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The First Khurramiyya Revolts: Mazdak and Sunbadh’s Rebellions

By Adam Ali

Abu Muslim’s betrayal and murder by the Abbasid caliph, al-Mansur, in 755 was the spark that ignited a series of revolts against caliphal rule by the various groups of Khurramiyya in the chaotic decades that followed the Abbasid Revolution. The largest and longest Khurramiyya revolts took place during the years 755-833.

It was in the late eighth and early ninth centuries that the Khurramiyya made their biggest appearance on the historical stage. The sources seldom mention them outside this timeframe. There are some reports of uprisings and clashes with these sectarian rebels as late as the mid-tenth century. However, these later revolts were insignificant in comparison to those that took place in the wake of the Abbasid Revolution. The first of these was Sunbadh’s revolt, which broke out almost immediately after Abu Muslim’s death, and will be the focus of this article.

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The only other prominent mention the Khurramiyya get in the sources is for their rebellious activities during the Sasanian period when they rose under the leadership of a Zoroastrian priest, Mazdak. It is for this reason that several sources and studies refer to the Khurramiyya as Mazdakites (for the Sasanian period or Mazdaikiyya as they are referred to in Arabic) and neo-Mazdakites (for the Abbasid period). This erroneously implies that Mazdak was the founder of this religion/sect. However, both Mazdak and Zaradusht (another Zoroastrian priest who became a Khurrami heretic who lived during the third century), most probably encountered the Khurramiyya and their ideas and traditions in the Iranian countryside. Mazdak adopted some of these ideas, brought them to the capital, stirred up a rebellion among the masses, and tried to propagate them to supplant Persian Zoroastrianism. In fact, the various versions of Khurramism were most likely local forms of Avestan traditions that had interacted and mixed with earlier religions and cults and probably predated “Orthodox Persian Zoroastrianism,” which is most often associated with pre-Islamic Iran.

In fact, it is very likely that a very large proportion of the population of the Sassanian Empire (probably the majority) practiced some form of the Khurramiyya religion (or forms of non-Persian Zoroastrianism) rather than Persian Zoroastrianism. This was especially the case in the rural areas and the mountainous regions and highlands (the area known as Jibal that comprises the northern half of modern-day Iran), the Caspian region in Northern Iran (Daylam, Tabaristan, and Gilan), and in the eastern parts of the Iranian world including Khurasan, Badghis, Juzjan, Tokharistan, Khwarazm, and Transoxiana (Sogdia, Sash, Ushrusana, and Farghana, which comprise large parts of modern-day Central Asia).

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It is unclear when exactly Mazdak’s revolt took place. It may have occurred during the reigns of Kavad (488-496 and 498-531) or Khusraw Anushirvan (r. 531-579) or it may have spanned the kingship of both rulers, which could mean that this revolt lasted longer than three decades. During his first reign, Kavad is said to have adopted some unorthodox ideas often described as a form of “Communism,” in which he proclaimed women were to be held in common, which was a practice attested to some of the Khurramiyya groups. This has been interpreted as an attack on the nobility. The Persian nobles of the Sasanian empire had large harems of women and reformers such as Zaradusht and Mazdak sought to not only redistribute wealth, land, and women to all but to also eliminate these noble lineages through communal access to women. Kavad probably aimed to weaken the nobility by adopting some of these practices. Both Christian and Muslim sources describing these events agree that Kavad was deposed due to his embracing what to the Zoroastrian priesthood and nobility viewed as heretical ideas and practices. He went into exile among the Hephthalites who helped him regain his throne two years later

Crone argues that the revolt most probably erupted upon the accession of Khusraw to the throne, as such a rebellion would have probably taken a heavy toll on the state and could not be sustained for long. Additionally, Kavad was at war with the Byzantines from 527 until his death and had rejected their offers for peace, something he would not have done if there was a popular rebellion taking place in his kingdom. Khusraw ended the conflict with the Byzantines immediately upon becoming king in order to deal with the rebels. Mazdak’s revolt, like the Khurramiyya rebellions of the Abbasid era, was an uprising of the peasantry and the masses against their oppressors: the king, the nobility, landlords, agents of the state, and the Zoroastrian priesthood.

The revolt was primarily centered on Iraq and may have spread to Iran, as a large proportion of the Khurramiyya rebels of the eighth century were concentrated in the Jibal region. Mazdak’s revolt was a violent one. The Khurramiyya tended to be non-violent and pacifists (except during times of rebellion), egalitarian, and some were even vegetarian with the view that no living creature should be killed. In her book The Iranian Reception of Islam, Crone says, citing al-Shahrastani, that Mazak encouraged his followers to kill “as a means of (their) liberation from evil and darkness.” Large groups of peasants broke into royal and noble granaries and despoiled noble houses and estates.

