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Why do we care?
Arab invasion of Iran lies at the root of the Iranian inferiority complex

February 22, 2007

The recent pieces about the Arab invasion of Sasanian Iran [see: Esmail Nooriala] have made me think hard, as they were meant to I am sure. It is an interesting debate and I for one am very desirous of it continuing in a civilized and possibly academic way. But what has made me really think is the question of why we care? Iranians generally have a common animosity towards the study of history, associating it with boring stories and names of kings and princes and the dates of their reign and wars. Surprising for a nation which traditionally liked its history, with a dash of myth and epic perhaps, and often took it upon itself to tell and retell the stories of the old. Maybe it is the fault of the historians for trying to wipe off the beautiful stories of the Shahnameh and other great works of epic in favour of “real history”, one that was not mentioned by Ferdowsi and other great epic poets.

But let that not bother you, as that is not what I am concerned with here, although that is also very important and I have written something short about it before. What I am really curious about is the issue of why we care about the particular episode of the Arabs and the Sasanians. It was remarked in one of the responses to my first essay that the Arab invasion has left deep psychological scars on the Iranian psyche. My response to that was that I believe this so called scar is not that old and not that deep, although now it has become deep enough to show.

So, after thinking about it, it occurred to me that in some sense, the Arab invasion of Iran lies at the root of the Iranian inferiority complex. Let not the harsh word excite you out of reason, I mean not to offend the whole nation of which I am a part. We do have an inferiority complex in Iran. The simplest manifestation of it is the obsession with reminding everyone that we have “2,500 years of history” (let me remind you that we have 5,000) and the joke that “Iranians try to say that everything comes from Iran”.

The complex also shows itself in our other fascination with grandeur and pomp, from buying the whole of the Mercedes and BMW supply of the greater Los Angeles car dealerships to building wineries that look like the Apadana. It is a desire to show that we are not only a third world country with a high rate of unemployment and illiteracy, a theocratic government, and a whole truck load of cultural and social issues, rather the heirs of Cyrus and Darius and a government which commanded “the world”. It is surprising, maybe even ironic, that all we seem to be interested in is the bull-headed columns and writing in “pure Persian”, while we do not even attempt to follow some of the things that might have made those ancestors of us interesting. But let me stop my psychoanalysis of my fellow countrymen and embark upon what I attempted to at the onset.

The Arab invasion of Iran is at the root of the Iranian inferiority complex. It is an important issue, and it may be not that unfair to suggest that it has indeed left deep scars in the Iranian psyche. The mechanics of it, as your average Iranian understands it, is that Iran was governed by a splendid empire (the Sasanians) who ruled over most of the Near East and Central Asia. They had fought the Romans for 400 years and had either defeated them or had kept them at bay. They were fierce defenders of their religion, Zoroastrianism, and they were powerful, glorious, cultured, and honest, all traits to be desired. However, in the middle of the seventh century CE, a group of nomadic Arabs, under the new banner of Islam, suddenly poured out of the desert sands of Arabia and in one swift move, defeated the Sasanian army and invaded the whole of their empire.

The details of this quick sketch then start to divide most people. One group maintains that the Arabs found a group of oppressed farmers and citizens who welcomed the invaders with open arms and converted to their religion, Islam. The other takes the complete opposite view and insist that the invaders forced the local population to convert to their religion on the point of the sword and only a few managed to escape that fate and keep the fires of Zoroastrianism, and all that is good about it, burning. The latter group, then, considers Islam and its 1400 years of history in Iran to have been a story of decline, that of society, economy, and culture. It also believes, I daresay fancies that “removing the yoke of the Arab religion” would then return us all to the glory days of Shahpur I. The former, however, often believes that the effects of the invasion was to create a commonwealth of Islamic nations that was broken up by sectarian and political rifts and thus the only way to break away from being a backwards country is to unite ourselves with the rest of the Muslim world and stick it to the colonizers and the imperialists.

You can see that both groups have acute cases of inferiority complex. Both unite in the way that they want a way out of the current quagmire, and in a case, both are remnants of the post-colonial thinking, one too nostalgic and the other too idealistic. Both share something else as well: they consider the events of 630-651 CE to have been a major turning point in the history of Iran. I would be willing to wager that both look at the history of Iran through the “Pre-Islamic” and “Islamic” dichotomy as well. After all, one would ask, is there another way?

