Hidden origins? This is the title of a book[1] by Karl-Heinz Ohlig of the University of Saarland, Germany, who heads a group of expert researchers on the history of religions, such as Gerd-R Puin, former director of the research team on the Qur’ānic  manuscripts uncovered in 1972 in the Great Mosque of San‘ā, Christoph Luxenberg, author of The Aramaic reading of the Qur’ān, Volker Popp, researcher in the history of ancient coins and inscriptions, Yehuda Nevo, Judith Koren and others.


THEIR AIM IS TO RESEARCH and delve into the early past of Islam and remove the rubble of legend from that era of the seventh century AD. The success of Biblical archaeology studies, the unraveling of the mythology of the patriarchal era (from Abraham to Solomon) and the dislocation of the Judeo-Christian edifice meant that the application of these historically critical approaches to Islam proved tempting. They thus took a a fresh look at the most important sources and early inscriptions and interpreted them free of the pressure of the Islamic textual heritage, which in the eyes of some had become mere religious literature and not history in the scientific sense of historiography. Before going into details and expressing an opinion, I find it useful to pause at some critical junctures that may both promote and impede the trajectory of these new visions.

At the beginning of the 19th century the researcher on early Islam Gustav Freitag (1788-1861) voiced his distrust of the traditional accounts in the Islamic heritage, describing them as false and fabricated, particularly those dealing with the pagan rituals surrounding the pre-Islamic Ka‘ba. The narratives on the idols of the Makkan pantheon appeared to carry many contradictions, especially since this site was subsequently incorporated into Islamic ritual supposedly by divine decree. These accounts also appeared to conflict with the mindset of the seventh century AD, and the prevailing Judeo-Christian perceptions in the region which had long invalidated the worship of stone statues. 

They took a fresh look and interpreted them free of the pressure of the Islamic textual heritage

He also noted confused accounts in the Islamic heritage concerning the Ḥanīfs[2] and the poetry of the pre-Islamic period, given the clear Qur’ānic conceptions that it contained, conceptions that at times reached the point of absolute congruence in phraseology and argumentation.[3] He noted also that the arena of Qur’ānic discourse painted the picture of some sharp conflicts between the various Peoples of the Book, and that these conflicts were mixed with a tone of bitterness and complaint but did not reflect conflicts with worshippers of stone statues as the legacy would have us believe. The transformation of the Ka‘ba into an Islamic ritual appeared to be irrefutable evidence of the falsity of these claims.

At the end of the 19th century, Karl Fuller and Rudolf Geyer attempted to examine the editorial history of the Qur’ān and reconstruct some of the poetic passages in the short rhymed sūras. They assumed the existence of an ancient Qur’ānic  text whose features were later obliterated, and its content transformed to lend a new coherence to the religious-historical meaning. Günter Lüling followed this up in 1970s, assuming that these sūras were liturgical prayers and a literary product of Syrian Christianity.[4] Lüling then followed this with his study of the Ka‘ba and the stages in the development of its construction over different periods[5] and tracing the evidences in the Islamic heritage that indicated the presence of Christological symbols inside the Ka‘ba and which were removed following the conquest of Makka. 

 Lüling declared that the Ka‘ba was a church dedicated to Mary, and that Al-Lāt, ‘Uzza and Manāt are merely Arabian Marys

He also examined accounts mentioning six columns that supported its wooden roof (there are currently three), and which were arranged along two parallel lines to allow the worshipers at that time to face the ḥujr (and thus towards Jerusalem.  As evidenced in the heritage, this ḥujr (currently surrounded by a low wall in the shape of an arch) in the pre-Islamic period and in the time of ‘Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr was enclosed by a high roofed wall and its space connected to the inside of the Ka‘ba, functioning as the altar of the church. And with this Lüling declared that the Ka‘ba was a church dedicated to Mary, and that Al-Lāt, ‘Uzza and Manāt[6] are merely Arabian Marys. The conflict therefore was not with the infidel Qurayshīs but with the Christian Byzantine Qurayshīs, whose three persons of the Trinity conflicted with the Syrian Monotheistic church (which included the Monophysites in the Ghassanid church with its Old Testament traditions deeply hostile to Byzantium and the Council of Nicaea).

Lüling’s central thesis was thus that the Qur’ān’s call for a return to the religion of Abraham and Ishmael was made on a symbolic level, as a return to the original pagan god of the Arabian Peninsula with its manifestations in the roots of Judaeo-Christianity, where God responded to Abraham’s supplications and set down the boundaries of his land for him. This was subsequently to have been obliterated in the post-prophetic stage, thus erasing the image of the enemies fought against by early Islam, since these were none other than adherents of Hellenistic Christianity (the Quraysh) stigmatized as idolators and polytheists, but who in reality were attached to the three images and venerated holy icons. This process of erasure and obfuscation served to spare young Islam any theological clash with Judeo-Christianity and its deep biblical and theological heritage. It is as if Islam decided at the time to lose on the desk what it gained in the field of war, as Günter Lüling expressed it.

