Monday, 21 October 2013

Ritual and practices in pagan Arabia

A few of the rituals of modern Islam are traceable to pagan roots, here are some practised before and after the emergence of Muhammad:

The tawaf ritual was performed both during the pilgrimage to a shrine (Hajj) or in home worship. In the home, the household would set up a baetyl and circumambulate it seven times whilst uttering the talbiyah invocation: seven being a mystical number to the pagan Arabs as it was significant of the seven planets. Reportedly, the pagan Arabs would perform the tawaf naked as they refused to approach their gods in the clothes they had sinned in although from an Islamic point of view, this practice was seen as blasphemous and disrespectful and as a prime example of pre-Islamic ignorance or jahiliyyah

The Hajj is a pilgrimage to the Ka'aba in Mecca, the holiest site in the Islamic world. This ritual however is truly pre-Islamic, when tribes all across the Arabian peninsula would forget their tribal feuding and converge upon the city for worship and trade. This practice originated amongst the pagan Arabs but was not exclusive to them, as Christian and Jewish tribes would also join the pagans in festivities, trading of goods and worship. The pagans of Mecca even included images of Mary, Jesus and Abraham in the Ka'aba to attract the attention of the other faiths, displaying that Christianity and Judaism in pre-Islamic Arabia often enjoyed a syncretic relationship with the native polytheistic animism of the region. It is noted too, that the pagan Arabs would shave their heads whilst on the hajj to the various shrines near Mecca and Yathrib.

Janazah is the Arabic term for burial practices, or 'funeral'. In pre-Islamic Arabia, rites associated with mourning were called al-Niyaha ('the Lamentations') which Arab women performed by shaving their heads, scratching their faces and tearing their clothes whilst wailing and shrieking loudly; the latter being said to drive away evil spirits from the corpse of the deceased. An Arab man who was a member of the deceased's family would perform niyaha by wearing sackcloth or some other coarse material and spreading sand on their heads: what this symbolized is unclear but it important to note that this ritual is indentical to that of the Hebrews and also the people of Ugarit. Grave goods were often buried with the deceased and in the case of pagan sheikhs, a camel would be tethered at the grave and left to starve so that it would accompany the sheikh to the afterlife (akhirah). Poets often expressed that they wished for the graves of their loved ones to be "refreshed with abundant rain".

In pre-Islamic Arabian religion, the talbiyah was a prayer: a chant that was loudly acclaimed by worshipers as they completed a processional circuit around an idol, temple or sacred stone which was the abode of a divinity during a pilgrimage. The purpose of the talbiyah was to show gratitude to the deity or deities for assisting and supporting their devotees; in addition to placing emphasis on the benevolence and power of the deity.The main talbiyah in the pre-Islamic period differed from its incarnation post-Muhammad in that it proclaimed that there were other gods besides Allah although it asserted the fact that Allah was supreme even among the polytheists. 

''Labbayka Allāhumma! Labbayka! Labbayka lā sharika laka, illa sharikun huwa laka, Tamlikuhu wa-mā malaka.''

This pre-Islamic talbiyah translates as:

''At thy service O Deity! At thy service! At thy service!
Thou hast no associate save the one who is thine,
Thou hast dominion over him and over what he possesseth.''

The point of this was to proclaim Allah's glory even over the other pagan gods who were powerless to intercede on behalf of the worshiper without the high god Allah's sanction. The word 'Allāhumma' was used as an invocation to any divine being during the pre-Islamic hajj and was not specific to Allāh alone. There was also another talbiyah of the Quraysh in specific veneration of the warrior god Hubal which goes as: 

"Labbayka Allāhuma! Labbayka, innana laqah. Haramtana 'ala assinati ar-rimah. Yahsuduna an-nasu 'ala an-najah." 

Translated into English, this talbiyah reads as  

"At thy service O Deity! At thy service, we are immune. Thou hast protected us from the edges of the lances. People envy us for our success."

The talbiyah ritual was carried through into Islam as part of the Muslim hajj, although any references to polytheism were removed. The god Allah was considered to be the benevolent creator by the pagan Arabs and was believed to be remote, distant and inaccessible to the everyday man and woman; so other deities were called upon to intercede for Him or bring the worshiper closer to Him. The concept of shafā'a, that is, gods and goddesses interceding on behalf of Allah, is reflected especially in the myriad talbiyah that were chanted by the Quraysh and other Arab tribes as they circumambulated the Ka'aba, going as: 

'Wa'l-Lāt-a wa'l Uzzā, wa Manāt-a al-thalithāta al-'ukhrā, Tilk al-gharāniq al-'ulā, wa inna shafā'ata-hunna la-turtajā.' 

In English:

'By al-Lāt and al-'Uzzā, and Manāt, the third goddess, the other; Verily they are the most exalted cranes, and their intercession is to be hoped for.''

The talbiyah of the tribe of Banu Thaqif who lived in Ta'if, not far from Mecca, proclaimed Allah to be be superior to their tribal goddesses al-Lāt and al-'Uzzā; the verse going as:

'Uzzāhumu wa'l-Lātu fi yadayka, Dānat laka al-asnāmu ta'ziman ilayka, Qad adh'anat bi silmihā ilayka.' 

