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Any detailed examination of the spread of Islam in Mesopotamia, like any other region, is contingent upon an understanding of its social and political circumstances as well as the developments which were brought about by the Islamic conquests, as the impetus behind the expansion of the new religion, especially since the major part of Mesopotamia was a constant bone of contention for the Iranians and Romans who joined many battles over its control; the southern and eastern part of Mesopotamia, i.e. Iraq, was for long considered as Iranian territory and its rulers were tribute-paying vassals of the Persian king. Thus, an examination of these developments, even though brief, would provide a reasonable outline of the expansion of Islam in the region. In the pre-Islamic period, Iraq, like Syria, was home to the Arabs who had close ties with the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula and northern Mesopotamia. The attribution of Iranshahr to the Sawad or Iraq, which is derived from the name of Iraj son of Firidun – Iraq is an Arabicization of Irah – together with the Persian names of many Iraqi cities, are indications of the Iranian orientation of the region centuries before the dawn of Islam. It is an established fact that since the 3rd century AH there appeared many Iranian settlements and garrisons in Mesopotamia, which were run by the members of the Persian aristocracy and which acted as a barrier against the incursions of the Romans as well as the Bedouin Arabs. In the same region, the Arab government of Hirah and its Lakhmid rulers (Ali Mundhir), who paid tribute to their Sasanid overlords, together with a number of Arab tribes, such as the Taghlibids, the Rabi`ah, the Tayy, and the Iyad, provided the strongest defensive line on the western flank of the Sasanid empire. However, a number of factors came to threaten the Iranian dominance over the region, the most important of which were the retreat of Khosrow Parviz in the face of the Roman encroachment and the fall of the Lakhmid government of Hirah. The latter development was mainly the result of the infighting among the Arab aristocracy of Hirah and its ruling elite. The fall of the Lakhmids removed the only impediment in the way of Arab Bedouins and led to a military conflict between the Sasanids and the Shaybanids, which resulted in an Iranian defeat in Dhuqar and which shattered the image of Iran as an invincible power in the region. Many stories were told about this watershed event, which emboldened Arabs who began to pose a direct challenge to the Iranians in Mesopotamia. 

The chaotic domestic situation in Iran, the raids on the eastern parts of the country by the nomadic tribes, and the flooding caused by the Tigris and its widespread destruction were developments which left southern Mesopotamia defenseless in the face of invading Arabs. The death of Khosrow Parviz resulted in the deterioration of the domestic stability, which in turn provided the impetus for the Arabs to step up their raids into Iraq and to escalate their plundering of towns and villages. This turn of events coincided with the riddah revolts in Arabia and the conversion of the Iranians of Yemen to Islam and their clashes with the apostates, all of which must have had their influence on the infiltration of Islam and Muslims into the Mesopotamian region.Following his suppression of the apostates, Khalid b. Walid was ordered by Abu Bakr to march toward Iraq and to initiate his campaign from Ablah. The causes of Khalid’s dispatching to Iraq are yet to be discovered. It may be that the Muslims were interested in bringing the message of the new religion to the Arab people of the area and thus to unify all Arabs under the single banner of Islam, since such an objective was clearly in play in the Muslim campaigns in Syria, against its Christian Arab tribes. In fact, the Muslims and their leaders, after the example of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), viewed Islam as a universal religion and considered it as their duty to expend effort toward its propagation. The fact that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was adamant about the spread of Islam beyond the confines of the Arabian Peninsula through the letters he sent to the rulers of various countries and that he focused on the conversion of the Arab tribes of Syria bear witness to this impetus on the part of the Muslims. 

The caliphs pursued the same policy and though the riddah conflicts caused a temporary halt in the process, later, they served as instruments for the expansion of Islam. Abu Bakr’s directive to Khalid to exercise patience toward his Iranian enemies, if accepted as historically accurate, is a clear indication of the caliph’s intention to establish the Islamic faith among the Mesopotamian Arabs under the Persian rule. Thus, the consolidation of Arab Muslim power as a means of expansion of Islam and Arab influence may well be deemed as among the main objectives of Muslims’ military offensive. Of course, economic factors such as the lure of spoils should not be ruled out. None the less, at the outset, the Arabs were reluctant to engage in direct hostilities with the Sasanian forces, though the excursions into Mesopotamia was in direct conflict with Persian interests and made military encounter inevitable, a fact that prompted Abu Bakr to attempt at preemption by dispatching Khalid to the region. However, there are those who consider other factors, e.g. geographical, economic and social, to have been of primary importance in the Muslims’ decision to conquer Mesopotamia; i.e. the spread of Islam was of secondary order. 

