Iran and Islam
- Iran is a theocracy that mixes religion and state more thoroughly than any other country in the world.
- Shiite Islam gives a special place to its clerics and demands blind obedience to their rulings on religious law.
- The commemoration of the martyrdom of holy figures is central to Shiite religious sensibilities and plays out in Iran’s populist politics.
- Since 1979, the Islamic Republic has imposed a strongly patriarchal order, but pious women have found ways to assert themselves in society and education.
- The contemporary Shiite revival has given Iran influence in the Muslim world and especially among other Shiite communities in the Arab world and South Asia, challenging the Sunni secular nationalists and traditional monarchies.
- Iran was largely a Sunni area until the 1500s, when the Safavid dynasty began imposing Shiite Islam on the population as the state religion. This era also saw international competition between the Safavids and the Sunni Ottoman Empire.
- The most important religious holiday for Shiites is Ashoura, which commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the Prophet’s grandson, who Shiites believe was unjustly killed in 680 AD. Shiites recite elegiac poetry, tearfully tell the tales of Hussein and his family and companions, and march in processions with banners. Some practice flagellation, whipping themselves with chains or cutting themselves with knives—folk rituals frowned upon by the educated clergy.
- Twelver Shiite-majority countries include Bahrain, Iraq and Azerbaijan, along with Iran (though Azerbaijanis are mostly secular in outlook). Countries with Shiite minorities include Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
- The International Center for Islamic Studies is in the theological center of Qom, Iran. This non-governmental institute, backed by Shiite religious authorities, teaches Shiism to non-Iranian students and prepares them to become teachers, sermonizers, researchers, jurisprudents and translators. It seeks to spread worldwide the teachings, sayings and practices of the Twelve Imams, which are studied by Shiite scholars but not by most Sunnis. It has students from 101 countries.
- As an alternative to orthodox Shiism, Sufism has experienced a fresh wave of popularity in Iran in the early twenty-first century, especially among youth. Nur-Ali Tabandeh is a leader of the mystical Nimatullahi Sufi order based in Gunabad, northeastern Iran. Sufis believe in a quest for a mystical union with God and organize themselves in orders or tariqehs. Their ecstatic chanting, love of poetry, and tendency to believe that God is present in all things makes them hated by orthodox Shiites. Tabandeh has been accused by the regime of a political alliance with the reformists. He was briefly arrested in 2007. In 2010, he was accused of meeting with leaders of the reformist Green Movement, which seeks greater personal liberties.
- Zahra Rahnavard represents the new Islamic feminists. A political scientist and sculptor, she became prominent as an anti-shah Muslim activist in the 1970s. During the monarchy, she argued that attempts to abolish the veil or headscarf were an imperialist imposition of foreign ways on Muslim Iran. But after the revolution, she also became the first female chancellor of Alzahra University. She is from a conservative religious family, but she has emerged as a leading political activist, as wife of Green Movement leader Mir Hossein Mousavi. Through her essays and books she argues for an Islamic feminism that does not challenge the principles of the Khomeini-ist state, but makes a place in Muslim society for dynamic, educated women.
- The central political conflict in the Khomeini-ist system is between clerical authoritarianism and populist aspirations for liberty. This seems likely to play out with potentially momentous consequences in coming years.
- The ideological underpinnings of the clerical state may be undermined in the next generation by either a lack of interest in religion or an enthusiasm for unorthodox forms of Islam such as Sufism, which is now widespread among Iran’s youth.
- Iran has influence in the Arab world, but its theocratic form of rule has limited appeal. It has largely been rejected by Iraqi and Lebanese Shiites. And it seems inappropriate for minorities in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Most Sunni activists are hostile to the Islamic Republic.
- Iran is a regional player, but the monolithic Shiite crescent feared by some Sunnis has not materialized.
"The Iran Primer"--Book Overview
The world’s most comprehensive website on Iran, “The Primer” brings together 50 experts—Western and Iranian—in concise chapters on politics, economy, military, foreign policy, and the nuclear program. It chronicles events under six U.S. presidents. It also has leader bios, timelines, data on nuclear sites—and context for what lies ahead. Click here for a hardcopy. New articles are added at the top.