Explaining Away the Greek Gods in Islam

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From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 59, Number 3, July 1998
pp. 389-403 | 10.1353/jhi.1998.0030

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Journal of the History of Ideas 59.3 (1998) 389-403

Of the angels newly fallen from heaven, Milton tells us:

Nor had they yet among the Sons of Eve
Got them new Names …

Men took

… Devils to adore for Deities:
Then were they known to men by various Names,
And various Idols through the Heathen World.

Among the devils worshipped as gods among the ancients were the Olympians:

Th’ Ionian Gods, of Javans Issue held
Gods, yet confest later then Heav’n and Earth
Thir boasted parents; Titan Heavn’s first born
With his enormous brood, and birthright seis’d
By younger Saturn, he from mightier Jove
His own and Rhea’s Son like measure found;
So Jove usurping reign’d: these first in Creet
And Ida known, thence on the Snowy top
Of cold Olympus rul’d the middle Air
Thir highest Heav’n; or on the Delphian Cliff,
Or in Dodona, and through all the bounds
Of Doric Land….

Paradise Lost, I: 364-65, 372-75, 508-19

Milton’s assertion that the Greek gods were demons goes back to the centuries in which those ancient gods slowly yielded to the new and jealous triune God of the Christians. Augustine in The City of God does not deny the reality of the old gods but identifies them as dead heroes or as demons. The power of the old gods was still manifest to the Christians of antiquity; it was their moral worth, not their existence, that was to be challenged.

Such an interpretation is not found in Muslim accounts of the Greek gods. For all practical purposes Greek polytheism was entirely dead by the time Islam came onto the scene. Indeed, even Arabian polytheism, though still vigorous when Muhammad began his prophetic career, died out within three decades of the proclamation of Islam. Pious Muslims might be offended by the icons in Christian churches, but the temples of the Greek gods were gone these three centuries or more, their statues broken up and their stones stolen to build churches. The other forms of polytheism with which Islam came into contact — Zoroastrianism (the most important), Buddhism, Hinduism, and gnostic religions like Manichaeism and Harranian Sabianism — could rightly be understood as forms of monotheism (or dualism). Only the occasional idol temple in some out-of-the-way place — the shrine of the god Zun or Zur in Zamindawar in Afghanistan, for example — might illustrate pure idol worship, but such institutions were soon destroyed and posed little intellectual challenge. Thus, by the time highly intellectual forms of Islam came into being in the eighth and ninth centuries, there was no real idol-worshipping paganism to oppose. Despite the uncompromising monotheism of Islam, polytheism aroused little emotion for the generations of Muslims born after the passing of the Prophet’s companions. Shirk, polytheism, went on to have a rich history in Islamic thought, but it was idols of the soul, not idols carved from stone and wood, that stirred the imaginations and fears of serious Muslims.

The Muslim contact with Greek polytheism was thus not with living pagans but with literary allusions in Greek philosophical and scientific texts. In late antiquity philosophy had been the last bastion of paganism, a fortress whose outworks may have been stormed perhaps but whose citadel still held out, manned by doughty and commited fighters like Proclus and Simplicius. But the fortress had at last fallen, and even the ancient philosophers had finally been brought to the baptismal font.

The fact that they knew little more than the names of Greek gods was another factor preventing Muslim scholars from taking alarm at Greek polytheism. The obvious first question to ask when we examine what Muslims thought of the Greek gods is what they might have known about them. How indeed do we know about Greek religion? Mostly we know mythology from literature: Hesiod, Homer, Greek drama, and manuals of literature and rhetoric. None of these sources were available to Muslims. The translators were not interested in literature, which they knew resisted translation, so even Homer appears in Arabic sources as a sage, one of a number of authors of wise sayings. For us such literary sources…