500 Years of “Najis”/“Impurity”-Based Jew-Hatred in Shiite Iran: An Overview

Portrait of Allamah al-Majlisi (d.1699), Safavid Iran’s most important Shi-ite theologian,  and also the political equivalent of Ayatollah Khomeini (d. 1989)

Extracts reproduced from my book, “Iran’s Final Solution For Israel—The Legacy of Jihad and Shi-ite Islamic Jew-Hatred in Iran,” Chapter Three.

At the outset of the 16th century, Iran’s Safavid rulers formally established Shiite Islam as the state religion, while permitting a clerical hierarchy nearly unlimited control and influence over all aspects of public life. The profound influence of the Shiite clerical elite, continued for almost four centuries, although interrupted, between 1722-1795 (during a period precipitated by [Sunni] Afghan invasion [starting in 1719], and the subsequent attempt to re-cast Twelver Shi’ism as simply another Sunni school of Islamic Law, under Nadir Shah), through the later Qajar period (1795-1925), as characterized by E.G. Browne:

The Mujtahids [an eminent, very learned Muslim jurist/scholar who is qualified to interpret the law] and Mulla [a scholar, not of Mujtahid stature] are a great force in Persia and concern themselves with every department of human activity from the minutest detail of personal purification to the largest issues of politics.

These Shiiite clerics emphasized the notion of the ritual uncleanliness (najis) of Jews, in particular, but also Christians, Zoroastrians, and others, as the cornerstone of inter-confessional relationships toward non-Muslims. The impact of this najis conception was already apparent to European visitors to Persia during the reign of the first Safavid Shah, Ismail I (1502-1524). The Portuguese traveler Tome Pires observed (between 1512-1515), “Sheikh Ismail…never spares the life of any Jew,” while another European travelogue notes, “…the great hatred (Ismail I) bears against the Jews…”. During the reign of Shah Tahmasp I (d. 1576), the British merchant and traveler Anthony Jenkinson (a Christian), when finally granted an audience with the Shah,

…was required to wear ‘basmackes’ (a kind of over-shoes), because being a giaour [infidel], it was thought he would contaminate the imperial precincts…when he was dismissed from the Shah’s presence, [Jenkinson stated] ‘after me followed a man with a basanet of sand, sifting all the way that I had gone within the said palace’- as though covering something unclean.

Two examples of the restrictive codes for Jews conceived and applied during the Safavid period (1501-1725) are presented below, in Table 1, and Table 2. Their persistent application into the Qajar period, which includes the modern era (1795- 1925), is confirmed by the observations of the mid-19th century traveler Benjamin in Table 3, and a listing of the 1892 Hamadan edict conditions in Table 4.

Table 1. Behavior Code of Abul Hassan Lari (1622)

  1. Houses that are too high (higher than a Muslim’s) must be lowered.
  2. Jews may not circulate freely among the Believers
  3. In their stores, Jews must sit on low stools, in order they not see the purchaser’s face.
  4. Jews must wear a specially constructed hat of eleven colors.
  5. Around this hat they must sew a yellow ribbon, three meters long.
  6. Women must tie many little bells on their sandals
  7. Jewish women must also wear a black chador
  8. When a Jew speaks to a Muslim, he must humbly lower his head.

Table 2. The Jam’i Abbasi of al-Amili, Instituted by Shah Abbas I (1588-1629) and Administered in Some Measure Until 1925

  1. Jews are not permitted to dress like Muslims
  2. A Jew must exhibit a yellow or red “badge of dishonor” on his chest
  3. A Jew is not permitted to ride on a horse
  4. When riding on an ass, he must hang both legs on one side
  5. He is not entitled to bear arms.
  6. On the street and in the market, he must pass stealthily from a corner or from the side
  7. Jewish women are not permitted to cover their faces
  8. The Jew is restricted from establishing boundaries of private property.
  9. A Jew who becomes a Muslim, is forbidden to return to Judaism.
  10. Upon disclosure of a disagreement between Jew and Muslim, the Jew’s argument has no merit.
  11. In Muslim cities, the Jew is forbidden to build a synagogue
  12. A Jew is not entitled to have his house built higher than a Muslim’s

Table 3. Listing by Israel Joseph Benjamin (1818-1864) of the “Oppressions” Suffered by Persian Jews, During the Mid-19th Century

