The kind of drunken Sufism that Persian poetry has made renowned in the Western world has almost nothing to do with Islam. This “Religion of Love” has everything to do with an esoteric sect of Zoroastrianism that nearly seized control of the Persian Empire in the century before the Islamic conquest and survived the forcible conversion of Iran in an occulted form.
More than a generation of life under the Islamic Republic has forced bright young Iranians to actually read core Islamic scriptures such as the Quran and Nahjul Balagha upon which their tyrannical government claims to ground its authority. One consequence of this is that many have seen through the lie that Mohammad secretly initiated his cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Abu Talib (4th Caliph) into a gnostic wisdom that is passed on in a silsila or “chain” from Imam to Imam and down on to the Sufi masters and founders of orders. The only way, if any, that this belief would be verified is if the vast corpus of sermons of Ali testified to his mystical understanding. Quite to the contrary Ali’s Nahjul Balagha shows just how literally he subscribes to all of the dogmas and decrees of the Quran.
In Sermon 1 Ali describes how Allah kneaded and molded Adam from different kinds of clay, dried him and blew into him to animate his mind and limbs. He then describes how all of the angels bowed to Adam at Allah’s command, except for Iblis (Satan) – at which point he explicitly quotes the Quran. Ali then continues to describe Adam’s temptation by Iblis and his fall from Paradise, in which Allah “sent him down to the place of trial and procreation of progeny” and promised him an ultimate return to the garden by way of pious action. There is nothing mystical about this at all. Neither is there anything mystical about Ali’s literal belief in the Quranic vision of Judgment Day and the resurrection in Sermon 82. Hope of paradise and detailed descriptions of it that seduce the believer into earthly piety are just as much part and parcel of Ali’s teaching as of Mohammad’s. In Sermon 164 Ali says in light of the beauty of paradise this world and its desires and pleasures should seem cheap to the believer. Ali concludes with a statement that betrays the basis of Muslim piety is striving for the above described delights of paradise, a desire so intense that it makes one long to leave this world and go straight to the next.
Ali’s views on half of humanity are most un-mystical. In Sermon 152 Ali speaks contemptuously of beasts, carnivores and women in the same breath when he says: “Beasts are concerned with their bellies. Carnivores are concerned with assaulting others. Women are concerned with the adornments of this ignoble life and the creation of mischief herein. On the other hand believers are humble, believers are admonishers and believers are afraid of Allah.” The last part of this statement takes the degradation of women even further than the Quran by shockingly suggesting that only men are spiritually and intellectually fit to be ‘believers’. Like a beast, a woman is also incapable of true faith. In Sermon 79 Ali employs a ridiculously circular argument that condemns women for the very strictures that the Quran binds them with in the first place: “O’ ye peoples! Women are deficient in Faith, deficient in shares and deficient in intelligence. As regards the deficiency in their Faith, it is their abstention from prayers and fasting during their menstrual period. As regards deficiency in their intelligence it is because the evidence of two women is equal to that of one man. As for the deficiency of their shares that is because of their share in inheritance being half of men.” Ali concludes this statement with a warning to believers never to listen to a woman or heed her wishes, even if it seems that she is right. This verse offers the perfect compliment to the Quran’s infamous verse concerning women’s duty to obey men because of the latter’s superiority: “So beware of the evils of women. Be on your guard even from those of them who are (reportedly) good. Do not obey them even in good things so that they may not attract you to evils.”
Not only does Ali literally reiterate and uphold every major dogma of the Quran, he also believes that the Quran is such a perfect and complete guide that any and every bit of “innovation” outside of its sharia is heresy and blasphemy. In Sermon 175 he writes:
…know that this Quran is an adviser who never deceives, a leader who never misleads and a narrator who never speaks a lie…You should also know that no one will need anything after (guidance from) the Quran…Know, O’ creatures of Allah, that a believer should regard lawful this year what he regarded lawful in the previous year and should consider unlawful this year what he considered unlawful in the previous year. Certainly people’s innovation cannot make lawful for you what has been declared unlawful; rather, lawful is that which Allah has made lawful and unlawful is that which Allah has made unlawful…People are of two categories – the follower of the shari’ah (religious laws), and the follower of the innovations to whom Allah has not given any testimony by way of sunnah or the light of any plea.
