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Recovering Submerged Worlds

Bridgeman Art Library
Detail from a fresco in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, Axum, Ethiopia, fifth–seventh century

This amounted to a call to action. A Zoroastrian was a militant for the right order of things. Given the ravages of a constant, opposing force of evil, the order of things had to be defended and restored by means of constant efforts of reform. The world demanded not flight but perpetual vigilance, even social engineering. Only in this way would creation recover its original, undamaged radiance. It would shine again like gold, “excellent, without decay.”

And the Zoroastrians of the villages had no doubt as to how this radiance would be restored—by community of property combined with equal access to women. To outside observers, Christian or Muslim, this seemed either hilarious or obscene: “abstemious wife-sharing is always reported as if it were a merry free-for-all.” But this was not how the villagers saw it. What mattered for them was how to keep together the precious deposit of family land. For family land to break up; for each portion to follow a separate household; worse than that, for these portions to be irrevocably lost to outsiders, through the violence of the powerful and the pressure of agrarian debt: this was the sure way to impoverishment and the death of the village. Polyandrous marriage was the solution. For the Zoroastrians of the village, only a community of women could maintain the divine integrity of the land.

In reflecting on these topics, many Zoroastrians proved themselves to be far from boneheads. They examined the origins of private property with considerable moral rigor. They claimed that private property had been caused by the cold, life-denying impulse of “desire”—by an antisocial lust for land. They also denounced the swaggering “resource polygyny” of the nobility—the corralling of women as wives and concubines at the expense of potential non-noble spouses. Both desires caused “envy.” And envy lay at the root of the conflicts that destroyed the harmony of God’s creation. This was what a shadowy intellectual, Zardūsht son of Khrōsak, had thought already in the mid-third century. These ideas were taken up by Mazdak in the 530s. As a result of the preaching of Mazdak, a protracted jacquerie rocked the Iranian plateau. The villagers emptied the granaries and the harems of the nobility, until the Mazdakites were suppressed with exemplary (and much-praised) savagery by the great shah Khosrau I (531–579).

At the time, the sheer size of the Sassanian Empire muffled the shock of these remarkable events—“one of the most striking examples of pre-modern communism.” But Crone shows that these dangerous ideas and customs continued to explode throughout the territories of Iran long after the Muslim conquest. In the eighth and ninth centuries, they threw up an extraordinary succession of millennial leaders, of charismatic thugs, and of nativist prophets of a renewed Zoroastrianism. Only gradually did the fervor of these movements abate, scattering Iran with eccentric village communities. Most prominent of these were the Khurramīs—the upholders of the “Joyful Religion.” Traveling in the Zagros Mountains in the tenth century, an Arab writer observed the inhabitants of these villages: they were “extremely clean, tidy, and kind people.”

Both Bowersock and Crone have left us with a dilemma. Worlds to which we had not given much or any thought have come to crowd in on our estimate of the origins of Islam. By pointing to the religious wars that had swept the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, Bowersock has provided a further dimension to the story of the emergence of the idea of holy war among the first Muslims. Furthermore, by drawing attention to Muhammad’s alert interest in the progress of the collision between East Rome and the Sassanian Empire, Bowersock shows that Islam did not develop in splendid isolation in the depths of the desert, as if on the face of the moon. Muhammad saw himself as involved in the conflict between East Rome and Persia. It was the same battle between paganism and monotheism as he himself was waging against the polytheists of Mecca and Medina. Last but not least, the tantalizing glimpse of the first Muslim conquerors of the Holy Places as pilgrims who had come to pay homage at Christian shrines, and not as conquerors wrapped in the certainty of a newly minted religion, places the early Muslims in a new light.

We are dealing with conquerors (often brutal and arrogant). But we are not dealing with a ready-made religion, hermetically closed (by its origin in a seemingly alien environment) to the concerns of the conquered. Of the many “once-fashionable dogmas” that have been dissolved by Bowersock, this is the one that we gain most by leaving firmly behind. Furthermore, by opening up Iran to scholars of late antique religion, Crone has made us realize what a strange world the early Muslims must have faced as they crossed the Zagros to enter the Iranian plateau.

