Ibn al-Kalbi’s ‘Book of Idols’ depicts 6th c. Arabia (excluding Yemen) as dominated by paganism. But what do the Arabic inscriptions of 6th century Arabia tell us? day 2 ~AA @safaitic pic.twitter.com/HkcleuU88g
— Tweeting Historians (@Tweetistorian) April 28, 2020
Today on Twitter there was something interesting and edifying posted. The account above reported the finding that 6th-century inscriptions of a religious character in Arabia seem to invariably be Christian, rather than pagan. This is interesting and surprising because Islamic tradition, and works such as the 8th-century Book of Idols, allude to a 6th-century Arabia which was aggressively pagan. Islamic tradition speaks of the city of Mecca as a center of public elite paganism; a pilgrimage site for Arabian pagans. This was the paganism that the prophet Muhammad rebuked and destroyed. The conventional narrative is that these newly converted Arabs burst out upon the world, conquering much of Byzantium, and swallowing Persia in toto, in their zeal.
Muslims believe that their religion is the primordial religion, the monotheism of Adam, the first man. Traditionally groups such as Christians and Jews were seen as reflecting some of that primordial religion, while beyond them were “polytheists,” whose religion was totally debased (modern liberal Muslims have adopted and expanded the idea attributed to Christians and Jews, and argue that religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism also contain fragments of the divine revelation). In contrast, most non-Muslims see in Islam an appropriation and refashioning of the monotheism of the Christians and Jews. Therefore, most non-Muslims accept that Muhammad converted pagan Arabs to a new religion, but it was a religion he and his followers invented from preexisting ideas borrowed and adapted from Christianity and Judaism.
Call this the “traditional” model. Whether you think Muhammad was divinely inspired, or a fabricator, the thesis is that the pagan Arabs adopt a new religion called Islam, and led by their prophet unify into a powerful military force. After his death, led by their leaders, these Muslims conquered the lands of the Near East. I do not believe this traditional model is correct. Rather, I hold to a revisionist model, which has been extended and outlined by a heterodox group of scholars over the past few decades, that Islam as we understand it was a relatively late development, and in fact the conquest of the Near East was an Arab conquest, not a Muslim one, and that a new religion came later.
This model explains rather easily why archaeological evidence in the 6th century does not comport with the traditional historiography. Forms of Christianity and Judaism were already the dominant elite religions in the towns of Arabia during that period. And it is from these towns, reflected in the urbane and mercantile nature of the Mecca of legend, that the Arabs emerged. The Arab conquest of the Near East was actually the victory of liminal and heterodox Christians. Over the decades of the 7th century these Arab Christians, who had imposed themselves as an elite on top of the older societies of the Near East, evolved so that their sect become its own religion. Muhammad was likely real, but the legends which accrued to him, and the pagan Mecca, were creations which allowed these Arab Christians to distinguish themselves from the people whom they conquered. They transformed their origins into something legendary an fantastical. Only in the last decades of the 7th century did Islam as a sharp and crisp identity develop. This is when Arabs and non-Arabs in Damascus began worshipping in different buildings, and indubitably Muslim architecture begins to be laid down.
So were Arabian pagans invented out of whole cloth? I don’t believe so. The book Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms refers to another book, dating to 900 AD, Nabataean Agriculture, which records evidence of organized rural paganism with clear genealogical connections to ancient Mesopotamian religious practices. During the early Islamic period, there was also an elite pagan tradition in the city of Haran, which had remained pagan due to the protection afforded it by its proximity to the Sassanian Empire. But, the Fertile Crescent, whether under Roman or Persian rule, had become broadly Christian by 600 AD. At least that is what the literary sources make clear.
But there is no reason that the hinterlands need to be impacted by the elite urban centers. We underestimate how autarkic local economies in the pre-modern world were. In fact, even during the early modern Ottoman period, there are records of Muslims stumbling upon isolated valleys in the Zagros where ancient astral worship continued to be the dominant form of religion. Before the early modern period, elite institutional religion was a thin skein wrapped around rural society, which remains “dark” to us. The persistence of “folk paganism” may surprise us. As I have noted before, the people of the Mani peninsula in southern Greece remained practitioners of the old pagan religion down to 1000 AD. The reason had to do with the fact that the region was almost inaccessible by land, and there was little usage of its ports except as transits. The isolation resulted in neglect by the East Roman authorities. The villagers of the Mani region kept doing what their ancestors had always done.
