The New Muslims of Post-Conquest Iran (Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization)

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Historic and Symbolic Heritage A pool of common historic and symbolic heritage has throughout history helped cement a sense of national identity in Iran. They often have tried to appropriate it to themselves, and in the process have become to a degree culturally persianized. In this context, the memory of the Achamenide Empire, and in the post-Islamic era, that of the Sassanid Empire has been particularly powerful. For example, the Sassanids clearly claimed descent from the Achamenids and set upon restoring their empire.

Tradition, Memory, and Conversion

According to some sources, even some Arsacid Parthian kings, such as Ardavan Artabanus , also sought legitimacy by claiming the Achamenide legacy. Smith, National Identity, p. The fact that Shahnameh for a thousand years has been read in Iran and is viewed as the symbol of Iranian national identity illustrates the importance of this common historic and symbolic heritage in the formation and survival of a distinct Iranian national identity.

The Linkage between Territory, Ethnicity and Culture The identification of a people with a particular territory is considered to be essential to the formation of nations and national identities. For many people, their land has even a sacred quality. Iran is among those countries where a long history of identification between a people and culture on the one hand, and a particular territory on the other, has existed over a very long period of time.

The mythical land of the Iranian peoples mentioned in the Zoroastrian holy book, Avesta, also has a near sacred quality since it is thought to have been blessed by Ahura Mazda. Over its long history, Iran has lost many of its territorial possessions. Common Culture, Folklore and Way of Life All scholars of nationalism and national identity, including those who view national identities as essentially constructed by elites, agree that the existence of common culture, folklore and way of life facilitates the formation of national identities.

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These cultural factors have both pre-Islamic and Islamic, especially Shia, roots, the combination of which gives Iran its distinctive character. Since the formation of the Safavid state in , until the mid 19th century, these Iranian and Shia elements had been mutually reinforcing. This dichotomy still persists, as reflected in the latest debate noted earlier.

However, conflict within the Iranian soul regarding the Iranian and Islamic poles of its identity has deeper roots in the Arab defeat of Iran in C. This new element eventually became the main pole around which Iranian society would revolve and its rhythms would regulate all aspects of life in Iran. The Iranians ultimately managed to retain a separate language—closely linked to the Middle Persian of the Sassanid era—and many of their cultural, artistic and political traditions.

They even greatly influenced many aspects of the Islamic Civilization. But they were also deeply influenced by Arabic language and script and Islamic legal and ethical notions. Moreover, ultimately, many Iranians could not completely separate the advent of Islam from their humiliating defeat at Arab hands, and hence their ambivalent attitude towards Islam. The first narrative is favored by the Arabizers and the second by Iran Loyalists. They view the pre-Islamic Iran as a corrupt society and polity ridden with unjust class structure, immoral behavior and king-centered despotism.

Interestingly, the so-called reformist Muslims also share this view. Moreover, the Islamists deny any mistreatment of the Iranians by the conquering Arabs. The reality however is that neither of these narratives correctly reflects historical facts. It is true that, partly because the Zoroastrian religion did resemble many aspects of Islam, over time, the Iranians accepted Islam fairly easily.

Moreover, Judaism and Christianity had borrowed many Zoroastrian concepts, which, in turn, through them had influenced Islam. The upshot of all these factors was that Islam did not appear too strange to the Iranians.

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Also, by the time of the Arab invasion, the Sassanid Empire was much weakened economically and had become socially and religiously more fragmented, partly as a result of the emergence of new religions and religio-social movements, such as that of Mazdak. For example notions of heaven and hell and day judgment according to some were taken from Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism had also influenced Christianity.

In fact, according to Professor Cohen it was as a result of contact with Zoroastrian priests who had fled to what is now Syria and Palestine the idea of Messiah, which is an important tenet of Zoroastrianism, was introduced into Judaism and created the expectation of the appearance of a Messiah. Development of Zurvanism in Iran was the direct result of the impact of both Babylonian and Greek religious influences.

These turned the optimistic Mazdaism of Iran into the dark notions prevalent in Babylonia and also aspects of Greek religions.

The New Muslims of Post-Conquest Iran : Sarah Bowen Savant :

However, the view that there was no resistance and no revolts in Iran against the Arabs and the new faith in Iran is not supported by historical evidence. There were many revolts, and many more fled the invading Arabs and their brutal rule. Arab invasion and rule caused much damage and loss of wealth and property in Iran and undermined its intellectual foundations, albeit not as much as the later Turko-Mongol invasions did. Iran since the time of the Sassanid emperor, Shapur the first, had become a major center of learning.

This tradition had become stronger during the reign of Khosrow Anoushirvan who had given refuge to many Greek and Nestorian philosophers, physicians and scientists fleeing the repression of Byzantine Emperors. For example, many Greek scholars came to Iran when, largely for religious reasons, Byzantine Emperor, Zeno, closed the schools in Edessa in C. Although many of the Greek philosophers who came to his court were eventually disappointed with him, they were impressed by the fact he had read Aristotle and Plato and discussed their views with them.