Ali is the first Imam of the Shiite tradition and not until the sixth Imam, Jafar al-Sadiq (d. 765), is there any trace of mysticism. Jafar was known to have studied Neo-Platonism and the bulk of his followers were former members of the Mazdakite movement. It is the history and worldview of this pre-Islamic Zoroastrian sect that represents the deepest roots of Sufism of Rumi’s kind. The revolutionary doctrine which now bears the name of Mazdak in fact originated in the 3rd century AD, long before his time. Medieval historians tell us its roots go back to a Chief Mage of Persis named Zaradusht Khuragan, whose movement claimed to be a true return to the teachings of the prophet Zarathustra, after which he was named. These historians often refer to him as “Mazdak the Younger” in order to distinguish him from the movement’s later and more popular figure. In his al-Tanbih Mas’udi tells us: “Mazdak [the Younger] was the interpreter of the Book of Zoroaster, the Avesta…he is the first among those who believed in interpretation (ta’wil) and in inner meanings (båtin).” The movement’s Zand or “interpretation” of the Avesta was forwarded at the same time, and in the very same place, as the interpretation of Papak and his Sassanian successors. Thus we can assume that Zaradusht’s doctrine was a direct opposition and alternative to the contemporaneous rise of Sassanian Zoroastrian orthodoxy that survives to this day in enclaves such as Yazd and Bombay.
The historian Tha’alibi tells us that: “Mazdak declared that God placed the means of subsistence on earth so that people divide them among themselves equally, in a manner that no one of them could have more than his share; but people wronged one another and sought domination over one another; the strong defeated the weak and took exclusive possession of livelihood and property. It is absolutely necessary that one take from the rich for giving to the poor, so that all become equal in wealth.” Ferdowsi captures the gist of Mazdakite philosophy even more succinctly when he reports that they believed: “Men are turned from Righteousness by five demons: envy, wrath, vengeance, need and greed; to tread the path of the Just Conscience, wealth and women must be made common.”
Mazdak thought that Zarathustra’s enemies, the mumbling priests and stubborn princes, had hijacked and distorted his teaching. For him the solution lay in radical social reforms that undermined the pillars of these institutions. The Mazdakites considered these social reforms the expression of an inner-knowledge that comes about through an enlightenment of perfection and absolves one from all outward religious observances and allegorical doctrines. This echoes the division between conscience and ritual, with the former emphasized over the later, which was first advocated by Zarathustra in his Gathas. The inner-knowledge is conceived of as the universal Truth at the heart of every religion or philosophy throughout history. In each age there is an attempt to define it in terms of words and concepts. Mazdak taught that a given doctrine arises in this way but is ultimately fated to lose its vitality or relevance, petrify and then be destroyed in order to clear the way for a fresh reenvisioning of the same eternal Truth. These ideas are rooted in a belief that letters, words and concepts are facets that manifest God as the divine verb. A line of prophets extends throughout history to perform this periodic renovation. This succession will continue until enough people, who are reincarnating and spiritually growing with the experience of each lifetime, are enlightened so that there is no longer a need for outward practices and allegories. At this point a final prophet would come to abolish all religions and liberate the inner truth to its fulfillment in the outer world. As a reflection of these beliefs, Mazdakite communities lacked institutionalized buildings for religious observance and individuals were free to choose their own form of reverence and hold their own interpretations of the Truth, as long as they were fundamentally rooted in the movement’s socialist vision of justice and equality.
