Cradle of god
Iran has played an unexcelled role in influencing,
transforming, and propagating all the world's universal traditions
October 6, 2004
in the Land of the Noble: How Iran Shaped the World's Religions (Oneworld
Publications, 2004), by Richard
C. Foltz, associate professor,
Department of Religion, University of Florida.
When speaking of "cradles of religion" one most
commonly thinks of the Near East and South Asia. The role of Iranians
generating and shaping the world's major religious traditions
is not less than that of Semites or Indians, but it is less obvious.
It is the aim of this book to bring that contribution into the
Of course Iran today is an overwhelmingly Muslim nation
-- about ninety-nine percent of the total population of over seventy
nine-tenths of whom are Ithna 'Ashari Shi'is. But even
in the world's first modern Islamic state there is far more
religious diversity than meets the eye at first glance.
constitution reserves three seats in Parliament for representatives
of the Christian minority, and one seat each for Jews and Zoroastrians.
Only Baha'is -- who, numbering as much as half a million
or more in Iran, remain the country's largest non-Muslim
minority -- are denied official recognition and representation,
while Iran's tiny community of ancient Gnostics, the Mandaeans,
are hardly known at all.
Modern Iran's relative religious homogeneity notwithstanding,
throughout the country's long history its peoples and cultures
have played an unexcelled role in influencing, transforming, and
propagating all the world's universal traditions.
As I have
described in another book, the merchants and missionaries who
first brought Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Manichaeism, and
to China along the Silk Roads were predominantly Iranian. Along
the way each of these traditions was dramatically infused with
Iranian ideas and interpretations.
Apart from Zoroastrianism, Islam, and the Baha'i faith, the
histories of other religions within Iran itself remain largely
unexplored, although prior to the Arab conquest in the seventh
century ce much of eastern Iran was Buddhist and much of the
western regions Christian. Manichaeism, itself largely an Iranian
was a major presence there for a number of centuries.
The history of Iranian Judaism, which begins with the fall of
Israel to the Assyrians in 722 bce and subsequent deportations
to Iranian territories, is one of the least-known aspects of
the Jewish diaspora. The influence of Iranians and specifically
notions in the foggy emergence of Mahayana Buddhism has only
very recently begun to be seriously explored by scholars.
Christianity's attempts to permeate the world's largest
continent appeared by post-Mongol times to have been a spectacular
failure (the Christianization of the Philippines and Korea being
a more recent phenomenon), centuries earlier the balance between
the eastern and western churches was far more even.
For well over
a millennium it was the Iranian variant of Christianity that Asians
knew and perceived as normative, as the surprised (and dismayed)
accounts of William of Rubruck and other early Catholic missionaries
The role of Iranians in shaping
Islam and Muslim civilization -- comparable perhaps to that of
Hellenism in the formation of Christianity -- is
well understood by specialists but not so much by the general public.
To this day most people continue to associate Islam with Arabs
and the Near East, despite the fact that in Asia, where three-quarters
of the world's Muslims actually live, Islam was received
in most cases through a thickly Persian filter.
Finally there is the Baha'i faith, a distinctly modern religious
tradition whose universalizing approach exceeds, and indeed attempts
to subsume, all of its predecessors. Nothing evokes the Iranian
origins of this now global religion more vividly than a visit to
the beautiful Persian gardens surrounding Baha'i shrines
of Acre and Haifa in Israel.
Why have the extraordinarily broad and profound influences of Iran
on the world's religions gone so largely unnoticed for so
long? Simple, authoritative answers are elusive, but a few tentative
suggestions may be made. The comparative historical study of religions
as an academic approach is fairly recent, as well as Western in
origin and orientation, resulting in several fundamental biases.
One such bias favors Classical Greek and Roman civilizations as
superior models and primary sources of influence on later human
societies. Another bias tends to define cultures in terms of key
texts and the languages in which they were written, to the detriment
of other sources whether textual or otherwise. Comparatively few
such texts were originally composed in Persian or other Iranian
The fact that historically, a preponderance of Iranian writers
great and small have chosen to write in non-Iranian languages --
whether Aramaic, Arabic, Sanskrit, Chinese, or English -- has led
to a situation where even in these enlightened times one still
finds major Iranian figures like Avicenna, Ghazali, and Rhazes
referred to as "Arab" writers.
The thousand and one
stories with which that brilliant Persian raconteuse, Shahrzad
(Scheherezade), enthralled a mythical Persian king continue to
be known by many as "The Arabian Nights." And how many
in the West still find it hard to sort out (Persian) Iran and (Arab)
Yet it takes but the faintest scratching to uncover
the legions of important Iranians and Iranian ideas lurking beneath
veneers of world history. The task of this book, therefore, is
a relatively easy one, consisting mainly of pointing out what ought
to be clearly visible but has, like a finely crafted old table
relegated to an over-stuffed storage room, for too long remained
out of sight and under-appreciated.
Richard C. Foltz
24 June 2003 (Fête nationale de St. Jean)
4 Tir 1382
in the Land of the Noble: How Iran Shaped the World's Religions