ziggurat black and white

Prophet Abraham, peace be upon him, is an important figure in the history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. While there is a lot of overlap in the stories about Abraham in the Qur’an and Bible, both Scriptures also contain unique incidents. This article is going to focus on a particular story about Abraham that is only found in the Qur’an and how 20th century archaeological discoveries affirm the historical claims found in the Qur’an.

THE IDOLATRY OF ABRAHAM’S PEOPLE ACCORDING TO SCRIPTURE

The Bible states that Abraham’s people were idol worshippers. It must be noted that the Bible makes no mention of specific idols that were worshipped, they are simply referred to as “other gods”:

Joshua said to all the people, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Long ago your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshiped other gods. [Joshua 24:2]

Just like the Bible, the Qur’an states that Abraham’s people worshipped idols:

And We had certainly given Abraham his sound judgement before, and We were of him well-Knowing. When he said to his father and his people, “What are these statues to which you are devoted?” They said, “We found our fathers worshippers of them.” [Chapter 21, verses 51-53]

However, the Qur’an goes on to provide extra information not found in the Bible. It gives us details of the idols that were worshipped:

And thus did We show Abraham the realm of the heavens and the earth that he would be among the certain [in faith]

So when the night covered him [with darkness], he saw a star. He said, “This is my lord.” But when it set, he said, “I like not those that disappear.”

And when he saw the moon rising, he said, “This is my lord.” But when it set, he said, “Unless my Lord guides me, I will surely be among the people gone astray.”

And when he saw the sun rising, he said, “This is my lord; this is greater.” But when it set, he said, “O my people, indeed I am free from what you associate with Allah.

Indeed, I have turned my face toward He who created the heavens and the earth, inclining toward truth, and I am not of those who associate others with Allah.” [Chapter 6, verses 75-79]

We can see from this story how Abraham debated with his people, explaining to them the error of their way in worshipping false gods. We are taught an important principle by this story; we should only worship that which is worthy. Even though the sun, moon and stars are attractive, ultimately they are part of the creation which means they have a creator and therefore one that is more worthy of our worship than they are. We’ve seen that along with mentioning the Sun and Moon as gods that were worshipped, the Qur’an also mentions a third idol. The original Arabic word in the verse which has been translated as star, “kawkab”, generally means an object in the sky that is lit up. This includes stars and planets. Although it doesn’t mention a specific star or planet’s name, can we determine which heavenly body is being spoken of? There is strong evidence to suggest that the star/planet spoken of in the Qur’an is in fact Venus. This can be concluded from the description that the Qur’an gives us in the story of Abraham:

When the night grew dark over him he saw a star and said, ‘This is my Lord,’ but when it set, he said, ‘I do not like things that disappear…’

Venus plays a very prominent role in the night sky. Venus is the brightest planet in sky, but it is only visible shortly after sunset or before sunrise. Notice the words of the verse, “I like not those that disappear”. Venus is in fact known as the “Morning Star” and “Evening Star” because it is visible for only a short amount of time just after sunset and again for a short amount of time just before sunrise. From the verse itself we can see that the star disappeared just after night fall. Also, it so happens that Venus is the third brightest object in the sky, after the Sun and Moon, sometimes appearing so bright that it can actually cast shadows on the ground on Earth. So even from a logical standpoint, if Abraham’s people did worship heavenly bodies then they would surely worship the most prominent ones. Finally, we also find mention of Venus in the works of several classical scholars who wrote books explaining the meaning of the Qur’an. For example the 14th century scholar Ismail ibn Kathir in his work Tafsir Ibn Kathir: “Abraham, may God’s peace and blessings be on him, first proved that Venus is not worthy of being worshipped…” Also the 15th century scholar Jalal ad-Din al-Mahalli in his work Tafsir al-Jalalayn: “When night descended, [when] it darkened, upon him he saw a star — said to have been Venus…”

In summary, the Qur’an makes the historical claim that Abraham’s people worshipped three celestial gods: the Sun, the Moon and Venus.

