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On the concept of leadership and the office of Leader of the Zoroastrians (hu-dēnān pēšōbāy) in Abbasid Zoroastrianism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 March 2023

Kianoosh Rezania*
Ruhr University Bochum, Bochum, Germany
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Like many other religions, Zoroastrianism frequently restructured its priestly organization during its long history, largely because of the environmental changes to which it was exposed. A major shift in status – from being the state religion in the Sasanian Empire to holding only a minor position in the early Islamic period – challenged the Zoroastrian hierarchy of authority. The Abbasid state provided Zoroastrianism with an opportunity to initiate a new office, which was called hu-dēnān pēšōbāy “Leader of the Zoroastrians”. This article is the first to deal with this office in detail and scrutinizes the concept of leadership (pēšōbāyīh) in Sasanian and Abbasid Zoroastrianism. It sheds some light on the priestly structure of Zoroastrianism in this period and investigates the position of the office within the overall religious organization. It re-examines, moreover, evidence for the officiating Zoroastrian theologians in this office at the Abbasid court in Baghdad. Finally, it searches for the parallels between this office and that of the East-Syrian catholicos and the Jewish exilarch.

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To organize their social and spiritual affairs, religious groups develop an organizational structure. As religious groups are sensitive to their environment, they often react to the environmental changes by restructuring their organization. Therefore, the organizational structure of religious communities is often as dynamic as the religion's other facets. Environmental changes that can affect the organizational structure include economic crises, political challenges, or contact with other religions. For around one-and-a-half millennia, Zoroastrianism endured in the context of different world empires: the Achaemenian, Alexander's, the Seleucid, the Parthian, the Sasanian and finally the Abbasid empires. The status of the tradition fluctuated over this long period of existence, developing into a “religion”Footnote 1 and to a state religion, yet Zoroastrianism seems to have possessed a well-structured religious organization even before its integration in the imperial power, as the Avestan texts attest.Footnote 2 Close cooperation between Zoroastrianism and the reigning sovereign in the Sasanian periodFootnote 3 suggests that the religion was (at least theoretically) active in the whole territory of the empire. This circumstance called for a hierarchical and well-organized priesthood. After the Islamic conquest and the collapse of the Sasanian empire, however, Zoroastrianism lost the financial and political support of the empire. This new situation challenged Zoroastrianism and ergo its organizational structure. The events of the two first centuries of Islam are only dimly lit for scholars, due to a marked scarceness of sources. As the Abbasids arose in the second/eighth century, Zoroastrianism faced a new challenge: an era of intensive engagement between religion and government, when theological and philosophical discussions waited to begin. To respond to the needs of this period, the Zoroastrian priestly organization seems to have undergone some changes. One of them – the hypothesis of this article – was the introduction of a new office called hu-dēnān pēšōbāy in the early Islamic period.

The first lexeme of the term hu-dēnān pēšōbāy, lit. “the people of good tradition/religion”, is a Zoroastrian emic self-designating term and does not need any further consideration. I will investigate the semantic field of the second lexeme in Section 1, divided into two subsections: firstly, in the pre-Abbasid Zoroastrian literature, and secondly, in the Zoroastrian literature from the Abbasid period. Afterwards, I will discuss the position of the office of hu-dēnān pēšōbāy in the Zoroastrian pyramidal hierarchy (Section 2). Sections 3 and 4 investigate the evidence for a Zoroastrian hu-dēnān pēšōbāy from the eighth to early eleventh centuries, as well as evidence for the location of the office at the Abbasid court in Baghdad. Section 5 scrutinizes parallels between the Zoroastrian office and the offices of the representatives of other non-state religions in the Abbasid and Sasanian periods.

1. The semantic field of pēšōbāy(īh)

1.1. pēšōbāy(īh) in the pre-Abbasid Zoroastrian literature

pēšōbāy is a well-attested lexeme in Middle Persian and can unerringly be dated to the early Middle Persian period, roughly the first half of the first millennium. David N. MacKenzie (Reference MacKenzie1967: 130–3) convincingly rejected the supposition that the term consists of pēš (< *patyaši-) and pāy (< pāδa-). He points out that such a construction would result in pēš(o)pāy. The written Pahlavi form, however, evinces a full ō and it cannot be anaptyctic. On the basis of the Manichaean and Armenian attestations, he makes the case that the second component of the lexeme, ōbāy, derives from *abi-pāya- > *aβpāy- > ōpāy- and later ōbāy- with the meaning “defend, guard, protect, secure” (p. 132). Accordingly, pēšōbāy must mean “vanguard, guarding in front” (p. 132f.). MacKenzie asserts that the lexeme “could only develop after the establishment of the Middle Persian forms pēš and ōpāy-” (p. 133). Moreover, the preservation of p (instead of b) in Armenian, zaur pēšopay (Hübschmonn Reference Hübschmann1895: 230), attests its development in early Middle Persian.

The meaning “guarding in front”, as proposed by MacKenzie, can be attested in PY 57.25 or its parallel passage in PYt. 11.25. The phrase containing pēšōbāyīh reads:

(PY 57.25) […] az ōy druwand hēn [[ī dušmenān]], kē pad ulīh Footnote 4 drafš nayēnd pad pēšōbāyīh ī xešm […]

(May you protect us) from the wicked army [[the enemies]], who lead through a raised banner with Wrath as their vanguard.

The meaning “vanguard” makes good sense in PV 2.24 as well:

(PV 2.24) kū pēš az zamistān awēšān deh būd hēnd burd-wāstar. [[kū-šan pēšōbāy-ēw ī nēk būd u-šān anbār abāz kard.]]

Before the winter, their lands were full of pastures. [[As they had a good vanguard,Footnote 5 they stocked up.]]

In some Zand passages,Footnote 6 the lexeme pēšōbāyīh glosses pēš-rawišnīh “precedence, preference, guidance, forward progress, advancement, pre-eminence” (Dhabhar Reference Dhabhar1949: 92). These Zand passages use the lexeme pēš-rawišnīh, or more precisely the phrase pad pēš-rawišnīh, to translate Av. p(a)(o)uruua-.Footnote 7 This latter lexeme is a marker of anteriority in Avestan and basically means “front; prior”. This meaning of the lexeme p(a)(o)uruua- corresponds to the main meaning of Middle Persian pēš. This semantic correspondence explains the choice of the lexeme pēš-rawišnīh to translate p(a)(o)uruua-.Footnote 8 In PY 5.2, for example, it is used as an adverbial phrase (pad pēš-rawišnīh) to qualify the act of “worship” expressed by the verb yazam “I worship”:

(PY 5.2) ān ēdōn az yaštārān ī andar ēn gēhān pad pēš-rawišnīh yazam [[pad pēšōbāyīh]]

I worship the ones among the worshippers of this world, who excellently [[in the foremost way]] (worship).

The lexeme pauruuatāt- in Y. 5.2 (= Y. 37.2b-c)Footnote 9 qualifies yasnanąm and can be translated as “the most excellent worship”.Footnote 10 By the usage of the phrase pad pēšōbāyīh as a gloss for pad pēš-rawišnīh, the lexeme pēšōbāyīh simply represents anteriority.Footnote 11 Similarly, in PY. 60.2, pēšōbāyīh glosses frāztom padīh “being most forward”. This phrase is the translation of the second component of Av. darǝγō.fratǝmaθβa-, which Bartholomae translates as “Prinzipat” or “Gebieterschaft” (AirWb, 695). The Avestan passage Y. 60.2 has a parallel in Afr. 1.2. Correspondingly, the Zand of the latter is parallel to the PY. 60.2 addressed above. The Middle Persian translation of Afr. 1.2 glosses the phrase frāztom pēšōbāyīh “the highest leadership” with mowbedān mowbed “the Priest of Priests”.Footnote 12 Doing so, it provides a semantic link between the concept of leadership and the office of mowbedān mowbed as its highest level. This concept is relevant for the constitution of the office hu-dēnān pēšōbāy as the highest Zoroastrian authority in the early Islamic period (see Section 2.1 below).

Functioning as the marker of anteriority, the lexeme pēšōbāy receives the meaning “preceding” as well, which is attested for example in PY 32.13c. The passage reads:

(PY 32.13c) kē pad ēd ī tō mānsar +dawāg hēnd [[kū pēšōbāy ī pad dēn hēnd]] […]

The ones who are messengersFootnote 13 of your divine formulasFootnote 14 [[i.e. who are pēšōbāys in the tradition]]

In this passage, the lexeme pēšōbāy seems to gloss mānsar dawāg. The latter word of the phrase translates av. dūta- with the same meaning “messenger”.Footnote 15 It is not far-fetched if we assume that the commentator of this passage understood pēšōbāy “forerunner” with both meanings of the term, i.e. “messenger” and “someone who goes ahead”.

Both lexemes for pēšōbāy(īh) are attested in the meaning “leader(ship)” in the Manichaean and Zoroastrian Middle Persian corpus as well.Footnote 16 The Zand passage P. 43 is one of the rare Zoroastrian passages that exemplify this meaning:

P. 43.2 ud nē kē pad framān pad-iš brādarān pad dōšišn ul dōšīd estēd kū andar xānag pad pēšōbāyīh dāšt estēd

Not the one who because of order but the one whom his brothers have admired because of love, i.e. he has been considered at home as leader.Footnote 17

Another Pahlavi (Zoroastrian Middle Persian) text in which the lexeme pēšōbāy is attested in the meaning “leader” is the Andarz ī Ādurbād ī Mahraspandān. The corresponding passage reads:

(AAM 48) pēšōbāy mard grāmīg u-š meh dār ud saxwan aziš padīr.

Honour the leader and consider him great and obey him!

1.2. pēšōbāy(īh) in the Abbasid Zoroastrian literature

The entire meaning of the lexemes pēšōbāy(īh) attested to in the pre-Abassid period is also attested to in the Zoroastrian literature of the ninth and tenth centuries. WD 61.20, for example, evinces the etymological meaning “vanguard”, which we read in some texts in Section 1.1.Footnote 18 Wizīgard ī dēnīg represents Warahrām as the general (spāh-sālār) and banner-holder (drafšdār) of the army of spiritual divinities. It portrays him as the foremost vanguard (pēšōbāytom), the bravest (marčābuktom) and firmest (awestwārtom) in the battle of divinities, running to every place with strength (amāwandīh). We can find this meaning in another passage in the same text. According to WD 21.15, Zarathustra would like to come to Ērānšahr to be at ease and fearless. He and his companions, however, do not know how to cross the sea. Zarathustra appeals to Ohrmazd for a solution. A spiritual utterance encourages him to cross the sea. “Subsequently, Zarathustra goes forth because of (his) power and victory as vanguard” (pas Zardušt az amāwandīh ud pērōzgarīh pad pēšōbāyīh raft).

We saw in Section 1.2 that the Zand literature uses the lexeme pēšōbāy inter alia to gloss pēš-rawišnīh, which translates Av. p(a)(o)uruua-, a marker of anteriority in Avestan. In the final chapters of his anthology, Zādspram similarly uses pēšōbāy as a marker of anteriority.Footnote 19 In a passage of the same book, the ninth-century author uses the lexeme in the meaning “former”. Besides differentiating between the “soul on the way/road” and the “soul in body”, Zādspram explicitly asserts that the former goes ahead, in front of the latter.Footnote 20 Similarly, Dk. VII, 3.12 and 14 designate the predecessor cow and horse of a flock as pēšōbāy. We find parallel phrasings of the same narrative, also with pēšōbāy, in WZ 10.6f. and WZ 21.10.

As it is normally the case for anterior markers, pēšōbāy has been used in Middle Persian to express superiority. One example is the phrase “the superior one in the propagation of Ohrmazd's religion” (dēn ī ohrmazd rawāgēnīdārīh pēšōbāy) in Dk. III, 202.4.

