10 to 15 percent of southern Iran is Afro-Iranian, the descendants of Iran's African slaves. Discover their forgotten impact on Iran's history and culture.
The first thing you will notice when travelling in southern Iran is the oppressive heat. The second thing is that a significant portion of the population looks markedly different from the crowds of Tehran. Individuals from this region are often mistaken for foreigners when visiting Iranian cities in the north, only to stun their interlocutors by speaking perfect Persian. Many Iranians more familiar with the country’s southern denizens ascribe their dark appearance to the region’s hot climate, calling them ‘blacks of the south.’ Widely considered a mere phenotypic curiosity, the presence of dark-skinned Iranians is actually the result of the centuries long Indian Ocean slave trade.
The legacy of slavery in Iran and the wider Middle East has historically received little attention. Selective curricula in the Iranian school system as well as efforts by Tehran to enshrine a curated historical narrative have seen the role of slavery and slaves in Iranian history ignored. Persian ethnocentrism and the mythology of Aryan civilization have also played important roles in marginalizing the histories of minorities. “Living in Iran for all my life, we had never heard about slavery in Iran,” remarks Iranian-Canadian scholar Behnaz Mirzai.
“There are many people who either don’t even know that there was slavery in the Middle East, or they think it was so different from the Americas that it doesn’t qualify. Or more [commonly] it’s a subject with so much taboo associated with it that no one wants to talk about it,” notes Paul Lovejoy, Canada Research Chair in African Diaspora History.
The historiography of every nation serves ulterior purposes, and the omission of slavery in Iran in turn serves narratives that the Muslim world did not engage in the slave trade. Specifically, the image of the slave trade as a purely Western abomination serves the historical narrative which Tehran and other Middle Eastern regimes seek to cultivate.
How a football game hinted at Iran's complicated past
German-Iranian photographer Mahdi Ehsasei recalls that he was first inspired to document the Afro-Iranian community during a local football match in the southern province of Hormozgan. Ehsasei, author of Afro-Iran found himself mesmerized by the antics of a black Iranian man who was leading chants for the local team. Along with the man’s appearance, Ehsasei found the chants the crowd were singing were more African than Iranian, a discovery that led him to document this overlooked segment of Iran.
Having swept the legacy of slavery under the rug for so long, many Iranians prickle at claims that the country engaged in slavery. Moreover, many Iranians of African descent are not even aware of their origins; inquiries about their origins often provoke anger, with interviewees feeling that their identities as Iranians is being challenged. Indeed, aside from their appearance and concentration in specific areas, Afro-Iranians are no different from other Iranians. That being said, they remain the heirs of a storied legacy that, until recently, has been ignored.
Slavery in Iran has a long history, with the trade in African slaves in particular spanning several centuries. Millions of Africans were exported by Arab slavers from the east coast of Africa to the Middle East and India between 1500 and 1900. It is important to note that slavery in Iran was not predicated on race. While Africans represented a large portion of enslaved persons in Iran, other minorities such as Georgians and Circassians (and even native Persians) were enslaved during this period.
Following the Treaty of Turkmanchay - in the wake of the Russo-Persian War of 1826-1828 - Iran lost access to the trade in Georgian and Circassian slaves from the Russian borderlands, thus increasing demand for Africans. In the Iranian context, peak slave trading years occurred between 1850 and 1873 when some 2,000 to 3,000 Africans entered the country every year. In total an estimated 718,000 Africans were shipped from East Africa during the 19th century, with Iran the destination for close to one fifth of this number.
These imports (combined with growth in the domestic slave population) led to a sizeable Afro-Iranian population. Today Afro-Iranians constitute ten to fifteen percent of the population of southern Iran. This percentage decreases the further north one goes in the country, reflecting the traditional occupations of slaves in Iran which centred around fishing and agriculture. Many Africans were also employed as domestic servants and wet-nurses, as well as soldiers or ghilman in Persia’s imperial armies.
Some African slaves and ex-slaves rose to positions of prominence during the Safavid (1501-1736), Afsharid (1736-1796) and Qajar (1796-1925) dynasties. Some prominent examples include; Ya’qub Sultan who became governor of Bandar Abbas in 1717, the primary port serving central and southern Iran; and Ali Akbar Khan who was raised to the position of commander of the prince of Shiraz’s personal guard in 1821.
One of most interesting stories concerning African slaves in Iran is the tale of Haji Mubarak. Mubarak served a wealthy Iranian merchant family in Shiraz in the mid 19th century. In 1842, Mubarak was given to his master’s brother-in-law and cousin, Sayyid Ali Muhammad Shirazi as a wedding gift. Mubarak had known Sayyid since the latter was seven and despite their different stations in life the two enjoyed a close bond. What makes this story so special is that Sayyid Ali Muhammad Shirazi went on to become known around the world as The Báb, the founder of Bábism, which would later become the Bahá'í faith.
Following the Báb’s decision to retreat into the spiritual realm in 1844, Mubarak was charged with winding up his master’s business dealings and other worldly affairs in Shiraz, showing that the Báb placed substantial trust in him. After the Báb’s arrest by the Iranian government which considered him a dangerous heretic and dissident, Mubarak continued to aid his master; leading visitors to a secret entrance to meet with the Báb as well as smuggling messages and correspondence between the Báb and his disciples.
Mubarak (who seems to have been a father figure for the Báb) appears several times in the Báb's writings, who praises him in the Book of Thirty Prayers (Kitáb-i sí du’á) penned shortly before his execution in 1850. The thirty prayers mirror the thirty years of the Báb’s life, with the seventh prayer (his seventh year being when he met Mubarak) directly referencing Haji Mubarak.
