Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Zoroastrianism in Iraq: Challenges and Misconceptions

The revival of Zoroastrianism in Iraq took only eight years. Learn about its historical background, foundational concepts, and rituals.

Zoroastrianism in Iraq
Iraqi Kurdish Zoroastrians take part in an “Athravan” religious ceremony at the citadel of Arbil in the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on December 14, 2022. SAFIN HAMED / AFP

Ali al-Ajeel

The revival of Zoroastrianism in Iraq took only eight years. Since the issuing of Law No. 5 of 2015 to protect religious components and minorities in Iraqi Kurdistan, Zoroastrians have resumed preaching and the practice of their rituals and are now pursuing their full rights.

The emergence of Zoroastrianism was a turning point in the evolution of human theology. Through its ancient teachings and foundations, Zoroastrianism has influenced and contributed to the formation of several major doctrines followed by billions across the globe, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It has also inspired many respected authors and intellectuals, such as Voltaire, Nietzsche and Freddie Mercury.

Historical Background

There is no precise date on record for the emergence of Zoroastrianism. Nevertheless, most sources say that it appeared around 1738 BC. Ibrahim Zrary, a member of the Zoroastrianism High Council, believes that it most likely appeared near Chi Chest between Urmia and Mahabad in Iran.

Zoroastrianism is said to be the most ancient monotheistic religion still practised to date. It was named after its founder, Zarathushtra, who contravened Central Asia’s prevailing polytheistic beliefs. According to Gathas’ texts – a collection of ancient philosophical hymns between Zarathushtra and nature or the creator – Zarathushtra founded the new monotheistic religion that only worships Ahura Mazda.

Later, Zoroastrianism became the official religion of the Median, Achaemenid and Parthian Empires, but it notably flourished in the Sasanian Empire. The Sasanians crowned Zoroastrianism their official religion, which led to a growing number of followers.

Zoroastrianism survived even after the Sasanian empire fell to Muslims, who destroyed Zoroastrian religious monuments and turned them into mosques over 1400 years ago. As a result, Zoroastrians have practised their belief in secret until the Government of Kurdistan recently issued Law No.5.

During the Umayyad era, Muslims did not pressure their subjects in Persia, including the Zoroastrians, to convert. Similar to the Dhimmis, they had to pay the Jizya tax.

However, pressure began to mount on Zoroastrians and other minorities in Iran. As a result, they were forced to disperse and live away from the major urban Muslim regions. Most Zoroastrians resided in water-scarce, hot deserts, far away from the hustle and bustle of political events. Yazd in Iran was among the areas they inhabited. Others migrated to Gujarat in western India, where they settled and were named “the Parsis” by the Indians.

The Zoroastrians were ruthlessly oppressed during the Safavid era, and their numbers dwindled rapidly in Iran and Iraq. Depending on the Safavids’ religious agendas, their violations of religious minorities’ rights varied in severity.

Pressure on the Zoroastrians intensified during the early Qajar era, and harassment became a daily occurrence. Their houses were marked, and laws encouraging conversion to Islam were enacted. A Muslim convert in a Zoroastrian family, for example, acquired the right to the entirety of that family’s inheritance.

Foundational Concepts and Rituals

For Zoroastrians, the correct path of belief means basing one’s intention on three ideals: pure thoughts, kind words and good deeds.

Regarding their rituals, Zrary told Fanack, “We have five prayers a day and Wudu or ablution, but ours differ from Muslim prayers and Wudu. When we pray, we face anywhere we find a light source. At night, we pray facing a fire, a candle or other light sources. We fast for four days each month; they are called Nabur. During our fast, we only refrain from eating meat.”

In an interview with Fanack, Huda Sheikhmos, a representative of Zoroastrianism in West Kurdistan, said, “Zoroastrians bury their dead based on the prevailing tradition in society, just like Muslims there. Also, there are no religious laws. For example, if someone thinks water is halal, it is halal. There is also no polygamy in Zoroastrianism.”

Zoroastrianism is called “the voluntary religion.” Zoroastrians do not inherit their parents’ religion like in other religions; they remain without religion until they come of age. They are then introduced to all religions from which they can choose.

Zoroastrian holidays, celebrations and festivals are related to climate and weather changes and days and months of the year. The word “festival” in the Zoroastrian language combines “Mihr,” meaning mercy, and “Jan,” meaning love and life.

Zoroastrians have a moral duty to live a good life and treat others with love and mercy.

Challenges and Misconceptions

The Iraq Directory of 1936 acknowledged Zoroastrians with the name “Majus” as a religious minority. However, according to Zrary, the new Iraqi constitution does not acknowledge Zoroastrianism as an independent religion and treats Zoroastrians as Muslims.

The societal misconceptions surrounding Zoroastrianism are a primary reason for the suffering of Zoroastrians. Zrary says, “Some accuse us of worshipping fire and multiple deities, which is incorrect. We do not worship fire; rather, we sanctify it.

