How Nabataean Polytheism Influenced Islam

The Nabataeans of Petra and surrounds were Arab nomads who found themselves in the perfect spot to benefit from international trade between empires. They settled down and built their now famous city on the back of this trade in the few centuries leading up to the birth of Christ. By the first century BC they were wealthy and their kingdom extended from Damascus down into Northern Arabia. As trade increased they adopted more and more architectural, religious and cultural ideas from the many empires around them, particularly the Greeks and Romans. They were not alone in this trend. Just up the road King Herod the Great was doing exactly the same in his domain of Palestine. In the first few centuries after Christ the Nabataeans became a hybrid culture, spanning the Arabian and Roman worlds. Although Nabataean civilisation declined in the 4th and 5th Centuries AD, its cultural influence on surrounding areas was immense. And this is where the problems start for Islam.

For the first hundred years of the Arab/Islamic empire the direction of mosque was toward Petra, or somewhere close by. It was not until 822AD that all mosques finally faced Mecca, 1,300km south-south east of Petra. The evidence can still be actually seen in the structure and direction of these ancient mosque sites. This raises deep and unsettling questions about the origins of Islam because the Qur’an specifically says the change in the direction of prayer (Q 2:143-4…with no place names or timeframe given) occurred in Muhammad’s lifetime, around 624AD. Someone is telling a very big lie. What was it about the Petra area that would create such a blasphemy? Was Islam re-invented in the image of the emerging Arab empire sometime after it began? Are there any other hints that Islamic ideas actually started around Petra and not deep in the Arabian Peninsula? Well yes, here are eight:

For a start, the Arab language originates in the region of Petra (p328). The Nabataean alphabet is descended from the northern Hebrew Aramaic alphabet and a cursive form of Nabataean developed into the Arabic alphabet from the 4th century.

Next, the Nabataeans had an affinity with geometry, and often used a cube, or block of stone as a point of reference for worship and representative of their gods. Their cubes were stylised black stones, often meteorites which fell from the heavens, a gift from the gods no less. In fact the word Ka’ba, the holiest place in the Islamic world in Mecca today, simply and literally means cube, and within it is a black sacred stone, a meteorite! This concept has deep roots in the Nabataean culture.

Next, the Qur’an, while almost absent in geographical references, quotes a defeat of the Roman Empire in a “nearby land” (Q 30:1-2). Regardless of the historical accuracy of battles, the fact that this defeat happened close to where the Qur’an was written raises significant questions about where Muhammad lived.

Next, the Qur’an talks at great length about agricultural practices and the raising of livestock. These did indeed exist at and around Petra due to elaborate irrigation systems. However Mecca is devoid of any agricultural hinterland and associated livestock. Further, the Qur’an talks about grape vines, olives, corn, fruit trees and fresh vegetation growing “nearby” (Q 80:27-31). It has long been established that olives are impossible to grow in the Meccan climate. In the northwest corner of Arabia, at Nabataea, they could grow.

Next, the Qur’an talks about the “old woman” who was left behind when lot escaped Sodom (Q 37:133-38). What is interesting is that this site is universally held to be near the Dead Sea and the writer of the Qur’an says that you pass by these ruins day and night. This places the location of the writer nearer to Israel than 1,300km south east at Mecca.

Next, why was Palestine and Syria, and not Arabia, the natural base for all early Arab/Muslim imperial leadership? The first major dynasty of the Arab Empire, the Umayyads, who were supposed to have come from Muhammad’s own Qurayshis tribe, had a history of trading with the Byzantines and had invested profits into real estate in Syria: a history that suggests close contact with the frontiers of empire, not the depths of an Arabian desert. Others dynasties followed, headquartered in Syria or Iraq. Mecca was not their natural home. Why?

Next, Petra had been the hub of several very important trading routes connecting Europe to Asia east-west, and Europe to Africa/Arabia north-south. That’s why it was wealthy. That’s why it was influential. Although it had declined in power by the time of Muhammad, it is intriguing to see that all commentators claim that Muhammad was a trader who frequented the lands of Palestine and Syria. Trade routes were the freeways, railways and internets of their time. For the record, Mecca (which means mother of settlements) was not on any trade route, and fascinatingly, it is not mentioned in a single objective historical source from the time until 741AD (P. Crone: Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, 1987 p 134-6). Mecca does not appear on any maps until 300 years after Muhammad’s lifetime. If traders came from Mecca in this era or there would be records to prove it, but there aren’t. Muhammad came from somewhere else and the logical place is much closer to the known trade routes further north.

