In Search of the Secret of Survival: Reflections on the Khurasanian Cultural Resurgence

Ehsan Yarshater

The Annual Noruz Lecture by a Distinguished Scholar of Iranian Studies
March 1997


The distinguished French scholar Xavier de Planhol, in his standard work on Islamic nations entitled Les nations du Prophete, Manuel geographique du politique musulman (Paris, 1993), seeks an answer to a question that has been posed by earlier students of Persian history as well, without ever finding a satisfactory answer: How can one explain the fact that Persia, which, with only one major exception, was ruled for almost nine centuries, that is, from the 11th through the 20th, by Turkic or Turkic-speaking rulers, and which was heavily settled by recurrent waves of Turkish tribes, did not adopt Turkish as its language, as did Turkey? The major exception was when Persia came under the suzerainty of the Mongols for over a century, from about 1227 to 1353 (in Transoxiana until 1370); but even in this case one must remember that the Mongol army was recruited chiefly from among Turkic tribes.”How to explain,” asks de Planhol, “this resistance of Iranian culture in the face of Turkish invasions, when Byzantine civilization would collapse in the more distant Anatolia?” (p. 481)

The same question may be posed with greater relevance in the case of Arab rule in Persia: How can one explain the fact that although Persia was governed without interruption for more than two hundred years by the Arabs after the collapse of the Sasanian empire in the mid-seventh century, although it adopted Islam as its religion, a religion with its holy book and its daily prayers in Arabic, and although it actively participated in the development and consolidation of Islamic civilization, it did not adopt the Arabic language or Arab identity, as did Iraq, Syria, and Egypt, despite their venerable ancient civilizations?

This question applies in both cases more particularly to Khurasan in its broader sense, which includes Transoxiana and Seistan.2 It was in Khurasan, among Persian provinces, that the largest number of Arab tribes were installed after the conquest, and it was Khurasan that first came under attack of invading Turkic nomads and provided initial or long-term residence for them. Despite the long hegemony of the Turkic dynasties and, more important, the successive outpourings of Turkic tribes from Central Asia who settled in Khurasan, the province not only preserved its language but emerged as a bastion of Iranian traditions and a watershed of Persian literary revival. It is particularly remarkable that even under Turkish-speaking Safavids, who imposed, at least for an entire century, the unmitigated domination of the Turkish Qizilbash tribes over Persia, and backed their political aggression with claims of divine sanction, Turkish did not succeed in dethroning the Persian language. Today Persian is spoken not only in Tajikistan and much of Afghanistan but, to some extent, even in Samarkand and Bukhara and their neighboring regions, now located in Uzbekistan, in spite of long-standing local pressure for assimilation. This state of affairs stands in sharp contrast to Anatolia, which was Turkified within a short period by a much smaller number of Turkish tribes that settled there. As de Planhol notes: ‘Anatolia was opened to Turkish nomads, already settled in large numbers in Iran, following the loss of the battle of Mantzikert (Malazgirt) in 1071 by the troops of the Byzantine emperor Roman Diogenes. A century later, in the Western sources concerning the Third Crusade, that of Frederick Barbarossa (1189), the country is already known as “Turkey”, which has remained to the present day.’3

A related aspect of the inner strength exhibited by the Khurasanian population was its assimilating power. Not only did it not succumb to the language or culture of the nomadic invaders, but it imposed its own on them. The celebrated Arab author, JŒúiª (776-868), in his treatise on the virtues of the Turks, emphasizes the fact that the inhabitants of Khurasan had imposed their ways, customs, and ethnic traits on foreign inhabitants, irrespective of whether they were Arabs or Turks, thus blurring racial differences. Speaking of the Arabs who settled in Khurasan, he remarked, “… when you look at the sons of Arabs and Bedouins who were settled in Khurasan, you cannot distinguish between the man whose father settled in Farghaena and the indigenous inhabitant of Farghaena.”4 What is implied in JŒúiª’s comment is, in Jacob Lassner’s words, that “the inherent cultural traits of a particular region can be transferred to a settler population. The Arabs transplanted in Khurasan thereby became a native of that region.”5

Moshe Sharon, in his Black Banners from the East, notes the impact of Khurasan on its alien settlers more explicitly: By degrees, Arabic virtually disappeared as the language of everyday speech among the second generation Arabs who had been born in Khurasan. Its place was taken by the Persian-Arabic dialect, which is presumably what the sources call “lughat ahl Khurasan” and “lisân ahl Khurasan,” the language of the people of Khurasan….Not only did the Arab language disappear as an everyday means of communication, not only did the heritage of Arab customs gradually vanish among second and third generations born in Khurasan, most of them of Iranian mothers, but the Arab physical type also tended to disappear.6

The same assimilating power is reflected in the fact that all Turkic dynasties that ruled Khurasan, from the Ghaznavids and the Saljuqs in the 11th and 12th centuries to the Timurids in the 14th and 15th and the Qajars in the 19th and 20th, became, as is well known, patrons and propagators of Persian culture, more particularly of Persian language, literature, and art.

