Monday, April 16, 2007

Clean Break and Continuity: Carryover of Ancient Arabian Material into Islam

For the Muslim, Islam represents the end of a “time of ignorance[1]” or “Age of Extremism”[2] called Jahiliyyah in Arabic. Jahiliyyah is used broadly to describe the condition of Arabia before the advent of Islam. It is an age associated with moral excess and transgression when polytheistic Arabs were largely ignorant of the nature of God and his demands on humanity. It is against this backdrop that Islam appears in the seventh century AD with the revelation of the Qur’an and the establishment of the Ummah, the Muslim community of faith. In sharp contrast to Jahiliyyah, Islam ushers in a new era, interrupting the wayward course of Arabian culture and society with a radically different vision, directly from God, which contains both the blueprint for a new way of life and the impetus to actually build it.

However, it is clear that Islam, in its theological beliefs and religious rituals, exhibits a continuity with its Arabian past. Areas of substantial carry-over from pre-Islamic Arabia exist in the Qur’an and in general Muslim practice. These areas serve to qualify the assertion that Islam, with the revelation of the Qur’an, represented a “clean break” with the Jahiliyyah of the previous era. This paper will identify some of the elements of belief and practice within Islam which demonstrate this continuity with pre-Islamic Arabia and outline them within the broader system of Islam.

The challenge of sources is common to any study of pre-Islamic Arabia. Since practically no Arabic literature exists prior to the arrival of the Qur’an, we must, as Guillaume writes, “rely on the Quran itself, on what we know from classical writers, on what can be gleaned from pre-Islamic poetry that was written down centuries later, and on what early Muslim authors tell us about their heathen forefathers.”[3] The degree to which such sources, either chronologically distant or ideologically selective, can provide an accurate picture is certainly a subject of dispute, but as there are no alternative sources to consult, scholarship has wrestled with the material available to it. In any case, many of the conclusions arrived at regarding this period arise out of inferences made based on the use of language or out of implicit arguments located “behind” the message of the texts themselves.

Therefore, there may have been explicitly religious motives for casting the pre-Islamic era in particularly awful light. Cragg ascribes these descriptions of “wild uncouthness” to the demands of Muslim piety[4]. In any case, the Muslim understanding of the Jahiliyyah includes gruesome characterizations of darkness and chaos. There are descriptions of rampant crime and moral laxity as well as widespread social disorganization and poverty which even led to the practice of infanticide, leaving newborn infants to die or even burying them alive.[5] The ignorance referred to, then, is an ignorance of God and his laws which leads, in turn, to an ignorance of basic moral obligations to God, family, and society. While the conclusion of such a condition is a society in poverty and chaos, the root of the problem is a lack of knowledge of God. This of course sets the stage for the Muslim understanding of revelation, which corrects this ignorance and all of the problems resulting from it.

The Muslim understanding of the Qur’an, as the ultimate revelation, sees Muhammad as merely the vessel by which God communicated his eternal word once and for all. The Qur’an is described as “the ultimate miracle of Islam”[6]. God is said to have revealed the message via the angel Gabriel to the prophet Muhammad who spoke was God inspired him to speak. Therefore, the Qur’an is believed to have no human intervention or influence. It literally ‘descended’ to humanity exactly as it has always existed in heaven. To reinforce this claim, orthodox Islam has maintained that Muhammad was illiterate, preventing any notion that he contributed, by virtue of his own genius, to the Qur’an.[7] However, there is good reason to reject the notion that Muhammad was in fact unable to read or write, and Guillaume calls such an attribution a “poor compliment”.[8]

In the midst of this conceptual gulf between the Jahiliyyah and the Qur’an are the elements of a detectable history of Muslim beliefs and practices from their pre-Islamic Arabian roots. A description of the social background of Muhammad’s time may be helpful in describing such a history.

