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The Arab Conquests and Sasanian Iran (Part 2)

Islam in a Sasanian Context

Khosrow II was defeated by Heraclius in 628, in the last phase of the great Roman-Sasanian war that spanned decades from the late sixth to the early seventh century. A few short years later Arab armies engaged the forces of the Byzantines and Sasanians, dealing severe defeats to both. Detail from a gilded and enameled copper plaque, c. 1160, now in the Louvre (courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

Khodadad Rezakhani


This is the second installment of a two-part essay. The first part can be viewed here.

The Rise of Islam and the Sasanian Imperial System

 It was in the context of a West Asian world dominated by the Sasanians that Islam began as a political and religious movement in Arabia Deserta. Islamic beliefs were highly influenced by Syriac Christianity, including heterodox forms of that faith – so much so that in retelling many of the devotional stories shared with the Christian faith, the Qur’an in fact alludes to and adapts narratives not included in the canonical scriptures of the major churches. Far from the simple Bedouins disconnected from the world that they are often imagined to be, the Arabs of the Ḥijāz in fact lived fully in contact with, and indeed as an integral part of, the world of Late Antiquity. They were well aware of the Sasanian-Axumite conflicts in Yemen, and knew about the Byzantine defeat and withdrawal from Syria and Egypt. The prophet of Islam, Muhammad, fits well within the pattern of the rise of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity, during which time we see an increasing trend towards, or obsession with, the concept of prophethood and the primacy of revealed scripture. Muhammad was not by any means the only Arabian prophet preaching a version of a “pure” Abrahamic religion, one “untainted” by Rabbinic Judaism or Christianity, in Arabia. The recurring theme of the prophet or holy man disappearing into the desert to contemplate and ponder, reflected in the life of the original Christian monk, St. Anthony the Great, is a blueprint for that of Muhammad. Arab prophets, who are even mentioned in Islamic texts, were a common feature in this society, and a focal point for social movements that wanted to break the geographical and political stranglehold imposed by the state of war dominating the region since the early sixth century.1

Accustomed to open trade with Roman Syria (perhaps as leather merchants) and easy access to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean trade, the Arabs of the Ḥijāz were now bound by a Sasanian hegemony that stifled their ability to act.2 The Sasanians even controlled Najrān, close to the border between Ḥimyarite Yemen and the Ḥijāz, which was the main point of contact for the people of Mecca and Yathrib (later Medina) with the resources of Ḥimyarite Yemen. With the Kingdom of Ḥimyar gone and the Syrian trade interrupted by the Sasanian-Byzantine wars, the sources of the relative prosperity of the Bedouin and their trade city of Mecca vanished. The Sasanians, following their control of Jidda and interruption of Byzantine-Axumite contacts, even tried to impose a ruler on Mecca, although this was unsuccessful.3 It is no surprise that the first foreign relations overture of the new community of Muslims as it sought allies was with the Axumite king, the Negus (Ar. Najjāshī).

The wealth, power, and prestige of the Sasanian dynasty reached its apogee during the reign of Khosrow I Anūshervān (531–579 CE). This exquisite drinking vessel, of carved rock crystal, gems, and enamelwork, has traditionally been identified as a depiction of Khosrow I, although in the Middle Ages it was known as the “Cup of Solomon.” According to legend, it was a gift from the ʿAbbāsid caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd to Charlemagne, though it more likely entered the Frankish Empire in the time of Charlemagne’s grandson Charles the Bald (r. 843–877). It is currently housed in the Cabinet des Médailles of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

The wealth, power, and prestige of the Sasanian dynasty reached its apogee during the reign of Khosrow I Anūshervān (531–579 CE). This exquisite drinking vessel, of carved rock crystal, gems, and enamelwork, has traditionally been identified as a depiction of Khosrow I, although in the Middle Ages it was known as the “Cup of Solomon.” According to legend, it was a gift from the ʿAbbāsid caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd to Charlemagne, though it more likely entered the Frankish Empire in the time of Charlemagne’s grandson Charles the Bald (r. 843–877). It is currently housed in the Cabinet des Médailles of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

The Sasanian regime, however, was extending itself too far. The cost of the war with Byzantium was mounting, and the task of managing all the new territories was something for which their administration was not ready. At the same time, recent economic growth was largely funding the war and expansion. The reforms of Kavād and Khosrow I had allowed a reconfiguration of agricultural land. Petty landowners, the dihgāns, had managed to increase their own wealth by cultivating cash crops such as cotton or sugar cane, or less labor-intensive horticultural activities.4 Acquisition of land, as well as utilization of marginal land for production, was a major aspect of the late Sasanian economy. The wealth gained by these means helped to set off the poverty resulting from the imposition of the Hephthalite reparations several generations earlier, but was also destabilizing to the Sasanian administration. This administration, set up for controlling a much slower rate of intensive growth, was now shocked by an unprecedented rate of extensive growth created through increased availability and use of capital, land, and labor. The Sasanian administration was in fact unable to control its own empire. The domain had simply outgrown the administration.

A dominant feature of this growth was the need to absorb labor from beyond the political borders of the empire. The war of 602-628 was perhaps a manifestation of this need. The regular practice of invading Syria and moving large parts of its population to the Sasanian realm, favored by kings from Shāpūr II to Khosrow I, was no longer efficient.5 Syria, naturally contiguous with Mesopotamia, needed to unite with the latter, and Khosrow II might have tried to achieve just that.

