The Sabians (Arabic: صابئة‎) of Middle Eastern tradition were a monotheistic Abrahamic religious group mentioned three times in the Quran: “the Jews, the Sabians, and the Christians.” In the Hadith they are nothing but converts to Islam, while their identity in later Islamic literature became a matter of discussion and investigation.

In the Quran

The Qur’an briefly announces the Sabians in three places and the Hadith provide further details as to who they were as people of the book:

  • “Verily! Those who believe and those who are Jews and Christians, and Sabians, … whoever believes in Allāh and the Last Day and do righteous good deeds shall have their reward with their Lord, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve .” Quran 2:62
  • “Those who believe (in the Qur’an) those who follow the Jewish (Scriptures) and the Sabians and the Christians―any who believe in Allāh and the Last Day, and work righteousness―on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.” Quran 5:69
  • “Verily, those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Sabians, and the Christians, and the Majus, and those who worship others besides Allāh, truly, Allāh will judge between them on the Day of Resurrection. Verily! Allāh is Witness over all things.” Quran 22:17

In later Islamic sources

According to Muslim authors, Sabians followed the fourth book of Abrahamic tradition, the Zaboor, which was given to the Prophet King David of Ancient Israel according to the Qur’an. The “Zaboor” 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 the vast majority of 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-Judaic prophet 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.

They are not to be confused with the Sabaeans of Sheba whose etymology is unrelated being spelled with an initial Arabic letter “Sin (ﺱ)” instead of the initial letter “Sad (ص)”.


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 called TheosebeiansGod-fearers“, Sebomenoi “Believers”, or Phobeomenoi (Φοβεόμενοι) “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” (such as an apostate from Islam) 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.


In the later ninth century AD, Arab authors focused upon the origins of the “Abrahamic” Sabians from the “Hellenistc” Sabians and went into much detail on the Harranian period before the time of Abraham. Most of this knowledge was translated in 904 AD 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 abouome heated dt 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, the actual nature of the Sabians has remained a matter of sebate 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 the Qur’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 have been discredited by scholars as to having any connection to the Sabians of the Qur’an except for their Ansar tribe, which practiced Qur’ānic Sabianism.  Al-Biruni (writing at the beginning of the eleventh century A.D.) 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 Ethel Drower (1937) these remaining tribes … adopted a system mixed up of Magism and Judaism.

Islamic reference

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 AD. 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.[citation needed]

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.”[citation needed]

According to Islamic scholars,[6] they did not reject the Prophets of Islam but neither did they regard it as obligatory to follow them. 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 AD) 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 Zaburakin to Christianity.  They appear to be between Judaism and Magianism,  but are in fact closer to Judaism.  Sābi’ūn recognise the practice of the prophet 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” (deriving from their religion Seboghatullah) means proselyte, and is identical in usage with the Greek words for Godfearers sebomenoi, theosebes, phobeomenoi.

Characteristics of the Sabi religion

Sābi’ūn knew God as the Rabb al-‘alihah (lord of gods) and ‘ilah al-‘alihah (god of gods) and speak to angels in their meditations, each of whom they believe dwell in different stars, which has led to the erroneous beliefs among some that Sābi’ūn worship angels while others derogatorily call them star-worshipers (and so it is said in Arabic saba’at al-nujūm, meaning “the stars appeared”). Sābi’ūn read from the Zaboor (as with the Slavonic Subbotniki or Psaltirschiki) and use the sun for a qiblah, facing the equator at mid day.  Their fundamental teaching is La ilahah il Allah (there is no god but Allah), but besides this ardent unitarianism, Sābi’ūn are quite akin to Christians.   Hanif Sabians are more universal, looking to Noah as their prophet of the Dīn.  Sābi’ūn have five daily prayers (though Zohar can join Asr while Ma’ariv can join Isha giving the appearance of three). They believe in all prophets, reiterating the Din of Noah and, not in the same way as the Muslims, believe in the Seal of the prophets.  They also fast for 30 days.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

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    Mar 30, 2012 @ 10:42:29

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    Mar 25, 2012 @ 13:30:31

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