Monotheism Spreads to Arabia
Monotheism had infected the Jews some two millenia before the birth of Muhammad. Moses had sold them into slavery to Jehovah, a demoniacal Spirit masquerading as the one and only God.1 Many books of the Bible tell the blood-curdling story of what the Jews did to themselves and to the others when goaded by this Gangster. The end result was their own ruination, and their dispersal as slaves and refugees in all directions. Meanwhile, the disease had spread to West Asia, Europe and North Africa in the form of Christianity. It had destroyed the Greco-Roman civilization as well as Germanic paganism, and spread darkness wherever it went. Now it was getting ready to engulf Arabia which had survived so far as an island of sanity in the midst of a surging sea of madness.
The pagan Arabs, however, had remained unaware of the menace advancing on them from all sides. Abyssinia, their neighbour to the west, had been a Christian stronghold for long, and had even launched a crusade against them in recent times. The Byzantine Empire, their neighbour to the north, had gone Christian early in the fourth century, and was busy rooting out paganism within its own precincts. The Sassanian Empire of Persia, their neighbour to the east, was patronizing a Zoroastrianism which had lost its ancient Aryan genius and imbibed the spirit of Judaism and Christianity. It had become a monotheistic creed complete with the Prophet, the Book, the Last Day, and Heaven and Hell. The only point it missed and, therefore, lost the race to Judaism and Christianity, was missionary zeal; it was not yet out to force other people to its own way of worship.
Each of these neighbours was aspiring to invade and dominate Arabia. What kept them in check was their mutual rivalry. The peace which Arabia had enjoyed for long intervals was a byproduct of this balance of power. Even so, several Arab tribes in North and South Arabia had embraced Judaism or Christianity. Worse still, both Jews and Christians had settlements in the very heart of Arabia. The role which these preachy communities played in the rise of Islam has been highlighted by Muslims scholars themselves. Shaikh Inayatullah writes:
‘In the century before Muhammad Arabia was not wholly abandoned to paganism. Both Judaism and Christianity claimed a considerable following among its inhabitants. Almost every calamity that befell the land of Palestine sent a fresh wave of Jewish refugees into Arabia, sometimes as far as Yemen. They had probably taken refuge there after the conquest of Palestine by Titus in AD 70. Jewish colonies flourished in Medina and several other towns of Hijaz. In the time of the Prophet, three large Jewish tribes, viz., the NaDir, Quraizah and Qainuqa’, dwelt in the outskirts of Medina, and the fact that the Prophet made an offensive and defensive alliance with them for the safety of the town shows that they were an important factor in the political life of those times. These colonies had their own teachers and centres of religious study. Judging by few extant specimens of their poetry, these refugees through contact with a people nearly akin to themselves, had become fully Arabicized both in language and sentiment. They, however, remained Jews in the most vital particular, religion, and it is probable that they exerted a strong influence over the Arabs in favour of monotheism.
‘Another religious factor which was strongly opposed to Arabian paganism was the Christian faith. How early and from what direction Christianity entered Arabia is a question which it is difficult to answer with certainty but there is no doubt that Christianity was widely diffused in the southern and northern parts of Arabia at the time of the Prophet. Christianity is said to have been introduced in the valley of Najran in northern Yemen from Syria, and it remained entrenched in spite of the terrible persecution it suffered at the hands of the Himyarite king, Dhu Nawas, who had adopted the Jewish faith. Christianity in the south-west of Arabia received a fresh stimulus by the invasion of the Christian Abyssinians, who put an end to the rule of Dhu Nawas. There were Christians in Mecca itself, Waraqah ibn Naufal, a cousin of Khadijah, the first wife of the Prophet, was one of them. Christianity was also found among certain tribes of the Euphrates and the Ghassan who lived on the borders of Syria. Their conversion was due to their contact with the Christian population of the Byzantine Empire. The Christians were also found at Hirah, a town in the north-east of Arabia, where Arab princes of the house of Lakhm ruled under the suzerainty of the Persian kings. These Christians who were called ‘Ibad or the ‘Servants of the Lord,’ belonged to the Nestorian Church, and contributed to the diffusion of Christian ideas among the Arabs of the Peninsula.
