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Chapter 2E. Religious Life
The overwhelming majority of Iranians--at least 90 percent of the total
population--are Muslims who adhere to Shia Islam. In contrast, the majority of
Muslims throughout the world follow Sunni Islam. Of the several Shia sects,
the Twelve Imam (see Glossary) or Twelver (ithna- ashari), is dominant in
Iran; most Shias in Bahrain, Iraq, and Lebanon also follow this sect. All the
Shia sects originated among early Muslim dissenters in the first three
centuries following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in A.D. 632 (see Islamic
Conquest, ch. 1).
The principal belief of Twelvers, but not of other Shias, is that the
spiritual and temporal leadership of the Muslim community passed from Muhammad
to Ali and then sequentially to eleven of Ali's direct male descendants, a
tenet rejected by Sunnis. Over the centuries various other theological
differences have developed between Twelver Shias and Sunnis.
Shia Islam in Iran
Although Shias have lived in Iran since the earliest days of Islam, and
there was one Shia dynasty in part of Iran during the tenth and eleventh
centuries, it is believed that most Iranians were Sunnis until the seventeenth
century. The Safavid dynasty made Shia Islam the official state religion in
the sixteenth century and aggressively proselytized on its behalf. It is also
believed that by the mid-seventeenth century most people in what is now Iran
had become Shias, an affiliation that has continued.
All Shia Muslims believe there are seven pillars of faith, which detail
the acts necessary to demonstrate and reinforce faith. The first five of these
pillars are shared with Sunni Muslims. They are shahada, or the confession of
faith; namaz, or ritualized prayer; zakat, or almsgiving; sawm, fasting and
contemplation during daylight hours during the lunar month of Ramazan; and
hajj, or pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina once in a lifetime
if financially feasible. The other two pillars, which are not shared with
Sunnis, are jihad--or crusade to protect Islamic lands, beliefs, and
institutions, and the requirement to do good works and to avoid all evil
thoughts, words, and deeds.
Twelver Shia Muslims also believe in five basic principles of faith: there
is one God, who is a unitary divine being in contrast to the trinitarian being
of Christians; the Prophet Muhammad is the last of a line of prophets
beginning with Abraham and including Moses and Jesus, and he was chosen by God
to present His message to mankind; there is a resurrection of the body and
soul on the last or judgment day; divine justice will reward or punish
believers based on actions undertaken through their own free will; and Twelve
Imams were successors to Muhammad. The first three of these beliefs are also
shared by non- Twelver Shias and Sunni Muslims.
The distinctive dogma and institution of Shia Islam is the Imamate, which
includes the idea that the successor of Muhammad be more than merely a
political leader. The Imam must also be a spiritual leader, which means that
he must have the ability to interpret the inner mysteries of the Quran and the
shariat (see Glossary). The Twelver Shias further believe that the Twelve
Imams who succeeded the Prophet were sinless and free from error and had been
chosen by God through Muhammad.
The Imamate began with Ali, who is also accepted by Sunni Muslims as the
fourth of the "rightly guided caliphs" to succeed the Prophet. Shias revere
Ali as the First Imam, and his descendants, beginning with his sons Hasan and
Husayn (also seen as Hosein), continue the line of the Imams until the
Twelfth, who is believed to have ascended into a supernatural state to return
to earth on judgment day. Shias point to the close lifetime association of
Muhammad with Ali. When Ali was six years old, he was invited by the Prophet
to live with him, and Shias believe Ali was the first person to make the
declaration of faith in Islam. Ali also slept in Muhammad's bed on the night
of the hijra, or migration from Mecca to Medina, when it was feared that the
house would be attacked by unbelievers and the Prophet stabbed to death. He
fought in all the battles Muhammad did except one, and the Prophet chose him
to be the husband of his favorite daughter, Fatima.
In Sunni Islam an imam is the leader of congregational prayer. Among the
Shias of Iran the term imam traditionally has been used only for Ali and his
eleven descendants. None of the Twelve Imams, with the exception of Ali, ever
ruled an Islamic government. During their lifetimes, their followers hoped
that they would assume the rulership of the Islamic community, a rule that was
believed to have been wrongfully usurped. Because the Sunni caliphs were
cognizant of this hope, the Imams generally were persecuted during the Umayyad
and Abbasid dynasties. Therefore, the Imams tried to be as unobtrusive as
possible and to live as far as was reasonable from the successive capitals of
the Islamic empire.
