The Moon-Maker of Khorassan

A great danger to traditional Islam


The Moon-Maker of Khorassan
by Ryszard Antolak

"The Moon of Nakhshab" was the most famous creation of Hashim ibn Hakkim, the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan, known sometimes as Mah-sazanda (the moon maker).

Twelve centuries after he set himself alight in his mountain fortress to evade capture, his name remains a potent symbol of political and religious excess. A deranged charismatic prophet, a seducer of men’s minds (and women’s bodies), the leader of a failed revolt against the Abbasids, an illusionist who bound thousands to his cause through trickery and false promises: few figures in Iranian History have exercised a stronger fascination over the western imagination than the celebrated Veiled Prophet of Khorassan. (1)

More commonly known by his epithet “Mokhanna” (the veiled one), he is said to have concealed his features behind a mask of burnished silver or, in other accounts, a veil of green damask silk, fearful lest the light of his countenance should blind anyone who gazed upon it.

What lay behind his mask is still a matter of conjecture. His enemies maintained that it hid a face “horribler than Hell e’er traced on its own brood” (2), a face hideously deformed beyond all recognition so that he needed to hide it from the sight of men. He was horribly scarred they said, hairless, ugly, one-eyed: wounds received in the service of his master, Abu Muslim, or alternatively as the result of an accident with corrosive liquids.

His followers, however, claimed that the mask concealed a face so radiant with divine light that anyone who gazed upon it would faint immediately from the experience.

In the late 8th century CE, Islam was not yet a thing encased in amber. There was still a common belief that it was capable of being a source of endless variety and subtlety, its form breaking down to reveal brilliant and dazzling shapes. In Khorassan (and other eastern provinces), Islamic practices mingled with Zoroastrian, Buddhist, Manichaean and Turkic shamanic beliefs to create a bubbling cauldron of strange and exotic sects from which would arise (one day) the spiritual movement known as Sufism.

Many of the Islamic messianic movements at that time were clustered around the charismatic figure of Abu Muslim, the mysterious Persian from Merv who had brought down the first Islamic Caliphate and replaced it with the Abbasids (3). In 755, Abu Muslim had been murdered by the caliph al Mansur (whom he had loyally served), and his mutilated body was thrown into the Tigris. He was only thirty-seven years old. The murder fuelled immediate resentment among the population of his native Khorassan, and heretical religious movements began to arise claiming that he had not died but was hiding in the mountains; or else that he had resurrected from the dead and was coming to exact his revenge.

Chief among these Muslimiyya sects was the cult of Mokhanna. In his more extravagant moments, Mokhanna told his closest associates that he was illuminated by the uncreated light of God, the very light that had burned in the prophets Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mohammad (and also, briefly) Abu Muslim himself. It was a light understood as both intelligence and gnosis, transcending spirit and matter. Those who followed him cast off their worldly clothes and put on white woollen garments as a sign of their purity and adherence to the Light. It also marked their opposition to the Abbasids, (whose banner and clothes were black).

In 769 AD Mokhanna proclaimed himself the successor to Abu Muslim, rightful lord of Khorassan. His revolt spread from Merv like wildfire, especially into the eastern areas of the caliphate (to Soghdia, Khorassan and Tokaristan) where sixty cities joined him against the Abbasids (4)

It was during this time that he performed his greatest miracle for which he became famous. The prophet is said to have constructed a deep well in the Soghdian city of Nakhshab, from which would emerge, (each night), a great false moon, bright and large enough to rival the real one. Its light could not spread a long distance but for three months it kept emerging from its well to the wonderment of the assembled crowds who flocked to the city in their thousands to witness the marvel. Then, one fateful night without explanation, it faltered and crashed to earth. (5)

The moon of Nakhshab haunted the imagination of poets for centuries. In the works of Sanai, Anwari, Nizami (as well as many others) it became a metaphor for any man-made creation of such daring and grandeur that it rivalled the works of God himself: anything wonderful but (ultimately) imperfect. Many unexplained astrological or meteorological phenomenon was ascribed to his genius. And so, by marvels such as these, the prophet convinced thousands of his divine claims.

