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Book review: Two Centuries of Silence, by Abdolhossein Zarrinkoub

Abdolhossein Zarrinkoub (1923-1999) was an Iranian teacher and scholar who wrote on a wide range of subjects including history and Persian literature. This is his best-known work, in which he presents his account of events and cultural changes in the first two centuries that followed the Muslim conquest of Iran.

The first question he considers is why the desert Arabs were able to conquer the seemingly much stronger Sasanian Empire. In fact, the Arabs were afraid of embarking on invasion. But the Sasanian state had become much weaker by this time, as a result of both the long-standing war with the Byzantines and civil war. Even so, the conquest was a more prolonged affair than I had realised. It began in 633 but there was a great deal of fighting in the following years, as the Iranians resisted fiercely. By 651 most of the urban centres, apart from those in the Caspian region, were under Arab control, but even after that there were numerous revolts which were ruthlessly suppressed by the new rulers.

Conversion to Islam was gradual, and even when it occurred it was sometimes more an expedient accommodation to the new state of affairs than a heartfelt adoption of a new religion. The Persian language was initially displaced in public life in favour of Arabic, but gradually Persian reasserted itself, along with the arising of religious sects based in Zoroastrianism. This revival of Persian culture is ostensibly the theme of Zarrinkoub's book, although a lot of the text is concerned with the various rebellions that occurred and the often savage execution of the unsuccessful rebels.

Iranians were involved in the early struggles for power in Islam, as the caliphate moved first to Damascus under the Umayyads and then to the new city of Baghdad under the Abbasids. Iranians became increasingly influential at this time. Zarrinkoub's depiction of the Abbasjd caliphs is highly unflattering; they appear cruel, extortionate, corrupt and immoral in the style of Roman emperors such as Nero or Caligula. One caliph, Harun, had a pet ape which he made an emir; anyone who attended the court was required to kiss the animal's hand, and it 'deflowered several virgins', which seems a little improbable.

Not all Abbasid caliphs were quite as bad as this. Harun's son Ma'mun, although by no means deficient in extortion and ruthlessness, had a philosophical side. He arranged debates, at which he was usually present, where Muslim theologians reasoned with Zoroastrians and sectaries of various kinds, including Manicheans and Magians. Dualism, free will, and the origin of evil were among the subjects discussed. But toleration had its limits: the Mazdakite sect was not accepted as a 'People of the Book' and its adherents were not allowed to take part in public debate.

This is a slightly unusual kind of history. The translator says that Zarrinkoub was a 'littérature' as much as a historian. This seems to mean in part that he makes use of flowery language, using a plethora of synonyms; the translator has pruned these to some extent, but even so the text sometimes reads oddly. It also means, I think, that Zarrinkoub makes no pretence of objectivity but comments on the events he describes with a particular agenda in mind. He wants to demonstrate the clear superiority of Iranian culture in comparison with the crudity and barbarity of the Arabs, whom he represents as lacking any real interest in ideas or literature. Yet he professes his admiration for Islam and the Qur'an, which poses an implied contradiction that he never really confronts: how did this barbarous society come up with such an impressive religion?

Zarrinkoub may have ignored this contradiction when he wrote but it came back to bite him after the Islamic Revolution, when he was labelled a pseudo-intellectual and a Westerniser. He then radically revised his earlier opinion (p.xix). 'The change became unmistakable by 2005 [sic], when the tenth edition of…"The Report Card of Islam"…appeared.' (Since Zarrinkoub had been dead for six years by then, this date cannot be correct unless publication was posthumous, in which case can we be sure he actually wrote the text?)

Put side by side, Two Centuries of Silence and 'Report Card of Islam seem mirror images of each other. In fact…for every statement in the former one can find a counter-statement in the latter. Clearly the Zarrinkoub of Two Centuries of Silence was night-and-day different from the Zarrinkoub of 'The Report Card of Islam'. He seems to have forsworn his advocacy of national secular policies promoted by the Pahlavi shahs for the universal egalitarian message of Islam.


Readers hoping for an objective hjstory of Iran in the years after the conquest should probably look elsewhere. But its author's apparent subsequent disavowal of his earlier passionately-held view is a telling indictment of intellectual repression in modern Iran. When Zarrinkoub was writing it was a different country.

21-12-2018
%T Two Hundred Years of Silence (second edition)
%A Zarrinkoub, Abdolhossein
%I Mazda Publishers
%C Costa Mesa, California
%D 2017
%G ISBN 9781568693602
%P xxviii+315pp
%K history
%O translated from the Persian by Paul Sprachman

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