The first major indication of the exceptional vitality and inner strength of Khurasan and Transoxiana reveals itself in the course of two historical events of xtraordinary significance. The first is the victorious revolutionary movement and uprising in Khurasan, known as the Abbasid revolution, which was ably directed by Abu Muslim. The Khurasanian army did what had seemed impossible: it defeated and annihilated the Syrian-based Umayyad army, brought down the mighty dynasty that had, however, failed to recognize the change in the balance of power resulting from the conversion of the large Persian population (particularly in the eastern and northeastern parts of the country), and installed the Abbasid caliphs in its place. One cannot stress enough the importance of this event and the profound changes it brought about in the world of Islam by giving the non-Arab Muslims, particularly the Persians, equal opportunity to run the Islamic state and develop and consolidate the Islamic civilization. Since the Khurasanian army also contained fighting men from the Arab tribes that had settled in Khurasan, a number of “revisionist” authors7 have recently proffered an “Arabist” interpretation of the Abbasid revolution and the Khurasanian army, a question which I have dealt with elsewhere.8 Suffice it to say here that not only the revolt and the army were recognized by Islamic authors as “Khurasanian,” but even the Abbasid caliphate was known to have been set up by the Persians. For instance, it is revealing, that JŒhiª, the noted anti-Shu`ûbi Arab writer, calls the Abbasid state “Persian and Khurasanian,” while he describes the Umayyad caliphate “Arabian” and its army “Syrian.”9 Furthermore, the consequences of the revolution and the surge of Persian elements in the administrative, social and intellectual life of the early Abbasid period, on the one hand, and the weakening of the Arab element, and the trust the early Abbasids placed on the mawŒl^, together with their distrust of the Arabs with tribal affiliation, on the other, speak for themselves and hardly point to the victory of an “Arab” army or element.

The second event concerns the dispute that developed between the caliph al-Amin and his brother, al-Ma’mûn, then governor of Khurasan and born of a Persian mother, when al-Amin tried to deprive al-Ma’mûn of the privileges that their father, al-Rashîd, had bestowed upon the latter. An army recruited from among the people of Khurasan and Transoxiana and capably led by the Khurasanian general, Tâhir b. Husayn the Ambidextrous (Dhu’l-yamînayn) attacked the forces of al-Amin at several junctures and emerged triumphant, installing al-Ma’mûn as caliph and ushering in the most enlightened, if not the most liberal, period of the Abbasid caliphate.

These two events attest to a reservoir of dynamic force and militant energy among the people of Khurasan that set them apart from the people of other regions, either in Iranian lands or elsewhere in the realm of Islam. Furthermore, in no other part of Persia did radical or innovative politico-religious views and sentiments find a readier reception than in Khurasan. It is hardly a coincidence that of all the Islamic provinces, it was Khurasan that was chosen first by the Shi’ite leaders and then by the Abbasid leader Ibrâhîm the Imâm as the focus of their clandestine call (da’wa) against the Umayyads and their alleged unbelief, and it was only in Khurasan that the movement succeeded. The reaction in Khurasan to the betrayal of Abu Muslim and his execution by al-Mansûr was also in character. A series of politico-religious movements sprang up in Khurasan after his execution, including those by al-Muqanna`, Ustâdh S^s, Bihâfarîdh, and Sunbâdh,10 not to mention the earlier movements of Abu KhŒlid,11 the Sapîd-jâmagân, or the White-clothed, and the Surkh-jâmagân, or the Red-clothed, all militant anti-Arab movements with Mazdakite tendencies who had older roots in the region.

Of even greater significance is the fact that it was in Khurasan that the renaissance of Persian letters occurred in the 9th century. Here it was where the New Persian poetry started its distinguished course. Here it was where Rûdaki (d. 940), the father of Persian poetry, wrote his odes and lyrics; and here it was where the major poets of the Ghaznavid era (`Unsuri, Farrukhi, and Manûchihri) elevated Persian poetry to new heights of expressiveness and eloquence. Above all, it was in Khurasan that the first attempts were made to compose in Persian prose and verse of Iranian “national history,” including the myths and legends inherited from bygone ages. Finally, it was in Khurasan that Firdausi’s magestic Shahnâmeh, the greatest monument of the Persian language and the most robust pillar of Iranian national identity, saw the light of day.

The Khurasanian’s remarkable resilience, however, is not confined to linguistic and literary fields. The same distinction can be seen in intellectual and scholarly domains as well. Khurasan’s annals are adorned with the names of outstanding men of learning and able administrators. It was from Khurasan that rose capable scholar-statesmen such as Banû Sahl (Fadl b. Sahl and HH HHasan b. Sahl,) who distinguished themselves in the course of al-Ma’mûn’s struggle against al-Amin and during the caliphate of the former viziers and advisors such as Abu `Abd-Allâh Jayhâni, Abu all Fadl and Abu `Ali Bal`ami, Abu al `Abbâs Isfarâyinî, Ahmad b. HHasan Meymandi, Hasanak-i Wazir, Abu al Hasan `UTtbâ and the illustrious Nizâm al-Mulk. It was Khurasan that gave birth to the historians Gardîzî and Abu all Fadl Bayhaqi, and the anonymous author of the History of Sistan. It was also the Greater Khurasan that gave birth to mathematician-astronomer-geographer Abu Ja`far Muhammad b. Mûsâ Khwârazmi, the inventor of algebra;12 to Abu `Abd-Allâh Muúammad b. Ahmad Khwrazm^, the author of Mefâih al `Ulûm; to astronomer Abu Ma`shar of Balkh (Abumasar); to mathematician-astronomers Ab¬¾l WafŒ¾ of B¬zjŒn and `Umar Khayyâm (or Khayyâmi) of Nîshâpûr; to polymath Abu Rayhân Bîrûni; to Fârâbi, the real founder of Islamic philosophy; to Abu Sulaymân Sijistâni, the logician who dominated Baghdad’s intellectual and philosophical circles in the latter part of the tenth century; to Avicenna, the eminent philosopher and physician; to Isma`ili thinkers Ab¬ Ya`qûb Sijistâni and Nâsir-i Khusrau; to polygraph Ab¬ Zaid Balkhi; and to litterateur, historian and theologian Ibn Qutayba Dînawar, to name only some of the most illustrious individuals.

