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ETHNONYM: Iranians


Persians are an ethnic group defined primarily by language and location. The Persian language, also known as Farsi, which linguists classify in the Indo-Iranian Branch of the Indo-European Language Family, had about 23 million speakers in Iran in 1986 and 6 million in Afghanistan the same year (Grimes 1988). It is the official language of Iran, and also the language of Iran's government bureaucracy, educational institutions, mass media, and literature. A dialect of modern Persian is used as the language of elites in Afghanistan. Standard Persian, or Farsi, followed Middle Persian, or Pahlavi, which was the language of the Sāssānian period of Iranian history (a.d. 224 to 642). In the centuries that followed the Arab conquest of Iran, Pahlavi absorbed numerous Arabic elements. The addition of Arabic words into Persian is the primary difference between the language spoken today and that spoken thirteen centuries ago.

History and Cultural Relations

The Iranian plateau was inhabited by a hunting and gathering group by 10,000 b.c. Around 3000 b.c., waves of pastoralists from Eurasia drifted into the area searching for new pastures. Some of these pastoralists were warriors on horseback who supplanted the indigenous populations of the Iranian plateau. The first Iranians (Aryans) arrived about 1,000 b.c. They also penetrated the Iranian plateau in waves lasting several centuries, and, like their predecessors, they were pastoralists who also relied on agriculture to some extent.

The Iranians consisted of several tribal groups, including the Medes, Persians (Pars), Parthians, Bactrians, Soghdians, Sacians, and Scythians. For several centuries they absorbed the cultural influences of existing civilizations. In the seventh century b.c. they began to take over the known world. Between 625 and 585 b.c., the Medes developed a powerful civilization, with its capital at Ecbatana, modern day Hamadān. They defeated the powerful Assyrians and sacked their capital, Nineveh, in 612 b.c. Those tribes that had settled near Lake Urmia moved south and occupied Persis (Parsa), the modern province of Fārs, from which they obtained their name. These loosely federated Persian tribes became a more cohesive political unit under the Achaemenian dynasty. In 553 b.c., Cyrus, the ruler of Persis, overthrew the Median dynasty and consolidated the Medes and Perstans into the mighty Achaemenid Empire.

For 1,200 years Persia maintained a culture that grew increasingly complex and rigid. The social structure supported rulers, priests, warriors, artisans, scribes, pastoralists, agriculturists, and other producers. By the seventh century a.d., a small privileged class dominated a large mass of people who were blocked from attaining any upward social mobility; this was an important factor in setting the stage for a successful Arab conquest.

In the thirteen centuries since the Arab invasion, there has been a steady Persianization of the society. Persians have been able to maintain their independence from invaders and their dominance over non-Persian minorities. An intense nationalistic movement began in 1925, which included the official adoption of the name "Iran," the use of Farsi as a national language, and government encouragement to produce the best in Persian culture.


Persians are a sedentary people who have traditionally relied on agriculture as a means of subsistence. Much of the agriculture in Iran is based on dry farming. Farming methods and implements are primitive by Western standards, but well adapted to the steep and rocky terrain and shallow topsoil of much of the country. Important crops include wheat, barley, legumes, and a few cash crops such as tobacco, sugar beets, and sesame. Few villages have a substantial surplus.

The production of oil has added immensely to the economic base of Iran in the twentieth century. The role of oil in providing jobs for the labor market is clear, and Persians have certainly benefited from an expanded job market. The proportion of Persians involved in oil production and the effects of huge oil revenues on the daily lives of the Persian population are not clear at this point.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

The basic social and economic unit in Persian society is the nuclear family. Some families combine into larger units comprised of a man, his wife or wives, and their married sons and their families. The Persian family is patriarchal, patrilineal, and patrilocal. Women defer to their husbands in public but may wield considerable decision-making power in private. The father is usually aloof and a disciplinarian, whereas the mother is permissive and affectionate, often acting as an intermediary between the children and their father. Men are the guardians and defenders of the family honor; they are responsible for protecting the chastity of their daughters and sisters. This obligation has sometimes led to the sequestering of women in the more traditional segments of society.

