Gojastak Abalish

Gojastak Abalish

Gojastak Abalish or Gizistag Abalis is an apologetic treatise between Adurfarnbag, a Zoroastrian and a heretical Zandiq, Abalish. Abalis puts seven questions to Adurfarnbag about Zoroastrian doctrine which he answered truthfully and satisfactorily. Each answer puts a gentle smile on the face of Islamic ruler, Al-Ma’mun, who was an ardent supporter of science and knowledge.

Who is Abalish?

The eponymous antagonist of the text is Abolish or Abalis, a dweller in Istakhr, Fars Province. The name, according to scholars, is not Persian. However, as the title says, he is “accursed” or Gojastak. Gojastak, has previously used for Ahriman or evil and Alexander, The Great. The latter is called Gojastak because he burnt holy books of Zoroastrianism when attacking Persian in 330 B.C.

Gojastak Abalish
Persepolis On Fire by Peter Connolly

One day Abalish, formerly a follower of Mazdeism, stepped into a fire temple in Istkahr in order to practice Baj or Waj, whispering prayer before and after a meal. But, he was wan not treated respectably and forced to leave the holy place. Feeling humiliated, he traveled to Baghdad to ask the Caliph for judgment. 

Who is Adurfarnbag?

On the other hand, Adurfarnbag or Azarfarnabag is the protagonist; defender of Zoroastrianism. Adurfarnbag, the son of Farroxzadan or Farrokzadan, is the first author of Zoroastrian compilation, the Dēnkard, Encyclopedia of Mazdaism. He is remembered and praised as leader of Mazdaism in 9th century because of his thorough knowledge of theology and religion in books such as Shkand-gumanig Vizar, Dadestan-i Denig, Zand-i Vohuman Yasht and Shayest Na-Shayest.

Gojastak Abalish Debate Topic

Like other Pahlavi texts, Gizistag Abalis’s topic is related to religion. Abalish targets some of the pillars of Zoroastrian beliefs such as dualism and its implications (Fire and Water, Punishment and reward); reason to worship fire which is weak in essence and needs care and ritual and custom (use of cattle urine, gomez, for ritual purification and use of the sacred girdle (kustig).

Initiation ceremony (navjote) showing the adoption of the white undervest (sudreh) and the chord (kusti)

Dispute in the Caliph’s Court

The debate between Azarfarnabag and Abolish took place in court of Al-Ma’mun (786 –833). Probably the time of debate goes back to late period of his reign, after the death of his astute Persian Vizir, Al-Fadl ibn Sahl in Sarakhs, 818. The reason is that before this period he was busy quelling civil unrest in Islamic land. According to the text, the debate took place before Al-Ma’mun and other religious leaders; Islamic, Christian and Jewish.

Other Versions of Story

Talking about the history is a tricky thing. While scholars agreed upon the event of Gojastak Abalish, Abol Ma’li, a theologian in 11th century, narrates a similar debate story where Islamic Jurists convinced the heresy of the Zoroastrian. As a result, Al-Ma’mun issued the order to kill him.

Gojastak Abalish
Al-Ma’mun and his Persian Vizir, Al-Fadl ibn Sahl in Velayat-e Eshgh TV Series (2000)

Al-Ma’mun’s enthusiasm for religious debate was also cited by the great Arab Historian, Al-Masudi, in Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems. Knowing the fact that the dominant discourse of then was Islamic, it was not surprising and almost probable that the account has undergone radical alteration. One of the most famous debate in Shiite world has happened between the eighth Imam of Twelver Shiites, Imam Reza and other religious leaders. The story was narrated by Ibn Babawayh, the most important Shiite scholar in 10th century. In his account, Imam Reza debates with high ranking leaders of Exilarch, Catholicos, Sabians, followers of Zabuur and arch-mobed of Zoroastrianism and wins. We are not sure,but this version could be the Islamized version of Gojastak Abalish.

Gojastak Abalish Translations

Gojastak Abalish was originally written in Pahlavi, middle Persian language.  Homi F. Chacha, an Indian Parsee translated the book into English with the title of “Gajastak Abâlish” in 1936. In addition, Prods Oktor Skjaervo also translated the book into English.

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Arda Viraf Book

Book of Arda Viraf

Arda Viraf is a dream journey of Zoroastrian religious man into Heaven and Hell in Sassanid Era. Arda Viraf is father of spiritual journey in the world.

Who is Arda Viraf?

The antagonist of the book is called Arda Viraf whose name is open to debate. The first part of his name “Arda” has otherworldly connotation, however some defines it “trustful or righteous”. The same thing goes for the second part, too. On the one hand, some believe that his name is Arda Wiraz as once mentioned in Avesta; and on the other hand, some say his name is Viraz according to Pazand and Sanskrit language. To make it more complex, the anonymous writer introduces him as Veh Shabur with seven sisters/ wives who is among the top ranking Mobeds (Zoroastrian religious men is called Mobed). That’s all said in the text. There is no historical record of such a man in ancient Persian history. It might partly disappeared because of many rewriting and altering after the fall of Sassanid Empire.

