Religious Minorities after the Revolution


The different Iranian/Persian Empires have ever been home of a large variety of religious dominations, besides Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, in particular Jews (who can be traced for more than 2500 years); Christian Apostolic Armenians, Nestorian Assyrians, Catholic Chaldeans; Buddhists, and Zoroastrians, whose religion had been founded in Iran millennia ago; and more recently adherents to the Baha’i faith.

While religious tolerance of the Zoroastrian Sassanid rulers (3rd until mid 7th century) for Christians and Jews can be regarded high, the Arab conquest of Iran after the fall of Ctesiphon in the battle of Al Qādisiyyah in 637 CE led to mass conversion to Islam, the violent incorporation of the country into Dar al-Islam, or house of Islam; and degradation of resistant adherents to the other monotheistic religions (the “people of the book”, or Ahl al-Kitab) to dhimmis, or protected people under Islamic rule. It should be noted that they were, for a long time, well-regarded and respected, though. In particular the Abbasid caliphs (after 750 CE) were very much reliant on numerous non-Muslim scholars, scribes, technicians and artisans which helped establishing one of history’s most glorious eras, Islam’s Golden Age.

Shi’ites in Iran

But this period was also shaken by rebellions of the adherents of the later Shi’a Imams, descendants of the Prophet of Islam, who confronted in particular the Abbasid Caliphs Harun ar-Rashid (d. 809) and his son Al Mamun. For Iran, especially the alleged conflict between Al Ma’mun (d. 833) and Ali bin Musa ar-Ridha (Imam Reza) is important as he died (or was poisoned) in 818 in Tus in Khorasan. His tomb in Mashhad has become Iran’s most important pilgrimage site.

On its face, the main difference between Sunnis and Shi’ites is that the latter believe in a particular spiritual and political authority of the Prophet’s descendants through his daughter Fatimah who was married to Muhammad’s cousin Ali ibn abi Talib (d. 661). He and his two sons Hasan and Husayn belong to the Prophet’s closer household, or Ahl al-Bayt, and are considered the first three Imams. Shi’ites reject in particular the official successors to the Prophet, i.e. the rashidun (or rightly guided) Caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman, and their Umayyad and Abbasid successors. The ultimate split of the ummah, or Islamic community occurred after the battle of Karbala in 680 when Ali’s son Husayn together with his small army was killed (martyred) by troops of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid.

In order to get a deeper understanding of the strict ritual purity doctrine of Shi’ites one has to recall that the rise of this branch of Islam went along with a deep sense of monstrous injustice (for instance, sidelining Ali as the only righteous Caliph three times), the honorable defeat of an upright minority (in the Battle of Karbala), and martyrdom (most Imams have actually been poisoned or otherwise killed). If a newly emerging religion actually needs a strong creation myth, Shi’ites may in fact be very much satisfied. Legends about the twelve Imams’ and their family members’ righteous lives, their rebellion and inevitable martyrdom are now filling whole libraries, in Najaf, Qom, Mashhad and elsewhere.

It is not by chance that in particular the Iranian mindset found the belonging to the “other” and a deep desire to separate and disassociate  quite attractive. Persians have a long tradition of culturally changing something non-Persian intruders and conquerors brought to the country into something downright Persian [1]. The term Persianization has been coined for that phenomenon and it comes to one’s mind when recalling that most Shi’ites nowadays live in Iran and neighboring countries Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, or Afghanistan which have been under Persian influence for millennia.

The State Religion

As state religion, the Twelver, or Imami, Shi’a branch of Islam has only been established in Iran (with a short break in the first half of the 18th century under the reign of Nader Shah) with the rise of the Safavid dynasty in the early 16th century. Among all religious minorities in Iran in particular Jews were facing tremendous hardships especially towards the end of the reign of Abbas I (d. 1629). Abbas was apparently somewhat more tolerant of Christianity. He forcefully settled, for instance, Armenian Christians on the southern river banks of his new capital Esfahan where he created a New Jolfa after the Armenian frontier town Julfa had to be evacuated in fear of raids by Ottoman troops (and was later completely destroyed). His relative tolerance was not directed towards Jews, though. Due to their perceived ritual impurity [2] and in order to avoid any physical contacts they were not allowed to attend public baths and were forced to wear a distinctive badge and headgear.


