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.
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 International: You 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.