January 26, 2005
[Last night I got an email with an attachment claiming to be Yazdgerd III’s letter to Omar ibn Khattab, during the final days of the Sasanian Dynasty. I thought I had seen the letter before and might have even published it. I emailed Khodadad Rezakhani and asked for his expert opinion. He’s studying for a PhD in Sasanian history from UCLA. Here’s what he wrote. — J. Javid]
“The Letter of Yazdgerd III to Caliph Omar” is one of the many urban legends circulating the internet. I have personally seen four different versions of this letter, their tone and content differing from quite absurd and offensive to more believable and somehow historical. This text fits somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.
Generally, forgery of historical documents and artifacts has been one of the oldest human practices. The purpose of various forgeries has differed from one to another. The famous forgery of the Edict of Constantine was done by the Church fathers to increase the political influence of the Roman Church. Other forgeries were made for financial reasons or to gain fame.
During the past few years, we have had several historical forgeries in Iran. The most famous one of them was the “discovery” of the mummy of the so-called Achaemenid princess that attracted the attention of many people around the world. It almost ended up in a fight between the Pakistani and Iranian authorities.
Our letter here is another example of forgery. While the aforementioned mummy was forged in hopes of financial reward, this letter and its variations carry no such promises. It seems that the point of the person(s) who wrote this letter is to further a political/cultural agenda, one that carries an anti-Arab weight.
The reasons for proving that this letter is a forgery are several, but the simplest criterion is that we have never seen the original text. Our corpus of Middle Persian texts is quite limited and is known to anyone who works with Middle Persian documents. Some Arabic or Persian translations of the original Middle Persian texts (quoted in various histories and books) are also known.
Furthermore, anyone working in the field of Sasanian history would know the existence of such a letter and certainly know the definitive translation, most likely done by a well-known philologist. However, none of these sources present us with a letter as such.
However, by simply reading the text and having a basic knowledge of the history and language of the supposed time of the composition of the letter (ca. 635-650 CE), one can also conclude that the letter is quite a recent forgery.
This introduction would not allow detailed criticism of the content of the letter, but a few examples would suffice to illustrate the point.
— For starters, the letter is a perfect example of anachronism. It projects the ideas and ideals of modern anti-Arabism and anti-Islamism into the history and has them come out of the mouth of Yazdgerd III.
The tone of the letter is obviously a contemporary, Iranian nationalist tone which thinks of Arabs as desert dwelling people with no culture. That is indeed the “Jaheli”/Beduin Arab culture that Islamic history now teaches us about. However, for an average Sasanian of that time, “Arab” would not have brought the picture of a desert dwelling, daughter killing Beduin, of the kind who lived 1000 km south of the Sasanian border. Instead, the Arabs most familiar for the Sasanians were the Hira Arabs who ran a government under the protection of the Sasanians and were mostly either Zoroastrian or Christian, living in cities and urban centres.
— The second paragraph has Yazdgerd blaming Omar for not knowing about the Iranian religion (Zoroastrianism). Yazdgerd here boasts of his “monotheistic” religion. It is easily demonstrable that the efforts to make Zoroastrianism a monotheistic religion were taken under the cultural influence of Islam. A pre-Islamic Iranian Zoroastrian mowbed would have easily admitted that Zoroastrianism is a dualistic religion.
Since there was no cultural pressure to consider “monotheism” to be superior to other forms of religion, our supposed mowbed would not have felt bad about admitting this. In essence, the person who forged this letter has made a disservice to his patriotism by giving the superiority to the monotheistic Islam and becoming an apologist for dualistic Zoroastrianism.
— For the reasons mentioned above, it is most improbable that Yazdgerd would have known about the traditions of Beduin Arabs and been able to criticize them as such. This again is putting the products of modern knowledge in the context of ancient history.
— In the same way, it seems hard to believe that Omar would have called Yazdgerd “fire-worshipper”. The adjective “fire-worshipper” itself was created many years after the advent of Islam, in order to stigmatize Zoroastrianism. It is most unlikely that it was a term in use during the time of early Islam.
— Again, the next two paragraphs are the self-congratulatory sentences that are most unlikely to have been uttered by Yazdgerd for a few simple reasons. One is that again, it is quite improbable that Yazdgerd would have known so much about Islam and the background of Muslims at the time, or would have cared to know. Second, the phrase “because your Allah o Akbar only speaks Arabic” is problematic.
That sentence, in form of blame, would have been quite unusual coming from a Zoroastrian who has to say his prayers in Avestan! Avestan was used by Zoroastrian clergy, but was completely incomprehensible to ordinary citizens of the Sasanian era. Also, the Sasanian Empire was the first target of the armies of Islam, so naturally, the comments on the paragraph before last about the bloody conquests of Islam would be out of place, since they had not yet happened.
— The last paragraph really needs no explanation. Just enough to point out that its anachronism is obvious from its reference to “Aryans”, a term not in use during Sasanian times.
With this long introduction, I wish you a happy reading.