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Who Are the Sabians?

Question and answer details
David Livingston
2012/06/26
  Who are or were the Sabians mentioned in the Qur'an (2:62)?
Shahul Hameed
Answer

Salam, David.

Peace be with you. Thank you for your question.

The verse you have quoted is:

[Verily, those who believe and those who are Jews and Christians, and Sabians [wal-sabi'een], whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and does righteous deeds shall have their reward with their Lord, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.] (Al-Baqarah 2:62)

There are two other verses in the Qur'an where the Sabians are mentioned:

[Surely, those who believe, and those who are the Jews and the Sabians and the Christians, whosoever believed in Allah and the Last Day, and worked righteousness, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.] (Al-Ma'idah 5:69)

[Those who believe, 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.] (Al-Hajj 22:17)

In all these verses, the Qur'an mentions the Sabians together with Jews and Christians.  Nothing is said about their religion, presumably because the Arabs of the Prophet's time already knew them as a religious group.

This is deducible from the fact that the Prophet's contemporaries, who queried him on almost everything in the Qur'an, were silent on the Sabians.

Early Muslim scholars tell us that the Sabians were a religious group who lived in southern Mesopotamia (Gündüz). Many scholars place the Sabians among the People of the Book, while some scholars did not accept this categorization because of their belief that the term People of the Book was specifically used for Jews and Christians.

All evidence points to the idea that the Sabians of the Qur'an were the Mandaeans of southern Iraq (Gündüz, 28-29). We know that the Mandaeans had been living in this area since the second century of the Christian era.

Their beliefs and cults have many similarities to Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism, the adherents of which are referred to in the Qur'an as the Majus, and carry various elements from these religious traditions (Gündüz, 28-29).

In the early Islamic period there was little scope for confusion about the identification of the Sabians, unlike in later sources. It is true that there are some differences between these scholars on some characteristics of the Sabians, but there is a common opinion about who the Sabians were and what the chief features of their religion were.  

It was in the Abbasid period that speculations arose on the Sabians around the claim that they followed the planet cult of ancient Mesopotamia. From this period onwards, most scholars have seen a special connection between the term Sabians and the pagans of Harran, which was an ancient city of strategic importance and is now a village in south eastern Turkey.

The characteristic features of the Harranians, like polytheism and star and idol worship, have therefore been ascribed to the Sabians too. This is at variance with the views of the early scholars since they never mentioned polytheism or idol worship while describing the Sabians.

However, the later Muslim writers as well as the Jewish scholar Maimonides called the Harranians "the Sabians from Harran" (315-320).

As a Gnostic community, the Mandaeans were an obscure religious group. Gnosticism, according to the Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions, is "a complex of religious movements, having at least some of its roots in Jewish and pagan thought but appearing in developed form as a Christian heresy in the 2nd cent." (212).

The Mandaeans followed a policy of secrecy and isolation from the rest of the society. Their religion forbade them to reveal their secret beliefs and modes of worship to a non-believer. Revealing the secrets of the religion to an outsider was considered a sin.

When talking to people of another faith, they usually stressed small points of similarity between their beliefs and those of their audience. This limited information given by them was not enough for others to have a clear idea of their religious tradition. For this reason, guesswork on their belief system and practices became inevitable (Drower).

The Qur'an verses referred to above place Jews, Christians, and Sabians alongside Muslims, and say that any one among them who [believes in Allah and the Last Day and does righteous deeds shall have their reward with their Lord, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.]

For a proper understanding, these verses must be read in conjunction with another verse:

[And whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the hereafter he will be one of the losers.] (Aal `Imran 3:85)   

Although the cited verses seem to be incongruous, it should be noted that there are two meanings for "Islam." First, there is the essential Islam (submission to God) as the religion of all the prophets from Adam to Muhammad (peace be upon them all). Second, there is the completed religion or more accurately, way of life of Islam taught by Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

The verse quoted above refers to the essential Islam and not the completed Islam; and so there is no contradiction between the verses. That is to say, in the verses mentioning the Sabians, the Qur'an refers to those who follow the fundamental "religion" of living in obedience to the commandments of God as taught by Moses, Jesus, or any other prophet of God.

There is currently a religious group in Iraq called the Mandaeans. Although not much is known about them as they are very few, they may be the last remaining followers of the Sabian religion today.

I hope the foregoing answers your question.

Thank you and keep in touch.

Salam.

Works Cited

Bowker, John, ed. Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Drower, E.S., The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran, Their Cults, Customs, Magic, Legend and Folklore, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1937.

Gündüz, ?inasi, "Problems on the Muslim Understanding of the Mandaeans." Dinler Tarihi. Last accessed 1 March 2007.

---, The Knowledge of Life. The Origins and Early History of the Mandaeans and Their Relation to the Sabians of the Qur'an and to the Harranians, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Maimonides, Moses, Guide for the Perplexed, Trans. Moses Friedlander, London: Dover Publications, 1947.

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