The Sasanian empire [Sassanid Empire], with its centralized capital city-complex of Mada’in on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, was one of the two great land-based empires (the other being Byzantium) capable of opposing the Arab Islamic invasions of the seventh century. However, paralyzing rivalries and strife within the royal Sasanian household and decades of exhausting wars with the Byzantines conspired to undermine any cohesive Persian resistance to the revolutionary movement of Islam. More telling perhaps were the somewhat bigoted policies of the Sasanians toward non-Zoroastrian groups (Christians, Jews, Sabeans, Mazdakites), which no doubt contributed to the social anarchy surrounding the Islamic invasions. Although a series of skirmishes and clashes had taken place, it was the pitched battle at al-Qadisiyya where the Sasanian main host under Yazdgird III was routed by the general of Caliph ‘Umar, Sa’d b. Abi Waqqas in 637. Military encampments at Basra and Kufa facilitated further incursions into Iran, and Muslim Arab armies pushed resistance farther north along the Zagros Mountains into Azarbaijan. Persian communities of Zoroastrians, Christians, and Jews were by and large content to negotiate treaties of surrender with these newly arrived Arab tribal armies, and there is no reason to accept popularly held views that Iran was Islamicized at these early dates. Conversion to Islam for reasons of political expediency was not uncommon, however, and we read of prominent individual Sasanian bureaucrats and various prominent landholders (dihqans) who accepted Islam to either ingratiate themselves with the new political order or to escape certain canonical taxes levied on non-Muslims. By the end of the Umayyad caliphate (661–750 CE), the Persian-speaking world of the Iranian Plateau, Azarbaijan, Sistan, Khvarazm, Khurasan, and Transoxiana had been conquered.
During the seventh and eighth centuries, large numbers of Arab tribes people began settling in these newly conquered regions, particularly in the prosperous province of Khurasan, and converted Persian elite and nobility became ‘‘clients’’ (mawali) of various Arab tribal networks. A collaborative taxation system emerged whereby mawali Persian administrators established and maintained registers of taxation (diwan) on behalf of the Arab governors and military elite in urban settlements and rural garrisons. However, the Umayyad caliphate—based in Damascus— was unsympathetic to complaints from classes of Persian mawali who found themselves not only shut out of elite Arab political circles but were also being forced to levy both Muslim and non-Muslim canonical taxes on the Persian population. This regional resentment made Iran, particularly Khurasan, fertile propagandistic terrain for the panoply of Muslim groups who openly challenged and berated the Umayyad rulers on the basis of venality, corruption, and irreligiousness. The most successful of these were led by Abu Muslim in the mid-eighth century, who championed a revolution against the Arab/Syrian-centric Umayyad dynasty and the establishment of a ruling household whose provenance was ideologically and genealogically more palatable. This was a revolution supported by a coalition of groups: disgruntled Arab tribesmen in the East, proto-Shi‘i groups, mawali Persian administrators, Persian dihqans, and Khurasani peasants and troops. The subsequent establishment of the ‘Abbasids in 750, and their relocation of the capital to Baghdad—built near the former Persian Sasanian capital of Ctesiphon—was a profound development for Persian political and administrative culture during the medieval period.
The epicenter of Arabo-Islamic civilization in the ninth and tenth centuries was undoubtedly Baghdad. The greatest claim to fame of early medieval Baghdad was its sponsorship and promotion of extensive translations into Arabic of Greek, Syriac, Pahlavi, and Sanskrit treatises on philosophy, logic, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and political philosophy. This transmission was to some extent influenced by a number of Persian scholar–bureaucrats who were able to combine their extensive training in Arabic with their Pahlavi roots to translate a number of Sasanian works that were, in fact, translations of much older Greek sources that had made their way to Iran during the sixth-century reign of Anushirvan. Concurrent with this was the rise of courtly shu’ubiya literature, whereby non-Arab Muslims, including many Persian literati, used formal Arabic rhetorical poetry to lionize and praise non-Arab traditions in the face of Arab cultural domination. This sense of independence often took militaristic manifestations, and we find a number of hybrid Shi‘i/Zoroastrian revolts, such as those by Sunpad in Nishapur, Babak in Azarbaijan, and Ustad Sis in Baghdis, plaguing the ‘Abbasid caliphate in the eighth to tenth centuries.