Translated as:

'Al-'Uzzā and al-Lāt are in thy hands, Allāh; the idols submit to thee by glorifying thee; they approach thee submissively in devotion.'

The talibiyah of the worshipers of Jihār, the chief god of the tribe of Hawazin and the patron deity of the 'Ukaz fair, went as:

'Labbayka j'al dhunubanā jubār, wa-hdinā li-awdahi al-manār, wa-matti'nā wa-mallinā bi-Jihār.'

This translates as:

'At thy service, let our trespasses be unpunished; lead us towards the clearest signpost; let us enjoy life for a long time and let us live long through Jihār.'

The Ifada was a ritual feast celebrated in honor of the weather god Quzah by the tribes of Mecca and was performed by facing his sanctuary at Muzdalifah during the rites of tahannuth. This festival was usually celebrated after the autumnal equinox. 

In pagan Arabia, the sa'ibah was an animal dedicated to a god that was left to pasture without attention. The mother of the bahirah (she-camel), after ten successful births the sa'ibah was not ridden or milked and was allowed to wander where she wished - becoming the sole property of the god whose shrine she wandered near. Muhammad ibn Abd-'Allah, prophet of Islam, vehemently condemned and outlawed the practice of sa'ibah, wasilah, bahirah and hamiyah.

Qurban ("Nearness", "Sacrifice") was performed by sacrificing the first of the flock or the first of the harvest. Essentially it is thanking the god by offering it the first cut of what the family gained thus placating the god and gaining its blessing. This was a ritual shared by the Hebrew tribes of Palestine, who called it korban; with both the Arabic and Hebrew words meaning "nearness", a reference to the nearness felt by the worshiper towards the divinity. 

The pagan Arabians would offer qurban to a deity in a very simplistic manner, addressing their gods and invoking them with a short prayer and then by spilling the blood of the animal on the altar, allotting portions of the sacrificed animals meat among the tribe. The god would be satisfied with the blood alone. Sacrificial offerings to the gods in pre-Islamic Arabia were not always of blood: the Arabs would often offer libations of milk, oil or wine; the first of the harvest (farā'i); incense; and expensive ornaments, to please the deity.

The altars of the pagan Najdi and Hijazi nomads were usually made of solid rock or built out of unhewn stone - the harshness of the desert steppe and the practical mindset of the Bedouin preventing the construction of more extravagant stone temples like those in Tayma and the kingdoms of the Yemen. This humble form of sacrifice was also the earliest among the Semitic peoples, originating with nomadic Hebrew and Arab tribes and continuing through with the Bedouin until the spread of Islam in the 6th century AD. In the sacred open air enclosure (haram) where sacrifices were offered, only the ritually clean and unarmed could enter to worship the baetyl or statue of the god installed there with worship being accompanied by music; clapping; dancing; whistling and prostrating before the enshrined god or goddess.

On a related matter, the practice of qurban was also shared by the cousins of the Arabs: the Midianites, Hebrews and Edomites to the north-west of the Arabian peninsula who would offer a sacrifice of an animal (or very rarely a human) at the infamous High Places attested to in the Hebrew Bible. The sedentary peoples of Yemen, Mecca and the north Arabian oases practised qurban too, but on a more complicated scale with established temples and a priesthood (kuhaniyyah), though the original spiritual concepts of supplication and placation were still maintained. 

Barakah in pre-Islamic Arabian thought is a term used to denote a blessing or a benevolent force that is generated from a god or goddess, which could be gained by various means including invocations; sacrifice; talismans; offerings of gifts to the deity, and by completing rituals such as the hajj pilgrimage.The Arabian barakah is equal in concept to the Hebrew berakhah and denoted any sanctifying power. In Islamic belief, however, Allah is the only source of barakah

Tahannuth is the pre-Islamic Arabian term used to denote devotional religious practices that were performed by the pagan Quraysh either during the hajj pilgrimage or on the month of Ramadan. The rites included various acts of charity such as feeding the poor and freeing slaves, in addition to mystical rites (manasik): the main of which involved undertaking a sojourn ('ukuf) to the shrines (masajid) and high places in the mountains of Mecca, where for one night they would dwell, and offer prayers (du'a), fast, and meditate in the presence of gods and spirits. The tahannuth concluded with the devotees returning back to Mecca from their retreat at the shrines and circumambulating the Ka'aba seven times in a week, in veneration of the seven planets of antiquity. The various retreats where the pagan Arabs would perform their rites included shrines located at Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah. 

