First, the man distinguished between eternal and perishable. Later he discovered within himself the germ of the Eternal. This discovery was an epoch in the history of the human mind and the East was the first to discover it.
To watch in the Sacred Books of the East the dawn of this religious consciousness of man, must always remain one of the most inspiring and hallowing sights in the whole history of the world. In order to have a solid foundation for a comparative study of the Religions of the East, we must have before all things, complete and thoroughly faithful translation of their Sacred Books in which some of the ancient sayings were preserved because they were so true and so striking that they could not be forgotten. They contained eternal truths, expressed for the first time in human language.
With profoundest reverence for Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, President of India, who inspired us for the task; our deep sense of gratitude for Dr. C. D. Deshmukh & Dr. D. S. Kothari, for encouraging assistance; esteemed appreciation of UNESCO for the warm endorsement of the cause; and finally with indebtedness to Dr. H. Rau, Director, Max Muller Bhawan, New Delhi, in procuring us the texts of the Series for reprint, we humbly conclude.
Before entering upon an intelligent study of the Quran it is necessary to make oneself acquainted with the circum-stances of the people in whose midst it was revealed, with the political and religious aspects of the period, and with the personal history of the prophet himself.
Arabia or Gazirat el ‘Arab, ‘the Arabian Peninsula,’ as it is called by native writers, is bounded on the west by the Red Sea; on the east by the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman; on the south by the Indian Ocean; and on the north it extends to the confines of Babylonia and Syria.
The Arabs were divided into those of the desert and those of the towns.
The first were settled in the sterile country of the Higaz, and the no less barren highlands of Negd.
The principalities bordering on Syria and Persia were vassals of the Roman and Persian empires; the kingdom of Himyar in Yemen, to the south of the Peninsula, was in free communication with the rest of the world; but the Higaz, ‘the barrier,’ had effectually resisted alike the curiosity and the attacks of the nations who fought around it for the empire of the world. Persia, Egypt, Rome, Byzantium had each unsuccessfully essayed to penetrate the country and conquer its hardy inhabitants.
The Higaz consists of the barren ranges of hills which lead up from the lowlands on the Eastern coast of the Red Sea of the highlands of Negd. In its valleys lie the holy cities of Mecca and Medinah, and here was the birthplace of el Islam.
The Arabs of the desert preserved almost intact the manners, customs, and primeval simplicity of the early patriarchs.
They lived in tents made of hair or woollen cloth and their principal wealth consisted in their camels, horses, and male and female slaves.
They were a nomad race, changing their residence to the various places within their own territory, which afforded the best pasturage as the seasons came round.
Brave and chivalrous, the Arab was always ready to defend the stranger who claimed his protection, while he would stand by a member of his own clan and defend him with his life, whether he were right or wrong. This devotion to the tribe was one of the strongest characteristics of the Arabs, and must be borne in mind if we would understand aright the early history of Islam.
They were generous and hospitable to a fault, and many a tale is told of a chief who gave away his last camel, or slew his favourite horse to feed a guest, while he and his family were well-nigh left to starve.
Pride of birth was their passion, and poetry their greatest delight; their bards recited the noble pedigrees and doughty deeds of their tribes,¬¬––as their own proverb has it, ‘the registers of the Arabs are the verses of their bards,’–– and in the numerous ancient poems still extant we have invaluable materials for the history of the race.
But their vices were as conspicuous as their virtues, and drunkenness, gambling, and the grossest immorality were very prevalent amongst them. Robbery and murder were their ordinary occupations, for an Arab looked on work or agriculture as beneath his dignity, and thought that he had a prescriptive right to the property of those who condescended to such mean offices. The death of an Arab, however, was revenged with such rigour and vindictiveness by the fierce laws of the blood feud, that a certain check was placed upon their bloodthirsty propensities even in their wars; and these were still further tempered by the institution of certain sacred months, during which it was unlawful to fight or pillage. Cruel, and superstitious too, they were, and amongst the inhuman customs which Mohammed swept away, none is more revolting than that, commonly practised by them, of burying their female children alive.
The position of women amongst them was not an elevated one, and although there are instances on record of heroines and poetesses who exalted or celebrated the honour of their clan, they were for the most part looked on with contempt. The marriage knot was tied in the simplest fashion and untied as easily, divorce depending only on the option and caprice of the husband.
