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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Why Labour's manifesto wasn't regressive

The Institute for Fiscal Studies' analysis did not take into account the progressive effect that most of the party's policies would have. 

Think tankers, for example at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Resolution Foundation and IPPR, often like to use ‘distributional analysis’ to assess the impacts of policy on households, and these analyses are often picked up on in wider debates over fairness.

To test whether a policy change is ‘progressive’ – where its impact on poorer households is more positive than it is on richer households – a preferred method is to group all households in the population into buckets, ordered from lowest income to highest, and show the average effect of a policy for each bucket.

The benefits of this type of analysis are obvious. The relatively complicated question of progressivity can, at least for a given metric, be reduced to a visually clear and accessible chart: answering the question of fairness seemingly irrefutably, at least in quantifiable terms.

An influential part of the IFS’s excellent election manifesto analysis was just such a chart, showing the distributional impact of all tax and benefit proposals from the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos (reproduced below).

The analysis is striking on two accounts. First, it appears to show that the policies in Labour’s manifesto are almost perfectly regressive: from the second to the ninth decile, the poorer a family is, the worse off Labour’s plans would make them. Second, Labour’s plans appear pretty regressive even relative to the other two parties: almost as regressive as the Conservatives, and far more so than the Liberal Democrats.

This chart in particular has helped fuel a broad, alternative narrative that has emerged about the Labour manifesto since the election. This narrative suggests that, far from being radical, the impact of the policies recommended wasn’t even redistributive. For example, John Rentoul reproduced the same chart in his article for the Independent and Andrew Harrop leant on IFS analysis for his piece in the Guardian. Less formally, the arguments have attracted particular traction on social media with commentators such as Robert Peston at ITV and Jeremy Cliffe at the Economist reposting the chart on Twitter.

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Is this correct? Would the effects of implementing Labour’s manifesto be not only to take away from the poor, but to take away far more than they would from the rich? The answer is either an unequivocal ‘no’ or ‘we don’t know because the analysis hasn’t been done’, depending on the interpretation of ‘effect’. But the answer certainly is not ‘yes’.

Commentators have misinterpreted the IFS work in two important ways.

First, the IFS did not assess the whole of the Labour manifesto. They did not even reflect most of it.

Distributional analysis is most effective in assessing impacts that can be measured, reasonably unambiguously, in a monetised form. Quite sensibly then, and as is often standard practice, the IFS applied their analysis to tax and benefit reforms only – excluding services or other government programmes. Even tax measures where the ‘effective incidence’ (the final, often indirect impact of a tax on households, as opposed to the entity that might have paid the tax in the first instance such as a firm) is equivocal, such as corporation tax, were excluded.

This means the analysis only assessed a fraction of the Labour manifesto’s tax rises (around £8bn from £49bn) and spending commitments (around £4bn from £49bn). In the case of Labour, unlike the manifesto itself which was supposedly cost neutral, the analysis included almost twice as many ‘takeaways’ (tax rises) as it did ‘giveaways’ (additional welfare support).

The final picture, then, is not a reflection of the whole manifesto, but of less than 8 per cent of spending commitments and 16 per cent of tax rises. Some of the measures excluded would likely have had a broadly progressive impact, such as increasing the living wage to £10 per hour, applying VAT to private school fees, scrapping planned giveaways in the taxation of inheritance and capital gains, restoring the Educational Maintenance Allowance and boosting Sure Start.

For those reforms that reflected a stronger principle of universalism – such as the National Education Service, increased child care and scrapping university tuition fees – the effects are less clear and possibly regressive in a strict accountancy sense.

But the IFS work cannot help us reach a conclusion either way because they are excluded from the analysis. Since the UK is one of only six countries among 35 OECD members where the state spends more on welfare in kind than it does in cash, it would be an especially poor outcome for our political discourse if benefits in kind were to be excluded from our redistributive conversation altogether.

The second reason is that the IFS did not at any stage assess manifesto commitments in isolation.

All distributional analysis is essentially an exercise in simulating a number of scenarios, one of which is treated as a ‘baseline’, and all the others as counterfactuals. The estimated impact of a specific counterfactual scenario is essentially just the total difference observed with the baseline scenario.

In addition to the issue of which, and how many, manifesto measures are included, the issue of what is in or out of the baseline relative to the counterfactuals is therefore also critical.

