The Arabic word Tsabians (Greek: Σοβιαΐ) was first translated into Latin as Christians. It refers to a widespread religious group described as Judaizing Mithrean Nestorian Noahites (Gerim). The original Mithreans were called Mages while the Arabic word Tsabi is closer to Sebomenoi/Sebeoi (Σεβομενοι/Σεβεοι), the Greek word for Noahites which was Tarsak (pl. Tarsakan) in Persian. The first Mages to become Tsabis are described in Chapter 2 of the Gospel of Matthew.
The Arabic term Tsabi (Judaizing Mithrean Nestorian Noahites) or its Greek plural Sobiai also referred to Ekhasai's "Hearers" (ismai'i) i.e. the Manicheans' Uninitiated Audience which has caused all Sobiai to be often simply (and inaccurately) referred to as Manicheans even though they were not aware of the "Great Secret" of Mani's Gnosticism. The Persian word for such Tsabis was Tazig, (pl. Tazigan) (perhaps derived from Tarsak) while the Soghdian word was Nighòshagàn.
Tsabians are described in Arabic sources as being between Karaite-Judaizers, Nestorians and Mithrean people of Noah who awaited "Persia's Messenger". They said la ilaha il allah, used to face a specific direction (perhaps south) to pray the Liturgy of Hours and fasted for the Nativity Fast every year. They were Abrahamoc Philosophers (Sabiah Hunafa) who considered their path to be a return to orthodoxy of the religion of Noah.
While Θεοσεβεια can be clearly identified with strict monotheism, the "La ilaha il allah" of σεβεια alone appears to refer more to a kind of shittuf or imperfect monotheism rather like trinitariansm. It recognises the supremacy of a divine force "Ton Theon" or "Al-Lah", but it has not abandoned veneration of what are regarded as channels through which this force is revealed. At one end of the Noahite spectrum Trinitarians have a place according to some authorities (e.g. Rabbi Harvey Falk), while at the other end there is no need to think along such lines.
The Tsabians were eventually subsumed into Islam and the Christian Churches and their name was applied to a variety of other groups instead.
Despite all this substantial and clear documentation about both Harranians and Sabians spanning many centuries from sources as diverse as Greek Christian, Arabic Muslim, Arabic and Persian Bahá'í, as well as Jewish sources, the actual nature of the Sabians has remained a matter of some heated debate among western orientalists.
In the latter ninth century of the Common Era, Arab authors focused upon the "Polytheist" Sabians (Sabi'ah Mushrikun) and went into much detail on the Harranian period before the time of Abraham. Most of this knowledge was translated in 904 CE into the book called "The Nabatean Agriculture" which was considered by Maimonides to have been an accurate record of the Gnostic beliefs of the Sabi'ah Mushrikoon (Gnostic Sabians) in the Harranian area. However, there is really no reason to assume that the Harranians were ever Sabians at all, and only began to use this ethnicon after the time of Caliph Mai'mun.
Confusion with other groups
Tsabians are related to sects such as Rambam's Sabiah Mushrikun (Harranians) or Yazdaeans and Sabiah Hunafa. Although these groups may share some common concepts or heritage, they actually refer to completely different groups of people.
- The confusion of Mandaeans with Sabians. The confusion of western orientalists was due the fact that it was once important for the Mandaean Nasaraeans to seek protection under Islamic law by paying the jizyah tax when Christians began to object to them being classified as Nosaari. By adopting some of Yazdâeans' beliefs, they tried to relate their origins to the Harranians who had already made claim to the title "Sabian". Therefore, "Sabian" has been used mistakenly in many literary references for decades and though, the spelling "Sabian" usually refers to one of "people of the book" as mentioned in the Qur'an, it has also been used by the Mandaeans as an appellation adopted to appease local Muslim authorities.
- The confusion of Harranian with Sabians. The variation "Sabean", has been employed in English to distinguish the ancient Harranian origins and Gnostic Yazidi beliefs prior to their rejection of Gnosticism and adoption of Monotheism. In 830 CE the Abbasid caliph al-Ma'mun was passing through Harran on his way to a campaign against Byzantium who forced the Harranians to convert to either one of the 'religions of the book', meaning Judaism, Christianity or Islam. The people of Harran identified themselves with the Sabians in order to fall under the protection of Islam. The Harranian Sabians and the ones mentioned in the Quran have nothing in common. The term Pseudo-Sabian has been used not only by orientalists who take the side of the Mandaeans against the Harranians, but also by orientalists who take the side of the Harranians against the Mandaeans, rendering that term practically useless.
- The confusion of Sabaeans with 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 letter "Sin" instead of the letter "Sad". The Sabaeans were in fact the people of ancient Saba in Yemen who have been discredited by scholars as to having any connection to the Sabians of the Qur'an except for their Ansar tribe which practiced Qur'ānic Sabi'ism (Seboghatullah: "submersion in the divine mystery").