Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools Part 12

I would like to return to my original thesis that was sparked by George G.M. James’ Stolen Legacy several years ago (see Islam and the Ancient Mysteries Part 1and Part 2). Although this thesis has undergone modifications since I began my research, the premise has remained the same. In the midst of this series I have found that the word Ṣābi’a is the general term in Arabic for the Ancient Mystery Schools, while theorizing that other terms such as Naṣārā and Chaldean refer to the leaders of temporal and geographic Mystery Schools. In the following post, I will summarize my theory and trace the genealogy of Sabian/Mystery School thought to this day.

Islam and the Revival of the Ancient Mysteries

The Sabians mentioned throughout classical Arabic literature are what the Greeks called the Mysteries. Like the Jews and Christians before them, the Muslims wrestled with the perceived harms and benefits of Sabian thought. On the one hand, the scriptures of the Abrahamic traditions were deeply critical of the theological distortions in Sabian doctrine. Abrahamic doctrines and rituals were in response to the beliefs and practices of the Sabians, which opened up the gates of polytheism among the unlearned laymen. On the other hand, the Sabians had benefited the world by their advances in other areas of human knowledge. The Abbasid Caliphate, like Eastern Christianity, came to terms with the knowledge produced by the Sabians. However, the Muslims strived not to take the road of the Christians, whose doctrine ultimately succumbed to the philosophical influences of the Sabians.

What we witness from the 9th to 11th century in the Islamic world with the codification of both traditional religious knowledge as well as the translation of ancient empirical and occult texts, is a race to retain knowledge of the Prophet Muhammad, while also reviving the knowledge of the Sabians (i.e. the Mystery Schools). The Islamic empire and its scholars sought to uphold the Abrahamic doctrine in the face of Sabian doctrine by calling people to Islam and granting protection (i.e. dhimmi status) to the People of the Book, i.e. Jews and Christians. At the same time, they were vehemently opposed to the polytheistic elements of Sabian thought.

As such, the Muslims had revived the Mystery Schools under the Abrahamic creed of Islam. This, however, was not without its conflicts. As certain groups of Muslims had the tendency to slip back into the beliefs of the Sabians, such as:

  • The Khawārij, who embraced the Stoic (Mystery School) concept of perfection and sinlessness as a sign of righteousness.
  • The Muʿtazilites would later stress the primacy of reason over revelation, which placed the philosopher sage on level with and sometimes over the prophets and rekindle the notion that human beings attain prophethood through their own efforts and merits rather than the grace and ordinance of God.
  • Al-Ghazālī’s criticism of the Muslim philosophers (primarily Ibn Sīnā) in his Incoherence of the Philosophers, identifies certain ancient beliefs held by these philosophers, which he believes led them to apostasy. This, while maintaining the utility of ancient Sabian empirical knowledge.
  • Ibn Rushd (Averroes) would later take issue with al-Ghazālī’s conclusions, claiming that the “craft of ḥikma” (wisdom/ancient knowledge) needed to be passed down like any other craft.

Ibn Rushd’s defense of Sabian philosophy would be rejected or ignored by the greater Muslim world, but the means by which Sabian knowledge would gain interest and popularity in Western Europe.

Modern Day Mysteries

In the last few centuries, Western civilization has become the battleground between Abrahamic and Sabian thought since the so-called European Renaissance. As such, Renè Guenon considered the beginning of the West’s decline to be Renè Descartes’ hyper-skepticism. Even as the West was philosophizing itself out of the Abrahamic tradition, it was making a dash for Eastern empirical and esoteric knowledge, which they harbored in their secret societies. This would lead to the separation of religion from science, politics, sociology, and the many other sciences needed for human civilization.

In the 20th century, Western philosophy and esotericism trickled down to the populace by way of clandestine organizations, theosophy, and counterculture movements. In no place were these ideas more prevalent than in the United States. As a result, we witness Sabian thought proliferate in the society everyday. More specifically, Sabian thought has entered African American communities through such groups as the Moorish Science Temple, the Nation of Islam, the Five Percenters, Nuwaubians, and Afrocentrists. All of these groups have explicitly or implicitly embraced the erroneous notion that they can reconstruct the Mystery Schools. I understand that this is a bold claim, but I will show the parallels between their theosophies and ancient Sabian thought. I will argue that they based their movements on incomplete knowledge of the ancient Mysteries because they did not received their knowledge through an unbroken chain of living teachers. This knowledge of the Mysteries/Sabians has been filtered by the Abrahamic faiths, primarily Islam in the current day, and cannot be accessed except through these traditional channels.

“Thoughts From Sudan,” No Longer Are They Just In My Head

What do Dave Chappelle, Malaria, and the FBI have in common? They all make appearances in the latest publication from the Maurchives, Thoughts from Sudan. Once I graduated with my master’s from the Khartoum International Institute for Arabic Language in 2011, I thought I had closed that chapter of my life, but the thoughts from Sudan kept on coming back to mind. The emails and stories I shared with my family and friends throughout my travels and studies gave us all a good laugh. Some have encouraged me to publish them. So as of August 21, 2022, Thoughts from Sudan, the monograph, is available for the world to chuckle at.

Order it here.

Cover of Thoughts from Sudan

Thoughts is one of the works I will be publishing in the Islamic Literacy Series, in which I will address the elusive topic of how to embark on a path of studying the sacred sciences of Islam. My goal is to increase the Islamic literacy of the American Muslim community, young and old, by sharing my experiences, providing sound advice on study plans and strategies, and using my connections to facilitate travel to the Muslim world for advanced studies, if they choose to do so. Thoughts will be followed by the title, Towards Islamic Literacy, which will provide a definition to the much abused term “Islamic Literacy” and a practical model one can follow to achieve it.

Before I conclude this post, I want to share with you a brief passage from Thoughts. It’s about my landing in the Khartoum airport after being stranded in Detroit due to an interrogation with the FBI and Immigration, which made me miss my initial flight. This passage describes a nightmare scenario in which I landed in a foreign country with nothing three days after I was scheduled to be there. Check out my initial reaction to life in Sudan. The rest of the book is full of these types of scenarios.

From the chapter “My journey:”

As I flew into Khartoum, all I noticed was low level square hut-like dwellings. From my vantage point, it did not look a lot different from the Detroit terrain I just left. When it was time to finally exit the plane, I felt a gush of hot air overcome me; one that would not leave me until I left ten months later. I stood in a long line of people passing through customs, eventually entering the airport about an hour later. I waited quite a while for my luggage at baggage claim. Most people from my cohort grabbed their bags and left, followed by another cohort. However, I and a handful of other people were still waiting for our bags. It became evident that something went wrong, and a significant amount of people’s luggage did not arrive with the flight. So those of us still waiting, surrounded a 20-something airport employee and described to him our bags and their contents. He seemed like a nice guy, but he was unbearably slow.

