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Egypt and Syria

The process of expansion of Islam in Egypt and Syria while bearing many similarities to its development in areas outside of the Arabian Peninsula was distinguished by several characteristics. These characteristics may be sought in the racial, social and religious makeup of the people of these two regions, their outlook on the political and religious domination of Rome, and their early contacts with Muslims dating back to the days of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). From a historian’s point of view the elaboration of these elements are found in the sources dealing with the two aspects of the Muslim conquests and the expansion of Islam. The significance of the latter point becomes especially clear by the fact that any examination of the events relating to the conquest of Iran and the expansion of Islam in that country must constantly rely on Muslim or Iranian sources of the Islamic period, which are based on an Islamic perspective, depriving the historian of the alternative interpretations of the events. It should also be noted that the diversity of works on Egypt and Syria is not such that one could consider the Syriac-Greek sources as constituting a distinctly independent perspective with regard to the issue of Muslim conquests and the spread of the Islamic religion. In fact research has indicated that the Byzantine-Syrian historian, Theophanes (d. 817 AD), adopted some of the material for his Chronographia from Arabic historical sources, and that later Byzantine historians, Cedrenus and Georgios Monachos, in turn, took their information from Theophanes. A Syrian historian, Elias Nusaybini (flourished 11 AD), betrays his employment of Islamic sources when he uses dates from the Muslim calendar in the presentation of his chronological data. None the less, these non-Muslim sources, especially those of Theophanes, shed additional light on a number of obscure issues, while providing an alternative perspective to those of Islamic historiographers. 

In the pre-Islamic period, Syria was part of the Byzantine Empire and was the scene of long-standing conflicts between the Persian and Roman armies. The last Iranian king to rule Syria was Khosrow Parviz, who, during his invasion of Anatolia, captured Syria and carried away Christ’s Cross to Iran. However, soon Heraclius defeated the Persians and recaptured Syria. The Roman grip on Syria had been weakened prior to these developments, owing to the fact that the stipend given to the Christian Arab tribes of the region by the Byzantine government, in return for which they assumed the task of defending the Syrian borders, was no longer paid, thus undermining their loyalty. In the course of the Perso-Roman wars, the economic conditions of the region further deteriorated, in addition to religious strife resulting from doctrinal disputes between the Jacobite Church and the Roman Orthodox Church, which represented the official religion of the empire. The existence of Jews, Samaritans and even idolaters further aggravated the situation. The Syrians, who adhered to their own religion, distinct from that of Rome, had also retained their own racial and linguistic characteristics; therefore, the Greco-Roman civilization was but a veneer for their de facto Semitic culture. This prompted the Syrians to feel themselves closer, in language and religion, to Muslim Arabs than to the Romans. From an ethnic point of view, there existed many Arab and Arabic-speaking tribes in the border regions of Hijaz and Syria who, based on historical accounts, had relations with the government in Medina dating from the days of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and some of whose leaders had converted to Islam. These included the Bani `Udhrah and the Bani Sa`d Hudhaym, one of whom led a portion of the Muslim army at the battle of Mutah. According to Ibn Sa`d, the leaders of both tribes had had meetings with the Holy Prophet (PBUH); thus, upon the arrival of Muslim forces in Syria they did not offer any resistance. The tribe of Bali was another Arab tribe in Syria, and was a staunch ally of Byzantium. However, it had a number of branches in Hijaz, where its members counted among the Successors and those who had taken part in the battles of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). In the days of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), certain branches of the tribes of Judham and Lakhm, who resided in Tabuk and Bahr al-Mayyit, were allies of the Muslims and some converted to Islam, including Farwah b. `Amr Judhami, among the leaders of the Judham, who was killed by the Romans as a result of his conversion to Islam. Certain branches of the tribe of Qayn, or Balqayn, who controlled the northern part of Tima’ up to Hawran and who were among the allies of the Romans in the battle of Mutah converted to Islam prior to the death of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). After the death of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), some of those who had converted became apostates, while others, such as Usamah raged war against them. 

