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Peter Heine {*}

A Distinctive Self-confidence

Religion and National Identity in Iran


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 10/2007, P. 511-515
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    From the outset Iran had in the Islamic world a privileged position that was even strengthened by the introduction of Schi´ism as state religion in the 16th century. Until today there is a close connection between the confession to the Schia and the national identity, which not least becomes apparent in an Iranian feeling of superiority.


In the concert of the Islamic cultures Iran always plaid a special role. The early Arabs knew it best of all states they faced. Iran was the first state breaking down under the attack of the Muslim armies. But as already often before and later in the history of mankind this defeat did not mean the end of Iran's culture, identity and existence as political entity.

The pre-Islamic Iranian culture was of different, in the technical, organizational and intellectual area superior kind compared with the early Islamic Arab culture, which was in tune with nature and moulded by tribal structures and had without doubt got a new dynamic quality by the origin of Islam. Admittedly within a few decades by a tremendously fast spread the Muslim armies could bring under their control wide regions of the southern and western Mediterranean area, Iran, central Asia, even parts of the Indian subcontinent.



But Muslims remained in densely populated Syria or Egypt also for centuries a minority, like in the wide plains between Euphrates and Oxus and beyond that. A compulsory conversion to Islam was unrealistic and also not at all in the interest of the Muslim rulers. Jews and Christians but also the Iranian Zoroastrians, who are called Mâjûs, magicians in the Koran, were declared "People of the Book", i.e. members of revelation religions by the Koran and placed under the protection of the Islamic state. For this protection the "denizens" had to pay a special tax, on which the Islamic state had to rely.


Islam at first saw itself as religion of the Arabs

That is why just in the first 150 years there were time and again tendencies to make the conversion to Islam for Jews, Christians or Zoroastrians more difficult. The organization and administration of such a large empire, as it was the state of the "rightly guided" caliphs since Omar (634-644), could not successfully be practiced by the forms of political decision making used in the tribal system of the Arab peninsula. The pragmatists among the early Muslim leaders had soon understood that. Hence they at first retained to a large extent the existing administrative structures.

In Egypt or Syria the regulations and structures, which for centuries had been used more or less successfully by the Byzantine state, remained in force. In Mesopotamia and Iran the structures of the Sassanidian Empire continued to exist. The administrative staff too remained the same. Because of the missing administrative competence and the small number of available personnel the Arabs would not have been able to take over the necessary functions and tasks in the administration. Beyond that many of them also had a certain dislike for the work of a "writer". They rather liked the free life of the knight who passed through the deserts of Syria or Iran.

The prevention or at least the aggravation of the conversion to Islam had not only administrative-fiscal motives. There was also a reason that arose from the social structure of early Islam. It saw itself, despite of undoubtedly existing tendencies to universalism at first still as a religion of the Arabs. Hence by taking on Islam one became in some way also Arab. But the Arabs of the Arab peninsula were organized in large tribal structures, in tribes the organisational structures of which went back to pre-Islamic times and had also not changed by the arrival of Islam.

Hence in case a Syrian Christian, a Mesopotamian Jew or an Iranian Zoroastrian decided to convert to Islam he lost the support of his original religious community, on which he however depended in the perils of everyday life. The protection of the religious community in legal or business arguments, in illness, in looking for a wife, or in the provision for one's old age was lost when one left this community.

With the conversion to Islam it were the Muslims, i.e. in the early period almost exclusively Arabs, who had to guarantee this basic safeguard of the vital needs. But the tribal structure of the Arab tribes knew only the belonging to the tribe by birth. That is why one could only be member of a tribe if one had a father from this tribe. There was however the possibility for individuals to join a tribe as a client (Maulâ, plural: Mawâlî).

That had happened time and again in the course of the pre-Islamic history. But these clients were not admitted to the tribe as equal members. They got the protection of the community in case of attacks by strangers, also a social basic safeguard was given; but a marriage into the tribe was not possible, even if the Maulâ had proven to be courageous, battle-tried, eloquent or economically potent. He remained a second-class member. Not least because of the missing marriage possibility with a woman of the tribe also descendants of the client remained in a less respected position.


Many Important Scholars had an Iranian Background

The same had now to apply to people who joined Islam and so were by way of the social practice taken up into a tribe, by joining as new believers not only the religion but as client also concretely the member of a certain tribe. For the first generation of converts this situation was obviously hardly a special problem, since as neo-Muslims they acknowledged the Muslims who belonged by birth to Islam or who had even been admitted to Islam by the Prophet Muhammad himself as religious authorities. Often their knowledge of Islam and Arabic, the language of the Koran, was also not yet so far developed that they could independently cope with the new religion.