Employee: “What was uh… in your bag?”

European Traveler: “I had some clothes…”

Employee: “Ok, clozes…” Writes something down for about fifteen seconds. “What kind of clozes?”

European Traveler: “Let’s see, I had some socks…”

Employee: “Yes. Sooks.” Writes something down for about twenty seconds. “How many sooks?”

European: “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe ten.”

Employee: “Yes. Ten.” Writes something down for about thirty seconds. “What color sooks?”

After what had to be several hours of chasing these rabbit holes, finally it was my turn, and I was the last one. Once I finished, I had something else to think about. How was I going to get to my destination? Dr. Lo’s Senegalese friend studying in the Sudan, Muhammad (Mamadou) Diouf, was assigned to meet me at the airport, but I could not imagine him waiting so long. First, I was three days late. Secondly, I exited the airport several hours after my flight was scheduled to arrive and it was already dark.

Upon stepping out of the airport, I was quickly approached by a taxi driver, whose question in Arabic I understood as, “Do you need a taxi?” To which I said (no). He looked at me in surprise and said in Arabic, “You speak Arabic very well!” This is something I and many other Westerners traveling in the Arab world experience. You say one word of Arabic to a native speaker, and they quickly compliment your Arabic proficiency, even if you know nothing more than that single word. Nevertheless, I welcomed the official transition from English to Arabic.

Shortly afterwards, someone who appeared to be Senegalese caught my eye. He was a lean, dark-skinned man with piercing eyes. We both approached each other asking the other by name. Alhamdulillah! It was a big relief that he waited. He ended up negotiating with that taxi driver to take us to the dormitory. First, we had to stop and exchange some of my dollars for Sudanese guinea, then we were on our way. Muhammad wondered where all my luggage was, to which I told him it was lost, and I had to go back to get it later. He said that the next day was a holiday in the Sudan, but we would make plans to go after that.

An image from Sudan I will never forget.

We arrived at his dark and dusty dorm room where he promptly began chopping up onions and putting rice in a pot on an electric heater. He gave me a pair of his shorts, a pair of sandals, and a bar of soap and directed me to the bathroom. Only in Moroccan rest stops had I seen bathrooms so filthy. Brown streaks ran up and down the ancient tile walls and pieces of hair were tucked between crevices. Was this the place I was to live for the indefinite future?

Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools (Part 11)

If we cede that the primordial religion was a comprehensive spiritual and intellectual tradition resembling what we know as the Ancient Mystery Schools, then we should be able to map them to a single origin, whose name and appearance differed throughout time and space, but whose essence remained the same.To better illustrate the relationship between the major religions of the Near East and the Ancient Mystery Schools see the graphic below. Following that, I will provide a brief description of each of these names for Near Eastern religions with the aims of illuminating the similarities and differences.

The various forms of Near Eastern Mystery Schools

Chaldeans

The priests of the Mystery Schools in Prophet Ibrahim’s day were referred to as the Chaldeans. This is the Latinized form of the Semitic term, Kasdīm. Seated in ancient Iraq, they were known for their knowledge of astrology and worshipful reverence of the stars. When they went astray, Ibrahim was sent to rectify their religion. Those that followed him were known as Ḥanīfs. The Muslim polymath, al-Fārābī believed that the Chaldeans were the first to harvest the “wisdom teachings,” which they transmitted to the Egyptians, who transmitted them to the Greeks, who transmitted them to the Syrians (i.e. Naṣārā), who ultimately transmitted them to the Arab Muslims (43).

Sabians

The leaders of the Mystery Schools of Egypt and the lands that fell under their rule were known as Sabians (Ṣābi’a). This is attested to in Mandaean sources as well as in hieroglyphics. Dr. Nadim al-Sayyar found in a papyrus scroll that the word for knowledge was ṣabāwi (صباوٍ), which is derived from the word ṣabā, which means guidance in the ancient Egyptian language. Moreover, another derivative of this root is the word for teachings, ṣabāyat, which also indicates a scripture or a message (Sayyār, 1995, 274-5). He also demonstrates that this root carried connotations to the stars (Sayyār, 2020, 142).

How this Egyptian term entered the Arabic lexicon is a matter of speculation, but it suffices us to say that historians writing in Arabic after the advent of Islam used the term to refer to the unreformed Mystery Schools and the antithesis to Ḥanīf. This is attested to by the Andalusian Jewish scholar, Maimonides in his Guide For the Perplexed, Ṣa’id al-Andalusī’s Biographies of the Nations, and Muhammad al-Shahrastānī’s Sects and Creeds.

Ḥanīfs

Though the term Ḥanīf referred to Ibrahim and his followers who taught an unwavering monotheism and deference to human prophets as opposed to the angels, the term was inverted by many Semitic languages and religions. Other groups took it to mean pagan among other things discussed in Part 10 of this series. The Arabic of the Qur’an corrected this understanding and freed Ibrahim of any allegations of polytheism (as discussed in Part 9).

In later Arabic writings, the term Ḥanīf could be understood as the reformed versions of the Mystery Schools guided by the prophets as opposed to the Sabians, who represented the unreformed versions. While Muslim jurists, theologians, and historians acknowledged that Sabian beliefs had a foundation in monotheism, they also invented ideas that misled the masses into polytheism. Therefore, later religions would lie on the continuum between Sabian, a kind of proto-polytheism, and Ḥanīf, an orthodox monotheism.

Yahūd

It is my understanding that the Bani Isra’il (the Children of Israel) represented the Ḥanīf opposition to Egyptian, Chaldean, and Arabian Sabianism, as expounded by Maimonides. The Yahūd, on the other hand, are frequently spoken of negatively in the Qur’an, in contrast to Bānī Isrā’īl. Thus it is plausible that the Yahūd were those Jewish priests who relapsed into the practices and beliefs of the Sabians, particularly those of Northern Arabia where the kingdoms of Israel and Judah (perhaps a cognate to the Arabic word, Yahūd) were located. As we know, the Kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Assyrians and fell under the influence of the Chaldeans of their day.

