Islamization of Iran

The Islamization of Iran occurred as a result of the Muslim conquest of Persia. It was a long process by which Islam, though long rejected, was gradually accepted by the majority of the population. On the other hand, Iranians have maintained certain pre-Islamic traditions, including language and culture, and adapted them with Islamic codes. Finally these two customs and traditions merged as the "Iranian Islamic" identity.[1]

The Islamization of Iran was to yield deep transformations within the cultural, scientific, and political structure of Iran's society: The blossoming of Persian literature, philosophy, medicine and art became major elements of the newly forming Muslim civilization. Inheriting a heritage of thousands of years of civilization, and being at the "crossroads of the major cultural highways",[2] contributed to Persia emerging as what culminated into the "Islamic Golden Age".

Iranian culture after Islam

Persian policies after the Islamic conquest

After the Islamic conquest of the Sassanid Empire, during the reign of the Ummayad dynasty, the Arab conquerors tried to impose Arabic as the primary language of the subject peoples throughout their empire. Hajjāj ibn Yusuf was not happy with the prevalence of the Persian language in the divan, ordered the official language of the conquered lands to be replaced by Arabic, sometimes by force.[3]

Contemporary attestations of violent anti-Persianism are given in the accounts of Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani[4] and Abū Rayḥān al-Bīrūnī.[5]

However after the reign of the Umayyads, Iran and its society in particular experienced reigning dynasties who legitimize Persian languages and customs, while still encouraging Islam. Moreover, there was close interaction between Persian and Arab leaders, particularly during the wake of the Samanids who promoted revived Persian more than the Buyids and the Saffarids, while continuing to patronize Arabic to a significant degree.[6]

There are a number of historians who see the rule of the Umayyads as setting up the "dhimmah" to increase taxes from the dhimmis to benefit the Arab Muslim community financially and by discouraging conversion.[7] Islam, during the Umayyad Caliphate, was initially associated with the ethnic identity of the Arab and required formal association with an Arab tribe and the adoption of the client status of mawali.[7] Governors lodged complaints with the caliph when he enacted laws that made conversion easier, depriving the provinces of revenues. Notable Zoroastrian converts to Islam included Abd-Allāh Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ, Fadl ibn Sahl and Naubakht Ahvazi.

Islamization policies

During the following Abbassid period an enfranchisement was experienced by the mawali and a shift was made in political conception from that of a primarily Arab empire to one of a Muslim empire[8] and c. 930 a requirement was enacted that required all bureaucrats of the empire be Muslim.[7] Both periods were also marked by significant migrations of Arab tribes outwards from the Arabian Peninsula into the new territories.[8]

After Persia was conquered, the Muslims offered relative religious tolerance and fair treatment to populations that accepted Islamic rule without resistance. It was not until around 650, however, that resistance in Iran was quelled. Conversion to Islam, which offered certain advantages, was fairly rapid among the urban population but slower among the peasantry and the dihqans (landed gentry). The majority of Iranians did not become Muslim until the ninth century. Landowners who peacefully submitted to Islam were granted more land.[9] Having effectively been recognized as dhimmis under the Rashidun Caliphs, on the terms of annual payment of the Jizya, Zoroastrians were sometimes left largely to themselves, but this practice varied from area to area. Due to their financial interests, the Ummayads generally discouraged the conversion of non-Arabs, as the dhimmis provided them with valuable revenues (Jizya).

Before the conquest, the Persians had been mainly Zoroastrian. The historian Al-Masudi, a Baghdad-born Arab, who wrote a comprehensive treatise on history and geography in about 956, records that after the conquest:

Zorastrianism, for the time being, continued to exist in many parts of Iran. Not only in countries which came relatively late under Muslim sway (e.g Tabaristan) but also in those regions which early had become provinces of the Muslim empire. In almost all the Iranian provinces, according to Al Masudi, fire temples were to be found – the Madjus he says, venerate many fire temples in Iraq, Fars, Kirman, Sistan, Khurasan, Tabaristan, al Djibal, Azerbaijan and Arran.