Mobed in Chak Chak
Two Mobeds in Chak Chak, Yazd

Author and Time of Writing

Arda Viraf is written by an anonymous author. The date of writing the text is unsettled. But, historical names in the book cause the scholars to estimate the date of the writing the book to Sassanid Empire (224 to 651). The author begins his book with introducing Zartosht, Zoroaster, and 300 years of purity and faith toward Zoroastrianism. Then the evil-doer Alexander, the Roman, invaded Persian (330 BC) and burnt the holy books of Avesta and Zand, written on cow-skins with gold ink safe kept in Stakhar Papakan (Cube of Zoroaster).

Cube of Zoroaster Shiraz

Cube of Zoroaster, Naqsh-e Rostam

Alexander’s death brought confusion to Iranshahr and “religions of many kinds, and different fashions of belief, and skepticism, and various codes of law were promulgated in the world”. According to late books written on Persian History, we now know that this “confusion” period refer to Parthian Empire (247 BC – 224 AD) who was famous for religious tolerance. It was Adurbad Maraspandan, the famous minister of Shapur II (309-379 CE) who brought the glory of Zoroastrianism back to Iran again. Another historical name mentioned in Arda Viraf book is Veh Shapur, the famous Mobed in the time of Khosrow I (531-579 CE). These names enhance the chance fixing the date of writing to Sassanid Era.

Shapur II
Taq Botan Rock-relief -Shapur III and Shapur II

Spiritual Journey

According to this Middle Persian text, Arda Viraf as chosen out of seven other righteous men. He embarks on this journey wholeheartedly despite his wives’ disapproval. After drinking a mixture of wine, mang (Indian Cannabis), and Haoma (Divine plant in Zoroastrianism), his soul went from the body to Chinvat Bridge and come back after seven days and nights. While his soul was roaming around, his seven sisters reciting Avesta sitting on Persian Carpet next to ever-burning Fire. After coming back from afterlife, he asked for food and wine. Then he began telling his vision of heaven and hell.

Vision of Heaven and Hell

Arda Viraf vision of heaven and hell is similar to otherworldly visions of monotheistic religion. In aromatic heaven, he can “taste immortality and pleasure eternally’. The heaven is a home to devotees of Zoroaster and his book. There are three categories of heaven dwellers, Star, Moon and Sun. The author names “Gayomard (Keyumars), Zartosht, Kai-Vishtasp, Frashoshtar, Jamasp, and other well-doers and leaders of the religion” as well.

Paradise in Arda Viraf

The wanderer again walks on Chinvat Bridge to enter hell where a dreadful river runs beneath it. In this part, the author lists the sins and punishments of evil-doers in a grotesque way. Here are some most frequent sins in hell: disrespect to four elements known as Akhshig, adultery, cruelty to animals, False judgement, sorcery, backbiting and telling lies. It is important to note the anti-feminism perspective of author in the book which could be in Abrahamic religion as well.

Arda Viraf Book
Punishment for sinners who didn’t wear Zoroastrian Girdle

Persian Divine Comedy

Dante completed his Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy) in 1320 in Italy. Divine Comedy, one of masterpiece of world literature revolve around the vision of afterlife in Christianity. Dante takes a journey to Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise by help of great ancient Greek poet, Virgil. Dante’s belief in Holy Trinity made him divide the afterlife world into three section; while duality in Zoroastrianism made Arda Viraf see the afterlife in two sections; heaven and hell. Both books represent the established religion of their given time by the religious authorities; Mobed Mobadan in Zoroastrianism and Pope in Christianity.

Dante's Inferno Gustave Doré
Dante’s Inferno by Gustave Doré

One can say that Arda Viraf is a forerunner of spiritual journey to after world in world literature which Divine Comedy is the par excellence. 

Arda Viraf and Mi’raj

Arda Viraf Journey and Mi’raj journey by Islamic Prophet Muhammad share certain similarities. First, both travelers are introduced as chosen person and prophet in holy texts. Muhammad, like Arda Viraf, goes on night journey, both physical and spiritual, on the back of a white winged beastlike horse called Buraq to heaven. His journey to heaven is called Mi’raj, literally means “ascending”.

Ascent of Muhammad to Heaven from the Khamseh of Nizami

Muhammad is accompanied by Archangel Gabriel, while Arda Viraf has two companies; Sraosha or Srosh the pious and Adar the angel. Muhammad meets Adam, Abraham, Noah, Moses and Jesus in his journey, however, the Zoroastrian messenger never meet Zoroaster. In both of these divine voyage, the visitors narrate their vision of heaven and hell to confirm the common belief of afterlife. Whereas the Zoroastrian version was marginalized throughout the history, the Islamic account of night journey, nearly 400 years after Arda Viraf, were praised lavishly in literature and painting, particularly Persian Miniature. The shining example of Mi’raj illustration is in Khamseh of Nizami in 16th century.

Adaptation: Ardaviraf Report

Arda Viraf Report is a play by Bahram Beyzai. In his adaption, Arda Viraf meets the pantheon of characters from Persian history and mythology.

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