The End of the Sasanian-Byzantine Wars and the Islamic Conquests

The successful campaigns of the Byzantine emperor Heraclius resulted in the defeat of Khosrow II in 628. The Sasanian King of Kings was removed by his son and the nobility, and was put on trial, records of which provide a fascinating window into the politics of the late Sasanian period. The defense of the king was deemed inadequate and his execution in 628 is probably one of the least studied regicides in history. The reigns of Kavād II and his son Ardashīr III lasted together less than two years. In a sense, the Sasanian dynasty had already fallen with the execution of Khosrow II.6

The victory of Heraclius against Khosrow II did not result in much either. The Byzantines recovered Anatolia, and took nominal control of Syria and Egypt too. But by 636, a mere eight years after their success against Khosrow II, the Byzantines were defeated at the Battle of Yarmūk by the Muslim armies. The Battle of Qādisiyya in south-western Mesopotamia also took place in the same year. Both were relatively small battles, but were indeed the first steps in the long march towards ultimate success taken by the Muslim armies.7

It would be the task of military historians to study the details of Muslim military successes in Mesopotamia and Syria, but it is not hard to understand the social context. The local population of both areas, fed up with warfare, probably did not mind a change of pace from armies who at least offered to be paid before attempting to violently conquer their cities. Many cities, including Ḥīra – the capital of the Lakhmids, Arab clients of the Sasanians – capitulated peacefully and with the agreement of a payment. Other cities, garrisoned by imperial troops, had to fight, but eventually became part of the new system.

From a socio-economic point of view, Syria and Mesopotamia were finally united, and they remained united for centuries to come. Viewed within this context, then, the greatest shortcoming of the Sasanian imperial administration had been its failure to unify these areas, hindering the natural integration of these complementary economic zones. In turn, the incoming Islamic Empire managed to preserve the unity of the productive regions on either side of the Euphrates border, and in fact acted directly to facilitate the desired integration. This is demonstrated, for example, by the fact that the Jazīra and Syria were both part of a single district for purposes of administration and taxation under the caliphate, on the basis of their close socio-economic connections.8 This, perhaps more than any other factor, marks the main point of divergence between the Sasanian Empire and the Islamic imperial administration, despite the latter’s dependence on the institutions of the former. The domain had finally found an administration that could fit it.

The reign of Khosrow II Aparvez (“Victorious”) from 590 to 628 was perhaps the greatest and most tumultuous of the late Sasanian period, and the vicissitudes of his rule lent themselves to dramatization in later Persian literature, in which he becomes a tragic figure. In this illustration from an eighteenth-century Shāh-Nāmeh, Khosrow slays the rebel Bahrām Chōbīn, who usurped the Sasanian throne from 590 to 591, in battle (71.54; courtesy Portland Art Museum).

The reign of Khosrow II Aparvez (“Victorious”) from 590 to 628 was perhaps the greatest and most tumultuous of the late Sasanian period, and the vicissitudes of his rule lent themselves to dramatization in later Persian literature, in which he becomes a tragic figure. In this detail from an illustration from an eighteenth-century Shāh-Nāmeh, Khosrow slays the rebel Bahrām Chōbīn, who usurped the Sasanian throne from 590 to 591, in battle (71.54; courtesy Portland Art Museum).

This is by no means to suggest that there was no resistance, as imagined by those who advance the narrative of a peaceful entry of Islam to Iran, as much resistance was in fact offered. After all, the newcomers came with a religion, although initially it was not clear what their religion was, since it resembled the local Christian/Jewish/Gnostic beliefs so closely. Whatever their early promise might have been, however, when faced with the considerable riches of Mesopotamia and Syria, the greed of the newcomers resulted in resistance. Local dihgāns went to great pains to prevent the newcomers from taking over their lands. They apparently were successful, because where we do see Arabs in the sources – interestingly mostly those connected to the Umayyad family – they are trying to reclaim marginal land in the deserts or marshlands of southern Mesopotamia and Khūzestān! The economic flourishing of late antique Syro-Mesopotamia favored the new administration, but little space was available for the newcomers themselves.

Arabs in Sasanian Lands: The Birth of an Islamic Empire

Of course, the new Muslim administration understood that Arabia Deserta is not an adequate place from which to run a state. They quickly moved to the new territories, initially setting up camp in Kūfa, just outside the walls of Ḥīra, and then moved on to Damascus. The garrison towns of Baṣra and Kūfa, housing many newcomers as well as the local populace seeking access to institutions of power, had to be fed from far off places. The dewān (administrative coffers) of Kūfa was replenished by the taxes of Dēnāwar, in the extreme west of the Iranian Plateau, and Baṣra’s costs were deferred to Nihāwand, just next door to Dēnāwar.

The new administration initially relied squarely on established systems. In the Sasanian territories, it did not touch the administrative order set up by Kavād and Khosrow I, and even issued coins inscribed in Middle Persian. The same course of action was taken in Syria. More importantly, after the initial phase of conquest, and after securing the eastern borders of Mesopotamia against the Sasanian Yazdgerd III, the conquerors largely settled down.

The last Sasanian king of kings, Yazdgerd III, was defeated by the Muslims in 639 and had to abandon his imperial capital in Ctesiphon. But he probably never was much of a Mesopotamian king. Member of a junior branch of the Sasanians, he only became the King of Kings after all close relatives of Khosrow II were either murdered or executed. He appears to have lived in Persis/Fārs, the old homeland of the Sasanians in the southern part of the Iranian plateau.9 It was to this place that he withdrew following the conquest of Mesopotamia. Here, he called for assistance from all his subjects, and gathered a big army to face the Muslims in a second battle, that of Nihāwand (642 CE). The crushing defeat dealt to him there secured the position of the Muslims in Mesopotamia, Khūzestān, and the Māh (Mād/Media, the name of the western highlands of the plateau). Unlike what is imagined popularly, however, neither the defeat at Qādisiyya nor that of Nihāwand meant a definite end to Sasanian rule over most of their territories east of Mesopotamia; nor did they grant the Muslims a secure passage for marching eastward to India. For over a decade, the Sasanian state co-existed with the Muslim one in Mesopotamia and Syria. Even after the death of Yazdgerd III in 651 at the hand of his own allies, it took the Muslims over seventy years to conquer the rest of the Sasanian territories. Victory did not come easy.

Conversion in the Sasanian Lands

Neither did conversion. The conquered population of Mesopotamia, largely Christian or Jewish and speaking Aramaic, saw no reason to adopt the religion of the newcomers. The newcomers themselves probably had little idea of the differences between their own religion and those of the conquered. Both groups believed in one god, both prayed in largely the same way, and both idealized the same prophets and patriarchs of Israel: Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, Solomon, and even Jesus.

