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Arabia at the Time of Mohammed
AT the time of Mohammed's appearance Arabian paganism was tending very strongly toward that type of belief which has been called polydaemonism. Divine beings, as a rule, were not such clearly defined and individual entities as in the higher polytheistic religions. They were beings after the fashion of the European fauns, gnomes, and earth-spirits, and were usually differentiated only by their different dwelling places. As in European folk-lore every home has its house-cricket, and every forest its spirit, so, according to Western Semitic belief, every country had its special divinity, a Baal or an El. The local divinity could inhabit external objects of nature, and in Semitic thought, as expressed especially in sacred stories, it could also inhabit trees or springs. In Canaan the sacred tree might be replaced by a wooden pole, an ashera, which was often erected near the altar. Similarly, the sacred stone might be a rocky ledge, or a single stone, which, because of its unique position, became an object of worship. Moreover, a special stone might even be erected for cult purposes. Then it was called a masseba. Sometimes offerings were placed upon natural boulders, or upon stones having a bowl-shaped depression, like the Nordic elf-mills. In Judges vi, 19ff, such a sacrifice is described. Gideon placed meat and unleavened bread upon a rock and poured broth over it, whereupon fire came out of the rock and consumed the offering. A large stone was generally regarded as a fitting place to offer a sacrifice. When the Ark of the Covenant was returned from the land of the Philistines, and the procession reached Bethshemesh, the Hebrews found in the field there a large stone, upon which the kine who had drawn the ark were sacrificed as a burnt-offering to the Lord.
Among the Arabs this stone cult survived and assumed a definite form. The various local divinities, worshipped by one or more tribes of the vicinity, were ordinarily simply identified with stones—or this, at least, is the opinion of Mohammedan writers. Ibn al Kelbi reports that Manat was a large stone in the territory of the Hudhail tribe, that Allat was a rectangular stone upon which a Jew used to grind wheat, and that Sa'd was a high block of stone in the desert. In some cases the divinity was identified with a particular part of the natural rock. Al-Fals was a reddish projection, resembling a man, on an otherwise black mountain. But specially erected stones might also serve as the dwelling-places of the divinity or the seats of his power.
The most famous of all of the stone fetishes of Arabia was, of course, the black stone in the sanctuary of Mecca. The Ka'ba was, and still is, a rectangular stone structure. Built into its Eastern corner is the black stone which had been an object of worship for many centuries before Mohammed appropriated the Ka'ba for his new religion, and made the pilgrimage to this holy place one of the pillars of Islam.
Every nature cult is inclined to regard a sacred object as a personal human being. When possible, this tendency often finds expression in clumsy attempts to interpret the sacred object anthropomorphically. Hence several of the Arabian stone fetishes were in process of becoming idols. Al-Galsad looked like 'the torso of a man of white stone with a black head.' In the Ka'ba there was an actual idol representing the God Hubal.
The sacred stone image was surrounded by consecrated territory, a Hima, which often contained rich vegetation and a natural water-supply. In the sacred grove there was frequently a spring. Thus, on one side of the Ka'ba was the well Zemzem, whose very salty and disagreeable water is still regarded by Mohammedans as particularly holy. Within a Hima an animal could not be killed, nor a tree felled. Tame animals which fled into it could not be recovered, and some animals which had to be withdrawn from secular use because of ancient taboos—for example, female camels which had brought forth male colts for a number of years in succession —were placed in these sacred enclosures. As in other lands, so in Arabia, sacrifice was the method of establishing contact with the divinity. First the sinews of the hind-legs of the sacrificial animal, usually a camel, were severed, so that it fell over; thereupon its throat was cut with an archaic knife, and the blood was made to drop upon the sacred stone. The flesh was usually eaten by the sacrificer, but sometimes it was shared by guests whom he had invited to the feast. However, some sacrifices were consecrated entirely to the divinity. The sacrificial animal had then to be left lying upon the sacred place, to feed the beasts and birds of prey. Some sacrifices were prescribed by traditional customs. When a boy attained the age of seven a sheep was sacrificed, and the 'pagan hair,'aqiqa, of the boy was cut, from which act the whole custom, which Islam also adopted, receives its name. In offering a sacrifice a large number of taboos had to be observed until the sacrifice had been completed: such as no drinking of wine, no washing or combing, no sex contact with women, wearing nothing upon the head, and carrying no weapons.
