Salman al-Farisı رضي الله عنه, Muhammad’s ﷺ Persian Companion

Salman al-Farisı رضي الله عنه, Muhammad’s ﷺ Persian Companion

Professor Sarah Bowen Savant

Many Iranians are proud that one of their number –a man by the name of Salman al-Farisı, Salman “the Persian”–was among Muhammad’s companions and played a role both in the Muslim community in Medina and afterward, when the Muslims controlled an empire. Salman’s tomb in Ctesiphon, which he governed after the Arab conquest, became a destination for travelers, who still visit it today. He is remembered as a special friend of ʿAlı and as a defender of the interests of the ʿAlids. Among the Ismaʿılıs, Salman has played a role in gnostic strands of thought. Recently, he has received attention in a number of popular Persian-language biographies dedicated to him.1

Salman’s Iranian, or Persian, identity is often emphasized today, especially in Iran. Scholars outside of Iran likewise treat him as an early Iranian representative of Islam. But was this always true? In many early texts by Muslims, including biographies of the Prophet, Salman’s Persian birthplace gives a specificity to his foreign, non-Arab origins, but its primary function is simply to illustrate a major theme in early Arabic writings, namely, the acceptance of Islam by diverse peoples, Persians among them. The importance of Salman’s Persian origins solidifies, however, with the emergence of the Muslim community in Iran. From the second half of the fourth/tenth century onward, Salman’s identity as an Isfahanı and a Persian is embraced in Arabic traditions that nostalgically recall his homeland as well as the Prophet’s affection for it and its people. There were even traditions claiming special status for Salman’s descendants, possibly including those who did not convert to Islam.

Scholars have long sought to disentangle the enormous quantity of traditions attributed to and about Salman for different purposes.2  In this chapter, I trace the adoption of Salman as a site of memory for Persians and particularly for the people of Isfahan.

Salman in the Early Biographical Tradition

Salman figures prominently in the Muslim biographical tradition and particularly in the second/eighth and third/ninthcentury biographies of the Prophet and the early Muslim community. A prominent story narrates how Salman abandoned his homeland in search of a better religion. In the version repeated by Ibn Hisham and still widely known today, Salman’s yearning for a better religion compels him to overcome numerous obstacles, until at last he finds satisfaction. The story is placed amid others that show Muhammad’s arrival was anticipated, and it precedes Ibn Hisham’s accounts of the revelation of the Qurʾan, the first people to accept Islam, and memorable events involving Muhammad and the early Muslims in Mecca and Medina. The reporting begins with Salman relating his story to Ibn ʿAbbas, the Prophet’s cousin:

I was a Persian man from among the people of Isfahan, from a village called Jayy. My father was a man from the class of the landed gentry (dihqan) of his village, and I was the most beloved of God’s creatures to him. He loved me so much that he imprisoned me in his house, just like one imprisons a slave girl. I exerted myself in Zoroastrianism (almajusiyya ), until I became the attendant of the sacred fire, who stokes it, not letting it die down for a moment.3

One day when Salman’s father was busy, he sent his son to check on his estate. En route, Salman passed by a Christian church, from which he overheard the sound of prayer. He entered and, becoming engrossed by what he saw and heard, decided to forget his father’s mission. “Since I had been held prisoner in my father’s house, I had no idea what they were doing,” he later recalled to Ibn ʿAbbas. “From where does this religion originate?”he asked. “Syria,”came the reply. When he returned home, his father reprimanded him: “My son, there is no good in that religion; your religion and the religion of your fathers is better than it.” Salman naively contradicted him: “By God, no, it is better than our religion.” His father, trying to put a stop to the nonsense, shackled Salman and imprisoned him within his house.4 Determined to find out more about this wonderful religion, Salman escaped to Syria and entered upon a semi itinerant existence, which first had him join up with a Christian bishop (alusquf), who stole from his own church. At the bishop’s death, Salman exposed his corruption and then passed as a student through the hands of his successor and three good Christians in, sequentially, Mosul, Nisibis, and Amorium,5 each at his death passing Salman on to the next. At last Salman joined a party of merchants from the tribe of Kalb, who promised to take Salman to Arabia but instead, when they reached Wadı alQura (in the northern Hijaz), sold him to a Jew, who sold him onward to a cousin of his from the tribe of Qurayza, who then brought him to Medina. Muhammad had not yet emigrated from Mecca to Medina, but when he did, Salman recognized him by the clues the last Christian had given. This man had promised a prophet would soon arise in Arabia, sent with the “religion of Abraham.” The prophet would emigrate to a land between two lava belts, amid which grow date palms; eat food given as a gift (alhadiyya), but not as alms (alsadaqa); and bear the “seal of prophecy”(khatam alnubuwwa ) between his shoulders.6  Upon meeting Muhammad, Salman offered him alms, which the Prophet handed over to his companions, and then a gift, which Muhammad accepted for himself.

Returning on another day, Salman came upon the Prophet, who had just attended a funeral. Ibn Hisham claims to quote Salman in his own words, addressed still to Ibn ʿAbbas:

[Muhammad] was sitting with his companions. I greeted him and then went around to look at his back. Could I see the seal which my companion had described to me? When the Messenger of God saw me go around him, he recognized that I was seeking evidence for something that had been described to me, and so he threw off his cloak, laying bare his back. I looked at the seal and recognized it. I leaned over him, kissed him, and wept. The Messenger of God then said to me: “Come here.” So I went and sat before him, and told him my story, just as I am telling you, O Ibn ʿAbbas. 7

Afterward, Muhammad told Salman to write out an agreement with his master, with Salman agreeing to plant three hundred date palm trees for the master and to pay forty measures of gold in order to secure his freedom. Muhammad asked his companions to help Salman, which they did, each bringing as many palm shoots as he could. Salman and the companions then dug holes, and the Prophet himself planted the palms in the holes. Then the Prophet gave Salman the gold with which to finalize his freedom.8

