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The Unlettered Prophet (sws) (4)
Khalid Masud
(Tr. by:Nikhat Sattar)

Reasons for Supremacy of the Ishmaelites over the Jews

Abraham’s real legacy comprised of belief in the oneness of God, Hanīfiyyat (hatred of polytheism and attention to oneness), the prayer and arrangements for zakāh, serving the House of God, hajj and teaching of its rites, and providing guidance to pilgrims. He had given his eldest son, Ishmael (sws) to the service of the House of God, and thus the latter was, in fact the heir to this legacy. Subsequently, his children were responsible for implementing the objectives of the construction of the Ka‘bah. Thus, their most desired obligations were to arrange for hajj and ‘umrah, being hosts to the pilgrims, providing facilities to them during their stay in Makkah and sacrificing animals at the altar of the Ka‘bah. There is evidence of the homage paid by the younger son, Isaac (sws) and his children at the Ka‘bah, but they were free of the managing responsibilities. They were, however, honoured by being recipients of several prophets, one after the other. They received divine guidance in the form of holy books of Torah, the Psalms and the Gospels. They had the commandments in the form of the compiled sharī‘ah. It is obvious, therefore, that the children of Isaac (sws) were given the responsibility to communicate the word of God to the rest of mankind.

The two branches of the progeny of Abraham (sws) could have wished, and, in fact were desirous of, having the prayer of Abraham (sws) being in their favour, and the promised prophet being born amidst them. But the Ishmaelites possessed some qualities that Isaac’s progeny did not. God therefore preferred them over the children of Isaac (sws), and chose them to lead the world. The factors that came into play for this selection will be discussed below.


Performance of the Israelites

When the children of Isaac (sws), more commonly known as the Israelites were chosen to serve the cause of faith, they perceived it to be their right, based on their being children of prophets and of elitist families. They were under the misunderstanding that they were the chosen and favourite group of God. They would openly declare themselves as the children of God and say that their birth was different from that of others on earth. Hence they would consider no other nation equal to themselves, nor would they treat them on an equal footing. They possessed divine guidance, but they held on to it as a snake on a treasure, neither spreading its knowledge, nor bringing the original book out in the open. Whatever they wanted done, they would declare it to have come from God and to be a part of the book. They did not preserve the books either, and when they were lost, they tried to restore these through memory, which changed their content entirely. Despite this, they could not get rid of their habit of continuing to distort the word of God. They were thus responsible of being dishonest with the responsibility that had been entrusted to them. Their behavior with the Ishmaelites was so offensive and disparaging that they considered any cruelty or insult to them to be lawful and allowable for themselves. The Qur’ān refers to this in the following words:


There are some among the people of the Book who return a whole treasure entrusted to them. Yet some who do not give back a dīnār until you demand and insist, because they say: “We cannot be blamed for [usurping] the rights of the un-lettered.” (3:75)


The Israelites tried to erase all signs that showed the Ishmaelites in a positive light. They even removed any mention of the legacy of Abraham (sws) from their literature, and assumed the House of God to mean Bayt al-Maqdis. They replaced Makkah’s original name, Bakkah, with the word Bukā’, and connected it with a valley. They renamed Marwah, which was the place of sacrifice for Ishmael (sws), with Mūriyah, claiming that it was in Jerusalem and that Isaac (sws) had been presented there for sacrifice. They also eliminated the basic two pillars of the Abrahamic faith: prayer and zakāh. The Qur’ān says:


But they were succeeded by a generation, who neglected their devotional prayers and follow only earthly pleasures. (19:59)


This is the reason why ancient books are devoid of any mention of prayer. Although zakāh and ‘ushr are mentioned, the recipients are given as soothsayers instead of the poor and needy. The Israelites did not preserve their own language, Hebrew which was the language of the Torah and earlier holy books. As a result, their own people, who came to be called the Jews, remained ignorant of the real content of these books.

