Bābak and the Khurramī revolt according to Wāqid's account

Wāqid ‘Amr ibn-Tamīnī’s account of Bābak and the Khurramī revolt against the Abbasid caliphate is formally like news or history.  Yet surviving excerpts are obviously derogatory representations often implausibly knit together.  Wāqid’s account probably had value as entertainment.  It probably had value as support for the dominant Abbasid ideology against that of Bābak and the Khurramīs.  It also served as a source of information for those who had no other.  These same textual economics probably support much of news and history right up to the present.

Bābak led the major Khurramī uprising against the Abbasid caliphate from 817 to 837.  The Khurramīs lived in the Azerbaijan region of the far northwest of present-day Iran.  They had close ties to the pre-Islamic religion of Mazdakism.  Culturally Iranian, Bābak and his fellow Khurramīs were hostile to Muslim Arabic colonists who settled in their region.

Abbasid caliphs numerous times directed generals to suppress the Khurramī revolt.  Again and again Abbasid forces suffered great loses in attempting to attack Bābak’s mountainous strongholds.  In 837, a large, well-supplied, and well-paid Abbasid army finally managed to capture Bābak and put down the Khurramī revolt.

Bābak’s execution underscored the public importance of these events.  Bābak was brought as a captive to the Abbasid capital of Samarra:

To give the populace an exemplary lesson, a parade was held … in which Bābak, clad in an embroidered cloak and capped with a miter, was made to ride on an elephant …. The whole length of the street to the Bāb al-ʿĀmma was lined on both sides with cavalrymen and foot soldiers and huge numbers of people.  Then {Abbasid Caliph} al-Muʿtasim ordered the executioner to proceed.  First Bābak’s hands and feet were cut off, then at the caliph’s command his mangled body was strung on a gibbet in the outskirts of Sāmarrā.  According to some sources his head was later sent around for display in other cities and in Khorasan. [1]

The general and soldiers who overcame Bābak and the Khurramīs were lavishly rewarded.  Court poets celebrated the victory.  The events were what today would be called headline news.

Bābak and the Khurramī revolt remained a popular subject into the tenth century.  Probably in the mid-tenth century the Abbasid author Wāqid ‘Amr ibn-Tamīnī wrote a book about Bābak.  Wāqid’s book was called Events in the Life of Bābak.  That book name translated more literally and anachronistically means news about Bābak.[2]  Just as newspaper forerunners in sixteenth-century England greatly sensationalized events, so too did Wāqid’s book about Bābak.

Wāqid deployed a dense array of derogatory representations in describing the events of Bābak’s life.  According to Wāqid, Bābak’s father was from the area that had been the capital of the Sassanid Empire.  However, Bābak’s father was not a man of princely status.  Bābak’s father was an cooking-oil peddler who carried his oil on his back.  That would have been a well-recognized figure of a pack animal like a donkey or a camel.  According to Wāqid, Bābak’s mother was a one-eyed woman who was caught fornicating in a bush with Bābak’s father.  Wāqid added the telling detail that while fornicating in a bush Bābak’s mother and father were singing in Nabataean.  A book written early in the tenth-century celebrated the Nabataeans and their hostility to the Arab invaders of Mesopotamia.  Wāqid thus depicted Bābak’s parents as alien, primitive, and hostile to the Arab colonists of his region.[3]

Wāqid added further demeaning descriptions of Bābak’s parents.  According to Wāqid, Bābak’s father died after being attacked “from the rear.”  That suggests either his fleeing from an attacking foe or suffering homosexual violence.  After Bābak’s father’s death, Wāqid reported that Bābak’s mother “started to serve the people for wages as a wet nurse.”  She lived in destitution and poverty.  The rebel king Bābak thus appears to have come from a most un-royal family.

According to Wāqid’s account, Bābak gained his kingship through chance, adultery, and treachery.  Jāvīdān, a Khurramī chief, was driving 2000 sheep to market.  He stopped in a village for lodging.  Despite all Jāvīdān’s animal wealth, his host judged him to be an unimportant person.  Jāvīdān’s host thus directed Jāvīdān to lodge with Bābak’s mother.  She, destitute, could offer Jāvīdān no food or drink.  That a chief driving 2000 sheep to market would be judged as unimportant and directed to lodge with Bābak’s mother is wildly implausible.  These events are most plausibly interpreted as meaning the cosmic righteousness of insulting Jāvīdān.

