SUMMARY: In this episode from Al-Hayat TV, Abuna Zakaria Boutros presents evidence that Muhammad as a youth participated in the idolatry of his peers, and later incorporated their gods into his religion in hopes of attracting them to Islam.
COMMENT: It makes sense that as a young man Muhammad would participate in and be influenced by the religious practices of those around him. It is also logical that he would incorporate some of their beliefs into Islam in the hope of attracting the citizens of Mecca. This of course runs directly counter to the Islamic belief that Muhammad was "masum" (divinely protected) from error and any such influence.
Although the hadiths quoted below indicate Muhammad's involvement in idolatry, Muslims can easily dismiss them by claiming they are "weak" or inauthoritative. It's interesting that even the hadiths of Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, which have been as authoritative as the Quran for 1400 years, are now said to be weak when they prove embarrassing. That was Shaykh Yusuf Qaradawi's response to Wafa Sultan when she quoted the Bukhari hadith "Heaven is under the shadow of the sword." It is also the response of Western writers such as Reza Aslan (No god but God) and Sumbul Ali-Karamali (The Muslim Next Door) to the Bukhari hadith that Muhammad consumnated his marriage with Aysha when she was nine years old.
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AHMAD: We have spoken about the personal, tribal, and political circumstances that influenced the personality of Muhammad. What about his religious environment?
ABUNA: The religious environment influenced Muhammad more than any of the other factors, and it is very important to understand this environment. There were many religious factions at his time including idol worshipers, the hanifs who followed the monotheism of Abraham, the Sabians who worshipped the planets, Jews and Christians, and they all influenced Muhammad.
AHMAD: Can you paint a picture of what idolatry was like at that time?
ABUNA: Yes, indeed. And I would also like to note the ancient sources as well as the modern references for anyone who wants to do further study. The sources include “The Book of Idols”, by Ibn Kalbi (819-920 A.D); another book entitled “The Book of Idols” by Jahith, and “Nihayat al-Arab” by Nuwayri. The modern references include “The History of Islam” by Dr. Hasan Ibrahim Hasan, and “The History of the Arabs before Islam” by Dr. Jawad Ali.
AHMAD: Let’s begin by talking about the local gods of the Arab Peninsula.
ABUNA: Dr. Hasan writes the Quraysh put 360 idols in and around the Kaaba. It does not mean the people of Mecca worshipped an idol each day of the year, but each tribe kept its idol in the Kaaba. The Quraysh benefitted financially from the annual pilgrimage when people came to the Kaaba to worship their idols. They linked economics to one of humankind’s strongest motivation, that of religion. Dr. Jawad Ali writes that the names of the Arab gods included Allat, Uzza, Manat (who are each mentioned in the Quran and subject of Muhammad’s “Satanic verses”), Hubal, Wudd, Asaf, Nailah, and many others.
AHMAD: Can you give us an idea of who these gods were?
ABUNA: Dr. Jawad Ali writes that Allat is linguistically derived from the name of Allah, and was his female version (adding the letter “t” to a word in Arabic generally makes it feminine). Allah was the masculine, and Allat was “Mrs. Allah”. The people were primitive in their thinking; they had Allah, and they had his wife. The first mosque in (the Saudi Arabian city of) Taif was built on the location where Allat was worshipped. The explanation given for this was that the mosque was built by former idolaters who had converted to Islam with their mouths but still believed in Allat in their hearts. They built the mosque in that location in lasting memory of their idol Allat. This helps us understand how Muhammad later tried to please the idolaters and attract them to his religion.
Next was the goddess Uzza, who was also feminine and worshipped by the people of Taif. Dr. Jawad writes on p.208 of his book that Muhammad said, “I sacrificed a white sheep to Uzza when I practiced the religion of my people.” I must admit I was amazed when I first read that Muhammad worshipped idols and presented a sacrifice to Uzza.
AHMAD: Why were you amazed?
ABUNA: Because Muhammad has been surrounded by such sanctity in the traditions of Islam. The ancient books tell us that he was “a light behind Adam even before Adam’s creation”. They say he was prophesied in the Torah and the Injil (Old and New Testaments) long before he was born. His mother supposedly emanated a light when she was pregnant with him that could be seen in the palaces of Syria. Angels cut open his chest when he was a child to remove a black clot that was impurity from Satan. If all that is true, why did Muhammad worship idols while practicing the religion of his people?
According to Abu Hisham, Muhammad stated that Zayd bin Amer was the first to scold him for worshipping idols. Muhammad told the story as follows, “I had come from Taif with Zayd bin Haritha when we passed Zayd bin Amer in the highlands of Mecca. The Quraysh had made a public example of Zayd bin Amer for abandoning his religion, so he went out from their midst (Zayd bin Amer had left idolatry for the monotheism of the hanifs). I was but a lad at the time, and we had a bag containing meat that we had sacrificed to our idols. I offered some to Zayd bin Amer, but he refused to eat it and said he never ate those sacrifices. Then he upbraided me for idolatry and spoke disparagingly of those who worship idols. After that I never knowingly stroked one of their idols, not did I sacrifice to them.”
