The fall of Tabriz in 1501 before the advancing forces of Shah Isma‘il Safawi marked the beginning of a new era in Iranian history. The land of Persia, whose population up to that time had been mainly Sunni, was now beginning to be transformed into a Shi‘ite homeland.
Suppression of the Sunni Iranians was swift and merciless. The Sunni ‘ulama and Sufis were specifically targetted for persecution. Many preferred exile to certain death, and with the extermination and exodus of their ‘ulama the Ahl as-Sunnah in Iran lost the leadership capable of maintaining their ‘Aqidah as the dominant creed of the land. Thus the time-honoured Persian tradition of Sunni learning and spirituality that started with the likes of Ibrahim ibn Adham, ‘Abdullah ibn al-Mubarak and Abu Dawud of Sijistan, and was sustained by men like al-Ghazali, ar-Razi and ‘Abd al-Qadir of Jilan, came to a horrendous end in the relentless persecution of the Safawids.
Two and and a half centuries of Safawid rule ensured the supremacy of the Shi‘ite faith in Iran. For a country that once barely had a single Shi‘i ‘alim, Iran soon had a powerful clergy, the result of large-scale immigration from Jabal ‘Amil in Lebanon, and from Bahrayn. Soon real power in Iran came to be vested in the clergy. It was they who held Nadir Shah’s eclecticism of the 18th century in check. In the 19th century they demonstrated their immense authority over the Iranian masses in the Tobacco Revolution. In the 20th century clerical power in Iran finally reached its zenith when the revolution of 1979 turned Ayatullah Ruhullah Khomeini’s theory of Wilayat al-Faqih into the foundation of government in Iran.
The Shi‘ite clergy of modern Iran have proven themselves worthy heirs to the bigoted clergy of Safawid times. Once again it was the ‘ulama of the Ahl as-Sunnah who became the target of their persecution. Through a careful media cover-up the state has succeeded in keeping much of this out of the international news. Yet Allah willed that some of it should filter out so that those who are concerned about the fate of the Ahl as-Sunnah in Iran may have some type of an idea about what hardship Iranian Sunnis are being subjected to.
When the Safawids started their extermination of the Ahl as-Sunnah in the sixteenth century, part of the tragedy was that the names most of those Sunni men of learning and piety who were murdered were lost for posterity. Reading a biographical source which covers the period, like Shadharat adh-Dhahab of Ibn al-‘Imad, one is struck by the sudden decrease, and then almost complete disappearance of prominent Sunni men of letters from Iran that coincides with the Safawid rise to power. Some, like Mulla ‘Ali al-Qari who was from Herat in present-day Afghanistan could rise to prominence only because his family fled their homeland to settle in Makkah, where he grew up. Today, with the tragedy repeating itself, and Sunnis once again becoming open prey to the bloodlust of the Shi‘ah, it is our duty to preserve the memory of those slain or imprisoned for the sake of their ‘Aqidah. The government in Tehran sees to the preservation of the memories of its own martyrs. Sunnis, it seems, will have to see to our own.
Here follows a list of prominent Iranian Sunnis who were killed, exiled or imprisoned during the two decades since the revolution:
1. Ahmad Muftizadeh
Ahmad Muftizadeh was a prominent Sunni Shafi‘i leader of Kurdistan, and was widely regarded as one of the most influential Sunni personalities in Iran. Eighteen months before the revolution contact was established between him and the exiled Khomeini in Iraq. An exchange of correspondence ensued, in which Muftizadeh offered his advice to Khomeini. The letters were carried by Khomeini’s associates passing through Sanandaj in Kurdistan, where Muftizadeh had his headquarters, on their way to Iraq. Muftizadeh was able to convince the Sunnis of not only Kurdistan, but also other parts of Iran, of the necessity of siding with Khomeini against the Shah. When the revolution came and the Shah fled the country, the Ahl as-Sunnah in Iran rejoiced as much as the Shi‘ah, in the earnest belief that the revolution would bring an end to the socio-economic deprivation from which they suffered.
However, no sooner had the revolution succeeded than tanks started rolling into Kurdistan. The Kurdish Democratic Party, a group with Marxist leanings, had been demanding Kurdish independence even in the time of the Shah. Khomeini’s forces, under the pretext of suppressing KDP activities, started attacking Kurdish villages. In the time before the revolution Muftizadeh had been strongly advising his people against the secessionism of the Marxist KDP, and urging them to side with Khomeini’s revolution. This was of no advantage to them. Eye witnesses describing the attacks recalled the soldiers yelling things like “Show no mercy to the offspring of ‘ Umar, ‘ Uthman and Mu‘awiyah!”. Still Muftizadeh advised patience and discouraged armed resistance.
It was expected that Muftizadeh, due to his popularity, and more importantly on account of his unreserved support for Khomeini would be appointed Khomeini’s representative in the Sunni-majority province of Kurdistan. Instead, Khomeini appointed one Safdari, a man with no popular support, and whose single qualification for the post was the fact that he was a Shi‘i. The people of Sanadaj in Kurdistan responded violently when Safdari and his proté gé s fired at a protesting crowd. Safdari had to escape, and the members of his committee were shot by the townspeople in revenge.