Mazdak strengthened the movement of “the Just” to such an extent that by the late 5th century BC it won the heart of a young Sassanian Emperor newly ascended to the throne, who deeply resented the thought of reigning as the handmaiden of the feudal lords and the Zoroastrian Orthodoxy. To their horror Emperor Kavad declared that Mazdak’s Zand was the true interpretation of Zarathustra’s doctrine and he began to pass laws crushing the feudal lords and enacting radical Mazdakite reforms as official state policy. Acting through Kavad, Mazdak extinguished the alters of all the Zoroastrian fire temples across the Empire, except for the three persisting from Achaemenide times. Emboldened by the Emperor’s patronage, the oppressed masses of Persia joined the movement by the droves and attacked granaries, storehouses, and aristocratic mansions, where they broke up harems and liberated their women. The Mazdakites modified their pacifist beliefs to rise to the occasion by allowing violence only in the event of mass insurrection against injustice, in other words, revolution.
This new attitude is reflected by their banner of revolt, the Sorkh Alam or “Red Flag”. As all things Zoroastrian, it had a three-fold symbolism: the Eternal Fire of Truth; the Wine of Union; and the Blood which Mazdakites were prepared to give, and take, to defend their doctrine of Justice. They also wore red along with their traditional white robes that symbolize purity in Zoroastrianism. Not incidentally, when you combine the Red and White of the Mazdakite and orthodox Zoroastrian movement with the Green that symbolizes “Mithras of the green pastures”, you arrive at the national Iranian tricolor.
The feudal landowners and the clergy finally overcame their state of shock and joined hands to launch a coup which succeeded in deposing Kavad and replacing him with Khosrau. All out civil war ensued until with the military assistance of foreigners called the Hephthalites, Kavad ultimately succeeded in returning to court but only under the condition that all effective power would remain in the hands of Khosrau. The movement’s fate was sealed in 528 AD when Mazdak was made an offer he could not refuse, to appear at Court for a religious debate with the orthodoxy. The visit ended with him and his highest comrades being buried alive, planted with head down and feet up, in a terribly sarcastic allusion to their hope of bringing forth a ‘human garden’ of paradise on Earth. A massacre of Mazdakites in the Sassanian capital of Ctesephon immediately followed, and all of their writings were systematically collected and burned to ashes.
However the damage had been done. Already exhausted by a victorious but long and costly war with Rome, the added burden of the Mazdakite revolution had succeeded in destroying the Sassanian state even if it had failed to replace it with social justice. In this lies one possible answer to the question of how a horde of desert tribesmen were able to overrun the world’s most powerful empire. By the time the Arabs arrived, armed with little more than their fanatical Muslim faith, old Persia already lay in ruins.
In the wake of Mohammad’s death there was a struggle over who would rule the Muslim community. One party supported a council of elders in Medina who voted for a successor during the hectic preparations for Mohammad’s funeral; the other argued that while appointing no successor, Mohammad had so clearly favored his cousin (and son-in-law) Ali ibn abu Talib, that he had the right to the mantle of prophet. At first the council’s choice of a successor from among Mohammad’s ‘Companions’ came to power, but both he and his hand appointed successor died shortly. Ultimately Ali succeeded in becoming Caliph in 656, but was assassinated at Kufa in a coup by the opposition shortly thereafter in 661. Muawiyah I came to power in his place to firmly establish the brutal tyranny of the Ummayid Caliphate in the 8th century.
The Ummayid Caliphs were the first rulers of the Arab occupation of Persia, and it is in this context that we must see Ali’s son Hussein’s pledge to seek vengeance against his father’s murderers and establish himself as the rightful heir of Mohammad. This is especially the case because Hussein was married to the daughter of the last Sassanian Emperor of Persia. Imam Hussein’s descendants, due to succeed him were thereby invested with Persian blood of the Sassanian royal lineage. Thus when Imam Hussein and his revolutionary army were outnumbered and slaughtered by the caliph’s forces at Karbala, his martyrdom became the supreme symbol of the oppression and revolutionary struggle of the Persian people against Arab occupation. This symbol acted as an umbrella for a vast array of revolutionary movements all loosely knit together under the name Shi’a, meaning “faction” or “opposition”.
