The Islamic World to 1600
About 224 CE, the Parthian governor of the province of Fars (which still exists as a province in present-day Iran), brought down the central government in Ctesiphon and established the Sassanid Empire, taking the throne as Ardashir I. The Sassanid Empire would last over 400 years, and would be the last Persian Empire before the Islamic conquest of Persia in the 7th century brought the region under Arab rule. For this reason the Sassanid Empire is important to our understanding of Islamic history, because it was instrumental in promoting Persian nationalism, and creating a Persian identity that remained strong even after the Islamic conquest and attempted Arabisation of the region.
The Sassanid Empire was almost constantly at war with the neighbouring Roman Empire to the west; Ardashir's son, Shapur I, even captured the Roman Emperor, Valerian, for a time in 260. The animosity between the two empires was exacerbated in the 4th century, when the Roman Emperor, Constantine I, converted to Christianity, and later, Theodosius I made Christianity the official state religion. After that, relations between the two empires took on an increased religious aspect, as the Roman Empire sought to protect all Christians outside its borders, including those under Sassanid rule. The Christians in the Sassanid Empire had not previously faced persecution for their religion, since they were mostly Nestorian Christians, a different branch of Christianity than that practiced in the Roman Empire. For that reason the Sassanids viewed their Christians not as following the religion of the enemy, but rather another Persian religion. Still, the Sassanid Christians were the first to be suspected of political disloyalty whenever the empire came into conflict with the Romans after Constantine's time.
While Christianity had become the state religion of the Roman Empire, Zoroastrianism had been the official religion of the Sassanids since the beginning of their empire in the 3rd century. The Zoroastrian church became very powerful, and its head, the mobadan mobad, joined the military and bureaucratic leaders as one of the most important men in the empire. Zoroastrianism is also said to have influenced Judeo-Christian theology, such as that pertaining to the dualism between good and evil, or light and darkness; the belief in angels and archangels; Satan as the epitome of evil and the adversary of God; the idea of paradise and hell; the idea of the continued existence of the soul past that of the body; reward and punishment by divine justice; the resurrection of the dead; the Last Judgement; beliefs in millennial periods and the end of the world; and the coming of a Saviour at the end of the world. Many of these ideas would also appear in Islamic theology. Zoroastrianism, which itself might have absorbed some of these ideas from Buddhism and Hinduism, was thus an important influence on several religions that followed it.
Politically, Khusrau I (r. 531-579) is considered the most influential Sassanid ruler. He has been compared to the 16th century Safavid ruler Shah Abbas I for instituting reforms that changed the empire. He reformed the army by providing soldiers with salaries and equipment, thus earning their loyalty and decreasing the power of nobles with private armies. He also improved efficiency in the tax system, by changing the method of assessment and collection. This was perhaps his most significant reform, because the Sassanid tax system later became a model for tax collection in the Islamic caliphate. The Muslims were also influenced by the office of the Sassanid prime minister, which became a prototype for the Islamic grand vizier.
After 50 years of peace, Khusrau II (r. 590-628) resumed hostilities with the neighbouring Byzantine Empire, the successor to the Roman. He rapidly expanded into Byzantine lands, capturing Jerusalem in 612 and Alexandria in 619, while placing Constantinople, the Byzantine capital, under siege. The Byzantines responded by staging a surprise attack through the Caucasus into the northern Sassanid Empire. They sacked Ctesiphon in 627, and Khusrau II was killed while fleeing the city. There were 11 more rulers in the following 10 last years of the Empire, but after Khusrau II the Sassanids grew weaker and more inefficient. The Empire collapsed under a rapid military assault by the invading Arabs between 636 and 642. Although the Arabs, seeking to spread their new religion, Islam, had fewer numbers and a simpler military structure than the Persians, the Sassanid Empire was weak from fighting the Byzantines. By remaining highly mobile and not relying on long supply lines, the Arabs rode in on horses and camels and defeated the Persians first at the Battle of Qadisiyya in 636. By 638 they had occupied the Sassanid palace in Ctesiphon, forcing the young king, Yazdegard III, to flee. Continuing through the Zagros Mountains, the Arabs won two more decisive battles, at Jalula and Nihavand in 642, to take over the entire Iranian plateau.
After 400 years, the quick collapse of the Sassanid Empire was a bit of a surprise. There are several possible reasons behind it, however. Not only had the Persians and Byzantines mutually wearied each other, but each regarded themselves as superior to the rest of the world, which was seen as somewhat barbarian. They therefore focussed their energies on fighting each other, while virtually ignoring other threats. The Arabs were particularly underestimated; the Persians gave more credence to the threat from raiding groups from the east than to the Arabs, possibly due to the Persian victory in southern Arabia that helped the Sassanids maintain control of the Red Sea trading route in the early 6th century. By the time of the invasion, however, the Arabs were able to take advantage of Persian weaknesses, such as disunity among the provinces and a lack of allegiance among the people to the Sassanid central administration. Many Persians submitted to the invaders when the Arabs demanded less taxes than the Sassanids had, and did not force conversion to Islam. Later, Islam did spread to non-Arab groups, most notably the Persians, who began to convert in significant numbers as Islamic rule over Persia strengthened in the centuries after the initial conquest. However, the Sassanid Empire played a major role in developing a distinct Persian nationalism, which survived the Islamic conquest and mass conversion of Persians to Islam. The Persians and the Arabs would become the leading ethnic groups in the Islamic world, and each soon realised that their cooperation was fundamental to the survival of the empire.
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