How the Arabs Created The Iranian Golden Age

I recommend Michael Axworthy’s A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind because there are very few books aimed at the general audience that survey the history of Persia from the ancient period down to the modern one with some balance. Often the Iranian Revolution and contemporary events are given too much space. Or, ancient history is basically just a retread of Herodotus.

The title of the book is somewhat interesting. What does “Empire of the Mind” allude to? I think the primary point is that after the conquest of the Arabs and the rise of Islam Iranian identity persisted as high culture. For nearly 1,000 years ethnic Iranians were ruled by non-Iranian peoples, primarily Turks. Nevertheless, just like Greek under the Romans, Persian became the prestige language on in a broad zone from Ottoman Anatolia, through Iran proper, and onward into Turco-Muslim India. Just as late 18th-century Russian elites cultivated French, the Ottomans cultivated Persian.

And yet arguably the period when intellectuals of Iranian origin flourished the most was during Golden Age of Islam. It is notable that most of the intellectuals who were patronized and shone under the Abbassids in the decades after 800 A.D. were not Muslim Arabs. There were even some oddball characters, such as Tabit ibn Qurra, a pagan Syrian from Haran. One reason al-Kindi was the “Philosopher of the Arabs” is that he was a tribal Arab. But more typical were Iranians such as Avicenna and al-Razi. If you accept S. Frederick Starr’s argument in Lost Enlightenment and Christopher Beckwith’s in Warriors of the Cloisters  Iranians disproportionately from Turan, modern Central Asia, were particularly influential in shaping the high culture and intellectual tone of the world of Islam after 800 A.D.

But this brings up the question which was recently mooted: why were Iranian intellectual achievements so much more notable under Arab Muslims and Turks than when Iranians controlled all the levels of politics, culture, and religion. Who were the great Iranian intellectuals under the Achaemenids, Parthians, and Sassanians?

These Iranian polities (the Achaemenids and Sassanian were Persians from Fars, the Parthians were from the northeast of Iran and not technically Persian) did patronize learning and culture more broadly. The Parthians were notably philhellene, even enjoying Greek theater. In the century before Islam, the Sassanian monarchy sponsored the Academy of Gondishapur, which was notable for its repository of learning in medicine and philosophy. The last Neoplatonists even fled the Byzantine Empire and took refuge in the court of the Shah for several years (before eventually returning due to the terms of a treaty between Byzantium and Persia). And yet from what we know much of the philosophical production at Gondishapur was by Christians of various ethnicities, not Persian Zoroastrians.

There were also efforts and translation and transmission of Indian thought. The Iranian Buddhist city-states were intellectually vibrant, though their long term impact seems to be more influential through their transmission of the religion to China and their inflection of Islam in the 9th century. It is also curious that the Persian national epic was commissioned by a Turkic Muslim.

I will venture an explanation for this curious pattern.

First, the scale of the Arab Empire was incredible. Iranians integrated into the Arab Muslim Caliphate had access to Egypt and India. Syria and Ferghana. The rise of Islam as an ideological scaffold resulted in civilizational robustness that the Sassanians were incapable of generating. As with the early modern “Persianate world,” the Iranians engaged in an “entryist” strategy, infiltrating and coopting the Arab Empire with the Abbassids (consider the Barmakids and later al-Ma’mun). Iranians were indispensable to the Arab Empire, providing manpower and a royal ideology after the shift away from the west after the fall of the Umayyads.

Second, the domination of military and political roles by Turks after the fall of the Samanids may have facilitated a shift toward civilian pursuits by the Persian elites. I believe a similar dynamic occurred during much of the Roman Empire. For the first few centuries of the Roman Empire, the Greek cities of the east remained under the Roman peace, but its elites remained focused on their own urban life. The vast majority of intellectuals continued to be produced by the Greek-speaking domains. Anastasius in 491 was the first Roman Emperor who was raised as a Greek-speaker, so insular were Greek elites from broader imperial politics.

The bigger message I think is that cultural and civilizational efflorescence can be hard to predict, and the consequence of unforeseen and contingent processes.

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17 thoughts on “How the Arabs Created The Iranian Golden Age

  1. Is there any explanation for why Turan produced so many intellectuals (being at the cross-roads of routes between many civilizations?), and why they perished (at the hands of Mongols?) Could you recommend a good online source to read up about it?

    How nice it would be if Henrich could also explain what made various other civilizations successful.

