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Silk Road block
Disruption of trade and the Arab, Roman, Persian wars

February 9, 2007

This morning I received this e-mail from Sydney, Australia:

Dear Mr. Nooriala,

I was trained as an Iranian Area Studies scholar at the University of  Pennsylvania a very long time ago, before, during and after the  revolution. In the old days, I could read Farsi rather well, but after living in Australia, exiled from almost anything Iranian, I have become even more "bi-savad" than ever. Is it possible that you could send me a translation or even synopsis of your article "Doshmani-e Eslam ba Iran", on why Islam hates Iran? It seems most intriguing after reading the responses to it in English. But I don't want to judge it from the responses, but from your own ideas. I look forward to hearing from you.



Here is what I could put together as an answer to the above enquiry within a short period of time in a busy schedule for the day:

Dear Madam,

Thank you for your enquiry. I will try to render a short report, as you wished, on what I have written. Nevertheless, I do not intend to get involved in any debate with others who do not like what I say. The readers are to decide for themselves.

You probably know that Mohammad was 40 years old when he claimed to have been chosen by God to act as his prophet. He was involved in leading trading caravans that commuted between Yemen, Mecca and Jerusalem since he was 13 years old. He also married Khadija -- known the Princess of Qoraish and the wealthiest of all owners of caravans -- when he was 25 years old (and she was 40). Thus, he became a wealthy trader himself.

Once installed as a prophet, and after two years of underground activities, he declared his mission openly which immediately arose the reaction of Ummayad's family whose members were the door-keepers (Parde-daar) of Ka'ba, the cubic building where all Arab's "elaah"s - or idols -- were kept.

Within few years, Mohammad, his wife and his uncles were forced to go out of Mecca and live in a nearby small valley that belonged to his uncle, Abi-taleb. They were kept under strict control there.

He was 51 when his uncle and patron, Abi-Taleb (the father of Ali) and his wife Khadija died. After this incident he and his followers were allowed to return to Mecca but were still kept under control and without freedom of going out of the city.

He was 53 when he decided to sneak out of Mecca and go to Yathreb (Later called Madina) to join his followers there.

The incident referred to in my article relates to the time when he was 48 years old and lived in the Abi-taleb valley with his few followers who were all involved in handling caravans and were striped of this privilege by the Meccan aristocracy.

There is a chapter (aaya)  in Qoraan that is called "al-Rum" (meaning Romans). Here I am talking about the first 6 paragraphs (sura) of this chapter. To do so, let me present them from the three translations compiled by the University of Southern California that can be found here:

Translations of the Qur'an, Chapter 30:
Total Verses: 60  Revealed At: MAKKA

  In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful.

PICKTHAL: Alif. Lam. Mim.
SHAKIR: Alif Lam Mim,

YUSUFALI: The Roman Empire has been defeated-
PICKTHAL: The Romans have been defeated
SHAKIR: The Romans are vanquished,

YUSUFALI: In a land close by; but they, (even) after (this) defeat of theirs, will soon be victorious-
PICKTHAL: In the nearer land, and they, after their defeat will be victorious
SHAKIR: In a near land, and they, after being vanquished, shall overcome,

YUSUFALI: Within a few years. With Allah is the Decision, in the past and in the Future: on that Day shall the Believers rejoice-
PICKTHAL: Within ten years - Allah's is the command in the former case and in the latter - and in that day believers will rejoice
SHAKIR: Within a few years. Allah's is the command before and after; and on that day the believers shall rejoice,

YUSUFALI: With the help of Allah. He helps whom He will, and He is exalted in might, most merciful.
PICKTHAL: In Allah's help to victory. He helpeth to victory whom He will. He is the Mighty, the Merciful.
SHAKIR: With the help of Allah; He helps whom He pleases; and He is the Mighty, the Merciful;

YUSUFALI: (It is) the promise of Allah. Never does Allah depart from His promise: but most men understand not.
PICKTHAL: It is a promise of Allah. Allah faileth not His promise, but most of mankind know not.
SHAKIR: (This is) Allah's promise! Allah will not fail His promise, but most people do not know.

You can find the historical background to these lines also in the same USC source, referred to as "Maududi's introduction":

"The period of the revelation of this Surah is determined absolutely by the historical event that has been mentioned at the outset. It says: "The Romans have been vanquished in the neighboring land. "In those days the Byzantine occupied territories adjacent to Arabia were Jordan, Syria and Palestine, and in these territories the Romans were completely overpowered by the Iranians in 615 A. D. Therefore, it can be said with absolute certainty that this Surah was sent down in the same year, and this was the year in which the migration to Habash took place.

"Eight years before the Holy Prophet's advent as a Prophet the Byzantine Emperor Maurice was overthrown by Phocus, who captured the throne and became king. Phocus first got the Emperor's five sons executed in front of him, and then got the Emperor also killed and hung their heads in a thoroughfare in Constantinople. A few days after this he had the empress and her three daughters also put to death. The event provided Khusrau Parvez, the Sassanid king of Iran; a good moral excuse to attack Byzantium. For Emperor Maurice had been his benefactor; with his help he had got the throne of Iran. Therefore, he declared that he would avenge his godfather's and his children's murder upon Phocus, the usurper. So, he started war against Byzantium in 603 A. D. and within a few years, putting the Phocus armies to rout in succession, he reached Edessa (modern, Urfa) in Asia Minor, on the one hand, and Aleppo and Antioch in Syria, on the other. When the Byzantine ministers saw that Phocus could not save the country, they sought the African governor's help, who sent his son, Heraclius, to Constantinople with a strong fleet. Phocus was immediately deposed and Heraclius made emperor. He treated Phocus as he had treated Maurice. This happened in 610 A. D., the year the Holy Prophet was appointed to Prophethood.

