I would like to return to my original thesis that was sparked by George G.M. James’ Stolen Legacy several years ago (see Islam and the Ancient Mysteries Part 1and Part 2). Although this thesis has undergone modifications since I began my research, the premise has remained the same. In the midst of this series I have found that the word Ṣābi’a is the general term in Arabic for the Ancient Mystery Schools, while theorizing that other terms such as Naṣārā and Chaldean refer to the leaders of temporal and geographic Mystery Schools. In the following post, I will summarize my theory and trace the genealogy of Sabian/Mystery School thought to this day.
Islam and the Revival of the Ancient Mysteries
The Sabians mentioned throughout classical Arabic literature are what the Greeks called the Mysteries. Like the Jews and Christians before them, the Muslims wrestled with the perceived harms and benefits of Sabian thought. On the one hand, the scriptures of the Abrahamic traditions were deeply critical of the theological distortions in Sabian doctrine. Abrahamic doctrines and rituals were in response to the beliefs and practices of the Sabians, which opened up the gates of polytheism among the unlearned laymen. On the other hand, the Sabians had benefited the world by their advances in other areas of human knowledge. The Abbasid Caliphate, like Eastern Christianity, came to terms with the knowledge produced by the Sabians. However, the Muslims strived not to take the road of the Christians, whose doctrine ultimately succumbed to the philosophical influences of the Sabians.
What we witness from the 9th to 11th century in the Islamic world with the codification of both traditional religious knowledge as well as the translation of ancient empirical and occult texts, is a race to retain knowledge of the Prophet Muhammad, while also reviving the knowledge of the Sabians (i.e. the Mystery Schools). The Islamic empire and its scholars sought to uphold the Abrahamic doctrine in the face of Sabian doctrine by calling people to Islam and granting protection (i.e. dhimmi status) to the People of the Book, i.e. Jews and Christians. At the same time, they were vehemently opposed to the polytheistic elements of Sabian thought.
As such, the Muslims had revived the Mystery Schools under the Abrahamic creed of Islam. This, however, was not without its conflicts. As certain groups of Muslims had the tendency to slip back into the beliefs of the Sabians, such as:
The Khawārij, who embraced the Stoic (Mystery School) concept of perfection and sinlessness as a sign of righteousness.
The Muʿtazilites would later stress the primacy of reason over revelation, which placed the philosopher sage on level with and sometimes over the prophets and rekindle the notion that human beings attain prophethood through their own efforts and merits rather than the grace and ordinance of God.
Al-Ghazālī’s criticism of the Muslim philosophers (primarily Ibn Sīnā) in his Incoherence of the Philosophers, identifies certain ancient beliefs held by these philosophers, which he believes led them to apostasy. This, while maintaining the utility of ancient Sabian empirical knowledge.
Ibn Rushd (Averroes) would later take issue with al-Ghazālī’s conclusions, claiming that the “craft of ḥikma” (wisdom/ancient knowledge) needed to be passed down like any other craft.
Ibn Rushd’s defense of Sabian philosophy would be rejected or ignored by the greater Muslim world, but the means by which Sabian knowledge would gain interest and popularity in Western Europe.
Modern Day Mysteries
In the last few centuries, Western civilization has become the battleground between Abrahamic and Sabian thought since the so-called European Renaissance. As such, Renè Guenon considered the beginning of the West’s decline to be Renè Descartes’ hyper-skepticism. Even as the West was philosophizing itself out of the Abrahamic tradition, it was making a dash for Eastern empirical and esoteric knowledge, which they harbored in their secret societies. This would lead to the separation of religion from science, politics, sociology, and the many other sciences needed for human civilization.
In the 20th century, Western philosophy and esotericism trickled down to the populace by way of clandestine organizations, theosophy, and counterculture movements. In no place were these ideas more prevalent than in the United States. As a result, we witness Sabian thought proliferate in the society everyday. More specifically, Sabian thought has entered African American communities through such groups as the Moorish Science Temple, the Nation of Islam, the Five Percenters, Nuwaubians, and Afrocentrists. All of these groups have explicitly or implicitly embraced the erroneous notion that they can reconstruct the Mystery Schools. I understand that this is a bold claim, but I will show the parallels between their theosophies and ancient Sabian thought. I will argue that they based their movements on incomplete knowledge of the ancient Mysteries because they did not received their knowledge through an unbroken chain of living teachers. This knowledge of the Mysteries/Sabians has been filtered by the Abrahamic faiths, primarily Islam in the current day, and cannot be accessed except through these traditional channels.
On Apr 19, 2022, a livestream debate between the Baltimore-based Moorish Science Temple representative, Taharka Bey, and the D.C. area-based Sunni Muslim, Tariq Ibn Jamil, was posted to the Moorish World Tv YouTube channel. The stated topic was “Can the Qur’an be translated?” With Tariq arguing the affirmative and Taharka arguing the negative. I find in this debate many teachable moments in terms of Islamic literacy, linguistics, the rules of engagement with regards to intellectual debate, and simple logic.
