The Sabians (Arabic: صابئة) of Middle Eastern tradition are a variety ofmonotheistic: Gnostic (Mandeans), Hermetic (Harranian) as well as Abrahamicreligions mentioned three times in the Quran with the people of the Book, “the Jews, the Sabians, and the Christians”. In the hadith, they are described merely as converts to Islam, but interest in the identity and history of the group increased over time, and discussions and investigations about the Sabians begin to appear in later Islamic literature.
In the Quran
The Qur’an mentions briefly the Sabians in three places and the Hadith provide additional details as to who they were:
• “Lo! Those who believe (in that which is revealed unto thee, Muhammad), and those who are Jews, and Christians, and Sabaeans – whoever believeth in Allah and the Last Day and doeth right – surely their reward is with their Lord, and there shall no fear come upon them neither shall they grieve. ”
• “Lo! those who believe, and those who are Jews, and Sabaeans, and Christians – Whosoever believeth in Allah and the Last Day and doeth right – there shall no fear come upon them neither shall they grieve. ”
• “Those who believe (in the Qur’an), those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Sabians, Christians, Magians, and Polytheists,- Allah will judge between them on the Day of Judgment: for Allah is witness of all things”
In later Islamic sources
According to Muslim authors, Sabians followed the fourth book of Abrahamic tradition, the Zabur, which was given to the prophet King David of Ancient Israel according to the Qur’an. The “Zabur” is identified by many modern scholars as the biblical Book of Psalms. Most of what is known of them comes from Ibn Wahshiyya’s The Nabatean Agriculture, and the translation of this by Maimonides.
Other classical Arabic sources include the Fihrist of Ibn al-Nadim (c. 987), who mentions the Mogtasilah (“Mughtasila”, or “self-ablutionists”), a sect of Sabians in southern Mesopotamia who counted El-Hasaih as their founder and academics agree that they are probably the enigmatic “Sobiai” to whom Elchasai preached in Parthia. According to Daniel Chwolsohn(1856) they appear to have gravitated around the original pro-Jewish Hanputa of Elchasai out of which the miso-Judaicprophet Mani seceded and are identified therefore as the pro-Torah Sampsaeans but also less accurately with the anti-Torah Mandaeans. They were said by Khalil Ibn Ahmad (d. 786) to believe that they “belonged” to the prophet Noah.
Some supposed that they influenced the practices of the Hellenic Godfearers (theosebeis Greek: Θεοσεβεῖς) while their angelology (based around the movements of the Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn) found its greatest development in the community which was based in the Harran region of south-eastern Anatolia and northern Syria.Ibn al-Qayyim distinguished them as the Sabians of Harran from the south Mesopotamian Sābi’ūna Hunafā.
There has been much speculation as to the origins of the religious endonym from this practice. Segal (1963) argued that the term Sābi’ūn derives from the Syriac root S-b-‘ , referring to conversion through submersion.=
The Syriac (and Hebrew) nouns derived from this root refer to proselytes, both “Judaisers”—non-converts who followed certain basic rules of Judaism—and early Christian converts of non-Jewish origin and practice. These latter were calledTheosebeians “God-believers”, Theophobians “(God-fearers)”, Sebomenoi “Believers”, or Phobeomenoi (Φοβεόμενοι) “fearing or “pious ones” in Greek sources. The Greek etymology of sebomai (σέβομαι), applied to the proselytes, is in the word eusebian (εὐσέβειαν), meaning a kind of godliness and reverence or worshipfulness.
According to Islamic scholars, the word Sābi’ūna (Sabian) is derived from the verb saba’a, which refers to the action of leaving one religion and entering another.
Tabari said: as-Sābi’ūn is the plural of Sābi’, which means “proselyte” who has left his original religion, or anyone who has left the religion that he used to follow and joins another. The Arabs called such a person Sābi’.
Sabians practiced initiation through submersion in water, intended to harken to the inundation of the world during the deluge of the time of Noah which cleansed man’s sinful nature from the face of the earth [ as found in 1 Peter 3:20–21 ].
In the later ninth century CE, Arab authors focused upon the origins of the “Abrahamic” Sabians from the “Hellenistic” Sabians and went into much detail on the Harranian period before the time of Abraham. Most of this knowledge was translated in 904 CE from Syriac sources into the book called “The Nabatean Agriculture” by Ibn Wahshiyya; Maimonides considered it an accurate record of the beliefs of the Sabians, whose role as a pre-Judaic monotheistic movement he commented on at length.
