There is no historical record written by the Arabs of their own race prior to the revelation of the Reading. The Reading, however, says that the Messenger was sent to a race whose forefathers were ignorant of God’s system. The people around the Last Prophet were gentiles (i.e those who had no prior knowledge of God’s scripture) – and at a total loss as far as God’s guidance was concerned (62:2).
The modern-day Arabs acknowledge that they belonged to a jahiliah1 race before the Reading was revealed to the Last Prophet. This is a subtle way of saying they were pagans. In 53:19-22 God questions the Arabs about the three idols Al-Manat, Al-Uzza and Al-Lat, which may have been connected to stone idols. Non-Arab historical sources indicate that the Arabs were commonly known to be polytheists many centuries before Muhammad went to them to deliver the message of the Reading.
Of their many deities, the principal sacred object in Arabian religion was the stone, either a rock outcropping or a large boulder, often a rectangular or irregular black basaltic stone without representative sculptural detail. Such stones were thought to be the residences of a god. The nomadic tribes refer to these deities as Hagar or ‘stone’. Often there would be a well or cistern with water for ablutions and a ‘sacred’ tree on which offerings to the gods or trophies of war would be hung.
In the Arabian temples the image of the deity sometimes stood in the open air and sometimes it was sheltered in a qubbah, or vaulted niche. Such a niche might be portable. Such a portable shelter is represented graphically on a Palmyrene relief. Not to be confused with the qubbah is the word ka’aba. The word ka’aba (which actually means ankles) was warped to come to mean a cube-shaped walled structure. Such an awkward-looking empty square house was constructed possibly in the shape of tents, and served as a shelter for the black Arabic sacred stones.
The principal public celebration of the nomadic tribes was an annual pilgrimage in which tribes who shared a common bond through worship of a particular deity would reunite at a particular sanctuary or station. The pattern of ceremonial procession around stone idols was common and is a pattern we see today continued in the Arab custom of the pilgrimage to Mecca. However, present scholarly knowledge of ancient Arabia remains fragmentary at best and there are many substantial gaps in the picture that has come down to us.
Unlike certain other Scriptures, the Reading does not give the details of the personal life of the person who delivered the message. It emphasises the significance of the message rather than that of the messenger. But the Arabs have promoted the opposite tendency.
Despite their claims to the contrary and the sheer tonnage of ‘learned’ books (supposedly about the life of the prophet) that the Arab religion now rests upon, in reality the religionists do not have a reliable biography of the ancestry and early life of the Messenger except what they themselves cobbled together from the conjectures of story-tellers and fragments of tribal myth. The information to hand2 was not compiled systematically but was manufactured years after the fact to insinuate that this man was a charlatan who behaved in an illogical and strange manner which inspired fanaticism in his followers and a fiercely intolerant way of life towards those who rejected the Arab religion.
By the Arab religionists’ own admission, this ‘information’ was transmitted orally for more than a century before being committed to writing. No one denies that not a single one of the known and revered biographers had any personal acquaintance with the Last Prophet whatsoever. Each of the fragments claims a pedigree of authenticity by dint of its alleged train of transmission. A typical formula goes something like: “According to so-and-so, who heard it from so-and-so who is the nephew or uncle of so-and–so, who overheard so-and-so being told by so-and-so that the messenger of Allah said such-and-such-and-such.” This smoke-and-mirrors trick is pulled off by means of this kind of ‘chain of transmission’. The ‘chains of transmission’ work wonders on the Arab mind given their obsession with their place and relatives within the tribal structure.
Despite all the uncertainty, it is a known fact that whatever the compilers claim to have heard (of what the Prophet is supposed to have said or done in his personal capacity) is always received from individuals who themselves honestly claimed to have received it from earlier sources. Beginning around two hundred years after the death of the Prophet, demented compilers began going from town to town asking people about the Prophet’s personal behaviour. They would have been served better by applying themselves to the message he delivered. Since the collections of the Hadiths are spurious at best and pernicious at worst, we must admit that the dates and details of the Prophet’s early youth and personal beliefs remain unknown.
The religionists have no details about the Prophet’s father. Even the date of Muhammad’s first revelation is debatable. Stories concerning important stages in his life are varied and contradictory, including the spreading of the revelation and even the circumstances of his death. Many of the events recorded are pure hearsay in which even the relater himself admits the frailty of the case, a frailty which the scholars will acknowledge using the formula: ‘Only God knows best whether this is false or true’.
What was finally recorded in writing from the mountain of material obtained from hearsay was decided by four major priests who led what are today the Sunni schools of thought. The Shiite had their own stories to tell. The relevant parts of each of their selections were in turn accepted or rejected by other schools, as they thought fit. Each priest sought to improve on his forerunners and supersede them as a standard authority.
1 Jahiliah: ignorance or fools
2 The information about the supposed practices of the prophet is called Hadith, and highly spurious biographies have been created based on the same.