Therefore, the introduction of Islam in Syria must be considered as having initiated during the lifetime of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), since he first focused his attention on the areas north of Hijaz and south of Syria, all of which fell to the Muslims following the battle of Dhat al-Salasil. In view of the fact that jihad for the propagation of religion is considered as a duty in Islam and that the Holy Prophet (PBUH) himself engaged in such activity within the borders of the Arabian Peninsula as well as in southern Syria, it may be deduced that the Muslim military activities subsequent to his death, which also coincided with the wars of riddah, were in fact attempts to spread the message of Islam. Though many scholars are of the opinion that the wars of conquest were a continuation of the military operations relating to the riddah and suppression of heretical movements, one should not loose sight of their economic component. None the less, taking into account the letters sent by the Holy Prophet (PBUH) to the rulers of Iran, Byzantium and Egypt as a means of calling them to Islam, one must conclude that the strongest impetus behind Muslim military action against these countries was one of spreading the new religion, with conquest and jihad as its complementary aspects. The first attempt by the Holy Prophet (PBUH) to take the message of Islam to Syria took place in 6 AH, when an expedition was sent to Dumat al-Jandal, some ten stations from Damascus. `Abd al-Rahman b. `Awf called the people of the area to Islam, which resulted in the conversion of their Christian leader, Asbaq b. `Amr Kalbi. In 8 AH, Ka`b b. `Umayr Ghaffari was sent by the Holy Prophet (PBUH) to Dhat Itlah in Syria, but its inhabitants rejected the call to Islam and expelled the Muslims. In the same year, Harith b. `Umayr, the Holy Prophet’s (PBUH) emissary to Busra, was killed at the hands of Sharhabil b. `Amr Ghassani. A Muslim army was sent to Mutah, led by Zayd b. Harithah, which joined battle with the Ghassanids and their Roman allies, in the course of which Zayd and Ja`far b. Abi Talib lost their lives. In the battle of Dhat al-Salasil, which occurred during the lifetime of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), `Amr b. `As and Abu `Ubaydah succeeded in securing the territory previously held by the Syrian Arab tribes of `Udhrah and Balqayn, as well as in routing those from the tribes of Bali and Qugha`ah who had come to the aid of their Syrian tribesmen. Finally, in the Rajab of 9 AH, the Holy Prophet (PBUH) sent an army to Tabuk, an oasis in northern Hijaz, south of Syria. Large numbers of the Christians of Ilah, Adhrah, between Batr and Ma`an, and Jubra’, north of Adhrah, as well as the Jews of Mughna, south of Ilah on the coast of Aqabah, converted to Islam. 

With the onset of the riddah many Arab tribes loyal to the government in Medina saw an opportunity to reject Islam; however, Usamah b. Zayd found very little difficulty in subjugating the majority of them. Zayd’s mode of operation, based on Abu Bakr’s decree regarding the sparing of the lives of women, children and the elderly, as well as refraining from trickery and treacherous acts, had much to do with his success. Following the suppression of the apostates, Abu Bakr decided to send an expedition to Syria as a means of propagating the message of Islam. Though many companions of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) were reluctant to engage the Roman forces, Abu Bakr was finally convinced to do so after insistence on the part of Imam `Ali (PBUH). In the Safar of 13 AH, the caliph sent three or four of his commanders at the head of an army through Tabuk and Ilah to Jordan, Palestine, Hams and the vicinity of Damascus, while asking Khalid b. Walid to go to Syria from Iran. Based on Abu Bakr’s directives to Abu `Ubaydah, regarding the confining of military activities to the rural areas and avoiding combat in urban surroundings, except in cases where direct orders were given, one may deduce that the caliph was intent on spreading Islam among the nomadic Arab tribes of Syria and its Arab rustics and agriculturalists, so as to recruit sufficient forces for later attacks on cities. 

