So one of our readers asked us this question the other day. What was the culture and religion of the Arabian Peninsula like before Islam? This is a subject I know nothing about, and as I was wiki-chaining conspiracies, urban myths, fringe theories and psuedo-archaeology, I came across some things about Islam and Allah being a Moon god. Well, I don’t know enough about this, so teach me some stuff!
We have a few of different kinds sources about the history of pre-Islamic Arabia (referred to as PIA from herein out). First and foremost (in my opinion) is archaeology. Arabia is actually an excellent location for the preservation of lots of delicate materials because the water table is so low in so many regions (general rule of thumb is high water tables are bad if you want anything like papyrus to be intact by our time).
Secondly, we have external references to the peninsula. If one knows where to look, there are a number of other cultures which discuss Arabs in our periods of relevance. I will talk about them in more detail later, but for example Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek and Roman sources all talk about the peninsula at various points (some in more specific detail than others).
Thirdly, we’ve got attempts to critically examine references made in the Qur’an and concerted efforts to understand the spread of Islam. This is after the period that you’re asking about, but essentially people have tried to look at visible trends afterwards and try to extrapolate their origins.
Fourthly, we do have some written material from PIA cultures. I separated that from archaeology because in terms of analysis epigraphy and papyriology are a little different to analyzing an artifact (though of course the inscriptions are in themselves artifacts). The evidence from this quarter is uneven depending on the region/culture in question, but occasionally we get very lucky. For example, there is this inscription written in Sabaic (pic above), dedicated to the god Almuqah, and also this Sabaic inscription describing a battle between themselves and the Arabs of Manhat which also refers to Almuqah.
Now that I’ve introduced us to the kind of sources we’re generally looking at, I’ll dig in.
The name ‘Arab’ itself seems to be an endonym. That is to say, something at least some Arabs called themselves. They are known as Arabs to almost every single culture that ever encountered them; the Assyrians call them Arabi, Arubu, Aribi, for example. There is an issue translating all of these references into our noun/adjective Arab, however; in several of these cases, the term is being used more specifically than it would be now, or with a different sense. The reason why I am doing so, and why others have done so, is that the mentioned peoples are often referred to with transliterated names and it’s clear they are proto-Arabic.
But that brings us to my first major answer to your question; there was not a ‘single’ Arab culture, and ‘Arab’ was not a monolithic identity. To my understanding, there are a number of known regional identities that were quite distinct from one another.
One of the best known are the communities of what is now Yemen. Over 50,000 Sabaic inscriptions have been found to date. Not only can we read their script but we also understand the language. Saba or the Sabean Kingdom are the terms usually used for this state, but it was known as Sheba for a long time before that. The actual indigenous term was Sb’ w-gwm (the vowels, as with most Semitic scripts, are a tricky thing), meaning ‘Saba and all its communities’.
As previously mentioned, we know that at least in some periods their chief deity was Almuqah, sometimes called ‘Lord of Ibexes’. A major early deity is Atthtar, the lord of Gazelles. I find that a rather interesting concept, as odd as that may seem. Pilgrimages existed, along with ritual use of incense. We have archaeology remains of inscriptions, statuettes, and specific varieties of altar. Most of those inscriptions are prayers. We also have mention of Shams, a solar goddess. The rival kingdom of Himyar, who I haven’t mentioned yet, are known to have venerated Shams more than in Saba where Almuqah is far more prominent.
Overall, a number of deities are known. Their language and scripts are known to us. We are aware of the names of several kingdoms in the region, in particular Himyar and Saba. We are also aware that they had conflicts both with one another and with other cultural groupings in the peninsula as a whole.
The northernmost of PIAian cultures are perhaps the best known to us. The reason for this is that these cultures penetrated into territory controlled by various imperial states, all of which had various dealings with them. Edom is a state referred to in the Bible (though its exact status as Arabic is not entirely proved to my satisfaction) and also in Assyrian/Babylonian correspondence of the time. It is also referred to by later Greek authors, though by this time the Kingdom had long been defunct. Due to issues with source material and a lack of clear archaeology, we’re unsure exactly when Edom came to end, but we know their replacements fairly well- Nabataea. Nabataeans were active during the Hellenistic era, trading extensively with surrounding cultures. They seem to have been rich and powerful, and intricate builders. See for example their capital, the famous site of Petra(pictured above). Interestingly, although material remains suggest that they were part of the Arabic cultures their written language of choice was actually Aramaic. They were also influenced by Hellenic material culture, somewhat unsurprisingly.
The Nabataeans (Nabatu in their own language) were not the only state/kingdom in North Arabia. There were a number of pastoral tribes in the area, but also settled cities like Bostra which were not part of the Nabataean realm originally (in certain periods the Nabataeans expanded their territory as far north as Damascus). But they are the best known to us because their kingdom was so powerful, and because it directly interacted with the Hellenistic and then Roman worlds.
A number of deities are known from the region; Illatu, identified as Athena by the Greeks. She was also known as al-Illat or Allat in Arabic (Illatu is Aramaic). She is named in early-Islamic literature. Now, relevantly to your original question, she was the daughter of Allah as the name indicates. Allah was considered the supreme god of North Arabia, and had his daughters Illatu, Uzza and Manawat. The concept as I have seen it explained is rather like that of ‘Theos/Deus’ in Greco-Roman religion (I hate the term but it’s appropriate here); the term is usually translated as God as in the modern post-Christian sense in English, but in the original sense usually refers to ‘the Supreme deity’. In my experience, ‘Allah’ is the equivalent of that concept in PIA.