Daniel Tsadik lists a large number of fatwas of 19th century Iranian clerics which tackle questions about how to deal with the impurity (najasah) of Jews in daily life, as well as dhimmah regulations [3]. There is certainly no need to detail all of these abominations [4] but it instantly becomes clear that, based on harsh discrimination laws Jews in all likelihood comprised only the lowest social status in Iran’s society. With a few exceptions, Jews were typically peddlers or were forced to choose vocations which are usually forbidden to Muslims, such as tanner, dyer, scavenger, cleaner of excrement pits, and the like.

It is important to note that the Shi’a discrimination of Jews (which in fact is downright anti-Semitism) and, in general, all religious minorities in Iran has its root in a perceived superiority of the faith [5], the exclusivity of Shi’a Islam, the “otherness” (aqaliat) of the utterly erring religious minorities; with grave consequences, which Tsadik describes without even mentioning the word anti-Semitism once in his dissertation.  The forced conversions and pogroms of Jews during the Qajar period and in particular Shah Nasir al-Din Qajar’s lengthy reign (1848-96) in Tabriz and Shiraz (1830), Mashhad (1839), Barforush (1866), and numerous incidents in Hamadan (1860’s, 1875, 1880s) are well-documented. As Turkey has not acknowledged its genocide of the Armenian population during WWI, the Iranians have in fact to come to terms with their own darker sides of history, as well. There is little hope, though, that that will be done under the current regime, an out-of-time fundamentalist Shi’a theocracy. However, one has to know about Jews and other religious minorities having had endured century-long discrimination and persecution in Iran when asking questions about present day anti-Semitism in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

After the Revolution

The common demonizing of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the West includes grave concerns about religious minorities, not so much as regards Zoroastrians but in particular Jews, Baha’is and Christian converts. They might be justified. In particular as regards the two latter groups one has in fact to expect persecution if not extermination. Apostasy (Baha’is are considered apostates as well) is a capital offence in the Islamic Republic. The Baha’i faith emerged from messianic Shi’a Islam in Iran in the 19th century. One of the early faith’s founding figures, Seyyed Ali Mohammad Shirazi, or Bab (executed in 1850), declared himself to be the Hidden Imam. Mirza Hossein Ali Nouri, known as Baha’u’llah (d. 1892), regarded himself as the messianic figure which had been predicted by Bab.

Since the Baha’is enjoyed at least some protection under the reigns of the two Pahlavi shahs, they are considered, in post-revolutionary Iran, as royalists. It is a popular, albeit erroneous, belief among Muslim Iranians that the Bahai’s (as other non-Muslim religious minorities) had even enjoyed a privileged status then. Their alleged association with Israel and the West adds to widespread, systematic and uninterrupted persecution, not only by the government and the ulema but also the vast majority of common, devout Shi’ites in Iran. Due to forced adherence to secrecy it has always been difficult to estimate the number of Baha’is in Iran. There might still be between 150,000 and 300,000 [6] which do not comprise more than five per cent of their total number worldwide.

Missionary work of non-ethnic Christians, including building schools and hospitals, went long hand in hand with foreign penetration of colonial powers, France and, in particular, Britain. Attempts to abandon these activities had been made already by Reza Shah in the 1930s [7]. As regards Christian converts, exact figures of how many are living in the Islamic Republic of Iran are very difficult to obtain. While ethnic Christians such as Armenians (mainly Apostolic with few Protestants or Catholics, decreasing numbers of adherents since the 1970s from 250,000 to between 150,000 and 200,000), Nestorian Assyrians, Catholic Chaldeans (decreasing from 30,000 in the mid-1970s to 16,000-18,000 in 1992 [8] ) continuously enjoy being respected by the Islamic authorities with even overrepresentation in the majlis, or parliament, converts are doomed to live in secrecy.

