About  |   Contact  |  Mongabay on Facebook  |  Mongabay on Twitter  |  Subscribe
Rainforests | Tropical fish | Environmental news | For kids | Madagascar | Photos


Iran - Population


In November 1986, the government reported that the preliminary count in the fourth national census, which had been conducted during October, showed a total population of 48,181,463. According to the government, this total included about 2.6 million refugees who had come from Afghanistan and Iraq since 1980. The population of Iranian nationals, approximately 45.6 million, represented an increase of about 12 million over the 33.7 million enumerated in the 1976 census. This indicated that the Iranian population had grown at an annual rate of 3.6 percent between 1976 and 1986. A population increase in excess of 3.3 percent per year puts Iran's population growth rate among the higher rates in the world.

The preliminary report on the 1986 census showed that Iran's population had been growing at a faster rate since 1976 than during earlier periods. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, estimates and scattered population surveys indicated that the average population growth rate was less than 2 percent annually. After World War II, however, the population growth rate began to rise. Between the first national census in 1956, when Iran's population numbered 19 million, and the second national census in 1966, when the population count was 25.3 million, the annual growth rate averaged 2.9 percent. The results of the 1976 national census, however, indicated a slight decrease in the average annual growth rate to 2.7 percent.

The sharp increase in the population growth rate from 2.7 percent to nearly 3.6 percent per year between 1976 and 1986 appeared to be related to the Revolution in 1979. Prior to the Revolution, the government had promoted a family planning program; however, following the Revolution, the new government ceased all official involvement in family planning. Although there has been no religious prohibition on birth control, government pronouncements and literature have tended to extol the virtues of large families.

In mid-1987, data on vital statistics from the 1986 preliminary census were incomplete, but some demographic changes were already evident. The 1976 census data had indicated that 51.4 percent of the population was male and 48.6 was female. The median age of the population was 16.5 years, and less than 3.5 percent of the population was over 65. The relatively large population increase between 1976 and 1986 had the effect of increasing the already extreme youthfulness of the population. In 1986 the government announced that 50 percent of the population was under 15 years of age, and about 45 percent was in the 15- to 59-year age group, while only 5 percent was over the age of 60.

According to the preliminary results of the 1986 census, the average population density for the country was twenty-nine persons per square kilometer. In some regions, especially along the Caspian coast and in East Azarbaijan, the average density was significantly higher, while in the more arid regions of the Central Plateau and Baluchestan va Sistan, average population density was ten or fewer persons per square kilometer.

<>Major Cities

Facts about Iran.


Iran - Major Cities


Tehran, the capital, is the country's largest city and the second most populous city in the Middle East after Cairo. Tehran is a comparatively young city, the origins of which date back about 700 years. The old part of the city is a few kilometers to the northwest of ancient Rey, an important city that was destroyed by the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century. Tehran was founded by refugees from Rey, but remained an insignificant small town until the end of the eighteenth century, when the founder of the Qajar dynasty chose it to be his capital. Tehran has been the capital of the country ever since.

The centralization of the government and the expansion of the bureaucracy under the Pahlavis, the last royal dynasty, were major factors in Tehran's rapid growth after 1925. The city's population doubled between 1926 and 1940 and tripled between 1940 and 1956, when it reached more than 1.5 million. Tehran's population continued to grow rapidly, exceeding 2.7 million by 1966. Its population in the 1986 census was slightly over 6 million. This figure represented a 35 percent increase over the 1976 census of slightly under 4.5 million.

In 1986 Iran had one other city, Mashhad, with a population over 1 million. Mashhad's population of more than 1.4 million represented an increase of 110 percent since 1976. Much of its growth was attributed to the large number of Afghan refugees, approximately 450,000, who were living in the city. The historical origins of Mashhad are similar to those of Tehran inasmuch as the city essentially developed after the centuries- old city of Tus, near modern Mashhad, was destroyed by the Mongols. Mashhad has served as the principal commercial center of Khorasan since the nineteenth century, although its major growth has occurred only since the mid-1950s. It also has become an important manufacturing center and has numerous carpet, textile, and food-processing factories.

Iran's other major cities include Esfahan, Tabriz, and Shiraz, all of which had populations of 800,000 or more in 1986. Like Mashhad, these cities have experienced relatively rapid growth since the mid-1950s. All three of these cities are important manufacturing centers, especially Esfahan, where many of Iran's heavy industries are concentrated. Smaller cities (populations of 100,000 to 500,000) such as Ahvaz, Bakhtaran (before the Revolution Kermanshah), Hamadan, Karaj, Kerman, Qazvin, Qom, Rasht, and Urumiyeh (or Urmia, formerly known as Rezaiyeh) also have grown considerably since 1956. A total of 30 cities, more than double the number in the 1966 census, had populations exceeding 100,000 in 1986.

More about the <>Population of Iran.


Iran - Emigration


Since the Revolution, there has been a small but steady emigration of educated Iranians. Estimates of the number vary from 750,000 to 1.5 million. Most such emigrants have preferred to settle in Western Europe or the United States, although there are also sizable communities of Iranians in Turkey. Newspapers in Istanbul claimed during 1986 that as many as 600,000 Iranians were living in Turkey, although the Turkish Ministry of Interior has reported that there are only about 30,000 Iranians in the country. The United States census for 1980 found 122,000 Iranians living in the United States. By 1987 it was estimated this number exceeded 200,000, with the largest concentration found in southern California.

Iranian emigrants tended to be highly educated, many holding degrees from American and West European universities. A sizable proportion were members of the prerevolutionary political elite. They had been wealthy before the Revolution, and many succeeded in transferring much of their wealth out of Iran during and after the Revolution.

Other Iranians who have emigrated include members of religious minorities, especially Bahais and Jews; intellectuals who had opposed the old regime, which they accused of suppressing free thought and who have the same attitude toward the Islamic Republic; members of ethnic minorities; political opponents of the government in Tehran; and some young men who deserted from the military or sought to avoid conscription. There were virtually no economic emigrants from Iran, although a few thousand Iranians have continued to work in Kuwait, Qatar, and other Persian Gulf states, as before the Revolution.

More about the <>Population of Iran.


Iran - Refugees


The preliminary 1986 national census figures included approximately 2.6 million persons listed as refugees of foreign nationality. The largest number, consisting of slightly more than 2.3 million, were Afghans. The refugees from Afghanistan were concentrated in several refugee camps in eastern Iran, but approximately one-third of them were living in such cities as Mashhad, Shiraz, and Tehran at the time of the census. In addition, there were nearly 300,000 refugees from Iraq, with which Iran had been at war since 1980.

The influx of foreign refugees was the direct result of war on Iran's borders. Since early 1980, the Afghan refugees had been fleeing the fighting in their country between various Afghan resistance groups and government forces assisted by more than 100,000 Soviet troops. The Iraqi refugees were expelled by their own government, which claimed that they were really Iranian descendants of persons who had immigrated to Iraq from Iran many years ago. In addition to refugees of foreign origins, Tehran has had to cope with several hundred thousand Iranian civilian refugees from the war zones.

The Iraqi advance into Khuzestan in the fall of 1980 resulted in extensive damage to the residential areas of two of Iran's major cities, Abadan and Khorramshahr, as well as the destruction of numerous small towns and villages. The intensive shelling of the large cities of Ahvaz and Dezful also destroyed residential neighborhoods. Consequently, tens of thousands of civilians fled southwestern Iran in 1980 and 1981, and the government set up refugee reception areas in Shiraz, Tehran, and other cities removed from the battle zone. During the Iraqi occupation of Khuzestan, the government had to shelter up to 1.5 million refugees. Efforts to resettle at least some of the refugees were undertaken in 1983 after Iran had recaptured much of Khuzestan from Iraq; however, continued fighting in the area and Iraqi air strikes on cities and towns in western Iran resulted in a steady stream of displaced civilians in need of food and shelter.

During the period 1980 to 1981, the government of Iraq expelled into Iran about 200,000 persons whom it claimed were Iranians. Most were Iraqi citizens, sometimes whole families, who were or had been residents of Iraq's Shia shrine cities and also were descendants of Iranian clergy and pilgrims who had settled in the religious centers as far back as the eighteenth century. In most cases, the refugees had never been to Iran and could speak no Persian (Farsi). Furthermore, they were required to leave the greater part of their possessions in Iraq. Thus, the Iranian government had to provide them with basic food and shelter.

Developing policies to deal with the Afghan refugees became a major burden for the government as early as 1984 because the number of Afghan refugees had continued to increase almost daily since the first group crossed the border in 1980. Iran, however, received virtually no international assistance for the Afghan refugees. It set up several camps in eastern Iran where the refugees were processed and provided with basic shelter and rations. These camps were located in or near towns in Khorasan and were provided with certain municipal services such as free access to public schools for registered refugee children. Although no data have been published on the gender and age composition of the refugees, press reports indicate that most were probably women, children, and men too old to fight, as in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. Most of the young men probably remained with the Afghan resistance forces for the greater part of the year.

Although the Afghans were required to live in the special refugee camps, by 1986 an estimated one-third of them had left the camps and were living in residential areas of large cities such as Mashhad, Shiraz, and Tehran. The Afghans apparently came to the cities in order to earn money to support families who remained in the camps. They engaged in street vending and worked on construction sites or in factories. The Iranian press periodically reported on the roundup of such Afghans and their forcible return to the camps. The Afghans needed special work permits, but it was not clear whether these were difficult or easy to obtain or whether private employers required them as a condition of employment.

More about the <>Population of Iran.




Iran has a heterogeneous population speaking a variety of Indo-Iranian, Semitic, and Turkic languages. The largest language group consists of the speakers of Indo-Iranian languages, who in 1986 comprised about 70 percent of the population. The speakers of Indo-Iranian languages are not, however, a homogeneous group. They include speakers of Persian, the official language of the country, and its various dialects; speakers of Kirmanji, the term for related dialects spoken by the Kurds who live in the cities, towns, and villages of western Iran and adjacent areas of Iraq and Turkey; speakers of Luri, the language of the Bakhtiaris and Lurs who live in the Zagros; and Baluchi, the language of the seminomadic people who live in southeastern Iran and adjacent areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Approximately 28 percent of the population speaks various dialects of Turkish. Speakers of Semitic languages include Arabs and Assyrians.

<>The Persian Language
<>Lurs and Bakhtiaris
<>Turkic-speaking Groups
<>Semitic Language Groups


Iran - The Persian Language


The official language of Iran is Persian (the Persian term for which is Farsi). It is the language of government and public instruction and is the mother tongue of half of the population. Persian is spoken as a second language by a large proportion of the rest. Many different dialects of Persian are spoken in various parts of the Central Plateau, and people from each city can usually be identified by their speech. Some dialects, such as Gilaki and Mazandari, are distinct enough to be virtually unintelligible to a Persian speaker from Tehran or Shiraz.

Persian is an ancient language that has developed through three historical stages. Old Persian dates back to at least 514 B.C. and was used until about A.D. 250. It was written in cuneiform and used exclusively for royal proclamations and announcements. Middle Persian, also known as Pahlavi, was in use from about A.D. 250 to 900. It was the official language of the Sassanid Empire and of the Zoroastrian priesthood. It was written in an ideographic script called Huzvaresh.

Modern Persian is a continually evolving language that began to develop about A.D. 900. Following the Arab conquest of the Sassanid Empire in the seventh century and the gradual conversion of the population to Islam, Arabic became the official, literary, and written language, but Persian remained the language of court records. Persian, however, borrowed heavily from Arabic to enrich its own vocabulary and eventually adopted the Arabic script. In subsequent centuries, many Turkic words also were incorporated into Persian.

As part of the Indo-European family of languages, Persian is distantly related to Latin, Greek, the Slavic and Teutonic languages, and English. This relationship can be seen in such cognates as beradar (brother), pedar (father), and mader (mother). It is a relatively easy language for English-speaking people to learn compared with any other major language of the Middle East. Verbs tend to be regular, nouns lack gender and case distinction, prepositions are much used, noun plural formation tends to be regular, and word order is important. The difficulty of the language lies in the subtlety and variety of word meanings according to context. Persian is written right to left in the Arabic script with several modifications. It has four more consonants than Arabic-- pe, che, zhe, and gaf--making a total of thirty-two letters. Most of the letters have four forms in writing, depending on whether they occur at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a word or whether they stand separately. The letters stand for the consonants and the three long vowels; special marks written above or below the line are used to denote short vowels. These signs are used only in dictionaries and textbooks, so that a reader must have a substantial vocabulary to understand a newspaper, an average book, or handwriting.