On the whole, the narrative hangs together well, as its plot unfolds with climactic moments in Medina. There are good guys (Salman, most of the Christians, and Muhammad) and bad guys (one Christian and the Kalbite merchants). The devices of a narrator (Salman himself) and an audience (Ibn ʿAbbas, as well as the reader/listener) are employed. Salman’s voice is infused with emotion on his first encounter with Christianity: “By God, no, it is better than our religion!” 9

The story opens onto a variety of points, none of which make much of Salman’s Persian origins. They do, however, address the succession of religions and the nature of Islam and belonging to the Muslim community. In refusing Salman’s alms, Muhammad demonstrated his integrity, in contrast to Salman’s first patron, the corrupt bishop. This point about Muhammad’s integrity and the precedent he set is picked up in other traditions that narrow in on the gift and employ the terms hadiyya and sadaqa.10  The rightness of true religion was recognized before Islam, as was the inadequacy of other religions. It was Christians who predicted the coming of Islam, but not all Christians recognized true religion. Pious Christians showed the way to Islam, but on the eve of Islam’s arrival, Salman’s last Christian mentor could think of no Christian worthy of Salman’s service; this would seem to suggest that Christianity had been replaced by Islam.11

Salman’s instinct for true religion raises the question for Ibn Hisham of whether he should be classified as a hanıf, that is, as a follower of the original and true monotheism. Ibn Hisham seems here to grapple with a question common to religions that make their entry into environments crowded with other religions: how does one classify people who, because of the accident of their birth, could not have known the most recent revelation but were familiar with previous ones? Ibn Hisham finishes his account of Salman with a further report, in which Salman relates to the Prophet his journey and mentions his search for “alHanıfiyya,” identified by Salman as “the religion of Abraham.” Salman recounts that he tracked down a holy man in Syria, who was healing the sick. When questioned, the man said: “You are inquiring about something that people do not ask about today. The time has drawn near when a prophet will be sent from the people of the haram [i.e., Mecca] with this religion. Go to him, for he will bring you to it.” Hearing this account, Muhammad says to Salman, “O Salman, if you have told me the truth, then you have met Jesus, the son of Mary.” 12

It is also significant that Salman has left behind his family, religion, and home in Jayy, suggesting that one must make a long journey – real or figurative –before being admitted into the new, Muslim community (umma). Salman’s travels call to mind other quests for truth, knowledge, and wisdom, as well as aspects of the more legally weighted theme of hijra –that is, the break that Muhammad made with his past in Mecca and his emigration from the town to the more hospitable Medina, as well as the migration of the early Muslims to garrison cities in the conquered lands. Hijra marked the founding of a new life for Muhammad and these settlers, as did Salman’s journey for him, far from his homeland.13 Such views of Salman and his emigration also resonate with much wider ideas in the Qurʾan and early Islamic historiography according to which Islam requires a dedication that can render problematic former commitments and loyalties. Accordingly, Salman’s origins are left behind.

Ibn Hisham’s biography, composed in Egypt, is an adaptation of the work of his great predecessor Ibn Ishaq. Ibn Ishaq worked within a tradition of historiography that had deep roots in Iraq, although he is often regarded as a representative of Medinese historiography. 14 Ibn Ishaq’s book circulated widely in different recensions and played a large role in the shaping of memory about Muhammad and his early community, Salman included. The stories quoted here turn up in the works of Iraqi traditionists who cite Ibn Ishaq as well as other authorities and paint a common picture of a man who has left his past behind.15  Ibn Saʿd (d. 230/845), for example, was a younger contemporary of Ibn Hisham who composed in Iraq a multivolume treatment of the generations of the Muslim community. The work includes the Prophet and Salman, to whom Ibn Saʿd dedicated a lengthy biography, with the story of the journey repeated toward the start and attributed to Ibn Ishaq. 16 Ibn Saʿd also reports another widely transmitted story, which describes a controversy that took place after Salman’s arrival in Medina at the so called Battle of the Ditch (alkhandaq), when the Muslims were besieged by the Meccans and dug a deep ditch to keep the Meccans out of Medina. Amid the digging, a dispute arose among Muhammad’s followers. It centered on Salman and on whether he, as a Muslim from neither Mecca nor Medina, belonged more with the Meccan Muhajirun or with the Medinan Ansar. The Muhajirun reportedly said, “Salman is one of us”(Salman minna), and the Medinans likewise claimed him as one of their own. Ibn Saʿd explains that the issue was which group Salman would aid in the digging since he was strong. Muhammad settled the matter, declaring: “Salman is one of us, [a member of] the ahl albayt.” 17

The term ahl albayt denotes the Prophet’s own family, including especially ʿAlı, his cousin who married his daughter Fatima, and their descendants, who include the Imams of the Shiʿa. Throughout Arabic sources, traditionists cite the report, and among the Shiʿa today, it is widely known and taught to schoolchildren, though not always in the context of the Battle of the Ditch. For Ibn Saʿd, it signals that Muhammad had accepted Salman as a member of his own family, and likewise that Salman had broken ties with his past and especially with his birth family. This acceptance explains why Ibn Saʿd places his biography of Salman, featuring the latter’s journey, within a section of his book dedicated to the Banu Hashim, the Prophet’s own clan. Within the organization of the work, this is a logical place for Salman. Ibn Saʿd quotes in the same section other traditions that underscore the replacement of Salman’s original family with the family of Muhammad. The Prophet makes his companion Abu Dardaʾ (or, in a variant version, Hudhayfa) Salman’s “brother” (akh a bayna Salman alFarisı waAbı Dardaʾ), thus replacing birth with spiritual kinship. We are told that Salman imparted wisdom about religious practice to Abu Darda.18  In a different report, ʿAlı is asked about Salman and replies, “That is a man who is one of us and belongs to us, the ahl albayt.”ʿAlı goes on to praise Salman’s knowledge, a prominent theme taken up in gnostic lines of thought that make reference to Qurʾan 13:43: “Those who do not believe say: ‘You are not sent as a messenger.’ Say: ‘God is sufficient witness between me and you, [as are] those who possess knowledge of the Scripture (waman ʿindahu ʿilm alkitab ).’”ʿAlı says: “Salman read the ‘first scripture’(alkitab alawwal) and the ‘last scripture’(alkitab alakhir ).”19