ABRAHAM’S BIRTHPLACE UNEARTHED BY ARCHAEOLOGICAL EXCAVATIONS

Biblical historians generally date Abraham to 2100 BCE – 1900 BCE. His chronology is tied directly to the date of the Exodus of Moses. The two major proposals for the date of the Exodus are the 15th and 13th centuries BCE, hence the variation of the chronology of Abraham [1].

Biblical tradition places Abraham’s birthplace to be a location called “Ur of the Chaldeans“:

This is the account of Terah’s family line. Terah became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran. And Haran became the father of Lot. While his father Terah was still alive, Haran died in Ur of the Chaldeans, in the land of his birth. [Genesis 11:7-28]

Ur was an ancient city of Mesopotamia located in modern day Iraq (please click on picture to enlarge):

Map of Ur

Abraham’s city of birth, Ur, was founded around 4000 BCE and was the capital of the Sumerian civilisation and once a great harbour city on the banks of the Euphrates River. The city started to decline from around 550 BC and was no longer inhabited after about 500 BC. Eventually the city fell into ruin and the area was buried beneath the desert sands [2]. Before the 20th century, written history had told the world very little about Ur. Beyond the Bible’s brief references to it as the home of Abraham, almost nothing was known.

The British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley conducted an excavation of the city of Ur in the early 20th century for the British Museum. He was forced to dig a vast hole over 40 feet deep to uncover the lowest levels of the city. His findings enabled scholars to trace the history of the city from its final days during the 4th century BCE back to its prehistoric beginnings. Woolley’s findings revealed much about everyday life, art, architecture, literature, government, and religion in what has come to be called “the cradle of civilization” [3].

Sir Leonard Woolley’s excavations at Ur have been justly acclaimed for their invaluable archaeological discoveries: the royal cemetery, the Ur-Nammu ziggurat, and the innumerable artefacts of diverse types and categories, including thousands of cuneiform tablets and fragments from virtually all periods of Mesopotamian history from the 3rd millennium BCE onwards. Among these are more than eight hundred pieces inscribed with Sumerian literary texts which, despite the fragmentary and incomplete state of most of them, are of immense value for the recovery and restoration of a large number of Sumerian literary compositions [4]. As we are going to see, the ancient writings and artefacts discovered at Ur prove the Qur’an’s claims that Abraham’s people worshipped celestial bodies.

UR’S WORSHIP OF THE MOON, SUN, AND VENUS

Since the end of the 3rd millennium, Mesopotamians observed the sky, thinking that what happens in the sky was reflected on the earth. Between the numerous heavenly bodies that cross the sky, the Moon, the Sun and Venus were the first and the most important ones that were identified as gods [5].

Sir Leonard Woolley discovered that Ur was especially devoted to the worship of the Moon god Nanna. Here is the Ziggurat of Ur, a giant complex built in around 2100 BCE dedicated to the worship of Nanna, the principle deity of the city [6]:

 

Ziggarut built by King Ur-Nammu who dedicated it in honour of Nanna, c. 2000 BC.

 

The prominence of Nanna is also reflected in literature discovered at Ur. Sir Leonard Woolley discovered clay tablets in a hoard in a house at Ur [7]. The texts deal with the construction of some object for Nanna by the King Iddin-Dagan (1975-1954 BCE) which invoke Nanna as the “foremost one of the gods” to “put in order the ground plan of Ur”:

The god Nanna, foremost one of the Anuna gods, trusted one of the Ekur, whose mes [decrees of the gods] embrace heaven and earth (and) are those which no storm can disperse, the lord who alone is a god, who shines forth, first-born son of the god Enlil in order to restore the ancient mes (and) to put in order the ground plan of Ur, the princely son (Nanna) brought forth the best mes from the Enkur. (Poem of Iddin-Dagan 1-12)

According to historians, the Moon god Nanna has been symbolically represented as a crescent since the end of the 3rd millennium BCE [8]. Here is the cylinder seal of Hashamer, dated to around 2100 BCE. This relic depicts Ur-Nammu, the King of Ur, and the Moon god Nanna in the form of a crescent:

 

Impression of the cylinder seal at Ur. c. 2100 BC.