Although still being the largest community in the Middle East outside Israel, the number of Jews in Iran has constantly dropped since 1948. In the 1930s, Reza Shah’s pro-Nazi sympathies seriously threatened the Jewish community. At the time of the foundation of Israel as a state, more than 100,000 Jews lived in Iran, but between 1948 and 1953 more than 30,000 emigrated to Israel. Interestingly, most emigrants in this first wave were from rural areas belonging to the lower-classes [9]. Shah Reza Pahlavi’s reign since 1953 and the close and friendly relationship with Israel granted the most prosperous era for the Iranian Jewish population which rose to about 80,000 in 1978. Within one year of the revolution, it dropped to 50,000-60,000 [10] and is now estimated to be between 20,000 and 25,000. All recognized religious minorities have representatives in the majlis. Jews have one representative. Currently seen emigrations to, for instance, the USA are still due to economical strain rather than persecution.

Being Marginalized

Living in a Shi’a theocracy as a (recognized) religious minority (aqaliatin) may have tremendous disadvantages. Iran has been a predominant Muslim country since 637 CE. Zoroastrian, Jewish and Christian populations are considerably older. As has been outlined here in some detail the rise of the Safavids in the early 16th century and the establishment of discriminating Shi’a faith (or superstition) as state religion must be considered as the most crucial incident for adherents to, in particular, monotheistic religions. It was and is the ulema, Muslim legal scholars, who disregard(ed) fundamental human rights when writing about najasah and second-class citizenship of Ahl al-Kitab. The apparently further decreasing numbers of adherents to recognized religious minorities in Iran (I suppose that at the moment the trend has been halted not accelerated, but exact data are missing) may lead to further marginalization in the society [11]. As Eliz Sanasarian concludes [12],

“Scapegoating non-Muslim marginal groups has been a historical blemish for Iran, its version of Islam, and state politics. If a community or society does not admit its mistakes, it cannot address them realistically, and it is bound to repeat them again. Blaming others is the easiest way of denying personal responsibility. Unless mindsets are altered, no change is deserving of praise. In the end it is essential to contemplate the perils of marginality for those who experience them and those who cause them. Failure to contemplate the situation and change behavior will guarantee the mindless repetition of the patterns examined above in the not too distant future.”


[1] One striking example may be the famous Mongolian ruler of the Ilkhanid dynasty in Iran Öljaitü (d. 1316) whose mausoleum in Soltaniyeh has been described as Iran’s Taj Mahal. As his mother was a Christian, he was baptized but converted in his youth to Buddhism but then first to Sunni and then, after coming into contact with Shi’ite scholars, Shi’a Islam. He later re-converted to Sunni Islam after Shi’ite clerics had turned down his rather weird idea to re-entomb the bones of Imam Ali (in Najaf) and Imam Husayn (in Karbala) in his own mausoleum in Soltaniyeh.

[2] Both Christians and Jews are regarded Ahl al-Kitab, or People of the Book, by Muslims. Both Christians and Jews, though, have allegedly distorted the revealed scriptures. Daniel Tsadik (see note below) refers in his thesis “Between Foreigners and Shi’is” to the fatwa collection of Abu al-Qasim Qummi (d. 1816 CE) who regards the ritual impurity of Christian and Jews as commonplace. It is mainly based on surah 9:30, 31 which describes Jews and Christians as polytheists.

9:30 The Jews call ‘Uzair (Ezra) a son of Allah, and the Christians call Christ the son of Allah. That is a saying from their mouth; (in this) they but imitate what the unbelievers of old used to say. Allah’s curse be on them: how they are deluded away from the Truth!

9:31 They take their priests and their anchorites to be their lords in derogation of Allah, and (they take as their Lord) Christ the son of Mary; yet they were commanded to worship but One Allah: there is no god but He. Praise and glory to Him: (Far is He) from having the partners they associate (with Him).”

Polytheists are, according to surah 9:28, impure.

9:28 O ye who believe! Truly the Pagans are unclean; so let them not, after this year of theirs, approach the Sacred Mosque. And if ye fear poverty, soon will Allah enrich you, if He wills, out of His bounty, for Allah is All-knowing, All-wise.”

[3] Daniel Tsadik. Between Foreigners and Shi’is. Nineteeth-Century Iran and its Jewish Minority. Stanford University Press, Stanford, California 2007, pp. 17ff.

