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date: 19 October 2019

Religious Regulation in Iran

Summary and Keywords

The history of religious minority politics and rights in Iran dates back to the early periods of the ancient Persian Empire. With the passage of time, expansion of the empire led to increased religious pluralism that necessitated official religious tolerance and accommodation. With the adoption of Shi’a Islam as the official religion of the country at the outset of the 16th century, which was largely motivated by the monarchs’ search for greater political legitimacy, Shi’ism was gradually linked to Persian monarchism and was effectively integrated into the Persian national identity and values. The growing influence of Shi’ism empowered the Shi’a clerical establishment that effectively sought exclusionary and discriminatory policies toward religious and sectarian minorities. With the establishment of the Islamic Republic in the aftermath of the revolution in the late 1970s, religious minority politics in Iran gained a more complex and nuanced dimension that facilitated Shi’a dominance and ushered in increasingly exclusionary and discriminatory governmental policies that have undermined religious and sectarian minority rights. This article surveys the history of religious pluralism and regulation in pre-Islamic Persia as well as pre-revolutionary Iran, and examines the legal and practical underpinnings of religious regulation in the Islamic Republic. While Islam does account for certain exclusive rights for Muslims in an Islamic state, it explicitly rejects discrimination against the Peoples of the Book (ahl-al Kitab). To a large extent, the current discriminatory practices against religious and sectarian minorities in Iran are rooted in the regime’s advocacy for sectarian exclusivity and political self-interests, which have very little to do with the Islamic worldview.

Keywords: Armenians, Baha’is, Iran, Islam, Jews, Persia, Shi’ism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, politics and religion


The history of religious minority politics and rights in Iran dates back to the early periods of the ancient Persian Empire. With the expansion of the empire and growing religious pluralism due to the gains in control over a diverse population over time, the authorities had to devise policies that accounted for religious pluralism and involved alternative accommodating, tolerant, exclusionary, and discriminatory policies. With the adoption of Shi’a Islam, the growing link between Persian monarchism and Shi’ism, the gradual and effective integration of Shi’a worldview into Persian national identity and values, and empowerment of the Shi’a clerical establishment, religious minority politics gained a more complex and nuanced dimension that facilitated Shi’a dominance and increasingly exclusionary and discriminatory treatment of religious minorities. Up to the revolution of the late 1970s, the periodic cooperation and conflict between the political establishment and the clerics shaped the parameters of religious minority politics and rights.

Iranian revolutionaries of the late 1970s were diverse forces who subscribed to an array of ideologies and policy preferences. However, for much of the revolutionary process they were united in their opposition to the monarch for his disregard of public sensibilities, repressive measures, subservience to and support for Western colonial powers and their interests, and unwillingness and inability to meet the needs of the population. Ayatollah Ruhullah Khomeini’s (1902–1989) leadership helped with greater public mobilization, facilitated a prominent role for the Islamists in the revolutionary process, built the required foundation for the establishment of the Islamic republic, and fostered the marginalization of non-Islamist forces and their agenda in postrevolutionary Iran.

Establishing an Islamic state necessitated a massive effort at the Islamization of laws and policies that inevitably resulted in exclusionary and discriminatory politics and policies that among others, targeted religious and sectarian minorities. These goals and strategies did not coincide with the expectations of other revolutionaries who, for the most part, had challenged the ancien regime to establish a free and inclusive society devoid of ethnic, gender, and religious prejudices. To Khomeini and his Islamist supporters, in an Islamic state commitment to the implementation of the Islamic worldview, as they understood it, superseded any democratic and egalitarian principles that did not correspond with the Islamic views and rights. In particular, the clerics’ dogmatic commitment to Islamic primacy in light of Muhammad’s role as the seal of prophecy, the predominance of the Twelver Shi’a (Ithna ‘Ashari) viewpoint, and their uncontested right to rule not only justified discriminatory practices against non-Muslims but also against non-Shi’a Muslims.

In this article, we survey the history of religious pluralism and regulation in pre-Islamic Persia as well as prerevolutionary Iran, and study the legal and practical underpinnings of religious regulation in the Islamic Republic. While Islam does account for certain exclusive rights for Muslims in an Islamic state, it explicitly rejects discrimination against the Peoples of the Book (ahl-al Kitab). In the case of the Islamic Republic, this discriminatory practice even extends to the minority Sunnis who, despite their Islamic identity, are subject to certain legal and practical restrictions. To a large extent, these discriminatory practices against religious and sectarian minorities in Iran are rooted in the regime’s belief in sectarian exclusivity and political self-interests, which have very little to do with the Islamic worldview.

Religious Pluralism and Minority Politics in Prerevolutionary Iran

The Pre-Islamic Era

The history of religion in ancient Persia and modern Iran is a complex tale of religious pluralism, relative tolerance, and periodic oppression and purges either by the state or dominant religious groups and establishments. The ancient pre-Zoroastrian religions of Iran are not well documented or discussed. Much of our understanding of the religions of this period is based on such Iranian and Indian sacred books as Avesta and the Vedas (Duchesne-Gyuillemin, 2019). According to these sources, religions of this period were generally polytheistic, worshipped the same gods and fire, and embraced varieties of ritualistic rites. Furthermore, these religions exhibited a tendency toward dualism by distinguishing between the “heavenly” and “demons.”

Zoroastrianism was the ancient pre-Islamic religion of Iran that flourished before the 6th century bc (Stausberg, 2011, p. 171). Zarathustra, or Zoroaster (628–551 bc), the founder of this religion, initially lived in northeastern Iran, but his influence gradually spread westward. This predominantly ritualistic religion that emphasizes a type of monotheism combined with dualistic features had some influence on the development of monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Zoroaster spoke of the one creator, Ahura Mazda, who brings light, order, and truth. In the moralistic Zoroastrian thought, there was an emphasis on free choice and dualism of good versus evil, predicting the ultimate victory of good. Apparently, this form of dualism has endured in the Iranian religious traditions ever since. During the Islamic period in Iran, dualism influenced the development of Shi’a thoughts and practices. For instance, it is indeed quite conceivable that the dualism present in the Shi’a doctrine of taqiyyah (dissimulation) that accounts for both activism and quietism is partly due to the Persian cultural influence rooted in the dualism of Zoroastrian thoughts and practices.

