It is very important to study the following two phenomena in order to evaluate the sacred Islamic movement:
1. The revelation of the Holy Qur'an i.e. the area in which Islam originated and developed.
2. Way of thinking of the people who inhabited the most civilized areas of that age and whose thoughts, manners, morals and civilisations were considered to be the most developed and the best. History tells us that the most enlightened spots of those times were the Roman and the Iranian Empires.
To complete the discussion, it is necessary that we should study the conditions of these two Empires separately, so that it may become possible to make an estimate of the value of the civilisation introduced by Islam.
In those days Rome did not enjoy a better position as compared with its rival viz. Iran. Internal strife and continuous external wars with Iran over Armenia etc. had prepared its people for accepting a revolution. More than anything else, diversity of religious opinions had made these differences much wider. Strife between the Christians and the idolaters did not subside.
When the dignitaries of the Church took reins of government in their hands they pressed their opponents hard and this by itself paved the path for the creation of a dissatisfied minority; and the thing which could be counted to be the great factor for the acceptance of Islam by the Roman nation and warm welcome accorded by them to this movement was the deprivation felt by different groups on account of the harshness of the dignitaries of the Church.
Day after day the awe and power of the Roman Empire was diminishing owing to differences amongst the priests on the one hand and existence of various religious orders on the other. Besides, the white and yellow nations of the north and the east respectively were always very keen to acquire the fertile areas of Europe and at times they did great harm to each other by their mutual warfare. This in itself became the reason for the division of the Roman Empire into two blocs viz. the eastern bloc and the western bloc.
The historians believe that the political, social and financial conditions of Rome in the sixth century were very much disturbed. So much so that they do not consider even the supremacy of Rome over Iran to be an evidence of its military power. They attribute the defeat of Iran to the maladministration of the Iranian Government.
These two Empires, which had been the leaders and rulers of the world, were in a state of chaos and anarchy at the time of the advent of Islam. Evidently such conditions create an unusual longing and desire in the hearts of the people for a proper law which may ensure their welfare.
In some countries some idle and sensual persons put forward for discussion a number of meaningless and futile problems with the object of keeping back people from all sorts of scientific and industrial progress and thus render the precious lives of the people useless. In this context we have a large number of specimens and precedents in many Muslim countries which it is not possible to recount at present.
It so chanced that Rome of those days was, more than anything else, entangled in problems of this kind. For example, the emperors and the statesmen held, under the influence of some religious institutions, the belief that Prophet 'Isa had two natures and two wills, whereas some Ya'qubi Christians were of the view that he had only one nature and one will. This baseless proposition hit out the independence and harmony of Rome and created a deep cleavage amongst those people, for the government was obliged to defend its beliefs and, therefore, subjected its opponents to severe persecution.
As a consequence of pressure and mental aversion some of them took refuge in Iran. These were the very people who, on encountering the Muslim army, quitted their trenches and greeted the Muslims with open arms. Rome of those days was just like the Europe of the Middle Ages. The famous French astronomer Camile Flammarion relates this story about the level of learning in Europe in the Middle Ages:
"The book entitled 'Majmu'a-i Lahutiah' (Theological Collection) was a perfect manifestation of the scholastic philosophy in the Middle Ages and was taught in Europe for four hundred years as a text book. A part of that book discusses whether it is possible for a few angels to settle themselves on the point of a needle or how many leagues apart the pupils of the right eye and of the left eye of the Heavenly Father are?".
How unfortunate for Rome! Just at the time when it was entangled in foreign wars, torrents of internal differences, most of which were manifested in the garb of religion, were drawing it, day after day, nearer to the precipice. When the Jews, who were a wicked and intriguing people, saw that the pressure by the Christian Emperor of Rome had crossed the bounds they drew up plans to topple down the Roman Government and even occupied the city of Antakia at one time and cut off the ears, nose and lips of the Archbishop. After some time the Roman Government avenged itself by massacring the Jews of Antakia.
Such merciless slaughtering was repeated in Rome a number of times between the Jews and the Christians and at times this revengeful feeling had its repercussions even beyond the frontiers of the Empire. For example, once the Jews purchased eighty thousand Christians from the Iranians and slaughtered them like sheep with the object of taking revenge on the Christian community.