This general statement of al Masudi is fully supported by the medieval geographers who make mention of fire temples in most of the Iranian towns.[10]

Also, Islam was readily accepted by Zoroastrians who were employed in industrial and artisan positions because, according to Zoroastrian dogma, such occupations that involved defiling fire made them impure .[11] Moreover, Muslim missionaries did not encounter difficulty in explaining Islamic tenets to Zoroastrian, as there were many similarities between the faiths. According to Thomas Walker Arnold, for the Persian, he would meet Ahura Mazda and Ahriman under the names of Allah and Iblis.[11] At times, Muslim leaders in their effort to win converts encouraged attendance at Muslim prayer with promises of money and allowed the Quran to be recited in Persian instead of Arabic so that it would be intelligible to all.[11] Later, the Samanids, whose roots stemmed from Zoroastrian theocratic nobility, propagated Sunni Islam and Islamo-Persian culture deep into the heart of Central Asia. The first complete translation of the Qur'an into Persian occurred during the reign of Samanids in the 9th century.

Richard Bulliet's "conversion curve" and relatively minor rate of conversion of non-Arab subjects during the Arab centric Umayyad period of 10%, in contrast with estimates for the more politically multicultural Abassid period which saw the Muslim population go from approx. 40% in the mid 9th century to close to 80% by the end of 11th century.[8]

The emergence of Iranian Muslim dynasties has great effect on changing religion as Seyyed Hossein Nasr says.[12] These dynasties have adopted some Persian language cultural values and adapted them with Islam.

Shu'ubiyya and Persianization policies

Although Persians adopted the religion of their conquerors, over the centuries they worked to protect and revive their distinctive language and culture, a process known as Persianization. Arabs and Turks participated in this attempt.[13][14][15][16]

In the 9th and 10th centuries, non-Arab subjects of the Ummah created a movement called Shu'ubiyyah in response to the privileged status of Arabs. Most of those behind the movement were Persian, but references to Egyptians, Berbers and Aramaeans are attested.[17] Citing as its basis Islamic notions of equality of races and nations, the movement was primarily concerned with preserving Persian culture and protecting Persian identity, though within a Muslim context. It was a response to the growing Arabization of Islam in the earlier centuries. The most notable effect of the movement was the survival of Persian language, the language of the Persians, to the present day. The movement never moved into apostasy though, and has its basis in the Islamic thought of equality of races and nations.

The Abbasids also held a strong pro-Iranian campaign against the Ummayads in order to get support from the Persian population. After their establishment as Caliphs, holidays such as Nowruz for example were permitted after a long suppression by the Ummayad rulers. The Abbasids, in particular al-Mamun, also actively promoted the Persian language. The Samanid dynasty who defeated the Saffarids, and called themselves descendants of Sassanid Eran spahbod Bahram Chobin.

The Samanid dynasty was the first fully native dynasty to rule Iran since the Muslim conquest, and led the revival of Persian culture. The first important Persian poet after the arrival of Islam, Rudaki, was born during this era and was praised by Samanid kings. The Samanids also revived many ancient Persian festivals. Their successor, the Ghaznawids, who were of non-Iranian Afghan origin, also became instrumental in the revival of Persian.[18]

The Shi'a Buwayhid rulers, adopted a similar attitude in this regard. They tried to revive many of the Sassanid customs and traditions. They even adopted the ancient Persian title of Shahanshah (King of Kings) for their rulers.

After the rise of the Safavid dynasty, Shi'ism became the official state religion and its adoption imposed upon the majority of the Iranian population.

Iranian influence on Islamic culture and civilization

According to Bernard Lewis:

"Iran was indeed Islamized, but it was not Arabized. Persians remained Persians. And after an interval of silence, Iran reemerged as a separate, different and distinctive element within Islam, eventually adding a new element even to Islam itself. Culturally, politically, and most remarkable of all even religiously, the Iranian contribution to this new Islamic civilization is of immense importance. The work of Iranians can be seen in every field of cultural endeavor, including Arabic poetry, to which poets of Iranian origin composing their poems in Arabic made a very significant contribution. In a sense, Iranian Islam is a second advent of Islam itself, a new Islam sometimes referred to as Islam-i Ajam. It was this Persian Islam, rather than the original Arab Islam, that was brought to new areas and new peoples: to the Turks, first in Central Asia and then in the Middle East in the country which came to be called Turkey, and of course to India. The Ottoman Turks brought a form of Iranian civilization to the walls of Vienna."[1]

