Written by Jason Pollak
Iran’s culture, politics, and people have been affected by religion for its entire history. When Iran was first settled, resources necessary for life were hard to come by. Because of this, the tribes developed a religion emphasizing justice and fairness.
Between the 10th and 7th centuries BCE, a man named Zoroaster started to preach a monotheistic theology now known as Zoroastrianism. This religion promoted justice, fairness, and equality between all people. Soon, the tribes of Iran became believers.
The leader of the Parsa tribe, Cyrus, soon rose to power in Iran and conquered the surrounding lands, forming the Achaemenian, or Persian Empire. Eventually, this empire was conquered by Alexander the Great, from Greece. Greek rule was short-lived, though, and the Iranian tribes rebelled and overthrew the government.
Many years passed, and a man named Ardeshir reestablished central rule in Iran. His period was referred to as the Sassanian dynasty, and continued allowing and promoting Zoroastrianism. Furthermore, Zoroastrian priests gained power under Sassanian rule. However, the Sassanians set up a social hierarchy where the king and the priests have much more power than the people, who saw this as oppressive and unjust. Their discontent made Iran ripe for being conquered. Arab peoples soon came into the lands of Iran and conquered the Sassanians between 637 and 651 CE. They brought with them Islam, a monotheistic religion that had ideas of justice and fairness, specifically benefiting its followers. Islam appealed to the people of Iran, and by the 10th century CE most Iranians were Islamic.
Shi'a Muslims Edit
Islam was started by the followers of Muhammad, who was their revered leader until his death in 632 CE. Debate has developed over who his successor (as the leader of Islam) would be. Some people believed that the leader should be elected by the Islamic people in order to have a balanced representative leader, while others thought that the leader should be of the same blood as Muhammad, as a person of his lineage had his "spirit." Those who believed in an election became known as Sunnis, and those in favor of Muhammad’s descendants became known as Shiites. Almost all Iranians became Shi'a Muslims.
Quajars and Ulama Edit
The conquest of Iran by Arabs became, unsurprisingly, known as the Arab Conquest. The Arabs ruled Iran until 1500 CE. Around this time, a man named Isma’il claimed to be a descendant of Imam Ali (Muhammad’s son-in-law) and thus a rightful leader of Shi'a Islam. After coming to power, he declared himself Shah, or king, and mandated Shi’i Islam throughout Iran. He also formed a dynasty known as the Safavids, and gave power to members of the clergy. He also had important theologians called Ulama leading the population.
The Shahs in the Safavid dynasty had absolute power, which, like the Sassanians, upset the population. In 1736, the Safavid dynasty was overthrown. This marked the end of Shi’i “by Muhammad’s blood” leadership of Iran. 63 years later, in 1779, a new group of Iranians formed the Quajar dynasty.
The Quajars wanted to modernize Iran, and move from the old ways. Because of this, the Clergy moved away from the government and became autonomous. Their autonomy gave them more power with the people, as the people didn’t feel too fond of the Quajars. One reason Iranians didn’t like the Quajars was the concessions the shahs granted to Western powers. When they started this, some clergy formed secret societies to discuss their unhappiness with the Shah. Compiled with other unpopular policies, these things caused the people to start a constitutional revolution.
The constitution that was eventually drafted dictated “Twelver” Shiism as Iran’s official religion. Twelver was the branch of Shiism that most of Iran followed. The Ulama, who backed the constitution, ensured that the foremost goal of the new government would be to protect shi’a features of Iranian society. The Ulama also added hints of their disdain for freedom of thought, and sections that gave muslims more and better rights than non-practitioners. This is an example of how Iran’s religious figures took measures to limit the freedoms of Iranian people.
Religion in Modern Iran Edit
Under the constitution, there was a joint system of a Shah, and a prime minister. One prime minister who came to power was called Reza Khan, who desperately wanted to modernize Iran. Reza got the support of the people to finally end the Quajar dynasty, and made himself Shah. Reza Shah, as he became called, attempted to weaken the clergy with a new legal system and other modernizations. However, he became unpopular with Iranians with his anti-Islamic policies and forced removals of women's’ veils. Because of these unveilings, many religious families kept their daughters at home and out of school.
After Reza shah failed, his son, Muhammad, succeeded him. During the changes that took place, a political activist named Mohammad Mossadegh formed a political group called the “National Front.” This party was anti-Shah, and had the support of the Ulama. However, once he was appointed prime minister, the Ulama saw him as a threat. Some of these clergy became spies for the U.S. These spies, in conjunction with the western powers, were able to overthrow Mossadegh.
The shah, who had been “absent” during this time, returned from his exile to take back Iran, supported by the U.S. In trying again to reform Iran, the Shah took land from wealthy peoples and the Ulama and gave it to those without land. He also introduced many freedoms for women. These two reforms angered the Ulama, and a cleric called Ayatollah Khomeini began to criticize the regime. Khomeini was very against everything having to do with the west and modernization. His preaching gained a foothold in the population because of the Shah’s oppressive measures that he was taking against them. (The Shah used SAVAK, his secret police, to weaken religious leadership by torturing and killing leaders.)
In an effort to fight off rebellion, the Shah exiled Ayatollah Khomeini. While in exile, Khomeini established a governmental system called the “Guardianship of the Jurist,” that was ruled by Islamic law and blamed all problems on the west. After another uprising, the Shah once again departed from Iran. With no one to control SAVAK, Khomeini returned to Iran. Back at home, he worked with the placeholder government to form an “Islamic Republic” that used his Guardianship of the Jurist system. This system is still in place today.
In my opinion, religion has been a negative driving force in Iranian history. The clergy and religious figures have followed a pattern of flip-flopping their stance on issues to consistently stay in control of the Iranian people. Earlier in their history, religion was a necessary institution for the sanity of the people and theit understanding of the unexplainable. Even though science and technology fulfilled this need, people still followed and trusted their religious leaders, who were desperately trying to cling to theit power. This is why radical groups have been cropping up more and more in our modern world. Groups like the Taliban and ISIS have arisen to keep people in the faith when nothinh but violence and terror can. Though some might say that chaos unfolds when people don't follow religion, thw opposite, in fact, is the case. The hints of this are apparent if we look back into history. The Shahs of the past came to power through religion, and turned out to be tyrants. This ultimately stems from the clergy's depraved interpretation of Islamic law. The injustice and imbalance created from giving certain people rights over others created an atmosphere of arrogance and entitlement that spawned the oppressive Shahs that Iran has consistently struggled with.