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Home » Linguistic Geography, Religion, Southwest Asia and North Africa

Arabs and Persians; Shiites and Sunnis: More Complicated Than You Might Think

Submitted by on October 25, 2011 – 2:20 am 16 Comments |  
Physical Map Showing Areas of Sunni Islam in IranUninformed voices in the United States commonly refer to Iran as an “Arab country”—a fundamental error committed even by outlets as respectable as Slate magazine. Few Americans grasp the lines of division between Arab and Persian (or Iranian) culture and society. Iranian-Americans emphasize the distinction; calling a person of Iranian heritage an Arab is likely to provoke a quick lecture on the subject. Websites with names as subtle as PersiansAreNotArabs.Com spread this message so insistently that it has become an object of humor within the community. Iranian-American comic Maz Jobrani’s “Persians vs. Arabs” video has reached 456,035 YouTube viewers. While Jobrani’s routine is gently satiric, the 1,407 comments that it has garnered range from harsh to vile, bandied back and forth between Arab and Persian partisans. Many focus on the name of the body of water that lies between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula. As one obscenity-free but historically challenged comment frames the issue: “ARABS FINISHED THE persian EMPIRE IN LESS THEN 10 YEARS. AND SINCE THEN THEIR EMPIRE DOESNT EXIST ANYMORE. ARABS ARE STILL THERE AND THEY CONTROL AND USE THE GULF MORE. ARABIAN GULF FOREVER!!. “

As basic as it is, the distinction between Arabs and Iranians can be over-stated. As noted in a previous post, more than a million Iranians are Arabs. In both Iran and the Arabian Peninsula, moreover, so-called Persian Arabs—people of mixed background—maintain cultural traditions associated with both groups. Over long periods of time, hundreds of thousands of Persian Sunnis fled across the Gulf to avoid discrimination, a movement that was especially pronounced under the rule of Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (1941-1979). In Bahrain, a few of these refugees and their descendants still “speak a dialect of Persian sometimes referred to as Khodmoni [or Khodmooni].” On the other side of the Gulf, some self-identified Iranian Arabs actually speak Farsi (or Persian) as their mother tongue, having lost the language of their ancestors. Most of the estimated 50,000 Arabs of Khorasan in northeastern Iran, for example, are Persian-speakers. Intriguingly, those Khorasani Arabs who maintain their original language speak an “extremely ancient Arabic dialect.”*

The common identification of Shia Islam with Iranians and Sunni Islam with Arabs likewise represents an oversimplification. Tens of millions of Arabs are Shiites, including the majority of Iraqis and Bahrainis. And while most Iranian Muslims are indeed Shiite, some ten percent follow Sunni Islam. Iranian Sunnis are mainly Baloch or Kurdish, but an unspecified number are Persian, concentrated in the southern province of Hormozgan and in the northeastern city of Mashhad. Like other Sunnis in Iran, they face discrimination. A year ago, Sunni Online, the “official website of the Sunni Community in Iran,” ran an article claiming that pressure and even violence against the community were increasing “day by day.” An intriguing recent discussion thread on the Sunni Forum website delivered a more mixed message. Here an Iranian commentator calling himself “Sunni Warrior” tells his fellow sectarians, “Sunnis have no problem [in Iran]. But if you are shia and then become sunni you will get hanged for turning kufir.” (Sunni Warrior also provides an insightful comment that hits a little too close to home: “And don’t trust those western maps, you know they divide us in sunni and shia areas! If a place has 52% sunni and 48% shia they make it a sunni area…”)

M. Izady's Map of Religion in Iran, Gulf 2000 ProjectLanguage Map of Persian/Arabic Gulf from MuturzikinAs mentioned in the previous GeoCurrents post, most Iranian Arabs are Shiites. Mike Izady’s remarkably detailed map of religion in Iran and vicinity, however, depicts the Arabic-speaking coastal strip of Bushehr Province as Sunni. Comprehensive linguistic maps indicate that this area’s inhabitants speak Gulf Arabic, rather than the Iraqi Arabic prevalent in Khuzestan province, which would help explain the religious differentiation of Iranian Arabs.

Astoundingly, Izady’s map of religion shows an area of “African Animism” in southeastern Iran. A community of African descent, the Ahl-i Hava, does indeed inhabit this area, which Iraj Bashiri linked in 1983 to the Portuguese importation of slaves from southeastern Africa in the 16th century. (Others have hypothesized different origins, including, bizarrely, descent from pre-Indo-European indigenes!) Bashiri portrays the faith of the Ahl-i Hava as a syncretic blend of Shia Islam and animism, the latter marked by the peculiar worship of winds blowing from particular directions. Until recently, another ethnic group practiced animism in the country as well: the Godars, “nomadic gypsies who migrated from India to Iran.” According to director Bahman Kiarostami’s 2004 film “Infidels” (Koffar), the Godars were forcibly converted to Shia Islam after the Islamic revolution of the 1970s; evidently they are still widely viewed as infidels by others.

