Religion in pre-Islamic Arabia

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Religion in pre-Islamic Arabia included indigenous Arabian polytheism, ancient Semitic religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Iranian religions such as Zoroastrianism, Mithraism, and Manichaeism. Arabian polytheism, the dominant form of religion in pre-Islamic Arabia, was based on veneration of deities and spirits.


  • The new creed [Islam] had the greatest interest in obliterating all recollection of the pagan period, not only in stone monuments which still survived the natural weathering--these were destroyed to provide material for new buildings, or burned for lime or sometimes out of sheer vandalism--but also in literature, and even in consigning the ancient language to oblivion.
    • Franz Babinger, in First Encyclopaedia of Islam 1913-1936, Leiden, 1987, Vol. VII, P. 15. Quoted in in Goel, S. R. (1993). Hindu temples: What happened to them. Vol. II
  • The Sabaeans practised “an ancient natural religion” in which “the sun, the moon and the planets” figured prominently. They “believed in the migration of the soul and in great world periods constantly renewed in an everlasting revolutions”... They built “massive temples” and “handsome gold and silver statues of their chief gods.”
    • The Encyclopaedia Americana, New York, 1952, Vol. XXIV, p. 77. Quoted in in Goel, S. R. (1993). Hindu temples: What happened to them. Vol. II
  • They say that the beginning of stone worship among the sons of Ishmael was when Mecca became too small for them and they wanted more room in the country. Everyone who left the town took with him a stone from the sacred area to do honour to it. Wherever they settled they set it up and walked round it as they went round the Ka‘ba. This led them to worship what stones they pleased and those which made an impression on them. Thus as generations passed they forgot their primitive faith and adopted another religion for that of Abraham and Ishmael. They worshipped idols and adopted the same errors as the peoples before them. Yet they retained and held fast practices going back to the time of Abraham, such as honouring the temple and going round it, the great and little pilgrimage, and the standing on ‘Arafa and Muzdalifa, sacrificing the victims, and the pilgrim cry at the great and little pilgrimage, while introducing elements which had no place in the religion of Abraham.
    • Ibn Ishãq, Sîrat Rasûl Allãh, translated into English by A. Gillaumne, OUP, Karachi, Seventh Impression.Quoted in in Goel, S. R. (1993). Hindu temples: What happened to them. Vol. II
  • “Every household had an idol in their house which they used to worship. When a man was about to set out on a journey he would rub himself against it as he was about to ride off: indeed that was the last thing he used to do before his journey; and when he returned from his journey the first thing he did was to rub himself against it before he went in to his family…
    • Ibn Ishãq, Sîrat Rasûl Allãh, translated into English by A. Gillaumne, OUP, Karachi, Seventh Impression.Quoted in in Goel, S. R. (1993). Hindu temples: What happened to them. Vol. II
  • What we can say is that early medieval Arabia was a rich melting-pot for cults and deities. In some cities and regions (notably the region we now call Yemen) there were thriving communities of Arab Jews and Christians. But in many more places pagan polytheism was the norm. Then there were what we might describe as pagan monotheists – believers in a single God who was not the same as the God of Christian or Jewish scripture. Desert prophets, mystics, monks, and hermits abounded, some following in the traditions of the early Christian ‘desert fathers’ who had sought proximity to God through ascetic living in the sunbeaten sands. In short, Arabian religion was diverse, shifting and heavily localized, and this was only natural. Arabian society was essentially tribal, and despite the nearness of several regional superpowers – Byzantium and Zoroastrian Persia, as well as Christian Ethiopia – none had ever been able to bring the Arabs under their command for long enough to sponsor or enforce the spread of a settled ‘state’ faith, The best the Byzantines and Persians had been able to do was to enlist two northern Arabian tribal groups, the Lakhmids and Ghassanids, into their proxy wars. This was clientelism, not colonialism. In Arabia, change was destined to come from within.
    • Dan Jones, Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages (2021), pp. 127
  • “From the description of the idols worshipped by the pre-Islamic Arabs, enumerated by Ibn al-Kalbî, the word Sanam appears to apply to objects of very varying character. Some were actual sculptures like Hubal, Isãf and Nãi’la; so were the other idols set up round the Ka‘ba… Others were trees like al-‘Uzzã and many were mere stones like al-Lãt. Stones are well-known as objects of worship by the Semites in general and the traditionist al-Dãrimî states early in the first chapter of his Musnad that in the time of paganism the Arabs, whenever they found a stone remarkable for its shape, colour or size, set it up as an object of worship. Ibn al-Kalbî states that the Arabs were not content with setting up stones for idols, but even took such stones with them on their journeys…”
    • F. Krenkow in First Encyclopaedia of Islam 1913-1936, Leiden, 1987 Vol. VII, p. 147. Quoted in in Goel, S. R. (1993). Hindu temples: What happened to them. Vol. II