Similar to PY 32.11 (see note 12 above), a series of passages in the Dēnkard sets pēšōbāy and pasōbāy as antonyms of one another.Footnote 21 Using these lexemes, Dk. III, 155 discusses the signs of increase and decrease of fortune in a society. Its first three sections read:

(III, 155.1) abar daxšāg ī xwarrah abrāz ō bālist waxšišn ān ī xwarrah nišēb ō +nigūnīh nirfsišnīg ram az nigēz ī weh-dēn. (2) hād. az daxšagīh ī andar abrāz ō bālist waxšišnīg ram ēn-iz sē ēwēnag (3) ka-šān meh ī pad dēn-āgāhīh aziš handarz framān-barišnīh pēšōbāy. keh pad dēn-pursišnīgīh ud hu-niyōšīh pasōbāy.

(1) About the signs of increase of Xwarrah to the highest growth, and the ones of its decrease to the lowest [lit. to the decreasing inversion] (in a) society [ram] according to the exegesis of good religion. (2) Yes. There are three forms of the signs of increase of Xwarrah to the highest growth: (3) (firstly,) when their greatest (person) according to the religious knowledge is their superior [pēšōbāy] and they obey his advice, (and when their) most little (person) according to the religious affairs and fellowship is their inferior [pasōbāy].

In this passage, pēšōbāy and pasōbāy constitute terms expressing social grades. In Dk. VII, 8.32, pēšōbāyīh and pasōbāyīh not only oppose each other, but also gloss two antonymous phrases: pēšōbāyīh glosses pad frāzīh “through superiority”, pasōbāyīh glosses pad abāzīh “through inferiority”. Similarly, the next example, Dk. IX, 32.5, uses the lexemes pēšōbāy and pasōbāy parallel to pēšīh and pasīh. pēšōbāy and pēšīh here designate “leader” and “leadership”, pasōbāy and pasīh “follower” and “following”:

(IX, 32.5) ud awēšān az anāštīh pad zanišn zanēnd pad ān ī ašmāh dōšišn kē dēw hēd. kē-tān nē pad pēšīh hunsandīh ka pēšōbāy dagrand-zadār bawēd. ēdōn pad pasīh-iz ast kū zanēd ka-z-itān pad pasōbāy dagrand-zanišn kunēd.

They [i.e. the demon-worshippers] hit (others) with blows because of enmity and because of their love of you demons. Nobody receives content from your leadership [pēšīh], i.e. you permanently destruct when you are leader. So is it also when you follow: you hit, i.e. you permanently destruct even when you follow.

Another passage in the same chapter, Dk. IX, 32.18, describes the unrighteous people as the ones who “sin in (the position of) leadership or fellowship” (pad pēšōbāyīh ud pasōbāyīh wināh kunēnd). It is probable that the phrases including pēšōbāy(īh) and pasōbāy(īh) in both Warštmānsar-nask chapters of the Dēnkard IX are glosses.Footnote 22 As a gloss of “tyranny” (sāstārīh) with a negative meaning, pēšōbāyīh occurs in Dk. VII, 4.50. Denoting the meaning “leadership”, it ascribes a meaning similar to “mastery” to pēšōbāyīh.

Some chapters of the Dēnkard III discuss the leadership of wisdom (xrad). Dk. III, 68 depicts wisdom as the leader of good men (hu-narān). Dk. III, 220, represents wisdom's leadership over the body of humansFootnote 23 as profitable, and the leadership of lust (waran) as harmful.

The authors of some Pahlavi works use the lexemes pēšōbāy(īh) to represent a prototypical leader. Zādspram ascribes the function of chief ritual priest (zōd) and authority (rad) to Zarathustra at the time of his birth. In doing so, he calls him “the leader of creatures” (pēšōbāy ī dāmān; WZ 8.18). Similarly, he calls Mēdyōmāh the leader of the whole people who went in front of Zarathustra (WZ 20.3). Ādurfarnbay, son of Farroxzād, calls Mašī, Syāmag, Hōšang, Tahmurip, Jam, Frēdōn, Mānuščihr and Sāmān the leaders of specific periods (Dk. V, 1.8). A passage in the Dēnkard VII (1.43) designates prophets before Zarathustra as pēšōbāy alike:

There were other prophets before Zarathustra whose names are not mentioned in the Mazdayasnian tradition because it is manifest that from time to time some spiritual beings might have descended to the more superior leader.

Dd. 47.21–3 render the Zoroastrian ritual performed by multiple priests. According to the test, the chief ritual priest, zōd, goes to his place, zōdān gāh, and the assistant priests stay on his right and left sides in their determined places. According to these passages, the ritual priest with the best leadership should be chosen as the chief ritual priest (“The one is chief ritual priest, whose leadership is the best, and the others are assistant priests” ud ōy zōd ī weh pēšōbāyīh ud abārīg hamkārīhā; Dd. 47.22). In this passage, pēšōbāyīh means “ritual leadership”.

From the phrase “leader(ship) at the time” (pēšōbay(īh) ī andar zamānag) in Dk. V, 1.8Footnote 24 we can conclude that the author presupposes the existence, at all times, of a single leader in the Zoroastrian community. A phrase in the enigmatic passage VIII, 13.20 expresses the same idea: “the leaders who came every period” (pēšōbāyān ī zamānag zamānag +mad).Footnote 25 These passages let us conclude that the authoritative leadership designated by pēšōbayīh in the Abbasid period is singular at every time point.Footnote 26

2. The office of hu-dēnān pēšōbāy

2.1. In the Abbasid period

The newly coined term hu-dēnān pēšōbāy and its synonyms, as used in the Abbasid period, appear some 30 times in the Zoroastrian Middle Persian corpus, often to designate the bearer of the title.Footnote 27 Additionally, there are some passages which shed light on the function of this position in the Zoroastrian hierarchy of authority in the Abbasid period. Among them, the eleventh-century Riwāyat of Farnbay-srōš, son of Wahrām, offers us the most significant passage regarding this office. The second question in the text reads:

(RFS 2.1Footnote 28) pursišn ēn kū ka hu-dēnān pēšōbāy ēd mowmard-+ēw rāy mowbedīh ī šahr-+ēw dahēd, pad passand ud ham-dādestānīh ī weh-dēnān, pas az ān pad ēw-čand radīh ī kustag-+ēw dahēd, ud gumārd sazāgFootnote 29 pad ēwēn nibēsēd, ud wehān ī ān kustag frāz padīrēnd, ud abar be estēnd, u-š pad rad ud mowbed dārēnd, ud andar awiš framān-burdār bawēnd, ud ān rad pad harw šahr abestān +gumārēd, pas ān hu-dēnān pēšōbāy widerān bawēd. u-š ruwān +ō pahlom axwān rasēd, u-š ēd gōwēd kū hu-dēnān pēšōbāy widard. ēn rad +ō nūnFootnote 30 rad mowbed nēst. harw kē ōy rāy mowbed xwānēd tā nōg +gumārēd ēd az nōg hu-dēnān pēšōbāy ēd nē bawēd. u-š wināh ī garān bawēd. sāl-drahnāy abar ān gōwišn be estēd. ēn kū ān gōwišn ayāb drāyišn aziš wināh ud puhl pādifrāh čē ud weh abāg-iš hamīh čiyōn abāyēd kardan.

This is the question: if the Leader of the Zoroastrians confers the office of high priest [mowbedīh] of a region [šahr] on a high priest, with the pleasure and agreement of the Zoroastrians, and after a while he confers on him the office of chief authority [radīh] of a district [kustag], and fittingly notifies the appointment, and the great ones of that district accept (this appointment) and confirmFootnote 31 (this), and consider him the chief authority and high priest, and obey him, and that chief authority appointsFootnote 32 trustees (?)Footnote 33 in every region, and afterwards that Leader of the Zoroastrians passes away and his soul reaches the foremost world, than someone says this: “The Leader of the Zoroastrians passed away. Henceforth, this chief authority is not the chief authority (or) high priest. Who calls him high priest, he will not be this, until the Leader of the Zoroastrians will reappoint him anew. It will be a huge sin for him [sc. the one who calls the appointed rad or mowbed high priest] if he stands by this statement one year long.” (The question) is whether this is a (right) statement or chatter. What is the sin and its punishment and retribution? How should the great ones reach agreement with him?

The answer to this question, which emphasizes the sinfulness of such an assertion, is not relevant to the discussion here. What is significant is the socio-spatial hierarchy of the Zoroastrian priestly organization in the eleventh century and the relation of their corresponding religious leaders, aspects that are discussed in the question. The text delineates a three-layered socio-spatial hierarchy, the smallest unit region (šahr), followed by the district (kustag), and finally the whole Zoroastrian society – although this is not explicitly named as a socio-spatial unit in the question. The corresponding religious leaders of these units are, in order, the high priest (mowbed), the chief authority (rad) and at the highest level the hu-dēnān pēšōbāy. The text clearly reveals a pyramidal hierarchy and notes that the lower authorities were appointed by the authority at the top of the hierarchy. It is the hu-dēnān pēšōbāy who appoints a mowbed for a region or a rad for a district. Apparently, the agreement of the Zoroastrian inhabitants of a region, or of the religious authoritiesFootnote 34 of a district, played a decisive role in these appointments. On the basis of this text, it seems the suggestion of Leader of the Zoroastrians can potentially be rejected. The final appointment of a priest as mowbed or rad presumably needs the official notification of Leader of the Zoroastrians after the acceptance of the authorities of the corresponding spatial unit. The text, moreover, delineates the usual career of a priest: after graduating from priestly study and functioning as a priest for a while, he (or she?) can be nominated to become the high priest of a region. Again, after functioning in the high priestly office for a time, he can be promoted to the chief authority of a district.Footnote 35 Unfortunately, the text is silent on the topic of the appointment of the Leader of the Zoroastrians. It is not far-fetched, however, to assume that one of the most prominent rads was selected for this office. How he was selected and who selected him is not addressed in our sources.

The three-layered socio-religious hierarchy represented in RFS 2.1 recalls the Avestan socio-religious hierarchy with five levels: the ratus (> MP rad) of the house, village, district and land as well as the title zaraθuštrō.tǝma- at the very top of the hierarchy.Footnote 36 The pater familias, the ratu of the house, is selected and is not engaged in the organizational affairs of Zoroastrian society as much as the ratus of other units. Therefore, we cannot expect it in this description of the hierarchy of authorities. The four-layered socio-spatial Avestan hierarchy of authorities thus seems to have dwindled to a three-layered socio-religious hierarchy in the Islamic period. As a consequence, the office of the hu-dēnān pēšōbāy seems to correspond to that of the zaraθuštrō.tǝma,Footnote 37 which constituted the office of Leader of the Zoroastrians and was unique, at all times, in the entire Zoroastrian society.

