Iranian Culture

Religion

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. 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 sect; 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 piety, and people were not necessarily judged for liberal behaviours. For example, women were allowed not to wear the hijab if they wanted and some people chose not to pray.

The secular nature of society has all but disappeared since the establishment of the Islamic Republic. Religion has been highly politicized 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 atheism; 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 matter1.

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.

Other Religions
The constitution states that non-Muslims should be treated in accordance “with ethical norms 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 apostasy, 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.

Bahá’í
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 sect 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.

1 See in References Section: Tezcur, G. Azadarmaki, T. & Bahar, M. (2006).
Download this Cultural Profile

Too busy to read it right now?

You can download this cultural profile in an easy-to-read PDF format that can be printed out and accessed at any time.

Iran
  • Population
    82,801,633
    [July 2016 est.]
  • Languages
    Persian (official)
    Azeri and other Turkic dialects
    Kurdish
    Gilaki and Mazandarani
    Luri
    Balochi
    Arabic
  • Religions
    Islam (99.4%)
    Shi'a (90-95%)
    Sunni (5-10%)
    Non-Muslim (0.3%)
    Un-declared (0.3%)
    [2011 est.]
  • Ethnicities
    Persian
    Azeri (Azerbaijani)
    Kurd
    Lur
    Turkmen
    Arab
    Baloch
    Talysh
    Armenians
    Assyrians
    Turkic tribes
    Others
  • Cultural Dimensions
    58
    41
    43
    59
    14
    40
  • Australians with Iranian Ancestry
    62,793 [2016 census]
Iranians in Australia
  • Population
    58,112
    [2016 census]
    This figure refers to the number of Australian residents that were born in Iran.
  • Average Age
    36
  • Gender
    Males (53.6%)
    Females (46.4%)
  • Religion
    Islam (36.8%)
    No Religion (18.4%)
    Bahá’í (18.2%)
    Other (17.2%)
    Not stated (9.4%)
  • Ancestry
    Iranian (72.6%)
    Other (13.7%)
    Armenian (4.2%)
    Assyrian (4.2%)
    Not stated (5.3%)
  • Language Spoken at Home
    Persian [excluding Dari] (71.1%)
    English (7.4%)
    Assyrian Neo-Aramaic (4.3%)
    Armenian (3.8%)
    Other (13.5%)
    Of those who speak a language other than English at home, 79.1% speak English fluently.
  • Diaspora
    New South Wales (44.9%)
    Victoria (21.6%)
    Western Australia (10.8%)
    Queensland (10.3%)
  • Arrival
    Prior to 2001 (46.1%)
    2001-2006 (17.2%)
    2007-2011 (30.1%)
Country https://dtbhzdanf36fd.cloudfront.net/countries/97/ir.svg Flag Country Iran