Mazdak (in Persian مزدک) (died c. 524 or 528) was a proto-socialist Persian reformer and religious activist who gained influence under the reign of the Sassanian Shahanshah Kavadh I. He claimed to be a prophet of God, and instituted communal possessions and social welfare programs.
Mazdak was the chief representative of a religious and philosophical teaching called Mazdakism, which he viewed as a reformed and purified version of Zoroastrianism, although his teaching has been argued to display influences from Manichaeism as well. Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion of Sassanid Persia, and Mazdak himself was a Zoroastrian priest, or mobed, but most of the Zoroastrian clergy regarded his teaching as a heresy. Information about it is scarce and little is known beyond what is listed below; some further details may be inferred from the later doctrine of Khurramism, which has been seen as a continuation of Mazdakism.
Some sources claim that the original founders of this sect lived earlier than Mazdak. These were another mobed named Zardusht (of the same name, but not the same person as the founder of Zoroastrianism) and/or a Zoroastrian philosopher known as Mazdak the Elder, who taught a combination of altruism and hedonism: "he directed his followers to enjoy the pleasures of life and satisfy their appetite in the highest degree with regard to eating and drinking in the spirit of equality and friendly intercourse; to avoid dominating one another; to share in women and family; to aim at good deeds; to abstain from shedding blood and inflicting harm on others; and to practice hospitality without reservation". This doctrine was further developed by the best known Mazdak, Mazdak the Younger, son of Bāmdād.
Like both Zoroastrianism (at least as practiced at time) and Manichaeism, Mazdakism had a dualistic cosmology and worldview. This doctrine taught that there were two original principles of the universe: Light, the good one; and Darkness, the evil one. These two had been mixed by a cosmic accident, tainting everything except God. Light is characterized by knowledge and feeling and acts by design and free will, whereas Darkness is ignorant and blind, and acts at random. Mankind's role in this life was, through good conduct, to release the parts of himself that belonged to Light. But where Manichaeism saw the mixture of good and bad as a cosmic tragedy, Mazdak viewed this in a more neutral, even optimistic way.
In addition, Mazdakism is reported, in one late work, to have distinguished three elements (Fire, Water, Earth), and four Powers (Discernment, Understanding, Preservation and Joy, corresponding to the four chief officials of the Sassanid state), seven Viziers and twelve Spiritual Forces. When the Four, the Seven and the Twelve were united in a human being, he was no longer subject to religious duties. In addition, God was believed to rule the world through letters, which held the key to the Great Secret that should be learnt. This description suggests that Mazdakism was, in many ways, a typical Gnostic sect.
Two distinguishing factors of Mazdak's teaching were the reduction of the importance of religious formalities—the true religious person being the one who understood and related correctly to the principles of the universe—and a criticism of the strong position of mainstream Zoroastrian clergy, who, he believed, had oppressed the Persian population and caused much poverty.
Mazdak emphasized good conduct, which involved a moral and ascetic life, no killing and not eating flesh (which contained substances solely from Darkness), being kind and friendly and living in peace with other people.
According to Mazdak, God had originally placed the means of subsistence on earth so that people should divide them among themselves equally, but the strong had wronged the weak, seeking domination and causing the contemporary inequality. This in turn empowered the Five Demons that turned men from Righteousness - these were Envy, Wrath, Vengeance, Need and Greed. To prevail over these evils, justice had to be restored and everybody should share excess possessions with his fellow men. Mazdak allegedly planned to achieve this by making all wealth and women common or by re-distributing them, although it is unclear how he intended to organize that in terms of regulations and to what extent his position has been caricatured by hostile sources. The sources mostly dwell on the alleged "sharing" of women, the resulting sexual promiscuity and the confusion of the line of descent. Since the latter is a standard accusation against heretical sects, its veracity has been doubted by researchers; it is likely that Mazdak took measures against the widespread polygamy of the rich and lack of wives for the poor.