In 776, an Abbasid army led by Gibrayil b. Yahya set out from Neishapur to crush the rebellion. It gained some initial success against the rebels but was finally defeated near Samarkand. As a result, Mokhanna’s followers held all of the Zarafshan and Kashka Darya valleys and all the areas south of Termez. Even the local Turkic tribes flocked to his cause and donned the white robes of defiance to Baghdad There were other supporting rebellions in Herat and Gurgan where, in 776 (or 778), Asma (the daughter of Abu Moslem) led a triumphant march of armies to Rayy on behalf of her son. (6) In the words of the historian Narshaki who wrote a century or so afterwards, “For a time, it seemed as if the whole world might turn at last to the religion of Mokhanna”.

But the burst of bloom was quickly over. In 779 AD the caliph Al Madhi gave orders to destroy the prophet by any means possible and sent his most trusted Arab generals, Said al-Harashi and Mo’ab b. Moslem, with vast armies against him.

Pursued relentlessly by the superior Abbasid forces, Mokhanna retreated to his fortress of Sanam, somewhere in one of the (as yet) unidentified mountaintops in the vicinity of modern Shahrisabz (Uzbekhistan). An impregnable fortress, legend says it was built in the image of paradise, its lower portions containing gardens, orchards, fields of corn and running water in abundance. At its centre, high on an isolated crag, was an inner a tower from whose heights the prophet would sometimes reveal himself with his immediate family and an inseparable black slave.(7)

Besieged for two years on his hilltop fortress, he kept the spirits of his peasant army alive with public spectacles of wondrous magic and promises that a legion of angels was coming to their aid. But as food became scarcer, his followers demanded ever more signs of divine intervention. They begged him to remove his silken veil and reveal his face to them. He replied that the sight of it would blind them, like the reflection of the sun in a mirror. No man was able to see the face of God and live, he said. But they persisted in their entreaties and finally, after a lengthy pause, he agreed to do as they wished.

At a time agreed by the prophet, the armies assembled before his isolated tower like countless flocks of birds. The clamour to see him was like the noise of a mighty sea in a storm. When he finally appeared, a reverential silence fell over the crowds as they watched this angel moving across the gardens with his own saintly momentum ,exuding the odour of his sanctity and trailing his white garments behind him.

Then he began to slowly loosen his veil, the silken veil that concealed his divine features. And as he did so, a hundred women of his household who had lined themselves on the walls of the citadel raised up their mirrors to the sun to reflect the light onto his unveiled countenance. In this way Mokhanna gave them what they desired, a vision of the world incandescent with the light of a thousand suns, totally transformed by the overwhelmingness of the miraculous. The sight of it burned away their minds so that they fell down to the ground claiming they had seen the very face of God.

But the siege was not lifted and no angels of light appeared to announce their salvation. Instead, the Abbasid armies with their black-coloured standards and dress began to construct siege engines and to dig tunnels to undermine the fortress. Inside, hunger and despair grew ever greater and many were forced to succumb to cannibalism in order to assuage their hunger. Finally, the prophet’s brother surrendered the lower part of the fortress to the government troops together with 30,000 men in exchange for clemency and conversion to Islam.

But Mokhanna refused to give in. He continued to hold out in the inner tower of the fortress with his closest associates.

Until one morning, the soldiers of the Abbasids awoke to a deathly silence. The citadel gates were open and there was no-one to be seen.
The soldiers entered the fabulous stronghold of the prophet of Khorassan without encountering a single soul. They saw the walls of the fortress lined with ingenious mirrors to catch the light. The passed vessels of mercury as large as bathing pools and thousands of oil lamps burning in the passageways.

Only later, when they reached the inner palace, and pushed aside the barricade of chests and cabinets that barred their way up the staircase, stepped over the bodies of the household guard that lay scatted everywhere (poisoned or partly charred) and burst at last with one triumphant shout of victory in to the sanctuary of the man who had denied them entry to that fortress for two whole years did they realize…. that he had eluded them. There was no trace of Mokhanna. All that remained of him were the light of countless fires destroying everything around them.

What happened in those last desperate hours is still a matter of conjecture. The various existing accounts are confused and contradictory. Some say that he immersed himself a vat of corrosive acid and was wholly dissolved in it. Others on lesser authority, record that soldiers found a charred body they presumed to belong to the prophet and hacked off its head, which they sent to the caliph at Aleppo. Others, say that all that they only discovered his hair, floating in a giant vat of acid.

