Second Moon Uprising: How Science and Skullduggery Helped an 8th Century Prophet Raise a Revolt
“The 'Moon of Nakhshab' was an artificial moon which Hakim Ibn-e 'Ata, known as Muqanna' (the Veiled One), caused to arise from the Pit of Nakhshab. This moon had been prepared by means of [magical] prescriptions [davā]. Its light could not spread for a long distance and, compared to the real moon, it was established to be a deficient creation. For two months, it kept emerging from the Pit of Nakhshab; until [one night] it crashed unaccountably to earth and fell into pieces”. Bekhud Dihlavi
In the years 775 to 783 AD, Muqanna, known as the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan, led a popular uprising in the eastern part of the Abbasid Empire. For almost a decade, he gave hope to those communities in Khorassan who were fearful of the growing power of an authoritarian centralized Islamic state.
Muqanna’s most famous creation, the Moon of Nakhshab, was remembered long after his death. It haunted the imaginations of poets and scientists for centuries. Unusual phenomena that could not be explained (particularly those relating to weather and astronomy,) were attributed to his genius.
But who was Muqanna, and what was the nature of the artificial moon he created?
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Al-Muqanna' the veiled prophet on throne and amongst the White Shirts in Khorasan. ( IPC)
Muqanna’s Rise to Power
Hashim ibn Hakkim, (the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan) was a religious fanatic, a freedom-fighter, and a performer of scientific wonders. More popularly known as “Muqanna” (the Veiled one), he is said to have hid his face behind a mask of burnished silver (or in other accounts, a veil of green Damask silk).
His enemies, the Abbasids, spread the rumor that he was hideously deformed, the result of battle wounds and experiments with caustic substances. He was an illusionist, a libertine and a heretic – or so they said.
His supporters on the other hand, maintained that the veil hid a countenance incandescent with the uncreated light of God, a light that unless veiled, would blind anyone who caught sight of it.
Samuel Forde’s ‘ The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan’ (c.1828). Crawford Art Gallery, Cork. ( Dara McGrath )
Muqanna’s early life was devoted to the study of alchemy and philosophy. At one time, he served in the armies of Abu Moslem, the man who had brought the Abbasid dynasty to power. Some years after Abu Moslem’s assassination by the Caliph, Muqanna initiated low level resistance to the Caliphate. When his arrest was ordered by the authorities in Merv, he fled eastwards across the Oxus River and found enthusiastic support among the inhabitants of Soghdia (Sogdia).
There, encouraged by a number of victories against the government forces, he established himself as ruler of a breakaway state, drawing followers from a wide variety of social, ethnic, and religious groups.
The center of his operations was the vast oasis of Nakhshab (known to the Arabs as Nesaf and today as Karshi/Qarshi), an enclosed paradise of legendary fertility where not a single inch of earth was left unattended. It was densely populated and filled with extensive gardens, rich settlements, orchards, vineyards, irrigation canals, and complex defensive structures. Arab historians reckoned it to be one of the four finest areas in the known world.
Kok-Gumbaz mosque in Qarshi (Karshi), Uzbekistan. ( CC BY SA 4.0 )
Its people were fiercely independent and consistently refused to bow to Arab or Islamic rule. Remnants of the deposed aristocracies of pre-Islamic Soghdia and religious dignitaries of the major religions were gravitating here during the last quarter of the 8th century AD.
The Soghdians were a multi-religious people whose conquest by the Arabs was barely a generation old. Here, far from the center of Islamic authority, the religion of Islam itself had fragmented and fused with other religions to form a number of new exotic sects. The most influential of these was Manichaean Islam, a potentially explosive combination with overtures of fanaticism and jihad on a cosmic scale.
Sogdians on an Achaemenid Persian relief from the Apadana of Persepolis, offering tributary gifts to the Persian king Darius I, 5th century BC. (A. Davey/ CC BY 2.0 )
Into this heady political and religious atmosphere, Muqanna added a spark that ignited all of Soghdia (and with it all of Khorassan) against the Abbasids. In the oasis of Nakhshab, he announced that he was the new prophet of Light, the same Light that had shone in the prophets Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, and Abu Moslem. He urged his listeners to wear white garments as a sign of their purity and in opposition to the Abbasids, whose clothes and banners were black. The time for an apocalyptic battle of light against darkness had arrived, he told them. In this polarized worldview of black versus white, it was necessary to take sides.