In the case of the recent IFS work, the baseline excluded the suite of policies that have already been legislated for and in some cases already begun to be implemented but nonetheless not come into full effect. The IFS make this clear by labelling each manifesto scenario in the chart as the sum of both ‘current plans’ and the personal tax and benefit announcements from a respective manifesto.  Most notable among them is the introduction of the coalition government’s flagship welfare reform: Universal Credit (UC).

This choice is not without merit but it is also not beyond question: for example the Office for Budget Responsibility’s standard baseline always includes all planned policy that is presently legislated for.

For the purposes of assessing distributional impact, then, the IFS excluded the entire system of UC (which has been legislated for since 2013) from the baseline. This meant that each of the counterfactual scenarios  (including the Labour one) included the full effects of UC as well.

This had an especially large impact on the analysis since the backlog of government reforms currently still being implemented dwarfs the comparatively smaller tax and benefit measures proposed in the manifestos. The Liberal Democrats are the closest to an exception where, unlike Labour and the Conservatives, a far greater proportion of their spending plans affected welfare spending in general, and spending on UC in particular.

Whether this is the right way to conduct analysis depends entirely on the question that is being asked.

If the question is: compared with the world as it is configured today, would the tax and benefit system be more regressive in five years’ time after taking account of all the government’s current reforms that are in the process of implementation in addition to party manifesto pledges? The answer is the same for all parties because of the sheer scale of government reforms in the pipeline: ‘yes’. (Although the point remains that this would still only represent a small portion of total tax and spending announcements from Labour’s manifesto in particular, so the full picture is still unknown).

But if the question was: after taking into account the government’s current reforms to today’s tax and benefit system would the additional impact of the personal tax and benefit reforms scored from Labour’s election manifesto, taken in isolation, be regressive? The answer is absolutely not.

If interpreted correctly, the IFS analysis actually gives the answer to both of these questions. Compared with the world as it currently is (essentially the x-axis itself) all the manifesto policies are broadly regressive, albeit to varying degrees. But compared with the world as currently planned (the IFS’s scenario labelled in green) both the Labour and Liberal Democrat lines are clearly more progressive.

What determined whether the absolute figures presented in the chart were largely negative rather than positive – and therefore perhaps the immediate impression that the analysis leaves with readers – was the choice of baseline. If the ‘current plans’ scenario were to have been the baseline (as is more consistent with the OBR’s standard baseline) the Labour and Liberal Democratic manifestos would have been presented as having a net positive and progressive impact on households in the bottom half of the distribution.

Had that chart been produced instead, any alternative narratives about the Labour manifesto would have been less likely to misinterpret the evidence – although the chart itself would have been no more right or wrong for it.

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This discussion does not amount to a criticism of either distributional analysis of personal tax and benefits in general, nor of the IFS’s work in particular. The former is an essential tool – when applied appropriately – for assessing particular measures of fairness. The latter execute their work extremely well and in a way that often enhances the quality of the UK’s political conversation.

In particular, on both the main points raised above (the limited number of manifesto measures included and the choice of baselines), the IFS are entirely transparent. The title of their chart is labelled as analysis of ‘personal tax and benefit measures’ only, and the full list of policies included are published for all to see. They also make clear that their analysis has excluded ‘current plans’ from the baseline, and that current plans are included in each counterfactual scenario. The author was also extremely helpful and obliging in answering any queries.

The very worst that can be said of the IFS in this instance is that they have not gone further out of their way to tackle what has grown into – at times – a dangerous misinterpretation of their analysis. But in a political climate where both wilful and accidental misinterpretation of economic evidence and theory is endemic – and often on far more serious issues than the technical progressivity of a single manifesto – their lack of intervention is unfortunate but understandable.

Neither do the points raised here absolve the Labour manifesto from an alternative or progressive critique: in particular, the absence of a more serious reversal of the government’s welfare plans is highly conspicuous, not least given that the Liberal Democrats were able to go far further in their own commitments. And the critique of universalism from a principle of reciprocity, though not the final word, remains an area of useful discussion.

Probably the best conclusion that can be drawn from all this echoes that made by Torsten Bell of the Resolution Foundation in May. Commentators should be careful to not overstate the decisiveness of broad-brush analysis during an election campaign, where seemingly mere technicalities over methods and assumptions can actually shape entirely the final interpretation as much as the facts themselves.

Instead, more attention should be given to the broader direction of travel and the choices on offer.

At the last election, the real debate centred on the size and scale of the state, the balance of state support between welfare in cash or in kind, the divide between young and old, between the super-rich and the rest, and how principles of universalism, reciprocity and targeted redistribution should be brought to bear on questions of fairness. 

These are the tests against which commentators should judge our political parties at the next election as well.