A History of the Propagation of the Muslim Faith
T.W. Arnold    Ma. C.I.F
Professor Of Arabic, University Of London, University College.  Written in 1896, revised in 1913
Rearranged by Dr. A.S. Hashim

In order to follow the course of the spread of Islam eastward into Central Asia, we must retrace our steps to the period of the first Arab conquests.

By the middle of the seventh century, the great dynasty of the Sasani had fallen, and the vast empire of Persia that for four centuries had withstood the might of Rome and Byzantium, now became the heritage of the Muslims.

  1. When the armies of the state of Persia had been routed, the mass of the people offered little resistance;
  2. the reigns of the last representatives of the Sasani dynasty had been marked by terrible anarchy,
  3. and the sympathies of the people had been further alienated from their rulers on account of the support they gave to the persecuting policy of the state religion of Zoroastrianism.

The Zoroastrian priests had acquired an enormous influence in the state of Persia; they were well-nigh all-powerful in the councils of the king and arrogated to themselves a very large share in the civil administration.

They took advantage of their position to persecute all those religious bodies, (and they were many) that dissented from them. Besides the numerous adherents of older forms of the Persian religion, there were Christians, Jews, Sabæans and numerous sects in which the speculations of Gnostics, Manichæans and Buddhists found expression.

In all of these, persecution had stirred up feelings of bitter hatred against the established religion in Persia and the dynasty that supported its oppressions, and so caused the Arab conquest to appear in the light of a deliverance.[1]

The followers of all these varied forms of faith could breathe again under a Muslim rule that granted them religious freedom and exemption from military service, on payment of a light tribute.

For the Muslim law granted toleration and the right of paying jizyah not only to the Christians and Jews, but to Zoroastrians and Sabæans, to worshippers of idols, of fire and of stone.[2]

It was said that the Prophet himself had distinctly given directions that the Zoroastrians were to be treated exactly like “the people of the book,” i. e. the Jews and Christians, and that jizyah might also be taken from them in return for protection,[3] —a tradition that probably arose in the second century of the Hijrah, when apostolic sanction was sought for the toleration that had been extended to all the followers of the various faiths that Arabs had found in the countries they had conquered, whether such non-Muslims came under the category Ahlul Kitab or not.[4]

To the distracted Christian Church in Persia the change of government brought relief from the oppression of the Sasani kings, who had fomented the bitter struggles of Jacobites and Nestorians and added to the confusion of warring sects.

Some reference has already[5] been made to earlier persecutions, and even during the expiring agony of the Sasani dynasty, Khusrau II, exasperated at the defeat he had suffered at the hands of the Christian emperor, Heracleus, ordered a fresh persecution of the Christians within his dominions, a persecution from which all the various Christian sects alike had to suffer.

These terrible conditions may well have prepared men’s minds for that revulsion of feeling that facilitates a change of faith. “Side by side with the political chaos in the state was the moral confusion that filled the minds of the Christians; distracted by such an accumulation of disasters and by the moral agony wrought by the furious conflict of so many warring doctrines among them, they tended towards that peculiar frame of mind in which a new doctrine finds it easy to take root, making a clean sweep of such a bewildering babel and striving to reconstruct faith and society on a new basis.

In other words the people of Persia, and especially the Semitic races, were just in the very mental condition calculated to make them welcome the Islamic revolution and urge them on to enthusiastically embrace the new and rugged creed,

which with its complete and virile simplicity swept away at one stroke all those dark mists, opened the soul to new, alluring and tangible hopes of Islam, and promised immediate release from a miserable state of servitude.”[6]

But the Muslim creed was most eagerly welcomed by the townsfolk, the industrial classes and the artisans, whose occupations made them impure according to the Zoroastrian creed, (because in the pursuance of their trade or occupations they defiled fire, earth or water). Accordingly, they were outcasts in the eyes of the Persian law of the time, and were treated with scant consideration. In consequence, they embraced with eagerness a creed that made them at once free men, and equal in a brotherhood of faith.[7]

Nor were the conversions to Islam from Zoroastrianism itself less striking: the fabric of the National Church had fallen with a crash in the general ruin of the dynasty that had before upheld it; having no other center round which to rally, the followers of the Zoroastrianism creed would find the transition to Islam a simple and easy one, owing to the numerous points of similarity in the old creed and the new.

For the Persian could find in the Quran many of the fundamental doctrines of his old faith, though in a rather different form:

  • he would meet again Ahuramazda and Ahriman under the names of Allah and Ibis;
  • the creation of the world in six periods;
  • the angels and the demons;
  • the story of the primitive innocence of man;
  • the resurrection of the body and the doctrine of heaven and hell.[8]
  • Even in the details of daily worship there were similarities to be found and the followers of Zoroaster when they adopted Islam were enjoined by their new faith to pray five times a day just as they had been by the Avesta.[9]

Those tribes in the north of Persia that had stubbornly resisted the ecclesiastical organization of the state religion, on the ground that each man was a priest in his own household and had no need of any other, and believing in a supreme being and the immortality of the soul, taught that a man should love his neighbor, conquer his passions, and strive patiently after a better life—such men could have needed very little persuasion to induce them to accept the faith of the Prophet.[10] Islam had still more points of contact with some of the heretical sects of Persia, that had come under the influence of Christianity.

