0346 GMT December 01, 2022
When the Arab Muslims conquered Iran in the seventh century CE they found Middle Persian a good instrument of communication with all Iranians. It continued its absorption of Iranian local languages, particularly in urban centers.
With the gradual conversion of Persians to Islam, an increasing number of Arabic words entered into Persian. Soon the difficult and ambiguous Middle Persian script was given up for Arabic script. The language that was written in this new script and reflected the new religious, social, and political environment generated by the adoption of Islam is called New Persian, or Persian for short.
The choice of Aramaic script for Middle Persian needs an explanation. In the Achaemenid Empire, the Aramaeans, a Semitic people who lived under Achaemenid rule, had practically monopolized the function of the scribe in Achaemenid administration, a function that was their specialty. When a letter was dictated, let us say, by one satrap to another in Old Persian, the scribe mentally translated it into his own language, that is, Aramaic, and write it in this language. When the letter reached its destination, the scribe of the recipient satrap, who was also Aramaean but knew Old Persian, read the letter, translated it mentally into Old Persian and passed the message to his patron.
Thus Aramaic became the means of correspondence in provinces of the Persian Empire. When the empire crumbled and its Iranian provinces, such as Persis, Media, Parthia, Sogdia, and Chorasmia, became independent of each other, they continued nonetheless the use of Aramaic script for writing. But in the course of time they replaced most of the Aramaic words by words of their own language, but spelled with the Aramaic alphabet. A considerable number of Aramaic words, however, proved persistent and continued their existence.
For some two hundred years Persia was ruled by Arab governors appointed by caliphs or their agents. The conversion to Islam brought the most radical and the most pervasive political, social, and cultural changes in the long history of Iranian peoples as Islam does not confine itself to mere spiritual and otherworldly matters, but legislates for all spheres of life. Persia became part of a great empire unified by a single faith. It devoted its energy and resources to the strengthening and consolidation of this new faith. Through the efforts of the conquered peoples, such as the Syrians, the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians, but more particularly the Persians, Islam was transformed from a faith for the inhabitants of Arabia into a cosmopolitan religion, capable of responding to the needs and aspirations of the non-Arab believers as well as the Arabs.
We have almost no knowledge of what was happening to the literary and artistic life of Persians during those two hundred years.
No doubt, the country was trying adapt itself to its new novel situation.
However, one would have thought that Persia, like Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia, would have given up its Iranian identity for an Arab one and adopt Arabic as its vernacular. But not only did this not happen, but the Persian language rose from two centuries of total eclipse with greater vigor and brilliance.
The above is a lightly edited version of part of a chapter entitled ‘Ventures and adventures of the Persian language’, from a book entitled, ‘Persian Language, Literature and Culture’, Edited by Kamran Talattof, published by Routledge.