The Persian Project: A Sunni perspective on history and today’s reality
By Dr. Baheddin Shabaneh
It was in a sunny day in April 1986 when Iranian supreme spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini was talking to the families of the Iranians who were killed or injured during the bloody Iran-Iraqi war when he said ” Lastly but not the least, I strongly encourage you all to continue to be loyal to the Islamic republic, which was made of the sacrifices of your children, and you have to work very hard to set the grounds for the appearance of the savior of humanity , the last Imam, hadret baqeyyatu Allah- my soul for his sake-, by being completely ready to sacrifice for exporting the revolution to every place on earth!
The imam he was referring to was Mohammad bin al Hasan the 12th sacred imam that Shia followers believe he disappeared in an underground tunnel, and he is still alive since his disappearance in 940 A.D. They believe he has been watching his followers for more than 1000years till now and he will come out in the right moment!
Khomeini had given a fatwa ( religious decree) few years earlier that exporting the “Iranian revolution” is mandatory for every Iranian , but he used more politically acceptable words at the time” Islamic revolution” for what some observers would say exporting “The Persian Project” and rebuilding the Persian Empire that once upon a time was encompassing the whole Middle East, parts of Europe and deeper parts of Asia and Africa!
So what is The Persian Project, and what is the relationship with the Shia sect of Islam. Is it really a sect of Islam like what the Shia claims or is it an ethnic cult that used sacred Islamic figures close to the prophet Mohammad to seize the faith , neutralize its power, and taint the faith with a Persian spirit to resurrect the Persian empire!.
Muslim historians take us back to 644 A.D when three people two of which were of Persian origin were spotted whispering in a side street of AL Madinah, the capital city of the Islamic Caliphate, remembering the days of Persian Empire and how Muslims completely turned it down. They started throwing hate sentiment towards one of the greatest Caliphs of Islam and a companion of the prophet Omar bin Al Khattab. Next day, one of these three was Fayrooz Abu Loloa AlMajoosy who stabbed the Caliph with a poisoned dagger while leading Fajr prayer ten days after coming back from Hajj (Pilgrimage to Mecca).
Till now, a large masjid stands out that has been built on an imaginary grave of Abu Loloa in the city of Kashan in Iran commemorating the killing of Omar the Caliph, where celebrations occur every year during an Iranian feast called happy day of Al Zahra, where Shia followers believe the 11th imam ordered them to celebrate the death of Omar, the destroyer of the Persian Empire!
Going Back in history, several Persian empires have ruled over vast areas in the central Asia, Turkey, some parts of Europe and several areas in the current Middle East including Egypt, Levant, Yemen and most of Arab Peninsulas Eastern Coast, Iraq and current Iran.
The Archamenid empire ruled from 550 BC -330 BC and expanded from the Balkans and Macedonia in the West all the way to the Indus valley in the East.
One of the most notable events during this dynasty is the conquest of Babylon, and the reign of Cyrus the great, who allowed the Jews to go back to Jerusalem and he rebuilt their temple. Cyrus the great is highly regarded in the Jewish bible, and is the only non-Jew that is referred to the Messiah. (Isaiah 44:24, 26–45:3, 13). Iranians look up to Cyrus, the great for his achievements in human rights and tolerant policies. His heritage has shaped the current identity of modern Iran according to many Iranian experts.
The Sasanian dynasty ruled from224 BC – 651 CE. It ruled over vast areas in the modern Middle East, see map 2. The Sasanians called their empire” Eranshahr” which means Dominion of the Iranians.
Eranshahr has been taken over by the rising superpower in the Arab peninsula forming the Islamic Caliphate. The years following Omar the Caliphs death most of the people of Persia have become Muslims except a small minority that fled to India and neighboring countries, the Zoroastrians. Theirdescendants constitute now several hundred thousands in the world. Zoroastrians are considered the authentic Persians during the Sasanian dynasty who kept their Zoroastrian faith and heritage. They used to be called by Arabs “The fire worshippers “or “Almajoos”.