Persian is the most important of a group of several related languages that linguists classify as Indo-Iranian. Persian speakers regard their language as extremely beautiful, and they take great pleasure in listening to the verses of medieval poets such as Ferdowsi, Hafez, and Sadi. The language is a living link with the past and has been important in binding the nation together.

There is no accepted standard transliteration of Persian into Latin letters, and Iranians write their names for Western use in a variety of ways, often following French spelling. Among scholars and librarians a profound dispute exists between those who think Persian should be transliterated in conformity with the rules for Arabic and those who insist that Persian should have its own rules because it does not use all of the same sounds as Arabic.

Among educated Persians, there have been sporadic efforts as far back as the tenth century to diminish the use of Arabic loanwords in their language. Both Pahlavi shahs supported such efforts in the twentieth century. During the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi (1925-41), serious consideration was given to the possibility of Romanizing the writing of Persian as had been done with Turkish, but these plans were abandoned. Since the Revolution, a contrary tendency to increase the use of Arabic words in both spoken and written Persian has emerged among government leaders.

The Persian-speaking People

The Persians constitute the largest ethnic component in Iran. They predominate in the major urban areas of central and eastern Iran--in the cities of Tehran, Esfahan, Mashhad, Shiraz, Arak, Kashan, Kerman, Qom, and Yazd--and in the villages of the Central Plateau. An estimated 50 to 60 percent of the population speaks Persian as a first language.

In music, poetry, and art the Persians consider themselves--and are generally considered by other groups--as the leaders of the country. This feeling is strengthened by a consciousness of a heroic past and a rich literary heritage. Both before the Revolution and since, Persians have filled the majority of government positions.

The vast majority of Persians are Shia Muslims. The Shia religion serves as a source of unity among Persians and other Iranian Shias. Since at least the beginning of the nineteenth century, Persians have dominated the higher ranks of the Shia clergy and have provided important clerical revolutionary leaders such as ayatollahs Khomeini and Hosain Ali Montazeri. Fewer than 500,000 Persians are followers of other faiths. These include Bahais, Jews, or members of the pre-Islamic Zoroastrian faith.


Iran - Lurs and Bakhtiaris


In the central and southern Zagros live the Bakhtiaris and the Lurs, two groups that speak Luri, a language closely related to Persian. Linguists have identified two Luri dialects: Lur Buzurg, which is spoken by the Bakhtiari, Kuhgiluyeh, and Mamasani tribes; and Lur Kuchik, which is spoken by the Lurs of Lorestan. Like the Persians, the Bakhtiaris and Lurs are Shia Muslims. Historically, each of the two groups was organized into several tribes. The tribal leaders or khans, especially those of the Bakhtiari tribes, were involved in national politics and were considered part of the prerevolutionary elite.

The Bakhtiaris have been considered both a political and a tribal entity separate from other Lurs for at least two centuries. They are concentrated in an area extending southward from Lorestan Province to Khuzestan Province and westward from Esfahan to within eighty kilometers of the present-day Iraqi border. A pastoral nomadic tribe called Bakhtiari can be traced back in Iranian history to as early as the fourteenth century, but the important Bakhtiari tribal confederation dates only from the nineteenth century. At the height of Bakhtiari influence, roughly from 1870 to 1930, the term Bakhtiari came to be associated not just with the nomadic tribes that provided the military prowess of the confederation but also with the villagers and even town dwellers who were under Bakhtiari jurisdiction. Thus, some Arabic-, Persian-, and Turkic-speaking peasants were considered part of the Bakhtiari. Beginning in the 1920s, the Pahlavi shahs gradually succeeded in establishing the authority of the central government in the Bakhtiari area. Several campaigns also were undertaken to settle forcibly the nomadic pastoral component of the Bakhtiari. The combined political and economic pressures resulted in a significant decline in the power of the Bakhtiari confederation. Detribalized Bakhtiaris, especially those who settled in urban areas and received an education in state schools, tended to be assimilated into Persian culture. By the time of the Revolution in 1979 the term Bakhtiari tended to be restricted to an estimated 250,000 tribespeople, most of whom still practiced pastoral nomadism.

Historically, the Bakhtiaris have been divided into two main tribal groups. The Chahar Lang are located in the northwest of the Bakhtiari country and until the middle of the nineteenth century retained the leadership of all the Bakhtiari tribes. The Haft Lang, the southwestern group, have been more closely associated with modern Iranian politics than the Chahar Lang and in some instances have exercised significant influence.

The Lurs (closely related to the Bakhtiaris) live in the Zagros to the northwest, west, and southeast of the Bakhtiaris. There were about 500,000 Lurs in Iran in the mid-1980s. The Lurs are divided into two main groups, the Posht-e Kuhi and the Pish-e Kuhi. These two groups are subdivided into more than sixty tribes, the most important of which include the Boir Ahmadi, the Kuhgiluyeh, and the Mamasani. Historically, the Lurs have included an urban segment based in the town of Khorramabad, the provincial capital of Lorestan. Prior to 1900, however, the majority of Lurs were pastoral nomads. Traditionally, they were considered among the fiercest of Iranian tribes and had acquired an unsavory reputation on account of their habit of preying on both Lur and non-Lur villages. During the 1920s and 1930s, the government of Reza Shah undertook several coercive campaigns to settle the nomadic Lurs. Following the abdication of Reza Shah in 1941, many of the recently settled tribes reverted to nomadism. Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi's government attempted with some success through various economic development programs to encourage the remaining nomadic Lurs to settle. By 1986 a majority of all Lurs were settled in villages and small towns in the traditional Lur areas or had migrated to cities.


Iran - Baluchis


The Baluchis--who constitute the majority of the population in Baluchestan va Sistan--numbered approximately 600,000 in Iran in the mid-1980s. They are part of a larger group that forms the majority of the population of Baluchistan Province in Pakistan and of some areas in southern Afghanistan. In Iran the Baluchis are concentrated in the Makran highlands, an area that stretches eastward along the Gulf of Oman coast to the Pakistan border and includes some of the most desolate country in the world. The Baluchis speak an Indo-Iranian language that is distantly related to Persian and more closely related to Pashtu, one of the major languages of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Historically, Baluchi has been only an oral language, although educated Baluchis in Pakistan have developed a written script that employs the Arabic alphabet. Unlike the majority of Persians, the majority of Baluchis are Sunni rather than Shia Muslims. This religious difference has been a source of tension in the past, especially in the ethnically mixed provincial capital of Zahedan. Religious tensions have been exacerbated since the establishment of the Republic.

About half of the Baluchis are seminomadic or nomadic; the remainder are settled farmers or townsmen. Tribal organization remains intact among nomadic and seminomadic Baluchis; tribal patterns of authority and obligation have also been retained by the majority of settled Baluchis. The Baluchis have been one of the most difficult tribal groups for the central government to control, in large part because of poor communications between Tehran and Baluchestan va Sistan. With the exception of the city of Zahedan, neither the monarchy nor the Republic invested any significant funds in local development projects. As a result, the Baluchis are one of the poorest and least educated peoples in Iran. Most of the principal Baluchi tribes in Iran border Pakistan or Afghanistan. They include the Yarahmadzai, the Nauri, the Gomshadzai, the Saravan, the Lashari, and the Barazani. Along the coast of the Gulf of Oman live the important tribes of Sadozai and Taherza.


Iran - Kurds


The Kurds speak a variety of closely related dialects, which in Iran are collectively called Kirmanji. The dialects are divided into northern and southern groups, and it is not uncommon for the Kurds living in adjoining mountain valleys to speak different dialects. There is a small body of Kurdish literature written in a modified Arabic script. Kurdish is more closely related to Persian than is Baluchi and also contains numerous Persian loanwords. In large Kurdish cities, the educated population speaks both Persian and Kurdish.

There are approximately 4 million Kurds in Iran. They are the third most important ethnic group in the country after the Persians and Azarbaijanis and account for about 9 percent of the total population. They are concentrated in the Zagros Mountain area along the western frontiers with Turkey and Iraq and adjacent to the Kurdish populations of both those countries. Kurds also live in the Soviet Union and Syria. The Kurdish area of Iran includes most of West Azarbaijan, all of Kordestan, much of Bakhtaran (formerly known as Kermanshahan) and Ilam, and parts of Lorestan. Historically, the Kurds of Iran have been both urban and rural, with as much as half the rural population practicing pastoral nomadism in different periods of history. By the mid-1970s, fewer than 15 percent of all Kurds were nomadic. In addition, during the 1970s there was substantial migration of rural Kurds to such historic Kurdish cities as Bakhtaran (known as Kermanshah until 1979), Sanandaj, and Mahabad, as well as to larger towns such as Baneh, Bijar, Ilam, Islamabad (known as Shahabad until 1979), Saqqez, Sar-e Pol-e Zahab, and Sonqor. Educated Kurds also migrated to non-Kurdish cities such as Karaj, Tabriz, and Tehran.

There are also scatterings of Kurds in the provinces of Fars, Kerman, and Baluchestan va Sistan, and there is a large group of approximately 350,000 living in a small area of northern Khorasan. These are all descendants of Kurds whom the government forcibly removed from western Iran during the seventeenth century.

Most of the rural Kurds retain a tribal form of social organization, although the position of the chief is less significant among the majority of Kurds who live in villages than it is among the unsettled pastoralists. An estimated forty Kurdish tribes and confederations of tribes were still recognized in the mid-1980s. Many of these were organized in the traditional manner, which obligated several subordinate clans to pay dues in cash or produce and provide allegiance to a chief clan. The land reform program of the 1960s did not disrupt this essentially feudal system among most tribally organized Kurds.

The majority of both rural and urban Kurds in West Azarbaijan and Kordestan practice Sunni Islam. There is more diversity of religious practice in southern Kurdish areas, especially in the Bakhtaran area, where many villagers and townspeople follow Shia beliefs. Schismatic Islamic groups, such as the Ahl-e Haqq and the Yazdis, both of which are considered heretical by orthodox Shias, traditionally have had numerous adherents among the Kurds of the Bakhtaran region. A tiny minority of Kurds are adherents of Judaism.

The Kurds have manifested an independent spirit throughout modern Iranian history, rebelling against central government efforts to restrict their autonomy during the Safavid, Qajar, and Pahlavi periods. The most recent Kurdish uprising took place in 1979 following the Revolution. Mahabad, which has been a center of Kurdish resistance against Persian authority since the time of the Safavid monarch Shah Abbas (1587-1629), was again at the forefront of the Kurdish autonomy struggle. Intense fighting between government forces and Kurdish guerrillas occurred from 1979 to 1982, but since 1983 the government has asserted its control over most of the Kurdish area.


Iran - Turkic-speaking Groups


The second major element of the population is composed of various Turkic-speaking groups. The Turkic languages belong to the Ural-Altaic family, which includes many languages of Soviet Central Asia and western China, as well as Turkish, Hungarian, and Finnish. The various Turkic languages spoken in Iran tend to be mutually intelligible. Of these, only Azarbaijani is written to any extent. In Iran it is written in the Arabic script, in contrast to the Azarbaijani in Turkey, which is written in the Roman script, and that of the Soviet Union, which is written in the Cyrillic script. Unlike Indo-European languages, Turkic languages are characterized by short base words to which are added numerous prefixes and suffixes, each addition changing the meaning of the base. They are also distinguished by their vowel harmony, which means that the kind of vowel used in the base word and the additives must agree. Thus, lengthy words might be filled with "o's" and "u's" or with "a's" and "e's," but not with mixtures of the two.

Turkic speakers make up as much as 25 percent of Iran's total population. They are concentrated in northwestern Iran, where they form the overwhelming majority of the population of East Azarbaijan and a majority of West Azarbaijan. They also constitute a significant minority in the provinces of Fars, Gilan, Hamadan, Khorasan, Mazandaran, and Tehran. Except for the Azarbaijanis, most of the Turkic groups are tribally organized. Some of the Turkic tribes continue to follow a nomadic or seminomadic life. Educated Turkic speakers in the large cities speak and understand Persian.


