“So have you considered al-Lat and al-‘Uzza? And Manat, the third – the other one?” (Q 53:19-20)
In the above verses, the Quran talks about three goddesses that were being worshipped in ancient Arabia in the 7th century AD. While their worship swiftly came to an end following Islam’s conquests, they were representative of a long series of Arabian cultures that are too often dismissed in traditional Islamic history as “jahiliyya” – the age of ignorance.
al-Lāt, Allah and the Nabataean empire
Al-Lāt was first mentioned by the Greek historian Herotodus (called the “Father of History“) around 440 BC. He counts her among the only two divinities that Arabs worshipped, and gives her name as Alilat (Incidentally, this is one of the earliest records of the Arabic language too, as it uses the characteristic definite article “al” of Arabic, equivalent to the English “the“)
Later on, al-Lāt came to be prominently featured in rock inscriptions and graffiti found throughout Arabia, but predominantly in its northern part. Around 4th century BC, an Arab kingdom called the Nabataean Empire emerged in Northern Arabia, Jordan, Palestine and the Sinai area of Egypt. It encompassed the Hejaz region (containing Mecca and Medina) and was a major military power before falling to Romans in 106 AD.
Such was the Nabatean influence and prestige that when the Quran came to be written down, the script chosen wasn’t one of the many that were native to central Arabia (or South Arabia), but a modified form of the Nabataean alphabet.
In this kingdom, al-Lāt was a major goddess (along with al-Uzza and Dushara). Heavy contact with Romans led to her identification with the Greek Goddess Athena. We know this because in a bilingual inscription, the Arabic title “wahab ul-Lāt“ (gift of al-Lāt) is translated into Greek as “gift of Athena“. Similarly, al Uzza (“The Mighty”) was associated with the goddess Aphrodite.
The name of the other major god Dushara, should be read as dhu-shara, with the initial “dhu” representing the common Arabic prefix meaning “having” (like, dhu-al-Qarnain in the Quran refers to a person “having two horns” – Alexander, the Great).
Of course, Allah was another major god of the Arabs mentioned in the inscription. He is sometimes mentioned as a specific god alongside others, but more often, in the sense of a general God (pre-Islamic Arab Christians also used Allah for God)
Relation between Allāh and Al-Lāt
An interesting coincidence is that the word Allah is derived from “al-ilah” meaning “the god“, while “al-Lāt” (derived from al-ilat) can be considered the female counterpart of al-ilah, as feminine nouns in Arabic are constructed by adding “t” at the end. (“Kabeer“, meaning a big man, becomes “kabeerat” (pronounced as “kabeerah“) when referring to a big woman).
Like in many Semitic religions, the original Nabataean (or Arabic) pantheon possibly (but, by no means definitely) included a male and female divine pair represented by Al-lah (“The God”) and al-Lat (“The Goddess”). After all, the ancient Semitic god El, had a wife called Elat (and/or Asherah), and the Jewish God Yahwehis also believed to have had a consort named Asherah initially.
In fact, according to certain hadiths, the original audience of the Quran was making this very claim and insisting that al-Lat is just the female version of Allah, betraying the possibility that at least some of the Arabs remembered the (possible) ancient connection. The Quran berates such people, saying: “And leave [the company of] those who practice deviation concerning His names. They will be recompensed for what they have been doing” (7:180)
(Note that since Elat is already attested as a female divinity from much earlier times and languages, al-ilat need not be derived in the context of Arabic grammar. On current evidence, its difficult to conclude whether there was an explicit connection between al-Lat and Allah)
The various names of God
Notice the following Quranic verse:
Say, “Call upon Allah or call upon the Most Merciful [al-rahman]. Whichever [name] you call – to Him belong the best names. (Q 17:110)
The word al-Rahman above, was actually a famous name for the (monotheistic) god in Southern Arabia, attested in numerous inscriptions. According to tradition, the reason this verse was revealed, was that people were confused given that al-Rahman was the title for God that Musaylama (another rival claimant to Prophethood) had been using. The above verse emphatically asserted that al Rahman is the same God as Allah.
Another interesting thing to note is that the Quran repeatedly emphasizes that “To Him [Allah] belongs the best names” (Q 17:110, 20:8, 7:180). Removed from its original context, we assume that this is just to emphasize all the qualities of God that these “best names” represent. The real import of these verses, though, might have been quite different.
“The Hearer” (al samee’), “The Patient” (al-haleem), “The Merciful” (al-Rahim) and “The Mighty” (al-Aziz) – “beautiful names” of God emphasized in the Quran, were all names of separate gods in Arabia! The Quran’s repeated insistence that all of these names belong to Allah alone, was meant to subsume these gods as simply attributes of the one true god Allah, and incorporate their worshippers into Islam.
The third divinity mentioned in the divine trio at the start was Manat – the goddess related to Fate. Note that her name doesn’t start with “al” (the), unlike that of al-Lat and al-Uzza, showing that this was a proper name from the very start, and not a divine attribute that later morphed into a full-fledged god (quite a common occurence in Semitic religions).
As an interesting side note, when Mahmud Ghaznavi invaded India and ransacked the Somnath temple, his propaganda machinery insisted that Somnath housed the last remnants of this goddess Manat, which had been saved from destruction by the Prophet’s companions, and transported by her worshippers to Gujarat. The entire story was manufactured to bolster his image as a pious Muslim who gave the final touches to the Prophet’s unfinished work in destroying Arab paganism.
The gods of Noah’s people
Finally, there are the five gods (Wadd, Suwa’, Yaghuth, Ya’uq and Nasr) that, according to the Quran, were worshipped by Noah’s people before the Flood (Q 71:23). The 8th century Iraqi scholar ibn al Kalbi, in his Kitaab al Asnaam (Book of the Idols), tells us that these were, in fact, all local Arab deities, and gives us the names of specific areas and tribes where they were worshipped (the same information comes to us from certain hadiths).
This was also confirmed by the discovery of the names of some of these in inscriptions from the Arabian peninsula.
Early Muslim scholars were in a fix to explain how idols from Noah’s time (after complete destruction in the Flood) could end up being worshipped in Arabia. One of the stories narrated to explain this says that a jinn inspired a person called Amr ibn Luhayy to go and recover these idols that had been brought to Arabia by the Flood waters, and buried in the sand. He promptly did that, and introduced Arabs to Noah’s gods.
Another explanation holds that Arabs, for some reason, renamed their existing gods to correspond to Noah’s ones.
Analyzing the evidence from inscriptions and earlier texts is critical to placing the Quranic discourse in its proper context.
Ancient Arabian historiography is still very much a developing field, and there’s far more to discover, especially in the critical Hejaz area. With the discovery of new inscriptions (pretty abundant, but thoroughly under-studied), and the proper catalouging of old ones, some of the long-held assumptions about jahiliyya are bound to be overturned.
- “An Arabian Quran” – dissertation by Dr Suleyman Dost, Assistant Professor of Classical Islam at Brandeis University
- “The relationship between Arabic Allāh and Syriac Allāhā” – a seminal paper by David Kiltz
“Somnath – The Many Voices of a History” by Romila Thapar
(Posted by Daud Khan)