The Myth of the overnight islamization of the ancient Zoroastrian Iran

Modern revisionist Moslem historians, and scholars such as the late Ayatollah Motahari, have attributed the fall of the mighty Sassanid Empire, the last native, Zoroastrian Empire of ancient Iran to the “simplicity, clarity and class equality of the monotheistic Islam.”

According to contemporary Moslem revisionists, “the great unpopularity of the Zoroastrian Priesthood of the late Sassanid period combined with the arrogance selfishness, and cruelty of an elitist, Sassanid nobility, gifted victory to the invading Moslem Arabs.” The myth states that the invading Moslem armies were met with little or virtually NO resistance from a disgruntled population who almost immediately embraced the superior ideology of Islam!!!

Unfortunately for the modern Moslem revisionists, their fairly recent account of islamization of ancient Persia DOES NOT AT ALL AGREE with EVEN ONE SINGLE early Islamic historian or chroniclers, such as Balāḏorī’s Fotūḥ (Conquests,) chronicles of Al Ṭabarī, and histories of Masʿūdī, Morūǰ.

(Balāḏorī, Fotūḥ (Conquests) is the main authentic moslem source for the islamic take over of the Iranian plateau. The narration of arab moslem conquests is divided topically by each geographical region of the Iranian Plateau, See pp. 68-94, 105-13, 241-89, 301-431.

See also the chronicles of Al Ṭabarī, I, p. 1528 to III, p. 2. Yaʿqūbī, II, pp. 54-410, and Masʿūdī, Morūǰ (ed. Pellat) III, p. 29 to IV, p. 83.)

All the early Islamic sources attribute the fall of the Sassanid Empire to Moslem resolve to establish the POLITICAL and MILILTARY DOMINATION of Islam, greater mobility/flexibility of Bedouin armies, Sassanid dynastic instability after Ḵosrow II Parviz, great discord among the Sassanid nobles thereafter, and complicity of the Persian local nobles and rulers with the invading Moslem armies for their short-term Political and Economic expediency.

According to ALL the early Moslem early sources, the main concern of the invading Moslem armies was to establish the Political and Military Domination of the Islamic religion, and impose Islamic taxation or jazziya on the conquered non- Moslem populations. For example after the battle of Qādesīya, a decisive victory for the Moslems which opened the Mesopotamian rich territories of the Sassanid Empire to the Arabs, the Arab commander Saʿd approached al-Madāʾen (“apex of all cities” Arab term for the Sassanid seat of Power Ctesiphon,) slaughtered the Sassanid garrison near Ctesiphon, captured most of the royal treasure, accepted the surrender of the people in the White Palace and at Rūmīya in return for tribute/treasures, and quartered the Muslim army there.

The Moslem arrangement was tributes in return for nominal security of the local populations. Also, Jazziya or Tribute paid by Non Moslems was substantially raised after each rebellion.

We read in Qur’an 9:29—“Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the Religion of Truth, from among the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizzyah (heavy tribute/poll tax) with submission, and feel themselves subdued and humiliated.

Moslem invaders drew upon hadith “sayings” attributed to the Prophet of Islam, and the first Shi‘ite Imām “religious leader ” ‘Ali b. Abi Tālib (598-661) for incorporating Zoroastrians into the ahl al-ḏhimma “communities enjoying blood protection guarantee.”

The Zoroastrians were not given full status like Christians and Jews but the dhimmi status provided nominal safety for the conquered Zoroastrian masses. The dhimmi or the “blood protection guarantee” for Zoroastrians was halfheartedly recognized by Omar the second Caliph, and the Umayyad (661-750) and the ‘Abbasid (750-1258) Caliphates.

Zoroastrianism clearly represented the Dominant faith numerically, though NO LONGER politically in the Mountainous Iranian Plateau, Caucasus, and Central Asia for FEW CENTURIES after the Islamic conquest.

The conversion to Islam by the native Iranian populace has been narrated by the early Islamic sources, as very slow, gradual, and at times very violent. The overnight adoption of Islam by the oppressed masses is a false myth that is entirely ABSENT from all the early Moslem accounts.

Places such as Hamadān and ancient City of Ray, were taken and retaken several times. Ḥoḏayfa b. al-Yamān accepted the surrender of the town and district of Nehāvand from its lord, called Dīnār; he arranged to pay tribute in return for protection for the walls, property, and houses of the people there.

