Apostasy and repentance in early medieval Zoroastrianism.

Author:Kiel, Yishai

The Middle Persian (Pahlavi) literature from the early Islamic centuries frequently deals with practical theological issues faced by the Zoroastrian communities under foreign domination. Here, we present a number of questions regarding a Zoroastrian's conversion to Islam and his subsequent repentance and desire to return to Zoroastrianism and answers given by ninth- and tenth-century Zoroastrian priestly authorities. It is shown how the priests cite ancient traditions found in the Pahlavi versions of Avestan texts to justify their answers, and then apply them to the contemporary social reality.


The main problem facing scholars of Pahlavi literature of the ninth-tenth centuries is the dearth of reliable text editions and translations. Such as exist are often outdated and tend to differ considerably in the manner of transcribing the texts and in the terminology used for Pahlavi terms in the translations. Several important texts are found only in a single manuscript, others in only two, some in manuscripts that are obviously quite corrupt, and some in quite recent ones (eighteenth--nineteenth century). The texts involved are also among the most difficult in the entire Pahlavi corpus (notably the Dadestan I denig and the Pahlavi Videvdad). The study and comparison of texts must therefore always be accompanied by manuscript criticism and critical new translations, so texts and translations need to be included in any discussion of them. (1)

The present article is an example of this methodology adopted for the study of apostasy and repentance across several Pahlavi texts and of what can be gained by comparison with contemporary religions.


The conversion of Zoroastrians to Islam during the first few centuries after the Muslim conquest (2) is, in some respects, part of a broader cultural phenomenon, one that has been referred to as the "age of conversions." (3) Since direct historical and biographical evidence elucidating the experience of individual conversions during this period, especially of Zoroastrians, is relatively scarce, in order to shed some light on the legal attitudes toward conversion at that time, we shall explore literature in Middle Persian produced by the leaders of the Zoroastrian clergy during the ninth and tenth centuries in the form of questions-and-answers, among them inquiries regarding religious-legal issues and answers containing decisions by legal scholars. (4) In particular, we will address legal responsa devoted to various aspects of apostasy and conversion, while focusing on questions 52 and 53 ascribed to Adurfarnbay (Adurfarrbay) son of Farroxzad, high priest of the Zoroastrian community in Iran during the first half of the ninth century, who dedicated several responsa to the legal and religious ramifications of apostasy and conversion of Zoroastrians to Islam and who is said to have participated in interreligious disputations with Muslims in the presence of the 'Abbasid Caliph al-Ma'mun (815-833). (5) In the Pahlavi texts, he is also known as hudenan pesobay "leader of the hu-dens (Zoroastrians)." (6)

Although Muslims are not explicitly mentioned in these texts, the historical situation makes it certain that, at least in the majority of cases, we are dealing with conversions to Islam, rather than to Christianity or Judaism.

The legal status of Zoroastrians under Islam was subject to some controversy among Muslim jurists, but the majority of Islamic authorities appear to have held that the Zoroastrians were to be tolerated and protected under the legal umbrella of ahl al-dhimma. (7) That said, according to most Islamic jurists, Zoroastrians were not considered ahl al-kitab "people of the book" (8) in the strict legal sense, like the Jews and

Christians; thus Muslims were not permitted to eat from their slaughter or marry their women. (9) It is difficult to determine whether this distinct attitude exhibited by Islamic jurists toward Zoroastrians had any impact on the patterns of conversion of Zoroastrians to Islam beyond the general patterns attested among other minorities in this period.

The texts we will examine in this context reflect, in part, the legal concerns of Zoroastrians as a religious minority. (10) In addition to the issues discussed here, the responsa from the early ninth century onward address questions such as the marital status of the wife of an apostate, the legal status of his ayogen "levirate" sister, (11) the inheritance privileges of the apostate, and concerns pertaining to members of the clergy who apostatized.