Khusraw violently suppressed the rebellion killing, according to the sources, tens of thousands in the process. Nizam al-Mulk’s account of Mazdak’s defeat states that Khusraw Anushirvan defeated the rebels by tricking them. In this highly fictional retelling of these events, Mazdak managed to attain great power, so-much-so, that he humbled and dominated King Kavad and even sat on the royal throne. Khusraw pretended that he intended to convert to Mazdak’s religion and invited him and 12,000 of his followers to a banquet after which they would set out together to convert the entire empire to the new faith. During this feast Mazdak and his men were given lots of wine to drink and afterwards they were taken into another hall to be “invested with robes of honor” in small groups of twenty and thirty. When the inebriated Mazdakites were led to the robing hall, they were met by fully armed soldiers who took them out to a filed, stripped them, and buried them upside down up to their waists creating a massive garden of legs. Mazdak was the last to be taken out and buried him up to his chest on top of a mound at the center of the “garden” so that he could look over his followers. They poured plaster all around him so he could not escape. Although this account is embellished, one thing rings true, and it is that Mazdak and his followers were dealt with very violently and that many of them were killed by Khusraw. Nizam al-Mulk claims that a few of Mazdak’s followers fled and survived in the mountains and it was the descendants of these men who rebelled during the eighth century. However, this also is unlikely, as most of the people inhabiting the Jibal region were probably Khurramiyya and not Persian Zoroastrians.

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“The Execution of Mazdak”, Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) ca. 1330–40

The first to rebel after Abu Muslim’s murder was Sunbadh in 755. This revolt appears to have broken out spontaneously and, unlike some of the other Khurramiyya rebellions that I will discuss in future articles, was short-lived. The sources state that it was suppressed in seventy days. Sunbadh was a friend of Abu Muslim’s and a commander in his army. The sources state that at the time that Abu Muslim was leading the Abbasid Revolution, Sunbadh was the chief or lord of Nishapur. According to Crone he was a scion of a powerful noble Sassanian family and held the title of Kanarang, which was also the name of the Sassanian nobles who governed the Northeastern section of the Empire before its fall. Men bearing this title or name participated in the wars against Byzantium and also against the Arabs at Qadisiyya and in Khurasan.

With the Arab conquest and their defeat, this noble family lost power, prestige, and large amounts of land. The sources describe the meeting between Sunbadh and Abu Muslim as a cooperation between the two to fight some Bedouins. In some accounts Abu Muslim is said to have aided Sunbadh and in others it is the other way around. Either way, this incident cemented the friendship between the two men and Sunbadh and his brother both joined the revolutionary movement. This incident also helps to explain why this Iranian magnate was spared by Abu Muslim when so many other Arab and Iranian nobles were killed by him. On the other hand, this story may not be completely true and may have been used to explain why Abu Muslim did not killed Sunbadh when he had eliminated most of the other great men, both Iranian and Arab, he came across. Sunbadh probably hoped to regain prominence for his family in the new era that Abu Muslim had promised. Therefore, Sunbadh probably saw a useful ally in Abu Muslim whose friendship could help him accomplish this objective. Sunbadh did not join Abu Muslim as a single individual, as a noble he probably brought his own army or armed retinue.

Sunbadh accompanied Abu Muslim on his fateful journey to meet the caliph, al-Mansur, in 754. However, he joined him as his friend and was not registered in the roster of his army. Abu Muslim’s army remained at Hulwan, on the border of Iraq, because the caliph had not permitted such a large force to accompany Abu Muslim through his domains. Sunbadh also stayed behind with the bulk of the troops. Sunbadh’s rebellion began shortly after news arrived of Abu Muslim’s death. Many of the sources state that he rose in revolt out of anger for his slain friend. In fact, they state that he rebelled at Nishapur and marched west to Rayy, which he captured, and then planned to march on Mecca, destroy the Kaaba, abolish the caliphate, and restore the Sasanian Empire.

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Crone contends that it is highly unlikely that Sunbadh would have left his home base at Nishapur to bring down the caliphate on his own. It also contradicts the fact that he had accompanied Abu Muslim to Hulwan. It makes even less sense that he went back to Nishapur only to march west again to confront the caliphate single-handedly. Crone contends that Sunbadh reacted to Abu Muslim’s death by beginning to march home, which was probably the safest place for him to be. On his way, he was detained by the governor of Rayy, who had been commanded to apprehend any of Abu Muslims men. Sunbadh argued that he was not registered in Abu Muslim’s army and that he and his men were merely on their way home. However, the governor refused to let him pass. Not content to sit and wait for his fate, Sunbadh fled Rayy at night and was pursued by the governor who caught up with him. They fought a fierce battle in which Sunbadh and his men emerged victorious. The governor’s actions in this scenario achieved the opposite of what the caliph had intended when he commanded him to prevent any of Abu Muslim’s men from returning to Khurasan, a rebellion. Sunbadh captured the governor and put him to death and marched back to Rayy, where he raised the banners of revolt.