The rise of New Persian and renaissance of Persian literature in the medieval period took place well east of the original home province of Fars. A number of semiautonomous Eastern dynasties (Tahirids, Samanids, Ghaznavids) based in the Iranian-speaking oasis-settlements of Bactria, Herat, Bukhara, and Samarqand were influenced by longstanding Persian mythical and literary traditions. Thanks to the efforts of historians such as al-Bal’ami—who translated al- Tabari’s monumental historical chronicle from Arabic into Persian—and poets such as Rudaki and Daqiqi, New Persian had emerged as the administrative and creative language of choice for the Samanid dynasty based in Samarqand. However, the Ghaznavid patronage of men like Abu al-Fazl Baihaqi and Abu al-Qasim Ferdowsi in the city of Ghazna would prove to be pivotal. Ferdowsi’s production of the monumental Shahnam (Shahnameh), an epic poem recounting the deeds and glories of Iranian kings and heroes in legend and history, accomplished much for the revival and preservation of Persian language and culture. This Iranicizing of the Eastern Islamic lands was further complemented by the Shi‘i Buyid dynasty, originally from Daylam, who had assumed custodianship of Baghdad and the ‘Abbasid caliphate in the tenth century. Although Arabic was still the dominant administrative language, Buyid rulers such as Azud al-Daula resuscitated a number of pre-Islamic Iranian practices, most notably the titulature of shahanshah (king of kings) and the celebration of the Persian New Year. Thus, the conveyance of the Persian revival from east to west by the Seljuk Turks after their conquest of Baghdad in 1055 was well received by networks of Iranian administrators, poets, and literateurs who had been serving for generations under Arab rule.
The increased use of New Persian for administrative and poetic purposes during the Seljuk period reinforced the importance of Iranian bureaucracy and scholarship in the eleventh through thirteenth centuries. It would also be during the medieval period that rivalry between Persian city dwellers and Turkic nomads would intensify as a result of the large-scale arrival of Turkic tribes in the Iranian Plateau since the ninth century. Iran would undergo considerable Turkification with the arrival of the Seljuks, and the uneasy relationship between the Turkic military, tribal elite (arbab-i saif, or ‘‘men of the sword’’) and the Persian administrative/religious classes (arbab-i qalam, or ‘‘men of the pen’’) would often turn rancorous. Charged by their Seljuk Turkic overlords with the financial welfare of the state, Persian chief administrators (vazirs) used their status to secure power and patronize religious and cultural projects. A case in point is Nizam al-Mulk, who acted as vizier to the Seljuk rulers Arp Aslan and Malikshah during the eleventh century. In addition to promoting the spread of the madrasa collegial system, Nizam al-Mulk penned one of the most authoritative political advice manuals of the medieval period, the Siyasat nama (Book of Government). Indeed, this celebrated text constituted a revival of Sasanian political culture that demanded leadership from a ‘‘just ruler’’ (al-sultan al- ’adil) akin to Anushirvan, who in turn guaranteed religious conformity and responsible taxation.
The most harrowing development for medieval Persians was the Mongol shockwave of the mid-thirteenth century. While Eastern Iranian cities such as Herat, Nishapur, and Balkh were ruthlessly sacked by Chingiz Khan in the 1220s, the remainder of Iran would be conquered thirty years later by the Great Khan’s nephew, Hulegu. Approximating the demographic and economic impact of the Mongols would be challenging, but it is clear that the urban and agricultural prosperity of Iran regressed considerably after the thirteenth century. Descendants of Hulegu Khan established their own dynasty in Iran, the Il-Khans (1265–1365), and later rulers such as Oljeitu and Ghazan Khan were known for their attempts to implement a number of social and economic reforms in the hopes of rehabilitating the Iranian economy. The Persian bureaucratic elite once again stepped in to serve as intermediaries between the subject population and the Mongol overlords, and the continued adoption of New Persian as the courtly lingua franca saw the rise of a strong Persian historiographical school thanks to administrators like al-Juvaini and Rashid al-Din. The Mongol and post-Mongol eras witnessed a flourishing of Persian poetry in the province of Fars under Sa’di and Hafez, while the Timurid rulers of Transoxiana and Khurasan actively sponsored scholars producing works on poetry, philosophy, and mysticism in Persian. It was also during the post-Mongol age that we see a dilution of centralized Sunni orthodoxy and the corresponding proliferation of Shi‘i and mystical Sufi activity across the Iranian world. Arguably the best example of these syncretist trends was the Persian Safavid millennarian mystical order in Azarbaijan of the fifteenth century. When Shaikh Isma’il conquered Tabriz in 1501, he assumed the ancient Persian Achaemenian title of shah (king) while at the same time proclaiming that Twelver Shi‘ism was henceforth the state religion. From the sixteenth century onward, Turco-Mongol dominance in Iran would be increasingly repressed by transplanted Caucasus ghulam slave troops and an ascending Persian administrative and clerical elite.
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