Most of the Arabs complied with the call of Ismael (May peace be upon him!), and professed the religion of his father Ibrahim. They worshipped Allah, professed His Oneness, and followed His religion for a long time until they forgot part of what they had been reminded of. However, they still maintained fundamental beliefs such as monotheism as well as various other aspects of Ibrahim’s religion, until the time when a chief of Khuza`ah, namely `Amr bin Luhai came back from a trip to Syria. He was renowned for his righteousness, charity, devotion and care for religion, and was granted unreserved love and obedience by his tribesmen. In Syria, he saw people worshipping idols, a phenomenon he approved of and believed to be righteous, since Syria was the land of the advent of Messengers and their Scriptures. He brought with him an idol (Hubal) which he placed in the middle of the Ka`bah and summoned people to worship it. Readily enough, idolatry spread all over Makkah and thence to Hijaz, with the people of Makkah being custodians of not only the Sacred House but of the entire Haram as well. A great number of idols, bearing different names, were introduced into the area.
An idol called Manat was worshipped at Al-Mushallal near Qudayd on the Red Sea. Another, Al-Lat, in Ta’if; a third, Al-`Uzza, in the valley of Nakhlah, and so on. Polytheism prevailed and the number of idols increased everywhere in Hijaz. `Amr bin Luhai, with the help of a Jinn companion who told him that the idols of Noah’s folk — Wadd, Suwa`, Yaguth, Ya`uq and Nasr — were buried in Jeddah, dug them out and took them to Tihamah. At the time of the pilgrimage, these idols were distributed among the tribes to take back home. Every tribe and house had their own idols, and the Sacred House was crowded with them. On the Prophet’s conquest of Makkah, 360 idols were found around the Ka`bah. He broke them down and had them removed and burned.
Polytheism and idol worship became the most prominent feature of the religion of pre-Islamic Arabs despite their alleged profession of Ibrahim’s religion.
Most of the traditions and ceremonies of idol worship were instituted by `Amr bin Luhai, and were deemed as “good innovations” rather than deviations from the religion of Ibrahim. Some features of their idol worship were:
- Devoting themselves to the idols, seeking refuge with them, uttering oaths in their names, calling for their help in hardship, and supplication to them for fulfillment of wishes, believing that the idols could intercede before Allah for the fulfillment of people’s wishes.
- Performing pilgrimage to the idols, circumambulating around them, abasing themselves and even prostrating themselves before them.
- Seeking favor of idols through various sacrifices in their name. Thesesacrifices were mentioned by Allah in His Saying:
``And that which is sacrificed (slaughtered) on An-Nusub (stone-altars)’’ [5:3]
Allah also says:
``Eat not (O believers) of that (meat) on which Allah’s Name has not been pronounced (at the time of the slaughtering of the animal).’’ [6:121]
- Allocating certain portions of food, drink, cattle, and crops to idols. Surprisingly enough, portions were also devoted to Allah Himself, but people often found reasons to transfer parts of Allah’s portion to idols, but never did the opposite. To this effect, Allah Says:
``And they assign to Allah a share of the tilth and cattle which He has created, and they say: `This is for Allah’, according to their pretending, `and this is for our (Allah’s so-called) partners.’ But the share of their (Allah’s so-called) `partners’, reaches not Allah, while the share of Allah reaches their (Allah’s so-called) `partners’. Evil is the way they judge.’’ [6:136]
- Seeking favors with these idols through vows of offering crops and cattle,as Allah mentioned:
``And according to their pretending, they say that such and such cattle and crops are forbidden, and none should eat of them except those whom we allow. And (they say) there are cattle forbidden to be used for burden or any other work, and cattle on which (at slaughtering) the Name of Allah is not pronounced; lying against Him (Allah).’’ [6:138]
- Dedication of certain animals (such as Bahirah, Sa’ibah, Wasilah and Hami) to idols, which meant sparing such animals from useful work for the sake of these heathen gods. The Bahirah, as reported by the well-known historian, Ibn Ishaq, was the daughter of a Sa’ibah: a female camel that gave birth to ten successive females, but no males. It was then set free and all were forbidden to tie her, burden her, shear off her wool, or milk her (except for guests to drink from); and this was done to all her female offspring which were given the name Bahirah, after having their ears slit. The Wasilah was a female sheep that had ten successive female offspring in five pregnancies. Any new births from this Wasilah were assigned only for use or consumption by males. The Hami was a male camel which produced ten progressive females, and was thus similarly forbidden.
