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Thursday, 23 April 2020 15:02

As the Islamic Republic Fails, Renewed Interest in Zoroastrianism, Iran’s Ancient Faith Featured

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“Over the past few decades, Iran has seen a revival in the native religion that predates Islam—something that the ayatollahs desperately want to suppress,” the Israel Project’s Zenobia Ravji stated in 2016. Iran’s modern Islamic Republic has continued the historic antagonism of Iran’s various Islamic rulers towards Zoroastrianism, whose often illustrious past began some 3,500 years ago in ancient Iran.

Indiana University Professor of Iranian studies Jamsheed K. Choksy has explained how Zoroastrianism took its name from the faith’s founding prophet Zarathustra. Known as Zoroaster in the West, he preached sometime between 1800 and 1000 BCE about concepts including god and the devil, good and evil, and a final judgment for all humanity. Because such theologies later appeared in Judaism, Christian, and Islam, the Iranian-American expatriate Amil Imani has noted that Zoroastrianism has been “often called the mother of all revealed religions.”

Imani has called Zoroastrianism “one of the most benevolent and beautiful religions of all humanity,” given the “great Zoroaster’s triad of Goodly Thoughts, Goodly Speech, and Goodly Deeds.” Choksy likewise has seen this goodness in the ancient Persian emperors Cyrus the Great (reigned 559-529 BCE) and Darius the Great (reigned 522-486 BCE). These monarchs, who ruled during the millennium in which Zoroastrianism was the official religion of Persian imperial rulers, freed Jews from their sixth-century BCE Babylonian exile and helped rebuild the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Zoroastrianism prominently marked biblical history again as Zoroastrian clergymen, magi, became famous as the wise men who visited Jesus’ nativity.

Observers of Zoroastrianism such as Choksy have starkly contrasted its benign characteristics with the Islamic repression that has marked Iranian history since Arab Muslim invaders overthrew Iran’s Sassanid Empire in 641. “Until Arabs conquered Iran during the seventh century, Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians there could practice their own devotions unhindered,” he wrote.” Subsequently these faith communities “became minorities who were persecuted and largely converted to Islam.”

Imani has angrily condemned that the “upstanding Iranian people who lived by” Zoroastrianism “stood no chance against Muslim beasts” who fanatically and brutally imposed Islamic theocracy. Examining numerous oppressive sharia measures throughout Iranian history, Choksy noted in 2015 in the online Encyclopædia Iranica humiliating requirements for Zoroastrians and others, including the wearing of distinctive clothing. He described how even as late as 1865, travelers to Iran observed that “Zoroastrians were required to follow essentially demeaning medieval rules for non-Muslim protected minorities.”

The Indian-American Ravji has accordingly noted that after the Arab conquest of Persia, “Zoroastrians fled Iran for lands as varied as China, India, and the Balkans.” In particular, the Indian-American Zoroastrians Dinshaw and Hutoxy Contractor have discussed how in 936 a group of Zoroastrians began a decades-long migration that ultimately ended in India’s west coast territory of Gujarat. In India, these Zoroastrians became known as Parsis, derived from the Persian province of Pars.

As the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America (FEZANA) documented in the most recent global survey of Zoroastrians in 2012, India now has 61,000 of the world’s 111,200 Zoroastrians. The next largest national Zoroastrian communities count 15,000 in Iran and 14,306 in the United States. Despite their small numbers, media reports have noted that the “Parsi community is one of the most successful minority and migrant groups in the world,” with reputations for business acumen and social engagement.

Particularly under British rule, “Parsis became a highly urbanized middle to upper class in the societies of the Indian subcontinent,” Choksy has noted. In modern India, Parsi families including the Tata, Godrey, and Wadia families have formed top tycoon dynasties. In particular, Jamshedji N. Tata (1839-1904) pioneered iron, steel, and hydroelectric production in what became India’s largest business conglomerate, the Tata Group.

