Khorasani Revolution

A 9th-century Description

This passage comes from a book by the 9th-century judge Ibn Qutayba, who was very familiar with the ‘Abbasid court. He wrote this in a book that aimed to extol the virtues of the Arabs.

On the ‘Abbasid Revolution

Immediately before this section, he described the relationship between Khorasanis and the Sasanian emperors.

Such, then, is the story of the people of Khurasan before Islam. Then God sent Islam. By the grace of God and His special mercy to them, of all the nations, it was they who embraced it first, and they did so with passionate enthusiasm, flocking to accept it of their own will and surrendering their cities without a fight. Because there was no bloodshed or any need to take captives, the people of Khurasan paid a light land tax and suffered little.

When God saw how the sinners had laid waste to the land, their misappropriation of revenue from the conquests, their addiction to music and entertainment, and their disregard for the obligations attached to the authority He had granted them, He sent soldiers from Khurasan against them, mustering them from all over the province as if they were scattered clouds of autumn. He clothed them in dread, and snatched any mercy from their hearts. They were like a dark night advancing, dressed in black, sporting long hair, shunning the touch of women. They stripped power from the noblest Umayyad king–the Umayyad best served by scribe and vizier, the one who could boast the greatest resolve and judgment, and the best military equipment and soldiery–and handed it over instead to the Abbasids.

Here are the words of Muhammad b. ‘Ali b. ‘Abd Allah b. al-‘Abbas to the Abbasid propagandists when he laid our his plans to send them to the garrison towns: “In Kufa, the Party of ‘Ali and his descendants; in Basra and its fields, the supporters of ‘Uthman, who profess restraint and say: ‘Better to be killed by your fellow Muslim than to be guilty of killing him.’ The Jazirah contains the apostate Haruris [= Kharijites], as well as uncouth Bedouin peasants and Muslims who behave like Christians. The people of Syria recognize only the family of Abu Sufyan, and profess allegiance only to the Marwanids. Their animosity is deep-rooted, their savagery extreme. Mecca and Medina profess loyalty to Abu Bakr and ‘Umar (God have mercy on them). Go, therefore, to the people of Khurasan. There you will find many recruits: men of obvious hardiness, sincere men with open hearts unriven by heresies, men who are not divided into sects and who have not been corrupted. They will be formidable soldiers: well-trained bodies, powerful shoulders and necks, well-groomed hair and beards. They will spread terror with their booming voices, their terrible shouts. I see good omens in the East–where the lamp of creation rises and illuminates the Earth.”

When God’s will had come to pass regarding the Umayyads and Abbasids, the people of Khurasan and their successors lived as excellent steadfast subjects of the empire. They were exceptionally faithful, peaceable, and obedient, adoring their rulers and treating their subject population fairly, providing them with an example of good conduct and intervening to prevent them from engaging in unseemly actions. Then God’s decree came to pass and the Rightly-Guided Caliphs decided to replace them and to give their administrative responsibilities to others…

On the Persians and Khurasanis

We skip a few pages, responding to criticisms that Khurasanis are stingy. Ibn Qutayba claims they were not stingy and cites the Barmakids, then continues:

By contrast, consider a nation that began mightily but ended in oblivion, namely the Persians, whose military might in ancient times was unassailable and wealth unimaginable. They ruled supreme, acknowledged by kings in all provinces and regions, all of whom sought to make peace. The Arabs used to call them ‘free men’ and ‘sons of free men’ because it was they who took captives and employed servants but were never themselves taken captive or employed as servants. But then God sent Islam, and the Persian fire died, its ashes scattered to the wind. The Persians were completely torn to pieces and they lost their unity and their nerve. Hardly any notables survived the coming of Islam, with the exception of Ibn al-Muqaffa, al-Fadl b. Sahl, and his brother Hasan…

