Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools (Part 11)

If we cede that the primordial religion was a comprehensive spiritual and intellectual tradition resembling what we know as the Ancient Mystery Schools, then we should be able to map them to a single origin, whose name and appearance differed throughout time and space, but whose essence remained the same.To better illustrate the relationship between the major religions of the Near East and the Ancient Mystery Schools see the graphic below. Following that, I will provide a brief description of each of these names for Near Eastern religions with the aims of illuminating the similarities and differences.

The various forms of Near Eastern Mystery Schools


The priests of the Mystery Schools in Prophet Ibrahim’s day were referred to as the Chaldeans. This is the Latinized form of the Semitic term, Kasdīm. Seated in ancient Iraq, they were known for their knowledge of astrology and worshipful reverence of the stars. When they went astray, Ibrahim was sent to rectify their religion. Those that followed him were known as Ḥanīfs. The Muslim polymath, al-Fārābī believed that the Chaldeans were the first to harvest the “wisdom teachings,” which they transmitted to the Egyptians, who transmitted them to the Greeks, who transmitted them to the Syrians (i.e. Naṣārā), who ultimately transmitted them to the Arab Muslims (43).


The leaders of the Mystery Schools of Egypt and the lands that fell under their rule were known as Sabians (Ṣābi’a). This is attested to in Mandaean sources as well as in hieroglyphics. Dr. Nadim al-Sayyar found in a papyrus scroll that the word for knowledge was ṣabāwi (صباوٍ), which is derived from the word ṣabā, which means guidance in the ancient Egyptian language. Moreover, another derivative of this root is the word for teachings, ṣabāyat, which also indicates a scripture or a message (Sayyār, 1995, 274-5). He also demonstrates that this root carried connotations to the stars (Sayyār, 2020, 142).

How this Egyptian term entered the Arabic lexicon is a matter of speculation, but it suffices us to say that historians writing in Arabic after the advent of Islam used the term to refer to the unreformed Mystery Schools and the antithesis to Ḥanīf. This is attested to by the Andalusian Jewish scholar, Maimonides in his Guide For the Perplexed, Ṣa’id al-Andalusī’s Biographies of the Nations, and Muhammad al-Shahrastānī’s Sects and Creeds.


Though the term Ḥanīf referred to Ibrahim and his followers who taught an unwavering monotheism and deference to human prophets as opposed to the angels, the term was inverted by many Semitic languages and religions. Other groups took it to mean pagan among other things discussed in Part 10 of this series. The Arabic of the Qur’an corrected this understanding and freed Ibrahim of any allegations of polytheism (as discussed in Part 9).

In later Arabic writings, the term Ḥanīf could be understood as the reformed versions of the Mystery Schools guided by the prophets as opposed to the Sabians, who represented the unreformed versions. While Muslim jurists, theologians, and historians acknowledged that Sabian beliefs had a foundation in monotheism, they also invented ideas that misled the masses into polytheism. Therefore, later religions would lie on the continuum between Sabian, a kind of proto-polytheism, and Ḥanīf, an orthodox monotheism.


It is my understanding that the Bani Isra’il (the Children of Israel) represented the Ḥanīf opposition to Egyptian, Chaldean, and Arabian Sabianism, as expounded by Maimonides. The Yahūd, on the other hand, are frequently spoken of negatively in the Qur’an, in contrast to Bānī Isrā’īl. Thus it is plausible that the Yahūd were those Jewish priests who relapsed into the practices and beliefs of the Sabians, particularly those of Northern Arabia where the kingdoms of Israel and Judah (perhaps a cognate to the Arabic word, Yahūd) were located. As we know, the Kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Assyrians and fell under the influence of the Chaldeans of their day.

One should note that the Mandaean Sabians believed themselves to have once been of the Jews, who were called Yahutai in Aramaic. However, they were from the faction who doubted the immaculate conception of Miriam (Buckley, 4), meaning they contributed to the distortion of the revealed doctrine. It should also be noted that Madaeans see the ancient Yahutai (i.e. Yahūd) and the Chaldeans (their spiritual predecessors) as one and the same. This can account for the Qur’an’s repeated critique of the Yahūd and other Sabian-style beliefs. A deeper look into the language of the Qur’an will reveal that most of their mentions in the Qur’an refer to them as “those who claim to be Jews” (الذين هادوا) revealing that God is casting doubt on their claims.


The Greek Philosophers, though not mentioned directly in the Qur’an, are generally known as Sabians among Muslim scholars. Ibn Taymīya, for instance, stated as such in his Al-Radd ʿalā al-Shādhulī. He believed that the philosophers were originally rightly guided (al-Ṣābi’a al-Ḥunafā’), just as the Yahūd and Naṣārā were originally rightly guided. However, only those among them who did not contradict the prophets remained guided (Ibn Taymīya, 136-7). We should also note that the Greek philosophers are also most commonly associated with the Mystery Schools. The likes of Pythagoras, Socrates, and Zeno were all associated with versions of the Mysteries, although there were philosophers also not associated with a particular Mystery school.


