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Conversion, Identity, and Memory in Iranian-Jewish Historiography: The Jews of Mashhad

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 May 2021

Ariane Sadjed
Institute for Iranian Studies, Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna, Austria
E-mail address:


The paper discusses the narratives of Jews from Mashhad, who were forced to convert to Islam in 1839. The community narrative as well as academic research is dominated by a modern understanding of religious identity and religious boundaries that fail to account for the diversity of practices among the community of converts, including multiple forms of religious belonging, and the switching of identities according to time and place. Based on historical sources and interviews with descendants from the Mashhadi community, the paper traces how a particular narrative of the history of the Jews from Mashhad prevailed and which significance this narrative entails for Mashhadi community and identity until today. While the Jews from Mashhad are a rather unique case among Iranian Jews–due to the long period in which they lived as converts–their pattern of memory building reflects a general trend among Jews from the Muslim world to assimilate to modern ideas of being Jewish.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 This trip to Iran was part of my research project, “Narratives of Being Jewish in Iran,” conducted at the Austrian Academy of Sciences (2018–21). The research is based on long-term collaboration with informants in Iran and interviews with Iranian Jews in Iran, Israel, Europe, and the United States, as well as biographical research. All interlocutor names are pseudonyms.

2 Kashani, Reuben, Anuse Mashhad (Jerusalem: privately published, 1979)Google Scholar; Patai, Rafael, Jadid al-Islam: The Jewish “New Muslims” of Meshhed (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1997)Google Scholar; Yaghoub Dilmanian, History of the Jews of Mashad 1746–1946 A.D.: From Their Entrance to Mashad at the Time of Nader Shah Afshar until Their Migration from Mashad to Tehran (New York: privately published, 1999); Jaleh Pirnazar, “The Anusim of Mashhad,” in Esther's Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews, ed. Houman Sarshar (Beverly Hills, CA: Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History, 2002), 115–36; Nissimi, Hilda, The Crypto-Jewish Mashhadis: The Shaping of Religious and Communal Identity in Their Journey from Iran to New York (Brighton, UK: Sussex Academic Press, 2007)Google Scholar; Haideh Sahim, “Two Wars, Two Cities, Two Religions: The Jews of Mashhad and the Herat Wars,” in The Jews of Iran, ed. Houman Sarshar (London: I. B. Tauris, 2014), 75–108.

3 Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity are among the legally recognized religions in Iran and have official representation in parliament, whereas the Baha'is and Ahl-i Haqq are not considered rightful religious minorities.

4 Kia, Mana, Persianate Selves: Memories of Place and Origin before Nationalism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2020), 4CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Duara, Prasenjit, Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 8CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Nader Shah's motives for the relocation sprung from the idea to employ Jewish merchants as agents for the commercial revival of his reconstituted empire. During his reign, he had as many as 300,000 individuals brought to the province of Khorasan as part of an enormous population transfer, of which Jews and Christians comprised a small part (Azaria Levy, The Jews of Mashhad, privately published, 1998).

7 The then religious leader of Mashhad, Imam Jumʿah Haji Seyyed Ashgari, called the incident “Allah-Dadi,” which Dilmanian translates as “Divine Justice”; the Mashhadi community also has used the term to this day (Dilmanian, History).

8 Amanat, Mehrdad, Jewish Identities in Iran: Resistance and Conversion to Islam and the Baha'i Faith (London: I. B. Tauris, 2013), 47Google Scholar.

9 Fischel, Walter, “Mulla Ibrahim Nathan (1816–1868): Jewish agent of the British during the first Anglo-Afghan war,” Hebrew Union College Annual 29 (1958): 331–75Google Scholar.

10 Amanat, Jewish Identities, 56.

11 Joseph Ferrier, Caravan Journeys and Wanderings in Persia, Afghanistan, Turkistan and Beloochistan: With Historical Notices of the Countries Lying between Russia and India (London: William Clowes, 1857); Albert Kaganovich, The Mashhadi Jews (Djedids) in Central Asia (Berlin: Klaus Schwarz Verlag, 2007).

