Reading History as A Struggle of Tawheed vs Shirk or The Oppressor vs The Oppressed

Malick Elias

For Muslim students to acquire a holistic understanding of the life of Muhammad (pbuh) and a worldview of Monotheism, a brief study of the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Persia, Rome and Byzantine is important. Why? Simply because the Holy Quran and the Hadith traditions repeatedly refer to these places and even though we are now further removed from those histories, knowledge of them can enhance our understanding of the past and the present events.

Furthermore, there is a much broader aim here for Muslim scholarship to pursue beyond the mere stirring of their students’ imaginations; and it is that they rise to the challenge of sketching a historical and archeological discourse for that time in history when humanity could have been described as sharing an unified experience before God or that which is known in use today as ‘Tawheed’ and when did their breaking apart took place and thus began the period of division or ‘Shirk’.

The following pages, is a brief journey through the rise and fall of some key civilizations of the ancient world, residues which heralded the advent of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and have shaped the identities of today.

My historiography begins in Mesopotamia, modern Iraq, (Northwest Syria, Western Iran and Southern Turkey,) at around 3500 BC. Mesopotamia has been referred to as the starting point of the first recognizable civilization, with Egypt following at about a slightly later date about 3100 BC.  Other great civilizations of antiquity to have appeared in the region at later dates were the Minoan civilization in Crete, about 2000 BC, and a little slightly earlier about 2500 BC in India. The Middle East was arguably among the first regions to emerge from the glacial period thus making it an almost natural venue for the discovery and practice of the art of cultivation. (Amir Taheri, The Cauldron, 1988)

There is a tendency to debate whether Egypt or Mesopotamia was the first cradle of civilization. That is a question, among many, which I will leave for the occupational historian to resolve.  However here are some details to help you form an opinion. One, what is certain is that the Nile as well as the Tigris provided for the first communities a cool climate and an abundance of fertile oases for city-states to develop. Two, I am beginning from 3500BC and this is not the start of human civilization, but it is a figure based upon artifacts retrieved from excavations. Three, there are chronologists who allocate the lands of Kush, modern day Sudan and Ethiopia to be the forerunners of civilization, beginning around 6280BC. (A.J.Rogers, 1982)  Your task would be to go as far back as you can and establish what is true and false on the subject to form your own opinion. Avoid making judgments, however, upon personalities but seek to qualify your views on the basis of research.

So the first City-states to evolve were in Sumer in lower Mesopotamia, which reached its apex around 3,500 BC. The Sumerians a non-Semitic people, not related to the Aryans, had conquered the Iranian Plateau some five centuries earlier. Historians because of debate surrounding the origins of the Sumerians, they have not agreed upon a unified point of view. Were they the earliest inhabitants of the area or were they foreign tribes (from Madyan) that migrated to lower Mesopotamia? One may never know. What is definite however is that they were responsible for many artistic, scientific and technological achievements of the era.

In literature, Sumerian wedge-shaped (cuneiform) writing was done on clay tablets. These tablets show some 2,000 pictographic signs. They were also known to have written poetry. One of their earliest preserved literary documents is Pepi’s Papyrus, “Instructions to a Son”.  It might have been somewhere after the conquest of Egypt by the Hyksos, “Shepherd kings” 2,200 BC, that the script changes from Sumerian style (horizontal, left to right) to Semitic style (vertical, right to left).

In science and technology, the Sumerians as well as the Egyptians are recorded to have acquired the technology of smelting gold, silver, copper and iron alloys. The use of the Potter’s wheel was common, and the manufacture of painted pottery was in daily use. Agricultural tools and supplies for the growing of wheat and others types of food was normal to their daily lives. (Bernard Grun, The Timetables of History, First Touchstone edition 1982)  In the achievements of Sumer, Taheri (1988) noted that man first discovered that trade could be more profitable than marauding raids on one’s neighbors. However, this civilization appears to have been polytheists and remain predominantly so throughout the ages of prophecy. If one were to read chronologists writing from the perspective of the Western secularist tradition, mention have been repeatedly made of the impact of Mesopotamian mythology upon the ‘Abrahamic faiths.’ For instance, they cite that the story of ‘The Great Flood Myth’ found in early Sumerian texts (Gilgamesh) around the Third dynasty of Ur (2010-2000BC) as having been incorporated into Biblical and thence Qur’anic stories of Prophet Noah and the floods.  What they fail to mention is the possibility of the supposed myth being true, being passed into Sumer literature through actual historical occurrence. The Holy Quran, indicates the stubbornness of the people occupying that region at the time:

And We certainly sent Noah to his people, and he remained among them a thousand years minus fifty years, and the flood seized them while they were wrongdoers.” (C:29, V:14)

For believers, those myths are but legends that withstood the test of time. Abraham of Ur Kasdim or Chaldees, Babylonia, emerges around the time of 1800 BC and from Quranic reports he received little on no official support for Monotheism unlike his counterparts in Egypt at later dates in history, as in the case of Akhenaten (Amunhotep IV, 1352-1338 BC).  If the dates of Prophet Yūsuf ibn Yaʿqūb ibn Isāq ibn Ibrāhīm are correct (1610 BC – 1500 BC) then it is possible that Akhenaten could have heard about the historical figure of Yusuf and romanticised an earlier period in Egyptian history when justice, peace and harmony prevailed in the kingdom (monotheistic practices). We know from the history of Akhenaten’s rule that many resented his rule and his attempts to sideline the priesthood in favour for a monotheistic God. The problem was that those dire conditions which two or three centuries earlier brought a non-Egyptian to the prestigious courts of the King, did not exist and so his experiment with Monotheism was short lived. Furthermore, Akhenaten’s brand of Monotheism was not the same as that which the Quran attributed to the Prophets and Messengers of the past, and so it is true to say that he evolved alongside it an anthropomorphic flavour in the Sun (Aten) as an emanation of the divine to appease the masses.

Studying this part of ancient Egyptian history, one can conclude that the practice of Monotheism by the Bani Israel who arrived in Egypt during the time of Yusuf and resided there until the mass Exodus at the time of Moses and under the Pharoah Ramesses II (1279-1213BC) was largely a private communal affair; but one whose political intentions were misunderstood by the Egyptian ruling class at the time. It is also possible to conclude that given historical events post Yusuf and Akhenaten IV, Monotheism, its patrons had grown in considerable numbers and influence and was a source of suspicion and threat to a Ramesses II who saw himself as a divine deity.  One may ask, that if the premise of Monotheism once preceded polytheistic cults did it bring along with it the suspicion of all domineering way of life leaving little room for individual expression. In other words is it possible that the Monotheist vs. Polytheist dichotomy is the same ideological divide between globalists universalistic forms of political ideology and nationalistic and regional or cultural ones.  And if so, of what significance is that reality for a Muslim’s understanding of the world.

Now if there be any substance to the above notion of ‘Monotheism’ equating a form of globalist ideology, where are the successful models of its presence in the history of the ancient Prophets and Messengers? Are the achievements of Prophet Muhammad the only model upon which Muslims can refer to as an enduring model of Monotheism de facto? Be aware however that there is an alternative theory which places Polytheism as a forerunner of Monotheism and that the origins of the belief in a God evolutes from a convoluted form of animism into polytheism and thence Monotheism as the most developed form of thinking about the supernatural.  Determining what is the Quranic edit on the issue from the onset will allow for the coherent construction of a narrative of ‘Tawheed and Shirk’.

As mentioned earlier the Nile brought life to Egypt. Every year with the overflowing of its banks and depositing of rich layers of mud and soil to existing fields, from time immemorial, the Nile was responsible for the production of an abundance of crops and vegetation.  Moreover, it was instrumental in luring migrations from surrounding neighbors from The Sudan, and Ethiopia.

