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Book Chapter: The Unending Battle between the Persian and Islamic Identities of Iran

Two great forces have shaped the Iranian/Persian world[i] during the last 1400 years - Islamic and Persian culture. Neither force can be understood in the Western sense of territorial nationalism. Both are, in essence, ethno-cultural loyalties and, until the twentieth century, had little connection with the territorial concept of Iran and its 2500-year-old monarchy. Since the majority of the population converted to Islam more than one thousand years ago, the prime identity of most Iranians has been Islamic. Non-Muslims have been regarded as outsiders and therefore excluded from active political and social roles in the affairs of the country.

Simultaneously, Persian culture, the culture of the settled population - most of whom resided in Iran’s central plateau – has had a great impact on both Iranian Islam and the non-Persian ethnic groups living in the country. Most of these non-Persian ethnic groups lived in the area surrounding the central plateau. Many were Turkic nomads who constantly invaded the Iranian central plateau from the northern steppe area.

Historically, the goal of the ruling class was to try to settle these nomadic tribes and “Persianify” them. Persian culture was regarded as superior, and attempts were made to suppress and eradicate other “inferior cultures” - meaning, non-Persian cultures.[ii] Various regimes encountered great opposition to this policy, especially in areas which were almost completely non-Persian speaking, such as Turkish Azerbaijan and Kurdistan.

Ethnically and religiously, Iran is a mixture of many peoples who, during the course of history, migrated to the Iranian plateau. Although the deposed Shah’s government claimed that the majority of the people of Iran was ethnically Persian, no reliable statistics exist which prove this claim to be true. For example, statistically speaking, Tehran was counted as ethnically Persian but, in reality, a large part of the city's population is Azerbaijani Turkish, some of whom know little if any Persian. When asked about this situation, government officials and some Iranian intellectuals would answer that there were no Turks in Iran - only Turkish-speaking Iranians, or Turkish-speaking Persians, who were forcibly linguistically “turkified” over the centuries.

At the same time, another force, Islam, played a major role in Iran. Islam and Persian culture managed to coexist in an uneasy framework, where supporters from both of these forces did their best to impose their will on supporters of the other. This uneasy coexistence has been the source of many upheavals in Iran, since the Islamic conquest of the Persian Empire more than 1400 years ago. By the time of the Islamic conquests, the proud and glorious Iranian Empire had already existed for 1,100 years, when, at that time, it was defeated and overtaken by the Arab Muslim nomads storming out of the Arabian desert. Iran, a great civilization, viewed these nomads with contempt, and simply could not accept the fact that these primitive nomads could defeat their illustrious civilization.

How did this proud and ancient culture come to grips with this its defeat by these Muslim Arabs? In fact, Iran has been wrestling with this problem for more than 1,400 years, and has still not managed to resolve it. Since that time, there has been a massive cultural battle between Iranian culture and Islam for control and for the soul of Iran. At times, Iranian culture seemed to have the upper hand. At other times, Islam prevailed. This battle between these two cultures is like mixing oil and water - in the end, they simply cannot mix with each other. The main goal of this chapter is to describe this battle, and demonstrate that the unending conflict between these two cultures has not, and probably cannot ever, be resolved.

In the biblical Book of Esther, Persia - also known as Iran - is described as a great empire in which 127 nations lived. It extended from today’s Ethiopia to India. We do not know exactly when the story described took place, nor for that matter if the events described are even true. But from the story, we can deduce that Persia was already a great empire long before the Arabs appeared on the world stage. A myriad of ancient Persian sources describe that empire and its culture and civilization. From what these sources indicate, ancient Persia was a proud, confident and highly developed urban civilization. Ancient Greek sources also inform us about the numerous clashes between the Hellenic peoples and Persia.

It is in this context that we must understand the impact of the Arab Muslim defeat of Iran, which occurred approximately 1,100 years after the Persians established their first empire. In 636 CE at Qādisiyya, in today's southern Iraq, the Arab desert nomads emanating from Arabia defeated the Persian Empire. These desert nomads brought with them a new religion, Islam, which would in time supplant Zoroastrianism, Iran's ancient religion. How could these desert nomads defeat the mighty Persian Empire? One of the reasons is that in the approximately 20 years beforehand, the Persian and Byzantine Empires had been engaged in exhaustive battles, which weakened them to the point that it was relatively easy for Arabs to defeat Persia.

That victory at Qādisiyya[iii] shook the Persian culture and confidence to their very foundations. How could this Arab inferior nomadic culture – from a Persian perspective - defeat the glorious and highly sophisticated Persians?[iv] The Persians simply could not fathom this idea. Until today, more than 1400 years later, the Persians still have not come to grips with this cultural and political defeat, which altered their lives and culture forever. That battle between Islam and Iran, between Persian culture and Arab Islam, still rages in the hearts and minds of Iranians/Persians everywhere. In today's modern Iranian culture, both play particular roles, but they live together in an uneasy existence. The bottom line is that, no matter how hard they try, the Iranians do not seem to be able to devise a strategy on how these two forces - Iran and Islam - can peacefully co-exist. Since the Sassanid Empire was defeated, Iranian history has never been able to square this circle.

