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The Religious Milieu of The Arabian Peninsula On The Eve of Islam

The Religious Milieu of The Arabian Peninsula

The Religious Milieu of The Arabian Peninsula On The Eve of Islam

The Qur’an makes direct references to the beliefs and practices of the various religious groups that, according to traditional Arab accounts, existed in the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century on the eve of Islam. In fact, we find clear references to many biblical stories of which the Qur’an’s audience must be aware. For example, in Surah al-Baqarah, we read the following:

And remember when we saved you from Pharaoh’s people who afflicted you with a cruel suffering, slaughtering your sons and sparing your women. There was a great trial in that for you from your lord. And remember when we separated the sea for you so we saved you and we drowned Pharaoh’s people while you watched![1]

Elsewhere in the Qur’an, the same episode has been narrated in more detail, but it is clear that the audience was aware of the Pharaoh, his atrocities on the Jews and that the Jews were saved by God. There are also instances in which the Qur’an argues against existing theological beliefs, such as the reason for Adam’s expulsion from the Heaven, Jesus’ divinity, and idol worship.

Some revisionist scholars have shown skepticism in accepting traditional Arabic sources and postulated that since the Qur’an makes references to historic sites situated far away from Mecca, it must have been composed outside of the Hijaz region. For example, Daniel Brown states in his introduction to Islam: “If we place the Qur’an in seventh-century Arabia, we can only make sense of its origins by importing significant Jewish and Christian influences into the Hijaz – influences for which there is very little convincing evidence. It would seem at least plausible to suggest that perhaps it’s not the context for the origins of the Qur’an and that the Islamic scriptures more probably came together in the Near Eastern environment – in Syria and Palestine – during the first 150 years after the Arab conquests.”[2] Similarly, Patricia Crone wrote that “not a single source outside Arabia mentions Mecca before the conquests, and not one displays any sign of recognition or tells us what was known about it when it appears in the sources thereafter,” and that it “had neither Jewish nor Christian communities” and that the Prophet must be “living somewhere in the vicinity” of the sites that the Qur’an mentions, such as Lot’s.[3]

In this article, I will use works that rely predominantly on epigraphic, archeological and non-Arab historical sources to establish that Mecca was known as a center of worship in the near eastern environment, with evidence linking it to Abraham (sws). In addition, there is sufficient evidence indicating that the three major religious groups, the Jews, the Christians and the polytheists, were all well-settled in and around the Hijaz region with strong religious setups.


A “Samaritan collection of Biblical legends,” as Moses Gaster called it, was dated by him to be as old as third century BC,[4] and was referred to as “Asatir” by the Samaritans.[5] Although it is ascribed to Moses (sws), in Gaster’s opinion, it’s of pseudepigraphic value because of the skepticism shown by scholars towards such an ascription.[6] Nonetheless, it is dated earlier than the Qur’an and acts as a useful historical document. It states that Ishmael and Abraham built Baka which is translated as Mecca by Moses.[7] This word, Baka, also appears in the Qur’an in the form of Bakka:[8]

The first house erected for the people is the one at Bakka, blessed and a guidance for the worlds.[9]

The mention in The Asatir is not an isolated one. The historian Diodorus mentions an oasis that the Arabs made sacred which also had an altar.[10] It is not clear what this altar is and there were multiple such altars, but the mention of oasis, and the sacred land in which the altar was erected lead to a possibility that this reference must be that of Mecca. Similarly, the 4th century bishop Epiphanus mentions “the pilgrimage to the house (haggat al bait),”[11] another term that appears multiple times in the Qur’an. For example, Q2:125 and Q3:97 mention the “place of Abraham (maqam Ibrahim)” in conjunction with “the pilgrimage of the house (hajj al-bayt).” The Khuzistan Chronicle, a Nestorian account dated ca. 40 AH/660 AD, similarly states that since Abraham “lived in tents, he built that place for the worship of God and for the offering of sacrifices,” and that “it was no new thing for the Arabs to worship there, but goes back to antiquity, to their early days, in that they show honor to the father of the head of their people.”[12]

