs (Hirschberg 2007, 294). In the south the Jewish presence had risen to prominence from at least the end of the fourth century CE (Rippin 2005, 14). The Ḥimyarite kingdom had exerted influence into the Ḥijāz for several centuries before Islam arose, and a Jewish monarchy ruled the Ḥimyarites during the fifth century CE. Ibn Isḥāq attributed the adoption of Judaism by the Ḥimyarite king Asʿad Abu Karib in the first half of the fifth century to the influence of two Jewish rabbis from Yathrib (Medina) (Guillaume 1955, 7–11; see also Smith 1954, 462). He also reports extensive contacts between Muḥammad and the Jews of Medina.
Durie, Mark. (PhD). The Qur’an and Its Biblical Reflexes: Investigations into the Genesis of a Religion (p. 29). Lexington Books.

There was also reports of sectarian violence between competing monotheist groups in Arabia.

A massacre of Najrān Christians had been conducted by Dhu Nawās, the Jewish king of the Ḥimyarites, in 523 CE, reportedly in an attempt to compel them to convert to Judaism. Ibn Isḥāq gives an account of a massacre by fire and the sword of some 20,000 Christians, associating it with Q85:4–8 (Guillaume 1955, 17). This massacre was also referred to in contemporary Christian sources. In retaliation, the Christian Ethiopians destroyed the Ḥimyarite kingdom in 525 CE (Smith 1954, 431), ending six centuries of Yemeni dominance in the region.
Durie, Mark. (PhD). The Qur’an and Its Biblical Reflexes: Investigations into the Genesis of a Religion (p. 29-30). Lexington Books.

In Islamic tradition

It is also worth noting that even in the traditional account, while doubted by modern academics (as mentioned above), there are both Jews and Christians who appear.

Within the ḥadīth and sīrah there are references to Christians who were known to Muḥammad, endorsed him, and could have influenced him. One was Muḥammad’s wet nurse, Umm Aymān, an Ethiopian (Shahīd 2006, 15). Another was the cousin of his wife Khadījah, Waraqah ibn. Nawfāl, who Ibn Isḥāq described as “a Christian who had studied the scriptures and was a scholar” (Guillaume 1955, 83, 99, 107). Another was the monk Baḥīra, who was “well versed in the knowledge of Christians” (Guillaume 1955, 79–81). Mention is also made of a Christian slave named Jabr, of whom critics of Muḥammad had said “The one who teaches Muḥammad most of what he brings is Jabr the Christian” (Guillaume 1955, 180). There is also a reference in a ḥadīth to a nameless Christian and one-time scribe for Muḥammad, who had converted to Islam but then returned to Christianity, and claimed to have been the source of much of Muḥammad’s knowledge. Indeed this idea, that Muḥammad was receiving help from others, goes back to the Qurʾan itself (Q25:4–5). The ḥadīths also refer to some Jews who, like Waraqa and Baḥīra, endorsed Muḥammad (Guillaume 1955, 79, 90, 93).
Durie, Mark. (PhD). The Qur’an and Its Biblical Reflexes: Investigations into the Genesis of a Religion (pp. 30-31). Lexington Books.

Islamic Prophet Narratives

As many Islamic scholars with a variety of views on the religions' origins, for example Angelika Neuwirth[27] and Stephen Shoemaker,[28] have noted that the Qur'an appears to recall Biblical and Arabian stories in a way that pre-supposes the audience is already familiar with the wider more detailed story and characters. This suggests that these were commonly known in the environment that it was originally preached in.

Worship at the Ka’bah

The Quran frequently mentions a secure sanctuary or house where rituals take place, which it names "the Ka'bah, the sacred house" in Quran 5:95-97. Traditionally, this is identified with the "foundations of the house" raised by Abraham and Ishmael in Quran 2:127, which is probably the intended implication. See also Quran 3:96 which says the first house for mankind where Abraham used to pray was built at Bakkah, generally understood to mean Mecca, and Quran 14:35-41 where the sacred house built by Abraham is described in the same terms as the Ka'bah in other verses. Even more explicit is Quran 22:26-29 where the site of the house of Abraham is identified with the "ancient house" which it permits pilgrims to circumambulate. There is, however, little to no direct evidence on the pre-Islamic history of the Ka'bah in Mecca. In contrast, there is some significant indirect evidence bearing on the question and it does not favour the traditional understanding.

