Zoroastrian Revolutionary Sects in Post Arab Iran 650-850 CE
The Four Zoroastrian Sects in Post Arab Iran
Our information about Zoroastrian sects comes from Arabic writers who were generally biased against anything Zoroastrian. They do give us information and them make slanderous allegations. The common allegation against all sects the Muslims opposed was that the adherents of these sects with sexually promiscuous. The charge is so frequent, that we are left with the impression that if the Arabs had not rescued Iran with their bringing of pure Islam, the entire nation would have gone to hell on account of their licentious behaviour, evil religious practices and unclean personages.
Arabic writer Abd-al-Qaher ibn Tahir Baghdadi (c 980-1037) in Farq bayn al-Farq, p. 354 records that the Magians (Zoroastrians) had four sects: Zurwaniyya (Zurvanites), Massikhyya (?Mazdakites), Khurramdiniyya (Khurramites), and Bihafaridhiyya (Behafaridites). From among these a Muslim is forbidden to take a wife, and he is not allowed to partake of the flesh of an animal slaughtered by them. A Muslim cannot collect the head tax (jezya) from them either, because their doctrine was an innovation that appeared after Islam. Non-payment of the head tax means that the members of the sects did not even have minimal human rights. Therefore confiscating their entire wealth or killing them by a Moslem would not be punished by the Islamic authorities. It is not clear if Baghdadi meant that all Zoroastrians were divided into these four sects or that some Zoroastrians were members of these four sects. Or if the prohibitions he lists were limited to the Behafaridites and perhaps the Khurramites as these denominations had come after Islam. Given that Baghdadi was writing in the early 11th century, conditions for all Zoroastrians had deteriorated dramatically by then.
The shame is that while the Zoroastrians were under attack and their homeland had been overrun by foreign hordes bent on exterminating their culture, charismatic Zoroastrian leaders chose this time to start personality based cults. Perhaps we are being too generous by calling them leaders. These individuals did the Arab's work for them. But then again, the orthodox Zoroastrian religious hierarchy also had their share of the blame by being too rigid in their control of what was considered acceptable Zoroastrian practice. From all accounts it appears that Zoroastrianism towards the end of the Sassanian era (240-650 CE) had become ritual focused and the priestly class had become oppressive towards the general laity.
In response, various reform or splinter movements arose during the second-half of the Zoroastrian Sassanian era, and continued to spring up even after the Arab invasion and occupation of Iran. While the orthodox priesthood and their royal Sassanian patrons saw some of these movements as heretical cults, ordinary Zoroastrians may have seen them as a modern alternative to a religion that was becoming moribund in their eyes.
After the Arab invasion, the leaders of the sects and their followers were eager to have a modern Zoroastrian-based response to the appealing egalitarian messages of Islam. Some of the cults started to blend old Zoroastrian ideals with progressive Islamic beliefs, perhaps even to appease Islamists or deflect their put-downs.
Unfortunately the response to one extreme is another, or the response to excess is deficiency. Either way the middle ground suffered and that is what Zoroastrians needed most at that critical time - and that is what their leaders, orthodox and reformers alike, failed to provide.
This is a sad chapter in Zoroastrian history. A sad chapter both literally and figuratively. And it is with a heavy heart than we write it for the record. Even today, the chapter continues to be written. The old adage applies no better anywhere but here. Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. Zoroastrians have as yet learnt nothing from their history.
Bihafarid / Behafarid - Zoroastrian Reformist Prophet?
Bihafarid / Behafarid lived and preached in the early-700s. He was killed in 748-49. He was the first recorded post-Arab invasion Zoroastrian revolutionary reformer and self-styled prophet.
Bihafarid / Behafarid, son of Farvardinan, and born in Zuzan (Medieval Zoroastrian authors report a significant fire temple in Zuzan) or Nishapur in Khorasan. He claimed to be a prophet and to have received revelation. He was the founder of a sect based on Zoroastrianism (Abu Khvarizemi in Mafatih al-olum, p. 38; Biruni, Atar al-baqia, p. 210). In Haft Keshvar (Editor M. Sotuda, 1974, p. 91), he is called Behzad-e Majus (Behzad the Magus), the name Behzad perhaps being synonymous with Bihafarid for the Arabic writers (see also H. Sadighi, Les mouvements religieux iraniens, 1939 p. 115 n. 4).
