The Story of The Goddesses

M. H. Haykal

Reproduced from “The Life of Muhammad by M.H. Haykal, translated by Isma’il Raji al-Faruqi

The Emigrants Return from Abyssinia

The emigrants resided in Abyssinia three months during which ‘Umar ibn al Khattab converted to Islam. In their exile, they heard that upon ‘Umar’s conversion the Quraysh had stopped their persecution of Muhammad and his followers. According to one report a number of them had returned to Makkah, according to another, all. On reaching Makkah they realized that the Quraysh had resumed persecution of the Muslims with stronger hatred and renewed vigor. Unable to resist, a number of them returned to Abyssinia while others entered Makkah under the cover of night and hid themselves away, It is also reported that those who returned took with them a number of new converts to Abyssinia where they were to stay until after the emigration to Madinah and the establishment of Muslim political power.

We may ask what incited the Muslims of Abyssinia to return to Makkah three months after their emigration. It is at this stage that the story of the goddesses is told by ibn Sa’d in his AL Tabaqat al Kubra, by al Tabari in his Tarikh al Rusul wa al Muluk, as well as by a number of Muslim exegetes and biographers. This story arrested the attention of the western Orientalists who took it as true and repeated it ad nauseam. This story tells that realizing how alienated the Quraysh had become and how intensely they had persecuted his companions, Muhammad expressed the wish that a revelation might come that would reconcile his people rather than further alienate them. When, one day, he was sitting with the Quraysh in one of their club houses around the Ka’bah, he recited to them surah “al Najm.” After reading the verses, “Would you consider al Lat and al `Uzza? as well as Manat, the third goddess?” [Qur’?n, 53:19-20] he continued the recitation with the statement, “They are the goddesses on high. Their intercession is worthy of being sought.” He then proceeded with his reading of the surah as we know it. When he finished he prostrated himself, and all the Quraysh likewise followed him. At this moment, the Quraysh proclaimed its satisfaction with what the Prophet had read and said, “We have always known that God creates and gives life, gives food, and resuscitates. But our gods intercede for us with Him. Now that you have allowed for them a place in your new religion, we are all with you.” Thus the difference between Muhammad and the Quraysh was dissolved. When the news of this reconciliation reached Abyssinia, the Muslims there decided to return to their beloved country and people. As they reached the approaches of Makkah, they met some Kinanah tribesmen who informed them that Muhammad allowed the gods a good position in his religion, reconciled the Quraysh, and was now followed by everyone. The story then relates how Muhammad reverted by blaspheming those gods and the Quraysh reverted to persecution. It further adds that the returnees stopped to consider what their next course should be. They longed so much to see their relatives and next of kin that they went ahead and entered Makkah.

Other versions of the same story give detailed descriptions of Muhammad’s attitude toward the gods of Quraysh. They claimed that Quraysh’s plea that if he but grant their gods a share in his religion the Makkans would all support him troubled the Prophet. They relate how Muhammad one evening reviewed surah “al Najm” with Gabriel when the latter made a timely appearance. When he arrived at the sentence in question, Gabriel asked where it came from. Muhammad answered; “I must have attributed to God that which He did not say.” God then revealed the following verses: “They have almost succeeded in inducing you, under promise of their friendship, to attribute to Us, against Our command, that which We did not reveal to you. Had We not confirmed you in your faith, you might have been tempted and hence fallen under the inescapable punishment.”[Qur’?n, 17:73-75]. Thereafter, Muhammad returned to his condemnation of the gods, and Quraysh returned to their persecution.

Incoherence of the Story

Such is the story of the goddesses reported by more than one biographer, pointed to by more than one exegete of the Qur’?n, and singled out and repeated by a number of western Orientalists. It is a story whose incoherence is evident upon the least scrutiny. It contradicts the infallibility of every prophet in conveying the message of his Lord. All the more wonder, therefore, that some Muslim scholars have accepted it as true. Ibn Ishaq, for his part, did not hesitate at all to declare it a fabrication by the zindiqs [Non-Muslims concealing their unbelief, falsely pretending that they are members of the ummah; mostly Zoroastrians and Manicheans – Tr.]. Those who were taken in by it rationalized it further with the verse, “Every prophet We sent before you was such that whenever he pressed for revelation to come, Satan would hasten to inspire him with something satisfying his wish and thus necessitate God’s abrogation of it if scripture is to be kept absolutely pure and true. God is all wise and all knowing. That which Satan had given is a lure for those who are sick of mind and hard of heart. Surely the unjust are deep in error.” [Qur’?n, 22:52-53]. Some explain the word “tamanna” in the foregoing verse as meaning “to read;” others give it the usual meaning of “to press wishfully.” Muslim and Western scholars who accept the story explain that the Prophet suffered heavily from the persecution the unbelievers directed at his companions. They tell how the unbelievers killed some Muslims, exposed others to burning by the sun while pinned down to the ground with heavy stones (as was the case with Bilal), and how these sufferings pressured Muhammad to permit his companions to migrate to Abyssinia. They underscore Quraysh’s alienation and the psychological effect of their boycott upon the Prophet. Since Muhammad was very anxious to convert them to Islam and to save them from idol worship, they claim that his thinking; of reconciling them by adding a few verses to Sura’ “al Najm” is not farfetched. Finally, they allege that Muhammad’s jubilation was all too natural when, coming to the end of his recitation and prostrating himself, the Quraysh joined in, showing their preparation to follow him now that he had given a share to their gods with God.

