Virtually every culture that has ever existed has its own superstitious beliefs and practices, and many are shared across cultures. It is not solely the domain of the religious, as even millions of people in secular societies today indulge in practices such as astrology, tarot, numerology, palm reading, psychics, spiritual mediums and many others. In this article we will see how the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, rejected the baseless superstitious beliefs and practices of the world into which he was born and ultimately transformed humanity.
THE SUPERSTITIONS OF 7TH CENTURY ARABIA
Superstition formed a large part of Arabian society in the 7th century Arabs. Some of these practices included Tatayyur (belief in omens), Tanjeem (astrology), Tabarruk (seeking blessing from objects) and Kahanah (soothsaying). History has recorded a large number of myths and superstitions pertaining to the Arabs. For example, they believed that certain months of the year (such as the month of Safar) brought bad luck , and that certain birds were bad omens. When someone died and was buried, an owl (known as ‘Haamah’ in Arabic) was said to hover over the grave of a murdered person whose blood had not been avenged . All such baseless superstitions were rejected by Muhammad. He denounced all such beliefs when he said: “There is no bad omen (from birds), nor is there any Haamah, nor is there any bad omen in the month of Safar” .
Muhammad endeavoured that people should follow truth and not falsehood: “Those who follow the Messenger [Muhammad]… who enjoins upon them what is right and forbids them what is wrong and makes lawful for them the good things and prohibits for them the evil and relieves them of their burden and the shackles which were upon them… [Qur’an, 7:157]. There is a notable incident recorded that on the same day that the infant son of Muhammad died, there was an eclipse of the Sun and Moon. The people linked the two events together by saying that even the Sun and Moon were saddened by the death of his child. Muhammad personally denounced such beliefs, saying: “The Sun and the Moon do not eclipse because of the death or life (i.e. birth) of someone…”  Is there really any reason Muhammad would go against the superstitions of his people, especially when he came from a tribal culture that blindly followed the traditions of their forefathers? Had Muhammad been an imposter, then this would have been the perfect opportunity to take advantage of the ignorance of the people, but he did not. The Qur’an also records some of the superstitions of the Arabs relating to the Sun and the Moon which they used to worship: “The night, the day, the Sun, the Moon, are only a few of His signs. Do not bow down in worship to the Sun or the Moon, but bow down to God who created them, if it is truly Him that you worship.” [41:37]
We can seen that Muhammad rejected the superstitions that were present in virtually every level of 7th century Arabian society. We should not be surprised by their widespread popularity, it was only natural given the circumstances of the people. Just think about the level of knowledge about the natural world at the time of Muhammad, over 1,400 years ago. Mankind lacked the technology we have today and so came to many incorrect conclusions about how the natural world works. Legends and myths were invented because they lacked a means of scientifically explaining the world around them. Of course, some thinkers and philosophers at that time still managed to make some amazing discoveries, such as accurately estimating the circumference of the earth, but for everything they got right, they also got a lot wrong. Lack of education is another issue, we take for granted the ability to read and write but most people in the world at that time lacked these skills. Arabia itself had extremely high rates of illiteracy. It is estimated that the number of literate persons in the region of Western Saudi Arabia, the locality of Muhammad, did not exceed seventeen . Taking into account all of these circumstances, unless one has access to the unseen, then it will be very difficult to identify the falsehood of such beliefs and practices. A genuine prophet, though, would easily be able to identify such falsehood and reject it, by virtue of possessing the wisdom and insight that has been granted to them by a higher power. Muhammad was born and raised in a world that was filled with baseless superstitions, he was subject to the same technological limitations as everyone else, and he could neither read nor write . Yet he was unique, in the sense that he saw through all the falsehood that those around him were indulging in. Prophets are supposed to be beacons of truth, and Muhammad stood for the truth throughout his life, in the face of great danger, and often at great pain and cost to his own personal wellbeing. Let’s look at some other areas where Muhammad rejected superstitions that plagued not only Arabia, but also the rest of the world:
1. DISEASE AND MEDICINE
When it comes to disease and medicine we know that magic and superstition played a very large part in the life of the Arabs . For example, once there was an epidemic of fever in the Arabian oasis of Khaybar, people visiting the place would bray at the gates like donkeys to protect themselves. The reason was that they believed the fever attacked only humans, and by imitating donkeys they hoped to make it think they were not human and so to avoid catching it. In another example, a man could repel an attack of insanity by befouling himself with menstrual cloths and surrounding himself with dead men’s bones. An illness could be expelled by transference to someone else. For example, in a fever, a thread was tied round the arm of the patient. Whoever undid the thread would have the fever transferred to him, and the patient would recover. If someone was bitten by a snake, it was believed he could be cured if he held pieces of women’s jewellery in his hand and rattled them all night . The advent of Islam did away with all of this. There is an incident where a Bedouin approached Muhammad and asked, “O Messenger of God, should we not treat sickness?” Muhammad replied, “Treat sickness, for God has not created any disease except He has also created the cure, except for one disease.” The Bedouin asked, “O Messenger of God, what is it?” Muhammad responded, “Old age.”  When it came to contagious diseases, Islam was way ahead of its time as it instituted practices such as isolation and quarantine. Today these are strategies which are implemented by public health authorities. Muhammad commanded his followers not to travel to places known to be afflicted with illness, and he advised those in the contaminated areas not to leave and spread the disease further afield. He said: “If you hear of an outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it; but if the plague breaks out in a place while you are in it, do not leave that place” . In fact, entire books have been written on the medicine of Muhammad, such as The Prophetic Medicine by the classical scholar Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya.
