Al Biruni on the Sabians

Āthār 204.17-206.19 (ed. Sachau):

The first of those who were mentioned (i.e., pseudo-prophets) was Būdhāsaf. He appeared in the land of India at the completion of a year of the reign of ¬ahmūrath. He introduced Persian script and issued a summons to the religion of the ªābians, and numerous people followed him. The Bīshdādhian (i.e., the Pishdadian) rulers and some of the Kayānids who lived in Balkh worshiped the sun and the moon, the stars, and all the elements; and they revered them until the time of the appearance of Zarādusht at the end of thirty years of rule for Bishtāsf (i.e., Vishtaspa).

The remainder of those ªābians live in arrān, and based on their place (of dwelling), they are called arrānians. However, it has been said that the (gentilic) attribution is due to Hārān b. TeraÐ , the brother of Ibrahīm—upon him be peace—and that he was among their leaders, (being) the most intense of them in the religion and the fiercest of its devotees. Ibn Sankilā the Christian talks about him in his book wherein intending to refute their sect he filled (it) with the lies and absurdities which they (i.e., the ªābians) recount. (Ibn Sankilā relates their story) that Ibrahīm—upon whom be peace—left their group because leprosy had appeared on his foreskin, and that one who had this (disease) was polluted: they would not associate with such a one. For that reason, he cut off his foreskin—which means he circumcised himself—and then entered one of their idol temples. He heard a voice from an idol say to him, ‘O Ibrahīm! You left us with one defect, but you have come back to us with two defects! Depart and never return to us again!’ Overcome by rage at this (directive), he broke it (the idol) into pieces and departed from their group (i.e., the ªābians). Later he developed remorse for what he had done and planned to sacrifice his son to the planet Jupiter—in accordance, he claimed, with their custom of sacrificing their children—but when Jupiter realized that he was truly penitent, he ransomed him (his son) with a ram.

Likewise the Christian ‘Abd al-MasīÐ b. IsÐāq al-Kindī in his response to the book of ‘Abdallāh b. ’Ismā‘īl al-Hāšimī reports that they are famous for sacrificing human beings, but that they are unable today (to do so) openly.

By contrast, we know nothing about them except that they are a people who pronounce the oneness of God and declare Him to be far removed from that which is repulsive. They apply negative expressions to Him, not affirmations. Examples of their discourse are ‘He does not suffer,’ or ‘He does not see,’ or ‘He does not cause harm,’ or ‘He does not do wrong.’ They name Him with the ninety-nine attributes, but only figuratively, since according to them He cannot truly possess an attribute. They ascribe governance of the universe to the celestial sphere and its bodies, which they say are living, speaking, hearing, and seeing entities. They also esteem the fires.

Among their antiquities is the dome which is above the prayer niche near the ruler’s compartment in the central mosque of Damascus. It was their place of worship at the time the Greeks and Romans practiced their religion. Then it came into the possession of the Jews, and they made it their synagogue. Afterwards it was seized by the Christians, who made it a church until the advent of Islam, and the latter religion’s adherents acquired it as a mosque.

They (the ªābians) possessed temples and idols (who bore) the names of the sun (?), having fixed forms like (those) mentioned by Abū Ma‘shar al-Balkhī in his book on houses of worship, such as the temple of Ba‘al-bek which belonged to an idol of the sun.  arrān was ascribed to the moon, and they constructed it in its (i.e., the moon’s) shape like a ìailasān-shawl. Nearby was a town named ªelemsīn, its ancient name being ªanam-sīn; that is, ‘idol of the moon,’ as well as another town named Tera‘-‘Ūz; that is, ‘gate of Venus.’ They say that the Kaaba and its images was (originally) their (sanctuary), that those who worshiped them (the images) were members of their group, and that Allāh was known by the name ZuÐal (Saturn) and al-‘Uzzā by the name al-Zuhara (Venus). They have numerous prophets, most of them being Greek philosophers like the Egyptian Hermes, Aghādhīmūn, Wālīs, Pythagoras, Bābā, Sawār the maternal grandfather of Plato, and others like these. Some of them refuse to eat fish, fearful that it might be an electric ray; or poultry, because they are constantly feverish; or garlic, because it causes headaches (and) overheats the blood or the semen which supports the world; or beans, because they thicken the mind and corrupt it, for in the beginning they grew in the skulls of humans.

They have three fixed prayers. The first is at sunrise (with) eight raka‘āt, the second prior to the departure of the sun from the middle of the sky (with) five raka‘āt, and the third at sunset (with) five raka‘āt. Each rak‘a in their prayers consists of three prostrations. Moreover, they voluntarily engage in prayer at the second hour of daylight, again at the ninth hour of daylight, and a third time at the third hour after nightfall. They pray in a state of purity and ritual cleanliness, and they bathe themselves when they incur ritual impurity. They do not practice circumcision because they maintain that they were not commanded to do this.

Many of their rules regarding women and punishments are similar to Islamic regulations, whereas those (precepts) regarding the contraction of impurity by coming into contact with corpses and the like resemble what is in the (Jewish) Torah. They have offerings devoted to the stars, their images, and their temples, and their priests and charmers supervise the sacrifices. They elicit information from this (procedure) about what might happen to the one sacrificing, or (furnish) a reply to what he asks about.

The one named Hermes is Idrīs, who is mentioned in the (Jewish) Torah (under the name) AÐnūkh (i.e., Enoch). Some however claim that Būdhāsaf is Hermes.

It is also said that those termed arrānians are not truly the ‘ªābians’; rather, they are what the Scriptures call ‘pagans’ and ‘idolators.’ The (true) ªābians are those who remained behind in Babylon from that group of (Jewish) tribes who embarked for Jerusalem at the time of Cyrus and Artaxerxes. They were attracted to the teachings of the Zoroastrians and they ‘inclined’
(êabaw’) to the religion of Bukht-Naêêar (i.e., Nebuchadnezzar), and so they followed an ideology which combined Zoroastrianism and Judaism, like that of the Samaritans in Syria. Most of them can be found in W
āsiì , in Sawād al-‘Irāq, and in the region of Ja‘far, al-Jāmida, and Nahr al-ªila. They claim descent from ’Enūsh b. Shīth (i.e., Enosh, the son of Seth). They are at variance with the arrānians. They denounce their doctrines (and) do not agree with them except for a few things. Even when praying, they face the direction of the north pole, whereas the arrānians (face) towards the south.

Some of the People of the Book maintain that Methuselah had another son in addition to Lamech who was named ªābi’ and that the ªābians take their name from him.

Prior to the manifestation of rites and the advent of Būdhāsaf, the people living in the eastern portion of the world were (known as) ‘Shamaniyyin.’ They worshiped idols. Their remnant are now in India, China, and among the Toghuzghuz (Uighar Turks); the people of Khurāsān call them ‘Shamanān.’ Their remains and their idol-temples with their ornamentations are visible in the border-regions which join Khurāsān to India. They profess the infinite duration of time and the transmigration of souls.