Iranians’ Role In Formation And Development Of Shiism

For many who don’t have special knowledge of the Muslim world there is question on, which connection there is between Iran and the Shia as one of the two main branches in Islam. Many know that the Iranians have an old culture, which returning to the pre-Islamic era. Still, there is the question of why Iran today is the main base for this religion and that country since 1979 Islamic revolution is managed under the Islamic law. Sometimes be heard that Iranians in general have a fundamental conflict with the religious system of their country.

If so, how is it at all that this country did tend to Islam and why Shia?

The present article at least intends to illustrate one of the angles of that discussion.

Shiia religion as we know today has a complex, bloody and painful story full of ups and downs in its 1400-year lifetime. That is a religion, which many Iranians consider as a set of conflicting and inconsistent beliefs and traditions in relation to their original culture. However, many researchers and historians believe that in the course of the history Shiism is inevitably created, grown, and developed by Iranians themselves.

With the Arab invasion of Iran, the great Persian Empire and the ancient culture fell under the feet of the new conquerors. Despite opposition to the conquerors, those resistances were suppressed in a very brutal and cruel way.

In connection with the Arab invasion of Iran the Iranian historian Ali Mirfetros (1988) mentions the people’s resistances against the invasion in many different areas in Iran. One among countless gruesome cases, which he points to is that after so long resistance by Gorgan’s population (one of the then biggest town in Iran) they were promised on security guarantees to surrender. Saeed bin Aas (the Arabic commander) gave promise of security guarantees and he vowed not to kill one person of the town’s population. People gave up the resistance, but Saeed bin Aas killed all the inhabitants. Number of Arab troops, who participated in the attack to Gorgan were eighty thousand (Mirfetros, 1988: 71).

Mirfetros concludes that there occurred wars, long-term and short-term resistances against the attackers in almost all cities and regions of Iran. Contrary to some claims Arabs were not able to easily conquer Iran (Ibid: 71).

He believes that military occupation of Iran by the invaders was not tantamount to conquer Iranians’ spirit. Nor was it seen as the end of the Iranian’s resistance and contrasting against the Islamic state, but people continued to battle against the invaders and their dominion over all the years of violent domination in Iran (Ibid: 71).

According to some historians like Shojaa al-din Shafa the last president of Tehran University before the 1979-revolution and the author of the famous book “After Thousand and Four Hundred Years” in the attack on Iran the invaders set fire on libraries. One of the Muslim Caliphate believed that Muslims with the Koran in the hand didn’t need another book (Shafa, 2003).

Shafa believes that the invaders in Iran slaughtered many people, destroyed many towns and many Iranians were captured.

However the main question today is how can it be that Iran today is one of the most important centres of the radical Islam? How it is that Shiism were grown in Iran and that it has become stronger, so that this land became the main base of the Shiism?

Answering of that question may be lies in the claim by some researchers, who believe that Iranians under the Arab occupation did everything to defend their existence and identity against the invaders.

Ahmad Kasravi, one of the most famous and most controversial Iranian historians in 1930s and 1940s, who was murdered by one of the Islamic radical groups, believes that Iranians who lived under the caliph’s power dominance were forced to use whatever way in the direction of preserving their national identity (Kasravi, 1996).

The claim that Iranians after the Arab invasion not on the basis of their real willingness, but for tactical reasons, took positions in the conflict over the Muslim Caliphate is reflected in many works of scholars and historians. Kasravi believes that those tactics took place based on the old proverb: “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”.

In his controversial book, “Bahaiism, Shiism, Sufism” Kasravi expresses that since that time the Arab invaders took over Iran many Iranians could not tolerate their dominance. They strove for liberty, especially in Umayyad time, when Iranians’ hostilities against the invaders – because of their increasing repression, were great. He writes: “When Alawites fought against Umayyad, Iranians were supporters of Alawites, not because of feel satisfaction with the Alawite dynasty, but because they were enemies with Mu’awiyah, the Muslim Caliphate” (Kasravi, 1996: 119-120).

He concludes that because of Iranians’ such positions in relations to the internal disputes on power in Caliphate Shiism was rooted in Iran and gradually took its form. Alawites who escaped from the Caliphate’s forces and came to Iran, were established in the form of autonomous governments in Northern Iran.

It seems to have been an inevitably way to resist an alien domination. To give refuge to the Caliphate’s opponents for secret revival of their forces in Iran and finally to beat to the Caliphate’s regime have been among the ways the Iranians were forced to adopt to defend their own independence and national identity.

According to Shafa “when the conflict between Ali and the Umayyad regime broke out, the Iranians were not interested in that conflict. For them there was no difference whether Ali could be Caliphate, or Mu’awiyah could be the owner of the throne, because both of them were non-Iranian, and in no way they were connected with Iranians” (Shafa, 2003: 951).

However what was important for the Iranians was that they should support the weakened side – or in other words a confrontation against the dominant party. It was because of defending of their ethnic existence. Therefore Iranians gave the right to Ali, because he was defeated in that battle (Ibid: 951).

The nature of such political opposition and the question of how it would treat its subordinates including Iranians if it was in the position of power are not really known. Therefore one cannot really answer the question of how that opposition would act if it would take over power. However the Shiite opposition, which at least was in conflict with the Caliphate, was well aware that the Iranians were the most ardent opponents of the Caliph, so that the opposition (Alawites) could in specific situations count on their help.

From the beginning of Mu’awiyah caliphate and his “discriminatory politics” groupings of unhappy people began to confront with that policy. Among those who had entered the Islamic faith, there was a group of Iranians, who were against that policy. They joined to Ali, who had been dismissed from the caliphate, which Ali claimed it was his right (Armiti, 1997: 174-175).

