Who are Iranians?: Student


Mary Martin

Who are Iranians? They may speak one or more of several languages- Persian, Kurdish, Azeri Turkish, Arabic, Baluchi, Gilaki, Armenian, Aramaic, or one of the other Iranian and non-Iranian languages of Iran. They may be Muslim (Sunni or Shi’i), Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian, or Bahai. They may live in a large urban area, a small town, a village, or a nomadic camp. They may be tribesmen and know the names of their ancestors for several generations, or they may remember no one before their grandfathers. Their occupations may vary. In rural areas, they may raise crops and animals, act as game guards to protect the natural environment, work in mines, in oil fields, or on boats in the gulf. In cities, they may be traffic policemen trying to unravel Tehran traffic jams, filmmakers, artists, pollution experts, or carry out a host of other occupations.

The ties of language, religion, social structure and economy combine in a variety of ways in the rural and urban areas to give Iran its own particular social flavor. Especially in the capital city, Tehran, there is a great deal of ethnic and social variation. Certain regions in the country are distinctive because of special characteristics of the population. (See map showing ethnic groups in Iran). The story of each of these various people is an exciting piece in the puzzle of Iran. Each has a different history concerning how they came to e where they are today and how they relate to the country as a whole. The diversity in Iran makes it unique and exciting country.

Religion links Iranians to peoples in other countries of the Middle East and beyond. For example, as an Islamic country, its people share historical and emotional ties to Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia and Jerusalem in Israel with other Muslims. In addition, because it is primarily a Shi’i Muslim country, it has spiritual ties to the Shi’i shrines of Najaf and Kerbala in Iraq. For Jews everywhere, Iran is the site of the tombs of Ester and Daniel. Zoroastrians and Bahais look to Iran as the place where their religions originated. For Armenian Christians, it is the site of the Black Church, the principal religious shrine for the world’s Armenian Christians visited by thousands of pilgrims each year. For Assyrian Christians, Iran is the haven of Eastern Christianity.

Another cultural factor which links Iran to neighboring countries is language. For example, the Persian language is also spoken in Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Many Pakistanis and Indians still learn Persian because of its important literary role in their countries especially in previous centuries. For the Ottoman Turks, Persian was an important literary language until the beginning of the Turkish republic when Turks switched from the Arabic to the Latin alphabet.

Rural-Urban Distinctions

Until recently over half the population of the Iran lived in rural areas, often in small villages. Unlike the United States, where farms are scattered throughout the countryside, Iranian farmers live together in villages, which are often located near the opening of the qanats (discussed in the section on geography).

The urban-rural distinction has more significance in Iran and other developing nations than it does in the west. There are still areas of the country in which schooling does not go beyond the sixth grade. In some places there is no access to electricity or the VCRs which often accompany it. Without the homogenizing influence of extensive schooling and the urban and Western behavior models from television and film, regional languages and cultural pastimes remain strong. In certain regions, such as the land along the south shores of the Caspian Sea, rainfall is abundant and tea and rice are the main crops. People here are known for their distinctive styles of architecture, dress, and language.

Despite the differences, the rural and urban areas of Iran have always had certain shared cultural traditions, with distinctions between urban and rural forms. For example, in many rural areas people raise sheep and goats and wheat and barley. It is not surprising then that throughout the country there is a emphasis on certain foods, such as flat wheat bread, clarified butter, other special dairy products, and lamb.

Carpet making also illustrates the variation between urban, village, and nomadic traditions. Iran is famous for its beautiful carpets of floral design, woven in special workshops in the cities of Isfahan, Kerman, Kashan, Tabriz, and Qom. These are the carpets of the palace, the mosque, individual families. Villagers in Iran today are caught between the two traditions. Some weave geometric tribal designs passed down from their mothers in their own homes or camping areas. Other weave floral patterns on upright looms for sale in the city.


Within the rural areas of Iran, the population lives primarily in villages. However, in some areas, where rainfall is scarce and agriculture difficult, pastoral nomadism is the major adaptation. It is in these areas where most of the major tribal groups exist. The most well-known tribal groups are the Baluch, the Bakhtiari, the Kurds, the Lurs, the Shahsavan, the Turkmen and the Qashqa’i. Those who are nodamic pastoralists of herdsmen must follow their animals from one area to another in search of pasture. Access to this pasture is given by being a member of a tribal group. Not all members are nomadic. The elite of many tribal groups, such as the Bakhtiari, held agricultural land and educated their families in Europe. They may play important national roles, as did Soraya, the second wife of the late Shah, and Shahpur Bakhtiar, the last prime minister under the Pahlavi Shah.