How did the Persians deal with the onslaught of Arabic culture and language? Why did they not succumb to the Arabic culture, like their neighbors to the West?

How did this ancient empire, with a long and highly developed culture, deal with the Arab conquests? Very few sources are available to inform us about the first 300 years of Arab/Islamic rule in Iran. But, from what we can surmise, Persian culture seems to have gone underground, but, unlike what happened in the west – i.e., on the territory which today constitutes today's Arab world - Persian culture found ways to survive. Within 100 years of the Arab conquests, the territory of today's Arab world underwent a process of “Islamification” and “Arabization.” There, the local cultures which the Arabs conquered rather quickly submitted both to Arab rule and Islam, and mostly abandoned their pre-Islamic and pre-Arabic languages and cultures.

What explains the resilience of Persian culture, as opposed to those groups that submitted? To begin with, Persia/Iran had a confident culture which ruled many other peoples. The countries that today constitute the Arab world, on the other hand, were used to being conquered, and have adapted throughout history to the will of their conquerors. Iran, on the other hand, was a conquering nation, and had had by then a long tradition of ruling over others. To be sure, Iran's borders expanded and contracted, but the core of the Persian Empire stayed the same for approximately 1,100 years. It had lost battles, but it had been conquered only once – by Alexander the Great.

Like many other empires throughout history, it had difficulty accepting defeat. It retreated into itself, but never gave up its basic cultural awareness. During the early years of Islam, individual Persians tried to adapt to the new Arab-Islamic reality. According to Islam, all Muslims are supposed to be brothers and equal. In reality, however, Arab tribal identity was paramount among the early Muslims. That meant that non-Arabs, or people not of the more important Arab tribes, were looked down upon by the Arabs who controlled Islam.

But the desert nomadic Arabs desperately needed the skills of the settled peoples they conquered, and a system was devised by which individuals became appendages of particular Arab clans. The system, known as the Mawāli system,[v] enabled Persians to become associated or aligned with particular Arab clans and tribes, and gave them status they craved. But this also meant that these Persians have to convert to Islam, and often even adopt an Arab identity.

That system worked for individuals, it could not for an entire people. With time, other systems were developed to mitigate this problem. Probably the most important and earliest large-scale approach was to try to infiltrate Islam, and indeed, to conquer it from inside. How did they do this?

Some of the earliest and most interesting events were those surrounding the Abbasid revolution in 750 CE. For the previous 100 years, the Muslim world had been ruled from Damascus, by the Umayyads, one of the most important Arab-Muslim clans, that had originated in Mecca. From 660 CE through the mid-eighth century, Islam had expanded all the way across North Africa into Spain, and in the eastward into today's India. This was an enormous part of the then known world. The vast swath of territory was ruled from Damascus.

In 750 CE, Abu Muslim of Khorasan in today's northeastern Iran, lead a rebellion against the Umayyads, overthrew them and installed in their place a descendent of another Meccan-origin: a descendent of the Arab Muslim 'Abbas (who was their prophet Muhammad's uncle). They moved the capital of the Islamic Empire to Baghdad, a city founded in 762 CE, possibly where a city called Bagdata[vi] had been, and an area much more under the influence of Persian culture than Damascus. Even the name of that city – Baghdad - is Persian (meaning “God gave”).[vii] By watching the development of that city, which soon was to become one of the most important cities of that era, we can see the gradual overtaking of Arab culture by Persian culture. To be sure, the Arabic language and Islam reigned supreme, but one could make an excellent case that these were a facade behind which Persian culture ruled the roost.

Over time, the Persians showed the Arabs how to rule over a huge empire, using methods Persia had developed and refined for more than 1,200 years. Persian art and culture also became the rage in Baghdad. Senior bureaucrats in Baghdad wrote books on how to rule, in order to teach their Arab desert nomadic rulers.[viii] Persian art and culture then became the rage in Baghdad.

Meanwhile, the Persians tried to find other ways to bridge Persian culture and Islam; In the process, they developed highly creative methods to do so. For example, they invented a tradition that the daughter Yazdegird III, the last pre-Islamic Sassanid ruler of the Persian Empire, married the third Imam, named Hussein ibn Ali.[ix] They produced a son named Zayn al-‘Abidin, the forth Shi'ite Imam. That would mean that the descendants of this marriage would be of Iranian royal blood. I have personally been told by Iranians that this is "proof," (hujja) that Shi'ism, whose central figures are the Imams who are directly descended from Muhammad, are Iranians. That proves, many Iranians say, that Shi'ism is an Iranian religion. The only problem with this theory is that it appears to have been "discovered" many years after Iran succumbed to Islam, and has little historical evidence to support it.

Even if it is true, Islam is passed on via the father, which would mean that the son of the above-mentioned marriage, though having an Iranian mother, would still be an Arab. Moreover, according to Iranian custom, kingship is also passed down through the father. But these facts are largely overlooked because they do not fit into the Iranian/Persian narrative: namely, that because of the aforementioned marriage, the Shiite Imams are Iranians.

