What Is Iran: Chapter 1

[Cover of What Is Iran]

1. The Faces and Faiths of Iran

The modern nation state of Iran is the direct descendant of the Persian Empire and as such has an extremely rich and prestigious cultural heritage. Following the mainly peaceful Islamic conquest of Persia in the seventh century, the face of Persian society was changed, but many fundamental elements of Persian culture were retained and went on to influence the development and practice of Islam in Persia and beyond. Iran acquired its distinctly Shi‘a character under the Safavid dynasty (1502-1722), which declared Twelver Shi‘a Islam, the largest branch of Shi‘a Islam, the state religion of the country. In many ways Shi‘a Islam and Persian history, language, and culture can be considered defining characteristics of Iran, but it is important to remember that the country’s seventy million inhabitants belong to a great number of ethnic groups, speak many different languages and dialects, follow a variety of lifestyles, and adhere to different religions.

I. The Ethnic Landscape of Iranian Society

Around half of Iranians are ethnic Persians, and their native Farsi (also called Persian) is the primary language of the country. Azeri Turks, who speak a variety of Turkic languages and dialects, make up around one quarter of the population and are a significant part of the cultural landscape of Iran. The remaining quarter of Iranian society is made up primarily of minorities concentrated in the border regions, including the Gilaki and Mazandarani peoples south of the Caspian Sea, Arabs in the southwest, Kurds in the northwest, as well as smaller populations of Turkmen in the northeast, Baluch in the southeast and Lur in the west.

II. The Religious Landscape of Iranian Society

Iran’s religious landscape is significantly less diverse than its ethnic and linguistic landscapes. Nearly 90 percent of the population is Shi‘a Muslim, and Shi‘a Islamic identity is a significant unifying force within Iranian society. An additional 8 or 9 percent of Iranians are Sunni Muslim, and the remaining 2 percent of the country’s population is divided among minority religions including Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and the Baha’i faith.

The word Islam means “submission,” and in its most basic form Islam is the submission of all creation to the will of God. The word is also used more specifically in reference to the conscious attempt by human beings to live in harmony with God’s will. In its most specific sense, the term is used for the religion instituted by the mission of the prophet Muhammad. As a religion, Islam, like Christianity, has a long and complex history that encompasses a huge array of beliefs and practices. Muslims belong to a wide variety of Islamic sects and adhere to nearly every conceivable political, social, and religious ideology. Because Islam is lived out in so many different places and cultural contexts, and because Muslims disagree about some aspects of their religion, it can be misleading to speak in generalities about Islam. Nonetheless, a set of beliefs and practices lies at the core of the faith and is shared by nearly all the world’s Muslims. Knowledge of these core elements is helpful in understanding the religion that shapes Iranian society.

Core Beliefs

  • The Unity of God—The concept of the oneness of God is central to Islam, and Muslims ascribe to a strictly monotheistic concept of God (also called Allah, which is simply the Arabic word for God). The conception of God as trinity tends to be one of the most problematic aspects of Christianity for Muslims, for the Qur’an clearly states that “God is One, the Eternal God. He begot none, nor was He begotten. None is equal to Him.” (112:1-4)
  • Divine Guidance: Prophethood, the Qur’an, and the Sunnah— Muslims believe that God sent many prophets to bring divine guidance for humanity, including Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, who is considered the final prophet. They believe that God revealed books to some of these prophets, including the Qur’an, which Muslims believe was revealed word for word in 114 chapters (suras) to Prophet Muhammad over the course of his life. The Qur’an is highly praised for its literary beauty and is by far the most important source of Islamic law, belief and practice. Another important source in Islam is the Sunnah—an Arabic word meaning “way” or “path.” In the context of Islamic doctrine it refers to the way the Prophet Muhammad lived his life. The Sunnah is derived from various collections of hadiths, or narrations about what the Prophet said and did. While the Qur’an is considered the inerrant word of God, collections of hadiths are believed in some cases to include dubious narrations.
  • Resurrection and the Day of Judgment—Like Christians, Muslims believe that the world as we know it will come to an end when all will be brought before God to be judged in accordance with divine justice and mercy.

