Marriage & Religion in Late Sasanian Empire


A review of Marriage Customs of the Religious Communities of the Late Sasanian Empire: An Indicator of Cultural Sharing, by Haleh Emrani.

In her dissertation, Haleh Emrani seeks to integrate the social, institutional, and legal histories of the multiple religious communities who lived as subjects of the Sasanian Empire into a single, broadened narrative. The dissertation focuses specifically on the traditions of family law cultivated by the Mazdeans (Zoroastrians), rabbinic Jews, and East Syrian Christians of late Sasanian Iraq and Iran. Taking a comparative approach, the author aims to identify institutions common to the three religious communities that indicate a (partially) shared legal heritage between them, as well as to discern particular shared social practices even where the legal traditions differ. Through this comparative method, the author seeks to present Sasanian society in a more holistic fashion than other historiographical approaches that focus more narrowly on individual religious communities. In this respect the author follows closely in the footsteps of her advisor Michael Morony and his classic Iraq after the Muslim Conquest (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2005). Emrani’s dissertation fits as well into an important trend in recent historiography of the late antique and early Islamic Near East that focuses on law and judicial practice as a major arena of interaction between the region’s diverse religious communities. This trend is represented also by the work of Uriel Simonsohn and Richard Payne, with whom Emrani shares a broadly comparative approach (but from whom she differs in her general acceptance of the view that Sasanian religious communities were manifestly “autonomous” from one another by virtue of having separate, well-defined, well-functioning judicial systems).

In Chapter 1 the author sets out her comparative methodological approach. In comparing the legal traditions of Mazdean, Jewish, and Christian communities, her main stated concern is to identify commonalities that point to the exchange of intellectual materials within the Sasanian milieu. But she remains rightly concerned as well to identify those commonalities that might simply be widespread regional customs and not the results of processes of exchange in the Sasanian period. In addition to outlining the author’s methodological approach, Chapter 1 also includes a comprehensive and very helpful overview of the source material available in Middle Persian, Babylonian Jewish Aramaic, Syriac, and Arabic for the study of late Sasanian society. The Chapter closes with an account of the historiography of the religious communities, marriage law, and gender relations of the Sasanian world.

Chapter 2 gives an overview of the administrative structures of the Sasanian state and the internal institutional structures of the three religious communities under study. The author draws from the impressively wide array of sources described in Chapter 1, including the major Middle Persian Sasanian legal texts, the Babylonian Talmud and other late antique Jewish writings, and East Syrian synodal canons. In investigating the Sasanian state apparatus, the author extrapolates a systematic judicial and administrative hierarchy from the Book of One Thousand Judgments. She remains rightly cautious, however, in affirming that the Babylonian Talmud offers glimpses of communal authorities like the rabbis and the exilarch, but that it should not be taken as evidence for the existence of a coherent and fixed Jewish administrative structure. Chapter 2 also includes a very useful overview of the history of the Church of the East in the Sasanian Empire, the formation of its ecclesiastical hierarchy, and its integration into the patterns of Sasanian political and social life.

In Chapter 3 the author examines the traditions of marriage law of the three religious communities and argues that each was shaped according to its particular religious teachings to facilitate the social reproduction of the community and “the continuity of its traditions” (p. 112). The Chapter gives an overview of the marriage law of Mazdeans, rabbinic Jews, and East Syrians through examinations of both primary texts and the secondary literature. The author points to a few shared legal institutions and potential instances of contact in the legal traditions, such as heirship strategies among Mazdeans and Jews, but mainly gives descriptive accounts of the different legal traditions. In general, the author reads legal sources both as normative, prescriptive works and for evidence of social practice.

Chapter 4 is the heart of the dissertation and contains its argument on the various convergences of the Sasanian Empire’s religio-legal traditions. The author compares the family law traditions of the three major religious groups based on the material laid out in Chapter 3. In doing so she seeks to establish instances of “cultural sharing” between them. The author notes several institutions common to Mazdeans and Jews; with reference to their similarities to ancient Babylonian law, she suggests that these have been adopted into Mazdean and Jewish law from a common regional legal culture. The author highlights as well the major differences between the legal traditions, particularly those between East Syrian law (with its typically Christian emphases on monogamy and the indissolubility of the marriage bond) and the other two. The Chapter closes with an insightful examination of the transformations effected in Mazdean law in response to Muslim rule, particularly its heightened focus on communal consolidation by preventing marriage outside the Mazdean community.

Haleh Emrani’s Marriage Customs of the Religious Communities of the Late Sasanian Empire: An Indicator of Cultural Sharing is a welcome addition to the growing body of literature on inter-religious relations in the Sasanian Empire and the eastern lands of the early Islamic caliphates. In its comparative approach, its wide range of source material, and especially its focus on law, the dissertation has brought to the fore promising and vital areas for future study.

Lev Weitz
Department of Near Eastern Studies
Princeton University

Primary Sources

Middle Persian legal texts
Babylonian Talmud
East Syrian Synodicon

Dissertation Information

University of California, Los Angeles. 2011. 275 pp. Primary Advisor: Michael Morony.


Image: Image by Haleh Emrani.

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