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British Institute of Persian Studies

The Iranian Component of the Nuṣayrī Religion Author(s): Meir Michael Bar-Asher Source: Iran, Vol. 41 (2003), pp. 217-227

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British Institute of Persian Studies is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Iran.


The Hebrew Universityof Jerusalem In memoryof myfather

Study of the Nusayrireligion revealsthe existence

of a notable Iranian component, constituting an

important elementin the syncretisticcomplex of this

religion.1 This greater role in
religion.1 This
greater role in

component seems to have played a

the early stages of the formationof

Nusayrireligion thanin its later stages. The aim of the

present study is to bring to light and analyse this

component,which, to my knowledge, has not attracted

much scholarly attention.2Nevertheless this study does

not attempt to evaluatethe relative place within the

NusayrIreligious system of the variouselements that

constituteits overallmosaic.3 Rather, it focuseson the

Iranianelement itself, offering an interpretation of the

background and circumstances against which this

elemententered the Nusayrireligion.


earliest Nusayri source making it possible to

Nusayri syncretism,including its

study the natureof

Iranian element, is Majmi' al-a vdd ("Book of

Festivals")by Abi Sa'Id Maymfm b. Qasimal-Tabarani

  • (d. 424/1034-35), a prominent leader and prolific

scholarin the formative period of the Nusayriregion.4

This is an account of the Nusayri festivals based,

according to the author, on a treatise by al-Hlusayn b.

Hamdan al-Khasibi entitled al-Risala al-rcdstbashiyya

andreferred to severaltimes in Majmzi' al-a


The other source, though it contains somewhat

meagre additional information, is a Nusayri catechism

entitled Kitlb Ta'lim diydnat al-nusayriyya (literally:

"Bookof instructionin the Nusayrireligion").6 A late

work most probablycomposed during the nineteenth

century, it seems to have been influenced by Western

Christiancatechisms circulating in nineteenth-century

Syria, as attested by RendDussaud.7

Thearea of the Nusayrireligion in whichthe Iranian

component is most prevalent is a theological discussion

of the yawm al-nawrfiz (the Iranianfestival of the New

Year,beginning with the vernal equinox) and yawm al-

mihraj]n(the Iranianfestival of the autumnequinox).8

These are believedto be the days on which the deity

revealeditself in variousforms and garbs in all periods,

both mythical and historical.9 Moreover, the eschat-

ological manifestation of the deity in the person of the

Mahdiis also believed to take place on these sacred


The deity manifestsitself cyclically in the form of a

trinity.According to the Nu?sayri trinitariandoctrine,

documentedas early as the tenth century, two entitiesor

persons(aqdnim) emanatefrom the supremeaspect of

the deity. This supreme aspect is named ma'na

(connotingmeaning or essence) andis attimes identified

with God himself. The secondis the ism (theName) or

the hijiib (theVeil).11 Thethird entity is thebab (Gate) -

namely, the gatethrough whichthe gnostic believer may

contemplate the mystery of divinity while aiming to

attaina mystical unionwith the deity.12

This trinity revealsitself in seven cycles, which span

the history of mankind.In each cycle (labelleddawr,

kawr or qubba), the deity has been incarnated in

historicalor mythicalpersons. The plethora of beings

playing a role in the Nusayri divine realm include

biblical figures,alongside thosefrom the Greek, Iranian

andArab traditions. In the seventhand last cycle, "the

Muhammadan cycle" (al-qubba al-muhammadiyya),

which opens the Muslim era, the trinity was incarnated

in three key beings of early Islam: 'Ali as the ma'nd;

Muhammad as the ism; and Salmanthe Persianas the


The syncretistic natureof the Nusayrireligion is

apparent also in the lists of figures in whichthe trinity

is incarnatedthroughout the seven cycles, theirnames

deriving fromvarious religious traditions. Noteworthy

for the presentstudy is the role playedby Salmanthe

Persian,being the ultimate bab in the most important

trinity.Moreover, the identificationof Salmanwith

Riizbihb. Marzban(R-izbih being, in fact, Salman's

Persianname before his conversionto Islam) alludesto

the concept to whichI shallreturn later -

namely, that

the divinity is believedto have revealeditself among

the Iranians already in ancient times, prior to the

emergence of Islam. This line of thought is further

elaboratedin al-Tabarani'sdiscussion of the festivalof

Nawrfiz. The following passage, which opens the

chapter on

Nawrnz, illustratesthe role reservedfor the

Iraniansin Nusayritheology:



[Nawrfiz] always falls on the fourth day of April. It is

that it [the wisdom] would pass among their kings.

the first day of the Iranian year, which begins in the

[Moreover], He establishedan image

(mithll) of [the

monthnamed farwardin. It is a praiseworthyday, of

great momentand importance in the eyes of God and

trinity] of the ma'na, the ism and the


[in the

figures of the kings]Shirvin, Khirvinand Khusrow up

the mawall13 -

peace be upon them-

on which they


Khusrow Abarviz

[=Aparwez], son


bestowtheir grace


may God supportyou by

your obedienceto Him, thatthe Persians Kings, the

Khosrows (mul/k al-furs al-akdsira)14 used [to

celebrate] it and to glorify it. They furtherused to

wear [on this day] crownsmade of myrtle (as) and

marigold (adharyfn),15

andto sprinklewater; andthis

is why it is called nawrfiz.16

They used to greet each

otherand offer presents of myrtle,marigold andolive

leaves, andasked for all good wishesand blessings on


The patron(al-mawld, i.e. God manifestedin 'Ali)

revealedHimself in [thefigures of] the Iranian kings,

and manifestedin them His Names (asmd'), His

Gates (abwdb), and the ranks of His holiness -

namely, the great luminousworld (al-'dlam al-kabir

al-nfirmnt)18 Our master al-Khasibi -


sanctify his spirit -

may God

clarifiedthis in his epistle andhis

treatiseon the sequence[of divine manifestations]

(Fi'l-siydqa)19 saying: Adam, having concealed

himself, revealedhimself in [the figure of] Enosh;

Seth, who was then the ma'nd, removed him

(azdlahu)20 andrevealed himself in a formsimilar to

his [Adam's=Enosh]. Adamthen revealed himself in

[the figure of] Alexander, "the two-homed"(al-

iskandar dhu'l-qarnayn);21Daniel,22 who was then

the ma'na, removedhim and revealedhimself in a

formsimilar to his [Adam's=Alexander].


revealedhimself during the Iranianera (al-qubbaal-

farisiyya) in [thefigure ofJ Ardashir, son of Babakthe


the firstIranian king of the Sasanid dynasty;

[Alexander] "the two-homed", who was then the

ma'na, removedhim andrevealed himself in a form

similar to his [Adam's=Ardashir]. Adam then

revealedhimself in [the figure of] Shabtr, son of

Ardashir.24Ardashir, who was then the


removedhim andrevealed himself in a formsimilar

to his [Adam's=Shabir].

Adam then revealed himself

in the Houseof the Arabs(bayt al- 'arab)25


in [the

figure of] Lu'ayy b. Ghalib. Lu'ayywas given this

name because he turned[alwi] the [divine] lights

fromthe landof Persiato the landof the Hijaz-


[thepersons of the trinity,i.e.] the ma'na,the ism and

the babmanifested themselves there. [God], however,

left the representatives(maqcmcit) of His wisdomso


The latter "changed andmodified [the

true religion?], was arrogant and opposed the master


Kingship was cut off fromthe Iranians

because of his [Khusrow's] disobedience" (wa-

innahu ghayyara wa-baddala wa-stakbara wa-

khdlafa al-sayyid Muhammadfa-nqarada al-mulk

minal-furs bi-ma'siyatihi).27

Al-Tabaranlpresents here concisely the doctrine of

the Nusayri cyclical manifestationof the divinity in the




trinity that reveals



throughout human history. Adam, who is repeatedly

mentioned in the passage, appearing laterunder the title

adam al-idacm,28is a sort of archetypal or pre-cosmic

Adam.29The divinity -

or more precisely an aspect of

it, the ism, personified in

the form of Adam - conceals

itself and reveals itself

in the figure of Enosh; Seth who

was then the ma na -

the supreme aspect of the trinity

  • - removes the ism, the second person of the trinity and

reveals himself

in a form similar to his (Adam's). This

process repeats itself in the various manifestations of

the deity. Moreover, our text is characterised by the

introductionof the notion of internal dynamics within

the divine realm, known from other Nusayri texts, an

example being an epistle by the tenth-centuryNusayri

scholar Abu'Abd Allah al-Husayn b. Harun al-Sa'igh.30

Thus a figure that in a certainmanifestation of the deity

appears as playing a minor role may be elevated in

another cycle to a higher degree, that of a ma 'na. Hence

in the second cycle Adam, the ism, reveals himself in

the form of Alexander, whose role is presumably that of

a bab, and is removed by the

ma 'nd, Daniel. However,

in the next manifestation of the deity - during the

Iranian cycle31 - Alexander is elevated to the degree of

ma 'n; Adam remains in his role of ism and manifests

himself in the person of Ardashir, son of Babak, the

bMb.Later, Ardashir himself ascends to the degree of

ma'na, and so on. The uniqueness of this theology lies

in the role reserved in it for Adam. In contrastto other

Nusayri texts,32Adam seems to represent the person of

the ism in all the cycles.

