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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Opposing Views of Ferdowsi’s portrayal of Religion

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.

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

 

 

 

 

Religion in the Art of the Shahnameh

The Shahnameh was created in a religious context; Ferdowsi was a shi’a Muslim (1), and he wrote the book for his Muslim rulers, however, the actual text of the Shahnameh does not contain very much reference to religion. As one of my other group members has discussed in this blog post, Ferdowsi may have had various reasons for avoiding religion in his poem, but references to it still remain. One of Ferdowsi’s goals when writing the Shahnameh was to “preserve the legends and memory of the past,” (2) specifically of the Persian kings who had ruled before the current time, and they were not Muslim. Even though Ferdowsi starts the poem with a traditional Islamic introduction, elements of Zoroastrianism are present throughout the Shahnameh such as the depiction of the beginning of the universe and the presence of the prophet Zoroaster. This is not the case with the artwork.

I have talked before about the disparity between the interests and influences of the artwork and text of the Shahnameh in the context of their depictions of women, and a similar gap can be seen in the context of religion. Even though Ferdowsi included a fair amount of Zoroastrian elements in the Shahnameh does not mean that the people who later recreated it included them in their art. There are Zoroastrian characters who appear, but, like the women, they do not appear often and when they do it is most common to see them in the context of others’ stories. All of the later dynasties, the Ilkhanids, the Safavid, the Qajar, and more, who connected with the text and commissioned it to be recopied were Muslim and the art was tailored to them, so it is possible that Zoroastrian motifs were left out intentionally, they simply were not known or common at that time, or one of many other reasons. But Zoroastrianism is not the only religion that appears in the Shahnameh.

The artwork of the Shahnameh  is somewhat tricky to analyze because it doesn’t include very many blatantly Islamic elements either. One of the reasons for this could be that most illustrations of the Shahnameh are of scenes from the Shahnameh translated fairly literally into a picture. This means most of the illustrations are of characters engaging in combat or in their palaces, instead of doing particularly religious things. But, there are some key aspects that appear, often in the interpretation of characters and events; the lens one uses to view media does affect how it is conveyed. One place that this appears is the interpretation of the Zoroastrian angel, Sorush. Both Ferdowsi and many artists who depict him show him wearing green, as Ferdowsi connected him to an Islamic figure, Khezr (3). All appearances of this character have been affected by one person’s religious context, and a similar phenomenon can be seen at a larger scale.

qajar_shahname_001

The first people to create an illustrated copy of the Shahnameh that we still have today, the Ilkhanids, spread many practices, traditions, and ideas throughout their empire, and this influence can be seen in the artwork of the Shahnameh of that time. But the influence was not contained to just illustrations of the Shahnameh, it also spread to depictions of Muslim figures, and it was around this time that the first shi’ite depictions of Ali as Muhammad’s successor were created (4). Throughout the Shahnameh’s historical lifespan, its illustrations have borne a striking resemblance to many Muslim pieces of art (5).

The main question is why are there so few traces of religion in the Shahnameh’s illustrations? I addressed one theory earlier, but to me it seems like it is because the differences in various editions of the Shahnameh come down to the people they were created for. These rulers and readers have deep connections to the text that made them want to commision entirely new copies of it, and the differences between them tell is more than differences in depictions of religion.

  1. Brend, Barbara, Melville, C. P., and Fitzwilliam Museum. Epic of the Persian Kings : The Art of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. London ; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010.
  2. Ibid., pg. 11
  3. Ibid., pg. 76
  4. Blair, Sheila S. “The development of the Illustrated Book in Iran.” Muqarnas 10 (1993): 266-274.
  5. Welch, Stuart Cary and Annemarie Schimmel. “Islamic Art.” Recent Acquisitions, no. 1986/1987

Picture from Wikimedia Commons. This photo is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years of less.

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.