Between 644 and 650, under Caliph Uthman, Muslims established Muslim rule in Iran, Afghanistan and the Sind area of Pakistan. The Arabs first invaded Mawarannahr—an Iranian Songdian province in present-day Uzbekistan—in the middle of the seventh century through sporadic raids during their conquest of Persia. Available sources on the Arab conquest suggest that the Soghdians and other Iranian peoples of Central Asia were unable to defend their land against the Arabs because of internal divisions and the lack of strong indigenous leadership. The Arabs, on the other hand, were led by a brilliant general, Qutaybah ibn Muslim, and they also were highly motivated by the desire to spread their new faith (the official beginning of which was in A.D. 622). Because of these factors, the population of Mawarannahr was easily conquered. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Islam was introduced by Arab invaders in the 7th and 8th centuries but also spread by Sufi teachers, who wanders in deserts, steppes and mountains. The new religion spread gradually in the region. The native cultures, which in some respects already were being displaced by Persian influences before the Arabs arrived, were displaced farther in the ensuing centuries. Nevertheless, the destiny of Central Asia as an Islamic region was firmly established by the Arab victory over the Chinese armies in 750 in a battle at the Talas River.

Peter B. Golden wrote in the “Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia”: “It has been suggested, with some justice, that a limes system separating steppe from sown, barbarian from cultivated, urban society, spanned Eurasia. This system of fortifications and natural barriers, however, was not impenetrable. When the societies sheltered by these walls were strong, incursions from the nomadic world beyond were repulsed or contained. When their defences proved inadequate, sedentary societies either had to tame the “barbarian” by converting him to their culture or be completely transformed themselves. Western Central Asia, an Eastern Iranian area increasingly coming under the cultural influence of neighboring, kindred Sassanid Iran before the advent of Islam and the recipient of cultural currents emanating from the Mediterranean, India and China, was one of those zones through which the steppe-dweller could enter sedentary society. Conversely, its mercantile urban centers also served as a gateway through which the cultural and material achievements of settled society could penetrate the steppe. In the period under discussion, Western Central Asia, having recently accommodated itself to the political and cultural buffetings administered to it by expanding Arab power, was about to enter into another period of intense and intimate contact with the nomadic, Turkic societies to its north and north-east. In this instance, it would serve as the transmission zone for the cultural fruits of one nomadic society to another. Its role in this process was not passive, for the Islamic culture which entered the steppe zone had been influenced and reworked by the Eastern Iranians. [Source: The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, edited by Denis Sinor. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990]

Muslim Conquest of Central Asia

The Muslim armies moved quickly through Iran but were halted in present-day Uzbekistan by the Turks of Transoxiana in A.D. 642. A stalemate ensured. The Arabs got around it in A.D. 700, and seized control of Central Asia with the capture of Bukhara in 709, Samarkand in 712 and Kashgar in 714. The caliph's governor of Persia, Qutayba ibn Muslim, crossed the Oxus (Amu Darya) and the deserts of Turkestan. His fierce cavalry quickly captured Bukhara and Samarkand.

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “By the time of the Arab invasion, the Central Asian lands were divided among as many as 27 petty princedoms. Their rulers did not enjoy absolute authority, as the real power lay with the traditional landed aristocracy (the dihqans), who had fortified castles and small private armies at their disposal. In times of trouble, princes had literally to grovel to their supposed vassals for help. The whole picture bore a striking resemblance to the post-Achaemenid period, when the political map of Central Asia was changing kaleidoscopically. The Central Asian principalities never formed a viable confederacy. On top of mutual mistrust and hostility, there had emerged more fundamental divisions between the communities in the Zarafshon and Oxus valleys by the seventh century AD. The populace to the north of the Hisor mountain range had become Turkicised to a considerable extent due to the endless immigration from the steppes. By the seventh century AD, religious affiliations also varied considerably: people in the north of what is today Tajikistan professed Mazdaism, Nestorian Christianity and Manichaeism, while the bulk of the inhabitants of Tokharistan and Khuttal in the south still adhered to Buddhism. [Source: “Tajikistan” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013]