 

Archaeological excavations have found that the people of this region also worshipped additional gods and goddesses alongside the Moon, including the Sun. Tablets for the Code of Ur-Nammu were discovered at Ur and represent the oldest known law code surviving today, dated to 2100–2050 BCE [9]. The prologue invokes the deities for Ur-Nammu’s kingship, the Moon god Nanna and Sun god Utu, and decrees “equity in the land”:

Then did Ur-Nammu the mighty warrior, king of Ur, king of Sumer and Akkad, by the might of Nanna, lord of the city, and in accordance with the true word of Utu, establish equity in the land…

According to historians, Utu has been symbolically represented as the Sun since at least the late 3rd millennium BCE [10]. Here is the famous Stele of Ur-Nammu, dated to 2112 – 2095 BCE. This relic is one the treasures of Mesopotamian art because it provides rare pictorial representations of the King of Ur’s relations to the divine world. Very few pieces of sculpture have survived from this period or from any early period of Mesopotamian history as most were smashed by invading enemies. It depicts the King of Ur and his priests engaged in sacrificial rituals to the Moon and Sun. The remains of this monument were excavated at Ur by the archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolly in the early 20th century [11]. You can see Nanna and the Sun god, Utu, joined together at the top in the form of a crescent and star (notice the rays emerging from the star):

 

relic2

 

Together with the Moon and Sun, the people of Ur also worshipped the planet Venus. This bronze figure represents Ur-Nammu, the ruler of Ur. It’s from Uruk, southern Iraq, Third Dynasty of Ur, 2100 – 2000 BCE. The inscription around and over the king’s body states that Ur-Nammu dedicated the figure to the goddess Inanna [12]:

 

relic1

 

According to historians, Inanna is personified as the planet Venus throughout Mesopotamian literature, at least since the beginning of the second millennium BCE, and perhaps even as far back as the third millennium BCE [13]. We can see this in the writings of Enheduanna (2285 – 2250 BCE), a high priestess of the Moon god Nanna in the city of Ur [14]. She became the most important religious figure of her day, and her evocative prayers, stories, and incantations, which were devoted to the goddess Inanna, were highly influential [15]. Although she was the priestess of Nanna, Enheduanna’s most famous work is her Nin-me-sharra, or “Exaltation of Inanna”.She refers to Inanna as “great lady of the horizon and zenith of the heavens”, an allusion to her astral aspect as the planet Venus:

Most precious lady, beloved by An, your holy heart is great; may it be assuaged on my behalf! Beloved spouse of Ušumgal-ana, you are the great lady of the horizon and zenith of the heavens. The Anuna have submitted to you. From birth you were the junior queen: how supreme you are now over the Anuna, the great gods! The Anuna kiss the ground with their lips before you. But my own trial is not yet concluded, although a hostile verdict encloses me as if it were my own verdict. I did not reach out my hands to [the] flowered bed. I did not reveal the pronouncements of Ningal to anybody. My lady beloved of An, may your heart be calmed towards me, the brilliant en priestess of Nanna! (Nin-me-sharra 109-121)

In fact some Sumerian hymns are much more explicit about Inanna’s connection with Venus. For example in a poem of praise to Inanna and the King Iddin-Dagan (1975-1954 BCE), she is invoked as the planet Venus:

To the great [lady] of heaven, Inanna, I would say: ‘Hail!’ To the holy torch who fills the heaven, to the light, to her who shines like daylight… Of the holy torch who fills the heaven, of her stance in heaven, like the moon and the sun… In heaven she surely stands, the good wild cow of An… With An she takes her seat upon the great throne… Upon them [the people, described as ‘black heads’] my lady looks in a friendly way from the midst of heaven… At evening, the radiant star, the great light which fills the heaven… She comes forth like the moon at night. She comes forth like bright daylight in the heat of noon… The lady, the amazement of the land, the solitary star, the Venus-star… [16]

Here, as so often in Mesopotamian literature, Inanna is referred to as Venus and is said to stand alongside the celestial gods of the Moon and the Sun.

