Towards a Reappraisal of Colonialism: The Life Of Sir Alan Burns

In the modern Western, especially English-speaking, world in which “critical theory” (lower case!), i.e., “any philosophical approach that seeks emancipation for human beings and actively works to change society in accordance with human needs” has largely replaced empirical research in the Humanities; knowledge has been for the most part reduced to subjective opinion. Descriptive analysis has been supplanted by prescriptive dogma.

From this cesspool of learned ignorance, inter alia influenced by notions of “knowledge and power” (le savoir-pouvoir), espoused by the French intellectual chameleon Michel Foucault, modern “critical theories” (on race, gender, etc.) have become dominant. In the current caliginous academic world, driven on by publish-or-perish, hermetic peer review and the ability to churn out innumerable “scholarly” journals, this has becoming something of a thriving industry on campuses, and increasingly in everyday life. One of the hallmark publications of this was Edward Said’s famous work Orientalism (for a concise rebuttal of Said, there is the work by Buruma and Margalit). Based on this and patterned after Foucault’s post-modernism, the discipline of “post-colonialism” or “decolonial theory” emerged. One definition is that it “is a title coined to describe the intellectual work articulating a broad rejection of Western European supremacy by colonial/racial subjects.”

Simply put, this activism disguised as science ascribes all the ills of what is generally known as the “Third World” to the colonial activities of European powers. As this work is largely idea(l) driven, all manner of “evidence” can be herded to prove the previously established thesis. This, as the French public intellectual Michel Onfray has shown in in his recent book L’Art d’être français : Lettres à de jeunes philosophes (“Lettre 6—Sur l’islamo-gauchisme;” Islamo-leftism, another postcolonial discourse which reintroduces pre-revolutionary theocracy), like all such “critical theories,” works on the same scheme: essentializing [i.e. oversimplification], the liberal application of Godwin’s law, verbosity, exaggeration, denial and amalgamation—lumping together antithetical groups of victims and perpetrators, real or imagined. When one looks at the world today, especially the in the former European colonies, one cannot but be heartbroken, in many instances. The question is whether such “colonialism” lies at the root of these countries’ desperate state?

The book under review here, The Last Imperialist. Sir Alan Burns’ Epic Defense of the British Empire is, to present my conclusion first, a well-researched and fact-driven antidote to the popular and populist mythography of modern theorists. The author, Professor Bruce Gilley, perhaps best known in the field of Colonial Studies for his (in)famous article, “The case for colonialism” (Third World Quarterly, 2017), is to be commended for this well-written vindication of the British Empire, what it was and what it wasn’t. This biographical tour-de-force shares the same to-the-point literary gusto as the books written by the Sir Alan Burns, Gilley’s subject. Gilley, like Burns himself, prefers intellectual honesty to going with the languid flow.

It should be note here that this book is not a whitewash of colonialism. It is a realistic portrayal of many aspects of the last six or seven decades of the British Empire, based on the career of one of its major proponents, who held numerous key positions in various parts of it. The book opens with an ironic epilogue—Sir Alan Burns at the end of his career, learning of the death of his old adversary in the Gold Coast (now Ghana), Dr. Joseph B. Danquah, dying in prison as a political prisoner of Kwame Nkrumah’s regime.

Sir Alan Cuthbert Maxwell Burns, of Scottish descent, was born in Basseterre (Saint Kitts) in 1887. His family and early life on the multiracial and multiethnic Island, and his schooling in England. On p. 19 it is noted that Burns considered his limited formal education to be an advantage: “a strong character and sound common sense are far more valuable assets to a colonial official than the most brilliant academic distinctions;” university produced young colonial officials who were “full of zeal and theory” but lacking in what he considered most important “unlimited patience and a real sympathy for the people among whom the young officer will work.”

The book goes on to describe his further career, from his own writings and those of his colleagues and opponents, initially in the Caribbean and later largely in West Africa. We see here a man who took his posts seriously, having a genuine interest in the people and places he served. This can be seen in many of his publications, such as the Nigeria Handbook which first appeared in 1917 and was appreciated especially by the indigenous population (p. 60). Later, from 1924 on, as Colonial Secretary of the Bahamas, Gilley eloquently describes the realities of life, balancing local and international interests (especially rumrunning into the United States of the Prohibition Era), encouraging and when necessary, goading the local parliament to do their duty and take responsibility. Here, he also produced the first accurate map of the Bahamas. When he left in 1929, his empathy and administrative skills were praised by all.

His next posting, until 1934, was as Deputy Chief Secretary to the Government of Nigeria. Throughout the book, we see how Burns adapted to new situations, especially the tide of growing nationalist sentiments after World War I. We see what the British Empire was and wasn’t, e.g., p. 91: “It has been the policy of British colonial administrations to build up a national consciousness which would one day make it possible to give independence to a united country.” The language may seem dated, but not the will to do good. On p. 92, we read: “With all its imperfections, European government in Asia and Africa has given to the native inhabitants of the tropics greater personal liberty and economic opportunity than they have ever enjoyed before.” Among the challenges Burns faced were occasional uprisings, often to do with the challenges caused by modernity; and the protestors or rebels can, historically speaking, hardly be seen as early forms of anti-colonial resistance, as they are often depicted in modern postcolonial historiography. It is clear that the ruled also saw advantage in British rule—had there indeed been popular opposition, it would have been no match for the always short understaffed British, especially during the Great War, when only a bare skeleton administration remained—or perhaps we must suppose that mass Stockholm syndrome is a defining aspect of colonialism?

Throughout the book, the voices of the governed, the alleged victims come to word in a balanced fashion, such as Ahmadu Bello (p. 92) “The was no ill-will after the occupation. We were used to conquerors and these were different; they were polite and obviously out to help us rather than themselves;” Chinua Achebe (p. 93) “Let us give the devil his due: colonialism in Africa disrupted many things, but it did create big political units where there were scattered ones before.”

Among Burn’s activities in this period was his pioneering work History of Nigeria (1st ed. 1929) later deemed “tainted colonial historiography,” and the foundation of the Lagos Public Library in 1932. Here Gilley notes (p. 95): “Along with the drawing of maps, the creation of libraries is another colonial endeavor that has been scorned by later critics as devious and wicked. Having first imposed an alien conception on the outer geography of place, the colonialists next implanted an alien conception on the inner geography of the mind. Such libraries were intended, the critics allege, to create a pro-colonial native elite that would perpetuate European rule and train a literate work force to boost colonial profits. All those elderly lady volunteers affixing labels and dusting stacks are transformed by such works into powerful agents of imperial reach as they assist Africans to sign out copies of Baudelaire. ‘The violence of the library’ and ‘conceptual contamination’ are stock phrases. The effect of colonial libraries was to ‘dismember the dynamism and effectiveness of the oral tradition,’ one alarmed scholar complained. ‘Library colonialism remains one of the most hidden but deadly instruments of neo-colonialism’ he warned. On those quiet shelves ‘the malignant influences of Western civilization are diffused among literate Africans like invisible bubbles of air.’”

The next step is of course the burning of books, such as practiced in Canada as a “purification par la flamme,” led by a self-invented Indian, Suzy Kies. This alleged incarnation of colonial evil, Burns himself noted (p. 97): “We do not try to assimilate the colonial peoples, nor to turn them into imitation Scotsmen—or even Englishmen—but to help them develop a higher civilization of their own, soundly based on their own traditional institutions and culture.”

Thereafter, follow accounts of Burns’ next posting in British Honduras (Belize), 1934-1939, a stagnant backwater of the Empire when he arrived. His major activities here were road building, rediscovering the Mayan past which “offered a potential source of meaning and a unity for a place that had long been dismissed as nothing more than a timber settlement” (p. 107), including the founding of a national museum. Here, again, he worked to reform and make local government more effective and fairer. Upon his departure, again his achievements were hailed by even his most stern critics.

The beginning of the war found him in England, where he helped to broker the “Destroyers-for-bases deal.” From 1942 to 1947, he was back in Nigeria, installing, in 1946, a new, more democratic constitution with an African majority. Here, in 1943, transpired what would be the defining moment in Burns’ career, the ritual “Ju-Ju” murder.

The tides were however turning, Britain after the War had lost its desire for Empire, this murder case demonstrated the British government’s changing attitude. While the ruled, who had no taste for being the victims of such murderous rituals, demanded and expected justice, the rulers were hesitant; cultural relativism was coming of age, as Gilley notes (p. 179f.): “Not for the first time, Western progressives who claimed to speak on behalf of the Third World were contradicted by actual existing Third World people.” This seems to have been a turning point for Burns, who now increasingly went on record as a staunch defender of the Empire (p. 172): “The ‘tyranny’ of European rule has replaced tyrannies less bearable… In the past we have made many mistakes in our colonial administration and we will probably make many more in the future, but against our mistakes we can set a record of achievement which has not been excelled by any nation in the world, and on balance we have nothing to be ashamed of.” The historical reality is that more often than not, the British had been asked (sometimes repeatedly before they agreed) to govern by indigenous peoples. As Gilley notes (p. 172) “most colonialism was done by colonials.”

From 1947 until his retirement in 1956 Burns served as Permanent Representative of the UK on the United Nations Trusteeship Council. This is arguably the most relevant section of the book for understanding the present situation. The world mood after the Second World War was decidedly “anti-colonial.” The Trusteeship Council, originally mandated to oversee the trust territories, largely former mandates of the League of Nations, or territories taken from nations defeated at the end of World War II, to self-government or independence, but which also sought to decolonize the remaining “empires” (mainly Britain, France, Portugal and Belgium). Gilley notes (p.195): “The more important question is whether the UN adequately prepared colonies for independence. On this issue, scholars have been silent for an obvious reason: the failure of the UN to direct its attention to the post-colonial future was an inexcusable mistake, arguably a crime against humanity that the body continues to celebrate. Under the growing influence of anti-colonial voices, the UN became what one scholar called a “decolonization machine,” more concerned with ending colonialism than with the lives left behind. It was a mistake that Sir Alan Burns would try to avoid.” Here we see an excellent portrayal of how questions of good governance became overshadowed by emotive racial questions. The grandstanding professing the evils of colonialism was led by countries such as the Soviet Union, Yemen, Egypt, India or the Philippines whose democratic credentials were (and are) somewhat wanting (p. 219): “It is notorious that the most severe criticism comes from the representatives of countries where the administration is most corrupt, the treatment of minorities or the working classes is the most discriminatory, and the constitution so unstable that it is shaken by frequent revolutions.”

The mythical American “anti-colonial” attitudes and policies are also discussed, who saw in every self-proclaimed liberator another George Washington. These countries often insisted on a prescribed timetable (as was the case for the Trusteeships, which as with Somalia was an utter failure) for independence. Burns noted that in determining when a colony was ready for independence (p. 209f.): “There are not enough astrologers assigned to the UN for this task.” The question was as Gilley notes here: “What if the people of a colony did not want a timetable? Would it be undemocratic to force one upon them? Who exactly spoke for colonial peoples: coffee-house radicals in London, Soviet stooges at the UN or the elected native representatives of colonial legislatures? Part of the hypocritical incoherency of the UN policy at this time was the definition of what constituted a ‘colony.’ The criterium was the ‘salt-water fallacy,’ only colonialism overseas was considered ‘colonialism,’ expansion over land was seen as “nation-building” (p. 217f.)—ergo the Soviet Union with its Warsaw Pact Satellite states was not seen as colonial. That France and Portugal also saw their overseas empires as parts of their country did not count; the Belgians (Flemish, Germans and Walloons) noted logically that it would only be right if every UN member would be open to scrutiny for all groups ruled by a particular country (“Belgian Thesis” p. 218).

Having left the UN thoroughly fed up, Burns undertook further missions, such as in Fiji and in the Caribbean. He and his wife were back in Basseterre in 1967 when the new union of St. Kitts, Nevis and Anguilla were formed. The latter did not like the arrangement and demanded the reinstatement of British colonial rule (p. 259), forming a republic two years later, once their request had been turned down.

The tide had however turned for good. Decolonization was pursued on an international level, its proponents as Burns noted (p. 222) were “less concerned with the welfare of the indigenous inhabitants than with the spread of ideological propaganda.” History speaks for itself. Rushed independence—due more to the fact that the now defeatist colonial powers themselves jumped ship rather than mythical freedom fighters who often metamorphosed into butchers—had “virtually guaranteed failure in many places at the costs of hundreds of thousands of lives.”

But post-independence failures, famines, wars, rigged elections, refugee crises etc. are faded out while colonial atrocities, real or imagined, are highlighted, (p. 261): “Alan [Burns] noted that more people had been killed by police firing on riotous mobs in independent India than in the entire period of the Raj—this before the worst violence of the 1970s and 1980s.” Burns noted correctly that (p. 262) it does no good to bend over backwards in avoiding any reference to these things. [Recovery] can only be retarded by a refusal to face the facts or to recognize that everything is not lovely in the garden of independence.” As for these states “until they are prepared to admit their own responsibility for much that has gone wrong, they will not be able to correct the mistakes and to achieve the status which all their friends wish them to attain.”

It is clear that neither Sir Alan Burns nor his defense of the British Empire can be deemed racist, patronizing or the like. He was a dedicated civil servant, devoted to both the Empire and the people it ruled. His goal was not a Tausendjähriges Reich or a dictatorship of the proletariat (both as the book notes, idealized by many colonial nationalists) or some other such ill-conceived utopian dream, but rather, though imperfectly achieved, to lead the ruled to self-rule of their own making, within the confines of inescapable modernity. Although many of his colleagues, as he often complained to London, were not up to his standard, others were.

In conclusion, we hope that this book will contribute to a recalibration of the debate on colonialism and the British Empire in particular. Not to nostalgia for what is no more (and probably never was). Merely to an empirical, fact-based understanding. The fate of many former colonies is indeed determined for a large part by how long and how well they were governed. This can be seen especially in the presence (or lack thereof) of true civil society (not imported neo-colonial NGOs), the building block of democracy. South American states continued and some continue to pursue Spanish colonial exploitation, Haiti’s long independence has not been especially beneficial to its population. Countries that were never colonized, such as China have no real democratic institutions. The real question is do human rights apply to all humans, are the values of the Enlightenment really Eurocentric? Are cultures fixed and static categories; that most be preserved regardless of human cost (as has been noted by Marxists scholars such as Vivek Chibber)?

Indeed, one of the problems with postcolonial theory, critical or other, is that it negates the foundations of reason, reverses cause and effect and denies Ockham’s razor. Thus, before we judge too harshly, it should be asked how European colonialism came to be and what was the situation beforehand (Europeans didn’t introduce e.g., slavery or human sacrifice), and what would have been the alternative in a modernizing world that was becoming more interconnected? Did not the British Empire with some degree of success prevent large scale pillage and exploitation (often fending off American economic exploitation)? It is however easier to judge a theorized past than to learn from our past successes and failures based on empirical evidence. Gilley noted in his 2017 article about European colonialism “both objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate in most of the places where it was found” — words to bear in mind, especially now, when the former colonies, the so-called Third World is subject to an orchestrated hostile takeover, by imperious, iron-fisted Chinese debt colonization. Tibet, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the despotic threats made to Taiwan and islands in the South China Sea do much to put the British Empire in a proper historical perspective.


Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr studied Classics and Semitics largely in Vancouver, Tübingen and Leyden. He is currently director of the Inârah Institute, for research on Early Islamic History and the Qur’an in Saarbrücken (Germany).


Featured image: “Britannia Rules the Waves,” by Nicholas Habbe, painted in 1876.

The Five “Gods of Noah” In The Qur’an

We often hear about alleged polytheism in Arabia during pre-islamic times, the so-called ǧāhilīya, which was seemingly filled with mušrik practicing various forms of širk in honour of various deities. Naturally, this Arabic root does not refer to a plurality of deities, but rather to “partnering” or associating others with Allah who is unique (tawḥīd)—it is a polemic reference to the Christian notion of the Trinity, in which Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost also participate equally (šarika) in the Godhead.

