Scott Savran, Arabs and Iranians in the Islamic Conquest Narrative: Memory and Identity Construction in Islamic Historiography, 750–1050 (London: Routledge, 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Scott Savran (SS): My objective in writing this book is to bring to light the potential of an approach which examines early Islamic historiography of the pre-Islamic period to see what it can tell us about the Muslim authors of historical texts as well as the issues and controversies that shaped their respective milieus. Since graduate school, I have been intrigued by Islamic historical portrayals of the pre-Islamic Iranians, Greeks, Indians, and other civilizations. I wondered, did these peoples, with their diverse ancient traditions and cultures, fit into an Islamic worldview, and if so, how? I came to realize that while the mining of Islamic historiography for positivist historical facts about these civilizations is a necessary endeavor, much more attention needs to be given to the very important dimension of the contemporaneous social and historical commentary which lies embedded in these textual depictions of the time before Islam. This underlying commentary becomes readily apparent to those who allow context to guide their reading of these texts.
I chose to focus on “Arabs” and “Iranians” because I was struck in my research by the strong emotions of juxtaposing pride and polemic that clearly stand out in Islamic textual depictions comparing these peoples. While previous generations of scholars have been criticized by their present-day counterparts for casually applying reductive terms like “nationalism” to describe this sentiment, it is my opinion that no study to date has provided an effective argument for expressing what exactly early Muslim scholars were thinking of when they wrote about diametrically opposed Arab and Iranian civilizations. I hope that this book will therefore contribute to an understanding of how the past was conceived in early Islamic collective memory as a tool to bolster or negate contemporaneous constructions of identity.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
SS: This book analyzes how early Muslim historians portrayed the history of the relationship between the Sasanian empire and the tribes and states of the Arabian peninsula and Iraq as a didactic narrative forecasting the rise of Islam as well as the Muslim conquest of Iran. I ask how dynamic identity and power discourses within the early Islamic world shaped this narrative, and to what end. My main theme is that the crystallization of Arab-Islamic and Iranian-Islamic identities occurring between 750-1050 is inextricably linked with collective memory. I show how the dialectical constructs, imagery, and themes emanating from this process of identity formation are projected into the context of this narrative. As literary and rhetorical devices, these anachronisms are intended to guide the reader of this historical drama in the direction of the unfolding plot—i.e., the gradual transition of power occurring between these two peoples. The primary sources of my analysis include works of ta’rīkh (historical chronicles) and adab (belles-lettres style literature).
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
SS: This book is an outgrowth of my Ph.D. dissertation. Besides developing a broader historical context to frame my analysis, the major difference from my dissertation is that my book is guided by a deeper reading into literary and sociological theory and approaches on identity and alterity, narrative, reception, and memory. Likewise, I have taken a more nuanced view of the Shu‘ūbiyya— i.e. the alleged movement of pro-Iranian, anti-Arab nationalists—by arguing that it was essentially a fabrication of social critics, like al-Jāḥiẓ and Ibn Qutayba, who were looking to discredit admirers of Iranian civilization.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SS: Besides specialists and students of early Islamic history, it is my hope that this book will start and build upon conversations across historical fields, such as Antiquity, Late Antiquity, Central Asia, and contemporary Islamic/Middle East Studies. In particular, I hope that this book adds to scholarly discussions across subject areas regarding pre-modern identity construction.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SS: I’m currently working on a comprehensive study analyzing identity and state formation in the early Islamic Middle East. This monograph will ask how diverse manifestations of identity (tribal, sectarian, gender, social status, profession, etc.) intersect with dynamic power discourses from the rise of Islam through the early Ottoman period.
J: How does your book stand out with respect to modern scholarship in your field?
SS: My book stands out by virtue of its unique approach. Traditional scholarship on the Sasanian era has utilized Islamic historiography in tandem with Christian sources, Middle Persian texts, archaeological and epigraphic data, with the goal of creating a positivistic picture of what this period looked like. My book is unique in that my objective is to show how the drama that unfolded between the Arabs and Sasanians in the Islamic historical tradition must be viewed through the lens of discourses and issues pervading the societies of early Muslim chroniclers. That is, my primary concern is to understand how an early Muslim audience may have made sense of this narrative, and how this reception would have evolved over a three-hundred year period through changing social and political circumstances. To my knowledge, this is the first study of its kind that is devoted entirely to analyzing Islamic historiography of the pre-Islamic period through the mirror of latter day concerns.
