Religion in pre-Islamic Arabia
Religion in pre-Islamic Arabia was a mix of polytheism, Christianity, Judaism, and Iranian religions. Arab polytheism, the dominant form of religion in pre-Islamic Arabia, was based on veneration of deities and other rituals. Gods and goddesses, including Hubal and the goddesses al-Lāt, Al-‘Uzzá and Manāt, were worshipped at local shrines such as the Kaaba in Mecca. Different theories have been proposed regarding the role of Allah in Meccan religion. Many of the physical descriptions of the pre-Islamic gods are traced to idols, especially near the Kaaba, which is said to have contained up to 360 of them.
Other religions were represented to varying, lesser degrees. The influence of the adjacent Roman, Aksumite and Sasanian Empires resulted in Christian communities in the northwest, northeast and south of Arabia. Christianity made a lesser impact, but secured some conversions, in the remainder of the peninsula. With the exception of Nestorianism in the northeast and the Persian Gulf, the dominant form of Christianity was Miaphysitism. The peninsula had been a destination for Jewish migration since Roman times, which had resulted in a diaspora community supplemented by local converts. Additionally, the influence of the Sasanian Empire resulted in Iranian religions being present in the peninsula. Zoroastrianism existed in the east and south, while there is evidence of Manichaeism or possibly Mazdakism being practised in Mecca.
Polytheism and indigenous beliefs
Background, belief systems and sources
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Until about the fourth century, almost all Arabs practised polytheistic religions. Although significant Jewish and Christian minorities developed, polytheism remained the dominant belief system in pre-Islamic Arabia. The religious beliefs and practices of the nomadic Bedouin were distinct from those of the settled tribes of towns such as Mecca. Nomadic religious belief systems and practices are believed to have included fetishism, totemism and veneration of the dead but were connected principally with immediate concerns and problems and did not consider larger philosophical questions such as the afterlife. Settled urban Arabs, on the other hand, are thought to have believed in a more complex pantheon of deities. While the Meccans and the other settled inhabitants of the Hejaz worshiped their gods at permanent shrines in towns and oases, the Bedouin practised their religion on the move.
The contemporary sources of information regarding the pre-Islamic pantheon include a small number of inscriptions and carvings, remnants of stone idol-worship, references in the poetry of the pre-Islamic Arab poet Zuhayr bin Abi Sulma and pre-Islamic personal names. Nevertheless, information is limited and while scholars believe that the dominant traditions of the pre-Islamic Arabia were polytheistic, there is little certainty about the nature of pre-Islamic polytheism and considerable debate. According to F.E. Peters, "one of the characteristics of Arab paganism as it has come down to us is the absence of a mythology, narratives that might serve to explain the origin or history of the gods."
The majority of extant information about Mecca during the rise of Islam and earlier times comes from the text of Quran itself and later Muslim sources such as the Prophetic biography literature dealing with the life of Muhammad and the eighth-century Book of Idols. Alternative sources are so fragmentary and specialized that writing a convincing history of this period based on them alone is impossible. Several scholars hold that the sīra literature is not independent of Quran but has been fabricated to explain the verses of Quran. There is evidence to support the contention that some reports of the sīras are of dubious validity, but there is also evidence to support the contention that the sīra narratives originated independently of the Quran. Compounding the problem is that the earliest extant Muslim historical works, including the sīras, were composed in their definitive form more than a century after the beginning of the Islamic era. Some of these works were based on subsequently lost earlier texts, which in their turn recorded a fluid oral tradition. Scholars do not agree as to the time when such oral accounts began to be systematically collected and written down, and they differ greatly in their assessment of the historical reliability of the available texts.
According to Ibn al-Kalbi's Book of Idols, descendants of the son of Abraham who had settled in Mecca migrated to other lands carried with them the holy stones from Kaaba and after erecting them started circumambulting them just like Kaaba. This according to him led to the rise of idol worship. Based on this, it may be probable that Arabs originally venetrated stones, later adopting idol-worship under foreign influences. The relationship between a god and a stone as his representation can be seen from the third-century work called the Syriac homily of Pseudo-Meliton where he describes the pagan faiths of Syriac-speakers in northern Mesoptomia, who were mostly Arabs.
Deities and system of worship
The pre-Islamic Arab religion was polytheistic, venerating many deities and spirits through statues, baetylus and natural phenomena. According to the Book of Idols, there are two known types of statues; idols (sanam) and images (wathan). If a statue was made of wood, gold, or silver, after a human form, it would be an idol, but if the statue was made of stone, it would be an image.