Core Practices
Five religious practices, or the “Five Pillars,” as they are commonly known, form the backbone of religious observance for Muslims worldwide.

  • Bearing Witness—The first of these pillars is the creed which states “There is no deity but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” This statement is Islamic doctrine in a nutshell, and saying it with sincerity makes one a Muslim.
  • Ritual Prayer—Ritual prayers are performed five times per day, and this rhythm of prayer shapes the spiritual life of practicing Muslims.
  • Almsgiving—Islam requires that Muslims give a certain percentage of their annual income to help the poor and to benefit society.
  • Fasting—Muslims fast from sun-up to sundown on each of the days of the Islamic month of Ramadan. In Islamic countries Ramadan is often the most festive month of the year and a time when the community comes together in hospitality and friendship.
  • Hajj (Pilgrimage)—All Muslims who are physically and financially able are required to go on pilgrimage to Mecca once in their lifetime. Many who go on this pilgrimage cite hajj as the best and most memorable experience of their lives.

Shi‘a Islam and Iran
The two major divisions of Islam are Sunni and Shi‘a, with approximately 85 percent of the world’s Muslims being Sunni, and the remaining 15 percent Shi‘a. The Sunni-Shi‘a split arose immediately after the death of the prophet Muhammad in a dispute over the leadership of the Muslim community. The Sunni believe that the succession of the prophet should be decided by the leaders of the community. Meanwhile, the Shi‘a believe that it is a matter of divine appointment, and that Muhammad announced this appointment in a public ceremony at which his followers were invited to pledge allegiance to the leadership (Imamate) of his nephew Ali, through whom divine guidance would continue to be provided for the community. The Shi‘a believe that with the death of Muhammad the cycle of prophethood ended and the cycle of Imamate began. So, in addition to the core beliefs they share with other Muslims, the Shi‘a add a belief in the Imamate. The majority of the world’s Shi‘a (including the vast majority of Iran’s Shi‘a) are called Twelver, or Imami, Shi‘a, because they followed a line of twelve imams (leaders) beginning with Imam Ali and ending with Imam Mahdi. The imams are said to have provided divine guidance, but unlike the prophets, they do not bring a new revealed book or a new divine law. Shi‘a believe that the final imam did not die, but rather went into hiding to reappear together with Jesus at the time of his second coming.

  • Shi‘a Practices—In many ways the religious lives of Iranian Shi‘a are similar to those of their Sunni coreligionists, but practices and beliefs unique to Shi‘a Islam influence the way they observe their faith. One of these practices is the commemoration of the death of Imam Hussein. Hussein was the grandson of the prophet Muhammad and the third imam of Shi‘a Islam. In the year 680, Hussein and about seventy of his followers, along with their wives and children, were attacked in the desert by forces of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid, who perceived Hussein as a threat to his rule. Outnumbered by the thousands, Hussein and his followers were killed and the women and children in their party taken captive. The story of Hussein’s martyrdom is a formative element in Shi‘a Islam, and it serves as a symbol of the struggle against tyranny and injustice. Hussein was killed on the tenth day of the Islamic month of Muharram, known as Ashura. Muharram is a unique time in Iran when Shi‘a Muslims gather together to mourn and hear preaching inspired by the stories of the martyrs. Mourning ceremonies reach their peak on Ashura, when crowds of the faithful proceed through the streets in public displays of grief that involve weeping, reciting prayers, chanting, and striking their chests rhythmically with their hands. Some mourners flagellate themselves with chains, but religious authorities condemn excesses and any injury to oneself as incongruent with Islamic teaching.

