Religion in the Shahnameh

Abu ‘l-Qasem Ferdowsi, author of the Shahnameh and believed to be a Shi’ia Muslim is an enduring figure in the Iranian national identity.  Although the majority of Iranians are Shi’ia Muslims, Ferdowsi completed his work during the reign of the Sunna, Abbasid dynasty.  At the completion of his life’s work he dedicated the final version to his patron, the Sultan Mahmoud of Ghanza in modern day Afghanistan.  The mythical and religious Iranian past and the intricacies of the author’s character create a complex, rich culture in the Shahnameh.  Although at times historically inaccurate and contradictory it is an intriguing topic considering the present interest western culture has concerning Islam.

Ferdowsi wrote this poem over the course of his life intending to receive a large reward from the Sultan Mahmoud a powerful suzerainty of the Abbasids.  Yet in his epic he did not incorporate Qur’anic ideology to describe the origins of the world, the beginnings of humanity or the societal norms derived from the Qur’an that were often promoted in literature.  This in itself was a major deviation from the traditional methods of that time.  Ferdowsi “pays no attention whatsoever to the Qur’anic version of history, and he makes no attempt to reconcile Iran’s mythological past with that embodied in the Qur’anic tradition; his Iran does not emerge out of a Qur’anic reality…” (Davis, Religion in the Shahnameh p. 338).  The political upheaval caused by changing power dynamics in Islamic culture at that time may have caused the Persian Muslim Ferdowsi to focus more on his local cultures’ religious past and less on the religion they adopted after the Islamic conquest.    

Although Ferdowsi seems to avoid the topic of religion as much as possible it can be observed that he does attempt to incorporate a Zoroastor view of the world into his epic.  According to Gregory Nagy “Ferdowsi ordinarily expresses the concept of “God” not with the Islamic term Allah but with a more generic term Khoda… which is compatible with a Zoroastrian world-view” (Davidson, p. 14). This falls in line with the knowledge that this epic was an attempt to record the rapidly fading Iranian history after the fall of Persia.

He chose instead to insert a fairly large section of work from Daqiqi, another poet of that time, to describe the advent of Zoroastor and the subsequent adoption of his religion.  “Ferdowsi conceived his work as a memorial to Iran’s glorious past at a time when its memory was in danger of disappearing for good under the twin assaults of Arabic and Islamic Culture and the political dominion of the Turks” (Meri, p. 727).

Ferdowsi describes the death of the last king of Persia in the grand finale of his epic.  “…you who ruled the world and sought out its crowns have been killed with a dagger plunged into your liver…”  (Ferdowsi, 509).  With the death of Yazdgerd, the reign of the Persian empire was effectively ended by Islamic invaders.  “Now that I have brought the story of Yazdgerd to an end…four hundred years have passed since the Hejira of the Prophet” (Ferdowsi, p. 513).  By ending his book in this way he simultaneously honors the pre-Islamic history of his homeland as well as paying homage to his current way of life as a practicing Muslim.  By combining characteristics intrinsic to his Islamic upbringing with scholarly knowledge of his ancestor’s religion, Ferdowsi evokes ideas and questions that prompt a deeper study of the intricacies specific to Iranian pre-Islamic and Islamic history.  

More to come on this topic as we delve deeper into the life of Ferdowsi and the inner workings of a large diverse population of people all proclaiming allegiance to the same God and Prophet.

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