Religion in Muhammad’s Time

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Temple of Baal-Shamin in Palmyra, Syria
Muhammad lived in Mecca in the 6th and 7th centuries at a time when the city was establishing itself as a trading center. Most Arabs were pagans who worshiped tribal deities. They had no sacred book or central religious figure. Many people were aware of Christianity and Judaism and belief in one God. There were Jewish, Zoroastrian and Christian communities in Arabia and Muhammad reportedly knew of but had not read the Bible or the Torah.

Mecca was major religious center long before Islam. It was the site of a great annual fair and pilgrimage to the Kaaba, a highly profitable event. It brought worshipers of the different gods from all over the Near East, along with their money and their business interests.

Members of desert tribes went on pilgrimages to Mecca just like today's Muslims do. "In the 'Days of Ignorance' before Islam," the Qur’an reads, "regularly tribesmen come from all over Arabia to pay homage to the pantheon." They paid a fee to see the Kaaba, a great shrine officially dedicated to the Nabatean deity Hubal and venerated as the shrine for the high God Allah.

Religion Beliefs in Muhammad’s Time

Arabs worshiped a Zeus-like god named Allah that was superior to all others. Many of their most respected religious leaders were described as “hanifs” of descendants of Abraham. There was supposedly a great deal of religious discontent in Arabia at the time Muhammad was born, with Jews and Christians taunting Arabs for being backward and left out of God’s divine plan.

John L. Esposito wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: Religion in Arabia at the time of Muhammad was predominantly polytheistic. Various gods and goddesses who were feared, not loved, served as protectors of the many tribes. These gods were the objects of cultic rituals and supplication at local shrines, reflecting the tribal nature and social structure of society. Mecca was a rising commercial and religious center that housed the Kaaba, a cube-shaped structure that contained representations of approximately 360 different tribal gods and goddesses. At the head of the shrine's pantheon was the supreme god, Allah, who was seen as the creator and sustainer of life and the universe but who was remote from everyday concerns. [Source: John L. Esposito “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s,]

In the pre-Islamic period, pagan Arabs believed that Allah was the strongest of all the Gods and intermediaries, some linked to Allah, linked the gods with people.. According to the “Encyclopaedia Judaica”: In the Muslim tradition, this is called "associationism" (shirk), the belief that Allah has associates (shurakaʾ) in His divinity. These associates were believed to have an essential mediatory role between human beings and Allah. Muslim tradition maintains, nevertheless, that pre-Islamic Arabs understood that Allah was more powerful than all other gods and in times of extreme danger they placed their trust in Him alone, becoming, in a manner of speaking, "temporary monotheists" (cf. Koran 29:65–66, 31:22; Izutsu, God and Man, 102–103). [Source: Haïm Z’ew Hirschberg, “Encyclopaedia Judaica”, 2000,]

Pagan Religion in Muhammad’s Time

Patricia Crone wrote in “Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam”: “In religious terms, the Meccans are depicted as zealots on behalf of their pagan shrine as well as devotees of a string of other deities by whom they swore, after whom they named their children, and whom they took with them in battle against the Muslims. Watt interprets the violations of the haram during the ars of Fijar as "probably a sign of declining belief." But obviously ho]y places and months were violated from time to time: Muhammad himelf is supposed to have violated a holy month without having lost belief in it and if the Meccans had come to regard such violations as unobjectionable, they would hardly have referred to the wars in question as huru-b al-ija-r, "the sinful wars. “[Source: Patricia Crone, “Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam,” Princeton University Press. 1987. Beginning with pg. 231 |-|]

