The Orientalists and the Hanifs: The Jeffery-Bell Theory

Excerpted from Sirat Al-Nabi and the Orientalists: With Special Reference to the Writings of William Muir, D.S. Margoliouth and W. Montgomery Watt , Vol. IA (1st ed., 1997), Chapter XIV, pp. 335-354. Compiled by Mohd Elfie Nieshaem Juferi


One constant endeavour of the orientalists has been to relate the rise of Islam to the contemporary situation and to show that Muhammad (P) received information and ideas from various sources.The subject of the han?fs has therefore naturally attracted a good deal of the orientalists’ attention. Writing in the middle of the nineteenth century Aloy Sprenger suggested that there was in pre-Islamic Arabia a widespread religious movement initiated by a “sect” of han?fs and that Muhammad (P) placed himself at the head of the movement, organized and directed it and utilized it for his own ends.[1] Such extreme views were, however, quickly called in question, mainly by Ignaz Goldziher, who pointed out Sprenger’s errors and stated that the han?fs did not form any organized group but were a few isolated individuals.[2]

By the end of the nineteenth century and during the early years of the twentieth a number of scholars addressed themselves to the subject, concentrating on the etymology of han?f.[3] The view that prevailed for some time was that the word han?f might be connected with the Hebrew h?n?f meaning “profane”. There was no noticeable departure from the general thesis, however, that whatever might have been the origin of the word, Muhammad(P) was influenced by the han?fs. Writing in 1907 the prevailing view was reflected by R.A. Nicholson when he said: “No doubt Muhammad, with whom most of them [the han?fs] were contemporary, came under their influence, and may have received his first stimulus from this quarter.”[4]

The etymological aspect of the question received further attention in Arthur Jeffery’s thesis on The Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur’?n.[5] He suggested that the word han?f was derived from the Syriac hanp? meaning “heathen”. He further stated that the term han?f is applied in the Qur’?n mainly to Ibr?h?m who came to play an important part at a certain stage in Muhammad’s (P) career, namely, when he was claiming that his teachings went back to a revelation earlier than either Judaism or Christianity, millat Ibr?h?m, which he was restoring and republishing.[6]

On perusing this thesis before its publication Richard Bell came forward with a theory in the pages of The Moslem World[7] , building mainly upon Jeffery’s hint about what he calls Ibr?h?m’s part at a certain stage in Muhammad’s (P) life. “There in a nutshell, it seems to me”, remarked Bell, “we have the whole secret.”[8] The “secret” which he unfolded was as follows. He first somewhat modified Jeffery’s view about the origin of the word saying that “the long vowel of the second syllable of han?f is fatal to its derivation from Syriac hanp? in its singular form” but that the Arabic plural form, hunaf?’, is a close reproduction of the Syriac plural haneph?. Therefore, Bell said, the word was borrowed in its plural form and from it the singular form han?f was made according to the rules of Arabic grammar, but in a reverse order. He further said that the Syriac-speaking Christians used the word haneph? to mean the unconverted Arabs. Hence hunaf?’ “were the Arabs who were neither Jews nor Christians, but who continued to follow the ancient native religion.”[9]

Thus explaining the origin and meaning of the term Bell stated that Muhammad(P) used it to convey “the very antithess of polytheist” and, indeed, to make Makka, “the town which had rejected him” and against which he “was planning revenge”, the centre of his religion because of his differences with the Jews. Bell argued that though the Prophet had earlier borrowed “a certain amount of positive teaching” from Judaism and Christianity, when he came to Madina differences developed between him and the Jews for certain reasons. [10] Therefore he started breaking away from both these religions, beginning with the change of qibla from Jerusalem to Makka and then giving out that God’s revelation had originally been the same, “but in course of time the Jews and Christians had both departed from the purity of the faith and had gone their own ways.”[11] Having said this Bell added that Muhammad (P) had to do with another religion ? “the religion of the Arabs, or in the language of those from whom he had hitherto taken his information on religious matters, the hunaf?’.” That must also be a degeneration of the pristine pure religion. And as Abraham (Ibr?h?m) through Ishmael (Ism?’?l) was the progenitor of the Arabs, Muhammad (P) took him to be the founder of the religion of the hunaf?’, but was careful to add that “he was not one of the polytheists” and that the ” han?f religion” which he founded was, like all other revealed religions, a pure monotheism. Thus arguing, Bell says that “as Abraham was earlier in time than both Judaism and Christianity, his religion was purer than either of them had ever been…This was the religion, then, which Muhammad now conceived himself as commisioned to restore. His face is henceforth set, not towards Judaism or Christianity, but towards the assumed pure original of the Arab religion.” The han?f s were thus, concludes Bell, “the followers of the ideal original of Arab religion. They were no sect or party of historical people, but the product of Muhammad’s unresting mind.” [12]