It is here that the learned reader can visualise the dark and chaotic background of the world contemporaneous with the dawn of Islam and acknowledge that these sublime teachings, which ensured deliverance of mankind from that dark atmosphere, are not the outcome of human brain and this exhilarating breeze of unity and unanimity and this message of peace and sincerity, which is the object of Islamic religion, has no source other than the occult one. How can it be said that Islam, which has given right of existence even to the animals, is the child of such a blood thirsty environment?
Islam set aside all these baseless and frivolous discussions about the will of 'Isa and introduced him in the following words:
'Isa the son of Maryam,was no more than a Prophet. Other Prophets passed away before him. His mother was a chaste and truthful woman. They both ate earthly food and were human beings. (Surah al-Ma'dah, 5:75).
By means of this verse Islam put an end to a large number of silly discussions of the dignitaries of the Church about the spirit, blood and individuality of 'Isa. At the same time it dissuaded man from disputes and bloodshed by imparting sublime teachings to him and reviving his excellent human attributes.
The scholars of sociology are of the view that the weak point about the government of the Iranians of that age was its despotic nature and the rule of an individual over the masses. The ignorant Arabs, with all their savagery and barbarism, possessed a sort of democratic government. With the establishment of 'Darul Nadwah', which enjoyed the position of the National Consultative Assembly, they had, to some extent, eliminated the defects of despotic rule.
Although a government, whether constitutional or despotic, cannot solve the difficulties without the rule of religion and faith and the protection of secret police and cannot also maintain law and order which is the aim of every government, but it is an admitted fact that the wisdom and prudence of one person cannot equal the sagacity of a group of persons.
Collusion and violence are comparatively lesser in a democratic government. It is for this reason that the grandeur and supremacy or weakness and humiliation of the Iranians have been closely related with the weakness or strength of their one-man government. A study of the Sasanian period of government and the oscillations which took place during that period fully justifies this statement.
The advent of Islam and the appointment to the prophetic mission of the Holy Prophet (611 A.D.) was concurrent with the reign of Khusro Pervez (590-628 A.D.). The Holy Prophet's migration from Makkah to Madina also took place during his time (Friday, the 16th July, 622 A.D.) and this event became the beginning of the history of the Muslims.
In those days two big and powerful states (Byzantium and Sasanian) Iran ruled a large part of the civilised world of that time. They had been quarrelling and fighting with each other for long in order to dominate and rule the world.1
The prolonged wars which the Iranians fought against the Romans started during the reign of Anushirwan (531-589 A.D.) and continued for twenty four years i.e. till the time of Khusro Pervez. The great losses and enormous expenditure which Iran and Rome had to bear on account of these wars dealt severe blows to both of these powerful states and nothing except only form, without any substance, was left of them.
In order that we may understand clearly the conditions of Iran from different angles it is necessary for us to study briefly the conditions of various governments from the end of the rule of Anushirwan onwards till the time when the Muslims made their appearance.
Sasanian kings were usually fond of luxuries and voluptuousness. The pomp and gradiloquence of the Sasanian court dazzled the eyes.
During the Sasanian period the Iranians had a flag which was called 'Dirafsh-i Kavyani'. This flag was hoisted in the battlefield or was installed at the top of the palace at the time of ceremonial celebrations by the Sasanians. It had been decorated with very precious gems. According to a writer this peerless flag was studded with gems and other precious things, whose cost has been estimated to be 1,200,000 dirhams (or 30,000 pounds).2
In the fabulous palaces of the Sasanians so many gems and other precious articles and wonderful drawings and paintings had been collected that the eyes of the onlookers were dazzled. If we wish to become with the wonders of these palaces it would suffice if we have a look on a big white carpet which they had spread in the hall of one of the palaces.
