White Sun: Gobineau and the Iranian—Baha’i Origin of Nordic Racial Theory

The Seat of the Universal House of Justice on Mount Carmel at the Bahá’í World Centre in Haifa, Israel. [Photo: Bahá’í World Centre]

The Seat of the Universal House of Justice on Mount Carmel at the Bahá’í World Centre in Haifa, Israel. [Photo: Bahá’í World Centre]

by Kaveh Kianian, with contributions by Lexander Magazine staff writers

  • Basic Definitions

The term Āryān (Old Indic āˊrya-, Iranian *arya- [with short a-], Old Persian ariya-, Avestan airiia-, Modern Persian āryān; literally adj. noble, n. nobility, adj.aristocratic, n. aristocracy) has several distinct proper definitions:

Āryān (endonym)
a) the traditional endonym (ethnolinguistic self-designation) of the speakers of Iranian languages; synonomous with the term Iranian, though it must be differentiated from any contemporary concept or definition of national identity in the context of the nation-state. b) the formal endonymic identification of ethnic Persian-speakers in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
Āryān (title)
[as ārya] an Indic religious title or honorific used in post-Vedic Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism; chiefly applied to certain monarchs and religious leaders of ancient India. Also applied as an honorific title to various characters in the Sanskrit epic sagas of the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Āryān (state of being)
[as ārya] used to denote an exalted spiritual state of being in the Indo-Iranian religious traditions of Avestanism and Vedism; someone who has consistently maintained the highest ethical and moral standards. In the Proto-Aryan (Proto-Indo-Iranian) root religion, arya designated a form of spiritual aristocracy—this meaning is retained to some extent in the Buddhist traditions.
Āryān (Western linguistics)
in North American and Western European academia, sometimes used to refer to the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family. This has become the standard definition of Aryan in Western academia, though this is generally considered obsolete or deprecated, particularly in Northern European countries.
Āryān (given name)
[in Persian] male given name, common among ethnic Persian-speakers of Western and Northern Iran.
Āryānā (surname)
[in Persian] feminine form of masculine/gender neutral Āryān, common surname of ethnic Persian-speakers of traditional heritage in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir and Tajikistan, including Pamiri-speakers; in Iran, the name is often associated with those belonging to the Avestan (Zoroastrian) faith.
Āryānā (region)
ancient name of the Eastern Iranic homeland, roughly corresponding to much of the present-day territories of Afghanistan and Pakistan.


Nordicism—or Nordic theory—is a pseudoscientific and pseudohistorical ideological theory of biological race, first developed during the mid-to-late 19th century in Western Europe following the popularization of the racial hypothesis introduced by Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau in the seminal 1855 text entitled An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races and codified further by Houston Stewart Chamberlain in his 1899 magnum opus, The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, a massive tome detailing his belief in the racial supremacy of the “Aryan race” (in this context, White/Caucasian Indo-Europeans; the actual meaning of “Aryan” is entirely different and does not correlate to biological race) and presenting the theory of the Nordic purity of the Germanic peoples, the first such work to do so. Chamberlain’s work later served as the principal inspiration for Alfred Rosenberg’s The Myth of the Twentieth Century.

The Nordic theory of race evolved considerably over the years, particularly in the aftermath of World War II when such racial theories became deprecated as a taboo subject, most especially in postwar Germany and Austria, but also throughout the Western world in general.

Popular scientific consensus identifies Nordicism as a racial supremacist ideology that claims all advanced human civilizations, inventions, innovations, philosophies, etc. as having been the result of racially pure Nordic peoples.

The largely Italian racial theory of Mediterreanism—which is essentially the same as Nordic theory but with the Mediterranean race being credited with advancing human civilization and progress rather than the Nordics—was developed in the early 20th century in direct response to Nordicist ideologues and enjoyed some level of official support during the Fascist era of Mussolini.

While such theories were discredited long ago and have gradually faded away—in particular since the revolutionary work of Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza and other population geneticists has redefined scientific notions of race—many aspects of Nordicism continue to linger in popular society, such as the idea of “racial purity” and the claim that skin color defines racial and ethnic origin, among other deviant claims. But perhaps most fascinating is the popular misconception that Nordic theory was a wholly European development or that it was a product of an inherently racist culture. This is in spite of the fact that Nordic civilizations were historically far from racist—the Vikings, for example, did not have what some might refer today as a “racial consciousness”—and racist tendencies in Nordic societies did not begin to develop until many centuries after the introduction of Christianity.

