Abu Muslim - Zoroastrian Enigma
Was Abu Muslim a Closet Zoroastrian?
Abu Muslim is a general who was responsible for overthrowing the Arab caliphate that overthrew the Zoroastrian Sassanian empire. He did this by supporting the Abbasids in their bid to overthrow the Umayyad Caliphate.
The words Muslimiyya or Khurramiyya are the Arabic equivalent to Muslimite or Khurramite. The word Muslim in this context does not refer to the Islamic community but followers of Abu Muslim.
Abu Muslim (c 700-755)
Abu Muslim Khorasani may have been born in Merv or Isfahan either in 718-19 or 723-27. According to some sources Abu Muslim's original name was Behzadan (cf. Mojmal al-Tawarik at p. 315) and that his father's name prior to his conversion to Islam was Vandad Hormoz. [Other Arab history writers make him a descendant of Godarz and the vizier Bozorgmehr.] These names strongly suggest a Zoroastrian connection which is very likely given that Abu Muslim was born about 50 years after the Arab (Umayyad) invasion of Iran.
Abu Muslim's Introduction to the Abbasids
Whatever his name at birth, Abu Muslim (Moslem) received his pseudonym from the Abbasid imam Ebrahim when he joined the Abbasid cause and was made responsible for its propaganda in Khorasan. In the process, Abu Muslim, was befriended by al-Abbas, a member of the Abbasid family (Ebrahim's brother?) and soon-to-become first Abbasid caliph of the Arab empire. As-Saffah, or Abu al-Abbas as-Saffah (as-Saffah was a reign name meaning 'shedder of blood'), claimed to be a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad's uncle, an uncle who - Findlay Dunachie, a book critic claims - "never actually became a Muslim himself and was assumed to have gone to hell."
While discontent against the autocratic, opulent and discriminatory rule of the Umayyad's was growing, as-Saffah sought Iranian Shia support for his claim to the caliphate and to this end, he declared himself a Shia (but later reverted to being a Sunni when he became caliph).
Abu Muslim's Military Victories
Abu Muslim's military victories started with him seizing control of Merv between December 747 and January 748. In 749, Nehavand, the western Iranian city which had witnessed the 'fath al-fotuh', the Arab victory over the Persians a century earlier in 642, now became the site of the Arab's defeat at the hands of the Iranian Abu Moslem's generals and supporters. Abu's forces went on to defeat the Umayyads in Iraq, the land in which the Arabs had initially defeated the Sassanian Persian armies. They arrived at Kufa, Iraq, freed as-Saffah who was in 'protective' custody, took Baghdad, and then installed as-Saffah as caliph in 750 CE.
Abu Muslim's Popularity & Power
As-Saffah's success in coming to power and his ability to stay in power was because of Abu Muslim's able command and leadership of the Abbasid armies. Abu Muslim was popular with the people and had the ability to take the caliphate for himself. However, the Iranian was of the wrong pedigree, and had to content himself with remaining a general and the power behind the throne - at least for the time being.
Mansur Fears Abu Muslim
The extraordinary power Abu Muslim yielded was inevitably his downfall. Mansur warned his brother as-Saffah that the latter would never truly be the caliph as long as the omnipresent and omnipotent Abu Moslem was alive. Mansur advocated Abu Muslim's arrest and execution. Perhaps Mansur was fearful of Abu Mansur's popularity and how he was perceived as a leader. Perhaps he had somehow divined Abu Muslim's ambitions or perhaps the potential for Abu Muslim to move against the Abbasids.
Abu Muslim's Murder / Assassination
The now ailing Al-Saffah did not, however, move against his general. Mansur would soon have the opportunity to take matters into his own hands, for in 754 as-Saffah succumbed to small-pox leaving the caliphate to his brother Mansur. In an act of deception, Mansur invited Abu Moslem to his palace ostensibly to receive honours, but upon Abu's arrival had him relieved of his sword, read out a litany of misdeeds, and had him assassinated in his presence. So died Abu Muslim Khorasani, the Iranian who was an ally of an Arab, 755 at the age of 37. Mansur ordered Khorasani's mutilated body to be thrown into the Tigris.
Abu Muslim Puts Down Behafarid's Rebellion
While Abu Muslim's forces were defeating the Umayyads, Khorasani put down a peasant rebellion led by Bihafarid (Behafarid) (see below) who some authors feel was a Zoroastrian heretic who had angered the Zoroastrian priestly establishment. Apparently, Abu Muslim received Zoroastrian support - as well as Sunpadh's support - in crushing the Behafarid movement. If the Behafarid story is true, then it is a very unfortunate incident in Zoroastrian history. Zoroastrians had learnt nothing from their dismal divisions during the closing years of the Sassanian regime. This was their darker hour yet, for Zoroastrians were now set against Zoroastrians.
Islamization of Iran Gathers Momentum
Another Zoroastrian-based sect leader who attracted Behafarid's followers was Ustadh Sis. He too launched an armed rebellion against the Islamic regime only be be captured and executed in 768. With Ustad Sis's execution, Zoroastrian Khorasani rebellion against the Arabs and their Islamist heirs lost it vigour and the Islamization of Eastern Iran gathered great momentum.