of Islam in seventh century put an end to freedom of religion through
out the area. All polytheistic and pagan religions were banned all
together with all the other Near and Far Eastern religions. Islam
does not recognize these as true religions. All major and minor deities
were eliminated as false gods. The house of Kaba contained 110 such
deities alone, all were banished. The followers of all these religions
became 'kofar ' and were given the choice to either convert or die.
Allah a term
used by local Christian tribes, meaning god, became the only sovereign
god, the almighty. Islam was the last and the most superior of all
religions and Muslim males were made superior to all others including
Muslim females. Christianity and Judaism were accepted as the only
other true religions and their holy scripts were accepted as such.
However despite a large number of Christian and Jewish tribes in Arabia,
their freedom was substantially restricted and their legal status
Yedidya Shofet, shlita
with his son, the next future
Spritiual Leader of the Persian Jewish community
They were given
the right to practice their religion if they paid a discriminatory
religious poll tax called 'jizya'. In Quran, these people are called
dhimmis (ahle zimmeh); later Zoroastrians of Iran were included as
well. Quran prohibits Muslims from becoming friends with Christians
and Jews and calls the later liars, dishonest and violent. With Christians
they are forbidden from any participation in building Mosques. Mixed
marriages were banned for Muslim women. While Muslims could not become
slaves, all others were subjected to slavery as purchased slaves or
war booty. Later on Christians and Jew were banned from riding horses
while carrying arms and could not increase their numbers through conversion
of others. They were segregated and their houses should have not exceeded
those of the Muslims in height (the Jewish quarter in Kirman is the
Courts of 'Shariat'
became the only legal vessel and Quran gave Muslim males superior
legal status. For instance if a Jew or a Christian kills a Muslim,
there is both 'Ghesas' (Physical punishment) and 'Dyeh' (Monetary
compensation). If a Muslim kills a Jew or a Christian, there is no
ghesas and they only pay dyeh, which is half of what the Jew or the
Christian has to pay. There is no punishment for killing kofar (non-believers)
or mortad (converters from Islam into other faiths).
In short all except the Muslim males became second class citizens
(dhimmis). 'Covenant of Ummar' when Jerusalem was conquered made religious
discrimination an institution. Ummar believed Arabia should be purely
Muslim and Arab. The large Christian and Jewish communities of Arabia
mainly in Najran, Khaybar, Hijaz and Medina were expelled to the conquered
territories and their properties confiscated. His bias, brutality
and discriminatory actions contributed to his assassination by a Persian
is worsening by the time of Harun Al Rashid in eight-century AD. The
overwhelming population of the area at the time was Christian, Zoroastrian
and Jewish. Their houses of worship were destroyed, they could not
build any new ones and jizya was increased substantially. Payment
of the jizya was furthermore to be accompanied by signs of humility
and recognition of personal inferiority.
On payment of
the tax a seal, generally of lead, was affixed to the payee's person
as a receipt and as a sign of the status of dhimma. By the time of
Caliph Al Motevakel in ninth century, non Muslims were all excluded
from employment in government sectors, banned from Muslim schools,
had to live in closed quarters and were forced to wear colored ribbons
to indicate they were non Muslims. Jews had to wear yellow ribbons
(Vasleh Johudaneh); a practice that persisted till the end of the
19th century in Iran.
Iran being part
of the Greater Muslim Empire was subjected to the same rules. Since
non-Muslims were forced out of the government institutions, they went
into trade and banking. A wealthy class of Jewish merchants emerged
with cash but little political influence. Later on the money was used
by some wealthy Jews throughout the Empire to finance the Caliphs'
courts and wars, especially against the Crusaders. Exilarch still
remained the vehicle through which Jewish affairs were regulated.
The Muslim authorities appointed this figure.
of the religious minorities varied in accordance with the policies
of the caliphs and attitudes of different governors. While the Umayyad
governor of Iran Hajjaj was ruthless and extremely biased others were
more lenient and did not follow all the discriminatory rules. There
were many Christian, Zoroastrian and Jewish Philosophers, physicians,
scientists, engineers, musicians and court administrators in the first
century of the Muslim Empire. Later on they all gradually convert
or were forced out of government services. The coming of Abbasid improved
the position of dhimmi for a while especially during the reign of
Al Mansur. He was a devoted follower of the sciences and supported
the great translation movement of the 8th century AD.
the Syriac, Greek, Jews and Persians to preserve the ancient knowledge,
the movement started in Syria and flourished in Baghdad. Scientists
and intellectuals from all over got together and thousands of books
were translated into Arabic from Greek, Hebrew, Persian and other
languages. Iranian Jews were writing dari (new Persian) in Hebrew
characters, the same way Christians used Syriac script to write Persian.
bankers (Jahabidha) are found at the courts of the Buyids, the Ghaznavids,
and the Seljuk Sultans. Malik-Shah Seljuk contracted the farming of
his Basra properties to a wealthy Jew named Ibn Allan for 150,000
dinars. The influential politician and educator, Nizam al-Mulk in
his famous book Siasat Nameh rejects the employment of dhimmi in governmental
services and at the same time provided refuge for his Jewish friend
Ibn Allan who was eventually drowned as ordered by the Sultan. Under
the Seljuk dhimmis were still segregated in their quarters, paid jizya
and wore marked garments. They appointed their own religious officials
subject to approval by the Muslim authorities.
