Islam in the First Civilisations: 1. The Mesopotamian Religion

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Who were the Mesopotamians?

From the simplicity of prehistoric life, complex societies began to emerge in the third millennium BCE, The Mesopotamians is a designation that incorporates four main groups of people: the Sumerians, the Akkadians, the Babylonians and the Assyrians over a period of over three thousand years.

Time Periods

Group of People:

4500 – 1900 BCE

The Sumerians

2334 – 2154 BCE

The Akkadians

1895 BC – 539 BCE

The Babylonians

2500 BC – 609 BCE

The Assyrians

The first people to migrate to Mesopotamia in the fifth millennium BCE (from the eastern Arabian region) were the Sumerians who created the first civilization along the rivers of Lower Mesopotamia by about 3,100 BCE.

 

The Mesopotamian Pantheon

What needs to be made clear from the start is that “there is no collective or authoritative statement of all Mesopotamians myths as is the case of Classical Greece in Hesiod’s Theogony or [the Roman poet] Ovid’s Metamorphoses.”1 The Mesopotamians, however, did record what can only be termed ‘God Lists’. “The god lists are some of the earliest Sumerian documents and include as many as 560 names of deities. Another list, An=Anum, dating to the middle of the second millennium, includes approximately proximately two thousand names”2

For instance, a selection of Mesopotamian gods, included:

People

Main Gods

Designation

Sumerian

An

Sky God; Father of the Gods; Originally, the highest God

Enlil

Lord Wind

Enki

God of Wisdom and Magic; God of Water

Innana

Love, Fertility, War Goddess

Akkadian

Anu

Sky God; Father of the Gods; the highest God

Enlil

Lord Wind; on a par with the highest God

Ea

God of Water

Ishtar

Goddess of War and Sexual Love

Babylonian

Anu

Sky God; Father of the Gods; the highest God

Marduk

God of Thunderstorms; ‘Bel’: Lord; Becomes higher than Anu and Elil

Elil

Lord Wind; superseded by Marduk; or as syncretic deity with Marduk as ‘Bel’, the Lord.

Ea

Wise God of Water/Underworld

Ishtar

Goddess of War and Sexual Love

Assyrian

Anu

Sky God; Father of the Gods; the highest God

Assur

Assur did not originally have a family; he later came to be regarded as the Assyrian equivalent of Enlil3. Great Lord; Father of the Gods; Becomes higher than Anu, Enlil and Marduk

Marduk

God of Thunderstorms; superseded by Assur

Enlil (Elil)

Lord Wind; superseded by Assur

Ea

Wise God of Water/Underworld

Ishtar (Astarte)

Goddess of Love and War

Tammi Schneider in her ‘Introduction to Ancient Mesopotamian Religion’ explains how “though the list of deities may change, something about their order defies modification.” This is important as it seems to suggest that there was a type of hierarchy, or “some structure and organizing principle to the pantheon that the Sumerians suggested…”, perhaps, where the names higher up the lists were more important. than those below them Although she does admit that it is “difficult… for modern scholars to discern.”4

Indeed, she notes that “it is impossible, in connection with ancient Mesopotamia, to speak of a pantheon (‘the deities of a people collectively’). This is because under the (geographically ill-determined) heading Mesopotamia, at least 3,000 years of history are included, incorporating three main peoples (Sumerians [including Akkadians], Babylonians and Assyrians).”5

Oppenheim, an eminent Assyriologist, explains: “A systematic presentation of Mesopotamian religion cannot and should not be written,”6 precisely because of the scant details we possess.

Langdon, another distinguished Assyriologist, however, makes a slightly different observation than Schneider when it comes to the earliest sources:

“From them we obtain the earliest written information concerning the religion of mankind.”7 The Kish pictographic tablets that were uncovered, which preserve the oldest writings were dated from about 4,000 BC.8

Langdon, concluded with regards to the Sumerian religion that though these pictographic writings “cannot take us back to the primitive period of religion,” they do contain “facts [that] point unmistakably to monotheism, and a Sky-God as the first deity, from whom descended the vast Sumerian pantheon, attaining in the end to about 5,000 gods.”9

In explaining how he reached this conclusion, he begins by mentioning that from the Erech tablets, “from inscriptions of about 3000 B.C. … the Sumerian pantheon … contained about 750 deities.”10

Going further back, he refers to his discovery of 300 tablets at Kish “from a period a little later than the primitive pictographic period [mentioned above] … the pantheon there consisted of only the Sky-God, the Earth-God, and the Sun-God.”11 And, “The 575 tablets from Uruk translated in 1936, which Langdon dated about 4000 B.C. but are now believed to be more accurately dated 3500 B.C., contain the names of only two deities: the sky god An and the mother goddess Innina.”12

