Traditions and customs of Iran

What traditions and customs are there in Iran?

Introduction to the customs and traditions of Iran, the Persian country.


Food in daily life

As one would expect from Iran’s geographical location, its food strikes a middle ground between Greek and Indian preparations. It is more varied than Greek food, and less spicy and more subtle than Indian food, with greater use of fresh ingredients.

Iranians have a healthy diet focused on fresh fruits, vegetables, and greens. The meat (usually lamb, goat, or chicken) is used as a condiment rather than as the center of a meal. Rice and fresh unleavened or semi-finished wholemeal bread are basic starches. The main drink is black tea. The main dietary taboo is the Islamic ban on pork.

Breakfast is a light meal consisting of fresh unleavened bread, tea and perhaps butter, white cheese (feta style), and jam. Eggs can also be eaten fried or boiled. Meat is not common for breakfast.

The main meal of the day is eaten around one in the afternoon. In a middle class home it usually starts with a plate of fresh vegetables: spring onions, radishes, fresh basil, mint, cilantro and others in season. It is served with unleavened bread and white cheese. The main course is aromatic steamed rice (“chelow”) served with one or more stews made from meat and a fresh vegetable or fruit.

This stew, called khoresht, resembles a mild curry. It focuses on a core ingredient like eggplant, okra, spinach, quince, celery, or a myriad of other possibilities. A particularly renowned khoresht, fesenjun, consists of lamb, chicken, duck, or pheasant cooked in a sauce of onions, ground walnuts, and pomegranate molasses.

In addition to its preparation as a chelow, rice can also be prepared as a pilaf (“polow”) by mixing it with fresh herbs, vegetables, fruits, or meat after boiling but before steaming.

The Iranian national dish, called chelow kabab, consists of lamb fillet marinated in lemon juice or yogurt, onions, and saffron, pounded with a knife on a flat skewer until fork-tender, and grilled over a hot fire. It is served with grilled onions and tomatoes on a bed of cheese to which a piece of butter and a raw egg yolk have been added.

The butter and egg are mixed into the hot rice (which cooks the egg), and ground sumac berries are sprinkled on top. A common drink with a meal is masa, a yogurt and saltwater preparation that is similar to Turkish ayran, Lebanese lebni, and Indian lassi.

Sweets are more likely to be eaten with afternoon tea than for dessert. Each region of the country has special sweets prized as travel souvenirs, and served informally to guests. Among the most famous are gaz, a natural nougat made with rose water, and sohan, a saffron, butter and pistachio praline.

After a meal, Iranians prefer fresh fruit and tea. In fact, fruit is served before the meal, after the meal, moreover, at any time.

Dinner is likely to be a light meal consisting of leftovers from the midday meal, or some bread, cheese, fruit, and tea. City dwellers can eat a light meal at a cafe or restaurant in the evening.

Outside of the big cities, restaurants are not very common in Iran. On the other hand, tea houses are ubiquitous and highly frequented at all times of the day. You can always get some kind of food there.

Alcoholic beverages are officially banned in Iran today under the Islamic republic, but their consumption is still widely practiced. The Armenian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian communities continue to produce wine, and in rural areas there is local moonlight everywhere.

The main alcoholic beverage is “vodka”, distilled from grains, grapes or, more commonly, raisins. It is consumed almost exclusively by men at night or at celebrations such as weddings.

Food customs on ceremonial occasions

Ritual foods fall into two categories: foods that are eaten to celebrate and foods that are prepared and consumed as a beneficial religious act.

Some foods are traditional for the New Year celebration. Fish is widely eaten as the first meal of the New Year, along with a popsicle made from vegetables. A food item appears on the New Year’s ritual table, but is rarely eaten. It is a kind of sweet pudding made from sprouted ground wheat called samanou.

During the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, no food or drink is consumed from sunrise to sunset. Families get up before dawn to prepare heavy breakfasts that look like the midday meal. The process is repeated at sunset.

Special crispy fried sweets made from a mixture of yogurt and soaked in syrup are often served. Two forms are popular: zulbia, which looks a bit like a multistrand pretzel, and bamieh, which looks a bit like the okra pods for which it is named.

