Pre-Islamic Arab Religion in Islam
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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. 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). 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. 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.
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. 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. 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."
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") 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.  This pre-Islamic basmala and many other pre-Islamic inscriptions bear similarities with phrases and terminology found in the Quran. 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).
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. 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.
Beliefs of the Quranic Mushrikeen
Historian Patricia Crone in a detailed article on the Quranic mushrikeen pointed out that they believed in Allah 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).
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 explict 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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
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
In one hadith Muhammad said it was built 40 years prior to the Temple at Jerusalem:
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:
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.
Encyclopedia Britannica online says the following about pre-Islamic religious sanctuaries.
The Jewish Encyclopedia online states:
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.
Praying 5 Times Towards Mecca
Pagans prior to Islam would pray five times per day towards Mecca. 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. 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). 
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The historian Robert Hoyland says regarding the same practice in pre-Islamic religion:
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
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:
Shooting Stars and Eavesdropping Shaytans
The idea of shooting stars chasing away evesdropping 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). 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 repell 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:
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". This is supposed to be the origin of the commonly uttered phrase "Allahu Akbar" in Arabic.
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- Ahmad al-Jallad (draft) The pre-Islamic basmala: Reflections on its first epigraphic attestation and its original significance, pp. 3, 6
- 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
- Patricia Crone' The Religion of the Quranic Pagans: God and the Lesser Deities, Arabica 57 (2010) p. 171 ff.
- 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
- "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
- 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
- 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
- See this twitter thread by leading linguist in the history of Arabic, Dr Marijn van Putten - 19 October 2021 (archive)
- Ahmad al-Jallad (draft) The pre-Islamic basmala: Reflections on its first epigraphic attestation and its original significance, page 14
- Ahmad al-Jallad (draft) The pre-Islamic basmala: Reflections on its first epigraphic attestation and its original significance, pp. 6-7
- Ahmad al-Jallad (draft) The pre-Islamic basmala: Reflections on its first epigraphic attestation and its original significance, page 13 ff
- 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
- Ahmad al-Jallad (draft) The pre-Islamic basmala: Reflections on its first epigraphic attestation and its original significance, page 8
- See 18 to 27 minutes in Ahmad Al-Jallad II: The History of Pre-Islamic Arabia based on Epigraphic Evidence - youtube.com - 20 March 2023
- Patricia Crone' The Religion of the Quranic Pagans: God and the Lesser Deities, Arabica 57 (2010) 151-200
- 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
- See also this earlier Twitter.com thread by Dr Ahab Bdaiwi - 12 August 2020 (archive) and this one - 26 May 2021 (archive)
- 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).
- Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Qur'an and the Bible: Text and Commentary, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018, pp. 69-70
- 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
- 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
- See the conclusion in Ian D. Morris (2018) Mecca and Macoraba in: al-Usur al-wusta vol. 26 (2018)
- The Book of Idols, p 14; (translation of Kitab Al-Asnam ) by Hisham Ibn-Al-Kalbi, 819 CE, translated by Nabih Amin Faris, 1952
- 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
- 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."
- Ibn Ishaq; Ibn Hisham, A. Guillaume, ed, Sirat Rasul Allah [The Life of Muhammad], Karachi: Oxford UP, p. 86, ISBN 0196360331, 1955, https://archive.org/details/GuillaumeATheLifeOfMuhammad/page/n65/mode/2up
- The Encyclopedia of Islam (edited by Eliade) P. 303FF
- Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 763-764
- Joseph H. Peterson - GAHS (prayers for each period of the day) - Avesta Zoroastrian Archives, accessed May 27, 2011
- See this Twitter.com thread by Dr Ahab Bdaiwi - 8 August 2022
- See this Twitter.com thread by Dr Ahab Bdawi - 13 March 2021
- Walter Young, Stoning and hand-amputation : the pre-Islamic origins of the ḥadd penalties for zinā and sariqa, PhD thesis, 2005, McGill University, Montreal
- Patricia Crone's comments in The Qur’an Seminar Commentary: A Collaborative Study of 50 Qur’anic Passages De Gruyter, 2017, pp. 305-312
- Ibn Hisham 1/151-155; Rahmat-ul-lil'alameen 2/89,90
- "...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)