Islamic Studies (Islamabad) 16:4 (1977

)

THE RELIGIOUS SITUATION OF MECCA FROM THE
EVE OF ISLAM UP TO THE HIJRA1

The religious conditions in Arabia before Islam have interested many
Western writers. For those of them who are concerned with the rise of
Islam, these conditions have the significance of "explaining" this phenomenon and their immediate object of interest is what has been called "the
sources of the Qur'Bn". But there is a wide divergence of views among
Western scholars on whether there were Jews and/or Christians in and immediately around Mecca and if so, to what extent and with what religious
consequences. First of all, it has to be noted that these scholars are too
pre-occupied by the problem; of the relationshipof the Qur'Bn to the JudeoChristian religious documents and traditions and they hardly ever discuss
the presence of Judeo-Christian ideas among the Meccan Arab population
before Islam. The field is sharply divided between two camps, one contending, as Richard Bel1,z that the main historical sources of the Qur'Bn's
teaching was Christianity, the other, represented, for example, by C.C.
Torrey,f insisting that it was Judaism that was the chief historical antecedent of the Qur'fin. Neither of them discusses, let alone discusses
seriously, the view expressed strongly by the Qur'Bn itself that the Qur'Bn,
with all its 'listorical content, is revealed directly by God-the view which we
have expounded recently in the article referred to herein.' Montgomery
Watts holds that Judeo-Christian ideas were generally present in the milieu
of Arabia and in particular Mecca, without adducing spec& evidence
for his view. In the following, we shall make an attempt to clarify this
situation and to briefly outline the career of Islam in Mecca in relationship
to the Meccans as well as to the Judeo-Christian tradition.
In this connection, views also differ sharply as to whether there was
any large Jewish or Christian population in Mecca: Bell and Watt hold
that there was no sizable population of the "People of the Book" there
while the less sober view of Torrey posits a "large colony" of Jews, without

© Dr Muhammad Hamidullah Library, IIU, Islamabad.

http://iri.iiu.edu.pk/

in Madina and Khaibar. but died in search of a new religion. but there were others-individuals or groups-who were in search of a new religion of the monotheistic type. therefore. for example. The main difficulty in Torrey's thesis is that whereas we know very well what happened to largescale Jewish communities that existed. Zayd ibn 'Amr ibn Nufayl "neither became a Jew nor a Christian". the thesis that there were hardly any Jews and/or Christians in Mecca also raises serious problems in view of the Qur'fin's evidence and. as Ibn Ishfiq puts it. there is no word whatever forthcoming either in the Qur'gn or Muslim historical literature as to the fate of the supposedly large Jewish Community of Mecca. But there is simply nothing on the subject. particularly the mercantile aristocracy. It is to be noted hrst of all that Meccan Arabs were not aII identical with regard to their religious views and outlook when Islam appearedamidst them. 67-68 we read.e. I think that attempts by Jews and/ or Christians at the proselytization of the Arabs-whether on a large or a small scale-had been going on for some time. The words "We and our forefathers before us have been promised this" make it clear. A satisfactory solution to this problem will also materially contribute to providing us with a clearer picture of the career of Islam in Mecca both vis a vis the "People of the Book" and the Meccan pagans and significantly alter some crucial views commonly held by Western scholars on what developments are Madinan and what Meccan. Indeed. 83 in almost identical terms. if there existed one. Most of them. however. as did the majority of Jewish Communities in Madina and Khaibar did is something we should reasonably expect to hear about. That many Meccan Arabs had been invited by the "People of the ~ ~ o to k their " religions is obvious enough from the Qur'gn: in Siira 27.' " The same idea recurs in 23. some view has to be evolved which will do justice to both sides. "And the disbelievers (i. pagan Meccans) say 'Shall we be resurrected after we and our forefathershave turned to dust? We and our forefathers before us have been promised this-but this is nothing but legends of the communities of the past. 'Uthmfin ibn Maz'iin had also gone through a religious agitation and became one of the early converts to Islam. were faithful to their ancestral religion of idol worship. Ibn Ishfiq names three who became Christian. Whether this Jewish Community eventually accepted Islam or whether they intransigently opposed it. including certain key-terms used in the Qur'gn.citing any particular piece of hard evidence. the repeated charge of the Arab pagans against the Qurln . while one.

