Arabian Religions

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ARABIAN RELIGIONS . The advent of Islam in the seventh century of the common era marked a clear division in the political and religious history of Arabia. In the eyes of Muslim authors, pre-Islamic time is viewed as the Jāhilīyah ("age of ignorance"), a term applied to pre-Islamic history within and without Arabia. From a religious standpoint, this term corresponds especially to the polytheistic beliefs and rituals that to a large extent characterized religious life in Arabia.

In addition to polytheism, Judaism and Christianity were practiced in Arabia in pre-Islamic times. The second Abyssinian invasion of South Arabia in 525 was prompted byamong other factorsthe anti-Christian excesses of Dhū Nuwās, the Jewish imyarī ruler. A Jewish colony had long been established at Yathrib (Medina) when Muammad emigrated there from Mecca in 622. There is no archaeological evidence that Zoroastrianism had been practiced among pre-Islamic Arabs, but Sasanid rule over the area from circa 575 to 628 must have resulted in the practice of this religion within the Persian garrisons in South Arabia. Muslim sources also mention the Majūs of Bahrein (i.e., the Zoroastrians of Eastern Arabia), particularly in commenting on Qurʾān 9:29.

Historical Background

Known in antiquity as Arabia Felix, South Arabia was a fertile area with elaborate waterworks that supported the rise of a number of states in pre-Islamic times: Maʿīn (the Minaeans), Saba (the land of Sheba), Qatabān, and Hadhramaut. These later formed the imyarī kingdom (capital, afār), which fell to the Abyssinians in 525. The Sabaeans were mentioned in the annals of Assyrian kings as far back as the eighth century bce, and the peoples of Arabia Felix were known to classical writers as early as the end of the fourth century bce. Strabo preserved an excerpt from Eratosthenes that mentions Minaeans, Sabaeans, Qatabānians, and Hadhramautis, and he himself gave an account of the expedition of Aelius Gallus into the area in 24 bce. References to these peoples are also found in the anonymous Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (between c. 95 and 130 ce) and in the works of Pliny (c. 77 ce) and Ptolemy (c. 150 ce).

This region, known as the land of incense, maintained an active trade with Egypt, Abyssinia, and India. The Periplus mentions the South Arabian ports of Okēlis, Kanē, and Muza as the main trading places for Egyptian cloth and wine, African ivory, and Indian spices. Saba and Hadhramaut are mentioned in the Bible; the former gained fame as the land of Sheba, whose queen paid a visit to King Solomon in Jerusalem and is described in the Bible as "having a great retinue and camels bearing spices and very much gold and precious stones" (2 Chr. 9:112). Excavations in 19551956 and 1960 of the sites of Yeha and Melazo (in Ethiopia) that yielded a number of Sabaean inscriptions revealed that by the fifth century bce Sabaean immigrants had established themselves in northeastern Ethiopia.

The capitals of the South Arabian states were Qarnaw (Maʿīn), Timnaʿ (Qatabān), Shabwa (Hadhramaut), and irwā and Maʾrib (the two capitals of Saba). Some scholars date the rise of the first South Arabian state as far back as 1200 bce, but the chronology of the rise and fall of these states is not yet well established. Except in Maʿīn, the rulers of these states bore the theocratic title of mukarrib ("priest-king"). With the consolidation and expansion of the Sabaean state, this title changed to malik ("king").

Although Mecca was not a capital city, it was an important economic center, linking trade routes from South Arabia with the great cities of Syria and Iraq. It was also an important religious center for the tribes of the Hejaz (western Arabia). Later, this area became the cradle of Islam, a monotheistic religion that was to eradicate all traces of paganism. We are told by al-Azraqī that as many as 360 idols were destroyed in Mecca following its capture by the prophet Muammad and his supporters in 630.

In the northern Hejaz, a Minaean colony flourished in al-ʿUlā. Farther north, from Madāʾin āli to Petra, are the temples and rock-cut funerary monuments of the Nabateans, Arabs whose kingdom existed from the first century bce until its fall to the Romans in 106 ce. Another North Arabian kingdom was founded around the Syrian city of Tadmor (Palmyra) and is known for its role in fending off Sasanid expansion into the area. It reached its zenith from about the middle of the second century ce to 272, when it was annexed by the Romans following the defeat of its queen, Zenobia.