In addition to the causes above enumerated of the rapid spread of Islam in Persia, it should be remembered that the political and national sympathies of the conquered race were also enlisted on behalf of the new religion through the marriage of Husain, the son of Ali with Shahr Banu, one of the daughters of Yazdajird, the last monarch of the Sasani dynasty. In the descendants of Shahr banu and Husain the Persians saw the heirs of their ancient kings and the inheritors of their national traditions, and in this patriotic feeling may be found the explanation of the intense devotion of the Persians to the Alawi faction.[11]

That this widespread conversion was not due to force or violence is evidenced by the toleration extended to those who still clung to their ancient faith. Even to the present day there are some small communities of fire-worshippers to be found in certain districts of Persia, and though these have in later years often had to suffer persecution,[12] their ancestors in the early centuries of the Hijrah enjoyed a remarkable degree of toleration, their fire-temples were respected, and we even read of a Muslim general (in the reign of al-Mu’tasim , A.D. 833-842), who ordered an imam and a mu’adhdhin to be flogged because they had destroyed a fire-temple in Sughd and built a mosque in its place.[13]

In the tenth century, three centuries after the conquest of the country, fire-temples were to be found in Iraq, Fars, Kirman, Sijistan, Khurasan, Jibal, Adharbayjan and Arran, i. e. in almost every province of Persia.[14] In Fars itself there were hardly any cities or districts in which fire-temples and Magians were not to be found.[15] Al-Sharastani also (writing as late as the twelfth century) , makes mention of a fire-temple at Isfiniya, in the neighbourhood of Baghdad itself.[16]

In the face of such facts, it is surely impossible to attribute the decay of Zoroastrianism entirely to violent conversions made by the Muslim conquerors.

The number of Persians who embraced Islam in the early days of the Arab rule was probably very large from the various reasons given above,

but the late survival of their ancient faith and the occasional record of conversions in the course of successive centuries, render it probable that the acceptance of Islam was both peaceful and voluntary.

About the close of the eighth century, Saman, a noble of Balkh, having received assistance from Asad b. Abd-Allah, the governor of Khurasan, renounced Zoroastrianism, embraced Islam and named his son Asad after his protector: it is from this convert that dynasty of the Samanids (A.D. 874-999) took its name.

  • About the beginning of the ninth century, Karim b. Shahriyar was the first king of the Qabusiyyah dynasty who became Muslim, and in 873 a large number of fire-worshippers were converted to Islam in Daylam through the influence of Nasir al-Haqq Abu Muhammad.
  • In the following century, about A.D. 912, Hasan b. Ali, of the Alawi dynasty on the southern shore of the Caspian Sea, who is said to have been a man of learning and intelligence and well acquainted with the religious opinions of different sects, invited the inhabitants of Tabaristan and Daylam, who were partly idolaters and partly Magians, to accept Islam; many of them responded to his call, while others persisted in their former state of unbelief.[17]
  • In the year A.H. 394 (A.D. 1003-1004), a famous poet, Abul Hasan Mihyar, a native of Daylam, who had been a fire-worshipper, was converted to Islam by a still more famous poet, the Sharif al-Ridhi, who was his master in the poetic art.[18]
  • It was probably about the same period that the grandfather of the great geographer, Ibn Khurdadbih, was converted through the influence of one of the Barmakis,[19] whose ancestor had been likewise a Magian and high priest of the great Fire Temple of Nawbahar at Balkh.
  • Scanty as these notices of conversion are, they appear to have been voluntary, and the Zoroastrians would seem to have enjoyed on the whole toleration for the exercise of their religion up to the close of the Abbasi period.
  • With the Mongol invasion a darker period in the Zoroastrian history begins, and the miseries which the Persian Muslims themselves suffered seems to have generated in them a spirit of fanatical intolerance which exposed the Zoroastrians at times to cruel sufferings.[20]

In the middle of the eighth century, a movement that is of interest in the missionary history of Islam, viz. the sect of the Ismaili. This is not the place to enter into a history of this sect or of the theological position taken up by its followers, or of the social and political factors that lent it strength, but it demands attention here on account of the marvelous missionary organisation whereby it was propagated.

The founder of this organization—which rivals that of the Jesuits for the keen insight into human nature it displays and the consummate skill with which the doctrines of the sect were accommodated to varying capacities and prejudices—was a certain Abd Allah b. Maymun, who early in the ninth century infused new life into the Ismailians.

He sent out his missionaries in all directions under various guises, very frequently as Sufis but also as merchants and traders and the like; they were instructed to be all things to all men and to win over different classes of men to allegiance to the grandmaster of their sect, by speaking to each man, as it were, in his own language, and accommodating their teaching to the varying capacities and opinions of their hearers.