As the administration matured, however, so did the ideology of the newcomers. The four Rāshidūn caliphs gave way to the Umayyad imperial administration, and like all imperial systems, the Umayyads saw the necessity to adopt a clear ideology.10 Arabism or Arab tribalism was the most obvious choice, and the Umayyads adopted it wholeheartedly. But there were also the increasing benefits to the newcomers of defining their religion. In the late antique world of universal religions, clarifying your beliefs and making it the official ideology of your nascent empire had many benefits, including the ability to tax those who did not fit your definition squarely.

In this system, access to power meant two things: adopting Arabism and adopting the religion. Among the second and third generation of the newcomers, mounting your horse and conquering had less attraction than entering the administration to run what was already conquered by your parents. Arab tribalism and adherence to a particular ideology (i.e. Islam) became the main doors of access to power.

Drachm of the caliph ʿAbd Allāh b. al-Zubayr, c. 686 CE. An older Sasanian coin type with legend in Middle Persian is adapted for Muslim use through adding an Arabic phrase signaling obedience to the Creator, bismi-rabbī, ‘in the name of my Lord.’

Drachm of the caliph ʿAbd Allāh b. al-Zubayr, c. 686 CE. An older Sasanian coin type with legend in Middle Persian is adapted for Muslim use through adding an Arabic phrase signaling obedience to the Creator, bismillāh rabbī, ‘in the name of God, my Lord.’

Not everyone accepted this, however, and much resistance came from within Muslim society itself. Certain factions rejected Arabism and tribalism, the explicit causes of trouble that had immediately followed the initial successes which had come through the conquests. Instead, they suggested that ideology should be the only way of accessing power, and no tribal affiliation should be put at equal footing with accepting the ideology. Belonging to the community of Muslims should be the only way of gaining full membership of the society. This, the ideology that was seen as the pure message of Islam, of course, was appealing to many, and became popular among many former Sasanian elites who already were outsiders in their own land. Speakers of Middle Persian, on its way to becoming New Persian since the sixth century, the Sasanian elite were already a minority among the majority Aramaic speakers. Becoming a minority of elites among a majority of Muslim Arabic speakers was hardly a shock to them.

As an educated class, these Sasanian elites quickly adopted the new ideology and gained positions of authority. Many of them became early interpreters of the canonical beliefs of the new religion, and emerged as insiders among the community of newcomers. They promoted the choice of religious adherence as the preferred marker of social membership, and alongside Arabic, fitted Persian, their spoken tongue, as the acceptable second language of Islam. Some of them, children of the conquered grandees of the Sasanian administration, became the religious authorities of the new community, using Arabic and Persian side by side to convert the rest of the population. The Sasanian elite, by accepting new socio-political realities and integrating their own culture into it, in fact remained dominant in the same territories, while accommodating a new Arab elite settling in the same area.

These were the actual vehicles of conversion in most of the former Sasanian Empire. Moving alongside the conquering armies and as part of the expanding administration, they used their own version of Persian, the vulgar, almost pidgin, spoken form of the language, instead of the high literate Middle Persian of the Sasanian administration and culture, to spread the new ideology. Just as in Syria, where speaking Arabic and adopting the new ideology, Islam, had become the way to access power, in the former Sasanian territories, speaking Persian and adopting the new ideology became the main way to gain similar power.

Persian as the Second Language of Islam in the East

The new status of Persian (linguistically the same but functionally different than the written Middle Persian of the Pahlavi texts) allowed it to supersede local idioms. The languages of Parthia, Bactria, Sogdiana, and Khwarazmia were pushed aside, becoming the spoken languages of the rural, non-Muslim population. In fact, the future centers of Persophone Islamic culture, the great cities of Khurāsān and Transoxiana, were just entering the cultural world of the Sasanians – following the collapse of the Western Turk power – immediately prior to the coming of Islam and its establishment in the Sasanian heartland of Asūrestān (Assyria, i.e. Mesopotamia). In this environment, the Persian language and the Islamic religion, recently merged in Asūrestān, slowly took over as the dominant cultural markers of the recently converted urban elite. The writing systems of each region were sometimes retained for several generations more to manage the local administration; hence the continued use of Middle Persian Pahlavi, Bactrian, and Sogdian for local affairs. Arabic was also used to keep the central administration in Damascus or Kūfa informed. But slowly, New Persian, initially trying its luck with the Pahlavi script or the Hebrew one, opted for the natural choice of the Arabic script to write down what was being said.11 It took a good two centuries for the majority of the population of the former Sasanian territories to become Muslims, while many in the rural areas continued to practice their local ideologies. It also took two or three centuries for New Persian to emerge as a written tongue, replacing Middle Persian, Parthian, Bactrian, Syriac, Aramaic, and even Arabic itself, as the administrative language of many of the former Sasanian lands. In fact, New Persian had become the dominant language of the east a long time before Ferdowsī was born. Instead of representing a desperate attempt at saving the language of an oppressed minority, Ferdowsī’s mature and heavy prose represented the triumphant success of a new class of literati and the peak of the new language.

 

Sasanian visual culture had a broad and enduring influence across the Mediterranean and Middle East, spreading as far as Central Europe and East Asia, as can be seen from these adaptations of the classic royal hunting figure so characteristic of high Sasanian style. (L) Detail, Japanese textile housed in the Shoso-in Imperial Treasury, 8th c. (from R. Ghirshman, Persian Art: The Parthian and Sassanian Dynasties, 249 B.C.–A.D. 651 [Golden Press, 1962], 333) (R) Detail, gold vessel from the so-called Treasure of Nagyszentmiklós, Khazar, Hungarian, or proto-Bulgarian culture (?), 8th-10th c. (?), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (photo credit: Michael Pregill).

