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Religions of Iran: From Prehistory to the Present, Richard Foltz (Oneworld 2013)

This book reminded me of a line by one of Saki’s characters: “The people of Crete unfortunately make more history than they can consume locally.” Similarly, the people of Iran make more religion than they can consume locally. Much more. That’s part of why Iran is such an interesting place. I knew enough about Iran not to think it was Arabic-speaking or inhabited by Arabs. This book has taught me some more, but it deserved more time and attention than I’ve been able to give it.

As “Professor and Founding Director of the Centre for Iranian Studies at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada”, Richard Foltz is the sort of scholar who turns up regularly in the New York or London Review of Books. And he probably has done exactly that. Fortunately, his prose doesn’t sink to the levels of pretension and posturing you can often find in the NYRB and LRB. He has some illuminating things to say. But perhaps “irrigating” is a better description of this example:

The “Pool Theory”: Possibilities, not Essence

My own approach to the notion of “religion”, which sees the term as being, for practical purposes, almost synonymous with “culture” and not a separate category, places less of an emphasis on providing a description as such, than on identifying a pool of ideas and behaviour from which communities and ideas may draw in constituting their particular worldviews. I call this approach the Pool Theory: it posits that religion/culture is best understood not in terms of essential features, but as a set of possibilities within a recognizable framework, or “pool”. (Preface, pp. xii-xiii)

The Iranian pool is unusually deep and broad: the region has been creating, influencing and absorbing religious ideas for millennia. Who were the magi of the New Testament, for example? Priests from ancient Persia, that’s who. The new religion of Christianity was drawing on the prestige of a much older religion, that of Zarathustra or Zoroaster, whose life can’t even be given a fixed millennium, let alone a century. As Foltz says: “Among the founders of the world’s major religions, none is more shrouded in mystery than Zoroaster. Basic questions, such as where and when he lived, remain unresolved.” (ch. 3, “In Search of Zoroaster”, pg. 32)

But perhaps if Zoroaster had been less mysterious, he would also have been less influential. Zoroastrianism has also shaped and inspired Judaism and Islam. It’s no longer the dominant religion in Iran, but it’s the part of the cultural pool where Iranians still swim. So is Manichaeism, a religion that appeared in Iran in the third century AD. It’s much less-known than Zoroastrianism, but may be even more interesting: after all, it was “perhaps the most maligned religion in history”. Its founder Mani “died in prison in 276, presumably tortured to death, at the age of sixty” (ch. 10, “Manichaeism”, pg. 138). His eclectic and eccentric religion was known for centuries “only through the polemics of its worst enemies, such as Augustine of Hippo and the various heresiographers and historians of Islam”. (pg. 137)

Manichaeism was eventually driven out of Iran to become an official religion among the Uighur Turks of Central Asia, then die far off and long later even further east: “The last Manichaean community appears to have survived in southeastern China until the seventeenth century, when it became unrecognizably absorbed into popular Buddhism”. (ibid., pp. 143-4) What inspired the enmity that began this exile? Modern scholars like Foltz aren’t able to explain that fully, even now that they have original Manichaean texts from “the widely separated deserts of western China and Egypt” (pg. 142). But Manichaeism, while retaining its own doctrines, seems to have borrowed too readily and adapted too flexibly to other religions. That is, it was a chameleon, so its rivals could never be sure whether their own adherents were truly as orthodox as they seemed. Augustine knew it from the inside: he “was a Manichaean for nine years before converting to Christianity.” (pg. 137) As Foltz notes: “his interpretation of the latter faith was greatly influenced by his rejection of the former”.

So an Iranian religion influenced Christianity again. But Manichaeism influenced Judaism and Islam too, “if for no other reason than that its proselytizing success and extreme doctrinal positions forced apologists for other faiths to refine and strengthen their own views” (pg. 137). And the contrarian spirit of Manichaeism lives on. Iran is today the centre of “Shi‘ism” (sic), the branch of Islam that very roughly corresponds to Protestantism in Christianity and that was born in southern Iraq in opposition to orthodox Sunni Islam. When rebels become rulers in Iran, rebellion doesn’t cease. This is one of the most interesting passages in the book:

[…] the Qajar dynasty was brought to an end in 1921 by an ambitious soldier called Reza Khan (born 1878) who seized power and assumed the title of Shah in 1925. Reza Shah, as he was now known, made a conscious effort to recall Iran’s pre-Islamic greatness by calling his new dynasty the Pahlavi [after an ancient Iranian language]. […] Reza Shah’s modernizing agenda favored those among the traditional clergy, Shariat Sanglaji for example, who showed themselves pliant and willing to preach a reformist version of Islam compatible with the king’s goals. At the same time, his nationalist policies encouraged a celebration of Iran’s pre-Islamic identity. This included a replacement of Arabic words and place-names with Persian ones. Many among Iran’s intelligentsia were attracted to the national reawakening taking place during the 1930s, which sometimes portrayed Islam as an alien religion that had been imposed through force by a culturally inferior people. (ch. 14, “Shi‘ism”, pg. 205)

The dynasty founded by Reza Shah lasted until 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in France to create “The Islamic Republic”. Foltz discusses the republic in chapter 18, but he’s understandably cautious in what he says. He has an Iranian wife and I assume he visits Iran regularly. As he says in the previous chapter, discussing the tribulations of “The Bábí Movement and the Bahá’í Faith”: “Those Bábís who survived [in Iran] adopted the age-old Shi‘ite practice of taqiyya, dissimulation of one’s true beliefs to ensure the survival of the religious community” (loc. cit., pg. 235). In some ways, Bahá’ísm is Manichaeism reborn: hated and persecuted in its land of origin.

But we don’t need to wonder many centuries later whether the hatred and persecution are in any way justified: we can see for ourselves that they aren’t. Like Ahmadis in Pakistan, Bahá’ís aren’t officially recognized except as enemies of the true faith. Like Ahmadis, many have left the country in which their religion took shape. History is repeating itself as tragedy, not farce, but the tragedies of Iranian history are part of what makes the country so interesting and you can see another side of the Islamic Republic in another chapter: “…Zoroastrians in Iran enjoy a number of privileges denied to Iran’s Muslim majority.” (ch. 19, “Iranian Zoroastrians Today”, pg. 258) For example, like “Iran’s Christians and Jews, they can make and produce alcoholic beverages”.

Persecuting or tolerant, innovative or heresy-hunting, Iranian religion is both fascinating and important. You can get a good idea of its depth and complexity in this book, whether you paddle or plunge into the millennia’s-worth of ideas, stories and personalities that swirl and mingle here.

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