.6 the words "and (whereby i. in the nature of the case. which you write down in parchments showing them (to people) but hiding much (thereof). So also can the beginning part of the verse "And they had not estimated God with correct estimation when they said. . But.e. 68 (quoted above) states. God has not sent down anything on a human" have been addressed only to the pagan Arabs who did not believe in any revelation. while NoldekeSchwally think that the rest of the verse is Meccan and addressed to Meccan Arabs. however."? These could have been addressed to no one but Jews.. say (to them): 'Who sent down the Book which Moses brought as a light and a guidance for mankind. in the Qur'Bn 6. The question.e. . 92 we have a strong suggestion that some Arabs at least had received this teaching fairly systematically: "And they did not estimate God with correct estimation when they said: 'God has not sent down anything on a human'. cannot have been addressed either to Jews or to Muslims. just as it is equally absurd to regard it as Madinan.is: To whom are the middle words addressed viz. The verse is Meccan and is jointly addressed to pagan Meccans and Jews. But which Jews? Both Noldeke-Schwally and Bell believe that these words refer to Madinan Jews and that this part of the verse is Madinan although Bell believes. who sent down the Book that Moses brought. that the entire verse is Madinan. But the texture of the entire verse is so closely knit (a fact which has also been pointed out by Rudi Paret) that it seems absurd to regard it as a composite of Meccan and Madinan parts. "Say. once again. we cannot assume a large scale Jewish pre- .THE RELIGIOUS SITUATION OF MECCA 291 that it offered "the legends of the past (i. and (whereby) you have been taught what neither you nor your forefathers knew? say! 'God (had sent down that book)' and then leave them free-lancing in their discussions". Further. the Book of Moses) you have been taught what neither you nor your forefathers knew" must have been addressed to the pagan Arabs and. Yet.which you (or according to another reading. . without a shred of evidence. which Jews? The same Jews from whom pagan Meccans and their forefathers had learnt of the Mosaic teaching as this verse states and from whom Meccans and their forefathers had learnt of the promises of Resurrection as 27. 'they') write down into parchments. As we have pointed out in our article referred to above. The language of the Qur'Bn implies a fairly frequent and intimate intercourse between Jews and Meccans rather than casual encounters. earlier) communities" is a clear proof that many Arabs had known of the teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition. as we have indicated earlier.

What is conceivable is that there were a few Jews in Mecca who were visited frequently by other Jews. the learned ones of the Jews who were recipients of the Mosaic Revelation) believe in it (i. he used to take the place of the Prophet. but whosoever of the Sectarians should disbelieve in it. Also. In 11." or "people who had [already] been given the Book". "Was it not a sign for them (i. trading Meccans. and. The former of these two was also well versed in Persian legends and when the Prophet sat among members of the Quraish preaching to them. are referred to in Madina as well. After the Meccans.e. reciting the Qur'an to them and admonishing them with the fates of past nations. rejoice in what has been sent to you (0Muhammad!). but among the Sectarians there are those who . "people whom We had given the Book (i. incessant attempts to contain the Prophet's Message from spreading failed. when the latter left. Whatever the case. It is also certain that there were some Jews and possibly Christians who had entertained Messianic expectations and.e. "Those to whom we had (already) given the Book. the pagans) that the learned men of the children of Israel recognize him?" (26. 17. when passing by Madina or visiting relatives there. when the Prophet appeared. the Qur'gn said. Again. after telling the 'stories of ancient Iran. Although these people. they figure much more frequently and prominently in Mecca. or "people of admonition". 7 This evidence proves beyond doubt that several Meccans were eager to learn the lores of various neighbouring peoples and that they were particularly well acquainted with the Biblical lore which they learnt from the Jews.e. or "People of Knowledge". "And what of him who is on a clear proof from his Lord and then a Witness (i. When Meccans demanded proof from the Prophet that he was. 36 we read. and before it there is already the Book of Moses as a model and a mercy? Those people (i. frequently held discussions with Jews and possibly Christians. 197). encouraged him in his mission and believed in his message. the Qur'gn). Later on in Mecca the Qur'an draws a sharp distinction between these people and the Jews in general who did not believe in the Qur'fin and were denounced as "Sectarians (Ahzab). possibly relatives. we have. earlier Revelations).292 FAZLUR RAHMAN sence in Mecca. the Angel Gabriel) from God comes to him. this kind of intercourse was fairly large-scale .e. used to claim that he could compete with the Prophet in telling stories of the ancient peoples. their destiny is Fire". indeed. in 13.and systematic. they sent al-Nadr ibn al-I$irith and 'Uqba ibn Abi Mu'ait to Madina to consult with Jews there as to how to overpower the Prophet in argument. usually called. supported him. from Madina. Allah's Messenger.e.