The Arab invaders and later rulers destroyed this entire intellectual heritage as evidenced by the ruins of the Sassanid capital, Ctesiphon, now in Iraq. It is, in fact, remarkable how much the Iranians managed to save of these Greek and other works and translate them into Arabic. It was this Sassanid legacy which formed the foundation of the Islamic philosophy and sciences complimented by the Greek and other works translated by Christians, including some Persian Christians. Moreover, had it not collapsed, the empire might have regenerated itself, as it had done before as under Anoushirvan after a period of disturbance.

Greek tragedies are tales of such inescapable fate. Fry ed. Cambridge History Iran, Vol. Moreover, as Islam developed various sects and judicial schools, sectarian differences plagued Iran at times leading to conflicts, such as those between the Hanafis and Shafeis during the reign of the Saljuqs and the premiership of Nezam ul Mulk. An even worse consequence of the Arab invasion was that it opened Iran to the future recurring and ruinous Turko-Mongol invasions.


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The destructive legacy of these invasions includes the Turko-Persian divide in the country, and TurkoPersian rivalry for the mastery of the country. This rivalry even today bedevils Iran, and is manifested in many forms, albeit often hidden beneath various political and ideological disputes. As noted earlier, by the time of the Arab invasion the Sassanid Empire was much weakened and fragmented.

The religious and other schisms had created a receptive soil for new creeds, in this case Islam. In this way, in later centuries, it contributed to a flourishing of talents hitherto unexplored. Sassanid Iran was also underdeveloped in terms of legal and political institutions, especially compared to the Imperial Rome, although changes were beginning to occur in these areas which were interrupted by the Arab invasion.

In many areas of arts and sciences, the Empire lagged behind Byzantium, although in some areas it was superior to Rome. More seriously, the fortunes of the country were too much dependent on the qualities of the monarch. The most significant consequence of Turko-Mongol invasions was that they treated Iran again as war booty to be exploited. This was even apparent during the Qajar dynasty. For example according an early 19th century British traveler J. Fraser, Narrative of a Journey into Khorasan in the years and , London: , p.

Historically, the Iranians since the times of the Medes and the Persians had been fascinated by foreign customs and cultures. Herodotus notes this characteristic, especially among the Persians. Some Iranians had also always been willing to adopt the culture of their conquerors. The best example of this is the Hellenized kings of the Parthian dynasty who called themselves Philhellenes Lovers of Greece.

For example, it is reported that Tahir Zul Yaminein Tahir with two right hands because he fought equally well with both hands ordered a copy of the Parthian romance Vis va Ramin to be burned. In terms of social standing and other opportunities, clearly, Islam favored the Arabizers.

The Persian language lost its official usage for nearly three centuries, and in later centuries was reduced to the language of literature and administration. Even today, there are some elements in Iran who believe that the Persian language has no virtue or at the least favor giving Arabic language a prominent place in the country.

The Spread of Islam, From its beginning to the 14th Century

To note, Khomeini had said that Arabic language belonged to all Muslims. More recently, some students of the Arabic language protested the rumors that the teaching of the Arabic would be transferred from the faculty of literature and humanities to that of foreign languages and literature. Even today, in Iran those who claim, often without adequate evidence, descent from the Prophet are accorded special virtue and enjoy more respect and privilege. To the extent that these Arabizing trends undermined a sense of Iranianess transcending religious affiliation, they exercised a negative influence on the development of a cohesive sense of national identity in Iran.

However, he considers this unlikely. For example, in contrast to the Tahirids, the founder of the Safarid dynasty Yaqub Leith who could not understand Arabic is credited for having encouraged the first official writing of verse in the new Post-Arab Persian. Whether this is a sign of a latent Iranian nationalism is hard to say.

But it does illustrate that most people had remained loyal to their language. The same was true of many talented Iranians, such as the Barmakis and Fazl Ibn Sahl, who obtained high offices in the Abbasid court and helped in the preservation and spread of Iranian traditions even if in an Arabized and Islamicized version. This has been so, because Arabism and Islam are often considered one and the same, at least by the Arabs. Arabs can simultaneously be Muslim and Arab.

They can glory in their race and culture and not be called chauvinist or racist, but this is not the case for non-Arab Muslims. For them, being a good Muslim means subsuming any other identity under Islam and inevitably undergoing a degree of Arabization, reflected in such symbolic behavior as choosing Arabic first names.

Others, such as the speaker of the parliament, Ali Larijani, who spoke harshly about the Iranian school, occasionally, betrays nationalist tendencies. He did so when the Italian foreign Minister, Franco Fratini, cancelled his trip to Iran because President Ahmadinejad had asked that he meet with him in Semnan in central Iran where he was travelling. Velayati said Italy cannot treat a country like Iran who had captured the Roman Emperor, in this way. See: S.