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    About Global Late Antiquity

    Afterword: What If the Arabs Had Failed to Conquer Iran?

    About Global Late Antiquity

    Afterword: What If the Arabs Had Failed to Conquer Iran?

     

    Introduction

    Counterfactual history is in vogue. Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which is predicated on an Axis victory in World War II, has become a successful television series; and David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have announced a follow-up to their Game of Thrones television series that presumes successful Southern secession in the 1860s. Well-known academics have gotten into the game as well: What If? Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been retrodicts the course of Western civilization at twenty junctures in history when the outcome of a single battle might have put its timeline on a different path.1 A common feature of these and many other exercises of the historical imagination, however, is their focus on the West, even (or especially?) when the foe comes from a different culture. Historical turning points have occurred elsewhere, however.

    Some political debates dealing with the Islamic Republic of Iran center on this question: What, if anything, of a positive nature has Islam ever contributed to Iran? This question set me to thinking about how history might have been different if the Battle of Nihavand, which took place in the mountains of western Iran sometime between the end of 639 and 642, had resulted in an Iranian rather than an Arab victory. Although the Sasanian emperor had lost his capital city, Ctesiphon, and his wealthiest province, Iraq, in the battle of Qādisiyyah in 636, his subsequent defeat at Nihavand fatefully opened the entire Iranian plateau to Arab occupation. Considering that no other enemy, save Alexander the Great’s Macedonians, had ever conquered, or ever would conquer, the Iranian highlands and interior deserts by invasion from the west, stopping the Arabs at Nihavand probably would have established the Zagros Mountains along the border between today’s Iran and Iraq as the frontier between the Muslim caliphate and whoever came to power on the plateau after Nihavand—or, to put it another way, the frontier between Islam and Iran.

    The questions and hypothetical answers this counterfactual proposition calls to mind are legion. I will only address a few that precede the Mongol invasion, since the rise of Genghis Khan over 500 years later was a world historical event largely unrelated to the Arabs, the Iranians, or Islam. The Mongols would have had a profound impact on Iran’s later history regardless of whether the plateau had fallen to the Arabs after Nihavand or not.

    Needless to add, these conjectures have nothing to do with whether an Iranian Revolution would have broken out thirteen centuries after the Battle of Nihavand, or what the resulting Islamic Republic might be contributing, for good or ill, to Iran today.

    Questions about Iran without Arab rulers

    Would an Iranian kingdom or empire have retaken Iraq from the Arabs?

    Probably not. In earlier times, military incursions into Mesopotamia from the Iranian plateau did give rise to long-lasting regimes, as the centuries-long rulership of the Kassites, the Achaemenids, the Parthians, and the Sasanians testify. Yet all of these successes followed periods of disunity and conflict in Mesopotamia. In the aftermath of a conjectural Arab rebuff at Nihavand, the forces of the caliphs would not have been sapped by sending large numbers of troops to Iran, and this would surely have helped them consolidate their rule over Iraq, Syria, and Egypt. Therefore, it is hard to imagine a principality, or group of principalities, in the Iranian highlands mustering the military strength to retake Iraq, the caliphate’s richest province, from such a broad and powerful empire.

    Would the Sasanian ruling house have survived?

    If it did, it would probably have been but one of several polities on the Iranian plateau. The Sasanian family had been torn by internecine struggles for some time before the Arabs invaded Iraq, and the loss of their capital city and its treasures would have severely weakened any emperor even if a loyal army held the Arabs at Nihavand. This is assuming, with some measure of doubt, that the Sasanian ruler, instead of a provincial Iranian noble, still commanded the imperial army after Qādisiyyah. The Sasanian homeland was in Fars province in the southwest, but an effort to recoup the dynasty’s fortunes by returning there would have led, at best, to a local principality. As the Zand dynasty demonstrated in much later times, holding Fars without the resources of Iraq provides too little power to dominate all of Iran. Other parts of the highlands and Caspian seacoast had well-established families of nobles who would not necessarily have resumed allegiance to an emperor who lost Ctesiphon. One or several of these families would likely have declared themselves independent of any surviving Sasanian pretender.

    Would Iran have emerged as a single country?

    Prior to Ferdowsi’s collecting pre-Islamic tales and historical narratives in the Shāhnāmeh at the turn of the eleventh century, the word Īrānshahr symbolically denoting an all-encompassing Iranian polity, seldom occurs in Muslim sources. Political terms denoting smaller polities, such as Khwarezm, Soghdia, and Bactria, are more common. Moreover, the Arabs referred to the Iranians collectively as ʿajam, meaning “people who do not speak Arabic,” indicating that the Arabs did not perceive a linguistic unity among their foes. Instead, the Iranian plateau and Caspian coastlands spoke at least a dozen languages, including Pahlavi, Parthian, Dari, Kurdish, Tati, Gilaki, Baluch, Khwarezmian, Soghdian, and Bactrian. Without a commonly understood language to enshrine it or an imperial regime to impose it, a unified political concept of Iran would not have appeared.

    Would some form of New Persian have come into being?

    The rise of a single language to broad dominance in lands with numerous local languages and dialects can be associated with political power, as was the case with English, which combined the pre-1066 Anglo-Saxon with the Norman French of William the Conqueror’s dynasty. Alternatively, a monumental literary work, like the Qurʾān among the Arabs or Dante’s Divine Comedy among the Italians, can confer primacy on a particular dialect. A better model for the rise of New Persian during the period of Arab rule in Iran, however, is trading necessity. This is how a simplified Bahasa Malayu/Indonesian became the easily learned and understood lingua franca of much of Southeast Asia. In Iran, the powerful dynasties of the Achaemenids, Parthians, and Sasanians had used a single language for administration, but their spoken languages did not achieve dominance. The rise of a grammatically simplified and easily learned New Persian in early Islamic times depended not on a particular regime, but on the development of a network of Muslim merchants using the Arabic script who needed to communicate with one another across linguistic boundaries. The rise of New Persian thus closely resembles the emergence not just of Southeast Asian Bahasa, but also the Mediterranean seafarers’ Lingua Franca and the Yiddish of Eastern European Jews. It was easily learned throughout the Iranian lands and utilized a distinctive writing system. But it is questionable whether a robust trading culture would have developed without Iran’s inclusion in the Arab caliphate. The Iranians most likely to have spurred trading expansion in lieu of the Arabs were the Soghdians of Central Asia, whose major cities, Bukhara and Samarqand, were larger and more commercially active than the cities of the Iranian plateau. However, the Soghdian language and several related tongues in Afghanistan did not have a unitary alphabet, but rather used several variants of the Aramaic script of Syria.

    Would Zoroastrianism have continued to be Iran’s main religion?

    It is well attested that several religions acquired large numbers of adherents in Iran during the Sasanian era. The inscriptions of Kartir (or Kerdīr), the chief Zoroastrian priest under Emperor Shapur I, boasted of the many sects he strove to crush in Sasanian lands, including “Jews, Shamans (Buddhists), Bramans (Hindus), Christians, Nāṣrā (Nazarenes or Nazoreans), Makdags (baptists?), and Zandīgs (Manicheans).”2 He also claimed the destruction of idols (uzdēs) and “dens” (gilist) of demons. These boasts testify to the diversity of Iran’s religious culture despite royal support for a Zoroastrian cult supported by a network of fire temples and priests. It seems likely that the eclipse, or at least decapitation, of the Sasanian dynasty would have severely impacted this official cult and provided opportunities for the other religions to expand. It is also likely that Islam would have enjoyed some spread and added to Iran’s diversity even if the attempted Arab conquest failed at Nihavand. Thus a Zoroastrian community would have continued, but competing faiths would have benefited from the fall of the Sasanians.