It is about these practices that Allah revealed:
“Allah has not instituted things like Bahirah or Sa’ibah, or Wasilah or Ham. But those who disbelieve, invent lies against Allah, and most of them have no understanding.’’ [5:103]
Allah also says:
``And they say: What is in the bellies of such and such cattle (milk or fetus) is for our males alone, and forbidden to our females (girls and women), but if it is born dead, then all have shares therein.’’ [6:139]
Other types of cattle are also mentioned in this regard.
Sa`id bin Al-Musaiyib stated clearly that these kinds of cattle were dedicated to their false gods.
It has been authentically reported from the Prophet that such superstitions were first invented by `Amr bin Luhai.
The Arabs did all this for their idols, believing that the idols would bring them nearer to Allah, lead them to Him, and mediate with Him for their sake. To this effect, the Qur’an says:
``We worship them only that they may bring us near to Allah.’’ [39:3], and:
``And they worship besides Allah things that hurt them not, nor profit them, and they say: `These are our intercessors with Allah’.’’ [10:18]
Another divinatory tradition among the Arabs was casting of Azlam, featherless arrows which were of three kinds: one showing `yes’, another `no’ and a third was blank. They would utilize them while deciding serious matters like travel, marriage and the like. If the draw showed ‘yes’, they would go ahead; if `no’, they would delay it for the next year.
Other kinds of Azlam were cast for water, blood money or depicted `from you’, `not from you’, or `Mulsaq’ (associated). In cases of doubt regarding the legitimacy of a child, they would resort to the idol of Hubal with a hundred-camel gift for the arrow caster. Only the arrows would then decide the child’s relationship to the father. If the arrow showed `from you’, then it was decided that the child belonged to the tribe; if it showed `not from you’, he would then be regarded as an ally, but if `Mulsaq’ appeared, the person would retain his position but with no lineage or alliance contract.
This was very much like gambling and arrow-shafting whereby they used to divide the meat of the camels they slaughtered according to this tradition.
Moreover, they had a deep conviction in the tidings of soothsayers, diviners and astrologers. A soothsayer was someone who dealt in the business of foretelling future events and claimed knowledge of secrets and had Jinn subordinates who would communicate information to him. Diviners claimed that they could uncover the unknown by means of a special power granted to them, while others boasted they could reveal hidden secrets by a cause-and-effect-inductive process that would lead to detecting a stolen commodity, location of a theft, a stray animal, and the like. The astrologer belonged to a third category, observing the stars and calculating their movements and orbits whereby he would foretell the future. Conviction in the information provided by the astrologer was in reality a belief in the stars, and the positions of particular stars. They would say, “We were delivered rain because of the position of this star.”
The belief in omens for foretelling future events was common among the Arabs. Some days, months, and particular animals were regarded as portents. They also believed that the soul of a murdered person would fly in the wilderness and would never be at rest until revenge was taken. Superstition was widespread. If a deer or bird, when released, turned right then the work they had embarked on would be regarded favorable, otherwise they would fear a negative outcome and refrain from pursuing it.
The people of the pre-Islamic period, whilst believing in superstition, still retained some of the Abrahamic traditions such as devotion to Al-Ka`bah, circumambulation, observance of pilgrimage, the stay at `Arafat and offering sacrifices. All these rituals were observed despite some innovations that adulterated their sacredness. As the Quraish were the descendants of Ibrahim, custodians of Al-Ka`bah, the inhabitants of Makkah, and no Arabs besides them had the same status or rights that they did, they referred to themselves as Al-Hums and they would refrain from going to `Arafat with the crowd. Instead, they would stop short at Muzdalifah. It was about this that the following was revealed:
``Then depart from the place whence all the people depart.’’ [2:199]
Another heresy, deeply established in their social tradition, dictated that they would not eat dried yoghurt or cooking fat, nor would they enter a tent made of camel hair or seek shade unless in a house of adobe bricks, so long as they were in Ihram, the sacred state of the pilgrimage. Out of a deeplyrooted misconception, they also denied pilgrims, other than Makkans, access to the food they brought when they wanted to make pilgrimage or lesser pilgrimage.
They ordered pilgrims coming from outside Makkah to circumambulate AlKa`bah in clothes provided by Al-Hums, but if they could not acquire them, men were to do so in a state of nudity, and women with only some open shirt. Allah says in this concern:
``O children of Adam! Take your adornment to every Masjid.’’ [7:31]
If men or women were modest enough to go round Al-Ka`bah in their clothes, they had to discard them after circumambulation for good.
