Arab Conquest and the Early Iranian Islamic Dynasties
Alexander the Great overthrew the Achaemenid Empire in the course of his ambitious, expansionist, world-conquering campaign. Unlike Alexander, the Arabs, who put an end to the Sassanians’ rule, were in large part impelled by their missionary zeal for the spreading of a new religion, Islam, rather than by a desire for mere conquest. Because Islam offered relative religious tolerance and fair treatment to populations that accepted Islamic rule without resistance, many Iranians were attracted to its tenets. Since the peace terms negotiated by the Arab armies with various cities resulted in demands less onerous than the previous taxes paid to the Sassanians’ central government, the Arab’s terms induced many Persians to accept them.
It was not until around 650, however, that resistance in Iran was ﬁnally quelled. Conversion to Islam was fairly rapid among the urban population but progressed more slowly among the peasantry. The majority of Iranians did not become Muslim until the 9th century. Initially, Arab ﬁghters were promised the war spoils taken from inﬁdels. As a result, the ﬁrst years of the Arab invasion were chieﬂy characterized by widespread plundering and destruction. The Arabs melted down Sassanid works of silver and gold, to cast the metals into coins. They defaced Sassanid sculptures and battered Sassanid palaces into rubble.
The magniﬁcent Baharestan carpet, with its border of emeralds representing green meadows, and its watercourses of pearls, was cut up into small pieces and divided among the soldiers. Before long, however, the marauding tribesmen began to learn many useful things from the Persians and started to show an appreciation for Persian civilization. Embracing Persian modes of government and administration, the tribesmen also began to imitate the Persian lifestyle and culture. As the Iranians themselves were gradually integrated into the new Islamic community, they started to contribute signiﬁcantly to all branches of Islamic learning. The Persians, temperamentally different from the Arabs, were signiﬁcantly better educated
than their new masters, a fact which nourished their natural sense of supremacy. In consequence, they became followers of a form of Islam somewhat different from that practiced by the Arabs Shiism. About a century after the Arab conquest, the Iranians completely reasserted their identity in such a way as to become the decisive power in the cultural and political life of the Muslim Empire. The uprising in Khorasan put an end to the Umayyad caliphate and brought to power the new Abbasid caliphs.
The Abbasid dynasty was not Persian, its rulers traced their origin from Abbas, the Prophet Mohammad’s uncle. The Abbasids, however, gradually assumed a purely Persian character. The new capital was established in Baghdad, not far from the Sassanid capital of Ctesiphon. The Abbasid caliphs adopted Iranian court ceremonial practices and the trappings of the Sassanid monarchy. A caliph sat on the throne, but it was a Persian grand vizier (the ofﬁce being another legacy of the Sassanians) who ruled. Among the most famous Iranian viziers to the Abbasid caliphs were the Barmecides, known for their patronage of literature, philosophy, and science. (The name Barmecide has become a rather obscure English adjective: “Barmecide” or “Barmecidal”, meaning “illusory”, “deceptive” or “apparent”.)
By the end of their supremacy, the Abbasid caliphs had become religious ﬁgureheads, while the real power was concentrated in the hands of their vassals. Perhaps due to the Persian inﬂuence at their court, the Abbasids generously promoted Islamic culture and arts, and some of the most magniﬁcent of the Islamic buildings were created under their patronage. It was a period when the Islamic world experienced a cultural efﬂorescence, together with the expansion of trade and economic prosperity. Iran as part of the Abbasid Caliphate shared in these developments.
However, despite the outstanding progress achieved in the ﬁelds of economy and culture, the political state of aﬁairs inside the empire was unsettled. The Iranians, though they accepted Islam because it freed them from the dictates of a taboo-ridden and excessively ritualized Zoroastrianism, could not endure the presence of the foreign invaders in their homeland. Here and there in the empire, Iranians with ﬁghting spirits sprang up struggling for independence from the Arab yoke. Numerous rebellions took the form of peasant revolts, coalesced by the popular religious appeal of men who were accorded mysterious powers. Abu Moslem became one such messianic ﬁgure. Another was Al-Moqanna, “the Veiled Prophet of Khorasan”. The Khorramdinan (“Glad Religionists”), led by Babak, was another vigorous military power that was suppressed only by great effort. These uprisings, though ultimately unsuccessful, threatened the Muslim Empire by the emergence of an Iranian spirit of independence, and prepared the way for The indigenous Iranian dynasties.
