The Sassanians

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The Sassanian Empire this week on In Our Time. Kind of obscure, so worth it. Speaking of obscurity, some reading on the dynamics of Islamicization in Iran (Conversion to Islam) revealed the fact that there was a strong tendency for new Persian converts and their offspring to use very Arabic names during the first centuries, specifically ones associated with early Muslims. While Arab Muslims themselves might on occasion have had names which might also have been used by Jews or Christians (e.g., Arabic forms of David), Persian converts were underrepresented in these “ambiguous” variants, rather their names signified that they had to be Muslim. But as the proportion of Iran’s population which was Muslim increased (going from minority to majority sometime in the 10th century), there was a modest bounce back of pre-Islamic Persian names among the elites. The argument goes that only with the indigenization of Islam within Persian culture were Iranian forms and elements allowed to make an explicit come back, since they no longer posed any threat as an alternative (there were principalities where the rulers still championed Zoroastrianism in regions such as the southern shore of the Caspian Sea as late as the 9th century). This of course neglects the elephant in the room that the early Caliphs seem to have transplanted Sassanian court motifs in toto to generate the aura around their monarchy. Additionally, I’m skeptical of the generality of this claim, the first Byzantine Emperor with a Hebraic name was Michael I, four centuries after public paganism had been definitively marginalized.

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8 Comments

  1. The Sassanid (descendants) understood and resisted the arab influence in the way that they understood that caliph Ali’s sons were of the persian concubine instead of Mo’s daughter, Fatima. Therefore their form of islam has always been differentiated by a certain people (tribal) affinity. This dates back to the tribal arguments of the Medinans vs. Meccans and sheds light on the murder of the first caliphs all within a few year period.

  2. Thanks for the heads up. 
     
    I’ve downloaded to iTunes for my next synch. (I didn’t notice the download podcast option at first – it’s over on the right hand side, a few screen inches below the top.)

  3. The Sassanid (descendants) understood and resisted the arab influence in the way that they understood that caliph Ali’s sons were of the persian concubine instead of Mo’s daughter, Fatima. Therefore their form of islam has always been differentiated by a certain people (tribal) affinity. This dates back to the tribal arguments of the Medinans vs. Meccans and sheds light on the murder of the first caliphs all within a few year period. 
     
    1) the scions of the sassanid dynasty waged a rearguard action in central asia for several decades. the sassanids were even a fixture at the court of the tang dynasty into the 8th century (the ones we know of ended up in the employ of the chinese emperor). 
     
    2) be careful about anachronizing the shia-sunni conflict to the first centuries of islam, there was an alid and non-alid camp, but it was much more fluid (don’t trust modern narratives by the two camps either). 
     
    3) there is some data that the the followers of ali were powerful in the lands of what are today iran or iraq, but, in iran they were concentrated around the arab colonies. the persians remained mostly zoroastrian for the first century, and the islamicized ones were initially clients of arab tribes. 
     
    4) iran was turned into a shia state in the 16th century by the safavid dynasty, who were of mostly turkic provenance*. before that period the persians were mostly sunni, as the persian (dari) speakers of central asia and afghanistan still tend to be. so the identification of the strength of shiism with the legacy of the sassanids is probably incorrect. 
     
    * the dynasty itself is of mixed heritage, shah ismail apparently had recent greek and persian ancestry, but the order he led seems to emerged in a turkic milieu.

  4. The partisans of Ali first surfaced in Yemen just after the Prophet’s death, by a converted Jew [according to R.A. Nicholson’s A Literary History of the Arabs.] But much of the hierarchical nature of Shi’ism came in the later Safavid era almost a thousand years later and the histories of the two main branches of Islam are rife with dis- and misinformation.

  5. I don’t know how much relevance it has to the eventual conversion of Iran to Shi’ism, but the Buyid family whose confederation dominated Iran and Iraq in the tenth and early eleventh centuries were Shi’as, Persian revivalists, and centuries earlier had been supporters of the Sassanid dynasty.

  6. Daveinboca, 
     
    You know that Robert Eisenman thinks Shia Islam is an offshoot of the Ebionite Jewish Christians? In fact somewhere or other he even refers to “Shia Judaism.” But he’s a bit of a lone wolf.

  7. No, I am unfamiliar with Eisenman, but the fact that Yemen & Najran had a Jewish king in the sixth c. & that the Zaidis & Kharajites settled in the Yemen/Oman area, where St. Thomas the Apostle had proselytized and where in the 16th c., primitive “Christians” were found on the island of Socotra who poured butter over statues of Jesus and Mary all lead me to believe that S. Arabia was a hotbed of syncretism—even Osama bL comes out of that tradition.

  8. Tabari’s history quotes heavily from Sayf b. Umar, to the effect that Shi’ism was founded by a Jew named Abdullah b Saba. Tabari’s history is popular nowadays, mostly because you can get it pretty easily in English translation (if you don’t mind spending a lot of money and taking up a lot of bookshelf space). daveinboca may be referring to this. 
     
    … but even in Tabari’s time Sayf was roundly condemned as a liar. Baladhuri’s history makes next to no use of Sayf. It’s also rather implausible that the party of ‘Ali would be based in Yemen, given that ‘Ali made his base of operations at Kufa in Iraq.

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