12 Ephraim Neumark, Masa be Erets ha Qedem (Jerusalem: privately published, 1947).

13 Nissimi, Hilda, “Memory, Community, and the Mashhadi Jews during the Underground Period,” Jewish Social Studies 9, no. 3 (2003): 76–106CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 In most of my interviews Mashhadi Jews as well as other Iranian and non-Iranian Jews tend to describe Mashhadis as particularly “traditional” and “religious.” Daniel M. Swetschinski, Reluctant Cosmopolitans: The Portuguese Jews of Seventeenth-Century Amsterdam (Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2004), 319.

15 Patai, Jadid al-Islam, 110–11.

16 Looking like “Middle Easterners” and having Muslim names, many Mashhadis reported that they were viewed with suspicion or denigration in Israel. Also, outside of Israel, European and North American Jews questioned the Jewishness of the Mashhadis, due to their Middle Eastern background. See, for example, Esther Amini, Concealed: Memoir of a Jewish-Iranian Daughter Caught between the Chador and America (New York: Greenpoint Press, 2020). Several of my non-Mashhadi interview partners indicated that until the 1970s the Jewish community of Iran (mainly Tehran), tended to view the Mashhadi Jews with suspicion due to their history as Jadids. This might have contributed to their insularity as well as their need to establish an unambiguous community narrative.

17 Joel Beinin, The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry: Culture, Politics, and the Formation of a Modern Diaspora (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005); Michelle Campos, Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Early Twentieth-Century Palestine (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011); Orit Bashkin, New Babylonians: A History of Jews in Modern Iraq (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012); Lior Sternfeld, Between Iran and Zion: Jewish Histories of Twentieth-Century Iran (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019).

18 This pertains to analytical categories such as religious identity and belief as primordial and unchanging, and the truncation of multiple and indeterminate aspects of individual and communal religiosity in the process of classifying it (often according to national ideas of origin). Another problem for analysis is the positioning of a dichotomy between the religious and the secular. Gauri Viswanathan, Outside the Fold: Conversion, Modernity, and Belief (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998).

19 Joseph Wolff, Researches and Missionary Labours among the Jews, Mohammedans, and Other Sects (Philadelphia: O. Rogers, 1835), and Narrative of a Mission to Bukhara in the Years 1843–45 (New York: Harper, 1845); Henry A. Stern, Dawnings of Light in the East (London, 1854). Stern declares that the Jews in Bushehr, “like most Jews in the East, (are) exceedingly ignorant” (86). We can only assume what reactions this pretension elicited among the Jewish communities, but their response reflects his expectations. The rabbi of Kazerun reportedly greeted Stern with the words: “welcome, ye travellers from far countries, and messengers of joy to the captives of Zion, whose hearts are throbbing with fear in a strange land, and among a cruel people” (114). Laurence Loeb provides a more recent example from the field of anthropology with his book Outcaste: Jewish Life in Southern Iran (London: Routledge, 2011). Loeb's work, which is rich in insights into the daily life of the Jews of Shiraz in the 1960s, laments the slow or reluctant implementation of the directives given by emissaries from Israel among the Shirazi Jews. He writes, “Most teachers are also rather ignorant with regard to Judaica, being acquainted only superficially with Siddur, Tora, and Midrash. . . . They were unable or unwilling to read texts in Hebrew, and a Jewish history text in Persian had not yet been completed. As a result, a historical conception of Jewish identity was completely absent among the younger generation” (143). Loeb also mentions that an emissary from Israel burned elements that were part of the “religio-magical” tradition of the Jews “in a bonfire” (220). From statements like these we can infer that were grave differences between the Jews in Shiraz and the emissaries from Israel regarding ideas of proper religiosity.

20 Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 39–46; Peter Gottschalk, Beyond Hindu and Muslim: Multiple Identity in Narratives from Village India (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000), and Religion, Science, and Empire: Classifying Hinduism and Islam in British India (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2012); Adam H. Becker, Revival and Awakening: American Evangelical Missionaries in Iran and the Origins of Assyrian Nationalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

21 Viswanathan, Outside the Fold, esp. xii–xiii.

22 Kia, Persianate Selves, 11.

23 Marina Rustow addresses problems in the historiography of Jews in medieval Spain and Portugal before their conversion, in particular regarding their relation to normative Judaism and preexisting doubts and heterodoxy; “Yeroushalmi and the Conversos,” Jewish History 28, no. 1, (2014): 11–49.

