The Jews


The history of the settlement of the Jews in Iran dates back to about 3000 years ago when they were forced to migrate from Palestine to Assyria and Babylonia as well as to the western and central parts of Iran in several consecutive phases. History shows that even though following the coming into power of Cyrus the Great and the issue of the decree on the freedom of Jews which held valid throughout the reigns of Darius the Great and Ardeshir II, many immigrant Jews returned to the land of their origin and began to reconstruct their temples and strengthen their religious and social fundaments with the efforts of Azrā and Nahimā while a great portion of them also chose to stay back in the Iranian territories and remain a part of the Iranian community. During the advent of Islam in Iran, the Jewish settlements in the country were mainly centered in Babylonia (present-day Iraq) in cities like Surā, Pumbeditā, and Ctesiphon as well as in some other cities of Iran like Halvān, Hamadān, Nahāvand, Jondishāpur, Ahvāz, Shush, Tustar, and the Khorāsān region, Qahestān, and Jorjān. This community had for centuries occupied an area in Esfahān by the name of Yahudiyah (Judea). In his narration of the conquest of Esfahān the historian, Belāzari, has made mention of a peace treaty that had been signed in “Yahudiyah”. Another historian by the name of Estakhri has also referred to the presence of the Jews in the Fārs region in his book, the “Masālek al-Mamālek”.

Following the entry of Islam into Iran, the Jews – like the other non-Muslim citizens (dhimmis) – were entitled to the payment of taxes and the jizyah, in return for which they were ensured the freedom to practice their own religious traditions, choose their professions and places of residence, migrate, and live under the protection of the Islamic government. Even though the Jews were occasionally forced to adhere to certain limiting laws like the lack of permission for the construction of new synagogues, the need for the existing synagogues to remain lower than the mosques, riding on donkeys and mules instead of horses, a lack of permission to carry weapons, and the wearing of special clothing or clothes with indications that would reveal their identity, such laws were generally sporadic and temporary and, on the whole, the condition of the Jews under the Islamic rule was much better than those living under the Byzantine rule.
The Jewish community of Iran saw considerable progress during the period of the “Kholafā-ye Rāshedin” (the first four caliphs) and consequently during the reigns of the Ummayids and the Abbasids, generally marking a new phase in the cultural and social lives of that community. As a result of the freedom and security ensured to the Jews under the Islamic rule, they enjoyed relatively comfortable lives while their population, too, saw growth. Jewish schools existed in the two cities of Surā and Pumbeditā, the heads of which were popularly known as “gaons”. The gaons were responsible for the academic and religious leadership of the Jews and they commanded special respect among the masses. The Islamic government, too, recognized the head of the immigrant Jews (popularly known as Ra’s-e Jālut) who was supposed to have been a descendent of Prophet David (‘a) as the political leader of this community. This head enjoyed certain special privileges and was responsible for handling such affairs of the Jewish community as the collection of the jizyah taxes and their timely payment.

The Jewish community that was scattered all over the country sent some annual donations to the administrative center of the Jewish community that consisted of their head as well as the gaons in return for which the center would dispatch Jewish priests and judges to the various cities for the management of the Jewish community and for conducting religious ceremonies. The cultural activities under the priests and the judges were noteworthy, especially in the two cities of Hamadān and Esfahān, as a result of which these two cities had turned into the most active Jewish centers in the first six Hejirā centuries. However, it was towards the end of the Abbasid caliphate that a dispute erupted between the two gaons of Surā and Pumbeditā over the appointment of the community head which lasted for a long period of time, during which two of their heads were slain. As a result of this dispute, this position remained vacant from the period of the caliphate of Rāzi Billāh, following which the practice of the appointment of a community “head” came to be discontinued.

The period towards the end of the Abbasid caliphate also witnessed various uprisings within the Jewish community and the emergence of different sects among this community, from among which we can make reference to the Esfahān Uprising and the emergence of the Karaites. Towards the end of the Ummayyid caliphate, an Esfahāni tailor by the name of “Ubadyā Abu Isā Yahudi” claimed to be the “Messiah”. He recognized Moses (‘a), Jesus (‘a) and Mohammad (s) as divine prophets and initiated some fundamental changes in the Jewish religion. Ubadyā gradually gathered a group of Jews from Esfahān and other parts of Iran and waged an unsuccessful uprising that was thwarted at the hands of the caliph’s army in which he was ultimately killed.

The Karaite sect came to be formed under the leadership of Anān bin Dāwud owing to the belief of a certain group in adhering to the main text of the Torah as opposed to the interpretations of the Talmud and the Jewish priests and found a large number of Jewish followers in Baghdād and its surrounding areas as well as in many other cities all over Iran. The next two outstanding figures belonging to this sect were Benyāmin Nahāvandi and Daniel bin Musā Qumasi both of whom had emerged from among the Iranian Jews. The growth of this sect was gradually weakened and it finally came to be eliminated as a result of the efforts of Sa’diyā bin Yusof (popularly known as “Sa’diyā Gaon”), the head of the Surā religious school as well as the gaons following him.