In connection with the annual sacrifices another cult form was retained, especially at the Ka'ba. During a certain month the Arabs of the vicinity assembled to walk around the sanctuary. This circumambulation, the tawaf, which even to-day constitutes the climax of the Mohammedan pilgrimage, began and ended at the sacred stone, and was supposed to proceed toward the right, that is, counter sun-wise. At the beginning or at the end of the ceremony the black stone was sometimes kissed, or a bow was made with outstretched arms toward the wall between the stone and the Eastern door. This usage is obviously related to the ritual dance or the circling of the sacred object, the sacred tree, the Maypole, or the fire—the purpose apparently being to come into close contact with the power residing in the cult object, or to evoke an especially strong response from it. In addition, this sacred encircling is a very typical example of the shifting of motive which often takes place within the same magico-religious rite. That is to say, the act is performed not merely in order to obtain power from the cult object, but also in order to bind the divinity or power, to compel it or to surround it with a protective magic circle. The wall of Jericho fell when the priests marched around it; the city of Rome was protected by the sacred furrow which had been ploughed around it; and by means of the circle which was drawn three times (in the same direction as the sun) around the clearing in the wood the Norsemen bound the fire so that it might not spread into the forest. Concerning the sacrificial stone of the Laps it is said: 'The women are not permitted to encircle such sacred mountains, for fear that the God might not be confined by the circle, and might be forced to break out violently and bring some misfortune upon the women and their sex.' Originally the valley between Safa and Marwa, the two small hills north of the Ka'ba, also belonged to the tawaf.
Another ceremony, which was not connected with the rites of the Ka'ba before the rise of Islam, is the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to 'Arafat, about two miles east of Mecca, toward Mina. This took place in a different month from the tawaf. Those making it gathered and waited for the signal of the leader before beginning the journey to Muzdalifa, where the night was spent in watching. Just at daybreak they all proceeded to Mina. On the way they passed three stone-heaps, upon which every participant cast a stone. At Mina an animal was sacrificed, and when the rite was completed the participants cut off their hair and put on their everyday clothes as a sign that they were now leaving the ihram. In the main this is still included in the pilgrimage to Mecca prescribed by Mohammed. Thus the rites of 'Arafat and Mina are so combined with it that the pilgrims must, after they have cut off their hair, go back to Mecca and perform a tawaf.
So the ancient paganism of Arabia may in general be regarded as an undeveloped polytheism, in which a development had just barely begun which would have gradually produced a pantheon consisting of a hierarchy of gods, formed by associating together a number of independent individual divinities. Nevertheless, some of these divinities stand out above the multitude of local deities, and reveal a more definite personal nature and a uniquely defined function. This is true, first of all, of the three goddesses of Mecca: Manat, Allat, and Al 'Uzza. Their cult was of the greatest antiquity. Judging by her name, Manat, who was especially revered by the warlike and poetic tribe of the Hudhail, south of Mecca, seems to have been a divinity of the very prevalent type of a goddess of fate and fortune. She resembles the Greek Tyche Soteira, one of the Fates, a daughter of Zeus, the liberator and helper of man on the sea, in war, and in public assemblies. As early as the days of Herodotus Allat was known as Alilat. The original form shows that her name signifies 'the Goddess.' like other ancient historians, Herodotus always sees in the gods of alien peoples the same beings whom his own people worship. The Allat of the Arabs is for him Urania. He therefore recognizes her as a goddess of heaven. Urania-Coelestis is the Graeco-Roman version of the Phoenician Astarte. This 'Carthaginian Astarte' bears also the name of the 'mother of the gods.' When the mother of the Emperor Heliogabalus, Julia Soemias, was elevated to the position of goddess of heaven (and her son to the position of sun-god) she was given the official title 'Mother of the gods, Venus Urania, Queen Juno.' But in Nabataean inscriptions the 'mother of the gods' is also called Allat. Thus we have a right to assume that in Arabic circles Allat corresponded with the great Semitic goddess of motherhood, fertility and heaven, and especially with the form which she assumed in Western Semitic regions. In Taif, where her most important sanctuary was located, she was called simply Al Rabba, 'sovereign,' a title which belonged also to Ishtar (Belit) and Astarte (Baalat). At the time of Mohammed's appearance Al 'Uzza received the most worship of the three goddesses. The name signifies 'the mighty, the honoured one,' and hence it really has much the same content as Al Rabba. In character too this goddess is very similar to Allat. Only in Northern Arabia does she seem to have retained more definitely her original connection with the planet Venus. Isaac of Antioch relates that the savage Arabs sacrificed boys and girls to the morning star, whom he also calls Al 'Uzza. He also accuses the Syrian ladies of climbing upon the roof at night and praying to the morning star to make their faces radiant with beauty. The Arab women do likewise. And yet, Isaac adds ironically, some of them are beautiful and some are ugly, just as are the women of all nations. The Church Father Nilus relates that the Arabs worshipped the morning star, and on concluding a successful raid gladly sacrificed to it at dawn. Something very precious was used as a sacrifice, preferably a youth in the bloom of adolescence. In Nakhla, a few miles north of Mecca, Al 'Uzza had one of her chief sanctuaries. In the eighth year after the Hegira Mohammed sent the valiant Khalid, who later conquered Syria, with thirty horsemen to destroy this sanctuary. While Khalid was felling the last of the three sacred acacia-trees of the goddess, a naked black woman with flowing hair approached him. Her priest, who was present, cried out: 'Be courageous, Al 'Uzza, and protect thyself!' Khalid shook with terror, but took courage, and with one stroke cleft her head. Then she turned into a black cinder.
