Signs from Allah, History, Science and Faith in Islam
37.Islam in Persia-Part 1
By Prof Dr Nazeer Ahmed, PhD
Pivotal as Persia was in the political developments of Muslim Asia, its primary contribution was to preserve, reinvigorate and transmit the spiritual legacy of Islam through its language, art and architecture.
While the Arabs provided the ideational foundation of the edifice of Islam, it was the Persians who adorned it with beauty and embellished it with spirituality. The primary medium for this achievement was the Farsi (Persian) language, the lingua franca of the East and the court language of the dynasties in Persia, Turkey, Central Asia, Afghanistan and the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent.
Persia was the fountain of tasawwuf that extended the boundaries of Islam after the Mongol-Tartar deluge. Indeed, Persia was the land where the soul of Islam was rediscovered.
The geography of the Persian landmass makes it a central piece on the chessboard of the Asian landmass. Sitting astride the Persian plateau south of the Caspian Sea, it dominates and controls overland access from the Mediterranean to India and China. In the medieval world, the trade routes from Alexandria in Egypt and Aleppo in Syria ran through Persia. The northerly routes connected Tabriz in northwestern Persia to the Central Asian cities of Samarqand and Bukhara, thence through the ancient Silk Road through Sinkiang to China. The southern trade routes ran through Isfahan to Kabul in Afghanistan and from there through the passes of the Hindu Kush to the vast Indo-Gangetic plains. Large caravans plied these caravan routes carrying with them not only the goods produced by the principal trading centers of the ancient world but also scholars and adventurers.
Persia became a crucible of ideas, melting its own ideas with the ancient wisdom of China, India and the Mediterranean. Control of the Persian highlands gave a potential conqueror the ability to strike east or west, as was so decisively demonstrated by Hulagu Khan of the Mongols and Timurlane of the Tatars.
The battle of Al Qadasia (636-637) opened the Persian heartland to Islamic penetration. Victory at the battle of Nahawand (642) cemented the conquest. By the year 751, when Muslim armies overcame Chinese resistance at the battle of Tlas, the Islamic domain extended beyond the Indus River to the east and the Oxus River to the north. The Zoroastrian world, once so powerful that it projected its power from Athens Kabul, was now a part of the larger Islamic world.
Some of the earliest Companions of the Prophet were Persians and their names are honored by Muslims the world over. Salman Farsi was one such distinguished Companion. During the first 40 years of Omayyad rule, the diffusion of Islam into the Persian heartland was slow. The Arabs made no attempt to force their religion on the Persians and left them alone as long they paid the protective tax and obeyed the laws of the state. Taxation, not conversion, appeared to be the primary concern of the Caliphs in Damascus. The conquering Arabs zealously guarded their tribal social boundaries. The few Persians who accepted Islam were treated as mawalis (protected people), a term that accorded the newcomers less than full social status in the community.
The situation changed with the ascent of Caliph Omar bin Abdul Aziz (d. 619). Alone among the Omayyads, he made an attempt to reach out to the conquered people. Discriminatory taxes were abolished and the newcomers were accorded the same dignity as that given to the established Arab nobility. Conversion accelerated and when the Abbasid revolution erupted in 750, the Persian element tilted the balance of power in favor of the Abbasids. Foremost among the leaders of the revolution was Abu Muslim, a Persian general of singular capability and determination.
The Persians were carriers of an ancient civilization that had extensive interactions with the civilizations of China and India. They brought with them advanced technologies, effective methods of agriculture, a universal philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and a tradition of efficient state administration. Their presence was felt in the Islamic community as early as the time of the Prophet.
It was Salman Farsi who suggested to the Prophet that a defensive trench be constructed around Madina to thwart the invading Meccan armies. The trench made a crucial difference in the outcome of the armed encounter, which was termed the Battle of the Trench. The Persian mastery of carpet weaving was noticed as early as the reign of Caliph Omar ibn al Khattab (r). After the battle of Madayen, an exquisite carpet called farsh e bahaar was brought to Madina from the Persian capital. In the following centuries, the caliphs of Baghdad, as well as the Persian dynasties in the outlying provinces, encouraged the art of carpet weaving. The caliphs adopted Persian methods of administration. Persian and Byzantine techniques of construction were used in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem as well as in the extensive system of aqueducts built by the Omayyads. The Zoroastrians of Persia also had a unitary concept of heaven and the Arabs accorded them the status of “People of the Book”, a status equivalent to that of the Christians and the Jews.
The Persians immediately made their presence felt in the intellectual domain. The Arabs had established themselves in military cantonments which in time grew to be centers of intellectual activity. Most of the Persians who had accepted Islam migrated to these centers so as to establish a cultural and religious linkage with the resident Arabs. As the city-cantonments grew in size, so did the need to define the social and judicial framework of the evolving community and its interfaces with other communities. This need gave birth to the sciences of Fiqh. The city of Kufa, a border town between the Arabic-speaking and Persian-speaking worlds became a center of learning and a place of congregation for scholars. One such scholar was Imam Abu Haneefa, after whom the Hanafi School of Fiqh is named. Imam Abu Haneefa was of Afghan-Persian parentage and was familiar with the concerns of the non-Arab segments of the community. The school of Fiqh evolved by him and his disciples reflected these concerns.
