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Islam Is Repackaged Polytheism: Documentation

Islam in the World, Malise Ruthven, 1984, p 28-48

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Islam: Truth or Myth? start page



(Islam in the World, Malise Ruthven, 1984, p 28-48)


Eventually his international undertakings (not to mention his personal inclinations) obliged him to deal with his over-zealous followers. This was particularly the case after his conquest of the Hejaz. During the campaign some 300 people had been massacred in the city of Taif, and Muslims throughout the world were alarmed at what the'Najdi fanatics' might do in the Holy Places. Their fears were far from groundless: during the previous conquest of the Hejaz in 18o2 the Wahhabis had smashed up the Prophet's tomb in Medina and destroyed the remains of most of the saints who had been buried near the Holy Places. When the pilgrim caravans arrived from Egypt and Syria they were turned away as idolaters. After his family's re-occupation of the sacred territories, 'Abd al 'Aziz did his best to reassure the inhabitants that he was no bloody iconoclast. He had to intervene personally to prevent the Ikhwan from slaughtering the official delegation of Egyptians bearing the kiswa, the black silk covering of the Ka'ba, renewed every year at the Hajj season. About forty pilgrims were killed in the incident, after which the Saudis decided to supply the kiswa (traditionally a gift from Egypt) themselves. When the Ikhwan attacked the British-held Iraqi territory and two of their leaders revolted, 'Abd al 'Aziz disbanded them. Most of their units became absorbed into the Saudi National Guard. For the moment, the genie was back in the bottle-Islam reverted to its more familiar function, a prop to the social order, not a force to threaten it. 'Abd al 'Aziz, who already held the titles of King of Najd and its Dependencies and King of the Hejaz, gave himself a new one - King of Saudi Arabia (the only state in the world whose citizens are labelled with their ruler's surname). In the eyes of the religious militants, it was a classic case of the ideological 'sell-out': instead of being allowed to restore the Islamic government of their dreams, the Ikhwan, like so many of their predecessors from the time of the early caliphs, had been used to further the ambitions of a worldly dynast.

In a sense the problem, a classic one, had existed from the beginnings of Islam. The Prophet, like Ibn Saud, was a realist who recognized that an accommodation would have to be made with the Quraish, rulers of Mecca and once his bitterest enemies, because they were the only power in Arabia strong enough to maintain the tribal alliances upon which the infant Islamic state depended. Before the conquest of Mecca, the Prophet and Abu Sufyan, his former enemy, came to an arrangement which guaranteed that Islam would have a brilliant future in this world, but at a price. The generous terms Muhammad granted his former enemies placed them at the head of the new Islamic community, thereby laying down the basis for the Umayyad dictatorship which presided over the first great era of expansion. The first schisms of the community, which have lasted to the present, were caused by a mixture of ideological and personal factors. However the fact that the 'losers', the party (shi'a) of 'Ali and his heirs, the Imams of the Prophet's house, retained their hold over the affections and imaginations of the more pious and radical elements, was largely due to the sense of betrayal that accompanies any attempt to translate an ideal into reality. Christians had shelved, not solved, this problem by proclaiming that since Christ's Kingdom was 'not of this world', obedience to secular authority, however corrupt or wicked, could be mitigated or atoned for by an essentially private piety or morality. For Muslims there was no such easy way out: the Prophet had been his own Caesar, a temporal ruler as well as the bearer of a divine message. The Quran had urged the faithful to 'obey God and His Prophet': there was no possibility that the two might contradict each other, since the Prophet's utterances were God's speech,, not an imperfect human rendering of it. The sense of betrayal must always, sooner or later, rouse a significant portion of the faithful to action, in order to restore the purity of an Islam deemed to have been corrupted. If imitatio Christi meant renouncing worldly ambition and seeking salvation by deeds of private virtue, imitatio Muhanunadi meant sooner or later taking up arms against those forces which seemed to threaten Islam from within or without.

Thus the Hajj, the most central event in the Islamic calendar, cannot be described as a purely religious festival. With so many Muslims gathered together from different parts of the world, it contains a political message and the potential for political action. The political ideals of Islam - universal justice and equality, regardless of tribe, nation or race - are implicit in the rituals themselves. They are performed in the state of diram, ritual purity, in which all men (and most women) wear the white kaffax or seamless shroud which they will keep for their burials, a uniform which removes all outward signs of distinction between them. The potentialities for action are in the opportunities presented by Mecca as the universal Muslim city, where Muslims from distant parts of the world have the right to congregate at all times, not only in the Hajj season. Many of the revolutionary and revivalist movements which swept through Africa and Asia, creating, albeit temporarily, new 'Islamic' states, originated there in encounters between men of God and men of the sword. At the present time, the role of the pro-Western Saudis as guardians of the Holy places and administrators of the Hajj puts them in a very delicate position. Religion is, of course, constantly employed to legitimize their government. As rulers of the Hejaz and major financial contributors to Islamic institutions all over the world, the Al Sa'ud enjoy a quasi-caliphal role: in a sense they are non-titular heads of an increasingly politically conscious pan-Islamic community. This gives them a moral influence within the most important bloc of Third World states which complements their economic weight in the West. But it also makes them especially vulnerable to attacks from religious quarters. This was shown by the armed occupation of Mecca's Grand Mosque in November 1979 by a group of extremists led by Juhaiman al Utaibi.