Sasanian visual culture had a broad and enduring influence across the Mediterranean and Middle East, spreading as far as Central Europe and East Asia, as can be seen from these adaptations of the classic royal hunting figure so characteristic of high Sasanian style. (L) Detail, Japanese textile housed in the Shōsō-in Imperial Treasury in Nara, 8th c. (from R. Ghirshman, Persian Art: The Parthian and Sassanian Dynasties, 249 B.C.–A.D. 651 [Golden Press, 1962], 333) (R) Detail, gold vessel from the so-called Treasure of Nagyszentmiklós, Khazar, Hungarian, or proto-Bulgarian culture (?), 8th-10th c. (?), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (photo credit: Michael Pregill).

 

Conclusion

It would be repetitive to re-emphasize that the narrative of a quick outpouring of a marginal population, purportedly strangers and outsiders to the Sasanian and Byzantine worlds, and their sudden conquest of these empires is unfounded and impossible to entertain. A gradual process of economic, cultural, and political change has to be considered when looking at the matter of the rise of Islam in the former Sasanian territories. Furthermore, by dismissing the idea of the end of the rule of the Sasanian dynasty as a national failure and the collapse of a supposedly dominant, monolithic culture, we can better understand the process in which the Sasanian administration, having become unsuitable for the administration of its territories, was only gradually replaced by a new system largely based on the same administrative ideas. In this sense, the question of the “fall” of the Sasanians is best viewed from the point of view of the termination of the dynasty, while its consequences need to be studied in a broader context, and perhaps more productively from the point of view of continuity. Conversion in the former Sasanian lands and the rise of New Persian are the two avenues through which this continuity can be observed and further studied. This would then allow us to better perceive the gradual socio-economic and political changes that began in the late Sasanian period and only concluded when the former Sasanian lands emerged as centers of a new medieval culture. In this context, then, we can understand how the late Sasanian state finally became the world of medieval Islam.

 

KHODADAD REZAKHANI is a Humboldt Foundation Fellow at the Freie Universität Berlin and the webmaster of Iranologie.com, as well as the broadcaster of the History of Iran Podcast. He holds a Ph.D. in Late Antique History from The University of California, Los Angeles and an M.Sc. in Global History from The London School of Economics and Political Science, where he concentrated on medieval Scandinavia. His forthcoming book, ReOrienting the Sasanians: East Iran in Late Antiquity (Edinburgh University Press, 2016), is concerned with the history of East Iran and Central Asia between 100–750 CE.

 

[1] On the important issue of the resurgence of prophethood and its importance for the rise of Islam in Late Antiquity, see Michael Pregill, “Ahab, Bar Kokhba, Muhammad, and the Lying Spirit: Prophetic Discourse before and after the Rise of Islam,” in Philippa Townsend and Moulie Vidas (eds.), Revelation, Literature, and Community in Late Antiquity (Mohr Siebeck, 2011), 271-313.

[2] The importance of Meccan trade for the rise of Islam has been assumed by many scholars, and criticized as fantasy by others. Some interesting thoughts on the question were expressed by Patricia Crone in her controversial Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam (Princeton University Press, 1987). A possibly better exploration of the subject, albeit less well known than Crone’s, is Róbert Simon, Meccan Trade and Islam: Problems of Origin and Structure (Akadémiai Kiadó, 1989). Crone’s final statement on the topic is as interesting as her original contribution, though perhaps remaining just as controversial: Patricia Crone, “Quraysh and the Roman Army: Making Sense of the Meccan Leather Trade,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 70 (2007) 3-88.

[3] For this rather obscure episode, see M. Mohammadi-Malayeri, Tārīx o Farhang-e Īrān dar dōrān-e Enteqāl az Asr-e Sāsānī be asr-e Eslāmi (History and Culture of Iran at the Age of Transition Between the Sasanian and Islamic Periods) (Tūs, 1375 [1996]).

[4] See Richard W. Bulliet, Cotton, Climate, and Camels in Early Islamic Iran: A Moment in World History (Columbia University Press, 2011) and K. Rezakhani, “Empires and Microsystems: Sasanian Iran in Late Antiquity, 500–750” (Ph.D. diss., 2010).

[5] Michael G. Morony, “Population Transfers between Sasanian Iran and the Byzantine Empire,” in La Persia e Bisanzio (Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, 2004), 161–179.

[6] On this episode, see most recently James Howard-Johnston, “Pride and Fall: Khusro II and His Regime,” in La Persia e Bisanzio, 93-113.

[7] Robert G. Hoyland, In God’s Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire (Oxford University Press, 2014), 52-53.

[8] The consequences of the separation of Syria and the Jazīra is partly explored in the author’s forthcoming article, “Between the Hammer and the Anvil: Syria and Mesopotamia between the Sasanians and Rome,” in E. Sauer (ed.), Proceedings of Iran and Rome Conference, November 2013 (Edinburgh University Press, 2016).

[9] Touraj Daryaee, Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire (I. B. Tauris, 2007), 1-3; al-Ṭabarī, The History of al-Ṭabarī, Volume V: The Sāsānids, the Byzantines, the Lakhmids, and Yemen, trans. C.E. Bosworth (SUNY, 1999), 2-20.

[10] This is the term referring to the first four caliphs following Muhammad, namely Abū Bakr, ʿUmar I, ʿUthmān, and ʿAlī. The title Rāshidūn is commonly translated as “rightly guided.”

[11] Given that the Pahlavi script’s many shortcomings made it quite unsuitable for the writing of the new language, the Arabic script provided a much better system for the recording of the language. This is quite separate from the issue of the obvious prestige of the Arabic script due to its association with Islam and the new social settings.

New Persian had been spoken since at least the sixth century CE. New Persian phrases are mentioned, preserved in frozen form, in Arabic accounts of the early conquests, such as a phrase uttered by the commander of Sasanian forces during the Battle of Qādisiyya, Rostam Farrokhzād, as recorded in al-Balādhurī’s Kitāb al-Futūḥ. Examples of identifiably New Persian writing in scripts other than Pahlavi or Arabic can be seen in early Judeo-Persian documents: see L. Paul, “Jewish-Persian between Middle-Persian and New Persian: Re-examining an Old Hypothesis,” in S. Shaked and A. Netzer (eds.), Irano-Judaica: Studies Relating to Jewish Contacts with Persian Culture throughout the Ages V (Ben-Zvi Institute, 2003), 96-104.