It was in the reign of the Abbasid Caliph Mamun (d. 833) that the Persians became a decisive political force in the Abbasid Empire. Mamun’s victory over his brother Amin (810-813) for succession to the Caliphate was in no small measure due to the intervention of the Persians. Mamun’s armies had a large number of Persian soldiers led by Tahir, a dynamic Persian officer. The victorious Caliph rewarded Tahir for his fidelity by appointing him the governor of southern Iraq. The Tahirids soon became autonomous and while maintaining their allegiance to Baghdad, established the Tahirid dynastic rule. They introduced Persian court etiquette and were the first to encourage the use of the Farsi language in the official circles.
By the beginning of the 10th century, Persians outnumbered Arabs in the lands east of the Tigris River. The preponderance of Persians had a profound impact on the political, linguistic and intellectual landscape of the Islamic community. The Tahirids established a Persian dynasty (820-822) with their capital at Neshapur. Mathematicians like Al Khwarizmi (d. 862) and historians like Al Tabari (d. 923) found patronage in the Persian courts.
The sciences of Fiqh and hadith flourished in Persia as they did in the Arab heartland. One of the greatest of the muhaddithin, Imam al Bukhari (d. 869) lived during this period in Khorasan. Imam al Bukhari traveled through much of the Islamic world, collected and examined over 300,000 ahadith and after a rigorous scrutiny, selected approximately 7,000 as valid. His collection of ahadith is considered one of the most authoritative in Islamic sciences and is accorded honor similar to the collections of Imam Ja’afar as Saadiq, Imam Muslim, Imam Tirmidhi, Imam Abu Dawud, Imam Malik Ibn Anas and Imam Ahmed Ibn Hanbal.
Persian political influence reached its zenith under the Buyids who rose to power in southern Iraq (932). Increasing conversion had shifted the center of gravity of the empire away from Baghdad into the outlying provinces both in eastern Persia and the Maghrib. Court intrigues had sapped the strength of the Caliphate. There was increasing military pressure from the Fatimids in Egypt. The Abbasid Caliph Mustakfi, desperate to seek help, invited the Buyid prince Ahmed to defend Baghdad against the Fatimids. The Buyids, who practiced the Ithna Ashari Fiqh, were only too happy to assume the role of protectors of the Sunni Caliphate in Baghdad. In return, Ahmed received the title of Mu’iz ad Dawla and was given the reigns of the empire. For several years thereafter, the Persian Buyids were effective rulers of Baghdad until the Seljuks rescued the Abbasids.
It was under the Samanids of Khorasan (901) that the Persian language, arts and architecture blossomed into their fullest expression. The cities of Samarqand, Bukhara, Neshapur, Mashad and Herat grew into world-class centers of learning. Samanid patronage produced a galaxy of notable men of science and letters like Abu Nasr Al Farabi (d. 950) and Abu Ali Ibn Sina (d. 1037). The patronage of the arts continued when the Ghaznavids displaced the Samanids (962-1026). Mahmud of Ghazna made his capital city a beacon of art and culture. Al Baruni (d. 1048), one of the foremost historians and chroniclers of the age, lived at the court of Mahmud. Firdowsi, one of the most celebrated Farsi poets and author of the Shah Nama, lived in Ghazna. Firdowsi composed the Shah Nama, a classic poem that extols the achievements of pre-Islamic heroes of Persia, as a tribute to Mahmud. The great poet was disappointed with the reward he received for the masterpiece whereupon he composed a poem belittling the emperor and sent it to Mahmud. The emperor, who was on his campaigns in India, regretted the treatment he had given the poet and sent a more handsome reward. Firdowsi did not live to receive the gifts. As the camels laden with the gifts entered through one gate of the city of Ghazna, the body of Firdowsi was being carried out for burial through another gate.
However, it was the Mongol deluge that transformed the landscape of Islamic history and brought the Persian element into the forefront of Islamic intellectual activity. When Genghiz Khan descended from the highlands of Central Asia onto the Farghana valley (1219), Islamic civilization was primarily city based. As conversion had proceeded in Persia and Central Asia, so had the migration of people to the cities. This movement had resulted primarily from economic considerations. Official patronage was focused on a few principal towns that became magnets for scholars and peasants alike. The management of social interactions in an urban milieu demanded a heavy emphasis on the rules of the Shariah and its juridical exposition in the schools of Fiqh. Arabic, the language of the Qur’an and of the various schools of Fiqh, was the language of the learned circles.
Genghiz Khan destroyed the urban centers of learning. In some cities, more than 90% of the population was slaughtered. Throbbing urban centers became grazing land for Mongol horses. Mosques and madrasas alike were razed. The Arabic-speaking learned elite perished or fled, some towards India, others towards Egypt and Anatolia. With its Arabic-centered urban civilization in ruins, the leadership of the remnants of the community fell to the rural areas where Farsi was the spoken language. And it was from the huts and hermitages of the Persian landscape that Islam emerged once again to conquer the conquerors and carry forth its message to the far corners of Asia, Europe and Africa.
Historical currents had prepared the world of Islam for just such a calamity. More than a hundred years before the Mongols descended from the Gobi Desert, the heart of Islam was beating to a different rhythm from that of the kazis and ulema with their zealous emphasis on the finer points of Fiqh.
(The author is Director, World Organization for Resource Development and Education, Washington, DC; Director, American Institute of Islamic History and Culture, CA; Member, State Knowledge Commission, Bangalore; and Chairman, Delixus Group)