IN order to be able to understand the gradual development of Islam in Muhammad's mind, and to discover from what sources he borrowed, it is necessary in the first place to consider the religious opinions and observances of the Arabs among whom he was born and bred.
The inhabitants of Arabia were not all of one race. Arabic writers in general divide them into pure or original Arabs and those who, coming from other countries, had become Arabicized. Himyarites and certain other tribes present us with traces of affinity with the Æthiopians, and the accounts which the cuneiform tablets give us of early conquests of parts of the country by the Sumerian kings of Babylonia, coupled with the fact that the early Egyptian kings for a time had sway over the Sinaitic Peninsula and possibly over other districts in the North and West, leave no doubt that there were even in early times Hamitic and other foreign elements in the population. In the days of the great Cushite monarchies in Babylonia, not only must the people of Arabia have been to some degree affected by their civilization, their trade and their ideas in general, but the influence of the religion also of these foreign nations must have been considerable. Early Arabian inscriptions prove this, containing as they do the names of such deities as Sin (the Moon-god) and 'Aththar (Ashtoreth, Ishtar), worshipped by the Sumerians in the first place and afterwards by the Semites of Babylonia, Assyria, Syria and of some parts of Arabia. Yet, though there was doubtless a Hamitic element in the population, the great mass of the people from very early times has always been Semitic in origin, and also in language, character, and religion.
Ibn Hisham, Tabari, and other Arabian historians have preserved ancient traditions of certain Arab tribes, particularly those of the northern and western parts of the country. These agree with the statements of the Pentateuch, and give every reason to believe that most of these tribes could trace their descent to Joktan (Ar. Qahtan1), or to Ishmael, or to Abraham's children by Keturah. Even those who had no real right to claim such lineage did so in Muhammad's time. The Quraish, his own tribe, claimed descent from Abraham through Ishmael. Although it may be considered impossible to prove this, the very fact that such was the belief of the tribe would naturally enlist a certain amount of popular sympathy in Muhammad's cause, when he claimed to be commissioned to recall his people to the "faith of Abraham," whom they boasted of as their ancestor.
There seems good reason to believe that the original religion of the children of Shem was the worship of the One2 God. Although polytheism had even in very early times found an entrance into Arabia, in part doubtless through the foreign influences already referred to, yet the belief in the One true God had never entirely faded away from the minds of the people. The most binding agreements between different tribes were confirmed by an oath taken in calling on the name of God (Allah, Allahumma), and the expression, "An enemy of God," was deemed the most opprobrious that could be used. It is possible that we may see in the Book of Job the proof that even in that early period the worship of the Host of Heaven was finding an entrance into the country (Job xxxi. 26-8). Herodotus (Book III., cap. 8) informs us that two deities, a male and a female, were worshipped by the Arabs in his time, and these he identifies with Dionysos and Ourania. He informs us that their names in Arabic were and respectively. The latter is very possibly the Allatu of Babylonia, and is certainly the Al-lat mentioned in the Qur'an3. The latter word was taken to be the feminine of Allah "God". Allah itself is known to be a contraction of Al Ilah, which is the word used in all the Semitic languages (in slightly varied forms) for God, with the definite article prefixed, so that Allah is the exact equivalent of the Greek . The form which is given us by Herodotus is the uncontracted form of the feminine of the same word4. It is possible that the Arabs of whom Herodotus speaks5 provided their one God with a female consort, after the manner of the Semites of Babylonia, who had learnt from the Sumerians the idea that each deity must have his feminine6 counterpart, just as we find among the Hindus. On the other hand, we are not justified in believing that this was the case among all the Arabs. Certainly it was not so in Muhammad's time, for neither the Qur'an nor any of the remains of the most ancient poetry of the Arabs afford any trace of such a tenet. Allah was regarded as standing alone and unapproachable, and the inferior deities peculiar to the various tribes were worshipped as intercessors with Him. These were numerous, the most important of them being Wudd, Ya'uq, Hubal, Al-lat, 'Uzza,' and Manah. The three latter were goddesses, and the Qur'an reproves7 the Arabs