    Would Iran have converted to Islam?

    Just as the Sasanian Empire in its heyday welcomed Nestorian Christians who wanted to escape the religious authority of the Byzantine emperors, Iran might in time have become a refuge for Muslims rebelling against the rule of the caliphs. Dissident Muslim Kharijite or Shi’ite communities did, in fact, prosper in Iran under the caliphs in a development parallel to the growth of similar communities in parts of Algeria and Morocco that lay outside caliphal control. Without the implantation of large Arab garrisons in Balkh, Marv, Jurjan (Gorgan), and Derbent, such dissidents might have enjoyed even greater success; but the prospect of a widespread wave of conversion to the Islam endorsed by the caliphate would have been dim. On the other hand, a spread of Islam along trade routes without an accompanying military conquest is well-attested in North African, Southeast Asian, and Chinese history and would probably have affected Iran in a similar fashion.

    Would Iran have converted to Buddhism?

    Since the Iranian plateau provided a rare meeting point of the three great proselytizing religions, Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism, is it possible that Buddhism would have spread widely in Iran, as it did during the same era in Afghanistan and China? This seems more likely than a massive spread of Islam or of Christianity, assuming that the Nestorian patriarch would have continued to live in Iraq and thus been subject to caliphal authority. If the Zagros boundary had remained contested, Muslims would have been cut off from their spiritual home in Arabia, and Nestorian Christians would have been similarly cut off from the Holy Land and a goodly number of their bishoprics. By contrast, Iranian Buddhists would have enjoyed easy contact with historic communities in Afghanistan and northern India (including Pakistan) and would doubtless have seen themselves as a geographic extension of Buddhism in Central Asia and China, if not Tibet. The barmak (“high priest”) of the Naw Bahār monastery in Balkh in northern Afghanistan enjoyed such widespread respect and influence even under the caliphs that his descendants became the most important administrators in Abbasid Baghdad. In the absence of Arab rule in the highlands, the Naw Bahār of Balkh, which seems to have had a network of daughter monasteries in Soghdia and Khurasan (northeastern Iran), might have formed the nucleus of a broader Buddhist community just as the monasteries of Dunhuang and elsewhere did in northern China in the same era.

    Would Tang China have extended its imperial reach to Iran?

    Tang China, the most expansive East Asian state of the era, lost a battle to a largely Arab army on the Talas River in Kazakhstan in 751. The caliphal army was part of a larger coalition that included Tibetan allies, but it is quite likely that without the Arabs, the battle would have gone the other way. In this circumstance, while the likelihood of lasting Chinese rule extending into Iran is slight given the enormous distance involved, an extension of Chinese trading and cultural influences would be quite likely. Soghdia and Khurasan (northeastern Iran) would then have emerged as the most dynamic of the highland regions. If western Iran had remained aloof to a growing Buddhist-Chinese cultural orientation, and the Zagros frontier had remained contested, Mesopotamia might even have lost its primacy as the western terminus of the Silk Road. The vast Scandinavian hoards of Muslim coins minted in northeastern Iran that testify to the volume and vitality of trade routes connecting northern Europe to Central Asia via the Volga, Don, and other rivers of Russia might have taken the form of Soghdian or Chinese coinage rather than Muslim dirhams. It is also possible that the western reaches of the Silk Road would have bypassed Iran, shifting to the north of the Caspian Sea and terminating on the northern coast of the Black Sea, as they later did in the Mongol era.

    Would cotton have changed the economic base of Iranian agriculture?

    The emergence of cotton as the primary export from the Iranian plateau was a major development in Iran after the Arab conquests.3 This development follows (and arguably depends) upon the post-Nihavand migration of Yemeni Arabs, who were familiar with cotton farming, and the consolidation of caliphal rule there, it seems likely that wheat and barley would have continued to dominate the agriculture of the highlands. Lacking the industrial base provided by the cotton textile industry, the cities that burgeoned under Arab dominion would have remained comparatively small, and political life would have continued to revolve around the manors of rural landlords, the so-called dihqāns. An alternative history might have seen cotton cultivation spread into Iran from Soghdia, where it was grown in limited amounts in river valleys in pre-Islamic times. This, however, would have required enormous investment in underground canals (qanats). If the Arabs had been defeated at Nihavand, this investment, which involved both the expenditure of resources seized during the conquest and an Arab desire to become landowners through bringing desert land under production, would probably not have been available.

    Would Iran have urbanized?

    Without cotton, foothill cities surrounding Iran’s central deserts, including Nishapur, Sabzavar, Semnan, Bistam, Rayy, Qazvin, Qom, Yazd, and Kerman, are unlikely to have acquired enough demographic and economic power to compete with the traditionally dominant regions that had more water for agriculture, places like Shiraz, Isfahan, and Hamadhan. The ruling class of Iran would therefore have continued to consist of rural landowners exploiting self-sufficient farming villages within a generally autarkic economic system. Most cities would have continued to be modest in size (5,000–15,000) and focused less on industrial production than on administrative and garrison functions relating to taxation and caravan trade, particularly along the Silk Road.

    Questions about Islam without input from Iran

    Would the ḥadīth have gained such great importance in Islam without the Iranian collectors?

    The compilers of the six universally accepted Sunni collections of “sound” or authentic ḥadīth (sayings of the Prophet Muḥammad), along with Ahmad b. Hanbal, whose collection is also highly respected, all had roots in Iran, some having Arab family lineages and others Iranian. The same holds for the four ḥadīth collections most respected by Shi’ah Muslims. By contrast, the Muslim west, North Africa, and Andalusia, produced no compiler of equivalent stature and relied most heavily on the collection of Malik b. Anas, who lived in Medina in Arabia. Quantitative studies by Richard Bulliet and Maxim Romanov also show that a vastly disproportional number of ḥadīth scholars lived in Iraq and Iran during the first six centuries of Islam.4 Though the reason for this regional disparity is hard to pin down, it is probably related to the growth of trade with Iran, since scholars traveling in search of Prophetic lore usually supported themselves by commerce, and to the conversion to Islam of large numbers of Iranians who knew next to nothing about the customs of the Arabs, which underlie many ḥadīth. The North African devotion to the authority of Malik demonstrates that even without this Iranian contribution, ḥadīth would have been influential in guiding Muslims in their day-to-day lives; but the diversity and conflicts among ḥadīth reports that over the centuries triggered many of the legal and theological debates in Islam would doubtless have been greatly limited.

    Would Islam have developed a second language to complement Arabic?

    It has often been remarked that Iran was the only early Islamic land to retain a native language throughout the process of conversion to Islam and to Islamicize that language by adopting the Arabic alphabet and a tremendous number of Arabic words. Egypt, whose native tongue was almost as remote linguistically from Arabic as were the various Middle Persian languages of Iran, retained Coptic only for Christian religious purposes, but otherwise adopted Arabic. In time, Persian approached co-equal religious status with Arabic among some Muslim communities, particularly in India and China. If the Arabs had been defeated at Nihavand, however, New Persian would not have become a Muslim vernacular, much less a language suitable for profound and inspiring Muslim religious texts. Though several Turkic languages did achieve a religiously elevated status in the post-Mongol period, they did so on the model of New Persian. Moreover, it is not at all certain that Turkic peoples would have become as important in Islam since their homelands would not have come under Arab rule without a victory at Nihavand. It seems likely, therefore, that Arabic would have taken on enhanced prestige as the sole sacred language of Muslims.

    Would trends in Islamic culture have been radically different without the likes of Avicenna, al-Bīrūnī, al-Ghazālī, Badīʿ al-Zamān al-Hamadhānī, et al.?

