History and Sources

What was pre-Islamic religion like and did Islam retain any of its features?

Pre-Islamic Arabian tribes believed that the universe was animated by innumerable spirits, each inhabiting its own distinctive elements and natural features. They called each of these minor deities an ilah, “god,” but tribespeople in many regions singled out one particular local power as the chief spiritual force. That power they called the god al-ilah or allah (pronounced al-LAAH). Mecca was one of several major cultic sites over which such a chief deity ruled. There, a peculiar cubic-shaped structure called the Ka’aba stood for perhaps centuries at the center of pilgrimage traffic associated with a lively caravan trade. Pre-Islamic beliefs also acknowledged the existence of numerous troublesome beings called jinns, as well as downright diabolical spiritual forces. Muhammad’s ancestors emphasized the importance of following the moral code of tribal custom unquestioningly and did not believe in an afterlife. In his early preaching the Prophet focused on the need to behave morally and justly in light of the coming judgment. He taught that a divine will was more important than tribal custom, however ancient, and gradually increased his condemnation of the cult of many spiritual powers (called polydaemonism). The Ka’aba remained an important symbol, as did the practice of pilgrimage, but Muhammad appropriated those aspects of tradition by underscoring their association with Abraham and Ishmael especially.


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