Review: Religious history through the lens of Iran

“Spirituality in the Land of the Noble: How Iran Shaped the World's Religions ”
By Richard C. Foltz

There are many ways to look at history. Ancient historians sought to glorify heroes and battles. Modern historians have found new directions, looking at the past through such lenses as sociology, psychology, economics, and, more recently, race and gender.

In Spirituality in the Land of the Noble: How Iran Shaped the World's Religions, Richard C. Foltz keeps the focus tight by using the lens of geography to examine the history of world religions.

An associate professor of religion at the University of Florida, he zooms in on Iran, chronologically tracing the currents and cross-currents of religious history there.

“Modern Iran's relative religious homogeneity notwithstanding, throughout the country's long history its peoples and cultures have played an unexcelled role in influencing, transforming, and propagating all the world's universal traditions,” writes Dr. Foltz.

Yet, although his focus is a single country, Dr. Foltz offers up what amounts to an extremely readable and interesting summary of the teachings of most of the world's major religions — and, significantly, their evolution and progression throughout history.

A listing of chapter headings gives the range of religions that have been bound up with Iran throughout history: Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Gnostic Traditions, Islam, and the Bábi Movement and the Bahá'í Faith — virtually all of the world's major religions, in other words.

Even Hinduism, one of the most ancient of world religions and one that today is almost wholly associated with India, can trace some of its origins to Iran, writes Dr. Foltz.

Specifically, he says, the Rig Veda, which is considered by Hindus to be a sacred text and is commonly dated to around the eighth century BC, is probably much older — and quite likely originated with the ancient peoples who once inhabited Iran and its surrounds.

“The world it evokes resembles not the steamy plains of northwest India, but rather the dry steppes of western Eurasia whence the Indo-Aryans came,” writes Dr. Foltz, adding that it shows many similarities with the oldest Iranian text, the Avesta.

“…the Rig Veda can shed light on the origins of Iranian religion as much as it can for Hinduism — perhaps even more so, since Hinduism retains much that presumably predates the Aryan arrival.”

In like manner, Dr. Foltz — digging deep into Iranian history — reveals a number of facts, insights and observations that many will find quite surprising.

Buddhism, for example, was once hugely popular in Iran, even though it has now completely disappeared in that country. Nevertheless, he writes, “for a number of centuries, a huge proportion of the Iranian population practiced Buddhism, and it is equally apparent that Iranian Buddhists infused the tradition with a number of distinctly Iranian ideas.”

The merchants and missionaries who carried Buddhism to Central Asia and China were mostly of Iranian background, according to Dr. Foltz. And, among other things, he writes, Iranian architectural styles can be seen to have greatly influenced Buddhist styles, such as the carving of sacred grottos from rock, inherited from Persian Achaemenid funerary architecture, which spread to Buddhist sites throughout India and China.

The chapter on Judaism covers ground that is perhaps more commonly known, in the West at least, since much of Old Testament history involves the exile of ancient Israelis to Persia . “It can rightly be said that the Jewish diaspora, spanning twenty-seven centuries, begins in Iran,” writes Dr. Foltz. He also writes that Judaism “underwent one of its most radical transformations” as a result of contact with the Persians.

Dr. Foltz suggests, for example, that the Israelites derived the concept of the messiah from the Zoroastrian “Saoshyant” savior figure.

In his chapter on Christianity, Dr. Foltz notes that the three “wise men” who, according to Matthew, came to witness the birth of Jesus, were clearly identified as Zoroastrian Magi from Iran .

It goes without saying that Islam had a huge impact on Iran . What is perhaps less well known is the degree of impact that Iran had on the practice of Islam. Although Islam originated in Arabia, Dr. Foltz writes, it was mainly Iranian followers who, among other things, were chiefly responsible for compiling the sayings of Muhammad ( Hadith ), creating the concept of the Islamic school ( madrasa ), and writing the first systematic grammar for Arabic.

Dr. Foltz also appropriately chronicles the rise of Iranian-based Shi'ism and its role in the Islamic world, including its part in the 1979 Islamic revolution and the rise of fundamentalist Islam around the world.

Noting that Iran was the birthplace of two independent world religions — Zoroastrianism and the Bahá'í Faith — Dr. Foltz devotes a chapter to each tradition.

His chapter on “The Bábi Movement and the Bahá'í Faith” is noteworthy for its lucid sketch of the early history of the Bahá'í Faith, specifically its emergence from the matrix of Islam and establishment as an independent belief system.

Dr. Foltz, who is not a Bahá'í, describes the fervent turmoil and messianic expectation that seized many in Iran in the early 19th century. Specifically, he writes, “many of the existing trends in Iranian religious thought had been synthesized in the so-called ‘Shaykhi' school of Shaykh Ahmad Ahsa'i .”

For many in the Shaykhi sect, this longing was satisfied by the emergence of a new figure, Siyyid Ali Muhammad, known as the Báb, which means “gate” in Arabic. A young merchant from Shiraz, the Báb declared that He had come as the Promised One, bringing his own Revelation. He soon had many as 100,000 followers, according to Dr. Foltz — a tidal wave that stirred intense official opposition.

The Báb Himself promised the coming of another, even greater figure, “He whom God will make manifest.” For the vast majority of Bábis, that figure was Bahá'u'lláh, Founder of the Bahá'í Faith.

“Whereas the former movement had focused on the Shi'ite world of Iran, Bahá'u'lláh's vision encompassed the entire world,” notes Dr. Foltz. “All humans, Bahá'u'lláh taught, are of the same essence and substance. The world, in his view, was ‘but one country, and mankind its citizens.'”

The majority of Iranians rejected this universalist message — although, as Dr. Foltz notes, there are at least 300,000 Bahá'ís in Iran, composing that country's largest religious minority. Instead, as Dr. Foltz explores in his final chapter, the Iranians turned to a radical, anti-modernist version of Shi'ism envisioned by the Ayatollah Khomeini in the Islamic revolution of 1979.

Iran 's Shi'ite clergy has over the years consistently attacked the Bahá'í Faith as an apostasy. “The position of the present Iranian governments towards the Bahá'í Faith verges on the bizarre,” writes Dr. Foltz.

“Official references to the Bahá'í Faith claim that it is an organization founded by the British in the nineteenth century as part of the latter's colonial project, aimed at the eventual takeover of Iran by foreign interests,” writes Dr. Foltz.

“Any admission of the Bábi movement as arising within messianic Shi'ism is entirely absent, and the explicit Bahá'í tenet of political non-involvement is disregarded. The rabid hostility of the official view makes it essentially impossible within Iran today to obtain anything approaching an accurate understanding of the Bahá'í religion.”

As Dr. Foltz properly notes in his concluding chapter, this odd degree of religious intolerance serves only to mask Iran's great contributions to the history and progression of world religions — a phenomenon that has been widely overlooked but is now significantly rectified by his highly engaging book.