Rostam’s Death at al-Qādisiyyah: Early Representations of Iranian Identity in Islamic Narratives

The death of the Persian dynast Rostam b. Farrokh-Hormozd at the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah during the Arab-Muslim conquest of Iran received much attention in both the Islamic conquest literature and the Persian epic tradition canonised in the Shāh-nāmeh. In my paper, drawn from my dissertation on the changing perceptions of al-Qādisiyyah through time, I examine various literary representations of Rostam’s death and reveal how they reflect different attitudes regarding Iran and Islam.

A scion of a leading Sāsānian family, Rostam served as the power behind the throne in the empire’s last years. Unsurprisingly, the recording of his death involved great embellishment and little can be determined about the actual circumstances of the incident. Arabic accounts depict his end in a humiliating manner, combining ominous symbolism and humourous elements to convey a didactic message about the overturning of the existing order through the rise of Islam. By contrast, the Shāh-nāmeh recasts Rostam’s death in a heroïc light; killed not by an anonymous fighter, he falls in single combat with the Arab commander, in a personification of the clash between the imperial Sāsānian order and the nascent Islamic movement. Furthermore, it attributes his demise not to the direct actions of his opponent but to the appearance of a dust storm, underscoring the theme that fate decreed the fall of the Sāsānians and fortune no longer smiled upon the land of Iran.

A careful examination of the narratives of early Islamic history teaches us much about the mindset of those living in the first centuries following the momentous events of the Seventh Century. By removing the layers of literary embellishment and moralistic exegesis, we can understand better the impact of the death of this Sāsānian dynast. In addition, by comparing the narrative traditions, we can uncover valuable testimony regarding the early development of what might later be described as an Islamic Iranian identity.