Alexandria Digital Research Library

Muslim-Zoroastrian relations and religious violence in early Islamic discourse, 600-1100 C.E.

Magnusson, Andrew David
Degree Grantor:
University of California, Santa Barbara. History
Degree Supervisor:
R. Stephen Humphreys
Place of Publication:
[Santa Barbara, Calif.]
University of California, Santa Barbara
Creation Date:
Issued Date:
History, Middle Eastern, Religion, History of., and Islamic Studies
Dissertations, Academic and Online resources
Ph.D.--University of California, Santa Barbara, 2014

This dissertation treats Muslim-Zoroastrian relations between the seventh and eleventh centuries. It challenges the lachrymose narrative of Zoroastrian history, which overemphasizes the role of religious violence in precipitating the decline of Zoroastrianism after the Islamic conquest of Iran. This gloomy narrative is a product of Orientalist tropes, polemical historiographies about the treatment of dhimmis and the effect of the Islamic conquest, the apocalyptic tenor of medieval Zoroastrian sources, and concerns about the status of Zoroastrians in modern Iran and India. Scholars of Zoroastrianism and Iranian languages have written most of the secondary literature on this topic, despite the fact that most of the primary sources were written by Muslims in Arabic. Since few Islamicists have studied Muslim-Zoroastrian relations, the lachrymose narrative persists.

There are two competing discourses about Zoroastrians in the early Islamic sources---one accommodating, the other harsh. The accommodating discourse, embedded in reports about the conduct of the Prophet Muhammad, urged Muslims to tax Zoroastrians and, later, to treat them like People of the Book. Abbasid scribes attempted to relieve Zoroastrians of particular legal disabilities by forging the 'ahd-nama, a charter of religious freedom that the Prophet Muhammad supposedly issued to the descendants of Salman al-Farisi. This charter, which belongs to several genres of Islamic literature, probably had a Muslim author. It indicates that there were hybrid religious sympathies in early Islamic Iran, which challenges the lachrymose narrative of Zoroastrian history.

However, there was a harsh Islamic discourse about Zoroastrians. Local histories of Iranian cities are replete with tales of fire temple desecration. Medieval Muslim historians in South Asia often invented tales of Hindu temple desecration as part of a triumphal narrative of religious supersession. Iranian historians did likewise. Although there are a few credible accounts of temple desecration, the secondary literature too often fails to properly contextualize them. These attacks, when considered in context, do not seem to have been motivated primarily by religious animus. The scale and religious significance of fire temple desecration has been exaggerated.

Outside of Iran, Muslims denigrated Zoroastrians through unflattering comparisons. They likened Zoroastrians to Vikings, Qadarites, and other groups perceived as unfamiliar, pagan, or heretical. Such comparisons, made by Muslims who had little experience with actual Zoroastrians, were highly rhetorical and intended for internal consumption. Like tales of fire temple desecration, they ultimately facilitated the construction of the Muslims' own communal identity. Therefore, not even the harsh Islamic discourse validates the lachrymose narrative of Zoroastrian history. Rather, the existence of competing Muslim discourses about Zoroastrians reveals the contested, contingent, and contextual nature of Muslim-Zoroastrian relations in early Islamic history.

Physical Description:
1 online resource (248 pages)
UCSB electronic theses and dissertations
Catalog System Number:
Inc.icon only.dark In Copyright
Copyright Holder:
Andrew Magnusson
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