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Asnam is the Arabic word for "idols" (sing., sanam). The origin of the term is found in the Semitic root S.L.M. (by a shift of l into n), which denotes "image." Hence, the Arabic sanam is basically the corporeal image of the deity.

The term asnam occurs in the Qur˒an, and in all instances but one it refers to the idols worshiped by Abraham's pagan adversaries (6:74; 21:57; 26:71). Twice the idols worshiped by the latter are called awthan (sing., wathan; see 29:17, 25). Abraham's contemporaries worship the asnam/awthan "apart from" (min duni) God, which means that belief in these idols represents what the Qur˒an labels elsewhere as shirk ("association"), that is, worshiping deities that are considered God's associates. Three of God's "associates" are mentioned by name in another Qur˒anic passage (53:19–23): Allat, Manat, and al-˓Uzza. The Qur˒an sets out to deny that they were God's daughters, a typical element of shirk, and denounces them as sheer names. In yet another Qur˒anic passage (71:23), five "gods" (aliha) worshiped by Noah's contemporaries are mentioned by name.

In extra-Qur˒anic sources, the dichotomy between the worship of the asnam and the monotheistic legacy of Ibrahim, the founder of the Ka˓ba in Mecca, is retained. The traditions say that when Mecca became too small for the descendants of Abraham and Ishmael, they looked for dwellings outside Mecca, taking with them stones from the homeland, which they cherished and turned into idols. Nevertheless, according to these sources even far away from Mecca they preserved many of Abraham's values, such as the rites of the pilgrimage to Mecca, but they contaminated them with various elements of shirk. The shrines of some of these idols are said to have been built on the model of the Ka˓ba, and sometimes were even called "Ka˓ba."

Conversely, idolatry is said to have been imported into Arabia from outside by one ˓Amr b. Luhayy of the tribe of Khuza˓a, who ruled in Mecca before the advent of Quraysh. He is said to have imported idols mainly from Syria. Among them the five idols of Noah's time are mentioned. The establishment of the worship of Hubal at the Ka˓ba is also attributed to this ˓Amr. Names of numerous additional asnam are mentioned in the sources with details about the tribes who worshiped them.

Of the three "daughters" of God, Manat is said to have been the first to be introduced in Arabia, then Allat, then al-˓Uzza. Manat's shrine was in Qudayd (near Mecca, on the Red Sea shore), Allat's in al-Ta˒if, and al-˓Uzza's in Nakhla. Pilgrims brought votive gifts to the shrines and sacrificial slaughter took place on special stones (nusub) there.

Apart from the collective idols, some traditions speak about domestic asnam whose carved wooden images were held in each family household (dar) in Mecca. There are also reports about similar tribal and domestic idols in pre-Islamic Medina. The shrines of the main idols as well as the domestic images were reportedly destroyed in Muhammad's days, following the spread of Islam in Arabia.

Modern scholars have doubted the historicity of the notion of Arabian idolatry being a deformed version of an initial Ibrahimic monotheism centered on the Ka˓ba, and have rejected it as reflecting Qur˒anic and Islamic concepts projected back into remote pre-Islamic phases of history. On the other hand, other Islamicists noted the possibility that Ibrahim's image as a monotheistic prototype could have been known already in pre-Islamic Arabia.

See alsoAllah ; Shirk .


Hawting, G. R. The Idea of Idolatry and the Emergence of Islam:From Polemic to History. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Lecker, Michael. "Idol Worship in Pre-Islamic Medina (Yathrib)." Le Muséon 106 (1993): 331–346.

Rubin, Uri. "The Ka˓ba—Aspects of Its Ritual Functions." Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 8: 97–131.

Uri Rubin