The Israelites had put so many constraints in the way of learning the basic tenets of religion that the concept of oneness and of life after death vanished completely. Prophets were taken to be sons of God; holy books were emptied of any mention of the Day of Judgment. If this was mentioned in any form, it was only to assume that they would be successful and achieve their goal. History recorded the Israelites in general and the Jews in particular, as a cruel, conspiratorial, untrustworthy and self serving group. Stories of their cruelty and miserliness are legendary. In spite of this, they were assured that the promised prophet would be from among them. They used to announce this to the Arabs who were awed by them.


Performance of the Ishmaelites

No prophet was born among Abraham’s progeny after Ishmael (sws). He had the divine guidance in non-written form, but he was entrusted with the management of the House of God, with associated worship rites of prayer, zakāh, sacrifice, circumambulation, i‘tikāf, hajj and ‘umrah. The Ishmaelites were large in numbers and had to migrate to other parts of the country where they also had the opportunity to rule, but they never broke off their ties with their religious centre. Whenever any weakness was exhibited by those responsible for management of the centre, or the pilgrims faced persecution, the Ishmaelites stepped in to put a stop to such acts, and turn them around. This is why even after thousands of years had passed, the system of worship was preserved and so was the interest of the Ishmaelites in this system.

As far as the concept of the oneness of God is concerned, there was always a particular group within the Ishmaelites that continued to believe in it and to follow the faith that had been a tradition with all the good people. The Ishmaelites were never arrogant or proud of their qualities. Instead, they were respectful of the Israelites for receiving so many prophets and holy books and called them People of the Book. In their own humility, they considered themselves unlettered and ignorant of religious matters. They did not give much importance to their population, sovereignty of several states and worldly grace, but saw greatness in prophethood and apostleship. They retained a vague idea of the Abrahamic prayer regarding the promised prophet, and, when comparing themselves to the Jews in relation to their love for truth, they would say that if ever they received a divine book, they would meet its obligations fully and become God’s servants by accepting it with their hearts and souls. Referring to this, the Qur’ān says:


The disbelievers swore emphatically that if an admonisher came to them, they would be guided better than the other communities. (35:42)


They used to say: “If we had been reminded of the example of earlier people, we would have been the chosen creatures of God.” (37:167-169)


We see magnanimity of character within the Ishmaelites. They were extremely generous and charitable towards guests, willing to sacrifice and give of their own. Bravery and heroism were qualities they had in abundance. They would fight for meaningful goals with fearlessness, compete with each other in courage and tell stories about their courage to others with pride. Such incidents became topics of poetry and became n common knowledge. The Ishmaelites recognized the rights of others, and respected the obligations of relationships. Their attitude in worldly matters was based on sincerity and free from hypocrisy. They refrained from telling lies, valued truth, honoured promises and were kind and merciful towards the poor. If they believed in something, they would not let any expedience stand in the way. Their language, too, was free of any artificiality, and they took special care to preserve its originality. This is the reason why the Arabic language is still in its pure form, barring a few words that have come in because of cultural inroads from other nations.

The Ishmaelites lived the life of a tribal people. Collectively, each tribe was responsible for the safety and welfare of its people. Any tendency to consider issues of individuals or of supporters as no concern of their own was looked down upon. Turning in any person from one’s own tribe to the enemy was an act of baseness. If an individual of a tribe committed a big crime, the entire tribe contributed to payment of the expiation money. As much effort was put into defending a supporter as their own relatives. If anyone took an outsider into protection, it was necessary for the entire tribe to protect that person exactly the same as they would protect their own families. Such protection was called jiwār.

The superiority of Ishmaelites over the Israelites was also due to the fact that the former had never been enslaved, whereas the latter has become slaves several times. They were slaves in Egypt at the time of the Pharaohs; they were freed but were again enslaved by Nebuchadnezzar for 70 years. They were freed by Cyrus of Persia. The psyche of a nation that has remained independent is different from that of one that has seen years of slavery.