24 One observation was the simultaneous existence of a strictly religious public sphere with indeterminate and multifaceted subjectivities. An individual whose ancestors hailed from the Jewish community of Mashhad told me about a variety of different religious expressions and identities among his ancestors following the forced conversion, ranging from insanity that my interview partner ascribed to the conversion following the Allahdad, to a Muslim identity dotted (unconsciously) with Jewish practices, to a complete integration into Mashhadi religious society, yet with a lingering memory of a Jewish past. My interview partner had immersed himself in the history of his family's Jewish roots and the history of the Jews of Mashhad, including religious tenets of Judaism. Successful business ties as well as intermarriage connected him with Iranian and Mashhadi authorities. Yet, he did not define himself as Muslim, nor would the Jewish community in Iran accept him as one of them. The global Mashhadi Jewish communities outside of Iran were of no relevance to him either. He embodied the marginalized space in-between that all communities rejected, as he undermined the drawn boundaries.

25 “180 Years after Allahdadi” (booklet) (Great Neck, NY: Shaare Shalom, United Mashadi Jewish Community of America, 2019). Orit Bashkin's warning against a “Farhudization” of Iraqi Jewish history, that is, viewing the 1941 Farhud riot as typifying the overall history of the relationship between Jews and the greater Iraqi society, is apt for Mashhadi history as well: the Allahdad has come to be the overarching aspect of identity; New Babylonians, 138.

26 Iranian Jews often saw the British as protectors in situations in which the Iranian authorities seemed weak or unreliable. The alliance between the British and the Mashhadis evolved from the strong rivalry between Russia and Britain at the time in Khorasan. The British actively utilized minorities for their service, including promises for a “land of their own.” Mashhadis employed by the British often put their lives and assets in jeopardy to complete their service. A few members of the Mashhadi community received British pensions. Afghan Jews, on the other hand (many of whom had hailed from Mashhad), tended to be against the British as they had occupied Afghanistan. See Daniel Tsadik, Between Foreigners and Shiʿis: Nineteenth-Century Iran and Its Jewish Minority (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007), 35; and Amanat, Jewish Identities, 50–57.

27 Dilmanian, History, 25–27.

28 For the connection between religious holidays and riots against religious “others” in the Middle Ages see David Nirenberg, Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996).

29 Amini, Concealed.

30 Ibid., 39.


31 Ibid., 39–40.


32 Ibid., 33.


33 Ibid., 80.


34 Author interview with Mersede, December 2020, Israel; author interview with Roshan, December 2020, UK.

35 Swetschinski, Reluctant Cosmopolitans, 315.

36 Amanat, Jewish Identities, 59.

37 Patai, Jadid al-Islam; Shlomo Kaboli, Du Qarni Muqavamat: Tarikhi Yahudiyani Mashhad (New York: Tova Press, 2006); Nissimi, Crypto-Jewish Mashhadis. These themes also were central in the interviews that I conducted.

38 Mulla Meshiakh also is known as Mulla Mahdi Aqajan. Mahdi is Persian for “Messiah,” pointing to the messianic expectations prevalent at the time among different religious groups.

39 Wolff, Researches, 128–29. Wolff describes Jews and Muslims eating and drinking together: “It was amusing this evening to hear those Jewish and Mohammedan Soofees discussing with great gravity, and with eyes lifted up with devotion, the propriety of eating pork, drinking wine, and eating without first washing their hands” (132).

