Iran religion is quite unique, considered that it is the only country in the world where Shia Islam is the official religion. Many Iranians have critiqued the oppressive nature of the Islamic government, as it has implemented strict religious laws throughout Iranian society since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
Despite claims of the Iranian government that the overwhelming majority of its population are devout Shias, experts say there has been an increasingly secular shift towards atheism and non-religiosity among the Iranian people. In this article we will explore in detail the beliefs of Shia Islam and the other religions in Iran.
What Is the Religion of Iran?
According to the 2016 Iranian census, 99.4 percent of Iran’s population is Muslim. Iran is the only country in the world that is officially a Shi’ite country, with the vast majority of its population also being Shia Muslim, thus following Iran state religion. Officially, 5 to 10 percent of Iran’s Muslim population identifies as Sunni Muslim.
The overwhelming majority Muslims in Iran belong to the Ithnā ʿAsharī Shia branch of Islam, which Iranian government considers as the state religion. Iranian Kurds and Turkmen are mostly Sunni Muslims, and Iranian Arabs can be both Sunni and Shia. The largest minorities are Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians.
Iran and Religion: Towards an Increased Secularism?
The study of Islamic theology is highly esteemed throughout Iranian society. In the Iranian government, religious devotion or affiliation and political power can often influence each other.
While Iranian’s official census data reflects an overwhelmingly Muslim country and Shia Islam remaining the main religion in Iran, evidence has pointed to Iran’s population becoming increasingly secular. Many have speculated that official census numbers were created falsely by the government, which is very strict against religious dissent.
Evidence from the World Values Survey shows that mosque attendance throughout the country is relatively low, and only 2 percent of the population participates in the Friday congregational prayer. This disconnect between the increasingly secular Iranian population and its Islamic leaders reflect a large proportion of the population’s disapproval of the government’s strict religious policies.
While Islam became the primary religion in Iran during the 7th century Muslim conquests, it took several centuries for Shia Islam to dominate the country both religiously and politically.
The first Shia state of Iran was Mazandaran, in Northern Iran, under the Alavid dynasty of the late 9th and early 10th centuries. This was followed by two powerful dynasties that made all of Iran Shia: the Fatmid Caliphate and the Buyid dynasty. The Ghaznavid dynasty (975 – 1187 AD) made the official religion Sunni Islam, but Shia returned as the dominant religion under the Mongol ruler Ghazan in 1310 AD.
Shia vs. Sunni Islam in Iran’s History
While there were large Shia influences throughout Iran since the 9th century, the large majority of the region’s scholars and population considered themselves Sunni Muslims until the rule of the Safavids, who established Shia Islam as the official state religion.
In 1501, after Ismail I captured Tabriz, he ordered the mass conversion of the region’s Sunni Muslims to Shia. This conversion was often brutally violent, with entire village populations being killed for refusing to convert. While this conversion was gradual, by the end of the Safavid dynasty, in 1722, most Muslims in modern day Iran and Azerbaijan considered themselves Shia.
Iranian Shi’ism is deeply rooted in the belief that the 12th century Islamic leader, Muhammad al-Madhi al-Hujjah, will one day return as the mahdi, “the rightly guided one.”
The Role of the Shia Clergy
Since the 1979 revolution, the Shia clergy has been the primary force in the Iranian social order and political order. This clergy is composed of Islamic scholars, called the ulama. To become a religious scholar in Iran, one needs to attend a traditional Islamic educational institution, though in many cases it is not necessary to complete the education. Many low-level clergymen hold local religious posts through a partially completed education of Islamic studies.
More ambitious scholars can achieve the title of “mujtahid” by successfully graduating from a reputable Islamic school, gain the approval of other Islamic scholars, and build up a following.
This title allows a scholar to climb the ladder of the Iranian political and law systems. Many honors unique to Iran are given to these scholars, such as the honor of “hojatoleslam,” or Proof of Islam, and “ayatollah, ” or Son of god.
There is not a clear, concrete infrastructure to this honorary system of clerical ascension, as each scholar has independent views and rises in the Iranian religious system by building up a following and earning the respect of other clergymen.
Many Iran citizens are devoted to the teachings and wisdom of these clergymen not only for their expertise of Islamic law, but for their divinity in the Islamic faith. This has given Iranian clergymen a significant amount of power that has no equivalent in Sunni Islam.