 

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The Arab Conquests and Sasanian Iran (Part 2)

Islam in a Sasanian Context


Khodadad Rezakhani


This is the second installment of a two-part essay. The first part can be viewed here.

The Rise of Islam and the Sasanian Imperial System

 It was in the context of a West Asian world dominated by the Sasanians that Islam began as a political and religious movement in Arabia Deserta. Islamic beliefs were highly influenced by Syriac Christianity, including heterodox forms of that faith – so much so that in retelling many of the devotional stories shared with the Christian faith, the Qur’an in fact alludes to and adapts narratives not included in the canonical scriptures of the major churches. Far from the simple Bedouins disconnected from the world that they are often imagined to be, the Arabs of the Ḥijāz in fact lived fully in contact with, and indeed as an integral part of, the world of Late Antiquity. They were well aware of the Sasanian-Axumite conflicts in Yemen, and knew about the Byzantine defeat and withdrawal from Syria and Egypt. The prophet of Islam, Muhammad, fits well within the pattern of the rise of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity, during which time we see an increasing trend towards, or obsession with, the concept of prophethood and the primacy of revealed scripture. Muhammad was not by any means the only Arabian prophet preaching a version of a “pure” Abrahamic religion, one “untainted” by Rabbinic Judaism or Christianity, in Arabia. The recurring theme of the prophet or holy man disappearing into the desert to contemplate and ponder, reflected in the life of the original Christian monk, St. Anthony the Great, is a blueprint for that of Muhammad. Arab prophets, who are even mentioned in Islamic texts, were a common feature in this society, and a focal point for social movements that wanted to break the geographical and political stranglehold imposed by the state of war dominating the region since the early sixth century.1

Accustomed to open trade with Roman Syria (perhaps as leather merchants) and easy access to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean trade, the Arabs of the Ḥijāz were now bound by a Sasanian hegemony that stifled their ability to act.2 The Sasanians even controlled Najrān, close to the border between Ḥimyarite Yemen and the Ḥijāz, which was the main point of contact for the people of Mecca and Yathrib (later Medina) with the resources of Ḥimyarite Yemen. With the Kingdom of Ḥimyar gone and the Syrian trade interrupted by the Sasanian-Byzantine wars, the sources of the relative prosperity of the Bedouin and their trade city of Mecca vanished. The Sasanians, following their control of Jidda and interruption of Byzantine-Axumite contacts, even tried to impose a ruler on Mecca, although this was unsuccessful.3 It is no surprise that the first foreign relations overture of the new community of Muslims as it sought allies was with the Axumite king, the Negus (Ar. Najjāshī).

The wealth, power, and prestige of the Sasanian dynasty reached its apogee during the reign of Khosrow I Anūshervān (531–579 CE). This exquisite drinking vessel, of carved rock crystal, gems, and enamelwork, has traditionally been identified as a depiction of Khosrow I, although in the Middle Ages it was known as the “Cup of Solomon.” According to legend, it was a gift from the ʿAbbāsid caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd to Charlemagne, though it more likely entered the Frankish Empire in the time of Charlemagne’s grandson Charles the Bald (r. 843–877). It is currently housed in the Cabinet des Médailles of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

The wealth, power, and prestige of the Sasanian dynasty reached its apogee during the reign of Khosrow I Anūshervān (531–579 CE). This exquisite drinking vessel, of carved rock crystal, gems, and enamelwork, has traditionally been identified as a depiction of Khosrow I, although in the Middle Ages it was known as the “Cup of Solomon.” According to legend, it was a gift from the ʿAbbāsid caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd to Charlemagne, though it more likely entered the Frankish Empire in the time of Charlemagne’s grandson Charles the Bald (r. 843–877). It is currently housed in the Cabinet des Médailles of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

The Sasanian regime, however, was extending itself too far. The cost of the war with Byzantium was mounting, and the task of managing all the new territories was something for which their administration was not ready. At the same time, recent economic growth was largely funding the war and expansion. The reforms of Kavād and Khosrow I had allowed a reconfiguration of agricultural land. Petty landowners, the dihgāns, had managed to increase their own wealth by cultivating cash crops such as cotton or sugar cane, or less labor-intensive horticultural activities.4 Acquisition of land, as well as utilization of marginal land for production, was a major aspect of the late Sasanian economy. The wealth gained by these means helped to set off the poverty resulting from the imposition of the Hephthalite reparations several generations earlier, but was also destabilizing to the Sasanian administration. This administration, set up for controlling a much slower rate of intensive growth, was now shocked by an unprecedented rate of extensive growth created through increased availability and use of capital, land, and labor. The Sasanian administration was in fact unable to control its own empire. The domain had simply outgrown the administration.

A dominant feature of this growth was the need to absorb labor from beyond the political borders of the empire. The war of 602-628 was perhaps a manifestation of this need. The regular practice of invading Syria and moving large parts of its population to the Sasanian realm, favored by kings from Shāpūr II to Khosrow I, was no longer efficient.5 Syria, naturally contiguous with Mesopotamia, needed to unite with the latter, and Khosrow II might have tried to achieve just that.

The End of the Sasanian-Byzantine Wars and the Islamic Conquests

The successful campaigns of the Byzantine emperor Heraclius resulted in the defeat of Khosrow II in 628. The Sasanian King of Kings was removed by his son and the nobility, and was put on trial, records of which provide a fascinating window into the politics of the late Sasanian period. The defense of the king was deemed inadequate and his execution in 628 is probably one of the least studied regicides in history. The reigns of Kavād II and his son Ardashīr III lasted together less than two years. In a sense, the Sasanian dynasty had already fallen with the execution of Khosrow II.6

The victory of Heraclius against Khosrow II did not result in much either. The Byzantines recovered Anatolia, and took nominal control of Syria and Egypt too. But by 636, a mere eight years after their success against Khosrow II, the Byzantines were defeated at the Battle of Yarmūk by the Muslim armies. The Battle of Qādisiyya in south-western Mesopotamia also took place in the same year. Both were relatively small battles, but were indeed the first steps in the long march towards ultimate success taken by the Muslim armies.7

It would be the task of military historians to study the details of Muslim military successes in Mesopotamia and Syria, but it is not hard to understand the social context. The local population of both areas, fed up with warfare, probably did not mind a change of pace from armies who at least offered to be paid before attempting to violently conquer their cities. Many cities, including Ḥīra – the capital of the Lakhmids, Arab clients of the Sasanians – capitulated peacefully and with the agreement of a payment. Other cities, garrisoned by imperial troops, had to fight, but eventually became part of the new system.

