Persecution of Iranian Jews

ՙAbbās II issued a series of decrees that required Persian Jews to wear special identifying headgear or badges. The decree also required Jews in Persia to convert to Islam or face possible death. The continued persecution of Jews led also to the establishment of “ghettos,” or Jewish quarters within the region.

Summary of Event

Little is known about the history of Jews during the middle period of the Ṣafavid Dynasty in Persia (1501-1736), except accounts written by Muslims. The single notable exception is the contemporary Jewish account written by Bābā ibn Luṭf Luṭf, Bābā ibn , the Kitāb-i anusī
Kitāb-i anusī (Luṭf)[Kitabi anusi (Lutf)] (c. 1662; partial translation, 1987), a “book of a forced convert” that examines the persecution of Persian Jews in the period between 1617 to 1662. [kw]Persecution of Iranian Jews (1656-1662)
[kw]Jews, Persecution of Iranian (1656-1662)
[kw]Iranian Jews, Persecution of (1656-1662)
Cultural and intellectual history;1656-1662: Persecution of Iranian Jews[1870]
Religion and theology;1656-1662: Persecution of Iranian Jews[1870]
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1656-1662: Persecution of Iranian Jews[1870]
Middle East;1656-1662: Persecution of Iranian Jews[1870]
Iran;1656-1662: Persecution of Iranian Jews[1870]
Persecution, religious;Jews in Iran

It is not clear when the Jews became established in Persia, but anecdotal evidence has suggested their arrival dated from the period of the Assyrian deportations in the eighth century b.c.e. It is known that significant migration into the area of Persia had been established by the time of Cyrus the Great (538 b.c.e.). The legend of Mordecai and Esther, likely more folk tale than actuality, suggests that religious toleration was a way of life in the Persian Empire during the period of the kings (fifth century b.c.e.). Jewish merchants were successful in a variety of fields, such as trade, gold- and silversmithing, and weaving. Following the establishment of Islam as the state religion (seventh and eighth centuries c.e.), Jews were well established throughout the region, and were professionals in banking and were skilled in handicrafts. While the precise number of Jews in Persia during this period is questionable, a twelfth century census suggests a population in the range of 200,000 persons.

The conquest of Persia by Muslim Arabs began with the defeat of the ruling Sāsānid Dynasty in the Battle at Nahāvand in 642, and Islam replaced Zorastrianism as the state religion. Non-Muslims were called dhimmis, or second-class citizens.

Religious tolerance of Jews fluctuated with the fortunes of the state during the ensuing centuries. To some extent, Persia represented a Jewish backwater in the Diaspora. There exists little evidence for any significant contributions to the greater Jewish philosophy or leadership during this period. In general, Jewish authority and leadership was located in Baghdad.

The ՙAbbāsid Dynasty of Persia was overthrown in 1258 with the invasion from the north by Hülegü (c. 1217-1265), brother of Kublai Khan and grandson of Ghengis Khan. The Il-Khan Dynasty, lasting from 1258 to 1353 (its power ended in 1335), was relatively open in its acceptance of diverse religions. Subsequent dynasties, however, were not as tolerant.

In 1500, Ismāl I (1487-1524), the son of a murdered Ṣafavid leader, became head of an army of tribesmen that practiced Shīՙite Islam Islam;Shīՙite . The order had its origins in the late thirteenth century under the leadership of Persian mystic Ṣafī od-Dīn (1252/1253-1334), patronymic ancestor to the Ṣafavid Dynasty and spiritual leader of the Ṣafavid Sufi Order, including Shīՙite Turkoman tribesmen from Armenia. In the course of two years, Ismāl conquered much of Azerbaijan and Armenia, and he was crowned shah (king) of Persia in 1501

During the Ṣafavid period, Shiism became the established state religion, and once again minorities, such as the Jews, were subject to persecution. The most important ruler in this period was Shah ՙAbbās the Great ՙAbbās I the Great . In a series of military conquests over the Turks and Tatars, ՙAbbās expanded the Persian Empire over much of what is now Iraq and Iran. ՙAbbās also was known for the efficient administration of his kingdom as well as his tolerance of other religions

In 1642, ՙAbbās II ՙAbbās II , the ten-year-old great-grandson of ՙAbbās the Great, was crowned shah. Persecution of the Jews was resumed during ՙAbbās II’s reign. In these early years, a series of ministers retained much of the power for the throne. Muhammad Beg Muhammad Beg , grand vizier to the shah, appears to have been behind much of the persecution. Hebrew books were banned and destroyed while Persian Jews were required to wear special headgear or badges as well as pay a special tax to distinguish them from the Muslim population.