    Another practice of great importance to Iran’s Shi‘a Muslims is visiting the shrines of Shi‘a Imams and other important religious figures. A visit can involve a short trip to a local gravesite; travel to another city; or a cross-border trek to revered shrines in Karbala and Najaf, Iraq, and in Damascus, Syria. Shi‘a visit these shrines as an expression of their devotion to the Imams and all of the family of the prophet Muhammad and to seek the intercession of the saints with God on their behalf. A visit to a shrine involves prayer and monetary offerings and is often an emotionally moving experience for the believer. The most important shrines in Iran are the shrine of Imam Ali Reza in Mashhad and the shrine of his sister Lady Fatima Ma’suma in Qom, which are visited by millions of pilgrims each year.

  • Shi‘a Religious Authority—For a variety of historical reasons the Shi‘a clergy today tend to have more influence in their own community than do their Sunni counterparts. Shi‘a clergy are trained in seminaries in a variety of cities across the Muslim world with Qom, Iran, and Najaf, Iraq, being the two greatest centers of Shi‘a learning. There are many different levels of clergy, and rising to the rank of top religious leader requires great aptitude and a lifetime of learning. Each Shi‘a lay person chooses a leading member of the clergy (known as a “source of emulation”) to follow and bases his or her religious life on that leader’s interpretation of Islamic law. The presence of a number of religious leaders with equal qualifications and status but varying interpretations of Islam allows diverse points of view to coexist and flourish within Shi‘a Islam. For example, top religious leaders will often differ in their views on broad topics such as the role of religion in government, modern economics, and interfaith relations as well as on smaller points of Islamic law.

Sunni Islam in Iran
Prior to the Safavid dynasty, under which Shi‘a Islam flourished and spread, Iran was predominantly a Sunni country. Today, however, Sunni Muslims make up about 9 percent of the population and are mainly non-Persian peoples living in the border areas of Iran, specifically the Baluch of the southeast, Kurds and Arabs of the north and southwest, and the Turkmen of the northeast. The Iranian constitution, while enshrining Twelver Shi‘a Islam as the state religion of Iran, guarantees Sunni Muslims the right to practice according to their interpretations of the faith and allows them full participation in government with a few exceptions. One of these exceptions is that Sunni Muslims are not eligible to run for president. Senior members of the Shi‘a clergy and prominent government officials have repeatedly called for Sunni-Shi‘a unity and tolerance. Sunni communities, however, have complaints regarding under-representation in local and national government as well as the low quality of services and infrastructure in the outlying regions of the country, which negatively affect both the majority Sunni and the minority Shi‘a in these areas. Sunnis have also cited government-imposed restrictions on their freedom of worship, most notably the refusal of the government to grant the one-million strong Sunni community of Tehran a permit to build a mosque. In many cases such problems pre-exist the revolutionary government, and it is often unclear whether complaints are rooted in religious or ethnic discrimination. In addition, government fear of minority groups’ connections with separatists and opposition groups both inside and outside the country plays a role in the treatment of these communities.

The government of Iran recognizes three minority religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism. These religions have long and distinguished histories in the country, and peaceful (if not problem-free) coexistence with the Muslim majority has been the norm for significant periods of those histories. The ideal of religious tolerance has long been a part of the Persian ethos, and the idea that monotheists of pre-Islamic faiths—that “people of the book,” the name given to Jews, Christians, and other faith groups in the Qur’an—should be treated with respect and fairness, is rooted in the doctrines of Islam. The present Islamic government in Iran, however, is often criticized by the international community for discrimination against religious minorities. When evaluating these critiques, it is necessary to recognize that the government of Iran does espouse a vision of religious rights, though this vision differs from dominant conceptions of human rights in western societies.

Under the Iranian constitution, minority faith communities have the right to practice their beliefs within the limits of the law. This includes a great deal of freedom in the areas of education and religious and cultural expression, though such freedom is often compromised by close government scrutiny and practices such as the appointing of Muslim headmasters to oversee minority schools. Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian communities are guaranteed parliamentary representation, with two seats reserved for Armenian Christians, one seat for Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, and one each for the Jewish and Zoroastrian communities. Advocates of this system point out that the percentage of minority seats in parliament is greater than the percentage of minorities in Iranian society, but others are troubled by the fact that members of religious minorities are ineligible to run for most other high-level government posts. The Iranian government allocates money for the restoration and upkeep of Jewish and Christian buildings, and recognized religious minorities have legal jurisdiction over their own communities in some matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance law. Nonetheless, both recognized and unrecognized minority communities in Iran complain of institutionalized discrimination in the penal code of Iran, which in some cases treats Muslims and non-Muslims differently.