The deepest roots of Egyptian civilization reveal Hamitic peoples in Upper Egypt (the South, up the Nile) from about 5,000 BC. Those people were hunters, fishermen, agriculturalists and building papyrus boats to get about on the river.  It is probable that during the Mesopotamia civilization, Semitic people entered the country bringing with them the knowledge of bronze, pottery and writing, and thus founding what became known as Lower Egypt (the North, down the Nile).

This cross culture of peoples made First Dynasty of Egypt under King Menes of Egypt 3200 BC, after he had conquered the North, thus uniting the country, in which a very rich civilization in culture, art, science and technology developed. This new city state had developed into an organized state covering the whole of the Nile Valley and spreading its trade and cultural influence to Nubia and Ethiopia in the south and to Palestine and Syria in the North. The rising Egyptian civilization was prosperous enough to undertake vast public works projects and to finance an increasing elite of intellectuals, civil servants and priests as well as a standing army that was the first in human history.

Around the second millennium BC a series of climatic catastrophes in the Arabian Peninsula and in Central Asia provoked mass migrations towards the more fertile and better watered parts of the region. These migrations often assumed the form of full-scale invasions.  The Hittites and the Mitanni, for example, captured Anatolia and parts of Northwest Iran through a series of invasions that lasted over more than two centuries.  Around the same time the Kassites moved into Mesopotamia and eventually brought about the destruction of Sumer. The confederation of Armenian tribes that consisted of the Canaanites, Philistines, Israelites, and Phoenicians spread into the Levant while the Hyksos established themselves into parts of Egypt.

With Sumer wiped off the map of the Middle East it was the turn of other parts of Mesopotamia to develop their original civilizations.  Babylon, on the lower Tigris, emerged as the ancient world’s largest and most prosperous city where immense fortunes made out of farming and trade were partly invested in the advancement of arts, sciences and technology.  In 1,200-1,000 BC Mesopotamia produced its first ‘Imperial’ power in the shape of Assyria based upon the fertile lands of upper Tigris.  Assyria was more of a war machine than a state and spent most of its energies in invading neighboring lands from Khuzestan to Palestine.

The Assyrian Empire was in turn overthrown by the Medes (Median), an Aryan people, who had entered the Iranian Plateau in 1,000 BC at the same time as the kindred tribes of the Persians who settled on the southern slopes of the Zagros.  The Medes created an Empire of their own, the first in the Iranian Plateau, based on their capital city of Hegmataneh (modern Hamadan) and controlled of present day Azerbaijan, Kurdistan and parts of Mesopotamia and Syria.  However, their power ended with the conquest of the Achaemenids whom the Greeks referred to as the Persians. (The Cauldron, 1988)

Four to five hundred years before Persians began creating an impact upon history, there began in ancient Palestine the reign of Prophet Kings. Islamic sources mentions the narratives of the two most significant of those Prophet Kings Prophet Dawood and Sulieman (1000-962BC) hinting to a reign which encapsulated ‘pure Monotheism’ in its essence, given that it was during the period of their governance Israel was considered a united entity.

The Persians:

The Achaemenids have been traced to a legendary King named Achaemens, also referred to as Cyrus the conqueror of Babylon.  He came to power in (550BC) and established an Empire, which extended from present day Afghanistan as far as Hindu Kush to Libya and from Greece to the Arabia Sea, the largest Empire of its time and before it. They conquered and inherited a variety of civilizations ranging from the Assyro-Babylonian to the Egyptian. Cyrus was careful not to repeat the mistakes of previous rulers before him, so his main priority was to unite the various tribes and nations under his rule. The Jews, for example, were treated kindly under his rule. Under this Empire Aramaic became the official language.

It is at this juncture one has to ask questions such as: One, to what extent if any, did Jewish ‘Monotheism’ have upon the benevolent king or his society. Two, were there any Prophets or Messengers amongst the Persians? These two questions are interrelated and are sources of controversy and misunderstanding. Some commentators upon this period suggest that it was in fact the Jews who inherited ‘Monotheism’ from the teachings of a Persian Prophet, Zoroaster. I am inclined to the proposition that he was instrumental in reconnecting them to their core beliefs centuries after their division and collapse of Israel.  Imam At-Tabari amongst others establishes a link between the Jewish Prophet Jeremiah (pbuh) and Zaradusht Ibn Isfiman who at one time was a disciple of the former that translated the works of his master to the Persian King at the time and convinced him to become a follower of Monotheism. Others have argued the likelihood of Prophets and Messengers being raised from amongst the Persians and the receiving of divine revelation, which was later entirely erased by God.  The Holy Prophet, Muhammad (pbuh) states that God had sent over 124,000 Prophets and Messengers to humanity and so it is likely that Prophets and or Messengers would have been sent to them. To what extent is this analysis is true, has to be further established.

Cyrus or Achaemens (550BC) was recognized as a world historical figure of his time and became the focus of many ambitious conquerors, which, in the unfolding centuries tried to rival him.

The Achaemenids maintained authority until their invasion by Alexander the Great, King of Macedonia in (334BC). Alexander is said to have succeeded his father Philip of Macedonia, and to have inherited his plans to raise a national army for the invasion of Persia. His father never did manage to carry out his plans and was murdered in 336 BC, by the Greeks, most probably, due to his conquest of the complete Greek Nation in 338 BC.

Alexander ruled the Greeks with, the iron fist. He demonstrated his ruthlessness towards renegades and at the same time possessed a great admiration for Greek culture. The latter’s character was due to the fact that Alexander was taught by Aristotle in his early childhood. In the spring of 334 BC he left heading towards Persia and was never to return, he died after conquering the entire Persian empire and extended his empire as far as Russia, Turkistan and India to the far east and to the cities and seaports of Syria and Palestine and the once great civilization of Egypt which he named, after him, its principal city to the north, Alexandria.

Alexander from the fleeing Persian Achaemendian King, Darius the Third, inherited all of that territory. Alexander is reported to have died just before contemplating an extension of his marine waterways along the coasts of Arabia. He died at the age of 32.  One of his greatest achievements was his gesture of cultural integration when, himself taking Darius’ daughter as a wife, in addition to his Bactrian princes, Roxana, he then officiated at the mass wedding of 9000 of his soldiers to eastern women. A policy revisited by many statesmen throughout the following centuries.

Twelve years after the death of Alexander, Iran came under the control of the Seleucids, a Macedonian dynasty based in Mesopotamia. By this time his empire had already been divided and following forty years of warfare, three principal kingdoms emerged: Egypt, seized by Ptolemy Soter, one of Alexander’s generals, whose descendants ruled the country well for the next 300 years, extending its power and influence south of the Nile towards Axum, where its influence gave root to the rise of the Abyssinian empire. The Seleucids Empire; stretching from Afghanistan to Syria, named after Seleucus, another Macedonian general and Macedon, ruled by the Antigonid dynasty, which managed to keep control of the Greek states.  Split up as they were they maintained the Greek language, culture and art. And throughout this period Greek civilization became predominant in the east. There was also a marked visibility of trade and wealth. Alexandria, for example became so wealthy and influential that it soon rivaled Athens as the centre of learning and culture in the Mediterranean.

The Seleucid’s rule ended in (247BC) when an Iranian provincial governor rebelled and founded the Parthian dynasty, which lasted for nearly 500 years. The Parthians were inheritors not originators, therefore producing little in the way of art, literature or technology. They were however skilled fighters, their mounted archers were said to be the deadliest troops in the world. It seemed as if nature had prepared them for the era that was to be dominated by an intense struggle with Romans who entered their lives at about 146 BC.

