Non-Muslims in Early Islamic Iran

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Non-Muslims in Early Islamic Iran

Postby MAZDAK » Fri Sep 28, 2007 6:07 am

Golden Age or Decline?

It is a fact that due to the virtual extinction of Zoroastrianism not much is known about the Zoroastrians between the 9th century and the Mongol invasion, except from the apocalyptic literature produced in the 10th century. However, there are numerous materials on cultural life of the Muslim world. Many of the historians of Islam refer to this period as the Golden Age, which benefited all the inhabitants of the Islamic lands. One should not be misled by the term Golden Age and believe that Islamic rule was always congenial to the Jews and Christians. After all, these minorities were not subscribing to the religion and ideology of the rulers and, consequently were not safe guarded against persecution. Moreover, Islam was an assertive missionary religion which forbade the prerogatives of proselytization to other creeds. Muslim rulers found different means to entice non-Muslims to Islam. In peaceful times, the latter were offered economic benefits such as exemption from the poll-Tax and political opportunities such as a higher administrative position; in times of crisis many non-Muslims were simply compelled to convert. The impact of this pressure on non-Muslims had, however, positive outcomes. It ignited in non-Muslims further ingenuity as they had to find means to avoid apostasy. This was not always an easy task; however the Jews and the Christians managed to stay close to the reins of power and used their influence to protect their community. Thanks to their skills in governing empires and their knowledge of the science and the humanities they were able to earn the respect of the Muslim ruling classes. Thoroughout the region of the Abbasid Caliphs, the number and influence of the non-Muslims gradually waned, until the Mongol invasion gave them an opportunity to recover positions of authority.

This Article depicts the political and cultural changes that affected the Iranian population between the Arab invasion and the establishment of the Abbsid dynasty in 750AD. It observes the elements that led to uprising in Iran and which precipitated the transformation of the social pattern of Iran due to massive conversion to Islam. This is important for understanding the eclipse of Zoroastrians from political spheres and the lack of evidence of their cultural activates after the 9th century.


The Arab invasion brought abruptly to an end the religious domination of Zoroastrianism in Iran and instituted Islam as the official religion of the state. This invasion was certainly less challenging for the Jews and the Christians than for the Zoroastrians. They had lived as minorities under the sassaninas and remained as such under the Arab rulers. The facts that the Jews and Christians had been religious minorities’ dose not, however, mean that they were not affected by the change of Rulers. The new nomadic masters of their land were culturally very different from the sedentary Iranians, and their religion, Islam, which regulated many of the Arabs’ laws and customs, was again quite different from that of the Zoroastrian Sassaninans. There have been debates on whether the Jews and Christians preferred the Arabs to the Persians or whether their situation improved under Arab rule, but in fact all of such arguments are based on assumption. The Jews and the Christians, as far as historical sources attest, did not collaborate more with the Arabs than they did with the Persians.

The impact of Islam on the non-Muslim population was to be felt more in the long term. Indeed, in the two centuries that followed the Arab invasion, the bulk of the Persian Population remained non-Muslim. The numerical superiority of Zoroastrians in the 7th century allowed them even to maintain positions of influence. The Arabs needed their assistance for the administration of their newly conquered lands, and until the 8th century Zoroastrian bureaucrat’s outnumbered Jewish and Christian administrators to the east of the Euphrates.

Before 661, the Zoroastrian Persians and the Muslim Arabs were still in a state of war. Entire regions had to be reconquered and subdued, until the Persians resigned themselves to the Arab rule. It is only with the accession of the Umayyads to the throne that the participation of the Zoroastrians in the political infrastructure of the Islamic becomes apparent.


It was in the interest of the Arabs to maintain the previous Sassanian order, and to use the local population for governing the country. Those who were source of revenue were not be harmed, as in the past Muhammad had sent a letter to B. Abdullah, urging him to come to terms with the Magians, Jews and Christians of Bahrain so that they would pay taxes and ‘save the Muslims the trouble of work’.

In the first century of Muslim rule, there could have been hardly any Muslim involvement in the economic activities in Iran. The Muslim population was composed of Arab military men and some converted Persian solidres and governors, who had agreed to collaborate with the former. It was incumbent on the towns to bear the tax burden and support the Muslims. The caliph Umar b.al-Khattab, who had led the Arabs in their conquest of Iran, allegedly said: ‘The bedouin who are the original Arabs and the mainstay of Islam (...) not a single dinar should be taken from them, nor even a dirham. Umar wished to keep the Arabs as conquering, military castes that live on the toil of conquered races; he had also decreed that no Arab could ever be a slave.