Foremost among these groups who rose up under the banner of Shi’ism were the Mazdakites. After their massacre at the hands of Khosrow, Mazdak’s widow, Khorramia had assumed leadership of the movement, henceforth known as the Khorramdin. I suspect that the movement was not named after her, but that she took the name “Joyous One” because the true name of the ‘Mazdakite’ movement had always been Khorramdin (the “Religion of Joy” or the “Joyous Conscience”). Lead by the legendary Babak Khorramdin in 816, the Neo-Mazdakites rebelled against the Abbassid Caliph and their armies were able to seize greater Azerbaijan (Northwestern Persia), where they established their radical social order. Babak raised the red flag and set out on a mission to “seize the earth, kill the tyrants and restore the religion of Mazdak”, with the promise that “he who had been humbled shall be honoured and the humble shall become great.” The peasants played a substantial part in the uprising as they had in the time of Mazdak, and support was also given by the small Persian landowners or dehqans. Together these two forces not only fought against the Arab-Muslim invaders but also against the original enemy of the Mazdakites, the feudal landlords of the old Sassanian order who had nominally converted to Islam and joined hands with the Caliph to bleed the non-believer tax from the poor Iranian masses. Finally Babak succeded in seizing the areas south and west of the Caspean sea (Azerbaijan and Gilan/Mazdandaran). There they held out for 20 years, until 837 when Babak was finally defeated and executed by the Caliph’s forces.
It is interesting to note that when Babak was handed over to the Arab-Muslim forces, he says to the dehqan who betrayed him: “You have sold me to these Jews!” Similarly, the rebel leader Afshin is known to have said, likely in reference to the Arab-Muslim sequestering of women, “Should I be afraid of these Jews, to keep my wife locked up in a fortress?” This shows that in 837 AD the Persians still regarded themselves as Aryans who saw their worldview as being so opposed to that of Semites that ‘Muslim’ and ‘Jew’ meant the same thing to them. This theme is also repeatedly alluded to by our historical sources who consistently refer to the struggle between the Khorramdin and Islam as one between the “white religion” of Zarathustra and Mazdak and the “black religion” of Mohammad.
Upon the failure of Babak’s movement it became increasingly clear to the Neo-Mazdakites that they would have to assimilate their movement to Islam and thereby entrench themselves for a long battle with the Arab Muslim regime under the guise of sectarian religious strife. This move is of tremendous importance, for it is the Islamization of the Mazdakite doctrine of ancient Persia that developed into the Shi’ite gnosis of Islam, as well as ecstatic Sunni Sufism. While Babak had been fighting his battle with the Abbassid Caliphs, the sixth Imam, Jafar al-Sadeq, began to advocate views clearly influenced by Mazdakite Zoroastrianism.
Imam Jafar argued that the shari’a of the Quran at the literal level is only an exoteric symbol (mithal) of an esoteric inner meaning (mamthul). The exoteric aspect, or Zaher, is an illusory representation subject to worldly flux and change through the ages of time, but the inner truth [haqiqah] or Batin is eternal and absolute. Jafar also echoes the Mazdakite idea of the human being, with its bodily existence emphasized, as the microcosmic symbol of the divine macrocosm. The Neo-Mazdakites who now came to be known as Batenis, or “Gnostics”, gathered around Jafar who redefined their ancient vision of a historical renovation of spirituality in Islamic terms by fostering the belief that parallel to the public revelation of the Quran to the rabble, Mohammad had privately passed a secret gnosis to his cousin Ali. Throughout history a succession of Imams will appear one after another who possess, guard, and pass down this gnostic heritage. These Imams who are to guide the Shi’ite community are accompanied by even more secret guardians of Truth, sages whose anonymity allows them to act as conduits that keep the light alive in its purest form – completely free of the exoteric dogmas of religion. These people were called the “spiritual nobles and princes” [awtad and abdal] and they compose the “(royal) succession of gnosis” [silsilat al-irfan] that continues until the coming of the Mahdi.