The Sassanians:

Following the pillage and sacking of the Parthian capital, Ctesiphon, widespread rebellion led to the collapse of the Parthian power around (226CE). This led to the Sassanian Kingdom of Iran, which ruled the Iranian Plateau, Armenia, North Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The first Sassanid, Ardashir, had a strong sense of commitment to revive the Persian culture and tradition. He is said to deliberately evoked memories of the Parthians and the Great hero kings of the past and his successors followed him in cultivating them by sculpture and inscription.  Ardashir claimed all the lands once ruled by Darius and was committed to re-conquering these lands. He managed to retake most of the lands to the Far East, but had to contend with the newly settled invaders from the west, the Romans.

Sassanid Persia was united under a socio-political system meshed with a “religious system” as the recognized official state religion. Zoroastrianism, most probably attributed to one of the prophetic figures of the 6th century BC, Zoroaster, was now made to offer moral as well as ideological guidance for the new empire. This nationalistic aspiration became intensified with the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire.

Sassanid Persia reached its peak in power and civilization under Chosroes I (Khosrau), in the 6th century CE.  But was soon to experience decline under reign of Chosroes II the last of the Great Sassanid rulers.  His greatness came about due to his attempts in making the gasp to reclaim the glory of the Persian Empire.  Seizing the moment with the assassination of an old ally Maurice, whom he felt indebted to for restoring him to his throne, he used the crime as an excuse to launch his attack in the name of revenge. His armies poured into the Levant, ravaging the cities of Syria.

In 615 CE they sacked Jerusalem, bearing away the relic of the mythical “true cross” which he assumed was his most famous treasure.  The following year they went on to invade Egypt; a year later still they pushed on to Constantinople and paused a mile outside its gate, for a while the Persian Empire seemed as if it was restored.   Meanwhile in the West the Roman Empire were experiencing numerous attacks and loss of territory.  It was a dreadful moment for the Roman Empire, as it faced attacks in the East as well from the West.

Just when there seem to be no way out for the Romans, the Imperial Viceroy of Carthage, Heraclius, overthrew Maurice’s successor, and had proven himself to be one of the greatest soldier emperors. He battled the Sassinian soldiers into retreat from the gates of Constantinople to Assyria and Mesopotamia. With the Persian army now beaten, Chosroes the second was murdered and his successor made peace by giving up the cross to be restored in Jerusalem in 629 CE. This symbolized the triumph of Christianity over Paganism. Persian history not long after its last great war in 628 CE was soon to be swept under the power of Islam.

“Alif, Laam, Meem. The Byzantines have been defeated in the nearest land. But they, after their defeat, will overcome.” C:30, V:1-3

The Romans:

Between the years of (146BC to 133BC) the Romans entered the history of the Middle East. This vast acquisition of territory made the Roman Empire very rich and powerful but it also brought many problems. The rich became extremely rich and the poor, most of which were farmers suffered as their farms laid waste and became unprofitable due to cheaper domestic supplies being imported from other parts of the Empire. The farmers were slowly forced to sell off their lands to the money-owning classes. The land was turned into large estates worked by cheap slave laborers. The treatment of those slaves was extremely harsh, which eventually led to unrest and many uprisings; one example is the famous rebellion led by the runaway slave Spartacus, killed in (71BC).

Civil unrest in the Empire along with the threat of insubordination from other insecure tribes continued until the reign of Julius Caesar from about 59 BC to 44 BC.  He brought with him some stability to the Roman Empire. After his assassination a civil war broke out and lasted for 13 years until the reign of Caesar’s nephew Octavian.

Octavian reigned from about 31 BC until 14 CE.  He was arguably the greatest of all the Roman rulers and the driving force behind the organization of a system of state, government, economy and military strategy that continued to work for the next 200 years.

* In the reign of Augustus, in about 4 BC in Palestine, Jesus was born.  It was due to his calls for the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth a euphemism for a return to pure Monotheism (Tawheed) that the priests and elders of the Jewish faith looked on him as a threat to their authority. He was subsequently brought to trial for blasphemy in Jerusalem before Pontius Pilate, the Roman Emperor and for more than 200 centuries later those who accepted his teachings (Christians) were persecuted, especially during the reign of Nero 284-51 CE, and Diocletian 284-305 CE.  Nevertheless the faith continued to spread throughout the Empire and appealed to its many classes.

Diocletian 284-305 CE realized that the task of ruling the Empire and commanding its armies in the field was too great for one man, so he divided it between two rulers, his friend Maximilian, to live in Italy and he himself to rule the eastern part of the Empire from Nicaea in Asia Minor.

In 306-37 CE Constantine, referred to in history as ‘the Great’, reversed this plan by defeating his rivals to become sole Emperor. With this he transferred the capital from Rome to a new city called Constantinople, which he built on the site of old Byzantium at the entrance of the Black sea. In the year 312 CE before the battle of the Milvian Bridge he claimed to experience a ‘Christian vision’ before the battle, which he later won. Because of this, he decreed that the Christians must no longer be persecuted and was baptized on his deathbed in 337 CE. After Constantine’s death he was succeeded by his three sons; Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans.  Constantine II was killed in battle fighting his brother Constans (340).

The Empire was again divided and as Barbarian attacks fell increasingly upon the Western Empire, there was less and less contact between the two emperors.  By way of military strength, treaties and bribery, the Emperors held their enemies at bay until, in (527), there came to the throne a man whose greatest ambition was to win back the lost lands in the West.  His name was Justinian. To a large extend he succeeded until he invaded Italy in (537).  It was said that Justinian worked so hard that he never slept and also that he never made a decision without consulting his wife, the intelligent and beautiful Theodora, a former actress and daughter of a circus animal-trainer.

In order to pay for so many wars and splendid projects, Justinian had to inflict heavy taxes on his subjects and after his death most of the territories, which he had recovered were lost.  His successors tried vainly to ward off Persian attacks in the East, while a Germanic people called Lombards crossed the Alps to occupy northern Italy and the Slavs and Avars, warlike tribesmen from the steppes, pressed into the Balkan Peninsula of south eastern Europe.

Recovery began in (610CE), when the Emperor Heraclius came to the throne.  A brilliant general, he won back many of the lost territories, recaptured Jerusalem and drove the Persians back to their own country.  But within a few years, the dawn of Islam threatened the whole stability of the Roman Empire, and eventually conquered Persia, Syria, Egypt and the rest of North Africa.

The Ethiopian Empire

Far more significant for the subsequent history of Arabia was the rise of a new military State in the highlands of Abyssinia.  When the Ptolemaists brought Greek culture into Egypt, some knowledge of it reached the Abyssinians through the Red Sea port of Adulis, which was frequented by Egyptian shipping.  A few miles inland from Adulis arose the city of Axum or Aksum, which became the capital of the kingdom of that name.  Its sovereigns professed sympathy for Hellenic civilization, and their decrees were issued in both Greek and Ethiopic.

Axum emerges into the full light of history after the Roman occupation of Egypt.  It appears to have been accepted as an ally of Rome and the two powers had a common interest in repelling the incursions of the Blemmeyes or Bejas, a savage tribe who roamed the regions of the middle Nile. Axum had her share of the Indian trade and when in the third century the Roman Empire fell into anarchy and Sassanid Persia became a great power, it is evident that she saw her interests threatened by the possible extension of Persian naval control of the Arabian waters and reacted by attempting to gain a foothold in the Yemen.