Food is often prepared for distribution to the community as a religious act of charity. When a sheep is slaughtered for a special occasion, it is common to give meat to all the neighbors. To give thanks for the fulfillment of a wish, a communal meal is often prepared.

Also, during the mourning ceremonies for Hossein during the months of Muharram and Safar, communal meals are paid for by charitable people. The most common food served on these occasions is a polow made with yellow peas and meat.


In Iran, women control their children’s marriages, and much of the intrigue in domestic life revolves around marital affairs. A mother is typically on the lookout for good marriage prospects at all times. Even if a mother has doubts about marriage brokerage, she is obligated to “clear the way” for a marriage proposal.

He does this by communicating to his counterpart in the other family that a proposal is forthcoming, or would be welcomed. She then must consult with her husband, who makes the formal proposal at a social gathering between the two families.

This kind of background work is essential, because once the children are married, the two families are virtually merged, and have extensive rights and obligations to each other that are close to a sacred duty. Therefore, it is extremely important for families to be sure that they are compatible before the marriage takes place.

Marriage within the family is a common strategy, and a young man of marriageable age has an absolute right of preference for the daughter of his father’s brother, his patrilateral parallel cousin. The advantages for families in this type of marriage are great. They already know each other and are connected to the same social networks.

In addition, this type of marriage serves to consolidate the wealth of the grandparents’ generation for the family. Matriarchal cousin marriages are also common, and exceed parallel cousin marriages in urban areas, perhaps due to the greater influence of the wife in family affairs in cities.

Although inbreeding seems to be a potential problem, the historical preference for marriage within the family continues, diminishing somewhat in urban settings, where other considerations such as profession and education play a role in the choice of spouse.

In 1968, 25 percent of urban marriages, 31 percent of rural marriages, and 51 percent of tribal marriages were endogamous. These percentages seem to have increased somewhat after the Revolution.

In Iran today, a love match with someone outside the family is by no means impossible, but even in such cases, except in the most Westernized families, family visits and negotiations must be observed. Traditional marriages involve a formal contract drawn up by a clergyman.

A series of payments are specified in the contract. The bride brings a dowry to the marriage that usually consists of household goods and her own clothes. A specified amount is included in the contract as payment to the woman in case of divorce.

The wife after marriage belongs to her husband’s family and may find it difficult to visit her relatives if her husband does not approve. However, she retains her own name and may have property in her own right, separate from her husband.

The wedding celebration is held after the signing of the contract. It is really a prelude to the consummation of the marriage, which typically takes place at the end of the night, or, in rural areas, at the end of several days of celebration. In many areas of Iran it is still important that the bride be virginal, and the sheets are carefully inspected to ensure this.

A wise mother gives her daughter a vial of chicken blood “just in case.” The new couple can live with their relatives for a while until they can establish their own home. This is more common in rural areas than in urban areas.

Iran is an Islamic nation, and polygamy is allowed. However, it is not widely practiced, because Iranian officials in this century have followed the Islamic injunction that a man who marries two wives must treat them with absolute equality.

Women in polygamous marriages force their husbands to do so and will seek legal help if they feel disadvantaged. Statistics are hard to determine, but a recent study claims that only 1 percent of all marriages are polygamous.

Divorce is less common in Iran than in the West. Families prefer to stay together even in difficult circumstances, as it is extremely difficult to unravel the close web of interrelationships between the two extended families of the marriage couple.

A recent study states that the divorce rate is 10 percent in Iran. For Iranians moving to the United States, the rate is 66 percent, suggesting that cultural forces tend to keep couples from breaking up.

The children of a marriage belong to the father. After a divorce, men take custody of boys over the age of three and girls over the age of seven. Women have been known to forgo divorce payments in exchange for custody of their children. There is no impediment to remarrying another person, whether male or female.


The social lubricant of Iranian life is a system known as ta’arof, literally “meeting together.” This is a ritualized system of interactive linguistic and behavioral strategies that allow individuals to interrelate in a harmonious way.

The system marks the differences between Andaruni and Biruni situations, and also marks the differences in relative social status. In general, people of higher status are older and have important jobs, or command respect for their learning, artistic achievement, or scholarship.

Linguistically, ta’arof involves a series of lexical substitutions of pronouns and verbs, in which people of lower status address people of higher status with elevated forms.