Cyrus the Great (Kurush, 600–530 bc), the founder of the Achaemenid dynasty (550–330 bc) was quite tolerant of alien religions such as the Babylonian mythological religious practices and Judaism. However, in order to unify his empire, the third king of the Achaemenid dynasty, Darius (Dariush, 522–486 bc) adopted Zoroastrianism and worshipped Ahura Mazda as the greatest god of gods. His successors Xerxes (Khashayar, 485–465 bc), Artaxerxes II (Ardeshir, 404–359/358 bc), and others continued following polytheistic thoughts but gave deference to Zoroastrianism. The succeeding Sassanid dynasty (224–651 ce) adopted Zoroastrianism (Stausberg, 2011). Under King Bahram I (273–276 ce), religious tolerance was set aside as the founder of Manichaeism, Mani, who had enjoyed a degree of autonomy and tolerance under the previous kings, was incarcerated and eventually died in prison as a favor to the Zoroastrian establishment. During the rule of his successor, Bahram II (274–293 ce), the Zoroastrian leaders persecuted followers of other religions including Jews, Christians, Buddhists, and others. Under the influence of the reformist Mazdaki religion during the reign of Bahram V (420–438 ce), much emphasis was placed on social and economic equality and the government supported the abolition of private property, which was seen as the source of evil. Opposition by the rich to these policies and the rising massive economic problems resulted in the overthrow of the king (see Rad & Jahanbakhshi, 2015). After regaining his throne, Bahram V and the succeeding kings abandoned the egalitarian worldview of the Mazdakis and their religious beliefs. In fact, Khosrow II (590–628 ce) is believed to have adopted Christianity and married a Christian woman. With the Muslim victory over the Persians in 635 ce, many Iranians were either forced or persuaded to convert to Islam, despite Islam’s stated tolerance of ancient religions. Muslim forces defeated the resisting Zoroastrians, causing their mass exodus to India. Only a small number of Zoroastrians survived in Iran. They became a persecuted minority primarily in small enclaves in the eastern Iranian cities of Yazd and Kerman (Stausberg, 2011).

Islamic Iran

The Safavid dynasty (1501–1736 ce) adopted Shi’a Islam as the country’s official religion in 1501, which opened a new chapter in the religious minority status and regulation in the country. Shi’ism brought the Safavid kings a new and enduring source of legitimacy, whereby religion offered a cover for their monarchic notions of familial rule and inheritance.1 The emergence and gradual empowerment of the Shi’a clerical establishment under the protection of the political authorities has adversely impacted the rights of religious and sectarian minorities ever since. The Constitutional Revolution and adoption of a constitutional monarchic system in the early years of the 20th century institutionalized the clerical powers in the Iranian political system by acknowledging their exclusive role in ensuring compliance with Islam in law and policies.2 Thus, as the Shi’a clerics became the guardians of Islam in the Iranian system and exhibited systemic intolerance toward other religions, monarchs became the only source of support and protection for religious minority rights when necessary and viable. To date, generally, ideological preferences, economic imperatives, general public sympathies and global public opinion, and regime interests have shaped the dynamics of religious minority rights in Iran.

With the exception of Sunni Muslims, who compose less than 10% of the Iranian population, notable religious minorities consist of relatively small Zoroastrian, Armenian, Jewish, and Baha’i communities. With the predominance of Shi’ism in Iran, Zoroastrians were relegated to a religious minority and subject to systematic mistreatment, even though they had lived in the country for centuries and their religion was considered to be the original religion of the inhabitants (Stausberg, 2011). Like many other non-Muslims, they were often forced to pay taxes to local authorities and their treatment varied depending on the wishes of the local clerics and the general population (Sanasarian, 1995). The Zoroastrians’ active financial and political support for the Constitutional Revolution improved their standing with the general public and religious establishment. In the new constitution, they were not only given a protected status but also meaningful representation in the new parliament (Majles; Sanasarian, 1995). During Reza Shah’s rule (1925–1941 ce), despite restrictions on all religious minority educational institutions and places of worship, Zoroastrians gained a great deal of support from the king largely due to his nationalistic and anti-Islamic sentiments. As a self-described nationalist, Reza Shah reintroduced some of the earlier Persian symbols that coincided with some of the expressions found in the Zoroastrian teachings associated with the Persian kingdoms prior to the mid-7th century (Stausberg, 2011). Like many other minority groups in Iran, Zoroastrians openly took part in the political life of the country by joining oppositionist parties and groups, including the Tudeh party, during the vibrancy of civil society in Iran of the mid-20th century.