With this, they invaded during the period 340-78 CE. But thereafter the native Himyarite kings resumed their independent rule.  In fact, if a legend is to be believed, the best known Himyarite king called Shammer Yar’ash, is said to have Conquered Samarqand which, according to this legend, derives its name from him.  However, Abyssinia, after its first invasion referred to above, did not give up its ambition and launched further attacks.

The introduction of Christianity and Judaism into South Arabia had, in one way or the other, political motives.  Both the Roman and the Persian Empires were interested in establishing their sphere of influence over the area.  It is not definitely known when Christianity entered south Arabia, but there are indications that the first Christian Embassy was sent there in 356CE by the emperor Constantius under the leadership of Theophilus Indus who was in Arian.  However, the possibility that the persecuted missionaries from Syria fled to the south at an unknown time cannot be ignored.  The motive of the Christian mission from Rome was political and after some time Theophilus succeeded in establishing a church at ‘Adan (now Aden).  Ibn Hisham and Tabari also tell us the legend of an ascetic who was of the Monophysite communion, and was captured by an Arab caravan and brought to Najran around 500CE.

As for Judaism, it found its foothold during the reign of the second Himyarite king.  In the early 6th century, Judaism became very strong in Yemen.  The last Himyarite king dhu-Nuwas, who represented the nationalistic spirit, patronized the Jewish faith because he intensely hated Abyssinian rule, which was identified with Christianity.  He persecuted the Christians and at Najran in October 523CE, massacred many of them.  Emperor Justin I of Rome who was considered to be the protector of Christians everywhere, on being implored, directed the Negus or ruler of Abyssinia to take action.  The Negus is reported to have sent a force of 70.000 Abyssinians across the Red Sea.  Here the entire gamut of international politics was involved.  Byzantium through the Abyssinians sought to dominate the Arabian tribes and use them against the Persian Empire. The Abyssinians were victorious and the Negus’s deputy Abraha chased away dhu-nawas, who is reported to have jumped along with his steed into the Red Sea.  Thus came to an end the glorious period of the Himyarite Kings in Yemen. Abraha according to some sources continued to rule over Yemen up to the late sixth century and converted it into an Abyssinian colony.  He died in the year of the Elephant 750CE named after his attempted attack on Mecca.

 

“In the Name of God, the Most Merciful and Kind.

Have you not considered, [O Muhammad], how your Lord dealt with the companions of the elephant? Did He not make their plan into misguidance? And He sent against them birds in flocks, striking them with stones of hard clay, And He made them like eaten straw.” C:105, V:1-5

 

MECCA

Before Islam:

The History of Mecca before Islam is extremely significant in understanding the sociological and political infrastructure of the Meccans and of its aristocracy, the Quraish.

The events before the rise of Islam also provide for the student of Islamic sciences and theology, a clear comprehension of the Quranic message, its style and the meaning of Monotheism.  In the following paragraphs, I hope that this will be achieved.

Geographical Location:

The very word ‘Mecca’ itself indicates something of a central importance. Mecca sometimes referred to as ‘Becca’ especially in ancient history was and still is situated just off the trades routes between the North; which at that time consisted of the Eastern Roman Empire. Extending from the ancient city of Byzantine, now Constantinople, to the North West of Arabia, stretching to the North Eastern Persian Arabian boarders. These two very important trading routes though in decline, still represented the balance of power, both politically and economically. The North South trading routes represented the Summer Routes for the Meccans (Quriash).

To the South of the trade routes from the North, is Yemen. Known to the Ancients as Felix Arabia, renowned for it frankincense and perfumes. To the South East of Yemen the old kingdoms of Kinda was located. It was here, that the poetry and literature movement stated. It was most likely that during periods of the continued migration from the South towards the North, that the influence of poetry and prose had spread to Mecca and further North on the boarders of the Roman and Persian Empires.

To the South West of Arabia, just over the mouth of the ‘Red Sea’ is Ethiopia and referred to in history as: the Abyssinian Empire. This was another important and very influential power, both politically and economically. The geographical position of this Empire provided other trading route for the Arabs, though not as significant as the North/South route, it was nonetheless important.  It established a trade link with Yemen for those merchants and travelers who passed through Mecca heading towards Ethiopia via the red sea. It was later the route by which the Muslims would take in their migration towards Abyssinia. Abyssinia famous for its gold, native bone weapons and other commodities acquired by means of trade, and its favorable status with the Roman Empire was one of the trading centers for the Meccans during the winter months.  The Quran hints at this in the following verses:

“For the covenants (of security and safeguard enjoyed) by the Quraish. Their covenants (covering) journeys by winter and summer…” (C:105, V:1-2)

See: Note: 6276, of Dr ‘Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s Commentary.

This verse of the Quran, indicates the geographical importance that Mecca held in the early 5th century CE.

It was due to the geographical location of Mecca, tucked away between the mountainous valleys of the South Western volcanic ridge called the Hejaz, literally ‘Barrier’, that the little metropolis managed to flourish economically in its desert surroundings. For these reasons the ruling clans of Mecca maintained their independence from much of the great empires of its day and their spheres of influence.

Moreover, the impenetrable character of the surrounding deserts and the lack of substantial natural resources upon which to extend an Empire did not attract any interests from surrounding powers. Another important factor contributing to the independence of Mecca was the astute political management of its leaders and the treaties (covenants) they forged with tribes and powerful clans along the trade routes to secure their interests.  This draws our attention to the Quraish aristocracy itself.  Who were they? Were they the original inhabitants of the region from time memorial? How did they attain to such positions? These questions are of great importance, as it will help us to understand the necessity of this class in maintaining its influence and power.

The origins of the inhabitants of Arabia:

The human origins of Arabia can be divided up into three parts; Yemen, the Hijaaz and the Najd. Yemen, which lies in the south of the peninsula of which Hadramaut and Ahqaf forms part of province, is the most fertile part in the peninsula and due to this it has been the most developed and most civilized of the provinces. Large dams were constructed there in the past in order to control the mountainous water springs and utilize them for the purposes of irrigation. One of the more famous dams was called, the ‘Ma’arib.

The existence of such irrigation systems meant that the people of this province were mainly agriculturalist. It was the destruction of the aforementioned dam, around the early 3th century that led to the great migrations northward.

The Quran cites these events in the following words:

“There was, for Saba, Aforetime, a sign in their Homeland- two Gardens to the right and to the left. Eat of the sustenance (provided) by your Lord, and be grateful to him: a territory fair and happy’ and a Lord most forgiving* But they turned away (from Allah), and We sent Against them the flood, (Released) from the Dams, And we converted their two Garden (rows) into “gardens”, Producing bitter fruit, And tamarisk, and some few (Stunned) Lote trees.’  (C:34, V:15-16)

The mighty ‘Aad people of which the Qur’an spoke about for example in (C:7, V:65) were established in the Yemen.  This particular area is known as Ah-Qaf.

Hadramaut, is the city to the extreme south of Yemen, along the shore of the Indian ocean.  The capital of the province was Senna, and Aden its chief port.  To the north of Sana lies Najran where Christianity had spread before the advent of Islam.  The Qur’an indicates later internal conflicts between the Christians of this area and the non-Christian Arabs in Sura Buruj (C:85, V:4) onwards.

This most probably happened in 523CE by the last Himjarite king Dhu-nuwaz in revenge and retaliation to the Abyssinian garrison that was sent to overthrow him.

