Qur'anic Aims and Counterfactual Possibilities

Includes the Satanic Verses

What might religion have been like without Muhammad? Religion in Arabia was complex. There was already a belief in one God, before his claimed revelation. This was Allah, the High God. There were other deities too, and their shrines to be visited. Some looked like the Ka'bah, as at Najran (Yemen) and al-Abalat (south of Makkah). Three were close to Makkah dedicated to the three daughters of Allah called, collectively, banat Allah. One was looked after by the Thaqif tribe and this was the shrine of Allat, or Goddess, also called the Sovereign, at Taif. The shrine of Aluzazah, or the Mighty One, was at Nakhlah. Manet, Goddess of Fate, was at Qudayd, by the sea. These may have been connected with fertility Goddesses in the semitic pantheon which suggests a pre-nomadic origin.

There was the Ka'bah too, the most significant Pagan shrine located at Makkah and a special twenty two miles radius of peace forbidden to all tribal violence. This was a mysterious centre of Arab faith located next to the Zamzam spring, just as sacred then as now. It was and is a box shape with its black stone at one corner, the whole set in a circle. It was dedicated to Hubal (from the Nabatean people who lived in today's Jordan), but the significance of the Ka'bah, with 360 totems of gods around it from many tribes all around, will have led to an additional association with the high God above them all, Allah. The box perhaps suggests the four corners of the world with its (cosmic?) special part, all set in circular eternity, a place of rapid walking meditation.

The people then went to the Hajj, which took place on the spare days made holy beyond the 360 in the Sumerian calendar. The people circled the Ka'bah in the sun's direction and spiralled in to be able to kiss the black stone, a meteorite. They actually did this on many occasions, perhaps after a day's hunting or in an evening. In the autumnal Hajj, it might have been to counter the sun and want rain. Going around is like a rapid walking meditation. The Ka'bah was the first shrine of many to go and visit and worship with so many gods represented as well as Hubal. Within the Hajj they also went to Muzdalifah, the abode of the Thunder God; they ran across the valley to pray and back; they had a standing meditation in Arafat on vigil; they hurled pebbles at the three sacred pillars of Mina; they shaved heads; and they finished the rituals after some days by performing an animal sacrifice. Violence all this time was strictly out. In the Ka'bah area and in the Hajj peace was essential. It had one huge benefit: it was seen to support trade because peace facilitated a condition that generated prosperity.

Whilst the Ka'bah was very much a Pagan centre, Allah was becoming more important and Arabs identified this as similar to the God of other axial faith. This faith was of the Jews and Christians, regarded at first as having unity under one God. The Christians may well have been Ebionites, known in Arabia, at one of the margins of the Christian world, as Nasara. They believed that Jesus was the Masih (Messiah), being the Son of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit (as in the Qur'an), a man but with an angel within. They observed the Law. Their priests wore white as a symbol of purity. (bin Talal, 1998, 9-11). So they were quite like the Jews, except that they recognised a messiah as having come. So this Allah had clearly spoken to other people, but not the Arabs.

One can imagine a slow development from this situation into a form of Hinduism. Without Muhammad (or someone else) faith could have so evolved. Allah would have been close to Brahman, with deities in a family. There needs to be some care here, however, for the stones of the shrines to female deities were a spiritual focus towards Goddesses with little in the way of their known own story or imagery. Neither were these deities worshipped at home. They were rather features of the landscape and long history. Stone itself is a crucial material in this. In this counterfactual history, the Ka'bah would have perhaps stayed the centre of faith, and much known in today's Hajj would still have taken place with its obscure if renewed meanings. The meanings of these deities and practices were being lost. Nevertheless visiting and acting around these shrines remained a powerful passing through ritual, a cleanising, as good as a wash in the Ganges.

Muhammad might have seen the actual Hinduism as a people of the Book too, given scriptures like the Vedas and Upanishads, and the appearance of avatars. One must ask why Hinduism receives no mention in the Qur'an if, as believers say, the Qur'an is God's revelation and Muhammad's recitation. Muhammad of course knew nothing about Hinduism and thus it receives no mention. What matters is the faith of the region (or even his Quraysh tribe) which had Jews and these Nasara or Ebionite Christians in the vicinity. Brahman evolved in Hinduism and took a long time to be rationalised too, and counterfactually the religion of the Arabs might have developed a similar structure of Pagan Gods, practices and the one highest God.