Some scholars postulate that in pre-Islamic Arabia, including in Mecca, Allah was considered to be a deity, possibly a creator deity or a supreme deity in a polytheistic pantheon. The word Allah (from the Arabic al-ilah meaning "the god") may have been used as a title rather than a name. The concept of Allah may have been vague in the Meccan religion. Pre-Islamic texts, Meccans and their neighbors believed that the goddesses Al-lāt, Al-‘Uzzá, and Manāt were the daughters of Allah.
Regional variants of the word Allah occur in both pagan and Christian pre-Islamic inscriptions. Muhammad's father's name was ʿAbd-Allāh, meaning "the servant of Allah".
Encyclopedia of Ancient Deities by Charles Russell Coulter and Patricia Turner considers Allah's name may be derived from a pre-Islamic god called Ailiah and is similar to El, Il, Ilah and Jehova. It also considers some of his characteristics to be seemingly based on lunar deities like Ilmugah, Kahil, Shaker, Wadd and Warah. Alfred Guillaume states that the connection between Ilah that came to form Allah and ancient Babylonian "Il" or El of Ancient Israel is not clear. Wellhausen states that Allah was known from Jewish and Christian sources and was known to pagan Arabs as the supreme god. Winfried Corduan doubts the theory of Allah of Islam being linked to a moon god, stating the term Allah derived from Al-ilah like El-Elyon which was used for the god Sin, functions as a generic term.
South Arabian inscriptions from the fourth century AD refer to a god called Rahmanan ("The Merciful One") who had a monotheistic cult and was referred to as the "Lord of heaven and Earth". Aaron W. Hughes states that scholars are unsure whether he developed from the earlier polytheistic systems or developed due to the increasing significance of the Christian and Jewish communities. He also adds that it is difficult to establish whether Allah was linked to Rahmanan. Maxime Rodinson however considers one of Allah's name "Ar-Rahman" to have been used in the form of Rahmanan earlier.
Al-lāt, Al-‘Uzzá and Manat
Al-lāt, Al-‘Uzzá and Manat were common names used for multiple goddesses across Arabia. G.R. Hawting states that modern scholars have frequently associated the names of Arabian goddesses Al-lāt, Al-‘Uzzá and Manāt with cults devoted to celestial bodies particularly Venus, drawing upon evidence external to the Muslim tradition as well as in relation to Syria, Mesopotamia and the Sinai Peninsula.
There are two possible etymologies of the name al-lāt. The etymology best reflecting the Arab lexicographical tradition derives the name from the verb latta (to mix or knead barley-meal). It has also been associated with the "idol of jealousy" erected in the temple of Jerusalem according to the Book of Ezekiel, which was offered an oblation of barley-meal by the husband who suspected his wife of infidelity. It can be inferred from al-Kalbi's Book of Idols that a similar ritual was practiced in the vicinity of the idol of Al-lāt in Mecca. The second etymology, which is more in line with Semitic traditions in general, takes Al-lāt to be the feminine form of Allah. The word al-Lat was used as a name and title for multiple pre-Islamic goddesses of Arabia and was used for either a wife of Allah or a daughter depending on the region. It was used as a title for the goddesses Asherah and Athirat. The word is akin to Elat, which was the name of the wife of Semitic deity El.
Allāt's cult was spread in Syria and northern Arabia. From Safaitic and Hismaic inscriptions, it is probable that she was worshiped as Lat (lt). F. V. Winnet saw Allat as a lunar deity due to association of a crescent with her in 'Ayn esh-Shallāleh and a Lihyanite inscription mentioning the name of Wadd over the title of 'fkl lt. René Dussaud and Gonzague Ryckmans linked her with Venus while others have thought her to be a solar deity. John F. Healey considers al-Uzza actually might have been an epithet of Allāt before becoming a separate deity in Meccan pantheon. Redifining Dionysus considers she might have been a god of vegetation or a celestial deity of atmospheric phenomenoas and a sky deity.
Al-‘Uzzá was meanwhile associated with the Mesopotamian goddesses Nanai, Inanna and Ishtar. Manat was apparently associated with the Greek goddess Nemesis. A similar word Menītu/Menūtu was used as a title for Ishtar.