The most essential point in this passage is the way

the author presents the deity as being incarnated among

the Iranian kings of the Sasanid dynasty. It should be



stressed,first, thatthere is nothingexceptional in the

concept that the deity manifests itself among the

Iranians; for since its beginnings the Nusayrireligion,

like the Druze religion, has been characterised by its

universalist tendency. The religion addresseditself to

all mankind, and the doctrinal justification for this

foundits expression in thebelief that the deity, whichin

its final manifestationwas incarnatedin the figures of

'Ali, Muhammad and Salman, had initially been

manifested among various peoples and nations

hencethe plethora of names by whichare known 'Ali-

the-Godand the many figures who play variousroles

within the Nusayri divine realm.33 Against this

background,then, the tendency to accordthe Iranians

an appropriaterepresentation is not surprising. Our

passage however goes further.It reflects a strong

tensionbetween Arabism and Iranianism, andseems to

have emerged from Shu'ibi or rather neo-Shu'abi

circles.34 However, the struggle between Arabs and

Iranians, which has its echoes in both Shi'i

and non-

Shi'icircles, is transposed in ourtext from the earthly to

the divine realm. From the outset, says al-Tabarani,

God preferred the Iraniansover the Arabs and therefore

revealed himself among their kings. The sins

committedby the Iranians -

or, more precisely,by one

of their kings, KhusrowII -

broughtupon themGod's

punishment, that is,

the transfer of



(representing the divine presence) from among themto

the Arabs, God's newly elected people.

Precisionin chronology is not the strongest feature

of this text, which is characterised by its mythical

nature.On the one handit is statedthat the transitionof

the divine presence fromthe Iraniansto the Arabstook

place during the lifetimeof Khusrow II, whose reign

(590-628) corresponds partially to the years of

Muhammad'sactivity as a prophet; on the otherhand

Lu'ayy b. Ghalibis presented as the person in whose

lifetime this transformationtook place. Lu'ayy,

however, was one of the ancestorsof Quraysh and

lived, according to the traditional chronology, some

eight generations before Muhammad.35The author

furtheranchors the role of Lu'ayy in a play of words on

his name: "Lu'ayy was given this name because he

turned the [divine] lights from the land of Persia to the

land of the Hijaz." (wa-innamai summiya lu'ayyan li-

annahu alwci al-anwar min ard faris ild ard al-hijlz).36

Leaving aside the chronological inaccuracy of the

text, it seems that the author'smain purpose is to

introducethe idea that the decline of the Iraniansin the

earthly arena -

that is, the collapse of the Sasanid

monarchy and the transitionof kingship from the

Iraniansto the Arabs - is a reflectionof theirfall in the

divinearena. Our text does not elaborateon the sins of

the Iraniansthat resulted in the loss of their kingship.

The author merely states that the king in question

(Khusrow II) "changed and modified [the true

religion?], was arrogant and opposed the master

Muhammad";37 laterhe addsto the two general sins a

third, no

things to

less generalsin, "[KhusrowII] laid claim to

which he had no right"(wa-dda'd li-nafsihi

ma laysa lahu).38

Accusing KhusrowII of forgery andof altering the

religion tallieswith the way he is depicted in Muslim

historicalsources. Thus al-Mas'uidiin his Muri@j al-

dhahabdescribes this king as "he who removedthe

rulesof the [Zoroastrian]priests, thereby breaking the

accustomedshari'a and sunna, altering rules and

removing prescriptions"(wa-qad ktna azdla ahkidmal-

mitbadhdn fa-kharama




sunna al-ma 'hida wa-ghayyara al-ahkctm wa-azila al-


It seems furthermorethat the fact thatKhusrow II

was the Sasanid monarch during whose reign

Muhammad'sprophetic missiontook place exacerbated

the process of denigrating him, making him an

archetypal enemy of Islam, the newly emerging


It is noteworthy thatin the Nusayrimyth of the Fall,

pride and arrogance are among the sins thatcaused the

souls of the believersto fall fromthe divineworld of

lights to the materialworld.40 However, the author,

whose identification with the Iranians and their

religious heritage is unequivocallyexpressed in this

text, mitigates the severe implications of the text by

explaining that God's abandonmentof the Iraniansis

not categorical or without hope for the future.On the

contrary, in various explicit and implicit ways, the

author points to the temporary natureof the removalof

God's presence fromthe Iranians.

