Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Persian Heretics and Heresies

Patricia Crone, the late scholar of Islam, fearlessly and rigorously explored the origins of Iran’s influential and mystical version of the religion

Christopher de Bellaigue
September 12, 2016
Photo courtesy of MET Museum
Photo courtesy of MET Museum
Photo courtesy of MET Museum
Photo courtesy of MET Museum

One of Patricia Crone’s achievements in her magnificent book on Iran in the aftermath of the Islamic conquest is to shed new light on sex on the Iranian plateau. Over some 50 densely argued pages toward the end of The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran, using sources, besides Herodotus, that range from hostile Muslim missionaries to Buddhist pilgrims, she establishes that polyandry, the lending of wombs, and the renting of inseminators were not uncommon and that incestuous marriage was encouraged under Zoroastrian law. Notwithstanding the physical effects of inbreeding, the consequences were not all bad; property was protected over generations and infertile couples raised children. But the Persians’ habitual detractors (the Greeks and, later on, the Arabs) ignored such practicalities in favor of shock and titillation, repeating when it suited them the Persian axiom that a woman is like a sprig of basil whose fragrance does not diminish if it is passed around. There were other analogies—to fruits, utensils, wells, roads, even ships.

The story of morally dissolute Persians is as old as Persia itself. Thus, in the fifth century B.C., we find Xanthus of Lydia (who had lived under Persian occupation) reporting that “when a man wants to take another man’s wife as his own, he does so without force or secrecy but with mutual consent and approval.” The medieval heresiographer al-Baghdadi described an Iranian religious group, the Khurramis (from khurram din, or “joyous religion”), as permitting any pleasure, no matter how abominable, provided it did not harm others. Both these statements were misleading, if not untrue. Law and custom regulated sexual intercourse; life was no bacchanal. More recently, in the 1970s, the pious Iraqis of Basra regarded Abadan, the Iranian refinery town just across the border, as crawling with sex. This, too, was an exaggeration.

“Our own sense,” Crone writes, “of what is plausible and implausible is severely limited by the fact that the modern world is dominated by an extremely narrow range of family arrangements.” Prurience is decidedly no help in understanding late antiquity, when Eurasia was shedding (as we now realize) some of the characteristics that made it ancient, becoming recognizably the forebear of the world we inhabit now. In this light, examining the convoluted sexual arrangements of our ancestors is like “opening a book on a huge variety of dead and dying languages, all victims of the inexorable homogenization of the world that has been in steady progress since the dawn of civilization.” Knowing Patricia Crone—as readers will feel they do after working their way through the limpid, unsparingly informative, precisely 500 pages of her text—I am confident there is no pejorative vibrato in the words “inexorable homogenization”; it is in Crone’s character as a historian to pursue “just the facts.”

The Prophet Muhammad died in 632; within a few decades, his followers had founded a vast new empire. Crushing victories over Yazdegerd, the king of kings, consigned Iran’s huge Sasanian empire to oblivion; the Arabs swept eastward, and the resistance they met was quashed. So complete was the Sasanian fall (Yazdegerd’s son having fled to China, where he was given a title and allowed to set up a Zoroastrian fire temple) that soon “Persia” became useful as a literary trope, signifying transience. “See how Persia has been ruined and its inhabitants humiliated,” wrote an Arab poet of the time. “They have become slaves who pasture your sheep, as if their kingdom was a dream.”

