For the past few weeks, the Iranian blogosphere has been buzzing with a debate about two ancient letters the authenticity of which is doubted.
The first is supposed to have been written by Omar Ibn Khattab, the second Caliph of Islam to Yazdegerd III, Emperor of Persia, sometime in the 7th century AD. In it, the Caliph calls on the emperor to abandon his Zoroastrian faith and convert to Islam in order to avoid war in this world and fire in the hereafter.
The second letter, supposed to be Yazdegerd’s reply, is a brief re-statement of the core values of pre-Islamic Iranians.
Although the letters have been available to scholars for centuries, their authenticity was never established.
Some scholars believe that the letters were forged long after their supposed authors had entered history. One hypothesis is that the letters were composed in the 10th century as Iran reached a tipping point, after which it became a Muslim majority nation.
What is remarkable is that both letters express virtually the same values. Both insist that monotheism is the only acceptable truth, and underline such concepts as piety, justice, equity, and self-reliance.
The reader is left with the impression that what is at stake in this epistolary duel is not religion but national identity. In effect, Yazdegerd is saying that if the test of faith is monotheism and ethical life, the Persians passed it soon after they appeared in history.
The two letters reflect some of the traditional anxieties of most Iranians and the schizophrenia that Iran has suffered from since it converted to Islam en masse.
One side of Iran is proud of its Islamic identity, sometimes to the point of arrogance. The average Iranian believes that his nation contributed more to Islam than any other. Some Iranian writers, citing the grammarian Sibuyeh and the lexicographer Ruzbeh as examples, claim that Persians played a key role in shaping the Arabic language. The Persian ancestry of great Arab poets, from Abu Nuwas and Mahyar al-Daylami to al-Jawahiri is seldom forgotten by Iranians.
Soon after Iranians started converting to Islam, a number of fables were invented to facilitate the passage.
One was that Hussein Ibn Ali, a grandson of the Prophet (PBUH) had married Bibi Shahrbanu, the youngest daughter of Emperor Yazdegerd, the author of the supposed letter, thus starting an Arabo-Persian bloodline that would continue through successive Imams of Shi’ism. The deference shown to descendants of Hussein and Shahrbanu, known in Persian as “sayyeds”(gentlemen), helped soften of anti-Arab sentiments.
Another side of Iran, however, is gripped by the fear of being regarded as Arab, or even mildly Arabized, in any form. It is this fear that has prompted anti-Arab sentiments in Persian literature.
But are Iranians in general anti-Arab?
This was the question discussed by Iranian and foreign scholars at a seminar in Tehran last February. Although most participants answered the question in the negative, the seminar did not produce a consensus.
There are two distinct images of the Arab in Persian literature.
One image is that of rapacious marauders.
The classical Persian word for the Arab is “tazi” which means “raider”. The most evil figure in Persian literature is Zahhak, the cruel ruler who becomes an instrument of the devil. He is presented as an Arab, born in Jerusalem and invited by the Persian aristocracy to become king and end dynastic feuds. However, once his cruel nature is exposed, the people, led by the ironsmith Kaveh, revolt and chain Zahhak in Mount Damavand, the majestic summit near Tehran.
Any student of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (The Book of Kings) would be moved by the description of Zahhak’s misdeed.
Another image of the Arab in Persian literature is the opposite. Here, the word Arab denotes wisdom, piety, generosity and courage.
Saadi, one of Iran’s greatest poets, is one example of Arabophilia. In his Golestan (The Rose Garden),a collection of parables, he often closes an argument by stating: As Arabs say….
Many of his heroes such as Luqman, Shibli, Hatam of Tayy and Dhulnun the Egyptian, whom he portrays as models of humanity, are Arabs.
Apart from Ferdowsi and a few minor poets such as Suzani of Samarkand and Athireddin of Akhsikath, who expressed some anti-Arab sentiments, most Persian classical poets had a positive view of the Arabs. Even then, as one speaker at the Tehran seminar noted, the anti-Arab verses ascribed to Ferdowsi may have been added to his Shahnameh by others.
Such great poets as Nizami and Jaami composed long narrative poems with Arab heroes. Qays and Leila and Wameq and Azra became iconic figures for most Iranians.
One speaker at the Tehran seminar argued that xenophobia is a sign of self-doubt. Thus, whenever Iranians felt confident in their identity, they did not manifest anti-Arab sentiments. It was only when they felt that their Persian-ness was under threat that they looked for an “other” to hate. Even then, the “other” that the Persians found was seldom the Arab.
A more frequent object of hatred was the Turk who was identified with war, cruelty, massacre and pillage in both Persian literature and folklore.
The Arabs ruled parts of Iran for some 80 years, before local Persian princes emerged in Sajestan and Khorassan. Various Turkish dynasties, however, ruled Iran for over 1000 years. (The last Turkic dynasty ended in 1925.)
Nevertheless, fomenting anti-Arab sentiments has always been easier than encouraging hatred of the Turks. The reason is that at least a quarter of Iran’s population speaks one of several dialects of Turkish. In most cases, these ethnic Persians have lost their original language and adopted a Turkic dialect. And, yet, they identify with their language, not ethnic origin.
That, in turn, makes it difficult for the mass of Iranians to express anti-Turk sentiments.
As the Tehran seminar showed, much of the anti-Arab sentiment in Iran today was produced over the past century or so, largely due to the emergence of European-style nationalism which emphasized the concepts of blood and soil.
Turkey under Ataturk also exported anti-Arabism to Iran under Reza Shah Pahlavi. Just as Ataturk had ordered a “purification” of the Turkish language by replacing as many Arab words as possible, Reza Shah created an academy to purge the Persian vocabulary of its Arab component. Over a 10-year period, some 5000 Arabic words were replaced with Persian ones, often borrowed from obscure texts or coined by academicians.
Ahmad Kasravi, one of Iran’s greatest intellectuals in the 20th century, became an advocate of de-Arabzation along with other prominent writers such as Sadegh Hedayat, Ibrahim Pour-Davoud and Massoud Farzad. Abdul-Hussein Zarrinkub’s book “Two Centuries of Silence”, a damning account of Arab domination, became a best-seller in the 1960s.
The eight-year war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s did not lead to any significant increase in anti-Arab sentiments in Iran. But the Khomeinist regime, especially under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has nurtured its version of anti-Arabism. In this version, the Arabs are castigated because they are supposedly not “Islamic” enough!