As for government they had, virtually, none; the best born and bravest man was recognised as head of the tribe, and led them to bettle; but he had no personal authority over them, and no superiority but that of the admiration which his bravery and generosity gained for him.
The religion of the Arabs was Sabaeanism, or the worship of the hosts of heaven, Seth and Enoch being considered as the prophets of the faith.
This cult no doubt came from Chaldea, and the belief in the existence of angels, which they also professed, is traceable to the same source. Their practice of making the circuit of the holy shrines, still continued as part of the ‘Hagg ceremonies, probably also arose from this planetary worship.
The comparatively simple star-worship of the Sabaeans was, however, greatly corrupted; and a number of fresh deities, superstitious practices, and meaningless rites had been introduced.
The strange sounds that often break the terrible stillness of the desert; the sudden storms of sand or rain that in a moment cover the surface of a plain, or change a dry valley into a roaring torrent; these and a thousand other such causes naturally produce a strong effect upon an imagination quickened by the keen air and the freedom of the desert.
The Arab, therefore, peopled the vast solitudes amidst which he dwelt with supernatural beings, and fancied that every rock, and tree, and cavern had its gin or presiding genius. These beings were conceived to be both beneficent and malevolent, and were worshipped to propitiate their help or avert their harm. From the worship of these personifications of the powers of nature to that of the presiding genius of tribe or of a place, is an easy transition, and we accordingly find that each tribe had its patron deity with the cult of which their interests were intimately bound up. The chief god of this vague national cult was Allah, and most tribes set up a shrine for him as well as for their own particular deity. The offerings dedicated to the former were set apart for the advantage of the poor and of strangers, while those brought to the local idol were reserved for the use of the priests. If Allah had by any chance anything better than the inferior deity, or a portion of his offerings fell into the lot of the local idol, the priests at once appropriated it; this practice is reprehended by Mohammed in the Quran (VI, ver. 137).
The principal deities of the Arab pantheon were––
Allah ta’alah, the God most high.
Hubal, the chief of the minor deities; this was in the form of a man. It was brought from Syria, and was supposed to procure rain.
Wadd, said to have represented the heaven, and to have been worshipped under the form of a man.
Suwa’h, an idol in the form of a woman, and believed to be a relic of antediluvian times.
YaghuTh, an idol in the shape of a lion.
Ya’uq, worshipped under the figure of a horse.
Nasr, which was, as the name implies, worshipped under the semblance of an eagle.
EL’Huzza, identified with Venus, but it appears to have been worshipped under the form of an acacia tree, cf. Note 2, p. 132.
Allat, the chief idol of the tribe of THaqif at Ta’if, who endeavoured to make it a condition of surrender to Mohammed that he should not destroy it for three years, and that their territory should be considered sacred like that of Mecca, a condition which the prophet peremptorily refused. The name appears to be the feminine of Allah.
Manat, worshipped in the form of a large sacrificial stone by several tribes, including that of HuDHeil.
Duwar, a favourite idol with the young women, who used to go in procession round it, whence its name.
Isaf, an idol that stood on Mount Zafa.
Naila, an image on Mount Marwa.
The last two were such favourite objects of worship that, although Mohammed ordered them to be destroyed, he was not able entirely to divert the popular regard from them, and the visitation of Zafa and Marwa are still an important part of the ‘Hagg rites.
Hab’hab was a large stone upon with camels were slaughtered.
EL’Huzza, Allat, and Manat are mentioned by name in the Qur’an, see Chapter LIII, vers. 19-20.
The Kaabah, or chief shrine of the faith, contained, besides these, images representing Abraham and Ishmael, each with divining arrows in his hand, and a statue or picture representing the virgin and child.
There were altogether 365 idols there in Mohammed’s time.
Another object of worship then, and of the greatest veneration now, is the celebrated black stone which is inserted in the wall of the Kaabah, and is supposed to have been one of the stones of Paradise, originally white, though since blackened by the kisses of sinful but believing lips.
The worship of stones is a very old form of Semitic cult, and it is curious to note that Jacob ‘took the stone that he had put for his pillow, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil on the top of it; and he called the name of the place Bethel:’ and that at Mecca the principal object of sacred interest is a stone, and that the Kaabah has been known, from time immemorial, as Baitallah, ‘the house of God.’
The gin, like the angels, were held by the ancient Arabs to be the daughters of Allah; they were supposed to be created out of fire instead of clay, but in all other respects to resemble mankind, and to be subject to the same laws of procreation and decease.
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