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Iran Before Islam

Martyr Ayatullah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Behesti

The starting point for our discussions has been chosen from an aspect which in fact marks the origins of Islam, and from another viewpoint, is inseparably linked to the study of ideological, social and practical problems. This approach is also more compatible with the natural course for pursuing these studies. In order to study Islam in its correct, historical perspective, for obtaining a clearer understanding, it was appropriate to have begun with a familiarisation with the region of its birth, namely the Arabian peninsula incorporating Saudi Arabia (Hejaz and Najd), Yemen, the sheikhdoms along the Persian Gulf littoral and the Sea of Oman. We also generally commented on the geographic, social, racial, lingual, religious and economic conditions of that region.
Henceforth our discussion will be related to those civilised regions which bounded the Arabian peninsula of the time.
These civilised regions could basically be divided into two parts: in one part consisting of small free status , linked with the Arabian peninsula and possessing small local governments, which should however be regarded Arab settlements though most of them were installed by great powers. One of these which had parts of Iraq under its influence was the government of Hira (or the Nu'manis and Munadherah) under the hegemony of Iran. Another was Yemen which, being within the Arabian peninsula, had an independent government. For about 150 or 200 years this government had been installed either by Iran or Abyssinia till about the time of the rise of Islam. In the other part were the states in the western part which included the present day Jordan and Israel. This was the Ghassani government which was under the hegemony of Rome. We will have a short and brief discussion about these three small governments in their proper place, since these three states happened to have a significant role in the contemporary history of the rise of Islam which merits particular attention.
A) Ancient Iran
The Arabian peninsula of that time was bounded by four powerful, strong and civilised nations with rather well established governments. Of these four countries, two could be rated as first class and the other two as second class powers. One of the first group was Iran which extended on one side as far as the Tigris and Euphrates and Shatt-al-Arab, namely upto the middle of the present day Iraq and included the Caucasus and the present Iran itself; and on another flank included Turkestan, Afghanistan, a part of Pakistan as far as the Hindus (Sind) River valley. In these regions there lived a people with a long and civilised past which had undergone many tribulations and change, and were regarded as the great neighbours of the Arabian peninsula. The fact is that if we wish to speak on the basis of common usage, Arabian peninsula was just a stretch of desert to which no one paid any attention, and the use of the word 'neighbour' could hardly apply to Iran with its immense size and grandeur as compared with Arabia. But here the discussion is not about great or small but only to become familiar with the geographic neighbours of Arabia.
The second great neighbour was Rome which also neighboured Iran. It was a great power including northern Iraq, present day Turkey and the Balkans, and was known as Eastern Rome. When we mention Rome in this discussion it implies the Eastern Roman empire, since western Rome with its seat in Italy neither remained a great power at that time, nor had any relation with Islam. Of course western Rome of that time included Italy, a portion of Yugoslavia, Albania, some part of Spain and even a part of France, thus Europe of that time was only one country under Rome. Other peoples living beyond its limits were called Berbers.[17] Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire possessed such greatness at that time that it was far above comparison with the other Rome. Western Rome rose to greatness after the Muslims had overthrown Eastern Rome, and the caliphs, namely the Ottoman rulers and kings, had captured the city of Islambol or Constantinople. It was then that in the 15th century A.D. learned men of Eastern Rome fled to Western Rome and became instrumental in causing the Renaissance and provided the base for the present civilisation of Europe and the western world, because during the period which we are discussing, Western Rome was hardly great and indeed was regarded as a second rate power.
These were the great neighbours of the Arabian peninsula. The other two second-rate neighbours were, firstly, Egypt which included the present day Egypt, Libya, Tunis and some part of Sudan. Although this country held some importance from Islam's viewpoint, yet it was not considered a great power such as Iran and Rome.
The next neighbouring country was Abyssinia which included the present day Abyssinia and some part of the Sudan, In this region, too, there was no powerful government, though in Islam's times it was an empire with a considerable past having a civilisation and characterised by noteworthy social and religious freedom.[18]
As is evident while surveying these countries, only two other regions remained in the entire civilised world, namely China and India, and beyond these two we do not find any other place in the world which could be termed civilised, This detail has been mentioned here because certain people, especially among the educated class whether in Iran or here in Germany raise the question whether the prophet brought Islam as a universal religion, and if so, how much did he know about the world outside the Arabian peninsula? The answer is: firstly, that we do not call a person 'prophet' on account of his having been formally educated or having studied books and maps etc. A prophet to us is a person who acquires all the necessary knowledge through divine revelation, and this is without bounds or limits. Secondly, the Prophet (a.s.) in his own time, had sent communications to the rulers of these regions and hence the question whether the Prophet was aware of the other non Arab nations and their basic needs would seem to be a childish question. History has recorded that the Prophet (a.s.), in the third year of his ordainment, was commanded by God to make his call to Islam public and declare it to all his neighbours, relatives and the Quraish. For this purpose he issued an open invitation inviting all to his house, and declared that they would soon have a religious code which would open the gates of the palaces of (Khusrow, the Emperor of Iran) and of caesar and other rulers. Also in the sixth year of his ordainment, he sent letters to the rulers of the three small regions of Hira, Ghassan and Yemen; first to Bazan king of Yemen, then to Khusrow Parviz emperor of Iran, then to the emperor of Eastern Rome, then to the ruler of Egypt (Maquqass), and next to Najashi (Negus) king of Abyssinia. All these letters have been recorded in history, and there is no doubt or question about them. What remains to be said is whether the Prophet of Islam knew of such places as India and China or not. Anyone who has the slightest acquaintance with Arab's history would know that one of the principal occupations of life for Arab merchants was the transportation of goods. There they carried from China and India via the Sea of Oman and Hejaz to Europe, i.e. Rome. Thus, not only the prophet but Arab traders as well were familiar with India and China and even their products such as spices, perfumes, handicrafts and China ware which were the industrial and agricultural products of India and China at that time. Trade in such commodities was a part of the commercial pre-occupation of the Arabs of that time. Therefore in discussions should someone raise the question whether the Prophet of Islam was aware of human civilisations existing in the world or not, becomes quite irrelevant. It is likely someone may ask Prophet knew of the inhabited regions of the earth, though we could not possibly answer this question, since we do not believe that he know everything but rather that whatever he needed to know was provided to him through revelation. I really cannot imagine if the Prophet (a.s.) needed to know about all these places in those times.