Despite substantial and clear documentation about both kinds of Sabians spanning many centuries from sources as diverse as Greek Christian, Arabic Muslim, Arabic and Persian Bahá’í, as well as Jewish sources and documents, the actual nature of the Sabians has remained a matter of some heated debate among Orientalists. Therefore, “Sabian” has been used mistakenly in many literary references for decades and though, the spelling “Sabian” usually refers to one of the People of the Book mentioned in the Qur’an, it is also used by the Mandaeans under the variation of “Sabaean” detailed below. The variation “Sabean” has been employed in English to distinguish the ancient Harranian group, but the usage is not universal.
The confusion of Sabaeans and Sabians began with Marmaduke Pickthall’s spelling mistake in his translation of theQur’an. The word “Sabaeans” comes from a completely different root spelling, beginning with the Arabic letter “Sin” instead of the Arabic letter “Sad”. The Sabaeans were in fact the people of ancient Saba in Yemen who scholars have shown to have no connection to the Sabians of the Qur’an, except for their Ansar tribe, which practiced Qur’anic Sabianism.
Al-Biruni (writing at the beginning of the eleventh century CE) said that the ‘”real Sabians'” were “the remnants of the Jewishtribes who remained in Babylonia when the other tribes left it for Jerusalem in the days of Cyrus andArtaxerxes. According to Ethel Drower (1937) these remaining tribes … adopted a system mixed up of Magism and Judaism.’
The recent debate on who the Sabians were is directly connected to how to best translate the following verses from the Qur’an out of the original Arabic.
The Sabians existed before Muhammad, and are said to have read from a book called the Zabur (“Psalms”). They came under Islamic rule about 639 CE. At that time in history they were described as Greek immigrants but were grouped together with the Nabataeans.
Many Islamic writers from the period of about 650 CE onward gave further descriptions of the Sabians. They wrote that the Sabians lived in Iraq around Sawad, Kutha and Mosul and they “wash themselves with water”, had “long hair”, and “white gowns”. They had a monotheistic faith with religious literature (the Zabur) and acknowledged the prophets. Their theology resembled that of Judaism and Christianity yet were neither, nor were they Magians.
With regard to their beliefs, Ibn al-Qayyim said: “The people differed greatly concerning them, and the imams were unsure about them because they did not have enough knowledge of their beliefs and religion.” Al-Shaafa’i said: “Their case is to be examined further; if they resemble the Christians in basic matters but they differ from them in some minor issues, then the jizya is to be taken from them. But if they differ from them in basic issues of religion then their religion cannot be approved of by taking the jizya from them.” And he elaborated elsewhere: “They are a kind of Christian”, a view consistent with a comment about some of them mentioned in Bahá’i writings.
Ibn al-Qayyim said: “The Sabians are a large nation among whom are both blessed and doomed. They are one of the nations who are divided into believers and disbelievers, for the nations before the coming of the Prophet (Peace and Blessings of Allāh be Upon Him) were of two types, kāfir nations all of whose people were doomed and among whom were none who were blessed, such as the idol-worshippers and the Magians; and others who were divided into those who were blessed and those who were doomed, namely the Jews, Christians and Sabians.”
According to Islamic scholars, they did not reject the Prophets of Islam but neither did they regard it as obligatory to follow them. In their view Whoever followed (the Prophets) may be blessed and saved, but whoever follows a path similar to that of the Prophets by virtue of one’s own reasoning is also blessed and saved, even if one did not follow the Prophets in specific terms. In their view the call of the Prophets was true but there was no one specific route to salvation. They believed that the universe had a Creator and Sustainer, Who is Wise and above any resemblance to created beings, but many of them, or most of them, (i.e. the Sabians of Harran) said: we are unable to reach Him without intermediaries, so we have to approach Him through the mediation of spiritual and holy Bud Asaf who are pure and free of any physical elements and who are above place and time, rather they are created pure and holy.
Abd al-Rahman Ibn Zayd (d. 798 CE) wrote: “The Sābi’ūn say that their religion is a religion to itself and they live near Mosul (jazirat al-mawsil) and believe in only one God.” He also wrote that they have: “no cult though their main belief is ‘La ilaha il Allāh'”. He also remarked that: “the Sābi’ūn did not believe in the Prophet Muhammad (in the same way as his followers did), yet the polytheists were known to say of the Prophet and his companions ‘these are the Sabians’ comparing them to them”. following the Din of Noah as a sect who read the Zabur akin to Christianity. They appear to be between Judaism and Magianism but are in fact closer to Judaism. Sābi’ūn recognise the practice of Muhammad in going to the caves prior to his inspiration, as in accordance with the Sabi quest for Tawheed Hunafa’ and, in general, many similarities with the Sabians meant Muhammad and his companions were often considered to have been Sabians. Most specifically this was because of the Sabian shahada “La ilaha ila Allāh”.
The root-meaning of the word “Sabian” (from which they derive Seboghatullah) means proselyte, and is identical in usage with the Greek words for Godfearers sebomenoi, theosebes, phobeomenoi.
