Iranian religious distinctiveness is not primal

By Razib Khan | July 19, 2012 2:03 pm

Dienekes has a discussion up of a new paper on Iranian Y-chromosome variation. My post isn’t prompted by the genetics here, but rather a minor historical note within the text which I want to correct, again, because it isn’t totally minor in light of contemporary models of the uniqueness of Iranian (specifically Persian) identity in the Middle East:

Persian identity refers to the Indo-European Aryans who arrived in Iran about 4 thousand years ago (kya). Originally they were nomadic, pastoral people inhabiting the western Iranian plateau. From the province of Fars they spread their language and culture to the other parts of the Iranian plateau absorbing local Iranian and non-Iranian groups. This process of assimilation continued also during the Greek, Mongol, Turkish and Arab invasions. Ancient Persian people were firstly characterized by the Zoroastrianism. After the Islamization, Shi’a became the main doctrine of all Iranian people.

As Dienekes observes I’ve objected to this confusion before:

For example, it is routinely unknown that before the Safavids Iran was a predominantly Sunni domain. This is not to deny the presence of Shia within the borders of modern Iran, but aside from periods of state patronage (e.g., the Buyids) the status of Shi’ism was as it was in most of the Muslim world after the year 1000, a marginal minority, tolerated at best, oppressed at worst. It was the Safavids, originally a cosmopolitan Sufi order of variegated Greek, Kurdish, and Turkic origin (albeit, culturally Turk by the period of the Safavids) which realigned the identity of the Iranian nation with Shi’ism in the 16th and 17th centuries, recruiting Shia clerics from Lebanon and Iraq to reform and convert the multi-ethnic populace of the Iranian plateau.

In other words, it seems likely that Shia identity became a necessary part of Iranian, and Persian, identity only after ~1700, when the Safavid project of religious transformation entered its terminal phase of completion. The Tajiks of Central Asia, who speak a variant of Persian, remain overwhelmingly Sunni. Not surprisingly they were not under the same Safavid domination as their western cousins.

Why does it matter? Because modern thinkers seem to conflate Shia history with Persian history, and assume that the two have some inextricable connection. The lack of knowledge that the Persians were mostly Sunni before the early modern era is widespread. Two of the authors on the above paper are ethnic Iranians, so unless they did not read the paper’s final text they simply let that through out of ignorance. I’ve seen other Iranians, adjudged experts on their nation, propagate this falsehood. Then again, how much American history do most Americans know? Very little. So I don’t judge that too harshly.

Addendum: For those readers who wish to “school” me by pointing out the heterodox religious enthusiasms, often with a sympathy toward the Shia camp, of the early Abbassids, I’m aware of that. If you wish to enter into a discussion why don’t think this counts, I’m game. For example, it seems ethnic Persians were still mostly Zoroastrian in this period, and the locus of Shia dissent is suspiciously correlated with regions of Arab military encampments. In other words, early Shia strength in Iran corresponded with Arab, not non-Arab, ethnicity.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: History
MORE ABOUT: History, Iran, Shia
  • http://ffrancsais.blogspot.com Frank H Little

    Borne out by Prof. Ali Ansari’s recent series on BBC Radio 4: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01k1ngy Apologies if this is not available on line outside UK.

  • Grey

    “Iranian religious distinctiveness is not primal”

    I think there’s an indirect aspect to it though. If a people have a particularly strong sense of historical identity and an opportunity arises to reinforce that identity through some other means they are more likely to take it. I think this is a factor in the rise of Protestantism in Europe where the religious differences were more of an excuse than a reason e.g. Hussites in Bohemia. To a large extent i think the early Protestant churchs in Europe – to the followers if not the leaders – were first and foremost *national* churchs.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    If a people have a particularly strong sense of historical identity and an opportunity arises to reinforce that identity through some other means they are more likely to take it.

    do you know much about the history of how the safavids imposed shia islam on iran? e.g., non-persian (turkic speaking) elites imported arab clerics to help in the transformation of the sunni persian masses. can you elaborate your model in light of this. do note that the 25 percent of iranians who are ethnically turkic are all shia. in contrast, the iranian kurds are sunni.