In his paper Foundations of the house, Joseph Witztum discusses this verse (Quran 2:127). He argues that the Quranic scene reflects a number of post-Biblical traditions building on Genesis 22 where Abraham goes to sacrifice Isaac (in the Quran, instead it is Ishmael). In later exegetical traditions, Abraham builds an altar for the sacrifice and Isaac willingly offers himself for slaughter. By the time of Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews 1:227 (1st century CE), Isaac even helps in its construction. In the 4th to 5th centuries several (mostly Syriac) Christian homilies take up this motif. Then a 6th century CE Syriac homily by Jacob of Serugh on Genesis 22 describes them as building not just an altar but a "house" (Syriac: bayta), like in the Quran (Arabic: bayt). Witztum argues that the Quran transfers this imagery associated with Jerusalem to Mecca.[29] The clearly late development of the idea that Abraham build a sacred house in which to sacrifice his son undermines the idea that there is any history to the story, let alone that the Ka'bah in Mecca is the location where it happened. For many more examples of Syriac Christian narrative elements in the Quran, see the article Parallels Between the Qur'an and Late Antique Judeo-Christian Literature

Witztum's findings are also summarised by Gabriel Said Reynolds in his academic commentary on the Quran. At the same time Reynolds notes that the 5th century CE Byzantine historian Sozomen (d. 450 CE) records that the Arabs made an annual pilgrimage to Hebron near Jerusalem where Abraham traditionally received a divine visitation (Genesis 18). Reynolds suggests the possibility that this Arab pilgrimage was eventually transferred to Mecca.[30] Indeed, it seems strange that these Arabs would go all the way to Hebron for pilgrimage if Abraham's house was already identified with a sanctuary in Mecca at that time. Professor Sean Anthony has written a useful further discussion on the topic.[31] Patricia Crone is widely considered to have established that Mecca was of no wider importance at the time of Islam's emergence, was not on the major trade route, and traded in goods like leather, wool and other pastoral products.[32]

A place called Macoraba in Arabia is mentioned in a geographic work by Ptolemy in the 2nd century CE. Many academic scholars believe this is a reference to Mecca (first proposed in the 16th century), and some even think that the name derives from an ancient South Arabian word for temple, mkrb. Others historians such as Patricia Crone and Ian D. Morris have argued that there is no good reason to believe Macoraba and Mecca are the same place. The idea has never been backed by any significant academic investigation, nor has any other ancient source been shown to describe Mecca or its temple.[33]

It seems that Muhammad unwittingly merely continued a pre-Islamic tradition of worship and pilgrimage at the Ka'bah. Its identification with the house of Abraham is without any historical foundation. Evidence suggests that not even the story that Abraham and his son built a sacred house at all had any significant antiquity.

Later narratives recorded in hadiths

According to the hadith, the Ka'bah in Mecca was a center of idol-worship, housing 360 idols:

Narrated 'Abdullah bin Masud: The Prophet entered Mecca and (at that time) there were three hundred-and-sixty idols around the Ka’aba. He started stabbing the idols with a stick he had in his hand and reciting: "Truth (Islam) has come and Falsehood (disbelief) has vanished."

In one hadith Muhammad said it was built 40 years prior to the Temple at Jerusalem:

Narrated Abu Dhaar: I said, "O Allah's Apostle! Which mosque was built first?" He replied, "Al-Masjid-ul-Haram." I asked, "Which (was built) next?" He replied, "Al-Masjid-ul-Aqs-a (i.e. Jerusalem)." I asked, "What was the period in between them? He replied, forty years.

The Temple at Jerusalem was built by Solomon around 958-951 BC, whereas Abraham is alleged to have lived around 2000 BC so both Abraham and Ishmael would have been dead by then.