An examination of the Muslims’ pattern of advancement in Syria, and also in the outlying areas of Iran, indicates that the Arab tribes inhabiting the border areas between Iran and Syria joined the Muslim armies early on, a factor which greatly contributed to the Arabs’ swift domination of the region. The first encounter occurred in Dathin, near Ghazzah, in which `Amr b. `As defeated the patriarch, Sergius, and occupied `Arabah. Another group marched to Balqa’ through Tabuk, while a third group broke the Roman power in `Arabah. In the meantime, Abu `Ubaydah Jarrah concluded a peace treaty with the population of Ma’ab, among the villages of Balqa’, which is said to have been the first of its kind in Syria. At the same time, Khalid b. Walid left the Iranian territory through an unknown route and after capturing `Ayn al-Tamr and a few other oases reached Tadmir and imposed jizyah on its population. Afterward, he sent an expedition to Damascus, while he himself headed for Jabiyah. After defeating the Ghassanid Christian Arabs of Rahat, he headed for Busra, in eastern Jordan, where he joined up with other Muslim commanders as their supreme leader. Busra was the first Syrian city to be captured by the Muslims. The first major combat took place in the Jamadi al-Awwal of 13 AH at Jamadin, midway between Ramlah and Jibrin, in which the Roman commander fell and Muslims came out victorious. The Romans made off for Fahl, on the eastern shores of the Jordan River. The pursuing Muslims captured Fahl and moved on to Damascus, in which the Roman forces had sought refuge. Sometime later, in the Muharram of 14 AH, the two sides collided in Marj al-Sufr, resulting in another victory for the Muslims. Reports are inconclusive with regard to the order of occurrence of the battles of Ajnadayn and Marj al-Sufr. Next, the Muslim army laid siege to the city of Damascus, subsequent to which `Umar b. Khattab ascended to caliphate. He replaced Khalid b. Walid with Abu `Ubaydah as the supreme commander of the Muslim forces. In spite of these changes, Damascus was promptly subdued through forceful means as well as through negotiation. Hamas, Hamah, Shayzar and Ma`rat al-Na`man all submitted peacefully, while some force had to be used in the conquest of Ba`albak and Halab, which put up some resistance. 

The crucial battle between the Roman and Muslim forces, which sealed the fate of Syria, was joined in Yarmuk, in 15 AH. The Roman army, made up of soldiers from Rome, Syria, Jazirah, Armenia, and the Arab allies of Rome and led by Jabalah b. Ayham Ghassani, met the Muslim forces at the confluence of the Yarmuk and Ruqad rivers, near Waqusah (or Yaqusah), where they were dealt a crushing defeat by the latter; thus, Heraclius, who was in Antioch, set out for Constantinople and washed his hands of Syria. Nablus, Ludd, Yabni, `Amwas, Bayt Jabrin, Yafa and Rafah fell one after another, and the Muslim forces headed for Quds (Jerusalem) following their capture of Qansarin. The siege of Quds became a protracted affair, until the guardians of the city offered to hand over the city to the person of the caliph. Therefore, `Umar came personally to sign the peace treaty, an event which has been fixed in 16 to 18 AH. Qaysariyyah, Riqqah, Khazan, Samisat, Nasibin, Mayafariqayn, and Qirqisiya were the last major cities in Syria to fall to the Muslims in the years after 19 AH, through which the conquest of Jazirah, Palestine and Syria was made complete. Jazirah’s bloodless conquest was especially rendered easy since it was encircled on both sides by Muslim forces in Iraq and Syria. 

Thus, the entire Syrian territory was captured within the span of seven years, and its cultural life which had oriented itself toward Rome once again turned back to its eastern direction. The Greco-Syrian culture of the region was gradually supplanted by an Islamic one. Based on Hitti’s view, who considers the Islamic conquests as the most important factor in the evolution of societies, one may consider the Islamic domination of the Mediterranean region as the event marking the end of the ancient period and ushering in the Middle Ages. Of course, victories in the battlefield greatly contributed to the spread of Islam in these regions, a factor which had a lot to do with the political and social conditions on the ground. In Syria the predominance of Islam over Christianity was so pronounced as to convince some Christian historians that the main objective of the Muslims in their invasion of Syria was to root out their religion. The fact that should be borne in mind here is that though many Arab Christians readily converted to Islam, those who did not, remained in good sanding with their Muslim neighbors. From the outset, Syrian Christians tended to harbor a positive view of Islam. According to one of the patriarchs of the Eastern Orthodox Church, after their conquest of Syria, Muslims not only did not display any animosity toward Christians, they even treated their faith and leaders with outmost respect, a fact that was further bolstered by the existing commonalities between the beliefs and practices of the two religions. This may account for some orientalists’ view regarding Islam as being heavily indebted to Syrian Christianity. On the other hand, owing to the differences separating the Nestorian Church from its Roman counterpart and the resultant pressure exerted on the Syrian Christians by Heraclius, the Christians of the region welcomed the Muslims as a divine blessing releasing them from the Roman yoke. Many Syrian Christians received the Muslims with open arms and offered them assistance at crucial junctures. The peace treaties concluded with the Christians of various Syrian cities indicate the care given by the Muslims to the matter of winning the hearts of the native populations. For instance, in Halab, the Christians were allowed to retain their properties, estates and churches, with the Muslims only securing a tract of land for the construction of a mosque. Though, Laqiziyyah was captured by force, its Christians were permitted to return to their places of residence. In other cities, Churches were allowed to stand, though no new ones were to be erected. 