Geographical Situation
The reason we brought up Iran for discussion is firstly, there are certain pertinent points about the Sassanid period such as the rise of the Mazdaki code of life that needs be studied and emphasised. It is an interesting discussion which will be pursued for a comparative analysis subsequently. From the point of view of natural environments, if we were to compare Iran with Arabia, it could be said that Arabia as the birthplace of Islam was a poverty stricken, dry and deprived region whereas Iran or at least some parts of Iran were populated, flourishing and affluent. Incidentally, the areas of the great Iranian plateau which were contiguous to Arabia were all green and included the western slopes of the Zagross mountain range and parts of Lorestan, Bakhtaran, Hamadan and present Kurdestan, as well as part of Mesopotamia along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates, all of which are green and full of palm groves, so that in those times the Arabs called these lands the Black Land's. This was so because as of the dry, sandy deserts came to this part, they would notice a dark horizon which in fact was the palm groves and other trees, whereas in their own dwelling places there were only old trees in the rarely found oases. During one journey which I happened to have undertaken I noticed how poverty stricken the region was. Concerning the region along the east coast of the Red Sea, one comes to realise how unprivileged it is since despite its proximity to the Red Sea, no habitation or even a tree could be seen from Jordan right down to Jedda. The seashore, too, totally barren, has nothing more to offer than sand and ground. I don't know whether it is the soil that is bad or the wind which blows in the direction of Africa and carries the vapours of the Red Sea towards Africa because if there were no winds, some of this vapour might have remained to produce rain fall. However, all the vapour is carried towards the opposite side of the sea, namely to Somalia and Abyssinia which derive full benefit. In any case if we were to make a relative study of the area, it will be seen that the region which is adjacent to Arabia in the east is the best part of Iran from the viewpoint of natural environment next of course to the Caspian Sea littoral shores which is a thriving and populous region. It is interesting to know that the average population density in the regions of Gilan and Mazandaran is 100 persons per square kilometer, whereas for the whole of Iran the average is 16. The approximate area of these two provinces is 30,000 square kilometers, and they are so flourishing and populous that about three million people live.[19]
Aside from this prosperous region which was not contiguous to Arabia, the western regions of Iran and eastern part of Iraq which neighboured Arabia, were comparatively prosperous and utilizable from the aspects of climate, vegetation and other environmental factors.
From the viewpoint of area, the border of Iran reached the Sind River valley including the greater part of Afghanistan as far as the Oxus and Jaxartes Rivers and above the Araxes River which included the present Caucasia upto and including the Shatt-al-Arab. There were the boundaries of Iran then and hence Arabia stands no comparison with Iran. At the time of the rise of Islam and even before that, the eastern regions of Iran were called Khorassan in general, a name which is derived from 'Khor-Assa' meaning the region of sun rise, owing to its being situated in the east of Iran. Thus the eastern part of Iran of those days included Khorassan, soutlhern Turkestan, Afghanistan, Baluchestan and Sistan, all ofthem together bearing the name Khorassan.
The Iranian civilisation is considered to be an Aryan civilisation, having a precedent of eleven and even twelve centuries prior to the rise of Islam, after having evolved from a nomadic and tribal society to a central authority, whereas Hejaz had not till then reached the stage of a central government. The first government established in Hejaz was under Islam, whereas the government of media (Ecbatan) had been set up twelve centuries before that of Islam, in Hejaz. It will be an interesting example to quote from an inscription by Darius at a public works project. This inscription is naturally composed in a royal and a pompous style usual in that imperial age, however the content of it is rather interesting. Darius ruled in the years 550 to 529 B.C. The first Iranian inscription dates back to his reign, that is to say prior to him there were no such inscriptions. After a short period of chaos and disorder, Darius was able to establish a vast empire in Iran extending as far as Egypt including the entire region of Shaam, Syria and Egypt, and had thus become a neighbour of Greece. At that time the Eastern Roman had not risen, but there was the Roman Empire in the west which had not till then gained any importance. In the time of Darius the two countries of importance were Greece and Egypt. When Iran conquered Egypt, it also brought Greece under pressure. In the wars of that time, Darius frequently waged against the Greeks, he had to employ the sea route since the Greek territory consisted of a number of islands and land campaign would not have been feasible. As the Iranian ships had no access to the Mediterranean, Darius decided to open a sea way for the Iranian warships to reach the Greek shores. Thus he ordered a canal dug which was the precursor of the Suez Canal linking the Mediterranean Sea via the Nile River to the Red Sea. Darius describes the history of this canal in an inscription as follows:
"Ahura-Mazda, the great lord who created the lofty sky, created Man, created Man's good fortune, raised Darius to kingship, has assigned to King Darius this great empire with all these precious horses and multitudes of people.[20] I am King Darius, great king, king over many varied races, king over extensive and remote domains, son of Vishtasb of the Achaemnids; so declares King Darius: I am a Parsi. I govern Egypt from Pars. I decreed this canal be dug to link the between a river called Nile which flows in Egypt to the sea which reaches Iran.[21] This canal has been dug by my command and the ships have sailed via this canal from Egypt to Iran as I had desired."
