Zoroastrians: Iran’s forgotten minority

The decline of this ancient community is a tragedy not just for Iran, but for human civilization writ large.

It is disheartening, but the adherents of the world’s first monotheistic religion appear to have been consigned to oblivion in their ancestral homeland, and as their numbers shrink, it is not only a religion that is disappearing, but the building blocks of a civilization.

Zoroastrianism is believed to have been founded in ancient Iran 3,500 years ago. It was the dominant religion of the Persian Empire until the Muslim conquest of Persia starting in AD 633 capsized the cultural and religious configuration of the nation and ushered in new values based on Islamic law in a society that initially perceived the arrival of Islam as unwelcome.

Iran’s 2011 census found that there were only around 25,000 Zoroastrians living in the country, and in a nation of 84 million people, the figure is simply infinitesimal. Other than one lawmaker representing them in the 290-member parliament, a handful of functioning fire temples and some schools and kindergartens for their children, Iran’s Zoroastrian community does not enjoy the luxury of the resources at the disposal of the Muslim majority to proselytize, assert their identity, network and promote their faith.

Kourosh Niknam, a Zoroastrian priest and former member of parliament, once lamented his community’s draining resources: “We don’t have the right to make programs about our religion. I have no platform on radio or television to go and speak about Zoroastrianism. We cannot get any budget for building a new fire temple when mosques are being built one after another.”

What is well known about Zoroastrians is that they subscribe to their prophet Zoroaster’s percepts of “good thoughts, good words and good deeds,” representing the linchpin of their ideology. They are exemplarily peaceful and some of their most revered cultural relics are embedded into the lifestyles of Iranian people, including pious Muslims.

The Persian New Year celebration of Nowruz, the Yalda Night celebration of the winter solstice and the ancient fiesta of Chaharshanbe Suri (Wednesday Feast) have remained mainstays of Iranian society after the last Zoroastrian dynasty, the Sassanians, was toppled in AD 651. Even the Islamic Revolution of 1979, which was in effect a clampdown on anything un-Islamic, did not manage to obliterate these offcuts of Zoroastrianism.

But the inspirations of Zoroastrianism are not confined to the borders of Iran and are more broad-ranging than one might assume. The 17th-century French writer Voltaire and German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche cited Zoroastrianism as their guiding light, and even such contemporary cinematic productions as Star Wars and Game of Thrones were influenced by its canons.

Zoroastrians are reputed to be hard-working and entrepreneurial people. Those who have settled in India and currently make up a tiny minority of 61,000 people in the world’s second-most-populous country contribute close to 6% of the nation’s economic turnover. In India, they are known as Parsis, and Mahatma Gandhi once famously acclaimed their services by saying, “In numbers Parsis are beneath contempt, but in contribution, beyond compare.”

In 2016, the World Religion Database estimated that at best, Zoroastrians numbered 200,000 people worldwide. There are no more optimistic approximations, portending a bleak future for a faith that predates all Abrahamic religions in antiquity, esteemed not least because of its identity as a divine guidance but for being the incubator of an ancient culture founded in what we know today as Iran.

It might sound eccentric, and equally dismaying, but for nearly four decades, debate on Zoroastrianism has been non-existent in Iran’s state media, even though according to the constitution it is recognized as an official religion and can be practiced without persecution.

TV stations and newspapers prefer to sidestep any reference to the ancient faith lest they draw the ire of religious hardliners and a panoply of Islamic promotional organizations that would not be happy to see other religions advocated publicly. School and university textbooks treat it as verboten and unmentionable. There is a cap of 3,000 on how many copies of religious books Zoroastrians are permitted to publish.

In 2015, the government budget allocated to the Zoroastrian community was a minuscule 8.28 billion rials (US$26,000), which, compared with the whopping funding filling the coffers of a lineup of Islamic organizations, is genuinely embarrassing. In 2020, a syndicate of 23 Islamic and cultural organizations received a staggering 47.8 trillion rials ($54 million) in public funds from the government of President Hassan Rouhani.

Sadly enough, there have been reports of crackdowns on the festivals and religious gatherings of this marginalized community. Their properties are sometimes seized against their will and permissions are not granted for opening new temples and religious buildings.

Backtracking from a long-standing policy, the government in 2010 made it unlawful for the Zoroastrian community to use the schools it operates outside working hours for religious ceremonies. Spreading Zoroastrian propaganda is an “offense” for which a number of adherents have been convicted in recent years.

In a highly digitized, interconnected world, no human tradition will survive if it is not afforded leeway to express itself, attract new devotees, refine itself, intermingle with other civilizations and showcase its virtues.

The rapid evolution of our societies in lockstep with the growth of technology unfolding at lightning speed has pushed innumerable cultural traditions, faiths and languages to the cusp of extinction. Add to these the dynamics of people’s and governments’ interaction with socio-cultural systems, practices, worldviews and morals that sometimes empower them and sometimes hasten their demise.

Zoroastrianism is not immediately disappearing, and even in Iran, where its adherents are reeling from neglect and discrimination, it continues to be a dynamic presence. Yet the fact that their numbers are increasingly diminishing, and their worrying absence from the public sphere, should raise the alarm for those in Iran who care about the diversity and heterogeneity of their society, and on top of that, the connectivity of Iran to its indispensable past, that a civilizational misfortune is in the offing.

Iranians from all walks of life should wake up to the fact that a cherished historical and cultural heritage of theirs is vanishing, bespeaking the impending detachment of future generations of Iranians from their identity and what makes them distinct as a nation.

To the concerned citizens of the world, also, the writing should be on the wall that a creed from which almost all the major global religious persuasions have borrowed their understanding of concepts such as hell, heaven, Judgment Day, final revelation of the world, angels and demons, good and evil, is being surrendered to decline.

What can preclude or delay this betrayal of history is to read about Zoroastrianism, engage with Zoroastrians, include them in public debates and educational curricula, give coverage to their community activities in the media and refute the assumption that the dwindling population of Zoroastrians should necessarily translate into the legacy of Zoroaster becoming extinct and leaving no trace behind.

Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist based in Iran. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow.

Published on Asia Times