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.

Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools (Part 5)

On the topic of the Hanifs, I have come across an interesting perspective worth sharing. It is a theory emanating from the contemporary Iraqi scholar Fadil al-Rabi’i, who has presented a fresh perspective on Arabian Christianity in his 2009 publication, Al-Masih al-Arabi: al-Nasraniyyah fi al-Jazira al-Arabiyya wa al-Sira’ al-Bizanti al-Farisi (The Arab Messiah: Christianity in the Arabian Peninsula and the Byzantine-Persian Conflict).

According to al-Rabi’i, the Hanifs were a collective of people searching for the religion of Abraham. Their only common denominator was their disillusionment with the pagan practices of Arabia as well as the philosophical Christianity out of Byzantine (Rome) that was gaining hegemony wherever they ruled. However, al-Rabi’i notes that they varied in time, space, and beliefs, as he counts among them the likes of As’ad ibn Karb al-Himyari, a king in Yemen, Abu Bakr, and Waraqah ibn Nawfal (al-Rabi’i, 16).

In addition, al-Rabi’i is of the opinion that all Hanifs were a type of Nasara, but further distinguishes the Nasara (the Qur’anic term for Christians) from Masihiyyin (Hellenistic Christianity, which was influenced by Greek philosophy). The Arab Nasara, in turn, followed a simple, monotheistic religion, in the way of the Prophet ‘Isa and free of philosophical speculation. He blames the philosophical undertones of the Hellenistic-era for what would later be deemed Christianity, which made the teachings of ‘Isa into a new religion that deified him. Due to the minimal and quietist presence of the Nasara in Arabia, it became overshadowed by the philosophical Christianity espoused by the Holy Roman Empire (al-Rabi’i, 14).

There were two historical elements that led to the prevalence of Hellenistic Christianity in Arabia:

  • the evolving philosophical debates on the nature of Christ
  • Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity and making it the official religion of Rome (al-Rabi’i, 17)

Al-Rabi’i asserts that the Nasara hid among the Christian monasteries throughout the Arabian peninsula. The true Nasara were therefore indistinguishable from the Hellenistic Christians, because they generally practiced their religion in isolation. (al-Rabi’i, 18) If we take the opinion that the Hanifs were the inheritors of the Mystery Schools, and all Hanifs were Nasara, this would corroborate James’ assertion that the survivors of the Mystery Schools fled into Arabia, Asia Minor, and the interior of Africa. (James, 31-32).

If we take this perspective as true, it fills in some gaps concerning the Hanifs. Their practices are largely unknown to us because they worshipped in secret, fearing reprisals from the heavy-handed theocratic Byzantine Empire. In addition, they were not simply a throw back to the ancient past, as one might conclude by their search for the religion of Abraham. Rather, they were aware of the religion of Abraham by following the prophet of their time, ‘Isa. Yet, the intellectual and military conflicts of the time led to distortions in his teachings, which the Hanifs/Nasara sought to avoid by distancing themselves from the influence of the state and the official church of Rome.

This connection between the Nasara and the Mystery Schools is further substantiated by the Coptic writings on the walls in the necropolis of Thebes. Anyone who has been to the site in Luxor, Egypt knows that it goes by the name Dayr al-Bahri (Monastery of the Northern Wind) because the tombs were used as monasteries and a place of refuge when they were fleeing Roman persecution.

Coptic writing on the tombs of Dayr al-Bahri.

It is also worth noting that Luxor is located in the southern part of current-day Egypt, which is home to its largely Nubian population. Christianity had taken a firm root in Nubia and Abyssinia by the advent of Islam in the 7th century. We also know that the Prophet Muhammad referred to this area as “a land of truth” when he encouraged his early followers to take refuge there (Ibn Hisham, 407-17).

We can therefore conclude that the Mystery Schools survived in the form of the Nasara who lived in Africa, Arabia, and Asia Minor. Due to persecution, isolation, and frequent migration, the chain of transmission to the Prophet ‘Isa was lost or distorted and ultimately their beliefs were subsumed or otherwise influenced by the pervading philosophical debates of the time about the divinity of Christ. This broken chain opened a new epoch for the restoration of man’s original spiritual path.

