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:
Rūhānīyāt/Spiritualism: In this stage they took angels as intermediaries.
Star Worship: In this stage they took planets and stars as physical representations of angels
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.
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.
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.
Jews of Mesopotamia and Iran, greater Syria, and Egypt
Samaritans of Palestine
Mandaeans of south Mesopotamia
Harranians of north Mesopotamia
Manichaeans of Mesopotamia and Egypt
Buddhists and Hindus of the Sind
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.
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.
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.
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.
 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.
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…
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.
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.
Scholarship is about debate and the free exchange of ideas. So in order to keep scholarship alive in Black communities, the channels of debate must remain open. However, these debates must respect knowledge and the means for acquiring it. Too often, in the so-called conscious community, debates ensue with a lack of regard for knowledge. One particular debate that offended my sensibilities not only as an African American Muslim, but also a linguist and information specialist, was one in which the the musician, author, and conscious debater, Shakka Ahmose attempted to prove that Allah was a deity worshiped along with other deities in ancient Sumer. He based this conclusion on his “groundbreaking” research using a book of Sumerian poetry translated by Thorkild Jacobsen, an acclaimed Assyriologist. At face value, he appears to have stumbled on some serious information that requires a well-crafted response from Muslims. But upon closer evaluation, we find that his information was veiled in tricknowledge, as I will demonstrate momentarily.
The first red flag was that, in Jacobsen’s book, the author transliterates the deity’s name as Alla, not Allah. However, Mr. Ahmose, who supposedly studied the ancient Egyptian language, could not see the gaping hole in his logic. Just because two words from two different languages look the same when transliterated into English, does not mean they are the same word or have the same meaning. For example, the name of the ancient Egyptian being, Thot (an Anglicized bastardization of ḏḥwty), has absolutely no relation to the word thought in English, despite the fact that they are pronounced similarly. Likewise, the name of the country, Turkey, has no relation to the word turkey in English. Unfortunately, there is a bad habit among conscious psuedo-scholars finding cognates between words that have no relation to each other.
Secondly, these languages have sounds in their respective languages that do not have equivalents in the English language. So when I see a word transliterated in English I cannot ascertain whether it is a voiced pharyngeal fricative or glottal stop without the aid of a standard transliteration system. Moreover, Thorkild Jacobsen, a bona fides linguist, never made the claim that there was some relation between this Sumerian deity and Allah of Arabia. Even if they were the same sounds, the concept of Allah put forth in the Qur’an and held by Muslims throughout history, negates any latent notions of the existence of other deities.
Anyway, I decided to look into this theory and apply a lateral reading technique to get to the bottom of this. I did a simple Google search for “alla sumerian god.” As usual, the first thing I saw was a Wikipedia page titled “List of Mesopotamian deities,” but there was no mention of “Alla.” Further down on the results list, you can find a blog post entitled, “Was Allah Originally a Babylonian ‘God’ of Violence?” written by an elderly convert to Judaism from Cuba. He refers to Muslims and Christians disparagingly in his posts, but the reason for his disdain is not clear other than the fact that he is Jewish. Nevertheless, this author reiterates a theory proposed on Shoebet.com, another misinformation site backed by Zionist Jews. On this site, Theodore Shoebet authored an article called “The Oldest Reference to Allah,” in which he cites a work by a true scholar of Mesopotamian history, but he misspells the word in question and bases his theory on this “mistake.” This reveals that in the typical fashion of internet misinformers, their ideas are not based on primary research, but a repackaging of others’ erroneous ideas.
The source in question was by Stephanie M. Dalley, an Oxford professor of the ancient Near East, who published her English translation of the Epic of Atrahasisin 1989. On page 10, Dalley translates the passage: “Then Alia made his voice heard…” Shoebet corrupted her translation by writing, “Then Alla made his voice heard…” To the dyslexic eye, the letter “i” following the first “l” can easily be mistaken for another “l.” However, Alia is clearly a different word from Alla or Allah. If this was an honest mistake, then Mr. Shoebet’s reading skills need to be questioned along with whoever shared his information. If this was a deliberate distortion, then the Qur’an has already warned the believers about those among the Jews who distort words from their places (Qur’an 4:46).
