The Deep History of Iran – Arabian Relations (I)

By Khodadad Rezakhani | ( Mizan ) | – –

This essay is an attempt at collecting some thoughts on an important historical event and its related historiographical questions. It is not written with the intention of providing definitive answers to the larger questions surrounding the Arab conquests or the specific case of the fall of the Sasanians, but rather seeks to present a basic framework for thinking about the issues.1

220px-ArdashirIGoldCoinHistoryofIran Coin of Ardashir Ardashir the Unifier (180–242 AD), founder of the Sasanian Empire.


How did the mighty Sasanian Empire fall? This question is central to almost everything I do as an historian of the Sasanians. Like many, I have looked at the question in the context of administration, the Sasanian-Byzantine Wars, Sasanian-Arab relations, Zoroastrianism and other religious movements, late antique social changes, and finally economic history; my particular focus on the last factor is, I hope, my own little contribution to the greater debate. I also believe there are some answers that can be given from the point of view of Central Asia or East Iran, which is also an area I research.2 I have a feeling that when I am 80 and old, and have written many articles and books about the details of this subject, I will finally have something resembling a succinct answer to give to the question of what happened? Until then, I intend to avoid giving a straight answer when I am asked the question directly, because I think that our knowledge of the details of the period is quite incomplete. I do have ideas though; but ideas are sometimes mere fancies, and fancies are often wrong, or at least need to be seriously adjusted to be useful as real answers.

However, in the public realm, when the question of what happened? is asked, brazen, overconfident answers are often given, without much consideration for facts. Cocksure, self-proclaimed experts provide answers based on hearsay, middle school textbooks, and the words of such and such Ustād, or scholars who passed away in the 1940s. Naturally, a great part of the conversation happens in the Irano-Persian milieu, where it takes on a political guise and is made to address contemporary issues. In this setting, part of the problem of giving a proper answer to the question is the unavailability of many of the primary sources and secondary scholarship to Persian speakers, either linguistically or physically. Another part of the problem is the general attitude among said crowd that “History” is something that has happened already, and not much can be added to answer the question of what happened? – new sources only serving to re-confirm what we already knew, or any change in the established narrative capable of being dismissed as “revisionism.” Old information is repeated and any voice of dissent is considered treasonous. I have long been labelled a traitor, so I am used to it, but I do get annoyed at being dismissed as a puppet of Western Orientalists (bless Edward Said for giving a catchword to those who don’t actually read his book).

So, I think here I may give some of the answers I already have when the question is brought up, and might even dare to suggest some of my ideas (or fancies), with the caveat that I am ready to be wrong about them. Yes, there are sources I have not yet checked, and there are of course many sub-fields in which I am not fully versed. But I like to think that I am at least partially conversant with most of the recent scholarship, and as a trained historian – world historian for that matter – I have some ability to put it all together to see what it might mean. As it stands, I am not giving definite answers; that goal is still several decades away, if it can ever be reached. All I will say is what we know now, and what we might anticipate we might know better in the future.

Who Says What?

So, the question is: how did the fall of the Sasanians happen? The way it is asked is often: How did the mighty Sasanian Empire fall? How did the Arabs, from the depths of Arabia Deserta, manage to overrun the prosperous Sasanian Empire, convert its (Zoroastrian) population to Islam, take control of its resources, and change its culture and language?