The second great province of Arabia was Hijaz and in this province the sacred land of the Haram is situated.  The three chief towns of the Hijaaz are Mecca, Madinah and Ta’if.  Ta’if owes its fame to the fact that it was a general summer resort of the Hijaazi nobility.  Madinah was originally called Yathrib.  Later when the prophet (pbuh) took residence in it, it became known as the city of the prophet (pbuh). This also was an ancient town. Historical evidence suggests its foundation as early as 1600BC. It was originally inhabited by the Amelikites after which came the Jews, followed by the Aws and the Khazraj, along with those who most probably migrated from the South.  Mecca, however, owed its importance to the Kabah, known as ‘the first house established for the worship of Allah’. As early as 2500 years BC it was a halting station for caravans traveling between Yemen and Syria.

The Qur’an confirms that the sacred house came into existence as far back as at the time of Abraham, the second millennium BC (C:2, V:25). Some chronologists claim that knowledge of the existence of the valley extends as far back as the beginning of the time of the first man, Adam himself.

Also see (C:14, V:37)

“Our Lord, I have settled some of my descendants in an uncultivated valley near Your sacred House, our Lord, that they may establish prayer. So make hearts among the people incline toward them and provide for them from the fruits that they might be grateful.”

The following verses indicate that Abraham (AS) was a ‘stranger’ to that territory and that the region may have been known prior to his arrival there.

(C:22, V:26-28) And proclaim to the people the Hajj [pilgrimage]; they will come to you on foot and on every lean camel; they will come from every distant pass”

Some historians indicate that the destruction of the tribe of Nu’ah was followed by the rise of ‘Aad, whose settlements had spread far and wide beyond the limits of Arabia.  Historical evidence proves their dominance over Arabia. On the fall of this race, the Thamud rose to power, and following them, Bani Qaahtan, whose homeland was Yemen rose to power. The Aws and Khazraj were offshoots of that tribe.  By sound argument, that would make the progeny of Ismael Must’araba (naturalised Arabs) as opposed to ‘Areba (pure Arabs), Allah knows best.

The third part of Arabia was Najd, which extends from (Jabal Asirat) eastward across the interior of the country. This territory is rich and fertile. The clan of Ghatfaan occupied this territory. The desert surrounds it on three sides. In the south lays Yamamah, the territory of Banu Hanifah, the tribe Musailamah the liar.

The Internal Structure Of Mecca:

Among the best pieces of literature which gives an unique perspective upon the social and familial structure of Mecca and of the economic dynamics at the time is Asghar ‘Ali Engineer (1980) book ‘ The Origin and Development of Islam.’ The slow transition of Mecca from a Monotheistic (Tawheed) enclave to a form of Paganism (Shirk) – from collectivism to individualism; if we were to use socio-political parlance underlines the basis of Asghar ‘Ali’s insights on a discourse between Tawheed and Shirk. Much of what follows in this section is an attempt to summarise that discourse.

The basis of Bedouin society is clan organization, they are known to normally live in tents and their encampments are in the deserts, where they are mostly mobile.

Members of one family live in one tent; a group of tents (an encampment) is called a Hayy (a district). The members of this Hayy constitute a clan, called a Qawm or people.  The kindred clans put together constitute a Qabilah, a tribe.  All members of the clan consider themselves to be of one blood and elect their chief called the Shaykh. This represents a collective social structure. In the past this was further illustrated by the fact they considered an aggression against one was an aggression against the whole tribe, sometime referred to as “Banu”. This structure survived primarily in the suburbs (the desert regions).

In the urban areas, principal among which was the town of Mecca.  The tribal structure was in decline and a process of individualization had set in. Already at the arrival of the Prophet, the clan system was in the process of breaking up into smaller familial units as new property relations developed.  This was most probably due to the boom periods, which the Meccans experienced either at the heights of the greater empires that surrounded them; namely the Roman, Persian and Ethiopian empires, or at the point of the continuous wars between themselves, which led to its decline.

However, tribal loyalty was not totally put aside. It was still relied upon as a necessary mechanism to maintain order and enforce tribal law. Asghar ‘Ali Engineer (1980, p, 34) extrapolates from the Quran verses both indicating and addressing the problems that came with increasing individualization.

There is no harm if a blind or a lame or a sick person (takes a meal at another’s house): nor is there any harm for yourselves if you take meals at your own houses or at the houses of your fathers and grandfathers or at the houses of your mothers and grandmothers or at your brothers’ houses or at your sisters’ houses or at the houses of your paternal uncles or at the houses of your paternal aunts or at the houses of your maternal uncles or at the houses of your maternal aunts or from the houses whose keys are in your possession or at the houses of your friends. There is no harm if you take your meals together or separately; however, when you enter the houses, you should send greetings of peace on your people, for the prayer of greetings prescribed by Allah is blessed and pure. Thus Allah makes His Revelation’s clear to you. It is expected that you will use your common sense to grasp these.” Al-Quran, Chapter 24, Verse 61, Maududi’s translation. 

In the above verses, houses of different relations have been mentioned separately, which clearly indicates that this kind of structure had become part of Arab society, whereby people of the township had started living in smaller familial units.

It also appears from the same verse that children, having come of age, lived separately or formed separate families and that daughters went to live with their husbands after marriage, a removal from a nuclear or extended family structure to an individualist structure.

The primary cause for this was the increase in personal or private property and the Quran spoke out against these new habits, not negating ownership and private property, but encouraging redistribution of wealth to the less fortunate in society. See some early Meccan Surahs, for example, where these ills are spoken out against: the 10th Meccan Surah to be revealed: C:89, V:16; the 9th C:92, V:5-9 and the 8th C:87, V:16-17.

See also some early Medinan Surahs where the theme of redistribution continues and encouraged: C:2, Vs:245, 262 and C:5, V12.

The increase in infanticide, which the Prophet attacked, was also an issue the Quran addressed in early Islam.  See: for example the 7th Surah to have came down C:81, V:8-9. These practices most probably evolved with the increase of wealth and individuality.

The “Deen” Religion Of The People Of Mecca:

The ‘Deen’ or system of rituals in Mecca as we have discussed in the past, finds its root as far back in the life of Prophet Ibrahim (A) without any dispute.  The Quran testifies to this fact: “And remember Abraham and Ismail raised the foundations of the house (with this prayer): “Our Lord! Accept (this service) from us: For thou art the all hearing the all knowing.” Chapter:2, Verse;127.

Some writers; such as Maulana Muhammad ‘Ali (Muhammad the Prophet: p,17), tend to hold the opinion that its original building goes back to Adam (A).  An opinion, I find very difficult to accept since none of the Quranic texts indicates the validity of such an argument.

‘Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali, a renowned historian and linguist in his commentary of Verse 125 of Chapter 2 of the Quran, describes the Ka’bah in the following words:  ‘The Ka’bah, the house of Allah.  Its foundations go back in Arab traditions to Abraham. Its fourfold character is here referred to as (1) The centre to which all Arab tribes resorted to for trade, for poetic contests, and for worship. (2) It was sacred territory, and was respected by friend and foe alike.  At certain seasons, all fighting was forbidden within its limits; the wearing of arms was not allowed within its vicinity and no game or human was to be killed or hunted by anyone in its scared spaces. Like the Cities of Refuge under the Mosaic Dispensation, to which manslayers could flee (Num.35, V:6), or the sanctuaries in Mediaeval Europe, to which criminals could not be pursued. Makkah was recognized by Arab custom as inviolable for the pursuit of revenge or violence. (3) It was a place of prayer: even today there is a Station of Abraham. (4) It must be held pure and sacred for all purposes.