Sahih InternationalYou will surely find the most intense of the people in animosity toward the believers [to be] the Jews and those who associate others with Allah; and you will find the nearest of them in affection to the believers those who say, “We are Christians.” That is because among them are priests and monks and because they are not arrogant.

References

Al-Rabi’i, Fadel. Al-Masih al-Arabi: Al-Nasraniyyah Fi al-Jazira al-Arabiyya Wa al-Sira’ al-Bizanti al-Farisi. Beirut: Riad El-Rayyes Books, 2009.

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.

James, George G.M. Stolen Legacy: Greek Philosophy Is Stolen Egyptian Philosophy. New York: Philosophical Library, 1954.

Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools (Part 4)

I had to take a brief hiatus from writing the Islam and Ancient Mystery Schools series in absence of some information and in light of new information. In this post, I want to share some of my findings on the practices and identity of the Hanifs.

Since I published Islam and Ancient Mystery Schools (Part 3), I hoped to find a comprehensive work specifically about the Hanifs, but I have not located such a work in English or Arabic as of yet. Perhaps the paucity of sources about the Hanifs is due to the fact that they were not written about in depth in early sources. However, there are some tertiary sources and secondary sources that touch on the topic tangentially.

The most extensive of which was W. Montgomery Watt’s treatment of Ibn Ishaq’s Sira (in English) and al-Mafassal fi Tarikh al-‘Arab Qabl al-Islam by Jawwad Ali (in Arabic). While the general consensus is that the Hanifs are a mysterious group, if they can be called that, I will summarize a few points of interest for this study.

  • There is a consensus that the Hanifs were monotheistic Arabs. No particular tribe or region had a particularly high number of hanifs in their midst. Ali compares them to reformists of our day (Ali vol. 6, 457). They observed their society and religious landscape and hoped for something better. They found solace in reclaiming the religion of Abraham.
  • In terms of their practices, they were known to make hajj and practice circumcision. They also avoided the worship of celestial bodies and idols and refused to eat meat sacrificed to pagan gods. There were those among the Hanifs who would meditate on the Universe, practice spiritual seclusion by living in caves, and abstain from alcohol and foul language. They, however, had no shari’ah i.e. systemized worship, beliefs, or scripture (Ali vol. 6, 456 and 455).
  • From what is known about them, they were not a monolith. Most classical Muslim scholars considered them to be monotheists who did not follow any of the known religions of the time. Others have named among the Hanifs Arab converts to Christianity such as Waraqa ibn Nawfal. Qays ibn Sa’ida al-Ayadi, and ‘Uthman ibn al-Huwayrith. Similarly, not all Hanifs converted to Islam upon learning about it like Abu Amir the Monk and Kinana ibn ‘Abd Yalayl al-Thaqafi (Ali vol. 6, 457-461).
  • Orientalist scholars have found that some Syrian Christian groups used to refer to monotheistic Arabs as Hanifs, especially those from Yemen. They were said to have been influenced by the surrounding Jews and Christians. They were also knowledgeable of other languages such as Syriac and Hebrew. Ali states unequivocally that all Hanifs were often well-to-do and able to read and write. They spent their surplus income purchasing books, which were expensive in those times. He also speculated that they might have been familiar with Greek books of philosophy in addition to religious scriptures (Ali vol. 6, 453 and 456).

Conclusion

Is it possible that the Hanifs were the inheritors of the defunct Ancient Mystery Schools? According to George G.M. James, the Roman emperor Justinian had closed the Mystery Schools in Egypt as well as the teaching of Greek philosophy in the 6th century (p. 31). Thus the only religions tolerated were Trinitarian Christianity and Judaism to a lesser extent. All other doctrines, whether monotheistic or not were outlawed. Therefore it is possible that non-Jewish and non-Christian monotheists from the Mystery Schools roamed the peripheries of the Roman Empire in search of a purer and more ancient religion. It is also possible that they were subsumed into non-Hellenized interpretations of Christianity to which some Hanifs converted.