“Such conditions of disunion favoured the piecemeal conquest of Transoxiana (Central Asia) by the Arabs. Beginning in 651 AD, they organised periodic marauding raids deep into the territory of what they called ‘Mavarannahr’, but it was not until 705 AD that the caliphate adopted the policy of annexing the lands beyond the Oxus River (Amu Darya). Ten years later the task was accomplished. By the mid eighth century, the Arabs had managed to solidify their hold over Transoxiana. They checked the advancement of the Turgesh Turks at Isfijab and defeated a strong Chinese army at Talas in 751, thus putting an end, once and for all, to Chinese claims for dominance in Mavarannahr. In regards to religion, Islam had spread rapidly in Mavarannahr; as early as 728 the authorities of Bukhara trumpeted the complete conversion of Soghdiana to the Muslim faith.

“The new religion was mostly received with popular acclaim, for it promised greater social mobility and created favourable conditions for trade. Islam provided the peoples of Central Asia with spiritual and cultural bonds and brought them closer to each other as nothing had before. With Islam there came Arabic—not only the language of the holy Quran and the Abbasid court, but also the language of science and poetry and the lingua franca of trade and diplomacy. It also, with the massive influx of loan words, stimulated the emergence of the modern Persian language (Dari). Based on the general economic rise in the region and the coexistence and fruitful interaction of Arabic and Persian literatures, the newly emerged Islamic culture reached its zenith during the rule of the Samanid dynasty (875–999). The Samanids, who originated from an old dihqan family, created a kingdom of their own that stretched from the Persian Gulf to India. The relatively stable domestic and international situation allowed them to encourage learning and the arts. Intellectuals from all over the Islamic world came to Bukhara, the Samanid capital.”

Arabs Conquer Persia

Within one year of Muhammad's death in 632, Arabia itself was secure enough to allow his secular successor, Abu Bakr, the first caliph, to begin the campaign against the Byzantine and Sassanid empires. Abu Bakr defeated the Byzantine army at Damascus in 635 and then began his conquest of Iran. According to an often told story in Iran, Mohammed sent a letter from Mecca to the Sassanid King, Khosrow Parviz, inviting him to embrace Islam. The king’s response was to arrogantly tear up the letter. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

Weakened decades of fighting the Romans and Byzantines, the Sassanids in Iran and Iraq fell easily to the Arabs between A.D. 637 and 642. In 637 Arabs under Saad ibn Abi Waqqas defeated the Persians under Yazdegird III in the Battle of Qadisiyyah near Baghdad and seized the Sassanid stronghold of Ctesiphon (renamed Madain)—an island between the Tigres and Euphrates—gaining control of Mesopotamia. In n 641-42 the Arabs defeated the Sassanid army at Nahavand. After that, Iran lay open to the invaders. At that time Persia was wealthy and full of luxuries. The Arabs exchanged gold (yellow money), which they were unfamiliar with for silver (white money), which was their traditional form of currency. One Arab soldier kidnaped the daughter of a rich Persian nobleman and sold her back to her father for 1,000 dirhams. When he was told he could have demanded many times that amount he replied he had never heard of a number larger than 10,000.

The Sassanids were defeated with relative ease because they were weak from fighting the Byzantines and internal divisions and the country’s agriculture had been destroyed by flooding. Many Sassanid soldiers who were Arabs switched sides. The Islamic conquest was aided by the material and social bankruptcy of the Sassanids; the native populations had little to lose by cooperating with the conquering power. Moreover, the Muslims offered relative religious tolerance and fair treatment to populations that accepted Islamic rule without resistance. It was not until around 650, however, that resistance in Iran was quelled. Conversion to Islam, which offered certain advantages, was fairly rapid among the urban population but slower among the peasantry and the dihqans. The majority of Iranians did not become Muslim until the ninth century.*

Persia Under Arab Rule

Arabs—mostly the Baghdad-based Abbasid caliphs— controlled Persia for nearly 600 years and replaced the indigenous Zoroastrian faith with Islam. However, the eastern pat of the Muslim world, namely Iran, did not absorb Arab culture as readily as in the west. The Arabic language and culture didn’t penetrate into Iran as it did in other places. Persians continued to speak Persian and maintain links with their pre-Islamic culture while people in the west replaced local languages with Arabic and disavowed their old ways. There was friction between the Arab rulers and their Persian subjects.

