The Sabians (الصابئة , al-Ṣābiʼah or الصابئون al-Ṣābiʼūn) of Middle Eastern tradition were a religious group mentioned three times in the Quran as a People of the Book, along with the Jews and the Christians. In the hadith, they were described simply as converts to Islam. Their identity has been called an “unsolved Quranic problem”. Interest in the identity and history of the group increased over time. Discussions and investigations of the Sabians began to appear in later Islamic literature. The Sabians were identified by early writers with the ancient Jewish Christian group the Elcesaites, and with gnostic groups such as the Hermeticists and the Mandaeans. According to Daniel Chwolson’s exhaustive survey of Islamic and other sources (1856), they appear to have gravitated around the original pro-Jewish Hanputa of the Elcesaites, from which the prophet Mani seceded. These Hanip Sabians are later identified as the pro-Torah Sampsaeans. Most scholars after Chwolson believe the Quranic reference is to the Manichaeans or Elkaisaites.
There has been much speculation as to the origins of the religious endonym from the varying reported practices attributed to them. The Arabic root ص ب ء (ṣ-b-ʾ), means to grow forth or rise out of. When said of a star it means to rise, which may explain the association with star-worshippers. When relating to a religion it means one who left his former religion and was even a title of Muhammad for not being part of his tribe’s faith. From such a root and in the context of the Qurʼanic passages, it may refer to all people who leave their faiths, finding fault in them, but have yet to come to Islam, related to the Hanif.
The word Sabian is also said to be derived from the Aramaic root related to baptism. Other forms in Aramaic are connected with the Arabic ص ب غ (ṣ-b-ḡ), and feature an ע as the final radical. This is not so in Mandaic, with the terms ṣāḇōy and ṣāḇōyā, meaning baptizer and baptizers and the neo-Mandaic Ṣabi. In contrast, the Mandaeans, a non-Abrahamic religious group potentionally unrelated to the “Sabians” of the Quran, are referred to in Arabic using the root word ص ب ب Ṣubba. Rejecting the prevalent notion that it means baptizer, while retaining the idea it was of Syriac origin, Judah Segal (1963) argued that the term Sābi’ūn derives from Shiva, a primary god of Hinduism.
In the Qur’an
The Qur’an briefly mentions the Sabians in three places, with hadith providing additional details as to who they were:
Indeed, the believers, Jews, Christians, and Sabians—whoever truly believes in God and the Last Day and does good will have their reward with their Lord. And there will be no fear for them, nor will they grieve.[Quran 2:62]
Indeed, the believers, Jews, Sabians and Christians—whoever truly believes in God and the Last Day and does good, there will be no fear for them, nor will they grieve.[Quran 5:69]
Indeed, the believers, Jews, Sabians, Christians, Magi, and the polytheists (who associated with Allah) God will judge between them all on Judgment Day. Surely God is a Witness over all things.[Quran 22:17]
In later Islamic sources
The Muslim scholar Al-Khalil ibn Ahmad al-Farahidi (d. 786–787 CE), who was in Basra before his death, wrote:
“The Sabians believe they belong to the prophet Noah, they read Zabur, and their religion looks like Christianity.”
He also states that “they worship the angels”. According to the Qur’an, the Zabur, the second book of Abrahamic tradition, was given to King David of ancient Israel. Many modern scholars identify the Zabur as the Psalms.
Most of what is known of the Sabians comes from ibn Wahshiyya’s The Nabatean Agriculture, translated in 904 CE from Syriac sources. The text discusses beliefs attributed to the Sabians, in particular that they were people who lived in Pre-Adamite times, that Adam had parents and that he came from India.
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 or al-Hasih (possibly Arabic for “Elchasai”) as their founder.
Al-Biruni (writing at the beginning of the eleventh century CE) said that the ‘”real Sabians'” were “the remnants of the Jewish tribes who remained in Babylonia when the other tribes left it for Jerusalem in the days of Cyrus and Artaxerxes. According to E. S. Drower (1937) these remaining tribes … adopted a system mixed up of Magism and Judaism.’
According to Abu Yusuf Absha al-Qadi, Caliph al-Ma’mun of Baghdad in 830 CE stood with his army at the gates of Harran and questioned the Harranians about what protected religion they belonged to. As they were neither Muslim, Christian, Jewish or Magian, the caliph told them they were non-believers. He said they 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 said that Sabians were tolerated. It was unknown what the sacred text intended by “Sabian” and so they took the name.
These newly dubbed Harranian Sabians acknowledged Hermes Trismegistus as their prophet and the Hermetica 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).
However, this account of the Harranian Sabians does not fit with the existence of earlier records making reference to Sabians in Harran. Usamah ibn Ayd, writing before 770 CE (his year of death), already referred to a city of Sabians in the region where Harran lies. The jurist Abu Hanifa, who died in 767 CE, is recorded to have discussed the legal status of Harranian Sabians with two of his disciples.
The Harranian Sabians played a vital role in Baghdad and in the rest of the Arab world from 856 until about 1050; serving as the main source of ancient Greek philosophy and science as well as shaping intellectual life. The most prominent of the Harranian Sabians was Thābit ibn Qurra.
The Tafsir Ibn Kathir states that “there is a difference of opinion over the identity of the Sabians”. It relates the opinion of Mujahid, Ibn Abi Najih,
Ata and Said bin Jubayr, as being that the Sabians are “between the Majus, the Jews and the Christians” but “do not have a specific religion … that they followed and enforced”, because they lived “according to their Fitrah (instinctual nature)” but. Mujahid also “Others” the tafsir reports saying that the Sabians
- read the Zabur (Psalms)
- worship the angels or the stars
- never received a message by any prophet.
The Jewish scholar Maimonides (1125–1204) translated the book The Nabataean Agriculture, which he considered an accurate record of the beliefs of the Sabians, who believed in idolatrous practices “and other superstitions mentioned in the Nabatean Agriculture.” He provided considerable detail about the Sabians in his Guide for the Perplexed (completed 1186–1190).
Hippolytus of Rome
Hippolytus of Rome describes how Elchasai, founder of the Elcesaites, preached in Parthia to the “Sobiai”. Academics agree that this is probably a reference to the Sabians.
In Bahá’í writings
The Sabians are also mentioned in the literature of the Bahá’í Faith. These references are generally brief, describing two groups 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 briefly 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.
The Syrian Christian, and later French 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 the Soubbhas. Siouffi’s work was well received by the Theosophist G. R. S. Mead, but scholars criticized the estimates and study.
Sir Austen Henry Layard
Layard mentions in his travel diary meeting a “travelling silversmith” who was “Sabaean or Christian of St. John”. He estimated around 300 to 400 families to live in Shooshtar and Basra at the time. He also mentioned Sabaeans to be under oppression from Turkish and Persian authorities.
21st century scholars
Twenty-first century scholars have possibly identified the Sabians as Mandaeans or Harranians. Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila (2002, 2006) notes that in the marsh areas of Southern Iraq, there was a continuous tradition of Mandaean religion, and that 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.
A group of modern-day people based in Iraq call themselves Sabians and follow the teachings of John the Baptist. They are Mandaeans (or Sabian Mandaeans). They are more urban than other Mandaeans living in southern Iraq, which perhaps explains why they prefer to be called Sabians. Due to their faith, pacifism and lack of tribal ties, they have been vulnerable to violence since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and numbered fewer than 5,000 in 2007. They primarily live around Baghdad, where the last sheik resides who conducts services and baptisms. Many from the sect have moved from Baghdad to Kurdistan where it is safer.