The question is to what extent polytheism still persisted in the Greco-Roman Middle East of Late Antiquity, which, as was the case with the Roman Empire in general, seems largely to have been permeated by monotheistic traditions before the seventh century. The Qur’an would seem to support this notion—it is (un)surprisingly vague in this regard. In the alleged Satanic Verses (53,19-20), “Have you thought of al-Lāt and al-‹ Uzza and Manāt, the third, the other?” we find a vague reference to three pan-Semitic goddesses, who were venerated by many peoples in many places at many times. The only other concrete reference is 71, 23: “And they say: Forsake not your gods, nor forsake Wadd, nor Suwa’, nor Yaghuth and Ya’uq and Nasr,” the gods of those condemned to perish in the Deluge (cf. Gen 7,24-8,14).

The mention of these five deities of antediluvian times, and allegedly worshipped by Arab tribes until the arrival of Islam, understandably caused some unpleasant difficulties for later Islamic exegetes, not to mention the modern reader—how can the knowledge or the cult of them have survived that global eradication? According to Ibn al-Kalbī’s Book of Idols (Kitāb al-Aṣnām), a compendium of legends and not an historical source, they are said to have washed up on the beach of Jeddah (the nearest port city from Mecca) after the Flood, where they gradually silted up until the fortune teller Amr ibn Luhai was told their location by his demon Abu Ṯumāna.

Be this as it may, we must remember that the Quranic account is based on (see above) the biblical one, which in turn, probably during the Captivity, was derived from Mesopotamian myths (e.g., the Atraḫasis epic, and the reworking of this narrative in the Twelve Tablet version of the Gilgamesh Epic): in the Mesopotamian version, the myth serves to explain why humans die, and does not function, as in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, as a divine punishment for otherwise unspecified sins. In Mesopotamia (lit. “Land between rivers”), inundations were rather commonplace, in contrast to Israel or more to the point, the arid Hijaz (and we note here in passing, that the Greek flood story around Deucalion also has a Semitic background [cf. Lucian, De dea Syria 13], cf. Iapetós of the “Catalogue of Women,” attributed to Hesiod, probably has something to do with the son of Noah, Japheth, Gen 10,2 ).

In any case, these Quranic deities are unknown in Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian literatures. Their mention here remains Delphic, as has been noted in the past, e.g.: “Why Muhammad lists five deities as Noahite in Sur. 71,22ff. cannot be explained” (Fr. Buhl, Das Leben Muhammeds, reprint Hildesheim 1955, 74). “Admittedly, they must have been rather insignificant local deities at that time and in Mecca only known by name, if Muhammed can put them into the pre-Flood times” (J. Wellhausen, Reste arabischen Heidentums, reprint Berlin 1961, 13).

The first god mentioned in this Quranic verse, Wadd, i.e., “beloved” in the non-sexual sense (wdd – therefore probably more of an epithet than a divine given name) is known from numerous inscriptions as the chief god of the Minaeans, a Yemeni kingdom which especially during the last centuries before Christ dominated trade along the incense route, eventually being subjugated by the Sabaeans after the campaign of Aelius Gallus in 25/24 BC. At first sight, we are dealing with an authentic old-Arabian god, which could indeed have been worshipped in the Hijaz. However, epigraphic finds are by no means limited to Ma‛īn, but is, as is to be expected with such a trading empire, spread further beyond the actual homeland. So, for example, a bilingual Greco-Minaean inscription on a marble altar was found on the Greek island of Delos, dated to after 166 BC, which mentions this deity in both languages:

Minaean (RÉS 3570)

1) Ḥnʾ w-Zydʾl ḏy Ḫḏb Ḥnʾ and Zydʾl, the two of the tribe Ḫḏb,
2) nṣb mḏbḥ Wdm w-ʾlʾlt built this altar to the Wdm and the gods
3) Mʿn b-Dlṯ of Maʿīn on Delos.

Greek (ID 2320)

Ὄδδου [Belonging to] Oaddos/Wadd
θεοῦ the god
Μιναίων of the Minaeans
Ὀάδδῳ [Dedicated to} Oaddos/Wadd.

This find alone makes it clear that the cult of this god, or rather this divine epithet, although certainly originating in Yemen (which is not a synonym with Hijaz, but an entirely different culture), had travelled far beyond, accompanying his worshippers on their mercantile journeys. We thus have a deity that on the one hand was not originally at home in the Hijaz, but could have been brought there sometime by Minaean traders; on the other, however, as with the three goddesses mentioned above, he attracted some following in a geographically vast region.

As for the second deity, Suwāʿ our only sources are contradictory reports from later Islamic traditions, some of which mention him, others which do not (e.g. Wāqidī mentions the destruction of his idol in Mecca, but this is not mentioned in the Prophet’s hagiography by Ibn Isḥāq)—”these stories of the destruction of the idols on behalf of Mohammad become more and more complete as the tradition moves further away from its origin, and the narratives are contradictory” (Wellhausen, op. cit. 19). Apart from such historically worthless information and some possible attestations as a theophoric element in early Islamic onomastics, we know literally nothing at all about this god. Did he even exist? I rather have the impression that there is a polemical intention behind this name, cf. Syriac šū/ōʿā (šwʿ >arab. swʿ) “stone, rock,” i.e., “petrified,” in the sense of a stone idol (Arab. waṯan, a loan-word from Sabaean, where the word has the meaning “boundary stone, stele”), which later was misunderstood not as a generic term for an idol, but rather as the name of a specific idol.

As for the third of the three here, Jaġūṯ, we again find colourful discrepant and paradoxical stories in the Islamic tradition. But as Jaġūṯ in Arabic means “he who helps—the helper” (possibly related to Jeush in Gen 36,14), this term is rather an epithet that could be applied to any (benevolent) god. Even if the Islamic tradition(s) actually contain(s) authentic materials here and there, it would be impossible to determine whether one and the same deity was meant in all cases.

The fourth God supposedly revered by Noah’s contemporaries according to the Qur’an, Jaʿūq remains shrouded in even more mystery than his already mentioned partners. There is no independent evidence for this god, and even his name does not seem to be Arabic. Wellhausen, who noted (op. cit. 23) “we are dealing with a South Arabian name,” thought of the closely related Ethiopian verb jǝʿuq (basic meaning “to observe, to be careful, to preserve; to manifest (reveal)”), although this root seems to be not of Semitic but rather of Cushitic origin, i.e., an African loan word in the Ethiosemitic languages.

Our findings up till now are somewhat meagre, even antediluvian with regard to what we actually know. It is thus of some relief that about the fifth god, Nasr, we actually have some data. In modern Arabic this word means “vulture” (perhaps originally denoting a totem animal). In the Talmudic treatise Avoda sara 11b, in a discourse on idolatry, we find the assertion:

אמר רב חנן בר רב חסדא אמר רב ואמרי לה א”ר חנן בר רבא אמר רב חמשה בתי עבודת כוכבים קבועין הן אלו הן בית בל בבבל בית נבו בכורסי תרעתא שבמפג צריפא שבאשקלון נשרא שבערביא

“Rav Ḥanan bar Rav Ḥisda says that Rav says, and some say that it was Rav Ḥanan bar Rava who says that Rav says: There are five established temples of idol worship, and they are: The temple of Bel in Babylonia; the temple of Nebo in the city of Khursei; the temple of Tirata, which is located in the city of Mapag; Tzerifa, which is located in Ashkelon; and Nashra, which is located in Arabia.”

This passage in turn is reminiscent of one found in the famous Doctrina of the Apostle Addai (Phillips edition, p.23f.):

ܿܡܢܘ ܗܢܐ ܢ ܼܒܘ ܦܬܟܪܐ ܥܒܝܕܐ ܕܣܓܕܝܢ ܐܢܬܘܢ ܠܗ܃ ܘܒܝܠ ܕܡܝܩܪܝܢ ܐܢܬܘܢ ܠܗ܂ ܗܐ ܓܝܪ ܐܝܬ ܒܟܘܢ ܕܣܓܕܝܢ ܠܒܪܬ

ܢܝܟܠ ܐܝܟ ܚܪ̈ܢܝܐ ܫ ̈ܒܒܝܟܘܢ܂ ܘܠ ܼܬܪܥܬ ܼܐ ܐܝܟ ܡ ̈ܒܓܝܐ܂ ܘܠܢܫܪܐ ܐܝܟ ܥܪ̈ܒܝܐ܂ ܘܠܫܡܫܐ ܘܠܣܗܪ ܼܐ ܐܝܟ ܫܪܟܐ ܕܚܪ̈ܢܐ ܼ

ܕܐܟܘܬܟܘܢ܂ܠܐܬܫܬܒܘܢܒܙܠܝ̈ܩܐܕܢܗܝܪ̈ܿܐ܂ܘܒܟܘܟܒܬܐܕܨܡܚܐ܂ܠܝܛܗܘܓܝܪܩܕܡܐܠܗܿܐ܂ܟܘܠܿܡܢܕܣܿܓܕ ܼ

ܠܒܪ̈ܝܬܐ܂ ܐܦܢ ܓܝܪ ܐܝܬ ܒܗܝܢ ܒܒܪ̈ܝܬܐ ܕܐܝܟ ܪܘܪ̈ܒܢ ܡܢ ܚܒܪ̈ܬܗܝܢ܂ ܐܠܐ ܟܢ ̈ܘܬܐ ̈ܐܢܝܢ ܕܚܒܪ̈ܬܗܝܢ ܐܝܟ ܕܐ ܿܡܪܬ ܼ

ܠܟܘܢ܂ܟܐܒܐܗܘܓܝܪܡܪܝܪܐܗܢܐܕܠܝܬܠܗܐܣܝܘܬ ܿܐ܂

“Meanwhile, I saw this city teeming with paganism, which is against God. Who is this Nabû, [but] an idol [made by men] whom you worship, and Bêl whom you worship? Behold, there are among you people those who worship Bath Nikkal such as the people of Harran, your neighbours, and Taratha [as venerated by] the people of Mabug, and Nashara by the Arabs, or as are the Sun and the Moon worshipped by the rest of Harran, as you do too. Do not be deceived by rays of light and by the bright star, for all creatures will be cursed by God.”

Nabû was a well-known Mesopotamian god of the first millennium BC (the son and quasi successor of Marduk, whose name means “the announcer, the called one”—cf. Nebuchadnezzar, Nabī “prophet”); Bêl is the Mesopotamian, and later Aramaic realisation of Baal, whose cult was well-known, i.a. at Palmyra; Bath Nikkal (“the daughter of N.”)—Nikkal is a goddess known in the Western Semitic world and among the Hurrians (derived < Sumerian NIN.GAL “great mistress”); the Sun and Moon, resp. Shamash and Sîn were naturally also worshipped in Mesopotamia as deities. Taratha is apparently another designation of the well-known goddess, Atargatis or the Dea Syria, who was worshipped at Ashkelon (cf. Diodorus Siculus, Library, II.iv.2, where, among other things, it is described how and why she took the form of a fish—cf. the fish symbolism in Christianity: ΙΧΘΥΣ). Of particular significance is the fact that Nashara is also regarded here as a god of the Arabs. This god is particularly well known among the Mandaeans in southern Mesopotamia and in Iran (e.g., the Mandaean Great Book of John, §73), and also attested by Jacob of Serug (451-521), who reports that the Persians were tempted by the devil to create an “eagle” (Nashara) as an idol. A similar account can be found in the Armenian History by Movses Khorenatsi (where the gods are called Naboc’us, Belus, Bathnicalus and Tharatha).

In all of these cases, including Qur’an 71,23 (supra), we are dealing with a formulaic warning against apostasy, that is to say against a falling away from the true faith in the one true (Jewish, Christian, Mandaean or Islamic understanding of) God. In all cases, his (exclusive) worship is contrasted in a list of five heavenly idols which were seemingly self-explanatory at the time. The Talmudic passage would seem to have used the same, or very close to that of the Doctrina Addai, although somethings seem to have been lost in transmission:

Mapag (מפג) is not a deity but, as in Syriac, the place

Mabug (ܡܒܘܓ “the spring” or Hieropolis, because it was the cult centre of the Dea Syria; today Manbij);

Tirata (תרעתא) as already mentioned is Atargatis resp. the Dea Syria and not a place(-name)—a well-known site (see above) of her cult was Askelon. The gods mentioned here are חמשה בתי עבודת כוכבים בתי עבודת כוכבים “the five temples of star worship.” that is, celestial bodies: Nabû= Mercury, Bêl=Jupiter, Nikkal= a moon goddess, Taratha=Venus, and Nashara is the name of a star (see P. De Lagarde, Geoponicon in sermonem syriacum, 5:17 1860 ,Versorum quae supersunt, Leipzig,  ܥܕܡܐ ܠܕܢܚܗ ܕܢܫܪܐ ܕܐܝܬܘܗܝ ܡܢ ܢܐܘܡܝܢܝܐ ܕܟܢܘܢ ܐܚܪܝ “until the rise of the Naschara, which is the beginning of the month of January;” The seven wandering [planets]…

ܕܐܝܬܝܗܘܢ ܫܡܫܐ ܘܣܗܪܐ ܘܟܐܽܘܢ ܘܒܝܠ ܘܢܪܝܓ ܘܒܠܬܝ ܘܵܢܒܘ

…are Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Moon, Venus and Mercury”—C. Kayser, The Book of Truth, or, The Cause of All Causes, Leipzig, 1889, 55:5).

The mention of Arabia, in connexion with Nashara, cannot be taken as confirmatory evidence in support of the assertion made by Islamic tradition that Nashara had been a deity in and around Mecca. Perhaps this was so—but we simply do not know. The Arabs who venerate “a bird” as god can here only be the Arabs of Mesopotamia—the Talmud as well as the Doctrina Addai do not concern themselves with the Hijaz

This area, roughly identical to the so-called Ǧazīrat al-‛Arab, comprises the lowlands of the Chabur, Euphrates and Tigris in northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey and northwestern Iraq. It was also referred to as “Arabia” in ancient times. Here we find e.g., a Ἀραβάρχης (“Arab-archēs—Arab princes”) in Dura-Europos (cf. C. B. Welles et al., The Excavations at Dura-Europos. Final Report V, Part I [New Haven, 1959], 115 No. 20, 5); in Sumatar Harabesi, present-day Turkey, five inscriptions are documented which were found at the old cemetery and bear the Syrian equivalent of this term:- šulṭānā d-ʿarab “Governor of Arab(ia)” (cf. H. J. W. Drijvers & J. F. Healey, The Old Syriac Inscriptions of Edessa and Osrhoene [Leyden, 1999], p. 104f. et passim); in Hatra, a mlk’ dy ʿrb(y) “King of Arabia” is documented (see B. Aggoula, Inventaire des inscriptions hatréenes [Paris, 1991], 92 No. 193, 2; 135f. See also Pliny’s Natural History, V.xxi.86: “Arabia supra dicta habet oppida Edessam, quæ quondam Antiochia dicebatur, Callirhœm, a fonte nominatam, Carrhas, Crassi clade nobile. Iungitur præfectura Mesopotamiæ, ab Assyriis originem trahens, in qua Anthemusia et Nicephorium oppida. … 87] ita fertur [scil. Euphrates] usque Suram locum, in quo conversus ad orientem relinquit Syriæ Palmyrenas solitudines, quæ usque ad Petram urbem et regionem Arabiæ Felicis appellatæ pertinent. This is also the “Arabia” that Paul must have visited (Gal 1:17). It is noteworthy that Fredegar (Chronicon lxvi) locates the Hagarenes even more to the north: “Agareni, qui et Sarraceni, sicut Orosii [Boh. Eorosii] liber testatur, gens circumcisa a latere montis Caucasi, super mare Caspium, terram….” This location can explain the Mandaean and Iranian evidence (see above) of Nashara.

