Early Man was Religious
We have very little facts about prehistoric beliefs. This is a problem.
“The first semblance of religious practices began in the Paleolithic period, which occurred roughly from 2.6 million years ago and lasted until 10,000 years ago… it was during this expansive time period that the first ancestors and relatives of modern humans began to bury their dead. Specifically, around 300,000 years ago. The practice of burying the dead indicates a belief in or fascination with the concept of an afterlife.”1
So it seems that with the advent of humanity, there is certainly evidence of a belief in an afterlife. However, there are massive problems with trying to make further assertions one way or another during this time period.
الحمد لله والصلاة والسلام على رسول الله
All praise is due to ALLAH and peace and blessing upon His Messenger
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
In the Name of ALLAH, The Most Gracious, The Most Merciful
Material Evidence Problem 1: Unclear Nature of Worship
“The biggest issue researchers face with when studying and attempting to understand the religion of this time period is that writing systems and record keeping were not invented for thousands of years.”2
We become aware that “the first temples were built during the Neolithic time period.”3 but we don’t know anything conclusive about the nature of worship. “The archaeology of preliterate peoples can never tell us what they actually believed.”4 “Pierre Amiet (1995) proposes that “archaeologists cannot demonstrate worship of gods until the arrival of early states.”5 But this does not mean that early man did not worship God (Allah, Most High); rather – such worship cannot be materially evidenced and that’s all; there is a difference.
In ‘An Archaeology of Religion’, Kit Wesler explains how “it is not until the arrival of the Bronze Age that evidence for specific deity worship appears in the archaeological record… [from] the end of the Neolithic time period, which occurred roughly around 3500 BC.”6
It is during this next moment when texts come to us that we can begin to make some assertions. “In The Handbook of Religions of Ancient Europe [by Kristian Kristiansen, 1980]… societies of the Bronze Age were almost exclusively theocratic… Often, [religious] texts were delivered orally, but would eventually be written down as written language developed.”7 In terms of societies being theo-centric and the fact that religious discourse was ‘delivered orally’ certainly aligns with basic Islamic conceptions of revelations being sent down orally that concern themselves with God.
Material Evidence Problem 2: False Assumptions about Worship based on Apparent Evidences
Finding cave paintings with animals, or bones of (possible) sacrificed animals, or figurines to (possible) fertility diety(ies) only shows us that something is happening, but we would simply be inferring what we want.
However, this does not mean that research into this topic from a secular perspective, therefore, is intrinsically fruitless. Rather, from such studies, we must simply be cautious. For instance, we know, according to the Islamic perspective that humankind have been prone to idolatry (shirk – or ascribing partners to God or anthropomorphising Him), time and time again. And this, then necessitates a Prophet or Messenger (as warners, both) to bring the people back to worship Allah, Most High (i.e. the Unique (One) God); this is Tawheed. Finding evidence for idolatory (which is a necessarily a false method of worship to false deities) will simply prove the Islamic idea of man’s habitual fall to shirk. And there is certainly plenty of evidence of idol-worship in the archaeological record in the Neolithic period.
“Mankind was [of] one religion [before their deviation]; then Allah sent the prophets as bringers of good tidings and warners and sent down with them the Scripture in truth to judge between the people concerning that in which they differed. And none differed over the Scripture except those who were given it – after the clear proofs came to them – out of jealous animosity among themselves. And Allah guided those who believed to the truth concerning that over which they had differed, by His permission. And Allah guides whom He wills to a straight path.” (Qur’an 2:213)
This ‘jealousy among themselves’ was itself undoubtedly based on hawa (man’s desire and opinions) – See Qur’an 45:23 and 25:43.
Material Evidence Problem 3: True Believers will not depict Allah, Most High
Knowing that even in the Jewish and Islamic traditions, artistic representations of God is forbidden and so trying to find empirical/ pictorial evidence representing the Unique (One) God – i.e. Allah, Most Exalted – in the archaeological record before the advent of writing too would reveal little. But NOT because there wasn’t One God or because no one was worshipping Him.
Moreover, the argument of anachronism (i.e. interpreting the past through the lens of a later time) does not necessarily invalidate this Islamic reading of prehistory either. Why?
The Issue with Anachronism
1) The atheist perspective that militantly denies God or the secular perspective that is silent about His Involvement in history – both – are equally anachronistic in that this modern conception (that God cannot be drawn in as a Being of agency in the explanation) colours the perspective when looking back to explain the past. There is no way to escape either the atheistic, secular or Islamic vantage points.
2) that the notion that ‘glimpses of atheism can be evidenced from the past’ – i.e. materialist schools of India or the ‘atheistic’ or materialistic philosophers of the ancient Greeks – which can then be used to bypass this anachronistic argument (discussed in point 1. above) implies that ‘glimpses of monotheism’ can bypass the anachronistic argument also for Islam (as will be evidenced in later posts).