Equally distinguished is Khurasan’s record in Islamic theology, with scholars such as Ghazâlî, Zamakhshari, and Shahrastani (the latter also being a historian of religion). Khurasan was no less prominent in the field of Islamic mysticism, with figures such as Abu Yazîd Bistâmi, Abu Sa`id Abu al-Khayr, Abu al-Hasan Kharaqâni, `Abd-Allâh Ansâri, Ahmad Ghazâli, and Najm al-Din Kubrâ, from whom many lines of Sufi orders derived. One could expand the list of the outstanding sons of Khurasan, but this is hardly necessary. It is sufficient to ponder only the names of Fârâbî, Khwârazmi, Ibn Qu´ayba, Bîrûnî, Avicenna, and Ghazali in the intellectual and scholarly fields, and Abu Muslim, Tâhir b. Husayn, Ya’qub b. Layth, and Ism`îl b. Ahmad the Sâmânîd in the political and military fields to realize the exceptional vigor and the abundance of talent that characterized this milieu in the first centuries of Islam, when the Khurasanian renaissance was in full bloom.

The Khurasanian attempts at self-assertion and the efforts of the people of Khurasan to regain their identity after the Arab conquest were eventually articulated through the formation of semiautonomous states, first less tendentiously by the Tahirids, then aggressively by the Saffarids, and finally diplomatically (but also more efficiently) by the cultivated Samanids. Again, it was in Khurasan that an administrative system evolved, based on the Abbasid model, itself largely based on Sasanian tradition, which continued, with little alteration, for many centuries, at least until the Mongol invasion, and, in fact, even beyond. None of this occurred in other provinces of Persia and was conspicuously absent in southern Persia, the birthplace of the Achaemenians and the Sasanians and the stronghold of the Zoroastrian faith. The only notable exception was the rebellion of Bâbak Khurramdîn in Azerbaijan and Sharvân, who resisted the attacks of the caliph for 16 years until he was defeated and captured by the Transoxianan general Afshîn of Ushr¬sana.

The Khurasanian renaissance, which manifested itself in military success, exceptional intellectual and literary creativity, efficient administration, and passionate, nonconformist religious beliefs, was highly important for the history of the Islamic world, for it set in motion a cultural rebirth in Persia which affected and enlivened the eastern lands of Islam, from Turkey to India. A culture was born, with Persian as its lingua franca, which spread far and wide, not only by its intrinsic quality and strength, but also thanks to the patronage of the Turkic sultans, amirs, and commanders who ruled over Persia, Asia Minor, Central Asia and India, and who had become adepts and supporters of this culture. It flourished at a time when the Arab phase of Islamic civilization, centered in Baghdad since the mid-8th century, fell into decline and lost its vitality; becoming soon after the Mongol invasion in the 13th century and the collapse of Baghdad a possession of the Ottoman Empire, which was a domain of Persian cultural influence. Thus, through the agency of the Ottomans, the Arab countries and the western lands of Islam, too, came under the influence of Persian culture. This second vitalization of Islamic civilization, which followed the decline of its Arab phase and was a direct result of the Khurasanian revival, represents the Persian phase of Islamic culture. As Arnold Toynbee notes, For this vast cultural empire [i.e., from Bosphorus to the Bay of Bengal] the New Persian language was indebted to the arms of Turkish-speaking empire- builders, reared in the Iranic tradition and therefore captivated by the spell of the New Persian literature, whose military and political destiny it had been to provide one universal state for Orthodox Christendom in the shape of the Ottoman Empire and another for the Hindu World in the shape of the Timurid Mughal Raj.

These two universal states of Iranic construction on Orthodox Christendom and on Hindu ground were duly annexed, in accordance with their builders’ own cultural affinities, to the original domain of the New Persian language in the homelands of the Iranic Civilization on the Iranian plateau and in the Basin of the Oxus and the Jaxartes; and in the heyday of the Mughal, Safawi, and Ottoman regimes new Persian was being patronized as the language of litterae humaniores by the ruling element over the whole of this huge realm, while it was also being employed as the official language of administration in those two-thirds of its realm that lay within the Safawi and the Mughal frontiers.13

De Planhol’s explanation for the obvious difference between Anatolia and the Iranian plateau with respect to their reaction to the Turkish invasions is climatic and agricultural in nature. According to him, quite early, Persians developed a system of advanced agricultural methods based on irrigation techniques. Since most of the country was arid, its people learned how to carefully siphon off water from rivers in the valleys by making use of slopes in order to irrigate the stepped fields on the sides of hills and mountains. Even more important, they learned how to benefit from stable subterranean waters by digging wells and canals in order to channel water to the fields in the plains, known as the qanât system. With very few exceptions, all major cities in Persia, have been beneficiaries of either system of irrigation. De Planhol argues that although nomadic invasions of Persia caused much destruction in settled areas and ruined many wells and canals, they never succeeded in obliterating the system entirely. Thus Persian culture, being basically rural, remained firmly anchored to an advanced technique of agriculture that resisted destruction.

By contrast, in Anatolia, which has a more favorable climate, with annual rainfall never below 200 millimeters, agriculture is essentially tied to rainfall and the qanât system is hardly employed. The farmers are dependent on nature’s capricious favor; if a dry spring or a hard winter occurs, the farmer is more vulnerable than he would be on the Iranian plateau. In other words, agriculture is more risky and less stable, even though the Anatolian farmer generally has an easier time than his Iranian counterpart. Furthermore, when Anatolia was drawn increasingly into the Mediterranean sphere, particularly after the Hellenistic period, cultivation of olives, grapes, and figs became more popular, further weakening the cultivation of grains. Thus, it was much easier for the Turkish tribes to mold a country lacking a solid agricultural base, which would have provided a sense of stability and resistance, to match their own way of life and culture.