*The phrase used in the German report on the subject is “außerordentlich altertümlichen arabischen Dialektes.” Khorasani Arabs may be few in number but they are of considerable historical importance, having been the main military force behind the replacement of the Umayyad Caliphate by the Abbasid Caliphate in 750 CE. Some scholars have argued that the subsequent Abbasid “Golden Age” was in large part the result of the fusing of Arab and Persian (as well as Greek) intellectual traditions. In later periods as well, many of the finest Persian scholars, including the astounding geographer and polymath al-Birunī (973-1048 CE), wrote mostly in Arabic rather than Persian.

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  • Anonymous

    Martin, I hear the same “uninformed voices” throughout the Anglosphere. 

    I suspect the African Animists in south eastern Iran have the same origin as the Siddi in Pakistan & India.  There are several vectors that took Africans to the region.  As sailors, soldiers in Ottoman and other imperial  armies (e.g. Portuguese, Russian, British & Persian/Iranian), slaves and indentured workers and as adventurers.  This link has some material

    The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean World – http://exhibitions.nypl.org/africansindianocean/index2.php  

    Alice Albinia writes about the Siddis in her book : Empires of the Indus.

    ==========================================
    I was a bit puzzled by the labelling as Pashtun of what I assume is the Sunni Khorasani Arab group to the east of Mashad on Iran’s Afghanistan/Turkmenistan border region.

    I couldn’t find any reference to Pashtun in Seegers paper, nor in a couple of his references I tracked down.

    If they are Pashtun then they would be using Pashto which is an Indo-Iranian language. I can speak a little Farsi and I can hold a “small” conversation with a Pashtun, But I can’t do that with Arabic speakers, even the ones with whom I share a house.

    ===========================================
    There seem to be quite a few “gypsies/rom” in Iran according to these couple of sources.

    http://www.marston.co.uk/RSPP/LUPRSV013P02A00123.pdf

    http://www.domresearchcenter.com

    There’s an intriguing reference to a “matador” here http://www.domresearchcenter.com/journal/110/aoprisan110.html which led me to connect the dots between gypsy influence in Spain, the Umayyad Caliphate and Iran.

    • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

      Many thanks for the additional information and insightful commends. Good point regarding the Siddis, a significant and under-studied community. 

      II am not sure about the Pashtun issue.  I followed Izady in this regard, but I did not look into the issue further. Maps of ethnicity in Afghanistan show pockets of Pashto-speakers along the Iranian border, and I would not be surprised if they extend into Iran, although not necessarily as my map indicates.  I did find this, however, on PashtunForums: 
      “There are around one hundered thousands pashtuns living in south khorasan province of iran.Remember we are not including afghan refugees living there.We are discussing only the iranian citizens pashtuns.
      A friend of mine visited that part and he said the pashtuns of south khorasan of iran are living in poverty.There is discrimination against them by the iranains on the bases of religion like suni ,shai issues but pashtuns are hard working people and life gose on for them.
      The pashtuns of south -khorasan of province of iran are living close to the afghan border.The pashtuns ruled over so these people might came during the time of hotaki rule over iran or they might be the original inhabitants of that land.I am interested to know what tribe of pashtuns they belong to.”A commentator to the post added this:  “The total of Pashtun population together with zabul was 139,000 we are talking 1972 source. Since then no other demographic data has came out nor from western NGO, and nor from Government of Iran. In fact I remember once talking to an Iranian who was working for embassy of Iran. That we share commonalities and that IRan even has PAshtun population the guy went “no we only have Balochi population there is no Pashtuns in Iran. Yes there are Afghan tribes who invaded Iran but they are mixed with IRanian and they are Persians now” Indeed I could of go on but he was just a racist Shia whom only a stupid person can argue with.”http://www.pashtunforums.com/pashtun-history-8/pashtuns-south-khurasan-iran-18230/Fascinating information on Rom/Gypsies in Iran — certainly an ignored group.  

      • Anonymous

        Martin,

        I don’t doubt for a moment that there are Pashtuns who are “native” to Iran and that some of them live in Khorosan province.  I only doubt that the speakers of an “extremely ancient Arabic dialect” are Pashtun – which is what the map (and only the map) implies.

        The Pashtuns across the border could be from several different groups, as they are in Herat. 

        I’m not sure that the “tribal” loyalties are as intense outside the Pashtun core provinces either side of the AfPak border.  I have a Pashtun friend from Indian Punjab, he’s tells us that he doesn’t even know if he’s from a tribe.  It wasn’t an issue because there were so few Pathans in Punjab; he now grows banana’s in Australia :lol:

        cheers

        • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

          The map evidently is a little ambiguous, as I did not mean to imply any connection between the two groups (Arabs and Pashtuns in Khorosan). Izady’s map depicts Khorosani Arabs as Shiites and Pashtuns in the same general region as Sunnis.  

