The peoples of Arabia were predominately polytheistic, and Mecca was the place of their most important sanctuary, the Ka’ba (see below). Its ancient origins are unknown but, since all accessible deities were represented there, it was a place of annual pilgrimage for all tribes. At one time there were said to have been as many as three hundred and sixty idols in and around the Ka’ba. This, too, was under the control of the Quraysh, who wisely established a non-violent zone that was Haram (sacred, forbidden), radiating for twenty miles around the sanctuary, and made Mecca a place where any tribe could enter without fear and where they were free to practice both religion and commerce.
The Ka’ba in 1910
The Ka’ba was the most important holy place in Arabia even in pre-Islamic times; it contained hundreds of idols representing Arabian tribal gods and other religious figures, including Abraham, Jesus and Mary. It is a massive cube believed to have been built by the Prophet Abraham and dedicated to al-Lah (The God who was the same God worshipped by the Jews and Christians); it stands in the centre of the Sanctuary in the heart of Mecca. Embedded in the Ka’ba’s granite matrix is the famous Black Stone, which tradition says was originally cast down from Heaven as a sign for Adam.
The Zam-Zam holy well is nearby and is believed to have quenched the thirst of Hagar and her child in the wilderness. (Genesis 21:19). Arabs from all over the peninsula made an annual pilgrimage to Mecca, performing traditional rites over a period of several days. Mohammad eventually destroyed all the idols in and around the Ka’ba, and re-dedicated it to the One God, Allah, and the annual pilgrimage became the Hajj, the rite and duty of all Believers.
The historian Ibn Ishaq tells of a reconstruction of the Ka’ba when Mohammad was a boy. A quarrel broke out between the Meccan clans as to which clan should set the Black Stone in place. The solution was to ask the first person who entered the Sanctuary from outside to be the judge. The young Mohammad was the first to do so. He put the stone on to a heavy cloth and had all the clan elders take part of the cloth to raise it and thus share in the task equally.
Mohammad at the Ka’ba from an Ottoman
(Turkish) epic about the life of Mohammad,
completed around 1388, Illustration
by Nakkaş Osman.
Like other pre-Axial societies, pre-Islamic Arab beliefs involved a pantheon of accessible deities with whom people could communicate. They also believed in darh or fate which probably helped them adapt to the high mortality rate. Above all of the lesser Gods was the one remote God, al-Lah – the God who was the same God worshipped by the Jews and Christians. He was beyond the reach of ordinary people. Lesser deities were represented in the Ka’ba and in shrines to their individual honor scattered throughout the peninsula. These gods would be prayed to for rain, children, health and the like and would intercede on their behalf to Allah – the God in times of dire need.
This pre-Islamic attitude towards religion provided a framework that was open to ideas and interpretations. The Sasanian presence in the Arabian Peninsula had brought with it the influence of Zoroastrianism, in which Ahura Mazda and Ahriman, the Gods of Light and Darkness, were in constant battle for the souls of humanity. Jewish presence in the area dates possibly from as early as the Babylonian Exile in 597 BCE and certainly from the time of the Great Revolt in AD 70, almost six centuries before Mohammad. Scholars note that a symbiotic relationship existed between the two peoples: Jews were Arabized and Arabic speaking and over the centuries Arabs had absorbed Jewish beliefs and practices. There were Jewish merchants and Jewish Bedouin, farmers, poets and warriors. What today is the center of Islam, the Ka’ba in Mecca, has ancient Semitic roots: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and others were associated with it long before the rise of Islam. Both Jews and Arabs were believed to be descendants of Abraham, an idol of whom could be viewed inside the pre-Islamic Ka’ba.
Since their earliest times Christian groups were established in Syria and Mesopotamia. In AD 313, the Emperor Constantine made Christianity legal and it became accepted as the imperial religion by Rome. The First Council of Nicaea in AD 325, declared Christ to be both fully God and fully man and established belief in the Trinity which represented God as three in one: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Those who disagreed with this new orthodox position, Nestorians, Gnostics, and Arians for example, were excommunicated and declared heretics. Many fled from persecution, beyond the reach of the Byzantine Empire into the Persian and Arab worlds. Theirs was a proselytizing faith and as they spread throughout the Peninsula a number of tribes were converted. The Ghassanids, who wintered on the border of Byzantium, became the largest early Christian tribal community, the Nabateans another, and by the sixth century the Yemenite city of Najran was a center of Arab Christianity.
The distance from both empires enabled beliefs in the Arab Peninsula to evolve and flourish independently, especially in Mecca. According to Fred M. Donner, Professor of Near Eastern History at the University of Chicago, by the sixth century paganism was receding in the face of the gradual spread of monotheism. Hanifism arose in Mecca and spread throughout the Hijaz. Its members “turned away from” idolatry, seeking to follow the original monotheism of Abraham, before the establishment of either Judaism or Christianity. The Prophet Abraham, who is traditionally believed to have built the Ka’ba, is the ancestor of the Arabs, according to the Old Testament, and the ancestor of the Muslim believers through his faith, according to the Qur’an.
The Hanifs regularly spent some of their time away from the polytheist environment and made retreats to nearby hills to pray, as did Mohammad. One such hill was Hira’ the location where Mohammad would receive his first revelation from the Archangel Gabriel (Jibreel). Hanifs worshipped only the one God, who required commitment to a moral code: believers had to strive to be morally upright, mindful of an afterlife when one’s choices would be judged.
There is a tradition that tells of a meeting between one of the four founding Hanifs, Zayd, and the young Mohammad. Whether that took place or not, there is little doubt that Mohammad would have been aware of Hanifism since his youth and would have heard Hanif preachers in Mecca. The Qur’an has several entries that mention Hanif, for example: 22:31 Be hanif in religion towards Allah, and never assigning partners to Him: if anyone assigns partners to Allah, it is as if he had fallen from heaven and been snatched up by birds, or the wind had thrown him into a distant place.