Iran - Azarbaijanis


By far the largest Turkic-speaking group are the Azarbaijanis, who account for over 85 percent of all Turkic speakers in Iran. Most of the Azarbaijanis are concentrated in the northwestern corner of the country, where they form the majority population in an area between the Caspian Sea and Lake Urmia and from the Soviet border south to the latitude of Tehran. Their language, Azarbaijani (also called Azeri or Turkish), is structurally similar to the Turkish spoken in Turkey but with a strikingly different accent. About half of all Azarbaijanis are urban. Major Azarbaijani cities include Tabriz, Urmia, Ardabil, Zanjan, Khoy, and Maragheh. In addition, an estimated one-third of the population of Tehran is Azarbaijani and there are sizable Azarbaijani minorities in other major cities, such as Hamadan, Karaj, and Qazvin. The life styles of urban Azarbaijanis do not differ from those of Persians, and there is considerable intermarriage among the upper classes in cities of mixed populations. Similarly, customs among Azarbaijani villagers do not appear to differ markedly from those of Persian villagers. The majority of Azarbaijanis, like the majority of Persians, are Shia Muslims. A tiny minority of Azarbaijanis are Bahais.


Iran - Qashqais


The Qashqais are the second largest Turkic group in Iran. The Qashqais are a confederation of several Turkic-speaking tribes in Fars Province numbering about 250,000 people. They are pastoral nomads who move with their herds of sheep and goats between summer pastures in the higher elevations of the Zagros south of Shiraz and winter pastures at low elevations north of Shiraz. Their migration routes are considered to be among the longest and most difficult of all of Iran's pastoral tribes. The majority of Qashqais are Shias.

The Qashqai confederation emerged in the eighteenth century when Shiraz was the capital of the Zand dynasty. During the nineteenth century, the Qashqai confederation became one of the best organized and most powerful tribal confederations in Iran, including among its clients hundreds of villages and some non-Turkic-speaking tribes. Under the Qashqais' most notable leader, Khan Solat ad Doleh, their strength was great enough to defeat the British-led South Persia Rifles in 1918. Reza Shah's campaigns against them in the early 1930s were successful because the narrow pass on the route from their summer to winter pastures was blocked, and the tribe was starved into submission. Solat and his son were imprisoned in Tehran, where Solat was subsequently murdered. Many Qashqais were then settled on land in their summer pastures, which averages 2,500 meters above sea level.

The Qashqais, like the Bakhtiaris and other forcibly settled tribes, returned to nomadic life upon Reza Shah's exile in 1941. Army and government officials were driven out of the area, but the Qashqais, reduced in numbers and disorganized after their settlement, were unable to regain their previous strength and independence. In the post-World War II period, the Qashqai khans supported the National Front of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq. Following the 1953 royalist coup d'état against Mossadeq, the Qashqai khans were exiled, and army officers were appointed to supervise tribal affairs. The Qashqais revolted again in the period 1962 to 1964, when the government attempted to take away their pastures under the land reform program. A full-fledged military campaign was launched against them, and the area was eventually pacified. Since the mid-1960s, many Qashqais have settled in villages and towns. According to some estimates, as many as 100,000 Qashqais may have been settled by 1986. This change from pastoral nomadism to settled agriculture and urban occupations proved to be an important factor hindering the Qashqai tribes from organizing effectively against the central government after the Revolution in 1979 when exiled tribal leaders returned to Iran hoping to rebuild the confederation.

By the 1980s, the terms Qashqai and Turk tended to be used interchangeably in Fars, especially by non-Turkic speakers. Many Turkic groups, however, such as the urban Abivardis of Shiraz and their related village kin in nearby rural areas and the Baharlu, the Inalu, and other tribes, were never part of the Qashqai confederation. The Baharlu and Inalu tribes actually were part of the Khamseh confederacy created to counterbalance the Qashqais. Nevertheless, both Qashqai and non-Qashqai Turks in Fars recognize a common ethnic identity in relation to non- Turks. All of these Turks speak mutually intelligible dialects that are closely related to Azarbaijani. The total Turkic-speaking population of Fars was estimated to be about 500,000 in 1986.


Iran - Semitic Language Groups


Arabic and Assyrian are the two Semitic languages spoken in Iran. The Arabic dialects are spoken in Khuzestan and along the Persian Gulf coast. They are modern variants of the older Arabic that formed the base of the classical literary language and all the colloquial languages of the Arabic-speaking world. As a Semitic language, Arabic is related to Hebrew, Syriac, and Ethiopic. Like these other Semitic languages, Arabic is based on three-consonant roots, whose meanings vary according to the combinations of vowels that are used to separate the consonants. Written Arabic often is difficult to learn because of the tendency not to indicate short vowels by diacritical marks. There is no linguistic family relationship between Arabic and Persian, although Persian vocabulary has been heavily influenced by Arabic. The Arabic loanwords incorporated into Persian have been modified to fit the Persian sound patterns. Arabic also continues to be the language of prayer of all Muslims in Iran. Children in school learn to read the Quran in Arabic. Persian- and Turkic-speaking Iranians who have commercial interests in the Persian Gulf area often learn Arabic for business purposes.

In 1986 there were an estimated 530,000 Arabs in Iran. A majority lived in Khuzestan, where they constituted a significant ethnic minority. Most of the other Arabs lived along the Persian Gulf coastal plains, but there also were small scattered tribal groups living in central and eastern Iran. About 40 percent of the Arabs were urban, concentrated in such cities as Abadan, Ahvaz, and Khorramshahr. The majority of urban Arab adult males were unskilled workers, especially in the oil industry. Arabs also worked in commerce and services, and there was a small number of Arab professionals. Some urban Arabs and most rural Arabs are tribally organized. The rural Arabs of Khuzestan tend to be farmers and fishermen. Many of the Arabs who live along the Persian Gulf coastal plains are pastoral nomads who keep herds of cattle, sheep, and camels.

Both the urban and the rural Arabs of Khuzestan are intermingled with the Persians, Turks, and Lurs who also live in the province. The Khuzestan Arabs are Shias. While this physical and spiritual closeness has facilitated intermarriage between the Arabs and other Iranians, the Arabs have tended to regard themselves as separate from non-Arabs and have usually been so regarded by other Iranians. Among the Khuzestan Arabs there has been a sense of ethnic solidarity for many years. The government of neighboring Iraq, both before and after the 1979 Revolution in Iran, has claimed that the Khuzestan Arabs are discriminated against and has asserted at various times that it has assisted those desiring "liberation" from Tehran. When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980 and occupied much of Khuzestan for nearly two years, however, an anticipated uprising of the Arab population did not occur, and most of the local Arabs fled the area along with the non-Arab population.

Apart from Khuzestan there is little sense of ethnic unity among the scattered Arab settlements. The Arabs in the area stretching from Bushehr to Bandar-e Abbas tend to be Sunnis. This has helped to strengthen their differentiation from most non-Arab Iranians and even from the Arabs of Khuzestan.

The other Semitic people of Iran are the Assyrians, a Christian group that speaks modern dialects of Assyrian, an Aramaic language that evolved from old Syriac. Language and religion provide a strong cohesive force and give the Assyrians a sense of identity with their coreligionists in Iraq, in other parts of the Middle East, and also in the United States. Most Assyrians adhere to the Assyrian Church of the East (sometimes referred to as the Chaldean Church or Nestorian Church). Many theologians regard this church as the oldest in Christendom. In the nineteenth century, Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries proselytized among the Assyrians and converted many of them.

There were about 32,000 Assyrians in Iran at the time of the 1976 census. Many of them emigrated after the Revolution in 1979, but at least 20,000 were estimated still to be living in Iran in 1987. The traditional home of the Assyrians in Iran is along the western shore of Lake Urmia. During World War I virtually the entire Assyrian population fled the area, which had become a battleground for opposing Russian and Turkish armies. Thousands of Assyrians perished on the overland flight through the Zagros to the safety of British-controlled Iraq. Eventually, many of the Iranian Assyrians settled among the Assyrian population of Iraq or emigrated to the United States. During the reign of Reza Shah, Assyrians were invited back to Iran to repopulate their villages. A few thousand did return, but, since the 1940s, most young Assyrians have migrated to Tehran and other urban centers.


Iran - Armenians


Armenians, a non-Muslim minority that traditionally has lived in northwestern Iran adjacent to the historic Armenian homeland located in what today are eastern Turkey and Soviet Armenia, speak an Indo- European language that is distantly related to Persian. There were an estimated 300,000 Armenians in the country at the time of the Revolution in 1979. There has been considerable emigration of Armenians from Iran since, although in 1986 the Armenian population was still estimated to be 250,000. In the past there were many Armenian villages, especially in the Esfahan area, where several thousand Armenian families had been forcibly resettled in the early seventeenth century during the reign of the Safavid ruler, Shah Abbas. By the 1970s, the Armenians were predominantly urban. Approximately half lived in Tehran, and there were sizable communities in Esfahan, Tabriz, and other cities. The Armenians tend to be relatively well educated and maintain their own schools and Armenian-language newspapers.

Most Armenians are Gregorian Christians, although there are some Roman Catholic and Protestant Armenians as a result of European and American missionary work in Iran during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Armenian Orthodox Church is divided between those who give their allegiance to the patriarch based at Echmiadzin, near Yerevan in the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, and those who support his rival, the patriarch of Cicile at Antilyas, near Beirut in Lebanon. Since 1949 a majority of Armenian Gregorians have followed the patriarch of Cicile. Clergy from Soviet Armenia were at one time active among the Iranian Armenians and had some success in exploiting their sense of community with their coreligionists in the Soviet Union. Several thousand Armenians emigrated from Iran to Soviet Armenia during World War II, and, except for occasional interruptions by one government or another, such emigration has continued. There has also been steady emigration of Iranian Armenians from Iran to the United States.




Iranians have a very strong sense of class structure. In the past they referred to their society as being divided into tiers, or tabagheh, which were identified by numbers: the first tier corresponded to the upper classes; the second, to the middle classes; and the third, to the lower classes. Under the influence of revolutionary ideology, society is now perceived as being divided into the wealthy, a term generally prefixed with negative adjectives; the middle classes; and the mostazafin, a term that literally means disinherited. In reality, Iranian society has always been more complex than a three-tier division implies because each of the three broad classes is subdivided into several social groups. These divisions have existed in both urban and rural areas.

<>Urban Society
<>Social Class
<>Urban Migration
<>Rural Society
<>Nomadic Society


Iran - Urban Society


Historically, towns in Iran have been administrative, commercial, and manufacturing centers. The traditional political elite consisted of families whose wealth was derived from land and/or trade and from which were recruited the official representatives of the central government. In larger cities, these families could trace their power and influence back several generations. Influential families were also found among the Shia clergy in the largest cities. The middle stratum included merchants and owners of artisan workshops. The lowest class of urban society included the artisans, laborers, and providers of personal services, such as barbers, bath attendants, shoemakers, tailors, and servants. Most of these, especially the artisans, who were organized into trade associations or guilds, worked in the covered bazaars of the towns.

The urban bazaar historically has been the heart of the Iranian town. In virtually all towns the bazaar is a covered street, or series of streets and alleyways, lined with small shops grouped by service or product. One part of the bazaar contains the shops of cloth and apparel dealers; another section those of carpet makers and merchants; and still another, the workshops of artisans making goods of copper, brass, or other metals, leather, cotton, and wool. In small towns the bazaar might be the equivalent of a narrow, block-long street; in the largest cities, such as Tehran, Esfahan, Mashhad, Tabriz, and Shiraz, the bazaar is a warren of streets that contains warehouses, restaurants, baths, mosques, schools, and gardens in addition to hundreds and hundreds of shops.

The modernization policies of the Pahlavi shahs both preserved and transformed all of these aspects of urban society. This process also led to the rapid growth of the urban population. The extension of central government authority throughout the country fostered the expansion of administrative apparatuses in all major provincial centers. By the 1970s, such cities were sites not just of the principal political and security offices but also of the local branches of diverse government offices such as education, justice, taxation, and telecommunications.

The establishment of modern factories displaced the numerous artisan workshops. Parts of old bazaars were destroyed to create wide streets. Merchants were encouraged to locate retail shops along these new streets rather than in the bazaars. Many of the stores that opened to meet the increased demand for commerce and services from the rapidly expanding urban population were in the new streets. The political elite in the last years of the Pahlavi dynasty spoke of the bazaars as symbols of backwardness and advanced plans to replace some of them with modern shopping malls.