This area, in the north of Mesopotamia, is where historical-critical research locates the crucible of Islam. It is here that the linguistic (the forerunners of Quranic Arabic as well as the heavy Syro-Aramaic impact on the Quranic theological vocabulary) as well as other theological and cultural threads come together, where the Christians in the Sassanid Empire, after the conquest of Heraclius, were suddenly confronted with Christological formulations (Chalcedon) foreign to them, after over two and a half centuries of separation, since the death of Julian Apostata. Here, the only unambiguously identifiable deity of Sura 71,23, scil. Nasr, seems to be certainly at home. Locating his cult to the South, in Arabia deserta, in the empty Hijaz—whose historical and cultural vacantness would only later become the ideal(ised) theological projection surface—has no historical support—and in addition, one would not only have to invent Christianity in the Hijaz, but also Manichaeism!

Sura 71/Sūrat Nūḥ deals with tergiversation, abandoning God/Allah: Noah has warned his contemporaries at God’s behest—”My Lord, I have called my people by night and day (to faith). But my call only caused them to run away more and more: and whenever I called them that Thou mightest forgive them, they put their fingers in their ears, and wrapped themselves in their garments, and persisted (in their state), and became overly arrogant. Then I called on them in public. Then I preached to them in public, and I spoke to them in secret, and I said: ‘Seek forgiveness from your Lord: for He is Oft-Forgiving: He will send down rain for you in abundance; and He will strengthen you with good things and with children, and He will give you gardens, and He will make rivers flow for you…’” (71,4-12). Furthermore, in verses 14-15 Noah asks, “Have you not seen how Allah created seven heavens stacked one on top of the other and set the moon as a light in them?”—i.e., the sky with all its contents, including the sun and moon, bear witness to the existence of God; they themselves are not gods. But Noah finds no hearing; the people remain on their chosen path and say, “do not leave your gods; do not leave Wadd, nor Suwāʿ, nor Jaġūṯ, Jaʿūq and Nasr.”

Contextually speaking, this interpretation of the latter passage fits in the theme of the Sura as a whole, and is quite similar to the admonition found inter alia in in the Doctrina Addai. Taken in this light, we have here a not unfamiliar pious topos, which here the Koranic authors put in Noah’s mouth because it was apparently felt to be somehow appropriate. The theonyms, however, as is also the case in the Talmudic example, where they were conflated with toponyms, have become garbled, yet a further indication that polytheism had long since ceased being an historical reality.

It is in this understanding, however, that this Quranic verse becomes understandable, seeing that, as was just noted, the creation of the heavens, moon, sun etc.—i.e., they are not to be understood as gods, is mentioned just several verses previously. The inexplicable gods mentioned in verse 23 may be just local epithets of the (divinised) celestial bodies, Nsr, the “eagle,” at the same time an astronym, would seem to favour such a proposal. In a Minaean dedicatory inscription (RÉS 2999 from Barāqish in the southern Jawf), the builders self-identify themselves as ʾdm Wdm S2hrn “servants (cf. Arabic ʾādam) of Wdd, the moon.” In this light, it is clear that Wdd could be understood as a(n epithet of) lunar deity. Perhaps then one might be partial to interpreting Suwāʿ as an Arabic realisation of Aramaic shrʾ “moon?” Jaġūṯ, as already been mentioned, is etymologically transparent, “the helper,” a term that might be appropriate for the moon (as attribute) or possibly the sun god?

Be that as it may, however one may choose to etymologise the five “Gods of Noah” in the Qur’an, they are most certainly designations for the (divinised) Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn. As we have sown in the preceding the Classical planets, designated variously, were a common theme in Jewish and Christian polemics against the true faith in the one God. The Qur’anic renditions, as the Talmudic, have been somewhat garbled by later copyists. It is clear that we are dealing here with a topos known in the Syro-Mesopotamian region of Late Antiquity. This is by no means antediluvian and also has nothing to do with the Hijaz, nor originally even with Islam.


Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr studied Classics and Semitics largely in Vancouver, Tübingen and Leyden. He is currently director of the Inârah Institute, for research on Early Islamic History and the Qur’an in Saarbrücken (Germany).


Featured image: The Almaqah Panel, which bears a Sabaean inscription, mentioning the god Wadd. Likely Ma’rib, Yemen, ca. 700 BC.

The Meaning Of The Surah Al-Kawthar In The Qur’an

The shortest Surah of the Qur’an is the 108th. In the Sahih International translation and in transcription it reads:

bi-smi llāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīmii
(In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful)
al-Kawthar. ˈinnā ˈaʿṭaynāka l-kawṯaraa
(Indeed, We have granted you, [O Muhammad]),
fa-ṣalli li-rabbika wa-nḥar
(So pray to your Lord and sacrifice [to Him alone]).
‘innā šāniˈaka huwa l-ˈabtaru
(Indeed, your enemy is the one cut off).

On the basis of this very short textual segment, one of many of such disparate origin that were later compiled into the book we know today as the “Qur’an,” almost all principles and methods of historico-critical textual interpretation can be demonstrated. The common Muslim understanding is that the three verses of Surah 108 refer to an event in Muhammad’s life, who is then regarded as the addressee of this urgent revelation. The “one who hates you” (šāniˈaka) mentioned in verse three is then in this view his adversary, whom God apparently cursed. But let us now treat this short Sura verse by verse in order to show some textual and exegetical problems, pars pro toto, for the holy book of Islam in its entirety and to offer possible explanations: often, the usual modern translations are by and large based on exegetical understandings of classical (secondary) Islamic commentary culture, and as such are mere speculations or exemplifications.

Firstly, for the introductory formula, the Basmala, which in the Qur’an, with the exception, generally speaking, of the first Surah, is not counted as a verse, much could be said. For Muslims it is controversial whether this formula belongs to the revealed text of all Surahs, or whether it is an introductory formula later seen as necessary, a posterior editorial addition. Bismi, literally “in the name,” here as in nomine Dei, is a widespread formula and not at all specifically Islamic. The two ornamental adjectives following the name of God “Allāh” are also of pre-Islamic, of Christian and Jewish (‘Ha-Rachaman’) origin (originally “uterus” = σπλάγχνα). But as far as the name of God Allāh itself is concerned, it should not be translated as “God,” despite the common objection that Muslims, Jews and Christians believe in the one God, the same God. But this is obviously a logical fallacy: etymological relationship does not mean that the common term denotes an identical entity.

In the initial two verses, the addressed person is, according to traditional Islamic exegesis, reminded of the benefits (verse 1) rendered by Allāh and the resultant obligations (verse 2). Almost all non-Muslim explanations follow this received interpretation without criticism. Wherever possible, the underlying exegetical method tries to see in Quranic sentences a reference to the hypostasised founding figure of Islam, i.e., Muhammad, and alleged events in his life in the sense of the “occasions of Revelation” (Asbāb an-nuzūl). In other words, a prophetic hagiography was secondarily read into the Qur’anic text.

Although this understanding of these verses has gradually become generally accepted, it is ultimately based on unfounded assumptions, since the three key terms on which this interpretation is based, namely al-kawṯar (usually “the fullness”), nḥar (usually imperative sing. “sacrifice”) and al-abtar (usually verbatim “the cut-off”) are only found here in the Qur’an (so-called hapax legomena). Their actual meanings are therefore difficult to determine; and different explanations, mostly without much linguistic support, can be found in the commentary literature. Kawṯar in verse 1 is either interpreted as “abundance” or as a proper name. In the first case—according to Muslim tradition, this term also comprehends the entirety of divine benefits, but especially the revelations of which the Qur’an consists—the word would then have an unusual linguistic form, since in Arabic this is the noun kathīr, which, by the way, is well attested in the Qur’an.

However, here the diphthong -au- (compare in English “Beer” vs. “Bear”), remains without any convincing explanation. The second interpretation follows the “proven” pattern of explanation: “If you cannot understand or interpret the word, then it must be a proper name.” In this explanation, which is dealt with extensively, especially in various hadiths, i.e., in later sayings attributed to Mohammed, the word is understood as the name of one of the rivers of paradise or its source, to which believing Muslims are led on the Day of Judgement. The last unusual Arabic word al-abtar, perhaps literally “cut off”, i.e., either from Allāh’s goodness or—from descendants (i.e., emasculated, or literally “dickless”). How “sacrifice” (nḥar) is to be understood in the light of Islamic orthopraxis remains obscure.

Since the orthography of the early Qur’ans did not use the diacritical points that distinguish the consonants—i.e., these are secondary—the next step, even if seen as controversial by some nowadays, can be to attempt to read the respective letters without or with different pointing. The many “linguistic-alchemical” details necessary for this, such as the shifting of reading points and the exchange of vowels (also added later), cannot be dealt with in detail here.

1) Kawṯar would then be an Aramaic borrowing from kuttārā/ܟܘܬܪ (consonantal kwtr, i.e. according to the Arabic Form كوتر testified here) meaning “Duration; steadfastness; persistence.”

2) Naḥara (ن-ح-ر) is read as Syriac ngar/ܢܓܼܪ (in Arabic script ن-ج-ر – both have the same consonant skeleton [rasm]; namely, “be persistent, steadfastness) ں-ح-ر

3) Abtar/ابتر without diacritics is identical to اتبر\atbar: ا-ں-ں-ر), probably from an Aramaic root ܬܒܪ often used in the Qur’an “completely smashed, destroyed, ruined;” or the Arabic form of this root ṯbr/ثبر – also identical when written without dots.

By this comparative linguistic approach, common in philology and especially biblical studies, otherwise unattested lexemes are avoided—the influence of Syro-Aramaic vocabulary, especially in the domain of theological terms found in the Qur’an is well-known. The resulting text reads:

1. We have given you firmness!

2. So pray perseveringly to your Lord!

3. Truly the one who hates you (scil. the devil) will be shattered!

One might consider reading the first word of the third verse as anna and not as إِ َّن inna, i.e., “That truly the one who hates you will be shattered”.

If one works with methods that are more controversial in Quranic scholarship, although well-established in textual criticism, the text becomes, as can be seen in this case, easier to understand. In order to avoid the accusation that we have imposed an interpretation on the text or read it into it, it should be said here that Syro-Aramaic loanwords are omnipresent in the Qur’an; Aramaic was, after all, together with Greek, the cultural language of the Arabs in Late Antiquity (much like Latin during the European Middle Ages). And, the text is now better both grammatically and in terms of content. The central idea of this Surah is then perseverance in prayer together with patient trust in God, a motif that occurs frequently in the Qur’an, mostly and for which most often the Arabic verb ṣabara (nominal ṣabr) “patiently persevere, persevere, persist” is employed. Examples are:

2:45: wa-staʿīnū bi-ṣ-ṣabri wa-ṣ-ṣalāti wa- ˈinnahā la-kabīratun ˈillā ʿalā l-ḫāšiʿīna (And seek help through patience and prayer, and indeed, it is difficult except for the humbly submissive [to Allah]).

2:153: yā-ˈayyuhā llaḏīna ˈāmanū ṣ bi-ṣ-ṣabri wa- ṣ-ṣalāti ˈinna llāha maʿa ṣ-ṣābirīna (O you who have believed, seek help through patience and prayer. Indeed, Allah is with the patient).

3:200: yā-ˈayyuhā llaḏīna ˈāmanū ˈāmanū ṣbirū wa- ṣābirū wa-rābiṭū wa-ttaqū llāha laʿallakum tufliḥūna (O you who have believed, persevere and endure and remain stationed and fear Allah that you may be successful).

And of course, this passage reading will make sense to those familiar with the Bible, e.g., “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.” (I Peter 5, 8-9).

This interpretation of Surah 108 fits much better into the corpus of Quranic texts; or rather can be contextualised in a meaningful way, and is no longer an impenetrable oddity.


Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr studied Classics and Semitics largely in Vancouver, Tübingen and Leyden. He is currently director of the Inârah Institute, for research on Early Islamic History and the Qur’an in Saarbrücken (Germany).


Featured image: Surah Al-Kawthar, Naskh calligraphy, by Mirza Ahmad Neirizi, late Safavid era (18th century).

Islam And The West… Where Are We Heading?

One of the most serious challenges faced by the West at this time is Islam, both within and without. The West’s secular pundits, who often forget that this is essentially a Christian invention and project (harking at least back to Saint Augustine, an African Berber-speaker of Punic), are only now starting to realise what the Church has known for nearly fifteen hundred years. The Church though, unlike many modern populists, always made a distinction between Islam and Muslims, who could and should be converted.

When it comes to Islam, many in our society are either naive or dishonest. So, for example, recently, while waiting for a train connection from Marseilles, I noticed the memorial plaque for the victims of the Islamic attacks outside the station – “to the victims of the terrorist attacks”, as if “terror” was the underlying ideology, not the instrument. Others speak of religiously motivated terror – although this activity seems largely limited to Islam in a structural sense.

In discussing this challenge, the first thing we need to know is that the modern secular definition of “religion” has many shortcomings. Secondly, we need to cast aside the silly notion that Jews, Christians and Muslims are somehow common spiritual descendants of Abraham, a modern ahistorical anachronism. We must not forget that Christianity is a Faith, and only in Christianity do we find theology stricto sensu: Theology as a prudent and rational exploration of the divine is a Christian peculiarity, and thus also a liberation from fanaticism. This is something different from gathering knowledge about one or more gods, their myths, cults and associated rites – theology is something different from having a profound knowledge of religious things.

“Islamic theology,” on the other hand, is an oxymoron, because Allah’s relationship with his human believers is that of a master to his slaves, one of “obedience” or “submission” which is actually what “Islam” means, and is fundamentally different from Christianity. Thus, the fact that Islam is a biblically inspired monotheism should not be overstated, as this says nothing about its nature.

Another big difference that I will briefly touch upon is that education was always the core business of Christianity, both for laypersons and professionals. In the Islamic world, illiteracy is the norm; this is not a coincidence. A Muslim imam’s qualifications are to merely know the first Surah plus one more, usually a “large” chunk of text, such as Surah 112, and to lead the ritual prayers. When we discuss the possibility of Islamic schooling in the West and the ensuing curriculum problems, we forget that traditional Islamic schooling, unlike in Christendom, was always only for boys, and consisted largely of learning to recite the Qur’an by heart. In the Middle East, until quite recently, bright Muslim children were sent to Christian schools, for good reason.

Most readers probably are aware of the traditional account of the origins of Islam, the revelations to Muhammad in Mecca, his later flight to Medina, the invasion of Syro-Palestine. Modern historical-critical research, such as that carried out by Inârah, shows that this is largely later mythological fiction. Islamic tradition only starts about a century and a half after Muhammad was supposed to have died. At best, Islamic tradition can only tell us what Muslims of the eighth and ninth centuries thought happened in the seventh century.

Where then lies the problem with Islam? Islam on the one hand is based on a heterodox variant of Christianity, teaching Psilanthropism (Christ was a mere human) and Adoptionism (Christ did not die on the Cross, but was replaced). On the other, it continues ancient Near Eastern Imperial religious traditions – such as, the Egyptian sun cult of Aton under Amenophis IV, later Akhenaten, in the 14th century BC, or the cult of Aššur in the Assyrian Empire. Some have also called these traditions “monotheisms;” but one might better view them as atheism, since Akhenaten, who saw himself as Aton’s son, was Aton’s sole mediator – the notion of deity is here a totalitarian abstraction. According to this ancient Egyptian “theology” of the state, the king conquered the world for the god, and the help of the god was requested to increase the conquered world, and thus the reign of the god. Since the king is god, the divine and human spheres merge into one another.