aside from very rare exceptions. had influenced the Meccan Arabs as well and that they would. clung to their anscestral religion." Again. the generality of the Jews). they said. But while it is abundantly clear that there was wide diffusion of Jewish and Judeo-Christian ideas and beliefs among Meccans. too. "But did they not already reject what Moses had been given before?" In 35. those whom We had (already) given the Book believe in it (i. rather have a new religion than follow the older ones. 47 tells us. systematic and extending over a considerable period so that Meccans were able to say that they and their forefathers had been told about the Last Day and the Qur'in could tell Meccans that they had been taught by the Book of Moses what neither they nor their forefathers had known. While the majority of them.47-48. In 28. it is equally clear from the Qur'an itself that. they are those who believein it". "But when the Truth from Us came to them. "And this is a blessed Book we have sent down. the Qur'an says. " We have made three main points so far: (1) that before Islam there had been contacts between Arabs and the People of the Book. it increased them only in aversion. particularly Jews. Jews and Christians). but when it did come to them. . . 6. nevertheless. contacts which were fairly largescale. 157 has. after stating that the Qur'an had been sent because. (The Qur'Bn has been sent) for otherwise you would say the Book was sent down only on the two communities before us and we were unaware of its teaching or. And 29. those who were going through a more or less severe religious ferment. There is every possibility that the messianism of the People of the Book. they would be better guided than any of the (earlier) communities. (2) that.e. . should Meccans be visited by misfortunes for their deeds. therefore. mentioned above. they would try to excuse themselves that no Divine Message had been sent to them to follow. we should have been better guided than them (i-e.e.THE RELIGIOUS SITUATION OF MECCA 293 disbelieve in part of it". particularly their commercial aristocracy. were desirous of a new and special religion which would bestow a distinction upon them vis a vis the earlier communities and make them "excel these in guidance". "And even thus have We sent down to you the Book. 2 the Qur'an taunts the Meccans. you would say if a book had been sent down upon us. the Qur'an). "And they swore with all their might that if a Warner should come to them. Meccans were averse to accepting Judaism or Christianity. so follow it and fear God perchance you may receive mercy. 'Why has he (the Prophet) not been given the like of what Moses had been given"? adding. and among these ones (i.

This authentically Meccan situation points to an ongoing controversy and debate in which the two main parties were the Meccans and the Prophet but wherein the Jews also formed an important though subsidiary third factor. But if one closely follows the developments in Mecca. Indeed. In our commentary given earlier on Silra 92 we drew attention to the fact that the verse was jointly addressed to the Meccan Arabs and Jews and the latter were accused of writing down the Book of Moses in such a way that they suppressed part of it from the people. very tempting to hold this view because in Madinaboth phenomena-that of Jewish animosity and of the Mund$qiin are highly prominent. and that in the later Meccan period the Qur'an sharply distinguishes between these Jews and the Jews at large who disbelieved in the Qur'Bn and whom the Qur'Bn calls "sectarians". carried over into Madina. indeed. in an obviously Meccan verse. This accusation. the Qur'an expresses itself sarcastically about Jewish scribes: "And before it (i. a new Prophet and a new scripture whereby they could excel1 the two older communities. while the Qur'Bn stresses the unity of revealed religion and the indivisibility of the line of prophetic succession from Noah and Abraham . the very fact that in certain verses their meanings are much less emphatic and less sharply defined argues for these verses being Meccan and not Madinan. Thus. by the relevant background evidence. one is inevitably led to the belief that term like JihrSd and rnundfiqi2n had begun to be used in the Meccan situation even though their meanings when applied in Madina become much stronger and more sharply defined. 13. certainly begins in Mecca. of course. those verses must be Madinan and not Meccan. that the Messianism of these learned Jews and Christians had probably influenced certain Meccans who looked forward to the rise of a new religion. supported.e. there appears to prevail a near unanimity among Western scholars that wherever Jews appear as the adversaries of Islam or wherever the term JihZd and its derivatives or the term rnundfiq occur. We must grasp the developing situation in Mecca well in order to pinpoint with sufficient confidence which verses of the Qur'an can be referred to the Meccan period and which cannot. Indeed.294 FAZLUR RAHMAN Meccans in general had rejected the older Semitic religions and many of them hoped for a new religion. and (3) that from the early days of Islam some Jews and/or Christians had supported the Prophet's mission. In 42.48). It is. the Qur'Bn) you (0Muhammad!) were not given to recitinganyscripturenor did you write it down with your right hand-for in thatcasethose who disbelieve in you would have reason to dmbt" (29.