5th century Christain image from the Catacombs of Domitilla

“The fact that the Meccans carried their pagan deities with them into battle does not mean that "the remnants of pagan belief in Arabia were now at the the level of magic'' we are hardly to take it that the remnants of Islam were similarly at the level of magic by the time of the battle of Siffin, in which the soldiers are said to have carried Qur'ans with them; or that Christians who wear crosses are mere fetishists. Watt concedes that "in view of the opposition to Muhammad at Mecca it is conceivable that some small groups there — perhaps those specially concerned with certain religious ceremonies — had a slightly higher degree of belief." But a slightly higher degree of belief among small groups with possibly special functions scarcely provides an adequate explanation for the magnitude of this opposition. |-|

“The basic point to note here is that tribal gods were ultimate sources of phenomena observable in this world, not ultimate truths regarding the nature and meaning of life. More precisely, they were ultimate sources of all those phenomena that are of great importance in human society, but beyond direct human control: rain, fertility, disease, the knowledge of soothsayers. the nature of social roups, and so forth. They were worshipped for the practical services they could render in respect of these phenomena. As Wellhausen noted, they differed from more spirits only in that they had names and cults devoted to them; without a name a deity could not be invoked and manipulated, and he very object of the cult was to make the deity exercise its power on behalf of its devotees. "Ilaha, regard the tribe of Rubat (with benevolence)," as a third-century inscription says. This being so, tribal gods neither required nor received emotional commitment, love, or loyalty from their devotees. Thus a famous story informs us that "in the days of paganism Banu Han-lfa had a deity made of dates mixed with clarified butter. They worshipped it for a long time. Then they were hit by a famine, so they ate it.'' |-|

“In much the same pragmatic spirit a modern Bedouin vowed half of whatever he might shoot to God. Having shot some game, he ate half, left the other half for God and departed; but feeling hungry still, he crept back and successfully stole God's part, and ate it, boasting that "God was unable to keep his share, I have eaten his half as well as mine.'' Now if hunger could make a tribesman eat or cheat his god without remorse, then it is obvious that practical needs could likewise make him renounce or exchange this god for another without compunction. "We came to Sa'd so that he might get us together, but Sa'd dispersed us; so we have nothing to do with Sa'd," as a pre-Islamic tribesman is supposed to have said in disgust when his idol scared his camels away. |-|

Idolatry in Muhammad’s Time

By the late A.D. 6th century, the religion of Mecca revolved around idolatry, or the worship of physical objects, such as statues, as if they were gods. These idols were kept in special houses or temples called shrines. The most famous of Mecca's shrines was the Kaʾaba, which at that time housed idols dedicated to the gods of the city. [Source: John L. Esposito “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s,]

The Kaaba was surrounded by 360 idols (likely one for each day of the year) and included an image of Uzza (goddess of the morning star and the Arabian version of Aphrodite), Awf, the Great Bird and representations of celestial gods for the moon, sun and morning star from ancient Sheba.

As Mecca was an important stop on the east-west caravan trade route, the Meccans had a financial interest in maintaining this idolatry, as it was a way of getting money from the wealthy merchants and traders who passed through the city. Muhammad, frowned upon idolatry. Even though as a member of one of the Mecca’s most prominent families he had a vested interest in the idol trade he chose instead to condemn it and in the process launched a movement that would become one of the world's major monotheistic religions.

Map of Arabia 600 AD

Christians and Jews in Muhammad’s Time

In the Arabian Peninsula during Muhammad’s time there were Jewish and Christian communities. The Jews lived in the northern city of Khaybar and in Medina where the Prophet Muhammad was active from 622 A.D. until his death ten years later. The Christians inhabited the town of Najran and also lived elsewhere: the Christian tribe of Taghlib lived first in the Najd region of the Peninsula and later on the lower Euphrates. Small Zoroastrian communities probably existed in the eastern part of the Peninsula. [Source: Haïm Z’ew Hirschberg, “Encyclopaedia Judaica”, 2000,]