This carpet, which was called 'Baharistan-i Kisra', had been got made by the Sasanian rulers for the purpose that at the time of merrymaking they might be in good pirits and might always have the beautiful and enlivening scenes of spring before their eyes.3
It has been said that this carpet was 150 cubits long and 70 cubits wide. Its entire wrap and wool had been woven with gold, and gems were embedded in it.4
Amongst the Sasanian monarchs the one who was most fond of luxuries was Khusro Pervez. He had thousands of wives, slave-girls, singers and musicians in his palace. In his book entitled 'Sanii Mulukul Arz' (grand kings of the earth) Hamza Isfahani describes the luxurious life of this King in these words:
"Khusro Parvez had three thousand wives and twelve thousand slave-girls who were musical performers. He had six thousand men who served as guards. As many as 8,500 horses were earmarked for his riding. He had 960 elephants and 12,000 mules for carrying the baggage. He also had one thousand camels".5
Then Tabari adds to this "This king was more fond of gems and valuable vessels etc. than anyone else".6
The social conditions in Iran in the days of the Sasanians were in no way better than the political conditions prevailing in the royal court. Class rule, which had existed in Iran since long, assumed the most acute shape during the Sasanian period. The aristocracy and the clergy were absolutely superior to other classes. All the important public offices and vocations were reserved for them. The craftsmen and peasants were deprived of all social rights and privileges. Except making payment or revenue and taking part in wars they had no other function to perform.
Nafisi writes thus about class distinctions during the period of the Sasanians: "The thing which was mostly instrumental in sowing discord amongst the Iranians was the very harsh class distinction which was established by the Sasanians in Iran. It had its roots in the past civilisation. but was much more tightened during the Sasanian period ".
Originally seven aristocratic families and after them five other classes enjoyed privileges and the common man was deprived of them. Almost the entire 'ownership' was confined to the seven families. The population of Iran during the Sasanian period was about 140 million persons.
If we suppose the number of each of these families to be one hundred thousand persons their total number would cone to seven hundred thousand. And if we assume that the frontier officials and proprietors, who too enjoyed possessory rights to some extent, were also seven hundred thousand in number, the position would be that out of a population of 140 millions, only a million and a half possessed rights of ownership and all others were deprived of this natural right granted to man by Allah.7
The craftsmen and peasants, who were deprived of all rights and privileges but had to bear on their shoulders the heavy burden of the expenses of the aristocracy, did not consider it worthwhile to preserve these conditions. Hence, most of the peasants and the people of the lower strata renounced their professions and took refuge in monasteries to escape payment of onerous revenues.8
After giving an account of the misfortunes of the craftsmen and the peasants of Iran, the author of the book 'Iran-dar Zaman-i Sasaniyan' quotes this remark of one of the European historians named Amyan Marcilinos: "The craftsmen and the peasants were leading a very miserable and degraded life during the Sasanian period.
In the event of war they walked on foot and formed the rear of the army They were considered to be so mean and worthless, as if perpetual slavery had been pre-destined for them and they could get no wages or reward for the work done by them".9
In the Sasanian Empire only a minority which formed less than 1.5 per cent of the population was the owner of everything, whereas others, whose number exceeded 98 per cent, were just like slaves and had no rights of life.
During the Sasanian period only the children of the rich people and the aristocrats were entitled to receive education and the masses and the middle class were deprived of the acquisition of knowledge and distinction.
This grave defect in the culture of ancient Iran is so patent that even the writers of epic poems (Khudainamah and Shahnamah) have mentioned it in expressive terms, although their real subject had been the narration of the achievements of the heroes.
Firdausi, the famous epic poet of Iran, has mentioned a story in Shahnamah which bears a clear testimony to this fact. This story belongs to the time of Anushirwan i.e. exactly to the period when the Sasanian empire was passing through its golden age. And this story shows that the majority of the people consisting of almost the entire masses had no right to become educated and even the lover of wisdom and justice, Anushirwan, was not prepared to grant the right of education to other classes of the public !
Firdausi says "A shoemaker turned up and offered to give a large amount of gold and silver to meet the expenses of the Iranian-Roman war. At that time Anushirwan was in great need of financial help, because about thrity thousand Iranian soldiers were faced with shortage of food and armour. There was a clamour amongst the soldiers who made their grievances known to the King himself.
Anushirwan was disturbed by this state of affairs and became alarmed about his own end. He immediately called his wise minister, Buzurg Mehr, to find out a remedy and ordered him to proceed to Mazandran at once to procure money to meet the expenses of war.
