January 26, 2005
[Last night I got an email with an attachment
claiming to be Yazdgerd
III's letter to Omar ibn Khattab, during
days of the Sasanian Dynasty. I thought I had seen the letter
before and might have even published it. I emailed Khodadad Rezakhani
and asked for his expert opinion. He's studying for a PhD in
Sasanian history from UCLA. Here's what
he wrote. -- J. Javid]
Letter of Yazdgerd III to Caliph Omar" is
one of the many urban legends circulating the internet.
I have personally seen four different versions of this letter, their tone and
content differing from quite absurd and offensive to more believable and somehow
historical. This text fits somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.
Generally, forgery of historical documents and artifacts has
been one of the oldest human practices. The purpose of various
forgeries has differed from one to another. The famous forgery
of the Edict of Constantine was done by the Church fathers to increase
the political influence of the Roman Church. Other forgeries were
made for financial reasons or to gain fame.
During the past few years, we have had several historical forgeries
in Iran. The most famous one of them was the "discovery" of
the mummy of the so-called Achaemenid princess that attracted the
attention of many people around the world. It almost ended up in
a fight between the Pakistani and Iranian authorities.
Our letter here is another example of forgery. While the aforementioned
mummy was forged in hopes of financial reward, this letter and
its variations carry no such promises. It seems that the point
of the person(s) who wrote this letter is to further a political/cultural
agenda, one that carries an anti-Arab weight.
The reasons for proving that this letter is a forgery are several,
but the simplest criterion is that we have never seen the original
text. Our corpus
of Middle Persian texts is quite limited and is known to anyone
who works with Middle Persian documents. Some Arabic or Persian
translations of the original Middle Persian texts (quoted in various
histories and books) are also known.
Furthermore, anyone working
in the field of Sasanian history would know the existence of such
a letter and certainly know the definitive translation, most likely
done by a well-known philologist. However, none of these sources
present us with a letter as such.
However, by simply reading the text and having a basic knowledge
of the history and language of the supposed time of the composition
of the letter (ca. 635-650 CE), one can also conclude that the
letter is quite a recent forgery.
This introduction would not allow detailed criticism of the content
of the letter, but a few examples would suffice to illustrate the
-- For starters, the letter is a perfect example of anachronism.
It projects the ideas and ideals of modern anti-Arabism and anti-Islamism
into the history and has them come out of the mouth of Yazdgerd
The tone of the letter is obviously a contemporary, Iranian
nationalist tone which thinks of Arabs as desert dwelling people
with no culture. That is indeed the "Jaheli"/Beduin Arab
culture that Islamic history now teaches us about. However, for
an average Sasanian of that time, "Arab" would not have
brought the picture of a desert dwelling, daughter killing Beduin,
of the kind who lived 1000 km south of the Sasanian border. Instead,
the Arabs most familiar for the Sasanians were the Hira Arabs who
ran a government under the protection of the Sasanians and were
mostly either Zoroastrian or Christian, living in cities and urban
-- The second paragraph has Yazdgerd blaming Omar for not knowing
about the Iranian religion (Zoroastrianism).
Yazdgerd here boasts of his "monotheistic" religion.
It is easily demonstrable that the efforts to make Zoroastrianism
a monotheistic religion were taken under the cultural influence
of Islam. A pre-Islamic Iranian Zoroastrian mowbed would have easily
admitted that Zoroastrianism is a dualistic religion.
was no cultural pressure to consider "monotheism" to
be superior to other forms of religion, our supposed mowbed would
not have felt bad about admitting this. In essence, the person
who forged this letter has made a disservice to his patriotism
by giving the superiority to the monotheistic Islam and becoming
an apologist for dualistic Zoroastrianism.
-- For the reasons mentioned above, it is most improbable that
Yazdgerd would have known about the traditions of Beduin Arabs
and been able to criticize them as such. This again is putting
the products of modern knowledge in the context of ancient history.
-- In the same way, it seems hard to believe that Omar would
have called Yazdgerd "fire-worshipper". The adjective "fire-worshipper" itself
was created many years after the advent of Islam,
in order to stigmatize Zoroastrianism. It is most unlikely that
it was a term in use during the time of early Islam.
-- Again, the next two paragraphs are the self-congratulatory
sentences that are most unlikely to have been uttered by Yazdgerd
for a few simple reasons. One is that again, it is quite improbable
that Yazdgerd would have known so much about Islam and the background
of Muslims at the time, or would have cared to know. Second, the
phrase "because your Allah o Akbar only speaks Arabic" is
That sentence, in form of blame, would have been quite unusual
coming from a Zoroastrian who has to say his prayers in Avestan!
Avestan was used by Zoroastrian clergy, but was completely incomprehensible
to ordinary citizens of the Sasanian era. Also, the Sasanian Empire
was the first target of the armies of Islam, so naturally, the
comments on the paragraph
before last about the bloody conquests of Islam would be out of
place, since they had not yet happened.
-- The last paragraph really needs no explanation. Just
enough to point out that its anachronism is obvious from its reference
to "Aryans", a term not in use during Sasanian times.
With this long introduction, I wish you a happy