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Biases in historical enquiry
Nomad-sedentary relations and pre-Islamic Arabs

January 29, 2007

It is interesting that people like Mr. Nooriala [see: "Biyaabaangardaan chegooneh pirooz mishavand?"] are making the effort to research and find new explanations for the age old question of “Why did the mighty Sasanian Empire fall to the Arab Armies?”. The attempt to break the already established paradigms (such as “Eslaamiyun” explanations that he seems to have set up to refute) are also much appreciated. However, the whole argument suffers from fallacies in using secondary sources and sweeping disregard for primary ones, and starting the argument from a defensive position, in effect asking for refutation.

However, these are not the reasons I have decided to write these few lines. The matter of the fall of the Sasanian Empire is not a simple one and surely cannot be answered by short essays and spiteful commentaries. Much like the “Fall of the Roman Empire” on which Mr. Nooriala bases his argument, the fall of the Sasanian Empire has tens of explanations, and unlike what he presents, the most accepted version is not the Eslamiyn version, in “preparation and falsification for 1400 years”.

Mr. Nooriala’s use of Gibbon’s old arguments (now, although respected, thoroughly dismissed in its own field) is, incidentally, the heart of his fallacy. While the whole “barbarian” invasion theory has now been dismissed by scholars, Mr. Nooriala manages to use it as the basis of his version of the fall of the Sasanian Empire, and this seems to have shadowed much of the understanding of the events as well. How much the fall of the Sasanians should be regarded as a fall of Iran, and how much of it was the issue of a foreign invasion can be, and has been, disputed, but what is of note here is the methods used to further the already established assumptions, those much deeper than whether Iranians accepted Islam with open arms or not.

As such, the most problematic part of Mr. Nooriala’s argument is not how he uses Gibbon’s work or how he dismisses the Eslamiyun explanation, rather how he supposes the “Desert Nomad” (i.e. the pre-Islamic Arab) society to have been. To paraphrase him, these Arabs have been “beduin and with a rough culture”, and thus thoroughly unfit for invading and overthrowing the mighty Sasanids. So, how did this happen?

The image of the ‘beduin, uncultured, ignorant Arab’ (often accompanied by ‘lizard-eater’ adjective) is a familiar one. Iranians have long been dismissive of their Arab neighbours in this manner, counting them for dirt. In fact, this is not surprising and even defensible, considering the difference in modes of life between the two; what is surprising is how en par this narrative is with Islamic Arabia’s own account of its pre-Islamic life. But before we embark upon that, allow me to justify the title of this essay.

Nomads are often described as primitive, savage, unreliable, cruel, and wild. The usual image of the nomad comes from the Huns, Mongols, and Turks (all alluded to by Mr. Nooriala). ‘They come, they invade, they pillage, they kill, they carry off, and they leave’ (to liberally paraphrase the famous Persian description of the Mongol invasion). They do not know anything of culture, religion, commerce, agriculture, schooling, and in short, ‘civilisation’. Indeed, the word ‘civilisation’ itself hints at how estranged nomads are from it: civilisation is from Latin civitas ‘city’. The nomad has no city, and thus no civilisation. For the nomad to be civilized, he needs to settle down and learn the culture and the way of life of the settled people. This is the mentality behind the futile, and sometimes disastrous, efforts to prevent the modern nomads of Iran from undertaking their seasonal migration and to forcefully settle them. This is, in short, a sedentary bias against the nomad. The feeling of uncertainty and insecurity that the settled agriculturalist gets from the nomad makes the farmer despise the moving herdsman. The settled government also does not like the nomad: you can tax the farmer, but not the nomad.

Now, to return to the issue of Arabs and their meagre, desert life, we should see how this sedentary bias might have blurred our vision and prevented us from seeing yet another possible solution to the paradox of the fall of the Sasanians to the Arab invaders. The usual Iranian narrative is that the Arabs were desert dwelling, nomadic, and uncultured barbarians who poured over the borders of the Sasanian Empire and conquered it in a short period of time. These Arabs were unfamiliar with civilisation (see above) and thus were completely reliant on the remnants of the Sasanian administration to guarantee their continued rule over the conquered territories. In the process, they also managed to force their religion on the population of the country.

At the root of this narrative lies the assumption that Arabs before their invasion of Iran, and certainly before Islam provided them with some sort of organization, were a collection of scattered, unruly, ignorant, and thoroughly uncivilized tribes. They certainly knew nothing of government and unity and collective efforts. They aimlessly fought among themselves and never developed any institutions necessary for guaranteeing a lasting government. In short, they were unworthy for what they achieved, and what they did achieve was not theirs since they could not have achieved those in their primitive state.

It is surprising how close this narrative is to the Islamic narrative of its own history. In the Islamic version, Arabs before Islam were a collection of scattered, constantly feuding tribes with no culture or sense of unity or morals. The period was one of Jahiliyya (ignorance), when Arabs believed in many gods (a sign of their lack of unity) and fought among each other and killed their daughters. Then, with the arrival of Islam, a strong set of morals was imposed upon this scattered group which formed them into a coherent society and unleashed its power. Now, the prophet of Islam could write letters to the Emperor of Iran and Caesar of Rome and ask for submission, and if they did not comply, the Muslim armies, armed with a new faith and a monotheistic god, would go and punish them. In short, the wild, savage, nomadic Arab was formed into a united, moral, powerful group under the influence of Islam. In this narrative, who could say that Islam was not a great religion and certainly the greatest thing that happened to the Arabs? Who could dismiss Islam’s influence and the faith and zeal and hard-work of its founders?

