Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Chiliastic Ideology and Nativist Rebellion in the Early 'Abbasid Period: Sunbadh and Jamasp-Nama

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Chiliastic Ideology and Nativist Rebellion in the Early 'Abbasid Period: Sunbadh and Jamasp-Nama

Article excerpt


Throughout the most successful years of the (Abbasid propaganda movement (dd'wa) in Khurasan, and subsequently during the establishment of 'Abbasid dynastic rule (dawla) throughout the eighth and ninth centuries C.E., Islamic Iran witnessed an explosion of nativist religious movements and rebellions among the Zoroastrian populace. These nativist movements--I call them nativist insofar as they often strove for some modicum of religious and/or political autonomy from their Arab-Muslim overlords--flourished especially in the half-conquered and oft-contested territories of post-Slisanid Iran. Inspired either in part or in whole by the conquered populations' experiences with the Islamic conquest polity and the multifarious religious ideologies of its divided elite, the non-Arab populations of Iran frequently rallied to support these movements. The rebels who led these movements almost invariably exhibited some intimate familiarity with the conquest elite of the early Islamic polity and thus combined their political ambitions with syncretic religious movements that fused Islamic religious ideology with newly imagined forms of Zoroastrian religiosity (in its manifold forms). Such movements, therefore, often combined Islamic religious practices and discourse with local religious beliefs and coupled their syncretic religious adaptations to the new post-conquest realities of post-Sasanid Iran. Although clearly owing a great debt to new Islamic forms of religiosity, more often than not the aspirations motivating such movements were rarely, if ever, philo-Muslim/Islamic. The aims of most were to revive Iranian religion and political dominion (however imagined) and thereby to banish Arab rule (P. dawlat-e 'arab) from the ancient territories of Eran-shahr. (1)

The aspirations harbored by these movements eventually gave rise to the Khurrram-diniyya movement of the late seventh and eighth centuries C.E. that produced a number of the most intransigent and intractable nativist rebellions to be launched against the 'Abbasid polity. (2) These movements have long been recognized by historians as essential to understanding the dynamics underlying the assimilating forces accompanying the expansion of the Islamic polity and its elite, whether in their Umayyad or (Abbasid iterations, as well as the local responses of the non-Arab Iranian population to new post-Sasanid realities. Yet one of the greatest historiographical challenges posed to historians of the region during this time period has been to balance--or at least to bring a robustly skeptical approach to--the depictions of nativist rebels and religious leaders as found in the Muslim sources, which generally speaking provide our sole window into such events insofar as Iranian and Zoroastrian sources on these events and personages are virtually non-existent. (3)

The purpose of this article is to bring to the attention of both Iranologists and Islamicists alike what I believe to be an exception to this general rule: the revolt of the Zoroastrian magnate Sunbadh against the 'Abbasids in 755 C.E. In what follows I argue that the ideology and events of Sunbadh's revolt against the 'Abbasids find profound resonances in the apocalyptic scenarios contained in the final chapters of the Pahlavi work Ayadgar I Jamaspig (The Memorial of Jamasp), a section better known as Jamasp-nama. (4) Such resonances, it will be argued, originate from the chiliastic propaganda contemporary with and instrumental to Sunbadh's revolt, which he launched initially to exact vengeance for the assassination of Aba Muslim al-Khurasani in Shacban 137/February 755 by the agents of the (Abbasid caliph Abu Ja'far al-Mansur (r. 136-158/754-775) and which evolved, eventually, into a movement with the professed aim of ending Arab dominion.


Scholars have hitherto primarily depended upon Muslim sources, whether in Persian or Arabic, (5) to reconstruct the basic chronological outlines and ideological motivations underpinning Sunbadh's revolt. …

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