    I think this is a factor in the rise of Protestantism in Europe where the religious differences were more of an excuse than a reason e.g. Hussites in Bohemia. To a large extent i think the early Protestant churchs in Europe – to the followers if not the leaders – were first and foremost *national* churchs.

    this seems plausible on the face of it, but say more. to give some specific examples, calvinism really did not become a national church in that a substantial majority of the population of a given national-ethic group embraced it in manner analogous to lutheranism in sweden. e.g., even a minority of dutch in the netherlands remained catholic, while the flemmish never became protestant (granted, many dutch protestants were refugees from the southern part of the low countries). we all know about the french protestants in france, but there remained french catholics in switzerland (as opposed to geneva). in scotland the calvinists became the state church, but substantial catholic and non-conformist (i guess including those part of the church of england) remain. IOW, the model of the ‘magesterial’ protestantism where the church and nationality are coterminous applies well only in scandinavia from what i can gather, though it comes close in england for a period when church of england was relatively ‘broad.’

  • Grey

    “do you know much about the history of how the safavids imposed shia islam on iran?”

    No it’s pure speculation based on looking at old and new maps of various seemingly unrelated things and noticing recurring patterns and wondering if they are in fact related through some indirect mechanism. Obviously on the face of it if something is imposed that would tend to suggest the opposite but even then – what if that same dynasty had tried to impose it on non-Persians? But like i say it’s mostly map patterns so it may be nothing.

    “this seems plausible on the face of it, but say more…the model of the ‘magesterial’ protestantism where the church and nationality are coterminous applies well only in scandinavia from what i can gather, though it comes close in england for a period when church of england was relatively ‘broad.’”

    I wouldn’t go as far as the magesterial model. I’d only say that individuals who’d developed a national sense of us and them might be inclined to adopt a different religion to “them” if the opportunity arose. If so you’d have people who adopted a particular Protestant creed for religious reasons and others for proto-nationalist reasons. I also think you need to take the effects of the counter-reformation into account as this process didn’t occur under laboratory conditions.

    The growth of Protestantism along the north european plain

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_European_Plain

    from Eastern England to Western Poland and Bohemia didn’t develop without conflict. Protestantism in Poland, France, Bohemia etc was mostly counter-reformed while Germany was split in half and had the 30 years war, so i think only Holland, England and Scandinavia *could* fit the model in which case the fit isn’t that bad – although stull loose.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    what if that same dynasty had tried to impose it on non-Persians?

    it did. as you may know iran is only ~60 percent persian. azeri turks are 25 percent of iran’s population, all shia (by the time they entered iran the safavids were basically azeri turks, as turkic was the language they spoke). kurds and baloch remained sunni or whatever reason.

    If so you’d have people who adopted a particular Protestant creed for religious reasons and others for proto-nationalist reasons

    the best predictor of whether a nation turned protestant was long term royal support.

    The growth of Protestantism along the north european plain

    for what it’s worth, protestantism’ strength in france was in the south, not the north.

    Protestantism in Poland, France, Bohemia etc was mostly counter-reformed while Germany was split in half and had the 30 years war, so i think only Holland, England and Scandinavia

    the dynamics are somewhat different. let’s go in turn

    1) in france the majority never became protestant. a substantial minority did. that proportion declined, but the coup de grace of protestantism in france was the revocation of the edict of nantes. so it wasn’t gradual counter-reform, it was forced expulsion or conversion, analogous to what happened to jews and muslims in spain

    2) in poland from what i can gather the majority of lower nobility were non-catholic (the strength of radical groups like unitarians i poland means that we’re talking post-protestant even). but there was a gradual process of counter-reform, and by the 18th century the catholic religion and polish identity became associated, because of conflicts with protestant prussia and orthodox russia, and non-catholicism melted away among ethnic poles.

    3) bohemia was and what became austria and hungary were counter-reformed in classic fashion by the habsburg monarchy. in hungary there remains a protestant minority in the east, but its existence is a testament to turkish domination in that region. ‘royal hungary’ became catholic again.

    4) scandinavian protestanism was a royal affair. the influence of the reformation upon royals who studied in germany. i don’t see any nationalist issue here because scandinavia was relatively sealed away from the rest of europe at the time of the reformation.

    5) england is an interesting case, and protestantism and british nationality are clearly associated, as against cathoic powers.

    6) the dutch case is confused to me, because so many ethnic dutch remained catholic. additionally, large numbers of english and french protestants were resident in the netherlands.

    the assertion i would make is that though there was evidence of nationalistic aspects to the reform, the association of religion and nationality tended to come after a period of intra-national conflict. in the early years of the reformation some of the most radical protestants, unitarians, tended to italian, and they influenced the magyar court in transylvania. international calvinism was notably cosmopolitan, as was the distinct reformed tendency promoted by zwingli. unlike scandinavian luthernaism english protestantism was highly differentiated within itself. the church of england converged on a weird formula of doctrinal calvinism, but continued adherence to many catholic ritual forms (though from what i have gathered 19th century ango-catholicism has accentuated this tendency in comparison to what might have been the norm in the 17th or 18th centuries).

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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