The beduin Arabs who toppled the Sassanid Empire were propelled
not only by a desire for conquest but also by a new religion,
Islam. The Prophet Muhammad, a member of the Hashimite clan of
the powerful tribe of Quraysh, proclaimed his prophetic mission
in Arabia in 612 and eventually won over the city of his birth,
Mecca, to the new faith (see Religious Life , ch. 2). Within one
year of Muhammad's death in 632, Arabia itself was secure enough
to allow his secular successor, Abu Bakr, the first caliph, to
begin the campaign against the Byzantine and Sassanid empires.
Abu Bakr defeated the Byzantine army at Damascus in 635 and then
began his conquest of Iran. In 637 the Arab forces occupied the
Sassanid capital of Ctesiphon (which they renamed Madain), and
in 641-42 they defeated the Sassanid army at Nahavand. After that,
Iran lay open to the invaders. The Islamic conquest was aided
by the material and social bankruptcy of the Sassanids; the native
populations had little to lose by cooperating with the conquering
power. Moreover, the Muslims offered relative religious tolerance
and fair treatment to populations that accepted Islamic rule without
resistance. It was not until around 650, however, that resistance
in Iran was quelled. Conversion to Islam, which offered certain
advantages, was fairly rapid among the urban population but slower
among the peasantry and the dihqans. The majority of
Iranians did not become Muslim until the ninth century.
Although the conquerors, especially the Umayyads (the Muslim
rulers who succeeded Muhammad from 661-750), tended to stress
the primacy of Arabs among Muslims, the Iranians were gradually
integrated into the new community. The Muslim conquerors adopted
the Sassanid coinage system and many Sassanid administrative practices,
including the office of vizier, or minister, and the divan,
a bureau or register for controlling state revenue and expenditure
that became a characteristic of administration throughout Muslim
lands. Later caliphs adopted Iranian court ceremonial practices
and the trappings of Sassanid monarchy. Men of Iranian origin
served as administrators after the conquest, and Iranians contributed
significantly to all branches of Islamic learning, including philology,
literature, history, geography, jurisprudence, philosophy, medicine,
and the sciences.
The Arabs were in control, however. The new state religion, Islam,
imposed its own system of beliefs, laws, and social mores. In
regions that submitted peacefully to Muslim rule, landowners kept
their land. But crown land, land abandoned by fleeing owners,
and land taken by conquest passed into the hands of the new state.
This included the rich lands of the Sawad, a rich, alluvial plain
in central and southern Iraq. Arabic became the official language
of the court in 696, although Persian continued to be widely used
as the spoken language. The shuubiyya literary controversy
of the ninth through the eleventh centuries, in which Arabs and
Iranians each lauded their own and denigrated the other's cultural
traits, suggests the survival of a certain sense of distinct Iranian
identity. In the ninth century, the emergence of more purely Iranian
ruling dynasties witnessed the revival of the Persian language,
enriched by Arabic loanwords and using the Arabic script, and
of Persian literature.
Another legacy of the Arab conquest was Shia Islam, which, although
it has come to be identified closely with Iran, was not initially
an Iranian religious movement. It originated with the Arab Muslims.
In the great schism of Islam, one group among the community of
believers maintained that leadership of the community following
the death of Muhammad rightfully belonged to Muhammad's son-in-law,
Ali, and to his descendants. This group came to be known as the
Shiat Ali, the partisans of Ali, or the Shias. Another group,
supporters of Muawiya (a rival contender for the caliphate following
the murder of Uthman), challenged Ali's election to the caliphate
in 656. After Ali was assassinated while praying in a mosque at
Kufa in 661, Muawiya was declared caliph by the majority of the
Islamic community. He became the first caliph of the Umayyad dynasty,
which had its capital at Damascus.