After the Ka’bah was built by Ibrahim and his first son Ismail it remained under Ismail and his mother or his offspring’s supervision until it was overtaken by Banu Jurhum, one of the original tribes that roamed the area, who later exercised control over the Ka’bah for a number of decades. Their control lasted until they were cast out for their corruption, plundering and pillage of the wealth of Mecca, which was presented by the pilgrims who visited the Ka’bah. Tahia Al-Ismail in agreement with other classical biographers of the Prophet (pbuh) such as Tabari, (See: The History of Al-Tabari, Vol; 6 ‘Muhammad at Mecca’; Translated & Annotated by: W.M.Watt & M.V.McDonald; P52; Section: 1132) suggests that the transfer of custodianship was due to the marriage of Ismail to one of the women of Jurhum.  But unlike previous biographers he attempts to explain in detail the development of the interrelationships between Ismail and Jurhum: ‘Hajar remained with her son in this secluded valley surrounded by mountains.  She began to give the passing tribes water in exchange for whatever she needed. The first tribe to be attracted to the waters of Zamzam was Banu Jurhum.  Hajar allowed them to settle near her on condition that the water remained in her custody. When Ismail grew up he married a girl from this tribe. ‘

On his travels, Ibrahim would occasionally visit his son. On one of these visits, he was instructed to build a house of worship for Allah that would be a sanctuary for the worshipper, and so together Ibrahim and Ismail built the first house for the worship of Allah on earth.  They taught the people the worship one deity, Allah alone, unswervingly. Orientalists however, such as W. Montgomery Watt seem to suggest the inaccuracy of Tabari’s suggestion of Ismail’s marriage to a girl from the tribe of Jurhum and in a delicate reply to Tabari he says: ‘The statement [on p.1131] that Ismail married a woman of Jurhum seems to be more than an attempt to fill the gap between Ismail and Jurhum. (see: The history of al-Tabari; Translators foreword; P.28; The early history of Mecca)

Watt’s criticism is valuable on this point, because although Tabari and others explanation brings the custodianship of the Ka’ba and the existence of other tribes into the picture. The data becomes over simplified and thus creates possible distortions that lend to a logical explanation.

Prior to Ibrahim (A) the inhabitants of the ‘Island of the ‘Arabs’ were familiar with the existence and the oneness of a deity whom they knew as Allah; the Unique One.  This is illustrated by the lineal development of the area, since the Quran speaks of the people of Thamud and ‘Aad who were before Ibrahim (A): “If they treat thy (mission) as false, [O Muhammad] – so, before them, did the people of Noah and ‘Aad and Thamud deny [their prophets], and the people of Abraham and the people of Lot and the inhabitants of Madyan. And Moses was denied, so I prolonged enjoyment for the disbelievers; then I seized them, and how [terrible] was My reproach.” (C:22, V:42-45)

The sequence in the aforementioned verse is deliberate for it illustrates that most nomads were at some time or the other in their history informed of the exclusive oneness of Allah (SWT). However, like many of the peoples throughout history the Quran suggests they too repelled Allah’s messengers’ proclamations of Monotheism as tails of old.  (C:27, V:67-69 and C:6,V:25)

The Holy Quran also highlights that many of these peoples did not have any form of doctrinal religion. C:35, V:40 and also C:43,V:20-21. They practiced what some writers such as Watt termed “Tribal humanism,” in which the whole emphasis was on human excellence and tribal ancestral glory.  In similar words, they devoted themselves to the received wisdom of the elders. See: C:43, V:22, C:16,V:35

As for the townsmen of Mecca most, who were naturalized Arabs, a mixture of the offspring of Ismail and of the ‘pure Arabs’ of the region.  After having settled in a town and occupied themselves with various professions, chief among which was commerce, they traveled to, and intermingled with other people of thriving and greater civilizations, which were to influence their old system of life, based upon Monotheism.

Of these settlers whom we refer to as Quraish, the Prophet (pbuh) was both sent as a Warner to them, because of their deviation from the Monotheistic faith, and as a bringer of glad tidings to all humanity in the capacity of reviver of the universal doctrine of Tawheed. See: C:36,V:6

One of these civilizations, indicated by Hykal;P;30, mentioned by Tahia Ismael (1988);P;28 and others, to have influenced the decline of Monotheistic practices in Mecca, was the civilization of the Sabaeans.  Hitti;P;49; describes this great civilization in the following words:

‘The Sabaeans were the first Arabians to step within the threshold of civilization.  They figure in the late cuneiform inscriptions.  The oldest reference to them in Greek literature is in Theophrastus (288 B.C), Historia Plantarum.  The southwestern corner of the Peninsula was the early home of the Sabaeans.

‘The fertility of that felicitous rain-favored land, its proximity to the sea and its strategic location on the Indian route were all determining factors in its development.  Here were produced spices, myrrh and other aromata for the seasoning of foods or burning in the ceremonial of the court and the ritual of the church; foremost among these was incense, that most valuable commodity of ancient trade.  Thither did rare and highly prized products, such as pearls from the Persian Gulf, condiments, fabrics and swords from India, silk from China, slaves, monkeys, ivory, gold and ostrich feathers from Ethiopia, find their way in transit to western marts.  The author of The Periplus of Erythrean Sea has left us (50-60CE) a bird’s-eye view of the market of “Muza” present day Mukha (Mocha).’

Haykal, giving his description of the religious development in Arabia after Ibrahim states: ‘The Sabeans were star worshippers, and they enjoyed great popularity and prestige in Arabia.  As the reports go, the Sabeans did not always worship the stars for their own sake.  At one time it is said that they had worshipped God alone and venerated the stars as signs of His creation and power.  Since the majority of people was neither endowed nor cultivated enough to understand the transcendent nature of the Godhead, they confused the stars with God and took them as gods.  Some of the volcanic or meteoric stones appeared to men to have fallen from heaven and therefore to be astral in nature.  Consequently, they were taken as hierophanes of the astral divinities and sanctified as such.  Later on they were venerated for their own sake, and then worshipped as divinities.  In fact, the Arabs venerated these stones so much that not only did they worship the black stone in the Ka’bah, but they also would take one of the stones of the Ka’bah as a holy object in their travels, praying to it and asking it to bless every move they made.  Thus all the veneration and worship due to the stars, or to the creator of the stars, were now conferred upon these stones.  It was in a development similar to this that paganism was established in Arabia, that the statues were sanctified, and that sacrifices were made to them.’

This begs the question: What is the black stone, which is a central feature of the Ka’bah itself? Where did it come from? Is its significance ritualistic or historically symbolic? Moreover, how does it continuing presence and value add to or decrease from our understanding of ‘pure monotheism?’

Ibn Ishaaq have indicated internal rather than external reasons for the development of ‘Shirk’ in Mecca.  The reasons, however authentic they may be, are in my opinion secondary to the influence from whence their motives evolved.

Quoting his teachers he states: ‘They say the beginning of stone worship among the sons of Ishmael happened when Mecca became too small for them and they wanted more room in the country.  Everyone who left the town took with him a stone from the sacred area to do honor to it.  Wherever they settled they set it up and walked round it as they went round the Ka’ba.  This led them to worship what stones they pleased and those, which made an impression on them.  Thus as generations passed they forgot their primitive faith and adopted another religion for that of Abraham and Ishmael.

In the final analyst, the development of ‘Shirk’ in Mecca could have been both due to internal and external factors. This view, rather than the view of a single cause is more acceptable to facts mentioned in the data and susceptible to intellectual evaluation.  If you accept the premise that man is monotheistic (A Muwah-hid) by nature, then he is also capable of being a Multitheistic polytheist (A Mushurik), because he is also imperfect. Thus, it follows that the system of Shirk would have been as old as, but not older than the system of Tawheed.  Having said this we therefore could understand the quote of Ibn Ishaaq above as part of the natural process of deviation that can take place after the vigor of the doctrine of Tawheed becomes displaced in belief and practice. The Quran testifies to this. See: Chap:19;V:58-59, C:7; V:168-170.