During the ninth century Caliph Al Mamun, son of Caliph Harun ar Rashid,
was favorably disposed toward the descendants of Ali and their followers. He
invited the Eighth Imam, Reza (A.D. 765-816), to come from Medina to his court
at Marv (Mary in the present-day Soviet Union). While Reza was residing at
Marv, Mamun designated him as his successor in an apparent effort to avoid
conflict among Muslims. Reza's sister Fatima journeyed from Medina to be with
her brother but took ill and died at Qom. A shrine developed around her tomb,
and over the centuries Qom has become a major Shia pilgrimage and theology
Mamun took Reza on his military campaign to retake Baghdad from political
rivals. On this trip Reza died unexpectedly in Khorasan. Reza was the only
Imam to reside or die in what is now Iran. A major shrine, and eventually the
city of Mashhad, grew up around his tomb, which has become the most important
pilgrimage center in Iran. Several important theological schools are located
in Mashhad, associated with the shrine of the Eighth Imam.
Reza's sudden death was a shock to his followers, many of whom believed
that Mamun, out of jealousy for Reza's increasing popularity, had him
poisoned. Mamun's suspected treachery against Reza and his family tended to
reinforce a feeling already prevalent among his followers that the Sunni
rulers were untrustworthy.
The Twelfth Imam is believed to have been only five years old when the
Imamate descended upon him in A.D. 874 at the death of his father. The Twelfth
Imam is usually known by his titles of Imam-e Asr (the Imam of the Age) and
Sahib az Zaman (the Lord of Time). Because his followers feared he might be
assassinated, the Twelfth Imam was hidden from public view and was seen only
by a few of his closest deputies. Sunnis claim that he never existed or that
he died while still a child. Shias believe that the Twelfth Imam remained on
earth, but hidden from the public, for about seventy years, a period they
refer to as the lesser occultation (gheybat-e sughra). Shias also believe that
the Twelfth Imam has never died, but disappeared from earth in about A.D. 939.
Since that time the greater occultation (gheybat-e kubra) of the Twelfth Imam
has been in force and will last until God commands the Twelfth Imam to
manifest himself on earth again as the Mahdi, or Messiah. Shias believe that
during the greater occultation of the Twelfth Imam he is spiritually
present--some believe that he is materially present as well-- and he is
besought to reappear in various invocations and prayers. His name is mentioned
in wedding invitations, and his birthday is one of the most jubilant of all
Shia religious observances.
The Shia doctrine of the Imamate was not fully elaborated until the tenth
century. Other dogmas were developed still later. A characteristic of Shia
Islam is the continual exposition and reinterpretation of doctrine. The most
recent example is Khomeini's expounding of the doctrine of velayat-e faqih
(see Glossary), or the political guardianship of the community of believers by
scholars trained in religious law. This has not been a traditional idea in
Shia Islam and is, in fact, an innovation. The basic idea is that the clergy,
by virtue of their superior knowledge of the laws of God, are the best
qualified to rule the society of believers who are preparing themselves on
earth to live eternally in heaven. The concept of velayat-e faqih thus
provides the doctrinal basis for theocratic government, an experiment that
Twelver Imam Shias had not attempted prior to the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
In addition to the seven principal tenets of faith, there are also
traditional religious practices that are intimately associated with Shia
Islam. These include the observance of the month of martyrdom, Moharram, and
pilgrimages to the shrines of the Twelve Imams and their various descendants.
The Moharram observances commemorate the death of the Third Imam, Husayn, who
was the son of Ali and Fatima and the grandson of Muhammad. He was killed near
Karbala in modern Iraq in A.D. 680 during a battle with troops supporting the
Umayyad caliph. Husayn's death is commemorated by Shias with passion plays and
is an intensely religious time.
