Pre-Islamic religions


Introduction

A number of religions were practiced in the different geographical parts of ancient Iran through the various periods of history, all of which underwent many changes in the course of time, owing to the various social and political developments and upheavals faced by the country. It is mainly due to this reason that details concerning the original forms of these religions and their relationship with each other are shrouded in haziness and ambiguity. While the main principles and the basic belief structure of the ancient Iranian religions like Zoroastrianism – the followers of which still live in Iran – are somewhat better known because of the availability of certain evidences and sources, not much information can be found regarding the other ancient Iranian religions, and particularly the ones that existed before Zoroastrianism, owing to a lack of reliable evidences. However, what is clear is that several faiths and religious beliefs did exist in ancient Iran in different forms, the influences of which can be observed in the later religions such as Zoroastrianism, Zurvānism, Mithraism, Manichaeism, and the more recent religious movements like those of Mazdak and Bābak Khorramdin. These religions had also, to a great extent, influenced the ancient Iranian art and literature as well as its other cultural heritages. In general, the sources that are available for providing us with information regarding the pre- Zoroastrian religions of ancient Iran are as follows:

1- The works of Greek writers like Herodotus, Strabo, Polybius, and others that contain sporadic information regarding the traditions and religious beliefs of ancient Iran;
2- The surviving parts of the Avesta, in which direct and indirect references have been made to the beliefs and views that were more ancient than Zoroastrianism. It is worth mentioning that both Zoroaster as well as the early Zoroastrians had for a long time struggled to prevent the beliefs of the pre-Zoroastrian faiths from penetrating into the Zoroastrian thought and belief structure. Nevertheless, some elements of these ancient religions did eventually find their way into the Mazda-worshipping Zoroastrian religion and became merged with it. Thus, the Avesta – and particularly the sections of the Yashts, which comprise hymns in praise of God – is one of the most important sources available concerning the religions that existed in ancient Iran.
3- The Vedic Texts: These ancient Indian religious texts constitute another important source for research on the religious beliefs and traditions of the ancient Iranians. This is mainly due to the fact that the two branches of the Aryan race that had apparently separated from the other Indo-European tribes in the second millennium BC had a lot in common in the areas of language, legends, epics, and religious beliefs. Moreover, what has been referred to as the “Iranian religion” in the writings of the ancient Greek historians clearly resembles the Vedic beliefs and, therefore, there remains no doubt that the Vedas are also one of the most important existing sources that provide researchers with information on the religious beliefs of ancient Iran.
4-Inscriptions of the Achaemenian Kings: These inscriptions, too, make faint references to the religious beliefs of the ancient Iranians and since they do not particularly mention Zoroaster’s name as well as the specific Zoroastrian principles, they can be considered as a part of the non-Zoroastrian culture of ancient Iran.

Based on this discussion, it could be said that even though it is not possible to have an exact picture of the pre-Zoroastrian religions of the ancient Iranians, it is, at the same time possible to reconstruct certain important characteristics and principles of these faiths with the help of the above mentioned sources and references. Thus, based on these evidences it can be inferred that the ancient Iranians worshipped various gods and goddesses associated with the sky, the earth, the sun, the moon, water, fire, and even wind and went to the extent of offering sacrifices to them in order to gain their satisfaction and blessings.

Offering sacrifices to the gods and the deities was one of the most important religious ritual and the most prevalent form of worship and devotion among the ancient Iranians that was done in a special ceremony on the mountain tops and in the presence and with the mediation of their magi. During the ceremony, one of the magi would hold a bundle of plants in his hand and after reciting specific religious hymns would kill the sacrificial animal by hitting it on the head with a mace rather than by killing it with the help of a knife. They would then divide the offering into pieces, cook it, and spread it over a bed of soft plants, especially clover. Subsequently, the magi who supervised over the sacrificial ceremony would gather over the spread and would recite religious hymns to bless the sacrificial meat. While giving a detailed account of the offering ceremony, Herodotus emphasizes that he has noted these details on the basis of the precise information that he had gained about the sacrificial ceremonies of the ancient Iranians.
The study of the offering ceremony as part of the religious practices of the ancient Iranians finds its importance in the fact that Zoroaster had strived hard to keep this practice, as well as other similar customs, out of the Avestan religion. However, as mentioned earlier, some of these beliefs and practices that had existed in Iran since the ancient times could not be completely removed from the minds of the masses and they gradually came to be added into the Avesta in the later times. As per the Yashts, the horses were sacrificed in hundreds, the cows in thousands, and the sheep in hundreds of thousands. For example, in Yasht 10, paragraph 119 we read about the sacrifices made for the appeasement of Izad Mehr, while in Yasht 8, paragraph 58 one finds that offerings were made Izad Tishtar.