In fact, Nordicism was not inspired by any native factor in European or Germanic civilization, but originated from an obscure new religious movement in nineteenth century Iran that was almost completely unheard outside of Persia until an eccentric French diplomat named Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau took it upon himself to investigate this strange new faith.

Little did anyone know that Gobineau’s work in introducing the Bahá’í religion to Europe would directly lead to the development of a racist belief system that would later become intertwined with a virulent strain of antisemitism and inevitably lead to the twentieth century ideology responsible for the Holocaust.

Gobineau and the Bahá’í

According to French and German diplomatic correspondence, Iranian linguist and historian Ahmad Kasravi (1890-1946), and various Bábi and Bahá’í personalities, and Orientalists as Edward Granville Browne and Vladimir Minorsky, during Gobineau’s two diplomatic assignments in Tehran (from 1855-58, then again in 1862-63), while not on post, he spent much time with Iranian academics and intellectuals and took a great interest in the history of Persian civilization and the primeval survival of the indigenous tribal peoples of Western Iran who have maintained their pastoral nomadism for thousands of years, even to the present day.

As with other Orientalists and Western diplomats, Gobineau was fascinated by the tribal peoples of the historic Elamite homeland (present-day Khuzestan, Ilam and Luristan provinces) and their distinctly Aryan (Indo-Iranian) legends and religious practices which are not evident among the non-Iranian-speaking tribes, such as the Turkic-speaking Qashqai and Semitic-speaking Khamseh (a tribal confederation of which some are Arabic-speaking) of Fars.

Gobineau was particularly interested in the endonyms in common usage among both the Iranic cosmopolitan urban residents, agrarian farmers and pastoral nomads—ho took note of the fact that many ethnic Persian-speakers identified themselves as “Aryans” (Arya), rather than designating themselves as Persian, which had always been a general nationality applied to all the peoples of Iran by foreigners, regardless of their ethnic or linguistic background. Gobineau came to the conclusion that the term “Aryan” was used not only as a standard endonym, but also intended as a deliberate racial designation to differentiate the Aryans from the non-Aryans, positing a distinct Iranic racial caste system based on ethnolinguistic ancestry. However, this interpretation of indigenous Aryan identity is not accepted as valid among ethnologists and anthropologists. Gobineau’s emerging racial theories and interpretations of Persian and Iranic society tended to be very controversial, particularly among the British who did not take kindly to what they viewed as his anachronistic Germanophilia.

It was also readily apparent to Gobineau that ethnic Persian and Iranic-speaking communities of Southwestern and Central Iran considered their “bloodlines” as sacred carriers of an ancient ancestral line that has survived a millennia of attempted genocides and ethnic cleansings at the hands of Arabian, Mongolic and Turkic invaders. Despite contemporary Pan-Turkic and Pan-Arabist propaganda that ethnic Persian-speakers had “imposed” their nationalism on “minority” ethnic groups, Gobineau chronicled the fact that the ethnic Persian-speakers had not constituted any monarchical dynasty since the fall of the Sassanid Empire, with the possible exception of the Samanid dynasty. During the exceptionally bloody invasions of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane that contemporary historians have estimated resulted in a loss of over 70% of the indigenous Iranian-speaking populations, the Azari peoples of the north and northwest (who originate from the Caucasus region and share common origins with the Armenian, Pontic, Kurdish and Georgian peoples) began undergoing a process of comprehensive Turkification, which ultimately led to the genocides of the Assyrians, Pontic Greeks and Armenians by the Ottomans and their local Turkic and Kurdish collaborators.