Three majorpoints attest the unequivocalphilo-

Iraniannature of the author and his desire to witness a

world in which Iranian supremacy is restored.

(1) The author emphasises that God's abandonmentof

the Iraniansis not complete. On the contrary, even after

abandoning them and electing the Arabs in their stead,

God deposited among them "representatives of His

wisdom" (maqamathikmatihi)- that is, a trinity in the


image of the supremetrinity, personified in the figures

of three

kings, Shirvin,Khirvin and Khusrow.The

author points out the inferiornature of this trinity,

stating thatthe three"take care of the [divine] wisdom

insteadof the ma na, the ismand the bab, since they are

the servantsof the ma na andthose who know him, the

ism and the bMb"(wa-annahum yaqiimiina bi-maqdm

al-ma 'ndt wa'-ism wa'l-bab li-annahum'abid al-ma 'n5


bihi wa-bi'l-ism wa l-bdb).41

Only the thirdof these (Khusrow) can be identified

as a historical figure; the other two




Khirvin) seemto be pureinventions, as is oftenthe

with figures withinthe divineemanations in Nusayri(as

well as in Druzeor Ismai'ili) texts. For the authorit is

sufficientthat the names have an Iranian ring.Later, this

inferior trinity is mentioned again, and the author

explicitly identifies Khirvin and Khusrow with

Muhammadand Salman - the ism and the bab -

while Shirvinis presented as the supremehypostasis of

the trinity, identifiedwith 'Ali.42


author further emphasises that "when

abandoning the Iraniansand bestowing his wisdom

upon the Arabs, God was satisfied with them and

promised he wouldreturn to them" (wa-anna al-mawlci

jallat qudratuhukhallafa hikmatahu fi'l-furs wa-


'anhum wa-huwa rcddin 'alayhim wa-

aw'adahum annahu ya 'i"du fihim).43

In addition,al-Khasibi attempts to minimise the

Iranians'loss of supremacy to the Arabs by stating that

they continuedto celebratethe festivalsof the Nawraz

and Mihrajan, whichhad been instituted by their kings,

just as the Arabs44observe the threefestivals of 'id al- 'id al-adhI and 'id al-ghadir.All these festivals,

then, will be celebrateduntil the future appearance of

the Mahdi.45

(2) The chief meritof the Iranians, which the author

adducesas the reasonfor God preferringthem, is that,

unlikethe Arabs,they preserved the divine mystery -

that is, the mystery of God's manifestationand

concealment throughfire, which is at the heart of

NawrQz.This notion is presentedthrough a striking

interpretationof the Qur'~nic verses relatingto God's

revelationto Moses in the burningbush:

He [='Ali] is theone who saidthat God the most High

entrustedyou with a secretand revealedsomething

amongyou [-=theArabs] and enabled you to receive

it. But you lost it while the Iraniansguarded it. This

thing is God's concealmentfrom them and His

manifestation among them throughfire, and His

manifestationin light (wa-huwa lamma azharafihim

al-ghayba bi'l-ndrwa'l-zuhifr bihti wa'l-nifr wa'l-

zuhalrbihi). And to this refer [God's] words in the

accountof Moses:"He [=Moses] observedon theside

of theMount a fire.He saidto his household 'Tarry

you here; I observea fire. Perhaps I will bringyou

fromit' (anasa min janib al-tar naran qdla li-ahlihi:

[u]mkuthfi innianastu naran la'alli atikum minha)(Q.

