Religion plays a quiet yet important role in Ferdowsi’s Iranian epic the Shahnameh. That role is complex and best answered by examining different viewpoints. The first view involves looking at the poem to see if the embodiment of the human condition is heavily influenced by religion. The second aspect of the national epic that must be examined is the religious context and suppositions that can be derived from out knowledge of the author.
Two prominent scholars on the subject of the Shahnameh present interpretations of this complex subject in different ways. Dick Davis tends to argue that Ferdowsi was attempting to avoid religious conflict at all costs. He believes that this was because of a personal abhorrence to the subject. Davis also states that Ferdowsi seems to be lacking in true knowledge about the sate of religion in pre-Islamic Iran. (1) Knowledge about Ferdowsi’s level of devotedness to Islam is not discoverable in the Shahnameh because the author chooses to include little to no Qur’anic influence.
Olga Davidson, a second prominent scholar on the subject, tends to see questions concerning the mythological status of the epic answerable in two different ways. The first way is through the actions and interactions of the characters in the play. The second is by interpreting the intent behind Ferdowsi’s inclusion of certain religious words and sections of text relating directly to religion. She tends to see a Zoroastrian world view throughout the text that Ferdowsi creates using certain Persian themes.
Davidson also points out that the inclusion of Daqiqi’s work to describe the advent of Zoroaster gives the poem stronger historical accuracy about Pre-Islamic mythology. Daqiqi was a Zoroastrian poet and considered to be somewhat of a rival to Ferdowsi. Using Daqiqi’s work as a way to present the beginnings of Zoroastrianism was a good way to avoid involving himself in potential religious conflict, while still confronting the issue of their ancient Persian religion in a way that would acceptable for Shia’ Muslims.
Both Scholars tend to agree that Ferdowsi’s portrayal of the human interactions in the play tend to portray divine concepts in a more human way than religion. For example Rostam the hero is in constant conflict trying to uphold faith, justice and truth as pillars of society. Truth is the main pillar of Zoroastrianism. Faith is one of the pillars of Islam. Davis and Davidson tend to see a combination of factors underlying this mixing of religious content. The most logical conclusion I came to is that political unrest and a desire to retain one’s own cultural past caused Ferdowsi to produce this unique blend.
- Davidson, Olga M. Poet and hero in the Persian Book of Kings. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.
- Davis, Dick. “Religion in the Shahnameh.” JOURNAL OF HUMAN SCIENCES: RELIGION AND MYTH IN FERDOWSI’S THOUGHT 48, no. 3 (May 2015): 337-48.
- Firdawsī, and Dick Davis. Sunset of empire. Washington, DC: Mage Publishers, 2004.
- Meri, J. W. Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Routledge, 2006. 727-729.
- Nöldeke, Theodor, and Leonid Th. Bogdanov. The Iranian national epic or the Shahnamah. Philadelphia: Porcupine Press, 1979.