Some sources say that he reverted to Zoroastrianism at this point, which means that he may have converted to Islam when he befriended Abu Muslim. Many of these sources, such as Nizam al-Mulk’s account, ascribe Khurramiyya beliefs to Sunbadh. Being an Iranian noble, he was a Zoroastrian (who may have temporarily converted to Islam), but many of his own soldiers and those among Abu Muslim’s men who joined him were Khurramiyya. He returned to Rayy and there his men and those among Abu Muslim’s soldiers who joined him carried out a violent massacre of both Arab and Iranian Muslims in the region. He was able to defeat two locale armies that were sent against him with the help of the ruler of Daylam. The situation was so dire that the annual raid against Byzantium was cancelled, and all the efforts of the central government were focused on crushing the rebels.

The caliph sent an army of Khurasani soldiers from Iraq. More soldiers were also recruited along the way in addition to volunteers who flocked to the Abbasids’ banners. One such volunteer was a butcher from Rayy, Umar ibn al-‘Ala’, who even recruited his own band of soldiers and distinguished himself in battle, which was the start of an illustrious military career. Sunbadh was defeated and he and his brother fled the battle. They took refuge with one of the magnates of Tabaristan who had them both killed and sent their heads to the commander of the caliph’s army, Jawhar, to gain favor with his powerful neighbor and overlord.

The sources give a wide range for the number of casualties sustained by the rebels. These numbers go from as few as 30,000 to over 100,000 dead. Even though these numbers are most certainly inflated, they do indicate that Sunbadh was most probably joined by villagers and townsmen from the area when they heard of his rebellion. Abu Muslim had marched to Iraq with 8,000. Of these he had left 7,000 at Hulwan, along with Sunbadh and his followers. A noble of Sunbadh’s standing could never match the power and wealth of a man like Abu Muslim. So, it is safe to assume that his retinue was significantly smaller, perhaps a few hundred men, or a thousand at most. Even if all of Abu Muslim’s soldiers had joined Sunbadh, the total number for his forces does not even come near the lower casualty figure (which even if exaggerated, is probably closer to the real number) given by the sources.

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Sunbadh’s revolt is classified as a Khurramiyya rebellion even though its leader was Zoroastrian. This classification is due to the fact that the bulk of Abu Muslim’s soldiers who joined the revolt, the Muslimiyya, were Khurramiyya or held Khurrami beliefs and ideas. Many of them deified Abu Muslim. The peasants who joined the rebellion were a mixture of Zoroastrians, Khurramiyya, and some sources even mention Mazdakites. These sources also state that Sunbadh preached that Abu Muslim was not dead, that he transformed into a dove, and ascended to the heavens where he dwells in a citadel with the Mahdi and Mazdak. They would one day emerge from this fortress and usher in an era of justice and peace. This messianic message appealed to a broad range of people including the Khurramiyya (especially the Muslimiyya and Mazdakites among them) and to the ghulat (Shiites with extremist beliefs). In fact, some of the Khurramiyya, such as the Muslimiyya who deified Abu Muslim, practiced an extreme form of Shiism that incorporated their traditional beliefs including the deification of men like Abu Muslim whom they saw as the rightful successors to the prophet Muhammad, Ali ibn Abi Talib, and Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya (Ali’s son with a concubine). In other words, groups such as the Muslimiyya, upon their conversion of Islam, nativized the religion, and as Crone states “…they changed the definition of Islam to stand for their own beliefs.”

Even though Sunbadh’s rebellion was short-lived, it was the first chapter in a series of revolts that would plague the eastern parts of the caliphate for almost a century. This uprising was spontaneous, unplanned, and its leader found himself caught in a war he could not win against a superior foe far from his home base. The other Khuramiyya uprisings were much larger in scale and better organized. It sometimes took the caliphal forces years to suppress them at a high cost. Rebel leaders such as al-Muqanna’ and Babak ensconced themselves in remote, well-fortified regions that were either geographically difficult to access, or very distant from the Abbasids’ centers of power and their revolts will be discussed in detail in future articles.

Adam Ali is a lecturer at the University of Toronto. Click here to read more from Adam.

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