Who are Sufi Muslims? And why is the Iranian government persecuting them?

Muslims who practice Sufism — sometimes called dervishes — live in countries around the world, but are often targeted by the Iranian government for arbitrary arrests.

The Sufis in Iran observe Ja’fari Shia Islam, Iran’s official state religion, but they also follow additional spiritual practices that emphasize peace, tolerance and kindness under the guidance of a spiritual leader. And that’s considered a threat to Iran’s political establishment. The Iranian regime’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which President Trump said “brutalizes and steals from the Iranian people,” also routinely harasses Sufis along with Iran’s other religious minorities.

Sufi Muslims also play music, dance and sing in search of a direct encounter with God. But conservative Shia clerics in Iran denounce these practices, saying they are dangerous to Islam.

Hands cradling prayer beads (© Saqib Majeed/Barcroft Images/Getty Images)
The hands of a Sufi woman raised in prayer (© Saqib Majeed/Barcroft Images/Getty Images)

In March 2018, a member of the Gonabadi dervish community, Mohammad Raji, was arrested and beaten severely, then died while being interrogated by Iranian police. U.S. Department of State spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the U.S. was “saddened to hear that yet another prisoner of conscience” had died while in custody in Iran.

Nauert cited reports of the Iranian regime’s ongoing forceful crackdown on the Gonabadi dervish community across Iran, in which hundreds have been reported arrested and some have been hospitalized. “We call on the Iranian regime to respect the rights of its citizens and to release all prisoners of conscience who are unjustly imprisoned,” she said March 6 following Raji’s death.

The Basij Resistance Force, a volunteer paramilitary organization under the command of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, enforces Iran’s strict moral codes in nearly every Iranian city and town, especially at religious and political events. The United States sanctioned the Basij militia in January 2018 for “planning and carrying out serious human rights abuses against the Iranian people, including for the cruel and prolonged torture of political dissidents.”

Chart, with images, listing the religious minorities of Iran (State Dept.)
(State Dept.)