The Sabians (Mandaeans) and the Sabaeans (Kingdom of Sheba and Harrānites)
Mark A. Foster, Ph.D.
 

• Mark A. Foster, Ph.D.
• Personal Perspectives

As discussed in a memorandum from the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice, Baháʾí texts refer to both to the Sabians (or Mandaeans) and to the Sabaeans (or Harrānites). Shoghi Effendi himself stated that the second of these two religions, Sabaeanism, was divinely revealed.

The Old Testament Sabaeans (Ṣābiʾūn) of Sheba are not mentioned by name in the Qurʾān. However, the story of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba is contained in sūrah 27 (an-Naml, the Ants).

As the Guardian of the Cause of God, Shoghi Effendi was an authorized interpreter of the Baháʾí Sacred Texts. He was neither an academic religious studies scholar nor a trained theologian. Many of the difficulties in understanding the Guardian, and the letters written on his behalf, arise from a misunderstanding, in my view, of his status and function.

To illustrate, Shoghi Effend’s statements about the validity of the Virgin Birth are, in my view, hermeneutic (interpretive), not historical. There is no historical evidence for the event. Whether the narrative actually “happened,” in the manner described within the Bible or the Qurʾān, or was a parable is an unknown.

An accurate interpretation of a text, by anyone, is dependent upon having access to sufficient information. Moreover, Shoghi Effendi was clearly not immune from making historical errors. He, like many others till this day, once mistook the Immaculate Conception for the Virgin Birth. Similarly, the difficulties surrounding the Founder of the Sabaeans might be attributed to a confusion between two movements with similar names.

The following quotation is taken from Kitáb-i-Badí by Baháʾuʾlláh:

As to the Sabeans, they do worship the names of the stars and claim that they got their religion from Seth and Idrís; they trace their origin to Sábí, son of Idrís and also believe in Yahyá, son of Zachariah [John, the Baptist]. They do expect the Manifestation of Jesus, Son of Mary. In the Presence of the Throne they are mentioned as the Sabeans.

(áʾín-i Sábiʾín by Ruhu'llah Mihrabkhani, Institute for Baháʾí Studies in Persian, Dundas/Ontario, 1994)

It goes without saying that Baháʾuʾlláh, as with Shoghi Effendi, was not a historian. He was a divine Revelator, and His Mission was to unite the human race. His unifying approach to the identity of the Sabaeans can, I believe, be regarded in this light. By appealing to inclusion, He resolved, in a single verse, the long-standing dispute concerning the Sabaeans (Sabians) as Mandaeans versus the Sabaeans as Harrānites.

Furthermore, as explained by the Research Department of The Universal House of Justice:

... Shoghi Effendi in his talks to the pilgrims [as in the Maxwell Notes] is reported to have described the followers of the traditional pagan African beliefs as the remnants of the Sabaeans.

See also this compilation on the Sabaeans and their descendants.

It appears to me that Baháʾuʾlláh was resolving the controversy concerning the identity of the “true” Qurʾānic Sabians by appealing to inclusivism. That is to say, He used it as a general rubric for more than one religious system. Both systems, He revealed, had divine origin.

To be clear, the category of “Sabaeanism” might be replaced, for academic (and perhaps popular) purposes, with a term such as, “certain indigenous Arabian religions,” such as the Mandaeans of ʿIrāq and the descendants of the Sabaeans of Yemen (Yamān). Shoghi Effendi, in a letter from his secretary quoted further down this page, referred to Ur (now in ʿIrāq) as the original location for the Sabaeans (Sheba), but the Kingdom of Sheba was in present-day Yemen. The Sabians (Mandaeans) are indigenous to ʿIrāq.


• “The Identity of the Ṣabiʾūn: An Historical Quest
• Christopher Buck
The Muslim World


• From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and Canada, August 7, 1936
Lights of Guidance, number 1567
• John the Baptist as a Prophet

As to the list of the prophets with whom Baháʾuʾlláh identified Himself in the passage found on pages 26 and 27 of ‘The Dispensation of Baháʾuʾlláh,’ their names are as follows: Abraham, Moses, Joseph, John the Baptist, Jesus, Imám Husayn, on whom Baháʾuʾlláh has conferred an exceptionally exalted station, (and) the Báb.