If so, it would have developed after the spiritual malaise in the area. The fact is that Jews and Christians had received their revelation and the Arabs had not. The Arabs could well have been impatient: the counterfactual possibility has to overcome this impatience and sense of being unacceptably second class. They had missed out on the prophets who had visited to the north. Well now the Arabs had their prophet, Muhammad, and theirs had, he said, the same message to pass on to the people as major religions elsewhere. Muhammad received visions and recitations, starting from seventeenth Ramadan 610 CE, and therefore The Book. This book was affirmed as the one all prophets will have received, the only revelation from God. So there was a big change. The one God was giving an axial faith (monotheistic faith for this level of social development) - they said the faith - that they had been sorely missing. The Arabs could now pursue the notion of a unified umma (community).

So Allah the within Paganism one God had a leap forward into no longer sharing divinity with others. So there was continuity in faith and belief, especially at first with the Jews and Christians. Initally Muhammad demanded that prayers faced Jerusalem, said two or three times a day. There was already a belief in judgment on the last day. Muhammad did not want to differ from the monotheistic outlook in what he perceived as having a successful unity.

Muhammad knew of the story local Jews carried that Hajar (Hagar) and Ismael (Ishmael) came to Arabia. By using this, the Hajj with the Zamzam water story gave newer meaning to the running across the valley and back (after circling the Ka'bah). All the other activities acquired new meanings too. The Pagan deities were to be no longer part of the Hajj. They had to go, although Muhammad wobbled on this in the context of the Satanic Verses in the Qur'an (Sura 53).

19 Have you seen al-Lat and al-'Uzza,
20 And another, the third (goddess), Manat?
(The Holy Qur'an, 2000)

At the first recital the prophet continued:

These are the exalted females [or, sublime swans, i. e. mounting nearer and nearer to God]
And truly their intercession may be expected.
(The Koran, 1909, 70)

The Quraysh opposition to Muhammad enjoyed and spread these words. Muhammad disowned these verses some days later as being a suggestion of Shaitan, and the Qur'an continued in its present form (The Koran, 1909, 70; Armstrong, 1991, 114). The change suggests that Muhammad with integrity decided he would not after all compromise with the Quraysh and their power, and the Muslims had to leave from Makkah (see The Koran, 1909, 69). The replacement verses were also given as revelation with one story saying Muhammad was criticised by Gabriel for not reciting from God. The new verses state:

21 What! For you the male sex, and for Him the female?
22 Behold, such would indeed be a division most unfair!
23 These are nothing but names which ye have devised - ye and your fathers - for which Allah has sent down no authority (whatever). They follow nothing but conjecture and what their own souls desire! - even though there has already come to them guidance from the Lord!
24 Nay, shall man have (just) anything he hankers after?
25 But it is to Allah that the End and the Beginning (of all things) belong.
26 However many be the angels in the heavens, their intercessions will avail nothing except after Allah has given leave for whom He pleases and that he is acceptable to Him.
(The Holy Qur'an, 2000, 456)

So the Pagan attraction was made to be that of Shaitan. These lesser gods were subsequently denounced and believers in them as idolaters. Yet Muhammad probably still believed in their existence, as he did in the angels and jinn (jinn generated a personalised sprite, jinni, that possessed people, whom Muhammad distrusted, and a concept against which Muhammad had to defend himself in that a jinni possessed person, a majnun, poured out its words). Perhaps, then, Muhammad was not so different from many in his day who saw Allah as supreme but other supernatural bodies existing as well. But if the beliefs with the great faiths and also old practices (if newly justified away from rejected yet recognised Pagan deities) were to be continuous, what was going to be different was the ethical demand on society.

