Religion in pre-Islamic Arabia

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Religion in pre-Islamic Arabia was a mix of polytheism, Christianity, Judaism, and Iranian religions. Arab polytheism, the dominant belief system in pre-Islamic Arabia, was based on the belief in deities and other supernatural beings such as djinn. Gods and goddesses were worshipped at local shrines, such as the Kaaba in Mecca. The Kaaba was dedicated to Hubal and also contained the images of the three chief goddesses Al-lāt, Al-‘Uzzá and Manāt. Some scholars postulate that Allah may have been one of the gods of the Meccan religion to whom the shrine was dedicated although it seems he had little relevance in the religion.[1][2][3][4] Many of the physical descriptions of the pre-Islamic gods are traced to idols, especially near the Kaaba, which is believed to have contained up to 360 of them.[5]

Other religions were represented to varying, lesser degrees. The influence of the adjacent Roman, Axumite and Sassanian 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 Monophysitism. The peninsula had been subject to 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 whilst there is evidence of Manichaeism or possibly Mazdakism being practised in Mecca.

Polytheism and indigenous beliefs[edit]

Background, belief systems and sources[edit]

Until about the 4th century A.D, almost all Arabs practised polytheistic religions.[6] Although significant Jewish and Christian minorities developed, polytheism remained the dominant belief system in pre-Islamic Arabia.[7][8] The religious beliefs and practices of the nomadic bedouin were distinct from those of the settled tribes of towns such as Mecca.[9] Nomadic religious belief systems and practices are believed to have included fetishism, totemism and ancestor worship but were connected principally with immediate concerns and problems and did not consider larger philosophical questions such as the afterlife.[9] Settled urban Arabs, on the other hand, are thought to have believed in a more complex pantheon of deities.[9] While the Meccans and the other settled inhabitants of the Hejaz worshipped their gods at permanent shrines in towns and oases, the bedouin practised their religion on the move.[10] Historians have debated whether these belief systems were derived from indigenous Semitic religious traditions or were a "degenerate" offshoot of the more sophisticated mythologies of the nearby Fertile Crescent.[7]

The contemporary sources of information regarding the pre-Islamic pantheon include a small number of inscriptions and carvings,[8] remnants of stone idol-worship,[7] references in the poetry of the pre-Islamic Arab poet Zuhair and pre-Islamic personal names.[11] Nevertheless, information is limited[8] 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.[7] 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."[12]

The majority of our 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 sīra literature dealing with the biography of the prophet Muhammad and the 8th century Book of Idols.[13] Alternative sources are so fragmentary and specialized that writing a convincing history of this period based on them alone is impossible.[14] Several scholars hold that the sīra literature is not independent of Quran but has been fabricated to explain the verses of Quran.[15] 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.[15] Compounding the problem is the fact 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.[14] Some of these works were based on subsequently lost earlier texts, which in their turn recorded a fluid oral tradition.[14] Scholars do not agree as to the time when such oral accounts began to be systematically collected and written down,[16] and they differ greatly in their assessment of the historical reliability of the available texts.[15][16]


Some scholars postulate that in pre-Islamic Arabia, including in Mecca, Allah was considered to be a deity, possibly a creator god or a supreme deity in a polytheistic pantheon. The word Allah (from the Arabic al-ilah meaning "the god")[17] may have been used as a title rather than a name.[1][2][3][4][18][19] The concept of Allah may have been vague in the Meccan religion,[19][20] and some scholars postulate based on Quranic verse that he may have had sons and daughters who were also divinities.[1][2][3][4][21] However according to F.E. Peters, in these verses, the Quran is actually here refuting the idea that Allah had any children and asserts that if he had any offspring then they would surely be sons.[22]

Regional variants of the word Allah occur in both pagan and Christian pre-Islamic inscriptions. Pre-Islamic Christians, Jews and the monotheistic Arabs called Hanifs used the term Bismillah ("in the name of Allah") and the name Allah to refer to their supreme deity in Arabic stone inscriptions centuries before Islam.[21][23] Muhammad's father's name was ʿAbd-Allāh meaning "the slave of Allāh".[20]


