There is much truth in the dictum of the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus that “Nothing has sprung from nothing.” Islam, or the Religion of Muhammad, is certainly no exception to that rule. The important part which that religion has played for good or ill in the history of the human race, and the widespread influence which it continues to exert in many Eastern lands and increasingly in the West, render an investigation into its origins of interest to everyone who, whether from a religious, historical, political or philosophical standpoint, desires to understand one of the most important movements of the past 1,400 years.
When one begins this investigation, it quickly becomes apparent that Muhammad was not an original thinker; the founder of Islam did not formulate any new ethical principles or philosophical ideas, but merely borrowed from the prevailing cultural milieu. Indeed, Muslim historians such as Al-Shahrastani have acknowledged that Muhammad transferred the beliefs and practices of the heathen Arabs to Islam, especially the ceremonies of the pilgrimage to Mecca, known as Hajj. It is undoubtedly true that in many passages of the Qur’an, the Islamic varnish only thinly covers a pagan substratum, e.g. in Surat al-Falaq:
I seek refuge in the Lord of the Daybreak;
From the evil of that which He created;
From the evil of the darkness when it is intense;
From the evil of malignant witchcraft;
And from the evil of the envier when he envieth (evil eye).
Despite this, Muslims continue to hold that the faith came directly from heaven, i.e. that the Qur’an was brought down by the archangel Gabriel from Allah to Muhammad. In order for Muslims to recognise their folly, it may be necessary to spell out the pagan origins of the Hajj pilgrimage. Thus, in this article, we will draw upon the work of the great Ex-Muslim scholar, Ibn Warraq, to show how Muhammad co-opted this ancient ritual to further the spread of Islam. In his seminal work Al-Milal wa al-Nihal (3/92), Al-Shahrastani describes how the pre-Islamic Arabs used to perform the very same rites that Muslims do for Hajj today:
They (pagan Arabs) performed Hajj at the House, as well as Umrah, and they would enter Ihram… They circumambulated seven times around the House, rubbed the (Black) Stone, and performed Sa’i between al-Marwah and al-Safa… They offered Hadaya (sacrificial animals) and threw stones at the Jamarat (pillars).
The Pagan Roots of Hajj
The entire ceremony of the Hajj, or the Greater Pilgrimage to Mecca, has been borrowed from pre-Islamic practice; it is a fragment of unintelligible heathenism, taken up more or less undigested into Islam. The Hajj is performed in the month of Dhul-Hijjah, the twelfth month of the Islamic calendar year. It is the fifth traditional pillar of Islam, and an incumbent duty upon its adherents. Every Muslim in good health and with sufficient means must perform the pilgrimage once in his lifetime. The first seven days constitute the Lesser Pilgrimage (Umrah), which can be performed at any time except the eighth, ninth and tenth days of the month of Dhul-Hijjah. These days are reserved for the Greater Pilgrimage, which begins on the eighth.
The tenth day is perhaps the most worthy of our attention. This is the Day of Sacrifice, celebrated throughout the Muslim world as Eid al-Adha. Early in the morning, in Muzdalifah, the worshippers say their prayers and move on to the three pillars in Mina. The pilgrim casts seven stones at each of these pillars, which represent the devil (shaytan); this ceremony is called ramy al-jamarat. Holding the pebble between the thumb and forefinger of the right hand, the pilgrim throws it at a distance of not less than fifteen feet, reciting takbir (“Allahu akbar!”) with each throw. He then returns and performs the sacrifice of a goat or a lamb. After the feast, the pilgrims celebrate the rite of de-consecration, when many pilgrims either shave their head or have a few locks trimmed.
How did an iconoclastic, uncompromising monotheist like Muhammad ever come to incorporate these pagan superstitions into the very heart of Islam? Well, originally, he didn’t actually want to: however, realizing that there was little chance of the Jews accepting him as their long-awaited messiah, Muhammad conveniently received a command from Allah to change the qiblah (direction of prayer) from the ancient rock (sakrah) in Jerusalem to the Ka’ba in Mecca. He knew that he had a good chance of eventually capturing Mecca by co-opting the established practices of the pagan Arabs.
In 621 A.D., Muhammad attempted to enter Mecca with his followers, but failed. The Meccans and the Medinans met at Hudaybiyyah on the frontier of the sacred territory. After much negotiation, the Muslims agreed to return to Medina, but were given permission to celebrate the feast in Mecca the following year. Muhammad, with many of his followers, thus came to Mecca in 622 A.D. and performed the circuit of the Ka’ba, kissing the Black Stone as a part of the rites.