28:29)46 'a brandor I shallfind at the fire guidance'

(bi-qabas aw ajida'ald al-ncir hudan)(Q. 20:10). And

in anotheraccount 'I shall bringyou news of it or a

faggot from the fire, that haply you shall warm

yourselves'(atikum minhabi-khabar awjadhwamin

al-ncr la'allakumtastalfna) (Q. 28:29). "Whenhe

cameto it, a voicewas heard from the right bankof


watercourse, in the sacred hollow,coming from the

tree:'Moses I am God, the Lordof all Being'(fa-

lammi atdhda niidiya[min shAdti' al-wcid al-aymanfi 'l-

buq'a al-mubdraka min al-shajaraan] yd Mfisa [inni

andt llah rabb al- 'tlamina]") (Q. 28:30). 'Putoff your

shoes.You arein the holy valleyTuwa"' (ikhla' na'-

layka innakabi'l-wadi al-muqaddas.tuwan) (Q. 20:12)

  • - up to his [statement] in his [=al-Khasibi'sepistle]

on Fiqh: "TheIranians worshipped fire and awaited

[God's]appearance from it, hence God's appearance

among them. They constantlyuphold it, manifest it,

set it ablazeand await the fulfillmentof His promise.

This is the reasonfor the Iranians'celebration of

Nawruzand the wearing of crownson it."47

The supremacy of the Iraniansover the Arabs found

expression in their guarding of the mystery with which

God had entrustedthem -

that is, the mystery of fire

and light as a medium through which God reveals

himself to the initiated. The Iraniansare praised

throughout al-Tabarani's

discussionof the Nawrtizfor

their perceiving the inner qualities of fire and light. To

stress the notion of fire/light, the

awareof the correct etymology of

author -


the word nawriiz,

connoting "new day'"48 -

bases the significance of the

day on a fanciful etymology of the term that he derives

from the words nir (light) and ziyy (clothes).49This

strong emphasis on fire and light may reflect a residue

of Zoroastrianreverence for fire. However, even if the

author is alluding here to his sympathy toward

Zoroastrian worship, he is reluctant to convey it

outright. He may thereforehave referredto the Qur'anic



story aboutGod's revelationto Moses as a means of

facilitating the acceptance of this notion.50

The day of the Nawruzbecomes then the heartof

the author'sdiscussion. Following traditions prevalent

in Imamni

literature, it is depicted as a cosmic day, one

on which major historicalor mythical eventstook place.

It is believedto be the day on whichGod accepted the

covenantsof his servantsto worship him andto believe

in his unity (referring to Q. 7:172);51 the first day on

whichthe sun rose, thewinds blew andthe splendour of

the worldwas created; the day Noah'sark came to rest

upon MountArarat. It is the day on whichGabriel came

down to Muhammadsummoning him to be the

Messenger of God. It is the day on whichMuhammad

bore'Ali upon his shoulderso thathe could fling down

and destroy the idols of Quraysh from atop the Ka'ba;

the day on whichthe Prophet orderedhis companions

to pledgeallegiance to 'Ali as his heir.It is the day on

which the Mahdi shall appear with his deputies,

triumph overthe Antichristand crucify him.52

It shouldbe emphasised thatthe ritual drinking of

wine during the celebrationof the Nusayri Mass

(quddds),though performed on various occasions, is

closely affiliatedto the day of Nawruz.This sacred

wine, calledin Nusayri texts 'abdal-nfir ("the servant

of light"), is believed to be a centralelement in


Nusayri Nawruzfestival. As al-Tabarani states in


name of al-Khagsibi:

"Drink53in it [i.e. in the Nawruiz]

'abdal-nifr for it is the entity of the fire which God

madeas his greatest sacrificeand the most noble entity"

(wa-sta mnilf fiihi 'abd al-nifr alladhi huwa shakhs

hadhihi al-nir allatija'alaha allah qurbanahu al-a zam


This affinity between the sacred wine and the

festivalof Nawriiz is furtherelaborated in Majmii' al-

a'yvd in a liturgicalhymn ascribedto al-Khasibi and

citedalso in the Nusayri Catechism.55Here are its first,

secondand fifth verses:

  • 1. Nawriz is a beneficialand successful truth / realised in the closenessto God of the most noble of [the sons of] Hashim (nawriazhaqq mustafid ghinim / mutahzaqqiq bi-wald'i akram Haishim)

  • 2. [It is] a day on which God revealed Himself in the

Iranian cycles / before the cycle

of the Arabs

(yawma abana llahufihi zuhifrahu / qabla al-a aribi


qibaib a 'ijim).

