Archives For Arabian Religions

Taken from the Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of World Religions

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Today’s religious topic is as follows:

“Arabian Religions”, the religions practiced by the Arab tribes before the time of the Prophet MUHAMMAD and the embracing of ISLAM (7th century CE). These religions were polytheistic, and while some deities were held in common among various tribes and even with non-Arab peoples, and certain religious practices were likewise shared, there was also much local particularity. Knowledge of these religions remains incomplete. The principal sources are incised rock drawings (the oldest of which, dating back several millennia, suggest cults of the bu of the bull and of the ostrich), rock inscriptions in several Arabic dialects, monuments, and lesser archaeological remains, including written documents. Contemporary Jewish, Greek, and other writers make mention of Arabic gods and practices, and the QUR’AN and other Islamic writings and practices also preserve elements of the pre-Islamic religions.

Most of the gods of the Arab tribes were sky gods, often associated with heavenly bodies (shiefly the Sun and the Moon), and to them were ascribed powers of fecundity, protection, or revenge against enemies. At the head of the South Arabian pantheon was ‘Athtar, associated with VENUS and corresponding to the Mesopotamian ISHTAR.

‘Athtar had superseded the ancient supreme Semitic god Il or EL, whose name survives nearly exclusively in theophoric names (names derived from or compounded with the name of a god; for example, Herodotus, meaning “given by Hera”). ‘Athtar was a god of the thunderstorm, dispensing natural irrigation in the form of rain. When qualified as Shariqan, “the Eastern One” (possibly a reference to Venus as the Morning Star), he was invoked as an avenger against enemies.

Next to ‘Athtar, who was worshiped throughout South Arabia, each kingdom had its own national god, of whom the nation called itself the “progeny” (wld). In Sabia’ the national god was Almaqah (or Ilmuqah), a protector of artificial irrigation, lord of the temple of the Sabaean federation of tribes. The symbols of the bull’s head and the vine motif that are associated with him are indicative of a sun god, a male consort of the sun goddess. In Ma’in the national god Wadd (“Love”) originated from North Arabia and probably was a moon god: the magic formula Wd’b, “Wadd is [my?] father,” written on AMULETS and buildings, is often accompanied by a crescent moon with the small disk of Venus. In Hadramawt the national god Syn was also a sung god. The sun goddess Shams was the national deity of the kingdom of Himyar. Other aspects of Shams are certainly concealed in some of the many and still obscure South Arabian female divine epithets.

As to the various lesser or local deities, the nature and even the gender of many remain unknown. In Qataban, Anbay and Hawkam are invoked together as (the gods) “of command and decision [?].” The name Anbay is related to that of the Babylonian god NABU, while Hawkam derives from the root meaning “to be wise.” They probably represent twin aspects o Babylonian Nabut-Mercury, the god of fate and science and the spokesman of the gods. In Hadramawt, Hawl was probably a moon god. In Ma’in, Nikrah was a healer patron; his shrine, located on a hillock in the middle of a large enclave marked by pillars, was an asylum for dying people and women in childbirth.

North Arabian gods are named for the first time in the annals of the 7th-century BCE Assyrian king Esarhaddon, in which he reports having returned to the oasis of Adumatu  (Dumat al-Jandal) the idols previously confiscated as war booty by his father, Sennacherib. Among the gods named by Esarhaddon are ‘Atarsamain, ‘Atarquruma, Nukhay, and Ruldayu. Herodotus wrote that the Arabs worshiped as sole deities Alilat, whom he identifies with both OURANIA and APHRODITE, and Orotalt are phonetic transcriptions of the same name, Ruda, a sun god. In the Nabataean kingdom the counterpart of Dionysus was the great god nicknamed du-Shara (Dusares), “the one of Shara” from the name of the mountain overlooking Petra. He was a rival to Shay’ al-Qawm, “the Shepherd of the People,” he “who drinks no wine, who builds no home,” the patron of the nomads and also worshiped by the Lihyanites. Nukhay, perhaps a solar god, was worshiped by the Thamudaeans and Safaites.