  • The Arabs during the pre-Islamic period used to practice certain things that were included in the Islamic Sharia. They, for example, did not marry both a mother and her daughter. They considered marrying two sisters simultaneously to be a most heinous crime. They also censured anyone who married his stepmother, and called him dhaizan. They made the major hajj and the minor umra pilgrimage to the Ka'ba, performed the circumlocution around the Ka'ba tawaf, ran seven times between Mounts Safa and Marwa sa'y, threw rocks and washed themselves after sexual intercourse. They also gargled, sniffed water up into their noses, clipped their fingernails, removed all pubic hair and performed ritual circumcision. Likewise, they cut off the right hand of a thief and stoned Adulterers.
    • — Muhammad Shukri al-Alusi, Bulugh al-'Arab fi Ahwal al-'Arab, Vol. 2, p. 122
  • “These Arabian deities, which were of diverse nature, fell into different categories. Some of them were personifications of abstract ideas, such as jadd (luck), sa‘d (fortunate, auspicious), riDã’ (good-will, favour), wadd (friendship, affection), and manãf (height, highplace). Though originally abstract in character, they were conceived in a thoroughly concrete fashion. ... “The heavenly bodies and other powers of nature, venerated as deities, occupied an important place in the Arabian pantheon. The sun (shams, regarded as feminine) was worshipped by several Arab tribes and was honoured with a sanctuary and an idol. The name ‘Abd Shams, ‘Servant of the Sun,’ was found in many parts of the country. The sun was referred to by descriptive tides also, such as shãriq, ‘the brilliant one.’ The constellation of the Pleiades (al-Thurayya), which was believed to bestow rain, also appears as a deity in the name ‘Abd al-Thurayya. The planet Venus, which shines with remarkable brilliance in the clear skies of Arabia, was revered as a great goddess under the name of al-‘Uzza, which may be translated as ‘the Most Mighty.’ It had a sanctuary at Nakhlah near Mecca. The name ‘Abd al-‘Uzza was very common among the pre-Islamic Arabs. The Arabian cult of the planet Venus has been mentioned by several classical and Syriac authors.”
    • Shaikh Inayatullah, ‘Pre-Islamic Arabian Thought’, in A History of Muslim Philosophy, edited by M.M. Sharif, Lahore, 1961, Vol. I.Quoted in in Goel, S. R. (1993). Hindu temples: What happened to them. Vol. II
  • “First of all, as regards the religion of the South Arabians, as we find it in their inscriptions, it is a strongly marked star-worship, in which the cult of the moon-god, conceived as masculine, takes complete precedence of that of the sun, which is conceived as feminine. ...But we may point out in conclusion that in all probability the Greeks borrowed from Arabian incense merchants their Apollo and his mother Leto as also Dionysos and Hermes, in the same way as they took their additional letters Phi, Chi and Psi from the South Arabian alphabet… This would seem to prove definitively that South Arabian civilization with its gods, incense altars, inscriptions, forts and castles must have been in a flourishing condition as early as the beginning of the first millennium BC.
    • H. Hommel, in First Encyclopaedia of Islam 1913-1936, Leiden, 1987, Vol. I.Quoted in in Goel, S. R. (1993). Hindu temples: What happened to them. Vol. II
  • “Now Ri’ãm,” reports Ibn Ishãq, “was one of the temples which they venerated and where they offered sacrifices and received oracles when they were polytheists. The two rabbis told Tubba‘ that it was merely a shayTãn which deceived them in this way and they asked to be allowed to deal with it. When the king agreed they commanded a black dog to come out of it and killed it-at least this is what the Yamanites say. Then they destroyed the temple and I am told that its ruins to this day show traces of the blood that was poured over it.”
    • Ibn Ishãq, Sîrat Rasûl Allãh, translated into English by A. Gillaumne, OUP, Karachi, Seventh Impression. Quoted in in Goel, S. R. (1993). Hindu temples: What happened to them. Vol. II
  • “At this time,” reports Ibn Ishãq, “the people of Najrãn followed the religion of the Arabs worshipping a great palm-tree. Every year they had a festival when they hung on the tree any fine garment they could find and women’s jewels. Then they sallied out and devoted the day to it.” Faymiyûn reported to the nobles that the palm-tree “could neither help nor hurt” and that “if he were to curse the tree in the name of God, He would destroy it, for He was God Alone without companion.” The nobles agreed. Faymiyûn “invoked God against the tree and God sent a wind against it which tore it from its roots and cast it on the ground.” The miracle helped the people of Najran to adopt the “law of Îsã b. Maryam” in which Faymiyûn “instructed them.”
    • Ibn Ishãq, Sîrat Rasûl Allãh, translated into English by A. Gillaumne, OUP, Karachi, Seventh Impression.Quoted in in Goel, S. R. (1993). Hindu temples: What happened to them. Vol. II
  • As a baby, Muhammad was suckled by a desert woman, Halîma. One day she came to Mecca to see the ‘Ukãz fair, carrying Muhammad with her. An astrologer saw the baby and shouted, “Come here, O people of Hudayl, come here, O Arabs.” People gathered round him, Halîma among them. He pointed towards the baby and said, “He will slaughter people of your religion and smash your idols.” Halîma took fright and ran away with the baby.
    • Translated from ‘Alãma Abdullãh al-Ahmdî’s Urdu version of Tabqãt-i-ibn Sa‘d, Part I: Akhbãr an-Nabî, Karachi, (n.d.), p. 233. Quoted in in Goel, S. R. (1993). Hindu temples: What happened to them. Vol. II
  • Thus D. B. Macdonald, in his article s.v. ‘Allāh’ in the first edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam, wrote: ‘The religion of Mecca in Muh·ammad’s time was far from simple idolatry. It resembled much more a form of the Christian faith, in which saints and angels have come to stand between the worshippers and God.’
    • Encyclopaedia of Islam quoted in G. R. Hawting - The Idea of Idolatry and the Emergence of Islam_ From Polemic to History-Cambridge University Press (2006)


