Iran in the Early Islamic Period: Politics, Culture, Administration and Public Life Between the Arab and the Seljuk Conquests, 633–1055

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 Iran In The Early Islamic Period
  • Book Author:
Bertold SpulerRobert Hoyland
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Chronological Overview of Political History

The Importance of the Islamic Invasion for Persian History

One of the characteristics of Iranian history1 is its clearly discernable periodization into large distinct sections, which are easily distinguished from one another and each of which displays a unique character. In the preceding millennia, individual periods had already been terminated or inaugurated by a national collapse.

In this light we have to imagine the entry of the old Aryan population (which gave the country its name: Ērā̄n) into the northeastern regions (Khurasan), a process which, together with the teachings of Zoroaster, gave the plateau for the first time a historically concrete form.

 In a similar way the rise of the Median and then Persian-Achaemenid state signified an inner transformation, even if it triggered changes only within the Iranian population. Even more evident is the caesura introduced by Alexander the Great’s invasion.

In this case an element intruding from outside appropriated political power and was determined to make a bid for cultural leadership as well. It required a long, hard political struggle for the Iranian people to create their own national government in the guise of the Parthian state. This state com- bined Hellenistic influences with their own national tradition, and would form an important support in the ideological war between the Orient on the one hand and the Greek spirit and the power of the Roman state on the other.2

The demise of the Parthian state and the onset of Sasanid domination (ad 224 or 226) brought about another important internal change for Iran.

 This transformation had a linguistic dimension and was linked to the restoration of Zoroastrianism, which was able to hold its ground against Christianity and Manichaeism, and yet it did not, and did not wish to, eliminate the linguistic and cultural inheritance of the past in terms of language and culture, as had been the case in previous political ruptures.

The Muslim Arab invasion of the lands settled by the Iranians was there- fore not a novelty within the context of the history of the Iranian plateau. Alexander’s Macedonians and Greeks had been foreigners who had already succeeded in taking possession of Iran; | the Iranian people had already there- fore had to hold their own, nationally as well as culturally.

 In addition to these world-historical parallels there were a number of external factors which repeated themselves in a very obvious way; then as now the last king of the East met his end at the hands of a murderer, then as now the conquerors were (temporarily) stopped at the Inner Asian frontier, where Sasanid Iran had defended Near Eastern culture and civilization in long battles against the Hephthalites and the Turks pushing hard behind them.3

However, the penetration of the Arabs meant more for Iran than previous (and subsequent) national catastrophes. For the first and only time in the course of their history the Persians, presented with the youthful fervour of the fresh and single-minded Arabs, gave up the true heart of their oriental cul- ture (and indeed any culture):

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they gave up their religion in order to follow the teaching of the prophet Muḥammad. Thus, the great caesura in Iranian history that took place in the seventh century became the most important and truly decisive one in the long history of this people and its country. It divides the Middle Iranian period from the New Iranian one.

 It left its mark on the face of the people, and by asserting themselves as a national unit and an independent cultural entity against the Arabs, the Iranians had to re-define and delineate anew their whole being in the symbols of this new faith of the one God.

Such a renewal process does not happen in one day. The Persian nation needed several centuries in order to find its new self, to create a space for itself in the framework of the Islamic nations, and to find entry into the emerging community on the eastern and southern shores of the Mediterranean, whose constitutive element was Islam.

By following this religion, Iran was able to spread parts of its ancient culture in a new guise far beyond the confines of the Persian language area; it could stamp a whole range of Iranian character traits onto Islam, and finally it could create its own special form of this religion (and this concluding phase has continued since 1502).

The Arab Conquest of Iran

Throughout their existence Sasanid Persia and Christian Byzantium had continued the old fight between Orient and Occident, without actually ever reaching a true and final result. The seventh century seemed to inaugurate a major shift and gave one of the two powers the upper hand.

The Eastern Roman Empire had been weakened by the tyranny of the emperor Phokas (602–10), by the confusion caused by his fall and the accession of Heraclius (from Egypt), and by the subsequent attacks from northern and northeastern enemies aimed at the core of the state.

 It was no longer able to muster a united front when the Sasanid Khusrau ii Parvēz (590–628) mounted a large attack against the southern provinces of the realm and seized not only Syria, Palestine and Egypt in two large expeditions, but was also able to move deep into Armenia and Asia Minor. Heraclius had to invest great effort in establishing a new military administration and at least attempting to balance the dogmatic differences between the individual Christian beliefs in order to prevail.

In the end, with difficult and bitter expeditions, which were nevertheless surprisingly well- aimed and quick, he was able to drive Khusrau out of all the territories he had conquered and to pursue him into the heart of his realm, to his residence in Seleucia-Ctesiphon on the Middle Tigris. There Heraclius dictated to him the terms of peace, for which the great ruler paid with a violent death and the loss of his throne (29 February 628).

It was obvious that military activities on this scale, which were furthermore followed by years of struggle for the throne in the Sasanid state, led Persia to a state of extreme exhaustion, but also that, despite its victory, the Eastern Roman Empire was temporarily not fully able to function. So the prerequisites were fulfilled for an external enemy, who might not have hoped in the past to attack a great power like Iran successfully, to have the prospect of being victorious.4

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This enemy came from the southwest, from a region where so far no genuinely dangerous activities had threatened the existence of the great state, even if local raiders had long made their uncomfortable presence felt. Indeed, the southern border of the Sasanid state lay relatively unprotected since the demise of the Lakhmid dynasty in 602.