Minority communities experienced serious erosions in their rights following the revolution of 1979, but advances were made in the 1990s and beyond. In the past several years, however, the situation of religious minorities, particularly that of the Baha’i, has deteriorated. High rates of emigration abroad among adherents to minority faiths, especially Christianity and Judaism, have also been a concern of those communities. Such emigration is partially prompted by the inequities listed above, but general economic conditions in Iran are at least as big, if not a bigger, factor in prompting members of religious minorities to leave Iran.

Christianity in Iran
Christians have been present in Iran since the earliest days of the faith, and estimates of the number of Christians in Iran today range from one hundred thousand to three hundred thousand. Most of Iran’s Christians are ethnically Armenian and belong to the Armenian Orthodox Apostolic Church. The Armenian Orthodox Church is an autonomous branch of Eastern Christianity that traces its origins to the preaching of disciples of Christ in the first century. Armenian Orthodoxy was adopted as the official religion of the kingdom of Armenia at the beginning of the fourth century, marking the first time Christianity was named a state religion. Armenians and Persians have a history of interaction that predates the advent of both Christianity and Islam, and much of the Armenian community of today’s Iran has its roots in an early seventeenth-century migration in which large numbers of Armenians were removed from their lands by the Safavid Shah Abbas I and resettled in Esfahan, where they flourished in commerce and industry. The situation of the Armenian Christian community in Iran fluctuated according to the attitude of the kings of subsequent dynasties. The Armenian Christians of today’s Iran live mainly in Tehran and Esfahan and retain their distinctively Armenian language, culture, and religious practices.

Assyrian Christians also have a long history in Iran, though they are significantly outnumbered by their Armenian counterparts. The Assyrian Church of the East split with the Byzantine church in the fifth century as a result of the Nestorian dispute, though its doctrine today cannot properly be characterized as Nestorian. The history of the Assyrian community in Iran since that time is incredibly complex, with members of the community aligning themselves at different times with a variety of different churches. Members of Iran’s Assyrian community today describe themselves as Assyrian or Chaldean and are mainly affiliated with the Assyrian Church of the East or the Chaldean Catholic Church. The Chaldean church, an offshoot of the Assyrian Church of the East, is an autonomous church in full communion with Rome. Iran’s Assyrian community also includes Christians affiliated with the Assyrian Evangelical Church and the Assyrian Pentecostal Church.

As a result of Western missionary activity, Iran also has a number of Protestant and a smaller number of Roman Catholic Christians. Roman Catholic missions to Iran predate Protestant activity in the country and include the residence of the Order of the Carmelites in Esfahan under the Safavid Shah Abbas I in the sixteenth century. Protestant missionary activity in Iran began in the nineteenth century and has resulted in small Iranian mainline Protestant and evangelical churches whose numbers are difficult to establish because they are not recognized by the Iranian government. Western missionary activity has historically been regarded with great suspicion by Iranians and their governments, partially due to Islamic prohibitions concerning the conversion of Muslims to other religions, but more specifically because such missionary efforts have often been tied to foreign governments hostile to Iranian sovereignty. Indigenous Iranian Christians have also viewed missionary activity with suspicion, in part because Western missionaries have sometimes aimed their conversion efforts at members of the traditional churches, and partly because connection with Western Christianity has tended to jeopardize the already-tenuous position of Christians in a greater Iranian society that has long distrusted Western influence and power.