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE MOON, SUN, AND VENUS

In fact, these three deities – the Moon, the Sun and Venus – were believed to be genealogically related to each other and formed a triad. According to Sumerian mythology, the goddess of Venus Inanna and the Sun god Utu were siblings and both the offspring of the Moon god Nanna [17].

This relationship between the Moon (Nanna), Sun (Utu) and Venus (Inanna) is reflected throughout Sumerian literature. For example, “Inanna and Ebih” is another famous composition by the high priestess of Ur, Enheduanna, depicting Inanna as the daughter of Sin/Suen:

For destroying Ebih, great child of Suen, maiden Inana, be praised. (Inanna and Ebih 182-183)

According to historians the name Sin/Suen is the Akkadian equivalent of the Sumerian Nanna. The earliest writings of both names are roughly contemporary, and occur interchangeably [18].

Here Enheduanna calls on both Sin/Suen and Inanna for help because she has been dislodged from her position by a rebelling Sumerian king, Lugal-Ane, who, she complains, did not show proper respect for the gods and has desecrated a temple at Uruk:

Sin, tell An about Lugal-ane and my fate!… En-hedu-ana will recite a prayer to you. To you, holy Inanna I shall give free vent to my tears like sweet beer!… Lugal-ane has altered everything and has stripped An of the E-ana (temple). He has not stood in awe of the greatest deity. He has turned that temple, whose attractions were inexhaustible, whose beauty was endless, into a desolation. (Nin-me-sharra 74-90)

Nanna, Ningal (Nanna’s wife), Utu and Inanna are mentioned together in a clay tablet discovered by Sir Leonard Woolley at Ur [19]. The text invokes these gods and goddesses as part of a curse:

Whether he be a king, an en priest, or an ordinary human being, may that man not get a name or beget any descendants. May the god Nanna, my lord, (and) the goddess Ningal, my lady, curse him, (and) may the god Utu and the goddess Inanna forever be its (the curse’s) evil spirit who cannot be countermanded. (Poem of Iddin-Dagan 32-41)

The composition “Inanna’s descent into underworld” was excavated at Nippur. It is dated to the first half of the second millennium (2000 – 1500 BCE). It mentions Inanna’s relation to her brother, the Sun god Utu, through her husband, Dumuzid, who is Utu’s brother in law:

Dumuzid let out a wail and turned very pale. The lad raised his hands to heaven, to Utu: “Utu, you are my brother-in-law. I am your relation by marriage. I brought butter to your mother’s house. I brought milk to Ningal’s house. Turn my hands into snake’s hands and turn my feet into snake’s feet, so I can escape my demons, let them not keep hold of me. (Inanna’s descent into underworld 368-375)

Based on these Sumerian writings, it’s possible to depict the relationship between the Moon, Sun and Venus in a diagram:

triad relationship

HOW COULD SUCH KNOWLEDGE BE IN THE QUR’AN

Knowledge of Sumerian religion (including the birthplace of Abraham, the city of Ur) had been lost for thousands of years until their re-discovery and excavation starting in the 19th century. Much of this knowledge was recorded in ancient artefacts and literary works, a number of which we have examined, in the language of Sumerian. This language was spoken at the time of Abraham and continued to be used as a sacred, ceremonial, literary and scientific language in Mesopotamia until the first century CE [20]. Then it was forgotten until the mid-19th century, when Assyriologists such as George Smith (1840-1876 CE) and Henry Rawlinson (1810-1895 CE) began deciphering the excavated inscriptions and tablets and translated them into English.

