The Iranian Reception of Islam: The Non-Traditionalist Strands: Collected Studies in Three Volumes, Volume 2

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 The Iranian Reception Of Islam
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Hanna SiuruaPatricia Crone
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Buddhism as Ancient Iranian Paganism

In his book on India Bīrūnī says that in ancient times the whole region from Khurasan through Fars, Iraq and Mosul to the border of Syria followed the religion of the Shamaniyya and continued to do so until Zoroaster appeared.1 At first sight this makes no sense. The religion of the Shamaniyya (Sanskrit śramaṇa, Pali samaṇa, ascetics, monks) is Buddhism; the normal form of the word in Arabic is Sumaniyya, a vocalisation I shall freely use even though it must have arisen by mistake.2

But how could Bīrūnī claim that the whole of the Iranian culture area had once been Buddhist? The answer is that well before his time Sumanism had come to be used as a general term for an ancient form of paganism of which Buddhism was seen as a survivor. In this light, some of Bīrūnī’s information on the Sumaniyya is very interesting.

The idea of Buddhism as ancient paganism is presented in its clearest form in Ḥamza al-Iṣfahānī (wrote 359/961) and Khwārizmī (wrote between 367/977 and 372/982). We may start with Ḥamza. According to him, all the nations of the world had once followed a single religion, which had prevailed until the coming of the revealed laws (ẓuhūr al-sharāʾiʿ).

This single religion had been known by two names: in the eastern regions its adherents were called Sumaniyyūn (Bud-dhists) and in the western regions Kaldāniyyūn (Chaldaeans). Both still sur-vived, the Sumanīs in India and China, the Chaldaeans in Harran and Edessa. In Khurasan the Sumanīs were now known as Shamanān, while the survivors of the Chaldaeans had taken to calling themselves Sabians since the time of Maʾmūn.3

had lost their dear ones and made representations of them to console them-selves, and eventually they came to worship them as intermediaries between man and God. It was also in the reign of Ṭahmūrath that fasting was insti-tuted, originally because food was difficult to come by, but eventually it came to be seen as a form of religiosity and worship of God, and they practised it in an extreme form.

 The inventors of fasting (al-mubtadiʿ lahu) were poor peo-ple from among the followers of a man called Būdhāsaf. The followers of this religion were called Chaldaeans, and in the time of Islam they called them-selves Sabians, though in reality the Sabians are a group of Christians living between the swamps and the desert who differ from the main body of Chris-tians and who are counted among their heretics (mubtadiʿīhim).

Ṭahmūrath, whose exploits included the building of Isfahan and Babel, held that every group which liked its own religion should be left alone, a principle followed in India to this day.4

Here there is no mention the Sumaniyya, only of the Chaldaeans, i.e. the pagans of Harran (and, in his first account, Edessa), who had adopted the name of Sabians to secure dhimmī status for themselves in the reign of Maʾmūn according to a famous story.5 But the institutor of fasting among them is Būd-hāsaf (Bodhisattva), placed in the reign of Ṭahmūrath, a king of the legendary Pīshdādid dynasty associated with eastern Iran who is here the ruler of Babel, too.6

 Both idolatry and fasting are said to have appeared in his reign for reasons that originally had nothing to do with religion. Būdhāsaf is the leader of a group whose poverty and fasting go well enough with Buddhism, but one would not have recognized him as a Buddhist figure if it had not been for his name.

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Khwārizmī’s account is similar and clearly shares a source with Ḥamza’s first account, but he has some additional information. Once upon a time mankind (al-nās) were Sumaniyyūn and Kaldāniyyūn, he says. The former were idolaters and survive in India and China; the latter survive in Harran and Iraq (rather than Edessa) and are now called Sabians and Harranians, having adopted the name of Sabians in the time of Maʾmūn, though the real Sabians are a Christian sect.

The Sumaniyya were followers of Suman and idolaters who believed in the eternity of the world (qidam al-dahr), the transmigration of souls, and the doctrine that the earth is always falling downwards. Their prophet was Būdhāsaf, who came forth in India, though others say that he was Hermes. Būdhāsaf appeared in the time of king Ṭahmūrath, who brought the Persian script.7

Here Būdhāsaf is more recognizable: he appears in India, his followers are the Sumaniyya, and both he and the Sumaniyya are idolaters who believe in the transmigration of souls, the eternity of the world, and a somewhat enigmatic doctrine regarding the downward | movement of the earth; as before, they survive in India and China.

