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Zoroastrianism in Iran

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Zoroastrianism is considered to be the oldest religion still practiced in Iran. It is an Iranian religion that emerged around the 2nd millennium BCE, spreading through the Iranian plateau and eventually gaining official status under the Achaemenid Empire in the 6th century BCE. It remained the Iranian state religion until the 7th century CE, when the Arab conquest of Persia resulted in the fall of the Sasanian Empire to the nascent Rashidun Caliphate. Over time, the persecution of Zoroastrians led to them becoming a religious minority amidst the Islamization of Iran, as many fled east to take refuge in India.[1] Some of Zoroastrianism's holiest sites are located in Iran, such as Yazd.

Today, Iran has the second- or third-largest Zoroastrian population in the world, behind only India and possibly the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The official Iranian census of 2011 recorded a total of 25,271 Zoroastrians in the country, but several unofficial accounts suggest higher figures.[2][3]

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A depiction of the Zoroastrian emblem of the Fravahar (spirit of the soul) executed in glazed tile in the town of Taft, Iran.

The Zoroastrian religion is supposed to have been founded around the middle of the second millennium BCE by the prophet Zoroaster, also known as Zarathushtra, for whom the religion is named.[1] Contemporary Zoroastrianism is a religion whose followers worship one God, Ahura Mazda, which is the good divine. He has sacred beings alongside him, like individual deities but also natural phenomena. In opposition, there is also an embodiment of evil that wants to bring disorder and destruction. This evil comes in the form of Angra Mainyu in the Avestan and in the form of Ahreman in Middle Persian.[4]

The belief in a good and bad divine seems to be part of a dualistic religion. The Zoroastrian religion can therefore be seen as a dualistic or polytheistic religion, but some modern scholars see Zoroastrianism as the only monotheistic religion of Indo-European origin.[5] These are terms of modern scholarship, and there is no indication that the ancient Zoroastrians themselves would have understood their religion in these terms, at least not until the early Islamic period.[6]

Zarathushtra and his first followers were Iranians who lived during the Bronze Age and Iron Age (1200–600 BCE).[7]: 1  No written records about the religion survive from Zarathushtra's own time or from ancient Iran. The earliest surviving written references to Zarathushtra seem to be those of Greek writers.[citation needed] The time of the Iranian peoples' migration to Iran can be mainly estimated through Assyrian records.[7]: 48  Herodotus (I, 101) called one of the Mede tribes Magoi, Latin Magi, a tribe known to have included many priests who served both Medes and Persians. By the time of the Median empire (est. 612 BCE), Zoroastrianism was well established in both the Pars region (later capital of Persia) as well as in the Eastern regions.[7]: 49 

Scholarship on Zoroastrianism in Iran

European academics first came into contact with Zoroastrianism in Iran during the seventeenth century, at a time when Islam was the dominant religion. European interest in Iranian culture grew as part of the academic study of the Orient.[8] Zoroastrianism was of particular interest to academics as a surviving pre-Islamic Iranian religion, and scholars viewing it from a Christian perspective were interested in the shared characteristics of monotheistic theology and dualistic cosmology present in both religions.[9] This intellectual exchange likely also changed Zoroastrians ideas about their own religion, as intellectual exchange rarely occurs in isolation.[9] These first studies set the tone for ideas about Zoroastrianism in Iran, but discussions about the origin and nature of the religion still continue in both western and in Iranian studies.

Achaemenid period

Persians led by Cyrus the Great soon established the second Persian dynasty and the first empire, the Achaemenid Empire, by defeating the Medes in 549 BCE.[7]: 49  As Persians expanded their empire, Zoroastrianism was introduced to Greek historians such as Hermodorus, Hermippus, Xanthos, Eudoxus and Aristotle; each giving a different date regarding the life of Zoroaster but naturally believed him to be a Persian prophet and called him "Master of the magi"[7]

Darius the Great

Although there are no inscriptions left from the time of Cyrus about his religion, the fire-altars found at Pasargadae, as well as the fact that he called his daughter Atossa, name of the queen of Vishtaspa (Zoroaster's royal patron), suggests that he indeed may have been a Zoroastrian.[7]

It is suggested that by the time of Darius the Great (549 BCE–485/486 BCE), the empire was Zoroastrian. This is due to one of Darious' inscriptions, which goes as follow:

"A great God is Ahuramazda, who created this earth, who created yonder sky, who created man, who created happiness for man, who made Darius king, one king over many, one lord over many."[7]

This leads to the belief that the Zoroastrian religion is the oldest religion in Iran. More importantly, it is suggested to be the original religion of Iran. Besides the inscription above, there is, however not necessarily any notion or evidence for these statements.[10]

Persepolis and Nowruz

Persepolis (or Parsa) was one of the four capitals of the Achaemenid empire, built by Darius the Great and his son Xerxes. It was a glorious city known to the world as the "richest city under the sun". It was also the trading capital of the Near East.