Before modern transportation and communication, institutional religions such as Christianity and Islam were heavily focused on urban locales. The world depicted in early Muslim traditions is an urban one, connected to the other cities of the Near East and Ethiopia. Though I am partial to the thesis that the locus of the early proto-Muslim movement was in the cities of north Arabia, and not Mecca, the detail of where the Arabs coalesced into a revolutionary force is irrelevant. The reality is the idea of Islam as being founded by an illiterate who rallied the desert bedouin to his cause seems to be an anachronism and a misimpression. If Muhammad was a merchant, he was likely literate. And, the role of mounted soldiers in the early Arab conquests seems to be overdone. The nomadic rural bedouin were latecomers to Islam, not the early core. It is from these people, nomads outside of the Christianized cities, that the idea of a pagan Arabia of darkness, comes, because they were pagans!
At this point, some of you may be confused. How can it be that the early Arab conquests were by Christians than Muslims? The reality is that there’s surprisingly little contemporary corroboration of a new religion on the scene from other sources (these would be mostly Christian since we don’t have records from the Persians that are preserved). The Arabs are viewed as Arabs, and perhaps heretics, not as a new religion. The early Umayyads in fact left much of the infrastructure of the Byzantines in place when they took over much of the Near East. Greek remained the administrative language until the end of the 7th century, and there is evidence that the Umayyads continued to patronize figurative art in a manner befitting Late Antique potentates, rather than iconoclastic Muslims.
At some point, this changed. The identity of Islam as the religion of the Arabs, the Umayyads, distinct from that of their Christian subjects, crystallized just before 700 AD. But identity, believing yourself to be distinct, is only part of the full answer. There are plenty of records of poor Christian and Muslim peasants who identify and believe themselves to be Christian and Muslim, but their religious practice and belief remain operationally pagan. One of the major projects of reformist religious preachers and teachers is to align the belief and practice of the people with those of the elite. Similarly, I believe that though the Umayyads began cultivating a distinct religion of Islam amongst the Arab elite by 700 AD, it would not truly be Islam as we understand it in its beliefs and practices. They had the label of Islam, but not a substance we’d recognize.
One of the reasons that the Umayyads have a bad reputation is that their successors, the Abbasids, wrote the histories after 750 AD. The Abbasids continued to be the Caliphs of Islam in a practical sense until 1200 AD, and symbolically until 1500 AD (they were moved to Egypt by the Mamlukes). A major feature of the evolution of Islam during the Abbasid period is that it turned eastward in its focus. While the Umayyads were based in Damascus and cultivated a Greco-Levantine elite, the Abbasids were based in Baghdad, and their elite culture was heavily Iranian. Islamic thinkers during the Abbasid period dismiss the Umayyads as the corrupt “Arab kingdom,” because they were seen to be bad Muslims, Arab chauvanists (remember, many of the Abbasid thinkers were of Iranian background; Arab ethnic prejudice rankled for them). I think this is correct because the measure of a “good Muslim” was developed during the Abbasid period. Though some aspects of the mythology of Islam was already in place during the Umayyad period, in particular, those that gave pride of place to the Arabs, many of the nuts and bolts of Muslim belief and practice can be attributed to the Abbasids.
It was under the Abbasids that Islam became a potentially universal religion, expanding out from the core Arab population of the ruling caste. The Abbasids and their Iranian oriented court brought Zoroastrian and Buddhist influences into Islam, with the flourishing of the legal and orthopraxic aspect in what became Sunni Islam dating to the influx of Turanian converts. Institutions such as the ulema, and the madrassa, both date to this period.
The traditional story is that Arab Muslims conquered a sophisticated multicultural landscape. I believe the true story is that Islam is the product of the Arab conquest of a sophisticated multicultural landscape.
Addendum: The origins of groups like the Mandaeans and Yezidis makes more sense in light of this complex and inchoate, and to our eye unformed, religious landscape of the early “Islamic” period.