This process of erasure and obfuscation served to spare young Islam any theological clash with Judeo-Christianity

But important light on the history of Makka was provided by Reinhard Dozy in his 1864 book The Israelites in Mecca, which was rejected by the pillar of Orientalism Julius Wellhausen, but nevertheless opened up the way for biblical studies, especially since the geography of Palestine belied the emergence of the biblical story the Patriarchs on its territory. Dozy’s idea was that Makka was referred to by ancient historians up to the third century AD as ‘Macoraba’and mentioned in the Old Testament as Makkah Rabbah meaning ‘great battlefield’.[7] Later this name was shortened by removing the adjective rabba (‘great’) to leave ‘Makka’. 

He then refers to what the Torah relates about the departure of the tribe of Simeon (Shem‘ōn) from the Israeli tribal association at the time of King David (about 1000 BC) and their settlement in the land of Hijaz. This prompted the Biblical editor after the Exile to describe these Shem‘ōnites as Ishmaelites (note the similarity between the words Shem‘ōn and Shmā‘ēl) where they were considered alienated relatives (from Hagar and Ishmael). There are those who assert that the story of Ishmael and his mother is a late filler in the context of the Biblical account, and what is remarkable is the relationship that Dozy uncovered between the idols of al-Ṣafā and al-Marwa – ‘Isāf’ and ‘Nā’ila’ – and between two Aramaic words: Āsūf and Nawālī denoting a  dustbin or a place where waste is discarded.[8]

The indication here is that al-Ṣafā and al-Marwa were places for throwing the remains of sacrifices and offerings made around the Ka‘ba. The ideas of the Dutchman Dozy were then supported by the research of Fritz Hommel at the beginning of the 20th century, enhanced by cuneiform archaeological finds from the northwestern region of the Arabian Peninsula (south of Aqaba). Inscriptions here indicate that this area (Shem‘ōniaIshmā‘ēlia) was up until the seventh century BC called Miṣr (‘Egypt’), which prompted Hugo Winckler to say that Miṣr (south of ‘Aqaba) was confused by the post-exile generation and came to be called the Biblical Mizrayim, or present-day Miṣr (the ‘Mother of the World’). Modern trends in Biblical research also hold that the myth of the Exodus led by Moses is a later story, introduced into the narrative at a later time.

Miṣr (south of ‘Aqaba) was confused by the post-exile generation and came to be called the Biblical Mizrayim

Linking Egypt to the term Midianites (inhabitants of the northwest of the Peninsula) brings us closer to understanding the scheme of Biblical geography. This picture is in harmony with Qur’ānic  suggestions that depict prophets as members of a mythological tribe not far removed in time from the Hijaz region. It is consistent with the stories in the Islamic heritage on the two migrations of the Jarham tribe, its Jewish traditions and its settlement around Makka, which is in step with the story of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in the sixth century BC and the first century AD (in a symbolic rather than historical sense).

The second shift in the subject takes us to the well-known French researcher, Roland De Vaux (whose name is associated with the Qumran manuscripts). In his book The Levite Ma‘īn he casts light on the Levites in the city of Ma‘īn (Miṣrān) in northern Yemen, and the obscurity concerning their role in the Biblical narrative, which considered them to be an additional tribe in a bid to preserve the number twelve after the merger of the tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim into the tribe of Joseph. Moreover, they were depicted as roving priests who, unlike the rest of the tribes  were not included in the Torah in the distribution of lands. The Levites must have suffered during the religious reform of Josiah the king of Judah (609-640 BC) who centralized worship and rituals around the temple of Jerusalem, and prohibited the existence of other temples in the country. As a result the lives of these itinerant Levite priests became difficult, and we have an echo of this in the book of Ezra (19: 8-15) where it is narrated that the number of Levites returning from the Babylonian captivity was non-existent (only two families), and in the Talmud, where we have the strange account that Nebuchadnezzar (605-662 BC) had deported eighty thousand Levite youths to the Arabian Peninsula.

