The Iranian Majlis or Parliament has reportedly passed (now disputed) a law requiring that, “Jews would have to sew a yellow strip of cloth on the front of their clothes, while Christians would wear red badges and Zoroastrians would be forced to wear blue cloth.” An outraged Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Weisenthal Institute immediately responded to the provisions for Jews:
“This is reminiscent of the Holocaust…Iran is moving closer and closer to the ideology of the Nazis.”
Such a comparison sprang to the minds of many.
But Rabbi Hier’s statement and this general view ignore the immediate context—most glaringly, the simultaneous dress badge requirements for Christians and Zoroastrians living in Iran—and more importantly, the sad historical legacy of Shi’ite religious persecution of all non-Muslims which dates back to the founding of the Shi’ite theocracy in (then) Persia, under Shah Ismail at the very outset of the 16th century.
A reflexive invocation of the Nazi era is ahistorical, and symptomatic of a general failure to appreciate either Judenhass or much broader anti-“infidel” (i.e., in this case anti-Christian and anti-Zoroastrian) motifs intrinsic to orthodox Islamic doctrine and practice—both Sunni and Shi’ite. The Iranian Parliament’s legislation reflects the profound influence of najis—a unique Shi’ite institution—not Nazism.
Shi’ite Theocratic Rule in Iran: Najis and non-Muslims (especially Jews)
Visceral, even annihilationist animus towards Jews is a deep-rooted phenomenon in Shi’ite Iran, hardly unique to the contemporary post-Khomeini Shi’ite theocracy, including the current regime of Ayatollah Khameini and President Ahmadinejad. The Safavid rulers, at the outset of the 16th century, formally established Shi’a Islam as the Persian state religion, while permitting a clerical hierarchy nearly unlimited control and influence over all aspects of public life.
The profound influence of the Shi’ite clerical elite, continued for almost four centuries (although interrupted, between 1722-1795 during the period of Sunni Afghan invasion and rule), through the later Qajar period, as characterized by the noted scholar E.G. Browne:
The Mujtahids and Mulla are a great force in Persia and concern themselves with every department of human activity from the minutest detail of personal purification to the largest issues of politics
These Shi’ite clerics emphasized the notion of the ritual uncleanliness (najis) of Jews, in particular, but also Christians, Zoroastrians, and others, as the cornerstone of inter-confessional relationships toward non-Muslims.
The impact of this najis conception (based on a literal interpretation of Koran 9:28) was already apparent to European visitors to Persia during the reign of the first Safavid Shah, Ismail I (1502-1524). The Portuguese traveler Tome Pires observed (between 1512-1515), “Sheikh Ismail…never spares the life of any Jew”, while another European travelogue notes, “…the great hatred (Ismail I) bears against the Jews…”. During the reign of Shah Tahmasp I (d. 1576), the British merchant and traveler Anthony Jenkinson (a Christian), when finally granted an audience with the Shah,
…was required to wear ‘basmackes’ (a kind of over-shoes), because being a giaour [infidel], it was thought he would contaminate the imperial precincts…when he was dismissed from the Shah’s presence, [Jenkinson stated] ‘after me followed a man with a basanet of sand, sifting all the way that I had gone within the said palace’- as though covering something unclean.
Mohammad Baqer Majlesi (d. 1699), the highest institutionalized clerical officer under both Shah Sulayman (1666-1694) and Shah Husayn (1694-1722), was perhaps the most influential cleric of the Safavid Shi’ite theocracy in Persia. By design, he wrote many works in Persian to disseminate key aspects of the Shi’a ethos among ordinary persons. His treatise, “Lightning Bolts Against the Jews” (pp. 216-220), was written in Persian, and despite its title, was actually an overall guideline to anti-dhimmi regulations for all non-Muslims within the Shi’ite theocracy.
Al-Majlisi, in this treatise, describes the standard humiliating requisites for non-Muslims living under the Shari’a, first and foremost, the blood ransom jizya, a poll-tax, based on Qur’an 9:29. He then enumerates six other restrictions relating to worship, housing, dress, transportation, and weapons (specifically, i.e., to render the dhimmis defenseless), before outlining the unique Shi’ite impurity or “najis” regulations.