However, Buzurg Mehr said "The danger is imminent, hence something should be done immediately to remedy it". At that juncture Buzurg Mehr suggested a national loan. His suggestion was liked by Anushirwan who ordered that steps in this behalf might be taken without any delay. Buzurg Mehr sent officials to the nearest cities and towns and made the position known to the wealthy people of those places.
A shoemaker offered to provide the entire expenses of the war. The only recompense that he desired for this service was that his only son, who was very fond of education, might be permitted to obtain it. Buzurg Mehr considered his request to be quite insignificant as compared with the money offered by him. He hurried to the king and made the request of the shoemaker known to him.
Anushirwan got annoyed, rebuked his minister and said "What a strange request you are making! This is something inexpedient, for, when he gets out of the classification, the tradition of class system in the country will topple down and the harm caused by this will be much more than the gold and silver which he is prepared to give".
Firdausi explains Anushirwan's Machiavellian philosophy in the king's own words:
"When the son of a merchant becomes a secretary and also acquires skill, wisdom and intelligence.
Then, when our son ascends the throne he will need a secretary endowed with good luck.
If the son of one who deals in shoes acquires skill it will lend him eyes which can see clearly as well as ears.
In that event nothing will be left with a wise man of noble descent except regret and cold sighs".
Thus the money of the shoemaker was returned to him under the orders of the "Just Monarch". This made the helpless shoemaker very unhappy and, as is usual with the oppressed, he complained to Allah Almighty at night and made the "bell of Divine justice ring".
In the words of Firdausi "The messenger returned with the money and the shoemaker became very unhappy on account of that money.
He was very much grieved at the words of the king and when night came he rang the Divine bell".10
When speaking about the causes of the decline, unrest and disorder of the Sasanian period, the author of the book "Tarikh-i Ijtima'i Iran", who is himself one of the forerunners of the nationalists, draws a picture of the right of education being restricted to the higher circles in these words:
"During this period education and instruction in the usual branches of learning was the monopoly of the children of the aristocrats and the clergy, and almost all the other children of Iran were deprived of it".11
Indeed, this tradition of keeping the masses ignorant was so important in this eyes of the Sasanians that they did not wish to forsake it at any cost. Hence, the majority of the Iranians were deprived of the right of education as well as of other social rights, so that the opportune and improper desires of this pampered minority might be fulfilled.
Most of the Sasanian monarchs adopted a harsh policy of government and desired to subjugate the people by force. They extracted very heavy and onerous taxes from the people. The people of Iran were therefore, usually dissatisfied, but for fear of their lives they could not utter any words of protest. So much so that even the learned and experienced persons were not accorded any recognition by the Sasanian court.
The Sasanian rulers were so despotic and self-willed that no one could express his own opinion in any matter.
Although history is always tampered with through the persons wielding authority, stories have been told about the injustice and cruelty of the tyrants.
Khusro Pervez was so hard-hearted that Tha'labi writes about him: "Khusro was told that a particular governor had been asked to come to the royal court but he had made excuses. The king immediately ordered: "If it is difficult for him to come before us with his entire body we shall be satisfied with only a portion of it so that matters may become easy for him. Tell the persons concerned to send only his head to my court".12
While studying the last part of the Sasanian period the thing, which should not be lost sight of, is the maladministration of government, and the prevalence of arbitrariness, intrigue and chaos in the Sasanian regime.
The princes, the nobles and the army chiefs were at loggerheads with one another. One group elevated one prince and the other group removed him and selected another.
When the Muslims of Arabia decided to occupy Iran, the Sasanian royal family was very weak and was deeply involved in discord.
During four years ranging from the time of assassination of Khusro Parvez and ascension to the throne of Sheroya to the assumption of kingship by the last Sasanian monarch, Yazd Gard, numerous kings ruled Iran. Their number has been stated to be from six to fourteen.
Thus the government of Iran passed from one hand to the other about fourteen times during the span of four years. It can well be imagined what the condition of a country would be when coup d'etat is staged in it fourteen times during a period of four years and every time one person is assassinated and another is installed in his place.
Everyone who assumed reins of government did away with all other claimants to the throne and committed all sorts of atrocities to secure his own position. The father killed the son, the son killed the father and the brother extirpated his brothers.
Shehr Baraz killed everyone about whom he was not certain whether or not he would be a danger for his throne.
