The Wonder that was KHORASAN Part 2

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  • This series tells how Iran became Muslim & how one historical region produced such a large number of learned people – giving rise to Islam’s “Golden Age”. The flowering of sciences in this age occurred in an area called Greater Khorasan that extended from Central Asia (Sogdia) and Afghanistan to northern Iran, round the southern Caspian Sea (Tabaristan) to the lands east of the Tigris (Khuzestan). This area is now included in present-day Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkmenistan. This article also gives historical insights into current day Saudi Iran rivalry.

To read excerpts from Part 1 Khorasan was a centre of Islamic scholarship for five hundred years, from the 8th century AD to the late 12th century AD, when it was complete destroyed by the invading Mongols. The Sassanid Empire was finally disbanded by the Muslim Arab forces in the mid-7th century. The Sassanid era also saw the development of the syncretic Manichaean religion in the early 3rd century AD that incorporated elements of Christianity, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and Hinduism.


One of the centres of learning in higher education was at Gundeshapur, in the Khuzestan province of Iran. It was founded by King Shahpur I between 240 and 270 AD and had a hospital. Greek philosophers and scientists taught at this institution and translated Greek and Syriac texts into Pahlavi. Indian texts on astronomy, astrology, mathematics and medicine and Chinese texts on herbal medicine and religion were translated in to Pahlavi.


Iran was Islamised but not Arabised. Iran re-emerged as a separate, different and distinctive element within Islam, eventually adding a new element even to Islam itself. Arabs had no tradition of literacy and they never had much inclination to keep books or records. They depended on oral traditions. The key philosophical difference between Zoroastrianism (prevalent in Iran at some point) and Islam is that in the later evil is a rebellion against the will of God while in the former, the forces of good and evil are operative in the world as independent forces vying against each other.

Part 2 begins

From the previous (first) article in this series, the reader would be aware that the explanation for the explosion of science, research and intellectual accomplishments in Khorasan lies in the collision and fusion of Persian culture with Arab influences. The two cultures merged to give birth to a new society that was more dynamic and productive than its constituents. In this instalment, will study the nature, extent and direction of this merger that allowed historical Khorasan to shine so brightly for a time.

Scholars of Persian history are aware that this Golden Age of Islam is heavily indebted to Persianate culture. Allama Iqbal’s Ph.D. thesis was on “The Development of Metaphysics in Persia.” In the collection of his diary entries titled Stray Reflections, Iqbal expresses the following view:


If you ask me what the most important event is in the history of Islam, I shall say without any hesitation, “The Conquest of Persia.” The battle of Nehavand (The 3rd major battle between the Arabs and the Persians that terminated the Sassanid Empire) gave the Arabs not only a beautiful country, but also an ancient people who could make a new civilisation out of Semitic and Aryan material. Our Muslim civilisation is a product of the cross-fertilisation of the Semitic and the Aryan ideas. It inherits the softness and refinement of his [sic] Aryan mother, and the sterling character of its Semitic father. The conquest of Persia gave to the Musalmans what the conquest of Greece gave to the Romans. But for Persia, our culture would have been absolutely one-sided.”

N. Frye, a scholar of Persian history, expressed similar views in his book The Golden Age of Persia published in 1989. He wrote, “Arabs no longer understand the role of Iran and the Persian language in the formation of Islamic culture.…..without the heritage of the past and a healthy respect for it…there is little chance for stability and proper growth.” He thinks that Persian influence was the basis of the medieval Arab world’s spiritual, moral and cultural being.

Historian Arnold Toynbee paints with a broad brush in his magnum opus A Study of History (vol.1). For him, the demise of the Abbasid Muslim Caliphate at the hands of Mongols gave rise to two independent Islamic civilisations; one Iranian and the other Arab. Comparing these two with the European nations, he sees a parallel between the Iranian Muslim civilisations and Western Christendom for what he sees as their relatively progressive and liberal attitudes, and between the Arabs and Byzantine Christianity for their conservative and archaic traditions.

In any case, the fusion of Persian and Arab cultures was indeed invigorating. The society that emerged in its aftermath was profusely creative and generously innovative. Persian society received an impetus that carried it towards a path of enlightenment for over five centuries. Arabs came to rely heavily upon on the Persians but the relationship was marked by alternating love-hate and trust-suspicion emotions. The primary interest of the Arab caliphs was to bolster their power using Khorasani help, whereas for the latter it was always a struggle to mitigate Arab power and reassert Persian dominance.

The great Abbasid generals mostly came from Khorasan. Abu Muslim Khorasani, who was the architect of the Abbasid Caliphate and instrumental in the demise of the Umayyad dynasty was born as Behzadan Pur-i Vandad Hormoz. In fact, the Abbasid revolt against Umayyad rule was in reality a Khorasani movement originating in Merv against the Arab aristocracy. After the Abbasid victory, Khorasanis had expected more freedom from the new rulers in return for their crucial support.