Pilgrimage to the shrines of Imams is a specific Shia custom. The most
important shrines in Iran are those for the Eighth Imam in Mashhad and for his
sister Fatima in Qom. There are also important secondary shrines for other
relatives of the Eighth Iman in Rey, adjacent to south Tehran, and in Shiraz.
In virtually all towns and in many villages there are numerous lesser shrines,
known as imamzadehs, which commemorate descendants of the imams who are
reputed to have led saintly lives. Shia pilgrims visit these sites because
they believe that the imams and their relatives have power to intercede with
God on behalf of petitioners. The shrines in Iraq at Karbala and An Najaf are
also revered by Shias.
Religious Institutions and Organizations
Historically, the single most important religious institution in Iran has
been the mosque. In towns, congregational prayers, as well as prayers and
rites associated with religious observances and important phases in the lives
of Muslims, took place in mosques. Iranian Shias before the Revolution did not
generally attach great significance to institutionalization, however, and
there was little emphasis on mosque attendance, even for the Friday
congregational prayers. Mosques were primarily an urban phenomenon, and in
most of the thousands of small villages there were no mosques. Mosques in the
larger cities began to assume more important social roles during the 1970s;
during the Revolution they played a prominent role in organizing people for
the large demonstrations that took place in 1978 and 1979. Since that time
their role has continued to expand, so that in 1987 mosques played important
political and social roles as well as religious ones.
Another religious institution of major significance was a special building
known as a hoseiniyeh. Hoseiniyehs existed in urban areas and traditionally
served as sites for recitals commemorating the martyrdom of Husayn, especially
during the month of Moharram. In the 1970s, some hoseiniyehs, such as the
Hoseiniyeh Irshad in Tehran, became politicized as prominent clerical and lay
preachers used the symbol of the deaths as martyrs of Husayn and the other
Imams as thinly veiled criticism of Mohammad Reza Shah's regime, thus helping
to lay the groundwork for the Revolution in 1979.
Institutions providing religious education include madrasehs and maktabs.
Madrasehs, or seminaries, historically have been important for advanced
training in Shia theology and jurisprudence. Madrasehs are generally
associated with noted Shia scholars who have attained the rank of ayatollah.
There are also some older madrasehs, established initially through endowments,
at which several scholars may teach. Students, known as talabehs, live on the
grounds of the madrasehs and are provided stipends for the duration of their
studies, usually a minimum of seven years, during which they prepare for the
examinations that qualify a seminary student to be a low-level preacher, or
mullah. At the time of the Revolution, there were slightly more than 11,000
talabehs in Iran; approximately 60 percent of these were studying at the
madrasehs in the city of Qom, another 25 percent were enrolled in the
important madrasehs of Mashhad and Esfahan, and the rest were at madrasehs in
Tabriz, Yazd, Shiraz, Tehran, Zanjan, and other cities.
Maktabs, primary schools run by the clergy, were the only educational
institutions prior to the end of the nineteenth century when the first secular
schools were established. Maktabs declined in numbers and importance as the
government developed a national public school system beginning in the 1930s.
Nevertheless, maktabs continued to exist as private religious schools right up
to the Revolution. Since 1979 the public education system has been
desecularized and the maktabs and their essentially religious curricula merged
with government schools (see Education, this ch.).
Another major religious institution in Iran is the shrine. There are more
than 1,100 shrines that vary from crumbling sites associated with local saints
to the imposing shrines of Imam Reza and his sister Fatima in Mashhad and Qom,
respectively. These more famous shrines are huge complexes that include the
mausoleums of the venerated Eighth Imam and his sister, tombs of former shahs,
mosques, madrasehs, and libraries. Imam Reza's shrine is the largest and is
considered to be the holiest. In addition to the usual shrine accoutrements,
Imam Reza's shrine contains hospitals, dispensaries, a museum, and several
mosques located in a series of courtyards surrounding his tomb. Most of the
present shrine dates from the early fourteenth century, except for the dome,
which was rebuilt after being damaged in an earthquake in 1673. The shrine's
endowments and gifts are the largest of all religious institutions in the
country. Traditionally, free meals for as many as 1,000 people per day are
provided at the shrine. Although there are no special times for visiting this
or other shrines, it is customary for pilgrimage traffic to be heaviest during
Shia holy periods. It has been estimated that more than 3 million pilgrims
visit the shrine annually.
