Mazdakism is an ancient Iranian religion that rose in popularity during the 5th century.
It had a dualistic cosmology and worldview revolving on light and darkness. Mazdakism was named after its most influential advocate, Mazdak, who claimed to be a prophet of Ahura Mazda.
Mazdak gained influence under Sassanid Shahanshah Kavadh I’s reign when he created social welfare programs and instituted communal possessions. Scholars believe Mazdakism was a movement that seeks a unique interpretation of Manichean dualism.
It is the only Zoroastrian sect that continued to exist after the Arab invasion.
Mazdakism is an Iranian religion, originally an offshoot of Zoroastrianism. Its often considered a response to the increasingly hierarchical nature of Zoroastrian leadership.
Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion of Sassanid Persia. Its doctrine spread all over Persia and other neighboring countries in the early Middle Ages.
Mazdakism was named after its most prominent advocate Mazdak, an influential person during the reign of Emperor Kavad I. Mazdak was a Zoroastrian priest. He focused on the social and spiritual needs of the most disadvantaged members of society.
He viewed Mazdakism as a purified version of Zoroastrianism. But many scholars argued that his teachings had influences from Manichaeism because his instructions were not only social but also religious. His ideas were so dramatic and powerful that they caused chaos and threatened the Zoroastrian priesthood’s existence during his time.
The religion is populist and egalitarian. It has its distinctive tenets, which differentiated it from Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, and Christianity. It caused various revolutionary upheavals in Iran and was even brutally suppressed at the near end of Kavad’s reign. It focused on the equitable distribution of wealth. It also sought to break the barrier which made property and women available only for the privileged classes.
Many scholars consider Mazdakism an excellent example of pre-modern communism. They were undoubtedly the earliest communists of the world. Still, you won’t find any mention of them in the histories of communism by European scholars. Mazdakism was one of the earliest attempts at establishing communal order in the East, where community property and work benefited all.
The founders of Mazdakism lived earlier than Mazdak himself. It is founded by Zaradust-e Khuragan, a Zoroastrian mobad and philosopher who taught hedonism and altruism. His followers were then called Zardushtigan or Zaradustis. Based on accounts, Zaradust-e Khuragen was also a staunch follower of Manichaeism. Its doctrines were part of his preaches.
He encouraged his followers to enjoy the pleasures of life. He directed them to satisfy their appetite and engage in friendly intercourse. He encouraged sharing of women and family, doing good deeds, and abstaining from harming others. After Mazdak, son of Bamdad, developed indoctrination based on his beliefs, Zaradust-e Khuragan was forgotten. His followers then called themselves Mazdakis.
While Zaradust-e Khuragan was a simple preacher, Mazdak was a man of action. He encouraged people to do more than what he preaches. Ultimately, he overshadowed Zaradust-e Khuragan, and his teachings became a religion.
Who Was Mazdak?
Mazdak was a native of the city of Nishapur in Khorasan. He was supposedly born in Irak or Perspolis. He was educated, ambitious, and even became the king’s treasurer. He was said to be a charming speaker with an engaging personality. He was very persuasive, which made others believe him and his faith. He influenced a mass of people and led them to new beliefs.
Mazdak was the most famous advocate of the religion claimed to be a prophet for the Zoroastrian god, Ahura Mazda. Ahura Mazda is the Lord Omniscient of ancient Persia and the universe’s creator and all things in it. He is often represented in monuments and sculptures as a winged symbol with a male figure.
Like Christ, Mazdak encouraged people to work out their relationship with God on their own. He taught people to get closer to God by simply being kind, peaceful, and vegetarian. He also encouraged his followers to live a simple life and be generous with other people.
When Mazdak’s influence became popular among low-class people in the kingdom, the king used his influence to gain support. He, too, became a Mazdakite. At this time, the Sassanid Empire had a large gap between nobles and peasants, who comprised 80% of the Persian society.
Like the caste system, people were not allowed to change their social positions and were supposed to stick to their way of life from birth to death. So those who were suffering from poverty became the most miserable social class, and they were not allowed to seek higher social rank. If they were a slave, they would become a slave forever.
