Indeed, those who believed and those who were Jews or Christians or Sabeans – those who believed in Allah and the Last Day and did righteousness – will have their reward with their Lord, and no fear will there be concerning them, nor will they grieve. (Sura Baqarah, verse 62)
There is a belief among the Jewish people that they are the chosen people of God. Traditionally, They believed themselves to be the sole recipient of God’s blessings. According to some exegesis, the verse from Quran mentioned above contests this claim. From this interpretation, it prevents Muslims from considering themselves the only people of God. This verse reveals that besides Muslims, honest people from among the Jewish, the Christian and the Sabean will also be rewarded by God in the hereafter. We are able to easily distinguish the Jewish and the Christian people mentioned in this verse; we all know who they are. Muslims accept these two groups as the ahl-al Qitab, meaning ‘people of the book’. But who are the Sabeans?
This question was asked even at the early age of Islam and opinion continues to vary for fourteen hundred years. Works of several medieval Muslim writers illustrate that there was never a single group of people to be identified as Sabeans. Rather diverse groups of people with varied religious views were recognized by muslims as Sabeans; some of them Gnostic’s, some followed Hermetic or Mithraic religions of different kinds. We must keep in mind that before the rise of Islam many Abrahamic, Hellenistic and Persian religions and their different syncretistic versions were widespread throughout the Middle East. These coexisted with major religions like Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. Many of these diverse religious tradition has now disappeared, whatever of it survived till the last century vanishing away fast from the Middle East in this 21st century.
THE first religious group to be recognized as ‘Sabean’ citizens of an Islamic caliphate was the Mandian people of Iraq. Iraq was conquered during the time of the second Rashidun Caliph Umar. Anush bin Danka, a leader of the Mandians, demanded protection for his people in front of the Muslim authority in Iraq by claiming them to be the ‘Sabeans’ mentioned in the Quran. He brought the holy book of his people, the ‘Ginja Rabba,’ to the Muslims and claimed ‘John the Baptist’ to be their prophet. John, who had baptized Jesus Christ, was a revered figure in both the traditions of Christianity and Islam. The Mandians, who followed John as their prophet but not Jesus, were thus given citizenship of the Rashidun Caliphate as Sabeans, as a people of the book. We find, in the well-recorded history of Islam, mention of another religious group that was considered to be Sabeans under the Abbasid Caliphate during the 9th century. These people were native to the Harran region of Turkey. They worshipped astrological bodies such as the planets and the stars, and followed a Hermetic religion, established after the prophet Hermes. This religion is now extinct, but its followers lived in Baghdad as distinguished members of the society during the golden years of the Abbasid Caliphate. At that time, Hermes was believed to be the Prophet Idris mentioned in the Quran, and therefore the Hermitcs of Harran, as the prophet’s followers, were categorized as Sabeans and accorded citizenship with all the rights reserved for the ahl-al-kitab.
ONE of the famous people to follow this latter religion was Thabit ibn Qurra, a great mathematician and astronomer. As worshipers of planets and stars, Hermetic’s were experts in astronomy, and Thabit was one of the master astronomers among them. Thabit was also a versed in multiple languages from an early age. He was invited to study in Baghdad by Muhammad ibn Musa ibn Shakir, a famous mathematician who had come to tour Harran. Back then, Baghdad was the busiest cosmopolitan city in the world and the best center of scholarship. Thabit finished his studies here and went back to his home city. However, he had to come back and live in Baghdad after being shunned as anti-religion by his own people due to his philosophical views.
From these examples we understand that although the term Sabean was not clearly defined in the Quran, it provided a common banner for the people of many diverse religious traditions, living under the early Islamic Caliphates, who were not Christian or Jewish. Rashidun, Umayyad and the Abbasid Caliphates were not reluctant to give people of diverse religious faith citizenship under the Islamic State and the vague Quranic category of ‘Sabean’ provided them with the basis to incorporate all these people within their rule. By reading about people such as Thabit, we also realize that the Islamic capital of Baghdad during the golden age of the Abbasid Caliphate was one of the most liberal places on earth, where someone from a deviating belief system, and with philosophical inclination and views that were considered deviant even by his own people, was not only safe but also given due respect for his intellect. Tabith was awarded a place in the Caliph Al-Mutamid’s court and became one of the Caliph’s closest friends. He repaid the trust and reverence by his work. He translated many science texts from Syriac and Greek to Arabic. According to Copernicus, Thabit ibn Qurra had measured the length of a solar year to be 365 days 6 hours 9 minute and 12 second, which differs from the modern count only by two seconds. The ‘Thabit number’ in mathematics and the ‘Thabit crater’ in the moon were named after this great mind. It should also be noted that although unwelcome at home, Tabith eventually became a leader of the diaspora his co-religionists in Baghdad. If the Abbasid capital in Baghdad had not been a liberal place accommodating diverse religious communities, and a great center of learning and of learned individuals, we would not see figures such as Thabit in the history. Undoubtedly the Abbasid and the Rashidun Caliphates were far more liberal than their contemporaries in dealing with the religions of their citizens, and clearly very different in nature from the so-called Islamist State of our time and its caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
The Yazidis in the modern Iraq follows a syncretistic monotheistic religion. A liberal caliphate like the Abbasids probably would have considered them Sabeans. However, in Baghdadi’s modern-day caliphate, they not only lose the protection of citizenship, but are subject to inhumane sufferings as IS legalized their killing, looting of their properties and trading or keeping them as slaves. In the wake of IS’s victories over their land, the Yazidis have become the most persecuted community. Even the Mandians, who actually were the first religious group to be considered Sabean and treated with all the respect accorded to ahl-al-kitab by the Rashidun Caliphate in the first days of Islam, have become nearly extinct from Iraq over the last decade. After the US occupation of Iraq in 2003, their number keep decreasing dramatically from continuous attacks from the jihadists, and 90 percent of the population have now disappeared from Iraq. Although God in Quran promises to reward them and reassures them of their fate in the hereafter, nobody could save them in this life from ISIS. Of course, a ‘caliphate,’ that does not spare even the ahl-al-kitab Christians who are so clearly named in the Quran, will certainly fail the people that fall under such a dubious category as the Sabians. All in all, one must marvel at how the Muslims have become so bent on being exempt in our time like a chosen people of God, and how the nation of United States have become the ‘nation under God’ and how the Sabeans are being wiped off from the face of the earth.
- buckley, j. j. (2002). The Mandaeans— Ancient Texts and Modern People. Oxford University Press.
- Churton, T. (2002). The Golden Builders: Alchemists, Rosicrucians, and the First Freemasons. . New York: : Barnes and Noble.
- Rosenfeld, B.A.; Grigorian, A. T. (2008). “Thābit Ibn Qurra, Al-Ṣābiʾ Al-Ḥarrānī”. Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography .
- Zurutuza, K. (Jan 29 2012 ). The Ancient Wither in New Iraq. BASRA: IPS.