When, however, Abu Muslim was treacherously murdered by the second Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur, there was a two-decade-long revolt led by Papak (Arabised as ‘Babak’) who sought to restore Persian language as well as religion. Papak – today a popular name in Iran – may have been a heretic to the Arab world but his statue stands proudly in Babek city in Azerbaijan as a symbol of nationalism.

When the famed Abbasid Mamun al-Rashid rebelled against his brother, the centre of rebellion was again Merv in Khorasan. Mamun’s successful campaign to gain power was led militarily by Tahir ibn Hussain from Khorasan. 

In addition to military support, Persian administrative wizards sustained the Arab caliphate. Sulayman ibn Wahb, a Nestorian Christian from the lower Tigris area, served as vizier to a succession of Abbasid caliphs from Mamun (813-833) to Mu’tamid (870-892). His ancestors had served under the Umayyads. His son, grandson and great-grandsons, too, served as viziers to Abbasid caliphs. Abbasid Vizier Muhammad ibn al-Qasim, from a Nestorian Christian family, was the son, grandson, great-grandson and brother of Caliphal viziers. There were many other notable administrators like the Barmakis – who became virtual rulers under Caliph Harun al-Rashid – followed by their protégé, Fadl and Hassan ibn Sahl, and followed, in turn, by Sahl’s protege Yahya al-Khaqani and his next three generations. This array of Khorasani viziers – of Zoroastrian, Christian and Buddhist background – shaped the administration, bureaucracy and finances of Abbasid caliphate. Then there are others with names like al-Marwazi, al-Anbari, al-Zayyat, ibn Bulbul and ibn Muqla al-Shirazi, all Persian Khorasanis, originally of Nestorian or Zoroastrian faiths. It is, therefore, not possible to imagine the Arab Caliphate gaining its glory without the Khorasani awakening.


Spuler, Bertold (1960) in his The Muslim World: A Historical Survey. I: The Age of the Caliphs quotes Abbasid Caliph Mamun himself saying:

The Persians ruled for a thousand years and did not need us Arabs even for a day. We have been ruling them for one or two centuries and cannot do without them for an hour.

Effective Arab control over Persia, and especially over Khorasan, lasted only till the ascent of Mamun to the throne. In the very early part of his Caliphate, Mamun delegated the control of Khorasan to his able Khorasani general Tahir, whose land-owning family had converted to Islam from Zoroastrianism, and who had defeated and executed al-Amin in Baghdad. Tahir established his autonomous hereditary rule over Khorasan – i.e. over all lands east of the Zagros Mountains, with his capitals at Merv and Nishapur, the two centres of Islamicate sciences and learning. The dynasty was replaced by the Saffarids from the modern western Afghanistan city of Zaranj, which was another important corner of this Islamic Golden Age. The city is located about 125 km north of the Pakistan-Iran-Afghanistan common boundary point. The founder of the dynasty had been a coppersmith in the Sistan province, whose family converted to Islam at an earlier time.

The Saffarids were followed by the Samanids, who were Zoroastrian converts to Islam from either Samarkand, Balkh or Tirmiz – all important centres of Islamicate science and philosophy. They had their capital at Samarkand and Bokhara; two centres of scholarship. Simultaneously, the Buyid dynasty (Zoroastrian converts to either Zaydi or Twelver sects of Shia Islam) ruled the western part of Khorasan. Their various branches set up their capitals at Shiraz, Ray, Jibal and Baghdad, all historic centres of Islamicate sciences.

A Samanid breakaway Turkish general Sabuktagin and his famous son, Mahmud Ghaznavi, established a vast empire over the whole of Khorasan, Persia, Afghanistan, Baluchistan and Punjab. They turned their capital Ghazna into a centre of learning and exported Persian culture to areas that today comprise the State of Pakistan.

The dynasty of Turkish Seljuks, who patronised science and art, and founded universities, established a large empire, ruling from Nishapur, Rey, Isfahan, Merv and Hamadan; all flourishing centres of the Islamic Golden Age. Caliph Mamun, who had spent his youth in Khorasan and was himself an astronomer, encouraged the sciences and scholarship, strengthened the Bayt-al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) in Baghdad and gathered a large number of scientists. The Seljuk dynasty was the last stable power in Khorasan before the Mongol hordes destroyed the eastern half of the realm of Islam.

The above narrative demonstrates the socio-political environment of Khorasan that produced Islamic scholarship under Persianised rulers. In the fourth instalment of this series of articles, we will look into the initial abortive heroic endeavours by some thinkers in lower Iraq and Damascus to open up Muslim society on an enlightened path. At this stage, we first need to understand the economic and social conditions of Persia at the time of the Arab conquest. That will describe the status of the society that got transformed to produce a galaxy of scholars.