Characteristics of the Sabi religion
The Sābi’ūn knew God as the Rabb al-‘alihah (lord of gods), and ‘ilah al-‘alihah (god of gods). During meditations, they spoke to angels. Sabians believed each angel dwells in a different star, causing non-believers to derogatorily and erroneously accuse Sābi’ūn of angel worship, as well as star worship (in Arabic it is said, saba’at al-nujūm, meaning “the stars appeared”). Sābi’ūn read from the Zaboor (as did the Slavonic Subbotniki or Psaltirschiki). They also used the sun as a qiblah, facing the equator at midday.
Fundamentally, Sabian teaching is La ilahah il Allah, i.e., ‘there is no god but Allah’. Abd al-Rahman ‘ibn Zayd remarked, “the Sābi’ūn did not believe in the Prophet Mohammed”, as Muslims do. Nevertheless, the Sabian were known to say of the Prophet Mohammed and his companions, ‘these are the Sabians’, comparing themselves to Muslims. Despite these strong similarities, Sābi’ūn are, to varying degrees, akin to Christians. Hanif Sabians are more universal, looking to Noah as their prophet of the Dīn. Sābi’ūn have five daily prayers Sabians believe in all prophets, reiterating the Din of Noah, and belief in the Khatam an-Nabiyyin, i.e., the Seal of the Prophets – although their belief system differs from that of Islam. Additionally, Sabians also practiced annual 30-day fasts.
Although too late to be of relevance in identifying the sect mentioned in the Qur’an, Maimonides wrote about the Sabians,Hebrew: צבאים. Based upon a book called The Nabataean Agriculture which Maimonides translated, Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed describes the Sabians in quite some detail. They were questioned by Caliph al-Ma’mun of Baghdad in 830 CE, according to Abu Yusuf Absha al-Qadi, about what protected religion they belonged to. Not being Muslim, Christian, Jewish or Magian, the caliph told them they were nonbelievers and would have to become Muslims or adherents of one of the other religions recognized by the Qur’an by the time he returned from his campaign against the Byzantines or he would kill them. The Harranians consulted with a lawyer who suggested that they find their answer in the Qur’an II.59 which made it clear that Sabians were tolerated. It was unknown what was intended by Sabian and so they took the name.
These newly dubbed Harranian Sabians acknowledged Hermes Trismegistus as their prophet and the Corpus Hermeticum as their sacred text, being a group of Hermeticists. Validation of Hermes as a prophet comes from his identification as Idris(i.e. Enoch) in the Qur’an (19.57 and 21.85).
The Harranian Sabians played a vital role in Baghdad and the rest of the Arab world from 856 until about 1050; playing the role of the main source of Greek philosophy and science as well as shaping the intellectual life. The most prominent of the Harranian Sabians was Thabit ibn Qurra.
A Yezidi writer
The Yezidi, and later French citizen and Vice-Consul at Mosul, Nicolas Siouffi in his Études sur la religion des Soubbas ou Sabéens, leurs dogmes, leurs moeurs (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1880) claimed to have identified 4,000 Sabians in theSoubbhas. This was well received by the Theosophist G. R. S. Mead, but received critical reviews from scholars.
In the Bahá’í writings
The Sabians are also mentioned in the literature of the Bahá’í Faith. These references are brief for the most part, describing two group of Sabians: those “who worship idols in the name of the stars, who believed their religion derived from Seth and Idris”, and others “who believed in the son of Zechariah (John the Baptist) and didn’t accept the advent of the son of Mary (Jesus Christ)”. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has one brief reference where he describes Seth as one of the “sons of Adam”. Bahá’u’lláh in a Tablet identifies Idris with Hermes. He does not, however, specifically name Idris as the prophet of the Sabians.
Possible identifications for the Sabians include Mandaeans and Harranians. Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila (2002, 2006) notes that in the marsh areas of Southern Iraq there was a continuous tradition of Mandaean religion, but also another pagan, or “Sabian”, centre in the tenth-century Islamic world centred on Harran. These pagan “Sabians” are mentioned in the Nabataean corpus of Ibn Wahshiyya.
“The Sabians, who were pagans in the Middle East, were identified with two groups, the Mandaeans and the Harranians. The Mandaeans lived in Iraq during the 2nd century A.D. As they continue to do today, they worshipped multiple gods, or “light personalities.” Their gods were classified under four categories: “first life”, “second life”, “third life”, and “fourth life”. Old gods belong to the “first life” category. They summoned deities who, in turn, created “second life” deities, and so forth.
Opening of Sabian Temple in Al-Diwaniyah
A group of modern-day Iraqis follow the teachings of John the Baptist and call themselves Sabians. Due to their faith, pacifism and lack of tribal ties, they have been vulnerable to violence since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.