Iran Handbook, Religion, Student

Islam in Iran


  • Chelkowski, Peter J., ed. Taziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran . New York University Press, 1979.
  • Danner, Victor. The Islamic Tradition. Warwick, N.Y. : Amity House, 1988.
  • Denny, Fredrick Mathewson. An Introduction to Islam. New York : Macmillan Publishing Company, 1985.
  • Kelly, Marjorie, ed. Islam: The Religious and Political Life of a World Community. New York : Praeger, 1984.
  • Tabataba’I, S.M.H. Shi’ite Islam. Albany : SUNY Press, 1975.

Further Study

  1. Although Iran is the only nationin the world where Shi’I Islam is the state religion, large numbers of Shi’is live in other Muslim countries. See if you can find three other countries where Shi’is are a majority or significant minority.
  2. Look at the section on "Teachings" in this section. See if you can name three ways in which Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are similar.
  3. Look up the word "mysticism" in a dictionary or encyclopedia. See if you can find out something about mysticism in two other major religions.
  4. What other religion(s) has passion plays associated with it? To what country might you travel to see them?

Charlotte Albright

Islam is the religion of a majority of people in a band of countries extending from northern Africa, through the Middle East, Central Asia, and Pakistan, to Indonesia and the southern Philippines . Iran is one of the countries in that group. The more than one billion Muslims of the world can be divided into two major groups: Sunni and Shi’i. Most Iranians are Shi’I Muslims. To understand how these two major groups of Muslims came into existence, we need to look first at the origins of Islam itself, then Shi’I Islam as practiced in Iran .

The Origins of Islam

Before the advent of Islam in the 7th century C.E. (Christian Era, the same as A.D.) the Arab people were divided into a large number of tribes. Most of them were nomads, while a few lived in towns. They knew about the Jewish prophets and the Christ, and some followed Judaism and Christianity, but for the most part they worshipped idols carved from stone.

According to Islamic belief, God chose Muhammad to be the Last of the Prophets. God sent the angel Gabriel to Muhammad to reveal his message. After Muhammad’s death the revelations to Muhammad from God were written in a book known as the Koran, or Qur’an (the "Recitation"). Because Muhammad spoke Arabic and because the Koran was revealed and then written in Arabic, Arabic became the sacred language of Islam. All Muslims know at least a few words of Arabic so that they can say their required prayers in that language. During most of their history scholars in Muslim countries have considered Arabic to be the primary language of learning.

When Muhammad, commonly called "the Prophet," began preaching the new religion to the inhabitants of his home town of Mecca , most people made fun of him. When some people accepted his message, the others began to persecute him and his followers. Gradually the clarity of his teachings and his ownprime example attracted a large number of people to his cause. One of the first to accept the new faith was his young cousin Ali. In 622 C.E., the Prophet migrated to Medina, a town north of Mecca . The year of his migration to Medina (called hijra in Arabic) marked a major turning point for the new religion because there Muhammad established the first community of believers and he became a ruler in addition to being a prophet. The year of the hijra became year 1 of the Muslim calendar.

Ultimately, Muhammad and the Muslims returned victorious to Mecca . By the time of his death in 632, most of the Arabs in the Arabian peninsula had accepted Islam and the Arab tribes were united for the first time in recorded history. Those inhabitants of Arabia who were already "People of the Book," meaning Jews and Christians, were asked to convert.

The Origins of the Sunni/Shi’I Split

After the Prophet’s death, the community of Muslims faced the difficult task of finding a successor to rule. The majority elected Abu Bakr, one of the oldest and wisest of the Muslims, to be Muhammad’s successor. A minority of the Muslims believed that Muhammad had appointed the Prophet’s cousin Ali, who was now also his son-in-law, to rule the community. The majority view prevailed and Abu Bakr was chosen to be the first successor, or Caliph.

The Muslims who followed Abu Bakr as Caliph came to be called Sunnis. "Sunnah" means "customary or habitual procedure" in Arabic. Therefore, Sunnis are those who believe they follow the "customary procedure" of Muhammad. About 90% of Muslims worldwide are Sunnis. The Muslims who believed that Ali had been appointed to be the ruler of the Muslims came to be known as Shi’is. "Shi’I" comes from the Arabic word for "party" (as in political party) and is short for "shi’at ‘Ali," or "party of Ali."


The word "Islam" means literally "submission" to God’s will. "Muslims" are those who submit to God’s will in following the teachings of Islam. After Muhammad’s death scholars of Koranic law studied the Koran and the teachings of Muhammad to determine God’s will for Muslims. The result of their study and deliberations was a code of Islamic law called "shari’a," literally "the way," or "path". Ultimately, different schools of Islamic law developed in different major centers of scholarship. Today there are four Sunni schools of law and three Shi’I schools.

Islamic teachings can be divided into three basic categories: practical, doctrinal, and spiritual. Practice refers to what people do, doctrine to what they believe, and spirituality to their understanding of God and God’s love. The most important practices are called Islam’s "five pillars" and all come from the shari’a: People are expected to:

  1. acknowledge that there is no God but God and that Muhammad is his Messenger;
  2. perform the ritual prayer five times a day;
  3. fast by refraining from all food and drink during the daylight hours of Ramadan (one of the months of the Islamic calendar);
  4. donate a portion of their wealth each year to the poor and needy; and
  5. make a pilgrimage to the holy sanctuary of Islam (called the Ka`ba) in Mecca once in their lifetimes if they have the means to do so. Islamic law also provides guidelines for activities such as preparing food, buying and selling, marriage, divorce, and inheritance.

