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Recurrent Patterns in Iranian Religions, From Mazdaism to Sufism: Proceedings of the Round Table held in Bamberg (30th September-4th October 1991).

Edited by PHILIPPE GIGNOUX. Studia Iranica, Cahier, vol. 11. Leuven: PEETERS, 1992. Pp. 173, plates. FB 1200.

The volume under review contains ten of thirteen papers delivered at a round table meeting held during the second Conference Internationale des Etudes Iraniennes de la Societas Iranologica Europaea at the University of Bamberg, Germany. As the collection's title suggests, the articles examine a range of Iranian religious beliefs and practices. Since the presentations and resulting articles cluster around certain themes, this review will also be thematic rather than follow the order in which the articles are arranged in the volume.

Carsten Colpe's "Der 'iranische Hintergrund' der islamischen Lehre vom Vollkommenen Menschen" sets the stage with a brief overview of theories on Iranian contributions to the notion of the perfect man. Next comes an interesting study, "Imago dei: De la theologie nestorienne a Ibn al Arabi" by Philippe Gignoux. Though his article is, again, more a review of the state of scholarship than a new synthesis, Gignoux leads readers through the development of Nestorian thought on imago dei in the Syriac writings of Bardaisan, Aphraates, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Theodore bar Koni, among others. He then concludes that Nestorianism did not influence greatly Islamic views of the perfect man, but rather that Islam, in general, and Sufism, in particular, were more likely to have assimilated this notion from the Zoroastrian or Mazdean faith. In particular, he focuses on three books from the Zoroastrian priestly tradition of the ninth century A.D. - the Denkard or Acts of the Religion, the Dadestan i Denig or Religious Judgments, and the Saddar Bundahishn or book of Primal Creation in One Hundred Chapters. Gignoux relies heavily on earlier work, especially that by Marijan Mole and Henry Corbin. The eventual conclusion, not surprisingly, is that the issue needs further study. It is unfortunate that Gignoux did not consider fully the possibility that Iranian forms of Islam drew upon well-entrenched Muslim notions that divine images are reflected in God's creations - images that would have been reinforced by the presence of parallel ones among Christians and Zoroastrians. Annemarie Schimmel's account of Muhammad as the ideal model, And Muhammad is his Messenger: The Veneration of the Prophet in Islamic Piety (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1985), garners considerable evidence to support this position. Todd Lawson is in more uncharted territory with "The Structure of Existence in the Bab's Tafsir and the Perfect Man Motif," an insightful study, where the considerable impact of Islam on Babism is elucidated. This comparative analysis is successful in part because Lawson confines himself to a single motif (p. 83) - the manner in which the Bah assimilated and remolded the doctrine of unity of being or wahdat al-wujud. He is also careful when evaluating a nineteenth-century document titled Tafsir surat al-baqara which, through exegesis of particular Qur anic passages, presents the Bab rather than the prophet Muhammad or the first Shi ite imam Ali as the perfect man (pp. 87-97).