From a socio-economic point of view, Syria and Mesopotamia were finally united, and they remained united for centuries to come. Viewed within this context, then, the greatest shortcoming of the Sasanian imperial administration had been its failure to unify these areas, hindering the natural integration of these complementary economic zones. In turn, the incoming Islamic Empire managed to preserve the unity of the productive regions on either side of the Euphrates border, and in fact acted directly to facilitate the desired integration. This is demonstrated, for example, by the fact that the Jazīra and Syria were both part of a single district for purposes of administration and taxation under the caliphate, on the basis of their close socio-economic connections.8 This, perhaps more than any other factor, marks the main point of divergence between the Sasanian Empire and the Islamic imperial administration, despite the latter’s dependence on the institutions of the former. The domain had finally found an administration that could fit it.

The reign of Khosrow II Aparvez (“Victorious”) from 590 to 628 was perhaps the greatest and most tumultuous of the late Sasanian period, and the vicissitudes of his rule lent themselves to dramatization in later Persian literature, in which he becomes a tragic figure. In this illustration from an eighteenth-century Shāh-Nāmeh, Khosrow slays the rebel Bahrām Chōbīn, who usurped the Sasanian throne from 590 to 591, in battle (71.54; courtesy Portland Art Museum).

The reign of Khosrow II Aparvez (“Victorious”) from 590 to 628 was perhaps the greatest and most tumultuous of the late Sasanian period, and the vicissitudes of his rule lent themselves to dramatization in later Persian literature, in which he becomes a tragic figure. In this detail from an illustration from an eighteenth-century Shāh-Nāmeh, Khosrow slays the rebel Bahrām Chōbīn, who usurped the Sasanian throne from 590 to 591, in battle (71.54; courtesy Portland Art Museum).

This is by no means to suggest that there was no resistance, as imagined by those who advance the narrative of a peaceful entry of Islam to Iran, as much resistance was in fact offered. After all, the newcomers came with a religion, although initially it was not clear what their religion was, since it resembled the local Christian/Jewish/Gnostic beliefs so closely. Whatever their early promise might have been, however, when faced with the considerable riches of Mesopotamia and Syria, the greed of the newcomers resulted in resistance. Local dihgāns went to great pains to prevent the newcomers from taking over their lands. They apparently were successful, because where we do see Arabs in the sources – interestingly mostly those connected to the Umayyad family – they are trying to reclaim marginal land in the deserts or marshlands of southern Mesopotamia and Khūzestān! The economic flourishing of late antique Syro-Mesopotamia favored the new administration, but little space was available for the newcomers themselves.

Arabs in Sasanian Lands: The Birth of an Islamic Empire

Of course, the new Muslim administration understood that Arabia Deserta is not an adequate place from which to run a state. They quickly moved to the new territories, initially setting up camp in Kūfa, just outside the walls of Ḥīra, and then moved on to Damascus. The garrison towns of Baṣra and Kūfa, housing many newcomers as well as the local populace seeking access to institutions of power, had to be fed from far off places. The dewān (administrative coffers) of Kūfa was replenished by the taxes of Dēnāwar, in the extreme west of the Iranian Plateau, and Baṣra’s costs were deferred to Nihāwand, just next door to Dēnāwar.

The new administration initially relied squarely on established systems. In the Sasanian territories, it did not touch the administrative order set up by Kavād and Khosrow I, and even issued coins inscribed in Middle Persian. The same course of action was taken in Syria. More importantly, after the initial phase of conquest, and after securing the eastern borders of Mesopotamia against the Sasanian Yazdgerd III, the conquerors largely settled down.

The last Sasanian king of kings, Yazdgerd III, was defeated by the Muslims in 639 and had to abandon his imperial capital in Ctesiphon. But he probably never was much of a Mesopotamian king. Member of a junior branch of the Sasanians, he only became the King of Kings after all close relatives of Khosrow II were either murdered or executed. He appears to have lived in Persis/Fārs, the old homeland of the Sasanians in the southern part of the Iranian plateau.9 It was to this place that he withdrew following the conquest of Mesopotamia. Here, he called for assistance from all his subjects, and gathered a big army to face the Muslims in a second battle, that of Nihāwand (642 CE). The crushing defeat dealt to him there secured the position of the Muslims in Mesopotamia, Khūzestān, and the Māh (Mād/Media, the name of the western highlands of the plateau). Unlike what is imagined popularly, however, neither the defeat at Qādisiyya nor that of Nihāwand meant a definite end to Sasanian rule over most of their territories east of Mesopotamia; nor did they grant the Muslims a secure passage for marching eastward to India. For over a decade, the Sasanian state co-existed with the Muslim one in Mesopotamia and Syria. Even after the death of Yazdgerd III in 651 at the hand of his own allies, it took the Muslims over seventy years to conquer the rest of the Sasanian territories. Victory did not come easy.

Conversion in the Sasanian Lands

Neither did conversion. The conquered population of Mesopotamia, largely Christian or Jewish and speaking Aramaic, saw no reason to adopt the religion of the newcomers. The newcomers themselves probably had little idea of the differences between their own religion and those of the conquered. Both groups believed in one god, both prayed in largely the same way, and both idealized the same prophets and patriarchs of Israel: Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, Solomon, and even Jesus.