Answers to these questions have come from two main camps. The first group valorizes the coming of Islam, attributing the success of the Muslims’ conquest of Iran to the positive, world-changing ideas associated with it. These people tend to care more about modern history, have sympathies for the religion, and sometimes are even in line with certain political groups or ideologies. The second group is hostile toward the first group, and nostalgic for what they perceive to be the days of Iranian glory before the advent of Islam. They consider the Arab conquest of Iran to be the disastrous intrusion of uncouth nomads who destroyed a glorious civilization. This latter group’s answer to the question of what happened, then, is that there was something wrong within the Sasanian system that allowed their downfall. Since the religion of Islam is often the cause of this group’s immediate grievances, it is religion that gets blamed here too, except that it is the religion of Zoroastrianism which they tend to fault. Thus, a popular notion among this group says that the Zoroastrian clerical theocracy of the late Sasanian period caused great dissatisfaction among the people, thus handing an easy victory to the invading Arabs who met no resistance from the disenfranchised populace.3 The question of the relationship between this perceived failure of Zoroastrianism’s institutions and this same group’s nostalgia for Zoroastrianism as a national ideology, acting as a vehicle for a nationalist “Aryanism,” is among the many historical contradictions that are not really clearly addressed by the proponents of this explanation.


Detail of a typical map of the Arab conquests. Such graphics encourage the false impression that the Sasanian Empire, the dominant power in the eastern Mediterranean and Near East at the time of the rise of Islam, was rapidly overtaken and collapsed due to overwhelming external pressure, transforming the entire social, political, religious, and cultural order virtually overnight. The colored fields encompassing virtually all of Iran here indicate the supposed Islamization of these areas during the reigns of the second and third caliphs, ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb (r. 634-644 CE) and ʿUthmān b. ʿAffān (r. 644-656 CE) (from A.-M. Wittke et al., Der neue Pauly. Historischer Atlas der antiken Welt [Verlag J.B. Metzler, 2012], 243).

The narrative of both groups, based mainly on accounts of the conquests drawn from standard Islamic histories such as those of al-Balādhurī, al-Ṭabarī, and so forth, considers the fall of the Sasanians to be the result of quick and successful campaigns by Muslim armies. These campaigns, exemplified by the battles of Qādisiyya and Nahāvand, are considered to have caused the near-instantaneous fall of the Sasanians as an imperial and cultural unit. Furthermore, this fall is assumed to be the fall of Iran itself; as a result, it represents no less than a national failure, the beginning of Iran’s subordination to Arabia and/or Islam.4 I shall refrain here from getting into arguments of why the Sasanian Ērānshahr cannot be equated – ideologically, geographically, psychologically, politically, economically, or culturally – with the current land of Iran, though I will talk about aspects of this later.5

Other than the popular understanding of the swiftness and effectiveness of the Arab campaigns, there are two cultural assumptions that are made in this regard. The first is the supposition that the conquests automatically resulted in the conversion of the entire society to Islam. Any survival of pre-Islamic religions, generally put under the overall rubric of “Zoroastrianism,” is assumed to have been an act of resistance and defiance that was heavily suppressed by the new “masters,” i.e. Arab Muslims. The second assumption is that the Arabic language was immediately imposed on the conquered populace as part and parcel of conversion. Consequently, the supposed survival or revival of the Persian language is presented as a miraculous event, a unique phenomenon in the Islamic world, where everyone else had to adopt Arabic. This miracle is either ascribed to the persistent and persevering nature of Iranians and the supposedly dominant and enduring culture of Iran. Alternatively, it is credited to Ferdowsī who, allegedly against all odds, composed his great masterpiece of the Shāhnāmeh for the conscious purpose of preserving the Persian language, thus single-handedly “saving” Iranian culture.6

Any scholar seeking to respond to all this must inevitably adopt an apologetic tone. This, in fact, has been a major problem, because before any researcher has an opportunity to conduct research on the actual historical events and issues, he or she has to address these misconceptions, dismiss many of them, and then try to bring in enough facts and new interpretations to move the debate forward. The negligible number of people involved in the study of the actual issues means that those who are occupied with it in fact spend a disproportionate number of hours shaking their heads and trying to plough through the misconceptions. In what follows here, I attempt to do the same while presenting some of the new scholarship and narratives of the events. While the following is indeed my own interpretation of the issue, I can assure those readers not intimately involved with the debates that my presentation is not aiming to be revolutionary, and in fact reflects the middle point of current scholarship.