During his diplomatic missions in Persia, Gobineau spent a great deal of time studying and translating Persian literature and poetry, and was assisted in these endeavors by a local Persian Jewish rabbi, named Lalazar Hamadani, who had claimed to be a scholar, but likely had no formal educational background. Gobineau treated the Persian national epic, the Shahnameh (“Book of Kings”), as a literal and factual record of Aryan history, and used the ancient heroic sagas of the warriors Fereydun and Kaveh in their epic struggle against a genocidal Semitic tyrant named Zahhak, a figure who the Kurds traditionally identify as Akkadian or Assyrian (which is not without controversy due to the genocide of Assyrians in Urmia by Ottoman Turks and their Kurdish and Azeri allies), whereas traditional Persian accounts identify him as an Arabian monarch from the Southern Levant, with a very strong likelihood that he corresponds to a primeval-era Nabataean. Medieval Shi’a accounts also correlate Zahhak with the much reviled Arab supremacist Umayyad tyrants Muawiyah and his son, Yazid, both of whom despised the Iranic people, and most especially the Persians, who were prohibited from converting to Islam in order to forcibly maintain their status as dhimmis—this had the unintended side effect of significant Avestan and Mazdayasna survival in the Central and Eastern regions of the Iranian plateau well into the Safavid era, when Shi’a Islam became the first official state religion since the collapse of the Sassanids.

Gobineau concluded that this saga represented the most concrete and accurate evidence of what he believed was a millennia-long struggle between the Aryans, representing the Gnostic forces of Light, and the Semites, who as the diabolical servants of the Demiurge, represent the forces of Darkness. Consulting the various ethnological studies of the time that had been completed, and factoring in his own observations and interpretations of the diverse racial taxonomies throughout Eurasia from Iberia to the far reaches of Western China, and in Iran in particular, Gobineau quickly began to formulate and compile the fundamentals of his Proto-Nordic racial theory.

Indeed, among his peers in the diplomatic and aristocratic circles of Tehran and Isfahan, the fact that Gobineau considered the Shahnameh as a literal and factual historical record caused enough of a stir that German academics living in Iran began taking a greater interest in exploring the possible root sources for the legendary stories of the book. Taking into account the existence of not only pre-Islamic Iranic religious communities, but also pre-Zoroastrian, Gobineau’s highly speculative and unusual theories began to attract greater respect among European monarchist and völkisch elites.

While Gobineau’s theories and interpretations were considered fringe and the subject of scorn and ridicule amongst established Orientalists and linguists, like Dumas père, his popular style of writing, aimed at the layperson rather than the scholar, helped to establish these viewpoints as historically credible truth in the eyes of many, and through the expansions and revisions made by Houston Stewart Chamberlain, directly impacted the course of human history in a way that neither he nor his mockingly scornful contemporaries could ever have fathomed possible.

Baha’i impact on the genesis of Nordic theory

Baha’ism is a controversial new religious movement that arose in nineteenth-century Iran. A messianic, heretical esoteric offshoot of Shi’a Islam, it was the last of the various mystical millenarian cults that began appearing in Northern and Western Iran during the 1400s up to the eighteenth-century. Most of these cults were heterodox Sufi orders, or descended from such an order, merging Shi’a Islam with other belief systems, but predominantly remaining Muslim. Baha’ism was the first of these sects to declare the Qur’an and the hadiths as obsolete, and a fundamental doctrine was their view that the Prophet Muhammad was not actually the final Messenger, as this was only now being fulfilled, and that all previous holy scriptures were incorrect or flawed, which inevitably led to a rare instance of unanimous condemnation from Shi’a, Sunni, and Sufi theologians. There were also various accusations that the Baha’i sect was a product of a Masonic conspiracy directed by the British Royal Family, among other similar conspiracy theories.

Since the establishment of the current Islamic Republic in 1980, the Baha’i have not been officially recognized as an approved religion by the Iranian government, and is widely viewed by many Iranians, both secular and religious, as a deviant, power hungry sect that engages in numerous violations of human dignity and decency, and which controls every aspect of the private lives of Baha’i adherents, a totalitarian Weltanschauung—a complete and total world view comprising a political system, religious belief and practice and internationalist ideology. At the most fundamental level, the Baha’i essentially seek to unify all nations and peoples under a single world government guided (or dominated) by the Baha’i leadership in Israel, where presumably they would establish the new world capital in Jerusalem.