One should note that the Mandaean Sabians believed themselves to have once been of the Jews, who were called Yahutai in Aramaic. However, they were from the faction who doubted the immaculate conception of Miriam (Buckley, 4), meaning they contributed to the distortion of the revealed doctrine. It should also be noted that Madaeans see the ancient Yahutai (i.e. Yahūd) and the Chaldeans (their spiritual predecessors) as one and the same. This can account for the Qur’an’s repeated critique of the Yahūd and other Sabian-style beliefs. A deeper look into the language of the Qur’an will reveal that most of their mentions in the Qur’an refer to them as “those who claim to be Jews” (الذين هادوا) revealing that God is casting doubt on their claims.

http://history-of-israel.org/history/chronological_presentation11.php

Philosophers

The Greek Philosophers, though not mentioned directly in the Qur’an, are generally known as Sabians among Muslim scholars. Ibn Taymīya, for instance, stated as such in his Al-Radd ʿalā al-Shādhulī. He believed that the philosophers were originally rightly guided (al-Ṣābi’a al-Ḥunafā’), just as the Yahūd and Naṣārā were originally rightly guided. However, only those among them who did not contradict the prophets remained guided (Ibn Taymīya, 136-7). We should also note that the Greek philosophers are also most commonly associated with the Mystery Schools. The likes of Pythagoras, Socrates, and Zeno were all associated with versions of the Mysteries, although there were philosophers also not associated with a particular Mystery school.

Naṣārā

As discussed in Part 10 of this series, the Naṣārā were most likely the Nasoraeans, a Neo-Platonic priestly class that became infused with the prophetic lineage (i.e. Ḥanīf) following the advent of Īsā. They were apparently Judeo-Christian in their beliefs and practice, but they retained a philosophical element inherited from the Sabians that influenced their approach to the prophetic tradition. As such, God in the Qur’an rebukes those beliefs that came from the Sabians such as the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and his sonship of God, while affirming the Ḥanīfs among them as Ahl al-Kitāb (People of the Book). The concepts of the Trinity, divination of man, and pantheism are all recurring themes in Sabianism and the ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman mysteries.

Majūs

As for the Majūs, they are only mentioned once in the Qur’an among those who claim to be Jews, Sabians, and Naṣārā. They were the priestly class of the Zoroastrians, the Persian Mystery Schools. Medieval European Biblical scholars referred to Zoroastrians as Eastern Chaldeans and Sabians (Elukin, 624).

The Abbasid court astrologer, Abū Sahl ibn Nawbakht, gives a testimony to the Persian Mysteries in Ibn al-Nadīm’s al-Fihrist. According to Abū Sahl, Hermes taught the “wisdom teachings” to the people of Babylon, which included present-day Iran, then he traveled to Egypt to teach to them. The knowledge taught by Hermes remained in Persia uninterrupted until the invasion of Alexander, in which he killed the leader Dara II, defaced the inscriptions on their buildings, and looted all their manuscripts. Alexander then took these works on medicine, astronomy, etc. and had them translated into Greek and Coptic, then burned the Persian originals. Following this catastrophe, the Persian kings began the process of reconstructing their knowledge by acquiring manuscripts from the peripheries of the Persian Empire like those of India and China and re-establishing their chains of transmission in Persia. This project persisted into the Muslim conquest of Persia and was continued until the height of the Abbasid empire (Ibn al-Nadīm, 333-4).

Summary

Now that we have provided a synopsis for each of these terms, we see that the common denominator is that these terms primarily referred to the learned class within their respective traditions, whose nomenclature varied depending on the locale and time period. Secondly, these traditions all had similar trajectories. For instance, they all excelled at the empirical and occult sciences, especially astrology. However, the standard for measuring the veracity of a tradition was how close it conformed to the Ḥanīf system, which was championed by the prophets, as opposed to the Sabian system, championed by the polytheists (i.e. Mushrikūn). Finally, many exegetes of the Qur’an interpreted al-Baqara: 62 and its cognate verses to mean: Whosoever affirms a belief in God as taught by the Prophet Muhammad among the Yahūd, Sabians, Naṣārā, and Majūs will not be treated unjustly by God in the end. An unraveling of this nomenclature and their respective beliefs has relevance for 21st century America. As many individuals, young and old, gravitate to expressions of Sabianism in one form or another, it is necessary to know where these ideas came from and the pre-modern debates that ensued around them. I will touch on these discussions in subsequent posts.

References

Buckley, Jorunn Jacobsen. The Mandaeans: Ancient Texts and Modern People. Oxford University Press, 2002.

Elukin, Jonathan. “Maimonides and the Rise and Fall of the Sabians: Explaining Mosaic Laws and the Limits of Scholarship.” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 63, no. 4, 2002, pp. 619–37. JSTORhttps://doi.org/10.2307/3654163.

Farabi al-. Al-Farabi’s Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. Translated by Muhsin Mahdi, Free Press of Glencoe, 1962.

Ibn Nadīm, Abū al-Faraj Muḥammad ibn Isḥaq. Al-Fihrist. Dar al-Ma’rifah, 937.

Ibn Taymiyya, Taqī al-Dīn Abū’l-’Abbās Aḥmad, and ʿAlī Muhammad ʿUmrān. Al-Radd ʿalā al-Shādhulī Fī Ḥizbayhi Wa Mā Ṣannafahu Fī Ādāb al-Ṭarīq. Dār ʿĀlam al-Fawā’id, 2008.

Sayyār, Nadīm al-. Qudamāʼ Al-Misṛīyīn Awwal al-Muwahḥịdīn. 2nd ed., 1995.

Sayyār, Nadīm al-. Laysū Āliha Wa Lākin Malā’ika. 2020.

“Thoughts From Sudan,” No Longer Are They Just In My Head The Maurchives

  1. “Thoughts From Sudan,” No Longer Are They Just In My Head
  2. Islam and the Ancient Mysteries Part 12
  3. Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools (Part 11)
  4. Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools (Part 10)
  5. The Metaphysics of “I Can’t Breathe”

Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools (Part 10)

In this post, I would like to revisit the notion of Naṣarā mentioned in Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools (Part 5). If you recall, the results from our readings of Fadil al- Rabi’i’s were inconclusive. Upon further exploration, I have come across some information that has provided me a bit more perspective on who was intended by this term in the Quran. However, before we get into this exploration, let’s review some of the most compelling arguments espoused by Al-Rabi’i:

  • Nasrani/Naṣarā is not a relative adjective describing a person from Nazareth. This means that the Naṣarā are not called as such solely on their affiliation with Jesus of Nazareth.
  • The root of the word Naṣarā is related to the word meaning to be “uncircumcised.” This means that the Naṣarā were known for their opposition to or at least their ambivalence to the practice.
  • In Muslim writings, the pre-Islamic Naṣarā were few in number and often associated with the Hanifs. This should make us ask: why do these few people warrant such attention in the Quran? If they were Christians, why didn’t they build a church? And why have they been historically classified as Hanifs?
Panini, Giovanni Paolo. An Architectural Capriccio of the Roman Forum with Philosophers and Soldiers among Ancient Ruins. oil on canvas, c.  -1750 1745, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:An_Architectural_Capriccio_of_the_Roman_Forum_with_Philosophers_and_Soldiers_among_Ancient_Ruins_…,_by_Giovanni_Paolo_Panini,_c._1745-1750,_oil_on_canvas_-_National_Museum_of_Western_Art,_Tokyo_-_DSC08515.JPG. National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, Japan.