Thus we see that twelve centuries before the rise of Islam in Arabia, a great and powerful government existed as its eastern neighbour. There is little doubt that amongst the past rulers of Iran Darius was an outstanding figure from the standpoint of ideas, capabilities and policies. This is especially true in connection with his attitude towards the conquered lands since, unlike other great conquerors of the world, he gave more importance to the administration of his domains than merely to conquer them. After retrieving his ancestral territories i.e. the domain of his ancestor Kurosh, he had no inclination to add further territory to his realm, and only wished to create to an extent a welfare administration for his subjects in the extensive realm of Iran of those days. This is a notable aspect of the life of Darius, and thus, according to the writings of orientalists, his accomplishments in that age are definitely outstanding, though this point is not relevant to the present discussion.
Class Structure and Social Divisions
Briefly then, such a government existed in the region, in the eastern neighbour of Arabia, about twelve centuries before the rise of Islam, however the basis and nature of those civilised governments were quite different from the Islamic government that followed. In fact these two were essentially unlike each other, since that civilised realm was charaterised by a deep class system.[22] In the extended period of human life, vestiges of which can still be observed in backward societies, people were since birth divided into various classes or castes so that the children of the lower class were naturally condemned to remain inferior and had no right to ascend do a higher class. Such was the class structure then existing.
This class structure existed in Iran, too. As far as I can recall from my studies in history, the seat and center of this caste system was in India, and since the civilisations of Iran, Greece and Rome have been Indo-European in origin, this Indian concept of class society travelled wherever Indian civilisation asserted an influence. But the cruelty and severity which were observed and are still to some extent prevalent in India in enforcing this system, have not been observed else where or in Iran.
In Iran of that time, class system and social attitudes and perceptions took the form that the king was absolute and the concept of 'Shahinshah' or king of kings was introduced in the time of the Medes well before Kurosh and Darius.
The royal class was considered super-human, and other classes were related to common people who were divided into several classes: In the time of Darius the upper most class were those on whose shoulders rested the pillars of the ruling monarehy, namely soldiers who were held above all others in being given social privileges. The second class comprised the farmers[23] and in the third class were included the artisans. Thus there were three classes in the Achaemenid time. History does not mention any organised group named clergy as such in that period, but of course there have been priests in the same way that there had been a faith and religion.[24] The clergy as a class made its appearance in the Sassanid time, and as it will be explained later, this class of priests came to be regarded as the first class, warriors and soldiers as the second class, clerks and civil servants as the third class with the farmers artisans and craftsmen falling in the fourth class.
In his epic 'Shahnameh', Ferdowsi, has this to say about these classes:
There was a group called Katuzis (priests) who were engaged in worshipping,
The next in rank were the Neissaris (military) who were warriors, lions of battle, honour of the army and country;
Then came the Nassoudi (farmers) to whom all are indebted; for, they plough, sow and reap that they may not be blamed;
The fourth group were the Ahyu-Khashi (artisans) who used their hand to shape unruly substances, and employed their ideas and intelligence.[25]
The above were what Ferdowsi has described in his Shahnameh, but according to Tho'alebi[26] there were the following classes: 1. warriors, 2. priests and physicians, 3. clerks and government employees, 4. farmers, craftsmen and artisans,. Tho'alebi's description appears to be historically more reliable, since Ferdowsi's Shahnameh is mostly based on hearsay.
In a letter written by one of the governors of northern Iran to the king of Tabarestan, priests have been accorded the first class, warriors the second, clerks the third, and labourers the fourth class; a classification which differs from Ferdowsi's.
In any case the Priests and soldiers constituted the first and the second classes or vice versa; clerks and government employees the third class, and farmers and artisans made up the fourth class.
In such a society the class implied that the child of a farmer, or artisan or tradesman could when grown up become a good farmer, or artisan or tradesman, but he could never entertain the thought of raising his social status to that of a clergyman, a warrior, a clerk or a government servant; he did not belong there and he did not have the right to hope, except in very exceptional cases when a person could be elevated by the king' s special decree to a higher class. This of course meant an upgrading limited only to that person's lifetime for the education of special talents and skills.
This social system with such limitation was quite contrary to what Islam introduced later on. The class system has purposely been discussed here because in the discussion of various faiths and creeds especially in the Sassanid period of time, this subject will gain importance and deserves particular attention.
Progress in Learning
We will deal later with the state of learning and progress in this field during the Sassanids period as concerning scientific and industrial progress in the Achaeminid period in Iran, no substantial evidence is available. However, what is certain is that Darius could not have succeeded in administering such an extensive realm, without a stock of knowledge and learning. However, are particular aspect which occurs in historical evidence is that the sovereigns of Iran seemed to have cherished the idea that all the civilised lands of that time would eventually become part of Iran even though two other states existed.[27] Thus we witness that the great physician of that time is a Greek, and the renowned geographer who was sent to the Sind valley by Darius to .survey that land, and prepare a report, was, too, a Greek.