One of the main functions of Persepolis was to serve as the host of the ancient Zoroastrian festival, Norouz. Therefore, every year representatives from each country under the rule of Persia would bring gifts to Persepolis to show their loyalty to the king and the empire.

Parthian period

Sasanian period

Shapur I's inscription at the Ka'ba-ye Zartosht

The Sasanian Empire (224-651) declared Zoroastrianism as the state religion and promoted a religious revival.[citation needed]

During the period of their centuries-long suzerainty over the Caucasus, the Sasanians made attempts to promote Zoroastrianism there with considerable successes, and it was prominent in the pre-Christian Caucasus, especially in what is now Azerbaijan.[citation needed]

Due to its ties to the Roman Empire, Persia's archrival since the Parthian Empire, the Sasanians were suspicious of Christianity as the Roman state religion. After the reign of Constantine the Great, they sometimes persecuted it.[11] The Sasanian authorities clashed with their subjects in Sasanian Armenia in the Battle of Avarayr in 451, making them officially break with the Roman Church.

However, the Sasanians tolerated or even sometimes favored Christianity in the form of the Sasanian-centered Church of the East. The acceptance of Christianity in Caucasian Iberia saw Zoroastrianism there slowly but surely decline,[12] and as late as the 5th century, it was still widely practiced, almost having the status of a second established religion.[13][14]

Emergence of Manichaeism

The prophet Mani was a Parthian of noble roots who established Manichaeism which contained many elements of Zoroastrianism as well as gnosticism; however, it saw the experience of life on earth by humans as miserable, which was in contrast to the Zoroastrian view which was to celebrate life through happiness.

Mani was received kindly by Emperor Shapur I and spent many years at his court, where he was protected during all of Shapur's reign. However, Mani wrote in Syriac, a Semitic language, and all his work had to be translated into Middle Persian by his followers, who rendered the name of Mani's supreme god as Zurwān and called him the father of Ohrmazd, which was the Middle Persian version of Ahura Mazda[15]

Zurvanite Zoroastrians

Although the origins of Zurvanite Zoroastrianism are unclear, it was during the Sassanid period that it gained widespread acceptance, and many of the Sassanid emperors were, at least to some extent, Zurvanites. Zurvanism enjoyed royal sanction during the Sassanid era but no traces of it remain beyond the 10th century.

Unlike Mazdean Zoroastrianism, Zurvanism considered Ahura Mazda not the transcendental Creator, but one of two equal-but-opposite divinities under the supremacy of Zurvan. The central Zurvanite belief made Ahura Mazda (Middle Persian: Ohrmuzd) and Angra Mainyu (Ahriman) twin brothers that had co-existed for all time.

Non-Zoroastrian accounts of typically Zurvanite beliefs were the first traces of Zoroastrianism to reach the west, which misled European scholars to conclude that Zoroastrianism was a dualist faith.

The Zoroastrian cult of Zurvan should not be confused with Manichaeism's use of the name Zurvan in Middle Persian texts to represent the Manichean deity of light. Mani had himself introduced this practice (for perhaps political reasons) in his Shapurgan, which he dedicated to his patron Shapur II. For much of the rest of the Sassanid era, the Manichaens were a persecuted minority, and Mani was sentenced to death by Bahram I.

Reformation of the Zoroastrian calendar

Sacred fires of Iran

Zoroastrian Fire Temple in Yazd.

The three great sacred fires of Persia at the time of the Sassanids were the Adur Farnbag, Adur Gushnasp and Adur Burzen-Mihr which burned in Pars, Media, and Parthia, respectively. Of these three, the Adur Burzen-Mihr was the most sacred fire as it was linked to the prophet Zarathustra himself and king Vishtaspa.[16]