After hearing both sides of the core debate (there are many tangential debates), I will have to say that Taharka Bey is the victor for reasons that I will explore in this post.
Taharka Bey’s Argument
Taharka’s presentation of his position was stronger due to some key strategies that are align with sound scholarship and argumentation, which I will enumerate below. I will also point out flaws in his argument and gaps in his knowledge.
1) He argued the majority opinion.
The common position of Muslims is that the Qur’an is inimitable and it cannot be precisely translated, only explained through the lens of a combination of auxiliary sciences, not the least of which is Arabic linguistics. Arguing the majority opinion has its benefits in a debate. It makes supporting evidence easier to access and counterarguments easier to make because predecessors have already done the work.
2) He had a logical sequence.
Taharka has a clear logic. He begins by stating his premise, which is that in the “Common Tradition:”
Any translation of the Quran will be termed inauthentic if it goes against the established hadith (sayings and actions) of the Prophet and against the understandings of the companions of the Prophet.
According to the epistemology of Black Orientalists, transmitted reports are not valid evidence of a fact, which is diametrically opposed to the underlying epistemology of hadith science. Orientalists often use this as the first mode of attack, because in the modern age, oral transmissions are no longer perceived as valid. They prefer written evidence and documentation.
He uses this premise to make a number of points, before moving on to his next point:
In order to extrapolate the meaning of a particular Quranic verse, Muslims rely on exegesis, or commentary rather than a direct translation of the text.
He then makes a distinction between exegesis/commentary and translation. For instance, he takes a number of different English translations of a verse that uses the word taqwā to demonstrate that the various translators are making an exegesis of the word, because there is no direct equivalent in English.
2) He used substantial evidence that was relevant to the argument he was attempting to make.
Taharka’s used a mixture of primary and secondary source evidence. The examples of Qur’anic words without easy English equivalents were clear and plentiful (primary). Then he used statements from experts on the subject to back up his point (secondary). Taharka even cited an academic journal article, whose main author was a Libyan linguist who looks like an African American. The article can be found here: http://www.ijssh.net/papers/178-A10061.pdf.
He made a good point when he said that knowledge of linguistics is a prerequisite for translation (1:01:00). Unfortunately, not all translators have this background. Reading knowledge of a language alone does not always suffice for translation. Linguistics often gives the translator a bird’s eye view of how the two different languages function.
For more reading on this topic, you might want to read Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qurʹān by the Japanese scholar Toshihiko Izutsu. He was not a Muslim, but his work is respected in the Muslim world due to his ontological approach to Qur’anic ethical terminology.
Critiques of Taharka Bey
1) He began his argument on a faulty premise.
Taharka’s first premise, whose source he begged the audience not to ask about, though logical, is faulty because it is simply not true. While hadith and the understandings of the companions can contribute to the understanding of the Qur’an, they are not the primary determinants of a valid translation. For instance, the Shi’ah have different standards of hadith and do not accept the understandings of all the companions, but this does not render their translations of the Qur’an invalid. What renders a translation invalid is if it is not consistent with the original language and apparent meaning of the Qur’an.
However, I understand that the epistemology of Western Orientalism (in this case Black Orientalism) does not accept orally transmitted reports as valid evidence of a fact. Although this was the epistemology of the ancient world. They often claim to prefer written reports (“receipts” if you will). However, they do not acknowledge that they too accept oral transmission of information, as evidenced by the fact that they are engaging in a live oral debate rather than an exchange of written publications.
Also, when Tariq was showing a number of books to say that a translator needed to study a number of subjects to produce a translation, I noticed a few comments in the chat:
Showing off books is a weird way to prove a point. You should be able to recite and orate the contents of the books without referencing them. This guy only knows how to recite stories
ALL BOOKS ARE MAN MADE AND CAN BE TRANSLATED BY MAN WOMAN AND CHILD
Black Orientalists still have reservations about the written word despite their rhetoric about wanting “receipts” and written documents.
2) He relied on a few straw man arguments.
A straw man argument is a fallacy many debaters fall into when constructing arguments agains their opponents. Taharka’s first premise was a prime example of this. It was as if he propped up a dummy to beat up on to show that he is tough. Of course, we know dummies don’t hit back.