The gods worshipped in the ancient Iranian religions were of varying natures and performed varying functions. Some research scholars on religions have been of the opinion that the characteristics of the three Indo-Iranian social classes can also be found in the qualities and functions of their gods and that, depending on their duties and responsibilities, each god belonged to a particular social class. The first of these social classes was that of the rulers and judges whose gods were Mithra and Varuna. The responsibility of these gods corresponded and conformed to the duties of the priests in the human society. The second social class was that of the warriors who constituted the defense forces of the society. The most important of the gods of this class was Indra. The third class, on the other hand, that constituted the labor force or those who were engaged in the process of production fell under the class of farmers and artisans and their gods were Āshvinhā and Nāstiyāhā who were concerned with the power of nature as well as affluence.
Just as the Hindu religion, the pantheon of the Iranians was divided between the gods (Ahurās) and the demons (divās), of which, the latter group was later on considered to constitute the forces of evil and destruction in the Zoroastrian religion. Some ancient Indo-Iranian gods and deities, including Indra, Surya, and Nanghaithya were considered to be from among the demons. The term “Ahurā”, which corresponds to the term “Āsur” from the Hindu religion, meaning “lord”, found the meaning “good” and, with the suffix-adjective of “Mazda”, meaning the “All-Knowing” came to be considered as the supreme god of the ancient Iranians. Interestingly, as per the Hindu beliefs, the Āsurās (or Ahurās) were the forces of evil or the demons while the “Devas” or the “divs” in Persian (lit. demons) came to be considered as the benevolent forces.
One of the most important religious principles of the ancient Iranians was the belief in a specific force called Āshā (or Rta, meaning righteousness and truth). The Hindu equivalent of “Āshā” is “Ritā”. According to this belief, the order and organization of the entire universe and its components are the responsibility of Āshā and the believers are, thus, expected to match their thoughts, words, and deeds with this deity. It was for this reason that the “pious” ones were referred to with the adjective the “Āshvān”, meaning the followers of Āshā. With the inclusion of certain new aspects to it, this Indo-Iranian religious principle gradually came to be adopted as one of the main principles of the Zoroastrian religion. As per the Vedic texts, the sun is the material manifestation of Rita and knowing Rita and believing in it is closely related to the internal illumination of man. Thus, it would not be inappropriate to consider the relations between Āshā and internal awareness and illumination as a discussion of “Aryan mysticism”.
In the religious beliefs of the Mazdayasnians, too, Āshā is manifested in light. Similarly, according to the Avesta, the auspicious Āshā manifests itself through light and, subsequently, Āshā’s place is considered to be in the Sun. Keeping in view the relations between Āshā or Rita and light and internal illumination – which is one of the special principles of the ancient Indo-Iranian religious heritage – the historical background of the belief in “Farr” and divine light within the religious thoughts of the Iranians becomes more clear. Farr has been praised in the concluding parts of the Avesta, and particularly in the Yasht 19 in which it is hence described: “Farr is a light-giving force and a kind of flowing light as well as the flowing rays (particles) of the Sun which is rooted in water. Farr is a divine blessing that god bestows on the national and religious kings and heroes; it is the prophet and the ultimate savior of the world”.
Another basic practice of the ancient Iranian religions was the consumption of a drink prepared from a plant called “Haoma” (referred to as Soma in Vedas and by the Hindus); both of which were considered to be sacred. Apparently the stalks of the plant were crushed in a stone mortar in a specific religious ceremony and the juice was filtered through sheep’s wool and then mixed with water and milk. The drink supposedly brought mental illumination and exhilaration to the priests as well as power and valor to the warriors and, thus, it was customary among the people to offer it to their deities too.

As regards the other religions that emerged in ancient Iran following the religious reforms and innovations introduced by Zoroaster, it is somewhat possible to gain reliable information from the Gāthā hymns (attributed to Zoroaster himself) and the more recent parts of the Avesta that were composed during different periods of time.

