A lexicon of the religious beliefs and practices of the Arab tribes before the coming of Islam. This blog explores Arabian polytheism and looks at its relation to the Abrahamic faiths and other Semitic mythologies. Includes a a constantly-updated list of deities and spiritual figures of the Arabian religions, from a neutral perspective. The pagans of Mecca called their religion, Din al-‘Abāʼi-ka or “Faith of the Forefathers”.
Wednesday, 9 November 2011
Mythology and religion of pre-Islamic Arabia: Deities, Spirits, Figures and Locations.
A miscellaneous and unorganized archive of deities; spirits; figures and mythological people and places from Arabian polytheism and from the era before and during the time of Muhammad. The gods and goddesses of the pre-Islamic Arabs were usually tribal deities; legendary ancestors; spirits of place (jinn), or personifications of natural and social phenomena unique to the individual Arabian tribes: although there were certain deities that were widely recognized throughout the pre-Islamic Arabian peninsula.
The religious beliefs of the Arabs often differed from region to region; smaller tribal pantheons being found among the merchants and Bedouin of the Hijaz and Najd; with more advanced religious structures thriving in the Yemen. In the sparse desert regions inhabited by nomadic Bedouin such as the Nefud desert, religious thought took the form of a practical animism chiefly concerned with pastoralism and tribal life – this is not to say that the pagan Bedouin did not enjoy a rich spiritual experience: their belief in many gods, angels, spirits, ancestors and sacred sites confirms otherwise.
Al-Lāt (Arabic: اللات) is the Meccan mother goddess and the chief deity of the tribe of Banu Thaqif whose major seat of worship was a popular shrine which was located at the west Arabian town of at-Ta’if in the Hijaz region of Arabia. The idol of al-Lāt was a cube of white granite, which was in the custody of the clan of Banu ‘Attab ibn Malik of the tribe of Banu Thaqif; the nearby tribes of Banu Lihyan; Banu Hawazin; Banu Khuza’a, and Banu Quraysh also making regular pilgrimages to Ta’if to offer their worship. The goddess was reputed to enjoy offerings of barley porridge (sawiq) and small cereal cakes: her devotees prepared these dishes especially, as barley and other grains were considered symbolic of her. Animals that were considered sacred to al-Lāt included gazelle; lions, and camels, among others depending on the region and tribe, as the cult of the goddess was found all across Arabia and as far as Palmyra in southern Syria.
In the pantheon of the Hijaz (western Arabia) specifically, al-Lāt was one of the three chief goddesses of Mecca and one of the three daughters of the high god Allāh: her main role being an earth-goddess who was responsible for the fertility and soil quality of Ta’if and elsewhere in the Hijaz region, thus making her highly important among the Arabs. The goddess had many epithets throughout the Hijaz including Umm al-Alihah (Mother of the Gods) and Umm ash-Shams (Mother of the Sun goddess) and was also worshiped in order to gain protection whilst travelling. At the holy sanctuary (haram) of al-Lāt in the town of Ta’if, all life within was considered inviolable: no plant could be gathered; no tree could be felled; no animal could be killed and no human blood could be shed in accordance with sacred law.
The farmers and merchants of Ta’if who belonged to the ruling tribe of Banu Thaqif venerated al-Lāt as the goddess of vegetation, agriculture and fertile soil; their livelihood, wealth and tribal status being largely dependent on the trade of their crops, which were mainly of barley; figs; roses, and dates. The fertility and prosperity of the region was considered by the Banu Thaqif to be a blessing upon them by their tribal goddess al-Lāt; who eventually became the chief goddess and guardian deity of the town of Ta’if, as she was the seen as the divine provider of trade, wealth and power. The shrine of al-Lāt in Ta’if eventually became a place of trade and pilgrimage among the Arabs, often sharing the large amount of pilgrims from nearby Mecca. Historically, the town of Ta’if was famous as “the garden of the Hijaz” – the fertility of the region being attributed to the power of its tutelary goddess.