Back then, the influence of clergy over the Iranian society encompassed the state’s social, economic, and educational policies. They were corrupt and favored only the privileged class. Mazdak was against these clergies and nobles who oppressed the Persian population, which resulted in widespread poverty. He also disliked religious formality and the harams of nobles.
The king wanted to weaken the power of the aristocrats and the priests in his kingdom. Thus, King Kavad supported Mazdak when he tried to create an egalitarian system to distribute wealth. Together they started a crusade against the clergy.
Due to Kavad’s support, Mazdak was able to put his theories into practice. Mazdak believed that all men are born equal. He wanted men and women to have the same income. He tried to eradicate social classes so there wouldn’t be poor and rich. He wanted freedom in the community and believed that there wouldn’t be any transgression if there were no laws.
Mazdak said that water and soil belonged to God, and everyone should have equal rights to it. It meant that it would be illegal to have properties and slaves. People were quick to accept his teachings. He was able t reduce the influence of the clergy in the region. He also started opening government warehouses to the poor and closing all but three of the Kingdom’s fire temples.
Although Mazdak was popular among the poor, he also had a few noble followers. But all his followers were similar. They were all passionate and faithful to his creed. They sought to make everything equal, even goods, women, and children. They raided palaces and harems of the rich. They started confiscating private properties from the wealthy and distributing them among the poor.
Lawlessness emerged, and many have resorted to seizing wives and daughters to become properties of their own. It went on for a long time. Many children didn’t know who their fathers were, and their fathers didn’t know their sons.
The king couldn’t punish them because he had become a Mazdakite. Suddenly, the tables were turned. The rich became poor, and the poor became rich. The mob ruled the supreme. It sanctioned all kinds of crime but prohibited the killing of animal life, even an insect.
Many nobles and clergy opposed Mazdak for this and called him a heretic. His commands resulted in social chaos. When Mazdak’s egalitarian ideals resulted in tragedy, it raised severe alarms among the clerics in court. The clergy and nobles plotted to removed Kavadh from his throne.
Learning that supporting Mazdak put him in a lot of trouble, Kavad started to distance himself from Mazdak. Many wealthy and conservatives didn’t agree with what he had already done and rallied to overthrow Kavadh in 496.
Kavadh was imprisoned in the Castle of Oblivion. He was then replaced by his brother Jamasp. With help from his sister and followers, Kavadh fled to the east, where the Hepthalite king provided him an army. It allowed him to restore himself to the throne. After this, he withdrew his support from the Mazdakites. But many believe he was not strong enough to remove the root cause, to kill Mazdak. It was done by his successor, his son, Khusrav I.
During a banquet to honor Mazdak, Khusrav I set a trap to slaughter Mazdak and his followers. Among those killed were Mazdak and Khusrav’s son Prince Khosrow whom they have declined to protect. However, Mazdakism did not die with Mazdak. Instead, it flourished in Iran, eventually becoming similar to central Asian Buddhism, which resembled many ways.
What Happened To The Mazdakites?
Mazdakites were socially religious sectarians who greatly influenced Iran’s politics in the late 5th and 6th centuries. They favored the abolition of social inequalities and wanted everything to be held in common, including women.
After Mazdak’s death, there followed a suppression of all Mazdakites. A few Mazdakis survived and settled in remote areas. They stayed for centuries, even after the Islamic conquest of Persia. During the rule of Islamic caliphs, they listed several heretical sects, and most of them cite Mazda as their authority.
Their doctrines then mixed with Shia Islam and gave rise to movements in the region. The Batiniyya, Qamattians, and other movements such as the Khurramdim, called the Khurramites, were believed to have been connected to Mazdakism. When revolts against Arabs started in Iran, the Khurramites led the attempts to protect their territories against the Caliphate for twenty years.
As of today, no form of literature and religious writings of the Mazdakites have survived. The accounts on Islamic sources are not considered authentic. However, a famous author Dabestan-e Mazaheb claimed to have met Mazdakites who practiced their religion secretly among Muslims. They have also preserved the Desnad book containing the teachings of Mazdak but were reluctant to share it in public.
Similar to Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism, Mazdakism had a dualistic cosmology and view of the universe. Mazdakism believes in the idea that the world exists as a conflict between light and darkness. Light acts through free will and design. In contrast, dark is by chance and blindness. And the accidental union of the two produced The Manager of Good and The Manager of Evil.
