Priests and priestesses are the guardians of the gods and goddesses’ interests, protectors of their temples and sacred areas, supervisors of offerings, sacrifices, weddings, births, funerals, ceremonies and rituals, and mediators between gods and worshippers. They were exorcists, oracles, healers, bankers, archivists and writers and readers of hymns and poems. Although no Safaitic inscription discovered so far indicates that sacrifice in the wilderness required the officiation of a priest, if we take the texts at face value, sacrifice among nomads was performed by the worshippers directly as individual acts of devotion or involving a small number of people. Sacrifice in temples, however, probably did require a priest. The temple itself was pretty self-sufficient being a commercial center, archive, as well as the home of the priests with its own source of water as seen in Khirbet Et-Tannur, a Nabataean temple. Sacred areas out in the open such as high places, groves and springs don’t necessarily need to be staffed but at many there would be a guardian such as a palm grove mentioned by Diodorus that was “in the care of a man and a woman who hold the sacred office for life” and also in the case of a mountain where a cult statue was set up and a “priest (sacerdos) also lives there, and he wears a dalmatic and linen cloak” according to Antoninus Placentinus.
Priests in Arabia appear under many different titles which may mean these are ranks in a hierarchy, different roles, or regional variations. These include kāhin, kamar or kumra, rabb, sadin, passim and afkal. In the Hejaz, afkal was the usual term, in the Sinai and Hisma region it was kāhin, in southern Syria it was kumra, and in the caravan cities of Palmyra and Hatra it was passim. Afkal comes from the Akkadian apkallu meaning wise or sage and its found in the Hejaz and Sinai peninsula. This was probably the highest authority if these titles were ranks and not just regional variation because the builders of a sanctuary at Wadi Ramm call themselves the servants of the afkal. Priestesses were known in Arabia, the most famous being Zarqah Al-Yamama.
Although a kāhin seems to be a priest like the others mentioned above as seen in ancient inscriptions which mention a kāhin of Allat in Ramm and a kāhin of Al-'Uzza in the Sinai, in Islamic-period texts the kāhin was a seer, oracle, and dream interpreter who used the aid of jinn. The title and the function are cognate with those of the ancient Hebrew kohen, their ability to divine what others could not perceive came from their tendency to be alone in wild places, to spend a lot of time in reflection, and to view the world with ‘the eye of enlightenment’ according to the historian al-Mas’udi. In addition, al-Mas’udi says, many of them were physically deformed, and made up in spirit for what they lacked in body: the celebrated legendary kāhin Satih, for example, supposedly had no bones in his body, and could be ‘rolled up like a gown’. When Mohammad first started experiencing his so-called revelation he suspected he was turning into a kāhin and to show why its enough to compare an oath of the kāhin Al-Khuza’i with an early chapter of the Quran:
أحلف بالنور والظلمة، وما بتهامة من بهمة ، وما بنجد من أكمة ، لقد خبأتم لي أطباق جمجمة، مع الفلندح أبي همهمة
قالوا: أصبت فاحكم بين هاشم بن عبد مناف وبين أمية بن عبد شمس أيهما أشرف
فقال: والقمر الباهر، والكوكب الزاهر، والغمام الماطر، وما بالجو من طائر، وما اهتدى بعلم مسافر، منجد أوغائر، لقد سبق هاشم أمية إلى المفاخر، أول منها وآخر
I swear by the light and the darkness, and by the boulders in Tihama, and by the hills in Najd, you have hidden for me plates of wooden cups, with Al-Falandah Abi Humaya.
So they said: You are right. So judge between Hashim bin Abd Manaf and Umayyah bin Abd Shams, which of them is more honorable?
He answered: By the moon that shines brightly, by the star that shows clearly, by the clouds that give rain, by all the birds in the air, by who is guided by the knowledge of a traveler, by the savior or attacker, Hashem has preceded Umayyah in feats, the first and the last
Now the first few verses of Surah Ash-Shams:
وَٱلشَّمْسِ وَضُحَىٰهَا, وَٱلْقَمَرِ إِذَا تَلَىٰهَا, وَٱلنَّهَارِ إِذَا جَلَّىٰهَا, وَٱلَّيْلِ إِذَا يَغْشَىٰهَا
By the sun and its forenoon brightness, by the moon when it follows it, by the day revealing it, by the night veiling it
Later, however, Mohammad tried to distance himself from the kāhin’s rhyming speech (سجع الكهان). But linguistically the Quran is uttered in the same high Arabic language that the rhymed speech of the seers and oracles shared with their poetry. The fact that Mohammad feared he was “turning into” a kāhin tells us a lot about what it was like to become one. Parallels can be drawn with how one would become a shaman among the Yurak of Siberia. Toward the approach of maturity the shamanic candidate begins to have visions, sings in his sleep, likes to wander in solitude, and so on; after this incubation period he attaches himself to a senior shaman to be taught. Among the Kazakh and Kyrgyz there’s the baqça, a singer, poet, musician, diviner, priest, and doctor, who appears to be the guardian of religious traditions. We must not take these comparisons too far, however, because these are unrelated traditions, because we know very little about how one was initiated into kāhinhood, and in order to not conflate kāhins with shamans who may have completely different religious roles.