What was the religion of the pre-Islam Ishmaelites?

Ever open one of those Threads where it’s just obvious that the OP just has no idea what he’s talking about???

I have a very vague, incomplete, and possibly incorrect understanding of Islam tracing it’s monotheism back to Abraham through Ishmael rather than through Isaac.

I gather that where Jews saw Isaac as Abraham’s heir the Ismaelites saw Ishmael as Abraham’s heir. And I know that the story of God testing Abraham by demanding sacrifice of his son is told two different ways- the son was Isaac / the son was Ishmael.

Please correct any of the above statements which may be wrong. Now for the questions:

Were the first Muslims Ishmaelites?

Was Muhammad an Ishmaelite?

What was the religion of the pre-Islam Ishmaelites?

If the Ishmaelites and the Jews diverged as early on as Ishmael and Isaac, why do Muslims recognize the later Jewish Patriarchs and Prophets?

Were all Ishmaelites eventually enveloped by Islam, or is there a non-Muslim Ishmaelite monotheism alive today?


The Isaac/Ishmael thing is, I believe, more of something that was attached to the Jewish and Islamists later. Certainly it may be talking about an actual link between the two peoples, but if so I would imagine that the split came before the Jews themselves had become monotheistic. Recall that the start of the Bible doesn’t say that there aren’t other gods, just that there is only one who made the world and who should be worshipped.

The Ishmaelites were probably doing as most did at the time and observing a certain pantheon, and particularly local patron gods for each town.

I admit to just talking based on assumptions and Johanna’s enigmatic answer which seems to agree with what I believed to be the answer. All feel free to run over it as appropriate. :slight_smile:

The tradition that there was an Abraham and an Ishmael as well as who were the descendants of Ishmael comes from the Hebrew bible. The Arabs probably did not consider themselves to be descended from Ishmael or Abraham until Judaism and Christianity became influential in Arabia.

:slight_smile: That’s one of those answers that doesn’t answer, isn’t it?

I am reading a very informative book which covered this topic in great detail by Karen Armstrong titled ‘A History of God’ (Ballentine Books. 1993, NYTimes Bestseller).

The Quraysh tribe (of which Mohammad and his fmaily were members) evolved on ideology called muruwah which “fulfilled many of the functions of religion.” Per the book, the Arabs had no time for religion and there were many pagan dieties they worshipped at shrines.

Looking half a chapter ahead, the book mentions Mohammad learned about the story of Ishmeal from the Jews in Medina - that Abraham left Ishmael (and Hagar) in the vealley of Mecca, where he became father of the Arabs (which is why Muslims face Mecca when they pray, as opposed to Jerusalem).

I am just now on the chapter regarding Islam (chapter 5). The earlier chapters discuss how monothiesm eveolved, including the story of Abraham (and the old testament), the development of the Trinity (Constantine), and comparative notes on Buddhism - all earlier in the book.

Anyway, this is all based upon the book - if you are interested in this subject, I would recommend it.
Here is a link to a review: A History of God - The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam

That’s what is known as “the short answer.” We had a Muslim guest here last month who became offended when I discussed pre-Islamic paganism, but it seems that guest has decided not to pony up, I haven’t seen him here this month. So here goes… apologies if this steps on anyone’s theological toes…

Pagan Arabs worshiped deities, but also seem to have had an ultimately materialistic or atheistic philosophy, based on a quote attributed to them in the Qur’an, verse 45:24.
“They say:
‘There is nothing but our present life;
we die, and we live, and nothing but
Time destroys us.’”

Surah 71 tells of Noah confronting five ancient pagan deities with Arabic names. This puzzles me a bit; Noah was not one of the Arabian prophets like Hud, Salih, or Shu‘ayb. Noah presumably lived before nations as we know them existed. I’m not sure what the Qur’an means, but apparently it gives actual deity names remembered from ancient Arabia. An appendix to Surah 72 in the Qur’an translation by A. Yusuf Ali gives more details, citing the 9th-century Kitab al-Asnam (the Book of Idols) by Ibn al-Kalbi:

  1. Wadd - Man - Manly power
  2. Suwa‘ - Woman - Mutability, beauty
  3. Yaghuth - Lion (or Bull) - Brute strength
  4. Ya‘uq - Horse - Swiftness
  5. Nasr - Eagle/Vulture/Falcon - Sharp sight, insight

A. Yusuf Ali tries to correlate these with the five planets and solar/lunar worship, but fails to make his case, in my opinon.

These deities were not worshiped in Arabia immediately prior to Islam; they were remembered as names of old worshiped by vanished peoples, the way Greek and Roman deities look to us. So they were probably mentioned in the Qur’an because their antiquity recalled antediluvian times.

