Construction of Islamic Iran in Abbasid Historiography


A review of The Arab-Sasanian Narrative in the Early Islamic Historiographical Tradition, by Scott Savran.

Many Arabic and Persian histories penned during the Abbasid period portray interactions between Arabs and Iranians in the pre-Islamic and early Islamic eras. Savran’s dissertation argues that these formulaic accounts—in which the Arabs appear as noble and pious while the Iranians appear as pompous and extravagant—reflect the concerns of an elite Abbasid society grappling with “increasing Iranian influence on the Islamic high culture of the Abbasid Caliphate” (p. 3). In their accounts about pre-Islamic and early Islamic Arab-Iranian encounters, these Abbasid authors construct a historical drama in which both Arabs and Iranians play a predetermined role; the drama ends with the ultimate triumph of a universalistic Islam that subsumes and redeems all peoples under its banner. This particular vision of history was shaped by the Shuubiyya movement, an early Abbasid literary movement in which Iranians boasted of their cultural legacy over that of the Arabs. These boasts elicited a reaction, the anti-Shuubiyya, in which authors defended Arab culture. Savran’s contribution is to show how Abbasid historians portrayed early Arab-Iranian encounters from an anti-Shuubi point of view, in order to warn Iranophiles that the legacy of imperial Iran is only good as long as it is tempered with the humble, virile, and egalitarian spirit of the Arabs. These works do not condemn Iranian culture, but rather show that Imperial Iran was doomed to fail, while Islamic Iran (especially Islamic Khurasan) can flourish precisely because it is a fusion of Iranian and Arab cultures. “By forging a universal Islamic heritage, linking the respective traditions of the Arabs and the ‘ajam [non-Arabs], composers of chronicles could promote solidarity and cohesion among the diverse factions of the ‘Abbasid elite class” (p. 13).

The first chapter lays out Savran’s thesis and method of applying literary analysis to early Islamic historical texts. It continues with an informative literature review, first of scholarship on Sasanian-Arab encounters by scholars such as Jamsheed Choksy and Parvaneh Pourshariati, then of source-critical historical studies and explorations of Islamic historiography by scholars such as Chase Robinson and Hugh Kennedy. It ends with a brief word about the primary sources used: Arabic and Persian historical chronicles and adab works from the 9th-11th centuries.

The next three chapters present the background information necessary for understanding Savran’s central argument. Chapter Two outlines the increasing influence of “Iranian articulations of power, styles of governance and expressions of high culture” in elite Abbasid society (p. 30). He traces the rise of the udaba’ (litterateur-polymath) class, for whom knowledge of Iranian culture was a key to gaining elite status. He also describes the Iranian fashions sweeping through the Abbasid court, including regnal titles, grand architecture, and extravagant majlis sessions (essentially drinking parties). Savran then traces the rise in prestige of the people of Khurasan, who participated in early Abbasid politics generally and in al-Ma’mun’s caliphate especially. The chapter ends with the emergence of autonomous Iranian regional dynasties—such as the Tahirids and Samanids—that further revived the Persian language and ancient Iranian modes of rule.

Chapter Three begins with a helpful review of previous scholarship by H.A.R. Gibb, Ignaz Goldziher, A.A. Duri, and Roy Mottahedeh on the Shuubiyya movement; it also gives an overview of the primary sources that contain information on the Shuubiyya controversy. The Shuubis viewed the elaborate Sasanian court ceremonial and royal symbology as markers of Iranian cultural superiority over the uncouth, lizard-eating Arab bumpkins. The anti-Shuubis reacted by standing up for Arab culture and its generosity, community-mindedness, and poetic eloquence. The anti-Shuubis further pointed out that to denigrate Arab culture was to denigrate Muhammad and his Companions, and that the Iranian caste system and absolute monarchy went against Islamic egalitarian precepts; they suspected the Shuubis of crypto-Zoroastrianism and heresy (zandaqa). Many anti-Shuubis felt “that Iranian civilization was flawed in many respects and that it had been superseded by Islam as a moral and intellectual system,” (p. 74), and this point of view is reflected in the historical accounts under consideration.

The excellent fourth chapter explores the why and the so what of these anti-Shuubi historical accounts. After reviewing the copious and contradictory scholarship on Abbasid imperial ideology, Savran concludes that the Abbasids advanced a vision of a “cosmopolitan Islamic high culture and universal Muslim identity” (p. 93) that transcended ethnic and nationalistic distinctions. Savran calls this stance an “ideology of fusion,” best represented by the Khurasanis whose loyalty belonged to the Abbasid cause rather than to provincial interests. To maintain this balance in the face of increasing Iranophilia, Abbasid authors helped Iranians come to terms with the “Arab dawla”—the Arab-Muslim conquest of Iran—by presenting it as a chapter in Iranian salvation history. “In order for Iran, and especially Khurasan, to take its rightful place as leader of an enlightened world empire, it was first necessary early on for the Sasanians to be humbled by the Arabs, freeing them of their oppressive tendencies and teaching them the universal values of the new creed” (p. 113). This chapter adeptly combines an engagement with previous scholarship by Patricia Crone and Tayeb El-Hibri with a nuanced discussion of the impact of the Shuubiyya movement on Islamic historiography.