for styling them "daughters of God". The Arabs of that time, if we may judge from their poetry, were not very religious, but what worship they offered was mostly to these inferior deities, though doubtless regarded as through them addressed to Allah Himself. The latter was often styled Allah Ta'ala' or "God Most High," and this title of His was doubtless very ancient8. It is not possible to suppose that the recognition of the Unity of God was introduced among the Arabs for the first time by Muhammad. For the word Allah, containing as it does the definite article, is a proof that those who used it were in some degree conscious of the Divine Unity. Now Muhammad did not invent the word, but, as we have said, found it already in use among his fellow countrymen at the time when he first claimed to be a Prophet, a Divinely commissioned messenger. Proof of this is not far to seek. Muhammad's own father, who died before his son's birth, was called Abdu'llah, "Servant of Allah."9. The Ka'bah or Temple at Mecca seems long before Muhammad's time to have been called Baitu'llah or "House of Allah." Arabic tradition asserts that a shrine for the worship of God was built on that very site by Abraham and his son Ishmael. Although we cannot regard this statement as in any sense historical, yet the tradition serves at least to show the antiquity of the worship there offered, since its origin was lost in fable. The Ka'bah is, in all probability, the spot referred to by Diodorus Siculus10 (B.C. 60) as containing a shrine or temple which was very specially honoured by all the Arabs. In the poems entitled Al Mu'allaqt, handed down to us from pre-Islamic times, the word Allah is of frequent occurrence11. And Ibn Ishaq, the earliest biographer of Muhammad of whose work any certain remains have come down to us, is quoted by Ibn Hisham as stating that the tribes of Kinanah and Quraish, when performing the religions ceremony known as the Ihlal, used to address the Deity in such words12 as these: "Labbaika, Allahumma!" We are present in Thy service, O God; we are present in Thy service! Thou hast no partner, except the partner of Thy dread; Thou ownest him and whatsoever he owneth." Ibn Ishaq rightly says that by this address they declared their belief in the unity of Allah. He does not explain what was meant by the phrase "The partner of Thy dread:" but it may be conjectured that the reference was to some inferior deity belonging to one or other of the tribes which he mentions. But in any case the language employed shows clearly that the being referred to was not in any way placed upon an equality with Allah. The religion of the ancient Arabs may therefore be justly compared with the Saint-worship of the Greek and Roman Churches, alike of Muhammad's time and of our own, and with that which, in spite of the Qur'an, is even now prevalent among Muslims. But the worship offered in such cases to saints or inferior deities is not supposed to constitute a denial of the Unity and supremacy of God, since the latter are adored only as mediators between God and man. What Ash Shahristani tells us of the religious ideas and practices of the pre-Islamic period in Arabia fully confirms this13. He divides the inhabitants of Arabia into various sects or parties, differing very much in their religious opinions. Some of them, he says, denied the existence of a Creator, the sending of prophets, and the final judgment, asserting that Nature itself was the giver of life and that Time was the universal destroyer. Others again believed in a Creator, but denied that He had ever revealed Himself by sending messengers commissioned to declare His will. Others, again, worshipped idols, of which each tribe had its own. For example, the tribe of Kalb worshipped Wudd and Suwa', that of Madhhaj honoured Yaghuth, as did some of the Yamanites. The Dhu'lkila' in Himyar worshipped Nasr, the Hamdhan tribe adored Ya'uq, that of Thaqif in Taif served Al-lat, while Al-'Uzza' was the tutelary goddess of the Bani Kinanah and of the Quraish. The tribes of Aus and Khazraj worshipped Manah, and regarded Hubal as the chief of their deities. His image was placed in a most conspicuous place on the roof of the Ka'bah. Other deities were Asaf and Naila'. Some of the tribes had come under the influence of Jewish colonies settled near them, and accepted more or less of the teaching of the latter people. Others had become Christians, while their neighbours were inclined to accept that faith. Others, again, were under the influence of the Sabians, and used to practise astrology and receive omens taken from the movements of the heavenly bodies as their guides in all actions of importance. Some worshipped angels, some the Jinns or evil spirits. Abu Bakr himself, who afterwards became the first Khalifah or "Vicegerent of the Apostle of God," was at one time distinguished for his proficiency in the art of interpreting dreams.