I posit that the Naṣarā were a type of Hanīf or Sabian that was found in pre-Islamic Arabia. Most likely remnants of Neoplatonic Mysteries from the Roman Empire, who were dispersed into Asia Minor, Persia, Arabia, and the interior of Africa. More specifically, they probably considered themselves a priestly class of the Greater Mysteries who pontificated on a number of metaphysical matters of the day, which fomented much confusion in pre-Islamic times. Let’s first look at the historical links between the Mystery Schools of Rome and religion in pre-Islamic Arabia.

Christianity and the Mystery Schools

Christianity emerged in the Roman Empire as a reviled religion, with clear Semitic roots. It was opposed by the emperors because they were considered the ultimate legal and religious authorities. They believed that there was only one religion, the Mysteries. Different schools of the Mysteries had different expressions of it based on their culture and language because religion was associated with citizenship (Ando, 2021,13). Constantine, upon his conversion to Christianity in the early 4th century was the first Roman emperor to ease the repression of Christians in the empire. By the end of the century, Theodosious would make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and commence the official closing of the Mystery Schools. Justinian would continue this project of closing the Mysteries in the 6th century. In turn, many of its die-hard members who refused to convert to the state religion fled to Asia Minor, like the city of Ḥarrān, Persia, the Arabian peninsula, and the interior of Africa (Errington, 2006, 249-52).

Quraysh and the Mystery Schools

As for those who fled to the Arabian peninsula, it is possible that the Quraysh tribe was one such group. Scholars are unsure of their exact origins, but some have proposed that they were one of the groups that who fled Byzantium. This would make sense since the Quraysh only emerge in the 5th century and appear to take over the most important shrine in Arabia (Ḍayf, 1960, 49). Furthermore, prior to the prophetic mission of Muhammad, the Quraysh exhibited traits common to followers of the Mysteries. First, the Dār al-Nadwa that managed the affairs of Mecca only allowed wealthy men over the age of forty. In the Mysteries, this age was significant because it represented the age at which men attained wisdom and the position of teacher and leadership. They were also learned in advanced mathematics because they set interest rates and performed the duties of bankers. Similarly, they were also the religious authorities because they controlled the rites of the pilgrimage to the Kaʿba, which they believed to be a Saturnalia shrine. For these reasons, it is likely that there was a substantial influence on the pre-Islamic Arabs from the Ancient Mystery Schools.

Naṣārā and the Mystery Schools

When we look into the Qur’an, we find numerous mentions of Naṣārā, but never of Masīḥiyīn, a more direct translation of the word Christians. I believe this was the case because Naṣārā actually referred to a group known as the Nāṣūrati or Nasoraeans, who scholars call a Jewish-Christian Gnostic sect that emerged during the post-Christian religious milieu in the Near East (Bladel, 2017, 6). However, they are more commonly associated with the Mandaeans of southern Iraq; the only group in the world commonly labeled Sabians. Members of their priestly class are called Nasoraeans, who assiduously guard the secret rituals and doctrines of the Mandaeans, which they perceive as having a more ancient origin. Much like the Mystery Schools, the Nasoraeans function as the Greater Mysteries that requires a much more rigorous training in the secret arts, while the rank-and-file Mandaean constitutes the Lesser Mysteries that is open to those who are inclined to Gnosticism. Their doctrine consists of a worshipful regard for angels and the stars and opposition to the practice of circumcision. Indeed, they are those that many Muslim jurists, historians, and theologians identified as the last visages of the Qur’anic Sabians.

Concluding Remarks

With the above understanding, we can gather that:

1) the Nasoraeans were around and active in the Near East before and during the time of the Prophet Muhammad

2) the Nasoraeans constitute a hybrid of the Ancient Mystery Schools and Judeo-Christian beliefs and practices

3) the Nasoraean’s minority status and secretive nature explains why no “Naṣrānī” church was established in the heart of Arabia

4) if the Naṣārā are the Nasoraeans, then this is cause to reconsider the identities of the Yahūd (or “those who became Jews”) and the Majūs

Linking the Naṣārā of the Qur’an to the Nasoraeans of the Mandaean religion will introduce us to a different way of understanding certain arguments put forth in the Qur’an. I will show in future posts how verses that discuss the angels and pre-Islamic ideas about nature and prophethood are actually a polemic against the positions of the Nasoraeans. In addition, we will see that the Qur’an’s criticism of other religions is based on the degree to which they adopted beliefs associated with the Nasoraeans and other Sabians, which were remnants of the Ancient Mystery Schools in Islamic lands. The Naṣārā who were deemed as Christians were those who were closer to the Ḥanīfs in their beliefs. Not only will we witness the historical implications of this information, but we will begin to see how these doctrines continue to shape the current religious discourse.

References

Ando, Clifford. “Religious Affiliation and Political Belonging from Cicero to Theodosius.” Acta Classica, vol. 64, no. 1, 2021, pp. 9–28. https://doi.org/10.1353/acl.2021.0013.

Bladel, Kevin Thomas Van. From Sasanian Mandaeans to Ṣābians of the Marshes. Brill, 2017.

Ḍayf, Shawqi. Al-ʿAṣr al-Jāhilī. 11th ed., vol. 1, Dār al-Ma’ārif, 1960.

Errington, R. M. Roman Imperial Policy from Julian to Theodosius. University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

The Truth of Translation: The Sunni – Moorish Debate

On Apr 19, 2022, a livestream debate between the Baltimore-based Moorish Science Temple representative, Taharka Bey, and the D.C. area-based Sunni Muslim, Tariq Ibn Jamil, was posted to the Moorish World Tv YouTube channel. The stated topic was “Can the Qur’an be translated?” With Tariq arguing the affirmative and Taharka arguing the negative. I find in this debate many teachable moments in terms of Islamic literacy, linguistics, the rules of engagement with regards to intellectual debate, and simple logic.

After hearing both sides of the core debate (there are many tangential debates), I will have to say that Taharka Bey is the victor for reasons that I will explore in this post.

Taharka Bey’s Argument

Taharka’s presentation of his position was stronger due to some key strategies that are align with sound scholarship and argumentation, which I will enumerate below. I will also point out flaws in his argument and gaps in his knowledge.

1) He argued the majority opinion.

The common position of Muslims is that the Qur’an is inimitable and it cannot be precisely translated, only explained through the lens of a combination of auxiliary sciences, not the least of which is Arabic linguistics. Arguing the majority opinion has its benefits in a debate. It makes supporting evidence easier to access and counterarguments easier to make because predecessors have already done the work.

2) He had a logical sequence.