Visitors to Imam Reza's shrine represent all socioeconomic levels. Whereas
piety is a motivation for many, others come to seek the spiritual grace or
general good fortune that a visit to the shrine is believed to ensure.
Commonly a pilgrimage is undertaken to petition Imam Reza to act as an
intermediary between the pilgrim and God. Since the nineteenth century, it has
been customary among the bazaar class and members of the lower classes to
recognize those who have made a pilgrimage to Mashhad by prefixing their names
with the title mashti.
The next most important shrine is that of Imam Reza's sister, Fatima,
known as Hazarat-e Masumeh (the Pure Saint). The present shrine dates from the
early sixteenth century, although some later additions, including the gilded
tiles, were affixed in the early nineteenth century. Other important shrines
are those of Shah Abdol Azim, a relative of Imam Reza, who is entombed at Rey,
near Tehran, and Shah Cheragh, a brother of Imam Reza, who is buried in
Shiraz. A leading shrine honoring a person not belonging to the family of
Imams is that of the Sufi master Sayyid Nimatollah Vali near Kerman. Shias
make pilgrimages to these shrines and the hundreds of local imamzadehs to
petition the saints to grant them special favors or to help them through a
period of troubles.
Because Shias believe that the holy Imams can intercede for the dead as
well as for the living, cemeteries traditionally have been located adjacent to
the most important shrines in both Iran and Iraq. Corpses were transported
overland for burial in Karbala in southern Iraq until the practice was
prohibited in the 1930s. Corpses are still shipped to Mashhad and Qom for
burial in the shrine cemeteries of these cities.
The constant movement of pilgrims from all over Iran to Mashhad and Qom
has helped bind together a linguistically heterogeneous population. Pilgrims
serve as major sources of information about conditions in different parts of
the country and thus help to mitigate the parochialism of the regions.
A traditional source of financial support for all religious institutions
has been the vaqf, a religious endowment by which land and other
income-producing property is given in perpetuity for the maintenance of a
shrine, mosque, madraseh, or charitable institution such as a hospital,
library, or orphanage. A mutavalli administers a vaqf in accordance with the
stipulations in the donor's bequest. In many vaqfs the position of mutavalli
is hereditary. Under the Pahlavis, the government attempted to exercise
control over the administration of vaqfs, especially those of the larger
shrines. This was a source of conflict with the clergy, who perceived the
government's efforts as lessening their influence and authority in traditional
The government's interference with the administration of vaqfs led to a
sharp decline in the number of vaqf bequests. Instead, wealthy and pious Shias
chose to give financial contributions directly to the leading ayatollahs in
the form of zakat, or obligatory alms. The clergy in turn used the funds to
administer their madrasehs and to institute various educational and charitable
programs, which indirectly provided them with more influence in society. The
access of the clergy to a steady and independent source of funding was an
important factor in their ability to resist state controls and ultimately
helped them direct the opposition to the shah.
From the time that Twelver Shia Islam emerged as a distinct religious
denomination in the early ninth century, its clergy, or ulama, have played a
prominent role in the development of its scholarly and legal tradition;
however, the development of a distinct hierarchy among the Shia clergy dates
back only to the early nineteenth century. Since that time the highest
religious authority has been vested in the mujtahids, scholars who by virtue
of their erudition in the science of religion (the Quran, the traditions of
Muhammad and the imams, jurisprudence, and theology) and their attested
ability to decide points of religious conduct, act as leaders of their
community in matters concerning the particulars of religious duties. Lay Shias
and lesser members of the clergy who lack such proficiency are expected to
follow mujtahids in all matters pertaining to religion, but each believer is
free to follow any mujtahid he chooses. Since the mid-nineteenth century it
has been common for several mujtahids concurrently to attain prominence and to
attract large followings. During the twentieth century, such mujtahids have
been accorded the title of ayatollah. Occasionally an ayatollah achieves
almost universal authority among Shias and is given the title of ayatollah ol
ozma, or grand ayatollah. Such authority was attained by as many as seven
mujtahids simultaneously, including Ayatollah Khomeini, in the late 1970s.