But how far can we trust an Arab on the Persians and vice versa? With a logic that seems impeccable when one projects to the current, venomous state of Iranian-Arab relations—the Islamic Republic of Iran being regarded with a fairly uniform degree of repugnance by Saudi Arabia and most of the Gulf states, Egypt’s new military rulers, and the Syrian opposition—the Arab conquest of Persia in the seventh century threw together two highly reluctant bedfellows. Oppressed and taxed if they converted, oppressed and taxed if they did not, denigrated as uluj (which Crone translates as “non-Arab scum”) and ajam (“barbarians”), the Persians nonetheless entered Arab Iraq in large numbers, as soldiers, slaves, and freedmen, and they were subjected to levels of stigma and abuse that must have been wholly disconcerting to the former world conquerors. They learned Arabic, took Arab names; there were mixed marriages—three generations after the conquest, one would have been hard-pressed to tell an Arabized Persian, living in his ghetto and attending the mosque on the margins of the garrison, from the “pure” Arab within. But such distinctions remained important for the groups involved, and, as Crone points out in one of those judicious generalizations at which she excels, “appropriation does not imply friendly feelings, nor does hostility preclude borrowing.” It is true; Nehru quoted Shakespeare, and al-Qaeda operatives use the internet. Aspirational copying is intrinsic to any kind of modernization, which Crone defines as “an attempt to adopt the thinking held to lie behind the strength of the most successful society of the time so as to be able to overtake that society, or at least to hold out against it.” The most poignant Arab barb was one—again—that is used today. The Persians were not “real” Muslims. Their conversion had been feigned.

The Persians would adapt to circumstances and take their revenge. They were the obvious group to penetrate the new religion and rid it of its ethnic character, as well as to assist in the globalization of Arabic. Had not the Persian Salman al-Farisi (a Zoroastrian convert, via Christianity) been one of Muhammad’s most trusted followers? Then there was the marriage between the Sasanian princess Shahrbanu and the prophet’s grandson Huseyn—whose father, Ali, Muhammad’s cousin, was regarded by many as the founder of a dynastic line of Muslim leaders, or imams, that were possessed of divine legitimacy. No matter that there had been no such marriage or that the “princess” was an entirely fictitious derivation from an earlier, pre-Islamic divinity; this story had the satisfactory effect of turning the holy family into a partly Iranian supermonarchy. In spite of his lineage, Huseyn had been defeated and killed after rising against the Umayyad caliph in Damascus; his martyrdom invested the cause of the Alids, or partisans of Ali, with even greater sanctity.

We live today with the consequences, for the split between dynastic and elective leadership would be the root of sectarian Shiism, and it lay behind the revolution that swept the Umayyads (representatives of the latter, whom we now know as Sunnis) from power in the late 740s. Originating in the northeastern Iranian region of Khurasan, rallied behind a leader of evident charisma and competence, Abu Muslim, and his “men of the black raiment,” speaking a foreign tongue and wielding clubs that they called “infidel-bashers,” the rebels installed a new dynasty, descended from another of the prophet’s cousins, Abdullah B. Abbas, only to see their fervor rejected. The Abbasids, as they came to be known, murdered their champion, Abu Muslim, and sent his men back to their villages. Their subsequent empire was built less on loyalty to the prophet’s family than to the exalted person of the monarch, which led to deep disquiet in Persia. The martyrdom of Abu Muslim came to be seen as a sign of Iranian victimhood and Arab perfidy. Resentment reacted with older Persian ideals and beliefs, and a series of divines, seers, nutcases, and hooligans came forward to convey this combustible compound to the unsatisfactory present—Crone’s nativist prophets.

Beginning with the rebellion of Abu Muslim and petering out toward the middle of the ninth century, a considerable number of very large uprisings disrupted the Iranian cultural area, which in those days extended well into Central Asia. “Seismic waves” traveled through the countryside, of millenarian and apocalyptic fervor and anti-Arab xenophobia. “I am your lord and the lord of all the world,” announced one such rebel, al-Muqanna, “the veiled one”—from the green veil he used to cover his celestial radiance, like Moses after his interview with God on Mount Sinai. Al-Muqanna proclaimed that God had entered him, just as he had entered earlier prophets, from Adam to Muhammad and Abu Muslim, with the difference that he, al-Muqanna, was the final such apparition, the Mahdi. His end was suitably ambiguous: After leaping into a hearth in which had been poured tar or molten copper, he disappeared without trace, according to his devotees.