Mecca and the Kaaba
The Kaaba, whose environs were regarded as sacred (haram), became a national shrine under the custodianship of the Quraysh, the chief tribe of Mecca, which made the Hejaz the most important religious area in north Arabia. Its role was solidified by a confrontation with the Christian king Abraha, who controlled much of Arabia from a seat of power in Yemen in the middle of the sixth century. Abraha had recently constructed a splendid church in Sana'a, and he wanted to make that city a major center of pilgrimage, but Mecca's Kaaba presented a challenge to his plan. Abraha found a pretext, presented by different sources alternatively as pollution of the church by a tribe allied to the Meccans or as an attack on Abraha's grandson in Najran by a Meccan party. The defeat of the army he assembled to conquer Mecca is recounted with miraculous details by the Islamic tradition and is also alluded to in the Quran and pre-Islamic poetry. After the battle, which probably occurred around 565, the Quraysh became a dominant force in western Arabia, receiving the title "God's people" (ahl Allah) according to Islamic sources, and formed the cult association of ḥums, which tied members of many tribes in western Arabia to the Kaaba.
According to tradition, the Kaaba was a cube-like, originally roofless structure housing a black stone venerated as a fetish. The sanctuary was dedicated to Hubal (Arabic: هبل), who, according to some sources, was worshiped as the greatest of the 360 idols the Kaaba contained, which probably represented the days of the year. Ibn Ishaq and Ibn Al-Kalbi both report that the human-shaped idol of Hubal made of precious stone came into possession of the Quraysh with its right hand broken off and that the Quraysh made a hand of gold to replace it. A soothsayer performed divination in the shrine by drawing ritual arrows, and vows and sacrifices were made to assure success. Marshall Hodgson argues that relations with deities and fetishes in pre-Islamic Mecca were maintained chiefly on the basis of bargaining, where favors were expected in return for offerings. A deity's or oracle's failure to provide the desired response was sometimes met with anger.
Allah and Hubal
Different theories have been proposed regarding the role of Allah in Meccan religion. According to one hypothesis, which goes back to Julius Wellhausen, Allah (the supreme deity of the tribal federation around Quraysh) was a designation that consecrated the superiority of Hubal (the supreme deity of Quraysh) over the other gods. However, there is also evidence that Allah and Hubal were two distinct deities. According to that hypothesis, the Kaaba was first consecrated to a supreme deity named Allah and then hosted the pantheon of Quraysh after their conquest of Mecca, about a century before the time of Muhammad. Some inscriptions seem to indicate the use of Allah as a name of a polytheist deity centuries earlier, but we know nothing precise about this use. Some scholars have suggested that Allah may have represented a remote creator god who was gradually eclipsed by more particularized local deities. There is disagreement on whether Allah played a major role in the Meccan religious cult. No iconic representation or idol of Allah is known to have existed.
The three chief goddesses of Meccan religion were Al-lāt, Al-‘Uzzá, and Manāt, who were called the daughters of Allah. Egerton Sykes meanwhile states that Al-lāt was the female counterpart of Allah while Uzza was a name given by Banu Ghatafan to the planet Venus.
Allāt (Arabic: اللات) or Al-lāt was worshipped throughout the ancient Near East with various associations. Herodotus in the 5th century BC identifies Alilat (Greek: Ἀλιλάτ) as the Arabic name for Aphrodite (and, in another passage, for Urania), which is strong evidence for worship of Allāt in Arabia at that early date. According to the Book of Idols, her idol and shrine stood in Ta'if. Al-‘Uzzá (Arabic: العزى) "The Mightiest" was a fertility goddess or possibly a goddess of love. Her principal shrine was in Nakhla, a day's journey from Mecca. Manāt (Arabic: مناة) was the goddess of fate. According to the Book of Idols, an idol of Manāt was erected on the seashore between Medina and Mecca. Inhabitants of several areas venerated Manāt, performing sacrifices before her idol, and pilgrimages of some were not considered completed until they visited Manāt and shaved their heads.
Manaf (Arabic: مناف) was another Meccan god whose idol was caressed by women. Menstruating women were forbidden from coming near his idol. The Meccans were accustomed to name their children Abd Manaf. Muhammad's great-great-grandfather's name was Abd Manaf which means "slave of Manaf". He is thought by some scholars to be a sun-god.