The inhabitants of Ma‘īn (the southern Arabs) were the Mīnīm, a heretical Jewish sect that spread throughout the ancient world

In his book Critical Lectures on the Emergence of Christianity (1906), Bernhard Kederman devoted a section to the inhabitants of Ma‘īn (the southern Arabs) and said that they were the Mīnīm, a heretical Jewish sect that spread throughout the ancient world and referred to by Jerome, one of the Church fathers: 

The Church cursed these Mīnīm (Ma‘īnīs – Minaeans) in its twelfth anathema and along with them also cursed the Nuserīm (Naṣārā?) and wished that their names would be erased from the books of the living and that they would not be recorded in the Book of Justice. [9]

Jewish scholars held them to be Christian Jews, while Christian scholars protested their status as Nuserīm, as the Jewish Rabbinic tradition views these Mīnīm as Israelites who rejected monotheism and believed in multiple gods.[10]

It is conceivable that the Ma‘īnīs enraged Jewish orthodoxy during the Macedonian era, and that they were ‘incense merchants’ who experience a golden age in southern Arabia and possessed traditions similar to the Jarhom tribe. That is, that these Jewish heretics – be they Mīnīm / Ma‘īnīs / Levites / Shem‘ōnites / Ishmaelites / Jarhamīs – had inherited the global incense trade from the Amalekites (Hubert Grimm said in 1904 that the derivation of the name Amalekites according to cuneiform languages comes from ‘Melūkhqa‘ and means: ‘incense merchants’). 

All these names are synonyms for groups that spread over Hadhramaut and Qatbān and monopolized the incense trade, controlling the caravan routes to Egypt, Greece and Mesopotamia, and across the Arabian Peninsula (passing through Makka, Jeddah, the island of Philae towards Carthage or via El-Arish into Sinai). Some tribal federation must have linked these together over the centuries since they were able to establish trading colonies on the island of Philae and at Carthage. 

This federation can be understood under the tribal blood law (‘aṣabiyya) as defined at the time determined by the political, social and religious features of the Arabian Peninsula. This was based on the principles of inviolability, the laws of hospitality, and the system of protégé, as the sole guarantee for travel and the safety of convoys. This also explains why the Levites, or the 13th tribe, who made vows to temples, had accepted the ideas of Moses the Egyptian (i.e., the Midian) and had converted from fertility religions to the doctrine of the Lord Yahweh, were nevertheless forced to leave and emigrate after King Josiah ‘nationalized’ the temples and confined the rituals of worship to the temple at Jerusalem. But emigrate to where? To the Arabian Peninsula, where they were protected by the tribal blood law and the protégé system  which allowed for the adoption and protection of strangers.

[1] K. Ohlig, The Hidden Origins of Islam, New research into its early history. See this work in the Almuslih Library here. (Ed.)

[2]  In Islamic doctrine the Ḥanīfs are the people who, during the Pre-Islamic period were seen to have rejected idolatry and retained some or all of the tenets of the monotheistic religion of Abraham. (Ed.)

[3] On the issue of pre-Islamic poetry containing anachronistic Islamic elements, see the Almuslih article: Taha Hussein – On science and dogma – 1. (Ed.)

[4] Günter Lüling, Über den Urtext des Qur’ān, 1974. See the Almusih Library on this theme here.

[5] Günter Lüling, Die Wiederentdeckung des Propheten Muhammad. Eine Kritik am ‘christlichen’ Abendland, Erlangen 1981.

[6] On the Islamic tradition on these deities, and their relation to the ‘Satanic verses’ controversy, see Almuslih article:  Understanding an abrogation in the Revelation – 1.  In his Die Wiederentdeckung des Propheten Muḥammad (pp. 173-182) Lüling argues that Mary the Mother of God was often referred to by pre-Islamic Arabians under the name Al-‘Uzza. He also argues (pp.202-204) that the absence of any documentation that Muḥammad conducted any da‘wā among the pagans indicates that they were absent from the arena, as does the account that the Prophet’s defeated ‘pagan’ enemies took refuge in Christian lands. (Ed.)

[7] Dozy proposed that the name was taken from the Hebrew term makkah (מַכָּה) meaning a ‘blow, wound, strike, slaughter’. For a detailed analysis of the Mecca/Macoraba issue, see Ian Morris, Mecca and Macoraba, in the Almuslih Library (esp. pp.24-28). (Ed.)

[8] Günter Lüling (Die Wiederentdeckung des Propheten Muḥammad pp.172-173) argued that the divine pair Isāf and Nā’ila were historical personages from the fifth century AD and apparently martyrs during the course of the Christianisation of central Arabia. (Ed.)

[9] In a series of letters and commentaries dated 404-410, Jerome describes a Christian heretical group who identify themselves also as Jews, but whom the Jews refer to as Mīnīm or Notserīm and place under a curse. (Ed.)

[10] As part of the Jewish rabbinical liturgy the birkat ha-mīnīm ( ברכת המינים – ‘Blessing on the Mīnīm heretics’) was a curse upon the Christians, and at one point formed a core element in the statutory daily prayer. (Ed.)

Main image: the interior structure of the Ka’ba as it is today

A Qatabanian sculpture in Hellenistic Greek style depicting the Moon as a baby boy riding a lion representing the Sun
Baraqish, the ancient Yathill, a one-time capital of Ma’in, situated in north-western Yemen on a busy caravan route