          • Sundial2011

            The map on religions in Iran should be used alongside the map on linguistic/ethnic composition of that country made by the same author, M. Izady. Here is the link. 

            http://gulf2000.columbia.edu/images/maps/Iran_Languages_lg.jpgOr better yet, Martin Lewis should post it alongside the map on religion. Muturzikin map is a poor copying (and sectioning) by him of Izady’s work. Better to use the original than the bad copy.

            In that map, it becomes clear that 1) the Khurasani Arabs and Pashtuns are two different people and live apart from one another in that region of Iran. 2) The Sunni Arabs of Iran living between Bushehr and Lingah mimic their Persian neighbors who too are Sunni. Lar-Lingah area remained Sunni while the rest of Iran converted to Shiism under the Safavids. So, Sunnism there has nothing to do with ethnicity, but history. There, you find Persians, Laris, Arabs, Africans, Turkomans etc. who happen to be Sunni. The Hawila who resettled in Bahrain and southern Gulf are the “Returnees” (Hawila) of the Arab Sunnis to the Arabian Peninsula from Shia Iranian coast.

  • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

    “Intriguingly, those Khorasani Arabs who maintain their original language speak an “extremely ancient Arabic dialect.”” — It is actually quite typical for diasporic/emigre (and other “outside the mainstream”) communities to speak a more conservative version of the language. Certainly true of Quebecois French (more conservative than “French French”), Ladino/Judeo-Spanish (more conservative than Standard Spanish), even the Russian of the White Russian emigres in here San Francisco (more conservative than the spoken Russian back in Russia). This conservatism may involve pronunciation, vocabulary choices and even grammatical structures. Another example of this is that (to some extent) American English (pronunciation) is closer to Elizabethan English than British English is (hence, it’s funny when actors in Shakespearian dramas try to sound as BBC-English as possible).

    http://languages-of-the-world.blogspot.com/2011/04/where-was-human-language-born-part-2.html

    http://languages-of-the-world.blogspot.com/2011/03/thus-spoke-shakespeare-or-did-he.html

    • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

      Many thanks, Asya, for the insightful comments. It would be interesting to see how the Khorasani Arab dialect compares with the classical Arabic of the Quran.  

      • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

        Very interesting indeed! My hunch is that Khorasani Arabic is quite different from Classical Arabic (of the Quran), but more conservative compared to other colloquial varieties of Arabic (such as Moroccan, for example, which is probably one of the least conservative ones). Unfortunately, good grammatical descriptions of Khorasani Arabic are hard to come by: the only one I found so far is in German, which I don’t read… I will let you know if I manage to figure it out…

        • Anonymous

          Asya

          If you use Google to translate Martins speak link ==>> http://seeger.uni-hd.de/chorasan.htm

          And then click the PDF download link you should get translation of the paper in your browser – its hard going and it gives up after page 15 but it may help

          • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

            Thanks, Phil_Daniels! I downloaded that paper but I don’t like what Google Translate does with it. I crowdsourced it to my Facebook friends instead :)

  • Dan

    The map on religions in Iran should be used alongside the map on linguistic/ethnic composition of that country made by the same author, M. Izady. Here is the link. 

    http://gulf2000.columbia.edu/maps.shtml

    Better yet, Martin Lewis should post it alongside the map on religion. Muturzikin map is a poor copying (and sectioning) by him of Izady’s work. Better to use the original than the bad copy.

    In that map, it becomes clear that 1) the Khurasani Arabs and Pashtuns are two different people and live apart from one another in that region of Iran. 2) The Sunni Arabs of Iran living between Bushehr and Lingah mimic their Persian neighbors who too are Sunni. Lar-Lingah area remained Sunni while the rest of Iran converted to Shiism under the Safavids. So, Sunnism there has nothing to do with ethnicity, but history. There, you find Persians, Laris, Arabs, Africans, Turkomans etc. who happen to be Sunni. The Hawila who resettled in Bahrain and southern Gulf are the “Returnees” (Hawila) of the Arab Sunnis to the Arabian Peninsula from Shia Iranian coast.

  • Dan

    Sorry. Here is the direct link to Iran linguistic/ethnic map that is the counterpart to the Religion map posted here already

    http://gulf2000.columbia.edu/images/maps/Iran_Languages_lg.jpg

  • Dan

    The originals for the maps of religion and language in the Persian Gulf are:

    http://gulf2000.columbia.edu/images/maps/GulfLanguageGeneral_lg.jpg
    http://gulf2000.columbia.edu/images/maps/GulfReligionGeneral_lg.jpg

    These should be use in place of Muturzikin’s plagiarized map that is posted here

  • Rezaafz

    only PERSIAN gulf

  • hessam

    that time (in history)who iran hase empire ..other people in of the world was wild

    and arab was like dog for iranian

    now this arab is dog for iranian

    only persian golf
    دوستان فارسی زبان من انگلیسیم زیاد خوب نیست بچه ها ولی حرف های این سایت خیلی اشتباه هست و ضد ایرانی هست خواهشا کسی که انگلیسیش از من بهتر هست دفاع کنه از وطنمون و تاریخمون در برابر این حروم زاده های تازه به دوران رسیده

  • selena homami

    Persian gulf