The pantheon of the Quraysh was not identical with that of the tribes who entered into various cult and commercial associations with them, especially that of the hums. Christian Julien Robin argues that the former was composed principally of idols that were in the sanctuary of Mecca, including Hubal and Manaf, while the pantheon of the associations was superimposed on it, and its principal deities included the three goddesses, who had neither idols nor a shrine in that city.
Political and religious developments
The second half of the sixth century was a period of political disorder in Arabia and communication routes were no longer secure. Religious divisions were an important cause of the crisis. Judaism became the dominant religion in Yemen while Christianity took root in the Persian Gulf area. In line with the broader trends of the ancient world, Arabia yearned for a more spiritual form of religion and began believing in afterlife, while the choice of religion increasingly became a personal rather than communal choice. While many were reluctant to convert to a foreign faith, those faiths provided intellectual and spiritual reference points, and the old pagan vocabulary of Arabic began to be replaced by Jewish and Christian loanwords from Aramaic everywhere, including Mecca. The distribution of pagan temples supports Gerald Hawting's argument that Arabian polytheism was marginalized in the region and already dying in Mecca on the eve of Islam. The practice of polytheistic cults was increasingly limited to the steppe and the desert, and in Yathrib, which included two tribes with polytheistic majority, the absence of a public pagan temple in the town or its immediate neighborhood indicates that polytheism was confined to the private sphere. Looking at the text of Quran itself, Hawting has also argued that the criticism of idolators and polytheists contained in Quran is in fact a hyperbolic reference to other monotheists, in particular the Arab Jews and Arab Christians, whose religious beliefs were considered imperfect. According to some traditions, the Kaaba contained no statues, but its interior was decorated with images of Mary and Jesus, of prophets, angels, and trees.
To counter the effects of anarchy, the institution of sacred months during which every act of violence was prohibited, was reestablished. During those months, it was possible to participate in pilgrimages and fairs without danger. The Quraysh upheld the principle of two annual truces, one of one month and the second of three months, which conferred a sacred character to the Meccan sanctuary. The cult association of hums, in which individuals and groups partook in the same rites, was primarily religious, but it also had important economic consequences. Although, as Patricia Crone has shown, Mecca could not compare with the great centers of caravan trade on the eve of Islam, it was probably one of the most prosperous and secure cities of the peninsula, since, unlike many of them, it did not have surrounding walls. Pilgrimage to Mecca was a popular custom. Some Islamic rituals, including processions around the Kaaba and between the hills of al-Safa and Marwa, as well as the salutation "we are here, O Allah, we are here" repeated on approaching the Kaaba are believed to have antedated Islam. Spring water acquired a sacred character in Arabia early on and Islamic sources state that the well of Zamzam became holy long before the Islamic era.
History and regional variations
According to the Greek historian Herodotus in the 5th-century BC work Histories, the Arabs at the time only believed in two gods; Orotalt (whom he identifies with Dionysus) and Alilat (identified with Aphrodite Ourania).
The Hejaz region specifically was home to three important shrines, one located in Ta'if was dedicated to Al-Lat, another in Nakhla was dedicated to Al-'Uzza, and the other in Al-Qudayd was dedicated to Manat.
Various other deities were venerated in the area by specific tribes. For example, the god Sa'd was venerated by the tribe of Kinanah (although he also received worship by the Arab nomads around Palmyra). Suwa is an important god of the Banu Hudhayl tribe. Apparently, animal sacrifice was also practiced. According to the Book of Idols, animals such as camels and sheep would be sacrificed before the deity, often performed on an altar.
Medina, then called Yathrib, was home to two polytheistic tribes; Banu Aws (which was also known as Aws Manat or "the Gift of Manāt") and Banu Khazraj. Both tribes were devout worshippers of the goddess Manat.
The civilizations of South Arabia had the most developed pantheon in the Arabian peninsula. Evidence from surviving inscriptions suggests that each of the southern kingdoms of Qataban, Saba, Hadhramaut, Ma'in and Himyar had its own pantheon of three to five deities, the major deity always being a god. For example, the pantheon of Saba comprised Almaqah, the major deity, together with Athtar, Haubas, Himyam, and Dhat-Badan.
The main god in Ma'in and Himyar was Athtar, in Qataban it was Amm, and in Hadhramaut it was Sin. Amm was a lunar deity and was associated with the weather, especially lightning. One of the most frequent titles of the god Almaqah was "Lord of Awwam".
