Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

July 19, 2012

Iranian religious distinctiveness is not primal

Filed under: History,Iran,Shia — Razib Khan @ 1:03 pm

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

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

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

For example, it is routinely unknown that before the Safavids Iran was a predominantly Sunni domain. This is not to deny the presence of Shia within the borders of modern Iran, but aside from periods of state patronage (e.g., the Buyids) the status of Shi’ism was as ...

January 13, 2012

The dynasty which created Iran

Filed under: Culture,Iran,Safavids,Shia — Razib Khan @ 12:26 am


Shah Ismail I

The BBC Radio 4 program In Our Time just had an episode on the Safavid dynasty. If you want to understand how Iran as we understand it came to be, and you know nothing about the Safavids, this program is essential. Because of its outsized role in Western antiquity the pre-Christian Achaemenids are well known, while Iranian nationalists may look to the pre-Islamic Sassanians immortalized in the Shahnameh. Obviously these dynasties are important, just as the House of Wessex and the Plantagenets are essential in understanding how Britain came to be. But to truly comprehend England as a Protestant nation with a distinctive identity in relation to the continent the England of the Tudors and Stuarts, who happen to be contemporaneous with the Safavids, are much more important.


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

January 25, 2011

The Uppity Shia

Filed under: Culture,Islam,Shia — Razib Khan @ 9:11 pm

One of the peculiar things about the Islamic world is the relative increase in sectarianism as one moves toward the center of the civilization. In other words, despite the historical role of Ismailis and Kharijites in the Maghreb, or the current reality of a syncretic abangan Javanese Muslim traditionalism, on the fringes of the Islamic world Islam qua Islam tends to be of the conventional Sunni form. In contrast, in the “core” of the Muslim world, the Turco-Persian-Arab domains, you have much more faction and deviation from “orthodoxy.” Substantial minorities of Turks (Alevis), Syrians (Alawites), Lebanese and Yemenis are Shia (at least notionally). The Omanis are Ibadis, sectarian descendants of the Kharijites. In the Gulf you have regions dominated by Shia Arabs, while Iraq is famously majority Shia Arab. And of course in Iran you have a nation-state whose modern identity is arguably ineluctably rooted in its Shia religious self-conception (granted, that is relatively recent historically as a necessary precondition of the Iranian identity, dating to the Safavid era). But as outlined in Vali Nasr’s The Shia Revival we may be currently in a historical “hinge,” where Shia power traditionally submerged and submissive, comes to the fore in many of these societies.

To me this was starkly illustrated in 2005, during the Iraqi election. I am not a close observer of world affairs, but I was offended by the stench of Sunni supremacism which seemed to be operating background assumptions by many of the Arab commentators which American news organizations brought on air. These commentators observed that the “traditional ruling element” of Iraqi society, the Sunni Arabs, were being marginalized. The injustice!


I hold no brief for populist democracy. But the attitudes reminded me far too much of the segregationists of yore on the Old South. “Who do these n**gers think they are!” I think this sort of attitude is important to keep in mind when interpreting what’s going on in Lebanon currently. Lebanon is a famously sectarian society. Muslims are dived between Sunni and Shia. Christians between the Maronites and Greek Orthodox (along with minorities of Roman Catholics and Jacobite Orthodox). And then there are the Druze who operate outside of the conventional religious categories. But Lebanon is also an ordered society. Because of the relationship of the pre-independence Maronite elites with France, the Maronites have had pride of place in the pecking order. Prior to the European hegemony the Sunnis were naturally the dominant element, because of their relationship to the Sunni Ottomans. The Shia were marginalized, traditionally poorer and demographically less substantial (the Greek Orthodox were mediators, more Arab in their self-conception than the Maronites, and more invested in the “Orient,” but still Christian).

No longer. Because of differential migration and birth rates the Shia now seem to be at least as numerous as the Sunni and Maronite in Lebanon. Additionally, the Shia are arguably more invested in Lebanon than the Maronites, many of whom are Francophone and Western-oriented, or the Sunni with their international associations with the wider Arab world (the patron of the Sunnis is supposedly Saudi Arabia, analogous with Syrian-Iranian support of the Shia). The rise of the Shia is a reflection of their ability to coordinate politically and their demographic ascendancy. The vitriol of the Sunni in particular seems simply to be sour grapes, and anger at the fact that the Shia are chafing at the presumption that they should be subordinate and cede ground to the Sunni when it comes to leadership within the Lebanese Muslim community.

This is the logic of democracy. We should face up to it.

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