There were various of religions within Arabia during the age of ignorance, just like in other regions around the world. In Northern Arabia, those who descents from Ishmael a.s held to the religion of Ishmael a.s and his father which is known as the Ḥanīf or Millat Ibrahim.
There were also heathens who worship through carved idols known as the waṯani, those who perform worship through elements of nature such as stars, planets, the sun or the moon, those who submit themselves to genies living in a certain region, those who worship presiding angels of nature, the zindiq or those who refuse to submit to any particular religion or atheists, Christians and Jewish.
This term refers to those who maintained the pure monotheistic belief of the patriarch Abraham in Western Arabia especially the Ishmaelites. More, specifically, in Islamic thought, these people are those who in the Age of Ignorance, were seen as those who rejected the usage of idols in connection with the Supreme Lord of the universe. They retained some or all the tenets of the patriarch Abraham religion which was the "submission only and directly to the God the Highest".
The term is from the Arabic root حنف meaning "to incline, to decline" (Lane; 1893) which is also from the Syriac root word of the same meaning. The ḥanifiyyah is the traditions of Abraham; the verb taḥannafa means "to turn away from (idolatry)", with a secondary and subsequent meaning of "to become circumcised".
In the Quran which means, "Abraham was neither a Jew or a Christian, but he was one inclining toward the Truth, a Muslim (one who submits to the Lord of the Peace). And he was not of the polytheists" (Surah Ali-Imran 3:67). The Quran also use the word ḥanif to refer to an "upright person" and outside of the Quran it is used to refer to "the inclination towards a righteous state or tendency" (Peters, 1994).
William Montgomery Watt in his Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman (1974) says that the word had been used earlier by Jewish and Christians around Arabia to refer to "pagans" as according to their view and it was also falsely used to the followers of an old Hellenized Syro-Arabian religion. It was used to taunt early Muslims. Others however maintained that, they followed the "... religion of Abraham, the ḥanif, the Muslim..." Watt theorized that the verbal term Islam; arising from the participle form of Muslim (meaning surrendered to the God); may have only arisen as an identifying descriptor for the religion in the late Medinan period (Watt, 1974). This is just a theory and Watt is not a reciting the Glorious Quran everyday or at least finishing a Quran in three days in his whole life.
Some of the figures in our history who submitted their selves to the God through the traditions of Abraham a.s while they are non-Christians nor Jewish are:
- Hashim bin Abd al-Manaf who is our ancestors.
- Abd al-Motallib who is the grandfather of Muhammad s.a.w.
- Abdullah bin Abd al-Motallib, the father of Muhammad s.a.w.
- Abu Talib bin Abd al-Motallib, the uncle of Muhammad s.a.w.
- Hamza bin Abd al-Motallib, the uncle of Muhammad s.a.w.
- Ali bin Abi Talib, young cousin of Muhammad s.a.w.
- Sa'id bin Zayd, a companion of Muhammad s.a.w.
The mentioned figures above were not converted to Christianity nor Jewish religion because there were also some of them who were converted to Christianity because of their close proximity with Christians of Northern Arabia and Byzantine empire which was the Eastern part of Roman empire. Some of them like Hamza, Ali, and Sa'id later followed Muhammad s.a.w after he receives Revelation which begins while he was in meditation in Hirā' Cave. Those righteous Ḥanifs such as Hashim bin Abd al-Manaf and others before the Revelation upon Muhammad s.a.w are known as the Ahl al-Fitrah. All the prophets and messengers of the God the Highest are Muslims and Islam is not an identification of a religion based from a particular figure or nation.
The four Ḥanif friends of Muhammad s.a.w from the Holy Mecca as provided in the Ibn Isḥāq account are:
- Waraqah bin Nawfal who was baptized as a Christian, he is a cousin of lady Khadija bint Khuwailid, the wife of Muhammad s.a.w.
- 'Uthman bin Hwarith who travelled to Byzantine Empire and baptized as a Christian.
- Obaidullah bin Jahsh who was a Muslim but has baptized himself into Abyssinian Jacobite Church after the Muslim's first migration to Ethiopia.
- Zayd bin Amr bin Nofail who rejected both Judaism and Christianity.
The account of Ibn Isḥāq mentions that there were Ḥanīfs who reject the prophethood of Muhammad s.a.w and they were also non-Christians, non-Jewish and non-Heathens:
- Abu 'Amar 'Abd Amr bin Sayfi, a leader of the Aws tribe of Medina who dislike Muhammad s.a.w and he build the "Mosque of Schism" closer to the Qubā' Mosque because his feels that his position was threaten by Muhammad s.a.w (Surah al-Tawbah 9:107). He later allied with the non-Muslim Quraish of Mecca and later he moved to Taif and to Syria after Muslims opened the region again.
- Abu Qays bin al-Aslat, a famous poet from Medina.
There were two kinds of the Ḥanīfs among the Northern Arabs:
1. Those who practiced all the traditions inherited from Abraham a.s. from their ancestors while rejecting other non-related traditions but had practiced religious tolerance where they prayed together with people of other faiths in the same sanctuary.
2. Those who were baptized as Christians but they have the faith upon revelation passed down to the subsequent sages, prophets and messengers of the God the Highest who came after Abraham a.s. and Ishmael a.s including Moses a.s and Jesus Christ. They are the minority within the Ḥanīf groups.
Sealed with prayers for mercy, peace and love, amin!