Ferdowsi’s Religious Choices in the Shahnameh

Abu ‘l-Qasem Ferdowsi, author of the Shahnameh and Shi’ia Muslim is an enduring figure in the Iranian national identity.  Although the majority of Iranians are Shi’ia muslims, Ferdowsi completed his poem while the Sunna, Abbasid dynasty was waning in political power.  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 pre and post Islamic mythical and religious Iranian history and the intricacies of the author’s own character create a rich, complex culture in the Shahnameh.  Although at times it is historically inaccurate and contradictory it remains an intriguing topic considering the present interest western culture has concerning Islam in the Middle East.  This blog should serve to dispel some misconceptions that may exist about Middle Eastern culture as well as improve understanding about some historical context surrounding recent world events.

A man of moderate means before he wrote this epic poem, Ferdowsi was hoping for an immense reward to provide his daughter with a large dowry.  He wrote this poem over the course of his life intending to receive that reward from the Sultan Mahmoud, a powerful suzerainty of the Abbasids.  In his epic he did not use Islamic ideology in order 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…” (1).  The political upheaval caused by changing power dynamics in Islamic culture and middle eastern society at that time may have caused the Persian Muslim author to focus more on his local cultures’ religous past and less on the religion they adopted after the Islamic conquest. 

There are several power dynamics that possibly influenced Ferdowsi’s choice to exclude Qur’anic views. For starters the Sultan Mahmud, who did not have strong convictions about religion, was a powerful political leader east of Iran.  His story was a dramatic rise to power after being born into a lowly family.  The Shi’a Buyid dynasty was locally powerful  in Iran and was one of many short term dynasties that came and went in what was a politically unstable region during that era.  Both of these governments were under the waning power of the Sunni Abbasid’s.  It is worth noting that the Abbasid’s  power in Ferdowsi’s life was more Religious than political.  Turkic and Mongol armies raiding in his area were also a source of great political unrest. 

The fact that Mahmoud who was a strong leader with little religious interest other than political need might have combined with the religious control exerted over Ferdowsi by the Sunna Abbasid’s to influence the religious avoidance pointed out by Davis.  Ferdowsi’s hopes to be richly rewarded by Mahmoud were dashed when the Sultan received the work with far less exaltation than was expected.  The character of political leader who the author expected to be paid by is likely to have played a factor in the decisions he made about how to compose his epic history.  As Mahmoud came to power toward the end of Ferdowsi’s life one has to wonder if these decisions was made intentionally or not.

Theodor Noldeke notes that in reference to Mahmoud “…it is quite possible that his zeal was far less turned against the Zoroastrians, than against the Muslim heretics.” (2) The Muslim heretics in this context being the Shi’ia Muslims.  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” (3). 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. 

This was the author’s goal we can assume that Ferdowsi’s avoids the Islamic tradition in order to focus more on his local ethic group’s more intimate cultural past. Ferdowsi chose to insert a fairly large section of work from Daqiqi, another poet of that time, which was used 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” (4).

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” (5).  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’s work evokes ideas and questions that prompt a deeper study of the intricacies specific to Iranian pre-Islamic and Islamic religious history.

  1. Davis, Dick. “Religion in the Shahnameh.” JOURNAL OF HUMAN SCIENCES: RELIGION AND MYTH IN FERDOWSI’S THOUGHT 48, no. 3 (May 2015): 337-48.
  2. Nöldeke, Theodor, and Leonid Th. Bogdanov. The Iranian national epic or the Shahnamah. Philadelphia: Porcupine Press, 1979.
  3. Davidson, Olga M. Poet and hero in the Persian Book of Kings. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.
  4. Meri, J. W. Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Routledge, 2006. 727-729.
  5. Firdawsī, and Dick Davis. Sunset of empire. Washington, DC: Mage Publishers, 2004.
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