Maxime Rodinson wrote in “Muhammad”: ““There can be no doubt that in Arabia, too, these events made a great impression. Among the Jews and the various Christian sects, propaganda was rife. The social conditions which favoured its growth have already been described. Anyone in Mecca who was interested could easily find Jews and Christians who were only too ready to explain the basic tenets of their faith. In the case of the Christians it was unfortunate that they knew very little about their own religion. They were for the most part poor folk - traders, butchers, smiths, blood-cuppers, pedlars, wine-sellers, adventurers and slaves. They had no organized community, no priests or churches. They belonged to different sects, each convinced that the rest were heretics. They were certainly none too well up in theology. Their religion was the popular faith of simple people. They probably had a few prayers, and were certainly acquainted, in somewhat garbled versions, with the beautiful stories of the Old and New Testaments. The Jews, on the other hand, whose activities as agricultural settlers have already been noted, were numerous and well organized throughout Arabia. But their communities were tightly knit and closed. [Source: Maxime Rodinson (1915-2004), “Muhammad,” Pantheon Books, 1980, Beginning with pp. 38 ^\^]

“In Mecca - where people suffered from their commercial competition and feared the potential power of such busy and energetic bodies, and where they wondered at their curious habits, such as their reluctance to eat such foods as camel-hump lard, which everyone else liked, and mocked their clumsy Arabic, full of words culled from Hebrew or Aramaic - Jews seem to have been comparatively rare. Even so, they too were not averse to recounting, for the benefit of curious idolaters, the biblical tales we find in the Talmuds and the whole body of Midrashic works, which had been expanded and embellished by writers of Hellenistic and Roman times. Some of them seem to have had the idea of bringing the revelation and its sequels within the reach of Arab hearers by giving some events an Arabian setting, or by giving a Jewish angle to popular Arab tales. ^\^

“Both Jews and Christians despised the Arabs, regarding them as some kind of savages who did not even possess an organized Church like civilized people. It may have been pride that made the Arabs adopt the name of hanif ('pagan' or 'infidel') put upon them by their 'civilized' neighbours. They were infidels, and as infidels they sought God. Many of them were actuated by a certain spirit of revolt against the pretensions of the other nations who humiliated them at every turn. On a political plane, too, as we have seen, the Byzantine emperor Maurice had demolished the Arab phylarchy of the Ghassanids. Across the border, Khusro Abharwez had grown suspicious of his Arab vassal in Hira, Nu'man III, a Christian famous in Arab poetry, and in 602 or thereabouts he had him imprisoned and put to death. The crown taken from the Lakhmid family was bestowed on a man chosen from a remote tribe with no tradition of government, with, in addition, a Persian inspector to keep a close eye on him. However, the new 'king' of Hira promptly sent word to the shaikh of the Arab tribe of Bakr, which was also an auxiliary of the Persians, to ask for money, weapons and a thousand shields which had been left with him by Nu'man before his imprisonment. The Arab chief refused. Khusro sent a large army against him, made up of Arab auxiliaries with a thousand Persian horse. The battle which took place near the well of Dhu Qar, not far from what was later to be Kufa, resulted in the rout of the Persians, who lost both their generals, and of their Arab allies. On learning the news at Mecca Muhammad was said to have exclaimed: 'This is the first time the Arabs have avenged themselves on the Persians.' It was not to be the last. ^\^

Influence of Judaism and Christianity in Muhammad’s Time

Iranian Jews

Islam developed in the context of Jewish and Christian religious communities being nearby and at least some part of Muslim belief and ritual can be understood in relationship to this circumstance. Maxime Rodinson wrote in “Muhammad”: “We have irrefutable evidence from the text of the Qur’an itself that Muhammad was accused of listening to men who spoke a foreign language (Qur’an xvi, 105) and who told 'legends about the ancients' (Qur’an xxv, 5). These were certainly stories that he listened to most carefully. By their light he gradually pieced together a picture of the world and its history. Jews and Christians told him about the same God, Allah, 'the Divine One', who was also worshipped in Arabia alongside other gods. He it was who had created heaven and earth; to him were due the wonders of nature, such amazing phenomena as storms, lightning and rain. His were the miracle of the human body, the mysteries of animal reproduction, the secrets of the vegetable kingdom. He would resurrect the bodies of men after death and be sovereign judge of all mortals, rewarding them according to the manner of their lives on earth, either with the delights of a celestial garden or the sufferings of a place of torment. In this way the mysteries of the world were resolved around us, and its injustices set right. This vision of the world was clearly superior, both intellectually and morally, to that of the pagan Arabs in which dozens of minor gods contended capriciously, yet without decisive influence upon the decrees of Allah or Fate, and, above all, where Justice did not emerge triumphantly from all this universal anarchy. [Source: Maxime Rodinson (1915-2004), “Muhammad,” Pantheon Books, 1980, Beginning with pp. 38 ^\^]

