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Shahnameh illustration of the execution of Mazdak The Iranian prophet Mazdak being executed.png
Shahnameh illustration of the execution of Mazdak

Mazdak (Persian : مزدک, Middle Persian: , also Mazdak the Younger; died c. 524 or 528) was a Zoroastrian mobad (priest), Iranian reformer, prophet and religious activist who gained influence during the reign of the Sasanian emperor Kavadh I. He claimed to be a prophet of Ahura Mazda and instituted social welfare programs. He has been seen as a proto-socialist. [1]

Persian language Western Iranian language

Persian, also known by its endonym Farsi, is a Western Iranian language belonging to the Iranian branch of the Indo-Iranian subdivision of the Indo-European languages. It is a pluricentric language predominantly spoken and used officially within Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan in three mutually intelligible standard varieties, namely Iranian Persian, Dari Persian and Tajiki Persian. It is also spoken natively in the Tajik variety by a significant population within Uzbekistan, as well as within other regions with a Persianate history in the cultural sphere of Greater Iran. It is written officially within Iran and Afghanistan in the Persian alphabet, a derivation of the Arabic script, and within Tajikistan in the Tajik alphabet, a derivation of Cyrillic.

Middle Persian or Pahlavi, also known by its endonym as Parsik, is a Western Middle Iranian language which became the literary language of the Sasanian Empire. For some time after the Sasanian collapse, Middle Persian continued to function as a prestige language. It descended from Old Persian, the language of Achaemenid Empire, and is the linguistic ancestor of Modern Persian.

Mobad Zoroastrian cleric of standard orders

A mobed /ˈmoʊ'bɛd,-bæd/ or mobad is a Zoroastrian cleric of a particular rank. Unlike a herbad (ervad), a mobed is qualified to serve as celebrant priest at the Yasna ceremony. A mobed is also qualified to train other priests.



Mazdak was the chief representative of a religious and philosophical teaching called Mazdakism, which he viewed as a reformed and purified version of Zoroastrianism, [2] [3] although his teaching has been argued to display influences from Manichaeism as well. [2] Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion of Sassanid Persia, and Mazdak himself was a mobad or Zoroastrian priest, but most of the clergy regarded his teaching as heresy. Information about it is scarce and details are sketchy, but some further details may be inferred from the later doctrine of the Khurramites, which has been seen as a continuation of Mazdakism. [2] [4]

Mazdakism ancient Iranian religion

Mazdakism was an Iranian religion, which was a branch of Zoroastrianism. The religion has been called one of the most noteworthy examples of pre-modern communism.

Zoroastrianism Iranian religion founded by Zoroaster

Zoroastrianism or Mazdayasna is one of the world's oldest continuously practiced religions. It is a heterodox yet orthopraxic faith centered in a dualistic cosmology of good and evil and an eschatology predicting the ultimate conquest of evil with theological elements of henotheism, monotheism/monism, and polytheism. Ascribed to the teachings of the Iranian-speaking spiritual leader Zoroaster, it exalts an uncreated and benevolent deity of wisdom, Ahura Mazda, as its supreme being. Major features of Zoroastrianism, such as messianism, judgment after death, heaven and hell, and free will may have influenced other religious and philosophical systems, including Second Temple Judaism, Gnosticism, Greek philosophy, Christianity, Islam, the Bahá'í Faith, and Buddhism.

Manichaeism Ancient Iranian religion founded by Mani in 3rd century AD

Manichæism was a major religion founded by the Iranian prophet Mani in the Sasanian Empire.


Some sources claim that the original founders of this sect lived earlier than Mazdak. These were another mobad, Zaradust-e Khuragen [5] (distinct from the founder of Zoroastrianism, Zoroaster, Middle Persian Zardusht) and/or a Zoroastrian philosopher known as Mazdak the Elder, who taught a combination of altruism and hedonism: "he directed his followers to enjoy the pleasures of life and satisfy their appetite in the highest degree with regard to eating and drinking in the spirit of equality, to aim at good deeds; to abstain from shedding blood and inflicting harm on others; and to practise hospitality without reservation". [2] This doctrine was further developed by the much better-known Mazdak the Younger, son of Bāmdād.

Zaradust-e Khuragen

Zaradust-e Khuragen was the leader of a branch of Zoroastrianism called Dorostdini and teacher of Mazdak, leader of Mazdakism. Dorostdini was the roots of Mazdakism Emphasis on the use of wisdom instead of religious laws. He was from Fasa and for many years he lived in the Byzantine Empire.