    Enormous contributions to Islamic thought and letters came from the pens of people born and educated in Iran who wrote in Arabic. Many of them worked in Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, but there is no reason to assume that a Baghdad capable of attracting highly talented Iranians would have developed without the post-Nihavand extension of Arab rule onto the Iranian plateau. The narrow waist of Iraq where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers most closely converge has been an obvious city site since Babylonian times, but the impetus to build the great metropolis of Baghdad came from an Abbasid movement that rose in Iran and seized power in 750 from the Umayyad caliphs ruling in Damascus. Reducing a hypothetical Baghdad equivalent to a mere provincial capital, with a contested frontier with Iran not far to its east, would probably have enhanced the importance of Syria and Egypt. Thus it would not have been a magnet for authors and thinkers, whether from Iran or elsewhere, who sought the patronage of an imperial court. Nor is it likely that Iranian written works composed in pre-Islamic times, like Kalīlah wa-Dimnah, would have been translated into Arabic.

    Would the madrasah have become the institutional basis of Muslim higher education?

    The first schools of higher Muslim learning referred to in Arabic sources as madrasahs (“places of study”) are attested in northeastern Iran in the late 900s. They do not appear in Baghdad until the mid-1000s, and they reach Syria, Egypt, and Arabia a century or more later. Hence they must be considered an Iranian institutional contribution to Islamic thought and learning, possibly modeled on pre-Islamic Buddhist monasteries. Nevertheless, it is more than likely that large mosques would have taken over this educational function, as they did in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco. The primacy of Iran in the systematizing Islamic education, therefore, relates more to its early chronology than to a specific institutional form.

    Would the Muslims have conquered Constantinople?

    The Umayyad Caliphate launched several major military expeditions against Byzantine Constantinople, and the Abbasid caliphs made attempts of their own, though with less success. If the strength of the Arab armies had not been distributed so widely to the east of Iraq, however, it is possible that a land and/or sea invasion from Syria and Egypt would have seized this great capital in the eighth century and thereby set in motion the conversion to Islam of Anatolia. In this scenario, the Muslim territory now called Turkey would have come into being without any Turks.

    Would Syria and Egypt have become the primary centers of Islam?

    The Arab armies that sallied forth from Arabia in the generation after the death of Muḥammad focused their efforts in two directions: Syria and Egypt to the north, and Iraq to the northeast. When the Umayyad dynasty transferred the caliphal ruling authority away from Arabia after 661, they moved it to Damascus; and Syria is where it remained until the Abbasid movement coming from Iran overthrew the Umayyads in 750. With the Abbasids ensconced in their new capital of Baghdad, Syria and Egypt became politically and economically neglected, as did North Africa to an even greater extent. The reemergence of Syria and Egypt as major centers of Muslim power and culture began in the twelfth century when Iran was beset by political, economic, and climatic decline. The Mongol invasion of the following century cemented a cleavage along the Zagros mountain frontier between a Muslim east in Iran and beyond and a Muslim west centered on Syria and Egypt. It is likely, therefore, that in the absence of Arab rule on the Iranian plateau, Syria and Egypt would have developed as major Muslim religious centers at a substantially earlier date, and thus have shifted the history of the lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea in a different direction.

    Conclusions

    Without an Arab victory at Nihavand, Iran would have become a largely non-Muslim land of diverse religions and similar but discrete languages where local polities competed for control over an economy centered on self-sufficient agriculture, landowning aristocrats, and sleepy cities of no substantial size. Influences from India, China, and various Buddhist sources would have eclipsed those from Iraq and the Muslim west. In short, the greatness that Iranians associate with their national heritage derives in substantial part from the incorporation of what we now define as geographical Iran into the Arab caliphate and, consequently, into the Muslim world community.

    By the same token, the Muslim caliphate without Iran would have flourished in comparison with the other polities in the Mediterranean basin, though Iraq would have played a lesser role in its politics and cultural affairs than Syria and Egypt. Nevertheless, in the longer run of Islamic history, the lack of an easy path to eastward expansion would have drastically limited the growth of the Muslim community and made likely an even greater emphasis on Arabic and the Arabs as the primary vehicles for shaping the lives of the Muslim faithful.

    In sum, regardless of what one thinks of the role of Islam in Iran today, a conjectural history in which a Muslim Arab empire failed to extend its power across the Iranian plateau would have seen Iranian social, economic, political, and religious developments proceed along radically different pathways—indeed, pathways that might well have seen the disappearance of Iran as the embodiment of a territorial concept.

    About the author

    Richard Bulliet is Professor Emeritus in the Department of History of Columbia University in the City of New York.

    Notes

    1. Robert Cowley (ed.), What If? Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1999).
    2. Prods Oktor Skjærvø, “Kartīr,” Encyclopædia Iranica, s.v. (2011).
    3. See Richard Bulliet, Cotton, Climate, and Camels in Early Islamic Iran: A Moment in World History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).
    4. Idem, Conversion to Islam in the Medieval Period: An Essay in Quantitative History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979); Maxim Romanov, “Computational Reading of Arabic Biographical Collections with Special Reference to Preaching in the Sunnī World (661–1300 CE)” (Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 2013).
    Cite this passage

    Afterword: What If the Arabs Had Failed to Conquer Iran?

     

    Introduction

    Counterfactual history is in vogue. Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which is predicated on an Axis victory in World War II, has become a successful television series; and David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have announced a follow-up to their Game of Thrones television series that presumes successful Southern secession in the 1860s. Well-known academics have gotten into the game as well: What If? Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been retrodicts the course of Western civilization at twenty junctures in history when the outcome of a single battle might have put its timeline on a different path.1 A common feature of these and many other exercises of the historical imagination, however, is their focus on the West, even (or especially?) when the foe comes from a different culture. Historical turning points have occurred elsewhere, however.

    Some political debates dealing with the Islamic Republic of Iran center on this question: What, if anything, of a positive nature has Islam ever contributed to Iran? This question set me to thinking about how history might have been different if the Battle of Nihavand, which took place in the mountains of western Iran sometime between the end of 639 and 642, had resulted in an Iranian rather than an Arab victory. Although the Sasanian emperor had lost his capital city, Ctesiphon, and his wealthiest province, Iraq, in the battle of Qādisiyyah in 636, his subsequent defeat at Nihavand fatefully opened the entire Iranian plateau to Arab occupation. Considering that no other enemy, save Alexander the Great’s Macedonians, had ever conquered, or ever would conquer, the Iranian highlands and interior deserts by invasion from the west, stopping the Arabs at Nihavand probably would have established the Zagros Mountains along the border between today’s Iran and Iraq as the frontier between the Muslim caliphate and whoever came to power on the plateau after Nihavand—or, to put it another way, the frontier between Islam and Iran.

    The questions and hypothetical answers this counterfactual proposition calls to mind are legion. I will only address a few that precede the Mongol invasion, since the rise of Genghis Khan over 500 years later was a world historical event largely unrelated to the Arabs, the Iranians, or Islam. The Mongols would have had a profound impact on Iran’s later history regardless of whether the plateau had fallen to the Arabs after Nihavand or not.

    Needless to add, these conjectures have nothing to do with whether an Iranian Revolution would have broken out thirteen centuries after the Battle of Nihavand, or what the resulting Islamic Republic might be contributing, for good or ill, to Iran today.

    Questions about Iran without Arab rulers

    Would an Iranian kingdom or empire have retaken Iraq from the Arabs?