As the administration matured, however, so did the ideology of the newcomers. The four Rāshidūn caliphs gave way to the Umayyad imperial administration, and like all imperial systems, the Umayyads saw the necessity to adopt a clear ideology.10 Arabism or Arab tribalism was the most obvious choice, and the Umayyads adopted it wholeheartedly. But there were also the increasing benefits to the newcomers of defining their religion. In the late antique world of universal religions, clarifying your beliefs and making it the official ideology of your nascent empire had many benefits, including the ability to tax those who did not fit your definition squarely.

In this system, access to power meant two things: adopting Arabism and adopting the religion. Among the second and third generation of the newcomers, mounting your horse and conquering had less attraction than entering the administration to run what was already conquered by your parents. Arab tribalism and adherence to a particular ideology (i.e. Islam) became the main doors of access to power.

Drachm of the caliph ʿAbd Allāh b. al-Zubayr, c. 686 CE. An older Sasanian coin type with legend in Middle Persian is adapted for Muslim use through adding an Arabic phrase signaling obedience to the Creator, bismi-rabbī, ‘in the name of my Lord.’

Drachm of the caliph ʿAbd Allāh b. al-Zubayr, c. 686 CE. An older Sasanian coin type with legend in Middle Persian is adapted for Muslim use through adding an Arabic phrase signaling obedience to the Creator, bismillāh rabbī, ‘in the name of God, my Lord.’

Not everyone accepted this, however, and much resistance came from within Muslim society itself. Certain factions rejected Arabism and tribalism, the explicit causes of trouble that had immediately followed the initial successes which had come through the conquests. Instead, they suggested that ideology should be the only way of accessing power, and no tribal affiliation should be put at equal footing with accepting the ideology. Belonging to the community of Muslims should be the only way of gaining full membership of the society. This, the ideology that was seen as the pure message of Islam, of course, was appealing to many, and became popular among many former Sasanian elites who already were outsiders in their own land. Speakers of Middle Persian, on its way to becoming New Persian since the sixth century, the Sasanian elite were already a minority among the majority Aramaic speakers. Becoming a minority of elites among a majority of Muslim Arabic speakers was hardly a shock to them.

As an educated class, these Sasanian elites quickly adopted the new ideology and gained positions of authority. Many of them became early interpreters of the canonical beliefs of the new religion, and emerged as insiders among the community of newcomers. They promoted the choice of religious adherence as the preferred marker of social membership, and alongside Arabic, fitted Persian, their spoken tongue, as the acceptable second language of Islam. Some of them, children of the conquered grandees of the Sasanian administration, became the religious authorities of the new community, using Arabic and Persian side by side to convert the rest of the population. The Sasanian elite, by accepting new socio-political realities and integrating their own culture into it, in fact remained dominant in the same territories, while accommodating a new Arab elite settling in the same area.

These were the actual vehicles of conversion in most of the former Sasanian Empire. Moving alongside the conquering armies and as part of the expanding administration, they used their own version of Persian, the vulgar, almost pidgin, spoken form of the language, instead of the high literate Middle Persian of the Sasanian administration and culture, to spread the new ideology. Just as in Syria, where speaking Arabic and adopting the new ideology, Islam, had become the way to access power, in the former Sasanian territories, speaking Persian and adopting the new ideology became the main way to gain similar power.

Persian as the Second Language of Islam in the East

The new status of Persian (linguistically the same but functionally different than the written Middle Persian of the Pahlavi texts) allowed it to supersede local idioms. The languages of Parthia, Bactria, Sogdiana, and Khwarazmia were pushed aside, becoming the spoken languages of the rural, non-Muslim population. In fact, the future centers of Persophone Islamic culture, the great cities of Khurāsān and Transoxiana, were just entering the cultural world of the Sasanians – following the collapse of the Western Turk power – immediately prior to the coming of Islam and its establishment in the Sasanian heartland of Asūrestān (Assyria, i.e. Mesopotamia). In this environment, the Persian language and the Islamic religion, recently merged in Asūrestān, slowly took over as the dominant cultural markers of the recently converted urban elite. The writing systems of each region were sometimes retained for several generations more to manage the local administration; hence the continued use of Middle Persian Pahlavi, Bactrian, and Sogdian for local affairs. Arabic was also used to keep the central administration in Damascus or Kūfa informed. But slowly, New Persian, initially trying its luck with the Pahlavi script or the Hebrew one, opted for the natural choice of the Arabic script to write down what was being said.11 It took a good two centuries for the majority of the population of the former Sasanian territories to become Muslims, while many in the rural areas continued to practice their local ideologies. It also took two or three centuries for New Persian to emerge as a written tongue, replacing Middle Persian, Parthian, Bactrian, Syriac, Aramaic, and even Arabic itself, as the administrative language of many of the former Sasanian lands. In fact, New Persian had become the dominant language of the east a long time before Ferdowsī was born. Instead of representing a desperate attempt at saving the language of an oppressed minority, Ferdowsī’s mature and heavy prose represented the triumphant success of a new class of literati and the peak of the new language.

 

Sasanian visual culture had a broad and enduring influence across the Mediterranean and Middle East, spreading as far as Central Europe and East Asia, as can be seen from these adaptations of the classic royal hunting figure so characteristic of high Sasanian style. (L) Detail, Japanese textile housed in the Shoso-in Imperial Treasury, 8th c. (from R. Ghirshman, Persian Art: The Parthian and Sassanian Dynasties, 249 B.C.–A.D. 651 [Golden Press, 1962], 333) (R) Detail, gold vessel from the so-called Treasure of Nagyszentmiklós, Khazar, Hungarian, or proto-Bulgarian culture (?), 8th-10th c. (?), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (photo credit: Michael Pregill).

Sasanian visual culture had a broad and enduring influence across the Mediterranean and Middle East, spreading as far as Central Europe and East Asia, as can be seen from these adaptations of the classic royal hunting figure so characteristic of high Sasanian style. (L) Detail, Japanese textile housed in the Shōsō-in Imperial Treasury in Nara, 8th c. (from R. Ghirshman, Persian Art: The Parthian and Sassanian Dynasties, 249 B.C.–A.D. 651 [Golden Press, 1962], 333) (R) Detail, gold vessel from the so-called Treasure of Nagyszentmiklós, Khazar, Hungarian, or proto-Bulgarian culture (?), 8th-10th c. (?), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (photo credit: Michael Pregill).