Zoroaster Founder of Zoroastrianism

Zoroaster, also known as Zarathustra, Zarathushtra Spitama or Ashu Zarathushtra was an ancient Iranian spiritual leader who founded what is now known as Zoroastrianism. His teachings challenged the existing traditions of the Indo-Iranian religion and inaugurated a movement that eventually became the dominant religion in Ancient Persia. He was a native speaker of Old Avestan and lived in the eastern part of the Iranian Plateau, but his exact birthplace is uncertain.

Altruism Principle or practice of concern for the welfare of others

Altruism is the principle and moral practice of concern for happiness of other human beings and/or animals, resulting in a quality of life both material and spiritual. It is a traditional virtue in many cultures and a core aspect of various religious traditions and secular worldviews, though the concept of "others" toward whom concern should be directed can vary among cultures and religions. In an extreme case, altruism may become a synonym of selflessness which is the opposite of selfishness.

At later stages the conservative Zoroastrian opposition accused Mazdak's followers of heresy and with abhorrent practices such as the sharing of women, for which scholars have found no evidence. Mazdak's followers are considered to be the first real socialists in human history by their emphasis on community property and community work with benefits accruing to all. [1] [6]

Theological tenets

Like both Zoroastrianism (at least as practised at the time) and Manichaeism, Mazdakism had a dualistic cosmology and worldview. [3] This doctrine taught that there were two original principles of the universe: Light, the good one; and Darkness, the evil one. These two had been mixed by a cosmic accident, tainting everything except God. Light is characterized by knowledge and feeling, and acts by design and free will, whereas Darkness is ignorant and blind, and acts at random. Mankind's role in this life was, through good conduct, to release the parts of himself that belonged to Light. But where Manichaeism saw the mixture of good and bad as a cosmic tragedy, Mazdak viewed this in a more neutral, even optimistic way.

Dualism in cosmology is the moral or spiritual belief that two fundamental concepts exist, which often oppose each other. It is an umbrella term that covers a diversity of views from various religions, including both traditional religions and scriptural religions.

Religious cosmology is an explanation of the origin, evolution, and eventual fate of the universe, from a religious perspective. This may include beliefs on origin in the form of a creation myth, subsequent evolution, current organizational form and nature, and eventual fate or destiny. There are various traditions in religion or religious mythology asserting how and why everything is the way it is and the significance of it all. Religious cosmologies describe the spatial lay-out of the universe in terms of the world in which people typically dwell as well as other dimensions, such as the seven dimensions of religion; these are ritual, experience and emotional, narrative and mythical, doctrinal, ethical, social, and material. Religious mythologies may include descriptions of an act or process of creation by a creator deity or a larger pantheon of deities, explanations of the transformation of chaos into order, or the assertion that existence is a matter of endless cyclical transformations. Religious cosmology differs from a strictly scientific cosmology informed by the results of the study of astronomy and similar fields, and may differ in conceptualizations of the world's physical structure and place in the universe, its creation, and forecasts or predictions on its future. The scope of religious cosmology is more inclusive than a strictly scientific cosmology in that religious cosmology is not limited to experiential observation, testing of hypotheses, and proposals of theories; for example, religious cosmology may explain why everything is the way it is or seems to be the way it is and prescribing what humans should do in context. Variations in religious cosmology include those of Indian origin, such as Buddhism, Hindu, and Jain; the religious beliefs of China; and, the beliefs of the Abrahamic faiths, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Religious cosmologies have often developed into the formal logics of metaphysical systems, such as Platonism, Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, Daoism, Kabbalah, or the great chain of being.

In addition, Mazdakism is reported, in one late work, to have distinguished three elements (Fire, Water, Earth), and four Powers (Discernment, Understanding, Preservation and Joy), corresponding to the four chief officials of the Sassanid state the Chief Mobad (Mobadan Mobad), the Chief Herbad, the Commander of the Army and the Entertainment Master), seven Viziers and twelve Spiritual Forces. When the Four, the Seven and the Twelve were united in a human being, he was no longer subject to religious duties. In addition, God was believed to rule the world through letters, which held the key to the Great Secret that should be learned. This description suggests that Mazdakism was, in many ways, a typical Gnostic sect. [7]

Herbad Zoroastrian cleric of the minor orders

The hērbad /ˈhɜːr'bæd/ is a title given to Zoroastrian priests of minor orders.

