• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Cultural Heavyweight: Iranianness Après le Déluge

Textbooks typically note that Arab armies conquered Iran 637-651. And though the civilisation didn’t melt instantly into the Arab pattern – instead producing its own high-culture in Islam and the shu’ubiyya movement within Iran – the new religion ultimately reduced millennia of Aryanness to ashes in a few decades.

Almost every land the Islamic troops invaded found its identity submerged by the Arab avalanche. Only Iranians and Berbers (covered here) retained theirs.[1] To an extent, the question of how the Iranians achieved this has already been answered. The cultural weight of the dehqanat has offered a powerful explanation. Dehqans (magnates) who refused to share the exile of their monarch (Yazdigird III) remained pillars of Aryanness thanks to the fact the Arabs could not countenance removing strata so fundamental to the smooth-running of the fiscal machinery.[2] In short, nobody wanted to strangle the golden goose (whose breast was constituted by the fertile Sawad of lower Iraq, known as dil Iranshahr i.e. the Heart of Iran) even if it meant a few soft power concessions.

Rarely reported, however, are the pools of hard-power resistance; the spin-off dynasts who occupied areas that Arab settlers never penetrated on a meaningful scale. These peripheries proudly retained (or invented) their Iranian ideologies despite the Islamic tide.

Gilan and Tabaristan beneath the Caspian Sea, for instance, had princes with titles like Ispahbad (“Army Commander”) who claimed descent from Sasanian elites. In time, Tabaristan grew rich from exporting textiles across the Caspian to the people of Central Asia. And their coins were not dated from the hijra but the era of the last shah Yazdigird III. Yazid attempted to conquer Tabaristan in 716-18 but was defeated by the Sasanians (who were supported by Daylamites from the mountains).[3]

Nevertheless, Arab politics affected the region when Sunpadh raised the banner of revolt to trigger revenge on the murderer of the Iranian champion Abu Muslim (d. 755), the caliph al-Mansur.[4] According to al-Mulk, the general’s crypto-Zoroastrianism had come to the fore when among his own people. For example, he told compatriots that

“According to one of the books of the Sasanians I have found, this Arab empire is finished. I shall not turn back before I have destroyed the Ka’bah, for it has been wrongly substituted for the sun; we shall make the sun our qibla as it was in olden times.”[5]

In 758, time was called on such antics and the same caliph conquered Tabaristan. However, the Arabs only occupied the lowland towns. In the mountains the Dabuyids were replaced by the Bawandids who maintained their rule until the fourteenth century (the secret to their success being nominal conversion to Islam).

Further to the east (in the southern Caspian mountains) the Karinvands claimed descent from Karen, a dynast granted parts of Tabaristan by Khusrau I. The Karinid leader teamed up with other local warlords (one of whom had the evocative title Masmughan “Great One of the Magians”) in 783 and massacred all the Muslims they could find, forcing the Abbasids into several major campaigns that stymied the bloodlust but failed to alter the status quo.

Further still – towards the south end of the Aral Sea – lay Khwarazm. Few Arabs wished to pass the grim wasteland of the Karakum (Black Sand) desert and so the region continued speaking and writing its own Iranian dialect. Ruled by the Afrighids, who considered themselves vassals of the Sasanian shahs, essentially they paid the Arabs tribute to be left alone.

The pull of Iran’s ancient cultural gravity was often so powerful that even non-Iranians got in on the act. The Shirvan shahs of the eastern Caucasus, for instance, claimed descent from Bahram V (d. 438) yet their dynasts were Arabs to a man who’d originally been instituted as governors. Instead of imposing Arab norms on the population, however, by the eleventh century the reverse had occurred and the family had switched to an Iranian cultural register.

Perhaps the Arabs – outside of their barracks and “new cities” – were simply spread too thinly. In parts of Iran, for example, the “conquest” amounted to little more than a reshuffling of the elite cards with families that had facilitated the Islamic conquest replacing those who had resisted. Even this rapprochement, however, was not enough for some. A Daylamite warlord, Mardavij – who claimed descent from the kings of Gilan in the times of shah Kay Khusrau – for example sought to restore Zoroastrianism as late as the tenth century.[6]

For the majority, however, Islam was accepted as the correct faith whose reception disturbingly required some form of cultural death. The only appropriate response, therefore, was a kind of measured melancholy of the variety Firdausi attributed to the pen of Rostam, the last commander of the Persian army, in (a work of cultural assertion) the Shahnameh:

“When the pulpit’s equal to the throne

And Abu-Bakr and Umar’s names are known

Our long travails will be as naught,

The glory we have known will fade and fall.

The stars are with the Arabs,

And you’ll see

No Crown or throne, no royal


Hardly the sort of fatalistic note – or outlook – that a purely Islamic history like Abu al-Fazl Bayhaqi’s Tarikh-I Mas’udi would strike. Yet very much of a piece with the tragic pagan literature of Achilles’ heel, Sigurd’s shoulder, Duryodhana’s thighs or – to use an example from Firdausi – Simurgh’s arrow, which smote Esfandiyar in the Shahnameh.

[1] Turks under the Abbasids also rescued their identity. But whereas the Berbers and Turks appear to have kept their identities by “out-Islaming” the Arabs i.e. becoming super soldiers, the Iranian identity was more of an elite one.

[2] The Afshins of Ustrushana and the Ikhshids of Ferghana acted as if nothing had changed. As much was obvious from the fact when some of their number bothered giving military service to the Arabs they were arrested on charges of apostasy thanks to the fact they kept the old Zoroastrian books, punished Muslim missionaries and had their subjects adore them as gods.

[3] The Daylamites, like the Kurds, remind me a little of the Fremen of F. Herbert’s Dune (1965).

[4] He and his followers sought to drive the Muslims out and sack Mecca in revenge for the destruction of the Zoroastrian temples (see Sadighi [1938] 133-134, 143-144).

[5] Al-Mulk, Siyasat-nama of Nizam Al-Mulk (2002) p. 207.

[6] Mardavij was killed in his bath by his own Turkish slave-soldiers in 935.

[7] Ferdowsi (2003) 67-69.