  1. Throughout Persia the Jews are obliged to live in a part of town separated from the other inhabitants; for they are considered as unclean creatures, who bring contamination with their intercourse and presence.
  2. They have no right to carry on trade in stuff goods.
  3. Even in the streets of their own quarter of the town they are not allowed to keep open any shop. They may only sell there spices and drugs, or carry on the trade of a jeweler, in which they have attained great perfection.
  4. Under the pretext of their being unclean, they are treated with the greatest severity, and should they enter a street, inhabited by Mussulmans, they are pelted by the boys and mob with stones and dirt.
  5. For the same reason they are forbidden to go out when it rains; for it is said the rain would wash dirt off them, which would sully the feet of the Mussulmans.
  6. If a Jew is recognized as such in the streets, he is subjected to the greatest of insults. The passers-by spit in his face, and sometimes beat him so unmercifully and is obliged to be carried home.
  7. If a Persian kills a Jew, and the family of the deceased can bring forward two Mussulmans as witnesses to the fact, the murderer is punished by a fine of 12 tumauns (600 piastres); but if two such witnesses cannot be produced, the crime remains unpunished, even thought it has been publicly committed, and is well known.
  8. The flesh of the animals slaughtered according to Hebrew custom, but as Trefe declared, must not be sold to any Mussulmans. The slaughterers are compelled to bury the meat, for even the Christians do not venture to buy it, fearing the mockery and insult of the Persians.
  9. If a Jew enters a shop to buy anything, he is forbidden to inspect the goods, but must stand at respectful distance and ask the price. Should his hand incautiously touch the goods, he must take them at any price the seller chooses for them.
  10. Sometimes the Persians intrude into the dwellings of the Jews and take possession of whatever pleases them. Should the owner make the least opposition in defense of his property, he incurs the danger of atoning for it with his life.
  11. Upon the least dispute between a Jew and a Persian, the former is immediately dragged before the Achund [Muslim cleric] and, if the complainant can bring forward two witnesses, the Jew is condemned to pay a heavy fine. If he is too poor to pay this penalty in money, he must pay it in his person. He is stripped to the waist, bound to a stake, and receives forty blows with a stick. Should the sufferer utter the least cry of pain during this proceeding, the blows already given are not counted, and the punishment is begun afresh.
  12. In the same manner, the Jewish children, when they get into a quarrel with those of the Mussulmans, are immediately lead before the Achund [Muslim cleric], and punished with blows.
  13. A Jew who travels in Persia is taxed in every inn and every caravanserai he enters. If he hesitates to satisfy any demands that may happen to be made on him, they fall upon him, and maltreat him until he yields to their terms.
  14. If, as already mentioned, a Jew shows himself in the street during the three days of Katel (Ashura; feast of the mourning for the death of the Persian founder of the religion of Ali) he is sure to be murdered.
  15. Daily and hourly new suspicions are raised against the Jews, in order to obtain excuses for fresh extortion; the desire of gain is always the chief incitement to fanaticism.

Table 4. Conditions Imposed Upon the Jews of Hamadan, 1892

  1. The Jews are forbidden to leave their houses when it rains or snows [to prevent the impurity of the Jews being transmitted to the Shiite Muslims]
  2. Jewish women are obliged to expose their faces in public [like prostitutes].
  3. They must cover themselves with a two colored izar (an izar is a big piece of amterial with which eastern women are obliged to cover themselves when leaving their houses].
  4. The men must not wear fine clothes, the only material being permitted them being a blue cotton fabric.
  5. They are forbidden to wear matching shoes.
  6. Every Jew is obliged to wear a piece of red cloth on his chest.
  7. A Jew must never overtake a Muslim on a public street.
  8. He is forbidden to talk loudly to a Muslim.
  9. A Jewish creditor of a Muslim must claim his debt in a quavering and respectful manner.
  10. If a Muslim insults a Jew, the latter must drop his head and remain silent.
  11. A Jew who buys meat must wrap and conceal it carefully from Muslims.
  12. It is forbidden to build fine edifices.
  13. It is forbidden for him to have a house higher than that of his Muslim neighbor.
  14. Neither must he use plaster for whitewashing.
  15. The entrance of his house must be low.
  16. The Jew cannot put on his coat; he must be satisfied to carry it rolled under his arm.
  17. It is forbidden for him to cut his beard, or even to trim it slightly with scissors.
  18. It is forbidden for Jews to leave the town or enjoy the fresh air of the countryside.
  19. It is forbidden for Jewish doctors to ride on horseback [this right was generally forbidden to all non-Muslims, except doctors].
  20. A Jew suspected of drinking spirits must not appear in the street; if he does he should be put to death immediately.
  21. Weddings must be celebrated in the greatest secrecy.
  22. Jews must not consume good fruit.