“Orthodox Islam” is an unobjectionable phrase nowadays. It denotes the Sunni mainstream, associated with the four schools of law, and distinct from Shiism in its rejection of the imamate of the descendants of Ali and on some minor matters of law and ritual. But Islamic orthodoxy was undefined in the early eighth century, and there was a great deal of disagreement as to what Islam was. Certainly the law had not entered every nook of life, nor was it clear to what extent Alid sympathies should fill the heart of the believer. There was not yet a clerical class to instruct heresiarchs on the fringes of the empire in the ways of right belief. One can easily imagine the new faith only dusting the eastern extremities of the caliphate, particles of divine truth mixing with the Zoroastrian, Christian, and Manichaean truths already suspended there. In the mountains of Azerbaijan or the Zagros, unobservable from the nearest imperial cantonment, dogma and the law had not been brought under control. The very roads were vulnerable; it was the age of “robber-barons, brigands, and other strongmen,” and the land was ruled by “new men who were still sorting out power relations among themselves, in an atmosphere in which nobody knew who was going to be on whose side next.”

Even Crone, after her exhaustive trawl of the sources, can only hint at the number of rebellions that took place or at how many people were killed. Bukhara (in present-day Uzbekistan) experienced at least five uprisings. The Jibal, corresponding roughly to the Zagros Mountains, the natural barrier between Mesopotamia and the Persian plateau, was rocked by four between 755 and 833. In Azerbaijan alone, some 30,000 people were reported to have been killed. The longest-lasting of the Azerbaijan insurgencies was led by thuggish Babak, the son of a one-eyed slattern (inevitably), who declared himself a pacifist and touched by the divine; in the event, he cooked up doctrinal changes that justified the shedding of blood, killed vastly and indiscriminately, and held out for more than two decades before his fortress was finally stormed by the caliph’s best general. The farther east one went, toward Abu Muslim’s former stronghold of Khurasan, the more the betrayed revolutionary was glorified by the revolts. He had not ascended to heaven, apparently, but awaited resurrection. He was hiding in the Mahdi’s castle. A sect called the Rawandiyya went too far in the other direction, declaring that the Abbasid caliph was their lord, and jumped naked from town walls and other elevated positions (they thought they could fly). Apocalypse; heavenly journeys; angelification; the end of time invariably imminent: To the authorities, it all smacked of the same reviled Khurramism, a heresy indebted to Zoroastrianism and to the latter’s own, persecuted offshoot, Mazdakism. But heresy is a numbers game, and the Khurramis believed the mainstream Muslims to be in error, not themselves. “They had changed the definition of Islam to stand for their own beliefs.”


An eminent figure in Islamic studies, to begin with in Britain and later in the United States (at the time of her death in 2015, she was professor emerita at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton), Crone’s academic career started when her father–who believed his four daughters should be polyglots–dispatched her from her native Denmark to Paris and London, where, after taking a course in medieval European history (church-state relations), she entered the School of Oriental and African Studies to read Islamic history. She wrote her Ph.D. on the non-Arab Umayyad Muslims, under the supervision of Bernard Lewis.

In 1977, she and a colleague, Michael Cook, achieved notoriety for writing a book, Hagarism, named for Abraham’s concubine, Hagar, that relocated some of the key events in the genesis of Islam to the Mediterranean and recast the early Muslims as an alliance of Arabian tribesmen and Jewish refugees from Palestine. Writing in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, R.B. Serjeant denounced this starkly revisionist account as “pretentious humbug.” Devout Muslims also took Crone and Cook to task for their heretical views, and they removed their names from the doorbell of the London flat they shared. Crone later refined her argument, accepting, for example, that Muhammad was a historical figure and that the Quran is a recording of his utterances, but her continued willingness to entertain doubts over Islam’s account of its birth—in particular, its Meccan origins—emboldened other scholars to do the same, even if the results, so far, have been inconclusive.