With regard to dress, Majlisi’s stipulations from the late 17th century are consistent with the contemporary the Iranian Parliament’s proposal (albeit the “color-coding” differs):
it is appropriate that the ruler of the Muslims imposed upon them clothing that would distinguish then from Muslims so that they would not resemble Muslims. It is customary for Jews to wear yellow clothes while Christians wear black and dark blue ones. Christians [also] wear a girdle on their waists, and Jews sew a piece of silk of a different color on the front part of their clothes.
But it is the latter najis prohibitions which lead Anthropology Professor Laurence Loeb (who studied and lived within the Jewish community of Southern Iran in the early 1970s) to observe, “Fear of pollution by Jews led to great excesses and peculiar behavior by Muslims.” Again, according Al-Majlisi’s authoritative and influential late 17th century text,
And, that they should not enter the pool while a Muslim is bathing at the public baths…It is also incumbent upon Muslims that they should not accept from them victuals with which they had come into contact, such as distillates, which cannot be purified. In something can be purified, such as clothes, if they are dry, they can be accepted, they are clean. But if they [the dhimmis] had come into contact with those cloths in moisture they should be rinsed with water after being obtained. As for hide, or that which has been made of hide such as shoes and boots, and meat, whose religious cleanliness and lawfulness are conditional on the animal’s being slaughtered [according to the Shari’a], these may not be taken from them. Similarly, liquids that have been preserved in skins, such as oils, grape syrup, [fruit] juices, myrobalan, and the like, if they have been put in skin containers or water skins, these should [also] not be accepted from them…It would also be better if the ruler of the Muslims would establish that all infidels could not move out of their homes on days when it rains or snows because they would make Muslims impure.
Professor Laurence Loeb’s seminal analysis of dhimmi Jews in Shi’ite Persia/Iran (Outcaste- Jewish Life in Southern Iran 1977), documents the social impact of najis regulations, beginning with the implementation of a
badge of shame [as] an identifying symbol which marked someone as a najis Jew and thus to be avoided. From the reign of Abbas I [1587-1629] until the 1920s, all Jews were required to display the badge
Loeb emphasizes, “Fear of pollution by Jews led to great excesses and peculiar behavior by Muslims.”
Indoors/Outdoors and Wet/Dry
The enduring nature of the fanatical najis regulation prohibiting dhimmis from being outdoors during rain and/or snow, is well established. Examples include item 5 of Benjamin’s list (Eight Years in Asia and Africa- From 1846-1855, Hanover, 1859, pp. 211-213) of “oppressions”
(they [i.e., the Jews] are forbidden to go out when it rains; for it is said the rain would wash dirt off them, which would sully the feet of the Mussulmans),
and item 1 of Hamadan’s 1892 regulations for its Jews (From a letter by S. Somekh, The Alliance Israelite Universale, October, 27, 1892, translated and reproduced in Littman, D.G. “Jews Under Muslim Rule: The Case of Persia” The Weiner Library Bulletin, Vol. XXXII, Nos. 49/50, 1979, pp. 7-8.)
(The Jews are forbidden to leave their houses when it rains or snows [to prevent the impurity of the Jews being transmitted to the Shiite Muslims]),
as well as this account provided by the missionary Napier Malcolm who lived in the Yezd area at the close of the 19th century:
They [the strict Shi’as] make a distinction between wet and dry; only a few years ago it was dangerous for an Armenian Christian to leave his suburb and go into the bazaars in Isfahan on a wet [rainy] day. ‘A wet dog is worse than a dry dog.’ [Malcolm, Napier. Five Years in a Persian Town, New York, 1905, p. 107.]
Moreover, the late Persian Jewish scholar Sarah (Sorour) Soroudi related this family anecdote:
In his youth, early in the 20th century, my late father was eyewitness to the implementation of this regulation. A group of elder Jewish leaders in Kashan had to approach the head clergy of the town (a Shi’i community from early Islamic times, long before the Safavids, and known for its religious fervor) to discuss a matter of great urgency to the community. It was a rainy day and they had to send a Muslim messenger to ask for special permission to leave the ghetto. Permission granted, they reached the house of the clergy but, because of the rain, they were not allowed to stand even in the hallway. They remained outside, drenched, and talked to the mullah who stood inside next to the window.”[ from, “The Concept of Jewish Impurity and its Reflection in Persian and Judeo-Persian Traditions”, Irano-Judaica, Vol. 3, 1994, p. 156.]
Souroudi added this note, as well [p.156, footnote 36]:
As late as 1923, the Jews of Iran counted this regulation as one of the anti-Jewish restrictions still practiced in the country.”
