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.
As Salaamu Alaikum wa Ramadan Karim,
I was reading your grand theory (in 12 parts thus far!) and was not sure exactly where to intervene with a comment. So I did skim or speed-read thru to the end to see where you were going with all of this. Perhaps it is better to discuss this in depth in person, but I still feel the need to leave some brief comments here. First, I compliment you for your erudition, and your ambition to be a grand synthesizer of esoteric systems.
However, I doubt whether reality actually conforms to your theoretical schema. I simply doubt that all the world’s belief systems fit together so neatly and evolved or devolved, as the case may be, from one primordial philosophy. This is akin to a Tower of Babel theory simply substituting a common ancient mystery school for a common tongue. And yet that Biblical tale may be more figurative than literal. Even if first appearing in the context of a state civilization in Kemet or the Nile Valley, “the mysteries” probably had antecedents in the initiation rites of various forest-dwelling “tribal” societies.
Rather than one common origin it seems to me, that esoteric and gnostic philosophies, while intertwined, grew up independently in various cultural climates. Nor do i think that Islam became the sole or major repository for the ancient wisdom.
Missing altogether from your speculative history is the discussion of psychobotany, the various plants found around the world that when ingested affect the pineal gland and the crown chakra, inducing hallucinogenic effects — cosmic consciousness, etc. These plants have certainly played a role in mysticism and related philosophies, this enabling humans from many diverse cultures and ethnicities to share certain visions. However, this is not my major point.
Thus far it seems that at least three major relevant works are not even mentioned (not counting Yosef Ben Jochannan’s extension of George G. M. James discussion of the Mystery Schools in Africa: Mother of Western Civilization):
Manley P. Hall’s The Secret Teachings of All Ages: An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic, and Rosicrucianism Symbolic Philosophy
Godfrey Higgins’ Anacalypsis: An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil of the Sadistic Isis, Or an Inquiry into the Origins of Languages, Nations and Religions. ( this work might be supportive of some of your claims)
Whitall Perry’s A Treasury of Traditional Wisdom: An Encyclopedia of Humankind Spiritual Truths
I simply start with these key texts, which though published decades ago, are all in print (Hall’s work is also online) rather than draw up a bibliography of related texts.
Let me just add in closing that I do not purport to have any answers to the grand questions you are posing and proposing answers for. I was simply a wisdom seeker so I collected and voraciously read texts related to this subject matter.