Muslims and Jews. are exposed to grave uncertainties and doubts. therefore. . the Qur'ln. which occurred in Madina. in Mecca. Now. tortured but this occurred in a desultory manner. in view of the weakness of the Muslims.THE RELIGIOUS SITUATION OF MECCA 295 through Moses and Jesus to Mubarnmad and declares that the Meccan pagans are particularly opposed to this whole line of prophetic succession.theological matters and not social matters.which probably includes Chistians as well . that Western scholars should declare 29. . after stating in 42. were never able to put up an all-out. it also underlines its disapproval of divisions and sects among the earlier communities-a phenomenon we have dealt with at some length in our article frequently referred to herein. it is as though their position had remained absolutely static with regard to the powerful Quraish pagans. It is strange. including some honourable and influential persons. we must briefly sketch out the career of Islam in Mecca. Whether or not they had a guilty conscience vis a vis the accusations that the Qur7Bnconstantly laid against them-of idol-worship. in 27. The truth seems to be that the Meccans. could not have advocated a non-polite treatment even of the transgressing Jews. For this. . 46 to be Madinan. while it jittered them on the one hand.differ among themselves: "This Qur'Bn (authoritatively) narrates upon the Children of Israel most matters regarding which they niutually differ"." - The reason given by Niildeke-Schwally and others for this verse being Madinan is that. having split up into sects. this is simply not true. it seemed to blunt their edge and made their opposition desultory and half-hearted on the other (including the immunity of the Prophet himself due to Abii TBlib's protection). It is this Islamic situation in its later Meccan phase that now becomes cmcial for us to c!arify in order to understand and correctly evaluate the relative position of Meccan pagans. fraudulent practices in commerce and exploitation of the poor. although they disapproved of the new Faith. Then. indeed. Muslims were persecuted and. 14 there these earlier communities. the Qur'Bn goes on in the next verse to ask the Prophet to judge among them in religio . concentrated and sustained opposition to the Islamic movement. Indeed. 76 the Qur'Bn is described as a judge upon those points where the Israelites . since the indelible impression on the minds of most scholars is that Muslims were an utterly helpless class of people and that is why they had at first to emigrate to Abyssinia and then to Madina. the fact that Islam gradually appealed to many. it reads: "And dispute not (0 Muslims!) with the People of the Book but with the most polite method except those of them who transgress.