The Late Antique World and Late Sasanian Iran

We first have to view both the late Sasanian realm and the rise of Islam within the framework of a changing world. This is the framework that is now labelled “Late Antiquity,” which has been the chronological and methodological framework preferred by many scholars for decades now. The term was originally was applied to the Roman Empire, where it served to correct Gibbon’s narrative of the fall of the classical civilization of Rome and the descent into the “Dark Ages” that followed the transformation of Classical Rome into Christian Byzantium. In that context, the late antique framework bridges the gap between the “Classical” and “Christian” by arguing that Christianity in fact modified and adapted many of the institutions of the Classical world, allowing for their application to systems beyond the structure of an empire and creating the familiar institutions of medieval Christendom.7 Christianity was thus the means for turning the Roman Empire into a Christian commonwealth that adopted and made use of most of what was bequeathed to it as the Classical heritage.8 Since the 1990s, the framework of Late Antiquity and its emphasis on continuity has been adapted to the non-Roman world as well, as historians of Sasanian Iran and Islam have argued for a similarly changing world in West and Central Asia. A major characteristic of this development has been a tendency to see the Islamic conquests not as a radical break with the past, but rather as a transformation due to internal dynamics and phenomena of West Asia, reflecting the continuity of structures and institutions from the Sasanian to the Islamic world.9


Detail, plate with royal hunting scene, depicting either Pērōz (r. 459–484 CE) or Kavād I (r. 488–497, 499-531 CE), silver, mid-5th–mid-6th c. CE (34.33; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Apart from Late Antiquity, another framework that needs to be considered – and I have been most insistent on its adoption – is that of world history. The gist of this approach is to ponder a greater, trans-regional context for both the Sasanian Empire and the rise of Islam. This is not to simply consider the broader history of the Mediterranean and West Asia, but to take contemporary political, cultural, and economic forces into account in a serious way. For example, the late antique idea of the rise of the holy man, other than an explanation for the interest in prophethood or sainthood, can also be considered within the context of the changing structure of social support around Eurasia and North Africa. Another example is that economic changes in West Asia, particularly in agricultural production, should be understood within the context of changing political attitudes in Central Asia.10 We need to be able to understand historical phenomena outside the given boundaries of textual interpretation and archaeological confirmations. Compound histories (e.g. political, economic, cultural, social, or gender history) have to become a reality in the study of periods of history far beyond the pre-modern one, their dominant playground. World history, as a methodology that can act as a cover for all these interdisciplinary approaches to history, needs to be applied so we can properly understand the period under discussion here.

Late Sasanian Iran, essentially the period after 484 CE, is a prime example of how we might put these methodologies to use. This date, chosen only partially at random, is the year in which Pērōz, the Sasanian emperor or shāhānshāh (King of Kings), was defeated and killed by the Hephthalites somewhere near Balkh, in present-day northern Afghanistan. The Hephthalites, a newly formed political entity in the region, became masters of East Iran and imposed heavy reparations on the Sasanians. Moreover, for almost two decades, they became the kingmakers of the Sasanians, removing and installing Sasanian claimants to the throne, mostly indirectly. The heavy payments of war damages to the Hephthalites must have drained the Sasanian treasury, although no direct evidence is available for this. It did, clearly, turn the Sasanians into predatory actors in Syria, the eastern territories of the Romans, which Kavād I, the winner of two decades of royal musical chairs, invaded and from which he tried to exact as much cash as possible.