They captivated the ignorant multitude by the performance of marvels that were taken for miracles and by mysterious utterances that excited their curiosity. To the devout they appeared as models of virtue and religious zeal; to the mystics they revealed the hidden meaning of popular teachings and initiated them into various grades of occultism according to their capacity.

Taking advantage of the eager looking-forward to a deliverer that was common to so many faiths of the time, they declared to the Muslims the approaching advent of the Imam Mahdi, to the Jews that of the Messiah, and to the Christians that of the Comforter, but taught that the aspirations of each could alone be realized in the coming of the great deliverer.

  • With the Shi’a, the Ismailian missionary was to put himself forward as the zealous partisan of all the Shi’a doctrine, was to dwell upon the cruelty and injustice of the Sunnis towards Ali and his sons, and liberally abuse the Sunni Khalifahs; having thus prepared the way, he was to insinuate, as the necessary completion of the Shi’a system of faith, the more esoteric doctrines of the Ismailian sect.
  • In dealing with the Jew, he was to speak with contempt of both Christians and Muslims and agree with his intended convert in still looking forward to a promised Messiah, but gradually lead him to believe that this promised Messiah could be none other than Imam Mahdi, the great Messiah of the Ismailian system.
  • If he sought to win over the Christian, he was to dwell upon the obstinacy of the Jews and the ignorance of the Muslims, to profess reverence for the chief articles of the Christian creed, but gently hint that they were symbolic and pointed to a deeper meaning, to which the Ismailian system alone could supply the key; he was also cautiously to suggest that the Christians had somewhat misinterpreted the doctrine of the Paraclete and that it was in the Imam Mahdi that the true Paraclete was to be found.
  • Similarly the Ismailian missionaries who made their way into India endeavored to make their doctrines acceptable to the Hindus, by representing Ali as the promised tenth Avatar of Viṣṇu who was to come from the West, i. e. (they averred) from Alamut. They also wrote a Mahdi Puraṇa and composed hymns in imitation of those of the Vamacarins or left-hand Śaktas, whose mysticism already predisposed their minds to the acceptance of the esoteric doctrines of the Ismailians.[21]

By such means as these an enormous number of persons of different faiths were united together to push forward an enterprise, the real aim of which was known to very few. The aspirations of Abd Allah b. Maymun seem to have been entirely political, but as the means he adopted were religious and the one common bond—if any—that bound his followers together was the devout expectation of the coming of the Imam Mahdi, the missionary activity connected with the history of this sect deserves this brief mention in these pages.[22]

[1] Caetani, vol. ii. pp. 910-11. A. de Gobineau (1), pp. 55-6.

[2] Abū Yūsuf: Kitāb al-Kharāj, p. 73.

[3] Id. p. 74 and Balādhurī, pp. 71 (fin.), 79, 80.

[4] Caetani, vol. v. pp. 361 (§ 611 n. 1), 394-5, 457.

[5] pp. 68-9.

[6] Caetani, vol. ii. p. 910.

[7] A de Gobineau (2), pp. 306-10.

[8] Dozy (1), p. 157.

[9] Haneberg, p. 5.

[10] Dozy (1), p. 191. A. de Gobineau (1), p. 55.

[11] Les croyances Mazdéennes dans la religion Chiite, par Ahmed-Bey Agaeff. (Transactions of the Ninth International Congress of Orientalists, vol. ii. pp. 509-11. London, 1893.) For other points of contact, see Goldziher: Islamisme et Parsisme. (Revue de l’Histoire des Religions, xliii. p. i. sqq.)

[12] Dosabhai Framji Karaka: History of the Parsis, vol. i. pp. 56-9, 62-7. (London, 1884.) Nicolas de Khanikoff says that there were 12,000 families of fire-worshippers in Kirmān at the end of the 18th century. (Mémoire sur la partie méridionale de l’Asie centrale, p. 193. Paris, 1861.)

[13] Chwolsohn, vol. i. pi 287.

[14] Mas’ūdī, vol. iv. p. 86.

[15] Iṣtakhrī , pp. 100, 118. Ibn Ḥawqal, pp. 189-190.

[16] Kitāb al-milal wa’1-niḥal, edited by Cureton, part i. p. 198.

[17] Mas’ūdī, vol. viii. p. 279; vol. ix. pp. 4-5.

[18] Ibn Khallikān, vol. iii. p. 517.

[19] Kitāb al-Fihrist, ed. Flügel, p. 149 (1. 2).

[20] For a comprehensive sketch of their condition under Muslim rule, see D. Menant: Les Zoroastriens de Perse. (R. du M. M. iii. pp. 193 sqq., p. 421 sqq.)

[21] Khojā Vrittānt, pp. 141-8. For a further account of Ismā’īlian missionaries in India, see chap. ix.

[22] Le Bon Silvestre De Sacy: Exposé de la Religion des Druzes, tome i. pp. lxvii-lxxvi, cxlviii-clxii.