In the case of Mr. Ahmose, he was clearly being deceptive. As we can see, he searched “AlIa”(with a capital i) in his Google book, with hopes that the viewer would not be able to make it out on the video or search for it himself. What is more interesting, perhaps, is the implications of a so-called conscious Black man using misinformation, theories, and – dare I say – tactics from White Jews and Orientalists to combat the spread of Islam in Black communities. Mr. Ahmose can be seen in other videos and debates plagiarizing the since-debunked theories of John Wansbrough, Patricia Crone, and the like, which posit that the Qur’an and Islam did not originate in Arabia. On the other hand, Black Muslims have been baffled for years as to why many in the conscious circles, particularly Kemetans, have criticized Black Muslims so harshly and effectively ousted them from the conscious community altogether when they are supposed to be brothers in race and in struggle. Could it be that they have made an alliance with Zionists and other Islamophobes to marginalize Muslims in the Black community? Or are they so subsumed with anti-Muslim prejudice that it clouds their judgement to view the facts? The world may never know…
Afrocentricism is a valid methodology of looking at history. With the idea that all history is subjective (HIStory, as they like to say), it is worth looking at history from the perspectives of Africans. However, the popularization of Afrocentricism in African American communities throughout the 20th century, and now into the 21st century, has taken a highly anti-religious tone, which has resulted in the dismissal of anyone associated with the three main Abrahamic religious paths. In this post, I will address some aspects of the methodology of those who have usurped Afrocentricism and highlight some of their fallacies using a video lecture from the 2000’s by Dr. Phil Valentine.
Classic Fallacies of Afrocentricism
In an attempt to avoid the pitfalls of religious communities, Dr. Phil Valentine, like others of his ilk, falls into a classic fallacy by regurgitating anti-religious rhetoric. His first course of action is to attack the history of the Christian Church in Europe and how it was used to colonize and enslave Africans. Then he looks at the Black Christian today, often attacking his character and psychology. Finally, he turns to other religious expressions adopted by African Americans, like Islam and the Hebrew Israelites.
Most Afrocentric thinkers make this false-equivalence, refusing to recognize: 1) the complex history of Christianity, 2) the complex history of Islam and other religions, 3) their own blind-spot regarding racial identity, and 4) their biases and prejudices.
1) Failure to recognize the complex history of Christianity
Afrocentric thinkers do not always recognize that Christianity had “Western” versions and “Eastern” versions that diverged pretty early in its history. These doctrinal differences drew a wedge between them philosophically and geographically, resulting in completely different historical experiences.
Acknowledgment of these various forms of Christianity are almost always along racial lines rather than doctrinal lines. However, doctrinal differences under the Roman Empire at the advent of Christianity often trumped racial differences.
2) Failure to recognize the complex history of Islam and other religions
Islam has its own complex history that is starkly different from that of European Christianity.
Direct experience with God was never discouraged.
Power of interpretation was regional and lied with whoever possessed the knowledge, not upon charisma, descent, race, class, etc. (although debates existed)
There was no wide-scale dark age and rejection of science, systematic disenfranchisement of women and minorities, or even slavery based solely on race.
Not all societies see religion as a means for political and social control as it is imagined in the West.
3) Afrocentric blind-spot concerning race
Almost all Afrocentrics operate on a construct of race invented in the United States.
This is the duality of Blackness and Whiteness.
That Blackness is equivalent to African and Whiteness is equivalent to European.
Any noticeable amount of African descent counts as Black, except for Arabs.
Black Arabs must choose to identify either with their “Black African mothers” or with their “White Arab fathers.”
There is no room in this construct for a “Black” person to see oneself as possessing multiple identities or to reject them altogether. Any lack of conformity to this construct evokes ridicule.
4) Biases and Prejudices
Most Afrocentrics are Egyptophiles and have an unquestioning reverence for Kemet (ancient Egypt). This causes them to ignore information about it that might seem distasteful to them like homosexuality, violent conquest, honor killings, etc.
They are theoretically in favor of Blacks and Africans in all they do until their thinking and actions do not fit the mold that they have constructed. Therefore, African Christians and Muslims are all brainwashed; Africans that marry outside of their race are all self-hating; etc.
They are prejudiced against:
Europeans for slavery and oppression in America.
Arabs primarily for corner stores in Black neighborhoods, secondly due to post-9/11 propaganda, and tangentially for their history of slavery in East Africa.
They are prejudice against all Muslims for the actions of Arabs and Black Christians for the actions of Europeans.
At one point in Dr. Valentine’s lecture, the crowd turns its attention directly to Islam and Muslims. One can observe that he does not know much about Islam and he would rather avoid the topic, but since audience members ask, he is compelled to say something. At around the (1:04:15) mark in the video, he makes the comment:
“Islam is an off shoot of the same triumvirate. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all have the same prophets. If they share the same prophets, they share the same bullsh*t.”
After being prodded with specifics, Dr. Valentine states that the Muslims took the act of women covering from the ancient Africans. He said that it was done for protection from the sun and to guard against male pheromones that would cause them to ovulate. Then he said that it degenerated into something to keep a woman down. When addressing men praying in front and women in the back, he said that was also taken from Kemet. In his interpretation, women behind men meant that they were the support. He goes on to say that when the Arabs came and saw the hieroglyphs, they interpreted it to mean subservience based on their cultural values.
