Iran: A Cultural Cosmopolis for Peaceful Coexistence of all Human Beings

A Paper by Ghahraman Soleimani Kahnouj, Deputy Head, Organization for Cultural and Islamic Relations of the Islamic Republic of Iran, prepared for the 13th Rhodes Forum

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.

Governance in Persian mythological history begins with the division of the world and not only Persia among Keyumars’ sons. In other words, in our Persian mythology, a kind of cosmopolitan homeland is described. Thus, Iranian people could have a place anywhere on the planet Earth.

Basically, the history of ancient Iran begins with immigration; immigration from the cold and ice-covered Siberian lands to the vast plains of Iranian Plateau.

Leaving the mythological ages for the historical testimonies, we travel together with Borzuya, the Persian physician, to India and listen to his words from Persian Kalila wa-Dimna or Sanskrit Panchatantra.  

In one of the chapters of his book which is called ‘Bab-e-Borzuya-Tabib’, Borzuya describes how he goes beyond Persia’ borders and travels to India to seek the elixir of knowledge. He was actually seeking a kind of global thinking, and did not limit himself to the national boundaries of Persia at that time, which was also a world by itself.  His historical journey continues to the contemporary era.

In whatever mentioned above, one can see a live and dynamic culture which does not know the borders and searches for a new world. The borders and lines only make their impatient spirits feel like being in the jail; so they make attempts to travel to the other side of the world to know and learn about the global events beyond Iran’s borders.

Let’s go through our historical testimonies again. The first immigration of Faith from Iran occurred when Salman Farsi travelled from Jay in Isfahan to Mosul, and passed over the cities of Bait tul Moqaddas (Jerusalem), the Levant or Damascus (Shaam) to arrive in Medina (Yathrib). Once, he was the guardian of Zoroastrian fire temple, and at one time he was a Christian, but in time he becomes a devoted Muslim who is introduced as a member of the Prophet’s Household (Ahl-ul-Bayt). He is a symbol of a devoted fighter, scientist and traveler with an inquiring restless, and cosmopolitan spirit of Iranian culture.

Cultures are of two kinds; sometimes closed, sometimes open and interactive. The objective of this article is not to distinguish good from bad, but to describe them without any cultural evaluation.

Undoubtedly, Iranian culture is an open and interactive one which requires geographical and social mobility and change. As a result, one can see the Iranian footsteps in furthest east of India, Zanzibar (Zangbar), Africa, Thailand and Indonesia in East Asia and even Fareast in Japan. Croats claim that they have Iranian origins and in Eastern Europe, one can find many who still believe they have travelled from Khorasan to Europe.

What Frye describes in his book, The Heritage of Persia, is a testimony to this fact. According to him, Iranians were living in the farthest corners of this enormous empire and were ruling this huge and vast territory. Many people of Persia were living in Egypt; the population of Iranians living in Taxila, one of the important centers of Manichaeism in Indian subcontinent, was also remarkable. Likewise, Persian princes were living in Armenia, and due to their settlement in this area, linguistic and cultural exchanges occurred and today one can find many Persian words in Armenian language. 

Iranian princes had called themselves Lee in China, and most of Manichaeism missionaries there were Iranians. Some examples of Manichaeism literature which has been found in Turpan in China are due to the immigration of these princes and missionaries. 

In Asia Minor, walls still bear the fact that Iranians were present in that area; Families from different cities of Isfahan, Shiraz, Hamedan, Gilan are still known as Esfahanians, Shirazians, Hamedanians, Kermanians, Gilanies, etc. in Indian subcontinent, and even until last year, one of these Iranian families was ruling Pakistan.

Mir Seyyed Ali Hamedani rose in Hamedan. He then spread out his summons in Kashmir and called out for unity and monotheism in Central Asia along with his fascinated followers; he was buried in Khatlan where to this day still hosts many who have found themselves and their spiritual world in his teachings. He travels through this vast geographical times and spaces and his journeys continue to the present. 

Mowlana was born in Balkh and grew up in Samarkand. He then travelled to Baghdad, Damascus, Mecca, and Asia Minor to seek the truth and his journey in the world of meaning is still going on and he is a traveler who is present in all territories around the world.

Going through the travel log of Ibn Battuta, one can see that his travel log is a valuable treasure which is keeping the names of those Iranian immigrants who were very influential in every corner of the world at that time; through his journey, Ibn Battuta met many Iranians who were reputable officials in Java, Beijing, Hungary, Ceylon, Yemen, Maldives, Damascus, Mecca, Granada (current Granada), Zanzibar and many other places.

The presence of hundreds of Iranian immigrants as jurists, narrators, judges and executives in the court in Andalusia during Muslim rule was so gracious and honorable that their names have been mentioned in books of history.

Al-Muqaddasi, the author of Ahsan Al-Taqasim states that people of Baalbek are originally from Persia. Likewise, the author of al-Buldan, Ibn Vazeh Yaghubi reports similar ideas about the Iranians living along the Red Sea and Yemen.