Of all the various sects that developed in Iran, Baha’ism has been one of the most enduring groups of the modern era and the most insidious. One of the major contradictions of Baha’ism has been the issue of race. While positing the “unity of the human race,” there is a definite hierarchical class system divided into racial and economic divisions, the ideology of which has been one of the most suppressed aspects of the sect, along with the Baha’i connection to the Theosophical Society of occultist Helena Blavatsky. The Baha’is remain one of the most unusual and bizarre movements to have arisen in the past several centuries, with many disturbing undercurrents of racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia at the heart of its belief system, and unlike the major Abrahamic traditions which allow for reform and progress through renewed scriptural exegesis, these prejudical aspects of Baha’ism cannot be reformed or altered as they are permanently hardwired into the system and individual interpretation is strictly prohibited.

Bahá’u’lláh and his inner circle were all from wealthy, aristocratic “old money” families of Mazandaran and Guilan provinces in Northern Iran—though often labeled as “Persian,” Bahá’u’lláh and his family were ethnic Mazandaranis (one of the major Iranian-speaking ethnic groups), as were most of his followers. Even in the present era, most Baha’i adherents reside in the northern provinces of Mazandaran and Guilan. Contrary to the artificial genealogy presented by the cult’s leadership, there is also strong possibility that Bahá’u’lláh was of Turkic origin or heritage stemming from the peoples of the Caucasus. Much of their evangelism focused on recruiting wealthy, influential figures rather than those who were poor and indigent as they did not present a lucrative pool of human and economic resources. Through this strategy, in addition to receiving unreported funding from Turkish and Israeli governments later in the twentieth century, who have helped subsidize the cult and continue to do so, the Baha’i have quickly become one of the wealthiest religious organizations in the world, having accumulated a massive slush fund of cash, real estate and other key assets. The old school hierarchical nature of the Baha’i means that the global leadership of the sect remains restricted to wealthy Baha’i men of pure Northern Iranian origin (from Mazandaran or Guilan, the regions of which comprise the heartland of the Baha’i) with close blood ties to Bahá’u’lláh and his original apostles.

Due to this strict hierarchical system with a racial undercurrent, in addition to various mistranslations and his tendency toward literal interpretation, even of largely abstract and metaphorical texts, his various conversations with Baha’i and Theosophical adherents, as well as his observation that many towns and villages featured Iranic peoples fitting the Nordic description, Gobineau came to the conclusion that Bahá’u’lláh had, with the utmost certainty, identified the ancient Aryans as being a blonde haired, blue eyed “master race,” of which remnants have persisted in Sweden and Norway, both of which feature the largest concentration of so-called “Hallstatt Nordics,” using the terminology of scientific racism.

The persecution of the Baha’i by the Qajars, a Turkic-speaking dynasty that ruled over Iran from the late 1700s to 1921, further solidified Gobineau’s belief that the Aryans constituted the creators and innovators of civilization, and that an existential struggle existed between the Aryans and non-Aryans, chiefly the Turkic, Mongol and Semitic peoples, a conflict which he believed went as far back in history as the period of Assyrian domination over the region in the centuries prior to the birth of the Persian Empire.

Though Gobineau to some extent correctly identified “Aryan” as a term and concept constituting an indigenous ethnic identity, most everything else was due to a highly literalist interpretation of the Shahnameh, Baha’i scriptures and classical Persian poetry. However, in recent years some Baha’i dissidents in Iran who have broken away from the Haifa leadership have suggested that Gobineau’s interpretations may not have been far off the mark, after all.

The Baha’i Vision of the Future: A Lighter, Whiter World?

One of the most contentious aspects of the Baha’i sect is that it is the world’s only religion to be absolutely, thoroughly free of all forms of racism and discrimination, and the only religion to deny the existence of biological separate human races, instead promoting what they refer to as the “oneness” of humanity. However, this is contradicted by Bahá’u’lláh’s own writings and those of his disciples, who believed that Black and dark-skinned peoples are inferior to the White peoples, and that the Persian-speaking peoples constitute a “Chosen people” (not dissimilar to the Jewish view of “chosenness”) that is superior to all others:

The inhabitants of a country like Africa are all as wandering savages
and wild animals. They lack intelligence and knowledge; all are
uncivilized; not one civilized and a wise man is not to be found among
them. These are the proofs of the wise men. The prophets also
acknowledge this opinion, to wit: That education hath a great effect
upon the human race, but they declare that minds and comprehensions
are originally different. And this matter is self-evident; it cannot
be refuted. We see that certain children of the same age, nativity and
race, nay, from the same household, under the tutorship of one
teacher, differ in their minds and comprehensions. One advanceth
rapidly, another is slow in catching the rays of culture, still
another remaineth in the lowest degree of stupidity. No matter how
much the shell is educated (or polished), it can never become a
radiant pearl. The black stone will not become the world-illumined
gem.”—Tablets of ‘Abdu’l-Baha p.567 vv.3-4