The tribal groups of Iran have a distinctive political relationship to Iranian culture and society. Throughout Iranian history, the tribes have sought to maintain their cultural sovereignty in relation to the state. Thus, there is an ongoing tension between the tribes and the state whether it is led by a Qajar monarch, a Pahlavi Shah, or an Islamic Republic. Although tribes have become more and more a minority element in Iranian society, they have links to the state which are absent in America. For example, native American tribes represent a way of life in North America before the colonization by Europeans. Iranian society grew out of tribally organized society (see the History sections).

Tribal groups have always played a strong role in Iranian politics. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, dynastic ruling families, including the Safavids, Afshars, and Qajars, grew from tribal ranks and relied upon tribal support. In particular, tribal leaders of the Turkmen, Bakhtiari, and Qashqa’i served as key figures in Iranian politics. Qashqa’i leaders were instrumental in the formulation of the national policies and commercial interests of the British in Iran in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Turkmen rulers played a key role in determining Russian policies in regions of northern Iran.

The relationship of tribe to state is sometimes problematic. In the past tribes occasionally disrupted caravans and interrupted the flow of trade. Seasonal migrations might take a group across national boundaries and animals sometimes strayed into local fields. Although the state sometimes relies on tribes to repel invaders, tribal groups have also been forcibly resettled as the state has attempted to counter rebellion or to exert control over a tribe’s economic and political autonomy. The Kurds now living in the northeast of Iran were moved in the last century to defend borders.

In their attempts to avoid the authority of a central government, tribally organized nomadic pastoralists or herdsmen benefited from the flexibility of their lifestyles, which enabled them to retreat into the desert or to high mountain pastures. Nonetheless, they moved for ecological reasons. When Reza Shah attempted to settle the tribes as a part of his modernization plan for Iran in the 1930s, it meant ecological disaster for the herds. Eventually the nomads were able to resume their migration.

The Turkmen tribal peoples in the northeast have migrated for both ecological and political reasons: to follow good pasture and escape the control of the central government. Today, as the government extends more services to the rural areas and as more pasture land is turned to agriculture, some tribal families are making the decision to stop migrating and settle down. The tension involved for the group is vividly desribed in anthropologist Lois Beck’s book Nomad: A Year in the Life of a Qashqai Tribesman of Iran.

Urbanization and Westernization

Iran is becoming more and more urbanized and the urban areas are more and more the center of political and cultural influence. Earlier some of the differences between urban and rural populations were noted. Another important difference is that the urban areas have more access to Western culture. In urban areas, where members of many middle and upper class families have been educated in the West or have learned about the West or have learned about the West from book and films, the cultural flavor, especially until the Revolution of 1979, was becoming more and more Western. Since the Revolution there has been a determined effort by the Islamic regime to reject elements of Western culture considered incompatible with Islam, particularly in relation to women’s dress and relationships between men and women.

Certain traditions are retained in rural and poorer areas of the towns and cities that illustrate the influence of the West in another way. For example, where Western medicine is not readily available, older systems of medicine remain, which have links to Iran’s past and cultures of ancient India and Greece, and which utilize combinations of herbs and a concept of balancing “hot” and “cold” states. These earlier traditions are often combined with Western medicine to obtain the most effective cures.

Throughout time Iranians have been faced with other cultural traditions, whether from the Greeks, the Arabs, the Mongols, the Seljuk Turks, or now from Europe and America. They have always sought to work out their own solution to the problem of what to take in and what to reject from other cultures in an attempt to fit these influences into an Iranian mold. Iranian Christians, for example, rejected Western Christianity and retained their own form of Christianity until today. Individuals caught between two or more cultural influences at a particular time may find the situation to be a painful one. Both the struggles and solutions are what make Iranian cultural history a fascinating one.


Language is a cultural factor that may cut across urban-rural, tribal-non-tribal, and even national boundaries. The national language of Iran is Persian, a language which, like English, belongs to the Indo-European family. For many Iranians, Persian is not their first language. For example, in the southwest along the Iraqi border and in areas along the Persian Gulf, much of the population speaks Arabic, a Semitic language. In Azerbaijan, in the northwest, Azeri (a variant of Turkish, which is form the Ural-Altaic language family) is the major first language. As Azeri-Turkish speaking people from this area migrate throughout the country, the extent of Turkish languages in Iran has increased. For example, it is common to hear Azeri-Turkish spoken in Tehran. Turkmen tribal peoples in the north and the Qashqa’i in the southwest speak other variants Turkish.

