Allah and the pagan environment
Allah was undoubtedly worshipped by heathen Arabs, but was not given pre-eminence as the only deity. That Allah was the deity of the Meccan Arabs and the protector of Mecca’s ancient temple the Ka’aba is made abundantly clear by Surah 105 of the Quran. According to this Surah, the Meccan temple, with its idols, was protected by Allah against the attack of an army led by an Abyssinian Christian. Calamity befell the attackers, and this surah celebrated Allah’s defence of His temple about A.D 570.
It is certain that Muhammad was brought up in a pagan environment, but its form of paganism is more obscure than that which prevailed in the South Arabian states, of which we posses many epigraphic documents. We only glean something about it from the polemic of the Quran, to which the Tradition adds some details which may or may not be trustworthy.
In Mecca paganism recognised a supreme being with minor deities as “associates.” In the South Arabian states the community had a god or protector of its own, and though a number of deities and other superhuman beings may have been revered, there is no suggestion of their subordination to a supreme god. To this form of theology there appears to be an allusion in one passage of the Quran, where the Meccans are represented as saying: “Has he made the gods one god? This is a wonderful thing; we never heard of this in the former system; it is nought but an invention.”
Much more frequently they are represented as acknowledging the supremacy of Allah. “When asked who is the Lord of the seven heavens and Lord of the great throne, they reply Allah. When asked in whose hand is the dominion over everything, who protects and against whom there is no protection, they reply Allah. When asked who created the heavens and the earth, they reply Allah.”
They are not charged with rejecting Allah, but with setting beside Him another god, of taking two gods, adopting gods from the earth, saying that there were gods with Him, taking gods beside Him (or in preference to Him). They are said to love their “equals”, i.e. partners, as much as they love Allah, whereas the believers love Allah more. The notion of two gods is rejected on the ground that were this the case, heaven and earth would have come into ruin. Had there been any god with Allah, each god would have gone off with his own creation, and one god would have got superiority over another. All this reasoning implies that the supremacy of Allah was recognised: the point in dispute was whether any other deities should or should not be recognised as well.
The character of the “associates,” subordinate or rival deities is not clear. At times they are said to be mere names, arbitrarily, invented, without authorisation; this would imply that they had no existence at all. In one passage they are said to be dead, not alive. Idols, i.e. figures of deities, whether in human or other form, are rarely mentioned: in one place indeed the believers are told to keep clear of the foulness of idols. The chief mention of them is the story of Abraham, who charges his people with worshipping them, which they admit to be their hereditary practice. He breaks them all up with the exception of a particularly large one, which he mockingly charged with the exploit. The charge, however, which the Hebrew prophets so often bring, that the gods of the Gentiles are wood and stone, the work of men’s hands, is scarcely found in the Quran and indeed, though the figures of men, beasts and birds are common amongst the remains of South Arabian antiquity, images of gods have not as yet been found.
On the other hand the objects of Meccan worship are at times credited with both existence and the possession of certain faculties. It is repeatedly asserted that on Resurrection Day they will be the enemies of their worshippers and deny that the latter had worshipped them. They are said to be “servants (of Allah) like yourselves”, though it is added that they have no feet, hands, eyes or ears. Indeed in one place we are told that “those whom they (the pagans) invoke seek to get nearer and nearer to Allah, hope for His mercy and fear punishment,” which implies that they are a superior order of beings. There is indeed some uncertainty as to what spiritual order these “servants” belong. At times they are identified with the jinn, are called the hosts of Iblis, and the “associators” are said to have taken the demons as allies in preference to Allah. These passages suggest masculine beings; but elsewhere we learn that “they only invoke females and only invoke a rebellious demon”. The view that these associates were female agrees with the taunt that they make the angels females, and suppose them to be Allah’s daughters. On the other hand it is asserted that the associates will be the fuel of Hell with their worshippers: had they been gods they would not have entered that region there for ever.
Probably these statements which cannot easily be reconciled are due to different accounts of these objects of worship given by the Meccan opponents as the controversy continued. In what is certainly an early surah three goddesses, known to us from other sources, al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat, are mentioned, clearly as the daughters of Allah: the Meccans are ridiculed for assigning Him daughters whereas they themselves have sons. This particular taunt cannot well be separated from that about the angels, whose existence, one would assume, had only been learned by the pagans from Muhammad. The deities worshipped, according to the Quran, by the people of Noah have masculine names: and those of whose cult we learn from epigraphic monuments are ordinarily so. Worship of the sun is attributed to the people of Saba, and that as well as worship of the moon is forbidden. Abraham experimented with worship of a star, of the moon, and the sun, but abandoned it when he found that they all set.
Each tribe had its god or patron from whom it expected everything. Hubal was inside the Ka’aba while many others surrounded it. There were also household representations who received homage in domestic rites. It is said that at the time of Muhammad there were 360 idols in Arabia.
The Quran itself tells us a great deal about the way in which the idolatrous Arabs thought about Allah. They objected to Muhammad’s teaching for although they knew of and worshipped Allah, they wished to retain their other deities also. The Arabs even went so far as to say that Allah physically begot the female angels (Al-Ikhlas 112:3, As-Saffat 37:149-153). Angelic beings were also regarded as “daughters of Allah’ (At-Tur 52:39, An-Nahl 16:57, Al-Isra 17:40, Az-Zukhruf 43:16)
Idols mentioned in the Quran
A number of the idols are mentioned in the Quran: Al-Jibt and At Taghut (An-Nisa 4:51) At-Taghut (Al Baqarrah 2:256, 257) In most modern translations the deities are translated in general terms as ‘false deities’ According to Jalalu’d-in they were was honoured by certain renegade Jews in order to please the Qurraish.