Taharka has a clear logic. He begins by stating his premise, which is that in the “Common Tradition:”

Any translation of the Quran will be termed inauthentic if it goes against the established hadith (sayings and actions) of the Prophet and against the understandings of the companions of the Prophet.

45:00

According to the epistemology of Black Orientalists, transmitted reports are not valid evidence of a fact, which is diametrically opposed to the underlying epistemology of hadith science. Orientalists often use this as the first mode of attack, because in the modern age, oral transmissions are no longer perceived as valid. They prefer written evidence and documentation.

He uses this premise to make a number of points, before moving on to his next point:

In order to extrapolate the meaning of a particular Quranic verse, Muslims rely on exegesis, or commentary rather than a direct translation of the text.

49:00

He then makes a distinction between exegesis/commentary and translation. For instance, he takes a number of different English translations of a verse that uses the word taqwā to demonstrate that the various translators are making an exegesis of the word, because there is no direct equivalent in English.

2) He used substantial evidence that was relevant to the argument he was attempting to make.

Taharka’s used a mixture of primary and secondary source evidence. The examples of Qur’anic words without easy English equivalents were clear and plentiful (primary). Then he used statements from experts on the subject to back up his point (secondary). Taharka even cited an academic journal article, whose main author was a Libyan linguist who looks like an African American. The article can be found here: http://www.ijssh.net/papers/178-A10061.pdf.

He made a good point when he said that knowledge of linguistics is a prerequisite for translation (1:01:00). Unfortunately, not all translators have this background. Reading knowledge of a language alone does not always suffice for translation. Linguistics often gives the translator a bird’s eye view of how the two different languages function.

For more reading on this topic, you might want to read Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qurʹān by the Japanese scholar Toshihiko Izutsu. He was not a Muslim, but his work is respected in the Muslim world due to his ontological approach to Qur’anic ethical terminology.

Critiques of Taharka Bey

1) He began his argument on a faulty premise.

Taharka’s first premise, whose source he begged the audience not to ask about, though logical, is faulty because it is simply not true. While hadith and the understandings of the companions can contribute to the understanding of the Qur’an, they are not the primary determinants of a valid translation. For instance, the Shi’ah have different standards of hadith and do not accept the understandings of all the companions, but this does not render their translations of the Qur’an invalid. What renders a translation invalid is if it is not consistent with the original language and apparent meaning of the Qur’an.

However, I understand that the epistemology of Western Orientalism (in this case Black Orientalism) does not accept orally transmitted reports as valid evidence of a fact. Although this was the epistemology of the ancient world. They often claim to prefer written reports (“receipts” if you will). However, they do not acknowledge that they too accept oral transmission of information, as evidenced by the fact that they are engaging in a live oral debate rather than an exchange of written publications.

Also, when Tariq was showing a number of books to say that a translator needed to study a number of subjects to produce a translation, I noticed a few comments in the chat:

Showing off books is a weird way to prove a point. You should be able to recite and orate the contents of the books without referencing them. This guy only knows how to recite stories

ALL BOOKS ARE MAN MADE AND CAN BE TRANSLATED BY MAN WOMAN AND CHILD

Black Orientalists still have reservations about the written word despite their rhetoric about wanting “receipts” and written documents.

2) He relied on a few straw man arguments.

A straw man argument is a fallacy many debaters fall into when constructing arguments agains their opponents. Taharka’s first premise was a prime example of this. It was as if he propped up a dummy to beat up on to show that he is tough. Of course, we know dummies don’t hit back.

He also used a straw man argument on his point about the translation of the term maqām as “shrine” in surat al-Baqarah: 125. He used the most strict (Salafi) interpretation of Muhsin Khan’s Noble Qur’an to establish that the word “shrine” is a mistranslation. Khan translates it as “stone on which Ibrāhim (Abraham) stood.” However, this is an argument over semantics and what people understand when they hear a word in a particular language. It is possible that “shrine” is the most appropriate equivalence for the word maqām as understood by Arabic speakers. But the issue is that Taharka assumes that Muhsin Khan has the correct opinion with regard to Muslims creating shrines (which in the context of the verse is an anachronism because it is referring to Abraham, who predates historical Islam). This causes Taharka not to question Muhsin Khan’s word choice, which might be influenced by his Salafi ideology, or his understanding of the word shrine, which some English speakers might associate with pagan worship.

To further drive home my point, he used the example of the word kāfir to say that words have “implied meaning” (as do all words in any language) and an exegesis is needed to reveal its connotations (1:00:00). I would argue that the English language has a single equivalent to the word kāfir in the word “infidel.” The root k-f-r (ك – ف – ر) has a connotation to ingratitude, betrayal, and infidelity as evidenced in other the Qur’anic verses (see surat al-Isrā: 27 and surat Ibrāhīm: 7). However, modern translators avoid the word “infidel” because they are aware that it carries negative connotations in the English-speaking world, even though it might be loyal to the Arabic meaning (no pun intended). The avoidance of the term demonstrates my point about semantics, mental associations, and ideology.

3) He differentiated between exegesis (commentary) and translation.

This point is a matter of personal opinion, but one that is backed up by some scholars of translation theory. I believe that translation is a type of commentary. A translation should not simply be reduced to an exchange of words in one language to another. A translator looks at more than just the lexical meanings of words. A good translator is looking at the overall effect of the work. While I understand the distinction Taharka is trying to make, I simply do not agree.

SUNNI’S Al ISLAM vs. MOORISH SCIENCE’S ISLAMISM
Tariq Ibn Jamil vs. Taharka Bey

Tariq ibn Jamil’s Argument

As for our friend, Tariq, there are a few reasons as to why he lost the debate.

1) His presentation was not compelling.

Quite frankly, I think he bored the listeners because his points were not easy to follow. He was also very cerebral and soft-spoken. Furthermore, he interspersed his speech with too much Arabic terminology and quotations of Arabic passages. This shows a disregard for his audience, who primarily do not speak Arabic.

Moreover, his approach resembled that of a traditional Muslim scholar rather than a “hotep” debate. In these types of venues, a Muslim cannot appear to be too academic, because in the minds of the audience he will be acting “too white.” Likewise, if his approach is too “traditionally Muslim,” then he would be deemed “too Arab.” These are unfortunate facts.

2) He attempted to argue a minority opinion.

Those who argue a minority or unpopular opinion have an uphill battle. Not only are they less likely to have a wealth of supporting evidence, but their arguments and primary sources must be overwhelmingly convincing.

Tariq presented his argument in the form of a rare narrative gathered from an uncited Sunni tradition. His focus was on a translation of the Qur’an officiated by Salmān al-Farsī. By this, he demonstrated that it “can” be translated and it “was,” but his evidence was not strong enough to show that his translation was a complete or quality translation.