A child of the Ikhwan who grew up in the shadow of its defeat, Juhaiman and his two hundred followers (who included Yemenis, Sudanese, Kuwaitis, Iraqis and Egyptians as well as Saudis) consciously imitated the style and behaviour of the original Ikhwan and called themselves by the same name. In a pamphlet published in Kuwait which was circulating inside Saudi Arabia at the time of the seizure of the Grand Mosque, Juhaiman denounced the royal family and explained that, according to Islamic law, the people are not obliged to obey impious rulers: 'They worship money and spend it on palaces, not mosques. If you accept what they say they will make you rich; otherwise they will persecute and even torture you.'4 During the occupation he broadcast similar attacks over the mosque's tannoy system, enabling the message to be heard all over central Mecca. He denounced the scandalous personal habits of the Saudi princes (drinking, gaming, visits to the fleshpots of the West), mentioning by name the Governor of Mecca, Prince Fawwaz ibn 'Abd al 'Aziz. After two weeks of fighting, allegedly under the direction of special forces flown in from France, the Saudi authorities gained control of the mosque and most of the surviving rebels were executed. The great majority of Muslims approved the verdict, agreeing that by bringing in arms the rebels had committed a sacrilege. Partly for this reason, no doubt, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran's revolutionary leader and a vitriolic critic of the Saudis, himself denounced the rebels, intimating that they must be US or Israeli agents. 'It is not beyond guessing', he announced on Tehran radio, 'that this is the work of criminal American imperialism and international Zionism.' For the zealots, a hint from Khomeini was a statement of incontrovertible fact: there were anti-American demonstrations in the Philippines, Thailand, Bangladesh, India, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Turkey, Nigeria, Libya and even some western capitals. In Islamabad the military government of General Zia'ul Haqq astutely allowed rival student gangs of Muslim militants and supporters of his recently executed rival Mr Bhutto to unleash their feelings against the US embassy, which they burned to the ground.

Although Juhaiman's revolt failed, the Saudis and other pro-Western Arab governments remained vulnerable to criticism from religious radicals, especially the Ayatollah Khomeini. Indeed, while most of the world's attention was centred on the siege of Mecca, a potentially more serious crisis had erupted in the oil-bearing region of Hasa in the Eastern Province, where most of Saudi Arabia's Shi'a Muslims, including many workers in the oil industry, are concentrated. Unlike the Meccan siege, the troubles in Hasa were a direct result of Khomeini's propaganda.

Since 'Abd al 'Aziz ibn Sa'ud conquered the region from the Turks in 1913 the Shi'a of Hasa had been subject to varying social, economic and religious restrictions under the rule of their Wahhabi overlords. The province has a history of unrest. Strikes at Aramco (the US-owned company which originally exploited and marketed the bulk of Saudi crude) in 1953 and 1956, as well as purges of Arab nationalist sympathizers in the late fifties and in 1969, were related to resentments among the Shi'a, who had been ruled since the Saudi conquest by the Ibn Jalawis, a cadet branch of the Saudi royal house.

A special cause for resentment had been the banning of certain Shi'a rituals, in particular the 'Ashura processions commemorating the death of the Prophet's grandson Husain, third of the Twelve Imams or spiritual leaders venerated by the sect. In 1979, inspired by the success of Khomeini's revolution in Iran, the Shia leaders announced that they intended to hold the 'Ashura processions during the last week of November. The authorities, preoccupied with the crisis in Mecca, thought better than to make more trouble by banning the march, hoping, no doubt, that the demonstration would pass off without incident. They were not to be so fortunate: after a fracas between a demonstrator and a Saudi policeman, a riot ensued in which seventeen people were shot dead and the offices of the Saudi-British bank were attacked. The government sent the deputy interior minister Prince Ahmed Ibn'Abd al Aziz to calm the trouble. He offered generous terms, including better schools and hospitals, if only the Shi'a leaders would support the kingdom in its hour of need. However, the collapse of the revolt in Mecca shortly afterwards strengthened the government's hand, and at a press conference subsequently called by Prince Nail, the interior minister, no mention was made of the proffered reforms.

The gravity of the crisis in the Eastern Provinces could scarcely be exaggerated, for although previous episodes of Shi'a unrest had been suppressed without much difficulty, none of them had occurred against the background of a militant Shi'a regime in Iran, led by a patriarch whose unofficial title of 'Imam' conveyed a message of messianic expectation. According to Shi'a doctrine, the last of the Twelve Imams of the Prophet's family, Muhammad al Muntazar (the Awaited One) is not dead, but merely in concealment, ready to return as the Mahdi (messiah) at the end of the world, to bring peace and justice to a mankind beset by turmoil and corruption. Though institutionalized and spiritualized by centuries of doctrinal refinement, this chiliastic message had proved its potency as an essential component of an Islamic revolutionary ideology directed mainly against local tyranny and western influence. The mahdist idea, which is also present in Sunni traditions, was used by Juhaiman, who claimed that his confederate Muhammad 'Abdullah al Qahtani (a young theology student who died in the siege) was the expected Mahdi, and timed his action to coincide with the beginning of the new Islamic century (a traditional time of mahdist expectations). It is not improbable that Juhaiman was deliberately trying to exploit the general atmosphere engendered in the Muslim world by the fall of the Shah and Khomeini's accession to power, the first successful 'Islamic revolution' under modern conditions.

As Muslim rulers with their own history of direct action conducted successfully against the'backsliding infidel' (represented in their case by the Ottoman-backed Sharif Husain), the Saudis hardly needed remind-ing of Islam's revolutionary potential. The problem for them, and for other Muslim rulers in the Gulf, was whether the appeal of Khomeini's particular brand of Islamic radicalism could overleap the traditional sectarian divide between the Shi'a minority and the Sunni majority. Were Khomeini s charismatic appeal and his radical, anti-western, anti- materialist message universal enough to arouse the masses in the Arab Sunni states to overthrow their mainly pro-western leaders, as Nasser's charisma and his message had been for the previous generation? At the time of writing, this question was still unanswered. The revolutionary republic had become embroiled in a long and costly war with Iraq; and while it had succeeded in clearing the Iraqi aggressors from its soil, it had manifestly failed in its declared aim of overthrowing the secular nationalist regime of President Saddam Hussein and installing an Islamic government in Baghdad. Moreover, it had failed to achieve this in a country where a majority of the population were Shi'ites who were resentful at years of Sunni domination. Despite its universal appeal, the Islamic revolution had remained confined to Iran, a country, unique in the Muslim world, where Shi'ism runs in harness with nationalism.