Jonathan Brown states that “the 2nd-century CE Alexandrian geographer Ptolemy mentions the Arabian towns of “Yathrippa” and “Mecoraba.” ” and “the Jewish historian Josephus (d. c. 100 CE) tells us that it had long been held that the Arabs were descendants of Abraham through Ismail.”[13]


In the Qur’an, the Jews and the Christians are referred to as “The People of the Book,” an epithet that had been used for the Jews since the first century CE for their possession of a holy scripture in which answers to all the problems were sought for.[14] Jews are considered to be the first settlers in Yathrib by early Arab historians,[15] although it has also been said that the Jews settled in the Arabian peninsula perhaps at the time of destruction of the first Temple,[16] with Jewish tribes having been settled in Medina before the Prophet migrated to the city where they were known to be expert jewelers and weapon makers. A certain Jew by the name of Shubaytu made a family tomb dating as far back as 42/43 CE in al-Hijrwith an inscription that explicitly identifies his religion.[17]

Similar to the Christians, the Jews were very much a part of the Arab culture so much so that the names of the individuals and the tribes were also Arabized, and the Jewish tribes of Banu Nadir and Banu Qurayẓa were “described as kings (muluk) over Medina, ruling Aws and Khazraj.”[18] Yemen had already been established as a Jewish stronghold in the early sixth century and was being ruled by a Jewish king named Dhu Nuwas who attacked Najran, a city some 400 miles south of Mecca, “and massacred all those who would not renounce Christianity.”[19] Dhu Nuwas is reported to have been eventually defeated by the Abyssinians.[20] Jews are known to be merchants who carried goods back and forth into the region, and we also find references to Jewish customs, such as Kiddush and Sabbath, in pre-Islamic literature.[21] There is also a mention of Jewish poets in the sources.[22] The Jewish prayer at the Temple, both individual and in congregation, has historically consisted of standing, bowing and prostrating until the “faces touched the ground”[23] and, since the changes to the prayer’s posture occurred later,[24] Arab Jews of that time must have been praying in these positions, which were very close to how Muslims would later pray.


Najranis known to have churches and a martyrium,[25] which leads us to believe that there must have been a sizable population of Christians in the city. There is also evidence of a monastery in South Arabia from which apparently two monks visited Muhammad after his declaration of prophethood.[26] Although Christians, both Arab and Ethiopian,[27] are known to have lived in Mecca in pre-Islamic times, the population seems small enough that a formal church order could not be established.[28] Irfan Shahid provides formidable evidence and argues in favor of the existence of an Arabic bible in pre-Islamic times in South Arabia,[29] which strongly indicates that there were at least some native Arab Jews and Christians who may not have known any other languages. Two of the poems in al-Mufaddaliyat were composed by Christian authors with Arab names: Jabir ibn Hunayy and ῾Abd al‑Masih,[30] the latter meaning “the slave of the messiah.” The Ethiopians in Mecca had translated both the Old and the New Testaments, possibly indicating the general availability of the Biblical texts to the Meccans.[31] A famous Arab merchant by the name, Hayyan, is known to have converted to Christianity and settled in Najran preaching Christian teachings leading to the spread of Christianity to the point that a bishop was also appointed there.[32] Churches were also established in the cities of Ẓafar and Qana’ to the south of Najran[33] confirming that the Christians were spread out in South Arabia.


According to Hoyland, until 4th century CE, “almost all the inhabitants of Arabia were polytheists,”[35] with more than a hundred names of the deities representing the forces of nature such as rain, fertility, health, love, death, etc., that are still found in the inscriptions.[36] Some of these gods are mentioned only once or twice and it is possible that they were invoked by travelers.[37] Offerings were made to the gods, most common of which were “animals, crops, food, liquids (milk and wine as libations), inscribed metal plaques or stone tablets, aromatics (usually burned to produce fragrant odors), edifices (walls, roofs, temples, wells, pillars, etc.) and manufactured objects (altars, incense burners, libation tables, metal tablets, statues, figurines, etc.).”[38]