The first question of the Riwāyat ī Farnbay-srōš deals with a reform of the Zoroastrian calendar. This divides the year of 365 days into twelve months of thirty days each and five intercalary days. According to the reform, the five intercalary days, which had stood after the eighth month Ābān, were moved to their original place in the Zoroastrian calendar, i.e. to the end of month Spandarmad, the last month of the year. Two Arabic sources report this calendar reform as well. According to these Arabic sources, the reform must have happened in the year 1006 (de Blois Reference de Blois1996). The Riwāyat ī Farnbay-srōš is dated to the year 377 of Yazdgird (= 1008/9 ce) and shows that at least some priests in Khorasan did not accept the reform for some years. François de Blois (Reference de Blois, Cereti and Vajifdar2003: 143) offers the following scenario for the communication between the priests in Nišābūr, the high priest (mowbed = mōbaδ) named as Farrah-srōšFootnote 38 and Abū Miswar in Baghdad: “The letter indicates that it [calendar reform] was instituted by the mōbaδ (who evidently resided in Fārs), that the mōbaδ's instructions were communicated to the believers in Khurasan by a Zoroastrian dignitary residing in Baghdad.” De Blois is completely right that Farrah-srōš must be the initiator of the calendar reform. If we accept that Farrah-srōš resided in Fars, as de Blois suggests, the question arises why a priestly Zoroastrian reform, instituted in Fars, should be communicated to the Zoroastrians in Khorasan via Baghdad. Albert de Jong (Reference de Jong, Williams, Stewart and Hintze2016: 231) remarks that “the evidence does not really support” the assumption that Farrah-srōš resided in Fars.Footnote 39 From this circumstance, he concludes that the mowbed of the Riwāyat was the Leader of the Zoroastrians of his time, and like Abū Miswar, resided in Baghdad. But how much does the evidence really support this? Unfortunately, we are confronted with a textual ambiguity at a decisive point in the letter: de Blois translates the two sentences amāh pad nāmag ī dēn dīd ud hu-dēnān pēšōbāy wihēzag frāz padīrift as: “We have looked in the books of the religion and have accepted the wihēzag of hu-dēnān pēšōbāy.” In this way, he considers amāh the agent of both sentences. The latter sentence, however, can be interpreted in another way as well: “We have looked in the books of the religion, and hu-dēnān pēšōbāy accepted the wihēzag.” It is difficult to prefer one interpretation over the other solely on the basis of syntactical criteria. The semantic conditions might help to choose the more fitting interpretation. The first interpretation leads to de Jong's conclusion that the mowbed of the Riwāyat was the Leader of the Zoroastrians in his time, which produces an inconsistency in the usage of the terms for the offices of the priestly hierarchy in this text: RFS 2.1 evidences that Farnbay-srōš clearly differentiates between mowbed, rad and hu-dēnān pēšōbāy. It is not convincing to assume that he uses the terms hu-dēnān pēšōbāy and mowbed interchangeably in formulating the first question. The second reading does not introduce this inconsistency and therefore seems more fitting, in my opinion. This implies the following scenario: Farrah-srōš, a high priest (mowbed) in Baghdad, Fars or wherever, instituted the calendar reform. He sent his suggestion to the Leader of the Zoroastrians in Baghdad. The Leader of the Zoroastrians and his office members, such as Abū Miswar, verified the reform. Consequently, the Leader of the Zoroastrians, as the highest Zoroastrian authority, accepted and approved the calendar reform and asked his office member, Abū Miswar, to communicate it with Zoroastrians in different regions. It is not an accident that Farnbay-srōš elucidates the hierarchy of Zoroastrian authority in a passage that directly follows this question. By this, he accentuates that the Leader of the Zoroastrians constitutes the highest authority of the Zoroastrian community, and therefore, his decision applies mutatis mutandis to the question of the calendar reform as well.

Dk. III, 16, in which Ādurfarnbay discusses the Zoroastrian hierarchy of authority, affirms the singleness of the office Leader of the Zoroastrians, as Farnbay-srōš represents in his Riwāyat. He poses the question: according to whose doctrinal authority (dastwar) should a Zoroastrian act, in the case of dissension among Zoroastrian authorities? He answers the question as follows:

passox. hād. ōy hudēn ān +niyōšišn gīrišn ud kunišn pad dastwarīh ōy kē andar āwām pēšōbāy weh-dēn ud abārīg weh-dēn burdār ī ōy hamband šāyēd. ka ō ān dastwarīh anayāb ud weh-dēn +bowandag-mēnīdārīhā ān ī ēk az čāštag ī awēšān pēšēnīg ud pōryōkēš ud dēn dastwar būd hēnd andar a-tarmēnīdārīh ī ān ī did pōryōkēš ud dēn dastwar +čāštag +wihānīg +niyōšīdanFootnote 40 ud griftan ud kardan padiš +ōstānīgān +winirdanFootnote 41 xūb.

Answer: Yes! That Zoroastrian should listen to, admit and act according to the authority [dastwarīh] of the one who is the leader [pēšōbāy] of Zoroastrianism at the time, and according to the other upholders of Zoroastrianism who accord with him [lit. are in the same thread with him]. If he cannot find this authority it is fine if he listens to, admits and acts, in the sake of the perfect consideration of the good religion, according to one of the doctrines of those who have been former ancient teachers and religious authorities, which have been reliably established, without holding the cause (? [wihānīg]) of the doctrines of other ancient teachers and authorities of religion in contempt.

This passage not only characterizes the Leader of Zoroastrianism as the highest Zoroastrian authority, but also attests to the singleness of this position in every time period (ōy kē andar āwām pēšōbāy weh-dēn). Because of this singleness, we can assume that the phrase pēšōbāy weh-dēn and hu-dēnān pēšōbāy denote the one and the same office.

In the introduction of the Dādestān ī dēnīg, Manuščihr similarly represents the office of the hu-dēnān pēšōbāy as the most authoritative priestly office. The text consists of the author's written answers to the letter of inquiries (pursišnīg-nāmag; Dd. Int.3) that some Zoroastrians, inter alia a certain Mihr-xwaršēd, son of Ādurmāh, sent to him. Presumably, they have excessively praised him in this letter, having called him perfect in the office of the priest of the country (kišwar dastwarīh), “unique and without equal, peerless with no counterpart”.Footnote 42 Such praise left Manuščihr feeling uncomfortable, writing:

(Dd. Int.11) agar andar ēn zamānag ud šahrān +ī-mān šnāxtag ud āšnāg abar kas ast pad ōy ī dagr wurrōyišnīh ] ud [ dēn-pēšōbāy ī +frāzīg man xwēš rāy nē ābrōyīg dārēm. ka ān stāyišn ī ‘sālār mān ēwāzīg niyābag’ abar man srawāgīhēd ud nē-z rāmišnīg bawēm ka-m meh az xwēš sālār nāmēnēnd. […]

If, in this time period and in these regions which we know and with which we are acquainted, there is a great person who is the +chief Leader of the Religion [dēn-pēšōbāy ī +frāzīg] on account of his steadfast belief, then I do not consider myself honourable if the praise “our sole proper chief [sālār]” is broadcast about me, and I am not pleased if they call me greater than their own chief.Footnote 43

This text, firstly, evinces the existence of the office of the dēn-pēšōbāy in Manuščihr's time, which I consider to be identical to the hu-dēnān pēšōbāy because of the uniqueness of the office. Secondly, it attests that a priest other than Manuščihr was appointed to the office at this time. Thirdly, it shows that Manuščihr considers this office the most authoritative Zoroastrian office. He emphasizes the authoritativeness of the office of the dēn-pēšōbāy in another passage in the introduction of his book, as well:

(Dd. Int.23) ōh-iz nūn jud az čihrag dānišn baxšāyišnīh ī weh mēnōgān ud mānsar wizārišnīg ud nigēzišn ī dēn rōšntar nimāyišn ī abar dēnīg warzišn az dō bun abērtar az-iš paydāgīhēd: ēk az mādayān <ī> nimūdārīh ī +āsn-xrad ī dēn-pēšōbāy ud ēk mādayāntar az nihādag ī hufraward pēšēnīgān ī pēšōbāyān ī meh pōryōtkešān.

Therefore even now, apart from essential knowledge, and the gifts of the good spirits, and the explanation of the sacred words, and the teachings of the religion, the clear interpretation of religious practice mostly derives from two sources: one is the interpretation of the principles by the Āsn Xrad (: innate wisdom) of the (current) leader of the faithful [dēn-pēšōbāy]; and the more important one is from the +foundations of the earlier blessed leaders [pēšōbāyān], the great teachers [pōryōtkešān] of the faith. (Jaafari-Dehaghi Reference Jaafari-Dehaghi1998: 37)

Manuščihr identifies the main sources of authority as two-fold: the living authority and the past authority. The first class has only one member at any moment in the history, and this is the Leader of the Zoroastrians. Because of his innate wisdom, he serves as the highest Zoroastrian authority. His innate wisdom, his uniqueness at any moment in the history as well as his authoritativeness for the whole religious community are represented as the characteristics of his office. Foundations laid by preceding leaders (pēšōbāyān)Footnote 44 constitute the second source of authority, and these are, in Manuščihr's opinion, more authoritative than the current leader. In Dd. Int.25, Manuščihr again emphasizes the authority of the office of the hu-dēnān pēšōbāy, this time rendered as pēšōbāy ī dēn, and he completely subordinates himself to this authority. The passage again evidences that Manuščihr did not hold the office, at least at the time of authorship of the Dādestān ī dēnīg. He represents the judgement of pēšōbāy ī dēn as the surest route to true and manifest interpretation. This assertion is only understandable if we assume that the pēšōbāy's judgements were authoritative, leaving no room for further priestly discussions.

In Chapter 44 of the same book, Manuščihr elucidates the relationship between the two priestly positions hērbed “teacher priest” and hāwišt “student priest”. He explains that they are relational terms that denote the positions of these two types of priest. In the first four paragraphs of the chapter, Manuščihr explains that each priest is at the same time a student, in his relationship to his teacher; as well as a teacher, in his relationship to his student(s). The fifth paragraph reads as follows:

(Dd. 44.5Footnote 45) čiyōn gōwīhēd-iz kū pārs āsrōnān pēšāg framādār abar ōstān mowbedān-iz ī pārs sālār pēšōbāy ī dēn +hašāgird ast bē wizīd pēšīhā ī andar dēn.

As it is said, even, that the Commander of the profession of priests in Pars, who is the head [sālār] of the mōbeds of the province Pars and the Leader of the Religion, is a student who was chosen for his eminence [pēšīhā] in (matters of) religion. (Kreyenbroek Reference Kreyenbroek1987a: 202)

In this translation, the text seems to imply that the Commander of the profession of priests was the pēšōbāy ī dēn as well. This interpretation introduces a problematic inconsistency, however: Manuščihr, the author of the text, calls himself in Dd. 93.13 pārs ud kermān rad ud āsrōnān pēšag framādār “the Chief Authority and the Commander of the Profession of the Priests of Fars and Kerman”.Footnote 46 As we saw above, he did not hold the office of Leader of the Zoroastrians when he penned the Dādestān ī dēnīg, and he has not been called as such in the whole Pahlavi literature. Therefore, this understanding of the passage does not seem fitting. I thus propose the following translation, which philologically fits as well as the above translation, but offers the advantage of greater consistency:

As it is said, even, that the Commander of the Profession of Priests in Fars, (who is) the chief [sālār] of the mowbeds of the province FarsFootnote 47 as well, is a *student (in respect to) the pēšōbāy ī dēn who was chosen for the leadership [pēšīhā] of religion.

The passage in this reading consistently confirms that the office of the pēšōbāy ī dēn (= hu-dēnān pēšōbāy) is the most authoritative priestly office of the Zoroastrian community.

The Kitāb Baghdād, authored by Abu al-Faḍl Aḥmad b. Abī Ṭāhir b. Ṭaifūr (204/819–280/893), a descendant of an Iranian family from Khorasan (Huart Reference Huart1927), provides another piece of information about Zoroastrian theologians at the court of al-Maʾmūn. The sixth (and only surviving) volume of his book deals especially with al-Maʾmūn and the events of his reign. A passage in this book portrays al-Maʾmūn's interaction with a Zoroastrian high-ranked theologian:

He [Aḥmad b. Ibrāhīm] recounted: He [al-Maʾmūn] posed a question to Mūbid of Mūbidān. He asked him: “What is the fruit of the mind?” He answered: “It has many generous fruits. One attains a healthy refuge/retreat from thanksgiving.” (Ṭaifūr Reference Ṭaifūr and al-Ḥusainī1423: 152)

The office of mowbedān mowbed, Priest of Priests, belonged to the organizational structure of the Sasanian Zoroastrianism and did not exist in the Abbasid period any longer. The singleness of this office in Sasanian Zoroastrianism seems, however, to have made it comparable to the office of hu-dēnān pēšōbāy in the eyes of the Islamic authors. The text thus portrays a conversation between the caliph and the highest Zoroastrian authority in this period, the Leader of the Zoroastrians. A narration from the early Islamic period similarly alludes to the existence of this Zoroastrian office in the Abbasid period (al-Bustī Reference Al-Bustī and Zāyid1396: II/254f.). This narration curiously designates Muḥammad b. al-Sāʾib al-Kalbī as mawbidhān mawbidh.Footnote 48 It is not my concern why al-Kalbī is called mawbidhān mawbidh here. Significant for this discussion is only that a tenth-century source uses the term mawbidhān mawbidh, probably to refer euphemistically to a man of high sagacity by resorting to the designation of the highest authority of Zoroastrianism. Whether the text uses the term as a reminiscence of the Sasanian mowbedān mowbed or as an equivalent for the Abbasid hu-dēnān pēšōbāy cannot be decided, however.

