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The people of Iran

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Religion of Iran

The official state religion in Iran is Ithnā ʿAsharī, or Twelver, Shiʿi Islam, followed by the majority of Iranians. Sunni Islam is predominantly practiced by the Kurds and Turkmen, while Iran’s Arab population consists of both Sunni and Shiʿi Muslims. Additionally, there are small communities of Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians dispersed across the country.


In Islam, there is no concept of ordination. Instead of a priesthood, the role of clergy is fulfilled by a community of scholars known as the ulama. To become a member of the Shiʿi ulama, a male Muslim only needs to attend a traditional Islamic college, or madrasah. The main focus of study in these institutions is Islamic jurisprudence, but completing madrasah studies is not necessary to become a jurist, or faqīh. In Iran, a clergyman of this level is commonly referred to as a mullah or ākhūnd, and more recently as rūḥānī. Becoming a mullah simply requires reaching a level of scholarly competence recognized by other members of the clergy. Mullahs occupy the majority of local religious positions in Iran.

To achieve the higher status of mujtahid, which is a scholar capable of independent reasoning in legal judgment, one must first graduate from a recognized madrasah and gain the general recognition of peers. Additionally, it is crucial to gather a substantial following among the Shiʿah. A contender for this status is typically referred to as hojatoleslām. Only a few clergymen are eventually recognized as mujtahids, and some are honored with the title of ayatollah. The highest honorific, grand ayatollah, is bestowed upon Shiʿi mujtahids who have attained a high level of insight and expertise in Islamic canon law, making them worthy of being a marjaʿ-e taqlīd, the highest level of excellence in Iranian Shiʿism.

Shiʿism does not have a formal religious hierarchy or infrastructure, and scholars often hold independent and diverse views on political, social, and religious matters. Therefore, these honorific titles are not given but earned through consensus and popularity among scholars. Individuals of all levels within Shiʿism defer to clergymen based on their reputation for knowledge and judicial expertise. In modern Shiʿism, it has become a strong trend for every believer to follow the teachings of their chosen marjaʿ-e taqlīd in order to avoid sin. This has increased the influence of the ulama in Iran and has also elevated their role as intermediaries between believers and the divine, a role that is not as prominent in Sunni Islam or earlier forms of Shiʿism.

Religious minorities

Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians are considered the most significant religious minorities in Iran. Among these groups, Christians, particularly Orthodox Armenians, make up the largest portion. The Assyrians, on the other hand, consist of Nestorian, Protestant, and Roman Catholic believers, including a few converts from other ethnic backgrounds. The Zoroastrians are mainly concentrated in Yazd, Kermān, and Tehrān.

During the Pahlavi monarchy, Iran was known for its religious toleration. However, this changed with the Islamic revolution in 1979. While the constitution of 1979 officially recognizes Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians as minorities, the revolutionary atmosphere in Iran did not promote equal treatment of non-Muslims. Among these minorities, the Bahāʾī faith, which originated in Iran, faced the most severe persecution. Additionally, the Jewish population, which was once significant, emigrated in large numbers following the revolution.

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