The pan-Arabian goddess al-Lāt had her counterparts across the Arabian peninsula under many different names in the Semitic languages and dialects, for example: to the people of Ta’if, she was also known by the name of ar-Rabbat (‘The Lady’); to the Himyarites, she was worshiped as ‘Athiratan or Ilāt, the mother of Athtar; the Hadramites to the east of the Himyar called her Ilāhatan, and the Aramaeans of Syria knew her as Elat. As al-Lāt was the goddess of the earth, she was worshiped in nearby Syria as ‘Arsay and in Canaan as Aretzaya: these names derived from the Aramaean and Hebrew words for ‘earth’, ‘Ars’ and ‘Aretz’ (also cognate to Arabic ardh). The earth goddess in Canaan and Syria was considered to be a protector of the spirits of the dead who dwelt under the earth.
In the religion of the Meccans and the other pagan tribes of the Hijaz, al-Lāt was not the wife of the high god Allāh but was one of his daughters, along with the other two chief goddesses, Manāt and al-‘Uzzā. The cult of al-Lāt was not only popular in the Hijazi towns of Ta’if and Mecca; the Nabataean Arabs of southern Jordan worshiped her as an earth goddess and as the mythical consort of their chief deity Dhu’l-Shara, who was a god of vegetation and mountain springs. The Onyx stone, a variety of chalcedony, was among the treasures along with gold that were discovered at the shrine of al-Lāt in Ta’if, and as such is considered sacred to the goddess. In the inscriptions and writings of the Safaitic Bedouin who dwelt in the Syro-Arabian desert in pre-Islamic times, al-Lāt was called upon to show mercy and grant ease, prosperity and well-being to the worshiper; in addition to being invoked for protection against an enemy, vengeance against aggressors and favorable weather.
Al-‘Uzzā (Arabic: العزى) is the Meccan goddess of power, might and the planet Venus as the Evening Star who was worshiped by the Arabian tribes of Banu Quraysh; Banu Sulaym; Banu Ghanim; Banu Ghatafan; Banu Khuza’a; Banu Thaqif, and Banu Kinãnah. The main idol of al-‘Uzza, which the goddess herself was believed to often manifest in, was a cluster of three acacia trees that were situated in the valley of Nakhla near the town of Mecca. Al-‘Uzza had a second temple (bayt) in Mecca called Buss which was made of brick, and was situated not far from her shrine at Nakhla. Inside the Buss temple was another important idol of al-‘Uzza: a thigh bone shaped slab of granite which was venerated and offered sacrifice to by the pre-Islamic Arab tribes of the Hijaz, as they believed that the goddess herself spoke through the idol and would grant an oracle to the worshiper.
The Arabian tribes living around Mecca regularly sought the blessing and protection of al-‘Uzza by offering sacrifices of animals and rarely human slaves or prisoners of war at an altar (‘Itr, madhbah) called al-Ghabghab which was located near the temple of Buss. The powerful Meccan tribe of Banu Quraysh would call upon al-‘Uzza as a war goddess before going into battle and their women would perform music and sing chants exalting al-‘Uzza; such as they did against the early Muslims in the Battle of Uhud. The last custodian (sadin) of al-‘Uzza’s shrine was a man named Dubayyah ibn Haram as-Sulami, who had a reputation of being exceptionally generous, kind and hospitable until he was slain by Khalid ibn al-Walid, an early convert to Islam; who had also cut down the sacred trees of the goddess and destroyed her shrine upon the orders of Muhammad: this was done in order to effectively put an end to the cult of al-‘Uzza among the Arabs of the Hijaz.
In the south of Arabia, the kingdoms of Himyar and Yemen knew al-‘Uzza as Uzzayan who was a goddess of healing; wealthy Himyarites would offer small golden images to Uzzayan on behalf of their sick children. The name Amat-‘Uzzayan meaning ”Maid of Uzzayan” was a popular women’s name in south Arabia, and the male theophoric name Abd al-‘Uzza meaning ”Devotee of al-‘Uzza” was popular among the Meccans. Not so far from the Ka’aba itself in the valley of Hurad; the Banu Quraysh tribe dedicated a vale called Suqam to al-‘Uzza, where they would visit to swear oaths and pray. During a battle, it was traditional for the women of Mecca to sing chants in the name of al-‘Uzza and her consort, Hubal, to inspire valor in the warriors and gain victory against the enemy.