With Khomeini thus making his intentions for Kurdistan clear, Muftizadeh saw no option but to resign from the consultative body of which he had been a member and founded the Central Consultative Council for the Ahl as-Sunnah (Majlis ash-Shura al-Markazi li-Ahl as-Sunnah). On the 10th of Dhul Qa‘dah 1404 (1984) he was arrested. He was kept in prison for over ten years. He reportedly suffered much torture during his imprisonment. Just two weeks after his release from prison, he died.
2. Mawlana ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Mullazadeh
Mawlana ‘Abd al-‘Aziz was the Hanafi mufti of Baluchistan, and the undisputed leader of the Sunni Baluchis. In the early days of the revolution he used to deliver pro-Khomeini khutbas in Zahedan, the capital of Baluchistan, believing, as did Muftizadeh and others, that the new leaders of Iran would be true to their promises of bringing to an end the misery in which Sunni-populated areas like Kurdistan and Baluchistan were left by the Shah. The pan-Islamist rhetoric of Khomeini removed any concerns of a sectarian nature that they might have had. However, when the clampdown upon the Ahl as-Sunnah started, and the anti-Sunni policies of the government came to light, Mawlana ‘Abd al-‘Aziz was forced to withdraw his support. Not very long after he did so he died in what has been described as “suspicious circumstances”. Among the anti-Sunni policies of the Tehran regime was the settling of large groups of Shi‘ah in predominantly Sunni areas. In Mawlana ‘Abd al-‘Aziz’s hometown of Zahedan, that was a completely Sunni city before the revolution, the Ahl as-Sunnah soon found themselves in a minority.
3. Shaykh ‘Uthmaan Siraj ad-Din
Shaykh ‘Uthman Siraj ad-Din was the shaykh of the Naqshbandi Sufi tariqah in Iran at the advent of the revolution. Not long after the revolution he was forced into exile. The exile of this man constitutes another point of resemblance between Khomeini’s takeover of Iran, and that of Shah Isma‘il in the 16th century. After the latter’s conquest of Iran the Naqshbandi tariqah was the first Sunni Sufi tariqah to be persecuted, probably on account of its staunch Sunnism, and the fact that unlike most other tariqas it is connected to Rasulullah sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam through Sayyiduna Abu Bakr radiyallahu ‘anhu. Four centuries ago Mulla Baqir Majlisi could gleefully boast of having ” rid the land of Persia of every Naqshbandi dervish” ; today the Iranian regime has driven the shaykh of the same tariqah into exile.
4. Shaykh Muhy ad-Din
This Sunni ‘alim from Khurasan was detained for a number of years, after which he was sent to Isfahan in exile for two years. In Ramadan this year (1997) he was in exile in Baluchistan.
5. Shaykh Ibrahim Safizadeh
Three years ago this graduate of Imam Muhammad ibn Sa‘ud University in Saudi Arabia was viciously assaulted on charges of being a Wahhabi. After being beaten 70 lashes in the middle of the bazaar he was incarcerated. He was sentenced to 7 years in prison.
6. Maulana Nazr Muhammad Baluchi
He used to be a member of Parliament. During Khomeini’s time he was imprisoned for two years during which he was subjected to torture. Under torture a confession of being a spy for Iraq and Israel was forced out of him. After his release from prison he left Iran for Pakistan, where he now lives.
7. Maulana Dost Muhammad Baluchi
After spending two years in Khomeini’s prisons, he was exiled to Isfahan.
8. Sayyid ‘Abd al-Ba‘ith Qatta’i
This imam and khatib of a Sunni masjid in Bandar Khamir, and principal of a Sunni seminary, was arrested by the Revolutionary Guard and sent into forced military conscription.
9. Mawlawi Ibrahim Damani
An ‘alim from Baluchistan. He was imprisoned at least three times. In Ramadan this year he was still serving a prison sentence.
10. Shaykh ‘Abd al-Majid
11. Shaykh Muhammad Qasim
12. Shaykh Ahmad Narawi
All three the above were teachers in a Sunni religious madrasah in the town of Zahedan, the capital of Baluchistan. They were arrested and imprisoned without charges.
13. Mawlana ‘Abdullah Quhistani
14. Mawlana ‘Abd al-Ghani Shaykh Jami
15. Maulana Sayyid Ahmad Husayni
16. Maulana ‘Abd al-Baqi Shirani
17. Maulana Jawanshir Rawadi
18. Maulana Ghulam Sarwar Yarizmi
19. Maulana ‘Abd al-Latif
The above were all imprisoned.
20. Maulana ‘Abd al-Malik Mullazadeh
Mawlana ‘Abd al-Malik was the son of Mawlana ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Mullazadeh. After his father’s death he succeeded him as the Sunni leader of Baluchistan. At the time of his death he was living in exile in Paksitan. On the 4th of February 1996, as he was leaving the house in which he was staying in Karachi, he was gunned down by men believed to be Iranian operatives in Pakistan. An associate, ‘Abd an-Nasir Jamshidzahi was gunned down with him. A Pakistani woman was also injured in the attack.