40 Mulla Mahdi, to whom Wolff refers as “Mulla Meshiakh,” owned an “interreligious library.” Mullah Yizghil from Mashhad, who was a teacher of the Torah and Talmud, had a Judeo-Persian copy of Jalal ad-Din Rumi's Masnavi, from which he taught his favored students, alongside the regular Jewish religious literature. Mulla Pinchas, the assistant of the chief rabbi, also was a Sufi and took part in interreligious discussions at the house of a Muslim cleric (Wolff, Researches). Inclination to Sufism had been part of Jewish and Muslim cultural engagement for centuries and has permeated the literature and poetry of Iranian Jews to such a degree that it is almost impossible to distinguish between genuine Sufi and non-Sufi elements; Shervin Farridnejad, “The Jewish Hafez: Classical New Persian Literature in the Judeo-Persian Garsuni Literary Tradition,” Festschrift François de Blois, ed. Adam Benkato and Arash Zeini, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 32 (2021). The Jews of Bukhara, among whom many Mashhadis settled in the 19th century, reportedly despised the fact that the Mashhadi Jews read the poetry of Hafiz instead of the Torah (Wolff, Researches, 177). This suggests that Bukharan Jews at the time had a different point of view about mystical Persian poetry.

41 Taqiyya is lawful in Shiʿism in situations when revealing one's faith would result in danger.

42 Monica Martinat, “The Identity Game,” in Dissimulation and Deceit, ed. Miriam Eliav-Feldon and Tamar Herzig (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015), 76.

43 Amanat, Jewish Identities, 78.

44 Kaganovich, Mashhadi Jews. The Russian Revolution of 1917 brought back all Jewish residents on the Russian side of the border to Mashhad.

45 Wolff, Researches, 136–52. Being Jewish was an advantage for the Mashhadis when dealing with the Turkmen tribes, since the latter were adversaries of Iranian Shiʿis.

46 Dilmanian, History, 34; Interview with Mr. Alizadeh, 25 October 2019, .

47 Memoirs of Farajullah Nasrullayoff Livian (1874–1951), summarized in Patai, Jadid al-Islam, ch. 12.

48 Jews who had fled from Mashhad to Herat in 1839 practiced Judaism openly. After their forced return to Mashhad in 1854, according to Dilmanian, they allied with the zealous among the Mashhadi community, thereby strengthening this group. This development might eventually have influenced Mashhadis living outside of Mashhad.

49 Manuscript (MS 1534) courtesy of the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, New York. There also is a picture from the “Youth Club of Mashhad” from the year 1944, in which members of the club performed the play “Yusuf and Zulaikha”; Kaboli, Du Qarni Muqavamat.

50 Wolff, Narrative, 396. A recurrent theme in the history of Iranian Jews in the 19th century is convincing authorities in Iran to protect the Jews, so as not to fall out of favor with a foreign power. This form of intervention introduced new aspects of alienation between Jews (as well as other minorities) and their Muslim compatriots; Tsadik, Foreigners and Shi'is, 41. In 1902, the British consul in Mashhad repeatedly refers to them in his diary as Jews, or “Jews, known as Jadids”; A. Levy, cited in Nissimi, “Memory,” 103.

51 Political Diaries, Meshed Consular June 1940; Khorassan Fortnightly Reports. British Library: India Office Records and Private Papers. The letter referring to “Muhammedan Jews” is from 1944. IOR/L/PS/12/3407

52 Neumark, Masa be Erets ha Qedem, 92. The Mashhadi Jews are thought to be among the most affluent Jews of Iran, and perhaps the only ones involved in long-distance trade; Amanat, Jewish Identities, 49. Henry Field describes them as constituting one-quarter of the “more important” merchants of Mashhad in Contributions to the Anthropology of Iran (Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History, 1939), 254.

53 Zahra Kohandel, “A Tour of the Historic Houses in the Former Jewish Neighborhood of Mashhad,” Hamshahri [in Farsi], 19 April 2018,

54 Baha'i historiography provides some details of Jewish life in Mashhad. One example describes how the elders of the Jewish community partnered with the Kadkhoda (head of the district assigned by the government) against a Jewish convert to the Baha'i faith; Hassan M. Balyuzi, Eminent Bahaʾis in the Time of Bahaʾuʾllah: With Some Historical Background (Oxford: G. Ronald, 1985), 182. The episode conveys that the fact that the Jadids practiced Judaism could be used against them in conflict situations (in this case by a former member of the community itself). Yet it also illustrates a fabric of different positions and shifting allegiances: although the Jadids did not succeed in disciplining the new convert, they consulted a non-Jewish authority for assistance, pointing to a different role of the latter than being a threat.

