In the pre-Islamic Sasanian Empire, the dehqans were considered minor land-owners. The term dehqan emerged as a hereditary social class in the later Sassanid era, who managed local affairs and whom peasants were obliged to obey.
Following the suppression of the Mazdakite uprising, Khosrau I implemented social reforms which benefited the dehqans. Later during the reigns of Khosrau I and Kavad I, the dehqans gained influence as the backbone of the Sasanian army and as imperial tax collectors. As their influence grew, they maintained Persian ethics, ideals and social norms which were later reawakened during medieval times in Islamic Persia.
In early Islamic texts, the dehqans function almost as local rulers under the Arab domain and the term was sometimes juxtaposed with marzabān (“marcher-lord, governor”). By the 11th century, the dehqans were landowners or directly involved in agriculture; either the planting or the management of the land. Aside from their political and social role, the dehqans who were well versed in the history and culture of pre-Islamic Iran, played an important cultural role by serving rulers and princes as learned men.
For example, the governor of Basra, according to a source, had three dehqans at his service, who told him of the grandeur of the Sasanians and made him feel that Arab rule was much inferior. Iranians had not only preserved the ideals of the dehqans from the Sassanid times and brought them into the Islamic period, but they also inculcated these ideals to the minds of the ruling Arab aristocracy, who also fused with Iranians. In the 9th century, the Tahirids, who were of Persian dehqan origin, initiated a resurgence of Persian culture.
During the Saljuq era, the dehqans played a major role as the Saljuqs turned to the dehqan aristocracy in order to govern their empire. The alliance between the dehqans and the Saljuqs actually created resentment among the Turcoman tribesmen after 1055 when Toghril Beg took over Baghdad. Due to the attachment of the dehqans to Iranian culture, the term dehqan had already become synonymous to “a Persian of noble blood” in contrast to Arabs, Turks and Romans. According to some sources, including Nezami ‘Aruzi, the Iranian national poet Ferdowsi was also of the dehqan lineage. Another poet that refers to himself as a dehqan is Qatran Tabrizi who was also well versed about ancient Iran. His poetry is replete with the references to ancient Iranian characters and their role.
In modern Persian language the word means "farmer". The Sarikoli word [dejqun] denotes a farmer of any sort, especially a subsistence farmer. The typical Sarikoli deyqun is self-sufficient but relatively poor.