The Urban Political Elite

Prior to the Revolution of 1979, the political elite of the towns consisted of the shah and his family and court in Tehran and the representatives of the monarchy in the provincial towns. These representatives included provincial governors and city mayors, all of whom were appointed by Tehran; high-level government officials; high- ranking military officers; the wealthiest industrialists and financiers; the most prominent merchants; and the best known professionals in law, medicine, and education. The highest ranks of the Shia clergy--the clerics who had obtained the status of ayatollah--were no longer considered part of the national elite by the mid-1970s, although this social group had been very important in the elite from the seventeenth to the mid- twentieth century.

The Revolution of 1979 swept aside this old elite. Although the old political elite was not physically removed, albeit many of its members voluntarily or involuntarily went into exile, it was stripped of its political power. The new elite consisted first and foremost of the higher ranks of the Shia clergy. The most important administrative, military, and security positions were filled by lay politicians who supported the rule of the clergy. The majority of the lay political elite had their origins in the prerevolutionary middle class, especially the bazaar families.

The Bazaar

Opposing the political elite through much of the twentieth century has been the bazaar, an important political, economic, and social force in Iran since at least the time of the Qajar dynasty. The Pahlavi shahs viewed the bazaar as an impediment to the modern society that they wished to create and sought to enact policies that would erode the bazaar's importance. They were aware that the alliance of the mercantile and artisan forces of the bazaar with the Shia clergy posed a serious threat to royal government, as occurred in 1890 and again during the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-07. The emergence of such an alliance in the period from 1923 to 1924 is believed by many scholars to have convinced Reza Shah not to establish a republic, as Atatürk had done in Turkey, but to establish a new dynasty based upon his family.

Reza Shah recognized the potential power of the bazaar, and he was apparently determined to control it. As his secularization programs had adversely affected the clergy, many of his economic reforms hurt the bazaar. His son also sought to control the influence of the bazaar. As a consequence, the bazaar remained a locus of opposition to both Pahlavi shahs. During 1978 the bazaar spearheaded the strikes that paralyzed some sectors of the economy and provided support for the political actions of the Shia clergy. In essence, the feared alliance of the bazaar and clergy had once again come to play a pivotal role in effecting political change in Iran.

The Republic has been much more solicitous of the bazaar than was the Pahlavi dynasty. Several of the early economic programs implemented by the governments of the Republic have benefited the interests of the bazaar; nevertheless, the complexities of managing an economy under the impact of a total war have also forced the central government to adopt economic policies that the bazaar has opposed. Generally, the government leaders have favored varying degrees of state regulation over such economic issues as the pricing of basic commodities and foreign trade, while entrepreneurs, bazaar merchants, and some prominent clergy have opposed such restrictions. These economic issues have been among the main reasons for the emergence of two contentious factions among the political elite.


Iran - Social Class


Prior to the Revolution of 1979, political connections were considered a key measure of one's social status. In other words, the amount of access that one was perceived to have to the highest levels of decision making was the major determinant of prestige. Wealth was important, but acquiring and maintaining wealth tended to be closely intertwined with access to political power. Consequently, members of the political elite were generally involved in numerous complex interrelationships. For example, some members of the Senate (the upper house of the parliament, or Majlis), a legislative body that included many members of the political elite appointed by the shah, were also on the boards of several industrial and commercial enterprises and were owners of extensive agricultural lands. Since being part of an elite family was an important prerequisite for entry into the political elite, marital relationships tended to bind together important elite families.

The other classes attempted to emulate the political elite in seeking connections to those with political power, whether on the provincial, town, or village level. By the 1970s, however, the nonelite of all classes perceived education as important for improving social status. Education was seen as providing entry into high-status jobs that in turn would open up opportunities for making connections with those who had political power. Despite a great expansion in educational opportunities, the demand far outstripped the ability or willingness of the elite to provide education; this in turn became a source of resentment. By the late 1970s, the nonelite groups, especially the middle classes, rather than admiring the elite and desiring to emulate them, tended to resent the elite for blocking opportunities to compete on an equal basis.

As a result of the lack of field research in Iran after the Revolution, it was difficult in the late 1980s to determine whether the traditional bases for ascribing class status had changed. It is probable that access to political power continued to be important for ascribing status even though the composition of the political elite had changed. It also appears that education continued to be an important basis for determining status.

The Upper Classes

The postrevolutionary upper classes consisted of some of the same elements as the old elite, such as large landowners, industrialists, financiers, and large-scale merchants. They remained part of the upper class by virtue of having stayed in Iran and having retained a considerable part of their wealth. For the most part, however, such persons no longer had any political influence, and in the future the absence of such influence could impede the acquisition of new wealth. The element of the upper classes with greatest political influence was a new group, the senior clergy. Wealth was apparently no longer an attribute of authority, as the example of Khomeini demonstrated. Religious expertise and piety became the major criteria for belonging to the new political elite. Thus, key government administrators held their positions because of their perceived commitment to Shia Islam. They were part of the new political elite, although not members of the old social elite.

The Middle Classes

After the Revolution of 1979, the composition of the middle class was no different from what it had been under the monarchy. There were several identifiable social groups, including entrepreneurs, bazaar merchants, professionals, managers of private and nationalized concerns, the higher grades of the civil service, teachers, medium-scale landowners, military officers, and the junior ranks of the Shia clergy. Some middle- class groups apparently had more access to political power than they had had before the Revolution because the new political elite had been recruited primarily from the middle class.

Prior to the Revolution, the middle class was divided between those possessed of a Western education, who had a secular outlook, and those suspicious of Western education, who valued a role for religion in both public and private life. In general, the more secularly oriented tended to be found among those employed in the bureaucracy, the professions, and the universities, while the more religiously oriented were concentrated among bazaar merchants and the clergy. Among entrepreneurs and especially primary and secondary school teachers, the secular and religious points of view may have had roughly equal numbers of proponents. Since the Revolution, these two outlooks have been in contention. The religious outlook has dominated politics and society, but it appears that the secular middle class has resented laws and regulations that were perceived as interfering with personal liberties.

The middle class was divided by other issues as well. Before the Revolution, an extremely high value had been placed upon obtaining a foreign education. The new political elite, however, regarded a foreign education with suspicion; accordingly, many members of the middle class who were educated abroad have been required to undergo special Islamic indoctrination courses to retain their jobs. In some cases, refusal to conform to religiously prescribed dress and behavior codes has resulted in the loss of government jobs. As a result of these tensions, thousands of Western-educated Iranians have emigrated since 1979.

The Working Class

The working class has been in the process of formation since the early twentieth century. The industrialization programs of the Pahlavi shahs provided the impetus for the expansion of this class. By the 1970s, a distinct working-class identity, kargar, had been established, although those who applied this term to themselves did not actually constitute a unified group. The working class was divided into various groups of workers: those in the oil industry, manufacturing, construction, and transportation; and mechanics and artisans in bazaar workshops. The most important component, factory workers, numbered about 2.5 million on the eve of the Revolution, double the number in 1965, and they accounted for 25 percent of Iran's total employed labor force.

The workers within any one occupation, rather than sharing a common identity, were divided according to perceived skills. For example, skilled construction workers, such as carpenters, electricians, and plumbers, earned significantly higher wages than the more numerous unskilled workers and tended to look down upon them. Similar status differences were common among workers in the oil industry, textile manufacturing, and metal goods production. The heaviest concentration of unskilled workers was in construction, which on the eve of the Revolution employed 9 percent of the entire labor force. In addition to relatively low wages, unskilled construction workers had no job security.

The unions played only a passive role from the viewpoint of workers. Under both the monarchy and the Republic, union activity was strictly controlled by the government. Both the shah and the government of the Islamic Republic considered strikes to be unpatriotic and generally suppressed both strikes and independent efforts to organize workers. Although strikes played an important role in undermining the authority of the government during the final months of the monarchy, once the Republic had been established the new government embraced the view of its royalist predecessor regarding independent labor activities. Thus the government has considered strikes to be un-Islamic and has forcibly suppressed them. A long history of factionalism among different working- class occupational groups and between skilled and unskilled workers within an industry traditionally has contributed to the relative success of governments in controlling the working class.

The Lower Class

Members of the urban lower class can be distinguished by their high illiteracy rate, performance of manual labor, and generally marginal existence. The lower class is divided into two groups: those with regular employment and those without. Those who have regular work include domestic servants, bath attendants, porters, street cleaners, peddlers, street vendors, gardeners, office cleaners, laundry workers, and bakery workers. Thousands work only occasionally or seasonally at these or other jobs. Among the marginally employed there is much reliance on begging. In the past, some members of this group also resorted to prostitution, gambling, smuggling, and drug selling. Since the Revolution, there have been severe penalties for persons convicted of moral offenses, although newspaper reports of the uncovering of various crime rings would indicate that the new codes have not eliminated such activities.

At the time of the Revolution, it was estimated that as much as one- third of the population of Tehran and one-quarter of the population of other large cities consisted of persons living on the margins of urban society. Life was typified by squalid slums, poverty, malnutrition, lack of health and educational facilities, and crime. In 1987 there was no evidence of measures undertaken by the new government to alleviate conditions in the urban slums.


Iran - Urban Migration


A main characteristic of the working class has been its peasant origins. The rapid growth of the working class in the 1960s and 1970s was the result of migration from villages to cities. There also has been some migration from small towns to larger cities and from economically depressed areas, such as Baluchestan and Kordestan, to more economically vital regions. The result of these population transfers has been an inability of urban services to keep pace with the population growth and the consequent spread of slum areas. In 1987 south Tehran was still Iran's most extensive urban slum, but other large cities also had notable slum sections. It was in these areas that marginally employed and unskilled workers were concentrated. Immediately after the Revolution, the government announced its intention of making living and working conditions in rural areas more attractive as a means of stemming rural- to-urban migration. Although the slowdown in the economy since the Revolution may have contributed to a generally reduced rate of urban growth, there was no evidence that migration from the villages had ceased. The preliminary results from the 1986 census indicated that such cities as Mashhad and Shiraz have grown at even faster rates than before the Revolution.


Iran - Rural Society


At the time of the Revolution there were about 68,000 villages in Iran. They varied from mere hamlets of a few families up to sizable settlements with populations of 5,000. Social organization in these villages was less stratified than in urban areas, but a hierarchy of political and social relationships and patterns of interaction could be identified. At the top of the village social structure was the largest landowner or owners. In the middle stratum were peasants owning medium to small farms. In the larger villages the middle stratum also included local merchants and artisans. The lowest level, which predominated in most villages, consisted of landless villagers.

Immediately before the Revolution in 1979, Iran's agriculturally productive land totaled about 16.6 million hectares. Approximately one- half of this land was owned by some 200,000 absentee landlords who resided in urban areas. Such owners were represented in the villages by agents who themselves were generally large landowners. The property of the large-scale owners tended to be among the most fertile in the country and generally was used for the production of such cash crops as cotton, sugar beets, fruit, and high-demand vegetables. Agricultural workers were recruited from among the landless villagers and were given either a share of the crop or a cash wage. In some cases, landlords contracted with small peasant owners to farm their fields in return for a share of the crop. Such agreements netted for the landlords from 20 to 70 percent of the harvest, depending upon the crop and the particular inputs provided by the respective parties.

In 1979 about 7 million hectares were divided among approximately 2 million peasant families, whose holdings ranged from less than 1 hectare up to 50. They had acquired ownership as a result of a land reform program implemented between 1962 and 1971. In a typical village a few families owned sufficient land--ten or more hectares--to engage in farming for profit. About 75 percent of the peasant owners, however, had less than 7 hectares, an amount generally insufficient for anything but subsistence agriculture.

Approximately 50 percent of all villagers owned no land. Within individual villages the landless population varied from as little as 10 percent of the total to more than 75 percent. The landless villagers were composed of three distinct social groups: village merchants, village artisans and service workers, and agricultural laborers. Village merchants were found primarily in the larger villages. Their interests tended to coincide with those of the peasant owners, and it was not uncommon for the better-off merchants to acquire agricultural landholdings. Village artisans included blacksmiths, carpenters, cobblers, and coppersmiths. The increasing availability of urban-manufactured goods throughout the 1960s and 1970s had caused a sharp decline in the numbers of village artisans, although carpenters were still important in the larger villages.