South Arabian religion was dominated by astral worship. Each people worshiped its own moon god: Wadd (the Minaeans), ʿAmm (the Qatabānians), Sīn (the Hadhramautis), and Ilumquh (or Almaqah, the Sabaeans). Other lunar deities are mentioned in a number of South Arabian inscriptions, but the consensus among specialists is that they represented a particular aspect or function of each of the aforementioned moon gods, and were not distinct deities. Thus Hawbas could be invoked along with Ilumquh, Anbay or Warakh with ʿAmm, Hawl with Sīn, and Naasāb with Wadd. The specific features of each of these gods is still a matter for discussion: Gonzague Ryckmans (1951) considers that Hawbas represented the "ebb and flow" aspect of the moon god, and Hawl that of "recurrence," and that the meaning of the name Anbay was "spokesman." The nature of Naasāb is not clear, but Albert Jamme (1947) thinks that he was probably a moon god.

The solar deity was worshiped as a goddess and is mentioned mostly with a number of attributes beginning with the word dhāt ("endowed with, possessing"). The different names under which she appears are generally viewed as reflecting aspects of the sun according to seasonal changes: Dhāt imyam ("the blazing one") and Dhāt Baʿdān ("the faraway one") in Sabaean inscriptions. Among the Hadhramautis, she is known as Shams ("sun"). Occasionally, she is associated with the name of a local temple: Dhāt Nashq and Dhāt ahrān, in some Minaean and Qatabānian inscriptions.

The third major South Arabian divinity was ʿAthtar, the male equivalent of the stellar deity Venus. He is considered by most scholars to be the god of irrigation, and he appears in inscriptions under the common name of ʿAthtar but more often with an epithet or in a construct denoting a location: ʿAthtar Shārqan ("ʿAthtar of the east"), ʿAthtar Shāriq ("ʿAthtar rising from the east"), and ʿAthtar Dhū Qabim ("ʿAthtar, lord of Qabd"). The invocation of ʿAthtar before the other deities is common, especially in the concluding formulas of votive inscriptions.

The triad of moon god, sun god, and ʿAthtar worshiped by the Sabaeans of Arabia is also encountered in Sabaean inscriptions found in Ethiopia. An inscription from the site of Melazo (a few miles southeast of Aksum) mentions Ilumquh next to Hawbas; another is dedicated to ʿAthtar (ʿAstar) alone, and a third to ʿAstar, Hawbas, Ilumquh, Dhāt imyam, and Dhāt Baʿdān (see A. J. Drewes, "Les inscriptions de Melazo," Annales d'Éthiopie 3, 1959, pp. 8399).

A lack of dated inscriptions impedes a better understanding of the religious evolution of South Arabia. In the extant inscriptions, a host of deities are mentioned individually or in combination with one or more members of the triad. Their nature and position in the pantheon remain very sketchy, however, because of the disparity and wide variety of these "secondary" deities. Some of the deities, with their probable meanings, are Balw ("death, misfortune"), Dhū Samāwī ("lord of the sky [heaven]"), alfān ("oath, contract"), alīm ("the wise one"), Nasr ("eagle"), Raman ("the compassionate one"), and Samīʿ ("the one who listens").

The temple formed the cult center among the sedentary settlements in this part of the peninsula. Each temple had a keeper, whose functions have not been clarified but who is thought to have assumed certain religious duties; the term sacerdotal is inappropriate here owing to our present lack of knowledge of the subject. Among South Arabian temples, two are well known: the temple of urayah (Hureidha) in Hadhramaut, dedicated to Sīn, the local moon god, and the temple of ʿAwwām (aram Bilqīs) in Maʾrib, dedicated to Ilumquh, the Sabaean moon god. The remains indicate that these were elaborate structures consisting of a large courtyard and several partitions for cultic purposes.

The Hejaz

The nomadic way of life and the tribal organization left their impact: the multitude of deities worshiped in the Hejaz were tribal deities. Each tribe had its own god or goddess, represented generally in the form of a baetyl, a sacred stone. The mobility of nomadic life led to the adoption of suitable cultic practices. Thus, the members of a tribe could worship their deity anywhere by investing any form of stone with the divine. This "substitute" was referred to as a nuub (pl., anāb, Qurʾān 5:90). Although the cult of baetyls was the most important religious feature, there are a few examples of the veneration of trees and spirits. The Muslim author al-Azraqī noted that the Quraysh tribe worshiped Dhāt Anwā, a "huge green tree" located at unayn, on the road from Mecca to Taif. Al-ʿUzzā, the major goddess of the same tribe, was believed to have been incarnated in a cluster of three acacia trees in the urā Valley, on the road from Mecca to Medina. The presence of these trees along seasonal migratory tracks led to their worship. As for jinn (spirits), a number of sources, including the Qurʾān (6:100101), indicate that they were worshiped by Arabs in pre-Islamic times. According to Ibn al-Kalbī (trans. Faris, 1952, p. 29), the clan of Banū Mulay of the Khuzāʿa tribe was notable for jinn worship.