Hamadān was taken over on similar terms. The territory of Ray was taken from the marzbān with the help of a local noble called Faroḵān, on terms similar to Nehāvand. A tribute of 500,000 dirhams was imposed on Ray and Qūmes; in return the fire temples were not to be destroyed nor the people killed or enslaved.

Ḥoḏayfa b. al-Yamān marched west to Azerbaijan, where he defeated the marzbān, took the capital of Ardabīl, and imposed a tribute of 100,000 dirhams. According to the terms made by Ḥoḏayfa, the people were not to be killed or taken captive; and their fire temples would not be destroyed.

The people of Šīz were allowed to keep their fire temple and to perform their dances at religious festivals.   

After the death of the second Caliph ʿOmar in 23/644, all the places in Azerbaijan, the Highlands, and the Heartland of Pārs withheld tribute and had to be retaken.

While the Muslims were preoccupied with their own first civil war (35-41/656-61), most of ancient Zoroastrian Iran slipped out of their control, and there were numerous popular revolts all over the conquered territories.

The Hephthalites of Bāḏḡīs, Herat, and Pūšang withheld tribute, as did Nīšāpūr; the people of Zarang overthrew their Muslim garrison, when the third Caliph ʿAlī was busy with Kharijite revolts in Iraq, widespread tax revolt broke out in the Highlands, Highland of Pārs, and Kermān in 39/659; the tax collectors were driven out, and Zīād b. Abīhi was sent to bloodily suppress/crush rebels at Eṣṭaḵr Pārs and Kermān. The third Calipf ʿAlī also managed to send a military force that retook Nīšāpūr in the northeast. Eastern Iran had to be re-conquered under Moʿāwīa.

The outbreak of the second Muslim civil war at Moʿāwīa’s death in 61/680 ended expansion in the east for twenty-five years, and after the death of Moʿāwīa’s son, Yazīd in 64/683, Moslem rule collapsed in Khorasan and Sīstān.

The lush mountains of Northern Iran, and the breadbasket of Zābolestān in the East, were never permanently controlled by the Moslem, except through their elite proxies. It took the Moslem armies over 100 years to fully control/conquer all the Mountainous Iranian plateau, and the Sassanid territories east of Mesopotamia.

To ensure the conquered population paid their jazziya or Islamic taxation, Arab garrisons were established at key former Sassanid urban administrative centers, and in frontier regions of the ancient Persian Empire. The countryside was controlled indirectly through local nobles and landlords dihqans who were willing to collaborate with the Moslem Arab invaders.

An agricultural reform during Ḵosrow I Anôshirvan allowed local landlords and nobles to switch production to cash crops, such as cotton or sugar cane. This led to a substantial increase in local economies and wealth. However Ḵosrow II Parviz used this new economic boom to fund his wars of expansion with Byzantium. The local nobles and landlords wanted to keep their own land and increased wealth for themselves, and saw collaboration with Arabs much more lucrative than staying loyal to the Sassanid Empire, and financing the Empire’s war machine with Byzantium.

The collection of tributes/Jazziya by the local nobles in their own districts or little, autonomous kingdoms had the effect of establishing protectorates by the Arab Moslems. The new Moslem overlords by using collaborative local rulers and installing Arab garrisons, secured most of ancient Iran under their rule. However, after numerous popular rebellions, tribute arrangements had to be constantly re-imposed.

ACCESS TO POWER meant adopting Arabism and Islam. The ELITE adopted the new Islamic ideology, and gained positions of authority by doing so, from the eighth through tenth centuries, two or three centuries AFTER the Islamic conquest. Arabic became the language of religion, literature, and science thereafter. No scientific work could be published and no scientist could be recognized unless they adopted Islam as religion and Arabic as the sacred and scientific language.

A good many among the Zoroastrian priests became early interpreters of the canonical beliefs of the Islamic religion. The conversion of the Persian elite to Islam around this time period has contributed if not wholly but substantially to the rise of the Islamic Golden Age, for over 90% percent of Moslem scientists and scholars of this golden age era are Persian.

We read in the Preface to Greater Bundahishn (the Zoroastrian account of Creation, finally put down in writing around 10th or 11th century,) Owing to the coming of the Arabs to the realm of the Aryans, and their promulgation of heterodoxy and ill-will, orthodoxy has vanished and fled from the magnates, and respectability from the upholders of religion; deep wonderful utterances, and the proper reasoning of things, meditation for action, and word of true reason, have faded from the memory and knowledge of the populace.

