Page 1: Conditions & Treatment of Zoroastrians. 650 CE to Late 1400s CE
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Arab Attitudes Towards the Persians During Their Conquests
[The word 'Arab' does not necessarily mean someone born in Arabia or whose parents were born in Arabia. The Arab nation includes everyone who discarded their native religion, language and culture, and then adopted Islam and Arabic as their religion and 'mother-tongue' respectively, embraced all aspects of Arabic culture, and were loyal to the Arab nation. After the Islamic Arab conquests from China to North Africa, many peoples from those lands became 'Arab'.]
During the Caliphate of Umar ibn al-Khatta-b, before the Arabs invaded Iran, they set about capturing the Persian territories in Mesopotamia, the Persian province of Khvarvaran, today's Iraq. When in 637 CE the caliph's armies under the command of Sa'ad ibn Abi Waqqas captured Khvarvaran's capital Ctesiphon (a residence of the Persian Sassanid kings), they burnt its palaces, libraries and archives. According to an account in Tarikh al-Tabari by Al-Tabari, Sa'ad ibn Abi Waqqas wrote to Caliph Umar about enquiring as to what should be done with the books at Ctesiphon. Umar wrote back, "If the books contradict the Qur'an, they are blasphemous. On the other hand, if they are in agreement, they are not needed, as for us Koran is sufficient." Sa'ad ibn Abi Waqqas then ordered the huge library at Ctesiphon destroyed and its priceless books, the work and wisdom of the generations of Persian scientists and scholars were thrown into a fire or into the River Euphrates. The Arabs called the Persians 'Ajam' meaning mute, and nearly 40,000 captured Persians were shackled and sold as slaves in Arabia. However, retribution was not long coming. A certain Firooz, an enslaved Persian artisan, managed to assassinate the Caliph Umar.
Muslim chronicles state that, in the subsequent battle of Ullais, the Arab commander Khalid ibn al-Walid, tired, angry, and frustrated with the resistance put up by the Persians, once victorious, ordered all the prisoners of war be decapitated and their dismembered bodies be thrown into the river. In order to fill the entire river downstream with the blood of the Persians - perhaps as an announcement of his total victory and as a way to strike fear into the remaining Persian armies defending the heartland - Khalid ordered the gates of a dam upstream on the river be opened. The cascading waters swept the bodies and their blood downstream earning it the name - the River of Blood.
After the Arabs had conquered the Persian ruled lands west of the Zagros mountains, they began their campaign to conquer the Iranian heartland. Once they had crossed into the kingdom of Persia itself, the ruling kingdom of the Iranian peoples, they advanced on the Zoroastrian religious centre of the Istakhr, took the city and slaughtered its 40,000 residents.
Islamic Rulers of Iran- Timelines
|Rashidun Arab caliphate||649 - 661 CE|
|Umayyad Arab caliphate||661 - 750|
|Abbasid Arab caliphate||750 - 833|
|Samanid (Central Asia)||864 - 999|
|Ghaznavid (Khurasan)||997 - 1186|
|Seljuqid Sultanate||1038 - 1118|
|Seljuqid (western regions)||1118 - 1194|
|Ghurid / Shansabani Dynasty (Afghanistan eastern regions)||1117 - 1215|
|Anushtigin (Khwarazm)||1098 - 1231|
|Il Khans Mongol Khanate||1256 - 1343|
|Timurids and Turkmens||1393 - 1497|
|Safavids, Ghalzay, Afshari||1501 - 1722|
|Afghans||1722 - 1729|
|Nader Shah||1729 - 1747|
|Generals||1747 - 1751|
|Zand||1751 - 1794|
|Qajar||1794 - 1925|
|Pahlavi||1925 - 1979|
Conditions Under the Arab Caliphate
Dhimmi Status and Jizya Tax
Immediately following the Arab conquest of Iran, Zoroastrians were given dhimmi status - a status that allowed, under the guise of special protection, all Muslims to persecute, discriminate, harass, forcibly convert, abuse and kill Zoroastrians for the least of reasons - and in many cases for no reason at all, for many could be fabricated at will. The label carried an automatic eligibility to pay the Jizya (or Jizyah) tax, a higher than normal tax than that paid by non-Muslims.
Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi in his book The Meaning of the Qur'an states that Muslims were enjoined to tolerate the "misguidance" of non-Muslims "only to the extent that they might have the freedom to remain misguided if they chose to be so provided that they paid Jizya as a sign of their subjugation to the Islamic State."
There was no set amount for the Jizya tax. It was assessed in gold at the discretion of the caliph. Often, however, local governors and other officials added their own demands and final tax demanded could amount to several times that assessed by the caliph. The collection of the tax was sometimes made the duty of the elders of local Zoroastrian communities, a task that forced the elders to become tax collectors subject to the penalty of death if they did not deliver the expected amount. If someone subject to the Jizya left Muslim territory to go into enemy land, that person was subject enslavement if ever captured.
