On the Earliest Reference to Stoning in Iran

The tragic and barbaric act of stoning has been current in some places for almost three millennium. While today, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani is in danger of being stoned in Iran, most people with a sense of dignity, humanity and a consciousness in the twenty first century reject such actions. Stoning a person to death is a vile idea no matter you are a Muslim, Jew, Christian, Bahai or any other religious. But when is the first reference to stoning in Iran? I would like to share one of the earliest records of stoning that we find in the Iranian world.

The earliest record on stoning as a capital punishment is found in the Torah (Duet. 22), but the Jews by early medieval period put a stop to it. Pagan rulers of the Roman Empire punished some Christians by stoning them in the first century CE, and Christians were put to death by stoning. Christians also did the same to others. An example is Constantine-Silvanus whose idea was not liked by the Christians (stoned in 684 CE in Armenia). In the Quran, according to the Sura of An-Nur the idea of stoning for the guilty is also mentioned.

But those interested in Iranian matters and Iranian Studies, this piece of evidence may be a revelation. As far as I can tell, the first evidence of stoning someone to death in the Iranian world occurs in the Sasanian period. We have plenty of Christian myartyrologies from the time of the Sasanian king of kings, Shapur II (309-379 CE) (see my article on Shapur in Encyclopaedia Iranica. In the seventh century CE there was a book written on a fourth century Christian who became a saint, named Qardagh. In Syriac he is known as Mar Qardagh, Mar being the Syriac form of “Saint.” My friend and colleague Joel T. Walker has made translation of the history of Mar Qardagh which provides the Christian view of history of the fourth century CE: (link)

In this story Mar Qardagh became a marzbān (Warden of Marches) in northern Mesopotamia by the order of king of kings, Shapur II. Mar Qardagh also endowed a Zoroastrian fire-temple in his hometown and gave a great feast and built a great home for himself (Walker, 2006, p. 23). Through a dream and the usual Christian tradition of miracles and dialogues with sages (here Abdišo), Mar Qardagh became a Christian. He is then accused of converting Zoroastrianism fire-temples into churches and of course leaving Zoroastrianism for Christianity (Walker, 2006, p. 53). As a result this event takes place:

On the behest of the Chief Priest (Mowbed), a death sentence is handed out to Mar Qardagh. The form of the punishment here interests us (Walker, 2006, p. 66-67):

Then the cavalry, as they were armed and mounted, rushed [to the front], urging the crowds and saying, “Everyone take a rock and stone the blessed one (i.e., Mar Qardagh).”

Then the magi (Zoroastrian priest) assembled with all the nobles and sat down and were reading the text of judgment against the blessed one sent by the king. The church is accustomed to call [this text] a qataresis, while the Persians call it a nibištag (Persian neveshteh).

Then the blessed one, when he saw the crowds of pagans and Jews who were carrying rocks and running forward to stone him, gazed to heaven and sealed himself with the sign of the Cross. And he prayed in a loud voice and said, “Our lord Jesus Christ Son of God. Help me in this hour. Make me worthy that I may confidently join with the throngs of Your holy ones.” Then his father, who was drunk with the error of Magianism (Zoroastrianism) and was afraid of death and sought favor with the king and the nobles took his robe and bound it around his face and threw the rock for the stoning of his son. And immediately the soul of the athlete of righteousness departed to eternal life”

Mar Qardaqh appears to have been stoned to death in 358 CE, as the text relates to us. According to medieval Zoroastrianism, conversion from Zoroastrianism to any other religion carried the sentence of death (margarzān). This tradition is also followed in Islam, where one who leaves the religion (irtidad) is worthy of death. Thus, stoning took place in Iran before and after Islam. The issue is not to blame a religion for it, but rather to make sure that everyone sees that the practices of the past, such as stoning, not to take place today in the name of any religion, philosophy or belief system. One should not invoke thousands of years old texts to justify their actions and harm against other humans.

With the exception of problems with the historiography of such Christian martyrologies, it is an interesting episode in the history of Iran, and of course not a good one. Truth is more important than anything else.