Armenians’ origins can be traced back to prehistoric times. In both Persian and Greek writings, there are references to the Armenians who lived in Armenia around 500 bc. The Armenian Apostolic Church, which is a branch of Eastern Christianity, became the official church of the Armenian state around 314 ce (Sanasarian, 1995). A small number of Armenians, however, are Catholics and Protestants. For much of their history, Armenians were the target of their neighbors’ colonial interests and policies. In the aftermath of a long competition between the Persian and Ottoman empires over influence, ultimately the Ottoman Turks gained control of much of the Armenian enclave in 1639 ce. Persians, Ottoman Turks, and Russians dominated Armenian lands throughout the 19th century. The mistreatment of Armenians by the Ottomans is well documented, especially the genocide of the Armenians by the Ottomans in the latter part of the 19th and early years of the 20th centuries that cost many Armenian lives.3 Iranians, in contrast, treated Armenians more humanely during their long direct or indirect control. Under the Safavid rule, Armenian communities gained some internal autonomy, and the community-state relationship was mainly mediated through the patriarch of the church and representatives appointed by the king (Sanasarian, 2000). After the Constitutional Revolution, Armenians maintained some autonomy in their cultural and religious affairs. Additionally, the new constitution accounted for two Armenian representatives in the parliament (Majles). Armenians’ ability to gain and maintain some rights in the country has historically been attributed to their efforts at and success in cultivating relationships with the Iranian elites and the population at large, and, unlike some ethnic minorities, to their lack of territorial claims or search for independence that could potentially threaten the regime and cause popular backlash. In the 1930s, Reza Shah’s nationalistic sentiments and policies that underscored the Iranians’ Persian identity naturally targeted some of the religious and ethnic minorities. In this pursuit, the Shah closed the Armenian schools and cultural centers, launched public relations campaigns against Christian communities especially Armenians and Assyrians, and banned Armenians from government employment. His son and successor, Muhammad Reza Shah (1919–1980 ce), pursued a more conciliatory and tolerant approach to minorities, in order to broaden his base of support and to curb the influence of the Shi’a clerical establishment, by restoring some degree of communal autonomy to these groups. Although suspicious of the Armenian links to their compatriots in the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, the Shah allowed their public employment including military service in the lower ranks (Sanasarian, 2000).

The Jewish presence in Persia dates to the Cyrus conquest of the Babylonian empire (539 bc; see Sarshar, 2014). Jewish communities were supported by and maintained some autonomy under the Persian monarchs until the Safavid adoption of Shi’a Islam. Thereafter, the treatment of Jews by both the Persian and Ottoman empires was much harsher than other religious minorities, as many were subjected to systemic expulsion and violence (Sabim, 2014). This maltreatment may be explained by the absence of external support for Jews at the time and the general Muslim and even Christian populations’ bias against and dislike for them. Jewish Iranian intellectuals and the European Jewish community had sought to improve the condition of Iranian Jews as early as the 1870s by opening Jewish schools around the country, offering religious studies to Jewish students, and advocating for Jewish communal interests. As a recognized religious minority, the 1906 constitution acknowledged the political rights of the Jewish community by offering them a single representation in the parliament. However, the regime showed very little interest in protecting the rights of the community as it closed down Jewish schools in the 1920s (Sanasarian, 2000). As expected, Reza Shah’s strong nationalist and openly pro-German sentiments further undermined Jewish rights. During World War II and the rise of nationalism and nativism in Europe and the Middle East, Jews’ strong and uncompromising religious views and expectations and their economic success, which contributed to the popular view that blamed Jews for heightened inequalities among the lesser privileged non-Jews, exacerbated anti-Jewish sentiments in Iran and enabled the government to impose greater restrictions on the rights of the Jewish community.

While Jews were not persecuted, the regime clearly launched an effective media campaign against the Zionist movement and its supporters in the Iranian Jewish community. These measures were clearly supported by a broad segment of the population that had embraced Hitler’s propaganda and identified with the German National-Socialist view of the superiority of the “Aryans.” With the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, many Iranian Jews, particularly those from the lower classes, immigrated to Israel in search of improved economic, social, and political opportunities. More than one-third of the Iranian Jewish community left for Israel between 1948 and 1953 (Sanasarian, 2000). The early postwar era witnessed greater tension between the general public and the Jewish community largely in response to the community’s support for the Zionist movement that facilitated the establishment of the state of Israel and mistreatment of non-Jews in Palestine. Mossadegh’s era in the early 1950s brought a rise in politically motivated public anti-Jewish sentiment (Rahimiayan, 2017). However, Muhammad Reza Shah’s return after the coup of 1953 opened new opportunities for the Jewish community, and Jews prospered under his protection until the revolution of 1978. He recognized and established a diplomatic relationship with Israel and helped Jewish organizations, synagogues, and associations to flourish at national and provincial levels (Parsi, 2007). By 1979, nearly half of the elementary school-aged Jewish students attended Hebrew schools and were taught in Hebrew. Due to economic opportunities, the majority of Jews belonged to the middle class, with nearly 10% wealthy and 10% impoverished (Sanasarian, 2000). These accommodating initiatives reinforced the Iranian identity of the Jewish community as many Iranian Jews embraced Muhammad Reza Shah’s policies and became “among the most loyal advocates of the Iranian national narrative as it was shaped by the Pahlavi regime (Nissimov, 2017, p. 199).” These views and support for the regime during the revolution, however, adversely impacted the interests of the Jewish community in the postrevolutionary era.

Throughout their history that spans over two and a half centuries, the Baha’is and their predecessors have been subjected to exclusionary and extensive discriminatory practices in the Middle East. In many Muslim countries including Morocco (1962), Egypt (1960), and Iraq (1970), they were banned and mistreated. This discrimination, however, has been more systematic in Iran since the inception of the religion (Affolter, 2005). There are both religious and political reasons for this mistreatment. By subscribing to a “progressive” system of prophecy, and claiming Baha ‘Allah’s prophecy after Muhammad, Baha’is essentially dismissed one of the main pillars of Islam that establishes Muhammad as the seal of the prophecy (Islamic doctrine of nubuwwah).4 Furthermore, the Baha’is’ identification with the ruling regimes in Iran and their distaste for participation in revolutionary and progressive political movements, particularly in the 20th century, alienated them from both the religious traditionalists as well as progressive segments of the society. In light of these views and choices, some Iranian critics of Baha’ism have even gone so far as to question the religious legitimacy of this faith by highlighting the political circumstances leading to its formation and early developments. In particular, the Baha’i opposition to the Shi’a resistance to British colonialism, their calculated advocacy for political apathy, and their extensive involvement with the ruling regimes and absence from oppositionist politics in the latter part of the 20th century reinforced the popular suspicions about the political roots of this religion.