At the same time, the Saudis remained understandably nervous. Khomeini continued his verbal attacks on them, which was hardly surprising in view of the extent to which they contributed financially to Iraq's war effort. Moreover the Ayatollah was not above using the Hajj for his purpose. In 1982, for the second successive year, the Saudi authorities accused Iranian pilgrims of trying to disrupt the Hajj and exploit it politically. They accused Khomeini's representative at the Hajj, Hojjat III Islam Mousavi Khoiniha (deputy speaker of the Iranian parliament) of organizing a march in Medina, traditional assembly point for Shi'ite pilgrims, at which posters of Khomeini were carried along with banners and political slogans. Khoiniha was said to have made a speech containing political references that were outside the rites of pilgrimage, and that disturbed the pilgrims of the House of God and visitors to the Prophet's Mosque'. 5 According to the Saudi statement, the security authorities intervened to disperse the demonstrators and remove their slogans and placards. Twenty-one people were arrested. The Iranians complained that the Saudi police beat the demonstrators and confiscated what they called 'religious literature'.

The Saudis, it transpired, had tried to persuade Khoiniha to cancel the planned demonstration, which he termed a 'march for unity'. According to Tehran radio's account of the incident, the Saudi Minister of Pilgrim-age Affairs and Endowments had intervened personally, saying that any action which violated order and created discomfort to other pilgrims should not take place. Khomeini s representative replied:

Do slogans such as'Death to Israel' and 'Death to the USA' create disorder? Do such slogans bring discomfort to Muslims? Today, by taking part in Friday prayers, we want to silence those voices that call us infidels . . . We do not intend to violate security, rather we intend to invite the Muslims to unite against the USA, Israel and Western newspapers reported that Khomeini had been aiming to 'politicize' the Hajj. The Iranians saw things differently: since Islam made no distinction between religious and political activity, the Hajj was inherently political, and those who had tried to make it a purely spiritual occasion. lead deviated from the true path laid down by the Prophet.

'Revive the great divine political tradition of the Hajj,' Khomeini is reported to have told his representative. 'Acquaint Muslims with what is taking place in dear Lebanon, in crusading Iran, and oppressed Afghanistan. Inform them of their great duties in confronting aggressors and international plunderers.'

Like most other Muslim governments, the Saudis had a vested interest in the politico-religious status quo. Their 'Islamic revolution' had come to an end in 1929, when the last beduin rebels had finally been defeated. For them the Hajj has become a 'religious' festival more or less in the western sense, an occasion when people suspend their worldly concerns and concentrate on God. For the Iranian revolutionaries and other Muslim activists who sympathize with them, the annual gathering of Muslims in the cradle of Islam is a symbolic re-enactment of its begin-nings that must lead on to the creation of a true Islamic order, a world free from injustice and oppression.

In Islam the spectrum of interpretation ranges from the ultra-symbolic to the infra-literalistic. This intersects with the spectrum of activity, which ranges from passive acquiescence to militant activism. The traditionalists lie near the literalist end of the interpretative spectrum, believing that in performing the Hajj they are literally re-enacting the birth of the primordial Islam of Ibrahim (Abraham), the 'first monotheist', his bondswoman Hagar and his son Isma'il (Ishmael), ancestor of the Arabs. Those who perceive the drama symbolically see these figures as human archetypes; the significance of the rituals associated with them, like that of all rituals, lies in the manner in which they link man with the cosmos. The traditionalists only become activists when they feel that their comfortable world of fixed references is threatened by outside forces. Among the symbolists, the quietists or Sufis content themselves with ritual participation. The activists, however, see a revolutionary beginning in the Hajj: the Soviet Union. We are surprised [he added] that you oppose this action, as we expect you to lead the way:

Hajj is the antithesis of aimlessness. It is the rebellion against [accepting] a damned fate guided by evil forces. The fulfillment of Hajj will enable you to escape from the complex network of puzzles. This revolutionary act will reveal to you the clear horizon and free way to migration to eternity ... 8

Like the Quran itself, the Hajj's meaning depends upon the exegetical activity of the participant.

On arrival at Jedda, pilgrims who are not already 'packaged' into a travelling group are usually divided into parties on a national or regional basis, each of which is placed in the care of a guide known as the mutawwif. Many of the mutawwfs are from Meccan families which have been in the business for generations: the success of an individual's Hajj will largely be determined by the honesty, influence and resourcefulness of the mutawwif. An efficient mutawwif will secure decent food and reasonably priced lodgings, better transport and good camping facilities. A dishonest or incompetent one can make the Hajj a misery. At some point on the road to Mecca the pilgrims will be stopped at a police checkpoint to have their passports examined. For them, this, and not the Saudi entry-point, is the real frontier, for it marks the boundary of the holy territory which no non-Muslim may enter. The Saudi consulates in their home countries will have issued them with special pilgrim visas, only granted against proof of Muslim birth or conversion. In the past, people suspected of being Christians or members of extremist sects outside the Islamic consensus have been done to death for entering the holy places.