The peace treaties stipulated that the Muslims were to provide protection for the populations of the cities in return for the jizyah they received. In fact, so deep was the obligation felt by the Muslims that prior to the battle of Yarmuk, when it appeared as if they may not be capable of guaranteeing such protection, they requited the jizyah collected from the people of Hams. This gesture so impressed the people of the city that the Christian and the Jewish population threw their support behind the Muslim forces. There exist numerous reports regarding the Nabataeans – who had a long history of trade ties with Medina, dating back to the pre-Islamic period – taking part in Muslim armies’ fights against the Romans. It appears that the Jewish population of Syria also achieved greater freedom as a result of the coming of Islam to the region, and thus adopted a cooperative stance toward the Muslims. The hostile stance of the Christians toward the Jewish population of Syria may be deduced from the fact that during the negotiations for the surrender of Quds, the Christians stipulated that no Jews were to be allowed to reside in the city. However, the pressure to which the dhimmis (the Jews and Christians, between whom and the Muslims there is according to Muslim law a certain legal relation) were later subjected to in Syria, though very seldom, at times resulted in riots. In fact, the conversion to Islam of the Christian population of Syria during the reigns of the `Abbasid caliphs Mahdi, Harun and Matiwakkil may be attributable to this harsh treatment, which in turn may have been a reaction to Roman military attacks on and plundering of the frontline Muslim areas. 

From a cultural point of view, ever since the introduction of Islam in Syria there began exchanges of religious and cultural views, which were carried out in various assemblies held at the courts of caliphs and other high-ranking officials. The Muslims showed a high degree of tolerance toward the followers of other religions and thus Christian scholars were frank in their discussions of their views. The Muslim armies engaged in the conquest of Syria counted numerous Companions and memorizers of the Qur’an among their ranks, many of whom settled in the newly conquered territories as propagators and teachers to the new converts. At times, some were appointed by the caliph to fulfill this function, men who became the first judges and faqihs in the region. These Companions and Successors and their progeny struck such deep roots in the Syrian soil that some came to be considered as native to the region. In addition, the traditionists, faqihs and Qur’anic reciters who later migrated to Syria, left a deep imprint on the cultural life of the region, while acting as agents for the propagation of Islamic beliefs.Following the battle of Yarmuk, sometime prior to the end of the period of the conquests, `Amr b. `As laid siege to Caesarea, but soon he placed his son in charge of the situation and, through a series of actions on which historians provide differing reports, marched toward Egypt, whose routes were familiar to him because of his trading activities in the region dating back to the pre-Islamic period. It is reported that this enterprise was taken up without sanction from `Umar, who was enraged upon receiving its news, which prompted him to send a message to `Amr directing him to turn around if not yet in Egypt. The caliph’s directive reached `Amr before his arrival on the Egyptian soil. It appears that `Amr had anticipated `Umar’s reaction, which fell on `Amr’s deaf ears, since he pressed on with his advance until he reached and captured the feebly defended city of al-`Arish. There are other reports indicating `Amr’s military action against Egypt to have been on the orders of `Umar, a directive that was to be kept a secret from the members of the Muslim army until their actual arrival in Egyptian territory. It also seems likely that `Umar b. Khattab was apprehensive about invading Egypt and opening multiple fronts as long as Muslims were yet to consolidate their grip over Iran and Syria. His belated and grudging consent appears to have been the result of `Amr’s persistent appeals as well as his reasoning that the conquest of Egypt was the means of solidifying the Muslim domination of Syria, which were to remain under threat so long as there were Roman soldiers stationed in that country. All this is reported to have transpired between 16 and 20 AH, during which the conquest of Egypt was accomplished. 

