The word hanif which occurs twelve times in the Koran - ten times in its singular, and twice in its plural form - is puzzling, and the manner of its use is also puzzling. Moslem tradition tells of various individuals who were hanifs. Western scholars have been critical of these stories, and rightly so. But though various theories have been put forward as to their real identity, no satisfactory solution of the problem has yet been given. One hesitates to add to the ink which has already been spilt over the question, but a solution on somewhat new lines has lately suggested itself to me, which seems worthy of a short explanation.

The suggestion came to me from reading a discussion of the word hanif in a thesis by Dr. Arthur Jeffery, of Cairo, on The Foreign Vocabulary of the Koran - a valuable work which it is to be hoped may soon find a publisher. Dr. Jeffery there makes it clear that the derivation of the word from the native Arabic hanafa', to incline, or lean away from, which I had formerly adopted, was very improbable; and gave his vote in favor of its derivation from the Syriac hanpa; heathen. He also stresses the fact that as used in the Koran the word is closely associated with Abraham who at a particular stage in Mohammed's career plays an important part in his thought. All our hanif passages, he points out, belong to the period when Mohammed was claiming that he went back to a revelation earlier than either Judaism or Christianity, the millat Ibrahim, which he was republishing to the Arabs. There in a nutshell, it seems to me, we have the whole secret.

With regard to the derivation of the word, the vowel of the second syllable of hanif is fatal to its derivation from Syriac hanpa in its singular form; but this objection vanishes at once when we look at the plurals for the Arabic hunafa' is as close a reproduction of the Syriac hanephe as there is any need to demand. We may therefore assume that the word was borrowed in its plural form, and that the singular hanif was formed from that in accordance with one of the rules of correspondence between singular and plural forms in Arabic. If now we ask who the hunafa' were, it strikes us at once that in the language of the Syriac-speaking Christians, the unconverted Arabs would be referred to as hanephe, heathen. As a first step, then, we may conclude that the hunafa' were the Arabs who were neither Jews nor Christians, but who continued to follow the ancient native religion.

But how then comes the word to be used by Mohammed as the very antithesis of polytheist, and as practically equivalent to Moslem? For whenever in the Koran Abraham is said to have been a hanif, it is also added that he was not one of those who associate (other gods with Allah). The answer to this question requires some wider consideration of Mohammed's ideas and their development.

Mohammed began his religious mission as the messenger of God to his own town of Mecca. He believed, probably sincerely enough, that God had called him to proclaim the great doctrine that there is no god but One, and to combat the old polytheism. Mecca had risen in comparatively recent times to wealth and prosperity. On the material side of life it was in touch with the lands of culture which lay just beyond the bounds of Arabia. But it was almost untouched by the spiritual side of the life of these countries. Any influence which that had exerted had probably been negative, tending to undermine the old religion. In any case the new conditions of wealth were playing havoc with the kindliness and equality of the old life. Mohammed saw his people materially prosperous, but spiritually backward. He set himself therefore to transplant into their minds some of the "knowledge" of things religious which those who dwelt in more enlightened lands possessed. His own acquaintance with that "knowledge" was limited enough; and the opposition of the Meccans to his fundamental doctrine of Monotheism gave a denunciatory cast to the bulk of his deliverances there. But a certain amount of positive teaching he had acquired and promulgated in the Koran before he migrated to Medina. For this he had looked to those who had been Monotheists before him, i. e., to Jews and Christians. It is almost impossible to decide in particulars whether he drew upon Jewish or Christian sources. Nor does it greatly matter. For he does not in the early stages appear to have distinguished between them. All religion was for him revealed religion, and the content of the revelation given by the one God must be one. In any case, he had been in the habit of looking to previous Monotheists as the source of his knowledge, and he naturally assumed that they would agree with him.

When now he came to Medina, he was brought into close association with Jews. Some passages in the Koran seem to suggest that before he went there he had received some promise of support from them. He accuses them afterwards of having broken the covenant of Allah, but it is not clear whether that refers to some definite pledge, or to some theoretical moral obligation under which they lay, as followers of a former prophet, to support a new prophet when he came (Surah III, 75). It is, however, fairly clear that the Jews, or some of them at least, did support him to begin with, and that he was quite disposed to accept, and did accept, certain practices from Judaism, the qibla or direction of prayer towards Jerusalem amongst them. Differences, however, soon began to develop. Islam had already to a certain extent taken shape in Mecca, and did not quite agree with Judaism. Perhaps too Mohammed, ready as he was to borrow from the Jews, had functioned too long as an independent "messenger" to brook with patience the tutelage to which at close quarters his mentors were probably disposed to subject him. There is some petulance in the remark that neither the Jews nor the Christians would be satisfied with him until he followed their form of religion (II, 114). Worst of all, he had schemes of his own, involving hostilities with the Meccans, from which the Jews shrank. His hopes of support from them were disappointed.

The outward sign of a new orientation on Mohammed's part was the change of qibla from Jerusalem to Mecca. This was not carried through without difficulty, as the confusion of the passage in the Koran (II, 136ff.) dealing with the subject, shows. But it was important, and he pressed it. It was indeed a momentous change.

But why Mecca? The town which had rejected him, against whose inhabitants he was planning revenge, the center of the religion which he had hitherto been combating!

It was not only his own differences with the Jews which had been troubling Mohammed. He found also differences between Jews and Christians. How was this possible in religions which professed to be founded on revelation from the one God? He had found, too, in the course of his enquiries into the histories of former prophets, that it was not a case of one messenger being sent to each people, as he had at first apparently assumed. The Bani Isra'il had had a whole succession of prophets sent to them. Of the great prophets not only Moses but Jesus also had been sent to the Bani Isra'il. Their having once received the revelation, therefore, did not preclude the necessity of another prophet being afterwards sent. His answer to the problem of the differences amongst those who had received the Book, as formulated in Surah III, 17 (a verse older than its present setting) is: "Religion as it is with Allah is Islam; those who have been given the Book did not differ, except after the (revealed) knowledge had come to them, out of hatred among themselves. That is, the original revelation had been the same, but in course of time Jews and Christians had both departed from the purity of the Faith, and had gone their own ways. The basic content of true religion was always the same - the neccessity of surrender to the one God - but religions degenerated and needed to be restored.

Now Mohammed had to do with another religion besides Judaism and Christianity - the religion of the Arabs, or in the language of those from whom he had hitherto taken his information on religious matters, the hunafa'. That also must be the degeneration of a pristine pure revelation. Further, Abraham through Ishmael was the progenitor of the Arabs. He therefore must have been the founder of the religion of the hunafa'. He was the hanif, par excellence, but as Mohammed is always careful to add, in order to prevent misconceptions, he was not one of the Polytheists. The hanif religion as he founded it, was, like all other revealed religions, a pure monotheism; and as Abraham was earlier in time than both Judaism and Christianity, his religion was purer than either of them had ever been. It was nearer the origin of things. It was "the religion upon which Allah created the people" (XXX, 29).

This was the religion, then, which Mohammed now conceived himself as commissioned to restore. His face is henceforth set, not towards Judaism or Christianity, but towards the assumed pure original of the Arab religion. That is why he chooses Abraham as his prototype, makes Mecca, the center of Arab religion, his qibla, and from now on deliberately incorporates into Islam such portions of Arab practice as seemed to him consistent with Monotheism.

To sum up: the hanifs were the followers of the ideal original of Arab religion. They were no sect or party of historical people, but the product of Mohammed's unresting mind.



Muslim World, Volume XXIX, 1949, pp. 120-125.

Essays by Richard Bell
Answering Islam Home Page