A few months ago, I left Europe for Iran, hoping to join Iranians in their fight for a brighter future. Among the different factions in Iran fighting for liberty are the groups advocating a return to our pre-Islamic past and the “glory” of our Persian empire. These people believe that Iranians have lost their “culture consciousness”, some looking to the West and some to the Arabs for answers to their problems. They believe that only by reviving our ancient customs and religion can we retain our pride and glory as a nation. What annoys me most about this group is the myth they have created, concerning Zoroastrianism.
If you read our pre-Islamic history, you realize that, to the Iranians, the Arab invaders” new religion, Islam, seemed to be less rigorous than the corrupt Zoroastrianism prevalent in Persia. To common Iranian people, Islam seemed more tangible and more humane because it denounced the caste system upon which Sassanian Iran was based. In actual fact, Muslim invaders abolished the class society of Sassanian Iran after they brought the whole empire under their domination.
The fact that we hate Arab invaders of Persia should not make us idealize all aspects of our past. Most historians believe that, in the eyes of the Zoroastrian priesthood, ordinary Iranians including artisans and craftsmen were ritually untouchable and unclean and therefore neglective. To these people, Islam spelt liberation from forced labor and military service which the Persians were bound to do in Iran (see Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 4).
If you study the Zoroastrian sacred book, Sad Dar, a compilation of Persian religious traditions, you can clearly see how intolerant and superstitious the Zoroastrians were. Let's have a look at Chapter 9, for example. The chapter is entitled: “The sin of unnatural intercourse to be punished, by any one, by death on the spot”. Do you see any difference between the Islamic practice of stoning “sinful” people and this Zoroastrian verdict? You be the judge:
1. The ninth subject is this, that it is necessary to practice abstinence from committing or permitting unnatural intercourse. 2. For this is the chief of all sins in the religion: there is no worse sin than this in the good religion, and it is proper to call those who commit it worthy of death in reality. 3. If any one comes forth to them, and shall see them in the act, and is working with an ax, it is requisite for him to cut off the heads or to rip up the bellies of both, and it is no sin for him. 4. But it is not proper to kill any person without the authority of high-priests and kings, except on account of committing or permitting unnatural intercourse. 5. For it says in revelation that unnatural intercourse is on a par with Ahriman, with Afrasiyab, with Dahak [Zohak], with Tur-i Bradrok-resh who slew Zartosht, with Malkos who will arise, with the serpent Srobovar which existed in the days of Sam Nariman, and as many sins as are theirs. 6. And Ahriman, the evil one, becomes more joyful, owing to this practice, than owing to the other sins which have made high-priests necessary; for the soul itself of that person becomes extinct. 7. And when they commit the sin with women, it is just the same as that with men.
How about Chapter 38 ?
1. The thirty-eighth subject is this, that, so far as effort and endeavor prevail, it is requisite to abstain from the same cup as those of a different religion, and it is not desirable to drink the water of any goblet of theirs. 2. And if the goblet be of copper or of tin, it is requisite to wash it with water, so that it may be proper to drink the water. 3. If the goblet be of earthenware or wooden, it is altogether improper. 4. Because, when any one drinks with a stranger, it makes his heart inclined (mail) towards him, for it would be a sin; and, on account of the sin committed, he becomes bold, and his soul has an inclination for wickedness.
This reminds me of my Muslim Iranian friend who refused to touch books which arrived by post from abroad and had them rinsed before touching them.
Chapter 7 of Sad Dar also caught my attention because I always thought the “sneeze scare” practice in Iran had its origin in Islam but it seems I was wrong:
1. The seventh subject is this, that, when a sneeze ('hatsat) comes forth from any one, it is requisite to recite one Yatha-ahu-vairyo and one Ashem-vohu. 2. Because there is a fiend in our bodies, and she is an adversary who is connected with mankind, and strives so that she may make misfortune ('hillat) and sickness predominant (mustauli) over mankind. 3. And in our bodies there is a fire which they call a disposition — in Arabic they say tabi'hat — and they call it the sneezing instinct (gharizi). 4. It is connected with that fiend, and they wage warfare, and it keeps her away from the body of man. 5. Then, as the fire becomes successful over that fiend, and puts her to flight (hazimat), a sneeze comes because that fiend comes out. 6. Afterwards, because it is necessary, they recite these inward prayers and perform the benediction (afrin) of the fire, so that it may remain for a long period while thou art keeping this fiend defeated. 7. When another person hears the sneeze, it is likewise requisite for him to utter; the said prayers, and to accomplish the benediction of that spirit.
I think it is time we debunked Zoroastrianism of the myth surrounding it. Zoroastrianism was another intolerant religion which the Iranians wanted to get rid of. Unfortunately, it was too late when our people realized that they were getting out of the frying pan and into the fire. The atrocities committed by Arab invaders were so horrendous that they have made us idealize our dark past.
When Iranians realized that the new religion was as intolerant and sometimes even more cruel than the old faith, they tried to resist the invaders. They took every opportunity to rise up against the blood-thirsty Arabs because what they really wanted was not another fanatic religion but freedom from religion and bigotry. When the Arab Calif, Uthman, was slain, the brave people of Estakhr chose the moment to rise, only to be supressed in a welter of blood by Abdollah ben Abbas on the orders of his cousin, Ali ibne Abi Taleb, the fourth Calif.
The people of Neyshapur, also in the time of Ali, rose against Arab overlordship and refused to pay Jaziyyeh and Kharaj (payments to Arabs for not converting to Islam) so the Calif had to send an army to bring them back into submission. In the Cambridge History of Iran (vol. 4) we read about the marzban (general) of Zarang (Sistan) named Parviz who appeared before the Arab general Rabi” (bin Ziyad Harethi). He found the Arab general sitting on the corpse of a dead Iranian soldier, his head reclining against another. Rabi” had ordered his ontrouge to also provide themselves with such horrible seats. The sight terrified Parviz into submission to spare his people such barbarous cruelties.
Many Iranians accepted Islam to spare their lives such cruelties and to gain exemption from payment of Jaziyeh and Kharaj. They repeatedly found excuses to break free from Islam but I doubt it if they ever yearned to return to their old religion. The memory of Zoroastrian dominance was too fresh to lure them back into it, although that memory has faded now and perhaps that is why a section of our community is longing to go back in time and is finding solace in our ancient religion. For this is human nature: When you stay away from something for a long time, you start romanticizing about it and forget about its nefarious sides.