Sabaeans (Sheba) and Sabians (Mandaeans)
• Research Department of The Universal House of Justice

Baháʾuʾlláh, in His Tablets in the Persian language, describes two different groups as Sabaeans. They are,

  • the followers of an ancient religion who worship idols named after stars and who claim to have taken their religion from Seth and Idrís;
  • the followers of John the Baptist who failed to recognise Jesus as the Manifestation of God. He further states that this group is known to some as Sabaeans and that it continues to exist in the world. [This is often spelled "Sabian" when referring to those who live in the Arabian Peninsula.]

Contents:
    African-based Religion in the Americas; Visionary Appearances of the Virgin Mary; UFOs, Abductions, Alien Genetic Engineering
    1. The Baháʾí Attitude and Response to the Religion of Santería (Lucumí, CandomblZ) - and to Palo Kongo (Monte, Mayombe) and Macumba (Umbanda, Quimbanda)
    1.1 Relationship with Sabaeanism
    1.2 Attitude of the Baháʾí Faith to "Yoruba-based New World Religions"
    2. Visionary Appearances and Apparent Miracles of the Virgin Mary at Fátima (Portugal), Medugorje (Bosnia-Herzegovina) and Elsewhere
    3. UFOs, Alien Abduction and Genetic Engineering
    Notes

MEMORANDUM

From: Research Department
The Universal House of Justice
Date: 6 August 1996
To: David García

(Note: Comments later added by Mr. García, not appearing in this letter originally, are enclosed in [brackets])


African-based Religion in the Americas; Visionary Appearances of the Virgin Mary; UFOs, Abductions, Alien Genetic Engineering

The Research Department has studied the request for informative materials which illuminate the Baháʾí perspective on the above-listed subjects raised by Mr. David García in his letter dated 15 May 1996 to the Universal House of Justice. We provide the following response:

1.
The Baháʾí Attitude and Response to the Religion of Santería (Lucumí, CandomblZ) - and to Palo Kongo (Monte, Mayombe) and Macumba (Umbanda, Quimbanda)

Mr. García attaches a detailed description of these religious movements and their impact in the Americas. He refers to the African-based religions of the Americas as "modern religions of the Western Hemisphere based on the strong traditions of Yoruba [YOH-roo-bah] slaves, mixed with some aspects of Catholicism and influenced by modern theosophical "spiritism" (espiritismo)". While their followers are typically found in Cuba, Hati, and Brazil, increasingly, these groups are attracting successful professionals, academics, and entertainers in New York, Miami and Los Angeles.

The explanatory material provided by Mr. García serves as background to the specific questions he poses.

1.1 Relationship with Sabaeanism

Mr. García enquires whether the traditional religion of the Yoruba of Nigeria derived from the religion of the Sabaean [Sah-BEE-an] Prophet (as some pilgrims' notes suggest)? And, given the similarities that appear to exist between pre-Christian European beliefs and religious forms and those found in Africa, he asks whether ancient European religion also derived from the original Sabaean religion? He provides the following definition of what he intends by the Sabaean religion:
The Sabaean religion here is the one that probably originated in the land of Saba (Sheba) in the south of the Arabian Peninsula..., not the Sabian [SAY-bee-an] religion ... that is referred to in the Qurʾán and said to be made up of the remnants of the followers of John the Baptist who did not accept Jesus Christ [also called Mandeans in 'Iráq and Irán].

Before endeavouring to address these questions, it is useful to consider the fact that the Baháʾí Teachings contain few references to Sabaeanism. As Mr. García is aware, Baháʾuʾlláh, in His Tablets in the Persian language, describes two different groups as Sabaeans. They are,

  • the followers of an ancient religion who worship idols named after stars and who claim to have taken their religion from Seth and Idrís;

  • the followers of John the Baptist who failed to recognise Jesus as the Manifestation of God. He further states that this group is known to some as Sabaeans and that it continues to exist in the world. [This is often spelled "Sabian" when referring to those who live in the Arabian Peninsula.]

