Sunday, January 18, 2009

Who was Muhammad? Part 5 - The Practices of Islam

SUMMARY: In this segment, Boutros Zakariya shows from Muslim sources that many things Muslim practice today were part of pre-Islamic society.

COMMENT: Few Muslims know that practices as common as the fast of Ramadan and the circumambulation of the Kaaba during the Pilgrimage were done by the pagan Arabs long before Islam. The Muslim belief, of course, is that these were revealed to Muhammad from Allah. Muslims often have two responses when presented with new, unfavorable information about Islam. The first is to admit they did not know this. The second is to deny it. The majority continue in that denial for the rest of their lives.

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AHMAD: We have looked at the idols that were present during the “jahiliyah” (the time of ignorance before Islam). Let’s move to a related subject, which is the religious practices of the idolaters and their influence on Muhammad and Islam.

ABUNA: Every religious system has its accompanying religious practices, and this is true of idolaters as well. I would like to introduce at this point an important additional reference text, “The Historical Roots of Islamic Shariah” by Shaykh Khalil Abdel Karim. He is a graduate of Al-Azhar University, and his book is very important. There is also the book of Dr. Jawad Ali about the Arabs before Islam that we saw in our previous session.

AHMAD: Can you tell us the religious practices of the time that influenced Muhammad?

ABUNA: Dr. Ali Jawad points out that the religious practices of the Arabs before Islam included fasting, things that were permitted and prohibited (halal and haram), major and minor pilgrimages (the hajj and the umrah), and houses for their gods including the Kaaba and its cloth covering. Shaykh Khalil Abdel Karim adds to this list the month of fasting (Ramadan), the exaltation of Abraham and Ismail, and a public meeting on Fridays (Islam’s holy day). All these Islamic practices were present before Islam.

AHMAD: As a former Muslim, the first thing that comes to my mind is Ramadan. What can you tell us about fasting before Islam?

ABUNA: The Quraysh would fast on the day of Ashurah, which is still practiced by Muslims today (and was a fast of the Jews at the time of Muhammad). Muhammad practiced this before he imposed the month of Ramadan, and afterwards he allowed it as a voluntary fast. Shaykh Khalil writes that even the fast of Ramadan was practiced before Islam.

AHMAD: About 80 days after the end of Ramadan comes the pilgrimage. What can you tell us about that?

ABUNA: I want to repeat one important comment, which is that the fast of Ramadan did not just drop out of the sky as revelation to Muhammad but was practiced by the Arabs before Islam. Some of the hanifs would fast in the cave of Hira during that time (which is where Muhammad received the first revelation of the Quran). Ramadan is simply a continuation of a practice that existed before Islam.

Now for the Hajj (pilgrimage). Shaykh Khalil writes that the Arab tribes agreed that the Kaaba in Mecca was sacred, and were eager to make pilgrimage to it. Islam continued the emphasis on the holiness of the Kaaba and Mecca, and the Quran used many expressions common at the time to describe them. Jawad Ali adds men and women would circumambulate the Kaaba naked. And even today the white cloth (the ihram) they wear at the pilgrimage leaves them half-naked.

AHMAD: What is the meaning and origin of the word “Hajj”?

ABUNA: In his important book “Myths and Traditions”, Dr. Qimni writes that the word “hajj” originally came from the root “hakk”, and even today some Arabic dialects pronounce the “J” sound as a “K”. By the way, they have silenced Dr. Qimni, but they cannot silence his books (Sayyid Qimni or Qemni is a current Egyptian reformer whose writings are attacked and banned in his own country). The root “hakk” is a derivative of “ihtikak”, which means “to rub against”. In “Al Milal wal Nahal”, Abu Qasim al-Shahristani writes that the pilgrims used to rub themselves against the black stone in the Kaaba. Dr. Qimni adds that the women would rub menstrual blood against the black stone. My question for my Muslim brethren is, If that was the meaning of the pilgrimage in the jahiliyah, why was it incorporated into Islam? What is the meaning of their kissing the black stone today?

AHMAD: You have also noted that the pilgrimage was a time of commercial profit.