The striking thing is how both of the above narratives are built upon an assumption that pre-Islamic Arabs were indeed primitive, ever-feuding, and disorganized, that they did not know anything of culture or government and were a threat both to themselves and those around them. Notice how both Sasanian Iran and the subsequent Islamic society are essentially urbanized, settled societies, and how their narrative of the pre-Islamic Arab is close to the aforementioned sedentary biases against the nomads.

As any scholar of the field would tell you now, much like other biases, these biases against the nomads are often quite misplaced. Nomads do have a quite complicated social structure, sense of unity, loyalty, alliance, and conflict. They do nurture cultural elements such as high poetry and often have quite a complicated belief system. Most of the now romanticized lore of ‘Ancient Aryans’ depicted in the RgVeda or the Gathas of Zarathushtra are products of a nomadic society. The famous works of gold included in the “Oxus Treasure” were created by nomadic, Scythian, gold-smiths. Feud, considered a menace to the sedentary man and a loss of much needed human labour for agriculture, was actually an important self-check mechanism in the nomadic society and a guarantee for long-term peace. In short, the nomadic life was seldom as wild and disorganized and futile as what is depicted in the lore of the settled folk.

This was also the case for much of pre-Islamic Arabs. Unlike the convenient picture presented both by later Iranian and Islamic sources of the life during the “Jahiliyya”, the nomads were not as menacing. They had a complicated system of alliances and federations. They entered into various treaties and contracts with the powers around them. In both the Sasanian and Byzantine territories, nomadic and settled Arabs boasted a long history, often as clients of these two powers and at least in the case of Mesopotamia and Syria, well woven into the fabric of the society. Cities of Hira and Hatra were major centres of Arab population, the former a capital of the Sasanian client state of the Lakhmids. In Mesopotamia and Syria, Arabs were not new comers and even those from outside the immediate borders of Iran and Byzantium could claim a presence: Abu Sufyan, the famous Meccan merchant of the early Islamic history, owned a garden outside Damascus 20 years before the advent of Islam!

Inside Arabia itself, the situation was also different than what we have often been led to believe. Other than the nomadic society discussed before, they were many settled Arabs in Arabia. The late Sasanian state claimed Bahrayn (the north and eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, not just the modern-day island country) as one of its provinces. The population of this region was predominantly Arab, living alongside migrant populations from Khuzistan, Fars, and Kerman and undertaking agriculture, mining, and trade. Mecca, Yathrab, and Ta’if were settled semi-agricultural and semi-commercial centres. Southern Arabia and Yemen had always been continuously settled by various states from the Sabaeans and Himyarites to the Ethiopians of Abraha and then the Sasanians who took it over in the early seventh century. This means that other than the population of Northern Arabia and those living on the margins of the settled areas, much of the “Arab” population was actually settled and often closely tied to the great states of its time.

So, not being any closer to figuring out the actual cause for the defeat of the Sasanian state, we have at least corrected a myopic view of who and what an Arab was. One can argue against other parts of Mr. Nooriala’s article, for example answering the question of “where was the Sasanian army?” with: “standing armies are a creation of 16th century gun-powder empires. Pre-Modern states seldom had standing armies and fighting military forces were often peasant-farmers recruited from the population in the times of need”. However, these are the issues to be dealt with separately and it only suffice here to say that by taking our biases and trying to use them as a point of departure, we will not be any closer to solving the problem of a historical paradox. Instead of providing a real solution, we will only manage to add another jam to the pile of already confusing problems. Comment

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

Some suggestions for further reading
Byock, Jesse L. Feud in the Icelandic Saga, University of California Press, 1993

Daryaee, Touraj, Soqute Sasanian, Tehran, Nashr-e Tarikh-e Iran, 2005

Dennett, D. Conversion and the Poll-Tax in Early Islam, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1950

Fowden, Garth. Empire to commonwealth: consequences of monotheism in late antiquity, Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1993

Hodgson, Marshall G. S. The venture of Islam : conscience and history in a world civilization, Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1974.

Hoyland, Robert, Arabia and the Arabs: from the Bronze Age to the coming of

Islam, London; New York: Routledge, 2001

Khazanov, Anatoly M. 2001: ‘Nomads in the History of the Sedentary World.’ In

A.M. Khazanov and A. Wink (eds.) Nomads in the Sedentary World. Richmond,

Surrey: Curzon Press, pp. 1 – 23.

Mohammadi Malayeri, Mohammad. Tarikh o Farhang-e Iran da Doran-e Enteghal az Asr-e Sasani beh Asr-e Eslami, Yazdan, Tehran, 1372/1993.

Morony, Michael, Iraq After the Muslim Conquest, Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1984

_______, “The Late Sasanian Economic Impact on the Arabian Peninsula” in Name-ye Iran-e Bastan, vol. I, No. 2, 2001/2002

Ward-Perkins, Bryan. The fall of Rome and the end of civilization, Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005

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