After laying the groundwork in the first four chapters, Chapters Five through Nine turn to a close analysis of the historical accounts about Arab-Iranian encounters. These chapters bring to life a series of Iranian Shahs and admirable Arabs, all held together cogently within Savran’s thematic framework. Chapter Five analyzes the first episode in the unfolding drama, an exchange between the Sasanian Shah Shapur II (r. 309-79 CE) and a scruffy Arab sheikh. When Shapur wages a brutal campaign across the Arabian peninsula to punish a minor Arab infraction, a brave old Arab man (or woman) eloquently warns Shapur against such cruel behavior. “The dialogue between Shapur and the sheikh serves as an instructive lesson (‘ibra) for the Muslim elites” (p. 136), as the old man uses Quranic language in his rebuke, and Shapur himself foretells the coming of Islam. Thus, the “Arab dawla” seems both inevitable and badly needed.

Chapter Six details the interactions between Shah Bahram Gur (r. 420-38) and the Lakhmids, the Arab dynasty that the Sasanians installed as vassal kings over the Iraqi commercial and diplomatic center of al-Hira. Bahram was sent to al-Hira as a boy to benefit from its healthy environment. Reared by the rustic yet refined Lakhmids, Bahram becomes a heroic warrior-gentleman with “beautiful morals,” expert camel-riding skills, and mastery of Arabic poetry. However, the snobbish Sasanian nobility initially bars Bahram from taking his rightful place as shah because of his Arab upbringing, prefiguring (and condemning) those Abbasid-era bureaucrats who looked down on Arab culture.

Chapter Six also contains the kernel of a fascinating conversation about nuances within the Shuubiyya movement, particularly the role of non-Arab nomadic peoples in this controversy. Here, Savran considers accounts of the first major Sasanian defeat at the hands of a weaker, nomadic enemy: the Hephthalites, a central Asian group also known as the “White Huns.” Shah Piruz I (r. 457-84) had treacherously attacked the Hephthalites after promising them safety, and in retaliation the Hepthalite king Akhshunwar dealt him a stunning defeat. Savran argues that Akhshunwar stands as a “pious warner to the arrogant Sasanian king” (p. 153), prefiguring the noble Arabs who would later topple the Sasanian state. The presentation of the Hephthalites as noble nomads speaks for the notion of “fusion” for which Savran argues, not just a fusion of Arab and Iranian, but of nomadic and urban mores, of imperial traditions tempered by simple piety. 

Chapter Seven traces the relationship between the Arabs of Yemen and the legendary Shah Khusraw I Anushirvan (r. 531-79). A Yemeni ambassador, the Arab folk hero Sayf b. Dhi Yazan, seeks Khusraw’s aid against the invading Abyssinian army. Although Khusraw is initially dismissive of Sayf, the Arab emissary impresses him with his composure and eventually convinces him to provide military support. While the Yemeni-Iranian army is victorious and Yemen temporarily becomes a Sasanian viceregency, the copious anti-Shuubi imagery in these accounts hints that the end is near for the Sasanians.

Chapter Eight concerns Shah Khusraw II Parviz (r. 591-628),the quintessential avaricious, despotic Iranian king” (p. 177) who had a penchant for ripping out the shoulders of those who bear him bad news. Although the young Parviz had received hospitality from the Arabs while fleeing from a usurper, he later forgets this kindness and denigrates the Arabs as a backward, worthless people. Parviz also liquidates the Lakhmid dynasty, which brings the Sasanians into direct conflict with Arab tribes previously held in check. One of these tribes, Bakr b. Wa’il, deals the Sasanians a humiliating defeat at Dhu Qar (604-11), foreshadowing the Arab-Muslim overthrow of the Sasanian empire. Indeed, the new Islamic umma emerges during the reign of Khusraw II, and a series of ill omens in Iran foretells the dawning of a new Arab-Muslim era in history.

Chapter Nine traces the final showdown between the Arabs and the Sasanians. It begins with discussion of Iranians who joined the new umma, particularly Salman al-Farisi, the first Iranian convert to Islam who represents “the globalization of Islam” and “the subsequent generations of non-Arab converts” (p. 217). It then recounts famous battles and pre-battle negotiations between the Muslims and Sasanians—including Dhat al-Salasil, al-Qadisiyya, and Nihawand—in which heroic Muslims confront foppish Iranians. (Instead of black cowboy hats, the Sasanian bad guys top their heads with jewel-encrusted conical qalansuwas). In each episode, the Iranians prove themselves to be overconfident, disdainful, and more concerned with external protocol than internal meaning—practically begging to be defeated by the morally superior Arab-Muslims. The chapter concludes with the destruction of the Sasanian empire, the end to which all previous accounts about Arab-Iranian encounters have been leading.

The concluding chapter emphasizes that the “charged stereotypes and polemical imagery born out of this [Shuubiyya] controversy were projected into the context of the past so as to validate contemporaneous attitudes and visions of society” (pp. 256-57). Savran’s work lucidly demonstrates that Abbasid historians framed these episodes from pre-Islamic and early Islamic history to help the mixed Abbasid elite come to terms with the past, as well as to construct an Islamic salvation history in which Iran would rise again “in an enlightened Muslim context” (p. 256). Ultimately, this dissertation admirably elucidates the impact of the Shuubiyya movement on Islamic historiography, and it reveals the tremendous value of analyzing Arabic and Persian historical sources as carefully constructed narratives rather than merely as raw materials to be mined for gems of historical fact.

Elizabeth Urban
Department of History
Williams College

Primary Sources

Al-Tabari, Ta’rikh al-Rusul wa-al-Muluk
Al-Mas‘udi, Muruj al-Dhahab
Al-Jahiz, al-Bayan wa-al-Tabyin
Ibn Qutayba, Kitab al-‘Arab
Ferdowsi, Shahnameh

Dissertation Information

University of Wisconsin-Madison. 2011. 290 pp. Primary Advisor: David Morgan.


Image: From a copy of al-Hariri’s Maqamat in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, dated 1237. Wikimedia Commons.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like