  • When the Prophet captured Mecca, he dispatched Khalid ibn-al-Walid saying, “Go to the valley of Nakhlah; there you will find three trees. Cut down the first one.” Khalid went and cut it down. On his return to report, the Prophet asked him saying, “Have you seen anything there?” Khalid replied and said, “No.” The Prophet ordered him to return and cut down the second tree. He went and cut it down. On his return to report the Prophet asked him a second time, “Have you seen anything there?” Khalid answered, “No.” Thereupon the Prophet ordered him to go back and cut down the third tree. When Khalid arrived on the scene he found an Abyssinian woman with dishevelled hair and her hands placed on her shoulder[s], gnashing and grating her teeth. Behind her stood Dubayyah al-Sulami who was then the custodian of al-’Uzza. When Dubayyah saw Khalid approaching, he said: “O thou al-’Uzza! Remove thy veil and tuck up thy sleeves; Summon up thy strength and deal Khalid an unmistakable blow. For unless thou killest him this very day, Thou shalt be doomed to ignominy and shame.” Thereupon Khalid replied: “O al-’Uzza! May thou be blasphemed, not exalted! Verily I see that God hath abased thee.” Turning to the woman, he dealt her a blow which severed her head in twain, and lo, she crumbled into ashes. He then cut down the tree and killed Dubayyah the custodian, after which he returned to the Prophet and reported to him his exploit. Thereupon the Prophet said, “That was al-’Uzza. But she is no more. The Arabs shall have none after her. Verily she shall never be worshipped again.”
    • Kitāb al-ʾAṣnām, translated by Nabih Amin Faris, p.21


  • The Quraysh as well as the rest of the Arabs continued to venerate Manah until the Apostle of God set out from Medina in the eighth year of the Hijrah[16], the year in which God accorded him the victory[17]. When he was at a distance of four or five nights from Medina, he dispatched ‘Ali to destroy her. ‘Ali demolished her, took away all her [treasures], and carried them back to the Prophet.
    • Kitāb al-ʾAṣnām, translated by Nabih Amin Faris, p.14

Dhū Kaffayn

  • When the Messenger of God conquered Hunayn, he desired to march to al-Ta if. He sent al-Tufayl b. “Amr to Dhū l-Kaffayn the idol of Amr b. Humama to destroy it. He commanded him to ask his people to help him and join him in al-Ta’if.
    • Al-Wāqidī’s Kitāb al-Maghāzī, edited by Rizwi Faizer, p.452
  • O Dhū Kaffayn we are not your worshipers. Our birth is more ancient than yours. Indeed I stuffed your heart with fire.
    • Al-Wāqidī’s Kitāb al-Maghāzī, edited by Rizwi Faizer, p.453