Rather, they refer to themselves in humble ways. Both parties to an interaction can simultaneously use other forms of lifting and self-lowering toward the other. Ritual greetings and farewells such as ghorban-e shoma (literally “your sacrifice”) underscore this sensitivity.

In social situations, this linguistic gesture is replicated in behavioral routines. It’s a good way to offer a portion of what you’re about to eat to someone close to you, even if they don’t show interest.

One sees this behavior even in very young children. It is polite to decline such an offer, but the one making the offer will be sensitive to the slightest hint of interest and will continue to press the offer if indicated.

Guests bring honor to a home, and are eagerly sought after. A small gift is appreciated when invited as a guest, but often met with a show of embarrassment. It is usually not unwrapped in front of the donor. A person returning from a trip is always expected to bring gifts for his family and friends.

A guest of honor is always placed at the head of a room or table. The person of highest status also goes first when food is served. It is an appropriate way to refuse these honors, and press them onto another.

One must be very careful in praising any possession of another. The owner will probably immediately offer it as a gift. The greatest danger remains in praising a child. Such praise speaks of envy, which is the essence of the “evil eye.” The father will become alarmed, fearing for the child’s life. The correct formula for praising anything is ma sha’ Allah, literally “Whatever God wills.”

Iranians can be quite physically intimate with same-sex friends, even in public. Physical contact is expected and is not erotic. In restaurants and on buses and other public transportation, people are sitting much closer together than in the West.

On the other hand, even the slightest physical contact with non-family members of the opposite sex, unless they are very young children, is taboo.

A downward glance at Iran is a sign of respect. Foreigners addressing Iranians often consider them disinterested or rude when they answer a question without looking at the questioner.

This is a cross-cultural error. For men, downcast eyes are a defensive measure, as staring at a woman is generally taken as a sign of interest and can cause difficulties. On the other hand, looking directly into the eyes of a friend is a sign of affection and intimacy.

In Iran, the person of the lowest status issues the first greeting. In the reverse logic of ta’arof this means that a person who wants to be courteous will make a point of view of this, using the universal Islamic salaam or the extended salaam aleikum. The universal phrase to say goodbye is khoda hafez – “God protects”.


Religious beliefs

The state religion in Iran is Ithnaashara or Twelver Shi’ism, established by the Safavid dynasty in the 17th century. This branch of Islam has many distinctive practices and beliefs that differ from the Sunni Islam that is practiced in the majority of the Muslim world. Shiite Muslims revere the descendants of Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, and her husband Ali, Muhammad’s cousin.

There are twelve imams recognized by this branch of Shiism. All were martyred except the twelfth, Muhammad al-Mahdi, who disappeared, but who will return at the end of time with Jesus to judge humanity. A common symbol seen throughout Iran is an open hand.

This is a complex symbol with various interpretations, but one is that the five fingers represent the central “five bodies” of Shi’ism-Muhammad, Fatimah, Ali, and the two sons of Fatimah and Ali, Husayn and Hassain.

Yet it is Hassain who is the true central figure in Iranian symbolic life. Hassain was martyred in a power struggle between rival sects, later concretized as Shia and Sunni.

This martyrdom is ritually observed throughout the year on all possible occasions. Professional eulogists are regularly endowed with the recitation of history by pious individuals. The Islamic months of Muharram and Safar are months of ritual mourning for Hassain, with processions, self-flagellation, and ten-day dramatic reenactments of the events of martyrdom.

Just as Hassain is a central figure, all the people associated with him and his descendants who lived in Iran are equally revered, particularly Imam Reza, the eighth leader of Shia Muslims.

While all other Shia imams are buried in modern Iraqi territory, Imam Reza is buried in the city of Mashhad in northeastern Iran. The amazing and lavish shrine of him is one of the major pilgrimage destinations for Shia Muslims.

Although the vast majority of Iranians are Twelver Shia Muslims, significant religious minorities have always played an important role in Iranian life. Zoroastrians date back to the Achaemenid Empire more than two thousand years ago.

Iranian Jews claim to be the oldest continuous Jewish community in the world, dating back to the move to Babylon. The Armenians, an ancient Christian people, were imported by the Iranian rulers for their crafts, and the Assyrian Christians, who follow a non-Trinitarian tradition.

they have continuously resided in Iran since the 3rd century. Sunni Muslims are represented by Arab and Baluchi populations in the south and by Turkish populations in the north and west. A religious group is homegrown.