There was also Quama, god of war and protector of the night. More specifically he was associated with protecting caravans, which as you can imagine were a fairly major institution in northern Arabia (it’s directly alongside the Arabian desert and the caravan routes from the peninsula’s interior directly pass through this region).
There was also Dushara, ‘Lord of the Mountains’, who is referenced frequently in Nabataean inscriptions. Perhaps originally an Edomite deity, perhaps not. Either way this deity was particularly popular within Nabataea’s settled heartlands.
There is an important note about these deities though; their names are titles and proper nouns. Their identities, therefore, are somewhat mutable and rather hard to precisely pin down. It is quite similar to how the various epitheted versions of Greek gods and goddesses are often quite different from one another, and also tend to merge quite awkwardly with technically separate deities- Apollo and Helios are two separate deities, but Apollo was worshipped as Apollo Phoibos and as Apollo Helios in certain places. This element of confusion and lack of precise delineation between deities tends to be a hallmark of many pantheons when they’re shared among many different polities and cultures.
East Arabia is much less well known than the south and north. Archaeological evidence is almost exclusively the major source material here, and knowledge grows slowly. I know the least about this region by far of all three I have mentioned so far. We are still at the point in which archaeological periods are used to refer to cultures, and vice versa. There is a distinct lack of contextual information for the region thus far. We do know, however, that copper mining and smelting was a thriving industry in the Oman peninsula. In particular, during the Early Iron Age. With the dearth of written material, and the scanty stages archaeology is at with the Oman peninsula, I will be dealing more with this region in my last bit here, about PIA’s foreign connections.
As mentioned, there are references to the peninsula/Arabian culture in lots of external sources. There is the Old Testament, in which various cultures are not infrequently mentioned. But more concrete evidence for the early history of the peninsula in Assyrian sources. Several individuals with proto-Arabic names turn up in imperial correspondence pertaining to the southern border of the Empire, and some pastoral Arabic tribes are mentioned as being part of the Empire. Additionally, there are a number of reports made to the Assyrian King about Arabic raids on the frontier and usually in reference to plunder being taken and raiding for slaves. There are also earlier references in Babylonian history- one of the major sources of Babylon’s copper in the early Iron Age was one ‘Magan’. Magan is almost certainly our old friend; the Oman peninsula. This relationship seems to be quite important to both parties, given how this period sees an immense rise in copper production.
The Neo-Babylonian Empire, formed by Assyria’s death, also had dealings with Arabs; the last king of the Empire, Nabonidus, is mentioned as having waged war with Arabs for ten years prior to Cyrus the Great’s arrival; this was cited as a reason why it was just that Cyrus replaced him and made Babylon part of his Persian Empire (small tangent: the reasons are mostly post-facto justification, I’ve seen no evidence that Nabonidus was actually a particularly bad king).
The Achaemenids had something of a more direct relationship with East Arabia- it is almost certain that the island of Bahrain was settled/controlled by the Persians in this period, along with much of Arabia’s northernmost coastline. It’s theorised that perhaps the entirety of the Oman peninsula was part of the Empire, as the satrap of Maka (rather reminiscent of Magan, isn’t it). Now, I personally think it’s likelier that it was a situation like that with Macedon; i.e that there more like a formal obligation and less actual integration into Persia. But it isn’t impossible- after all, Oman is only a sail across the Persian gulf.
We next come to Arabia in Alexander’s time. Whether he genuinely intended to or not is unclear, but his biographies indicate that Arabia may have been his next target of conquest- he allegedly sent a naval expedition to check it out. Though clearly nothing came of this, Seleucid control did extent to the Oman peninsula and Bahrain in its early life and possibly relatively late (the 170s/160s BC). To return to the peninsula’s own archaeology a second, the 4th century onwards is when Athenian imitation currency begins to be produced in what seems to be the peninsula’s first coinage. Compare that to an old-style Athenian issue.
The Romans conquered Nabataea eventually, bringing it directly into the Roman world. They also allegedly took a crack at ‘Arabia felix’, meaning ‘happy Arabia’ or ‘lucky Arabia’. This is modern Yemen, the South Arabia we encountered earlier. If the report is true, then the Roman army suffered horrible casualties from the heat and was forced to withdraw.
In the 3rd century AD, the aspiring Kingdom of Aksum in Africa actually launched an invasion of South Arabia and attempted to annex it to the Kingdom. This was eventually repulsed. Interestingly, by this time there were Jewish, Christian and traditional polytheists in Arabia all at the same time. It was a real hodge-podge of traditions.
Now, I’m not going to deal with Arabia directly prior to Islam and with the late Roman Empire/Byzantines because that area is not one I have expertise in. Suffice to say, however, that various North Arabian kingdoms and tribes were powerful pawns in the game between the Romans and Sassanians.
One more important note- no Arab seafaring or shipbuilding is concretely known prior to the Hellenistic era, it seems to have been taken up relatively late.
There is still a lot to be found out about PIA. Particularly the eastern parts in what is now the Oman peninsula. But what we know shows the cultures and religions of the peninsula absorbing influences from elsewhere, evolving over time, and varying from one another considerably. The picture I’ve presented may even be completely insufficient in another couple of decades, and I hope it is because that means we’ll know far more by that point.