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.
‘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:
- Wadd - Man - Manly power
- Suwa‘ - Woman - Mutability, beauty
- Yaghuth - Lion (or Bull) - Brute strength
- Ya‘uq - Horse - Swiftness
- 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
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.