Then there was Al-Lat, Al-‘Uzza, Manat” (An-Najm 53:19, 20). Al-Lat, ‘the goddess’ was the chief idol of the Banu Thaqif at Taif, a little south of Mecca. It was a massive statue in the town. It appears to be the female form of Allah mentioned by pre-Islamic poets and was worshipped all over the ancient world. Al-’Uzza was a female deity of Banu Ghatafan. She has been identified with Venus ‘the mighty one’and was found in the valley of Nakhla. Shortly before the time of Muhammad, she was the most popular deity and was ‘more recent than either Al Lat or Manat’ (Kitab al-Asnam by Ibn al Kalbi). It was housed in a building with a grove of three thorn trees where people received oracular communications. She was worshipped by the Aus and Khazraj tribes in Yathrib. Manat a feminine deity was a large sacrificial stone and was worshipped by Banu Khzaa’ah and Banu Huzail. She has been identified with ‘Fortune’. Manat had its abode at Hudhail.
Others included Suwaa, Yaghus, Ya’uq, Nasr (Nuh 71:23) who were said to be originally persons of eminence in the time of Adam and after their deaths were worshipped in the form of idols. Suwaa’ was a female deity worshipped by Banu Hamdaan; Yaghus a lion shape worshipped by Banu Mazhij; Ya’uq a horse shape worshipped by Bani Muraad and Nasr an eagle shape worshipped by Himyaar.
There were other deities not mentioned in the Quran. It appears that the chief Meccan deity was Hubal, whose name is found in Nabataean inscriptions of north Arabia which pre-date Islam. A suggestion, which may be right, is that the Meccans when they spoke of their deity called him God, not Hubal. He was the chief of the minor deities in the Ka’aba having the image of man. His image stood over a well in the hollow, inside the Ka’aba. Pagan Arabs consulted Hubal by divination with arrows. He was brought originally from Syria. His name possibly derives from Baal. The Qurraish attributed the victory to Hubal when they defeated Muhammad at the Battle of Uhud. His image was destroyed by Muhammad when he took Mecca. Isaf was an idol on Mount as-Safaa and Na’ilah an image on Mount Al Marwah. They, with Satan and the Jinn, were worshipped along with Allah (Al-An’am 6:100-101)
The pagan Arabs used to set aside a proportion of their harvest and cattle for their chief deity Allah, and then other portions for the other deities associated with Allah (Al-Ana’am 6:136). Thy swore by Allah their strongest oaths (Al-Ana’am 6:109) and called out to Allah to protect them when they set sail or are in trouble but remained unthankful (Al-Ankabut 29:65, Al-An’am 6:63,64, Al-Isra 17:67), Ar-Rum 30:33, Az-Zumar 39:8)
The old Pagan religion
Muhammad, in attempting to develop a monotheistic system said, “The inspiration has come to me that your Allah is one Allah” (Al- Kahf 18:110). One reason why the pagans refused Muhammad’s monotheism was economic purposes for they received financial benefits at times of pilgrimage and of course prestige. The Quran itself bears out the fact that the old polytheism had no real hold as a religion, and that Allah was in a sense recognised as a supreme deity by the polytheists themselves. In all the opposition to Muhammad we scarcely meet a defence of the old religion which can be called an argument in its favour. The Quran is quite frank in recording the objections raised by opponents, but there is no reference to any defence of polytheism which could be said to rest on a conviction of its truth. It is inherently probable that the heathen themselves had some such idea of the relation of their special gods to a supreme deity. They will admit that Allah is the creator of the worlds. It seems clear that the Arabs had the idea of a supreme God, in a sense superior to their local deities, but only turned to in their times of stress.
Allah the Moon-god
Alfred Guilluame claims the moon god was called by many names one of which was Allah. Allah, the moon god married the sun god and produced three goddesses “the daughters of Allah”- Al-Lat, Al-Uzza and Manat. These five gods were viewed at the top of the pantheon of Arabian deities and were called “high gods”while the three daughters were viewed as intercessors between the people and Allah. In the 1950’s excavations at Hazor in Palestine excavated two idols of the moon-god, on his chest was the crescent moon.
Sumeria, the first literate civilisation, left thousands of clay tablets. This shows that the dominant religion through ancient Mesopotamia, the Assyrians, Babylonians and Akkadians was the moon-god. He was known by different names Nanna, Suen, and Asimbabber but the symbol of the crescent moon remained. The word Suen was transformed into Sin the favourite name for the Moon-god.
The Sabeans in Arabia held to the astral religion and used a Lunar calendar. Fasting began on the appearance of the moon crescent. as a centre of moon-god worship: they worshipped the moon-god who gave birth to three goddesses. The popularity of the moon-god waned elsewhere but Arabs continued with him being the chief deity of the 360 gods. Muhammad never had to give an explanation of who Allah was, and under his tutelage “the god” the Supreme Being became bereft of his wife, daughters and other deities thus instituting the statement ’There is no God but Allah.’