Pre-Islamic Overview: Paganism or Heretical Monotheism?

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janosik
DANIEL JANOSIK : Director of Islamic Studies, Adjunct Professor of Apologetics, Historical Theology, and Islamic Studies at Southern Evangelical Seminary, and the adjunct professor in Apologetics at CIU Columbia International University (A.B., College of William and Mary; M.Div., Columbia International University; M.A., Columbia International University; Ph.D., London School of Theology) Dissertation: John of Damascus, First Apologist to the Muslims.

Introduction

The traditional accounts describe Arabs before the time of Muhammad as being in a state of confusion, which Muslims refer to as “Jahiliyyah.” This term means that the Arabs were spiritually lost, and their practices were strongly opposed to Allah’s ways – they did not know the truth and were always fighting among themselves. Culturally they are depicted as morally decadent and perverse, illiterate, animistic, disobedient to the laws of Allah, idolatrous, and cruel to the point of burying baby girls alive.[1] Muhammad’s revelations of Allah are therefore believed to have changed the Arabic world both dramatically and permanently. This chapter studies the traditional representation of the pre-Islamic period in detail, and then considers the evidence and arguments for a more complex religious, cultural, and political picture of pre-7th century Arabia. The chapter concludes with apologetic considerations about how the factual details of this historical setting matter in discussing the role of Muhammad and the founding of Islam.

The Traditional Muslim View

Muslims traditionally consider the period of approximately 300-610 AD as one when most people in Arabia were pagan idol worshippers, though they also note traces of monotheism in a group called the Hanifs, who had rejected idolatry and retained some form of beliefs based on an Abrahamic concept of “submission to God.” The Qur’an uses the term Jahiliyyah in several places when it refers to this pagan, pre-Islamic time. Arabic life before Muhammad is described as:

  • An age in which false thoughts of Allah were widespread (Q. 3:154)[2]
  • A time of paganism when laws were not from Allah (Q. 5:50)
  • A time of general lawlessness or lack of rule (Q. 48:26)
  • A barbaric age marked by women displaying the adornments of their dress and ornaments before others (Q. 33:33)
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These specific verses paint a picture of a culture that was dominated by tribalism and ignorance.  There was chaos between the clans, constant warfare, rivalry, and continual pagan practices – such as the abominable worship of fertility gods, which were among the 360 gods housed at the Ka’aba. Hubal, the moon god was worshiped there,[3] as well as three female deities who were known as the “daughters of Allah”: al-Lat, “the Goddess,” al-Uzzah, “the Mighty,” and Manat, the “Goddess of Destiny.”[4]  The Hadith[5] expressly describes this type of pagan adulation in the following account:

We used to worship stones, and when we found a better stone than the first one, we would throw the first one and take the latter, but if we could not get a stone then we would collect some earth (i.e. soil) and then bring a sheep and milk that sheep over it, and perform the Tawaf around it. When the month of Rajab came, we used (to stop the military actions), calling this month the iron remover, for we used to remove and throw away the iron parts of every spear and arrow in the month of Rajab.[6]

The primary emphasis in the traditional Muslim view of this period is the utter lack of any knowledge of Allah’s law, but the overall culture of ignorance is also significant to the concept of Jahiliyyah. As one prominent Muslim writer explains:

No one seemed interested in the cultivation and advancement of knowledge. The few who were literate were not educated enough to understand the existing arts and sciences. Although they did possess a highly developed language capable of expressing the finest shades of human thought in a remarkable manner, a study of the remnants of their literature reveals how limited was their knowledge, how low was their standard of culture and civilization, how saturated were their minds with superstitions, how barbarous and ferocious were their thoughts and customs, and how decadent were their moral standards … As regards their religious beliefs, they suffered from the same evils which were playing havoc with the rest of the world. They worshipped stones, trees, idols, stars, and spirits; in short, everything conceivable except God.[7]

This lack of learning, government structure, or civilizing influences made Arabia truly a dark place – but some Muslims see this very ignorance and tabula rasa (blank slate) quality as making Arabia the perfect place for Allah’s truth to shine forth in a final, uncorrupted revelation (since Muslims believe that all previous revelations had been corrupted after the deaths of the prophets Abraham, Moses, Jesus Christ, etc.). Many Muslims believe that this pagan past was completely rejected after Muhammad brought the truth of Allah’s word and law into Arabia.[8]