Although the conquerors, especially the Umayyads (the Muslim rulers who succeeded Muhammad from 661-750), tended to stress the primacy of Arabs among Muslims, the Iranians were gradually integrated into the new community. The Muslim conquerors adopted the Sassanid coinage system and many Sassanid administrative practices, including the office of vizier, or minister, and the divan, a bureau or register for controlling state revenue and expenditure that became a characteristic of administration throughout Muslim lands. Later caliphs adopted Iranian court ceremonial practices and the trappings of Sassanid monarchy. Men of Iranian origin served as administrators after the conquest, and Iranians contributed significantly to all branches of Islamic learning, including philology, literature, history, geography, jurisprudence, philosophy, medicine, and the sciences.*

The Arabs were in control, however. The new state religion, Islam, imposed its own system of beliefs, laws, and social mores. In regions that submitted peacefully to Muslim rule, landowners kept their land. But crown land, land abandoned by fleeing owners, and land taken by conquest passed into the hands of the new state. This included the rich lands of the Sawad, a rich, alluvial plain in central and southern Iraq. Arabic became the official language of the court in 696, although Persian continued to be widely used as the spoken language. The shuubiyya literary controversy of the ninth through the eleventh centuries, in which Arabs and Iranians each lauded their own and denigrated the other's cultural traits, suggests the survival of a certain sense of distinct Iranian identity. In the ninth century, the emergence of more purely Iranian ruling dynasties witnessed the revival of the Persian language, enriched by Arabic loanwords and using the Arabic script, and of Persian literature.*

When Arabs conquered Persia, Sassanid bureaucrats retained their positions. Arab leaders were entranced by Persian culture. Many employed Persian artists and poets in their court. Some learned to speak Persian. Persian literature art and science continued to thrive under Arab rule and helped enrich Arab culture. In 10th century, a new style of high literature appeared written in Persian with Arabic script and enhanced y Arabic words. The Persian provinces produced some of Islam's greatest scholars and poets: Hafiz, Saadi and Imar Khayyam.

Arrival of Shiite Islam in Iran

Another legacy of the Arab conquest was Shiite Islam, which, although it has come to be identified closely with Iran, was not initially an Iranian religious movement. It originated with the Arab Muslims. In the great schism of Islam, one group among the community of believers maintained that leadership of the community following the death of Muhammad rightfully belonged to Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali, and to his descendants. This group came to be known as the Shiitet Ali, the partisans of Ali, or the Shiites. Another group, supporters of Muawiya (a rival contender for the caliphate following the murder of Uthman), challenged Ali's election to the caliphate in 656. After Ali was assassinated while praying in a mosque at Kufa in 661, Muawiya was declared caliph by the majority of the Islamic community. He became the first caliph of the Umayyad dynasty, which had its capital at Damascus. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

Ali's youngest son, Husayn, refused to pay the homage commanded by Muawiya's son and successor Yazid I and fled to Mecca, where he was asked to lead the Shiites — mostly those living in present-day Iraq — in a revolt. At Karbala, in Iraq, Husayn's band of 200 men and women followers, unwilling to surrender, were finally cut down by about 4,000 Umayyad troops. The Umayyad leader received Husayn's head, and Husayn's death in 680 on the tenth of Moharram continues to be observed as a day of mourning for all Shiites.*

The largest concentration of Shiites in the first century of Islam was in southern Iraq. It was not until the sixteenth century, under the Safavids, that a majority of Iranians became Shiites. Shiite Islam became then, as it is now, the state religion.*

