Skip to main content

From Zoroastrianism to Islam: taking stock of religion in Iran

A new book by Concordia researcher Richard Foltz explores the rich history of the country’s spiritual practices
February 12, 2014
By Media Relations


Officially, the Islamic Republic of Iran has a 99-per-cent Muslim majority. However, its Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian minorities are officially recognized by the state, and have played important roles in both its history and that of the world’s religions.

This diversity is the theme of Religions of Iran: From Prehistory to the Present, a new book by Concordia University scholar Richard Foltz.

“Despite the fact that Iranian cultural identity has been strong for over 25 centuries, it defies any kind of simplistic definition,” says Foltz, the director of Concordia University’s Centre for Iranian Studies and a leading expert on Iran’s place in religious history. “Most of the cultures of Asia identify with Iran on some level, much as Westerners do with Greece and Rome.”

Situated at the crossroads between east and west, Iran has been a cultural centre for the past three millennia. Religions of Iran brings to light the connections between Iranian civilization and the civilizations of Europe, the Middle East and Asia. To many, these links might come as a surprise.

Religions of Iran: From Prehistory to the Present Religions of Iran: From Prehistory to the Present highlights links between civilizations in Iran, the Middle East, Europe and Asia. | Image courtesy of Oneworld Publications

Iranians, who originated as one of the Indo-European tribes in prehistoric times, share much of their mythology with the Greeks, Romans, Norse and Hindus. From this common past emerged the uniquely Iranian religion of Zoroastrianism; many of its central tenets were later integrated into Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam.

“That sense of cosmopolitanism continues for today’s Iranians — especially those in the educated urban classes, who demonstrate a powerful tendency towards spiritual eclecticism,” says Foltz.

Foltz has found that significant numbers of Iranian Muslims supplement their spiritual lives with a range of beliefs and practices, many of which are drawn from contemporary “new-age" sources.

“At the same time, officially speaking, religion continues to be a loaded subject in Iran,” Foltz says. “The political climate is filled with contradictions and paradoxes. From one day to the next, it can be hard to know which discussions are acceptable and which aren’t.”

After a visit in January, Foltz doubts the country’s political reality will change any time soon. “But given that spirituality is clearly so deeply entrenched in the Iranian psyche, it is only natural that many Iranians will continue to pursue their curiosity about the world's various faiths in the spirit of objectivity and respect. “

The University of Chicago Divinity School is currently featuring Religions of Iran in an online forum for thought-provoking discussion on the relationship between religious scholarship and culture and public life. This month, a number of top scholars in the field have been invited to comment on Foltz’s research. Join the conversation.

Learn more about Concordia’s Centre for Iranian Studies.

Back to top

© Concordia University