Allāt on a camel. Bas-relief from Taif, Saudi Arabia, around 100 AD

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.[23] According to tradition, it was a cube-like, originally roofless structure housing a black meteorite venerated as a fetish.[23] The sanctuary was dedicated to Hubal (Arabic: هبل‎), who was worshiped as the greatest of the 360 idols the Kaaba contained, which probably represented the days of the year.[5] 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.[24] A soothsayer performed divination in the shrine by drawing ritual arrows,[23] and vows and sacrifices were made to assure success.[25] 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.[25] A deity's or oracle's failure to provide the desired response was sometimes met with anger.[25]

The three chief goddesses of Meccan religion were Al-lāt, Al-‘Uzzá, and Manāt. Some scholars postulate based on the verses of Quran that they might have been considered to be the daughters of Allah. However F.E. Peters disputes this saying that these verses are actually refuting and if had children they would be sons and not daughters. Also, he interprets that the Quran argues that these three goddesses and others were angels whose identities have been corrupted into female goddesses.[1][2][3][4][22]

Allāt (Arabic: اللات‎) or Al-lāt was worshipped throughout the ancient Near East with various associations.[26] Herodotus identifies Alilat (Greek: Ἀλιλάτ)[27] as the Arabic name for Aphrodite (and, in another passage, for Urania),[28] which is strong evidence for worship of Allāt in Arabia at that early date.[29] According to the Book of Idols, her idol and shrine stood in Ta'if.[30] Al-‘Uzzá (Arabic: العزى‎) "The Mightiest" was a fertility goddess[31] or possibly a goddess of love.[32] Her principal shrine was in Nakhla, a day's journey from Mecca.[33][34][35] 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.[30] 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.[30]

Manaf (Arabic: مناف‎) was another Meccan god who is thought by some scholars to be a sun-god. His 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".[36][37][38][39]

Pilgrimage to Mecca was a popular custom.[40] 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.[40] 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.[41]

Looking at the text of Quran itself, Gerald Hawting has 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.[15][42][43]

South Arabia[edit]

Sculpture of a Sabaean priestess raising her hand to intercede with the sun goddess on behalf of a donor. Probably 1st century AD

The civilizations of south Arabia had the most developed pantheon in the Arabian peninsula.[44] 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.[45] For example, the pantheon of Saba comprised Almaqah, the major deity, together with Athtar, Haubas, Himyam, and Dhat-Badan[45] The main god in Ma'in and Himyar was Athtar, in Qataban it was Amm, and in Hadhramaut it was Sayin.[45] Amm was a moon god and was associated with the weather, especially lightning.[46][47]

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.[45] Other beings worshipped included local deities or deities dedicated to specific functions as well as deified ancestors.[45]

Other deities included:

  • Dhu'l-Halasa (Arabic: ذو الحلاس‎) or Dhul Khalasa 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.[48][49][50][51][52]
  • Ta'lab (Arabic: تألب‎) was a god worshipped in southern Arabia, particularly in Saba and also a moon god. His oracle was consulted for advice. A shrine dedicated to him existed in Riyam.[53][54]
  • Wadd (Arabic: ود‎) was a moon-god 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.[55][56][57][58][59][60][61]


The main deity of the Nabatean culture in northern Arabia was Dushara (Arabic: ذو الشرى‎).[62] 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."[63][64][65][66] 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.[62] 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".[62]

Al-Uzza 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-Uzza of Nabataea and that of Mecca and other places, it is unclear whether there is any continuity of worship or identity between them.[67][68][69]

Al-Qaum (Arabic: القوم‎) or Shay' Al-Quam ("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.[70][71]

Manat was another Nabatean goddess and was identified with the Greek goddess Nemesis. She was the goddess of fate and justice. Within the Nabataean kingdom, the place she is most often mentioned is Hegra however there is no direct portrayal of her. In some of the inscriptions, she is linked with Dushara in cursing and fining those who violate the terms of use of the tombs and do not observe the the rules, respectively. In two of these inscriptions she is linked with her Qaysha which according to various interpretations might be referring to another deity or an object.[72]

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.[73][74]

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.[75][76][77]

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.[62]

Other northern Arabian cultures[edit]

Religious worship amongst the Qedarites, an ancient tribal confederation that was probabably 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.[78] 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.[79] 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.[80] 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 .[81]