Anbay was an oracular god of Qataban and also the spokesman of Amm. His name was invoked in royal regulations regarding water supply. Anbay's name was related to that of the Babylonian deity Nabu. Hawkam was invoked alongside Anbay as gods of "command and decision" and his name is derived from the root word "to be wise".
Each kingdom's central temple was the focus of worship for the main god and would be the destination for an annual pilgrimage, with regional temples dedicated to a local manifestation of the main god. Other beings worshipped included local deities or deities dedicated to specific functions as well as deified ancestors.
Other deities included:
- Dhul Khalasa (Arabic: ذو الخلصة) was an oracular god in Yemen worshipped by the Bajila and Khatham tribes. He was venerated in the form of a white stone. His sanctuary known by the same name was called the Kaaba of Yemen and rivaled the Kaaba of Mecca.
- Ta'lab (Arabic: تألب) was a god worshipped in southern Arabia, particularly in Saba and also a lunar deity. His oracle was consulted for advice. A shrine dedicated to him existed in Riyam.
- Basamum, who is mentioned by an ancient text to have healed two wild goats or ibexes.
- Shams/Shamsum was a female solar deity, possibly related to the Canaanite Shapash and the broader middle-eastern Shamash. She was the dominant goddess of the Himyarite Kingdom, and possibly still revered in some form by the Bedouin for several centuries afterward.
- Kahl, the patron god of the Kindah kingdom whose capital was Qaryat al-Faw. The town was called Dhat Kahl after him. His name appears in the form of many inscriptions and rock engravings on the slopes of the Tuwayq, on the walls of the souk of the village, in the residential houses and on the incense burners.
- Nasr, the god of time who was worshipped in South Arabia and mentioned in Quran.
- Wadd (Arabic: ود) was a lunar deity in Ma'in. His name is interpreted to mean "love". Snakes were associated with him. The Minaean colonists living in Deran (modern day Al-`Ula) during the rule of Lihyanites worshipped Wadd as well. A temple of Wadd evidently existed in Dedan. There is evidence from Minaean inscriptions of the presence of Levites in the temple of Wadd who according to some scholars were either priests or cult servants who could later be promoted to higher positions. The tribe of Banu Kalb worshipped Wadd in the form of a male and is said to have represented heaven.
The main deity of the Nabataeans in northern Arabia was Dushara (Arabic: ذو الشرى). He was the only god known for certain to have been worshipped throughout Nabatea and was associated with the Greek gods Zeus and Dionysus. The meaning of his name is not clear as there are no definite interpretations of it. John Healey speculated his name to mean "The lord of Shara[t] mountain range." Dushara was represented in the form of a stone cube or more generally in the form of cuboid architecture which can be seen throughout the remains of the Nabateans' principal city, Petra. Warwick Ball has noted a possible connection with the Kaaba and has commented that, as a result, "the Islamic abstract concept of deity certainly owes a debt to Nabatean religion". There is evidence that Dushara was connected to A'ra, the local god of Bosra.
Al-ʿUzzá was worshipped in Nabataea where she had been adopted alongside Dushara as the presiding goddess at Petra, the Nabataean capital, where she assumed attributes of Isis, Tyche, and Aphrodite. She was the protectress of the city and also of love and immortality. Despite the same name shared between the al-ʿUzzá of Nabataea and that of Mecca and other places, it is unclear whether there is any continuity of worship or identity between them.
Al-Qaum (Arabic: القوم) or Shayʾ al-Qawm ("he who accompanies/leads the people"), another Nabatean god was the guardian of caravans. He was the only truly nomadic god of the Nabataean religion. According to Nabataean inscription, he did not drink wine.
Al-lat was another Nabatean goddess who was probably identified with Athena and Tyche. An image of her containing elements of both human and block form exists at 'Ain Shellaleh in er-Rumm along with an inscription which describes her as the goddess of Bosra. Three inscriptions mentioning her exist in Salkhad. However, her name isn't recorded anywhere in Bosra or Petra. Only a single bust of her near the Arched Gate of Petra testifies her existence in the capital. An inscription in Hegra on a tomb mentions her as cursing those who violate the terms of its use. The Nabatean inscriptions define her and Al-Uzza as the "bride of Dushara". Al-Uzza may have been an epithet of Allāt in the Nabataean religion.
In the same inscription where Al-lat is mentioned, a deity named Hubul is also mentioned. Jane Taylor takes this deity to be a god of divination. This is the only place outside South Arabia where a name similar to that of Hubal is mentioned. Maxime Rodinson suggests that the Meccan god Hubal may have been of Nabataean origin.