‘By the sixth century, Judaism and Christianity had made considerable headway in Arabia, and were extending their sphere of influence, leavening the pagan masses, and thus gradually preparing the way for Islam.’2
Most of the Jews and Christians settled in Arabia were descendants of refugees who had fled at one time or the other from persecutions in the Byzantine and the Persian empires. Arab paganism had provided them not only protection but also freedom to practise and preach their creeds. They had, therefore, succeeded in making some converts among the Arabs. But the fact that they were refugees and that the pagan Arabs were their protectors, was soon forgotten. It was not long before the Jews and the Christians started using the security and the freedom for pouring contempt on Arab paganism. Medina in particular had become a Jewish stronghold. Gibbon tells us that this city with its wealthy and vociferous Jewish tribes had become famous all over Arabia as the City of the Book.3 It was as sick with monotheism as a harlot with venereal desease. Small wonder that it became Muhammad’s base of operations for imposing Islam on the rest of Arabia after he had to leave Mecca in utter despair. ‘The course of the following narrative will show,’ observes Margoliouth, ‘that Muhammad’s mission at Meccah was a failure, and that it was only at Medinah that he readily found a hearing, and that having turned Medinah into an armed camp, he was able partly by force and partly by bribes to subjugate Meccah, whence he proceeded quickly to subdue the rest of Arabia.’4
It seems that the pagan Arabs, by and large, were not prone to catch the infection. They were happy with their healthy paganism but for a few persons, particularly among their educated elite, who equated religious superiority with superiority in material wealth, or military power, or both. Every society has individuals who get alienated from their own culture simply because that society happens to be poor or powerless. The pagan Arab society was no exception. Compared to the Abyssinian, Byzantine and the Persian empires, Arabia was poor in material wealth as well as military prowess. Some upper class Arabs who travelled to the neighbouring lands or heard the gorgeous stories from others, were swept off their feet. They readily accepted the explanation, advanced by hawkers of monotheism, that the foreign lands were rich and powerful simply because each of them had a Prophet and a Book. Lenin, Mao Tse-tung, M.N. Roy, Jawaharlal Nehru and many others all over the world are excellent examples of the fascination which the power and wealth of foreign countries exercises over shallow but self-righteous minds; they start by despising themselves as members of a poor society, and end by despising their people and culture. Ibn Ishaq provides interesting evidence about the presence of such self-alienated Arabs in Mecca itself. He writes:
‘One day when the Quraysh assembled on a feast day to venerate and circumambulate the idol to which they offered sacrifices, this being a feast which they held annually, four men drew apart secretly and agreed to keep their counsel in the bonds of friendship. They were (i) Waraqa bin Nufal; (ii) Ubaydullah b. Jahash; (iii) ‘Uthman b. al-Huwayrith; and (iv) Zayd b. ‘Amr. They were of the opinion that their people had corrupted the religion of their father Abraham, and that the stone they went round was of no account; it could neither hear, nor see, nor hurt, nor help.5 ‘Find for yourselves a religion,’ they said; ‘for by God you have none.’ So they wont their several ways in the lands, seeking the Hanifiya, the religion of Abraham.
‘Waraqa attached himself to Christianity and studied its scriptures until he had thoroughly mastered them. Ubaydullah went on searching until Islam came; then he migrated with the Muslims to Abyssinia taking with him his wife who was Muslim, Umm Habiba d. Abu Sufyan. When he arrived there he adopted Christianity, parted from Islam, and died a Christian in Abyssinia.
‘’Uthman b. Huwayrith went to the Byzantine emperor and became a Christian. He was given high office there.