As we know, the Mystery Schools was highly structured and primarily oral. It would have been difficult to maintain the teachings of the full curriculum across lands, languages, and potential harm, so only visages of their beliefs and practices would survive. Still the fact that they were literate in other languages and spent their time and money educating themselves using the available written material of the time is a sign that they were seeking to reclaim knowledge that was lost.

While the true nature of the Hanifs may never be known, we can safely assume that they were influenced by the religious milieu of their time. The abolition of the Mystery Schools in the 6th century left a spiritual void on the Earth that would not be fulfilled until the spread of Islam in the coming centuries. As soon as Justinian attempted to extinguish the light of the Mystery Schools, a new light was sparked in the Arabian desert among the Hanifs…

Sahih International: They want to extinguish the light of Allah with their mouths, but Allah refuses except to perfect His light, although the disbelievers dislike it. (Qur’an 9:32)

The Free National Name of the Copts

The declaration of a free national name and religion is a concept that was popularized by Noble Drew Ali, founder of the Moorish Science Temple. He rejected a color-based identity in favor of one based on heritage. While I am not an expert on Moorish Science, I found a fitting parallel to this concept in the history of Copts in Egypt, one of the oldest Christian sect in the world.

Some years ago, I came across a documentary series about various Arab religious communities on Al Jazeera. In the episode about the Copts, there was an interesting remark made by Pope Shenouda III, the Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria, Egypt. Starting around the 5:20 until the 5:40 mark he states what can be translated as:

“The origins of the Copts are Pharaonic and not Arabic. However, they now possess Arab citizenship and the Arabic language, but their origins are not Arab.”

Arabization in Egypt

The Coptic Christian community of Egypt are not ethnically Arabs, despite being native Arabic speakers and being physically indistinguishable from other Egyptians. Technically, their ethnicity should represent the majority in Egypt and their presence predates Arab Muslim hegemony in the region. The same can be said of Berbers in Northwest Africa. How is it, then, did they assume an Arab identity?

It suffices us to know that Arabization in Egypt, like much of North Africa, was a slow and complicated process. The early Muslims played a major role in ending Byzantine oppression of indigenous Christian sects in Egypt and the rest of North Africa in 7th century CE. Their initial social contract was that of a dhimmi status, which guaranteed them protection as long as they paid the jizyah tax.

The Cairo Geniza papers reveal the rich linguistic environment of the Nile between the 3rd century BCE and the 7th century CE. These papers consist of papyri written in languages such as Hebrew, Syrian, Ethiopian, Middle Persian, and hieroglyphics to name a few. However, the majority of these documents are in Arabic, Coptic, and Greek. They suggest that by the 7th century Arabic was used side-by-side with Coptic and Greek until 705 when a decree made Arabic the official administrative language.

We know that by the 12th century Pope Gabriel II (Ibn Turayk) had officially made Arabic the language of Coptic liturgy. His reasoning for this was that Copts had already been Arabized and that they should worship in a language they understand.[1] Of course, the true extent of Arabization at this point in time is debatable. Perhaps only urbanized Copts had become comfortable with conversing in Arabic, while rural Copts were not.

Furthermore, scholarship on the topic shows that there were a number of factors that led to the ultimate Arabization of Egypt.These factors were an interplay of “Arab” migration, their intermarriage with Coptic women, willing and coerced conversion to Islam, popular Muslim distrust of and violence against Copts, and official policies of the state. (To learn more read: Coptic Conversion and the Islamization of Egypt and Coptic Language and Identity in Ayyūbid Egypt).

Coptic monks in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Accessed from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Church_of_the_Holy_Sepulchre_-_Coptic_monks_(2).jpg

Lessons for America

Even after a difficult history under Muslim rule, the Coptic population has survived as Egypt’s largest national minority. While their Arabness is a topic of continued debate in their communities and within Egypt, I will suggest a few lessons that the so-called African American can learn from this history.

