24 December 2012

Home by another road

Adoration of the Magi, Gentile da Fabriano, 1423

One of the stories of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew is that of the magi – the Zoroastrian priests of Iran who follow the star to where it had been prophesied that the Heir of David would be born. Unfortunately, this became known to the Roman puppet king of Judaea at the time, Herod, who sought to have him killed. The magi, who were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, instead returned to their native land by another road, whilst Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt.

Iran has been and remains a vital cultural and political centre of the Abrahamic religions and their kissing-cousin Zoroastrianism. Arguably the first recorded guarantees of freedom of religious worship come from the ‘Cyrus Cylinder’ instated by Cyrus the Great of the officially-Zoroastrian Achaemenid Empire. The principle of kingship in Zoroastrianism, khvarenah (or farr فر, in modern Iranian) signified not the absolute right to rule, but a form of favour bestowed by the Wise Lord (Ahura Mazda) upon a moral exemplar, who then has the sanction to rule. If a ruler loses his khvarenah by committing evil acts, oppressing and impoverishing the common people or propagating untruths, he no longer has any claim upon the allegiance of his subjects, and may be replaced – in this, khvarenah is a concept directly coincidental with the Mencian reading of the Chinese concept of tianming 天命 (the Mandate of Heaven). In Zoroastrianism, social justice, personal virtue and governance are all intrinsically linked. This concept survived in Iran even after its conversion to Islam, and continued to exercise its influence upon Shiism. The Shiite tradition combined with the social-justice, righteous kingship and scholastic traditions of Zoroastrianism in Iran to create a highly-cultured and -scholastic, but at the same time egalitarian-trending theological tradition which has lasted in that nation to this day – and whose colourful history includes the Zanj Rebellion, the Qarmatians and the Iranian democratic and nationalist movements.

Shiism – the religious school of the ‘followers of Ali’ – has harboured since its founding both a radical, streak (which takes the side of the oppressed and the downtrodden over that of the political elites, even at the risk of humiliation, violent repression and death) and a conservative one (recognising only the descendants of Ali and the family of Mohammad as valid imams), which more often than not have worked in tandem. However, Iranian-British sociologist Ali Shariati’s essay ‘Red Shiism’, recommended to me by the ever-redoubtable John at Economics is for Donkeys, distinguishes the trend in Shiism of ‘red’ martyrdom in defence of the masses against exploitation, humiliation and foreign aggression, from the ‘black’ trend in Shiism to take refuge in the trappings of power (as Dr Shariati argues it has done since the Safavid Dynasty). He notes that, for their radicalism and their distrust of worldly leaders and conquerors, they were reviled, tortured and murdered by the Turkish and Mongol conquerors and their Sunni courts.

The modern state of Iran is characterised by what Dr Shariati calls ‘black Shiism’: the logic of worldly power, carefully hedged about with counsels of passivity and stasis. And yet, the people of Iran, according to historian Stephen Kinzer, still harbour a number of ‘red’ desires: that their country should again be truly democratic and that they should live in friendship with the West, but most importantly of all that they should be independent, not only politically but ideologically. The Islamic Revolution was motivated by the idea that a better world was possible than the one dominated by the double-headed beast of godless, repressive communism on the one hand, and godless, exploitative capitalism on the other. That idea is still strong even today in Iran, though it finds only sporadic expression in public policy or debate through the veil of clerical rule. Even today, Kinzer notes, the Iranian reformists do not want any ‘help’ from American politicians, not even in the form of official endorsements (for fear they could lose popular legitimacy), let alone bombs.

Still, even today Iran retains its ancient character. A multiethnic empire to begin with under the Achaemenids, today Iran remains a deeply cosmopolitan nation. Only about sixty percent of Iranians are ethnic Persians. Eighteen percent of Iranians speak a Turkic language as their first; Iran is home to up to twice as many Azeris as is Azerbaijan. Iran has substantial Kurdish, Arabic and Baluchi minorities as well, and a Jewish population with permanent representation in the Majlis. Historically it has been the safe refuge of choice for Armenian Christians fleeing from ethnic persecution in Russia and genocide in the Ottoman Empire. More recently it has been one of the safe refuges of choice for Christians fleeing post-invasion Iraq, along with its closest regional allies, Syria and Lebanon. (The ancient Chaldean Church is one of Pope Benedict XVI’s primary focal concerns this coming year, largely on account of its all-but-destruction in its native Iraq.)

The magi went home by another road to Iran to flee the persecution of Herod and his masters in Rome; as Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to Egypt. But today, Iran faces the combined military and economic threat of the modern state of Israel, armed with as many as two hundred nuclear warheads, and its most powerful military patron the United States, armed with over five thousand of them. Iran has a grand total of zero – its only weapon as I write this is an elaborate game of bluff. Egypt is presently in the midst of a constitutional crisis between its new president Mohammad Morsi and the ‘National Salvation Front’. Nearby Syria, to which many Iraqi Christians had fled, is now embroiled in a not-quite-civil war, with the embattled Alawite (a syncretic sect of Shiism) president facing off against a Saudi- and Qatari-financed, largely foreign Wahhabi terrorist organisation, misnaming themselves as the Free Syrian Army, whose motto has been and continues to be ‘Christians to Beirut; Alawites to the grave’.

Day by day, there seem to be fewer safe roads home for the Christians and the Shiites of the Middle East.

This Christmas season, please do pray for the peace of the Middle East and Central Asia, and especially for the safety and welfare of the religious minorities in these regions.


  1. Good article, especially the parts that dealt with Iran.

  2. Many thanks, Idrian!