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An artistic representation of Al-Muqanna, the Veiled Prophet.

Second Moon Uprising: How Science and Skullduggery Helped an 8th Century Prophet Raise a Revolt

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“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?

Al-Muqanna' the veiled prophet on throne and amongst the White Shirts in Khorasan.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The Prophet Mohammed (figure without face) on Mount Hira. Ottoman miniature painting from the Siyer-i Nebi, kept at the Topkapı Sarayı Müzesi, Istanbul (Hazine 1222, folio 158b).

The Prophet Mohammed (figure without face) on Mount Hira. Ottoman miniature painting from the Siyer-i Nebi, kept at the Topkapı Sarayı Müzesi, Istanbul (Hazine 1222, folio 158b). (Public Domain)

In response, Bukhara, Samarkand, the whole of the Zarafshan and Kashka Darya valleys (and many areas south of Termez) allied themselves to Muqanna.  Even the Turkish Khagan of Tokharistan gave his support and joined the “Wearers of White”.

The Moon of Nakhshab

To win over the hearts of his followers, Muqanna created a marvelous spectacle: an artificial moon bright enough to rival the real one. Each night, as vast crowds gathered around a deep well in the city, the Prophet would command a lunar satellite to emerge out of the earth and hang in the sky above them. It could be seen for miles. The Moon of Nakhshab kept emerging from the pit for three months, until one fateful night it faltered and crashed irreparably to earth.

Arab historians ascribe the wonder to mercury and chemicals. From what can be gleaned from the early writers such as Narshaki and Abd ar-Rashid al-Bakuvi, it seems likely that the Prophet constructed a giant metal container into which he poured immense quantities of quicksilver (mercury). The liquid metal held an image of the moon that was so clear and bright it amazed all who beheld it.

A war mask on display at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha.

A war mask on display at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha. (OsamaSaeedDotOrg) The moon. (Public Domain)

According to the Azeri academic Abasali Rustamov, who has meticulously studied the accounts of this “wonder”, Muqanna may also have constructed some kind of mechanical device that rotated the vat of mercury, causing the surface of the liquid to become concave. In this way, the reflection of the moon in the liquid was considerably focused and intense. The enhanced image could then be reflected onto a giant mirror and would thus appear to hang suspended in the sky. Muqanna may therefore have created the world’s first astronomical mercury telescope.

The Face of God

It was not long before the despotic Caliph, Al-Madhi, ordered the uprising to be crushed and Manichaean Islam to be strangled in its infancy. An army led by one of the Caliphate’s most able Arab generals immediately marched eastwards from Neishapur and recaptured the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand.

The Ark fortress in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.

The Ark fortress in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. (CC BY SA 2.0)

When government forces entered the outskirts of Nakhshab, the Prophet retreated to an impregnable fortress, situated on one of the as yet unidentified mountain tops of Sanam (somewhere in the vicinity of modern Shahrisabz). And there, together with his 30,000 men, he prepared for his end in an atmosphere of religious hysteria.

To raise the spirits of his supporters, Muqanna told them to await the imminent arrival of an army of angels that would destroy the Caliphate and instigate a new age of Justice and faith on earth. But when no angels appeared and despair consumed the defenders, the Prophet agreed to remove his veil and allow the defenders a glimpse of his Divine Face.

At midday on the appointed date, just as the hot sun was pouring its molten light into the courtyard, he emerged from his remote tower to the cheers of his ecstatic supporters. When the clatter of voices had finally subsided, he began to remove the veil slowly from around his face. And as he did so, his associates on the fortress walls raised their mirrors to reflect the rays of the sun onto his holy countenance, illuminating the Prophet and everything around him with a blinding light. And because their eyes and minds were bedazzled with unbearable brightness, they knelt down in the dust and worshipped him, saying they had seen the Face of God.

Moment of Unveiling of The Veiled Prophet, Al-Muqanna'.

Moment of Unveiling of The Veiled Prophet, Al-Muqanna'. (IPC)

The End of the Rebellion

Returned to the bosom of faith, the white-clothed army continued to hold out in their mountain fortress for two more years. As food began to diminish, however, many of them slipped away and others resorted to cannibalism. Even the Prophet’s own brother deserted him and surrendered to the government forces.

Muqanna, however, remained steadfast as ever, isolated in his inner citadel high on the rock. His alchemy and spiritual powers had failed him. No earthly or angelic army had come to his aid. The Abbasid army’s black banners had prevailed over the “Wearers of the White”.

The Prophet had no illusions about the fate that awaited him if he was captured. And so he now prepared his meticulous exit.

One morning, the besieging army awoke to discover the fortress of Sanam ablaze with light. It was burning. The mighty gates which had withstood two years of siege, now unexpectedly gave way, the hinges groaning with gratitude for being opened. Rushing through the maze of corridors, the Abbasid soldiers caught sight of countless mirrors mounted on walls, vessels of mercury large as bathing pools, and the flickering of a thousand fires.  The citadel had been deliberately set alight. Its inhabitants were all gone, or dead. And there was no sign of the Prophet.

The many reports of what happened in those final hours are confused and contradictory. The most likely account is one related by a woman of the Prophet’s own household who had survived.  She told of a farewell banquet during which Muqanna poisoned his remaining followers and set fire to his surroundings. Then, when he had disposed of his wives and slaves, he removed his clothes and leaped headlong into a blazing oven in order to burn off all that was mortal in him. He had transformed himself into light, and had returned to the Godhead.

Searching for him in the ashes, the soldiers are said to have found traces of his hair, which they brought back to the Caliph. But belief in Muqanna’s return to earth (in another mortal form) continued to circulate throughout the district.

Study for The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan by Daniel RA Maclise.

Study for The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan by Daniel RA Maclise. (Victoria and Albert Museum/ CC BY NC)

Al Madhi enacted his wrath on the cities of Samarkand and Bukhara which had supported the rebellion. Nakhshab, the center of the Prophet’s operations, was singled out for special treatment. Its complete destruction was ordered and its population dispersed. It was never rebuilt again.

The Caliph then instigated a ‘Great Islamic Inquisition,’ aimed at removing all traces of variant Islam in the empire. The Inquisition, which sat from 780-785 AD, targeted the Manichaeans, whose religion was perceived as the most serious rival to Islam. Anyone found guilty was sentenced to death.

Leaf from a Manichaean Book. Khocho, Ruin K. 8th/9th century AD.

Leaf from a Manichaean Book. Khocho, Ruin K. 8th/9th century AD. (Public Domain)

For the remainder of his life, Al Madhi made the Inquisition a central pillar of his internal policy. Commerce along the Silk Road declined considerably and did not revive until the 11th and 12th centuries. Islam became a religion encased in amber.

Top Image: An artistic representation of Al-Muqanna, the Veiled Prophet. Source: CC BY SA 4.0

By Ryszard Antolak



Ryszard Antolak's picture

Ryszard Antolak

Ryszard Antolak is a writer and teacher based in Scotland. He was educated at the Universities of Edinburgh and Stirling and writes mostly on Iranian and East European matters.

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