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Conflict and cooperation
Zoroastrian Subalterns and Muslim Elites
in Medieval Iranian Society
Professor Jamsheed K Choksy

Book Review

Professor Farhang Mehr


General Information:
ISBN: 0-231-10685-8
Columbia University Press

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The dynamics of transformation of the Iranian society, after the Arab invasion in the seventh century, are shrouded in ambiguity. No contemporaneously written record exists. The subsequently compiled accounts are partly conjectural and mostly politicized. In "Conflict and Cooperation," Jamsheed K. Choksy reconstructs chronologically, and analyzes, material events of the four centuries (seventh to eleventh), in an attempt to unravel the dynamics of the socio-religious changes of that period in Iran. The defeat of the Sassanian Empire seems to have been due to military miscalculations as well as factional strife at the Iranian Royal Court. The initial attack of the Arabs in 632 (during Abu Bakr) may have looked to the Iranian military authorities as a sporadic nomadic raid on a settled community. The Iranian army crushed the subsequent raids of the Muslim forces on the border towns, in 634 (during Omar). However in the following battles the highly motivated and disciplined Arab army emerged victorious, sealing the fate of the Iranian empire, The Muslims gave Iranians three options: to espouse Islam and, at least in theory, rank pari passu with Muslims, to pay the poll tax and enjoy security and freedom of religion, or continue the military confrontation and await God’s will. In these battles the victorious Arab army collected considerable booty, seized Iranian women as concubines, and their children as slaves. It seems that at the beginning, political dominance rather than conversion into Islam was the goal of the Arabs. Likewise in the first two decades Zoroastrians did not show any interest in Islam, and frequent rebellions betrayed Iranians’ strong feelings about the Arab invasion. The Iranians had submitted to the military supremacy of Muslims without any intention to surrender their faith. Hence the defeated Zoroastrians normally opted for paying poll tax (jizyah) and land tax (Kharadj), in exchange for retaining their creed, and enjoying security. This necessitated a degree of cooperation, which often did not last long since neither party fully discharged their undertakings under the pacts. In such situations the degree of cooperation and conflict was related to their mutual experiences in their initial and subsequent encounters. The historical accounts reveal that the relation between the colonizers and the colonized was fairly harmonious in Iraq, Azerbaijan, Khuzistan and Sistan; intermittently hostile in Jibal (Qome included), Fars, Kerman, and Khurasan; and constantly confrontational along the Caspian shore (Mazandaran, Gilan) and Transoxiania (Central Asia). In the course of four centuries, the Arabs and Irani converts skillfully employed the following factors, to effectuate a rapid replacement of Zoroastrianism by Islam. In this context the author emphasizes the role of premonitory literature in attitudinal change of individuals and communities. "Premonitory traditions are records of words, deeds, and symbols that relate the past or present to the future happenings." These consist of prophecies, and apocalyptic expectations. During the early interactions, the Zoroastrian and Islamic premonitory literatures were linked and then reshaped, to rationalize the past events, and predict the future occurrences, as inevitable incidents of history. That amounted to Zoroastrians’ resignation to their fate and Muslims’ confidence in the legitimacy of their cause. The disjunction and dislocation that ensued changed the socio-religious structure and the socio-economic equations in the Iranian society. Most of these prophecies and apocalyptic expectations were vague and obscure, and few were specific; some predated the Arab invasion and some were forged in post-Sassanian years. Prophetic literature generally indicated Muslim ascendancy and Zoroastrian decline, both of which were supposed to be manifestation of God’s will. The Zoroastrian concept of sacred history, eschatology and apocalypticism purported a period of suzerainty of evil, heralding the end of time, when the savior (saoshyant) would emerge for the purpose of destroying evil and reestablishing Zoroastrianism as the religion of all humanity. The magi interpreted the Arab invasion and the spread of Islam as the work of evil. Some even went to the extent of attributing Muslims to the evil clan of Wrath. The promise of final triumph of Zoroastrianism over Islam provided certain consolation to the subordinated Zoroastrians. On the other hand Muslims considered their prophet the seal of the prophets and their religion as the only vehicle for salvation. Consequently Muslims claimed justification in their dominion over the non-Muslims and in subjecting the latter to worst discrimination and brutality. The result was conflict and occasional uneasy cooperation between the two communities.

Auguries, both Islamic and Zoroastrian, however unverifiable, strengthened the divine nature of the events. Such were the readings into passages in the Koran that allegedly predicted the final defeat of the Sassanian Empire by the Byzantine, despite their initial victory; claiming that in a letter claimed written by prophet Mohammed addressed to the Sassanid king Khosrow Anoushravan, the prophet had invited to espouse Islam or be ready to have his dynasty’s rule, be terminated; the presaging of Iran’s disaster, based on the movements of stars, attributed to Rustam Farokhzad, the commander of the Iranian army; and Mohammed’s prediction of the doomed consequences of women reigning the country (reference to the rule of Poorandokht in Iran). Represented by historical realities, these alleged foreboding gained credibility and assumed the nature of auguries.