2.2. The office of hu-dēnān pēšōbāy in pre-Abbasid literature

The term hu-dēnān pēšōbāy is attested to in three texts that cannot be dated precisely. The first is the Ardā Wirāz Nāmag, a report of Wirāz's ascension to the Paradise and the Hill. There, the term dēn-pēšōbāy occurs in two passages 11.2 and 11.9, where the author links together Gayōmard, Zarathustra, Kay Wištāsp, Frašōstar, Jāmasp, Isadwāstar, upholders of Zoroastrianism (dēn-burdārān), well-doers (kardārān) and the leaders of the religion (dēn-pēšōbāyān).Footnote 49 Although the text was presumably penned in the late Sasanian period, it was repeatedly re-edited in the later periods, making it possible to even trace the development of Middle to New Persian in the text. Therefore, it is not far-fetched to assume that the occurrence of the term dēn-pēšōbāy is rooted in the later re-editions of the texts in the early Islamic period.

Another text that includes a single attestation of the lexeme pēšōbāy and is tentatively dated in the late Sasanian period (Elman and Moazami Reference Elman and Moazami2014) is the Zand ī Fragard ī Jud-dēw-dād. The corresponding passage reads:

(ZFJ, 658f.) […] mard ī čiyōn šāhān šāh ayāb mowbedān mowbed ayāb ādurbād ī +mahrspandān ayāb ān kē andar ān zamān pēšōbāy ī dēn kē-š az nē būd murnjēnišn ī dām.

Someone like the King of Kings, the Priest of Priests, or Ādurbād, son of Mahrspand, or the one who is Leader of the Religion [pēšōbāy ī dēn] at that time, who does not destruct the creatures.

It is difficult to definitely decide whether the passage derives from the pre-Abbasid period, and whether pēšōbāy ī dēn is a term that designates the office scrutinized in Section 2.1 or is a vague lexeme in this text. It is striking, however, that the phrase pēšōbāy ī dēn is aligned with the institutions King of Kings and Priest of Priests. This fact as well as the wording “one who is Leader of Religion at that time” imply that the author designated a unique office by the term pēšōbāy ī dēn. The uniqueness of the office mowbedān mowbed and its position at the top of the pyramid of authority, however, are in contrast with the uniqueness of the office of Leader of Zoroastrians and the parallel existence of both offices. We might thus conclude that this passage was penned in the post-Sasanian period and set in parallel the office of Priest of Priests and Leader of Zoroastrians.

The term pēšōbāy ī dēn is attested to in a Manichaean passage as well, where the term designates the leader of the Eastern Zoroastrian community:

(M543/R/2–5) sangbed ud pēšōbāy ī dēn māzdes tō nōg hammōzāg ī xwarāsān ud rāyēnāg ī weh-dēnān.

… of the/head of the [sa]ṃgha and leader of the/Mazdean community. You new Teacher of Xwarāsān and guide of the Good-Religionists. (Leurini Reference Leurini2017: 99)

The dating of this passage poses some difficulties. Again here, we cannot determine whether the passage dates to the pre-Abbasid period, and whether pēšōbāy ī dēn designates the Abbasid Zoroastrian office.

3. Officiating Leaders of the Zoroastrians

The Abbasid sources, Middle Persian and Arabic, name some Zoroastrian theologians who held the office of Leader of the Zoroastrians. All of these authorities are already known in the scholarship.Footnote 50 On the basis of Dd. 44.5, some scholars list Manuščihr among the holders of the office. As we saw above, this passage does not inevitably support this conclusion (see also Section 3.3 below). The attestations for the holders of the office are summarized in the synoptic Table 1. The indirect attestations and allusions are marked in parentheses.

Table 1. Zoroastrian officiating priests serving as Leader of the Zoroastrians and their attestations in the sources of the Abbasid period

I will elaborate on the testimonies represented in Table 1 in the following section, insofar as they need discussion.Footnote 53

3.1. Ādurfarnbay, son of Farroxzād

The earliest attested officiating Leader of the Zoroastrians is Ādurfarnbay, son of Farroxzād. Manuščihr (Dd. 87) calls Ādurfarnbay “the supreme hu-dēnān pēšōbāy”. Anklesaria (Reference Anklesaria1969: II/11) therefore considers him the first Zoroastrian to receive the title from the reigning caliph. In an editorial note preserved in Dk. III, 142.5, and similarly in IV, 2, the editor of the Dēnkard, presumably Ādurbād, designates Ādurfarnbay as “the leader of Zoroastrians”. The first colophon of the manuscript B. does not directly call Ādurfarnbay (and Ādurbād) hu-dēnān pēšōbāy. It asserts that the Leaders of Zoroastrians edited the Dēnkard. Later in the text, the scribe explicitly mentions Ādurfarnbay (and Ādurbād) as the authors of the book. Therefore, this passage indirectly supports the designation of these two priests as hu-dēnān pēšōbāy.

In his letter to the Zoroastrian authorities of Sīrgān, Manuščihr names a Leader of the Zoroastrians: hu-fraward hu-dēnān pēšōbāy <ʾdpwlwdd> Farroxzādān nibišt (I, 3.4). Unfortunately, his first name seems to be corrupted. The name of his father, however, is undoubtedly to be read as Farroxzād. The attributed adjective hu-fraward “blessed” shows that Manuščihr is here referring to a preceding Leader of Zoroastrians. The passage thus presumably hints to the earliest attested and probably first Leader of the Zoroastrians, whom Manuščihr names in his Dādestān ī dēnīg as well (see Kanga Reference Kanga1967: 151).

The Mādayān ī guǰastag Abālīš portrays a disputation session in which Ādurfarnbay disputes with a converted Zoroastrian in the presence of the caliph al-Maʾmūn (813–33). Albert de Jong (Reference de Jong, Williams, Stewart and Hintze2016: 230f.) notes that we can only ascribe limited reliability to this attestation. Christian Sahner (Reference Sahner2019: 2, 12) points out that the Mādayān ī guǰastag Abālīš is a literary text of the genre “the monk in the emir's majlis” and not a historical genre. Therefore, we cannot ascribe any historical reality to the represented disputation. The narration, however, might include some historical realities, such as the historicity of Ādurfarnbay and presumably his contemporaneity with the caliph al-Maʾmūn.

In the Murūj al-dhahab, al-Masʿūdī (d. 345/956) recounts a conversation between the caliph Qāhir and Muḥammad b. ʿAlī ʿAbdī Khurāsānī. Qāhir asked his interlocutor to narrate to him the works of the preceding caliphs. About al-Maʾmūn, Muḥammad recounts as follows:

Yes, o Commander of the Faithful, then the affairs came to al-Maʾmūn. At the beginning, because of the influence of al-Faḍl b. Sahl and others, he acted according to astrological axioms and theorems and followed their consequences. He pursued the manner of the past Sasanian kings, such as Ardashīr b. Bābak and others. He tried hard to study ancient books, devoted all his efforts in scrutinizing them, and persisted in their study. He was fascinated by understanding them and reached their insight. As to what happened to Faḍl b. Sahl, the holder of two directorships, as it is known, and he [= Faḍl b. Sahl] came to Iraq, al-Maʾmūn abandoned all of that and proclaimed belief in Islam [lit. monotheism, promises and threats]. He kept the company of theologians. Many superior debaters and disputants, such as Abū Hudhail, Abū Isḥāq Ibrāhīm b. Sayyār al-Naẓẓām and others, with whom he [= al-Ma'mūn] both agreed and disagreed, approached him. Jurisprudents and authors interested in knowledge attended his scholarly assemblies. He brought them from different cities and appointed wages for them. People became inclined towards the skill of thinking and learned discussion and disputation. All these groups authored books for the victory of their teachings and the verification of their beliefs. […] (al-Masʿūdī Reference Al-Masʿūdī and Pellat1965–79: VIII/3453)

In this passage, al-Masʿūdī is describing the religious discourse newly established by al-Maʾmūn. The caliph organized assemblies with theologians and jurisprudents, who engaged in discussions and disputations. The last sentence of the quotation is highly significant for our discussion. Writing apologetic books in defence of each teacher's own religion and belief system was a process initiated by al-Maʾmūn. The creation of the Dēnkard of Thousand Chapters by Ādurfarnbay, the third book of Ādurbād's Dēnkard, fits well historically in this period. This passage can thus indirectly support that Ādurfarnbay was a contemporary of the caliph al-Maʾmūn.

Anklesaria presumes that Ādurfarnbay was Leader of the Zoroastrians from the beginning of the Abbasid dynasty.Footnote 54 This assumption, however, is neither based on evidence nor probable. If we accept that Ādurfarnbay and al-Maʾmūn were contemporaries even briefly, the years around 750 still seem unlikely as the starting point of Ādurfarnbay's leadership. It is unlikely that Ādurfarnbay could have spent 70 or 80 years in a high office that he could not have attained until he was well into maturity. Indirectly comparing his age with the legendary age of 150 years attributed to Sasanian Ādurbād, grandson of Ādurbād, son of Mahraspand, Anklesaria (Reference Anklesaria1964: I:xv) indeed assumes that Ādurfarnbay lived to be 150. Indeed, his exhaustive written works, comprising more than 100,000 words,Footnote 55 do suggest a long life for Ādurfarnbay – but not necessarily 100 or 150 years. Therefore, we are on safer ground if we assume that Ādurfarnbay bore the title Leader of the Zoroastrians not very long before the reign of al-Maʾmūn.Footnote 56

3.2. Zardušt, son of Ādurfarnbay

Besides a direct attestation in the Dēnkard, we find only limited allusions to Zardušt, son of Ādurfarnbay, in Middle Persian and Arabic sources. A reference to his interaction with Muslims comes from the Epistles of Manuščihr. In his letter to his younger brother, Zādspram, Manuščihr writes:

(NM II, 1.13Footnote 57) saham kū ašmāh abar ēn xīr andar xwēš ōwōn wēš hēd čiyōn Zarduxšt ī <c>farnbay ka-š +nasāgīhāFootnote 58 winārd. az-iš <c>farnbay xwad wēšīhīd/kahistFootnote 59 u-š bē ō(h) nibištFootnote 60 kū Musalmānān ka-šān āšnūd ēg-išān nēk passandīd. ud Rāzīgān pāsox nibišt kū agar-itān tigrFootnote 61 dūr-iz nihād hē ēg-išān weh-iz passandīd hē.

It seems to me that you are in this matter so self-concentrated as Zardušt, son of *Ādurfarnbay when he arranged the case of *Nasā. *Ādurfarnbay himself *made more of that/was belittled thereby*. He must have written: “As the Muslims heard it, it pleased them.” The people of Ray wrote in answer: “If you had thrown the arrow far away, too, it would have pleased them even more.”

The passage apparently refers to an inter-religious Zoroastrian-Islamic matter. Zardušt must have taken a measure which Manuščihr assesses to be more in the interest of Muslims than Zoroastrians. This passage does not attest that Zardušt held the office of Leader of the Zoroastrians. It only hints that his activities in inter-religious Zoroastrian-Islamic affairs had far-reaching consequences. To be authorized to engage in these activities, Zardušt must have held a high position in the Zoroastrian organizational hierarchy. Whether this interaction occurred during the lifetime of Zardušt's father (Anklesaria Reference Anklesaria1969: II/15) or during his own period of leadership is difficult to decide.