Religious and Moral Conditions of the Ishmaelites

Although the Ishmaelites possessed all the above positive qualities, with the passing of time, various ills related to beliefs and practices crept in and started to diminish their favourable character. However, their excesses did not go beyond a certain level. We need to understand what these collective ills of their society were.


The Concept of Oneness of God

The Qur’ān has clarified it clearly that the Arabs believed in God and in His attributes, although they were polytheists. They knew that He was the Creator and Owner of everything, He bestowed sustenance to every creature, He was in control, He was the source of life and death and He was the Driver and the Force behind the entire universe. The Qur’ān says:


Ask them: “Who gives you food and sustenance from the skies and earth? Or, who is the Lord of the ear and the eye? And who brings forth the living from the dead, the dead from the living. And who directs all affairs?” They will say: “God.” So tell them: “Why do you not fear Him?” (10:31)


Say: “To whom does the earth and whosoever is upon it then belong, if you know?” They will say: “To God.” Say: “Then why do you not bethink yourselves.” Say: “Then who is the Lord of the seven skies? And who is the Lord of the mighty Throne?” They will say: “God.” Say: “Then why do you not obey and fear him?” Say: “Whose is the sovereignty over all things? Who protects, and against whom there is no protection? [Answer] if you have knowledge.” They will say:” “God’s.” Say: “Then why are you so deluded?” (23:84-89)


These verses draw the attention of Arabs to the fact that while they believe in God and his attributes, they do not understand the concomitant demands made on them, and end up negating their beliefs through their practices. They should, therefore, remove this blemish and create harmony between what they believe in and what they do.

The polytheism of the Arabs was relatively simple. It has been observed that nations that spend thousands of years practicing polytheism develop it to an extent that they create a complex mythology around it. In the mythology, the status of gods and goddesses, their relationships with each other, matters related to their wars and peace, love and hate and how they settle their differences is defined. This can be seen from a study of both the Greek and Hindu mythologies. Their stories are so complicated that the mind finds it difficult to extricate itself from its intricacies. According to the concept of the Arabs, God’s kingdom was similar to that of kings on earth. Just as human beings as kings delegate their responsibilities to others who use these powers as they will, God did the same. The Arabs thought that since it was difficult to reach God Himself, it was necessary to keep these “delegatees” happy and satisfied so that they would, in turn, sort out their matters for them. Thus, keeping them happy was perceived to being near to God.

Thinking that God was far from human beings, Arabs also believed that there were separate Gods for the earth and heaven. The heavenly God was ensconced firmly on His throne, and the God on earth took care of things that happened here. Since human beings interacted with representatives of the “earthly God”, it was important to keep them happy and ask them for favours.

The beings that were considered to be partners of God by the Arabs were angels, jinn and some vague, but revered personalities. Angels were taken to be daughters of God. They thought that angels are of a very high status within the kingdom of God and that He favours them and fulfills their wishes readily. They considered the blessings of this world to be favours bestowed on them through angels. They thought that angels would enable them to gain a high status in the life after death and that they would plead their case because they worship them.

The jinn were thought to share the attributes of God and had the same rights. They were the source of knowledge of the occult. Various efforts were made to develop connections with the jinn. Sorcery was practiced based on perceived knowledge received through the jinn. Good and evil was related with them, and offerings and sacrifices were made to them to be free from misfortunes. When travelling and crossing a valley or a pass, they would call out to the jinn associated with that area and request for safe transit.

The Arabs were also believers in the fortunes of the stars. Some stars were supposed to be blessed, and some were evil. Some were associated with good fortune. Different superstitions came to be attached with the rising and setting of stars, and with their revolution around the planet. The study of stars was also a part of sorcery. People would consult sorcerers and soothsayers in every important matter, and seek their guidance before taking decisions for the future.