Even the best and the finest of warriors of that time were Greek, the reason being that in Darius' mind these subjects were not non-Iranians, but were regarded as citizens of the greater Iran. Therefore, it did not occure to Darius and other kings that the people of central region who lived close to the seat of the government should remain among the artisans and tradesmen of the fourth class, while physician, clerks, and warriors should be from Greece, Egypt and outlying regions! So the scholars were brought from the outer regions of the empire while locals comprised the artisans and craftsmen. It is for this reason that the history of that time fails to indicate any outstanding Iranian scholar who was not of Greek, Egyptian or Indian stock. That does not mean of course that such individuals did not exist. Very little historical evidence is available and addedly, most of the available sources are of Greek origin, and the Greeks were not behind others in holding nationalistic prejudice - if anything, they were well ahead in this respect. Therefore, it becomes difficult to reach a verdict in this matter. Anyhow from the point of view of academic learning, no distinguished scholars in particular fields appear in Iran or in India or in Ionia, in the south of Turkey near the Mediterranean, who could equal the personalities from Phoenicia, Chaldea, Assyria, Greece and Egypt. In Phoenicia, which included a part of Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and a small portion of Jordan as well, we come across such individuals who were superior to Iran in learning. From the economic aspect, too, they enjoyed better conditions, and were richer and more prosperous than Arabia.
Religion in the Achaemenid Period
In Iran, according to available sources, there existed a faith called Mizda'i which professed faith in one god named Ahura-Mizda, a name, having a root which is similar to a Greek word, meaning , great and possessor of wisdom', hence Ahur-Mizda would mean the great god of wisdom and reason. This faith professed belief in god as the unique creator of the world, and a belief in a number of secondary and tertiary gods, and in angels, in the resurrection which is all very significant, and also in good deeds as something very essential. Thus it is a highly interesting point of note that as a result of such basic religious education in ancient Iran, Islam spread so swiftly eastward.
The Mizda'i religion during subsequent periods became corrupted with superstitions so that a man called Zoroaster appeared to reform the Mizda'i religion. His place of appearance has been a subject of controversy in history.[28]
Of course Zoroaster is not a prophet but a reformer of the Mizda'i code. As to the appearance of Zoroaster quite odd accounts are related in history about the place and the date of his appearance, though generally historical indications place his appearance about six centuries B.C. simultaneously in regions which had a common origin and similar conditions, namely India and Iran. In Iran Mizda'i faith is an ancient religion, and in India Brahmanism is an ancient faith, but no evidence is available about the date of origin of either of them. Mizda'i faith was later on corrupted by superstitions, and Zoroaster as the reformer makes his appearance in Iran. In India Brahmanism, too, gets mixed with superstitions, and a man named Buddha appears to reform it. There is a great resemblance between the life of Zoroaster and Buddha in all the phases from the beginning to the end. In the Semitic regions, too, six centuries later, namely concurrent with the rise of Jesus[29] Christ (a.s.) the main faith had been the monotheistic religion of Judaism. This religion to faith was spoilt by superstitions, and a man named Jesus rose to fight those superstitions. In this way the life of Jesus Christ (a.s.) resembles those of Zoroaster and Buddha. I do truly wish that I could have delved in deeper study in the similarity present, especially in the case of Zoroaster and Buddha, as both of them have a fifty percent resemblance with the lire of Jesus. There is another common characteristic between the lives of Jesus and Zoroaster; the history of Christianity shows that Jesus was ordained as a prophet at the age of thirty. It is said that Zoroaster, too, rose at the same age as a reformer to correct the Mizda'i code by the order of Ahura-Mizda.
Before the rise of Zoroaster, according to the available testimonials of history a class named the Magi held responsibility for religious practices in Iran especially in Azarbayjan, as keepers of the fires. It is has been said that Zoroaster himself was at first either of the Magi class or in contact with them and had even wished to become a Magus. There is a frequent mention of Magus and Magi in the Achaemenid inscriptions, but no mention is made of Zororaster. In Zororaster's hymns, called 'Gathas', no mention has been made of the Magi except in one place, and no mention is made of Darius and Achaemenids at all. Thus it is not clear for us whether the religion in the time of the Achaemenids and Darius' era had been Mizda'i faith or zoroastrianism or different schools of Budaism. What is certain, however, is that Judaism had existed as a religion and then had been patronised by Darius.[30] This point is mentioned in the Jewish holy books as well as historical records.[31] What also appears certain is that in those days in 'he realm of Iran various faiths had been prevalent, and there may not have been a formal or a state religion as such especially since no mention is made of Zoroaster in the inscriptions of Darius, nor has there been a mention of the Achaemenids in the 'Gathas'. This could lead us to deduce that state and religion had separate existence, allowing people to practice their own religion and letting the government proceed with its own function. It is in the Sassanid period that religion gains the government' s support and there is a state it became the religion of the country. This aspect warrants an exclusive and objective study of the Sassanid period since it is closely related to the age of the rise of Islam.
To sum up, this eastern neighbour of Arabia was twelve centuries ahead of Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, in extent, greatness, power, natural resources, social, technical and administrative progress and attainment of central governmental organisation and also historical precedence. How, then, did it happen that such an advanced country should succumb so easily to a newly-risen movement originating in Hejaz, is the topic for our further discussion.
Iran in the Sassanid Period
Iran under the Sassanids went through a glorious age distinct in its history. Observations related from this period reveal why Islam spread so rapidly in Iran. Also to be kept in mind, there had existed their natural propensity, dating back three or four centuries for the acceptance of such a faith as Islam. This subject, too, will be discussed briefly.
