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Ibrahim il-Hanif



The other day I presented you for something looking like a comparative analysis of Josephus on the Bible, as part of my quest for an understanding of views on Abraham, A”S. Today I will present you for yet a comparative analysis (or at least it’s meant to be so), though this time within the boundaries of Islam (finally getting closer to the real focus in this assignment).

The main focus in my assignment is to see influences on and evolution in Islamic views on Abraham, or rather – should I say – Ibrahim. Part of this is by researching pre-Muslim Jewish material on Abraham, see how or whether it is represented in later Islamic material, and then finally see if there is any changes in the various Islamic sources I have used, which will primarily be focused on the Quran and al-Tabari’s History (Volume II – Prophets and Patriarchs).

In order to keep it concise – I’m not going to write a book after all – I will be focusing on Ibrahim as a Hanif/early Monotheist, and in getting an understanding about him in this context, I have been trying to get to a deeper understanding of what it means when Ibrahim is called “Hanif.”

A question on analyzing a term is how to do it, which approach to take. When it comes to Hanif, one could research the etymology of the word, comparing it to the meaning of the same root in other Semitic languages (e.g., in Syrian the root has – as is the case in Arabic – the meaning of someone inclining or declining, though where it is considered in a positive sense in Arabic, it is negative in Syrian, designating someone who turns away from the right path. Also in Rabbinic literature, in Hebrew, it has a negative meaning, being used about pagans who outwardly embraced Monotheism, but actually stayed polytheists. A sincere thank you to Rabbi Benyamin Abrahamson, who explained this to me. Today in Hebrew the root appears as an adjective, meaning someone who flatters or fawns).

One could also simply look it up in a dictionary and finish there, which would make things much easier, but at the same time leave me with nothing to write.

I have chosen to focus on the Quranic verses (suwar; sura in singular), where the term appears, analyze them in two ways; 1) by comparing them to other keywords in the verse and 2) compare how it is translated by a number of English translations, namely Yusufali, Pickthal and Shakir.


The term is mentioned twelve time in the Quran, ten times in the singular form, Hanif (حنيف‎)[1], and twice in the plural form, Hunâfa (حنفاء)[2]. Eight times it is used to describe Ibrahim.[3]


In the analyzed verses I have found following keywords (besides Hanif):[4]

Religion, Milah (ملة) – Verses 2:135,3:95, 4:125, 6:161,

Idol worshiper, Mushrik (مشرك) – Verses 2:135, 3:67;95, 6:79;161, 10:105, 16:120;123, 22:31

Muslim (مسلم) – Verse 3:67

Well doer, Muhsin (محسن) – Verse 4:125

A close friend, Khalila (خليلا) – Verse 4:125

Religion, Dîn (دين) – 6:161,10:105,30:30, 98:5

Worthy, Qiyam (قيم) – 6:161, 30:30, 98:5

Nation, Umah (امة) – 16:120


As the words stand above they might not make so much sense, but in the context of their appearance they do give quite a lot meaning.

The word Milah, which means religion, is presented as Ibrahim’s religion and only appears as such. This is interesting since it isn’t the only word for religion, the other being Dîn, which in turn is used either “worthy religion” (with Qiyam as adjective) or in connection to Allah (“My Religion”). The differences in understanding might be perceived from the translations, Yusufali translating Milah as “religion,” “way,” and “path,” while Pickthal translates it as “religion,” “tradition,” and “community,” and Shakir translates it as “religion,” and “faith.” The word Dîn they translate as “religion,” “faith,” and “sincere devotion” (Yusufali), “religion” solely (Pickthal), and “religion,” and “sincere obedience” (Shakir). Looking at the differences we can understand both words as surely meaning religion, but Milah having an understanding as being something based on practice, tradition, which might hint to a set practice performed by Ibrahim, whereas Dîn is being on a somewhat higher level, being understood in a more spiritual sense.

Mushrik, which is translated as “one who join gods to Allah,” “pagan,” and “unbeliever” by Yusufali, as “idolater,” and “one who ascribes partners to Allah,” and “polytheist,” and “one who associates others with Allah” by Shakir, is always presented as an opposite to Ibrahim, as well as the usage of Hanif in general, deeming this something that should not be encourage.

The word “Umah” is used about Ibrahim once, being translated as “model” (Yusufali), “nation” (Pickthal) and “exemplar” (Shakir), and though “nation”[5] is the correct translation, it seems that there is an understanding of the term here as something being a good examples (relating to Yusufali and Shakir). I would think that there is a combined sense here, stating that by having people following the example of Ibrahim, he became a nation.

Ibrahim is further described as a Muslim and a Khalila of Allah, one who succumbed to Allah and was chosen by Him to be a dear and close friend. As far as I am aware, Ibrahim is the only one being described as Khalilat Allah in the Quran. I would suppose that he is also considered Muhsin, though it is used about those who follow his Milah.

Regarding the word Hanif, then we see three different understandings. Yusufali is translating it as being “true”, especially in faith. Pickthal is translating it as being “upright”, especially as something born, by nature upright, and Shakir translates it as “upright.” I think we can establish an understanding of the word Hanif, especially in the meaning of “inclining, declining,” as being someone who turns away from doing wrong, being upright/true in his approach to Allah and the world.

Besides this there are two keywords which I haven’t related to, namely Jew and Christian. Though these two are not connected to being Mushrîkin, idolaters, it is still stated that Ibrahim is neither a Jew nor a Christian (Verses 2:135 and 3:67).

All that said, it seems to me that we can conclude – at least in context of Ibrahim being a Hanif – that he had his own religion, he was a dear friend of Allah, a good example, becoming a nation, and standing opposed to the polytheists. A Hanif is one who is upright and true, inclining towards Allah, does good to others, and is denying idol worship, nor is he a Jew or a Christian.

[1] Suwar 2:135, 3:67;95, 4:125, 6:79;161, 10:105, 16:120;123, 30:30.

[2] Suwar 22:31, 98:5.

[3] Suwar 2:135, 3:67;95, 4:125, 6:79;161, 16:120;123.

[4] I hope that any Arab speaker will forgive me for any mistakes in how I present/spell/translate the words. If you have any corrections, then please let me know. The translations I have based on the three previous mentioned translations.

[5] The word cannot be understood in the modern sense of nation/state, for which would be used Dawla. Rather it is, as the Hebrew word ‘Am or Um, understood as a greater group of people accepting the same body of laws.

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