Although Iran rulers have denounced Zoroastrianism but its heritage is deep rooted in the society and they are highly regarded among many as the owners of the original religion of the Persian Empire. Some of the Zoroastrian celebrations are still highly celebrated among the Shia of Iran nowadays like the day of Nowruz the first day of summer. This day has been turned into almost a religious Shia holiday which underscores the Persian spirit of Shiism. There are tens of statements and hadiths in the Shia Literature about the holiness of this day, some of them were claimed to be said by the prophet himself. One of those narrations mentions that Prophet Mohammad said that Nowruz is one of the days of Islam and it is one of the names of Ali bin Abi Taleb, the first imam of Shiism and the main figure in this sect.
After the Muslim Conquest of Persia, a long process of islamization of the Persian culture has taken place and at the same time, great dynamic influences has resulted in a rising Muslim power rather an Arab one. The tolerant, and flexible Islamic superpower on the rise has adapted to the Persian culture, where many Persian Muslims have integrated into the Islamic and Arabic culture. A small percentage of Persians adopted the first Shia principles in the early days of the Muslim Caliphates based on some of the differences and issues among the companions. Non Arabs and particularly some Persians found this a potential opportunity to have the Uniqueness that they have sought to differentiate them from Arabs. The majority of Persians integrate in the mainstream Sunni Islam and contributed heavily in the Islamic Renaissance that followed.
In 1377, the Arab sociologist, Ibn Khaldun, wrote in his Muqaddimah: “It is a remarkable fact that, with few exceptions, most Muslim scholars … in the intellectual sciences have been non-Arabs, thus the founders of grammar were Sibawaih and after him, al-Farsi and Az-Zajjaj. All of them were of Persian descent they invented rules of (Arabic) grammar. Great jurists were Persians. Only the Persians engaged in the task of preserving knowledge and writing systematic scholarly works.”
This initial Persian integration in the Islamic empire reflected a very flexible attitude set forward by the prophet Mohammad based on tolerance and containment. Two of the closest companions and councilors to the prophet were Persians. Salman Al Farsi, was the one who gave the advice to the prophet of digging a trench around Al Madinah City during the Trench war. Salem Mawla Abu Hanifah, was another Persian that the prophet mentioned, to take the Quran from four people, one of them was Salem, and he was the Imam of Muslims in Al Madinah prior to the Prophetic immigration to it, and was routinely leading prayer ahead of some important Figures like Omar, the Caliph. Ironically, Omar bin Al Khattab while dying from wounds inflicted by another Persian man, he said if Salem was still alive he would have placed him as the following Caliph after his death.
Over the following decades, the complete integration of Persians in mainstream Islam had suffered significant breaches due to growing number of Shia followers, and at the same time, the Shia sect started to differentiate itself more and more from the mainstream. The Shia sect. adopted a Persian anti-Arab spirit. Although this sect. started out motivated by political division but the lines between politics and religion have blurred and a new version of Persian Islam has come out. The Shia sect. has evolved in a group of emotionally motivated people with historical grudges against many mainstream Muslims. The historically based grudges use a major political incident which is the murder of the grandson of the prophet, Al Hussain Bin Ali, to point fingers and victimize the sect followers, and charge them to revenge for the death of Hussain.
Nationalistic anti-Arab sentiment still survives in the Shia sect till now. Shia sect forms about 10% of all Muslims in the world nowadays, most of them are non-Arabs, underscoring this Arab vs Persian competition that was a main theme in the origination of the Shia sect. The Shia sect was indolent and non-confrontational in the beginning to avoid conflict with the mainstream power, and as it was evolving it used protective strategies to survive. “Al Tuqyaa” is a method where you are allowed to lie and not tell the truth about your faith if you have to, and to pretend as a mainstream Sunni worshipper to avoid any bad consequences. The sect used the technique of glorifying some figures in the immediate family of the prophet to attract followers and sympathizers. The sect methods and strategies worked well to attract predominantly non Arabs.
