Don't call it a comeback: how Persia's cultural identity survived Islamisation

Amanda Nicholls June 23, 2020
Don't call it a comeback: how Persia's cultural identity survived Islamisation

When (somewhat unsurprisingly, with the benefit of hindsight) the army of a 10-year-old Persian king succumbed to Muhammad’s Islamic forces in 651AD, it was a shock to Iran’s system. But the roaring flame of its cultural identity could not be extinguished.

The second episode of Samira Ahmed’s groundbreaking exploration of Iran’s backstory aired last night, honing in on the next chapter of the country’s history – Islamisation.

In the seventh century, after a trader named Muhammad claimed to have received godly revelations, a small but radical movement came into being. Islam was born and so began the battle to forge the Arab empire. The clash between the two powerful civilisations saw the Arabs bring new language, culture and religion to Iran, but the strength and character of Persian heritage endured – it simply went underground for a little while.

Here are the headlines and all the best facts from the second instalment of BBC Four’s Art of Persia.

  • At the time of the invasion, the king of Persia was a boy named Yazdgerd. This 10-year-old was the Persians’ figurehead as they went into battle with the Arabs and were subsequently annihilated. The defeat was a massive culture shock for the Persians.
  • Zoroastrianism is a largely forgotten faith at the heart of Persian identity, centring around the delightful trinity of good thoughts, good works and good deeds, and placing importance on truth, order and harmony. After the Islamic takeover, many Zoroastrians fled to India. Their Iranian mountain carvings gave rise to the symbol of the halo which has been reproduced in several other religions since.
Tower of Silence (image: Pete Ofathousandflights via Unsplash)
  • Zoroastrians didn’t like to ‘pollute’ the earth by burying the dead – or the air, by cremating – so bodies were brought to Tower of Silence which looms over Yazd city.
  • Islam’s beautifully elaborate architecture is exemplified by the colourful Jameh mosque in Yazd, one of the oldest mosques in Iran. Its mesmerising tiled patterns spell out of more than 100 names of God.
The beautifully decorative Jameh Mosque, Yazd (image: BBC/Craig Hastings)
  • After the invasion, remnants of the Persian army went figuratively underground for centuries and continued as a resistance movement called the Zurkhaneh or ‘House of Strength’. Found all over Iran, groups belonging to this brotherhood met in secret to ostensibly train for the day they might have to fight for Persia again, although it was about much more than that. Exercising and practising fight sequences to songs and poems that date back to pre-islamic Iran – activities which continue today, along with Persian calligraphy – was intended to strengthen their souls and keep their customs alive.
Zoroastrian worshippers, Kalantar, Yazd Province (image: BBC/Craig Hastings)
  • While the process of Islamisation was quite quick, Arabisation never took off because of the power of Persian culture. Its language prevailed, with certain words even infiltrating into Western usage. Example: ‘jama’ in Persian means ‘clothing’, while ‘pa’ means ‘leg’, and this is where we derive the word ‘pajamas’.
  • Islam forbade imagery from being painted on its earthenware, save for heavenly symbols such as birds, but soon Sasanian love stories from Persia’s pre-Islamic past – about kings falling for with Armenian princesses and such – crept back into everyday life. Persia’s dirham coins remained in circulation too, depicting the ancient fire from the great Zoroastrian fire temple and pre-Islamic gods, although the names of Arab governors were added as a compromise. The Arabs even celebrated Persian New Year, wore Persian costume and adopted their civil service as it was such a well-oiled machine. While physically, Persia was conquered by the Arabs, culturally it really came to be the other way round.
  • In cities such as the labrynthine Tus in central Iran – birthplace of famed storyteller and tax gatherer Ferdowsi – doors would have two separate knockers for males and females so that the occupant would know who was at the door.
  • Ferdowsi was an early example of Iranian nationalist. While he was said to be a good Muslim, he rejected Arab culture. He wrote the Shahnameh – Persian book of kings – as a way of rescuing the past from what he saw as the over-Arabised present. He penned its 60,000 lines in Persian to preserve the language and stories like a time capsule. It took him three decades and he fully expected to get rich from it but by the time he finished, the Persian dynasty that commissioned the book had expired and the new ruler wasn’t so into it. Ferdowsi died bitterly disappointed. Still, at least his life’s work is widely read, 1,000 years later, all over Iran – he has a few statues in his image and a few subway stations are named after him, too. His stories, such as that of Rostam – the biggest figure in the Shahnameh and, as Samira Ahmed describes him, a cross between Hercules, Hector and Incredible Hulk – also live on through street art.
Samira Ahmed stands beside a street mural of Rostam, a hero from the Shahnameh (image: BBC/Craig Hastings)
  • For at least 2,000 years, Iran, has been an important source of turquoise – initially named by Iranians as ‘pirouzeh’ meaning ‘victory’ and used to cover palace domes because its intense colour was a symbol of heaven. In Nishapur, it’s everywhere, and the sound of grinding and polishing fills the air. There, you can find influential mathematician, poet and astronomer Omar Khayyam’s 1930s marble mausoleum, tiled in the famed turquoise stone. Khayyam was the first person to prove Earth spun on an axis, while his poems helped maintain the popularity of Persian literature, despite their fatalistic language being banned in Islam.
Vakil Mosque, Shiraz (image: Faruk Kaymak via Unsplash)
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Furloughed writer and magazine editor from Bristol, specialising in food and drink, music, travel, arts and lifestyle.