How dear the bright and comely goddess of heaven was to the populace of the Mediterranean countries and the Near East is shown especially by the fact that she survived the decay of the ancient world, and won a place for herself in Catholic Christianity as the Virgin Mary, the Queen of Heaven. And the fact that Mohammed himself, who otherwise broke so completely with the old paganism, originally attempted to make a place for the three goddesses in his religious system, is reflected in a story which has been faithfully preserved by Islamic tradition, although to us it seems to present the Prophet in a very unfavourable light. Mohammed was probably actuated by a pious regard for what had been vitally religious in the piety of his childhood—something which he could not and did not desire to discard. Thanks, however, to an over-zealous apologetic, this fact, which in itself is neither foolish nor disparaging to the Prophet, had been so portrayed, in a foolish legend, as to cast a grave reflection upon his religious and moral character.
Ibn Sa'd, an historian of the ninth century, relates that at the time when Mohammed permitted some of the faithful to migrate to Abyssinia, to escape the persecution which threatened him and his followers, he strongly desired not to receive any revelations that might estrange his countrymen. He was anxious to win them, and he did succeed in reaching an understanding with them. One day he was sitting together with them at the Ka'ba, reading them Sura 53: 'By the Star when it setteth.' When he came to the passage: 'Do ye behold Allat and Al 'Uzza, and also Manat, the third idol?' —which now concludes: 'What? shall ye have male progeny and Allah female? This were indeed an unfair partition!'—Satan suggested two lines to him: 'These are the exalted females, and truly their intercession may be expected.' Mohammed then re-read the whole Sura, and at its conclusion he prostrated himself and prayed, and the whole tribe of Quraish did the same. His bitter enemy, the old Walid ibn Al-Mugira, who could not bow down, took earth instead, and sprinkled it upon his head. All were greatly pleased with the Prophet, and said to him: 'We know that Allah killeth and giveth life, createth and preserveth, but these our goddesses pray to Him for us, and since you have now permitted them to share divine honours with Him, we therefore desire to unite with you.' The Prophet was disturbed by their words, and all day he meditated alone in his own house. That evening the angel Gabriel came to him, and the Prophet recited the Sura to him. When he came to the words suggested by Satan the angel asked: 'Have I taught you these two lines?' Mohammed then realized his error, and said: 'I have attributed to Allah words which He did not reveal.'
It is very apparent that in this form the whole narrative is historically and psychologically contradictory. However, beneath the legendary form which has come down to us there is still discernible an older version, according to which Mohammed's legitimate desire to reach an understanding with his people misled him into trying to compromise between previously proclaimed monotheism and the pagan idolatry. Inasmuch as parallels to such opportunism are by no means lacking in Mohammed's later conduct—think, for example, of his attempt to win over the Jews of Medina to his religion—this story of his chance defection has hitherto been generally accepted as historical. It is thought that in this incident the unscrupulousness of the future autocrat of Medina is clearly revealed, and it is believed that these tactics actually achieved a certain degree of success; for according to one version, although it involved only a temporary concession, which Mohammed revoked on the very same day, nevertheless, the compromise was maintained long enough for the rumour of his reconciliation with his people to reach the refugees in Abyssinia.
However, an Italian scholar, Caetani, has attempted to show that the traditional form of the story cannot be correct. When one considers the contempt and enmity which the Quraish tribe, who inhabited Mecca, showed toward Mohammed on other occasions, it would seem highly improbable that they ever condescended to listen to the Prophet's reading of the Koran, to say nothing of acknowledging him as a prophet on account of an insignificant concession. Furthermore, such a sudden abandonment of a principle which he had previously championed so energetically would have utterly cancelled his previous success, and entirely undermined the prestige which he had gained among his followers. And one might add that a compromise with the Quraish tribe could not possibly have been reached by merely changing a few lines of the Koran at a time when a large portion of it was filled with bitter attacks upon the Meccan pagans and their gods.
Excerpted from Mohammed by Tor Andrae, Theophil Menzel. Copyright © 2000 The George Macy Companies, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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