Thus, starting from the climax that the han?fs were an organised “sect” who initiated a “movement” towards monotheism, an anticlimax was reached after about a century of conjectures and assumptions and it was stated that the han?f s were “no sect or party of historical people” but merely the imaginary “followers of the ideal original of Arab religion”, “the product of Muhammad’s unresting mind”. Apart from this assumption, Bell’s main suggestions are: (a) that the word han?f was taken over from the Syriac plural form of haneph?, (b) that the Syriac-speaking Christians meant by that term the Arabs who followed “the ancient native religion”; (c) that Muhammad(P) , when he broke away from the Jews at Madina, adopted this term, put the sense of “antithesis of polytheist” on it and identified his teachings with this assumped original of Arab religion, which he also identified with the religion of Abraham, “the progenitor” of the Arabs through Ism?’?l, stressing further that God’s revelation had originally been the same to all the previous prophets. It is mainly on this Jeffery-Bell formulation that Watt has based his remarks about the han?fs. Before passing on to that it would be worthwhile to examine the Jeffery-Bell position a little more closely.


To begin with, it may be noted that the statements about the word han?f are based solely on sonic similarities and are thus obviously conjectural and only tentative. In fact, not very long after Bell had given his support to Jeffery’s suggestion, two scholars put forth a joint-article discussing the pre-Islamic use of the word and suggesting Aramaic-Nabataean origin for it.[13] Since then scholarly opinions have alternated between the Syriac and Nabataean hypotheses.[14]

The origin of the word, however, seems to have very little direct bearing on the point at issue; for it is well-known that the meaning of a word often changes with the change of time and place. A very instructive instance in our own time is the word “democratic” which is often used in the “Communist Bloc” to denote a socialist totalitarian system, but in the “Western Bloc” it is the very antithesis of totalitarianism. Hence, even if it is shown that the Syriac-speaking Christians used the word hanp? to mean “heathen” or the Arabs who followed their ancient native religion, it does not neccessarily follow that the Arabic word han?f, which is only supposed to be a descendent of hanp?, was also used by the Arabs in the same sense.

Secondly, the theory of derivation from a foreign language raises the question: when did this borrowing take place? The suggestion seems to be generally that it took place long before Muhammad’s (P) appearance on the scene. In that case the word had been in use in Arabia and it had reference to a particular class of people. This being the case, is it reasonable to assume that Muhammad (P) would us the expression in a totally dofferent, rather opposite sense of a monotheist just for the sake of breaking with the Jews and Christians? Further, would not such a novel use of the term evoke the opposition and criticism of his own people, not to speak of the very Jews and Christians against whom he was supposedly taking the step? But Bell seems to suggest that the word was used for the first time in the Qur’?n and that also in a sense opposite to that put on it by the Syriac-speaking Christians; for he states that Muhammad(P) adopted the term from “the language of those from whom he had hitherto taken his information”. Now, is it at all reasonable that he should still be adoptingthe expression of the Jews and Christians when he was breaking with them, if it had not been in use and understood by the Arabs?

The fact is that the word han?f was obviously in use in Arabia at the time in the sense of a monotheist. This seems to be a corollary even of Bell’s own argument; for, if the Syriac-speaking Christians used the term to denote the Arabs who followed their ancient native religion and if, as Bell admits, Abraham was the “progenitor” of the Arabs, their ancient and native religion could not have been anything else than monotheism. That naturally was the ancient and native religion of the Arabs. This meaning of the term han?f appears to have been in a way admitted lately by Bell’s close disciple, Watt, who recognizes that in some Aramaean circles the “primary” meaning of the term as “heathen” or “pagans” was “overshadowed by secondary connotations”, such as “philosophically-minded persons who were essentially monotheistic”. He further says that the Qur’?nic usage “neglected the primary meaning and developed some of the secondary connotations, a semitic process not unknown elsewhere….”[15] It may be pointed out that the Qur’?n did not neglect what is called the “primary meaning”, nor did it develop “some of the secondary connotations” of the word. It simply used the expression in the sense in which the Arabs had been using and understanding it since time immemorial.

Apart from th question of the origin and connotations of the word, however, the main theme of the Jeffery-Bell thesis, namely, that the Prophet related his teachings to the Abrahamic tradition and to the han?fiyyah after his migration to Madina, particularly after the differences had developed between him and the Jews of that place, is totally wrong. The underlying premise of the theory, it may be pointed out, is that the Qur’?n is the Prophet’s own production, a view which is not at all correct. It is also not correct, as shown before, that the Prophet developed his doctrines at Makka by drawing information from the Jews and Christians. Neither did he borrow information from them at Makka, nor did he fall back to the Abrahamic tradition and han?fiyyah at Madina in order to break away from them.