“…the brain of the Negro is weaker than that of the white… Even
for their own good the blacks must be treated as what they are, an
absolutely subordinate, inferior, lower type of man, incapable
themselves of culture. That must once and for all be clearly and
openly stated.”—August Forel, one of Bahá’u’lláh’s closest disciples,
quoted in Houston S. Chamberlain’s The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century

“It is, therefore, certain that sins such as anger, jealousy, dispute,
covetousness, avarice, ignorance, prejudice, hatred, pride, and
tyranny exist in the physical world. All these brutal qualities exist
in the nature of man. A man who had not had a spiritual education is a
brute. Like the savages of Africa, whose actions, habits and morals
are purely sensual, they act according to the demands of nature to
such a degree that they rent and eat one another.”—Some Answered
Questions 29:5

“As ignorance is the cause of crimes, the more knowledge and science
increases, the more crimes will diminish. Consider how often murder
occurs among the barbarians of Africa; they even kill one another to
eat each other’s flesh and blood!”—Some Answered Questions 77:13

“If a child is left in its natural state and deprived of education,
there is no doubt that it will grow up in ignorance and illiteracy,
its mental faculties dulled and dimmed; in fact, it will become like
an animal. This is evident among the savages of central African, who
are scarcely higher than the beast in mental development.”—The Promulgation
of Universal Peace, p.311

“The black man must ever be grateful to the white man, for he has
manifested great courage and self-sacrifice in behalf of the black
race. Four years he fought their cause, enduring severe hardships,
sacrificing life, family, treasure, all for his black brother until
the great war ended in the proclamation of freedom. By this effort and
accomplishment the black race throughout the world was influenced and
benefited. Had this not been accomplished, the black man in Africa
would still be bound by the chains of slavery. Therefore, his race
should everywhere be grateful, for no greater evidence of humanism and
courageous devotion could be shown than the white man has displayed.
If the blacks of the United States forget this sacrifice, zeal and
manhood on the part of the whites, no ingratitude could be greater or
more censurable. If they could see the wretched conditions and
surroundings of the black people of Africa today, the contrast would
be apparent and the fact clearly evident that the black race in
America enjoys incomparable advantages. The comfort and civilization
under which they live here are due to the white man’s effort and
sacrifice. Had this sacrifice not been made, they would still be in
the bonds and chains of slavery, scarcely lifted out of an aboriginal
condition. Therefore, always show forth your gratitude to the white
man.”—The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p.12

“Ten children of the same age, with equal station of birth, taught in
the same school, partaking of the same food, in all respects subject
to the same environment, their interests equal and in common, will
evidence separate and distinct degrees of capability and advancement;
some exceedingly intelligent and progressive, some of mediocre
ability, others limited and incapable. One may become a learned
professor while another under the same course of education proves dull
and stupid. From all standpoints the opportunities have been equal but
the results and outcomes vary from the highest to the lowest degree of
advancement. It is evident therefore that MANKIND DIFFERS in natal
capacity and intrinsic intellectual endowment.”—Foundation of World Unity,
pp.54-5 verse 3

“It should not be imagined that the people of Persia are inherently
deficient in intelligence, or that for essential perceptiveness and
understanding, inborn sagacity, intuition and wisdom, or innate
capacity, they are inferior to others. God forbid! On the contrary,
they have always excelled all other peoples in endowments conferred by
birth.”—Secret of Divine Civilization, p.9

“For instance, you see the blacks in Africa who are in fact cows
that God has created in the shape of human beings, and then you see the
blacks of America, who are smart, civilized and cultured.”—Maqateeb
Abdul Baha’i, p. 203

The Baha’i dissidents I spoke with in the provinces of Mazandaran and Guilansome of whom who had previously worked for the sect leadership in Haifashared with me some of the secret teachings of the group that most adherents are not aware of.