The Iranian ruling house of Taherian was established in Khorasan, where it governed successfully for more than ﬁfty years. It had a semi-independent character and existed with the acquiescence of the Abbasid caliphs. The Saﬁarid dynasty which emerged in Sistan under Yaqub Leis Saffarid was, however, the ﬁrst fully independent Iranian Islamic dynasty. Eventually, the Saffarids established their rule over a vast area stretching from Fars and Khuzestan to Sind and Afghanistan. Yaqub even marched on Baghdad, but was halted by the caliph’s troops, and died soon after. He minted his coins, developed a new style of the army, and required that verses in his praise be put into his language. This language was Persian, and not Arabic, which had been the ofﬁcial language of the Muslim Empire, but which he did not understand. Yaqub’s brother and successor Amru attempted to conquer Transoxiana but was defeated by the new Iranian power, the Samanids. Although Amru was dead in Baghdad, his family survived as Samanid vassal in Sistan until at least the 16th century.
The Samanids claimed descent from Bahram Chubin, the famous Sassanid general. As rewards for their services to the caliph Mamun, they received wealthy Transoxiana and east Khorasan. They were generally obedient to the Abbasid court and paid tribute to Baghdad. Under their regime, the Iranian renaissance came at last to fruition. Rudaki, the ﬁrst poet to compose verses in the modern Persian language, was greeted at the Samanid court, as was Ferdowsi, who started his great epic Shahnameh under Samanid patronage. The Samanid capital of Bukhara rivaled Baghdad as a cultural capital of Islam. The Ziarids ruled in the Caspian provinces of Gorgan and Mazandaran. The founder of the dynasty was Mardavij ibn Ziar, who rebelled against the Samanids and seized power in northern Iran.
He soon expanded his domain as far south as Hamadan and Isfahan. The Ziarids were distinguished patrons of the arts Kayus ibn Voshmgir attracted many scientists and artists to his court and built a tomb tower which is one of Iran’s ﬁnest surviving monuments. Kei-Kavus Ziarid was the author of a famous manual for behavior, Qabusnameh (“Mirror for Princes”). The Buyids were the most brilliant early Islamic Dynasty. They belonged to a collateral branch of the Sassanid family, and their ancestors reigned in a region between the Alborz Mountains and the Caspian Sea. Because this region was called Deilam, they are also known as the Deilamites. The three brothers who established the Buyid dynasty served in the army of Mardavij ibn Ziar. After his death, they successfully contended for the throne, and soon greatly expanded the former Ziarid territories.
Then they divided the territories among Ali, the eldest brother, who took possession of Isfahan and Fars. Hasan, the middle brother, who occupied Ray and Hamadan, and Ahmad, the youngest brother, who took Kerman in the southeast and Khuzestan in the southwest. Having consolidated his power in the realm, Ahmad marched his troops to Baghdad and deposed the caliph. Ahmad had previously managed to get the caliph to bestow on himself and his brothers the honoriﬁc titles which implied that the Buyids were the upholders of the Abbasid caliphate. Ali was called Emad al-Dowleh, Hasan, Rokn al-Dowleh, and Ahmad, Moez al-Dowleh. Although the caliphate held no appeal for the Buyids, who were Shiites, they retained it as a stabilizing factor for the Muslims. Until its ﬁnal days, the caliphate remained under Iranian inﬂuence.
Buyid power reached its zenith during the reign of Rokn al-Dowleh’s son, Azod al-Dowleh. Taking Fars as his base of operation, he expanded his empire from Khorasan to Iraq. Although Azod al-Dowleh was undoubtedly one of Iran’s greatest rulers, his fratricidal wars during his rise to power were the beginning of the Buyids’ decline. Buyid’s power started to diminish after his death and soon yielded to that of the Turkish Ghaznavid and Seljuk dynasties. Within two centuries after the advent of Islam in Iran, Iranian civilization had completely revived, and managed to produce new patterns of art and thought. These stemmed from the country ‘s pre-Islamic heritage but were newly stirred into life by the Arab-Muslim conquest. In the end, the Muslims nurtured and spread the memory of ancient Persia.
Wherever Muslims penetrated other cultures, from the Iberian Peninsula to southern Asia, they carried the genius of Persia to a wider world scene.