Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools (Part 11)

If we cede that the primordial religion was a comprehensive spiritual and intellectual tradition resembling what we know as the Ancient Mystery Schools, then we should be able to map them to a single origin, whose name and appearance differed throughout time and space, but whose essence remained the same.To better illustrate the relationship between the major religions of the Near East and the Ancient Mystery Schools see the graphic below. Following that, I will provide a brief description of each of these names for Near Eastern religions with the aims of illuminating the similarities and differences.

The various forms of Near Eastern Mystery Schools

Chaldeans

The priests of the Mystery Schools in Prophet Ibrahim’s day were referred to as the Chaldeans. This is the Latinized form of the Semitic term, Kasdīm. Seated in ancient Iraq, they were known for their knowledge of astrology and worshipful reverence of the stars. When they went astray, Ibrahim was sent to rectify their religion. Those that followed him were known as Ḥanīfs. The Muslim polymath, al-Fārābī believed that the Chaldeans were the first to harvest the “wisdom teachings,” which they transmitted to the Egyptians, who transmitted them to the Greeks, who transmitted them to the Syrians (i.e. Naṣārā), who ultimately transmitted them to the Arab Muslims (43).

Sabians

The leaders of the Mystery Schools of Egypt and the lands that fell under their rule were known as Sabians (Ṣābi’a). This is attested to in Mandaean sources as well as in hieroglyphics. Dr. Nadim al-Sayyar found in a papyrus scroll that the word for knowledge was ṣabāwi (صباوٍ), which is derived from the word ṣabā, which means guidance in the ancient Egyptian language. Moreover, another derivative of this root is the word for teachings, ṣabāyat, which also indicates a scripture or a message (Sayyār, 1995, 274-5). He also demonstrates that this root carried connotations to the stars (Sayyār, 2020, 142).

How this Egyptian term entered the Arabic lexicon is a matter of speculation, but it suffices us to say that historians writing in Arabic after the advent of Islam used the term to refer to the unreformed Mystery Schools and the antithesis to Ḥanīf. This is attested to by the Andalusian Jewish scholar, Maimonides in his Guide For the Perplexed, Ṣa’id al-Andalusī’s Biographies of the Nations, and Muhammad al-Shahrastānī’s Sects and Creeds.

Ḥanīfs

Though the term Ḥanīf referred to Ibrahim and his followers who taught an unwavering monotheism and deference to human prophets as opposed to the angels, the term was inverted by many Semitic languages and religions. Other groups took it to mean pagan among other things discussed in Part 10 of this series. The Arabic of the Qur’an corrected this understanding and freed Ibrahim of any allegations of polytheism (as discussed in Part 9).

In later Arabic writings, the term Ḥanīf could be understood as the reformed versions of the Mystery Schools guided by the prophets as opposed to the Sabians, who represented the unreformed versions. While Muslim jurists, theologians, and historians acknowledged that Sabian beliefs had a foundation in monotheism, they also invented ideas that misled the masses into polytheism. Therefore, later religions would lie on the continuum between Sabian, a kind of proto-polytheism, and Ḥanīf, an orthodox monotheism.

Yahūd

It is my understanding that the Bani Isra’il (the Children of Israel) represented the Ḥanīf opposition to Egyptian, Chaldean, and Arabian Sabianism, as expounded by Maimonides. The Yahūd, on the other hand, are frequently spoken of negatively in the Qur’an, in contrast to Bānī Isrā’īl. Thus it is plausible that the Yahūd were those Jewish priests who relapsed into the practices and beliefs of the Sabians, particularly those of Northern Arabia where the kingdoms of Israel and Judah (perhaps a cognate to the Arabic word, Yahūd) were located. As we know, the Kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Assyrians and fell under the influence of the Chaldeans of their day.