In the entry of lemma sūristān, Yāqūt mentions a Zoroastrian literate named Zardusht b. Ādhurkhwar. It is probable that Ādhurkhwar is a rendering of Ādurfarnbay and that the passage therefore refers to Zardušt, the second Leader of the Zoroastrians:

Sūristān: Zardusht b. Ādhurkhwar, known as Muhammad al-Mutawakkil, mentioned that Sūristān is Iraq and the Syrians are ascribed to it. They are Nabatians and their language is called Syrian. It was located at the margin of the kingdom. They asked for what they needed, expressed their complaints and spoke in that language. It is a vernacular (dialect) of languages that Ḥamzah mentioned in book Taṣḥīf. (Yāqūt Reference Yāqūt and Wüstenfeld1866: III/185)

If this priest is Zardušt, son of Ādurfarnbay, this passage alludes to his conversion to Islam.Footnote 62 By recounting the events of the year 225/840 at the court of al-Muʿtaṣim (r. 833–42), al-Ṭabarī (Reference Al-Ṭabarī and de Goeje1879–1901: III/1308; Reference Al-Ṭabarī and Yar-Shater1989–2007: XXXIII/186f.) narrates Afšīn's trial: “A group of prominent figures had been assembled to heap reproaches on al-Afshīn for what he had done, and not a single person of high social or official rank (aḥad min aṣḥāb al-marātib) was left in the palace.” One of these persons of high social or official rank whom al-Ṭabarī lists is al-mūbaḏ, “the (Zoroastrian) priest”. He must have been a representative of Zoroastrianism at the Abbasid court, regarded as a person of high social or official rank at the court. Anklesaria (Reference Anklesaria1964: I:vii, xxi, Reference Anklesaria1969: II/13) assumes that this Zoroastrian priest is Zardušt, son of Ādurfarnbay. As grounds for this assumption he cites Edward Browne (Reference Browne1902: I/331–3), but Browne does not identify the priest at all. Anklesaria, moreover, assumes that “the calamity which befell Âṭar-frenabag's son Zaratust, must have taken place in the first year of the reign of Kahlîfah Mutawakkil (r. 847–61)”. Noteworthy, however, is that al-Ṭabarī narrates Afšīn's trial by recounting the events of the year 225/840, which falls in the reign of al-Muʿtaṣim. Although this narration does not help to identify the Leader of the Zoroastrians in this period, it is certainly significant evidence for the existence of a Zoroastrian representative at the Abbasid court in this period, his involvement in the legal activities of the court and his inclusion among Abbasid high-ranking officials.

3.3. Juwān-ǰam, son of Šābuhr, Ašawahišt, son of Juwān-ǰam, and Ādurbād, son of Ēmēd

In a passage after the passage where Manuščihr names Ādurfarnbay in his epistle to the authorities of Sīrgān (see Section 3.1 above), he names another former Leader of the Zoroastrians: hu-fraward ud meh-frazānag hu-denān pēšōbāy Juwān-ǰam Šābuhrān “the blessed and sagacious Leader of the Zoroastrians Juwān-jam, son of Šābuhr” (NM I, 3.5). In another passage in this same letter, Manuščihr again refers to this person (NM I, 7.5). This must have been Manuščihr's father, whose name is alternatively rendered in the literature as Gōšn-ǰam, for example by Farnbay ī Dādagīh, the author of the Bundahišn, but as son of Wahramšād (GBd. 35A.8). Manuščihr seems to refer to his father in an enigmatic passage written to his brother:

NM II, 6.5Footnote 63 ēdōn saham kū az hamēstārīh ī man abar ašmāh ziyān wēš šāyēd būd kū az was hamēmālīh ī čiyōn hudēnān pēšōbāy was ī čiyōn ham nām ī man ud az-iz bē šudan ī man. (6) nē būd ī-tān ayār-ēw ī čiyōn man. ziyān ī ašmāh nē kem šāyēd būd kū ān ī az was hamēmāl kē-šān man ast ī abāz-dāštār ham. (7) ēd dānēd kū man mihr dōšāram ī kas ud āzarm ī kas rāy az warzišn ī dēn nē čaftom ud gāh ī dēn rāy ō ēč kas petyārdār bawam: ka-z-im dōšist dōst bawēd ēg-iš ham-pahikār bawam.

(5) It seems to me that my opposition may result in great harm to you, namely both because it is strong (opposition) as Leader of the Zoroastrians and strong (opposition) as one who is of the same name, and even from my abandoning you. (6) You have not had a friend such as I. The harm to you may not be less than that which I have to contend with from the many opponents I have. (7) Know this, that I do not deviate from the practice of the religion because of (my) love and sympathy for someone, and because of the status in the religion I will oppose anyone; even though I love him very much indeed I shall fight him nevertheless.

This passage, firstly, evinces again that Manuščihr did not hold the office of Leader of the Zoroastrians at the time he was writing the Epistles, the year 881; secondly, that someone with the same patronymic name held the office at that time. Of Manuščihr's brothers, Zurwāndād and Ašawahišt,Footnote 64 the latter is preferable because the succeeding leaders, Ādurbād, son of Ēmēd, etc. are his offspring.

Aside from some direct attestations in Pahlavi literature, al-Bīrūnī mentions Ādurbād, grandson of Ašawahišt, as Ādharbādh in his Āthār al-bāqīya as the high priest (mawbidh) of Baghdad.Footnote 65 Having been written around 1000, the passage gives a terminus ante quem twenty years earlier than what we can infer from the oldest colophon of manuscript B. for Ādurbād's lifetime.Footnote 66 Another piece of information about this Leader of the Zoroastrians comes from ʿAbd al-Jabbār's Tathbīt (Reference ʿAbd al-Jabbār and ʿUthmān1386: I/179f.). He writes: “This is what I can affirm from what has been mentioned by Adhurbādh, son of Amīdh, the high-priest [al-mawbidh], in his description of Pēšōtan.”Footnote 67

3.4. Spandyār, son of Ādurbād, and Ēmēd, son of Ašawahišt

A piece of evidence about the two priests, Spandyār, son of Ādurbād, and Ēmēd, son of Ašawahišt, comes from a passage in al-Masʿūdī's al-Tanbīh:

Their two chairmen [riʾāsāt] and high priest(s) [mūbed] in the time of authorship of our book, the year 345, in the region Jibāl, Iraq and other non-Arab countries are Inmāḏ b. Ašawahišt, and the high-priest before him Isfandyār b. Ādhurbād b. Inmīḏ, whom al-Rāḍī killed in the City of Peace [i.e. Baghdad] in the year 325. We received this news and the narration of his death and what has been mentioned from his relation with Qurmaṭiyya Sulaimān b. al-Ḥasan b. Bahrām al-Ğannābiyy, owner of Baḥrain from that one of al-Rāḍī's news in the book Murūj al-dhahab wa maʿādin al-jauhar. (al-Masʿūdī Reference Al-Masʿūdī and de Goeje1893: 104f.)

The passage does not directly state that these priests held the office of Leader of the Zoroastrians. It asserts only that Spandyār, son of Ādurbād, son of Ēmēd, was a high priest (mowbed) in Baghdad. Significantly, however, it designates the two named Zoroastrian priests each as “chairman” (raʾīs), lit. “the owner of directorship”. This wording seems to be comparable with mp. pēšōbāy. The father of Spandyār, Ādurbād, was the editor of the second edition of the Dēnkard, comprising nine books, and himself a Leader of the Zoroastrians. Therefore, it is probable that he held the office after his father. The paragraph moreover asserts that al-Rāḍī, the Abbasid caliph (909–40), had him killed in the year 325/936–7 in Baghdad. According to the text, he was replaced by Ēmēd, son of Ašawahišt, whom, according to Yāqūt, Ḥamza b. Ḥasan al-Iṣfahānī met in Baghdad:

Ḥamza, son of Ḥasan, said: “I read in a book something quoted from Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ that the remained palace in Madāʾin is a construction of Shābūr, son of Ardashīr. Then the Mūbidān Mūbid, ʾImīd, son of Ashawahist, said to me that the matter is not as Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ claimed. Manṣūr, father of Jaʿfar, destroyed that palace, and the one which remained is a construction of Ḫusraw ʾAbarwīz.” (Yāqūt Reference Yāqūt and Wüstenfeld1866: I/425f.)

It is noteworthy that this passage calls Ēmēd mūbidān mūbid. As I pointed out in Section 2.1 above, we can consider the use of this Sasanian title in the early Islamic period as a designation of the highest Zoroastrian authority and thus a synonym of hu-dēnān pēšōbay. It is therefore highly probable that we can regard Ēmēd, son of Ašawahišt, as a Leader of the Zoroastrians in the tenth century, as Anklesaria suggested.Footnote 68 In another passage, Yāqūt again cites Ḥamza's conversation with a son of Ašawahišt, presumably again Ēmēd. The passage reads:

Ḥamza b. Ḥasan Iṣfahānī said: “I heard from Mawbidh b. ʾAsawahisht saying that Baṣra is the Arabic rendering of ‘bas-rāh’ because there were many roads branching from there to different places.” (Yāqūt Reference Yāqūt and Wüstenfeld1866: I/437)

Ḥamza al-Iṣfahānī was born in 280/893 and died between 350/961 and 360/971. He visited Baghdad three times, in 308/920–1, in 323/935 and one time in between (Rosenthal Reference Rosenthal1986). These dates accord with al-Masʿūdī's indication that Isfandyār was killed in 325/936–7 and Ēmēd replaced him that same year. The dates of Ḥamza's trip to Baghdad lie before his assignment in Baghdad, however, if they indeed met in Baghdad.Footnote 69 However, this does not contradict his designation by Ḥamza al-Iṣfahānī as mūbidān mūbid. It is possible that he wrote the passage after his assignment and thus designated him as mūbidān mūbid.

Student priest Spandyād, son of Farrox-burzēn and interlocutor of the Riwāyats of Farnbay-srōš, son of Wahrām, calls him [Farnbay-srōš] mowbedān mowbed, “Priest of Priests” in the epilogue (RFS, 5). I treated the occurrence of this term in the Arabic sources as counterpart to the Zoroastrian title hu-dēnān pēšōbāy. I refuse to extend this interpretation to the Zoroastrian texts, however. The Zoroastrian designation of the office must have been known to Spandyād. If Farnbay-srōš had held the office, Spandyād would have called him by this honourable title.

4. The office of the hu-dēnān pēšōbāy in Baghdad

Recently, Albert de Jong (Reference de Jong, Williams, Stewart and Hintze2016) examined the Zoroastrians of Baghdad and convincingly showed that the office of Leader of the Zoroastrians was located in Baghdad. In his article, he presents the evidence from Pahlavi literature supporting this fact.Footnote 70 I do not need to treat these indications here again, especially because I have already discussed some of them in another place (see Rezania Reference Rezania2017b). To summarize the results of this research, Dk. III, 420 notes that three Leaders of the Zoroastrians, Ādurfarnbay, Zardušt and Ādurbād, worked in or had access to the same divan. The passage also shows that the divan was integrated in the residence of the Leader of the Zoroastrians. Furthermore, the oldest colophon of the manuscript B. attests that the divan, and mutatis mutandis the residence of the leaders, was in Baghdad and existed even in the year 1020.

Supporting evidence for the location of this Zoroastrian office in the Abbasid capital goes beyond the texts discussed by de Jong. The passage by al-Masʿūdī quoted in Section 3.4 above reveals that Al-Rāḍī killed Spandyār, son of Ādurbād in the year 325/936–7 in Baghdad, which is evidence of Spandyār's activities in this city; it also indirectly confirms his residence in the centre of the caliphate. Al-Bīrūnī similarly attests the presence of Ādurbād, son of Ēmēd, another Leader of the Zoroastrians, in Baghdad (see Section 3.3 above).