Muhammad wanted to work with the Jews: and had communal prayer on Friday when Jews prepared and fasted on the Jewish day of Atonement. However, Jews did not want prophets any more so they did not accept Muhammad. Jewish tribes also scoffed at Muhammad's use of Hebrew Bible stories; others liked them. This rejection and Muhammad's realisation that these Jews and Christians were different, shifted the sense of continuity. Madinah suras concern Judaism often. Now these faiths were corrupted, now the continuity shifted to before those faiths were corrupted.

This is what happened with the Hajj, altered when Muhammad and the umma were back at Makkah having first escaped to Madinah from the opposition. The meanings of the pilgrimage were pushed back to Ibrahim (Abraham) and the first offspring from Hajar. The Ka'bah, claimed now to be built by Ibrahim, was therefore part of monotheism and the Hajj part of continuous revelation from before Moses. Qiblah was changed to Makkah, meaning almost a 180 degrees turnaround in Madinah. Going back to the father of the faiths, this faith was pure, and indeed the first prophet was Adam himself. When God created humanity he ordered his angels to bow before this first man and Shaitan refused; this tempter even of the contents of the Qur'an itself will be forgiven on the Last Day.

So came the strong ethical guideline. Mercantilism leads to sophistication in society and throws up issues of greed and distribution as produce is generated and surpluses made. Some people get rich and exercise power over those who are not. Most mercantilist societies developed surpluses from agriculture and trade. Arabs lacking agricultural land, often starved and did not have a surplus from this source. Sometimes they went on raiding parties, against other tribes and passing caravans. They even fought with themselves. The Quraysh however did develop markets for trading that went through Arabia and they made money. This produced inequality. Money making was individualistic and Muhammad was concerned for the tribe, the community, as a whole.

Muhammad saw this as a problem. Yes the Quraysh were successful now but in Arabia they were becoming a dysfunctional community and for the longer term. What he perceived was the need for attitudes of fundamental equality (or at the least incorporating the poor) and unity. Unity could come through a belief in one God as in faith elsewhere, and equality through a strong social ethic. Both were thus tied up into the power of revelation.

So his emphasis was on changing behaviour regarding justice and compassion with an egalitarian ethic. The Qur'an actually has a rejection of theological speculation built in.

Prayer was a core element of this ethic: the posture before God showed they were nothing and that their increasingly capitalistic egos were quashed before the God. Zakat meant giving to the poor. Ramadan fasting meant giving up the easy life for a time. People were therefore reminded of others in the community. Society would become more long lasting and successful - this way. It was social concern at the core of faith built into submission to the ethical demand of God. Because there was no belief in original sin, there could be godly social achievement. Muhammad became the example, a standard, increasingly seen as a perfect man but not divine.

There was no unity. It would have to mean a unity among the believers. Some 70 families converted to Islam but by 616 leading families were opposed to Muhammad. Their interests were threatened: acquiring wealth they did not like demands to support the poor. They disliked the belief he affirmed in the Last Judgment (it was primitive). From their perspective, relatives converting to Islam were a direct threat and this was divisive.

They were thus worried about Muhammad, a leader, and claiming to receive revelation directly. The Muslims were therefore isolated including participation in trade. Some suffered from a lack of food. Slaves were roughly treated.

This was at Makkah. At Yathrib (Madinah) where many had settled and given up nomadism, Muhammad's message seemed to make sense especially because residents were often at each other's throats. Its chiefs came to Muhammad. Given the knowledge of the Jews in their midst, they often followed monotheism and also wanted social peace. They converted to Islam and stopped the infighting. The Muslims therefore went themselves to Yathrib. This was when Islam started because at Yathrib Muhammad could implement Islam.

Now there was a chance to develop the perfect city. This is the meaning of Madinah. The umma was self-protecting and this seemed like a successful tribe (including Jews and Pagans too). A Place of prostration (masjid) was built. The prophet stood on a tree trunk to preach. There was a direction of prayer marked by a stone: the Qiblah. There was a courtyard around which people lived. Much activity happened in the mosque where the sacred and secular were joined as one: tawhid.