  2. I should preface this comment by saying that I absolutely do not have a deep knowledge or interest in the greater Middle East,.. but it is interesting to me that while Persian culture was very influential in the ancient world, arguably as influential as Greek culture, on Northern India, Bactria, Sogdia, and even the Greek kingdoms in the area who seemed to “go local” to a great extent after a while,.. there is basically no existing Persian literature of any kind. Forget about science or philosophy, there is basically nothing at all.

    India developed a robust literature in theater, poetry, philosophy, even science. China of course developed a vast literary corpus quite early on. But not Persia. Not Mesopotamia either, which I associate with Persia in a similar way that I associate Greece with Rome. Maybe they had it and it was just lost? I mean there is some from Mesopotamia, I’m thinking about religious stuff, but it seems pretty crap.

    The Persians were an originally nomadic, horse-focused people? Maybe that’s why? I’m sure they had songs and recited epic poetry at least. What about Mesopotamia? Maybe by the time that “literature” developed, the greater Middle East was under significant Greek influence, and “literature” was thought of as a Greek thing? And it took the fall of Greek culture to push that region to develop its own? From my understanding the early Muslims thought of the Byzantine Empire as a fallen civilization, not the worthy inheritors of Greek civilization.

  3. That one academy in the 6th Century CE Sassanid Empire seemed to be created by the king of the time as an act of one-upmanship against the Byzantines, kind of like the same king supposedly sacked Antioch in 540(?) and took the captives to a newly created city on his own territory that he called Better-than-Antioch. I’m thinking of something from Procopius.

  4. @bulbul

    I hope I’m misunderstanding your comment because it is terribly inaccurate!

    What on earth do you mean “there is basically no existing Persian literature of any kind. Forget about science or philosophy, there is basically nothing at all.”

    Even a quick Wikipedia search “Persian Literature” will show you how wildly ignorant that statement you made is. Have you not heard of Khayyam, Rumi, Ferdowsi, Hafiz, Saadi, etc? If you haven’t even heard these names, you are in no position to be making any comments about literature, unless you want to embarrass yourself by highlighting your ignorance like you just did.

    “Described as one of the great literatures of humanity, including Goethe’s assessment of it as one of the four main bodies of world literature, Persian literature has its roots in surviving works of Middle Persian and Old Persian, the latter of which date back as far as 522 BCE”

    “Persian poets such as Ferdowsi, Saadi, Hafiz, Attar, Nezami, Rumi and Omar Khayyam are also known in the West and have influenced the literature of many countries.”

  5. @zulfiqar: yes you did misunderstand my comment. I was referring to the pre-Islamic period. What are the famous names from that period?

  6. Yes I guess it was my fault. I was talking about the ancient world, which most people date as ending around 500CE or the Muslim Conquest. Of course Persian had a enormous literature in the medieval period and after. I was just curious why among important ancient civilizations, Persians and even Mesopotamians seemed weak in literature. And I’m not talking about writing (which the Mesopotamians invented!) but proper literature.

  7. @Zulfiqar

    Don’t be too hard on Bulbul. Outside of a pretty rarefied world, most people don’t know Khayyam from DJ Khaled.

    @Bulbul

    I’m assuming if you’ve read Procopius, you’re an autodidact with an interest in ancient history. If you’ve never heard of Persian literature, math, & science, you’re really in for a treat.

    If you’re an aficionado of The Divine Comedy, Dante places two people from the Islamic world in the level with the ‘virtuous pagans’. One is Ibn Rushid, from Spain, whose works on epistemology help kick off the Renaissance. The second is Ibn Sena, whose work on astronomy, biology, medicine, and geology lay a lot of the groundwork for modern Science.

    Basically once the Mediterranean was busy killing Hypatia, scientific, technical, and mathematical progress was centralized in Persian Central Asia, where they combined Indian number theory, Greek geometric logic, and Chinese elements that cut across linear algebra and analysis to create the modern algebraic framework. They kept the ball moving forward on epistemology, astronomy, biology, engineering, and developed a lot of the frameworks that created modern science.

    The weird thing is their scientists were often poets, so you get verses like:

    From the depth of the black earth up to Saturn’s apogee,
    All the problems of the universe have been solved by me.
    I have escaped from the coils of snares and deceits;
    I have unraveled all knots except the knot of Death.

    It’s also interesting in that, by studying the period, you see how a region can go from the center of economic, intellectual, and technological activity to total collapse over a few centuries.

