Muslim Perceptions of Other Religions: A Historical Survey

By Jacques Waardenburg | Go to book overview

12

Zoroastrianism as Viewed in
Medieval Islamic Sources

J. CHRISTOPH BÜRGEL


Some Glimpses from History

Islamic Times

In Arabic sources, the adherents of Zoroastrianism are called Madjūs, from Old Persian Magush, Akkadian Magushu, Greek Magos, originally meaning a priestly caste. At the end of the Sasanid period, Zoroastrians were to be found as administrators, landlords, and soldiers in non-Persian parts of the Sasanid Empire such as al-'Irāq, Bahrayn, 'Umān, and Yaman.1

The Lakhmids, an Arabic dynasty in Syria and Iraq playing the role of a buffer state between Iran and Byzantium, were culturally influenced by, and politically dependent on, Sasanian Iran.

Typical features of Zoroastrianism at the beginning of Islam were fire cults, animal sacrifices, consanguineous marriage, and ritual purity achieved by ablution with water or bull's urine.

Morony remarks on Sasanian society: “An élitist social ethic, honoring establishmentarian virtues, provided ideological justification for the hierarchic society of the Madjūs. High values were placed on order, stability, legality and harmony among the functionally-determined divisions of society (priests, soldiers, bureaucrats, and workers, or else priests, soldiers, farmers, and artisans) so each would perform its specific duty towards the others.”2


Reflections in the Qur'ān

The only mention of the Madjūs in the Qur'ān is to be found in Sura 22:17: “Surely they that believe, and those of Jewry, the Sabaeans, the Christians, the Magians and the idolators—God shall distinguish between them on the Day of Resurrection; assuredly God is witness over everything.”3

Arberry's translation as quoted here does not take into consideration a detail of the phrase structure— the second relative pronoun before ashrakū; there is a clear caesura between “they that believe” with the following specification and “they that commit idolatry.” According to this verse, the Madjūs clearly belong to the believers, as do the Christians, the Jews, and the Sabaeans. However, as Morony remarks, “it was eventually decided in Muslim theory that the Madjūs were intermediate between the ahl al-kitāb and mushrikūn, since they had no real prophet or revealed scripture.”

As for Mazdean influences in the Qur'ān, a comprehensive study is still lacking. A few points may be mentioned here, however. As shown by Père Jean de Menasce, the names of the two angels, who, according to a dark passage in the Qur'ān (2:102), taught men sorcery, Hārūt and Mārūt, stem from Pahlevi Haurvatat and Ameretat “integrity” and “immortality.” This would mean that the original significance of these names had been perverted into their

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