It has often been wondered how the Persian Empire was so thoroughly conquered by the armies of Islam. How could so many Persians, with their deep belief in freewill and the divinity of the Good, convert in such large numbers to a religion of predestination and submission to fate?
Since I’ve been reading Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, I believe I’ve gained a new insight into that transformation.
As Ferdowsi depicts the annihilation of the Persian Empire at the hands of Alexander, he has these words spoken by the Persian king Darius III:
Know that evil and good both come from God.
This, to me, may mark the lesson of the Shahnameh in general. It is a book of fate, of mortal glories given and taken away by God. God is in total control of the fates of men. If men have any control at all of their own fates, it is in their ability to accept their fates gracefully. Each man plays his part in the drama, but in the end every step is preordained by God.
This may not have been the way the ancient Persians saw the world given what we suspect were their beliefs, but by Ferdowsi’s time, the Persians were watching their world consumed in Arab conquest, bit by bit. So much of what they had believed in was annihilated mercilessly; much more completely than what Alexander achieved. How else could they have seen God but as a capricious, amoral, absolute dictator? There was no point in striving, and no role for freewill; only an impotent hope that prayer and piety would satiate their new heavenly despot.
The Iranians, it would turn out, were conditioned by events to make the most steadfast of Muslims, for they themselves had witnessed the awesome, amoral might of Fate. They learned that the God of Fate blesses whom he will, so they chose to submit themselves, however reluctantly, to Fate’s favored ones: their Arab conquerors.