Revision 3.5 “Paganism Condemned”

Revision 3.5 “Paganism Condemned” August 7, 2020


"Muhammad" in Arabic
A somewhat stylized calligraphic form of the name “Muhammad”
(Wikimedia Commons public domain image)


Another common theme beginning in the earliest chapters of the Qur’an is a denunciation of paganism, the worshiping of pagan gods. This theme drew enthusiastic praise from Parley P. Pratt:

Mahometanism included the doctrine that there was one God— that He was great, even the creator of all things, and that the people by right should worship Him. . . .  On this account, on the simple subject of the Deity and His worship, if nothing more, I should rather incline, of the two, after all my early traditions, education, and prejudices, to the side of Mahomet, for on this point he is on the side of truth, and the Christian world on the side of idolatry and heathenism.[1]

The false gods of the pagan Arabs, says the Qur’an, can create nothing, but are themselves created. They cannot help their worship­ers because they are unable to help themselves. They have neither feet nor hands nor eyes nor ears and so can neither move nor perceive.[2] (Notice the interesting fact that gods without human shape are seen as helpless and ineffectual.) “Those whom you invoke besides God could never create a single fly though they combined to do this. And if a fly carried away a speck of dust from them they could never retrieve it. Powerless is the suppliant, and powerless he whom he sup­plicates.”[3] Polytheism, the Qur’an says, is merely something invented by uninspired men, without authorization or revelation from God. Especially ironic is the fact that, according to the pagan Arabs, the divine beings are goddesses! “Is He to have daughters and you sons?”[4] “They give daughters to God (glory be to Him!), but they themselves would have what they desire. When the birth of a girl is announced to one of them, his face grows dark and he is filled with inward gloom. Because of the bad news he hides himself from men: should he keep her with disgrace or bury her under the dust?”[5]

This last passage points to one other part of the early Qur’anic message. Although it can hardly be called a true “theme” of the book, it is worthy of mention here: Among the pre-Islamic Arabs, female infanticide was a common practice. This means that parents commonly took their newborn infants, upon discovering that they were girls, and buried them alive. (Obviously, this practice was not universal, or there would soon have been no pre-Islamic Arabs.) The reasons for such a practice are fairly obvious. Raising children was an expensive and demanding undertaking, and especially so in an Arabia where life was often still quite uncertain and marginal. And after all the effort expended in raising a daughter, what was the outcome? She joined somebody else’s tribe or clan at just the point she was becoming useful. Better, this attitude said, to raise boys. The irony noted by the Qur’an in connection with the alleged goddess-daughters of Allah is that, of course, while the pre-Islamic Arabs were themselves not at all happy to have daughters, they were perfectly willing to ascribe them to God.

The Qur’an put an end to the practice of female infanticide in Arabia. Among other things, it said that the day of judgment will be a day on which “the infant girl, buried alive, is asked for what crime she was slain.”[6] Obviously, it is implied, her answer will not help her parents at that day. But the Qur’an does not leave the implica­tion to be puzzled out by its audience. It states the principle clearly: “You shall not kill your children for fear of want. We will provide for them and for you.”[7] It is important, I think, that we in the West remember this reform instituted and enforced by the authority of the Qur’an. For those who like to view Muhammad and Islam as hostile to women, the prohibition of female infanticide ought to be weighed in the balance.


[1]* Journal of Discourses 3:38.

[2] 7:191-97.

[3] 22:73.

[4] 53:19 23.

[5] 16:57-59.

[6] 81:8-9.

[7] 17:31; compare 6:151. This passage has implications, too, for the Muslim view of abortion, which has historically been quite negative.



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