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Muhammadan References to the Magians, or
Zoroastrians, and Free Will (Part II)




A Syriac...

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The fact that orthodox Mohammedans looked askance at the Magians, or Zoroastrians, and especially the priesthood, as being exponents of the doctrine of free will can readily be shown, and it has a particular bearing on the subject. In fact, within Islam itself, owing partially to Neo-Platonic and other influences, the free-will tenet gave rise to internal heretical sects. Thus in the religious and philosophic developments during the golden age of Islam in the earlier 'Abbasic period (749-847 A.D.) we have the Muslim schismatic factions of the Kadarites, or 'Partisans of Free Will,’ and their offshoot the Mu‘tazilites, ‘Separatists, or Seceders' (referred to above), both of which were fully tinctured with the doctrine of free determination as opposed to the fatalistic predestination of the Koran. [1]

The Kadarites, or Kadariyya (from Arabic kadr, ‘power’), were known by that name because they were exponents of the doctrine of man’s free will, and Professor E. G. Browne makes a particular allusion to the spurious Mohammedan tradition – al-Kadariyyatu Majau hadihi ‘L Ummati, ‘the Partisans of Free Will are the Magians of this Church.[2]  A similar citation may be quoted from the eleventh-century Arabic work of al-Baghdadi (d. 1037) entitled Al-Fark bain al-Firak, in which he says: ‘It is reported of the Prophet [i.e. Muhammad] that he condemned the Kadarites [for their free-will doctrine], calling them the Magians of this people.’[3]

The rationalistic Mu‘tazilites, particularly mentioned in the Pahlavi tractate quoted above (p. 232), were noted as recognizing man’s entire freedom of action,[4] and were therefore coupled with the Magians, as upholders of free will, in a passage by Isfarii’ini (eleventh century A.D.) translated by Tholuck, Ssufimm, p. 242, whose Latin version of the Arabic I here render, preserving the older spelling --

Isfara’ini (cod. Ms p. 86). ‘The Prophet applied the name of Magians to the upholders of free will, rightly enough. For the Magians ascribe a part of the things decreed to the will of God, and a part to that of the Devil (namely Ahriman); and if you are to believe them, the decrees of God come to pass at one time, and at another time those of the Devil.’ (And he adds:) ‘Herein, however, the Mutaselites (the disciples of W e 1 ben AttZi) are more to blame than the Magians, because the latter [the Magians] oppose the will of only a single person to the divine will, whereas the former [the Mutaselites] attribute no less to the choice of every gnat and flea than they do to the divine will.’[5]

Although the statement of Isfari’ini, strictly interpreted, is rather a polemic against the dualism of the Zoroastrians, we can hardly doubt that the doctrine of human free will was ascribed to them in the current Mohammedan view of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, as evidenced by the traditional saying already quoted.

Still another testimony in the same tenor of traditional denouncement of the Magian belief is found in a well-known Persian mystical work of the thirteenth century A.D. This poetical Sufi composition, the Gulshan-i Raz, ‘Rose bed of Mystery,’ is by the noted Mohammedan mystic Mahmd Shabistari (1250?-1320 A.D.). The Persian text with an English translation is accessible in an excellent edition by E. H. Whinfield, from which I quote the special passage denouncing free-will believers as ‘Magians (Fire worshipers)’ and ‘Gabars’ -- both names being applied to the Zoroastrians.[6]

Golshan-i Raz, 11.526529; 537-539

‘Thence like Stan you say “ Who is like unto me?“
Thence you say “ I myself have f r e e w i I 1 (md-ktiydr);
My body is the horse and my soul the rider,
The reins of the body are in the hand of the soul,
The entire direction thereof is given to me.”
Know you not that all this is the road of the Magiane (lit. Fire worshipers),
All these lies and deception come from illusive existence? …
Ask of your own state what this free-will (kadr) is,

And thence know who are the men of free will.