In Madinah Muhammad became more as a chief and forged ties with companions. These wives did not have children. Four daughters survived from Khadijah, who had died during the more difficult years. Muhammad enjoyed female company and they had a strong place in his company and, furthermore, rights were given to women they had not enjoyed. Women took part in public life and some were fighters. Men could have four wives treated with equality.

Nevertheless there was poverty in Madinah. The people now as the umma were not going to attack themselves any more. There was no killing within their people (vendettas) and no raiding of allies. So they attacked rival tribes and they went after Quraysh majority. They went to the coast to raid the biggest caravan of the year, and defeated the Makkan response. Muhammad's troups fought under his command. Bedouins looked on and liked the attack on the Quraysh.

Naturally, the Quraysh wanted the Muslims destroyed. In 625 Makkah defeated the umma, but the Muslims were back at the Battle of the Trench and won, beating the leadership of Abu Safwan. Three tribes of Jews had allied with Makkah and they were chief casualties of the fighting. Pagan leaders were allies of the Jews and they met the same fate. Women and children of the defeated were sold into slavery. The troups killed very many of the enemy to prevent a return attack. The defeat by killing so many prevented a return war. Groups in opposition were exiled from Madinah but Jewish groups did continue in Madinah, and Judaism was still respected.

Bloodshed and fighting had been frequent. But after the Battle of the Trench there was a change. In 628 there was a movement of Muslims to the Hajj at Makkah. These pilgrims would be unarmed and about 1000 joined in wearing white robes. The Quraysh could not attack such pilgrims once at Makkah so they tried to attack outside the city. Muhammad and the pilgrims evaded them and waited at the edge of the sanctuary.

At this point a peace treaty, the Treaty of Hudaybiyah, was signed where neither side was entirely happy, and the Quraysh did not keep their side of the bargain. The Khuza'ah tribe had joined Muhammad's confederacy, which meant that after a clan of Bakr, confederates of the quraysh, had attacked, aided by some of the quraysh in providing weapons, the Khuza'ah retaliated with fighting even within the Ka'bah sanctuary. The Khuza'ah made an appeal to Muhammad. Abu Sufyan (not the same as Safwan!) attempted a peace negotiation for his Quraysh but realised he ought just to prepare Makkah for what was coming. When in 630 Muhammad took 10000 with him, and did not go to the Pagan centre at Taif, the Quraysh simply gave way by barracading themselves in their houses as an acceptance of the offer of submission. Abu Sufyan refused to fight. The city gates were opened. There was an easily beaten token resistance including Safwan. Muhammad then took no reprisals; he slept and when awoke, carried out ritual ablutions and rode around the Ka'bah and touched the Black Stone seven times calling Allah Akbar (God is Great). He smashed the idols and demanded the walls be removed of these images except the two of Jesus and Mary. He urged people gathering to reject Paganism, spoke of sexes, tribes and races all of one source in Adam, and gave an amnesty except for ten people (Safwan was spared) many of whom were themselves spared. The Kab'ah was thus altered to monotheism and Ka'bah and Hajj made Islamic.

Now the ethic of equality and peace within could be applied wider. Arabs could live in harmony. Yet this had to continue once Muhammad had died in 632 CE. The pattern was the same: unity intended within by raiding those outside. A single ruler was decided upon and Abu Bakr was elected by majority as Ali was too young. Not all was easy within. Abu Bakr did have wars of apostasy when tribes tried to break away. There were revolts that were political and economic. Rebels raided connected tribes, and were rebuked. The Arabs wanted the united community they had achieved in peace and Abu Bakr attracted followers back by raiding outsiders. This gave economic rewards and created a common enemy as they went along. There were always the non-Muslims over the line, and so the Muslims expanded territory.

Through the four rashidun or "rightly guided" Caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali) they expanded. Under the second Caliph (632-644) they went into Iraq, Syria and Egypt; they overcame Persia. They did not penetrate the centre of Byzantine, however. They even went to the North African coast. A century later they were in control of land from the Pyranees to Himalayas.