Idol Worship

Idol worship began among the Ishmaelites by ‘Amr ibn Luhayy Khuzā‘ī when the Banū Khuzā‘ah was managing the House of God. He had installed the statue of Habal in front of the Ka‘bah, and it gained central importance. More statues started to come in and when those of I%sāf and Nā’ilah were brought, it was thought that this corner would be most appropriate for the altar. When Makkah’s citizens travelled out of the city, they would keep a stone from the House of God with them for blessings. Being away from the Ka‘bah, their attachment with the stone would be enhanced, and they would make them a source of prayer for help and success. In this manner, idol worship spread to other parts of Arabia.

Idol sculpture was never adopted as a craft among the Arabs. The stones mentioned above were not sculpted. As narrated by one of the companions of the Prophet (sws), Abū Rajā’ al-Attārdī (rta), they would take any stone and start to worship it. If they found something better, they would throw away the previous one and worship the second. From this statement it appears that polytheism was not fully established in Arabia, and if a few people had made efforts to eliminate it, there was possibility of overcoming any minor resistance that may have been offered and gathering the Arabs under the natural faith once again.

The other main idols were ‘Uzzā, Lāt and Manāt. ‘Uzzā was installed at Nakhlah and was accessible while coming from Tā’if to Makkah. Banū Hashims’ supporting tribe, Banū Shaybān was in charge of this idol. The idol for the tribe of Thaqīf, Lāt was in Tā’if. Manāt was placed in a worship house at the top of a hill in a district called Qadīd on the way between Yathrab and Makkah. These three statues were assumed to be those of angels. The polytheists declared that they were goddesses of the highest stature, and that they were fully convinced that their prayers to them would be answered. When idol worship expanded to other tribes too, the trustees of the House of God brought the statues that they worshipped inside, until their total number reached 360. The keepers started seeing them as a source of their strength, and slowly the belief that the presence of these statues was essential to retain the political superiority of Makkah gained ground. If the statues were displaced, this would be seen as the political demise of the Arabs.

The Arabs did not believe that these idols were the creators of the earth or heavens, or that they had made the sun and the moon. They believed that they are beings that are beloved of God who listens to them. If they are served, they would bring blessings on earth. If there is a life hereafter, they would speak up for them and have them forgiven. Hence they were presented with offerings to please them, prayers were chanted to have wishes granted and sacrifices were offered in their names.

Observing this interest of the Arabs in statues, some self-serving people created sacred places, abodes and temples, making it known that gods, goddesses and ghosts reside there, and in order to appease them it was necessary to make offerings to them. Priests gave decisions on concocted religious grounds, and superstitious people would believe in them. Animals were also slaughtered at these places.

If anyone raised a voice against such a system, he was quickly silenced by the argument that the system is a legacy that has come from their ancestors, and hence could not be abandoned. Had it been disliked by God, He would have exercised His powers and stopped them from implementing it.


Sanctity and Religious Approval

Nations that follow polytheism also create a system of rules and regulations for practical life so that polytheism becomes strongly entrenched within their lives and they are unable to leave it. This is also what happened with the Arabs. According to the sharī‘ah of Abraham (sws), they were liable to taking out a certain proportion of their wealth from agriculture and livestock. Under the polytheist system, they began to share out a proportion for the idols too. If for some reason, they were unable to take out both, they would transfer the one they had put aside for God towards the idols, but never vice versa. Thus, it was possible to compensate the idols from what had been kept aside for God, but if God’s share was used up, the Idol’s share could not be used as compensation.

The Arabs would readily eat the things that had been declared prohibited from the days of Abraham (sws), but would refrain from eating those they had themselves given this status under polytheism. According to ancient sharī‘ah, it was necessary to slaughter with the name of God to ensure religious sanctity, and any animal slaughtered without this was prohibited. But animals were slaughtered without taking God’s name at the temples, and people would eat the meat with no hesitation. There were several restrictions placed on these offerings. Men could eat them, but women could not. If a sacrificial animal gave birth, men could eat its meat, whereas women could not, but if the baby was stillborn, both sexes could partake of its meat.