Another important feature of the South Arabian polytheistic society was their patron gods. Each people (Sabaeans, Minaeans, Qarabanians, Hadramites) had their own patron gods and were labeled as its “children”.[39] O’Leary quotes Nabataeaninscriptions that refer to the deity Allat, also mentioned in the Qur’an: “this sanctuary to the lady Ellath”, “the priest of Ellath”, “temple … built to Allath”.[40] Akfal, a term used for a sacred office in Hijaz, is used in connection with Allah at Rawwafa, Allat at Dedan, and Dushara, Hubal and Manat at al-Hijr.[41] Similarly, kahin of al-Uzzah also appears in an inscription in Sinai.[42] The deity Ghadd, meaning “good luck”, appears in a Yemeni inscription.[43]

Inscriptions in South Arabia show that blood was also offered as libation at the stone altars, an observation also confirmed by pre-Islamic poetry and early Muslim accounts.[44] Likewise, offerings were made at important occasions, such as birth, puberty, marriage, and death,[45] as well as expiation after committing offences or violating some taboo.[46] O’Leary mentions an earlier altar, called nusub (pl. ansab), as “the widest spread form of Semitic religion” and was a “place of slaughter.”[47] It would not be wrong to conclude then that slaughter at the altars was in fact libation which would include blood sacrifices too. This view has been adopted by Ali who states that these were “stone altars or stone columns on which oil was poured for consecration, or slabs on which meat was sacrificed to idols.”[48]


We find significant support in the sources to establish Mecca as the center of worship with references to Abraham as its leading figure and, in the words of Devin Stewart, “Significant evidence shows that the pre-Islamic Arabs were thoroughly familiar with Judaism and Christianity, which had each established a strong presence in Arabia and neighboring territories long before the advent of Islam.”[49]

Therefore, we may conclude that the hypothesis that the Qur’an could not have been authored in the Hijaz region due to lack of confirming data not only becomes untenable, rather it is precisely the religious environment that a text like the Qur’an is addressing.


[1]. The Qur’an 2:49-50.

[2]. Brown, Daniel W. A New Introduction to Islam. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, 75.

[3]. Crone, Patricia. “What do we actually know about Mohammed?” Open Democracy. (retrieved December 28, 2016).

[4]. Gaster, Moses. “Preface,” The Asatir. London: The Royal Asiatic Society, 1927.

[5]. Gaster, The Asatir, 1.

[6]. Gaster, The Asatir, 5.

[7]. Gaster, The Asatir, 262 (Chapter VIII: Birth of Moses).

[8]. It has been argued by Muslim scholars that Bakka is the same as Baca mentioned in Psalms 84:6: “As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools.” Biblical scholars have also interpreted it as “the valley of weeping” (For example, in the American Standard Version, English Revised Version, and World English Bible). Al-Razi believes the Arabic bakkah can also lend itself to this meaning due to it being possibly derived from the root ba-ka-ya, which also means “to weep” in Arabic. (Al-Razi, Al-Fakhr. Al-Tafsir al-Kabir. 11 vols. Beirut: Dar Ihya al-Turath al-῾Arabi, 2001, 3:299, commentary for Q3:96).

[9]. The Qur’an 3:96.

[10]. Hoyland, Robert G. Arabia and the Arabs: From the Bronze Age to the coming of Islam. New York: Routledge, 2001, 158. Also, Brown, Jonathan. Muhammad, 96 which states, “The Greek historian of the 1st century BCE Diodorus mentions a temple in the Hejaz honored by the peoples of Arabia.”

[11]. O’Leary, De Lacy. Arabia Before Muhammad. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1927, 201.

[12]. Hoyland, Robert. Seeing Islam as others saw it: a survey and evaluation of Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian writings on early Islam. Princeton, N.J.: Darwin Press, 1997, 187.

[13]. Brown, Jonathan. Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 96.

[14]. Hoyland, Seeing Islam, 307.

[15]. Gil, “The origin of the Jews of Yathrib,” 146 in Peters, F. E., editor. The Arabs and Arabia on the Eve of Islam. Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 1999.