We see something similar in the religion of the Assyrian empire, where the “king” was the vicar of the true king, the divine abstraction of Assyrian might, the king-god Aššur. The same is true in Islam, where the Caliph, an Aramaic loan-word meaning vicar, i.e. “Khalīfat Allāh,” is the vicar of God, in the Egyptian and Assyrian sense.

Since there is no mediation in the Trinity in Islam, Allah, like Aššur and Aton, is all powerful. Allah, although etymologically related to Hebrew ʼělohīm and Syriac alāhā (possibly even a borrowing of the latter form), has much more in common with Aššur, in terms of content: a common etymology does not equate to functional equality. Historically, the caliphs, like the Assyrian kings, were totalitarian rulers who exercised an office in the name of their God. Thus, to the caliph alone does God speak; he alone knows his will, and he alone is entitled to interpret God’s word and volition – the earthly ruler becomes God’s sole mediator; to him alone does God reveal himself; he alone mediates God’s will to the people. Hence, it is not surprising that even moderate Muslims wish for a return of a caliph.

Here we must be clear – the accounts of Islam’s origins which we often hear about, Muhammad in Mecca and Medina, to whom the Qur’an was revealed by the intermediary of the Angel Gabriel, is largely a later fiction, as I have noted. What we have with the Umayyads in the seventh century is an Arabic eschatological movement with Judaeo-Christian roots centred in Jerusalem – Safa, Marwa, Bakka, Arafat, etc. are all found here (only later were these relocated to Mecca), And Muhammad is a borrowed Hebrew Messianic epithet – in Christianity, it is for Christ of the Second Coming (in Judaism for the First Coming). When the eschatological expectation did not transpire as expected, the Umayyads lost credibility. They were overthrown by the Abbasids in the eighth century, the real founders of what we call Islam.

The Abbasids, on the basis of this heterodox Judaic Christianity, created an imperial religion to unite their subjects. As with Assyria, the world was divided into believers (those who submit) and the unbelievers (those who are yet to be conquered). In Islam, even today, we see that the world is divided into Dar al-Islam, the Islamic World and Dar al-Harb, the “House of War” – the area which still must be conquered. Later (fifteenth century) a “third domain” (category) appeared in the Ottoman Empire, intermediate between the first two, the Dar al-‘Ahd or Dar al-Suhl (that is “domain of the pact” or “of the alliance”) to describe the relationship of the Ottoman caliphate and sultanate with its Christian vassals, such as the Georgian kingdoms of the Caucasus or the Romanian principalities, which paid tribute, provided troops and protected Muslims in exchange for peace.

For most of the Sunni world, the West falls into this category for two reasons – first, we are useful idiots, i.e., we sell them weapons (to be used to fight the Shiites), and because Islam is patient – we take in Muslim refugees who have a higher fertility rate. Arab newspapers note openly that Jihad can take different forms – the womb can also be a weapon. Since Ayatollah Khomeini, the shiites have invented a theocracy with global ambitions, but that is another topic.

Here we see that Islam is entirely incompatible with western values and notions of equality. In Christianity, we are saved through Christ and have been set free. In Islam, subjection to a totalitarian abstract notion of the divine is the norm. Prayer is not “free speech” before and with God, but ritualised recitation. The Qur’an is a quite different book than the Bible – a hodgepodge of disparate texts that show a different relationship with the divine than do the Old and New Testaments. But then, again, we must note that the Qur’an actually plays no role in Islam, where doctrine is derived from later tradition, the Sunna. Where Christians follow the example of Christ, Muslims follow that of Muhammad – the results are quite different, as is obvious.

One of the things that continues to surprise us is that after every terrorist attack perpetrated by Muslims on behalf of Islam, or with regard to the Islamic state, western apologists note that these are radicals who misunderstood the teachings of Muhammad. This claim is blatantly untrue as any superficial reading of Muhammad’s hagiography (the Sīra) shows. One is reminded of Communist sympathisers during the Cold War – Communism is the best system, but the Soviets got it wrong. Funnily enough, all communist states were, like Islamic ones, similarly unenlightened – here though, we should note that while Communism and Islam are antithetical to what the West stands for, we are discussing ideas and not judging people or their sincere beliefs. In this light, Islam should be viewed as a late offshoot of ancient oriental imperial religions (lacking theologies in the Christian, Western sense), as the many disputes about the place of Islam in Western societies alluded to at the outset, make clear.

To illustrate this point, we quote here paragraph 24 of the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam: “All rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration are subject to Islamic Sharia law.” So, which “rights” then actually remain? And there are many “experts” ready to clarify what the “Sharia” (a broad term) has to say about any life situation. The relationship of the fundamental rights entrenched in liberal-democracies with Islam is very problematic. Muslims understand this problem very well, as do the refugee offices of Western countries, where critical voices from the Dār al-Islām seek their salvation – that some leftists, who themselves implicitly or explicitly reject the universality of such fundamental rights because allegedly “Western” or “imperialist,” is not surprising. Here, we should briefly note that the mission to Muslims, especially during the “Golden Age of the Islamic Problem,” beginning around 650 and coming to an end around 1570, was always interconnected with the scientific study of Islam.

Indeed, we can trace the rise of what became Islam largely through Christian churchmen of Late Antiquity. They noted clearly and correctly that this was a “heresy”, i.e., a heterodox form of Christianity rather than a separate religion. While the Middle Eastern clerics were primarily concerned with survival – in Europe, for medieval people, this problem affected all levels of life. Theologically, it was necessary to confront this problem by shedding light on the ignorance about the nature of Islam. But this could only be done by becoming aware of the facts; these in turn required linguistic and literary knowledge. Petrus Venerabilis (Peter the Venerable) was one of the most important people of this time who helped to disentangle the image of Islam. Peter had the Koran translated and then wrote an account of Islamic doctrine himself, the Summa totius haeresis saracenorum, as well as a refutation in the Liber contra sectam sive haeresim saracenorum.

Together with the translations of the Qur’an, these were the first scholarly works on Islam. The Summa in particular was free of the gross errors that had manifested themselves in the centuries before. This new approach contributed much to the emergence of a new image of Islam. The Summa objectified the debate and adopted a more scientific attitude towards Islam. Peter was the first to lay the foundations for a confrontation with Islam. Peter did not want to confront Islam with violence, but with the power of the Word of God.

In this context, his translation of the Qu’ran can be seen as a fundamental work for refuting Islam. The translation thus joins the series of writings that Peter called christianum armarium. By this Peter understood a Christian library to serve as a weapon against these enemies; but certainly not only as a weapon in the offensive sense, but also as a kind of shield which was to protect Christendom. Peter’s main intention with the translation and the Collectio Toletana was to provide European Christians with accurate information about Islam. For Peter, however, the Muslims were enemies only insofar as they rejected Christian salvation. Should the Muslims, however, recognise this, Peter’s enmity would also be settled.

At his weekly general audience in Saint Peter’s Square, on 14 October 2009, Pope Benedict XVI used Peter the Venerable as an example of compassion and understanding, citing Peter’s governance of Cluny, diplomacy, and study of Islam. If the West is to have any future, we need to address Islam as set forth by Benedict, following Peter’s study, prayer and mission.

But then again, unless we in the West return to our Christian roots and reconcile ourselves with Christ – well then Islam will steamroll us. Secular values are but fleeting vanity.


A version of this was delivered as a lecture at the French Riviera Institute, October 15 2021. Translated from the French.


The featured image shows, “The Annunciation,” from the Chronology of Ancient Nations by Al-Biruni, 1307.

A Plea For Heterogeneity

Upon reading Professor Legutko’s comments in last month’s issue of The Postil, I was reminded of the apophthegm of the Danish polymath Poul Hennigsen, “Democracy can only be measured by the existence of an opposition.” Prof. Legutko notes correctly that audi alteram partem no longer really holds true. His experiences in communist Poland of course serve as a stern warning to what happens when no opposition is allowed.

To avoid misunderstanding though, opposition for the sake of opposition is a nihilistic pursuit (he correctly notes that “the problem of the opposition is a tricky one”), it must be rooted in the separation and balance of governmental and societal powers. This can be seen for example in the 1936 Soviet constitution – at first glance it, along with those which it inspired in Soviet satellite states seemed quite progressive for their day and age. There was however no division of power; all power resided with the Party, hence the “rights” enshrined therein had no practical currency and no notion of civic society (outside of Party institutions) was permitted.

He notes further that “the danger of homogeneity has been looming over Europe and America for several centuries.” One might even say that for Europe this ideal hearkens at least as far back as Diocletian’s “Edict on Maximum Prices,” issued in the beginning of the fourth century AD.

Here though, one must distinguish clearly between the ideals of “homogeneity,” or rather “mass conformity” – this is of course nothing else than the notion of consensus, the foundation of any social contract, taken to an extreme – in “Europe” and “America.” The European homogenetical – “ism” – experiments (nationalism, communism, fascism, etc.) are for better or worse fundamentally rooted in continental European culture and history. The material philosophy of Marx, heavily influenced as he was by the Young Hegelians, for example, is firmly rooted in the tradition of Continental Philosophy. Anglo-Saxon and thus American culture and philosophy took a different path – one might say that Britannia became part of the Roman Empire too late and left too soon or that the Anglo-American thassalocracy took a different road.

The movement to which Prof. Legutko alludes with his remark “at that time, it never occurred to me that the Western world may produce a society and a state of mind where the opposition as a permanent constituent of political and social life may disappear or become unwelcome” is essentially an Anglo-American import to Europe. In Great Britain and the United States, the above-mentioned “-isms” never really took could take hold, except among some immigrant groups such as the “German Workers’ Educational Society” in London. The reception of Marx in the English-speaking world was always quite distinct from the Continental tradition – Latin America, firmly rooted culturally in Europe followed this path to some extent, too.

By this I by no means wish to claim that Albion and its American parcener do not belong to the “Abendland,” but that rather it took a different path. The West, a marriage of Hellenistic and Christian idea(l)s under the Roman imperial umbrella produced a division of power which mediated between the temporal and the eternal.

The Church always remained separate from the Roman state, which had formerly prosecuted it, because while Christians were willing to accept the worldly authority of Rome, they refused to accept its supernatural authority (e.g. divine emperors). This was historically speaking a rather unique set of affairs, combatted by some (Caesaropapism), and disposed with in the Middle Eastern parts of the Empire with the rise of Islam (Judaism, i.e., Judean religion after the loss of its state, left politics to the [non-Jewish] states in which they lived and concentrated on religious matters). Much of Western history and politics since then has been establishing a modus vivendi betwixt Church and State, a balanced division of power.

So, as has been pointed out by, among others, Remy Brague, the Church secularised the medieaval state by assigning to it a domain of its own, keeping the peace. We forget that “secularisation” (like indeed philosophy) was not in its inception anti-ecclesiastical; it was initiated by the Church and from the 11th century on, it strove to “laicise” the political power by taking away from it all initiative in spiritual matters. This, however, states were never eager to do, given that, for their part, they dreamt only of sacrality.

In the Early Modern Period, after the Thirty Years War and the Counter-Reformation – it is not a coincidence that the borders between Catholicism and Protestantism, excluding the flanks such as Poland and Ireland and cuius regio, eius religio notwithstanding, roughly equate those of the Roman Empire – political stability now being ensured by the principles of Westphalian sovereignty, the new protestant states recalibrated the politico-religious balance in that the secular head of state was also the head of the national church. Furthermore, in Protestantism, the notion of the individual (originally formulated by St Augustine to theologically explain the Trinity) played a crucial role in the economy of salvation. This was especially true in England during the Protectorate (or Interregnum) under Cromwell.

What we though see roughly after, let us say, 1648, are two different approaches to reduce the sacral authority of the Church(es) – one culminating in the French Revolution, the other in the Foundation of the American Republic. Where the French sought to create a secular republic on the ruins of the tyrannous Catholic Church, America founded by the Pilgrim Fathers and their Congregationalist Churches in New England, soon overtaken by Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians, followed in turn by Pentecostalists, Restorationists and others, including native creations such as Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, denied the State any role in matters religious – as Thomas Jefferson, by no count a religious fanatic, noted: “Pure rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg” (Notes on the State of Virginia Query XVII). The uniqueness of America must be seen in light of the “Pilgrim” Fathers (cf. Hebrews 11:13–16) and the other Dissenters who pilgrimed to the new Promised Land, each with their own Heilsgeschichte.

As Ian Buruma has noted, “American Protestantism favour(ed) histrionic emotion over superior learning and democracy over authoritarianism, but it was also a brand of individualism that tolerated inequality as long as men were free to compete for ‘the good things of the world;’” that is, the “honest pursuit of prosperity.” This was also noted by de Tocqueville during his travels to America in the early nineteenth century; the pursuit of material success and the hope of salvation in the world to come were not distinct, but rather closely linked.

Furthermore, de Tocqueville noted that, unlike in post-revolutionary France, “for the Americans the ideas of Christianity and liberty are so completely mingled that it is almost impossible to get them to conceive of the one without the other.” The Catholic Norman nobleman visited the United States during what is known as the Second Great Awakening, and he saw in the puritan ethics the underlying principle of American society. While these on the one hand enabled the building of a civil society, which in turn led to stable democratic institutions, there was also an aspect which worried him, a survivor of the French excesses – namely, a disturbing social conformity and the lack of distinction between public and private life. “The same people, who insisted on their individual rights as citizens of a democratic republic, were capable of inflicting horrible violence on others on the basis of their sexual practices or simply the color of their skin.” The excesses, such as the Salem Witch Trials, are well known. But on the whole one must say that the American experience was much less violent and bloody than the successive revolutionary excesses which plagued Europe.

It is not my goal to pass judgement here, just to note that the Christian Puritan ethics are part of the cultural DNA of the United States and make it quite distinct from Europe. It is also the reason why neither European socialism or communism could ever really make any inroads – they are too antithetical. American secularism, in which the sacred became an individual affair, produced a new dynamic between individual prosperity and social responsibility – the two poles or tension fields between which American culture and society oscillates.

From this, to oversimplify matters for the sake of brevity, morphed for example two diametrically opposing movements: those of the “Social Gospel” and the “Prosperity Gospel,” which are actually but two sides of the same American coin. Both, true to the Puritan ideal and postmillennial theology, enshrining in an egalitarian fashion a fluid transition between private and public; personal holiness and public engagement strove to create an ideal society based on their respective constituent salvific histories – the one opposed to capitalism, the other avowing it. These diametrically opposed poles, however, basically form the basis of civic society and represent the societal division of power in the United States, where European notions of “right” and “left” are inappropriate – but never in terms of Hegelian dialectic, as in Europe, since a real synthesis could not emerge.

Due to this polarity America could emerge as a great nation, the majority of the population including large numbers of immigrants, could settle somewhere between the two extremes, usually along the imaginary equator, mainstream America. Over the years, decades and centuries, the pendulum moved back and forth, seemingly endowed with some uncanny instinct, continually recalibrating, understanding which pole was most seasonal to the present needs and national interest. This equilibrium slowly became unbalanced after the Second World War, culminating in the 1960s when social issues were once and for all politically transformed into moral problems, as both poles tried to immanentize the eschaton, each with their respective (holy) “Wars on…” – and then becoming metamorphosed into respectively the “New Left” and the “Neocons.”

Slowly, the political division of power enshrined in the Constitution, written by enlightened cynics (in Europe such tended to be authored by idealists) began to be eroded inter alia by primaries, plea-bargains, and an activist legal culture espoused by both groups. Both poles, though developed and evolved, remain true to their puritan ideals of public and private holiness, seeing the world as being comprised of the good (the elect) and the evil (the other). The respective elect, of course victims of persecution, strive in a merciless combat against evil, each supported with their own salvific history. With regard to the latter, we see that “fake news” and conspiracy theories are not a recent phenomenon in America and hearken back to the various salvific understandings of history, espoused by the dissenter settlers in New England. So, for example, both Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump claim that an election was ‘stolen’ from them; the former due to alleged foreign influence; the latter due to mail-in ballots. Each group lives in its own alternate reality.

