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For the history of Iran before the Muslim conquest in the 7th century, see Persia.

Arab Muslim armies began their conquest of the Persian Sassanian Empire in ad 636 and during the next five years conquered all of Iran, with the exception of the Elburz Mountains and the Caspian coastal plain. They finally put an end to the Sassanid dynasty in 651. For the next two centuries, most of Iran (which at that time extended beyond Herāt in what now is western Afghanistan) remained part of the Arab Islamic empire. The caliphs (successive Islamic leaders) ruled initially from Medina in present-day Saudi Arabia, then from Damascus, Syria, and finally from Baghdād, Iraq, as each city became the seat of the caliphate. Beginning in the late 9th century, however, independent kingdoms arose in eastern Iran; by the mid-11th century, the Arab caliph in Baghdād had lost effective control of virtually all of Iran, although most of the local dynasties continued to recognize his religious authority.

From the time of Islamic conquest, Iranians gradually converted to Islam. Most had previously followed Zoroastrianism, the official state religion under the Sassanid dynasty, but minority groups had practiced Christianity or Judaism. By the 10th century the majority of Iranians probably were Muslims. Most Iranian Muslims adhered to orthodox Sunni Islam, although some followed various sects of Shia Islam. The Ismailis, a Shia sect, maintained a small but effectively independent state in the Rūdbār region of the Elburz Mountains from the 11th through the 13th century. Iran's unique identity as a bastion of Jafari, or Twelver, Shia Islam (which constitutes the main body of Shia Islam today) did not develop until the 16th century.




Turks and Mongols

In the 11th century Turkic tribes began migrating to Iran, settling primarily in the northwest. The Seljuk Turks (see Seljuks), who had converted to Sunni Islam in the 10th century, defeated local rulers and established dynasties that ruled over most of the country until the Mongol invasions in the 13th century. Mongol rule proved disastrous for Iran. The Mongols destroyed major cities such as Ardabīl, Hamadān, Marāgheh, Neyshābūr, and Qazvīn, and they killed almost all of the inhabitants as punishment for resistance. Ray and Tus, the largest and most important cities in Iran, were destroyed by the Mongols and never rebuilt. The Mongols devastated many regions, especially Khorāsān and Māzandarān, by destroying irrigation networks and cropland. The harsh rule of the Mongols contributed to a continuing economic decline throughout the 13th century.

Prior to 1295 Iran's Mongol rulers, followers of shamanism or Buddhism, did not accept the Islamic faith. Their official indifference or open hostility toward Islam stimulated the transformation of Sufi brotherhoods into religious paramilitary organizations. Although nominally Sunni, many of these brotherhoods became increasingly tolerant of Shia ideas, even incorporating these ideas into their own belief systems. In 1295 Mongol ruler Ghazan Khan, himself a convert to Islam, restored Islam as the state religion, further bolstering the growth of new Islamic ideas.

Ghazan and his immediate successors also adopted policies that reversed Iran's economic decline. In the late 13th and early 14th centuries, cities that had escaped the destruction of the Mongol invasions, such as Eşfahān, Shīrāz, and Tabrīz, emerged as new centers of cultural development. However, from 1335 to 1380 civil strife weakened central authority. Between 1381 and 1405 invasions by Turkic conqueror Tamerlane destroyed more of Iran’s cities and undid most of the progress Ghazan had achieved.



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