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Iranian Religions: Zoroastrianism



By Ali A. Jafarey

Several readers have asked us to write on conversion. Does it amount to repudiating one's religion of birth and accepting an alien religion not determined by destiny? This is an argument repeatedly said by those who, for reasons known best to them, are against any change of religion. Generally the argument is that God assigns one a religion at birth and one must not disobey God. Some of those against conversion elaborate that God created various races of mankind and divided them to belong each to a certain predestined religion. 

Let us first understand the meanings of conversion and choice in relation with religion. Conversion is derived from Latin "conversion, conversio, from convertere, to turn around, transform, convert, from com- + vertere, to turn." It means: "An experience associated with a definite and decisive adoption of religion."

Choice is derived from Old French choisir, to choose, and "choose" means "to select freely and after consideration." (Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 1997)

Now that we understand the two words in their contexts, let us turn to our subject: Conversion/Choice.

As already explained in the previous posting Religion-by-Birth and Karma," the above theory is the product of the Hindu belief in reincarnation." The established fact, therefore, is that one cannot be born in religion but is brought up in the religion of his/her fosterer/s.

How many creeds and cults have died a natural or violent death through migration, invasion, commingling and fostering, we do not know. They could number in the thousands. Let us consider the existing major religions in a chronological order: 

Hinduism has been an evolving religion for some 4,000 years, and Good Conscience was founded by Zarathushtra 3700 years ago, Judaism by Moses some 3300 years ago, Buddhism by Buddha 2500 years ago, Jainism by Mahavira 2500 years ago, Christianity by Jesus and Paul 2000 years ago, Islam by Muhammad 1400 years ago, Sikhism by Nanak 500 years ago, and Baha'ism by Bahaullah in 1863, only 142 years ago. 


How could their numbers grow or decrease to their present extent if God had destined people to adhere to their "birth-religions"? Why has none of these founders a clear commandment prohibiting conversion? On the contrary, most of them have advocated the spread of their respective religions. Why do those Zoroastrians who are against conversion beat around the bush in long articles and go in circles of interpretations in an attempt to make their point of view appear true? All they need to do is to produce a terse prohibitive commandment against conversion. They have none, not a single evidence from the Avesta, Pahlavi and Persian writings or from an alien history saying that Zoroastrians from Achaemenian to Sassanian times did not convert and that one had to be born Zoroastrian. Had it been so, Greek, Roman, Christian, Armenian, Indian, and Muslim historians would have noted this strange custom. 

All the above-named religions have had conversion through propagation, persuasion, force and commingling. Hinduism, a creed of the multi-races of Australoids, Dravidians, Aryans, Tibeto-Chinese and others, which had become restricted later by its rigid caste system, has now its missionaries in India and abroad. Judaism, an ethnical religion, has all along accepted people who have been "hebraized" and that is why Jews hailing from various parts of Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, Southwest India, and Ethiopia are a mixed race of whites, browns and blacks. The slow progress in their missionary zeal has mostly been due to tough and even cruel restrictions enforced by the ruling Romans, Christians and Muslims. The extension and expansion of Buddhism, from India to China and Indochina and now to other countries, has been only through propagation and conversion. Jainism has been slow but now Jains are active even in North America. Christianity, Islam and Baha'ism are quite open and active in their missionary work. Christians and Muslims are again well known for forced conversions in their past records. After the defeat of the Zoroastrian Iranian empire, the Muslims converted Zoroastrians by using a policy of both "carrot and stick," rather "concession and sword." One can confidently state that 90% of the Iranian people are descendents of Zoroastrians. 

This brings us to another excuse against conversion. Conversion creates hatred and enmity. Quite true! Brutal force used by Christianity and Islam to convert their conquered peoples has been the cause of much hatred and frequent bloodsheds. We have recent bloody incidents between Christians and Muslims in Eastern Europe and between Hindus and Muslims in India. And let us not forget the bloody Israeli-Palestinian tug-of-war going for more than half a century.

