While Western scholarship on the Qurʾān has focused considerable attention on the Jewish and Christian background of the text, the infl uence of pre-Islamic Arabian religious traditions has received relatively little attention, despite the many signs of their importance. Traces of such infl uence include the accounts of the prophets Hūd, Ṣāliḥ, and Shuʿayb; the place of the Kaʿba and the adoption of the pre-Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca; the prevalence of sajʿ , the standard medium of the preIslamic soothsayers ( kuhhān ), in many individual Sūras; and the many passages reminiscent of the genres the kuhhān are known to have performed. Some neglect resulted from deep-seated prejudices in Islamic literature towards the pagan religious culture of the Jāhiliyya. Western scholars’ expertise in Biblical studies, the fi eld out of which Islamic studies developed, also made them disposed to stress Jewish and Christian material. Furthermore, the lack of the pagan equivalent of the Bible, a sacred text that would serve as an extant record of the religion or mythology of the pre-Islamic Arabs, made it much more diffi cult to learn about the pagan tradition. Pre-Islamic Arabia had produced no Iliad or Odyssey , nor even the equivalent of Ovid’s Metamorphoses . Extant Islamic sources provide some relevant information in focused studies such as al-Kalbī’s (d. 204/819) Book of Idols and Hamdānī’s (d. 334/945) Book of the Crown , and scattered in other works such as Ṭabarī’s (d. 310/923) Tārīkh al-rusul wa-l-mulūk and Masʿūdī’s (d. 356/945) Murūj al-dhahab . Drawing on such texts, Julius Wellhausen published in 1897 Reste arabischen Heidentums , a seminal investigation of the religion of the pre-Islamic Arabs, yet few scholars followed his lead. To date, perhaps the most important work on this facet of the cultural background that preceded the Prophet Muḥammad’s mission is Toufi c Fahd’s 1966 study of Arab divination, which includes a number of forays into explaining aspects of the Qurʾānic text. 1

More recently, Jaroslav Stetkevytch has written a work that looks at the myth of Ṣāliḥ and Thamūd as it can be partially reconstructed from Islamic sources. 2 Perhaps less successful, but nevertheless suggestive, are broad comparative studies of Islamic and earlier Semitic material that claim a more or less direct connection between Islamic and primordial Semitic forms, particularly David Heinrich Müller’s study of strophic poetry, which in his view is a prophetic form that connects the Qurʾān, the Hebrew Bible, cuneiform literature, and even the choruses of Greek tragedy. 3

Such studies are counter-balanced by the recent work of Hawting, who argues that the “pagan” material in the Qurʾān is not actually pagan. He points out, correctly, that monotheists often call each other pagan when arguing amongst themselves, as an insult or in order to score points in debate, without reference to actual pagans. It is thus unlikely, in his view, that the Qurʾān refl ects pagan religious texts or cultural practices that were common in Arabia, usually held to be the original setting of the Qurʾān’s revelation. He does this in part to support Wansbrough’s thesis that the Qurʾān was produced outside the Arabian Peninsula, mainly on the grounds that it shows too deep an awareness of Jewish and Christian traditions and is engaged in complex debates over polemical issues with representatives of these traditions. 4 In my view, both Hawting and Wansbrough are wrong in this instance. Signifi cant evidence shows that the pre-Islamic Arabs were thoroughly familiar with Judaism and Christianity, which had each established a strong presence in Arabia and neighboring territories long before the advent of Islam. The Qurʾānic material that appears to derive from pre-Islamic pagan religious tradition in Arabia is probably just that, and is too extensive, too detailed, and too inscrutable to be written off as the product of polemical barbs hurled by monotheists at their fellows.