“Moreover, Allah had thought to make himself known to men and to make known his will. Several times he had sent men, the prophets, to expound his revelation to his chosen peoples. Already Adam had received such a message, and after him the patriarchs listed by the Hebrews - not all of whom were, strictly speaking, Jews, as the Christians did not fail to point out: Noah, the ancestor of all living men, Abraham, who, according to the accepted explanation of the story of Ishmael and Agar, was the ancestor not only of the Jews but also of the Saracens (hence the name of Agarenians, by which they are designated in the writings of the period). Jacob, Joseph and above all Moses had all been charged with messages for Israel. The great prophets had made little impression on the popular imagination, but it did retain from Jewish sacred history the kinds of things simple folk would remember: David overcoming Goliath, the wisdom of Solomon, Lot disputing with the Sodomites, Jonah and the whale, Elijah contending with the prophets of Baal, Job on his dungheap . . . ^\^

“The Christians, too, spoke of Jesus, whom they believed was the son of God and a god himself, and of other highly involved and, to unsophisticated minds, incomprehensible matters. In addition, they argued furiously among themselves as to the divine and human natures of the Messiah, even going to the point of waging war over it. Yet Jesus too had been charged with Good News, a Gospel for mankind. He was very like the prophets; he had associated himself with them and had been regarded as such. He was, to be sure, a highly remarkable prophet, a most superior prophet, when one thought of all the delightful and fascinating stories that were told about his mother, Mary (and wasn't there a virgin Mary who sang hymns of praise in the story of Moses ? Surely she would be the same ?), and of his miraculous birth. Why reject such a good story, as the Jews did? If it was hard to believe that he was the son of God, without falling back into the Arabic polytheism which was just what one was trying to get away from, or plunging into incomprehensible theological arguments on nature, person, essence and hypostasis, could one not simply look on him as one of the prophets, the greatest and most wonderful of them all?

ruins of the Nestorian Christian Jubail Church in Saudi Arabia

“Arabs like Muhammad heard these stories, and reflected upon them. Jews and Christians were sustained by worldwide empires and belonged to rich and powerful organizations. Their claims rested on sacred books sent from heaven in ancient times, revered for their antiquity, their worth proven by miracles. They knew the secrets of Allah, they knew how he wished to be worshipped, what prayers and sacrifices, what fasts and processions he required if he was to look kindly on men. The Arabs did not know these secrets, the Arabs were set apart from Allah. They must learn from those who knew, from the People of the Book, and so try to come closer to Allah. ^\^

“There must have been some at least who thought in this way and yet did not become either Christians or Jews. We have seen the considerations of national pride which prevented many Arabs from accepting such a conversion. Perhaps they were already becoming known as ~anifs towards Allah - a word derived, most probably, from a misinterpretation of an Aramaic word meaning ' unbelievers '. This came to mean that they were seeking to draw closer to Allah without becoming enrolled in the ranks of the recognized religions. They may already have begun to observe that, by the Jews' and the Christians' own accounts, before the foundation of Judaism by Moses, men like Abraham (Ibrah;m in Arabic) whom they revered had held much the same attitude. The Bible itself said that Abraham was the ancestor of the Arabs through his son Ishmael. Surely it was natural therefore for the Arabs to follow their ancestor's example and worship Allah independently of the established religions ?