[4] Hasan Najafi (d. 1850) explains, according to Tsadik (pp. 28ff), how (Shi’a) Muslim rules are imposed on dhimmis, which reads as if it directly originates from Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws of 1935 or Dolf Sternberger’s “Aus dem Wörterbuch des Unmenschen”. For example as regards a desired distinction between Muslims and dhimmis in clothing, hairstyle, riding habits, and agnomen,

Dhimmis should wear an item of clothing differing in color from the color of the rest of their garments; for instance, one piece of the Jews’ costume may be honey-colored. Dhimmi women should wear one red shoe and one white. Nonetheless, the dhimmis are not forbidden to wear first-rate (fakhir) clothes. Since the prophet parted his hair, the dhimmis are not allowed to part theirs; they should clip the front (maqadin) of their heads, and cut off their hair. The dhimmis are not allowed to ride horses, since horses are considered powerful (or: honorable; Arab. ’izz) beasts. They are, however, permitted to ride on any other beast, but without a saddle, and their legs must be placed on one side of the beast, while their back is turned to the other side. They cannot gird swords or carry weapons. Finally, the dhimmis cannot employ Muslim agnomens, such as Abu Muhammad and Abu Abd Allah.”

[5] As Tsadik writes on p. 30,

 “The Jews displayed the trait of stubborn obstinacy (lajaj-i ’inad) toward their own major prophet, frequently rebelling against Moses as attested in the Torah. They opposed their other prophets and, in fact, killed some prophets sent to guide them.

According to this line, the Jews rejected the truth, and persistently denied God’s prophets and indubitable proofs. They went further and devised an oral law that was an illegitimate innovation, whereas their written code could at best have predicted the emergence of Muhammad (e.g., Deuteronomy 18:18) and the twelve Shi’i Imams (Genesis 17:20) and the supremacy of Islam.

“The Jews misunderstood their Torah and therefore misinterpreted God’s will; with the passage of time they introduced deviant rituals and customs as well as flawed beliefs.”

[6] Eliz Sanasarian. Religious Minorities in Iran. Cambridge University Press 2000, p. 53. Persecution also took place in Morocco in 1962. The Baha’i faith was banned in Egypt in 1960 and in Iraq since 1970.

[7] Ibid., p. 44.

[8] Ibid., Table 2, p. 36f.

[9] Ibid., p. 47. Although in the beginning of this emigration wave economic strain might have been the main motivation for emigration to Israel, Muslim anti-Israel sentiments soon after the proclamation of the State of Israel led to calls for boycotting merchandise in Iran’s big bazaars. Mossadegh’s short episode in power and the subsequent CIA orchestrated coup d’état which reinstated Shah Reza Pahlavi aggravated anti-Israel and anti-Jews sentiments, as well.

[10] Ibid., p. 48. Numbers may not be reliable. In the mid-1990s according to Iranian estimates (e.g., reported in Iran Times 1996, footnote #72) about 35,000 Jews were living in Iran, an unrealistic figure, as Sanasarian claims.

[11] The current regime in Iran is fully aware of being scrutinized by western organizations and governments as regards treatment of adherents of religious minorities in Iran. Sanasarian lists a couple of strategies (p. 159f) of the regime in order to respond to international criticism, including invitations to religious leaders from around the world and aggressively claiming liberties of non-Muslims (which are rather limited). Pointing to religious discrimination in the West may be another (sad to say, legitimate) tactic.

[12] Ibid. p. 163.

[13] The picture depicts the famous Investiture of Ali at Ghadir Khumm of a 1308/09 Ilkhanid manuscript by Ibn al-Kutbi of Abu Rayhan al-Biruni’s (d. 1048) original text Kitāb al-āthār al-bāqiyah `an al-qurūn al-khāliyah, or The Remaining Signs of Past Centuries. The illustration is in particular of significance for Shi’ites since they believe that the Prophet himself, only three months before he passed away, had made a choice in favor of Ali ibn abi Talib as his successor.

Last modified March 13, 2011.

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1 Response to Religious Minorities after the Revolution

  1. freeapostate says:

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