The Baha’i faith is rooted in the two movements of the 19th century in Iran: Sheikhism and Babism. Under the leadership of Seyyd Ali Mohammad Shirazi (1819–1850), the Babis broke ranks with the Sheikhis, and Shirazi declared himself to be the gate (bab) to the Hidden Imam. Babism was a progressive and militant movement that opposed both the Shi’a clerical establishment as well as the government for their reactionary stance on a wide array of issues. As Abbas Amanat has astutely indicated, “at the heart of the Babi ethos was a spirit of rebellion against social injustice and moral mischief, for which the Babis held both the rulers and the Ulama responsible. The Babis were unanimous in their condemnation. The methods they prescribed, however, differed widely” (Amanat, 1989, p. 407). In search of a just and equitable society in the mid-19th century, they openly challenged the government, and in 1852 a group of Babi activists made an attempt on the life of the Qajar king Naser al-Din Shah (1831–1896) that resulted in strong governmental and popular reactions (MacEoin, 1983). The crackdown on the Babis decimated the Babi leadership and community. The ensuing leadership crisis and chaos and the ultimate rise of Mirza Husayn Ali Baha ‘Allah (1817–1892) to authority gradually shaped the Baha’i faith that initially combined elements of popular Shi’ism with esotericism and Sufi mysticism (see Amanat, 1981). Babism was thus gradually replaced with Baha’ism as Husayn Ali’s fascination with messianism convinced him to claim the status of a new divine manifestation. Baha’ism claimed to bring new laws and ordinances distinct from Islam. In political consideration, given the tremendous backlash to the activist nature of Babism, Husayn Ali transformed Baha’ism into a spiritual religion that embraced political quietism, in the same tradition found in the Shi’a doctrine of taqiyyah, in the interest of communal self-preservation (MacEoin, 1983). The Baha’is began condemning the past Babi militancy and embraced what they called a “pacifist” orientation that essentially advocated for total obedience to authority, even beyond some of the early Islamic notions, and acceptance of the political authority under any and all circumstances. To the Baha’is, struggle should be an internal effort at human spiritual advancement and avoidance of corruption rather than a challenge against the authorities. Over time, the main pillars of the faith included practicing pacifism and the pursuit of world peace, universal education, and eradication of racial and religious discrimination. Of course, these teachings were harshly attacked by both the Persian and Ottoman authorities, the Muslim clerics, militant Babis, and even the Azalis (a faction led by Husayn Ali’s brother). Internal infighting, leadership challenges, and factionalism clearly undermined the unity of the community and the teachings of the religion.

The Baha’is’ religious views and political role in Iran have made them the target of systematic exclusion and discrimination since the inception of the faith. In the early years of the 20th century, they did not involve themselves in the Constitutional Revolution due to their commitment to pacifism, connection to the monarchy, and fear of public reprisal by the population or political establishment. In the highly factionalized revolutionary process, the royalists accused the revolutionaries of being Baha’is, and the clerics made sure that the Baha’is were excluded from the process. As expected, the new constitution excluded the Baha’is from any legal or social standing in the new constitutional monarchic system (Momen, 2012). However, to portray a sense of civility and an orderly society, Reza Shah initially supported religious minority rights and prevented public persecution of the Baha’is. They were allowed employment as civil servants and gained economic prominence in the country at the time. In the 1930s, however, the government imposed major restrictions on religious minority rights including bans on government employment, religious education, and religious publications. While these measures targeted all religious minorities, the Baha’i community was subjected to harsher restrictions including nonrecognition of their Baha’i marriages (Sanasarian, 2000). Contrary to the public view that Reza Shah was protective of the Baha’i community, there was systematic discrimination against them, which was mostly spearheaded by the clerical establishment and its supporters in the form of purges and destruction of religious centers. There is a great deal of dispute over the treatment of Baha’is during Muhammad Reza Shah. Accusations of collaboration with the regime in the aftermath of the 1953 coup and success of the prominent members of the Baha’i community in business and government throughout the 1960s and 1970s heightened anti-Baha’i sentiments in the years leading up to the revolution of the late 1970s. The Baha’is’ association with the West and Israel, history of apostasy, support for monarchism, and elitism are the main explanations for the harsher treatment of this community in postrevolutionary Iran.

Religious Regulation in the Islamic Republic of Iran

In today’s Iran, there is no uniform treatment of religious minorities throughout the country. Officially, in the Islamic Republic, religious minority rights are accounted for in a series of legal documents and practices rooted in the mainstream Shi’a views. In actuality, however, treatment of religious minorities is largely impacted by the absence of a centralized institutional mechanism and the degree to which it is capable of influencing local governments and their policies in this area, the historical relationship between Muslims and religious minorities at the local level, diversity of clerical points of view on minority rights, and personal relationships among religious leaders at the local level. Therefore, religious minorities are treated differently in different parts of the county. In Tehran and major cities, they are basically treated according to the established laws and religious edicts. In the provinces, however, they may be treated less or more harshly. This, of course, causes a great deal of inconsistency in religious minority treatment in the country.

The Legal Framework of Religious Minority Rights

The constitution of the Islamic Republic and its amendments, parliamentary statutes, religious edicts (fatwas), governmental regulations, and a host of scholarly-clerical interpretations and declarations establish a legal framework for religious minority rights that account for a range of accommodating, tolerant, exclusionary, and discriminatory practices. In sum, these laws and practices clearly put limits on Sunni minority rights; account for some and limit other rights of the Zoroastrian, Armenian, and Jewish communities; and expressly exclude the Baha’i faith as a legitimate religion. These types of treatments, in part, are contrary to the Islamic worldview and some of the stipulations in the constitution.