Gnosticism variety of religious ideas and systems, originating in Jewish Christian milieux

Gnosticism is a modern name for a variety of ancient religious ideas and systems, originating in Manicheism, Hellenistic Judaism and the Jewish Christian milieux in the first and second century AD. Many of these systems believed that the material world is created by an emanation or 'works' of a lower god (demiurge), trapping the divine spark within the human body. This divine spark could be liberated by gnosis, spiritual knowledge acquired through direct experience. Gnosticism is not a single system, and the emphasis on direct experience allows for a wide variety of teachings, which may include but are not limited to the following:

  1. All matter is evil, and the non-material, spirit-realm is good.
  2. There is an unknowable God, who gave rise to many lesser spirit beings called Aeons.
  3. The creator of the (material) universe is not the supreme god, but an inferior spirit.
  4. Gnosticism does not deal with "sin", only ignorance.
  5. To achieve salvation, one needs gnosis (knowledge).

Ethical and social principles

Two distinguishing factors of Mazdak's teaching were the reduction of the importance of religious formalities—the true religious person being the one who understood and related correctly to the principles of the universe—and a criticism of the strong position of mainstream clergy, who, he believed, had oppressed the Persian population and caused much poverty.

Mazdak emphasised good conduct, which involved a moral and ascetic life, no killing and vegetarianism (considering meat to contain substances derived solely from Darkness), being kind and friendly and living in peace with other people. In many ways Mazdak's teaching can be understood as a call for social revolution, and has been referred to as early "communism". [6] He and his followers were also advocates of free love. [8]

According to Mazdak, God had originally placed the means of subsistence on earth so that people should divide them among themselves equally, but the strong had coerced the weak, seeking domination and causing the contemporary inequality. This in turn empowered the "Five Demons" that turned men from Righteousness—these were Envy, Wrath, Vengeance, Need and Greed. To prevail over these evils, justice had to be restored and everybody should share excess possessions with his fellow men. Mazdak allegedly planned to achieve this by making all wealth common or by re-distributing the excess, [9] although it is unclear how he intended to organize that in terms of regulations and to what extent his position has been caricatured by hostile sources. [10] The hostile sources mostly dwell on the alleged "sharing" of women, the resulting sexual promiscuity and the confusion of the line of descent. Since the latter is a standard accusation against heretical sects, its veracity has been doubted by researchers; it is likely that Mazdak took measures against the widespread polygamy of the rich and lack of wives for the poor. [10]


Mazdak's teaching acquired many followers, to the point when even King Kavadh I, ruling from 488 until 531, converted to Mazdakism. He also reportedly sponsored its adoption by the Arab vassal kingdom of al-Hirah, entailing the deposing of the previous king al-Mundhir by the Kindite chief al-Harith. [11] [12]

With the King's backing Mazdak could embark on a program of social reform, which involved pacifism, anti-clericalism and aid programs for helping the poor. Mazdak had government warehouses opened to help the poor. He also had all the Zoroastrian fire temples closed except the three major ones.

Opposition to and purge of Mazdak's adherents

Fear among the nobility and Zoroastrian clergy grew so strong that King Kavadh was overthrown in 496, but he managed to regain the throne three years later with the help of the Hephthalite Empire. Scared by the resistance among the powerful, he chose to distance himself from Mazdak. He allowed Anushiravan to launch a campaign against the Mazdakites in 524 or 528, culminating in a massacre of most of the adherents – including Mazdak himself – and restoring orthodox Zoroastrianism as the state religion. [6] Various fictionalized accounts [13] specify the manner of execution: for example, the Shahnameh states that 3000 Mazdakites were buried alive with the feet upwards in order to present Mazdak with the spectacle of a "human garden", whereas Mazdak himself was hanged upside down and shot with countless arrows; other stories specify other torturous methods of execution. Anushiravan then proceeded to implement his own far-reaching social and administrative reforms. [14] The Mazdakite ruler of al-Hirah was also overthrown[ by whom? ] and the previous king restored to power.

Jewish tradition

A Jewish tradition relates a slightly different story. The Exilarch of Babylon, Mar-Zutra II, rallied the Jewish community and their allies, who defeated Mazdak and established an independent Jewish kingdom in Mahoza that lasted for seven years [15] (495–502).