The Jews were
largely occupied in trade and commerce. The Jewish traveler Benjamin
of Tuleda reports large Jewish and Christian communities in many of
the larger cities. He visited the area after the death of Sultan Sanjar
(1157) and mentions Jewish communities in Hamadan, Isfahan, Nihavand,
Shiraz, Nishapur and Baghdad. On the whole there appears to have been
little discrimination against the dhimmis other than the usual restrictions.
In one incident a prominent Jew, Abu Sad Samha successfully made a
claim against Abu Shuja the Minster responsible for dhimmis. He claimed
Abu Shuja had failed to protect the Jews and managed to get the Minster
sacked. Samha worked for Malik Shah and was a friend of Nizam al-Mulk.
At the same time Malik Shah in a new decree made it obligatory for
the dhimmis to wear distinguishing marks on their cloths. Such orders
were issued from time to time which indicates that these restrictions
were not permanently enforced. However the Jewish clans who supported
the Ismaili movement were gravely punished and massacres took place
in the Zagros and Luristan regions.
The Mongol dynasties
were a lot more tolerant to the religious minorities. Under the Mongol
leader, Hulagu (1258 AD), the concept of the dhimmi and the division
between "believers" and "non believers" were abolished.
Once again non-Muslims were employed in the government institutions.
For the first time a substantial Judeo-Persian literature emerges
and jizya ceased to exist for a while. It was restored and quickly
abolished by Ghazan and reintroduced by Oljeitu and this time for
good. The Mongol Emperor Arghun appointed Jewish physician Sa'd al-Daula
of Abhar as his Prime Minister. The act alienated the Muslim population
and created resentment. The Minister was executed in 1291 and the
Jewish quarters were savagely ransacked in Tabriz and Baghdad. Rahid
al-Din Fazhl Allah Hamadani was another famous physician and historian
from Jewish background who served the Il-Khan Oljeitu. He is known
as the greatest Minster of this dynasty and wrote the famous history
of the Mongols from the beginning to the time of Ghazan Khan. He was
also put to death in 1318.
His famous library
of 60,000 books was ransacked and the suburban area in Tabriz, Rub-i
Rashidi build by him was looted. His severed head was taken to Tabriz
and carried out about the town with cries of; "this is the head
of the Jew who abused the name of God; may God's curse be upon him".
In 1399 his remains were exhumed and reburied in a Jewish cemetery.
Rashid al-Din is credited with a major administrative and tax reform
while serving as a Minister and is known as the most important historian
of his time.
The next major
change comes with the Safavids in 16th century. Shiism is introduced
as the state religion. A religious hierarchy is established with unlimited
power and influence in every sphere of life. The concept of "ritual
pollution" (najes) of the non-Muslims is introduced. Suffering
and persecution of all religious groups particularly the Sunnis becomes
a norm (this period is one of the worst with respect to human rights
are full of accounts of massacre, forced conversion into Islam and
mistreatment. New institutions are created; nasi became the head of
the Jewish community assisted by the rabbi, mullah (Jewish one), or
dayyan. The nasi was responsible for the prompt payment of jizya to
local authorities. All relations between Iranian Jews and others outside
the country were completely severed. Christians and Zoroastrians were
subjected to the same harsh treatments and Sunnis suffered most. Segregation
became a reality again for all minorities and Jewish Ghettos were
reinforced. The reports by European travelers and missionaries describe
the tragic situation of the Jews and other religious minorities. Jews
were forced to wear both a yellow badge and a headgear, and their
oath were not accepted in courts of justice. A Jew who converted to
Islam could claim to be the sole inheritor of the family property,
to the exclusion of all Jewish relatives. If one Jew committed a crime
or an illegal act, the whole community would be punished (other religious
minorities were subjected to the same harsh treatments).
The Jewish community
of Iran saw little change till 19th century. In one incident the Jewish
quarters were looted in Mashad. The anti Jewish sentiment reached
its peak when the whole Jewish community in the city was forced to
convert into Islam in 1839 under Muhammad Shah Quajar. Europeans intervened
for the first time and the decree was reversed. The first modern Jewish
School, Alliance was opened after a long and frustrating debate with
heavy pressure from Europeans and the International Jewish Alliance
in 1891 by an order from Nasser E' din Shah. Once opened, the students
and the teachers would have to be escorted by the police to stop the
mob from attacking them (All modern schools specially girls' schools
were subjected to the same attacks by religious Fatwas). Jewish chronicles
report Quajar period as one of the worst in their history.
The end of the
19th century is the beginning of fundamental changes in Iran and the
start of the Constitutional Revolution. Jewish partisans along with
other minorities participated in the movement. They were instrumental
in forming the first multiethnic Secret Society of 1905, which began
the debate on political change. Jews, Christians, Bahai and Zoroastrians
fought hard with the constitutionalists to form a National Consultative
Majlis instead of an Islamic Majlis as demanded by the religious hierarchy.