To become a mujtahid, it is necessary to complete a rigorous and lengthy
course of religious studies in one of the prestigious madrasehs of Qom or
Mashhad in Iran or An Najaf in Iraq and to receive an authorization from a
qualified mujtahid. Of equal importance is either the explicit or the tacit
recognition of a cleric as a mujtahid by laymen and scholars in the Shia
community. There is no set time for studying a particular subject, but serious
preparation to become a mujtahid normally requires fifteen years to master the
religious subjects deemed essential. It is uncommon for any student to attain
the status of mujtahid before the age of thirty; more commonly students are
between forty and fifty years old when they achieve this distinction.
Most seminary students do not complete the full curriculum of studies to
become mujtahids. Those who leave the madrasehs after completing the primary
level can serve as prayer leaders, village mullahs, local shrine
administrators, and other religious functionaries. Those who leave after
completing the second level become preachers in town and city mosques.
Students in the third level of study are those preparing to become mujtahids.
The advanced students at this level are generally accorded the title of
hojjatoleslam when they have completed all their studies.
The Shia clergy in Iran wear a white turban and an aba, a loose,
sleeveless brown cloak, open in front. A sayyid, who is a clergyman descended
from Muhammad, wears a black turban and a black aba.
Unorthodox Shia Religious Movements
Shah Ismail, the founder of the Safavid dynasty, who established Twelver
Shia Islam as the official religion of Iran at the beginning of the sixteenth
century, was revered by his followers as a Sufi master. Sufism, or Islamic
mysticism, has a long tradition in Iran. It developed there and in other areas
of the Islamic empire during the ninth century among Muslims who believed that
worldly pleasures distracted from true concern with the salvation of the soul.
Sufis generally renounced materialism, which they believed supported and
perpetuated political tyranny. Their name is derived from the Arabic word for
wool, suf, and was applied to the early Sufis because of their habit of
wearing rough wool next to their skin as a symbol of their asceticism. Over
time a great variety of Sufi brotherhoods was formed, including several that
were militaristic, such as the Safavid order, of which Ismail was the leader.
Although Sufis were associated with the early spread of Shia ideas in the
country, once the Shia clergy had consolidated their authority over religion
by the early seventeenth century, they tended to regard Sufis as deviant. At
various periods during the past three centuries some Shia clergy have
encouraged persecution of Sufis, but Sufi orders have continued to exist in
Iran. During the Pahlavi period, some Sufi brotherhoods were revitalized. Some
members of the secularized middle class were especially attracted to them, but
the orders appear to have had little following among the lower classes. The
largest Sufi order was the Nimatollahi, which had khanehgahs, or teaching
centers, in several cities and even established new centers in foreign
countries. Other important orders were the Dhahabi and Kharksar brotherhoods.
Sufi brotherhoods such as the Naqshbandi and the Qadiri also existed among
Sunni Muslims in Kordestan. There is no evidence of persecution of Sufis under
the Republic, but the brotherhoods are regarded suspiciously and generally
have kept a low profile.
Iran also contains Shia sects that many of the Twelver Shia clergy regard
as heretical. One of these is the Ismaili, a sect that has several thousand
adherents living primarily in northeastern Iran. The Ismailis, of whom there
were once several different sects, trace their origins to the son of Ismail
who predeceased his father, the Sixth Imam. The Ismailis were very numerous
and active in Iran from the eleventh to the thirteenth century; they are known
in history as the "Assassins" because of their practice of killing political
opponents. The Mongols destroyed their center at Alamut in the Alborz
Mountains in 1256. Subsequently, their living imams went into hiding from
non-Ismailis. In the nineteenth century, their leader emerged in public as the
Agha Khan and fled to British-controlled India, where he supervised the
revitalization of the sect. The majority of the several million Ismailis in
the 1980s live outside Iran.
Another Shia sect is the Ahl-e Haqq. Its adherents are concentrated in
Lorestan, but small communities also are found in Kordestan and Mazandaran.