Furthermore converted Iranians in later years, tried to increase the legitimacy of Islam by drawing parallels between the omens surrounding Muhammad with those surrounding Zarathushtra. These would introduce the new prophet as a successor to the old one and enhance the number of converts into Islam. An association of light radiating from Mohammad’s mother soon after his conception, resembled the radiation signaling the birth of Zarathushtra; and the legend of the growth of a tall tree out of the back of the grandfather of Muhammad corresponded to the legend of the growth of the tree in the womb of Cyrus’ mother. These were part of the oracular literature which, in the author’s view, were aimed at facilitating cross-communal ties. There were other factors that contributed to the confessional growth and rapid expansion of voluntary conversion. The disintegration of the mighty Sassanian empire which identified itself with Zoroastrianism; and the ambition of the elite to retain their wealth, economical advantages, and political influence, prompted many Zoroastrians to embrace Islam. Many accepted Islam to escape sporadic onslaught by Muslims. The payment of the poll tax by Zoroastrians as Zimmis, under the most humiliating conditions, was another factor. The rural people were the last to give up their traditional faith. Finally the conflict had to be replaced by cooperation.

Institutional changes also contributed to the rapid religious transformation of Iranians. Violence is often associated with power; Muslims used their political power and military might coercively. Cross-communal interactions that had already started in military and political areas were extended to religious, social and economic domains. With the increase in their power, the Muslims treated religious minorities more harshly. Cross-communal contacts were partly deregulated. These regulations encompassed legislative, judiciary and finance. Some of these regulations were punitive directly or indirectly; some were rewarding with a view to relax tension and encourage intermingling and assimilation. Regulations concerning land and poll taxes, edicts relating to family hierarchy and relationship, laws pertaining to administrative policies and high-ranking jobs were amongst such devices. Whenever Zoroastrian values differed from Islamic law, the latter (Shari’a) prevailed. Poll-tax varied according to the wealth, gender, circumstances of capitulation, and health of the payee, etc: "During the Abbassids the poll-tax served as a means of facilitating conversion into Islam." Other forms of fiscal discrimination included a higher land tax imposed on Iranians. Hence financial means were used for achieving both financial and religious aims.

The status of Zoroastrians- Zimmi or infidel- was finally resolved in favor of the former, subjecting them to poll-tax instead of forcing them to accept Islam. Some members of Zoroastrian elite, who were thirsty for power, changed their religion and, because of their skills or support of influential Muslims, obtained high positions in the top echelons of administration. The institutional changes in family relations were detrimental to family unity. The author presents many illustrations. A woman whose husband embraced Islam had either to follow suit, or be reduced to a secondary wife, losing authority over her children. A similar rule applied when the father or brother of a woman turned Muslim. This was another contrivance to persuade women and children to join Islam.

Islamic society is a closed society, everybody can join but nobody may leave. Islam does not allow Muslims confessional change. Hence the marriage of a Muslim woman with a Zoroastrian man was void, and the offspring of a the marriage of a Muslim with a Zoroastrian woman were to be Muslim. According to some schools even a Zoroastrian woman, unlike a Jewish or Christian woman, was not allowed to marry a Muslim even as a concubine. Zoroastrians too forbade intermarriage altogether. Another discrimination related to the blood money payable to the relatives of a murdered Zoroastrian if the perpetrator was a Muslim as compared with the amount payable to the relatives of a murdered Muslim if the perpetrator was a Zoroastrian. The author states that interaction between Muslims and customary rules, legal codes, and juridical decisions regulated Zoroastrians. He comments that the two communities regarded each other as mutually unclean; therefore neither community permitted the members of the other to attend their places of worship,or to be present at the ceremony of disposal of their dead, or to touch their food water, meat etc. Zoroastrians, like other Zimmis, had to post special marks on their clothes and wore belts in order to be distinguishable from Muslims. Zoroastrians were not permitted to wear Persian style jackets, silk garments or Arab footgear. Except for their leaders, Zoroastrians were not allowed to ride horses; they could only ride unsaddled donkeys and mules. To avoid humiliation Zoroastrians stopped wearing Sudreh and Kushti in public.

Finally the author refers to the restrictive rules governing inter-communal trade. He mentions that Zoroastrians were not allowed to engage with Muslims in certain types of commercial partnership, or trade in certain commodities, products, and animals. However, these rules were sometimes relaxed in the interest of expansion of trade or in connection with agricultural and agrarian operations. With the expansion of Islamic culture and power and institutionalization of cross-communal interactions, Islamic jurists and theologians were in a position to regulate and dictate the details in socioeconomic transactions. The social and socioeconomic interaction between Muslims and Zoroastrians during 650 to 1300 constantly changed mostly to the detriment of Zoroastrian identity. Customary rules followed political and religious changes. During this period the customary rules changed within a wide range of attested practices. Institutional growth and restructuring greatly contributed to the confessional growth in the Iranian society.

"Conflict and Cooperation" is a fully documented book that sheds light on the dynamics of the transformation of a Zoroastrian society into an Islamic society, the collapse of one community and maturation of another. With an imaginative approach and ingenious analyses the author explains how the nascent elite and the newly subaltern classes, fueled the change, and how "conflict and cooperation became mechanisms that facilitated he emergence of fresh configurations from societal crisis." It is a fascinating book .I strongly recommend it to the students of religions, sociology, and political science.