The medieval record both cartographically and linguistically follows from the ancient one, though in more subtle ways. In the eighth century the political locus of the Arab world shifted eastward from Syria to Mesopotamia -- that is, from the Umayyad caliphs to the Abbasid ones -- signaling, in effect, the rise of Iran. (The second caliph, Omar bin al-Khattab, during whose reign the Islamic armies conquered the Sassanids, adopted the Persian system of administration called the Diwan.) The Abbasid Caliphate at its zenith in the middle of the ninth century ruled from Tunisia eastward to Pakistan, and from the Caucasus and Central Asia southward to the Persian Gulf. Its capital was the new city of Baghdad, close upon the old Sassanid Persian capital of Ctesiphon; and Persian bureaucratic practices, which added whole new layers of hierarchy, undergirded this new imperium. The Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad became more a symbol of an Iranian despotism than of an Arab sheikhdom. Some historians have labeled the Abbasid Caliphate the equivalent of the "cultural reconquest" of the Middle East by the Persians under the guise of Arab rulers.5 The Abbasids succumbed to Persian practices just as the Umayyads, closer to Asia Minor, had succumbed to Byzantine ones. "Persian titles, Persian wines and wives, Persian mistresses, Persian songs, as well as Persian ideas and thoughts, won the day," writes the historian Philip K. Hitti.6 "In the western imagination," writes Peter Brown, "the Islamic [Abbasid] empire stands as the quintessence of an oriental power. Islam owed this crucial orientation neither to Muhammad nor to the adaptable conquerors of the seventh century, but to the massive resurgence of eastern, Persian traditions in the eighth and ninth centuries.7"
As for Shiism, it is very much a component of this Iranian cultural dynamism -- despite the culturally bleak and oppressive aura projected by the ruling Shiite clergy in these dark times in Tehran. While the arrival of the Mahdi in the form of the hidden Twelfth Imam means the end of injustice, and thus acts as a spur to radical activism, little else in Shiism necessarily inclines the clergy to play an overt political role; Shiism even has a quietest strain that acquiesces to the powers that be and that is frequently informed by Sufism.8 Witness the example set by Iraq's leading cleric of recent years, Ayatollah Ali Sistani (of Iranian heritage), who only at pivotal moments makes a plea for political conciliation from behind the scenes. Precisely because of the symbiotic relationship between Iraq and Iran throughout history, with its basis in geography, it is entirely possible that in a post-revolutionary Iran, Iranians will look more toward the Shiite holy cities of An Najaf and Karbala in Iraq for spiritual direction than toward their own holy city of Qom. It is even possible that Qom will adopt the quietism of An Najaf and Karbala. This is despite the profound differences between Shia of Arab descent and those of Persian descent.
The French scholar Olivier Roy tells us that Shiism is historically an Arab phenomenon that came late to Iran but that eventually led to the establishment of a clerical hierarchy for taking power. Shiism was further strengthened by the tradition of a strong and bureaucratic state that Iran has enjoyed since antiquity, relative to those of the Arab world, and that is, as we know, partly a gift of the spatial coherence of the Iranian plateau. The Safavids brought Shiism to Iran in the 16th century. Their name comes from their own militant Sufi order, the Safaviyeh, which had originally been Sunni. The Safavids were merely one of a number of horse-borne brotherhoods of mixed Turkish, Azeri, Georgian and Persian origin in the late 15th century that occupied the mountainous plateau region between the Black and Caspian seas, where eastern Anatolia, the Caucasus and northwestern Iran come together. In order to build a stable state on the Farsi-speaking Iranian plateau, these new sovereigns of eclectic linguistic and geographical origin adopted Twelver Shiism as the state religion, which awaits the return of the Twelfth Imam, a direct descendant of Mohammed, who is not dead but in occlusion.9 The Safavid Empire at its zenith stretched thereabouts from Anatolia and Syria-Mesopotamia to central Afghanistan and Pakistan -- yet another variant of Greater Iran through history. Shiism was an agent of Iran's congealment as a modern nation-state, even as the Iranianization of non-Persian Shiite and Sunni minorities during the 16th century also helped in this regard.10 Iran might have been a great state and nation since antiquity, but the Safavids with their insertion of Shiism onto the Iranian plateau retooled Iran for the modern era.
Indeed, revolutionary Iran of the late 20th and early 21st centuries is a fitting expression of this powerful and singular legacy. Of course, the rise of the ayatollahs has been a lowering event in the sense of the violence done to -- and I do not mean to exaggerate -- the voluptuous, sophisticated and intellectually stimulating traditions of the Iranian past. (Persia -- "that land of poets and roses!" exclaims the introductory epistle of James J. Morier's The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan.11) But comparison, it is famously said, is the beginning of all serious scholarship. And compared to the upheavals and revolutions in the Arab world during the early and middle phases of the Cold War, the regime ushered in by the 1978-79 Iranian Revolution was striking in its élan and modernity. The truth is, and this is something that goes directly back to the Achaemenids of antiquity, everything about the Iranian past and present is of a high quality, whether it is the dynamism of its empires from Cyrus the Great to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Who can deny the sheer Iranian talent for running militant networks in Lebanon, Gaza and Iraq, which is, after all, an aspect of imperial rule!); or the political thought and writings of its Shiite clergy; or the complex efficiency of the bureaucracy and security services in cracking down on dissidents. Tehran's revolutionary order constitutes a richly developed governmental structure with a diffusion of power centers; it is not a crude one-man thugocracy like the kind Saddam Hussein ran in neighboring Arab Iraq.