Last year I wrote The Myth Of Arabian Paganism, And The Jewish-Christian Origins Of The Umayyads. My overall contention is that Islam-qua-Islam was retconned in the 8th century back to the 7th century. The post was inspired by a great deal of circumstantial evidence that the Arabian peninsula was mostly Christian or Jewish by the 6th century A.D. This matters, because traditional Islamic historiography depicts Muhammad’s Mecca at the end of the 6th century as a pagan cult center. This was the “age of darkness” in Islamic tradition, one of polytheism and idol-worship. A neat idea, except for the fact that the ruling elites of North Arabia were are clearly Christian by 600 AD.
To recap, I think the Ummayads emerged in the milieu of Miaphysite Christianity in the Levantine littoral. The Arabs who conquered the Near East in the 7th century emerged out of a Nabataean background, not, a Hijazi one. The shift toward a Hijazi orientation for early Islam, and the importance of Mecca and Muhammad, come out of the Second Fitna in the 680s.
All that being said, I don’t discount a pagan substrate in Arab spirituality in totality. The Nabataean Agriculture famously describes the continuous practice of Mesopotamian paganism in rural Iraq into the 10th century A.D., three centuries after the Muslim conquest.
I do assume that Mecca had some cultic significance in ancient Arabian religious geography. After the Second Fitna this Mecca spiritual energy was co-opted (Muhammad becomes much bigger after this period, and Arabs stop worshipping in Christian churches in Damascus). The existence of the Kaba and veneration of the black rock is a testament to this.
All this leads to an obscure fact (to me) that I want to relay: the pagan practices that persist in Mecca were clearly very widespread in ancient Arabia because the Roman Emperor Elagabalus partook of them. If you know the name of Elagabalus it is because of his peculiar sexual practices, as well as his disastrous reign as Emperor. He attempted to supersede the customary religion of Rome with that of his native Syria. He was from a family of hereditary pagan priests of Arab origin. Here is what got my attention:
A lavish temple called the Elagabalium was built on the east face of the Palatine Hill to house Elagabal…who was represented by a black conical meteorite from Emesa…This was a baetylus. Herodian wrote “this stone is worshipped as though it were sent from heaven; on it there are some small projecting pieces and markings that are pointed out, which the people would like to believe are a rough picture of the sun, because this is how they see them”…
I joked that Elagabalus was Muslim when I found this out. Obviously, he was not Muslim. But the Kaba in Mecca famously has a black stone which is clearly a meteorite. Elagabalus’ peculiar religious enthusiasms persist down to the present day in Islam.