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Sects and Religions in the Arabian Peninsula and its Surroundings

Sects and Religions in the Arabian Peninsula and its Surroundings

Sects and Religions in the Arabian Peninsula and its Surroundings

Despite the fact that at the advent of Islam the prevailing belief of the Arabs involved idol-worshipping, there were different religions, such as Christianity, Judaism, °an¢fiyyah, M¡nawiyyah, Sabian and other schools practiced in different localities of Arabia. Thus, the Arabs did not follow a specific sect. For this reason, there was a sort of fatigue and delusion among the followers of these sects. we will hereinafter deal with each of these sects, yet briefly:


Monotheists or °an¢fiyyah[1] were those who, despite the infidels and atheists, believed in One and Only God and probably believed in the punishment of the Doomsday. Some members of this group believed in Christianity; but historians have included them with the °an¢fiyyah. Among the °an¢fiyyah are the following individuals: Waraqah ibn Nawfal, `Ubaydull¡h ibn Ja¦sh, `Uthm¡n ibn °uwayrith, Zayd ibn `Amr ibn Nufayl,[2] al-N¡bighah al-Ja`d¢ (Qays ibn `Abdull¡h), Umayyah ibn Ab¢l-¯alt, Qiss ibn S¡`idah al-Iy¡d¢, Ab£-Qays ¯urmah ibn Ab¢-Anas, Zuhayr ibn Ab¢-Sulm¡, Ab£-`ªmir al-Aws¢ (`Abd `Amr ibn ¯ayf¢), `Add¡s (the servant of `Utbah ibn Rab¢`ah), Ri'¡b al-Shann¢, and Ba¦¢r¡ the monk.[3] Some of these people were among the distinguished philosophers or poets.

Of course, the secret behind their inclinations towards monotheism lay in their pure and clean human nature and their bright thoughts. The prevalent ill-ominous sects of those days could not satisfy their spiritual needs. These distinguished individuals deeply believed in Almighty God and refrained from following an illogical set of beliefs such as those of idol-worshippers. Christianity and Judaism, too, had lost their vigor and spirituality with the passage of time and could not offer any means of tranquility to those men. For this reason, we observe that some of these God-seekers suffered the pains of journeys to find the truth. They had long discussions with Christian and Jewish scholars.[4] They impatiently looked for the signs of prophethood of the Holy Prophet to which there were numerous references in the Holy Books. Since they could not reach any accomplishment, they accepted the very first principle of monotheism. However, we do not know anything about the way they carried out their religious ceremonies.

It should be noted, however, that contrary to the view of some scholars, °an¢fiyyah did not play any role in guiding the Arab society towards monotheism; rather, as some other historians have stated, they spent their lives in seclusion. They spent their time in deliberation and contemplation, as they were never well-organized. They did not possess any sect with preset commandments or principles. What they were fond of was their seclusion and staying away from the population and refraining from worshipping idols. They were convinced that the prevalent ideology was a corrupt one. They did not give themselves the trouble of propagating their right ideas. For this very reason, they did not have any conflict with people of their own time.[5]


There were some followers of Christianity, too, at some locations of Arabia. This religion had entered Arabia from the south via Ethiopia, and from the north via Syria (The dominated areas by Byzantine) and also from the Sinai Peninsula. However, Christianity achieved no progress in that land.[6] In the northern parts of the Arabian Peninsula, Christianity had found its way among the members of the tribe of Taghlib (a branch of the tribe of Rab¢`ah), Ghass¡n and some members of the tribe of Qu¤¡`ah.[7] Qiss ibn S¡`idah, °an¨alah al-±¡’¢ and Umayyah ibn al-¯alt have been enumerated as Christians. Some of these had left their cities and communities and joined monasteries in the deserts.[8]

Christianity in Yemen

Christianity entered Yemen during the fourth century AD. Phillip °att¢, a Christian author, writes:

The first Christian missionary headed by Theofilus Endus Erius who arrived at southern Arabia was the one sent by Emperor Contantius in 356 AD. The dispatch of the abovementioned missionary was motivated by the world diplomacy of those days and the rivalry between Iran and Rome over the domination of territories in southern Arabia. Theofilus established a church[9] in Aden and two in the country of °imyar. The people of Najr¡n accepted the new religion in 500 AD.