[16]. Ullendorff,”Hebraic-Jewish Elements in Abyssinian (Monophysite) Christianity,” Journal of Islamic Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956 1 (3), 220-1.

[17]. Hoyland, Robert G. Arabia and the Arabs: From the Bronze Age to the coming of Islam. New York: Routledge, 2001, 146; Hoyland, “The Jews,” in The Qur’an in Its Historical Context, ed. Gabriel Said Reynolds, 51-69. New York: Routledge, 2008, 93-4.

[18]. Gil, “The origin of the Jews of Yathrib,” 146-7 in Peters, The Arabs.

[19]. Gilbert, Martin. In Ishmael’s House. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010, 5. Al‑Jabburi, Al‑Sha῾r, 72.

[20]. Ullendorff,”Hebraic-Jewish Elements,” 224.

[21]. Lichtenstadter, Ilse. “Some References to Jews in Pre-Islamic Arabic Literature.” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 10 (1940), 188-92.

[22]. Ullendorff,”Hebraic-Jewish Elements,” 222; Hoyland, “The Jews,” Historical Context 2, 92.

[23]. Donin, Hayim H. To Pray as a Jew. New York: Basic Books, 1980, 204.

[24]. Hayim, To Pray, 204-5.

[25]. See Shahid, Irfan. “Byzantium in South Arabia.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers,33 (1979): 39 for non-Arabic and 69-70 for Arabic sources.

[26]. See Shahid, Irfan. Byzantiumand the Arabs in the Fifth Century. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1989, 428 for a general existence of a monastery in South Arabia in fifth century and Shahid, “Byzantium in South Arabia,” 42 for non-Arabic and 74-75 for Arabic sources on the existence of a monastery specifically in Najran at the beginning of the seventh century. See also Shahid, Irfan. Byzantiumand the Arabs in the Sixth Century. 1 vol. 2 parts. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1995, 1:839-840.

[27]. Irfan Shahid, “Islam and Oriens Christianus: Makka 610-622 AD” in The Encounter, 12-13.

[28]. Shahid, Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fifth Century, 389-92.

[29]. Shahid, Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fifth Century, 427-9.

[30]. Lyall, Charles James. The Mufaddaliyat: An Anthology of Ancient Arabian Odes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1918, 2: xxii.

[31]. Shahid, “Islam and Oriens Christianus: Makka 610-622 AD” in The Encounter, 17.

[32]. Shahid, Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, 1:710-711.

[33]. Shahid, “Byzantium in South Arabia,” 29.

[34]. For Arab sources, see: Henniger, “Pre-Islamic Bedouin Religion,” 109-128; Lecker, “Idol Worship in Pre-Islamic Medina (Yathrib),” 129-144; Watt, “Belief in a ‘High God’ in Pre-Islamic Mecca’,” 307-312, all of which are published in Peters, The Arabs.

[35]. Hoyland, Arabs, 139.

[36]. Ibid.

[37]. Hoyland, Arabs, 141-2.

[38]. Hoyland, Arabs, 163.

[39]. Hoyland, Arabs, 140.

[40]. O’Leary, Arabia, 194.

[41]. Hoyland, Arabs, 159. O’Leary also mentions Manat in an al-Hijr inscription but it is unclear to me whether it is a different inscription or the one that Hoyland also cites. O’Leary in turn cites Cooke, A. B., Textbook of North Semitic Inscriptions, (Oxford, 1903).

[42]. Ibid.

[43]. O’Leary, Arabia, 195.

[44]. Hoyland, Arabs, 166.

[45]. Hoyland, Arabs, 164.

[46]. Hoyland, Arabs, 165.

[47]. O’Leary, Arabia, 196.

[48]. Ali, The Holy Qur’an, 271 note 794 (commentary for verse 5:90), citing Renan, History of Israel, Chapter IV, and Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum, Part I, 154, states that “illustrations nos. 123 and 123 bis are Phoenician columns of that kind, found in Malta.”

[49]. Stewart, “Mysterious letters,” 324 in Reynolds, New Perspectives.

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