First of all, the story of Salmān al-Farsī’s translation of the Qur’an into Persian is not common knowledge, even among Muslims. So he has the added task of proving the existence of this translation. Otherwise, the listener will need to take his word for it. But even if he could produce this early Persian translation of the Qur’an (which I do not believe is extant), his audience would not have the tools to determine its accuracy, because the majority of the audience does not read Persian or Arabic.

Although I would not have taken his approach, Tariq could have emphasized more the fact that Salmān al-Farsī was not an Arab, but a Persian; although most Americans probably cannot differentiate between the two. A historical approach does not usually hold up in a debate unless it is backed up with a clear purpose and sound logic.

3) He entered a lot of unclear and irrelevant information.

The many details of Salmān al-Farsī’s story, the showing of books, and preachy statements were not relevant to his argument.Therefore, he lost momentum and wasted a lot of time speaking on the contours of his argument but making very few points.

Additionally, I don’t think the points he did make were clear to the audience. He could have devoted more time to discussing how vital the various subjects he mentioned in the books he displayed were to translating the Qur’an. Yet, he should have had a better selection of books because those that he presented were mostly not pivotal works in the fields he was referring to. However, the true scope of these fields would have required much more than 30 minutes.

Finally, there was also a woman (I’m assuming) named, Amutalha Abdul Rahman, who sought to aid Tariq’s argument, but it was not coherent. What I understood from it was that the Tafsir of Ibn Kathīr (mistakenly wrote Ibn Khair) had an AEU seal of authenticity. These things needed to be explained exactly how it contributes to the argument.

Concluding Remarks

As we can clearly see, there is a lot to learn from this debate. However, one thing lingered in my mind throughout. Why were they debating such a pointless topic? The answer to the debaters’ central question: Can the Qur’an be translated? is an emphatic yes. There have been multiple attempts at translating the Qur’an in various languages. Each attempt could be placed on a scale of subjectivity to just how loyal the translation is to the Arabic original. However, they could have asked a better question.

Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools ( Part 9)

In the year 377 AH/987 CE, at the heart of the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, a bookseller and lover of the Prophet Muhammad’s family by the name of Ibn al-Nadīm published a catalog of books that were in circulation throughout the Islamic-controlled world at the time. Al-Fihrist (The Catalog), as it was called, went beyond simply listing books and their authors, it also included a survey of scholarship in all fields of knowledge, pivotal scholars, and often times excerpts from works that may or may not be extant today. Through his work we can deduce that Muslims throughout the Ummayad period and well into the Abbasid period primarily studied the works of the ancients prior to the codification of the transmitted Islamic sciences. Al-Fihrist is cited by Islamic and western scholars alike for its information on ancient people and their knowledge. In fact, he transmits a few interesting takes on Sabianism. I will present two in this post. Then I will show how the two different narratives bring us closer to understanding the differences between the Sabians and the Ḥanīfs.

Al-Kindī’s View of Sabianism:

Al-Kindī was considered the first Arab philosopher, who took knowledge from the ancient Sabians. His student, Ahmad ibn al-Ṭayyib, recorded his description of the Sabians, which is related in al-Fihrist. To him, the Sabians were a monotheistic people who believed in a transcendent deity who was unlike His creation in every way. He selected purified individuals to be guides to people, such as Arānī, Aghāthādhīmīn, and Hirmīs (Heron, Agathodaemon, and Hermes Trismegistus), and some even included Solon, one of the grandparents of Plato. They prayed three times a day with ablution facing the North Star. They shunned people who were missing body parts or suffered from contagious diseases like leprosy. They did not eat pork and avoided some other types of meat and vegetables. (Ibn al-Nadīm, Al-Fihrist, 442-4)

Abū Saʿīd Wahb ibn Ibn Ibrāhīm

Abū Saʿīd was a Christian writer and the Christians were usually no friends of the Sabians. With this caveat, his depiction of the Sabians was completely different from al-Kindī’s. It gives a detailed account of monthly rituals, which include animal and human sacrifices to “gods, jinns, devils, and spirits.” In the month of August (Āb), they made wine to their gods and sacrificed a newborn child. They ground its flesh into powder and baked it into small disks. They then distributed these disks to all sane free male onlookers. In addition, Abū Saʿīd gives the Sabian names for the days of the week as corresponding with celestial deities, not unlike the origins of the day names used in European Romance languages (Ibn Nadīm, Al-Fihrist, 447-8).

Ethan Doyle White. Scroll of Abathur. 18th century, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=68493361. Bodleian Library.

One Eye, Two Heads: Alternating the Narratives

These two characterizations of Sabians put forth by Ibn al-Nadīm from his sources are starkly contrast. Al-Kindī depicts them as a monotheistic, gnostic, proto-Islamic group, while Abū Saʿīd depicts them as a heathenistic, pagan cult. Which characterization is correct?

I believe them both to be correct characterizations of two different Sabian factions. The former was known as Ḥanīfs and the latter retained the name of Sabian. If we look into the Qur’an, we will find 12 instances of the word Ḥanīf (plural Ḥunafā‘), most of them in reference to the Prophet Abraham (Ibrāhīm). These references contrast him to the mushrikūn (polytheists). Take Surat al-Naḥl: 120 for instance, which can be translated as: Indeed Abraham was an ummah, obedient to God as a Ḥanīf, and he was not of the polytheists. It appears to be common knowledge by anyone reading or hearing the words of the Qur’an that Abraham was not a polytheist, so why is the elaboration needed?

Apparently, the Mandaeans (known to Arabs as the only extant Sabians) have an alternate narrative of the story of Abraham in which he was on his way to becoming a high priest (Nāṣūrā’ī – more on this term later) among the Chaldean Sabians of Babylon. However, they believe he came under the possession of an evil spirit named Yūrbā who over powered him to circumcise himself. As mentioned a in al-Fihrist, Sabians believed that missing any part of the body or illness rendered a person impure, and thus Abraham was no longer qualified to become a high priest. Instead, the Mandaeans claim that he became an outcast and he was followed by lepers, amputees, and other reprobates. He then, in the name of Yūrbā, attacked the peaceful Sabians of Babylon, forcibly circumcising the men (Samak, Al-Ṣābi’ūn, 42-43).

The Qur’an is obviously seeking to clarify a narrative that was once misunderstood and continues to be misunderstood. François de Blois, a linguist of Semitic and Iranian languages and historian of ancient Near Eastern religions, notes that the cognates to Ḥanīf in Syriac, Aramaic, Mandaic, and Hebrew, hn-p, all carry negative connotations like pagan, false god, hypocrite, and pollution (Blois, Naṣrānī and Ḥanīf, 19). It was only the Arabic of the Qur’an that converted it to a positive meaning. We have seen how a look into the Sabian narrative adds another dimension to our understanding of the word Ḥanīf as used in the Qur’an, as well as the lines of division in the Ancient Mystery Schools. Reading into this narrative can also do the same for the use of the word Naṣarā as we will see in future posts.