Three broad facts in the Qur’?n contradict this latter assumption. In the first place, the reference to and declaration of identity with the message of Ibr?h?m, and indeed with the message of all the previous Prophets, were made for the first time not at Madina but much earlier at Makka. A number of the Makkan passages of the Qur’?n bear an eloquent testimony to this fact. It was also at Makka that the Prophet emphasized the common origin and the essential identity of the messages delivered by all the Prophets, including those who came before Ibr?h?m, such as N?h and ‘Adam. This is very significant; for there is clearly an element of inconsistency in recognizing, as Bell seems to do, that Muhammad (P) claimed that God’s revelation had originally been the same to all the Prophets and then to allege that he traced the origin of his message to Ibr?h?m with a view to claiming precedence and greater purity for his monotheism. Secondly it was also at Makka, long before the migration to Madina, that departures from the fundamental doctrines of both Judaism and Christianity had been made. Thirdly, it was in the Makkan passages of the Qur’?n that reference to the han?fs occurs first. A look at the references to Ibr?h?m as a han?f in the Madinan s?rahs makes it clear that there is no indication whatsoever of an intention to disregard the messages of Moses and Jesus, nor is there the slightest departure from the emphasis on the unity and identity of the messages of all the Prophets.

Before illustrating the above mentioned facts by some of the relevant statements of the Qur’?n, it is neccesary to refer briefly to the question of the change of qibla (direction for prayer) from Jerusalem to Makka which Bell mentions as an instance of the Prophet’s changed attitude towards the Jews. The refixing of the qibla of course took place after his arrival at Madina, but this happened some sixteen or seventeen months after his arrival there [16] , in mid-Rajab of the second year of hijrah. This means that it had taken place more than two clear months before the battle of Badr which occured in Ramad?n of that year. It is well-known that differences with the Jews began to develop sometime after the battle. Hence, whatever might have been the reason for the change of qibla it cannot be historically sustained that the measure was an upshot of the differences with the Jews. If it had been in any way a result of the Prophet’s own decision he would have timed it more opportunely, and not when, by all accounts, his position at Madina was not yet stabilised and when, far from doing anything which was likely to alienate the Jews, he was attempting to secure their support and adhesion to the newly established body-politic. It is also somewhat antithetical to suggest, as Bell does, that the Prophet intended to make Makka the centre of his religion when, at the same time, he is said to have been “planning revenge” against that town.


The reference to the message of Ibr?h?m, indeed to that of all the previous Prophets, was made repeatedly at Makka. It was also there that the fundamental unity and continuality of the messages delivered by all the Prophets was unmistakably emphasized. Throughout the Makkan period one constant item of persuasion directed to the Quraysh unbelievers was that there had gone by generations before them on whom God’s wrath had fallen on account of their rejection of the message delivered to them by the Prophets sent to them. It was also clearly pointed out that all those Prophets came with the sam message of monotheism. One of the earliest passages of the Qur’?n emphasizes this fact and makes specific mention of both Ibr?h?m and M?s? (Moses) as bearers of the same message. It runs as:

“Verily this (the Qur’?nic message)is in the early scriptures, the scriptures of Ibr?h?m and M?s?.” (87:18-19)

Another Makkan passage asserts:

“Not a Messenger did We send before you except that We revealed to him that there is no God but I. So worship Me.” (21:25)

Indeed, the instances of the previous Prophets, the monotheism of everyone of them and the unity and continuity of the same message through generations are detailed in a number of Makkan passages.[17] Also special emphasis is sometimes laid on Ibr?h?m, M?s? and c?s? (Jesus) if only because the immediate audience to whom the Qur’?n was addressed especially cherised the memories of those Prophts and claimed to follow their examples and traditions. But there never was a suggestion that the message and teachings of any one of them were “purer” than those of any other Prophet.

One of the passages which illustrates this point very forcefully is 6:83-90 which, after describing Ibr?h?m’s struggle to bring home the theme of monotheism to his people, mentions all the well-known Prophets and concludes by categorically asking the listeners to adopt and follow the guidance which those Prophets represented. The passage runs as follows:

“That was Our evidence (proof/writ) We gave Ibr?h?m as against his people. We elevate in ranks whom We will. Surely your Lord is All-Wise, All-Knowing. And We gave him Ish?q (Isaac) and Ya’q?b (Jacob); each We guided. And N?h (Noah) We have guided before; and of his progeny, D?’?d (David), Sulaym?n (Solomon), `Ayy?b (Job), Y?suf (Joseph), M?s? (Moses) and H?r?n (Aaron); and thus do We reward those who do good deeds. And Zakariyy? and Yahy? (John), and ‘?s? (Jesus) and Ily?s (Elias) ? all were righteous; and Ism?’?l and Elisha and Y?nus (Jona) and L?t (Lot ) and all of them We selected among the creations; and of their fathers, their progeny and their brothers; and We selected them and guided them to a straight path. This is God’s guidance. He guides therewish whom he pleases of His servants. Had they (those Prophets) associated other gods with Him, all that they used to do would have gone in vain. Those are they to whom We gave the Book, the authority and prophethood. Then if these (ther descendents) reject them, we shall entrust them (the Book, prophethood, etc.) to a people who do not reject them. Those were they whom God gave guidance. So follow the guidance they had…” (6:83-90).