On the level of doctrine Islam tries to instill an understanding of the nature of reality. Here it sets down "three principles": (1) God is one, (2) God sent prophets or messengers to mankind, and (3) human beings, having heard the words of God’s messengers, are responsible for their own actions. Muslims believe that God sent many thousands of prophets, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, to remind people of their responsibilities toward him and toward other human beings. If people fail to observe their duties as God’s servants and representatives, the entire world, which has been entrusted to their care, will be corrupted and destroyed. After death, individuals will be asked to account for their actions. On the Day of Judgment, they will go to heaven or hell depending on how well they have fulfilled their responsibilities.

On the spiritual level Islam aims to have people love God above all else. Muslims would strive to desire for themselves only what God would desire for them. Love of God is seen as the basis for all human goodness, compassion, and justice.

Among the religions of the world there are many examples of mysticism, or the search for Knowledge of God. The general term for mysticism in the Muslim world is Sufism, and there have been many forms of Sufism throughout Muslim history and in different parts of the Muslim world. As with their mystics, Sufis (people who join one or another of the Sufi group) believe that there is a contrast between the appearance of the material (that is, physical) world and the reality of the inner, spiritual world. For Sufis, God is at the center of this inner world. But like the kernel of fruit, God is hidden. For a person to truly know God, he or she must cast off the outer, material world and embark on an inner, spiritual journey. Most people seeking to be Sufis find a master to help them find the way to God, which will also reveal to them their own true nature. An example of a Sufi group known to many people in the west are the Mevlevi, or whirling, dervishes of Turkey . Their twirling dance is part of their process for reaching a deeper understanding of the nature of God.

Islam in Iran

We will now turn our attention to some of the beliefs and practices that make Shi’I Islam in Iran unique. As you now know, Islam originated in the Arabian peninsula during the seventh century. The Sasanian empire, which controlled what is today Iran and parts of Caucasia, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and modern Iraq at the time, fell to the Arab Muslims in 636 C.E. For over 800 years, most Iranian Muslims followed the Sunni branch of Islam. Then, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, Shah Ismail, the founder of the Iranian Safavid dynasty, declared that, henceforth, Iran would be a Shi’I nation.

We have already seen that some Muslims, who later came to be called Shi’I, wanted Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali to be the leader after Muhammad died. Ultimately, Shi’is dropped any allegiance to the Sunni Caliphs and followed Ali and his descendants. Ali was not called "Caliph" by his Shi’I followers, rather he was called an "Imam," and so were his descendants. Today in Iran , religious teachers may be called mujtahid, ayatollah or imam (with a small "I").

Iranian Shi’is believe that there were 12 Imams. The first, of course, wa Ali. The second and third were his sons, Hasan and Husayn. The twelfth, known as "al-Mahdi," is not supposed to have died, but rather disappeared. It is said that he will come again at the end of time as messiah. Shi’is have built beautiful shrines over the tombs of some of the Imams. Those in Mashhad in Iran and Karbala in Iraq are important places of pilgrimage for Shi’I Muslims.

Iranians tell an interesting story concerning the fall of the pre-Islamic Sasanians and the advent of Islam in Iran . According to legend the third Imam Husayn married the daughter of the last Sasanian king, Yazdegerd III. This marriage would have conveniently bestowed Persian royal legitimacy on Husayn and his heirs. People’s belief in this legend may have influenced the first Safavid Shah, Ismail, when he decided to declare Iran a Shi’I state. He probably also made this decision to distinguish Iran from its arch-rival, the Sunni Ottoman empire.

Muslims around the world observe Ramadan, the month of fasting, Eidl-e Fitr, the feast that marks the end of the month of fasting, and Eid-e Qurban, the feast of the Sacrifice. Shi’is also commemorate the death of Ali and the massacre of Husayn, Ali’s martyrdom took place during the month of Muharram in 680 C.E in what is today Iraq .

After Iran officially became a Shi’I nation in the early 16th century, Iranians began to observe the martyrdom of Husayn and his family in several ways. During the Muslim lunar month of Muharram, men would parade through the streets chanting poems of mourning and sometimes carry a bier (or casket) symbolizing Husayn’s death. Women could gather in a home to hear the stories of Husayn’s death chanted. Passion plays (special dramas to commemorate someone’s death) called ta’zieh were staged and became very popular. In thee dramas the people who killed Husayn and his family, such as Caliph Yazid and his generals and soldiers, wore red. Husayn and his family and followers wore green and black. The killers always spoke their lines, whereas the good characters sang their.

A Shi’I school of law started to be applied to guide Muslims in Iran . The founder of this school had been Jafar al-Sadiq, the sixth Imam. This school of law differs in some areas of marriage and inheritance law from Sunni schools of law. In addition teachers of the Jafari school (as well as other Shi’I schools of law) believe that certain individuals can, even today, reinterpret Koranic law, whereas most Sunni jurists, at least until this century, relied on the interpretations handed down by their teachers.

(For a discussion of the Islamic Republic of Iran, see the section on Iranian History)