These traditions evoke another theme, that of a convert accepting Islam and consequently becoming kin with a fellow Muslim and through him with his tribe and kinsmen. Up through at least the Umayyad period, manumitted slaves and converts (Salman was both) seem to have entered Muslim society through a practice in Islamic law known as walaʾ that created a bond, and rights and obligations, between the new entrants and established Muslims. Freedmen and converts became mawalı (sing. mawla), or clients, of an agent of conversion. In public law, converts (freeborn or freed) enjoyed the same rights and duties as other Muslims, but in private law, they were dependents. 20 According to the legal thinking that underpins this mechanism, the patron and his kinsmen replace the convert’s prior blood ties and affiliations (practice was another matter, as I discuss below). In medieval biographical dictionaries, the idea is reflected in the tendency for a person’s lineage to begin with the ancestor who was the first to convert to Islam, a tendency that represents a fundamental assumption in Bulliet’s mapping of the conversion process.21

This discussion of Salman in the early biographical tradition, though by no means complete, points to a perspective within the tradition that values cultural assimilation and advertises meritocracy according to its own ideals. Ibn Saʿd also appears to show, for example, that the early Muslims valued dedication to Islam over a noble birth when he recalls that after the conquests Salman was given a pension of four thousand dirhams, whereas ʿAbd Allah b. ʿUmar, the son of the second caliph, ʿUmar, received 3,500 dirhams. This prompted another companion to  ask: “How is it that this Persian gets four thousand, and the son of the Commander of the Believers receives 3,500?” To which he received the reply: “Salman accompanied the Messenger of God to battles that resulted in martyrs, whereas ʿUmar’s son did not.”22

The Ingredients for More Satisfying Memories

The accounts of Ibn Hisham and Ibn Saʿd emerged out of the tradition of prophetic biography, but I would argue that the early Hadith collections tend to share a similar perspective on Salman and his background. For example, one of the earliest surviving collections, by ʿAbd alRazzaq alSanʿanı (d. 211/827), contains the following account.23  Salman was present at a gathering with Saʿd b. Abı Waqqas., a companion of the Prophet who played a major role in the conquest of Iran. Saʿd said to one of the men present: “Give me your genealogy.” The man did so; Saʿd then made the same request to others, who also complied. Reaching Salman, Saʿd received the answer: “God favored me by means of Islam, for I am Salman b. al-Islam. ”Adding to this, ʿUmar, who heard about the gathering, said: “The Quraysh had known during the jahiliyya [pre Islamic times] [my father] al-Khattab as the most powerful of them, but verily, I am ʿUmar b. al-Islam, the brother of Salman in Islam. ” 24

On the face of it, such works of Hadith already carried reports about Salman that could be used to value his origins more positively, the best example being a report that is generally read today as showing the Prophet’s affection for Salman’s people. In Salman’s presence, Muhammad is remembered to have declared: “If faith (ıman ) were hung from the Pleiades, then the people of Persia (Faris ; in variants abnaʾ Faris or alFurs) would obtain it.”This tradition (hereafter called the Pleiades Hadith) might attest to Muhammad’s confidence in the Persians’faith (ıman ) or, in  variants of the Hadith, their religion (dın), Islam, or knowledge (ʿilm). It may be the most frequently cited Prophetic tradition relating to Persians, and it is nearly always cited on the authority of Muhammad’s companion Abu Hurayra. Its diffusion reflects a general confidence that the tradition goes back to Muhammad himself.25

There is no consensus regarding the occasion on which the Pleiades (highest star) Hadith was stated, even if the perception that it was solidly rooted in the Prophetic past appears to have facilitated its pairing with different Qurʾanic verses. Exegesis worked in both directions: the Qurʾan explaining the Hadith and it, in turn, explaining the Qurʾan. Some reporters linked the Pleiades Hadith to Qurʾan 9:39 or 47:38, which speak about the replacement of the Qurʾan’s immediate listeners with another people and offer a challenge to the Qurʾan’s first audience.26  Qurʾan 47:38 states: “If you turn away, He will replace you with another people, and they will not be like you.”According to alTirmidhı (d. 279/892), Abu Hurayra was present when some other companions asked the Prophet about the verse and the people that it mentioned. Muhammad, who was next to Salman, struck Salman on the thigh and said: “This one and his companions.” Then, swearing by God, he added, “If faith were hung from the Pleiades, then men of Persia (rijal min Faris ) would obtain it.”27

As one often finds with Hadith, however, the report and its meaning were not as straightforward as some Iranians might have wished. Instead of Persians specifically, versions of the report identify the people who would reach the Pleiades simply as al-aʿajim or, more ambiguously, as “some of these men” (rijal min haʾulaʾi). For example, some reporters thought Muhammad’s comment was meant to explain the italicized portion of Qurʾan 62:2–3, which states: “[It is] He who has sent among the common people a messenger from among themselves, to recite His signs to them and to purify them and to teach them the Book and the Wisdom – previously they were in manifest error –and others of them who have not yet joined them. He is the Mighty and the Wise.” Who are these “others”? Muslim b. alHajjaj (d. 261/875), the compiler of one of the collections of sahıh (“sound”) Hadith that Sunni Muslims consider most authoritative, places the report within a chapter of his collection entitled “Kitab Fadaʾil alsahaba, ” where he reports that someone once asked Muhammad: “O Messenger of God, who are the others [of them who have not yet joined them]?” Muhammad did not immediately reply, but when pressed, he put his hand on Salman and stated, “men from these [people].” Did Muhammad mean the Persians? Our scholar hardly leads us to believe the praise was as general as that since he precedes this report with another in which the Prophet states: “If faith (ıman ) were hung from the Pleiades, then a man from Persia would obtain it.”  28 Given the two reports’ placement among Hadith about the Prophet’s companions, the Prophet’s affection might belong to Salman and a handful of Persians alone. 29