To these tales of some books of biography and exegesis, Sir William Muir adds what he thinks is a final and conclusive proof. He says that the emigrants to Abyssinia had hardly spent three months there during which the Negus had tolerated as well as protected them when they decided to return to Makkah. Had they not heard news of a reconciliation between Muhammad and Quraysh nothing would have caused them to return so soon. But, reasons Muir, how could there be reconciliation between Muhammad and Quraysh without a determined effort to that effect on the part of Muhammad? In Makkah, the Muslims had then been far fewer and weaker than the Quraysh. They were still incapable of protecting themselves against the injuries which the Quraysh had been inflicting upon them. Why, then, should the Quraysh have taken the initiative in such reconciliation?

Refutation of These Arguments

These are the arguments on which stands the claim for veracity of the story of the goddesses. They are all false, incapable of standing any scrutiny or analysis. Let us begin with the argument of the Orientalist Muir. The Muslims who returned from Abyssinia did so for two reasons. First, `Umar ibn al Khattab was converted to Islam shortly after their emigration. With him, he brought to the Muslim camp the same boldness, determination, and the tribal standing with which he had been fighting the Muslims before. He never concealed his conversion nor did he ever shun the Quraysh opponents. On the contrary, he proclaimed his conversion publicly and challenged the Quraysh openly. He did not approve the Muslim’s concealment of themselves, their secret movement from one end of Makkah to the other, and their holding of prayers at a safe distance from any Quraysh attack. `Umar began to fight the Quraysh as soon as he entered the faith of Islam, constantly pressed his way close to the Ka’bah, and performed his prayer there in company with whatever Muslims that decided to join him. It was at this new challenging turn of events that the Quraysh came to the realization that any further injury inflicted upon Muhammad or his companions would henceforth create a civil war of which nobody knew the consequences. By this time, a great number of men from the various clans of Quraysh had joined Islam. To kill any one of these would necessarily imply the rise to war not only of his fellow Muslims but of all the clans of which the various Muslims or allies were members, even though the rest of the clan or the tribe were still of a different religion. After the conversion of `Umar and the entry of so many members of other clans into the faith, it became impossible to fight Muhammad in the same way as before. Such a course could easily expose the whole of Quraysh to terrible peril. It was necessary to find a new way which did not incur such risks, and until such way was found, the Quraysh thought it advantageous to enter into an armistice with Muhammad and the Muslims. It was this news which reached the emigrants in Makkah and prompted them to return home.

Two Revolutions in Abyssinia

The emigrants would have hesitated to return to Makkah were it not for another reason. A revolution broke out against the Negus in which his personal faith as well as his protection of the Muslims were under attack. For their part, the Muslims had prayed and wished that God would give the Negus victory over his enemies. But they could not participate in such a conflict since they were foreigners who arrived there too recently. When, at the same time, they heard of the news of an armistice between Muhammad and Quraysh favorable to the Muslims and protecting them from injury, they decided to escape from the Abyssinian revolution and return home. That is exactly what all or some of them did. They hardly reached Makkah, however, when Quraysh decided upon a course of action against the Muslims and entered into a pact with their allies to boycott Banu Hashim completely in order to prevent any intermarriage with them and to stop any purchase by or sale to them. As soon as this new alliance was concluded, open war broke out again. The returning Muslims sought immediately to re-emigrate and take with them all those who could manage to go. These were to meet greater difficulties as the Quraysh sought to impede their move. What caused the Muslims to return from Abyssinia, therefore, was not, as Orientalist Muir claims, the reconciliation of Muhammad with Quraysh. Rather, it was the armistice to which the Quraysh was compelled to resort following the conversion of `Umar and his bold support of the religion of God with his tribal relations. The so-called reconciliation, therefore, constitutes no evidence for the story of the goddesses.

