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 Egyptian Mystery Schools: The Works of Dr. Nadim al-Sayyar

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

Egyptian Ancestry

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.

Arab Muslims?

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.

Laysū ʾĀlihah wa Lākin Malāʾikah (Not Gods, But Angels) published in 2003.
Chapter 1: Egypt and the Prophets,
Chapter 2: The Myth of Multiple Gods,
Chapter 3: The Myth of Worshiping the Neter,
Chapter 4: The Myth of Worshiping the Pharaohs,
Chapter 5: God in the Beliefs of the Ancient Egyptians

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.