The origins of the Ahl-e Haqq are believed to lie in one of the medieval
politicized Sufi orders. The group has been persecuted sporadically by
orthodox Shias. After the Revolution, some of the sect's leaders were
imprisoned on the ground of religious deviance.
Sunni Muslims constitute approximately 8 percent of the Iranian
population. A majority of Kurds, virtually all Baluchis and Turkomans, and a
minority of Arabs are Sunnis, as are small communities of Persians in southern
Iran and Khorasan. The main difference between Sunnis and Shias is that the
former do not accept the doctrine of the Imamate. Generally speaking, Iranian
Shias are inclined to recognize Sunnis as fellow Muslims, but as those whose
religion is incomplete. Shia clergy tend to view missionary work among Sunnis
to convert them to true Islam as a worthwhile religious endeavor. Since the
Sunnis generally live in the border regions of the country, there has been no
occasion for Shia-Sunni conflict in most of Iran. In those towns with mixed
populations in West Azarbaijan, the Persian Gulf region, and Baluchestan va
Sistan, tensions between Shias and Sunnis existed both before and after the
Revolution. Religious tensions have been highest during major Shia
observances, especially Moharram.
The largest non-Muslim minority in Iran is the Bahais. There were an
estimated 350,000 Bahais in Iran in 1986 (see table 4, Appendix). The Bahais
are scattered in small communities throughout Iran with a heavy concentration
in Tehran. Most Bahais are urban, but there are some Bahai villages,
especially in Fars and Mazandaran. The majority of Bahais are Persians, but
there is a significant minority of Azarbaijani Bahais, and there are even a
few among the Kurds.
Bahaism is a religion that originated in Iran during the 1840s as a
reformist movement within Shia Islam. Initially it attracted a wide following
among Shia clergy and others dissatisfied with society. The political and
religious authorities joined to suppress the movement, and since that time the
hostility of the Shia clergy to Bahaism has remained intense. In the latter
half of the nineteenth century, the Bahai leader fled to Ottoman
Palestine--roughly present-day Israel--where he and his successors continued
to elaborate Bahai doctrines by incorporating beliefs from other world
religions. By the early twentieth century, Bahaism had evolved into a new
religion that stressed the brotherhood of all peoples, equality of the sexes,
The Shia clergy, as well as many Iranians, have continued to regard Bahais
as heretics from Islam. Consequently, Bahais have encountered much prejudice
and have sometimes been the objects of persecution. The situation of the
Bahais improved under the Pahlavi shahs when the government actively sought to
secularize public life. Bahais were permitted to hold government posts
(despite a constitutional prohibition) and allowed to open their own schools,
and many were successful in business and the professions. Their position was
drastically altered after 1979. The Islamic Republic did not recognize the
Bahais as a religious minority, and the sect has been officially persecuted.
More than 700 of their religious leaders were arrested, and several of them
were executed for apostasy; their schools were closed; their communal property
was confiscated; they were prohibited from holding any government employment;
and they were not issued identity cards. In addition, security forces failed
to protect Bahais and their property from attacks by mobs.
Iran's indigenous Christians include an estimated 250,000 Armenians, some
32,000 Assyrians, and a small number of Roman Catholic, Anglican, and
Protestant Iranians converted by missionaries in the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries. The Armenians are predominantly urban and are concentrated in
Tehran and Esfahan; smaller communities exist in Tabriz, Arak, and other
cities. A majority of the Assyrians are also urban, although there are still
several Assyrian villages in the Lake Urmia region. Armenians and Assyrians
were recognized as official religious minorities under the 1906 constitution.
Although Armenians and Assyrians have encountered individual prejudice, they
have not been subjected to persecution. During the twentieth century,
Christians in general have participated in the economic and social life of
Tehran. The Armenians, especially, achieved a relatively high standard of
living and maintained a large number of parochial primary and secondary
The new, republican Constitution of 1979 also recognized the Armenians and
Assyrians as official religious minorities (see Constitutional Framework, ch.
4). They are entitled to elect their own representatives to the Majlis and are
permitted to follow their own religious laws in matters of marriage, divorce,
and inheritance. Other Christians have not received any special recognition,
and there have been a number of incidents of persecution of Iranian Anglicans.