However, the vehemence of the attack that followed was not determined by environmental changes on the Arabian peninsula, such as | a drought that would have compelled the population to expeditions on a larger scale,5 nor by the relocation of trade routes, nor merely by the Arabs’ greed for booty, even though this trait, well-known among, and characteristic of, all nomadic and pastoral peoples, played a role which should not be underestimated.

 The actual motivation for the explosive and unstoppable advance of the Arabs was the new religion6 and the new ideological foundation that Muḥammad had given them. While the possibility that a simple attitude towards God and the world could have such an extraordinary effect has been doubted in the past, the events of the last centuries have shown with the necessary clarity what kind of forces (positive and negative) can be triggered by a new idea. Now no one can doubt anymore that the religion of the one God proclaimed at the time was the first and most long-lasting motivation for the expansion of the Arabs.

Muḥammad himself had prepared an expedition north immediately before his death, and the caliph Abū Bakr (632–34) had carried it out, despite the dangerous political situation in Arabia, in the summer of 632.

 Details of its course are not known, and it did not bring about a result. Properly organised military forays were conducted only in the following year of 633 in a northerly and northeasterly direction. They were aimed firstly at East Roman Palestine and from there at Syria and culminated in the battles of Ajnadayn (July or August 634)7 and the Yarmūk (Hieromax; 23 July–20 August 636)8 and in the capture of Jerusalem and later Damascus. These events are taken into consid- eration here only insofar as they were significant for the course of the conflict in Mesopotamia.

Indeed, the Muslim Arabs simultaneously advanced against the Valley of the Tigris and Euphrates.9 | Here Persian supremacy had not been touched by the defeat against the East Romans, although Persian forces had been deci- mated and further weakened by the civil war that raged until 632. The first push was led by al-Muthannā ibn Ḥāritha from the tribe of Shaybān, soon sup- ported by Khālid ibn al-Walīd from Yamāma (633 iii/18–iv/16 = Muḥ. ah 12), against al-Ḥīra, the old residence of the Lahkhmids on the west bank of the Euphrates, on the northwestern edge of the large marshes.10

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 The Persians under Hōrmizdān were forced back from the city;11 Persian rescue attempts with new troops failed,12 and the Christian Arab auxiliaries of the Persians were defeated at Ullays on the Euphrates and the prisoners killed, due to a vow of Khālid’s (April/May 633 = Ṣafar ah 12). After fierce resistance by the Christian Arab population, supported by monks and priests, al-Ḥīra had to sur- render to Khālid (May/June 633 = Rabīʿ i ah 12). Despite two revolts the city was treated leniently13 but soon lost its importance due to the foundation of neighbouring Kufa,14 which was soon followed by Basra on the seashore.15

With the fall of al-Ḥīra the gates to Mesopotamia stood open. The Muslims travelled as far as the Tigris in individual raids, taking several smaller for- tresses (among them Dūmat al-Jandal, which was defended by Arab allies of the Sasanids), and standing their ground in individual encounters with local detachments, while the Persians were reorganising their forces in the Zagros mountains.

The situation of the Muslims became more difficult when Khālid, having repelled a Byzantine intervention in Mesopotamia in the late autumn of 633, was transferred to Syria in the following year (as he believed, because of the jealousy of the later caliph ʿUmar), which he reached in a bold five-day- long march through the desert.16

His successor, al-Muthannā, one of the leaders of the tribe of the Bakr ibn Wāʾil, was temporarily endangered by a Persian raid from Fars that advanced up to the ruins of old Babylon (Arabic: Bābil) near al-Ḥīra, but this ended with a Persian defeat and secured the country up to the Euphrates for the Arabs.17 Under the pressure of the continuous Muslim threat the prince and general Rustam, son of Farrukh-Hōrmuzd, succeeded in ordering the government and achieving recognition for the young Yazdagird (Yazdegert) iii under his guard- ianship.18

 Despite heavy losses in a series of encounters with the new Arab general Abū ʿUbayd al-Thaqafī, he was able to prevent the invaders from mak- ing any real progress for a long time, as after the fording of the Euphrates the Muslims were repelled in a bitter battle at Qiss al-Nāṭif, and Abū ʿUbayd fell (‘Battle of the Bridge’).19 However, internal discord made it impossible for the Persians to take advantage of this success.20

In the ‘Battle of the Tents’ al-Muthannā, now chief general again, was able to prevent the Persians from penetrating once more into the northern Arabian– Syrian desert, and he raided a number of essential markets as far as the village of Baghdad. Only now, after the loss of Babylon, did the Persians pull them- selves together for the decisive battle under the leadership of Rustam.21

Once more they advanced across the Euphrates at al-Ḥīra as far as the frontier strong- hold of al-Qādisīya at the edge of the Syrian desert (30km southwest of this city).22 For weeks the Arabs under Saʿd ibn Abī Waqqāṣ were pitted against the Persians under Rustam;23 although whether this occurred in the year 63624 or 16 Ṭab. i 2121/3; Athīr ii 151–54; Wellh.,

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