Behafarid began his mission in the township of Siravand in the Khvaf district of Nishapur in Khorasan or nearby in Zava (present-day Torbat-e Haydariya). The beginning of Behafarid's movement coincided with the troubles the Islamic Omayyad governor in Khorasan was having with Haret bin, the struggle against Joday bin Ali Kermani and the insurrection of Abu Moslem.
Yusofi suggests that 'another factor which speeded the progress of Behafarid's movement was the internal dissension among the Zoroastrian priests.' A group of priests (mobeds) and religious masters (hirbads) went and complained to Abu Moslem that Behafarid was destroying Islam and Zoroastrianism. The result was that Zoroastrians supported Abu Muslim in crushing Behafarid and his movement - an unfortunate chapter in Zoroastrian history with Zoroastrian set against Zoroastrian and doing the Arab's work of destroying the community for them.
Abu Moslem despatched a lieutenant to apprehend Behafarid. When Behafarid was captured, he accepted an opportunity to escape death if he affirmed his faith in Islam. He did, but was publically hanged at the Bab al-Jame anyway.
Behafarid's movement survived for a few centuries and either spawned or influenced other revolutionary movements whose leaders claimed to be prophets. Many of Behafarid's followers joined Ustadh Sis' movement (see below).
China & Heavenly Garments
Biruni and Majd Khvafi write that Behafarid spent seven years China (with Ta'alebi stating that Behafarid went there as a trader). He returned with 'wondrous' objects among which was a green silk shirt and a matching robe both of which were so sheer and soft that they could be folded so as to fit in the palm of the hand. Ta'alebi (Gorar, p. 34) reports that Behafarid used these garments 'during a resurrection he staged to support his claim of prophet-hood, telling people that they were heavenly garments and that he would reveal to them what he had learned when he was in the next world. After his resurrection, many people in the area, including Zoroastrians became Behafarid's followers (Biruni’s account is slightly different).' (Golam-Hosayn Yusofi in Encyclopaedia Iranica. Yusofi's article is a primary resource.)
Yusofi adds that 'various accounts indicate that the period of Behafarid's activity occurred between the revolt of Abu Moslem against the Omayyads (747 CE) and the date Abu Moslem left Marv for Nishapur (748-49; Tabari, III, p. 3).'
Bihafarid / Behafarid's Doctrine
As regards Behafarid doctrine, he accepted Zoroaster as a prophet, but rejected some of the practices of contemporary Zoroastrians (Biruni; Majd Khvafi, p. 281; Haft Keshvar, p. 91).
Seven Kinds of Prayers: According to Biruni and Gardizi, Ta'alebi, Shahristani), Behafarid's doctrine include seven kinds of prayers or prayers said at different times of the day. These are:
1. Affirmation and worship of the one god;
2. The creation of the heavens and the earth;
3. The creation of animals and their sustenance;
5. Resurrection and the day of judgment;
6. The inhabitants of heaven and hell and their fates; and
7. Extolling the inhabitants of paradise.
Prayers were to be performed facing the sun and kneeling on one knee.
Further according to the medieval authors cited by Yusofi at Iranica, Behafarid also called for:
1. Giving zamzama, the Zoroastrian baj, the practice of so-called 'ritual droning during meals';
2. A ban on eating the flesh of dead animals, those not slaughtered in the proper manner, or animals not hunted (i.e. a less strict version of Mazdakism's vegetarianism);
3. Prohibiting the killing of animals before they became old and weak or reached a specified age;
4. Banning marriage with close relatives;
5. Limiting the marriage portion to 400 dirhams;
6. Letting their hair grow long;
7. Prohibiting the drinking of wine;
8. Not burying corpses;
9.The one-time tithe of one-seventh of one's wealth for bridge and road repair and caravanserai construction. (Zoroastrians during Sassanian times, tithed one-third of their wealth (or income?) to help the needy, repair bridges, dredge rivers, and develop the land. This is in effect making taxation a religious duty and embedded in religious doctrine which served the purpose of today's national constitutions.);