Crone came of age as a new generation of Islamic historians kicked against the orientalist fixation with “civilization” as the unit of historical analysis, which weighed heavily on the Cambridge History of Islam (recognized as obsolescent almost from the moment it appeared in 1970). But her revisionism came with a good deal of skepticism about just how much about the past was susceptible to discovery. She reflected, as the Islamic historian Chase F. Robinson has written in an appreciation of her work, a trend “discernible across several fields of pre-modern history toward accepting the limitations of evidence and deploring the hubris of historians who pretend that things are otherwise.”

It wasn’t for lack of trying; few historians were more assiduous in gathering evidence from as wide a range of sources as possible, aided by her famous linguistic and thematic promiscuity (baboons and Icelandic sagas were brought in). Crone was unafraid to debunk Orientalists’ belief in the exceptional nature of their field. “I have simply refused to treat the Arabs as an exception to the normal rules of history,” she wrote to an affronted Arabist of the old school, “and something is badly wrong in Islamic Studies if I have to justify this procedure.”

“The impact of revisionism,” Robinson wrote, “takes time to work through the system,” but already it is possible to identify the effects of Crone’s key contributions to Islamic historiography. God’s Caliph (1986), which she wrote with Martin Hinds, inverted the received wisdom about religious authority in early Islam, presenting the Sunni construction of the caliphate as an innovation and the Imami conception, nowadays associated with Shiism, as an “archaism.” Meccan Trade (1987) argued (with equal definitiveness) that the idea of a spice trade centered on Mecca was an Orientalist invention and suggested that if the Quran called Muhammad’s adversaries “olive-growers,” then perhaps Islam had sprung up farther north.

Crone was alive to the need to widen her audience to include non-Islamicists, as in Medieval Islamic Political Thought (2004), a summation of her work to date, as well as online articles such as “What Do We Actually Know About Muhammad?” for OpenDemocracy, or the series of short biographies she edited, Makers of the Muslim World. (She also contributed to Tablet magazine.)

It was while in Oxford that Crone was encouraged by John Gurney, for years one of Britain’s most dedicated teachers of Persian studies, to deepen her involvement with the languages and history of Iran, thus entering another field that is dominated by rival backward judgments. To many Iranians, arguing from a nationalist perspective, pre-Islamic Iran was a prelapsarian paradise unsullied by Arabs (such people give their children unpronounceable Sasanian names out of nostalgia). Another group, devout Muslims, argue that the Sasanians were tyrants and that their Zoroastrian orthodoxy was sterile, amoral, and throttled by the priesthood; accordingly, the imposition of a proper monotheism, placing moral obligations on everyone, was a divinely ordained inevitability. Just about the only thing these two groups agree on is the importance of the division between pre-Islamic and Islamic Iran. But in Nativist Prophets, Crone pointedly ignores this division (save in her title, which does justice to only half of her ambition). She bleeds the categories into each other, writing a history that is composed less of blocks of time and well-defined identities than of endlessly mutable compounds of belief and usage. Crone argues that the key to early Islamic Iran lies in pre-Islamic Iran—and not only in the towns but also out in the sticks, where her book, a subaltern history of the Persian plateau, is situated. Her aim is to release the unofficial, subversive, and peripheral voices that have hitherto reached us only in whispers.

The prophet Zoroaster is thought to have lived some time before 1000 B.C., to the northeast of present-day Iran. When he was around 30 years old, he was visited by Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord, who revealed himself to be the creator God, of whom all other deities were emanations, but in perpetual conflict with the malign spirit Ahriman. “Truly there are two primal spirits,” runs a Zoroastrian yasna, “renowned to be in conflict. … And when these two spirits first encountered, they created life and not-life.” The Avesta, Zoroastrianism’s primary text, says the world will end with the coming of the savior and the final judgment; in the meantime it is incumbent on believers to repel Ahriman through acts of worship, reverencing fire and water and making sacrifices consecrated by the magus. Little is known about the spread of the cult of Ahura Mazda to western and southern Iran, but by the time of the rise of the Achaemenids, in the late 500s BC, it was significant enough to be adopted as the official creed. It was under the Achaemenids, too, that incestuous marriage was declared meritorious. The first such marriages were contracted by the emperor Cambyses, who married two of his full sisters.