In the year 224 A.D. almost four centuries before the rise of Islam in, Iran the Sassanids succeeded the Ashkanian dynasty.[32] The Achaemenid rule had its root in Fars, but the Ashkanis were not from that region. The Sassanids once again rose from Fars, and a chief named Ardshir Babakan who was a descendant of Sassan and a governor of Ardavan V, the last Ashkani king, decided to set up a central government modelled after the Achaemenid dynasty with greater Fars as its base including the present Khuzestan.
Within a short time Ardshir managed to gather forces and mobilise them and seize the control and then, after much struggle, establish the government of Iran on the same model and the same extent as the Achaemenid realm.
Supremacy of Religion and Political Power
Ardshir was a descendant of Sassan who was a priest, and as such in his psychological, hereditary and personality make up, it asserted decisive influence so that at the assumption of power he decided to establish a government on the basis of religion, and make that religion the state religion of the country so that the two pillars of power, politico-military administration and religion should form as the foundation of his rule. Whether this concept originated from a personal inspiration of Ardshir attributable to descent from a priest, or whether it was a social dictate of the time which his observations led him to believe and which would make his rule smoother, is not an easy question to answer. What is certain, however, is that, though in the Achaemenid period a religion existed, yet a religious freedom existed in the whole of the Achaemenid empire, each group practising its own religion. Though the prevalent religion was Zoroastrianism, yet alongside of it Judaism and some other local faiths also existed. Christianity had not till then made its appearance. It we were to regard Sabean as an ancient faith, it, too, existed in the region of Syria and Phoenicia. During the Achaemenid period there was no religion as the state religion, although the priests were regarded as a distinguished class, yet they had no official recognition. During the Ashkani period, too, the position was the same.
Zoroastrianism as the State Religion
Ardshir got the idea of giving a state religion to the country and that the government should have an official religion, and this religion was Zoroastrianism. There may have existed some evidence to show that this matter was based on a social necessity in the sense that Ardshir intended to revive a kind of Iranian nationality based on past history, and link his lineage to the Achaemenids and so prove himself as a kin and descendant of Kurosh; also as Zoroastrianism was an Iranian religion with a considerable following, he figured that by reviving that religion, he could exploit both the lines of propaganda to expand and reinforce his rule. If this was the case, then by establishing a state religion and linking religion with politics was a dictate of his time. Or perhaps these considerations were never relevant and the matter was wholly personal. In any case with the assumption of power by the Sassanids, a new factor entered the social life of the Iranians, namely that the government recognised a state religion that is Zoroastrianism. During the Achaemenid period, Greece was a powerful rival of Iran on its western frontiers, a Greece which frequently included parts of Turkey and Syria. Although until the rise of Alexander no strong government existed in Greece, yet even those small governments asserted some weight. For instance even though Athens was much smaller in area and population as compared with Iran, still it held a high position from the viewpoint of philosophy, civilisation, political concepts and naval power and military potential. Thus they were always a source of trouble for Iran. In the Achaemenid time other antagonists on the western borders were Chaldea, Babylon and Assyria in the region of Iraq, and Syria and a part of Turkey, but the Achaemenids removed these obstacles and conquered them, leaving Greece as a strong opponent. In the Sassanid period there was no powerful Greece any more. In the Achaemenid period although there were governments in Rome and Italy, yet they were not of much importance. But during the Sassanid period that is for eight centuries, there rose a powerful government and a great empire in that part of the world with its center in Rome. This empire, too, had a state religion which was Christianity In north Africa, Egypt still retained its position as an ancient civilisation, and the islands of Crete[33] and Sicily,[34] too, possessed an ancient history and civilisation.
On the whole southern Europe was under the control of a strong government with its center in Rome and Christianity as its state religion. But whether the wide influence of Christianity at that time or thereabouts and its recognition as the state religion had been a pressing necessity and an effective factor in influencing Ardshir in adopting an official religion for his government, is a question that requires further study. But anyhow the Sassanid empire had as its western neighbour a vast and powerful government in the Roman Empire where Christianity was the state religion.
Between the Persian and the Roman empires were situated the remains of Chaldea, Assyria and Babylon which kept on changing hands between these two. The middle east as far as history can recall, has never been a quiet region, especially at the time when the empires of Iran and Rome were engaged in playing vital rules in the world. What is known for certain, however, is that the Sassanid government began its work on a new basis, namely the recognising of a state religion, a religion which was patronised by the ruling class and was attended by elaborate ceremonies by the Zoroastrian priests and their organisation which was able to exert pressure upon religious minorities and followers of other religions. This was actually the case in many of the Sassanid years when non-Zoroastrian minorities remained under duress.
In the discussions related to religion tolerance in Islam and before Islam, it is worth remembering that during the 427 years' rule of the Sassanids in Iran,[35] almost no tolerance was shown. The Iranian government recognised a state religion dominated by a powerful organisation of Zoroastrian priests which kept the religious minorities under duress. This of course was the situation for most of the time.
Meanwhile during the period when Iran was formally recognised as a Zoroastrian state, there appeared signs of influence of different views and faiths, namely the influence of Buddhism, certain Indian creeds, Christianity and Judaism upon the thoughts and beliefs of Iranians. This is the first characteristic of the Sassanid rule which lasted four centuries before the advent of Islam.