Excerpt from the Introduction, pp. 1-2:
The Battle of al-Qādisiyya (AD 636) was the decisive victory for the Muslim-Arabs over the Sasanian empire, opening up Iran for conquest and resulting in the eradication of the Sasanian dynasty. In his historical chronicle, Ta’rīkh al-rusul wa’l-mulūk, Abū Ja‘far Muḥammad b. Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (d. 923) details numerous reports (akhbār) of the embassies which the Arabs sent to the Persian camp in the days prior to this battle. His main source for these accounts is Sayf b. ‘Umar (d. 809), a Kufan transmitter of traditions who has been noted for his literary embellishment and questionable reliability. Each of these meetings proceeds roughly as follows: The Arab ambassador, entering the Sasanian camp alone, is presented as the imago Bedouin warrior. He wears tattered clothes, bears ramshackle weapons, and is generally unkempt. The Iranians, in contrast, are arrayed in full ceremonial formation. The soldiers display their glistening armor and impressive weaponry, and the nobles don their finest brocades and diadems. At the end of a spread carpet lined with cushions, the Sasanian general Rustam sits atop a golden throne. The Arab, however, pays no heed to the Iranians’ display of pomp and proceeds to approach Rustam. Rustam then begins the dialogue by disparaging the Arabs for their poverty and offers to give them some meager provisions if they would return to their land. The Arab ambassador, however, remains composed and dignified despite this treatment, and eloquently responds by chastising the Persians for their decadence, proclaiming the message of the Prophet Muḥammad, and offering them the ultimatum of conversion, paying the jizya (poll tax), or facing open war.
These reports’ formulaic emphasis on the contrast between the Arabs’ poverty and the Iranians’ imperial splendor renders their veracity suspect. What is furthermore intriguing is the fact that al-Ṭabarī affords far less coverage to the Arab-Muslims’ early campaigns against the Roman (Byzantine) empire than he gives to the conquest of Iran. This is unusual considering the wealth of conquest literature (futūḥ) on the Arabs’ Western campaigns to which al-Ṭabarī would have had access. These works exhibit similar tropes of contrast in their portrayals of encounters between Arabs and representatives of Roman empire. Why therefore did al-Ṭabarī devote so much attention to Sayf’s dubious rendition of the al-Qādisiyya embassies, and the conquest of Iran in general? How might the social and political circumstances in which he lived have shaped his attitude towards these events? What messages, if any, was he trying to convey to his reader through his portrayal of these embassies, and how might we compare his agenda, or the angle he approached this history, with that of his sources?
Al-Ṭabarī’s chronicle belongs to a genre of Islamic historiography consisting of comprehensive world histories composed between the late ninth and early eleventh centuries. These works vary in their coverage of the civilizations of the pre-Islamic world, yet on the whole, the lion’s share of their focus is on two groups: the Arabs and the Iranians. Across this genre, the great civilizations of Greece and Rome, India, and China are frankly not afforded the same depth of coverage in terms of their internal dynamics as the Arabs and the Iranians. Considering the fact that Islam was born in the Arabian peninsula, it is of course, natural that Arab history should be afforded a prominent position in any Islamic historical work. As far as the Iranian orientation of these texts is concerned, this is a reflection of these historians’ social context. Most of the universal chronographers were of Iranian origin. (Al-Ṭabarī hailed from the region of Ṭabaristān, south of the Caspian Sea). Moreover, they were writing in an era witnessing the dominance in the central and eastern Islamic lands of Iranian political enterprises and a concomitant wide-scale resurgence of Iranian traditions and culture.
The universal chronicles of this era therefore evince an attempt to merge the histories of the pre-Islamic Arab and Iranian peoples into a universal cycle of aggregate accounts culminating with the rise of Islam. As a watershed moment bringing these two civilizations together, it is no wonder then why the events surrounding the seminal Battle of al-Qādisiyya receive so much attention in these works in comparison to their depiction of the Byzantine conquests. Yet, this streaming of two distinct traditions into a single historical consciousness was no easy task, especially considering that the transmitters these historians relied upon lived in a different social and political context from theirs and, no doubt, thought about these events differently. So for example, while Iranian culture certainly exercised a strong influence on the early ‘Abbasid Iraq of Sayf b. ‘Umar, and the Arab genealogist and antiquarian Hishām b. al-Kalbī (d. 819), it had not yet reached the same degree of dominance there and elsewhere in the Dār al-Islām as it had by the time we arrive at the universal chronographers’ era. How then did Muslim writers of history, living in different times and in different contexts, come to terms with and give meaning to the Arab conquest of Iran? The present study addresses this question.
[Excerpted from Arabs and Iranians in the Islamic Conquest Narrative: Memory and Identity Construction in Islamic Historiography, 750–1050, by Scott Savran. Copyright (c) 2018 – Routledge. Used with permission of author and publisher.]