However, there are a number of Jahiliyyah practices that were not discarded. As one Muslim scholar explains, a few of these practices were accepted in Islam, though with obvious reforms.[9] For example, the Tawaf, or circumambulation of the Ka’aba,[10] remained obligatory, but with the body covered (Q. 7:31). In marriage, during the former time, a man could marry as many women as he pleased. However, the Qur’an now specifies that a man can only marry up to four wives at a time (Q. 4:3). Retaliation for the murder of a clan member is still in place, but now only the proven murderer faces the death penalty instead of random members of the murderer’s clan also becoming subject to possible execution (Q. 6:51). During the Jahiliyyah, women did not receive any inheritance from their husband or family’s estate, but with the advent of Islam, a woman would have the rights of inheritance of her husband’s or family’s estate (Q. 4:11, 12, 176). In addition, in the earlier time conducting war was considered a noble profession and the expected outcome of a man’s pride, but after Muhammad, safeguards were put in place in order to ensure that the innocent were protected and that war was conducted according to the will of Allah (Q. 2:190, 193, 224). Also, in business, the sale and purchase of goods were filled with usury and fraud, but the Qur’an forbids usury, and the conduct of business is expected to be fair and accurate (Q. 2:275). Finally, in the “times of ignorance” slavery was rampant and full of “oppression, humiliation, and exploitation,” but now the Qur’an forbids the exploitation of slaves, and laws have been put in place to preserve the dignity of the slave as one who shares the intrinsic nature of the free man (Q. 24:33).[11]

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This traditional view of religious and cultural practices before Muhammad, however, does not seem to be a study of priority among Muslims. More traditionally-inclined histories of Islam by non-Muslims, such as the one by Karen Armstrong, place the Muslim concept of Jahiliyyah (the pagan years) into a more complex social and religious context, but still, accept the central idea of widespread barbarism and poverty in both an economic and cultural setting.[12] More commonly, however, traditional Muslim writers do not typically examine Jahiliyyah as a historical concept. Instead, Muslim scholars often use Jahiliyyah as a theological concept to describe the secular chaos which not only preceded Islam but which also describes any society or any person that rejects the sacred truth and way of life Islam teaches. Thus, a number of Muslim writers argue that the modern western culture is also Jahiliyyah, or corrupt, degenerate, and lacking knowledge of the true God, which the faithful Muslim must strive to escape in order to remain on what is known as the straight path.[13]

For example, Sayyid Qutb, one of the most influential 20th-century Muslim thinkers, says that Jahiliyyah is an antithesis of Islam, the opposite of Allah’s plan for the human race in religion, politics, philosophy, and law. Thus, since even the Muslims of his day (1960s) were living without the laws of God, or Sharia, Qutb believed that the Muslim community did not actually exist at that time, for even those who called themselves Muslims did not live in an Islamic world, but rather in Jahiliyyah, or pre-Islamic ignorance.[14] Qutb argues, then, that, “Our whole environment, people’s beliefs, and ideas, habits and art, rules and laws — is Jahiliyyah, even to the extent that what we consider to be Islamic culture, Islamic sources, Islamic philosophy and Islamic thought are also constructs of Jahiliyyah!”[15] Thus, for many Muslim leaders today, anything that is contrary to the rule of Allah through Sharia is considered Jahiliyyah, whether it depicts the situation before the time of Muhammad or the present age. For the Muslim traditionalist, then, the teachings of Muhammad were crucial in bringing his followers out of the darkness and into the light of Islam.