Tata also founded the Indian Institute of Science, establishing a pattern of Parsi intellectual and cultural achievement in India and beyond. Physicist Homi J. Bhabha (1909-1966) became the father of India’s nuclear program, while Harvard English professor Homi K. Bhabha (no relation) is a leading scholar of literature under colonialism. The late lead singer for the rock band Queen, Freddie Mercury and the world famous classical music conductor Zubin Mehta also had Parsi backgrounds.

Parsis have also been prominent in public life, including Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917), who became the Indian National Congress’ first president in 1885 and joined other Parsis in leading India’s independence movement. The Parsi Sam H. F. J. Manekshaw (1914-2008) became independent India’s first field marshal. Naoroji also became the first Indian member of Britain’s Parliament, followed by Sir Mancherjee Bhownagree (1851-1933) and Shapurji Saklatvala (1874-1936). In 2006, the Parsi Karan Billimoria became a life peer as Baron of Chelsea in the British House of Lords.

While Zoroastrians have achieved fame and fortune outside of their ancestral Iran, Choksy has noted their brief interlude there with anything approaching freedom. “Zoroastrians in Iran experienced social, legal, and economic parity with Muslims during the Pahlavi dynasty (1925-79), owing to that regime’s secularist policies and its hearkening back to Iran’s pre-Islamic past.” The Pahlavis officially recognized Zoroastrianism and some of its traditions, such as the Nowruz Iranian New Year, while Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi encouraged Parsi investment and immigration from India in the early 1970s.

Yet the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution that overthrew the shah “witnessed a return to de facto ḏemmi [dhimmi] status for Zoroastrians,” Choksy observed, while Rajvi has written of Zoroastrians “subjected to apartheid-like legislation.” Islamic revolutionaries stormed Tehran’s Zoroastrian fire temple and tore down its Zoroaster portrait, to be replaced by a portrait of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Pictures of Islamic Republic leaders likewise appeared in Zoroastrian schools, whose principals must now be Muslim.

Zoroastrian high school graduates additionally face discrimination in admission to state universities. Meanwhile, laws exclude Zoroastrians from senior government or military positions. The Islamic Republic has also revived the Shiite doctrine that non-Muslims including Zoroastrians are najes, “unclean,” bigotry which has resulted in chronic Zoroastrian unemployment.

Chosky has noted other indignities imposed by the Islamic Republic on Zoroastrians. Its law regards any Zoroastrian who converts to Islam as the sole inheritor of an unconverted family’s assets, an unjust financial inducement to diminishing Zoroastrianism’s existence. Still more dangerous, the Islamic Republic conscripted Zoroastrians, upon pain of execution, for suicide missions during the bloody 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.

Given the contrast between Islamic Republic tyranny and Zoroastrianism’s positive image, the appeal of Iran’s Zoroastrian heritage to modern Iranians is understandable. As Choksy noted in 2011, “many Muslim Iranians have begun publicly rejecting the Shiite theocracy’s intolerant ways by adopting symbols and festivals from Zoroastrianism.” Similarly, an Iranian-American told Rajvi in 2016 that particularly younger and educated Iranians considered Islam “more of a regressive factor in Iranian culture.”

Zoroastrianism has therefore contributed to growing Iranian evaluation of Islam’s foreign origins in the context of indigenous Iranian culture, an “identity crisis” described to Rajvi by one Iranian-American. Iranians are “conflicted between these two identities,” as “being Zoroastrian is like being Iranian….Being Muslim is not really being Iranian,” he said. “‘Converting back’ to Zoroastrianism, as many refer to the process of rediscovering their roots, has encouraged a view of Islam as an alien Arab faith that was imposed on unwilling Persians,” Rajvi summarized.

Zoroastrianism indicates once more that the Islamic Republic’s many failures have jeopardized the regime goal of global Islamic revolution in Iran and beyond. Many Iranians disillusioned by the Islamic Republic have instead have abandoned Islam in favor of belief alternatives, such as Iran’s growing underground Christian communities. As with Cyrus and his historic cylinder, Zoroastrianism shows that nothing threatens the Islamic Republic in the present like the Iranian popular imagination of a national past. As a future article will examine, some Kurds find the Zoroastrian past equally compelling.

 

Amil Imani

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