In his Murūj al-dhahab, al-Masʿūdī depicts a majlis convened by Yaḥyā b. Khalid b. Barmakī, who was active at the Abbasid court in the last decades of the eighth century.Footnote 71 According to this source, Yahyā invited eleven theologians of different Islamic confessions, a non-denominational scholar, and one Zoroastrian priest or judge, to discuss love. Although Masʿūdī names each of the other twelve scholars, the Zoroastrian priest remains anonymous, expressed only as “the high priest, who was a Zoroastrian and a judge of Zoroastrians” (al-mawbidh wa kāna majūsiyya al-madhhab wa-qāḍī al-majūs; p. 241). Although this piece of evidence does not address the Leader of the Zoroastrians, it still testifies to the involvement of a Zoroastrian priest in an Islamic discussion in Baghdad, and hence provides evidence of the Zoroastrian priests’ activities in Baghdad.

Significantly, Ḥamza Isfahanī mentions a personal encounter with the Zoroastrian priest Ēmēd, son of Ašawahišt. Where the encounter happened is not revealed in the text. Modi (Reference Modi and Wüst1931: 287f.) suggests two probable places: Isfahan, the birthplace of the author and where he spent most of his life, or Baghdad, which he visited three times. Modi finds it more likely that the two met in Isfahan firstly because, according to him, there was no Zoroastrian population in Baghdad, and secondly because “there was very little of Zoroastrian population at Bagdad in the 10th century, there cannot be a fire-temple there” where Ēmēd “is said to have had his talk with his questioner” of the Riwāyat ī Ēmēd ī Ašawahištān. I do not think that these arguments are strong enough to determine that Isfahan was the more likely place for Ḥamza's meeting with Ēmēd. Firstly, we do not know whether a fire-temple existed in the tenth century in Baghdad or not. Secondly, the fire-temple where Ēmēd and the questioner of his Riwāyat met was not necessarily located in Ēmēd's residential town. They could have met in the fire-temple in Ēmēd's native town or in any town that Ēmēd visited. Thirdly, it is more probable that Ḥamza al-Iṣfahānī posed a question about the constructor of Madāʾin in Baghdad as he visited the site. Finally, from the evidence presented above, we are now informed that a chain of Zoroastrian theologians was located in Baghdad but not a sizeable Zoroastrian community. I am therefore inclined to consider Baghdad the more likely location for Ḥamza and Ēmēd's encounter; but the evidence for this argument is in any case thin.

Another piece of evidence regarding the activities of Zoroastrian priests in Baghdad comes from the Kitāb Baghdād, presented in Section 2.1 above. The passage portrays al-Maʿmūn's interaction with a Zoroastrian high-ranked theologian, designated as mawbidh mawbidhān. This passage allows us to conclude that a conversation took place in Baghdad between al-Maʾmūn and probably the Leader of the Zoroastrians, although his identity in this period is uncertain.

If we assume that Ādurfarnbay was a contemporary of the caliph al-Maʾmūn, the evidence presented in this section implies that the office of Leader of the Zoroastrians was located in Baghdad from the beginning decades of the ninth century to the year 1020. The Leaders of the Zoroastrians participated in theological discussions in Baghdad, especially at the court. They also devoted considerable efforts in Baghdad to preparing apologetic books as, according to al-Masʿūdī (see Section 3.1 above), al-Maʾmūn encouraged the theologians to do. Therefore, the office in Baghdad was not only the highest authority for intra-Zoroastrian affairs, but also the representative of Zoroastrianism in the inter-religious matters at the Abbasid court. The extent of the involvement of the Leaders of the Zoroastrians in inter-religious concerns becomes particularly striking if we consider that the Zoroastrian population of Baghdad, even in the Sasanian period, was not large; and in the Islamic period, it was shrinking towards disappearing (Morony Reference Morony1984: 295f., 298–301). In the tenth and eleventh century, the high-ranking Zoroastrian theologians were not in Baghdad because of Zoroastrians and their affairs but because of Zoroastrianism and its contacts with Islam and other religions, and particularly with the Islamic state.

5. Abbasid invention or Sasanian imitation

In his article on the Zoroastrians of Baghdad, Albert de Jong also alludes to a parallelism between the Leader of the Zoroastrians and the offices of Christian catholicos and the Jewish exilarch.Footnote 72 This section attempts to ascertain which components constitute this parallelism.

The title “catholicos”, corresponding to the title “patriarch”, denoted the heads of the Oriental churches lying outside the boundaries of the former Roman Empire (Kaufhold Reference Kaufhold2007). One of the most famous catholicoi in the Abbasid period was Timothy I (740–823), who was elected in 780 as Catholicos-Patriarch of the East-Syrian Church. His strong ties to the caliphate emerges from his interactions with the caliph al-Mahdī (r. 775–85) and Hārūn al-Rashīd (r. 786–809). In various letters, he reports that al-Mahdī entitled him to reconstruct numerous churches and commissioned him to translate Aristotle's Topics from Syriac into Arabic. He received considerable financial support from Hārūn al-Rashīd and accompanied him on several journeys. The most significant evidence of his interactions with the Abbasid caliphate is found in his report, included in a letter to a friend, of a two-day disputation with the caliph al-Mahdī which took place in 782/83 in Baghdad. Although the conversation itself was in Arabic, Timothy's record of the event is in Syriac and takes the form of a dialogue.Footnote 73

The title rēš galuta “exilarch” was borne by the official representatives of Babylonian Judaism. The holder of the office was the highest Jewish authority. This office was current in the Islamic states. We hear of a prominent exilarch, David b. Zakkai, in the tenth century and Hezekiah, the last exilarch and also the last gaon until 1040.Footnote 74

Baghdad was the seat of both offices, that of catholicos and of rēš galuta. For the sake of closer cooperation between patriarchate and caliphate, Timothy transferred the patriarchal see from Seleucia-Ctesiphon, a few kilometres westwards, to Baghdad, where he remained until the end of his life (Heimgartner Reference Heimgartner and Thomas2009b). The Babylonian exilarchate profited from the relocation of the Islamic caliphate to Baghdad by becoming the Jewish representative to the Islamic state (Jacobs Reference Jacobs2007). Jewish commentary tradition expresses the significance of the exilarchate office at the centre of caliphate with terms like the “Davidic house” at Baghdad, or the “scholars who formed part of the retinue of the exilarch were called ‘scholars of the house of the exilarch’”.Footnote 75 Similar to the office of catholicos, the exilarchate profited from the caliphate by being provided with official facilities for its theological activities.

Integrating the representatives of non-state religions into the state and settling them at the capital of the empire was a political measure that had already been taken by the Sasanians. The East-Syrian Church had employed the office of catholicos since the fifth century. Afterwards, Armenians, Georgians and Caucasian Albanians adopted it as well. Whereas older scholarship assumed that the institution of the exilarchate “first emerged in Babylonia and later developed under Parthian, Sassanid, and Islamic rule”,Footnote 76 the apt investigation of Geoffrey Herman illustrates that the exilarchate existed in the latter half of the third century. The tolerant atmosphere in the reign of Šābuhr I allowed non-Zoroastrians to become connected to the court. In this period, a Jewish family “acquired a representative status before the king”; the exilarch stood at the head of a pyramidal hierarchy and appointed “a single successor over a pyramidal religious hierarchy” (Herman Reference Herman2012: 133). The “main position of the Exilarch”, writes Herman, was “as the leadership of a religious community by the crown”. According to him, the exilarch is “a leader on behalf of the kingdom” (Herman Reference Herman2012: 259).

The extent of the integration of the representatives of the Christians and Jews in the Sasanian state can hardly be overemphasized. The exilarchate seems not to have possessed a formal position in the Sasanian administrative hierarchy; however, it became a recognized religio-political institution in the Sasanian Empire. The exilarch, like the catholicos, enjoyed courtly honour and considerable wealth and belonged to the lower nobility of the Sasanian state. Entitling of exilarchs by the king arises from the evidence that Yazdegird I girded with his own hands Huna b. Nathan with the belt, the sign of the exilarchate.Footnote 77

In the first half of the fifth century, Sasanian Christianity developed a state-recognized central hierarchy. This gave the Empire, which strongly preferred to not deal with intra-Christian dissensions, the possibility of central control. Sasanian Christian sources show that the catholicos were at the head of this hierarchy, above other bishops. In the course of the fifth and sixth centuries, more and more bishoprics acknowledged the authority of catholicos.Footnote 78 The catholicos’ appellation as “father of fathers”, analogous in form to šāhān šah and mōwbedān mōwbed, evinces the religious courtly authority endowed by the state and the king. As the caliph al-Mahdī expected Timothy I to accompany him on his journeys, Sasanian catholicoi were demanded to remain with the king at court or accompany him on hunting or war expeditions (Herman Reference Herman2012: 50–3, 133). The close link between the offices of the representatives of the non-state religions and the state bestowed on them a double authority: supported by the state, they constituted the highest religious authority in their community as well. Because of their position at the court, they were able to exert political influence in the affairs of the state to promote the interests of their communities.

The catholicos’ and exilarch's closeness to the Sasanian state was spatialized in their offices' geographical nearness to the court. Traditionally, the Sasanian Empire maintained two capitals: the city complex of Ctesiphon and Weh-Ardašīr was chosen for the winter capitals because of their military and economically strategical location, as was the case for Baghdad as al-Manṣūr searched for an excellent location for the foundation of his future centre of the Abbasid state. The Sasanian summer capital was situated in Khuzestan. Herman's study reveals that the exilarch was located in two cities, Nehardeʿa and Meḥoza, the former until the end of the third century, the latter from the fourth century onwards, both in the region of Weh-Ardašīr (Herman Reference Herman2012: 123, 134–6, 161). The geographical proximity of the office of exilarch to the court, which was the case for that of the catholicos as well (Daryaee Reference Daryaee2009: 78), was preferred by both sides: the court could more strongly communicate and control the religious officers; and with their presence at the court, they could more easily influence courtly decisions.

The Sasanians generally displayed tolerance towards Jews and Christians. The state had an interest in seeking a balance of power between Zoroastrianism and other religions. Persecution or massacre was the exception, rather than the rule, but it did occur. Regarding courtly representatives, we are informed that an exilarch and a catholicos were executed, and the catholicos Babowai was prisoned in the reign of Pērōz (459–84), who is famous for his infatuation with Zoroastrianism.Footnote 79 Even if Zoroastrianism was the state religion of the Sasanians, they seem to have perceived themselves more as emperors of the Sasanian empire, including different religious communities, than the kings of a Zoroastrian state. The situation was not much different in the Abbasid caliphate. The caliph was the ruler of the Islamic empire more than the commander of Islam.

The Jewish sources emphasize that the exilarchate was, at least in theory, hereditary.Footnote 80 Whether the office remained within one family in reality is not our concern. The Jewish claim of the inheritance of the office within a family, even descending from David, in any case constituted the Sasanian reality of the office in the Abbasid period. It is presumable that the Zoroastrians, newcomers among the religious representatives at the Abbasid court, constructed the office as hereditary as well. All Zoroastrian theologians officiated as Leader of the Zoroastrians presumably originated from Ādurfarnbay, son of Farroxzād.Footnote 81

The above short review of the interactions of the Sasanian and Abbasid states and the representatives of the non-state religions reveal two sets of parallels between the Sasanian and Abbasid period on the one hand, and between the Zoroastrian office of Leader of the Zoroastrians and the Christian and Jewish offices of catholicos and exilarch on the other. These sets comprise:

  • integration of the office in the state and a strong bond between political power and the representatives of the non-state religious communities;

  • location of the office at the capital of the Empire, geographically near to the central power;

  • close and personal relationships between the ruler and the officiating representatives;

  • communication between the state religion and the other traditions, culminating in disputation with or in the presence of the ruler;

  • inclusion of representatives from these religions among the (lower) courtly nobility;

  • general tolerance towards non-state religions, accompanied by exceptional cases of hardship or persecution, or even execution of their representatives;

  • constitution of the highest religious authority by the officiating representative in his community;

  • support for the representatives, along with their scholarly activities, by the state;

  • family heredity of the office;

  • end of the office in the first half of the eleventh century.