10. Nursing the sick, helping the needy, and other charitable acts.
Yusofi suggests based on the medieval writings, that perhaps Behafarid sensed the need for reforming Zoroastrianism faced with the criticisms levied against it by Moslems, for in his doctrine he removed the most contentious aspects of Zoroastrianism - next-of-kin marriage. Some authors have also suggested that Behafarid having a scripture written in current Persian played a role in attracting the masses and that perhaps the decrease in the marriage portion and the allocation of one-seventh of one's wealth to public works caused the poorer elements of society to gravitate toward him.
The ascendancy of the practical and social over the spiritual and philosophical aspects of Behafarid's beliefs indicates that his movement was at root social in nature. It was also intended to neutralize the allure of Islam and continue to offer an Iranian-Aryan option to Zoroastrians who might be attracted to Islam.
Khurramism & Mobed Sunpadh
There are various theories regarding the origins of the word Khurramdin or Khurram-dinan. One theory in that Khurramites called themselves Khorram-Dinan, based on the Persian term meaning 'those of the Joyful Religion'. Khorram also means happy or cheerful. Din means religion and dinan means those of a religion. Another theory is that Khurram is the name of a well-known district in Azarbaijan / Ardabil, the region where the sect was most prevalent. Yet another theory is that Khurrama was the name of Mazdak's wife. There are places called Khurramabad / Khorramabad (Luristan) and Khurramshahr / Khorramshahr in Khuzestan. Khurramites were alternatively known as Surkh-ja-magan, the red (surkh) magan or jamagan, after their red dress. However, this could be the name of an allied group.
Regardless of the roots of the name, Arabic writers note that the Khurramdins were Zoroastrians (Magian) and of the Mazdakite school.
Some ascribe the founding of Khurramism to the mobed Sunpadh (also Sinbad سندباد or Sinbad the Majus / Magus in Arabic). However, the movement had already existed prior to the assassination of Sunpadh's patron, Abu Muslim Khorasani at the orders of the Abbasid caliph. Sunpadh did however, use and strengthen the movement upon the death of Abu Muslim. Sunpadh, also from Khorasan, was born in a small village called Ahan near Nishapur and lived in the century following the Arab Islamic invasion, i.e. he lived in the seventh century CE.
According to Brill's Encyclopaedia of Islam, al-Masudi (d. 956) stated that the Khurramiyya in his time were divided into two sects: 1. Kudakiyya (perhaps after Abu Muslim's grandson or great-grandson via his daughter Fatima, was known as kudak-e dana, the omniscient boy) and 2. Ludshahiyya (also known as Kudshahiyya and Kurdshahiyya). These two groups are mentioned in other sources as constituting the majority of Khurramiyya in western Iran. Abu Hatim al-Razi (d. 924) states that the groups that developed out of Abu Muslim's revolutionary movement were known by different names in different regions. In Isfahan they were known as Kudakiyya and Khurramiyya; in Rayy and elsewhere in the Jibal as the Mazdakiyya and Sunbadiyya; in Dinawar and Nihawand as Muhammira, and in Adarbaijan (Azarbaijan) as Dhakuliyya or Dafuliyya. Abu Dulfa bin Muhalhil who visited Badhdh in the mid 900s mentions a place where the Muhammira, known also as Khurramiyya, consecrate their flags (cf. red flags above) and expect the coming of the Mahdi (and that would be a reincarnation of Abu Muslim or a descendant).
Abu Taher al-Maqdisi in his Kitab ul-bad wa-al-Tarikh (Book of Creation and of History) calls the Khurramites "Mazdaeans ... who cover themselves under the guise of Islam". He bases his observation on personal acquaintance with members of the sect and his reading of some of their books.