According to another hadith Muhammad even considered dismantling it:

Narrated Aswad: Ibn Az-Zubair said to me, "Aisha used to tell you secretly a number of things. What did she tell you about the Ka'ba?" I replied, "She told me that once the Prophet said, 'O 'Aisha! Had not your people been still close to the pre-Islamic period of ignorance (infidelity)! I would have dismantled the Ka'ba and would have made two doors in it; one for entrance and the other for exit." Later on Ibn Az-Zubair did the same.

Veneration of the Black-stone

The pagan gods of pre-Islamic Arabia were worshiped in the form of rectangular stones or rocks. For example, the pagan deity 'Al-Lat', mentioned in Quran 53:19, and believed by pre-Islamic pagans to be one of the daughters of Allah, was once venerated as a cubic rock at Ta'if in Saudi Arabia according to Islamic sources on the subject written after the rise of Islam. An edifice was built over the rock to mark it apart as a house of worship.

Al-lat stood in al-Ta'if, and was more recent than Manah. She was a cubic rock beside which a certain Jew used to prepare his barley porridge (sawiq). Her custody was in the hands of the banu-'Attab ibn-Malik of the Thayif, who had built an edifice over her. [...]She is the idol which God mentioned when He said, "Have you seen Al-lat and al-'Uzza (Surah 53:19)?[34]
Kitab Al-Asnam (The Book of Idols) by Ibn al-Kalbi, p 14

Encyclopedia Britannica online says the following about pre-Islamic religious sanctuaries.

The sanctuaries, sometimes carved in the rock on high places, consisted of a ḥaram, a sacred open-air enclosure, accessible only to unarmed and ritually clean people in ritual clothes. There the baetyl, a “raised stone,” or a statue of the god, was worshiped. The Nabataeans originally represented their gods as baetyls on a podium, but later they gave them a human appearance. Of the Nabataean high places that are carved from the rock, the best-known overlooks the site of Petra. On a summit are baetyls, a sacrificial altar, and a basin. The stone-built temples of the Nabataeans and South Arabians were more elaborate structures, consisting of a rectangular walled enclosure, near one end of which was a stone canopy or a closed cella or both, which contained the altar for sacrifices or the idol of the god. Other rooms and a cistern might be added. The Kaʿbah in Mecca, which became the sacred shrine of the Muslims, has a similar structure: it is a closed cella (which was full of idols in pre-Islāmic times) in a walled enclosure, with a well. A baetyl, the Black Stone, is inserted in the wall of the Kaʿbah; it is veiled by a cloth cover (the kiswah), reminiscent of the leather cover of the Ark of the Covenant.

The Jewish Encyclopedia online states:

The worship of sacred stones constituted one of the most general and ancient forms of religion; but among no other people was this worship so important as among the Semites. The religion of the nomads of Syria and Arabia was summarized by Clement of Alexandria in the single statement, "The Arabs worship the stone," and all the data afforded by Arabian authors regarding the pre-Islamitic faith confirm his words. The sacred stone ("nuṣb"; plural, "anṣab") is a characteristic and indispensable feature in an ancient Arabian place of worship.
Stone and stone worship - Emil G. Hirsch and Immanuel Benzinger, The Jewish Encyclopedia

Touching the black stone seemed uncomfortably close to idolatry for some early Islamic scholars, though the tradition was accepted based on the practice of the earliest Caliphs.[35][36]

According to a tradition in Ibn Ishaq's Sira, Muhammad was chosen by the Quraysh to place the black stone in the newly rebuilt Kaaba when he was 35 years old, 5 years before his prophethood commenced.[37]

Praying 5 Times Towards Mecca

Pagans prior to Islam would pray five times per day towards Mecca.[38] Muhammad retained for Islam this pre-Islamic practice, sanctioning it with a story of a night trip to heaven on a mythical beast called al-Buraq. In heaven, the Hadith tells us that Allah demanded 50 prayers per day per Muslim. Upon advice from Moses, Muhammed bargains with Allah and successfully reduces it to five prayers per day.

