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MAZDAKISM is a socioreligious movement that flared up in the reign of the Sasanian king Kavād (488531 ce) under the leadership of Mazdak, son of Bāmdād. Its genesis, however, seems to go back to an earlier period, possibly the fourth century, when Zarādusht, a Zoroastrian priest, attempted through new interpretations of the Zoroastrian scriptures, to purify the faith.

A populist and egalitarian movement, Mazdakism socially preached in its acute form what modern scholars have called a communistic agenda, advocating an equitable distribution of property and breaking of the barriers which placed the concentration of wealth and women into the hands of the privileged classes. In terms of religious doctrine it exhibited some Gnostic features and apparently entertained a qabbalistic notion of the significance of numbers and the letters of the alphabet. The followers of the sect called themselves Derest-dēnān (of the right faith). Kavād favored the movement for a while, but it was brutally suppressed by his son and successor, Khusrau I (531579 ce). It went underground as a result and reappeared in various sectarian forms after the advent of Islam and the fall of the Sasanian Empire in the midseventh century.

The Sources

No work of the Mazdakites has survived. Nearly all the information on Mazdakism derives from hostile sources. These can be divided in two categories: contemporary and post-Sasanian. The first consists of Syriac and Greek (Byzantine) works. Chief among them are Procopius' Persian Wars and Agathias's Histories, both in Greek; Pseudo-Joshua the Stylite's Chronicle and Malalas of Antioch's, Chronographia in Syriac. The second comprises Middle Persian, Arabic, and New Persian sources. The latter two are believed to have generally derived their information from Khwaday-nāmag, a compendium of Iranian history, myths, and legends, reflecting the views of the Sasanian nobles and clergy, transmitted orally until it was committed to writing in the sixth century. Its translation into Arabic by Ibn al-Muqaffa (died c. 757) now lost, served as the chief source for subsequent Islamic histories of Persia. These focus on the events of the reigns of Kavād and Khusrau I, including the Mazdakite revolt. They emphasize the communistic features of the doctrine, lingering in particularas do the Middle Persian passageson sharing of women as common property and its evil consequences.

Among the most important is the report by the heresiographer Shāhrastānī (died 1153) which provides us with a glimpse of Mazdakite religious beliefs and theology. His source, Abu Isâ Hārūn al-Warrāq (died 861), a Manichaean or Zoroastrian convert to Islam, seems to have had access to some genuine Mazdakite source.

Mazdakite Doctrine

According to Shāhrastānī's account, the Mazdakites believed in two primordial principles, Light and Darkness. Light is endowed with knowledge and feeling and acts by design and free will, whereas Darkness is ignorant and blind and acts randomly and without direction. The admixture of the two is the result of pure accident, as will be their separation. From their mingling, two beings arose, the Manager of Good and the Manager of Evil. The Supreme Being is seated on his throne in the world above, as the [Sasanian] king of kings is seated in the world below; four Powers stand before him: Discernment, Understanding, Preservation, and Joy. There are four high-ranking officials before the king of kings, including the Chief Priest and Judge (Mōbadān Mōbad), the Chief Hērbad (religious doctor), the Commander of the Army (Spāhbad), and the Entertainment Master (Rāmishgar). The four Powers direct the world with the help of seven viziers (cf. the seven planets) who act within a circle of twelve spiritual forces (cf. the zodiac). When the four Powers and the Seven and Twelve come together in a human being, he becomes godly (rabbānī) and no longer subject to religious observances (implying antinomianism). The Supreme Being reigns by the power of the letters, of which the total sum constitutes the Supreme Name (al-Ism al-a'zam). Men who come to understand something of these letters have found the key to the Great Secret (al-sirr al-akbar). Those who are deprived will remain in blindness, ignorance, neglect and dullness (opposites of the four Powers).