Several hundred years later, the Sasanians completed the merger of state and faith, partly in response to the popularity of Christianity. Their high priest, Kirder, expanded the network of sacred fires and built up a powerful clergy, answerable to him, to keep things under control. A new script was devised, and the Avesta was written down for the first time. These scriptures later became a closed canon, off-limits to all but the priesthood (whose intercession was needed for every votive act). Heresies arose, the most dangerous being the communism of Mazdak, who proposed that humanity should eliminate strife by sharing property and women, and who also promoted nonviolence and vegetarianism. These heresies were either assimilated or (in the case of Mazdakism) brutally suppressed. But the Sasanians avoided the discussion of wrong thinking on the grounds, familiar to any dictator, that what is not aired cannot spread. As a result, the impression has built up that Zoroastrianism under the Sasanians was exactly as the Sasanians said it was: centralized, codified, and easy to spot.

Crossing and recrossing that disrespected border between pre-Islamic and Islamic Iran, consulting Roman and Arab authors, as well as the latest Zoroastrian scholarship, Crone produces a dramatically different picture. She does not, of course, deny the existence of Zoroastrianism, which she defines as indebtedness to the Avestan traditions, but to her, a religion that adduces no fewer than eight explanations for the existence of a good and an evil realm cannot be considered singly. Just as the prehistoric language of the Iranians had splintered—into Sogdian, Median, Parthian, and so on—so Zoroastrianism “will similarly have taken the form of a family, subdivided along much the same lines as the languages, and characterized by different “loan-words,” or, in other words, ideas taken over from their non-Iranian neighbors. This account is very different from the Sasanians’ careful inventory of practice and belief. The reality was of a “multiplicity of religious groups” coexisting and arguing with each other “without a shared authority to decide what they should or should not believe.” Crone’s sense of an unruly proliferation of popular beliefs seems to be confirmed by the latest archaeology, for scholars are now trying to work out the significance of a recent discovery in central Iran of a cave shrine that would have been inaccessible to any priest without vitiating his state of ritual purity, thus where women may have worshipped without priestly intercession. In the words of Philip Kreyenbroek of the University of Göttingen, writing in the catalog of a recent Zoroastrian exhibition at London’s Brunei Gallery, this and other discoveries have proved “beyond doubt that at the popular level, Zoroastrian religious life was much more varied than is suggested by the official sources.”

It was, above all, as Khurramism that these older traditions carried into the Islamic era. Khurramism is a mishmash of Indo-Iranian beliefs (such as reincarnation), Zoroastrianism, and millennial Islam—with Abu Muslim figuring in some versions as a kind of Christ figure. For a cult that few nonspecialists have heard of, its followers turn out to have been extremely numerous. At their peak in the seventh and eighth centuries, Khurrami societies dotted the length of the Iranian plateau and from the mountains of Anatolia deep into Central Asia. As Muslim converts, they were notable slackers, for apart from polyandry and incest they drank wine, ate carrion, and believed that a select few were infused with the divine spirit. (Islam does not entertain this “divine indwelling,” declaring Muhammad to have been the last prophet and the Quran the last revelation.)