Another way Iranians developed in order to deal with this seemingly impossible task to come to grips with Iran’s defeat was to invent a flowery language, with all the appearances of political correctness. In Persian, that is known as ta’arof.[x] And was done in order to make the listener believe he will get exactly what he wants, even though the speaker has absolutely no intention of doing that. The Persians learned to tell their new Muslim rulers exactly what these rulers wanted to hear because it gave the Persians time to develop strategies to circumvent their rulers’ wishes. Sadly, in order to escape from the harsh reality of life, they developed another way to address this problem: the extensive use of opium.[xi]

The Persian Language and the Iranian Identity

Language was another key tool used to retain Persian culture and identity. As mentioned above, within 100 years, most of what we know today as the Arabic-speaking world abandoned their pre-Islamic languages in favor of Arabic. What happened in Iran was different. We have few sources for the earlier centuries of Iran under Islam. But we do know that the written Persian language re-emerged in Samarkand and Bokhara - two Persian cultural centers in today's Uzbekistan - and became the written language of culture and writing in that area. Written Persian also re-emerged further south in what is today's Iran. The language was preserved by the people and by the local cultural powers.

Several questions arise. First, what was so different from the Persian cultural area that they did not succumb to linguistic Arabization, like their neighbors to the West? Second, what was the nature of this new language: Islamic or post-Sassanid Persian? And third, were their attempts to purify Persian without using any Arabic words an almost impossible feat given the pervasive nature of Islam and Arabic -language base.

Persia was a strong and proud empire with an ancient and confident historical tradition. As stated above, it had ruled many peoples and had developed powerful institutions to do so. Today's Arab world, on the other hand, had, by the advent of Islam, suffered many invasions, both of political and religious in nature. This constant change weakened them culturally, and made them more susceptible to linguistic and religious imperialism. For example, though many in what is today’s Arab world were Christian, their Christianity was different from that of the Byzantine government, which constantly tried to impose Byzantine Christianity on them. Many of the Islamic religious principles were more similar to those of the Muslims than to the Byzantines who were steeped in Hellenic culture. In short, that region was nowhere as confident culturally and linguistically as the Persian Empire to the east.[xii]

The early interaction between Persians and their new Arab masters

From what little we know, during the approximately 120 years after the Arab conquest of Persia, the Persians did their best to find ways to preserve their language and culture. The Arab Muslim conquerors did their best to try and impose Arabic as the language of the Islamic Empire. For example, Ḥajjāj ibn Yūsuf was incensed that Persian was prevalent in the court, and ordered that only Arabic be used as the language of government throughout the empire.[xiii] Others, such as Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahāni[xiv] and Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī,[xv] mentioned vicious anti-Persian cultural attacks as well. Nevertheless, unlike their neighbors in what is today's Arab world, the Persians resisted and refused to accept Arabization willingly.

Persia, besides being an empire, was also a culture, which struck roots deep within the peoples it had ruled over the 1,100 years of its existence. Customs such as Nowruz, the Iranian New Year which starts on the first day of spring, and the 6-day celebrations that precede it, became so deeply embedded in the areas which Persian culture dominated that they were celebrated by the locals long after the Persians ceased to rule them. Seeing that Persian culture was so prevalent among these peoples, it stands to reason that that culture, no matter what external and powerful influences might try to overwhelm them, would survive below the surface.

That is exactly what happened in today's Iran, and in the area to Iran’s North and East. What we do know is that the post-Islamic Persian language that emerged was a new "Islamic" Persian, heavily influenced by Arabic and Islam, yet distinct from Arabic. The grammar remained almost exclusively[xvi] Persian. Yet overtime, Arabic vocabulary deeply penetrated this new version of Persian. Moreover, the Persians abandoned their pre-Islamic script Pahlavi, which was much more suited to Persian than the modified Arabic script, which the Persians used to write their new Islamic dialect of Persian.

Though the Muslim Persians used this new hybrid language, there were attempts to write this new language without using Arabic words. For example, in his magnum opus - the Shahnameh - Ferdowsi, who wrote in what we could call early modern Persian, went out of his way to use as few Arabic words as possible. This was a huge feat given the fact that this epic poem contains over 50,000 couplets. What motivated him and other writers to do this? This epic poem - as well as others written by Hafez and Sa’adi - were attempts to preserve Persia's ancient pre-Islamic history and traditions in the face of the onslaught of Arab-Islamic culture.

Later, the well-known Persian spiritual and mystical poet Hafez (1325/1326 -1389-1390 CE) and Sa'adi (1210-1291/2 CE), two of the greatest poets of the classical Iranian literary tradition, wrote odes to wine (which was strictly forbidden in Islam) as well as other non- or anti-Islamic subjects. Both tried to use as much Persian vocabulary as possible and belittled in a polite manner certain aspects of Islamic culture and the Muslim clergy. Like Ferdowsi, this was their way to denigrate the Arabs and Islam, while emphasizing the greatness of pre-Islamic Iran.