    As to the Sabaeans who claim to derive their religion from Seth and Idrís, the Research Department has, to date, been able to locate only one additional brief reference in the Baháʾí Writings to Seth. In The Promulgation of Universal Peace: Talks Delivered by ʿAbduʾl-Bahá during His Visit to the United States and Canada in 1912 (Wilmette: Baháʾí Publishing Trust, 1982), page 365, the Master describes Seth as one of the "sons of Adam". There are, however, two very interesting references to Idrís contained in a footnote which appears on page 148 of Tablets of Baháʾuʾlláh Revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas (Wilmette: Baháʾí Publishing Trust, 1988). One is a quotation from the Qurʾán 19:57-58, which states: "And commemorate Idrís in the Book; for he was a man of truth, a Prophet; And we uplifted him to a place on high."

    The second is a statement by Baháʾuʾlláh in which He identifies Idrís with Hermes:
    The first person who devoted himself to philosophy was Idrís. Thus was he named. Some called him also Hermes. In every tongue he hath a special name. He it is who hath set forth in every branch of philosophy thorough and convincing statements. After him Balínus [Pliny?] derived his knowledge and sciences from the Hermetic Tablets and most of the philosophers who followed him made their philosophical and scientific discoveries from his words and statements....

    The connection between Idrís and Sabaeanism is interesting because it confirms not only the extreme antiquity of this group of Sabaeans, but also the fact that knowledge of the religion has spread over the earth - Baháʾuʾlláh affirms concerning Idrís, "In every tongue he hath a special name". It should be noted, however, that Baháʾuʾlláh does not specifically name Idrís as the Prophet of the Sabaeans.

    In letters written on his behalf, cited below, Shoghi Effendi stresses the general lack of conclusive historical records concerning the origins of the Sabaean religion:
    Regarding Mirza Abu'l-Fadl's statement in his book The Baháʾí Proofs to the effect that the great religions of the world, excluding the Dispensations of the Báb and Baháʾuʾlláh, are seven in number: what the author meant by that statement is that there are only seven great religions of which there is some existing trace or record, and not that only seven religions have so far appeared in the world. These seven religions mentioned by Mírzá Abu'l-Fadl are the following: Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islám, and the religion of the Sabaeans, which was originally monotheistic, and became gradually corrupted, and to which Abraham's forefathers are believed to have belonged.
    (9 July 1939 to an individual believer)

    As to the religion of the Sabaeans, very little is known about the origins of this religion, though we Baháʾís are certain of one thing, that the founder of it has been a divinely-sent Messenger. The country where Sabaeanism became widespread and flourished was Chaldea, and Abraham is considered as having been a follower of that Faith.
    (10 November 1939 to an individual believer)

    With reference to your question concerning the Sabaean and Hindu religions: there is nothing in the Teachings that could help us in ascertaining which one of these two Faiths is older. Neither history seems to be able to provide a definite answer to this question. The records concerning the origin of these religions are not sufficiently detailed and reliable to offer any conclusive evidence on this point.
    (9 November 1940 to an individual believer)

    The teachings throw no light on the Prophet of the Sabaeans. The followers of this religion lived in Ur of the Chaldees, where Abraham appeared.
    (30 July 1941 to an individual believer)

    For more information on this subject, Mr. García is also referred to the writings of Mírzá Abu'l-Fadl, specifically, The Baháʾí Proofs (Wilmette: Baháʾí Publishing Trust, 1983), and an article entitled "Explanation of Daniel's Interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar's Dream" which is published in Star of the West, 28 April 1916, volume VII, number 3, pages 17-24. A copy of this article is attached for ease of reference.

    With regard to the specific questions raised by Mr. García, as he correctly notes, Shoghi Effendi in his talks to the pilgrims is reported to have described the followers of the traditional pagan African beliefs as the remnants of the Sabaeans. However, with the possible exception of the statement in the Tablet of Baháʾuʾlláh concerning Idrís and the suggestion that knowledge of this religion was spread over the earth, the Research Department has not been able to locate any references in the Baháʾí Writings which address the issues raised by Mr. García.