The Shiʿa formed a special affection for Salman centuries before Shiʿism became a defining feature of Iranian identity. 30 In the early Imamı Shiʿi texts from the fourth/tenth and fifth/eleventh centuries, Salman is named as a narrator, as an interlocutor to Muhammad and ʿAlı, and as among the companions loyal to the Prophet’s family. But what was the significance of his inclusion to Iranian compilers and their audiences? 31 For example, the Imamı traditionist Ibn Babawayh (d. 381/991) cites the eighth Imam, ʿAlı al-Rida, when he recalls Muhammad’s statement,“Salman is one of us” (Salman minna) amid other prophetic Hadith transmitted by the Imam. 32 Or we have another time that Ibn Babawayh refers to Salman as an authority on the Qurʾan. 33 Or take the cases throughout Imamı writings in which Salman is listed among ʿAlı’s other loyal followers, especially Abu Dharr alGhifarı, alMiqdad b. alAswad alKindı, and ʿAmmar b. Yasir. What did the various names on a list mean in their individuality, and as pieces of a whole? And what did Salman’s Persian origins signify to the producers and readers of texts? In what sense did his Shiʿi and Persian identities overlap, and in what sense were they distinct? Andrew J. Newman has persuasively shown the local, Qummı perspective of three prominent Shiʿi traditionists of the second half of the third/ninth and first half of the fourth/tenth centuries. In large measure, his analysis rests on analysis of networks and of the way in which ideas supported by Qummı specialists of Hadith were privileged by other scholars with ties to Qum. 34 Within such networks, it seems reasonable to expect new readings of older ideas about Salman and the generation of new ones. But how can we discern them, and in what sense are they precisely sectarian or Persian in character, rather than demonstrative of affection for the Prophet’s family generally?

Making Tradition Work for Isfahan

I propose that memories about Salman are indicative of a wider pattern, which is that before the midthird/ninth century our sources do not often speak to Persians, but rather about them. Until this time, Iranian audiences were small and the Persian identity of producers of narrative typically weak. This situation begins to change in the second half of the third/ninth century, during the lifetime of Muslim and alBukharı and toward the end of what Claude Gilliot has termed the “imperial period” (moment imperial).35  Sensitivity to Persians and their aspirations and concerns grows more dramatically over the course of the fourth/tenth century and into the fifth/eleventh, as evidenced particularly in the publication of works dedicated to localities and their men of learning that recognize networks of elite Muslims in centers like Qum and Isfahan and reveal new sensitivities to ethnicity as well as locale and lineage. 36

As is common with Arabic and Persian historiography, the old reporting was not simply discarded, but selectively retained and rewritten, in Salman’s case with authors of local histories reframing stories about him to give prominence to Isfahan and Salman’s early life, selecting and emphatically reiterating reports that stress his Persianness, and introducing information of obscure origins that favors Isfahan. Isfahan and its countrymen move to the center of the story in ways that appear to belong to a wider pattern common to local histories that recycle and invent traditions so as to perpetuate and enhance the memory of the Prophetic companions, soldiers, scholars, mystics, missionaries, and merchants who made their way eastward to Iran.

In the remainder of this chapter, I will dwell on these three ways that local histories could make use of their favorite sons – reframing of content, emphatic reiteration, and the discovery of new information –through a discussion of the case of Isfahan. First, a few words are in order about the city and its histories. In pre Islamic times and after the Arab conquests, the province of Isfahan comprised several towns or villages, districts, and rural areas. These included the walled village of Jayy, which was the main city of the province and contained a mint (the name Jayy appearing on coins minted into ʿAbbasid times), and about two miles to the west, Yahudiyya, whose name points to Jewish inhabitants. Isfahan, as a geographically distinct city of the province of the same name, seems to postdate the ʿAbbasid Revolution, when it developed around Yahudiyya and Jayy.37 In terms of geography, history, and culture, the distance separating pre Islamic Medina and Jayy must have been enormous –one a western Arabian desert oasis, the other a Sasanian town about a thousand miles to the east as the crow flies across desert, mountain, and valley, but much further via Syria, as Salman was said to have traveled. But the two localities may not in fact have seemed remote, given the Christian and Jewish populations of both cities and the presumed networks of monotheists settled in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and the Hijaz. This is what the account of the journey would, in fact, presuppose.38

I rely on texts by Abu al-Shaykh al-Isfahanı (d. 369/979) 39 and Abu Nuʿaym al-Isfahanı (d. 430/1038) 40, each of whom treats Isfahan and the lives of its scholars and a few other men of notoriety. They wrote their biographical compilations in Isfahan during the period when the city was ruled in theory by the ʿAbbasids, but in practice by Buyid (r. 323–421/934 or 935–1029) and other rulers, and prior to the Seljuk conquests when that dynasty downgraded the ʿAbbasids’authority still further 41. At that time, Isfahanıs were beginning to view their home as a second city to Baghdad and tended to face culturally westward. 42 Both books, and especially Abu Nuʿaym’s, have been extensively mined in studies of Isfahan and the period, including by Bulliet when he formulated his periodization of Iran’s conversion. 43 Nurit Tsafrir has also used these works to argue that the Hanafı school of law had a foothold in Isfahan already a decade after the death of Abu Hanıfa (d. 150/767), that by the beginning of the third/ninth century a “significant” Hanafı community had developed in Isfahan, and that it survived into the fourth/tenth century. 44 There were other histories of Isfahan that have not survived, as well as a work by a third author, al-Mafarrukhi (written most likely in the period 464–84/1072–92), who composed what Jurgen Paul has termed “Adab-oriented local historiography” in his Kitab Mahasin Isfahan. This last work, though consulted, plays a minor role in what follows because of its author’s different historical circumstances and interests.45

