Religion in Iran

A brief history of Iranian Jews
By: Massoume Price, December 2001
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The conquest of Islam in seventh century put an end to freedom of religion through out the area. All polytheistic and pagan religions were banned all together with all the other Near and Far Eastern religions. Islam does not recognize these as true religions. All major and minor deities were eliminated as false gods. The house of Kaba contained 110 such deities alone, all were banished. The followers of all these religions became 'kofar ' and were given the choice to either convert or die.

Hacham Yedidya Shofet, shlita with his son, the next future Spritiual Leader of the Iranian Jewish community
Allah a term used by local Christian tribes, meaning god, became the only sovereign god, the almighty. Islam was the last and the most superior of all religions and Muslim males were made superior to all others including Muslim females. Christianity and Judaism were accepted as the only other true religions and their holy scripts were accepted as such. However despite a large number of Christian and Jewish tribes in Arabia, their freedom was substantially restricted and their legal status lowered.

They were given the right to practice their religion if they paid a discriminatory religious poll tax called 'jizya'. In Quran, these people are called dhimmis (ahle zimmeh); later Zoroastrians of Iran were included as well. Quran prohibits Muslims from becoming friends with Christians and Jews and calls the later liars, dishonest and violent. With Christians they are forbidden from any participation in building Mosques. Mixed marriages were banned for Muslim women. While Muslims could not become slaves, all others were subjected to slavery as purchased slaves or war booty. Later on Christians and Jew were banned from riding horses while carrying arms and could not increase their numbers through conversion of others. They were segregated and their houses should have not exceeded those of the Muslims in height (the Jewish quarter in Kerman is the best example).

Courts of 'Shariat' became the only legal vessel and Quran gave Muslim males superior legal status. For instance if a Jew or a Christian kills a Muslim, there is both 'Ghesas' (Physical punishment) and 'Dyeh' (Monetary compensation). If a Muslim kills a Jew or a Christian, there is no ghesas and they only pay dyeh, which is half of what the Jew or the Christian has to pay. There is no punishment for killing kofar (non-believers) or mortad (converters from Islam into other faiths).

In short all except the Muslim males became second class citizens (dhimmis). 'Covenant of Ummar' when Jerusalem was conquered made religious discrimination an institution. Ummar believed Arabia should be purely Muslim and Arab. The large Christian and Jewish communities of Arabia mainly in Najran, Khaybar, Hijaz and Medina were expelled to the conquered territories and their properties confiscated. His bias, brutality and discriminatory actions contributed to his assassination by a Persian slave.

The situation is worsening by the time of Harun Al Rashid in eight-century AD. The overwhelming population of the area at the time was Christian, Zoroastrian and Jewish. Their houses of worship were destroyed, they could not build any new ones and jizya was increased substantially. Payment of the jizya was furthermore to be accompanied by signs of humility and recognition of personal inferiority.

On payment of the tax a seal, generally of lead, was affixed to the payee's person as a receipt and as a sign of the status of dhimma. By the time of Caliph Al Motevakel in ninth century, non Muslims were all excluded from employment in government sectors, banned from Muslim schools, had to live in closed quarters and were forced to wear colored ribbons to indicate they were non Muslims. Jews had to wear yellow ribbons (Vasleh Johudaneh); a practice that persisted till the end of the 19th century in Iran.

Iran being part of the Greater Muslim Empire was subjected to the same rules. Since non-Muslims were forced out of the government institutions, they went into trade and banking. A wealthy class of Jewish merchants emerged with cash but little political influence. Later on the money was used by some wealthy Jews throughout the Empire to finance the Caliphs' courts and wars, especially against the Crusaders. Exilarch still remained the vehicle through which Jewish affairs were regulated. The Muslim authorities appointed this figure.

Muslim treatment of the religious minorities varied in accordance with the policies of the caliphs and attitudes of different governors. While the Umayyad governor of Iran Hajjaj was ruthless and extremely biased others were more lenient and did not follow all the discriminatory rules. There were many Christian, Zoroastrian and Jewish Philosophers, physicians, scientists, engineers, musicians and court administrators in the first century of the Muslim Empire. Later on they all gradually convert or were forced out of government services. The coming of Abbasid improved the position of dhimmi for a while especially during the reign of Al Mansur. He was a devoted follower of the sciences and supported the great translation movement of the 8th century A.D.

Initiated by the Syriac, Greek, Jews and Persians to preserve the ancient knowledge, the movement started in Syria and flourished in Baghdad. Scientists and intellectuals from all over got together and thousands of books were translated into Arabic from Greek, Hebrew, Persian and other languages. Iranian Jews were writing dari (new Persian) in Hebrew characters, the same way Christians used Syriac script to write Persian.

