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17. Understanding Islam

1.1. Nomadic pagans

Most of the residents who lived in pre-Islamic Arabia were pastoral nomads, who functioned in tribal units divided into smaller clans. They were polytheistic, worshipping multiple pagan gods. They did not follow a single, coherent religion but rather each family, clan or tribe worshipped its own gods with some being held in common with other tribes but others being unique to themselves. Everything we know of pagan Arabia comes through Islamic sources. In fact, we have little to no historical writing dating from the actual time, and the handful of sources we rely on (Book of Idols by Hisham Ibn al-Kalbi from Iraq and Character of the Arabian Peninsula by Abu Muhammad al-Hasan al-Hamdani) were written over a hundred years later. As a result, our knowledge is sketchy and occasionally contradictory. For example, we don’t know much about the pre-Islamic gods as we lack the kind of recorded mythological narrative which we have explaining the existence of the gods of other early religions. It does seem clear that each area had its own gods which it worshipped, and we know the names or titles of many of these deities. One such god was named Allah, who may have been considered the supreme deity by some though unlike the Allah of Islam, he had offspring who were also worshipped as deities. It is possible that this concept of a supreme god originated with the Christian and Jewish communities. Another theory however suggests that the term Allah was simply a title or descriptor which could be applied to one of many deities. Some of these idols were worshipped as intermediaries by devotees who believed they were not worthy to address the supreme god directly. Others were believed to have an indwelling spirit placed in it by the supreme God, so whoever worshipped them correctly would have their prayer answered by this spirit.

While nomadic people worshipped as they moved from one place to another, the religion of those who had settled in cities tended to be more sophisticated and they worshipped at shrines dedicated to their deities. Many of these shrines were housed in cube-shaped structures (kaabas), and were the destination for regular pilgrimages, when sacrifices and circumambulation (walking around stone gods) were performed. There were at that time many kaabas – dozens at least – scattered around the peninsula. Pilgrimages to these kaabas were made by the Arabs both at specific times and at non-specific times. They would make sacrifices, offer gifts and dedications to their idols. They were considered sanctuaries (no fighting was allowed in the vicinity), and worshippers were to provide for their caretakers. These kaabas housed a black stone; these stones were either volcanic or meteoritic (scholars differ in their opinions); the meteorite theory is more plausible as an object likely to be revered given the way it appears – surrounded by light, falling from the sky (where Allah – the supreme creator god as noted earlier –was believed to reside). We also know that there had been no volcanic eruption during the previous thousand years, so any accounts of earlier eruptions would have been passed down through many, many generations and less likely to be reliable, and we note that elsewhere in the world, worship linked to volcanoes included violent rituals, the likes of which we have no record of in Arabia.

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