The Sābians of Harrān

Their is much debate, without clear evidence to any of the hypotheses, about who “the Sābians” of the Quran were. The word “Sābian” in Arabic (Sābi’a/ as-Sabi’ūn) translates to “pagan” in English.

The Sābians of Harrān who existed from the seventh century up until the late-eleventh or the early-twelfth century were, essentially, a star-worshipping group from the caliphate’s city of Harrān, Syria (located in modern-day Harrān, Turkey about 60km south of the megalithic archaeology site of Göbekli Tepe, Turkey) that used the guise of the prophet Idris/Hermes to practice their local Harrānian pagan-religion with protection, during the Islamic conquest, as their religion was (supposedly) approved of in the Quran in 3 seperate verses (2:62, 5:69, 22:17). 

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The beginning of the confusion arising around the Sābians of Harrān is the fact that they are split into two main groups: The Sābians of Harrān, and the Harrānian Sābians of Baghdād- these were the followers and descendants of the family of Thābit ibn Qurra who emigrated from Harrān to the caliphate’s capital city of Baghdād.

We know that the Syriac word that Thabit Ibn Qurra used for his religion was hanpūtā, the equivalent of “pagan” in English. Many questions about the Harrānian religion under Islamic rule remain to this day.

Were the Harrānian Sābians star worshippers? Platonists or Neoplatonists; Gnostics or Hermeticists? Or perhaps a mixture of two (or more) of these religions/philosophies?

The existence of the few passages citing Hermes Trismegistus, Poimandres, and citing passages from the Corpus Hermeticum in the Prophecies of the Pagan Philosophers gives us evidence that Hermes was considered to be important for the Harrānians, although only as a single name among many ancient philosophers, and not seen as a sole prophet or god.

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Theodore Abū Qurra, Bishop of Harrān said that,

they claimed that they worship the seven planets… and the twelve zodiacal houses… They said that their prophet is Hermes the Sage.

Evidence from al-Kindī states that the Harrānian Sābians’ view of the world is entirely based on Aristotelian philosophy, while Abu Ma’shar (who will be discussed later for the legend for the three Hermeses) said that the Harrānians claimed the wisdom of the first Hermes as their own.

In his Murūj adh-dhahab, al-Mas’ūdī names Hermes as one of the prophets of the Sābians. And that they “claim Enoch to be Hermes and that Hermes means ‘Utārid’ (Mercury).”

In the end, we find very little evidence of Hermetic literature among the Harrānian Sābians, just brief mentions of Hermes as one of their prophets and also mentions of Hermes’ son, Tat, along with a few verses from the Corpus Hermeticum, but no evidence is found that any copies of the Hermetica, translated into Arabic, were widely known among the Sābians of Harrān.

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