To the same effect is the rather long passage, 21:71-92. It also comes after a description of Ibr?h?m’s efforts to convert his people to monotheism (‘?yahs 53-70) and refers briefly to the same mission of the different Prophets like Ish?q (Isaac), Ya’q?b (Jacob), L?t, N?h, D?’?d, Sulaym?n,`Ayy?b, Ism?’?l, Idr?s, Dh? al-Kifli, Dh? al-N?n (Y?nus), Zakariyy? and concludes by making this very significant and unequivocal statement in ‘?yah 92 that all these Prophets constitute a community of the same faith. The ‘?yah runs as:

“Verily this community (of faith, religion) of yours is the same community; and I am your Lord. Therefore worship Me.” (21:92)

Thus the reference to Ibr?h?m, along with the other Prophets, was made repeatedly at Makka. No distinction was made in favour of any one of them. It was also at Makka that all the fundamental differences that exist between Islam on one hand and Judaism and Christianity on the other were enunciated. Thus the Jews’ view that Jesus was not a Prophet but an imposter and the Christians’ belief that he was not a man but an incarnation of God were simultaneously and equally strongly denied. Again, the concept of a son or sons for God, held by both the Jews and Christians, was rejected in no unmistakable terms. Further, the Jews’ outrageous insinuation against Mary was categorically dismissed. It was also pointed out, contrary to the views of both the Jews and the Christians, that on the Day of Judgement every person would be responsible for his own acts, that he would be singly and individually accountable to God aand that neither race, nor ancestry nor any general atonement by any being would be of any avail.[18] In all these respects what followed at Madina was only an elaboration of these points.


Similarly the term han?f occurs first in the Makkan passages of the Qur’?n. As Bell notes, it is used 12 times in the Qur’?n, 10 times in the singular form and 2 times in the plural; but he seems to convey an impression that all these 12 mentions of the word are in the Madinan passages. This is not at all the case. In fact, out of the 12 times, exactly its half, i.e. six times, we find it mentioned in the Makkan s?rahs. These are:

    1:105 (s?rat Y?nus)
    16:120 (s?rat al-Nahl)
    16:123 (s?rat al-Nahl)
    30:30 (s?rat al-R?m)
    6:79 (s?rat al-An’?m)
    6:161 (s?rat al-An’?m)

Chronologically, the earliest mention of the term seems to be in 30:30 (s?rat al-R?m) where it is clearly set against shirk or polytheism. For, in the previous ‘?yah s 20-29 the instances of the creation of man, of sexes and of various natural phenomena by God are cited to bring home the theme of His existence and absolute unity and the need for worshipping Him alone. Then a direct exhortation is made to do so in 30:30 as follows:

“So set your counenance for the d?n (faith) as a han?f ? the original nature on which Allah created man.” (30:30)

The original state (fitrah) spoken of here clearly refers not to what is often called “natural religion”, but to the purity of mind and heart at birth, unaffected by external influences or acquired habits and thoughts ? unadulterated devotion and resignation to Allah alone. The meaning is made further clear in the ‘?yah s that immediately follow where man is asked to turn to God alone, to seek His protection, pray to Him and not to associate any partner with Him.

Similarly the statement in 10:105 is very early. Here again the term is used as an antonym of polytheism. The early date of the passage is indicated by the context as well as by the immediately preceding and succeeding ‘?yah s. Thus in 10:104 Prophet Muhammad(P) is asked to clarify the nature of his faith. This is done obviously in response to the doubts and enquiries of the Makkan polytheists. And in ‘?yah 106 the meaning of han?f is elucidated. The passage, 10:104-106, runs as follows:

“Say O men, if you are in doubt about my faith (d?n), then (note that) I do not worship those whom you worship instead of Allah; but I worship Allah Who causes you to die; and I have been commanded that I should be of the believers; and that you set your countenance for the d?n as a han?f and in no wise be of the polytheists. And do not call, apart from Allah, on that which neither benefits nor harms you. If you do, you will certainly be of the wrongdoers.” (10:104-106)

The reference to those objects of worship, i.e. the idols, that had no power to do good or evil is another internal evidence of the Makkan situation in which the passage was revealed.

In the same sense and in a similar context the term is used in 6:79. Indeed this section of the s?rah starts with its ‘?yah 71 which is an interrogation signifying denial: “Shall we call, besides Allah, on others that can do us neither good nor harm?” The succeeding ‘?yahs then narrate Ibr?h?m’s rejection of the unreal gods leading to his declaration, in ‘?yah 79 as follows:

“I have turned my face to Him Who brought into being the heavens and the earth, as a han?f, and I am not a polytheist.” (6:79)

The term occurs again at a later stage of the s?rah in its ‘?yah 161. Here also the context signifies that the passage was revealed at Makka. The preceding ‘?yahs 156-158 specially address the Arabs, or rather the Makkans, telling them that they should accept the guidance because they could no longer plead that whereas the Jews and Christians had each been given a book, none had been given to them (the Arabs), adding that now that they had been given a Book (Qur’?n), should they still be waiting for further “signs” or angels or God Himself to descend to them? This is followed, in ‘?yahs 159-160, by the statement that the Prophet had nothing to do with “those who created divisions in their religion and became sects” and that everyone would get just reward for what he did. ?yah 161 then asks the Prophet to declare:

“Say: As for me, my Lord has guided me to a straight path ? a correct d?n, the way of Ibr?h?m as a han?f and he was not a polytheist.” (6:161)

The allusion to “those who create divisions in their religion” etc. may mean, as the commentators point out[19] , the Jews and Christians who had each received a Book, or it may mean generally those who cause divisions in their religion by making innovations or in other ways. But even if the allusion is taken to be to the Jews and Christians, it would not be a departure from the context; for the Makkan opposition had been alleging that the Prophet was giving out what he was being prompted by some of his Christian and Jewish confidants. It would therefore be very appropriate to point out that he had nothing to do with them.