I cannot do justice here to all the details with which de Planhol supports his ingenious thesis. Nevertheless, I do not think that the different reactions to Turkish suzerainty of the two regions can be attributed solely, or even essentially, to climatic factors, irrigation techniques, and the use of subterranean waters. Iranian agrarian principles exemplified by its irrigation techniques were also found in Azerbaijan, as well as in central and southern Persia, but Azerbaijan was not as resistant to foreign elements as was Khurasan, nor as culturally active or commanding during the Persian renaissance; by the 14th century its urban centers had already adopted Turkish as their vernacular. Despite their extensive use of the qanât system, central and southern provinces of Persia hardly participated in the initial flowering of Persian literature or shared the characteristics that made Khurasan the focal point of Persian political revival. The important contributions of Azerbaijan, Fârs, and Kirmân to Persian polity and culture belong to later periods. Nor does the Iranian irrigation techniques help us understand the collapse of the Sasanian society vis-ˆ-vis the Arab onslaught, or that of the Achaemenid society before the Greek, or the rapid decline of Iranian cultural resources from mid-17th century vis-ˆ-vis the growing strength of Western nations. Thus, both the disintegration of the Persian society after the Arab conquest and its cultural resurgence in Khurasan continue to beg for an explanation. Our need for order, cohesion, and system will best be satisfied if we can place the Persian phenomenon in a broader framework and as part of a more comprehensive scheme, wherein similar phenomena also find an explanation. Can the study of history lead us to recognize a general pattern which gives us a clearer understanding of Persian historical events? If we accept the principle of causality in explaining of historical phenomena, we can hardly escape the conclusion that similar events have similar causes. Sasanian society was not the only one in history to have collapsed, nor was the Khurasanian case the only instance of cultural revival. As soon as we broaden our perspective, we come to the realization of a crucial point: that all but one of the advanced cultures known to history have collapsed and in fact mostly disappeared. Today only a faint memory of the brilliant ancient cultures of Sumer and Egypt remains. Babylonian, Assyrian, Hittite, Elamite, Urartan, Ugaritic, Phoenician, ancient Anatolian, ancient Syrian, Cretan, Mycenaean, ancient Greek, ancient Persian, Maya, Aztec, Celtic, and Roman cultures, to name only some of the best known, are dead and gone; others, like the Indian, Greek Orthodox and Islamic, linger on but lack their former vigor, creativity, and splendor.

The one obvious exception is Western culture, the youngest of all, which despite the forebodings of doomsayers like Oswald Spengler, is still very much alive, invading other cultural territories and subjugating or influencing them. If the rise and fall of ancient cultures are any guide, this culture, too, will eventually weaken, exhaust itself, and decline, as did the Phoenician, Greek, and Roman cultures. We may note in passing that this culture had its birth in the Italian quattrocento Renaissance, after both the Arabic-based Islamic culture had long passed its prime, and the Persian-based Islamic culture, which had started in the 9th century in Khurasan, was about to go into decline. So, cultures are born, they develop, and decline and die or linger on and drift along in a state of weakness and dependency.

In considering the birth and demise of cultures and their character, our attention is inevitably drawn to the geographical conditions of their birthplace. The relation between the cultural traits of a people to its spatial environment and geographical setting has preoccupied many anthropologists and social scientists, giving rise to a number of theories, from environmental determinism to concepts that emphasize human behavior in the interaction between a culture and its physical setting. One can hardly deny that the geographical environment affects the way of life, or genre de vivre, as the French geographer Paul Vidal de la Blanche called it, particularly during the initial stages of a culture. Arnold Toynbee postulated a “golden mean” of difficulty as the most propitious circumstance for the development of a culture. The initial challenge, he maintained, must not be too rigorous, as in Arctic regions, where human activity cannot extend beyond the bare necessities of life. Nor should the challenge be too weak, as in the Amazon region, where little effort is sufficient for daily existence. Greece and Mesopotamia were, among others, instances of offering a golden mean for the development of high cultures. According to the followers of the “cultural circle,” or Kulturkreis, theory, the pivotal elements of Indo-European culture originally developed in the Eurasian steppes which gave rise to a nomadic mode of life that later expanded, thanks to migration and diffusion, to the rest of Europe.

Many aspects of Egyptian culture were originally determined by the ebb and flow of the Nile, and life in the Aegean was vastly different from life in Tibet or Mongolia. But once a culture begins to move ahead, its development appears to be far less dependent on physical geography than on human factor. In fact, the effect of physical setting has often been exaggerated. The physical landscape of Greece has hardly changed since the days of Pericles and Phidias the 5th century B.C.E., when Greek civilization was at its peak, but Greek culture today more closely resembles that of the Middle Eastern countries than its former culture. We also observe that cultures whose physical environments are different may share common cultural features, as is evidenced by the cultures now prevalent among the peoples of Latin America, the Middle East, Portugal, Sicily and the Caucasus. The difference between Native American and present-day North American culture can hardly be accounted for by geographical conditions, both having shared the same territory and climate. Obviously some factor other than geography must lie at the root of these similarities and differences. If we ask ourselves what could have happened to the people of Greece or Egypt to account for the difference between their ancient and present way of life, several answers may occur to us, among them foreign invasions and conversion to a new religion. But it is not difficult to see that foreign invasions not only do not necessarily stifle a culture or hinder its progress, so long as its energies are not exhausted, but could even stimulate a culture into greater performance; the rebounding of Germany and Japan after their total defeat in World War II is an instance offered in our own time. The cultural xuberance of Khurasan under the Samanides in the 10th century is another example. It is only when a society has begun to decline or is already debilitated that a foreign invasion may hasten its demise, as was the case when Ashurbanipal crushed Elam, when Cyrus the Great vanquished Mesopotamia, and when the Goths overwhelmed Rome or the Spaniards conquered central and southern America.