Reframing Content

Abu al-Shaykh’s book was probably written in the 350s/960s and likely represents the oldest surviving biographical dictionary written for an Iranian territory. 46 It consists of an edifying historical introduction that features Isfahan’s role in prophetic history as a supporter of Abraham and an opponent of Nimrod and as a stopping place on the itinerary of the Qurʾanic figure Dhu al-Qarnayn, the roles of Alexander the Great and Khusraw Anushirvan in building the city of Isfahan and in determining its dimensions, the extent of its territory, the natural wonders and famous products of Isfahan, and the companions of Muhammad involved in its conquest during the reign of ʿUmar. 47The introduction is then followed by eleven generations (tabaqat ) of biographical entries featuring mainly Hadith transmitters and running to as late as 353/964. Salman figures in the first generation –after short entries for the Prophet’s grandson al-Hasan and the counter caliph ʿAbd Allah b. alZubayr, who passed through Isfahan en route to fight infidels in Jurjan.48

Salman is the only Prophetic companion with origins in Isfahan, and he is honored by a longer biography than those of his peers, with accounts of his journey and conversion filling more than half of it.49  The entry begins with statements including the Prophetic Hadith, “Salman is one of us, [a member of] the ahl albayt”and “Salman is the tenth of ten in Paradise,” as well as a statement by ʿAlı in praise of Salman’s knowledge. Isfahan can be proud of him, Abu alShaykh states, because “among the ways in which God beautified Isfahan and its people was that he made Salman alFarisı be from it.” 50 In Chapter 1, I showed the authority that figures such as Ibn al-Kalbı garnered outside of Iraq when Iranians imagined their earliest history. Ibn Ishaq commands here a similar respect as an authority on Salman, as Abu alShaykh inserts a version of his report on Salman’s journey, containing some precise wording but also editorial changes that suggest a written text orally transmitted along the lines described by Gregor Schoeler.51 These liven up the story and stress for audiences Salman’s foreknowledge of the coming tide of Islam. Now Salman’s father sends someone out looking for him, and Salman answers his father: “I passed by some people who are called Christians. Their speech and supplications filled me with wonder, so I sat, watching them to see what they were doing.” Salman’s father protests: “Your religion and the religion of your fathers is better than their religion.” Salman replies firmly: “By God, no, it is not better than their religion. They are a people worshipping God, supplicating him, and praying to him, whereas we only worship a fire that we light with our hands. If we leave it, it dies.” 52

When he finishes Ibn Ishaq’s account, Abu alShaykh moves on to two other, shorter reports that again take the reader/listener back to Salman’s first encounter with monotheism. The first features a holy man, as in Ibn Hisham’s text discussed above. 53 Salman says that he was born and grew up in Ramhurmuz, but that his father was from Isfahan. His mother, a woman of means, had her son educated as a scribe, a profession at which he excelled. But one day, while passing by a mountain cave, he came across a holy man, who informed him of Jesus, a Messenger of God (rasul Allah ). The man also mentioned “Ahmad”(a variant of the name Muhammad) as a “Messenger,”who would come in the future bearing tidings of the afterlife. Salman strayed from the path cut out for him by his mother by becoming a student of the holy man, and he learned to pronounce a forerunner to the Muslim profession of faith: “There is no God but God alone, who has no partner (la sharık lahu). Jesus, the son of Mary, is the Messenger of God and Muhammad, God bless him and keep him, after him is the Messenger of God.”Also: “Faith (ıman ) [includes the belief in] resurrection after death.” The man also gave Salman lessons in prayer, as well as instructions that when Muhammad appeared, Salman should remember his teacher to Muhammad; for according to what the teacher had heard about Jesus’sayings, he would still get the benefit of the encounter, whether he saw Muhammad in person or not.54 In the second report, Salman says, “I was a man from the people of Jayy. We were worshipping speckled horses, but I knew that they did not mean anything. So I was searching for the [true] religion.” The report then carries on with Salman’s arrival in Medina and his gift to the Prophet.55

Rather than appearing as a place abandoned, Isfahan, or perhaps Ramhurmuz, takes center stage in Abu al-Shaykh’s biography as the place where Salman first learned about Jesus and Muhammad. Abu alShaykh goes on to undermine Ramhurmuz, an inconvenient possibility that does not fit his Isfahan focused narrative, as he returns Salman to Isfahan after the Prophet’s death. A witness, Abu al-Hajjaj alAzdı, reports that he met Salman in Isfahan, in his village, and asked him about the theological theory of qadar (“the divine decree,” i.e., fate, destiny), which Salman explained to him.56 Abu alShaykh argues: “In this report there is evidence that Salman came to Isfahan during the reign of ʿUmar b. al Khattab. ”57

Accounts of journeys can memorialize, through passage in space, the elimination of one past and its replacement with another, as occurred in the biographical tradition, considered above. But there is a double aspect to most journeys far from home –the pilgrimage to Mecca being a key example –where travelers not only merge with groups of fellow travelers, sharing a sense of communion, but also, through juxtaposition with them, come to appreciate the differences that distinguish them from one another. From an Iranian perspective, the early biographical tradition presented an imperfect memory, reflecting only the first aspect. Abu alShaykh has filled out the memory and so offered Isfahan’s readers an image of their own double membership in an imagined Muslim community and in an imagined community centered in Isfahan.

