Institutional Affiliation :
Born in Tehran, Mehrdad Amanat completed an engineering degree from UCLA (1976), a Master’s degree in Islamic Studies from UCLA (1979), and a Ph.D. in history from UCLA (2006). His book *Jewish Identities: Resistance and Conversion to Islam and the Baha'i faith * will be published in 2010 by I.B. Taurus. He is presently living in Los Angeles.
Iran’s complex and elusive picture of interfaith relations is indicative of larger patterns which persist up to this day. Elements of religious intolerance as reflected in an obsession with an ancient belief in “impurity” of “non-believers” coexist with a deep rooted tradition of cultural exchange and relative tolerance, as manifested in the Judeo-Iranian interface in religion and science, and in the interfaith interaction of Jews with Sufis and others.
This paper traces aspects of Iran’s interfaith relations to explore some of the roots of intolerance towards nonconformists through a study of burial rites. Beginning with the ulama’s dominance of Iran’s society during the 19th century, local outbreaks of anti-minority violence and discriminatory practices led to significant economic hardship for non-Muslims. This picture grows increasingly complex when a range of multi-layered religious identities--stemming from religious conversions to Islam, Christianity and the Baha’i faith—challenged the imagined neat boundaries of the religious divide.
Threatened by the challenges of conversion, many rabbis sought to enforce community control through control of burial rites. The cemetery became the arena for drawing the lines of communal boundaries. Complications relating to the burial of subaltern social outcasts with ambiguous identities, led to the advent of homeless corpses. However, at times influential Jewish converts with multiple identities could not be easily excluded from the Jewish cemetery. In their case, class and power relations helped open up space for negotiating unconventional identities. Yet even conversion to Islam did not guarantee full assimilation in the Muslim community, and could in fact cause greater isolation. Jewish converts to Islam, even those with influence, were rejected by Jewish and Muslim clerics alike, and had to establish their own “private” cemetery. The graveyard was often the scene of settling family or inheritance disputes. Postmortem reversed conversion from Islam or the Baha’i faith back to Judaism was used to exclude the women in the family from their share of the family estate. Defilement of the “other” by attacking the copses were a familiar sight in the urban scene, and had especially powerful impact in a society where the relationship with the departed was a close and enduring part of family life.
Today, graveyard politics continues to play a part in Iran’s fragile civil society, as seen in the Khavaran makeshift cemetery, where mass graves of the regime’s opponents rest next to graves of other nonconformists and Baha’is.