Reading this entry about Muhammad’s change in the direction Muslims should pray got me thinking about how this practice started in the first place, so I did a little bit of research (mostly on Wikipedia, admittedly). The idea of facing a particular place while praying presumably comes from the Jewish practice of praying facing the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. In fact, Islamic history has it that the practice was originally exactly the same, with Muslims originally also praying while facing Jerusalem. While it’s difficult to determine how much truth is in religious accounts of history, the prophet’s excuse was that he and his pal Allah intended the Kaaba to be the point of focus all along, but it had to be purified first.
I can’t say I know a whole lot about religion in Saudi Arabia prior to the advent of Islam. The Wikipedia page on Arabian mythology lists a few recognizable Babylonian gods, but it appears that the main god worshipped in Mecca in Muhammad’s early days was Hubal, a lunar deity.
The statue of Hubal at the Kaaba was known to have had one arm broken off and replaced with a golden one, but I’m not sure anyone knows whether that’s a reference to a particular myth or simply damage done in shipping the thing. (Guess you should have sprung for the insurance, Hubal worshippers!) There were idols to other gods there as well, supposedly even including Jesus and Mary. Essentially, Mecca was a major religious center, a place of pilgrimage, and a neutral area for members of different religions to worship. I would imagine that describing it as a peaceful multicultural center would be going too far, but I get the impression it was basically along those lines. Muhammad was born into the Quraysh tribe, which at the time controlled Mecca. While Islamic propaganda holds that the pre-Islamic Arabs were barbarians who had to be civilized by the prophet, it almost seems like the reverse was true in the holy city. Muhammad wanted to take over everyone’s shrine and make it a site dedicated to his religion and no other. It’s because of historical anecdotes like this that, although I don’t believe in any gods, I often find myself sympathizing with the polytheists. They were more inclusive, and their usually flawed deities fit better with my lack of belief in perfection.
Not that polytheists were always that tolerant, as the Greek persecution of the Jews and the later Roman persecution of both Jews and Christians make clear, but I do get the impression it was usually the monotheistic faiths that were uncomfortable with anyone believing anything different.
I haven’t read the Quran (I intend to sometime, but I’m not sure which translation I should go with), but from what I’ve heard of it and the Islamic faith, Muhammad basically intended it as sort of an alternate take on the Bible, with some existing Arabian traditions incorporated into the mix (one of them being the jinn).
The Judeo-Christian Holy Book treats the Arabs somewhat ambivalently. The book of Genesis gives the origins of many of the tribes and nations in the area, often admitting that the other peoples were closely related to the Jews but giving them awkward ancestries. The Moabites and Ammonites are said to be the result of Lot’s sexual intercourse with his own daughters. The Edomites are the descendants of Esau, a brutish and short-sighted man who sold his birthright to his brother Jacob in exchange for some stew. The Arabs are regarded as descendants of Abraham, but not entirely legitimate ones. According to the biblical account, Abraham (or Abram, as he was then called) was one of the Middle East’s greatest success stories, working his way up to become a rich and powerful Canaanite chieftain.
He also had a close personal relationship with his god Yahweh (although Exodus insists He wasn’t known by that name until the time of Moses), who has promised fame and fortune to his descendants. The only problem is that he has no children, and his wife Sarai is unable to conceive. He has an heir in his nephew Lot, but the patriarch probably wasn’t too keen to leave his fortune to the children of incest. (Never mind that Abram and Sarai were half-siblings themselves.) So Sarai’s answer was for Abram to impregnate her maid Hagar, an Egyptian whom Abram’s clan had acquired as a slave by putting one over on the Pharaoh. They had a son, Ishmael, and I suppose all was well until Sarai miraculously conceived a child of her own. Fearing that there would be a fight over the inheritance, Sarah (as she came to be called) had Abraham cast both Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert. Apparently Hagar carried her son on her shoulder, despite the fact that he would have been a teenager at this point. I’m thinking the redactor wasn’t too careful when editing this part of the story.
Anyway, Ishmael survives and becomes the ancestor of the Arabs, then shows up briefly to help Isaac bury their dead father. Jacob and Esau are later said to do the same thing with Isaac’s body, perhaps reflecting the idea that funerals were a time for family members to set aside their differences. Anyway, since Ishmael would have presumably been the ancestor of Muhammad and his fellows, the founder of Islam increased his role in the story, making him a prophet in his own right.
Muhammad was following existing Arabian tradition in making the Kaaba the most important holy site, but he edited it somewhat to fit his quasi-Judeo-Christian religious history. According to the prophet, Mecca was the first place Adam and Eve arrived after being kicked out of Paradise, and they built the first temple where they saw a meteorite fall to Earth. This would have been the Black Stone kept in the Kaaba, the tradition that it was a meteorite or a piece of one predating Islam, but doubted by modern scholars.
Hence, the Kaaba was the oldest building in the world, although I’m not sure it should really count even if the Adam and Eve story is true, because it had been destroyed by the time Abraham and Ishmael arrived in Mecca and rebuilt it in the same spot.