On the economic front, the levying of heavy taxes on agricultural income as well as the payment of the jizyah gradually compelled the rural Jews to sell off their lands and to migrate from the rural lands to settle in the urban areas. This trend continued right until more recent times as a result of which the Jewish community came to be increasingly involved in trade and commerce, wealth and capital-building, money lending (at times even to the Islamic government), as well as the other capital-oriented professions and urban crafts in the fields of textile, gold, and medicine.
A number of scholars and researchers have in their writings confirmed the presence of a relative degree of security and welfare for the Jews in the first six centuries of the Islamic rule and the growth and spread of this community in different parts of Iran, and especially in urban areas while also commenting on the economic and social progress of that community. The travelogue of Benyāmin Tatili that was written in the 6th Century AH/12th Century AD makes considerable mention of the condition of the Jews living in the various Iranian cities, the approximate number of their population, and even presents an account on the allegiance of the Jews to the political and spiritual leadership of the gaons. Benyāmin’s account clearly indicates that the Jews enjoyed substantial travel and trade privileges. This growth and progress of the Jewish community in Iran continued throughout the Ghaznavid and Seljuk rule and some Jews also managed to serve in the royal courts of these dynasties. To quote a few instances, a Jew by the name of “Eshāq” from Ghazneh served as manager of the lead mines of the Balkh region while a number of Jews served in the court of Khājeh Nizām al-Molk, the famous minister of Malek Shāh Seljuk, in the clerical, taxation, and financial sections.

During the Mongol invasion of Iran, and particularly with the onslaught of Hulagu, the Jews like all the other Iranian communities faced plunder and massacre. However, with the emergence of the Ilkhānids and following the abolition of the discrimination between the dhimmis and the non-dhimmis, the Jews regained the opportunity to participate actively in the governmental affairs and during the reign of Arghun Khān, a Jew by the name of “Sa’d al-Dowlah” even rose to a ministerial position. Following the death of Arghun Khān and Sa’d al-Dowlah and especially during the reign of Ghāzān Khān – the ruler who had reinstated the collection of the jizyah – as well as his successors, the Jews faced repeated persecution, harassment, and plunder. The Jews like the Iranian Muslims also suffered considerably during the devastating invasion of Teimur (Tamerlane) who, according to the historian Ibn Arab Shāh, had commanded his soldiers to “destroy and massacre indiscriminately the Muslims and the non-Muslims in the city of Esfahān and to eliminate them completely”. Not much information is available regarding the living conditions of the Jews in the period of the successors of Teimur. Further accounts of the fate of this community can be re-traced in the travelogues of the European travelers who had visited Iran during the Safavid period.

With the exception of the reign of Shāh Abbās I during which the Jews as well as the other religious minorities enjoyed peace and security the Safavid rule is considered as the most distressing period in the history of the Jewish community in Iran. The Jews were under great pressure and persecution during the Safavid rule and a great number of irrational discriminatory laws had been legislated against them. As a result of these laws, persecution, and massacres that resulted in the migration of a large number of Jews to the Ottoman Empire, the population of the Jewish community declined during this period and it was only during the rule of Nāder Shāh Afshār and during the period of the Zandiyah rule that the Jewish community managed to gain a short respite.

Despite this predicament a large number of great Jewish poets and writers like Bābā’ie Lotf, Bābā’ie Farhād, Mollā Benyāmin bin Mollā Mishāil (popularly known as Aminā), Rabi Moshe Lois, Shāhin Shirāzi, and Molānā Omrāni emerged in the various cities of Iran. These poets and writers followed the long-standing literary tradition that had emerged among the Jews from the early centuries of the advent of Islam in Iran and what is today referred to as the “Jewish-Persian literature”. The Jewish-Persian literature is a particular type of literary style in the Persian language that is penned in the Hebrew script and which includes a range of texts such as translations and interpretations of the Torah and other Jewish religious books, poems, and other non-religious works. This particular style of literature is not only important from the aspect of religious and literary studies on the Jews but it is also of immense value from the viewpoint of linguistics as well as the study of the earliest stages of the emergence of Dari Fārsi. This style of literature also comprises some of the earliest writings in Dari Fāsi from the 8th and 9th Centuries AH. The Jewish-Persian literature progressed the most during the period of the Ilkhanids, i.e. during the period in which the Persian language and literature had spread among the Jewish community of Iran to a great extent. Moreover, owing to the discontinuation of inter-relations with regions outside Iran the religious and cultural leadership of the Iranian Jewish community came to be transferred from Baghdad to Esfahān. The leadership of the Jewish community in Esfahān lay vested with the “Nāsi” who was assisted by the rabbis, the mollās, and the dayyāns in handling the affairs of the community. The Nasi was responsible for handling the collection of the jizyah taxes and their timely payment to the government. One of the important traditions of the religious lives of the Jews during this period – that continued to be practiced even later – was making pilgrimages to Jewish sacred places like the tomb of Prophet Dāniyāl (Daniel) in Shush and to the tombs of Esther and Mardkhāy (Mordecai) in Hamadān.

With the elevation of the Qajar dynasty to power the Jews of Iran once again faced hardship and poverty. They were subjected to a number of political and legal limitations as well as discrimination and persecution and were forced to change their faith, particularly in Mashhad, and especially during the reign of Mohammad Shāh. The most prominent feature of the lives of the Jews during this period was a reduction in the number of their population. With a view to improving the conditions of the Jews in Iran members of the World Union of the Jews as well as the Anglo-Jewish Association traveled to Iran several times and tried to convince the Jews to take some steps in this direction. However, despite Nāser al-Din Shāh’s repeated promises as well as the decrees issued by him not much progress was made in this regard due to the unstable conditions of the country. Ultimately, as a result of the victory of the Constitutional Movement during the reign of Mozaffar al-Din Shāh – in which even the Jews played an active role – and with the establishment of the National Consultative Assembly, the legislations of which did not make a distinction between civil and religious laws, the religious communities came to enjoy equal political and social rights as the rest of the Iranians and the path was once again paved for a betterment in the living conditions of the Jewish community.[1]



[1] Lajevardi , Fatemeh ” Iran Entry ” The Great Islamic Encyclopedia . Ed. Kazem Musavi Bojnourdi.Tehran: The Center of Great Islamic Encyclopaedia , 1989-, V.10 , pp.595 – 598