Every man whose faith is other than predestination
Is according to the Prophet even as a Gueber.[7]

Like as those Guebers speak of Yezdan and Aherman,

So these ignorant fools say “I” and “He.”’

Further research would undoubtedly result in finding kindred passages in other writings on the subject and thus add to the testimony already given.[8] In the meantime, however, it would be well, in connection with the general question of the Zoroastrian doctrine of free will and the beginnings of Muslim philosophy, to draw attention here to a fact which has not previously been stressed by scholars.

In the early period of Islam, during the latter part of the seventh century A.D., among the pioneer Muslim schismatic maintaining the doctrine of free will was Ma'bad al-Juhani, who died in 699 A.D. Some account of him is given in the Arabic work of Makrizi (1364-1442 A.D.), which is commonly called Khitat, 'Survey.' A statement is there made that Ma'bad imbibed this doctrine from Abii Yiinas Snsiiyh (Sansiiya, Sinbiiya, Sanbawaih -- or however the manuscript variants of the name are to be read), who was certainly of Persian origin. The particular statement in Makrizi's notice of Ma'bad's attitude on the matter of free will and predestination (cf. Arab. kadr, lit. 'power, decree') reads as follows –

Makrizi , Khigt, vol. 4, p. 181.[9] 'Ma'bad took this doctrine [about kadr] from a man of the Asawirat named Abii Yiinas Snsuyh (Sansiiya, Sinbiiya, Sanbawaih?)[10] who was called al-Aswari.'

In whatever manner the name Snsuyh of this teacher of Ma'bad is to be read, it is certainly of Persian origin, as scholars have noted.[11] The attribute Aswari, moreover, is a derivative from Persian aswar, 'horseman, knight, chevalier,' and was applicable also to the party called Asawirat, who had come from Fars in Persia and settled in Basra after having lived in Syria.[12]

It should be remarked here, furthermore, that this Abii Yiinas al-Aswari (without including Snsiiyh in the name) is referred to still earlier by the siue of Ma'bad al-Juhani, in connection with the free-will heresy, by al-Shahrastani (1086-1153 A.D.), Book of the Religious and Philosophical Sects, part I, Arabic text, p. 17, 1. 13; cf. German translation by Th. Haarbrucker, vol. I, p. 25.

I have thus far been unable to find anything more definite about Snsuyh or S(h)nbuyh in the Oriental works which I have consulted, but others may be led to join in the quest, because the matter is of interest in connection with the topic in hand. This is all the more true because scholars have previously (and, no doubt, rightly in the main) laid the chief emphasis on the side of Christian and Neo-Platonic influence upon the heretical free-will movement in Islam.[13] I am not a specialist in Muhammadan philosophy, and it may, therefore, be hazardous to offer any conjecture on the subject; still, I should like at least to draw the attention of those who may be working in that particular line to the possibility of laying more stress on the influence of the Zoroastrian doctrine of free will, which has been shown to have been current in the atmosphere at the time.[14]

A Syriac and a Presumable Pahlavi Reference Pointing
To the Doctrine in Sasanian Times (226-651 A.D.)

For the sake of greater completeness notice should be taken of two additional references (though there may be more) that allude directly or indirectly to the free-will tenet in Sasanian times (226-651 A.D.). The one is of major importance, because it has claims to going back to a Pahlavi original, though extant only in a Persian version. The other is of less significance and is only incidental, but it is preserved in an old Syiac source.

