The coming of Islam to the Iranian plateau and the westerly regions of Central Asia wrought a permanent and profound transformation in the religious, cultural, and social life of the Iranian world. Pre-Islamic Iran had been marked by a great profusion of religions, indigenous and imported, and although Zoroastrianism had generally prevailed since Achaemenid times, it lacked doctrinal coherence and a firm textual basis, at least until the Sasanian era. Moreover, it was limited in its social appeal and geographical range and proved vulnerable to the claims of both Christianity and Manicheism. Islam, a quintessentially scriptural religion by virtue of the Quran, has contrastingly enjoyed since its inception a remarkable stability in its canonical practices and fundamental tenets, despite the not inconsiderable sectarian differences and conflicts outlined below. The appeal of Islam has in addition been universal, as indeed was first evidenced by the adherence to it of the Persians, and its supremacy in the Iranian world has never been seriously challenged by any other creed. It may in fact be argued that in terms of intimacy and antiquity the Persian relationship with Islam is second only to the nexus of the Arabic-speaking peoples with the faith; the Persians were the second human collectivity to become acquainted with the Quranic message, and the tongue they elaborated bearing its imprint was the first into which the Quran was translated. The near-universal acceptance of Islam bestowed on Persian culture a far greater degree of cohesion than had obtained in pre-Islamic times, while at the same time incorporating it into a broad oikumene that embraced much of Asia. Within that community of faith, especially its Turkish and Indian domains, Persians played a consistently prominent role, and their language was second only to Arabic as a vehicle for the cultivation and transmission of Islamic culture. The assertion that “were knowledge to be lodged in the Pleiades, men from among the Persians would reach for it,” traditionally counted as a Hadith, might better be interpreted as a hyperbolic acknowledgement of this Persian contribution.
The Advent of Islam in Iran
Persian acquaintance with Islam began already in the time of the Prophet. Well known is the case of Salmān-e Fārsi, the Persian companion of the Prophet around whom many legends have been spun. In addition, the Persian colony in the Yemen sent a delegation to the Prophet in Medina, and some of its members embraced Islam (Moḥammadi, pp. 430-33). Widespread conversion began, however, after his demise, with the Muslim military campaigns that resulted in the destruction of the Sasanian Empire. In some cases the acceptance of Islam by Persian soldiers followed immediately on their defeat in battle, and cannot therefore have involved any substantial interiorization of the faith. A degree of worldly motivation may also be discerned in the switch to Islam made by the agrarian aristocracy, anxious to preserve their social status under the new Islamic dispensation. The Prophet had already ordered the Muslim conquerors of Bahrayn to treat the Zoroastrians they encountered there as ahl al-Ketāb (the people of the Book), and the same protected status was now extended to the Zoroastrians of Persia itself (Ḥamidullah, pp. 1059-60). Coerced conversion was accordingly rare, the only significant exception being Qoṭayba b. Moslem’s campaign in Transoxania towards the end of the first Islamic century. Arabs settled in some regions of Persia, notably Khorasan, and interaction with them must have played a role in securing the acceptance of Islam. Together with the intrinsic qualities of Islam itself, the increasing domination of the Persian milieu by the mores and institutions of Islam must have been decisive in assuring its acceptance by a clear majority of the population. It has been plausibly suggested that by the middle of the 4th/10th century, the time when regional dynasties, all professing Islam, were being established in the east, at least 80 percent of Iranians were Muslim (see CONVERSION ii; see also Bulliet, pp. 68-70). The conjunction of these two phenomena points to a full assimilation of Islam having taken place.
As the process of conversion was underway, during the first three centuries of the Islamic era, most of the currents of legal and theological opinion and sectarian divisions present, or in the course of formation, in the Arab lands also found expression in Persia and Transoxania, albeit to varying degrees in different cities and regions. From the outset, there was no uniformity across the entirety of this vast area, and it would be entirely inaccurate to speak of a distinctively “Iranian Islam” at any time before the quasi-national assimilation of Shiʿism in the Safavid period. Apart from some of the Sufi orders, it was only Nezāri Ismaʿilism (q.v.) and a few marginal groups such as the Ḥorufis (see HORUFISM) that originated in Persia. This points to a thoroughgoing assimilation of Islam and largely invalidates the assertion of Henry Corbin that “the Iranian spiritual universe, before and Islam, forms a single whole” (I, p. xxvii).