How we think the first Muslims reacted to this situation depends on how we are prepared to imagine their relation to the religions of those they had conquered. Did they come only as conquerors, bearing a fully formed religion? Or were they prepared to be listeners as well as conquerors? Altogether, what was the extent of the “intervisibility” between rival religions (and rival confessions within these religions) in the seventh- and eighth-century Middle East?

It seems to me that the balance of learned opinion is that the early Muslims were both conquerors and good listeners. They were proud to have been conquerors. They had watched a Middle East where the collision between East Rome and the Sassanian Empire to their north and the bitter Red Sea Wars to their south made plain that God showed his favor on entire kingdoms by granting them victory over their enemies. Their own stunning success confirmed (in a language that all seventh-century persons could understand) that theirs was a religion “victorious over all religions.” But victory was not enough. Muslims needed to be reassured. Far from leaving their subjects alone, out of proud indifference or sheer ignorance, they wanted to prove the superiority of their own religion by participating vigorously in the debates of others. They knew how to pick up the religious twittering of the age.

And there was a lot of twittering to pick up. Here our view has been blocked by a particularly tenacious stereotype. While the idiosyncrasy of post-Islamic Iran has been amply acknowledged by modern scholars, the Christian communities of what became the Arabic-speaking Middle East have remained largely invisible to us. It is as if the large Christian churches of Syria, Mesopotamia, and Egypt had fallen silent at the moment of the Muslim conquest. They are treated as having become religious “minorities” overnight. It is assumed that they were cut off as much from each other (by confessional rivalries) as they were cut off from their now-dominant Muslim neighbors. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Not only did Christianity remain the religion of the majority of the inhabitants of the Middle East until the year 1000; the rival Christian churches continued debates among themselves into which Muslims were drawn by the sheer vigor and openness with which these debates were conducted.

One of the great triumphs of modern scholarship has been the recovery of this hitherto submerged world. In particular, there has been growing appreciation of the diversity and intellectual resilience of the Syriac communities of the early Middle Ages. The Syriac Reference Portal (Syriaca.org), directed by Professor David Michelson of Vanderbilt University, has opened up for us an entire new world of published and unpublished manuscripts. Like ecologists studying the ground cover of a region, such academic ventures can report that the Christian culture of the post-Islamic Middle East had not withered with the coming of the Arabs. It had remained as rich and as springy as good tundra moss.

Nor had the business of theological and philosophical debate come to a halt. In an article recently published in the volume History and Identity in the Late Antique Near East,* Jack Tannous conjures up the sheer range of topics that linked one Christian community (that of Miaphysite/Monophysite Christians connected with the monastery of Qenneshre—the Nest of Eagles—on the banks of the Euphrates) with their neighbors. Everyone was drawn into a continuous questioning and debate—members of every Christian denomination, Jews, pagans, and Muslims alike. As Tannous makes plain, when we read this evidence we are made constantly aware that we are only looking at the tip of an iceberg: “there must have been a whole layer, now almost entirely lost, of lower-level arguments, disputes, debates, and doctrinal wrangling.”

This is exactly what Patricia Crone says about the formation (at much the same time) of the Khurramī communities in far distant Iran:

The overall impression one gets is of Zoroastrians, ascetic Christians, and Gnostics…living cheek by jowl and merging in countless ways of which only a tiny fraction was recorded.

In a world where the pre-Islamic Middle East, Arabia, and the Red Sea have been thrown open for us by Glen Bowersock, and where Patricia Crone has done the same for the Iranian lands, it is time to stop and look again. Conventional accounts of the origin and texture of Islamic civilization in the early Middle Ages present only a two-dimensional image of that world. We need a third dimension. Patient listening to snatches of debate on all levels and between all groups in the great echo chamber of the Middle East may finally give us this dimension. This is the path forward. Bowersock and Crone have led the way. Given the resources of modern scholarship, there is no reason not to follow.

  1. *

    Edited by Philip Wood (Oxford University Press, 2013). 

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