The Zoroastrian religion was, seemingly, a local movement in certain parts of east Iran, which encountered severe resistance by the existing religions towards the end of the second millennium or the early part of the first millennium BC. As per historical records, Zoroastrianism spread only after its founder’s death and despite all the efforts on the part of Zoroaster and his early followers, this religion gradually got infiltrated by the beliefs of the earlier religions and cults and, thus, when the religion of worshipping Mazdā reached the western parts of Iran it was quite different from the tenets of the hymns that can be found in the Gāthās.
It may be worthwhile to stress that the Zoroastrian religion is the only surviving ancient Iranian religion and its followers can be found in Iran and some other parts of the world and since it was the official religion of Iran during the reign of the Sassanian Dynasty a considerable amount of Zoroastrian texts that were written in the Pahlavi language are available to us today. Each of these texts contain the belief principles of the Zoroastrianism as well as the existing worldview of ancient Iran, a study of which and their comparison with the available evidence from other religions of ancient Iran like Zurvānism, Mithraism, Manichaeism, and Mazdakism, would make it possible to identify and understand the main tenets and principles of the ancient Iranian religions.
Dualism: The most important feature of the ancient Iranian religions was a belief in dualism; i.e., a belief in the duality of the sources of creation that manifested in the opposing forces of benevolence and evil or light and darkness. According to this belief, the movements of the cosmos and the activities of the universe are the result of the interactions and battles between these two opposing forces. In the Mazdayasnian religion, Ahurā Mazdā is the source of all beneficence while Ahriman is the cause of all evil. In his teachings, Zoroaster spoke of the two autonomous spirits of benevolence and evil, each one of whom was the source of one aspect of creation and that in response to each of Ahurā Mazdā’s creation (of good), the source of evil creates an evil. Moreover, these two spirits who do not resemble each other in any way – neither in their qualities nor in their thoughts, words, or deeds – clashed with each other at the beginning of creation (Yasna 30, paragraph 3; Yasna 45, paragraph 2; and Yasna 47 paragraph 2) and it was their clash that resulted in the creation of being and non-being while their continued clashes and animosity resulted in the other various phases of creation; and this clash and animosity shall continue until the time of the final and decisive battle. To begin with, these two spirits – viz. the Spenta or Sepand, meaning “sacred” and “productive”, and Angra, meaning “wicked” and “destructive” – are of equal strength and the victory of either of these over the other depends upon man, since by adopting the path of either of them man would increase his strength and force and would make it possible for him to overcome the other. Thus, man has a responsibility towards the universe and the collective destiny of the people of the world.

As per the Zurvānian religion – which was another religion of ancient Iran – Ahurā Mazdā and Ahriman are the sons of Zurvān, the supreme god. Zurvān has also been called as the “Limitless Time” and “Time of Long Dominion”. The followers of this religion believed that the two sources of creation, viz. Ahurā Mazdā and Ahriman, are born in the form of two opposing essences, even though they are twins and born from “Time”. In his treatise, “Isis and Osiris”, Plutarch has described Ahurā Mazdā and Ahriman in the following words: “Aurmazdā was created from the purest of the lights while Ahriman was created from darkness. They started a conflict among themselves but Zurvān has determined their times. The mediator between the two is Mehr and, thus, the Iranians call it the “Mehr-e Miyānji” or the “Mediating Mehr”. Most of the surviving religious treatises from the Sassanian period such as the Minuye Kherad, the Zadesparm, and particularly the Bundahishn, which describe the views of the Mazdayasnians on creation as well as their worldview in details, resemble those of the Zurvānians.
Choosing the Path: “Choosing the path” is the most outstanding feature of the Mazdayasnian ethics and is an obligatory responsibility upon everyone. According to this principle, anyone reaching 15 years of age must know who he/she is, where he/she has come from, and where he/she is heading towards. Moreover he/she should know the two sources of creation; which one of these two sources is on the right path and which one is on the wrong path; and he/she should also be aware of which path he/she has chosen to follow. Similarly, it is obligatory on everyone to find and follow the right path of Spenta under the guidance of wisdom and religious teachings and to join the army of Ahurā Mazdā. It is at this juncture of one’s life that his/her role in the future of the world and the destiny of the universe gets manifested; the impact of thoughts, words, and deeds on him/her becomes clear; and his/her status in the entire universe is determined.
The Millenniums: One of the other important features of the Mazdayasnian beliefs is the belief in the “Millenniums” and the different periods of creation and the history of the world. According to Zoroastrian beliefs, the life-span of the material world is nine thousand years and is divided into three periods of three thousand years each. In the first three thousand years, Ahurā Mazdā created the cosmos while in the next three thousand years the evil forces of Ahriman attacked Ahurā Mazdā’s creation, contaminating each and every thing that has been created and polluting it and it is for this reason that the Ahrimanic elements and effects are spread everywhere. Finally, in the third and final three thousand years Zoroaster and the three Zoroastrian promised saviors appear in order to limit the power of Ahriman and save Ahurā Mazdā’s creations from the dominance of Ahriman and the demons. This means that in the beginning of the first millennium of the final three thousand years, Zoroaster came into the world and invited people to the path of religion. At the end of the first millennium, the first Zoroastrian savior called “Ushider” or “Ōshētar” appeared and helped remind people of the principles of the religion. The second savior or “Ushidermāh” or “Ōshētarmāh” appeared at the end of the second millennium and, finally, the third and the final savior called “Sushiyant” or “Saoshyans” is expected to appear at the end of the third millennium and to engage for a period of 57 years in preparing for the final battle between the good and evil forces as well as the day of resurrection.