  • 5. Drink pure wine, for this is the day on which his light was manifested in the clouds (fa-shrab min al-

khamr al-zull fa-innahu / yawma tajallanfiruhu bi-

ghama 'im).56

These verses epitomise some of the major ideas

dealtwith above. The Iranians are presented hereas the

peopleamong whomthe deity revealeditself on the day

of the Nawrutz before its manifestation among the

Arabs.The sacred wine consumed during the festivalof

the Nawraz symbolises the divine light, the essenceof

'Ali-the-God, who appears inter alia through the


(3) The divine predilection for the Iraniansis reflected

in their being represented also in the last two

manifestationsof the trinity -

throughout both the

Christian cycle (al-qubba al-'isdwiyya) and the

Muhammadancycle (al-qubbaal-muhammadiyya)


that is, in the eraof the Iranians'decline and the rise of

the Arabs.In both cycles the Iranians play the role of

the bab: in the Christian cycle, the bab is incarnatedin

Ruzbihb. al-Marzban; in the primary andmost perfect

trinity it is incarnatedin the figure of Salmanthe


Persian, who is seeminglyregarded as a prefiguration

Ruizbihb. al-Marzban(Ruizbih being Salman'sPersian

name,prior to his conversionto Islam).58

The supremacy of the Iraniansover the Arabs, as

well as over all other nations,emerges additionally

from the belief that they are the only nation among

whichthe deity manifesteditself repeatedly.According

to al-Tabarani,

unlikeother peoples andnations among

which the deity reveals itself in a single cycle, the

Iranians, or rathertheir kings, are distinguishedby four

cycles of revelation, named qibdb or tabaqdt. Threeof

these cycles -

primarily the firsttwo -

correspond in

part to two periods in early Iranian mythology. The

authorlists the namesof kings of the Pishdadidand the

Kayanidmythical dynasties among whom the divinity


The first cycle consists of five of the Pishdadid

kings -

Kayiimarth,Tahmiiath, Jamshid, Bivarasp

and Faridtin; to them are added various Iranian

mythological heroes such as Rustam.60

The second cycle includes all four kings of the

Kayinid dynasty -

Kay Qobad, Kay Kavtis, Kay

Khusrow and Kay Lohraisb;61 accompanied by other

names, some of which are unidentifiable. Noteworthy is

the inclusion of Cyrus (Kirus), the only representative

of the historical Achaemenid dynasty.62 The third and

fourth cycles include the names of kings from the


Sasanid dynasty, to whom are againappended various

Iranian names, some of whichseem to be invented (e.g.

the enigmatic Zadan al-akbarand Zadan al-asghar).

Evena cursoryglance at theselists revealsthat they are

replete withinaccuracies and anachronisms.

Their main

purpose seems to be to accentuateboth the


of the Iraniansand the antiquity of their election as

God'schosen people.

Finally of note is the place of the Persian language

in Nusayriwritings in general andin the accountof the

Nawriz and Mihrajan in particular. The chapters

dealing withthe Iranian festivals, like Nusayri literature

in general, are written in Arabic; this includes the

liturgical sectionsof prayers and liturgical instructions.

Against this background the following short prayer for

the day of Mihrajan,interspersed

withritual invocations

in Persian, standsout. Theseinvocations may reflecta

residuefrom the earlydays whennot only the Iranians

but also their tongueenjoyed a distinguished statusin

the Nusayrireligion:

O Nobahar,O Nobahar;63

be aware, be aware, be

aware;By theeternal Bahman, by themanifestation

in the clouds,by Razbih-Salman,64

by the priests,by

thePriest of priests;O new spring,O new spring,O

new spring; be aware, be aware, be aware,[I beseech

youto] removeevil from us andto realizefor us that

which we acknowledged

with respect to you in

preexistence ...(...ya


nobahir, yd

nabahtr, zinhwr,

wa'l-zohifr al-

zinhar be-bahmanal-azali

kanhawari wa-riizbihal-salsali, bel-mabadhan, be-

mabadhal-mabadhan; ya nobahr,

ydc ndbahir, yyi

nabahtr, zinhr, zinhar,zinhwr, illct kashafta'anna al-

zulm wa-haqqaqta lanj md

aqrarna laka fl'l-


The syncretistic dimension of Nusayri religion

prevails once again in this liturgicalhymn. The divine

emanationwhich the believers summon, here named

Bahman -

the VohuManah (Good Thought) of the

Avestaand the Pahlavitexts66 -

doesnot seemto refer

to a specific deity but ratherto indicate Iranian identity


general.67Bahman, the most supreme manifestation

of the Iranian deity, is mentioned recurrently under

various abstractderivations such as al-bahmaniyya al-

sughra and al-bahmaniyya al-kubra, al-qibab al-

bahmaniyya. Moreover, the





manifesting itself in clouds, here named kanhawar,68 a

synonym ofghama' im in the above-cited verse from al-

Khasibi's hymn on Nawriz. The believer further

beseeches the bib

Salman-Razbih, namely, the gate


mystery of divinity.

through whichhe aimsto


The existence of an Iranian component in the

Nusayri religion is unquestionable,yet it nevertheless

raises some important and interrelated questions:(1)

How did Iranianelements find their way into the

Nusayr!religion? (2) Whatis the relative significance

of these elementsin the NusayrIsyncretistic mould?;

(3) Why did this Iranian,neo-Shu'iibi phase have only

a marginalimpact on the Nusayrireligion?

