Remembering and Forgetting the Persian Past – By Elizabeth Urban

Elizabeth Urban on Sarah Bowen Savant’s The New Muslims of Post-Conquest Iran: Tradition, Memory, and Conversion

Sarah Bown Savant, The New Muslims of Post-Conquest Iran: Tradition, Memory, and Conversion, Cambridge University Press, 2013, 294pp., $90.00
Sarah Bown Savant, The New Muslims of Post-Conquest Iran: Tradition, Memory, and Conversion, Cambridge University Press, 2013, 294pp., $90.00

Scholars of early Islam are still seeking to understand how Islam spread beyond Arabia. How, where, when, and why did diverse people convert to Islam? What did conversion mean to them, and how did it change their daily lives? How did converts articulate their new identities as Muslims, and, more broadly, what was the relationship between universal membership in the Islamic community and more localized forms of identity such as ethnicity, locality, or occupation? Aside from the inherent interest of understanding how one of the world’s largest religions began, these questions are important because people continue to navigate what it means to be a Muslim in today’s complex world. People often invoke the past to form their identities, and the period of Islamic origins is a particularly fertile ground for meaningful Muslim memories. However, Muslims and non-Muslims alike often present this origins period as an ossified, static age that contains everything anyone needs to know about Islam. By recovering this past as dynamic, and revealing how new Muslims constantly constructed and re-constructed their identities to fit changing contexts, scholars can help combat essentialist claims and instead celebrate the many ways Muslims have found meaning in the past and the present.

The reason so many basic questions remain about the birth and growth of Islam is that the source material is problematic. Scholars of Late Antiquity and early Islam have access to relatively few raw materials such as inscriptions, coins, court records, and scraps of papyri. Instead, they must rely heavily on historical narratives that have been shaped by particular authors with particular agendas. It’s the difference between unearthing an ancient decree from the bowels of a forgotten archive and reading an author’s opinionated summary of that decree written decades later. Almost all the extant writings post-date the rise of Islam by at least a century. And starting in the ninth century, scholars suddenly have to deal not with a dearth of sources but an avalanche of them from the newly matured Islamic intellectual tradition. While these late, literary sources contain a wealth of material pieced together from older reports, they also reveal many inconsistencies and exhibit ideological tampering. Finally, these writings do not give a historical explanation for the spread of Islam, but a theological one highlighting God’s favor for the superior, chosen faith. Any scholar wishing to reconstruct early Islamic history according to modern academic standards must read between the lines. Careful literary analysis has become a major tool for scholars hoping to make sense of this explosion of conflicting and confusing evidence.

This is the thorny field into which Sarah Bowen Savant has planted her book, The New Muslims of Post-Conquest Iran. As her primary purpose is “to shed light on the shaping of memory about and among Iran’s first Muslims,” she focuses on the period when Persians were beginning to convert to Islam en masse, from roughly the ninth through eleventh centuries CE. The fact of this conversion forms the background for her analysis; that is, rather than seeking to explain how or why Persians converted to Islam, she shows how they made sense of that conversion by writing about the Persian past and connecting it to the Islamic present. She demonstrates in tantalizingly rich detail how these Persian Muslims remembered the proud aspects of their past, keeping their distinctive heritage alive within the framework of their new religion. Conversely, she shows how they forgot, downplayed, or distorted the problematic aspects of their past, erasing potential points of resistance to the new Islamic order. Through this twin process of remembering and forgetting, the recent Persian converts forged both a new identity for themselves and a new image of their pre-Islamic past.