One of the most disturbing aspects of Baha’i missionary activity in Iran is that which was once attempted in the provinces of Bushehr and Hormozgan, which along with the province of Hormozgan is home to most of Iran’s Black minority, who are descendants of African slaves brought to Persia by the Portuguese who had occupied Bandar Abbas in the 1500s. After ousting the Portuguese and retaking control of the region in the early 1600s, Shah Abbas freed the remaining Black population from slavery, granting them the option to remain if they so wished. Most chose to do so, and in time they fully embraced Persian culture and language to such an extent that there are no discernible cultural or linguistic differences from other Persian-speakers in the region, and they consider themselves fully Persian, though it is extremely rare for them to marry outside their own communities and intermarriage between Caucasians and non-Caucasians in Iran is still generally frowned upon and considered something of a taboo outside the major cosmopolitan centers.

In the 1950s, as Baha’i missionary activity began reaching fever pitch in Tehran, Esfahan, Shiraz, and most notoriously, in the holy Shi’a city of Qom, missionaries who were sent to evangelize to the Black communities in Bushehr and Hormozgan—who are mostly rural and agrarian—were commanded to treat them as if they were ignorant primitives, lacking even basic human intelligence. The missionaries were also required to be men, and were explicitly forbidden to allow any Baha’i women to come into direct contact with the Black peoples. This was in contrast to Baha’i missionary activity elsewhere in Iran, and particularly in Qom, where Baha’i women were sent in droves to seduce Shi’a seminarians into converting to the sect, a practice which became so notorious that it led to the formation of Iran’s first anti-cult movement, the Hojjatiya, which after the 1979 Revolution moved away from criticism of the Baha’i to criticism of and opposition against the theocratic institutions, such as velayat-e-faqih (the Office of the Supreme Leader), that would become established after the 1980 elections.

The motivation for this secret plan for the conversion of Black peoples in Bushehr and Hormozgan was for the purpose of “racially diversifying” the Baha’i membership so as to establish a framework for the mass conversion of Black people in Africa and the Americas. The viewpoint of the Baha’i leadership, presumably based upon the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh himself, was that only Blacks could effectively minister to other Blacks. Furthermore, the Baha’i leadership’s secret vision for the future, which I was told was referred to internally at the highest ranks as Khorshid-e-Sephid (White Sun), was for all distinct races of humanity to become segregated into their own national homelands. The Baha’i leaders apparently considered those of Black African origin to be impossibly savage and incapable of standing in full equality with the rest of the human race, and for them, it would be necessary to have all the Black peoples of the world forcibly resettled in sub-Saharan Africa after the establishment of the Baha’i-led world government.

By the 1960s, the Hojjatiya had established itself as a force to be reckoned with, able to put a stop to most aggressive Baha’i proselytization through indirect and non-violent means, principally through public advocacy campaigns and educational awareness programs. The attempt to mass recruit Black Iranians in Bushehr and Hormozgan was an abject failure and quickly abandoned, but from the 1970s on, they had much better luck in proselytizing to Black peoples in the Americas—according to their own internal statistics, almost half of all American Baha’i are African-American, and it is often claimed to be the fastest growing religion among Black and Latino communities in the Americas.

Naturally, the racist views of Bahá’u’lláh and the Haifa leadership are more than an inconvenient truth, but remnants of White Sun remain to this day in the fact that interracial marriages are strictly prohibited among the elite adherents of the Haifa-based group, Baha’i World Centre. In Iran, those aligned with the Haifa leadership and who are observant practitioners, who are found mostly in Mazandaran and Guilan, generally do not even marry outside their own ethnic groups.

The Hojjatiya: From opposing Baha’i evangelism then to opposing theocracy today

While it is outside the scope of this article to go into details regarding the Hojjatiya, it would be useful to present some pertinent data regarding this movement as it exists today. The Hojjatiya began as a uniquely Iranian phenomenon, in that while it was founded by a prominent member of the Shi’a clergy, Shaikh Mahmoud Halabi, who was a staunch advocate of political secularism and who opposed the overt participation of clerics and theologians in the affairs of the state, a distinct current in Shi’a Islam referred to as Quietism, which virtually all current Shi’a marja (supreme jurisprudents, commonly referred to in English as Grand Ayatollahs) adhere to, and who likewise oppose the modernist reforms of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who promoted the theocratic concept of velayat-e-faqih and established it as the highest institutional entity of the newly formed Islamic Republic after the 1980 elections were won by his Islamic Republican Party, which was the first new government to be established after the collapse of the secular Provisional Revolutionary Government of Mehdi Bazargan immediately following the seizure of the US embassy by student protesters.