Attempts to trace contemporary Iranian religious praxis back to Mazdean or Zoroastrian roots and even earlier, are found in two articles, "Structural and Organizational Analogies between Mazdaism and Sufism and the Kurdish Religions," by Reza Hamzeh'ee; and "Mithra and Ahreman, Binyamin and Malak Tawus: Traces of an Ancient Myth in the Cosmogonies of two Modern Sects," by Philip Kreyenbroek. Despite interesting information gathered by each writer, both articles unfortunately are little more than superficial comparisons of similarities. The Yaresan and Yazidi Kurds and the Zoroastrians all have "seven angels" (p. 30); the Yaresan and Zoroastrians both use the word haftan, or seven (spiritual) beings (p. 30); members of the latter two sects believe in saviors who will appear at the end of time (p. 31); and all three groups supposedly perform animal sacrifice on particular religious festivals (p. 34). (Incidentally, the Zoroastrians of Iran have now discontinued animal sacrifices.) This, and some speculation that belief in metempsychosis and reincarnation entered Sufi thought from Zoroastrianism "in pre-Islamic periods" (p. 35) - but there is no tangible evidence of either notion ever having been influential in Zoroastrian doctrine - form the core of Hamzeh'ee's contribution. Kreyenbroek, unlike Hamzeh'ee, relies less on secondary sources in his attempt to attribute a composite pre-Zoroastrian, Zoroastrian, and Mithraic background to the creation stories of the Yazidis and the Ahl-i Haqq (p. 58). Several pages are spent reproducing the Indo-Iranian, Zoroastrian, Vedic, and later Mithraic cosmogonical schemes (pp. 58-65), materials already well known. Then, sidestepping the strong Islamic background of the Yazidis and Ahl-i Haqq, Kreyenbroek attempts "to explain how the essential elements of an ancient, Indo-Iranian myth could survive among the modern sects" (p. 77). Granted, the similarities may be tantalizing: for example, Zoroastrian cosmogony postulates a flat earth surrounded by a stone or crystal sky, whereas the Yazidis and Ahl-i Haqq view the corporeal world as arising from a pearl in which God once dwelled (pp. 66, 68, 72) and all three faiths believe that a bovine was sacrificed or killed on the primordial earth (p. 66). Yet, these elements are not merely Indo-Iranian; rather they are generic to a wide range of creation stories springing from a Proto-Indo-European mythic substratum (on which, see Bruce Lincoln, "The Indo-European Myth of Creation," History of Religion 15 [1975]: 121-45). Moreover, the metaphor of a pearl containing the divine essence is found in a Syriac Gnostic text (now consult P. H. Poirier, L'Hymne de la Perle des Actes de Thomas [Louvain: E. Peeters, 1980]). Serious questions can also be raised about some of the "primary" sources utilized. For instance, should we not be cautious when accepting the Irradiant text (pp. 74-75) - written in English in the 1940s by a "simple, self-taught villager from Luristan" under the tutelage of an Englishman stationed in Tehran - as a valid record of tribal or religio-historical memory? The extent of cross-cultural contamination of the source material produced under such unusual circumstances is never really questioned by Kreyenbroek, who might do well to follow the cautionary comments offered by the late W. B. Henning ("A Spurious Folktale," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 21 [1958]: 315-18; reprinted, Acta Iranica, vol. 15 [Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1977], 529-32).

A range of Iranian elements in medieval Muslim writings is subject to inspection in Shaul Shaked's "Some Iranian Themes in Islamic Literature." He provides a valuable catalogue of notions and issues that overlap communal boundaries in Iranian society. However, with regard to similarities between the birth stories of Muhammad and Zarathushtra (p. 145), it is most likely that the Iranian prophet's extant hagiography, which dates from the seventh to tenth centuries A.D., was modeled after the biblical and sira accounts (rather than vice versa) as Zoroastrians who were losing both authority and adherents to Islam sought to present their faith's founder in a guise similar to the established Near Eastern image of holy men. Werner Sundermann (especially pp. 170-72) analyzes probable connections between the Zoroastrian belief in the good conscience (daena) manifesting itself after death as a young woman and the Muslim belief of maidens (hur/huri) in paradise.

There are also articles devoted to specific topics of more limited cross-communal consequences. Anders Hultgard resurveys the many orthodox and heterodox variants of the Zoroastrian cosmological myth, all previously well studied, in "Mythe et histoire dans l'Iran ancien" but does note the fundamental role of time in the battle between good and evil. It is therefore unfortunate that he associates (p. 46) a well-known Middle Persian legal term padixsay "authoritative, lawful" with the notion of infinite time when the Pahlavi passage in question merely refers to dominion over a specific period. It is also surprising that Hultgard cites (p. 39) Claude Levi-Strauss as an authority on variations in plot among different renditions of a story - Vladimir Propp's Morphology of the Folktale (2d ed.; ed., tr. L. A. Wagner [Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1968]) or his Theory and History of Folklore (tr. A. Y. Martin et al. [Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1984]) would have been far more appropriate. Bernd Radtke's "Psychomachia in der Sufik" is useful though brief. The real treat in this volume is A. S. Melikian-Chirvani's "The Wine-Bull and the Magian Master" - well written, carefully documented, thoughtfully analyzed, and richly illustrated through poetry and photographs. The article demonstrates the continuing relevance of literature for an accurate comprehension of symbolic art, luxury objects, and social customs (see, especially, pp. 119-29).

Overall there is much to be commended about the aims of this volume, especially the attempt to trace overlapping and analogous themes among several Iranian sects, past and present. It is therefore a pity that summaries of widely disseminated ideas and mere comparisons of broad themes often take precedence over cautious examination of the available evidence.


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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Choksy, Jamsheed K.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1999
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