God is also present in their beliefs, and he is seated on his throne in the world above. In contrast, the kings of kings are sitting in the world below. There are also four high-ranking officials before the king of kings, including the Chief Priest, Judge, Commander of the Army, and the Entertainment Master. These four direct the world with the help of the seven viziers who act within twelve spiritual forces. These have been identified as the seven planets and the twelve signs of the zodiacs by many interpreters.
The three light elements in our world are water, fire, and earth—these elements, when mixed, form the force of good and evil. The god of Light should be worshipped because he possesses the power of intelligence, perception, memory, and joy. Darkness is ignorant, blind, and indiscriminate.
Mazdak believes that people need to fight the five demons that turned men from righteousness. These demons were envy, wrath, vengeance, need, and greed. Greed and envy were agents of darkness. Women, pleasures, and material goods were the sources of hatred, envy, and greed. Everyone who refrains from these demons will be united with light.
Through his actions, a man should seek to release light in the world. That is achieved by moral conduct in life. One should also eliminate greed and envy by giving up the quest for material wealth. Unlike Manichaeism, which saw the mixture of good and evil as a tragedy, Mazdak viewed it optimistically.
Mazdakism revolved around the creation of a peace-loving, classless, and egalitarian society. Mazdakism also believed in vegetarianism, pacifism, and utopian communism. In its religious doctrine, Mazdakism exhibited Gnostic features that entertained a kabbalistic notion of numbers and letters in the alphabet. One of the accounts of Mazdakite philosophy can be found in Islamic sources, and it says:
“Mazdak declared that God placed the means of subsistence (arzāq) on earth so that people divide them among themselves equally, in a manner that no one of them could have more than his share; but people wronged one another and sought domination over one another; the strong defeated the weak and took exclusive possession of livelihood and property. It is absolutely necessary that one takes from the rich for giving to the poor so that all become equal in wealth. Whoever possesses an excess of property, women, or goods, he has no more right to it than another.”
Mazdak believed that God made all men to be born free and equal. He treated old and young as equals. To own property or any right to possess more than the other is theft. He believed that marriage and property were human inventions that were against the will of God.
He even said that incest, adultery, and theft were not crimes but essential steps for re-establishing the laws of nature. Some chroniclers distorted this by saying Mazdak wanted them to commit adultery, incest, and theft. This was false because Mazdak only said they were products of a corrupted society. Another important belief in Mazdakism is the sacredness of animal life. Followers weren’t allowed to eat any animal food other than cheese, eggs, and milk.
Mazdak’s teachings also emphasized the unimportance of religious formalities, claiming that religious people understood the universe’s principles. He taught people that living a moral and ascetic life was most important.
Considering his time’s social situation, Mazdak’s teachings often attributed as a call for social revolution. Mazdak’s beliefs and ideas were harsh and extreme, but it was a response to the sufferings of the masses he had seen. He felt it was essential to reach a higher ideal of life because of the insane poverty in the region. People who were staunch critics and enemies of the clergies were attracted to Mazdak’s communist society.
- Mazdakism is an ancient Iranian religion with a dualistic cosmology and worldview revolving on light and darkness.
- Mazdakism was named after its most prominent advocate Mazdak, a Zoroastrian priest. He focused on the social and spiritual needs of the most disadvantaged members of society.
- Mazdak claimed himself to be a prophet for the main Zoroastrian god, Ahura Mazda. Ahura Mazda is often represented in monuments and sculptures as a winged symbol with a male figure.
- Mazdakism’s founder is Zaradust-e Khuragan, a Zoroastrian mobad, and philosopher who taught hedonism and altruism.
- Like Jesus Christ, Mazdak encouraged people to have a personal relationship with God.
- Mazdak’s teachings emphasized the unimportance of religious formalities, claiming that religious people are simply those who understood the principles of the universe.
- Through the support of King Kavadh I, Mazdak was able to create an egalitarian society. This resulted in chaos and Mazdak’s persecution.
- After Mazdak’s death, there followed a suppression of all Mazdakites. A few Mazdakis survived and settled in remote areas.