Their financial troubles aside, the defeat and death of Pērōz left the Sasanian court in disarray, and probably devastated its nobility. The reparations to the Hephthalites were almost certainly not all paid from the treasury of the king; the coffers of the nobility and the pockets of the working man were also undoubtedly tapped. The loss of prestige must have made it quite hard for the nobility to keep a straight face when addressing puppet kings such as Walāsh and Jāmāsp, and Kavād himself in his earlier short reign, as King of Kings. This all resulted in a rebellion, the exact nature of which is not clear. Despite the later insistence of the Islamic sources that this was the initial phase of the rebellion of Mazdak, all evidence suggests that we should see these developments as an earlier reaction to the policies of Kavād himself.11 It seems as if the dissatisfaction of the nobility had forced Kavād, after his first accession in 488, to make certain, perhaps hasty, changes to his administration and court, changes that were not necessarily very popular. This, occurring around 496 CE, caused the removal of Kavād from the throne by his nobles and his quick retreat to the court of the Hephthalites. His restoration, backed by a sizeable Hephthalite army, meant not just a coup against the nobility, but also the beginning of a new regime. This regime must have come along with at least partial agreement of some of the noblemen, since shortly after his restoration in 498 CE, Kavād and his nobles set about on their aforementioned conquest of Roman/Byzantine Syria.

The prolonged war consumed all of Kavād’s reign, as well as part of that of his son, the famous Khosrow I Anūshervān (531–579 CE). However, Kavād had enough time to rejuvenate his administration by instituting some reforms. The extent of the reforms is not clear, but it did include a recalibration of the land-tax system, based not on products but on acreage (kharag, the later Islamic kharāj), and institution of a poll-tax (gizidag, the later Islamic jizya). It most likely also included a purging of the nobility, as well as military reorganization, which divided the empire into four zones of defense. Kavād and Khosrow’s reforms were happening at the same time that Justinian was re-establishing his rule in Byzantium following several early blows, and the two empires were engaged in heavy fighting on their borders. In the east, the Hephthalite power had slowly settled and was less influential in the affairs of the Sasanian court, although the Hephthalites were in charge of most of East Iran.

Drachm of Pērōz (r. 459-484 CE) depicting the King of Kings on the obverse and a fire altar with stylized attendants on the reverse (courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

Kavād’s reign ended with what later historians called the Mazdakite rebellion, a socio-religious uprising that was brutally oppressed by Khosrow I, making him a hero in Zoroastrian texts. The Mazdakite revolt, whatever its religious concerns might have been, was mainly a social uprising. What the rebels actually desired is less clear to us, as we only know the rebellion from the sources hostile to it. The regular charges of the sharing of property and women have given it a proto-socialist overtone, something that was heavily exploited by Marxist historians.12 It appears, however, that this was only one facet of a larger religious and social movement. Later versions of the same movement, appearing in the Islamic period under the general rubric of the Khurramdīniyya, betray it to be a religious amalgamation, showing characteristics of many different doctrines. From a late antique point of view, alongside the Christian commonwealth, the Khurramdīniyya/Mazdakite religious movements might have been in the process of creating a socio-religious commonwealth.13

In contrast, Zoroastrianism, the dominant state religion of the Sasanians, shows less interest in playing such a role. The common charge of a Zoroastrian religious autocracy, presided over by a dominant priestly establishment and headed by a mobedān mobed, is more of a mirage, and based on little evidence. Apart from the absence of a sort of “orthodox” or “mainline” Zoroastrian doctrine in the Sasanian world, there is little evidence of the presence of such dominant clergy.14 Additionally, late Sasanian Kings of Kings are known for making clear and public overtures to their native Christian communities. In fact, Khosrow II Aparwēz (591–628 CE), the quintessential late Sasanian king, married a Christian wife (perhaps two) and had a Christian chief minister. Likewise, in the course of mustering support for his campaigns against Byzantium, he supported the Eastern Christian community of the Sasanian domains; buttressed the Nestorians of Syria; and, upon conquering and entering Jerusalem, moved the True Cross from Jerusalem to Khūzestān in order to provide much prestige for the Christians of his empire. A theocratic, dominant Zoroastrian religious structure, if it existed, would simply not have allowed the king to have open relations with members of another religion, let alone to promote their interests.