This parallelism lets us conclude that the relational position of the offices of the representatives of non-state religions to the state and their interactions with it remained more or less constant with the emergence of Islam. The Abbasids did not invent a new mechanism to communicate with non-state religions; they simply sustained the Sasanian arrangement. The Sasanians initiated an office that survived some eight centuries. The Zoroastrian policy of tolerance in the Sasanian period paid off for Zoroastrianism in the Abbasid period, as it profited from Sasanian relations between the state religion and other faiths.

Existing scholarship reveals a similarity between the Middle Persian title hu-dēnān pēšōbāy and the Arabic title of the Islamic ruler amīr al-muʾminīn.Footnote 82 Direct parallelism between both titles, however, exists neither on the linguistic-semantic level nor on the level of inter-religious relations. On the linguistic-semantic level, we have to consider the difference between ʾamīr “commander” and pēšōbāy “leader”. On the level of inter-religious relations, the asymmetry between the positions of Islam as the state religion and Zoroastrianism as a non-state religion should not be neglected. Therefore, similarity between the two terms cannot not be interpreted as parallelism; much less should it allow us to conclude that the Zoroastrian term followed the Islamic one. It might be wiser to follow Raham Asha's hint to the parallelism between the Zoroastrian term and the Jewish term rēš galuta (Asha, Reference Ashan.d.: n. 30). The similar position of Zoroastrianism and Judaism as non-state religions in the religious field of the early Islamic period on the one hand, and the semantic analogy of the two terms on the other hand, suggest that rēš galuta may have been a departure point for the construction of the new Zoroastrian title of hu-dēnān pēšōbāy in the Abbasid period.


We can conclude from the evidence scrutinized above that the meanings of the lexeme pēšōbāy in the pre-Abbasid Zoroastrian Middle Persian texts include “vanguard; anterior, preceding; superior, excellent; leader”. In the pre-Abbasid texts, the lexeme was used to denote social leadership. The designation of religious leadership in particular is not attested, however. In the Abbasid period, the lexeme occurs in the semantic fields of ritual, authority and prophecy. The lexeme is not reserved for positive connotations only; it occasionally occurs in negative contexts as well. Whereas the etymological meaning of the lexeme points to the person designated as pēšōbāy as one singled out from the group of followers, this specificity is not explicit until the Abbasid period.

It was shown that the term hu-dēnān pēšōbāy does not occur in the pre-Abbasid Pahlavi literature and hence constitutes a neologism of Abbasid Zoroastrianism. The office is primarily designated as hu-dēnān pēšōbāy, but occasionally also as weh-dēnān pēšōbāy, pēšōbāy weh-dēn, dēn-pēšōbāy as well as pēšōbāy ī dēn. The sources mention some Zoroastrian priests from the first half of the ninth century onwards who bore this title. Evidence regarding the holders of the office is thin and we can determine their identities only with uncertainty. The most significant characteristics of the office comprise its uniqueness at any moment in history as well as its authoritativeness for the whole religious community. The authorities of different districts and regions were subordinate to this high office, and their appointment was under its jurisdiction. This three-layered socio-religious hierarchy of Abbasid Zoroastrianism seems analogous to the Avestan socio-religious hierarchy with four levels. Whereas the Leader of the Zoroastrians could be a chief authority from any region, his office was located in Baghdad. The hu-dēnān pēšōbāy was not only the highest authority in intra-Zoroastrian affairs but was engaged in inter-religious discussions as well and was, moreover, the representative of Zoroastrianism at the Abbasid court. Presumably, the Leaders of the Zoroastrians were supported by the caliphate in their apologetic activities.

The office of Leader of the Zoroastrians was instituted parallel to those of the Eastern-Syriac catholicos and the Babylonian Jewish exilarch. With their origins in the Sasanian Empire, these institutions continued until the first half of the eleventh century, a period that evinces activities of Zoroastrian authorities in Baghdad, the confirmation of the calendar reform of 1006 by the Leader of the Zoroastrians, and the copy of the Dēnkard manuscript from the divan of the Leader of the Zoroastrians in 1020. A comparison between these institutions in the Sasanian and Abbasid period on the one hand, and the Zoroastrian and Jewish-Christian traditions on the other, exhibit some ten parallels, a crucial one being that the representatives of these non-state religions had a seat in the capital of the Empire, geographically and politically near to the imperial power.

The initiation of the office of Leader of the Zoroastrians at the Abbasid court and our discussion thereof in this article represent an illuminative example of how inter-religious contact, in this case especially with the state and its religion, can alter the intra-religious priestly organization of a community.


I would like to thank my colleague Yoones Dehghani for his valuable comments on my translations of some Arabic passages.



Andarz ī Ādurbād ī Mahraspandān, quoted after Jamasp-Asana (Reference Jamasp-Asana1897: 58ff.)


Āfrīnagān, the Avestan text quoted after Geldner (Reference Geldner1896)


Altiranisches Wörterbuch (Bartholomae Reference Bartholomae1904)




Ardā Wirāz Nāmag, quoted after Gignoux (Reference Gignoux1984); see also Vahman (Reference Vahman1986)


The MS B of the K.R. Cama Oriental Institute Bombay after the facsimile edition by Dresden (Reference Dresden1966)




Concise Pahlavi Dictionary (MacKenzie Reference MacKenzie1971)


Dādestān ī dēnīg, quoted after K35; for chs 0–40, see also Jaafari-Dehaghi (Reference Jaafari-Dehaghi1998)


Dēnkard, quoted primarily after MS B. and occasionally after M.; see also Skjærvø unpublished


see de Menasce (Reference de Menasce1973)

Dk. V

see Amouzgar and Tafazzoli (Reference Amouzgar and Tafazzoli2000)


see Molé (Reference Molé1967)

Dk. IX

see Tafazzoli (Reference Tafazzoli, Amouzgar and Khalilipoor2018)


Guǰastag Abālīš, quoted after Chacha (Reference Chacha1936)


Great Bundahišn, quoted after Pakzad (Reference Pakzad2005)


(Christensen Reference Christensen1934a, Reference Christensen1934b)


The Complete Text of the Pahlavi Dinkard by Madan (Reference Madan1911)


Nāmagīhā ī Manuščihr, quoted after TD4a and K35; translations: different articles by Kanga; see Rezania (Reference Rezania2021)


Pursišnīhā, quoted after Jamaspasa and Humbach (Reference Jamaspasa and Humbach1971)


Pahlavi Āfrīnagān


The Pahlavi Codices and Iranian Researches; edited by K. Jamasp Asa, M. Nawabi and M. Tavousi


Pahlavi Wīdēwdād, quoted after Jamasp (Reference Jamasp1907)


Pahlavi Vištāsp Yašt


Pahlavi Yasna, quoted after Dhabhar (Reference Dhabhar1949)


Pahlavi Yašt


Riwāyat ī Ādurfarnbay ī Farroxzādān, quoted after TD2; see also Anklesaria (Reference Anklesaria1969), Āturfarnbag (Reference Bāġbīdī1384)


Riwāyat ī Farnbay-srōš, quoted after TD2; see also Anklesaria (Reference Anklesaria1969)


Šahrestānīhā ī Ērān, quoted after Daryaee (Reference Daryaee2002)


Škand gūmānīg wizār, quoted after de Menasce (Reference de Menasce1945)


manuscript TD2 = PCIR, 54


manuscript TD4a = PCIR, 52


Vištāsp Yašt


Wizīgard ī dēnīg, quoted after Skjærvø unpublished


Wizīdagīhā ī Zādspram, quoted after Gignoux and Tafazzoli (Reference Gignoux and Tafazzoli1993)


Yasna, quoted after Geldner (Reference Geldner1896)


Zand ī Fragard ī Jud-dēw-dād, quoted after TD2


2 For the Zoroastrian socio-political and socio-religious spatial structures in the Avestan period, see Rezania Reference Rezania2017a: 370–83.

3 This close cooperation led to the designation of the Sasanian brotherhood of sovereignty and religion depicted in Arabic sources of the early Islamic period; see e.g. al-Masʿūdī Reference Al-Masʿūdī and Pellat1965–79: I/289; Boyce Reference Boyce1968: 33; Shaked Reference Shaked1984: 37–40. Historians of the Sasanian period date this concept in the later centuries of the Sasanian period. This hypothesis takes only textual sources into consideration, however.

4 Ḥurdi-Avestā MSS. adds xrūrīg (hlryk), which seems to be the Pahlavi rendering of Av. xrūra- “bloody” (AirWb, 539; Dhabhar Reference Dhabhar1949: 246). Kreyenbroek (Reference Kreyenbroek1999: 50, 91) reads as hapax *xruwīg.

5 Kapadia (Reference Kapadia1953: 465) suggests “a leader, a chief, a head”.

6 See e.g. PY 5.2 = 37.2 (< Y. 5.2 = Y. 37.2b-c), 33.14, PVyt. 26 and 41.

7 In Y. 5.2 = 37.2 and 33.14: pauruuatāt-, in Vyt. 26 and 41: pa(o)uruuō.

8 It should be noted that, especially in the Zand literature, the constituent rawišnīh was used for building abstract nouns.

9 It reads: tǝ̄m at̰ yasnanąm pauruuatātā yazamaidē / yōi gǝ̄uš hacā šiieiṇtī “We worship him with the most excellent worship (of those) who are on the side of the cow” (Hintze Reference Hintze2007: 168).

10 For the use of a substantive instead of an adjective as a stylistic device in this stanza, see Hintze Reference Hintze2007: 168f. For the metaphorical use of anterior and posterior markers in a hierarchy of value, see Rezania Reference Rezania, Panaino, Piras and Ognibene2020b.

11 In a passage from the Zand literature, PY 32.11, we find an antonym for pēšōbāy(īh). There, the lexemes pasōbāy(īh) mark posteriority. Dhabhar (Reference Dhabhar1949: 84) gives the meanings “dependence, servitude, vassalage” for this lexeme.

12 It, moreover, replaces the terms mānbedān mānbed]īh[ “the householder of householders” with mowbedān mowbed.

13 It can be read as gōwāg as well. dawāg is the active present participle (see Durkin-Meisterernst Reference Durkin-Meisterernst2014a, para. 499) of dawīdan “to run” but has the same meaning here as gōwag “ones who speak (the divine formulae)”; see AirWb, 749. Dhabhar (Reference Dhabhar1949: 197) reads dōbāk and translates it as “spokesman, messenger, apostle, prophet”.

14 The lexeme mānsar corresponds in this Middle Persian translation to Av. mąθrān- “master of divine formulas, poet”. This lexeme is built on mąθra- “divine formula, poem” which is generally rendered in Middle Persian as mānsar. It is not clear whether mānsar designates “poem” or “poet” in this Middle Persian translation. If it designates “poets”, it is possible to translate the phrase as “(fore)runner of the poets”.

15 Kellens and Pirart Reference Kellens and Pirart1988–91: II/260; AirWb, 749.

16 For uses in Manichaean texts, see MW R 2, MIK 8259 I V i 3 (Durkin-Meisterernst Reference Durkin-Meisterernst and Sims-Williams2004: 291); M385/R/H/6 (Durkin-Meisterernst Reference Durkin-Meisterernst2014b: 162f.).

17 Translated differently by Jamaspasa and Humbach Reference Jamaspasa and Humbach1971: I:65.

18 The dating of this text is challenging. The listing of its attestations in this section does not mean that I date the text in the Abbasid period. It fits much more to Abbasid than the Sasanian literature, however. For a discussion on this text, see Sheffield Reference Sheffield2005.