A better knowledge of the formative phase of the

Nusayrlreligion andits earlydevelopment would help


resolve these issues. If we

were to accept the

assumption that the Nusayriyya emerged among

extremist Shi'~groups in third/ninth-centuryIraq,69 it

wouldbe rather easy also to explain the existenceof an

Iranian component withinthis religion. It is possible, on

the basisof Muslim heresiographicliterature, to drawa

picture of the politico-religious fermentin Iraq at the

end of the third/ninth century. Thiswas the time of the

Minor Occultationof the last Imam of the Twelver

factionand the resurgence of the hithertoclandestine

Isma'ilimovement in Iraq and other provinces of the

Muslim empire. Otherextremist Shi'i groups -


labelled ghuldt70 -

were active at the time, among

them apparently the proto-Nusayri circle centred

aroundthe figure of Muhammad b. Nusayr, the eponym

of the Nusayri religion.7' Iranian devotees and

missionaries were active in

these movements,

entertaining the covert -

or evenovert -

aspiration of

reviving Iranian past glory, or at least of moulding a

synthesis between Arabism (or rather Shi'ism) and

Iranianculture. Among these philo-Iraniansmay be

mentionedthe Mughiriyya,Mansu-riyya, Khattabiyya72

and other Shi'i sub-sects. The neo-MazdakiKhur-

ramiyya movementwas also active in that period,

aspiring to restore the lost Iranian past through a

renaissance of the Mazdaki religion.73

Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi's recent study,

"Shahrbani, dame du pays d'Iran et mbre des Imams:

entre l'Iran pr6islamique et le shiisme imamite",74

contributes significantly to promoting a better

understanding of

the complex

encounter between

Arabism and Iranianismin the early centuriesof Islam.



Amir-Moezzi focusses on the legend about the

betrothalof the daughter of Yazdgird III (regn. 632-51),

the last Sasanid king, to the Imam Husayn. This

legendary marriage was perceived in certain Shi'I

traditions as the beginning of the sacred encounter

between Arabism and Iranianism, and the Imams of the

Husaynid line were seen as drawing their sanctity from

two holy sources. That this tendency to fuse Arabism

and Iranianism was rife with tension is abundantly

reflected in the texts studied by Amir-Moezzi as well as

in the Nusayri sources presented here. Alongside

attempts at conciliation, Amir-Moezzi points to three

major tendencies of

Iranians toward Arab-Muslim

heritage: (a) an extremist attitude, often characterised

by a complete rejection of Arab heritage;(b) an attitude

of turning back on the Iranian heritage and striving for

an unconditional acceptance of and total immersion in

the Arab-Muslim identity; and (c) an attempt to achieve

harmonisationbetween the Iranian heritage and Arab-

Muslim civilisation.75The Nusayri texts presented here

naturally reflect the first tendency.

However, the philo-Iranianspirit did not thrive for

long. It seems that with the emigration of the

sect from its cradle in


Iraq, where it was exposed to

Iranian influence, to its new centre in Syria in the days

of al-Khasibi and his successors, the

Iranian elements

lost their relevance whereas other, notably Christian,

components prevailed.76

The marginalisation of

Iranian motifs notwith-

standing, their memory was imprinted on the Nusayrl

collective memory and survived in the domain of ritual

in the form of the Nawruz and Mihrajan festivals. The

persistence of these festivals in recent times is attested

both by the Nusayri catechism and by al-Adhani's al-

Bikiira al-sulaymdniyya, both of which include them

among the various Nusayri holy days.








Iranianism and Arabism reflected in the passages of

Majmfi' al-a jdd cited here, it would not be difficult to

point out specific figures who may have served as

channels of Iranian influence




Nusayriyya. Especially worthy of mention is al-

Khasibi's teacher, Abt 'Abd Allah al-Jannan al-

Junbulani(d. 287/900), of the districtof Faris, who had

seemingly played an important role in introducing

Persian elements into the Nusayri religion.77Moreover,

some of

the prominent sages appearing in Majmii' al-

a ~yid as

transmittersof traditions- e.g. al-Husayn b.