Did Meccan Trade Help the Rise of Islam?

Patricia Crone wrote in “Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam”: According to the scholar W. Montgomery Watt, “the Qurashi transition to a mercantile economy undermined the traditional order in Mecca, generating a social and moral malaise to which Muhammad's preaching was the response.” Meccan trade “had in effect united most of Arabia already, numerous tribes having acquired an interest in the conduct of Meccan trade as well as in the maintenance of the sanctuary; inasmuch as the interests of Mecca and Arabia at large had come to coincide, Muhammad's conquest of Mecca amounted to a conquest of most of Arabia, though the process of unification was only to be completed on the suppression of the ridda. But though it is true that the suppression of the ridda completed the process, this is not an entirely persuasive explanation. If the interests of Mecca and the Arabs at large had come to coincide, why did the Arabs fail to come to Mecca's assistance during its protracted struggle against Muhammad? Had they done so, Muhammad's statelet in Medina could have been nipped in the bud. Conversely, if they were happy to leave Mecca to its own fate, why should they have hastened to convert when it fell? In fact, the idea of Meccan unification of Arabia rests largely on Ibn al-Kalbl's tl-tradition, a storyteller's yarn. No doubt there was a sense of unity in Arabia, and this is an important point; but the unity was ethnic and cultural, not economic, and it owed nothing to Meccan trade. [Source: Patricia Crone, “Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam,” Princeton University Press. 1987. Beginning with pg. 231 |-| ]

scene from Manichean book

This hypothesis is clearly weakened by the discovery that the Meccan traded in humble products rather than luxury goods, but it is not necessarily invalidated thereby. Even so, however, there are other reasons why it should be discarded.“In the first place, it is unlikely that so brief a period of commercial the nineteenth century, for example, the town of Ha'il enjoyed a meteoric rise to commercial importance, comparable to that described for Mecca, without there being any indication of a correspondingly swift breakdown of traditional norms. Why should there have been? It takes considerably more than a century of commercial success to undermine the tribal order of a population that has been neither uprooted nor forced to adopt a different organization in connection with its economic activi- ties. Caravan trade is not capitalist in any real sense of that word, and Watt's vision of the Meccans as financiers dedicated to a ruthless pursuit of profit occasionaly suggests that he envisages them as having made a transition to the twentieth century . |-|

“In the second place, the evidence for a general malaise in Mecca is inadequate. According to Watt, the Qur'an testifies to an increasing awareness of the difference between rich and poor and a diminishing concern on the part of the rich for the poor and weak even among their own kin, orphans in particular being ill-treated; further, the Qur'anic stress on acts of generosity implies that the old ideal of generosity had broken down to the point that the conduct of the rich would have been looked upon as shameful in the desert, while at the same time the Qur'anic emphasis on man's dependence on God suggests that the Meccans had come to worship a new ideal, "the supereminence of wealth." But the Qur'an does not testify to an increasing awareness of social differentiation or distress: in the absence of pre-Qur'anic evidence on the subject, the book cannot be adduced as evidence of change.

Influence of Manichaeism in Muhammad’s Time

Maxime Rodinson wrote in “Muhammad”: “There was another belief very widespread throughout the east which added still more prophets to all these. Mani (2I6-277), a native of Babylonia, was the founder of a new religion, Manichaeism, which also had its days of glory and expansion. Mani claimed to be one of a series of messengers sent from God to the different peoples. In his own words: ‘Wisdom and good works have been brought in perfect succession from age to age by the messengers of God. They came in one age through the prophet called Buddha in the region of rndia, in another through Zaradusht [Zoroaster] in the land of Persia, and in yet another through Jesus in the lands of the west. After this came the revelation, and prophecy manifests itself in this latter age through myself, Mani, the messenger of the True God in the land of Babel.’ ^\^