The end of the world demarcates the final battle between the forces of good and evil and manifests the ultimate outcome of their longstanding opposition. During this period, Ahriman gathers all its forces including “Azhidahāk” (lit.: “the dragon”) – the greatest symbol of Ahrimanic evil that has been held in captivity ever since it was defeated by Fereidun in Mt. Damāvand – who manages to release itself from captivity and joins and helps Ahriman in his efforts to destroy the world. The Hindu counterpart of “Azhidahāk” is “Ahi” or “Vritra” who will stop the waters of the world from flowing following which Indra will kill him and free the waters. At the end of this great war (between the forces of good and evil), the details of which were described by all the Mazdayasnian religions as well as Manichaeism, Ahriman will be defeated and destroyed. Following this victory, Ahurā Mazdā will make his final Bundahishnian move referred to as “Farshgard”, meaning the “revival of the world”, as a result of which all of Ahurā Mazdā’s creations will attain eternal life. It is worth mentioning that according to Zoroastrianism, at the time of resurrection, the souls of all the dead – from the beginning of the world to the end – will return to their bodies and will appear in the court of divine justice where the good and the bad will be separated and where the whole of the resurrected mankind will have to face the divine test of passing through a flood of molten metals, which will burn only the wicked. In this way, even the wicked will get cleansed of their crimes and sins that were the outcome of their mixing with the Ahrimanic forces. Through this act of revival Ahurā Mazdā will spread out the collective and perpetual inhabiting place for his creations and, finally, everyone will attain light and will enter the eternal paradise.

A belief in the appearance of the savior and the possibility of being liberated from the forces of evil and darkness as well as a hope in the eternal life in the everlasting realm of light constituted some of the basic and important features of the ancient Iranian religions. Thus, this way of positive and optimistic thinking can be interpreted as a reflection of their belief in monotheism.
In some ancient Iranian religions Izad Mehr, too, plays an important role in believing in the savior. In the book the “Prophecies of Gashtasb” that had been written and circulated in the Greek language centuries before the advent of Christianity, the birth of Mehr has been described in the following words: “In order to protect the pious among the evil-doers God will send the “Great King” from the heavens who will destroy the forces of evil with fire and the sword.” This “great king” has been referred to as none other than “Mehr”. In some Christian texts that have been written under the influence of the Iranian religious beliefs the description of the miraculous birth of the “savior” has been given in the following words: “His star will appear in the sky in the form of a small child and will descend in a cave in a column of light where it will be born in the form of an infant from a piece of rock. The magi sit in waiting for years in the “Mt. Victory” to witness his birth. They shall present golden crowns to this newborn savior”. The “Mt. Victory” referred to in the Christian sources is the same as the “Mt. Khwajeh” which is situated in the Hamun Lake and it was customary among the magi to climb this mountain at a particular time of the year and lie in waiting to see the signs of the appearance of the savior.

The Immortality of the Soul: A belief in the survival of the soul after the death of the physical body was another important belief principle of the religions of the ancient Iranians. As per their belief the human soul will survive after man’s death and will receive punishment or reward depending upon his deeds in this world. Following man’s death, the soul will stay besides the lifeless body for three days and at the end of the third day will leave this world for the hereafter at the time of dawn. At this moment, a refreshing breeze blows towards the pious man and his “faith” comes to accompany him on his spiritual journey to the hereafter in the form of a young and beautiful girl, while the “beliefs” of the sinners will face them in the form of a frowning witch in a filthy and tormenting environment.