Administration of the State
The second characteristic of the Sassanid rule was its administration, possessing a developed organisation with official bureaus, correspondence, decrees, accounts and records to a greater extent than before. It could be said that with the arrival of Alexander in Iran and afterwards, Iran went through an evolutionary period in this respect. Thus in this period the influence of tribes who were called 'clerks' or 'secretaries' and worked in government offices, grew much greater during the Sassanid role than before, and they played a significant role. The art of writing in the Sassanid time was not only limited to government business, but was also important in religion. In the early years of this dynasty's rule 'Avesta' which had till then not been compiled and existed only in memorised form that was transferred verbatim from person to person, was compiled with the endeavours of the Zoroastrian priests and even commentaries were added in the form of 'Zand' and 'Pazand'. In this way the principles of faith became defined and organised. Here we quote from a text by the head priest and religious authority of the time of Ardshir Babakan, the first Sassanid king, to show the influence of religion and ecclesiastical organisation in the Sassanid system of government. It says:
"The Mazdai faith was strengthened by my hand, the learned men were rightfully elevated to high placer. Those of the 'Magi' who were seized with doubts and uncertainties, were punished by me, or were pardoned after they had confessed their errors and sins.[36] Fire-temples were built by me and the Magi were assigned to them. God, the King and I confirmed their appointments.[37] Numerous fire-temples were built throughout Iran. Intermarriage between kinsmen and near relatives was once more forbidden.[38] Under my guidance those had worshiped demons, turned back to God. Crowns were removed from the heads of many a sovereign.[39] Faith and religion found glory and splendour, and God's command overshadowed everything. If I were to write down all the tasks which have been accomplished, it would prove a lengthy process. Wherever our army stepped, a fire-temple was set up. In Antioch, Talis, Armenia, Georgia ... everywhere we set up fire-temples."[40]
Thus it would appear that in these conditions the Sassanids assumed power in Iran and the influence of clerks, secretaries and government recorders as well as clergymen was paramount. To show the influence of the scribes and clerks, we will quote from Henri Masse, a well-known European Orientalist:[41]
"At the head of the government was the Grand Vazir who, under the direct command of the King, administered the country and acted as his deputy when the king was away on travel or engaged in the battlefield. Next to him was the Zoroastrian high priest. This shows that in those days ministerial position and chancellorship served the king and acted for him, whereas previous to this, the Army commander came next to the king in precedence. At this time, although the field commanders and generals held importance, the highest authority in the administration of the country was vested in the Grand Vazir and Chief of scribes and secretaries."
In order to further illustrate extent to which the people's political life was mixed with religion, we will quote another part from Henri Masse's writing: "A large number of clergymen intervened in the affairs of the people and controlled their daily life, thereby gaining much wealth, and extending the sphere of their influence, and becoming an independent state within the state.
Occasionally they would even form a front against the king in collaboration with the nobility, and such, confrontation weakened the Sassanid rule."
The purpose of quoting these points is to show the degree of influence religion exerted in the social life and in governmental affairs and administration of the country. All this paved the way both positively and negatively, for the spread of Islam into Iran.
Generally speaking the two characteristics of the Sassanid period were: the mingling of politics and the government, with religion and the extraordinary degree of influence of the clergy and their religious organisations to such an extent that it would be interesting to note at that time a seminary and a college of logic existed alongside in the city of Rey, for the training of religious students for various positions. Another important point was the high degree of influence the clerks and government employees and keepers of records had in the society.
As it has been noted earlier, the social life of people was always divided into various clans and in this period the order of classes was undergoing a change.
Social Class Structure
In the Sassanid time the division of the population into the 'haves' and 'have not' became more apparent. The distinguished classes were made up of the clerks, clergy, military and nobles, while the ordinary classes included artisans, farmers and tradesmen. These upper classes during the most famous and brilliant period, namely in the time of king Khusrow Anushiravan I, enjoyed the most privileged life and were exempted from the payment of taxes and from conscription in wars; all these burdens were placed upon the class of artisans and tradesmen and especially upon the villagers, The artisans and tradesmen class paid taxes only, while the villagers had to give both money and their lives in return for a meagre livelihood. In this manner there existed a great class difference during the Sassanid rule, especially among the ordinary classes which were made up of rural population and the tradesmen and artisans.
1) Foreign Policy
During the four centuries of the Sassanid rule, from the viewpoint of foreign relations, wars between Iran and Rome were the most significant events in the pages of history. In these wars there were several points worthy of attention, the foremost being the intervention of religion in the conduct of wars.
At the beginning of the 5th century A.D. under the leadership of a priest named Nestorius[42] a sect called Nestorians came into being among the Christians in the region of Syria. This sect differed from the other Christians in their beliefs, and for that reason they were condemned for heresy and excommunicated by the powerful church of that time in Constantinope, whereas the sect had a large following in the Middle East. Although Zoroastrianism was at that time the state religion of Iran, the government gave asylum to the Nestorians in order to gather a group of supporters between its own realm and Rome, its powerful neighbour. This support enabled the Nestorians to build churches in the realm of Iran and engage in propagating their religion.