The goddess al-‘Uzzā was also known as al-Zuhara and Kawkabtā and was venerated by these names as the ruling goddess of the planet Venus; particularly in her incarnation as the Evening Star, which itself was believed to be either a manifestation of the goddess herself or her palace in the heavens. The planet Venus as the Morning Star was believed to be a male god called Athtar and was a separate divinity to the goddess al-‘Uzza. The pre-Islamic Arabs also called upon al-‘Uzza as Venus to bless and consecrate marriages. The equivalent of the Arabian al-‘Uzza throughout the Semitic Middle East is the Canaanite war goddess ‘Anat; the divine lover of the nature god Baal, who was named in Hebrew as ‘l’Uzza Hayyim’ (‘the strength of life’).
Allāh (Arabic: الله) is the Meccan creator god and the supreme deity of the pre-Islamic Arabian pantheon, who was worshiped by the pagan Arabs primarily in times of despair, need and drought as he was believed to grant life-giving rain and intervene in times of extreme crisis. The three chief goddesses of Mecca; al-Lāt, al-‘Uzzā and Manāt, were believed to be his daughters and were invoked alongside many other deities to intercede for the worshiper on behalf of Allāh: all the tribes of pre-Islamic Arabia venerated him as the High God and supreme being, but direct worship of him was rare. After creating the universe, Allāh then retired into the position of a silent and remote spectator who dwelt in ‘Aliyyin (Hebrew: Elyon), the highest heaven, and only intervened in human affairs in extreme cases of drought or danger. In pre-Islamic Arabia, the practice of calling upon God or gods to send rain (‘istisqā’) continued with Islam although the practice of calling upon any other god other than Allah is a grave sin in Islam.
The pre-Islamic Arabian tribes who followed the native polytheistic religion, in particular the Banu Quraysh of Mecca, acknowledged Allāh to be the creator of the universe; the father of the gods, angels and jinn, and the supreme being who controls the mechanisms of the universe: the Arabian counterpart of the ancient Hebrew creator god El. The Jewish and Christian tribes of pre-Islamic Arabia called their Biblical god Allāh, although the Allāh of the Arab polytheists was distinct in concept to the Christian and Jewish Allāh. Officially, the god Allāh had no idol assigned to him, however; a black meteorite called al-Hajar al-Aswad was kept at a shrine in the corner of the Ka’aba: Allāh was believed to house a portion of his power within this mysterious black stone due to its alleged heavenly origins.
The pre-Islamic Allah was believed to reside in a distant heaven called ‘Aliyyin or Lahut – the uppermost stratum of the universe and the highest plane of existence: with the other gods (ālihah) and angels (malā’ikah) ruling from lesser heavens which were located in the sky (as-Samawat). In addition to having the gods and the angels under his command, the pre-Islamic notion of Allah enjoyed a special relationship with the jinn: primordial spirits of the land that functioned as lesser gods beneath the rank of angels who ruled the desert wilderness and desolate places.
The cult of Allāh in pre-Islamic Arabia, aside from that among the monotheistic hanifs who followed an Abrahamic religion which was not Judaism or Christianity; was not prominent in society: the god Allāh was represented with only one baetyl, the Black Stone of the Ka’aba, and had no other idols apart from this. In Arabian polytheism, Allāh is considered far too powerful and immense to be interested in the affairs of humans so worship is instead directed towards his children, the ālihah; the pantheon of gods and goddesses who intercede for humans on behalf of Allāh. In pre-Islamic Mecca, the status of Allāh as creator deity and high god did not earn him the status of patron god of the town itself: this honor was afforded to Hubal; a warrior rain-god and one of the ‘offspring’ of Allāh; who was considered in the theology of the pagan Meccans to be more interested in the well-being of the common man than Allāh himself was.
Although the pagan Arabians believed in a multitude of gods or ālihah, they knew Allah to be the Lord (Rabb) of the Heavens (as-Samawat) and the Earth (al-‘Ardh), and as the ultimate deity with authority over the gods, angels, jinn and mankind: existing before Time (Dahr) itself and was described as being “neither accident nor essence”. The concept of a high god, creator deity and supreme deity with power over all the other gods was common to the mythologies of all the ancient Semitic religions; the Arabian Allah playing the same role as the Babylonian Ilu; the Phoenician Elos; the Aramaean Elaha; the Hebrew Eloah, and the Canaanite El. In pre-Islamic Arabian religion, the words “ilāh” (god) and “ilāhat” (goddess) were used to refer to any deities other than Allāh. The belief in Allāh among the polytheists of Mecca was so prominent that even the most notable opponents of Muhammad, in particular with Amr ibn Hisham al-Makhzumi (Abu Jahl) and Abd al-‘Uzza ibn Abd al-Muttalib al-Hashmi (Abu Lahab), would often swear oaths by his name.
