Najasat-e Ahl-e Kitab


Daniel Tsadik. Between Foreigners and Shi’is. Nineteenth-Century Iran and its Jewish Minority. Stanford University Press, Stanford, California 2007, 295 pages.

When Cyrus the Great freed the Jews from Babylonian Captivity in 539 BCE, some of them did not return to Jerusalem but eventually settled on the banks of the Zayandeh Rud in Central Iran, possibly founding the city of Esfahan [1]. This is the beginning of Jewish life in Iran which thus started two-and-a-half-thousand years ago. While Cyrus is betoken as ‘the anointed’ [2] in the Book of Isaiah, Jews seem to have lived for centuries in peace with the indigenous Persian populace. Persian religious tolerance was legendary as long as Zoroastrianism was the state religion. The alarming rhetoric in particular of the current President of Iran, who had openly questioned the Holocaust of the Jews by the Nazi’s terror regime in the early 1940s and the very right of Israel to exist, has caused considerable new concern about the safety of the Jews in the Islamic Republic. It raises again the question, what do we actually know about the relationship of Shi’a Muslims and other ‘people of the book’, or Ahl al-Kitab?

Daniel Tsadik is an Assistant Professor at Yeshiva University, New York. He has earned a PhD from the History Department at Yale University. Apparently, Tsadik’s family is still living in Iran. In his new book he tries to illuminate the more than difficult situation of the Jews under the rule of the Shahs of the Qajar-Dynasty, in particular the second half of the 19th century. Iran has seen the Constitutional Revolution (1905-1911), the reign of the Pahlavis afterwards and, most significant, the Islamic Republic with its determined Shi’a fundamentalism as state doctrine. Is it possible to draw a parallel between, as Tsadik describes it, religiously motivated anti-Semitic inhumanity and present days’ threats and persecution [3]? On several occasions in the mid-19th century, so Tsadik, international Jewish organization such as the Alliance Israélite Universelle, the Anglo-Jewish Association or the Jewish Board of Deputies tried to put pressure on the Shah to improve the situation of their brethren in Iran and demanded equal rights as citizens, with fragile, rather transient success, though. Thus, Tsadik traces the debate about the status of religious minorities in Iran, including the Jews, back to the 19th century interplay between intervening foreigners, the Shah, the Shi’a majority and especially the Ulema, or religious jurists, and local non-Muslim minorities.

Tsadik claims that, “[b]eginning with the end of the reign of Shah Abbas I (r. 1588-1629) the condition of the Jews generally deteriorated. This trend became more pronounced under Shah Abbas II (r. 1642-66) and continued in subsequent years.” Abbas the Great, who made Shi’a Islam the Iranian state religion, had even encouraged Jews (and Armenians as well) to settle in his new capital Esfahan. Tsadik stresses that it was largely the legal attitudes of the Shi’i toward the Jews, in particular, considering them (and Christians as well) as impure (najasat-e ahl-e kitab) and inferior as compared to Muslims. It is interesting to see that under the Sunni Muslim Nadir Shah (r. 1736-47) who abolished Shi’a Islam in Iran, Jews experienced a short period of relative tolerance. They were then even allowed to settle in the holy city of Mashhad in Khorasan [4]. But new persecutions emerged with the advent of the Shi’a Qajar dynasty of Shahs (1794-1925).

Precise estimates are actually missing but it is clear that the Jewish populace in Iran underwent considerable changes over the past few centuries. At the beginning of the 20th century, there might have been 40’000 Jews in Iran, roughly 0.4% of the total population [5]. Clearly, with some exceptions, for example traders and physicians, Jews comprised the lowest social status in Iran’s society. They were frequently peddlers or more or less forced to choose vocations usually forbidden to Muslims, such as dyeing, scavenger work, cleaning excrement pits, etc. According to Tsadik, “[S]hi’i (and Muslim, in general) polemic contentions regarded contemporary Judaism as consisting of negative innovations and the Jews as obstinate deviators from their own Torah”.