Three tribal deities were preeminent in Central Arabia. These were Manāt, Allāt, and Al-ʿUzzā, the three goddesses mentioned in the Qurʾān (53:1922). The most ancient of these was Manāt, who was worshiped by the Azd tribe and whose sanctuary was at Qudayd, on the Red Sea, near Mecca. The cult of Manāt was also popular in North Arabia, where the name of this deity appears in inscriptions in its archaic form, Manawat. In Palmyra, she was associated with the ancient god Bel Hamon; "the inscriptions presumably define her personality as that of a goddess who appropriates gifts to her worshippers and presides over chance and luck" (Teixidor, 1979, p. 17). A Nabatean inscription from the tomb of Kam Kam (Cantineau, vol. 2, 1932, p. 26) invokes Manāt and Allāt together with Dushara, the Nabatean sun god.

Allāt was the goddess of the Thaqif tribe but was also revered by the Quraysh. Her sanctuary was at Taif and was, in the words of Ibn al-Kalbī, "a square stone." As was the case for Manāt, her cult spread to North Arabia, where she was featured as the warrior goddess. A temple was dedicated to her at Palmyra and also at alad (arad), in the Hauran region of Syria. G. A. Cooke (1903, p. 253) believes that her cult was introduced into the Hauran by the Nabateans following their capture of Damascus in 85 bce.

Al-ʿUzzā was the goddess of the Quraysh tribe, and her cult originated later than the cults of Manāt and Allāt. She was incarnated, as mentioned above, in three trees in the urā Valley, where a sanctuary was dedicated to her. In North Arabia, her cult was not so extensive as those of Allāt and Manāt.

Two deities, Isāf (male) and Nāʾilah (female), seem to have been of South Arabian origin; they were worshiped as a couple. We are told by Ibn al-Kalbī and al-Azraqī that their images were placed in the proximity of the Kaʿbah and were worshiped by the Khuzāʿa and Quraysh tribes. The legend surrounding this couple states that they were originally two persons from the Jurhum tribe in Yemen who fornicated in the Kaʿbah and as a result were turned to stone.

Five other deities, all of South Arabian provenance, are mentioned in the Qurʾān (71:2324): Wadd, Suwāʿ, Yaghūth, Yaʿāq, and Nasr. Of these, Wadd was the "national" god of the Minaeans. Suwāʿ and Nasr are mentioned by Ibn al-Kalbī (1952, pp. 811) and appear in a few inscriptions. According to al-Shahrastānī, Yaghūth and Yaʿāq were worshiped in Yemen.

Hubal, the most important deity of Mecca, was a god of great complexity. Unlike the deities cited above, Hubal does not seem to have been of local origin. He was a late addition to the deities worshiped in the Hejaz and is not mentioned at all in the Qurʾān despite the preeminence of his cult in Mecca. The majority of Muslim authors describe him as a carnelian red statue with a broken right arm, a limb that the Quraysh tribe repaired in gold. They state that this statue was brought from Syria (according to al-Azraqī, from Mesopotamia) by ʿAmr ibn Luayy; from a passage of al-Shahrastānī it may be deduced that this occurred no earlier than the middle of the third century ce. The statue was placed in the Kaʿbah and was worshiped as a god by the Arabs of the Hejaz, especially by the Quraysh tribe. It was this god who was invoked by Abū Sufyān, a leader of the Quraysh, during the battle of Uud against Muammad and his followers. The legend surrounding Hubal shows him as the god of rain and a warrior god. Toward the end of the pre-Islamic era he emerged especially as an intertribal warrior god worshiped by the Quraysh and the allied tribes of the Kināna and Tihāma.

The astral character of the cult was prominent among the South Arabians and also among the Palmyrenes and Nabateans. However, it is not certain that this was so among the tribes of the Hejaz. A number of Qurʾanic passages, especially "Adore not the sun and the moon, but adore God who created them" (41:37), and information gathered from literary sources indicate the existence of the "worship of stars" in pre-Islamic Arabia in general. These references, however, are vague and insufficient for the identification of astral deities worshiped by the tribes of the Hejaz. There, religion was marked by the preeminence of tribal deities, a feature reflecting the nomadic way of desert life. These deities and their sacred places were as mobile as nomadic life itself, as demonstrated by the worship of anāb (baetyls). The number of stone-built sanctuaries was small, and, if the Kaʿbah was a prototype, they reflected the simplicity of nomadic life.