Yet we find such lost knowledge in the historical claims that have been mentioned in the Qur’an about the deities worshipped by Abraham’s people – the triad of the Moon, Sun and Venus – are remarkably accurate. The only source of knowledge about Abraham that would be readily available to Muhammad in the 7th century would have been the Bible-based stories and Jewish legends in circulation. However the story of Prophet Abraham in the Bible is silent on the details of the religious beliefs of his people. Regarding the Jewish legends that pre-date the Qur’an, the Rabbi Louis Ginzberg identified six different versions of stories about Abraham that are similar to the Qur’anic narrative [21]. Although these bear some resemblance, they are in fact much more general in nature and they do not contain the same level of detail that is present in the Qur’an. For example one of the stories found in Jewish legend is that Abraham observed the sky in order to find a sign that would foretell the rains for the year. While doing so he had a spiritual experience:

And he was sitting alone making observations and a voice came into his heart saying, “All the signs of the stars and the signs of the sun and the moon are all under the Lord’s control. Why am I seeking [them out]?” If He wishes, He will make it rain morning and evening, and if He desires He will not make it fall, for everything under His control.” [22]

Notice that the Jewish legend only provides a general description of “stars”; it lacks the level of detail that is found in the Qur’an which, as we’ve seen, pinpoints the specific planet Venus. In another Jewish legend, Abraham mentions the elements of fire, water and earth alongside the Sun, Moon and stars as gods that are worshipped by his people:

“Behold, the fire is more worthy of honour than all things formed because even that which is not subjected is subjected unto it, and things easily perishable are mocked by its flames. But even more worthy of honour is the water, because it conquereth the fire and satisfieth the earth. But even it I do not call God, because it is subjected to the earth under which the water inclineth. But I call the earth much more worthy of honour, because it overpowereth the nature (and the fulness) of the water. Even it [the earth], however, I do not call God, [because] it, too, is dried up by the sun, [and] is apportioned to man to be tilled. [I call the sun more worthy of honour than the earth,] because it with its rays illumineth the whole world and the different atmospheres. [But] even it I do not call God, because at night and by clouds its course is obscured. Nor, again, do I call the moon or the stars God, because they also in their season obscure [their] light at night. [23]

Nowhere does the Qur’an mention that Abraham’s people worshipped the elements fire, water and earth. Now if the Qur’an were copying from Jewish legend, then it would have included the mention of these elements. We can see from these examples that Jewish legends were not used as sources by Muhammad.

Finally, critics may claim that the author of the Qur’an merely luckily guessed the gods and goddesses that were worshipped by Abraham’s people. This is highly unlikely given the fact that the people across this region worshipped thousands of deities. In the second millennium BCE, when Mesopotamian scribes conducted a divine census, listing the gods of various Mesopotamian cities, they came up with nearly 2,000 names [24]. They had gods for everything from brick making to brewing, even including a Lord of Livestock Pens [25]. In addition, the manifestations of Mesopotamian deities were often quite complex, as they displayed contradictory, even paradoxical traits [26]. Their descriptions and iconography varied significantly depending on the particular geographical region and period of Mesopotamian history. For example, we’ve seen that Inanna was worshipped as “the queen of heaven”, symbolised as the planet Venus. But she was also seen as the goddess of love, symbolised in human form as a naked woman, and even the goddess of war, symbolised as a lion. In light of this constant evolution of Mesopotamian gods and goddesses, for the Qur’an to pin down Venus as a goddess worshipped in a specific part of Mesopotamia, Ur, in a specific part of history, at the time of Abraham in the second millennium BCE, is remarkable and makes a lucky guess ever more highly improbable.

CONCLUSION

The  Qur’an  is filled with stories about past nations. It wants us to reflect on  history which facilitates humility and  discourages arrogance of one’s own civilisation. Power comes and goes, and we must be humble as we will not last forever. Another benefit of focusing on history is that we learn from the mistakes of others. We have seen how in discussing the story of Abraham, the Qur’an demonstrates an accurate insight into lost history. The Qur’an proclaims that it reveals knowledge of the unseen:

That is from the news of the unseen which We reveal to you, [O Muḥammad]. You knew it not, neither you nor your people before this [11:49]

The author of the Qur’an consistently demonstrates knowledge of the unseen, of different times and places in history. This is not a quality of human beings but rather God Almighty.

References

1 – William H Shea, The Date of the Exodus, p. 236.

2 – Ancient History Encyclopedia, see entry for “Ur”. Accessed 28th February 2016:

http://www.ancient.eu/ur/

3 – Encyclopaedia Britannica, see entry for “Sir Leonard Woolley British archaeologist”. Accessed 28th February 2016:

http://www.britannica.com/biography/Leonard-Woolley

4 – Samuel Noah Kramer, The Ur Excavations and Sumerian Literature, Volume 20, Issue 1, October 1977.

