The title ‘hanif’ appears ten times in the Quran for those who are sound in their faith, and particularly those whose religion is the pure religion of Abraham. When the ten verses are arranged chronologically a picture emerges that Muhammad used this term firstly for the religion of Abraham and then afterwards for any sincere person who professes Islam.
Abraham is the only hanif mentioned in the Quran. He was not a polytheist , nor a Jew nor a Christian but he was hanif Muslim: “Abraham was not a Jew nor yet a Christian; but he was true in Faith, and bowed his will to Allah’s, and he joined not gods with Allah.” (Al-Imran 3:67)
Muhammad believed that the original religion of Abraham had been corrupted by polytheism, Judaism and Christianity which arose later and he sought to restore the ‘original religion’ which was known as Islam.
What it means to be a hanif
The two verses below explain what it means to be a hanif
Muhammad was directed towards being an hanif: “And further (thus): set thy face towards religion (hanifan) with true piety, and never in any wise be of the unbelievers” (Yunus 10:105)
The hanif would not associate any others with Allah: “Being true in faith to Allah, (Hunafa Lillah) and never assigning partners to Him” (Al-Haj 22:31)
The hanifs then, were in existence before Muhammad claimed his prophetic call but as he believed that he renovated the true religion a hanif can be considered to be a Muslim. It is possible that the term hanif was used for the religion of Islam before the term Islam was used.
The Hanif’s in Muhammad’s times
From amongst the religious reformers at Mecca who led the way to absolute monotheism we find they included Waraqa and Zaid ibn ‘Amr. Ibn Ishaq additionally mentions Uthman ibn Huwarith and Ubaid-Allah ibn Jahsh who both after leaving Mecca converted to Christianity. In fact it is thought that of the six contemporaries of Muhammad that are titled Hanif, half became Christians and one confessed not to know the right way.” (Siratu’l Rasul vs 144 p. 99)
Waraqa b. Nawfal
Tradition relates that Waraaqa, as one of the hanifs, abandoned paganism and then become a Christian. It reports that he not only read and wrote Arabic but knew Hebrew, had read the Bible and written down portions of the gospel in Hebrew.
He was the cousin of Khadijah and Tradition reports that in infancy he found Muhammad after he had wandered away from his nurse and later he was found comforting Bilal after he had been tormented by his pagan master.
More importantly is the influence of Waraqa on Muhammad as he encouraged him in the first years of his mission. When Muhammad told Khadijah about his first ‘revelation’ she went directly to Waraqa and repeated everything Muhammad had said. He assured him that Jesus had predicted his mission and that he had been visited by the Namus who came to Moses foretelling that his mission would end in victory : “By the Lord! replied the aged man. ‘thy uncle’s son speaketh the truth. This verily is the beginning of prophecy. And there shall come unto him the Great law (i.e. Namus, the Arabic form for Nomos, ‘the law’) like unto the law of Moses. Wherefore charge him that he entertain not any but hopeful thoughts within his heart.”
Despite these inspiring words Waraqa never converted to Islam and he died before Muhammad began his preaching, yet Muhammad had a dream concerning him in which he was dressed in white which was an allusion that he was in heaven.
A different opinion suggests that Waraqa was an Ebionite bishop who saw in Muhammad qualities that could be harvested to make him into a Christian. He therefore taught him Bible stories in preparation for his future ministry and taught Muhammad about Jesus according to the Ebionite doctrine which denies the deity of Christ. It is also proposed that when Khadijah consulted Waraqa over her marriage to Muhammad he warmly approved and as he was a bishop he officiated at the wedding ceremony. If this was the case it makes the union a Christian marriage and this may be why it lasted until Khadijah’s death.
Zaid ibn ’Amr – known as ‘the enquirier’
Zaid b. ‘Amr, who was from the Qurraish tribe of Mecca, died before Muhammad’s mission began when he was about 35 years old. Muhammad declared him to be a true believer who was in heaven and allowed prayers to be said to him. He was called a hanif because he rejected idolatry, objected to female infanticide, refused to eat the flesh of animals sacrificed to idols or slaughtered without invoking God’s name and was seeking the true God.
He was a cousin of ‘Umar b. al-Khattab and was married to Safiya bint al-Hadrami and to Fatima bint Ba’dja and had a son called Said ibn Zayd. Tradition relates that he prayed that this son would be led into the ways of Abraham and later this son became one of the ten to whom heaven was promised.
He was persecuted by his family on religious grounds and travelled into Syria where he met a monk, who similarly to Bahira, predicted the coming of the true prophet in Mecca; other authorities said he himself predicted the coming of Muhammad. He was killed on his return journey to Mecca when crossing the region inhabited by the Lakhm tribe.
Uthman ibn Huwarith
Uthman went to Rome and became a Christian. While there, he served the Caesar and had a good position with them.
Ubaid-Allah ibn Jahsh
In order to escape from persecution he emigrated to Abyssinia and eventually converted to Christianity. Some authorities say that he became a drunkard and attempted to Christianize Arabia on behalf of the Roman Byzantine Emperor and threatened Arabia with the power of the Roman military forces. He is said to have separated from his wife and later some accounts say that Muhammad married his widow, Ramlah and his sister Zainab.