Zoroastrians are also expected to recite their (kusti) prayers at least five times a day having first cleansed themselves by washing (ablution). These Islamic practices show Zoroastrian influence.[39] But, contrary to the Muslims, Zoroastrians pray in the direction of the Sun (at each time of the day) and/or of the Holy Fire (if they are in a Fire Temple). [40]

Fasting on the 10th of Muharram

Fasting on the day of Ashura (i.e. 10th of Muharram) is an optional fast observed annually by Sunni Muslims and to a lesser extent in Shia Islam. There were two conflicting hadith traditions as to its origin.[41] In one tradition, it is connected with the Jews of Medina, while the other attributes it to the Quraysh. One version of the first narrative has it that Muhammad observed this fast until it was abrogated by the obligation to fast in Ramadan. This is also found in the alternative narrative tracing it to the pagan Arabs which is shown below.

Narrated 'Aisha: 'Ashura' (i.e. the tenth of Muharram) was a day on which the tribe of Quraish used to fast in the pre-lslamic period of ignorance. The Prophet also used to fast on this day. So when he migrated to Medina, he fasted on it and ordered (the Muslims) to fast on it. When the fasting of Ramadan was enjoined, it became optional for the people to fast or not to fast on the day of Ashura.

Tawaf between Safa and Marwa

Doing Tawaf between Safa and Marwa is an Islamic ritual associated with the pilgrimage to Mecca. Safa and Marwa are two mounts, located at Mecca. This ritual entails Muslims walking frantically between the two mounts, seven times.

Indeed, as-Safa and al-Marwah are among the symbols of Allah. So whoever makes Hajj to the House or performs 'umrah - there is no blame upon him for walking between them. And whoever volunteers good - then indeed, Allah is appreciative and Knowing.

According to a hadith in Bukhari, this was originally a pre-Islamic practice, which may explain the phrase "there is no blame upon him" in the above quoted verse.

Narrated 'Asim: I asked Anas bin Malik: "Did you use to dislike to perform Tawaf between Safa and Marwa?" He said, "Yes, as it was of the ceremonies of the days of the Pre-lslamic period of ignorance, till Allah revealed: 'Verily! (The two mountains) As-Safa and Al-Marwa are among the symbols of Allah. It is therefore no sin for him who performs the pilgrimage to the Ka'ba, or performs 'Umra, to perform Tawaf between them.' " (2.158)

A tradition also exists about Hagar running between these two mounts in search of water until she found the Zamzam Well.

Requirement of Ihram

Ihram is a state a Muslim enters into for his pilgrimage to Mecca. It involves a series of procedures like ritual washing, wearing 'Ihram garments', etc. The practice of reciting talbiyah (invocations) at the point of entering Ihram goes back to the pre-Islamic Arabs. The early Islamic historian Muqātil b. Sulaymān (d. 150/767) describes 56 such invocations read before Ihram, each tribe having their own.[42]

Ihram was according to hadith in Sahih Bukhari originally a pagan requirement for worshiping idols during pre-Islamic times. Muhammad retained this practice for Islam. Muslims assume Ihram to perform the Hajj or Umrah.

Narrated 'Urwa: I asked 'Aisha : ...But in fact, this divine inspiration was revealed concerning the Ansar who used to assume “Ihram” for worshipping an idol called “Manat” which they used to worship at a place called Al-Mushallal before they embraced Islam, and whoever assumed Ihram (for the idol), would consider it not right to perform Tawaf between Safa and Marwa.

Circumambulation 7 Times

A few verses in the Quran permits circumambulation around the sacred house, which it states was a command originally given to Abraham at the same place. Circumambulation means to circle around. In Islam, pilgrims do this seven times around the Ka'bah at Mecca.