These writers, along with many others, simply refused to accept the Islamic concept of Jāhilīya - i.e., the period of ignorance (in Arabic, all pre-Islamic history), meaning that anything that existed before Islam was at best irrelevant, useless, and of no value. These writers did a fine job trying to preserve the ancient Persian culture, in spite of the Arab-Islamic attempts to obliterate it. These writers were the beginning of a long tradition of trying to prevent Persian culture from being overwhelmed by Arabic and Islamic culture, a battle which still rages to this day.

How does this linguistic battle manifest today? Under the Pahlavi dynasty (1925-1979), there was a major attempt to replace Arabic words with ancient pre-Islamic Persian words, and to invent words for modern concepts based solely on Persian roots. A few examples illustrate this point: 1. The word for kitchen - matbah - in Arabic, and long in use in Iran, was replaced by the word ashpaz-khaneh; 2. The Arabic word alan - meaning "now" - again used for many centuries in Iran, was replaced by the "pure" Persian word aknun; 3. The Arabic word tashih followed by the Persian helping verb "kardan," meaning "to tell the truth," was replaced by the Persian "dorost kardan.” Were these words, however, accepted by the masses? The answer is part of the struggle between these two cultures. When Khomeini established the Islamic Republic, he consciously tried to use Arabic words instead of the many Persian words that the late Shah and his father tried to inculcate into Persian.

Given the indirectness and formal politeness of Persian culture, it is not surprising that Iranians are ingenious at finding ways to express their opposition to their regime, in any way possible. It is therefore not surprising that one of the ways that young Iranian university students tried to protest Khomeini's re-Arabization of Persian was to study pre-Islamic Persian, called Avestan. Language, it appears, became a potent tool in the battle to keep Persian culture alive. Interestingly, Iranians today are still passionately concerned about purifying - i.e. de-Arabicizing - their language. They publish detailed lists of "pure-Persian" words to be used instead of Arabic ones.[xvii]

Religion as a tool in the battle between Persian culture and Islam

Religion itself is also a useful tool in the battle between Iran and Islam. Prior to the sixteenth century, Iran was largely Sunni with a few pockets of Shi'ism. At that time, Iran, like all of its surrounding neighbors, had been ruled by Turkish/Turkic[xviii] dynasties, almost all of whom were Sunni Hanafis. Sunni Hanafi Islam was the form of Islam which ruled the Ottoman Empire to Iran’s west, the Shaybanids to its north (the precursors of the modern Uzbeks), and the Mogul Empire to the east in India.

How could Persia, which was constantly looking for ways to separate itself from the "inferior" cultures of the Arabs and nomadic Turks, differentiate itself from its surrounding neighbors? And how could Persia attract allies specifically in the empire of its major adversary, the mighty Ottoman Empire?

An example of how Persia fought to distinguish itself from the surrounding countries was Shah Esma'il, an Azeri Turk who ruled Iran first from Tabriz, then the capital of Iranian Azerbaijan in northwestern Iran. He tackled that problem brilliantly, going on to conquer all of what is present-day Iran and surrounding areas, and founded the Safavid dynasty, which ruled Iran between 1501-1722. In order to separate Iran from the surrounding Turkic Sunni empires, he adopted Shi'ism as the state religion, thus effectively differentiating Iran from the surrounding empires.

Again, we again have few sources to explain how, but we know that within one hundred years, the Iranian plateau and its northwest were overwhelmingly Shi'ite.[xix] The Iranians developed all sorts of methods to placate their rulers, publicly showing them fidelity, but privately maintaining their core values. Could that have been the reason these people adopted Shi’ism? If so, why did the people in other areas of that empire not become Shi’ites?

In essence, Shi'ism, as it came to be understood in Iran, was perfectly suited for the post-Arabic conquest Iranian character. Iranian Shi'ism has a strong sense of persecution, by constantly invoking Ali, his sons, and their suffering – but by whom? Just as the early direct descendants of the Muslim prophet Muhammad - whom Shi’ites revere - were persecuted by the people who later were known as Sunnis, so too, the Iranians were persecuted and discriminated against by the Arabs. As a persecuted minority branch of Islam, Shi'ism developed highly elaborate and effective means of dealing with the dominant and aggressive Sunnis. It developed taqiya to a fine art. Taqiya, which appears in the Quran, means that a Muslim is able to dissimulate by telling people who might hurt him anything that will help him stay alive. That means you may lie, obfuscate, or do whatever is necessary in order to maintain your essence. Indeed, that is exactly what Iran needed to do to survive as a separate cultural entity.[xx]

Did the people of Iran initially adopt Twelver Shi'ism (Ithna-'ashariya) because their rulers demanded it? What little we do know is that the rulers dispatched preachers throughout the country, but we know little of the details. Whatever the case, Twelver Shi'ism enabled Iran to survive culturally. It is sometimes hard to know what is culturally Iranian and what is culturally Shi’ite, which is why Iranians often say that Shi'ism is an Iranian religion, at once differentiating themselves from the surrounding peoples, but at the same time, allowing them to be Muslims, but in their own unique way. In short, this constituted the Iranian attempt to blend Iran and Islam into one unique cultural entity.