Now, I have mentioned before that the issue of the Islamic invasions and their aftermath is much more complicated than the above views, and indeed the real answer, as you guessed, lies somewhere in between the two extremes. This has often been pointed out as well, the fact that the Sasanians were not as quaint as some might want to believe and that the Zoroastrian clerical class was actually quite corrupt and oppressive. It has also been mentioned that although in parts, you indeed have voluntary conversions to Islam, it is obvious that force was involved in instances of conversion. All these, however, do not matter. What really is the issue is the original question of why we care? After all, it happened 1400 years ago, and since then, we have experienced many other disasters, not least being the Mongol invasion. So, why do we care so much?

I believe it is the sheer impossibility of it all. The supposed “fact” that a group of nomadic people came and destroyed a mighty empire. Both groups, I think, agree on this point, that the invasions were sudden and were successful against great odds. The first view sees this as a manifestation of the power of Islam and all the good it brought, while the other sees it as an unfortunate case of disastrous lapse of the chain of command and power. Here I have always wondered why the adherents of the latter belief (let us call them the “Nostalgics”) insist on this point. Would it not be even more embarrassing that such a glorious and strong empire lost to a band of nomads? In what way do they plan to benefit their cause by further confirming that the Arab invaders were indeed a group of untrained, savage desert dwellers? Would it not in some odd way hurt their case? And furthermore, how do they plan to benefit from this? Even if we accept that this was the case and that the Arabs were a rotten band of useless, uncivilized, savages and their religion an evil set of oppressive ideologies, how are we to interpret that all this savagery and evil won the day?

So, I shall propose a few suggestions that might bring the Islamists down to earth and help heal the wound of the Nostalgics, and possibly help us all put this episode behind us and get on with our lives. First of all, let us not look at the issue from either a polemic or apologetic point of view. We must keep one fact straight: pre-modern empires did not necessarily contain a single nation. Politically, much of Central Asia/Transoxiana (the future cradles of Persian classical poetry and much of our national identity) was not part of the political boundaries of Sasanian Iran. In contrast, Oman, Yemen, Bahrain, and parts of Syria, not parts of the cultural identity of Iran, were indeed Sasanian territories. The Sasanian government was an empire, a vast one, and was centred in Mesopotamia. In short, the fall of the Sasanians was not a fall of Iran nor did it mean that your average Iranian farmer thought that he or she has been invaded. The average farmer did not jump to defend “his country” since he scarcely thought of it as his “country”.

Then, keep in focus that Arabs were not considered complete strangers and it was not as if the population of Mesopotamia were pure-blooded “Aryan” types speaking Middle Persian and having never had met an Arab in their lives. As I mentioned, much of the southern coast of the Persian Gulf was ruled by the Sasanians, and the population there was Arab. Mesopotamia itself was a true mix of cultures; the native population were Syriac speaking. In the south, an Arab kingdom, vassals of the Sasanians, ruled over the nomadic and settled Arab population. In the west and centre, many Jews were involved in everyday life. Middle Persian speaking Iranians were the ruling class, generally tolerant and bureaucratically pluralist.

Nor was the whole population Zoroastrian: as mentioned before, Jews were a common feature. Most of the Syriac population was Nestorian or Jacobite Christians with great centres in Tikrit, Nisibis, and Hatra. Arabs, too, were often Nestorian, although some adhered to Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism itself was not as neatly defined as we want to believe today. The clergy maintained a rather strict reading of the Zoroastrian teachings, even though they were themselves manufactured by earlier Sasanian theologians. Heresies such as Zurvanism were common, as is evidenced by the popularization of Manichaeism and its frequent reincarnations, even under the Islamic rule and in the guise of Khurram-Dini movement. Outside the heresies, the official Zoroastrianism of the clerics did not always match the beliefs of the people in the streets who often mixed elements of popular belief, magic, and incantation with their religious activities. Rates of conversion, particularly to various Gnostic cults of Christianity were also high, as was the case with conversion to Nestorian and Jacobite Christianity. Indeed, Christianity probably stood as the most popular religion, at least in the western regions of the Sasanian Empire, possibly even more pervasive than Zoroastrianism itself.