In addition to these major language groups, there are many small linguistic communities which speak Iranian or Turkic languages, many of which have not yet been studied by linguists. Government policy has been to stress Persian in the schools, and, hence, all Iranians have a shared language and tradition of poetry and epic. Islamic education added Arabic, the language of the Quran, to the curriculum. Minorities are allowed to learn languages which play a role in their religious ritual.

Certain tribal groups, such as the Baluch, have special oral traditions of epic and poetry in their own languages. Many of these populations are closely related to others living over the national boundary. For example, in the northeast the Turkmen are a tribal group, settled and nomadic, who speak Turkomeni (a Turkish language), are Sunni Muslims, and are related to Turkmen population across the Iranian border in Afghanistan and in Turkmenistan. In the southeast, the tribally organized Baluch, who speaks Baluchi (an Iranian language) are Sunni Muslim and are related to populations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Arabs is southwest share language and religion, but not nationality, with the Shi’i Iraqis. Azerbaijanis share religion and language (Azeri Turkish) with the people in the Republic of Azerbaijan.


Religion adds another major element of unity and diversity to the peoples of Iran. Although at least four or five Iranians are Shi’i Muslim, and Shi’i Islam is the state religion, certain tribal groups, such as Baluch, the Turkmen, and Kurds are predominately Sunni (See unit on Islam in Iran). There are also minority groups practicing religions which in most cases predate Islam. For example, a small number of Zoroastrians remain in Iran (See teachers information on Zoroastrianism).

The Assyrians and Armenians are the main Christian groups of Iran. Assyrians speak Syriac (a variant of Aramaic, which is a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew and Arabic). The Armenians speak Armenian, an Indo-European language. Assyrian Christianity evolved from the Christianity of the Nestorians, who separated from the Orthodox Church after the Council of Chalcedon in the fifth century. Armenian Christianity also has roots that go back to early Christianity in the region.

Iranian Jews have a long history in Iran. There have been Jews in Iran even longer than there have been Christians, ever since conquest of the Babylonian Empire by the Achaemenid king, Cyrus, in 539 B.C. The Jews in Iran are the descendants of those Jews who remained in the area after the period of the exile ended.

The Bahai religion originated in Iran in the nineteenth century. Since it derived from Islam, many Muslims have considered the Bahai religion to be heretical.

The various religious groups in Iran have different religious calendars, but they are united by the Iranian solar calendar, and by holidays such as Persian New Year.


So who are Iranians? They may be rural or urban, speak only Persian or Persian and one or more languages. They will be affiliated with one of the religious practiced in Iran. They may be members of a Tribe. The way these various factors combine and recombine leads to a rich variety in the culture of Iran. This Iranian culture developed out of the various customs of the many groups which have moved into the area over several thousands of years.

Student Activities

  1. Find out if there is a Persian restaurant in your area. If possible, try some Persian food (also check unit in this Handbook on food). Try to find out if the food you try is eaten all over Iran or if it is a regional speciality.
  2. Visit a Persian carpet store which carries rugs from Iran.. Talk to the owner about the carpet designs. Are they floral or geometric? Were the rugs woven in town or by nomads?


  • Armenian- An ethnic group, language, and religion, all of which trace their origins back to early Christian era in northwestern Iran and eastern Turkey.
  • Assyrian- A language and religion allied with Nestorian Christians found today in parts of Syria, Iraq, and Iran.
  • Bahai- A religion which originated in Iran in the nineteenth century.
  • Bakhtiari- A tribal group in central part of Iran.
  • Baluch- A tribal group, whose language is Baluchi, living in the southeast part of Iran.
  • Gilaki - Refers to the people of the province of Gilan, as well as their dialect of Persian.
  • Kurd - A tribal group, whose language is Kurdish, an Indo-European language, living in the western part of Iran.
  • Lur - A tribal group in southwestern Iran.
  • Qashqa'i - A tribal group in southern Iran; also their dialect of Turkic.
  • Qajar - The dynasty that ruled Iran from the end of the eighteenth to the early twentieth century.
  • Safavid - The dynasty that ruled Iran from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century.
  • Turkmen - A tribal group in the northwestern part of Iran and their language.
  • Zoroastrian- A person who practices the Zoroastrian religion which originated in Iran.