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The Arab Conquest of Persia

Iranian History - The Arab Conquest

The Arab & Islamic Conquest

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One account of Khosro Parviz tells of how the hot-tempered Sassanid king tore to shreds the letter from Mohammad that invited the Persians to convert to Islam, ┬ľan act which provoked the Arab conquest of Persia by war.

Though almost certainly a myth, this story is symbolic of the bankruptcy of the Sassanid Empire from the time of Khosro II onwards.

The all out invasion by the Arab tribes was not to occur until the reign of Yazdegerd III but it was clear even at this time that the Sassanids were in decline and a new force was in the ascendancy.

By the time the Arabs had overcome the Byzantine Empire and turned their attention to the east, the Persian satrap of Yemen had already accepted Islam and many capable Persian generals had abandoned the Sassanids to join forces with Mohammad.

The people too were ready for change. Exhausted by centuries of war with Byzantium, disillusioned by the decadence and corruption of their kings and priests, Yazdegerd III was unable to rally their support against the Arab threat.

Sassanid King Khosrau II and Byzantine Emperor Heraclius.

Sassanid King Khosro II yielding to the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius.

Winged Sphinx, Darius' Palace at Susa.

Winged Sphinx in glazed brick from Darius' Palace at Susa.

The fall of Ctesiphon-Seleucia in 642 and subsequent defeats were all but foregone conclusions. Yazdegerd himself fled to the interior with his harem and his wealth, only to be murdered by a commoner at Merv.

Converts to the new religion were many, not least because it offered certain advantages under the new administration. However, the cultural assimilation of Iran into the Arab world was not immediate, nor even deep.

Lacking experience in government, the Umayyad Caliphs left most of Iran's existing administrative system intact. Thus, though the higher echelons of government were invariably populated with Arabs, the backbone of the administration remained largely Persian. Under this system, many Iranians rose to positions of prominence and influenced affairs to the benefit their home country.

In time, the Umayyads grew corrupt and decadent and aroused opposition from non-Arab movements in former Sassanid territories. Some were anti-Arabic and fought unsuccessfully for a return to pre-Islamic rule.

One other, however, was a movement led by Abu Moslem, the son of a converted Iranian from Khorasan, which threw its weight behind an opposition group with a claim to the Caliphate and which paved the way for the 500 year rule of the greatest of all the Islamic dynasties, the Abbasids.

The Abbasids

Claiming descent from Abbas, one of the uncles of Mohammed, the Abbasids, with the popular support of non-Arab Muslims, overthrew the Umayyads in 750. Leadership remained therefore in Arab hands but the importance of the Iranian power base which brought them to power led the Abbasids to move the capital east from Damascus to Baghdad.

Alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan.

Alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan, the so-called Father of Chemistry

Non-Arab Muslims were welcomed in court and this led to a measure of integration between Persian and Arab culture with the exchange flowing both ways. The Abbasids even exaggerated the trend towards borrowing from Iran's past, tending more and more to the construction of glorious monuments in the architectural style of the Sassanid period.

Whereas the Ummayads had stressed the superiority of Arab culture in their claim to legitimacy, the Abbasids openness to outside influence was instrumental in bringing on Islam's Golden Age.

From the time of the third and fourth Abbasid Caliphs (late 8th century), Baghdad attracted numerous scholars to its libraries and centres of learning, many from Iranian lands and some even heretical Muslims or non-Muslims.

From the reign of Haroun Al-Rashid (r. 786-809) onwards, thinkers of all disciplines worked to recover, preserve and elaborate on pre-Islamic thought. It is to this period that we owe our knowledge of the works of Euclides, Ptolemy and Aristotle. These, and many other Greek, Latin and Sanskrit works, only became known to the West through the translations and commentaries of the Islamic scholars of this period.

But the unity of the empire under the Abbasid Caliphs was bought at the price of an increasingly heavy-handed rule. The ruthlessness of Al-Rashid was quite as legendary as his valour as a soldier and his learning as a scholar.

His own ministers, the brilliant Barmaki brothers from the Persian state of Bactria, were put to death by their caliph having amassed too much power of their own. Various Shiite movements were putting up an uncompromising, if fragmented, opposition to his rule and these too were put down by a combination of force and assassination that continued during the reign of his successors. The murder and imprisonment of the Shiite Imams under the Abbasids is remembered by Shiite Moslems with great anguish to this day.

Will Yong and Kazem Vafadari

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