  • The Messenger of God sent “Ali with a hundred and fifty men on a hundred camels and fifty horses. Only the Ansār, and that included the Aws and the Khazraj, participated in the raid. They went along side the horses and took turns on the camels until they attacked the tribes of the Bedouin. He inquired about the region of the families of Halam, then he alighted upon them. Then they raided them with the dawn. They took prisoners until their hands were full, and cattle and sheep. They attacked al-Fuls, the idol of the Ṭayyi and destroyed it.
    • Al-Wāqidī’s Kitāb al-Maghāzī, edited by Rizwi Faizer, p.482


  • the Messenger of God dispatched Abu Sufyan b. Harb and al Mughirah b. Shu’bah to demolish al-Taghiyyah. The two traveled with the deputation until they approached al-Ta’if, at which point al-Mughirah asked Abü Sufyån to precede him. Abu Sufyan refused, saying, “Go to your kinsfolk yourself,” and stayed at his estate in Dhû al-Harm. When al-Mughirah b. Shu’bah entered [al-Ta’if], he mounted the idol and struck it with a pick axe while his folk, the Banu Mu’attib, stood by him, fearing that he might be shot at or struck as Urwah had been. The women of Thaqif came out with their heads uncovered and said, lamenting the loss of the] idol…
    • The History of al-Ṭabarī, Vol-9, p.46
  • While al-Mughirah was striking the idol with the axe, Abū Sufyan was saying, “Alas for you, alas!” When al-Mughirah had demolished it, he took its treasure and ornamentations and sent [it] to Abū Sufyän. Its ornamentation was made up of various items, while its treasure consisted of gold and onyx.
    • The History of al-Ṭabarī, Vol-9, p.46
  • Come not to Allat, for God hath doomed her to destruction; How can you stand by one which doth not triumph? Verily that which, when set on fire, resisted not the flames, Nor saved her stones, is inglorious and worthless. Hence when the Apostle in your place shall arrive. And then leave, not one of her votaries shall be left.
    • Kitāb al-ʾAṣnām, translated by Nabih Amin Faris, p.16


  • I was told by Malik ibn-Harithah al-Ajdari that he himself had seen Wadd, and that his father was wont to send him to it with some milk saying, “Offer it unto thy god to drink.” Malik added, “I used to drink the milk myself.’ He also said, “I also saw it after Khalid ibn-al-Walid had destroyed it and smashed it into pieces.”
    • Kitāb al-ʾAṣnām, translated by Nabih Amin Faris, p.46

Dhul Khalasa (temple)

  • Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) said to me, “Will you relieve me from Dhul-Khalasa? Dhul-Khalasa was a house (of an idol) belonging to the tribe of Khath’am called Al-Ka`ba Al-Yama-niya. So, I proceeded with one hundred and fifty cavalry men from the tribe of Ahmas, who were excellent knights. It happened that I could not sit firm on horses, so the Prophet (ﷺ) , stroke me over my chest till I saw his finger-marks over my chest, he said, ‘O Allah! Make him firm and make him a guiding and rightly guided man.’ ” Jarir proceeded towards that house, and dismantled and burnt it. Then he sent a messenger to Allah’s Apostle informing him of that. Jarir’s messenger said, “By Him Who has sent you with the Truth, I did not come to you till I had left it like an emancipated or gabby camel (i.e. completely marred and spoilt).” Jarir added, “The Prophet (ﷺ) asked for Allah’s Blessings for the horses and the men of Ahmas five times.”
    • Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 4, Book 52, Hadith 262

Suwā‛ – The idol of Hudhayl

  • He sent Sa’d b. Zayd al-Ashhali Manāt in al-Mushallal and he pulled it down. And he sent “Amr b. al-As to the idol of Hudhayl-Suwa-and he pulled it down. Amr used to say: I reached the idol and also the gatekeeper. He said. What do you want? I said, “To bring down Suwā.” He said. “What do you intend with it?” I said. “The Messenger of God commanded me.” He said, “You will not be able to bring it down.” I said. “Why?” He replied, “It will prevent you.” Amr said, “Until now you are in the wrong! Woe unto you. Can it hear or see?” Amr said: I drew close to it and broke it. I commanded my companions and they pulled down the house of its treasury. They did not find anything in it.” Then he said to the gatekeeper, “What do you think?” He replied, “I submitted to God.”
    • Al-Wāqidī’s Kitāb al-Maghāzī, edited by Rizwi Faizer, p.428


  • He sent Sa’d b. Zayd al-Ashhali to Manāt in al-Mushallal and he pulled it down.
    • Al-Wāqidī’s Kitāb al-Maghāzī, edited by Rizwi Faizer, p.428