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IslamBack to Top

Muslims accept that there is no God but Allah and that Mohammed was his final prophet. These two precepts form the first pillar of Islam, the shahada. The other four pillars, which a Muslim must try to follow, are salat (praying five times a day, though Shiites only pray three times), zakat (alms-giving), sawm (fasting during Ramazan) and haj (the pilgrimage to Mecca that those able should perform at a given time). All Muslims, regardless of whether Sunni or Shiite, are forbidden to drink alcohol or eat anything containing pork, blood or any meat that died in any way other than being slaughtered in the prescribed manner (halal). Every town of any size has a Jameh Mosque, which literally means Congregational Mosque. It serves as the local centre of worship and Islamic discussion and was traditionally a centre of much social interaction as well.


When the Prophet Mohammed died in AD 632, there was disagreement over his successor. The majority backed Abu Bakr, the prophet’s father-in- law and friend. He became Caliph. However, there were those who backed the claim of the prophet’s son-in-law and cousin, Ali bin Abi Taleb, one of the first converts. Ali was passed over a total of three times before eventually becoming the fourth Caliph in 656, only to be assassinated five years later. The Muslim community was by now divided into two factions, the Sunnis, who followed the Umayyad Caliphate, and the Shiite (from ‘Shiat Ali’, meaning ‘followers of Ali’). When Ali’s second son Hossein and his supporters were slaughtered by the Caliph’s troops at the Battle of Karbala in 680, the division became permanent.
Shiism reached its greatest influence in Iran. Iranian converts to Islam were attracted by the idea of the imam as a divinely appointed leader possibly because the Iranians possessed a long heritage of government by a divinely appointed monarch.


Sunni comes from the word sonnat, which means tradition and refers to the fact that the Sunnis follow the traditional line of succession after the Prophet Mohammad. Sunnism has developed into the orthodox branch of Islam and most of the world’s Muslims are Sunni, except in Iran.


A mystical aspect of Islam that is particularly close to Iranian hearts, tassawof (mysticism) is a discovery made by Iranians within Islam, and derived from the Quranic verses. According to Sufis, God must be felt as a light that shines in the believer’s heart and the heart must be pure enough to receive the light. The two are the same, but separated: man’s soul is in exile from the Creator and longs to return ‘home’ to lose himself again in Him. Sufism has various orders and throughout Iran you can find khaneqas (prayer and meditation houses) where people go to worship. Sufism in no way conflicts with Shiism or Sunnism.
Some of Iran’s greatest thinkers, poets and scholars have had Sufi mystic tendencies, including Sohrevardi, Ghazali, Attar, Rumi, Hafez and Sa’di.

ZoroastrianismBack to Top

Zoroastrians, the followers of Iran’s pre-Islamic religion, are based mainly around Yazd with its fire temple (where the fire is said to have been burning for 4000 years) and the Chak Chak pilgrimage site in its desert mountain setting. Sizable communities also live in Tehran. Estimates as to the number of Zoroastrians in Iran vary, anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000. Zoroastrianism is the world’s first monotheistic religion and has influenced those who have followed religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Several traditions and ceremonies dating from Zoroastrian times are important in modern Iranian culture. The Iranian New Year, No Ruz, is Iran’s main festival celebrated on the spring equinox, and is descended directly from a Zoroastrian festival, as is Chaharshanbe Soori, which takes place on the Wednesday before New Year and involves people jumping over a series of small bonfires. Shab-e yalda, celebrated on the winter solstice, is another Zoroastrian festival still observed by Iranians.

ChristianityBack to Top

The Christian community in Iran consists mainly of Armenians who settled, historically, at Jolfa, in the north of Iran, and were then moved to New Jolfa in Esfahan in Safavid times. Many also live around the north- western city of Orumiyeh. Christians were present in Iran before the arrival of Islam and some Christian saints were martyred here.

Today, Iran’s 250,000 Christians also include Roman Catholics, Adventists, Protestants and Chaldeans as well as about 20,000 Assyrians. There are churches in most large towns. Christians are allowed to consume alcohol and hold mixed-sex parties with dancing, just as long as no Muslims can see and partake in the revelry. They also have a non segregated sports centre in Tehran, where women can play sports unencumbered by hejab.

JudaismBack to Top

Iran has been home to a healthy population of Jews since about the 8th century BC – even before Cyrus the Great famously liberated the Jews who had been enslaved at Babylon. Today Iran is home to about 25,000 Jews, the second-largest Jewish population in the Middle East, after Israel. More than 50,000 Jews left Iran when life became more difficult following the revolution – the majority migrating to the USA. In 2007 Israel tried to prompt a mass migration of those remaining in Iran by offering cash incentives of up to US$60,000 per family. However, the Society of Iranian Jews snubbed the offer, saying the ‘identity of Iranian Jews is not tradable for any amount of money’. Traditionally active in the bazaars and jewellery trade, Iranian Jews tend to live in the large cities such as Tehran, Esfahan and Shiraz. About 30 synagogues remain in Iran, but they are not easy to find.

MandaeismBack to Top

An ancient gnostic religion, the exact origin of Mandaeism is unknown. Because they speak a form of Aramaic, some credence is given to the Mandaeans’ claim that they are descended from followers of John the Baptist; others believe they may be descended from the Essene sect. They practise weekly baptisms as a sacrament, and claim to follow the teachings of John the Baptist. They are considered by Muslims to be ‘People of the Book’ and identified as the Sabeans of Quranic legend. The small community of around 10,000 is centred on the Shatt al Arab in Khuzestan.

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