Minority Religions in: The Fire, the Star and the Cross

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The book “The Fire, the Star and the Cross, Minority Religions in Medieval and early modern Iran” offers a comprehensive discussion of the cultural, economic, and political achievements of religious groups that resisted assimilation to Islam in the Middle East. The period under study begins in the 13th century. The first section of this work provides a brief survey of the history of Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians during the Sassanian period. This is followed by a review of their position and activities from the Arab invasion up to the Mongol invasion of Iran. An overview of the earlier periods will put in context the elements of continuity and change in this history of the non-Muslim communities of Iran.

The book is composed of the following chapters:


Chapter 1: Religious Minorities under the Sassanians: The Cultural Affirmation of Jews and Christians in Iran.

Chapter 2: Iran under Foreign Creed: The Domination of Islam over Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians.

Chapter 3: New Hope and Bitter Deception: Iranian non-Muslims under the Mongols (1256-1336).

Chapter 4: The Post-Mongol and Pre-Safavid Period: A Brief View of Iran under the Timurids and the Aq Qoyunlu.

Chapter 5: The Safavid Period.

Section 1: Between Economic Success and Social Challenge: Non-Muslims under the Safavids.

Section 2: Minority Cultures in Safavid Iran.


Although the Middle East is mostly identified with Islam today, it has been home to many other significant civilizations. Islamic civilization itself is much more indebted to the various peoples that the Arabs subdued in the 7th and 8th centuries. The focus of the present research is on those groups that resisted assimilation to Islam, but nonetheless continued to participate actively in the sociopolitical life of their land (p.1).

In contrast to the bulk of previous studies which have stressed their social restrictions, this work examines, in particular, the cultural and social accomplishments of Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians who lived as minorities under Muslim rule in Iran (p.1).

There are recurrent features in Iranian History that can be observed by comparing the Sassanian period with later periods. Before the Mongols and the Safavids, the Sassanians had already chosen Christians as envoys to other Christian courts. Like the Safavids, the Sassanians had already settled Jews and Armenians in various towns, including Isfahan (p.2). Moreover, the Jewish and Christian academic institutions founded under the Sassanians continued their activities for another four centuries under Islam (p.2).

The Zoroastrians were in possession of a wealth of writings on science and literature which they made available to the Arab rulers by translating them from Middle Persian (Pahlavi) into Arabic. As the Arabs lacked the necessary experience for administering Iran, they took over the Sassanian bureaucratic system and allowed the Zoroastrian officials to maintain their positions (P.2).

After the 8th century, however, the Arab rulers no longer deemed it necessary to preserve the existing socio-political system, which did not represent their people. Thus, they began the Islamification of Iran by changing the official language of the government from Persian to Arabic and dismissing the Zoroastrian members of the administration. under the Abbasids, the religious pattern of Iran changed and the Zoroastrian population rapidly dwindled, turning them into religious minorities like the Jews and the Christians (p.3).

While the Zoroastrians were marginalized, this dramatic change did not prevent the Jews and Christians from holding important offices in the government and influential positions at the court. It was not until the Afghan invasion that a Zoroastrian general reached a leading position in Iran again (p.3)

The Mongols who conquered Iran in the 13th century enrolled many Jewish and Christian bureaucrats in their government. The religious tolerance of the Mongols favored the political and cultural emancipation of non-Muslims in Iran. However, it should be mentioned that the Mongols did not offer key political positions to non-Muslims simply because of their distrust of Muslims; rather Jews and Christians had the political competence the Mongols sought (p.4).

In the end, Khanbaghi concludes, “ the experience of those minorities, who still exist, could not be confined to hardships, otherwise these minorities would not have survived. Their spiritual strength and their ability to adapt without assimilating afforded them a unique position in society. As minorities, they not only inherited the traditions of their ancestors but also acquired the culture of the majority among whom they lived. Their cultural sensitivity made them both more open to foreign people and useful as bridges between civilizations. Indubitably, religious minorities have enriched their societies and in the case of Iran have left a deep trace in its history” (p. 163).

Maryam Kamali

Khanbaghi, Aptin (2006). The Fire, the Star and the Cross, Minority Religions in Medieval and Early Modern Iran, New York: I.B. Tauris.

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