From Wāqid’s perspective, the righteousness of insulting Jāvīdān is that Jāvīdān took Bābak into his household.  When Jāvīdān came to Bābak’s mother’s lodgings, Bābak took care of Jāvīdān’s servants and animals.  That’s a lowly task.  Jāvīdān also observed that Bābak’s language was “indistinct, a crude vernacular.”  In other words, Bābak didn’t speak Arabic.[4]  Nonetheless, Jāvīdān saw that Bābak was “crafty and clever.”  Jāvīdān then incomprehensibly offered Bābak’s mother fifty silver coins a month for taking Bābak and making him guardian over Jāvīdān’s lands and possessions.

Bābak subsequently had sex with Jāvīdān’s wife and caused Jāvīdān to die.  Jāvīdān left his mountain castle to do battle with a rival chief.  Jāvīdān’s wife, “passionately in love with Bābak,” repeatedly had sex with Bābak.  Jāvīdān returned to his castle victorious, having killed in battle his foe.  But Jāvīdān was suffering his own wound.  Within three days of his return home, Jāvīdān died.  According to Wāqid, Jāvīdān’s wife said to Bābak:

You are hardy and clever; he has died!  I won’t raise my voice about this to any of his companions {Jāvīdān’s loyal warriors / comitatus}.

Those words suggest that Bābak slyly caused Jāvīdān’s death.  Especially contrasted with Jāvīdān’s action in battle against his foe, Bābak engaged in unmanly, profoundly treacherous behavior against his master Jāvīdān.  Jāvīdān’s wife instructed Bābak on his great purpose, in addition to being able to have sex freely with her:

Get ready for tomorrow!  I’ll have a gathering of them {Jāvīdān’s companions} for you and tell them that Jāvīdān said, “I wish to die during this night, so that my spirit will go forth from my body and enter the body of Bābak, associating itself with his spirit.  He will accomplish for himself and for you something which no one else has ever accomplished and no one will accomplish after him.  For he will rule the earth, slay the oppressors, and restore the Mazdakiyah {Mazdakism}.  By him shall you abject {people} become mighty and by him shall your lost be uplifted.

That abstract political mythology contrasts jarringly with the story-facts of the lowly Bābak’s treachery toward his generous master Jāvīdān.

Bābak restoring Mazdakism is best interpreted as Wāqid’s parodic sarcasm.  Mazdakism urged non-violence.  Bābak historically was associated with waging two decades of very bloody war.  According to Wāqid, one day Bābak’s mother found Bābak asleep under a tree, with blood all over his body.  She concluded that Bābak “would have a brilliant mission.” His bloody mission failed.  It ended with him dying, covered in blood, before a large crowd in the Abbasid capital.  Wāqid’s account surely is fabricated with keen awareness of those historical facts.

Wāqid’s account included a parody of Christian communion.  The morning after Jāvīdān’s death, his wife informed his companions of his alleged death wish.  They accepted Bābak as the bearer of Jāvīdān’s spirit and authority.  Jāvīdān’s wife immediately arranged for a ceremony to confirm ritually that fidelity:

she called for a cow and ordered that it be killed and flayed with its skin spread out.  Then she placed on the skin a vessel full of wine, beside which she broke bread, placing it in the bowel.  Then she called upon one man after another, saying, “Step on the skin with your foot, take a piece of bread, dip it into the wine, eat it, and say, ‘I have placed my faith in thee, oh, spirit of Bābak, as I had faith in the spirit of Jāvīdān.’  Then take the hand of Bābak, do obeisance to it and kiss it.”

Other peoples may have used rituals similar to Christian communion.  However, Bābak was politically associated with the Byzantine Christian foe of the Abbasid caliphate.[5]  Moreover, Wāqid also described Jāvīdān’s wife as publicly enacting a marriage ceremony between her and Bābak the same day after Jāvīdān’s death.  In the marriage ceremony, Jāvīdān’s wife and Bābak publicly sat together on bedding.  Jāvīdān’s wife then gave Bābak a sprig of basil.  Basil was a Christian symbol of kingship.  To Muslim readers, these rituals and symbols emphasized Bābak’s status as an alien, morally outrageous other.