Cultic practices

It is not known whether specific rituals, such as prayers, were prescribed, and our knowledge of cultic practices is limited to the yields of excavations, including inscriptions, and to the occasional accounts of medieval Muslim authors.

Offerings were the most common cultic practice. The worshipers offered a few valuables in recognition of the deity's care or support. Thus, a wealthy Minaean merchant made an offering of money to ʿAthtar Dhū Qabim, a Sabaean dedicated a gold camel to Dhū Samāwī, and another, a gold statue to ʿAthtar Dhū ibān. Offerings could also consist of public works, such as a water cistern or a tower. This practice was common in the Hejaz as well, with variations from one deity to another. The offerings could include a portion of the harvest, money, jewelry, or gold. Several accounts mention that worshipers gave money or camels to the keeper (sādin ) of the Kaʿbah when consulting Hubal for an oracle, while Ibn Hishām mentions that money, jewelry, gold, and onyx were found in the sanctuary of Allāt upon its destruction in Islamic times.

Animal sacrifice, especially of sheep and camels, was most common in Arabia, and is corroborated by a number of votive inscriptions from South Arabia. The 19371938 excavation by Gertrude Caton Thompson of the temple of Sīn in urayah revealed partitions that contained a number of shrines with sacrificial altars in their middle, as well as remains of animal bones. This cultic practice was widespread in the Hejaz, and it is often mentioned in early Muslim sources. Ibn al-Kalbī (1952, pp. 1617) recounts that the prophet Muammad said he made, in pre-Islamic times, an offering to Al-ʿUzzā consisting of a dust-colored sheep. Another passage from Ibn al-Kalbī (p. 18) implies that the flesh of the sacrificial animal was divided among those who were present at this occasion.

The sacrifice of humans was nonexistent. The Qurʾān (81:89) notes the rare practice of waʾd al-banāt (the burial alive of infant daughters), but this should not be viewed as a form of human sacrifice (cf. 16:5859).

Offerings of incense and fragrances were common in South Arabia, but not in the Hejaz. Incense burners were found among the remains of the temple and tombs of urayah, in the tombs of Timnaʿ (Qatabān), and in the Sabaean tombs excavated at Yeha (Ethiopia).

The belief in some form of an afterlife was widespread among the Arabs. Archaeological evidence from the above-mentioned excavations (which took place in 19371938, 1951, and 1960, respectively) tends to support this view: the excavations brought to light artifacts consisting of pottery, jewelry (mostly beads), incense burners, and a few tools and utensils. These objects were placed in the tombs for future use by the dead. Until very recently, no trace of mummification was found in South Arabian necropolises, but the discovery, at the end of 1983, of two tombs near Sanʿa (the capital of Yemen) containing five mummies will certainly lead to a reassessment of South Arabian sepulchral practices.


Scholarly investigation of pre-Islamic religion in South Arabia (Yemen and Hadhramaut) gained impetus toward the end of the nineteenth century through the pioneering epigraphic works of Joseph Halévy and Eduard Glaser. Our knowledge of the antiquities of the area was expanded in the twentieth century through the efforts of scholars such as Yayā al-Nāmī, Ahmed Fakhry, William F. Albright, Frank P. Albright, Gonzague Ryckmans, Jacques Ryckmans, H. St. John Philby, Wendell Phillips, Gertrude Caton Thompson, Jacqueline Pirenne, and Albert Jamme, to mention only a few. As a result of their work, thousands of South Arabian epigraphic texts have come to light. The French Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-lettres devoted the fourth part of its "Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum" to imyarī and Sabaean inscriptions. Three volumes of text and three of illustrations were published between 1889 and 1931. Another set of inscriptions was published from 1928 to 1938 by the Commission du "Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum" in volumes 5 to 7 of the "Répertoire d'épigraphie sémitique" (RES). These two series form the largest collections of South Arabian texts.

Next to the epigraphic sources, our knowledge of pre-Islamic religious life in Arabia is drawn from sparse Qurʾanic references and their commentaries, and from literary and historical works of early Muslim authors such as Ibn Isāq (d. 768), Ibn al-Kalbī (d. 819 or 821/2), al-Wāqidī (d. 823), Ibn Hishām (d. 833), Ibn Saʿd (d. 845), al-Azraqī (d. 858?), al-abarī (d. 923), and al-Shahrastānī (d. 1153). Except for the Qurʾān, these sources were not contemporaneous with the rise of Islam. One of the earliest known works was a biography of the prophet Muammad, Sīrat rasūl Allāh, by Ibn Isāq, as compiled by Ibn Hishām; an interval of about a century and a half separates it from the beginning of the new religion. Because of their retrospective view of events, these works naturally lack systematic information about pre-Islamic religions on the peninsula.