Several Shia monarchies and states formed along the main Islamic Caliphates. Unfortunately many of these dynasties had significant anti-Sunni anti- Mainstream policies that resulted in huge destruction and bloodshed in the region. Some of these Monarchies were the Idrisids in Morocco, the Uqaylids in Syria and Iraq, the Buyids in Iraq and Iran, The Ilkhanate in Iran and many parts of Asia, the Bahmanis in India, the Fatimids ( The Ubayedyeoon) in Northern Africa, the Levant and Arab Peninsula. The Fatimids adopted initially a more tolerant attitude with the Sunni population that they have ruled over.
The Assassins or the Hashashin, were a group of extreme Shia sect, that was based on Iran and Syria, that used the tactics of Assassination as a psychological warfare, they have created significant destruction in the region and were used by the European Crusaders to target their enemies in the region. One of their leaders, attacked Mecca and captured the holy black stone, and slaughtered thousands of innocent pilgrims. The English word of Assassins came after their name. Another extreme Shia leader, The Uzbek Tamerlane who was an Alawite who created significant destruction in Syria, and other areas. His army killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. One of the Muslim historians, mentioned that the army of Tamerlane, raped tens of thousands of women in Damascus, and destroyed and burnt down most of the city in 1401 CE.
A very important dynasty in the history of Iran was the Safavids ( Map3)which reunified Iran as independent state in 1501 CE and forced the majority of the Sunni Muslims in Iran to adopt the Twelver Shiism as the official religion of the state. Ismail I, the founder of this dynasty adopted very brutal conversion policies from Sunni Islam to the Shia sect. People were given two choices Shiism or Death, the Sunni mosques and cemeteries were destroyed, The Sunni insurgencies were wiped out, and the Muslim scholars were forced to curse the first three Caliphs of Islam, in all the mosques during regular prayers. A systematic destruction of Sunni Islam has been successfully accomplished in the years to follow.
This bloody conversion was politically and militarily motivated as Iran was bordered by Ismael I major political rivals, the Ottomans and Uzbeks, both were Sunni. So after the forced conversion the country had borders based on religious affiliation that consolidated the Safavid dynasty for 235 more years.
The Safavids had two major foundations, Glorification of the Persian race and Adoption of the Shia sect. Significant portion of the Arab Persian and Turkish Persian conflict had originated during that era. The Persian spirit in the Shia sect. was formally encouraged to increase the Uniqueness of the Persians from neighboring Sunni rivals.
The Islamic revolution by AlKhomeini has adopted a strategy that is somewhat more aggressive than the Safavids. It reinforced the Shia perspective of the state, adopted an anti-Sunni sentiment, and charged the state with a Persian spirit. Additionally, they worked hard to export the revolution to the whole region by creating alliances with Western countries and Israel despite apparent animosities in the media , and by using their Shia affiliates in several neighboring countries in the Middle East to destabilize these countries and subsequently expand their political influence in these countries with Shia minorities.
The Persian dream of Greater Persia similar or larger than the Safavids involving several of the neighboring regions is a real dream that many have been working on for few decades so far. It started in the modern era by an Iranian-British alliance, where Britain helped Iran to capture the King of the Arabic emirate of Arabestan (Al Ahwaz or Khozestan) Khazaal Al Kaabi and he was killed in Tehran in 1925. This king’s title was Sheikh of All Sheikhs of the Gulf. This acquisition defines the current western border of Iran on the Persian Gulf, and it has 70% of the oil reserve in Iran. The Kaabi dynasty ruled from 1690-1925 CE but the Kaabi tribe has lived in that region for more than fourteen hundred years.
In his advice to the next Waley Al faqeeh ( Ayatuallah Khomeini said “I assure you that the current millions of Iranians today are much better than the people of Hijaz during the days of the prophet” and in another statement he said” All prophets and messengers came to bring justice but they failed, even the prophet Mohammad has failed , the only one who will succeed to bring justice to humanity is the Mahdy Almontather” He was referring again to the 12th Shia Imam which disappeared in an underground tunnel and he will appear back again to bring justice. He is the same “Owner of Time” or “Saheb al Zaman” that he said about him that all the good deeds and bad deeds are being shown to him twice a week for all human beings since he disappeared more than a thousand years ago.
Dr. Baheddin Shabaneh is a Jordanian-American physician based in Houston Texas.
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