Perhaps it is better to talk about hard anachronism and soft anachronism, where ‘hard’ implies a ‘forced’ reading and therefore, a less convincing or contrived analysis, whereas ‘soft’ implies something more persuasive and so an example of a more reasonable presentation of facts.
Moreover, what gives the Islamic perspective an edge is its divine source: the timeless nature of its fundamental message (delivered from Allah, Most High, via His Prophets to every tribe across time and place until the last revelation of the Last Prophet, Muhammad, peace be upon him):
“And We certainly sent into every nation a messenger, [saying], “Worship Allah and avoid Taghut [corruption].” And among them were those whom Allah guided, and among them were those upon whom error was [deservedly] decreed. So proceed through the earth and observe how was the end of the deniers.” (Qur’an 16:36)
This would at least further justify the validity of the (appearance of) soft anachronism within the Islamic perspective of prehistory. And yet, since Allah, Most High, is Eternal, the reality is, there is no anachronism – in truth – as He is the Creator and Lord of Time.
The Unchanging and Changing Nature of Islamic Worship
Though it might appear that Regan Gearhart’s statement that “Religion is constantly changing and developing.”8 might be at odds with the suggestion that the Islam of now is (in essence) the same as the Islam of then, what is being referred to specifically in terms of ‘Islam’ is the constant of worshipping the Unique (One) God (Tawheed) – i.e. Allah, Most High. The manner in which this is done might have altered somewhat. The precise method isn’t being argued. In Islam we know that ‘Isa (peace be upon him) lightened some of the laws of the Jews, and this change was sanctioned by God.
“‘And I [‘Isa i.e. Jesus] have come confirming that which was before me of the Tawraat (Torah), and to make lawful to you part of what was forbidden to you, and I have come to you with a proof from your Lord. So fear Allah and obey me.’” (Qur’an 3:48-50)
We know that some prophets had their own shariah (sacred law). But in essence, the worship of One God (Tawheed) was predominant and recurrent. It is in this sense we can talk about there being truly only ever One Religion for humanity (i.e. Islam – Submission unto Allah). This has always been the Islamic understanding. For instance:
“Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but he was one inclining toward truth, a Muslim [submitting to Allah]. And he was not of the polytheists.” (Qur’an 3:67)
The Secularists’ and Atheists’ belief in a Grand Narrative
Indeed, the common account nowadays seems to propose the conclusion that the material evidence demonstrates how humankind began as polytheists and then evolved into monotheists later in time on their journey to atheism in the modern era. This is the secularist’s or atheist’s ‘story’ or grand narrative; this appeal to a grand narrative mirrors religious narratives so precisely that it ultimately requires belief to be entertained as true. That is to say, the empirical evidence itself does not prove the secularists’ or the atheists’ conception of history – because empirical evidence by itself has no perspective. We make sense of the evidence – and that is a human (subjective) endeavour. Both atheistic and Islamic perspectives can equally use the empirical evidence to make legitimate claims that are at once logical and reasonable. But both cannot be simultaneously correct. (See earlier about how the Islamic perspective has an edge.)
If we want to believe the secularists’ or atheists’ narrative, which we are free to do, we must admit we are ‘believers of the secular/atheistic version of events’ and not ‘followers of objective fact’. A misconstruction takes place when one assumes a secular/atheistic understanding means a scientific and empirical one, which supposedly means an objective one. It doesn’t. In fact, objectivity is not humanly possible because humans are intrinsically subjective. Objectivity is the realm of God, alone. This point, however, takes us out of the scope of this post. The belief in atheism or the belief in Islam cannot be bypassed for the believers in it – unless, perhaps, a combination of life-experiences and thinking and sincerity [all favours of God] enables us to reach out of our subjectivities in our attempt to comprehend what lies beyond it. But which belief supplies the best proofs – especially when the evidences are stacked and one gauges them holistically? Only through seeking the Truth, honestly, and through the effort to live earnestly might we get to the heart of the matter.
And Allah Knows Best. (Any errors are my own.)
NEXT: For evidences of Islam in the First Civilisations, see THIS pending post.
PREVIOUS: To get an overview of the Muslim Theories of Evolution, please click HERE.
1 Prehistoric Religion by Regan Gearhart, 2015, pg 2
3 Ibid, pg 6
4 A Brief History of the Human Race by Michael Cook, 2004, pg 136
5 An Archaeology of Religion, by Kit Wesler 2012, pg 155
6 Prehistoric Religion by Regan Gearhart, 2015, pg 7
7 Ibid, pg 8
8 Ibid, pg 10
سبحان ربك رب العزة عما يصفون وسلام على المرسلين والحمد لله رب العالمين والصلاة والسلام على رسول الله محمد وعلى اله وصحبه أجمعين
Exalted be your Lord, the Lord of Glory, above what they attribute to Him, and peace be upon the Messengers, and all praise be to Allah, the Lord of the Universe. And the peace and blessing upon prophet Mohammed and his relatives and all his companions.