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Religion in Pre-Islamic Arabia
A Brief Word on Prophets and Religion
Prophets do not create religions. Because all religions are bound to the social, spiritual, and cultural landscapes from which they arose and in which they developed, prophets must be understood as reformers who redefine and reinterpret the existing beliefs and practices of their communities. Indeed, it is most often the prophet's successors who take upon themselves the responsibility of fashioning their master's words and deeds into unified, easily comprehensible religious systems.
Like so many prophets before him, the Prophet Muhammad never claimed to have invented a new religion. On the contrary, by Muhammad's own admission, his message was an attempt to reform the existing religious beliefs and cultural practices of pre-Islamic Arabia so as to bring the God of the Jews and Christians to the Arab peoples. "[God] has established for you [the Arabs] the same religion enjoined on Noah, on Abraham, on Moses, and on Jesus," the Quran says (42:13). It should not be surprising, therefore, that Muhammad would have been influenced as a young man by the religious landscape of pre-Islamic Arabia. As unique and divinely inspired as the Islamic movement may have been, its origins are undoubtedly linked to the multiethnic, multireligious society that fed the Prophet's imagination as a young man and allowed him to craft his revolutionary message in a language that would have been easily recognizable to the pagan Arabs he was so desperately trying to reach. For whatever else Muhammad may have been, he was, without question, a man of his time. And so, to truly understand the nature and meaning of Muhammad's message, we must travel back in time to that intriguing yet ill-defined era of paganism that Muslims refer to as the Jahiliyyah--"the Time of Ignorance."
The Time of Ignorance: Arabia, the Sixth Century C.E.
In the arid, desolate basin of Mecca, surrounded on all sides by the bare mountains of the Arabian desert, stands a small, nondescript sanctuary that the ancient Arabs refer to as the Ka'ba: the Cube. The Ka'ba is a squat, roofless structure made of unmortared stones and sunk into a valley of sand. Its four walls--so low a young goat could leap over them--are swathed in strips of heavy cloth. At its base, two small doors are chiseled into the gray stone, allowing entry into the inner sanctum. It is here, inside the cramped interior of the sanctuary, that the gods of pre-Islamic Arabia reside.
In all, there are said to be three hundred sixty idols housed in and around the Ka'ba, representing every god recognized in the Arabian Peninsula: from the Syrian god Hubal and the powerful Egyptian goddess Isis to the Christian god Jesus and his holy mother, Mary. During the holy months, pilgrims from all over the Peninsula make their way to this barren land to visit their tribal deities. They sing songs of worship and dance in front of the gods; they make sacrifices and pray for health. Then, in a remarkable ritual--the origins of which are a mystery--the pilgrims gather as a group and rotate around the Ka'ba seven times, some pausing to kiss each corner of the sanctuary before being captured and swept away again by the current of bodies.
The pagan Arabs gathered around the Ka'ba believe their sanctuary to have been founded by Adam, the first man. They believe that Adam's original edifice was destroyed by the Great Flood, then rebuilt by Noah. They believe that after Noah, the Ka'ba was forgotten for centuries until Abraham rediscovered it while visiting his firstborn son, Ismail, and his concubine, Hagar, both of whom had been banished to this wilderness at the behest of Abraham's wife, Sarah. And they believe it was at this very spot that Abraham nearly sacrificed Ismail before being stopped by the promise that, like his younger brother, Isaac, Ismail would sire a great nation, the descendants of whom now spin over the sandy Meccan valley like a desert whirlwind.
Of course, these are just stories intended to convey what the Ka'ba means, not where it came from. The truth is that no one knows who built the Ka'ba, or how long it has been here. It is likely that the sanctuary was not even the original reason for the sanctity of this place.
It is also possible that the original sanctuary held cosmological significance for the ancient Arabs. Many of the idols in the Ka'ba were associated with the planets and stars; additionally, the legend that they totaled three hundred sixty in number suggests astral connotations. The pilgrims' seven "turnings" around the Ka'ba may have been intended to mimic the motion of the heavenly bodies. It was, after all, a common belief among ancient peoples that their temples and sanctuaries were terrestrial replicas of the cosmic mountain from which creation sprang. The Ka'ba, like the Pyramids in Egypt or the Temple in Jerusalem, may have been constructed as an axis mundi: a sacred space around which the universe revolves, the link between the earth and the solid dome of heaven.
Alas, as with so many things about the Ka'ba, its origins are mere speculation. The only thing scholars can say with any certainty is that by the sixth century c.e., this small sanctuary made of mud and stone had become the center of religious life in pre-Islamic Arabia: the time known as Jahiliyyah.
The Pagan Arabs
Traditionally, the Jahiliyyah has been defined by Muslims as an era of moral depravity and religious discord: a time when the sons of Ismail had obscured belief in the one true God and plunged the Arabian Peninsula into the darkness of idolatry. But then, like the rising of the dawn, the Prophet Muhammad emerged in Mecca at the beginning of the seventh century, preaching a message of absolute monotheism and uncompromising morality. Through the revelations he received from God, Muhammad put an end to the paganism of the Arabs and replaced the Time of Ignorance with the universal religion of Islam.