The Bahá’í movement, a 19th-century semi-mystical departure from Shia Islam, won converts not only from Islam, but also from Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity. Considered heresy by many Shia Muslims, the Baha’is have spread from Iran to virtually every nation in the world.

Religious professionals

There is no formal certification for Islamic clergy. Technically, all sincere Muslims can establish themselves as religious practitioners. Women cannot preach to men, but female clerics ministering to women are not uncommon.

In the normal course of formation, a young person attends a religious school. He takes classes from revered scholars who give him a certificate when he has completed a course of study to his satisfaction. After some time he may receive a call to settle in a community that needs a cleric.

Over time, he may acquire a reputation as a mujahideen or ‘jurisprudent’, capable of interpreting Islamic law. Since there is no fixed theological doctrine in Shiism beyond the Koran and the Hadith (traditions of the Prophet Muhammad), believers are free to follow the religious leader of his choice, as well as his interpretation of Islamic law.

Over time, as a mujtahed gains respect and followers, he may rise to become an ayatollah (literally, “Reflection of God”). Ayatollah Khomeini, who in the 1970s had the largest following of any religious leader, led the Iranian revolution.

Mysticism plays an important role in Iranian religion. Religious orders of Sufi mystics have been active in Iran for many centuries.

Sufis focus on an inward meditative path to search for religious truth that may include group chanting and dancing. Because they believe that religion is a personal spiritual journey, they avoid the external pitfalls of social and economic life, and are highly revered.

Rituals and sacred places

The shrines of Islamic saints are extremely important in Iranian religious practice. Most of these burial sites, which receive regular visits from believers, are purported tombs of the descendants of the Prophet Mohammad through Shiite imams.

A pilgrimage to a local shrine is a common religious and social occasion. Longer pilgrimages to Karbala, Mashhad or Mecca are highly respected.

Most of the holidays in Iran are religious holidays that revolve around the birth or death of the various Shia Imams. There are thirty of these days, all calculated according to the lunar calendar, which is always at odds with the Iranian solar calendar. This can complicate people’s lives.

It is necessary to have a Muslim cleric in the community just to calculate the dates. Most of these festivals are mourning, at which time the story of Hassain’s martyrdom in Karbala is recited. The exception is the twelfth imam’s birthday, which is a happy celebration.

Secular celebrations

Most of the holidays in Iran are religious in nature. The few secular holidays are related to pre-Islamic practices or modern political events.

The Iranian New Year Celebration (“Now Ruz”) is the nation’s main secular holiday. The Now Ruz celebration is full of pre-Islamic symbolism, beginning with the practice of jumping over bonfires on the Wednesday before the equinox. A series of symbols emphasizing agricultural renewal are displayed throughout a long period of celebration, which lasts for thirteen days.

Accompanying the festivities is the presence of a black-faced clown, Hajji Firouz. In some parts of the country a New Year “king” is selected and served during the holidays. On the thirteenth day he is ritually sacrificed.

In some parts of Iran the winter solstice is celebrated in a special way. Watermelons are saved from the summer and hung in a sheltered place. On the longest night of the year, family and friends stay up all night, tell stories and eat the watermelons.

The nation also celebrates Islamic Republic Day on April 1 to commemorate the 1979 Revolution.

The arts and humanities

Arts support

The role of the arts in Iran is very complex. On the one hand, Iranians have one of the richest and most elaborate artistic traditions in the world. On the other hand, Islamic leaders disapprove of many forms of artistic expression. Under the Pahlavi regime, especially under the patronage of Empress Farah Diba, the arts were heavily supported and promoted.

Under the Islamic Republic this support has continued, but with many attacks, starts and warnings. Moral censorship has invaded virtually all forms of artistic expression, but the inventive Iranians manage to produce wonderful art despite these restrictions.

Two Islamic prohibitions affect the arts in the most direct way: one against music and another against the representation of humans and animals in art. The Prophet Mohammed disapproved of music because it acted to transport listeners to another mental realm, distracting them from attention to the world created by God.

The representation of humans and animals is disapproved for two reasons: first, because it could be interpreted as idolatry; and second, because it could be seen as an attempt to create an alternative universe to the one created by God. Furthermore, early Muslims considered poetry to be suspect, as it was believed to be inspired by the Jinn.

