Love for the Prophet Muhammad is an indisputable cornerstone of the Islamic faith, but the celebration of the Prophet’s birth has in modern times surfaced as a matter of contention. Despite its long-standing and widespread tradition, modern detractors have insisted that it is a blameworthy invention within the religion because it was not observed during the lifetime of the Prophet or his immediate predecessors. Others see it as an odd parallel to Christmas and a segue to the excesses of the Christians in their love for Jesus. While I will leave the legal debates to the experts, I seek to offer an additional perspective on the Mawlid. Given what we know of Sabian views on prophets and angels, there is more wisdom to celebrating the advent of the prophet than we may think.
Angels vs. Prophets
As mentioned in previous posts, one of the core disagreements between the Sabians and Hanifs according to Muhammad al-Shahrastani was the issue of prophecy and prophethood. The Sabians glorified the angels and deemed them superior to human prophets, because they are sinless and pure. To them, man is tainted both physically and spiritually because he is subject to carnal desires and temptations that distract his worship of God. The Hanifs, on the other hand, exalted the human prophets as God’s chosen guides to mankind. They believed that human beings who have overcome their desires and temptations through the grace of God, such as prophets, have more merit. They contend that angels have no choice but to worship God at all times and there is no merit in compulsion (Shahrastānī and Muhammad, 1993, 16-22).
By no means did these debates end in pre-Islamic times. Rather, they ensued well into Abbasid-era Islamic scholarly discourse and beyond. Ibn Rawandi, a Mu’tazilite scholar turned skeptic, was in conversation with a Sabian group called the Brahmins concerning the role of the intellect in religion. This group argued that the intellect was a sufficient alternative to revelation. They figured that even if the prophets brought teachings that were compatible with the intellect, the prophet would be superfluous because humans were already endowed with intellect. Likewise, they reasoned that sanctuaries in Mecca like the Kaʿba, Black Stone, Ṣafā, and Marwa, etc. were no different from other places in the world. So it made no sense to perform rituals at these sites to the exclusion of others and this was thus opposed to the intellect. Similarly, they deemed the prophets no different from other men even if they could predict future events. This is because they could determine the future by the stars and are thus in no need of prophets (Lawrence, 1976, 80).
The 15th century Egyptian scholar, Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī wrote a book on Islamic angelology titled, Al-Ḥabā’ik fī Akhbār al-Malā’ik (The Arrangement Concerning the Traditions of the Angels), in which he collected the opinions of various Muslim scholars concerning the merits of angels versus human prophets. In a section, not featured in its English translation, he enumerates the various opinions of Muslim scholars on the preference of human prophets or angels. In summary, he states that there were three main positions:
1) the prophets are greater than the angels. This is the majority opinion for Sunnis and Shi’as.
2) the angels are greater than the prophets. This is the position of the Muʿtazilites, but there are some Sunni scholars who hold this opinion.
3) that there is no comparison; except that all are agreed that the Prophet Muhammad is the best of creation. (Suyūṭī, 1988, 203)
We find here, that the Muʿtazilites inherited the positions of the Sabian philosophers with regards to the angels and prophets. It is therefore the reemergence of Sabian thought within the Islamic umma that seeks to belittle the prophets to the level of ordinary men, rather than guides and examples who should be followed and celebrated. It is the core Hanif strain within Islam that opposes this diminution of the prophets and exalts their status and benefits for all of mankind.
Lawrence, Bruce B. Shahrastani on the Indian Religions. De Gruyter, 1976.
Shahrastānī, Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Karīm al-, and Ahmad Fahmi Muhammad. Al-Milal Wa al-Niḥal. 2nd ed., Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmīyyah, 1992.
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.