From this brief but precious account the character and basic tenet of Mazdakite theology may be adduced and summarized as belief in:

  1. A fundamental dualism, not far from that of Zoroastrianism or Manichaeism;
  2. Three elements, compared to Zoroastrian four and Manichaean five;
  3. The remoteness of the supreme deity, as evinced by the postulation of the two demiurgical "managers";
  4. A spiritual macrocosm, reflected in the mesocosm of our world and mirrored in the microcosm of humans;
  5. The symbolic power of letters, words, and numbers as keys to the redemptive knowledge; and
  6. Irrelevance of religious obligations and, therefore, the outward meaning of religious prescriptions, once a revelatory knowledge of the essence of the "secret" of religion is gained.

Such beliefs, which are typical of Gnostic religions, bring Mazdakism unmistakably within the orbit of the syncretistic faiths which developed in the early Christian centuries with an admixture of Iranian, Syro-Babylonian, and Hellenic thought. However, Shāhrastānī's report probably reflects a late phase of Mazdakism, particularly since the terms used for the twelve spiritual forces are mostly New Persian rather than Middle Persian of Sasanian period. (Shāhrastānī's account, however, leaves us in the dark on many essential matters such as Mazdakite eschatology, or the nature of revelation and prophethood, and the origin of the Evil principle.)

One of the fullest accounts of the social aspects of Mazdakite doctrine in Islamic sources appears in Ghurar akhbâr mulûk al-Furs :

Mazdak declared that God placed the means of subsistence (arzāq) on earth so that people divide them among themselves equally, in a manner that no one of them could have more than his share; but people wronged one another and sought domination over one another; the strong defeated the weak and took exclusive possession of livelihood and property. It is absolutely necessary that one take from the rich for giving to the poor, so that all become equal in wealth. Whoever possesses an excess of property, women or goods, he has no more right to it than another. (p. 600)

The noted Muslim historian al-Tabari (d. 923) adds in The History of al-Tabari that Mazdak believed that such deeds were "an act of piety that pleased God and was rewarded by Him with the best of rewards" (vol. 1, p. 893).

In his verse rendering of Khwadāy-nāmag, Firdawsi (d. c. 1026) provides some further detail on the moral philosophy of the sect (vol. VIII, p. 46): men are turned from righteousness by five demons (envy, wrath, vengeance, need [ā niyāz ], and greed) to prevail against these and to tread the path of the good religion, wealth and women must be made common. The sources do not specify any rules or regulations that Mazdak may have prescribed for a just distribution of women and wealth; they mostly concentrate on the alleged community of women, the resulting promiscuity, and its confusing effect on the line of descent.

Many modern scholars, including Mansour Shaki (1978) and Patricia Crone (1991), have taken the sharing of women at its face value, ignoring the impracticability of such a provision in a large, tradition-based society as was Sasanian Iran, and where virtue depended as much on race and lineage (gowhar, nasab) as on personal accomplishments (honar, hasab). It would have gone against the grain of all the Zoroastrian faithful and would have destroyed the social fabric of the country. What appears to be true is that Mazdak advocated a number of measures, such as prohibiting accumulation of women or having more than one wife; reducing the financial requirement of marriage, such as the dowry (and marriage portion for the wife [kābin ]); and breaking of the harems and allowing intermarriage among social estates. Hostile sources have cast such prescriptions in the mold of a standard accusation against all heretics as a juicy and scandalizing weapon against the Mazdakites. There is no evidence of promiscuity among the offshoots of the Mazdakism that sprang up in Islamic times and from which one learns more about the Mazdakites.


Selected Primary Sources

Agathias. Histories. Translated by Joseph D. Frendo. Berlin and New York. 1975.

Bīrūnī, Abu Raihān. al-Athār al-bāqiya. Translated by Eduard Sachau as The Chronology of Ancient Nations. London, 1879.

Firdausī, Abulqāsim. Shāhnāma. 9 vols. Moscow, 19631971.

Ibn al-Nadīm. al-Fihrist. Edited by Rizā Tajaddod. Tehran, 1971. Translated by Bayard Dodge. 2 vols. New York, 1970.

Malalas of Antioch. Chronographia, in Jacques Paul Migne, ed., Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Series Graeca XCVII. Paris, 1860.

Pseudo-Joshua the Stylite. Chronicle. Edited and translated by William Wright. Cambridge, 1882.