Religious minority rights are clearly spelled out in Article 13 of the constitution. It specifically states: “Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian Iranians are the only legitimate religious minorities who, within the limits of Islamic law, are free to perform their religious rites, and to act according to their own canon in personal matters and religious education” (Papin-Matin, 2014). To offer an Islamic justification for this tolerant and accommodating stance, Article 14 refers to the Quranic injunction that “God does not forbid you to deal kindly and justly with those who have not fought against you because of your religion and who have not expelled you from your homes” (Qur’an, 80:8). Articles 13 and 14 specifically task the government and people to treat these religious minorities humanely, justly, and equitably in accordance with Islam and the laws of the country. It is noteworthy, however, that the legal requirements in Article 4 of the constitution do indeed complicate religious minority rights: “All civil, penal, financial, economic, administrative, cultural, military, political, and other laws and regulations must be based on Islamic criteria. This principle applies absolutely and generally to all articles of the Constitution as well as to all other laws and regulations.” Article 64 expressly accounts for the representation of recognized religious minorities in the parliament. According to this article, Zoroastrians and Jews will each elect one representative, Assyrians and Chaldean Christians will jointly elect one representative, and Armenian Christians in the north and those in the south of the country will each elect one representative.

The absence of any specific references to the Sunni Muslims and Baha’is in these articles of the constitution is indicative of some limitations on the rights of the Sunnis and total exclusion of the Baha’is in the Islamic Republic. There is no religious or legal justification for excluding the Sunnis or subjecting them to the Shi’a requirements in an Islamic state. Thus, similar to their treatment under the previous regimes and consistent with the principles that guide followers of other legitimate religious minorities, Sunnis are entitled to follow their own canons and engage in religious rituals and education within the limits of the law. They are, however, subject to limitations imposed on non-Muslim religious minorities including monitoring of their religious practices, prohibition of the right to proselytize, and denial of right to hold the highest positions of power in the republic including the supreme leadership (Article 109) and the presidency of the country (Article 115). As a sharp distinction from the legitimate religions, Baha’ism is denied legitimacy in the constitution and its followers are openly deprived of meaningful and essential social, economic, legal, and political rights in the country. Legally, then, the constitution did not substantially alter the status of legitimate religious and sectarian minorities compared to the ancien regime, except in regard to the expanded scope and strict application of Islamic law. As discussed earlier, systematic exclusionary and discriminatory practices against the Baha’is preceded the Islamic Republic.

Parliamentary statutes and religious edicts also establish some rights for and reinforce certain exclusionary and discriminatory practices against sectarian and religious minorities. While the constitution accounts for nondiscrimination, particularly on the basis of gender (Article 20) and ethnic background (Article 19), the Islamization of laws has ushered in discriminatory practices on these grounds as well as religious affiliation. A range of civil and penal codes and regulations expressly give priority to Muslims over non-Muslims and openly discriminate against non-Muslims. For instance, when it comes to the hadd (pl. huddud)5 punishment of the crime of drinking alcohol (maskar), legitimate religious minorities are exempt from the law, as long as their religions do not prohibit drinking (“Islamic Penal Code,” 2014; Chapter 6, Section 1, Article 165). Even though some Sunnis consider drinking beer permissible, the laws do not account for such right for Iranian Sunnis. All religious minorities, however, are subject to this law if they display drunkenness in public (Chapter 6, Section 2, Article 174). However, as a discriminatory practice, some Shi’a scholars favor less severe punishments for retributory crimes (Qesas)6 committed by Muslims against non-Muslims (Tamdonfar, 2015). Undoubtedly, a retributory crime committed by a non-Muslim against a Muslim would subject the offender to severe penalties. These discriminatory practices extend to such basic legal rights as serving as witnesses in courts or holding judicial positions. There are also significant limitations on religious minorities’ substantive and procedural rights in the civil code and its related regulations. While recognized religious minority courts and establishments have sole jurisdiction over a range of issues dealing with religious minorities including personal matters such as marriage, divorce, and custodial disputes, these courts lack jurisdiction when one of the parties is a Muslim. The law considers the marriage of a Muslim woman to a non-Muslim man null and void, since this marriage allows a non-Muslim to dominate a Muslim. This prohibition does not exist in the case a Muslim man marrying a non-Muslim woman (from recognized religious minorities). In this case, all legal matters related to this marriage are subject to Islamic law and court jurisdictions. Logically, then, all Baha’i marriages are null and void and any marriage contracts and their pertinent rights and obligations are unenforceable in courts. This has a major impact on the rights of the Baha’is related to divorce, custody, and inheritance. Furthermore, the Baha’is face discrimination in other legal matters such as right to employment, property ownership, assembly, political expression, and education.

Some of these laws often conflict with the religious minority rights afforded by the constitution and international laws and conventions to which the Islamic Republic is a signatory.

Governmental Treatment of Religious Minorities

In general, governmental policies are designed to provide some protection for religious minorities and to ensure their obedience to the regime and its leaders. These protections cover an array of issues including the minority rights to engage in their religious practices; to follow their own religious guidelines in personal matters including marriage, divorce, custody, and inheritance; and to have some autonomy in religious education. Naturally, in the interest of the system, the regime imposes significant constraints on these rights both in law and in practice. While minorities may freely observe their religious services, ceremonies, and holidays, the government requires prior notification to the Department of Religious Minorities of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance about the significance and dates of the events, and approval of the texts of speeches. Since conversion away from Islam is a crime, the regime expressly bans any form of proselytizing by religious minorities. To this end, for instance, religious minority leaderships are forced to prohibit Muslims from entering their religious sites or engaging in their religious rituals (Sanasarian, 2000). Furthermore, significant restrictions are imposed on religious books, especially the Bible, which under the law may not be printed in or imported into Iran. At the outset of the republic, the government discouraged destruction of religious minority sites and places of worship. Most incidents of desecration of Zoroastrian temples and Armenian graveyards and religious centers were organized and carried out by zealous local groups under either direct or indirect encouragement by the clerics. With the decline of the religious minority population over time due to migration from the country, some of these religious centers were closed down due to the lack of attendance and concerns over safety.

