The last of the great historic religions, Islam (literally means "submission to God", Arabic: Allah) regulates the entire life of the Muslims. Muslims ("those who have surrendered to the faith") believe in God, who is viewed as the sole creator, sustainer, and restorer of the world. The will of God, to which man must submit, is made known through the sacred scriptures, the Koran, which God revealed to his messenger, Mohammad, and in which there is no word other than of Divine origin. In Islam, Mohammad is the last of a series of prophets (including Adam, Noah, Jesus, and others), and he has brought the final revelation of God's truth to mankind.
To become a Muslim, one has to pronounce shahada (the profession of faith): "There is no god but God; and Mohammad is the prophet of God". Muslims are enjoined to Namaz, five daily prayers. The first prayer is performed before sunrise, the second just after noon, the third in the late afternoon, the fourth immediately after sunset, and the fifth before retiring to bed. Muslims' other j duties include zakat (giving alms to the poor) and Ruzeh (fasting during the month of Ramazan). Once in their lifetime, provided one can afford it, Muslims should make hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, the site of the Kaaba, a sacred monument built by Abraham, and also the birthplace of the Prophet.
Shiism (a name derived from Arabic Shiat Ali, "the party of Ali") is one of the two major branches of Islam, the other, larger branch being the Sunnites. The Shiites of Twelve Imams Uthna Ashari) is the largest of the Shiite Muslim sects. This is the sect to which the overwhelming majority of Iranians belong. The Shiites agree with the Sunnites in the main religious postulates. Their principal distinctive belief lies in the doctrine of the Imamate: Shiites believe that the spiritual and temporal leadership of the Muslim community passed from the Prophet Mohammad to Imam Ali and then sequentially to eleven of Ali's direct male descendants, a tenet rejected by Sunnites. In Shiite Islam, the term "Imam" is applied to the person who is both a political and religious leader. The Imam is regarded by the Shiites as immune from error and sin.
The history of the Ismailites is seldom narrated without bias. The situation is further aggravated by the fact that a word "assassin" (from hashashin, denoting a consumer of hashish), given to its adherents by Europeans in the Middle Ages, has found its way into English with a strongly negative meaning. It is true that the Ismailites were infamous for dispatching killers to murder leading political and religious figures, but their reputation for carnage has been greatly exaggerated.
The Ismailites claimed themselves a highly intellectual religious sect and strove to implant in the society the ideas in which its members ardently believed. Instead of recognizing Musa as the seventh Imam, as did the main body of the Shiites, the Ismailites upheld the claims of his elder brother, Ismail. One group of Isrnailites, called Sabi'yah ("Seveners"), considered Ismail the seventh and last of the Imams. The majority of them, however, believed that the imamate continued in the line ot Ismail's descendants. The Ismailite teaching spread during the 9th century from North Africa to India, and the Ismailite Fatimid dynasty succeeded in establishing a prosperous empire in Egypt. Ismailism was brought to Iran by Hasan Sabbah, who had been trained in Fatimid Egypt. He is known to Westerners as "the Old Man of the Mountains".
Having acquired the dominant power among his followers, he managed to create a country (with headquarters in Alamut, near Qazvin) within the Seljuk Empire. This country had a more successful economy, based on trading herbal medicines and armor, than the other parts of the spacious Seljuk state. Hasan's successors continued to rule in Iran until Hulagu Khan's attack, when the last Ismailite ruler was executed.
Modern Ismailites stand apart from the main body of Muslims. They do not have mosques and pray in jamaat-khanehs ("communal houses"), and their mode of worship bears little resemblance to that of Muslims generally.
Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, which is considered an unorthodox religious movement, has a long tradition in Iran. The name probably derives from the Arabic word for wool (suf) that was applied to the early Sufis because of their habit of wearing rough wool as a symbol of their asceticism. The Sufis, or Mystics, seek 10 find the truth of divine love and knowledge through a direct personal experience of God. In some periods, Sufi leaders, such as the leaders of the Safavid order, were also active politically. Each of the numerous Sufi orders has peculiarities in its ritual.
Sufism has played an important role in the formation of Muslim society. Sufis have been responsible for large-scale missionary activity all over the world, which still continues.
Without the Sufi vocabulary, Persian and other literatures related to it would lack their special charms. Today, the brotherhoods in Iran are regarded suspiciously and generally have a low profile. Modern dervishes are mostly strolling story-tellers, with long disheveled hair, close-fitting skullcaps sometimes embroidered with verses from the Koran and other holy inscriptions, and kashkul, the collection boxes.
The Sunnite Muslims have two festive days in the year: Eid-e Petr, celebrating the end of the month of Ramazan, and Eid-e Qorban, the feast of sacrifice during the month of pilgrimage. The Shiites have many more holy days, which are connected with the commemoration of the twelve Shiite Imams.