He also used a straw man argument on his point about the translation of the term maqām as “shrine” in surat al-Baqarah: 125. He used the most strict (Salafi) interpretation of Muhsin Khan’s Noble Qur’an to establish that the word “shrine” is a mistranslation. Khan translates it as “stone on which Ibrāhim (Abraham) stood.” However, this is an argument over semantics and what people understand when they hear a word in a particular language. It is possible that “shrine” is the most appropriate equivalence for the word maqām as understood by Arabic speakers. But the issue is that Taharka assumes that Muhsin Khan has the correct opinion with regard to Muslims creating shrines (which in the context of the verse is an anachronism because it is referring to Abraham, who predates historical Islam). This causes Taharka not to question Muhsin Khan’s word choice, which might be influenced by his Salafi ideology, or his understanding of the word shrine, which some English speakers might associate with pagan worship.
To further drive home my point, he used the example of the word kāfir to say that words have “implied meaning” (as do all words in any language) and an exegesis is needed to reveal its connotations (1:00:00). I would argue that the English language has a single equivalent to the word kāfir in the word “infidel.” The root k-f-r (ك – ف – ر) has a connotation to ingratitude, betrayal, and infidelity as evidenced in other the Qur’anic verses (see surat al-Isrā: 27 and surat Ibrāhīm: 7). However, modern translators avoid the word “infidel” because they are aware that it carries negative connotations in the English-speaking world, even though it might be loyal to the Arabic meaning (no pun intended). The avoidance of the term demonstrates my point about semantics, mental associations, and ideology.
3) He differentiated between exegesis (commentary) and translation.
This point is a matter of personal opinion, but one that is backed up by some scholars of translation theory. I believe that translation is a type of commentary. A translation should not simply be reduced to an exchange of words in one language to another. A translator looks at more than just the lexical meanings of words. A good translator is looking at the overall effect of the work. While I understand the distinction Taharka is trying to make, I simply do not agree.
Tariq ibn Jamil’s Argument
As for our friend, Tariq, there are a few reasons as to why he lost the debate.
1) His presentation was not compelling.
Quite frankly, I think he bored the listeners because his points were not easy to follow. He was also very cerebral and soft-spoken. Furthermore, he interspersed his speech with too much Arabic terminology and quotations of Arabic passages. This shows a disregard for his audience, who primarily do not speak Arabic.
Moreover, his approach resembled that of a traditional Muslim scholar rather than a “hotep” debate. In these types of venues, a Muslim cannot appear to be too academic, because in the minds of the audience he will be acting “too white.” Likewise, if his approach is too “traditionally Muslim,” then he would be deemed “too Arab.” These are unfortunate facts.
2) He attempted to argue a minority opinion.
Those who argue a minority or unpopular opinion have an uphill battle. Not only are they less likely to have a wealth of supporting evidence, but their arguments and primary sources must be overwhelmingly convincing.
Tariq presented his argument in the form of a rare narrative gathered from an uncited Sunni tradition. His focus was on a translation of the Qur’an officiated by Salmān al-Farsī. By this, he demonstrated that it “can” be translated and it “was,” but his evidence was not strong enough to show that his translation was a complete or quality translation.
First of all, the story of Salmān al-Farsī’s translation of the Qur’an into Persian is not common knowledge, even among Muslims. So he has the added task of proving the existence of this translation. Otherwise, the listener will need to take his word for it. But even if he could produce this early Persian translation of the Qur’an (which I do not believe is extant), his audience would not have the tools to determine its accuracy, because the majority of the audience does not read Persian or Arabic.
Although I would not have taken his approach, Tariq could have emphasized more the fact that Salmān al-Farsī was not an Arab, but a Persian; although most Americans probably cannot differentiate between the two. A historical approach does not usually hold up in a debate unless it is backed up with a clear purpose and sound logic.
3) He entered a lot of unclear and irrelevant information.
The many details of Salmān al-Farsī’s story, the showing of books, and preachy statements were not relevant to his argument.Therefore, he lost momentum and wasted a lot of time speaking on the contours of his argument but making very few points.
Additionally, I don’t think the points he did make were clear to the audience. He could have devoted more time to discussing how vital the various subjects he mentioned in the books he displayed were to translating the Qur’an. Yet, he should have had a better selection of books because those that he presented were mostly not pivotal works in the fields he was referring to. However, the true scope of these fields would have required much more than 30 minutes.
Finally, there was also a woman (I’m assuming) named, Amutalha Abdul Rahman, who sought to aid Tariq’s argument, but it was not coherent. What I understood from it was that the Tafsir of Ibn Kathīr (mistakenly wrote Ibn Khair) had an AEU seal of authenticity. These things needed to be explained exactly how it contributes to the argument.
As we can clearly see, there is a lot to learn from this debate. However, one thing lingered in my mind throughout. Why were they debating such a pointless topic? The answer to the debaters’ central question: Can the Qur’an be translated? is an emphatic yes. There have been multiple attempts at translating the Qur’an in various languages. Each attempt could be placed on a scale of subjectivity to just how loyal the translation is to the Arabic original. However, they could have asked a better question.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.