Mecca was captured by Muhammad the following year, in 623 A.D. At first, many Muslims joined the Hajj with the unbelieving Arabs, but without the Prophet himself. Soon, however, a revelation from Allah declared that the pagan Arabs must not be allowed to approach the Ka’ba. To quote from Surat al-Tawbah:
O ye who believe! Truly the Pagans are unclean; so let them not, after this year of theirs, approach the Sacred Mosque. And if ye fear poverty, soon will Allah enrich you, if He wills, out of His bounty, for Allah is All-knowing, All-wise.
Finally, in the tenth year after the hijra – that is, the migration of the early Muslims from Mecca to Medina – Muhammad managed to make his pilgrimage to Mecca, the old shrine of his forefathers. Since that time, every detail of superstitious observance which he fulfilled has become the norm in Islam. Pagan practices are explained away by inventing Muslim legends attributed to characters from the Old Testament, resulting in, as the American scholar Samuel Marinus Zwemer put it, “an incomprehensible jumble of fictitious lore.”
By a summary adjustment, the story of Palestine became the story of the Hijaz. The precincts of the Ka’ba, home to the god Hubal, were now hallowed as the scene of Hagar’s distress. (For the uninitiated, Hagar was the wife of Abraham and mother of Ishamel). The well of Zamzam, valued as a precious water source for caravans passing through Mecca to Yemen and Syria, became the source of her relief. The pilgrims no longer hastened between Safa and Marwa in honour of Shams, Dharrih or other gods associated with the pagan solar rite, but in memory of Hagar’s hurried steps in search of water, as described in the Book of Genesis.
It was Abraham and Ishmael who built the Ka’ba, embedded in it the Black Stone, and established the pilgrimage to Mount Arafat. Circumambulation of the Ka’ba (tawaf) became an affirmation of Abrahamic monotheism. The casting of stones came to represent Abraham’s repudiation of the Devil, who tried to keep the great patriarch from his divinely-commanded duty of sacrificing his cherished son Ishmael. The sacrifice of a lamb or goat commemorates the divine substitution of a ram for Abraham’s sacrifice. In his magisterial study The Golden Bough, James Frazer offers this explanation for the ceremony of stone-throwing:
Sometimes the motive for throwing the stone is to ward off a dangerous spirit; sometimes it is to cast away an evil; sometimes it is to acquire a good. Yet, perhaps if we could trace them back to their origin in the mind of primitive man, we might find that they all resolve themselves more or less exactly into the principle of the transference of evil… This notion perhaps explains the rite of stone-throwing observed by pilgrims at Mecca; on the day of sacrifice every pilgrim has to cast seven stones on a cairn, and the rite is repeated on the three following days. The traditional explanation of the custom is that Mohammed here drove away the devil with a shower of stones; but the original idea may perhaps have been that the pilgrims cleanse themselves by transferring their ceremonial impurity to the stones which they fling on the heap.
The Dutch orientalist Martijn Theodoor Houtsma has suggested that the stoning that took place in Mina was originally directed at the sun demon. This view is lent plausibility by the fact that the pagan pilgrimage originally coincided with the autumnal equinox. The sun demon is expelled, and his harsh rule comes to an end with the summer; this is followed by the worship, at Muzdalifah, of the thunder god Quzah, who brings fertility. In the Encyclopaedia of Islam (Vol. II), the Dutch Semiticist and historian Arent Jan Wensinck writes:
The god of Muzdalifa was Quzah, the thunder-god. A fire was kindled on the sacred hill also called Quzah. Here a halt was made and this wukuf has a still greater similarity to that on Sinai, as in both cases the thunder-god is revealed in fire. It may further be presumed that the traditional custom of making as much noise as possible and of shooting was originally a sympathetic charm to call forth the thunder.
As for the Black Stone, this is most probably a meteorite, and undoubtedly owes its reputation to the fact that it fell from “the heavens”. In 1980, Elsebeth Thomsen of the University of Copenhagen proposed that the Black Stone may be an impactite created by the impact of a fragmented meteorite that fell some 6,000 years ago at Wabar. Thomsen’s observations can be summarised as follows:
It is doubly ironic that Muslims should venerate this rock as that given to Ishmael by Gabriel to build the Ka’ba, as it is almost certainly not the same rock that existed in Muhammad’s time. Writing in the Muslim World journal, the English orientalist David Samuel Margoliouth comments that the stone is
of doubtful genuineness, since the Black Stone was removed by the Qarmatians in the fourth [Muslim] century, and restored by them after many years; it may be doubted whether the stone which they returned was the same stone which they removed.
We have evidence that black stones were worshipped in various parts of the Arab world: for example, Clement of Alexandria, writing in 190 A.D., mentioned that “The Arabs worship the stone”, alluding to the black stone of Dusares, a god worshipped by the Nabataeans at Petra. Maximus Tyrius, writing in the second century, says “The Arabians pay homage to I know not what god, which they represent by a quadrangular stone.” This is a clear reference to the Ka’ba, which contains the Black Stone.