For these reasons, the Koran, certainly one of the most poetic works ever created, is not explicitly poetry. The chanting of the Koran is also not music. Over the centuries, Iranians have taken these prohibitions lightly.


Iranian poets have written some of the most wonderful and moving poetry in the history of mankind. The great poets Firdawsī, Hāfez, Sa’adī, and Jalāl ad-D n ar-R m and a host of others are an intimate part of every Iranian’s life.

Modern poets who write in non-metrical styles are equally revered, and the nation has developed a distinguished clique of novelists, essayists and belle-lettres, both male and female.

Graphic arts

Persian miniature paintings illustrating Iranian epics and classical stories are among the world’s great art treasures. These miniatures represented both humans and animals. Another, more religiously approved tradition is the artistic development of calligraphy. It is a highly developed Iranian art, as it is throughout the Middle East.

Iran has its own styles of Arabic calligraphy, however, and has developed many modern artists who turn ordinary words into beautiful figurative art.

Modern Iranian painters often use classical miniature themes combined with calligraphy for a unique Persian effect. Geometric design is also approved, and is seen in the architectural details and carpet design.

No discussion of Persian art would be complete without mention of rug making. Carpets are Iran’s most important export item after oil, and their creation is an art of the highest order. The rugs are hand knotted. The finest take years to complete and have hundreds of knots per square inch.

The designs are drawn from a traditional stock of motifs, but are continuously crafted by the weavers. Each region of Iran has its own traditional designs. Rugs are not only beautiful works of art, they are also an investment.

Older carpets are worth more than new ones. Every Iranian family will try to own one, safe in the knowledge that if you are careful in your purchase, it will always increase in value.

Centuries-old traditions of goldsmithing, woodblock printing, enamel, inlay and filigree jewelery making are also important. These arts were revived during the Pahlavi era in government-sponsored workshops and training programs.

This support has continued after the Revolution, and having excellent examples of these artistic products has become a hallmark of good taste in Iranian homes.

Performing arts

Persian classical music is one of the most elaborate and inspiring art forms ever created. The musical system consists of twelve modal units called dastgah. These are divided into small melodic units called gusheh, most of which are associated with classical Persian poetic texts.

A complete performance of classical music consists of alternating arithmetical and rhythmic sections of a single dastgah. The instrumentalist and the vocal artist improvise within the modal structure, creating a unique show.

Traditional instruments include the tar, a lute with a figure-eight body; the setar, a smaller lute with three strings and a small, round body; the nei, a vertical flute; the kemanche, a small upright violin with a long neck and a small body; the qanun, a larger and wider upright fiddle; the santur, a dulcimer hammer; the dombak, a double-headed drum; and the daf, a large tambourine.

Popular music forms draw heavily on the more melodic structures of classical music, and are highly frowned upon by religious authorities. Many popular Iranian musicians now live abroad, where they record and export their music to Iran. Women are not allowed to play music in public under the current government.

Iran has two unique traditional dramatic forms. The first, ta’zieh, is an elaborate parade depicting the death of Imam Hassain. In its full form, it lasts for ten days during the month of Muharram, and involves hundreds of performers and animals. The other dramatic form is less elevated, but equally unique.

This is a form of improvisational comedy commonly known as ru-howzi theater because it was typically performed on a platform above the pool (“howz”) in a courtyard. The Ru-howzi theater is performed by traveling companies at weddings and other celebrations, and is highly regarded.

It has experienced a renaissance since the Revolution. Western modern theater entered Iran in the late 19th century and attracted a number of high-profile playwrights whose works are regularly performed in live theater and on television.

Iranian cinema has captured the interest of the whole world in recent years, winning major international awards. The Iranian film industry is decades old, but in the 1970s it began to develop as a serious art form under the patronage of the National Iranian Radio and Television.

Young filmmakers remained in Iran after the Revolution to create masterpieces of cinematographic art, despite censorship restrictions. This is somewhat confusing to religious officials in the Islamic Republic, as more conservative officials condemned moviegoing as immoral before the Revolution.

They now realize that Iranian filmmakers give Iran a progressive and positive image, and reluctantly lend their support to the industry.

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