And [mention, O Muhammad], when We designated for Abraham the site of the House, [saying], "Do not associate anything with Me and purify My House for those who perform Tawaf and those who stand [in prayer] and those who bow and prostrate. And proclaim to the people the Hajj [pilgrimage]; they will come to you on foot and on every lean camel; they will come from every distant pass - That they may witness benefits for themselves and mention the name of Allah on known days over what He has provided for them of [sacrificial] animals. So eat of them and feed the miserable and poor. Then let them end their untidiness and fulfill their vows and perform Tawaf around the ancient House."

The historian Robert Hoyland says regarding the same practice in pre-Islamic religion:

The most common name for such god-stones comes from the Semitic root nṣb, meaning to be stood upright. Other terms reflect different aspects of their use; thus in Nabataean they could be called masgida, meaning a place of prostration, and in pre-Islamic Arab poetry dûwâr, object of circumambulation, commonly occurs.
Robert Hoyland, Arabia and the Arabs: From the Bronze Age to the Coming of Islam p. 188
In the Islamic ritual of Tawaf, Muslims go around the Kaaba 7 times. In the Hindu marriage rite of Satphere, the married couple goes around a fire also 7 times. In both of these rituals, religious phrases are repeated during the circumambulation


Judaism and Christianity (the religions of those who are considered People of the Book) do not practice ritual circumambulation to please God. Two of the other major faiths with similar practice are Hinduism and Buddhism (called Parikrama). Both of these faiths are accused by traditional Islam of “paganism” and practicing idolatry.

If hadiths are to be believed, Muhammad performed circumambulation around the Ka'bah even before he had cast out the idols therefrom. While such accounts may be doubted, see the end of the introduction sections of the article Parallels Between the Qur'an and Late Antique Judeo-Christian Literature regarding early Muslim eyewitness accounts of Judeo-Christian religious icons in the Ka'ba.

Punishments for Adultery and Theft

In Quran 5:38 the penalty for theft is given as hand amputation. In hadiths the penalty for married adulterers is Stoning, (though only lashings are mentioned for zina in the Quran).

Walter Young has shown that the hadd penalties of stoning adulters and hand amputation for theft had pre-Islamic parallels in Arab customary law. Young writes:

Remarkably, not only stoning and hand-amputation, but nearly the entire range of Islamic adultery and theft legislation have pre-Islamic parallels. The nature of these parallels, however, does not conform to the paradigm of 'borrowing' from 'foreign' sources. Rather, Arab customary law - a major contributor to Islamic law in general - appears to have diverged from an ancient Semitic 'common source' once shared with other Near Eastern cultural entities. Most major elements of Islamic criminal law, including stoning and hand-amputation, therefore represent the culmination of an ancient Semitic common law.
Stoning and hand-amputation : the pre-Islamic origins of the ḥadd penalties for zinā and sariqa - Walter Young[43]

Shooting Stars and Eavesdropping Shaytans

Main article: Shooting Stars in the Quran

The idea of shooting stars chasing away eavesdropping devils has Zoroastrian, Jewish, and probably Arabian roots. This was noted by Patricia Crone in the commentary published following the 2012-13 Qur'an Seminar (a series of academic conferences).[44] She argues that though the Zoroastrian sources were written after the Quran, their contents date to the Sassanian period, before the rise of Islam. Here the fixed stars and constellations are warriors led by the sun and moon to repel demons represented by moving bodies (planets and comets) from passing to the upper heaven. It is in the Jewish Testament of Solomon (1st to 3rd century CE) where the demons who fly up among the stars are not warriors but rather try to listen into God's decisions about men. Here, people see shooting stars as the exhausted demons falling back to earth. Eavesdropping demons also feature in the Babylonian Talmud.

Common Erroneous Attributions

Allah as "Moon God"

See the section above on the origins of the name Allah. A popular internet polemic propogates the idea that Allah derives from the Arabian moon Goddess al-Lah. This idea was proposed in 1901 by the early twentieth century German scholar Hugo Winckler. It is universally dismissed by academic scholars today on both historical and linguistic grounds.