Protestant and evangelical churches, particularly those unrecognized by the Islamic Republic, tend to have far more numerous and broad-ranging complaints of discrimination than the recognized indigenous churches. The Iranian government, for a variety of historical reasons, is deeply suspicious of Christian groups originating in or having connections to the West. The fact that some of these groups’ members are converts from Islam puts these churches further at odds with the Islamic state, which outlaws proselytization by non-Islamic groups. Protestant and evangelical churches have cited frequent harassment by government officials and have experienced arrests and mysterious deaths of church leaders and members.

Judaism in Iran
The history of Judaism in Iran dates back thousands of years to the Babylonian exile in the sixth century BCE, and the Persian Jewish community has maintained its presence in the country throughout the changes brought by the Islamic conquest and subsequent dynasties and governments of Iran. Today Iran’s Jews, who number between twenty thousand and thirty thousand, make up the largest Middle Eastern Jewish community outside of Israel. The situation of Jews in relation to greater Iranian society has fluctuated over the centuries and been affected by the tension between Islam’s recognition of Judaism as a divine religion on one hand, and the popular prejudice of majority communities against Jews on the other. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, Jews often faced severe discrimination similar to that faced by their coreligionists in Europe of the same time period. The Pahlavi era (1925–1979) had a mixed record of its treatment of the Iranian Jewish community.

Following the formation of the state of Israel in 1948, large numbers of Iranian Jews emigrated to Israel. The 1979 revolution prompted further emigration of the Jewish community to the West despite an order by Khomeini that the Jewish minority be protected. Tension between Iran and Israel and the United States at times puts today’s Iranian Jews in a tenuous situation. Anti- Semitic acts in Iran are relatively rare, but several such incidents occurred following the 2000 conviction of ten Iranian Jews from Shiraz on charges of illegal connections to Israel. Many of the charges were later overturned, and all those convicted have since been released. Moris Motamed, former occupant of the Jewish seat in the Iranian parliament and prominent member of the Iranian Jewish community, stresses the loyalty of that community to its home country. He has, however, expressed concern over anti-Semitic trends in Iranian broadcasting as well as the remarks of Iranian President Ahmadinejad, who has publicly questioned whether the Holocaust occurred.

The Jews of Iran take pride in both their Jewish religious identity and Persian cultural heritage, and many of Iran’s cities contain Jewish sites of historical note. The town of Hamadan is the site of the tombs of Esther, Mordechai, and Habakkuk. The tomb of Daniel in Shush is a popular attraction for Muslim pilgrims, and a mausoleum in Qazvin is said to house the remains of four Jewish prophets. The city of Esfahan is a treasure trove of Jewish history, with beautifully decorated synagogues and mausoleums as well as Jewish graves dating back two thousand years. The largest Jewish community in Iran today resides in Tehran, which is home to an impressive Jewish library, hospital, eleven functioning synagogues, a number of Hebrew schools, and other Jewish institutions.

Zoroastrianism in Iran
Zoroastrianism is a religion rooted in the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster (also known as Zarathustra), who lived in Persia around 1000 BCE. The religion’s doctrines revolve around a monotheistic belief in a creator God known as Ahura-Mazda. Zoroastrians have typically had a dualistic view of the universe in which truth and order are pitted against falsehood and chaos. Human beings play a vital role in the struggle between truth and falsehood and are urged to exercise their free will to adhere to the three basic Zoroastrian ethical principles of good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. The collection of sacred Zoroastrian texts is known as the Avesta. Fire is an important component of Zoroastrian religious ritual, serving as a symbol of the lifesustaining energy of the creator. Zoroastrianism is widely believed to have influenced Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam.

Zoroastrianism in various forms was the official religion of several pre-Islamic Persian empires, including the Sassanian Empire, which was overthrown during the Muslim conquest of Persia in the seventh century. Following the Islamic conquest, Persians gradually converted to Islam, though a minority remained Zoroastrian through the centuries and were recognized by Muslims as “people of the book.” In the early twentieth century Zoroastrians (like other Iranian religious minorities) played an active part in the Constitutional Revolution of Iran, and the Pahlavi shahs’ emphasis on Iran’s pre-Islamic Persian (rather than Shi‘a) identity raised the status of the Zoroastrian community in Iran.

