Sabians of Middle Eastern tradition are a variety of monotheistic: Gnostic (Mandeans), Hermetic (Harranian) as well as Abrahamic religions mentioned three times in the Quran with the people of the Book, “the Jews, the Sabians, and the Christians.” In the hadith, they are described merely as converts to Islam, but interest in the identity and history of the group increased over time, and discussions and investigations about the Sabians begin to appear in later Islamic literature.
In the later ninth century CE, Arab authors focused upon the origins of the “Abrahamic” Sabians from the “Hellenistic” Sabians and went into much detail on the Harranian period before the time of Abraham. Most of this knowledge was translated in 904 CE from Syriac sources into the book called “The Nabatean Agriculture” by Ibn Wahshiyya; Maimonides considered it an accurate record of the beliefs of the Sabians, whose role as a pre-Judaic monotheistic movement he commented on at length.
Despite 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 and documents, the actual nature of the Sabians has remained a matter of some heated debate among Orientalists. 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 is also used by the Mandaeans under the variation of “Sabaean” detailed below. The variation “Sabean” has been employed in English to distinguish the ancient Harranian group, but the usage is not universal.
The confusion of Sabaeans and 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 scholars have shown to have no connection to the Sabians of the Qur’an, except for their Ansar tribe, which practiced Qur’anic Sabianism.
Al-Biruni (writing at the beginning of the eleventh century CE) said that the ‘”real Sabians'” were “the remnants of the Jewish tribes who remained in Babylonia when the other tribes left it forJerusalem in the days of Cyrus and Artaxerxes. According to Ethel Drower (1937) these remaining tribes … adopted a system mixed up of Magism and Judaism.’