The Shi’ite idea of the Mahdi is so cunningly revolutionary because through the ‘interpretation’ so characteristic of the Mazdakites, it turns Islam’s own claim to be the ‘seal of prophecy’ against it. According to the Quran Mohammad is to be the last of the prophets and his is to be the final religious law. While this is interpreted by Sunnis as meaning that the shari’a alone suffices for the foundation of human society and always will, for early radical Shi’ites this ‘seal of prophecy’ meant that Islam itself is the last of parables prepared for the ignorant. Thus for them the realization of Truth implied by this ‘seal’ was not to be found in Islamic law itself, but at the point when this law is abolished – for it will have no replacement. Seen in this light the ‘return’ of the Quran to its source in ta’wil implies almost a gesture of refusal whereby the sagacious Persians ‘give back’ the petty word that the Arab god has dictated to them. Thus at the heart of early Shi’ism we begin to discern a profound longing for the destruction of Islam in its original Arab form. It is a longing for liberation whose impossibility of being realized in the present has caused it to transform into an apocalyptic fantasy. According to the medieval author Baghdadi, the Muslim theologians of the time recognized this as having been their sole hope and aim all along:
Most (of the theologians) lean to the view that the object of the Båtinîya [‘the Gnostics’] was to convert the Muslims to the religion of the Magians [i.e. – Zoroastrianism in its Mazdakite interpretation] with the aid of the method of allegorization by which they interpret the Qur’an and the Sunna…they…disacknowledge…all the precepts of the Law, because they are disposed to permit everything to which one’s natural desires incline…their longed for goal is the removal of all positive religion [that is, religious ‘law’ or dogma]. They took council from Magians, Mazdakites…with whom they worked out a method, through which they would be able to free themselves from the rule of Islam.
Just as liberation from Arab domination became a real possibility for Persians, the Khorramdin movement met a tragic fate when at the dawn of the 13th century Mongol hordes emerged from Asia to overrun Persia on their way to Eastern Europe. The Mongols made their first priority the destruction of these “lawless” rebels whom they believed would never submit to foreign rule. Hülegü lead an army to exterminate nearly the entire population of Northeastern Persia. They also subjected the survivors to a second wave of forced miscegenation which, taken together with the earlier one at the hands of the Arabs, is responsible for white, ethnically pure, Iranians becoming a minority in their own country. Only 400 world-renowned Persian craftsmen were spared and brought to Mongol capitals in China where they were to exert a lasting influence on Asian art. As for the rest, their heads were severed from their bodies and thrown into piles for public display. Orders were given for the centuries-old Persian cities themselves, with their magnificent architecture, to be demolished so thoroughly that their sites could be ploughed upon. Even stray Persian cats and dogs were rounded up and slaughtered.
However, the Mongol invasion did not so much destroy the Khorramdin as cause it to conceal itself once more, this time by “donning the cloak of Sufism” as Henry Corbin puts it. Ismaili authors claim such monumental fathers of Sufism as Sanai (d. 1151), Attar (d. 1230), Rumi (1273), Nasafi (12th century) and Anvari (d. 1434) as their own. Before the Mongol invasion Sufism was little more than a Christian influenced ascetic-transcendentalist movement within Arab Islam. One would be hard pressed to find a doctrine more at odds with that of the Khorramdin than that upheld by figures such as Hasan al-Basra, Ibn Fudayl, and Rabia. The rationale for this move becomes apparent when we remember that Sufi saints or sheikhs were known for their extreme individualism and, because they were presumed to be very pious, their tendency not to mix with the masses of ordinary believers and to lead eccentric lives were condoned by the orthodox Caliphate. The respect they earned by their ascetic and pious image allowed them immunity from scrutiny. Furthermore, by the time of the Mongol invasion this early form of Sufism had already long been established in Khorasan (Northeastern Persia), after having been brought there by Arab sheikhs from Basra and Baghdad.
However, the assimilation of the Khorramdin into early ascetic Sufism was not as superficial a phenomenon as when it put on the appearance of early radical Shi’ism while retaining an essentially Mazdakite doctrine. Rather, the new culture of Persian Sufism consisted in a mesmerizing conflation of Muslim dogma with the life-affirming and sensuous vision of the Persian Khorramdin. The most pivotal figure in this transformation is Jalal-ud-Din Rumi, who is hailed by Sufis across the world as “Our Master” (Mowlana). In his work we see the persistence of Khorrami imagery and concepts, but now woven together with respect for the necessity of Muslim dogma.