Ahmad al-Qazwini, Abu Muhammad 'Abd Allah b.

Ayy-ib al-Qummi, Abu al-Husayn 'Ali b. Ahmad al-

Khurasani, al-Fayyaid b. Mulhammad b.

'Umar al-Tusi


are of Iranian origin. These scholars also may have

contributed to introducing Iranian elements into the

new religion.78



An earlierversion of thisarticle was readin a seminarof a

research group on "Exclusivity and Universality in Shi'i

Islam", held at the Institutefor AdvancedStudies of The

Hebrew University of Jerusalemin thewinter of 2002-03.

  • I am grateful to ProfessorsMohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi,

Etan Kohlberg and ShaulShaked for reading this article

andfor their instructive comments.

On the syncretistic natureof the Nusayri religion, see R.

Dussaud, Histoire et religion des Nosairds(Paris, 1900), pp.

17-76 ("les nosairis depuisl'6poque romaine jusqu'a nos

jours"); M. Moosa, Extremist Shi'ites: The Ghulat Sects

(New York,1988), especially the chapter on the Nusayri

festivals (pp. 382-97). On the presence of syncretistic

motifsin Islamin general, see C. Colpe, "ThePhenomenon

of Syncretism and the Impact on Islam", in Syncretistic

Religious Communities in the Middle East:

Papers of the Symposium, Berlin 1995, ed.


K. Kehl-

Bodrogi, B. Kellner-Heinkeleand A. Otter-Beaujean

(Leiden, New Yorkand Cologne,1997), pp. 35-48.

  • 2 Exceptions arethe British missionary Samuel Lyde, whoin his pioneeringmonograph on the Nusayrireligion -


Asian Mystery: The Ansaireeh or Nusairis of Syria

(London,1860) -

devoteda few pages(137-38) to this

topic; and Moosa,op. cit.,pp. 332-36. 392-93, 399-400.

  • 3 Onthe Christian components in the Nusayrireligion, seeH. Lammens, "Les Nosairisfurent-ils chretiens? A propos d'un livre recent", Revue de l'Orient ChretienVI (1901), pp.33-50; M.M.Bar-Asher, "Surles 6l6ments chr6tiensde la religionNusayrite-'Alawite",


pp. 185-216.

  • 4 The complete titleof thebook is KitdibSabil rahatal-arwidh wa-dalil al-surir wa'l-afrhz ila failiq al-a.sbh. A critical editionwas publishedby R. Strothmannin Isl. XXVII (1946). General accounts of the Nusayri festivals are offeredby some modem scholars.See e.g.Lyde, op cit.,pp.

175-82;Dussaud, op cit.,pp. 136-52;Moosa, op. cit.,pp.

382-97; Abu Musa Hariri, al- 'Alawiyyiin al-nusayriyyimn:


'aqida wa'l-ta'rikh (Beirut, 1984), pp. 133-62;

'A. al-Dujayll, Kitiab Majmh' al-av5ad kha.sibiyya, in Majallat al-majma' al-'ilmi

wa'l tarqa al- al-'iraqi (1956),


pp. 618-29. Foran analysis of the

calendarand the

syncretistic andantinomian nature of


the Nusayrifestivals,

see M.M. Bar-Asherand A. Kofsky, The Nusayri-'Alawi

Religion: An Enquiry into Its Theology and Liturgy

(Leiden,2002), pp.


  • 5 The Persian title, rJstbishiyya, is derived from the imperative rastbash (be righteous). This work, ascribedto

is thusfar known only from quotations

in Majmii'


al-a •vd,


12, line 10, and p. 154, line10. On al-Khaslbi


his rolein theformation of the

religion and identity,

see Yaron Friedman,


ibn Hamdan al-Khas~bi:



Historical Biography of theFounder of the Nusayr-'Alawite

Sect," StudiaIslamica XCIII (2001), pp. 91-111.

  • 6 The text is available in two manuscripts:ms. Paris (BibliothbqueNationale), fonds arabe 6182, ff. la-20b; ms. Berlin (KiniglicheBibliothek), no.2086, pp. 3-84. For anedition accompaniedby anannotated

English translation

of the text, see Bar-Asherand Kofsky,op. cit., pp. 163-221