As for the imposition of a new religion or conversion to a new faith, there are no indications that it results in decline. On the contrary, it often appears to invigorate a society, as was the case with the conversion of the pagan Arabs to Islam, the Khotanese Sakas to Buddhism, the Turkic Khazars to Judaism, or Armenians to Christinity. If the spread of Christianity westward coincided with the decline of Roman society and characterized the dark period of the Middle Ages, we must remember that Roman culture had already started its descent as Gibbon makes clear, when Constantine favored the new religion and tried to bind church and state together.

Returning to the question of what weakened the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Persian cultures and robbed the Indian, Chinese, Maya, Inca, Aztec, and Celtic cultures of their strength, forcing them to succumb to other cultures, we will be surprised to find that the answer escaped us because it was so obvious: old age. If the study of the past is any guide, no culture continues at optimum strength indefinitely. Like all living creatures, cultures, too, have a limited life-span, in the course of which they progress from a youthful beginning, characterized by barbaric strength, into a flourishing middle age, followed by stagnation, and ending up in a state of gradual decline, ceding their place to a new rising culture and generally becoming appended to or dependent upon it. Not only cultures but states, dynasties, and institutions age and suffer decay after a period of power and prosperity. The history of Mesopotamia offers a good example, where ruling cultures or dynasties included the Sumerian, the Akkadian, the Kassite, the Assyrian, the Babylonian, the Persian, the Seleucid, the Parthian, the Sasanian, the Arab, and the Ottoman.

The notion that the underlying factor in the decline of societies is age becomes even clearer when we look at other geographical areas, for example. In Europe the same principle lies behind the Minoan, Mycenaean, and Doric-Ionian civilizations in Greece, and Etruscan and Roman cultures in Italy, with each rising, maturing, and declining within a period of time. The idea that, with the passage of time, societies, like any living organism, tend to wear out, stagnate, and decline is, of course, not new, having been expressed by a number of philosophers of history including Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), Oswald Spengler 1880-1936), and Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975); it is also implied by all thinkers who believe in a cyclical view of human history. Often implicit in this view is a recognition of the possibility of inferring from our knowledge of the past paradigmatic patterns that in turn, help us to better understand particular events which would otherwise appear isolated, fragmentary, and unintelligible. The very title of Gibbon’s most famous work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, implies a cyclical view of the life of civilizations, as does Oscar Wilde’s wisecrack at the expense of Americans (“America has gone from barbarism to decadence without passing through the intervening stages”) The cyclical view of history is encountered also, after a fashion, in the Chinese yin-yang concept. The earliest systematic exponent of the cyclical view of state formation, however, was the 14th- century Islamic historian, Ibn Khaldun, who explored in detail the rise and fall of political powers and dynasties, from the primitive and crude strength of nomadic societies, through a prosperous urban and civilized stage characterized by the growth of crafts and sciences, to an affluent but heedless mode of living, marked by self-indulgence among the ruling houses, leading to a loss of social solidarity (`asabiyya) and the use of coercive measures to repress dissent and, finally, to falling prey to a succeeding state or dynasty that enjoyed the`asabiyya.14 Among modern historians perhaps no one has provided a better description of symptoms and consequences of the decline of a society than Arnold Toynbee,15 whatever else one may think of other aspects of his theories. It is amazing that although the aging of cultures and institutions has been noticed and expressed centuries ago, it is hardly ever taken into consideration when the present conditions of a given society or its potentials are discussed. All manners of elements or agents, from climate to education to genetics to adverse historical events to colonial designs are mentioned, except the one that really counts: the age. Even Samuel Huntington’s theory of “clash of civilizations” and his vision of the future conflicts among nations, which of late has been the subject of some heated debate, does not pay due attention to this aspect of the life of civilizations. He believes that the clash of ideologies, represented until a few years ago by the confrontation between the former Soviet Union and NATO, has come to an end, and that the fundamental source of conflict in the following decades will be primarily not ideological or economic, but cultural. The principle conflict of global politics will occur between nations of different “civilizations.” In his words, “The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”16 In Huntington’s theory different civilizations of today, Western, Chinese, Islamic, Indian, Latin American, Orthodox Christian, and African are treated as if they were of the same age and energy. I believe that he misses a fundamental point here. The conflicts of the next century may well be between groups of nations that share a common culture, but these conflicts will not be among equals, and their outcome, if they occur, will be determined more than anything else by the aggregate cultural age of the parties to the conflicts. Generally speaking, societies that began their ascent toward an advanced culture or sociopolitical power also exhausted themselves and fell into decline earlier, which is, however, not to imply that various cultures have the same life-span. For instance, the Sumerians had already declined as a political entity when the Akkadian Semites rose to power, even though the cultural legacy of Sumer continued in Mesopotamia after its demise, as did that of Greece in Rome. When Cyrus the Great entered Babylon, Mesopotamian society was already a spent force; it was never able to rise again as a distinct, self-sustained political entity and was eventually absorbed into Islamic society, assuming Arab identity. Nor was Elam able to resurrect itself when, having exhausted its potential, it suffered defeat and was laid waste at the hands of Ashurbanipal in the 7th century B.C.E.; it was soon to be absorbed by the less cultured but more vigorous Persians, who had just arrived on the scene. The same may be said of Egypt, which was already debilitated when it was conquered by the Persians in 525 B.C.E. It was never to rise to the same level of istinction that had characterized its glorious ancient civilization; after a period of Hellenistic culture, superimposed on its native way of life by the Ptolemies, it, too, adopted the Islamic faith and Arab identity. The defeat and fall of the pre-Columbian states in Central and South America by a handful of Spaniards can best be explained not so much as a result of the introduction of a few horses and guns as by the exhaustion of these societies and their having fallen prey to cultural fatigue.

