Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools Part 12

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.

Oral History of Muslims in North Carolina Prior to 1980

North Carolina has had a vibrant Muslim community since the 1950’s. A close-knit network of young and hip members of the Nation of Islam (NOI) laid the foundation for future communities in the state. Some of them were native North Carolinians, but some of them came from the Baltimore, MD area. Chief among them was Minister/Imam Kenny Muhammad (Kenneth Murray) and his wife, Margaret, who reigned as the pioneers of North Carolina’s Muslim community, using their own labor, money, and charisma to establish mosques, businesses, and political alliances within the state.

Unfortunately, not much has been written about the origins of this community. Were you to search the web for “Muslims in North Carolina” you will not find much about its history. Books and local archives at institutions like Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill only have peripheral materials related to this history. If you know what to look for, you will find more specific information about the history of Muslims in North Carolina, but there’s not much.

Though the community has existed for nearly 70 years, it is only now that individuals are beginning to record and discuss its history. One major contribution to this development has been the efforts of Katie Spencer and Naomi Feaste who, in the name of the Museum of Durham History, received a grant from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art to curate an exhibit featuring the legacy of the Ar-Razzaq Islamic Center, the state’s oldest mosque.

While I assisted in the creation of this exhibit, I had already begun working on a similar project with a broader scope. Back in 2005, I interviewed the late legendary jazz pianist, Yusuf Salim (Joseph Blair) who was in a band with Kenny Muhammad and actually introduced him to the teachings of the NOI. He gave me a first-hand account of the development of the Muslim community and sparked in me the idea to do more interviews. It wasn’t until spring 2016, my last semester in a graduate program for Library and Information Science, that I had the sufficient background knowledge, professional training, and ear of the community to launch an oral history project.

My idea was to record the stories and perspectives of the living pioneers of the community in a professional oral history project that could be later be placed in an archival institution. In addition to covering voices from Ar-Razzaq, I would seek out pioneers who are not currently affiliated with that community to round out the perspectives. Conversations with these pioneers were to center around the following five themes:

  1. Activism
  2. Religious and organizational philosophy
  3. Culture and the arts
  4. Education
  5. Characteristics of the city of Durham prior to 1980

I started interviewing people in the summer of 2016, starting of course, with Margaret Muhammad, then her daughter and son-in-law, Rhonda and Oliver Muhammad. By the end of the summer, I had completed about seven interviews. Since I was taking a position at the American University in Cairo, I felt the need to bid farewell to the community and present to them my progress on the project and promise my continued work on it in my future summer vacations to the U.S.

A project of this nature is important because it can be duplicated in communities around the U.S., were they to interpret the model I created in my manual. If organized from within the Muslim community being studied, then it can serve as a platform that can heal rifts and attract various types of resources. Likewise, it can serve as primary source material for researchers looking for information on the history of Islam in America. It is important that Muslims tell those stories themselves, rather than leaving it to the whims of people that might have malicious intent towards Muslims or otherwise distorted views in gathering information and interpreting it. It is my hope that this and similar projects provide a basis for an independent Islamic archive and research center.