I would like to return to my original thesis that was sparked by George G.M. James’ Stolen Legacy several years ago (see Islam and the Ancient Mysteries Part 1and Part 2). Although this thesis has undergone modifications since I began my research, the premise has remained the same. In the midst of this series I have found that the word Ṣābi’a is the general term in Arabic for the Ancient Mystery Schools, while theorizing that other terms such as Naṣārā and Chaldean refer to the leaders of temporal and geographic Mystery Schools. In the following post, I will summarize my theory and trace the genealogy of Sabian/Mystery School thought to this day.
Islam and the Revival of the Ancient Mysteries
The Sabians mentioned throughout classical Arabic literature are what the Greeks called the Mysteries. Like the Jews and Christians before them, the Muslims wrestled with the perceived harms and benefits of Sabian thought. On the one hand, the scriptures of the Abrahamic traditions were deeply critical of the theological distortions in Sabian doctrine. Abrahamic doctrines and rituals were in response to the beliefs and practices of the Sabians, which opened up the gates of polytheism among the unlearned laymen. On the other hand, the Sabians had benefited the world by their advances in other areas of human knowledge. The Abbasid Caliphate, like Eastern Christianity, came to terms with the knowledge produced by the Sabians. However, the Muslims strived not to take the road of the Christians, whose doctrine ultimately succumbed to the philosophical influences of the Sabians.
What we witness from the 9th to 11th century in the Islamic world with the codification of both traditional religious knowledge as well as the translation of ancient empirical and occult texts, is a race to retain knowledge of the Prophet Muhammad, while also reviving the knowledge of the Sabians (i.e. the Mystery Schools). The Islamic empire and its scholars sought to uphold the Abrahamic doctrine in the face of Sabian doctrine by calling people to Islam and granting protection (i.e. dhimmi status) to the People of the Book, i.e. Jews and Christians. At the same time, they were vehemently opposed to the polytheistic elements of Sabian thought.
As such, the Muslims had revived the Mystery Schools under the Abrahamic creed of Islam. This, however, was not without its conflicts. As certain groups of Muslims had the tendency to slip back into the beliefs of the Sabians, such as:
The Khawārij, who embraced the Stoic (Mystery School) concept of perfection and sinlessness as a sign of righteousness.
The Muʿtazilites would later stress the primacy of reason over revelation, which placed the philosopher sage on level with and sometimes over the prophets and rekindle the notion that human beings attain prophethood through their own efforts and merits rather than the grace and ordinance of God.
Al-Ghazālī’s criticism of the Muslim philosophers (primarily Ibn Sīnā) in his Incoherence of the Philosophers, identifies certain ancient beliefs held by these philosophers, which he believes led them to apostasy. This, while maintaining the utility of ancient Sabian empirical knowledge.
Ibn Rushd (Averroes) would later take issue with al-Ghazālī’s conclusions, claiming that the “craft of ḥikma” (wisdom/ancient knowledge) needed to be passed down like any other craft.
Ibn Rushd’s defense of Sabian philosophy would be rejected or ignored by the greater Muslim world, but the means by which Sabian knowledge would gain interest and popularity in Western Europe.
Modern Day Mysteries
In the last few centuries, Western civilization has become the battleground between Abrahamic and Sabian thought since the so-called European Renaissance. As such, Renè Guenon considered the beginning of the West’s decline to be Renè Descartes’ hyper-skepticism. Even as the West was philosophizing itself out of the Abrahamic tradition, it was making a dash for Eastern empirical and esoteric knowledge, which they harbored in their secret societies. This would lead to the separation of religion from science, politics, sociology, and the many other sciences needed for human civilization.
In the 20th century, Western philosophy and esotericism trickled down to the populace by way of clandestine organizations, theosophy, and counterculture movements. In no place were these ideas more prevalent than in the United States. As a result, we witness Sabian thought proliferate in the society everyday. More specifically, Sabian thought has entered African American communities through such groups as the Moorish Science Temple, the Nation of Islam, the Five Percenters, Nuwaubians, and Afrocentrists. All of these groups have explicitly or implicitly embraced the erroneous notion that they can reconstruct the Mystery Schools. I understand that this is a bold claim, but I will show the parallels between their theosophies and ancient Sabian thought. I will argue that they based their movements on incomplete knowledge of the ancient Mysteries because they did not received their knowledge through an unbroken chain of living teachers. This knowledge of the Mysteries/Sabians has been filtered by the Abrahamic faiths, primarily Islam in the current day, and cannot be accessed except through these traditional channels.
On Apr 19, 2022, a livestream debate between the Baltimore-based Moorish Science Temple representative, Taharka Bey, and the D.C. area-based Sunni Muslim, Tariq Ibn Jamil, was posted to the Moorish World Tv YouTube channel. The stated topic was “Can the Qur’an be translated?” With Tariq arguing the affirmative and Taharka arguing the negative. I find in this debate many teachable moments in terms of Islamic literacy, linguistics, the rules of engagement with regards to intellectual debate, and simple logic.