    1.2 Attitude of the Baháʾí Faith to "Yoruba-based New World Religions"

    Mr. García enquires whether the Baháʾí Writings comment on the immense popularity and current explosive growth of these Yoruba-based religions in the New World and he asks about the Baháʾí view of the "possession" that takes place during the ceremonies that invoke the Yoruba "Orishas" [orishas, orizas] (spirits, gods).

    While we have not found any specific reference to these religious movements in the writings of the Faith, Mr. García might well be interested in Shoghi Effendi's discussion of the "universal fermentation" that characterizes the "Age of Transition", one feature of which is the decline in recognised religions and the subsequent emergence of an increasing number of obscure cults, of strange new worships, of ineffective philosophies, whose sophisticated doctrines have intensified the confusion of a troubled age. [1]

    As to the Baháʾí view of the "possession" that takes place during Yoruba ceremonies and other such "supernatural" phenomena, Mr. García might find it useful to refer to Some Answered Questions, page 252. ʿAbduʾl-Bahá indicates that, in general, the "converse, presence and communications of spirits is but imagination and fancy, which only appears to have reality". The Universal House of Justice in a letter dated 30 August 1984 written on its behalf to an individual believer provides the following guidance concerning the attitude toward the "psychic arts" of other people:
    The important thing for Baháʾís to understand is that the influence of such "arts" is dependent on the conviction, even the sub-conscious conviction, of the person affected and, similarly, the power of the "priests" to overcome the influence is likewise an outcome of the sufferer's conviction that it is from the "priest" that he or she will be able to obtain help.

    For Mr. García's study we attach a compilation entitled Psychic Phenomena and Practices which pertains, in a general way, to his question. We wish to draw his attention to the following extracts, drawn from this compilation, which summarize the teachings on this topic:
    We must use the Writings of the Prophets as our measurement. If Baháʾuʾlláh had attached the slightest importance to occult experiences, to the seeing of auras, to the hearing of mystic voices; if He had believed that reincarnation was a fact, He, Himself, would have mentioned all of these things in His Teachings. The fact that He passed over them in silence shows that to Him, they had either no importance or no reality, and were consequently not worthy to take up His time as the Divine Educator of the human race.

    We must turn our faces away from these things, and toward the actual practice of His Teachings in our everyday life through our Baháʾí Administration, and in our contact with other people and the examples we give.
    (From a letter dated 22 April 1954 written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer)

    While such accounts are interesting and provoke one's curiosity, we have no way of checking the veracity of such experiences. Shoghi Effendi has advised in his letters to the friends who asked him about psychic powers that we do not understand the nature of such phenomena, that we have no way of being sure what is true and what is false, that very little is known about the mind and its workings, and that we should endeavour to avoid giving undue consideration to such matters.
    (From a letter dated 16 May 1985 written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer)

    With regard to Mr. García's question about how Baháʾís might best teach "the people of the culture of these religions", since this is a matter which is better dealt with through discussion and requires knowledge of local conditions, it is suggested that it might be helpful for Mr. García to consult with his Local Spiritual Assembly or an Auxiliary Board member for specific ideas about how to proceed.

    2.
    Visionary Appearances and Apparent Miracles of the Virgin Mary at Fátima (Portugal), Medugorje (Bosnia-Herzegovina) and Elsewhere

    Mr. García asks about the Baháʾí view of these visions of the Virgin Mary, the explanation of the miracles that accompany such appearances, and the nature of the messages conveyed therein, and whether there might be some connection between the miracles and UFO sightings.

    In addressing these issues, it may be helpful to begin by recalling the words of the Guardian's secretary in a 1 November 1940 letter written on his behalf in response to an individual believer who asked Shoghi Effendi about the validity of visions:
    There is a fundamental difference between Divine Revelation as vouchsafed by God to His Prophets, and the spiritual experiences and visions which individuals may have. The latter should, under no circumstances, be construed as constituting an infallible source of guidance, even for the person experiencing them.