The largest group of landless villagers consisted of agricultural laborers who subsisted by contracting with landlords and larger peasant owners to work in their fields on a daily or seasonal basis. In return for their labor they received a wage, based upon the nature of the work performed, or, in some cases, a share of the crop. This group also provided many of the migrants from rural areas in the 1970s. In some areas the migration rate was so great that landlords were compelled to import foreign workers, primarily unskilled Afghans, to work their lands. The Afghan and other foreign workers were rounded up immediately after the Revolution and expelled from Iran.

Traditionally, in each village the kadkhuda-- not to be confused with the head of the smallest tribal unit, a clan--was responsible for administering its affairs and for representing the village in relations with governmental authorities and other outsiders. Before land reform, landlords appointed the kadkhudas from among the peasants. Sometimes kadkhudas also served as the landlord's agent in the village, although the tendency was for these two positions to be filled by separate persons. After land reform, the office of kadkhuda became, at least in theory, elective. However, since the kadkhuda was the primary channel through which the government transacted its affairs with the villages, any villager desiring to be a kadkhuda had to demonstrate that he had sufficient political access to government officials in the nearest town to protect the interests of the village. In effect, this meant that kadkhudas were actually selected by government officials. In general, "elected" kadkhudas tended to be among the richest peasant landowners. The land reform and various rural development programs undertaken prior to the Revolution did not produce positive results for the majority of villagers. Economic conditions for most village families stagnated or deteriorated precisely at the time that manufacturing and construction were experiencing an economic boom in urban areas. Consequently, there was a significant increase in rural-to- urban migration. Between the 1966 and the 1976 censuses, a period when the population of the country as a whole was growing at the rate of 2.7 percent per year, most villages actually lost population, and the overall growth rate for the rural population was barely 0.5 percent annually. This migration was primarily of young villagers attracted to cities by the prospect of seasonal or permanent work opportunities. By the late 1970s, this migration had seriously depleted the labor force of many villages. This was an important factor in the relative decline in production of such basic food crops as cereals because many farming families were forced to sow their agricultural land with less labor-intensive crops.

The problems of rural stagnation and agricultural decline had already surfaced in public debate by the eve of the Revolution. During the immediate turmoil surrounding the fall of the monarchy, peasants in many villages took advantage of the unsettled conditions to complete the land redistribution begun under the shah, i.e., they expropriated the property of landlords whom they accused of being un-Islamic. In still other villages, former landlords who had lost property as a result of land reform tried to regain it by flaunting their commitment to Islam and their antagonism to the deposed shah.

Thus, from the beginning the republican government was compelled to tackle the land problem. This proved to be a difficult issue because of the differences among the political elite with respect to the role of private property under Islam. Some officials wanted to legitimize the peasant expropriations as a means of resolving the problem of inequitable land distribution resulting from the shah's land reform program. Such officials generally believed in the principle that the peasant who actually tilled the soil should also be the owner. In contrast, other officials opposed legitimizing land expropriations on the ground that private property is both sanctioned and protected by Islamic law. By 1987 no consensus had been reached, and the question of land redistribution remained unresolved.

The government, however, has demonstrated considerable interest in rural development. A new organization for rebuilding villages, the Crusade for Reconstruction (Jihad-e Sazandegi or Jihad), was created in 1979. It consisted of high-school-educated youth, largely from urban areas, who were charged with such village improvement tasks as providing electrification and piped water, building feeder roads, constructing mosques and bath houses, and repairing irrigation networks.


Iran - Nomadic Society


There has never been a census of pastoral nomads in Iran. In 1986 census officials estimated that nomads totaled 1.8 million. The number of tribally organized people, both nomadic and sedentary, may be twice that figure, or nearly 4 million. The nomadic population practices transhumance, migrating in the spring and in the fall. Each tribe claims the use of fixed territories for its summer and winter pastures and the right to use a specified migration route between these areas. Frequently summer and winter camps are widely separated, in some cases by as much as 300 kilometers. Consequently, the semiannual migrations, with families, flocks, and household equipment, may take up to two months to complete. The nomadic tribes are concentrated in the Zagros, but small groups are also found in northeastern and southeastern Iran.

The movements of the tribes appear to be an adaptation to the ecology of the Zagros. In the summer, when the low valleys are parched from insufficient rainfall, the tribes are in the higher elevations. When the snows begin to fall and cover the pastures of the higher valleys, the tribes migrate to low-lying pastures that remain green throughout the winter because of the seasonal rainfall.

Traditionally, the nomadic tribes have kept large herds of sheep and goats, which have provided the main source of red meat for Iran. During migrations the tribes trade their live animals, wool, hair, hides, dairy products, and various knotted and woven textiles with villagers and townspeople in return for manufactured and agricultural goods that the nomads are unable to produce. This economic interdependence between the nomadic and settled populations of Iran has been an important characteristic of society for several centuries.

During the Qajar period (1795-1925), when the central government was especially weak, the nomadic tribes formed tribal confederations and acquired a great deal of power and influence. In many areas these tribal confederations were virtually autonomous and negotiated with the local and national governments for extensive land rights. The largest tribal confederations, such as those of the Bakhtiari and the Qashqai, were headed by a paramount leader, or ilkhan. Individual tribes within a confederation were headed by a khan, beg, shaykh, or sardar. Subtribes, generally composed of several clans, were headed by kalantars. The head of the smallest tribal unit, the clan, was called a kadkhuda.

Reza Shah moved against the tribes with the new national army that he began creating while minister of war and prime minister (1921-25). After he became shah, his tribal policy had two objectives: to break the authority and power of the great tribal confederation leaders, whom he perceived as a threat to his goal of centralizing power, and to gain the allegiance of urban political leaders who had historically resented the power of the tribes. In addition to military maneuvers against the tribes, Reza Shah used such economic and administrative techniques as confiscation of tribal properties and the holding of chiefs' sons as hostages. Eventually, many nomads were subdued and placed under army control. Some were given government-built houses and forced to follow a sedentary life. As a result, the herds kept by the nomads were unable to obtain adequate pasturage, and there was a drastic decline in livestock. When Reza Shah abdicated in 1941, many nomadic tribes returned to their former life-styles.

Mohammad Reza Shah continued the policy of weakening the political power of the nomadic tribes, but efforts to coerce them to settle were abandoned. Several tribal leaders were exiled, and the military was given greater authority to regulate tribal migrations. Tribal pastures were nationalized during the 1960s as a means of permitting the government to control access to grazing. In addition, various educational, health, and vocational training programs were implemented to encourage the tribes to settle voluntarily.

Following the Revolution, several former tribal leaders attempted to revitalize their tribes as major political and economic forces. Many factors impeded this development, including the hostile attitude of the central government, the decline in nomadic populations as a result of the settlement of large numbers of tribespeople in the 1960s and 1970s, and the consequent change in attitudes, especially of youth raised in villages and towns.

By the mid-1980s, it seemed that the nomadic tribes were no longer a political force in Iranian society. For one thing, the central government had demonstrated its ability to control the migration routes. Moreover, the leadership of the tribes, while formally vested in the old families, effectively was dispersed among a new generation of nonelite tribespeople who tended to see themselves as ethnic minorities and did not share the views of the old elite.




For most Iranians the reciprocal obligations and privileges that define relations between kinsfolk--from the parent-child bond to more distant ones--have been more important than those associated with any other kind of social alignment. Economic, political, and other forms of institutional activity have been significantly colored by family ties. This has been true not only for the nuclear family of parents and offspring but also for the aggregate kinsfolk, near and distant, who together represent the extended family at its outermost boundary.

Historically, an influential family was one that had its members strategically distributed throughout the most vital sectors of society, each prepared to support the others in order to ensure family prestige and family status. Since the Revolution, this has meant that each of the elite families of Tehran and the major provincial centers included a cadre of clergy, bureaucrats, and Pasdaran (Pasdaran-e Enghelab-e Islami, or Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or Revolutionary Guards). Business operations have continued to be family affairs; often large government loans for business ventures have been obtained simply because the owners were recognized as members of families with good Islamic and revolutionary credentials. Political activities also followed family lines. Several brothers or first cousins might join the Islamic Republican Party. Another group of siblings might become members of a clandestine opposition group such as the Mojahedin (Mojahedin-e Khalq, or People's Struggle). Similarly, one member of a family might join the clergy, another the Pasdaran or the armed forces. Successful members were expected to assist less successful ones to get their start. Iranians have viewed this inherent nepotism as a positive value, not as a form of corruption. A person without family ties has little status in the society at large. The severing of ties is acceptable only if a family member has done something repugnant to Islam. Even then, the family is encouraged to make the person aware of his deviance and encourage repentance.

Religious law supports the sanctity of the family in diverse ways, defining the conditions for marriage, divorce, inheritance, and guardianship. Additional laws have been passed by the Majlis that reinforce and refine religious law and are designed to protect the integrity of the family.

The head of the household--the father and the husband--expects obedience and respect from others in the family. In return, he is obligated to support them and to satisfy their spiritual, social, and material needs. In practice, he is more a strict disciplinarian. He also may be a focus of love and affection, and family members may feel a strong sense of duty toward him. Considerable conflict and irresolution have resulted in many families, especially in urban areas, because young Iranians, imbued with revolutionary religious views or secular values, have not been able to reconcile these new ideas with the traditional values of their fathers.

Marriage regulations are defined by Shia religious law, although non- Shias are permitted to follow their own religious practices. Before the Revolution, the legal marriage age was eighteen for females and twenty- one for males, although in practice most couples, especially among lower- class urban and rural families, actually were younger than the law permitted when they married. Consequently, the average marriage age for both sexes was 18.9 years. Since the Revolution, the minimum legal age for marriage for both males and females has been lowered to fifteen and thirteen years, respectively, although even younger boys and girls may be married with the permission of their fathers. The average age of marriage is believed to have fallen as a result of official encouragement of earlier marriages.

The selection of a marriage partner is normally determined by customary preference, economic circumstances, and geographic considerations. Among the Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians, the choice may be restricted by religious practice. There is a distinct preference for marriage within extended kin networks, and a high incidence of marriages among first and second cousins exists. A traditionally preferred marriage is between the children of two brothers, although this kind of consanguineous marriage was declining among the old regime elite and secular middle class by the eve of the Revolution.

Marriage arrangements in villages and among the lower and traditional middle classes of urban areas tend to follow traditional patterns. When a young man is judged ready for marriage, his parents will visit the parents of a girl whom they believe to be a suitable match. In many cases, the man will have already expressed an interest in the girl and have asked his parents to begin these formalities. If the girl's parents show similar interest in the union, the conversation quickly turns to money. There must be an agreement on the amont of the bride-price that will be given to the bride's family at the time of marriage. In principle this payment is supposed to compensate the girl's family for her loss, but in practice it is used primarily to finance the cost of the wedding. The exact sum varies according to the wealth, social position, and degree of kinship of the two families.

Once the two families have agreed to the marriage, the prospective bride and groom are considered engaged. The courtship period now commences and may extend for a year or more, although generally the engagement lasts less than twelve months. The actual wedding involves a marriage ceremony and a public celebration. The ceremony is the signing of a marriage contract in the presence of a mullah. One significant feature of the marriage contract is the mahriyeh, a stipulated sum that the groom gives to his new bride. The mahriyeh usually is not paid at the time of the marriage, especially in marriages between cousins. The contract notes that it is to be paid, however, in the event of divorce or, in case of the husband's death, to be deducted from his estate before the inheritance is divided according to religious law. If the mahriyeh is waived, as sometimes happens in urban areas, this too must be stipulated in the marriage contract.

Marriage customs among the secularized middle and upper classes tend to follow practices in the United States and Europe. The prenuptial bride-price may be paid in installments or even eliminated altogether, especially if a substantial mahriyeh is guaranteed. It is typical for the marriage partners to have chosen one another. The bride and groom usually sit together at the reception, to which both male and female guests are invited.

Polygyny in Iran is regulated by Islamic custom, which permits a man to have as many as four wives simultaneously, provided that he treats them equally. During the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah, the government attempted to discourage polygyny through legal restrictions, such as requiring the permission of the first wife before the state would register a second marriage. The practice of kin marriages also tended to work against polygynous marriages, since families would exert pressure on men not to take a second wife. No reliable figures existed on the number of polygynous marriages in the 1960s and 1970s, but they were believed to be on the decline and largely confined to the older generation. After the Revolution, the republican government abolished the secular codes relating to marriage and decreed polygyny acceptable as long as such marriages were in accordance with Shia religious law.