As discussed in Part 10 of this series, the Naṣārā were most likely the Nasoraeans, a Neo-Platonic priestly class that became infused with the prophetic lineage (i.e. Ḥanīf) following the advent of Īsā. They were apparently Judeo-Christian in their beliefs and practice, but they retained a philosophical element inherited from the Sabians that influenced their approach to the prophetic tradition. As such, God in the Qur’an rebukes those beliefs that came from the Sabians such as the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and his sonship of God, while affirming the Ḥanīfs among them as Ahl al-Kitāb (People of the Book). The concepts of the Trinity, divination of man, and pantheism are all recurring themes in Sabianism and the ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman mysteries.


As for the Majūs, they are only mentioned once in the Qur’an among those who claim to be Jews, Sabians, and Naṣārā. They were the priestly class of the Zoroastrians, the Persian Mystery Schools. Medieval European Biblical scholars referred to Zoroastrians as Eastern Chaldeans and Sabians (Elukin, 624).

The Abbasid court astrologer, Abū Sahl ibn Nawbakht, gives a testimony to the Persian Mysteries in Ibn al-Nadīm’s al-Fihrist. According to Abū Sahl, Hermes taught the “wisdom teachings” to the people of Babylon, which included present-day Iran, then he traveled to Egypt to teach to them. The knowledge taught by Hermes remained in Persia uninterrupted until the invasion of Alexander, in which he killed the leader Dara II, defaced the inscriptions on their buildings, and looted all their manuscripts. Alexander then took these works on medicine, astronomy, etc. and had them translated into Greek and Coptic, then burned the Persian originals. Following this catastrophe, the Persian kings began the process of reconstructing their knowledge by acquiring manuscripts from the peripheries of the Persian Empire like those of India and China and re-establishing their chains of transmission in Persia. This project persisted into the Muslim conquest of Persia and was continued until the height of the Abbasid empire (Ibn al-Nadīm, 333-4).


Now that we have provided a synopsis for each of these terms, we see that the common denominator is that these terms primarily referred to the learned class within their respective traditions, whose nomenclature varied depending on the locale and time period. Secondly, these traditions all had similar trajectories. For instance, they all excelled at the empirical and occult sciences, especially astrology. However, the standard for measuring the veracity of a tradition was how close it conformed to the Ḥanīf system, which was championed by the prophets, as opposed to the Sabian system, championed by the polytheists (i.e. Mushrikūn). Finally, many exegetes of the Qur’an interpreted al-Baqara: 62 and its cognate verses to mean: Whosoever affirms a belief in God as taught by the Prophet Muhammad among the Yahūd, Sabians, Naṣārā, and Majūs will not be treated unjustly by God in the end. An unraveling of this nomenclature and their respective beliefs has relevance for 21st century America. As many individuals, young and old, gravitate to expressions of Sabianism in one form or another, it is necessary to know where these ideas came from and the pre-modern debates that ensued around them. I will touch on these discussions in subsequent posts.


Buckley, Jorunn Jacobsen. The Mandaeans: Ancient Texts and Modern People. Oxford University Press, 2002.

Elukin, Jonathan. “Maimonides and the Rise and Fall of the Sabians: Explaining Mosaic Laws and the Limits of Scholarship.” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 63, no. 4, 2002, pp. 619–37. JSTOR

Farabi al-. Al-Farabi’s Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. Translated by Muhsin Mahdi, Free Press of Glencoe, 1962.

Ibn Nadīm, Abū al-Faraj Muḥammad ibn Isḥaq. Al-Fihrist. Dar al-Ma’rifah, 937.

Ibn Taymiyya, Taqī al-Dīn Abū’l-’Abbās Aḥmad, and ʿAlī Muhammad ʿUmrān. Al-Radd ʿalā al-Shādhulī Fī Ḥizbayhi Wa Mā Ṣannafahu Fī Ādāb al-Ṭarīq. Dār ʿĀlam al-Fawā’id, 2008.

Sayyār, Nadīm al-. Qudamāʼ Al-Misṛīyīn Awwal al-Muwahḥịdīn. 2nd ed., 1995.

Sayyār, Nadīm al-. Laysū Āliha Wa Lākin Malā’ika. 2020.

Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools (Part 11) The Maurchives

  1. Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools (Part 11)
  2. Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools (Part 10)
  3. The Metaphysics of “I Can’t Breathe”
  4. Oral History of Muslims in North Carolina Prior to 1980
  5. Soul On Ice Cube

The Free National Name of the Copts

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

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

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

Arabization in Egypt

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

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

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

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

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

Coptic monks in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Accessed from:

Lessons for America

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

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

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