A god called al-Kutba' is mentioned in the inscriptions of these people. Devotion to the god is mentioned in inscriptions in Wadi Rum where Kutba is represented as a baetyl alongside al-'Uzza. The gender of this god is disputed.
The worship of the Syrian god Baalshamin was imported from Hauran. The Edomite god Qos was also worshipped by Nabataeans, as visible from inscriptions at Khirbet et-Tannur. The goddess Isis is referenced in an inscription in Wadi es-Siyyagh at Sidd el-Mrerriyeh. A Greek inscription at Siq mentions one of her priests. Greek papyrus dates to 2nd century A.D. states that she was worshipped as Soteira in Petra. The Syrian goddess Atargatis was represented in Khirbet et-Tannur too.
Petra has many "sacred high places" which include altars that have usually been interpreted as places of human sacrifice, although, since the 1960s, an alternative theory that they are "exposure platforms" for placing the corpses of the deceased as part of a funerary ritual has been put forward. However, there is, in fact, little evidence for either proposition.
Other northern Arabian cultures
The Aramaic stele inscription discovered by Charles Hubert in 1880 at Tayma mentions the introduction of a new god called Salm of hgm into the city's pantheon being permitted by three local gods - Salm of Mahram who was the chief god, Shingala and Ashira. The name Salm means "image" or "idol". An inscription on a temple building discovered in 1979 mentions the triad of gods called Salm, Ashima and Sengalla. An inscribed block found alongside it shows a priest worshipping an altar surmounted with a bull's head, with the winged sun-disc, a crescent and Venus shown above them. Von Klaus Beyer and Alasdair Livingstone took these to be astral symbols of the triad and Sin to be a part of Sengalla, thus concluding him to be a lunar god while seeing Salm as a solar god and Ashima as Venus.
Religious worship amongst the Qedarites, an ancient tribal confederation that was probably subsumed into Nabatea around the 2nd century AD, was centered around a polytheistic system in which women rose to prominence. Divine images of the gods and goddesses worshipped by Qedarite Arabs, as noted in Assyrian inscriptions, included representations of Atarsamain, Nuha, Ruda, Dai, Abirillu and Atarquruma. The female guardian of these idols, usually the reigning queen, served as a priestess (apkallatu, in Assyrian texts) who communed with the other world. Inscriptions in a North Arabian dialect in the region of Najd referring to Nuha describe emotions as a gift from him. In addition, they also refer to Ruda being responsible for all things good and bad. There is also evidence that the Qedar worshipped Al-lāt to whom the inscription on a silver bowl from a king of Qedar is dedicated. In the Babylonian Talmud, which was passed down orally for centuries before being transcribed c. 500 AD, in tractate Taanis (folio 5b), it is said that most Qedarites worshiped pagan gods.
The Midianites, a people referred to in the Book of Genesis and located in north-western Arabia, may have worshipped Yahweh. Indeed, some scholars believe that Yahweh was originally a Midianite god and that he was subsequently adopted by the Israelites. An Egyptian temple of Hathor continued to be used during the Midianite occupation of the site, although images of Hathor were defaced suggesting Midianite opposition. They transformed it into a desert tent-shrine set up with a copper sculpture of a snake.
Abgal (cognate with the sumerian ab.gal, related to the Akkadian Apkallu, "ferryman") was a pre-Islamic north Arabian god, known from the Palmyrian desert regions as a god of Bedouins and camel drivers.
The god al-Kutba' is mentioned in Lihyanite inscriptions as well. Baalshamin was worshipped by Safaitic speaking people and is mentioned in Safaitic inscriptions. The worship of the Hermonian gods Leucothea and Theandrios was spread from Phoenicia till Arabia.
The Dilmun civilization, which existed along the Persian Gulf coast and Bahrain until the 6th century BC, worshipped a pair of deities, Inzak and Meskilak. It is not known whether these were the only deities in the pantheon or whether there were others. The discovery of wells at the sites of a Dilmun temple and a shrine suggests that sweet water played an important part in religious practices.
In the subsequent Greco-Roman period, there is evidence that the worship of non-indigenous deities was brought to the region by merchants and visitors. These included Bel, a god popular in the Syrian city of Palmyra, the Mesopotamian deities Nabu and Shamash, the Greek gods Poseidon and Artemis as well as the west Arabian deities Kahl and Manat.