There is a great deal of discrepancy among historical sources with regard to the first Egyptian cities captured by the Muslim forces. According to Baladhuri and Ibn `Abd al-Hakam, the first battle was joined at Farma, which dragged on for an entire month, concluding in `Amr’s defeat of the Roman army on the 19th of Muharram; though, Tabari’s report and, following him, that of Ibn Athir indicate that the capture of Farma and `Ayn Shams was preceded by the battle of Balalyun (Bab al-Yun). According to Ibn `Abd al-Hakam, following the battle of Farma, `Amr advanced to Bilbis, after whose capture he marched on to Umm Dunayn and Babalyun, which was the seat of the Coptic Muqawqis, who promptly departed upon the first signs of hostilities. Baladhuri fails to make mention of the battles of Bilbis and Umm Dunayn. Based on his report, following the conquest of Farma, `Amr headed for Yawnah (Bab al-Yawn), in the vicinity of the future city of Fustat, where he was to receive reinforcements. After a period of conflict, Muqawqis sought for a negotiated end to the matter, but was rebuffed by the nobles and their leader, whom Tabari refers to as Artabun, who refused both the option of conversion to Islam and paying jizyah. Muqawqis, none the less, concluded a peace treaty with the Muslims, on behalf of the entire population of Egypt, a move which was severely censured by Heraclius, who dispatched an army to Alexandria. Ibn Bitriq reports the same story in connection to the battle of Farma. According to him, Muqawqis, the Roman government’s tax official of Egypt, who was a Jacobite and harbored animosity toward his Roman overlords, sent a message to Heraclius informing him of the immensity of the Muslim army and the impossibility of resistance, after which he went to Jazirah (the island of Rawdah on Nile) and asked `Amr to sent him a delegation to conduct the peace talks. From the accounts of his negotiations with `Abadah b. Samit one may gather that Muqawqis and the Copts were eager for peace, unlike the Romans who accused Muqawqis of treason. None the less, following the Egyptian defeat at Farma, Muqawqis met with `Amr in person and concluded a peace agreement covering the entire land of Egypt. The capture of Babalyun, which was the key to the conquest of the entire Egyptian territory, was followed by those of `Ayn Shams, Fayyum, Ashmunanyn, Akhmim, Bashrawdat, and the regions of Sa`id, Tanis, Damyat and Tunah. 

The most crucial stage in the conquest of Egypt came with the capture of Alexandria which was the seat of Roman power and was protected by an impenetrable fort. According to Baladhuri, `Amr asked `Umar for permission to storm the city, which was carried out in 21 AH and which resulted in the fall of the city after three months. However, Tabari, which bases his report on the firsthand account of Ziyad b. Jaz’ Zubaydi, notes that the ruler of the city agreed to pay jizyah, provided the Muslims freed their prisoners. `Amr informed the caliph, `Umar, who conceded to the arrangement except in case of the prisoners already sent to Arabia, thus paving the way for the surrender of Alexandria. According to Ya`qubi’s report, the conditions set by Muqawqis for the surrender of Alexandria was for Muslims to allow the population to leave the city for Rome or to stay and pay jizyah, which was agreed to by the caliph but rejected by Heraclius who opted for war, which ended in a Muslim victory. In the meantime, the Roman army arrived at Alexandria in 23 or 25 AH, at which time the Roman population of the city reneged on their agreement and began to kill and expel the Muslims, while Muqawqis remained loyal to his pledge. `Amr marched on the city and brought it under his control. According to Baladhuri, the Roman population of Alexandria twice revolted, in 23 and 25 AH, but were put down and made to comply with the terms of their agreement. The conquest of Alexandria was followed by those of Akhna, Balhib, Burlus and a few others. 