By the time the pilgrims arrive in the Holy City, the streets will probably be jammed with its characteristically eastern confusion of motors and pedestrians - for despite its dependence on oil, in Saudi Arabia, as in other Middle Eastern countries, the motor vehicle is still treated like the animal it only recently replaced. Pilgrims from industrialized countries are sometimes shocked by their first encounter with the Holy Land. An Anglo-Indian who made the Hajj of 1968 wrote:

Many people could do well, to begin with, by realizing that cleanliness is part of the faith. No doubt the huge crowd suddenly converging together does create problems of waste disposal and so on. But the behaviour of many pilgrims themselves reflects the low standards of hygiene in their countries of origin . . . Just outside the Haram Sharif [Grand Mosque] itself, the smell is extremely offensive. There are not adequate toilet facilities for the thousands of people and the existing lavatories are therefore always in a shocking state. Many are even forced to answer the calls of nature in the open. 9

As they approach the Haram area, the pilgrims shout the traditional slogan, 'Labbaika, Allahumma, labbaika!' ('Here I am, O God, at Thy command! Here I am!'), also used as a greeting or password during the Hajj. The huge white-clad crowd converges on the Haram like a mighty roaring torrent. Suddenly, as they pass the sign designating the Haram, a hush descends on them: this is the sacred territory, where from the earliest times all fighting, hunting and killing, even the uprooting of plants, have been forbidden. The goal towards which the throngs are moving through the vast portals of the Haram is the Ka'ba, the small square temple at its centre, the physical and symbolic pole of Islam. To the forbidden infidel eye, the little black box, made of rough-hewn stone blocks covered with black silken drapery, must look strangely incongruous: a tiny square island standing at the centre of a swirling human pond surrounded by tiers of pompous colonnades expensively clad in marble and stucco, the whole overlooked by seven monstrous 300-foot minarets which brood over the Haram like watch-towers. For Muslims, however, the Ka'ba's very simplicity and lack of aesthetic pretension enhances its significance as the House of God and the qibla (direction) of every Muslim's prayer.

It would almost appear that he who first built the Ka'ba ... wanted to create a parable of man's humility before God. The builder knew that no beauty of architectural rhythm and no perfection of line, however great, could ever do justice to the idea of God: so he confined himself to the simplest three-dimensional form imaginable -a cube of stone . . .

Each pilgrim makes the tawaf or ritual circumambulation of the Ka'ba, a ceremony that has changed little, if at all, since pre-Islamic times. He will make seven circuits of the building, in an anti-clockwise movement, during which he will try to kiss, touch or otherwise greet the famous Black Stone which is set in a silver casing in the eastern corner. Muslims are taught that this is a fragment of the original temple, for the Ka'ba is said to have been rebuilt several times, before, during and after the Prophet's lifetime.

The 'Abrahamic' origin of Islam is a controversial subject on which there is little agreement between Muslim and non-Muslim scholars. For Muslims it is an article of faith that the patriarch, helped by Isma'il, built the Ka'ba as the first temple to the one true God on earth; that he also willingly prepared to sacrifice lsma'il until rescued at the last minute by divine intervention. The Quranic account of the sacrifice (which in the Bible, of course, is told of Ibrahim and lsma'il's half-brother Isaac, father of Jacob) does not mention lsma'il by name, a fact which led some western orientalists to argue that Isaac was understood as the intended victim in the original Quranic story, while the figure of Isma'il, supposed ancestor of the northern Arabs, only emerged in the course of Muhammad's polemics with the Jews of Medina. References to Ibrahim, however, occur in several Quranic passages accepted as belonging to the period of the Prophet's residence in Mecca. It is related that Ibrahim attacked the idol-worship of his father Azar and his people, and advocated belief in the one single God. The non-Muslim or sceptic will take the story of Islam's Abrahamic origins symbolically rather than literally. A semi-tribal society, such as Mecca's during the time of the Prophet, expresses ideas in terms of tribal formations or lineage groupings. The northern Arabs ('lshmaelites' to the Hebrews) naturally conceived of all authority in patriarchal terms, and could never have accepted reforms as far-reaching as those undertaken by the Prophet unless they were seen as a restoration of the religious order instituted by their own patriarchs. Muslims object to being called Muhammadans because they believe that Muhammad restored an old religion, rather than inaugurating a new one.

According to the Islamic tradition, which continues where the Hebrew tradition recording in Genesis leaves off, Abraham brought Hagar, the Egyptian bondswoman who had borne him a son, incurring the wrath of his wife Sara, to the barren rocky valley of Mecca, and there abandoned her and their child under a solitary wild salita tree with nothing to sustain them but a waterskin and a bag of dates. (According to Genesis, God is supposed to have reassured him by saying: 'Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the child and because of thy bondswoman ... Of her son will I make a nation because he is of thy seed."') After two nights and a day alone in the valley, Hagar began to despair. The dates were almost finished and there was no more water in the skin. As the child sat on the ground crying vainly for water, Hagar ran to and fro between the hillocks of Safa and Marwa, pleading with God: 'O Thou Bountiful, Thou Full of Grace! Who shall have mercy on us unless Thou hast mercy!' The answer came with the spring the child miraculously uncovered with his hand. 'Zummi, zummi!' she cried, imitating the sound of the water, which duly became the sacred well of Zamzam.

Shortly afterwards a group of beduin from South Arabia passed by the valley and, seeing some birds circling overhead, concluded that there must be water. Arriving at the well, they asked Hagar s permission to settle, which she granted on condition that the land should for ever remain the property of Isma'il and his descendants. Isma'il grew to manhood and married a girl from one of the South Arabian tribes. Eventually Abraham returned, and with Isma'il's help built the Ka'ba, the first temple to the One True God. While the work was still half finished, he stood on a small rock and called out to heaven, uttering for the first time the traditional pilgrim cry: 'Labbaika, Allahumma, labbaika!'