One should note that the Mandaean Sabians believed themselves to have once been of the Jews, who were called Yahutai in Aramaic. However, they were from the faction who doubted the immaculate conception of Miriam (Buckley, 4), meaning they contributed to the distortion of the revealed doctrine. It should also be noted that Madaeans see the ancient Yahutai (i.e. Yahūd) and the Chaldeans (their spiritual predecessors) as one and the same. This can account for the Qur’an’s repeated critique of the Yahūd and other Sabian-style beliefs. A deeper look into the language of the Qur’an will reveal that most of their mentions in the Qur’an refer to them as “those who claim to be Jews” (الذين هادوا) revealing that God is casting doubt on their claims.

http://history-of-israel.org/history/chronological_presentation11.php

Philosophers

The Greek Philosophers, though not mentioned directly in the Qur’an, are generally known as Sabians among Muslim scholars. Ibn Taymīya, for instance, stated as such in his Al-Radd ʿalā al-Shādhulī. He believed that the philosophers were originally rightly guided (al-Ṣābi’a al-Ḥunafā’), just as the Yahūd and Naṣārā were originally rightly guided. However, only those among them who did not contradict the prophets remained guided (Ibn Taymīya, 136-7). We should also note that the Greek philosophers are also most commonly associated with the Mystery Schools. The likes of Pythagoras, Socrates, and Zeno were all associated with versions of the Mysteries, although there were philosophers also not associated with a particular Mystery school.

Naṣārā

As discussed in Part 10 of this series, the Naṣārā were most likely the Nasoraeans, a Neo-Platonic priestly class that became infused with the prophetic lineage (i.e. Ḥanīf) following the advent of Īsā. They were apparently Judeo-Christian in their beliefs and practice, but they retained a philosophical element inherited from the Sabians that influenced their approach to the prophetic tradition. As such, God in the Qur’an rebukes those beliefs that came from the Sabians such as the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and his sonship of God, while affirming the Ḥanīfs among them as Ahl al-Kitāb (People of the Book). The concepts of the Trinity, divination of man, and pantheism are all recurring themes in Sabianism and the ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman mysteries.

Majūs

As for the Majūs, they are only mentioned once in the Qur’an among those who claim to be Jews, Sabians, and Naṣārā. They were the priestly class of the Zoroastrians, the Persian Mystery Schools. Medieval European Biblical scholars referred to Zoroastrians as Eastern Chaldeans and Sabians (Elukin, 624).

The Abbasid court astrologer, Abū Sahl ibn Nawbakht, gives a testimony to the Persian Mysteries in Ibn al-Nadīm’s al-Fihrist. According to Abū Sahl, Hermes taught the “wisdom teachings” to the people of Babylon, which included present-day Iran, then he traveled to Egypt to teach to them. The knowledge taught by Hermes remained in Persia uninterrupted until the invasion of Alexander, in which he killed the leader Dara II, defaced the inscriptions on their buildings, and looted all their manuscripts. Alexander then took these works on medicine, astronomy, etc. and had them translated into Greek and Coptic, then burned the Persian originals. Following this catastrophe, the Persian kings began the process of reconstructing their knowledge by acquiring manuscripts from the peripheries of the Persian Empire like those of India and China and re-establishing their chains of transmission in Persia. This project persisted into the Muslim conquest of Persia and was continued until the height of the Abbasid empire (Ibn al-Nadīm, 333-4).

Summary

Now that we have provided a synopsis for each of these terms, we see that the common denominator is that these terms primarily referred to the learned class within their respective traditions, whose nomenclature varied depending on the locale and time period. Secondly, these traditions all had similar trajectories. For instance, they all excelled at the empirical and occult sciences, especially astrology. However, the standard for measuring the veracity of a tradition was how close it conformed to the Ḥanīf system, which was championed by the prophets, as opposed to the Sabian system, championed by the polytheists (i.e. Mushrikūn). Finally, many exegetes of the Qur’an interpreted al-Baqara: 62 and its cognate verses to mean: Whosoever affirms a belief in God as taught by the Prophet Muhammad among the Yahūd, Sabians, Naṣārā, and Majūs will not be treated unjustly by God in the end. An unraveling of this nomenclature and their respective beliefs has relevance for 21st century America. As many individuals, young and old, gravitate to expressions of Sabianism in one form or another, it is necessary to know where these ideas came from and the pre-modern debates that ensued around them. I will touch on these discussions in subsequent posts.