Crescent Moon symbol and Hubal

Another popular internet claim is that the Islamic crescent moon symbol derives from the hadith reports that an Arabian moon god, Hubal was worshipped at the Ka'bah. In fact, the star and crescent moon symbol was actually adopted by coins of the early Islamic empire in continuity with those of the Sasanian empire which it had conquered, but only became a symbol of Islam some centuries later when it was used as a flag symbol by the Ottomans. Originally it has an origin on Greco-Roman coins in a pagan context, some argue with Summerian lineage, and was also present on Byzantine Christian coins as a simple iconographic motif. See the Crescent Moon article for more detail.

According to Ibn Hisham, Muhammad's pagan grandfather Abd al-Muttalib almost slaughtered Muhammad's father Abdallah at the Ka’aba, to Hubal:

An arrow showed that it was 'Abdullah to be sacrificed. 'Abdul-Muttalib then took the boy to Al-Ka'bah with a razor to slaughter the boy. Quraish, his uncles from Makhzum tribe and his brother Abu Talib, however, tried to dissuade him. They suggested that he summon a she-diviner. She ordered that the divination arrows should be drawn with respect to 'Abdullah as well as ten camels. … the number of the camels (finally) amounted to one hundred. … They were all slaughtered to the satisfaction of Hubal.[45]

According to tradition, the Ka’bah, Islam's holiest shrine, had been a place where such pagan human sacrifices and slaughters have taken place for Hubal. When Muhammad founded Islam, according to Islamic sources he discarded Hubal and all the other pagan gods. At the Battle of Badr, his enemy Abu Sufyan praised the high position of moon god Hubal, saying "O Hubal, be high". Muhammad asked his followers to yell back, "Allah is higher".[46] This is supposed to be the origin of the commonly uttered phrase "Allahu Akbar" in Arabic.