  • As we note from Pope Shenouda II’s statement, the Coptic community is an indigenous community with a distinct heritage. While their heritage is initially Pharaonic, it is their Christian heritage that allows them to maintain a social contract under Muslim rule. It is an Islamic belief that Islam abrogated Christianity, just as Christianity abrogated Judaism and so forth, which might have served as the basis for Muslims’ harsh treatment of the Copts throughout history, especially after the Crusades.
  • However, it was only after they proclaimed their free national and religious identity that they were able to attain Arab citizenship. While much was lost in this transaction, they were also able to maintain their legal sovereignty in a nation ruled by Islamic law. In fact, Islamic law, like American law, guaranteed them the right to govern themselves.
  • Additionally, by Arabizing their heritage they were able to preserve what they could of their history in a living language. This is an important point for so-called African Americans, as the language of our history and scholarship provides access to different audiences and influences the types of discussions we have around topics of concern to us.
  • Finally, their citizenship is not simply tied to a nation (Egyptian), but to a heritage (Arab). As Arab citizens, the Copts were not only able to secure a place within Egyptian society, but in the greater Arab world. As Arab citizens, they have the right to produce culture, scholarship, and engage in the current events of the Arab world.

[1] This argument is reminiscent of the contemporary argument for the use of colloquial Arabic in the Arab world. See Is Fusha Elitist?

 

Islam and the Ancient Egyptian Mystery Schools: The Works of Dr. Nadim al-Sayyar

The works of Dr. Nadim al-Sayyar are crucial to the discussion about the connection between Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools (i.e. the ancient religion of the world). Though his first book on the topic, Qudamāʾ al-Miṣrīyīn ʾAwwal al-Muwaḥidīn (The Ancient Egyptians the First Monotheists), was published in 1995 and its second part, Laysū ʾĀlihah wa Lākin Malāʾikah (Not Gods, But Angels) in 2003, and had an impact in the Arab world, English readers are largely in the dark about his research. His works address the nature of ancient Egyptian religion, which was the major religious center of the ancient world, and seeks to dispel myths and misinterpretations concerning their worship of the pharaohs and multiple gods. George G.M. James and other authors have made this assertion, but none of them have performed studies with the same rigor of Dr. al-Sayyar’s works. I recently purchased his two publications at the Cairo International Book Fair and thought it would be worth sharing some thoughts about them.

“Knowledge Is the Lost Property of a Believer…”

There is a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ to the effect that “knowledge (or wisdom) is the lost property of the believer; wherever he finds it he is the most deserving of it.” I preamble this discussion with this because many who might be intrigued by this topic may be stifled by their prejudice against Arabs and/or Muslims who speak on this topic. The arguments of the so-called Afrocentrists are that:

  • the current Egyptians, especially those light-skinned Egyptians, are not the direct descendants of the ancient Egyptians
  • Arab Muslims, who are supposedly the majority in Egypt, are a colonizing force that supplanted the ancient Egyptian religion
  • the Qur’an, like the Bible, appears to condemn “Pharaoh” and the ancient religion of Egypt

Egyptian Ancestry

To the first point that current Egyptians are not descendants of the ancient Egyptians, this is not completely true. Egypt is a very diverse society. Its location in northeast Africa has always been a site for migration and traveling between the three continents of Africa, Asia, and Europe. Likewise, the Nile River and its yearly flooding made the land particularly fertile and ideal place to settle. The civilization that resulted from these environmental factors was also attractive to settlers from different places.

While the first inhabitants of this land were undoubtedly dark skinned people, they frequently intermarried with other groups that relocated to the region. In addition to this contact, Egypt also experienced many waves of migration and conquest: the Hyksos, Persians, Greeks, Arabs, Turks, etc. Egypt, during the middle ages was ruled by a myriad of Eastern European and Central Asian slaves… Today, most metropolitan Egyptians can count all these groups among their ancestors in addition to their black ancient Egyptian ancestors. Therefore, their offspring would not be cut off from the greatness of their black heritage merely due to the fact that some of their ancestors were from other places.