In order to enter the next world the souls of the dead are supposed to cross over a bridge called “Chinvad” whose job is to separate the good from the bad. While the pious and righteous person will cross it without any difficulty, the same Chinvad Bridge will turn into a thin and sharp sword-like path for the sinners from which they will fall deep into the abyss of hell. The Chinvad Bridge and its features have also been mentioned in the Hindu texts indicating that the belief in this bridge was in fact the common religious heritage of the ancient Iranians and Indians. A belief in the immortality of the soul was another outstanding belief of the Mazdayasnian faith and its moral features, since it also indicated believing in resurrection, the Day of Judgment, the prevalence of justice in the next world, and the need to be careful of one’s deed in this world.
The Zaor and the Myazd (The Pot and the Sacred Edible Offerings): Charities and offerings, too, were of particular importance in the religious beliefs of the ancient Iranians. In order to gain the pleasure of their gods as well as the souls of their dead the ancient Iranians would lay out special tables on days of festivity and in religious ceremonies and would make offerings of drinks called the “zaor” and eatables called the “myazd” through special religious ceremonies. The main ingredients of these offerings were water, bread and milk.

One of the important customs of the ancient Iranians during these offering ceremonies was the pouring of the “āb-zoar” and the “ātash-zaor” on water and fire. While the āb-zaor was made of three types of animal and plant elements like milk and the essences of flowers and leaves, the ātash-zaor was made from fragrant and aromatic substances like musk, camphor, and sandal as well as animal fat. According to available evidences, the custom of the pouring of āb-zaor and ātash-zaor on water and fire is of an Indo-Iranian origin.

The Ameshā Spentās and the Divine Beings: As per the Mazdayasnian beliefs there are some sacred beings that assist Ahurā Mazdā in the process of creation and in the preservation of the world. These beings are called the “Ameshā Spentās” meaning the “sacred immortal beings”. These sacred beings are considered to be the greatest of the Zoroastrian angels, the most important of whom included “Vahumaneh” or “Vohu Mano” (Bahman), “Āshā Vahishtah” (Ordibehesht), “Khashthareh Vayriyeh” (Shahrivar), “Spanteh Ārmayti” (Sepandārmaz), “Hoarvatāteh” (Khordād), and “Amrtāteh” (Mordād). These six eternal sacred beings as well as “Sepand Minu” or “Spentā Mainyu” were the first lights that emanated from the being of Ahurā Mazdā, each one of them being the manifestation of one of His qualities. Besides, they also play their own individual roles in the process of creation and are in charge of preserving a certain part of the universe. For instance, Bahman is in charge of preserving the animals while Ordibehesht, Shahrivar, Sepandārmaz, Khordād, and Mordād are in charge of preserving fire, the metals, the earth, water, and the plants respectively. On the other hand, Spentā Mainyu, who represents the creative aspect of Ahurā Mazdā in charge of human beings. As a matter of fact, by presenting the names and the responsibilities of these greatest of angels, Zoroaster intended to interpret the divine qualities of Ahurā Mazdā.

In retaliation to the creation of the Ameshā Spentās, Ahriman created the group of the “Kamārikān” which are the manifestations of his evil and destructive qualities and their responsibility is to spread evil and harm in the realm of Ahurā Mazdā’s creation. Angrā (Ahriman) and the six mega-demons constitute the “Kamārikān” group, each of whose members stand in challenge to an Ameshā Spentā.

In the Mazdayasna religion, besides the Ameshā Spentās there are other sacred and praiseworthy beings called the “Izadān” (divine beings) each of which is the manifestation of one or more of the outstanding qualities of Ahurā Mazdā, performing his duty under His direct command and will. The Izadān are also the guardians of each of the days of the month and, thus, in the Mazdayasnian calendar not only did the months derive their names from those of these sacred beings but each day, too, was named after one of them. For example, Bahman was the name of the second day of the month, Shahrivar is the fourth day, Khordād the sixth day, Khorshid the eleventh day, Māh the twelfth day, Mehr the sixteenth day and so on.

Respecting Fire: The most important element in the customs and traditions of the Mazdayasnian religions is the sacred fire. In these religions, fire is a tangible and yet esoteric symbol of the unseen divinity. While in the Iranian texts fire is referred to by different names such as “Ātash”, “Āzar”, and “Ātur”, its equivalent in the Hindu texts is “Agni”.

According to the beliefs of the Mazdayasnians fire or “Āzar’ is one of the greatest of the blessings of Ahurā Mazdā to human beings that serves as a mediator between them and the Lord and conveys man’s prayers and worship to the divine presence of God. Respect to fire, too, is a common Indo-Iranian religious heritage. As per the Vedic beliefs, “Agni” is the offspring of the waters and serves as an invisible cord that connects the three worlds (the sky, the space, and the earth). It shines in the sky as the Sun; it appears in the space between the sky and the earth as lightening; and it manifests on the earth in the form of fire which comes into existence by rubbing two pieces of wood. The importance of fire is particularly revealed in the Zoroastrian custom of not allowing it to get extinguished (from the Zoroastrian fire temples and homes). In his book, “The Geography”, besides naming the various religious customs of the Persians and the Medians, Strabo has also made mention of the existence of fire temples in ancient Iran and has described the custom of keeping the fire burning permanently in the following word: “The magi protect the fire from getting extinguished and during the daytime, recite prayers before it.” It is for this reason that the Zoroastrian priests are also called “Āturbān”.