The most likely explanation, however, was the one given by the only survivor of the massacre, a woman of the prophet’s household who was found sheltering in the ruins. She related how, during a final banquet, she saw the prophet lace the wine of his followers with poison. She pretended to drink it but poured the liquid secretly instead into her sleeve. As she lay on the ground feigning death, she saw Mokhanna hack off the head of his favourite servant before setting fire to the citadel. Then he removed his clothes and leaped with a loud echoing scream into a burning furnace to burn off all that was mortal in him. And was gone.

So great had been the danger to traditional Islam from the ideas of Mokhanna, that immediately after his defeat, the caliph instigated an Islamic Inquisition to weed out all the variant forms of the religion. From this time onwards, Islam was to become a thing enclosed in amber, and any attempts to deviate from traditional beliefs and practices were ruthlessly uprooted and punnished.

The Inquisition sat between the years 780 and 785 AD. Anyone found guilty was put to death. Poets (of course) were the first to be investigated. Those sentenced were charged not with heresy (ilhad) or unbelief (Kufr) or even apostasy (ridda). They were charged with Zandaqa, the old Zoroastrian designation for the duality professed by certain Manicheans. Those professing recognized religions, however, such as Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism were left unharmed. (8)

The Abbasids were merciless to the memory of Mokhanna and ensured that nothing of his legacy remained. But it was hardly possibly for the memory of such a charismatic individual as the Mah-Sazanda to be entirely erased.

His supporters continued to cling with inveterate obstinacy to the hope that one day he would return to them. In his last words, he had promised them that after his death he would be resurrected in the form of a grey-headed man riding a greyish beast, and would give them the whole land of Persia for their possession.

And so they continued to wait for him, clothed in their woollen white garments, until the twelfth century when the sect finally died out or was wholly absorbed into various shi’ia sects of the region.

(1) In the 18th century, Thomas Moore wrote his famous poem “ Lala Rooke”, which began the craze for anything associated with Mokhanna. His memory spawned a host of Masonic-like organizations, secret sisterhoods and brethren both in Europe and the United States with names such as “Daughters of Mokhanna” whose ritual activities were supposedly based of the cult of the prophet. . St Louisheld an annual “Veiled Prophet” celebration. Charles Villiers Stanforth wrote an opera on the subject.
For Moore and his contemporaries, Mokhanna represented a movement of fanaticism and irrationality, the error that occurs when there is no centralised controlling power For the western colonial powers, he represented the potential forces of lawlessness, chaos, fanaticism and heresy that would result when strong, absolute, despotic power was absent: a rationalisation for western dominance of the middle east.

(2) Lala Rooke, by Thomas Moore

(3) Abu Muslim had brought the Abbassid dynasty to power and he served it faithfully to the end of his life. His Khorassanian army was the most disciplined and feared in the whole caliphate. A convert to Islam, he was short, swarthy, stern, and emotionless. At his death, despite his power and influence, his only possessions were “five serving girls, fame and notoriety” and two daughters, Fatima and Asma.

(4) For several decades, the intelligentsia of the old pre-Islamic Soghdia, the families of rulers dispossessed by the Arab invaders, had been gravitating to the Zerafshan valley, and in particular to the fertile oasis of Nakhshab. Here were to be found the descendants of Khushtiyar (chief Zoroastrian priest of pre-Islamic Bukhara), Turghar (last Ikshid of Soghdia) and the families of most of the ruling dynasties of Kesh, Merv, Tokharistan and Padjikent. Nakhshab, once the capital of pre-Islamic southern Soghdia became once again the spiritual and cultural heart of popular resentment against the Abbasids. Its people were fiercely independent and consistently refused to bow to Arab or Islamic rule. In this heady political atmosphere, only a spark was required to ignite all of Soghdia (and with it all of Khorassan) against the Abbasids)

(5)Arab historians ascribe the wonder to mercury and chemicals. From the works of later writers such as Abd ar-Rashid al-Bakuvi, it is possible to surmise that the moon of Nakhshab was a kind of well-like container filled with mercury. The mercury was spun around on a rotating device in order to give a concave surface to the mercury which was able to produce a clear magnified the image of the moon. This was in essence, the first reflecting telescope in history. The image was then reflected away into a large standing mirror nearby, so that to an observer, the moon’s reflection seemed to hang in the air.

(6) Her followers wore red, to signify the blood of Abu Moslem, and hence were known as Muhammira. They were defeated by an army led by the governor of Tabaristan.

(7). It may have been the same fortress of the Sogdian Rock that Alexander found so difficult to capture in the Hissar mountains.