Eventually all those who came to occupy the throne, whether they were men or women and whether old or young, killed their kith and kin (viz. the Sasanian princes) so that no pretender to the throne might remain alive.
In short, chaos and anarchy had assumed such dimensions during the Sasanian period that children and women were elevated to the throne, then killed after a few weeks, and others installed in their place.
In this manner the Sasanian monarchy, notwithstanding its apparent pomp and grandeur, was speedily moving towards decadence, disintegration and destruction.
The greatest reason for the chaotic conditions of Iran during the Sasanian period was differences and diversity of opinions in religious matters.
Ardshir Babkan, as the founder of the Sasanian dynasty, was himself the son of a Mubid (Zoroastrian priest) and had reached the throne with the assistance of the spiritual people of Zoroastrian faith, he employed all means to propagate the religion of his ancestors in Iran.
In the days of the Sasanians the official as well as the popular religion of the Iranian nation was Zoroastrianism and as the Sasanian Government had been established with the help of the priests, the Zoroastrian clergy received every support from the royal court.
Consequently the Zoroastrian clergy acquired great strength in Iran during the Sasanian period, so much so that they enjoyed the position of the most powerful class in the country.
The Sasanian rulers were always mere satellites of the priests and, if anyone of these rulers did not obey the spiritual people, he met with their serious opposition and consequent disgrace. Hence, the Sasanian Kings were more attentive to the clergy than to any other people and on account of the support which the priests received from the Sasanians, their number increased day after day.
The Sasanians utilised the spiritual people a good deal for the strengthening of their empire. They erected many fire-temples in every nook and cranny of the vast dominion of Iran, and in every temple they accommodated a large number of priests.
It is said that Khusro Pervez constructed a fire-temple and appointed twelve thousand priests in it to sing hymns and to offer prayers.15
Thus the Zoroastrian faith was the court religion. The priests tried their utmost to keep the deprived and afflicted masses quiet and to create an atmosphere in which the people should not feel their adversities.
The oppression by the priests and their unlimited powers were driving the people away from the Zoroastrian faith and the common man was desirous of finding for himself a religion other than that of the aristocracy.
The author of "Tarikh-i Ijtima'i Iran" writes: " ....forced by the pressure exerted by them (i.e. the priests) the Iranian people were making efforts to get rid of these hardships. For this very reason, as opposed to the official creed of 'Mazdesti Zartushti', which was the religion of the government and the court, and was called 'Behdin', two other schools of thought had also appeared amongst the Zoroastrians".16
Of course, it was due to the severity and harsh treatment of the nobility and the priests that in Sasanian Iran different religions were appearing, one after the other. Mazdak, and before him Mani,17 had tried to bring about a change in the spiritual and religious conditions of the land, but their efforts were not successful.
It was in about 497 A.D. that Mazdak came into prominence. He declared nullification of restricted ownership, abrogation of polygamy, and formation of harems to be the front piece of his reformatory programme. As soon as the deprived classes came to know about Mazdak's programme they flocked towards him and put a great revolution in motion under his leadership.
The sole purpose of all these risings and movements was that the people should achieve the legitimate rights granted to them by Allah Almighty. Eventually Mazdak had to encounter the hostility of the spiritual people and the opposition of the army, and this resulted in trouble and destruction for Iran.
The Zoroastrian faith had also completely lost its reality in the last days of the Sasanians. Fire had been accorded so much sanctity that it was considered unlawful to hammer iron which had assumed the nature of fire for its having remained in its vicinity and most of the principles and beliefs of Zoroaster were given the shape of superstitions and fables.
During this period the realities of this religion had given place to certain futile, prosaic and absurd rites. Their formalities were continuously enlarged upon by the priests to increase their own strength. Fables and silly superstitions had penetrated into this religion to such an extent that they made even the spiritual people uneasy. And there were persons amongst the priests also who had realised the hollowness of Zoroastrian rites and beliefs and were divesting themselves of their burden.
From the time of Anushirwan onwards, the path of reflection had been opened in Iran, and as a result of the penetration of Greek and Indian learning as well as the contact of Zoroastrian beliefs with those of Christianity and other religions, such reflection was gradually becoming more intense and was occasioning the awareness of the Iranian people. Hence, more than at any other time, they felt grieved on account of the superstitions and the vain and baseless propositions of the Zoroastrian faith.