The Islamic tradition furnishes several clues about the possible anthro-pological origins of the Ka'ba. Like several other shrines in Arabia, it was part of a haram, or sacred area, where intertribal fighting was forbidden in order to facilitate trade. The temple was evidently at the centre of a cult involving idol worship. The presiding deity was Hubal, a large carnelian statue kept inside the temple; 36o other idols were ranged outside. The three goddesses described in the Quran as the 'daughters of Allah' - Allat, 'Uzza and Manat - were also worshipped in the vicinity. By the Prophet's time Christian influences were making themselves felt. When he entered the Ka'ba after the 'conquest' of Mecca in 8 AH (63o CE), Muhammad is reported to have found two icons depicting Jesus and Mary, which he ordered to be preserved. The rest of the idols he destroyed 'miraculously' by merely pointing his staff at them. According to the early Muslim authorities, the Quraish, hereditary guardians of the sanctuary, venerated the idol in the Ka'ba and offered sacrifices to it. A number of early monotheists apparently objected to these practices, including the circumambulation of the Black Stone which 'could neither hear, nor see, nor hurt, nor help'. They are described as having believed that their people had 'corrupted the religion of their father Abraham' - the same charge that Muhammad himself was to make not only against the pagan Quraish but against most of the adherents of Judaism and Christianity among his contemporaries.

The report cannot be dismissed as legend based on later Muslim piety; its significance is that veneration of the Black Stone is mentioned explicitly in the condemnation of 'idolatry'. However, during the Farewell Pilgrimage in 10 AH (632 CE), when he laid down the Hajj rituals as they are observed today, the Prophet was recorded as having gone out of his way to venerate the Black Stone. Some of his companions were evidently shocked by his attachment to the old ritual. 'Umar, the second caliph, is said to have once remarked upon greeting the Stone: 'I know you are nothing but a stone, have no power to do either good or evil, and had I not seen the Prophet greet you, I would not do so.'I3 Another clue to the origins of the cult is the fact that although the Black Stone was venerated as a fetish, it was not directly associated with any particular deity. There seems to have been a general cult of stone-worship in the peninsula. The early Muslim sources suggest that it developed in imitation of the cult of the Ka'ba: They say that the beginning of stone worship among the sons of Ishmael was when Mecca became too small for them and they wanted more room in the country. Everyone who left the town took with him a stone from the haram area to do honour to it. Wherever they settled they set it up and walked round it as if going round the Ka'ba. This led them to worship whatever stones pleased them or made an impression on them. Thus as generations passed they forgot their primitive faith and adopted another religion instead of that of Abraham and Ishmael." The inference from this passage is clear: the cult of the Black Stone was intimately connected in the minds of Muhammad's contemporaries with the 'original' cult of Ibrahim and Isma'il. What was the nature of this original 'Abrahamic' religion? The Quran refers to Ibrahim as a hanif, a term used by Muslim writers to indicate a pagan monotheist, Muslim in the religious but not the historical sense. Like Muhammad, he rejected the idols worshipped by his tribe; interestingly, he turned for a time to the worship of the astral bodies- first a star, then the moon, then the sun - and finally to the One God. The Quranic passage is significant:

And lo! [Thus] Spoke Abraham unto his father Azar: 'Takest thou idols for gods? Verily, I see that thou and thy people have obviously gone astray!'

And thus We gave Abraham [his first] insight into [God's] mighty dominion over the heavens and the earth - and [this] to the end that he might become one of those who are inwardly sure.

Then, when the night overshadowed him with its darkness, he beheld a star; [and] he exclaimed, 'This is my Sustainer!' - but when it went down, he said, 'I love not the things that go down.'

Then, when he beheld the moon rising, he said, 'This is my Sustainer!' - but when it went down, he said, 'Indeed, if my Sustainer guide me not, I will most certainly become one of the people who go astray!'

Then, when he beheld the sun rising, he said, 'This is my Sustainer! This one is the greatest [of all]!' - but when it [too] went down, he exclaimed: 'O my people! Behold, far be it from me to ascribe divinity, as you do, to aught beside God! Behold, unto Him who brought into being the heavens and the earth have I turned my face, having turned away from all that is false; and I am not of those who ascribe divinity to aught beside him.'

Like Muhammad, Ibrahim regards the idolatry of his fellow-tribesmen not as a sign of backwardness or primitiveness, which would not have been their fault, but as wilfully perverse. He himself arrives at the concept of the One God by a gradual process, highly suggestive in its imagery: the three astral bodies are in turn rejected because they are not dependable, disappearing as they do at certain intervals. But their rejection as suitable objects of worship leads to the perception of the Creator's 'mighty dominion over the heavens and the earth', since their regular motions are evidently part of a process brought into being and sustained by him. The God of the Quran is much closer to Aristotle's Unmoved Mover than to the anthropormorphic deities of the Old and New Testaments.

The association of Ibrahim and Isma'il with the Meccan cult has led some western scholars to suggest that Islam really originated in a Jewish cultural milieu among the partly Judaized Arab tribes of the Peninsula, who applied certain Judaic ideas to Arab customs. During pre-Islamic times there appear to have been many hararn areas in the peninsula where the tribes could enter into trading or other negotiations under a form of truce. Originally these harams were cultic centres devoted to a local deity and usually presided over by a hereditary 'holy family'. (Similar functions, up to the present time, have been performed in North Africa by hereditary Muslim 'saints', whose tombs, presided over by the saint's descendants, are often the centres of trucial zones located on the borders of tribal territories.) Thus at ancient Taif there was a shrine devoted to the goddess Allat under the control of the Thaqif clan; there were other, originally pagan shrines at Nakhla, north of Mecca, and at Najran and Sana'a in Yemen, which later became centres of Christian worship. Although originally under the aegis of the pagan god Hubal, the Meccan hararn, which centred round the well of Zamzam, probably became associated with the ancestral figures of Ibrahim and Isma'il as the Arab traders, shedding their parochial backgrounds, sought to locate themselves within the broader reference-frame of Judaeo-Christianity without abandoning their distinctive identities.