I understand that this runs counter to popular belief in Afrocentric thought. Unfortunately, Afrocentric thought relies too heavily on a contemporary American concept of race, which does not always allow for multilayers and ways of constructing identity. This is a major fallacy of Afrocentric thought alongside methodological issues in their research. I do, however, find it useful to approach subjects such as African history from a truly “African-centered” perspective. That is, to center the voices and perspectives of Africans on their own histories, which I think is important in the case of Dr. Nadim al-Sayyar.

Arab Muslims?

To the second point, a discussion of what it means to be Arab is beyond the scope of this post. However, it suffices me to say that Arab identity is not a racial identity, but rather a cultural-linguistic identity that includes a number of ethnic, racial, and genealogical groups, similar to the Latinx identity. Though the majority of Egyptians are Muslims, the majority are not “ethnically” Arab (if that is truly a thing), meaning that they track their lineage back to the Arabian peninsula. They are Arab in the sense that they adopted the Arabic language and ascribe to an Arab culture. Since the majority of Egyptians are not “Arab-proper,” we cannot say that they have colonized the land of Egypt. It is ludicrous to suggest, as many Afrocentrics think, that a small group of warriors from Arabia came and conquered all these lands, and changed the majority of people’s language and religion by force and continue to take on this identity to this day.

Furthermore, before Egypt and Nubia became Muslims they were Christian with a minority Jewish population. The same holds true for much of North Africa and the Levant. Why then are Muslims implicated as the ones who supplanted the ancient Egyptian religion when there were other religions that dominated Egypt prior to its spread?

Muslim Views of the Pharaoh

To the third point, which characterizes Islam as being antithetical to the ancient Egyptian religion, the aim of Dr. al-Sayyar’s work is to dispel this myth among other things. For instance, Dr. al-Sayyar holds that pharaoh was the title given to the ruler of Egypt, no matter what their ethnicity. He then finds that the pharaohs of Moses’ day was actually a ruler of foreign Hyksos extraction and that the religion they promoted and their practices was not representative of the ancient Egyptian religious practices. In addition, he brings to the reader’s attention the number of prophets and other noble figures recorded in the Muslim tradition who were from Egypt. One of the aims of his research is to clarify misunderstandings that Muslims have acquired about ancient Egyptian religion based on their reliance on Jewish and western sources.

Laysū ʾĀlihah wa Lākin Malāʾikah (Not Gods, But Angels) published in 2003.
Chapter 1: Egypt and the Prophets,
Chapter 2: The Myth of Multiple Gods,
Chapter 3: The Myth of Worshiping the Neter,
Chapter 4: The Myth of Worshiping the Pharaohs,
Chapter 5: God in the Beliefs of the Ancient Egyptians

Dr. Nadim al-Sayyar

I challenge my Afrocentric brethren to consider Dr. al-Sayyar’s works on its merits and not simply his ethnic, national, and racial background. He was originally a poet and oud player and later obtained a degree in medicine. Fused by the Naksa suffered by Egypt at the hands of the Israeli army in 1967 he began to bury himself in the reading of Egyptian history, which eventually led him to the study of Comparative Religion. In 1985, he traveled to Iraq to live amongst the lasting communities of Sabians (the name of the ancient Egyptian religion) and to study their ways. He would later acquire degrees in Islamic Studies from al-Azhar University and Coptic Studies from Ain Shams University, where he studied a number of languages such as Coptic, which includes Greek, Hebrew, and Ancient Egyptian, as well as Akkadian, Syriac, Armenian, and the ancient Yemeni language. The result of his studies are the three works he published on the topic of Ancient Egyptian religion. He passed away in 2018, but his daughters have since republished his first two books and plan to republish his third book, Al-Maṣrīyyūn al-Qudamāʾ ʾAwwal al-Ḥunafāʾ (The Ancient Egyptians, the First Hanifs) soon.