The medical facilities during the Sassanid Empire have already been mentioned in part I of this series. A detailed survey of that society will be undertaken here with some observations to highlight their difference with the then Arab society.

Before Islam, Arabs regarded sculptures in purely religious terms as objects of worship and therefore “un-Islamic”. They did not – and many still do not – see them as a form of art. The Persians, meanwhile, were not idolaters and had followed a monotheistic religion since long. So they did not see objects of worship in sculptures. They created numerous relief works carved into stone at many places in Persia to glorify their kings and their authority. In addition, there was extensive stucco work decorating government and private buildings. The largest surviving Sassanid statue is of King Shahpur I in a cave in south Iran. It is 6.7 metres high and 2 metres wide at the shoulders. The Persians continue to create busts and sculptures to honour their heroes.

Painting was an important art form in Persia. Miniature painting was popularised by Persian artists. Mani, the founder of Manichaeism, was himself a professional painter. The Sassanids decorated their home walls with large paintings. Persians did not give up this art after converting to Islam. They instead spread it to other Muslim communities in Turkey and the Indian Subcontinent. Large surviving wall paintings of the Sassanid era, depicting kings, feasts, battles and women, are on display in museums in Tashkent and Moscow.

The Persians had some of the finest architecture in the world. They built large brick palaces with high vaults. The Sassanid-style vaults influenced the construction of ‘iwans’ or vaulted halls. The ruins of Taq Kasra, the palace hall at al-Madain (Ctesiphon) with an enormous vault, still stand today. Its columns and niches once bore paintings. The Sassanid palace of Firuzabad located on a lake has a 22-metre-high dome on a large hall. The palace was surrounded by a garden, in a style later adopted by the Mughals.

The Sassanids adopted elaborate urban planning. They built new cities, many of them circular; a style subsequently adopted for the construction of Baghdad during the Abbasid Caliphate. Firuzabad is a good example of Sassanid urban planning. The city with a 2-km diameter is divided into four quadrants by two perpendicular intersecting roads running in the middle. Each quadrant was divided in five sectors by four roads. The city thus had 20 identical sectors. The city would have been like the colonial British planned city of Lyallpur (now Faisalabad) in Pakistan. Bishapur and Gundeshapur were also efficiently planned cities with many civic facilities.

The Sassanids had developed superb metalwork crafts. Large plates and bowls for serving food, and ewers for serving wine have been found. These vessels are embossed with scenes of kings, combat, feasting and dancing girls. These richly decorated utensils were exported to China in the east and Europe in the west. They also minted exquisite coinage, depicting images of the reigning king on the front side and some scene, often their holy eternal fire, on the reverse.

Sassanid textiles were highly sophisticated with designs of peacocks, rams and other animals. Their fragments have been discovered from as far as Egypt. The Persians were experts in weaving carpets of a high level of sophistication. Tabari quotes numerous incidents where the Arab commanders went to meet Persian commanders before a battle and walked or rode their horses on carpets laid out for the camp.

Tabari also writes an interesting account of a huge (over 700 square metres) carpet named the ‘Spring of Khusrow’ – woven with silk, gold and silver, and adorned with rare stones. The carpet depicted a splendid garden akin to Paradise. It was taken to Madinah to be cut up and distributed amongst the Muslims as share of the war booty from the conquest of al-Madain (Ctesiphon). It is said that Hazrat Ali (RA) sold his share for 20 thousand dirhams – though he had not received the best piece. Two Iranian carpets hang on the walls of the UN Headquarters building in New York. One is a 6m x 4m carpet presented by Iran’s ancien regime in 1952 and the second is a 5m x 5m piece, with a Saa’di poem woven with gold thread, presented in 2005 by the Islamic Republic.

One of the oldest postal systems in the world was developed by the Persians during the Achaemenid dynasty. It had halting spots at regular distances with fresh horses available. The way-stations were called chapar khana. The word chapar has entered our Subcontinent’s lexicon meaning to ‘take away’, which is what the chapar khanas were tasked to do.

The revenue of Persia enriched the Arab Caliphate beyond their wildest imaginations. Muslims gathered a huge amount of booty from al-Madain (Ctesiphon), the capital of the Sassanid Empire. Tabari writes that after the dispatch of a 20% share to Madinah, each Muslim horseman received 12 thousand dirhams, a great amount of wealth at the time, and this is only the portion they received in one instance.

The third part of this series of articles will establish that the rise of science and literature in Persia in general and in Khorasan in particular was a creative response to the challenge posed by the Arab conquest.

Article was first published here eSamskriti has obtained permission from author to publish this article.

To read all articles by the Author 

Also read

1 The Cousin cultures of India and Iran

2 Pictures of Cultural Documentation in Central Asia  

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