Adopting Shi'ism also proved useful for finding allies abroad. For example, in eastern Anatolia, when Shah Esma'il adopted Shi'ism in 1501, most of eastern Anatolia, part of the heartland of the Ottoman Empire, was populated by people whom we today call Alevis, who religiously are much closer to Shi'ites than Sunnis.[xxi] In fact, their religion is very close to Twelver Shi'ism, which is radically different from Sunni Hanafi Islam, the religion of the Ottoman rulers. Thereafter, some Alevis migrated to Iranian Azerbaijan. But the majority remained in eastern Anatolia and instantly became a fifth column for the Ottomans, who viewed Shi'ism as an existential enemy. Because Alevi and Shi’ite Islam were so similar, it was easy for the Alevis of eastern Anatolia to ally Shah Esma'il against their Ottoman rulers. The Ottomans, who in the 1511-1513 had concentrated their troops in today's Syria, had planned to march southward and conquer Mamluk Egypt. But given the rise of Shi'ism in the east, they had no alternative other than to move their troops eastward, to defeat the existential threat of the Alevi[xxii] fifth column within the Ottoman Empire which had allied itself with Persia. This move constituted a logistical nightmare, but in 1514, the Ottomans defeated Shah Esma'il, forcing him to flee deep into Iran's heartland and move his capital from Tabriz to Esfahan.

The Persian language and culture and its influence on non-Persian Sunni neighbors and fellow-Shi’ite Arabs

Language again is a window into the heart and soul of Iran and its neighbors. Until Shah Esma'il's time, any self-respecting Ottoman - and the other great Turkic rulers to Iran's north and east - had to learn Persian, which was considered the most sophisticated language and culture of the area. In fact, most of the correspondence extant in the Ottoman Archives between the Ottomans and the Safavids in Iran shows an interesting twist. The Ottomans wrote to the Safavids in Persian, the language of culture. But the (Azeri Turkic) Safavid rulers of Iran responded in Turkish. Here was a fascinating situation in which the rulers of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire wrote in the language of Persia, while the rulers of Persia wrote to the Ottomans in their own language - Turkish.

That episode, however, also illustrates how powerful and temping Persian culture and language was throughout most of the Muslim world. Besides the Ottomans who were, at least on their paternal line, descended from nomadic Central Asian Turks, other great Muslim empires such as the Mogul Empire in India adopted Persian language and culture as their own. Thus, we can see that the Persian cultural resiliency also made its mark throughout much of the Muslim world, stretching from the Bosphorus all the way to China. This was not the case among the Sunni Arabs, where Persian, especially was not a language commonly used among the upper classes especially after Iran became Shi'ite.

Things were different, however, among the Arab Shi'ites, who no matter how much they have tried to maintain their unique identity as Arab Shi'ites, have had great difficulty in doing so. Consider, for example, the enormous Persian cultural influence in Iraq, at the Shi'ite shrines in Kadhimiyah in Baghdad, and in the Shi'ite "Vatican" (i.e., Najaf and Karbala in today’s Iraq).

Many Iranians often claim that "Shi'ism is an Iranian religion." These same Iranians look down upon their Arab and Turkish/Turkic neighbors. and have invented all sorts of epitaphs for these neighbors - especially for the Arabs - both Sunni and their fellow Shi'ite Arabs. Iranians label the Arabs Mush-Khor (i.e., rodent eaters) and Marmulak-Khor (i.e., lizard eaters). Arabs - especially the Shi'ite Arabs - resent Persian cultural imperialism and respond: “If you break open the bone of a Persian, Shi*t comes out” [in Arabic: idha tiksar ‘admu, titla’ khara]. Persians also look down on Turks calling them donkeys. (In Persian: "Tork-e Khar.")

Persian cultural superiority, in short, trumps everything. It matters more than Islam - whether Shi'ite or Sunni. Consequently, it is so strong, that whatever force gets in its way, it finds way either to co-opt those forces and incorporate them into Iranian/Persian culture, or lies in waiting, until it can find a way to merge and dominate whatever culture or country is in its way.[xxiii]

The Safavids: Blending Persian Culture and Islam

After Shah Esma’il adopted Shi’ism, he and his descendents imported Shi'ite scholars largely from Jabal 'Amil in today’s Lebanon[xxiv], to teach them Shi'ism. These scholars translated Shi’ite texts into in Persian, and then wrote other texts in Persian, so the Persian-speaking masses could have access to their material.

Until the Safavid era, the Ottoman Sunni upper class made sure that its children learned Persian, which they considered the most sophisticated language. But once Shi’ite texts were available in Persian, the Ottomans felt threatened that if they children learned Persian, they might be tempted to become Shi’ites – and this was anathema to the Sunni Muslims who ruled the Ottoman Empire. As a result, the Ottomans stopped teaching their future ruling class Persian, until these future leaders reached the age of 16, when, it was hoped, their Sunni identity was sufficiently ingrained so that they would not be influenced by Shi'ite texts. This shows how powerful and important the influence of Persian culture was on others, not living under Iranian Shi’ite domination.