At the dawn of Islam, Christianity was prevalent in the tribes of ±ayy, Maj¦adh, Ba¦r¡', Sulay¦, Tan£kh, Ghass¡n, Lakhm and Yemen.[10] The most important center for Christianity in Yemen was Najr¡n, an advanced city. People used to engage in farming, weaving silky cloth, trading hides and weapon making, this city was located at the trade route which extended up to °¢rah.[11]

Christianity was prevalent in Yemen until the reign of Dh£-Nuw¡s who came to power and forced people to put aside their religion. When Christians refused to do so, they were put in fire-pits and burned alive.[12] Finally, Dh£-Nuw¡s was defeated in 525 AD by the intervention of Ethiopia and Christians came to power once again.

Christianity in °¢rah

Another city where Christianity was prevalent was °¢rah, to the east of Arabia. This religion had entered the region through Roman slaves. Since the time of Hormoz I, the government of Iran had built some colonies the inhabitants of which were Roman slaves. Some of them lived in °¢rah. In the view of many, the source of Christian influence in this area was these slaves. Christian missionaries used to live in °¢rah, promulgating Christianity. They started propagating and spreading Christianity in the Arab markets, discussing the issues of heaven, hell and chastisement. Due to their efforts, some accepted this religion; even Hind, the wife of al-Nu`m¡n X, accepted this religion, building a monastery called Hind's convent. This building was in existence up to the time of al-±abar¢. °an¨alah al-±¡’¢, Qiss ibn S¡`idah and Umayyah ibn al-¯alt were from °¢rah.[13] Al-Nu`m¡n ibn al-Mundhir, the king of °¢rah, due to the encouragement of `Ad¢ ibn Zayd, accepted Christianity.[14]

Numerous Qur'¡nic verses deal with Christian ideas and the weak points in their beliefs and actions, especially their assumptions concerning Christ's divinity.[15] This is the best piece of evidence for the existence of this religion in the Arabian Peninsula at the time of the revelation of the Holy Qur'¡n. The issue of Mub¡halah; mutual cursing, which is well-known in the history of Islam, took place with the Najr¡n priests.[16]

However, Christianity had lost its spirituality and authenticity and had been subject to a lot of distortions. Thus, it could not fill the intellectual and religious vacuum which existed in the mind of people in those days nor could it give any peace of mind anymore.


Many centuries prior to the advent of Islam, Judaism had entered certain regions of Arabia. Yathrib was one of the most famous of these regions, which later came to be called Medina. There were Jewish communities in Taym¡',[17] Fadak[18], and Khaybar.[19] The Jews of Yathrib belonged to three tribes: Ban£- Na¤¢r, Ban£-Qaynuq¡` and Ban£-Quray¨ah.[20]

Besides these three Jewish settlements, there were in Medina two other Jewish tribes; Aws and Khazaraj, during the third century AD. Upon the establishment of the Jews in Yathrib, these two tribes came from Yemen to live in this city. They were originally idolaters and due to their association with the Jews, some of them embraced Judaism. It is said that there were some Jews living in ±¡’if who had been driven out of Yemen and Yathrib by force and they started their engagement in trade.[21]

Wherever they lived in Arabia, the Jews were well-known for farming due to their skills in this activity. In Medina too, they were famous due to their skills in blacksmithing, dyeing, and weaponry.[22] Judaism had some followers among the tribes of °imyar, Ban£- Kin¡nah, Ban£-°¡rith ibn Ka`b, Kindah,[23] Ghass¡n and Judh¡m.[24]

[1] °an¢f (pl. °unaf¡') is one following the religion of Prophet Abraham. See ±abars¢, Majma` al-Bay¡n 1:216.

[2] Mu¦ammad Ibn °ab¢b, al-Mu¦abbar, pp. 171.

[3] Mas`£d¢, Mur£j al-Dhahab 1:60-68; Ibn Hush¡m, al-S¢rah al-Nabawiyyah 1:237; Ibn Kath¢r, al-S¢rah al-Nabawiyyah 1:122-165; Mu¦ammad Ibn Is¦¡q, al-Magh¡z¢, pp. 115-116; Mu¦ammad Ibn °ab¢b, al-Munammaq f¢ Akhb¡r Quraysh, pp. 152-153; Mu¦ammad Ibr¡h¢m ªyati, the History of the Prophet of Islam, pp. 13-19.