The pagan deities worshiped in Arabia in the time of Muhammad were a trio of goddesses (what modern Neopagans would call the “Triple Goddess,” if that analogy is permissible here), plus a male lunar deity named Hubal, associated with the arrows of divination. The South Arabian moon deity was named Sin. The three goddesses are named in verses 53:19-20. Immediately after these verses came the so-called Satanic Verses that said the intercession of these goddesses was desirable.

al-‘Uzzá: the Morning Star
Allat: the Mother
Manat: Fate

Not to impose a Neopagan reading on an ancient culture, but I would say this fits the Maiden-Mother-Crone pattern reasonably well.

[Allat as the Arabian version of the Great Mother was popular over many centuries and a wide geographical area. The Nabataeans and Palmyreans, in contact with Levantine Hellenism, identified her with Athena. For example, the son of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra in Syria (3rd century) was named Vaballatus, i.e. Wahb Allat ‘gift of the Goddess’, and he signed his name in Greek as Athenodorus. url=http://www.wheeloftheyear.com/images/2006/allat.jpg This image of Allat on a camel is a reproduction of a 1st-century sculpture from Syria.

Another medieval Islamic source for pre-Islamic religion was Kitab al-Milal wa-al-Nihal (The Book of Relgions and Sects) by the 12-century philosopher al-Shahrastani.

Now, I have the URL for a translation of Kitab al-Asnam, but I hate to link to it because it’s at the Answering-Islam site, which is anti-Islamic. To read this material objectively, first one has to winnow out the editorializing by Muslim authors, who feel the need to point out that the paganism of the Jahiliyah is wrong and Islam is right; and then the attitudes of the Answering-Islam site that Islam is wrong. “Just the facts, ma’am.” Barbara G. Walker writes about Arabian paganism too, but slants it in favor of her Neopagan beliefs and introduces too many inaccuracies. I would love to find a source on this subject that doesn’t take sides one way or the other. Another tendentious Neopagan project specifically oriented to Arabian paganism, plus all kinds of New Age glurge jumbled on top, is www.dhushara.com, named after Dhu Shara‘, a leading Nabataean deity. I cite this mainly as an example of how a modern pagan could find relevance in a little-known dead religion, and if you have the patience to click through the glurge he does include a lot of information on pre-Islamic religion, like http://www.dhushara.com/book/orsin/dhushara.htm#anchor3027625.

The pagans in Muhammad’s time called the three goddesses “daughters of Allah.” The Qur’an rejects the logical inconsistency in this attribution by pointing out that the Meccans only wanted to have sons, not daughters. “For you the male (thought to be preferable by the patriarchal Meccans) and for Allah the female (thought to be inferior)?” Since women had higher status in earlier Arabia than in Muhammad’s time, the patriarchal attitudes of the Meccan aristocracy seem to have been of relatively recent imposition, going back about two generations before Muhammad. His grandfather Ibn al-Muttalib was the establisher of the Quraysh oligarchy that Muhammad fought against.

My feminist reading of the Qur’an has Muhammad trying to reform the social stresses caused by this change, with his emphasis on justice for widows and orphans who were neglected under the Quraysh regime. In this context, the Qur’an’s criticism of the “daughters of Allah” points out the contradiction in the survival of a Goddess religion under a patriarchal political-economic system. In my reading, this was a sign of a decadent paganism and the cause of a widespread feeling that it needed to be replaced. Most of the early followers of Muhammad in his Meccan period were women and slaves. See The Veil and the Male Elite by Fatima Mernissi.

Sorry I goofed up the URL to the Allat image: http://www.wheeloftheyear.com/images/2006/allat.jpg
If only a kindly Mod would kindly fix my coding… one a these days I’m gonna git the hang of this here newfangled “inter nets,” by gum.

Double sorry–the correct name of Muhammad’s grandfather is ‘Abd al-Muttalib.

Type slower, Johanna, take your time, this isn’t a race to get the answer in first… even though I know Dopers race one another in GQ… it’s a bad habit.

My understanding was that Allah himself was generally regarded as the head of the pantheon ( i.e. worshipped along with and senior to his “daughters” ), hence the relative ease with which Arabian pagans were able to accept the switch from Ilah/al-Ilah the paramount god, to Allah the One God.

In addition there appears to have been a great multiplicity of lesser deities “below” the above in pagan Arabia ( not necessarily hiearchically, but in terms of relative importance or how widespread they were ).

  • Tamerlane

See? Now that was an awesome answer! Leaves your “pagan” answer in the dust! Good job, never hold back!


For a complete answer, we musn’t omit the hunafâ’ who were said to be non-Pagan non-Jewish non-Christian monotheists existing in small numbers in the jahiliyah.