Prior to the 1979 Revolution, the Hojjatiya could be thought of as an “anti-cult” movement, though its focus was restricted to the Baha’i, who were known as the most aggressive proselytizers in the country and whose leadership had instituted a policy of orchestrated subversion against Islam, which was given semi-official sanction by the Imperial State of the Shah. The goal of the Baha’i in the years following the end of World War II was to establish the Baha’i sect as the official state religion of Iran, and in pursuit of this goal the Haifa-based leadership aggressively lobbied the Shah to harass and persecute Shi’a seminarians and theologians in Qom and Mashhad, and to impose legal restrictions on the practice of Shi’a Islam. To this end, the Shah cooperated to a great extent, forcing the Shi’a religious hierarchy to submit to regulation by the Imperial State, and to affirm the Shah as the supreme spiritual leader of the Iran, all as part of his intensely controversial White Revolution in the 1960s. Prior to these reforms, the Shah had the support of the vast majority of Shi’a clerics in Iran—by the early 1970s, this support had all but completely eroded, leaving only a handful of clerics and theologians who remained loyal to the Imperial State.

Through all of this, the Hojjatiya remained the most vocal and significant institution to reveal to the public the vast extent of Baha’i influence over the domestic policies of the Imperial State, warning of the risk that if not kept in check, the Baha’i leadership in Haifa would attempt to establish their own form of theocracy within the existing political framework of the Imperial State of Iran. However, the Hojjatiya were not opposed to the Baha’i religion in and of itself, only to the aggressive practices and extrajudicial actions of the Baha’i international leadership, as well as to their internationalism. The Hojjatiya opposed any form of persecution or harassment of the Baha’i, and were firmly opposed to the radical elements within the clergy who condemned the Baha’i as heretics. The guiding principle of the Hojjatiya was based upon what they termed as a “scientific defense” of Shi’a Islam against the clandestine esotericism of the Baha’i and the supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini. In this sense, the membership of the Hojjatiya were almost entirely composed of the laity, and most members came from scientific or engineering backgrounds, who often argued against the superstitious and mystical nature of the Baha’i belief system, and advocating the openness of Shi’a Islam to science and humanism.

During and after the 1979 Revolution, the Hojjatiya quickly abandoned their focus on the Baha’i and shifted their activities towards preventing the establishment of the theocracy envisioned by Ayatollah Khomeini and his Islamic Republican Party. Though the Hojjatiya gradually faded away after the collapse of the Provisional Revolutionary Government in November 1979, their activism had a massive impact upon the newly burgeoning Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC), which was founded through the amalgamation of various Islamist, Marxist, and nationalist militias throughout the country. Though ostensibly Islamic in character, the IRGC from the beginning was founded as a nationalist paramilitary force, and while it is legally under the command of the Supreme Leader, in practice it has always operated autonomously from institutions of the State and has aimed for secular reformation of the Islamic Republic since the passing of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. Some of these reforms began to be instituted during the presidency of Hashemi Rafsanjani in the early 1990s, such as open rapprochement with the United States, loosening or completely eliminating cultural restrictions on dress, music, and fashion, and placing qualified civilian professionals in key government posts rather than elite members of the clergy or those granted such positions by an influential cleric. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, nepotism and cronyism posed a significant problem for the newly formed Islamic Republic, and while the IRGC was able to use its influence to counter the growing threat of oligarchy in Iran, the problems still present a considerable challenge.