 

Conclusion

It would be repetitive to re-emphasize that the narrative of a quick outpouring of a marginal population, purportedly strangers and outsiders to the Sasanian and Byzantine worlds, and their sudden conquest of these empires is unfounded and impossible to entertain. A gradual process of economic, cultural, and political change has to be considered when looking at the matter of the rise of Islam in the former Sasanian territories. Furthermore, by dismissing the idea of the end of the rule of the Sasanian dynasty as a national failure and the collapse of a supposedly dominant, monolithic culture, we can better understand the process in which the Sasanian administration, having become unsuitable for the administration of its territories, was only gradually replaced by a new system largely based on the same administrative ideas. In this sense, the question of the “fall” of the Sasanians is best viewed from the point of view of the termination of the dynasty, while its consequences need to be studied in a broader context, and perhaps more productively from the point of view of continuity. Conversion in the former Sasanian lands and the rise of New Persian are the two avenues through which this continuity can be observed and further studied. This would then allow us to better perceive the gradual socio-economic and political changes that began in the late Sasanian period and only concluded when the former Sasanian lands emerged as centers of a new medieval culture. In this context, then, we can understand how the late Sasanian state finally became the world of medieval Islam.

 

KHODADAD REZAKHANI is a Humboldt Foundation Fellow at the Freie Universität Berlin and the webmaster of Iranologie.com, as well as the broadcaster of the History of Iran Podcast. He holds a Ph.D. in Late Antique History from The University of California, Los Angeles and an M.Sc. in Global History from The London School of Economics and Political Science, where he concentrated on medieval Scandinavia. His forthcoming book, ReOrienting the Sasanians: East Iran in Late Antiquity (Edinburgh University Press, 2016), is concerned with the history of East Iran and Central Asia between 100–750 CE.

 

[1] On the important issue of the resurgence of prophethood and its importance for the rise of Islam in Late Antiquity, see Michael Pregill, “Ahab, Bar Kokhba, Muhammad, and the Lying Spirit: Prophetic Discourse before and after the Rise of Islam,” in Philippa Townsend and Moulie Vidas (eds.), Revelation, Literature, and Community in Late Antiquity (Mohr Siebeck, 2011), 271-313.

[2] The importance of Meccan trade for the rise of Islam has been assumed by many scholars, and criticized as fantasy by others. Some interesting thoughts on the question were expressed by Patricia Crone in her controversial Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam (Princeton University Press, 1987). A possibly better exploration of the subject, albeit less well known than Crone’s, is Róbert Simon, Meccan Trade and Islam: Problems of Origin and Structure (Akadémiai Kiadó, 1989). Crone’s final statement on the topic is as interesting as her original contribution, though perhaps remaining just as controversial: Patricia Crone, “Quraysh and the Roman Army: Making Sense of the Meccan Leather Trade,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 70 (2007) 3-88.

[3] For this rather obscure episode, see M. Mohammadi-Malayeri, Tārīx o Farhang-e Īrān dar dōrān-e Enteqāl az Asr-e Sāsānī be asr-e Eslāmi (History and Culture of Iran at the Age of Transition Between the Sasanian and Islamic Periods) (Tūs, 1375 [1996]).

[4] See Richard W. Bulliet, Cotton, Climate, and Camels in Early Islamic Iran: A Moment in World History (Columbia University Press, 2011) and K. Rezakhani, “Empires and Microsystems: Sasanian Iran in Late Antiquity, 500–750” (Ph.D. diss., 2010).

[5] Michael G. Morony, “Population Transfers between Sasanian Iran and the Byzantine Empire,” in La Persia e Bisanzio (Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, 2004), 161–179.

[6] On this episode, see most recently James Howard-Johnston, “Pride and Fall: Khusro II and His Regime,” in La Persia e Bisanzio, 93-113.

[7] Robert G. Hoyland, In God’s Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire (Oxford University Press, 2014), 52-53.

[8] The consequences of the separation of Syria and the Jazīra is partly explored in the author’s forthcoming article, “Between the Hammer and the Anvil: Syria and Mesopotamia between the Sasanians and Rome,” in E. Sauer (ed.), Proceedings of Iran and Rome Conference, November 2013 (Edinburgh University Press, 2016).

[9] Touraj Daryaee, Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire (I. B. Tauris, 2007), 1-3; al-Ṭabarī, The History of al-Ṭabarī, Volume V: The Sāsānids, the Byzantines, the Lakhmids, and Yemen, trans. C.E. Bosworth (SUNY, 1999), 2-20.

[10] This is the term referring to the first four caliphs following Muhammad, namely Abū Bakr, ʿUmar I, ʿUthmān, and ʿAlī. The title Rāshidūn is commonly translated as “rightly guided.”

[11] Given that the Pahlavi script’s many shortcomings made it quite unsuitable for the writing of the new language, the Arabic script provided a much better system for the recording of the language. This is quite separate from the issue of the obvious prestige of the Arabic script due to its association with Islam and the new social settings.

New Persian had been spoken since at least the sixth century CE. New Persian phrases are mentioned, preserved in frozen form, in Arabic accounts of the early conquests, such as a phrase uttered by the commander of Sasanian forces during the Battle of Qādisiyya, Rostam Farrokhzād, as recorded in al-Balādhurī’s Kitāb al-Futūḥ. Examples of identifiably New Persian writing in scripts other than Pahlavi or Arabic can be seen in early Judeo-Persian documents: see L. Paul, “Jewish-Persian between Middle-Persian and New Persian: Re-examining an Old Hypothesis,” in S. Shaked and A. Netzer (eds.), Irano-Judaica: Studies Relating to Jewish Contacts with Persian Culture throughout the Ages V (Ben-Zvi Institute, 2003), 96-104.

 

The Arab Conquests and Sasanian Iran (Part 2)

Islam in a Sasanian Context

The Arab Conquests and Sasanian Iran (Part 2)

Islam in a Sasanian Context