While Dr. Valentine appears to confirm the “correctness” of these Islamic practices in as much as they are conform to his brand of scientism and Kemetanism, he denies Muslims the intellectual capacity for having a similar reasoning. He assumes that the Muslim woman’s veil and her praying behind men are necessarily oppressive when coming from Muslims and cannot be interpreted in any other way. One person in the crowd states that he heard from a Muslim that women praying in front of or along side men could be a distraction, but he does not address this comment.
The conversation devolves into a rant against Christianity. In the process, he mentions a hallmark that distinguishes cultural nationalists from revolutionaries. He believes that at some point in the future when all Black people recognize their true selves, only then will we live happily ever after. This grand approach is not all dissimilar from some religious dogma that posit that everyone should believe the same in order for us to live happily ever after. It can also be argued that such a unity of thought and belief is pure fantasy and has never been achieved along racial or religious lines in history.
Revolutionaries, however, tend to take a different approach. They meet people where they are at and do not obligate them to buy into a particular paradigm before attempting to make a positive impact on people’s lives. Conflicts and controversy have always existed, and religious movements have historically helped people wade these waters. In waiting for an imaginative collective consciousness, Afrocentrics and other cultural nationalists fix a permanent chip on their shoulders and ensure that they will always have a reason to not take action.
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.
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 International: You 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.
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.
Since the term information literacy was coined, its definition has expanded and has been applied to a number of subject areas. There are such examples as computer literacy, cultural literacy, and visual literacy, but can we really justify a literacy of one religion? Or can we also envision models for a Jewish literacy or Pagan literacy? While I have no objection to this, I believe that there is an urgent need for Islamic literacy, given today’s political, spiritual, and intellectual climate that has allowed for the dissemination of misinformation on Islam and Muslims worldwide. The consequences of which have led to a seemingly unending chain reaction of deadly global crises involving Muslims. While this issue has been raised to a number of brilliant contemporary Islamic scholars worldwide, as of yet they have not been able to address it adequately. In my view, this issue must be addressed creatively and must be seen in the light of a paradigm shift, which we will discuss later.
In the last 20 years or so, Muslims have made major inroads into the future of Islamic education in America despite the challenges posed by the dominant American society. With the continued success of many Sister Clara Muhammad schools, Zaytuna College, Islamic Online University, ALIM, and many other efforts made by scholars, teachers, and organizations both in-person and online, the prospects for acquiring a basic and sometimes advanced knowledge of Islamic sciences and present-day issues are plentiful. However, the community still faces problems of Muslims misunderstanding their faith and allegedly carrying out terrorist attacks in its name, increasingly Islamophobic groups and individuals who perpetuate misinformation about Islam and Muslims, and debates internal to the Muslim community over liberalism and a lack of respect for the Islamic intellectual tradition. In turn, this has led these American Muslims to see Islamic literacy as a way to fill the gaps in knowledge and understanding. While the usage of the term Islamic literacy is relatively recent, the discussions around it are neither new nor original. The term has an evolving definition and history on which I hope to shed some light.
In the past, Islamic beliefs, practices, law, and ethical codes permeated Muslim societies, making it easy for someone living in or visiting those societies to gain literacy in Islam. However, if the common Muslim wanted to become more acquainted with religious knowledge and other subjects, he could do so by absorbing Arabic literature (adab). Dr. Umar Sulayman al-Ashqar notes that the likes of Ibn Khaldun and Shihab al-Din al-Qalqashandi (d. 1418 C.E.) described one of the aims of studying literature as, “the marginal acquisition of some of every field of knowledge.”[i]
However, in contemporary language, the word thaqafa is used to describe this relationship to knowledge, and carries a meaning close to our usage of the word literacy. The word thaqafa, in addition to meaning erudition (and other related concepts), is most often translated as culture. Therefore, those who write on the topic in Arabic not only speak in terms of information and knowledge acquisition, but also in terms of culture, civilization, and etiquettes. In antiquity, there was much literature written in Arabic expounding on the proper etiquettes of students and teachers. Such books are usually brief and serve either as admonitions for derelict students and scholars or guidebooks for novice pupils and rising teachers. They often describe a culture that existed in Islamic learning environments throughout history, but are now only maintained in a minority of institutions that value and seek to uphold traditional Islamic methods of teaching and learning, which is often characterized by oral transmission and memorization of texts in addition to an ascetic lifestyle focused on study and worship.