A letter (dated October, 27, 1892) by S. Somekh of The Alliance Israelite Universelle, regarding the Hamadan edict, provides this context:

 The latter [i.e., the Jews] have a choice between automatic acceptance, conversion to Islam, or their annihilation. Some who live from hand to mouth have consented to these humiliating and cruel conditions through fear, without offering resistance; thirty of the most prominent members of the community were surprised in the telegraph office, where they had gone to telegraph their grievances to Teheran. They were compelled to embrace the Muslim faith to escape from certain death. But the majority is in hiding and does not dare to venture into the streets…

 Mohammad Baqer Majlisi (d. 1699), the highest institutionalized clerical officer under both Shah Sulayman (1666-1694) and Shah Husayn (1694-1722), is recognized as the most influential cleric of the Safavid Shiite theocracy in Persia. By design, he wrote many works in Persian to disseminate key aspects of the Shiite ethos among ordinary persons.

Dwight M. Donaldson’s landmark (and very sympathetic) 1933 study of Shi’ism, included this panegyric on al-Majlisi:

 Mulla Muhammad Bakir-i-Majlisi was the last and the greatest theologian of the Safavid period. Thorough and diligent as a scholar, he has the distinction also of having perceived that the masses should be reached in their own language. While his monumental work on the traditions is in Arabic, the Bilharu’l Anwar [Bihar al anwar] (“Oceans of Light”), he managed to put the bulk of that vast amount of material about the Prophet and the Imams into a series of readable manuals in Persian. His remarkable success in thus making the sources of the Shi’ah faith intelligible to the people of Persia in their own language has made him undoubtedly the most influential of all the Shi’ah theologians. He died in 1699.

A 2005 analysis by Rainer Brunner observed,

 Already contemporary Western travelers at the end of the seventeenth century noticed the extraordinary position of this scholar and gave some descriptions of his power

Brunner concluded:

 al-Majlisi’s influence in the political sphere may be compared only with that of [Ayatollah] Khomeini in the twentieth century.

In his magnum opus Bihar al-anwar (“Oceans of Light”), Majlisi clarifies the two aspects of the People of the Book’s ostensible “impurity.” The first concerns “spiritual impurity” (najasa ma’nawiyya) caused by “their essential nastiness, and the corruption of their beliefs” (khubth batinihim wa-su’i it’tiqadihim). The second aspect flows logically from the first: the concrete, physical impurity, frequently called “juridical impurity” (najasa shar’iyya [Sharia]), that is, an impurity defined by legal prescriptions. Majlisi’s treatise, “Lightning Bolts Against the Jews”, was written in Persian, and despite its title, was actually an overall guideline to anti-dhimmi regulations for all non-Muslims within the Shiite theocracy. Al-Majlisi, in this treatise, describes the standard humiliating requisites for non-Muslims living under the Sharia, first and foremost, the blood ransom jizya poll-tax, based on Koran 9:29. He then enumerates six other restrictions relating to worship, housing, dress, transportation, and weapons (specifically, i.e., to render the dhimmis defenseless), before outlining the unique Shiite impurity or “najis” regulations, as per their “juridical impurity.” It is these latter najis prohibitions which lead Anthropology Professor Laurence Loeb (who studied and lived within the Jewish community of Southern Iran in the early 1970s) to observe, “Fear of pollution by Jews led to great excesses and peculiar behavior by Muslims.”

According to al-Majlisi,

And, that they should not enter the pool while a Muslim is bathing at the public baths…It is also incumbent upon Muslims that they should not accept from them victuals with which they had come into contact, such as distillates , which cannot be purified. If something can be purified, such as clothes, if they are dry, they can be accepted, they are clean. But if they [the dhimmis] had come into contact with those cloths in moisture they should be rinsed with water after being obtained. As for hide, or that which has been made of hide such as shoes and boots, and meat, whose religious cleanliness and lawfulness are conditional on the animal’s being slaughtered [according to the Sharia], these may not be taken from them. Similarly, liquids that have been preserved in skins, such as oils, grape syrup, [fruit] juices, myrobalan [an astringent fruit extract used in tanning], and the like, if they have been put in skin containers or water skins, these should [also] not be accepted from them…It would also be better if the ruler of the Muslims would establish that all infidels could not move out of their homes on days when it rains or snows because they would make Muslims impure. [emphasis added]

Daniel Tsadik’s 2007 study of Iranian Jewry during the 19th, through early 20th centuries, cites important Shiite treatises—Sayyid Muhammad Ali Khurasani Tabai’s 1876 Najasat-i Ayniyah-yi-Kuffar (“The Real Impurity of the Infidels”), and Sheikh Muhammad Shariatmadar-Astrabadi’s Najasat-i Ahl-i-Kitab (“The Impurity of the People of the Book”), published in 1908—as re-affirming that infidel Jews and Christians were najis. These publications validate Tsadik’s observation that, “the nineteenth [and early twentieth] century’s most prominent jurists usually declared non-Muslims, specifically Jews, to be impure.”

