Preface, , 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 in 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 foreground.
Of course Iran today is an overwhelmingly Muslim nation — about ninety-nine percent of the total population of over seventy million, 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.
The Iranian 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 Islam 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 product, 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 of Israelites to Iranian territories, is one of the least-known aspects of the Jewish diaspora. The influence of Iranians and specifically Iranian notions in the foggy emergence of Mahayana Buddhism has only very recently begun to be seriously explored by scholars.
And while 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 make clear.
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 languages.
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) Iraq?
Yet it takes but the faintest scratching to uncover the legions of important Iranians and Iranian ideas lurking beneath the literary 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)
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