Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools (Part 4)

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

Islam and the Ancient Mysteries (Part 1)

Is there a relationship between Islam and the mystery schools of the ancient world? This sounds like a strange comparison for someone who is only familiar with Freemasonry or for someone only familiar with the teachings of Islam. Yet, a close, open-minded reading of Freemasonic texts combined with a strong background in Islamic teachings and history will reveal a number of similarities between what is called the “Ancient Mysteries” and Islam as we know it.

I became aware of this relationship in my high school years when I read a book entitled, Stolen Legacy: Greek Philosophy is Stolen Egyptian Philosophy, by George G. M. James, originally published in 1954. It stands as one of the pivotal works of African-centered studies of history. The author does not use the word Islam at all throughout the whole book, but he alludes to it in a section entitled, “How the African Continent gave its culture to the Western World,” where he states:

During the Persian, Greek and Roman invasions, large numbers of Egyptians fled not only to the desert and mountain regions, but also to adjacent lands in Africa, Arabia and Asia Minor, where they lived, and secretly developed the teachings which belonged to their mystery system. In the 8th century A.D. the Moors, i.e., natives of Mauritania in North Africa, invaded Spain and took with them, the Egyptian culture which they had preserved. Knowledge in the ancient days was centralized i.e., it belonged to a common parent and system, i.e., the Wisdom Teaching or Mysteries of Egypt, which the Greeks used to call Sophia. (p. 32)

This passage prompted me to study Islam more seriously and to look at it from this historical perspective. Over the years, I would make mental notes of information I came across in the Islamic canon alluding to the idea of the Ancient Mysteries. However, before I can discuss the Islamic sources and my interpretation of them, I must clarify exactly what the Ancient Mysteries are…

What were the Ancient Mysteries?

Also known as the Ancient Mystery Schools, this name is used by Freemasons, esotericists, and privy Afrocentrics to describe the catholic (i.e. universal) religion of the ancient world. More specifically, it refers to the initiatic organization that taught and preserved religious teachings, the physical sciences, legislation, and the liberal arts among other things. James gives a concise description of the Ancient Mystery Schools:

The ancient Egyptians had developed a very complex religious system, called the Mysteries, which was also the first system of salvation. As such, it regarded the human body as a prison house of the soul, which could be liberated from its bodily impediments, through the disciplines of the Arts and Sciences, and advanced from the level of a mortal to that of a God. This was the notion of the summum bonum or greatest good, to which all men must aspire, and it also became the basis of all ethical concepts. The Egyptian Mystery System was also a Secret Order, and membership was gained by initiation and a pledge to secrecy. The teaching was graded and delivered orally to the Neophyte; and under these circumstances of secrecy, the Egyptians developed secret systems of writing and teaching, and forbade their Initiates from writing what they had learnt. (p. 7)

Given my description and James’ statement above you might ask…

How can a universal religion be secret?

First, it should be remembered that these schools were called “mysteries” because the primordial religion of mankind had no name by which it was referred. True adherents to the religion recognized it in others by their moral rectitude, erudition in the arts and sciences, as well as their keen knowledge of the narratives and symbols that were shared between all the religious orders of that time.

Secondly, the notion of mystery and secrecy was used strategically. According to Albert Pike in his book, Morals and Dogma, secrecy was used to excite curiosity and to stir the emotions of those who might witness the passion plays of initiation. Likewise, they saw the spirit of mystery as coming from God Himself, Who reveals Himself to the human heart in a manner that is unspoken (p. 255).

Furthermore, the true interpretations of the symbols, myths, and allegories were maintained by a scholarly/priest class who were not at liberty to share them with people who were not prepared to receive them. This took spiritual purity, which was only gained through the long and painful process of initiation. Only through this process, could other scholars and priests know that an initiate was prepared, strong, and trustworthy enough to uphold the doctrine, teach it accurately, and shield it and himself from corruption.

Exclusivity in the scholarly/priest class maintained the chains of authorities within these schools and thus maintained the purity and accuracy of its doctrines and practices. As James alludes to later in his book, it was the Greeks who learned from the Egyptians who broke this oath and consequently posited incomplete knowledge, which led to inaccuracies and misunderstandings of the original doctrines and practices.

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In future posts, I will demonstrate how Islam is tied to the Ancient Mysteries, historically and doctrinally. I will discuss some of the characteristics of the Mysteries, their decline in the ancient world, and their remnants in Arabia prior to Islam. Then I will take a brief look at early Islamic history to ask some important questions that might link the burgeoning Islamic civilization to the Ancient Mysteries as hinted to by James.