Modern History of Religion in Iran
Before the establishment of Iran as the Iran Republic in 1979, the country had a largely liberal view on religion. Although most Iranians were religious, they did not have to express it publicly and would usually not be judged based on their adherence to the religion. Iranians had the choice of whether to pray or not and women were not forced to wear the hijab.
This relaxed stance on religion has crumbled since 1979, when the Iranian government began to implement stricter Islamic law throughout Iranian society.
Older generations tend to be much more devout believers of Islam, while younger generations often rebel against the strict Islamization of the government. Many young Iranians follow Western philosophical schools of thought or consider themselves atheists, though most have to keep this rebellion secret.
Christians are the largest minority group of these, with a large percentage of Iranian Christians being Orthodox Armenians or Assyrians. Iranian Zoroastrians are mostly found in the Yazd province in central Iran, Kermān to the southeast, and Tehrān. There are also Jews and Zoroastrian groups scattered throughout Iran.
While the Pahlavi monarchy before 1979 was marked by great religious tolerance, the 1979 revolution brought a wave of persecution to non-Muslim Iranians. Of Iran’s religious minorities the Bahá’í faith has faced the most persecution. After the revolution there was a significant exodus of religious minorities out of the country, namely the Jewish population.
The Iranian constitution states that Iranians are guaranteed human rights no matter their religion, and the Jewish, Christian, and Zoroastrian religious minorities possess five parliamentary seats.
Though most religious minorities are allowed to live and practice peacefully today, persecution by the Muslim population or government can vary. Many religious minorities have faced instances of intimidation and persecution by the Iranian government, which often requires that minority churches report the names of their attendees. At any rate, let’s take a look at the other religions practiced in Iran.
– Sunni Islam
Shia Islam is the predominant religion in Iran; however, an estimated 9 percent of Iran’s population is Sunni Muslim. This minority consists mostly of the Larestani people of Larestan, Kurds in northwest Iran, the Arabs and Balochs located in the south, and small communities of Persians, Pashtuns, and Turkmen located in northeastern Iran.
The Larestani people were largely able to keep their Sunni faith due to their isolation in a mountainous terrain, which protected them from the forced conversions of the Safavids. In the late 19th century, many of these Larestanis emigrated to states on the Persian Gulf, like modern day Bahrain and Kuwait.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, Salafist Islam has grown in the country, especially amongst Iranian young people. Salafism is a puritan, conservative form of Sunni Islam that revolves around retaining the purity of Islam’s first three generations.
The Iranian government views this rise in Salafism as a threat and does not allow Salafists to build mosques out of fear they might contribute to extremism.
Like other religious minority groups in the country, Iranian Sunni groups complain that the Shia dominated government falsifies the number of Sunnis living in the country. Many Sunnis believe that they are a much larger part of Iran’s population than what is reflected in the official data, with some Sunni groups even claiming they will be the religious majority in the country by 2030.
Despite Islam being the official religion of Iran, Christianity has deep roots in Iran, going back to the early years of the faith. The total Christian population of Iran is estimated to be between 300,000 and 370,000, making it the country’s third largest religious group behind Shia and Sunni Islam. The overwhelming majority of Iran’s Christians are Armenians, whose population ranges between 110,000 and 300,000.
There are over 600 active Christian Churches in the country. According to Operation World, a Christian mission agency, Iran has the highest annual growth rate of evangelicalism in the world, growing at an annual rate of 19.6 percent.
The Assyrian Christian population of Iran ranges from 20,000 to 70,000. The Iranian government classifies the Mandaean population as Christian, though the Mandaeans do not consider themselves as such.
There is also a small protestant Christian population that is estimated to have under 10,000 adherents. Many religious groups outside of the country have accused the Iranian government for harassing and persecuting this minority Protestant population, thus raising doubts about religious freedom in Iran.
Judaism has deep roots in Iran, as the region is mentioned frequently in the books of the Old Testament. As such, Jews are another of Iran religious groups. Along with Turkey and Azerbaijan, Iran is one of the Muslim countries with the highest population of Jews.
Estimates of the Jewish population range from 11,000 to 40,00, though the 2011 official census recorded a Jewish population of 8,756. Most Jews live in the cities of Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz.
While historically many Jews lived throughout Iran’s cities, many emigrated out of the country following the 1979 revolution. The largest communities of Jews that migrated out of Iran are found in the U.S. cities of Los Angeles and New York City, as well as a sizable community in Israel.