Topography, moreover, played only a minor and occasional role in the distribution of religious factions and groups; thus the relatively inaccessible Caspian region often provided a refuge or foothold for beleaguered or marginal groups such as the Zaydi and Ismaʿili Shiʿites and, in the Safavid and post-Safavid periods, for the Sunnis of Tāleš (on the general predilection of minority sects for remote locations, see Planhol,pp. 57 ff.). The precise affiliations of villages might also differ from those of the cities to which they were administratively and economically attached. Dynastic policies and preferences were generally more important than geographical factors in determining the precise religious loyalties of the population, but the adage al-nās ʿalā dine molukehem (the approximate equivalent of the European principle cuius regio eius religio) finds only partial confirmation in the religious configuration of pre-Safavid Islamic Persia. Samanids, Ghaznavids, Saljuqids, and Buyids, all sometimes sought to promote their own choices in matters of religion, the first three espousing Sunnism and the Hanafite school and the fourth, first Zaydi and then Imami Shiʿism, employing to this end bothpatronage and royal command. Their policies were, however, often tempered by pragmatism and inconsistency; the coercive propagation of Shiʿism by the Safavids counts, in this respect, as a radical departure. Networks among different centers of learning established by prestigious scholars were at least as important a factor in assuring the currency or primacy of a given school of law in a particular city; these often gave rise to what might be called scholarly dynasties, endowed with more stability than their monarchical counterparts, but like them, frequently at odds with each other. Few areas or even cities were uniform or stable in their precise sectarian configuration; Qom, where Shiʿism reigned supreme, and Isfahan, a bastion of Sunnism, were exceptions. Sunnism was internally divided, and intra-Sunni rivalries were for several centuries more frequent and bitter than those opposing Sunnis and Shiʿis; they found expression in urban factionalism and even warfare. In short, the religious landscape of pre-Safavid Islamic Persia was fragmented and complex.
Major Islamic Schools of Jurisprudence
Although the term “Sunni” is encountered as early as the first century of Islam, it was not until the 4th/10th century that it entered general currency as a designation for the majoritarian mode of Islamic belief and practice, in Persia and elsewhere. The term, in its full form, was Ahl al-Sonna wa’l-Jamāʿa, sonna (custom, norm)being equated with the practice of the Companions of the Prophet and jamāʿa (community) understood as the great mass of Muslims; by implication, it excludes all groups of the Shiʿites and the Kharejites. It has been plausibly suggested that the addendum jamāʿa was intended to accommodate secondary differences of teaching and practice within a common framework (Watt, p. 267). The main form of differentiation among the majority Sunnite population of Persia, down to Safavid times, consisted in the choice made of school of jurisprudence (maḏhab). The schools all originated outside of Persia, although several of them were significantly elaborated by Persian scholars. Two schools of Sunnite jurisprudence, the Hanafite (q.v.) and the Shafeʿite, effectively dominated most of the pre-Safavid Persian-speaking world. They became known as al-fariqān (the two factions), appropriately so, given the profound hostility that for long marked their mutual dealings. Although significant, the methodological differences separating Hanafites and Shafeʿites do not suffice to explain the intensity of their competition; the control of lucrative endowments (awqāf) and judgeships was clearly also at issue, not to mention a factionalism apparently endemic in Persian urban life for many centuries.
Of the two, it is only the Šāfeʿiya the dissemination of which, in Persia and elsewhere, has been examined in some detail (Halm); a similar study is lacking for the Hanafite schoolwhich preceded it to Persia. It seems, however, that this school gained a foothold in Persia and Transoxania already in the lifetime of its eponym, Abu Ḥanifa (d. 150/767), whose following numbered several men of Persian or Transoxanian ancestry. This swift acceptance of Hanafism seems to have been due in large part to the confluence between Hanafism and the morjeʾa, a doctrinal school that asserted the primacy of faith over actions and exerted itself on behalf of the mawāli, the early Persian converts to Islam. The first Hanafite judge (qāżi)of Balkh was appointed in 142/759; after an interval he was succeeded by Abu Moṭiʿ Balḵi (q.v.), a direct pupil of Abu Ḥanifa (Madelung, pp. 18-19). By the 3rd/9th century, Toḵārestān and Transoxania had been won definitively for his school, and Hanafites were also well represented in Khuzestan, Rayy, Qazvin, and Gorgān. Their schoolgained state patronage in Khorasan and Transoxania with the rise to power of the Samanids, a patronage that was intensified and carried westwards into Persia proper by the Saljuqs from the 5th/11th century onwards.
Hanafite prominence was challenged in the latter part of the 3rd/9th century by a wave of Shafeʿite expansion bringing the schoolfrom its established centers in Iraq and Egypt. Among those influential in this process were Abu’l-ʿAbbās b. Sorayj (d. 306/918) in Shiraz, and Moḥammad b. Esḥāq Ḵozayma, who made Nishapur the main stronghold of the Shafeite school in Khorasan. Mohammad b. Naṣr Marvazi introduced the Shafeʿite school to Samarqand, where it remained overshadowed by the Hanafites. By contrast, Čāč (Ar. Šāš, present-day Tashkent) functioned for a while as a Shafeʿite enclave in the predominantly Hanafite territory of Transoxania, thanks to the efforts of the eminent jurist, Abu Bakr Qaffāl. Somewhat later, the Shafeʿites had established large communities in Isfahan, Rayy, and Gorgān, and by the beginning of the 5th/11th century they were more numerous than Hanafites in much of western Persia, while Khorasan remained an object of contest between the two factions (Halm, pp. 4350).