The early civilization of South Arabia had a somewhat different pantheon than the rest of Arabia, IIRC, with the lunar deity Sin prominent and sun worship too, according to the Qur’an (27:24). The figure of the Queen of Sheba, as an Arab woman who figured prominently in Jewish legend appears in the Qur’an as a representative of the matriarchal political system in the South.

The indigenous religions of Hadramawt and Dhofar, where non-Arabic Semitic languages of the South Arabian branch like Mehri, Harsusi, and Jibbali are spoken, are based on placating chthonic spirits called jinn (see T.M. Johnstone, “Folklore and Folk Literature in Oman and Socotra” Arabian Studies I, p. 7-23). One such Dhofarian spirit is called ‘aferet, derived from the Semitic root ‘fr ‘dust, soil’. This word is the source of the Arabic word ‘ifrît (or efreet) referring to a powerful type of jinnî. Use of the word ‘ifrît in the Queen of Sheba and Solomon story, verse 27:39, goes along with the South Arabian local color.

Don’t forget about the cult that worshipped the albino cetacean. Now what was its name?

Okay, this got a small chuckle.

Very interesting, Johanna. Two questions:

  1. I noticed you refer to the Queen of Sheba as an Arab rather than an Ethiopean. Is that the Muslim belief?

  2. How do the Nabateans fit into things?

I got the Melville allusion in about 1 second.

The Islamic version of the origin of monotheism in Mecca says that Ibrahim sent Hajar and Isma‘il to the valley that would become the site of Mecca not to banish them but to start a branch of Abrahamites there, I guess. Thus the story of Hajar finding water for Isma‘il in the desert explains the discovery of the well of Zamzam. Part of the Hajj called the sa‘y involves crossing back and forth between two hills in commemoration of Hajar searching for water for Isma‘il. Zamzam is the reason Mecca exists there. It’s on the main caravan routes between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. It has water in the middle of the desert. It was a cultic center from prehistory. The Black Stone makes the Ka‘bah an example of the baetyl type of shrine known throughout the ancient Middle East (Bethel of the Bible being the other best known example).

The Qur’an says Ibrahim and Isma‘il first built the Ka‘bah and on this basis of the Meccan shrine being originally monotheist, Islam claimed it. The Jurhum tribe, as the legend goes, came along and settled there, and Isma‘il married into it, this being the origin of the Ishmaelites asked about in the OP. During the passage of years the customs became pagan.

The Hajj (cognate of Hebrew chag ‘religious feast’) was likewise attributed to Ibrahim, although in pre-Islamic paganism the cult had been run by women priestesses. Women circumambulated the Ka‘bah while nude. Cite: M.J. Kister, “‘Labbayka, Allahûma, Labbayka’: On a Monotheistic Aspect of a Jâhiliyya Practice,” Society & Religion from Jâhiliyya to Islam, 1990.

The talbiyah (ritual Hajj chant) of the nude women is the ninth of 56 talbiyât listed in the Tafsîr of Muqâtil ibn Sulaymân (d. 150 AH) on Surah 22:31. Pagan Arab women went to battle chanting and drumming to incite the men to fight:
*“We are the daughters of the morning star;
soft are the carpets we tread,
our necks are adorned with pearls,
and our tresses are perfumed with musk.
The brave who confront the foe
we will clasp to our bosoms,
but the dastards who flee we will spurn–
not for them our embraces!” *

Sheba refers to a kingdom called Saba’ in what is now Yemen. And Yemen has been an Arab land since… forever. Her name in Arab legend is Bilqis. I wasn’t aware of any other origin attributed to this woman. The Semitic languages of Ethiopia including Ge‘ez, Amharic, and Tigriña originated from Old South Arabian language brought by immigrants from Yemen in ancient times. There was two-way traffic across the Bab al-Mandab, since at the time of Muhammad’s birth Yemen was ruled by Ethiopians (as in the story of Abraha and the elephant that attacked Mecca). For more on the history, legend, and archaeology of ancient Yemen, see Sheba: Through the Desert in Search of the Legendary Queen by Nicholas Clapp.

As a North Arabian civilization in contact with Greece and Rome, they dominated the northern part of the trade routes a few centuries before Muhammad’s time, and I imagine helped to transmit Mediterranean ideas (including Judaism and Christianity) into Arabia. But they were already extinct long before Islam, and then Mecca’s domination of the central portion of the trade route made them wealthier. Also, the first North Arabian writing, the Nabataean alphabet, became the basis for the Arabic alphabet.

shechorah ani ve-navah

The Jewish Encyclopedia says: “The Temanites, the inhabitants of Arabia Felix, have better grounds for claiming the Queen of Sheba … Jewish tradition has many points in common with the Arabian legend.” Teman is the Hebrew name for Yemen.

This reminded me: Many years ago I knew a Muslim who had done the Hajj. When he saw people crowding and shoving for a chance to kiss the Black Stone, he said to himself, “My God! These people are pagans!