As Sanneh describes, the clan or “clan-confederate”, known as hayy in Arabic formed the basic unit of society. He writes that “the importance of the clan within the social composition of pre-Islamic Arabia cannot be overemphasized.”[9] The hayy exhibited several characteristics which seem to have been carried over into Islam itself and so can be a helpful lens through which to understand certain beliefs and practices. The hayy was not based purely on blood-ties but also included members who were recruited from weaker groups or marginal members of society such as those fleeing their own homelands or slaves. Members of the hayy sought its protection and community in an atmosphere of hostile competition for survival and influence. Therefore, the Arabian notion of the clan was already “supra-familial” and the recruiting of members from outside the actual family was already being practiced. This seems to prepare the ground for the notion of the Ummah, the Muslim community of faith which eventually transcends familial bonds, while maintaining key features of the hayy such as the notion of “sacrificial honour”.[10]

The clan also served as the “custodian or proprietor” of a set of local deities and their associated idols. Idols were adopted by tribes who performed ritual ceremonies, which often included animal sacrifices, signifying their association with the god and entering a blood-covenant.[11] Although Islam condemns pagan sacrifices and the veneration of local deities, it maintains the notion of animal sacrifice as demonstrative of allegiance to God. Islam also preserves other elements of these ceremonies such as kissing or stroking the stone associated with the god, which is practiced during the pilgrimage, or Hajj, as Muslims try to kiss or touch the black stone of the Ka’aba during their prayer circuits.[12]

Connected to the tribe, and serving as another bridge between Arabian society and the emergence of Islam, is the notion of the poet, known as kahin and the “knower”, sha’ir. This role, although not identical to the notion of prophethood, still includes much of the material for the Muslim understanding of Muhammad’s role. The kahin/sha’ir was thought to be possessed by a jinn or shaytan who inspired him to speak or write, often in rhymed prose with some rhythm.[13] It was the poet’s responsibility to continue the memory of tribal gods. The compositions combined “mythical ideal” with historical reality, imbuing the clan’s story with moral import. In this way, the poet “became the custodian of tribal ethics and an arbiter of social issues.”[14] This also describes the early role of Muhammad as a “warner” who told inspired stories of previous prophets infused with moral content.

There is a strong tradition of denying the category of the kahin for Muhammad and the Hadith records a first hand denial of this label on the part of the Prophet, but this denial was on the basis that Muhammad’s inspiration came from a source higher than that of the relatively inconsequential jinn or shaytan which were said to inspire the poets. At the same time, Muhammad does not reject the category of the kahin as such, and in fact adopts some of the practices of these Arabian poets, for example, Muhammad is said to have covered his head in preparation for receiving revelation, as did the kahin, and his “mantic utterances” are also reminiscent of this older category.[15] In this way, even the Muslim understanding of revelation, a powerful source of the contrast between Jahiliyyah and Islam, has roots in pre-Islamic Arabia.

The category of beings known as jinn are themselves an area of carry-over from ancient Arabia. In Islam jinn are a race of beings, created from fire, which dwell invisibly among humans. The Qur’an places them in Solomon’s army and describes some jinn as Muslim, and others as Jews or Christians[16]. The pre-Islamic notion of jinn seems to have included the notion that they could possess people, inspiring them with words, which is what Muhammad initially feared has happened to him after he had his first prophetic experience.

Of course, the source of Muhammad’s inspiration is what is said to have set him apart from the soothsayers of his day. Muhammad eventually claimed to be receiving revelation, not from a jinn or from a local deity, but from Allah. Even more radically, Muhammad proclaimed that Allah was the only true God. The notion of Islamic monotheism is sometimes credited as the uniquely great contribution that Islam made to the history of world religions. While Islam has undoubtedly elaborated on the idea in unique ways, the idea itself does have roots in ancient Arabia. As Duncan Black MacDonald writes, “That the Arabs, before the time of Muhammad, accepted and worshipped, after a fashion, a supreme god called Allah…seems absolutely certain.”[17] Black’s argument centers mainly on the Qur’an itself. He points out that in the Qur’an, the non-Muslim Meccans are said to admit that Allah is the “creator and supreme provider” who is invoked for special protection. Black concludes that the pre-Islamic Arabian paganism was “far from simple idolatry” owing to its resemblance to some Christian notions of saints and angels in intermediary positions between God and humans. Muhammad’s role, then, was as a “reformer who was preaching an earlier and simpler faith and putting angels and djinn back into their true places.”[18]