The point which I wish to make clear here is that we have here the two faces of Janus – one cannot exist without the other – the New Left, or Wokes and the Neocons or neoliberals. The term “woke,” etymologically related to “Awaking” (in its American religious sense), is but one indicator of the intrinsic religiosity of both. In any case, such culture wars are not new to the United States, nor is this present one more severe than previous ones. They come and go like wildfires, leaving behind “burnt-over districts.” The one strives religiously for an unbridled market as a means to prosperity for all – the elect succeed; those who fail have only themselves to blame. The other sees injustice everywhere and proposes a theology of redemption based on perceived victimhood and public confession of “sins” (hence, self-abasing Prince Harry bemoaning his ‘white privilege’ on Oprah. In many ways he seems to wish to resemble Hester Prynne in Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter). What has changed though, and this is rightly noted by Professor Legutko, is that they have become an export product, waging their endless struggle overseas.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that after the end of the Cold War, no new world order, such as after previous conflicts (Treaty of Westphalia, Vienna Congress, League of Nations, united Nations) was established – instead another a postmillennial manifestation of the “End of History illusion” (originally a premillennial notion formulated in St Augustine’s City of God) gained currency. Secondly, the rise of the internet and social media – which have reinvigorated the Puritan fluidity of public and private. An often-heard cynic quip in Eastern Europe is that if the KGB, Stasi or the Służba Bezpieczeństwa had had social media, such as Facebook, the Iron Curtain would still be in place.

This misses the point – if such states had invented it, probably no one would have used them. We do not have some totalitarian mastermind at work here; rather the digital incarnation of the Puritan ideal – no secrets, yea even having secrets is a sin. Both the wokes and the neocons espouse “transparency” (as well as compliancy and best practice in an absolute moral sense) as an arbitrary instrument to be employed by their respective witch hunters. Jefferson’s point (see above) is now construed as “powers extend to all acts as are seen to be injurious by others” – i.e., mass conformity and mob rule redivivus.

The new digital dimension means that sins can now be hunted down regardless of time and place, when and where they may have occurred. As with Hawthorne’s Reverend Dimmesdale, past injustices must not be forgotten, for they influence the present. Here there can be no freedom, no notion of liberty. We are condemned to our past, without hope of a future. By contrast, “among democratic nations,” as de Tocqueville pointed out, “each new generation is a new people.”

Europe (and indeed the rest of the world) is faced with this double alien onslaught. On the one hand, traditional social market economy and welfare states are deemed protective and uncompetitive. On the other, autochthonous European cultures are viewed as intrinsically racist, heteronormative and transphobic. Now that Europe seems to have created a peaceful modus vivendi for ethnic minorities (without fighting over borders or ethnic cleansing), the concept of new self-declared
“historically victimised” minorities has been imported, much to the detriment of received notions of civic society.

These twin American ideologies, exported via the internet, seem to have taken hold in Great Britain, among Cromwell’s heirs, and in those countries which share long-standing historical and cultural ties with the Anglo-American world, such as, the Netherlands. But also Germany, which since the Second World War, has been politically and economically aligned with the United States – the traditional Anti-a\Americanism of the classical German left and right (e.g. Heidegger’s warning about “Amerikanismus” (Martin Heidegger: Hölderlins Hymne ‚Der Ister‘, GA 53, S. 68) has all but disappeared – while remaining culturally attached to Europe, limping in two minds as it were (much to the dismay of the French), is increasingly feeling the strain.

But this too applies to Eastern Europe, where English supplanted Russian as the first foreign language – in countries which have traditionally been more sceptical to Perfidious Albion, such as France, stubborn resistance can be seen – the notion of “laicity,” by which the Catholic Church fares rather well, is the antithesis of Puritanism. Hence, it is no coincidence that European countries, which boldly ascribe to neo-liberalism, also have a thriving woke culture, or vice-versa, even if markets and victims have to be invented to lie in the American-made Procrustean double-bed.

This admittedly brief exposé, may the reader forgive the author for painting a canvas with very broad strokes, is not to criticise Professor Legutko’s fine analysis of the present European situation, but rather to render a more precise diagnosis of the symptoms. Yes, we are faced with a new homogeneity, but it is a quite different beast; the ghosts of the past have not come back to haunt us. Homogeneity, as the biblical tale of the Tower of Babel teaches us, is that when the whole world is of one language and one speech – succumbing to hubris, we strive to be gods but succeed only in losing our humanity.


Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr studied Classics and Semitics largely in Vancouver, Tübingen and Leyden. He is currently director of the Inârah Institute, for research on Early Islamic History and the Qur’an in Saarbrücken (Germany).


The featured image shows, “Embarkation of the Pilgrims,” by Robert Walter Weir; painted in 1857.

The Sana’a Manuscripts: Early Koran?

The Sana’a manuscripts were discovered in the Grand Mosque of the city of Sana’s, Yemen, in 1972, by construction workers, who gathered up all the old, rotting pages, stuffed them into potato bags, and left them beneath some stairs. Nothing was done until 1981, when Professor Gerd R. Puin, the leading scholar of Arabic orthography and Koranic paleography, undertook a systematic study. In this interview, Professor Puin speaks of the discovery and his study.

He is interviewed here by Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr, the current head of Inarah, the foremost institute for the study of early Islam. Inarah publishes a yearly collection of work, of which the most recent edition is now available. Dr. Kerr’s work has appeared frequently in the pages of the Postil, including his recent article on the true meaning of “Mecca.”

This is a truly a fascinating interview…

Unfortunately for English readers, the majority of the important work being done on early Islam is in German and French. Perhaps, in the future, this will be rectified by way of good translations of this important work, which has entirely rewritten the history of the beginnings of Islam.

The featured image shows a leaf from the collection of fragments housed at Stanford University. This is “Sana’a1 Stanford ’07,” recto, which dates to before 671 AD.

The Original Islamic Hajj To Jerusalem

The Islamic claim to historicity is well known, but its true history is hidden in countless individual details, each of which requires individual investigation, as has been shown by Inârah’s researches. For Islam, the so-called “five pillars” (arkān al-Islām or arkān ad-dīn “the pillars of faith”) constitute the actual fundamental rituals of Islam, which are considered obligatory by the faithful and form the basis of Muslim life (cf. the so-called Gabriel Hadith). These are:

  1. The Shahāda, the creed of Islam (“There is no god but God; Muhammad is the messenger of God”);
  2. Ṣalāt, daily ritual prayer towards Mecca (location of the Kaʿba), the qibla, which is to be performed at fixed times (awqāt) five times a day and which is also the supreme duty of all Muslims;
  3. The Zakāt, the obligatory giving of a certain portion of one’s possessions to the needy and other specified groups of people;
  4. The Ṣaum, the fast between dawn and sunset during the month of Ramaḍān;
  5. The Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca during the month of dhu l-ḥiǧǧah.

Something about the history of Islam’s development is made clear by the observation that none of these rites can basically be considered exclusively Islamic, which is confirmed by the fact that all these terms are borrowed from Aramaic (which in turn took the last four from Hebrew).

Thus, we have made a small step forward in deciphering the Islam’s path of development, namely the significant role of Aramaic (Syriac)-speaking Eastern Christianity, of which some groups, among other things, rejected the divinity of Christ, and which must be regarded as the actual substrate of Islam.

But here we are largely in the Late Antique Near East, east of the Euphrates, i.e., in Mesopotamia, far away from Mecca in the endless desert of the Ḥijāz, where according to later Islamic tradition the birthplace of a “Muḥammad,” and thus of Islam, is said to be located. After all, the second and fifth pillars of Islam listed above seemingly refer to this city. In the Qur’an itself, however, the word Mecca (Makka) is explicitly mentioned only once, in Sura 48:24: “And He it is Who hath withheld men’s hands from you, and hath withheld your hands from them, in the valley of Mecca, after He had made you victors over them. Allah is Seer of what ye do.”

It is often asserted, usually accompanied by claims to otherwise unknown phonetic changes, that the mention of Bakka in 3:96 also refers to this city: “Indeed, the first House (inna awwala baytin) established for mankind is surely the one at Bakka, blessed, and a guidance for (all creatures in).”

And according to most commentators, 14:37 is supposed to describe this location in more detail: “Our Lord! Lo! I have settled some of my posterity in an uncultivable valley near unto Thy holy House (ʿinda baytika l-muḥarami), our Lord! that they may establish proper worship; so incline some hearts of men that they may yearn toward them, and provide Thou them with fruits in order that they may be thankful.”

The precise relationship of Mecca to Bakka remains unclear, and linking them together requires a leap of faith, especially since Mecca itself is only attested very late and then only in Islamic sources which are otherwise uncorrelated. The Qur’an only speaks of an unspecified valley.

Bakka, on the other hand, according to the Qur’an, is home to “the first house,” which in our opinion was not founded for the people, but by the people (lilnnāsi – li– then here as the so-called Lamed auctoris). If “the first house” means (the) temple, i.e., the supposed earthly dwelling place of God, which would then also be the “holy house,” it is conceivable that 14:37 actually refers to this, which could mean a valley known as Bakka.

Islamic orthopraxy, being itself relatively late, offers no support in this regard. Islamic tradition itself notes that the original direction of prayer was not towards Mecca, but northwards or towards Syria (aš-šam); Muhammad is said to have changed this only in Madīna, after the Jews there refused to convert. But in the Islamic sources, the creation of legends is widespread and, as usual, quite contradictory with many subsequent attempts at harmonisation.

Thus, Mecca as the (original) point of reference for Islamic prayer is clearly an invention of later tradition – it should be mentioned in passing here that qibla in the sense of “direction of prayer,” in the Qur’an only 2,142- 145, can probably be interpreted more meaningfully as Kabbalah in the older Jewish sense of this term, namely as “(previously) revealed scriptures” (esp. the Hebrew Bible, excluding the Torah).

As for the pilgrimage (to Mecca; cf. the Hebrew term ḥag, which is used in the biblical context for the three Jewish pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot and from which Hajj ultimately derives), this is attested in the verse subsequent to the mention of Bakka, i.e. 3:97: “… And pilgrimage to the House (ḥiǧǧu l-bayti), is a duty unto Allah for mankind, for him who can find a way thither…”

The Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca consists of various elements: on 8 Dhu l-Ḥiǧǧah in Mecca after entering the consecrated state of Ihram, the first Ṭawāf (the sevenfold circumambulation of the Kaʿba) is performed; this is followed by the Sa’i, the run between the hills Safa and Marwa (aṣ-Ṣafā wal-Marwa); after this pilgrims drink from the Zamzam well, after which they go to the plains of Mount ʿArafāt to keep watch; then they spend a night on the plains of Muzdalifa, and a symbolic stoning of the devil is performed by lapidating three pillars. Afterwards, the pilgrims shave their heads, perform a sacrificial ritual and celebrate the three-day festival ʿīdu l- aḍḥā.

Julius Wellhausen postulated that the original Hajj was a ritual that only included the stations in the ʿArafāt plain, in Muzdalifa and in Mina, but had nothing to do with the Meccan sanctuary of the Kaʿba (Reste arabischen Heidentums, Berlin, 1897, 79-84). We will then leave the former out of consideration here; in the Qur’an, the Kaʿba (Arab. “Parthenon;” that is a shrine originally dedicated to the virgin mother of Dushara/Dionysus/ Bacchus) is mentioned only twice, 5:95 and 97 (“Allah has made the Kaʿba, the inviolable House, a place of prayer for mankind (l-kaʿbata l-bayta l-ḥarāma qiyāman lilnnāsi“), as well as the sacred month and the sacrificial animals and the animals with the neck ornaments.

This is so that you may know that Allah knows what is in the heavens and what is on earth, and that Allah knows all things”), whereby the reference to a specific place is not given. According to today’s understanding of the Meccan part of the rite, only Safa and Marwa (aṣ-ṣafā wal-marwa) can be located near Mecca, the course between these two hills being given by 2:158: “Lo! (the mountains) As-Safa and Al-Marwah are among the indications of Allah. It is therefore no sin for him who is on pilgrimage to the House (of Allah) or visiteth it, to go around them (as the pagan custom is). And he who doeth good of his own accord, (for him) lo! Allah is Responsive, Aware.” Again, there is no direct reference to Mecca here.

The conclusion so far, briefly summarised:

Mecca is mentioned once in the Qur’an (48:24), but not in relation to the Hajj. Another verse (3:96) mentions a “first house” located at Bakka, which is possibly also mentioned in 14:37 (does the one and only Allah inhabit more than one house?). A pilgrimage to the “house” is suggested in 3:97.

The run between Safa and Marwa (aṣ-ṣafā wal-marwa), which forms part of the Islamic Hajj, is conditionally prescribed in 2:158. From this patchwork of Qur’anic verses, the Islamic pilgrimage in and around Mecca emerged at some point, when cannot be ascertained hitherto. In the Semitic languages, the noun bayt “house” can also be used in the sense of a temple dedicated to a deity, often in a genitive compound (“in the house of the Lord,” bə-ḇêṯ-Yahweh, e.g. Psalm 134:1).

In biblical tradition, this term in the cultic sense actually always refers to the Jerusalem Temple; its use for an unknown, historically at best insignificant sanctuary far away in the Ḥijāz seems strange.

With regard to Jerusalem, however, in the Jewish Antiquities Flavius Josephus’ account of Alexander the Great at Jerusalem, where he is said to have sacrificed to Yahweh in the Temple according to the instructions of the High Priest (here, since our interest remains purely geographical, the historicity of the event is insignificant), we read XI.329 (ed. Whiston): “And when he understood that he was not far from the city, he went out in procession, with the priests and the multitude of the citizens. The procession was venerable, and the manner of it different from that of other nations. It reached to a place called Sapha, which name, translated into Greek, signifies a ‘prospect’ (σκοπόν), for you have thence a prospect both of Jerusalem and of the temple (τά τε γὰρ Ἱεροσόλυμα καὶ τὸν ναὸν συνέβαινεν ἐκεῖθεν ἀφορᾶσθαι).”

This place is none other than Mount Scopus in Jerusalem (today the main site of the Hebrew University), one of the highest places in that city (cf. one of the Arabic names: ğabal al-mašārif). The Hebrew name har haṣ-ṣōfīm “Watchman’s Mountain” confirms Josephus’ indication. In postbiblical Hebrew, a ṣōf is a pilgrim who has seen Jerusalem, cf. another Arabic name ğabal almašhad “Witness Mountain” (cf. above on the ‘first pillar’). This mountain in Arabic rendering is then none other than aṣ-ṣafā.

In the biblical tradition (cf. 2 Chronicles 3:1; the Targum to Song of Songs 4:6 etc.) the Temple Mount (har hab-báyiṯ is Mount Moriah (har ham-moriyyāh; where according to Genesis 22:2 the sacrifice of Isaac almost took place), i.e. in Arabic, Marwa. On the basis of these explanations, we have in Jerusalem the “house” (scil. of God – báy(i)t), undoubtedly in the monotheistic understanding “blessed and a guidance for the worlds” (Q3,96), on the Temple Mount, that is Moriah/Marwa as well as the second mountain Scopus/har haṣ-ṣōfīm/aṣṣafā. All that remains is Bakka (3:96) and a “barren valley” (or wadi 14:37) near to the “house of God” (bi-wādin ġayri ḏī zarʿin ʿinda baytika l-muḥarrami).

A valley named Bakka, however, is mentioned in the Bible, Psalm 84:7: “ 5 Blessed are those who dwell in your house (bêṯäḵā); in whose heart are the ways of them. 6 Who passing through the valley of Baca (bə-ʿämäq hab-bākkā – lit. “Valley of Weeping”) make it a well; the rain also filleth the pools. 7 They go from strength to strength, every one of them in Zion appeareth before God. 8 O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer: give ear, O God of Jacob. Selah. 9 Behold, O God our shield, and look upon the face of thine anointed.”

