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Iran, a Brief History
Last Updated: October, 2009

Iranians adapted by shaping a tradition, which made Islam, appear as a partly Iranian religion, i.e. the Iranian Shi’ite movement. These people believed that the caliphate belonged rightly to Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law. The Iranians supported the cause. A legend was created that Husayn, the martyred son of Ali, had married captive Sasanian princess Shahrbanu, the ‘Lady of the Land’. This wholly fictitious figure, whose name appears to be derived from a cult-epithet of the Iranian goddess Anahita, was held to have borne Husayn a son. Iranians organized, opposed the Umayyad Caliphs and eventually led the house of ‘Abbas’, relatives of Ali, to victory in 750 AD. Once in power, the ‘Abbasids’ betrayed the Iranians, murdered their leaders and at the same time revived the magnificence of the ancient court and imitated Sassanian authoritarianism in religious matters. Massive persecutions and forced conversions into Islam took place everywhere and it was during this period that Islam took root and flourished in Iran.

In the process, Islam grew steadily more Zoroastrianized, with adaptations of funerary rites, purity laws, and a cult of saints (12 Imams) springing up in place of the veneration of the 12 major deities, the eyzads. The Zoroastrian figure, Saoshyant, who comes at the end of the time to save the world finds a place too and is replaced by the Time Lord, Imam Zaman; the venerated 12th Shi’ite Imam. Such developments and adaptations made it possible for the Iranians to preserve many of their ancient rituals and traditions, while new ones were adopted and incorporated into the belief system as well. In the end, even though Zoroastrianism was reduced to a minority religion in Iran itself, its structure and rituals in particular found a place in the new religion and are still practiced and revered by most Iranians.

The Tenth Century AD, marks the advancement of the Turkish tribes moving into Persian and Byzantium territories and eventually dominating all of these areas including Baghdad itself. The Mogul invasion in the Twelfth Century devastated the region and the subsequent rule by their descendents divided the country further, thereby creating decades of civil war between competing rulers. The Tamerlanes’ conquest (14th century) worsened the political and economic situation. Nevertheless, Islam remained and all the Asian conquers and their dynasties were converted to Islam. Persian became the court language in Turkey and India, while her art, science and literature dominated the royal courts in these countries.

The next major change occurred in the 16th century with the Safavid dynasty. Descendents of a major mystical leader and of Turkish and Iranian ancestry, they united the country, improved the economy and adopted Shi’ism as the state religion. They also created a powerful religious institution with thousands of preachers with different ranks dominating and controlling every aspect of the lives of ordinary citizens. Some rituals and practices were adopted and copied from the Christians and incorporated as genuinely Shi’ite practices, such as self-beatings with chains. The well-respected religious authority, Alameh Majlessi, collected and produced his extensive work, ‘Bihar al Anwar’ (Oceans of Light) at this time. The text became the standard for Shi’ite religious observances and is very similar to Sasanian codes of observances outlined in the pre-Islamic texts of Dinkard and Vandidad. A religious doctrine was firmly set in place and fixed with many Persian elements and rituals that has lasted and is still practiced today.

The 19th Century saw the beginning of modernization in the country. After centuries of oppression and abuse by political and spiritual leaders, change was demanded on every front. The results were the constitutional revolution of the 1906 and the subsequent coming to power of the charismatic, western-oriented Reza Pahlavi. The last Quajar king was forced to abdicate in 1925 and Pahlavi reign started in 1926. For the first time since the Islamic conquest, secularization took place and attempts were made to establish a civil society based on a European model and to create a truly Iranian identity. Ancient Persia was glorified, improving economics; modern schools and universities created a large and secular middle class with a powerful centralized State and administration.

The attempt to strengthen the bond between the royalty and the masses failed for many reasons and processes of secularization were met with persistent resistance amongst the religious hierarchy and the very religious masses. Moreover, the absence of political institutions hindered political growth. Thus, the 1979 Revolution saw the end of the monarchy and the formation of a theocratic state, based entirely on Islamic legal code and practices. The eight years of war with Iraq, worsening economic conditions and very restrictive Islamic codes resulted in massive emigration of the Iranians.

For the first time, a massive Iranian Diaspora was formed outside the country. According to the Islamic Republics’ statistics, currently almost four million Iranians reside outside Iran. There are many refugees and others who have not registered with the Islamic authorities; therefore, no one knows what the exact figure is.

This site is intended for Iranians living in North America with English as their first or second language. Their sheer numbers have created a great demand for preserving their past and, for the new generation, knowing about their culture has become a serious priority.


Recommended Readings:

Mary Boyce: Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 2001

S. A. Nigosian: The Zoroastrian Faith: Tradition and Modern Research
McGill-Queen's University Press, 1993.

Mary Boyce:Textual Sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism
University Of Chicago Press; Reprint edition, 1990.

The Culture and Social Institutions of Ancient Iran
Muhammad A. Dandamaev and Vladimir G. Lukonin
Cambridge University Press, 1994, last edition 2004.

Cambridge History of Iran. Volumes one to seven

Josef Wiesehofer: Ancient Persia: from 550 BC to AD 650
I.B. Tauris Publishers, London 2001.

Nikki R. Keddie: Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution
Yale University Press, 2003.

Kathryn Babayan: Mystics, Monarchs and Messiahs : Cultural Landscapes of Early Modern Iran Harvard Middle Eastern monographs, 2003.


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