If someone objected, “Persia can be defended by the statement of the Prophet (God bless him), ‘If faith were hung from the Pleiades, the Persians would be able to reach it.'” We reply that this hadith refers to their eagerness to accept God’s religion and their adherence to the customary practice of the Prophet (God bless and keep him). But the statement is tantamount to your saying “If you were in the most remote part of the country, I would still visit you,” where you mean, “I would endure hardships to reach you.”… The words of Almighty God cannot be contradicted or overturned. If we diligently seek confirmation of this statement among the people of Persia, we find no evidence at all, be it in the beginning of Islam or more recently. As I have already stated, at the beginning the Persians were the implacable enemies of the Muslims and fought against them until they were conquered, defeated…and torn to pieces. There is no gainsaying those who are in such a situation.

Furthermore, as far as I am aware, very few Persians acquired exceptional religious knowledge, whether in Hadith or jurisprudence, or for their exertions in acts of worship… Among the people of Khurasan, on the other hand, are those who accepted Islam willingly and voluntarily…right from the beginning and they have been the most committed and intensely devoted to God’s religion among latter-day Muslims. They have among them accomplished and famous scholars of hadith, scholars at the forefront of jurisprudence, and paragons of pious worship and devotion. In general, man’s desire for virtue, knowledge, and culture tends to wane and decline, but among the Khurasanis it increases and is constantly renewed. Anyone who considers the merits of the collectors of hadiths will find this to be true, since anywhere you look you find at least one, two, or more Khurasanis among the scholars of hadith. The remainder hail from the other provinces.

If someone were to object, “The Messenger of God (God bless him) attributed this virtue to the Persians, so how can you now apply it to the Khurasanians?” we would reply that for the Arabs, Persia and Khurasan were one and the same thing because they share a border and also a common language, namely Persian. The Arabs therefore refer to both peoples as “Persians.” Similarly, according to those who do not use Arabic properly, the speakers of Arabic include the people of Yemen and the Hijaz…but they would also judge bordering land as if it were Arab. The point I am making is supported by something Abu Bakr (God have mercy on him) said in a sermon in which he discussed death: “Which of your territories is ‘Kharisah’? God will soon make you rulers of the whole territory, to its very farthest reaches.” Is it not obvious that this word “Kharisah” refers to Khurasan, given the name “Khurasan” itself was so little-used and that when the Arabs referred to the East collectively they simply said “Persia”? Further proof for my argument is furnished by a hadith ‘Umar b. Jilan reported to me: “The whole world measures 24,000 farsakhs in total. The kingdom of the Blacks is 12,000 farsakhs, the kingdom of Byzantium 8,000, the kingdom of Persia 3,000 and the land of the Arabs 1,000.” The Prophet mentioned Persia but did not mention Khurasan because Persia is larger than Khurasan and because by Persia he meant the entirety of the East. In similar fashion, he mentioned Byzantium but not the other countries on its borders because by Byzantium he meant all of them…

Someone reported, “I heard the Prophet (God bless him) say, ‘In the future they will impose religion on you just as you imposed religion on them in the beginning.” If we look for corroboration of this among the Easterners, we find it in the people of Khurasan because it was they who went to war with the Arabs and the people of Syria. Outraged at what the Umayyads had done to the religion of God and at how they lived their lives, the Khurasanians stripped them of power and transferred the seat of power from Syria to Iraq.

Yazid b. Abi Ziyad relates, citing Ibrahim, who cited ‘Alqamah, who cited ‘Abd Allah b. Mas’ud, who reported that the Prophet (God bless him) said: “When I am gone, the People of My House will suffer trials and exile until a people bearing black banners comes from the East. They will demand what is right, but not be given it. So they will fight and be victorious. They will be given what they seek, but will only accept it when they can give the world to a man of my House. Then he will fill the world with justice, just as our enemies filled it with injustice. If any of you are alive then, join them, even if you have to crawl through the snow.” I read in the Gospels, “[And I say to you,] many a people from the East [and West shall come and sit with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob] in the Kingdom of Heaven” and “[but the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into darkness and] that there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Source, pp. 81-83, then 85-89.