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Scholarly Views Which Support the Jahiliyyah or Traditional View

A number of historians and other scholars who study the Middle East, and accept much of the traditional Muslim view based almost exclusively on the Muslim sources, generally agree with the overall depiction of this pre-Islamic Arabia as being one of “moral depravity and religious discord,” as one writer puts it.[16] However, these historians also present evidence of a more complex set of circumstances that casts doubt on the simplistic idea of Jahiliyyah. Pre-Islamic society and politics are generally seen as being a mixed bag: while Bedouins or desert nomads (ruled by Shaykhs or elders and renowned for their bravery) probably made up the majority of the population, more advanced agricultural and trading economies abounded in the more fertile parts of the peninsula. These groups were, however, still bound together by common economy, culture, and the ties of family and clans.[17]

One Jewish scholar, Yehuda Nevo, acknowledges that in the present a number of traditional Muslim scholars promote the idea that  “many nomadic tribes inhabited the pre-Islamic Arabian Peninsula, and an extensive trade network, whose hub was Mecca, resulted in the rise of the peninsula as a political power.”[18] These Muslims further believe that Muhammad was able to merge this political power together with his religious message to bring about a paradigm shift that transformed this pagan area from a dry place of ignorance to a fount of knowledge in the one God of the universe.

Non-Muslim Counter View

On the other hand, a number of non-Muslim scholars point to specific historical records and scholarly studies that strongly indicate that the situation was much more complex than Muslim traditional accounts portray. These non-traditional scholars argue that this Muslim view is overly simplistic in regard to the picture it paints of Arabic religious groups and practices before the 7th century. They point to evidence that there were some established monotheistic religions already existing in pre-Islamic Arabia. While barbaric practices doubtless did occur, they conclude, overall there were too many different religious elements to accept the story of tribes wallowing in pagan ignorance and yearning for cultural unity and sophistication. These mixed religious groups mean that Muhammad’s message and subsequent military conquest did not liberate the entire continent from theological and cultural ignorance. These scholars thus agree that pagan idolatry was rampant, but some highlight evidence that semi-heretical Christian beliefs were prominent as well. Monophysitism, Nestorianism, Arianism, and Ebionism – interpretations which all deny some aspect of Christ’s divinity as it is understood in orthodox Christianity – may all have mixed with the pagan religions around them. There even seem to have been a number of Arabs who had converted to Judaism and prospered in clans as farmers, camel-breeders, and merchants.[19]

Fred Donner, an expert in early Islamic history, has documented the existence of Jews in certain parts of Arabia as early as the 1st century AD, and suggests that there may also have been some communities of Jewish Christians called Nazoreans, who recognized Jesus as Messiah and accepted some Christian doctrine, but continued to practice their own legal code. In addition, he concludes that while Christianity was found in eastern Arabia, in northern border areas with Syria and Iraq, as well as in Yemen, it is harder to show any significant Christian presence in the Hijaz, where Mecca and Medina are located.[20] Another scholar, Jonathan Berkey, points out that religious practices varied widely among various Arabic groups. Many gods were recognized (as at the Ka’aba), and the supernatural was an important element of daily life, but the moral order of society was based on social needs rather than theological standards. “Religion was something immediate and real – could some deity help you find a lost camel? – rather than a matter of abstract doctrine and principle,” he explains.[21] It seems logical to assume that the religious life of Bedouins was ancestor-based and had all the trappings of supernatural paganism that traditional accounts credit it with, but that at the same time certain settled regions of the Arabic peninsula had more sophisticated religious beliefs that could focus on issues like the afterlife.[22]

Scholars Sidney Griffith and Yehuda Nevo specifically point to evidence of Jews and Christians (as well as their scriptures) during the time of the Qur’an’s formation.[23] This argument is supported by the fact that the Qur’an itself mentions them and their scriptures specifically, indicating that Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians lived in the time and vicinity of early Islam. At the very least, the fact that the Qur’an clearly describes Old Testament figures and cites the Prophets, Psalms, and Gospels indicates that these older monotheistic religions were prevalent and influential. Some scholars take this argument further and use the above evidence to suggest that Islam developed out of heretical Christianity, Judaism, and even Zoroastrianism. They hypothesize an intermediate monotheism developing early in the 7th century A.D. and ultimately culminating in an early form of Islam.[24] Other scholars suggest that this intermediate monotheism developed from an earlier Jewish-Christianity, which, in turn, was derived from 2nd-century heretical views of Jesus Christ held by the Nestorians, Monophysites, and Ebionites – all of whom have non-orthodox views of Jesus’ divine and human natures.[25] Interestingly, this theory of Islam having evolved from a mixture of heretical Christianity and paganism was introduced in the 8th century by the Byzantine scholar John of Damascus (whose influential writings will be discussed in a later chapter).[26] The time before Muhammad, at any rate, would have been marked not so much by ignorant paganism but rather as a mixed society in which paganism rubbed shoulders with Christianity and Judaism, possibly providing religious elements that would later be absorbed into the new religion of Islam.