    Moreover, the Universal House of Justice has provided specific guidance to various individual believers who have submitted to it similar queries. In a 3 July 1984 letter written on its behalf, for example, it offers the following comments:
    While such accounts as the reported experiences in Garabandal and Fátima could be interesting and provoke one's curiosity, we have no way of checking the veracity of such experiences. Shoghi Effendi has advised in his letters to the friends who asked him about psychic powers that we do not understand the nature of such phenomena, that we have no way of being sure of what is true and what is false, that very little is known about the mind and its workings, and that we should endeavour to avoid giving undue consideration to such matters. God undoubtedly has many and various methods of awakening mankind to the significance of this day, but Baháʾís, having recognized Baháʾuʾlláh, should work in the full light of His Revelation and not divert their energies into fruitless speculations concerning such phenomena as those of Garabandal.

    In addition to citing the above remarks of the Guardian with respect to the fruitlessness of speculation regarding psychic powers and phenomena, the Universal House of Justice offers the following guidance in a 28 July 1993 letter written on its behalf:

    Concerning the many stories that circulate about the "Letters of Fátima", in a letter dated 29 November 1963, written to an individual believer by the Universal House of Justice, the following statement has been made:

      ...While this is extremely interesting and provokes one's curiosity, it is not a matter for speculation by the Baháʾís. The answers to your questions are wholly the affairs of the Catholic Church, and none of our concern. We should rely on the Baháʾí Writings to attract the souls athirst for the life-giving Message of Baháʾuʾlláh, and not writings of doubtful authority whose import is at best speculative.

    Finally, in a 2 October 1981 letter written on its behalf to another believer, the Universal House of Justice writes as follows concerning the vision of Fátima:
    As to your second question concerning the vision of Fátima, everyone is entitled to his own interpretations and is free to write about them as long as he does not ascribe his views to Baháʾí writings. Nothing has been found here in these writings concerning the visions at Fátima or what is referred to as the Fátima document.

    3.
    UFOs, Alien Abduction and Genetic Engineering

    Mr. García refers to a book entitled Abduction, written by a Harvard psychiatrist, Dr. John Mack, which posits that
    ... alien beings of a vastly superior intelligence, who are possibly from other planets or dimensions, or from our own distant future, have been conducting genetic experiments on unwilling humans to produce a crossbreed between humans and aliens (reportedly to repopulate our planet with a more peaceful species after we destroy ourselves).

    Mr. García comments on the popularity of this topic and mentions that a number of Baháʾís claim to have had experiences similar to those associated with abduction by aliens. He requests guidance concerning how to respond to such matters.

    The Baháʾí Teachings do not deal specifically with the subjects of alien abduction and genetic engineering. The following extracts concerning unidentified flying objects might be of assistance to Mr. García:
    There is nothing in the Teachings about spaceships; and the Guardian does not feel this is a subject on which he can offer the friends any advice whatsoever. Indeed, to be frank, he is so busy with the work of the Cause that he seldom has time to devote much thought to speculation of this nature, however fascinating it may be.
    (From a letter dated 15 February 1957 written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to several believers)

    As you rightly state, Baháʾuʾlláh affirms that every fixed star has its planets, and every planet its own creatures. The House of Justice states however, that it has not discovered anything in the Baháʾí Writings which would indicate the degree of progress such creatures may have attained. Obviously, as creatures of earth have managed to construct space probes and send them into outer space, it can be believed that creatures on other planets may have succeeded in doing likewise.

    Regarding the attitude Baháʾís should take toward unidentified flying objects, the House of Justice points out that they fall in the category of subjects open to scientific investigation, and as such, may be of interest to some, but not necessarily to everyone. In any case, Baháʾís have a fundamental obligation at this stage of the development of the earth's people, that is, the responsibility of spreading the unifying Message of Baháʾuʾlláh.
    (From a letter dated 11 January 1982 written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer)

    Notes

    [1] See The World Order of Baháʾuʾlláh: Selected Letters (Wilmette: Baháʾí Publishing Trust, 1991), pp. 170-186.


  • 54. The number nine, which in itself is the number of perfection, is considered by the Baháʾís as sacred because it is symbolic of the perfection of the Baháʾí Revelation, which constitutes the ninth in the line of existing 20 religions, the latest and fullest Revelation which mankind has ever known. The eighth is the Religion of the Báb, and the remaining seven are: Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islám and the religion of the Sabaeans. These religions are not the only true religions that have appeared in the world, but are the only ones which are still existing. There have always been divine prophets and messengers, to many of whom the Qurʾán refers. But the only ones existing are those mentioned above.