which failed after two or three years. In this situation. 27. Ibn Isbiq also tells us that . the Meccans never seemedeven with the support of Jews-either to be able to silence the Prophet in debates into which they drew him now and then.46 the words "except those (Jews) who transgress" cannot be Meccan. the Prophet preached his message to various tribes in the Hajj season and visited Ti'if and eventually moved to Madina. or to come to a point where the crushing of the new movement would seem imminent. some leaders of the Quraish. if it was ever possible for it to succeed. by certain later Muslim accounts and impressed upon the modem Orientalists' mind. 'Umar became Muslim and Ibn Ishi3q tells us that the Islam of 'Umar and Hamza strengthened the Muslims so much that "they were able to compete with or withstand the Quraish in power ('iizzii Quraishan)"s This led the Quraish. to think of the Prophet and his followers as utterly helpless and totally at the mercy of their opponents who might kill or destroy them at their own sweet will is certainly a half-myth created. including the Madinese.After Abii Bakr and Abii 'Ubaida ibn al-Jan% became Muslims at an early stage and the Prophet launched his movement in the open. also given above and wherein the Qur'in claims to authoritatively settle theological points of disputation among the "Israelites". 76. gathered to think of some effective strategy. when after the death of Khadija and Abii Tilib. The persecution of Muslims seems to have been undertaken in earnest after Hamza became Muslim and that persecution resulted in the first Emigration to Abyssinia. after two unsuccessful attemps to persuade Abii Tilib to dissuade the Prophet from preaching his new message or to lift his protection from him. But while this Emigration was still in progress. it seems to be the case that. the Muslims became stronger and stronger through the slow but steady big conversion gains they made. as though in half panic. no doubt. to institute a boycott of the Banii HBshim. these were not the actions of a helplessly desperate person but those of a man who had gained enough following to be confident that. came to know of Islam. Hence the dictum of Noldeke-Schwally quoted above that in 29. he could get Mecca for Islam sooner or later. should some outside elements support him. But they seem to have harmed their own position rather than by benefiting it by propagandizing against the Prophet at the time of pilgrimage because all Arabs. is happily accepted by Noldeke-Schwally to be Meccan. And as time went on. Despite the severe trials of some members of the new Community at times. particularly of the weaker members of the Muslim society. Indeed. Yet.

with the exception of A. and that they shall not be tried? Indeed. then do not obey them-to Me is your return and I shall let you know what you had been doing. Or. These are fitna which describes a situation where a person is pressured by others-mostly by relatives and friends-to defect from his &tions or retreat from his views and the weapons used can be either propaganda or mental or physical torture. shall clearly separate those who (really) believe from those who are hypocrites (hypocritical)".THE RELIGIOUS SITUATION OF MECCA 297 on his second meeting at the 'Aqaba with the Madinese before the Hijra. but if they should try their best (put you to trial-Jiihadiika) that you associate with God that of which you do not know (i. . the Prophet was accompanied by his uncle 'AbbBs who was not a Muslim at that time but who told the Madinese that Mukmmad and his cause were being entrusted to them for aid and were not being surrendered to them since Mubmmad had enough protection at Meccas. .And We have admonished man to do good to his parents.And who so struggles hard (JcShada). One element infitnu seems to . We tried people before them (i. In the light of this we now come to the discussion of a Qur'iinic passage consisting of the first tenverses of Siira 29 which some Muslim commentators declare to be Madinese while others hold them to be Meccan and which. 'We believe'. think that they will be left alone. so if help comes (to you Muslims) from your Lord. 10 all Western scholars believe to be Madinan because of the occurrence therein of words like Jihad and muniifiq. followed by Hirschfeld. but when he is persecuted in God's cause he comes to equate the trial inflicted upon him by people with God's punishment. after they say. then.. The relevant verses of the passage read as follows : "Do people. if they try to compel you to worship others besides God). indeed. .. these (turncoats) will say. do those who perpetrate evil think that they will outstrip Us? .evil is what they judge. Muslims) and God must know those who are true and He must know who are the false ones. does so only for himself -(for) God is independent of the whole world.e. . Sprenger. This passage contains a cluster of three key-terms which are closely related.. And among men there is he who says "We believe in (one) God".. "We were with you"-indeed does God not know what is in the hearts of men? God.e.