Some Khurramis were squeamish about killing animals, which related to their belief in reincarnation. The followers of one Abdullah B. Muawiya, for instance, an Alid who rebelled in western Iran in 744, considered the best animals, such as the horses of kings, to be reincarnated men of virtue, with unbelievers and the tormentors of prophets ending up as miserable insects. But no such belief stopped the Khurramis from rewriting their own rules so they could kill their enemies, which they seem to have done frenziedly. To mark the climactic lifting of his green veil to reveal his face, the rebel al-Muqanna granted his followers “the lives and the possessions and children of anyone who does not join me.” Apart from their doctrinal eclecticism, the outstanding feature of the nativist revolts was their violence. After the 850s, the uprisings got rarer. They were doomed by their incoherence and disunity, their reliance on erratic messiahs, and the refusal of time, endlessly proclaimed to be on the point of ending, actually to succeed. Some historians, writing from a patriotic perspective, treat the insurgencies as if they were statements of Iranian nationalism, and there were reports that Babak adopted older Iranian symbols (calling his soldiers the Immortals, as the Achaemenids’ elite force had been known) in order to stiffen anti-Arab sentiment. For Crone, however, viewing the revolts as a statement of nationhood is as anachronistic as the idea, also expressed from time to time, that they were political and not religious in nature: “The movements always took a religious form because religion was the only available source of what was needed for political action … religion could create a community.” The movements’ hostility to hegemonic foreigners was more like that of opponents of European colonialism in the early 19th century, as yet undifferentiated by specific national identities. They were not nationalist but “nativist.”

Undoubtedly the most important factor in the defeat of the nativist prophets was the flowering of the Abbasid caliphate, expressed not only in firepower and wealth but also in its attractiveness to non-Arabs. In 842, some 15,000 Iranians perished while trying to suppress one of the Khurrami insurgencies, evidence that caliphal expeditions against the Iranians were being conducted by other Iranians. By this time, from their new capital, Baghdad, the Abbasids were expanding an extraordinarily sophisticated civilization whose accomplishments would touch the religious sciences, philosophy, statecraft, and the arts. The Abbasids would have shined less brightly without the contribution of a new Iranian elite, relaxed and assimilated in the caliphal bureaucracy and ateliers. Relaxed, yes, but still Iranian; they perpetuated Sasanian ideas (about kingship, for instance) and kept alive Sasanian art forms, all under an Arab king. The genius of Islam as a colonial force was shown in its granting of citizenship on equal terms to any man who became a Muslim. Women also stood to gain. In contrast to Zoroastrianism, Islam did not regard women as the property of men; it raised them to an equal position with men in the eyes of God, even if they remained subservient in the eyes of society and the law. Then there was the egalitarianism of the Quran and the motivating influence of the poll tax that was levied on religious minorities. It all added up to an irresistible case for conversion. The converts duly came—in a flood.

And yet, the ethnic distrust between Arab and Persian did not die, and in later centuries it paralleled—albeit far from seamlessly—the increasingly institutionalized Sunni-Shia divide. In the 10th and 11th centuries, it seemed as though Alid ideas might actually triumph in the Arab world, but the toppling of the Shia Fatimid caliphate in 1171 (by Saladdin, a fervent Sunni) signaled the rooting of Sunnism as the dominant sect. With the rise of the Safavid dynasty on the Persian plateau in the 1500s, the Iranians dissociated themselves decisively from their Sunni coreligionists (both Arab and Turk), and Iran became the Shia state it remains today. There was now a clerical class to instruct everyone in a Shia orthodoxy based on the imamate of Ali’s descendants and on hope vested in the 12th imam, who is believed to be in occultation pending his triumphant reemergence to rule the world. In the person of the 12th imam, also called the Mahdi, the dynastic principle and millennial longing became one. Not everywhere on the plateau were heterodox enthusiasms curbed, however, and visitors continued to document the most egregious of them. In the late eleventh century, a traveler to a remote Iranian village described the pains taken by the women there to avoid stepping on worms while carrying water back home from the well. If a worm was crushed, he was told, the water was considered polluted and would have to be thrown away. Even today, the mountains of Kurdistan are home to a community, the Ahl-e Haqq, that combines fervent Alidism with a belief in incarnation (the prophets were all Ali, taking different forms), as well as the veneration of Abu Muslim.