To elucidate all this remembering and forgetting, Savant focuses on certain “sites of memory,” particularly meaningful aspects of the Persian past that recur in the Islamic narratives over and over again. Sometimes these sites of memory are people, such as the ancient Persian heroes Gayumart and Jamshid, or the companion of the Prophet Muhammad, Salman the Persian. Sometimes they are places, such as the magnificent Taq-i Kisra, or Iranian cities such as Istakhr, Isfahan, and Nihavand. And sometimes they are events, particularly the Arab-Islamic conquest with its many battles and sieges and peace treaties. Using electronic databases to amass a great trove of traditions, Savant shows how different authors in different contexts subtly shaped these sites of memory. She pays careful attention to the literary techniques of remembering the past (such fleshing out old traditions with supposedly new details) and of forgetting the past (such as creating simplistic labels that gloss over subtleties). Through her lush analysis, she demonstrates that these sites of memory should not be mistaken for historical reality. For example, the stock image of the Sasanian Shah Kisra II as a decadent despot is not necessarily a historical fact, but a carefully constructed memory that helped shape early Persian Muslim identity. She illustrates this valuable lesson with many other compelling examples and riveting details.

Calligraphy from Jāmeh Mosque, Isfahān, Iran
Calligraphy from the west iwan of the Jāmeh Mosque, Isfahān, Iran – Image via Wikimedia Commons

The theoretical connective tissue that Savant uses to unite her analysis is mnemohistory — the history of memory. She draws upon notable mnemohistorians such as Maurice Halbwachs, Pierre Nora, and Jan Assmann to ground her ideas about sites of memory and the social nature of remembering. By doing so, she opens up specific traditions from the Islamic historical corpus to readers outside the field. This mnemohistorical lens renders her work broadly relevant and theoretically robust, and the illuminating ideas of her study shine most brightly through this lens. Our understanding of early Islamic history can only benefit from fuller engagement with previous works of mnemohistory, along the trajectory Savant has set.

Through a twin process of remembering and forgetting, recent Persian converts forged both a new identity for themselves and a new image of their pre-Islamic past.

For instance, Savant makes good use of Pierre Nora’s concept of the “site of memory.” However, Nora argues that sites of memory have proliferated in modern France because people have ceased to live memory as they used to, through ritual and custom and everyday activities. Instead, they have confined memory to circumscribed sites that are made special and separate from everyday life, such as museums and statues and commemorative days that inform a shared sense of French national identity. One wonders how far this analogy may be drawn out for early Islamic Iran. By focusing on such “sites of memory,” is Savant arguing that these sites were no longer part of the living memory of Persian Muslims? She mentions that Persian Muslims had their own distinctive forms of Islam complete with holidays, ritual practices, and social conventions; are those the continually lived memories of Persian Muslims, the ever-present parts of normal life? Are they to be contrasted with stories about Salman the Persian and Shah Kisra II and Gayumart, which should be considered bounded “sites” that inform group identity but do not inform everyday lived experience? If that is what she is arguing, her work sheds subtle insight on the Islamic conquests as a break in lived memory, a traumatic period that banished certain memories to these special sites, while sparing other memories to remain a seamless part of everyday life. I find this a fascinating way to think about the effect of the conquests on Persian Muslim identity, and though Savant does not make this argument overtly, it seems to be latent in her use of Pierre Nora’s work.

I find it even more fruitful to compare Savant’s intricate analysis to the mnemohistorical work of Jan Assmann. While Savant indicates that her methodology echoes Assmann’s in some ways, deepening this connection further enhances Savant’s contribution. Assmann’s central thesis in Moses the Egyptian is that the classical Biblical tradition presents a binary opposition between Moses the Hebrew and Pharaoh the Egyptian; this image creates stark monotheistic boundaries, separating religious truth from falsehood. Starting in the Enlightenment era, however, authors began resuscitating Moses as Moses the Egyptian, as someone who gained wisdom and insight from his Egyptian context. In this image, Egypt has positive value to add to the Mosaic tradition, rather than being merely a negative point of contrast. Instead of creating stark boundaries, Moses the Egyptian mediates them. He is a symbol of cultural transmission and the universal, underlying values that connect mankind.

