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It has been argued here that the Muslim accounts of pre-Islamic Arabian idolatrous religion are of questionable value as a source of information about the religion of the jāhiliyya, informed mainly by the traditional understanding that the mushrikūn of the Koran were idolatrous Arabs in and around Mecca and developing, in a way that reflected Muslim concerns, stories and ideas about idolatry that were common to monotheism in the Middle East. Once this image had become established, the tradition perpetuated it and interest in Arab idolatry became a standard ingredient in the tradition's concern with the Arabian background of Islam. An obvious question is: why would that traditional understanding of the mushrikūn and of the milieu in which the Koran was revealed come about? That question can probably only be answered speculatively.
It has already been suggested that one possibility is to explain it as a misreading of the koranic polemic. Perhaps the Muslim scholars, removed from the world in which the attacks against the mushrikūn had originated, were misled into understanding the polemic in a literal sense. Since the Koran insinuated that the mushrikūn were polytheists and idolators, it may have been deduced that the opponents thus attacked were in fact real polytheists and idolaters.
In the prologue to his Studying Classical Judaism, Jacob Neusner identifies what he sees as the most significant recent theoretical development in the study of the emergence of Judaism (and Christianity) during roughly the first six centuries AD. Dealing with the spread of such study from the seminary to the secular university, and with the involvement in it there of believing Jews and Christians of different sorts, he selects as most important a rejection of the simple ‘debunking’ which he thinks was characteristic of the early modern study of religion. ‘What scholars [in the second half of the twentieth century] have wanted to discover is not what lies the sources tell but what truth they convey – and what kind of truth’ (J. Neusner, Studying Classical Judaism. A Primer, Louisville, Ky. 1991, esp. 20–1).
It is clear that Neusner has in mind a diminution of the importance of questions such as ‘what really happened?’ and ‘do we believe what the sources tell us happened?’, questions which he describes as ‘centred upon issues of historical fact’. In their place he finds a growing interest in questions about the world-view that the religious texts and other sources convey: ‘how these documents bear meaning for those for whom they were written – and for those who now revere them’. Part of this process is a realisation that ‘scriptures are not true or false, our interpretations are what are true or false’.
The contrast Neusner sets up cannot be an absolute one.
In broad terms this work is concerned with the religious setting within which Islam emerged. More specifically, it asks what it means if we describe the primary message of the Koran as an attack upon polytheism and idolatry. It questions the commonly accepted view that the opponents attacked in the Koran as idolaters and polytheists (and frequently designated there by a variety of words and phrases connected with the Arabic word shirk) were idolaters and polytheists in a literal sense. This introduction, directed primarily at non-specialists, aims to elucidate these issues and to indicate some of the starting-points of the discussion. A reconsideration of the nature and target of the koranic polemic, together with a discussion of why and how it has been commonly accepted that it was directed at Arabs who worshipped idols and believed in a plurality of gods, will have some consequences for the way we envisage the origins of Islam.
Muslim tradition tells us that, insofar as it is a historically distinct form of monotheism, Islam arose in central western Arabia (the Ḥijāz) at the beginning of the seventh century AD as a result of a series of revelations sent by God to His Prophet, Muḥammad. The immediate background, the setting in which Muḥammad lived and proclaimed his message, is known generally in tradition as the jāhiliyya.
Along with the idea that Mecca was at the centre of a major international trade route, the religious situation of the Ḥijāzī Arabs around the beginning of the seventh century AD has frequently been used to help account for the emergence of Islam (identified with the activity of Muḥammad). Attention has focused on what might be called a strong element of monotheism in the predominantly pagan religion of the Arabs of central and western Arabia. However it has been accounted for, this has often been used in explanations of the appearance of Islam and of its success. The image has frequently been presented of a society in which monotheism was ‘in the air’ and of the Prophet as in some way building upon and directing the monotheistic ingredients already existing in his environment.
A discussion of some versions of this theory will allow us to examine their theoretical bases and the way in which they use the material available in Muslim tradition. In general it will be argued that questionable theoretical presuppositions have been combined with a less than critical approach to the information provided by Muslim tradition to produce explanations of the origins of Islam in Arabia which have been remarkably tenacious, repeated in general works and textbooks as if established facts.
It should be stressed that there is no intention here to judge the real strength of monotheism among the inhabitants of early seventh-century Arabia, or to say anything about the actual religious situation there.
The identification of the opponents attacked in the Koran for their shirk was made and documented in the Muslim traditional literature. In the commentaries on the Koran, the traditional lives of the Prophet, the collections of material describing conditions in the jāhiliyya and providing information about the idolatrous pre-Islamic Arab religion, and other such works, it is constantly made clear that the koranic mushrikūn were Arab polytheists and worshippers of idols in the Ḥijāz at the time of Muḥammad. The idea was thus established that the Koran was addressed to a society in which idolatry and polytheism were a real presence, and that idea has generally been adopted from the traditional texts by modern scholarship. Some parts of the Koran explicitly address or refer to Jews and Christians, but it has generally been understood that its primary message – its insistence on absolute monotheism – has as its chief target idolatrous and polytheistic Arab contemporaries, townsmen and neighbours, of Muḥammad.
This chapter considers how far, if we simply had the Koran without the traditional material, we would be led construct an image of the opponents similar to that contained in the traditional texts. How far is it necessary or satisfactory to view the koranic mushrikūn as idolators in any real sense of that word?