It was Shi’ism, in short, had enabled Iran/Persia to separate itself from the surrounding peoples, and survive. Shi'ism and Iranian culture insolated that land from the surrounding areas, and helped maintain the Iranian/Persian identity.

Persian attempts to assimilate non-Persian peoples into Persian culture

Unrelated to Shi’ism, Persian culture, continued to have a magnetic and almost seductive effect on surrounding Sunni countries, and drew people from India, Central Asia, and today’s Chinese Xinjiang province (eastern Turkestan) into its cultural orbit.

Iran continued to dispatch emissaries, this time mostly under the guise of Shi'ism, to convert people to their newly found religion. Historically, especially during the pre-Islamic era, Persians constantly tried to “domesticate” the surrounding peoples, mostly nomads, by culturally "converting" them to into Persians.

The Persians were so successful at this that they managed to convince the Azerbaijani Turks that these Azeris were originally Persians who had been forced to speak Turkish in the early 1400s by Tamerlane, who is supposed to have cut out 400,000 tongues of people who refused to speak Turkish.[xxv] As such, these "pure" Persians speak Azeri today, though they maintain their ethnic Azeri identity.[xxvi] It is truly remarkable that the Iranian Persian culture succeeded in convincing an entire people – i.e., the Azerbaijani Turks - that their natural language was really Persian – not Azeri - without much violence whatsoever.

This was the source of endless puzzlement and disappointment by the Soviet Azerbaijanis who gained their independence in 1991. Former Soviet Azerbaijan was sure that their southern Azeri brothers who lived in Iran and who numbered more than three times the number of Azeris in independent Azerbaijan would want to join them in forming one Azeri state. But after meeting these Iranian Azeris, the former Soviet Azeris were crestfallen because most of the Iranian Azeris they met referred to themselves as Azeri Iranians – i.e., first and foremost as Iranians. The Soviet Azeris had lived under Russian rule since the end of the Russo-Iranian war in 1828. As such, they seem to have lost their "Iranianness" and thought of themselves solely as Azeris.[xxvii] Iranian culture had so overwhelmed/enveloped the Iranian Azeris that they came to believe that being Iranian was more important to their basic identity than being Azeri. With time, almost all rulers of Iran, irrespective of origin, were thoroughly persianized. Such is the power of Persian culture.

The Qajar dynasty (1785-1925 CE) was also Azeri Turkish, but after the initial rulers, few of their upper class used Turkish. It is interesting to note that many Azeris who later served in very high positions under the Pahlavi shahs were also Azeri, and strongly identified as such. But many of them barely knew any Azeri Turkish and had become thoroughly "persianized," both linguistically and culturally. But at the same time, they also strongly identified as Iranians - and not as Turks.

What does it mean to be Azeri to these "persianized" Azeri Iranians? Looking at the National Front, an Iranian opposition group under the Pahlavis, provides interesting insight. This group expressed its opposition in political terms, but was something deeper occurring? In fact, many National Front members belonged to the Qajar ruling class. They were the descendants of the Qajars - the ethnically Azeri Turkish, yet culturally Persian rulers of the previous dynasty. From this author's personal experience with National Front members, almost none knew their ancestral Azeri language. So were they no longer Azeri, even though their ancestors were? Persian language and culture are so powerful and enticing that they, along with so many other non-Persian speaking Shi'ites, were very willing to abandon their past in favor of what they viewed as a far superior Persian culture.[xxviii]

Attempts to leave Islam - Baha'ism

The ability of Iranians/Persians to adapt to change was and is still visible in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. In the 19th century, a new "religion" developed in Iran, Bahaism, which is anathema to traditional Islam because one of the classical principles of Islam is that their prophet Muhammad was the "Seal of the Prophets" (in Arabic: Khatim al-Anbiya). This means that there would be no more prophets after Muhammad.

Bahais, however, claim that prophecy never stopped and that their leader, Bahaullah, was a modern day (i.e., 19th century) prophet. As Bahaism -a peaceful religion according to which all people are brothers - spread in the 19th century, the Shi'ite rulers and religious establishment felt that this this new creed was a mortal threat. As Bahaism succeeded, more and more people embraced this new religion. This again is an example of the quintessential Iranian tactic of converting to the religion of the most powerful, and in order to protect their Persian essence. But when the Qajar rulers defeated the Bahais, Iranians who had become Bahaism began returning to Islam. This experience is deeply engrained in the Iranian Shi'ite religious psyche, which is why today's Iranian Islamic Republican leaders so passionately loathe Bahaism.[xxix] They see Bahaism as a threat to Islam, and given the nature of Iranian culture, they have every reason to believe that it still is.

In spite of Baha'ism's peaceful nature, the mullahs know intimately how malleable Iranian character is. Any force that could lead Iran out of Islam is, by definition, an existential threat in their eyes. This is especially true because Iran is an outcast on the international scene. Any force which might address this problem is, by its mere existence, a threat. It is therefore not be surprising that significant numbers of Iranians in the diaspora - most notably in the US and the Netherlands - are converting to Christianity, the major religion of both countries.[xxx]


Whither Iran? Will Iran remain Muslim? What might happen to a post-Islamic Revolutionary Iran? What are the questions facing the Iranian people?