Even after the Báb's execution, Mubarak aided the family’s attempts to maintain the illusion that the Báb was actually not dead, but rather managing the family's business affairs in India. Vowing to sweep the courtyard and tomb of Imām Husayn in Karbala (the family having moved to Iraq) each day until his master returned. Mubarak followed this daily routine until his death circa 1863.
Legacy of slavery apparent in language, culture
Centuries of living in Iran, together with (often wilful) forgetfulness, have together largely eroded the major differences between Afro-Iranian communities across southern Iran and other Iranian groups. Afro-Iranian communities in southern Iran are not distinguished along religious or linguistic lines. Many were already Muslims when they arrived in Iran, with the rest converting in order to avoid additional prejudice in their new home. Similarly, Afro-Iranian communities in Sistan-Baluchistan speak the local language Baluchi, as do those living in Hormozgan, who speak Bandari.
The level of overall integration and intermarriage varies among Afro-Iranians, with some communities sporting long histories of intermarriage with other Iranians. Other communities are more insular. For instance, Afro-Iranian communities in Sistan-Baluchistan maintain a strict caste system, and this intra-community prejudice is in part due to the lasting impact of slavery on the names of Afro-Iranians.
Functioning separately from the rest of society, these Afro-Iranian communities forbid intermarriage between the Durzadeh and Ghulam & Nukar castes. The Durzadeh occupy a higher caste than the other two due to their arrival in Iran as freemen, as compared to the Ghulam and Nukar who entered the country as slaves. This is evident in the names of the castes, with 'ghulam' being the singular of ghilman; a term used to refer to enslaved soldiers in imperial Iran.
'Ghulam' is also an Arabic word for servant, indicating another connection to slavery. In contrast, the word for pearl (dor) is the root of ‘Durzadeh’ - a nod to the sub-group's past occupation as skilled pearl divers hired to work in Iran.
Other hints of Iran’s slaving past exist in the names of Afro-Iranians, namely the location-specific surnames which some Iranians of African descent sport. In Islamic literature, Ethiopia is known as al-habasha, with the descendants of slaves from Ethiopia taking the name Habashi. Similarly, the descendants of slaves purchased by Omani traders from Zanzibar often sporting the name Zanzibari as a result. Certain cities and areas in southern Iran are also identified with different African source countries. For example, Afro-Iranians in Hormuz can (predominantly) trace their origins to slaves imported from Madagascar.
Certain elements in Iranian culture can also trace their origins to the African slaves who arrived during previous centuries. As Mahdi Ehsasei noticed while listening to the chants of Afro-Iranian football fans, hints exist as to the influence of Africans in Iran, even if their historical legacy has largely been ignored. The tradition of Zār is one example: the belief in various beneficial and malignant winds and spirits (and the use of exorcism) originated in East Africa, before spreading to Iran in the 19th century.
In some ways, the spread of Zār mirrors that of voodoo in the Western hemisphere. West African spiritual practices in turn influenced communities in the Americas, as colonial powers primarily sourced slaves from West Africa. Similarly, the Middle East’s reliance on East African slaves has led to the proliferation of Zār practitioners across the region.
Alongside the practice itself, the various names for spirits and winds have entered the Iranian vocabulary. Various terms for spirits including pepe, mature and chinyase have their roots in African languages (pepo and matari in Swahili and cinyase in Nyasa language of southern Malawi, respectively). The custom of using edible tobacco also entered Iran due to the influence of slavery, and the East African belief in gowati - namely that dancing has healing properties - forms the roots of region’s famous bandari dancing and music.
The influence of African slavery is also visible each year during the Persian New Year (Nowruz) festival. One of the most recognizable symbols of Nowruz is the character of Haji Firooz, a jovial singing minstrel with a tambourine, brightly coloured clothes and felt hat. Haji Firooz is also portrayed by individuals with darkened faces singing silly tunes to cheer holiday-goers and wish them good fortune in the new year. While some link the character of Haji Firooz to ancient Mesopotamian mythical figures, others argue that the character is a far more recent addition to the Nowruz festival.
Haji Firooz’s songs include direct mentions to his status as a black man, and his tunes often centre around invocations for his master to cheer up and be merry. It is interesting to note that the Qajar monarch, Naser al-Din Shah Qajar (r. 1848-1896) had a trusted slave called Haji Firouz, and is pictured with him in 1895 during Nowruz celebrations. Beeta Baghoolizadeh, a Phd candidate at the University of Pennsylvania - writing in 2012 - elaborates:
“The nonsensical rhyme and direct reference to his status as a slave reaffirm his role as a minstrel in Iranian society—a role that, despite the end of slavery in Iran, still persists in Nowruz celebrations today. Although many Iranians do not consider Haji Firooz beyond his brief jingle every New Year, his character represents one aspect of Iran’s long history of slavery. Haji Firooz, in fact, hails from the Afro-Iranian community in southern Iran.”
Centuries of slavery in Iran led to the emergence of a distinct Afro-Iranian population, primarily concentrated in the south of the country. Serving as soldiers, servants and much more, Africans in Iran have influenced Iranian music, religion, and society, yet their existence has been erased from Iran's historical narrative. Due to taboos about slavery and a focus on Persian ethnocentrism, most Iranians are not even aware that slavery was practised in the country as recently as 1929.
Afro-Iranians communities across southern Iran are largely integrated into majoritarian Iranian society, having adopted the language and religion of their former masters. That being said, many still lack access to the same kinds of opportunities as other Iranians, in part due to their concentration in some of Iran's poorest provinces. Often mistaken for foreigners when visiting cities in northern Iran, Afro-Iranians are a disquieting reminder to many Iranians of the role their country played in the Indian Ocean slave trade.
Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, FACTA Magazine, Yahoo Finance, Asia Times, Huffington Post and Qrius. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.