5 – Sara Pizzimenti, The Astral Family in Kassite Kudurrus Reliefs, p. 151.

6 – Encyclopaedia Britannica, see entry for “Ur Ancient city Iraq”. Accessed 28th February 2016:

http://www.britannica.com/place/Ur

7 – Douglas Frayne, Old Babylonian Period (2003-1595 BC), p. 23.

8 – Sara Pizzimenti, The Astral Family in Kassite Kudurrus Reliefs, p. 152.

9 – Kramer, “Two Fragments of Sumerian Laws,” 16 Assyriological Studies, p. 13–19.

10 – Sara Pizzimenti, The Astral Family in Kassite Kudurrus Reliefs, p. 152.

11 – Jeanny Vorys Canby, Penn Museum, Expedition magazine, Vol. 29, No. 1, Reconstructing the Ur-Nammu Stela, p. 55.

12 – British Museum website. Go to online collection viewer and search for “Foundation figure Ur-Nammu”. Accessed 28th February 2016:

http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/search.aspx

Alternatively the Ancient History Encyclopedia website. Search for “Foundation figure Ur-Nammu”. Accessed 28th February 2016:

http://www.ancient.eu/image/578/

13 – Sara Pizzimenti, The Astral Family in Kassite Kudurrus Reliefs, p. 152.

14 – Gods, Demons, and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary by Jeremy Black and Anthony Green, p. 134 (entry “Nanna-Suen”).

15 – Hallo, William W. and Van Dijk, J.J.A. (1968). The Exaltation of Inanna. Yale University Press. p. 3.

16 – D. Reisman, Iddin-Dagan’s Sacred Marriage Hymn, 1973, pp. 186 – 191.

17 – Encyclopaedia Britannica, see entry for “Nanna Mesopotamian god”. Accessed 28th February 2016:

http://www.britannica.com/topic/Sin-Mesopotamian-god

18 – Krebernik, Manfred, In Reallexikon der Assyriologie und vorderasiatischen Archäologie vol. 8, pp. 361-369.

19 – Douglas Frayne, Old Babylonian Period (2003-1595 BC), p. 24.

20 – The A.K. Grayson, Penguin Encyclopedia of Ancient Civilizations, ed. Arthur Cotterell, Penguin Books Ltd. 1980. p. 92

21 – The Legends of the Jews, Louis Ginzberg, vol. v, p. 210, see footnote 16.

22 – Jubilees 12:16-17.

23 – Apocalypse of Abraham, chapter 7.

24 – Jean Bottero, Mesopotamia, 2001, p. 45.

25 – Jean Bottero, Mesopotamia, 2001, p. 47.

26 – Réka Esztári and Ádám Vér, The Voices of Ištar Prophetesses and Female Ecstatics in the Neo-Assyrian Empire, p. 7.

Written by Many Prophets One Message
A CALL TO THE TRUTH

    7 Comments

  1. Fakhir October 28, 2014 at 6:52 pm Reply

    jazakallah khair

  2. Mustafa Nava October 28, 2014 at 7:39 pm Reply

    Good to know about history

  3. Myra Wood October 29, 2014 at 12:39 pm Reply

    Interesting.

    • Sherrifdeen November 3, 2014 at 10:15 pm Reply

      Jazakun Allahu khairan. Allihamdullilah! Allah help us all in learning more about Islam, the religion of peace.

  4. Saad Mansoor October 29, 2014 at 5:07 pm Reply

    Jazak’Allah

  5. Begum Nusrat October 29, 2014 at 5:34 pm Reply

    Alhamdulillah….the Truth will establish itself gradually.Why should we not adopt it wholeheartedly.Jazakallah for the valuable information.

  6. thisisownage July 6, 2015 at 4:50 pm Reply

    Here is a good blog as well, maybe you can do something together because the brother discusses history and linguistics, also philosopy, http://quranic-musings.blogspot.com.au/

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