Roy Mottahedeh’s Contributions to the History of Medieval Iran

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Dr. Roy Parviz Mottahedeh is a Professor of History at Harvard University. He defended his Ph.D. dissertation on the Buyid administration under the supervision of Hamilton Gibb and Richard Frye at Harvard in 1970. He has taught many courses on the history of medieval and modern Middle East from which the last ones were “Readings in Arabic Historians, Geographers, and Biographers” and “Topics in Islamic History: Seminar”.

Professor Mottahedeh is the author of numerous studies that demonstrate his wide range of interests from the Abbasid period in the eighth century to Islamic revival movements of the present day. The following are some of the works he has done on the Medieval Times:

Loyalty and Leadership in an Early Islamic Society. I.B.Tauris. 2001 (2nd edition)

“The Idea of Jihad in Islam before the Crusades”. The Crusades from the Perspective of Byzantium and the Muslim World, eds. Angeliki E. Laiou, Roy P. Mottahedeh, Dumbarton Oaks, (2001).

“Pluralism and Islamic Traditions of Sectarian Divisions,” in Pluralism and Diversity in Islam, ed. Zulfikar Hirji, I.B. Tauris, 2010.

 “Faith and Practice: Muslims in Historic Cairo,” in Living in Historic, Cairo: Past and Present in an Islamic City, ed. Farhad Daftary, Elizabeth Fernea, and Azim Nanji, University of Washington Press, 2010.

 “The Idea of Iran in the Buyid Dominions,” in Early Islamic Iran, ed. Edmund Herzig and Sarah Stewart, I.B. Tauris, 2012.

 “The Abbasid Caliphate in Iran (pp.57-89)” in The Period from the Arab Invasion to the Saljuqs the Cambridge History of Iran v.4:, ed. Richard N. Frye, Cambridge University Press, 1975.

“Finding Iran in the Panegyrics of the Ghaznavid Court” in Medieval Central Asia and the Persianate World, ed. A.C.S. Peacock and D.G. Tor, I.B. Tauris, 2015.

 One of the main concerns of Dr. Mottahedeh is the idea of Iran in medieval times which are critically examined in his two recent papers i.e. “The Idea of Iran” and “Finding Iran in the Panegyrics of the Ghaznavid Court”.  As its title implies “The Idea of Iran in the Buyid Dominion” surveys the attempts of the Buyids (932-1055) to revitalize the Iranian tradition of kingship. Like many other regional dynasties, they claimed royal Iranian lineage. They were one group of “fierce spear-carrying warriors from the Caspian provinces that…began to establish dynasties in the Iranian plateau” (2012, p. 153). Mottahedeh enumerates some measures of Azod al-Dawla, the Buyid Amir in reviving the title of shahanshah on the coins, founding cities in conscious imitation of Sasanian kings, and reviving the Persian festivals of Sadeh and Mehregan. (ibid) Placing inscriptions at Persepolis over the doorway of the Palace of Darius and also his tributes and later his son Baha al-Dawla in laying their inscriptions next to that of the great Sasanian kings fits into the Buyid policies of revitalizing the pre-Islamic Iranian kingship (2012, pp.153-154).

The main argument that Dr. Mottahedeh proposes is that unlike their very “sentimental attachment” to Iran and the idea of Iranshahr, the Buyids were not attracted to the New Persian learning of eastern Iran; on the other hand, they were the patrons of the Arabic language: “Buyid courts in south-western Iran both co-operated and competed to give similar patronage to Arabic letters” (2012, p.155). Dr. Mottahedeh proposes three speculative theses for this argument: the first is that the Buyids were highly influenced by their presence in Baghdad, as their main center of power. The second one which is in line with the argument of Richard Frye (1960, pp.42-51)[1] is that the Buyids were under the influence of the mubads, Zoroastrian priests who wrote in Pahlavi in provinces such as Fars, so they deterred the use of New Persian (2012, p.157). The third thesis that Dr. Mottahedeh brings is religious motivation. He discusses that the Buyids patronized Shi'i learning which was largely in Arabic, therefore they did not follow religious policies through translating Shiite texts into Persian (2012, p.158).

In “Finding Iran in the Panegyrics of the Ghaznavid Court”, Dr. Mottahedeh follows the idea of Iran in the works of the poets of the Ghaznavid court including ‘Unsuri, Asjadi, Farrukhi and Manuchehri, the poets whom from their “time onward no great Persian court was complete without them” (2015, p.129). Mottahedeh specifies that these poets regarded Sultan Mahmoud (r.997-1030) and Sultan Masoud (1030-1040) as Iranshah and Khusraw of Iran (2015, p.131).

The author argues that there was a network of mutual relationships between the Ghaznavid Sultans and the poets. The Sultans wanted their significant measures and time to be immortalized in Persian poetry. The poets, on the other hand, expected the rulers to be the patrons of their livelihood and also their works: “In Persian-speaking lands kingly glory in the eyes of the poet, patron and public alike were intimately associated with Iran” (2015, p.139).

The poets consciously intended to distinguish the boundaries of Iran from the Turan, the territories of Turks in the east: “Iran is frequently mentioned as the country of the King of Kings in contrast with Turan, the area to the north and east of Oxus, very approximately the area we associate with Turkish Inner Asia” (2015, p.132). The other theme that the poets followed was to differentiate Iran and the land of Ajam from the Arab’s. Mottahedeh goes through many verses of the poets to prove that the idea of the Iranian kingship and the traditions of Iranshah were fully preserved and flourishing in the eleventh century.

Maryam Kamali


[1] . Richard N. Frye, “Die Wiedergeburt Persians um die Jahrtausendwende”, Der Islam 35 (1960),pp. 42-51.

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