Ignaz Goldziher believed that Shi’ism manifested this greater doctrinal intolerance toward non-Muslims, relative to Sunni Islam, because of the Shiites “literalist” conception of najis.

On examining the legal documents, we find that the Shi’i legal position toward other faiths is much harsher and stiffer than that taken by Sunni Muslims. Their law reveals a heightened intolerance to people of other beliefs…Of the severe rule in the Qur’an (9:28) that ‘unbelievers are unclean’, Sunni Islam has accepted an interpretation that is as good as a repeal. Shi’i law, on the other hand, has maintained the literal sense of the rule; it declares the bodily substance of the unbeliever to be ritually unclean, and lists the touching of an unbeliever among the ten things that produce najasa, [najis] ritual impurity.

The enduring, applied nature of the fanatical najis regulation prohibiting dhimmis from being outdoors during rain and/or snow, is well established. For examples, see (Table 3, above) item 5 of Benjamin’s list of “oppressions”, and item 1 of Hamadan’s 1892 (Table 4, above) anti-Jewish regulations, as well as this account provided by the missionary Napier Malcolm who lived in the Yezd area at the close of the 19th century:

They [the strict Shi’as] make a distinction between wet and dry; only a few years ago it was dangerous for an Armenian Christian to leave his suburb and go into the bazaars in Isfahan on a wet [rainy] day. “A wet dog is worse than a dry dog.”

Moreover, the late Persian Jewish scholar Sarah (Sorour) Soroudi related this family anecdote:

In his youth, early in the 20th century, my late father was eyewitness to the implementation of this regulation. A group of elder Jewish leaders in Kashan had to approach the head clergy of the town (a Shi’i community from early Islamic times, long before the Safavids, and known for its religious fervor) to discuss a matter of great urgency to the community. It was a rainy day and they had to send a Muslim messenger to ask for special permission to leave the ghetto. Permission granted, they reached the house of the clergy but, because of the rain, they were not allowed to stand even in the hallway. They remained outside, drenched, and talked to the mullah who stood inside next to the window.  As late as 1923, the Jews of Iran counted this regulation as one of the anti-Jewish restrictions still practiced in the country.

And this disconcerting 20th century anecdote from an informant living in Shiraz, was recounted by Loeb:

When I was a boy, I went with my father to the house of a non- Jew on business. When we were on our way, it started to rain. We stopped near a man who had apparently fallen and was bleeding. As we started to help him, a Muslim akhond (theologian) stopped and asked me who I was and what I was doing. Upon discovering that I was a Jew, he reached for a stick to hit me for defiling him by being near him in the rain. My father ran to him and begged the akhond [Shiite Muslim cleric] to hit him instead.

Far worse, the dehumanizing character of these popularized “impurity” regulations appears to have fomented recurring Muslim anti-Jewish violence, including pogroms and forced conversions, throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, as opposed to merely unpleasant, “odd behaviors” by individual Muslims towards Jews. Indeed, the oppression of Persian Jewry continued unabated, perhaps even intensifying, during both Safavid successors of Shah Abbas II, Shah Sulayman (1666-1694), and Shah Husayn (1694-1722). Fischel highlights the prominent role played by the conception of najis in this sustained anti-dhimmi persecution:

Day by day accounts of eyewitnesses establish beyond doubt how the notion of the ritual uncleanliness of the non-Muslims raged wildly all over the country, affecting Christians and Jews alike, and how the times of Shah Abbas II seem to have been revived.

… The advent of the Qajar dynasty in 1795 marked a return to Shi’ite theocratic orthodoxy. Thus, according to Fischel,

Since the religious and political foundations of the Qajar dynasty were but a continuation of those of the Safavids, the ‘law of apostasy’ and the notion of the ritual uncleanliness of the Jews remained the basis of the attitude toward the Jews.  The Jew being ritually unclean, had to be differentiated from the believer externally in every possible way. This became the decisive factor making the life of the Jews in the 19th century an uninterrupted sequence of persecution and oppression. They could not appear in public, much less perform their religious ceremonies, without being treated with scorn and contempt by the Muslim inhabitants of Persia.