Like the Quran itself, the earliest Muslim sources suggest that the pre-Islamic cult of the Ka'ba had some astronomical significance. The historian Mas'udi (896-956) stated that certain people had regarded the Ka'ba as a temple dedicated to the Sun, Moon and the five visible planets (making up the mystical figure of seven, the number of circumambulations required for each tawaf ). The story that there were exactly 36o idols placed round the temple also points to an astronomical significance. Among the votive gifts said to have been offered to the idols were golden suns and moons. Such an astronomical cult may later have been associated with the story of Ibrahim, as is suggested in the Quranic passage already quoted. It is thought that the 'place of Ibrahim', a stone near the Ka'ba, now covered by a gilded cage, where the patriarch is supposed to have stood when completing the building of the temple, was a name originally applied to the whole hararn area, having been adopted from the Hebrew tradition surrounding the 'place' where Abraham was visited by God. A similar borrowing, it has been suggested, may have occurred in the case of the Black Stone, lodged in the south-east corner of the Ka'ba. In the Hebrew tradition the stone 'pillow' on which Jacob, son of Isaac, had his dream of the heavenly ladder becomes the cornerstone of the Temple, the pivot on which the whole world is balanced. The first ray of light which illuminated the whole world issued from it; it is said to have come down from heaven, being one of the few objects of heavenly origin on earth.

There are very similar traditions about both the Black Stone and the stone known as the 'place of Ibrahim'. One of the commonest traditions about the Black Stone is that it once shone so brightly that if God had not effaced it, it would have illuminated everything between the east and the west. In Muslim tradition the stone's blackness is attributed to its pollution by human sin, or by the various fires which have engulfed the Ka'ba. Whether these are really borrowings from Jewish traditions or parallel traditions from a common source cannot, in the present state of knowledge, be finally determined. It is tempting, however, to give primacy to the Muslim tradition, for several visitors to Mecca, including Sir Richard Burton, who made the pilgrimage in disguise in 1853, have suggested that the Black Stone is really a meteorite. Could this have been the 'Star' originally worshipped by Ibrahim? What more natural object of adoration than a fragment fallen from outer space, which may once have lit up the sky with a trail of blazing particles? Such a possibility is strongly suggested by the Quranic account of Ibrahim's spiritual progress from the worship of the stars to that of the one Creator. In ritualistically imitating the primal motion of all heavenly bodies, around a temple incorporating an extra-terrestrial object, the Muslim, like Ibrahim, is expressing his allegiance as a subject of a universal cosmic order. For this, in its own distinctive manner, is what Islam demands as the primary religious duty.

The late Ali Shariati expressed the Ka'ba's cosmic significance in a long poem entitled 'One and an Eternity of Zeros':

God was the Creator ... He created clouds and freed them to float in space, clouds from particles, each particle a tiny universe called an atom ... The clouds began to move, luminous, spiraling, a whirlwind, a whirlpool, rotating fire ... A Ka'ba, pilgrims going round, from Black Stone to Black Stone.l6

Elsewhere he likens the sensation of joining the circling crowd making the tawaf to that of jumping into a river:

As you circumambulate and move closer to the Ka'ba, you feel like a small stream merging with a big river. Carried by a wave ... you lose touch with the ground. Suddenly, you are floating, carried on by the flood. As you approach the centre, the pressure of the crowd squeezes you so hard that you are given new life. You are now part of the People; you are now a Man, alive and eternal ... The Ka'ba is the world's sun whose force attracts you into its orbit. You have become part of this universal system. Circumambulating around Allah, you will soon forget yourself ... You have been transformed into a particle that is gradually melting and disappearing. This is absolute love at its peak."

Many people, carried round and round by the human whirlpool, fail to reach the Black Stone at its centre. An Indian pilgrim described how a group of beduin with wild, matted hair would 'form themselves into a tightly knit ring and, with the action of a battering ram, would charge through the cluster of people around the Black Stone, Regardless of whether there were old people among them', after which, having achieved their objective, they would indulge in wild, ecstatic frenzies, 'the coarseness of which [was] quite repulsive to the dignity of the occasion'. 18

After performing seven circuits of the Ka'ba, the worshippers proceed to the other rituals of the haram area. Near the corner of the temple housing the Black Stone they leave the circling human mass to offer two prostrations at the Place of Ibrahim, now covered by a gilded cage. They may then drink and fill their jars with Zamzam water before proceeding to the sa'i - running between the hillocks of Safa and Marwa, in imitation of Hagar's plight. The whole distance, some 460 metres, has to be covered seven times at something between a walk and a jog. The pilgrims start at Safa and end at Marwa. Shariati sees the progression as symbolizing the active, purposeful life in the world, as contrasted with the self-immolation of tawaf, since Hagar, in her search for water, never lost hope: 'Searching for water symbolizes searching for material life on this earth. It is genuine need which shows the relation of mankind to nature. It is the way of finding heaven in this world and enjoying its fruits on this earth.'19 The strain of performing the sa'i, in which the pilgrim must travel some 3.5 kilometres, has been to some extent relieved by the architects who have enclosed the whole passage inside a long air-conditioned gallery. The marble-flanked walkway includes a special corridor where the old, infirm or disabled can be pushed along in wheelchairs.

