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Zoroaster and Zoroastrians in Iran
Last Updated: October, 2009

The Abassids proved deadly foes for Zoroastrianism, and it was during their epoch that Islam took root and flourished in Iran. Islam on the other hand during this process grew steadily more Zoroastrianized, with adaptations of funerary rites and purity laws, and a cult of 12 saints (imams) springing up in place of the veneration of 12 eyzads. The saviour (Saoshyant) was replaced by the "Time Lord" (Imam Zaman) who is believed by the Shiites to be hidden and who will, like Saoshyant appear at the end of the time, restore the faith, and fill the earth with justice by defeating the Satanic forces.

By 9th century there were still fire temples around and the surviving Avestan texts were put together but already one division out of twenty one was wholly lost. Masudi the historian visiting the city of Istakhr in 9th century describes the devastation and how the once magnificent city with its temple complex and massive library was laid waste and deserted. 40,000 Persians including most of the noble and learned families of the time had died during the Arab conquest trying to defend and save the city. In 10th century local Iranian dynasties all vigorously Muslim were emerging as largely independent vessels of the Caliphs. Among them was the Samanid of Khurasan (874-999) who claimed descent from Vahram Choben nevertheless abandoned Zoroastrianism as a favor to the ruling caliph. It is at this time that a group of Zoroastrians from Khurasan left Iran for India and formed the Parsi community of Zoroastrians in Gujarat.

The new community in India was mostly able to practice their religion freely without fear from the local Indian governments and has prospered and evolved parallel to the original community in Iran. They were able to provide moral, educational and financial support to the Zoroastrians in Iran during the 19th and early 20th century.

Early in 11th century the Seljuk Turks swept into Iran from Central Asia. They were mostly Muslims and embraced Islam with fervor and with their distant relatives Ghaznavid started another reign of terror with massacres, burning of the books and forced conversions. Afterwards, came the even more dreadful Mongol invasions (13th century), which ended both Seljuk and the Caliphate in Baghdad and laid entire provinces into waste and destroyed thousands of priceless books throughout the area from all faiths. Zoroastrians lost most of their books including copies of the Sasanian Avesta. Fars was one of the few provinces that was saved from the Mongol invasion by submitting to their rule. The Zoroastrian community of Fars confined to a few cities in the north, namely Yazd and Kirman survived with their literature. Their texts combined with those saved by the Parsis of India forms most of the literature that is left from the ancient religion and Sasanian Pahlavi manuscripts. During the next two centuries efforts were made to copy and preserve the few remaining texts some in private collections kept by the learned Zoroastrian families.

From the 16th to 18th century Zoroastrians like Jews and Christians suffered greatly at the hands of Safavid rulers. Zealous Shi’ites Safavid had oppressive policies with respect to religious minorities and have one of the worst records with respect to human rights in Iran. Shah Abbas the Great brought many Zoroastrians called "Gaur" or "Gabr" since the Muslim conquest (meaning infidels) into Isfahan to use as labor. The European traveler Pietro della Valle visiting the site reported that the Gaurs were settled in a suburb containing some 3000 houses, all low single storied, without any adornment, suited to the poverty of those who inhabit them.

Chardin another traveler visiting the Safavid court points out that these ancient Persians "have gentle and simple ways, and live peaceably under the guidance of their elders, from among whom they elect their magistrate". Tavernier in 17th century made remarks about the hardship Zoroastrian women suffered because of purity laws concerning menstruation. They were isolated during this period and could not touch fire or water since they were regarded as impure. The isolation would end by bathing and a minor feast. It is also mentioned by the travelers that the Zoroastrian women were not veiled and unlike Muslim women did not shy away from strange men and did not follow the segregation of sexes as Muslims did.

The Zoroastrians could not escape tyranny. Legend has it that Shah Abbas heard about a magnificent book of the Gaurs written by Abraham and preserved by them in one of their libraries. He orders the leaders to bring the book to him and since no book by Abraham could have been produced he ordered the Zoroastrian leaders to be executed.

The Afghans overthrew the Safavids and in the process totally destroyed the Zoroastrian quarter, the Gabr-Mahalle, that was located outside the city walls in Kerman. Very few survived and the neighborhood was never rebuilt again and ruins of the settlement existed till mid 20th century. Like other religious minorities they had a few years of peace under the Zand dynasty but were harassed and violated under the Qajars.

A turning point for Zoroastrians came with the European scholars becoming interested in the Zoroastrian literature in 18th century. At the time the Parsi community of India had thrived while the Iranians were struggling to survive. Orientalists from a number of European countries associated with major universities and institutes studied, collected and translated texts in India and eventually Iran. In mid 18th century the French scholar, Anquetil du Perron produced the first relatively accurate translation of Avesta from the Indian collection into a modern European language. The translations included the surviving Avestan texts, with ritual instructions and many valuable personal observations on the customs and rituals of the Parses, as well as a translation of the Pahlavi Bundahishn. Though currently totally out of date, the translations opened the way for more than a century of scholarly research on the ancient religion and the forgotten adherents of the fate in Iran and India. The translations amazed and shocked the Europeans and Zoroastrianism at last found its rightful place in the evolution of the revealed religions in the area.

The constitutional revolution of the 1906 created a new concept of citizenship based on nationality rather than religious affiliation. Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians became citizens of the country though they were still barred from many high ranking positions that were only open to Shiite Muslims. The Baha’i were never recognized as legitimate citizens. By 1900 the community was still concentrated in Yazd and vicinity with Sharif Abad as the center of priesthood. By 1970"s majority of Zoroastrians had moved to Tehran. The Pahlavi reign was the best period with respect to religious and cultural freedoms and Zoroastrians with other religious minorities prospered and for the first time the Iranian Zoroastrian community did as good as or better than the Parsi community in India. In fact Parsi members were encouraged to come back and settle down in Iran. The first World Zoroastrian Congress was held in Tehran in 1960. The two major communities in Iran and India sought reform and modernization and some aspects of the ancient doctrines were revised and modernized. Pahlavis promoted ancient pre-Islamic Persia and new archaeological evidence with numerous studies, translations and first class work by qualified researchers produced groundbreaking literature in understanding Zoroastrianism. The Iranian researcher, Ibrahim Pur Davoud, popularized Zoroastrianism amongst all Iranians by his translations of Avestan texts into modern Persian. Professor Mary Boyce from London University is one of the most important researches who have made great contributions to Zoroastrian studies.

The Islamic revolution once again has reduced the religious minorities to second class citizens and the events of the last two decades have resulted in massive immigration of all religious minorities including Zoroastrians. Currently USA, Canada and UK along with the Parsi community in India have become the main centers where Zoroastrians live and have established fire temples where the ancient flames are kept burning.

The major problems facing the surviving communities are low birth rate, marrying out of the community and secularization. In 1976 there were around 129,000 Zoroastrians worldwide with 25000 living in Iran. The total population has remained more or less the same with a substantial decrease in the number of inhabitants in Iran. The problems are constantly debated and the world congress of Zoroastrians through meetings, publications and education has been deliberating the challenges that are facing the Zoroastrian communities in different countries.


Recommended Readings:

    Mary Boyce:

  • Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. London: Routledge, 2001.
  • A Persian Stronghold of Zoroastrianism. University Press of America; Reprint edition, 1989.

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