The Fihrist of Al-Nadim, (an Arabic writer c. 987), mentions Mogtasilah, a sect of "Sabians" in southern Mesopotamia who counted El-'Hasai'h as their founder and the vast majority of academics agree that they are probably the enigmatic "Sobiai" to whom Elchassai preached in Parthia. Thus they appear to have gravitated around the original pro-Jewish Hanputa of Elchasai out of which the self-proclaimed miso-Judaic self-proclaimed prophet Mani seceded and are identified therefore as the pro-Torah Sampsaeans but also less accurately with the anti-Torah Mandaean Nasaræan "Sabeans". They are the people of Noah who follow the path of the Budasaf, as was the practice of the Persians until Arsames and Vishtaspa were converted by Sami and Zoroaster, and who await a future Persian prophet which has certainly influenced Shi'ite eschatology.
It is supposed that they influenced the practices of the Hellenic Sebeis' (Θεοσεβείς/σεβομενοι-τον θεον) while their angelology (based around the movements of the Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn) found its greatest development in the community which was based in the Harran region of south-eastern Anatolia and northern Syria (who were distinguished as the Sābi'ūna Mushrukūn Sabians of Harran from the south Mesopotamian Sābi'ūna Hunafāh by later Islamic writers like Ibn al-Qayyim).
According to Islamic scholars, the word Sābi'ūna (Sabian) is derived from the verb saba’a, which refers to the action of leaving one religion and entering another.
Though meaning upright and monotheistic these days, the word Hunafa` also derives from the Syriac word "hanifo" which literally means Agnostic. Similar distortion has occurred with the word Mushrik which though meaning polytheist these days originally referred only to shittuf / shirk or the act of establishing a partner with God.
In the later ninth century of the Common Era, Arab authors focused upon the origins of the non-gnostic or "Monotheist" Sabians (Sabi'ah Hunafa') from the Gnostic or "Polytheist" Sabians (Sabi'ah Mushrikun) and went into much detail on the Harranian period before the time of Abraham. Most of this knowledge was translated in 904 CE into the book called "The Nabatean Agriculture" which was considered by Maimonides to have been an accurate record of the Gnostic beliefs of the Sabi'ah Mushrikoon (Gnostic Sabians) in the Harranian area. Though Arabic sources go into detail on the origin of Sabiah Hunafa from Sabiah Mushrikun, the Sabiah Hunafa themselves consider their path to be a return to orthodoxy away from the innovations of the Sabiah Mushrikun back to the religion of Noah. Various writings of the Bahá'í Faith reiterate the details of Gnostic Sabean beliefs of the Harranian period which are still held to this day among various sects of Yazdânism.
Despite all this substantial and clear documentation about both kinds of Sabians spanning many centuries from sources as diverse as Greek Christian, Arabic Muslim, Arabic and Persian Bahá'í, as well as Jewish sources, the actual nature of the Sabians has remained a matter of some heated debate among western orientalists. Their confusion was due to the fact that it was once important for the Mandaean Nasaraeans to relate their origins to the Gnostic Sabians by adopting Yazidi beliefs in order to qualify for the protection of Shariah Law by paying the jizyah when Christians began to object to them being classified as Nosaari. Therefore, "Sabian" has been used mistakenly in many literary references for decades and though, the spelling "Sabian" usually refers to one of the "people of the book" mentioned in the Qur'an, it has also been used by the Mandaeans as an appellation adopted to appease local Muslim authorities. The variation "Sabean", has been employed in English to distinguish the ancient Harranian origins and Gnostic Yazidi beliefs of the Sabian "people of the book" prior to their rejection of Gnosticism and adoption of Monotheism. The term Pseudo-Sabian has been used not only by orientalists who take the side of the Mandaeans against the Harranians, but also by orientalists who take the side of the Harranians against the Mandaeans, rendering that term practically useless.
The confusion of Sabaeans with Sabians began with Marmaduke Pickthall's spelling mistake in his translation of the Qur'an . The word "Sabaeans" comes from a completely different root spelling, beginning with the Arabic letter "Sin" instead of the Arabic letter "Sad". The Sabaeans were in fact the people of ancient Saba in Yemen who have been discredited by scholars as to having any connection to the Sabians of the Qur'an except for their Ansar tribe which practiced Qur'ānic Sabianism (Seboghatullah: "submersion in the divine mystery").
The recent debate on who the Sabians were is directly connected to how to best translate the following verses from the Qur'an out of the original Arabic. The Qur'an briefly announces the Sabians in three places and the Hadith provide further details as to who they were as people of the book:
The Sabians existed before Muhammad, and are said to have read from a book called the Zabur (i.e. the Psalms). The Saabi`ah Hunafa` ΘΕΟ-ΣΕΒΕΙΑΝΟΙ came under Islamic rule about 639 AD. At that time in history they were described as Greek immigrants but were grouped together with the Saabi'ah Mushrikuun Nabataeans.
