Christopher de Bellaigue - Persian Heretics and Heresieshttp://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/206591/persian-heretics-and-heresies
One of Patricia Crone’s achievements in her magnificent book on Iran in the aftermath of the Islamic conquest is to shed new light on sex on the Iranian plateau. Over some 50 densely argued pages toward the end of The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran, using sources, besides Herodotus, that range from hostile Muslim missionaries to Buddhist pilgrims, she establishes that polyandry, the lending of wombs, and the renting of inseminators were not uncommon and that incestuous marriage was encouraged under Zoroastrian law. Notwithstanding the physical effects of inbreeding, the consequences were not all bad; property was protected over generations and infertile couples raised children. But the Persians’ habitual detractors (the Greeks and, later on, the Arabs) ignored such practicalities in favor of shock and titillation, repeating when it suited them the Persian axiom that a woman is like a sprig of basil whose fragrance does not diminish if it is passed around. There were other analogies—to fruits, utensils, wells, roads, even ships.
The story of morally dissolute Persians is as old as Persia itself. Thus, in the fifth century B.C., we find Xanthus of Lydia (who had lived under Persian occupation) reporting that “when a man wants to take another man’s wife as his own, he does so without force or secrecy but with mutual consent and approval.” The medieval heresiographer al-Baghdadi described an Iranian religious group, the Khurramis (from khurram din, or “joyous religion”), as permitting any pleasure, no matter how abominable, provided it did not harm others. Both these statements were misleading, if not untrue. Law and custom regulated sexual intercourse; life was no bacchanal. More recently, in the 1970s, the pious Iraqis of Basra regarded Abadan, the Iranian refinery town just across the border, as crawling with sex. This, too, was an exaggeration.
“Our own sense,” Crone writes, “of what is plausible and implausible is severely limited by the fact that the modern world is dominated by an extremely narrow range of family arrangements.” Prurience is decidedly no help in understanding late antiquity, when Eurasia was shedding (as we now realize) some of the characteristics that made it ancient, becoming recognizably the forebear of the world we inhabit now. In this light, examining the convoluted sexual arrangements of our ancestors is like “opening a book on a huge variety of dead and dying languages, all victims of the inexorable homogenization of the world that has been in steady progress since the dawn of civilization.” Knowing Patricia Crone—as readers will feel they do after working their way through the limpid, unsparingly informative, precisely 500 pages of her text—I am confident there is no pejorative vibrato in the words “inexorable homogenization”; it is in Crone’s character as a historian to pursue “just the facts.”