Let’s compare such 7th century teachings of Muhammad on disease, medicine and quarantine control, to the situation in Europe where, as late as the 14th century, it was still widely believed that distant planets caused diseases here on earth. The Bubonic Plague, also known as the Black Death, was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 75 to 200 million people in Eurasia and peaking in Europe in the years 1346 – 1353 CE. It spread so quickly through Europe because medical knowledge had stagnated during the Middle Ages . The most authoritative European account at the time of the Black Death came from a medical faculty in Paris. They produced a report in 1345 CE that was sent to the king of France, placing the primary source of the disease on a conjunction of three planets that caused a “great pestilence in the air”:
When we look to the writings of Europe’s distant past, we find similar accounts. The Iliad, an ancient Greek epic poem believed to be written c. 1194–1184 BCE, also attributes illness to stars:
It seems like 14th European medicine had advanced very little and was still steeped in the superstition of the ancient Greeks over 2,000 years before them. Sadly, a much more sinister explanation for the Black Death was prevalent in other parts of Europe. Here a chronicle by a 14th century Franciscan friar reports that Jewish people were blamed for the cause of the disease:
We can see that even as late as the 14th century, Europe was still attributing the causes of disease to astrology as well as conspiracy theories about the Jewish people. Compare all this to the teachings of Muhammad on disease, its cures and quarantine control over 600 years prior.
2. CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM
Another area where mankind has suffered due to superstition is the criminal justice system. The 7th century Arabs lived by the tribal law of retaliation. According to this custom, when a noble person of a strong and influential tribe was killed, it was not enough to kill the perpetrator, especially if they had not been of equal rank. Therefore, many innocent members of the other tribe used to be killed. If such revenge was not sought then it was believed that the victim’s tribe would be shamed, and the adult males of the tribe would have to abandon wine, perfume and fancy food until they avenged their tribe . To appreciate the extent to which the Arabs could take this practice, there is a famous incident where one tribe killed a camel belonging to another and it led to the start of a terrible war which lasted for 40 years, killing scores of people from both sides .
Muhammad condemned such systems of justice as immoral. Collective punishment gave way to individual responsibility, as the Qur’an declares that innocent people are not to be held accountable for the actions of others: “And no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another” [35:18]. When it comes to punishing a person who is said to be guilty of a crime, the accused is presumed to be innocent until concrete evidence is brought forward. Muhammad declared: “Had men been believed only according to their allegations, some persons would have claimed the blood and properties belonging to others, but the accuser is bound to present positive proof” . One example of such evidence is multiple, corroborating eyewitness testimony, and each witness must be reliable individuals whose word can be trusted. The testimony of known liars, for example, would be rejected. We can see that Islam did not come with spirituality alone, but it also brought with it very practical approaches to solving our problems and challenges in day to day life. You may be thinking to yourself, is this really so impressive, as this is just the norm in criminal justice systems around the world. Today we take things like presumption of innocence, trials, testimony and evidence for granted. But such legal systems are quite different to the ones that were practised up until only a few centuries ago. Throughout Medieval Europe, justice was heavily influenced by superstition. The most important figure in a court of law was not a judge or jury, in fact they were not human at all. When a person was accused of a crime, they would have to perform a ritual during which God would reveal the guilt or innocence of the accused. People from poorer backgrounds would undergo a trial by ordeal . For example, the accused might have to hold a red-hot iron. The wound would be bandaged and re-examined three days later by a priest, who would pronounce that God had intervened to heal it, in which case they were seen as innocent, or that it was merely festering—in which case the accused would be condemned as guilty. Nobles and people from a rich background would undergo a trial by combat. If a man was accused of a serious crime, he could prove his innocence by fighting his accuser. Fights took place in front of a huge crowd and had the atmosphere of a country fair. The battle would last until one of the men surrendered or was killed. It was still considered divine justice, as God would ensure that the innocent party would always prevail . Eventually, trials by ordeal and combat gave way to trials by jury, but such superstitious justice systems were in place in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, over a thousand years after Islam introduced a system based on evidence and not superstition.