A more disconcerting 20th century anecdote from an informant living in Shiraz, was recounted by Anthropologist Laurence Loeb [in Outcaste, p.21]:
When I was a boy, I went with my father to the house of a non-Jew on business. When we were on our way, it started to rain. We stopped near a man who had apparently fallen and was bleeding. As we started to help him, a Muslim akhond (theologian) stopped and asked me who I was and what I was doing. Upon discovering that I was a Jew, he reached for a stick to hit me for defiling him by being near him in the rain. My father ran to him and begged the akhond to hit him instead.
Finally, Janet Kestenberg Amighi. (in The Zoroastrians of Iran: conversion, assimilation, or persistence. New York, NY: AMS Press, 1990, pp. 85) has argued that the Zoroastrians were perhaps the lowest non-Muslim caste in Shi’ite Iran, and accordingly, subjected to the most severe najis-related restrictions:
In Yezd and Kerman (through the early 20th century), Moslem pollution prohibitions were strictly observed and extended to most aspects of life. A Moslem would not eat out of a dish touched by a Zoroastrian nor permit even his garment to be touched by a Zoroastrian. Zoroastrians were forbidden the use of most community facilities such as barber shops, bath houses, water fountains, and tea houses. Water and wetness were considered to be particularly strong carriers of pollution. Zoroastrians were not permitted to go to the market in the rain. They could not touch fruit when shopping in the bazaar, although the dry goods could be touched.
Far worse, the dehumanizing character of these popularized “impurity” regulations appears to have fomented recurring Muslim anti-infidel violence, including pogroms and forced conversions, throughout the 17th, 18th ,19th and into the early 20th centuries, as opposed to merely unpleasant, “odd behaviors” by individual Muslims towards non-Muslims.
Respite and Recrudescence
Reza Pahlavi’s spectacular rise to power in 1925 was accompanied by dramatic reforms, including secularization and westernization efforts, as well as a revitalization of Iran’s pre-Islamic spiritual and cultural heritage. This profound sociopolitical transformation had very positive consequences for Iran’s non-Muslims. By virtue of , “…breaking the power of the Shia clergy, which for centuries had stood in the way of progress”, Walter Fischel observed that Reza Shah, “…shaped a modernized and secularized state, freed almost entirely from the fetters of a once fanatical and powerful clergy”.
Regarding Jews specifically, Lawrence Loeb wrote in 1976 that,
The Pahlavi period…has been the most favorable era for Persian Jews since Parthian rule [175 B.C. to 226 C.E.]…the ‘Law of Apostasy’ was abrogated about 1930. While Reza Shah did prohibit political Zionism and condoned the execution of the popular liberal Jewish reformer Hayyim Effendi, his rule was on the whole, an era of new opportunities for the Persian Jew. Hostile outbreaks against the Jews have been prevented by the government. Jews are no longer legally barred from any profession. They are required to serve in the army and pay the same taxes as Muslims. The elimination of the face-veil removed a source of insult to Jewish women, who had been previously required have their faces uncovered; now all women are supposed to appear unveiled in public…Secular educations were available to Jewish girls as well as to boys, and, for the first time, Jews could become government-licensed teachers…Since the ascendance of Mohammad Reza Shah (Aryamehr) in 1941, the situation has further improved…Not only has the number of poor been reduced, but a new bourgeoisie is emerging…For the first time Jews are spending their money on cars, carpets, houses, travel, and clothing. Teheran has attracted provincial Jews in large numbers and has become the center of Iranian Jewish life…The Pahlavi era has seen vastly improved communications between Iranian Jewry and the rest of the world. Hundreds of boys and girls attend college and boarding school in the United States and Europe. Israeli emissaries come for periods of two years to teach in the Jewish schools…A small Jewish publication industry has arisen since 1925…Books on Jewish history, Zionism, the Hebrew language and classroom texts have since been published…On March 15, 1950, Iran extended de facto recognition to Israel. Relations with Israel are good and trade is growing.
But Loeb concluded on this cautionary, sadly prescient note, in 1976, emphasizing the Jews tenuous status:
“Despite the favorable attitude of the government and the relative prosperity of the Jewish community, all Iranian Jews acknowledge the precarious nature of the present situation. There are still sporadic outbreaks against them because the Muslim clergy constantly berates Jews, inciting the masses who make no effort to hide their animosity towards the Jew. Most Jews express the belief that it is only the personal strength and goodwill of the Shah that protects them: that plus God’s intervention! If either should fail… [emphasis added].
