Cultural Iran and its Contribution to Human Civilization and Culture

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Compiled By: Behzad Ahmadi Lafuraki

The Iranian culture and civilization has been one of the most ancient and deep-rooted cultures and civilizations in the world. The historical background of this ancient culture and citizenship dates back to Iranian ideas that are thousands of years old. At that time, the rite of Mehr (Mithraism) and the religion of Zoroaster (Zoroastrianism or Mazdaism) were guiding lights that endeavored to lead the entire mankind toward the lofty position that every human being should have. The continuation of Mithraism rite in parallel to the religion of Mazda in ancient Iran provided good ground for the further advancement of the brilliant citizenship culture that was prevalent in Iranian society at that time. In other words, these two spiritual schools were one way or another supplementary to each other.

The rite of Mithraism paved the way for the upliftment of Iranian mysticism and eclecticism and helped an illuminated way of thinking to come about and soar within the framework of Iranian culture. At the same time, the religion of Mazda, for its turn, cleared the way for the promotion of advanced social ethics as well as humanitarian civilization and culture of Iran. These two schools joined hands in order to shape the valuable spiritual life of the Iranian people. In parallel, they tried to introduce the reality of the worldly life and give more value to that life as the basis of all human efforts. When it was time for the first round of basic changes, which would make way for the continuity of Iranian thought, the religion of Mazda gave its place to Islam while Mithraism was replaced with the Iranian mysticism as well as the Islamic school of mysticism. Both these Iranian and Islamic mystic schools have continued to survive in the country up to the present time. The theoretical and cultural precursors of the aforesaid eclecticism and illuminated way of thinking, which has persisted in Iran since very ancient times, led to a very profound development in the human world whose effects were felt in the easternmost and westernmost parts of the globe.

This is why due attention should be paid to unique characteristics of the Iranian culture and this culture should be studied within a wider framework, which is introduced here as “the Cultural Iran.” The Cultural Iran is a term used to describe the area and the geographical expanse in which the Iranian culture has been influential and produced various effects throughout its history. Apart from the geographical expanse in which the Iranian culture has been influential both within the region surrounding Iran (especially within the geographical limits of the Iranian Plateau) and the world, the Cultural Iran has also left its mark on different cultures through various historical junctures and still continues to do so. This influence has been created by taking advantage of a host of components that make up the Cultural Iran and include language, literature, religion, arts, cultural heritage and so forth. The impact of the Iranian culture has been changing in various historical eras and its power has waxed and waned. However, the most important point is the major effect that this culture has had on a geographical expanse, which has been sometimes very vast and quite smaller at other times.

Throughout history, when powerful governments have been in place in Iran, especially when they were centralized bureaucracies, their cultural impact on the geographical environment that formed the Cultural Iran has been more profound and more lasting. Another feature which has been very important and constructive in the environment of the Cultural Iran was the multiethnic nature of the central governing powers in Iran which allowed for various ethnicities as well as language, religious and cultural minorities to be represented in the vast central bureaucracy. In this way, such minority groups were able to pursue their group interests along the lines of their general interests and long-term perspectives.

The geographical environment of Cultural Iran is, in fact, a combination of the cultural and historical environment of the Cultural Iran. Its main centers were situated around the Caspian Sea (including in all areas located to the north, east, and west of the Caspian Sea along with Iran in the southern part of that sea), in the Mesopotamia (the current Iraqi capital city of Baghdad has been built on the ruins of the ancient city of Ctesiphon, which was the seat and capital city of the Sassanid Empire), in the Iranian plateau up to the geographical extent of the Indian Subcontinent (and some believe even the Deccan Plateau), and in China’s Xinjiang Province. According to a more inclusive viewpoint, certain other regions can be added to the above list, which include the northeastern and southeastern parts of Africa. In certain parts of this vast region, the impact of Persian language and culture can be still seen because before the arrival of new colonialistic forces, those regions were frequented and even ruled for a period of 500 years by a dynasty of Iranian businesspeople, who were known under the general name of “Shirazis (which means the people of Shiraz; a city in south Iran).” Within this cultural and political environment, the cultural religion and language were among the most important cultural components and factors which affected other components and, in fact, other components were derived from them.

The main bounty for the great Iran over such a vast geographical expanse was promotion of religions which invited people to worship a single God, whether it was Zoroastrianism’s Ahura Mazda, or Islam’s Allah. Therefore, from a religious viewpoint, the country of Iran has been always the heartland of the great plateau of Iran under the influence of such monotheistic religions. From the viewpoint of language, the entire realm of the Cultural Iran can be divided into two big northern and southern parts. Various dialects of Turkish language have been spoken in almost all parts of the northern section of the Iranian Plateau down to the center of the great Iranian Plateau. This region includes a vast geographical expanse from Xinjiang in the present-day China to Anatolian Plateau – including Central Asia and Iran. Therefore, the culture, traditions and rites of peoples living in this region has been intertwined with the past history of Turkish peoples. Various dialects of the Persian language have been also in use in eastern and southern parts of the geographical expanse of the Cultural Iran.

