Misconceptions About the Islamization of Iran

Discussion in 'History' started by Arboreality, 20 September 2018.

  1. Arboreality

    Arboreality Member


    (Author's Note
    : I have posted a much longer version on this topic on Tumblr before, but I'd like to share it here as well.)

    Modern historians, and scholars such as the late Ayatollah Motahari, have attributed the fall of the mighty Sassanian Empire, the last native, Zoroastrian Empire of ancient Iran to the "...simplicity, clarity and class equality of the monotheistic Islam." According to these contemporary revisionists, "...the great unpopularity of the Zoroastrian Priesthood of the late Sassanid period combined with the arrogance selfishness, and cruelty of an elitist, Sassanid nobility, gifted victory to the invading Muslim Arabs." Much of the current consensus states that the invading Islamic armies were met with little resistance from the common person.

    They present a disgruntled nation who quickly chose to abandon the Zoroastrian traditions and embrace Islam. The reason why it's important to address inaccuracies like this is that it gives us a warped view of why empires like the Sassanid one failed. It also distorts how we view the Islamization, and to some extent the Christianization in much of the Old World. Both are Abrahamic faiths who seek converts and there are many parallels that can be drawn between both of their spread and adoption by various peoples. In a metaphysical sense, it highlights the exact nature of our involution, but at this point we can still see the material castes behaving in a relatively noble manner who resisted a religion that would end the legacy of their people's faith.

    The Islamic Conquest

    If we look even at the traditional Islamic sources themselves, we'll see an entirely different story than the Modern one. Their account of the Islamization of Persia is quite different. Muslim historians and chroniclers such as Al-Balāḏorī1, Al-Ṭabarī2, and Al-Masūdi.3 I would consider Balāḏorī's to be by far the most authoritative. It covers, among other things, the conquest of the Iranian plateau, divided by each geographical region.4 The others I mentioned did indeed confirm many of the things he said and in many cases built upon them.5

    All the early Islamic sources attribute the fall of the Sassanid Empire to Muslim military resolve to their own efforts and the shortfalls of the Sassanian defenders rather than the willingness of the population. Among the things they cited were greater mobility/flexibility of Bedouin armies, Sassanid dynastic instability after Ḵhosrau II, great discord among the Sassanid nobles thereafter, and complicity of the Persian local nobility with the invading armies for their short-term political and economic expediency. However, the commoners themselves weren't a factor.

    According to all reputable Islamic sources from this time, the victory of the invading Muslim armies was brought by their own hands, and not necessarily because the populace rolled out any welcome mats. After their success, they were concerned with incorporating Zoroastrians into the ahl al-ḏhimma "communities enjoying blood protection guarantee." This status should not be confused with the Ahl al-Kitāb "People of the Scripture" status that Jewish and Christian people were given. However, the dhimmi status provided nominal safety for the conquered Zoroastrian masses.

    The dhimmi for Zoroastrians was recognized by Omar the second Caliph, and the Umayyad (661-750) and the Abbasid (750-1258) Caliphates. Zoroastrianism clearly represented the dominant faith numerically. However, Zoroastrianism was not politically dominant in the mountainous Iranian Plateau, Caucasus, and Central Asia after the Islamic conquest. The vast majority of people did not convert, and we know this from the Muslim witnesses themselves. The conversion to Islam by the native Iranian populace has been narrated by the early Islamic sources, as very slow, gradual, and at times violent.

    The Revolts of Iran

    Places such as Hamadān and ancient City of Ray, were taken and retaken several times. Ḥoḏayfa b. al-Yamān accepted the surrender of the town and district of Nehāvand from its lord, called Dīnār. He arranged to pay tribute in return for protection for the walls, property, and houses of the people there. Hamadān was taken over on similar terms. The territory of Ray was taken from the marzbān with the help of a local noble called Faroḵān, on terms similar to Nehāvand. A tribute of 500,000 dirhams was imposed on Ray and Qūmes. In return the fire temples were not to be destroyed nor the people killed or enslaved.

    Ḥoḏayfa b. al-Yamān marched west to Azerbaijan, where he defeated the marzbān, took the capital of Ardabīl, and imposed a tribute of 100,000 dirhams. According to the terms made by Ḥoḏayfa, the people were not to be killed or taken captive; and their fire temples would not be destroyed .The people of Šīz demanded and were eventually allowed to keep their fire temple and to perform their traditional dances at religious festivals. After the death of the second Caliph ʿOmar, all the places in Azerbaijan, the Highlands, and the Heartland of Pārs chose to withhold tribute and had to be retaken once again. More and more examples of Iranian resistance.

    While the Rāshidun Caliphate was preoccupied with their own first civil war in the 7th century, most of Iran slipped out of their control, due to numerous and fervent popular revolts all over the conquered territories. The Hephthalites of Bāḏḡīs, Herat, and Pūšang withheld tribute, as did Nīšāpūr; the people of Zarang overthrew their Muslim garrison, when the third Caliph ʿAlī was busy with Kharijite revolts in Iraq, widespread tax revolt broke out in the Highlands, Highland of Pārs, and Kermān in 39/659; the tax collectors were driven out, and Zīād b. Abīhi was sent to bloodily suppress/crush rebels at Eṣṭaḵr Pārs and Kermān. The third Calipf ʿAlī also managed to send a military force that retook Nīšāpūr in the northeast.