A story14 related by many Arabic writers, including some of the best known commentators on the Qur'an, shows how readily the Arabs in Muhammad's time (even those who were most bitterly opposed to him in Mecca, and who had forced most of his early disciples to flee to Abyssinia to save their lives) joined with him in worshipping God Most High (Allah Ta'ala'), when he for a time seemed to withdraw his opposition to their honouring their inferior deities also. He went one day, we are told, to pray in the Ka'bah, the great national sanctuary at Mecca, of which his family had been at one time the guardians. There he began to repeat Surah An Najm (Surah LIII.). When he had recited the nineteenth and twentieth verses, "Have ye not then seen Al-Lat and Al-'Uzza' and Manat, the other, the third?" it is stated that Satan impelled him to add the words, "These are the Exalted Beauties, and verily their intercession may indeed be hoped for." On hearing these words all the Arabs present joined him in worship, and the rumour spread everywhere that they had all embraced Islam. The story is well authenticated and is most probably true. But in any case its very existence shows that the opponents of Muhammad found no difficulty in accepting his teaching as to the existence and supremacy of Allah, and that they worshipped the inferior deities as intercessors with Him. It is but fair to add that Muhammad soon withdrew the words which acknowledged the existence and influence of these goddesses, substituting for them those now found in the Surah, "Have ye male (issue), and hath He (i.e. God) female? That indeed were an unfair division. They are nought but names, which ye and your fathers have named15."
Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Hisham and Arabic writers in general state that the Arabs, and in particular those that boasted descent from Ishmael, were at first worshippers of God alone, and that, though after a time they fell away into idolatry and polytheism if the word may be applied to such religious ideas and practices as those which we have described they nevertheless always remembered that God Most High was superior to and Ruler over all the inferior objects of their worship.
When we come to consider the influence which Jewish and Christian tenets exercised over the mind of Muhammad, we shall see that these religions no doubt strengthened his belief in Monotheism. But it was not a new belief among the Arabs of the time, since, as we have seen, they had always admitted it, at least in theory. Yet the inferior deities whom they worshipped were very numerous, for it is said that there were no fewer than 360 idols in the Ka'bah, which had become a kind of national Pantheon. There can be little doubt, moreover, that these local and tribal deities for such they were had in practice cast entirely into the shade among the great mass of the people the worship of "God Most High."
It should, however, be noticed that, rightly or wrongly, the earliest Arabian historians assert that the "association of partners with God" was of comparatively recent origin in those parts of Arabia when Islam arose. Tradition16, said to rest on Muhammad's authority, informs us that idolatry had been introduced from Syria, and gives us the names of those who were chiefly instrumental in introducing it. This is stated to have occurred only about fifteen generations before Muhammad. An exception to this must be made in the case of the veneration paid to sacred stones. This was common among the people of Palestine in the patriarchal period, and was doubtless of immemorial antiquity in Arabia. Ibn Ishaq17 endeavours to account for it by supposing that the Meccans used to carry with them on their journeys pieces of stone from the Ka'bah and paid reverence to them because they came from the Haram or Holy Temple. Herodotus18 mentions the use of seven stones by the Arabs when taking solemn oaths. The honour, almost amounting to worship, still paid by Muslim pilgrims to the famous meteoric Hajaru'l Aswad or Black Stone, which is built into the wall of the Ka'bah, is one of the many Islamic customs which have been derived from those of the Arabs who lived long before Muhammad's time. The kiss which the pious Muhammadan pilgrim bestows on it is a survival of the old practice, which was a form of worship in Arabia as in many other lands. Many tales were told regarding this stone in pre-Muhammadan times, and these are still firmly believed. A Tradition relates that it descended from Paradise, and was originally of a pure white colour, but has become black through the sins of mankind, or, according to another account, through contact with the lips of One ceremonially impure. As it is now known to be of meteoric origin, part of the story is readily accounted for.