Given the sociological and geopolitical context of the failed Khorramdin movement’s centuries-long insurgency against the Arab-Muslim occupation, such a transformation can only be viewed as a testimony to psychological colonization. Essentially, in a figure like Rumi we are seeing what could be called Sufi Stockholm Syndrome. A brutally colonized and terrorized population of ‘very understanding’ Aryans come to identify with their Arab and Mongol hostage takers and begin to make excuses for them that are so good that these abusers would never have been able to dream them up themselves. When Rumi became the greatest of the Sufis, he whitewashed Islam. Iranians say, Masnavié Mowlavi ast Qurân be zabâné Pahlavi, meaning “the Mathnawi of Rumi is the Quran in Pahlavi.” Since the term Pahlavi refers to the middle Persian language of Zoroastrian Iran, the saying suggests that Rumi made out of Islam something tolerable to the Persian ethos.
Take for example Rumi’s statement that: “So the saints have not said this lightly: the bodies of the purified ones become untainted, exactly like the spirit. Their words, their psyche, their outward form – all become absolute spirit without trace.” Here the life-affirming Zoroastrian tradition crops up again, in which the body may be transfigured in such a way that it is wholly spiritual (frashagardi) and earthly existence itself is thereby purified and sanctified (tan-pazin). Rumi’s belief in transmigration (tanaskokh) is another aspect of his view of the relation between Spirit and Body that is completely heretical in Islam. This belief that the soul migrates from the mineral, to the plant to the animal realms and is born in successive bodies, is yet another vestige of Mazdakism.
The very heart and soul of Rumi’s spiritual vision and doctrine is Love, one of the pillars of Mazdakism and, in form of Spenta Armaiti, one of Zarathustra’s core principles of progress. The ecstatic spiritual communion of human beings is the basis for Mazdakite egalitarianism and communism. However, in his conception of Ishqé Haqiqi, Rumi tries to strip this Love of the literally sexual dimension it had within the context of the ‘free-love’ practiced by the followers of Mazdak and Babak as a means to transcend lustful possessiveness and to overturn patriarchy. Sufis are careful not to admit that for Rumi God simply is Love. They argue that just as God is Knowledge and Mercy and all His other attributes, but is not encompassed by any one of them – God equals Love but Love does not equal God, for the latter to be true would be a great heresy from the Muslim standpoint.
Yet it is clear that at times Rumi does feel that Universal or True Love is the same as God, and that he is a coincidence of opposites of all the other attributes because He is Love, or the reconciliation of all opposites. Rumi speaks of his Sufism as a “Religion of Love” not a Religion of Knowledge or Religion of Mercy, and so forth. This notion of the Religion of Love is profoundly problematic from the Islamic standpoint for Rumi clearly states that: “Love’s creed is separate from all religions: the creed and denomination of Lovers is God.” In the Divan he writes: “Love’s valley is beyond all religions and cults…here there is no room for religions or cults.” These passages do suggest that the Religion of Love is not Islam, just as it is not Christianity, Judaism or Buddhism. In a similar tone Rumi often suggests that a follower of the Religion of Love does not need to observe the sharia of Islam or of any other organized religion for that matter. This brings us right back to the spirit of Zarathustra’s teaching. That is because a doctrine whose whole emphasis is on a life directed by personal conscience is fundamentally incompatible with religious or moralistic prescriptions of this kind. The other native name of Zarathustra’s religion, besides Wisdom Worship (Mazda Yasna), is Daena Vahnui (Behdin) or “the Good Conscience”. The Gathas, when considered apart from much later Avestan accretions that were rejected by the Mazdakites, are the only ‘religious scripture’ entirely lacking any dogmatic code of conduct demanded by a deity or guru. It is the furthest we can get from the Torah, the Quran, or the Laws of Manu.
Continue on to: The Return of Zarathustra, Part V
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