The sources substantiate the fact that Zoroastrians were encouraged to stay in the government. The caliph Sulayman(d.717AD) allegedly said one day; ’I admire these Persians; they reigned for one thousand years and never not even for one hour, did they stand in need of us; we ruled for 100 years and not for one hour could we do without them’. Until the mid 8th century, the leading positions in the administration seem to have been dominated by the same Zoroastrian families who had been involved in the Sassaninan government earlier in the 7th century. Baladhuri mentions that in 698, the Zoroastrian Zadan Farrukh was at the head of the treasury in the east of the caliphate. We also know from another source that his father Piruz had occupied the same position before him. However, after ruling Iran for more than half a century, the Arabs believed that it was time for them to secure their cultural hegemony. As the Arabs dominated Iran politically, the change of the administrative language from Persian to Arabic was inevitable. Zadan Farrukh believed rightly that the new policy could only be detrimental to his family and co-religionists. He prevented his assistant Salih b. al-Rahman, whose father had abandoned Zoroastrianism, from translating the records into Arabic. Zadan Farrukh’s position irreconcilable with Arab’s political goals cost him his life in 698. Salih, with the blessing of the Arab governor, Hajjaj b.Yusuf, was able then to implement his plans for Arabization. Distraught at such consequential measures, the son of Zadan Farrukh, Mardanshah, told Salih, ‘May God effaces thy trace from the world as thou hast effaced the trace of Persian’. The Zoroastrians tried to bribe Salih with 100,000 dirhams so that he would not continue his task, but he refused.

In Iraq and parts of the Iranian Plateau the Zoroastrians were dismissed from prominent positions. The Zoroastrian, Dadoye, who was responsible for collecting the Taxes of Iraq and Fars under Hajjaj b. Yusuf, was also ousted at this time. In the East of Iran changes appeared more slowly. Zoroastrians were still acting as local governors. Baharmis, the governor of Merv, was confirmed in his position in 723, during the reign of Yazid II. He ruled for the benefit of his community by exempting the Zoroastrians of Khurasan from taxes and putting the fiscal burden on the Muslims. As could be expected, the Muslims with the help of the Arab authorities reversed the situation. It is striking however, that tax collectors named in the 7th and early 8th century by the Arab Governors were overwhelmingly Zoroastrian. Those Persians who had converted were not acceptable for such positions, as they could have claimed an equal share in power. The Arabs did not trust the newly converted Persians and deemed it safer to nominate non-Muslim Persians, who, according to Islam, were inferior to Muslims and hence had no right to claim ascendancy over them.

In 741, however, the Umayyads decreed that non-Muslims be excluded from governmental positions. The edict induced many government officers to convert to Islam enable to maintain their means of livelihood. A well-known figure who was affected by the discriminatory law was Dadoye’s son, Ruzbih, better known as Ibn Muqaffa. He also converted to Islam enable to secure for himself a position in the administration, and after the victory of the Abbasids he entered the service of Caliph al-Saffah (750-754). He was killed in 757, accused of practicing Zoroastrianism in secret. In Khurasan and most parts of the Iranian Plateau, the registers remained in Persian for about a half a century longer than in Iraq, and the majority of the secretaries of the Divan(bureaucracy) were Zoroastrians until Yusuf b. Umar, governor of Iraq, wrote to Nasr b. Sayyar, the governor of Khurasan, to oust the Zoroastrians from the divan. Ishaq b. Tolayq translated the registers of Kurasan to Arabic in 741-742 AD. The language of Isfahan’s administration remained Persian, even after the fall of the Umayyads, until Abu Muslim’s officials had Persian substituted by Arabic in early Abbasid period.

The pressures on the Zoroastrians dose not appear to have been felt by the Christians. The latter were even able to continue spreading their religion among the Iranians. Their positions as physicians of Caliphs helped their cause. John of Daylam (724-743), after healing the daughter of Caliph Marwan II, received gold for the construction of two monasteries and one church in the province of Fars, were the population was mainly Zoroastrian. He was also permitted to conduct missionary activities in Daylam and Fars.

Towards the end of the Umayyad period, the Arabs were well established in Iran. They had dominated the Persia for a century and had had time to acquire the skills needed to rule effectively. The Arabization of the country’s administration and culture had made the Persians less indispensable to the government. Such a situation created discontent among many Persians.