    Probably not. In earlier times, military incursions into Mesopotamia from the Iranian plateau did give rise to long-lasting regimes, as the centuries-long rulership of the Kassites, the Achaemenids, the Parthians, and the Sasanians testify. Yet all of these successes followed periods of disunity and conflict in Mesopotamia. In the aftermath of a conjectural Arab rebuff at Nihavand, the forces of the caliphs would not have been sapped by sending large numbers of troops to Iran, and this would surely have helped them consolidate their rule over Iraq, Syria, and Egypt. Therefore, it is hard to imagine a principality, or group of principalities, in the Iranian highlands mustering the military strength to retake Iraq, the caliphate’s richest province, from such a broad and powerful empire.

    Would the Sasanian ruling house have survived?

    If it did, it would probably have been but one of several polities on the Iranian plateau. The Sasanian family had been torn by internecine struggles for some time before the Arabs invaded Iraq, and the loss of their capital city and its treasures would have severely weakened any emperor even if a loyal army held the Arabs at Nihavand. This is assuming, with some measure of doubt, that the Sasanian ruler, instead of a provincial Iranian noble, still commanded the imperial army after Qādisiyyah. The Sasanian homeland was in Fars province in the southwest, but an effort to recoup the dynasty’s fortunes by returning there would have led, at best, to a local principality. As the Zand dynasty demonstrated in much later times, holding Fars without the resources of Iraq provides too little power to dominate all of Iran. Other parts of the highlands and Caspian seacoast had well-established families of nobles who would not necessarily have resumed allegiance to an emperor who lost Ctesiphon. One or several of these families would likely have declared themselves independent of any surviving Sasanian pretender.

    Would Iran have emerged as a single country?

    Prior to Ferdowsi’s collecting pre-Islamic tales and historical narratives in the Shāhnāmeh at the turn of the eleventh century, the word Īrānshahr symbolically denoting an all-encompassing Iranian polity, seldom occurs in Muslim sources. Political terms denoting smaller polities, such as Khwarezm, Soghdia, and Bactria, are more common. Moreover, the Arabs referred to the Iranians collectively as ʿajam, meaning “people who do not speak Arabic,” indicating that the Arabs did not perceive a linguistic unity among their foes. Instead, the Iranian plateau and Caspian coastlands spoke at least a dozen languages, including Pahlavi, Parthian, Dari, Kurdish, Tati, Gilaki, Baluch, Khwarezmian, Soghdian, and Bactrian. Without a commonly understood language to enshrine it or an imperial regime to impose it, a unified political concept of Iran would not have appeared.

    Would some form of New Persian have come into being?

    The rise of a single language to broad dominance in lands with numerous local languages and dialects can be associated with political power, as was the case with English, which combined the pre-1066 Anglo-Saxon with the Norman French of William the Conqueror’s dynasty. Alternatively, a monumental literary work, like the Qurʾān among the Arabs or Dante’s Divine Comedy among the Italians, can confer primacy on a particular dialect. A better model for the rise of New Persian during the period of Arab rule in Iran, however, is trading necessity. This is how a simplified Bahasa Malayu/Indonesian became the easily learned and understood lingua franca of much of Southeast Asia. In Iran, the powerful dynasties of the Achaemenids, Parthians, and Sasanians had used a single language for administration, but their spoken languages did not achieve dominance. The rise of a grammatically simplified and easily learned New Persian in early Islamic times depended not on a particular regime, but on the development of a network of Muslim merchants using the Arabic script who needed to communicate with one another across linguistic boundaries. The rise of New Persian thus closely resembles the emergence not just of Southeast Asian Bahasa, but also the Mediterranean seafarers’ Lingua Franca and the Yiddish of Eastern European Jews. It was easily learned throughout the Iranian lands and utilized a distinctive writing system. But it is questionable whether a robust trading culture would have developed without Iran’s inclusion in the Arab caliphate. The Iranians most likely to have spurred trading expansion in lieu of the Arabs were the Soghdians of Central Asia, whose major cities, Bukhara and Samarqand, were larger and more commercially active than the cities of the Iranian plateau. However, the Soghdian language and several related tongues in Afghanistan did not have a unitary alphabet, but rather used several variants of the Aramaic script of Syria.

    Would Zoroastrianism have continued to be Iran’s main religion?

    It is well attested that several religions acquired large numbers of adherents in Iran during the Sasanian era. The inscriptions of Kartir (or Kerdīr), the chief Zoroastrian priest under Emperor Shapur I, boasted of the many sects he strove to crush in Sasanian lands, including “Jews, Shamans (Buddhists), Bramans (Hindus), Christians, Nāṣrā (Nazarenes or Nazoreans), Makdags (baptists?), and Zandīgs (Manicheans).”2 He also claimed the destruction of idols (uzdēs) and “dens” (gilist) of demons. These boasts testify to the diversity of Iran’s religious culture despite royal support for a Zoroastrian cult supported by a network of fire temples and priests. It seems likely that the eclipse, or at least decapitation, of the Sasanian dynasty would have severely impacted this official cult and provided opportunities for the other religions to expand. It is also likely that Islam would have enjoyed some spread and added to Iran’s diversity even if the attempted Arab conquest failed at Nihavand. Thus a Zoroastrian community would have continued, but competing faiths would have benefited from the fall of the Sasanians.

    Would Iran have converted to Islam?

    Just as the Sasanian Empire in its heyday welcomed Nestorian Christians who wanted to escape the religious authority of the Byzantine emperors, Iran might in time have become a refuge for Muslims rebelling against the rule of the caliphs. Dissident Muslim Kharijite or Shi’ite communities did, in fact, prosper in Iran under the caliphs in a development parallel to the growth of similar communities in parts of Algeria and Morocco that lay outside caliphal control. Without the implantation of large Arab garrisons in Balkh, Marv, Jurjan (Gorgan), and Derbent, such dissidents might have enjoyed even greater success; but the prospect of a widespread wave of conversion to the Islam endorsed by the caliphate would have been dim. On the other hand, a spread of Islam along trade routes without an accompanying military conquest is well-attested in North African, Southeast Asian, and Chinese history and would probably have affected Iran in a similar fashion.

    Would Iran have converted to Buddhism?

    Since the Iranian plateau provided a rare meeting point of the three great proselytizing religions, Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism, is it possible that Buddhism would have spread widely in Iran, as it did during the same era in Afghanistan and China? This seems more likely than a massive spread of Islam or of Christianity, assuming that the Nestorian patriarch would have continued to live in Iraq and thus been subject to caliphal authority. If the Zagros boundary had remained contested, Muslims would have been cut off from their spiritual home in Arabia, and Nestorian Christians would have been similarly cut off from the Holy Land and a goodly number of their bishoprics. By contrast, Iranian Buddhists would have enjoyed easy contact with historic communities in Afghanistan and northern India (including Pakistan) and would doubtless have seen themselves as a geographic extension of Buddhism in Central Asia and China, if not Tibet. The barmak (“high priest”) of the Naw Bahār monastery in Balkh in northern Afghanistan enjoyed such widespread respect and influence even under the caliphs that his descendants became the most important administrators in Abbasid Baghdad. In the absence of Arab rule in the highlands, the Naw Bahār of Balkh, which seems to have had a network of daughter monasteries in Soghdia and Khurasan (northeastern Iran), might have formed the nucleus of a broader Buddhist community just as the monasteries of Dunhuang and elsewhere did in northern China in the same era.

    Would Tang China have extended its imperial reach to Iran?