Al-Maqdisi mentions several facts. He observes that "the basis of their doctrine is belief in light and darkness"; more specifically, "the principle of the universe is Light, of which a part has been effaced and has turned into Darkness". They "avoid carefully the shedding of blood, except when they raise the banner of revolt". [The related principle was that of being vegetarian and to avoid the shedding of blood except in self defence.]
They are "extremely concerned with cleanliness and purification, and with approaching people with kindness and beneficence".
A few of them "believed in free sex, provided that the women agreed to it, and also in the freedom of enjoying all pleasures and of satisfying one's inclinations so long as this does not entail any harm to others" (sic). This is perhaps why their name is derived from the Persian word khurram meaning happy and cheerful (sic!). [On the contrary, it is also known that Mazdak and Babak and their followers were inclined towards abstinence and asceticism cf. Bandali Jawji, Interpreting Islam.]
Regarding the variety of faiths, they believe that "the prophets, despite the difference of their laws and their religions, do not constitute but a single spirit". Prophetic revelation never ceases and the same divine spirit is inhered in all prophets.
Naubakhti states that they also believe in reincarnation (metempsychosis) as the only existing kind of afterlife as well as retribution. They believed in the transmigration of souls from animals to humans to angels.
They also believe in the cancellation of all religious prescriptions and obligations. In their rituals, which are rather simple, they "seek the greatest sacramental effect from wine and drinks".
They had no religious laws but had recourse to the wisdom of the religious leaders. They highly revere Abu Muslim and their 'imams', i.e. religious leaders.
The name of the movement first appears in Islamic historiography in 736 CE. It was then strengthened by Sunpadh after Abu Muslim's murder, when Abu Muslim used it as a vehicle for marshalling followers to his revolt.
Sunpadh had been a friend and confidant of the Persian general Abu Muslim Khorasani. Khorasani in turn was the general who commanded the Abbasid troops in the Abbasid's revolt against the Arab caliphate in 747 CE. Writer Nizam al-Mulk states in his Siyasatnama that prior to journeying to Baghdad, Abu Muslim had delegated his authority and coffers in Rayy to Sunpadh. Abu Muslim was eventually murdered by order of the second Abbasid Caliph, al-Mansur. As an advisor to Abu Muslim, Sunpadh is sometimes credited as being the mastermind behind Abu Muslim's leadership in Khorasan and Abu Muslim's part in the Abbasid revolt. Regardless of Sunpadh's involvement with the Abbasid-Abu Muslim revolt, he is certainly credited with inciting a revolt subsequent to Abu Muslim's assassination.
Nizam al-Mulk (1018-1092 CE) in his Siyasatnama / Siyasat-nama, Book of Government (1091), writes that after Abu Muslim's assassination, Sunpadh told his followers, "Abu Muslim has not died, and when Mansur meant to slay him, he chanted God's great name 'nam-e mahin Khodai ta'ali' (Persian: نام مهين خداى تعالى), turned into a white dove and flew away. Now he (Abu Muslim) dwells with Mahdi and Mazdak in a castle of copper (brazen castle). Soon they will appear and their chief will be Abu Muslim with Mazdak as his vazir. He (Sunpadh) professed to have received messengers and letters from Abu Muslim.
"When the Rafidis heard mention of the Mahdi, and the Mazdakites the name of Mazdak, a great multitude of Rafidis and Khurram-dins gathered at Rayy, and Sinbad's (Sunpahd's) affair grew in magnitude and eventually 100,000 people joined him, mounted and on foot. Whenever he was alone with Zoroastrians he would say, 'According to one of the books of the Sassanians which I have found, the Arab empire is finished. I shall not turn back until I have destroyed the Ka'ba, for this has been wrongly substituted for the sun. We shall make the sun our qibla as it was in the olden days.' And to the Khurram-dins he would say, 'Mazdak has become a Shiite and his command is that you make common cause with the Shia.' By saying the former things to the Zoroastrians and the latter to the extreme Shia and the Khurram-dins, he kept all three groups happy."
With the support of the Zoroastrian ispahbad (governor-prince) of Tabaristan (Mazandaran and Gorgan), Sunpadh threatened the Abbasid position in northeast and central Iran.