We may take the latter and less important first. There is a very general, incidental allusion to free will in the brief philosophical introduction to a treatise on logic by Paul the Persian, addressed to the Sasanian monarch Khusrau (I) Anushirwan, who ruled 531-579 A.D. This scholar, who flourished at the court of the greatest of the Sasanian Zoroastrian kings, was a Christian who may have studied Greek philosophy in the schools of Nisibis and Gundeshapur in the first half of the sixth century A.D. He is probably the same as Paul of Basra, the Metropolitan of Nisibis (died 571 A.D.), and hence is spoken of as being of the Dair-i Shahr, ‘Monastery of the City,’ meaning most probably the ecclesiastical headquarters at Nisibis.[15] For that reason he would have been acquainted with the metaphysical discussions of the period. In the preface to his Syriac treatise on Logic, when addressing King Khusrau on the province of philosophy, he says, in the midst of a philosophic passage :-

‘There are some who say that men are of free will (b’nai Khiri, lit. ‘children of the free’); and there are others who contradict this.’[16]

The whole context shows that the writer has the free-will doctrine in mind; but too much stress cannot be laid on so incidental an allusion, aside from the fact that the words were addressed to a king who was a Zoroastrian by faith.

The second citation, which will now be presented, is of importance because it purports to go back to a Pahlavi original, if we accept the latter’s authenticity. This passage is found in the alleged letter of the Zoroastrian high priest Tansar, a renowned ecclesiastic at the court of the Sasanian king Ardashir (226-241 A.D.), himself a Zoroastrian and the founder of the Sasanian Empire.

This epistle claims to be a communication sent by Tansar, early in the third century A.D., to the local Persian ruler of Tabaristan, in order to win his allegiance to the new emperor Ardashir. The original document, which must have been written in the current Pahlavi of the period, is no longer extant, and the Arabic translation of it made by Ibn Mukaffa‘ (d. 757 A.D.) has also disappeared; but a Persian rendering, made from the Arabic by Muhammad b. al-Hasan b. Asfandiyar about the year 1210 A.D., has been preserved. We thus have the document only at third hand from the alleged original, with the possibility of an early missing link besides. Nevertheless, it has a traditional value that must not be overlooked when giving it consideration.

The attention of scholars was first prominently called to this epistle by James Darmesteter, in his ‘Lettre de Tansar au roi de Tabaristan,’ in Journal Asiatique, 9. serie, tome 3, pp. 185-250, 502- 555, Paris, 1894. In that particular number of the journal an edition of the text of the Persian version was issued by Ahmed-Bey Agaeff (a young Musulman student from the Caucasus who was a pupil of Darmesteter at Paris in 1892), together with a French translation, revised in 1893 by M. Ferte, of the French Consulate in Teheran, and accompanied by notes from the hand of

Darmesteter, under whose editorial supervision the whole article appeared in 1894. It is proper to add that there has been considerable skepticism on the part of the Parsi scholars of Bombay, as well as others, in regard to accepting the document as genuine[17]; and Darmesteter himself admitted that there may be certain interpolations or additions in its present form[18]; but the particular passage on free will I here translate from the Persian, giving it for what its traditional value may be, as stated above.

Tansar’s Letter, ofi. cd. pp. 247-248, 553. ‘Know that whosoever renounces choice (talab, i.e. free will)[19] and relies on fate and predestination (kada u kadr), debases and dishonors himself; and that whosoever engages in free research (takapuy) and choice (talab), denying fate and predestination, is ignorant and conceited. The wise man should take the middle way between choice and predestination (talab u kadr) and not be satisfied with one [alone]. For the reason that predestination and choice are two bales of a traveler’s goods on the back of his animal. If one of these two happens to be heavier and the other lighter, the goods will fall to the ground, the animal’s back will be broken, and the traveler will be embarrassed and fail to reach his destination. But if the two bales are equal, the traveler will suffer no embarrassment, his animal will be comfortable, and he will arrive at his destination.’