Mazdak's teaching acquired many followers, to the point when even King Kavadh I, ruling from 488 until 531, converted to Mazdakism. He also reportedly sponsored its adoption by the Arab vassal kingdom of Al-Hira, entailing the deposing of the previous king al-Mundhir by the Kindite chief al-Harith. According to certain apparently fictionalized accounts, reflecting the views of Mazdak's detractors, Kavadh even agreed to allow Mazdak to sleep with the Queen, to demonstrate his adherence to the concept of communal property, and the Crown Prince Anushiravan (later crowned Khosrau I) had to intervene to convince Mazdak not to accept the offer.
With the King's backing Mazdak could embark on a program of social reform, which involved pacifism, anti-clericalism and aid programs for helping the poor. Mazdak had government warehouses opened to help the poor. He also had all the Zoroastrian fire temples closed except the three major ones. The (largely hostile) sources also report that, despite the concepts of good conduct and pacifism, the followers of Mazdak raided the palaces and harems of the rich and seized the valuables to which they believed they had equal rights.
Opposition to and purge of Mazdaki adherents
Fear from among the nobility and Zoroastrian clergy grew so strong that King Kavadh was overthrown in 496, but he managed to get the throne back three years later with the help of the Hephthalites.
The Jewish tradition relates a slightly different story. Mar-Zutra II rallied the Jewish community and their allies who defeated Mazdak and established an independent Jewish kingdom that lasted for seven years.
Scared by the resistance among the powerful, he chose to distance himself from Mazdak. He allowed Anushiravan to launch a campaign against the Mazdakis in 524 or 528, culminating in a massacre killing most of the adherents, including Mazdak himself and restoring orthodox Zoroastrianism as state religion. Various fictionalized accounts specify the way of death: e.g. the Shahnameh states that the three thousand Mazdakis were buried alive with the feet upwards in order to present Mazdak with the spectacle of a "human garden", whereas Mazdak himself was hanged upside down and shot with countless arrows; other stories specify other torturous methods of execution. Anushiravan then proceeded to implement his own far-reaching social and administrative reforms. The Mazdakite ruler of Al-Hira was also overthrown and the previous king was restored to power.
A few Mazdakis survived, and settled in remote areas. Small pockets of Mazdaki societies are said to have survived for centuries after the Islamic conquest of Persia. Their doctrines probably mixed with radical currents of Shī‘a Islam, influencing them and giving rise to later powerful revolutionary-religious movements in the region. In the 9th century, the Khurramites, an egalitarian religious sect possibly originating from Mazdakism, led a revolt under the leadership of Bābak Khorramdin against the Abbasid Caliphate and successfully defended large territories against the Caliphate's forces for some twenty years. The Batiniyya, Qarmatians and other later revolutionary currents of Islam may also be connected to Mazdakism and were often equated with it by contemporary authors. Turkish scholar Abdülbaki Gölpinarli sees even the Kizilbash of the 16th century - a radical Shī‘a movement in Persia which helped the Safavid dynasty establish this branch of Islam as the dominant religion of Iran - as "spiritual descendants of the Khurramites" and, hence, of the Mazdakites. "Mazdakist" eventually seems to have become a standard derogative label attached by pre-modern Persian and Arabic authors to any radical egalitarian movement in subsequent Iranian history.
While medieval Muslim historiography primarily focused on the "socialist" aspects of Mazdak, Zoroastrian tradition, on the other hand, remembers Mazdak above all as a dangerous heretic and enemy of the true faith (Zand-i Wahman Yasht 2:1), a threat comparable to Mani and Mohammad (Denkard 3:345).
The author of the Dabestan-e Mazaheb, writing as late as the 17th century, claims to have met individual adherents of Mazdakism who practiced their religion secretly among the Muslims and preserved the Desnad, a book in Pahlavi containing the teachings of Mazdak.
- Indo-European religion
- Indo-Iranian religion
- List of notable Persian figures in the Sassanid era
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