Mazdakite Zoroastrians

State of the Avesta

Medieval period

Founding of Islam and Arab conquest of Persia

The Muslim conquest of Persia, also known as the Arab conquest of Iran led to the end of the Sasanian Empire in 651 and the eventual decline of the Zoroastrian religion in Iran. Arabs first attacked the Sassanid territory in 633, when general Khalid ibn Walid invaded Mesopotamia (what is now Iraq), which was the political and economic center of the Sassanid state. Following the transfer of Khalid to the Roman front in the Levant, the Muslims eventually lost their holdings to Iranian counterattacks. The second invasion began in 636 under Saad ibn Abi Waqqas, when a key victory at the Battle of Qadisiyyah led to the permanent end of Sasanian control west of Iran. The Zagros mountains then became a natural barrier and border between the Rashidun Caliphate and the Sassanid Empire. Owing to continuous raids by Persians into the area, Caliph Umar ordered a full invasion of the Sasanian Iranian empire in 642, which was completed with the complete conquest of the Sasanians around 651 The quick conquest of Iran in a series of well coordinated multi-pronged attacks, directed by Caliph Umar from Medina several thousand kilometres from the battlefields in Iran, became his greatest triumph, contributing to his reputation as a great military and political strategist.

Iranian historians have sought to defend their forebears by using Arab sources to illustrate that "contrary to the claims of some historians, Iranians, in fact, fought long and hard against the invading Arabs." By 651, most of the urban centers in Iranian lands, with the notable exception of the Caspian provinces and Transoxiana, had come under the domination of the Arab armies. Many localities in Iran staged a defense against the invaders, but in the end none was able to repulse the invasion. Even after the Arabs had subdued the country, many cities rose in rebellion, killing the Arab governor or attacking their garrisons, but reinforcements from the caliphs succeeded in putting down all these rebellions and imposing the rule of Islam. The violent subjugation of Bukhara after many uprisings is a case in point. Conversion to Islam was, however, only gradual. In the process, many acts of violence took place, Zoroastrian scriptures were burnt and many mobads executed. Once conquered politically, the Persians began to reassert themselves by maintaining Persian language and culture. Regardless, Islam was adopted by many, for political, socio-cultural or spiritual reasons, or simply by persuasion, and became the dominant religion.

Mongol conquest of Persia and Mesopotamia

The Mongol invasion of Persia and Mesopotamia resulted in millions of deaths and ruined many cities. The early Mongol invaders were members of many faiths, so their persecution was not targeted against Zoroastrians. However, within half a century of the conquest, the leader of the Ilkhanate, Ghazan Khan, who had been raised a member of the Church of the East,[17] converted to Islam. The subsequent conversions of members of the Ilkhanate to Islam had a detrimental effect on Zoroastrianism. By the time the Mongols were expelled, Fars province had escaped major damage and Zoroastrians had moved to the north of Pars, primarily to the regions of Yazd and Kerman,[18] where even today the main Zoroastrian communities are found.

Modern period

Safavid dynasty

The Safavid conversion of Iran to Shia Islam destroyed what was once a vibrant community of Zoroastrians. As per official policy, Safavids wanted everyone to convert to orthoprax Twelver Shi'ism and killed hundreds of thousands of Zoroastrians alongside others who refused.[19]

The majority of Zoroastrians also left for India; about 20% remained, most of whom had to migrate in the late 19th century as the Qajar dynasty imposed greater restrictions on them.

Qajar dynasty

A Zoroastrian family in Qajar Iran about 1910.

During the Qajar dynasty, religious persecution of Zoroastrians was rampant. Due to the increasing contacts with influential Parsi philanthropists such as Maneckji Limji Hataria, many Zoroastrians left Iran for India. There, they formed the second major Indian Zoroastrian community known as the Iranis.[20]

Pahlavi dynasty

Starting from the early twentieth century, Tehran, the nation's capital, experienced rapid migrations from all Iranian minorities. The Zoroastrian population increased from about 50 merchants in 1881 to 500 by 1912.[21]

Imperial emblem of the Pahlavi dynasty (Lion and Sun)

As a minority, the Zoroastrians regularly faced discrimination over the years. They were still a minority in Iran in the twentieth century, but their status was about to change. In 1906, the state declared a new Constitution. This Constitution did not mention Zoroastrianism as a religion, but it did grant the Zoroastrians fundamental individual rights. They got these rights, because they were now viewed as people of the Iranian Empire. In practice however, they were still not as equal as a Muslim and they were still facing difficulties.[22]