The other two Makkan mentions of the term han?f occur in 16:120 and 16:123. In fact all the four ‘?yah s of this passage form a distinct unit in which, again, the emphasis is on monotheism and rejection of all shades of polytheism. The passage runs as follows:

“Ibr?h?m was indeed a model, devoutly obedient to Allah as a han?f , and was not a polytheist ? thankful for His favours. He (Allah) chose him (as His Prophet) and guided him to a straight way. And We gave him good in this world; and in the hereafter he will be (in the ranks) of the righteous. Then We revealed to you that you follow the religion of Ibr?h?m, as a han?f, and he was not a polytheist.” (16:120-123)

Before passing on to the Madinan passages the points illustrated by the Makkan passages may be recapitulated. First and foremost, it is clear that the reference to han?f as well as to the message of Ibr?h?m was made at Makka, long before the migration to Madina. Second, in all the six instances of its use in the Makkan s?rah s the term han?f has been used in the sense of an absolute monotheist who rejected all shades of polytheism. Third, in at least two of these six places, i.e. in 30:30 and 10:105, the word has been used without any reference to Ibr?h?m. This means that the word has been used in a generic sense of a monotheist, and, obviously, in the sense in which it was generally understood by the audience. There is thus no question of the Qur’?n’s, and therefore of Muhammad’s(P) putting a new and unusual sense on the word. Fourth, though in the four other places Ibr?h?m has been cited as a model monotheist, there has been no attempt whatsoever to relegate any other Prophet to a secondary position, nor is there any suggestion that their teachings differed in any essential respect from those of Ibr?h?m. While emphasis has been laid on Ibr?h?m understandably because his memories were specially cherished by the immediate listeners, the Arabs, the Jews and Christians, the identity and continuity of the messeges of all the Prophets have been unmistakably pointed out at the same time, as it is evidenced by 6:83-90 which comes immediately after a reference to Ibr?h?m as a han?f and which has been mentioned above.


What followed at Madina was only an elaboration of these points and principles. The Madinan statements are of course made more often in the context of the position of the Jews and the Christians; but the same emphasis on absolute monotheism, the same reiteration of the identity and continuity of the messages of all the Prophets and the same generic use of the term han?f are as clear here as in the Makkan s?rahs. As in the case of the Makkan passages so also in those of the Madinan, in two out of six places the term han?f has been used in a generic sense and in the plural without any reference to Ibr?h?m.

One such use is in 22:30-31 which runs as follows:

“…Hence steer clear of the filth of idols (polytheism) and shun telling falsehood (about Allah) ? being hunaf?’ for Allah, without associating others with Him.”

The generic use of the term as well as the emphasis on monotheism are unmistakable here. It is also noteworthy that the concluding phrase “without associating others with Him” is an elucidation of and in apposition to the expression hunaf?’ lill?h .

The other generic use of the term without any reference to Ibr?h?m is in 98:5 which runs as follows:

“And they had not been commanded except to worship Allah, being sincerely and exclusively devoted to Him as hunaf?’…”

Here again the term hunaf?’ is in apposition to the expression: “being sincerely and exclusively devoted to Him.”

In the remaining four Madinan passages the term is of course used in connection with Ibr?h?m; but the same sense of an absolute monotheist and the same uncompromising rejection of polytheism are explicit throughout. At these four places the statements are made in the context of dialogues with the “People of the Book”, more particularly the Jews. The most noteworthy point in these passages is that Ibr?h?m is cited not for the purpose of claiming the Arab’s exclusive affinity with him nor for asserting any precedence or superiority over the teachings of Moses and Jesus, but for illustrating, first, the inconsistency of the claims of the Jews and Christians themselves that they were bearers of the true Abrahamic tradition and, secondly, to contradict their assertions that Ibr?h?m himself was a “Jew” or “Christian” and that none would attain salvation and enter paradise except those who became Jews or Christians.[20] As against such claims it was pointed out that while they called upon the others to become either Jews or Christians, they themselves were irreconcilably divided, the Jews alleging that the Christians had nothing to stand upon, and the Christians claiming that the Jews had nothing to stand upon, though they both studied the Book. It is also made very plain that the underlying issue is monotheism and the identity and continuity of the messages of all the Prophets of God. A look at the passages makes these very clear.