References

Buckley, Jorunn Jacobsen. The Mandaeans: Ancient Texts and Modern People. Oxford University Press, 2002.

Elukin, Jonathan. “Maimonides and the Rise and Fall of the Sabians: Explaining Mosaic Laws and the Limits of Scholarship.” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 63, no. 4, 2002, pp. 619–37. JSTORhttps://doi.org/10.2307/3654163.

Farabi al-. Al-Farabi’s Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. Translated by Muhsin Mahdi, Free Press of Glencoe, 1962.

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

Ibn Taymiyya, Taqī al-Dīn Abū’l-’Abbās Aḥmad, and ʿAlī Muhammad ʿUmrān. Al-Radd ʿalā al-Shādhulī Fī Ḥizbayhi Wa Mā Ṣannafahu Fī Ādāb al-Ṭarīq. Dār ʿĀlam al-Fawā’id, 2008.

Sayyār, Nadīm al-. Qudamāʼ Al-Misṛīyīn Awwal al-Muwahḥịdīn. 2nd ed., 1995.

Sayyār, Nadīm al-. Laysū Āliha Wa Lākin Malā’ika. 2020.

Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools (Part 11) The Maurchives

  1. Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools (Part 11)
  2. Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools (Part 10)
  3. The Metaphysics of “I Can’t Breathe”
  4. Oral History of Muslims in North Carolina Prior to 1980
  5. Soul On Ice Cube

Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools (Part 10)

In this post, I would like to revisit the notion of Naṣarā mentioned in Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools (Part 5). If you recall, the results from our readings of Fadil al- Rabi’i’s were inconclusive. Upon further exploration, I have come across some information that has provided me a bit more perspective on who was intended by this term in the Quran. However, before we get into this exploration, let’s review some of the most compelling arguments espoused by Al-Rabi’i:

  • Nasrani/Naṣarā is not a relative adjective describing a person from Nazareth. This means that the Naṣarā are not called as such solely on their affiliation with Jesus of Nazareth.
  • The root of the word Naṣarā is related to the word meaning to be “uncircumcised.” This means that the Naṣarā were known for their opposition to or at least their ambivalence to the practice.
  • In Muslim writings, the pre-Islamic Naṣarā were few in number and often associated with the Hanifs. This should make us ask: why do these few people warrant such attention in the Quran? If they were Christians, why didn’t they build a church? And why have they been historically classified as Hanifs?
Panini, Giovanni Paolo. An Architectural Capriccio of the Roman Forum with Philosophers and Soldiers among Ancient Ruins. oil on canvas, c.  -1750 1745, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:An_Architectural_Capriccio_of_the_Roman_Forum_with_Philosophers_and_Soldiers_among_Ancient_Ruins_…,_by_Giovanni_Paolo_Panini,_c._1745-1750,_oil_on_canvas_-_National_Museum_of_Western_Art,_Tokyo_-_DSC08515.JPG. National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, Japan.

I posit that the Naṣarā were a type of Hanīf or Sabian that was found in pre-Islamic Arabia. Most likely remnants of Neoplatonic Mysteries from the Roman Empire, who were dispersed into Asia Minor, Persia, Arabia, and the interior of Africa. More specifically, they probably considered themselves a priestly class of the Greater Mysteries who pontificated on a number of metaphysical matters of the day, which fomented much confusion in pre-Islamic times. Let’s first look at the historical links between the Mystery Schools of Rome and religion in pre-Islamic Arabia.

Christianity and the Mystery Schools

Christianity emerged in the Roman Empire as a reviled religion, with clear Semitic roots. It was opposed by the emperors because they were considered the ultimate legal and religious authorities. They believed that there was only one religion, the Mysteries. Different schools of the Mysteries had different expressions of it based on their culture and language because religion was associated with citizenship (Ando, 2021,13). Constantine, upon his conversion to Christianity in the early 4th century was the first Roman emperor to ease the repression of Christians in the empire. By the end of the century, Theodosious would make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and commence the official closing of the Mystery Schools. Justinian would continue this project of closing the Mysteries in the 6th century. In turn, many of its die-hard members who refused to convert to the state religion fled to Asia Minor, like the city of Ḥarrān, Persia, the Arabian peninsula, and the interior of Africa (Errington, 2006, 249-52).