Prior to Khalid’s arrival in Iraq, Muthanna b. Harithah, the head of the Shaybanid tribe, and Suwayd b. Qutbah Dhuhli, of the tribe of Bakr b. Wa’il, who had sent a delegation to Medina to meet with the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and had converted to Islam, had already been engaged in military operations in the regions of Hirah and Ablah. During the wars of riddah, Muthanna asked and received permission to launch attacks against the Iranians of Iraq. Later, the caliph dispatched Khalid to the region as the supreme commander of the Muslim forces. It may be deduced that Abu Bakr’s consent to Muslim armies’ operations in Iraq, apart from its aim of spreading Islam, was intended to rid the newly established Muslim government in Arabia, and especially in the region of Hijaz, from aggressive, energetic Arabs who may have otherwise contributed to domestic strife in the peninsula; the internal revolts and conflicts which erupted during the caliphates of `Uthman and Imam `Ali (PBUH) bear witness to this source of concern. 

There are conflicting reports with regard to the areas in Iraq which became the first targets of Muslim invasion. It is said that two other Muslim commanders, Madh`ur b. `Adi `Ajli and Suwayd b. Qutbah Dhuhli, were granted permission by Abu Bakr to embark on military operations against the Sawad. Based on some reports, Khalid came to terms with the leaders of Baniqiya, Barsuma and Ilis, who agreed to pay jizyah. However, there are other reports according to which the townships and garrisons of Durnay, Zandrud, Hurmuzgird, Khaffan and Ilis were subdued by force, paving the way for the conquest of Hirah. It is also noted that Khalid inflicted a crushing defeat on the Iranian forces in the battle of Dhat al-Salasil, after which he proceeded to capture Ablah. According to Baladhuri, the battle for Ablah was the first joined by the Muslim forces, after which Khalid marched toward Hirah. The conquest of Hirah was followed by several more encounters between the Arab forces and the Iranians and their Christian Arab allies, among which were Madhar, Thana and Walajah. After these battles, in all of which Muslims emerged victorious, Khalid returned to Hirah. According to a decree by Abu Bakr, in the entire course of the campaign, the farmers who refrained from taking part in hostilities against the Muslims were allowed to keep their lands upon the condition of paying jizyah. These farmers gradually converted to Islam during the Umayyad period. 

In the month of Safar of 12 AH, the Christian Arab tribes reorganized under Persian command and joined battle with the Muslims in Ilis, were they were defeated and subjected to wholesale slaughter, for which reason the encounter came to be known as Nahr al-Damm (the river of blood). Following the battles of Amghishiyyah and Maqar, in which the Muslims came to a considerable wealth of spoils and the Iranian forces suffered major losses in terms of territorial control, Khalid entered the city of Hirah, whose Iranian governor, Azadbih, took to flight and whose population conceded to pay tribute. They soon rose in rebellion, but were quickly subdued and made to comply with the initial arrangements. 

The conquests of Hirana and Baniqiya laid the groundwork for the control of the cities of southern Mesopotamia, whose dihqans agreed to pay jizyah as a means of hanging on to their properties. Khalid moved on to capture Anbar, which was followed by that of `Ayn al-Tamr. However, the conversion of the dihqans of these regions did not take place until the days of the caliphate of Imam `Ali (PBUH). The capture of Tikrit, `Ukbara and Burdan, and the defeat of the Arabs of Taghlib and Rabi`ah were among Khalid’s last accomplishments prior to his departure from Iraq. In the same period, the Iranians incited the dihqans of the Sawad to rise against the new conquerors. Rustam Farrukhzad sent Narsi at the head of a Persian army to engage Khalid at Kaskar, as a result of which the Muslims lost control of the shores of the Euphrates. Abu `Ubayd Thaqafi, the newly appointed commander of Muslim forces in Iraq, dealt a major defeat to the Iranians and their dihqan allies, and the conditions of jizyah were restored. 

Another major battle, known as Jasr, in Ramadhan of 13 AH, led to the death of Abu `Ubayd and the victory of the Iranians, who were headed by Bahman Jadawayh, as a result of which the Iranians regained the control of the lost areas of the Sawad, including Hirah. However, a few months later (14 AH), in a battle on the eastern shores of the Buwayb river, the Iranian army was annihilated. The Muslims continued their march in the southeast up to the Tigris and in north up to Baghdad, Tikrit and the region between Hirah and Kaskar up to `Ayn al-Tamr, a situation which resulted in the gradual elimination of Iranian garrisons. It is reported that at this time Muthanna rushed to the assistance of the governor of Anbar who, along with a section of the population, had converted to Islam. Muthanna crossed the Euphrates and plundered Baghdad’s bazaar. In the meantime, Sa`d b. Abi Waqqas was sent to Iraq on the orders of `Umar. The Iranians of the Sawad were also intent on recruiting as their allies the members of the tribe of Bakr b. Wa’il, through the good offices of the Lakhmid Qabus b. Qabus. 