To all appearances, in this conception rendered here by the Psalmist, the valley of ‘weeping’ or Bakka (from the root bkw, also the origin of Bacchus, see above) is not far from Jerusalem. In the Targum of this psalm verse, the valley of tears/ʿämäq hab-bākkā is rendered “valley of Gehenna”, also the Talmudic understanding, because those damned to hell are said to wail and shed copious tears due to their infernal fate (Eruvin 19a). The Gehenna Valley, where child burnt offerings were once made to Yahweh (Joshua 15:8; 18:16; Jeremiah 19:2) was close to Jerusalem.

The historical site of the pre-exilic Moloch sacrifices (apparently the present-day wādī ar-rababi) was not, however, the same as that of Late Antique biblical exegesis, which called it the Kidron Valley (Hebrew naḥal qiḏron “the valley of darkness;” its upper course, significantly, in Arabic is wādī annār “the valley of fire”) or the Jehoshaphat Valley, according to Joel 3:1-3/4:1-3: “For behold, in those days and in that time, when I shall bring again the captivity of Judah and Jerusalem, I will also gather all nations, and will bring them down into the valley of Jehoshaphat, and will plead with them there for my people, and for mine heritage Israel: whom they have scattered among the nations, and parted my land. And they have cast lots for my people, and have given the child for the harlot, and sold the girl for wine, that they might drink.”

This infernal valley is by definition barren and, moreover, adjacent to the Temple Mount (ʿinda baytika l- muḥarami), vividly illustrating the contrast between ‘high’ and ‘low’, ‘light’ and ‘bright’, ‘redeemed’ and ‘damned’. This Judeo-Christian exegetical tradition is carried on without exception by the Islamic tradition, the valley is here called wādī al-ğahannam “Hell Valley,” suspended over which at the end of times during the Last Judgement, will be aṣ-ṣirāṭ (“way, path, road,” here rather “bridge”) connecting the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives, which in Islamic eschatology must be crossed by the deceased to reach Paradise.

This eschatological gangplank is said to be as thin as a hair, and underneath it is the abyss to hell: those who have no trust in God will falter and waver and thereupon fall thither, those however who trust God and are forgiven their transgressions shall cross unhindered. Wellhausen’s insightful suggestion to separate the Meccan parts of the Hajj rite from those taking place extra muros is thus seemingly accurate – the proto-Islamic pilgrimage clearly went to Jerusalem, which is actually hardly surprising. Here are located the “House (of God),” the barren valley of Bakka, as well as aṣ-ṣafā and al-marwa.

Not only is their geographical location in (post)biblical tradition assured, they also fulfil a significant function in sacramental economy that is entirely absent in Mecca. In later Islamic tradition, some Umayyad caliphs were accused of having diverted the Hajj from Mecca to Jerusalem – in the 7th century, however, one cannot yet speak of “Islam” in the proper sense – here we are probably dealing with a later memory of a past time in which pilgrimages were still made to Jerusalem, which was then considered heretical after the complete transfer of the sacred geography of the rite to Mecca.

What we have then is a memory of a time in which the Hajj was to Jerusalem, which naturally later was seen as heretical. Thus, it is clear that the roots and motifs that define the Hajj stem entirely from biblical tradition; only much later were they recast so as to fit in with emerging innovative Islamic orthopraxy.

Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr studied Classics and Semitics largely in Vancouver, Tübingen and Leyden. He is currently director of the Inârah Institute, for research on Early Islamic History and the Qur’an in Saarbrücken (Germany).

The featured image shows, “Vallée de la bekaa, liban,” by Anne Baudequin.

Jesus In The Qur’an

The image of Jesus in the Qur’an could be summarized with the words of Nietzsche, words “human all-too human.” This, in contrast to the teaching and view of the Church. It is clear that this in principle does not embody a Qur’anic innovation but goes back to early disputes in nascent Christianity.
Thus the Qur’an partially preserves traces of embryonic Christology(-ies), which were later modified or expanded upon by councils.

Taken as a whole, such Qur’anic ideas about Jesus are diffuse, and the statements taken over from the Gospels (above all from Matthew) are not noted as such in the Qur’an. In the Qu’an, Jesus is sent to the people of Israel as a prophet and a messenger of Allah, but they rejected him (6,49; 61,6); he encounters a denial decreed by Allah Himself (5,100); with the exception of a (rather) small group of Israelites (61,14).

Theologically essential is that although Jesus’ virgin birth is deemed to be true, he is never viewed in the Qur’an as a son or descendant of David (vis-à-vis other traditions, such as those from Qumran, e.g. 4Q174, a Midrashic text in which God calls the Davidic Messiah his son). No royal dignity is attributed to him, neither the cross nor the resurrection (as in early Christianity) have any salvational relevance: in the Qur’anic view, Christ’s death on the cross had no existential reality, nor did it constitute any
part of his calling. Jesus either seems to die a natural death (19,33) or is taken up to heaven (3,55; 4,158; 5,117; cf. Enoch and Elijah) and is raised together with all the dead at the Last Judgment (19,33).

Through this desoteriologization of the life of Jesus, but especially of his Passion, his removal from the economy of salvation, a brazen psilanthropism (Jesus is a mere man: 4,171 “how could he (Allah) have a child?” yakūna lahū waladun) is discernible. Basically, the Qur’anic image of Jesus in the early Suras corresponds roughly to that of the Proto-Lucan gospel.

The image of Jesus in respect to the Christology found in the Qur’an is by no means uniform and is the result of theological debates in and during Syro-Mesopotamian Late Antiquity, and which Christology also underwent development, as can be clearly seen by comparing 19,1-33 (compatible with
Christianity) with the later interpolation 19,33-40.

Jesus himself is mentioned by name in 14 suras. The name ‘Īsā is usually understood as a realisation of Jesus (Ἰησοῦς < יְהוֹשַׁע< יֵשׁוַּע “Joshua,” i.e., the “Saviour”); but this is not unproblematic. Elsewhere, we find other terms, such as, “servant of God » (ʿabdu llāhi 19,30; cf. the Gospels and Acts 3,13; 4,27, in which the deutero-Isiaian servant of God [ עבד יהוה ] is applied to Jesus); “the word of God” (kalimatu mina llāhi, 3,39,45; see the λόγος, Joh. 1,1ff.); al-masīḥu ʿīsă bnu maryama rasūlu llāhi wa-kalimatuhū ʾalqāhā
ʾilā maryama wa-rūḥun minhu … wa-rūḥun minhu
, “The Messiah, ‘Īsā, Mary’s son is only Allah’s messenger and His word, … and Spirit from him” (4,171); “The Word of truth” (19,34; cf. Jn 1,14).

Often the Qur’anic Jesus appears in connexion with Adam and in lists of previous prophets (e.g., 2,136=3,84; 4,163; 6,85; 33,7-8; 42,13; 57,26f.), but he is said to be more significant than those (2,253, “supported by the Holy Spirit” wa-ʾayyadnāhu bi-rūḥi l-qudusi, cf. 2,87; 5,100; 4,171f. etc.).

Our findings so far: according to the Qur’an Jesus is a human being – in contrast to the Nicaean Creed (natum, non factum, unius substantiae cum Patre – Apostle’s Creed: qui conceptus est de Spiritu Sancto, natus ex Maria Virgine): created and not begotten! A figure comparable to Adam – the Virgin Mary is indeed his mother, but he does not descend from the line of David, nor does he claim royal dignity; whereas he appears as the (provisional) apotheosis of the prophets – Muhammad is interpolated into the Qur’an (3,144; 33,40; 47,2; 48,29) only in later redactional stages, whereby in some of these passages it is questionable whether it is not actually Jesus who is meant as the Muhammad (i.e. the Blessed One). Allah-God is unique and indivisible (tawḥīd , e.g., 112,1 a syntax which is Aramaic and not Arabic: huwa llāhu ʾaḥadun-i; this is of course a partial
imitation of the Shema Israel, “Hear, O Israel,” Deuteronomy 6, 4-9), and rules alone, i.e., a rejection of the Trinity, considered “association” (shirk).

Furthermore, the Torah and the Gospels are seen as the same revelation vis-a-vis the Qur’an, which though Jews (4:45) and Christians (e.g. 2:59;
7:162; 30:30) ‘corrupted’ (tabdīl).

This view of things is by no means new in the history of theology, and thus logically, this can not be seen as something unique, revealed to Mohammad, an illiterate merchant in distant Mecca. As explained at the beginning, the early pericopes of the Qur’an reflect long-lasting inner-Christian debates, often quite polemical in nature. We find similar theological views, for example, in the Pseudo-Clementines. This work, in a Greek (the so-called Homilies) and a Latin version (the so-called Recognitiones by Rufinus of Aquileia), represents the core of the “Teachings of Peter” (Κηρύγματα τοῦ Πέτρου), and both go back to a common source, called the Grundschirft,
probably the Περίοδοι Πέτρου of the Church Fathers (Origen, Epiphanes), the work of a scholarly anti-Marcionist theologian of Syrian Christianity in the fourth century, which is also known in later Syrian, Arabic and Ethiopian traditions.

In this once very influential treatise we have a corpus that can be regarded in many ways as a starting point for Qur’anic ideas. Here the monarchic rule of God is rigorously adhered to (μοναρχία θεοῦ), a bi- or triarchy is unimaginable (ἑτέροις συνάρχειν). Jesus did not fulfill the law as the Son of God (ὁ υἱός του Θεού < בן-אלהים), but as the Son of Man (ὁ υἱὸς τοὺ ἀνθρώπου < בן-אדם ; i.e., ἄνθρωπος ἐξ ἀνθρώπων). He was not preexistent, but merely accepted by God as his Son and annoited (Christ) at baptism (Recog. I.48 “qui in aquis baptismi filius a deo appellatus est“), understood as a fulfillment of Ps 2:7 (no longer present in the Koran); before this event, he was merely a Messiah designate.

In the Homilies, Jesus is ὁμοούσιος τῷ πατρί, born ἐκ τῆς ουσίας, all quite Arian formulations (“deus ingenitus – filius genitus”). Jesus is seen as a prophet, similar to Moses, who even prophesied about him (Dt 18,15-22). In Hom. VIII.10, we find that the concept of the ‘true prophet’ (ἀληθῆς
προφήτης
) is elaborated, as the proclaimer of the ‘eternal law’ (νόμος αιώνιος. This corresponds to the idea of the “well kept tablet,” lauḥ maḥfūẓ in Sura 85,22; cf. 5,48-59) in the past, present and future – “The true prophet, from the beginning of the world age hastening through” (“verus
propheta ab initio mundi per saeculum currens
,” Recog. II.22 ), which is identical to the “Holy Spirit” (ἅγιον πνεῦμα Hom. III.17, which ἔμφυτον ϗ ἀέννατος).

This human prophet is sinless (αναμάρτητος= צדיק , Hom. II.6; III.11), and is the only one who can “enlighten the souls of men” (Hom. I.19). Christ is not only the New Moses, but also the New Adam, since we find here the idea that the first man (Adam Qadmon) had breathed into him the breath (πνεῦμα) of God (cf. Qur’an 15,29; 38,72), and was also anointed with the oil of the Tree of Life (Recog. I.45). Thus an “anointed one,” i.e., Messiah or Christos (Hom. III.20), and could therefore prophesy. Thus Adam was sinless, and accordingly there could be no fall; otherwise, the Holy Spirit residing in him would have sinned as well.

Here we have an idea very similar to those found in the Qur’an (2:30-37; 20:115-122; 7:11-27). So, for example, no notion of original sin (e.g. Qur’an 7:23: “Our Lord, we have wronged ourselves”); in the Qur’an (e.g., 2,31), Adam does not give names to animals as in Genesis (2,19: “And the Lord
God formed of earth all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the sky, and brought them to man to see what he would call them, and that every living creature should bear the name that man would give it”), but Allah taught Adam (and not the angels) their names, a prophetic activity
(derived from the θεῖον πνεῦμα).

Explicitly, we find the equation of Adam and Jesus in the Qur’an (3:59: “Indeed, the likeness of ‘Īsā near Allah like that of Adam. He created him from dust. Then he to him ‘be’ and he was.” This is quite similar to what we find in the Gospel of John (1,3: πάντα δι’ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν ὃ γέγονεν), based in turn on Psalm 33,6.9 ( כִּ֤י ה֣וּא אָמַ֣ר וַיֶּ֑הִי הֽוּא־צִ֝וָּ֗ה וַֽיַּעֲמֹֽד ), quite opposite to Paul’s conception of the Second Adam.

Thus, the teachings of Peter, based on Jewish tradition, describe how the divine spirit (θεῖον πνεῦμα), i.e. the glory of God (Hebrew שכינה), was already effective in Adam (which is why he is considered a prophet in this work, as in the Qur’an). This glory thereafter wandered through the ages to manifest itself successively in prophets – a metamorphosis and not a hypostasis – in, cf. e.g. Hom. XVII.4 (=Recog. II.47), an allusion to Proverbs 9,1 (“Wisdom has built her house; she has set up its seven pillars”; cf. in the Talmud, Chagiga 12b: ז’ עמודים) —the list includes Adam-Christ Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and Jesus, the representatives of the “sevenfold mystery” (ἑβδομάδος μυστήριον, Hom. XVII.9), the ἑπτά στῦλοι υπάρχοντες κόσμῳ.

These bearers of revelation (ἡγεμόνες τὴς προφητείας, Hom. II.15 – “who are all born of women,” Recog. I.60) found their culmination in the “Jewish body of Jesus born among the Jews” (op. cit.), cf. in early rabbinical exegesis of Ecclesiastes 1:9 (“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again”): “Like the first the last saviour so shall the last saviour be.” Jesus, like Adam and Moses, were different from other prophets in that they possessed the ability to fortell (prognosis). Although the figures mentioned in the list of prophetic mediators of the ‘eternal law’ in the Pseudo-Clementines are subject to variation, Adam, Moses and Jesus are constant factors.

This has its counterpart in the Qur’an, which also often lists such
figures, e.g. 2,136; 3,84; 4,163; 6,85; 33,7-8; 42,13, and thus apparently continues this tradition: prophets are the representatives of humanity with whom God makes his covenant, and the truth of each former messenger is included in the proclamation of the following one, so that Mohammed, in the Islamic understanding, brings together once and for all all all the truth
conveyed by them (e.g. 33:7). Hom. VII.8 “Religion is to fear him [scil. God] alone and to believe only the Prophet of Truth” is to all intents and purposes equal to the Islamic Shahāda: “There is no God but God – Mohammed is the messenger of God.”

The reason for the successive repetition of revelation is the belief that not all parts of the Torah are equally authentic, some are even considered to be blatant forgeries. In Hom. I.18f./Recog. I,15 this is illustrated: the world is like a house filled with the smoke of ignorance, vice and aberrations, the true prophet must come to its door, open it and expel this smoke and let
in the (true sun)light (cf. Jn 3:19ff.).

Moses in this tradition, like Muhammad in the Islam tradition, only passed on what had been revealed to him orally, as ‹ interpretations’ (ἐπιλύσεις, Hom. II.38; see, IIPetr. 1,20 … προφητεία… ἰδίας ἐπιλύσεως οὐ γίνεται). This, however, was quickly corrupted by Satan and thus the true παράδοσις Μωϋσέως became adulterated with false pericopes (ψευδεις περικοπαί), by bad instruction, misrepresentation, etc. Here we find a certain influence of Isaiah 29:13 (Septuagint) and Mt 15:13 (see also Jer 8:8, Ez 20:25).

Hence, everyone was able to read into the Scriptures (Hom. III.9) what he wished. Ergo, the repeated call in the homilies: “Therefore, if some of the scriptures are true and some are false, our Master said for a good reason: ‘Be good money-changers,’ insofar as there are some true whilst some are false.”