Al-Mulk continues: "He (Sunpadh) defeated al-Mansur's (the Islamic Arab caliph in Baghdad) forces on several occasions and killed some of his generals; so after seven years al-Mansur appointed Jahwar 'Ijli to fight him. Jahwar summoned the troops of Khuzestan and Pars, and went to Isfahan, Arabs from Qum and 'Ijlis from Karaj. The he moved to Rayy and there he fought a fierce battle for three days with Sinbad (Sunpadh). On the fourth day, Sinbad was slain in single combat at the hand of Jahwar and all his company were routed and dispersed to their homes. After Jahwar had killed Sinbad (754 / 755 CE), he entered Rayy and slaughtered all the Zoroastrians, plundering their houses and carrying off their women and children into captivity. Then the Khurram-din religion became mixed with Zoroastrianism and Shiism, and they held conversations in secret, and gradually became more organized until they reached the stage where Muslims and Zoroastrians began to call the sect Khurram-din."
Sunpadh apparently preached a syncretism melding Shi's Islam, Mazdakism and Zoroastrianism. However, his stated goal of advancing towards Hijaz and razing the Kaaba would not make him much of a Muslim unless this comment is a gratuitous insertion by Al-Mulk.
If it is correct that Sunpadh was the founder of a Zoroastrian-based sect, then he took part in Khorasani's suppression of a peasant rebellion led by a Bihafarid (Behafarid), yet another Zoroastrian-based self-styled prophet. Apparently, Sunpadh was instrumental in Abu Muslim receiving Zoroastrian support in crushing the Behafarid movement.
Ishaq / Eshaq Tork
Like Sunpadh, Ishaq (Eshaq Tork) was another closet-Zoroastrian who was a close supporter of Abu Muslim who he served as a propagandist to the Turkish people of Transoxania. Perhaps a Turk himself, he was nevertheless a Zoroastrian and Khorramdini supporter if not a Zoroastrian himself (as a high official in an Islamic government, many Zoroastrians were nominal Muslims). After Abu Muslim's murder, like Sunpadh, started a revolutionary movement against his previous employers - the Abassids. He proclaimed that he had been appointed by Zoroaster to inform others that Abu Moslem had been an apostle of Zoroaster all along, and that Abu Muslim was not dead but alive in the mountains of Ray, of where he would return to claim the Iranian throne (Ebn al-Nadim,ed. Tajaddod, p. 408). Like Ustad Sis, Ishaq gained support from the Abu Muslim supporters, Zoroastrians and the Turkish population.
Ishaq was killed in about 758 CE, but his movement persisted slightly longer under the leadership of Baraz (d. 759 CE), who seems to have been a member of Khorasan's aristocracy. The movement was even supported by the governor of Khurasan, Abd al-Jabbar (d. 759 CE), who decided to turn against Khorasan's governor turned caliph al-Mahdi (d. 785 CE).
Tabari writes about Ustad Sis (also spelt Ustadh Sis, Ustadhsis or Ostad Sis), an anti-Arab / anti-Abbasid religious leader who claimed to be a prophet of God. Ustad / Ostad means master. Ustad Sis lived during the mid 8th century and was local to eastern Khorasan where he gained a following amongst the villagers many of whom had been followers of the executed religious leader Bihafarid. Bihafarid and his core group had been trapped and killed by the forces of the Abbasid commander, Abu Muslim. Little is known of Ustadsis' doctrine, but it is assumed that like Bihafarid and Sunpadh before him, his doctrine was also based on Zoroastrianism.
