It is estimated that 99.4% (July 2016 est.) of the Iranian population identify as Muslim – the majority being Shi’a (also known as Shi’ite) Muslims.1 Iran is the only Muslim country to declare itself officially Shi’ite. A minority of around 5-10% of the population identify as Sunni Muslims. Within the Shi’a branch of Islam, there are different sects. The biggest is the Twelver Shi’a ; however, some Iranians are also Ismaili Shi’a Muslims.
Islam in Iran
Iran has a history of practising quite a modern form of Islam. Before the establishment of the Islamic Republic, Iranians had a choice as to whether they were religious or not. Though the vast majority had a deep faith, it was not essential to publicly exhibit , and people were not necessarily judged for liberal behaviours. For example, women were allowed not to wear the if they wanted and some people chose not to pray.
The nature of society has all but disappeared since the establishment of the Islamic Republic. Religion has been highly politicised as the government looks to ensure that the private, public, legal and economic aspects of Iranians’ lives operate in accordance to Islamic principles. Many rules restrict citizens’ behaviour, requiring them to abide by conservative interpretations of the Qur’an. There are also laws and judicial rulings that punish people for doing something that could be interpreted as anti-Islamic or in conflict with Islamic principles – regardless of whether they are Muslims themselves or not. A council of religious leaders has ultimate say over the democratically elected governmental system, and all members of the judiciary must be Shi’a Muslims.
Despite the current political domination of religion, strong evidence suggests not all Iranians are strictly obedient to Islamic code. Data from the World Values Survey indicates religious observance (i.e. at mosques) is very low and only an estimated 2% of the population attend Friday congregational prayers. Those who are devout Muslims often belong to the older generation.
In brief, most Iranians believe in Allah (God) and the tenets of Islam. However, the politicisation of Islam has created a backlash against religion from younger Iranian citizens in particular. Some of the new generation are following more Western philosophical schools of thought and/or ; however, they rarely make this public knowledge. Meanwhile, those Iranians who do hold strong religious beliefs have tended to restrict their observance to their homes in order to keep their faith a personal, sacred matter.2
An Iranian who is dedicated to the dominant role of Islam in politics and society may grow their beard quite long to indicate their religious association or have a voluntary public involvement with the mosques. People can also pursue an education in Islamic theology and sacred law to become a ‘mullah’ (cleric). Islamic theologians are often presumed to have the moral high ground and expertise in decision-making. Under the current system of governance, religious affiliation is also correlated with political power.
The constitution states that non-Muslims should be treated in accordance “with ethical and the principles of Islamic justice and equity”,respecting their human rights. It also legally recognises Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians as free to perform their religion. There are 5 parliamentary seats reserved for these minorities.
Broadly, religious minorities will not face day-to-day discrimination for their faith but will be significantly disadvantaged structurally (for example, in the justice system or employment and education opportunities). They generally have to be very careful not to advertise their faith as the political authority of Islam has restricted freedom of religion. For example, conversion to Christianity is , punishable by death. Many members of religious minorities have faced persecution, intimidation and harassment for their beliefs; they commonly are asked to supply the government with the names of their churches’ members.
The Bahá’í faith is a significant minority religion in Iran. It originated in Iran less than 200 years ago; however, it is not a branch of Islam. The Bahá’í faith believes in a unity of humanity and religion and the teachings of its founder: Baha’u’lalh. It maintains that all religions are integrated under the same divine source and all messengers from God (i.e. Abraham, Moses, Krishna, Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus, Muhammad and Baha’u’lalh) come from that same almighty. Bahá’ís ultimately believe in the oneness of religion, unification of humanity (including the genders) and a global society in which prejudice and differences of social status must be abandoned. Many generally feel it is a duty of their faith to encourage others to join their religion as well as be sympathetic and well-wishing.
The Shi’a clergy (as well as other Iranians) have continued to regard Bahá’ís as heretics from Islam. Some extreme Muslims believe Bahá’ís are morally dirty and that touching them can taint you. The Islamic Republic does not recognise Bahá’ís as a religious minority in the constitution, and so the has been officially marginalised and disempowered. Consequently, Bahá’ís have encountered much prejudice and have sometimes been the object of persecution.
Iranians in Australia
In the 1980s, Australia opened up a humanitarian assistance program to Bahá’ís. They make up a significant portion of the Iranian population in Australia. Almost half of Australia’s Bahá’ís were born in Iran.
The 2011 Australian Census recorded that of the Iranians living in Australia, 36.8% identified as Muslim, 18.2% as Bahá’í and 17.2% affiliated with another religion. Strikingly, 27.8% of Iranians in Australia stated they had no religion or did not choose any affiliation. Considering that only 2% of the Iranian population is unaffiliated, it can be observed that the demographic of Iranians in Australia is significantly less religiously affiliated than the general population of Iran. Indeed, religious disaffiliation is often cause for migration.
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