In Zoroastrianism, marriage between relatives till the fifth degree is prohibited because of the inheritance of mental and physical flaws. You will not find a couple with a mutual third or fourth grandparent. Zoroastrianism is not a missionary religion, though it welcomes whoever wants to embrace it and respects all other religions.”

In an interview with Fanack, Lina al-Rabe’i, the representative of Zoroastrianism in An-Najaf al-Ashraf, said, “We need the Iraqi government to provide awareness lessons about Zoroastrianism, its teachings and rituals to counter these misconceptions. These lessons will teach students to love Zoroastrianism and other religions and prevent another genocide, as happened to the Yazidis.”

She added, “These are also the demands of clerics, dignitaries and social influencers.”

No Financial Support

Zoroastrians do not receive financial support from within or outside Iraq. Zoroastrian clerics do not receive salaries or pensions; they work on a voluntary basis.

According to Zrary, a Zoroastrian temple was recently closed due to insufficient funds to pay the monthly rent. Another two temples in Sulaymaniyah have remained open as a result of donations from Zoroastrians.

Unlike sometimes claimed, Zoroastrians do not want much. They want to be treated equally to the followers of other religions. They want the right to practise their rituals and IDs that state their religion instead of identifying them as Muslims.

The New Zoroastrian Message

From time to time, Zoroastrians are still under threat. According to Sheikhmos, Zoroastrians are still afraid to openly declare their religion, especially in Muslim-majority areas, for fear of the notions instilled in people under ISIS.

They, therefore, prefer to remain in Kurdistan, which is safer, especially for the women. Zoroastrians treat the followers of other religions with love and wish to be treated the same in return. They want others to learn about Zoroastrianism and let go of their preconceptions.


Via Facebook, Fanack surveyed 30 Iraqis between 18 and 40 years of age, most of whom were university students or well-educated.


Twenty per cent of those surveyed had a negative attitude towards Zoroastrians. They attributed their objection to the contradicting nature between the teachings of Zoroastrianism and those of Islam and the other Abrahamic religions.

In this regard, one of the participants said, “There are four Abrahamic religions that we have all known since we were kids, anything other than those is just an illusion. There is no mention of Zarathushtra in any of the holy books. If he truly were a prophet, our religion and Faqihs would have told us.”

Others said the return of this long-forgotten religion, especially in this unstable period, serves foreign agendas aiming to weaken Iraq and demolish it by any means.

People’s Religion is their Own

Most of the participants, 47 per cent, were neutral in their stance. A participant emphasised the freedom to choose one’s religion. She added, “Iraq is not only for Muslims. This land is for everyone. Violations against anyone, by any means, are religionless crimes.”

Other participants, totalling 3 per cent, felt that just engaging in this debate or merely expressing an opinion might expose them to many problems. Some said they supported Zoroastrians but could not openly state it.

Some quoted Mansur Al-Hallaj’s famous poem, stating, “They have their own faith, and I have mine,” without adding anything else.

One participant said, “In today’s Iraq, there is no freedom except in Kurdistan. The region is continuously progressing with no equal in the surrounding Arab world. There is freedom of belief for sects and religions. Everyone, the people and government, minds their own business.”

He added, “Zoroastrianism does exist, even in An-Najaf. There are Zoroastrians with names like Ali, Karrar and Mohamed, but they cannot reveal themselves. I interacted with many of them. They are nice people, but they are afraid. They were unable to openly express their beliefs until they arrived in Kurdistan or migrated abroad.”


Over 30 per cent of the participants had positive reactions towards publicly normalising Zoroastrianism, half of whom believed in the Iraqi saying, “You can believe in stones, but do not throw them at me.” They stated they welcomed any representative of Zoroastrianism to debate this belief with and get to know it better.

One of the participants asserted her support for Zoroastrians to practise their beliefs freely, but she preferred to remain anonymous, fearing the social backlash. She said, “I do not mind getting to know this religion, but I do not have any means to know its teachings.”

Another participant said, “Zoroastrianism influenced many thinkers, philosophers and intellectuals throughout history. If anything, it means that it is a great religion with great teachings and principles.” He said he hoped to learn about it from the Zoroastrians themselves.

Another said, “Zoroastrianism is here, like it or not. Also, its followers are increasing. Iraq has always been the Iraq of diversity and difference, so why not stand with our Zoroastrian brothers and sisters and other religious minorities? Why don’t we help them practise their rituals freely, as long as they mean no harm?”

Fearing Society

Finally, 3 per cent of the participants were Zoroastrians, who expressed fear of proclaiming their religion despite their desire to do so, especially after having watched their counterparts in Kurdistan openly declare their beliefs. They attributed their fears to society’s views of them and the potential social exclusion, especially in Muslim-majority areas.

Fanack Water Palestine