The Iranians mustered an army, headed by Rustam. The two sides’ negotiations proved inconclusive and thus battle was joined at Qadisiyyah, near Kufah, in which the Muslims emerged victorious. Sa`d pushed on and crossed the Euphrates, where he laid siege to Bahrsir. He continued his operations in the lands between the Tigris and the Euphrates, in the course of which he imposed jizyah on the farmers and dihqans while allowing them to retain their lands. The capture of Bahrsir was followed by that of Mada’in, which was defended by Rustam’s brother, Kharahzad. A key factor contributing to the defeat of the Iranians in Qadisiyyah and the fall of Mada’in was the reluctance of the dihqans to take up arms against the Muslims, who thus did not have to be concerned about being attacked from the rear. In fact, the dihqans who had been forced to fight on the side of the Iranians were later treated amicably by the Muslims and were left in possession of their land, on the orders of `Umar. 

The next encounter between the Muslims and the Iranians, who enjoyed the support of the dihqans of Mahru, took place in Jawla, in the later part of 16 AH, which resulted in the victory of the Muslims who went on to occupy the eastern regions of the Tigris. Halwan was also captured by Qa`qa` b. `Amr, who appointed an Iranian as its ruler. The province of Bajarma was the last to fall into Muslim hands, before `Umar ordered a halt to the operations. The Muslims seemed satisfied with the conquest of the Sawad, after which they embarked on a consolidation of their powerbase in Mesopotamia. The foundation of the city of Kufah was laid at this time, which turned into a focal point of the Muslim forces in the region. 

The conquest of northern Mesopotamia, or Jazirah, and its Islamization took place some time later, after the complete subjugation of Iraq. For long, Jazirah, and its capital of Edessa (al-Ruha’), was the scene of clashes between the armies of Iran and Rome. During the period of Islamic conquests, the part of the region from Ra’s al-`Ayn to the south of the Euphrates was in the hands of the Romans, while the section including Nasibayn, all the way to the Tigris, the desert of Mardin, Darya and Sanjar was under Persian control. It appears as if the Roman areas of Mesopotamia were the first to be captured by the Muslims. This was accomplished as a result of the Muslim victory in the battle of Yarmuk, which sealed the fate of Syria. The conquest of the entire Jazirah is attributed to `Ayad b. Ghanm, who was first tasked with the mission. He waged war on Riqqah, which surrendered after its patriarch yielded to Muslim demands. Next, he set his sights on Harran and Edessa, the last of which gave in peacefully as a result of negotiations with its bishop (18 AH). The capture of the rest of the cities of Jazirah was rendered possible through that of Edessa. Samisat, Qirqisiya, Sanjar, Amid, Mifarqin, Bidlis, Akhlat, Mardin and Ra’s al-`Ayn fell one after another in 18 – 20 AH. In 21 AH, `Umayr b. Sa`d, the successor to `Ayad, succeeded in conquering the forts along the littoral of the Euphrates and marched to Hit. However, since `Ammar Yasir, the governor of Kufah, had dispatched an army to the area, including the region north of Anbar, `Umayr took his forces back to Riqqah. Thus, the Muslim armies had marched along the entire flanks of Mesopotamia. 

There exists scarce information with regard to the Islamization of Mesopotamia, which appears to have progressed at a slow pace. `Umayr b. Sa`d offered the message of Islam to the Bani Taghlib, the Christian inhabitants of Jazirah, but they asked to be allowed to pay jizyah instead. Later, Bani Taghlib deemed the status of paying jizyah as beneath themselves and thus decided to migrate to Byzantium. `Umar accepted to remove the status of jizyah and to levy a payment of kharaj (charity), twice as much as the original amount. This was the first instance of a People of the Book being exempted from the payment of jizyah, while paying charity instead. The Bani Taghlib insisted on remaining faithful to their Christian religion, while promising not to actively attempt at imposing it on their children. Certain sections of Jazirah converted to Islam, following the Muslim victory at Qadisiyyah, and remained in their places of residence. It is reported that subsequent to the conquest of Riqqah the patriarch of the city was about to convert to Islam and encourage the people of the city to follow suit, before he was rejected by the populace who threatened him with death. 

In the same period, there thrived in Mesopotamia the three religions of Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Mazdakism. With the onset of the Muslim invasion of Mesopotamia, many Christian Arab Bedouins found themselves on the path of the invaders, whose affinity to these Bedouins, in terms of race and language, facilitated the latter’s acceptance of Islam and Muslims. For instance, when the leaders of the Christian Arab tribes of Hirah came to enter into peace negotiations with Khalid they introduced themselves as Arabs who spoke in Arabic. Also, certain Arab groups of Mesopotamia who were less than satisfied with the Sasanids chose to remain inactive in the face of the invading Muslim forces. The Christian Arab tribes also readily sided with the Muslims, among whose leaders were `Abd al-Masih b. `Amr b. Qays Azudi, Hani b. Qabisay Shaybani and Ayas b. Qabisah Ta’i, the last agent of Khosrow Parviz in Hirah, all of whom threw in their lot with the Muslims, provided their churches were left standing. 