The Abbasid revolution was the result of mounting hostility towards the ruling class in Iran. While the situation of non-Muslims had deteriorated, the position of Iranian mawalis (Converts) had not improved. The aspiration of the Abbasids, however, was not compatible with the expectations of the non-Muslim Iranians. Once in power, the Abbasids also alienated the Iranians who had converted to Islam. Indeed, the majority of the Iranians enrolled in the government were Zoroastrians newly converted to Islam, but their background still made them suspicious in the eyes of the Arabs. The fact that Ibn Muqaffa who was killed in 757, accused of practicing Zoroastinsim in privet , reflects the deterioration of the relations between the Arabs and the Persians in the 8th century.
Last edited by MAZDAK on Sun Oct 07, 2007 8:16 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Postby IPC » Fri Sep 28, 2007 7:13 am

Zartusht part II

According to most institutionalized religions, one can only attain salvation, eternal forgiveness and heaven through the enactment of ceremony, tradition, and particular ritual. The difference in various sects is mostly in the manner of this enactment and not in the principle of religion. The ruthless bloodshed of Catholics and Protestants, Shiites and Sunnis… has been brought about because of the practices of these religions. Even the adversity among the followers of various monotheistic is principally due to practices, customs and trivialities than to basic difference. It is these very practices and traditions that create the institutional church and clergy. The real war is between the churches and not between the basic beliefs. This truth will be clarified by analyzing and comparing monotheistic religions. In the massage of zartusht, it is his description of religion, righteousness, piety, reward and punishment that stands out. As we have already seen, to zartusht the devout are those who believe in truth and honesty and those who enact these principles. Even the zartushti elite like Azargoshasb, Dahala, and Pourdavood …accept that in the Gathas zartusht explains the path of salvation without the presence of the zartushi church.

Zartusht sees assistance to the lower classes and those under pressure as vital, but he dose not see this assistance only in terms of being an ashvan. In 46/5 he clearly states the powerful must help the needy through love and humanitarianism, even if they do not belong to the followers of truth. He must lead the needy to the true path through love and kindness. He must aid through his wisdom. Free man and the followers of truth will choose truth through their will and consciousness. They will do this neither to appease the church nor God but to attain eternal happiness, because this path brings perfection. It is man’s essence and mind that is important here and not how he carries out his tradition or religious practice.

We have seen that the araiyan practices and customs were controlled by diviners and the clergy and with chanting the necessary chant which only these men were suitable to do. I have already said that other institutionalized religions clung to their own rites and ceremonies. There is no such sign of specialized rites and ceremonies in the massage of zartusht. There is no set measure for the worship of God in the Gathas. Zartusht’s interpretation of religion was one of the revolutions of its days. Today three thousand years later this revolution still stands out. Let us imagine what would happen if the pious of various religions were to believe in this truth today. What would come about if they could see God as the shelter of good deeds? What would happen if churches, temples… lost their authority? Would the world be rid of prejudice, vengeance and hatred? Would it turn to love and kindness in order to strengthen itself?

Man should make basic moral principles, which are at the root of all creeds and which have been advocated by all enlighted man, as the basis of his deeds words and thoughts. He should know all man as the creatures of God and he should see them as one. Indoctrinated veils and obstacles which have been handed down to him through ages should be destroyed. Each man should answer the call within according to his understanding. His beloved creed should be implanted within his heart without upsetting his fellow man. It is only at such a time that the world will take on a different face. Then will the pious that merely copy others, the majority of man, stop being puppets and become truly freed man. In such a society the leaders and politicians who advocate diverted thought in the world and who have brought man kind nothing but wretches and spiritual oppression by creating wars would be supplanted. Then will the church and the corrupt clergy who thrive on stagnation never be allowed to flourish.

In all societies it is very few who lead men to corruption and to destruction. They abuse men’s ignorance and thus suppress them in various ways. Most leading institutions of suppression are able to exist by enforcing their will through servants, who are suppressed themselves. Thus is the authority of corrupt elite founded. These servants attain no benefits but only fall to bestial ruin. In many cases man’s destruction in history has been brought about through changes that even today, after the passage of many years and experiences, man is still the puppet of the ruling elite. These elites control the churches and all doctrinaires and the media… Over the years man kind has been so suppressed that today the farmer, the worker even the educated or the scientist have no free will. They all carry out the whims of these elite. Men still rise to partake in holy wars. If men are allowed to bloom through wisdom and good thoughts, love and kindness they will choose to live together and they will refrain from blind submission. All people will become brothers and sisters and they will know that it is only their deeds that prove them and give them value. No single creed, religion or doctrine is higher than another. The world will gradually become the heaven of the true. This has always been the aim of all true reformers. It might be a logical desire, yet it has always remained unattainable. However, the more man works for this aim the greater peace he will know. Society will be led by mankind and it will become humanitarian.
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