It is not surprising that one of the most favored foods in Iran is the onion, a root vegetable which typifies the essence of what it means to be an Iranian. The onion's many layers protect its core, just like the many layers of external adaptations Iranians have created over 1400 years, to preserve the very core of their being - Persian culture. In this context, Islam is just one layer among the layers which surround the core of what it means to be Persian. The type of Islam Iran eventually chose helped it retain its core values and protect itself against the surrounding non-Persian peoples. This is truly an amazing accomplishment, because almost all of the ancient cultures of their Western neighbors succumbed to Arab Islam. Islam, however, even Shi’ite Islam - no matter how much Iranians might claim Shi'ism to be an Iranian religion - is really still a foreign body grafted onto the body of Persian culture, which has still not, and will probably never be, totally at one with Iran.

What does this tell us about the future? Will Iran remain part of the Muslim world? So many Iranians inside that country hate the Islamic establishment with a passion. They blame their religious authorities for everything that is wrong with their country. To be sure, there are those forces which believe that their religious leaders do not represent the "true Islam," whatever that means. Nevertheless, though it is hard to gather exact details, there seems to be a subterranean conversion to Christianity inside Iran. Reliable reports from longtime observers of Iran report that about 5,000 people per month are quietly converting to Christianity inside that country. Why quietly? For these converts, it is dangerous to reveal themselves because conversion from Islam is punishable by death. Early Christianity was an oppressed religion, and people often hid the fact that they had become Christians. As such, the early Christians might well be models for Iran's hidden Christians today.

Could Zoroastrianism, Iran’s ancient pre-Islamic religion – offer a way out for Iranians. Another factor is the interest in Iran in Zoroastrianism? There are only 200,000 adherents left in Iran, and there are many more - the Parsis in India – who for example - which belong to this faith. Interest in Iran's pre-Islamic culture goes hand in hand with Zoroastrianism. Could there be a revival of that religion in Iran? Almost all of Iran's pre-Islamic culture was Zoroastrian, which captivates many Iranians. Nowruz, the Iranian New Year and the ceremonies that lead up to it, are Zoroastrian. So are the ying-yang (hot-cold) aspects of the Persian culture. Are Iranians tired of Islam? Has Iran's Shi'ite religious establishment alienated the people from Islam? The problem is that Zoroastrians do not accept conversions. Both parents must be Zoroastrian in order for a child to be a member of that religion. But could there be ancient texts, not yet unearthed, which demonstrate that there were other ways to become a member of that religion? After all, the first Zoroastrians could not have born to Zoroastrian parents. Some younger Zoroastrians around the world now argue that for their religion to survive, they must accept converts and accept people who have one Zoroastrian parent as Zoroastrians. If that happens, could Iranians revert to some sort of pre-Islamic form of their ancient religion and culture?

Iran is in flux. Its relationship with Islam has always been uncomfortable. Islam and Persian culture can probably best be summed up as oil and water. One can mix them forever, but in the end, given their nature as distinct entities, left to their own devices they cannot blend together into one force. Persian culture, no matter how much Shi'ite leaders such as Ayatollah Khomeini tried to suppress it, has proven to be resilient, so that when attacked, it seems to retreat into the background, waiting for an opportunity to reassert itself when the forces of Islam prove weak.

If the past is prescient, the struggle between Iran and Islam will continue into the far foreseeable future. Given the upheavals throughout the entire Muslim world, whether Iran will remain Muslim or choose some other path is anyone's guess.