19 See WZ 30.16, 23, 47, 54, 34.19, 35.14; he, moreover, makes the adverb pēšōbāyīhā with the meaning “as the first person” (WZ 35.9).

20 WZ 30.47: “The former, the soul on the way, goes forth and arrives at the assembly before the body” (pēšōbāy ruwān ī andar rāh frāz rawēd ō hanǰaman pēš az tan bē rasēd […]). Gignoux and Tafazzoli (Reference Gignoux and Tafazzoli1993: 109) translate it in this passage as “guide”. A link to the specific meaning “guide”, however, is absent in the passage.

21 Dk. III, 155, VII, 8.32, 8.35, IX, 32.5, 32.19 (parallel to PY 32.11) and 45.9.

22 Another phrase in this part of the Dēnkard attests to the lexeme pasōbāy without pēšōbāy: (Dk. IX, 45.9) ud abar awēšān ōy druwand pasōbāy ud ayār “About those who are followers and friends of unrighteous persons”.

23 See also Dk. III, 363.

24 Dk. V, 1.8: kū az payāmbarān frēstagān dēn padīriftārān būd kē hangirdīg bowandag padīrift čiyōn Gayōmard būd kē drōštag aziš čiyōn Mašē […] Kayān ud any-z was pēšōbāyīh ī andar zamānag. “Among the prophets, messengers, and recipients of religion, there were some, such as Gayōmard, who received (the religion) entirely and completely; some, like Mašē […] and Kayanids, who received a part of it, and also many other leaders at (their) time.” Manuscript B. reads pēšōbāyīh; Amouzgar and Tafazzoli (Reference Amouzgar and Tafazzoli2000) emend to pēšōbāyān.

25 M., 690: madan.

26 We find another attestation of pēšōbāyīh in the phrase “from the fame of leadership to (the one of) authority” (az nām ī pēšōbāyīh tā dastwarīh) in NM II, 9.4. The sentence is syntactically too complex to be discussed here.

27 AWN 11.2, 11.9 (dēn-pēšōbāy); ZFJ 658 (pēšōbāy ī dēn); Dk. III, 16 (pēšōbāy weh-dēn), 142 420; IV, 2; V, 1.2, 1.3; RAF 1, 93; Dd. Int.11 (dēn-pēšōbāy), Int.23 (dēn-pēšōbāy), Int.25 (pēšōbāy ī dēn), 44.5 (pēšōbāy ī dēn), 87.8; NM I, 3.4, 3.5, 7.5; II, 6.5; ŠGW 4.107, 10.55f.; GA 6 (weh-dēnān pēšōbāy), B., 640 (col) (2x); RFS, 1.3, 2.1 (4x).

28 De Blois (Reference de Blois, Cereti and Vajifdar2003: 141 and 143 n. 12) convincingly shows that the text tends to be in New Persian rather than Middle Persian. Therefore, he transcribed the text in New Persian, which was presumably spoken in the eleventh century. For the sake of comparability, however, I render the text in Middle Persian.

29 MS: gumārd ī sazāg.

30 MS ʾwkww.

31 For the meaning of the phrase abar estādan, lit. “to stand by sth”, see Macuch Reference Macuch1993: 76f.

32 The MS reads gumārd /gwmʾrt’/. With this verb, the sentence should be translated as “that chief authority appointed trustees in every region”. This translation is only possible if we accept the influence of the grammar of New Persian and the absence of ergative structure in this late Middle Persian text.

33 CPD gives for abestān “refuge, support, trust”.

34 For this use of wehān, see NM I, 1.0; II, 1.4, 7.1, 5; also Rezania Reference Rezania2021.

35 This resembles the career of the Sasanian high priest Kerdīr in the third century, which was engraved in four inscriptions in the Fars province, in Naqš-i rajab, Naqš-i rustam, Sar-Mashhad and Kaʿbi-yi zardusht. For a short representation of Kerdīr's career and promotions, see Skjaervø Reference Skjærvø2012.

36 For a detailed discussion of the socio-spatial structure of Avestan society as well as its priestly organization, see Rezania Reference Rezania2017a: 339–79; for its implementation in the Sasanian empire, see Morony Reference Morony1984: 281–3.

37 On this office and its relation to the leadership in Shiite Islam, see Kreyenbroek Reference Kreyenbroek1994.

38 De Blois (Reference de Blois, Cereti and Vajifdar2003: 139) takes for granted that this priest is the same as the author of the Riwāyat. Therefore, he assumes that the name of the priest is rendered differently in the text as Farnbay-srōš, Frī-srōš or Farrah-srōš. This assumption is not justified, however.

39 De Jong (Reference de Jong, Williams, Stewart and Hintze2016: 231): “It seems to be one example of the general rule that scholars believe all meaningful Zoroastrian intellectuals to have held on in Pārs.”

40 B., 12: <cʾšt’ hʾnyk ywšytn’>.

41 B., 12: <ʾwstʾnykʾnʾ yndltn’>.

42 Jaafari-Dehaghi Reference Jaafari-Dehaghi1998: 39; Manuščihr quotes these phrases from the received letter in his response.

43 Based on Jaafari-Dehaghi Reference Jaafari-Dehaghi1998: 33.

44 Whether Manuščihr differentiates between dēn-pēšōbāy and pēšōbāy cannot be determined.

45 K35, 161v. 9–11, Macuch Reference Macuch1993: 58f. and Kreyenbroek Reference Kreyenbroek1987a: 201f.

46 On this office, see Macuch Reference Macuch1993: 58f.

47 Macuch (Reference Macuch1993: 58) translates the last phrase in “sālār (‘Vorsteher’) der Provinz sowie der mowbedān von Pār”. It seems to me, however, that this phrase is the description of the mentioned title āsrōnān pēšāg framādār, which Macuch translates as “Standesbefehlshaber der Priester”.

48 Muḥammad b. al-Sāʾib al-Kalbī died in 146/763 in Kufa at the age of at least 80 and was the author of the longest ever composed commentary on the Quran (Atallah Reference Atallah1997).

49 AWN 11.2: […] frawahr ī Zarduxšt ī Spitāmān ud kay Wištāsp ud ǰāmāsp ud Isadwāstar ī Zarduxštān ud abārīg dēn-burdārān ud dēn-pēšōbāyān “the pre-soul of Zarathustra, son of Spitama, Kay Wištāsp, ǰāmāsp, Isadwāstar, son of Zardušt, and other upholders of the religion and leaders of the religion”; AWN 11.9: frawahr ī Gayōmard ud Zarduxšt ud kay Wištāsp ud Frašostar ud ǰāmāsp ud abārīg kerdārān ud dēn-pēšōbāyān “the pre-soul of Gayōmard, Zardušt, Kay Wištāsp, Frašāostar, ǰāmāsp and other well-doers and leaders of the religion”.

50 According to West (Reference West1896–1904: 105), “[t]he names of five successive leaders of the religion, during the ninth century, are now known, and the following dates for their rule may be suggested as probable”: Ādurfarnbay (815–35), his son Zardušt (835–40), Juwān-ǰam (840–60), his son Mānuščihr (860–90), Ādurbād (890–910). Anklesaria (Reference Anklesaria1964: I:xv, Reference Anklesaria1969: II/1–24) considers the following holders of the office: Ādurfarnbay (750–833), his son Zardušt (833–47), his son Wahramšād, his son Juwān-ǰam, his son Mānuščihr (870–93), Ēmēd, son of Ašawahišt, his son Ādurbād, and Farnbay-srōš, son of Wahrām. Boyce (Reference Boyce1979: 153–5) envisages the holders of the office as: Ādurfarnbay, his son Zardušt, Juwān-ǰam, son of Wahramšād, his son Mānuščihr, and Ādurbād, son of Ēmēd. König (Reference König, Hintze, Durkin-Meisterernst and Naumann2019: 217) lists these holders of the office: Ādurfarnbay, his son Zardušt, his son Wahramšād, his son Juwān-ǰam, Ādurbād, and Ēmēd, son of Ašawahišt.

51 See Pellat Reference Pellat1991: 784f.

52 There is no inner textual or even inner Zoroastrian evidence to date the text. On the basis of parallels with Christian materials, we can presumably date the text in the ninth or tenth century; see Sahner Reference Sahner2019: 5.

53 This excludes Dk. III, 142, 420; IV, 2; V, 1.2f., Dd. 87.8, ŠGW 4.107, 10.55f. and the first colophon of the manuscript B.

55 Dk. III comprises c. 78,900 words, Dk. IV 4,600, Dk. V 7,800, and RAF 11,400.

56 Anklesaria (Reference Anklesaria1969: II/16f.) finds evidence for Ādurfarnbay in two New Persian Rivāyāts. In the first one (Unvâlâ Reference Unvâlâ1922: I/103), however, the name of the priest is rendered as Ādur-farrukhzād, and in the second one (Unvâlâ Reference Unvâlâ1922: I/118) as Mūbid Ādur-Khurdād. Their identification with Ādurfarnbay is thus not reasonable, especially if we consider that personal names constructed with ādur “fire” were common.

57 K35: 221v., TD4a: 449; Kanga Reference Kanga1957; Anklesaria Reference Anklesaria1964: I:xii.

58 TD4a, K35: nʾškyhʾ.

59 K35: wyšyhyt, TD4a: ksyhyt´.

60 K35: xwēš.

61 K35: tgl; TD4a: ʾwdl.

62 In his rendering of the conversation between the caliph Qāhir and Muḥammad (see Section 3.1 above), al-Masʿūdī explicitly expresses that al-Mutawakkil's religious policy was different from his predecessors: “Then al-Mutawakkil, o Commander of the Faithful. He disagreed with beliefs of al-Maʾmūn, al-Muʿtaṣim and al-Wāthiq. He forbade exertion and disputation about ideas and punished the people for that. He commanded imitation and propagated Hadith narration. […]” (al-Masʿūdī Reference Al-Masʿūdī and Pellat1965–79: VIII/3456).

63 TD4a, 467; K35, 228v.

64 See GBd. 35A.7f.; for the family tree of these priests, see Anklesaria Reference Anklesaria1964: I:xv; König Reference König, Hintze, Durkin-Meisterernst and Naumann2019: 217.

66 On the basis of GBd. 35A.8, West (Reference West1892: IV:XXXIII) considers him a contemporary of Zādspram and, by this, living at the latter end of the ninth century. This passage, however, does not allow this conclusion.

67 See Monnot Reference Monnot1974: 286–8; Shaked Reference Shaked1994: 77f.

68 Anklesaria Reference Anklesaria1964: I:x; see also Justi Reference Justi1895: 333.

69 In contrast to Modi (Reference Modi and Wüst1931: 287f.), I find it more likely that the two met in Baghdad than in Isfahan.

70 This includes ŠĒ, GA, RFS and the first colophon of the manuscript B. of the Dēnkard.

71 See al-Masʿūdī Reference Al-Masʿūdī and Pellat1965–79: para. VI/2565-81; also Choksy Reference Choksy1997: 31, 153 n. 49.

75 Gottheil and Bacher Reference Gottheil and Bacher1906.

76 Bartal Reference Bartal2017; see also Gottheil and Bacher Reference Gottheil and Bacher1906.

77 Herman Reference Herman2012: 38, 259; Gottheil and Bacher Reference Gottheil and Bacher1906; Bartal Reference Bartal2017.

78 Payne Reference Payne2015: 13, 64f.; Kaufhold Reference Kaufhold2007.

79 Payne Reference Payne2015: 164–8; Herman Reference Herman2012: 41–9.

80 Herman Reference Herman2012: 133, 259; Jacobs Reference Jacobs2007; Gottheil and Bacher Reference Gottheil and Bacher1906.

82 Anklesaria Reference Anklesaria1969: II/3; Kreyenbroek Reference Kreyenbroek1987b: 160.


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Table 1. Zoroastrian officiating priests serving as Leader of the Zoroastrians and their attestations in the sources of the Abbasid period