“Mani inherited his ideas from those of various dissident Christian sects of Gnostic inspiration. According to the apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, the Apostles had divided the different regions of the world between them so that each should have its share in the Gospel. It seemed a flagrant injustice for one country to have escaped the teaching of the divine word. ^\^

“The Arabs who listened to all these tales would then recall the legendary stories of the former inhabitants of the peninsula, to whom were attributed the ancient monuments found there. They talked of vanished peoples, of 'Ad and Thamud and of the catastrophes which had struck them. Surely it was conceivable that these catastrophes might have come as a punishment for rejecting the prophets who were sent to them? In just this manner had the Flood punished those men who were deaf to Noah's warnings; and Jesus had threatened Jerusalem, ' that killeth the prophets', with a similar fate. ^\^

Christianity and Conversion

Patricia Crone wrote: “In much the same fashion a whole tribe abandoned its native gods for Christianity when its chief was cured of childlessness by a Christian monk. And the numerous other Arabs who found the medical facilities of the Christian God sufficiently impressive to adopt Him as their own are unlikely to have found the act of conversion any more difficult. A god was, after all, no more than a powerful being, and the point of serving him was that he could be expected to respond by using his power in favour of his servants. [Source: Patricia Crone, “Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam,” Princeton University Press. 1987. Beginning with pg. 231 |-|]

from the 6th century Rabbula Nestorian gospel

“A modern Tiyaha tribesman who was being swept away by a flood screamed in great rage at God, "I am a Tihi! I am a Tihi! God, if you don't believe it, look at the brand on my camels." Obviously, if a deity was so inefficient as to unleash floods against his own followers, or so weak as to be unable to protect them from famine, or to keep his own share of some game, or to work miraculous cures, then there was reason to eat, cheat, abuse, denounce, or abandon him. "What were two little words?" as Doughty was asked on one of the numerous occasions on which attempts were made to convert him, "pronounce them with us and it shall do thee no hurt." The idea that a believer might be personally committed to a deity, having vested the ultimate meaning of his life in it, did not occur to any of these men. Those who tried to convert Doughty were evidently thoroughly committed to Islam, but not to Islam as a saving truth of deep significance to them as individuals. Convert, settle, and we will give you palm trees, as they told Doughty; in other words, be one of ours. Allah was a source communal identity to them, not an answer to questions about the hereafter. |-|

“And the numerous people who tried to convert him or to penalize him for his Christianity on other occasions were likewise people who neither knew nor cared much about Islam as a saving truth, but who were outraged by his open denial of the God who validated their society. Now, just as tribal gods did not articulate great spiritual truths, so also they were not deeply entrenched in everyday life. Pre-Islamic (or for that matter pre-modern) Arabia was strikingly poor in mythology, ceremonial, ritual, and festivals. Religious life was reduced to periodic visits to holy places, stones, and trees, to sacrifice and consultation of diviners; most Bedouin managed with even less than that; and these practices were not closely associated with belief in specific gods. The great annual pilgrimage was apparently not conducted in the name of any one deity, and the remaining practices could effortlessly be switched from one deity to another; all survived into modern times, among Muslim and Christian tribesmen alike. Renouncing one god for another thus did not require any change in either outlook or behaviour, unless the new deity carried with him a behavioural programme anti- thetical to tribal norms.

End of the World Prophecies in Muhammad’s Time

Maxime Rodinson wrote in “Muhammad”: “However, both the Arabs' mortifications and this first flicker of revenge were only incidents in an overall picture rich in apocalyptic hues. The struggle between the two great powers was reaching its climax. The fall of the Second Rome might be the outcome. The Jews were taking their revenge on the Christians. Everywhere foreign war was accompanied by internal troubles. All this was known in Arabia. As so often in history, many people thought it heralded the end of the world. The Arabs themselves were humiliated abroad while wickedness triumphed at home. The rich and powerful oppressed the poor. The immemorial laws of tribal solidarity were broken daily. The weak and the orphan were sold into slavery. The old unwritten code of decency and morality was trampled underfoot. The people no longer even knew which gods to worship. Were not matters worse than in the days of Noah ? Was not all this a foretaste of another imminent catastropheperhaps even of the great Last Judgement described by Jews and Christians? [Source: Maxime Rodinson (1915-2004), “Muhammad,” Pantheon Books, 1980, Beginning with pp. 38 ^\^]

the Seven Churches of Asia mentioned in Revelation in the News Testament were somewhat near Arabia in eastern present-day Turkey

