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ANCIENT IRANIAN RELIGIONS: ZOROASTRIAN

Islamic Era History of Zoroastrians of Iran Through
Political Analysis and Historical Letters *


  

By: Darius Jahanian

 

The Arab invasion of Iran in 630 A.D. and its consequences have never been researched impartially, because they always carry religious sentiments. It is taught and popularized that the Arabs brought Islam to Iran, and the Iranians being frustrated by their government, the strict religious code interfering with their daily life and the established Sasanian's caste system embraced Islam's message of equality and brotherhood. This view however is not only far from the historical evidences but contradicts the basic human instincts. The fact is that people on the whole do not give up their original tenets and traditions easily to adhere to the new one. Even the primitive Arabs did not abandon their old religion that simple, as there were several religious wars (Ghazvah) in which many of the nonbelievers were massacred. The Arab conquest not only did not eliminate the caste system, but soon Iranians found themselves part of the two new castes, slaves and Mavali. The mass of Iranian women, children and captured men were sold in the Arabian markets and even those who converted to Islam did not receive freedom. They were called Mavali or the liberated slaves, who were mostly deprived of basic rights, could not ride horses or carry weapons and at times being part of the asset were given away as gifts. The mass enslavement of Iranians was so rampant that in a story that Shiites made to relate the family of Imam Ali to the Sasanians, even the daughter of Yazdgard, Shahrbanou was sold as slave in Medina market to Imam Ali who gave her to his son, Imam Hussain to marry. By this narrative the Shiites believe that Imam Hussein's descendants are blood related to the Sasanians.

 

The cultural calamity was disastrous. Books were burned, scholars slain and schools and libraries were destroyed because the invaders regarded the Koran as the last book that nullified the existing ones. Iran in a short period of time fell from a global power and world's center of science to an illiterate and backward country that could never stand on her feet. For centuries afterwards until the time of Safavid dynasty at the turn of the fifteenth century it was not even a country under one flag.

 

Safavid Dynasty

The ancestor of the Safavids, Sheikh Saffi Ardbili was a Sunni Moslem. The founder of the dynasty, Shah Ismail embraced Shiism to unify the nation and encourage them to fight against the Ottoman Turks who were Sunnis. This policy was favored by the major European powers that faced the threat of the Ottaman Turks from the east. Turks were invading Europe and Islamizing the eastern parts; the goal was to keep them engaged in the south. The conversion of Iranians however was not an easy task. The majority were Sunnis and 0/040 of the nation or four million had preserved the old religion and remained  Zoroastrian. The other problem was the absence of Shiite clergy to educate the public. Furthermore the existing large Zoroastrian sector raised concern for reversion to the old religion.

 

The shortage of clergy was resolved by bringing them from other areas such as Lebanon and Bahrain. Conversion of the Sunni majority to Shiism was carried out by force and bloodshed. In the turmoil many Zoroastrians lost their lives, and to eliminate the threat of reversion, many inhumane acts were implemented against them. Jews and Christians were regarded as the owners of the book because Moses and Jesus are named in the Koran and several Suras are specified to them but Zarathushtra is not mentioned. Although at this era non-Moslems in general were not treated with dignity, but no community and religion suffered as much as the Zoroastrians. A law enacted that if a member of a family converted to Islam, he was entitled to all the inheritance. The religious tax or Jizya was imposed and those who could not afford were subject to torture, loss of life and confiscation of property or had to convert. Zoroastrians even had to wear a yellow patch to be distinguished in public, by that they were subjected to insults and persecution. They were despised as Gabre or Gavre, which in public mind was equal to

 

(Kafir) or faithless, and the Zoroastrian ghettos were called “Gavrestan" which in Persian is reminiscent of 'Goorestan’ or cemetery. The Moslem clergy was particularly active in instigating hatred against the Zoroastrian population causing them more persecution and even massacres.

 

Zoroastrians Condition in Iran during the reign of Shah Abbas Safavid:

Suffering of the Zoroastrians during the rule of Shah Abbas the Great ( 1587 -1628A.D .) in particular was intensified. The eastern and Pahlavi philosophy had been revived and gained momentum. He was determined to crash the movement at root The followers of Darvish Mahmood Passikhani who were called Ajamiyoun (Persians) and believed that the Arab era is over and the new Persian period is to begin were massacred. Shah Abbas personally executed several of their leaders. His serious concern about the Pahlavi philosophy and reversion caused him to carry a harsh anti Zoroastrian policy. In a letter dated Bahman Rooz, Ardibehesht Mah,1 005 Yazdgardi (1015 Hijri), the Zarthushtis of Sharifabad, Yazd wrote to the Parsis of India: "In the year 977 Yazdgardi (987 Hijri) the agents of Shah Abbas came to Yazd to confiscate our religious books. They murdered two Mobeds who refused to surrender them. In Turkabad many Mobeds who refused to surrender the books were killed. The agents plundered and destroyed many scriptures here.”  Professor Zabih Behtooz writes, "Shah Abbas executed many intellectuals and Zoroastrians under the pretext of atheism.”