The god Hubal was worshipped in Mecca, and his idol in red cornelian was erected inside the Ka’ba above the dry well into which one threw votive offerings. Hubal’s position next to the Black Stone suggests that there is some connection between the two. The Biblical scholar Julius Wellhausen points out that in the Qur’an, Allah is called “Lord of the Ka’ba”, as well as “Lord of Mecca”. Yes, Muhammad did rally against paying homage at the Ka’ba to the goddesses Al-Lat, Manat and Al-Uzza, whom the pagan Arabs called the daughters of Allah; however, Muhammad stopped short of attacking the cult of Hubal. From this, Wellhausen concludes that Hubal is none other than Allah himself. Indeed, when the Meccans defeated the Prophet in the Battle of Uhud, their leader is said to have shouted, “Hurrah for Hubal!”
Regarding the ritual of tawaf, circumambulation of a sanctuary was, in fact, a very common rite practised in many localities. The pilgrim during his circuit frequently kissed or caressed the idol. In his seminal work The Life of Mohammad, the Scottish orientalist William Muir argued that the seven circuits of the Ka’ba “were probably emblematical of the revolutions of the planetary bodies”.
It is unquestionable that the Arabs, at a comparatively late period according to the German orientalist Theodor Noldeke, worshipped the sun (shams) and other heavenly bodies. Shams was the titular goddess of several tribes honoured with a sanctuary and an idol. The goddess Al-Lat is also sometimes identified with the solar divinity. The god Dharrih was said to have been the rising sun. The Muslim rites of running between Arafat and Muzdalifah, as well as Muzdalifah and Mina, had to be accomplished after sunset and before sunrise: this was a deliberate change made by Muhammad to suppress any association with the pagan solar rite.
The worship of the moon is also attested to by proper names of people, such as Hilal (crescent), Qamar (moon), and so on. There was also the cult of the planet Venus, which was revered as a great goddess under the name of Al-Uzza. In the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, the Dutch orientalist Gautier H.A. Juynboll argues that the Hajj originally possessed a magical character:
Its purpose in early times must have been to get a happy new year with plenty of rain and sunshine, prosperity, and abundance of cattle and corn. Great fires were lit at Arafat and Muzdalifah, probably to induce the sun to shine in the new year. Water was poured on the ground as a charm against drought. Perhaps the throwing of stones at certain places in Mina, a relic of the primitive heathenism, was originally a symbol of throwing away the sins of the past year, and in this way a sort of charm against punishment and misfortune.
As for the Ka’ba itself, we do not know when it was first constructed, but the selection of the spot undoubtedly owes something to the presence of the well of Zamzam, which provided precious water to the caravans that passed through Mecca en route to Yemen and Syria. (Today, many halal food outlets actually sell pouches of Zamzam water for exorbitant prices.)
According to Muslim writers, the Ka’ba was first built in heaven, where a model of it still remains, two thousand years before the creation of the world. Adam erected the Ka’ba on earth, but this was destroyed during the Great Flood. Abraham was instructed to rebuild it, who was assisted by Ishmael. While looking for a stone to mark the corner of the building, Ishmael met the archangel Gabriel, who gave him the Black Stone, which was whiter than milk; it was only later that it became black from the sins of those who touched it. The above is, of course, an adaptation of the Jewish legend of the heavenly and earthly Jerusalem.
In pre-Islamic Arabia, idols were generally placed in a sacred precinct delimited by stones. One often found a well within this precinct. The believers rendered homage with offerings and sacrifices. The pilgrim often shaved his head within the precinct of the sanctuary. One will notice that all of these rituals are present in one form or another in the Hajj pilgrimage. By associating the Ka’ba with Abraham, Muhammad was able to incorporate the pagan Hajj into his new monotheistic religion. In co-opting the Hajj, Muhammad gave to Islam all that the pagan Arabs needed and which differentiates religion from philosophy: a nationality, ceremonies, historical memories, mysteries and an assurance of eternal paradise.
And so, although the indigenous rites may have been little, if at all, altered by the adoption of Jewish legends, they came to be received in a totally different light, and to be connected in Arab imagination with something of the sanctity of Abraham. It was upon this ground that Muhammad took his stand and proclaimed to his people a new spiritual system, in accents to which the whole Arabian Peninsula could respond. The rites of the Ka’ba were retained, but, stripped of all idolatrous tendency, they still hang, a strange unmeaning shroud, around the living theism of Islam. To finish with two sobering stanzas from the great Syrian poet Al-Ma’arri:
People come from far corners of the land
To throw pebbles at Satan and to kiss the black stone.
How strange are the things they say!
Is all mankind becoming blind to truth?
O fools, awake! The rites ye sacred hold
Are but a cheat contrived by men of old
Who lusted after wealth and gained their lust
And died in baseness – and their law is dust.
This article was written by co-founder Kareem Muhssin, with support from other Alliance members.