The Zoroastrian religion is one of the Middle East’s oldest religions, with many scholars speculating that it had great influence on the three major Abrahamic religions. The religion had both monotheistic and dualistic beliefs and was created from the teachings of the Iranian prophet Zoroaster.
The Iranian government claims that there are around 20,000 Zoroastrians living in the country, while Iranian Zoroastrian groups claim that the number is around 60,000. In June 2020, an online anonymous survey conducted by GAMAAN (Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran) found that out of 50,000 surveyed Iranians, 7.7 percent identified themselves as Zoroastrians. This indicates that the Zoroastrian population in Iran is probably much larger than the Islamic government claims.
The Zoroastrian religion has a long history in the region, as it was the predominant religion of Persia until it was conquered by Muslim invaders in the 7th century. The Zoroastrians living in Iran today are predominantly ethnically Persian and are mostly found in the cities of Tehran, Kerman, and Yazd. In the early 20th century there was an especially large migration of Iran’s Zoroastrians into the city of Tehran.
– The History of Zoroastrianism
The fall of the Sasanian Empire at the hands of Arab conquest in the 6th century began a rapid decline of the Zoroastrian religion. Many Zoroastrians converted to Islam, and those who didn’t were subject to persecution by their Muslim conquerors.
During this period many Zoroastrians fled to the state of Gujarat on the western coast of India, creating the Parsis ethnoreligious group. Many Zoroastrians also migrated to western India during the Qajar dynasty of the late 18th to early 20th century.
Despite being a historically persecuted religious minority in the country since the 7th century, under the Pahlavi dynasty (1925 – 1979) the religious minority was transformed into a symbol of Iranian nationalism. However, this golden era of Iranian Zoroastrianism ended in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
While Zoroastrians do not face widespread persecution in modern Iran, their religion can hinder them from attaining political positions in the country. For example, in 2013 Sepanta Niknam became the first Zoroastrian councillor in Iran after being democratically elected to the city council of Yazd. However, he was immediately removed by the Iranian government, which said only Muslims could be in Iran’s city councils.
One of Iran’s most significant religious minorities is the Bahá’í faith, which has been frequently persecuted by the Shia clergy that see this religious minority as heretical to Islam. The faith is not recognized by the government’s constitution, which keeps many believers from enjoying full religious freedom.
The Bahá’í faith is a relatively young religion, as it originated in Iran less than 200 years ago. It incorporates the teachings of all the major religions and it is not considered a branch of Islam.
The persecution of the religious minority by Iran goes back to 1850, when the religion’s founder was imprisoned and exiled to Baghdad by the Ottoman government, where he formally established the religion.
The religion immediately met hostility from the Shia Muslims majority, as the religious leader declared himself the divine prophet, going against the core Islamic belief that Muhammed was the one and only prophet.
Many Iranian universities prohibit Baha’i students from attending, and many young people from a Baha’i background have to be very secretive about their religion to pursue higher education.
Some Baha’i cemeteries and gravesites have been purposefully destroyed by the Iranian regime. There have also been instances where the Iranian government confiscated the property of Bahai families.
– Baha’is in Australia
The Australian government created a humanitarian migration program in the 1980s to allow Bahá’ís to live in Australia. A large part of the Iranian population living in Australia are Bahá’ís.
A 2011 census of Iranians living in Australia identified 36.8 percent as Muslim, 18.2 percent as Bahá’í, and 17.2 percent affiliated with a different religion. This census also indicated a relatively high proportion of atheism or non-religious affiliation, with 27.8 percent Iranians living in Australia stating they were not affiliated with a religion. This indicates that many of these Iranians most likely fled their home country to escape the strict Islamic religious society of Iran.
As you have learnt, Iran official religion is Shia Islam. Let’s review the main point about the religious beliefs of the Iranian population:
- Iran is the only country in the world that officially considers Shia Islam as its official state religion
- Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the government has made Islam a core part of Iranian society
- Many religious minorities, especially adherents of the Bahá’í faith, have experienced persecution by the Iranian regime
- Iranian’s population has increasingly become more atheist and non-religious throughout the 21st century
Iran is a prime example of the disconnect that can occur between an oppressive government and its population. Many have speculated that the extreme religious rule that the regime has put on its population has sparked many Iranians to drift away from Islam. Only time will tell what this shift will mean for the future of the Islamic regime.