    Eastern Iran had to be re-conquered under Moʿāwīa. The outbreak of the second Muslim civil war at Moʿāwīa’s death ended expansion in the east for a quarter of a century. Furthermore, after the death of Moʿāwīa’s son, Yazīd, Islamic rule once again collapsed in Khorasan and Sīstān. The lush mountains of Northern Iran, and the breadbasket of Zābolestān in the East, were never permanently controlled, except through their elite proxies. It took their armies over 100 years to fully control/conquer all the plateau, and the Sassanid territories east of Mesopotamia. To ensure the conquered population paid their taxes, Arab garrisons were established at key former Sassanid urban administrative centers, and in frontier regions.

    The countryside was controlled indirectly through local nobles and landlords called dihqans who were willing to collaborate. Long ago, before their conquest, an agricultural reform during the reign of Ḵhosrau I allowed local landlords and nobles to switch production to cash crops, such as cotton or sugar cane. This led to a substantial increase in local economies and wealth. However Ḵhosrau II used this new economic boom to fund his wars of expansion with the Byzantines. The local nobles and landlords wanted to keep their own land and the resulting increased wealth for themselves. Therefore, these nobles saw collaboration with Arabs much more lucrative than staying loyal to the Sassanid Empire, and financing the Empire’s war machine with Byzantium.

    The collection of tributes by the local nobles in their own districts or little, autonomous kingdoms had the effect of establishing protectorates by the Muslims. Through collaborative local rulers and installing Arab garrisons, they secured most of ancient Iran under their rule. However, after numerous popular rebellions, tribute arrangements had to be constantly re-imposed time and time again. Even after all of this, the majority of the population remained Zoroastrian. It was largely the nobility who chose to adopt Islam since it made it much easier to gain and maintain authority, among other privileges. This is a pattern seen in both Christianization and Islamization alike. The Mali Empire is another famous example, even years after their introduction to Islam, commoners practiced the Old Ways, nobles converted.

    The Conversion of Iran

    We truly see that it was the upper class who also most often chose to learn Arabic. This was because Arabic became the language of religion, philosophy, science, and literature thereafter. No scientific or philosophical work was taken seriously unless the author adopted Islam as religion and Arabic as language. A good many among the Zoroastrian priests became early interpreters of the canonical beliefs of the Islamic religion. The conversion of the upper class to Islam around this time period has contributed if not wholly but substantially to the rise of the Islamic Golden Age. Over 90% percent of Muslim scientists and scholars of this golden age era are Persian. However, the true conversion of the broader Iranian people would not happen for quite some time afterward.

    Even then, the dastūrān dastūr, the "high priest" moved to the desolate and rugged central Iranian village of Torkābad, north of Yazd in the late twelfth century, after Zoroastrianism was no longer the majority religion. After the late 12th century the Zoroastrians steadily moved to the out-of-the-way locales into rugged, and desolate Mountains of Central Iran. The Safavid period marked a horrific time for the followers of the ancient faith in Iran. Up to the Safavid period, Zoroastrians constituted a substantial minority similar to the Copts in Egypt that make up about 20% of the population. Forcible conversion of Zoroastrians to Shi‘ism, execution of Zoroastrians who refused to comply, coupled with destruction of their fire temples and other places of learning and worship was decreed by Solṭān Ḥosayn.6 This trend would continue for many years until Zoroastrianism was stripped of any mass power.


    To put it simply, there is very little to no evidence of a state sponsored, all-powerful Zoroastrian Priesthood at the end of the Sassanid era. Rather all the evidence suggests that during the reign of, and after Khosrau II, Orthodox Zoroastrianism was actually increasingly disassociated from the late Sassanid state, and due to the loss of this centering tradition, strength was also gradually lost. The overnight adoption of Islam by the oppressed masses is a false myth that is entirely absent from all the early Muslim accounts. It should be noted that I don't mean any criticism towards Islam or its followers. In fact, this misconception is something I mainly see with non-Muslim historians, and it does a disservice to the Islamic history just as much as the Zoroastrian one. In the interest of faithfulness to truth, this is what happened.

    1. Kitab Futuh al-Buldan "Book of the Conquests of Land"

    2. Tarikh al-Rusul wa al-Muluk "Chronicles of Prophets and Kings"

    3. Muruj adh-dhahab wa ma'adin al-jawhar "Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems"

    4. See pp. 68-94, 105-13, 241-89, 301-431. Phillip Hitti translation

    5. See also the chronicles of Al Ṭabarī, I, p. 1528 to III, p. 2. Yaʿqūbī, II, pp. 54-410, and Masʿūdī, Morūǰ (ed. Pellat) III, p. 29 to IV, p. 83.)

    6. r. 1694-1722; Lockhart, pp. 72-73; for the Shiʿite religious context
    Last edited: 20 September 2018
    • Interesting Interesting x 1
  1. This site uses cookies to help personalise content, tailor your experience and to keep you logged in if you register.
    By continuing to use this site, you are consenting to our use of cookies.
    Dismiss Notice