Professor Shireen Hunter Discusses the History of Islam in Iran

By Sprusansky, Dale | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 2015 | Go to article overview

Professor Shireen Hunter Discusses the History of Islam in Iran


Sprusansky, Dale, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Georgetown University professor Shireen Hunter debuted her new book, Iran Divided: The Historical Roots of Iranian Debates on Identity, Culture, and Governance in the 21st Century, on Nov. 5 at Georgetown's Washington, DC campus.

She used the occasion to discuss the ways in which Islam has shaped Iranian politics and society.

The professor began by stressing the important role of history in Iranian culture, calling it "incredibly relevant" to present-day national politics. While the nation has experienced many "ruptures" in its history, she noted, Iranians take pride in the continuity of their culture.

In Hunter's opinion, no "rupture" in Iranian history has had as much of an impact as the 7th century Arab invasion, which introduced Islam and led to the decline of Zoroastrianism. This historical event, she said, "leftIran with what I call a divided soul," as many Iranians at first were apprehensive about Islam.

Islam became more approachable for Iranians in the early 16th century, with the Safavid conversion of the country from Sunni Islam to Shi'ism, Hunter said. Shi'ism, she argued, provided cover for nationalism and expressions of Persian identity.

Advancing several centuries, Hunter discussed the 1979 Iranian revolution. While this event has been dubbed the "Islamic Revolution," she cautioned that this moniker is somewhat misleading. In Hunter's view, the leftwas the principle force behind the shah's ouster. "The leftmade the revolution in Iran," she stated, "and then the right took over. …

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