its standard and patent use refers to the persecution of Muslims by Meccan pagans in Mecca itself. As forfitna. regard it as though it was punishment from God. Now. indeed. it at once becomes clear that their meanings are not the same as when they are employed later in Madina. A. Large-scalefitnu undoubtedly occurred either just before the Emigration to Abyssinia or during the last phase of the Prophet's life in Mecca and particularly on the eve of and during the Emigration to Madina. it is exercised on a fairly large scale and creates a situation where some people do not know what to do and sooner or later simply succumb to pressure unless they are very strong indeed. hypocritical ones. The second key-term is Jihiid which means to struggle or try hard for a casue. cannot possibly refer to Madina. standard Madinan terms. This word has been used twiceonce in reference to a person and means to struggle hard to stand up against fitna. The third term is muniiiq or munfifiqiln. for there such subjection of any Muslim to such persecution is unthinkable. if we consider the terms Jihdd and mundfiqiin in this Qur'Bnic passage. fighting. although this term is used in the very early Madinan days to describe the active pressure. 126 although bearing persecution with patience rather than violence was still declared better in this verse. But as we have detailed above. Sprenger locates this passage of the Qur'Bn during the fist persecution. which the generality of Western scholars believe to be Meccan. on the part of Meccans to bring back those new Muslim converts who had left Mecca and joined the Prophet in Madina. powerful enough to be able to retaliate. Indeed. indeed. Muslims were. when subjected to persecution. secondly referring to someone's parents who try hard to convert him back from Islam to paganism. Islam had gained very considerable strength during the last phase of the Prophet's Meccan career. it is unlikely that the Qur'Bn should have used such strong language against defectors and particularly the terms Jihrin and muna'fiqiin.e. although its victims are usually individuals or families. Now. "Whoso struggles hard does so only for himself (or his own good)" and. therefore. Muslims were permitted by the Qur'Bn even to retaliate attacks upon them with physical violence in 16. it would be so easy to be tempted into regarding them as Madinan. since both of these are. i. if one were not to take into account the situation offitna and considered only the terms Jihiid and muniifiqiin. in this fitna-background. including physical violence and.be that.ll But since Muslims at that time were not strong enough to withstand pressure. . We must first note that the verse which speaks of a person or persons who.

without using the term Mundfiqiin says. a strong effort to reconvert him from Islam. In Madina too such people probably existed but they were secondary to that hard-core of "Hypocrites" to whom the term applies in a specific. in times of war. These people had a more or less definite identity and had a kind of secret alliance both with Jews and with Meccan pagans and always. were with the enemies of Islam. a continuity and a transition from the late Meccan t o the early Madinan period and not a clear break as so many of the modem writings on dating the Qur'iin and. As for the term Jihtid in this Muslim context. in the case of the parents of a son who had embraced Islam. The meaning of the term mmlffiqiin here is also much less strong than in Madina for here it simply signifies people who succumb to pressure and whose faith is not strong enough to withstand that pressure. he turns right around". but when a fitna strikes him. this term primarily indicates a group of people. at least passively. the Muslim-Jewish hostility and change in the Qibla which many think changed the very orientation of Islam from Judaism away to Arabia. thus. indeed. the clientele particularly of 'Abd Allah ibn Ubayy. it obviously does not mean JihcSd in its Madinan sense but merely indicates a strong-willed resistence to the pressures ofjitna and to retaliate in case of violence.THE! RELIGIOUS SITUATION OF MECCA 299 This fact in itself should have been enough to deter Naldeke-Schwally and others from declaring the passage to be Madinan. technical sense. But in the Qur'iinic passage under consideration. A ~arallelto the present verse is in 22. There is. it is often equivalent to Qittil or to active war. We have argued in this paper and the one referred to herein that these capital misunderstandings occur primarily because of not seeing the Meccan developments and perspectives properly. on the life of the Prophet project. evem though some have held this view. they are simply fickleminded people whose power of faith is weak. The Jikd of Madina refers to an organized and total effort of the Community-whenever necessary through war-to overcome the hurdles in the way of the spread of Islam. or. Western writers seem on the whole to be obsessed by certain Madinan phenomena. Indeed. "And among men there is he who worships (one) God only as a peripheral matter: so long as good keeps coming to him. . In Madina. he is happy with it. who had deliberately put on the facade of Islam a s a kind of fifth column in order to subvert Islam and uzdermine the Prophet's position from within. 11 which. in Madina. Another such capital misunderstanding we have attempted to clarify in the present article is that terms like Jihtid and muntifiqfin are seen as invariably Madinan.

since the category of p w s is hardly there and only Muslims. for example. these verses must be treated as Meccan. according to Noldeke-Schwally. howevcr. 53-54. Indeed. not four. there are only three categories. there is no reason why 22.THE RELIGIOUS SITUATION OF MECCA 301 In the light of our argument. in Madina. Jews and Hypocrites are left. themselvm. for otherwise. . should not be Meccan. which has established that "hypocrites" as a category arose first in Mecca and not in Madina.