3. RACISM AND THE INEQUALITY OF HUMAN BEINGS
Even racism, one of the great evils of history, has its roots in superstition. The Curse of Ham (also known as Noah’s Curse) refers to an incident in the Bible, in the book of Genesis, regarding Noah and his son Ham. In this story, Noah gets angry with Ham, and places a curse on his descendants (the Canaanites), condemning them to slavery. There is a racist interpretation of this curse that some in the West have taken in order to justify slavery. The explanation that black Africans, as the “sons of Ham”, were cursed, possibly “blackened” by their sins, was advanced during the Middle Ages and became increasingly common during the slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries . Even the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who is considered a shining example of enlightened thinking, considered some human beings to be inherently inferior to others from the moment of their birth: “For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” Then he concludes, “some men are by nature free, and others slave, and that for these latter slavery is both expedient and right”. Even Mahatma Gandhi, one of the most revered spiritual leaders of the 20th century, expressed racist views. Gandhi spent 21 years living in Colonial South Africa, from 1893 to 1914. He arrived there during a time when the nation was suffering severe political unrest and racial discrimination against black people. In 1895, Gandhi began actively promoting racial segregation in Durban. The Durban post office had two doors: one for whites and the other shared by Indians and black Africans. Being Indian, Gandhi was required to share a door with black South Africans, which deeply offended him. He petitioned the authorities to create separate entrances for Indians and was granted his wish when the authorities provided three separate entrances, one each for black Africans, Indians, and Europeans . In 1903 Gandhi wrote: “We believe also that the white race in South Africa should be the predominating race.” . Gandhi shared many of the discriminatory racial views of his time. He was perhaps a product of the rigid Hindu caste system which divides people into different categories, with anyone falling outside of these categories being classified as “untouchables” and treated as social outcasts.
The Arabs of the 7th century were no better, they wrongly believed that the most superior of people were those who descended from the Arab race and had Arab blood. This is reflected in the widespread and brutal treatment of black slaves before the advent of Islam. Racism is an idea that Islam completely rejects:
Here the Qur’an speaks of human equality in no uncertain terms. Islam rejects the notion that certain individuals or nations are favoured because of their wealth, power or race. God created human beings as equals who are to be distinguished from each other only on the basis of their faith and piety. The life of Muhammad is a beautiful realisation of this Qur’anic standard. Throughout his Prophethood, Muhammad advised his people to set aside their ignorant and perverse values and to live by the Qur’an. Muhammad’s love for humanity, irrespective of race or nationality, is demonstrated in his famous Last Sermon. In perhaps the most noteworthy manifestation of anti-racism of any religious figurehead in recorded history, he challenged an ultra-nationalistic and highly racist society by calling on people to unite under a banner of humanity:
Muhammad’s anti-racist mentality helped lead his people out of the darkness of nationalism and racism and into the light by guiding them onto the path of racial equality. The fact that Islam spread amongst all the colours and races of the world is testimony to the fact that Islam did not accept these false divisions. Today millions of people across the world, black, white, Asian, African and European are all part of the unique Islamic brotherhood and sisterhood.
Muhammad’s anti-racist views were apparent very early on in his Prophetic mission through his friendship with Bilal ibn Rabah, a black slave who rose to a leading position within the Muslim community of 7th century Arabia. He was appointed as the official muadhin of the Prophet, meaning that he was responsible for making the public calls to prayer. In choosing Bilal for this honourable role, Muhammad demonstrated that social exclusion and subordination based upon skin colour was not to be permitted in an Islamic society. Muhammad broke down racial barriers for black believers in a part of the world that had one of the poorest track records for human rights, preceding the Western civil rights movement and Martin Luther King by nearly 1,500 years. It’s no wonder that British historian Professor Arnold J. Toynbee wrote, “The extinction of race consciousness as between Muslims is one of the outstanding moral achievements of Islam, and in the contemporary world there is, as it happens, a crying need for the propagation of this Islamic virtue.” 
