Iranian history has been punctuated by dramatic events of varying significance, hardly any century passing in which at least one major upheaval did not shake the foundations of the land. But the greatest of all these dramas – great even by the standard of Iranian history – were the Alexandrian conquest of the Achaemenid empire, the Arab conquest of the Sasanian empire and the Mongol invasions and conquests of the thirteenth century, all of which had profound consequences for the country’s history and culture.
Arabs and Islam
The early Islamic conquests resulted in widespread revolution in lands which soon extended from the Indus to Spain. Not only parts of Byzantine empire but the whole of the Persian empire succumbed to its onslaught within a short period after the death of the Prophet Mohammad in 632. In 636, only four years after Yazdgerd’s succession, a small Arab force defeated the mighty Persian army. Ctesiphon fell a couple of years later, followed by the rout of Yazdgerd’s army at Nahavand in Persia proper. Thus in a number of years the mighty Persian empire was defeated and conquered by Muslim Arabs.
If conquest was easy and swift, conversion to Islam took much longer. Occupation did not automatically lead to conversion, since conversion was voluntary – it took about two and a half centuries for all the Iranian lands and people to be converted. Indeed, in the beginning the Arabs preferred to collect the “jezyeh”, the poll tax paid by non-Muslims, rather than take converts who then be exempt from this tax; but in time, non –Muslim began to appreciate the economic benefits of conversion both in avoiding “jezyeh” and in protecting their property.
The Umayyad dynasty was founded by Muavieh. The Umayyads ruled an empire from Damascus that was even greater than that of the Achaemenids, stretching from Spain to Central Asia and western India. Theirs was no longer a popular and egalitarian government, as had been under “Rashedun”, but an absolute and arbitrary rule, styled to some extent on the Sasanian and Byzantine monarchies, although it still retained some of its original tribal roots. Unlike their Abbasid successors they were not Iranophile, but nevertheless largely depended on Persian administrators, scribes, accountants and tax controllers in running their caliphate, especially in the east. Subjects of the caliphate were in general divided between Arab Muslims, non-Arab (including Persians) Muslims, who were known as “mavali” or clients, non-Muslims or “zemmis” and slaves.
The Umayyads have had a bad press in history, and especially in popular and religious history. But it is not clear to what extent they were more unjust or less pious than those who succeeded them. It is, however, true that they did not have a firm basis of legitimacy from the start, and became increasingly unpopular with their subjects. Nowhere were campaigns against them more potent and effective than in Persia, and particularly Khorasan, where underground Abbasid propagandaists advocated the righteousness and legitimacy of ‘the prophet’s family’ in general and house of Abbas in particular...Read more