Inverted Evidence of the Qur’?nic Text

As for the argument of some biographers and exegetes that the verses, “They had almost succeeded in inducing you . . .”[Qur’?n, 17:73-75] and “Every prophet We sent before you was such that, whenever he pressed for revelation . . .”[Qur’?n, 22:52-53] constitute evidence for the story of the goddesses, it is yet more incoherent than that of Sir Muir. It is sufficient to remember that the first group of verses include the statement, “Had We not confirmed you in your faith, you might have been tempted.” This group shows that even if Satan had actually hastened to inspire Muhammad with something satisfying his wish and thus induced him to favor the unbelievers, God had confirmed the Prophet in his faith and prevented him from falling to the temptation. Had Muhammad really fallen, God would have inflicted upon him inescapable punishment. The point is, precisely, that he did not fall. Hence, these verses prove the opposite of what these advocates assume them to prove. The story of the goddesses asserts that Muhammad did indeed incline toward the Quraysh, that the Quraysh had indeed induced him to add to the divine word, and that he indeed did attribute to God that which God had not said. The text,[“Muhammad saw some of his Lord’s greatest signs. Would you consider, after al Lit and al `Uzza, Manat, the third goddess? But would you give God the females and keep for yourselves the males? That is indeed an unjust division. But they are all mere names which you and your ancestors have named and for which God gave no authority. In this claim of yours you followed naught but conjecture and your own wishful thinking, while true guidance has arrived to you from your Lord” (Qur’?n, 53:18-23)] on the other hand, tells us the exact opposite, namely that God confirmed him in his faith and that he did not add to the divine word. Moreover, we should well bear in mind the fact that the books of exegesis and the books dealing with the causes and circumstances of revelation regardless of whether or not they subcribe to the story in question affirm that these verses had been revealed at a time other than that during which the story of the goddesses had presumably taken place. To resort to the story of the goddesses in order to disprove the infallibility of the prophets in their conveyance of divine messages not only runs counter to the whole history of Muhammad but constitutes a fallacy of incoherent reasoning and, hence, a futile and perverse argument.

As for “Every prophet We sent before you…” these verses are utterly devoid of relation to the story of the goddesses. Moreover, they clearly affirm that God will abrogate all that the devil may bring forth, that Satan’s work is only a lure to those who are sick of mind and hard of heart, and that God, the all wise and all-knowing, would keep His scripture absolutely pure and true.

Fallacious Reasoning of the Claim

Let us now turn to a critical and scientific analysis of the story. The first evidence which imputes suspicion to the story is the fact that it has been reported in many forms and versions. First there is the report that the fabricated verses consist of the following words: “Tilka al gharaniq al `ula; wa inna shafa`atahu-nna laturtaja.” Others reported them as consisting of, “al gharaniqah al `ula: inna shafa?atahum turtaja.” Still others reported that they consist of the following words, “Inna shafa`atahunna turtaja” without mentioning the word “al gharaniq” or “al gharaniqah” at all. According to a fourth version, they were supposed to consist of the words: “Innaha lahiya al gharaniq al ula..” A fifth version reads, “Wa innahunna lahunna al gharaniq al ula wa inna shafa’atahunna lahiya allati, turtaja.” The collections of Hadith have given us still more varied versions. The multiplicity of the versions proves that the report itself is fabricated, that it had been fabricated by the zindiqs-as ibn Ishaq had said earlier and that the forgers had sought thereby to spread doubt into the message of Muhammad and to attack his candidness in conveying the message of his Lord.

The Story’s Violence to the Contextual Flow of Surah “al Najm”

Another proof of the falsity of the story, stronger and more conclusive than the foregoing, is the fact that the contextual flow of surah “al Najm” does not allow at all the inclusion of such verses as the story claims. The Surah reads:

“He has witnessed many of the great signs of his lord. Would you consider the case of al Lat, al `Uzza, and of Manat, the third goddess? Would you then ascribe to God the females and to yourselves the males? Wouldn’t that be a wretched ascription? All these are nothing but names, mere names which you and your ancestors had coined. Men are so prone to follow opinion! They credulously fall for the product of their own wishful thinking. But true guidance has indeed come from the Lord.”

The logical and literary flow of these verses is crystal-clear. Al Lat, and al `Uzza are mere names devoid of substance given by the past and present unbelievers to works of their own creation. There is no deity such as the word name. The context does not allow any such addition as is here claimed. If, assuming such addition, the text were now to read: “Would you consider the case of al Lat, al `Uzza, and of Manat, the third goddess? These are the goddesses on high. Their intercession is to be sought. Would you then ascribe to God the females and to yourselves the males? Wouldn’t that be a wretched ascription?” its corruption and outright self-contradiction become obvious. The text would have praised al Lat, al `Uzza,, and Manat as well as condemned them within the space of four consecutive verses. Such a text cannot proceed from any rational being. The contextual background in which the addition is supposed to have been made furnishes unquestionable and final evidence that the story of the goddesses was a forgery. The forgers were probably the zindiqs; and the credulous whose minds are not naturally repulsed by the irrational and the incoherent, accepted the forgery and passed it as true.