Ali's youngest son, Husayn, refused to pay the homage commanded
by Muawiya's son and successor Yazid I and fled to Mecca, where
he was asked to lead the Shias--mostly those living in present-day
Iraq--in a revolt. At Karbala, in Iraq, Husayn's band of 200 men
and women followers, unwilling to surrender, were finally cut
down by about 4,000 Umayyad troops. The Umayyad leader received
Husayn's head, and Husayn's death in 680 on the tenth of Moharram
continues to be observed as a day of mourning for all Shias (see
Religious Life , ch. 2).
The largest concentration of Shias in the first century of Islam
was in southern Iraq. It was not until the sixteenth century,
under the Safavids, that a majority of Iranians became Shias.
Shia Islam became then, as it is now, the state religion.
The Abbasids, who overthrew the Umayyads in 750, while sympathetic
to the Iranian Shias, were clearly an Arab dynasty. They revolted
in the name of descendants of Muhammad's uncle, Abbas, and the
House of Hashim. Hashim was an ancestor of both the Shia and the
Abbas, or Sunni (see Glossary), line, and the Abbasid movement
enjoyed the support of both Sunni and Shia Muslims. The Abbasid
army consisted primarily of Khorasanians and was led by an Iranian
general, Abu Muslim. It contained both Iranian and Arab elements,
and the Abbasids enjoyed both Iranian and Arab support.
Nevertheless, the Abbasids, although sympathetic to the Shias,
whose support they wished to retain, did not encourage the more
extremist Shia aspirations. The Abbasids established their capital
at Baghdad. Al Mamun, who seized power from his brother, Amin,
and proclaimed himself caliph in 811, had an Iranian mother and
thus had a base of support in Khorasan. The Abbasids continued
the centralizing policies of their predecessors. Under their rule,
the Islamic world experienced a cultural efflorescence and the
expansion of trade and economic prosperity. These were developments
in which Iran shared.
Iran's next ruling dynasties descended from nomadic, Turkic-speaking
warriors who had been moving out of Central Asia into Transoxiana
for more than a millennium. The Abbasid caliphs began enlisting
these people as slave warriors as early as the ninth century.
Shortly thereafter the real power of the Abbasid caliphs began
to wane; eventually they became religious figureheads while the
warrior slaves ruled. As the power of the Abbasid caliphs diminished,
a series of independent and indigenous dynasties rose in various
parts of Iran, some with considerable influence and power. Among
the most important of these overlapping dynasties were the Tahirids
in Khorasan (820-72); the Saffarids in Sistan (867-903); and the
Samanids (875-1005), originally at Bukhara (also cited as Bokhara).
The Samanids eventually ruled an area from central Iran to India.
In 962 a Turkish slave governor of the Samanids, Alptigin, conquered
Ghazna (in present-day Afghanistan) and established a dynasty,
the Ghaznavids, that lasted to 1186.
Several Samanid cities had been lost to another Turkish group,
the Seljuks, a clan of the Oghuz (or Ghuzz) Turks, who lived north
of the Oxus River (present-day Amu Darya). Their leader, Tughril
Beg, turned his warriors against the Ghaznavids in Khorasan. He
moved south and then west, conquering but not wasting the cities
in his path. In 1055 the caliph in Baghdad gave Tughril Beg robes,
gifts, and the title King of the East. Under Tughril Beg's successor,
Malik Shah (1072-92), Iran enjoyed a cultural and scientific renaissance,
largely attributed to his brilliant Iranian vizier, Nizam al Mulk.
These leaders established the observatory where Umar (Omar) Khayyam
did much of his experimentation for a new calendar, and they built
religious schools in all the major towns. They brought Abu Hamid
Ghazali, one of the greatest Islamic theologians, and other eminent
scholars to the Seljuk capital at Baghdad and encouraged and supported
A serious internal threat to the Seljuks, however, came from
the Ismailis, a secret sect with headquarters at Alumut between
Rasht and Tehran. They controlled the immediate area for more
than 150 years and sporadically sent out adherents to strengthen
their rule by murdering important officials. The word assassins,
which was applied to these murderers, developed from a European
corruption of the name applied to them in Syria, hashishiyya,
because folklore had it that they smoked hashish before their
Data as of December 1987