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.