Revisiting the Barāhima’s Enigma

By Elizabeth Price
Submitted to Session P6470 (New Directions in Islamic Intellectual History, 2021 Annual Meeting
Rel Stds/Theo
All Middle East;
7th-13th Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
From the tenth century onwards, Muslim theologians would frequently associate two positions with the ‘Barāhima’ (a designation commonly reserved for Brahmans). Some of the Barāhima rejected the idea that God would have sent prophets to humanity on the grounds that they were perfectly capable of distinguishing right from wrong by the means of reason alone. Other members of the Barāhima claimed to recognize a limited number of early prophets, such as Adam, Seth, and Abraham, whilst rejecting the legitimacy of all subsequent claimants.

The doctrinal stances associated with the Barāhima raise a number of intriguing questions. How did Brahmans (if that’s who the Barāhima do in fact designate) come to be specifically associated with prophecy-denial? And how did they become spokespeople for two seemingly conflicting stances – one that rejected all prophets and one that rejected only some? Much ink has been spilled by modern scholars in attempts to reconcile the varied and multitudinous data on the Barāhima. Relevant material dating from the pre-Islamic era, however, has remained largely unexplored.

This paper will consider the relationship between early Arabic representations of the Barāhima and the varied accounts of Brahman-Gymnosophists that circulated in antiquity and late antiquity. It will argue that the conflicting positions on prophecy attributed to the Barāhima may in fact echo earlier dualities that emerged across Greco-Roman and Christian literature, where Brahman-Gymnosophists not only served as emblems of theological and moral insight in its organic and unmediated state, but also as guardians of a chain of prophetic revelation that extended back to antediluvian times. It will also address the possible mechanisms by which these earlier narratives may have been transmitted and reinvented during the formative centuries of Arabic scholarship.