Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Zoroastrianism: An Obscure Persian Religion that Changed the World

Specials- Zoroastrianism
Photo BBC

Zoroastrianism is one of the smallest religions in the world. Yet despite its obscurity, its influence continues to be felt. The notions of heaven and hell, Judgment Day and the final revelation, humans as free moral agents, free choice, messianism, and angels and demons all originated in the teachings of Zarathustra, Zoroastrianism’s founder. The religion contains both monotheistic and dualistic features. There is an unequal battle between good and evil, light and dark, but eventually the truth will prevail. All humans must join this struggle because of their capacity for free choice.

The emergence of Zoroastrianism was a turning point in humankind’s ideological evolution, effectively shaping many important belief systems such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which have billions of followers around the world. Individuals as diverse as Voltaire, Nietzsche and Freddie Mercury have been inspired by Zoroastrianism.

Zoroastrianism is a pre-Islamic Iranian religion and one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions. Although the exact date Zoroastrianism was founded is unknown, archaeological evidence and linguistic comparisons with the Hindu text Rig Veda suggest that it emerged around 1200-1500 BCE. Very few reliable historical documents are available to shed light on the life of the religion’s founder either. What is known comes mainly from the Gathas, a collection of songs or hymns that is central to the Avesta, Zoroastrianism’s sacred book. The Avesta’s surviving texts derive from a single master copy produced during the Sasanian Empire (224-651 CE).

According to the Avesta, Zarathustra was a priest and had three sons and three daughters. He rejected the local Iranian belief systems that were polytheist and imposed repressive class structures, in which princes and priests monopolized power and controlled the ordinary people. It is said that when Zarathustra was 30, he had a divine vision that contradicted the common beliefs and practices of the time. He believed in one God, who had no equal and was the only God worthy of worship. This God was called Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord). Ahura Mazda revealed the truth through his prophet, Zarathustra.

According to religious sources, Zarathustra faced significant resistance from the local religious establishment and, initially, he found it hard to attract followers. There is scant information on the ways in which Zoroastrianism spread in Iran, but by the time the Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BCE) emerged, Zoroastrianism was already deep-rooted.

In 549 BCE, the Persians, led by Cyrus the Great, founded the first Persian Empire. The Achaemenid kings are believed to have been devout Zoroastrians who ruled in accordance with the Zoroastrian law of Asha (truth and righteousness). Even so, Cyrus the Great promoted freedom of belief and racial equality across the empire. He is also known to have freed slaves. The Jews most famously benefitted from this, when Cyrus allowed them to return to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon and rebuild their temple. This made a huge impact on Judaism, and Zoroastrian philosophy powerfully influenced post-Exilic Judaism, which later laid the foundation for other Ibrahimic belief systems.

Cyrus the Great was influential in other areas as well. Although human rights is a modern concept, the Cyrus Cylinder is recognized as the world’s first charter of human rights. It has been translated into all official languages of the United Nations, and its basic message resembles some of the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Zoroastrians believe the elements (fire, water, earth, air) are pure and that fire represents God’s light or wisdom. This has created some misunderstanding among some Western scholars who see Zoroastrians as fire worshippers.

In terms of rituals and practices, Zoroastrians pray several times a day and worship communally in a fire temple. Contrary to Christianity, fasting and celibacy are proscribed except as part of a purification ritual. Although human struggle has a negative aspect, individuals must strive for purity and avoid defilement by the forces of death.

Today, there are two main groups of Zoroastrians, the Iranians and Parsis. The Iranian Zoroastrians are those who stayed in Iran after the Arab invasion, which eventually made Islam a majority religion in the country. Despite many centuries of discrimination, they survived. Although there are only tens of thousands of them left, their religion is recognized by the state and they are represented by one Zoroastrian MP in the Iranian parliament.

Following the Iranian Revolution in 1979, which set the stage for the establishment of the Islamic Republic, there has been more public interest in ancient Persian history and in particular Zoroastrianism. Indeed, the religion is experiencing a revival among many Iranians who wish to express discontent towards the repressive Islamist regime.

The Parsis migrated from Persia to India. Parsi in Gujarati means Persian. Following the Muslim invasion, a group of Zoroastrians fled Iran, settling in India where they could practice their religion freely. Their connection with Iranian Zoroastrians was almost totally broken until the end of the 15th century. They established ties again in 1477 by exchanging letters until 1768. In the centuries that followed, the Parsis gained recognition for their success in commerce and industry, with a prosperous and ‘modern’ community centred in Mumbai.

Under British rule, the Parsis adopted British clothing and were actively involved in promoting education for girls and the abolition of child marriage. From the 19th century onwards, the Parsis were able to help their less fortunate coreligionists in Iran, either through donations or using their political and economic influence to lobby the Indian government to act on their behalf.

Although the Parsis continue to thrive in India, a number of them migrated to the West. Freddie Mercury (Farrokh Bulsara) is probably the world’s best-known Parsi.