After hearing both sides of the core debate (there are many tangential debates), I will have to say that Taharka Bey is the victor for reasons that I will explore in this post.
Taharka Bey’s Argument
Taharka’s presentation of his position was stronger due to some key strategies that are align with sound scholarship and argumentation, which I will enumerate below. I will also point out flaws in his argument and gaps in his knowledge.
1) He argued the majority opinion.
The common position of Muslims is that the Qur’an is inimitable and it cannot be precisely translated, only explained through the lens of a combination of auxiliary sciences, not the least of which is Arabic linguistics. Arguing the majority opinion has its benefits in a debate. It makes supporting evidence easier to access and counterarguments easier to make because predecessors have already done the work.
2) He had a logical sequence.
Taharka has a clear logic. He begins by stating his premise, which is that in the “Common Tradition:”
Any translation of the Quran will be termed inauthentic if it goes against the established hadith (sayings and actions) of the Prophet and against the understandings of the companions of the Prophet.
According to the epistemology of Black Orientalists, transmitted reports are not valid evidence of a fact, which is diametrically opposed to the underlying epistemology of hadith science. Orientalists often use this as the first mode of attack, because in the modern age, oral transmissions are no longer perceived as valid. They prefer written evidence and documentation.
He uses this premise to make a number of points, before moving on to his next point:
In order to extrapolate the meaning of a particular Quranic verse, Muslims rely on exegesis, or commentary rather than a direct translation of the text.
He then makes a distinction between exegesis/commentary and translation. For instance, he takes a number of different English translations of a verse that uses the word taqwā to demonstrate that the various translators are making an exegesis of the word, because there is no direct equivalent in English.
2) He used substantial evidence that was relevant to the argument he was attempting to make.
Taharka’s used a mixture of primary and secondary source evidence. The examples of Qur’anic words without easy English equivalents were clear and plentiful (primary). Then he used statements from experts on the subject to back up his point (secondary). Taharka even cited an academic journal article, whose main author was a Libyan linguist who looks like an African American. The article can be found here: http://www.ijssh.net/papers/178-A10061.pdf.
He made a good point when he said that knowledge of linguistics is a prerequisite for translation (1:01:00). Unfortunately, not all translators have this background. Reading knowledge of a language alone does not always suffice for translation. Linguistics often gives the translator a bird’s eye view of how the two different languages function.
For more reading on this topic, you might want to read Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qurʹān by the Japanese scholar Toshihiko Izutsu. He was not a Muslim, but his work is respected in the Muslim world due to his ontological approach to Qur’anic ethical terminology.
Critiques of Taharka Bey
1) He began his argument on a faulty premise.
Taharka’s first premise, whose source he begged the audience not to ask about, though logical, is faulty because it is simply not true. While hadith and the understandings of the companions can contribute to the understanding of the Qur’an, they are not the primary determinants of a valid translation. For instance, the Shi’ah have different standards of hadith and do not accept the understandings of all the companions, but this does not render their translations of the Qur’an invalid. What renders a translation invalid is if it is not consistent with the original language and apparent meaning of the Qur’an.
However, I understand that the epistemology of Western Orientalism (in this case Black Orientalism) does not accept orally transmitted reports as valid evidence of a fact. Although this was the epistemology of the ancient world. They often claim to prefer written reports (“receipts” if you will). However, they do not acknowledge that they too accept oral transmission of information, as evidenced by the fact that they are engaging in a live oral debate rather than an exchange of written publications.
Also, when Tariq was showing a number of books to say that a translator needed to study a number of subjects to produce a translation, I noticed a few comments in the chat:
Showing off books is a weird way to prove a point. You should be able to recite and orate the contents of the books without referencing them. This guy only knows how to recite stories
ALL BOOKS ARE MAN MADE AND CAN BE TRANSLATED BY MAN WOMAN AND CHILD
Black Orientalists still have reservations about the written word despite their rhetoric about wanting “receipts” and written documents.
2) He relied on a few straw man arguments.
A straw man argument is a fallacy many debaters fall into when constructing arguments agains their opponents. Taharka’s first premise was a prime example of this. It was as if he propped up a dummy to beat up on to show that he is tough. Of course, we know dummies don’t hit back.
He also used a straw man argument on his point about the translation of the term maqām as “shrine” in surat al-Baqarah: 125. He used the most strict (Salafi) interpretation of Muhsin Khan’s Noble Qur’an to establish that the word “shrine” is a mistranslation. Khan translates it as “stone on which Ibrāhim (Abraham) stood.” However, this is an argument over semantics and what people understand when they hear a word in a particular language. It is possible that “shrine” is the most appropriate equivalence for the word maqām as understood by Arabic speakers. But the issue is that Taharka assumes that Muhsin Khan has the correct opinion with regard to Muslims creating shrines (which in the context of the verse is an anachronism because it is referring to Abraham, who predates historical Islam). This causes Taharka not to question Muhsin Khan’s word choice, which might be influenced by his Salafi ideology, or his understanding of the word shrine, which some English speakers might associate with pagan worship.