The government’s preoccupation with centralization of power and control over the population in general and religious minorities in particular, governmental policies regarding religious minority education and educational establishments have evolved significantly over time. While the constitution explicitly allows minorities to engage in religious education, the regime has become increasingly intolerant about religious schools, their curriculum, and staffing. During the first decade of the postrevolutionary era, under the protection and proactive support of prominent leaders of the revolution and provisional government, religious schools continued as they had before the revolution (Sanasarian, 2000). As these proponents of religious minorities disappeared from the political scene, some of the successive governments undertook measures to gain greater control over minority religious education by changing school names (this was particularly true of Zoroastrian schools that were named after previous monarchs and queens), imposing gender segregation in schools, requiring physical separation between school facilities and other religious establishments (to protect the growing number of Muslim students who were attending these schools from being subjected to proselytization), appointing Muslim teachers and administrators to these schools, changing school curricula including reduction in or elimination of instruction in languages other than Farsi (which gravely impacted minorities whose religions were closely tied to their language), and interfering in the substance of religious topics by adopting government-approved religious study texts for these schools. The government was unresponsive to the religious minority complaints about these initiatives in education. In fact, the government issued a formal declaration as early as 1983 that required the following: All religious instruction to be given in Farsi, all schools to rely on a single religious text prepared and approved by the government that essentially advanced an Islamic agenda and underscored the evils of Westernism and non-Muslim values, government preapproval of all school events, students and teachers to be required to observe Islamic dress codes, and religious language instruction to be limited in duration to two hours per week (Sanasarian, 2000). Subject to local practices, however, these instructions were implemented unevenly throughout the country, causing a good deal of confusion and conflict. Despite their outspoken opposition to these measures, religious minority leaders were keenly aware of the limitations on their challenge to these policies in the interest of their communities. Some even went as far as expressing their solidarity with the regime, supporting the government and its domestic and foreign policies and criticizing foreign interference in Iran’s internal affairs when foreign media and organizations publicized religious minority mistreatment by the regime. According to Eliz Sanasarian (2000), these measures in education potentially had enduring impact on religious minority students who were viewed “as evolutionary transients on their way to becoming Muslims and the role of the theocracy was to facilitate this change gradually, while maintaining their rights as the respected and protected Peoples of the Book” (p. 83). Furthermore, these policies created substantial practical problems for students, including poor performance on exams covering Islamic topics and maintaining good standing on “moral conduct” evaluations by Muslim teachers and principals. Satisfactory performance on moral conduct evaluations, that increasingly became thorough and organized, was crucial for students who aspired to take college entrance exams. Muslim and non-Muslim students who received below minimum on this evaluation were barred from taking these tests and having the chance to attend college.

The regime’s economic policies also adversely impacted religious minorities. Religiously sanctioned dietary rules and requirements, for instance, influenced the sectors of this industry that were owned by or employed religious minority workers. For instance, many Armenian business operations in soft drink and processed meat industries were confiscated and their owners and workers laid off and replaced by Muslim employees. The regime’s rationale for such harsh measures was to ensure that Muslims were not exposed to unsanitary (najes) products due to having been touched by non-Muslims. Historically, government employment policies often discriminated on the basis of gender, ethnicity, and religious affiliation. During the ancien regime, these discriminatory practices reflected the regime’s sensitivities about the potentials of disintegrating tendencies of ethnic and religious groups. Thus, with minor exceptions, members of these communities rarely gained prominence in the government. A similar pattern with greater restrictions for certain religious minorities is present in the Islamic Republic. Some minorities served in the military and were killed during the Iran-Iraq war. However, in 1987, the law adopted adherence to Islam as a requirement for military service. This law was passed over the objection of religious minority representatives (Sanasarian, 2000). Employment discrimination against religious minorities in other governmental sectors such as education and the oil industry forced religious minorities to seek private sector employment.

The government also imposed its will on the social conduct of religious minorities from the outset. While religious minorities are free to conduct themselves according to their religious teachings in private, they are expected to respect Muslim sensibilities and rules of conduct including gender segregation and dress code in public. While some minorities find segregation simply inconvenient but not offensive, others consider it to be contrary to their cultural and religious practices. The government’s insistence on forcing women to wear head cover (hejab) faced opposition not only from religious minorities but also Muslim women. In response to the objections by religious minority women, the government insisted that women are obligated to observe the laws of the society where they live (Sanasarian, 2000). Muslim and non-Muslim women who violate segregation guidelines and dress codes are systematically subjected to harassment and discrimination.

In this increasingly hostile and discriminatory atmosphere, there is a great deal of disparity in the way various religious minorities are treated in law and practice. In view of the total domination of the Shi’a establishment in the country, even Sunni Muslims are subject to discrimination and harassment. In a report by the United Nations Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran (Jahangir, 2017), non-Shi’a Muslims claim discrimination on the part of the regime. The Sunnis complain that authorities do not appoint their members to high ranking government positions. Muslims who belong to other groups, including the Nematollahi Gonabadi order and Yarsan, according to this report, face a range of human rights violations including attacks on their places of worship, destruction of their community cemeteries, and arrest and torture of their community leaders. Several professors and students who belong to the Gonabadi order have been banned from various universities, and some were threatened and attacked by the Revolutionary Guards. An Amnesty International report documented the regime’s mistreatment of the Sufis who refused to leave their mosque in 2006 by arresting and sentencing them to corporal punishments (Amnesty International, 2017). The lawyers who represented the interests of these minorities were subsequently disbarred. In a fatwa, the Sufis were declared “null and void” as a religious fellowship (Schirrmacher, 2009).