21. Shaykh ‘Abd an-Nasir Jamshidzahi
This young ‘alim was also murdered in the attack on Mawlana ‘Abd al-Malik in Karachi. He was a graduate of the University of Damascus, and was working as a lecturer at the University of Islamic Studies (Jami‘at ad-Dirasat al-Islamiyyah) in Karachi.
22. Maulana ‘Ali Akbar Mullazadeh
The younger brother of Maulana ‘Abd al-Malik. He narrowly escaped death himself when he was attacked in Pakistan. At the moment he is in exile in the United Arab Emirates.
23. Dr. Ahmad Sayyad
Dr. Sayyad received his education, both undergraduate and postgraduate, at the Islamic University in Madinah. He returned to Iran in 1990, and founded a religious educational institute in his native Baluchistan. Not long after his return he was detained by the authorities fo five years without charge. After his release he travelled to the United Arab Emirates in December 1995. Immediately upon his return he was arrested at the Bandar Abbas airport by security agents. Five days later his mutilated body was found outside the city of Bandar Abbas. His death was protested by the UN, Amnesty International and several Iranian human rights and opposition groups.
24. Shaykh Faruq Farsad
Shaykh Faruq was a Kurdish ‘alim living in Ardabil. He graduated from the Islamic University in Madinah. On the 2nd of February 1996 he left his house which was under observation by the government. After a while his strangled body was found in the vicinity.
25. Shaykh Muhammad Salih Diya’i
Shaykh Diya’i was the khatib of the main Sunni masjid of Bandar Abbas. He also headed a higher institute for religious education in that city. He was a graduate of the Islamic University of Madinah. In 1994 his mutilated dead body was found on a roadside. An Amnesty International report contained the following: “According to official Iranian sources, an investigation conducted by the police concluded he had died in a car accident. However, this account differs from eye-witness reports which suggested that his mutilated body was found separately from the car, which did not bear signs consistent with the alleged accident. Amnesty International continues to believe that the truth surrounding his death cannot be established unless a full and independent investigation is conducted.”
26. Shaykh Muhammad Rabi‘i
This shaykh was the imam and khatib of the Imam Shafi‘i Mosque in the city of Kermanshah. He was assassinated in his house on the 2nd of December 1996. His death sparked widespread public discontent and opposition to the government. A statement issued by the Society for the Defence of the Ahl as-Sunnah (Jam‘iyyat ad-Difa‘ ‘an Ahl as-Sunnah) accused the government of being behind his assassination, which it described as an attempt to rid Iran of a Sunni presence. The police in Kermanshah was called in to break up demonstrations held in protest of the shaykh’s death, but they would not obey orders to fire upon the crowd. As a result troops from the Revolutionary Guard were rushed in. Scores of people were killed and injured when they opened fire upon the demonstrators. A state of emergency was declared in areas like Kurdistan, Baluchsitan, Bandar Abbas and parts of Khurasan. The killing of Shaykh Muhammad Rabi‘i, said the Jam‘iyyah, is yet another one in a series of murders of prominent Sunni ‘ulama, like Shaykh Ahmad Muftizadeh, Dr. Ahmad Sayyad, Mawlana ‘Abd al-Malik Mullazadeh, Shaykh Nasir Subhani and Shaykh Diya’i.
27. Shaykh Nasir Subhani
An outstanding Sunni ‘alim from Kurdistan. He was killed by forces believed to be linked to the government. He had written a book on the persecution of Sunnis in Iran.
28. Shaykh ‘Abd al-Haqq
A graduate of Jami‘ah Abi Bakr in Karachi, Pakistan. He was murdered.
29. Maulana ‘Abd al-Wahhab Siddiqi
A graduate of the Jami‘ah Islamiyyah in Lahore, Pakistan. He too, was murdered.
30. Dr. ‘Ali Muzaffariyan
Dr. Muzaffariyan was a medical surgeon, a former Shi’ite who embraced the ‘Aqidah of the Ahl as-Sunnah. The refusal of the authorities to allow Sunnis to build their own masjid prompted him to turn his own house into a masjid for the Ahl as-Sunnah. He himself was the imam and khatib of the Ahl as-Sunnah in the city of Shiraz. He was murdered.
31. Mawlawi Sher Muhammad Barahwi
An ‘alim from Zabil, Baluchistan. He was murdered.
Masajid and Madaris
In addition to the ‘ulama murdered, exiled or imprisoned, there have also been reports of Sunni masajid bulldozed and madaris closed down. There were at least two incidents of masajid being bulldozed, one in the city of Mashhad, and the other in Torbat-eJam. In Mashhad a Sunni madrasah was forcefully occupied by the army. The principal and staff were deprived of their status as clerics, while the students were forcefully conscripted into the army, against the Iranian law which exempts religious students from military conscription.