To further drive home my point, he used the example of the word kāfir to say that words have “implied meaning” (as do all words in any language) and an exegesis is needed to reveal its connotations (1:00:00). I would argue that the English language has a single equivalent to the word kāfir in the word “infidel.” The root k-f-r (ك – ف – ر) has a connotation to ingratitude, betrayal, and infidelity as evidenced in other the Qur’anic verses (see surat al-Isrā: 27 and surat Ibrāhīm: 7). However, modern translators avoid the word “infidel” because they are aware that it carries negative connotations in the English-speaking world, even though it might be loyal to the Arabic meaning (no pun intended). The avoidance of the term demonstrates my point about semantics, mental associations, and ideology.
3) He differentiated between exegesis (commentary) and translation.
This point is a matter of personal opinion, but one that is backed up by some scholars of translation theory. I believe that translation is a type of commentary. A translation should not simply be reduced to an exchange of words in one language to another. A translator looks at more than just the lexical meanings of words. A good translator is looking at the overall effect of the work. While I understand the distinction Taharka is trying to make, I simply do not agree.
Tariq ibn Jamil’s Argument
As for our friend, Tariq, there are a few reasons as to why he lost the debate.
1) His presentation was not compelling.
Quite frankly, I think he bored the listeners because his points were not easy to follow. He was also very cerebral and soft-spoken. Furthermore, he interspersed his speech with too much Arabic terminology and quotations of Arabic passages. This shows a disregard for his audience, who primarily do not speak Arabic.
Moreover, his approach resembled that of a traditional Muslim scholar rather than a “hotep” debate. In these types of venues, a Muslim cannot appear to be too academic, because in the minds of the audience he will be acting “too white.” Likewise, if his approach is too “traditionally Muslim,” then he would be deemed “too Arab.” These are unfortunate facts.
2) He attempted to argue a minority opinion.
Those who argue a minority or unpopular opinion have an uphill battle. Not only are they less likely to have a wealth of supporting evidence, but their arguments and primary sources must be overwhelmingly convincing.
Tariq presented his argument in the form of a rare narrative gathered from an uncited Sunni tradition. His focus was on a translation of the Qur’an officiated by Salmān al-Farsī. By this, he demonstrated that it “can” be translated and it “was,” but his evidence was not strong enough to show that his translation was a complete or quality translation.
First of all, the story of Salmān al-Farsī’s translation of the Qur’an into Persian is not common knowledge, even among Muslims. So he has the added task of proving the existence of this translation. Otherwise, the listener will need to take his word for it. But even if he could produce this early Persian translation of the Qur’an (which I do not believe is extant), his audience would not have the tools to determine its accuracy, because the majority of the audience does not read Persian or Arabic.
Although I would not have taken his approach, Tariq could have emphasized more the fact that Salmān al-Farsī was not an Arab, but a Persian; although most Americans probably cannot differentiate between the two. A historical approach does not usually hold up in a debate unless it is backed up with a clear purpose and sound logic.
3) He entered a lot of unclear and irrelevant information.
The many details of Salmān al-Farsī’s story, the showing of books, and preachy statements were not relevant to his argument.Therefore, he lost momentum and wasted a lot of time speaking on the contours of his argument but making very few points.
Additionally, I don’t think the points he did make were clear to the audience. He could have devoted more time to discussing how vital the various subjects he mentioned in the books he displayed were to translating the Qur’an. Yet, he should have had a better selection of books because those that he presented were mostly not pivotal works in the fields he was referring to. However, the true scope of these fields would have required much more than 30 minutes.
Finally, there was also a woman (I’m assuming) named, Amutalha Abdul Rahman, who sought to aid Tariq’s argument, but it was not coherent. What I understood from it was that the Tafsir of Ibn Kathīr (mistakenly wrote Ibn Khair) had an AEU seal of authenticity. These things needed to be explained exactly how it contributes to the argument.
As we can clearly see, there is a lot to learn from this debate. However, one thing lingered in my mind throughout. Why were they debating such a pointless topic? The answer to the debaters’ central question: Can the Qur’an be translated? is an emphatic yes. There have been multiple attempts at translating the Qur’an in various languages. Each attempt could be placed on a scale of subjectivity to just how loyal the translation is to the Arabic original. However, they could have asked a better question.
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. 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).
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.
 This argument is reminiscent of the contemporary argument for the use of colloquial Arabic in the Arab world. See Is Fusha Elitist?