On account of evil times, even he of the family of nobles, and the magnates upholding the religion, have joined the faith and path of those heretics; and for the sake of prestige, they have defiled, with blemishes, the word, dress, worship and usages of the faithful.

He too, who had the desire to learn this science and secret, could not possibly appropriate them, from place to place, even with pain, trouble and difficulty. 

Islam spread among native Zoroastrian rural folk from the tenth through thirteenth centuries. According to tradition, the dastūrān dastūr, the “ Zoroastrian supreme high priest” moved to the desolate and rugged central Iranian village of Torkābad, north of Yazd in the late twelfth century, after Zoroastrianism was no longer the majority religion.

After the late 12th century the Zoroastrians steadily moved to the out-of-the-way locales into rugged, and desolate Mountains of Central Iran.

The Safavid period (1501-1736), and the institutionalization of Shi‘ism, marked a horrific time for the followers of the ancient faith in Iran. Up to the Safavid period, Zoroastrians constituted a substantial minority similar to the Copts in Egypt that make up about 20% of the population.

Forcible conversion of Zoroastrians to Shi‘ism, execution of Zoroastrians who refused to comply, coupled with destruction of their fire temples and other places of learning and worship was decreed by Solṭān Ḥosayn (r. 1694-1722; Lockhart, pp. 72-73; for the Shiʿite religious context, see also MAJLESI, MOḤAMMAD-BĀQER.)

During the reign of Shah ʿAbbās I (1587-1629), Zoroastrians had been forcibly relocated to the capital city Isfahan as skilled, slave labor (Pietro della Valle [1586-1652], tr., II, p. 104; Garcia de Silva y Figueroa [1550-1624], tr., p. 179.)

Shah ʿAbbās even had a high priest or dastur dasturān executed together with other Zoroastrian notables for failing to deliver to the royal court a magical manuscript that the Zoroastrians were thought to have possessed (John Chardin [1643-1713], II, p. 179.).

In the mid-1650s, among the harsh measures undertaken during the reign of ʿAbbās II (r. 1642-66), mass expulsion of Zoroastrians from Isfahan’s city center took place—on account of their presence being deemed UNCLEAN, detrimental to the orthodox Moslem beliefs, ritual purity, and day-to-day safety of Moslems. See chronicler Aṙakʿel of Tabriz (tr. in Bournoutian, pp. 347-61.)

The Ritual Uncleanliness of Zoroastrian was justified based on the following Verse, Qur’an 9:28—O ye who believe! Truly the Pagans are unclean.

Similarly, after Zoroastrians sided with the more religiously tolerant Zand dynasty (1750-94), which made overtures to ancient Iranian tradition, Zoroastrians were designated as traitors and were most cruelly punished by Āḡā Moḥammad Khan Qājār.

The Miraculous Socioeconomic Success of the Parsi Zoroastrians under the British Raj, and their coming to the aid of their Iranian brethren was the only thing that saved Zoroastrians in Iran during the Qajar rule.

I shall conclude this article by addressing the last false myth regarding the collapse of the Sassanid Dynasty, namely the overreaching and corrupt power of the Zoroastrian Priesthood at the end of the Sassanid dynasty.

Khosrow II Parviz and some of the Late Sassanid kings after him, EXCEPT the noble Yazdgerd III were all known for making public overtures to the Mesopotamian Christian communities of their Empire. Khosrow II Parviz (r.591-628), the quintessential last-Sassanid king of kings, married an Armenian Christian wife, and had a Christian chief minister. Likewise, in the course of gathering support for his campaigns against Byzantium, Khosrow Parviz supported the Nestorian Christian community in present day Syria.

The same Khosrow Parviz, upon conquering, and entering Jerusalem, moved the True Christian Cross from Jerusalem to Khuzistan in the South-West of Iran in order to provide prestige for the Christians of his empire. Christians, in fact, were the dominant population in Mesopotamian territories of the Sassanid. In all reality, the Sassanid dynasty ended with Khosrow II in 628.

There is NO EVIDENCE of a state sponsored, all-powerful Zoroastrian Priesthood at the end of the Sassanid era. Rather all the evidence suggests that during the reign of, and after Khosrow II Parviz, Orthodox Zoroastrianism was increasingly disassociated from the late Sassanid State.


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1 Response to The Myth of the overnight islamization of the ancient Zoroastrian Iran

  1. Pingback: “The Myth of the overnight islamization of the ancient Zoroastrian Iran” – Qadisiyya: Remembrance of the Genocidal Islamic Conquest of Iran

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