"The moral excuse for which Khusrau Parvez had started the war was no more valid after the deposition and death of Phocus. Had the object of his war really been to avenge the murder of his ally on Phocus for his cruelty, he would have come to terms with the new Emperor after the death of Phocus. But he continued the war, and gave it the color of a crusade between Zoroastrianism and Christianity. The sympathies of the Christian sects (i. e. Nestorians and Jacobians, etc.) which had been excommunicated by the Roman ecclesiastical authority and tyrannized for years also went with the Magian (Zoroastrian) invaders, and the Jews also joined hands with them; so much so that the number of the Jews who enlisted in Khusrau's army rose up to 26,000.

"Heraclius could not stop this storm. The very first news that he received from the East after ascending the throne was that of the Iranian occupation of Antioch. After this Damascus fell in 613 A. D. Then in 614 A.D. the Iranians occupying Jerusalem played havoc with the Christian world. Ninety thousand Christians were massacred and the Holy Sepulcher was desecrated. The Original Cross on which, according to the Christian belief, Jesus had died was seized and carried to Mada'in. The chief priest Zacharia was taken prisoner and all the important churches of the city were destroyed. How puffed up was Khusrau Parvez at this victory can be judged from the letter that he wrote to Heraclius from Jerusalem. He wrote: "From Khusrau, the greatest of all gods, the master of the whole world : To Heraclius, his most wretched and most stupid servant: 'You say that you have trust in your Lord. why didn't then your Lord save Jerusalem from me?'"

"Within a year after this victory the Iranian armies over-ran Jordan, Palestine and the whole of the Sinai Peninsula, and reached the frontiers of Egypt. In those very days another conflict of a far greater historical consequence was going on in Makkah. The believers in One God, under the leadership of the Prophet Muhammad (may Allah's peace be upon him), were fighting for their existence against the followers of shirk under the command of the chiefs of the Quraish, and the conflict had reached such a stage that in 615 A. D., a substantial number of the Muslims had to leave their homes and take refuge with the Christian kingdom of Habash, which was an ally of the Byzantine Empire. In those days the Sassanid victories against Byzantium were the talk of the town, and the pagans of Makkah were delighted and were taunting the Muslims to the effect: "Look the fire worshipers of Iran are winning victories and the Christian believers in Revelation and Prophethood are being routed everywhere. Likewise, we, the idol worshipers of Arabia, will exterminate you and your religion."

Moslem writers deal with these paragraphs as a miraculous prediction. This I cannot comment on. But my curiosity has been to know why the revelation says: "On that Day shall the Believers rejoice". Why should they rejoice the defeat of Iranians in the hands of Romans? Why Allah has gone to such extent to try to ease the agony of the "Believers" due to the defeat of the Romans? The reason that Islamic sources put forward is laid upon religious lines: Romans were Christians and Iranians were Fire Worshipers!

But is this really a kind of reaction that you can see amongst football fans nowadays? Were Moslems merely "fans" of the "Roman team" in a war that was going on in a "neighboring land?"

To me, the solid reasons behind this reaction are obvious. The main result of the long war between Persian Empire and Eastern Romans was the disruption of Silk Road that used to connect China to Spain, through Iranian territory. Romans had to find another road that would avoid the enemy's territory. So they chose to go through Arabian Peninsula, from Jerusalem and Syria to Yemen and then use the Indian Ocean's marine route. The result was the sudden significance of Mecca, the holy city of Arab tribes which held their idols. The Arab tribes found a new job and the new job created a new social strata and force: That of Moslems and their relatives.

The Arab aristocracy, the door-keepers of Ka'ba and the holders of status quo, did not get involved in this new venture due to the fact that they historically considered themselves as a satellite of the Persian Empire whereas those who were involved in the new trading job were actually dealing with the Romans and gained their wealth through contracting the transportation of Roman trading activities.

It could very well be that the same reason was behind the Aristocracy's decision to halt the activities of the Moslems and confining them in the valley of Abi-talib. If this is not right, why should they release Moslems and let them go back to Mecca after the death of the two main traders, Abi-taleb and Khadija? It clearly shows that they were not worried about Mohammad and his religious claims. They worried that Iranians may get angry due to the activities of Moslems who had become the direct allies of Romans.

And why Believers were worried and waiting for a day in which they could rejoice? Because the Iranian victory meant the end of their trading activities and livelihood. They were members of a new economic social stratum that could be wiped out if the Roman trading was halted.

Although the historical information is scattered and vague, it is clear that in a later development, between the death of Khadija and the move of Mohammad to Yathreb, the Meccan aristocracy took over the very activity that Moslems executed for Romans, this time for the Iranian victors who had Jerusalem and Syria in their hands. Thus, the wealth gained by the Meccans had a different source from that of Moslems and their allies.

If we could read from the later activities of Moslems, we would be able to know what went on in Mohammad's mind when he decided to sneak out of Mecca and go to Yathreb. This small city was situated right on the trade route of Jerusalem-Mecca-Yemen. Moslems could interrupt the trading activities of Meccans right there. And this is what exactly happened. Within ten years Meccan had to surrender to the Moslems and Mecca was conquered by Mohammad.

Thus, over a period of half a century, between the time Mohammad's father worked as an employee of Roman caravans and died in active duty in Yathreb six months before Mohammad's death, right to the death of Abi-taleb and Khadija in the confinement of the vally, Mohammad's family were considered to by agents of Romans and enemies of Iranian.

Moslems' enmity towards Iranians was later developed in Yathreb to full extent and was a driving force behind their invasion of Iran. But I have not dealt with this part in my articles, yet.  Comment

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Esmail Nooriala



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