The statement at 2:135 runs as follows:

“And they say: Be Jews or Christians, you will get guidance. Say (to them, follow): Rather the religion of Ibr?h?m, the han?f; and he was none of a polytheist.” (2:135)

This statement comes as a sequel to a rather detailed account of Moses and his efforts to bring home the theme of monotheism to the Children of Israel (‘?yahs 47-134) In the course of this long account four points are specially stressed. First, it is made very clear that the argument is directed not against the Jews and Christians in general nor as their being followers of Moses and Jesus, but against particular notions and practices that were adopted in the names of those Prophets. Hence it is stated unequivocably: “Those among the Jews and Christians who sincerely believe in God and in the Day of Judgement, and do good deeds, they would have their rewards from their Lord and would have nothing to fear nor any cause to grieve” (‘?yah 2:62). Second, it is pointed out that it was only a section of the Jews who consciously and knowingly tampered with the Scripture, while the uninformed section of them merely followed their desires and whims without being really aware of what the Scripture teaches (‘?yah 2:75,78). Third, it is stated in the same strain that the message contained in the Book of Moses did not stop with him, for God followed it up by sending other Prophets including Jesus; but nonetheless the Jews, when they found that the divine message was not in accord with their likes and dislikes, they belied some of the Prophets and killed some others (‘?yah 2:87). In this connection the error in the claim that none but a Jew or a Christian would enter paradise is pointed out and it is reiterated that only he who submits wholeheartedly to God and does good deeds will receive His rewards (‘?yah 2:111-112). Also the notion of God’s son, common to both the Jews and Christians, is strongly rebutted (‘?yahs 2:116-117). Finally, referring specifically to Ibr?h?m and Ya’q?b, with whom the Jews and Christians declared their affinity, it was pointed out that they both had enjoined upon their progeny and successors to worship the One Only God and to submit to Him wholeheartedly (‘?yahs 2:132-133). And in continuation of this argument ‘?yah 135 states: “They say, be Jews or Christians, you will get guidance. Say: Rather the religion of Ibr?h?m, the han?f; and he was none of a polytheist.”

The whole discussion here, as elsewhere, revolves round the question of monotheism. There is no claim to affinity with Ibr?h?m solely and exclusively for the Arabs or for the followers of the Prophet Muhammad(P). On the contrary, the burden of the whole discussion is that, since the Jews and the Christians themselves claim affinity with Ibr?h?m, it only behoved them to adhere strictly to the monotheism he taught and typified. That is why whenever he is described as a han?f it is emphasized that he was no polytheist. There is no pretension to priority or superiority, nor any lowering of the Prophets of the Jews and the Christians, nor any suggestion that the teachings of one Prophet differed from those of another. The identity and continuity of the messages of all the Prophets are thus emphasized in the immediately succeeding ‘?yah 2:136 as follows:

“Say ye: We believe in Allah and in what has been sent down to us and in what was sent down to Ibr?h?m, Ism?’?l, Ish?q and Ya’q?b and the Tribes, and in that given to M?s? and ‘?s? and that given to (all) the Prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between one and another of them; and to Him we surrender (completely).” (2:136)

That the reference to Ibrahim as a han?f was made in order to illustrate the inconsistency of the Jews’ and Christians’ claim of affinity with him, because of their obvious non-compliance with true monotheism, is further evident from the two other uses of the term at 3:67 and 3:95. In this s?rah the argument is developed from ‘?yah 33 wherein mention is first made of ‘?dam, N?h and Ibr?h?m and the family of ‘Imr?n as the recepients of Allah’s special favours. This is followed by an account, in ‘?yahs 35 through 62, of the birth and mission of ‘?s?, in the course of which it is specially stressed that he had declared: “It is Allah Who is my Lord and your Lord; so worship Him. This is a way that is straight.”[21] It is further emphasized that the creation of ‘?s? was like the creation of ‘?dam as an evidence of Allah’s will and omnipotence.[22] Therefore the unusual birth of ‘?s? should be no reason for deifying him. This is followed by a fervent appeal to both the Christians and the Jews in ‘?yah 3:64 as follows:

“Say: O People of the Book, come to common terms as between us and you; that we worship none but Allah; that we associate no partners with Him and that we take not from among ourselves Lords and Patrons leaving aside Allah….” (3:64)

Next the unreasonableness of the claim that Ibr?h?m wa a Jew or Christian is pointed out by drawing attention to the simple fact that the Torah and the Inj?l which the Jews and Christians claim to be the sources of their beliefs were not revealed till long after Ibr?h?m (‘?yahs 3:65,66). Hence if they really mean to identify themselves with him, they could consistently do so by conforming to absolute monotheism; for, declares ‘?yah 3:67,

“Ibr?h?m was not a Jew, nor a Christian, but a han?f (a person of true and upright faith in Allah), a Muslim (one who surrenders himself completely to Allah alone); and he was none of a polytheist.” (3:67)

The argument is continued in the succeeding ‘?yah as follows:

“The most deserving of men to claim identity with Ibr?h?m are indeed those who follow him (truly)….” (3:68)

The same theme of monotheism and the same emphasis on the need to follow the way of Ibr?h?m, if one really meant to identify oneself with him, are the subject matter of the ‘?yahs that follow the one quoted above till ‘?yah 3:95 which states:

“Say: Allah speaks the truth, Hence follow the religion of Ibr?h?m, the han?f, and he was none of a polytheist.” (3:95)

In all the three above-noted passages (i.e., 2:135; 3:67 and 3:95) the reference to Ibr?h?m as a han?f has been made in response to the claims of the “People of the Book” themselves that it was they who belonged to the community of Ibr?h?m. They are therefore called upon to follow strictly the way (millat) of Ibr?h?m if they really meant to be true to their claim. No pretension to priority over or superiority to the message of M?s? and ‘?s? is made in any place, nor is there any suggestion that the right to claim identity with Ibr?h?m belonged exclusively to the Arabs. Further, the equality of all the Prophets and the identity of their teachings have been emphasized all along.

The other mention of the word han?f occurs in 4:125 (s?rat al-Nis?’). Here also the theme is monotheism and the emphasis is on total rejection of all shades of polytheism. This theme starts specifically with ‘?yah 116 of the s?rah which states: “Allah forgives not the sin of joining others with Him. He may forgive the other sins of anyone whom He pleases. Whoever associates others with Allah strays far away indeed.”[23] Then ‘?yahs 117:120 state that it is the devil who dupes many into polytheism and causes them to entertain vain hopes and baselesss expectations. The hopes and expectations alluded to here were clearly understood by the audience and are indeed spelt out elsewhere in the Qur’?n. These were the pagan Arabs’ claim that they would not be resurrected after death for final judgement[24] and that their deities would in any case intercede with Allah on their behalf[25], and the claims of the “People of the Book” that they were the “sons and loved ones of Allah”[26] , that they would not in any case suffer hell-fire except for a limited number of days[27], and that none would enter paradise except a Jew or a Christian.[28] It is with reference to such notions that ‘?yahs 121-124 of the s?rah state, addressing the pagan Arabs as well as the People of the Book, that “neither your desires nor those of the People of the Book would be of any avail”.[29] At the same time the principle of individual responsibility and accountability is stressed by saying that whoever does a good deed and has faith will get his reward and whoever does anything wong will be dully requitted by Allah.[30] Hence, states ‘?yah 4:125, the best way is to surrender one’s whole self to Allah, to do good deeds and to follow the way of Ibr?h?m, as a han?f. The ‘?yah runs as follows:

“Who can be better in religion than the one who submits his countenance (one’s whole self) to Allah, perform good deeds and follow the religion of Ibr?h?m, as a han?f?….” (4:125)

Thus an analysis of the twelve Qur’?nic passages (six Makkan and six Madinan) wherein the term han?f occurs decisively demonstrates the untenability of the Jeffery-Bell theory which says that the Prophet had recourse to the expression han?f, put a new sense of monotheist upon it and related it to the Abrahamic religion only when differences developed between him and the Jews after his migration to Madina and with a view to breaking away from both Judaism and Christianity and to winning over to his cause the pagan Arabs who cherised Ibr?h?m’s memories. It has been seen that the use of the term han?f and the reference to Ibr?h?m’s message were made at Makka, at a very early stage of the Prophet’s mission and long before the migration to Madina. It was also at Makka that the departure from the fundamental and central doctrines of Judaism and Christianity were made. The main point at issue was monotheism. It was on this issue that the doctrines of the Trinity, of son-ship of God and of incarnation and divinity of ‘?s? were discarded right from the beginning and the rejection was reiterated throughout the Makkan and Madinan periods. Indeed it was in the sense of a strict and uncompromising monotheist that the term han?f has been used through the Makkan and the Madinan periods. Bell’s suggestion that the Prophet put a new sense of the very “antithesis of polytheist” upon the term is an indirect admission that it has been used everywhere in the Qur’?n in the sense of an absolute monotheist. That no uncommon and strange sense was put upon it is shown by its generic use, without any reference to Ibr?h?m, in both the Makkan and Madinan passages. It is also quite unreasonable to assume that the Prophet put a new meaning on the term just for the sake of breaking away from the Jews and the Christians and for winning over the pagan Arabs to his cause; for such an unusual application of the word was more likely to create confusion and evoke criticism and misunderstanding by the Prophet’s opponents. Yet, neither the Quraysh opponents nor those from the People of the Book appear to have taken any objection to the use made of the word in the Qur’?n. And imagine the situation if someone in England suddenly ventured to use the word “fool” in its directly opposite sense of “wise”, applying it to an English historical figure and calling upon English-men to take from him that meaning for the word in respect of that national hero!