 For all that, Būdhāsaf is still associated with the Iranian king Ṭahmūrath, and it is not just to the Sumaniyya that he is a prophet, but also to the Chaldaeans/Sabians, in competition with Hermes, the prophet with whom the Sabians are normally associated.8 There is no mention of fasting.

A similar account of the origins of paganism was known already to Ibn al-Kalbī (d. 204/819). According to him, the religion practised under Ṭahmūrath was idolatry, and fasting first appeared in his time, originally because some poor people had trouble procuring food but eventually as a way of drawing close to God, in which capacity it continued until it was instituted by the revealed laws.9

Unlike Ḥamza, Ibn al-Kalbī does not identify the poor people as followers of Būdhāsaf, but Būdhāsaf’s presence should probably be taken for granted, for it is otherwise hard to see why the invention of fasting should be placed under Ṭahmūrath. Besides, other traditions which may also go back to Ibn al-Kalbī identify Būdhāsaf as the inventor of Sabianism.10 Abū ʿĪsā al-Warrāq (d. 247/861 or later) and Ṭabarī duly tell us that Zoroaster’s patron, Bīshtāsf (Vishtāspa) was a Sabian, i.e. a pagan, when Zoroaster brought Zoroas-trianism to him.11

Masʿūdī (d. 345/956) also knew the history of paganism. Unlike Ḥamza and Khwārizmī, he does not tell us that mankind had once followed the same pagan religion, but rather gives his information in connection with specific peoples. In the first of three relevant accounts he says that the Iranians were pagans (ʿalā raʾy al-ḥunafāʾ) when Zoroaster brought his book12 and explains their paganism as Sabianism, brought by Būdhāsaf to Ṭahmūrath.13

Būdhāsaf’s message was that perfection, nobility, complete soundness and the sources of life lay in the elevated roof above, i.e. the sky, and that the planets which came out and went in were the managers (of this world) and the cause of everything in the world, including the creation of composites out of simple elements, the perfection of forms (tatmīm al-ṣuwar), the lengths of lives, and more besides. He attracted people of weak minds with this view and was the first to preach the Sabian doctrine of the Harranians and Kīmārīs, the latter being followers of

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a type of Sabianism which was separate from that of the Harranians and found among people in the swamps around Wasit and Basra; Masʿūdī also refers to them as the pagans and Chaldaeans (al-ḥunafāʾ waʾl-kaldāniyyīn) who were the Babylonians still extant in the swamps.14

The paganism that Būdhāsaf brought to Ṭahmūrath is here Sabianism in the sense of | Harranian religion, without any Buddhist features whatever. 28 As the bearer of Sabian/Chaldaean religion Būdhāsaf was to undergo further developments: an astrologer by the name of al-Qasrī, cited by Maqdisī (wrote 355/966), held him to be a Babylonian of immense antiquity who possessed the science of the astral revolutions and who had calculated the age of the world as 360,000 years; he lived before Hermes, who lived long before Adam.15 Since the present paper is about Buddhism, however, these developments can be left aside.16

In his second account Masʿūdī tells us that many Indians, Chinese and others hold that God and the angels have bodies. For this reason they made images of them and worshipped them until their wise men informed them that the planets and stars were live and endowed with intelligence (nāṭiqa), that the angels moved back and forth between them and God, and that everything in the world was due to them, so they worshipped them instead;

but during the day and some nights they could not see them, so they made idols again. After various events which Masʿūdī says he omits, they abandoned the worship of the heavenly bodies until Būdhāsaf appeared in India. He was an Indian who went to Sind, Sistan, Zābulistān and Kirmān, claiming to be a prophet and a messenger of God, and an intermediary between God and his creation. He came to the land of the Persians in the time of Ṭahmūrath, or, according to some, in that of Jam(shīd) (Ṭahmūrath’s brother and successor), and he was the first to make public the doctrines of Sabianism (here Masʿūdī refers the reader back to his earlier account).