The performance of the sa'i after the tawaf completes the 'urnra, or lesser pilgrimage, which can be performed at any time of the year. The pilgrim who continues to make the Hajj, which only takes place at the appointed season, leaves the haram area after performing the sa'i and makes for the plain of 'Arafat, a vast natural amphitheatre surrounded by hills about 11 kilometres from Mecca. For the Hajj to be valid the pilgrim must reach 'Arafat before sunrise on the ninth day of Dhu al Hijja- the so-called 'Day of 'Arafat'. The problem of moving some two million people in less than one day through the narrow pass between Mecca and 'Arafat is not an easy one. Before the Saudis banned the use of private cars the journey could amount to ten or more hours of nightmarish struggle between traffic and pedestrians. In recent years the Saudis have tried to alleviate the situation by banning vehicles carrying less than nine passengers, but the confusion is still considerable. Nevertheless, despite the distractions of traffic, noise and fumes, the Station at 'Arafat- high point of the Hajj ceremonies - is a most impressive occasion. The sun rises on the Day of 'Arafat revealing a vast tented city which has grown up the previous day in this normally deserted valley (where, according to legend, Adam first met with Eve after their expulsion from Paradise). Each mutawwif will have a group of tents assigned to him where his party will spend all the daylight hours in prayer and contemplation. There is room at 'Arafat for everyone, but the crowds are thickest around the rocky prominence known as the Jabal al Rahma, the Mount of Mercy, and the huge Namira mosque immediately below it. It was here that the Prophet preached his famous last sermon during the Farewell Pilgrimage of 632, a few months before his death, which set the final seal on the teachings of Islam and laid down the sequence of the reformed Hajj rituals, every detail of which has been meticulously followed by the believers since that time.

The most impressive moment arrives with the call to prayer. As the thin nasal voice of the muezzin rises from the loudspeakers in the Namira mosque, echoing across the empty spaces of the valley, the serried masses of people turn towards Mecca and with a single movement begin their prostrations - in the streets, in the car parks, under the lee of buses, upon every available surface among the jagged rocks. Prayer in Islam is never an act of purely private mental activity. The sequence of bodily motions - standing, bowing, kneeling, touching the ground with the forehead - are performed with care and precision, like the gymnastic displays beloved of totalitarian states. But unlike these secular rituals which can only be performed to order when the people have been specially drilled together, the movements of Islamic prayer have been fully internalized and assimilated from early child-hood. When Muslims who have never met before pray together, their prostrations are usually perfectly timed, through the drilling of fourteen centuries.

The setting of the sun at'Arafat is the signal for the ifada' or'Onrush', when the pilgrims make for Muzdalifa, the narrowest point of the pass between Mecca and 'Arafat. During the Farewell Pilgrimage the Prophet led the multitude on his camel. For thirteen centuries the pilgrims used to ride their 'finest mounts' at a -thundering gallop across the plain, each one of them a 'tiny particle of that roaring, earth-shaking, irresistible wave of galloping dromedaries and men' that once conquered the better part of the known world for Islam. For in that fractious world of Arabian tribalism, where warlike energies were fruitlessly dissipated in internecine strife, the new solidarity brought by the Prophet and welded into a universal brotherhood at 'Arafat was the prelude to the jihad, or holy war. Nowadays most people have to make the six-mile journey on foot, or inch their way in the traffic as two million pilgrims and 50,ooo vehicles compete for space in the narrow funnel of the hills. At Muzdalifa they are required to 'remember Allah by the sacred monument'- once a place of pagan worship dedicated to Quzah the thunder-god. Here two evening prayers, the nlaglhrib and 'islia, are performed together: the pilgrims, now cleansed of sin, are expected to purge themselves of all resentments against others. The narrowness of the passage makes it densely crowded.

At Muzdalifa - 'the place where one makes oneself agreeable' - the pilgrims collect the small pebbles, 49 in all, to be used in the most complicated and arcane of the Hajj ceremonies, the ritual stoning of the three pillars, or Jamarat, at Mina. The pebbles, each of which is supposed to be the size of a chick-pea, are thrown in sequences of seven at each of the three pillars situated about 300 metres apart along the road between Mina and Mecca, where a huge two-tier walkway has been constructed enabling the people to stone the pillars from either level. The ritual is purely pagan, and there is no reference to it in the Quran. The pilgrims perform it only because, according to the hadifh traditions, the Prophet himself did so during his Farewell Pilgrimage. There is no mention in the canonical texts of the popular belief that the ceremonies involve the 'stoning of Satan'. Nevertheless the belief is held universally throughout the Muslim world, and is said to account for the violence with which many pilgrims attack the pillars. Ali Shariati, the Iranian radical, gives the ceremony an unabashed revolutionary symbolism:

These pebbles will be used as your weapons to kill your enemy . . . What does the pebble represent? It represents a bullet ... Each soldier in Ibrahim's army has to shoot seventy bullets at the enemies in Mina. They are to be fired at the head, trunk and heart of the enemy. Only those which hit the enemy will be counted. If you are not an expert select more bullets to compensate for your lack of skill . . . If you hit one less than the recommended number, you are not considered a soldier nor is your Hajj valid . 20

Some Muslim authorities suggest that the three pillars - whatever their symbolic function - mark the route taken by Ibrahim when leading Isma'il to the place of sacrifice. For Mina, as well as being the place of tile stoning ceremonies, contains the killing-ground where the animals are sacrificed on the 'Id al Adha, the final day of the Hajj. All pilgrims will wish to perform it, but it is not obligatory for the very poor, who will benefit from the largesse of the more affluent, since it is stipulated that some of the meat must be given to them. The Feast of Sacrifice is celebrated all over the Muslim world. Even in densely crowded cities, fattening sheep can be tethered in the streets or courtyards in preparation for it. Some agronomists have even suggested that the natural cycle of sheep-production has been interfered with in order to provide sacrificial victims for the 'Id. At Mina the wastage of meat has up till now been appalling, since most of it has had to be destroyed in lime-pits soon after the killing. Today the Saudi authorities are investing in freezer-plants and other ways of preserving the animal products. The animals are counted in 'sheep-units', rating from one for a sheep or goat up to seven for a fully grown cow or camel. In 1981 about one million 'sheep-units' were sacrificed, seventy per cent of them during the first day of sacrifice, and of these, about half between morning and midday.