In fact, the inhabitants of Iraq came to enjoy broader religious freedom as a result of Muslim victories, since unlike in the Sasanid period they could continue practicing their religion on condition of paying jizyah. This was at a time when during the Sasanid period the followers of religions other than Zoroastrianism were subjected to severe persecution. Following the invasion of the region, a number of the Arab tribes of the Sawad, such as Tayy, Azud, `Abd al-Qays and Kindah, certain branches of whom had sent delegations to Medina, in 9 and 10 AH, to meet with the Holy Prophet (PBUH) in order to embrace Islam, felt no hesitation to throw in their lot with their Arab brothers. A case in point was the battle of Buwayt, in 13 AH, in which the tribes of Namr and Taghlib, who had been among the major allies of the Sasanids and who had previously engaged in military conflicts against Muslims, came over to the side of the invaders, apparently for no other reason than racial affinity. 

The Shaybanids were the first Arab tribe in Iraq to join the Muslims. It is reported that when Muthanna was appointed by Abu Bakr as the head of the Muslim Shaybanids he embarked on a campaign of Islamization of his people, which met with success. In Tikrit as well, following the capture of Mada’in, many from the tribes of Iyad, Taghlib and Namr converted to Islam. However, certain tribes of Mesopotamia, such a number of groups from the Bani Taghlib, stuck to their Christian faith, though they were not allowed to baptize their children. Once again the tribes provided Sa`d with assistance in the building of Kufah. Though some of these reports are said to belong to a later period, it should be noted that the collection of jizyah was neither a means of deprecation nor a form of punishment; instead, it was to supply funds for the Islamic government which had the obligation to provide protection for the People of the Book, who were incapable of serving in the military. This point is clearly spelled out in the peace treaties concluded between the Muslims and the Christian Arab tribes of Mesopotamia. It is reported that many high-ranking officials and those of high social status who were exempted from paying taxes in the Sasanid period converted to Islam after the coming of the Muslims as a means of evading jizyah. The same strategy was employed by those who were paying poll taxes to the Sasanid government. For instance, following the Arab conquests, parts of the populations of Hirah and Ilis, who were levied a set amount of tribute by the Iranian government, converted to Islam and thus were exempted from the poll tax and even the kharaj on their lands, a factor which led to the further Islamization of the region. The inhabitants of Iraq, like those in Syria and Egypt, had been crushed under the heavy burden of taxation and, thus, not only did they not offer any resistance to the Muslim invaders, but they soon joined them. 

With regard to the inclination of the Christian Arab tribes toward Islam, it may be noted that apart from the commonality in race and language, which was in itself a powerful incentive, the religious strife and infighting, the disarray afflicting the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the sectarian persecutions of people who were after spiritual serenity were all factors which bolstered the tendency to gravitate toward the new religion. Another element which helped the cause of Islam among the eastern Christians and the people of Mesopotamia was the simplicity and the coherence of its doctrine, unlike the arcane teachings of the Christian church. A great majority of prominent Muslim personalities, from jurists and historians to high-ranking officials and rulers, were either among those whose fathers had embraced Islam, or had been captured by the Muslims and converted thereafter. Apart from the Arab tribes of the region, the Iranian and Irano-Semite dihqans of Iraq also soon converted to Islam and threw their support behind the Muslims, many of whom managed to retain their positions. These included Jamil b. Basbahri, from Falalij and Nahrayn, Bastam b. Narsi, from Babil and Khatraniyyah, Firuz, from Nahr al-Malik, and others, who embraced Islam and were allowed by the caliph to retain their properties and were even included in the list of those receiving caliphal gifts. The twists and turns in the history of the Islamization of Mesopotamia may be traced through an examination of the patterns of jizyah levied during various periods. It should be noted that the immediate appointment, after the conquest of an area or city, of those responsible for the leadership of congregational prayer, matters of legal judgment, and military affairs, as well as the existence of traditionists, Qur’anic reciters and jurists are all indications of the importance attached, from early on, by Muslim leaders to the expansion of Islam, the education of the new converts, and the safeguarding of religious practices.

* source: Sajadi , Sadegh "Islam Entry" The Great Islamic Encyclopedia. Ed. Kazem Musavi Bojnourdi.Tehran: The Center of Great Islamic Encyclopaedia , 1989-, V.8 , pp.517 - 521

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