Immediately following this simile, which serves to indicate the relations between individual choice and predestination, an anecdote is added which describes the misfortune that befell a king who resigned himself to fate alone. This anecdote is regarded by Darmesteter (09. cit. pp. 189-190) as an interpolation, and it may be so; but there seems to me to be no good reason for believing that the basic paragraph on free *ll, which called it forth, was not in the original source. Yet the late Professor L. H. Mills regarded the whole passage on predestination and free will as belonging to the Arabic period, and was inclined, like some of the Pard scholars referred to above, to look askance at the antiquity of the entire epistle.[20]

Modern Zoroastrianism and Free Will

The doctrine of free will is a tenet still recognized by the Zoroastrians today, as certain of the writings of their priests and laity well show.[21] It may justly be added, moreover, that although, owing to various changes and vicissitudes, there remain in the world only a small number of followers of the ancient creed of Zoroaster-about eleven thousand in Persia and something over a hundred thousand in India-these two faithful communities of Parsis and ’Gabars’ prove, by their high ethical standards and their practice in life, how steadfastly they have maintained the historic doctrine of their religion, which teaches man’s free choice between right and wrong and which lays upon him the responsibility of accounting for that choice in the life hereafter.[22]


Enough has been shown, I trust, by the material presented in this monograph, to justify the hope, expressed at the outset, that students of philosophy and religion may be led to give further consideration to the old Zoroastrian teachings on the subject of free will as contained in the sacred books and literature of the faith of the Prophet of Ancient Iran.

[1] Among numerous other references to this subject, consult E. G. Browne, Literary History of Persia, I. 279-290, London and New York, 1902; D. B. Macdonald, Development of Muslim Theology, p. 127-132, New York, 1903; Mm. K. C. Seelye, Moslem schism.^ and Sects, p. 116-210, New York, 1920 (a translation of al-Baghdadi’s account). 

[2] Browne, Lit. Hist. I.  282; H. Steiner, Die Mu‘taziliten, p. 28 and n. 3. Leipzig, 1865.

[3] See Mrs. K. C. Seelye, Moslem Schisms and Sects, p. 22.

[4] Cf. R Dozy, Histoire & l’islamisme, tr. Chauvin, p. 205, Leyden-Paris, 1879; Browne, Lit. Hist. I. 287.

[5] See F. A. D. Tholuck, Ssufismus, sive Theosophia Persarum Pantheistica, p.242, Berlin, 1821. Concerning Wasil ibn ‘Ata (Wassel ben Atta), as founder of the rationalistic school of the Mu‘tazilites, see C. Huart, History of Arabic Literature, pp. 62,63, New York, 195; Browne, 09. Cit. I. 281.

[6] See E. H. Whinfield, Gulshan i Raq the Mystic Rose Garen, London, 1880 (Persian text, p. 32, ll. 526-529; Eng. transl. p. 53-54); cf. E. G. Browne, Persian Literature under Tatar Dominion, pp. 146-149, Cambridge, 1920.

[7] Alluding to the tradition (hadith) as to Koran, Sara 22. 17, referred to above.

[8] Recall, for example, that A. von Kremer, Kulturgeschichte des Orients, Vienna, 1877, 2. 413, observes that after Islam became established in Persia there was opposition to the Mu'tazilite view of free will, giving rise to factions as mentioned by Shahrastani, I. 89-94.

[9] See Cairo edition of Makrizi, Khitat, vol. 4, p. 181, 11. 25-27, A.H. 1326 = A.D. 1908.

[10] An edition of Makrizi older than the one just cited also reads Snsiiyh. S. de Sacy, Religion des Druses, introd. p. x, Paris, 1838, gives 'Senbawaih,' but observes (note 3) that the manuscripts are not in accord on the orthography of the name, which he says is certainly a Persian name, of the same category as 'Bowaih, Sibewaih'; he refers likewise to E. Pocock, Specimen historie Arabum, ed. J. White, Oxford, 1806, 4. 213. Kremer, Gesch. Streifjsuge, p. 9, n. I, gives the name as 'Senbujeh'; Browne, Lit. Hist. Persia, I. 282, follows with 'Sinbiiya.' It may be noted indirectly that a name 'Shunbawaih' or 'Shanbawaih' is found in adh-Dhahabi, el-Mechtabi, ed. P. de Jong, p. 284, Leyden, 1881.