At last the deterioration which had appeared in the Zoroastrian spiritual community and the superstitions and silly fables which had made inroads upon the Zoroastrian faith became the cause of diversity and dispersion in the beliefs and views of the Iranian nation. The appearance of these differences and the prevalence of various religions made the spirit of doubt and indecision run into the minds of the intellectuals and from them it gradually penetrated into others. Consequently the masses totally lost the absolute faith and the perfect belief which they possessed previously.
Thus chaos, irreligion and carelessness completely engulfed Iran. Barzuyah, the famous physician of the Sasanian period, has drawn a complete picture of the diversity of beliefs and disturbed conditions of Sasanian Iran in his introduction to 'Kalilah wa Damnah'.
Buzurg Mehr, who was an efficient and clever man, and enjoyed the foremost position in the organization of Anushirwan, saved Iran many times from grave dangers by dint of his prudent policy and experience. At times, however, crafty people and tale-bearers darkened his relations with Anushirwan and having instigated the King to take action against him got order of his arrest issued.
The same mischief-mongers poisoned Anushirwan's mind with regard to the Roman Emperor and instigated him to ignore the treaty of permanent peace and to attack the Romans in order to widen the frontiers of the country and weaken a dangerous rival. Eventually war started and in a comparatively short period the Iranian army conquered Syria, put Antakia to fire and ravaged Asia Minor.
After twenty years' warfare and bloodshed both the armies lost their strength and chances of success, and, after sustaining heavy losses, made peace treaties twice and agreed to maintain their respective former frontiers, subject to the condition that the Roman Government would require the Iranian Government, with the payment of twenty thousand dinars annually.
The extent to which such long wars, and those, too, fought in areas far away from the centre of a country, can do harm to the economy and industry of a nation can well be imagined. Keeping in view the resources of those times it was not possible to repair speedily the effects of such a long war.
This war and invasion provided the preliminaries for the sure fall of the Iranian Government. The wounds of this war had not yet been healed, when another seven years' war started. After ascending the throne, the Roman Emperor, Tibrius, with a view to take revenge, made severe attacks on Iran and threatened its very independence. The position of the two armies had not yet become decisive when Anushirwan breathed his last and his son Khusro Pervez ascended the throne.
In the year 614 A.D. he, too, relying on some excuses, attacked the Romans afresh and as a consequence of the very first onslaught conquered Syria, Palestine and Africa; plundered Jersusalem, set on fire their sacred places and destroyed various cities. After the blood of as many as ninety thousand Christians had been shed the war ended to the advantage of Iran.
At this juncture, when the civilized world of that day was burning in the fire of war and tyranny, the Prophet of Islam was entrusted the prophetic mission. It was 610 A.D. He conveyed the invigorating message of monotheism to the people and invited them to peace, sincerity, discipline and bliss.
Defeat of the God-worshipping Romans at the hands of fire-worshipping Iranians was taken to be a good omen by the polytheists of Mecca and they thought that they too would be in a position in the near future to subdue the worshippers of God (the Muslims). However, the Muslims were very much concerned on hearing this news.
The Prophet of Islam awaited the Divine revelation and then this verse was revealed:
The Romans have been defeated in a neighbouring land. But in a few years they shall themselves gain victory. (Surah Rum, 30:1).
The prediction made by the Holy Qur'an proved to be true in the year 627 A.D., when Hercules attacked and occupied Naynava. The two rivals were breathing the last breaths of their lives and were planning reinforcements.
However, as Allah Almighty had willed it that these two lands should be illuminated with the worship of One Allah and the depressed spirits of the Iranians and the Romans should be rejuvenated with the invigorating zephyr of Islam, it was not long before Khusro Pervez was assassinated at the hands of his son Sheroya, and the son too passed away after eight months of the death of his father.
During this period Iran passed through such a chaos that after Sheroya there were nine rulers who ruled during four years (out of whom four were women) till, at last, the Muslim army put an end to this state of affairs. These conflicts, spreading over fifty years, were, of course, of great help for the advancement of the Muslim conquests.