The Gods Before Allah
There is a small but growing group of very brave men and women who are returning to their indigenous Gods, and slowly but surely restoring the pre-Islamic polytheisms of the Middle East. They call their movement ‘Wathan’ and right now, I’m sure you’ve never heard of them. (1) They’re doing good and potent work, and they’re doing it under pressures that we here in the West simply don’t have to face. For those in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East, they face a literal – not metaphorical but quite literal—death sentence if they are discovered. The penalty for blasphemy or apostasy in Islam is, after all, death, especially in areas where Sharia law holds sway.
Yes, Virginia, there was religion in the Middle East before Islam. There were many complex and thriving theologies. They even worshipped Dionysos in Arabia. (2) Islam wiped most of that away and is still attempting to do so with any remnants. This is one of the major reasons that Daesh is so hell bent on blowing up places once sacred to their ancestors like Palmyra. Most of what we know about Pre-Islamic Deities comes from this text here. It’s not at all an unbiased text, but it is at least something.
We often talk about monotheistic privilege here in the West and yes, it exists and it can be problematic being a polytheist even in the United States. We can’t be lawfully killed for it though. We don’t have to practice our religion in such secrecy, fearing that if our polytheism were even remotely suspected we could be stoned, raped and stoned, beheaded, tortured, imprisoned, or slaughtered in some other horrifying way. Even if we live in areas where we might get occasionally harassed, we don’t have to fear being hauled out of our houses to our own deaths. We are lucky to live in the West where we have the luxury of being able to maintain our shrines and pour out libations and declare ourselves to friends and family if we wish as polytheists without such terror.
The men and women practicing Wathan, and other indigenous Middle Eastern polytheisms are incredibly brave. They are few in number, yes, but courageous. I pray fervently that they do not become martyrs just as I pray fervently that we in the West will always have the freedoms we enjoy now, to worship as we will.
As I told someone recently having come to polytheism from Islam today: you have a right to the Gods of your ancestral lands and people. That at least One of those Gods has been coopted and practices corrupted into a damaging system of oppression does not change that. You have a right to love and honor the Holy Powers of your ancestors. You should be able to do so without fear of slaughter.
I worry when those I know who practice in the Middle East fall silent on social media. I worry. There is religious genocide happening in lands where Islam holds sway (and no, not all Muslims. Most Muslims in this country want to practice their tradition peacefully. We’re not talking about individual friends and neighbors, we’re talking about a system of oppression and brutality under which many are living today, a system that is spreading).
Monday night I attended a lecture by C. Stewart, a Benedictine monk who saved over twenty one thousand manuscripts from destruction (Syrian manuscripts from the fifth century onward, crucial to understanding the development of Syrian Christianity). He had a slide show as part of his presentation and he’d show us a monastery where he found an archive of books and then we’d learn that it most likely didn’t exist anymore. We’d see a new picture of rubble. He’d show us one of the people that he worked with and then we’d learn that his friend disappeared, no ransom requested, nothing and you know with Daesh in the region he’s never coming back. Syrian Christians are being slaughtered or driven out of their ancestral cities. Yezidi—fellow polytheists—are being slaughtered or sold into sexual slavery to be raped and tortured. It’s genocide.
I hope that one day history will remember those brave ones who risked brutality and death to once again pour out libations to the true Gods of their people. I hope that they will be hailed as the heroes and heroines that they are. I hope one day, they and others like them won’t have to hide, but that we will instead have a Middle East returned to the Gods to Whom it truly belongs.
For now, I pray for those practitioners.
- Wathan (Wathanism, Wathaniyya, “ethnicism” is a pretty close counterpart to the NT Greek terminology of ta ethnē, “the nations”. It’s an appropriate term as any for Arabian revivalist polytheism.
- Herodotus, Histories, 3.8