The Midianites, a people referred to in the Book of Genesis and located in north-western Arabia, may have worshipped Yahweh.[82] Indeed, some scholars believe that Yahweh was originally a Midianite god and that he was subsequently adopted by the Israelites.[82] 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.[82] They transformed it into a desert tent-shrine set up with a copper sculpture of a snake.[82]

Eastern Arabia[edit]

The Dilmun civilization, which existed along the Gulf Coast and Bahrain until the 6th century BC, worshipped a pair of deities, Inzak and Meskilak.[83] It is not known whether these were the only deities in the pantheon or whether there were others.[84] 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.[83]

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.[84] 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.[84]


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.[85] Alan Jones infers from Bedouin poetry that the gods, even Allah, were less important to the Bedouins than Fate.[86] They seem to have had little trust in rituals and pilgrimages as means of propitiating Fate, but had recourse to divination and soothsayers (kahins).[86] The Bedouins regarded some trees, wells, caves and stones as sacred objects, either as fetishes or as means of reaching a deity.[87] They created sanctuaries where people could worship fetishes.[88]

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.[88] 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.[89] 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.[89] Julius Wellhausen has observed that such spirits were thought to inhabit desolate, dingy and dark places and that they were feared.[89] One had to protect oneself from them, but they were not the objects of a true cult.[89]

Bedouin religious experience also included an apparently indigenous cult of ancestors.[89] 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.[89] Only certain ancestors, especially heroes from which the tribe was said to derive its name, seem to have been objects of real veneration.[89]


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.[90] Arabian Jews spoke Arabic as well as Hebrew and Aramaic and had contact with Jewish religious centers in Babylonia and Palestine.[90] 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.[91][92] 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.[90] 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.[90] 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).[90] 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.[93]

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.[90] 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.[90] 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.[90] They had developed their distinctive beliefs and practices, with a pronounced mystical and eschatological dimension.[90] In the Islamic tradition, based on a phrase in the Qur'an, Arabic Jews are said to have referred to Uzair as the son of Allah, although historical accuracy of this assertion has been disputed.[2][94][95]


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.[96] 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.[97] 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.[96] Both the Ghassanids and the Christians in the south adopted Monophysitism.[96]

Jubail Church in eastern Saudi Arabia. The 4th century remains are thought to be one of the oldest surviving church buildings in the world.

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.[96] 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.[98] However, it was not until the fourth century that Christianity gained popularity in the region with the establishment of monasteries and a diocesan structure.[99] In 1986, the remains of a church thought to date to the 4th century were discovered in Jubail in eastern Saudi Arabia.[100]

Beth Qatraye which translates "region of the Qataris" in Syriac was the Christian name used for the region encompassing north-eastern Arabia.[101][102] It included Bahrain, Tarout Island, Al-Khatt, Al-Hasa, and Qatar.[103] 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.[101][104]

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.[96]

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.[105]

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.[106] 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.[107] 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.[note 1]

Iranian religions[edit]

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).[112][113]

Zorastrianism was introduced in the Eastern Arabia including modern-day Bahrain during the rule of Persian empires in the region starting from 250 B.C. The religion 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.[114][115][116][117]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Their views are as follows:
    • Mircea Eliade argues that Muhammad's knowledge of Christianity "was rather approximative"[108] and that references to the triad of God, Jesus and Mary probably reflect the likelihood that Muhammad's information on Christianity came from people who had knowledge of the Monophysite Church of Abyssinia, which was known for extreme veneration of Mary.[108]
    • William Montgomery Watt points out that we do not know how far Muhammad was acquainted with Christian beliefs prior to the conquest of Mecca and that dating of some of the passages criticizing Christianity is uncertain.[109] His view is that Muhammad and the early Muslims may have been unaware of some orthodox Christian doctrines, including the nature of the trinity, because Muhammad's Christian informants had a limited grasp of doctrinal issues.[110]
    • Watt has also argued that the verses criticizing Christian doctrines in the Quran are attacking Christian heresies like tritheism and "physical sonship" rather than orthodox Christianity.[109][111]
    • G.R. Hawting, Sidney H. Griffith and Gabriel Reynolds argue that the verses commenting on apparently unorthodox Christian beliefs should be read as an informed, polemically motivated caricature of mainstream Christian doctrine whose goal is to highlight how wrong some of its tenets appear from an Islamic perspective.[111]


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