The only known work treating solely the topic of religion in pre-Islamic Arabia is the Kitāb al-anām of Ibn al-Kalbī, a native of al-Kūfa, in Iraq. This work was known, prior to its publication in 1914, primarily through extensive quotations by Yāqūt al-amawī (d. 1225) in his geographical dictionary, Muʾjam al-buldān. Ibn al-Kalbī's work has been translated into English by Nabih A. Faris as The Book of Idols (Princeton, 1952). The interesting feature of Ibn al-Kalbī's work is its listing of idols and some brief information regarding rituals and tribal idol worship. The Akhbār Makkah (History of Mecca) of al-Azraqī is another important source, to which should be added the works of al-Hamdānī (d. 945), a native of Sanʿa, in Yemen. These are ifat jazīrat al-ʿarab (a description of the Arabian peninsula) and Kitāb al-iklīl, of which only parts 8 and 10 are known. Part 8 has been translated by Nabih A. Faris as The Antiquities of South Arabia (1938; reprint, Westport, Conn., 1981).

Early works pertaining to Arabian religions are listed in volume 2, part 1, of RES. Later works are numerous; the reader may consult the bibliographies of recent monographs, and articles in relevant journals, especially Muséon, the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (BASOR ), Syria, Annales d'Éthiopie, and the Comptes-rendus de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-lettres. Also valuable is the bibliography compiled by Youakim Moubarac in Les études d'épigraphie sud-sémitique et la naissance de l'Islam: Éléments de bibliographie et lignes de recherches (Paris, 1957).

No single work offers comprehensive coverage of pre-Islamic Arabian religions. The following selected works deal with particular aspects.

Albright, Frank P., and Richard LeBaron Bowen. Archaeological Discoveries in South Arabia. Baltimore, 1958.

ʿAlī, Jawad. Al-mufaal fī tārīkh al-ʿarab qabl al-islām. 10 vols. Beirut, 19681969.

Anfray, Francis. "Une campagne de fouilles à Yěvā." Annales d'Éthiopie 5 (1963): 171192.

Blakely, Jeffrey A., and Abdu O. Ghaleb. "Sanaa: 2300-Year-Old Mummies Discovered." American Schools of Oriental Research Newsletter 35 (July 1984): 68.

Cantineau, Jean. Le nabatéen. 2 vols. Paris, 19301932.

Cleveland, Ray L. An Ancient South Arabian Necropolis. Baltimore, 1965.

Cooke, G. A. A Text-Book of North-Semitic Inscriptions. Oxford, 1903.

Drewes, A. J. Inscriptions de l'Éthiopie antique. Leiden, 1962.

Drijvers, Han J. W. The Religion of Palmyra. Leiden, 1976.

Fahd, Toufic. Le panthéon de l'Arabie centrale à la veille de l'Hégire. Paris, 1968.

Gibb, H. A. R. "Pre-Islamic Monotheism in Arabia." Harvard Theological Review 55 (1962): 269280.

Hammond, Philip C. The Nabataeans: Their History, Culture, and Archaeology. Göteborg, Sweden, 1973.

Hommel, Fritz. "Arabia." In The Encyclopaedia of Islam. Leiden, 19131938.

Jamme, Albert. "Le panthéon sudarabe préislamique." Muséon 60 (1947): 57147.

Montgomery, James A. Arabia and the Bible (1934). Reprint, New York, 1969. With a Prolegomenon by Gus W. Van Beck.

Müller, Walter W. Südarabien im Altertum. Rahden, 2001.

Philby, H. St. John. The Background of Islam. Alexandria, 1947.

Phillips, Wendell. Qatabān and Sheba. New York, 1955.

Ryckmans, Gonzague. Les noms propres sud-sémitiques. 3 vols. Louvain, 19341935.

Ryckmans, Gonzague. "Les inscriptions monothéistes sabéennes." In Miscellanea Historica in Honorem Alberti De Meyer, vol. 1. Louvain, 1946.

Ryckmans, Gonzague. Les religions arabes préislamiques. 2d ed. Louvain, 1951.

Ryckmans, Jacques. L'institution monarchique en Arabie méridionale avant l'Islam. Louvain, 1951.

Teixidor, Javier. The Pantheon of Palmyra. Leiden, 1979.

Watt, W. Montgomery. "Belief in a 'High God' in Pre-Islamic Mecca." Journal of Semitic Studies 16 (1971): 3540.

Adel Allouche (1987 and 2005)