ABUNA: “The Encyclopedia of Islamic Knowledge” informs us the pilgrimages were held during the date season, and markets to sell dates were set up during that time. Dr. Qimni says this was also a time where prostitution and group sex were practiced by the pilgrims as a celebration of the date harvest. One of the idols in the Kaaba was Hubal, the god of fertility, and sex was considered part of his worship. This explains why circling the Kaaba nude was part of the pilgrimage. They also practiced a form of prostitution known as “mutah” (a form of “temporary marriage” or “marriage for enjoyment” still practiced today among the Shia; the word “mutah” means “enjoyment” and it is explained in detail at In Quran 4:24, the list of women that Muslim men can marry includes those “for enjoyment” to whom a price is to be paid. In his “Exegesis of the Quran”, Qurtabi writes that Abu Durr said “mutah” marriage was practiced in the pilgrimage.

AHMAD: What were other pilgrimage rites at that time?

ABUNA: Shaykh Khalil writes that the pilgrims did many of the same practices they do today. These included the chant, “I am here at your service, Oh Allah”, wearing special clothing, stopping at Mt. Arafat, circling the Kaaba, throwing stones at the devil, etc.

AHMAD: What is the origin of throwing stones at the devil?

ABUNA: Jawad Ali writes that the idea of throwing stones at the devil goes back to Amr ibn Lahya (or Luhayy, who lived 400 years before Muhammad). Murtada al-Zubaydi writes in “The Bride’s Crown” that Amr brought seven idols to Mecca and then threw three stones at each one saying it was larger than the one before it. So the idea of throwing stones at the devil at the Kaaba preceded Muhammad by hundreds of years.

AHMAD: What about the black stone of the Kaaba? Was it considered sacred before Islam?

ABUNA: The black stone was sacred before Islam to the extent that the Kaaba itself took its sacredness from it. Mahmud Salim al-Hut says in his book “Mythology and the Arabs” that the Kaaba housed the black stone they believed had come down from heaven. The Arabs used to circumambulate this stone. I have already mentioned that women would rub their menstrual blood against it in the belief that would give them fertility.

AHMAD: Did Muhammad consider the black stone to be sacred?

ABUNA: Yes indeed, and he used to kiss it. He preserved circumambulating the Kaaba and the black stone in the rituals of the Hajj. The Kaaba is the focal point of the pilgrimage. In the hadith of Bayhaqi, he writes that Ibn Abbas said that Muhammad kissed the black stone and rubbed his right cheek against it. He added that the Prophet would circle the Kaaba three times running like a gazelle, and would then circumambulate it four times walking slowly in respect of the black stone. Sahih Bukhari adds that the Caliph Umar kissed the black stone and said, “I know that you are only a stone, having no power of good or evil, and I would not kiss you had not I seen the Prophet kiss you.” I ask the Muslims, why did Muhammad make this stone sacred? Can they give one reason?

AHMAD: Do you have any comment as to why Muhammad considered the black stone sacred, when Umar realized it was only a stone?

ABUNA: This is an indication of how Muhammad tried to please people, in order to gain them to his side. He called for the abolition of idols, but considered the black stone sacred. Was that not an idol? Umar realized that the stone carried no blessing. Was he better than Muhammad? Did Muhammad not realize that as well? Is it proper of a prophet that he try to please the idolaters to attract them to him? Why is the black stone still located in the Kaaba?


Anonymous said...

The overall emphasis of the writer has been on practices followed in days before Prophet Muhammad (SAWW) started preaching openly to Arabs, and also assuming that everything that was done at that time was incorrect which to me seems to be the major issue in this arcticle. I have just two general points to make here
1) Not everything that was done pre Prophet PBUH was overridden by Islam as some of the practices were being followed from Ibrahimic relegion which were also from the same God so Prophet's teaching did not have to be in total contrast to them.
2) Prophet PBUH gave a new and true spirit to the same practices followed from heavinly religions

Quotable Quotes: said...

Thanks for reading, and for your comment. I agree with your first point that Muhammad continued many of the pre-Islamic practices followed by his contemporaries. What I would argue, however, is that Muhammad was more interesting in establishing a political and economic kingdom than in giving "a new and true spirit to the same practices followed from heavinly religions."

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