(8) In 784, The blind Persian love-poet Bashar bin Burd who was known for his anti-Arab sentiments (and had one mocked the call to prayer while drunk) was charged with heresy, imprisoned, beaten to death and thrown into the Tigris. Hammad al-Rawiya who had compiled the Muallaqat, the pre-Islamic anthology of odes that was hung in gold letters of the walls of the Kaaba also fell victim to the inquisition.In the same way Ishaq bin Khalaf, Ammara bin Harbiyya, Hammad bin al-Zibirqan, Abu Shamaqmaq and Jamil bin Mahfuz all became victims. The Inquisitor General was known as the “Sahib al Zanadiqa”. In many areas it was nothing more than an elaborate witch hunt in which accused individuals were not allowed to defend themselves.


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more from Ryszard Antolak
Ryszard Antolak

The mercury telescope

by Ryszard Antolak on

Those interested in more information about Muqanna's mercury telescope should refer to Dr Rustamov's online article



Why the veil

by Gougouli (not verified) on

It has been suggested that he had a pox-ridden face, hence the veil.

Ryszard Antolak

"Muqanna" it is

by Ryszard Antolak on

Behnam, I'm beginning to blush! You're too polite to point out my (several) spelling and grammar mistakes. I wrote the piece a bit too quickly.

There seem to be many variant spellings of the name "Muqanna" in the literature (even Moqunna and Mukhanna). I couldn't decide which one to use (especially which "q" letter-sound to use:- "q", "k", "qu", or "kh"). In the end I just "plumped" for the one that seemed to occur most.

Thanks for clearing up my confusion.

"Muqanna" it is from now on.

Many thanks .




by Behnam Mohebbi (not verified) on

You're better rather than almost anyone else writing in

Note, however, that Muqanna', with a q or k, is a better transliteration. It's the letter qaaf.

Ari Siletz

What a fascinating bit of Iranian history!

by Ari Siletz on

And well told. Thank you.



by deev on

loved the trick with the mirrors!


Great story

by Shadooneh (not verified) on

"an illusionist who bound thousands to his cause through trickery and false promises": Sure sign of a true prophet.

Ryszard Antolak


by Ryszard Antolak on

I don't know any book wholly and specifically about Mokhanna. Although snippets of his story appear in countless history books (and even some scientific journals).

"Lala Rooke" is a fantasy, although based on some historical facts about the prophet.

Ryszard Antolak


by Ryszard Antolak on

Thank you for your interesting and informative comment.

Yes, this is Borges' Mokhanna, too. There are so many ideas about why he chose to veil himself. Another persistent one is that he daubed his face with ground crystals of phosphorescent zinc sulphide which glowed eerily in the dark behind his veil like a yellow-green lamp. Zinc sulphide was used to treat smallpox. So he may originally have hidden his face to hide the ravages of that terrible disease.




by AnonymousX (not verified) on

What an interesting piece of our history. Is there any book on this?


I loved it!

by reader (not verified) on

Great story. I think this would make an awesome movie! Amazing how Islam has actually gone through certain stages of evolving into what it is in Iran today but we hardly know anything about that history. Thanks!



by Asghar_Massombagi on

There is an account of Mokhanna or a like-figure in A Universal History of Infamy by Jorge Louis Borges where he speculates (or conveys others' speculation) that the veiled prophet was a leper and when his disillusioned followers finally tore the veil away they saw the disfigured face of a leper.  It's tempting to make historical connection between various Iranian insurections that were inspired by messianic figures and the contemporary history. Both Bab and Abdol-baha were such figures.  Khomeini could also be a Mokhanna figure, albeit with a figurative veil. Near mythical figures who were promoted to divinity by their followers as the Spirit of The Time, at least in absence of Mahdi.  The Erfan inspired and anti-rationalist core of such movements in opposition to the orthodox Islam of the Caliphate and later the Saffavid Shia, has persisted in Iran.  Ahmad Fardid was a huge proponent of this version of Islam (primarily Ibn-Arabi’s neo-platonist Islamic Erfan). Fardid famously coined the term Gharbzadegi, made (in)famouse by Jalal Al-Ahamd and used extensively as an ideological prop by the Islamists in Iran.  Although Fardid switched to the term Taghutzadegi after the 1979 revolution when suddenly he found a huge audience.  For those interested read Daryush Ashuri's critique of Fardid in