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.