European travelers confirm that the najis conception was applied to Jews with fanatical rigidity throughout 19th century Persia. Rabbi David d’Beth Hillel, who traveled in Persia during the reign of Shah Fath Ali (1797-1834), provided these characterizations, based on personal experience:

They [the Shiites] do not eat with anyone of another nation, even touching their bread and liquids or fresh fruits; they consider it as defiled and will never eat it…[It is their belief] that all the other nations are unclean, that no one who believes in Mohammad ought to be well acquainted with them and ought not to touch their victuals- and only to be acquainted with them in trade… [Arriving one night at a village near Bashaka] nobody would receive me into their houses for any money I offered them, saying that the house would be defiled by my coming in, because they knew me to be a Jew and the same night was a very cold one and abundance of snow had fallen and it was impossible to sleep in the street. After many supplications, I gave half a rupee to be allowed to sleep in a stable among their cattle.

There are many confirmatory 19th century reports of the strict application of najis regulations towards Jews. Table 3 (above) includes Benjamin’s listing of mid- 19th century “oppressions” related to najis. James Fraser noted that Jews were forbidden from using the public baths, and Henry A. Stern further described how in the holy Shi’ite city of Qom,

…the few [Jews] who are allowed to reside here come from Koshan [Kashan, in Isfahan province], Isfahan, and the ostentatious vocation which they pursue is peddling; but as the pious living in the religious atmosphere of so many descendants of the Prophet would be shocked at the idea of touching anything that has passed the hands of a defiled and impure Jew, they have had recourse to a more profitable traffic, the sale of spirituous liquors.

In the late 19th century Napier Malcolm reported, “It is more easy to get the Mussulmans to eat food with the Parsis (Zoroastrians) than with the Jews, whose religion ranks higher than Zoroastrianism in the popular regard.”, and Reverend Isaac Adams observed, “Christians and Jews are not subject to decapitation as they are considered unclean by the Mohammedans and not sufficiently worthy of this privilege.”

Regardless, Soroudi comments,

The impurity of the non-Muslim and his belongings, however, never deterred Shi’ah Muslims from plundering Jewish or Zoroastrian quarters on the smallest pretext or as a result of clerical or official instigation.

… Jean Schopfer, nom de plume Claude Anet (d. 1931), was a tennis player who reached two singles finals at the Amateur French Championships, winning in 1892 and losing in 1893. Schopfer/ Anet’s Through Persia in a Motor-Car, 647 published in English translation during 1907, chronicled his ~1905 first hand observations of the chronic plight of Iran’s Jews under Iran’s Qajar dynasty Shiite theocracy, despite the alleged “Constitutional movement” era reforms. Anet’s blunt travelogue noted the continued application of Shiite Islam’s “najis” or impurity regulations, and the Jews overall vulnerable, and degraded status.

 Living in the midst of a fanatical and hostile population, Jews in Persia are reduced to the last extremity of degradation. Nearly all trades are forbidden to them; everything they touch is considered defiled. They cannot even live in the house of a Mussulman. There is very little justice in Persia for anybody—for the Jews there is none at all. Every possible exaction is practiced on them; nobody takes their part; and they live in appalling poverty, while their moral and physical degradation is beyond description.

 …Ayatollah Montazeri, the (2009) “Green Movement’s” purported ideological inspiration, despite political disagreements with [Ayatollah) Khomeini, shared Khomeini’s traditionalist views on juridical impurity, and provided an extensive litany of specific juridical illustrations, and guidelines. Montazeri also adamantly upheld the doctrine of “spiritual impurity,”…

…Sorour Soroudi and Eliz Sanasarian (note: from chapter 1)  have analyzed Montazeri’s views on najis, Sanasarian noting:

 Montazeri saw nejasat [najis] in twelve items including blood, dogs, pigs, wine, and kafirs [i.e., primarily, non-Muslims]…A kafir’s body, including hair, nails, and body fluids was to be avoided. The purchase, sale, or receiving of meat and fat from either non-Muslim countries or a kafir were forbidden.

Montazeri further argued that a non-Muslim’s (kafir’s) impurity was, “a political order from Islam and must be adhered to by the followers of Islam, and the goal [was] to promote general hatred toward those who are outside Muslim circles.” This “hatred” was to assure that Muslims would not succumb to corrupt, i.e., non-Islamic thoughts.

Andrew G. Bostom is the author of The Legacy of Jihad (Prometheus, 2005) and The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism " (Prometheus, November, 2008) You can contact Dr. Bostom at @andrewbostom.org

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