    Tang China, the most expansive East Asian state of the era, lost a battle to a largely Arab army on the Talas River in Kazakhstan in 751. The caliphal army was part of a larger coalition that included Tibetan allies, but it is quite likely that without the Arabs, the battle would have gone the other way. In this circumstance, while the likelihood of lasting Chinese rule extending into Iran is slight given the enormous distance involved, an extension of Chinese trading and cultural influences would be quite likely. Soghdia and Khurasan (northeastern Iran) would then have emerged as the most dynamic of the highland regions. If western Iran had remained aloof to a growing Buddhist-Chinese cultural orientation, and the Zagros frontier had remained contested, Mesopotamia might even have lost its primacy as the western terminus of the Silk Road. The vast Scandinavian hoards of Muslim coins minted in northeastern Iran that testify to the volume and vitality of trade routes connecting northern Europe to Central Asia via the Volga, Don, and other rivers of Russia might have taken the form of Soghdian or Chinese coinage rather than Muslim dirhams. It is also possible that the western reaches of the Silk Road would have bypassed Iran, shifting to the north of the Caspian Sea and terminating on the northern coast of the Black Sea, as they later did in the Mongol era.

    Would cotton have changed the economic base of Iranian agriculture?

    The emergence of cotton as the primary export from the Iranian plateau was a major development in Iran after the Arab conquests.3 This development follows (and arguably depends) upon the post-Nihavand migration of Yemeni Arabs, who were familiar with cotton farming, and the consolidation of caliphal rule there, it seems likely that wheat and barley would have continued to dominate the agriculture of the highlands. Lacking the industrial base provided by the cotton textile industry, the cities that burgeoned under Arab dominion would have remained comparatively small, and political life would have continued to revolve around the manors of rural landlords, the so-called dihqāns. An alternative history might have seen cotton cultivation spread into Iran from Soghdia, where it was grown in limited amounts in river valleys in pre-Islamic times. This, however, would have required enormous investment in underground canals (qanats). If the Arabs had been defeated at Nihavand, this investment, which involved both the expenditure of resources seized during the conquest and an Arab desire to become landowners through bringing desert land under production, would probably not have been available.

    Would Iran have urbanized?

    Without cotton, foothill cities surrounding Iran’s central deserts, including Nishapur, Sabzavar, Semnan, Bistam, Rayy, Qazvin, Qom, Yazd, and Kerman, are unlikely to have acquired enough demographic and economic power to compete with the traditionally dominant regions that had more water for agriculture, places like Shiraz, Isfahan, and Hamadhan. The ruling class of Iran would therefore have continued to consist of rural landowners exploiting self-sufficient farming villages within a generally autarkic economic system. Most cities would have continued to be modest in size (5,000–15,000) and focused less on industrial production than on administrative and garrison functions relating to taxation and caravan trade, particularly along the Silk Road.

    Questions about Islam without input from Iran

    Would the ḥadīth have gained such great importance in Islam without the Iranian collectors?

    The compilers of the six universally accepted Sunni collections of “sound” or authentic ḥadīth (sayings of the Prophet Muḥammad), along with Ahmad b. Hanbal, whose collection is also highly respected, all had roots in Iran, some having Arab family lineages and others Iranian. The same holds for the four ḥadīth collections most respected by Shi’ah Muslims. By contrast, the Muslim west, North Africa, and Andalusia, produced no compiler of equivalent stature and relied most heavily on the collection of Malik b. Anas, who lived in Medina in Arabia. Quantitative studies by Richard Bulliet and Maxim Romanov also show that a vastly disproportional number of ḥadīth scholars lived in Iraq and Iran during the first six centuries of Islam.4 Though the reason for this regional disparity is hard to pin down, it is probably related to the growth of trade with Iran, since scholars traveling in search of Prophetic lore usually supported themselves by commerce, and to the conversion to Islam of large numbers of Iranians who knew next to nothing about the customs of the Arabs, which underlie many ḥadīth. The North African devotion to the authority of Malik demonstrates that even without this Iranian contribution, ḥadīth would have been influential in guiding Muslims in their day-to-day lives; but the diversity and conflicts among ḥadīth reports that over the centuries triggered many of the legal and theological debates in Islam would doubtless have been greatly limited.

    Would Islam have developed a second language to complement Arabic?

    It has often been remarked that Iran was the only early Islamic land to retain a native language throughout the process of conversion to Islam and to Islamicize that language by adopting the Arabic alphabet and a tremendous number of Arabic words. Egypt, whose native tongue was almost as remote linguistically from Arabic as were the various Middle Persian languages of Iran, retained Coptic only for Christian religious purposes, but otherwise adopted Arabic. In time, Persian approached co-equal religious status with Arabic among some Muslim communities, particularly in India and China. If the Arabs had been defeated at Nihavand, however, New Persian would not have become a Muslim vernacular, much less a language suitable for profound and inspiring Muslim religious texts. Though several Turkic languages did achieve a religiously elevated status in the post-Mongol period, they did so on the model of New Persian. Moreover, it is not at all certain that Turkic peoples would have become as important in Islam since their homelands would not have come under Arab rule without a victory at Nihavand. It seems likely, therefore, that Arabic would have taken on enhanced prestige as the sole sacred language of Muslims.

    Would trends in Islamic culture have been radically different without the likes of Avicenna, al-Bīrūnī, al-Ghazālī, Badīʿ al-Zamān al-Hamadhānī, et al.?

    Enormous contributions to Islamic thought and letters came from the pens of people born and educated in Iran who wrote in Arabic. Many of them worked in Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, but there is no reason to assume that a Baghdad capable of attracting highly talented Iranians would have developed without the post-Nihavand extension of Arab rule onto the Iranian plateau. The narrow waist of Iraq where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers most closely converge has been an obvious city site since Babylonian times, but the impetus to build the great metropolis of Baghdad came from an Abbasid movement that rose in Iran and seized power in 750 from the Umayyad caliphs ruling in Damascus. Reducing a hypothetical Baghdad equivalent to a mere provincial capital, with a contested frontier with Iran not far to its east, would probably have enhanced the importance of Syria and Egypt. Thus it would not have been a magnet for authors and thinkers, whether from Iran or elsewhere, who sought the patronage of an imperial court. Nor is it likely that Iranian written works composed in pre-Islamic times, like Kalīlah wa-Dimnah, would have been translated into Arabic.

    Would the madrasah have become the institutional basis of Muslim higher education?

    The first schools of higher Muslim learning referred to in Arabic sources as madrasahs (“places of study”) are attested in northeastern Iran in the late 900s. They do not appear in Baghdad until the mid-1000s, and they reach Syria, Egypt, and Arabia a century or more later. Hence they must be considered an Iranian institutional contribution to Islamic thought and learning, possibly modeled on pre-Islamic Buddhist monasteries. Nevertheless, it is more than likely that large mosques would have taken over this educational function, as they did in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco. The primacy of Iran in the systematizing Islamic education, therefore, relates more to its early chronology than to a specific institutional form.

    Would the Muslims have conquered Constantinople?

    The Umayyad Caliphate launched several major military expeditions against Byzantine Constantinople, and the Abbasid caliphs made attempts of their own, though with less success. If the strength of the Arab armies had not been distributed so widely to the east of Iraq, however, it is possible that a land and/or sea invasion from Syria and Egypt would have seized this great capital in the eighth century and thereby set in motion the conversion to Islam of Anatolia. In this scenario, the Muslim territory now called Turkey would have come into being without any Turks.

    Would Syria and Egypt have become the primary centers of Islam?

