Pagan Monotheism in the Early Islamic Period

Posted in: AIAR
Tags: Albright Institute, Albright Institute for Archaeological Research, Archaeology, ASOR, Dong Xiuyuan, Early Islamic Period, Near East, Pagan Monotheism, Shandong University
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Dong XiuyuanBy: Dong Xiuyuan, Shandong University, China
Noble Group Fellow

Pagan Monotheism refers to a different (if not independent) type of monotheism than the so-called revealed or Abrahamic monotheism. It is not a spontaneous result of the evolution of sophisticated Polytheism but an adaptation of pagan religions under the pressure of dominant Christianity in Late Antiquity. During the establishment of their theological and legal systems, the Early Muslims did not confine themselves to Mediterranean civilizations, but also drew on Eastern resources, especially from Iran, India, and Central Asia. Accounts of Pagan Monotheism came from two sources: the Sabians in the west and the Barāhimain the east.

The name “Sabians”(sābi’ ūn) appears three times in the Koran. It seems that the Prophet Muhammad treated the Sabians as followers of pre-Islamic Monotheism. But the verses of the Koran have not elaborated on the specific referent of this term and there were different opinions as to the identity of the Sabians among early Islamic commentators and chroniclers as well as among modern scholars. Since the Harranians took the name “Sabians” to acquire the legitimate status of Dhimmi in the 9th Century CE, this term began to shift from a proper noun for a specific religious community to a generic noun for all the pagans who claimed that they had a revealed monotheistic tradition. According to accounts by al-Kindī and al-Mas‘ūdī’, the angels-stars are actually secondary gods who are worthy of worship. Nevertheless, the theurgical lore of the Sabians is a path leading to the real Pagan Monotheism. We find its thorough form in Ibn Wahshiyya’s Nabataean Agriculture.

In medieval Islamic literature, the term “Barāhima” denotes an Indian sect. Although its pronunciation is close to “Brahman,” according to Paul Krause (1934), there is no bridge between the Barāhima theses in Muslim reports and the actual doctrine of the Indian Brahmans. Sarah Stroumsa (1985) discovered the arguments of Barāhima in    Muqqamas’ work, ‘Ishrūn Maqāla, on the basis of which she proposes that the refutation of Barāhima against the prophecy and Muqqamas’ response reflect some Buddhist thoughts (especially the model of Bodhisattva ) and the divergence between Barāhima’s theses and actual Indian thought is due to the consideration of the debate strategy. Compared to the Sabians’ construction of the divine intermediary, the Barāhima proposes a more radical solution to the problem of a divine intermediary: that of removing all of the external mediators (angels, stars, prophets) except the intelligible world order.

As a kind of conclusion, I provide some tentative explanations for the appearance of Pagan Monotheism in Early Islamic literature. The pagans tried to gain or keep their legal status as Dhimmis, under pressure from the Muslim authorities. Another explanation for the Pagans’ adoption of the monotheistic claim is that they adopted the monotheistic premise in order to establish a platform for theological discussion. During the discussion, they attempted to persuade the Muslim conquerors to accept some of their doctrines based on human reason. In other words, accepting monotheism served as a means of exerting their influence on nascent Islam.

I divide early Muslim intellectuals into two sub-groups: converts and Arab Muslims. The former, as early adopters, participated in the construction of the Islamic institution, especially the theological system. In this process, they tried to re-affirm their own cultural legacy.

Arab intellectuals, however, faced the problem of how to make monotheism work. The most efficient solution to this problem was to re-introduce the intermediary of worship. Which kind of intermediary can work? How to prevent these intermediaries from becoming secondary Gods? Confronted with these questions, the early Arab Muslims did need some references. Jews and Christians might provide some paradigms and experiences. But after all, they were competitors for Islam and the Muslims could not just copy everything from them. At this point, Pagan Monotheism appeared timely and provided another type of resource. So, they were more than welcome for Arab intellectuals. They could find different possible solutions in Pagan Monotheism, from the covered star-worship to the theory of conductive intermediary to the radical elimination of all of the mediators.

I would like to express my deep gratitude to the Albright Institute for providing me with an ideal environment to make progress on this project and on my dissertation.

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