The Bedouin were introduced to Meccan ritualistic practices as they frequented settled towns of the Hejaz during the four months of the "holy truce", the first three of which were devoted to religious observance, while the fourth was set aside for trade. Alan Jones infers from Bedouin poetry that the gods, even Allah, were less important to the Bedouins than Fate. They seem to have had little trust in rituals and pilgrimages as means of propitiating Fate, but had recourse to divination and soothsayers (kahins). The Bedouins regarded some trees, wells, caves and stones as sacred objects, either as fetishes or as means of reaching a deity. They created sanctuaries where people could worship fetishes.
The Bedouins had a code of honour which Fazlur Rahman Malik states may be regarded as their religious ethics. This code encompassed women, bravery, hospitality, honouring one's promises and pacts, and vengeance. They believed that the ghost of a slain person would cry out from the grave until their thirst for blood was quenched. Practices such as killing of infant girls were often regarded as having religious sanction. Numerous mentions of jinn in the Quran and testimony of both pre-Islamic and Islamic literature indicate that the belief in spirits was prominent in pre-Islamic Bedouin religion. However, there is evidence that the word jinn is derived from Aramaic, where it was used by Christians to designate pagan gods reduced to the status of demons, and was introduced into Arabic folklore only late in the pre-Islamic era. Julius Wellhausen has observed that such spirits were thought to inhabit desolate, dingy and dark places and that they were feared. One had to protect oneself from them, but they were not the objects of a true cult.
Bedouin religious experience also included an apparently indigenous cult of ancestors. The dead were not regarded as powerful, but rather as deprived of protection and needing charity of the living as a continuation of social obligations beyond the grave. Only certain ancestors, especially heroes from which the tribe was said to derive its name, seem to have been objects of real veneration.
A thriving community of Jewish tribes existed in pre-Islamic Arabia and included both sedentary and nomadic communities. Jews had migrated into Arabia from Roman times onwards. Arabian Jews spoke Arabic as well as Hebrew and Aramaic and had contact with Jewish religious centers in Babylonia and Palestine. The Yemeni Himyarites converted to Judaism in the 4th century, and some of the Kindah, a tribe in central Arabia who were their vassals, were also converted in the 4th/5th century. Jewish tribes existed in all major Arabian towns during Muhammad's time including in Tayma and Khaybar as well as Medina with twenty tribes living in the peninsula. From tomb inscriptions, it is visible that Jews also lived in Mada'in Saleh and Al-`Ula.
There is evidence that Jewish converts in the Hejaz were regarded as Jews by other Jews and non-Jews alike and have sought advice from Babylonian rabbis on matters of attire and kosher food. In at least one case, it is known that an Arab tribe agreed to adopting Judaism as a condition for settling in a town dominated by Jewish inhabitants. Some Arab women in Yathrib/Medina are said to have vowed making their child a Jew if the child survived, since they considered the Jews to be people "of knowledge and the book" (`ilmin wa-kitābin). Philip Hitti infers from proper names and agricultural vocabulary that the Jewish tribes of Yathrib consisted mostly of Judaized clans of Arabian and Aramaean origin.
The key role played by Jews in the trade and markets of the Hejaz meant that market day for the week was the day preceding the Jewish Sabbath. This day, which was called aruba in Arabic, also provided occasion for legal proceedings and entertainment, which in turn may have influenced the choice of Friday as the day of Muslim congregational prayer. Toward the end of the sixth century, the Jewish communities in the Hejaz were in a state of economic and political decline, but they continued to flourish culturally in and beyond the region. They had developed their distinctive beliefs and practices, with a pronounced mystical and eschatological dimension. In the Islamic tradition, based on a phrase in the Quran, Arabic Jews are said to have referred to Uzair as the son of Allah, although historical accuracy of this assertion has been disputed.
Jewish agriculturalists lived in the region of Eastern Arabia. According to Robert Bertram Serjeant, the Baharna may be the Arabized "descendants of converts from Christians (Arameans), Jews and ancient Persians (Majus) inhabiting the island and cultivated coastal provinces of Eastern Arabia at the time of the Arab conquest". From the Islamic sources, it seems that Judaism was the religion most followed in Yemen. Ya'qubi claimed all Yemenites to be Jews, Ibn Hazm however states only Himyarites and some Kindites were Jews.
