Recently, several readers have reached out to me asking for clarification on items they had read elsewhere online; specifically, articles that correlated Islam with Paganism. According to these articles – which I’m deliberately not linking to here, because they’re fucking AWFUL, but you’re more than welcome to Google them if you’re really interested – Islam has its roots in Pagan beliefs, and therefore the two are the same, right?
Actually, no, not really, and I’m going to explain why. However, before I do, I should clarify that the information I’m about to present shouldn’t be interpreted one way or another as an approval or disapproval of another religion. It’s not my job to tell people what to believe, nor is it my job to tell them what not to believe – my job is to break things down and answer the questions of readers, in an academic and objective way. So that’s what I’m about to do. If you’re looking for an article that says ISLAM BAD or ISLAM GOOD, you’re not going to find either of those things here, just like you won’t find any articles about GOOD or BAD with regards to Christianity or other religions.
The Question of Terminology
Okay, so moving on to the question at hand: is Islam connected to or somehow related to modern Paganism? It’s not, and one of the reasons it’s not is because the people who are making such claims are not using “Pagan” in the same way that we, the Pagan community, generally do.
What I’ve found, after slogging through numerous websites that make these claims (yes, folks, I’ve taken one for the team so you don’t have to) is that these are sites that, more often than not, are run by what I’ll politely call the more fringe element of the Christian evangelical population. In other words, gentle reader, they are people who have a vested interest in perpetuating negative information about both Muslims and modern Pagans, with little regard for things like accuracy.
First of all, there’s the issue of semantics. Many of these sources are conflating the word Pagan with non-Christian. If you go by that logic, any religion that is not Christian must clearly be a Pagan one. That includes not just Islam, but Buddhism, Native American spirituality, Shinto, and numerous flavors of non-evangelical Abrahamic faiths – Catholics and Mormons, for instance. That’s in addition to the modern Neopagan movement, in which the word Paganism is more of an umbrella term that covers a wide variety of nature based and often polytheistic belief systems.
Secondly, Islam is a younger religion than Christianity, and can trace its roots back to the seventh century. Prior to this, polytheistic, non-Christian beliefs and practices were found all over the Arabian Peninsula. In the Qur’an, the existence of five pre-Islamic deities is referenced. A 1946 annotated translation by Abdullah Yusuf Ali says, “The five names mentioned … represent some of the oldest Pagan cults, before the Flood as well as after the Flood, though the names themselves are in the form in which they were worshipped by local Arab tribes. The names of the tribes have been preserved to us by the Commentators, but they are of no more than archeological interest to us now… It is not clear whether these names are to be connected with true Arabic verbal roots or are merely Arabicized forms of names derived from foreign cults, such as those of Babylonia or Assyria, the region of Noah’s Flood.”
So, certainly, before Islam came along around the year 610 C.E., there was definitely some polytheistic activity going on in the Arabic world, just like in a lot of other places. However, the five deities of the local tribes of fifteen hundred years ago are not who modern Muslims are honoring in their beliefs and practices.
The Crescent Moon
A few of the websites that are promoting these articles declare that Islam is really a modern version of a Pagan fertility cult that honors a moon god, hence the use of the crescent moon as a symbol. While they do use the crescent moon symbol, that doesn’t mean that today’s Muslim is following a Pagan belief system, in the same context as the early settlers of the Arabian Peninsula. About.com Islam Expert, Huda, explains the crescent moon and star:
“Information on the origins of the symbol are difficult to ascertain, but most sources agree that these ancient celestial symbols were in use by the peoples of Central Asia and Siberia in their worship of sun, moon, and sky gods… It wasn't until the Ottoman Empire that the crescent moon and star became affiliated with the Muslim world. When the Turks conquered Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1453, they adopted the city's existing flag and symbol. Legend holds that the founder of the Ottoman Empire, Osman, had a dream in which the crescent moon stretched from one end of the earth to the other. Taking this as a good omen, he chose to keep the crescent and make it the symbol of his dynasty.”
The Bottom Line
So, what does all of this mean? Is Islam a Pagan religion? It’s not, no more than Judaism is Pagan or Christianity is Pagan. Certainly, there were Pagan cults all over the classical, pre-Christian/pre-Judaism/pre-Islamic world, but that doesn’t mean that people today are practicing the same thing. After all, even those of us who consider ourselves Pagan today are not practicing in exactly the same way as our ancestors might have done two or three thousand years ago.
Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, is a monotheistic religion, and from an academic perspective, today’s version of it just doesn’t fit into any of the same parameters or definitions as modern Paganism. I’d suggest that if someone tries to convince you that Islam is a Pagan religion – I mean, really tries hard to persuade you – you might ask yourself why it’s so important to them that you accept this theory as fact. What vested interest do they have in convincing you?