When the Pahlavi reign in Iran started in the 1920s, the Zoroastrians started to experience more equal treatment. It was also during this time that nationalism in Iran started to come up and Iran as a nation state was born. For this new nation state, the Pahlavi's chose a narrative where the pre-Islamic era was glorified and they actively promoted this narrative. The new nation-state and the people now started to view the ancient history with pride.[23] Since Zoroastrianism is an ancient pre-Islamic religion, it was now glorified as the historic and original Iranian religion. This changed the status of Zoroastrians from being one of the most persecuted minorities in Iran to a symbol of Iranian nationalism.[24] This notion would carry on all the way through until the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran

Rights of non-Muslim minorities

After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, a new Constitution of Iran was written. This new Constitution acknowledges the rights of recognized religious minorities, like the Iranian Armenians, Iranian Assyrians and Persian Jews, Zoroastrianism is recognized as a religion in Iran and its followers have certain rights. The Constitution states believers are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies.[25]

Zoroastrians are also politically involved. Since the Persian Constitution of 1906, they are allocated one seat in the Islamic Consultative Assembly. This one is currently held by Esfandiar Ekhtiyari. Locally, they are also active. In 2013 for example, Sepanta Niknam was elected to the city council of Yazd and became the first Zoroastrian councillor in Iran.[26]

Demographics and conversions

Out-marriage and low birth rates affect the growth of Iran's Zoroastrian population[27] which, according to Iran's 2012 census results stood at 25,271, though this represented an increase of 27.5% on the 2006 population.[28]

A June 2020 online survey found a much smaller percentage of Iranians stating they believe in Islam, with half of those surveyed indicating they had lost their religious faith.[29] The poll, conducted by the Netherlands-based GAMAAN (Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran), using online polling to provide greater anonymity for respondents, surveyed 50,000 Iranians and found 7.7% identified as Zoroastrians.[29][30] However, some researchers have argued that most respondents identifying as Zoroastrian were expressing religious nationalism, with The Conversation interpreting it as "Persian nationalism and a desire for an alternative to Islam, rather than strict adherence to the Zoroastrian faith"[31] The decline of Islam and the rise of Zoroastrianism among Iranians is further confirmed in GAMAAN's subsequent surveys in 2022.[32]