As mentioned by Sadr-al-Din Eini, even in the contemporary era, the presence of Iranians was seen in intellectual changes of Bukhara during the Constitutional Revolution, which is considered a brilliant chapter in Persian history. 

It will take us long if we make an attempt to give a historical report of these movements and changes. So let’s skip this issue since this little evidence cited above is, I think, sufficient to prove our contention. Immigration is one of the requirements of open cultures. It is also right that invasions, movements, revolutions, riots and instabilities can accelerate this process. The phenomenon of immigration in the contemporary era of Iran is no exception from this truth either. However, if we consider this phenomenon a historical one, our view will be changed. 

Let us look at the issue from another perspective. When we take a look at the capital cities of Persia, it begins from the eastern side of this ancient territory; from Samarkand and Bokhara to Ctesiphon and Madain. From the very first empire of the world- Achaemenid Empire- there were several capitals in Persia such as Susa, Ekbatan and Persepolis until Safavid era and Tabriz, Qazvin and Isfahan during and after Safavid era. All through these changes of capitals, a large number of people including armed forces, rulers and common people were moved to new places. 

The result of such an open realm was an extensive interaction with other cultures all around the world. The architecture of Persepolis indicates that different architects from Babylon, Egypt, Greece and Iran were working together and hand in hand. However, the result of their smart combination of cultural elements is a building with unique features that are neither Roman nor Egyptian nor Greek, but Iranian. 

It was this kind of perspective which led to the development of long roads such as Shahi and Abrisham (Silk) Roads. In ancient times, Persia was the junction between the East and West of the world; so, it required to be in connection with both East and West in order to have access to all parts of this vast territory from China to Europe for journeys and trades. Thus, to travel along this vast territory made them construct the longest roads of the world within this reign.   

One can see the attempts Persian culture made all through this era in order to solve the problems of its interaction with the world. Cyrus’ (Kourosh) tolerance spread all over the great Persian territory among its inhabitants for a peaceful coexistence.  It was due to this kind of perspective that Iranians announced their opposition to the racist Umayyad dynasty and Sha’ubia movement was formed with its cultural center in Iran.  Basically, embracing Islam eagerly was also due to a kind of cultural kinship Iranians felt between their own ancient ideology and Islamic redemptive rituals.  In Islam, “human being” is one who is addressed, which is in line with the cosmopolitan spirit of Iranians that was missing. Changing the capital of Islamic government from Damascus to Baghdad, which was known as the heart of Persia at that time according to Muslim geographers, meant that Islam was engraved in Iranians’ hearts favorably and accepted by all.

In its dealing with Islam, Iran not only did not bear any loss but also the result was a huge benefit. The Islamic civilization is described as a civilization which was first introduced by Arabs, the Turks used their swords for its sake, and its culture and civilization was created by Iranians. In this interaction, Persia even changed its script; it welcomed Arabic lettering though the outcome was again different from that of Arabic. The spirit of Islam and Persian culture were combined and manifested in a beautiful figure which was fully made of wisdom and sagacity.   

The Persian language was strengthened in a manner that Iranians were able to do trades with people of all languages. Persian language kept its doors open to changes in its structure and words. Due the practice of this interaction, it became the language of culture and civilization from Islamic East to the gates of Europe, and those who spread this language were not even Iranians. The universality of Persian languge among Mughals in India, Ottomans in Minor Asia and the Mamalik in Egypt substantiates this contention and proves the popularity of this language all around the world during those eras. 

Iranians did not build walls around their territory to create one of the Seven Wonders of the World; instead, they destroyed all the walls and borders to create a greater wonder which covered the space from the East to the West.  Today, in countries open to immigrants, one can rarely find an Iranian neighborhood defined as clearly as Chinese or Indians. Doors of knowledge are still open to them deep in their souls. Perhaps, the words of the great Indian leader, Mahatma Gandhi can best describe the ancient spirit of Iran when he said: “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any. I refuse to live in other people’s houses as an interloper, a beggar or a slave.”

The result of this interaction with the world is that the largest Jewish community in the Middle East, except for the injured Palestine territory, is still living in Iran. Iranians did not massacre Armenians. The Friday prayer leader built his house among Zoroastrians so that they could live comfortably in his shelter. Those bloody and terrible massacres that happened between Hindus and Muslims in Indian subcontinent never occurred in Persia. No Nazis have risen up on this land to kill millions of people under the name of Nationalism and Socialism. During the new era, no racial movement such as those by some Russians or Germans did exist in Persia…  

Iran, in today’s world, is actually a colorful heritage and symbol of that historical Persia with all those climate, racial and cultural diversity.  Iranians see all these diversities as a rainbow which provides them with diversity, vitality and fruitful life; this diversity not only is not a nuisance but also a great blessing which provides them with good exercise. This is why it can transfer Alexander, Genghis and Timur into noble and cultured human beings and despite all the huge sufferings and troubles it endured due to the attacks of these bloodthirsty invaders, Iranians even christen their new-born children by their names.

In nutshells, the Iranian culture is a cosmopolitan culture of coexistence among human beings whose audience is the human society, which cannot be confined to the limits of borders.