The fact is that neither was the term han?f used in the Qur’?n in a novel sense directly opposite to the meaning in which it had hitherto been understood by the Arabs, nor was reference to the Abrahamic tradition made with a view to breaking away from Judaism and Christianity. The Madinan reference to Ibr?h?m as a han?f was in response to the claims of affinity with him made by the “People of the Book” themselves. It was plainly pointed out tha far from being a Jew or a Christian, Ibr?h?m was a han?f, an absolute monotheist, and not a polytheist. Hence they were asked to adhere to the millat of Ibr?h?m, if they were true to their claims. This is very significant. It means that the Qur’?n, and therefore Muhammad(P), viewed the beliefs and practices of the Jews and Christians of the time as antithetical to monotheism and as manifest departures from the teachings of Ibr?h?m and the other Prophets. It also means that the position was just the reverse of what the Jeffery-Bell theory suggests. The Qur’?nic evidence does in no way show that Muhammad(P), with a view to avoiding the criticism that he had borrowed the concept of monotheism and other ideas from Judaism and Christianity, traced his teachings to an “earlier” source, the teachings of Ibr?h?m. On the contrary, the evidence is that, so far as the Jews and the Christians were concerned, the reference to Ibr?h?m as a han?f was made in response to their claim of affinity with him and in view of the obvious inconsistencies of their beliefs and practices with monotheism and the teachings of Ibr?h?m. That is why it was repeatedly pointed out that he was none of a polytheist, that he was neither a Jew nor a Christian. This, together with the open call made to the “People of the Book” to follow the millat of Ibr?h?m or, at least, to agree to a “common” formula, namely, to worship Allah alone and not to set any partner with Him, indisputably demonstrate that the issue was not between an “earlier” and, so to say, a “purer” or first-class monotheism on the one had, and a later or second-class monotheism on the other. The issue was clearly between monotheism and a negation of it. In its resort to the expression han?f and to the Abrahamic tradition at Madina the Qur’?n was not at all adopting any defensive stance as against the Jews’ and Christians’ criticism of Islam; it was simply leading the onslaught on them on account of their claims of identity with Ibr?h?m and, therefore, on the inconsistency of that claim with the obvious negation of monotheism in their beliefs and practices.


[1] A Sprenger, Das Leben und die Lehre des Mohammed, I., Berlin, 1861, pp. 45-134.

[2] I. Goldziher, Muhammadanische Studien, I, Halle, 1888, pp. 1-39.

[3] See J. Wellhausen, Reste Arabiscen Heidentums , second edn., Berlin, 1897, p. 238; D.S. Margoliouth, J.R.A.S., 1903, pp. 467-493; Sir Charles Lyall, ibid ., pp. 771-784 and L. Caetani, Annalli dell’ Islam, I, Milan, 1905, pp. 181-192.

[4] R.A. Nicholson, A Literary Historv of the Arabs (1st edn. 1907), 1988 reprint, p. 150. See also P.K. Hitti, History of the Arabs (1st. edn. 1937), 10th edn., reprinted 1986, pp. 107-108.

[5] Published at Baroda for the first time in 1938.

[6] A. Jeffery, op. cit., 112-115

[7] R. Bell, “Who Were The Hanifs”, The Moslem World, 1930, pp. 120-124. Bell acknowledged his debt to Jeffery thus: “The suggestion came to me from reading a discussion of the word han?f in a thesis by Dr. Arthur Jeffery, of Cairo, on The Foreign Vocabulary of the Koran ? a valuable work which it is hoped may soon find a publisher.” — Ibid., p. 120.

[8] Ibid., p. 121

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 122-123

[11] Ibid., 123-124

[12] Ibid., 124.

[13] N.A. Faris and H.W. Glidden, “The development of the meaning of the Koranic Hanif”, Journal of Palestine Oriental Society , XIX, 1939, pp. 1-13

[14] See for instance Hitti, op. cit., 108; Watt, M. at M. , 162-163 and E.I. , III, 166. See also below, text.

[15] E.I. , III, 166.

[16] Bukh?r?, no. 399 (Fath al-B?r?, I., 598, Kit?b al- Sal?t, B?b 31); Azraq?, Akhb?r Makka, II., 19. There is also a report to the effect that the event took place only two months after the hijrah (see Ibn M?jah, no. 1010, Vol. I., 322, Kit?b 5, B?b 56), but this does not seem to be correct.

[17] See for instance Q. 6:74-90; 7:59-93; 7:103-129; 10:13; 10:47; 10:71-92; 16:36; 16:43-44; 16:120-123; 19:1-58; 20:9-99; 21:25; 21:51-93; 23:23-50; 26: 10-191

[18] See s?rah 112 and 19:16-35, 80, 88-93;99:6-8; 101:6-11

[19] See for instance Al-Qurtub?, Tafs?r, VII, 149-150.

[20] Q. 2:111

[21] Q. 3:51

[22] Q. 3:59

[23] Q. 4:116

[24] Q. 16:38 which states: “They swear by their strongest oaths by God that God shall not ressurect those who die”. See also Q 72:7.

[25] See for instance 6:94; 10:18 and 39:43.

[26] Q. 5:80 – “The Jews and the Christians said: We are sons of God and His loved ones”.

[27] Q. 2:80 & 3:24 which run respectively as: “And they said: The fire shall not touch us but for a number of days”.

[28] Q: 211 – “And they said: None shall enter paradise unless he be a Jew or a Christian”.

[29] Q. 4:123

[30] Q. 4:122-124

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