Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools ( Part 9)

In the year 377 AH/987 CE, at the heart of the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, a bookseller and lover of the Prophet Muhammad’s family by the name of Ibn al-Nadīm published a catalog of books that were in circulation throughout the Islamic-controlled world at the time. Al-Fihrist (The Catalog), as it was called, went beyond simply listing books and their authors, it also included a survey of scholarship in all fields of knowledge, pivotal scholars, and often times excerpts from works that may or may not be extant today. Through his work we can deduce that Muslims throughout the Ummayad period and well into the Abbasid period primarily studied the works of the ancients prior to the codification of the transmitted Islamic sciences. Al-Fihrist is cited by Islamic and western scholars alike for its information on ancient people and their knowledge. In fact, he transmits a few interesting takes on Sabianism. I will present two in this post. Then I will show how the two different narratives bring us closer to understanding the differences between the Sabians and the Ḥanīfs.

Al-Kindī’s View of Sabianism:

Al-Kindī was considered the first Arab philosopher, who took knowledge from the ancient Sabians. His student, Ahmad ibn al-Ṭayyib, recorded his description of the Sabians, which is related in al-Fihrist. To him, the Sabians were a monotheistic people who believed in a transcendent deity who was unlike His creation in every way. He selected purified individuals to be guides to people, such as Arānī, Aghāthādhīmīn, and Hirmīs (Heron, Agathodaemon, and Hermes Trismegistus), and some even included Solon, one of the grandparents of Plato. They prayed three times a day with ablution facing the North Star. They shunned people who were missing body parts or suffered from contagious diseases like leprosy. They did not eat pork and avoided some other types of meat and vegetables. (Ibn al-Nadīm, Al-Fihrist, 442-4)

Abū Saʿīd Wahb ibn Ibn Ibrāhīm

Abū Saʿīd was a Christian writer and the Christians were usually no friends of the Sabians. With this caveat, his depiction of the Sabians was completely different from al-Kindī’s. It gives a detailed account of monthly rituals, which include animal and human sacrifices to “gods, jinns, devils, and spirits.” In the month of August (Āb), they made wine to their gods and sacrificed a newborn child. They ground its flesh into powder and baked it into small disks. They then distributed these disks to all sane free male onlookers. In addition, Abū Saʿīd gives the Sabian names for the days of the week as corresponding with celestial deities, not unlike the origins of the day names used in European Romance languages (Ibn Nadīm, Al-Fihrist, 447-8).

Ethan Doyle White. Scroll of Abathur. 18th century, Bodleian Library.

One Eye, Two Heads: Alternating the Narratives

These two characterizations of Sabians put forth by Ibn al-Nadīm from his sources are starkly contrast. Al-Kindī depicts them as a monotheistic, gnostic, proto-Islamic group, while Abū Saʿīd depicts them as a heathenistic, pagan cult. Which characterization is correct?

I believe them both to be correct characterizations of two different Sabian factions. The former was known as Ḥanīfs and the latter retained the name of Sabian. If we look into the Qur’an, we will find 12 instances of the word Ḥanīf (plural Ḥunafā‘), most of them in reference to the Prophet Abraham (Ibrāhīm). These references contrast him to the mushrikūn (polytheists). Take Surat al-Naḥl: 120 for instance, which can be translated as: Indeed Abraham was an ummah, obedient to God as a Ḥanīf, and he was not of the polytheists. It appears to be common knowledge by anyone reading or hearing the words of the Qur’an that Abraham was not a polytheist, so why is the elaboration needed?

Apparently, the Mandaeans (known to Arabs as the only extant Sabians) have an alternate narrative of the story of Abraham in which he was on his way to becoming a high priest (Nāṣūrā’ī – more on this term later) among the Chaldean Sabians of Babylon. However, they believe he came under the possession of an evil spirit named Yūrbā who over powered him to circumcise himself. As mentioned a in al-Fihrist, Sabians believed that missing any part of the body or illness rendered a person impure, and thus Abraham was no longer qualified to become a high priest. Instead, the Mandaeans claim that he became an outcast and he was followed by lepers, amputees, and other reprobates. He then, in the name of Yūrbā, attacked the peaceful Sabians of Babylon, forcibly circumcising the men (Samak, Al-Ṣābi’ūn, 42-43).