[4] Ibn Kath¢r, op cit, pp. 156; Qi¥a¥ al-`Arab 1:72.

[5] Jaw¡d `Al¢, al-Mufa¥¥al 6:449. °usayn ±ab¡§ab¡’¢, Committing Treasons In Preparing Historical Accounts 1:120; Ibn Hush¡m, al-S¢rah al-Nabawiyyah 1:237.

[6] °asan Ibr¡h¢m °asan, The Political History Of Islam 1:64.

2 Ibid, pp. 64; Shih¡b al-D¢n al-Abshahi, al-Musta§raf f¢ kulli fannin Musta¨raf 2:88; Ibn Qutaybah, al-Ma`¡rif, pp. 621; al-°imyar¢, al-°£r al-`«n, pp. 136.

3 `Uthm¡n ibn °uwayrith and Waraqah ibn Nawfal, belonging to the tribe of Ban£-Asad, were following °an¢fiyyah. See T¡r¢kh al-Ya`q£b¢ 1:225.

[8] A¦mad Am¢n, Fajr Al-Isl¡m, pp. 27.

[9] T¡r¢kh al-`Arab, pp. 78. Some historians ascribe the indoctrination and introduction of Christianity into Yemen to a Syrian saint called Faymiy¢n. See Ibn Hush¡m, op cit, 1:32-35; Y¡q£t al-°amaw¢, Mu`jam al-Buld¡n 5:266. However, this seems to be a myth since it is not in agreement with what is narrated by °ett¢.

[10] T¡r¢kh al-Ya`q£b¢ 1:224.

[11] A¦mad Am¢n, op cit, pp. 26.

[12] Some exegetes of the Holy Qur'¡n say that the verses 4-9 of S£rah al-Bur£j were revealed in connection with the slaughter of the Christians. This might be a referent of those verses. See al-M¢z¡n f¢ Tafs¢r al-Qur’¡n 20:251-257:

Cursed be the makers of the pit, of the fire kept burning with fuel, when they sat by it. And they were witnesses of what they did with the believers. And they did not take vengeance on them for aught except that they believed in Allah, the Mighty, the praised. Whose is the Kingdom of the heavens and the earth, and Allah is a Witness of all things (Qur’¡n 85: 8-9).

[13] A¦mad Am¢n, op cit, pp. 18,25, 26, 28.

[14] Qi¥a¥ al-`Arab 1:73; A¦mad Am¢n, op cit, pp. 27.

[15] Qur’¡n 5:18, 72, 73; 4:171; 9:30; 5:82.

[16] Al-M¢z¡n f¢ Tafs¢r al-Qur’¡n 3:228, 233.

[17] In the words of Y¡q£t al-°amaw¢, Taym¡' was a small city between Syria and W¡d¢ al-Qur¡. See Mu`jam al-Buld¡n 2:67. W¡d¢ al-Qur¡ is situated between Medina and Syria; it was one of the provinces of Medina. Thus, Taym¡' was located between Medina and Syria. Al-Maqdis¢, a scholar of the fourth century, writes: “Taym¡' is an ancient city located in a wide-spread land, full of palm trees, with a lot of orchards and numerous rivers, with a spring of limpid water, which runs from an iron-grid into the pond and then runs into the orchards. There are some fresh water wells therein. However, most of them are ruined.” See A¦san al-Taq¡s¢m.

[18] Fadak is a village of two or three day distance away from Medina. Mu`jam al-Buld¡n 4:238.

[19] Khaybar is a region 96 miles north of Medina; it included seven strongholds with numerous farmlands and palm-groves. (Mu`jam al-Buld¡n 2:404). The distance between Khaybar and Medina is recorded with different numbers. (Taqw¢m al-Buld¡n, pp. 123).

[20] °asan Ibr¡h¢m °asan, op cit, pp. 64.

[21] al-Bul¡dhar¢, Fut£¦ al-Buld¡n, pp. 67.

[22] A¦mad Am¢n, Fajr al-Isl¡m, pp. 24.

[23] Ibn Qutaybah, al-Ma`¡rif, pp. 621; al-°£r al-`«n, pp. 136.

[24] T¡r¢kh al-Ya`q£b¢ 1:257.

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