Understanding Salafism in Iranian Sunnism
19th May 2022 by Edward Wastnidge
A special guest blog post by Mansour Anbarmoo.
The analysis of sectarian difference in the Middle East emanating from the West has long focused on its impact on political life in divided societies, or its relationship to geopolitical competition in the region. As chief protagonists in the latter, the foreign policies of states such as Iran and Saudi Arabia have often been a key focus. However, the issue of sectarian cleavages and intra-sect difference within minority communities, in states such as Iran remains under-researched. This article therefore looks at the philosophy, attitude, and approach of mainstream Iranian Sunnis to Salafism. Representatives of Sunnis in Iran are generally classified as political, religious or a combination of the two. Such currents do not have a long history in Iran, rather; they turned to political and social activity following the opening of the political and religious space after the Islamic Revolution, focused primarily in Iran’s western and eastern regions. The following is a brief introduction to a wider research project that seeks to interrogate the extent to which the main Sunni currents in Iran engage with Salafism.
Socio-political developments in the field of Sunnis in Iran can be analyzed from various aspects. One such aspect is the study of influential currents in the process of social, religious, and cultural socialization of Sunnis in Iran. This becomes even more important when such currents move away from mere theoretical discussions and became the source of political and social action.
Cognition of the Major Sunni Currents in Iran
The public milieu of Sunnis in Iran cannot be considered as a unified whole and consists of different ethnicities and religions that cover a range of areas in the west, northwest, south, east, and southeast of the country. Of the four Sunni religions, the Shafi'i and Hanafi religions have followers and a so-called resident population (Soltani, 2016: 26). Therefore, in this study, the three currents of Tablighi Jamaat (Deoband school), the Iranian Call and Reform Organization (Dawa-va-Islah Jamaat), and the School of the Qur'an have been selected as case studies to help further understanding of the internal logic of the country's Sunni attitude towards Salafism (Anbarmoo, 2020: 178). In the following section, an attempt is made to give a general and brief synopsis of the main currents.
A. Tablighi Jamaat (Deoband School)
The Tablighi Jamaat (Deoband School) is one of the largest and most populous movements in the Islamic world, and active in more than 160 Muslim countries. The Deoband School has an influential position among Muslims of the subcontinent and Muslim scientific societies in India, Pakistan, Japan, China and the United States (Azam Shahed, 2018: 7; Ahmad, 1988: 55).
Tablighi Jamaat recommend individual reform and then social reform, cultivation, self-purification, the observance of religious traditions and rituals, and the avoidance of entering politics based on the six principles known as the "Six Attributes." (Ghasemi, 2016: 83). Tablighi Jamaat in Iran is one of the most widespread currents of the Hanafi Muslims, primarily comprising the Baluch people in southeastern Iran. The center of this group is located in Zahedan in Sistan and Baluchistan province. From a historical point of view, the teachings of Tablighi Jamaat in Iran dates back to 1951-1952, following the spread of "Deobandi" thought and propaganda teachings in the eastern regions of the country (including south and northeast) and was founded for the first time in the city of Sarbaz and then Zahedan (Jahantigh & Ahmadvand, 2013: 407).
The scope of jurisprudential, religious and political activity and practice of this current today is beyond Sistan and Baluchistan province; it is not only in the southeast of Iran but also in the northeast (Khorasan), northwest (West Azerbaijan and Golestan) and central parts of Iran (e.g., Kerman and Fars). In the last two decades, the Iranian government has kept a close eye on this movement’s mosques, clerics, and its schools of religious sciences which has led to conflict with the government.
B. Iranian Call and Reform Organization (Dawa-va-Islah Jamaat (
The Iranian Call and Reform Organization is another important Sunni movement that declared its existence in order to modernize the religion of Islam and revive religious life among the Sunnis of Iran. The mission of this group, according to its statutes and constitutions (http://www.islahweb.org/roykard), is to defend the rights and preserve the beliefs of the Sunnis of Iran based on educating the individuals, families and societies with an Islamic approach.
This group is considered by some as an intellectual heir of the Muslim Brotherhood in Iran, and was first established in Kurdistan in the early 1980s by a number of Sunni Kurds in Iran including Salahuddin Mohammad Bahauddin, Nasser Sobhani, Omar Abdul Aziz and Ibrahim Mardukhi (Rasoulpour, 2013: 5).