The Qur’an is obviously seeking to clarify a narrative that was once misunderstood and continues to be misunderstood. François de Blois, a linguist of Semitic and Iranian languages and historian of ancient Near Eastern religions, notes that the cognates to Ḥanīf in Syriac, Aramaic, Mandaic, and Hebrew, hn-p, all carry negative connotations like pagan, false god, hypocrite, and pollution (Blois, Naṣrānī and Ḥanīf, 19). It was only the Arabic of the Qur’an that converted it to a positive meaning. We have seen how a look into the Sabian narrative adds another dimension to our understanding of the word Ḥanīf as used in the Qur’an, as well as the lines of division in the Ancient Mystery Schools. Reading into this narrative can also do the same for the use of the word Naṣarā as we will see in future posts.


Blois, François de. “Naṣrānī (Ναζωραȋος) and Ḥanīf (Ἐθνικός): Studies on the Religious Vocabulary of Christianity and of Islam.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, vol. 65, no. 1, 2002, pp. 1–30.

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

Samak, ʿAbdullah ʿAlī. Al-Ṣābiʼūn. 1st ed., Maktabat al-Ādāb, 1995.

Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools (Part 6)

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.

Raphael Tuck & Sons, The Holy Land. Nazareth, Fountain of the Virgin, Post Card, 1903, The Newberry Library,

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.[1]

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.

[1] 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.

Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools (Part 5)

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.

Coptic writing on the tombs of Dayr al-Bahri.

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 InternationalYou 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.

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).


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 2)

Based on George G. M. James’ theory, I wish to examine the historical connections and pedagogical parallels between Islam and the Ancient Mysteries. Here, I will to put forth my hypothesis for the historical transformation of the Ancient Mysteries into Islamic scholarship:

  • What Afrocentric, Masonic, and occult sources call the Ancient Mystery Schools represent the primordial religion of mankind from which all religions, major and traditional, are derived.
  • The Mystery Schools were the institutions that resulted from the knowledge brought by prophets (or enlightened individuals) in each epoch. They consisted of a class of people dedicated to preserving and building upon that knowledge.
  • The Mystery Schools had a particular set of objectives, curriculum, and ways of preserving their teachings that made their students and teachers recognizable to one another in various regions across the ancient world.
  • The Mystery Schools had faced decline due to the changes instituted by the Greeks, internal confusion and corruption, the rise of Hellenized Christianity, and later the linking of the Church to the political entity of the Roman Empire, as well as its hostile position to other interpretations (which were expressions of the Mysteries) all served to replace their dominance in the world.
  • Political conflicts, the destruction of the Mystery Schools, and the interruption of knowledge transmission led to religious confusion, forced migration, and factionalism.
  • Some of these migrants and religious factions ended up on the Arabian Peninsula, where they were free to maintain their religious practices and beliefs away from the persecution and conflicts of one of the prevailing empires of the time. Among these religious factions were those known in Islamic sources as the Hanifs, who upheld the teachings of the Ancient Mystery Schools.
  • The pluralism of the Arabian society along with the presence of the Hanifs made it fertile ground for the coming of the Prophet Muhammad to usher in a new age, confirm the truth in people’s practice and beliefs and correct the falsehoods therein, and re-establish the chain of transmission of prophetic knowledge in the world.
  • The disciples of the Prophet Muhammad “opened” many of the areas through conquest that were once hubs of the Ancient Mystery Schools, which allowed for the re-establishment of the schools under the prophetic transmission of Muhammad.
  • Many of the objectives, curricula, and teaching and learning methods coincided with those of the Ancient Mystery Schools.
  • As the Islamic schools developed in different regions, scholars sought out the written works of ancient civilizations and a movement to translate them into Arabic quickly spread. Islamic scholars read, used, and critiqued the works of the ancients and passed their knowledge on to the contemporary world.