Numerous evidences have survived, indicating the value and the status of fire in the belief system of the ancient Iranians. In the oldest available inscriptions that apparently belong to the Median period and which are popularly known as the “Dakān-e Dāvud” an Iranian is seen standing before fire. The Achaemenian and the Sassanian kings, too, have been depicted in numerous inscriptions praying before fire. Sassanian coins, too, were decorated with the images of the Zoroastrian fire-pots in the form of the national symbol of Iran. Owing to the immense respect that fire commanded among the Sassanian Zoroastrians, the Ārturbāns covered their heads as well as the lower portions of their face with something called the “panām”.
In the Avestā, “Āzar” is considered to be the son of Ahurā Mazdā. Moreover, the Avestā also makes mention of five types of fire while its exegesis in the Pahlavi language names these five types of fire as the “Fire of Bahrām”, the “Fire of the Bodies of People and Animals”, the “Fire of Plants”, the “Fire of the Clouds or the Fire of Lightening”, and the “Fire of Gorzmān” that burns in the Divine Realm before Ahurā Mazdā.

During the ancient times there were three important fire temples in Iran that were considered to be the symbols of the three social classes of the “priests”, the warriors”, and the “farmers”.

 Manichaeism

Māni, the founder of Manichaeism, was born in the year 216 AD in northern Babylonia and Manichaeism was founded or rather formed in the first part of the 3rd Century AD in Mesopotamia.
Owing to its special geographical location, Mesopotamia was the most important center of economic and cultural interactions in the vast Parthian Empire and the existence of the Ganusi religions and the various philosophical schools as well as religions like Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Zurvānism, and Hellenistic views in this region had turned it into a suitable place for the exchange of views, thoughts, and beliefs. It was in such an environment that Māni professed and propagated Manichaeism as a new religion, the basic tenets of which were apparently a mixture of the teachings of the religions that prevailed in the region. It should, however, be noted that the Mazdayasnian views had influenced the formation of this Iranian religion more than any other of the existing faiths. This is particularly evident from the similarities that can be found between the basic Manichaean beliefs and ethical principles and those of the Zoroastrian religion which included principles like dualism, the three millenniums, choosing the Path, the victory of Light over darkness, and salvation and liberation in the Hereafter.
As regards his appointment as a prophet, Māni had said that it was at the age of twelve that he received revelation from God for the first time through an angel called “Toam”(in the Nabataean language, meaning “twin”; or “Narjmig” in the Middle Persian language) who carried the divine commands to him. It was at the age of twenty-four that Toam once again appeared to him and commanded him to propagate his religion. Therefore, Māni began inviting people to the new religion during the reign of the Sassanid king, Ardeshir, and in order to propagate his religion traveled to eastern India and when Shāpur I succeeded his father Ardeshir he returned to the Iranian capital and sought his permission to propagate his religion throughout the Iranian territories. In the beginning of his book, “Shāpurgān”, which Māni had written for Shāpur he wrote that “religious principles and practices are conveyed to people by different prophets at different times”. He added that “there was a time when Buddha emerged in India, at another time Zoroaster appeared in Iran, yet at some other time it was Jesus who spread the religion of God in the West, and now this religion has been revealed to me, Māni, in the land of Babylonia”. Māni had also referred to himself as “Fārqlit” (or the “Paraclete”) and the final prophet. In order to propagate Manichaeism throughout the world Māni had sent missionaries and preachers to different parts of the world and had, in a short span of time, attracted many followers far and wide and had, thus, turned it into a global religion. During the period between the 4th and the 12th Centuries AD Manichaeism had spread as far as France in the West and China in the East and had found many followers among the Iranians, the Romans, the Chinese, the Turks, and the people of northern Africa. The rapid expansion of Manichaeism provoked the hostility of the leaders and followers of other religions including the Muslims, the Christians, and the orthodox Zoroastrians, who declared the Manichaeans as apostates and issued various verdicts for their persecution. As long as Shāpur and his son Hormoz ruled in Iran, Māni was allowed to propagate this faith in their empire but when Bahram I (reigned 274-277 AD) succeeded to the throne, Māni came to be arrested as a heretic, following which he was executed and his followers were massacred. The prosecution of the Manichaeans prompted them to migrate to China as a result of which this Iranian religion spread further in China and Central Asia to such an extent that Manichaeism became the official religion of the Uygur dynasty in the 2nd Century AH/8th Century AD. According to Al-Biruni, during his times the followers of Māni lived sporadically in Islamic cities and a particular Manichaean sect called the “Sābe’in” lived in Samarqand, and beyond the boundaries of the Islamic territories most of the people of Eastern Turkistan, the inhabitants of Tibet, and even some Indians followed Manichaeism. The archeological excavations of the Turfan region of Chinese Turkistan in the early 14th Century AH/20th Century AD, through which many Manichaean texts were discovered, confirm Al-Biruni’s reports. The Manichaean texts discovered in these excavations are very important from the viewpoint of providing for a deeper understanding of that faith. The contents of these texts confirm the validity of most of the reports of the Christian and Muslim historians, and Ibn Nadim and Al-Biruni in particular, and what they had written about Manichaeism and its followers.