Under sharia, the Sabians form a protected religious group (along with Christians and Jews).
Many Islamic writers from the period of about 650 CE onward gave further descriptions of the Sabians. They wrote that the Sabians lived in Iraq around Sawad, Kutha and Mosul and they "wash themselves with water" and had "long hair" and "white gowns" . They had a monotheistic faith with religious literature (the Zabur) and acknowledged the prophets. Their theology resembled that of Judaism and Christianity yet were neither, nor were they Magians.
With regard to their beliefs, Ibn al-Qayyim said: "The people differed greatly concerning them, and the imams were unsure about them because they did not have enough knowledge of their beliefs and religion." Al-Shaafa’i said: "Their case is to be examined further; if they resemble the Christians in basic matters but they differ from them in some minor issues, then the jizya is to be taken from them. But if they differ from them in basic issues of religion then their religion cannot be approved of by taking the jizya from them." And he elaborated elsewhere: "They are a kind of Christian." consistent with a comment about some of them mentioned in Bahai writings.
Ibn al-Qayyim said: "The Sabians are a large nation among whom are both blessed and doomed. They are one of the nations who are divided into believers and disbelievers, for the nations before the coming of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) were of two types, kaafir nations all of whose people were doomed and among whom were none who were blessed, such as the idol-worshippers and the Magians; and others who were divided into those who were blessed and those who were doomed, namely the Jews, Christians and Sabians."
According to Islamic scholars, they did not reject the Prophets of Islam but neither did they regard it as obligatory to follow them. According to the Hanif Sabians, whoever followed (the Prophets) may be blessed and saved, but whoever follows a path similar to that of the Prophets by virtue of one's own reasoning is also blessed and saved, even if one did not follow the Prophets in specific terms. In their view the call of the Prophets was true but there was no one specific route to salvation. They believed that the universe had a Creator and Sustainer, Who is Wise and above any resemblance to created beings, but many of them, or most of them, (i.e. the Sabians of Harran) said: we are unable to reach Him without intermediaries, so we have to approach Him through the mediation of spiritual and holy who are pure and free of any physical elements and who are above place and time, rather they are created pure and holy.
Marc Edmund Jones, founder of the modern Sabian Assembly (' The Sabian Assembly'), described the Sabians of Harran as a "Mohammedan" group, that is, acceptable in principle, together with the Jews and Christians. Sabaeans as such worshipped God's Names (El-Esmea) as angels in the stars, a practice which the modern Sabian Assembly as whole does not embrace.
Sabi`ah Hunafa` (Hanif Sabians) follow a somewhat disorganized religion following the Din of Noah as a sect who read the Zaboor akin to Christianity. They appear to be between Judaism and Magianism but are in fact closer to Judaism. Sābi'ūn recognise the practice of the prophet Muhammad in going to the caves prior to his inspiration, as in accordance with the Sabi quest for Tawheed Hunafa' and, in general, many similarities with the Sabians meant Muhammad and his companions were often considered to have been Sabians. Most specifically this was because of the Sabian shahada “La ilaha ila Allah”.
The root-meaning of the word Sabi (deriving from their religion Seboghatullah) means Proselyte, and is identical in usage with the Greek words Sebomenoi or Theosebes and to a lesser extent Phobeomenoi.
Sābi'ūn know Allah as the Rabb al-'alihah and 'ilah al-'alihah and speak to angels in their meditations , each of whom they believe dwell in different stars, which has led to the erroneous beliefs among some that Sābi'ūn worship angels while others derogatorily call them star-worshippers (and so it is said in Arabic saba'at al-nujūm, meaning "the stars appeared"). Sābi'ūn read from the Zaboor and use the sun for a Qiblah facing the equator at mid day . Their fundamental teaching is "La ilahah il Allah" , but besides this ardent unitarianism, Sābi'ūn are quite akin to Christians . Unlike their Mushrik Sabian cousins, who consider themselves the people of Idris' son Sabi, Hanif Sabians are more universal looking to Noah as their prophet of the Din Sābi'ūn have five daily prayers (though Zohar can join Asr while Ma'ariv can join Isha giving the appearance of three). They believe in all prophets reiterating the Din of Noah and, not in the same way as the Muslims, believe in The Seal of The Prophets . They also fast for 30 days .
Sabians who adopt Abram as a patriarch distinguish themselves from other Sabians by calling themselves Hagarim (Hagarenes) and were based around Petra. The culmination of the journey to enlightenment will be marked by a circumcision ceremony for most of those male Hagarim who get to this level called Yagur. This branch of Seboghatullah has thus been dubbed "Hagarism".