The other point is that when the Roman Emperors saw that the powerful and centralised government in Iran had become a source of trouble for them, after revealing its intentions of conquering all of the Roman empire and moreover, owing to its distance from the territories of Iran and its inability to maintain watch over its distant frontiers, a powerful emperor of Rome named Constantine[43] decided to establish an eastern capital for himself. This coincided with the time when the Iranian emperor, too, had determined to establish a western capital at Tysphon in the territory of Iraq, while the Romans chose the city of Byzantine which later on became known as Constantinople. This change of capital from Rome to Constantinople produced many changes in the past history, the main factor of which was the vicinity of the two powerful neighbours who were engaged in constant dispute, not about any ideology, but about expanding their respective realms and conquering the world, namely personal motives. Thus the foreign policy of Iran in this period was firstly dominated by religion, and secondly by the continued wars lasting four centuries. For one hundred years, there existed a peace pact between them, but for the rest of the period, namely for three centuries they were continuously in a state of war which became quite intense at the end of the sixth century A.D. That is in the time of Khosrow Parviz when intense wars raged between him and Heraclius, the Roman emperor. Both these emperors were contemporaries of the holy Prophet of Islam who sent written communications inviting them to embrace Islam. The war between the Emperors of Iran and Rome continued so long that they were losing their last ounce of strength. We will discuss these wars in more details later on when the subject of the birth of Islam comes up.
The Appearance of Manichaeus
As mentioned earlier, the rule of Ardshir, began with the recognition of the Zoroastrian faith. After his death, Shapoor the 1st, his son, became king who after further expanding the realm of his father, dominated the situation. He learnt that a man named Manichaeus[44] had risen claiming to be a prophet. Shapoor 1 received Manichaeus in court and after a few sessions fell deeply under his influence.
Manichaeus was an Iranian who was bom in Iraq in a village by the Tigris. He was familiar with Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism, and by mingling these three faiths created a special creed and declared himself its prophet. After meeting Shapoor in Khuzistan and influencing him in favor of his religion, he obtained from Shapoor a directive to all his governors to allow Manichaeus and his missionaries freedom to propagate their religion.
Manichaeus rose as a reformer of the Zoroastrian religion, but he offered a set of teachings which were a combination of the ideas of Zoroaster, Christ and Buddha. For thirty years Manichaeus and his missionaries carried out their mission, winning numerous followers until in the time of Bahram II in the year 277 Manichaeus was arrested and in a court held by the Zoroastrian high priest he was charged with heresy in religion. He was thrown in prison and after 26 days he was killed there in an atrocious manner. His skin was then filled with straw and hung in front of Bahram's court as a warning to anyone who committed heresy in religion.
The question is what led Shapoor to favor Manichaeus' religion? Historians explain that Shapoor had realised that the Zoroastrian faith did not fulfill the needs and spiritual expectations of the people, and was inadequate in satisfying their religious spirit, and for this reason he gave Manichaeus a free hand as a religious reformer. This shows that zoroastrianism, which some people wish to revive now and make it replace Islam in some parts of Islamic lands, was as early as so many centuries before the advent of Islam, as ineffective a creed that it could not satisfy the people, and thus the king allowed a religious reformer like Manichaeus to become active. It should be remembered that at that time a religious vacuum existed in the realm of Iran. Manichaean faith has had a strange fate and has had many ups and downs, not as much as a religion, but as a philosophy it sent ripples as far as China on the one side, and as far as Europe including England and France in the other direction but that in itself is a long story.
The Rise of Mazdak
Another interesting development from that religious viewpoint in the Sassanid period is the rise of Mazdak. In the time of Qubad, father of Anushiravan, a man named Mazdak rose with a new religion. In Mazdak's faith a new aspect of faith is discernible that did not exist in the former religions. In Zoroastrianism attention was paid to moral aspects such as truth and honesty and spiritual matters and worship of God, and sacrifice etc., but it did not deal with rights and social problems, and not only accepted class divisions but also supported it. Thhe Manichaean faith, too, despite proposing reforms in religious matters, introduced no social changes. But Mazdak dealt with both religious and social matters. On the one hand with its inclinations towards Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Christianity, namely towards asceticism, abandonment of carnal desires, and isolation from worldly affairs by leading an ascetic life, and with such views about social matters, Mazdak threatened the social order of the time. About his philosophy and religion, Mazdak used to say "True bliss for human beings lies in a peaceful environment free from rancour and enmity. But the disputes and wars which occur among people are either over wealth and enjoyment of affluence, property, water, trade, capital, luxuries or over women. In order to remove these disputes altogether, wealth and women should be commonly shared.[45]
This creed threatened the system of social class structure and quite naturally, it found numerous followers among the deprived classes. Qubad, too, as a young ruler who was opposed to the influence of priests, nobles and upper classes, and felt that their influence would hinder the proper administration of the country, supported Mazdak faith, and patronised Mazdak very strongly. In this way about the year 484 A.D. that is about 125 years before the advent of Islam, a revolutionary religious fervour governed under which the deprived masses tore up the former bonds of class life and formalities and adopted to an extreme extent the ideas of communal sharing of everything including women and abolition of family and marriage and proprietorship, with the result that chaos and disorder reigned everywhere, since such ideas both from the viewpoint of religion and social rights and internal politics were not acceptable to the people of that time, even though Qubad supported Mazdak to diminish the deep influence of the ecclesiastical organisation.