Christians, in fact, were the dominant population in the western regions of the Sasanian realm in this time period. Aramaic-speaking Christians and Jews were the main population of Mesopotamia, the heart of the Sasanian Empire (Middle Persian dil-i Ērānshahr). South-western Mesopotamia was the realm of the Arab kingdom of Hīra, the land of the Lakhmids, who ruled the Arab tribes of northern Arabia on behalf of the Sasanians. Eastern Arabia was also populated by Arabic-speaking tribes who were controlled via the Sasanian administration of Baḥrayn, including all of Eastern Arabia down to Oman. Southern Arabia, the former kingdom of Ḥimyār, had become part of the Sasanian Empire following its conquest about 570 CE in wars against the Axumites.15

In this environment, Khosrow II invaded Syria in 602 and defeated the Byzantine armies there. Soon, all of Syria, Palestine, and most of Anatolia had fallen into Sasanian hands. By 615, Egypt was also a Sasanian territory. For over two decades, a whole generation in fact, the Sasanians were masters of all of West Asia, and by having defeated the Hephthalites with the help of the Western Turks in the 560s, they were also in secure control of much of their lost territory in East Iran. When the prophet of Islam was migrating from Mecca to Medina to establish his religious state there, he was living in a world dominated by Sasanian power. The state that he went on to found, and which came to dominate the Sasanian territories, should not be seen as an element external to the Sasanian Empire that caused its “fall.” Rather, we can view the nascent Islamic state as an element internal to the Sasanian order that lent itself to furthering change that was already well underway, as will be discussed in the second part of this essay.


KHODADAD REZAKHANI is a Humboldt Foundation Fellow at the Freie Universität Berlin and the webmaster of, as well as the broadcaster of the History of Iran Podcast. He holds a Ph.D. in Late Antique History from The University of California, Los Angeles and an M.Sc. in Global History from The London School of Economics and Political Science, where he concentrated on medieval Scandinavia. His forthcoming book, ReOrienting the Sasanians: East Iran in Late Antiquity (Edinburgh University Press, 2016), is concerned with the history of East Iran and Central Asia between 100–750 CE.


[1] The preference given here to an ethnic adjective in place of the cultural or religious one – i.e. ‘Arab’ conquests vs. ‘Islamic’ conquests – is in accordance with the conventions of contemporary scholarship in designating the earliest stages of the conquests. Neither the pure ethnic identity of the conquering armies in all stages of conquest nor their religious beliefs can be ascertained definitively, of course.

[2] I use the term “East Iran” instead of Central Asia or Transoxiana as a predecessor to the medieval term Khurāsān, designating the separate cultural, political, and socio-economic identity of the eastern regions outside the direct control of the Sasanians and Ērānshahr. For this, see the introduction to Khodadad Rezakhani, ReOrienting the Sasanians: East Iran in Late Antiquity (Edinburgh University Press, 2016) (forthcoming).

[3] This, like many other popular notions coloring this debate, is of course based on some (dated) scholarship, for example R.C. Zaehner, The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1961).

[4] This conception, surprisingly, is shared by some modern scholars as well; see, e.g., the introduction to Patricia Crone, The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran (Cambridge University Press, 2012), where she considers the fall of Ctesiphon as a definite end to the Sasanians’ rule over their territories and a break in Sasanian defenses, contrary to much evidence including the continuation of Yazdgird’s rule in Fārs and the battle of Nahāvand in 642 (on which see the second part of this essay). Ctesiphon, being located on the western edge of the Sasanian Empire, had actually been captured several times before, without this leading to any major collapse of the regime, state, or culture.

[5] This, of course, is first and foremost a problem of equating an empire with a nation-state. However, the issue of historical continuity, and particularly adoption of what are considered to be remnants of a “Sasanian legacy” in matters of culture and socio-economic life, will be the subject of the second part of this essay.

