chapter  6
20 Pages

Pre-Islamic Bedouin ReligionJoseph Henninger

Introduction To describe the religion of pre-Islamic Arabia, and especially the pre-Islamic Bedouin religion, is no less difficult a task than portraying ancient Bedouin society, and that precisely because of serious lacunae in our documentation. It was with good reason that J. Wellhausen entitled his book on the subject, Reste arabischen Heidentums (Remnants of Arab Heathendom).1Cuneiform literature, the Old Testament, and the classi­cal authors (Greek as well as Latin) throw very little light on religious phenomena in ancient Arabia. It is only the Byzantine, Syriac, and espe­cially the Arab writers (all from a somewhat later period) who furnish more detailed information, although it is hardly systematic or complete.2It is not surprising, therefore, that no attempt appears to have been made in Europe before the seventeenth century to publish monograph-length studies on pre-Islamic religion, because of this lack of relevant docu­ments. Since the classical and biblical references were too few and the cuneiform inscriptions still unknown, it was impossible to consider under­taking such a project before the Arabic sources became at least partially accessible in the West. It is true that as early as the tenth century, Arabic works were translated into Latin or into other European languages in Spain. First to be translated were treatises on philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, etc. Works on the Quran as well as books dealing

4 STUDIES ON ISLAM with the religion of Islam followed. Information on pre-Islamic Arabia is to be found for the most part in works by Muslim historians, traditionists, and jurists. These are works that did not come to the attention of Chris­tian Europe until the Renaissance, and then only gradually.3The first to describe pre-Islamic religion ex professo was Edward Po-cocke, in his Specimen historiae Arabum (Oxford, 1649).4After an inter­val of almost two centuries, G. Bergmann published his dissertation (1834) on pre-Islamic Arabic religion,5 certainly a work of merit for its time, but soon made obsolete by the works of E. Osiander (1853),6 L. Krehl (1863),7 and especially those of J. Wellhausen, the most important of which has already been mentioned, the Reste arabischen Ijeidentums, published for the first time in 1887.8 In it Wellhausen drew primarily on the Kitab al-Asnam (The Book of Idols) of Ibn al-Kalbl, a work known at that time only through quotations in Yaqut’s geographical dictionary.83In his Lectures on the Religion of the Semites, first published in 1889, W. R. Smith contributed to our understanding of pre-Islamic religion through explanations that were largely speculative. For his factual data he relied on Wellhausen’s work.9 Much the same may be said of the work of M.-J. Lagrange11 who, like W. R. Smith, made a number of valuable contribu­tions to an understanding of the religions of other Semitic peoples. Th. Noldeke, on the other hand, advanced our knowledge in the field by his critical scholarship11and also by an important article in which he summa­rized the results of research up to that point.12Toward the end of the nineteenth century and on into the twentieth,South-Arabic and proto-Arabic epigraphy (entirely absent from the works of Wellhausen) was taken more and more into consideration. Al­though not particularly relevant to the study of the nomadic peoples, D. Nielsen from 1904 onwards made use of epigraphic evidence as a basis for reconstructing an astral religion common to proto-Semitic peoples and thus also attributable to Arab Bedouin. This much too speculative theory met with strong opposition.13More reliable studies followed the discovery of Ibn al-Kalbl’s Kitab al-Asnam, published in 1913 in Cairo by Ahmad ZakI Pacha,14later translated into German and English,15and referred to in numerous articles.16Credit must be given to G. Ryckmans for producing an important survey in his monograph, Les Religions arabes preislamiques, first pub­lished in 1947.17 He made extensive use of the expanding corpus of epi­graphic material while carefully avoiding Nielsen’s dubious theories. More recently, in his works on the religions and social organization of

pre-Islamic Arabia,18 J. Chelhod attempted to present an overall picture of pre-Islmaic religion. Though debatable in some respects, his work is essentially sound. Finally one will find discussions of varying lengths deal­ing with the religious situation of pre-Islamic Arabia in introductions to biographies of Muhammad19 and to monographs on Islam.21