During the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Hojjatiya were effectively reconstituted as an institutional opposition movement to the theocratic elements of Iranian government: the Guardian Council, the Office of the Supreme Leader, the Assembly of Experts, and the Judiciary, all of which are dominated by the clergy and outside the control of the Presidency and Parliament. While President Ahmadinejad was zealously attacked and condemned by Western leaders and media, he remains the first president of the Islamic Republic of Iran to openly criticize the clerical establishment and who has advocated for a gradual process of secular reformation of the Iranian government. It was thus not surprising that Ahmadinejad’s former chief of staff and key lieutenant, Rahim Mashaei, who was more outspoken in his advocacy of secularism, was prevented from running as a candidate in the 2013 presidential elections. In spite of these setbacks, the Hojjatiya remains the fastest growing political current in Iran today, which has become even more popular in recent months due to the growing threat of ISIS/ISIL in the region, as well as the rise of the Sunni extremist Jundallah, an al-Qaeda affiliate, in the Balochistan region of Eastern Iran.

As with their former opposition to the Baha’i, the Hojjatiya use science, logic and reason to present their arguments against the theocratic concept of velayat-e-faqih and in favor of secular rule of law. The Judiciary, which is controlled by the clerical hierarchy, has reacted aggressively against Ahmadinejad and the Hojjatiya current by vastly increasing their persecution and prosecution of low income and working class youth, who made up a large percentage of Ahmadinejad’s core base of support, while hypocritically giving an unlimited free pass to the hedonistic excesses and decadence of the children of Tehran’s wealthy elites, who formed the key base of support for Mir Hossein Mousavi during the 2009 elections and that of Hassan Rouhani in 2013.

Ahmadinejad was also the first Iranian president to advocate for lifting the ban on the open practice of the Baha’i religion, and in line with the Hojjatiya current, quietly argued in favor of officially recognizing the Baha’i as a religious minority in an effort to establish a new Baha’i leadership in Iran in opposition to that based in Haifa. This formed one of the major reasons for the Guardian Council in banning Rahim Mashaei from the 2013 elections—other reasons included Ahmadinejad and Mashaei’s strong opposition to continued support and funding of the Sunni fundamentalist group Hamas; Ahmadinejad, Mashaei, IRGC commanders, and many others of the Hojjatiya current had for years warned about the danger of supporting Hamas and the inevitably of Hamas, being a Sunni fundamentalist militia, gravitating to the Salafism of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Since the end of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, his predictions have come true and Hamas is today fully under the control of Saudi Arabia and its regional allies.

The example of Hamas presents the most controversial and revolutionary argument of the Hojjatiya current: that there is no such thing as true “Islamic solidarity,” that the Shi’a will never be accepted as equals by the Sunni, that Sunni extremism and Salafism are the single greatest existential threat to Iran, and that the priority of the Iranian nation should be the welfare and progress of the Iranian people—in other words, Iran above Islam, reason above faith.

While Western critics of Ahmadinejad attempted to paint a picture of a vast conspiracy in Iran with the Hojjatiya at the heart of it all, in reality the Hojjatiya and its supporters, advocates for the birth of a New Age of Enlightenment and Equilibrium, are the persecuted minority within the Iranian establishment. Persecuted, but not completely powerless. As an ancient Persian maxim states, “All in time, the Light will shine.”

Kaveh Kianian is an independent journalist and researcher based in Abadan and Tehran.

  • Further reading

  • Kasravi, Ahmad. Bahaaieegari. 1943/44.
  • Sadri, Mahmoud. Hojjatiya. Encyclopedia Iranica, Vol. XII, Fasc. 4, pp. 426-428.
  • Irani-Tehrani, Amir. Persian Figures in German Letters, (1700–1900). ProQuest, 2008.
  • Buenzod, Janine (1967). La Formation de le Pensée de Gobineau et l’Essai sur l’Inégalité des Races Humaines,Librairie A. G. Nizet.
  • Biddiss, Michael D. (1970). Father of Racist Ideology: The Social and Political Thought of Count Gobineau, Weybright & Talley.
  • Beasley, Edward (2010). The Victorian Reinvention of Race: New Racisms and the Problem of Grouping in the Human Sciences, Taylor & Francis.
  • Kale, Steven (2010). “Gobineau, Racism, and Legitimism: A Royalist Heretic in Nineteenth-Century France,” Modern Intellectual History, Volume 7, Issue 01.
  • Snyder, Louis L. (1939). “Count Arthur de Gobineau and the Crystallization of Nordicism.” In Race: A History of Modern Ethnic Theories, Longmans, Green & Co.
  • Spiess, Camille (1917). Impérialismes; la Conception Gobinienne de la Race, E. Figuière & Cie.

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