Based upon a book called The Nabataean Agriculture which Maimonides translated, Maimonides' "Guide for the Perplexed" describes the Gnostic Sabians (a.k.a. Sabi'ah Mushrikun) in quite some detail. The Saabi`ah Mushrikun were a Yazidan group who were questioned by the caliph al-Ma'mún of Baghdad in 830 CE, according to Abú-Jusúf Abshaa'al-Qathíí, about what protected religion they belonged to. Not being Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or Magian, the caliph told them they were infidels and would have to become Muslims or adherents of one of the other religions recognized by the Qu'ran by the time he returned from his campaign against the Byzantines or he would kill them. The Yazidans (Harranians) consulted with a lawyer who suggested that they find their answer in the Qu'ran II.59 which made it clear that Sabians were tolerated. It was unknown what Mohammed intended by Sabian and so they took the name..
The newly dubbed Harranian Sabians took Hermes Trismegistus as their prophet, and the Corpus Hermeticum as their sacred text, being a group of Hermeticists. Validation of Hermes as a prophet comes from his identification as Idris or Enoch in suras 19.57 and 21.85.
The Harranian Sabians played a vital role in Baghdad and the rest of the Arab world from 856 until about 1050; playing the role of the main source of Greek philosophy and science as well as shaping the intellectual life. The most prominent of the Harranian Sabians was Thabit ibn Qurra.
The Sabians are also mentioned in the literature of the Bahá'í Faith. Although these references are brief, they for the most part (with only a couple of references to the Saabi`ah Hunafa` who are said to believe in Jesus) refer to the Saabi'ah Mushrikoon (Sabeans) who derived their religion from Seth and Idris (a belief adopted by the Mandaean Nasaraeans). `Abdu'l-Bahá has one brief reference where he describes Seth as one of the "sons of Adam". Bahá'u'lláh in a Tablet identifies Idris with Hermes. He does not, however, specifically name Idris as the prophet of the Sabians.
Given the substantial evidence, many scholars contend that the Sabians mentioned in the Qur'an are those we call today the Mandaeans. However, as mentioned above, some scholars studying the etymology of the root word Sabi'un have pointed to origins either in Syriac or Mandaic the word Sabian. Thus some scholars have suggested that the Mandaean religion originated with Sabeans, who came under the influence of early Hellenic Sabian missionaries but preferred their own priesthood.
After the conquests of Alexander, Harran came to be a center of intellectual and religious activity, which evolved into a philosophical tradition centered on Hermes Trismegistus. The Harranians were heavily influenced by other religious groups, including those of the baptizing sects, and in this way the Mandaean Nasaraean Sabians would come into existence. They followed the Nasr (a white eagle lord) and called their community Miryai From the 1st century AD they were heavily influenced by the Christians but reacted against Pauline Christianity, possibly absorbing the Ebionites.
Various religious groups holding some Gnostic Harranian beliefs (like the Mandaeans) have sought to justify application of the term to themselves in the hopes of avoiding persecution. Thus the Mandaeans have become known as Subi (Sabian) by their Muslim neighbors in both Iraq and Iran. However, they could just have equally applied to come under the category of Nasaari because the application of this title to them predated the earliest Christians by at least a century.
In March 2007, the leaders of the Mandaeans said their order is facing extinction at the hands of Iraqi Muslim extremists.
As we can see from all the sources, any unaffiliated rational-(mono)theist who, personally, is attached to Noah, believes in angels, interested in astrology, strives for attainable illumination/enlightenment/buddahood, enjoys devotional singing, moderates their diet in late spring, regularly meditates on the southern sky, and who expects a future Persian prophet, fits the traditional definition of a Sabi.
Since all sources indicate that Sabians followed an individual spiritual path or disorganised religion, it is ironic that there are various new age groups around today using the terms Sabean, Sabaean or Sabian in the titles of their organisation. Generally such groups are more attracted to the Yazdan beliefs of the Sabians of Harran than independent rational theology. Naturally, some of the groups, seeming to encourage independent research, peddle their organization's current astrology and magic as well as other religious beliefs and practices as based more or less directly upon the ancient practices of their namesake groups.
The Sabian Assembly founded by Marc Edmund Jones is nominally one such group, albeit specifically non-religious in nature, which is perhaps confusingly named, since its main interests as a special-studies group are in the Bible together with philosophy and the essential occult concepts that underlie a relatively modern form of cabalistic thought. See also 'The Sabian Assembly'. The Sabian Assembly
Another group having an orientation that is divergent from that of the Sabian Assembly is the 'Sabaean Religious Order'. Although neglecting the Budasaf independent rational theist's Noachian path, having a somewhat more polytheistic orientation, and even confusing "Shin" Sabaeans with "Saad" Sabians is The Sabaean Religious Order, they have grasped however that Sabi'anism per se revolves around astrological angelology and despite shortcomings seem to manifest the path of Sabiah Mushrikun.
Churton, Tobias. The Golden Builders: Alchemists, Rosicrucians, and the First Freemasons. New York: Barnes and Noble, 2002.