Al-Sayyar’s Description of the Egyptian Mystery Schools

The works of Dr. Nadim al-Sayyar firmly establish the connections between Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools. He does this in Qudamāʾ, by taking a retroactive examination of the prophets and other notable religious figures from Egypt. He starts off discussing tawhid (monotheism) in Egypt under Greek rule by examining the likes of Plato, Herodotus, Luqman, and Akhenaton. Then he discusses prophets mentioned in the Qur’an who were either from Egypt or had a relationship with it such as Ibrahim, Hajar, Isma’il, Ya’qub, Yusuf, and Musa. He examines the misunderstandings about the pharaoh in the time of Musa, which he attributes to distortions propagated by Jewish scholars over centuries. He follows that by giving examples of monotheistic beliefs across various pharaonic dynasties. He concludes the book by discussing the prophethood of Idris and his impact on Egyptian beliefs.

In Laysū, he establishes that the original religion of Egypt was that which was brought by the Prophet Idris, who Muslim exegetes have believed since the early days of Islam to be the first prophet sent by God after the creation of Adam. That religion, according to al-Sayyar, was called the Saba’iyya (Sabianism), which is alluded to in the Qur’an on a few occasions. If you were like me, then the first time you came across the verses (Quran 2:62, Quran 5:69, and Quran 22:17) when Allah mentions the different Peoples of the Book, you probably glossed over the mention of the Sabians. While it was known to be the Mandeans of Southern Iraq, it was first the religion of ancient Egypt, according to al-Sayyar.

He then shifts into a rigorous linguistic and historical analysis of the Neter. There are many jewels regarding his analysis, in which he illuminates his hypothesis that the Neter referred to in the Book of the Dead are actually what Jews, Muslims, and Christians would deem to be angels. He starts off by making it clear that although Wallis Budge and other early Egyptologists translated this word as “god” (and Neteru as “gods”), they did not have a consensus on how to translate it, nor did they believe that god was the best translation of the word (42-45).

Starting from the premise that we have received mistranslations and misinterpretations, he begins to unravel the meaning of “Neter” linguistically. Then he performs a careful comparison between Egyptian perceptions of the Neter and contemporary beliefs about angels and spiritual beings. In each comparison he examines historical sources in their original languages. He concludes the book by examining the ancient Egyptian belief in God by their attributes for Him, which he found to correspond with common Islamic beliefs concerning the attributes of God.

In many ways, Dr. Nadim al-Sayyar has done a great service to those of us interested in the connections between Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools. Before we can benefit from this scholarship, we need to overcome hurdles of language and prejudice with regards to scholarship coming from the Arab world. Likewise, as Westerners, we have been conditioned to devalue scholarship produced in other languages and overestimate the accuracy of Western scholarship. By overcoming these hurdles, we can gain greater access to the knowledge being produced in the world beyond our own intellectual borders.

Islam and the Ancient Mysteries (Part 3)

 

If research and reflection be pushed far enough it becomes clear that the universality and uniformity referred to are due to the fact that at one time, long back in the world’s past, there existed or was implanted in the minds of the whole human family… a Proto-Evangelium or Root-Doctrine in regard to the nature and destiny of the soul of man and its relation to the Deity. (p.203). 

W.L. Wilmshurst, The Meaning of Masonry

Islam is in agreement with Freemasonry that humanity was initially guided by a sophisticated, single religion from which people deviated, and of which all known religions in the world derived and retain visages thereof. This is contrary to the evolutionary view on the origin of religion, which maintains that religions started off primitive and employed the use of myth and superstition to explain natural phenomena then later religious beliefs and rituals became more advanced and sophisticated over time. As many perennialists, anthropologists, and scholars of comparative religion will point out, there are many parallels between religious beliefs and practices across the world’s religions. Recurring themes such as the primal golden age of man, the fall of man, and the redemption of man appear in various religious traditions, using the literary tropes familiar to their local cultures. Thus, local expressions of the primordial religion differed based on locality and time. Below, I will discuss this original religion of mankind using the tools of the Qur’an and the Arabic language.

The Natural Religion

Wilmshurst notes that the etymology of the word religion in the English language comes from the Latin re-ligare, meaning “to bind back” (p.206) or “to rebind” or “tie back to.” This implies that the ancient concept of religion was one that connected people back to an original state. Muslims would call this original state the fitrah, the natural inclinations that God has implanted into every human being.