Hence they had to rely on their older Muslim "Lords". But this situation changed in the second and the later generations of Muslim clients. In the following generations of clients there were often particularly talented or ambitious men who distinguished themselves above all in the literary and religious sphere. Some of the most important scholars and writers of the Islamic Middle Ages came from Mawâlî families. To them belonged the first Arab universal historian and important commentator of the Koran, al-Tabarî ( 923) who came from the Iranian Tabaristan, or the important expert in Arab grammar Sibuwaih ( 793), whose name means in Persian "small apple", and numerous further scholars, astronomers, medical men or philosophers. They all had an Iranian background.

The cause for this strength of the Iranian moment is connected with the shift of the political centre of the Islamic empire from Damascus to Baghdad, when in the year 750 the dynasty of the Abbasids took over the rule from the Omayyads. It had been Iranian supporters who had helped the Abbasids to be successful against the Omayyads. That is why it now came to a slow but constant equalization of the Mawâlî with the Arabs, whose importance and influence within the political and scientific area was finally outstripped by the Iranian neo-Muslims.

The new dynasty developed within the administrative area as well as in the court protocol new forms according to the model of the pre-Islamic Iranian ruling dynasties. A large part of the civil servants of the new empire had an Iranian origin. Modern Arab critics of this development talk of an Iranization of the Arab empire. That is of course too sharply formulated. But what happened by the acknowledgment of the Mawâlî as adequate Muslims was the transformation of Islam from an Arab religion to one with a global claim.

The large military movements in the east of Iran with the emerging of Turk peoples and Mongols moving to the west let the Iranian moment in Islam for some time recede into the background. That changed suddenly in the year 1501, when the first ruler of the Safawid dynasty in Iran, Shah Ismail, made the Twelver Shiite form of Islam the state religion in his empire. With it this minority in Islam had a "homestead".

Iran became the Shiite state absolute, although also in Mesopotamia, in South-Lebanon, North-India and elsewhere Shiite communities lived. Persian became now the most important literary language of the Shiites, although Arab further remained the holy language of the Koran. The Schia gave the Iranians the possibility to document their national identity in religious form. Politically, but above all theologically and intellectually Iran now dissociated itself more and more from the developments in the Sunni majority Islam.



A neo-Persian literature of its own developed, which referred with works like those of the Shah Nameh des Firdusi ( about 1020) also to Iran's pre-Islamic past. Above all in the temporary capital Isfahan a lively intellectual life developed, which in philosophy and theology laid a new foundation for the further development of the Shiite Islam also beyond Islam. It was also and above all the Shiite clergy that represented the crucial factor in the clash of the Iranian state with the European colonial powers, above all tsarist Russia and Great Britain.

In this confrontation national and religious motives got together and joined forces against the foreign attacks. Apart from the Russian-British antagonism there were the Iranian religious scholars who at the end of the 19th century took care that Iran could keep its sovereignty in accordance with international law, although it had to let the tsardom have parts of its state territory. But there arose common interests of religion and nation also in inner-Islamic arguments.


The Shiite Clergy as Crucial Factor

Iran's main opponent was the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan of which saw himself particularly in the second half of the 19th century as the protector of the Sunni Muslims in the world. One of the regions where time and again conflicts between Iran and the Ottoman Empire came about was Mesopotamia where some of the most important shrines of the Shiite Islam are. In the "Holy Thresholds", i.e. the cities Kerbela, Jajaf, Kazimiyy and Samarra, also the most important centres of Shiite erudition had become established, which did not remain without influence on the political developments in Iran.

Between them and Iran also a regular and lively exchange of persons took place. The Iranian consul in Baghdad was an important political figure. Very much to the annoyance of Arab nationalists in many schools in Mesopotamia instruction took place according to Iranian curricula and teaching methods. Until today the country has remained not only for strategic and economic but just for religious reasons a region of special interest.

Both the national and the religious moment were throughout the whole 20th century the determining factors of the Iranian domestic and foreign politics. There were of course controversies about the question of the nation. Under the regime of the two Pahlavi rulers Reza Khan and Muhammad Reza the national moment was of crucial importance. Since the religion was regarded as danger for the political stability of the Pahlavi dynasty, particularly under Muhammad Reza the regime developed the concept of a return to Iran's pre-Islamic culture and history, which in 1971 found its culmination with the 2500th anniversary in Persepolis. Iran's pre-Islamic inheritance was since the sixties everywhere in Iran placed into the foreground of Iranian history and did not remain without influence on the cultural conception of themselves of the Iranian population.