Several analogies can be drawn between Assmann’s work and Savant’s. Moses the Hebrew is the analog for Muhammad the Muslim, or any Muslim qua Muslim, when the point is to separate truth from falsehood. Pharaoh the Egyptian is the analog for Shah Kisra II or any other arrogant, doomed non-Muslim. The contrast between these positive and negative ideals inscribes a sharp outline of monotheistic identity. On the other hand, Moses the Egyptian, that captivating bridger of boundaries, is an analog for many figures in Savant’s book: Salman the Persian, Gayumart as a descendant of Noah, Fayruzan the vizier who teaches Muslims about Sasanian bureaucratic practices, etc. These images forge a trans-cultural connection between Islam and Persia, celebrating the Persian aspects of Islam just as one might celebrate the Egyptian aspects of Mosaic Law. What makes these analogies more interesting is the question of who is deploying them, and to what ends. Assmann shows that many who invoked Moses the Hebrew wanted to present Jews as separatists who severed ties with their surrounding communities, while people who invoked Moses the Egyptian instead emphasized the shared natural religion underlying all revealed religions. But in Savant’s material, it seems that often the selfsame authors presented the Persian past using both techniques at the same time! Together, the two different techniques seem to carve out a unique space for Persian Muslims, one that both severs ties and spans gaps, that creates both a separate community and a cosmopolitan one.

This double motion, this simultaneous application of both Moses the Hebrew and Moses the Egyptian typologies, may underlie Savant’s most fascinating argument about a dual conversion of early Persian Muslims. As she puts it: “This [mnemohistorical] way of reading the sources suggests something quite profound about Persians of the third/ninth to fifth/eleventh centuries that has not been noted previously, and this is the occurrence of not one but two conversions: one to Persianness, and the other to Islam. One involved a particular ethnic group, the other a religion of non-particular, universal membership.” Savant rightly presents the dual conversion as a long and complex process, and it seems that her entire book is presented as evidence for this process. Since I occasionally lost track of what exactly such a dual conversion entailed, or how exactly to weave the rich literary details into a conceptual tapestry of dual conversion, I have reconstructed here what I take to be the parameters of this double-edged process.

It seems that Persian or Iranian identity did not exist strongly before the rise of Islam, for local and family-based forms of identity were more salient. The Arab-Islamic conquests and the later conversion of Persians to Islam reduced Persian identity to a more limited, defined, and reified thing. From now on, people who identified themselves as “Persian” Muslims referred to a shared pool of sites and images, sieved from the vast pre-Islamic ocean. The good and bad parts of the Persian past were dictated largely by Islam itself. Some aspects of the Persian past could be resuscitated, such as Salman the Persian or certain political concepts. But one could not very well resuscitate fire worship or exposing dead corpses to hungry vultures within an Islamic framework — those had to go. Islamicization therefore narrowed the limits of Persian identity to a more manageable, uniform mass. This new Persian ethnogenesis was created in part by the Arabian conquerors, who saw what they wanted to see in pre-Islamic Iranian history. And it was created in part by the Persian Muslims themselves, who hoped to create positive and meaningful memories about their past. Together, these groups favored certain potent symbols, which became sites of memory around which Persian identity was built. The multifarious pre-conquest Iranian world was not passively forgotten, it was actively replaced with these new, collectively defined, and religiously acceptable images of the Persian past. Thus is my understanding, in boiled down form, of Savant’s dual conversion. To return to Assmann’s model, I suggest this dual conversion to Islam and Persianness helps explain why we find both Moses the Hebrew and Moses the Egyptian type memories — memories that create boundaries and memories that traverse them.

There is much still to investigate concerning the concept of a dual conversion, and Savant’s work invites further study on the topic. For instance, one might argue that at the same time a Persian Muslim identity was emerging, so also was an Arab Muslim identity emerging; the ninth through eleventh centuries saw the articulation of many of the cultural values associated with ethnic Arabness, as opposed to tribal belonging. Studies on the relationship between Arabness and Islam, or other forms of double or multiple conversion, will further enrich our understanding of early Islamic identities.