Būdhāsaf taught them asceticism and preoccupation with the things of the higher worlds in which people’s souls originated and to which they would return, and he renewed ( jaddada) the worship of idols.17

Here Sabianism is not primordial paganism, but rather a reformed version of it: idolatry represents the first step, and here as in Ḥamza it develops naturally, though it is also reinstituted by Būdhāsaf. The latter’s Sabianism, consisting of astral worship and asceticism, is the second step, and astral worship also develops naturally, though again it is reinstituted by Būdhāsaf. How asceticism (fasting) had appeared we are not told, but in Ibn al-Kalbī and Ḥamza that too develops naturally, and Masʿūdī is clearly working with closely related material. He does not use the word Sumaniyya, but his Būdhāsaf is an Indian figure of whom we are implicitly told that his religion had once prevailed in eastern Iran.

In his third account Masʿūdī says that all of China used to adhere to the reli-gion of their forebears (man salafa), that is, the religion of the Sumaniyya (or Samaniyya, as Pellat vocalises it). He identifies Sumanism as idolatry compa-rable to that of Quraysh, implicitly referring back to his second account. One manuscript has the Chinese import their Sumanism from India, but in Pellat’s edition the Sumaniyya are simply idolaters like the Indians.

We do not see Būd-hāsaf reform their gross idolatry here. Instead we are told that Dualist and Dahrī doctrines have appeared in China: the reference is presumably to Manichaeism founded or reformed ancient paganism, meaning idolatry, and his followers were poor people for whom he instituted fasting or who did so themselves; they were known as Sumanīs and were still found in India and China, and they believed that the world was eternal, that the souls transmigrated, and that the earth was always falling downwards.

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Some of these details were also known to the heresiographers, who added a few of their own. To them, the Sumaniyya were a species of Dahrīs. Māturīdī (d. 333/944) explained that they (or the Dahrīs in general) held everything to be generated by mixtures and movements devoid of providence and wis-dom, and that they only accepted knowledge based on the senses, so that they would not accept information about countries that they had not seen, for example.19

They were muʿaṭṭila, as Maqdisī said, placing them in India and giving a well-informed account of their belief in reincarnation with reference to that country;20 but he also identifies them as dualists with implicit refer-ence to Khurasan,21 and cites the Samanid geographer Jayhānī as saying that some Sumanīs regarded the Buddha (al-budd) as a prophet while others cast him as the creator in visible form.22 According to Baghdādī (d. 429/1037), they had existed before the rise of Islam and reappeared after it; they believed in the eternity of the world, knowledge based on the five senses alone, and the equipollence of proofs (takāfuʾ al-adilla), as well as in reincarnation on the basis of merit (which he took to be incompatible with their epistemological princi-ples).23

Their view that the earth is always falling was familiar to Māturīdī, but Baghdādī reports it as Dahrī rather than specifically Sumanī.24 The heresiogra-phers say nothing about the Sumaniyya’s relationship with Būdhāsaf, though Baghdādī knew him as a pseudo-prophet.25

With the exception of Maqdisī’s account relating to India, all the information on Buddhism reviewed so far had reached the Muslims via eastern Iran. It must have been in eastern Iran that Būdhāsaf was linked with Ṭahmūrath. It was certainly there that the terms shamanān and Būdhāsaf were formed26 and that the book which came to be known in Arabic as Kitāb al-Bilawhar wa-Būdhāsaf originated.27 It was also there that Jahm b. Ṣafwān |(d. 128/746) disputed with Sumaniyya,28 probably at Tirmidh, on the border between Sogdia and Bactria (Ṭukhāristān), where he was based and where there certainly was a Buddhist population.29 It must have been via debates such as Jahm’s that the Sumanīs came to be known as empiricists and skeptics, and that their doctrine regarding the downwards movement of the earth reached Iraq, where it was known already to Naẓẓām (d. 220–230/835–45): the latter had frequented Sumanīs and other believers in the equipollence of proofs in Baghdādī’s opinion.30

 A story set in Basra in the 740s–760s presumes Sumanism to have been sufficiently well known at the time for a Basran to be attracted to it.31 Ibn al-Nadīm (d. 380/990) had actually read about Būdhāsaf in a Khurasani book and knew him to be the prophet of the Sumaniyya, a religion followed by most Transoxanians before Islam and in ancient times (qabla ʾl-islām wa-fī ʾl-qadīm); but all he says about it is that Būdhāsaf forbade his followers to say no, which sounds like an innuendo.32

 He also reports that some held al-budd to be an image of Būdhāsaf al-ḥakīm, and both he and others have further information about the devotees of al-budd.33 But al-budd is not often linked, let alone identified, with Būdhāsaf before Bīrūnī.34……

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