“The Jews had prophecies which forecast that the end of the world would come at the end of the fifth century, and then, when the date had to be put forward, in the year 53I. This new date too had to be deferred. But the great wars between empires, coupled with a fresh rising of the Jewish people, seemed sure signs. People said: 'When you see kingdoms fighting among themselves, then look for the footsteps of the Messiah. Know that it will be so because so it was in the days of Abraham. When nation made war against nation [Genesis xiv] then was redemption granted to Abraham.' There were a number of texts forecasting that a great war between the Romans and the Persians would come just before the end. One Targumic text ran:

“Rejoice, exult, O Constantinople, city of wicked Edom [another name for Rome and the Romans], built on the soil of Romania, possessed of the countless armies of the people of Edom! For thou also shalt be chastised. The Parthians [the Persians] shall ravage thee, the accursed cup comes to meet thee and thou shalt be made drunken and cast out. And then shall thy sin be expiated, O community of Zion ! Thou shalt be delivered by the Messiah thy King and by Elijah the priest. ^\^

“How could anyone doubt that these things were about to come to pass? Whenever such a situation occurs, there are always men ready to get up and proclaim that the catastrophe is imminent and to urge sinners to make their peace with God in readiness for the great day. There was no shortage of such prophets among the Arabs. Two names that crop up are those of a Khalid ibn Sinan, who was sent to the tribe of 'Abs, and a certain Hanzala ibn Safwan. One of the best known was Maslama of the tribe of the Banu Han;fa in the Yamama, in the very middle of Arabia. Muslim tradition has set out to ridicule him, attributing his success to conjuring tricks and putting the date of his emergence as a prophet very late. But information preserved by Arab historians contradicts this picture. Maslama preached in the name of a God he called Rahman, which means 'merciful'. We know now from inscriptions that this was the name given by the South Arabians to the God of the Jews and to God the Father in the Christian Trinity (following the Hebrew and Aramaic usage), using the form Rahmanan, that is, with the South Arabian definite article as a suffix, 'the Merciful'. We are told that Maslama himself was called by the name of Rahman, after his God. Now Muhammad was accused of obtaining his knowledge from someone called Rahman of the Yamama. Some sources also claim that Maslama began his work before Muhammad and later made him a proposal to divide authority between them. It would seem, therefore, that we have here evidence of another prophet who was also preaching in Arabia at this time, with ideas very similar to those of Muhammad. ^\^

“All this had its effect on him. Dissatisfied, he was on the verge of something which would give meaning to his life and guarantee his revenge on the rich and powerful. He was familiar with the basis of the new ideas brought by the Jews and Christians, and sympathized with the tendency towards monotheism; but he remained an Arab with no intention of cutting himself off from his Arab brethren. He was horrified by the evils which had resulted from the recent social changes and by the sorry state of prevailing moral standards. With his own vivid memories of his years of poverty and humiliation, he could feel for the sufferings endured by the victims of these changes. He was appalled by the great upheavals which were shaking the world, and wondered if they should not be seen as signs of the approaching end of time and the great heavenly reckoning. He saw prophets arise, claiming to be sent from God to summon men to repent. Pride, and a real sense of his own worth, combined to suggest to him that he too might have his part to play in the drama of the Last Days. His natural predisposition made him ready for the great cataclysm which would reveal God's ways to him. ^\^

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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