The Shiite Muslim year opens with a season of Moharram mourning. held on the occasion of the anniversary of Imam Hosseins death. The climax of woe falls on Moharram 9 (Tasua) and 10 (Ashura) and stops on the 40th day (Arbain) on Safar 20. Shaban 15 is a great national festival in Iran. Two events are commemorated during the festivities: the birth of Imam Mahdi, and the wedding of Ali and Fatima. Two weeks after this, the great fast of Ramazan begins. The fast must start at early dawn and continue until the dusk. Abstinence from all food, smoking, drinking water, and from sensual indulgence is required. A purgatorial efficacy is attached to th is ritual in the popular mind. Other circumstances add much to the solemnity of the fast among the Shiites, the most important being the assassination of Imam Ali on Ramazan 21. The last ten days of Ramazan are particularly holy; the 23rd is most often presumed to be Lailat al-Qadr, the night of the descent of the Koran. The month ends with special festivities on Eid-e Fetr, the Day of Feasting. The next important day is Eid-e-Qorban, the Festival of Sacrifice, on Dhu al-Hajjah 10. It was instituted in the memory of the great day of Atonement but is connected with Abraham's offering of Ishmael, not Isaac. The remainder of the month is marked with Eid-e Ghadir, the festival commemorating the Prophet Mohammad's declaration that Imam Ali was to be his successor.
Moharram According to Shiite beliefs, Imam Ali ought to have succeeded Prophet Mohammad as the first Imam. However, he was deprived of authority by three caliphs whom the Shiites consider usurpers. Eventually, Imam Ali was murdered and his son Hasan poisoned. Ali's other son, Hossein, was on the way to Kufa to receive the caliphate when he was intercepted by order of Yazid, his rival, and cut down on the plains of Karbala, together with his family and followers. Imam Hossein is particularly dear to the Persians and is held by them in the great esteem (perhaps one of the reasons for it is that he married the Persian princess, daughter of the last Sasanid king). Every year, Iranians commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hossein with various ceremonies. A frequent ritual during the first ten days of Moharram is a procession of people through the streets. Men, wearing black, chain themselves and shout in unison.
No visitor who has been in an Iranian city during this ritual can forget the dirge-like laments "Hossein! Hossein!" and the accompanying dull thud, as the mourners beat their breasts in sign of impassioned grief Both men and women shed profound tears because they believe that every tear dropped in remembrance of Imam Hossein washes away many sins. In the evenings, taziyeh (literally "consolation") are staged to reenact the story of the martyrdom of Ali's descendants. Some plays are satirical, directed against wrongdoers. but most form a set of tragedies set around the events of Karbala, performed on the ten successive days of Moharram. Since the Safavid rule, when the Shiite faith was proclaimed official in Iran, and particularly under the Qajars, the Moharram ceremonies have been held on an enormous scale.
The mosque imasjed in Arabic and Persian, literally "a place of prostration") is the most important religious institution in Iran. Larger congregational mosques (Mas jed lame) are intended for Friday prayers. The first mosque was copied from the house of the Prophet Mohammad at Medina and had a very simple and austere design O. This mosque was an enclosure surrounded by mud-brick walls. It was covered by a flat wooden or reed mat roof resting on mud or brick supporting pillars on the qibla side (the side facing Mecca), and occasionally on other sides as well. Throughout the Islamic world, which stretched from Spain to India, the structure of the mosque was influenced by local materials and architectural traditions. Within Iran, a distinctive mosque type, laid on the foundations of its Sasanid predecessors, has been developed. This mosque consisted of large prayer halls arranged around a courtyard and entered through eivans (porches). In the first mosques, which were converted from Sasanid fire temples, usually one eivan was built e. It marked the qibla side and highlighted the sanctuary of the former fire temple. Soon afterwards, the opposite, northern wall of the mosque's courtyard was also emphasized by the eivan E). The Iranian mosque took its final form in the 12th century with the four eivan structure O. The Congregational Mosque of Zavareh (p225) is the first mosque of this peculiar Iranian type.
Although the mosque has undergone many architectural changes, it essentially remains an open space, generally roofed over, containing a mihrab and a minbar, with a minaret sometimes added to it. An ablutions pool, containing running water, is usually attached to the mosque but may be separated from it. Each mosque is built with one of its walls facing Mecca.
In the decorative treatment of Iranian mosques, glazed tiling with floral and geometric motifs has become the specific feature. The prolific use of calligraphy, brick bonding patterns, moqarnas, and stucco work are the other most important elements of architectural ornamentation.
Another significant religious institution in Iran is the hosseiniyeh. It traditionally serves as a site for recitals commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, especially during the month of Moharram, as well as for other public gatherings. Tekiyeh generally has the same function.
The madreseh, or seminary, is an institution providing religious educatioi Students, known as talabeh, usually study a minimum of seven years, to become a low-level preacher, or mullah. Higher ranked clergymen include Hojja al-Islam and Mojtahed (or Ayatollah). The Shiite clergy in Iran usually wear a white turban and an aba (a loose, sleeveless brown or black mantle). If a clergyman is a seyed (descendant of the Prophet Mohammad), he wears a black turban
In theological colleges, the main eivan is usually the entrance to the domed chamber or else leads directly to the prayer room. Depending on the situation of the college, the other eivans are used as classrooms; frequently one of the three remaining eivans forms the main entrance to the college.