In Egypt, like in Syria, the extent of cooperation offered to the Muslims by the native population as well as the rate of their conversion were truly astounding. So was the similarity of the factors which contributed to this trend. An overwhelming majority of the Coptic Christian population of Egypt threw their support behind the Muslims, owing to their resentment of Roman domination and the religious and social restrictions imposed on them, so much so that it may well be claimed that the conquest of the country and its Islamization was mainly due to the reception afforded the newcomers by the Coptic people of Egypt. The Muslims, in turn, displayed an amicable treatment toward them. It is reported that in 6 AH, the Holy Prophet (PBUH) sent a message to the ruler of Egypt calling him to Islam. The Egyptian ruler, who in the Islamic sources is referred to as Muqawqis and who appears to have been the provincial governor, did not convert to the new religion but he did send two slave girls, one of whom was Mariyyah Qibtiyyah, as gifts to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). There also exists a hadith of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) in which Muslims are exhorted to treat the Copts favorably. At the same time, not only the Coptic population but their religious leaders harbored a sympathetic view of the Muslims. In their assault on Babalyun, the Muslims were hopeful of the cooperation of the Copts, or, at least, counted on their neutrality. During the siege of Alexandria, while the Romans were preparing themselves for military engagement, the Coptic population along with Muqawqis, were suing for peace, which was eventually realized through the perseverance of Muqawqis and the Copts who were looking forward to attaining religious freedom under the Muslims. Based on certain reports, it was Muqawqis and his fellow Copts who first incited Muslims to attack Alexandria, and it was Muqawqis who, after the conquest of the city, took the set jizyah to `Amr. When according to the agreement for the surrendering of the city of Alexandria Muslims freed their prisoners many refused to go and converted to Islam. These, in addition to Copts, included Romans who swiftly decided to embrace Islam. According to a report by John of Nikiou, the rulers of Fayyum, Lower Egypt and Rif, who were the most prominent officials after the ruler of Alexandria, all converted to Islam and were retained in their positions, in spite of the fact that they were Melkites, opposed to the Coptic religion. It is even reported that, in all likelihood, Muqawqis himself had covertly converted to Islam. 

Islam so impressed on the beliefs of the Christians of Egypt that it is reported that their eminent religious leaders openly preached an Islamic outlook regarding God, prophets and Jesus. Therefore, it may be deduced that the Islamization of Egypt was not the result of pressure or persecution, a fact that contributed to the mounting number of converts. This tendency toward conversion was especially true in the case of Christians who were fed up with ideological controversies and eager to find a religion with a tangible and comprehensible set of beliefs. None the less, those who remained faithful to their own creed enjoyed the highest degree of religious freedom. According to John of Nikiou, `Amr did not violate the sanctity of churches and prevented others from such actions. The fact that the amount of jizyah collected from Egypt was halved in the 10 years spanning the caliphates of `Uthman and Mu`awiyah is a clear indication of the fast pace of Islamization of the country. The figure was drastically reduced by the time of `Umar b. `Abd al-`Aziz, though some of this reduction must be attributed to the acts of forgiveness which in themselves contributed to further conversions. It appears that during the period in which jizyah was also collected from the new converts, as a result of fiscal problems, the trend of Islamization was slowed down, a fact that led to a reversal of the policy. According to Severus, the reign of Hafz b. Walid was one during which a large number of Christians opted to embrace Islam. Poverty was not the factor responsible for these conversions, since the economic conditions of the Coptic population had dramatically improved in the Islamic period, so much so that an elderly Coptic woman could afford to play host to the caliph and his entourage for several days and to offer them costly parting gifts. None the less, at times, the amount of jizyah levied on the Coptic population proved a heavy enough burden to incite them to stage riots, the first one of which took place in 107 AH, followed by another during the reign of Hanzalat b. Safwan, in 121 AH. 

Finally, it should be noted that, from the outset, Egypt was transformed into one of the most important political and scientific focal points of the Islamic world, which resulted in a gradual retrenchment of the Greek culture. The country’s fertile agricultural lands and its other sources of wealth proved irresistible to large numbers of Muslim immigrants, who included many Companions and Successors. These mingled with the native population, giving birth to a new culture and a multitude of scientists, traditionists and faqihs. The learned tradition emerging within this dynamic milieu transformed Egypt into one of the longest standing centers of scientific and religious activity in the Islamic world.

* source: Sajadi , Sadegh "Islam Entry" The Great Islamic Encyclopedia. Ed. Kazem Musavi Bojnourdi.Tehran: The Center of Great Islamic Encyclopaedia , 1989-, V.8 , pp.521 - 526

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