The Abbasid caliphate encompassed cultural battle between Arabic Islamic culture and non-Arabic pre-Islamic cultures.  Wāqid’s account of events in Bābak’s life was a blow within that conflict.[6]  It denigrated Bābak’s non-Arabic pre-Islamic culture in factually implausible ways.  Factual implausibility, however, seems to have been relatively unimportant in accounts of Bābak and the Khurramīs over more than a millennium.[7]

Bābak joker mosaic

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[1] Yūsofī (1988).

[2] All the details of Wāqid’s account cited in this post are from the excerpts of it preserved in al-Nadim’s Fihrist, Part IX, trans. Dodge (1970) pp. 818-822. Yūsofī (1988) reports the book’s name as Akhbār Bābak.  Akhbār is transliterated Arabic for “news.”  Nothing is now known about Wāqid other than that he wrote that book.  Wāqid’s book has survived only in others’ excerpts of it.  Wāqid, like most journalists today, probably had a low position in the authorial status hierarchy.  A variety of other historical sources also provide some, often conflicting, information about Bābak and the Khurramīs.  Wāqid refers to Bābak’s parents singing in Nabataean.  Ibn Wahshiyah’s Nabataean Agriculture, which would have given considerable force to that reference, is dated to 930.  Al-Tabari’s History for the year 223 (837) includes a fanciful story describing Bābak as the bastard son of a vagabond desperado.  It also refers to Bābak’s mother as one-eyed.  Trans. Bosworth (1991) pp. 90-1.  Al-Tabari died in 923.  Wāqid seems to have amplified al-Tabari’s tale about Bābak’s parentage.  Wāqid’s book is thus plausibly dated to the mid-tenth century.

[3] According to Wāqid, Bābak’s father was born in al-Mada’in, which is the cities of Seleucia-Ctesiphon.  That was the capital of the Sassanid Persian Empire.  Ibn Wahshiyah’s Nabataean Agriculture celebrated pre-Islamic, pre-Arabic life in ancient Iraq.

[4] Bābak lived near Ardabil, in the mountains of al-Badhdh. Arabic was uncommonly spoken there.  The Islamic encyclopaedia-writer Yaqut (d. 1229) reported that persons in that area spoke Adhriyah, a Medo-Persian language.  Wright (1948), p. 44.

[5] Bābak was in contact with the Byzantine Emperor Theophilus.  Yūsofī (1988).  When Bābak was captured, a large number of his warriors converted to Christianity and aligned themselves with Theophilus. Venetis (2005).

[6] Conflict between pre-Islamic Iranian culture and Islamic Arabic cultural was even more starkly represented in the subsequent treason trial and punishment of the Iranian general, Khaydār b. Kāvūs Afshīn, who captured Bābak.  Wright (1948) pp. 56-59, 124-131.

[7] Readers of Wāqid’s account haven’t treated it as mainly ideology or entertainment. Yūsofī (1988) notes:

statements about his {Bābak’s} parentage and background are unclear and inconsistent, sometimes fantastic and incredible.  … In most of these accounts, other than Dīnavarī’s, a note of sarcasm and hostility can be perceived.

That’s an understatement.  In her “Bābak” entry for the Encyclopaedia of Islam, Patricia Crone seems to have interpreted Wāqid’s account as factual history.  Bābak, associated with Mazdakism and proto-socialism, was celebrated as a hero in the Soviet Union’s Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic.


Bosworth, Clifford Edmund, trans. 1991. al-Ṭabarī.  Storm and stress along the northern frontiers of the Àbbāsid CaliphateHistory of al-Ṭabarī, v. 33.  Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press.

Dodge, Bayard Dodge, trans. 1970. The Fihrist of al-Nadīm: a tenth century survey of Muslim culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

Venetis, Evangelos. 2005. “ḴORRAMIS IN BYZANTIUM.” Encyclopædia Iranica, online.

Wright, Edwin M. 1948. “Bābak of Badhdh and Al-Afshin During the Years 816-841 A.D.: Symbols of Iranian persistence against Islamic penetration in North Iran.” Muslim World 38:1 (Jan.) pp. 43-59 and 38:2 (Apr.) pp. 124-131.

Yūsofī, Ḡ. -Ḥ.  1988.  “BĀBAK ḴORRAMĪ.” Encyclopædia Iranica. Vol. III, Fasc. 3, pp. 299-306, and online.

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