The legal concerns pertaining to apostasy and conversion did not, however, first originate as a reaction to the large-scale conversions in the early Islamic period. Parts of the medieval discussion derive directly from the Pahlavi translations and commentaries (zand) in the Nirangestan, which deals with the correct performance of rituals, and especially the Videvdad, (12) which deals with pollution and contamination, both of them redacted from oral traditions and written down, perhaps, already in the late Sasanian period. Dissent from Zoroastrian norms is discussed in some detail in the Pahlavi Nirangestan and sporadically in the Pahlavi Videvdad. (13) The extensive medieval discussion of apostasy and conversion is, therefore, not only a reflection of the religious and legal encounters of Zoroastrianism with Islam, but also represents earlier Zoroastrian traditions, in which apostasy is expressed by the phrases "standing back from the den," as well as "praising back the den." (14) This terminology of denial of the den ultimately goes back to the positive statement in the Zoroastrian so-called "profession of faith" in Yasna 12.9: "I assign myself by my praise to the Mazdayasnian daena... which is that of Ahura Mazda and Zarathustra... This is how I assign myself by my praise to the Mazdayasnian daena." (15)

Here we shall attempt to locate the traditions pertaining to apostasy that were utilized by Adurfarnbay and his colleagues and thereby show how these traditions were repackaged by the medieval jurists by adapting and adjusting them so as to be applicable to the reality of large-scale conversions. In this context, we shall examine not only the Zoroastrian literature, but also adduce parallel discussions from Islamic, Geonic, and Christian sources, so as to contextualize the Zoroastrian responsa and place their legal concerns in a broader cultural framework.

The Zoroastrian discussions are based on the concepts of sins and good deeds. A person's good and evil thoughts, words, and deeds are entered into his/her account and, at "the third dawn" (sidos) (16) of "the fourth day" after death, counted and weighed at the Bridge of the Accountant (Avestan cinuuato [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Pahlavi Cinwad-puhl). (17) If the good deeds weigh more than the sins, the soul is "righteous" (ahlaw) and proceeds to heaven; if not, it is "wicked" (druwand) and is led to hell. During "the three nights," the soul was also believed to suffer punishments for its sins.

The main themes that come up in these discussions are the following:

What counts as apostasy/conversion: removal of the kustig, the sacred girdle, which Zoroastrians are enjoined to wear at all times; (18) standing away from, i.e., denying, the good den, the den of the Mazdayasnians; (19) going from the good den to an evil den.

Sins and the weight of sins: sins were classified as "light" (xwar), "heavy" (garari), or "heavier" (gray), the heaviest of them all being the tanabuhl (20) and margarzan "deathdeserving" sins, the latter calling for the death penalty. (21)

Sins committed by others, for which the convert was, in some way, responsible: sins committed on his body, mainly after death, and sins committed by those he caused to convert.

Repentance, atonement (also confession) by the sinner in words or thought; within a year (the grace period) or after a year; repentance by someone else on the convert's behalf (by agency).

The need for performing good deeds in addition to repentance. (22)

The status of good deeds performed before the conversion.

Punishments for not repenting, in this world and the next; ways to avoid punishment until the end of the world (fraskerd, the Resurrection, the Final Body). (23)

Mitigating circumstances: ability and inability to repent.

The case of someone born outside the good den.

The rituals performed at "the third dawn."



Adurfarnbay's fifty-second question-and-answer concerns a Zoroastrian convert to Islam who seeks to repent and revert to Zoroastrianism, but is discouraged by his fear of the (Muslim) authorities, since apostasy was regarded as a capital offense in Islamic law. (24) The question and answer consider two different situations, of which this is the first:

pursisn mard ew ke kustig be wisayed andar sal pad-petit hawed bim i tan ray kustlg ray bastan ne sdyed pas az an winah kam kuned ud abdrig kar ud kerbag tuxsldar ud xwedodahih kuned ud abdrig kar ud kerbag harw ce sayed kuned an kar ud kerbag xwes bowed ayab ne passox kar ud kerbag i kuned oh bawed u-s windh i wtsad-dwarisnih o bun (Rivayat of Adurfarnbay 52 (1) (25) [TD2, 348]) Question. A man who unties the kustlg, (if) within a year he becomes repentant, (but) fearing for his body (i.e., his life), it is no (longer) possible to tie on the kustig. (26)

After that, he commits little sin, is diligent in the other activities and good deeds, performs acts of xwedodah, and performs any other activity and good deed he can.

Do those activities and good deeds become his own or not?


The activities and good deeds he performs will be "in the usual way." (27) But he will have the sin of "running about ungirded."

Note that a person's den is also the totality of his/her good thoughts, words, and deeds, thus performing good deeds, in particular the xwedodah, which is one of the most meritorious deeds of all...

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