55 Neumark, Masa be Erets ha Qedem, 89–91.

56 Nissimi, “Memory,” 86.

57 This is a common narrative, brought up by many of my informants. Although the Muslim pilgrimage now tends to be framed as forced, or even as a pretext to get to Jerusalem, we should also consider the possibility that the Jadids considered both sites of pilgrimage holy.

58 Koplik, Sara, A Political and Economic History of the Jews of Afghanistan (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 24CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Mutaʿassibin translates as “the devout” or “zealous ones.”

59 Dilmanian, History, 46–50. The Mashhadi narrative states that except for a very few individual exceptions, all Mashhadis returned to Judaism. There are several stories relating that those who remained Muslims did not have any offspring or died in tragic accidents. Patai cites a source that refers to a sole “apostate” who had become a Baha'i and died in a plane crash. In one of my group interviews, two women were in disagreement about whether any Mashhadi Jews had become Muslims. One of them asserted that many of those who converted became very prosperous in Mashhad. Dilmanian confirms this latter statement in his book, as does my fieldwork in Iran.

60 Dilmanian, History.

61 Nissimi, “Memory,” 84.

62 Memoirs of Mulla Yosef Dilmani, cited in Patai, Jadid al-Islam, 82.

63 Dilmanian, History.

64 Patai, Jadid al-Islam; Pirnazar, The Anusim of Mashhad; Nissimi, Crypto-Jewish Mashhadis.

65 Baer, Marc David, The Dönme: Jewish Converts, Muslim Revolutionaries, and Secular Turks (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010)Google Scholar.

66 Interview with Mr. Alizadeh, 16 June 2019, location of interview anonymized.

67 Beeta Baghoolizadeh, “Marriage Contracts and the Mashhadi Jewish Community: Art as a Second Identity in the Nineteenth Century,” Jadaliyya, 12 August 2013,

68 Patai, Jadid al-Islam; Shalom Sabar, Ketubbah: The Art of the Jewish Marriage Contract (New York: Rizzoli, 2001), 25.

69 Patai states, “In the 1880s, most of the Jadīdī boys attended the maktab (Muslim school) of Mulla Hasan. . . . He even learned from a Jew the Jadīdī alphabet, the specific Hebrew script used by the Jews of Meshed. In return, he taught that Jew the Persian alphabet. Mullah Hasan did not know that the Jadīdīm faithfully adhered to the Jewish religion, and he considered the Hebrew script merely a kind of historical relic from their past. Until the years of World War II, whenever a Muslim asked about it, the Jadīdīm always gave this explanation for their interest in knowing the Hebrew script” (Jadid al-Islam, 210; emphasis mine). Rather than believing that the Jadids’ interest in Hebrew was merely a “relic from the past,” the teacher, who daily interacted with Jadidi youth and had studied the Hebrew script himself with a member of the community, was probably aware of its usage in the community.

70 One of my interview partners pointed out that although immediately after the conversion the Shiʿi marriage contract accompanying the Hebrew one was very simple and formal, this changed in the following years, leading to the emergence of highly elaborated and artfully ornamented Shiʿi marriage contracts among the Mashhadi Jews. Interview with Mr. Pourrahimi, 17 December 2020, Israel.

71 Dilmanian, History, 62.

72 Patai remarks that in the beginning the “Talmud Tora” school did not possess any books.

73 By “production” I do not suggest falsification. Every communal history is characterized by the selection of certain aspects and the omission of others. When recovering crypto-Jewish pasts, Kandiyoti has pointed out that new or preexisting affiliations (such as Jewishness), emotions, and political ideas about large-scale traumatic events become intertwined with filiation and perceptions of descent; Kandiyoti, Dalia, The Converso's Return: Conversion and Sephardi History in Contemporary Literature and Culture (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press 2020), 7CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

74 Interview with Mrs. Asher, 30 December 2020, UK.

75 Ariane Sadjed, “Belonging from Afar: The Mashhadi Jews in Milan,” under review.

76 Kandiyoti, Converso's Return, 7.

77 Ibid.


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