Iran is one of only a handful of countries around the world that declares itself a fully-fledged Islamic republic. Not surprisingly, simply naming itself an Islamic republic doesn’t make Iran a utopia for Muslims, despite the ‘idea’ of Islam being infused through the government organs.
While under sharia law, Iran differs from many other Muslim nations (and, arguably, from others’ understandings of sharia law) for various reasons. Pressures of a relatively educated, diverse and liberal populace, generational changes and international politicking all result in inconsistently evolved legal and social systems, which are simultaneously way ahead and far behind other countries in the region.
Iran also has a long, rich non-Islamic and pre-Islamic history of which it is justifiably proud.
Islam in Iran
Iran is about 97% Muslim, of which about 90% is Shia and the remaining 7% Sunni. Therefore, to a large number of Muslims around the world, the Islam which is practiced in Iran may seem rather unfamiliar. Even among Shia Muslims, there are differences between what is practiced in Iran and in other countries.
Islam in Iran is noticeably politicised and reactionary. Iran became an Islamic republic after the 1979 revolution in which the strictly secular and modernising Shah (king) was swept aside. It seems that what followed the revolution was as much an effort to institute Islam in an official manner, as it was to undo the ‘Westernisation’ that the shah had implemented. Conversely, many of today’s youth are non-religious and take a dim view of practicing Muslims – but this seems to be more of a reaction to government policies (which of course all bear the ‘Islamic’ banner) than an outright rejection of Islam. Above all, however, respect remains for Iran’s pre-Islamic culture. In such a reactionary environment, in which history, politics and religion are all muddled together, what it means to be a Muslim in Iran is a dynamic, but confused concept.
Expat and Muslim in Iran
Being an expat in Iran, I was swamped with hospitality and open invitations to come home for dinner! For the most part, Iranians love foreigners, and that includes Americans too. In fact some people I met seemed slightly disappointed when I revealed I’m not American! It is said that “absence makes the heart grow fonder”, and the absence of large numbers of foreigners, especially Americans, in Iran seem to have made Iranians very fond of them indeed!
Being an expat and Muslim in Iran is another matter. Because of the reactionary nature of Iranian politics and society, many educated Iranians would rather have religion left out of the conversation; they consider it a ‘dampener’ on what was otherwise a developing friendship. Many educated Iranians seemed to expect me to drink, party and live an otherwise “Western” lifestyle, and were visibly disappointed if I declined to take part. (Again: reactionary – in Iran, it seems, you’re either a debaucherous Westerner or a stone-age Mullah.)
Muslim values seem much closer to the hearts of people in other sections of society, however, and faith is genuinely appreciated and practiced.
Regardless of who you’re speaking to, you will nearly always be treated with respect as a guest in the nation – and in Iran that’s an experience vivid enough to cut through all of the socio-political white noise. Iranians, I can honestly say, are some of the kindest and most intelligent people I’ve ever encountered on my travels.
Being Muslim in Iran is…
Muslims in Iran will find their faith confirmed, reinforced, challenged and possibly even dismissed by members of society, but never disrespected. At a practical level, Iran being an Islamic republic, one never needs to worry about finding halal meat or taking time off for prayers. Sometimes the constant government preaching about “Islamic” policies becomes irksome, but you’ll never be alone in thinking so.
Overall, being expat and Muslim in Iran is an easy, if thought-provoking experience – keep an open mind, and enter the multilayered Islamic Republic of Iran.
Thank you Tim for sharing your experience with us.
If you don’t know Tim’s work, you should head over to Urban Duniya, his own lifestyle blog about all things expat, travel and cultures. He is also a great photographer and his blog is sure to inspire you.