Conclusion

The traditional Muslim view of pre-Islamic times, drawn primarily from the Qur’an, is that there was very little good happening in Arabia either in terms of right living or knowledge of the true God. There appear to have been, however, a number of Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians who contributed to a mixed culture. They may have also contributed to a new monotheistic belief system which held strongly to Jewish legalism and apocalyptic trends, as well as claiming that Jesus was a sinless prophet without divine status.

While most historians and scholars who accept the traditional Muslim view generally agree with the Qur’an’s description of a lawless and pagan lifestyle in the pre-Islamic Arabian Peninsula, they now have to admit that modern historical discoveries reveal that these practices were limited to certain areas and among certain groups. The idea of a widespread dark age which Muhammad gloriously interrupted in the 7th century is a concept that has been shown to be somewhat simplistic in scope.

From an apologetic stance, the historical and archaeological evidence demonstrates that the simplistic picture painted by traditional Islamic sources do not take into account the complexity of the religious, political, and cultural aspects of Arabia in pre-Islamic times. Thus, even the small details about what the “age of ignorance” really looked like can be very important. The version that one accepts will have significant implications as to what a person believes Muhammad and the founding leaders of Islam really accomplished: did they unite a struggling pagan continent? Or did they simply weave together existing strands of monotheism and political instability into a new militant religion? It is important for Christians to understand the complexities of this historical setting so that the explanations given by Muslims of Muhammad being a prophet who initiated a glorious civilization are not accepted without due critical consideration.

Further Implications

Implications about this pre-history will play an important role in later chapters in two ways. First, noting these heretical Christian sects and the political situation of the 7th century – with Arabian border guards taking over as Byzantine forces abandoned the area – is key to understanding the argument that some non-Muslim scholars advance regarding the possibility of Islam evolving out of Jewish-Christian heresies. Such a complex theological situation in early Arabia is not one acknowledged by traditional Muslim accounts. Second, the historical evidence presented in this section argues that the Islamic forces were able to rapidly conquer the Arabian Peninsula, not necessarily because Allah was on their side, but probably because the retreating Byzantine armies left a vacuum in their military defenses. Also, the fact that many people regarded the Muslims as merely a sect of Jewish-Christianity, and therefore not a real threat, may have lulled Christians into a passive acceptance of the new regime. Clearly, then, what one believes about the state of Arabia before Muhammad is very important in interpreting Islam’s development both theologically and militarily. These arguments will be discussed in detail in later chapters.

Apologetic Conclusions

Apologetically, it is important to note that evidence demonstrating a vibrant Christian and Jewish influence in pre-Islamic Arabia not only counters the Muslim assumptions that Arabia was pagan and chaotic, a “time of ignorance,” but specifically clashes with some of the statements made by the Qur’an about Muhammad and the reasons for Allah sending his revelations. This brings up the issue of external evidence supporting a scriptural text, which is a key apologetic issue to examine. Does the historical evidence support the Qur’an’s account of Arabia before the time of Muhammad? A number of scholars have presented detailed reasons to believe that the concept of Jahiliyyah is a limited perspective that does not take into account a complex religious and political state of affairs in early Arabia. If this argument is accurate, then the Qur’an’s explanation cannot be corroborated with external evidence, and a certain amount of doubt must be thrown on the truth of its own explanation of the origins of Islam.

Another apologetic point to consider from this section is why some of the practices that Muslims still follow today are borrowed directly from the pre-Islamic days or the time of Jahiliyyah. If the time of ignorance is to be repudiated, why should certain customs from that very time, such as circumambulating the Ka’aba and throwing stones at pillars representing Satan, still be practiced? This creates a degree of confusion that can give Christians an opportunity to discuss these theological and practical issues with Muslim friends.

