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17. Understanding Islam

1.4. Hanifs (Hunafā')

There is also evidence of other monotheistic religions, quite possibly influenced by local Jews and Christians, though we cannot say for sure. Those who followed such religions were known as Hanifs (or in Arabic, Hunafā’); they did not form a single community of believers or worshippers or hold to any prescribed doctrine, but rather Hanifs was something of a blanket term used to refer to people with vaguely similar beliefs.

One of the prominent Hanifs was the poet Umaiya ibn Abī-Salt. Umaiya used to say that every religion would be rejected by Allah on the last day, except the religion of the Hanifs. Islamic sources say that Umaiya claimed to be a prophet during the time just before Mohammed declared his own prophethood; stories are told about him which are very similar to those which Muslims tell about Mohammed, such as the angels opening his heart to purify it, and his ability to speak to animals. Mohammed was familiar with Umaiya and his writing and was likely influenced by him; the Qur’anic verse “And whoever desires other than Islām as religion – never will it be accepted from him, and he, in the Hereafter, will be among the losers” (Qur'an 3:85) is very similar to Umaiya’s quote at the beginning of this paragraph. Umaiya is said to have met Mohammed and rejected his message, prompting Mohammed to say that “[h]is poems believed but his heart didn’t believe.”

Another was a preacher named Quss bin Sāʽīda, whose oratory skills were highly admired among pre-Islamic Arabs. Quss died before Mohammed declared prophethood, but Mohammed was familiar with his teaching. We learn more about the influence of Quss on Mohammed from the Muslim historians Ibn Hisham and Ibn Kathir. Ibn Hisham relates a conversation between Mohammed (now a self-declared prophet) and his followers including a poet named Jarud:

“Mohammed asked ‘Does anyone among you know Quss bin Saida?’ Jarud answered ‘Of course, O Messenger of Allah. We all know him. I know much about him because I always follow his path.’ Thereupon, our Holy Prophet (PBUH) answered: ‘The sermon that Quss bin Saida read upon a camel during the Suq Uqaz in which he said, “The one who lives will die and the one who dies will feel deep regret. Whatever is meant to happen will occur” never leaves my mind. He recited other words of a strange and wonderful eloquence that I find I do not recall.’” (Ibn Hisham, Sirah).

Ibn Kathir, continues the story:

“When Mohammed heard the sermon by Quss in which he says ‘Where is he who oppresses and tyrannises, he who collected money and laid it up, saying, “I am your most high lord?” Were they not richer than you, living longer than you? Moist earth has ground them callously and torn them apart arrogantly. Lo! Their bones are decaying. Their houses are devastated, being inhabited by howling wolves.’ Mohammed said ‘May Allah have mercy upon his soul; Quss was a prophet between me and Jesus.’” (Tarjamat of Quss bin Sai'da in al-Bidaya wal-Nihaya by Ibn Kathir).

Those of you familiar with the Qur’an may recognise a similarity between Quss’s sermon and parts of the Qur’an, both in terms of rhythmic style and actual phrasing. We can certainly say that Quss was influential in the development of Mohammed’s message.

Other Hanifs had some overlapping beliefs with Islam. One for example, a man named Zayd ibn Amr, used to rebuke the religion of the Quraysh (Mohammed’s tribe): “O Quraysh, none of you is following Abraham's religion except me.” Zayd modified his diet; he didn’t eat carrion, blood, or anything that had been slaughtered for an idol. He opposed infanticide which was wildly practiced among Arabs, and he wrote many poems denouncing idol worship and preaching his beliefs such as:

“Am I to worship one lord or a thousand?
If there are as many as you claim,
I renounce al-Lat and al-Uzza, both of them,
as any strong-minded person would.
I will not worship al-Uzza and her two daughters …
I will not worship, though he was our lord
in the days when I had little sense.”

Other Hanifs had legal authority, such as Aktham bin Saifi who was considered one of the wisest rulers in Arabia before Islam. Many of his rulings were adopted by Mohammed. It was reported when Aktham saw the children of Abd al-Muttalib (Mohammed’s grandfather), he said “If Allah wants to start an empire, those are the people He would choose, those are the seed of Allah not the seed of men”.

Muslims consider that the Hanifs, rejecting the idolatry so common among Arabs, were those who maintained the pure monotheism of Abraham and retained some or all tenets of the religion of Abraham. In pre-Islamic Arabia it was, as we have noted, not used to refer to Jews or Christians; however, the Qur’an attempts to bring these monotheistic religions together, using the term to refer to Christians and Jews once (Qur’an 98:5), Muslims once (Qur’an 22:31), and Abraham ten times. It has been suggested though that this is more a product of Mohammed’s wishful thinking to legitimize his claim to be the last in a long line of prophets than to actually describe a single belief system (which as we have said above, it was not).

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