The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran: Rural Revolt and Local Zoroastrianism

By Choksy, Jamsheed K. | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, January-March 2017 | Go to article overview

The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran: Rural Revolt and Local Zoroastrianism


Choksy, Jamsheed K., The Journal of the American Oriental Society


The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran: Rural Revolt and Local Zoroastrianism. By PATRICIA CRONE. Pp. xviii + 566, 6 maps. New York: CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2012. Pp. xvii + 566. S109.99 (cloth), S29.99 (paperback), S24 (ebook).

The late Patricia Crone begins her tome by describing its contents and goals in the preface (p. vii): "This is a book about the Iranian response to the Muslim penetration of the Iranian countryside, the revolts that the Muslims triggered there, and the religious communities that these revolts revealed. It is also a book about a complex of religious ideas that, however varied in space and unstable over time, has shown remarkable persistence in Iran across a period of two millennia. The central thesis of the book is that this complex of ideas has been endemic to the mountain population of Iran and has occasionally become epidemic with major consequences for the country, most strikingly in the revolts examined here and in the rise of the Safavids who imposed Shi'ism on Iran." Crone then sets the stage, in chapter one, by providing an overview of the Arab conquest of the Sasanian empire in a little over six pages, summarizes the Umayyad caliphates internal changes in four more, and attempts to review the Hashimite movement that propelled the Abbasids to power in approximately eleven pages.

In the introductory first chapter, Crone also sketches out a thesis (especially pp. 22-23, 26-27) that accepts ninth- and tenth-century (all dates are given in C.E.) Muslim chroniclers accreditation of the eighth- and ninth-century Khurramiyya sectarian movement to the Mazdakite movement of the mid-third to early sixth centuries. She thereupon links anti-Umayyad and anti-Abbasid uprisings by small groups of Iranians back to Khurramism, and, via the tie to Mazdakism, to local non-canonical forms of Zoroastrianism: "It is with all these revolts and the nature of Khurramism that this book is concerned" (p. 27). This sentence captures the actual focus of Crones book.

Next, Crone devotes chapters two through seven (pp. 31-159) to gathering most of the information available in medieval Muslim sources on the revolts. Readers will find much detail--sometimes revealing, other times redundant--about rebels and rebellions against Muslim rule, ranging from the heterodox Zoroastrians Bihafrid i Mahfravardin (from 747-49) and Sunbad or Sinbad (in 754-55) to the heterodox Muslims al-Muqanna.sup.' (around 768-79 or 782) and Babak (approximately 816-33). Certainly Crone is correct in seeing the ideologies spurring Bihafrid, Sunbad, and their followers as reflecting commonality between working-class Zoroastrian and Muslim religio-political notions. But she does not apprehend that it was this very syncretism that alienated the Zoroastrian Magi, who consequently allied themselves with Muslim authorities and had their own ecclesiastical authority reinstated once those revolts were quashed. For the same reason, when a Muslim heretic named Hasan took the Iranian name Babak and revolted from the year 816 until he was captured and executed by the Abbasids in 838, after which many of his followers fled to the mountains of north-eastern Azerbaijan and established villages where Muslim norms were largely ignored, he too was opposed by the Magi and by a large segment of the Zoroastrian laity, despite the uprisings pro-Iranian social and religious overtones. Like Babak, the Sogdian rebel leader known as al-Muqanna' had a Muslim name--Hashim b. Hakim--rather than a Zoroastrian or even an Iranian one (as noted by Crone on p. 106), reflecting the Islamic wellspring rather than Zoroastrian origin of his rebellion. As with Crone, the notion of Mazdakite ideas triggering these rebellions found acceptance in Ehsan Yarshaters influential essay on Mazdakism (in The Cambridge History of Iran, 3: pt. 2 [Cambridge, 1983], esp. 1001-24), building upon studies by Geo Widengren and others. But the vagueness and universality of the ideas involved has been pointedly noted by Richard Frye (The Golden Age of Persia [London, 1975], 115, 130-32). …

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