Ustad Sis gathered together a military force of about 300,000 by some estimates, in the mountainous region of Badghis, today a province in north-western Afghanistan. According to Abu Taher al-Maqdisi's Kitab ul-bad wa-al-Tarikh, Ustadsis's forces included disaffected Ghuzz Turks. From there, in 767 CE he launched attacks and quickly assumed control of Herat, Sistan and Merv. In capturing Merv, he defeated the Abbasid army under the command of al-Ajtham / Adjtham, killing the latter together with a number of al-Ajtham's officers. On hearing the news, the Arab caliph al-Mansur sent his general Khazim bin Khuzaima(h) al-Tamimi to Khorasan which was being governed by al-Mansur's son al-Mahdi from Nishapur. There Khazim took charge of an army of 20,000 men with which he launched a campaign to defeat the rebels. Khazim's own forces were joined by forces from Tokharistan (Balkh / Bactria) loyal to the Arabs. Together, they ultimately overcame the rebels of Merv. Ustadsis escaped to the mountains but was hunted down and captured a year later in 768. Ustadsis and his sons were sent in chains to Baghdad where they were executed. Great numbers of his supporters were killed by the Arab forces.
Al-Muqanna (died 779 CE), which in Arabic means 'veiled one' is a label rather than a name, for the person so named, Hashim ibn Hakim, hid his face behind a veil. Muqanna was originally an Iranian fuller, cloth pleater, from Merv.
Muqanna too launched an insurgency which some regard as a continuation of Ishaq's movement. Muqanna had participated in the Ishaqi movement under the leadership of Baraz and Khorasan's governor, Abd al-Jabbar. Moreover, Muqanna's father is said to have been one of Abu Muslim followers. It is possible that Muqanna himself participated in Abu Muslim's Abbasid revolt, according to some, as a commander. However, unlike Ishaq, Muqanna did not claim or cite any Zoroastrian authority or affiliation though popular belief thought of him as a Khurramdin and a Mazdakite given that his doctrine contained Zoroastrian elements blended with Islamic elements. We are yet to see precisely what elements are considered Zoroastrian or for that matter Mazdakite. We can find no evidence that Muqanna was interested in, or influenced by, Zoroastrianism. While the Abbasids were busy fighting the Ustadhsis, Muqanna did not support that movement. Rather, he took advantage of the turmoil to stage his own mission. Muqanna received the support of Bunyat, the ruler of Bukhara executed in 784 CE for his troubles.
Upon Abu Muslim's murder, Muqanna declared he was an incarnation of God, a role, he claimed was passed to him from Abu Muslim, who received it from Ali who in turn had received it from Muhammad (rather than Zoroaster).
In opposition to the Abbasid's black clothing, his followers wore white clothes earning them the Arabic title, al-Mubayidah. This is a significant statement. Black is the colour of the banner that the Mahdi will carry, and was the colour worn by the Abbasids. It is also the colour that symbolizes darkness and evil in Zoroastrianism, while white is the colour of goodness.
Assisted by the Oghuz Turks, Al-Muqanna carried on an armed field insurgency for about three years robbing caravans, looting mosques, and killing of Muslims. Then for another two years he based his raids out of his fortress in Sanam near Kish. He was eventually defeated and committed suicide in 779 CE.
Al-Muqanna's movement continued to until the 12th century, practiced by his followers, the al-Mubayidah, the 'People of White', awaiting his return.
Al-Muqanna does appear to have captured the attention of Westerners so inclined. He is immortalized as the hero al-Mokanna in Thomas Moore's narrative poem Lalla Rookh, the Veiled Prophet of Khorasan: an Oriental Romance (1817). An Irishman composer, Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924), also composed an opera 'The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan'. The female Masonic order of Daughters of al-Mokanna reportedly takes its name from al-Muqanna.
Thomas Moore's poem inspired Charles and Alonzo Slayback, St. Louis, Missouri grain brokers, to start in 1878, an annual fair named the VP Fair, short for the Veiled Prophet Fair To run the fair, they also started a secret society Veiled Prophet Organization. Each year, one member of the Veiled Prophet Organization is chosen to serve as the 'Veiled Prophet of Khorassan.' The first fair had racial overtones seeking to reassert white business leadership and social hierarchy. The first prophet was Police Commissioner John G. Priest who had helped suppress a 1877 strike involving black workers. The fair was renamed to delete all reference to the 'Veiled Prophet' in 1992.
There had been other Khorrami revolts in the region. One of them was in Gorgan where they fought jointly with the Sorkh-e 'Alaman, the Red Banner Batenis in 778-79.