All Christians are required to observe the new laws relating to attire,
prohibition of alcohol, and segregation by sex at public gatherings.
Christians have resented these laws because they have infringed on their
traditional religious practices. In addition, the administration of the
Armenian schools has been a source of tension between Christians and the
government. The Ministry of Education has insisted that the principals of such
schools be Muslims, that all religion courses be taught in Persian, that any
Armenian literature classes have government approval, and that all female
students observe hejab inside the schools.
In 1986 there were an estimated 50,000 Jews in Iran, a decline from about
85,000 in 1978. The Iranian Jewish community is one of the oldest in the
world, being descended from Jews who remained in the region following the
Babylonian captivity, when the Achaemenid rulers of the first Iranian empire
permitted Jews to return to Jerusalem. Over the centuries the Jews of Iran
became physically, culturally, and linguistically indistinguishable from the
non-Jewish population. The overwhelming majority of Jews speak Persian as
their mother language, and a tiny minority, Kurdish. The Jews are
predominantly urban and by the 1970s were concentrated in Tehran, with smaller
communities in other cities, such as Shiraz, Esfahan, Hamadan, and Kashan.
Until the twentieth century the Jews were confined to their own quarters
in the towns. In general the Jews were an impoverished minority,
occupationally restricted to small-scale trading, moneylending, and working
with precious metals. Since the 1920s, Jews have had greater opportunities for
economic and social mobility. They have received assistance from a number of
international Jewish organizations, including the American Joint Distribution
Committee, which introduced electricity, piped water, and modern sanitation
into Jewish neighborhoods. The Jews have gradually gained increased importance
in the bazaars of Tehran and other cities, and after World War II some
educated Jews entered the professions, particularly pharmacy, medicine, and
The Constitution of 1979 recognized Jews as an official religious minority
and accorded them the right to elect a representative to the Majlis. Like the
Christians, the Jews have not been persecuted. Unlike the Christians, the Jews
have been viewed with suspicion by the government, probably because of the
government's intense hostility toward Israel. Iranian Jews generally have many
relatives in Israel--some 45,000 Iranian Jews emigrated from Iran to Israel
between 1948 and 1977--with whom they are in regular contact. Since 1979 the
government has cited mail and telephone communications as evidence of "spying"
in the arrest, detention, and even execution of a few prominent Jews. Although
these individual cases have not affected the status of the community as a
whole, they have contributed to a pervasive feeling of insecurity among Jews
regarding their future in Iran and have helped to precipitate large- scale
emigration. Most Jews who have left since the Revolution have settled in the
In 1986 there were an estimated 32,000 Zoroastrians in Iran. They speak
Persian and are concentrated in Tehran, Kerman, and Yazd. Zoroastrianism
initially developed in Iran during the seventh century B.C. Later, it became
the official religion of the Sassanid Empire, which ruled over Iran for
approximately four centuries before being destroyed by the Arabs in the
seventh century A.D. After Iran's incorporation into the Islamic empire, the
majority of its population was gradually converted from Zoroastrianism to
Islam, a process that was probably completed by the tenth century.
During the Qajar era there was considerable prejudice against
Zoroastrians. In the mid-nineteenth century, several thousand Zoroastrians
emigrated from Iran to British-ruled India to improve their economic and
social status. Many eventually acquired wealth in India and subsequently
expended part of their fortunes on upgrading conditions in the Zoroastrian
communities of Iran. The emphasis placed on Iran's pre-Islamic heritage by
the Pahlavis also helped Zoroastrians to achieve a more respected position in
society. Many of them migrated from Kerman and Yazd to Tehran, where they
accumulated significant wealth as merchants and in real estate. By the 1970s,
younger Zoroastrians were entering the professions.
Like the Christians and Jews, the Zoroastrians are recognized as an
official religious minority under the Constitution of 1979. They are permitted
to elect one representative to the Majlis and, like the other legally accepted
minorities, may seek employment in the government. They generally enjoy the
same civil liberties as Muslims. Although Zoroastrians probably have
encountered individual instances of prejudice, they have not been persecuted
because of their religious beliefs.