Jewish court bankers (Jahabidha) are found at the courts of the Buyids, the Ghaznavids, and the Seljuk Sultans. Malik-Shah Seljuk contracted the farming of his Basra properties to a wealthy Jew named Ibn Allan for 150,000 dinars. The influential politician and educator, Nizam al-Mulk in his famous book Siasat Nameh rejects the employment of dhimmi in governmental services and at the same time provided refuge for his Jewish friend Ibn Allan who was eventually drowned as ordered by the Sultan. Under the Seljuk dhimmis were still segregated in their quarters, paid jizya and wore marked garments. They appointed their own religious officials subject to approval by the Muslim authorities.

The Jews were largely occupied in trade and commerce. The Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tuleda reports large Jewish and Christian communities in many of the larger cities. He visited the area after the death of Sultan Sanjar (1157) and mentions Jewish communities in Hamadan, Esfahan, Nihavand, Shiraz, Nishapur and Baghdad. On the whole there appears to have been little discrimination against the dhimmis other than the usual restrictions. In one incident a prominent Jew, Abu Sad Samha successfully made a claim against Abu Shuja the Minster responsible for dhimmis. He claimed Abu Shuja had failed to protect the Jews and managed to get the Minster sacked. Samha worked for Malik Shah and was a friend of Nizam al-Mulk. At the same time Malik Shah in a new decree made it obligatory for the dhimmis to wear distinguishing marks on their cloths. Such orders were issued from time to time which indicates that these restrictions were not permanently enforced. However the Jewish clans who supported the Ismaili movement were gravely punished and massacres took place in the Zagros and Luristan regions.

The Mongol dynasties were a lot more tolerant to the religious minorities. Under the Mongol leader, Hulagu (1258 AD), the concept of the dhimmi and the division between "believers" and "non believers" were abolished. Once again non-Muslims were employed in the government institutions. For the first time a substantial Judeo-Persian literature emerges and jizya ceased to exist for a while. It was restored and quickly abolished by Ghazan and reintroduced by Oljeitu and this time for good. The Mongol Emperor Arghun appointed Jewish physician Sa'd al-Daula of Abhar as his Prime Minister. The act alienated the Muslim population and created resentment. The Minister was executed in 1291 and the Jewish quarters were savagely ransacked in Tabriz and Baghdad. Rahid al-Din Fazhl Allah Hamadani was another famous physician and historian from Jewish background who served the Il-Khan Oljeitu. He is known as the greatest Minster of this dynasty and wrote the famous history of the Mongols from the beginning to the time of Ghazan Khan. He was also put to death in 1318.

His famous library of 60,000 books was ransacked and the suburban area in Tabriz, Rub-i Rashidi build by him was looted. His severed head was taken to Tabriz and carried out about the town with cries of; "this is the head of the Jew who abused the name of God; may God's curse be upon him". In 1399 his remains were exhumed and reburied in a Jewish cemetery. Rashid al-Din is credited with a major administrative and tax reform while serving as a Minister and is known as the most important historian of his time.

The next major change comes with the Safavid Dynasty in 16th century. Shiism is introduced as the state religion. A religious hierarchy is established with unlimited power and influence in every sphere of life. The concept of "ritual pollution" (najes) of the non-Muslims is introduced. Suffering and persecution of all religious groups particularly the Sunnis becomes a norm (this period is one of the worst with respect to human rights in Iran).

Jewish chronicles are full of accounts of massacre, forced conversion into Islam and mistreatment. New institutions are created; nasi became the head of the Jewish community assisted by the rabbi, mullah (Jewish one), or dayyan. The nasi was responsible for the prompt payment of jizya to local authorities. All relations between Iranian Jews and others outside the country were completely severed. Christians and Zoroastrians were subjected to the same harsh treatments and Sunnis suffered most. Segregation became a reality again for all minorities and Jewish Ghettos were reinforced. The reports by European travelers and missionaries describe the tragic situation of the Jews and other religious minorities. Jews were forced to wear both a yellow badge and a headgear, and their oath were not accepted in courts of justice. A Jew who converted to Islam could claim to be the sole inheritor of the family property, to the exclusion of all Jewish relatives. If one Jew committed a crime or an illegal act, the whole community would be punished (other religious minorities were subjected to the same harsh treatments).

The Jewish community of Iran saw little change till 19th century. In one incident the Jewish quarters were looted in Mashad. The anti Jewish sentiment reached its peak when the whole Jewish community in the city was forced to convert into Islam in 1839 under Mohammad Shah of Qajar Dynasty. Europeans intervened for the first time and the decree was reversed. The first modern Jewish School, Alliance was opened after a long and frustrating debate with heavy pressure from Europeans and the International Jewish Alliance in 1891 by an order from Nasser E' din Shah. Once opened, the students and the teachers would have to be escorted by the police to stop the mob from attacking them (All modern schools specially girls' schools were subjected to the same attacks by religious Fatwas). Jewish chronicles report Qajar period as one of the worst in their history.