Indian languages; Urdu, Tajik and Afghani dialects; Kurdish and Baluchi dialects; and to a lesser extent, the local dialect that is common among people in northern Iranian province of Gilan, are the most important and the most original remnants of the ancient Pahlavi language and forerunners of the present-day Dari and Persian languages. All people who are currently speaking one of these languages and dialects are, in fact, indebted to the Iranian culture. When it comes to the Middle East, due to the profound impact that Islam has had on this culture, it should be better described as Islamic and Iranian culture. To this list should be also added the language and culture of Arabs in Mesopotamia and along the southern rim of the Persian Gulf. There are documentary studies in this regard which prove that the Arabic alphabet has been derived from the ancient Pahlavi alphabet, though the Arabic itself is still a language whose origins should be found in Aramaic language. The cultural realms of Arabic speaking regions also differ according to their historical backdrop. For example, Iran and Iraq come from a similar cultural backdrop, though they are currently speaking different languages.

Major elements of Iranian culture

Nowruz and solar Hijri calendar: Nowruz (which marks the beginning of the Iranian New Year), is among the most ancient festivities observed by Iranians. Nowadays, this occasion is still observed within the geographical limits of the Iranian Plateau. Iran, the Azerbaijani Republic, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Kurdish regions in such countries as Iraq, Turkey, and Syria, are still observing this festival on the 21st day of March (the beginning of spring) every year. The festival of Nowruz is also observed in Zanzibar, which is a region located along the eastern coast of Africa near the present-day Tanzania. This region has been a habitat for immigrant Iranians since ancient times. Out of all festivities that were vogue in ancient Iran and among all small festivals that are still observed as the legacy of that time, none are as elaborate and as long as Nowruz. The festival of Nowruz is preceded by another genuine Iranian festival, though on a smaller scale, which is called Chaharshanbeh Souri (Fireworks Wednesday). Another festival called Sizdah-be-Dar ends Nowruz celebrations (Sizdah means ‘thirteen’ in Persian and the occasion is called as such because it marks the 13th day of the first month of the Iranian New Year). This occasion, on which people bid farewell to Nowruz, is symbolized by people going out of their houses to spend a whole day in natural surroundings before officially beginning their new year.

Persian langue (including Dari and Tajik dialects): Persian, Parsi or Dari Farsi (which has been called Dari Parsi by some old texts) is the official language of Iran and Tajikistan and is also one of the official languages spoken in Afghanistan. About 70 million people in Iran, 20 million in Afghanistan, 5 million in Tajikistan, and around 7 million in Uzbekistan speak Persian. There are also many people who speak Persian language in India and Pakistan. On the whole, the total number of Persian speakers in the world has been estimated around 110 million. Although Persian is not currently the official language of Pakistan, before the occupation of the Indian Subcontinent by the British colonialists, Persian had been the official and cultural language of the entire Subcontinent under the rule of Gurkani rulers as well as the Mughal emperors of India. At present, Urdu is the official language of Pakistan which is, in fact, a “Persianized” version of the Indian language and is under heavy influence of the Persian language.

Islam, Shia denomination, and its various branches: Following the invasion of Iran by Arabs and during the course of subsequent centuries, many Iranians converted to Islam and became Muslims. Muslims believe that God has directly sent down its divine revelations on many prophets with Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) being the last of them. In Iran, more than 89 percent of Muslims are following the Shia branch of Islam. In addition to three main principles of their religion, which are common with other sects, that is, Monotheism, Prophethood and the Resurrection, the followers of Shia faith believe in two more principles, which include Justice and Imamate. The Shia denomination of Islam has been known by this name at least, since the second century after Hegira and experienced extensive growth under the sixth Shia Imam. However, the main growth of Twelver Shia [that branch of Shiism which believes there have been twelve Infallible Imams as successors to Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) following his demise], took place under the rule of Safavid dynasty in Iran after they announced Shiism as the official religion of the country. Safavid kings aimed to use Shia faith as a means of strengthening the national unity in the country. Throughout their history, Iranians have believed that their kings should have the endorsement of a divine source and should be of noble birth as well. This issue has been instrumental in bringing the Shia culture close to the original Iranian culture.

Azeri language and culture: As Aryan tribes started to pour into various parts of the Iranian Plateau, they were mixed with the local Azeri ethnic groups and after becoming united, laid the ground for the establishment of the Median kingdom. Since that time, Azerbaijan has been part and parcel of the mainland of Iran. Many centuries later, under the rule of Safavid dynasty, the importance of Azerbaijan for Iranians was greatly increased. Safavid kings came from Azeri tribes and their rule over Iran was associated with the entry of various Turkish ethnic groups, including Qizilbash tribe (which means "Red Heads" in Turkish) into Iran. As a result of these developments, the new culture of Azerbaijan, which had its roots in the turbulent history of this ethnic group, has had profound effects on the history and culture of Iran.

