Iran is a theocratic Islamic republic that derives its legal principles from Islamic religious law. As such, blasphemy and apostasy can be and are punished with death. Although there is no codified apostasy law in the penal code, this does not prevent its punishment in accordance with Islamic legal principles, and blasphemy is codified as a capital offense within the penal code. Iran has a poor track record on human rights, and if these “offenses” do not result in death, they may result in imprisonment or torture. Those who stand accused of either must also fear reprisal from non-state actors, though documented incidents of such reprisals are not as prominent as in some other countries.
Iran, historically known as Persia, has long been a citadel of Shia Islam. As such, it has mostly been governed under the precepts of Islamic law, except under the twentieth-century secular nationalism of the Pahlavi dynasty. Traditionalist backlash against the “modernizing” policies of this government contributed to the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which established Iran as an Islamic republic. Its constitution established Shia Islam as the official religion. Islamic law, which mandates death for blasphemers and apostates, became the law of the land. Blasphemy was later explicitly codified in a separate penal code as a crime punishable by death.
Historically, Iran was known as Persia, and before its Islamization in the Middle Ages, it was the ancestral home of Zoroastrianism. A small number of Zoroastrians still live in the country, along with Christian and Jewish minorities, but today, Iran’s population is mostly Shia Muslim, owing to its legacy as the center of the Shia Safavid Empire beginning in 1501. In 1925, Iran’s political character changed dramatically when the secular Pahlavi dynasty took control, but this was ultimately replaced in 1979 by the current Islamic republic framework under which the country is still governed.
Development of Blasphemy Laws
For most of its history after Islamization, Iran was governed largely by Islamic religious law under which blasphemy and apostasy were subject to the death penalty, often without any real separation between religious and state authority. This was as true under the Umayyads and Abbasids, under whom the region’s Islamization took place, as it was under the Safavid Empire, which established Shia Islam as the state religion and permanently altered the region’s character. The Qajar dynasty, which flourished after the Safavids in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, may have implemented a kind of secular court system alongside their religious one, but punishments still were very often meted out on the basis of Islamic law.
In the 1920s, however, Iran came under the control of the Pahlavi dynasty. This government was marked by policies and attitudes of secularism and authoritarian nationalism, and it pursued technological and infrastructural “modernization” in the vein of Western nations. The legal system, too, underwent an overhaul, with the introduction of a codified, secular body of law with significant Western (especially French) influence. Though Iran was never colonized and subjugated by a Western nation, these untraditional reforms did not go without resistance. In particular, religious authorities opposed the social and technological modernization efforts of the later twentieth century, and the secular Pahlavi dynasty ended with the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
Following the revolution, Iran became a constitutional republic. However, the event is sometimes aptly titled the “Islamic Revolution” for its religious character, largely a repudiation of the cultural policies of the Pahlavis (in addition to the dynasty’s authoritarianism). Under the constitution which emerged from it and still governs Iran today, Shia Islam was named as the official religion, and the nation became a theocracy governed by Islamic law. As such, blasphemy and apostasy became punishable by death. No Iranian penal code existed until 1991, as the country takes its legal principles first from Islamic doctrine. However, the first Iranian penal code proscribed death for insulting the Prophet Muhammad, and as of a 2012 update, the penal code states explicitly that blasphemy against Islam is punishable with death.
The Iranian government continues to project an image of no tolerance for blasphemy against Islam or apostasy from Islam. However, a recent survey has suggested that secular attitudes may be growing in Iran: according to results from the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran, as many as 8.8% of literate Iranian adults may be atheists, and as many as 31% may identify with no religion. These results, which place self-identifying Shia Muslims at only about a third of the population, run contrary to the assumption that Iran is a country composed almost entirely of Shia Muslims. However, another recent survey found approximately 96% of Iranians belonging to Islam, results much closer to official state estimates, so the degree to which secular attitudes have penetrated the country is unclear.