Shia Islam, unlike Sunni Islam, also recognizes a special form of temporary marriage called muta. In a muta marriage, the man and woman sign a contract agreeing to live together as husband and wife for a specified time, which can be as brief as several hours or as long as ninety-nine years. The man agrees to pay a certain amount of money for the duration of the contract. Provision is also made for the support of any offspring. There is no limit on the number of muta marriages that a man may contract. Traditionally, muta marriages have been common in Shia pilgrimage centers such as Mashhad and An Najaf in Iraq. Under the monarchy, the government refused to grant any legal recognition to muta marriages in an effort to discourage the practice. Since the Revolution, however, muta marriages have again become acceptable.

Under both Islamic law and traditional practice, divorce in Iran historically has been easier for a man to obtain than for a woman. Men could exercise the right of repudiation of wives according to the guidelines of Islamic law. Women were permitted to leave their husbands on narrowly defined grounds, such as insanity or impotence. Beginning in the mid-1960s, the royal government attempted to broaden the grounds upon which women could seek divorce through the Family Protection Law. This legislation was frequently criticized by the clergy and was one of the first laws abrogated after the Revolution. In 1985, however, legislation was passed permitting women to initiate divorce proceedings in certain limited circumstances.

Statistics on divorce since the Revolution were unavailable in early 1987. The government claimed that the divorce rate in Iran was much lower than in industrialized countries. Furthermore, members of the clergy have preached that divorce is "reprehensible" under Islam even though it is tolerated.




Traditional Attitudes Toward Segregation of the Sexes

With the notable exception of the Westernized and secularized upper and middle classes, Iranian society before the Revolution practiced public segregation of the sexes. Women generally practiced use of the chador (or veil) when in public or when males not related to them were in the house. In the traditional view, an ideal society was one in which women were confined to the home, where they performed the various domestic tasks associated with managing a household and rearing children. Men worked in the public sphere, that is, in the fields, factories, bazaars, and offices. Deviations from this ideal, especially in the case of women, tended to reflect adversely upon the reputation of the family. The strength of these traditional attitudes was reflected in the public education system, which maintained separate schools for boys and girls from the elementary through the secondary levels.

The traditional attitudes on the segregation of women clashed sharply with the views and customs of the secularized upper and middle classes, especially those in Tehran. Mixed gatherings, both public and private, were the norm. During the Pahlavi era the government was the main promoter of change in traditional attitudes toward sexual segregation. It sought to discourage veiling of women at official functions and encouraged mixed participation in a variety of public gatherings. The result was to bring the government into social conflict with the Shia clergy, who sought to defend traditional values.

Impact of Western Ideas on the Role of Women

Among the ideas imported into Iran from the West was the notion that women should participate in the public sphere. The Pahlavi government encouraged women to get as much education as possible and to participate in the labor force at all levels. After 1936, when Reza Shah banned the chador, veiling came to be perceived among the minority of elite and secular middle-class women as a symbol of oppression. Before the Revolution, Iranian society was already polarized between the traditionally minded majority and a minority of involved women who were dedicated to improving the status of women. As early as 1932, Iranian women held a meeting of the Oriental Feminine Congress in Tehran at which they called for the right of women to vote, compulsory education for both boys and girls, equal salaries for men and women, and an end to polygyny. In 1963 women were given the right to vote and to hold public office.

Female Participation in the Work Force

Prior to the Revolution, three patterns of work existed among women. Among the upper classes, women either worked as professionals or undertook voluntary projects of various kinds. Whereas secular middle- class women aspired to emulate such women, traditional middle-class women worked outside the home only from dire necessity. Lower class women frequently worked outside the home, especially in major cities, because their incomes were needed to support their households.

Women were active participants in the Revolution that toppled the shah. Most activists were professional women of the secular middle classes, from among whom political antagonists to the regime had long been recruited. Like their male counterparts, such women had nationalist aspirations and felt that the shah's regime was a puppet of the United States. Some women also participated in the guerrilla groups, especially the Mojahedin and the Fadayan. More significant, however, were the large numbers of lower class women in the cities who participated in street demonstrations during the latter half of 1978 and early 1979. They responded to the call of Khomeini that it was necessary for all Muslims to demonstrate their opposition to tyranny.

Following the Revolution, the status of women changed. The main social group to inherit political power--the traditional middle class--valued most highly the traditional role of women in a segregated society. Accordingly, laws were enacted to restrict the role of women in public life; these laws affected primarily women of the secularized middle and upper classes. Hejab, or properly modest attire for women, became a major issue. Although it was not mandated that women who had never worn a chador would have to wear this garment, it was required that whenever women appeared in public they had to have their hair and skin covered, except for the face and hands. The law has been controversial among secularized women, although for the majority of women, who had worn the chador even before the Revolution, the law probably has had only negligible impact.




The overwhelming majority of Iranians--at least 90 percent of the total population--are Muslims who adhere to Shia Islam. In contrast, the majority of Muslims throughout the world follow Sunni Islam. Of the several Shia sects, the Twelve Imam or Twelver (ithna- ashari), is dominant in Iran; most Shias in Bahrain, Iraq, and Lebanon also follow this sect. All the Shia sects originated among early Muslim dissenters in the first three centuries following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in A.D. 632.

The principal belief of Twelvers, but not of other Shias, is that the spiritual and temporal leadership of the Muslim community passed from Muhammad to Ali and then sequentially to eleven of Ali's direct male descendants, a tenet rejected by Sunnis. Over the centuries various other theological differences have developed between Twelver Shias and Sunnis.

<>Shia Islam
<>Sunni Muslims


Iran - Shia Islam


Although Shias have lived in Iran since the earliest days of Islam, and there was one Shia dynasty in part of Iran during the tenth and eleventh centuries, it is believed that most Iranians were Sunnis until the seventeenth century. The Safavid dynasty made Shia Islam the official state religion in the sixteenth century and aggressively proselytized on its behalf. It is also believed that by the mid-seventeenth century most people in what is now Iran had become Shias, an affiliation that has continued.

All Shia Muslims believe there are seven pillars of faith, which detail the acts necessary to demonstrate and reinforce faith. The first five of these pillars are shared with Sunni Muslims. They are shahada, or the confession of faith; namaz, or ritualized prayer; zakat, or almsgiving; sawm, fasting and contemplation during daylight hours during the lunar month of Ramazan; and hajj, or pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina once in a lifetime if financially feasible. The other two pillars, which are not shared with Sunnis, are jihad--or crusade to protect Islamic lands, beliefs, and institutions, and the requirement to do good works and to avoid all evil thoughts, words, and deeds.

Twelver Shia Muslims also believe in five basic principles of faith: there is one God, who is a unitary divine being in contrast to the trinitarian being of Christians; the Prophet Muhammad is the last of a line of prophets beginning with Abraham and including Moses and Jesus, and he was chosen by God to present His message to mankind; there is a resurrection of the body and soul on the last or judgment day; divine justice will reward or punish believers based on actions undertaken through their own free will; and Twelve Imams were successors to Muhammad. The first three of these beliefs are also shared by non- Twelver Shias and Sunni Muslims.

The distinctive dogma and institution of Shia Islam is the Imamate, which includes the idea that the successor of Muhammad be more than merely a political leader. The Imam must also be a spiritual leader, which means that he must have the ability to interpret the inner mysteries of the Quran and the shariat. The Twelver Shias further believe that the Twelve Imams who succeeded the Prophet were sinless and free from error and had been chosen by God through Muhammad.

The Imamate began with Ali, who is also accepted by Sunni Muslims as the fourth of the "rightly guided caliphs" to succeed the Prophet. Shias revere Ali as the First Imam, and his descendants, beginning with his sons Hasan and Husayn (also seen as Hosein), continue the line of the Imams until the Twelfth, who is believed to have ascended into a supernatural state to return to earth on judgment day. Shias point to the close lifetime association of Muhammad with Ali. When Ali was six years old, he was invited by the Prophet to live with him, and Shias believe Ali was the first person to make the declaration of faith in Islam. Ali also slept in Muhammad's bed on the night of the hijra, or migration from Mecca to Medina, when it was feared that the house would be attacked by unbelievers and the Prophet stabbed to death. He fought in all the battles Muhammad did except one, and the Prophet chose him to be the husband of his favorite daughter, Fatima.

In Sunni Islam an imam is the leader of congregational prayer. Among the Shias of Iran the term imam traditionally has been used only for Ali and his eleven descendants. None of the Twelve Imams, with the exception of Ali, ever ruled an Islamic government. During their lifetimes, their followers hoped that they would assume the rulership of the Islamic community, a rule that was believed to have been wrongfully usurped. Because the Sunni caliphs were cognizant of this hope, the Imams generally were persecuted during the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties. Therefore, the Imams tried to be as unobtrusive as possible and to live as far as was reasonable from the successive capitals of the Islamic empire.

During the ninth century Caliph Al Mamun, son of Caliph Harun ar Rashid, was favorably disposed toward the descendants of Ali and their followers. He invited the Eighth Imam, Reza (A.D. 765-816), to come from Medina to his court at Marv (Mary in the present-day Soviet Union). While Reza was residing at Marv, Mamun designated him as his successor in an apparent effort to avoid conflict among Muslims. Reza's sister Fatima journeyed from Medina to be with her brother but took ill and died at Qom. A shrine developed around her tomb, and over the centuries Qom has become a major Shia pilgrimage and theology center.

Mamun took Reza on his military campaign to retake Baghdad from political rivals. On this trip Reza died unexpectedly in Khorasan. Reza was the only Imam to reside or die in what is now Iran. A major shrine, and eventually the city of Mashhad, grew up around his tomb, which has become the most important pilgrimage center in Iran. Several important theological schools are located in Mashhad, associated with the shrine of the Eighth Imam.

Reza's sudden death was a shock to his followers, many of whom believed that Mamun, out of jealousy for Reza's increasing popularity, had him poisoned. Mamun's suspected treachery against Reza and his family tended to reinforce a feeling already prevalent among his followers that the Sunni rulers were untrustworthy.

The Twelfth Imam is believed to have been only five years old when the Imamate descended upon him in A.D. 874 at the death of his father. The Twelfth Imam is usually known by his titles of Imam-e Asr (the Imam of the Age) and Sahib az Zaman (the Lord of Time). Because his followers feared he might be assassinated, the Twelfth Imam was hidden from public view and was seen only by a few of his closest deputies. Sunnis claim that he never existed or that he died while still a child. Shias believe that the Twelfth Imam remained on earth, but hidden from the public, for about seventy years, a period they refer to as the lesser occultation (gheybat-e sughra). Shias also believe that the Twelfth Imam has never died, but disappeared from earth in about A.D. 939. Since that time the greater occultation (gheybat-e kubra) of the Twelfth Imam has been in force and will last until God commands the Twelfth Imam to manifest himself on earth again as the Mahdi, or Messiah. Shias believe that during the greater occultation of the Twelfth Imam he is spiritually present--some believe that he is materially present as well-- and he is besought to reappear in various invocations and prayers. His name is mentioned in wedding invitations, and his birthday is one of the most jubilant of all Shia religious observances.

The Shia doctrine of the Imamate was not fully elaborated until the tenth century. Other dogmas were developed still later. A characteristic of Shia Islam is the continual exposition and reinterpretation of doctrine. The most recent example is Khomeini's expounding of the doctrine of velayat-e faqih, or the political guardianship of the community of believers by scholars trained in religious law. This has not been a traditional idea in Shia Islam and is, in fact, an innovation. The basic idea is that the clergy, by virtue of their superior knowledge of the laws of God, are the best qualified to rule the society of believers who are preparing themselves on earth to live eternally in heaven. The concept of velayat-e faqih thus provides the doctrinal basis for theocratic government, an experiment that Twelver Imam Shias had not attempted prior to the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

Religious Obligations

In addition to the seven principal tenets of faith, there are also traditional religious practices that are intimately associated with Shia Islam. These include the observance of the month of martyrdom, Moharram, and pilgrimages to the shrines of the Twelve Imams and their various descendants. The Moharram observances commemorate the death of the Third Imam, Husayn, who was the son of Ali and Fatima and the grandson of Muhammad. He was killed near Karbala in modern Iraq in A.D. 680 during a battle with troops supporting the Umayyad caliph. Husayn's death is commemorated by Shias with passion plays and is an intensely religious time.