Muslim author Suhayli explains this by saying Allah did not allow Zayd to eat this meat, but Muhammad was above that! But my question is, if Muhammad was present in the creation, prophesied in the Gospels, a light from his mother’s stomach illuminated Syria, and angels removed all impurity from his chest, why was he worshipping and eating food sacrificed to idols? I would like to hear a reply from the Shaykhs of Al-Azhar.
AHMAD: Perhaps one of them will respond. What can you tell us about the other idols?
ABUNA: Manat is the third goddess mentioned in the Quran. Dr. Hasan and Dr. Jawad both inform us that the Meccans would circumambulate the Kaaba repeating,
By Allat and Uzza and Manat,
The three goddesses who are the most exalted females (sometimes translated as “cranes),
And whose intercession is desirable indeed.”
The Muslims today circle the Kaaba, repeating chants. The Arabs did that before Islam.
These three goddesses are famous because of their mention in the Quran (this is the story of the “Satanic verses”). Both Ibn Sad in “The Major Classes” and Wahidi in “Asbab al-Nazul” (the science of determining the authenticity of the hadith) tell the story of Muhammad’s desire to attract the people of his tribe who were turning against him. While sitting with them one day near the Kaaba, Muhammad recited, “Do you see Allat and Uzza and Manat, the three goddesses who are the most exalted females? Their intercession is desirable indeed.” It was the same thing the idolaters said when circumambulating the Kaaba! When the Quraysh heard this, they were filled with joy realizing that Muhammad acknowledged their gods (News of this event even reached Ethiopia where some of Muhammad’s followers had taken refuge, and they began to come home thinking their problems with the Quraysh were resolved).
That evening, according to Muslim scholars, Gabriel informed Muhammad that it was Satan, not he, who had whispered these words in Muhammad’s ears. Note that Muhammad apparently could not distinguish the voice of Satan from that of Gabriel. Gabriel then reassured Muhammad that Satan tried to whisper words into the ears of all of Allah’s prophets by revealing Quran 22:52, 53:
“Whenever we send a messenger who recites the words of Allah, Satan tries to throw some falsehood into it. Allah, however, abolishes the words Satan throws in, and establishes his revelations. Allah allows Satan to do this to test those whose hearts are hardened with unbelief.”
Muhammad then changed his message to the Quraysh to Quran 53:19-23, “Have you thought about the goddesses Allat, Uzza, and Manat? Would Allah give you male sons while giving himself female goddess daughters? That would be most unfair! Those are merely names that you have given, not names from Allah” (note the insinuation that daughters are of less value than sons).
My question is, Muhammad repeated to the Quraysh that day the same sentences about the three goddesses they had all memorized by heart and repeated every year at the Kaaba. What makes more sense, that Satan whispered those words in his ear, or that his memory recalled them to mind? Another question is why did Gabriel wait until the evening to correct Muhammad? Why not correct him immediately when Muhammad was speaking to the Quraysh?
I have another serious question. According to this story, Satan spoke to Muhammad. But the Quran says in 16:99-100 that Satan has no power over those who put their trust in Allah. Satan’s power is only over those who obey him, or who associate others with Allah. If Satan spoke to Muhammad, does that mean Muhammad was one of those who obeyed him or associated others with Allah? How could Satan have the power to whisper words into Muhammad’s ears? I invite the Shaykhs to answer me.
AHMAD: It is clear from the hadith that both the Arabs and Muhammad worshipped idols. What was the influence of this on Muhammad?
ABUNA: You can see the influence from an idol named Wudd (the Lover). Jawad Ali writes that Wudd was the moon god, as well as the greatest god, and his symbol was the crescent. I want to link things together. First of all, Muhammad adopted the crescent, which was the symbol of the moon god. Muhammad also adopted the slogan “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is the greatest). These both came from Wudd. Could Muhammad have adopted these to placate Wudd’s worshippers?
AHMAD: What about other gods?
ABUNA: There was Rahman (the Compassionate). Dr. Jawad Ali writes that the texts of the Southern Arabs describe a new god named Rahman, or Rahman Saman. That is, he was the god of the sky (sky is “samah” in Arabic, or “saman” in some grammatical forms). “Rahman” as well as “Wudd” are both included in the Muslim 99 names of Allah, as well as the god Rahim (the Merciful). I find it amazing that Muhammad took the names of these idols and included them in the names of Allah. The expression “al-Rahman al-Rahim” opens almost every chapter of the Quran.
AHMAD: Is there additional information available for those who want to learn more?
ABUNA: Yes, indeed. Jawad Ali describes all 360 idols in his book and some of them are very interesting. One of them was named Allah-humah (“their Allah” which is a common expression of the Quran). Did Muhammad use this expression to convince the idolaters there was no difference between the Allah he was calling them to, and their Allah-humah?
There was the god “Rabb al-Aalimin” (Lord of the Universe, another common Muslim phrase used to describe Allah). There was a god called Allah Ya Sin (two letters of the Arabic alphabet) worshiped in the Hadramout in Yemen. Does that not explain the chapter of the Quran entitled “Ya Sin”?