The so-called “Khomeini revolution”, which deposed Mohammad Reza Shah, was in reality a mere return to oppressive Shi’ite theocratic rule, the predominant form of Persian/Iranian governance since 1502. Conditions for all non-Muslim religious minorities, particularly Bahais and Jews, rapidly deteriorated. Historian David Littman recounts the Jews’ immediate plight:
In the months preceding the Shah’s departure on 16 January 1979, the religious minorities…were already beginning to feel insecure…Twenty thousand Jews left the country before the triumphant return of the Ayatollah Khomeini on 1 February…On 16 March, the honorary president of the Iranian Jewish community, Habib Elghanian, a wealthy businessman, was arrested and charged by an Islamic revolutionary tribunal with ‘corruption’ and ‘contacts with Israel and Zionism’; he was shot on 8 May
The writings and speeches of the most influential religious ideologues of this restored Shi’ite theocracy – including Khomeini himself – make apparent their seamless connection to the oppressive doctrines of their forbears in the Safavid and Qajar dynasties. For example, Sultanhussein Tabandeh, the leader of a Shi’ite Sufi order, wrote an “Islamic perspective” on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. According to Professor Eliz Sanasarian’s important analysis of religious minorities in the Islamic Republic, Tabandeh’s tract became
“…the core ideological work upon which the Iranian government…based its non-Muslim policy.”
Tabandeh begins his discussion by lauding Shah Ismail I (1502-1524), the repressive and bigoted founder of the Safavid dynasty, as a champion “…of the oppressed”. It is critical to understand that Tabandeh’s key views on non-Muslims, summarized below, were implemented “…almost verbatim in the Islamic Republic of Iran.”. In essence, Tabandeh simply reaffirms the sacralized inequality of non-Muslims relative to Muslims, under the Shari’a:
Thus if [a] Muslim commits adultery his punishment is 100 lashes, the shaving of his head, and one year of banishment. But if the man is not a Muslim and commits adultery with a Muslim woman his penalty is execution…Similarly if a Muslim deliberately murders another Muslim he falls under the law of retaliation and must by law be put to death by the next of kin. But if a non-Muslim who dies at the hand of a Muslim has by lifelong habit been a non-Muslim, the penalty of death is not valid. Instead the Muslim murderer must pay a fine and be punished with the lash
Since Islam regards non-Muslims as on a lower level of belief and conviction, if a Muslim kills a non-Muslim…then his punishment must not be the retaliatory death, since the faith and conviction he possesses is loftier than that of the man slain…Again, the penalties of a non-Muslim guilty of fornication with a Muslim woman are augmented because, in addition to the crime against morality, social duty and religion, he has committed sacrilege, in that he has disgraced a Muslim and thereby cast scorn upon the Muslims in general, and so must be executed
Islam and its peoples must be above the infidels, and never permit non-Muslims to acquire lordship over them. Since the marriage of a Muslim woman to an infidel husband (in accordance with the verse quoted: ‘Men are guardians form women’) means her subordination to an infidel, that fact makes the marriage void, because it does not obey the conditions laid down to make a contract valid. As the Sura (‘The Woman to be Examined’, LX v. 10) says: ‘Turn them not back to infidels: for they are not lawful unto infidels nor are infidels lawful unto them (i.e., in wedlock).
And Sanasarian emphasizes the centrality of this notion of Islam’s superiority to all other faiths:
…even the so-called moderate elements [in the Islamic Republic] believed in its truth. Mehdi Barzagan, an engineer by training and religiously devout by family line and personal practice, became the prime minister of the Provisional Government in 1979. He believed that man must have one of the monotheistic religions in order to battle selfishness, materialism, and communism. Yet the choice was not a difficult one. ‘Among monotheist religions, Zoroastrianism is obsolete, Judaism has bred materialism, and Christianity is dictated by its church. Islam is the only way out’. In this line of thinking, there is no recognition of Hindusim, Buddhism, Bahaism, or other religions
The conception of najis or ritual uncleanliness of the non-Muslim has also been reaffirmed. Ayatollah Khomeini stated explicitly,
“Non-Muslims of any religion or creed are najis.”