See Also


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  1. Ahmad al-Jallad (draft) The pre-Islamic basmala: Reflections on its first epigraphic attestation and its original significance, pp. 3, 6
  2. See the introduction of the open access chapter: Ahmad Al-Jallad (2022), The Religion and Rituals of the Nomads of Pre-Islamic Arabia: A Reconstruction based on the Safaitic Inscriptions in (ed. Zhi Chen et al.), Ancient Languages and Civilizations, Volume: 1, Leiden: Brill
  3. Patricia Crone' The Religion of the Quranic Pagans: God and the Lesser Deities, Arabica 57 (2010) p. 171 ff.
  4. See p. 122 in Ahmad al-Jallad (2020) Chapter 7: The Linguistic Landscape of pre-Islamic Arabia - Context for the Qur’an in Mustafa Shah (ed.), Muhammad Abdel Haleem (ed.), "The Oxford Handbook of Qur'anic Studies", Oxford: Oxford University Press
  5. "He further writes "In South Arabia, the divine name rḥmnn/raḥmān-ān/ ‘the Raḥmān’ refers to the deity of the monotheistic period, which was heavily influenced by, or even derived from, Judaism and, thus, is likely a loan translation of rḥmnʾ.
    Ahmad al-Jallad (draft) The pre-Islamic basmala: Reflections on its first epigraphic attestation and its original significance, pp. 7-8
  6. Kjær, Sigrid (2022). ‘Rahman’ before Muhammad: A pre-history of the First Peace (Sulh) in Islaw, Modern Asian Studies, 56(3), 776-795. doi:10.1017/S0026749X21000305
    "It is salient to point out that, based on an approximate chronological dating of the Quranic suras, theonyms in the Islamic scripture seem to have evolved in three phases. In the earliest phase, the Quran uses rabb, shifting to al-Rahman, and finally culminating in an almost exclusive use of Allah in the later suras. Rabb simply meant ‘Lord’ and was used for immanent betylic divinities. Its use in the earliest parts of the Quran also corresponds to a monolatric and immanentist usage. By contrast, al-Rahman was clearly associated with Moses in the Quran and the rejection of image-worship, which appears in later Meccan verses. Eventually, however, Allah became the universal theonym, subsuming both Rabb and al-Rahman, in the service of an Abrahamic and fully biblicized monotheism that took shape in Medina."
    In a footnote Kjær adds: "The initial reluctance to use the theonym Allah might have been due to its polytheistic origins.", citing Böwering, Gerhard, ‘Chronology and the Qur’ān’, in Encyclopaedia of the Qur’ān (Leiden: Brill, 2001), p. 329
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 See the start of Appendix 1 (p. 93) in the open access chapter: Ahmad Al-Jallad (2022), The Religion and Rituals of the Nomads of Pre-Islamic Arabia: A Reconstruction based on the Safaitic Inscriptions in (ed. Zhi Chen et al.), Ancient Languages and Civilizations, Volume: 1, Leiden: Brill
  8. See this twitter thread by leading linguist in the history of Arabic, Dr Marijn van Putten - 19 October 2021 (archive)
  9. Ahmad al-Jallad (draft) The pre-Islamic basmala: Reflections on its first epigraphic attestation and its original significance, page 14
  10. 10.0 10.1 Ahmad al-Jallad (draft) The pre-Islamic basmala: Reflections on its first epigraphic attestation and its original significance, pp. 6-7
  11. Ahmad al-Jallad (draft) The pre-Islamic basmala: Reflections on its first epigraphic attestation and its original significance, page 13 ff
  12. Ahmad al-Jallad (2020) Chapter 7: The Linguistic Landscape of pre-Islamic Arabia - Context for the Qur’an in Mustafa Shah (ed.), Muhammad Abdel Haleem (ed.), "The Oxford Handbook of Qur'anic Studies", Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 121 ff
  13. Ahmad al-Jallad (draft) The pre-Islamic basmala: Reflections on its first epigraphic attestation and its original significance, page 8
  14. See 18 to 27 minutes in Ahmad Al-Jallad II: The History of Pre-Islamic Arabia based on Epigraphic Evidence - - 20 March 2023
  15. Patricia Crone' The Religion of the Quranic Pagans: God and the Lesser Deities, Arabica 57 (2010) 151-200
  16. See Dr Ahab Bdaiwi's blog post summarizing his findings Arabian Monotheism before Islam: Some Notes on the Mushrikūn of the Qurʾan - 26 October 2021
  17. See also this earlier thread by Dr Ahab Bdaiwi - 12 August 2020 (archive) and this one - 26 May 2021 (archive)
  18. Rain-Giver, Bone-Breaker, Score-Settler: Allāh in Pre-Quranic Poetry, New Haven, Connecticut: American Oriental Society, 2019. Essay 15. Nicolai Sinai.
  19. Did the Byzantine Empire practice Christianity? Byzantine Empire Article. Home. Geography & Travel Historical Places. Britannica Questions.
  20. Judaism During the Byzantine Period. Yitzchak Schwartz. 2012. .Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters. The Met Museum.
  21. Nestorianism. Christian sect. History & Society. Religion Religious Movements & Organizations. Britannica Entry.
  22. The Sasanian period. Mesopotamia from c. 320 BCE to c. 620 CE. Britannica Entry
