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In Islam, a Ḥanīf (Arabic: حنيف‎, ḥanīf; plural: حنفاء, ḥunafā’), meaning “renunciate”, is someone who maintains the pure monotheism of the patriarch Abraham. More specifically, in Islamic thought, renunciates were the people who, during the pre-Islamic period or Jahiliyyah, were seen to have renounced idolatry and retained some or all of the tenets of the religion of Abraham (إبراهيم, Ibrāhīm), which was submission to God in its purest form.[1] The word is found twelve times in the Quran (ten times in its singular form and twice in the plural form) and Islamic tradition tells of a number of individuals who were ḥunafā’.[2] According to Muslim tradition, Muhammad himself was a ḥanīf and a descendant of Ishmael, son of Abraham.[3]

The historical existence of hanifs is disputed by scholars,[4][5] and after a century of exhaustive archaeological investigation, no evidence has been found showing that Ishmael and Abraham really existed.[6]

Etymology and history of the term[edit]

The term is from the Arabic root -n-f meaning "to incline, to decline"[7] or "to turn or bend sideways"[8] from the Syriac root of the same meaning.[9] It is defined as "true believer, orthodox; one who scorns the false creeds surrounding him/her and profess the true religion" by The Arabic-English Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic.[8]

According to Francis Edward Peters, in verse 3:67 of the Quran it has been translated as "upright person" and outside the Quran as "to incline towards a right state or tendency".[10] According to W. Montgomery Watt, it appears to have been used earlier by Jews and Christians in reference to "pagans" and applied to followers of an old Hellenized Syrian and Arabian religion and used to taunt early Muslims.[11]

Michael Cook states "its exact sense is obscure" but the Quran "uses it in contexts suggestive of a pristine monotheism, which it tends to contrast with (latter-day) Judaism and Christianity". In the Quran hanif is associated "strongly with Abraham, but never with Moses or Jesus".[12]

Oxford Islamic Studies online defines hanif as "one who is utterly upright in all of his or her affairs, as exemplified by the model of Abraham"; and that prior to the arrival of Islam "the term was used ... to designate pious people who accepted monotheism but did not join the Jewish or Christian communities."[13]

Others translate Hanīfiyyah as the law of Ibrahim; the verb taḥannafa as "to turn away from [idolatry]". Others maintain that the hanif followed the "religion of Ibrahim, the hanif, the Muslim[.]"[11] It has been theorized by Watt that the verbal term Islam, arising from the participle form of Muslim (meaning: surrendered to God), may have only arisen as an identifying descriptor for the religion in the late Medinan period.[11]

List of Ḥanīfs[edit]

According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, "some of Muḥammad’s relatives, contemporaries, and early supporters were called hanifs"[14] — examples including

According to the website "In the Name of Allah", the term Hanif is used "twelve times in the Quran", but Abraham/Ibrahim is "the only person to have been explicitly identified with the term." He is mentioned "in reference to" hanif eight times in the Quran.[15]

Among those who, per traditional Islamic belief,[citation needed] are thought to be hanif are:

The four friends in Mecca from ibn Ishaq's account:

Ḥanīf opponents of Islam from Ibn Isḥāq's account:

Possible historical basis[edit]

According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, "there is no evidence that a true hanif cult existed in pre-Islāmic Arabia".[14]

A Greek source from the fifth century CE, "The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen", speaks of how "Abraham had bequeathed a monotheist religion" to Arabs, that the Arabs descended "from Ishmael and Hagar" and followed Jewish practices such as not eating pork.[16] No archaeological evidence has been found to support the idea that Abraham was a real person,[6] and most scholars do not consider the Book of Genesis to be an accurate history.

Sozomen was an historian of the Christian Church who is thought to have been a native of Gaza[17] whose native tongue was Arabic and who lived from about 400 – 450 CE. Thus according to Ibn Rawandi, he provides a "reliable source" that Arabs -- at least in northwest Arabia -- were familiar with the idea there were pre-Islamic "Abrahamic monotheists (hanifs) ... whether this was true of Arabs throughout the [Arabian] peninsula it is impossible to say".[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Köchler 1982, p. 29.
  2. ^ Bell, Richard (1949). "Muslim World, Volume XXIX, 1949, pp. 120-125". Muslim World. XXIX: 120-125.
  3. ^ See:
    • Louis Jacobs (1995), p. 272
    • Turner (2005), p. 16
  4. ^ Kochler, Hans (1982). Concept of Monotheism in Islam & Christianity. I.P.O. p. 29. ISBN 978-3-7003-0339-8.
  5. ^ cf. Uri Rubin, Hanif, Encyclopedia of the Qur'an
  6. ^ a b Dever, William G. (2001-05-10). What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?: What Archeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. ISBN 978-0-8028-2126-3.
  7. ^ Lane, 1893
  8. ^ a b Wehr, Hans. Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic. p. 210. Retrieved 28 October 2019.
  9. ^ Lane, 1893
  10. ^ a b c d e f g Peters 1994, pp. 122–124.
  11. ^ a b c Watt 1974, pp. 117–119.
  12. ^ Cook, Michael (1983). Muhammad. Oxford University Press. p. 39. ISBN 0192876058.
  13. ^ "Hanif". Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Retrieved 28 October 2019.
  14. ^ a b c d "Hanif". britannica.com. Retrieved 23 February 2020.
  15. ^ "hanif". In the Name of Allah. Retrieved 28 October 2019.
  16. ^ a b Ibn Rawandi, "Origins of Islam", 2000: p.112
  17. ^ Crone, Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, 1987: p.190-91