Quraysh and the Mystery Schools

As for those who fled to the Arabian peninsula, it is possible that the Quraysh tribe was one such group. Scholars are unsure of their exact origins, but some have proposed that they were one of the groups that who fled Byzantium. This would make sense since the Quraysh only emerge in the 5th century and appear to take over the most important shrine in Arabia (Ḍayf, 1960, 49). Furthermore, prior to the prophetic mission of Muhammad, the Quraysh exhibited traits common to followers of the Mysteries. First, the Dār al-Nadwa that managed the affairs of Mecca only allowed wealthy men over the age of forty. In the Mysteries, this age was significant because it represented the age at which men attained wisdom and the position of teacher and leadership. They were also learned in advanced mathematics because they set interest rates and performed the duties of bankers. Similarly, they were also the religious authorities because they controlled the rites of the pilgrimage to the Kaʿba, which they believed to be a Saturnalia shrine. For these reasons, it is likely that there was a substantial influence on the pre-Islamic Arabs from the Ancient Mystery Schools.

Naṣārā and the Mystery Schools

When we look into the Qur’an, we find numerous mentions of Naṣārā, but never of Masīḥiyīn, a more direct translation of the word Christians. I believe this was the case because Naṣārā actually referred to a group known as the Nāṣūrati or Nasoraeans, who scholars call a Jewish-Christian Gnostic sect that emerged during the post-Christian religious milieu in the Near East (Bladel, 2017, 6). However, they are more commonly associated with the Mandaeans of southern Iraq; the only group in the world commonly labeled Sabians. Members of their priestly class are called Nasoraeans, who assiduously guard the secret rituals and doctrines of the Mandaeans, which they perceive as having a more ancient origin. Much like the Mystery Schools, the Nasoraeans function as the Greater Mysteries that requires a much more rigorous training in the secret arts, while the rank-and-file Mandaean constitutes the Lesser Mysteries that is open to those who are inclined to Gnosticism. Their doctrine consists of a worshipful regard for angels and the stars and opposition to the practice of circumcision. Indeed, they are those that many Muslim jurists, historians, and theologians identified as the last visages of the Qur’anic Sabians.

Concluding Remarks

With the above understanding, we can gather that:

1) the Nasoraeans were around and active in the Near East before and during the time of the Prophet Muhammad

2) the Nasoraeans constitute a hybrid of the Ancient Mystery Schools and Judeo-Christian beliefs and practices

3) the Nasoraean’s minority status and secretive nature explains why no “Naṣrānī” church was established in the heart of Arabia

4) if the Naṣārā are the Nasoraeans, then this is cause to reconsider the identities of the Yahūd (or “those who became Jews”) and the Majūs

Linking the Naṣārā of the Qur’an to the Nasoraeans of the Mandaean religion will introduce us to a different way of understanding certain arguments put forth in the Qur’an. I will show in future posts how verses that discuss the angels and pre-Islamic ideas about nature and prophethood are actually a polemic against the positions of the Nasoraeans. In addition, we will see that the Qur’an’s criticism of other religions is based on the degree to which they adopted beliefs associated with the Nasoraeans and other Sabians, which were remnants of the Ancient Mystery Schools in Islamic lands. The Naṣārā who were deemed as Christians were those who were closer to the Ḥanīfs in their beliefs. Not only will we witness the historical implications of this information, but we will begin to see how these doctrines continue to shape the current religious discourse.

References

Ando, Clifford. “Religious Affiliation and Political Belonging from Cicero to Theodosius.” Acta Classica, vol. 64, no. 1, 2021, pp. 9–28. https://doi.org/10.1353/acl.2021.0013.

Bladel, Kevin Thomas Van. From Sasanian Mandaeans to Ṣābians of the Marshes. Brill, 2017.

Ḍayf, Shawqi. Al-ʿAṣr al-Jāhilī. 11th ed., vol. 1, Dār al-Ma’ārif, 1960.

Errington, R. M. Roman Imperial Policy from Julian to Theodosius. University of North Carolina Press, 2006.