One of the many movements, which Iranians under the guise of supporting the family and descendants of Ali attended, was “Mokhtar” uprising. They aimed to undermining the Caliphate government. They helped the Abbasids against Umayyad government, and then were joined to Al – Ali (Ali’s family) against the Abbasids. They tried to destabilize the Caliphate state power in various forms, until they succeeded completely to overthrow their power. The above mentioned movement was under Mokhtar bin Abu Ubeida’s leadership, when he rebelled against the Caliphate because of avenge for Husain bin Ali (Ali’s son). Iranian Muslims, who were called as “Mavali” were joined to him. They could hurt the Umayyad regime very hard. The web-based bulletin “Rahe Tudeh” claims that from Mokhtar´s eight thousands troops were less than a tenth part Arabs and the rest were mavalis (Iranians). Mokhtar Rebellion was suppressed by Masaab bin Zubeir, the Arabic commander (Rahe Tudeh).

Many of the Iranian movements, which were formed against Arab domination, occurred in Khorasan. The main reason for this was that the Iranian eastern parts were geographically far from the centre of the Caliphate. Therefore, the Arabic dominance over the eastern part of Iran was weaker than the dominance over the rest of the then Arabic empire. In the Iranian eastern regions especially in Khorasan people frequently came in and went out of Islam often depending on the severity and the weakness of Arab forces. That’s why the Arab opposition, which fought against the Caliphate, came to those regions because of escape from death, revival and to gather new strength.

Among the most important Iranian uprisings against the Arab Caliphate one can mention Babak Rebellion, which after all did not happen in Khorasan but it took place in Azerbaijan. The uprising, which occurred more specifically in Ardabil was gradually increased and changed character to a massive and extensive popular movement.

Khorramdinan who was a resistance group in Iran’s western and north-western areas, resisted steadfastly against the Caliphate in the areas … Babak and his supporters for the first time used red flags and red dresses as insurgent symbol. Babakian (Babak people) were brave and keen” (Rahe Tudeh).

Using a method of warfare, which resembled today’s guerrilla warfare they prevailed over the strongest military forces. But ultimately the Turkish original commander in the Caliphate administration, Afshin, caught Babak through scheming and cheating, and suppressed the movement.

Maziar Rebellion was also among the significant rebels in the Iranian fight against occupiers. That rebellion, whose origin was in the today’s Mazandaran, arose in 839.

Among other major rebels we can mention Zangian Revolt in the today’s Khuzestan.

As previously mentioned, the important factor to that Iranians supported Ali and his descendants were actually to adopt a form of resistance against the Arab Caliphate. Therefore some historians consider the resistance as the main cause of the formation and growth of Shiia in Iran.

Some Iranian historians also have focused on the national patriotism as an important factor to the resistance. Niazmand believes that the Arab invasion of Iran made a deep hatred on Iranians’ hearts.

In his book “Shia in the Iranian History” he writes “the Iranian people at every opportunity reminded the occupiers’ broad and brutal assaults” (Niazmand, 2004: 131). Although many Iranians so compelled to cooperate with the occupiers, they never saw on them with a loving heart and reverence and respect (Ibid, 131).

Therefore, a large proportion of the national Iranian customs and traditions are not destroyed, but instead are incorporated in the new religion and are combined with it, although the invaders tried to distort Iranians’ traditions and religion. In the Shiite religious descriptions of Ali and Hussein – the First and the Third Imam – one can see many visible elements of Old Persian descriptions of the Persian Mehr (Armiti, 1997).

Basically, from the time Islam has come to Iran, it has continuously used the Persian cultural sources, and has transformed it into a third phenomenon, which today is neither Caliphate Islam nor an Iranian manner (Ibid: 1997).

Although the Shiite origins has no any kinship to the Iranian culture and traditions, many Shiite thoughts anyway are the modified forms, or in other words a kind of continuation of the Iranian people’s old beliefs. The philosophy of “The Hidden Imam” is rooted in Iranians’ faith in the “Rams” and “Bahram” resurrection, so that James Darmesteter says that the Shiite believe in “Mahdaviat” is an Islamic copying of Iranian’s pre-Islamic faith in God’s “Ferah” (quoted in Lewis, 1940: 24).There are a close similarity between Ali and Abbas’s deep generosity on the one hand and the Iranian athletic traditions and magnanimity on the other hand. There are many similarities between Hussein and the killing of innocent Siavash and grief over him.

The Iranian historian, Adjoudani believes that in the Iranian ideal stories the concept of “Royal” – the divine glory – was the source of the continuation of the divine grace in “Shah”, which made him suitable to be a political and religious fair and clever character. “But Shiia limited this continuation of the divine grace only to the forming of Imam” (Adjoudani, 2008: 57). Adjoudani even believes that the meaning of “Velayat” strains from the Iranian ideal narratives.

There are many other similarities between what the Iranians themselves had from their past and what they inevitably constructed. It has been a form of resistance and struggle against the Arab invaders. However, despite the similarities the fundament of each of those two cultures remained each at its own space and own historical and cultural status.

“Originally published by at”


  • Adjoudani Mashaallah, The Iranian Constitutional Revolution, 2008. Akhtaran Publishing
  • Armiti, Bahman, Religion over time, 1997. Stockholm, Publishing: Author
  • Lewis Bernard, The Origins of Ismailism, 1940. Cambridge, 1940.
  • Kasravi, Ahmad, 1996. Bahaigari, shiigari, soufigari, 1996, Mehr Publishing
  • Mirfetros, Ali. Notes on the Iranian, Islamic and the true Islamic history, 1988, Farhang Publishing
  • Niazmand, Reza. Shia in the Iranian history, 2004, Hekayat-e Qalam-e Novin Publishing
  • Shafa, Shoja al-din. After one thousand and four hundred years, 2003, Farzad Publishing

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