Hubal (Arabic: هبل) is the Meccan warrior god who was believed to have power over victory in battle, fortune and rainfall; the chief god of the tribes of Banu Khuza’a, Banu Kinanah and Banu Quraysh. The idol of Hubal was a large carnelian sculpture in the form of an old bearded man and was located inside the Ka’aba. Hubal was considered to be the consort of the goddess al-‘Uzzā; the son of Manāt, and the brother of the moon god Wadd, and was the chief god of the town of Mecca and the Ka’aba during the rule of the Quraysh in Muhammads time. Before beginning a battle, the pagan Quraysh would invoke the god for his blessing of protection and victory by crying “U’lu Hubal” meaning “Exalted is Hubal”. The mythology of Hubal in Mecca may have been consolidated with that of the minor god al-Bā’li (Canaanite: Baal, Himyarite: Bāl): a deity whose cult was popular in Canaan and Yemen, but largely ignored by most Arabian tribes. It is also equally likely that Hubal and al-Bā’li were two distinct and unrelated deities.
In addition to appealing to Hubal for rain, victory in battle and success in mercantile activities, the pagan Meccans would consult Hubal as an oracle by means of cleromancy or ‘istiqsām; divination by drawing sacred arrows (al-Azlām) from a quiver during rituals accompanied by large sacrifices before his idol, which the scholar al-‘Azraqi reports once consisted of one hundred camels. The people of Banu Quraysh tribe held the idol of Hubal in such high regard that the men of that tribe crafted a hand of solid gold for this god when his original carnelian one was once broken. The cult of Hubal was also popular with the Nabataean Arabs of southern Jordan and north Arabia; a people whose culture was a mixture of Arabic and Aramaic traditions, beliefs and language. One of the other personal names of Hubal was al-Ghanm meaning “The Bountiful”. In the religion of the Nabataeans and the north Arabian tribes, Hubal was a god who personified rising water vapor and was associated with thermal springs; the Nabataean name Hblw (Hubaluw) is translated as ‘vapor’ or ‘spirit’.
Manāf (Arabic: مناف) is the Meccan god of the mountains and valleys who had an idol which was a large stone sculpture of a man that was worshiped at the Ka’aba of Mecca by the west Arabian tribes of Banu Quraysh and Banu Hudhayl. The name of the god translates into English as ‘Height’ or ‘Elevated’ in relation to the role of Manaf as the ruling spirit and personification of the numerous mountains, valleys and peaks of the Mecca region: these high places were sacred to the Arabs who followed the native polytheism, as pagan ritual practice included ascending to the high places to offer worship and sacrifices. In pre-Islamic Mecca, the devotees of Manaf would gather to augur before the idol of the god but menstruating women were not allowed near it. Manaf was an important deity in the pantheon of Mecca with many members of the Quraysh tribe, including the famous Qusayy ibn Kilab, naming their male children Abd-Manaf (”Devotee/Servant of Manaf”) in honor of the god.
Prior to the expansion of the cult of Hubal among the citizens of Mecca, Manaf held the position of patron god of the town and the Ka’aba: however, early into the 5th century AD, his cults popularity began to wane and by the birth of Muhammad was eventually demoted to the less important status of a minor geographical god. In spite of the cult of Manaf becoming less popular among the urban Meccans, the gods’ idol was still consulted for oracles and offered sacrifice but was lesser in status to the idol of Hubal. There is also evidence of the cult of Manaf extending from beyond Mecca to Palmyra in southern Syria where the Greco-Romans called him as Zeus Manaphis, in addition to the feminine name ‘Amat-Manaf (”Maid of Manaf”) being found in inscriptions from that city. .
Manāt is the Meccan goddess of destiny, fate and death whose idol was in the form of a large outcrop of black marble which was housed in a temple at al-Mushallal on the shore of Wadi Qudayd, not far from the city of Yathrib (later known as Medina). Manat was the chief goddess of the two main Arab tribes of Yathrib: the Banu ‘Aws, and the Banu al-Khazraj. In addition to having a major cult center in Yathrib, the goddess was highly popular and well-known to many Arabian tribes of the Hijaz (western Arabia), and as such also enjoyed the worship of the tribes of Banu Quraysh, Banu Tamim and Banu Hudhayl; in addition to also being revered by the Nabataean Arabs of the far north of Arabia. Many tribes from across the Hijaz and Najd made the hajj pilgrimage to her shrine; in mythology, Manat was considered one of the eldest of all the gods and goddesses, second to Allāh himself: and as the wife of the thunder god Quzah. Manāt was called upon in Nabataean rituals to protect tombs along with Qaysha, Taraha and Dhu-Shara.