If these observations do not prove convincingly that the decline and fall of societies that exhaust their potential through sustained political, social, and cultural efforts are caused by aging, we may consider the case of modern Middle Eastern societies. We first notice that they consist, by and large, of ancient societies: Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Anatolian, Syrian, and Persian, to name only the most obvious. It is sufficient to note that none of these older nations have been able to resuscitate themselves to a position of erstwhile creativity and cultural vigor or even solvency. They have become and continue to be, their protestations notwithstanding, dependent for their survival on the dominant, aggressive culture of our time. More than fifteen hundred years ago a new lease of cultural and political strength was conferred on the Middle East by the Arabs and Islam. Islamic civilization attained the culmination of its political power with the `Umayyad and early `Abbasid in the 8th and 9th centuries; its intellectual high point (with Fârâbi, Râzi, Biruni and Avicenna) was reached by the 10th and 11th centuries; its literary climax (with Hafiz) by the 14th; and its artistic apogee (with Bihzad) in the 15th. Ibn Khaldun, who lived in the 14th century, was, as Reynold Nicholson has remarked, an exception to the rule.17 If we find the state of affairs in the contemporary Middle East, in contrast to the strength of its brilliant past, not exactly inspiring or promising, it is not the fault of Islam, as some critics have maintained, nor is it the result of a plot hatched by the West, that serves as constant. Other to the contemporary Middle East, to keep the countries of the region in a state of want and dependency, as is claimed by those who specialize finding a scapegoat and disavow responsibility for their own plight, and even less a consequence of the Orientalist crime of pernicious research and scholarship (popular as this complacent and escapist view has become), but rather the result of the sagging inner strength and loss of creative energy that begins with advancing age.

The African and European examples only confirm the foregoing conclusions. A for Africa, if we accept the views of the archeologists, led by L. S. B. Leakey 1903-1972), the excavator of Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, and if we agree with their conclusion, which has now achieved consensus,18 to the effect that the first steps toward civilization, such as the fashioning of early tools and the creation of objects out of bone, wood, and stone, were taken in Africa; and if we accept the arguments put forth by Avilla-Sforza in his History and Geography of Human Blood (1994), which add support to Leakey’s view that Africa is the original homeland of the human race, then we can only admire the enormous amount of energy and creative effort that must have been expended by the ancient Africans to equip themselves with inventions fundamental to humanity’s progress, and realize the debt we owe to this most ancient of peoples.

It is Europe, perhaps, that offers the most accessible evidence for the validity of this theory. Even a cursory glance reveals that the most energetic nations active within the Western civilization, the dominant civilization of our time, are also the youngest, by which I mean those European peoples who were the latest to begin their career as the actors of an advanced culture. We may discern three strata of peoples who settled in Europe in more recent times. In the order in which they rose to prominence, they were the Celts, the Italics, and the Germanic peoples, which roughly correspond to Reiley’s classification of Europeans as Alpine, Mediterranean, and Nordic.

Most of Europe has a very mixed population consisting of several layers. Nonetheless, the difference in energy and attitude is easily discernible among the European peoples, depending on the proportion of the admixture of the older and younger populations. For instance, we may compare Sicily and southern Italy to the northern regions of that country, which has been subjected to greater Germanic invasions and settlements. The differences in attitude and outlook between the two regions, one largely inhabited by older people and the other by a younger population, have often been noted. The same comparison may be made between Ireland, with its rich Celtic population layer, and England where the Nordic element overshadows the Celtic and the Roman; or between Austria and Germany, Bavaria and the Rhineland, or Portugal and Catalonia in northern Spain. In all these cases, regions that have retained a larger proportion of the older elements more closely approximate the attitude of the Middle Eastern peoples, modern Greeks, and Latin Americans. As in individuals, age explains the gradual weakening and decline of dynasties, states, nations, and cultures.19 We should not be surprised, therefore, if Iranian society, after some fifteen centuries of continued effort and exercise of political and cultural power, including the founding of at least one major religion, Zoroastrianism, and political upheavals involving no less than four dynastic changes, was exhausted enough in the 7th century to capitulate under the rising tide of Islam. The question remains as to whether this was a temporary loss of strength which could eventually be regained, as had been the case when Persia succumbed to the Greeks at the time of the fall of the Achaemenid empire in the 4th century B.C.E., or closer to the collapse of Egypt when confronted with the Persian invasion, or, and that of the pre-Columbian Maya and Inca societies decimated by the Spanish invaders.

The answer must be sought in the outcome of the encounter. As we have seen, Persia did not sink irrevocably. Once the shock and confusion surrounding defeat had subsided, it rose from the ashes and forged a new identity within an Islamic context. This had far-reaching consequences for the entire Muslim world, for it became the cornerstone of the second creative phase of Islamic civilization, namely, the Persian phase, which kept the pulse of the Islamic world alive, at a time when the Arab phase was waning and being reduced to passivity and loss of cultural prosperity.