    I knew a lot about Persian literature and poetry, but the only reason I found this out was prepping for a deployment to Afghanistan so was reading a lot of Central Asian history while reading a book on the derivation of Analysis, which was drawing from Al-Khwarezm and Khayyam. It’s shocking how many polymaths were produced by the place. It’s gotten more interest recently, but it’s this remarkably pivotal period in human history that most people and academia barely pay any attention to.

  8. @suryavansha: it really is my fault. I was referring to Persian literature before the Arab conquest. There was a long period when Persia was very important, from say 550BC right until the Arab conquest, and during that time, to my knowledge, there was not much Persian learning or literature. That was what I was referring to. After the Arab conquest, Persians were very prominent, I know that. And achieved a lot. I was talking about the pre-Islamic period. With Mesopotamia, I was talking about a specific period of say 500BC to 630CE. Mesopotamia was a large, urbanized, wealthy region at that time, the economic heart of the various Persian empires which ruled it. But even Mesopotamia seemed weak *in that period* for learning and literature. I’m not talking about the 3rd millennium BC when they invented like everything, or classical medieval Baghdad.

  9. @ Bulbul

    That actually makes a lot more sense.

    I see your point re: Persia. I guess my view (somewhat myopically given my areas of study) is that the center of Persian culture is essentially the culture that became the Tajiks, the denizens of Khorasan, Bactria, Khwarezm, & Sogdia.

    Where I might disagree with the larger post is, at least in the case of Central Asian Persianate culture (don’t know enough about Iran to comment, although Creation by Gore Vidal is a lot of fun) we’re assuming absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Apparently there was a vast literature of Khwarezmi language material that was destroyed when the Arabs took over Central Asia, and we really only know about Central Asian Buddhist texts from Chinese sources. So there are indications that there was a corpus of literature, philosophy, and thought that was cancelled.

    That said, the concentration of resources for the House of Wisdom and the rationalistic bent of the early Abbasid caliphs is a pretty unique historical event. So I wonder if that culture wasn’t already vibrant, but the scale and grandeur of its expression was non-trivially magnified.

    Re: both the cancellation of Khwarzemi literature and then the Mongols destroying the libraries of Baghdad, I wonder sometimes if it’s easier for civilization to forget than to remember. Without the Barmakid’s obsession for Greek & Sanskrit literature & philosophy, without the Roman Catholic Church’s adoption of Latin and the efforts by Papal secretaries to comb through monasteries for lost books, without the influence on Hermeticism on science (most notably Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and Giordano Bruno), this human story would have played out quite differently.

    I view Central Asian and Indian history often from that lens. Powerhouses of unique vibrant thought ultimately stifled by orthodoxy from within and a culture with a different values set from without.

  10. @bulbul: I don’t know how much the lack of pre-Islam Persian literature is because it either was mostly destroyed, or never existed in the first place. The only instance I have read is “Arda Wiraf Namag”, The Book of Arda Viraf. Certainly interesting, but probably not among the highest world literature: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Arda_Viraf

    One could speculate for the dearth of literature because:

    (1) Pahlavi-script was so “degenerate”, that it didn’t encourage much writing.

    or that

    (2) neither Zoroastrian religion nor clergy particularly encouraged the creation of secular literature? Reading about the history of that religion and the Sassanid empire, it seems that they had their own share of religious fanaticism.

    @Razib: I stopped reading Michael Axworthy’s book (the Finnish translation) at the point he came to Manicheans and started writing in the cheap tabloid style, but maybe I should skip that part and continue. And he hardly mentions the classical Persian music, which was already being developed in Sassanian time:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persian_traditional_music
    which one could say, is maybe the greatest legacy of that dynasty.

  11. Not a word on the two centuries of silence that followed the Islamic invasions of Persia. Arabs were vultures. They annihilated Persia and Northern India and then fed on the corpses of their victims. The destruction of Zoroastrian and Hindu-buddhist High Culture from the Iranian plateau to Bengal is testimony to that.

    Turkic invaders brought Persian poetry but also destroyed Hampi. If the so called Iranian golden age is a product of the Arab invasions then so is the near complete destruction of Hindu culture in northern India and the complete destruction of Buddhist and Zoroastrian cultures in central Asia and north east India. A golden age built on the ruins of civilisations is quite a cynical concept.