References

Blois, François de. “Naṣrānī (Ναζωραȋος) and Ḥanīf (Ἐθνικός): Studies on the Religious Vocabulary of Christianity and of Islam.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, vol. 65, no. 1, 2002, pp. 1–30.

Ibn Nadīm, Abū al-Faraj Muḥammad ibn Isḥaq. Al-Fihrist. Dar al-Ma’rifah, 937. http://archive.org/details/alfihrist-alma3rifa.

Samak, ʿAbdullah ʿAlī. Al-Ṣābiʼūn. 1st ed., Maktabat al-Ādāb, 1995.

Islam and Ancient Mystery Schools (Part 8)

The primordial religion of mankind is a single phenomenon that goes by different names. The Greeks knew it as Mystai (the Mysteries), the Indians call it Sanātana Dharma (the Eternal Way), and some now know it was Sophia Perennis (the Perennial Wisdom). The Monotheistic Arabs called it Ḥanīfīyah while pagan Arabs knew it as Ṣābi’ah. Authors who have written about Sabians have not yet made this connection for one reason or another, but the consequences are heavy for making the connection between Islam and the Ancient Mysteries as well as noting the reforms Islam made to them.

There are quite a few classical Arabic texts have discussed the identity, beliefs, and practices of the Sabians, but perhaps the text that makes this connection most clearly is that of the 11th century Cordoban scholar, Ṣāʿid ibn Aḥmad al-Andalusī. In his work, Ṭabaqāt al-Umam, he states that there were seven ancient civilizations: 1) Persia, 2) Chaldea (Arabia, Iraq, and Syria), 3) Greece (Europe), 4) Copt/Egypt (Africa), 5) Turkey (Central and North Asia), 6) India (Hind and Sind), and 7) China (East Asia). He declares that they were all Sabians, who believed in one God, but worshiped Him through the intermediaries of heavenly bodies, idols, and statues made of precious stones. They later broke up, their languages branched off, and the religions were divided from one another over time. (Al-Andalusī, 7)

Al-Andalusī asserts that all the so-called Arab pagans were initially monotheists. However, they created images and structures and prayed to them, not because they believed they were creator gods of the universe, but because in order to gain nearness to God through these intermediaries, as the Qur’an states (Zumar: 4). (Al-Andalusī, 44) The contemporary Arab author, ʿAbd Allah Samak, explains the stages by which Sabianism transformed to idol worship:

  1. Rūhānīyāt/Spiritualism: In this stage they took angels as intermediaries.
  2. Star Worship: In this stage they took planets and stars as physical representations of angels
  3. Idol Worship: In this stage they created shrines at sites that corresponded with the position of the stars and placed in them pictures and idols.
  4. Reincarnation: In this stage, they deduced that any recompense for worldly deeds are meted out in the physical realm based on the concept of cyclical time cycles that repeated ad infinitum. (Samak, 64-76)

We find these concepts disseminated in one way or another across world religions, save Islam and Judaism, whose divine legal codes are essentially responses to Sabian beliefs and practices. This was the opinion of Maimonides with regard to the Jewish laws prescribed by Moses in the Torah. The evidence from the Qur’an is plenty. However, it seems as though the arguments made against these problematic Sabian beliefs and practices address the mushrikīn (those who make partners to God) from among them. As such, we must consider Sabianism to be on a continuum between monotheism and polytheism. This is why some Muslim legal scholars declared some to be “People of the Book” and others clearly as disbelievers. I will be revisiting the beliefs and practices of Sabians in forthcoming posts and how the understanding of Sabianism is relevant to today’s spiritual environment.

References:

Al-Andalusī, Ṣā’id. Ṭabaqāt Al-Umam. Beirut: al-Maṭbaʿah al-Kāthalūkīyya li’l Abā’ al-Yasūʿīyyīn, 1912.

Samak, ʿAbd Allāh ʿAlī. Al-Ṣābiʼūn. 1st ed. Cairo: Maktabat al-Ādāb, 1995.

Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools (Part 7)

 إِنَّ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَالَّذِينَ هَادُوا وَالصَّابِئُونَ وَالنَّصَارَىٰ مَنْ آمَنَ بِاللَّهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ وَعَمِلَ صَالِحًا فَلَا خَوْفٌ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلَا هُمْ يَحْزَنُونَ

Indeed, those who believed and those who were Jews or Christians or Sabeans [before Prophet Muḥammad (ﷺ)] – those [among them] who believed in Allah and the Last Day and did righteousness – will have their reward with their Lord, and no fear will there be concerning them, nor will they grieve. (Qur’an: 2:62)
— Saheeh International

If you are like me, you might have glossed over the mention of the Sabians the first few hundred times you read this verse and those like it. Mysteriously sandwiched between two groups of people we feel we know about, the Jews and the Christians, we know less about the Sabians in our times. Not only that, but many Muslim scholars appear to have been perplexed as to their true identity and disagreed about who they are, what they believe, and their status vis-a-vis the Muslim community. Many contemporary scholars have tried, but few have arrived at a viable conclusion. It, thus, remains a mystery… perhaps, a mystery school.

My hunch is that the Mysteries of the Greeks – and later the Freemasons and other New Age groups – are what classical Islamic sources refer to as Ṣābi’ah (Sabianism), a complex and multifarious religious tradition that merged different fields of knowledge into its spiritual worldview. Like the Ancient Mysteries described in esoteric sources of modern times, it was thought to be the primordial religion of mankind going back to Adam. It is most often associated with Hermes (Tehuti/Thoth in Egypt, Enoch, in the Bible and Idrīs in the Qur’an). Over time it suffered from corruption and experienced internal reform and slowly dissipated from public attention. Sabianism was overshadowed by other religious movements in the Near East, occasionally taking on different names and descriptions depending on the language, reformer, or public sentiments of the time.

Tehuti aka Hermes aka Enoch aka Idris.
Original source: Budge, E. A. Wallace. “The Nile: Notes for Travellers in Egypt.” (Harrison and Sons, London: 1902). p. 188.