    (28 July 1936)

    55. The nine religions to which you have referred include both the Bábí and the Baháʾí Dispensations, Baháʾuʾlláh being the ninth Prophet in the series. The other Prophets included are Zoroaster, Krishna, Moses, the Christ, Muhammad, Buddha, the Prophet of the Sabaeans Whose name is unrecorded, the Báb and Baháʾuʾlláh.... Buddha appeared in the Adamic cycle....

    (13 July 1938)

    56. Regarding Lao-Tse: the Baháʾís do not consider him a prophet, or even a secondary prophet or messenger, unlike Buddha or Zoroaster, both of Whom were divinely appointed and fully independent Manifestations of God.

    As to the religion of the Sabaeans, very little is known about the origins of this religion, though we Baháʾís are certain of one thing, that the founder of it has been a divinely-sent Messenger. The country where Sabaeanism became widespread and flourished was Chaldea, and Abraham is considered as having been a follower of that Faith.

    (10 November 1939)

    57. With reference to your question concerning the Sabaean and Hindu religions: there is nothing in the Teachings that could help us in ascertaining which one of these two Faiths is older. Neither history seems to be able to provide a definite answer to this question. The records concerning the origin of these religions are not sufficiently detailed and reliable to offer any conclusive evidence on this point.

    (9 November 1940)

    -- The Compilation of Compilations, vol. I, p.20


    "After the spread of the religion of Jesus and the establishment of his Word, the learned among the Christians changed the term "sign" to "wonder." Perhaps this latter word is taken from the terminology of the "Sabian" religion, which was the religion of the peoples of Europe, Africa, and Asia (excluding the Indians and Chinese) before the appearance of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad."

    -- Mirza Abu'l-Fadl, Miracles and Metaphors, p.100


    “As to the Sabeans, they do worship the names of the stars and claim that they got their religion from Seth and Idrís; they trace their origin to Sábí, son of Idrís and also believe in Yahyá, son of Zachariah [John, the Baptist]. They do expect the Manifestation of Jesus, Son of Mary. In the Presence of the Throne they are mentioned as the Sabeans.”

    -- Baháʾuʾlláh, Kitáb-i-Badí
    (áʾín-i Sábiʾín by Ruhu'llah Mihrabkhani, Institute for Baháʾí Studies in Persian, Dundas/Ontario, 1994)

    Compiler's note: Rather than get into a debate as to whether the Harranians or the Mandaeans are the actual group mentioned in the Qurʾán, Baháʾuʾlláh simply acknowledges them both as claimants to the designation. However, Baha'u'llah is referring to the Mandaean Sabians and the Harranian Sabians. He doesn't deal here with the Mesopotamian Sabaeans (Saba or Sheba).


    "This Dispensation [Baháʾí Faith] and that of the Point of the Bayán [the Báb] are like the Dispensations of Yahyá, son of Zachariah and of Jesus, Son of Mary. The son of Zachariah, invested with the glory of Prophethood, gave unto the people the tidings of the Manifestation of the Spirit [Jesus]; both lived in the same epoch. Some of the people did apprehend the purpose of the words of the son of Zachariah and some did not when after the martyrdom of the son of Zachariah some of his followers did not turn to the Manifestation of the All-Merciful, that is Jesus and strayed from the way of the Unity of God. They still dwell on earth and are known by some as the Sabeans; these people regard themselves as the followers of that Holiness but they remained deprived of their object and purpose."

    -- Baháʾuʾlláh, Kitáb-i-Badí
    (á'ín-i Sábi'ín by Ruhu'llah Mihrabkhani, Institute for Baháʾí Studies in Persian, Dundas/Ontario, 1994)


    The remnants of Sabianism are the idolaters of Africa, it appeared in Mesopotamia. The religion of Abraham was revealed among the Sabians just as Jesus appeared among the Jews.

    -- Haifa Notes of Shoghi Effendi's Word Volumes 1 and 2 by May Maxwell and Mary (Ruhiyyih Khanum) Maxwell