The end of the 19th century is the beginning of fundamental changes in Iran and the start of the Constitutional Revolution. Jewish partisans along with other minorities participated in the movement. They were instrumental in forming the first multiethnic Secret Society of 1905, which began the debate on political change. Jews, Christians, Bahai and Zoroastrians fought hard with the constitutionalists to form a National Consultative Majlis instead of an Islamic Majlis as demanded by the religious hierarchy. Along with other religious minorities they succeeded in their efforts to ratify laws that gave equality to Muslim and non-Muslim (male) citizens in 1907 and defined a new concept of Nationality not based on religious origins (with the exception of Bahai who were not recognized).

According to the new constitution Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians had the right to elect one delegate each to the Majlis, but they could not participate in elections of other delegates. The constitution also prohibited non-Shiite Muslims from becoming a member of the Government. This was ignored by the Phahlavi regime and there were non-Muslim high government officials even Bahai by the 1970's.

Such gains did not put an end to discriminatory practices and attitudes. Jewish quarters were still attacked and looted in Mashad, Tabriz and Tehran at the beginning of this century by religious Fatwas. Though the constitution of 1907 put an end to the segregation of religious minorities and Jewish Ghettos, it was at the time of Reza Shah that they were able to integrate in the larger Iranian society without fear from Fatwas.

Molla Neissan Synagogue in Esfahan, Iran
Reza Shah was the first Iranian Monarch after 1400 years that paid respect to the Jews by praying to the Torah and bowing in front of it, when visiting the Jewish community of Esfahan. An act that boasted the self-esteem of the Iranian Jews and made Reza Shah the second most respected Iranian leader after Cyrus the Great. Still when in the 1970's, they showed up to support the Iranian Football team against Israel in the Asian games in Tehran, they were beaten up by the mob and the Iranian flags they were carrying were taken away.

In 1948, there was a high concentration of Jewish communities in Kurdistan. There were around 12,000 Jews scattered in approximately 15 Jewish settlements in Iranian Kurdistan. After the formation of the State of Israel many Jews in the area left for Tehran, in transit to Israel. The move angered the Muslim authorities. In March 1950, 12 Jews were murdered in Kurdistan. As a result more Jews moved to Tehran and demanded protection. The Iranian government guaranteed their safe passage. By March 1951, 8000, Iranian Jews had moved to Israel, the first major emigration in 20th century. After the formation of Israel in 1949, all the Muslim countries in the region expelled their local Jewish population except Iran. By 1966, the number of Jews immigrated to Israel had reached 22,000.

Kanoun e Javanan Yahudi formed in 1938, was the first Jewish Youth Organization in Iran. The first Iranian Jewish women's organization (Sazman Banovan Yahud i Iran) was established in 1947. Headed by Mrs. Shamsi Hekmat, the organization provided help to the needy and established branches in several towns. The first Jewish hospital opened in Tehran in 1958.

Since the conquest of Islam, Iranian Jews (and other religious minorities) have been instrumental in preserving Iranian music especially in Safavid times when music was restricted. Also many ancient rituals and traditions long forgotten by the Iranian Muslims are still practiced by the Jews as part of their festivals and celebrations. Illanout (tree festival) celebrated in February by Iranian Jews is identical to Shab e Cheleh and is a lot more elaborate, reminiscence of the pre Islamic celebrations.

In Iranian folklore, Jews are portrayed as mean, misery and polluted (Najes). Children were warned not to go to Jewish quarters because they would be kidnapped and Jews would drink their blood. They are used as stereotypes to portray evil characters by the likes of Mulana Jalaledin Rumi, Nezami, Sadi and many other literary figures. They could not touch water sources and when rained stayed in doors, since rain touching them would pollute the soil. At the times of persecution their water sources would be cut off.

The Jewish quarter of Kerman had preserved many characteristics of these segregated ghettos till recently. The lanes were extremely narrow, rarely more than five feet wide. The compound walls on either side were 10 to 12 feet high, with jagged glass and stone set in the top to discourage entry. Massive oaken doors strengthened by metal studs guarded the entrances to the houses. One had to stoop to enter the low portals since the height should be lower than the Muslim homes. These details were also designed to prevent mounted horsemen from effectively attacking its residents. All facilities necessary were inside the quarter. The synagogues bore no external symbols, so they were difficult to locate. All transaction with Jews would be through special intermediaries not to pollute Muslim tradesmen.

The Islamic Revolution of 1979, made Shariat the legal code and therefore gender and religious discriminations are an integral part of the system. Bahai once again are not recognized at all, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians each have one representative in the Parliament and are not legally forbidden from employment in the government sector. But since the authorities only employ Muslims and a 'Shariat test' is required, in reality these people are once again barred from working for the government. Like Bahaies it was very difficult for them to leave Iran for a decade after the revolution and restrictions still apply. They are accepted into Universities, but are not given access to post graduate studies, though no law prohibits them. Their monetary transactions are monitored closely to make sure no money is sent out. There were 85000 Iranian Jews before 1979, almost half have emigrated mainly to USA. The largest exodus since Darius' time when 30,000 left joyfully to rebuild their temple. Their departure this time has not been a happy one!

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