Other major religious institutions in Iran are shrines. Pilgrim shrines and mausoleums are built on top of the graves of Imams or lmamzadehs (the descendants of Imams), or other saintly persons. There are an uncountable number of shrines that vary from tumbledown sites associated with local saints to imposing mausoleums, such as those of Imam Reza in Mashhad and his sister Masumeh in Qom. The buildings sometimes take the form of a square structure surmounted by a dome, but usually the base structure is an octagon in which case the dome is pyramidal or conical in shape. In proportion to the importance of the site, it is often provided with auxiliary buildings on all sides. Important pilgrim shrines, beside numerous outbuildings, have multiple courtyards lying in various directions in relation to the main building. Less important shrines are constructed in the form of a solitary kiosk-like building in the center of an enclosure.
The other traditional religious institutions are khaneqahs, dervishes' cloisters, many of which still exist in Iran.
Non-Muslim Minorities Christians
Christianity had already found a foothold in Iran by the 1st century, when St. Thaddeus's Church was built in c. 68 A.D. in Western Azerbaijan. The remains of the 3rd-centur)' church on the Khark Island still survives. Persian Christians are known to have gone to China as missionaries as early as the 7th century. Modern missions by Roman Catholic monks began in Iran in the 16th century. They preached mainly among the Armenians in Esfahan and Tabriz. For afterwards the Success of their work declined. An effort among the Nestorians in the 18th century was more fruitful. The earliest Protestant missionaries were Moravians who came to evangelize the Zoroastrians in 1747.
They were unable to remain, owing to civil disturbance in the country. Henry Martyn was a pioneer of the 19th century and left the Persian version of the New Testament as his legacy. This was followed by Dr. Glen's version of the Old Testament. Today Iran's indigenous Christians include Armenians, Assyrians, and a small number of Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant Iranians. The Armenians are predominantly urban and are concentrated in Tehran and Esfahan. The Armenians and the Assyrians are recognized as official religious minorities under the 1979 Constitution. They are entitled to elect their own representatives to the Majles (Parliament) and are permitted to follow their own religious laws in matters of marriage, divorce, and inheritance. However, all Christians are required to observe the laws relating to attire, prohibition of alcohol, and segregation by sex in the streets and other public gatherings.
Iranian Christians have churches and chapels throughout the country, including several large cathedrals. At present, four monasteries exist in Iran two in Azerbaijan and two in Esfahan.
Jews The Iranian Jewish community is one of the oldest in the world, having descended from the Jews who remained in the region following the Babylonian captivity under Cyrus the Great. For many centuries. a large and flourishing Jewish community existed in Esfahan. In fact, Esfahan itself came into being when the town of Yahudiyeh ("Jewish city"), merged with Jay. Over the centuries, the Jews of Iran became physically. culturally, and linguistically indistinguishable from the non- Jewish population. They are predominantly urban and by the 1970s were concentrated in Tehran, Esfahan and Shinn. The Constitution of 1979 recognizes the Jews as an official religious minority and accords them the right to elect a representative to the Majles. Among the most important Jewish shrines in Iran are Esther and Mordecai in Hamadan and Prophet Daniel in Susa.
As in the case of Christians and Jews, Zoroastrians in Iran are recognized as an official religious minority. They are permitted to elect one representative to the Majles and generally enjoy the same civil liberties as Muslims. Zoroastrians believe in One Supreme God, called Ahuramazda, who is opposed by Ahriman, an embodiment of evil. Every human being must cooperate with God to defeat evil and bring the world to perfection. This can be achieved by good thought, good word, and good deed. After death, the immortal soul of the departed person is judged according to all the good deeds done by him or her in this world. The soul then enjoys the pleasures of paradise or undergoes the tortures of hell. Zoroastrians also believe in the appearance of the last savior, called Sosayant, and in the final judgment day with the resurrection of all who have died. Yazd is the most important Zoroastrian center in modern Iran. Although there are practically no Zoroastrians in Esfahan now, the remains of a fire temple on the city's outskirts (p 145) bear witness to their presence here in earlier periods.
There are no followers of Mithra in Iran anymore, but the traces of this ancient cult are numerous, and the Niasar Cave (pp206-207) is only a single example. Mithraism was the worship of the ancient Indo-Iranian god of light, Mithra. Mithraism had a great impact on Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Christianity. Mithras followers celebrated December 25 as the date of Mithra's birth. Because Mithra was associated with the sun, Sunday was chosen as the day of his worship. Among the ceremonies of the Mithraist cult were baptism in holy water and partaking of a sacred meal of bread and wine. The most important ritual was the slaying of the bull, a reenactment of Mithras killing of the cosmic bull of creation, which symbolized the conquest over evil and death. After passing several ordeals, the converts were "reborn" in Mithra. There were seven grades of initiation into the cult, completion of which conferred immortality. For a long time, Mithra was widely worshipped in the Roman Empire, though whether it was the same cult as in Iran is unclear.