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Zoroastrianism in Iran

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Zoroastrianism is the oldest remaining religion in Iran. Founded around the middle of the second millennium BCE, the religion spread through the Iranian area through conversions and eventually became state religion in the Achaemenian Empire in the 6th century BCE. The religion still survives to this day in small communities, mostly located in present Iran and India. The Zoroastrians in India are called Parsis.[1]

According to the Iran's official census, there were 25,271 Zoroastrians in the country as of 2011, but some unofficial accounts suggest higher figures.[2][3]

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Background and the religion

A depiction of the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda executed in glazed tile in the town of Taft, Iran.
A depiction of the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda executed in glazed tile in the town of Taft, Iran.

The Zoroastrian religion is credited to the prophet Zoroaster, who is also known as Zarathushtra and the religion is named after him. Zoroaster was supposedly the one that found this religion around the middle of the second millennium BCE.[1] In contemporary times, it is stated that Zoroastrianism is a religion whose followers worship one God. The God’s name is 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 believe 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. There is however a lot of resistance against this idea. Modern scholars have tried to label the religion as monotheistic. More so, the only monotheistic religion of Indo-European origin.[5] Even though these terms are used frequently, there is no indication that these terms were known in ancient times and the Zoroastrians themselves did not put a label on their religion, at least not until the early Islamic period.[6]

The reason for this, is because there are not many old written records about the religion. There are for example no impartial written records from Zarathushtra's time. The earliest surviving written references to Zarathushtra (from non-Iranians) seem to be those of Greek writers.[citation needed] Zarathushtra and his first followers were Iranians that lived between the Bronze Age and Iron Age (est. 1200-600 BC).[7]: 1 

The time of the Iranian peoples' migration to Iran can be mainly estimated through Assyrian records.[7]: 48  Also, Herodotus (I, 101) recalled one of the Mede tribes to be called "Magoi", better known as "Magis", a tribe known to have included many priests, who served both Medes and Persians. By the time of the Median empire (est. 612 BC), Zoroastrianism is known to have been 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

The Europeans ‘’discovered’’ Zoroastrianism in Iran, when they started to explore the world and went to Iran. This happened somewhere in the seventeenth century. The present and influence of the Europeans goes beyond dynasties. When the Europeans arrived in Iran, they felt surprisingly good about this land. It had a cultural sophistication, that they had not found in other places that they had visited. Initially, they did not know much about Zoroastrianism, but the fascination of the Europeans for the land and the religion turned into academic study of the Orient.[8]

The Europeans did not have good relations or history with the religion Islam, which was dominantly present in the area at that time. Zoroastrianism however, is a pre-Islamic religion that survived, so this made it extra interesting for them. The first European scholars who researched Zoroastrianism in Iran, were mainly from the Christian religion. The Christian religion is seen as monotheistic and superior by Europeans. Since the Europeans were fascinated by and positive about Zoroastrianism in Iran, they were the first to try to label this religion with concepts they knew, like monotheistic.[9]

The Zoroastrians themselves were probably involved with the studies of their religion as well. We know this, because modern scholarship has stated that Orientalist studies did not emerge in isolation. In fact, they resulted from interaction and intellectual exchange between the scholars and the people that they study. So, chances are big that the Zoroastrians shaped the ideas about their religion as well.[9] These first studies set the tone for our ideas about Zoroastrianism in Iran. Discussions about the origin and nature of the religion still continue, both in Western and in Iranian studies.

Achaemenid dynasty

Persians led by Cyrus the Great soon established the second Iranian dynasty, and the first Persian empire by defeating the Medes dynasty in 549 BC.[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]

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 BC– 485/486 BC), 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 of 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 (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.

Arsacid dynasty

Sassanid dynasty

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

The Sassanid dynasty (224-651 AD) declared Zoroastrianism as the state religion and promoted a religious revival of Zoroastrianism.

During the period of their centuries long suzerainty over the Caucasus, the Sassanids made attempts to promote Zoroastrianism there with considerable successes, and it was prominent in the pre-Christian Caucasus (especially modern-day Azerbaijan).

Due to its ties to the Christian Roman Empire, Persia's arch-rival since Parthian times, the Sassanids were suspicious of Roman Christianity, and after the reign Constantine the Great sometimes persecuted it.[11] The Sassanid authority clashed with their Armenian subjects in the Battle of Avarayr (451 CE), making them officially break with the Roman Church. But the Sassanids tolerated or even sometimes favored the Christianity of the Nestorian Church of Persia. The acceptance of Christianity in Georgia (Caucasian Iberia) saw the Zoroastrian religion there slowly but surely decline,[12] but as late the 5th century AD it was still widely practised as something like a second established religion.[13][14]

Prophet Mani

The prophet Mani was an Iranian of noble Parthian 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 a contrast to the Zoroastrian view which was to celebrate life through happiness.

Mani was received kindly by king Shapur I and spent many years at his court where he was protected during all of Shabuhr's reign. However Mani wrote in a semitic language (Syriac Aramaic), and all his work had to be translated into Middle Persian by his followers, who rendered the name of Mani's supreme god as Zurvan and called him the father of Ohrmazd[15] (Ahuramazda, God of Wisdom, main deity of Zoroastrianism).


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 the 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.