Not only in reference to belief in Allah Ta'ala' and to reverence for the Black Stone and the Ka'bah but in many other matters also Islam has borrowed from the Arabs of more ancient times. It is not too much to say that most of the religions rites and ceremonies which now prevail throughout the Muhammadan world are identical19 with those practised in Arabia from immemorial antiquity. For example, Herodotus20 tells us that in his time the Arabs used to shave the hair around their temple and cut the rest close. This is done by Muhammadans in some countries today21. If there is any difference of which we cannot be certain since we do not know whether the Greek traveller ever saw an Arab bareheaded it lies in the fact that the shaving is continued from the forehead to the back of the neck, the hair being allowed to grow, though cut short, only on the sides of the head. Abu'l Fida22 calls attention to the number of religious observances which were thus perpetuated under the new system. "The Arabs of the times of ignorance23," he says, "used to do things which the religious law of Islam has adopted24. For they used not to wed their mothers or their daughters, and among them it was deemed a most detestable thing to marry two sisters, and they used to revile the man who married his father's wife, and to call him Daizan. They used, moreover, to make the Pilgrimage25 (Hajj) to the House" (the Ka'bah), "and visit the consecrated places, and wear the Ihram26" (the single garment worn to the present day by a pilgrim when running round the Ka'bab), "and perform the Tawwaf and run" (between the hills As Safa and Al Marwa), "and take their stand at all the Stations, and cast the stones" (at the devil in the valley of Mina); "and they were wont to intercalate a month27 every third year." He goes on to mention many other similar examples in which the religion of Islam has enjoined as religious observances ancient Arabian customs, for instance ceremonial washings after certain kinds of defilement, parting the hair, the ritual observed in cleansing the teeth, paring the nails, and other such matters. He informs us that then as now the punishment for theft was the loss of a hand28, and says that circumcision was practised by the heathen Arabs, as it still is by all Muslims, though nowhere enjoined in the Qur'an. This last statement is confirmed by the author of the apocryphal epistle of Barnabas29, who says, "Every Syrian and Arab and all the priests of the idols are circumcised." It is well known that the same practice prevailed among the ancient Egyptians also. Ibn Ishaq30 uses much the same language as Abu'l Fida, but adds that the customs which he mentions, including that of the Ihlal had been retained from Abraham's time. This is no doubt true of circumcision: but it can hardly he said that Abraham had anything to do with the other matters referred to, in spite of the Muhammadan belief that he visited Mecca and worshipped where the Ka'bah now stands.
It is clear, from all that has been said, that the first source of Islam is to be found in the religious beliefs31 and practices of the Arabs of Muhammad's day. From this heathen source, too, Islam has derived the practice of Polygamy and that of slavery, both of which, though adding nothing to their evil effects in other respects, Muhammad sanctioned for all time by his own adoption of them.
It is sometimes said in the East at the present day that Muhammad not only adopted many of the ancient habits and religions rites of the heathen Arabs and incorporated them into Islam, but that he was also guilty of plagiarism in borrowing parts of certain verses of Imrau'l Qais, an ancient Arabic poet. These, it is asserted, may still be found in the Qur'an. I have even heard a story to the effect that one day when Fatimah, Muhammad's daughter, was reciting the verse "The Hour has come near and the Moon has split asunder" (Surah LIV., Al Qamar, 1), a daughter of the poet was present and said to her "That is a verse from one of my father's poems, and your father has stolen it and pretended that he received it from God." This tale is probably false, for Imrau'l Qais died about the year 540 of the Christian era, while Muhammad was not born till A.D. 570, "the year of the Elephant."
In a lithographed edition of the Mu'allaqat, which I obtained in Persia, however, I found at the end of the whole volume certain Odes there attributed to Imrau'l Qais, though not recognized as his in any other edition of his poems which I have seen. In these pieces of doubtful authorship I found the verses quoted below32. Though they contain some obvious blunders, I think it best to give them without correction. The passages marked with a line above them occur also in the Qur'an (Surah LIV., Al Qamar, 1, 29, 31, 46; Surah XCIII., Ad Dhuha', 1; Surah XXI., Al Anbiya, 96; Surah XXXVII., As Saffat, 59), except that in some of the words there is a slight difference, though the meaning is the same. It is clear therefore that there is some connexion between these lines and the similar verses of the Qur'an. There seems good reason to doubt whether Imrau'l Qais is the author of the lines in question. They may have been borrowed from the Qur'an instead of having been inserted therein from an author who lived before Muhammad's time. On the one hand it is difficult to suppose that at any time after the establishment of Islam any one would have the daring to parody the Qur'an by taking passages from it and applying them to the subject to which these lines of poetry refer. On the other hand, it is very customary even in comparatively modern times to quote verses of the Qur'an and work them into later compositions of a philosophical or religious character, to which class, however, these Odes do not belong. It would be difficult to imagine Muhammad venturing to plagiarize from such a well-known author as Imrau'l Qais (even though, as we shall see later, he did so from less known foreign sources); though this may be in part met by supposing that, as these Odes formed no part of the Mu'allaqat they were not as generally current as poems contained in the latter collection were. The account generally given of the Mu'allaqat is that, whenever any one had composed an especially eloquent poem, it was suspended on the wall of the Ka'bah, and that the poems in this celebrated collection owe their name, which means "The suspended Poems," to this custom. Good authorities33, however, deny that this was the origin of the name but that is perhaps a matter of little importance. In spite of the Eastern story which I have quoted, the balance of probability certainly inclines to the supposition that Muhammad was not34 guilty of the daring plagiarism of which he has been accused35.