If Muhammad’s main motivation was to gain power, as some argue, then why did he go against racism? He had absolutely nothing to gain by uplifting the status and rights of slaves in tribal Arabia. Quite the opposite in fact, as his stance only served to alienate and create enemies of those who were in positions of power over slaves and had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Muhammad spoke out against racism, and every evil in tribal Arabia, because the Qur’an commands believers to uphold justice, even if it goes against one’s self-interests: “You who believe, uphold justice and bear witness to God, even if it is against yourselves, your parents, or your close relatives. Whether the person is rich or poor, God can best take care of both. Refrain from following your own desire, so that you can act justly– if you distort or neglect justice, God is fully aware of what you do.” [4:135]
HOW MUHAMMAD’S TEACHINGS TRANSFORMED THE WORLD
Here is the testimony of Ja’far bin Abi Talib, who was a contemporary of Muhammad. He informed the king of Abyssinia about the condition of his people and the positive change Islam had brought for them:
Muhammad’s teachings transformed every level of Arabian society. Just to give you an idea of the scale of the challenge that Muhammad faced, let’s look at an attempt in recent Western history to eradicate just one social ill: alcoholism. In 1920 the United States government passed a nationwide law to ban the sale, production, importation, and transportation of alcoholic beverages for moral and medical reasons. This era is commonly known as the Prohibition. Although the consumption of alcohol fell at the beginning of the Prohibition, it subsequently increased and led to other problems such as corruption and organised crime. The law was repealed in 1933. The failure of one of the most powerful governments in the world to tackle just a single social ill should make us reflect on Muhammad. His teachings managed to completely reform not only alcoholism but all the social ills of Arabian society in a single generation. It took just 23 years! This was a revolution the likes of which the world has never witnessed.
The coming of Muhammad in the 7th century produced one of the most successful civilisations in the history of the world. While Europe was in the Dark Ages it was the Muslims that produced some of the best known scholars. Victor Robinson, a historian of science, eloquently summed up the contrast between medieval Europe and Islamic Spain:
Some examples of Muslim advances in science are the mathematician al-Khwarizmi, who played a significant role in the development of algebra. He also came up with the concept of algorithms which is why he is called the grandfather of computer science. The physician Az-Zahrawi is considered the greatest medieval surgeon and is described by many as the father of modern surgery. He made pioneering discoveries in surgical procedures and instruments, for example the material he utilised for internal stitching is still used in surgery today. The astronomer Al-Sufi made the earliest recorded observation of the Andromeda Galaxy. This was the first galaxy other than the Milky Way to be observed from Earth. The philosopher Ibn Sina is considered one of the greatest thinkers and scholars in history. He provided the first descriptions of bacterial and viral organisms. He also discovered the contagious nature of infectious diseases and introduced the concept of quarantine to limit the spread of disease. He has been so influential in medicine that he is referred to as the father of modern medicine . You may be surprised to learn that many of the scientific words and terms we use today are taken from the Arabic language; this is a legacy of the discoveries of Muslim scientists. For example, the word “algebra” comes from the Arabic word “al-jabr”, taken from the title of one of the books by the Muslim mathematician al-Khwarizmi. The word “algorithm” is taken from al-Khwarizmi’s name itself. The word “alchemy” comes almost unchanged from the Arabic “al-kimya”. One of the greatest contributions made by Arab scholars was their development of the science of astronomy. If you look at a modern star chart, you’ll find hundreds of stars whose names derive from Arabic: Altair, Aldebaran, Betelgeuse, Vega, Rigel and Algol, to name a few. Finally, we owe the decimal number system that we use for counting to Arab mathematicians. In fact the most common symbolic representation of numbers in the world today (1, 2, 3 etc.) are actually taken from Arabic numerals.
THE SOURCE OF ENLIGHTENMENT, THE QUR’AN
You may be wondering, what is it about the Qur’an that inspired Muslims to go from the depths of ignorance of the pre-Islamic era to being leaders of the world in the sciences? Many of these scientists were excellent Islamic theologians and it was the Qur’an which drew their attention to inquire into the natural world and showed them the path to knowledge and enlightenment. The 10th century Muslim scholar Ibn al-Haytham is widely regarded as the father of the scientific method and was the first scientist in history to insist that everything be proven through induction, which uses observations and experimentation to challenge previously held theories. Ibn al-Haytham first studied theology, the Qur’an, and he stated that it was the Qur’an that inspired him to study philosophy and science: “I decided to discover what it is that brings us closer to God, what pleases Him most, and what makes us submissive to His ineluctable Will.” 