Finally, and most confusing of all, the Qur’an names a special place, a maqam, called Bakkah, where Abraham is said to have built the first temple, a beacon and light to the nations, and where pilgrimage (hajj) and worship is expected (Q 3:96-97, Q 2:126). Could this be a reference to a place of worship close to Petra? This makes sense because all historical sources talk about Abraham being present in Palestine and the Negev; none say he went to Arabia. The Qur’an itself never equates Bakkah with Mecca. Commentaries associating it with Mecca only appeared several generations later. What’s more, Arabs and Nabataeans alike had long worshipped and feasted in the name of God and their ancestor Abraham in Mamre, near modern day Hebron. This is the very place where the Bible says Abraham was visited by three angels (Genesis 18:1-2) and where both Arabs and Jews say Abraham is buried. The combined efforts of Emperors Constantine and Justinian to stamp pre-Islamic worship here proved fruitless. About 60 years before Christ, the Roman historian Diodorus Siculus commented about this place that there was in Arabia a temple greatly revered by the Arabs. In addition, the Khuzistan Chronicle of the mid 7th Century acknowledges that Arabs who worshipped there in Muhammad’s time did so out of reverence for Abraham, the head of their nation, a statement almost perfectly echoed in Surah 3:96-7.

Could it be that Muhammad’s insistence that his was the true religion stems from this very site? That the Nabataean worship of false gods was a smack in the face to the true calling of Arabs as proud sons of Abraham and Ishmael? And that the change of prayer direction is from this site to the newly built Mecca some generations later?

All these discordant geographical, agricultural, trade and political references would not be a problem if the Quran, like the New Testament, was laced with historical and geographical detail from which we could locate it in time and place, but it isn’t. Intriguingly, there are only four references to a man called Muhammad, and only two other people are mentioned in the whole Qur’an, compared to 66 people mentioned in just in the New Testament Book of Acts. There are no mentions of pagan shrines or sites too. There are only nine place names mentioned, just two of which can be located from contemporary secular records; Mt Sinai and Yathrib, now called Medina. Five others appear for the very first time in the Qur’an, including Mecca.

The Nabataeans were polytheists, worshipping Du-shara (high god and associated with Zeus), Baal (high god of the Canaanites), Hubal (high god of the Arabs, a derivative of Baal and possibly the title of Allah), Allat (associated with Athena and daughter of Allah), Manāt (wife of Hubal), Al-Uzza (daughter of Allah and associated with Aphrodite), Baalshamin (associated with Zeus), Qos (associated with Apollo), Manotu (believed to be Manāt, the third of Allah’s daughters), Isis (an Egyptian goddess), Tyche (associated with the zodiac), and several other gods.

As you can see there is a very close association between the gods of Petra, the gods mentioned in the Qur’an. The Qur’an specifically mentions several of these gods besides Allah. Al-Uzza, Allat and Manat (all daughters gods) are mentioned in the famous Satanic Verses (Q53:19-21), an incident where Muhammad endorses worship of these gods, only to say later that Satan tricked him with this particular revelation. This raises serious questions about both Muhammad and his beliefs, questions for another of my seminars called Islam’s Prophet.

In addition, all historians acknowledge that Muhammad’s tribe, the Quraysh were worshippers of Hubal, the high god of their Ka’ba. Indeed Muhammad’s tribe, the Quraysh controlled the worship of this god, and the Ka’ba itself. Actually, Muhammad’s grandfather was involved in a significant incident in which he appealed to Hubal for help in not sacrificing his son Abdullah, Muhammad’s father. The name Abdullah is derived from the word Allah, a contraction of the words al-illah which only means the god. It is not a name, but a title (similar in fashion to Christians calling their deity God, when his name is Yahweh). Other Arabian gods were also given this honorific title. So, Hubal was the name of the god of the Quraysh tribe and Allah was its respectful title as their high god above others.

To pull these thoughts together, let me quote the words of the late Princeton Professor Patricia Crone; “If we assume that bayt and Ka’ba alike originally referred to the Meccan stone rather than the building around it, then the lord of the Meccan house was a pagan Allah worshipped in conjunction with a female consort such as al-’Uzza and/or other “daughters of God.” This would give us a genuinely pagan deity for Quraysh and at the same time explain their devotion to goddesses. (P. Crone, Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, pp. 192-193). She goes on to say that no Arabian Ka’ba housed two male gods. If the Ka’ba represented Allah, it also represented the same god by a different name, Hubal. Tellingly, in all of the Qur’an there is no condemnation of Hubal to be found anywhere.

In conclusion, if Islam was such a clean break with its polytheistic past and a move to the one true universal creator of the universe, then why was it a local high god from the Nabataean pantheon, with all the elaborate worship rituals of polytheistic Nabataea that went with it? Why do the lines of evidence shown above point a fat finger toward Petra, lower Palestine and Nabataea? Why did early Muslim worshippers consider it logical and appropriate to build houses of worship that faced Petra? Why does the Qur’an fabricate the story of the change of prayer in Muhammad’s lifetime?

These questions only make sense if we assume no clean break with the past, but the maturity and expansion of a form of religion long familiar and known to outsiders. A religion and culture which, with the collapse of both the Byzantine and Persian empires concurrently, decided to go global, challenging both Judaism and Christianity for top-dog status in their shared region of Palestine and Syria. Perhaps, knowing this awkward origin, was incentive enough for later Islamic converts and scholars to rewrite the Qur’an and Islam into their own mould, a global mould. After all, a global empire must have a global prophet, a global book and a global mandate, not a minor regional wannabe deity. A lot of editing was needed to achieve this new imperial status.