In the 19th century, afraid of completely losing its independence, Iran addressed the demands of foreign powers such as Britain, French and Russia, even those regarding minorities in the society. During Shah Nasir al-Din Qajar’s lengthy reign (1848-96) Western powers (particularly British and French) intervened on behalf of the Iranian Jews but his overall positive response (in 1873 the Shah granted the Jews in his country equal civil rights as the Muslims, soon after the 1871-72 Great Famine in Iran which had elicited a growing European Jewish concern for Iranian Jews) was not implemented in full by the government, and a Jew was in fact never treated as an equal private citizen but always a member of the Jewish community. It is revealing for the weakness of the Shah’s order that Jews, as most other non-Muslims, had to remit the jizyah, the annual extra tax imposed on members of the Dhimmah, even after 1873, when Nasir al-Din visited several European states and was directly addressed by Jewish organizations. Tsadik argues that, in the latter half of the 19th century, the Muslim (i.e., Imami Shi’a) majority in the country and, in particular, the Ulema, by and large prevented the Shah’s intentions of improving the situation of the Jews in Iran. “Portions of Muslim society strongly resisted the bestowal of a new status on the Jews. They fought for the application and reinforcement of the dhimmah laws.”

Tsadik’s book is an excellent study shedding light on a so far largely unknown relationship between the fundamentalist Imami Shi’a branch of Islam and religious minorities in Iran. It raises concerns that even the currently valid fatwa by the late Ayatollah Khomeini who, after his return from exile in Paris, declared Jews (and Christians and Zoroastrians as well) of being protected under the Dhimmah, might not be implemented in full. In particular the unacceptable rhetoric of the current President of Iran and irresponsible acts such as the so-called ‘International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust’ in 2006 in Tehran might remind us that even fatwas might be abrogated.

Outside of Israel, most holy sites for Jews are found in Iran, for instance Daniel’s tomb in Shush, the ancient Susa, or sites related to Esther and Mordecai in Hamadan, the ancient Achaemenid capital Ecbatana [6]. Self-evidently Jews in Iran consider themselves as Iranians. They regard offers of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) to emigrate to the US an unreasonable demand. Presently, the Jewish population in Iran seems to be safe. It is hoped that their 2500-year-old history in Iran will continue.


[1] In fact, settlements in what is now called Esfahan are essentially older and may well have their origins in the 5th or 6th millennia BCE, the so-called Zayandeh Rud River Culture with a strong link to Kashan’s Tappeh Sialk, an ancient ziggurat some 200 km north of the modern city of Esfahan.

[2] Cyrus might have been regarded by Jews as the (or one) Messiah. According to (Deutero-)Isaiah (Isa 45:1-8), God would anoint the Persian king Cyrus who would then destroy Babylon and liberate the Jews.

[3] Tsadik does not mention the term ‘anti-Semitism’ in his book a single time. It is obvious that he based anti-Jewish sentiments of Iran’s Muslims entirely on the religious doctrine which is, according to his arguments, especially characteristic for Imami Shi’a Islam.

[4] According to Tsadik, the central government of the Shah in Tehran was in essence not able or willing to prevent persecutions in the impassable countryside which were mainly due to the zeal of the Ulema, who were implementing stricter Shi’a laws dooming Jews and other minorities as impure and inferior. How could the new Sunni leader Nadir Shah reverse deeply rooted resentments of his people?

[5] Although generally a tiny minority in a large Muslim country, due to the severe restrictions implemented by the Shi’a laws on the Dhimmah, or people of protection, Jews concentrated in the greater urban centers such as Shiraz, Esfahan, Hamadan, Urumiyah, Tehran etc. where they were more visible and could make up even 5-10% of the inhabitants. At the time of the foundation of the State of Israel, more than 100’000 Jews lived in Iran, but since then, their numbers have dropped, especially after the Islamic Revolution. Presently, 20’000 to 25’000 have stayed there, still (as ever) the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside Israel. According to Iran’s Constitution, they are equal to Muslim. Jews have a representative in the Iranian Majlis, or parliament. Currently seen emigrations to, for instance, the USA are due to economical strain rather than persecution.

[6] One major pilgrimage site is the huge Jewish cemetery in Lanjan, 20 km south of Esfahan. The small synagogue contains the shrine of Sarah bat Asher, son of the Patriarch Jacob. Tzadik writes that “[a]ccording to the midrash […]Sarah never died, and popular Iranian Jewish tradition held that she arrived in Isfahan with the exiled Jews from the tribe of Judah. Miraculous stories and legends surrounding this figure were common in Jewish circles. Although her veneration site drew pilgrims every month, it constituted a pilgrimage center for Jews mainly during the month of Elul and in the days preceding Day of Atonement, in the following month of Tishrey. Near the Jewish site there was also a Muslim tomb, Pir Bakran, named after a religious figure who was believed to be buried there. A stream that flowed from the Zayandih Rud River separated the two shrines. The Islamic tomb also functioned as a school for the children of the nearby village, similarly named Pir Bakran.” Some recent pictures taken at the sites mentioned above may be found here.


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