So the further back one goes in history, the less gods are being identified, grouped, discoursed. “It is, however, certain that when we press back towards the beginning of religion on written documents the pantheon of 3000 B.C. dwindles down to four and then only two deities. If there really was a larger pantheon at the dawn of history these numerous tablets which are all temple records would have mentioned them.”13

Another reason he gives for his conclusion of one original god is linguistic: “In the first place the Sumerian word for god, digir, means both “high” and “to be bright”, and the sign used to write this word also means “sky”.14 Indeed, in theological treatises of the pantheon going back to 3300 B.C., both the Babylonians and Sumerians “always place the Sky-God at the beginning and regard him as father of all the gods, whether personifications of nature, the stars and planets, or of abstract ideas, War, Industry, Justice, etc. The Sky-God has the name An, which is the ordinary word for sky, heaven.”15

The Sky-God, An

A stele of the Assyrian king Samsi-Adad V (c.815 BCE), making obeisance to the symbols of five deities, including (top) the horned crown of Anu (The British Museum).

So, although what seems defensible is that all gods go back to one, Langdon does note that this ‘sky-god’ was anthropomorphic: “This Sky-God An or Anu of the Sumerians is known to have been personified and anthropomorphic, for there is a drawing of him on a seal where he is characterized as a rain god, and the texts relate the myth that in high heaven were kept the bread and water of eternal life.”16

This differs somewhat with Schneider’s account that seems to suggest that we barely possess much in the way of representations of the Sky-God, An.

Schneider explains how “the first name on the god list from Sharrupak and Abu Salibikh is An. The name An is the Sumerian word for “heaven” and also the name of the god called the “sky-god.”17

“The texts from the Sumerian period delineate three main functions for An: universal god of creation, inhabitant habitant of heaven, and bestower of the royal insignia (founder of earthly royal power), but much of that had changed by the time Babylon and Assur gained prominence. An was considered the prime deity involved in creation and leader of the gods, but by the time of Enuma Elish [the Babylonian Creation Myth, dated at the latest at 1,100 BCE] he had yielded his place of primacy to Marduk [the patron God of Babylon].18

And yet,

“An’s position at the head of the pantheon for such a long period suggests that he should be a deity well involved in the human world, yet his actual role was almost non-existent in the religious life of Mesopotamia. His nature and attributes are ill-defined and so he is rarely represented in art and iconography.”19

Be that as it may, all that needs to be demonstrated as plausible is that there was one god nearer the beginning of the Mesopotamian cultural history – and the fact that he is ‘physically’ depicted, by Islamic standards, would merely suggest that the people had turned to shirk20 by the time of the anthropomorphic icons, when the people felt the need – incorrectly – to represent him.

An’s apparent non-existence only proves that Allah’s transcendence might not have been fully understood or that the forces for shirk had become stronger over time, so much so that the need to personalise Allah (this need for immanence) was quickly applied by creating idols i.e. fragments of His divine Characteristics or Attributes in order to allow the adherents to focus on that instead; albeit this is really an impulse from man derived from his desire and opinion (Hawa)21 as how best to worship Allah – not one sanctioned by Allah, Himself. In truth they frantically held on only to vestiges of Allah; each idol was Allah no longer.

Enlil, Marduk, Assur

 

The role of Enlil is interesting too, as he is also a Sky-God, and he is also a supreme God in the pantheon of the Sumerians and Akkadians. “Enlil (Elil), ‘Lord Wind’… was Anu’s son. Like his father be came to be known as ‘Father’ or ‘King’ of the gods and was to replace Anu in mythology.”22 It may be that Enlil and An are both articulations via revelation of Allah to different communities in close proximity – or that Enlil is the anthropomorphised concept of one or two of Allah’s Divine Attributes, namely, the ‘Powerful’ (al-Qadir) or the ‘High’ (al-‘Ala), for instance – that man, then, crafted into an idol of his own choosing – in order to represent Him, whilst An – the transcendent23 – was sidelined (due to His transcendence and other-ness) – much like the ancient Egyptian experience (See pending post) – albeit with the remembrance of his importance as Creator (al-Khaliq) and so ‘Father of the Gods’.

The elevation of Enlil over time, to then be superseded by Marduk – who is also a Sky-God – is telling; each might have been another attempt at reviving the deen [the religion of Allah]24 for another proximate community that then gets subsumed by the overwhelming mythos of the pantheon that preceded it. Even the god of the Assyrians, Assur, seems to be alone, at first,25 with his own unique characteristics, until he too becomes part and parcel of the pantheon.

