History of Zoroastrianism

Shahin Bekhradnia rounds up her introduction to Zoroastrianism with a history of her religion

The Greeks immortalised the name of the founder of the religion for Western readers but in the native Iranian language, he was called Zarathushtra.

1500 BCE is now an accepted approximation of the era in which the prophet lived and preached his revelation – this date being based on linguistic analysis of the portion of sacred prayer texts known as the Gathas which are thought to be poem/songs composed by himself.

The context of some references in the text also suggest an era when Indo Iranian migrations were taking place and when there were raids on early established agriculturalists.

Unfortunately no precise dates can be given and indeed a degree of controversy still rages over the issue of attributing an accurate era of history to his lifetime. This lack of definite date attribution is partially due to the occasions when Iran was occupied by hostile invading forces who burnt all written records (notably the invasion of Alexander of Macedon in the 3rd century BCE and of the Arab Islamic forces in the 7th century CE).

Written observations by the Greeks and Romans as well as histories by later Iranians from the Islamic period are the main sources of information about the pre-Islamic period, and the great Iranian epic poem, the Shahnameh also throws much light on the practice and ethos of the religion of its pre-Islamic past. From the 15th century CE comments from Western European travellers as well as Zoroastrian literature and oral history preserved within the community provide much more detail on the fortunes of later Zoroastrianism.

Despite the paucity of accurate early material, there is no doubt that Zoroaster lived and spread his ideas in the region that was to become Greater Iran which roughly covers the territories that were later under the control of the 3 native Iranian enmpires.

Even so whether he lived around Azarbaijan in Western Iran as was thought until recently, or whether he came from Eastern Iran – maybe as far away as the Pamir mountains - is still not clear although it is an accepted fact that he converted the King of Balkh in Bactria to his philosophy.

It is also clear that thereafter his ideas gradually spread over a very large area and most historians accept that the famous Achaemian kings like Cyrus and Darius were followers of his doctrine. Their inscriptions speak of Ahura Mazda even though they do not make any mention of Zoroaster but most scholars do not find this omission particularly significant.

While it is known that Cyrus was tolerant of other religions and indeed liberated the Jews from the prisons of Babylon and helped them to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem, it is also known that Zoroastrian fire temples were found all over the territories within the Iranian Empire. This would suggest that the faith was spread as the empire expanded and at the outposts most probably there were fusions with other religions with which contact was established and localised cults also appeared.

There were 3 major native dynasties who are thought to have been followers of Zoroastrianism: the Achaemenians (6th century BCE – 4th century BCE) the Parthians (2nd century BCE – 2nd century CE) and the Sassanians (2nd century CE – 7th century CE).

The Arab Muslim attack on Iran brought about the end of the Zoroastrian period of Iranian history and thereafter their numbers began to decline. Initially it is said that a degree of toleration was shown to Zoroastrians, but this alleged tolerance was short lived. Fire temples were converted to mosques.

By the 10th century it is evident from the migration of a small band of desperate Zoroastrians to India, that the conditions for Zoroastrians in Iran were intolerant enough to force them to take their chances in an unknown land. In the northern Indian principality of Surat they were given permission to remain by the local ruler on certain conditions which they happily accepted as far more lenient than those they had endured in Iran.

They became known as Parsees and between the 15th and 18th century they kept up exchanges of correspondence and envoys between the priests of Iran and Navsari in India. In due course the British entrusted them with many important functions in running colonial India and other colonies.

The fortunes of the Zoroastrians in Iran declined in proportion to the decline in their numbers: the infidel tax they had to pay became more onerous and other economic pressures to encourage conversion to Islam made life very difficult indeed. Petty prohibitions such as not being permitted to build more than one floor above ground level, nor being allowed to wear glasses nor ride a donkey in the presence of a Muslim eroded the morale of the faithful. Additionally from time to time there were pograms and whole Zoroastrian communities were wiped out as European visitors’ accounts from the 16th century testified.

By the mid 19th century Parsees had got to hear about the abject wretchedness of the Zoroastrians of Iran which contrasted with their own increasing prosperity and success, mainly in Bombay. Significantly the very first three non-English MPs who took their seats in Westminster were Parsees at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.

Parsees were able to successfully lobby the British authorities who in turn pressurised the Iranian monarch to remove the onerous infidel tax by accepting a one-off payment from them, and to remove other social restrictions which impeded their daily lives. A head count was also undertaken by a Parsee delegation at the end of the 19th century which revealed that the Zoroastrian population of Iran had fallen to just under 7500 people in total, the significant majority living in the desert town of Yazd. In 1906 the first parliament in Iran gave one seat to a Zoroastrian representative, a right which has continued till today.

With the accession of the Pahlavi dynasty which lasted from 1925-1979, the Zoroastrian community in Iran experienced a renaissance through the greater respect which it was shown and thus had its dignity restored. Members of the faith were given almost all the same rights as Muslims and the pre-islamic history of Iran was once again celebrated as were the national festivals. The population grew to a more promising 30-35,000 mainly concentrated in the capital city, Tehran.

At the time of the revolution in 1979, there was a major exodus to the West by those who feared a return to the discriminatory conditions pre-dating the Pahlavi regime. Once again just recently there has been a significant outflow as prospects for young Zoroastrians have become increasingly depressing. While there is no official harassment or persecution of Zoroastrians, the reality is that Zoroastrians feel disadvantaged in all walks of life and the migration threatens the continued existence of the Iranian Zoroastrian community. Indeed there are many who believe that such an exodus is being encouraged and facilitated by the Islamic authorities who would like to see Iran rid of its native religion.

In India and Pakistan, where Parsees enjoyed high status until independence and where they are generally still highly regarded, their numbers have been declining because of particular social laws which.they have unilaterally adopted. Unlike their Iranian counterparts, the majority do not accept the concept of conversion, but cannot justify their position from the Gathas.

They simply state that they continue the customs of their forefathers – but appear to have forgotten the understandable reasons which required such a position ten centuries previously, and also ignore what was stated in the exchanges between priests of Iran and Navsari. Furthermore they treat their males and females differently favouring the males by allowing their offspring from mixed marriages legitimacy while denying this right to the offspring of female mixed marriages.

The situation has become so dire that the last census revealed a dwindling and aged population of a mere 69,000 compared to the 125,000 it was reckoned to be at the beginning of the 20th century – a trend in contradiction to the Iranian Zoroastrian population.

The movement of New Zoroastrians, mainly Iranian converts from Islam is a fast growing one and has given rise to many tensions between the communities.

Shahin Bakhradnia is the grand daughter of a renown Yazdi priest/poet of 19th century. She grew up in England, and has published and lectured on Zoroastrianism.
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.