A few Mazdakis survived and settled in remote areas. Small pockets of Mazdakite societies are said to have survived for centuries after the Muslim conquest of Persia. Their doctrines probably mixed with radical currents of Shia Islam, influencing them and giving rise to later powerful revolutionary-religious movements in the region. The cult of al-Muqanna‘, who claimed to be the incarnation of God and had followers among the Mubaiyyidah sect of Zoroastrianism and even some Turks, upheld the laws and institutes of Mazdak. [16] In the 9th century, the Khurramites, an egalitarian religious sect possibly originating from Mazdakism, led a revolt under the leadership of Babak Khorramdin against the Abbasid Caliphate and successfully defended large territories against the Caliphate's forces for some twenty years. [17] The Batiniyya, Qarmatians and other later revolutionary currents of Islam may also be connected to Mazdakism and were often equated with it by contemporary authors. [18]

Turkish scholar Abdülbâkî Gölpınarlı sees even the Qizilbash of the 16th century – a radical Shi'i movement in Persia which helped the Safaviyya establish Twelver Islam as the dominant religion of Iran – as "spiritual descendants of the Khurramites" and, hence, of the Mazdakites. [19] "Mazdakist" eventually seems to have become a standard derogative label attached by pre-modern Persian and Arabic authors to any radical egalitarian movement in subsequent Iranian history. [20] While medieval Muslim historiography primarily focused on the "socialist" aspects of Mazdak, Zoroastrian tradition, on the other hand, remembers Mazdak above all as a dangerous heretic and enemy of the true faith ( Zand-i Wahman yasn 2:1).

The author of the Dabestan-e Mazaheb , writing as late as the 17th century, claims to have met individual adherents of Mazdakism who practised their religion secretly among the Muslims and preserved the Desnad, a book in Middle Persian containing the teachings of Mazdak. [21] [22]

See also


  1. 1 2 Manfred, Albert Zakharovich, ed. (1974). A Short History of the World. 1. (translated into English by Katherine Judelson). Moscow: Progress Publishers. p. 182. OCLC   1159025.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Yarshater, Ehsan (1983). Cambridge history of Iran The Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanian periods. 2. pp. 995–997. ISBN   978-0-521-24693-4.
  3. 1 2 Shaki, Mansour. 1985. The cosmogonical and cosmological teachings of Mazdak. Papers in Honour of Professor Mary Boyce, Acta Iranica 25, Leiden, 1985, pp. 527–43.
  4. Shaki, Mansour (1978). "The social doctrine of Mazdak in the light of middle Persian evidence". Archiv Orientální. 46 (4): 289–306.
  5. Esposito, John L. (2003). "Mazdakism". The Oxford Dictionary of Islam . New York: Oxford University Press. p. 198. ISBN   978-0-19-512558-0.
  6. 1 2 3 Wherry, Rev. E. M. (1882). A Comprehensive Commentary on the Quran comprising Sale's translation and Preliminary Discourse. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company. p.  66.
  7. Yarshater 1983 , pp. 10071008
  8. Rehatsek, Edward (1 January 1878). "Christianity in the Persian Dominions, from its beginning till the fall of the Sasanian dynasty". Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bombay. Asiatic Society of Bombay. 13: 75.
  9. Crone, Patricia (1991). "Kavad's Heresy and Mazdak's Revolt" (PDF). Iran (Journal of Persian Studies). British Institute of Persian Studies. 29: 21–40.
  10. 1 2 Yarshater 1983 , pp. 9991000
  11. Yarshater, Ehsan (1998). "The Persian presence in the Islamic world". In Hovannisian, Richard G.; Sabagh, Georges (eds.). The Persian Presence in the Islamic World. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. pp. 4–125, page 28. ISBN   978-0-521-59185-0.
  12. Khanam, R. 2005. Encyclopaedic ethnography of Middle-East and Central Asia: A–I: Volume 1. P.441
  13. Yarshater 1983 , p. 994
  14. Yarshater 1983 , p. 1022
  15. "Babylonia", Encyclopaedia Judaica
  16. Al-Bīrūnī: Father of Comparative Religion
  17. Yarshater 1983 , pp. 10031004
  18. Yarshater 1983 , pp. 10221023
  19. Roger M. Savory (ref. Abdülbâkî Gölpınarlı), Encyclopaedia of Islam, "Kizil-Bash", Online Edition 2005
  20. Morgan David. 2007. The Mongols. p. 145
  21. M.N. Dhalla: History of Zoroastrianism (1938), part 5.
  22. Dabestan-e Mazaheb

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