In some Arab Muslim societies, thinkers and educators have devoted much time to increasing their publics’ awareness of Islam beyond the absorption they will naturally acquire by virtue of living in Muslim families, communities, and societies. In these places, it has become abundantly clear that neither heredity or association, or even being native speakers of Arabic makes them sufficiently knowledgeable about Islam. This has caused many in this part of the world to think about how to make their citizens more literate in foundational matters of the religion. Consequently, countries such as Syria, Kuwait, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia have established courses in Islamic literacy (or culture, as it can be defined) in institutions of higher learning.[ii]
Presently, the term al-thaqafa al-Islamiyya has emerged in popular usage by authors and educators at Islamic-themed schools throughout the Arab world as an effort to re-introduce their youth to their Arabic-Islamic heritage. Its usage, however, is relatively recent, only emerging in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Despite the fact that many of these authors borrow each other’s ideas in explaining what al-thaqafa al-Islamiyya is, they have not yet formed a scholarly consensus on the exact definition of the term. Nevertheless, I have gathered and translated some of these attempted definitions, which define the concept as:
“Knowledge of the broader Islamic Community’s foundational elements by [examining] its past and present interplay with religion, language, history, civilization, values, and shared goals in a conscious and purposeful way.”[i]
“The collection of theoretical knowledge, information, and expertise, derived from the Qur’an and the Sunna, acquired by human beings who determine, in light of these sources, an individual’s thought and behavioral patterns in life.”[ii]
“The way of life lived by Muslims over their lifespan in accordance to Islam and its vision.”[iii]
“The collection of psychological, intellectual, ideological, moral, and behavioral attributes and characteristics by which the Islamic personality is distinguished [and is] acquired by knowledge of the general foundations of the Islamic Community, as well as the general foundations of the Islamic religion, [which are] derived from the Holy Qur’an, the authentic prophetic Sunna, and the intellectual efforts of scholars and thinkers, along with the reciprocal influences of the present reality.”[iv]
In these various definitions, we find some basic agreement that al-thaqafa as-Islamiyya encompasses the foundational elements of Islam, which are primarily derived from the Qur’an, Sunna, and other sources of information. Moreover, it reflects the issues of current times in some way. These issues are left abstract in the above definitions. However, were we to consider the stated imperatives of some of these authors, we would find a number of themes that dominate their contemporary discourse. Muhammad Musa al-Sharif enumerated eight themes in his book Al-Thaqafa al-Aamina:
The correct conception of life and the universe.
Increasing Muslims’ pride and confidence in Islam and to call others to it.
Familiarization with the correct Islamic position on important matters.
Guarding against uncertainties in the religion.
Resisting the influence of external cultures.
The role of Muslims in directing society.
Looking towards the future of the Islamic Community.
Acquiring balance and thoroughness in all aspects of life.[vi]
From a cursory glance at these themes, the reader might gather that writings on al-thaqafa al-Islamiyya comes from a place of anxiety over a future loss of an Islamic identity and culture and animosity against those perceived as aiding in its destruction. In many of these works, the West acts as the main antagonist in the story. Colonialism, neo-colonialism, Zionism, Western media, and their foreign policies in the Muslim world are all major topics of conversation discussed within these works. Westerners are sometimes mentioned in as much as they confirm certain stereotypes about the West or confirm the superiority of Muslim cultures. Conversely, they almost never mention anything about the growth of Islam in the West or Muslims’ unique placement in these societies and potential contributions to the global Muslim culture. This blaring omission along with the overall confrontational tone negates the usefulness of an Arab-Muslim understanding of al-thaqafa al-Islamiyya in the West where the attitudes and challenges are much different. In the next post, we will briefly examine how American Muslims have sought to address their set of challenges by developing their own concepts of Islamic literacy.
[i] “Al-akhdhu min kulli ‘ilmin bitaraf.” Al-Ashqar, Umar Sulayman. Nahw Thaqafa al-Islamiyya al-Aseela, Jordan: Dar al-Nafa’is, 2005, p. 18-20.
[ii] Al-Sharif, Muhamad Musa. Al-Thaqafa al-Aamina, Damascus: Dar Ibn Kathir, 2012, p. 26.
[i] Al-Mazid, Ahmad ibn Uthman, et al. Al-Madkhal ila al-Thaqafa al-Islamiyya, Saudi Arabia: Madar al-Watn li al-Nashr, 2012, p. 12.
[ii] Musallam, Mustafa and Fathi Muhammad al-Zaghbi. Al-Thaqafa al-Islamiyya: Ta’rifuha, Masadiruha, Majalatuha, Tahaddiyatuha, al-Ithra: 2007, p. 18.
[iii] Cited from the periodical Al-Jundi al-Muslim in Al-Thaqafa al-Aamina, p. 23.
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).
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…