The foregoing observations also point to a second principle of the theory offered here: a culture may suffer a number of reversals and may periodically show signs of temporary exhaustion before it finally falls into irredeemable quiescence and stagnation. Persian history provides instances of such reversals in the collapse of the Achaemenid empire and the consequent rule of the Seleucids for nearly 150 years; in the confused and chaotic situation that prevailed in Iran toward the end of the Arsacid rule, with repeated defeats at the hands of the Romans, all of which led to the rise of Ardashir and the restoration of Persian power; and the disintegration of the Sasanian empire in the 7th century and the consequent conversion to Islam, followed by the Khurasanian revival. It is not until the end of the reign of Shah `Abbâs in the 17th century that a truly debilitating form of exhaustion occurs.

As was noted earlier, in terms of the Persian cultural resurrection after the Islamic conquest, Khurasan took the lead and effected a political and cultural revival. The reason for Khurasan’s leadership points to a third principle of the theory, namely, that the infusion of young blood or, rather, the grafting of a culturally younger people on a culturally older population can have an invigorating effect, imparting new strength to peoples who are losing their inner energy and replenishing their creative power. This is well-illustrated in European and Latin America history. For example, Germanic invasions invigorated the Celtic provinces of the Roman Empire. France, England, and northern Spain provide good instances of the fresh bursts of energy through the infusion of younger blood of the Nordic invaders. We may speculate that if Gaul had not been conquered by the Romans and had also been deprived of the energizing influence of the Germanic Franks, the Visigoths, and the Burgondii, or if Spain had not been a reluctant host to the Vandals, particularly to the Suevi and the Visigoths, and later to the Arab and Berber settlers who crossed the Strait of Gibraltar in 711, they would have become worn-out societies completely drained of their erstwhile vigor. The reinvigoration brought about by the younger Germanic tribes, may at first have wreaked havoc on the vanquished societies, but it subsequently bore fruit during the Renaissance and has continued to bolster Western civilization, which is chiefly their creation. The less frequently a region was settled by the young and barbaric, Nordic tribes, the more it revealed the frail characteristic of old age and the weaker has been its contribution to Western civilization. In Latin America, too, whatever vitality may be seen in countries like Argentina, Chile, and Brazil is afforded, not by their native inhabitants, but by the layer of the relatively younger European population, Spaniards in particular, who migrated to that continent.

Returning to our original question, it may be recalled that Azerbaijan and part of western and central Persia had been provinces of Media. The Medes entered the arena of history and achieved political ascendency and cultural distinction earlier than other Iranian tribes. We may, therefore, assume that Media expended its energy in extended periods of struggle with Assyria and its other neighbors and was worn out earlier than those tribes which had settled in other parts of the Iranian lands. This should explain both the failure of Media to actively participate in the Persian renaissance and also the partial and gradual adoption of Turkish as its vernacular. Southern Persia had given birth to two major dynasties, the Achaemenian and the Sasanian, and by the time the Muslim armies descended on Persia, it, too, had spent too much of its energy to put up a show of strength and enterprise. On the other hand, Parthia, located in Khurasan, did not assume political leadership and did not shoulder the burden of forming and defending a state until the 3rd century B.C.E., when an East Iranian tribe,20 the Dahae (DŒha),21 which had lived on the northeastern periphery of the Persian Empire,22 assumed a more active role and formed the Arsacid dynasty. The relative lateness of Parthian ascendency, however, is not the only ground for Khurasanian dynamism in the early Islamic centuries; perhaps more important than that is the coming into play of the third principle of the theory, the “graft” principle, that is when a young people is grafted on an older one. We should note that the Khurasanians were periodically replenished and invigorated by successive waves of invaders descending from Central Asia or elsewhere: first by the Greeks and Macedonians, who, following Alexander’s conquest, founded a number of Alexandrias in the northeast and later also formed the Greco-Bacterian kingdom; then by various Saka tribes, the YŸeh-chih or the Tocharians, the Huns, the Hephtalites, the Kidarites, and the Turks,23 as well as by the Arabs, who settled in large numbers in Khurasan in the wake of the Muslim conquest.24

Thus, Khurasan was able to draw upon fresh sources of untapped energy, unavailable, to the same extent, to the rest of the Iranian plateau. It was this reinvigoration of native energy, it would appear, that gave Khurasan its exceptional vitality and its absorbing and assimilative power and secured for it the leadership of the Abbasid revolution, made it the home of the first Persian autonomous dynasties after the Arab conquest, and distinguishing it as the cradle of the Persian literary, artistic, and intellectual renaissance of the 9th, 10th, and early 11th centuries. Here we must consider several questions. The first concerns the Avestan peoples and the rise of the Zoroastrian religion in their midst. If we accept the recent scholarly opinion and the emerging consensus that tends to place Zoroaster around 1000 B.C.E., then we must say that the Avestan community, which resided in the region of Marv, Herat, or Balkh in Khurasan, was the first to give rise to a distinct Iranian culture. We might therefore assume that the Avestan peoples were also the first to have been exhausted, evidenced by the fact that the Avestan language was probably dead by the time the Sasanians rose to power, even though the Zoroastrian faith continued as a religious and cultural force for several centuries in Persia, as did the Sumerian culture in Mesopotamia. It may be noted that both Buddhism and Christianity experienced their greatest expansion beyond their original boundaries and long after their founding.

Similarly, Hijaz in Arabia, after having given birth to Islam, ceased to be the center of gravity of Islamic civilization in less than half a century, and the purely Arab element receded before the preponderance of non-Arab Muslims in less than two centuries after the rise of Islam. We must, therefore, assume that after the eclipse of the Avestan peoples proper, the Greater Khurasan was replenished and strengthened by successive waves of Saka and other tribes, among them the Dahae confederation. Receiving such reinforcements seems never to have ended in Khurasan.

