SABIANS. The Sabians (as.-Sabi'iln) who are first mentioned in the Koran (ii. 59, v. 73, xxii. 17) were a semi-Christian sect of Babylonia, the Elkesaites, closely resembling the Mandaeans or so-called " Christians of St John the Baptist," but not identical with them. Their name is probably derived from the Aramaic *ix, a dialectical form of =*, and signifies " those who wash themselves "; the term al-mughtasila, which is sometimes applied to them by Arab writers, has the same meaning, and they were also known as i^po/3a7mo-TCu. How Mahomet understood the 1 In the 18th century there was discovered in one of the catacombs of Rome an inscription containing the words " qui et Filius diceris et Pater inveniris." This can only have come from a Sabellian.
2 Whether Sabellius himself ever visited the East is unknown.
term " Sabians " is uncertain, but he mentions them together with the Jews and Christians. The older Mahommedan theologians were agreed that they possessed a written revelation and were entitled accordingly to enjoy a toleration not granted to mere heathen. Curiously enough, the name " Sabian " was used by theMeccanidolaters to denote Mahomet himself andhisMoslem converts, apparently on account of the frequent ceremonial ablutions which formed a striking feature of the new religion.
From these true Sabians the pseudo-Sabians of Harran (Carrhae) in Mesopotamia must be carefully distinguished. In A.D. 830 the Caliph Ma'mun, while marching against the Byzantines, received a deputation of the inhabitants of Harran. Astonished by the sight of their long hair and extraordinary costume, he inquired what religion they professed, and getting no satisfactory answer threatened to exterminate them, unless by the time of his return from the war they should have embraced either Islam or one of the creeds tolerated in the Koran. Consequently, acting on the advice of a Mahommedan jurist, the Harranians declared themselves to be " Sabians," a name which shielded them from persecution in virtue of its Koranic authority and was so vague that it enabled them to maintain their ancient beliefs undisturbed. There is no doubt as to the general nature of the religious beliefs and practices which they sought to mask. Since the epoch of Alexander the Great Harran had been a famous centre of pagan and Hellenistic culture; its people were Syrian heathens, star-worshippers versed in astrology and magic. In their temples the planetary powers were propitiated by blood-offerings, and it is probable that human victims were occasionally sacrificed even as late as the gth century of our era. The more enlightened Harranians, however, adopted a religious philosophy strongly tinged with Neoplatonic and Christian elements. They produced a brilliant succession of eminent scholars and scientists who transmitted to the Moslems the results of Babylonian civilization and Greek learning, and their influence at the court of Baghdad secured more or less toleration for Sabianism, although in the reign of Harun al-Rashid the Harranians had already found it necessary to establish a fund by means of which the conscientious scruples of Moslem officials might be overcome. Accounts of these false Sabians reached the West through Maimonides, and then through Arabic sources, long before it was understood that the name in this application was only a disguise. Hence the utmost confusion prevailed in all European accounts of them till Chwolsohn published in 1856 his Ssabier und der Ssabismus, in which the authorities for the history and belief of the Harranians in the middle ages are collected and discussed.
See also " Nouveaux documents pour I'e'tude de la religion des Harraniens," by Dozy and De Goeje, in the Actes of the sixth Oriental congress, ii. 281 f. (Leiden, 1885). (R. A. N.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)