Economy was also essential, as money talked then as it does now. Agriculture was the most important sector and the government’s major responsibility was the maintenance of irrigation channels. Mesopotamia and Khuzistan were centres of farming and the bread-baskets of the Empire. The rest of the empire was less fortunate, but still held on to agriculture as its main economic activity. This was also preferred by the government for tax reasons as farmers are much easier to tax than any other sector of the economy. The taxation became even more efficient after the reforms of Khosrow I Anusherwan when local land-owners (dehgan) were put in charge of extracting local taxes. Incidentally, this increased efficiency might have driven some to abandon farming in favour of more profitable and less taxable means of activity, mostly trade and commerce.

So, the late Sasanian society was the scene of many diverse activities, religions, languages, and cultures, much as it is today in Iran or Iraq. It was also a society that was tired of wars, and as expected, its population did not care much about the government’s policies and boundaries. They traded and exchanged with the population of Byzantine Syria as well, those being equally dismissive of their own government’s policies or war and competition. People, as always, found ways to increase their own level of life and to maintain relationships with their neighbours, and in this case, the governments were often a limiting force rather than a helpful one.

In this world, Arabs were also players, even the nomadic ones. As we can see, Mohammad and his family were merchants who entered this world and traded in it and learned from it. They knew the people and the vibrant society, they even knew some of the languages (Mohammad is reputed to have spoken some Persian with Salman). Most importantly, they were involved in the economic life of this region, trading with it and having much interest in it. As mentioned, Abu Sufyan owned a garden near Damascus even before Islam! It has been said before that they were also aware of the news outside this world and the Sasanian-Byzantine wars and their results (although the response to an episode of this war has been taken as implying an inherent hatred of Iranians). Simply put, the Arabs were not as much of an outsider in this world as one is led to believe.

Then is the issue of military actions. Battles of Qadisiyya and Nahavand have been held by the Islamic historians as Fath ul Futuh and material confirmation of the righteousness of Islam and its adherents. Surprisingly again, the same importance has been given by the Nostalgics to the same wars, in effect reconfirming their supposed centrality and importance. Of course, as human beings we are more comfortable with digesting single events and finding monolithic explanations of the events. But in fact, more important than these “epic” battles were the peaceful capitulations of Hira and other cities. Militarily speaking, the peaceful defection of Hira to the Arab side provided them with a base of operation (the camp at Kufa, two kilometres from Hira) in the region. The capitulation of other cities also gave access to a cash-flow that maintained the armies. Many of the local soldiers, including those at the cities of Hajr (in modern UAE) or Anbar (in Iraq) also defected to the Islamic army (which was not purely Arab anymore, even at this early stage). The conquest of Mesopotamia then, other than a few epic battles necessary for any respectable historical narrative, was actually done in this rather inglorious manner. It is often this episode of the conquest that is so surprisingly quick, and also the part that the Islamists often use for the argument of the voluntary acceptance of the new religion and all its promises.

The rest of the Sasanian territories were not that easy though. Here, people were less mixed, foreign religions held a much lesser sway, and both the state and the clergy had a firmer grip. This was also the region were much of the defences were organised, mainly by those former officials who had had to escape from Mesopotamia. Persis (Fars or Persia proper) was hardly conquered and certainly did not completely convert for at least another 200 years. Same was true for most of the rest of the country. This, however, did not mean that the population was hostile towards the Muslim invaders. After the battles ceased (indeed the rest of the military activity after Nahavand seems to be quenching of local uprisings rather than full scale invasions), the population capitulated only after forcing the officials to leave them alone in their affairs. Same local officials were kept in place, taxes were almost never altered, and even Arab officials like Ziyad b. Abihi wholly adapted the local customs and bureaucracy.

