Arabs and Iranians in the Islamic Conquest Narrative: Memory and Identity Construction in Islamic Historiography, 750-1050
ARABS AND IRANIANS IN THE ISLAMIC CONQUEST NARRATIVE – Book Sample
Introduction – ARABS AND IRANIANS IN THE ISLAMIC CONQUEST NARRATIVE
The Battle of al- Qādisiyya (AD 636) was the decisive victory for the Muslim- Arabs over the Sasanian empire, opening up Iran for conquest and resulting in the eradication of the Sasanian dynasty. In his historical chronicle, Ta’rīkh al- rusul wa’l-mulūk, Abū Ja‘far Muḥammad b. Jarīr al- Ṭabarī (d. 923) details numerous reports (akhbār) of the embassies which the Arabs sent to the Persian1 camp in the days prior to this battle.
His main source for these accounts is Sayf b. ‘Umar (d. 809), a Kufan transmitter of traditions who has been noted for his literary embellishment and questionable reliability.2 Each of these meetings pro-ceeds roughly as follows: The Arab ambassador, entering the Sasanian camp alone, is presented as the imago Bedouin warrior. He wears tattered clothes, bears ramshackle weapons, and is generally unkempt. The Iranians, in contrast, are arrayed in full ceremonial formation.
The soldiers display their glistening armor and impressive weaponry, and the nobles don their ﬁnest brocades and diadems. At the end of a spread carpet lined with cushions, the Sasanian general Rustam sits atop a golden throne.
The Arab, however, pays no heed to the Iranians’ display of pomp and proceeds to approach Rustam. Rustam then begins the dialogue by disparaging the Arabs for their poverty and offers to give them some meager provisions if they would return to their land.
The Arab ambassador, however, remains composed and digniﬁed despite this treatment, and eloquently responds by chastising the Persians for their decadence, proclaiming the message of the Prophet Muḥammad, and offering them the ultimatum of conversion, paying the jizya (poll tax), or facing open war.3
These reports’ formulaic emphasis on the contrast between the Arabs’ poverty and the Iranians’ imperial splendor renders their veracity suspect. What is furthermore intriguing is the fact that al- Ṭabarī affords far less coverage to the Arab- Muslims’ early campaigns against the Roman (Byzantine) empire than he gives to the conquest of Iran.
This is unusual considering the wealth of conquest literature (futūḥ) on the Arabs’ Western campaigns to which al- Ṭabarī would have had access. These works exhibit similar tropes of contrast in their portray-als of encounters between Arabs and representatives of Roman empire.4 Why therefore did al- Ṭabarī devote so much attention to Sayf ’s dubious rendition of the al- Qādisiyya embassies, and the conquest of Iran in general? How might the social and political circumstances in which he lived have shaped his attitude 2 towards these events?
What messages, if any, was he trying to convey to his reader through his portrayal of these embassies, and how might we compare his agenda, or the angle he approached this history, with that of his sources?
Al- Ṭabarī’s chronicle belongs to a genre of Islamic historiography consisting of comprehensive world histories composed between the late ninth and early eleventh centuries.5 These works vary in their coverage of the civilizations of the pre- Islamic world, yet on the whole, the lion’s share of their focus is on two groups: the Arabs and the Iranians. Across this genre, the great civilizations of Greece and Rome, India, and China are frankly not afforded the same depth of coverage in terms of their internal dynamics as the Arabs and the Iranians.6
Considering the fact that Islam was born in the Arabian peninsula, it is of course, natural that Arab history should be afforded a prominent position in any Islamic historical work. As far as the Iranian orientation of these texts is concerned, this is a reﬂection of these historians’ social context.
Most of the universal chronog-raphers were of Iranian origin. (Al- Ṭabarī hailed from the region of Ṭabaristān, south of the Caspian Sea). Moreover, they were writing in an era witnessing the dominance in the central and eastern Islamic lands of Iranian political enterprises and a concomitant wide- scale resurgence of Iranian traditions and culture.
The universal chronicles of this era therefore evince an attempt to merge the histories of the pre- Islamic Arab and Iranian peoples into a universal cycle of aggregate accounts culminating with the rise of Islam. As a watershed moment bringing these two civilizations together, it is no wonder then why the events surrounding the seminal Battle of al- Qādisiyya receive so much attention in these works in comparison to their depiction of the Byzantine conquests.
Yet, this streaming of two distinct traditions into a single historical consciousness was no easy task, especially considering that the transmitters these historians relied upon lived in a different social and political context from theirs and, no doubt, thought about these events differently.
So for example, while Iranian culture certainly exercised a strong inﬂuence on the early ‘Abbasid Iraq of Sayf b. ‘Umar, and the Arab genealogist and antiquarian Hishām b. al- Kalbī (d. 819), it had not yet reached the same degree of dominance there and elsewhere in the Dār al- Islām (Abode of Islam) as it had by the time we arrive at the universal chronographers’ era.
How then did Muslim writers of history, living in different times and in different contexts, come to terms with and give meaning to the Arab conquest of Iran? The present study addresses this question.