    The Arab armies that sallied forth from Arabia in the generation after the death of Muḥammad focused their efforts in two directions: Syria and Egypt to the north, and Iraq to the northeast. When the Umayyad dynasty transferred the caliphal ruling authority away from Arabia after 661, they moved it to Damascus; and Syria is where it remained until the Abbasid movement coming from Iran overthrew the Umayyads in 750. With the Abbasids ensconced in their new capital of Baghdad, Syria and Egypt became politically and economically neglected, as did North Africa to an even greater extent. The reemergence of Syria and Egypt as major centers of Muslim power and culture began in the twelfth century when Iran was beset by political, economic, and climatic decline. The Mongol invasion of the following century cemented a cleavage along the Zagros mountain frontier between a Muslim east in Iran and beyond and a Muslim west centered on Syria and Egypt. It is likely, therefore, that in the absence of Arab rule on the Iranian plateau, Syria and Egypt would have developed as major Muslim religious centers at a substantially earlier date, and thus have shifted the history of the lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea in a different direction.

    Conclusions

    Without an Arab victory at Nihavand, Iran would have become a largely non-Muslim land of diverse religions and similar but discrete languages where local polities competed for control over an economy centered on self-sufficient agriculture, landowning aristocrats, and sleepy cities of no substantial size. Influences from India, China, and various Buddhist sources would have eclipsed those from Iraq and the Muslim west. In short, the greatness that Iranians associate with their national heritage derives in substantial part from the incorporation of what we now define as geographical Iran into the Arab caliphate and, consequently, into the Muslim world community.

    By the same token, the Muslim caliphate without Iran would have flourished in comparison with the other polities in the Mediterranean basin, though Iraq would have played a lesser role in its politics and cultural affairs than Syria and Egypt. Nevertheless, in the longer run of Islamic history, the lack of an easy path to eastward expansion would have drastically limited the growth of the Muslim community and made likely an even greater emphasis on Arabic and the Arabs as the primary vehicles for shaping the lives of the Muslim faithful.

    In sum, regardless of what one thinks of the role of Islam in Iran today, a conjectural history in which a Muslim Arab empire failed to extend its power across the Iranian plateau would have seen Iranian social, economic, political, and religious developments proceed along radically different pathways—indeed, pathways that might well have seen the disappearance of Iran as the embodiment of a territorial concept.

    About the author

    Richard Bulliet is Professor Emeritus in the Department of History of Columbia University in the City of New York.

    Notes

    1. Robert Cowley (ed.), What If? Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1999).
    2. Prods Oktor Skjærvø, “Kartīr,” Encyclopædia Iranica, s.v. (2011).
    3. See Richard Bulliet, Cotton, Climate, and Camels in Early Islamic Iran: A Moment in World History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).
    4. Idem, Conversion to Islam in the Medieval Period: An Essay in Quantitative History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979); Maxim Romanov, “Computational Reading of Arabic Biographical Collections with Special Reference to Preaching in the Sunnī World (661–1300 CE)” (Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 2013).

    Afterword: What If the Arabs Had Failed to Conquer Iran?

    Afterword: What If the Arabs Had Failed to Conquer Iran?

    TABLE OF CONTENTS

    About Global Late Antiquity

    Afterword: What If the Arabs Had Failed to Conquer Iran?

     

    Introduction

    Counterfactual history is in vogue. Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which is predicated on an Axis victory in World War II, has become a successful television series; and David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have announced a follow-up to their Game of Thrones television series that presumes successful Southern secession in the 1860s. Well-known academics have gotten into the game as well: What If? Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been retrodicts the course of Western civilization at twenty junctures in history when the outcome of a single battle might have put its timeline on a different path.1 A common feature of these and many other exercises of the historical imagination, however, is their focus on the West, even (or especially?) when the foe comes from a different culture. Historical turning points have occurred elsewhere, however.

    Some political debates dealing with the Islamic Republic of Iran center on this question: What, if anything, of a positive nature has Islam ever contributed to Iran? This question set me to thinking about how history might have been different if the Battle of Nihavand, which took place in the mountains of western Iran sometime between the end of 639 and 642, had resulted in an Iranian rather than an Arab victory. Although the Sasanian emperor had lost his capital city, Ctesiphon, and his wealthiest province, Iraq, in the battle of Qādisiyyah in 636, his subsequent defeat at Nihavand fatefully opened the entire Iranian plateau to Arab occupation. Considering that no other enemy, save Alexander the Great’s Macedonians, had ever conquered, or ever would conquer, the Iranian highlands and interior deserts by invasion from the west, stopping the Arabs at Nihavand probably would have established the Zagros Mountains along the border between today’s Iran and Iraq as the frontier between the Muslim caliphate and whoever came to power on the plateau after Nihavand—or, to put it another way, the frontier between Islam and Iran.

    The questions and hypothetical answers this counterfactual proposition calls to mind are legion. I will only address a few that precede the Mongol invasion, since the rise of Genghis Khan over 500 years later was a world historical event largely unrelated to the Arabs, the Iranians, or Islam. The Mongols would have had a profound impact on Iran’s later history regardless of whether the plateau had fallen to the Arabs after Nihavand or not.

    Needless to add, these conjectures have nothing to do with whether an Iranian Revolution would have broken out thirteen centuries after the Battle of Nihavand, or what the resulting Islamic Republic might be contributing, for good or ill, to Iran today.

    Questions about Iran without Arab rulers

    Would an Iranian kingdom or empire have retaken Iraq from the Arabs?

    Probably not. In earlier times, military incursions into Mesopotamia from the Iranian plateau did give rise to long-lasting regimes, as the centuries-long rulership of the Kassites, the Achaemenids, the Parthians, and the Sasanians testify. Yet all of these successes followed periods of disunity and conflict in Mesopotamia. In the aftermath of a conjectural Arab rebuff at Nihavand, the forces of the caliphs would not have been sapped by sending large numbers of troops to Iran, and this would surely have helped them consolidate their rule over Iraq, Syria, and Egypt. Therefore, it is hard to imagine a principality, or group of principalities, in the Iranian highlands mustering the military strength to retake Iraq, the caliphate’s richest province, from such a broad and powerful empire.

    Would the Sasanian ruling house have survived?

    If it did, it would probably have been but one of several polities on the Iranian plateau. The Sasanian family had been torn by internecine struggles for some time before the Arabs invaded Iraq, and the loss of their capital city and its treasures would have severely weakened any emperor even if a loyal army held the Arabs at Nihavand. This is assuming, with some measure of doubt, that the Sasanian ruler, instead of a provincial Iranian noble, still commanded the imperial army after Qādisiyyah. The Sasanian homeland was in Fars province in the southwest, but an effort to recoup the dynasty’s fortunes by returning there would have led, at best, to a local principality. As the Zand dynasty demonstrated in much later times, holding Fars without the resources of Iraq provides too little power to dominate all of Iran. Other parts of the highlands and Caspian seacoast had well-established families of nobles who would not necessarily have resumed allegiance to an emperor who lost Ctesiphon. One or several of these families would likely have declared themselves independent of any surviving Sasanian pretender.

    Would Iran have emerged as a single country?

    Prior to Ferdowsi’s collecting pre-Islamic tales and historical narratives in the Shāhnāmeh at the turn of the eleventh century, the word Īrānshahr symbolically denoting an all-encompassing Iranian polity, seldom occurs in Muslim sources. Political terms denoting smaller polities, such as Khwarezm, Soghdia, and Bactria, are more common. Moreover, the Arabs referred to the Iranians collectively as ʿajam, meaning “people who do not speak Arabic,” indicating that the Arabs did not perceive a linguistic unity among their foes. Instead, the Iranian plateau and Caspian coastlands spoke at least a dozen languages, including Pahlavi, Parthian, Dari, Kurdish, Tati, Gilaki, Baluch, Khwarezmian, Soghdian, and Bactrian. Without a commonly understood language to enshrine it or an imperial regime to impose it, a unified political concept of Iran would not have appeared.

    Would some form of New Persian have come into being?