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Social context and spiritual belief in pagan Arabia

In pre-Islamic times, most of the pagan Arabian peoples fell into either two categories:

Sedentary Arabs - sedentary life was not common in Arabia, as the arid landscape of central and northern Arabia provided no stable living conditions. However, towns were established at oases in northern and central Arabia, such as Mecca, Yathrib, Dumat al-Jandal, Jeddah and a few trading posts in the Najd desert. Sedentary life was built mainly around trade or agriculture (especially for the kingdoms in the south of the peninsula), and the spiritual views of the sedentary Arabs were mainly concerned with this. For example, a Meccan merchant may ask the god Hubal for a glimpse into the future of his trade, or a farmer in Yemen may make an offering to Amm'anas to preserve his crops. The sedentary Arabs, specifically the farmers and citizens of the kingdoms of Yemen and Oman would also be concerned with sun worship. The sun, who they called Shams was a goddess who heavily influenced the lives of farmers and tradesman and they would revere her due to the belief she facilitated the growth of crops and Frankincense trees (Frankincense was a major export of southern Arabia). However, Shams had a volatile side: she would dry up crops and her extreme heat agitated people and animals, therefore offerings were made to appease her in order to prevent her from becoming angry with the people and taking it out on their agricultural ventures.

Nomadic Arabs - since Arabia is mostly desert, most of the tribes had no choice but to constantly be on the move to find new grazing areas for their flocks, and new and reliable sources of water. Hence, the spirituality of the nomadic Bedouin tribesman would be primarily concerned with survival and health over trade and wealth. Oases and vegetation were in extreme importance to the Bedouins, as it provided food and water for them and their flocks. Some tribes who would have been previously nomadic even established towns around large oases and settled their permanantly. The beliefs of the nomadic Arabian tribes would have been mainly animistic and totemistic, with a moon god being of importance; spirits were believed to inhabit everything - interesting rocks, trees, cemeteries, springs. All of nature was alive and important to the Bedouins. Also, nomadic Arabs were more concerned with the moon god, who they saw as a god providing relief and dew from the intense heat of the sun goddess, which is why they let their flocks graze at night. Jinn (spirits) were very real beings to the Bedouins, acting as guardians of sacred sites and spirits of localities, similiar to the Roman genii and animistic beings of the Celts and Africans. The Jinn were sometimes even worshipped exclusively by Bedouin clans such as the banu-Mulayh, who did not feel the need for any other deities except for Jinn.

Pagan Arabian beliefs and customs - the gods of the ancient Arabs were mainly represented by baetyls, idols and natural phenomena. A sacrifice (Qurba') would be made at an altar ('Itr) before the god, serving either as food or as a means of pacifying or persuading it to carry out the supplicants wishes. When a child was born, a lamb would be sacrificed on behalf of the child, in order to procure the gods favour for that child for the rest of his/her life - this is still practiced today under the name of aqiqah, though it has become Islamized. The pagan Arabians believed that the human soul was an ethereal substance distinct from the human body. At the time of death, breath along with life itself escaped through its natural passage, the mouth or the nostrils. When a person passed away on his death‑bed, his soul was said to escape through his nostrils (mata hatfa anfihi), and in the case of a violent death, such as on a battle‑field, through a large wound.

'When a person was murdered, he was supposed to long for vengeance and to thirst for the blood of the murderer. If the vengeance was not taken, the soul of the murdered man was believed to appear above his grave in the shape of an owl crying out, "Give me to drink" (isquni), until the murder was avenged. The restless soul in the form of a screeching owl was supposed to escape from the skull, the skull being the most characteristic part of the dead body. The poets of ancient Arabia (who were held in utmost importance) often said that they wished that the graves of those whom they love may be refreshed with abundant rain.' 

Idols in pagan Arabia were of great importance, as they were in other old Semitic countries such as Babylon and Palestine. The idol (wathan, nusub) was seen by the pagan Arabians as the house of the deity (baetyl), where the god or goddess would temporarily instill his or her essence and hear the pleas of the worshippers. As such, the Arabians did not actually worship the material idol, but instead they worshipped the spirit that was believed to temporarily inhabit it. Meteorites (Bayt Ilah) were objects of extreme veneration for the pre-Islamic Arabians as they were seen as a gift from the high god Allah himself, housing immense celestial energy. Also among the variation of idols, outcrops of simple stone were believed to be the houses of Jinn or deities, as were trees and springs. In battle, the Arabs would bring their idol with them on a leather canopy called a qubba that was fixed onto the back of a camel in order to bring victory.

Above is a bas relief of the Meccan mother goddess Allat from the city of Ta'if in the Hijaz province of Saudi Arabia, dating from the 4th century AD. It is remarkable how it managed to survive the destroying and desecrating the shrines of the pagan gods in Arabia, upon the orders of Muhammad and his successors. Here the goddess Allat is represented with a sheath of wheat or a flail - exemplifying her traits as a goddess of agriculture and vegetation, typical of the Earth Mother archetype that once dominated the spiritual lives of the ancient Arabs and other Semitic peoples.

Above are idols in the typical style of wathan (image) and sanam (statue) from ancient Qataban in the Yemen. The simplistic style these idols were crafted in were common throughout pagan Arabia with notably defined eyes and the hands open in a gesture of protection, benevolence and divinity. As in Babylon and Palestine, the idols and baetyls of the pagan Arabs were often swathed in strips of fine cloth and adorned with precious stones and jewellery. The statue below is from south Arabia and is made of limestone. It depicts an unnamed south Arabian goddess, perhaps Shams, in the same style as the ones shown above.