Al-Ilat, or AIlat (“the Goddess”), was known to all pantheons. She is a daughter or a consort, depending on the religion, of al-Lah or ALLAH (“the God”), Lord of the KA’BA in MECCA. Al-Ilat formed a trio with the goddesses al-‘Uzza (“the Powerful”) and Manat (or Manawat, “Destiny”). Among the Nabataeans al-‘Uzza was assimilated to Venue and Aphrodite and was the consort of Kutba’ or al-Aktab (“the Scribe”; MERCURY); among the Thamudaeans, however, she was assimilated to ‘Attarsamay (or ‘Attarsam). Manat was depicted as NEMESIS in the Nabataean ICONOGRAPHY. The three goddesses were called the “Daughters of Allah” in pre-Islamic Mecca, and they are mentioned in the Qur’an (53:19-22).

The sanctuaries, sometimes carved in the rock on high places, consisted of a HARAM, a sacred open-air enclosure, accessible only to unarmed and ritually clean people in ritual clothes. There the baetyl, a “raised stone,” or a statue of the god, was worshiped. The Nabataeans originally represented their gods as baetyls on a podium, but later they gave them a human appearance.

The stone-built temples of the Nabataeans and South Arabians were more elaborate structures, consisting of a rectangular walled enclosure, near one end of which was a stone canopy or a closed cella or both, which contained the altar for sacrifices or the idol of the god. The Ka’ba in Mecca, which became the sacred shrine of the Muslims, has a similar structure: it is a closed cella (which was full of idols in pre-Islamic times) in a walled enclosure, with a well. A baetyl, the Black Stone, is inserted in the wall of the Ka’ba; it is veiled by a cloth cover (the kiswah).

To the gods were offered, on appropriate altars, sacrifices of slaughtered animals, LIBATIONS and fumigations of aromatics, votive objects, or persons dedicated to serve in the temple. A ritual slaughter of enemies in gratitude for a military victory is mentioned at the rock SANCTUARY of the sun goddess of Himyar.

In addition to the northwestern Arabian Kahin, “soothsayer,” several kinds of priests and temple officials appear in Lihyanite, Nabataean, and South Arabian inscriptions, but their respective functions are not clear. North Arabian queens and ancient Qatabanian rulers bore priestly titles. In Saba’, some priests (rshw) of ‘Athar, recruited on a hereditary basis from three clans, took office in turn for seven years as kabir (Semitic for “Great,” or “Mighty”), in charge of the collection of the tithe and of the rites aimed at obtaining rain.

The priests interpreted the oracles, which, throughout Arabia, were mostly obtained by cleromancy (istiqsam): the answer (positive, negative, expectative and so on) to a question asked of the god was obtained by drawing lots from a batch of marked arrows or sticks. Among the many other forms of DIVINATION known from pre-Islamic Arabia, only oneiromancy, or divination by means of dreams (possibly after incubation in the temple), is well attested in Sabaean texts.

Throughout pre-Islamic Arabia, “truces of God” allowed people to attend in security the yearly PILGRIMAGES to important shrines. The rites included purification and the wearing of ritual clothing, sexual abstinence, abstention from shedding blood, and circuits performed (tawaf, dawar) around the sacred object; they were concluded by the slaughter of animals, which were eaten in collective feasts. Today such practices still form the core of the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca.

The sovereigns of Saba’ performed a rite called “hunting the game of “Athtar and the game of Kurum.” This rite was aimed at obtaining rain, and that is also the aim of a formal tribal ibex hunt still performed today in Hadramawt (an ancient South Arabian kingdom that occupied what are now southern and southeastern Yemen and the present-day Sultanate of Oman [Muscat and Oman]). Istisqa’, a collective rogation for rain with magical rites, in times of acute drought, is mentioned by the Muslim tradition and in two Sabaean texts. The rite is still part of the Islamic ritual.

South Arabian texts confessing offenses against ritual cleanliness, along with data from classical sources and the Muslim tradition on pre-Islamic customs, contribute to outline an ancient Arabian code of ritual cleanliness similar to that of the Leviticus and Muslim jurisprudence.

Illustration of Palestinian Christian home in Jerusalem, ca 1850. By W. H. Bartlett

(Comeback on 12/18/14 and continue to learn about religion. Tomorrow you’ll read and learn more about “Arachne”.

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