Some animals were left free. It was not considered legitimate to ride them or to use them for carrying burdens. These animals could graze anywhere or drink from any water place. They were considered so sacred that people would be frightened lest they be taken to be teasing them. The Qur’ān has mentioned bahīrah, sā’ibah, wasīlah and hām. Historians have differed on the characteristics of the animals, but this is of no significance here. It would be enough to understand the mentality of the polytheists to know that the bahīrah was the she camel that had birthed five babies and the last one had been a male. Sā’ibah’s owner should have made a vow that he would free her once she had grown well enough. Wasīlah was the goat or ewe that gave birth to both females and males simultaneously and its male children were not considered good enough as offerings for the idols. Hām was the camel that had sired 10 generations.


The Rituals of Hajj    

The Arabs had retained all the worship rituals for hajj, but had made some changes according to their whims. As a result, the spirit that was desired was no longer existent. The original form of prayer existed, but in imitation of other polytheists, they had introduced whistling and clapping of hands. It is mandatory to recite the talbiyah during hajj and ‘umrah travel, whose words negate polytheism entirely, but the Arabs changed the wordings to accommodate their idols. After the completion of the rituals, people are supposed to change from their ihrām, but the tribes from Aws, Khazraj and Ghassān would present themselves at the statue of Manāt while still dressed in the ihrām, and reciting the changed form of talbiyah. People from Yathrab would start their journey with the talbiyah for Manāt, and would not go under a roof until they had completed all the rituals. After putting on the ihrām, if they needed to go into any house, they would climb over the wall behind the house.

The greatest ritual of hajj is to go to ‘Arafāt on the day of hajj, but the Quraysh did not think this was essential for them. Other pilgrims would stop at Muzdalifah on their way from Mina to Arafat. They believed that being the keepers of the Ka‘bah, and residents of Makkah, they should not leave Makkah because the latter is more sacred than any other place. They had given this exception to tribes of their choice, such as Thaqīf, Ghatfān, Khuzā‘ah, Aws and Khazraj. The tribes who were considered worthy of this were called hums and were eyed with great respect and envy.

The Quraysh had also placed the restriction on pilgrims that they would throw away their clothes after circumambulation and that they would not be worn again. If they did not wish to throw them away, they could borrow clothes from the people from the tribes of hums, or circumambulate naked. Thus they made nakedness a part of worship for both men and women and caused a situation for them to look at each other in front of the Ka‘bah. However, no records are available for women who danced, sang or otherwise were responsible to keep the pilgrims happy.

Four months of the twelve, Dhū al-Qa‘dah, Dhū al-Hijjah, Muharram and Rajab had been taken to be the sacred months since ancient days. The first three months were reserved for hajj, and Rajab for ‘umrah. All Arab tribes would stop any fighting during these months. There would be complete peace everywhere and pilgrims came to Makkah without any fear. The managers of the Ka‘bah did not maintain the sanctity of the sacred months either. They created a system whereby each month moved from its original place,. Additionally, sometime they made a year thirteen months long, adding the unnamed month before or after Muharram or even next to Rajab. Various opinions exist about the system that was created but it is necessary here to understand its basic principles.

We know that the lunar calendar is eleven days shorter than the solar one, and that is why one month is added to their difference after every three years. For example, if the lunar month of Dhū al-Hijjah is according to the solar calendar of September, after three years, this would fall in August. As the years advance, the lunar month will recede and in thirty three years, the difference between the two systems would be of one year. Because weather changes are according to the solar system, the months of hajj may fall in spring, autumn, summer or winter. The Arabs did not like this situation. They wanted hajj to come at a time when their quarterly trade related travels would not be affected, and they would start for hajj after cutting their harvests. Such was the month of September, which was then associated with Dhū al-Hijjah. After three years, when hajj fell in August, one month would be added to the lunar year so that Dhū al-Hijjah would still come in September. In this way, the year was of twelve months. This prerogative of adding one month was given to the tribe of Banū Malik bin Kanānah. They would add three months in eight years, sometimes after two, and at other times after three years. The announcement of the additional month was made by a reputed man from the tribe. As a result of this innovation, not only did the month of hajj move from its original position, the status of the four sacred months was also affected.