The idea of up to 350,000 sheep being slaughtered in the space of a few hours in honour of the Almighty is somewhat unappealing to Christians, who celebrate the Sacrifice of their founder by a purely symbolic act of cannibalism. Along with the physical movements around the Ka'ba, it demonstrates the concrete factuality of a faith which, at its core, is strongly resistant to the observance of rituals in a purely symbolic manner. This inner core of literalism and factuality is the source both of Islam's power over its adherents, since in the last resort social practice must be moulded to conform to it, and of most of the problems it faces in adjusting to contemporary realities, since that very social moulding leads only too often to a stultifying literalism which sees all change as the enemy of the good: such is the dilemma facing Islam in the World.

The pagan background of all these rites, from the standing a t'Arafat to the Feast of Sacrifice, is still obscure. Muslim authorities are understandably reticent on the subject, while, for obvious reasons, archaeologists are unlikely to be admitted to the area in the foreseeable future. What information there is has to be gleaned from the earliest Muslim writers and measured against comparable data from other parts of the world.

Some anthropologists have seen in the standing at 'Arafat relics of an ancient rainmaking cult. Before Muhammad abolished the intercalary month by which the Meccas adjusted their lunar calendar to the solar year, the Hajj probably occurred in autumn, coinciding; wills the greilt fair at Ukaz held to celebrate the Gate harvest. The 'ifada front 'Arafat to Muzdalifa, which in pre-Islamic times began before nightfall, may have represented the 'persecution' of the dying sun. The stone-throwing at Mina, according to the earliest Muslim sources, only occurred after the sun had passed the meridian, suggesting a ritual pursuit of the sun-demon, whose harsh rule ends with the summer. Similarly the halt at Muzdalifa, home of Quzah the thunder-god, accompanied by shouting and other loud noises, may have been a ritual attempt to call forth the thunder and bring on the rain. Rites such as these are found all over the world at the beginnings of the four seasons.

The significance of the anthropological background, however sketchy the evidence, is that it points to the subtle adjustments by which the Prophet accommodated his vision of a single transcendent deity within the prevailing symbolic structure. Just as the Quran did not suddenly appear out of nowhere in a strange and incomprehensible language, but was assembled from existing verbal materials, so the central ritual of Islam, the Hajj, was arranged out of existing cultic practices. The actions themselves were almost unchanged, but their meaning was transformed to fit a new, vastly expanded, cosmic vision. The result was a religious and ideological tour de force.

By abolishing the intercalary month, Muhammad freed the rituals from their seasonal connections: from now on the Hajj could fall at any time of the year, for the cosmic deity to whom all the rituals were to be addressed was the same God in autumn and spring, summer and winter. Similarly, the sanctuaries associated with particular localities were not abolished, but included within a set of rituals covering the whole area. 'The whole of 'Arafat is a place for standing, the whole of Muzdalifa is a place for stopping, the whole of Mina is a place for sacrifice,' the Prophet is related to have said on the Farewell Pilgrimage. Similar effects were achieved by subtly adjusting the timing of the ancient ceremonies. Ancient taboos associated with the rituals were deliberately violated to demonstrate the impotence of the pagan gods and the inefficacy of the rituals when dedicated to them. But the forms of the rituals were preserved because the Prophet was fully aware of the importance they held for his people. Beyond that, he knew that the rituals formed part of a universal language composed of bodily movements as well as verbal utterances, by means of which human beings express their deepest needs and apprehensions. The remarkable expansion of Islam, especially in the Far East and tropical Africa, long after its initial political and military impetus had exhausted itself, was in no small measure due to the ease with which it absorbed local cults and then directed them towards the broader social and cosmological purpose of the monotheistic vision.

2 The Muhammadan Paradigm

Muhammad ibn 'Abdullah of the Banu Hashim of Quraish was born in Mecca in about 570, at a time when the ruling tribe of Quraish were increasing in wealth, power and prosperity. The caravan-city of Mecca, probably the 'Makorba' mentioned in the writings of the second-century geographer Ptolemy, had long been an important commercial centre. The shrine from which its name derived, and the surrounding haram or sacred area, was a place where the beduin tribes who controlled the traffic in spices and other goods between South Arabia and the Mediterranean could exchange goods without fear of attack. The pilgrimage to the Ka'ba, in addition to its religious functions, encouraged trade, especially during the four sacred months when fighting was forbidden. Other harams in the Peninsula similarly combined religious with commercial functions, but Mecca seems to have been the most important of these sanctuaries, lying as it did on the strategic road between Yemen, seat of an ancient if declining civilization, and the Mediterranean. In the decades before Muhammad, the volume of trade had increased, partly as a result of the continuing warfare between the Persian and Byzantine empires which disrupted the northern land routes. The tribes who controlled the Hejaz trade were becoming not only more powerful but increasingly civilized as they came into closer contact with the regions of high culture.


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