When the Makkans were in the sacred state of pilgrimage, they would not enter their houses through the doors but through holes they used to dig in the back walls. They used to regard such behavior as acts of piety and Godconsciousness. The Qur’an prohibited this practice:
``It is not Al-Birr (piety, righteousness, etc.) that you enter the houses from the back but Al-Birr (is the quality of the one) who fears Allah. So enter houses through their proper doors, and fear Allah that you may be successful.’’ [2:189]
Such was the religious life in Arabia, full of polytheism, idolatry, and superstition. Judaism, Christianity, Magianism and Sabianism, however, could find their ways easily into Arabia.
The migration of the Jews from Palestine to Arabia passed through two phases: first, as a result of the persecution they were subjected to, the destruction of their temple, and taking most of them as captives to Babylon at the hand of the King Bukhtanassar. In the year 587 B.C., some Jews left Palestine for Hijaz and settled in its northern areas.
The second phase started with the Roman occupation of Palestine under the leadership of the Roman Butas in 70 C.E. This resulted in a tidal wave of Jewish migration into Hijaz and Yathrib, in particular to Khaibar and Taima’. Here they converted many tribes to their faith, built forts and castles, and lived in villages. Judaism managed to play an important role in the political life before Islam. When Islam dawned on that land, there were several famous Jewish tribes — Khabeer, Al-Mustaliq, An-Nadeer, Quraizah and Qainuqa`. As-Samhudi mentioned that the Jewish tribes numbered as many as twenty.
Judaism was introduced into Yemen by a man called As`ad Abi Karb. He had gone to Yathrib as part of a fighting expedition and embraced Judaism there. Then he went back, taking with him two rabbis from Bani Quraizah to instruct the people of Yemen in this new religion. There Judaism found fertile ground to propagate and gain adherents. After his death, his son Yusuf Dhu Nawas rose to power, attacked the Christian community in Najran and ordered them to embrace Judaism. When they refused, he ordered that a pit of fire be dug and all the Christians be dropped to burn therein. Estimates say that between 20 to 40 thousand Christians were killed in that human massacre. This occurred in October 523 C.E. The Qur’an related part of this story in Chapter Al-Buruj.
Christianity first made its appearance in Arabia following the entry of the Abyssinian (Ethiopian) and Roman colonists. The Abyssinian (Ethiopian) presence began in 340 C.E. and lasted until 378 C.E. Christianity entered Yemen when a Christian missionary called Fimion, known for his selfless behavior and for working miracles, entered into Najran. There he called people to Christianity, and by virtue of his honesty and truthful devotion, he managed to persuade them to respond positively to his invitation and embrace Christianity.
The Abyssinian (Ethiopian) colonizing forces entered Yemen again in 525 C.E. As retaliation for the injustices perpetrated by Dhu Nawas, they started zealously propagating their faith. They even built a church and called it the Yemeni Ka`bah with the aim of directing the Arab pilgrimage caravans towards Yemen, and then made an attempt to demolish the Sacred House in Makkah. However, Allah the Almighty punished them and made an example of them – in the worldly life and in the Hereafter.
The principal tribes that embraced Christianity were Ghassan, Taghlib, Tai’ and some Himyarite kings as well as other tribes living on the borders of the Roman Empire.
Magianism was also popular among the Arabs living in the region of Persia, Iraq, Bahrain, Al-Ahsa’ and some areas on the Arabian Gulf coast. Some Yemenis are also reported to have professed Magianism during the Persian occupation.
As for Sabianism, excavations in Iraq revealed that it had been popular amongst the Kaldanian people, the Syrians and Yemenis. With the advent of Judaism and Christianity, however, Sabianism began to give way to the new religions, although it retained some followers mixed or adjacent to the Magians in Iraq and the Arabian Gulf.
The Religious Situation
The religions prevalent at the time played merely a marginal role in the life of the Arabs before the advent of Islam. The polytheists, who pretended to adhere to the religion of Abraham, were far removed from its principles and inherent ethics. They indulged in disobedience, ungodliness and peculiar superstitions that left a deleterious effect on the religious and socio-political life in Arabia.
Judaism turned into a system of repulsive hypocrisy and the struggle for power. Rabbis turned into lords to the exclusion of the Lord. Their sole ambition was gaining wealth and power even if it was at the risk of losing their religion, or the emergence of atheism and disbelief.
Likewise, Christianity opened its doors wide to polytheism, and turned too complicated to comprehend. As a religious system, it developed a peculiar mix of beliefs regarding man and God. It exercised no influence whatsoever on the souls of the Arabs who accepted it, simply because it did not concern itself with their lifestyle and did not have the least relationship with their practical life.
People of other religions were similar to the polytheists with respect to their inclinations, dogmas, customs and traditions.