  23. Fisher, G. and Wood, P. (2016) ‘Writing the History of the “Persian Arabs”: The Pre-Islamic Perspective on the “Naṣrids” of al-Ḥīrah’, Iranian Studies, 49(2), pp. 247–290. doi:10.1080/00210862.2015.1129763.
  24. Tribal Poetics in Early Arabic Culture: The Case of of Ashʿār al-Hudhaliyyīn. Nathan A Miller. 2016. pp. 62 (Chapter 1.2 (pp 43-72) covers the relationships of Arab tribes with surrounding empires and kingdoms).
  25. Himyar Britannica Entry. People. People's of Asia. Geography & Travel. Britannica.
  26. Christian Julien Robin, "Arabia and Ethiopia," in Scott Johnson (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity, Oxford University Press 2012 pp.247–333, p.279 Diversity and Rabbinization: Jewish Texts and Societies between 400 and 1000 CE. Gavin McDowell (editor) Ron Naiweld (editor) Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra (editor). 2021. See: Chapter 7. The Judaism of the Ancient Kingdom of Ḥimyar in Arabia: A Discreet Conversion. pp.165–270. Christian Julien Robin (CNRS, Membre de l’Institut).
  27. The catalogue of punishment legends that is here presented only in a list form is the first of its kind in the Qur’an. It evokes events apparently already known to the hearers, wherein the local and Arab (ʿĀd, Thamūd, here mentioned for the first time) are brought together with the biblical (Firʿawn, likewise for the first time in this passage) without differentiation. Neuwirth, Angelika. The Qur'an: Text and Commentary, Volume 1: Early Meccan Suras: Poetic Prophecy (p. 117). Yale University Press.
  28. At the most general level, the Qurʾān reveals a monotheist religious movement grounded in the biblical and extra-biblical traditions of Judaism and Christianity, to which certain uniquely “Arab” traditions have been added. These traditions, however, are often related in an allusive style, which seems to presuppose knowledge of the larger narrative on the part of its audience. Shoemaker, Stephen J.. The Death of a Prophet (Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion) (Kindle Locations 2691-2694). University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
  29. Joseph Witztum, The Foundations of the House (Q 2: 127), Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, vol. 72, no. 1, 2009, pp. 25–40 ]
    In the Book of Jubilees (2nd century BCE), an altar built by Abraham in Hebron is mentioned. Abraham's house is also mentioned many times but only in the sense of his actual home or household, not a sanctuary).
  30. Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Qur'an and the Bible: Text and Commentary, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018, pp. 69-70
  31. Sean Anthony (2018) Why Does the Qur'an Need the Meccan Sanctuary? Response to Professor Gerald Hawting's 2017 Presidential Address, Journal of the International Qur'anic Studies Association, Vol. 3 pp. 25-41
  32. This was definitively argued by Crone in her 1987 book Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, and further defended and refined in her 1992 article Serjeant and Meccan Trade and her 2007 article Quraysh and the Roman Army: Making Sense of the Meccan Leather Trade
  33. See the conclusion in Ian D. Morris (2018) Mecca and Macoraba in: al-Usur al-wusta vol. 26 (2018)
  34. The Book of Idols, p 14; (translation of Kitab Al-Asnam ) by Hisham Ibn-Al-Kalbi, 819 CE, translated by Nabih Amin Faris, 1952
  35. Adam Bursi (2022) You were not commanded to stroke it, but to pray nearby it, debating touch within early Islamic pilgrimage, The Senses and Society, 17:1, 8-21, DOI: 10.1080/17458927.2021.2020604
  36. Narrated `Abis bin Rabi`a: `Umar came near the Black Stone and kissed it and said "No doubt, I know that you are a stone and can neither benefit anyone nor harm anyone. Had I not seen Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) kissing you I would not have kissed you."
  37. Ibn Ishaq; Ibn Hisham, A. Guillaume, ed, Sirat Rasul Allah [The Life of Muhammad], Karachi: Oxford UP, p. 86, ISBN 0196360331, 1955, 
  38. The Encyclopedia of Islam (edited by Eliade) P. 303FF
  39. Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 763-764
  40. Joseph H. Peterson - GAHS (prayers for each period of the day) - Avesta Zoroastrian Archives, accessed May 27, 2011
  41. See this thread by Dr Ahab Bdaiwi - 8 August 2022
  42. See this thread by Dr Ahab Bdawi - 13 March 2021
  43. Walter Young, Stoning and hand-amputation : the pre-Islamic origins of the ḥadd penalties for zinā and sariqa, PhD thesis, 2005, McGill University, Montreal
  44. Patricia Crone's comments in The Qur’an Seminar Commentary: A Collaborative Study of 50 Qur’anic Passages De Gruyter, 2017, pp. 305-312
  45. Ibn Hisham 1/151-155; Rahmat-ul-lil'alameen 2/89,90
  46. "...After that he started reciting cheerfully, "O Hubal, be high! (1) On that the Prophet said (to his companions), "Why don't you answer him back?" They said, "O Allah's Apostle What shall we say?" He said, "Say, Allah is Higher and more Sublime."..." - (Sahih Bukhari 4:52:276)