Along with other religious minorities they succeeded in their efforts
to ratify laws that gave equality to Muslim and non-Muslim (male)
citizens in 1907 and defined a new concept of Nationality not based
on religious origins (with the exception of Bahai who were not recognized).
the new constitution Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians had the right
to elect one delegate each to the Majlis, but they could not participate
in elections of other delegates. The constitution also prohibited
non-Shiite Muslims from becoming a member of the Government. This
was ignored by the Phahlavi regime and there were non-Muslim high
government officials even Bahai by the 1970's.
Such gains did
not put an end to discriminatory practices and attitudes. Jewish quarters
were still attacked and looted in Mashad, Tabriz and Tehran at the
beginning of this century by religious Fatwas. Though the constitution
of 1907 put an end to the segregation of religious minorities and
Jewish Ghettos, it was at the time of Reza Shah that they were able
to integrate in the larger Iranian society without fear from Fatwas.
Yedidya Shofet, shlita
holding an award with Former Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel Ovadia
Reza Shah was
the first Iranian Monarch after 1400 years that paid respect to the
Jews by praying to the Torah and bowing in front of it, when visiting
the Jewish community of Isfahan. An act that boasted the self-esteem
of the Iranian Jews and made Reza Shah the second most respected Iranian
leader after Cyrus the Great. Still when in the 1970's, they showed
up to support the Iranian Football team against Israel in the Asian
games in Tehran, they were beaten up by the mob and the Iranian flags
they were carrying were taken away.
In 1948, there
was a high concentration of Jewish communities in Kurdistan. There
were around 12,000 Jews scattered in approximately 15 Jewish settlements
in Iranian Kurdistan. After the formation of the State of Israel many
Jews in the area left for Tehran, in transit to Israel. The move angered
the Muslim authorities. In March 1950, 12 Jews were murdered in Kurdistan.
As a result more Jews moved to Tehran and demanded protection. The
Iranian government guaranteed their safe passage. By March 1951, 8000,
Iranian Jews had moved to Israel, the first major emigration in 20th
century. After the formation of Israel in 1949, all the Muslim countries
in the region expelled their local Jewish population except Iran.
By 1966, the number of Jews immigrated to Israel had reached 22,000.
Kanoun e Javanan
Yahudi formed in 1938, was the first Jewish Youth Organization in
Iran. The first Iranian Jewish women's organization (Sazman Banovan
Yahud i Iran) was established in 1947. Headed by Mrs. Shamsi Hekmat,
the organization provided help to the needy and established branches
in several towns. The first Jewish hospital opened in Tehran in 1958.
Since the conquest
of Islam, Iranian Jews (and other religious minorities) have been
instrumental in preserving Iranian music especially in Safavid times
when music was restricted. Also many ancient rituals and traditions
long forgotten by the Iranian Muslims are still practiced by the Jews
as part of their festivals and celebrations. Illanout (tree festival)
celebrated in February by Iranian Jews is identical to Shab e Cheleh
and is a lot more elaborate, reminiscence of the pre Islamic celebrations.
In Iranian folklore,
Jews are portrayed as mean, misery and polluted (Najes). Children
were warned not to go to Jewish quarters because they would be kidnapped
and Jews would drink their blood. They are used as stereotypes to
portray evil characters by the likes of Mulana Jalaledin Rumi, Nezami,
Sadi and many other literary figures. They could not touch water sources
and when rained stayed in doors, since rain touching them would pollute
the soil. At the times of persecution their water sources would be
The Jewish quarter
of Kirman had preserved many characteristics of these segregated ghettos
till recently. The lanes were extremely narrow, rarely more than five
feet wide. The compound walls on either side were 10 to 12 feet high,
with jagged glass and stone set in the top to discourage entry. Massive
oaken doors strengthened by metal studs guarded the entrances to the
houses. One had to stoop to enter the low portals since the height
should be lower than the Muslim homes. These details were also designed
to prevent mounted horsemen from effectively attacking its residents.
All facilities necessary were inside the quarter. The synagogues bore
no external symbols, so they were difficult to locate. All transaction
with Jews would be through special intermediaries not to pollute Muslim
The Islamic Revolution
of 1979, made Shariat the legal code and therefore gender and religious
discriminations are an integral part of the system. Bahai once again
are not recognized at all, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians each
have one representative in the Parliament and are not legally forbidden
from employment in the government sector. But since the authorities
only employ Muslims and a 'Shariat test' is required, in reality these
people are once again barred from working for the government. Like
Bahaies it was very difficult for them to leave Iran for a decade
after the revolution and restrictions still apply. They are accepted
into Universities, but are not given access to post graduate studies,
though no law prohibits them. Their monetary transactions are monitored
closely to make sure no money is sent out. There were 85000 Iranian
Jews before 1979, almost half have emigrated mainly to USA. The largest
exodus since Darius' time when 30,000 left joyfully to rebuild their
temple. Their departure this time has not been a happy one!
to Part 1.