The main areas of Christian influence in Arabia were on the north eastern and north western borders and in what was to become Yemen in the south. The north west was under the influence of Christian missionary activity from the Roman Empire where the Ghassanids, a client kingdom of the Romans, were converted to Christianity. In the south, particularly at Najran, a centre of Christianity developed as a result of the influence of the Christian Kingdom of Axum based on the other side of the Red Sea in Ethiopia. Both the Ghassanids and the Christians in the south adopted Monophysitism.
The third area of Christian influence was on the north eastern borders where the Lakhmids, a client tribe of the Sassanians, adopted Nestorianism, being the form of Christianity having the most influence in the Sassanian Empire. As the Persian Gulf region of Arabia increasingly fell under the influence of the Sasanians from the early third century, many of the inhabitants were exposed to Christianity following the eastward dispersal of the religion by Mesopotamian Christians. However, it was not until the fourth century that Christianity gained popularity in the region with the establishment of monasteries and a diocesan structure. In 1986, the remains of a church thought to date to the 4th century were discovered in Jubail in eastern Saudi Arabia.
In pre-Islamic times, the population of Eastern Arabia consisted of Christianized Arabs (including Abd al-Qays) and Aramean Christians among other religions. Syriac functioned as a liturgical language. Serjeant states that the Baharna may be the Arabized descendants of converts from the original population of Christians (Aramaeans), among other religions at the time of Arab conquests. Beth Qatraye which translates "region of the Qataris" in Syriac was the Christian name used for the region encompassing north-eastern Arabia. It included Bahrain, Tarout Island, Al-Khatt, Al-Hasa, and Qatar. Oman and the United Arab Emirates comprised the diocese known as Beth Mazunaye. The name was derived from 'Mazun', the Persian name for Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Sohar was the central city of the diocese.
In Nejd, in the centre of the peninsula, there is evidence of members of two tribes, Kindah and Taghlib, converting to Christianity in the 6th century. However, in the Hejaz in the west, whilst there is evidence of the presence of Christianity, it is not thought to have been significant amongst the indigenous population of the area.
Arabicized Christian names were fairly common among pre-Islamic Arabians, which has been attributed to the influence that Syrianized Christian Arabs had on bedouins of the peninsula for several centuries before the rise of Islam.
Neal Robinson, based on verses in the Quran, believes that some Arab Christians may have held unorthodox beliefs such as the worshipping of a divine triad of God the father, Jesus the Son and Mary the Mother. Furthermore, there is evidence that unorthodox groups such as the Collyridians, whose adherents worshiped Mary, were present in Arabia, and it has been proposed that the Qur'an refers to their beliefs. However, other scholars, notably Mircea Eliade, William Montgomery Watt, G.R. Hawting and Sidney H. Griffith, cast doubt on the historicity or reliability of such references in the Quran.
Iranian religions existed in pre-Islamic Arabia on account of Sasanian military presence along the Persian Gulf and South Arabia and on account of trade routes between the Hejaz and Iraq. Some Arabs in northeast of the peninsula converted to Zoroastrianism and several Zoroastrian temples were constructed in Najd. Some of the members from the tribe of Banu Tamim had converted to the religion. There is also evidence of existence of Manichaeism in Arabia as several early sources indicate a presence of "zandaqas" in Mecca, although the term could also be interpreted as referring to Mazdakism. There is evidence for the circulation of Iranian religious ideas in the form of Persian loan words in Quran such as firdaws (paradise).
Zoroastrianism was also present in Eastern Arabia and Persian-speaking Zoroastarians lived in the region. They were known as "Majoos" in pre-Islamic times. The religion was introduced in the region including modern-day Bahrain during the rule of Persian empires in the region starting from 250 B.C. It was mainly practiced in Bahrain by Persian settlers. Zorastrianism was also practiced in the Persian-ruled area of modern-day Oman. The religion also existed in Persian-ruled area of modern Yemen. The descendants of Abna, the Persian conquerors of Yemen, were followers of Zorastrianism. Yemen's Zoroastrians who had the jizya imposed on them after being conquered by Muhammad are mentioned by the Islamic historian al-Baladhuri. According to Serjeant, the Baharna people may be the Arabized descendants of converts from the original population of ancient Persians (majus) as well as other religions.
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- T. Fahd notes that the practice of women touching idols as a token of blessing except during menstruation was common to all idols, according to the available report from Ibn Al-Kalbi.
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