Mazdakism

Mazdakism was in fact a religious movement with very strong social objectives that emerged during the reign of Qobād, also spelt as “Kavadh”, the king of the Sāsānian Empire. Qobād was the son of Fīrūz and succeeded Firuz’s brother Balāsh as ruler. Mazdakism had caused major revolutionary changes of a quasi socialistic nature in Iran. The main cause of this social movement was the existing Sassanid aristocracy, the strong social class system, and the turbulent and chaotic political, social, and economic conditions of Iran in those days. The heavy costs of Firuz’s war with the barbaric Ephthalites, or the “White Huns,” and the heavy tribute that had to be paid as a result of his defeat in this war had added to the poverty and pressure of the oppressed masses that were already facing economic hardship caused by subsequent droughts and famines. All these factors quite naturally had gradually paved the path for the acceptance of Mazdak’s revolutionary reformist movement, the popularity of which, increased day by day among the various strata of society. Apparently the momentum of Mazdak’s movement had reached to such an extent that in order to save his rule as well as to free himself from the unwanted domination and intrusion of the mobeds and the nobles in the administrative affairs of the country Qobād was but compelled to support the movement and to embrace Mazdakism merely in order to stabilize his political position among the masses by winning their support. However, in 523 AD, the Zoroastrian priests as well as the Sassanid aristocrats and nobles, whose vested interest had been threatened by the movement, colluded and conspired with Khosrow Anushirvān, Qobād’s crowned prince, who invited Mazdak and the other leaders of Mazdakism to a royal gathering and massacred all of them, thereby putting an end to Mazdak’s religio-social movement.Following the persecution and massacre of the Mazdakites all their books and written documents were destroyed and all the information available about this movement comes from brief mentions in Syrian, Persian, Arabic, and Greek sources most of which had been written by their opponents and adversaries. Therefore, our knowledge of the history and the belief principles of Mazdakism is negligible and all we know is that it was a social movement in the garb of a religion that was started by a Zoroastrian high-priest and a social reformist called Mazdak, the son of Bāmdād. As per the available evidences Mazdakism, too, professed the dualism that was particular to the ancient Iranian religions while it had, alongside, embarked on a new interpretation of Zoroastrianism and the Avestā and had sought to reform the Mazdayasnian doctrine.

