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.