Today Zoroastrian Iranians are concentrated in Yazd, Tehran, Shiraz, Esfahan, Kerman, and Kermanshah, and some speak their own Iranian language distinct from Farsi. Zoroastrian influences can be seen in both pre-Islamic and Islamic art and architecture in Iran, and Zoroastrian temples and funeral towers can be found in many regions of the country.

The Baha’i Faith in Iran
By far the largest unrecognized religion in Iran is the Baha’i faith, which has an estimated number of three hundred thousand adherents in the country. The faith emerged in Iran in the nineteenth century from a movement known as Babism. The founder of Babism, Seyyed Ali Muhammad, proclaimed himself the Gate, or “Bab,” to the twelfth Shi‘a Imam Mahdi, and some say he claimed to be the Mahdi himself. The Bab attracted thousands of followers in the period between 1844 and his death in 1850, and his unorthodox teachings roused the ire of the Shi‘a clerical establishment and population. Seyyed Ali Muhammad was executed in 1850, and his followers were dispersed or killed shortly after.

Approximately one decade later, Mirza Hussein Ali Nuri, a prominent early follower of the Bab, proclaimed himself to be the messianic figure whom the Bab and other religions had predicted would come. Many of the remnants of the Babi community accepted his claim and proselytized assertively on his behalf in Iran, with the result that by the 1880s nearly one hundred thousand people had converted to the new religion, known as the Baha’i faith in reference to Nuri’s title “Baha’ullah.”

The Baha’i community rejected some of the more aggressive Babi teachings, eschewing militancy and direct political involvement and embracing certain liberal ethical values. The Baha’i faith is monotheistic, teaching that an all-powerful, transcendent God created the universe and has been revealed to human beings throughout history via messengers known as “Manifestations of God,” who bring revelation suited to the time and place in which they appear. These Manifestations of God were responsible for the founding of most world religions, which are considered valid. Divine revelation is said to be progressive, and the teachings of Baha’ullah are believed to be uniquely suited to the modern period. The religion emphasizes the value of tolerance, the equality of human beings of all races and genders, and calls for world peace and unity and the abolition of all forms of prejudice. Human beings are to respond to the messages of the Manifestations of God and worship God through obedience, prayer, and other spiritual practices and works of service.

Since the inception of their faith, Baha’is have never been well accepted in Iranian society. Initial objections to the faith were religious; Baha’is were considered apostates and their religion heresy. Later critiques have tended to be more political in nature, with those opposed to the Baha’i citing their loyalty to unpopular Qajar and Pahlavi shahs. The location of the governing body of the Baha’i faith in Haifa, Israel, has also been a point of tension, and the Iranian government has accused Baha’is of being linked with the Israeli government. In response, Baha’is point out that their faith forbids political involvement while requiring its adherents to be obedient to the government under which they live, be it a monarchy or an Islamic republic. The Shi‘a clergy have been, with a few notable exceptions, virulently anti-Baha’i, and many have encouraged the destruction of the Baha’i community with the result that a series of pogroms (organized massacres) were carried out in the 20th century, often with the tacit approval of the Qajar and Pahlavi governments.

The revolution of 1979 ushered in a period of severe repression for the Baha’i. The official position of the current Iranian government is that the Baha’i faith is not a religion but rather a subversive political movement. The practice and teaching of the Baha’i faith is illegal in Iran, and Baha’is have been subject to imprisonment and execution, particularly between 1979 and 1985. While the situation of the community has improved since that time, Baha’is who identify themselves as such continue to be denied access to employment and public higher education and subject to property confiscation and loss of inheritance rights.

Other Minority Religions
A small number of Mandaeans (or Sabeans) live along the Iraqi border and are sometimes grouped with Christians, though they do not refer to themselves in that way. Similarly, a religious group known as Ahl-e Haqq, commonly considered an offshoot of Shi‘a Islam, has a number of adherents in the western province of Kermanshah. Small numbers of Hindus and adherents to various tribal religions also reside in Iran.

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