C. School of the Qur'an
The School of the Quran is one of the major Sunni intellectual-political currents in the contemporary history of Iran, emerging mainly in the western region of the country. This current is known as the most important current of political Islam in Kurdistan. This movement was founded by Ahmad Moftizadeh (1932-1992) known as "Kakeh Ahmad" in Kurdistan province of Iran (). This stream considers the acts, behavior, consensus, written and recorded opinions of Moftizadeh and the opinions of other past and present committed scholars and experts as its primary sources of knowledge. The main objectives of establishing the School of the Qur'an are the propagation of Islam within the framework of certain criteria and religious methods derived from the Holy book, tradition, nurturing, teaching and propagating Islam.
Ahmad Moftizadeh, as the founder of the movement, entered the political-religious arena more seriously in 1977 after the establishment of "the School of the Qur’an" in the cities of Marivan and Sanandaj. Though the School of the Qur'an's activities predated the revolution, they were able to become more active after its success and the subsequent opening of political and religious space. Furthermore, members of the School of the Qur'an participated in the Assembly of Experts deliberations over the drafting of a new constitution for the Islamic Republic.
Ahmad Moftizadeh, Farooq Farsad, and Saadi Qoreishi were among the early leaders of the School of the Qur'an, all of whom were executed or died. Kak Hasan Amini is now the leader of this movement in Kurdistan.
Sunni Currents in Iran and Salafism
In this section, the internal logic of Salafism and its dimensions are examined with reference to contemporary Sunni currents in Iran.
1. Tablighi Jamaat
The Tablighi Jamaat movement is generally considered close to Salafism with a common focus on returning to the early principles of Islam. However, by examining its texts and historiography, this current is arguably a more moderate type of Salafi movement. In contrast to commonly understood, doctrinaire Salafi approaches, Tablighi Jamaat’s focus on religiosity and wider Hanafi jurisprudence evidences a contradictory attitude towards Salafism (Jahantigh & Ahmadvand, 2013:253). For example, one of the most prominent indicators of radical Salafists is the rejection of other Islamic sects and the return to the original Islam era of the Prophet's time before the existence of doctrinal and sectarian differences. In contract, Tablighi Jamaat’s Hanafi orientation which includes adherence to principles of such as recourse and intercession, and its denial of violence, sets them apart from Salafism in general.
2. Call and Reform Organization (Dawa-va-Islah Jamaat)
As a group of religious modernists, the Call and Reform Organization of Iran tries to pursue modernization and innovation in various fields of political and religious categories, including tolerance, ethnic and religious coexistence, orienting cultural diversity and multiplicity, and avoiding by Salafi interpretations. The Call and Reform Organization seek active political participation within the framework of the Iranian constitution, they make democratic demands for political reform, maintain a modern attitude towards the position of women in Iranian society, and are more receptive to the achievements of the modern world when compared with traditional Salafist currents.
3. The School of the Qur'an
The School of the Qur'an maintains a belief in religious pluralism, and an interactionist as well as pluralistic approach to other religions and denominations. It does not promote overtly negative attitudes towards the Shi’a or other Sunni schools. From their point of view, all Muslims are religious brothers.
Islam in Iranian Kurdistan has historically been heavily influenced by traditional Sufism, thus placing greater value on the relationship of a Muslim with God than the relationship of a Muslim with another Muslim. However, the School of the Quran and Moftizadeh moved away from this approach following the work Ali Shariati, who considered Islam as an ideology with the capability of changing the status quo. Shariati considered socialization and state building to be achievable through Islam. The current of the Quranic School, synthesizes elements of Salafi beliefs with a more pluralistic approach.
Although Iranian Sunni political movements including the Tablighi Jamaat, Dawa-va-Islah Jamaat, and the School of the Qur'an are not legally prohibited from operating, propagating, or recruiting, there have been recently restrictions on them by the intelligence services, including international and national travel bans, the cancellation of congresses, and media pressure from Iranian government supporters (www.voanews.com / www.theatlantic.com).
Although these currents are politically outside the circle of extremist Salafism and have condemned terrorist attacks on Iran by extremist groups, they have at times been in conflict with more so-called ‘hardline’ elements within Iran’s political and religious hierarchy. According to these clerics, although Sunni leaders such as Mawlawi Abdul Hamid Ismail Zehi and Kak Hassan Amini, have apparently condemned terrorist attacks, including those of Jundullah (Soldiers of God) against Shi’a between 2007-2010 (Https://www.bbc.com/news/10359415), they have secret links to them and other Baluch and Kurdish terrorist groups (such as Jaish al-Adl and PJAK), and use them as a tool for political bargaining with the government. Likewise, the attack on the Iranian Parliament and the tomb of Khomeini in June 2017 by several Sunni terrorists reinforced this negative view of Sunnis among some conservatives.