In pre-Islamic Meccan mythology, Manāt was the eldest of the three chief goddesses of Mecca and the Hijaz, created by the high god Allāh before her sisters al-Lāt and al-Uzza. The power and influence of the goddess was feared by the Arabs as she was believed to change the fate of those who displeased her for the worse: an oath sworn by Manāt was considered to be the most serious and sincere. The hajj pilgrimage was not considered complete until the tribes of Banu ‘Aws and Banu al-Khazraj visited her and shaved their heads. When the shrine of Manat was demolished under the orders of Muhammad, a sacred casket containing many treasures including the sacred swords Mikhdam and Rasub was looted by ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib and brought back to the prophet Muhammad. It was common in Arabia for the shrines of popular gods and goddesses to contain depositories or pits for the treasures that were offered to them.
A’rā is a Meccan god of fertility, one of the 360 gods and goddesses that were worshiped in and around al-Ka’aba in Mecca. The idol of the god was a stone sculpture which had a white mark on its forehead and he was considered to be the Meccan equivalent of Dhu’l-Shara. The idol of A’rā was notorious to the pagan Arabs for the large number of sacrifices offered at his shrine.
Quzah is the Meccan god of storms, thunder and the clouds who was worshiped by the tribes of Banu Khuza’a and Banu Quraysh at his shrine in the vicinity of al-Muzdalifah, located not far from Mecca. Quzah was, in Meccan mythology, portrayed as a giant archer who lived in the clouds and fired hailstones at the shayatin (demonic spirits) from his bow: the crashing of thunder, said to be the battle-cry of the god, was believed to scare away spirits of disease and misfortune. The rainbow that appeared after a rainstorm was considered by the polytheists of Mecca to be a ladder to the heavens and Quzah was its guardian. In the northern regions of the Arabian peninsula, Quzah was often the consort or husband of Manat, goddess of destiny.
The cult of Quzah in the Hijaz may have originated among the cousins of the Arabs; the Edomite tribes of southern Jordan, whose chief deity was a sky god called Qos in their language. The belief in Qos continued through with the Nabataeans who represented him a king flanked by bulls, holding a multi-pronged thunderbolt in his left hand. The memory of the god is still retained in modern Arabic with the words qaws’ Quzah meaning ”Bow of Quzah”, a metaphor for a rainbow. The ‘ifada was a feast in pre-Islamic times which was held by the polytheists of the tribe of Banu Quraysh at Muzdalifah in veneration of Quzah as part of their tahannuth (devotional religious practices) and istisqa (rain-making rituals), during the hallowed month of Ramadan.
Isaf and Na’ila are Meccan water deities: the dual guardian spirits of the holy well of Zamzam who possessed large stone idols each of which were situated atop two nearby sacred hills located close the Ka’aba, and were called as-Safa and al-Marwa respectively. From these hills the local Meccan tribes of Banu Khuza’a and Banu Quraysh would worship their idols from afar but never touch them as they were considered too sacred. The polytheists of pre-Islamic Mecca would travel back and forth to the idols of the god and goddess seven times as part of their fertility rites during the hajj, which in Muslim sources is a corruption of the Abrahamic interpretation of Hagar running between the mountains in search of water for Ishmael.
The god Isaf was also nicknamed Mu’tim at-Ta’ir or “Feeder of the Birds” as idols made of date meal were offered at his hill of as-Safa and birds would eat them; to the Arabs, this was believed to be a confirmation that the god has received the offering and is pleased with it. In later Islamic legend, the mythology of Isaf and Na’ila is retold as the two deities originally being a man and a woman from the tribe of Banu Jurhum who fornicated inside the Ka’aba of Mecca: an act that greatly angered Allah, who consequently turned them into stone for their sins. The Arabs were said to have then, in later times, forgotten the sins of Isaf and Na’ila and began to worship their petrified forms as gods.