The Influence of Animism on Islam

Our purpose is to show how strong is the pagan element in Islam, how many doctrines and practices of popular Islam find their explanation only in a survival of the animism of Ancient Arabia or were incorporated from many heathen sources in the spread of the faith. It need not surprise us that a belief in demons and the old Arabian institutions persisted in spite of Islam. Rabbi Geiger showed that the warp and woof of the Quran was taken from Talmudic Judaism. The strength of Islam is its composite character. It is a religion of compromise, conservatism and of conquest.

What do we mean by animism? Animism is the belief that a great part if not all of the inanimate kingdom of nature as well as all animated beings, are endowed with reason, intelligence and volition identical with man. As a religion it denotes the worship of spirits as distinguished from that of gods. The study of Greek and old German religions exhibits the same animistic features. The essence of heathenism seems to be not the denial of God, but complete estrangement from Him and his place is taken by demons, which are feared and worshipped. In Islam even the stern monotheism of the Wahabi reformers was unable to eradicate the pagan superstitions of Islam because they are embedded in the Quran and were not altogether rejected by Muhammad himself, – much less by his companions.

With regard to the pagan practices prevalent in early Islam, Abu’l Fida calls attention to a number of observances which were perpetuated under the new system. He refers to the pilgrimage (Hajj) to the House (the Kaa‘ba) and the wearing of Ihram (the single garment worn by a pilgrim when running round the Kaa’ba); performing the Tawwaf, and running between the hills As Safa and Al Marwa; casting the stones at the devil in the valley of Mina. He further mentions other similar ancient Arabian practices which Islam has enjoined as religious customs, for instance ceremonial washings after certain kinds of defilement, parting the hair, the ritual observed in cleansing the teeth, and paring the nails.

The ancient customs were related to the principal idols of Arabia which were the following: ‘ Hobal was in the form of a man and came from Syria; he was the god of rain and had a high place of honour. Wadd was the god of the firmament. Suwah, in the form of a woman, was said to be from antediluvian times. Yaghuth had the shape of a lion. Ya’ook was in the form of a horse, and was worshipped in the Yemen. Nasr was the eagle god. El Uzza, identified by some scholars with Venus, was worshipped at times under the form of an acacia tree (c/f  tree-worship in folk-Islam). Allat was the chief idol of the tribe of Thakif at Taif, the tribe tried to compromise with Muhammad to accept Islam if he would not destroy their god for three years. The name appears to be the feminine form of Allah. Manat was a huge stone worshipped as an altar by several tribes. Duwar was a virgin’s idol and young women used to go around it in a procession. Isaf and Naila were idols that stood near Mecca on the hills of Safa and Mirwa; the visitation of these popular shrines is now a part of the Muslim pilgrimage. Habhab was a large stone on which camels were slaughtered.  In every Muslim land sacred-stones, sacred trees, etc abound. A religion is not born fully-grown any more than a man, and if on attaining a ripe maturity it has cast off the form of its youths past recognition, we cannot deny it its right to this transformation, as it is part and parcel of the scheme of nature.’

The pioneer preaching of Muhammad found a hearing more easily amongst the pagan Arabs because it did not bring something absolutely new with his doctrine of god but his idea of god correlated with existing conceptions. Suggested forms of contact with animism are implied in sneezing. Among Animists the soul tries to escape the body when it sneezes while yawning on the other hand is a good sign for breath comes in, perhaps for this reason Muslims everywhere ask forgiveness of God when they sneeze, but praise Him when they yawn. Stones are sacred because they contain spirits; trees are sacred for the same reason. Tree-worship, by hanging amulets on the tree to produce fertility or bring blessing is well known in the animistic world.

Animism has divested God of his omnipotence, his love, his holiness and righteousness and has put him out of all relations with man. The idea of god has become a mere decoration; his worship a caricature. Spirits inferior to men, whose very well-being is dependent on men’s moods, are feared instead of the Almighty; the rule of an exorable fate is substituted for the wise and good government of God. Islam rather than rejecting animism has been dragged down to its lowest levels in the idea of God with its inability to remove the fear of evil spirits. Islam being unable to root out the effects of animism offers a point of contact and contrast with the Christian. The fear of spirits can be met by the love of the Holy Spirit and the terror of death by the repose and confidence of the Christian. Jesus Christ is the Lord of the unseen world, especially the world of demons and angels. He is the sole channel of communication with the other world.


The Influence Of Animism on the Muslim Creed

No religion has ever made so much of its sacred book in a magical way as Islam. In popular Islam there is regular reference to magic, amulets, charms, talismans, magic squares, sacred trees but even in the shortest of all the monotheistic creeds, the Kalima we find that at least in three of the six articles of orthodox faith animism. “I believe in Allah, and his angels, and His books, and His prophets, and the Resurrection, and the Predestination of good and evil”. The doctrine of Allah includes the magical use of His name and attributes. The doctrine of angels includes not only demonology but jinn fear and worship. The belief in revelation has almost degenerated not only into bibliomancy and bibliolatry, i.e. the use of the Quran for magical and superstitious purposes. This is perhaps based on Judaism. We find that Jews used the Torah for protection purposes and in a magical way just as do the Muslims. When a person was dangerously ill the Pentateuch was opened, and the name which first met the eye was added to the patient’s name, in order to avert the evil destiny. Just as Muslims today use special names of God and special chapters for “cure-alls” so did the Jews of the Dispersion. The following verses in the original Hebrew are only a few examples of how they were used on amulets.

