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Razib Khan
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Dienekes has a discussion up of a new paper on Iranian Y-chromosome variation. My post isn’t prompted by the genetics here, but rather a minor historical note within the text which I want to correct, again, because it isn’t totally minor in light of contemporary models of the uniqueness of Iranian (specifically Persian) identity in the Middle East:

Persian identity refers to the Indo-European Aryans who arrived in Iran about 4 thousand years ago (kya). Originally they were nomadic, pastoral people inhabiting the western Iranian plateau. From the province of Fars they spread their language and culture to the other parts of the Iranian plateau absorbing local Iranian and non-Iranian groups. This process of assimilation continued also during the Greek, Mongol, Turkish and Arab invasions. Ancient Persian people were firstly characterized by the Zoroastrianism. After the Islamization, Shi’a became the main doctrine of all Iranian people.

As Dienekes observes I’ve objected to this confusion before:

For example, it is routinely unknown that before the Safavids Iran was a predominantly Sunni domain. This is not to deny the presence of Shia within the borders of modern Iran, but aside from periods of state patronage (e.g., the Buyids) the status of Shi’ism was as it was in most of the Muslim world after the year 1000, a marginal minority, tolerated at best, oppressed at worst. It was the Safavids, originally a cosmopolitan Sufi order of variegated Greek, Kurdish, and Turkic origin (albeit, culturally Turk by the period of the Safavids) which realigned the identity of the Iranian nation with Shi’ism in the 16th and 17th centuries, recruiting Shia clerics from Lebanon and Iraq to reform and convert the multi-ethnic populace of the Iranian plateau.

In other words, it seems likely that Shia identity became a necessary part of Iranian, and Persian, identity only after ~1700, when the Safavid project of religious transformation entered its terminal phase of completion. The Tajiks of Central Asia, who speak a variant of Persian, remain overwhelmingly Sunni. Not surprisingly they were not under the same Safavid domination as their western cousins.

Why does it matter? Because modern thinkers seem to conflate Shia history with Persian history, and assume that the two have some inextricable connection. The lack of knowledge that the Persians were mostly Sunni before the early modern era is widespread. Two of the authors on the above paper are ethnic Iranians, so unless they did not read the paper’s final text they simply let that through out of ignorance. I’ve seen other Iranians, adjudged experts on their nation, propagate this falsehood. Then again, how much American history do most Americans know? Very little. So I don’t judge that too harshly.

Addendum: For those readers who wish to “school” me by pointing out the heterodox religious enthusiasms, often with a sympathy toward the Shia camp, of the early Abbassids, I’m aware of that. If you wish to enter into a discussion why don’t think this counts, I’m game. For example, it seems ethnic Persians were still mostly Zoroastrian in this period, and the locus of Shia dissent is suspiciously correlated with regions of Arab military encampments. In other words, early Shia strength in Iran corresponded with Arab, not non-Arab, ethnicity.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: History, Science • Tags: Iran, Shia 
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Shah Ismail I

The BBC Radio 4 program In Our Time just had an episode on the Safavid dynasty. If you want to understand how Iran as we understand it came to be, and you know nothing about the Safavids, this program is essential. Because of its outsized role in Western antiquity the pre-Christian Achaemenids are well known, while Iranian nationalists may look to the pre-Islamic Sassanians immortalized in the Shahnameh. Obviously these dynasties are important, just as the House of Wessex and the Plantagenets are essential in understanding how Britain came to be. But to truly comprehend England as a Protestant nation with a distinctive identity in relation to the continent the England of the Tudors and Stuarts, who happen to be contemporaneous with the Safavids, are much more important.


For example, it is routinely unknown that before the Safavids Iran was a predominantly Sunni domain. This is not to deny the presence of Shia within the borders of modern Iran, but aside from periods of state patronage (e.g., the Buyids) the status of Shi’ism was as it was in most of the Muslim world after the year 1000, a marginal minority, tolerated at best, oppressed at worst. It was the Safavids, originally a cosmopolitan Sufi order of variegated Greek, Kurdish, and Turkic origin (albeit, culturally Turk by the period of the Safavids) which realigned the identity of the Iranian nation with Shi’ism in the 16th and 17th centuries, recruiting Shia clerics from Lebanon and Iraq to reform and convert the multi-ethnic populace of the Iranian plateau.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, Iran, Shia 
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Married at age 21

A few years ago the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, asserted that his nation did not have gays as they did in the West. What Ahmadinejad seems to have meant is that a public gay identity does not exist in Iran. He has to be aware that homosexual behavior is not unknown in his nation. More generally Ahmadinejad’s comments brought up the issue of men having sex with men throughout the Middle East before marriage. This is a taboo topic in much of the region, so getting good quantitative data seems pretty much impossible. But today PLoS Medicine came out with a paper with a result which suggests that the anecdotes of relatively widespread homosexual behavior in the Middle East are not totally unfounded or unrepresentative (the journalist Hugh Pope has indicated that Middle Eastern men have sometimes assumed he would naturally be open to sexual propositions because he was a Westerner. He grew a mustache to discourage such inquiries) . The paper is about HIV, Are HIV Epidemics among Men Who Have Sex with Men Emerging in the Middle East and North Africa?: A Systematic Review and Data Synthesis. Here’s the figure which jumped out at me:

The title of the table is Prevalence of anal sex between males in select populations in MENA.

For Iran there is a notation of “unspecified male-to-male sexual contacts,” so I take the figure for Iran to mean that 29% of sexually active unmarried men in Iran are engaging in activities with other men. Does this mean that 29% of men in this sample are gay? I don’t think so. As you likely know Iran’s state imposes conservative sexual mores upon its population. Though Iran is not Saudi Arabia there are still hazards when it comes to men and women entering into relationships before marriage. But it also turns out that many Iranian men at their peak of sexual ardor are unmarried. A recent paper reports that 40-45% of men aged 25-29 were unmarried.

One needs to be cautious of a figure like this. There is likely selection bias in the sample, even if it is less clear than in the case of truck drivers at STD clinics or prisoners. And this is only one report. But it finally gives us a concrete number to point to when we allude to the likelihood that male-to-male sexual contact has to be rife in societies where heterosexual sex outside of marriage is very difficult, and marriage has to be delayed to the exigencies of the modern economy.

Image credit: Marcello Casal Jr.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Science • Tags: Data Analysis, Health, Homosexuality, Iran 
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Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com"