November 20, 2005

Were Arabs against idols?


By M.S.N. Menon

The Arabs had a multiplicity of gods and goddesses. Hence the Arab saying: When you enter an Arab village, swear by the God of the village. This was the tradition of the entire region from the times of the Sumerians and Assyrians. Al-Azraqui says: There was an idol in every Arab home. More often, of goddesses. And they lived in the idol.

Allah was the tribal God of the powerful Quraishite tribe, which played a major role in the rise of the Arab state. Mohammed belonged to it. They were wealthy traders of Mecca and had a major hand in the administration of the templethe Kaa'ba. (Reminds one of the rich merchants of Pataliputra (Patna) who backed the religion of Mahavira.)

The Arabs were divided along tribal lines. There was little unity among them. Each tribe had its tribal God. Islam was at revolt against this plethora of gods and goddesses. It began even before Mohammed. Hence the saying: "Proclaim to all: God is one." This was the central message of the Prophet of Islam.

There were about 360 idols at the Kaa'ba alone in Mecca. The Prophet had them all destroyed. And he ordered the destruction of all other idols.

Was he, then, opposed to idols too? Or was he only opposed to the multiplicity of gods and goddesses? This we have no way to know. His aim was to unite the Arabs under one God. But so long the idols remained and their names remained, there was no way to bring the Arabs under one God. Which is why, I believe, the Prophet decided to destroy all idols so that their names would be forgotten for ever.

The Arabs had no obsession against idols, for they continued to worship them for 1,300 years even after idols were banned by the Jews in the 7th Century bc. And there are two final questions to answer: 1) Why didn't the Prophet remove the chief idol of the Kaa'bathe Black Stone, which was the main object of Arab worship and 2) How could he have allowed to make idols of Allah when there was fear of a relapse to old ways?

Was the Prophet propounding a new religion? He was not, for he made few other changes in the religious beliefs of the Arabs. Allah, the tribal God of the Quraishites, remained, the Black Stone remained, the annual pilgrimage remained, the animal sacrifices remained, the stoning of the pillar, the symbol of the devil, remained. In short, most of the pagan practices remained. This shows that Mohammed was not against the pagan and pre-Islamic practices. His revolt was against the worship of so many gods. Remembers, he was inspired by Moses, the Jewish Prophet, who banned the worship of any other God but Yahweh by the Jews. His aim was to unite the Jews.

Idols are no more in vogue among Muslims. But a kind of idolatry has grown around objects and symbols. For example, around the Kaa'ba, the Quran, calligraphy of sacred sayings and tombs of saints (which are for all practical purposes places of worship), to mention a few. As for verbal imageries, Islam provides a profusion of them. The Sufis says: "If you want to picture God, picture the perfect man." To see God, say Muslim scholars, a Muslim need see only God's creations. And the Prophet himself said: "Revile not the world, for God is the world." Is not the world a gigantic idol?

On the worship of the Quran, Vivekananda says: "It is the hardiest of all idols." The Muslims go round the Black Stone seven times and kiss it each time they make a round. What is this but reverence of a stone?

The Quran contains 99 names of God. Those are mental imageries of God. Remembrance of these names (Dhikr) plays an important role in popular Muslim piety. And descriptions like: God "sees everything" "hears everything", that He is full of "mercy"all these human attributes reinforce the anthropomorphic image.

The Mutasilas regarded these figurative expressions as anthropomorphic concessions to human limitations. The point is: The God of Islam is anthropomorphic. He is seen in human terms.

Islam, although fiercely opposed to form, failed to go beyond form to a God without form or attributes. This is what the Hindus did, although they have no objection to forms and symbols.

And how is one to explain Islamic mysticism, which is so close to the Bhakti movement in India? For verbal imageries, there are few religious sects equal to the Sufis.

Ultimately, if Muslim theologians find no objection to the veneration of the Black Stone in Mecca by Muslims, then they should have no objection to the veneration of the Shivalinga in Kashi by the Hindus. It is time to give thought to these matters, which were never raised before.

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