The continuation of Ibn Ishaaq’s quote is a testimony of the more developed stage of the system of ‘Shirk’, which is the manufacturing and worshiping of idols: ‘They worshipped idols and adopted the same errors as the peoples before them.  Yet they retained and held fast to practices extending back to the time of Abraham, such as honoring the temple and going round it, the great and little pilgrimage, and the standing on ‘Arafah and Muzdhalifah, sacrificing the victims, and the pilgrim cry at the great and little pilgrimage, while introducing elements which had no place in the religion of Abraham.  Thus, Kinana and Quraysh used the pilgrim cry: ‘At Thy service, O God, at Thy service!  At Thy service, Thou without an associate but the associate Thou hast. Thou owns him and what he owns.’  Thus they used to acknowledge God’s unity in their cry and then include their idols with God, putting the ownership of them in His hand.  God’s response to them was: [C:12, V:106]  ‘Most of them do not believe in God without associating others with Him’.  Meaning, they do not acknowledge My oneness with knowledge of MY reality, but they associate with Me one of My creatures.’ [Ibn Ishaaq: P.35-36]

From this quote we also understand that not only Quraish, but the ‘Arabs in general were ‘Mushriks’ or associators of other deities with ALLAH (swt).

The sociopolitical imagination of ‘Tawheed and Shirk’

At the start of this treatise I hinted at relevance of both of the concepts ‘Tawheed and Shirk’ in shaping the underlying social, political and economical worldviews of Muslims. Some of the questions which I posed were: is it possible that the Monotheist vs. Polytheist dichotomy is the same ideological divide between globalists universalistic forms of political ideology and nationalistic and regional or cultural ones.  And if so, of what significance is that reality for a Muslim understanding of the world.

The truth of the matter is, that Muslim’s perception of Tawheed and indeed the wider public’s understanding the meaning and essence of ‘Monotheism’ have been distorted a long time ago and have been replaced by a secular intellectual discourse.

In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Monotheism is understood as the belief in a single, universal, all-encompassing deity.  Hence, Zoroastrianism, the Abrahamic religions, and Vaishnavism (a Hindu denomination) are considered monotheistic.   http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/monotheism/

Apart from the prefix ‘Mono’ being indicative of a singularity ‘Theism’ referring to the belief in the existence of a god or divine being. In this way ‘Deism’ is understood as a form of monotheism in which it is believed that one god exists (Tawheedul Khaliq). However, the deist rejects the idea that this god intervenes in the world (Tawheedul ‘Ibaadah). Hence any notion of special revelation is impossible, and the nature of god can only be known through reason and observation from nature. A deist thus rejects the miraculous, and the claim to knowledge made for religious groups and texts.

Then there is ‘Monistic Theism’ cited as a type of monotheism found in Hinduism. This type of theism is different from the Semitic religions as it encompasses pantheism, monism, and at the same time includes the concept of a personal God as a Universal, Omnipotent Supreme being. The other types of monotheism are qualified monism, the school of Ramanuja or Vishishtadvaita, which admits that the universe is part of God, or Narayana, a type of Panentheism, but there is a plurality of souls within this Supreme Being and Dvaita, which differs in that it is dualistic, as God is separate and not Panentheistic.

Here a distinction has to be made between Panentheism and Pantheism. The latter holds that the Universe itself is God. The existence of a transcendent supreme being detached from creation is denied. Panentheism, or otherwise referred to as ‘Monistic Monotheism,’ is a form of theism that holds that God is within, yet not identical to the Universe. The One God is omnipotent and omnipresent; He is both Immanent and Transcendent. This is also the view of Process theology and also Vishistadvaita Vedanta Hinduism. According to this school, from Ramanuja, the universe is part of God but God is not equal to the universe but in fact transcends it as well. However, unlike Process theology, God in Vishistadvaita Vedanta Hinduism is omnipotent.

The aforementioned is also cited as a form of Henotheism: The worship of one deity without denying that others may worship many or different gods with equal validity. To protagonists of the view that polytheism is a forerunner of monotheism, henotheism is seem as an early developmental stage of Monotheism.

Then there is the phenomena termed ‘Substance Monotheism,’ found e.g. in some indigenous African religions, which holds that the belief in many deities are different forms of a single underlying substance, and that this underlying substance is indeed God himself. This view has vague similarities to the Christian Trinitarian view of three persons sharing one nature.

http://www.experiencefestival.com/a/Monotheism/id/527838

All of these forms of Monotheisms, identified in popular thinking, are best described as ‘limited monotheism’ because they only seek to acknowledge the existence of a creator force for the universe. And as I have already argued, that societies which tend towards justice, equality and the good governance of their peoples are demonstrating monotheistic tendencies and can be best coined as ‘bounded monotheistic’ societies.

What separates ‘limited monotheistic’ societies from ‘bounded monotheist’ ones are, firstly the extent to which their “ideo-religious worldview” ascends towards the unity of humanity in the service of One God, who determines the basis for human morals and values. Limited monotheism is a merely a religious claim, while the latter is recognizing and valuing the common heritage of humanity and aspiring to promote and live by the best of human values; despite being ignorant of necessity and importance of ritual worship and submission to One God. It is the acknowledgement by way of tongue, heart and practice in the way of Tawheedul ‘Ibaadah and Muhammad as the final Messenger to all that ‘pure monotheism’ is achieved.

“Say [O Muhammad]: O People of the previous scriptures, come to a word that is equitable between us and you – that we will not worship none except Allah and not associate anything with Him and take one another as Lords except Allah. But if they turn away [from this call], then say bear witness that we Muslims [submitting to Him].” C:3,V:64

In understanding the timelessness of such verses one has to consider that the statement that we will not worship none except Allah and not associate anything with Him and take one another as Lords except Allah’ includes not only priests and rabbis but leaders and politicians that advocate policies and lifestyles that are contrary to the essence of the final revelation.

Using Modern Social Scientific Tools to Analyze Historical Monotheism

There is nothing un-Islamic about using modern social scientific tools to expand our analysis and understanding of key Islamic concepts like Monotheism is a bid to consolidate its underlying worldview. In fact I urge the re-writing of history within the context of a view of Historical Monotheism as I have begun in draft form here.

Another example of the type of research needed to be conducted is an impressive study by Murat Iyigun (2007) – though conducted from within the secular paradigm of Monotheism.’ Iyigun compares the sociopolitical and economic impact of monotheistic and non-monotheistic societies during a particular historical period. He found that of the 79 ‘non-monotheist limited access orders’ (kingdoms, dynasties and empires) in history: 26 were in the Middle East, 23 in Asia, 2 in Europe, 7 in Africa, and 21 were in the Americas. Some of these included the Egyptian Kingdoms (Old, Middle and New); the early Anatolian civilizations (Hittites, Luvians, and Lydians); the Mesopotamian Empires (such as Akkadians, Old Babylonian Kingdom, and Assyrian Empire); Iranian Empires (Seleucid, Parthian, and the Persian Empire); various Northern and Southern Chinese Dynasties (such as Xiongnu, Xian-bi, Xia, Shang, Song, and Ming); early American civilizations (Aztecs, Incas and Mayans) as well as Alexander the Great’s Macedonian Empire.