Abbasids in Iran

The Abbasids, who overthrew the Umayyads in 750, while sympathetic to the Iranian Shiites, were clearly an Arab dynasty. They revolted in the name of descendants of Muhammad's uncle, Abbas, and the House of Hashim. Hashim was an ancestor of both the Shiite and the Abbas, or Sunni , line, and the Abbasid movement enjoyed the support of both Sunni and Shiite Muslims. The Abbasid army consisted primarily of Khorasanians and was led by an Iranian general, Abu Muslim. It contained both Iranian and Arab elements, and the Abbasids enjoyed both Iranian and Arab support. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

Nevertheless, the Abbasids, although sympathetic to the Shiites, whose support they wished to retain, did not encourage the more extremist Shiite aspirations. The Abbasids established their capital at Baghdad. Al Mamun, who seized power from his brother, Amin, and proclaimed himself caliph in 811, had an Iranian mother and thus had a base of support in Khorasan. The Abbasids continued the centralizing policies of their predecessors. Under their rule, the Islamic world experienced a cultural efflorescence and the expansion of trade and economic prosperity. These were developments in which Iran shared.*

Abbasids were influenced greatly by Persian culture. Under their rule, Persian literature was revived using Arabic alphabet in 10th century. The stories in “Arabian Nights” took place mostly in Persia. Firdausi (940?-1020), Persia’s greatest poet and composer, sang epic verse in the of “Shah-nameh” (Book of Kings) abof the early Persian kings. Persian miniaturist these tales to life with their richly illuminated manuscripts.

Muslim Rule in Central Asia

The conquest of Central Asia by Islamic Arabs, which was completed in the eighth century A.D., brought to the region a new religion and culture that continue to be dominant. Before the arrival of Islam many of the people in Central Asia were animists, Buddhists and Zoroastrians. Muslims introduced an alphabet and high-level scholarship. Chinese captured in Samarkand taught the Arabs the art of papermaking, which later made its way across the Muslim world to Europe. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Under Arab rule, Central Asia retained much of its Iranian character, remaining an important center of culture and trade for centuries after the Arab conquest. However, until the tenth century the language of government, literature, and commerce was Arabic. Mawarannahr continued to be an important political player in regional affairs, as it had been under various Persian dynasties. In fact, the Abbasid Caliphate, which ruled the Arab world for five centuries beginning in 750, was established thanks in great part to assistance from Central Asian supporters in their struggle against the then-ruling Umayyad Caliphate. *

During the height of the Abbasid Caliphate in the eighth and the ninth centuries, Central Asia and Mawarannahr experienced a truly golden age. Bukhara became one of the leading centers of learning, culture, and art in the Muslim world, its magnificence rivaling contemporaneous cultural centers such as Baghdad, Cairo, and Cordoba. Some of the greatest historians, scientists, and geographers in the history of Islamic culture were natives of the region. *

As the Abbasid Caliphate began to weaken and local Islamic Iranian states emerged as the rulers of Iran and Central Asia, the Persian language began to regain its preeminent role in the region as the language of literature and government. The rulers of the eastern section of Iran and of Mawarannahr were Persians. Under the Samanids and the Buyids, the rich culture of Mawarannahr continued to flourish. *

Battle of Talas

In 751, Chinese forces of the Tang dynasty attempting the extend Chinese control into Central Asia were annihilated by a Muslim army in Talas (present-day Tara in Kazakhstan) not far from Samarkand. The defeat of the Chinese in 751 gave Muslims control of the Silk Road.

As China became strong during the Tang dynasty it began expanding westward, for the most part relying more on diplomatic skills than military might to achieve its goals. The strategy worked well until one Chinese viceroy went too far and ordered the murder of the khan of the Tashkent Turks.

In 751 an alliance of enraged Turks, opportunist Arabs and Tibetans maneuvered a Chinese force into the Talas Valley in present-day Kazakhstan and Kyrzgzstan. In the ensuing battle — the Battle of Talas — the Chinese were routed and forced back across the Tian Shan. Tibetans moving up from the south were driven out of the Tarim basin by Uighur Turks, allies of the Tang. The Uighars have been in the region ever since.

The Battle of Talas, ended Chinese ambitions in Central Asia. After the battle, the Turk, Arab and Tibetans splintered and instability was the rule in Central Asia until the 9th century when the Samanid dynasty rose up.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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