‘Zayd b. ‘Amr stayed as he was. He accepted neither Judaism nor Christianity. He abandoned the religion of his forefathers and abstained from idols saying that he worshipped the God of Abraham, and he publicly rebuked his people for their practices
‘Zayd b. ‘Amr composed the following poem:
Am I to worship one lord or a thousand?
If there are as many as you claim,
I renounce al-Lat and al-‘Uzza both of them
As any strong-minded person would.
I will not worship al-‘Uzza and her two daughters,
Nor will I visit the two idols of Banu ‘Amr.
I will not worship Hubal though he was our lord
In the days when I had little sense
You will see the pious living in gardens,
While for the infidels hell fire is burning.
Shamed in life, when they die
Their breasts will contract in anguish
Beware of putting another beside God
For the upright way has become clear.
‘Then he went forth seeking the religion of Abraham questioning monks and Rabbis until he had traversed al-MauSil and the whole of Mesopotamia; then he went through the whole of Syria until he came to a monk in the high ground at Balaqa. This man, it is alleged, was well-versed in Christianity. He asked him about the Hanifiya, the religion of Abraham and the monk replied. ‘You are seeking a religion to which no one today can guide you, but the time of a prophet who will come forth from your own country which you have just left has drawn near. He will be sent with the Hanifiya, the religion of Abraham, so stick to it, for he is about to be sent now and this is his time.’ Now Zayd had sampled Judaism and Christianity and was not satisfied with either of them; so that at these words he went away at once making for Mecca; but when he was inside the country of Lakhm he was attacked and killed.
‘Waraqa b. Naufal composed this elegy over him.
You were altogether in the right path Ibn ‘Amr,
You have escaped hell’s burning oven
By serving the one and only God
And abandoning vain idols.’6
References to Hanifiya, the religion of Abraham, in this story can be ignored as they obviously reflect wisdom by hindsight. It was not before Muhammad migrated to Medina and discovered that the Jews were not prepared to accept him as a prophet, that he invented a religion of Abraham distinct from both Judaism and Christianity. Till that time he had been seeking certificates from the People of the Book, the Jews and the Christians, to the effect that his teachings were in accordance with what was written in their scriptures. Equally anachronistic in this story is the prophecy about the advent of Muhammad. Orthodox biographers of the Prophet have put such prophecies in the mouths of several Jewish rabbis and Christian monks. They were only trying to be wise after the event. All that is true in the story of Waraqa etc., is that some Arabs were turning away from their ancestral religion and to-wards the alien cult of monotheism. At the same time, some prophets were also appearing in Arabia and claiming to be in direct communication with God.
Monotheism being a cult of prophets, its appearance in pagan Arabia was bound to produce some of this species. Prophethood is not at all a difficult profession if we go by their crop in the Bible. One has only to manage the requisite amount of self-deception and self-righteousness and go about shouting from the housetops that one’s people have sunk into sin. One has also to be ready, if opportunity occurs, to use violence against one’s own people. It was, therefore, only a copybook exercise for prophets who arose in pagan Arabia. They had only to ape their prototypes in the stories retailed to them by the Jews and the Christians. Muhammad was not the first of these novel Arab characters.
‘Prophets indeed had arisen in Arabia before Mohammed: in Yemen among the Himyarites one Samaifa had imitated the exploits of old Zamolaxis: had hidden himself for a time and then reappeared, when a hundred thousand men prostrated themselves before their risen lord. Legends containing probably some germ of truth recorded how shortly before Mohammed one Khalid, son of Sinan, had been sent to preach to the tribe of ‘Abs, and one Hanzalah, son of Safwan, to some other of the inhabitants of Arabia. In Yemamah, too, one Maslamah had given a sign that he was sent from God: through the neck of a bottle he introduced an egg unbroken to the bowl. Since Yemamah supplied Meccah with corn, the tradition that makes Muhammad a pupil of Maslamah has certainly some foundation.’7
‘According to Ibn Ishaq, Muhammad’s enemies reproached him with having obtained his wisdom from a man of Yamama named RaHman. Now we have ample evidence that Musailima, who preached in the name of RaHman was himself called RaHman. It is also worthy of note that the prophetic utterances attributed to Musailima recall the earliest Meccan suras with their short rhyming sentences and curious oaths and have no resemblance to later Medinese suras. In particular the fact that all the Banu Hanifa followed him into battle against the Medinese shortly after the death of Muhammad shows that he must have been active for a considerable time and was no imitator of Muhammad. According to Saif’s account he must have been considerably influenced by Christianity for he speaks of the kingdom of heaven.’8 Musailima had introduced Salat, several times a day. He also maintained a mu’azzin and a muqim.