Indeed, “Assur and Marduk were relatively unknown in the third millennium. Like other Mesopotamian gods, they were linked to specific cities, but their role developed differently because of the power those cities would later gain.”26 And yet, “these deities further gained power from the other deities and each other” in that the “…Mesopotamian pantheon builds off of traditions already well established by the time they [Assur and Marduk] become dominant in the first millennium.”27

Archaeologist and academic, Joan Oates explains that, “in later periods it is possible to observe the fusion of one divine figure into another, often with the retention of both names… The basic structure of the pantheon, at least as recorded in the earliest preserved literature, goes back to lists of gods drawn up in the 3rd millennium. Anu, the sky, who appears as a shadowy figure throughout Mesopotamian history, originally stood as its head. Some of his attributes were later taken over, first by Enlil, and later by Marduk and Assur in Babylonian and Assyria respectively.”28

Other Reasons Given to Explain the Origins of Religion

Schneider begins her study by stating: “How can a deity act one way and be related to one set of deities in one text and appear radically different, even with contradictory parentage, in another? The problem is rooted in Oppenheim’s claim that we do not know what the role of these texts was for the ancients. The difficulty lies in trying to force the mythological material into a model that reflects something that appears coherent to us.”29 Despite this, later, she does attempt to provide some possible reasons as to what she believes the explanations for religious worship of deities in Mesopotamia might be:

Reason One: Connection to Nature for Survival

“The early phase begins in the fourth millennium B.C.E. and centers on worship of powers in nature and other phenomena related to basic survival.”30

So though it is true, that man may have worshipped the ‘powers in nature’ – remember, ‘nature’ is often the substituted modern, secularised word for Allah/God – if it is understood that Allah is the one that controls and sustains (powers) all that exists (in nature). We are left with two possible options:

  • Connection to Allah/God (who powers Nature) for survival: Tawheed

  • Connection to Nature for Survival: Shirk

Reason Two: Each City Had Their Own God/ Brings Connection to the Pantheon/ Spiritual Support to a Family

“Each city was responsible for one or more deities, and personal deities served to help a particular family connect with the larger pantheon and to work on their behalf.”31

If this is any deity other than Allah, it is shirk.

Reason Three: Legitimacy for Kings and by extension, the Nation

“In the second stage, dating to the third millennium, rulers were deified and the pantheon became more structured.”32

And

“Enuma Elish [the Babylonian Creation Myth] celebrated the exaltation of the Babylonian god Marduk (and in Assyria, Assur…) and ascribed to Marduk the reorganization organization of the universe with Babylon in the center, meaning the text was at least at some point used to express Babylonian nationalism. The top officials of the land were called upon to renew their oaths of loyalty to the king and royal family.”33

This is shirk.

Reason Four: Proliferation of Personal Gods

“The next stage dates to the second millennium, with greater emphasis on individuals and common folks as seen in the greater role played by personal gods.”34

If this personal deity is other than Allah, it is shirk.

Reason Five: Concentration of Main Deities with [Babylonian and Assyrian] Empires/ whilst ‘God-napping’ to Bring Greater Glory to Empire and Emperor

“The final stage is rooted in the political formation of empire, and the number of deities appears to shrink with more power concentrated on fewer deities.”35

And

“Over time, as the Assyrian realm grew, more and more gods came to ‘live’ in the Assur temple, in part the result of the practice of seizing the divine statues of defeated enemies and relocating them in Assur’s shrine. So long was the list of the temple’s occupants by the first millennium BC that are learned text called today the Divine Directory of Assur was composed to chart the complex topography of the sanctuary. The statues of gods were seen as manifestations of the deities, and by staying as Assur’s guests, or hostages, in his home, these gods accepted, for all to see, Assur’s sovereignty. When in c. 700 BC King Sennacherib, for example, captured statues of Attar-samayin, Day, Nuhay, Rudaw, Abir-ilu, Attar-quruma, “the gods of the Arabs” from the oasis of Adummatu (Dumatal-Jandal in Saudi-Arabia) and placed them in the Assur temple, this had immediate political implications for the Arab tribes. They found themselves deserted by their gods who moreover seemed to recognise Assur as their host and overlord. The strategy of god-napping was designed to persuade enemies or reluctant allies to follow their deities’ lead and to accept Assyrian domination. It was often successful, as in this case.”36

This is shirk.

Conclusion

The fact is, we could add further possible scenarios to show what may have happened with the worship of Allah in early Mesopotamia. All the records can tell us is what apparently happened. By the time Allah is idolised and fashioned as the anthropomorphic An, or as Enlil, or Marduk or Assur – or when he is explained away as having a consort or other deities to assist Him, then we know immediately that the damage is done. Islam, in this culture has been destroyed via shirk. Indeed, Oates explains how “the roots of Babylonian religion lie far back in the prehistoric past. By the time sufficient textual evidence is preserved, there existed already a complicated and often seemingly contradictory amalgam of Sumerian and Semitic religious traditions.”37 And the creation of the false religion that we currently perceive to be the Mesopotamian religion through its enigmatic cuneiform scripts, clay plaques and creation myths ostensibly becomes part of the (false) myth still in vogue in the West that polytheism and not monotheism is the foundational root of religion.

