Two Centuries of Silenc

“Two Centuries of Silence” is an English translation of “Do Qarn Sokut,” Dr. Zarrinkub’s celebrated work on the history of Iran in the lead-up to and after the Arab conquest in the mid 7th century. The author begins with a question that puzzles many: How was a world civilization with all of its achievements in art and architecture, religion and law, agriculture and engineering, and civil and military organization, overthrown by a nomadic people with limited literacy and few accomplishments? The title refers to the two-hundred-year period when Persian virtually went mute, when almost all traces of Iran’s rich literary heritage were erased, and when Zoroastrianism gave way to Islam. Zarrinkub’s history is not an unmitigated tale of draconian cultural change, however. He speaks of how Iranian identity went underground, occasionally surfacing in open rebellion against Arab and Muslim supremacy. Drawing on a variety of original sources, Zarrinkub looks into the “savage darkness” of nearly two hundred years and detects glimmers of Persian resurgence in various parts of Iran and Muslim Central Asia. In fits and starts forms of the indigenous language broke their long silence, and Iranians began to speak about and for themselves.

Although written almost sixty years ago, “Two Centuries of Silence” is oddly topical. In delving into the long history of Arab domination it contextualizes attitudes commonly held today. Readers will understand, for example, why being called “Arab” can infuriate many Iranians. The book traces the deep roots of the current fashion of proclaiming Persian nationality with Zoroastrian imagery. Zarrinkub’s study tells the ways Iranians of the 8th and 9th centuries resisted the imposition of a “pure” Islam on every aspect of their lives. The parallels between the defiance of the sweeping cultural change and the imposed religious conformity of that era and the reactions to the return to Islam demanded by the Iranian Revolutionaries of today are striking. At the same time, Zarrinkub’s secular treatment of the sanctities of Islam—the belief in the oneness of God, the sacrosanct nature of Muhammad and the divine origin of his message, etc.—makes the book controversial today. Although “Do Qarn Sokut” gained a certificate of publication in 1999, the Iranian publisher (Sokhan) found it necessary to include in a preface excerpts from a book that refutes Zarrinkub (Khadamat-e Motaqabel-e Iran va Islam, “The Reciprocal Services of Islam and Iran”). The author of the refutation, the noted religious scholar Morteza Motahhari, asks: How could Zarrinkub call the period silent? After all, hadn’t the Persians had gained a new language, full of poetry, the medium of the clear and simple message God gave His Prophet? Rather than an age of silence it was a time of awakening to the sound of God’s very voice. Thus did Do Qarn-e Sokut become embroiled in the on-going dispute between those wishing to restore Islam in Iran and secularists who want to lessen the authority and power of the clergy.