Generally speaking, the ‘eternal law’ (Hom. VIII.10, see above) was inscribed by God’s hand into the world at creation as the first teaching to mankind (IX.10); it was known to Adam (III.48 ), and was revealed again to Moses, becoming though in the course of time increasingly obscured by errors, until it was finally elevated to eternal validity by Jesus, who had the “knowledge of the mysteries or laws” (γνῶσις τῶν απόρρητῶν, XVIII.15; secretior legis intellegentia, Recog. I.74) (cf., Qur’an 3, 48; 5, 46, 100; 57, 27).

So, Moses received a Torah that was different from the one we have today. Specifically, the group behind the Pseudo-Clementines rejected the sacrificial cult as pagan, and which had only been temporarily tolerated by Moses. Therefore necessarily Pauline soteriology, which regarded the death of Jesus as a bloody atonement, is rejected outright.

In their view, Christian liberation from the Jewish sacrificial cult was not initiated by the sacrifice of the Son of God, but by the water of baptism, through which Jesus extinguished the fires of the sacrificial altar once and for all.

This understanding of Scripture, i.e., the existence of false verses or passages that corrupt the unchanging eternal law of God, which can only be reinstated through a new revelation, corresponds to the role of Mohammad in the later Islamic understanding of the Qur’an (see above on tabdīl; in Islamic theology the terms taḥrīf and kitmān are also used to denote the falsification of the holy scriptures of Judaism and Christianity).

Another conspicuous feature that cannot be discussed in detail here is the political rejection of the monarchy (and the glorification, as with the Samaritans, of the age of Judges, Recog. I.38), which is seen as synonymous with war (Hom. III.62); the biblical kings were rather tyrants (tyranni magni quam reges), the building of the Temple, the place of sacrifice par excellence, was considered hubris – the whole institution, also the status of
David, is said to have had no part in the “eternal law.”

Thus, as has already been mentioned, Jesus’ Davidic descent is not mentioned in the Qur’an, nor is he mentioned in the Qur’an as king
(e.g., 21,78ff.). In Islam, as with Eastern Christianity (and Mesopotamian predecessors), we find the notion of “vicarious kingship” (e.g., Caliph means ‘vicar’; ʻAbd el- Malik was Caliph, the representative of God. Allah was King, Arab. Malīk – cf., Koran 20,114; 23,116; 59,23; 62,1; 114,2; also one of the ninety-nine most beautiful names of God in Islam – whose slave or servant this ruler viewed himself as). This was probably a reason for dispute of the early Umayyads with Heraclius after his Pyrrhic victory over the Sassanids – after his reorganisation of the empire, he took the title Βασιλεύς.

In the preceding, an attempt was made, admittedly with (very) coarse brushstrokes, to show that some decisive theologumena of the Qur’an already appear in the Pseudo-Clementines. As mentioned above, versions of this literature were handed down in Semitic languages during Late
Antiquity and probably exerted, directly or indirectly, influence on various Qur’anic authors who shared these attitudes or convictions, at least partially: Jesus both as Adam novus (see above e.g., ad 3,59) and Moses novus, as the ultimate fulfillment of revelation.

As far as the equation with the latter is concerned, it is interesting to note that in the Qur’an, Mary is presented as the daughter of ʻImran (e.g., Qur’an 3,35; in Christian tradition Joachim); in the Bible though Amram is the father of Moses; in 19,28 Mary (biblically, Miriam, is listed as Hārūn’s,
i.e. Aaron’s (who is aligned with John the Baptist) sister. Some commentators see in this a confusion – but this is unnecessary. If Moses is supposed to be a prefiguration of Jesus, Moses 2.0 (or Adam 3.0), then this similarity is more than understandable (also because Mary and Miriam
are actually the same in Semitic, m-r-j-m).

Here we see again a hint of the sophisticated compositional technique of the Qur’an. Theologians were at work here, not an illiterate desert merchant! The Islamic understanding of Mohammed as the last prophet, as Jesus novus (resp. 2.0 – which partly explains the intertextuality of Jesus’ vita
with that of Muhammad in the Sira) is but a continuation (Fortschreibung) of this theme.

The notion found in Hom. VIII.6f. that the teaching of both Moses and Jesus was the same(!) revelation, that love for Moses and Jesus was the true fulfillment of religion, and those who understand this (single!) revelation are blessed by God – is rooted historically in antimarcionite polemics. Yet the idea that the Torah and the Gospel are identical, as are Adam, Moses and Jesus show that this doctrine, in an expanded form, underlay the composition of the Qur’an.

Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr studied Classics and Semitics largely in Vancouver, Tübingen and Leyden. He is currently director of the Inârah Institute, for research on Early Islamic History and the Qur’an in Saarbrücken (Germany).

The image shows Muhammad leafing Abraham, Moses and Jesus in prayer, in heaven, in a 15th-century Persian miniature.

Looking For The God Hubal

When we look at the the later Islamic narratives of everyday life in Mecca in the days when a certain prophetic figure named Muhammad allegedly lived, for which there is no historical evidence, we would at first sight seem to be well-informed, there is a rich documentation. A closer look at these references, however, shows that they date some 150 to two centuries after the events they purport to narrate, and what they relate is often quite fantastic, in light of what we know about the ancient Arabs and the ancient Semitic world in general. An interesting case in point is the deity who is said to have been chiefly worshipped at the Meccan Kaaba in the sixth-century, namely, Hubal.

The Book of Idols (Kitāb al-Aṣnām) by the Iraqi Islamic savant, Hišām ibn Muhammad ibn as-Sā’ib al-Kalbī (see, in general, Fuat Sezgin, Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums), who flourished during the eighth-ninth centuries, notes, “From what I have heard, [the idol of] Hubal was made of red carnelian, having human form, but with a broken right Hand. The Quraish had received him in this condition, but had since made him a [replacement] hand of gold. He was inside the Kaaba.”

Here, as is often the case with Islamic traditions, there are many, often contradictory narrations. Al-Kalbī’s contemporary, the Baghdad judge Muḥammad b.ʿUmar b.Wāqid al-Wāqidī thought that the graven image stood in front of the entrance to the Kaaba, next to the door. The latter furthermore relates that in front of his statue seven arrows were placed for
the purpose of belomancy, performed by a ṣāḥib al-qidāh (“Arrow Lord”) – possibly a biblical motif, cf. e.g. I Sam 20; Ezek 21,26 and Hab 3,11: two are said to have been employed to establish the legitimacy of a child’s descent in case of doubt, one for necromancy, one for questions concerning marriage, and three whose function could no longer be inferred by the author.

In the well-known hagiography (Sīra) of Muhammad, attributed to Ibn Hišām, it is noted that Muhammad’s grandfather ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib almost sacrificed his son ʿAbdallāh in a narrative reminiscent of the sacrifice of Isaac in Gen 22, after an oath had been taken (cf. Jephthah in Judges 11) — according to Islamic exegesis (Sura 37,106f. refers hereto), we also find an explanation as to why Muhammad was referred to as Ibn adh-dhabīḥaini, “the son of the twice sacrificed,” i.e., his father and his alleged ancestor Ishmael.

Muhammad on the other hand, who was already fatherless at birth, was brought to the Kaaba by his grandfather for a paternity test by means of arrows, according to the Riwaya of Yūnus ibn Bukayr of the 9th-century; according to aṭ-Ṭabarī in the 10th century, the infant was brought to the idol Hubal in the Kaaba (fa-adkha-ahu ʿala Hubal fi jawfi l-Kaʿba), while the idol is not mentioned by Ibn Hišhām (fa-dakhala bihi l-Kaʿba). Either the latter interpolated his source (Ibn Isḥaq’s), or Hubal was introduced into the tradition secondarily.

By all accounts, the latter possibility would seem to be more likely, especially since later Islamic traditions tend to provide more, albeit quite peculiar and downright odd information.

In yet other traditions, we learn that Hubal cohabited with (the idols of) 360 other deities, apparently one for every day of the then current solar year (the current Islamic lunar calendar was only introduced later). This is somewhat surprising, since usually only one deity, a duad or, on occasion, a triad inhabited one and the same shrine. Allegedly then the Kaaba collapsed when Muhammed recited Q17,82.

Other accounts make even less sense: e.g. the ‘blue-eyed’ historian of the city of Mecca, Abū l-Walīd Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Azraqī, who purportedly lived during the 7th century, claims that the standard sacrifice for Hubal was a hecatomb of camels. How this should have been done in a small building like the Kaaba or on a smallish stone (fixed in a wall) remains, as is customary in such accounts, unmentioned.

Furthermore, as is often the case with pre-Islamic Arabian deities in Islamic traditions, Hubal, is not seen as an indigenous god. So in The Book of Idols (ed. Klinke-Rosenberger, pp. 33-37 Arabic), the arrival of various idols, among these Hubal, is associated with the journey ʿAmr Ibn Luḥayys to Syria (note the similarity of this description with that of Naaman and Elisha in 2Kings 5).

According to al-Azraqī, Hubal is said to come from Hīt in Mesopotamia; Ibn Hišām on the other hand claims that he came from Moab, in the country of Balqā’. To what extent these statements can be seen as containing historical information remains uncertain, also because Islamic tradition attributes the building of the Kaaba to Abraham and must see to preserve a certain memory of his “true monotheism” from primeval times, which was then corrupted by external influences, as is the wont of foreigners.

It is striking that outside of these Islamic sources, Hubal seems to be unknown in the Hejaz. He is not even found as a theophoric element in Arabian personal names. Wellhausen (Reste arabischen Heidentums, 1897, attempted to explain this conspicuous omission by asserting that Hubal was originally seen as the given name of God, i.e. Allah – just as Yahweh is the name of the Jewish God (‘ɛlōhīm). This is not a convincing argument, merely a desperate guess conditioned by the lack of data.

However, for the time being, for the sake of argument, let us view the Islamic material as historically credible – if Hubal is to be viewed as a newly arrived divine resident foreigner, this could, to some extent, explain why he seems to have been largely unknown; also because, according to Islamic tradition, written history began only with the Koran after Mohammad’s death.

If this were actually the case, however, one would expect that this god be attested elsewhere, in his alleged homeland(s), for example, namely, Mesopotamia, Palestine or Syria. In the onomasticon attested especially in ancient North-Arabic and later Aramaic inscriptions, we find a name HBL (variants WHBL, ‘HBL), which superficially at least would seem to be concordant with the Islamic findings related in the preceding.

However, this is not a theophoric element, but rather a verb which modifies such, i.e. whb + ‘l “God’s gift” (cf. e.g. Deodatus, Nathaniel, etc.). In secondary literature, a Nabataean inscription from the Ḥegra (Madāʾin Ṣāliḥ), in contemporary northern Saudi Arabia, is often brought to bear (Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum II, Paris, 1889), No. 198).

Certainly corroboratory mention of this deity in a text written to the Arabic Nabataeans (who, however, customarily used an Aramaic dialect as their written language) would certainly lend Islamic tradition considerable substantiation. This inscription is a funerary text for two women, scil. Kmkm and her daughter Kljbt, dated roughly to the year 0 AD. As often the case with such inscriptions, curses are pronounced against those who may come later to desecrate the grave (lines 3-8):

…wjlʿn dwšr’ wmwtbt w’lt mn ʿmnd wmnwtw wqjšh mn jzbn kpr’ dnh ’w mn jzbn ’w jrhn ’w jntn jth ’w jnpq mnh gt ’w šlw ’w mn jqbr bh ʿjr kmkm wbrth w’ḥrhm wmn dj l’ jʿbd kdj ʿl’ ktjb p’jtj ʿmh ldwšr’ whblw wlmnwtw šmdjn 5 …

“And may Dušara … his ??? … and Allat of ʿAmnad, and Manūthu, and Qaiša curse he who would sell this grave, or he who buys it, or he who taxes it or he who would give it away, or removes bodies or body parts, or buries herein another besides Kmkm or her daughter or their progeny. Whosoever acts contrary to that which is stated here, shall be cursed fivefold by Dušara, and HBLW, and Manūthu…”

As was noted, this inscription is often cited as proof for the cult of a deity known as Hubal (cf. e.g. CIS a.l.ex antiquis Arabum diis“). Two points mitigate this proposition:

1) As remarked by Euting in CIS, the dative preposition l- is missing (“Euting dubitat an hic verus sit sensus, præpositione lante nomen deficiente; suspicatur ergo epitheton aliquod dei Dušara, sed vix probabile“). The editor’s doubts about Euting’s postulate are actually untenable nowadays, since no further unquestionable evidence for this deity has been found during the last century, during which our knowledge of the language as well as the number of known published inscriptions has grown considerably.

It is much more likely to interpret the word HBLW as a toponym, i.e. Dušara of hblw (cf. “Our Lady in/of/on/with …”) – cf. the place name hbltt in a Safaitic inscription (A. Jamme, Miscellanées d’ancient arabe VII,, 28, Fig. 6).

2) The content of this inscription can by no means be described as unique, since a large part of the corpus of the Nabataean epigraphy consists of such texts; and moreover, there are several approximately contemporaneous texts from the same place (with comparable inscriptions). See CIS II No. 197, 199, 205, 209, 212) that mention Dušara and/or Manûthu among others, but never Hubal. The old rule applies here: Unus testis, nullus testis.

In the preceding, we clearly see a methodological problem of Islamology. Orientalists of earlier times, the decipherers and first editors of such inscriptions, often depended on Islamic traditions to interpret these newly discovered texts. These results in turn found their way into Islamic studies – a classical circular reasoning. If this were just any any other (obscure) word, instead of hblw, nobody would think of lexicalising it as a deity.

How then is this deity Hubal, supposedly imported to Mecca, who seems to have been unknown even in his purported homeland, to be analysed? Perhaps an etymologisation of his name can help us further? Let us note briefly that among the older Semitic languages this root is only attested in Bible Hebrew, and in some later Aramaic dialects influenced (in part) by it, such as Syriac (heḇlā “Dust, Vanity”), Targumic Aramaic (“Breath, Vanity”) and the Jewish-Babylonian Aramaic of the Talmud (“Breath, Steam, Haze”) (> Arabic habalt “Fume, steam,” perhaps why in some Islamic traditions Hubal was interpreted as a rain god).

The Hebrew root HBL (cf. the dictionaries) is usually seen as an onomatopoeic term for “breath, breath” as well as “wind”, which then in Gen. 4 uses the name for Adam and Eve’s second son, the shepherd Abel (Hebrew Heḇel), as well as for “nothingness” (“Man is like a breath [la-heḇel], his days are like a shadow scurrying by! -Psalm 144:4); or “vanity” (“O vanity of vanities! [hăḇēl hăḇālīm] says the preacher; O vanity of vanities! [hăḇēl hăḇālīm] Everything is vanity! [hāḇel] -Ecclesiastes 1:2).

Often, however, especially in the Deuteronomistic polemic against (supposed) idolatry, this lexeme takes on a technical theological meaning in the sense of “idol”, “idolatry,” because now only the orthodox view of the worship of Yahweh was acceptable in their eyes, everything else was considered vain vanity. We see this use of Heḇel or plural Hăḇālīm, e.g., in Deut 32:21; 1Kings 16:13,26; 2Kings 17:15; Jeremiah 2:5 (“What did your fathers find wrong with me, that they departed from me and followed vainglory and became vain? [ha-heḇel waj-jehǝbbālū]); 8:19; 10:3,8; 14:22; Jonah 2:9(8); Psalm 31:7(6) (in the last two examples in parallelism with šāw’ “emptiness, futility”).