Marriages are arranged only after negotiation and approval by both sets of kin. Husband and wife usually have similar educational and socioeconomic backgrounds. Endogamy is the traditional practice, although it is avoided by the urban, educated people. There is a preference for marrying cousins.

Sociopolitical Organization

Persians are concentrated in and near several cities on the Iranian plateauKermān, Shirāz, Yazd, Eşfahān, Kāshān, and Tehranand in Herat in Afghanistan. Each city is the economic and political center of dozens of towns, and each town integrates hundreds of villages into a regional economic network. Urban Persians can be grouped into distinct occupational and social classes based on their degree of control over economic and political resources. At the top of the hierarchy are real-estate investors and speculators and other industrial and commercial entrepreneurs. This class includes many deputies, senators, ministers, ambassadors, and governors. On the next rung of the hierarchy are high-ranking administrators, who derive their power from above. Merchants and shopkeepers, the Bazaaris, constitute the third level of the social system and are perhaps the most cohesive segment of Iranian society. The Bazaaris have been closely allied with the ulama (clergy), who comprise another step on the hierarchical ladder. They are the interpreters and practitioners of Islam and in the past have led successful protest movements against unpopular rulers. The fifth urban category might be considered the middle class. It includes a large proportion of the educated white-collar workers, civil-service employees, doctors, teachers, engineers, and other specialists, including the military. In the 1970s the middle class was growing rapidly in size and political importance. Below the middle class is the urban proletariat. They comprise more than a third of the urban population, including factory and construction workers, municipal employees, and mental laborers. On the bottom rung is the subproletariatthe unskilled and often unemployed. Primarily Persian, this group consists primarily of poor nomads and landless villagers who come to the city in search of wage labor.

Persian towns are far more homogeneous than are the cities. Religious observances are practiced more regularly and fervently than in the city. Townspeople criticize urban dwellers because of their religious laxity and decadent Western behavior and values. At the same time, however, many townspeople, especially the more affluent, try to emulate the city life-style.

A large proportion of the Persian population still lives in thousands of villages and hamlets. Village populations vary between a few households and a thousand inhabitants. The size of a village depends on two critical factors, arable land and availability of water, both of which can be privately owned.

Like the Persian family, the social system is hierarchical, paternalistic, and authoritarian. Initiatives originate and decisions are almost always handed down from the top; subordinates seldom assume responsibility. This vertical system of social relations sometimes produces friendships between people of equal status that are very close and intimate but difficult to maintain over time.

Religion and Expressive Culture

The Islamization of Iran after the Arab conquest was possibly more far-reaching in its effects than were the linguistic changes. The Iranian religion prior to that time was Zoroastrianism, which was based on the belief that there was an eternal struggle between the forces of good and evil. Shiism became the national religion of Iran during the sixteenth century, at which time the ulama began to play an important role in the social and political life of the society. When Ayatollah Khomeini led the revolution that toppled the shah in 1979, he declared that the ulama were needed to purify Islam and apply its laws. As an Islamic republic, Iran is guided by the tenets of Islam as interpreted by the ulama. Most Persians today are Shia Muslims of the Ithna Ashari sect and adhere to Islamic laws and principles.

Persian art is found in a variety of forms ranging from intricately patterned tiles and Quranic inscriptions on the walls of mosques to handicrafts, miniature painting, and calligraphy. Poetry with well-defined meter and rhyme is a popular Persian art form. Persian poetry often deals with subjective interpretations of the past and sometimes satirizes social problems such as inequality, injustice, and repression.

A popular religious or philosophical theme that is expressed in Persian literature is qesmet, or fate. Persians believe that all unexplainable occurrences are the will of God, and that most things in life are controlled by fate rather than by humans. The unpredictable nature of life is sometimes used to justify the pursuit of pleasure.


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