Emphatic Reiteration

About a generation after Abu alShaykh, Abu Nuʿaym al-Isfahanı composed a biographical dictionary focused on Isfahan’s religious scholars. The work consists of a historical introduction followed by biographical treatments of the Prophet’s companions, and then alphabetically arranged entries for scholars with ties to Isfahan. Abu Nuʿaym relies heavily upon Abu alShaykh (to whom he refers as Abu Muhammad b. Hayyan, as he claims to have heard reports directly from him), but as Jurgen Paul has noted, Abu Nuʿaym places a “perceptible stress on the good qualities of the Persians and their merits in contributing to the spread of Islam and the maintenance of its purity.”58

This emphasis on Isfahan and Persians comes through in the first pages of Abu Nuʿaym’s book and subsequently in his biography of Salman.59 He starts off by defining his book as treating the illustrious forebears, especially scholars, from “the people of our land, the land of Isfahan ” (min ahl baladina balad Isfahan ). He says that he will cite Hadith reports that were transmitted regarding the excellence of the Persians, nonArabs (alʿAjam), and mawalı, and goes on to cite versions of the Pleiades Hadith over the following nine pages on the authority of Abu Hurayra and, more unusually, a small number of other companions, including ʿAʾisha and ʿAlı, who also remembered versions of the Prophet’s statement.60  As the Prophet’s affection rises to higher levels on Abu Nuʿaym’s pages, the term “Pleiades” becomes firmly linked to Persians, who pursued the various goals hypothetically hanging from the Pleaides: religion (dın), faith (ıman ), Islam, and knowledge (ʿilm). They are each singly possible goals, and collectively add up to a glowing account of the Persians. The variations create space for commentary, within which Abu Nuʿaym introduces different ideas. For example, he cites Qurʾan 62:2– 3 and its reference to “others of them who have not yet joined them,” as well as the statement of Qurʾan 47:38, “If you turn away, He will replace you with another people, and they will not be like you.” Like Muslim, cited above, he features reports that refer to Salman’s people ambiguously as “some of these men” (rijal min haʾulaʾi, in explanation of Qurʾan 62:2–3), though now these are promptly followed by clarification: a further report has Muhammad explain Qurʾan 47:38 by striking Salman on the thigh and saying: “This one and his people. If religion were hung from the Pleiades, then men of Persia (rijal min Faris ) would seek it.”61

With the Persians firmly identified in the reiterations, Abu Nuʿaym takes up the theme of their displacement of the Arabs, as in the following report that he features: “The Messenger of God said: ‘O you mawalı, hold fast to memory [of God]. Verily, the Arabs have abandoned [it]. If faith were hung from the Throne, there is someone from among you who would search for it.’” 62 In another instance, Abu Nuʿaym repeats a tradition in which the Prophet mentioned to Abu Bakr that he had a dream in which some black sheep came to him. Next some white sheep came, and then there was not a black sheep in sight. Abu Bakr offered an interpretation: “O Messenger of God! These Arabs are submitting to Islam and becoming numerous [like the black sheep]. Subsequently, the ʿAjam will convert to Islam until the Arabs cannot be perceived among them.”Having heard Abu Bakr’s analysis, Muhammad verified the prediction and the passing of royal power (mulk) to the ʿAjam.63

In his reiterations of the Pleiades Hadith, Abu Nuʿaym makes more of Salman’s Persianness. He also cares more for Salman’s lineage prior to his conversion, as –unlike Ibn Hisham, Ibn Saʿd, or Abu alShaykh –he provides Salman’s full name prior to conversion as either Mahwayh or Mabih b. Budakhshan b. Azarjushnas, “from among the descendants of King Manushihr, ” or as a further alternative, Bahbud b. Khushan.64 In his Marifat al-sahaba. Abu Nuʿaym displays a similarly complex sense of Salman’s identity as an Isfahanı, a Persian, and a man with roots sunk in Iran’s preIslamic past, implicitly arguing that Salman’s ancestry is worth remembering. He begins with his kunya (agnomen):

AbuʿAbd Allah. He traced his genealogy to Islam (intasaba ila al-Islam), and so he said “Salman b. al-Islam.”He was one of the first of the people of Persia and Isfahan to convert to Islam (sabiq ahl Faris wa Isfahan ilaal Islam). And it is said his name before Islam was Mabih b. Budakhshan b. Mursilanb. Bahbudhan b. Fayruz b. Shahrak, from the descendants of Ab alMalik. He was a Zoroastrian (majusı), attendant of the fire (qatin al-nar). He converted to Islam at the arrival of the Messenger of God in Medina. And it is said he converted in Mecca before the hijra.65

The detail regarding Mecca is unusual in reporting on Salman and would likely give Salman further credit as an early believer in and interlocutor of Muhammad.

What can we make of the fact that Persians, as such, seem to command the interest and loyalty of Abu Nuʿaym in a way that they do not for Abu alShaykh, who makes no mention of the Pleiades Hadith in his book? Written half a century after its predecessor, Abu Nuʿaym’s text generally seems to reflect a different stage in the development of Isfahan and its scholars, when Persian Muslims were more confident in themselves and conscious of their shared history. The comparative maturity and integration of this community is also reflected in Abu Nuʿaym’s choice of format, an integrated, alphabetically arranged work, which subordinates chronology and allowed readers in his day to “look someone up.”66

Discovering New Information

So far, we have seen how, by reframing content and by emphatic reiteration, Abu alShaykh and Abu Nuʿaym raised the profile of aspects of Salman’s identity –his Isfahanı origins and Persian ethnicity. Each traditionist changed the forms and meaning of the historiographical tradition, but not its substance. In a third case, which concerns Salman’s lineage, we have an apparent attempt to add to the store of memory. Two intriguing but little studied legal “documents” seem to have entered the Arabic historiographical tradition in Isfahan and to bear signs of their generation in Iran, the circulation of traditions between Iranian cities, and the establishment of networks of Salman’s descendants. 67 They are a document of clientship (walaʾ) and a testament (wasiyya). I will summarize their contents based on our earliest source, Abu alShaykh.