Shahrastānī, Muhammad. al-Milal wa'l-nihal. Edited by William Cureton. Leiden, 1846.

al-Tabari, Muhammad b. Jarīr. Ta'rīkh al-rusul wa'l-mulūk. Translated as The History of al-Tabari by a number of scholars; vol. 5. by C. E. Bosworth and Clifford Edmunds. New York, 1999.

Tha'ālibī, Abū Mansūr. Ghurar akhbār mulūk al-Furs. Edited and translated into French by Hermann Zotenberg. Paris, 1900.

(For fuller listing of the primary sources see Yarshater and Crone, below.)


The first scholar to bring Greek, Syriac, and Islamic sources systematically together was Th. Nöldeke, Geschichte der Perser und Araber (Leipzig, 1879), pp. 284291. A. Christensen devoted a monograph, Le règne du roi Kawādh I et le communisme mazdakite (Copenhagen, 1925) to a full discussion of the Mazdakite revolt, believing mistakenly, however, that Mazdakism was an offshoot of Manichaeism. Gholam Hossein Sadighi's Les mouvemets religieux iraniens au IIe et au IIIe siècle de l'hégire (Paris, 1938) is particularly useful for its close examination of the Khorramis and some other Islamic sectarians with Mazdakite roots. Nina Viktorovna Pigulevskaya, in her Les villes de l'état iranien aux époques parthe et sassanide (Paris, 1963), pp. 195230, reflects the Marxist point of view and considers the movement born of the peasant protests against Kavād's and Khusrau I's land survey and tax reforms. In 1957, Otakar Klima, the Czech scholar, published in Prague his monograph Mazdak, a comprehensive study of the movement (in the context of Sasanian history and Middle Eastern religions), conceiving Mazdakism as a social movement in religious garb brought about by social and economic conditions in Sasanian Iran. He followed later with another monograph on Mazdakism, Beiträge zur Geschichte des Mazdakismus (Prague, 1977), where he considered the absence of the Mazdak's name in contemporary sources as the result of a deliberate attempt on the part of Khusrau I to delete his name from all records and force oblivion of his memory. In 1978 Mansour Shaki published "The Social Doctrine of Mazdak," based on Middle Persian passages in the Zoroastrian encyclopedic work Dēnkard, written in the ninth or tenth century but based on Sasanian materials; he provided a new translation of these difficult and corrupted passages, attempted earlier by Marijan Molé in 1961, emphasizing the communistic aspects of Mazdakism and the sharing of women and property by all.

In 1982 Heinz Gaube, pointing to the absence of Mazdak's name in the contemporary sources and also a number of contradictions in the Islamic reports, doubted even the very existence of Mazdak and thought it likely that the revolt had to do with the tax reforms initiated by Kavād and followed up by Khusrau I, who later manipulated the reports and placed the blame for the upheavals on Mazdak, possibly an invention of him, in order to save the reputation of his fathera view which has not found favorable reception (see Crone, pp. 2223).

Ehsan Yarshater's chapter on Mazdakism in the Cambridge History of Iran III/2 (Cambridge, 1983), pp. 9911024, provides a comprehensive presentation of Mazdakite doctrine and analysis of the sources and discusses the Islamic sects, mostly of an esoteric nature, that derived from Mazdakism in the first centuries of Islam.

In a second article, "The Cosmogonical and Cosmological Teachings of Mazdak" (Acta Iranica XI, 1985, pp. 527543), Shaki tried to make sense of a number of terms reported in the work of Shahrastānī.

In 1988, Werner Sundermann, who had written an article in 1977 about Mazdakite uprising, "Mazdak und die mazdakititischen Volksaufstände," Das Altertum 23, pp. 245249, offered a German translation of the very obscure and laconic passage of Book VII of the Dēnkard, which differs somewhat from that of Shaki but still remains far from clear in all its details.

In 1991, Patricia Crone, in "Kavād's Heresy and Mazdak's Revolt" (Iran 29: pp. 2142), presented a thorough analysis of the sources with a view of finding a solution to the existing contradictions in the reports about Mazdak and the historical events related to him. She, too, considered the revolt as a result of Khusrau I's cadastral reform and the hardship it caused the peasantry.

Ehsan Yarshater (2005)