The evidence for a pre-Islamic notion of Allah extends beyond the Qur’an, however, to inscriptions and pre-Islamic poetry and writing. Of more than anecdotal significance in this regard is the fact that Muhammad’s own father is known as ‘Abdallah.[19] The name itself seems to be generically Semitic. Guillaume associates it with the ‘Il’ of Babylonia and the ‘El’ of ancient Israel. He adds that the specific Arabian contribution was ‘Ilah’ which has come to be expressed as “Allah”, merely adding the definite article to the root word.[20] Cragg elaborates that the original Arabic form may have been ilahun, which, when combined with the definite article becomes Al-ilahu and finally Allah by elision.[21] Black adds the possibility that the word is of Aramaic origin in the form of “alaha”, “the god.”.[22]

The role that Allah had in pre-Islamic Arabian religion is not nearly as clear as his existence and is a matter of some dispute. However, it seems evident that, as Sanneh writes, “Transcending the clan-interests and the gods who represented those interests was “Allah”, a Supreme deity which, although vaguely conceived at first, was nevertheless clearly apprehended in the turbulence of desert life.” Allah was apparently understood to be somehow beyond, even above, the gods associated with particular clan loyalties. He was the guardian of contracts and the protector of the “alien guest”. Since the territory of gods was conceived as somewhat limited to the geographical territory of their clans, Allah ensured protection of a person traveling outside that territory. Interestingly, he also oversaw contracts, which may have included people from various clans, circumventing the localized and competitive nature of tribal deities. The influence of these lesser gods was seen as proportional to their recognition by other tribes, so gods whose potency waned were replaced by fresh, more powerful ones.[23]

Eventually, as Sanneh elaborates, Allah’s purview was seen as representing “the sum of Bedouin virtues”, overseeing issues of trade and asylum between tribes.[24] This also developed into the notion of the transcendent, immutable power of Allah, which itself was still present in the poetry of ancient Arabia in the form of an idea of “time the destroyer”, whose ‘judgments’ are irreversible.[25] Therefore, “time”, “Fate”, and “the decree of Allah” were similarly characterized as inescapable and ruthless.

Tradition ascribes some three hundred and sixty deities to the region around Mecca, often associating them specifically with the Ka’aba. The three mentioned in the Qur’an are of particular significance. All three seem to be female deities and were described as “daughters of Allah”[26]. Their names are: Al-Lat, al-‘Uzza, and Manat. Al-Lat represented the Sun and means simply, “the goddess”. Worship of her was apparently widespread, and even Herodotus mentions her in his writing. Al-‘Uzza, also called “the mighty one”, was very important for the Meccans, and tradition even reports that Muhammad sacrificed a sheep to her before his prophetic career. Manat represented the fortunes of the community, embodying the “all-pervading mystery of life and death.”[27] These deities had ancient and important associations for the people of Mecca, and their names were often invoked against Muhammad, a fact which is made more poignant by the episode recounted in al-Tabari in which Muhammad at one time included a verse in the Qur’an which allowed for their worship until God corrected the error which Satan had apparently inserted into the revelation. Known as the “satanic verses” or the “crane verses”, they illustrate both the threat that Muhammad’s exclusive monotheism posed to the Meccans as well as the close ties that Muhammad himself felt to his own heritage.

Also significant is the idea that Muhammad did not see himself as introducing a new God; neither did he conceive of his religion as a new religion. He saw himself as following in a line of faithful followers of the one true God, and particularly in his early stages of ministry, wanted to be characterized as merely a “reminder”[28]. For Muhammad, monotheism was the thing to be remembered and the Hanifs were the representatives of that monotheism. The Hanifs seem to be monotheists opposed to idolatry before the advent of Islam and were an important influence on Muhammad’s understanding of his place in religious history. As Cragg writes, “Islam is later described as fulfilling the religion of the Hanifs, whose great ancestral prototype was Abraham…It seems reasonably certain that Muhammad was, in some sense, the spiritual kinsmen of these disclaimers of idolatry and idol worship…”[29] Ibn Ishaq recounts a story from the early life of Muhammad which features such an iconoclastic monotheist named Zayd son of ‘Amr son of Nufayl. In the episode, a young Muhammad is “upbraided” for eating meat sacrificed to idols. Tradition describes Zayd as a monotheist without ties to Judaism or Christianity.[30]