Shortly after Abu alShaykh reports on Salman’s journey and conversion, he returns to the moment in the story in which Muhammad purchased Salman’s freedom. Abu alShaykh includes a report claiming that Muhammad dictated a “writing” (kitab ) to ʿAlı b. Abı Talib on the second day of the month of Jumad al-Ula 68 and that it was witnessed
by Muhammad’s companions, listed as Abu Bakr al-Siddıq, ʿUmar b. al-Khattab, ʿAlı b. Abı Talib, 69 Hudhayfa b. [Saʿd] al-Yaman, Abu Dharr al-Ghifarı, al-Miqdad b. al-Aswad, Bilal “the mawla of Abu Bakr,”andʿAbd al-Rahman b. ʿAwf. Abu al-Shaykh identifies generations of transmitters running back to Salman: ʿAbd Allah b. Muhammad b. al Hajjaj, ʿAbd al-Rahman b. Ahmad b. ʿAbbad ʿAbdus, and Qatn b. Ibrahım al-Nısaburı, the last of whom obtained the document from Salman’s descendants, named as Wahb; Wahb’s mother and his father, Kathır; Kathır’s father, ʿAbd al-Rahman; and ʿAbd al-Rahman’s grandfather, Salman himself.

The document buys Salman’s freedom from his owner and establishes a new legal relationship:

Muhammad b. ʿAbd Allah, the Messenger of God, redeems Salman al-Farisı by this ransom from ʿUthman b. al-Ashhal al-Yahudı [“the Jew”] and the man from Qurayza, 70 by planting three hundred date palms and [paying] forty ounces (uqiyya ) of gold.71 Therefore Muhammad b. ʿAbd Allah, the Messenger of God, has absolved the cost of Salman al-Farisı. Muhammad b. ʿAbd Allah, the Messenger of God, and the ahl al-bayt are his patrons 72 and no one [else] has any claim on Salman. 73

Abu alShaykh follows this report with another line through which it was transmitted, and then a further report to the effect that Salman had three daughters: one in Isfahan –“and a group claims to be her descendants”– and two in Egypt.74

The second document, a testament, follows shortly afterward in Abu al-Shaykh’s text. Here the claim seems to be that Salman had sought to safeguard the interests of his brother and his brother’s offspring and that sometime in the past a man in Shıraz named Ghassan had come forward stating that he was the great-great grandson of the brother, whose name was Mahadharfarrukh. 75 This Ghassan, the leader of the brother’s descendants in Shıraz, claimed that a document on bleached leather in his possession bore the handwriting of ʿAlı and the seals of Muhammad, Abu Bakr, and ʿAlı. 76 While Abu alShaykh states his source for the information about Ghassan and the document as “someone concerned with this affair,”Abu Nuʿaym supplies a chain of authorities leading back to Ghassan.77

The text of the testament establishes privileges for the offspring. It begins with the basmala (“In the name of God, the Almighty, the Merciful”); the statement that “this is a writing (kitab ) from Muhammad, the Messenger of God;” and clarification that Salman had asked Muhammad for a testament (wasiyya) for his brother, Mahadharfarrukh, the people of his house (ahl baytihi), and his subsequent progeny –those who had converted to Islam and maintained their religion (man aslama minhum waaqama ʿala dınihi).78  “Muhammad then continues with a doxology of five lines, praising the unicity of God, His creation of the world, His singular role in it, the finitude of life, and the heavenly rewards. Muhammad emphasizes that “there is no compulsion in religion”(Qurʾan 2:256): “he who stays in his own religion, we leave him.”The testament states:

This is a writing (kitab)for the people of the house of Salman(ahl bayt Salman). They have God’s protection (dhimmat Allah) and my protection of their blood and property where they reside: their plains, mountains, pastures, and springs will not be treated unjustly nor will they have difficulty imposed on them. For to whomever, believing men or women, this writing of mine is read, it is obligatory that he maintain, honor, and treat them [Salman’s family] with reverence, and that he not oppose them with harm or anything reprehensible. I have removed from them [the obligation] to shear the forelocks, the jizya, the h.ashr, the ʿushr, and the rest of the burdens and payments [imposed on nonMuslims]. In addition, if they ask of you [something ], give it to them. If they seek aid from you, aid them. If they seek protection from you, protect them. If they misbehave, forgive them, but if misdeeds are committed against them, defend them. Each year, in the month of Rajab, they should receive from the public treasury (bayt mal alMuslimın) two hundred garments 79 and one hundred slaughtered animals. Verily, Salman deserves that from us because God, blessed and exalted, has given Salman precedence over a great many of the believers. He [God] revealed to me:80 “Paradise longs for Salman more than Salman longs for Paradise.”He is a man in whom I put my trust and faith, pious, pure, and a sincere advisor to the Messenger of God (Peace be upon him!) and the believers. Salman is one of us, [a member of] the ahl albayt. Let no one oppose this testament (wasiyya) regarding what I have ordered regarding the maintenance and reverence for the people of Salman’s house and their descendants, including he who converted to Islam or maintained his religion (man aslama minhum aw aqama ʿaladınihi).81 Whosoever opposes this testimony has opposed God and his Messenger, and will continue to be cursed all the way up to the Day of Reckoning. Whosoever honors them has honored me, and will be rewarded by God. And whosoever harms them has harmed me, and I will be his adversary on the Day of Resurrection: the Fires of Gehenna will repay him, and I will remove my protection (dhimmatı) from him.