That last phrase indicates a large part of the problem. It has already been remarked that polytheism and idolatry are not usually neutral descriptive terms but relative, value laden and subjective.
If the stories and themes of Islamic literature regarding the idols of the pre-Islamic Arabs can frequently be understood as variants of those found in monotheist writings more generally, it is nevetheless possible that some, even much, of the detail – the names of the gods, of the tribes associated with them, of the ‘priestly’ families, of geographical localities, etc. – reflects historical realities to some extent. The nature of that reality and of its reflexion in the literature would still need to be clarified, but it might be argued that at least the literature provides a point from which historical reconstruction could begin.
This chapter considers how far the traditional Muslim material on the idols of the Arabs is usable as a source for the facts of pre-Islamic Arab religion. We will be concerned especially with information at the most basic level, such things as names and geographical locations. The discussion does not aim to be exhaustive and is concerned with general problems and characteristics of the material rather than with collecting all the available evidence about particular gods or idols named in the tradition. There already exist several works to which readers seeking quite comprehensive collections of the evidence pertaining to particular gods, idols or sanctuaries may refer. Attention is focused here on features of the evidence, not on reaching any conclusions about the particular ‘gods’ or other alleged objects of worship.
We have seen that the attacks made in the Koran against those opponents who are accused there of practising shirk do not sit easily with their portrayal in Muslim tradition as adherents of crude polytheism and idolatry. Although the Koran often imputes idolatry and polytheism to the mushrikūn, it does not do so consistently and, from the limited indications the Koran provides about their beliefs and practices, we are hardly entitled to conclude that they were polytheists or idolaters in any sense that would be accepted outside the sphere of polemic between people regarding themselves as monotheists.
It will now be shown how the accusation of shirk in Islam echoes that of idolatry in forms of monotheism that use vocabulary derived from the Greek eidōlolatreia. Just as idolatry is frequently a charge made against individuals or groups who, by their own lights, are committed monotheists, so too in Islam the accusation of shirk is a term often used in polemic directed against people who would describe themselves as fully monotheistic and, frequently, as Muslims.
Since that is so, why has it been generally accepted that the mushrikūn of the Koran were polytheists and idolaters in a literal sense? The answer to that question is, of course, ‘because Muslim tradition tells us that they were’.
Why and under what circumstances did the religion of Islam emerge in a remote part of Arabia at the beginning of the seventh century? Traditional scholarship maintains that Islam developed in opposition to the idolatrous and polytheistic religion of the Arabs of Mecca and the surrounding regions. In this study of pre-Islamic Arabian religion, G. R. Hawting adopts a comparative religious perspective to suggest an alternative view. By examining the various bodies of evidence which survive from this period, the Koran and the vast resources of the Islamic tradition, the author argues that in fact Islam arose out of conflict with other monotheists whose beliefs and practices were judged to fall short of true monotheism and were, in consequence, attacked polemically as idolatry. The author is adept at unravelling the complexities of the source material, and students and scholars will find his argument both engaging and persuasive.
Central to the traditional image of the idolatry of the jāhiliyya are the three deities or idols Allāt, al-'Uzzā and Manāt, said to have been viewed by the Meccan opponents of the Prophet as daughters of Allāh. Apart from the five gods of the people of Noah, and the more marginal Sirius, these are really the only names appearing in the Koran (53:19–20) which the tradition is able to identify as objects of worship by the mushrikūn. None of the many other names of jāhilī gods, idols or objects of worship that the tradition provides appears in the Koran.
The traditional material has references to these three entities in many reports about pre- and early Islam, and the Kitāb al-Aṣnām and other works give details about them, their locations, the tribes associated with their worship, and their destruction. In addition the names are attested outside Muslim tradition, in inscriptions and literature from north Arabia and places around the Mediterranean. It remains to be considered how far the relative prolixity of traditional material may result from speculative elaboration of the koranic reference, how far it reflects the prominence of the names in the ideas about pagan religion in the circles from which Islam emerged, and how far it indicates real knowledge about cults involving the three.
It is the Muslim tradition contained in biographies of the Prophet, commentaries on the Koran and other works that has created the understanding that the Koran originated among and was concerned to attack Arabs who were idolatrous and polytheistic in a full sense. It is true that discussions of pre-Islamic Arab religion take into account also the findings of archaeology and epigraphy in Arabia and the Middle East, as well as those few literary sources external to Muslim tradition that might have a bearing on the matter. But such evidence has been of secondary importance insofar as the religion of the jāhiliyya is concerned. The use of such sources in discussions of jāhilī religion has often depended on understandings derived in the first place from the Muslim tradition and has sometimes involved considerable and questionable speculation. The value of the evidence external to Muslim tradition, and the way that it has been used, will be considered further in chapters 5 and 6. The focus of this chapter is the character of the Muslim literary tradition about the idolatrous religion of the pre-Islamic Arabs.
In addition to the details about pre-Islamic Arab idolatry to be found in genres such as koranic commentary and biographies of the Prophet, there are works devoted entirely to compiling information about the gods, sanctuaries and idols of the pagan Arabs. The best known is the Kitāb al-Aṣnām (Book of Idols) attributed to Hishām b. Muḥammad al-Kalbī (d. 206/821).