    The rise of a single language to broad dominance in lands with numerous local languages and dialects can be associated with political power, as was the case with English, which combined the pre-1066 Anglo-Saxon with the Norman French of William the Conqueror’s dynasty. Alternatively, a monumental literary work, like the Qurʾān among the Arabs or Dante’s Divine Comedy among the Italians, can confer primacy on a particular dialect. A better model for the rise of New Persian during the period of Arab rule in Iran, however, is trading necessity. This is how a simplified Bahasa Malayu/Indonesian became the easily learned and understood lingua franca of much of Southeast Asia. In Iran, the powerful dynasties of the Achaemenids, Parthians, and Sasanians had used a single language for administration, but their spoken languages did not achieve dominance. The rise of a grammatically simplified and easily learned New Persian in early Islamic times depended not on a particular regime, but on the development of a network of Muslim merchants using the Arabic script who needed to communicate with one another across linguistic boundaries. The rise of New Persian thus closely resembles the emergence not just of Southeast Asian Bahasa, but also the Mediterranean seafarers’ Lingua Franca and the Yiddish of Eastern European Jews. It was easily learned throughout the Iranian lands and utilized a distinctive writing system. But it is questionable whether a robust trading culture would have developed without Iran’s inclusion in the Arab caliphate. The Iranians most likely to have spurred trading expansion in lieu of the Arabs were the Soghdians of Central Asia, whose major cities, Bukhara and Samarqand, were larger and more commercially active than the cities of the Iranian plateau. However, the Soghdian language and several related tongues in Afghanistan did not have a unitary alphabet, but rather used several variants of the Aramaic script of Syria.

    Would Zoroastrianism have continued to be Iran’s main religion?

    It is well attested that several religions acquired large numbers of adherents in Iran during the Sasanian era. The inscriptions of Kartir (or Kerdīr), the chief Zoroastrian priest under Emperor Shapur I, boasted of the many sects he strove to crush in Sasanian lands, including “Jews, Shamans (Buddhists), Bramans (Hindus), Christians, Nāṣrā (Nazarenes or Nazoreans), Makdags (baptists?), and Zandīgs (Manicheans).”2 He also claimed the destruction of idols (uzdēs) and “dens” (gilist) of demons. These boasts testify to the diversity of Iran’s religious culture despite royal support for a Zoroastrian cult supported by a network of fire temples and priests. It seems likely that the eclipse, or at least decapitation, of the Sasanian dynasty would have severely impacted this official cult and provided opportunities for the other religions to expand. It is also likely that Islam would have enjoyed some spread and added to Iran’s diversity even if the attempted Arab conquest failed at Nihavand. Thus a Zoroastrian community would have continued, but competing faiths would have benefited from the fall of the Sasanians.

    Would Iran have converted to Islam?

    Just as the Sasanian Empire in its heyday welcomed Nestorian Christians who wanted to escape the religious authority of the Byzantine emperors, Iran might in time have become a refuge for Muslims rebelling against the rule of the caliphs. Dissident Muslim Kharijite or Shi’ite communities did, in fact, prosper in Iran under the caliphs in a development parallel to the growth of similar communities in parts of Algeria and Morocco that lay outside caliphal control. Without the implantation of large Arab garrisons in Balkh, Marv, Jurjan (Gorgan), and Derbent, such dissidents might have enjoyed even greater success; but the prospect of a widespread wave of conversion to the Islam endorsed by the caliphate would have been dim. On the other hand, a spread of Islam along trade routes without an accompanying military conquest is well-attested in North African, Southeast Asian, and Chinese history and would probably have affected Iran in a similar fashion.

    Would Iran have converted to Buddhism?

    Since the Iranian plateau provided a rare meeting point of the three great proselytizing religions, Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism, is it possible that Buddhism would have spread widely in Iran, as it did during the same era in Afghanistan and China? This seems more likely than a massive spread of Islam or of Christianity, assuming that the Nestorian patriarch would have continued to live in Iraq and thus been subject to caliphal authority. If the Zagros boundary had remained contested, Muslims would have been cut off from their spiritual home in Arabia, and Nestorian Christians would have been similarly cut off from the Holy Land and a goodly number of their bishoprics. By contrast, Iranian Buddhists would have enjoyed easy contact with historic communities in Afghanistan and northern India (including Pakistan) and would doubtless have seen themselves as a geographic extension of Buddhism in Central Asia and China, if not Tibet. The barmak (“high priest”) of the Naw Bahār monastery in Balkh in northern Afghanistan enjoyed such widespread respect and influence even under the caliphs that his descendants became the most important administrators in Abbasid Baghdad. In the absence of Arab rule in the highlands, the Naw Bahār of Balkh, which seems to have had a network of daughter monasteries in Soghdia and Khurasan (northeastern Iran), might have formed the nucleus of a broader Buddhist community just as the monasteries of Dunhuang and elsewhere did in northern China in the same era.

    Would Tang China have extended its imperial reach to Iran?

    Tang China, the most expansive East Asian state of the era, lost a battle to a largely Arab army on the Talas River in Kazakhstan in 751. The caliphal army was part of a larger coalition that included Tibetan allies, but it is quite likely that without the Arabs, the battle would have gone the other way. In this circumstance, while the likelihood of lasting Chinese rule extending into Iran is slight given the enormous distance involved, an extension of Chinese trading and cultural influences would be quite likely. Soghdia and Khurasan (northeastern Iran) would then have emerged as the most dynamic of the highland regions. If western Iran had remained aloof to a growing Buddhist-Chinese cultural orientation, and the Zagros frontier had remained contested, Mesopotamia might even have lost its primacy as the western terminus of the Silk Road. The vast Scandinavian hoards of Muslim coins minted in northeastern Iran that testify to the volume and vitality of trade routes connecting northern Europe to Central Asia via the Volga, Don, and other rivers of Russia might have taken the form of Soghdian or Chinese coinage rather than Muslim dirhams. It is also possible that the western reaches of the Silk Road would have bypassed Iran, shifting to the north of the Caspian Sea and terminating on the northern coast of the Black Sea, as they later did in the Mongol era.

    Would cotton have changed the economic base of Iranian agriculture?

    The emergence of cotton as the primary export from the Iranian plateau was a major development in Iran after the Arab conquests.3 This development follows (and arguably depends) upon the post-Nihavand migration of Yemeni Arabs, who were familiar with cotton farming, and the consolidation of caliphal rule there, it seems likely that wheat and barley would have continued to dominate the agriculture of the highlands. Lacking the industrial base provided by the cotton textile industry, the cities that burgeoned under Arab dominion would have remained comparatively small, and political life would have continued to revolve around the manors of rural landlords, the so-called dihqāns. An alternative history might have seen cotton cultivation spread into Iran from Soghdia, where it was grown in limited amounts in river valleys in pre-Islamic times. This, however, would have required enormous investment in underground canals (qanats). If the Arabs had been defeated at Nihavand, this investment, which involved both the expenditure of resources seized during the conquest and an Arab desire to become landowners through bringing desert land under production, would probably not have been available.

    Would Iran have urbanized?

    Without cotton, foothill cities surrounding Iran’s central deserts, including Nishapur, Sabzavar, Semnan, Bistam, Rayy, Qazvin, Qom, Yazd, and Kerman, are unlikely to have acquired enough demographic and economic power to compete with the traditionally dominant regions that had more water for agriculture, places like Shiraz, Isfahan, and Hamadhan. The ruling class of Iran would therefore have continued to consist of rural landowners exploiting self-sufficient farming villages within a generally autarkic economic system. Most cities would have continued to be modest in size (5,000–15,000) and focused less on industrial production than on administrative and garrison functions relating to taxation and caravan trade, particularly along the Silk Road.