Under the Islamic Republic, the latest manifestation of Iran’s Shia state, the guardians of the mainstream faith have had to be vigilant against misuse of the imams. The Bahai religion, originating in the teachings of a nineteenth-century savant who called himself the “gate” (leading to the twelfth imam), posits a rolling roster of prophets imbued with divine inspiration and has been suppressed as a heresy. During the extremely bloody war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s, Iranian soldiers claiming to have seen the “Imam of Time” (another of his names) were liable to be severely disciplined. Even leading figures in the ruling elite have been known to overstep the line. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the country’s president from 2005 to 2013, received much criticism after he claimed to have been anointed with a celestial halo during an address at the United Nations General Assembly. In the later years of his presidency, Ahmadinejad relied more than was considered proper on the enigmatic Isfandiyar Rahim Mashaei, who was widely believed to be in communication with the twelfth imam. The regime labeled Mashaei and his supporters a “deviant current,” and he was barred from standing in the 2013 presidential election. Mashaei was also distrusted by his adversaries in the conservative establishment for the way he spoke of modern Iran with reference to its pre-Islamic past—showing again the congruence of Alidism with demonstrations of Iranian feeling.

The political challenge posed by figures like Mashaei is to the mainstream’s claim to enjoy the exclusive favor of the occulted imam. The doctrinal implications are even more serious, for Islam prides itself on being the purest of monotheisms, particularly when compared to Christianity (with its peculiar ideas about God’s paternity of Christ), and the Quran was meant to abolish the gray area between the human and the divine. “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his Prophet,” runs the Sunni attestation of faith, to which the Shias add, “and Ali is his regent.” This claim is problematic for Sunnis. Beyond a certain level, admiration becomes worship, and Islam’s cardinal principle goes by the board. Where is that level, precisely? On this question, Sunnis and Shias are in tense disagreement—and Shias among themselves.

“Monotheism is secularizing,” as Patricia Crone writes: “It concentrates all divinity in a being outside the cosmos and thereby drains everything else of it; it disenchants the world by removing the supernatural and all the awe that it inspires from the things around us.” Yet even avowed monotheists have found themselves drawing back the other way, toward intercessors and mediators and, in the case of the Sufis, to an understanding of the divine as dwelling in every particle, every act. “The dominant mood was one wanting out of this world. Above all, people wanted to get out of their own bodies, which kept them captive in the circumscribed world of mundane needs”: It was to combat such slippage that puritanical movements like the Wahhabis in Arabia came into being, its adherents tearing up graves and uprooting “holy” trees on the grounds that votive offerings to things other than God amount to an impious distribution of his divinity. Still, even now, in Cairo, solidly Sunni for hundreds of years, the festivals of the various saints bring believers, in happiness, desperation, or simple enjoyment, to venerate a man or woman who has been close to God. Ribbons, charms, and prayers are deposited by Iranians at the resting places of holy men; grave visits are a part of the ordinary family weekend. The massive complex of Jamkaran in central Iran throngs with believers who have heard that it is the place where the 12th imam will emerge from occultation. For millions, it seems as though the need for mystery and enchantment has stood out against the world’s homogenization, even punctured it. As a modern Iranian poem runs:

There is news, news is on the way;
Gladdened is the heart that is aware of it;
Perhaps he will come this Friday—perhaps;
Perhaps he will pull away the cloth that hides his face.


Adapted from Christopher de Bellaigue, “Iranian Heresiography,” in Common Knowledge, Volume 22, no. 2, pp. 331-340. Copyright © 2016, Duke University Press. All rights reserved. Republished by permission of the copyright holder, Duke University Press.

Christopher de Bellaigue is the author of four books, most recently The Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very British Coup. He is currently working on a book about the transformation of Middle Eastern civilization by modern ideas–an Islamic ‘Enlightenment.’