Persians had a great influence on their conquerors. The caliphs adopted many Sassanid administrative practices, such as coinage, the office of vizier, or minister, and the divan, a bureaucracy for collecting taxes and giving state stipends. Indeed, Persians themselves largely became the administrators. It is well established that the Abbasid caliphs modeled their administration on that of the Sassanids.[19] The caliphs adopted Sassanid court dress and ceremony. In terms of architecture Islamic architecture borrowed heavily from Persian architecture. The Sassanid architecture had a distinctive influence over Islamic architecture.

Iranians, since the beginning had interest and sincere efforts in compiling the study of Arabic etymology, grammar, syntax, morphology, figures of speech, rules of eloquence, rhetoric. Arabic was not seen as an alien language but the language of Islam and thereby Arabic was widely accepted as an academic and religious language and embraced in many parts of Iran. It was for the sake of the Qur'an and Islam that books of philosophy, mysticism, history, medicine, mathematics and law had been written or translated into this language.

Persians also contributed greatly to Arabic learning and literature. The influence of the Academy of Gundishapur is particularly worthy of note.

Early Islamic era Iranian art: Ewer from 7th century Persia. Cast, chased, and inlaid bronze. New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The New Persian language written in the Arabic alphabet with a some modifications was formed in the ninth century in eastern Iran and came to flourish in Bukhara, the capital of the Persian Samanid dynasty.

Persian language, because of its strong support from Abassid rulers condoning the language became one of the universal Islamic languages, next to Arabic.

The most important scholars of almost all of the Islamic sects and schools of thought were Persian or live in Iran including most notable and reliable Hadith collectors of Shia and Sunni like Shaikh Saduq, Shaikh Kulainy, Imam Bukhari, Imam Muslim and Hakim al-Nishaburi, the greatest theologians of Shia and Sunni like Shaykh Tusi, Imam Ghazali, Imam Fakhr al-Razi and Al-Zamakhshari, the greatest physicians, astronomers, logicians, mathematicians, metaphysicians, philosophers and scientists like Al-Farabi, Avicenna, and Nasīr al-Dīn al-Tūsī, the greatest Shaykh of Sufism like Rumi, and Abdul-Qadir Gilani.

In 1377, the Arab sociologist, Ibn Khaldun, narrates in his Muqaddimah:[20]

"It is a remarkable fact that, with few exceptions, most Muslim scholars ... in the intellectual sciences have been non-Arabs, thus the founders of grammar were Sibawaih and after him, al-Farsi and Az-Zajjaj. All of them were of Persian descent they invented rules of (Arabic) grammar. Great jurists were Persians. Only the Persians engaged in the task of preserving knowledge and writing systematic scholarly works. Thus the truth of the statement of the prophet (Muhammad) becomes apparent, 'If learning were suspended in the highest parts of heaven the Persians would attain it "... The intellectual sciences were also the preserve of the Persians, left alone by the Arabs, who did not cultivate them…as was the case with all crafts. ... This situation continued in the cities as long as the Persians and Persian countries, Iraq, Khorasan and Transoxiana (modern Central Asia), retained their sedentary culture."

One Abbasid Caliph is even quoted as saying:

"The Persians ruled for a thousand years and did not need us Arabs even for a day. We have been ruling them for one or two centuries and cannot do without them for an hour."[21]

Social relations

Patrick Clawson states that "The Iranians chafed under Umayyid rule. The Umayyids rose from traditional Arab aristocracy. They tended to marry other Arabs, creating an ethnic stratification that discriminated against Iranians. Even as Arabs adopted traditional Iranian bureaucracy, Arab tribalism disadvantaged Iranians."[22] Contemporary Islamist thinker Morteza Motahhari writes:

"If we pay a little attention to the prejudice and discrimination practised by some of the caliphs with regard to their attitude towards their Arab and non-Arab subjects and to Ali ibn Abi Talib's defence of the criteria of Islamic equality and impartiality concerning Arabs and non-Arabs, the truth of the matter will become completely clear."[23]

Despite the message of equality embedded in the new religion of Islam, the Arab conquerors, according to many historians, formed "a ruling aristocracy with special rights and privileges, which they emphatically did not propose to share with the mawali".[24] Some rulers, such as Hajjaj ibn Yusuf even went as far as viewing the Mawali as "barbarians", implementing harsh policies such as branding to keep the subjects in check.[25]

The case of Hajjaj is particularly noteworthy as many reports have come down to us from his racial policies and iron tactics in governing the provinces. And yet many skeptics point to the fact that some of these reports were written by Abbasid era writers who may have had a skewed view of their predecessors.