Calendar reforms

Sacred fires

Zoroastrian Fire Temple in Yazd.
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 the Adur Burzen-Mihr which burnt 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 movement


Middle Ages

Arab conquest and under the Caliphate

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 rule

The Mongol invasion of Iran resulted in millions of deaths and ruined many cities. The early Mongol invaders were, however, pagans or Buddhists so their persecution was not as targeted against Zoroastrians as before. However, within half a century of the conquest, the leader of the Il-Khanate, Ghazan Khan, converted to Islam, which did not help the status of Zoroastrians in Iran. However, by the time that the Mongols were expelled, Pars province had escaped major damage and the Zoroastrians moved to the North of Pars mainly in the regions of Yazd and Kerman,[17] where even today the main Zoroastrian communities are found.

Modern history

Safavid Dynasty

The Shiite Safavid dynasty destroyed what was once a vibrant community of Zoroastrians. As per official policy, Safavids wanted everyone to convert to the Shia sect of Islam and killed hundreds of thousands of Zoroastrians and other minorities when they refused.[18]

The majority of Zoroastrians also left for India though 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.
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.[19]

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.[20]

Imperial Emblem of the Pahlavi Dynasty (Lion and Sun)
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[21]

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.[22] 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.[23] This notion would carry on all the way through until the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Islamic Republic

Rights in the Islamic Republic

After the Islamic Revolution in 1979 in Iran, there also came a new Constitution. This new Constitution acknowledges the rights of recognized religious minorities, like the Armenian, Assyrian and Persian Jewish communities, Zoroastrianism is therefore still recognized as a religion in Iran and the followers have certain rights. In the new Constitution, it is for example stated that they are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies.[24] Zoroastrians are also politically involved. On the grounds of the 1906 Constitution, they are allocated one seat in the Iranian Parliament. This one is currently held by Esfandiar Ekhtiari Kassnavieh. 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.[25]

Population and Faith

Out-marriage and low birth rates affect the growth of Iran's Zoroastrian population[26] which, according to Iran's 2012 census results stood at 25,271, though this represented an increase of 27.5% on the 2006 population.[27]

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.[28] 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.[28][29] However, some researchers have argued that most respondents identifying as Zoroastrian were expressing "Persian nationalism and a desire for an alternative to Islam, rather than strict adherence to the Zoroastrian faith".[30]

Notable Iranian Zoroastrians in the 20th century

See also



  1. ^ a b Ferrero, Mario (2021). "From Polytheism to Monotheism: Zoroaster and Some Economic Theory". Homo Oeconomicus. 38: 77–108. Retrieved 3 April 2023.
  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". Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland. 24 (2): 225–49. doi:10.1017/s1356186313000333.
  5. ^ Moore, George (30 January 2008). Zoroastrianism : A Concise Introduction (1st ed.). Gorgias Press. p. 180. ISBN 1593338813.
  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.
  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. 3: 313.
  10. ^ Skjaervo, Prods Oktor (2014). "Achaemenid Religion". Religion Compass. 8 (6): 175–183.
  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. ^ Dr Stephen H Rapp Jr. The Sasanian World through Georgian Eyes: Caucasia and the Iranian Commonwealth in Late Antique Georgian Literature Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 28 September 2014. ISBN 1472425529 p 160
  13. ^ Ronald Grigor Suny. The Making of the Georgian Nation Indiana University Press, 1994 ISBN 0253209153 p 22
  14. ^ Roger Rosen, Jeffrey Jay Foxx. The Georgian Republic, Volume 1992 Passport Books, 1992 p 34
  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. ^ Mary Boyce, "Zoroastrians, Their Religious Beliefs and Practices": Under the Caliphs
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ "ZOROASTRIANISM ii. Arab Conquest to Modern – Encyclopaedia Iranica". Retrieved 3 April 2020.
  20. ^ Hukht (1973)
  21. ^ Stausberg, Michael (2013). "FROM POWER TO POWERLESSNESS". Religious Minorities in the Middle East: 180.
  22. ^ Tavakoli-Targhi, Mohamad (1990). "Refashioning Iran: Language and Culture During the Constitutional Revolution". Iranian Studies. 23: 82.
  23. ^ Janet Kestenberg Amighi "Zoroastrians of Iran, Conversion, Assimilation, or Persistence" pp. 143
  24. ^ "Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran". 24 October 1979. Retrieved 14 April 2023.
  25. ^ "Iran Suspends Zoroastrian Member of Yazd City Council", The New York Times, 9 October 2017, retrieved 9 October 2017
  26. ^ Richard Foltz, "Zoroastrians in Iran: What Future in the Homeland?" Middle East Journal 65/1 (2011): 73-84.
  27. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 16 November 2015. Retrieved 12 December 2015.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  28. ^ a b "Iranians have lost their faith according to survey". Iran International. 25 August 2020. Retrieved 29 August 2020.
  29. ^ "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.
  30. ^ Maleki, Ammar; Arab, Pooyan Tamimi. "Iran's secular shift: new survey reveals huge changes in religious beliefs". The Conversation. Retrieved 31 August 2021.
  31. ^ Farhang Mehr. "Rostam Giv". Encyclopaedia Iranica. Retrieved 1 May 2022.
  32. ^ "Jamshid Bahman Jamshidian". A Zoroastrian Educational Institute. Retrieved 25 November 2013.
  33. ^ "RIP: Professor Emeritus Farhang Mehr Dies at 94". 9 March 2018. Retrieved 9 March 2018.
  34. ^ 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
This page was last edited on 4 June 2023, at 00:59
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