[6] In the narrative that assigns the creation of medieval Persianate culture to the perseverance of an older culture that survived external threats, Ferdowsī and his magnum opus are allocated various enemies, from the Arab administration of the Caliphate to the Turkic dominance of the Ghaznavids. For interesting remarks about this issue, see Mahmoud Omidsalar, “Unburdening Ferdowsi,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 116 (1996): 235–242.

[7] A short introduction to this can be found in Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity, AD 150750 (W.W. Norton, 1989). More details (but curiously missing a section on the Sasanians) can be found in G.W. Bowersock, Peter Brown, and Oleg Grabar (eds.), Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World (Harvard University Press, 1999).

[8] I am borrowing this phrase (and parts of the concept) from Garth Fowden, Empire to Commonwealth: Consequences of Monotheism in Late Antiquity (Princeton University Press, 1993), although I do not agree with everything that Fowden says about the Sasanians.

[9] This is probably best discussed by Michael G. Morony, Iraq After the Muslim Conquest (Princeton University Press, 1984) and Touraj Daryaee, Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire (I. B. Tauris, 2007); see also Khodadad Rezakhani, “Empires and Microsystems: Sasanian Iran in Late Antiquity, 500–750” (Ph.D. diss., 2010). General studies of the continuities between the pre-Islamic and Islamic Middle East include Robert G. Hoyland, “Early Islam as a Late Antique Religion,” in Scott F. Johnson (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity (Oxford University Press, 2012), 1053–1077 and Hugh Kennedy, “Islam,” in Bowersock et al., Late Antiquity.

[10] On this, see Rezakhani, ReOrienting the Sasanians.

[11] Patricia Crone, “Kavād’s Heresy and Mazdak’s Revolt,” Iran 29 (1991): 21–42.

[12] N. Pigulevskaja, Les villes de l’État iranien aux époques parthe et sassanide (Mouton, 1963) is a notable example, but see also J. Modi, “Mazdak the Iranian Socialist,” in Dastur Hoshang Memorial Volume (Fort Printing Press, 1918), 116–131 for a more “native” take on the issue. Extreme cases even go so far as to describe Mazdak as a “Bolshevik” a good 1,400 years before the Russian political party was founded! See Paul Luttinger, “Mazdak,” The Open Court 11 (1921): 664–685. See also W. Sundermann, “Mazdak und die mazdakitischen Volksaufstände,” Das Altertum 23 (1977):245–249.

[13] For the latest scholarly opinion on this issue, see Crone, Nativist Prophets, 279–388; see also Ehsan Yarshater, “Mazdakism,” in E. Yarshater (ed.), The Cambridge History of Iran, Volume 3 (2): The Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanian Periods (Cambridge University Press, 1983), 991–1024. Zoroastrianism is commonly understood to lack the “universalist” aspirations of Christianity and Islam (see Fowden op. cit., 24–36, with reservations). Instead, Mazdakism shows certain aspirations that can be fit within the general scheme of “universalism” in late antiquity, although it is often ignored because of its failure to attract political patronage. However, Crone argues for the existence of Khurramdīniyya as a larger socio-religious movement that extended beyond Mazdakism or Bābak’s revolts and in fact represented an alternative to Zoroastrian formalism, with aspirations to universal justice.

[14] Khodadad Rezakhani, “Mazdakism, Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism: In Search of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy in Late Antique Iran,” Iranian Studies 48 (2015): 55–70.

[15] This subject has received a fair amount of attention lately and is one of the more interesting avenues of research. Among others, see Beate Dignas and Englebert Winter, Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity: Neighbours and Rivals (Cambridge University Press, 2007), 109–112; George Hatke, “Africans in Arabia Felix: Aksumite relations with Himyar in the Sixth Century C.E.” (Ph.D. diss., 2011); and G.W. Bowersock, The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam (Oxford University Press, 2013).

Via Mizan

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlize 3.0 Unported License

3 Responses

  1. Wondering if anyone has a recommendation for the best book on Iranian/Persian History for the general reader?

Comments are closed.