Approach: collective memory, identity construction, and historical narrative
The main analytical frame of this book is that of historical “memory” and the way early Muslim scholars living between 750 and 1050 remembered the pre- Islamic Arabs and Iranians, as well as the Muslim conquest of Iran. This study further investigates the ways in which this recollection reﬂects their own social context. In approaching this topic, the modern historian can beneﬁt from social scientiﬁc scholarship on memory without forcing theoretical judgments on the…
The buildup to the confrontation
Khusraw II Parvīz and the rise of the Arabs
Islamic historical memory bears witness to the unraveling of the Sasanian state under Khusraw II Parvīz (r. 591–628), the last effective sovereign of the Sasa-nian dynasty. In this context, I commence this chaper by examining the account of Parvīz’s rescue by Iyās b. Qabīṣa, chief of the Ṭayyi’ tribe, when the young king was ﬂeeing the rebel Bahrām Chūbīn.
I then discuss how, in the Islamic historical tradition, the allure of power and luxuries caused the king to become oppressive of his subjects, decadent, and avaricious for the wealth of others, thus making him the model of the stereotypical monarchical tyranny conceived by Muslim critics of Iranian civilization. It is against the background of the degeneration of Parvīz’s character occurring later in his reign that I will examine the reports of his subsequent dealings with the Arabs, for whom he showed con-tempt.
The ﬁrst case of such accounts describes the last Lakhmid king, al- Nu‘mān III b. al- Mundhir’s (r. 580–602) visit to the Sasanian court, and the follow- up embassy of Arab notables sent by the Lakhmid ruler in response to the ill treatment he had received from Parvīz during his trip.
The second is the account of the Battle of Dhū Qār, which is portrayed in the Islamic tradition as a result of Parvīz’s liquidation of the Lakhmid state. Moreover, the narrative of this battle underlines the bravery of the Arabs in the classic style of the ayyām al-‘Arab genre of literature, while depicting Dhū Qār as a forerunner to the Islamic conquest of Iran.
I will conclude by analyzing the depiction of the ominous events occurring towards the end of Parvīz’s reign, as well as Parvīz’s ignominious deposal and execution, which both heralded the fall of the Sasanian dynasty and the rise of the Arabs under the banner of Islam.
An Arab chieftain’s hospitality to a Persian king
The account of Parvīz’s early years describes the difﬁcult ascent of a young king striving to maintain his rule. The Islamic narrative tends to be sympathetic to the youthful Parvīz, portraying him in a heroic light in a power struggle for which the odds were stacked against him.
It details the treacherous blinding and murder of his father Hormuz IV (r. 570–590) by his uncles Bisṭām and Binday, and his having to contend with the rebel general Bahrām Chūbīn,1 who took control over Ctesiphon, forcing Parvīz to ﬂee to Byzantium where he hoped to acquire the support of the emperor Mawriq (Maurice) to regain his throne.
In the narrative of Parvīz’s ﬂight from Bahrām Chūbīn, the reader comes across the description of Parvīz’s momentous encounter with an Arab chief. Bal‘amī and the Nihāyat al- irab provide virtually identical accounts of this meeting.2 It is also described in somewhat less detail by Firdawsī, and referenced in other chronicles as well.3
It is related that after a narrow escape from the usurper Bahrām, Parvīz and only ten of his companions traveled three days and nights, and were suffering from fatigue and hunger. When they reached the bank of the Euphrates, they encountered a lone Bedouin (i‘rābī) mounted on a camel. Parvīz, who is reported to have spoken some Arabic and to have known the Arabs’ genealogies, asked the Arab who he was.
He responded that he was Iyās b. Qabīṣa of the Banū Ṭayyi’. (In the Shāhnāma, he is Qays b. al- Ḥārith.) When Iyās found out that he was talking to the king, he dismounted to pay him homage, and invited him to stay with his tribe, telling him that it would be his honor to have the king as his guest.
The remainder of this anecdote serves as a conspicuous illustration of the Arabs’ proverbial hospitality. The small Iranian party was greeted by the not-ables of the tribe, who gave them straw mats to sit on. Growing impatient and fearing that they would be discovered by Bahrām’s forces, Parvīz pleaded with Iyās to just give him and his group some food and they would be on their way.
However, Iyās insisted on providing hospitality to his guest. He reassured the king that they were safe, and called for fresh milk and dates to be given to the refugees. He then prepared some bread by cooking dough in a hole in the ground, which was the custom of camel drivers and shepherds, so the reader is informed. He also had a lamb slaughtered and roasted for his guests. However, Firdawsī only mentions the cow Qays had slaughtered for Parviz and his men. Satisﬁed but exhausted from their travails, the Iranians then fell asleep.
The magnanimous character of the Arab Iyās is shown, however, most clearly by what occurs next in this account. Parvīz and his entourage arose after their siesta wishing to leave, but the concerned Iyās informed them that it was a three- day journey through the desert, and to make it they would need adequate food, a guide, and fresh horses. Iyās assured the king that he would provide all these things in the morning and invited him to spend the night with his tribe.
While Qays sent the group with a guide in the Shāhnāma, in Bal‘amī and the Nihāyat’s accounts, Iyās personally accompanied Parvīz and his men on his journey. When they reached their destination, Parvīz said to Iyās,
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