The new government was also met with another welcoming gesture, this time not at all religious. These were the rising merchant class of the late Sasanian Empire. The Arab Muslim rulers were themselves merchants: Mu’awiyya, Amro b. ‘Aas, Ali, Uthman, Umar, and almost everyone else you can imagine was a merchant as well as an official. Upon entering the Sasanian territories, they saw two groups of common people: one, farmers, forming the vast majority of the population, the other merchants and tradesmen, including artisans and manufacturers. With the first group they did not know how to deal, as they themselves had only little contact with farming back in Arabia Deserta. These they left in peace, appointing the same officials and extracting the same taxes as the Sasanians. Even with the income generated with this they did not do much, assigning it like booty to the soldiers who had participated in the battles (the Diwan system). Merchants, however, most likely benefited from this new government of the merchants. The political boundaries of the Sasanian and Byzantine empires largely removed, the merchants were left alone to trade, without much tariff, with Syrians and Egyptians. For them, this indeed was a golden age.

So, we can see how the mechanics of the invasion actually worked. It is also obvious how both the Islamists and the Nostalgics could be right, as they have both taken one side of the events, or better yet, only certain events, and have constructed whole scenarios by generalizing them. However, the issue of the “psychological scar” still remains, and this is the time to ask ourselves whether there was one, and if not, where the current scar came from?

One can see that Medieval Iranian sources are seldom negative about the Islamic invasions. They seem to consider it in terms of continuation and of course sometimes to even glorify it. The usual reason for this, often simply and quickly presented, is the Islamic bias and oppression, the suggestion that both the Islamic zeal and the official oppression of any anti-Islamic sentiments prevented the recording of any other version of the story. However, it does not seem as we have a shortage of opposition to Islam. Zoroastrian literature of time (e.g. Gujastak Abalish) is openly critical of Islam and its adherents, the same being true for many Christians. Outside this, movements such as Shu’ubiyya and Ekhwan ul Safa were by no means complementary about the Arabs or Islam. Some, like the Dabuyhid kings of Tabarestan were outright hostile and ordered massacre of Muslims in their territories, while Babak, Maziyar, and many other romantic heroes were militantly against the Arab rule. Some works of history and literature also openly glorified pre-Islamic Iran and maintained it high, as would be appealing to most of the Nostalgics today.

It seems that despite the memories of Rostam and Kay-Khosrow and Ardashir and Shahpur, people tended not to find their Islamic society a source of shame. Even after the direct Arab rule receded and much Iranian nationalism was used for political purposes (Buyids and the Samanids), still attempts were not made to expel the religion or to consider its entry to have been a purely negative event. The Safarid Yaqub who famously opposed composition of Arabic poetry for his panegyric still did not disavow the whole history of Islam. Even the descendants of Dabuyhids of Tabaristan, who were never conquered by any Muslim army of any sort, later converted to Islam, at the same time continuing to name their children Gustan, Giv, Afridon, Shahriyar, and Rostam.

This would be the case until the 19th century and the “Modern” times. The roots of “modernity” are outside the scope of this essay, suffice to say that although often presented as purely positive and progressive, one can find many things to criticize in modernism, particularly in its 19th century guise. It was under this influence that some of the Iranians were exposed to the modern study of history, itself a young subject even in Europe. If one imagines that history and historiography of today is the same as what it was 150 years ago, one should be warned. Not many today would maintain what was said about the history of the world then. Although works of Sir John Malcolm and Rawlinson keep on being reprinted in Iran, I have to inform that history, like most other fields of scholarship, has moved beyond those. But I am getting away from my point.

The issue was that unlike Europe which had developed its understanding (or misunderstanding) of history through time, Iranians fell directly from the history of Mirkhwand and Rustam-nameh to the works of Hegel and Weber and Malcolm. The discovery and its shock were profound. An Iranian understood history of his country to have started from Kiyumars and to have continued through Kay Kawus and Gushtasp to the “short period” of the Arsacids and then to the Sasanians, to be merging into the history of Islam which was itself often started from the creation of Adam. Persepolis was “the throne of Jamshid” and Ardashir’s palace in Firuzabad was “Masjed-e Sangi”. Now, one was introduced to Cyrus and Darius, and found out that “The Martyrorum of Solomon’s Mother” (mashhad-e maadar-e Soleyman) was actually the tomb of Cyrus the Great.

