What does Hanif mean? How was the practice of Hanif religion in the Era of Jahiliyya?

The Details of the Question

What does Hanif mean? How was the practice of Hanif religion in the Era of Jahiliyya?

The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

Most of the people in the "Pre-Islamic period" called Jahiliyya were polytheists but they maintained several nice deeds in terms of creed and practice that Islam accepted. There were many people who led a positive life like that when Islam emerged. It is necessary to explain this issue in terms of answering questions like "How did the Prophet (pbuh) himself, his mother and father practice their religion? Did they have a life of belief and worshipping?"

There are various views about the origin and meaning of the word "Hanif". It is seen that there are different opinions about its origin being Arabic, Hebrew, Assyrian and Abyssinian.   

Masudi states that it is an Arabicized Assyrian word and Sabiis (Mandaeans) are meant by it. Yaqubi uses this word for the Palestinians that Hz. Dawud fought and states that they worshipped stars. There is no information about the origin of the word in Arabic dictionaries but we understand that the root of word ("hanafa") means "to tend to, to turn toward". Hz. Ibrahim was called Hanif because he turned toward Islam, the religion of Allah, by not tending to his nation and idolatry. Abu Amr explains the word Hanif as a person who turns toward the bad from the good or toward the good from the bad but it is not used in the sense of tending to for all ways lexically and terminologically but in the sense of "tending to the true path from the wrong path, to the true religion from the other religions"; turning toward the wrong from the truth is expressed with the root "jnf". Thus, the term Hanif is used for a person who gives up what is wrong and follows the true path and it is the name given to the nation of Hz. Ibrahim; it is used for a person who avoids other religions and wrong gods and turns toward Allah, who is one.  

In the Era of Jahiliyya, a person who visited the Kaaba after being circumcised was called hanif. They were some of the nice deeds remaining from the religion of Hz. Ibrahim.

The word "hanif" is mentioned in ten places in singular form as "hanif" and two places in plural form as "hunafa" in the Quran. In nine of those twelve places, it is stated that the religion of hanif is different from and opposite to polytheism; in eight places, it is used for the belief of Hz. Ibrahim; in one of those eight places, the word millah, which means religion, is used and in one place, Hz. Ibrahim defines himself as hanif.

On the one hand, the word hanif is used in order to express the belief of Hz. Ibrahim and as the opposite of polytheism in the Quran; on the other hand, it is emphasized that Hz. Ibrahim was not a Christian or a Jew and that the People of the Book were ordered to worship Allah as hanifs.  

There is no need to seek hanif belief in Judaism and Christianity. They are all religions of Allah, who is one. They underwent some distortions in the course of time; Islam corrected those distortions and allowed their good aspects to continue, correcting their mistakes. Otherwise, it will be wrong to regard hanif belief as the continuation of Judaism and Christianity. As a matter of fact, The following is stated in the Quran: 

"Ye People of the Book! Why dispute ye about Abraham, when the Law and the Gospel Were not revealed Till after him? Have ye no understanding?"

"Abraham was not a Jew nor yet a Christian; but he was true in Faith, and bowed his will to Allah´s (Which is Islam), and he joined not gods with Allah."(Aal-i Imran, 3/65, 67)

Thus, the Quran states that hanif belief existed before Judaism and Christianity and determines the place of Hz. Ibrahim.

We can easily say that the belief of hanif, which is synonymous with Islam and din al-qayyim (firmly established religion), indicates a religious group among Arabs that does not worship idols, believes in the existence of a single god and worships Him. They are known as hunafa or ahnaf; they themselves state that they are not Jews or Christians, that they follow Hz. Ibrahim’s religion and that they do not associate partners with Allah.

We see that the word hanif is mentioned in hadiths in the same sense as it is used in the Quran. When Hz. Prophet (pbuh) was asked, "What religion is more acceptable in the eye of Allah?", he answered as "tolerant religion of hanif". In another narration mentioned in Bukhari, Zayd b. Amr b. Nufayl went to Damascus in order to seek the true religion; he asked the Jewish and Christian scholars he met about their religion but could not get the answer he expected. He asked them what religion they advised him and they advised the religion of hanif; they said it was Ibrahim’s religion, that he was not a Christian or a Jew and that he worshipped only Allah.  

When the Prophet’s statement "Allah said He created all of His slaves as hanif" is considered together with the statement "I was not sent with Judaism or Christianity but with tolerant religion of hanif", it can be deduced that the religion of hanif includes the common principles of all prophets, that Islam is a religion that practices those principles and that Hz. Ibrahim conveyed the same religion as the Prophet (pbuh) to people.  