It seems that these pretentious Arabs were not fully familiar with the institution of prophethood. The rise of a female prophet, Sajah, shows their ignorance of the fact that prophethood in the Judaic and Christian traditions was strictly a male profession, and women supposed to be the source of sin, had no right to it. Sajah was a woman of Banu Tamim and one of the several prophets who sprang up shortly before Muhammad. ‘On the mother’s side she was related to Taghilib, a tribe which comprised many Christians. She was a Christian herself, or at least had learnt much concerning Christianity from her relatives. Next to nothing is known concerning the import of her revelations and doctrines; she delivered her messages from a minbar, in rhymed prose, and was attended by a mu’adhdhin and a hajib. Her name, or one of her names for God, was ‘the Lord of the clouds’ (rabb al-Sahab).’9 She joined forces with Musailima when the two of them were attacked by Muslim armies after the death of Muhammad. Muslim historians love to tell obscene stories about the marriage and the merry-making of the two ‘false prophets’.
So there was nothing novel about Muhammad standing up one fine morning and proclaiming that he was the prophet sent by Allah. The pagan Arabs were already used to such queer characters among their otherwise level-headed people. They pitied these prophets as victims possessed by evil spirits and offered the help of their medicine men. Obviously, they were impressed by no amount of prophetic talk.
It is, however, significant that the Arab prophets other than Muhammad are not known to have aroused the fierce opposition which Muhammad faced at Mecca and elsewhere. That was because they did not disparage the Arab Gods while preaching their monotheism. The pagans Arabs were not perturbed by prophets so long as the latter left their Gods alone. It was Muhammad who made them sit up when he spelled out the meaning of monotheism, namely, the dethronement of Arab Gods and the destruction of Arab temples. Muhammad will very soon denounce the other Arab prophets also as impostors and liars because they either did not know the meaning of monotheism or were wilfully suppressing vital parts of the doctrine.
This view of Jehovah was expressed by Marcion of the school of St. Paul, early in the second century AD. ‘The Old Testament he rejected in toto since it seemed to him, as it has seemed to many Christians since, to be talking of quite a different God: monstrous, evil-creating, bloody, the patron of ruffians like David’ (A History of Christianity by Paul Johnson, Penguin Books, 1978, p. 46). This was also the view of the Gnostics, an early Christian sect. The ‘God’ of the Bible and the Qur’an was seen in this light by Thomas Jafferson, Thomas Paine, and Swami Dayananda as well. ↩
Shaikh Inayatullah, op. cit., pp. 134-35. There is no evidence of leavening of the masses; only some members of the Arab elite were alienated from their society and culture. ↩
Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Modern Library Edition, New York, Vol. III, p. 97. ↩
D.S. Margoliouth, op. cit., p. 31. ↩
These words vis-a-vis idols are found very frequently in the Bible and will very soon appear in the Qur’an. ↩
Ibn Ishaq, op. cit., pp. 98-101, 103. ↩
D.S. Margoliouth, op. cit, pp. 80-81.The phenomena of ‘prophets’ arising in Arabia was comparable to the crop of ‘ revolutionaries’ arising all over the world in the wake of Lenin’s coup d’etat in Russia in 1917. ↩
First Encyclopaedia of Islam, op. cit., Vol. VI, p. 745. ↩
Ibid., Vol. VII, p. 44. ↩