The historical background of the Mazdakite doctrine and socio-religious reforms and particularly its dualistic views has been attributed to two different individuals about whom very little information is available. The first one was “Zartosht, the son of Khorgān”, a Zoroastrian mobed (priest) who lived in the Fārs region of Iran in the 5th Century AD and the other one was a person called “Bundos” who was a Manichaean who lived in Rome during the reign of Diocletian (284-305 AD) at the end of the 3rd century and who later on came to Iran and began preaching. He was known among the Iranians as “Dorost Din” (lit.: “Right Faith”) and his followers were called the “Dorsot Dinān”. According to the Muslim scholar, Ibn Nadim, there existed two Mazdaks viz. “Mazdak-e Qadim” (lit.: “the old Mazdak”) and “Mazdak-e Akhir” (lit.: “the more recent Mazdak”). This confirms the views of some other scholars who believe that prior to Mazdak-e Bāmdādān (Mazdak, the son of Bāmdād) there had emerged another cult that assimilated dualistic beliefs and Mazdak, in fact, had only revived and propagated their views and beliefs. Ibn Nadim referred to the Mazdakites as the “Khorramiyyeh” and wrote that “from among the two Khorramiyyeh cults the latter group, in fact, consisted of Zoroastrians who sought to make property and women common and who refrained from domination over each other, murder, and causing harm to others and were famous for their benevolence and hospitality. Mazdak-e Akhir belonged to this group and rose during the reign of Qobād but was later on killed by Khosrow Anushirvān.Generally speaking, the Islamic resources have for the most part ignored Mazdak’s worldview and theology and have only concentrated on his social and ethical teachings. The only Islamic scholar who has made some reference to the beliefs of this cult is Shahrestāni who has written about them in the following words: “The Mazdakites believed in the two original principles of “Good and Evil” or “Light and “Darkness” and paid respect to the three elements of water, earth, and fire and believed that the administrator of Good or the God of Light is enthroned in the paradise of the upper world, having before him the four powers of perception, intelligence, memory, and joy; in the same way as Khosrow, in the lower world, is enthroned having before him Mobedān Mobed, Hirbadān Hirbad, Sepāhbod, and the Musician. The four forces of the God of Light rule over seven “viziers” – identical with the seven planets of antiquity – called Sālār, Pishkār, Bārvar, Parvān, Kārdān, Dastur, and Kudak (Khādem). These seven viziers, in turn, move about in an orbit of twelve “spiritual beings” – identical with the twelve signs of the zodiac – called Khānandeh (lit,: “The Reader”), Dahandeh (lit.: “The Giver”), Setānandeh (lit.: “The Taker”), Borandeh (lit.: “The One who Cuts”), Khorandeh (llit.: “The One who Eats”), Khizandeh (lit.: “The One who Resurrects”), Koshandeh (lit.: The One who takes Life”), Zanandeh (lit.: “The One who Punishes”), Konandeh (lit.: “The Doer”), Āyandeh (lit.: “The One who will Come”), Shavandeh (lit.: “The One who will Go”), and, Pāyandeh (lit.: “The Eternal One”). The four powers are united in man while the seven and the twelve powers control the world. God Almighty manages the affairs of the world with the power of the letters, which when put together constitute the Supreme Name. By gaining knowledge of these mysterious powers and the secrets of the letters and the numbers one can attain to the knowledge of liberation and salvation and after acquiring awareness about the “secret of the religion”, he would be exempted from observing and performing religious duties because internal witnessing and illumination eliminates the necessity for external rituals.

The most important social messages propagated by Mazdak were equality of rights, commonness of property and distributive justice as regards to women. As emphasized by most Islamic historians, Mazdak believed that God provided the human race with the means of livelihood for them to distribute them equally among themselves and that no one should take more than his rightful share. However, the mighty have oppressed the weak and have taken over all the wealth for themselves, and therefore, it is obligatory on the part of the rich to return the undue share, since no one has higher rights over the others as regards wants, wealth, and women.
As per the dualistic worldview of Mazdakism the demons of darkness are the symbols of man’s mental wickedness as well as his ethical deviations, the most prominent of which are jealousy, anger, spitefulness, greed, and need. The main source of these Ahrimanic qualities, which lead to the destruction of equality and justice, is nothing but private ownership. These sources do not mention anything about the suggestions made by Mazdakism as regards making property and women common. But keeping in view the various available reports on the destruction of the family structure as well as the disturbances caused to the class system, the laws pertaining to private ownership, marriage rules, and family rights, as well as the reports of the reforms introduced by Khosrow Anushirvān – following the suppression of Mazdakism – in order to reinstate the laws that had been abolished, it is possible to somewhat perceive the true nature this religion.
Despite the continued murder, persecution, and suppression of the Mazdakites throughout the long years of Anushirvān’s rule, the followers of Mazdakism were not completely eradicated and they continued to live in hiding in different parts of Iran and, therefore, in the early centuries of Islam they emerged under the different names of the “Mazdakiyeh”, the “Khorramiyeh”, the “Khorram Diniyeh”, the “Sorkh Jāmegān” (lit.: “The Red-Clothed Ones”), and the “Sepid Jāmegān” (lit.: “The White-Clothed Ones”) and played a significant role in the formation and emergence of deviant sects in the Islamic world, and particularly the “Bāteniyeh” and the “Qarāmateh”.[1]

 



[1] Bagheri , Mehdi ” Iran Entry ” The Great Islamic Encyclopedia . Ed. Kazem Musavi Bojnourdi.Tehran: The Center of Great Islamic Encyclopaedia , 1989-, V.10 , pp.580- 589