[11] See the references in the preceding note.

[12] See Lane-Poole, Arabic-English Dictionary, 2. 757, S.V. al-khadarim, and 4. 1465, S.V. Iswar. Uswar; moreover, al-Iswar is applied elsewhere (Dict. Muhit) to a party of the Mu'tazilites.

[13] Consult, for example, A. von Kremer, Kulturgeschichtliche Streifzuge auf dem Gebiet des Islams, p. 7-9, Leipzig, 1873; H. Steiner, Die Mu'tasiliten, p. 55-80, Leipzig, 1865; and compare Browne, Lit. Hist. Persia, I. 281-288, especially p. 288. See furthermore Max Horten, Dic. Philosophic des Islam, p. 200-203, Munich, 1924, who, however, recognizes the Persian influence likewise, pp. 30, 134.

[14] The modern Shi‘ite doctrine on free will, current in Persia, is said to follow in many respects that of the Mu‘tazilites (see Browne, Lit. Hist. Pcrs. I. 283); compare further on this subject the extract from a Persian manual on the ‘Beliefs of the Shi‘a’ (written before the middle of the nineteenth century) as translated by Browne, Persian Literature in Modern Times, p. 386, cf. 381.

[15] See J. P. N. Land, Anecdota Syriaca, vol. 4, Leyden, 1875, Scholia, p. 99-100; L. C. Casartelli, Philosophy of the Mazdayasniun Religion under the Sassanids, pp. 1-2, 143; J. Labourt, Le Christianisme dans l’empire perse, p. 166-169, n. 3, Paris, 1904.

[16] Pauli Persae Lugua, ed. Land, Anecdota Syriaca, vol. 4, fol. 56r (p. 2, 1. 18); tr. p. 3, l, I, where the phrase is rendered ‘sunt qui dicant homines liberos esse voluntate’; cf. also Casartelli, philosophy of the Mazdayasnian Religion, p. I.

[17] For example, Darab D. P. Sanjana, Tansar’s Alleged Pahlavi Letter, from the Standpoint of M. J. Darmesteter, p. 1-16, Leipzig (Harrassowitz), 1898; id., Observations on Darmesteter’s Theory regarding Tansar’s Letter, p. 1-31, Leipzig, 1898; Jivanji J. Modi, ‘The Antiquity of the Avesta,’ in Journ. Bombay Branch R. A. S. 19. 263-275, Bombay, 1896 (reprinted in the same author’s Asiatic Paws, p. 111-123, Bombay, 195); L. H. Mills, Zarathushtra, Philo, the Achaemenids, and Israel, pp. 21-26,6163, Chicago, 1906.

[18] Darmesteter, op. cit. pp. 189-190.

[19] Steingass, Pers. Dict. p. 817b, gives among other meanings for talab, ‘desiring, inquiry, search, quest’; the context above shows that it is also equivalent to ‘free will,’ as opposed to Kadr, ‘fate, predestination.’ Darmesteter-Agaeff, op. cit. in JA. 1894, p. 553, give alternately ‘effort personnel, libre recherche, libre arbitre,’ when translating into French, thus showing that the word talab indicates individual choice.

[20] Mills, op. cit, pp. xi, 61-67; and compare the articles by D. D. P. Sanjara and by J. J. Madi referred to above in note 17.

[21] Cf. Rustamji E. D. P. Sanjana, ZUY&W~&U and Zurdhushtrianism in the Avesta, pp. 130, 150, 154, Leipzig, 1906; idem, The Parsi Book of Books, the Zend-Avestu, pp. 208,216-217,250, Bombay [I925]: M. N. Dhalla; Zoroastrian Theology, p. 24, New York, 1914; N. F. Bilimoria, Zoroastrianism in the Light of Theosophy, pp. 172, 187, Bombay, 1899.

[22] Compare also Part I, p 74, above.