 

In 1006 Hijri, Shah Abbas dispatched troops to the Caspian province of Mazandaran and forcefully converted them to Islam. By this time not only the province had remained Zoroastrian but was ruled by a Zoroastrian dynasty named Padouspanian. At his order many Zoroastrians were forcefully deported and settled in a ghetto town near Isfahan, named Gabrabad During the deportation many lost lives. To this people who had been detached from their farms and businesses no job was given. They had been brought there to do the menial jobs that no one would accept Pietro Della Valle, a Roman tourist in his letter dated December 8, 1617 writes: the streets of Gabrabad are wide and well designed but the houses are one floor and small reflecting the poverty of the tenants. He adds, the Zoroastrians cannot own business and mostly are laborers and farmers. Their cloth is thick with the color of mud brick. It is worth mentioning that Shah Abbas transferred Armenians from the Julfa of Tabriz and settled them in Julfa near Isfahan.   Della Vane writes about Julfa that most Armenians are merchants and wealthy and they are treated favorably. Jean Chardin, a French traveler (1643-1713) writes: few Gabres and Parsis remain. These are the original Iranians who adhere to their old traditions and religion. Many of their houses and villages in the south of Isfahan were destroyed by Moslems and during the civil war and few could take refuge in Yazd and Kerman. These people are so miserable they could not afford to provide a gift on the occasion of the coronation of King Soleiman the third and they were excused. Many of their houses and villages in the south of Isfahan were destroyed by Moslems and during the civil war and few could take refuge in Yazd and Kerman.

 

 

 

The role of the Shiite clergy:

 

To prevent reversion, the Shiite clergy exerted a strong role. Their writings instigated hatred against the Zoroastrians. Particularly in order to make them more effective and affirmative, these fabrications were mostly attributed to the Holy Imams. Some examples are presented below:  

1.    "Majussis (Magians or Zoroastrians) had a book named Jand and Pajand that were burned in fire. They had a prophet named Zardosht who was killed. He had a book written on 12000 hides. Jihad against them is a religious duty until they convert to Islam or promise that will not commit adultery with Moslem women (marrying them)".

 

(Sheikh Bahai, the high cleric and scholar of Shah Abbas era). These writings have continued even to the 21st century C.E.

   

2.    "A man named Zardosht brought a book for the Majussis and claimed prophet-hood. Some believed him and others did not and turned him away. He was killed and consumed by the wild animals in desert. The primitive Arabs were closer to God than the followers of Zardosht, because…. and their king Kaikhosrow had killed three hundred prophets"

 

(20th century Iranian Shiite clergy and Islamic scholar, Rayshahri).

   

3.    The founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Rouhallah Khomeini who was very concerned about reversion of Iranians to their ancient roots also wrote:

 

"Zardosht the magus and fire worshipper by some dishonorable knaves has been called holy and God worshipper.  If this fire of dirt that has arisen from the temples of Fars are not extinguished, soon the trash will spread and they invite all to join the Gabre’s creed.

 

In such a hostile environment, the Zoroastrians suffered spiritually and materially, and had to subsist to preserve their faith. A letter belonging to the seventeenth century A.D. from a French priest to his boss is abridged here:  

"Islam is not the only religion of the Iranians. There are many Iranians who have preserved their old religion. But they have none of their ancestral knowledge and science. They live in state of slavery and absolute misery. Most difficult and harshest public works are assigned to them. They mostly are porters or work in the farms. The state of slavery has caused them to be shy, naive and rough mannered. They speak in a different dialect and use their old alphabets. Iranians call them (Gavre), which mean idol worshippers, and they are treated much worse than the Jews. They are accused of being fire worshippers. ..but they respect the fire. They believe that in order to receive salvation, one should till the land and develop orchards, avoid polluting the water and putting down the fire. Their holiest man is named Zoroaster and their most important festival is Novruz... ."

 

The Worst Blow:

Despite all the adversities, the population of the Zoroastrians at the turn of the 18th century. was nearly one million. But the worst blow was delivered by the last Safavid king, Shah Sultan Hossein (1694-1722), a fanatic and superstitious man profoundly influenced by the clergy. Soon after his accession to the throne to popularize himself, he issued a decree that all the Zoroastrians should convert to Islam or face the consequences. Nearly all were slaughtered or coercively converted, few fled the blood bath and took refuge in Yazd and Kerman. By the French estimate a total of 80,000 Zoroastrians lost their lives, and the entire population of Isfahan’s Gabrabad was massacred. The Zoroastrian sources estimate the number of victims at hundreds of thousands. Today the people of Nain and Anar near Isfahan speak Dari (the dialect exclusively spoken by the Zoroastrians ), but they are Moslems.

