The Unconquerable Persian Legacy

Aug. 18, 2017  Before Islam, Arabs were confined largely to the Arabian Peninsula. They were nomads, warring and leaderless. To the north of the peninsula lay the Byzantine Empire. Across the Persian Gulf lay the Sassanid Empire, which stretched from Mesopotamia to the South Caucasus. The two empires had fought each other intermittently for more than three centuries. It was under these circumstances that their fortunes changed as Islam emerged and became the founding philosophy of a new government in Medina. Ten years later, when the Prophet Muhammad died and a new leader replaced him – ushering in the first Arab empire, known as the Rashidun Caliphate – Arab Muslims had assumed control of the entire Arabian Peninsula.

But the Arabs embraced Persian culture faster than the Persians converted to Islam. In fact, so great was the Persians’ influence that when Islam spread to Central Asia, the Turkic people who lived there converted to the Persianized version of Islam. Stunningly, the traditions of Persian subjects were adopted by Arab overlords – and not the other way around.

Weekly Graphic

|August 18, 2017

(click to enlarge)

By the 13th century, the Mongols had assumed control of the Persian portion of the Muslim world, but they, too, eventually converted to Islam. They established what were ethnically Turkic but otherwise Persianate regimes. The Turkic forces eventually focused on areas to the west, east and north of the Persian heartland, which allowed the Persians to stage a comeback.

The Persian revival came in the form of the Safavid Empire (1501-1736). The Safavids laid the foundations of modern Iran. They adopted Shiite Islam as the official state religion, and they restored Persian sovereignty over the lands of their forebears. The Safavids at their peak controlled all of modern-day Iran, Azerbaijan and Armenia and parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Turkey, Syria, Georgia and Dagestan. Rivals of the Ottoman Empire to the west and the Mughal Empire to the east, the Safavids were later succeeded by the Qajar Dynasty (1795-1925), which began courtships with Russia and the United Kingdom. After the Qajars came the Pahlavis, who would rule Iran until 1979, when they were overthrown during the Iranian Revolution.

As the Arab world descends into anarchy, things are looking up for Iran. This is a frightening scenario for the Saudis. Though far from ideal, Tehran has negotiated a deal with the United States that has provided it respite from the sanctions regime. Its Arab Shiite allies have the upper hand in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Other Shiite arenas, such as Yemen, Bahrain and even the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, also seem promising from Iran’s point of view.

The Arabs emerged out of the Arabian Peninsula, which has been geopolitically significant only on two occasions in history: during the rise of Islam in the 7th century and the discovery of oil in the 20th century. In the intervening centuries, Arab power had been highly limited. Perhaps the Arab world is regressing to the historical mean.