- The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran: Rural Revolt and Local Zoroastrianism by Patricia Crone
The subject of this book, the cluster of religio-political movements that emerged in several regions of Iran around the time of transition from the Umayyad to the ʿAbbasid caliphate, is not new; it has already been treated in several works, albeit briefly, most notably in G. H. Sadighi’s Les mouvements religieux iraniens au IIe et au IIIe Stèele de I’hégire (Paris: Les Presses Modernes, 1938). Many of these studies, especially those written by Iranian authors, depict these uprisings as heroic acts of patriotic defiance or, in some recent cases, as the revolts of an oppressed peasantry. All previous work on the subject has now been thoroughly superseded by the detailed account provided by the recently deceased Patricia Crone in this, her final book, the fruit of prolonged and exhaustive research in a vast range of sources, going beyond the Muslim heresiographers to examine Manichean, Mazdakite, Gnostic, and Buddhist materials. The price paid for the mountain of data she has assembled is a certain turgidity of style, and the narrative cannot be said to flow freely. Its analyses are questionable in a significant number of cases, and sometimes childishly sarcastic.
The narrative begins with the Muslim conquest of Iran, a process Crone monocausally attributes to the location of the Sasanid capital in Iraq, rather than somewhere on the Iranian plateau, a region supposedly inhospitable to Arabs (1-2). The survival of the Byzantines, she suggests, was similarly due to geographical considerations – the great distance between the Arabian Peninsula and their capital, Constantinople. Much of the plateau bears, however, considerable similarity to other [End Page 367] areas outside the Arabian Peninsula that were conquered and settled by Arabs, apart from which Arabs did settle in varying numbers at several locations in Iran, especially Khorasan, as she has occasion to mention later in the book.
The first part of the book, ‘The Revolts’, is organized on geographical lines, an approach justifiable in that it underlines the regional nature of each movement and discredits any notion that they were the expression of a pan-Iranian protest against the coming of Islam; the term ‘nativist’ is indeed well-chosen. Their emergence indicated, too, the precarious hold that official Zoroastrianism had on many parts of Iran; it had already been weakened by the impact of Christianity, Mazdakism, Manicheism, and even Buddhism, in pre-Islamic times, and it was reduced still further by the end of the dynastic patronage that the Sasanids had bestowed on it. It is significant that polemical texts such as the Denkard written in Pahlavi after the Muslim conquest were directed not only against Islam but also against those other intrusive aliens.
Reviewed in meticulous detail are the insurrection of Sunbadh in the Jibal region of western Iran (31-45); the uprising of Babak Khurramdin in Azerbayjan (46-78); four overlapping but sometimes rival movements in Khorasan (79-95); the cult of Ishaq in Sogdia and Turkistan (96-105); the revolt of al-Muqannaʿ in Sogdia (106-143); and three movements in South-Eastern Iran, questionably taken to include Khorasan (144-160). It is here that Crone’s exhaustive research is seen to yield its most impressive results; the narrative she sets forth, detailed and meticulous although inevitably episodic, is unlikely ever to be superseded.
The next major section of the book begins with an attempt at ‘reconstituting the beliefs’ of these movements, with respect to cosmology and eschatology; ‘divine indwelling’, i.e. hulul, to use the term favoured by Muslim heresiographers; reincarnation; and modes of organization. Then comes a comparison of these beliefs with various forms of early Christianity and Manicheism and Zoroastrianism in its regional and official forms; as Crone points out, reliable information about Zoroastrianism is notoriously elusive and defective. Once again, the wide-ranging erudition of the author is on full display in this section. In the third section...