Pilgrimage to the shrines of Imams is a specific Shia custom. The most important shrines in Iran are those for the Eighth Imam in Mashhad and for his sister Fatima in Qom. There are also important secondary shrines for other relatives of the Eighth Iman in Rey, adjacent to south Tehran, and in Shiraz. In virtually all towns and in many villages there are numerous lesser shrines, known as imamzadehs, which commemorate descendants of the imams who are reputed to have led saintly lives. Shia pilgrims visit these sites because they believe that the imams and their relatives have power to intercede with God on behalf of petitioners. The shrines in Iraq at Karbala and An Najaf are also revered by Shias.

Religious Institutions and Organizations

Historically, the single most important religious institution in Iran has been the mosque. In towns, congregational prayers, as well as prayers and rites associated with religious observances and important phases in the lives of Muslims, took place in mosques. Iranian Shias before the Revolution did not generally attach great significance to institutionalization, however, and there was little emphasis on mosque attendance, even for the Friday congregational prayers. Mosques were primarily an urban phenomenon, and in most of the thousands of small villages there were no mosques. Mosques in the larger cities began to assume more important social roles during the 1970s; during the Revolution they played a prominent role in organizing people for the large demonstrations that took place in 1978 and 1979. Since that time their role has continued to expand, so that in 1987 mosques played important political and social roles as well as religious ones.

Another religious institution of major significance was a special building known as a hoseiniyeh. Hoseiniyehs existed in urban areas and traditionally served as sites for recitals commemorating the martyrdom of Husayn, especially during the month of Moharram. In the 1970s, some hoseiniyehs, such as the Hoseiniyeh Irshad in Tehran, became politicized as prominent clerical and lay preachers used the symbol of the deaths as martyrs of Husayn and the other Imams as thinly veiled criticism of Mohammad Reza Shah's regime, thus helping to lay the groundwork for the Revolution in 1979.

Institutions providing religious education include madrasehs and maktabs. Madrasehs, or seminaries, historically have been important for advanced training in Shia theology and jurisprudence. Madrasehs are generally associated with noted Shia scholars who have attained the rank of ayatollah. There are also some older madrasehs, established initially through endowments, at which several scholars may teach. Students, known as talabehs, live on the grounds of the madrasehs and are provided stipends for the duration of their studies, usually a minimum of seven years, during which they prepare for the examinations that qualify a seminary student to be a low-level preacher, or mullah. At the time of the Revolution, there were slightly more than 11,000 talabehs in Iran; approximately 60 percent of these were studying at the madrasehs in the city of Qom, another 25 percent were enrolled in the important madrasehs of Mashhad and Esfahan, and the rest were at madrasehs in Tabriz, Yazd, Shiraz, Tehran, Zanjan, and other cities.

Maktabs, primary schools run by the clergy, were the only educational institutions prior to the end of the nineteenth century when the first secular schools were established. Maktabs declined in numbers and importance as the government developed a national public school system beginning in the 1930s. Nevertheless, maktabs continued to exist as private religious schools right up to the Revolution. Since 1979 the public education system has been desecularized and the maktabs and their essentially religious curricula merged with government schools.

Another major religious institution in Iran is the shrine. There are more than 1,100 shrines that vary from crumbling sites associated with local saints to the imposing shrines of Imam Reza and his sister Fatima in Mashhad and Qom, respectively. These more famous shrines are huge complexes that include the mausoleums of the venerated Eighth Imam and his sister, tombs of former shahs, mosques, madrasehs, and libraries. Imam Reza's shrine is the largest and is considered to be the holiest. In addition to the usual shrine accoutrements, Imam Reza's shrine contains hospitals, dispensaries, a museum, and several mosques located in a series of courtyards surrounding his tomb. Most of the present shrine dates from the early fourteenth century, except for the dome, which was rebuilt after being damaged in an earthquake in 1673. The shrine's endowments and gifts are the largest of all religious institutions in the country. Traditionally, free meals for as many as 1,000 people per day are provided at the shrine. Although there are no special times for visiting this or other shrines, it is customary for pilgrimage traffic to be heaviest during Shia holy periods. It has been estimated that more than 3 million pilgrims visit the shrine annually.

Visitors to Imam Reza's shrine represent all socioeconomic levels. Whereas piety is a motivation for many, others come to seek the spiritual grace or general good fortune that a visit to the shrine is believed to ensure. Commonly a pilgrimage is undertaken to petition Imam Reza to act as an intermediary between the pilgrim and God. Since the nineteenth century, it has been customary among the bazaar class and members of the lower classes to recognize those who have made a pilgrimage to Mashhad by prefixing their names with the title mashti.

The next most important shrine is that of Imam Reza's sister, Fatima, known as Hazarat-e Masumeh (the Pure Saint). The present shrine dates from the early sixteenth century, although some later additions, including the gilded tiles, were affixed in the early nineteenth century. Other important shrines are those of Shah Abdol Azim, a relative of Imam Reza, who is entombed at Rey, near Tehran, and Shah Cheragh, a brother of Imam Reza, who is buried in Shiraz. A leading shrine honoring a person not belonging to the family of Imams is that of the Sufi master Sayyid Nimatollah Vali near Kerman. Shias make pilgrimages to these shrines and the hundreds of local imamzadehs to petition the saints to grant them special favors or to help them through a period of troubles.

Because Shias believe that the holy Imams can intercede for the dead as well as for the living, cemeteries traditionally have been located adjacent to the most important shrines in both Iran and Iraq. Corpses were transported overland for burial in Karbala in southern Iraq until the practice was prohibited in the 1930s. Corpses are still shipped to Mashhad and Qom for burial in the shrine cemeteries of these cities.

The constant movement of pilgrims from all over Iran to Mashhad and Qom has helped bind together a linguistically heterogeneous population. Pilgrims serve as major sources of information about conditions in different parts of the country and thus help to mitigate the parochialism of the regions.

A traditional source of financial support for all religious institutions has been the vaqf, a religious endowment by which land and other income-producing property is given in perpetuity for the maintenance of a shrine, mosque, madraseh, or charitable institution such as a hospital, library, or orphanage. A mutavalli administers a vaqf in accordance with the stipulations in the donor's bequest. In many vaqfs the position of mutavalli is hereditary. Under the Pahlavis, the government attempted to exercise control over the administration of vaqfs, especially those of the larger shrines. This was a source of conflict with the clergy, who perceived the government's efforts as lessening their influence and authority in traditional religious matters.

The government's interference with the administration of vaqfs led to a sharp decline in the number of vaqf bequests. Instead, wealthy and pious Shias chose to give financial contributions directly to the leading ayatollahs in the form of zakat, or obligatory alms. The clergy in turn used the funds to administer their madrasehs and to institute various educational and charitable programs, which indirectly provided them with more influence in society. The access of the clergy to a steady and independent source of funding was an important factor in their ability to resist state controls and ultimately helped them direct the opposition to the shah.

Religious Hierarchy

From the time that Twelver Shia Islam emerged as a distinct religious denomination in the early ninth century, its clergy, or ulama, have played a prominent role in the development of its scholarly and legal tradition; however, the development of a distinct hierarchy among the Shia clergy dates back only to the early nineteenth century. Since that time the highest religious authority has been vested in the mujtahids, scholars who by virtue of their erudition in the science of religion (the Quran, the traditions of Muhammad and the imams, jurisprudence, and theology) and their attested ability to decide points of religious conduct, act as leaders of their community in matters concerning the particulars of religious duties. Lay Shias and lesser members of the clergy who lack such proficiency are expected to follow mujtahids in all matters pertaining to religion, but each believer is free to follow any mujtahid he chooses. Since the mid-nineteenth century it has been common for several mujtahids concurrently to attain prominence and to attract large followings. During the twentieth century, such mujtahids have been accorded the title of ayatollah. Occasionally an ayatollah achieves almost universal authority among Shias and is given the title of ayatollah ol ozma, or grand ayatollah. Such authority was attained by as many as seven mujtahids simultaneously, including Ayatollah Khomeini, in the late 1970s.

To become a mujtahid, it is necessary to complete a rigorous and lengthy course of religious studies in one of the prestigious madrasehs of Qom or Mashhad in Iran or An Najaf in Iraq and to receive an authorization from a qualified mujtahid. Of equal importance is either the explicit or the tacit recognition of a cleric as a mujtahid by laymen and scholars in the Shia community. There is no set time for studying a particular subject, but serious preparation to become a mujtahid normally requires fifteen years to master the religious subjects deemed essential. It is uncommon for any student to attain the status of mujtahid before the age of thirty; more commonly students are between forty and fifty years old when they achieve this distinction.

Most seminary students do not complete the full curriculum of studies to become mujtahids. Those who leave the madrasehs after completing the primary level can serve as prayer leaders, village mullahs, local shrine administrators, and other religious functionaries. Those who leave after completing the second level become preachers in town and city mosques. Students in the third level of study are those preparing to become mujtahids. The advanced students at this level are generally accorded the title of hojjatoleslam when they have completed all their studies.

The Shia clergy in Iran wear a white turban and an aba, a loose, sleeveless brown cloak, open in front. A sayyid, who is a clergyman descended from Muhammad, wears a black turban and a black aba.

Unorthodox Shia Religious Movements

Shah Ismail, the founder of the Safavid dynasty, who established Twelver Shia Islam as the official religion of Iran at the beginning of the sixteenth century, was revered by his followers as a Sufi master. Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, has a long tradition in Iran. It developed there and in other areas of the Islamic empire during the ninth century among Muslims who believed that worldly pleasures distracted from true concern with the salvation of the soul. Sufis generally renounced materialism, which they believed supported and perpetuated political tyranny. Their name is derived from the Arabic word for wool, suf, and was applied to the early Sufis because of their habit of wearing rough wool next to their skin as a symbol of their asceticism. Over time a great variety of Sufi brotherhoods was formed, including several that were militaristic, such as the Safavid order, of which Ismail was the leader.

Although Sufis were associated with the early spread of Shia ideas in the country, once the Shia clergy had consolidated their authority over religion by the early seventeenth century, they tended to regard Sufis as deviant. At various periods during the past three centuries some Shia clergy have encouraged persecution of Sufis, but Sufi orders have continued to exist in Iran. During the Pahlavi period, some Sufi brotherhoods were revitalized. Some members of the secularized middle class were especially attracted to them, but the orders appear to have had little following among the lower classes. The largest Sufi order was the Nimatollahi, which had khanehgahs, or teaching centers, in several cities and even established new centers in foreign countries. Other important orders were the Dhahabi and Kharksar brotherhoods. Sufi brotherhoods such as the Naqshbandi and the Qadiri also existed among Sunni Muslims in Kordestan. There is no evidence of persecution of Sufis under the Republic, but the brotherhoods are regarded suspiciously and generally have kept a low profile.

Iran also contains Shia sects that many of the Twelver Shia clergy regard as heretical. One of these is the Ismaili, a sect that has several thousand adherents living primarily in northeastern Iran. The Ismailis, of whom there were once several different sects, trace their origins to the son of Ismail who predeceased his father, the Sixth Imam. The Ismailis were very numerous and active in Iran from the eleventh to the thirteenth century; they are known in history as the "Assassins" because of their practice of killing political opponents. The Mongols destroyed their center at Alamut in the Alborz Mountains in 1256. Subsequently, their living imams went into hiding from non-Ismailis. In the nineteenth century, their leader emerged in public as the Agha Khan and fled to British-controlled India, where he supervised the revitalization of the sect. The majority of the several million Ismailis in the 1980s live outside Iran.

Another Shia sect is the Ahl-e Haqq. Its adherents are concentrated in Lorestan, but small communities also are found in Kordestan and Mazandaran. The origins of the Ahl-e Haqq are believed to lie in one of the medieval politicized Sufi orders. The group has been persecuted sporadically by orthodox Shias. After the Revolution, some of the sect's leaders were imprisoned on the ground of religious deviance.


Iran - Sunni Muslims


Sunni Muslims constitute approximately 8 percent of the Iranian population. A majority of Kurds, virtually all Baluchis and Turkomans, and a minority of Arabs are Sunnis, as are small communities of Persians in southern Iran and Khorasan. The main difference between Sunnis and Shias is that the former do not accept the doctrine of the Imamate. Generally speaking, Iranian Shias are inclined to recognize Sunnis as fellow Muslims, but as those whose religion is incomplete. Shia clergy tend to view missionary work among Sunnis to convert them to true Islam as a worthwhile religious endeavor. Since the Sunnis generally live in the border regions of the country, there has been no occasion for Shia-Sunni conflict in most of Iran. In those towns with mixed populations in West Azarbaijan, the Persian Gulf region, and Baluchestan va Sistan, tensions between Shias and Sunnis existed both before and after the Revolution. Religious tensions have been highest during major Shia observances, especially Moharram.