[i] We use the term “Iranian world” to indicate not only Iran within its present borders, but also Central Asia and beyond, where Persian culture has had an enormous cultural impact for millennia. [ii] Interestingly, this is why Iran and China have so much in common. Both are highly urbanized and sophisticated cultures. They both had to deal with constant nomadic invasions. Each developed similar ways of absorbing those nomads. Their message was, in short, “please come in and rule us. You are very welcome to do so as long as you assimilate into our culture and adopt our ways.” Two of the Mongol leader Genghis Khan’s grandsons, for example, ruled large empires. Kubla Khan started the Yuan dynasty and ruled China. Kubla Khan and his descendents underwent a process for sinofication. Another grandson of Genghis Khan – Hulagoo – ruled Iran as a culturally perisanified Muslim. [iii] For an in depth description on the Persian defeat at Qadisiya, see Qādisiyyah, Then and Now: A Case Study of History and Memory, Religion, and Nationalism in Middle Eastern Discourse, by D. Gershon Lewental: For a summary of this dissertation, see: <>. [iv] Harold Rhode, "Sources of Iranian Negotiating Behavior", The Resilience of Iranian Culture Following Arab Conquest, <>, pp. 4-5. [v] For more on the Malawi system, see the Encyclopedia of Islam, <> [vi] Nevertheless, a 3rd century scholar Rabbi Hanna Bagdata is mentioned in the Talmud. The great European Jewish scholar Rashi (1040-1105 CE) equated Bagdata with Baghdad. This might be true, but we have no other evidence to corroborate this claim. [vii] Bagh – God, dad – gave –the past tense form of dadan – to give. [viii] For a description of how the Persians explained the methods of kingship to the Arabs, see Nizam al-Mulk. His book is called Siyasat nameh, i.e. "Book of Government" or "Rules for Kings." [ix] See Moshe Gil "Ha-Mifgash Ha-Bavli (The Babylonian Encounter), Tarbitz, Vol. 48. [x] For more on how ta’arof works, see:,, and “Talk Like an Iranian As the author learned in Tehran, yes sometimes means no”, [xi] For a history of opium use in Iran, see The Pursuit of Pleasure: Drugs and Stimulants in Iranian History, 1500–1900 (Princeton University Press) [xii] For more on the Byzantine-Persian wars before the rise of Islam, see: [xiii] Richard Nelson Frye, Abdolhosein Zarrinkoub, et al., Cambridge History of Iran, Section on: The Arab Conquest of Iran. Vol. 4, (London, 1975), p. 46 [xiv] Kitab al-Aghani, Vol. 4, p. 423. [xv] The Remaining Signs of Past Centuries, (Arabic: ) Kitāb al-āthār al-bāqiyah `an al-qurūn al-khāliyah, Completed in 1000 CE, pp. 35-36 and 48. [xvi] Ferdowsi started writing the Shahnameh is 977 CE and completed it in 1010 CE. For more details about Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh project see: Djalal Khaleghi-Motlagh, "Ferdowsi, Abu'l Qāsem-i.Life", Encyclopædia Iranica, (26 January 2012). [xvii] For an example of this, see "Parsi-begoo”, uploaded on the net from Belgium. Moreover, the choice of the name of the language "Parsi" and not "Farsi" says it all. Arabic does not have the sound "p." In its place, they have historically used "f." That is how the name of the language "parsi" became "farsi". [xviii] The distinction between the words “Turkish” and “Turkic” was invented in the 19th century. Turkish was used for anything describing the Ottoman, while Turkic was used for the rest of the Turks of the world. This division was more an attempt by outsiders – mainly the Tsarist Russians - to divide the Turks in separate entities for political reasons. But culturally, this was largest a distinction without much of a difference. Turkish, for example, uses the word “Turk” to describe all Turks, wherever they live. [xix] Often, when a king converts to a particular religion, many of his people do so as well. But this is not always the case. We simply do not know the details here. [xx] For more on the concept of Taqiya, see Harold Rhode, "The Sources of Iranian Negotiating Behavior”, <, >, pp.11-12, and Moojan Momen, An Introduction to Shi'i Islam (Yale University Press, 1985), pp, 39, 183. [xxi] In the early 1970s, before much of the mass migration of the cities of western Turkey, this author traveled extensively in areas of Turkey which were then largely Alevi. He asked many of the Alevis there whether they preferred their daughter to marry somewhat from Tabriz (meaning an Iranian Shi'ite) or a man from Istanbul (then meaning a Turkish Sunni.) What was clearly implied here was whether they would have preferred their daughters to marry a Sunni or a Shi'ite. Almost without any hesitation, they responded "a man from Tabriz.” [xxii] The Alevis of Turkey and the 'Alawis of Syria are different sects. Indeed, they both venerate 'Ali, but Alevis in Turkey have many central Asian practices and Shamanist practices. The 'Alawis of Syria do not share these practices. [xxiii] For more on the Persian domination of Shi'ism, see, Harold Rhode review on Laurence Louër’s “Shiism and Politics in the Middle East”, (London: Hurst, 2012), <>. [xxiv] For more on how these Lebanese Shi'ite clerics influenced Iran during the Safavid period, see Roschanack Shaery-Eisenlohr, Shi'ite Lebanon – Transnational Religion and the Making of National Identity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), and Stefan Winter, The Shiites of Lebanon under Ottoman Rule, 1516-1788(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). [xxv] There is no historical evidence that this actually happened. But from this author’s extensive travel in Iran, and from numerous conversations with Iranian Azeri intellectuals, it is clear that many believe this myth. Legend very often triumphs over truth in the Middle East. [xxvi] See Ahmad Kasravi’s writings on this subject. For example, [xxvii] See the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay - where Iran ceded to the Russians several areas Iran had control in the southern Caucasus for centuries. [xxviii] This is very similar to what happened in China. Historically, many non-Chinese people have ruled over China, but Chinese culture - like Persian culture - has a smothering effect so powerful that many of its ruling class - the Manchus for example, simply abandoned their non-Chinese (Han) cultural origins and assimilated into Han Chinese culture. Like Iran, the Chinese were very willing to accept this people who accepted Chinese culture. [xxix] For more on this subject, see Ronen A. Cohen, "The Hojjatiyeh – From Anti-Baha'i and Anti-Revolutionary Movement to the Real Creators of the Islamic Revolution in Iran", The New East – Journal of the Middle East and Islamic Studies of Israel (MEISAI), Vol. 51, (Summer 2012), pp. 69-92. [xxx] Curiously, we do not witness numbers of converts from Sunni Islam to other religions among Muslims in the West. Click here to buy the book.

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