In conclusion, although there are different views about the religion of hanif in the Era of Jahiliyya, it is understood from the narrations and explanations above that it is a general name given to the people who believed in Allah, who is one, who lived in the community of Jahiliyya and who practiced some good deeds remaining from the religion of Hz. Ibrahim, not from Judaism or Christianity.

We find information about the principles of belief of hanifs generally in religious resources. According to Jahiliyya Arabs, anybody who is circumcised and circumambulates the Kaaba is a hanif. However, Tabari states that those two things are not enough because some polytheists also did them. Nevertheless, the belief of hanif is indicated as the opposite of polytheism in the Quran. Therefore, the prerequisite of being a hanif is being a person of oneness. Some resources add the conditions of keeping away from idols and making ghusl after the state of janabah to them.

It is narrated that hanifs did not eat the flesh of the animals slaughtered on behalf of idols, or, in a broader sense, for anyone except Allah, did not drink alcohol, that the general characteristics of hanifs were to make hajj, follow the truth, act in compliance with the shari’ah of Hz. Ibrahim and to worship Allah only.

One of the main characteristics of the hanifs living in that period was that they did not tend to Judaism or Christianity, that they kept away from idols and idolatry and they worshipped Allah, who was the deity of Ibrahim. Some people like Zayd b. Amr b. Nufayl travelled in order to find the true religion; others tried to keep people away from idols and yet others retired into seclusion for contemplation and meditation. According to the statements of the historians, some of them were literate people, could speak some languages and were quite cultured people since they travelled.  

Many people living in that period are mentioned as hanif. Some of them are as follows:

Qus b. Saida al-Iyadi , Zayd b. Amr b. Nufayl , Umayya b. Abis-Salt, Arbab b. Riab, Suwayd b. Amr al-Mustalaqi, Abu Karb As'ad al-Himyari, Waki' b. Salama al-Iyadi, Umayr b. Jundab al-Juhani, Adi b. Zayd al Ibadi, Abu Qays Sirma b. Abu Anas, Sayf b. Dhuyazan, Waraqa b. Nawfal al-Qurashi, Amir b. Zarb al-Udwani, Abduttabiha b. Sa'lab, Ilaf b. Shihab at-Tamimi, Mutalammis b. Umayya al-Kanani, Zuhayr b. Abi Sulma, Khalid b. Sinan al-Absi, Abdullah al-Qudai, Abid b. Abras al-Asadi, Ka'b b. Luay.

It is especially necessary to mention remarkable hanif personalities of the Era of Jahiliyya like Waraqa b. Nawfal, Uthman b. Huwayrith, Ubaydullah b. Jahsh, who practiced the religion of hanif among Qurayshis. They are important in that they reflect the state of that period.  

Waraqa b. Nawfal was a scholar who read the old books. When he was asked about the state of the Prophet (pbuh), he said, "I saw him walking in the middle of Paradise wearing a thin garment made of pure silk." Thus, he mentioned the end of his nice way of living.

It is understood from the poems of Suwayd b. Amir el-Mustalaqi that he believed in one Allah and that he tended toward the religion of Ibrahim. Abu Karb b. As'ad al-Himyari stated before the advent of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) that he would emerge and that he believed in him. Waki' b. Salama was known as "Siddiq"; Umayr b. Jundab adopted the belief of oneness. Adi b. Zayd al-Ibadi were among those who kept away from idols and worshipped Hz. Ibrahim’s Lord. Afterwards, he became a Muslim in Madinah. Sayf b. Dhuyazan gave the good news that Hz. Muhammad (pbuh) would come like Waraqa b. Nawfal and stated that he would go to Madinah with him if he was alive then.

It is possible to summarize the common characteristics of the hanifs of that period as follows:

To reject idols and all kinds of polytheism, to oppose the wrong customs and beliefs of the nation to which they belonged, to work in order to eliminate ignorance, to retire into seclusion in order to get rid of the oppression of their nation and to think about the creator. Historians state that some hanifs read the holy books, pages and the Psalms, that most of them lived in accordance with the religion of Hz. Ibrahim, that some of them sought his words and underwent many hardships, traveled, met and talked to priests and rabbis for it, that they asked them questions, that they did not become Christians or Jews because they could not find what they sought and that they died as believers in the religion of Ibrahim.

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