Notable Iranian Zoroastrians of the 20th century

See also



  1. ^ a b Ferrero, Mario (2021). "From Polytheism to Monotheism: Zoroaster and Some Economic Theory". Homo Oeconomicus. 38 (1–4): 77–108. doi:10.1007/s41412-021-00113-4. S2CID 241655767.
  2. ^ "درگاه ملی آمار > خانه". Archived from the original on 19 July 2013. Retrieved 10 December 2013.
  3. ^ Iran is young, urbanised and educated: census, AFP, The National
  4. ^ Hintze, Almut (19 December 2013). "Monotheism the Zoroastrian Way" (PDF). Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland. 24 (2): 225–49. doi:10.1017/s1356186313000333. S2CID 145095789.
  5. ^ Moore, George (30 January 2008). Zoroastrianism : A Concise Introduction (1st ed.). Gorgias Press. p. 180. ISBN 978-1593338817.
  6. ^ Shaked, Shaul (2019). "Dualists Against Monotheists". Rationalization in Religions; Judaism, Christianity and Islam: 5–20.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Mary Boyce "Zoroastrians, Their Religious Beliefs and Practices"
  8. ^ Matthee, Rudi (2010). "The Imaginary Realm: Europe's Enlightenment Image of Early Modern Iran". Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. 30 (3): 455. doi:10.1215/1089201X-2010-027. S2CID 144697651.
  9. ^ a b Patel, Dinyar (2 September 2017). "Our Own Religion in Ancient Persia: Dadabhai Naoroji and Orientalist Scholarship on Zoroastrianism". Global Intellectual History 2. 2 (3): 313. doi:10.1080/23801883.2017.1370238. S2CID 158470299.
  10. ^ Skjaervo, Prods Oktor (2014). "Achaemenid Religion". Religion Compass. 8 (6): 175–183. doi:10.1111/rec3.12110.
  11. ^ Wigram, W. A. (2004), An introduction to the history of the Assyrian Church, or, The Church of the Sassanid Persian Empire, 100–640 A.D, Gorgias Press, p. 34, ISBN 159333103-7
  12. ^ Rapp, Stephen H Jr (28 September 2014). The Sasanian World through Georgian Eyes: Caucasia and the Iranian Commonwealth in Late Antique Georgian Literature. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. p. 160. ISBN 978-1-4724-2552-2.
  13. ^ Suny, Ronald Grigor (1994). The Making of the Georgian Nation, Second Edition. Indiana University Press. p. 22. ISBN 978-0-253-20915-3.
  14. ^ The Georgian Republic. Passport Books. 1992. p. 34. ISBN 978-0-8442-9677-7.
  15. ^ Mary Boyce, "Zoroastrians, Their Religious Beliefs and Practices": Under the early Sassanians
  16. ^ Mary Boyce, "Zoroastrians, Their Religious Beliefs and Practices": Under the mid Sassanid period
  17. ^ "Ghazan had been baptized and raised a Christian"Richard Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road, Palgrave Macmillan, 2nd edition, 2010, p. 120 ISBN 978-0-230-62125-1
  18. ^ Mary Boyce, "Zoroastrians, Their Religious Beliefs and Practices": Under the Caliphs
  19. ^ Ghereghlou, Kioumars (2017). "On the margins of minority life: Zoroastrians and the state in Safavid Iran 1". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. 80 (1): 45–71. doi:10.1017/S0041977X17000015. ISSN 0041-977X.
  20. ^ "ZOROASTRIANISM ii. Arab Conquest to Modern – Encyclopaedia Iranica". Retrieved 3 April 2020.
  21. ^ Hukht (1973)
  22. ^ Stausberg, Michael (1 January 2012). "From Power to Powerlessness". In Longva, Anh Nga; Roald, Anne Sofie (eds.). From Power to Powerlessness: Zoroastrianism in Iranian History. Brill. pp. 171–193. doi:10.1163/9789004216846_009. ISBN 978-900420742-4. JSTOR 10.1163/j.ctv2gjwnw4.12. {{cite book}}: |journal= ignored (help)
  23. ^ Tavakoli-Targhi, Mohamad (1990). "Refashioning Iran: Language and Culture During the Constitutional Revolution". Iranian Studies. 23 (1–4): 82. doi:10.1080/00210869008701750.
  24. ^ Janet Kestenberg Amighi "Zoroastrians of Iran, Conversion, Assimilation, or Persistence" pp. 143
  25. ^ "Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran". 24 October 1979. Retrieved 14 April 2023.
  26. ^ "Iran Suspends Zoroastrian Member of Yazd City Council", The New York Times, 9 October 2017, retrieved 9 October 2017
  27. ^ Foltz, Richard (15 January 2011). "Zoroastrians in Iran: What Future in the Homeland?". The Middle East Journal. 65 (1): 73–84. doi:10.3751/65.1.14. ISSN 0026-3141.
  28. ^ "National Population and Housing Census 2011 (1390): Selected Findings" (PDF). UNFPA in Iran. Archived from the original (PDF) on 16 November 2015. Retrieved 12 December 2015.
  29. ^ a b "Iranians have lost their faith according to survey". Iran International. 25 August 2020. Retrieved 29 August 2020.
  30. ^ "گزارش نظرسنجی درباره نگرش ایرانیان به دین". گَمان – گروه مطالعات افکارسنجی ایرانیان (in Persian). 23 August 2020. Archived from the original on 8 October 2020. Retrieved 29 August 2020.
  31. ^ Maleki, Ammar; Arab, Pooyan Tamimi (10 September 2020). "Iran's secular shift: new survey reveals huge changes in religious beliefs". The Conversation. Retrieved 31 August 2021.
  32. ^ Stausberg, Michael; Arab, Pooyan Tamimi; Maleki, Ammar (August 2023). "Survey Zoroastrians: Online Religious Identification in the Islamic Republic of Iran". Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 62 (4): 823–844. doi:10.1111/jssr.12870. hdl:11250/3094992. ISSN 0021-8294. S2CID 260589690.
  33. ^ Farhang Mehr. "Rostam Giv". Encyclopaedia Iranica. Retrieved 1 May 2022.
  34. ^ "Jamshid Bahman Jamshidian". A Zoroastrian Educational Institute. Retrieved 25 November 2013.
  35. ^ "RIP: Professor Emeritus Farhang Mehr Dies at 94". 9 March 2018. Retrieved 9 March 2018.
  36. ^ M. Kasheff. "Anǰoman-e Zartoštīān (Society of Zoroastrians)". Encyclopaedia Iranica. Retrieved 11 December 2010.


Further reading

  • Niechciał, P. (2015) "The Key Content of Contemporary Zoroastrian Identity in the Islamic Republic of Iran: a Socio-Anthropological Approach," in Krasnowolska, A. and Rusek-Kowalska, R. (eds) Studies on the Iranian World: Medieval and Modern. Jagiellonian University Press, pp. 149–156.
  • Images of modern Zoroastrianism in Iran
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