from the archive, 2018
The old name for Iran was Persia. So, the Iranian faith traditions span the whole of Persian history.
The heritage is exceedingly rich. Some of the influences include the legacy of Zarathustra, of Mithras and Mani, of Shi’a Islam, of the Bab, Baha’u’llah and the Baha’i religion. I can offer but a scintilla of appreciation.
Jesus taught us to love our neighbour, and right now the neighbour is Iran. Loving is not pitying, and it’s definitely not the fearful distrust inculcated by mainstream sources in the west which judge ourselves responsible stewards of nuclear technology and the Iranians not. Love neither thinks nor speaks according to such double standards. Love is more like appreciation and gratitude for the other’s existence.
The Persian Sufi poet Rumi on gratitude :
“Wear gratitude like a cloak and it will feed every corner of your life”.
Love is also the great affirmer of equality between human beings: You want to feel secure; I want to feel secure. You want the best for your kids; I want the best for my kids. When the creature turns towards the Creator, however, it is reverence and awe that should characterise the relationship. For the Creator loved and made us in the first place. The Sufi mystics of Persia expressed their timeless longing for the Divine Beloved through poetry, music and song. They originally set out to purify and spiritualise Islam. Today they have a purifying and spiritualising influence on the religious traditions of the whole world .
The Sufis of medieval Persia approached Truth through the lyrical heart.
As the Sufis were an inspiration to the romantic and mystical currents of Christian Europe, the thinkers of medieval Persia, like Ibn Sina and Al Ghazali, approached Truth through the enquiring intellect, and were an inspiration to the scholastic philosophy and scientific development of the West. The cross-pollination of interfaith engagement has been a healing balm upon the wound that set the Asiatics and the Europeans on their antagonistic trajectories from the time that the forces of the Persian king Xerxes were repulsed by the Ancient Greeks at Marathon and Salamis.
The border between Persian and Roman empires was hotly contested. The Roman army helped to spread the Mithras mystery cult into the Mediterranean. On the surface there have been many similarities noted between Christianity and Mithraism. As the one eclipsed the other, the current of Persian religious genius running from Zorastrianism through Mithraism morphed into Manicheanism, a prototype of the varieties of gnosticism that took root in the Greco-Roman empire. It had a profound influence on St Augustine in his younger days.
The Persian tradition began with Zoroastrianism, the first of the monotheistic faiths.
Along with the belief in the one supreme Being is the emphasis on good and evil, right and wrong. Judaism, Christianity and Islam grew up with this great precursor in their background. But Zoroastrianism is also a tradition that recognises the four elements - earth, water, air and, especially, fire - that can be found in Mesopotamian astrology and Greek philosophy. The relevance of the four elements survives today, not only in the New Age, but through the psychological categories of sensation, feeling, desire and intuition adapted by Carl Jung who, in turn, was perhaps the chief influence on the contemporary YouTube sensation, Jordan Peterson.
The Zoroastrian culture (like the Egyptian) also produced its astrologer-priests called Magi.
The magi are recognised in the Three Wise Men of the nativity story. They are steeped in deep lore around times, seasons and celestial signs. It is not by accident that the central Mithraic myth of the slaying of the Bull is loaded with zodiacal symbolism. Nor is it coincidence that Nowruz, the ancient and traditional Persian New Year, now observed as a United Nations International Day, falls at the equinox on March 21. This is part of Iran’s world religious heritage, just as the ruins of Persepolis are part of its cultural heritage or the Hyrcanian forest part of its natural heritage to the world.
The Sunni-Shi’a split goes back to the early days of Islam and arose out of a succession dispute :
How was the caliph - or the successor of the Prophet Mohammed - going to be determined? The Sunnis are an 85% majority in the Islamic world, but the home of the Shi’a is Persia-Iran. There is significance to this. Without going into the details of the succession dispute, it may be noted that it resulted in two different versions of the relationship between religion and politics, between mosque and state. Iran has always maintained that the imam who leads the community needs be both a religious and political authority. That is why ayatollahs head up the society today.
The predominant strand of Shi'a Islam is that of the “Twelvers”. They believe in 12 divinely appointed imams, from the Prophet’s bloodline.
Eleven have appeared and the last has been occultated (hidden) since the 900s. The return of this promised Mahdi is interestingly identified with the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. The Twelve Imams hold spiritual and religious authority; know the correct and just interpretation of Sharia; and can expound the esoteric Quran along with the exoteric.
Imagine that : the esoteric Quran. The Sufis also maintain the existence of such, and even have a word “Irfan”, which is roughly the equivalent of the Greek “gnosis”: spiritual knowledge. There is a definite gnostic vein in Iranian spirituality that conduces towards interfaith fruitfulness and a universalisation that transcends sectarianism.
The reach of the Twelvers on Iranian politics is profound.
The former Iranian president, Ahmadinejad, could maintain that America was the “Great Satan”, not out of sensationalistic point-scoring but, I suspect, on the following logic. If Shia Iran must play a central role in ushering in the Mahdi; and the Mahdi’s task is to expose and overthrow the Masih ad-Dajjal, the AntiChrist; and, further, if the USA seems to be a major antagonist of Iran - then, it follows, that America could have some “Great Satan” connection. Religious ideology can drive politicians to these generalisations. Remember, Ronald Reagan dubbed the Soviet Union the “evil empire”.
The Alawites of Syria share the Shi’a belief in the Twelve Imams.
This means that Alawite Syrian president Bashar al-Assad may well be engaging in domestic and foreign policy against the same apocalyptic backdrop.
Among all Muslim lands, it was in Persia that the seeds of Baha’ism were sown.
In a land shaped by Shi’a expectancy and sense of ongoing revelation, in the city of Shiraz, there arose a self-proclaimed messenger of God, the Bab, who was the forerunner to Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i faith. The Bab’s heralding of Baha’u’llah is sometimes compared to the Baptist’s heralding of Christ. Ironically, the Baha’i are singled out for persecution from among all minority “heretic” sects today in Iran. Neither the Christians, nor the Jews (who have been in Persia for the better part of three thousand years) are so persecuted - just the Baha’i, who were homegrown in a Shi’a matrix. Basic liberties and access to education have been denied them. Yet their message for the whole world readily resonates with many in the west:
That there is progressive revelation of the Divine plan which does not invalidate previous instalments. That from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards, the religious constituency had to be an inclusive, global one. That the species must move beyond racism, beyond religious intolerance, beyond all forms of bigotry; and promote gender equality. That unity in diversity is the goal.
These are a few reasons for loving the Iranian religious heritage.