Iran - Bahais


The largest non-Muslim minority in Iran is the Bahais. There were an estimated 350,000 Bahais in Iran in 1986. The Bahais are scattered in small communities throughout Iran with a heavy concentration in Tehran. Most Bahais are urban, but there are some Bahai villages, especially in Fars and Mazandaran. The majority of Bahais are Persians, but there is a significant minority of Azarbaijani Bahais, and there are even a few among the Kurds.

Bahaism is a religion that originated in Iran during the 1840s as a reformist movement within Shia Islam. Initially it attracted a wide following among Shia clergy and others dissatisfied with society. The political and religious authorities joined to suppress the movement, and since that time the hostility of the Shia clergy to Bahaism has remained intense. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the Bahai leader fled to Ottoman Palestine--roughly present-day Israel--where he and his successors continued to elaborate Bahai doctrines by incorporating beliefs from other world religions. By the early twentieth century, Bahaism had evolved into a new religion that stressed the brotherhood of all peoples, equality of the sexes, and pacifism.

The Shia clergy, as well as many Iranians, have continued to regard Bahais as heretics from Islam. Consequently, Bahais have encountered much prejudice and have sometimes been the objects of persecution. The situation of the Bahais improved under the Pahlavi shahs when the government actively sought to secularize public life. Bahais were permitted to hold government posts (despite a constitutional prohibition) and allowed to open their own schools, and many were successful in business and the professions. Their position was drastically altered after 1979. The Islamic Republic did not recognize the Bahais as a religious minority, and the sect has been officially persecuted. More than 700 of their religious leaders were arrested, and several of them were executed for apostasy; their schools were closed; their communal property was confiscated; they were prohibited from holding any government employment; and they were not issued identity cards. In addition, security forces failed to protect Bahais and their property from attacks by mobs.


Iran - Christians


Iran's indigenous Christians include an estimated 250,000 Armenians, some 32,000 Assyrians, and a small number of Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant Iranians converted by missionaries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Armenians are predominantly urban and are concentrated in Tehran and Esfahan; smaller communities exist in Tabriz, Arak, and other cities. A majority of the Assyrians are also urban, although there are still several Assyrian villages in the Lake Urmia region. Armenians and Assyrians were recognized as official religious minorities under the 1906 constitution. Although Armenians and Assyrians have encountered individual prejudice, they have not been subjected to persecution. During the twentieth century, Christians in general have participated in the economic and social life of Tehran. The Armenians, especially, achieved a relatively high standard of living and maintained a large number of parochial primary and secondary schools.

The new, republican Constitution of 1979 also recognized the Armenians and Assyrians as official religious minorities. They are entitled to elect their own representatives to the Majlis and are permitted to follow their own religious laws in matters of marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Other Christians have not received any special recognition, and there have been a number of incidents of persecution of Iranian Anglicans. All Christians are required to observe the new laws relating to attire, prohibition of alcohol, and segregation by sex at public gatherings. Christians have resented these laws because they have infringed on their traditional religious practices. In addition, the administration of the Armenian schools has been a source of tension between Christians and the government. The Ministry of Education has insisted that the principals of such schools be Muslims, that all religion courses be taught in Persian, that any Armenian literature classes have government approval, and that all female students observe hejab inside the schools.


Iran - Jews


In 1986 there were an estimated 50,000 Jews in Iran, a decline from about 85,000 in 1978. The Iranian Jewish community is one of the oldest in the world, being descended from Jews who remained in the region following the Babylonian captivity, when the Achaemenid rulers of the first Iranian empire permitted Jews to return to Jerusalem. Over the centuries the Jews of Iran became physically, culturally, and linguistically indistinguishable from the non-Jewish population. The overwhelming majority of Jews speak Persian as their mother language, and a tiny minority, Kurdish. The Jews are predominantly urban and by the 1970s were concentrated in Tehran, with smaller communities in other cities, such as Shiraz, Esfahan, Hamadan, and Kashan.

Until the twentieth century the Jews were confined to their own quarters in the towns. In general the Jews were an impoverished minority, occupationally restricted to small-scale trading, moneylending, and working with precious metals. Since the 1920s, Jews have had greater opportunities for economic and social mobility. They have received assistance from a number of international Jewish organizations, including the American Joint Distribution Committee, which introduced electricity, piped water, and modern sanitation into Jewish neighborhoods. The Jews have gradually gained increased importance in the bazaars of Tehran and other cities, and after World War II some educated Jews entered the professions, particularly pharmacy, medicine, and dentistry.

The Constitution of 1979 recognized Jews as an official religious minority and accorded them the right to elect a representative to the Majlis. Like the Christians, the Jews have not been persecuted. Unlike the Christians, the Jews have been viewed with suspicion by the government, probably because of the government's intense hostility toward Israel. Iranian Jews generally have many relatives in Israel--some 45,000 Iranian Jews emigrated from Iran to Israel between 1948 and 1977--with whom they are in regular contact. Since 1979 the government has cited mail and telephone communications as evidence of "spying" in the arrest, detention, and even execution of a few prominent Jews. Although these individual cases have not affected the status of the community as a whole, they have contributed to a pervasive feeling of insecurity among Jews regarding their future in Iran and have helped to precipitate large- scale emigration. Most Jews who have left since the Revolution have settled in the United States.


Iran - Zoroastrians


In 1986 there were an estimated 32,000 Zoroastrians in Iran. They speak Persian and are concentrated in Tehran, Kerman, and Yazd. Zoroastrianism initially developed in Iran during the seventh century B.C. Later, it became the official religion of the Sassanid Empire, which ruled over Iran for approximately four centuries before being destroyed by the Arabs in the seventh century A.D. After Iran's incorporation into the Islamic empire, the majority of its population was gradually converted from Zoroastrianism to Islam, a process that was probably completed by the tenth century.

During the Qajar era there was considerable prejudice against Zoroastrians. In the mid-nineteenth century, several thousand Zoroastrians emigrated from Iran to British-ruled India to improve their economic and social status. Many eventually acquired wealth in India and subsequently expended part of their fortunes on upgrading conditions in the Zoroastrian communities of Iran. The emphasis placed on Iran's pre- Islamic heritage by the Pahlavis also helped Zoroastrians to achieve a more respected position in society. Many of them migrated from Kerman and Yazd to Tehran, where they accumulated significant wealth as merchants and in real estate. By the 1970s, younger Zoroastrians were entering the professions.

Like the Christians and Jews, the Zoroastrians are recognized as an official religious minority under the Constitution of 1979. They are permitted to elect one representative to the Majlis and, like the other legally accepted minorities, may seek employment in the government. They generally enjoy the same civil liberties as Muslims. Although Zoroastrians probably have encountered individual instances of prejudice, they have not been persecuted because of their religious beliefs.




Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, it was traditional in Iran for education to be associated with religious institutions. The clergy, both Shia and non-Shia, assumed responsibility for instructing youth in basic literacy and the fundamentals of religion. Knowledge of reading and writing was not considered necessary for all the population, and thus education generally was restricted to the sons of the economic and political elite. Typically, this involved a few years of study in a local school, or maktab. Those who desired to acquire more advanced knowledge could continue in a religious college, or madraseh, where all fields of religious science were taught. A perceived need to provide instruction in subjects that were not part of the traditional religious curriculum, such as accounting, European languages, military science, and technology, led to the establishment of the first government school in 1851. For many years this remained the only institution of higher learning in the country.

By the early twentieth century there were several schools teaching foreign languages and sciences, including a few for girls. These schools were run by foreign missionaries, private Iranians, and the government. Their function was to educate the children of the elite. During the Constitutional Revolution (1905-1907), a number of reform-minded individuals proposed the establishment of a nationwide, public, primary school system. Progress in opening new schools was steady but slow, and by the end of the Qajar dynasty (1925) there were approximately 3,300 government schools with a total enrollment of about 110,000 students.

During the Pahlavi era (1925-79), the government implemented a number of policies aimed at modernizing the country and expanded the education system. The Ministry of Education was given responsibility for regulating all public and private schools and drafted a uniform curriculum for primary and for secondary education. The entire public system was secular and for many years remained based upon the French model. Its objective was to train Iranians for modern occupations in administration, management, science, and teaching. This education system was the single most important factor in the creation of the secularized middle class.

The goal of creating a nationwide education system was never achieved during the Pahlavi era. In 1940 only 10 percent of all elementary-age children were enrolled in school, and less than 1 percent of youths between the ages of 12 and 20 were in secondary school. These statistics did not increase significantly until the early 1960s, when the government initiated programs to improve and expand the public school system. By 1978 approximately 75 percent of all elementary-age children were enrolled in primary schools, while somewhat less than 50 percent of all teenagers were attending secondary schools.

Modern college and university education also was developed under the Pahlavis; by the 1920s, the country had several institutes of higher education. In 1934 the institutes associated with government ministries were combined to form the University of Tehran, which was coeducational from its inception. Following World War II, universities were founded in other major cities, such as Tabriz, Esfahan, Mashhad, Shiraz, and Ahvaz. During the 1970s, these universities were expanded, and colleges and vocational institutes were set up in several cities.

One of the first measures adopted by the government after the Revolution in 1979 was the desecularization of the public school system. This was a three-pronged program that involved purging courses and textbooks believed to slander Islam and substituting courses on religion; purging teachers to ensure that only those who understood the true meaning of Islam (i.e., were not secular) remained in the schools; and regulating the behavior and dress of students.

Although the government reintroduced the study of religion into the public school curriculum from primary grades through college, it did not act to alter the basic organization of the education system. Thus, as late as the school year 1986-1987, schools had not changed significantly from the pattern prior to the Revolution. Students studied in primary schools for five years, beginning the first grade at about age seven. Then they spent three years, designated the guidance cycle, in a middle school. In this cycle, the future training of students was determined by their aptitude as demonstrated on examinations. Students were then directed into one of three kinds of four-year high schools: the academic cycle, preparing for college; the science and mathematics cycle, preparing for university programs in engineering and medicine; and the vocational technical cycle.

The Ministry of Education announced that nearly 11.5 million students were registered for elementary and secondary schools during the academic year 1986-1987. Statistics on the percentage of young people aged seven through nineteen enrolled in school have not been available since the Revolution. It is generally estimated that the percentages have remained similar to those before the Revolution: school attendance of about 78 percent of elementary-age children and less than 50 percent of secondary-age youth.

Since the Revolution, higher education has experienced significantly more drastic changes than elementary and secondary education. The university campuses became centers of conflict between students who supported a thorough desecularization of administrations, faculties, and curricula and students who wanted to retain a secular system. There were violent clashes at several universities in the 1979-1980 school year; as a result the government closed all 200 institutes of higher learning in April 1980. The universities then were purged of professors and students considered insufficiently Islamic and were not completely reopened until the fall of 1983. When the colleges resumed classes, they enrolled only a fraction of the 1979 to 1980 student body. At the University of Tehran, Iran's largest, student enrollment was reduced from 17,000 to 4,500; similarly large declines were registered at other institutions. The decline in the number of female students was even more dramatic: whereas on the eve of the revolution women had constituted about 40 percent of the total number of students in higher education, after 1983 they formed only 10 percent.

An educational problem in Iran since the early twentieth century has been the general perception among the upper and middle classes that foreign education is superior to Iranian. Thus, there have been large numbers of Iranians studying abroad. As long as the foreign-educated students returned to Iran, they were able to apply their skills for the overall benefit of the country; however, under both the monarchy and the Republic, thousands of Iranians have elected not to return to their homeland, creating a veritable "brain drain." Since the Revolution, the government has tried to discourage Iranians from going abroad to study, although it has not prevented the practice.


CITATION: Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress. The Country Studies Series. Published 1988-1999.

Please note: This text comes from the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The Country Studies Series presents a description and analysis of the historical setting and the social, economic, political, and national security systems and institutions of countries throughout the world.

TRY USING CTRL-F on your keyboard to find the appropriate section of text


what's new | rainforests home | for kids | help | madagascar | search | about | languages | contact

Copyright 2013 Mongabay.com