What this meant was success, and the Qur'an was based on success. Muhammad at Abu Bakr's time had become regarded as the last and the greatest of the prophets, an opinion reinforced by this continuing success. Whereas Christians worked on the irony of defeat and emergence from it, and use of the suffering servant idea, the Muslims certainly did not. Yet this expansion was not ever continuous, nor did they attempt forced conversion. Conversion was stopped for a short time at about 700 CE. Once in Muslim space they had poll tax paying protected subjects and these other faith people could not be attacked. The Muslims created Arab enclaves in garrison towns where much discipline was maintained.

Another act of unity came from Uthman. He said only one text of the Qur'an could be used in Garrison towns. There were some varieties.

Unity did not last, however, even in the times of the rashidun. Uthman's discipline and the lack of plunder was one reason that Arab soldiers went to Madina and assassinated Uthman and proclaimed Ali. The result was a five year year civil war within the umma. Ali's supporters said Uthman had not ruled justly. Ali himself never condemned Uthman's murder. Ali was victor in battle but faced more battles whilst an attempt at arbitration went against Ali. A new Caliph was installed and Ali compromised. When some of his supporters left the umma, Ali went after them, but these rebels grew. They were called Karajites. They were pro-equality of the Qur'an. The ruler, they said, should be not most powerful but the most committed. They raised the question of Muslim identity. Ali's suppression of them lost him much support and the Caliph in Damascus benefited. Ali was murdered by a Karajite. After this came partisans of Ali, the Shi'ites, for whom descendents of Ali should rule the umma. Husayn, Muhammad's grandson, refused to accept the Ummayid caliphite, and he was murdered by Caliph Yazid, becoming a martyr. Islam was divided for evermore. Later too came the Sufis, a reform movement of an intended more direct experience of God.

Yet with the expansion and development prosperity included much learning, and Islam was a centre of civilisation and knowledge. Even in division (and they are divisions of rule not fundamental doctrines), the effect of Muhammad and the Qur'an was an equalitarian attitude, best exemplified at the Hajj, and also a fundamental unity. At first Islam was an Arab revelation including as it expanded. However, not long after his death Muhammad became regarded as the last and greatest of the prophets: the seal of the prophets. This must mean for everyone, for in Islam there have been thousands of prophets across the globe. Therefore, it became fully multi-racial and multi-ethnic. Anyone who joined the umma was an equal and part of the unity, and this is how it remains. All should go to the Hajj at least once in a lifetime (a logistic difficulty now that there are hundreds of millions of Muslims - those who have been once should attend again at times other than in the main days of Ramadan). The Hajj receives people of every race and language, and all wear white and should observe the absolute requirement for peace. The Arab faith has taken its ethic to the whole world.

From the expulsion in Spain, in 1492, and the European Renaissance, Islam would never enjoy the same sense of success again. Its unity was already gone but its ulema shrunk to cliques and it became conservative in all its schools. Fixed revelation interpreted and continued success seem to be opposed when much of the world enjoys a critical freedom of human endeavour and the power of the international markets.

Adrian Worsfold


Armstrong, K. (1991), Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet, London: Victor Gollancz.

Armstrong, K. (Narrator, Davidson, R. M.) (2002), Islam: A Short History, [Voice recording], available in 5 audio cassettes of 6.75 hours, New York: Recorded Books, by arrangement with The Modern Library, Random House.

The Koran (trans. Rodwell, J. M.) (1909), London: J. M. Dent & Sons.

The Holy Qur'an (trans. Ali, A. Y.) (2000), Ware: Wordsworth Editions.

bin Talal, E. H. (1998), Christianity in the Arab World, SCM Press.


Rodwell's attempt at close to literal translation whilst retaining some sense of thees and thous:

21 What? shall ye have male progeny and God female?
22 This were indeed an unfair partition!
23 These are mere names: ye and your fathers named them thus: God hath not sent down any warranty in their regard. A mere conceit and their own impulses do they follow. Yet hath "the guidance" from their Lord come to them.
24 Shall man have whatever he wisheth?
25 The future and the past are in the hand of God:
26 And many as are the Angels in the Heavens, their intercession shall be of no avail
[27] Until God hath permitted it to whom he shall please and accept.
(The Koran, 1909, 70)