Kurdish language and culture: Some of the most famous historians are of the opinion that present-day Kurds are the scion of ancient Median people. Kurds observe such ancient Iranian rites as Nowruz as well as Mehrgan Festival [or Mehr (meaning kindness in Persian) Festival] and Sadeh Festival (Sadeh means “hundred” in Persian) by holding special ceremonies. Up to the present day, vestiges of ancient Iranian rites and religions such as the rites of “Magi,” “Mazdak,” “Zeravani,” and “Manichaeism” can be still seen among big groups of Kurds, which are known for their belief in such ancient Iranian rites. These rites also stand as symbols of the ancient faith that they shared with the national religion of ancient Iran. The Kurdish music, on the other hand, accounts for a big part of the present-day Iranian music and a number of the most famous singers as well as traditional musical bands in the country come from Kordestan region.

Zoroastrianism: Zoroastrianism is the name by which the religion introduced by the ancient Iranian prophet, Zoroaster, is known. What Zoroaster did was to purify and revise the ancient religious rites of Aryans. By and by, people gathered around him as his followers and came to be known as Zoroastrians. According to sacred scriptures of the Zoroastrians, the world is a battleground between the forces of the Good and the Evil. They believe that people and those who are committed to righteous thinking should help the forces of the Good in their battle against the Evil by following the principle of observing “good thoughts, good words and good deeds” at all times. At present, the biggest groups of Zoroastrians live in Iran and India. The Zoroastrians, who are currently living in India, left the country after it was invaded by Arabs and settled in India where they are generally known as Parsi people and are among famous and respectable citizens of that country. Apart from India, Zoroastrians can be also found in the United States, Afghanistan, the UK, Canada, Pakistan, Singapore, Azerbaijan and some of the littoral countries of the Persian Gulf.

Iranian art

• Poetry and literature: In terms of ethical and religious literature, Persian language is the richest language which is spoken by various peoples in Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Turkey. This is the link which connects various parts of Asia from the Indian Subcontinent, to China, the Ottoman Empire, Saudi Arabia, Central Asia, and even remote islands and archipelagos in the Indian Ocean. The Persian language has played the most crucial role in establishing the link among those geographical areas. There is no doubt that the Persian poetry enjoys a lofty status in the Persian language and literature and has played a very important part in the development and promotion of Persian language. For example, after Akbar Shah, who was the third king in the Gurkani dynasty of India’s Mughal Empire, came to power, he made Persian the official language of his government as well as all the regions he had conquered. As a result, the Persian poetry with all the ideas, subjects and motifs that were associated with it, became a role model for both Turkish and Indian poets who wrote poems in Persian. In addition to this historical expansion of Persian language, at present, Persian poetry has transcended geographical borders and Iranian poets are famous with lay people and elites alike all across the globe. For example, Mowlana Jalaleddin Mohammad Balkhi is known by the name of Mowlavi in Iran, while Western countries know him as Rumi. During the past century, he has drawn a lot of attention from great Iran scholars. During the new period in which Western scholars have been paying increasing attention to the culture of the East, especially that of the Far East and the Middle East, an intellectual, mystic and cultural movement, better known as the New Age, has been under way. As a result of this new movement, more attention has been paid to Mowlana and many people have hailed a translation of the excerpts of Mowlana’s odes, which are known as Ghazals of Shams. Another instance is the collection of the poems written by the world-famous Iranian poet, Hafez, which has been already translated into many languages. In addition, to these examples, a reference should be made to other great Iranian poets like Ferdowsi, Sa'di, Khayyam, Attar and many others whose works have established the lofty status of the Iranian Persian poetry among the global heritage of the world.

• Iranian architecture: All architectural studies and archeological explorations show that the art of the Iranian architecture dates back to about seven millennia B.C. Since that time, this branch of Iranian art has evolved and developed in connection with different issues, especially religion. Iranian architecture is characterized by specific features which make it stand out in comparison with architectural styles that are practiced by other countries of the world. Suitable design, accurate calculations, using correct form for covering buildings, meticulous observance of technical and scientific issues in buildings, high porches, tall columns and finally, diverse decorations are among major factors which in addition to being simple, attest to the glory and grandeur of the Iranian architecture. Examples of this style of architecture can be found in Iran’s neighboring countries, especially in Turkey, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and also among various Indian buildings constructed under the rule of Gurkani rulers.


The Cultural Iran transcends the current geographical and political frontiers of Iran. Throughout history, this vast region has been frequently conquered by various powers, but at the end of the day, the brilliance and power of Iranian identity and civilization has been the final victor in all arenas. The limits of the Cultural Iran should by no means be taken as equal to “the political realm of Iran.” On the contrary, the limits of Iranian civilization and culture have been always much greater and more expansive than the country’s political borders. On the other hand, the limits of the Cultural Iran should not be considered as an independent and uniform domain. This vast domain has been always a partner for other civilizations and cultures and has consistently taken in valuable elements of those civilizations and cultures. As a result, the true power of the Cultural Iran has its roots exactly in this characteristic of the Cultural Iran, which is the power to integrate and assimilate cultural elements from other nations in order to reproduce a more fertile culture. There is no doubt that by using various tools at its disposal, including the language and literature, architecture, music, customs and rituals, religion and faith as well as diverse rites and many other similar elements, the Cultural Iran has been able to play a crucial and determining role through the entire human life.

*Behzad Ahmadi Lafuraki is the director of international relations at Tehran International Studies & Research Institute and analyst of EU and NATO affairs.

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