According to Ibn Isḥāq, in the recension of Ibn Hishām, miraculous light was a sign of Muhammad’s nativity. The day Muhammad was conceived, his father had a white marking between his eyes, like the ‘blaze’ (ghurrah) on a horse’s face. One of his wives noticed this and hoped to be the one to receive the light, but he went to Āminah instead. Then, when Āminah was pregnant, a light (nūr) shone out from her belly, illuminating the castles of Buṣrā far away.
A similar motif can be found in the Anthology (Vizīdagīhā) of Zādspram, a ninth-century Zoroastrian theologian in Fārs, Iran. This text, in Pahlavi (Middle Persian), includes a biography of the prophet Zoroaster. When Zoroaster’s mother was born, it says, his grandmother was lying by a fire; then a flaming light came down from the sky, entered the fire, and then leapt into Zoroaster’s newborn mother. The light was the divine glory – khwarrah, farrah and other variants – that, in Iranian thought, illuminated kings and others whose work is divinely inspired. Zādspram writes:
“About the glory (khwarrah) of Zoroaster becoming manifest even before his birth, it’s said that… when [his grandmother] gave birth to the mother of Zoroaster… [the khwarrah] came down from the endless light, in the manner of fire, and mingled with the fire in front of her: and from the fire it mingled with Zoroaster’s mother. For three nights it was manifest to all passers-by as a kind of fire near the house, and passers-by on the road always saw great radiance. Also when she became fifteen years old, the radiance of that glory inside her was such that its brightness shed onto the path she was walking on.”
The khwarrah residing in Zoroaster’s mother was combined with other substances when she and his father drank a sacred cocktail together. One ingredient was soma (hōm), a plant of great ritual importance to the Zoroastrians; although we don’t know what it was, it may have been hallucinatory or stimulatory. Another ingredient was cow’s milk, symbolising new life. These substances combined in his parents to form Zoroaster:
“When his father and mother drank the cow’s milk, his guardian spirit in the soma (hōm) and his glory (khwarrah) were given it, and his spirit (ahwō) came into the combination….”
It’s interesting that miraculous light is a motif in the nativities of both Muhammad and Zoroaster, in texts from a similar time and place: eighth-century Iraq, ninth-century Iran. This in no way implies a simple relationship between the two stories. Certainly the light motif in Zoroaster’s nativity is more starkly theological than Muhammad’s, belonging to an ancient symbology of light and glory (khwarrah). I only mean to raise the possibility that early Muslims and their Zoroastrian neighbours adopted and adapted mythic symbols from a shared cultural heritage.
Please send me comments and corrections – particularly if you’re a specialist on Iranian religions!
I owe this connexion to Tamara C. Mackenthun, Continuity in Iranian Leadership Legitimization: Farr-i Izadi, Shi’ism, and Vilayet-i Faqih (Boise State University M.A. diss. 2009), p. 35.
The two stories from Ibn Isḥāq are in Guillaume, Life of Muhammad (1955) p. 69 (English) = Wüstenfeld (ed.), Das Leben Muhammed’s, vol. 1 (1858), pp. 101-2 (Arabic).
The passages from Zādspram are adapted, for easier reading, from E.W. West (tr.), Pahlavi Texts V: Marvels of Zoroastrianism (1897), vol. 47 in the series Sacred Books of the East, pp. 138-9.
See also Patricia Crone, Nativist Prophets (2012), pp. 213-4, who associates the physical ‘combination’ of Zoroaster with Imāmī traditions of pre-existence in Islam: “Celestial body substance, spirit, and luminosity seem to be precisely the concepts in terms of which the Imāmī traditions are trying to describe the pre-existing imams.”