In the Qur’an, Allah, the Most Exalted, Says:

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.38

“When ignorant people attempt to trace the history of ‘religion’ they tend to the view that man began his life in the darkness of polytheist and that in the course of time, corresponding to man’s progress, this darkness gradually receded and light increased till man arrived at monotheism.

“The Qur’anic version, however, proclaims that man began his life in full light of the Truth. God revealed this Truth to the very first man He created, one to whom He intimated the right way of life for man. Thereafter the human race remained on the Right Way for some time and lived as one community. Later, however, people invented deviating ways. This did not happen because Truth had not been communicated to them. The cause was rather that some people wilfully sought to acquire privileges, benefits and advantages beyond their legitimate limits, and thus subjected others to injustices. It was in order to enable people to overcome this corruption that God sent His Prophets. These Prophets were not sent to found separate religions in their own names and bring new religious communities into existence. Rather the purpose of the Prophets was to illuminate before people the Truth which they had allowed to be lost, and once again make them into one community.”39

NEXT: For evidences of ‘Islam in the First Civilisations 2′, CLICK HERE.

PREVIOUS: For ‘Prehistoric Beliefs – islam before Islam’ CLICK HERE.

***

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.

1Tammi J. Schneider. An Introduction to Ancient Mesopotamian Religion (Kindle Location 564 of 1770). Kindle Edition

2Ibid (Kindle Locations 568-569 of 1770)

3Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, Pieter Willem van der Horst. Dictionary of deities and demons in the Bible, pp. 108–9

4Tammi J. Schneider. An Introduction to Ancient Mesopotamian Religion (Kindle Locations 573-574 of 1770). Kindle Edition

5Ibid (Kindle Locations 562-563 of1770)

6A. L. Oppenheim. Ancient Mesopotamia (1964), pg172

7S. Langdon. ‘Monotheism As The Predecessor Of Polytheism In Sumerian Religion’ (The Evangelical Quarterly for April, 1937), pg136

8Ibid

9Ibid, pg137

10Ibid

11Ibid

12 ‘Part II: Primitive Monotheism and the Origin of Polytheism’ Chapter 1 From Monotheism to Polytheism’ by Arthur C. Custance in ‘The Doorway Papers,’ 1968), pg2 of 19

13S. Langdon. ‘Monotheism As The Predecessor Of Polytheism In Sumerian Religion’ (The Evangelical Quarterly for April, 1937), pg138

14Ibid, pg144

15Ibid

16Ibid, pg145

17Tammi J. Schneider. An Introduction to Ancient Mesopotamian Religion (Kindle Locations 608-609 of 1770). Kindle Edition

18Ibid, (Kindle Locations 610-612 of 1770)

19Ibid, (Kindle Locations 616-617 of 1770)

20Shirk: In Islam, this is the sin for ascribing partners or rivals to Allah in Lordship (Rububiyyah), worship or in His Divine Names and Attributes. See IslamQA

21Have you seen he who has taken as his god his [own] desire and opinion [Hawa], and Allah has sent him astray due to knowledge and has set a seal upon his hearing and his heart and put over his vision a veil? So who will guide him after Allah? Then will you not be reminded?” (Qur’an, al-Jathiya 45:23)

22Joan Oates. Babylon (1986), pg 171

23Exalted is Allah above whatever they associate with Him.” (Qur’an, al-Hashr 59:23)

24To each community, a messenger.” (Qur’an, Yunus 10:47)

25Source: see footnote 3.

26Tammi J. Schneider. An Introduction to Ancient Mesopotamian Religion (Kindle Locations 659-661 of 1770). Kindle Edition.

27Ibid, (Kindle Locations 661-662 of 1770)

28Joan Oates. Babylon (1986), pg 171

29Tammi J. Schneider. An Introduction to Ancient Mesopotamian Religion (Kindle Locations 415-417 of 1770). Kindle Edition.

30Ibid (Kindle Location 579 of 1770)

31Ibid (Kindle Locations 576-577 of 1770)

32Ibid (Kindle Locations 579-580 of 1770)

33Ibid (Kindle Locations 461-463 of 1770)

34Ibid (Kindle Locations 580-581 of 1770)

35Ibid (Kindle Locations 581-582 of 1770)

36Karen Reader. Ancient Assyria – A Very Short Introduction (2015), pg16

37Joan Oates. Babylon (1986), pg 171

38Qur’an, al-Baqarah 2:212

39Syed Abul Ala Maududi. Tafheem al-Qur’an (Towards Understanding the Qur’an): al-Baqarah 2:213

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