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Religious Development in Arabia

3080 2008/05/16 2024/06/14

how did it happen that ibrahim built the house as a place of refuge and security for the people so that the believers in god alone might use it for prayer, and then it became a pantheon full of statues for idol worship? what were the conditions of worship after ibrahim and isma'il? in what form and with what ritual was worship conducted in the holy house? when were these conditions and forms superceded by paganism? in vain do we turn the pages of history books looking for answers to these questions? all we find therein are presumptions which their authors think are reports of facts. the sabeans were star worshipers, 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 worshiped god alone and venerated the stars as signs of his creation and power. since the majority of people were 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 hierophanies 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 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 is the picture which some historians give of religious development in arabia after ibrahim dedicated the ka'bah to the worship of god. herodotus, father of written history, mentions the worship of al lat in arabia; and diodorus, the sicilian, mentions the house of makkah venerated by the arabs. their two witnesses point to the antiquity of paganism in the peninsula and therefore to the fact that the religion of ibrahim was not always observed there.


the arab prophets

during these long centuries many prophets called their tribes to the worship of god alone. the arabs gave them little hearing and continued with their paganism. hud was one of those prophets sent to the tribe of 'ad which lived in the north of hadramawt. few tribesmen responded to his call. the majority were too proud to relinquish their old ways and they answered, "o hud! you brought us no sign. we cannot relinquish our gods just because you tell us to. we shall not believe" [qur'an, 11:53]. hud kept on calling for years, but the more he called the more obstinate they became. similarly, salih arose in the tribe of thamud who lived in al hijr between hijaz and al sham, this side of wadi al qura and to the southeast of the land of madyan, close to the gulf of `aqabah. his call bore no more fruit than hud's. shu'ayb arose among the people of madyan who then lived in the hijaz. he called them to the worship of god alone, but they refused to hear and they perished as the people of 'ad and thamud before them. the qur'anic narratives told us about the stories and missions of other prophets who called men unto god alone, and of their peoples' obstinacy and pride, their continued paganism, their worship of the idols of the ka'bah, and their pilgrimage to the ka'bah from every corner of the arabian peninsula. all this is implied in god's statement, "and we inflict no punishment on anyone until we have sent them a prophet to warn them"[ qur'an, 17:15]


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