Of the 26 monotheists limited access orders, he found, 10 were in the Middle East, 6 in Europe, 4 in North Africa and 6 were in Asia. Of those, 14 were Christian, 11 were Muslim and only one was Jewish (Israel/Judah Kingdom, 1200 B. C. E. – 584 B. C. E.). Besides Israel and the Judah Kingdom, there were the Axum Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the Carolignian Empire, and the Spanish, Portuguese and British Empires (all Christian); the Arab Empire of Abbasids and Ummayads, the Tulunids, Fatimids, Ayyubids, the Mamluks, the Seljuk Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Safavids (all Muslim).

Again I stress that two things worth bearing in mind when reading this data are, firstly, it was derived from historical samples taken from a 4250 year period between 2500BC and 1750 CE. Secondly, he takes the widest definition of Monotheism possible, ‘substance monotheism.’ This means that Christian, Jewish and Islamic societies’ versions of Monotheism are treated identically with no scrupulous theological demarcation between any of the aforementioned monotheisms. This I contend represents a general methodological flaw in any comparative theological discourse on the history of religious beliefs.

Iyigun makes two important assertions about monotheistic orders: one, that the lasted longer in duration that non-monotheistic ones and two, that they spread wider in land mass than its counterpart. (Iyigun, 2007, p.3)

What is significant about Iyigun’s approach is that for the Muslim chronologist/biographer/historiographer there is a need to incorporate these types of social scientific methodologies into the study and analysis of religious beliefs. This is not to suggest a denial of the role of historical tradition or even folklore into this type of analysis, but the aim is to strengthen the existing methods especially in the field of Muslim historical and biographical traditions.

(Monotheism from a Sociopolitical and Economic Perspective) Murat Iyigun (2007, page: 16, Forschungsinstitut zur Zukunft der Arbeit, Institute for the Study of Labor) http://ftp.iza.org/dp3116.pdf

The definition of Shirk and the difference between it and Idolism

Ali Shariati in his book ‘Religion versus Religion’ gives provocative definition of ‘Shirk’ which he describes as ‘Multitheism. Provocative, because it raises some interesting demarcating issues in the deconstruction of Shirk; yet despite being limited to a secular understanding of religion.

‘Shirk’ or Multitheism, he argues does not mean godlessness. Rather, Multitheists have more gods than we do!  A Multitheist is not a person who does not believe in a deity.  It is a person who does not worship a deity (a single deity).  As we know, those who opposed Jesus, Moses and Abraham were Multitheists, not godless people.

Who are Multitheists? They are not people who do not believe in a deity, they are people who believe in more than there is. That is, they have extra gods. They are worshippers of excessive deities. Thus, from the scholarly point of view, a person who does not have a religious belief and religious sensibilities cannot be called a Multitheists, because Multitheists have deities…’ he argues. But aren’t

Shariati continues to strike the difference between Multitheism and Idolism: ‘Idolism is a special form of the religion of Multitheism.  It is not synonymous with it.  Multitheism has been recognized as being a religion of the common people throughout history.  And, in one phase it became manifested in the form of idolism.  Thus idolism means the making of statues or sacred things, which, from the point of view of its followers that is, the followers of the religion of Multitheism are sacred, or belong to the sacred.

That is, they are either similar to a god, or they believe that basically it is a god, or they believe that they are intermediaries or the representatives of a god and, at any rate, they believe that each of these gods is effective in a part of the workings of life and the world. Thus idolism refers to one of the factions of the religion of Multitheism’.  [Shariati; 1993, p:24-25]

So what then is the origin of these idols?

Above we illustrated an external factor that give rise to ‘Shirk’ in Mecca, which was the Kingdom of the Sabaeans.  We know also from the quote of Haykal that these people were originally Monotheists, later becoming star worshippers, most probably due to ancient Babylonian influences of the North.  Whatever the case may be, sources indicate that the deities were imported into Mecca from neighboring empires.

Muhammad Ibn ‘Abdul Wah-hab in his summary of the life of the Prophet (saw); quoting from earlier sources, tells us of the story of ‘Amr Ibn Luhayyah and his importation of the idol Hubal to Mecca: ‘Amr grew up in a well known family, and was known to be charitable and very earnest in matters of religion. Many people came to love him, until they raised him to a kingly status among them, until he was finally recognized as the king of Mecca and the custodian of the house (ka’bah).  They thought of him as of a great scholar and great saint.  Until one day he traveled to Syria, where he saw them worshipping idols. Liking what he saw and thinking it to be correct, because of the fame Syria had for it being a residence of Prophets and scared scripture, he returned to Mecca taking along with him ‘Hobal’.  After placing it into the interior of the Ka’bah he called the people to the association of Hobal with Allah.  The people of Mecca and of Hijaaz follow him, since Hijaaz always followed the people of Mecca in religion because of their status as custodians of the Ka’bah. [p,12]

The three other chief divinities of Mecca were Manat, al-Lat and al-Uzza.  Tor Andrea tells us that ‘their cult was of the greatest antiquity.  Judging by her name, Manat, who was especially revered by the warlike and poetic tribe of the Hudhail, south of Mecca, seems to have been a divinity of the very prevalent type of a goddess of fate and fortune.  She resembles the Greek Tyche Soteria, one of the Fates, a daughter of Zeus, the liberator and helper of man of the sea, in war, and in public assemblies.’  The second deity, al-lat, was known as early as Herodotus, who called her Alilat.  Al-Lat actually meant ‘the Goddess’.  In the Nabatean inscriptions, too, the ‘mother of the gods’ is called al-lat.  Thus it can be assumed that in Arabic circles al-Lat corresponded with the great Semitic goddess of motherhood, fertility and heaven, and especially with the form, which she assumed in western Semitic regions.  Thus it is clear that this deity also could not have originated in Mecca, but was imported from the north.  The third deity, al-‘Uzza, received the most worship of all the three goddesses in Muhammad’s time.  The name signifies ‘the Nakhla, a few miles north of Mecca’. [Asghar Ali, p:36-37]

The Quran cites this contradiction in the belief structure of the Meccans, because the social system was patriarchal predominated, while it was clear that the idols were of a matriarchal system. See: C:53,V:19-23.

Connected with these beliefs, all sorts of honorary offices developed, such as maintaining the Kabah and catering to its pilgrims, that only those of noble birth from the tribe of Quraysh could attain and inherit (from father to son). Shariati remarks that the roots of historical Shirk ‘Multitheism’: Economic; is used to legitimized the status quo; to promote class-superiority; create inner ideological surrender and develops irresponsibility. [Shariati, 1993, p,34-35]

Bibliography:

Ali Shari’ati, ‘Religion versus Religion,’ 1993

Karen Armstrong, A History of God, 1993

Asghar ‘Ali Engineer, The Origin and Development of Islam, 1980

Amir Taheri, The Cauldron, 1988

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/monotheism/

http://www.safarmer.com/Indo-Eurasian/Walid_Saleh.pdf

Murat Iyigun, Forschungsinstitut zur Zukunft der Arbeit, Institute for the Study of Labor, October 2007. http://ftp.iza.org/dp3116.pdf

W.M.Watt & M.V.McDonald’s translation and annotation of The History of Al-Tabari, Vol; 6 ‘Muhammad at Mecca.’

Tahia Al-Ismail’ The Life of Muhammad, 1988

Philip Hitti, History of the Arabs, 1970

Published by

Malick Elias

The vision of 'Vivaislam' is to provide a space for Muslim and non-Muslim activists to air their voices on how best to organise and manage their world. The aim is to focus upon recommending solutions to issues of social injustices, freedoms and citizenship facing predominantly Muslim and non-Muslim societies, rather than offering descriptions of problems. It is our hope that these voices will reach the echelons of power and influence.