Christopher Buck, in his article, The Identity of the Sabi’un: An Historical Quest, examines the evidences for the various accounts of early Muslim encounters with so-called Sabians according to the listing of Jacques Waardenburg:

  1. Mazdaeans of Mesopotamia, Iran and Transoxania
  2. Christians of various denominations
    1. Nestorians of Mesopotamia and Iran
    2. Monophysites of greater Syria, Egypt, and Armenia
    3. Orthodox Melkites of greater Syria
    4. Orthodox Latins of North Africa
    5. Arians of Spain
  3. Jews of Mesopotamia and Iran, greater Syria, and Egypt
  4. Samaritans of Palestine
  5. Mandaeans of south Mesopotamia
  6. Harranians of north Mesopotamia
  7. Manichaeans of Mesopotamia and Egypt
  8. Buddhists and Hindus of the Sind
  9. Indigenous religions of east Africa (172-173)

Were the early Muslims so oblivious that they went all over the world calling every unfamiliar religious denomination Sabians or did their understanding differ from ours? In future posts, I will attempt to unravel this mystery, step-by-step until we see that classical Muslim writers referred to the Ancient Mystery Schools as Sabianism.

Buck, Christopher. “The Identity of the Sabi’un: An Historical Quest.” The Muslim World 74, no. 3–4 (1984): 172–86. https://www.bahai-library.com/buck_identity_sabiuns.

Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools (Part 6)

In my post, Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools (Part 5), I stated the theory of the contemporary Iraqi thinker, Fadil al-Rabi’i, that identified the Nasara of the Qur’an as the Hanifs. In this post, I will examine the linguistic evidence for his theory.

Raphael Tuck & Sons, The Holy Land. Nazareth, Fountain of the Virgin, Post Card, 1903, The Newberry Library, https://archive.org/details/nby_LL8170/page/n1/mode/1up.

Al-Rabi’i is from the line of scholarship that does not believe that the prophet ‘Isa/Jesus (peace be upon him) was from Palestine. Therefore, he rejects the claim that the word Nasara is related to the Palestinian town of Nazareth, the purported birthplace of ‘Isa. If this was the case, he argues, then everyone from this area would be called Nasara regardless of their religious affiliation. Jews, pagans, and other religious groups who happened to be from this town will thus be labeled Nasara, but this was never the case.

He subsequently follows up on the problematic etymology of the word initiated by Arabic language scholars such as Ibn Manzur (d. 1311/1312), author of the authoritative Arabic lexicon, Lisan al-“Arab. Al-Rabi’i finds doubt in Ibn Manzur’s treatment of the word. When discussing the words Nazareth and Nasara under the root nasara (ن – ص – ر), Ibn Manzur adds the statement of Ibn Sidah’s that this is a weak opinion and rare for a relative adjective (nisba) to take this form.

In addition, al-Rabi’i identifies the verb, ansara (أنصر), to be uncircumcised, as the origin of the word Nasara. In a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (prayers and peace be upon him), he stated:

You should not let an uncircumcised man lead you, nor one who holds his bladder or one who is habitually delusional.

The word anṣar, as used in this hadith, means uncircumcised. Al-Rabi’i believes that the word Nasara is really derived from this aspect of the word and was thus used for any group that did not practice circumcision. These groups sought to distinguish themselves from the Jews. Although, it was used for Christians and pagans who did not practice circumcision, it remained a term reserved for the Christians who continued not to practice it or did not see it as a religious duty.

Interestingly, some Arab tribes who rejected circumcision, practiced slitting the ears of a she-camel as a symbolic alternative to circumcision. This can be witnessed in the practice of the people of Salih, who were commanded not to abuse the she-camel that God provided to them.[1]

While al-Rabi’i makes some convincing claims, he also complicates our understanding of the Hanifs. According to this information, the Hanifs, if synonymous with Nasara, did not systematically practice circumcision as is commonly thought. Rather, it was left optional, leaving some to continue the practice and others to abandon it altogether. Al-Rabi’i’s theory is significant to unfolding the mystery of the Hanifs, but it is not conclusive. Yet no conversation on pre-Islamic religious history can be complete without an exploration of Sabianism, which I will undertake in a future post.

[1] Fadel al-Rabi’i, Al-Masih al-Arabi: Al-Nasraniyyah Fi al-Jazira al-Arabiyya Wa al-Sira’ al-Bizanti al-Farisi (Beirut: Riad El-Rayyes Books, 2009), 27-31.

The Epoch of Muhammad

In honor of the Mawlid al-Nabawī, the Maurchives present to you a seldom narrated story from the Prophetic Biography of Ibn Hishām, which indicates the mood in the world prior to the brith of the Prophet Muhammad. This and other narrations do not appear in the English translations and nor is it particularly “miraculous,” but it does set the stage for the coming of a new era…

Arenal Volcano in November 2006
Credit: Matthew.landry at English Wikipedia

The 6th century was a time of change. As documented in David Keys’ Catastrophe: A Investigation into the Origins of the Modern World, following the cataclysmic eruption of a volcano near Sumatra and Java in Southeast Asia, the world experienced a number of social, political, and religious shifts. Mesoamerican and Andes civilizations underwent geopolitical realignments, as did the Celts and Anglo-Saxons in Britain, and the Azars of Asia. Not the least of which was the plague and mounting political and religious vicissitudes that we know all too well in the Roman Empire at the time. It was precisely this era that the Prophet Muhammad was born.

Ibn Hishām narrates that shortly after his birth in the late 6th century, Muhammad was sent to the tribe of Banū Sa’d for nursing, to build his immunity (from the regional pandemic), and pick up their eloquent use of the Arabic language. After remaining with them during his formative years, his wet-nurse, Ḥalīma prepared to take him back to his mother in Mecca. The common narrative mentions two men in white accosting the young Muhammad and splitting his chest open. However, in this narrative, Ibn Hishām mentions a group of Abyssinian Naṣārā eyeing him as he traveled with Ḥalīma. The men questioned her about him, then declared that they would take him back to the king of Abyssinia for he has a great future ahead of him, which they knew better. Ḥalīma, obviously disturbed by this potential danger, was able to maneuver away from them and return Muhammad to his family in Mecca unharmed (Ibn Hishām, 219).

Again, while this story is not as miraculous as the common narrative, it shows that his prophethood was expected throughout the region, namely among the Naṣārā of Abyssinia. Their attempt to kidnap him in order to raise the Prophet under the protection of the African Negus is meaningful. Perhaps, this was among the reasons the early Muslims were able to find refuge in Abyssinia as they fled persecution from their people in Mecca. These men could have reported to the king and other influential people in their society that they saw a boy who had the signs of a prophet and when he reached out to him as the Prophet of God, they knew who he was.

References:

Ibn Hishām, Abū Muḥammad ʻAbd al-Malik ibn Hishām ibn Ayyūb al-Ḥimyarī. Al-Sīrah al-Nabawīyah. al-Juzʼ al-Awwal. Edited by Majdi Fathi Al-Sayyid. 1st ed. Cairo: Dār al-Sahāba lil-Turāth, 1995.

Keys, David. Catastrophe: A Investigation into the Origins of the Modern World. New York: Ballantine Books, 1999.