The Iranian Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri further elaborated that a non-Muslim (kafir’s) impurity was,
“a political order from Islam and must be adhered to by the followers of Islam, and the goal [was] to promote general hatred toward those who are outside Muslim circles.”
This “hatred” was to assure that Muslims would not succumb to corrupt, i.e., non-Islamic, thoughts. Sanasarian provides a striking example of the practical impact of this renewed najis consciousness:
In the case of the Coca-Cola plant, for example, the owner (an Armenian) fled the country, the factory was confiscated, and Armenian workers were fired. Several years later, the family members were allowed to oversee the daily operations of the plant, and Armenians were allowed to work at the clerical level; however, the production workers remained Muslim. Armenian workers were never rehired on the grounds that non-Muslims should not touch the bottles or their contents, which may be consumed by Muslims.
Khomeini’s views were the most influential in shaping the ideology of the revitalized Shi’ite theocracy, and his attitudes towards Jews (both before and after he assumed power) were particularly negative. Khomeini’s speeches and writings invoked a panoply of Judenhass motifs, including orthodox interpretations of sacralized Muslim texts (for e.g., describing the destruction of the Banu Qurayza), and the Shi’ite conception of najis. More ominously, Khomeini’s rhetoric blurred the distinction between Jews and Israelis, reiterated paranoid conspiracy theories about Jews (both within Persia/Iran, and beyond), and endorsed the annihilation of the Jewish State. Sanasarian highlights these disturbing predilections:
The Jews and Israelis were interchangeable entities who had penetrated all facets of life. Iran was being ‘trampled upon under Jewish boots’. The Jews had conspired to kill the Qajar king Naser al-Din Shah and had a historically grand design to rule through a new monarchy and a new government (the Pahlavi dynasty): ‘Gentlemen, be frightened. They are such monsters’. In a vitriolic attack on Mohammad Reza Shah’s celebration of 2500 years of Persian monarchy in 1971, Khomeini declared that Israeli technicians had planned the celebrations and they were behind the exuberant expenses and overspending. Objecting to the sale of oil to Israel, he said: ‘We should not ignore that the Jews want to take over Islamic countries’…In an address to the Syrian foreign minister after the Revolution Khomeini lamented: ‘If Muslims got together and each poured one bucket of water on Israel, a flood would wash away Israel’…
Professor Reza Afshari’s seminal analysis of human rights in contemporary Iran summarizes the predictable consequences for Jews of the Khomeini “revolution”:
As anti-Semitism found official expression…and the anti-Israeli state propaganda became shriller, Iranian Jews felt quite uncertain about their future under the theocracy. Early in 1979, the execution of Habib Elqaniyan, a wealthy, self-made businessman, a symbol of success for many Iranian Jews, hastened emigration. The departure of the chief rabbi for Europe in the summer of 1980 underlined the fact that the hardships that awaited the remaining Jewish Iranians would far surpass those of other protected minorities
An ethos of infidel-hatred, including paroxysms of annihilationist fanaticism, has pervaded Persian/Iranian society, almost without interruption (i.e., the two major exceptions being Sunni Afghan rule from 1725-1794, and Pahlavi reign, with its Pre-Islamic revivalist efforts, from 1925-1979), since the founding of the Shi’ite theocracy in 1502 under Shah Ismail, through its present Khomeini-inspired restoration, since 1979.
Having returned their small remnant Jewish community to a state of obsequious dhimmitude—including now, perhaps the full restoration of discriminatory badging —Iran’s current theocratic rulers focus most of their obsessive anti-Jewish bigotry on the free-living Jews of neighboring Israel.
Former Iranian President Rafsanjani’s December 2001 “Al Quds Day” sermon threatened, explicitly, the nuclear annihilation of this largest concentration of autonomous Jews in history. Current President Ahmadinejad has reiterated these threats repeatedly as Iran’s nuclear ambitions near fulfillment. But Ahmadinejad has also reportedly vowed, “To stop Christianity in this country” [i.e., Iran] , and his recent “letter” to President Bush emulates the jihad war precept (originally formulated by the Muslim prophet Muhammad) of calling infidel powers—often Christian powers—to accept Islam, prior to initiating a jihad war against them.
The Iranian regime’s words and deeds are authentic manifestations of the hatred of jihad. Whether directed against internal or external “infidels” this is a potentially genocidal animus which must be understood in its Islamic context without meaningless and distracting invocations to modern Western forms of totalitarianism, like Nazism.
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