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Religion in Pre-Islamic Arabia


Prior to the arrival and initial codification of Islam on the Arabian Peninsula in 622 CE, year one of the Islamic calendar, the physical center of Islam, the Kaaba of Mecca, did not hold only the single symbol of "the God" as it does now. The Kaaba was instead covered in symbols representing the myriad of gods, demons, jinnis, demigods and other assorted creatures which represented the profoundly polytheistic environment of pre-Islamic Arabia. One can infer from this plurality an exceptionally broad context in which mythology could flourish.

Arabs in general worshiped deities similar to the other Semitic deities of the north. Popular deities includede hubal, wadd, 'al-laat, manaa(t), and 'al-"uzzaa. Some tribes had converted to Christianity or Judaism. A few individuals, the haneefs الأَحْناف, had apparently rejected polytheism in favor of a vague monotheism. The most prominent Arab Christian kingdoms were the Ghassanid and Lakhmid kingdoms. When Himyarite kings (Yemen) converted to Judaism in the late 4th century, the elites of the other prominent Arab kingdom, the Kindites, being Himyirite vassals, apparently also converted (at least partly). With the expansion of Islam, most Arabs rapidly became Muslim, and polytheistic traditions disappeared.

Important Arab deities included:

'al-laah اللَّه : This name refers now to a strictly transcendent single God. However, to most pre-Islamic Arabs 'al-laah was the name of a god that was equivalent to the Canaanite Ēl אל , the supreme god and the father all gods and goddesses.

The word 'al-laah is a combination of two parts:

الـ + إِلَه = اللَّه

'al + 'ilaah = 'al-laah

The God

'ilaah إِلَه  is a general name for any god in all Semitic languages. It is a combination of a word and a particle:

إِل + اه = إِلَه

'il + aah = 'ilaah

O God

Adding aah اه to nouns is very common in Arabic. It is still used in many spoken dialects today. Examples:

O lord


= يَاْ رَبّ


O mother


يَاْ أُمّ  =


O (my) eye


يَاْ عَيْن  =


O (my) woe


يَاْ وَيْل  =


The word 'il إِل means "lord." This is the stem of 'al-laah and it is the same name of the supreme god of many other Semitic peoples.

Eloheem אלוהים , the famous Hebrew name for God has also an equivalent in Arabic. This is 'al-laahumm(a) اللَّهُمَّ . While it is a clear plural noun in Hebrew, it is not as clearly plural in classical Arabic.

'al-laat اللاَّت : this is the feminine of the word 'al-laah.

The feminine of 'ilaah إِلَه (god) is 'ilaaha(t) إِلَهَة (goddess). 


الـ + إِلَهَة = اللاَّت

'al + 'ilaaha(t) = 'al-laa(t)

The Goddess

We mentioned before that the rule of pronouncing the feminine -at as -a is not obligatory in Arabic, although it is very widely observed.

'al-laat was the bride or consort of the Father God 'al-laah. She was one of three goddesses that the pre-Islamic Meccans (Quraysh قُرَيْش ) referred to as "The Daughters of God." 'al-laat was also worshipped by the Nabataeans of Petra, who equated her with the Greek Athena and the Roman Minerva. They believed that 'al-laat was the mother of Hubal, and hence the mother-in-law of Manaa(t).

The other two of the three chief goddesses of Mecca were:

'al-"uzzaa العُّزَّى 

Manaa(t) مَنَاْة


Hubal هُبَل :  the moon god, he was chief among the elder gods and was the senior-most of the 360 god idols worshipped in the Kaaba before Muhammad abolished their worship in 630 CE.

The Kaaba was dedicated to Hubal, and contained 360 idols which might represented the days of the year. According to legend, about four hundred years before the birth of Muhammad, a man named "amr ('i)bn luhayy عَمْرُو بْنُ لُبَيٍّ had placed a Hubal idol onto the roof of the Kaaba, and this idol was one of the chief deities of the ruling Quraysh tribe. The idol was made of red agate, and shaped like a human, but with the right hand broken off and replaced with a golden hand. When the idol was moved inside the Kaaba, it had seven arrows in front of it, which were used for divination.

When Muhammad finally conquered Mecca in 630 CE, he ended the Quraysh tradition of idol-worship by smashing the statue of Hubal along with the other 360 idols at the Kaaba, and re-dedicated the structure to 'al-laah, the sole God.

Other Arabian deities included:

wadd وَدّ

Suwaa" سُوَاْع

Yarooth يَغُوْث


Nasr نَسْر


Before the coming of Islam, those gods and others were worshiped by most Arabs. Some tribes had converted to Christianity or Judaism. A few individuals, the hanifs الأَحْناف, had apparently rejected polytheism in favor of a vague monotheism. The most prominent Arab Christian kingdoms were the Ghassanid and Lakhmid kingdoms. When Himyarite kings (Yemen) converted to Judaism in the late 4th century, the elites of the other prominent Arab kingdom, the Kindites, being Himyirite vassals, apparently also converted (at least partly). With the expansion of Islam, most Arabs rapidly became Muslim, and polytheistic traditions disappeared.


Influence of Pre-Islamic Beliefs


Although Islam abolished many of the mythological beliefs of pre-Islamic times, stories of genies, magic lamps, flying carpets, and wishes contained in tales from the Arabian Nights and other works have been passed down through the generations. Those stories have probably been influenced to a large degree by ancient Arabian mythology.

