REVIEW: Jewish Identities in Iran. Resistance and Conversion to Islam and the Baha’i Faith

Jewish Identities in Iran. Resistance and Conversion to Islam and the Baha’i Faith

By Mehrdad Amanat

London: I.B. Tauris, 2011.

279 pp.

ISBN 978-1-84511-891-4

Reviewed by Alessandra Cecolin, Goldsmiths University

As the title suggests, the book Jewish Identities in Iran. Resistance and Conversion to Islam and the Baha’i faith attempts to examine the roots of conversion to the Baha’i faith among Iranian Jews in the late 19th and beginning of the 20th Century. This task has been successfully achieved by the author who has presented the topic extensively. Further, he has provided an original analysis of the interaction between Shia Islam, the Baha’i faith and Judaism in Iran. This book fills a vacuum in the scholarship related to the history of the Jews in Iran because it specifically explains the socio-cultural reasons behind the Jewish conversion to the Baha’i faith at the turn of the 19th Century in Iran. Moreover, it assesses the motifs that drove a group of Jews to convert to a sect of Islam, almost as much persecuted as Judaism in Iran, rather than to the mainstream Shia denomination. The majority of scholars who had previously dealt with the socio-cultural history of the Jews of Iran have tended to look at Jewish conversions to the Baha’i faith reaching a rather different conclusion. According to a more traditional scholarly approach (e.g. A. Netzer and W. Fishel), conversion to Baha’i faith among Iranian Jews was due to both general ignorance in matter of religion and a lack of religious leadership among the Jewish communities. Mehrdad has implemented the field of research by arguing that Iranian Jewry found in the Baha’i community a way to escape the psychological control of the clerical authority and construct an autonomous self. In other terms, he suggests that conversion to the Baha’i faith was a path towards an indigenous form of modernity, one strongly intertwined with Iranian identity and its history.

The history of religions in Iran is a history of tolerance and multi-faith dialogue of different creeds and religious traditions as well as of normative religion. Since the pre-Islamic period, Iran has faced a double approach to religions: on the one hand there was openness to dialogue and diversity, but on the other hand, there was a more conformist and legalistic approach to religion. As such, the conversion to the Baha’i can be viewed not as an attempt to subvert the dominant Shi’a religion but rather as a voluntary and individual choice to embrace modernity still within the cultural framework of Iranian identity.

The book is divided into two thematic sections: the first one offers a socio-historical overview of the history of the Jews in Iran whilst the rest of the book explores different patterns of conversion based on the autobiographical accounts of representatives of Iranian Jewry living in Iran at the end of the 19th Century. The long-term existence of the Jews in Iran since the Persian Empire influenced their traditions, culture, way of life, and religious traditions.  As a result Iranian Jewry developed culturally integrated with the rest of the Iranian population and influenced by Iranian culture. The condition of the Jews in ancient Persia started to deteriorate with the advent of Islam in the mid-7th century when the Arabs conquered Iran and the Abbasid Dynasty started to rule Persia from 634 until 1255. However, under the Abbasids, Jews were legally protected because they were recognised as an Abrahamic faith. The subsequent conquest of Iran by the Mongols in 1258 ended the Abbasid Era and the prominence of Islam.

Up until the 18th century Iranian Jews were tolerated and respected in Iran. Thus, Iranian Jews enjoyed this time of peaceful existence to further absorb Iranian culture as well as to be mutually influenced by sectarian Islamic movements such as Zoroastrianism. During the Qajar period, Jews suffered increasing processes of exclusion from the rest of society and conversions to Baha’ism began. The driving motifs behind these conversions were both theological and philosophical. According the Mehrdat, the Baha’i creed was appealing to Iranian Jewry because it was based on religious egalitarianism. Unlike conversions to the Baha’i faith, Iranian Jews who converted to Islam did so for socio-economic reasons: Islamic identity offered Iranian Jews the possibility to climb the socio-cultural ladder of Iranian society. While conversions to Baha’i were a spontaneous and voluntary choice, conversions to Islam seemed to have been forced, as it was the case of the Jews living in Meshed. The processes of conversion to Baha’ism are analysed through the lens of identity processes, which have been shaped by cultural as well as socio-economic factors.

The author stresses the uniqueness of Iranian Jewry and explains it in relation to its constant interplay with other religions. As a result of these dialogical dynamics, Mehrdad argues, Iranian Jewry ended up somehow differing from normative Judaism. In this respect, conversion to Baha’ism can be seen as a pattern of Iranian Jewish identity, constantly open to incorporate “contaminations.” However, I would suggest that Iranian Jews’ conversion to Baha’ism was a consequence of an important structural feature of the Iranian Jewish community, which is its lack of rabbinic leadership. Contrary to Jews in other countries, particularly to those of Eastern Europe, Iranian Jews were not usually exposed to normative Judaism. There was no actual rabbinical leadership and this lack of authority needs to be seen as a cause for a general sense of dissatisfaction and feeling of frustration within the community. In this milieu, no indigenous reformist Jewish movement could come to surface and improvement of the situation needed to be sought from “outside.” Baha’ism with its attractive creed, peculiar to every persecuted religious minority, seemed to offer a way out of the entanglement. This attitude of the Jews will be better understood, in other words, if one realises that the Baha’is in Iran represented a bridge between East and West, an argument that Iranian Jews at that time found attractive.

History shows that all spiritual and intellectual movements in the non-Jewish world always had an echo amongst Jews. For example, the Hassidic movement among Jews in Eastern Europe took root simultaneously to the romantic period. Contrarily, Iranian Jewry was not able to produce an internal and independent religious revival upon past and tradition and was consequently drawn by and to the religious mysticism and egalitarianism of the Baha’is.

One can argue that the lack of a religious structure among Iranian Jews living in Iran may not have been a driving force for converting to Baha’ism albeit it is a matter of fact that Iranian Jews did not have a strong religious authority and there was not a form of normative Judaism before the early 1940s in Iran.

The author successfully proves that the Baha’i faith in Iran is not only a spiritual and religious movement but also a radical critique to the corrupted establishment of the ulema. Thus, Baha’ism has been able to deal with and to offer alternatives to the political issues related to the Iranian religious establishment. For example, Baha’is established modern schools, praised the constitutional monarchy and advocated for public welfare. In this respect, the book offers an excellent account of the relationship between the Baha’i faith and modernity and why this creed became appealing to Jews.

The book is a good reading for the specialist in Iranian history and the biographical accounts enhance a better understanding of the author’s thesis. However, the specificity of the subject makes of the book a more difficult read to people who are not familiar with the Modern History of Iran and its religious creeds.

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