Al-Zamakhshari, a Mu'tazili author of a commentary on the Qur'an, wrote that "the Jizya shall be taken from them with belittlement and humiliation. The dhimmi shall come in person, walking not riding. When he pays, he shall stand, while the tax collector sits. The collector shall seize him by the scruff of the neck, shake him, and say "Pay the Jizya!" and when he pays it he shall be slapped on the nape of the neck."
The Jizya was one of the most effective tools for the 'voluntary' conversion of many Zoroastrians to Islam, for as dhimmis they were also given the 'special privilege' of swift conversion to Islam and thereby relief from all encumbrances carried by the dhimmi status, especially the hated and arbitrary Jizya tax. Once a Zoroastrian family converted to Islam, the children had to go to Muslim religion school and learn Arabic and the teachings of the Quran and these children lost their Zoroastrian identity. While conversions to Islam were swift any reversion to the original, or another, religion was punishable by death (Boyce, see below). This method of conversion allowed to Arabs to proclaim that many Zoroastrians had converted to Islam willingly. The coersion and duress under which they made these decisions was conveniently forgotten.
According to Mary Boyce in her book Zoroastrians, Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, Zoroastrians who were captured as slaves in wars were given their freedom if they converted to Islam.
As greater numbers of Zoroastrians converted to Islam, the remaining Zoroastrians lost any protection a large united community would afford, and the number of restrictions on Zoroastrians with their attendant oppression steadily increased.
Destruction of Fire Temples & Libraries. Murder of Priests
The destruction of Zoroastrian places of worship started during the conquest campaign. The Encyclopaedia of Islam (R. Hillenbrand, P. J. Bearman, C.E. Bosworth, editors) notes under Masdjids in the Central Islamic Lands that those fire temples that were not destroyed were converted into mosques. In Istakhr and Bukhara, the Chahar Taqi Zoroastrian temples with their four arched openings were turned into mosques by setting a mihrab (prayer niche) on the place of the arch facing (and therefore nearest) to the qibla (the direction of Mecca).
According to a BBC article, "Many libraries were burnt and much cultural heritage was lost."
Further, thousands of Zoroastrian priests were executed, hundreds of temples destroyed, religious texts burnt, and the use of the ancient Avestan as well as Persian languages was prohibited [cf. Edward Granville Browne, A year Amongst the Persians (1893)]
Humiliation as Untouchables
Prof. John Hinnells writes that Zoroastrians were identified as 'najis' and therefore impure and a source of contamination to Muslims. This label made the Zoroastrians untouchables and unfit to live alongside Muslims. As a further consequence, this meant Zoroastrians could be forced to leave the cities and were subject to all manner of restrictions in the presence of Muslims in all spheres of life.
Under the Umayyads (661-750 CE)
The Umayyads completed the Arab conquest of Iran. Yazid-ibn-Mohalleb, a Umayyad general lead an expedition to subdue the province of Mazandaran. As the Arabs won battle after battle, the general ordered that all captives to be hanged on both sides of the road leading to its capital. When the provincial capital was subdued, he took 6,000 of its Zoroastrian residents as slaves and ordered the massacre of the remaining 12,000 residents. In Gorgan, he ordered that the watermills be run for three days by draining the blood of its victims. He is reputed to have mixed the bread flour produced with the blood of his victims, feeding the bread to his army and partaking of the meal himself.
The Umayyads made Arabic the official language of of Iran, and while the newly converted Iranians accepted the new language as their own and adopting the Arab culture while being ashamed of their own, the Zoroastrians despised Arabic as the language of their Muslim conquerors. This in turn meant that the Zoroastrians were excluded from all government positions. The language issue became redundant since in 741 CE, the Umayyads decreed that all non-Muslims would be excluded from governmental positions.
The weight of religious oppression increased steadily and an Arab governor appointed a commissioner to supervise the destruction of fire temples throughout Iran, regardless of treaty and other agreements. One of the Umayyad Caliphs was quoted saying, "Milk the Persians and once their milk dries, suck their blood."
Under the Abbasids (752 - 833 CE)
The Abbasids continued and added to the repressive measures employed by the Umayyads. Zoroastrian temples were searched out and destroyed or converted to mosques. The status of Zoroastrians was changed from dhimmi to kafirs meaning non-believers. Zoroastrians were labelled as fire-worshippers and polytheists. The treatment of Zoroastrians as najis (unclean and polluting) grew and Zoroastrians were denied access to common public facilities including bathhouses.
Abdollah-ibn-Tahir, Abbasid Governor of Khorasan, banned publication of Persian, that is Pahlavi books and decreed and all Zoroastrians were required to bring their religious books for a ritual burning, failure to comply being execution. It was during this period that many Pahlavi works were lost forever.
It was during the 9th century CE that Zoroastrians became a minority throughout Iran.
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