The Linguistic Evidence

There is yet another argument advanced by the late Shaykh Muhammad `Abduh. It consists of the fact that the Arabs have nowhere described their gods in such terms as “al gharaniq.” Neither in their poetry nor in their speeches or traditions do we find their gods or goddesses described in such terms. Rather, the word “al ghurnuq” or “al gharniq” was the name of a black or white water bird, sometimes given figuratively to the handsome blond youth. The fact is indubitable that the Arabs never looked upon their gods in this manner.

The Story Contradicts the Fact of Muhammad’s Candidness

There is yet one more final argument against the story of the goddesses that is based upon the nature of Muhammad’s personal life. Ever since his childhood and throughout his adolescence, adulthood and maturity, he was never known to lie. So truthful was he that he had been nicknamed “al Amin” before he reached his twenty-fifth year of age. His truthfulness was unquestioned by anyone. He himself once addressed the Quraysh after his commission to prophethood : “Suppose I were to tell you that an enemy cavalry was advancing on the other side of this mountain, would you believe me?” His enemies themselves answered: “Yes, indeed! As far as we are concerned, you are innocent, for we have never found you to lie at all.” How can we believe that such a man who had been known to be truthful in his relations with his fellow men from childhood to maturity, would be any less candid in his relation to God? How could such constant truthfulness allow him to lie and ascribe to his God that which He had not said? How could we believe that such a man did so in fear of the people and defiance of Almighty God? That is utterly impossible. Its impossibility is evident to all those who have studied these great; strong and distinguished souls of the prophets and religious leaders known for their dedication to the truth pereat mundus. How can we reconcile such an allegation with Muhammad’s great declaration to his uncle that he will not adjure this cause even if his foes should put the sun in his right hand and the moon in his left? How can we. accept such a claim when it imputes to the Prophet the heinous charge of attributing to God that which God had not said, of violating the very foundation of the religion he was commissioned to proclaim and teach to mankind?

Furthermore, we may ask, when, according to the story, did Muhammad turn to praise the gods of Quraysh ? Ten years or so after his commission to prophethood, is the reply. But, then that is also after ten years of patient sufferance of all kinds of injury and harm, all kinds of sacrifices, after God had reinforced Islam with the conversion of Hamzah and `Umar, and, in short, after the Muslims had begun to feel themselves a significant power in Makkah and the news of their existence and exploits had begun to spread throughout Arabia, indeed to Abyssinia and other corners of the globe. Such a claim is not only uninformed, it is positively silly. The forgers of this story themselves must have realized its inadmissibility and sought to conceal its falsehood with the claim, ?Muhammad hardly heard Quraysh?s words of reconciliation once he granted to their gods the honor of interceding with God, when his compromise appeared to him objectionable and he felt compelled to repent and to review the text of revelation with the angel Gabriel when he visited him that same evening.??? This concealment, however, exposes the forgery rather than hides it. As long as the compromise appeared objectionable to Muhammad no later than he had “heard Quraysh’s words of reconciliation,” would he have not paused to reconsider it immediately and on the spot? How natural it would have been then for him instantly to recite the true version of the text! We may, therefore, conclude that this story of the goddesses is a fabrication and a forgery, authored by the enemies of Islam after the first century of the Hijrah.

Attack Upon Tawhid

The forgers must have been extremely bold to have attempted their forgery in the most essential principal of Islam as a whole: namely, in the principle of tawhid, where Muhammad had been sent right from the very beginning to make proclamations to all mankind in which he has never accepted any compromise whatever; he was never swayed by anything the Quraysh had offered him whether by way of wealth or royal power. These offers had come, it must be remembered, at a time when Muhammad had very few followers within Makkah. Later persecution by the Quraysh of his companions did not succeed in swaying Muhammad away from the call of his God or away from his mission. The zindiqs’ strategy to work their forgery around the first principle of the faith, where Muhammad was known to be the most adamant, only points to their own inconsequence. Acceptance of the forgery by the credulous only points to their naivet? in the most conspicuous of cases.


The story of the goddesses, therefore, is absolutely devoid of foundation. It is utterly unrelated to the return of the Muslims from Abyssinia. As we said earlier, the latter returned after the conversion of `Umar, the strengthening of Islam with the same tribal solidarity with which he used to fight Islam hitherto, and the compulsion of Quraysh to enter into an armistice with the Muslims. Moreover, the Muslims’ return from Abyssinia was partly due to the revolution which had broken out in that country and to their consequent fear of losing the Negus’s protection. When the Quraysh learned of the Muslims’ return, their fears reached a new level of intensity with the increase of Muhammad’s followers within the city, and, therefore, they sought a new strategy. Their search for a new strategy was concluded with the signing of a pact in which they and their allied clans and tribes resolved to boycott the Banu Hashim in order to prevent any intermarriage with them, to stop all commercial relations and finally, to seek to kill Muhammad if they could only find the means.



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