It is true though also an opposite position had soon developed that categorically rejected this reference to the time before Islam. It was formulated by the religious opposition against the Pahlavi regime. One of the most influential Islamic philosophers before the Islamic Revolution of 1979/1980 was the sociologist Ali Schariati ( 1977). In one of his speeches he expressed his opinion on the question of Iran's pre-Islamic history and its meaning for the religious and national identity of the Iranians.

In doing so he said: "When we talk about the return to our own roots we actually mean the return to the cultural roots of our own. Perhaps many a man comes to the conclusion we Iranians had to return to our racial roots. I reject this conclusion categorically. I am against racism, fascism and reaction. Like shears the Islamic culture has cut us completely off our pre-Islamic past. Experts as for example on archaeology or early history certainly know a lot about Sassanids, Achämenids and even earlier cultures, but the people does not know anything of those things. The people does not find its roots in those cultures. The people has no memory of its early past and does not want to learn something about the pre-Islamic cultures. Return to our roots means therefore not rediscovery of the pre-Islamic Iran, but the return to our Iranian - i.e. our Shiite - roots."

Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution in Iran ( 1990) said on occasion of the 2500th anniversary in Persepolis: "The existence of kings in the history of the peoples is depressing and infamous. Their existence must give cause for mourning ceremonies and not for celebrations. The non-participation in this celebration is a religious-legal obligation. Islam is in principle in sharp conflict with the principles of monarchy. Everyone who has studied the biography of the Prophet Muhammad regarding the founding of a state sees clearly that Islam set out to destroy the palaces of the tyrannical monarchy, and that monarchy belongs in Islam's opinion to the most disgusting phenomena of reaction and backwardness."



Hence for the representatives of the Islamic Revolution in Iran the Shiite Islam was quite sufficient as characteristic of the national identity. But also in Iranian circles facing rather critically the Islamic regime in Teheran Iran's pre-Islamic culture is not seen as fundamentally causing identity. Here one likes to refer to the numerous figures of the Islamic history of ideas coming from the area of today's Iran. It's no accident that one here above all points to the scholars who have just not become known as theologians. Main figures of that tradition are physicians and philosophers such as Avicenna (Ibn Sina) or universal scholars such as al-Biruni, whose mental achievements exerted a considerable influence far beyond Iran.

The relation of regime-far Iranian elites as well as prominent religious circles to the neighbouring states, particularly to Turkey and the Arab states is characterized by a clear feeling of superiority. It becomes on the one hand apparent in derogatory names and phrases, when Arabs are called "grasshopper eaters" or about Turks is said that their reason begins only to work in the second half of the day. In discussions the members of the secular elite like to point out that Iran had already opened to modern western conceptions long before the Arabs.

Already at the time of the French Revolution Iranians had given serious thought to the ideals of reason, liberty, equality and fraternity. Already at the end of the 19th century a successful constitutional movement had existed, Iranian reformers had at that time formulated extensive concepts for a modernization of state and society and debated in magazines of their own. The representatives of the religious elites point out that it had been Iranian scholars who through centuries set the tone in the Shiite centres of erudition lying on Arab soil and initiated the most important debates.

Indeed, all those statements are founded on corresponding facts of the history of ideas and culture. In the present crisis of the Marja´iyya, i.e. the vacancy of the position of a highest religious authority in the Shiite Islam, various possible candidates are at present discussed by many Shiites. When one talks with Iranian believers or secular Iranians about that topic, both groups of interlocutors point out, that only scholars of Iranian origin are possible for this outstanding and politically influential position. With regard to it is of no importance that these men perhaps have already lived for more than half a century outside Iran. The question of national belonging is more important than the theological or ideological attitudes of the candidates.

Hence Iran has in the Iranians' conception of themselves rightfully a special role in the round dance of the Islamic states. Iranians, whether they are living in their country or in exile, see themselves as cultural and intellectual elite compared with other Islamic nations. Also for not practicing Iranian Shiites the Shiite Islam is a cultural characteristic that constitutes their identity.


    {*} Peter Heine (born in 1944), Dr. phil., in 1978 habilitation for the subject Islam science; since 1994 professor for Islam science of the non-Arab area at the Berlin Humboldt University; numerous publications, last "Schauplatz Irak. Hintergründe eines Weltkonflikts", Freiburg 2002; "Islam zur Einführung", Hamburg 2003.


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