We also find this understanding in some renditions of the Septuagint, e.g., Deut 32:21; Jeremiah 14:22; 16:19, where the Hebrew term is translated with with “idol” (i.e. εἴδωλον, in classical Greek, originally a “phantom; figure, idea;” only in the later biblical tradition did it take on the meaning “idol”) or μάταιος (actually “futile, vain,” > “idol,” under the influence of Hebrew), e.g., in Jeremiah 2:5 (cf. also Esther 4:17p [prayer of Esther], 3Maccabees 6:11; as well as this use in the NT, especially Acts 14:15).

Here we see how a word that actually means ‘nothing at all’ comes to mean something that is not and can not be. For the sake of clarity, in this specific biblical usage, the Hebrew term Heḇel (plural Hăḇālīm) does not indicate a deity (real or imagined), but it is rather a pejorative term to declare all divine beings except Yahweh, and all representations of gods (including Yahweh) to be ‘null and void’.

From the point of view of Semitic etymology then, Hubal is not a god, but rather instead Heḇel, divine non-existence. Apparently we have landed in nothingness, having shown that Hubal is nihility (which might bemuse some Islamicists), he has literally evaporated in a biblical thunderstorm. Is it possible to bring this god back?

Theologians, in order to preserve their faith in the divine (in this case anyway) can be quite inventive. If on the one hand hebraica Veritas can be helpful in understanding Islamic tradition, then one can also use Arabic (once called the Ancilla Fidei, “servant of the faith” because she was considered to be useful in the study of the Hebrew vocabulary of the Old Testament) to interpret the Bible.

For example, the Canadian Old Testament scholar William Ewart Staples attempted to use the Hebrew term Heḇel as a theological term to denote a “cult mystery” in Canaanite nature religion. Later, his Scandinavian colleague, Hans M. Barstad went even further and claimed that the Hebrew word actually implied a Canaanite rain god (cf. e.g. Zechariah 10:1-2 “Ask the Lord for rain in the springtime; it is the Lord who sends the thunderstorms. He gives showers of rain to all people, and plants of the field to everyone. The idols speak deceitfully, diviners see visions that lie; they tell dreams (Heḇel) that are false, they give comfort in vain. Therefore the people wander like sheep oppressed for lack of a shepherd” – he rules of Hebrew grammar are willingly disregarded to inject an Islamic rain deity (see above) into this biblical verse (see Bob Becking). And thus yet another link is added to the previously mentioned circular argument.

In order though to make something out of nothing, to save what is salvageable, others have attempted to relate Hubal (the vocalisation is secondary and need not be viewed as original) to a supposed apotheosis of Abel (see, Hibil-Ziwa in the Mandaic tradition) – cf., e.g., T. Fahd, Le panthéon de l’arabie centrale à la veille de l’hégire. But this remains problematic and unconvincing (cf. Fawzi Zayadine, Journal Asiatique 257, 1969, 172) — this also applies to the proposal already suggested by Edward Pockocke in the 17th century, which is still occasionally used today, namely that Hubal is derived from Hebrew hab-baʿal, “the Baal”.

In conclusion, despite the combined efforts made hitherto by Islamologists, Old Testament scholars and Orientalists, their efforts may best be summed up by a quotation from Ecclesiastes: “But when I looked around for all my works that my hands had done, and for the trouble I had taken to do them, behold, all was vanity and a haste for wind and nothing lasting under the sun!”

This god, as his name implies, could not have existed. On the other hand, it can probably not be a coincidence that a specific Deuteronomistic term of anti-polytheistic polemics is used by a later tradition (indirectly) dependent for a similar purpose.

The fact that much of what is biblical in later Islamic tradition (note the so-called Isrāʾīlīyāt) was also adopted from Jews and Judaism is certainly not a new insight. Likewise, the Islamic polemic of Arab idolatry in the Hejaz during the so-called ǧāhilīya (“period of ignorance”) is largely ignorant itself, i.e., largely based on imaginary foundations, as the many anachronisms make clear.

One cannot escape the impression that when the Islamic historians and theologians wanted to report about the bad old days of idolatry, realising that they had no first-hand information at all (also because the formation of Islam in Mecca and Medina is historically not viable), they were dependent on those who, as is well known, possessed knowledge of times distant, namely the Jews.

Apparently, Islamic historiographers borrowed a word to indicate the vanity of idols to denote the chief idol of their holy city in an imagined past – Hubal never was. Trying to find him is like chasing after the wind!

Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr studied Classics and Semitics largely in Vancouver, Tübingen and Leyden. He is currently director of the Inârah Institute, for research on Early Islamic History and the Qur’an in Saarbrücken (Germany).

The image shows a pre-Islamic anthropomorphic stele.

Origins Of the Ka’ba And The Hajj

When it comes to the origins of Islam, in the popular imagination anyway, all seems to be clear. To paraphrase Ernst Renan, a French scholar of the nineteenth century, Islam was born “in the full light of history.” When, however, we look closely at the sources, a more complex and confusing picture emerges.

This applies especially with regard to the origins of the Islamic pilgrimage to the Kaʿba in Mecca, Allah’s “sacred House” (al-bayt al-ḥarām) and the activities partaken by believers. (Pilgrimage involves both the Ḥajj and the ʿUmra – note that Islamic texts are rather vague on the fusion of the ʿUmra with the Ḥajj and when it might have happened, often assuming that the latter had always included circumambulation of the Kaʿba).

In Islamic texts pertaining to these rites, there is often discomfort with regard to some of the rituals, so for example, the famous ḥadīth which has ʿUmar state his disinclination to make istilām (greeting or kissing) of the black stone of the Kaʿba is well known, and so too is al-Ghazālī’s admittance that some of the Ḥajj rituals lack obvious aesthetic pleasure or rational explanation. We also often find mention of the Hajj to ʿArafat not to the Meccan Kaʿba, which only seem to have been conflated at a later period.

In the Qur’an, according to Islam, a revelation to Muhammad, at least three passages assume that the Hajj is directed towards the bayt which, in one passage, is identified as the Kaʿba:

  • In 3:97 we read that mankind owes the duty of ḥijj al-bayt to Allah;
  • In 2:158 it is stated that “whoever makes Hajj of the bayt, or ʿumra” (man ḥajjaʾl-bayt awi ʿtamara) and includes the names of al-Ṣafā and al-Marwa;
  • 2:196 which starts with the command to “fulfill (or complete) the Hajj and the ʿumra for Allah,” goes on to mention ʿArafāt in verse 198;
  • 22:26-29 notes firstly that Allah showed Abraham the place of the House, whereupon he is ordered to proclaim the Hajj to all humanity, which seems to suggest that it is the “House” or bayt that constitutes the object of Hajj – verse 28 then refers to the slaughter of animals which are to be eaten and shared with the poor, and verse 29 prescribes a final circumambulation of the“ancient House” (al-bayt al-ʿatīq), once the tafath (usually interpreted as ritual dishevelment) has been completed.

Taken together, these passages would seem to suggest that it is the bayt that is to be the object of Hajj, and they probably have much to do with the widely accepted idea that the Kaʿba has always been at the centre of the Ḥajj. The Kaʿba is equated with the bayt in 5:97, which states that
Allah made the Kaʿba, al-bayt al-ḥarām, as a support(qiyām) for mankind (al-nās). These passages are, even when taken together are rather vague.

Scholarship has shown that verses in the Qurʾan which allude to Abraham and the bayt are adaptations of Jewish and Christian midrash, and we know that in the Late Antique Middle East there were numerous sanctuaries associated with Abraham and where an annual festival during a specific month was celebrated.

It would therefore seem that much of the quranic material focusing on the bayt (esp. 3:97 and 22:26-29) as the focus of a festival or celebration (ḥajj) has originated with reference to a place other than the Kaʿba at Mecca, and indeed the key term ḥajj in this meaning is a borrowing from Syriac (which in turn borrowed it from the Hebrew Bible). Only later did it become attached to the Kaʿba, which was identified as Abraham’s foundation.

The material which can be gleaned from Islamic sources pertaining to the history of the Ḥajj during the early Islamic period – between the death of the Prophet and that of Ibn al-Zubayr – shows it as a symbol of religious and political authority, but does not suggest any way in which it might have been connected with Muḥammad or Abraham.

The legitimate question in light of the evidence available, or the lack thereof, is whether the Prophet ever took part in the Ḥajj? Before the Prophet’s “Farewell Pilgrimage” (ḥijjat al-wadāʿ) we have no real evidence, and it should be noted that there are many variant reports about the Farewell Pilgrimage, and it is clear that over time these underwent considerable literary amplification.

One might be tempted to envisage a development that was begun by the Prophet and still in formation in 72 AH (Ibn az-Zubayr), although this does seem rather far-fetched by all accounts. The attention the sources give to the re-building of the Kaʿba by Ibn al-Zubayr, and to the alterations made to its form, seem at odds with the sense of continuity in its history that Muslim tradition generally seeks to present.

Based on the available Islamic sources relating to the period between the death of the Prophet and the fitna of Ibn al-Zubayr, it is hard to make the case that the Ḥajj was focussed on, or even associated with, the Kaʿba, which is not mentioned as frequently as one might have expected, and based on the same evidence, one is even led to call into question the historicity of the traditional accounts of the Farewell Pilgrimage.

Apart from al-Yaʿqūbī’s report about ʿAbd al-Malik’s designs regarding the Dome of the Rock, it is rarely, if ever, clearly stated that the Ḥajj involved visiting the Kaʿba. Depending on our attitude to the reliability of the reports, we might conclude that the Meccan sanctuary was a building of some religious importance, possibly associated with an anachronistic notion that the Prophet may once have prayed inside, and that when people came to Mecca for the Ḥajj they may have visited it.

Nonetheless, Muslim tradition on the Meccan sanctuary before Ibn al-Zubayr’s construction work really makes no mention of the site’s Abrahamic associations. It is well known that Ibn al-Zubayr justified his rebuilding by an appeal to the alleged wishes of the Prophet and by the claim that he was restoring the building as per the original foundations laid down by Abraham. It is rather unclear why that should have been necessary at the time, but the tradition gives the impression that an
inappropriate, or at least an imperfect, jāhilī structure was to be replaced with a properly Islamic (i.e. Muḥammadan and Abrahamic) one.

At this point, we should ask ourselves a few pertinent questions.

What is a Kaʿba and is it unique?

As was noted, there were numerous contemporary shrines dedicated to Abraham:

Traditionally, the term Kaʿba is taken to mean “cube”, vis-à-vis the present shape of the Meccan sanctuary (cf. the root’s quadratic semantics in modern Arabic, which are later and derived from the Islamic shrine).

However, in Arabic, the primary meaning of the root k-ʿ-b denotes “swelling” (cf. ابو كعيب ābw kʿyb – “mumps”), often of the breasts of young girls during puberty (or compare كواعبkāwʿb), hence unsurprisingly كعبةk’b, etc. “virginity.”

In EpiphaniusPanarion, we find a reference to the mother of the Nabatean God Dusares ( ذو الشرىdhu al-sharaa) as Χααβου or Chaabou, because, like Mary, she was a virgin. Now then, both mother and son were widely venerated by both Arabs and other Semitic peoples in antiquity, hence the numerous shrines attested in literature.

A Kaʿba then, a shrine dedicated to this goddess (and her son), is analogous to the Parthenon, i.e. a building dedicated to a virgin goddess (or the many Christian Churches named after “our Lady”, a pre-Christian appellation for a goddess). What though does any of this have to do with Abraham?

If we look at the modern Kaʿba, we might still be able to find some clues. To the North-West of the structure, we find a low-standing semi-circular wall which is part of the sacred precinct (around which the Tawaf is performed), called الحطيم (āl-ḥaṭim ,“something destroyed”?), in which we find the ,حجر إسماعيل (ḥiǧr Ismāʿil, traditionally seen as Ismael’s grave; outside thereof we find that of Hagar.

Now in Islam, like in Judaism, there is a taboo on corpses, unlike in Christianity in which churches once needed to contain the relics or to be built on the grave of a martyr or biblical figure (especially since St Helena, Constantine’s mother). The fact that the only two people allegedly buried in an Islamic shrine are buried in المسجد الحرام (al-masjid al-haram, the Grand Mosque) is surprising at least.

It is clear that the Arabs traced their lineage to Abraham through Ismael, not an indigenous tradition, but one developed by Josephus and later amplified by Church Fathers, especially Saint Jerome. In the fifth century, we see that this is used to convert pagan Arabs, i.e., by converting to Christianity they might be able to reclaim their birthright – Ismael was Abraham’s firstborn, and present when God made His covenant with him.

For Arab and Semitic Christians especially, who rejected Pauline soteriology, and who saw in the person of Jesus a human prophet who did not repudiate the Law, Abraham and Ishmael were important. Some insight in this longstanding theological debate, which also sheds some light on traditions that would go on to become incorporated in Islam, can be found in Galatians chapters 3-4, esp. 4:21ff. The Arabs of the seventh century, who rejected Chalcedonian Christology, saw themselves as both the spiritual
and biological heirs of Abraham through his son Ismael.

As was noted in the preceding, we find no real evidence for Mecca as the site of the Ḥajj before Ibn az-Zubayr. As noted, he rebuilt the sanctuary, allegedly according to its original intent or design. At the same time, the criticism brought to bear in (later!) Islamic texts against his contemporary and adversary, ʿAbd el-Malik, was that the latter allegedly diverted the pilgrimage from Mecca to Jerusalem.

However, these texts leave one with the impression that later authors knew of the Umayyad pilgrimage to Jerusalem – but did not understand that Mecca only gained primary significance later. There do not seem to be traditions about the Umayyads being connected to Mecca – and therefore later authors assumed that they had rerouted the Ḥajj. In this time there is no evidence associating Mecca with either al-’Isrā’ wal-Miʿrāj’ (which is only centuries later), nor is Jerusalem referred to as al-quds; instead, we find a realisation of the city’s Latin name Aelia.

Indeed, the Umayyads are often criticised in these later texts for being somewhat deviant vis-à-vis later Islamic orthopraxy. The disparagement is valid, simply because Islam did not yet exist in the seventh century, only in the latter half of the eighth and first half of the ninth centuries can we see what would become Islam slowly emerging in the Abbasid capital Baghdad.

In the preceding, we have noted that the Qur’an makes no specific mention to the Ḥajj at the Meccan Kaʿba. Furthermore, Muhammad’s association herewith is spurious at best. Indeed, before Ibn az-Zubayr, during the second Fitna, we have no real tangible evidence, and by all accounts, there was a major Ḥajj to Jerusalem, hardly surprising for a monotheistic “Abrahamic” religion.

It would though seem that Mecca was also one of the many pilgrimage sites devoted to Abraham, especially in relation to the veneration of his son Ismael, and was frequented especially by Arab believers, who saw themselves as Abraham’s biological and spiritual heirs through Ismael (whose firstborn Nebaioth, Genesis 25:13, is sometimes seen as the progenitor of the Nabateans).

Originally the Kaʿba at Mecca though, in pre-Christian times, was dedicated to the Semitic deity Dusares and his mother Kaabou, who was actually a sacred stone (a Baetylus, i.e. beth-’el the dwelling of (a) god, بيت الله bayt allah). That cult sites were repurposed and adapted to new religious realities (“under new management”), needs no further explanation.

By all accounts, Ibn az-Zubayr, in the power struggle of the latter seventh century, a civil war among various Arab factions, for hegemony over an Arabic Empire (Islamic is an anachronism), chose as his site, Mecca, which must have had considerable longstanding cultic significance for the Arabs. After his demise, this site was understandably given preference over Jerusalem and incorporated over time into the primary sanctuary of what would later become Islam.

Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr studied Classics and Semitics largely in Vancouver, Tübingen and Leyden. He is currently director of the Inârah Institute, for research on Early Islamic History and the Qur’an in Saarbrücken (Germany).

The image shows an illustration of Mecca by Sir Francis Burton, the famed soldier, linguist, scholar, explorer, discoverer, poet and author, from his book, Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah, published in 1855-1856.