Against this, we do not see any violent reaction, even hatred, against Buddhists and Baha'is. Why because their expansion has been and is peaceful. I remember two incidents. In 1928, a Baha'i leader in Karachi told my father that there were 200 Baha'is in then undivided India and later I came to know that all of them were Zoroastrian converts. In 1993, I was told by a Baha'i, again an Iranian Zoroastrian convert in Delhi, that there were 700,000 Baha'is in [the present divided] India. No reaction against so many Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Zoroastrians silently and peacefully going over to Bahai'sm! Baha'is are quite welcome in India simply because the converts behave well with their former coreligionists. 

Recent anti-Christian incidents in India are due to missionaries going after the lowest caste "untouchables' that consequently deprives the upper castes of the cheap labor doing the "dirty jobs," never touched by the upper the ones. It also elevates the converts to turn to higher education and better living! Mother Teresa, a zealous Catholic missionary, cared for the "uncared" poor on the streets, whom she eventually baptized, is praised and raised for her role in peaceful conversion. Baha'is go after upper classes and therefore no adverse reaction.

And let us not forget that Zoroastrianism, which spread from the Nile to the western parts of China and India, did not use force to expand. The 800-year war by the Parthians and Sassanians with the "Pagan" and Byzantine Romans has never been remembered by the two sides as religious. Even a single incident of taking the "Cross on which Jesus was Crucified" as a war booty by the Sassanians did not give that battle a religious color. The struggle between the two super powers was more political and it has been recorded as such. Logical and peaceful propagation of religion to convince and convert people has always its good rewards. The only exceptional instance is by the powerful Sassanian Mobedan-Mobed KARTIR. He recounts his forced conversions of Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and heretics into Zoroastrianism. (See his bas-reliefs on Naghsh-e Rajab and Naghsh-e Rostam, the only bas-reliefs by a person who is not a King-of-Kings of the Iranian Empire)

Traditionalists say that the Zoroastrian religion was and is meant for the Iranian people. Although Avestan and Pahlavi scriptures and the bas-reliefs left by Sassanian authorities say otherwise, let us look at facts. The Iranian Plateau, from the modern Iraqi borders to Tajikistan in the Pamirs, was inhabited by numerous indigenous peoples having their own creeds, cults and civilizations. The Aryan supremacy Iranianized them. They were all converted to the religion founded or as the Traditionalists present it, "reformed" by Zarathushtra. If this was not true than how did Zoroastrianism became the dominant religion of an estimated 15 million people inside and outside the Sassanian Empire? What about Armenians, non-Iranians Iranianized since the Achaemenians, who were Zoroastrians before they were converted to Christianity, and that too because of the wrong policy of the Sassanian sovereigns? What about the Arab, Chinese and Turkic Zoroastrians we read in history books? What about the phrase "Tâziân-e baste-koshtiyân -- koshti-girdled Arabs" in the daily prayers? Who were they? History records by early Muslims state that they were the Arab Zoroastrians on the east coast of the Arabian Peninsula on the Persian Gulf.

What do the Traditionalists say about the children of the people who were forced into non-Zoroastrian religions? Should they be content with what is said that at present their birth in a religion, which was brutally forced upon their ancestors, is what God has destined for them? What made God to send Islam to convert His predestined Zoroastrians into Muslims? Or was it the stronger Ahriman who changed the Divine Destiny for them?!?! If so, who sent Mohammad as the Prophet to be the cause of this disaster? The thought-provoking questions can go on until the notion of predestined birth becomes preposterous.

Conversion through propagation, persuasion, and force has been the main means of spreading the religion. In fact, had there been no conversion, each of founders would have been the sole follower of his own religion and since they were not to convert their spouses, their religions would have died with them! Once converted, the children are obviously brought up in the accepted religion. Setting aside the Traditionalist Zoroastrian viewpoint, every religion, whether gigantic or small, is working to convert the entire world of six billion+ people. Christianity, Islam and to an extent, Buddhism are engaged in a global missionary competition. Unlimited conversion has turned Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism into large multiracial, multicultural, and multilingual fellowships. And Baha'is are having a quiet but sure progress.

Conversion has different shades. In some religions, it means the use of every possible means to bring the person over. In others there are certain rules and regulations. In the Good Religion of Zarathushtra, it is only through study, acceptance, and choice. One has first to acquire sufficient knowledge of the religion, consider its doctrine with an open and clear mind, and accept it through free will and personal choice. That is why the word "conversion," in its modern usage, has not been used in the Gathas. 




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