It seems that, at least as recently as 2014, Iran had a death penalty for apostasy. But apostasy isn't non-belief. In fact, that charge seems to be a rather contextual matter. In this Guardian story we find an example of a man was executed for "heresy" generally, but more specifically for "insulting prophet Jonah and making ‘innovations in religion’ through interpretations of Qur’an" - that is, he is religious, but he holds an unacceptable position within the sphere of (Shia) Islam.

My questions are:

  1. What exactly is illegal in Iran w.r.t. religious non-belief, if anything? Specifically, if you're an Atheist, and you say out loud that you don't believe in the existence of gods or supernatural phenomena etc. - have you violated Iranian law?
  2. Do people get prosecuted for holding atheist views? For expressing atheist views? For promoting atheism?

Part of my motivation for asking is an opinion poll from 2020, suggesting that over 20% of Iranians claim having no religion, and nearly 9% define themselves as outright atheists.

  • 1
    I don’t understand exactly what the difference between your second and first questions are? Nov 25, 2021 at 12:53
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    @EkadhSingh-ReinstateMonica: The first question is formal, the second question is practical. In many countries, some laws are "dead letter" - in the law books, but not enforced through prosecution. For example, in South Carolina in the USA, it is technically illegal to seduce a married woman, but AFAIK nobody is getting prosecuted despite the practice being not uncommon.
    – einpoklum
    Nov 25, 2021 at 13:00
  • The 2014 story you've linked to is about someone who was providing their own religious interpretations of religious texts, so I'm not sure what it has to do with your question on atheism. Nov 25, 2021 at 17:32
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    Charges of blasphemy or "inciting religious hatered" is how atheism is "handled" in a few other Islamic countries, e.g. Egypt or Indonesia. Since 2014 Saudi Arabia allows for terrorism charges and that law has been used. Nov 25, 2021 at 19:00
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    It seems that legally being registered as an atheist is impossible dw.com/en/iran-id-card-rule-highlights-plight-of-bahai/… though it doesn't say anything about legally registered as a theist but otherwise living openly as an atheist
    – Martheen
    Nov 26, 2021 at 1:49

3 Answers 3


Not officially, no.

According to this news article that was linked to in the comments, the only legally-recognized minority religions in Iran are Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism. If you're an atheist, you'd either have to lie about your religion when you fill out the forms to apply for government identification, or you wouldn't be allowed to gain an ID and the accompanying citizenship rights.

This is apparently the result of a deliberate campaign of repression against the Baha'i faith, which is the largest minority faith in Iran and which is viewed by the Iranian government as an heretical sect.

Therefore, it can be concluded that the lack of government identification and the loss of legal rights concomitant with that lack of identification is one of the primary means by which the Iranian government persecutes open atheists.

  • The body of your answer does not answer my questions, while the title says "no" as a supposed answer. I did not ask about registration.
    – einpoklum
    Nov 27, 2021 at 14:02
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    @einpoklum "The body of your answer does not answer my question" It does. It sounds like the prevention of registry and the loss of rights as a citizen is the method of punishment used by the Iranian government. Here, I made it a bit more explicit. Is that better?
    – nick012000
    Nov 27, 2021 at 14:04

As I understand it, traditional Islamic law holds that non-Muslims are tolerated but excluded from some of the benefits of Muslim society. Apostates are a different matter: they are Muslims who have rejected or denounced Islam as a religion. The latter are much more threatening to Islam as a religion than the former, and so they are given harsher penalties. In other words:

  • An atheist in a Muslim nation could comfortably and openly live as an atheist, assuming no attacks on the faith or attempts to turn others into atheists. He would generally be treated as a kind of second class citizen, with nice people trying to show him the way of Islam
  • An atheist in a Muslim nation who actively spoke against Islam might be attacked, imprisoned, expelled, or killed, but wouldn't be labeled apostate
  • A Muslim who rejected Islam would be labeled an apostate, and face harsh consequences.

For instance, Salman Rushdie faced a fatwah calling for his death because he was a Muslim criticizing the faith. There was no fatwah against Charlie Hebdo who were attacked by enraged radicalized elements. The first was considered apostasy, the second wasn't, and the cases called for different actions under Sharia.

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    While this is an interesting comment, it does not really answer my question. Also, there isn't one single Islamic tradition anyway.
    – einpoklum
    Nov 25, 2021 at 15:31
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    @einpoklum: I'm not an expert on Iranian law, but this is a typical distinction made in Islamic regions. Not even draconian regimes/groups like Saudi Arabia or ISIL treat non-Muslims and apostates the same. Remember, Islam is a proselytizing faith: Non-Muslims are potential converts; ex-Muslims are lost souls. Nov 25, 2021 at 15:42
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    Can't say how reliable The Sun is on this, but it claims with quotes from a royal decree that in Saudi Arabia atheism has been declared a form of terrorism thesun.co.uk/news/1701609/… So generalizing anything about Islamic countries in this matters seems on pretty thin ice. Nov 25, 2021 at 17:53
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    PBS says the same. So one case where The Sun reported something accurately kiinda impressed. Nov 25, 2021 at 18:14
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    @TedWrigley: The (usually) well-treated "Non-Muslims" are first and foremost Christians and Jews, and that's indeed well known. The question is what specifically is happening in Iran.
    – einpoklum
    Nov 25, 2021 at 19:55

As you can see in your link, Mr. Aslani was hanged for committing rape.

Now, about your two questions, I almost agree with @Ted Wrigley with following differences:

  • A Muslim who rejected Islam would be labeled an apostate, and if (s)he apparently make propaganda about this, he should be executed since Islam considers this as a religious codetta ( see here).
    Note: this has Repentance; (s)he can repent and save the life.
  • Anyone (Muslim or non-Muslim) who Explicitly insults one prophet, (Prophet Muhammad, Adam, Noah, Abraham, Musa, Jesus, ..., (God bless them)), should be executed. This crime has not Repentance. Thus Salman Rushdie for example can not repent.

But why we have not a fatwah against Charlie Hebdo unlike Rushdie? This would have various reasons. I guess it is because Takfirists are very active nowadays. If Iran give a fatwah on Charlie Hebdo, and Takfirists kill them with some innocent propel, this would stain Iran, as being united with Takfirists.

Finally, as Ted Wrigley says, An atheist in Iran (Shai majority country) could comfortably and openly live as an atheist and this is because of the following order of Imam Ali (first Shia Imam) to his governor, Maalik Ashtar: "Remember, Maalik, that amongst your subjects there are two kinds of people: your brothers in faith, and your equals in humanity...".

  • "A Muslim" <- But what if you never declared yourself to be Muslim? "would be labeled an apostate" <- By whom? Under what legislation? With what procedure? "insults the prophet" - that's a different issue than being an atheist "order of Imam Ali etc" - that's a nice quote, but again, I'm asking about the formal and actual state of affairs in Iran, not about Shia philosophy.
    – einpoklum
    Dec 4, 2021 at 19:45
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    actual state of affairs in Iran is based on Shia philosophy. You are a Muslim if you say "Shahadatain". Also if your father is a Muslim, then you considered as a Muslim (default). You are an apostate if you, yourself, Declare that I was a Muslim and now I am not.- You can say this and argue about it in universities or religious schools, ... without punishment. But you are not allowed to make propaganda about it.
    – user 1
    Dec 5, 2021 at 4:02

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