Of course Judaism and Christianity were certainly known, in some form, in Arabia of the seventh century. Jews comprised up to half of the population of Medina and had made many converts in the Hijaz, Muhammad’s own region in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula.[31] Guillaume proposes that the Monophysitism that was present in this region prepared the way for Islam, for example, with its affirmation that the Trinity is only one nature, a doctrine which was apparently also accepted by the budding Arab Christianity and which would later fit better with Muhammad’s rejection of the Trinity.[32] Tradition has Muhammad visiting, and being confirmed as a prophet by Christian monks and priests, but Cragg is reluctant to take these at face value, and concludes that “all that can be said with certainty is that Muhammad knew of Jews and Christians and something of their history…” He does, however, concede that teachings of docetism and monophysitism are reflected in the Qur’anic account of Jesus “as non-crucified Prophet-Messiah.”[33]

The idolatry of Mecca was closely associated with the Ka’aba, a roughly cube shaped structure which may have served as a type of pagan temple. The Ka’aba was apparently an important center for pilgrimage long before Muhammad “cleansed” it after his conquest of Mecca. In ancient Arabia it was generally true that towns which were also centers of religious pilgrimage had a certain prestige. This was particularly the case with Mecca, whose pilgrimage brought significant income to the city and its people.[34] The Ka’aba at Mecca was not the only Ka’aba in Arabia, however. At least two others have been found, one at Nejran and another at Sana’a.[35] Still, it is the Ka’aba at Mecca, the Ka’aba of Muhammad’s tribe and clan which becomes the focus of so many of the theological ideas and religious rituals that he adopts and describes.

Sura 106, an early Meccan sura, describes Allah as the “Lord of the Ka’aba,” indicating that Allah’s association with the Ka’aba was already known, both among the Meccans and among those arriving by the two annual caravans for pilgrimage. Given the importance of the Ka’aba as “the supreme sanctuary of Central Arabia”, this is a significant role for the God that Muhammad is preaching.[36] Sanneh concludes from these facts that “the ancient Arabs began to call and worship this Supreme Being as ‘Allah’ long before the Prophet of Islam appeared on the scene.”[37] This explains Muhammad’s ability to invoke the name of Allah as the one true God without having to argue for his existence. In fact, as Guillaume argues, if Allah had not already been universally known among his hearers then Muhammad’s message could not have been intelligible.[38] Muhammad’s claim, therefore, was that Allah was the one true God and he accepted the already present idea that Allah was the “Lord of the Ka’aba”, which entailed acceptance of the ritual of the Ka’aba, the pilgrimage, known as the Hajj.

The incorporation of the Ka’aba as an Islamic ritual is an example of what Guillaume describes as the “Islamic pattern of taming by recruitment.”[39] Since the pilgrimage was already in place and had already apparently come to be associated with Allah, it may be seen as one of the most significant areas of carry-over into Islam of religious rituals from pre-Islamic Arabia. The Hajj is, in fact, the fifth pillar of Islam. It is a requirement that every Muslim, if he is financially and physically able, visit the shrine at Mecca and perform the ritual which Arabs had been doing long before Islam and which Muhammad modified for inclusion in his monotheistic religion. The Qur’an itself does not describe or set out the required ritual, since it assumes that his audience is already familiar with it. It does, however, attribute the origin of the pilgrimage to at least as far back as Abraham.[40] Some of the changes instituted by Muhammad with the incorporation of the pilgrimage into Islam included ceasing the additional circuits which were performed at ‘Arafat and requiring that pilgrims be dressed as opposed to the traditional state of nakedness while walking around the Ka’aba. Elements which seem to be preserved from pre-Islamic times include fasting, performing the circuits around the Ka’aba themselves, including kissing or stroking the black stone, ceremonially throwing stones at Satan, running between the hills of Safa and Marwa, and sacrificing a sheep at Mina.[41]

Guillaume traces pre-Islamic, but not particularly Arab, origins for Zakat, almsgiving, and Saum, the month-long fast of Ramadan, attributing them to borrowings from Judaism and Christianity.[42] Such a claim may have some basis in fact, but also suggests an oversimplification of the question of the origins of those practices. However, Salat, the ritual prayer of Islam, while influenced by Judaism and Christianity, clearly has more local roots as well. As Goitein describes the Friday Midday prayers, which have always had a special status in Islam, he traces the origin of the tradition with some conclusions relevant to this study. What is known in the Muslim world as the Yaum al-Jum’ah, or the Day of Assembly or Gathering, specifically refers to the religious meeting and prayer which happens on Friday afternoons at the mosque.[43] However, the origin of the Friday prayers, and even the phrase itself, comes from a much more mundane origin, namely, the traditional Friday market day in Medina. The fact that there were such a large number of Jews in Medina and that Jews “bought their provisions for the Sabbath” (as recorded in ancient accounts about Medina) on this day may well have played a role in setting the day as Friday.[44] So, as Muhammad chose Friday for the day of obligatory public worship, Goitein argues that it was because people would be shopping on that day anyway, and so would be out in the marketplace at noon.[45] Thus, the pre-Islamic origins of Muslim religious ritual in this instance include a very pragmatic concession to local market customs.