In 1656, a royal decree was issued that required Jews to undergo a forced conversion. Numbers vary, but an estimated 20,000 to 100,000 Jews underwent such conversions. Such “new Muslims” received a monetary reward and were relieved of tax and headgear requirements. Many of these “converted” Jews practiced Islam only to appease their neighbors and ensure their own safety, and secretly maintained Jewish customs. Five years later, in 1661, a second edict reversed the first edict, allowing Jews to once again practice their religion openly.

The reason for the reverse may have been, in part, an economic one. Religious tolerance, not only of Jews but also of Christian and other minorities, was an important factor in maintaining trade relations with much of Europe. In addition, Jewish merchants were significant components of the economic activity within the empire.

Even though there is little documentation for this time in Persian Jewish history, Bābā ibn Luṭf’s Kitāb-i anusī is one helpful source. Luṭf lived with his family in the city of Kāshān during these years, and he describes in some detail the ordeals suffered by the Jewish population; he most likely wrote after the second decree.

The underlying reasons for the beginnings and extent of the persecutions are obscure. In the Kitāb-i anusī, Luṭf suggests that the event that triggered the persecutions was the theft by Jewish jewelers of a valuable dagger belonging to the shah. The historical accuracy of such a motive is questionable and may very well represent a story simply repeated by Luṭf. It is much more likely that a complex series of events sparked the persecutions. The years were marked by religious zealotry on the part of Beg. Though politically and militarily the period was relatively quiet, government mismanagement appeared to be widespread. Continuing economic unrest within the kingdom turned the population against Jews, who historically have been the scapegoats in many countries and in many time periods. To maintain a large standing army, taxes were imposed on the Muslim population. The payment of a “bonus” to Jews who underwent conversion exacerbated the problem. Ironically, persecution by government decree was marked by an absence of fanaticism, perhaps reflecting the long period of connections and relations between Jews and the larger Muslim population.


The imposition of anti-Jewish decrees confirmed that despite hundreds of years of peaceful coexistence in a Muslim country, Jewish citizens were only as safe as the current ruling house would allow. In the years following 1662, Jewish authority became even more decentralized and representatives became active within individual provinces.

“Ghettos,” though the term itself was not used at this time, were established within the larger cities as so-called Jewish quarters produced their own synagogues and ritual sites. The tax board, found in the capital of Eşfahān prior to the period of the decrees, was maintained but no longer controlled all Jewish communities.

Unlike the situation within the Ottoman Empire, no rabbi oversaw Jewish affairs in Persia. Prior to the accession of the ՙAbbāsid family, the gaon (Jewish spiritual leader and scholar) of Baghdad would appoint the chief rabbi of Eşfahān, while representatives of the Persian Jewish community were in frequent contact with outside authorities. In the period described by Luṭf, only a nasi, a religious authority—but not a rabbi—oversaw affairs. His primary affair with respect to the state was the collection of taxes.

Upon the death of Shah ՙAbbās II, Jewish persecution was resumed under a series of successors, continuing through the end of the Ṣafavid Dynasty. Arguably, only the accession of Nāder Shāh (r. 1736-1747) saved the Jews from annihilation.

Further Reading

  • Abisaab, Rula. Converting Persia: Shia Islam and the Safavid Empire. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2004. A discussion of socioeconomic policies and the development of Shīՙite Islam as the dominant religious power.
  • Floor, Willem. Safavid Government Institutions. Costa Mesa, Calif.: Mazda Publishers, 2001. An account of government and other state institutions covering the period from 1502-1736 in Iran, including the Reign of Shah ՙAbbās II.
  • Jackson, Peter, and Lawrence Lockhart, eds. The Timurid and Safavid Periods. Vol. 6 in The Cambridge History of Iran. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. In-depth description of social and religious history, covering the period from 1335 to the 1730’.
  • Moreen, Vera Basch. Iranian Jewry’s Hour of Peril and Heroism: A Study of Bābā ibn Luṭf’s Chronicle, 1617-1662. New York: American Academy for Jewish Research, 1987. Moreen examines Bābā’s descriptions of forced conversions and analyzes the contemporary life of Persian Jewry. Includes selected translations into English of Bābā’s chronicle.
  • Sykes, Sir Percy. A History of Persia. Vol. 2. New York: Barnes & Noble Books. 1969. A reprint of a two-volume set that covers the history of the region. Volume 2 explores the period from the beginning of Islam through World War I.

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Persecution, religious;Jews in Iran