This article has offered an overview of prominent Sunni currents in Iran and their relationship to Salafism. The opening of the Muslim religious space following the Islamic Revolution helped bring some underlying factors to the fore. Eventually, these currents, despite being broadly in harmony with Salafism, gradually drew away from its core principles; instead, mainstream Sunnis in Iran raise the issue of modernity, reject fundamentalism and emphasize religious tolerance and interaction. This rejection of cultural and social dogma, which includes paying attention to the role of women, renouncing violence, and believing in ethnic and religious participation and pluralism within the framework of the constitution, can be interpreted as a more moderate Salafism. This is in marked contrast to the more hard core Sunni interpretations often seen in Salafist discourses in the wider Muslim World.
Although limited research has been conducted in the field of Sunni Salafi studies in Iran, there have been significant developments in recent years in relation to Iranian Sunnis and both their interactions and gaps with the government and the political system. Though population estimates vary between 8 and 15 million, Sunnis in Iran constitute an important minority.
Further researches can explore the reasons why Baluch and Kurdish ethnic terrorist groups in eastern and western Iran have emerged. They can also help explain the activities and alliances of Sunni political and religious currents in the Iranian political system despite religious differences with each other. Additional studies on the impact of Sunnis in the Iranian political system, obstacles to their political participation, and their transnational affiliations will also be valuable in understanding the extent to which sectarian identity matters within Iran’s political and social life.
Ahmad, A. (1988). Islamic Surveys; an Intellectual History of Islam in India. Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from https://redirect.is/wgy4vu8
Anbarmoo. M. (2020). Epistemology of Salafism in Iran (Case Study: The Approach of the Sunni’s Religious Currents). Journal of History of Islam and Iran. Volume 30, Issue 47 - Serial Number 137, autumn 2020. Pages 173-198. Retrieved from https://redirect.is/d1o9ert
Aẓam Shahed, R. (2018). Deoband Interpretive Flowology and its Fundamental Developments. PhD. Thesis. Al-Mustafa International University. Retrieved from https://iqna.ir/00GYmV
Ghasemi, M. T. (2016). Jamaat Tabligh and Islah Nafs. Tanslated by Abdulahim Salazehi. Shaykh al-Islam Ahmad Jam Publications: Shiraz.
Jahantigh, H. & Ahmadvand, Sh. (2013). Padidarshenasi Siasat dar Jonbeshe Jamaat Tabligh. PhD Thesis. Allameh Tabataba'i University: Tehran. Retrieved from https://redirect.is/z36m4ae
Karawan, Ibrahim A. (1995). "Takfīr". In John L. Esposito. The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mohebbi, N. (2002). Fadaiyan Islam and the Islamic Revolution. Humanities Society Portal. Retrieved from https://redirect.is/tqr6mxw
Moftizadeh, A. (1978). Islamic Government, Compilation of the Quran School Management Council: Sanandaj. Retrieved from https://redirect.is/dnzkrps
Moftizadeh, A. (1980). About Kurdistan. Noor Publication: Tehran.
Rasoulpour, Kh. (2013). Sociologic Explanation of Establishment of Iranian Call and Reform Organization (Iranian Muslim Brotherhood) and Evolution of its Discourse (MA Thesis). Tarbiat Moallem University: Tehran. Retrieved from https://redirect.is/rhepniw
Shariati, Ali (1974) Islamology, Basic Design for a school of thought and action. Retrieved from https://redirect.is/xebopsf
1 The modernist reading of Islam gradually entered the religious, political and cultural literature of Iran among a group of Iranians from the period the Constitutional Revolution (1905-11); this was subsequently complemented by the ideas of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. From their founding in 1946, “the Fedayeen-e Islam" or "Devotees of Islam" group imported and translated the books of key Brotherhood thinkers. For more information, see Khosrowshahi, H. (1996). Fadā'iyan-e Islam. History, Performance, and Thought. Tehran: Etelaat Publication.
Mansour Anbarmoo is Assistant Professor at Islamic Azad University Tehran Science and Research Branch. He specialises in Political Thought, Political Islam, and Ethnic and Religious Minorities in Iran.