    Questions about Islam without input from Iran

    Would the ḥadīth have gained such great importance in Islam without the Iranian collectors?

    The compilers of the six universally accepted Sunni collections of “sound” or authentic ḥadīth (sayings of the Prophet Muḥammad), along with Ahmad b. Hanbal, whose collection is also highly respected, all had roots in Iran, some having Arab family lineages and others Iranian. The same holds for the four ḥadīth collections most respected by Shi’ah Muslims. By contrast, the Muslim west, North Africa, and Andalusia, produced no compiler of equivalent stature and relied most heavily on the collection of Malik b. Anas, who lived in Medina in Arabia. Quantitative studies by Richard Bulliet and Maxim Romanov also show that a vastly disproportional number of ḥadīth scholars lived in Iraq and Iran during the first six centuries of Islam.4 Though the reason for this regional disparity is hard to pin down, it is probably related to the growth of trade with Iran, since scholars traveling in search of Prophetic lore usually supported themselves by commerce, and to the conversion to Islam of large numbers of Iranians who knew next to nothing about the customs of the Arabs, which underlie many ḥadīth. The North African devotion to the authority of Malik demonstrates that even without this Iranian contribution, ḥadīth would have been influential in guiding Muslims in their day-to-day lives; but the diversity and conflicts among ḥadīth reports that over the centuries triggered many of the legal and theological debates in Islam would doubtless have been greatly limited.

    Would Islam have developed a second language to complement Arabic?

    It has often been remarked that Iran was the only early Islamic land to retain a native language throughout the process of conversion to Islam and to Islamicize that language by adopting the Arabic alphabet and a tremendous number of Arabic words. Egypt, whose native tongue was almost as remote linguistically from Arabic as were the various Middle Persian languages of Iran, retained Coptic only for Christian religious purposes, but otherwise adopted Arabic. In time, Persian approached co-equal religious status with Arabic among some Muslim communities, particularly in India and China. If the Arabs had been defeated at Nihavand, however, New Persian would not have become a Muslim vernacular, much less a language suitable for profound and inspiring Muslim religious texts. Though several Turkic languages did achieve a religiously elevated status in the post-Mongol period, they did so on the model of New Persian. Moreover, it is not at all certain that Turkic peoples would have become as important in Islam since their homelands would not have come under Arab rule without a victory at Nihavand. It seems likely, therefore, that Arabic would have taken on enhanced prestige as the sole sacred language of Muslims.

    Would trends in Islamic culture have been radically different without the likes of Avicenna, al-Bīrūnī, al-Ghazālī, Badīʿ al-Zamān al-Hamadhānī, et al.?

    Enormous contributions to Islamic thought and letters came from the pens of people born and educated in Iran who wrote in Arabic. Many of them worked in Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, but there is no reason to assume that a Baghdad capable of attracting highly talented Iranians would have developed without the post-Nihavand extension of Arab rule onto the Iranian plateau. The narrow waist of Iraq where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers most closely converge has been an obvious city site since Babylonian times, but the impetus to build the great metropolis of Baghdad came from an Abbasid movement that rose in Iran and seized power in 750 from the Umayyad caliphs ruling in Damascus. Reducing a hypothetical Baghdad equivalent to a mere provincial capital, with a contested frontier with Iran not far to its east, would probably have enhanced the importance of Syria and Egypt. Thus it would not have been a magnet for authors and thinkers, whether from Iran or elsewhere, who sought the patronage of an imperial court. Nor is it likely that Iranian written works composed in pre-Islamic times, like Kalīlah wa-Dimnah, would have been translated into Arabic.

    Would the madrasah have become the institutional basis of Muslim higher education?

    The first schools of higher Muslim learning referred to in Arabic sources as madrasahs (“places of study”) are attested in northeastern Iran in the late 900s. They do not appear in Baghdad until the mid-1000s, and they reach Syria, Egypt, and Arabia a century or more later. Hence they must be considered an Iranian institutional contribution to Islamic thought and learning, possibly modeled on pre-Islamic Buddhist monasteries. Nevertheless, it is more than likely that large mosques would have taken over this educational function, as they did in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco. The primacy of Iran in the systematizing Islamic education, therefore, relates more to its early chronology than to a specific institutional form.

    Would the Muslims have conquered Constantinople?

    The Umayyad Caliphate launched several major military expeditions against Byzantine Constantinople, and the Abbasid caliphs made attempts of their own, though with less success. If the strength of the Arab armies had not been distributed so widely to the east of Iraq, however, it is possible that a land and/or sea invasion from Syria and Egypt would have seized this great capital in the eighth century and thereby set in motion the conversion to Islam of Anatolia. In this scenario, the Muslim territory now called Turkey would have come into being without any Turks.

    Would Syria and Egypt have become the primary centers of Islam?

    The Arab armies that sallied forth from Arabia in the generation after the death of Muḥammad focused their efforts in two directions: Syria and Egypt to the north, and Iraq to the northeast. When the Umayyad dynasty transferred the caliphal ruling authority away from Arabia after 661, they moved it to Damascus; and Syria is where it remained until the Abbasid movement coming from Iran overthrew the Umayyads in 750. With the Abbasids ensconced in their new capital of Baghdad, Syria and Egypt became politically and economically neglected, as did North Africa to an even greater extent. The reemergence of Syria and Egypt as major centers of Muslim power and culture began in the twelfth century when Iran was beset by political, economic, and climatic decline. The Mongol invasion of the following century cemented a cleavage along the Zagros mountain frontier between a Muslim east in Iran and beyond and a Muslim west centered on Syria and Egypt. It is likely, therefore, that in the absence of Arab rule on the Iranian plateau, Syria and Egypt would have developed as major Muslim religious centers at a substantially earlier date, and thus have shifted the history of the lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea in a different direction.

    Conclusions

    Without an Arab victory at Nihavand, Iran would have become a largely non-Muslim land of diverse religions and similar but discrete languages where local polities competed for control over an economy centered on self-sufficient agriculture, landowning aristocrats, and sleepy cities of no substantial size. Influences from India, China, and various Buddhist sources would have eclipsed those from Iraq and the Muslim west. In short, the greatness that Iranians associate with their national heritage derives in substantial part from the incorporation of what we now define as geographical Iran into the Arab caliphate and, consequently, into the Muslim world community.

    By the same token, the Muslim caliphate without Iran would have flourished in comparison with the other polities in the Mediterranean basin, though Iraq would have played a lesser role in its politics and cultural affairs than Syria and Egypt. Nevertheless, in the longer run of Islamic history, the lack of an easy path to eastward expansion would have drastically limited the growth of the Muslim community and made likely an even greater emphasis on Arabic and the Arabs as the primary vehicles for shaping the lives of the Muslim faithful.

    In sum, regardless of what one thinks of the role of Islam in Iran today, a conjectural history in which a Muslim Arab empire failed to extend its power across the Iranian plateau would have seen Iranian social, economic, political, and religious developments proceed along radically different pathways—indeed, pathways that might well have seen the disappearance of Iran as the embodiment of a territorial concept.

    About the author

    Richard Bulliet is Professor Emeritus in the Department of History of Columbia University in the City of New York.

    Notes

    1. Robert Cowley (ed.), What If? Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1999).
    2. Prods Oktor Skjærvø, “Kartīr,” Encyclopædia Iranica, s.v. (2011).
    3. See Richard Bulliet, Cotton, Climate, and Camels in Early Islamic Iran: A Moment in World History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).
    4. Idem, Conversion to Islam in the Medieval Period: An Essay in Quantitative History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979); Maxim Romanov, “Computational Reading of Arabic Biographical Collections with Special Reference to Preaching in the Sunnī World (661–1300 CE)” (Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 2013).