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Worldwide Locations

Islamic Iran

Through the Eighteenth Century

Islamic Republic of Iran (h_de_c/Flickr)

Islamic Republic of Iran (h_de_c/Flickr)

Through the Eighteenth Century

An expansive essay on the history of Iran through the first great global age, illustrating periods of economic and political might and as well as periods of weakness and disjunction. Through centuries of foreign assimilation, Iran also retained its distinct cultural identity.

The prophet Muhammad proclaimed the religion of Islam in a series of revelations (which came to be called the Qur’an) that came to him between 611 and his death in 632. He lived in Mecca in western Arabia,and the earliest Mulims or believers in Islam, were Arabs. Motivated atleast in part by religion, the Arabs embarked on conquests after Muhammad’s death. Around 636 they defeated the Sasanids and captured Ctesiphon, the capital. The last Sasanid shah died a fugitive in eastern Iran in 651.

The caliphate was the governing institution established by Muhammad’s successors to rule the newly conquered empire. The capital of the caliphate moved from Arabia to Damascus, Syria, in 661 and to Iraq in 750. A new capital was built at Baghdad on the outskirts of the old capitals of Selucia and Ctesiphon. Arab governors sent by the caliphs ruled Iran. Medieval Islamic historians and geographers seldom write about Iran as such; they wrote instead about individual provinces such as Fars and Khuransan. There were many provincial capitals.

Most Iranians converted to Islam over a period of three centuries. The first generations of Iranian Muslims assimilated the culture of Arab conquerors and did not write in their native language. But from about 800 onward more and more Iranians wrote an Irnaian language derived from the Middle Persian languages of the Sasanid period. This language is properly referred to as New Persian or Farsi, although it is usually simply called Persian. It is written in the Arabic script and has a substantial admixture of Arabic loan words. Many Iranians continued to write Arabic, including some of the greatest writers and thinkers in the history of Arabic letters, such as Ibn Sina and al Ghazali.

The literature written in New Persian frequently embodied an Iranian culture tradition that survived the loss of national independence and unity. The Shahnama, an epic poem that recounts the tales of the mythical pre-Achaemenid rules of Iran as well as the historical shahs,was completed Firdausi around 1000. It drew upon poetic sources that were preserved in both written and oral form from the pre-Islamic period.

As the Abbasid caliphate lost power in the ninth century, several Iranian dynasties of different origins arose in various provinces. The major Iranian dynasties were the Tahirids, the Saffarids, the Samanids,and the Buyids. In Baghdad Iranian influence at the count of the caliph steadily increased, until in 945 a Buyid ruler took control of the city.

The Buyid adhered to the Shi’ite form of Islam, which reveres Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin Ali and his descendants as the divinely appointed leaders of the Islamic community, despite their chronic inability to gain and hold political power. The Buyids retained the Sunni caliphate because the twelfth of the recognized imams, or divinely appointed leaders descended from Ali, had disappeared with asuccessor a half century earlier. Historians debate the degree to which Iranians adhered to Shi’ism at this time. Written sources indicate that most Iranians were Sunni, but these mostly emanate from the cities. Little is known about small towns and villages.

Prior to the Arab conquests most Iranian cities were small. Iranian aristocrats lived on rural estates and held their wealth ain land and treasure. In the ninth and tenth centuries urbanization on an unprecedented scale changed the character of the country. Numerous cities arose with populations at least in the 50,000 – 100,000 range(e.g. Nishapur, Rayy, Isfahan, Shiraz). They developed into dynastic manufacturing and cultural centers. A recirculation of wealth from the deposed aristocracy and a centralization of tax collection in the governing centers chosen by the Arbs contributed to this urbanization, as did a migration of converts to Islam from rural or outlying areas.The new cities were predominantly Muslim, and Iran became of the the most influential regions of Muslim intellectual activity.

From around 1000 on the independent Iranian dynasties rapidly gave way to new dynasties of Turkic origin. Turkic peoples have been making slow in roads into Iranian territory for several centuries, but until the late tenth century they mostly remained in Central Asia in a tribal and nomadic society oriented primarily toward horse-breeding. The movement of Turkic tribes in large numbers into Iran is poorly chronicled. Many of the Turks were at least nominally Sunni Muslims, but when and how their conversion came about is obscure.

The Ghaznavids were the first Turkic ruling dynasty in Iran, but they were defeated by the Seljuks and pursued their later history in Afghanistana and India. The rulers at this time usually took the title “sultan,” the Arabic word meaning “power.” The Seljuks established a large empire and brought the rule of the Buyids to an end in 1055. They freed the Abbasid caliph from the Shi’ite control, but they allowed him little more political power than the Buyids had. The Seljuks employed some natable Iranian administrators, of whom Nizam al-Mulk was the most famous.