However Hajjaj was not the only case of cruelty against the Mawali.[26] The non-Iranian appointee of the Caliph in Isfahan for example cut off the heads of any of the Mawali who failed to pay their taxes,[27] and Ibn Athir in his al-kāmil reports that Sa'id ibn al'Ās killed all but one person in the port city of Tamisah, during his incursion to Gorgan in the year 651CE.

Such tumultuous conditions eventually were responsible for the rise of the Shuubiyah movement, and the rise of Persian nationalist tendencies in the 10th century with the emergence of the Samanids.

See also


  1. 1 2 Iran in History by Bernard Lewis.
  2. Caheb C., Cambridge History of Iran, Tribes, Cities and Social Organization, vol. 4, p305–328
  3. Cambridge History of Iran, by Richard Nelson Frye, Abdolhosein Zarrinkoub, et al. Section on The Arab Conquest of Iran and . Vol 4, 1975. London. p.46
  4. Kitab al-Aghani (الاغانی), vol 4, p.423
  5. The Remaining Signs of Past Centuries (الآثار الباقية عن القرون الخالية), pgs.35–36 and 48.
  6. The History of Iran By Elton L. Daniel, pg. 74
  7. 1 2 3 Fred Astren pg.33–35
  8. 1 2 3 Tobin 113–115
  10. E.J. Brill's first encyclopaedia of Islam 1913–1936 By M. Th. Houtsma Page 100
  11. 1 2 3 The preaching of Islam: a history of the propagation of the Muslim faith By Sir Thomas Walker Arnold, pg.170–180
  12. Nasr, Hoseyn; Islam and the pliqht of modern man
  13. Richard Frye, The Heritage of Persia, p. 243.
  14. Rayhanat al- adab, (3rd ed.), vol. 1, p. 181.
  15. Encyclopaedia Britannica, "Seljuq", Online Edition, (LINK)
  16. Jamshidian Tehrani, Jafar (2014). Shu'ubiyya: Independence movements in Iran. ISBN 978-1500737306., p.47
  17. Enderwitz, S. "Shu'ubiyya". Encyclopedia of Islam. Vol. IX (1997), pp. 513–14.
  18. Samanid Dynasty
  19. Hamilton Gibb. Studies on the civilization of Islam. Princeton University Press. 1982. ISBN 0-691-05354-5 p. 66
  20. Translated by F. Rosenthal (III, pp. 311–15, 271–4 [Arabic]; R.N. Frye (p.91)
  21. Bertold Spuler. The Muslim World. Vol. I The Age of the Caliphs. Leiden. E.J. Brill. 1960 ISBN 0-685-23328-6 p. 29
  22. Patrick Clawson. Eternal Iran. Palgrave Macmillan. 2005. ISBN 1-4039-6276-6, p. 17.
  23. Islam and Iran: A Historical Study of Mutual Services
  24. Clement Daniel Dennett. Conversion and the Poll Tax in Early Islam. Harvard University Press. Also reprinted under title "Islamic taxation: two studies" ISBN 0-405-05330-4, 1973. p. 38
  25. Wellhausen, J. The Arab Kingdom and its Fall. 2000 New York: Routledge. Vol. 7 in a series/set ISBN 0-415-20904-8 p.153
  26. Browne, Edward. Islamic Medicine, 2002, p. 16, ISBN 81-87570-19-9
  27. Cambridge History of Iran, by Richard Nelson Frye, Abdolhosein Zarrinkoub, et al. Section on The Arab Conquest of Iran and its aftermath. Vol 4, 1975. London. p. 42

Further reading

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