There is a scene from the Qur’an that describes God’s creation of Adam (عليه السلام) and the souls of all people to come. At the moment of our creation we took a pledge in which we acknowledged the existence of God and His right to be worshipped.

And [mention] when your Lord took from the children of Adam – from their loins – their descendants and made them testify of themselves, [saying to them], “Am I not your Lord?” They said, “Yes, we have testified.” [This] – lest you should say on the day of Resurrection, “Indeed, we were of this unaware.” (Qur’an 7:172)

~Sahih International

Therefore, the Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه وسلم) declared that: “Every child is born on the fitrah. It is his parents that makes him a Jew, Christian, or Zoroastrian. Similarly, an animal gives birth to offspring intact. Have you ever seen one born in pieces?” In this statement, we find that the spiritual tendencies are inborn, but the religious identity or expression of those tendencies are determined by the parents and by extension the environment. Moreover, the Prophet’s metaphor insinuates that the various religious identities are but fragments of a parent religion. Were the child to remain in this state, he would be adhering to the religion of his nature.

Islamic Terms for Religion

In Arabic, there are four main terms that can refer to religion. Each word has its unique etymology and particular usage in the Qur’an. Likewise, they have their particular interpretations based on the way they were understood throughout history.

Din

Din (pronounced deen) is the most common Arabic word that is used for the concept of religion. It carries connotations of lowering, subduing, and exercising power. Some scholars of Islam and the Arabic language have defined it in the following ways:

  • Whatever a person adheres to.
  • A divine word deterring the lower self; resisting and preventing it from persisting on what was instilled in it.
  • Dominion and power.
  • To lower or subdue something. (Nuzha, p. 295-296)

In the famous hadith known as the Hadith of Jibril (عليه السلام) in which the Angel Gabriel or Jibril approached the Prophet Muhammad () and asked him questions about the religion he was teaching. At the conclusion, he states that din is essentially three things:

Islam is explained as the shahada (testament of faith), establishing regular prayer, paying charity, fasting during the month of Ramadan, and making pilgrimage to the Ancient House in Mecca if one has the ability to do so.

Iman is explained as belief in the oneness of God, belief in His angels, His scriptures, following His messengers, belief in the Last Day, and God’s measure and decree (predestination).

Ihsan is explained as worshipping God as if you see Him, or if that cannot be achieved, then worshipping God with the knowledge that He sees you.

To Muslims, these are the three elements of a complete religion:

  1. islam, the outward religious laws and practices, which makes your environment peaceful, sound, or whole
  2. iman, which makes your thinking and beliefs certain and free from defects and contradictions
  3. ihsan, which refines your morals, to beautifies your character, and makes your soul pure again.

Ummah

The Qur’anic term, ummah, is a word with a wide range of meanings. According to Lane’s Lexicon, it is derived from a word meaning to direct one’s aims toward among other things (p. 88). Other words in Arabic that share its origin are umm (mother), amaam (in front of), and  imam (leader). It is commonly used to refer to the global Muslim community and occasionally to Jewish and Christian communities. Abu’l Faraj Ibn Jawzi (Nuzha p. 142-143) gathered the following meanings for the word:

  • a class of individuals or groups
  • A time period
  • A spiritual leader
  • A religion
  • A physical stature

The following verse from the Qur’an uses the word ummah to mean religion within a particular time period. Here it refers to the primordial religion:

Mankind was [of] one religion [before their deviation]; then Allah sent the prophets as bringers of good tidings and warners and sent down with them the Scripture in truth to judge between the people concerning that in which they differed. And none differed over the Scripture except those who were given it – after the clear proofs came to them – out of jealous animosity among themselves. And Allah guided those who believed to the truth concerning that over which they had differed, by His permission. And Allah guides whom He wills to a straight path. (Qur’an 2:213)

~Sahih International

Millah

The word millah is another Qur’anic term used for religion. It is exclusively used to mean religious path or spiritual law. The word is mentioned several times in the Qur’an most often referring to religions of the past, particularly that of Abraham (عليه السلام), which is called hanif.