It is also worth asking: what (if anything) existed before the dual conversion model took hold? In the first century or so of Islamic history, it seems that converts had to become honorary Arabian tribesmen (called mawali) in order to become Muslims. There followed a period when many mawali and others began claiming the right to just be Muslims without joining any tribe or bearing any particular ethnic signifiers. Savant herself seems to capture this intermediate moment, for she shows that sources before the mid-ninth century treat the aforementioned Salman not as a Persian per se but as a foreign spiritual seeker: “Salman the son of Islam” or an honorary member of the Prophet Muhammad’s family. These traditions seem to reflect a historical period when identity was not yet hyphenated as Persian-Muslim, but was just Muslim. Several of the authors who presented this Salman-the-seeker tradition were in fact mawali, as Savant notes. Was this image of Salman a first step toward the concept of a dual conversion? Did this image encourage non-Arabs to convert to Islam, but without asking them to adopt any secondary cultural signifiers? There is still much to learn about the mechanisms and motivations of conversion, against which to view Savant’s literary analysis of post-conversion sites of memory.

The issue of conversion thus raises a broader question about how Savant’s mnemohistorical work fits in with more traditional historical studies, a question that Savant herself deliberately leaves open. Her work is part of a scholarly trend that does not necessarily try to recover historical facts about the pre-Islamic past or the first century of Islam, but rather to analyze how the sources shaped that past and gave it meaning. She is not concerned with dead traditions that have to be scrounged up from dusty archives, but precisely interested in the lively traditions that get articulated and re-articulated in the service of identity narratives. Far from detracting from its meaning, the historical inaccuracies or ideological tamperings of a tradition reveal what was salient about that tradition to the people recording it.

To return to the mnemohistorical framework one last time, one of the things Assmann did was add his own Egyptological expertise about the Amarna period to what would have otherwise been a work of modern European intellectual history. Likewise, when Nora is talking about sites of memory in France, it is against the background of a plethora of archival knowledge about modern French history. Part of what reveals the meaning of these memories is their juxtaposition with historical knowledge from ancient Egypt or modern France. We once again find ourselves facing the problem of early Islamic sources, for narrative accounts are almost all we have to assess early Islamic history. Are sites of memory all we have for the early Islamic tradition? Are studies such as Savant’s the only way to approach early Islamic Iran, as memory rather than history?

I don’t think so, and I don’t think that is what Savant is trying to say. Scholars such as Parvaneh Pourshariati and Patricia Crone have demonstrated that careful historical work can at least partially reconstruct aspects of Late Antique and early Islamic Iran (and Savant herself cites such historians). Studies like hers remind us that it can be exceedingly difficult to tell the difference between a kernel of historical fact and a constructed site of memory. But there is still value in making scholarly judgments about which traditions are probably more factually accurate than others. Literary sources, while they are certainly not archives or objective windows onto some past reality, do a decent job of transmitting an anomalous account here and an archaic phrase there that seem to reflect actual historical events. Searching for such glimmers of evidence can reveal impersonal factors driving historical change that happen beyond the level of human awareness and memory, and they can recover valuable information about the Sasanian Empire and the origins of Islam. Savant’s book should be read alongside more traditional historical analyses that seek to reconstruct the past, and those works should be read alongside hers. They would simultaneously complement and challenge each other, and therein lies their great power to propel early Islamic scholarship.

Because the bulk of Savant’s book is devoted to analyzing early Islamic literary material, a few readers may not find what they are looking for: those hoping to unearth new facts about early Islamic history, or those seeking a theoretical work of mnemohistory. However, The New Muslims of Post-Conquest Iran will prove fascinating to anyone interested in identity narratives and how authors shape the past in the service of the present. Savant builds a bridge between the history of Persia and the memory of Persia, and atop this bridge we can clearly witness the inherent tension in any identity between the old and the new. Savant reminds us on the one hand that national identities can be ancient and draw upon a deep past; but on the other hand, national identities are always young and eternally renewed. Iranians down to the modern day have invoked the venerable hero Jamshid and the early Muslim Salman, but they have done so in dynamic ways that reflect their current concerns. Ultimately, a line may connect Persians from ancient to early Islamic to modern times, but it is not a straight line representing some inevitable and eternal core of identity. It is a messy line, drawn by many pens, full of ink-blots and blank spots and sweeping curves.

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