chapter  14
12 Pages

Pre-Islamic Monotheism in ArabiaHamilton A.R. Gibb

T h e search for the presumed “sources” of Muhammad’s religious ideas, as these are expressed in the Qur’an, has inspired a con­siderable range of studies, varying in tone from tentative to polemical. Most writers on the topic seek to demonstrate either a predominantly Jewish or a predominantly Christian “influence.” It is relatively easy, of course, to compile a catena of passages from the Qur’an which can be paralleled by Scriptural texts or by haggadic or apocryphal materials or compared with the prac­tices of Jewish or Christian communities. The argument tends to become inconclusive on the whole; Jewish scholars who argue for a Jewish source or sources are apt to forget that the Old Testa­ment was as much a part of Christian as of Jewish Scripture and that even haggadic supplements had long since been taken up into Christian writings; Christian scholars who argue for a Chris­tian source or sources arc somewhat embarrassed by Muhammad’s decisive rejection of Christological doctrine; and each side can produce valid arguments against the other.Muslim doctrine, for its part, has never denied a relationship of Islam with Judaism and Christianity and their community of origin (and, to a certain extent, of historical tradition), but ex­plicitly rejects any “influence” from either side on the Qur’an, declaring it to be the verbally inspired Word of God, directly communicated to the Prophet by angelic mediation. Parallels and deviations from the earlier Scriptures therefore need no ex­planation. For myself, I unhesitatingly accept the term ‘Revela­tion’ (in Arabic tanzll, “sending down” or wahy, “inner com­munication”) as the description of Muhammad’s personal experi­ence, although Islam, like the other monotheistic religions, is faced with the necessity of reinterpreting the no longer tenable mediaeval concepts of ‘revelation.’Even on the basis of the orthodox Muslim view, however, there is still room for an investigation of the ‘prehistory’ of Islam in the Arabian peninsula. If the teaching of the Qur’an was to be

understood by its first hearers, as is rightly assumed by Muslim scholarship, there must have been not only in existence, but widely enough known in Mecca, an Arabic religious vocabulary applicable to the monotheistic content of the Qur’an. Since this vocabulary, by its use in the Qur’an, was merged into the com­mon stock of classical Arabic, the problem that it sets was ob­scured for the Muslim scholars, even when they recognized that a number of Qur’anic terms were of non-Arabic origin. The term Qur’an itself is a case in point. Whether or not qara'a already existed in Arabic in the sense of ‘to read,’ the technical sense of Qur}an in its primitive use as “liturgical recitation” clearly be­trays an external source, somehow related to the Syriac qerydna} It is self-evident that these elements of technical religious vocabu­lary could have come only from the language of the surrounding monotheistic communities; it is not surprising therefore that on examination they prove to be almost wholly of Syriac/Aramaic origin (including terms of Greek or Persian origin adopted into Syriac), although a considerable proportion appear to have en­tered the Qur’anic vocabulary indirectly through Ethiopic/South Arabian channels. Equally significant is the observation that a number of these terms were already Arabized, or correlated with Arabic semantics, lnjll, ‘gospel,’ Musa, ‘Moses,’ and ‘Isa, ‘Jesus’are examples of the first; tazakka, ‘purify oneself (by giving alms)’ and the terms associated with baraka ‘blessing’ are ex­amples of the second. Since the original languages were cognate to classical North-Arabian and had parallel roots in Arabic, there is, of course, every excuse for the Arabic philologists in failing to recognize many of them as loanwords with a special technical sense.Although a number of these loanwords are common to Christian Syriac and Jewish Aramaic, detailed comparative study may help to determine the Christian or Jewish coloring of their source in Arabic — not of their use in the Qur’an. (Only in the early Medinian suras of the Qur’an is there evidence of direct adoption of Hebrew terms in certain special contexts.) It is a far cry from

this, however, to infer that pre-Islamic monotheism in Arabia was directly connected with the institutionally organized Jewish or Christian communities. Such communities certainly existed in Arabia, but there is considerable evidence both from Muslim texts and from external sources that other monotheistic groups were to be found in Arabia, independently of the organized churches and hence ‘heretical’ in their eyes. Such groups may have been offshoots not only of Christianity, but also of Judaism, or Judaeo-Christian.2 The relation of Islam to the official Jewish and Chris­tian churches and doctrines via these deviant groups is thus to some extent parallel to that between the early Christian church and orthodox Judaism. The ‘prehistory’ of Christianity has now been almost miraculously illuminated by the discovery of the Essene documents, which demonstrate that several of the struc­tural elements and rituals in Christianity were related, either by adoption or by rejection or reinterpretation, to those of the Dead Sea community. It is improbable that the ‘prehistory’ of Islam in Arabia will ever be revealed in such detail, and the evidences are reduced to the fragments preserved in the Islamic tradition and the Qur’an itself. The much-disputed problem of identifying those whom the Islamic tradition calls hanijs displays at once the fact of the existence of such groups and the slender nature of the evidence for their character. Furthermore, there are many details in the Qur’an which relate evidently to a prophetic tradition that is purely Arabian, even while it links on to the Jewish and Christian traditions. In these circumstances, it is absurd to postulate, even as a hypothesis, a “Jewish foundation” for Islam; the phrase “Christian environment” has the merit of being at least less asser­tive, and leaves room for an intermediate group or groups.While the existence of a group or groups representing a local monotheistic tradition can be regarded as historically certain, it ’ There are n u m erou s d iscussions o f the possible role of such sects as the

has sometimes been argued that none of them had gained much of a hearing in Mecca. According to this view, Muhammad’s preaching would in effect have confronted the Meccans with a body of new ideas that they found hard to accept. There are solid reasons to reject this assumption, as will be seen presently. In what follows, however, no attempt will be made to comb through the Qur’an to discover all the allusions to, or assumptions of pre-Islamic monotheistic elements. In many instances the facts can be established only by lengthy examination of related passages and argument based upon them.3 The passage now to be dis­cussed is one that has received surprisingly little attention — surprisingly, because it is the passage in which the existence of pre-Islamic monotheism is most openly acknowledged and its character most clearly and fully presented. This passage is a self-contained section at the end of Sura LIII (w . 3 3 - 5 4 ), and is clearly to be dated in the early Meccan period of Muhammad’s mission.