[Muhammad, the Messenger of God]

The text states that it had been written at the command of the Prophet in the month of Rajab in the ninth year of the hijra (i.e., 630 CE) in the presence of Abu Bakr, ʿUmar, ʿUthman, Talha [b. ʿUbayd Allah ], al-Zubayr [b. alʿAwwam ], ʿAbd al-Rahman, Saʿd [b. Abı Waqqas], Saʿıd [b. Zayd?], Salman, Abu Dharr, ʿAmmar, Suhayb [alRumı], Bilal, al Miqdad, “and a group of other believers.” 82

Such documents are hardly a rarity in Arabic historiography, and they are almost always dismissed as forgeries by modern scholars.83 These two are also likely forgeries, as neither appears to be attested in an earlier source and they contain manifest anachronisms, including references to a hijri dating system in the lifetime of the Prophet (i.e., the statement that the first document was dictated by Muhammad on the second day of the month of Jumada alUla), whereas the tradition widely holds that this system was introduced during ʿUmar’s reign.84 The first document reflects classical Islamic law and its notion of walaʾ alʿitq as a tie between a manumitter and a freedman that arises upon manumission and that entails rights and obligations for each party. 85 It refers to the ahl albayt as Salman’s patrons. Judging by Abu alShaykh’s antipathy to the Shiʿa elsewhere in his book, it is possible, but unlikely, that he has included a document of sectarian origins.86  Its author might have sympathies consistent with what Teresa Bernheimer has termed “Alidism,” that is, “a nonsectarian reverence and support for the family, as distinct from ‘Shıʿism,’ the political and religious claims of some of its members or others on their behalf.” 87 The second document also contains anachronisms of a legal nature, with its references to “burdens and payments” imposed on non-Muslims and gifts to be funded from the public treasury that seem to anticipate the financial arrangements of the conquest period and afterward. 88

Forgery makes the documents no less –and in fact more –informative of the situation of Salman’s Iranian descendants (or those who claimed to be such), at least until Abu alShaykh’s day and likely into that of Abu Nuʿaym, who also elects to transmit both of these reports. Even if it is hard to believe that Salman’s purported family, centered on Isfahan and Shıraz, gained all of the privileges stipulated in the second document, the text lays claims to respect and maintenance on the basis of Salman’s family’s adjunct membership in the ahl albayt. The identity of the forgers is likely lost to history, although they surely included the beneficiaries; the analysis of the chains of transmission undertaken by the modern editor, Balushı, has yielded no more specific fruit. 89 Still, Abu alShaykh’s decision to include the documents might well reflect the spirit of the Buyid era andʿAlidist sympathies and ideas about Muhammad and his companions that favored Iranian interests.90

Even Salman’s non-Muslim descendants might fare surprisingly well in the arrangements. Our evidence is admittedly not vast – here just the second document. It relieves Salman’s family of the burdens and payments imposed on nonMuslims; it presumably therefore has in mind his nonMuslim descendants. Who should be protected also hinges on how one reads the Arabic, and this is not straightforward, since in Abu alShaykh’s book, there are references to “he who converted to Islam and maintained his religion” (man aslama minhum waaqama ʿala dınihi), as well as to “he who converted to Islam or maintained his religion” (man aslama minhum aw aqama ʿala dınihi). In the second case, one could read the Arabic as relating to persons who converted to Islam as well as to others who kept their prior, non-Muslim faith. Abu Nuʿaym appears to be satisfied with “or,” and that the brother’s descendants would be treated well whether or not they have converted to Islam.91  Whereas, in principle, walaʾ entailed breaking former ties, now they might be strengthened, legitimized, and rewarded with payments, along the lines of those extended to the Prophet’s companions and their descendants.

The question that must remain open is whether contemporaries believed the documents to be authentic and whether Salman’s descendants did enjoy the material and social benefits demanded on their behalf. Only a short while later in Baghdad, alKhatıb alBaghdadı (d. 463/1071) uses Abu Nuʿaym’s reporting on Salman. While expressing doubts about the document of manumission, he transmits a version of it; the testament allegedly written for Salman’s family, however, must have seemed too farfetched, as he leaves it out. 92 In Damascus, Ibn ʿAsakir (d. 571/1176), who also uses Abu Nuʿaym as a source, makes the same choice. 93 While alKhatıb and Ibn ʿAsakir generally lavish attention on Salman, Salman ’s brother and his descendants seem to fare poorly here as well as in the main arteries of Muslim tradition, judging by my searches of electronic databases of Arabic texts.94



Beginning with prophetic biography and the account of Ibn Hisham, we have seen how Muslim traditionists found the life and experiences of Salman meaningful for relating the history of the Muslim community, its nature, and its requirements. They presented this community as superseding those of Christianity and of the hanıfiyya, with annunciation of Muhammad’s prophethood as a dominant theme, along with the idea that the Muslim community is a family that commands an exclusive loyalty. As Salman passed through the hands of numerous monks en route to Muhammad, his Persian homeland receded, and likewise, when in Medina, he joined himself to the Prophet as a devoted follower and left behind his family.

As a site of memory, Salman also comes to appear as a mediator between Iran’s pre-Islamic past and Islamic present, and between Persians and Arabs. Salman proved useful for Iranians, who inherited much historical knowledge about him, such as versions of Ibn Ishaq’s text, but reworked it by methods that involved putting Isfahan at the center of the story, emphatic citation of the Pleiades Hadith, and extension of past memory. One is particularly struck by the forging of a corporate identity for Salman’s descendants in Iran, referred to collectively in the testament as ahl bayt Salman, and the sympathies of Salman’s descendants for ʿAlı and his family in Abu alShaykh’s day and likely also in Abu Nuʿaym’s. Iranians, and Isfahanıs in particular, are offered an antique image that establishes greater continuity between their pre and post Islamic pasts, an image that also seems to deny rupture within Salman’s own family, which might hypothetically reap the rewards of Muslim rule.

I have proposed a periodization and a shift in perspective from the second half of the third/ninth century onward. Investigations of memory of different topics and texts –courtly traditions, for example –might yield refinements, though it is likely, and logical enough, that in other cases the meaning of a Persian identity and Persian origins also changed with the development of a Persian Muslim society. There were also most probably disputes on the way to the new views, as the cases of the dıwan and a Persian princess, suggest.