With minor exceptions, Zoroastrians who had historically been relatively well-treated in Iran faced major challenges under the Islamic Republic from the outset. Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the republic, dismissed Zoroastrianism as an “old and inverted sect,” and labeled Zoroastrians as “reactionary fire worshippers” (Foltz, 2011, p. 77). Mobs reacted to these statements by attacking Zoroastrian establishments and even some Muslim families took over Zoroastrian properties. A host of legislative initiatives and governmental policies have adversely affected the interests of the Zoroastrians under the Islamic regime. Both the penal and civil codes include discriminatory stipulations with far-reaching impact on this community, including inheritance laws, which make it attractive to convert to Islam, and the compensatory laws (diat), which favor Muslims for victim compensation. The regime’s policies have limited government and military employment for Zoroastrians (Chosky, 2006) and the government regulates and monitors Zoroastrian education and social activities to ensure their compliance with the laws that prohibit proselytization and improper gender interaction in public. Zoroastrian representatives in the Majles have frequently used their role as the advocates of religious minority rights to highlight discriminatory treatments and to oppose constitutional and legal restrictions on their rights. However, some Zoroastrian leaders and activists acknowledge that they are relatively better treated than other religious minorities under the Islamic Republic (Foltz, 2011). Interestingly, as a religious minority Zoroastrians enjoy certain freedoms denied to the Muslim majority, including some leniency in holding social and community events free from heavy-handed governmental intrusion; and freedoms to have closed events with mixed gender, from observing the dress code, of performing their religious rituals, and consuming alcohol. As indicated earlier, however, these freedoms are subject to local circumstances that govern communal relationships and the general trends in governmental policies on religious minority rights and treatment.

Due to the geographic concentration of Armenians and their long history in certain localities, their treatment in the Islamic Republic is quite uneven. In some parts of the country they have a great deal of freedom in religious practices and education and face minimal mistreatment. By contrast, in religious centers of the country their activities are heavily monitored and constrained. In the early years of the republic up to the mid-1980s, Armenian communities were treated harshly and with heavy-handedness. Despite governmental efforts to limit the community’s autonomy, however, Armenians attempted to preserve their autonomy by reinforcing their religio-cultural heritage through religious education, language training, and commemorating historically significant social events. The regime’s extensive intrusion in religious minority education has had the most significant impact on the Armenian minority in view of the role of their language in their religious education. Understandably, Armenians have strongly objected to a uniform religious text for religious minorities that is sponsored by the regime and infused with Islamic teachings, increasing reliance on Farsi and limitations in instruction in the Armenian language, and appointment of Muslim instructors and principals to Armenian schools. As mentioned previously, in 1983 the government issued a declaration in response these objections by requiring all religious instructions to be in Farsi, schools to observe Muslim dress code, and all their activities be preapproved. The church tried to take a more conciliatory approach to these issues and the government successfully imposed these restrictions on the Armenian schools. Similar heavy-handed restrictions were imposed on the Armenians’ social lives and activities dealing with dress code, consumption of alcohol, and gender segregation at public events.

In the past two decades, however, there has been a greater degree of flexibility and openness to the Armenian community in response to their cooperative attitude toward their local communities and the government. Some of the early restrictions were never actually imposed and others were gradually relaxed, thus allowing the Armenian community to exercise its rights in a relatively free environment. The regime tolerates Armenian religious practices and the laws acknowledge the Armenian Apostolic Church’s autonomy in personal matters. Even though the government has the final say in legal matters officially, there is no systematic interference by the regime in the church’s jurisdiction and religious activities. Of course, the church is subject to the same rules that govern other religious minorities regarding community and public events (Sanasarian, 1995). Nowadays, the regime-imposed restrictions on social and religious practices are applied to all communities including Muslims. The trend to allow some autonomy for the Armenians is largely due to the Armenian-Iranians’ historical identity with the country, past participation in the progressive social and political movements, affinity toward their communities, and support for the regime’s policies.

Systematic discrimination against the Jewish community by the government and other religious communities in modern times is essentially rooted in the negative images and mistrust of the Jews rather than religious schisms (Rahimiayan, 2017). In concert with Islamic teachings, the constitution and laws of the Islamic Republic do acknowledge similar rights for Jews that Islam recognizes for other Peoples of the Book. The regime’s intense mistrust of the dwindling Jewish population, however, underpins its harsh treatment of this religious minority, which includes economic and employment restrictions and legal and political pressures such as arrests, torture, imprisonments, and executions. These practices are a response to this community’s support for Israel, whose belligerent regional policies and vociferous and aggressive opposition to Iran’s nuclear and missile policies has taken the form of sabotage and the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists.

There is a concerted effort on the part of the Baha’i establishment and its proponents in the West to advance the narrative that the Iranian regime’s treatment of the Baha’is is tantamount to some form of “genocide” (Affolter, 2005; Momen, 2005). This perspective could be reasonably challenged given the nature and scope of the current mistreatment of the Baha’is in the Islamic Republic. Khomeini explicitly stated that in the Islamic Republic there will not be any religious or political freedoms for the Baha’is (Kazemzadeh, 2000). Undoubtedly, the Baha’is have received the harshest forms of mistreatment imposed on religious minorities under the Islamic Republic. These treatments clearly and systematically violate their human rights (Jahangir, 2017). As discussed earlier, the constitution explicitly denies the Baha’is a legal status, and stipulations regarding religious minority rights clearly enable the regime to undertake discriminatory practices against all religious minorities (Articles 4 and 19) within the legal framework of the system. In the case of the Baha’is, the regime has imposed financial and employment hardships such as denial of business license, closure of businesses, hiring prohibitions, denial of pension benefits, denial of inheritance rights, and monitoring of bank accounts (Baha’i International Community, 2019). Furthermore, this community has been heavily restricted in their educational activities since the inception of the religion. In this area, the regime is in clear violation of a host of international conventions to which Iran is a signatory including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UNESCO Convention Against Discrimination in Education, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (Haghani, 2014). Under the Islamic regime, Baha’is have been denied opportunities for religious education, access to higher education (Kazemzadeh, 2000), and printing and dissemination of their religious texts. As a resistance to these educational restrictions and to build a sense of community and educate their youth, the Baha’i community founded the Baha’i Institute of Higher Education (BIHE) in 1987. This institute recruited Baha’i students and faculty, conducted nonreligious classes in private homes, and established academic ties to some foreign universities. By 1998, the government closed these operations down, confiscated equipment, and arrested and imprisoned instructors (Affolter, 2007; Kazemzadeh, 2000). In convicting the faculty to long prison sentences, the revolutionary court stated that the BIHE activities were crimes against national security and subject to punishment under Chapter 1, Article 498 of the Iranian Penal Code (“Baha’i Faculty,” 1999). In addition to the desecration of their holy sites by vigilante groups and security forces, the regime has launched extensive public relations campaigns to counter criticism of these policies by questioning the religious legitimacy of the Baha’i faith and the community’s loyalty to the country (Fazel, 1994). Arbitrary detentions on trumped-up charges, convictions, imprisonments, and executions of Baha’is have been commonplace since the establishment of the republic (Kazemzadeh, 2000). The Baha’is’ responses to these rights violations have been a mix of subdued resistance (Karlberg , 2010) and an extensive international public relations campaign designed to bring attention to the plights of the Iranian Baha’is. They insist that these policies violate international conventions such as the UN Charter (Articles 55 and 56), the International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and the ILO Convention Concerning Discrimination in Respect of Employment and Occupation (Allen, 1987).