Hanif

Hanif is a word most often used in the Qur’an to refer to the religion of Abraham. Its root meaning is to incline or decline. The word hanaf describes the condition of talipes or club foot, in which the two feet of an individual curve upward so that they end up walking on the sides of their feet. Historically, the people of Arabia who inclined to monotheism, performed ritual circumcision, meditated in caves, and made pilgrimage to the Ka’ba in Mecca were known as Hanifs. It was said that these were the only rites they had retained from the religion of Abraham. Though there were Jews, Christians, and other monotheistic faiths present in the Arabian peninsula at the time the Hanifs were not members of those communities. Therefore the Hanifs did not adhere to any religious law or study of scripture.

The community and practices of the Hanifs was that of the Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه وسلم) prior to his prophetic mission. From a historical point of view, we know much about the Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه وسلم), the Arab society prior to Islam, and the early Muslim community, but relatively little about the Hanifs. As it seems, the Hanifs held remnants of an ancient religion that pre-dated Judaism and Christianity, which is proclaimed to be their parent religion, as Abraham (عليه السلام) was both a genealogical and ideological ascendent of the practitioners of those faiths. Were we to establish a link between Islam and the Ancient Mysteries it would be through knowing who were the Hanifs.

Yet several questions remain about this faith group that adhered to none of the known faiths at that time:

What was the religion that Abraham taught? How did these teachings arrive to remote regions of the Arabian peninsula such as Becca and Yathrib? Can anything more be gleaned from their practices that sound similar to the practices of the Ancient Mysteries?

So direct your face toward the religion, inclining to truth. [Adhere to] the fitrah of Allah upon which He has created [all] people. No change should there be in the creation of Allah. That is the correct religion, but most of the people do not know. (Qur’an 30:30)

~Sahih International

Islam and the Ancient Mysteries (Part 2)

Based on George G. M. James’ theory, I wish to examine the historical connections and pedagogical parallels between Islam and the Ancient Mysteries. Here, I will to put forth my hypothesis for the historical transformation of the Ancient Mysteries into Islamic scholarship:

  • What Afrocentric, Masonic, and occult sources call the Ancient Mystery Schools represent the primordial religion of mankind from which all religions, major and traditional, are derived.
  • The Mystery Schools were the institutions that resulted from the knowledge brought by prophets (or enlightened individuals) in each epoch. They consisted of a class of people dedicated to preserving and building upon that knowledge.
  • The Mystery Schools had a particular set of objectives, curriculum, and ways of preserving their teachings that made their students and teachers recognizable to one another in various regions across the ancient world.
  • The Mystery Schools had faced decline due to the changes instituted by the Greeks, internal confusion and corruption, the rise of Hellenized Christianity, and later the linking of the Church to the political entity of the Roman Empire, as well as its hostile position to other interpretations (which were expressions of the Mysteries) all served to replace their dominance in the world.
  • Political conflicts, the destruction of the Mystery Schools, and the interruption of knowledge transmission led to religious confusion, forced migration, and factionalism.
  • Some of these migrants and religious factions ended up on the Arabian Peninsula, where they were free to maintain their religious practices and beliefs away from the persecution and conflicts of one of the prevailing empires of the time. Among these religious factions were those known in Islamic sources as the Hanifs, who upheld the teachings of the Ancient Mystery Schools.
  • The pluralism of the Arabian society along with the presence of the Hanifs made it fertile ground for the coming of the Prophet Muhammad to usher in a new age, confirm the truth in people’s practice and beliefs and correct the falsehoods therein, and re-establish the chain of transmission of prophetic knowledge in the world.
  • The disciples of the Prophet Muhammad “opened” many of the areas through conquest that were once hubs of the Ancient Mystery Schools, which allowed for the re-establishment of the schools under the prophetic transmission of Muhammad.
  • Many of the objectives, curricula, and teaching and learning methods coincided with those of the Ancient Mystery Schools.
  • As the Islamic schools developed in different regions, scholars sought out the written works of ancient civilizations and a movement to translate them into Arabic quickly spread. Islamic scholars read, used, and critiqued the works of the ancients and passed their knowledge on to the contemporary world.