Kaaba in Mecca

SOME slight acquaintance with the state of Arabia at the time of Muhammad is necessary to a clear understanding of the man and his message. The materials for such knowledge are, fortunately, not rare. The Arabian historian, Abu’l Fida, 9 in particular has left us many interesting details relating to the social and religious life of the pre-Islamic Arabs. He tells us, for example, that

وكانوا يحجّون البيت ويعتمرون ويحرمون ويطوفون ويسعون ويقفون المواقف كلها يرمون الجمار وكانوا يكبسون في كل ثلاث أعوام شهراً وحلق الختان وكانوا يقطعون يد السارق اليمنى.

‘They used to perform the pilgrimage to the Ka’ba, where they put on the ‘umra 10 and ihram 11 ; and they also performed the tawaf 12 (circumambulation of the Ka’ba) and the running (at Mounts Safa and Marwa), and the casting of stones, and at the end of every three years spent a month in solitary contemplation . . . and they performed circumcision, and cut off the right hand of thieves.’ Ibn Hisham, in his Siratu'r-Rasul, amongst other things, devotes a whole chapter to the idols of the Arabs, and gives many interesting facts regarding the idolatry of the people. 13 Idolatry, it is true, held the chief place; but it is far from correct to say, with a recent Bengali biographer of Muhammad, that ‘idolatry reigned supreme’. Earnest theists there were who, under the name of Hanifs, eschewed the popular idol-worship, and gave themselves up to the service of the one God. Ibn Hisham, in his Sirat, p. 215, gives an illuminating account of these seekers after truth, and makes it clear that the knowledge of the one true God was far from being hidden from the Arabs. From the literature that has come down to us it is manifest that from long before the birth of Muhammad the Supreme God was known and worshipped in Arabia. In pre-Islamic literature Ilah was used for the inferior deities of the Arabs, but the word with the definite article prefixed (Al-Ilah), contracted to Allah, was the name given to the Supreme. The pagan poets Nabiga and Labid both repeatedly use the word ‘Allah’ in the sense of the Supreme Deity, and the word is also used in the same sense in the famous Mu'allaqat. Indeed the temple at Mecca was known long before the time of Muhammad as Baitu’llah or House of God.

There is ample evidence that Muhammad had close and constant intercourse with the Hanifs. Indeed, the Traditionist, Muslim, tells us that one of the chief reformers, Waraqa bin Naufal, was a cousin of Khadija, the wife of Muhammad; so that the great truth of the unity of God could easily have been learnt from him. This much is certain, that when Muhammad began to preach, he adopted the very term Hanif as the key-note of his preaching, and again and again asserted that he was simply sent to preach the religion of Abraham the Hanif. Thus we read:

قُلْ إِنَّنِي هَدَانِي رَبِّي إِلَى صِرَاطٍ مُّسْتَقِيمٍ دِيناً قِيَماً مِّلَّةَ إِبْرَاهِيمَ حَنِيفاً.

‘As for me, my Lord hath guided me into a straight path; a true religion, the creed of Abraham the Hanif’ (Qur’an al-An'am 6:161).

Besides the Hanifs there were, at the time of Muhammad, two other theistic sects in Arabia: the Jews and the Christians. These were not numerous in Mecca, but in Madina and the surrounding country many influential and wealthy Jewish tribes were to be found. As a matter of fact, some years prior to the birth of Muhammad there existed in South Arabia a Jewish kingdom which was, in the course of time, displaced by a Christian. This latter had its capital at San'a, a city lying some distance to the east of Mecca. These Jewish and Christian ‘People of the Book’ were, in comparison with their polytheistic neighbours, both learned and influential, and must have exerted a powerful influence upon the religious thought of the Arabs. It is clear, therefore, that Muhammad himself could not but be influenced by the theistic teaching of these communities, and there is ample evidence that his intercourse with them was of the closest description. If the Qur’anic stories of the Patriarchs, for example, be compared with the Talmudic perversions of Bible history which were current amongst the Jews of Arabia in the time of Muhammad, it will be seen how largely he must have been indebted to the Jews for his ideas. The Qur'an itself refers repeatedly to Muhammad's conversations with the Jews, and there is no doubt but that at one time their relations were of the most cordial nature. It is clear from the records that Muhammad was in the habit of questioning the Jews concerning their religion, and Muslim has preserved for us a tradition which puts this beyond doubt. He says:

قَالَ ابْنُ عَبَّاسٍ: سَأَلَهُمُ النَّبِيُّ صَلعم عَنْ شَيْءٍ من أهل الكتاب فَكَتَمُوهُ إِيَّاهُ ، وَأَخْبَرُوهُ بِغَيْرِهِ ، فَخَرَجُوا وَقَدْ أَرَوْهُ أَنْ قَدْ أَخْبَرُوهُ بِمَا قَدْ سَأَلَهُمْ عَنْهُ

‘Ibn ‘Abbas said that, when the prophet asked any question of the people of the Book, they suppressed the matter, and in place of it told him something else, and went away letting him think that they had told him what he asked.’

Syed Ameer Ali, in the Introduction of his Life and Teachings of Mohammed, p. lvii, candidly admits the influence of Jewish and Christian thought in the promulgation of Islam. Referring to the doctrines of the Docetes, Marcionites and Valentinians, certain heterodox Christian sects who had settled in Arabia, he says: ‘Before the advent of Mohammed, all these traditions, based on fact though tinged by the colourings of imagination, must have become firmly imbedded in the convictions of the people, and formed essential parts of the folk-lore of the country. Mohammed, therefore, when promulgating his faith and his laws, found these traditions floating among his people; he took them up and adopted them as the lever for raising the Arabs as well as the surrounding nations from the depth of social and moral degradation into which they had fallen.’ 14 Another learned Indian Muslim, S. Khuda Bukhsh, in his Essays: Indian and Islamic, pp. 9, 10, goes even farther, and freely acknowledges that, ‘Mohamed has not merely accepted dogmas and doctrines of Judaism, minute Talmudical ordinances, but has even adopted in their entirety some of the Jewish practices, and far above all these, that which, indeed, constitutes the very foundation of Islam, namely, the conception of a severe and uncompromising monotheism.’ 15

Thus it is seen that whilst, at the time of Muhammad, a polytheistic cult claimed the devotions of a large proportion of the Arabs, the country was far from being wholly given up to idolatry. On the contrary, there were numerous communities of Jews and Christians from whom Muhammad learned much of the true God, and who undoubtedly prepared the way for that preaching of the Unity which was to effect such a change in the life of the people.

13. Alfred Guillaume, The Story of 'Amr B. Luhayy and the Account of the Idols of the Arabs, In: The Life of Muhammad, A Translation of Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, Oxford Press, Oxford, England, p. 35-40.

14. Syed Ameer Ali, The Spirit of Islam or The Life and Teachings of Mohammed, S.K. Lahiri & Co., 54 College Street,  Calcutta, India, 1902, p. lix.