In Iran, as a country with a long history of religious pluralism and complex and nuanced tolerance, the fortunes of religious minority communities are tied to their ability to build strong communal organizations, effectively assimilate into the fabric of the society, build meaningful ties with the Muslim establishment, participate in the life of the country, and acknowledge the primacy of their Iranian identity. Despite religious differences, Iranian Zoroastrians and Armenians have at times succeeded in securing popular support for their communities and have generally been treated well, with the exception of episodic and periodic mistreatments. The Jewish and Baha’i communities, in contrast, have traditionally been unable to gain popular support and secure their rights in the Iranian body politic. It has indeed been common to deny these communities their basic rights; confiscate their properties; and subject them to arrest, imprisonment, and torture. Although Iranian legal systems have acknowledged the legitimacy of Judaism and accounted for their rights in concert with the Islamic worldview, the Jewish community’s economic success, cooperative attitude toward the last monarch, failure to support revolutionary movements, and support for Israel and its policies have made them the target of the clerical establishment and the population at large. The Baha’is’ rejection of Islam and claim to their own unique religious values contrary to the Shi’a perspective, siding with the monarchy in opposition to the progressive forces in Iranian politics, and elitism have made it all too impossible for this community to assimilate into a society dominated by the majority Shi’a Muslims. The Pahlavi kings’ initiatives to offer some protection to religious minority communities, in particular the Jews and Baha’is, were shaped by their complex relationships with the clerical establishment. At times, to appease the clerics and their zealot supporters, Muhammad Reza Shah curbed religious minority rights by closing their centers of worship, educational institutions, and social and political organizations; by adopting economic policies that limited their employment and economic opportunities; and by supporting legislation to limit their political role in the system. When emboldened, his confrontational stance against the clerics resulted in greater rights for these religious minorities.

As expected, given the history of the clerical opposition to religious minority rights, the revolution and establishment of the Islamic Republic opened a new chapter in religious minority exclusion, discrimination, and mistreatment devised and supported by the all-powerful clerics. Generally, mistreatment of religious minorities, to one degree or another, has been more planned, systematic, and impactful. Even for the Zoroastrians and Armenians, whose treatment has not fundamentally changed compared to the prerevolutionary era, there is a good deal of unease with the legal and policy initiatives of the regime that limits their freedoms in the practice of their religious rites and rituals, education, and conduct of their daily social lives. Openly harsher mistreatment of the Jewish population is not as much motivated by religious imperatives as it is by the political and policy preferences of the Islamic regime. Intense opposition to Israel and its inhumane treatment of Palestinians, regional competition, and ideological opposition to the global system all play a role in the regime’s overall approach to the Jewish minority in Iran. There is no surprise that the Islamic system openly excludes the Baha’is and subjects them to harsh treatments including the denial of their basic right to the free expression of their religion, property confiscation, arrest and imprisonment, torture, and occasional execution. These policies are inhumane and in violation of the Iranian laws and international conventions on human rights. However, as systematic as some of these mistreatments are, they do not necessarily rise up to the level of “genocide,” as some claim. In states dominated by a religious majority, there are always some violations of religious minority rights. However, as a significant departure from Iran’s complex history of religious minority politics and rights, the Islamic Republic has built a legal and policy framework for systematic exclusion and intense discrimination. This strategy is neither appropriate nor is it necessary in view of the Islamic teachings on religious tolerance and accommodation.


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(1.) Many Shi’a clerics and reformist thinkers are critical of the Safavids’ motives and understanding of the nature of Shi’ism. To them, Safavids transformed the dynamic and revolutionary Shi’ism of Ali into a regressive form of monarchism that had very little similarity with Alid Shi’ism. For a detailed discussion of this perspective, see Shari’ati, 1352 A.H.

(2.) Article 2 of the Supplementary Fundamental Laws of October 7, 1907, specifically designates the sole authority to determine the compatibility of all laws to the clerical establishment, see: “Iran’s 1906 Constitution and its Supplements,” n.d.

(3.) By some estimates, nearly 1.5 million Armenians were exterminated by the Ottomans.

(4.) The concept of “Progressive Revelation” in the Baha’is thought asserts that God reveals increasingly sophisticated message to the human race through his prophets or messengers. Thus, the line of prophecy did not conclude with Muhammad, as Muslims claim (Cole, 1987–1988, p. 443).

(5.) Huddud crimes and punishment are fixed crimes and punishments that are specified in the Quran and are uniformly applied to Muslims under specific circumstances.

(6.) A form punishment present in ancient times that called for equal punishments for crimes of life and limb. Islamic law and the current Iranian legal system account for extensive mechanisms of retributory crimes and punishments.