Ironically, one might say that Khurasan had the good fortune of having been invaded and defeated more often than the rest of the country, mostly by peoples with fresh energy and untapped strength. It was always first in the line of fire whenever the invasion originated in Central Asia. The invaders settled in Khurasan, intermarried with its people, contributed to its vitality, and propped up and replenished its inner strength, enabling it to play a major role in the history of the Islamic world.25.


2 For the unity of these regions, see Muqaddas^, Aúsan al-taqŒs^m, p. 260, who presents arguments for treating them together; see also Barthold, Turkistan, p. 197, who point out the subordination of Transoxiana to Khurasan.

3 Les nations du Prophte, p. 480.

4 ManŒqib al-Turk, p. 40.

5 ®Abbasid Rule, p. 117.

6 Black Banners, p. 67.

7 See Humphreys, Islamic History, pp. 121ff.

8 Persian Presence in the Islamic World, Cambridge University Press (forthcoming).

9 Inna dawlatahum ®ajamiyya khurŒsŒniyya wa dawla bani marwŒn ®arabiyya, wa f^ ajnŒd shŒmiyya. Al-BayŒn, III, p. 366

10 For the uprising of these figures and their doctrines, see Sadighi, Les mouvements, and Yarshater, “Mazdakism,” pp. 1001 ff.

11 A follower of KhidŒsh, an early and radical Hashim^ missionary(dŒ®^) in Khurasan. He headed a faction known as KhŒlidiyya. It resumed its support of the Alids after the death of IbrŒh^m the ImŒm and revolted in N^shŒp¬r but was attacked and defeated by Ab¬ Muslim. Its name was changed to FŒ´imiyya under the caliph al-Man·¬r; see AkhbŒr al-®AbbŒs, pp. 403-04; Sharon, EI2, V, p. 2b; Daniel, Khurasan, pp. 83-84.

12 See Louis Gardet, Camb. Hist. of Islam II, p. 596; S. Pines, ibid. p. 759; and EI2, IV, pp. 1070-71.

13 A Study of History, V, p. 515.

14 Al-Muqaddima, tr. Franz Rosenthal, I, pp. 278ff. The following passage is one of many in which Ibn Khald¬n expresses his theory of cyclical history: “It should be known that the world of elements and all it contains comes into being and decays. This applies to both its essences and its conditions…. The same applies to the conditions that affect created things, and especially the conditions that affect man. Sciences grow up and then are wiped out. The same applies to craft, and to similar thingsÉ. Prestige is an accident that affects human beings. It comes into being and decays inevitablyÉ. It reaches its end in a single family within four successive generations….”, pp. 299-80; cf. pp. 344-45. Elsewhere he explains the five stages to be found in the career of a sociopolitical power, from barbaric vigor to senility and decay. See pp. 353-55.

15 A Study of History, V, pp.11, ff.

16 Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993, p.22.

17 Literary History of the Arabs, pp. 442-43.

18 See the UNESCO History of Humanity. Vol. I: Prehistory and the Beginning of Civilization, ed. S. J. Last et al., (London and New York: Routledge, 1944), pp. 31-43.

19 In the case of the dynasties or houses that rise to power, Ibn Khald¬n was of the opinion that they do not continue in strength for more than three generations, or 120 years, and in the fourth they falter (see the Muqaddima, I, pp. 278f. 345). In fact, this is often true desspite the length of some dynasties, like the pre- Islamic Iranian dynasties, the Abbasids, or the Umayyads of Spain; the real strength of dynasties appears to dissipate even sooner, after which time either the dynasty continues in increasing weaknessÑas was the case with the Abbasid after al-Ma®m¬n, the Mauryas after Asoka, or the Safavids after Shah ®AbbŒsÑor else is reinforced by a change of lineage as was the case of the Umayyads after Mu®Œwiya II, or a palace revolution, as was the case with the Achaemenids when Darius assumed the reins of power.

20 See Henning, “Mitteliranische”, p. 93.


21 Their name first occurs in Yasht 13:144 and in the Daeva Inscription of Xerxes at Persepolis (See R. Kent, Old Persian, XPh, p. 151). They lived in the proximity of the Haumavarga and Tigraxauda Saka tribes. See Bivar, Cambridge History of Iran, III/2, p. 27; EIr, VI, pp. 581-82.

22 See W. Vogelsang, EIr, VI, pp. 581-82

23 On these peoples, see the Cambridge History of Iran, III/1, pp. 146-48, 156, 191f., III/2, pp. 770, 851-52. Note that the Turkish tribes invaded Persia in the northeast as early as the 6th century, and Hurmuzd IV (579-90), himself the son of a Turkish princess (see çabar^, I, p. 990; H. Schaeder, Iranica, p. 41) had to fight with them.

24 Julius Wellhausen devotes a chapter in his book Das arabische Reich, pp. 247-306 (Arab Kingdom and Its Fall, pp. 397-491) to the study of the Arab tribes in Khurasan. His estimate (p. 266, n. 3) of over 200,000 is corroborated by Moshe Sharon (Black Banners, pp. 65ff.) who considers the total about a quarter of a million (p. 66), and Elton Daniel (“Arab Settlements in Persia”, EI, II, p. 210-14) who provides a similar estimate (p. 213b). 25 A topic currently in fashion and taken up by a number of scholars is the role of Khurasan in the Abbasid revolution. The debate would benefit from a study of the role of Khurasan in a broader context.