The following verses of the Qur’an were the first to be revealed to Muhammad. It is interesting that of all the things which the Qur’an could have mentioned, the actions of reading and writing were chosen. Notice how the very first word revealed was a commandment to “read”. Thus the Qur’an attaches great importance to knowledge and education:
God created man and provided him with the tools for acquiring knowledge, namely hearing, sight and minds. Thus the Qur’an reminds us that we should be grateful to God for these tools which give us the means to obtain knowledge:
Here the Qur’an highlights the noble status of the one who has knowledge; they are superior to those who lack knowledge, as one who is knowledgeable has greater understanding. This encourages Muslims to continually seek knowledge:
The Qur’an draws our attention to many natural phenomena by encouraging us to observe the world around us:
Moreover this observation of the world around us should not be aimless but rather we should ponder and reflect on what we see:
The concept of putting ideas to the test is encouraged by the Qur’an. So is the use of witnesses in order to validate conclusions. It must be noted that no other religious text challenges its reader in such ways. The use of falsification tests is unique to the Qur’an:
We have seen how Muhammad transformed every aspect of Arabian society, and even the world at large. Whether you have read the Qur’an or not, whether you’ve even heard of the Qur’an before reading this article, it has already shaped and influenced your life in ways you cannot imagine. This is exactly the kind of legacy that one would expect, were Muhammad a genuine Prophet of God.
To learn more about the impact of Islam on the world, you can order and download the free book “The Eternal Challenge: A Journey Through The Miraculous Qur’an” from the One Reason website (click on the image below):
1 – Sunan Abi Dawood, Hadith #3914.
2 – T. E. Homerin, “Echoes of a thirsty owl: death and afterlife in pre-Islamic Arabic poetry”, pp. 165-184.
3 – Sahih Bukari, Book 76, Hadith #27.
4 – Sahih Bukhari, Hadith #153.
5 – Al-Baladhuri, Futuh al-Buldan, p. 458.
6 – This is a fact which the Qur’an itself confirms: “Follow the Messenger– the unlettered prophet they find described in the Torah that is with them, and in the Gospel…” [7:157].
7 – M. Ullmann, Islamic Medicine, pp. 2-5.
8 – Richard Tapper and Keith McLachlan, Technology, Tradition and Survival: Aspects of Material Culture in the Middle East and Central Asia, p. 35.
9 – Tirmidhi, 4/383, Hadith #1961.
10 – Sahih Bukhari, Book 76, Hadith #43.
11 – Robert Clifford Ostergren, The Europeans: A Geography of People, Culture, and Environment, p. 88.
12 – Rosemary Horrox, The Black Death, pp. 158 – 159.
13 – Homer, The Iliad, Book 22:21.
14 – J. G. Meuschen, Hermanni Gygantis, ordinis fratrum minorum, Flores Temporum seu Chronicon Universale ab Orbe condito ad annum Christi MCCCXLIX, Leiden, 1750, pp. 138 – 139.
15 – Piotr Blumczynski and John Gillespie, Translating Values: Evaluative Concepts in Translation, p. 109.
16 – G.N Jalbani, Life of the Holy Prophet, 1988, pp. 2 – 3.
17 – Al Baihagi, The 40 Hadith of Imam al Nawawi, No. 33.
18 – Robert Bartlett, The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages, pp. 27 – 28.
19 – Janin Hunt, Medieval Justice: Cases and Laws in France, England, and Germany: 500-1500, p. 17.
20 – Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1482-1800, pp. 210, 247, 259, 312, 329, 585.
21 – Aristotle, Politics, Book I, chp. 5 pp.58-60.
22 – Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 1, pp. 367-368.
23 – Jad Adams, Gandhi: The True Man Behind Modern India, Chapoter 4: Challenge and Chastity.
24 – Musnad Ahmad, Hadith #19774.
25 – Civilization On Trial, New York, 1948, p. 205.
26 – The Life of Muhammad, A Translation of Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, translation by A. Guillaume, 2004, pp. 151 – 152.
27 – Victor Robinson, The Story of Medicine, New York, 1936, p. 164.
28 – George Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, Washington, 1927-48, 3 volumes.
29 – Steffens, B., Ibn al-Haytham: first scientist, 2007.