However, the clergy's influence succeeded in rousing people to revolt. On the other hand Mazdak's ideas, too, about family and wealth sharing were so extremist that they shook the foundations of the existing system since they were contrary to human nature. Therefore they could not endure for long, and when Anushirvan assumed power in the year 531 A.D. Mazdak was executed. His followers were scattered or destroyed, and once more the Zoroastrian faith and its priests gained dominance over the situation.[46]
P) Conditions Prevailing in Iran at the Time of the Rise of Islam
At the time of advent of Islam the government of Iran had become strangely weak, and after Khosrow Parviz within a few years he was succeeded by several male and female rulers until Yazdgerd the 3rd assumed power.[47]
In brief, to the east of the region of the birth of Islam there existed a vast realm with an ancient civilisation spread over twelve centuries. In Iran the central government had existed a long time and several religions appearing during this period which had exerted profound influence and found many followers had not survived for long. Neither Zoroastrianism, nor the religions of Manichaeus nor Mazdak could stand against Islam. In that environment there was a kind of readiness and thirst for destroying the existing order both socially and spiritually, and thus Islam entered Iran in an environment that was all set to accept the new faith. Those who attribute the rapid spread of Islam to the use of the sword are not sufficiently familiar with the history of that period. The fact of the matter is as the historians write: In most cases before the soldiers of Islam reached the cities which they had conquered, the populace would throw open the gates for them from within and welcomed them. What is certain is that Iran had fallen into a state of deterioration in all respects whether political social or religious at the time of the rise of Islam.
2) Questions and Answers
Question: You said in your discourse that in t he present world environment there are no societies based on classes, but classes exist in a modified form.
Answer: Not in that form. In the class system certain people are explicitly told that they have not the right to even think of entering a class of an upper status. The hardest and ugliest obstacles that could be imagined exist in such systems which to put limitations on the thinking of a group. It is true that indirect pressure has considerable effect, but the very existence of indirect pressure shows that the worth of those placed under pressure has gone up to some extent. If they tell you that you cannot directly and openly strike a person, it means that the said person's personality has grown in relation to you so that you cannot directly strike him. Of course even today there exist indirect restrictions in the world, though term, class could not be applied to them; they might be called communities. Communities under indirect pressure do exist although these could not be compared with their previous form. You could never think of what a class society actually meant.
Unfortunately among the aristocrats in Iran, sometimes you would see the son of a farmer or villager who, despite his education and worth, is not given the chance to raise his status, simply because of his lineage. This is a vestige of those old class divisions which is a system based on man's inherent selfishness. Therefore you can never uproot it fully, even though it's effect might diminish. Now can you imagine if such a system found legal support, how comical it would be. The existence of such a law which would prevent a farmer or tradesman from rising up to the class of warriors and that he would be punished even for entertaining such a thought, would seem ridiculous and incredible to us. They say that in India there still exists a class system. I cannot bring myself to believe it until I saw it for myself. For us, Muslims such a situation is unthinkable; for, since our birth and growing up we have been accustomed to the concept of Islamic brotherhood and equality. But there is no doubt that there exist groups that always seek to preserve their interests in one way or another.
Question: How did the holy Prophet write his letters? The Qur'an says that he was unlettered and untaught. Did he remain like that till the end?
Answer: The letters were not in the holy Prophet' s own handwriting; they were written by his scribes. According to historical sources the Prophet was able to write during the last years of his life, therefore those letters which were written in the sixth year of his migration, namely three or four years before his demise, are said to have been written in his own handwriting. But we cannot claim that all of them were written by him, since we know whose handwriting they been. Maybe the writers of the other letters would be also discovered.[48]
Question: W ere China and India. protectorates or independent at the time of the rise of Islam? Has there been a mention of dispatch of letters to these lands by the prophet?
Answer: China and India were independent, and the holy prophet sent no letters there. According to some historical sources, the Prophet in the last days of his life sent, not a political but a religious delegation whose members were also merchants. These men entered Tibet after the Prophet's demise in the time of Abu Bakr and began to deal in commodities. This is mentioned occasionally in notes and obscure sources of history, and need much hard work. Of course India and China have both passed through tempestuous times, and their governments were not local like those of Iran and Rome except in China for short periods. But I cannot be sure that this has been the case in the time of the Prophet. However, it may be said that even if they resembled Iran and Rome in having a well-established government, the holy Prophet would most likely not have written to them. He was concerned first with Mecca and then with Medina, and it took him six years to establish order in these two places. Therefore the idea of writing letters to China or India would not appear likely, since as a Prophet who claimed to have power, he had to dominate his near regions first, though a remark is attributed to him saying: "Seek knowledge even if it is found in China."
Attention to the entire civilised world of that time is obvious in the teachings of Islam but not in the form of writing letters, since firstly it is not clear whether a central government had existed there at that time, and secondly, even if such a government did exist, it would not have been of much use for the Prophet to take such a step before bringing his surrounding regions under central. On the whole, the time of writing letters is related to the years when Egypt, Abyssinia, Rome and Iran became the political neighbours of Islam, and it was then that the Prophet wrote to them and to several other smaller rulers in Yemen, Ghassan and Hira which were dependencies.
Question: How were the original inscriptions of Iran deciphered?
Answer: Three European scholars who were Orientalists worked jointly and completed each other's tasks.[49] This is how they proceeded: the first orientalist who was not familiar with the topic of the inscription, succeeded in reading only the proper nouns by means of distinguishing the signs, such as the word 'Darius' and 'Pars' and gradually some letters such as P, A, R, S, I, D, V were deciphered. What was fortunate was that in these inscriptions the Greek and Babylonian translations occurred side by side, thereby providing three texts and this made deciphering much easier than if there had been no translation accompanying the inscription. Thus the expert was able, with the aid of those translation, to read the proper names since they have a similar sound in both languages, and then gradually decipher the letters. One of these scholars spent much of his life collecting this information. Then after the stage of proper names, the subsequent stages were not so difficult, and the next two scholars completed the task. About three experts devoted their whole lifetime in extracting the meaning and finally translating the texts.

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