Nonetheless, Islam does recognize the existence of the jinnالجِنّ  . Jinns are not the genies of modern lore, and they are not all evil, as demons are described in Christianity, but as creatures that co-exist with humans.

The word genie comes from the Arabic jinn. This is not surprising considering that the story of "alaa'< 'al-deen عَلاءُ الدِيْن = Aladdin, passed through Arabian merchants en route to Europe.

The belief in jinn is still solid for many Muslims today, and anecdotes of the deeds of jinns are common. Many psychiatric and neurotic disorders are still attributed to the actions of jinns by some people.

In Islam the evil jinn is referred to as shaytaan شَيْطَاْن (Satan), and 'iblees إِبْلِيْس is the chief of shaytaans. 'iblees was the first jinn who disobeyed 'al-lah. According to Qur'aan, the jinns were created from the flame of fire, angles were created from light, and mankind was created of clay.

The Qur'aan tells that 'iblees was once a pious servant of 'al-lah, but when 'al-lah created Adam from clay, 'iblees became very jealous, and arrogant and disobeyed 'al-lah.

Adam was the first man, and man was the greatest creation of 'al-lah. 'iblees could not stand this, and refused to acknowledge a creature made of "dirt" (man). 'al-lah condemned 'iblees to be punished after death eternally in the hellfire. 'al-lah had created hell.

'iblees asked 'al-lah if he may live to the last day and have the ability to mislead mankind and jinns, 'al-lah said that 'iblees may only mislead those whom have forsaken 'al-lah. 'al-lah then turned 'iblees's countenance into horridness and condemned him to only have powers of trickery.

Adam ('aadam آدَم ) and Eve (Hawwaa'< حَوّاء ) were both together misled by 'iblees into eating the forbidden fruit, and consequently fell from the garden of Eden to earth.

The ancient concept of the "evil eye" العَيْن  is also still widespread amongst Muslims.  Amulets are sometimes used to neutralize the effect of evil eye, though its use is forbidden in Islam, as are all talismans and superstitions. Among traditional Muslims, various verses from the Qur'aan are sometimes recited for blessing, or protection from such supernatural threats.


Arabs Today


Arabs Today are overwhelmingly Muslims. Arab Muslims are Shia شِيْعَة , Sunni سُنَّة or Ibadhite إِباضِيَّة . The Druze الدُرُوْز faith is usually considered separate. The self-identified Arab Christians المَسِيْحِيُّونَ generally follow Eastern Churches such as the Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic churches.

Today, Sunni Islam dominates in most areas (~90% of Muslims are Sunnis). Shia Islam is dominant in Iraq, Bahrain, eastern Saudi Arabia, south Lebanon, the Batina region in Oman and northern Yemen. The tiny Druze community follow a secretive faith particularly similar to Shia Islam.


Arab Christians

Arab Christians predate Arab Muslims, as there were many Arab tribes which adhered to Christianity since the first century, including the Nabateans and the Ghassanids (who were of Qahtani origin and spoke Yemeni-Arabic as well as Greek), who protected the south-eastern frontiers of the Roman and Byzantine Empires in north Arabia. The tribes of Tay'< طَيْئ , "abd 'al-qays عَبْدُ القَيْس , and Tarlib تَغْلِب were also known to have included a large number of Christians prior to Islam. The southern Arabian city of Najran was also a center of Arab Christianity, and were made famous by virtue of their persecution by the king of neighboring Yemen, himself an enthusiastic convert to Judaism. The leader of the Arabs of Najran during the period of persecution, 'al-harith الحَاْرِث , was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church as St. Aretas. The first Christian ruler in history was an Arab called Abgar VIII of Edessa, who converted ca. 200 CE.

Throughout many eras of history, Arab Christians have co-existed fairly peacefully with followers of the other religions of the Middle East (principally Islam and Judaism). Even after the rapid expansion of Islam from the 7th century AD onwards through the Islamic conquests, many Christians chose not to convert to Islam and instead maintain their pre-existing beliefs. As "People of the Book", Christians in the region are accorded certain rights by theoretical Islamic law ('al-sharee"a(t) الشَرِيْعَة ) to practice their religion free from interference or persecution; that was, however, strictly conditioned with first paying a special amount of money (tribute) obliged from non-Muslims called 'al-jizya(t) الجِزْيَة  in form of either cash or goods, usually a wealth of animals, in exchange for their safety and freedom of worship. The tax was not levied on slaves, women, children, monks, the old, the sick, hermits, or the poor.

Like Arab Muslims and Arab Jews, Arab Christians refer to God as 'al-lah, since this is the word in Arabic for "God". The use of the term 'al-lah in Arab Christian churches predates Islam by several centuries. In more recent times (especially since the mid 1800s), some Arabs from the Levant region have been converted from these native, traditional churches to more recent Protestant ones, most notably Baptist and Methodist churches. This is mostly due to an influx of Western, predominantly American Evangelical, missionaries.

Arab Christians today are about 10 - 12 million. The majority of them live in the Middle East. Lebanon contains the largest number of Christians in proportion to its total population. It is believed that they make up around 35% of Lebanon's population (1,300,000). Arab Christians have made significant contributions to Arab civilization and still do. Many of Arab literature's finest poets were Arab Christians, and many Arab Christians were physicians, writers, government officials, and men of letters.





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