The nineteenth century historiography was also nationalist (not to mention racist). It saw people in boundaries of nation-states: France for the French, England for the English. Unlike how it appears today, this was not always the case. As late as the middle of the 20th century, the official policy of the French government was to move the soldiers from the regions with minority languages (Breton, Alsacan, Provencal, Basque) to other regions so they are forced to only speak French. Italian was only spoken by about five per-cent of the population of the newly created Kingdom of Italy at its birth in the late decades of the 19th century. England banned the speaking of Welsh and Irish in these territories until either the modern times or when they gained their independence (in case of Ireland). So, the nation-state based on ethnicity and language was a new idea and still in formation.

So, the curious scholars of these new nation-states started studying the history of Iran, and they were genuinely curious, in case anyone gets the impression that I am repeating the old post-colonial accusation of imperialist-scholars. These scholars studied Iran, and coming from a nationalist background, were looking for a driving force in Iranian history, an identity that could explain the unique successes of this vast territory. These same curiosities were also shared by the Iranian scholars who were learning new things about their own land.

The results were also fascinating for Iran’s own newly developing nation-state, one that needed to find a reason to unite its people. This was obviously found in the Persian language and the monuments remaining from the past. As such, the Persian element was emphasised and Persian monuments even more. So much that for example the “Parthian” element which ruled over Iran for 480 years (and incidentally is responsible for most of the folklore and the epic stories) was considered an interlude in the determining Persian power. This all also lead to the growing nationalist feeling of the “non-Persian” elements who felt left out of the narrative, when in fact the Persian element was indeed a collective element itself, being made up of all those “non-Persians”.

But apart from this is the issue that an identity is often formed against another one. The newly created identity was adopted by the new government of the nation-state which was trying to modernise (in fact mostly industrialise) the country. A national thrust was needed to unite the population behind this effort, and the Persian identity was just ripe for this purpose. The temporary successes gained from this were often satisfactory to most participants. The future seemed bright and promising; the problems appeared solvable.  Then, cultural reactions to the fast-paced changes showed up, often in the form of “traditional” opposition to modernisation.

The tradition was commonly interpreted, by both the traditionalists and their opposition, as being an Islamic one. In fact, one might argue that it was a natural one repeated everywhere else in the world, and that it had more to do with the socio-economic circumstances than with real adherence to tradition (as evidenced from the fact that many traditional Muslims have embraced the offerings of modern industrialisation). But the idea remained that the problem is the religion, and this was the age of communist reactions anyway. So, the religion was blamed for stopping the progress, and more importantly for us, the origin of the religion was blamed for stopping the ancient glory. A parallel was drawn between the two cases: the glorious and progressive civilisation of ancient Iran was stopped and destroyed by the Arabs and their invasion, and modern glory of Iran (reflected in the newly popular ancient Iranian nostalgia) was being stopped by the descendants of those Arabs: the Muslims.

In this vision, history of Islamic Iran was also seen as a downwards spiral, getting worse as time passed. This view ignored the prosperous times of the Samanids and Buyids and then the Safavids and the fact that the 16th century Iran was richer and more progressive than the 19th century one. Islamic history of Iran was seen as a time of constant decline and corruption of pure Iranian values and cultures, 1400 years of shame, best to be forgotten.

I am not a sociologist or an anthropologist and so, I should remain within my field of history. As such, I shall not continue illustrating a picture of the modern Iranian psyche. Only to say that I see the scar to have started at this period and as a result of the usual hurried Iranian adoption of not-so-well-developed European historiography and its young methods. The sad thing is that our historiography seems to have remained there: the most widely published and read books about the Sasanians and those before them are still the ones written in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

New books are often not translated or printed and articles, the most common way of academic publishing, often are not even seen by the Iranian scholars, let alone the public. The convenient picture of pre-Islamic glory and Islamic shame is also too prominent to be challenged, particularly in the opinion of the public with its justified hostilities towards contemporary politics. Those trying to challenge this view are either called “revisionists” (as if correcting wrong notions is a bad thing) or sympathisers and apologists, or at the very best, idealistic peaceniks. At least convinced for myself that I am neither of the above, I can only hope that history can be treated as a real academic subject and not just as means of glorifying the past and providing propaganda for the national myth, and that it can be allowed to shed some light on the stories and lives of the real people of this country, not just conquerors, kings and heroes. Comment

Khodadad Rezakhani is a PhD student in History at UCLA. Visit his website,

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