In conclusion, while it may the case that Islam, with the revelation of the Qur’an, represented a clean-break with the Jahiliyyah, it is a “clean-break” which is, at the same time, in demonstrable continuity with the culture, society, and religion of ancient Arabia. At the most fundamental levels of Muslim theological ideas and religious rituals, including the content of what have come to be known as the Five Pillars and the Articles of Faith, elements of material from pre-Islamic Arabia are clearly present. It is this detectable history of Islam and the Qur’an which may deserve a greater recognition and which qualifies the assertion that Islam ushered in an entirely new era.


Cragg, Kenneth. The Call of the Minaret. Second edition. (Oxford: One World, 2003)
Cragg, Kenneth. Muhammad and the Christian: A Question of Response. (Oxford: One World, 1999)
Guillaume, Alfred. Islam. (London: Penguin Books, 1956)
MacDonald, Duncan Black. “Allah”, Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1961.
Sanneh, Lamin. Pre-Islamic Arabia. (Article in Private Circulation)
S.D. Goitein, “The Origin and Nature of the Muslim Friday Worship”. The Muslim World. (vol. 49 no. 3 ) July, 1959.
[1] Kenneth Cragg, The Call of the Minaret, Second edition. (Oxford: One World, 2003), 65.
[2] Lamin Sanneh, Pre-Islamic Arabia. (Article in Private Circulation), 1
[3] Alfred Guillaume, Islam, (London: Penguin Books, 1956), 5.
[4] Kenneth Cragg, Muhammad and the Christian: A Question of Response, (Oxford: One World, 1999), 21.
[5] Kenneth Cragg, The Call of the Minaret Second edition. (Oxford: One World, 2003), 65.
[6] Kenneth Cragg, The Call of the Minaret Second edition. (Oxford: One World, 2003), 87.
[7] Kenneth Cragg, Muhammad and the Christian: A Question of Response, (Oxford: One World, 1999), 61
[8] Alfred Guillaume, Islam, (London: Penguin Books, 1956), 57.
[9] Lamin Sanneh, Pre-Islamic Arabia (Article in Private Circulation), 1
[10] Kenneth Cragg, Muhammad and the Christian: A Question of Response, (Oxford: One World, 1999), 40.
[11] Lamin Sanneh, Pre-Islamic Arabia (Article in Private Circulation), 1
[12] Alfred Guillaume, Islam, (London: Penguin Books, 1956), 9.
[13] Guillaume 29.
[14] Sanneh 6.
[15] Sanneh, 6; Guillaume 57.
[16] Guillaume, 37.
[17] Duncan Black MacDonald, “Allah”, Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam, (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1961), 33.
[18] Ibid, 33.
[19] Cragg, The Call of the Minaret, 65.
[20] Guillaume, 7.
[21] Cragg, Call of the Minaret, 30.
[22] Black, 33.
[23] Sanneh, 3.
[24] Sanneh, 3.
[25] Guillaume, 8.
[26] Macdonald, 33.
[27] Guillaume, 8.
[28] Sanneh, 4.
[29] Cragg, The Call of the Minaret, 66.
[30] As quoted in Guillaume, 26.
[31] Guillaume, 11.
[32] Guillaume, 17.
[33] Cragg, Call of the Minaret 67
[34] Guillaume, 6.
[35] Guillaume, 10.
[36] Sanneh, 5.
[37] Sanneh, 5.
[38] Guillaume, 7.
[39] Guillaume, 40.
[40] Guillaume,

[41] Guillaume, 70; Cragg, The Call of the Minaret, 106.
[42] Guillaume, 69.
[43] Goitein, 188.
[44] S.D. Goitein, “The Origin and Nature of the Muslim Friday Worship”, (The Muslim World. vol. 49 no. 3 July, 1959), 184.
[45] Goitein, 195.

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