  12. Not a word on the two centuries of silence that followed the Islamic invasions of Persia. Arabs were vultures. They annihilated Persia and Northern India and then fed on the corpses of their victims. The destruction of Zoroastrian and Hindu-buddhist High Culture from the Iranian plateau to Bengal is testimony to that.

    you are stupid.

    people of persian origin were already very prominent by 750. abu hanifa was of persian background.

    so is the near complete destruction of Hindu culture in northern India and the complete destruction of Buddhist and Zoroastrian cultures in central Asia and north east India.

    there wasn’t destruction of hindu culture. evidenced by the fact the majority of ppl in UP remain hindu and brahmins are still numerous there.

  13. @bulbul, for what it’s worth, I got what you initially intended.

    On a tangent to that, was watching the latest BBC docu on the history Persian art last night, first episode much about the pre-Islamic history of Persia, with much focus on the Shahnameh, and its (Ferdowsi’s) invented Pishdadian Dynasty, and how many of the older real kings seem to have been somewhat forgotten from that history presented there.

    At one point the presenter pretty mischeviously suggested that this could be attributed to a deliberate attempt by Alexander the Great to annihilate the culture of the Persians by destroying, Persepolis and its monuments (where the history of the culture was recorded in the form of monuments), and then only rediscovered with heroic archaeological efforts to decipher cuniform inscriptions.

    This seems a bit rich given that these kings like Darius and Cyrus were preserved the entire time by Herodotus, not to mention the Jewish biblical tradition. But par for the course for the typical bias seen in Brit mainstream media, where an opportunity to make “Western” (if Alexander can be called such) perfidity responsible for various things is almost never missed, however much of an expression of suppressed pain this would elicit on the face of experts. (Of course there are some other mangled bits; no real mention of the connections of Iranic languages to Turan or the steppe, and a general localist bias towards Iran in prehistory, Zoroastrianism enters the story only like the Sassanids, etc. In fairness it’s a short series tho!).

    Anyway, though, the main point to me was it was interesting to me as an example of how cultures can form very different ways of recording history and knowledge; the pre-Islamic Persians, I would guess, embedded these things more in monumentality (“Know I am blizblaz, ruler of himham, clearly uncontested lord of the entire earth, and I was king here and generally the most awesome person ever” and such) and in knowledge circulated within the class of the “magi”. With cultivating a wider or more accessible base of knowledge outside this sphere perhaps not as important. (Unless there was some widespread destruction / forgetting which for some reason did not happen elsewhere with Arab invasions at all).

    These cultures are perhaps differently robust to political collapses – perhaps the “book”/codex/scroll cultures were and are a bit more robust to loss of history with changes of regime, at least until the point rulers and “movements” are really serious about erasing history from the written record… which Alexander and the Hellenistic kings weren’t, whatever statue toppling he and they engaged in and for whatever purpose (most likely not about “cultural erasure” but simply a show of dominance and practically breaking a power base).

    Switches of “information regime” from one type to another may have big influences on output and cultural “efflorescence”.

  14. Another point of interest in the above mentioned BBC docu in further episodes (which I’ve caught a few snatches of but need to catch up on) seems to be how much Iranian cultural product seems to have been oriented in a response to demographically small groups of invasions.

    Either providing a “secular” complement to the moral and religious programme of the Arabs, and thereby establishing an alternative base of authority, or in the case of the Turko-Mongolic invasions, by specialising in moral instruction and civilization to “absorb” and naturalise the invaders and to cultivate in them feelings of Persian civilization.

    It seems that if your literate intellectual class is really small, because you only have enough technology to support a small one (not much food and tax surplus for government, not much in the way of educational means esp. if lacking key technologies useful for ed.), then either one of these “projects” can exhaust a lot of its resources and leave it not much “slack” to do another? May be an accurate or inaccurate conception tho (not built on the most robust knowledge base!).

  15. I think you figured it out perfectly. There’s nothing about Arab or Turkish culture specifically that allowed Persian science, math, architecture, cuisine, poetry to thrive imo. But the former connected Persia to the West and the latter allowed Persian to focus on more sedentary pursuits. Any polity that accomplished this would have allowed Persian culture to thrive imo.

  16. I don’t know if we know anything about population density during Achaemenid, Median, Parthian and Sassanid times but I would imagine population density was higher both east and west of the Iranian plateau heartland in the Zagros. Persians were probably overstretched trying to rule these lands. I wonder how different history would have been if most of the Iranian plateau wasn’t a wasteland.

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