The maps of Iran showing which parts were Sunni to begin with and which were Shia:
Though Iran is known today as a stronghold of the Shi'a Muslim faith, it did not become so until much later, around the 15th century. The Safavid dynasty made Shi'a Islam the official state religion in the early sixteenth century and aggressively proselytized on its behalf. It is also believed that by the mid-seventeenth century most people in Iran had become Shi'as, an affiliation that has continued. Over the following centuries, with the state-fostered rise of a Persian-based Shi'ite clergy, a synthesis was formed between Persian culture and Shi'ite Islam that marked each indelibly with the tincture of the other.
Methods of converting Iran
Ismail consolidated his rule over the country and launched a thorough and at times brutal campaign to convert the majority Sunni population to Twelver Shiism and thus transform the religious landscape of Iran.
His methods of converting Iran included:
- Imposing Shiism as the state and mandatory religion for the whole nation and much forcible conversions of Iranian Sufi Sunnis to Shiism.
- He reintroduced the Sadr (Arabic, leader) – an office that was responsible for supervising religious institutions and endowments. With a view to transforming Iran into a Shiite state, the Sadr was also assigned the task of disseminating Twelver doctrine.
- He destroyed Sunni mosques. This was even noted by Tomé Pires, the Portuguese ambassador to China who visited Iran in 1511–12, who when referring to Ismail noted: "He (i.e. Ismail) reforms our churches, destroys the houses of all Moors who follow (the Sunnah of) Muhammad…"
- He enforced the ritual and compulsory cursing of the first three Sunni Caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman) as usurpers, from all mosques, disbanded Sunni Tariqahs and seized their assets, used state patronage to develop Shia shrines, institutions and religious art and imported Shia scholars to replace Sunni scholars.
- He shed Sunni blood and destroyed and desecrated the graves and mosques of Sunnis. This caused the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II (who initially congratulated Ismail on his victories) to advise and ask the young monarch (in a “fatherly” manner) to stop the anti-Sunni actions. However, Ismail was strongly anti-Sunni, ignored the Sultan's warning, and continued to spread the Shia faith by the sword.
- He persecuted, imprisoned and executed stubbornly resistant Sunnis.
- With the establishment of Safavid rule, there was a very raucous and colourful, almost carnival-like holiday on 26 Dhu al-Hijjah (or alternatively, 9 Rabi' al-awwal) celebrating the murder of Caliph Umar. The highlight of the day was making an effigy of Umar to be cursed, insulted, and finally burned. However, as relations between Iran and Sunni countries improved, the holiday was no longer observed (at least officially).
- In 1501 Ismail invited all the Shia living outside Iran to come to Iran and be assured of protection from the Sunni majority.
Today, Sunnis in Iran have a substantial population (around 15 million), and I will now mention some of the problems Sunni communities face in Iran. Some of the following items may surprise you, but it is obvious that there is currently very serious Shiite sectarian discrimination in Iran.
Sunnis living in Iran are not allowed to name their children as they like. There is a book of permitted names at civil registers, and no one can pick a name that is not in this book. For instance, Iranian authorities do not allow people to choose Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, or Aisha as names for their children. Civil registers won’t put these names on ID cards. They tend to refer to the famed Persian poet Omar Khayyam as Khayyam, dropping the Omar part.
Sunnis are allowed to serve in the military, but they are not permitted to become officers.
Almost all administrative or employment forms contain the question, “Are you Sunni or Shiite?”
Printing of Sunni reference books is not free.
Religious courses given in schools in predominantly Sunni regions teach Shiite beliefs. Little information is given about Sunnism.
Several years ago, a political decision was made to introduce a Shiite representative of the spiritual leader (Wilayat-e Faqih or Guardianship of the Jurist) to religious madrasas belonging to Sunnis. This representative enjoys extraordinary power and authority. He can appoint or remove from office anyone at will. The practice, opposed by Sunnis for the time being, enables Shiite beliefs to be taught in these madrasas.
Every year, the “Week of Union” is marked in Iran to promote rapprochement between Shiites and Sunnis. But this is just a slogan, and this activity is intended to lure Sunnis into Shiism. So their message is, “Come and join us so that Islam becomes united.”
Currently, there is not a single Sunni minister in the current cabinet. However, since the public elects deputies, there are several Sunni deputies in Parliament.
Sunni madrasas and mosques are not provided any state support. They are maintained by the endeavors and efforts of Sunni communities.
Recently, two Sunni mosques were demolished by the state, citing various reasons, in Mashhad and Bojnourd.