The month of September was very appropriate for holding trade fairs and recreational activities. The real purpose of hajj and ‘umrah was relegated to the background, and the main interests became trade and entertainment. ‘Arafa#t, Muzdalifah and Mina# became places of interest. The Arabs were very fond of war challenges and boasts. They were often engaged in tribal wars. In their boasts, their poets and orators would exaggerate the feats of their respective parties and win over the others. During the days of Hajj, instead of focusing on God, their attention was on storytelling and boasting about their achievements on the battlefield.



Drinking and gambling were favourite pastimes among the Arabs. But the purpose was not always winning for personal gain or debauchery, but it had sympathy and provision of support for the poor and needy at times. During winter, sometimes there would be famine and the poor would find it difficult to meet their food requirements. Some of the more adventurous and generous leaders would hold gatherings for men to drink, and in a state of drunkenness, get hold of someone’s camel and slaughter it. They would then gamble atop the collected meat, distribute the winnings and the meat among the poor. The owner of the camel would be given the payment that he asked for. Such generous people were honoured greatly in society and were written about in poetry.

Interest-based trade was always common among the Jews of Arabia, and they played a hateful role in this, but it had also extended to most of Arabia. There were some people who fixed a time period by which the borrower would have to return the money. When this period ended, they would ask the borrower to pay an additional amount in the form of interest.

In some groups of the society, certain customs that were unjust and cruel to women had become a norm. For example, if a man died, his wife/wives would be transferred to his heir along with his property. His sons would leave their respective biological mothers, and take on his other wives as theirs. If a man said to his wife that she is as unlawful to him as his own mother, or compared any of her physical features with those of any females he was not allowed to marry, it would be considered the same as divorce, and there would be no possibility of any reconciliation. Such a form of divorce was called zihār.   

There was no limit on the number of wives. Tribal leaders wed several times. Temporary marriages were also common. Women desirous of such marriages would raise flags at their houses so that candidates might approach them.

Marriage could be solemnized simultaneously with sisters, aunts and nieces. Adopted sons were considered real sons and their wives were treated as daughters-in-law. Adoptive fathers would never consider marrying them.

Some Arabs considered daughters to be hateful beings. When hearing the news of the birth of his daughter, a new father would hide his face from others. The reason was that in the tribal form of life, sons were assets by taking part in all the battles and adding to the strength of the tribe, whereas daughters were merely a burden to these efforts. They were useless in competitions of boasting, and the parents had to bear additional burdens of marrying them off.

Infanticide was carried out for the following reasons:

1. The priests at the temples would frighten superstitious people that they are the target of some ghosts or the jinn who would get off their backs only if they sacrificed one of their children. They would then be safe.

2. During days of famine, people would go hungry and some would try to reduce the number of mouths to feed by killing their children.

3. It is commonly perceived that Arabs buried their daughters alive. This is not true generally of most of them. Only a few of the so called “honour” driven and hard-hearted fathers of the Banū Tamīm tribe did so that they did not have to give their daughters to others in wedlock. The entire Banū Tamīm tribe did not practice this; otherwise such a large tribe could not have sustained it on the basis of men alone. The bad acts of a few are generalized as the actions of all. Such acts of misguided honour are the result of a few mentally ill people and this is also what happened in Arabia.

It was possible to remove these weaknesses of the Ishmaelites through knowledge based arguments because Arabs were simple and clear headed by nature. When they understood something, they showed their generosity by accepting it fully. The positive aspects of their character distinguished them from the Israelites. Therefore, God answered the part of Abraham’s (sws) prayer in which he had asked for a prophet and the establishment of a Muslim nation, in favour of the Ishmaelites. The stage when the last Prophet would come and the world would be graced by the divine and final guidance had been reached. 



(Translated from Hayāt-i Rasūl-i Ummī by Nikhat Sattar)


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