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Building Bridges to Understand

Applying these apologetic points and historical evidences to our Christian witness underscores the importance of why Christians should trust in their worldview and their Scriptures. Muslims generally accept the concept of Jahiliyyah and its dark contrast with Allah’s perfect revelation to Muhammad without considering any evidence outside of the Qur’an. In fact, examining the actual historical details of Jahiliyyah has not appeared to be of much importance to Muslim scholars. Yet Christians historically have had the opposite approach to determining the truth of the Bible: external evidences have been strenuously examined, and the wealth of written and archeological records around the time of Christ, in particular, have been studied diligently by scholars. In the end, these external sources have shown remarkable support of the Biblical narrative, with cities and military campaigns and even the existence of biblical persons being confirmed through historical sources. This gives Christians confidence in trusting the Bible, and particularly in knowing that the life of Christ is documented more thoroughly than that of any other person from the 1st century.

Christians can reach out to their Muslim friends by sharing that they, as Christians, trust the Bible’s account of the 1st century AD, and thus also trust the identity of Jesus as the person whom the Bible claims that he is. This important role of verification gives Christians confidence to delve into the historical record. Why don’t Muslims do the same to confirm the accuracy of the Qur’an? This can lead to important conversations about worldviews and the role of reason in one’s religious faith.

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[1] Mohd Shukri Hanapi, “From Jahiliyyah to Islamic Worldview: In a Search of an Islamic Educational Philosophy,” International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, Vol. 3 No. 2, January, 2013, 214-15.

[2] This refers to the Qur’an, surah (chapter) 3, verse 154.

[3] Ibn Hisham 1/151-155; Rahmat-ul-lil’alameen 2/89, 90.

[4] Reza Aslan, No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam (New York: Random House, 2006), 7.

[5] The Hadith are the traditional sayings of Muhammad written down around 200 years after the death of Muhammad.

[6] Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol 5, #661 (Narrated Abu Raja Al-Utaridi)

[7] Abu al-Ala Maududi, Towards Understanding Islam (U.K.I.M Dawah Centre), 31.

[8] Tom Holland, In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire, (Anchor, 2013), 50.

[9] Hanapi, “From Jahiliyyah to Islamic Worldview,” 217-19.

[10] Even today Muslims walk around the Ka’aba seven times during their hajj, or pilgrimage, just as the pagans did before Muhammad.

[11] Hanapi, “From Jahiliyyah to Islamic Worldview,” 217-219.

[12] Karen Armstrong, Islam: A Short History (New York: Random House, 2002), 4.

[13] Abu al-Ala Mawdudi (see Asyraf Rahman, The Influence of Al-Mawdudi and the Jama’at Al Islami Movement on Sayid Qutb Writings, World Journal of Islamic History and Civilization, 2 (4): 232-236, 2012) ; Sayyid Qutb, Milestones (Birmingham, UK: Maktabah, 2006)

[14] Sayyid Qutb, Milestones (Birmingham, UK: Maktabah, 2006), 9.

[15] Sayyid Qutb, Milestones, 20.

[16] Aslan, No God but God, 5.

[17] Jonathan Berkey, The Formation of Islam: Religion and Society in the Near East, 600–1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 40.

[18] Yehuda Nevo, and Judith Koren, Crossroads to Islam: The Origins of the Arab Religion and the Arab State (Amherst, New York: Prometheus, 2003), 1.

[19] Jonathan Berkey, The Formation of Islam, 39-49.

[20] Fred Donner, Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 30-31. This may be an indication that Islam did not develop in the Hijaz, but rather in the northern regions of Arabia around Petra. This is the premise of Dan Gibson’s new book, Qur’anic Geography (Independent Scholars Press, 2011).

[21]Berkey, The Formation of Islam, 41.

[22] Aslan, No God but God, 12.

[23] Sydney Griffith, The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque, 6; Nevo, Crossroads to Islam, 190-194.

[24] Nevo, Crossroads to Islam, 195-6.

[25] Karl-Heinz Ohlig, Gerd Puin, Volker Popp, Yehuda Nevo, Fred Donner, Patricia Crone, Gerald Hawting, Jonathan Berkey, and Andrew Rippin.

[26] John of Damascus, Heresy of the Ishmaelites. Found in Daniel Janosik, John of Damascus, First Apologist to the Muslims (Wipf & Stock, 2016), Appendix C, 260-268.

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