 

To comprehend the extent of the Zoroastrian massacres just during the Safavid era, a demographic picture of the communities of central Iran is presented. Today the two central cities of Isfahan and Kashan have strong Jewish communities, and Julfa of Isfahan remains exclusively an Armenian town with churches and schools. But there is no native Zoroastrian community in these cities. The fledgling community of Isfahan is in fact a transplant; whose members in search of job opportunities in recent years have settled there and formed association.

 

Fear of reversion in the later era:

The reversion concern and writings of the Shiite clergy produced generations of hateful majority that despised the Zoroastrians as fire worshippers and considered them to be impure and outcast. This hostile sentiment did not cease after the Safavid and the misery and massacres went on. The reports of the European visitors reflect this fact. Ker Porter in his letter dated March 20,1818 wrote: "Many Zoroastrians are miserable and hopeless but they adhere to their religion. As they cannot afford to travel and take refuge in other countries, in their homeland suffer and endure the hardship. Their spirit is high toward the skies and their eyes look down to the ground in tears for the daily misery they face. They have used the cities of Yazd and Kerman for shelter and those who were able fled to the mountains and India. There are 4000 to 5000 of them in Yazd where more or less can practice their tradition. They are mostly good fanners, gardeners or artisans.”

 

General Houtum Schindler summarized the Zoroastrian's plight as "Forceful conversion to Islam, confiscation of their assets and inheritance, extortion of one fifth of the value of property or business for the Moslem clergy, prohibition of construction of new buildings or repair of the old ones, prohibition from putting on new dress or ride horse, forceful payment of extra tax (Jizya ), automatic exoneration of the murderers or culprits if they are Moslems and their victim is a Zoroastrian, or if they have attacked or burglarized the Zoroastrian houses or their shelters."

 

Count de Gobineau,[1] the French ambassador to Iran in 1850s, presented a pessimistic view of the Zoroastrian community. He wrote: "Only 7000 of them remain and only a miracle may save them from extinction. They teach a lesson to the world that glory is not everlasting, because these are descendants of the people that one day ruled the world."

 

The historical letter of Maneckji:[2]

Without the famous letter of Maneckji Limji Hataria, the emissary of the Parsis of India the list of the historical letters is incomplete. In 1855, after one year of staying in Iran, he reported to the Parsi Panchayet his findings on the Zoroastrian community of Iran.  

"Dear Sir: This noble group has suffered in the hands of cruel and evil people, so much that they are alien to knowledge and science. For them even black and white, and good and evil are equal. Their men have been forcefully doing menial works in the construction and as slaves received no payments. As some evil and immoral men have been looking after their women and daughters, this sector of the community stays in door during the daytime. Despite all the poverty, heavy taxes under the pretext of land, space, pastureland, inheritance and religious tax (Jizya) are imposed on them. The local rulers have been cruel to them and have plundered their possessions. They have forced the men to do the menial construction work for them. Vagrants have kidnapped their women and daughters, worse than all the community is disunited. Their only hope is for the future savior (Shah Bahram Varjavand) to come. Because of extreme misery, belief in the savior is so strong that 35 years earlier when an astrologer forecasted the birth of the savior, many men in his search left the town and were lost in the desert and never returned. "Perhaps the following sentence from Maneckji epitomizes the sorry plight of the community; "I found the Zoroastrians to be exhausted and trampled so much that no one in this world can be even more miserable than them."

 

 

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

Although the Safavid unified Iran but the Iranians paid a very heavy price. Coercive conversion of Iranians to Shiism and concern about reversion resulted in many blood baths. Worse than all they used the power of clergy and religion to legitimate their actions and continue despotic rule. The damages caused by them, is well discerned in our time. In the course of events however, no community or religion suffered as much as the Zoroastrians. Despite that our books of history have maintained a total silence toward the dreadful massacre of Zoroastrians in central Iran and the coercive and violent conversion of Mazandaran. In the latter case usually a distorted picture of peaceful self-conversion is presented. The sentiment over the issue of reversion prevails even today, as there is generally less sensitivity toward conversion than reversion.

 

It is fitting to conclude with the words of Dastur Framroze Bode:[3]  "So many nations and religions have become part of ancient history, but despite the harsh treatment of history there must be a reason why the Zoroastrian religion has survived."

 


* This article written based on a presentation Dr Jahanian made at the 7th World Zoroastrian Congress held in Houston, Texas in Dec. 2000.

[1] Trois ans en Asie (Three years in Asia) 1855-1858

[2] Manekji Limji Hateria

[3] Bode, Framroze

 

 

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Dr Darius Jahanian is an obstetrician-gynecologist in the Kansas City area, with degree from University of Tehran and Washington University, St. Louis. He is a co-founder and president of the Fravahar Zoroastrian Youth organization of Tehran. Darius served as trustee of the Rostam Guiv Trust of California 1981-89, is a trustee and VP of the Rostam Guiv Foundation of New York since 1990, and its president since 1992. He is a founder and two-term president of the Zoroastrian Association of Kansas. A noted author and lecturer on the Zoroastrian religion, Darius also teaches religion classes for children.

 

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