Genesis 1:1 to make oneself invisible (S.Z 32a)/ Genesis 1:1-5 (The last letters only.) To confuse a persons mind/ Genesis 21:1 to lighten child-birth (M.V. 59)/ Genesis 25:14 against the crying of a child (M.V. 64)/  Exodus 21:7 for protection against a fierce dog/ Exodus 15:2 to shorten one’s way (M.V 24)/ Exodus 33:23 against witchcraft (M.V. 41)/ Numbers 11:12 against the evil eye (M.V 41)/ Deuteronomy 6:4-9 against fever (M.V.50)/ Dueteronomy 23:4 on taking children to school (S.Z. 30b). A still larger number of verses were taken from the Psalms for similar purposes and used as amulets. Most common however, was the use of the names of God and of angels.


a) “I believe in Allah, and his angels and his books”

“There is no god but Allah” – yet his books, his names, his very attributes are used as amulets against demon and jinn. Every Christian missionary knows that the Quran itself has the power of a fetish in popular Islam. Not only is the book eternal in its origin and used for mystic purposes, but only those who are ritually pure may touch it. Certain chapters are of special value against evil spirits. It is related in Tradition, e.g. “whosoever reads the 105th chapter and the 94th chapter of the Quran at morning prayers will never suffer pain in his teeth”! At funerals they always read the chapter “Y.S”; and then, in fear of jinn and spirits, the chapter of the Jinn. One has only to read this last chapter with the commentaries on it to see how large a place the doctrine occupies in popular Islam. The cure for a headache is said to be the 13th verse of the chapter called “Al-Ana’am” or the “Cattle,” which reads “His is whosoever dwells in the night or in the day: he both hears and knows.” Against robbers at night a verse of the chapter called “Repentance” is read. No religion has ever made so much of its sacred book in a magical way as Islam.

Islam teaches the Quran was originally written by God himself on the Preserved Tablet, then it was brought down in sheets (suhuf) to the lowest heaven on the night of Al Qadr where they were preserved in a place called the House of Majesty (Beit-ul-’Izza). From here they were brought to Muhammad as required by circumstances in revelations. In all Muslim lands on the occasions of birth, death or marriage the Quran is used as a charm. It is put near the head of the dying, and on the head of a new-born infant for good-luck.


b) ‘I believe in Allah, and his angels, and his books, and his prophets,

The prophets, especially Solomon and Muhammad, had relations with demons and jinn.


c) ‘I believe in Allah, and his angels, and his books and his prophets, and the Resurrection, and the Predestination of good and evil’

According to the Quran and Tradition man is created with a double ego or two souls (the Qarina) just as in pagan mythology. The belief in how the spirit leaves the body; the benefit of speedy burial; the questioning by the two angels of the tomb are paralleled in Animism. The whole eschatology of Islam is a strange mixture of Judaism, Christianity and Animism. The doctrine of the soul in Islam is influenced by Animistic ideas.

Al Ghazali says: “When God Almighty let his hands pass over the back of Adam and gathered men into his two hands, he placed some of them in his right hand and others in his left; then he opened both his hands before Adam, and Adam looked at them and saw them like imperceptible atoms. Then God said: ‘These are destined for Paradise and these are destined for hell-fire,’ He then asked them: ‘Am I not your Lord?’ and they replied: ‘Certainly, we testify that thou art our Lord.’ God then asked Adam and the angels to be witnesses …..….… After this God replaced them into the loins of Adam. They were at that time purely spiritual beings without bodies. He then caused them to die, but gathered them and kept them in a receptacle near to his throne. When the germ of a new being is placed in the womb of the mother, it remains there till its body is sufficiently developed; the soul in the same sense is then dead, yet God Almighty breathes into it the spirit, he restores to it its most precious part, of which it has been deprived while preserved in the receptacle near the throne. This is the first death and a second life. Then God places man in this world till he has reached the term fixed for him.” In this teaching of the greatest Muslim theologian we have the gist of the teaching as found in the Quran and Tradition. The Quran in many places gives a minute description of the process of death while the Commentaries based on sayings of Muhammad leave no doubt of the crass materialistic ideas he held and perpetuated. (See e.g., Suras 75; 81:1-19; 82; 83:4-20; 84:1-19; and of a later period 22:1-7).

Death takes place by means of a poisonous lance which is held by Izra’il, the angel of death, who pierces the soul and detaches it from the body. (Surah 32:11). The teaching that the Angel of Death takes care of the souls of animals as well as of men’s souls is clearly animistic. Immediately after burial two large black angels visit the dead in their graves. They are called Munkar and Nakir. The spirit of the believer, according to some authorities, is taken through the seven Heavens into the presence of God and then returns to the grave to re-enter the body and be examined. Many curious traditions are current regarding the souls of the martyrs and their residence in the crops of green birds one commentator says the birds are transparent, i.e. ethereal. Others say that it signifies figuratively the speed with which the souls of the martyrs can travel about.

The matter of predestination is seen in the special sanctity that is given to the night of the middle of Sha’ban, known as Lailat nusf Sha‘ban. It is supposed that on that particular night Allah determines the fate of mortals during the forth-coming year. The most popular idea is that there is a celestial tree of symbolic importance, on which every human being has a leaf to represent him. This tree is shaken during the night preceding the 15th of Sha’ban, causing the leaves of all those who are to die during the coming year to fall.


Copyright © 2011 “Message 4 Muslims” All rights reserved.

Leave a Reply