FEZANA RELIGIOUS EDUCATION

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HISTORY OF ZOROASTRIANS IN IRAN UNDER THE CALIPHS (642 CE To the 10th Century).

The Arab invasion of Iran was quite different from that of Alexander, the Greek many centuries before. The purpose of the Arabs was not only to conquer but to spread Islam. Unlike the Greeks, the Arabs set out to destroy Zoroastrianism in Iran. This was accomplished not by killing Zoroastrians but by making laws and rules which made life difficult for Zoroastrians.

All non-Moslems were made to pay an extra tax called the Jizya. The penalty for not paying, was death, enslavement or imprisonment. Even when the Zoroastrians paid the tax, they were subjected to insults by the tax-collectors. Zoroastrian temples were systematically destroyed and mosques built in their place. Zoroastrians who were captured as slaves in wars were given their freedom if they converted to Islam. Because of these many difficulties Zoroastrians started to convert to Islam. Many who converted just for the convenience were unable to return to their faith, even if they wanted to, because the penalty for re-conversion was death. Once a Zoroastrian family converted to Islam, the children had to go to Moslem religion school and learn Arabic and the teachings of the Quran. These children lost their Zoroastrian identity.

Many Zoroastrians found similarity between the two religions. These similarities were the ideas of heaven and hell, the final judgement, prayers five times a day (similar to the five Zoroastrian Gehs. These similarities made it easy to convert. Early Islam was free of rituals and ceremonies and this was an attraction to some Zoroastrians who were tired of the multitude of rituals and ceremonies in Sasanian Zoroastrianism. Once a Zoroastrian converted to Islam, he or she did not have to observe the strict laws of personal and ritual purity and cleanliness, that were so much a part of our religion at that time.

Though many Zoroastrians converted, many more could not give up their old familiar religion for a foreign one, whose religious book was written in a foreign language of the conquerors. They could not give up the worship of Ahura Mazda through the Holy Fires, for the veneration of a distant stone, the Kaaba in Mecca, of which they had no idea. They could not bring themselves to kneel in prayer before a blank wall facing towards Mecca, instead of standing before a bright fire. Mostly they could not believe that the supreme God,
Allah could be both the source of evil and good and therefore a God you could not understand. In contrast, in our own religion, Ahura Mazda is the source of all that was good, and evil comes from a separate force that has to be battled against, with the help of Ahura Mazda and the Yazatas. They could not understand the new customs of not eating certain meats such as pork and not drinking wine.

Under the first four Caliphs (632-661 CE), the direct descendants of the prophet Mohammed, Iran remained predominantly Zoroastrian and the high priest of the Zoroastrians still made his home in Ctesiphon, the Sasanian capital.

The first four Caliphs were followed by the Umayads (661-750 CE), who ruled from Syria. They seemed to have left the Zoroastrians alone as long as they paid the Jizya tax. During this time, the official language of Iran became Arabic instead of Persian. While Moslem Iranians readily learned the new language, the Zoroastrians hated it, and avoided it as the language of Moslems. Thus they were left out of all government positions.

The Iranian Moslems at this time started a new tradition, which made Islam appear as a partly Iranian religion. They pointed out that an Iranian Zoroastrian, Salaman -I-Farsi had a great influence on Mohammed, the prophet. They also created the myth that Husayn, the son of the fourth Caliph had married a Sasanian princess, named Shahr-Banu, whose son became the fourth Shia Imam (and started the Shia branch of Islam). The Iranian Moslems believed that Shia Islam was derived from Sasanian Royalty! These two beliefs made it easier for Zoroastrians to convert

The Umayads were followed by the Abbasid dynasty which came to power with the help of Iranian Moslems. They respected not only the Iranian Moslems but also the Zoroastrians. Iranian Moslems were welcomed to the court, but not Zoroastrians and some Zoroastrians found it advantageous to convert to Islam. Thus even the kindness of the Abbassids seemed to have worked to convert more Zoroastrians to Islam.

The Abbasids were followed by the Saffavids (869-903 CE). During their reign the Zoroastrians, for the first time became a minority in Iran. The Zoroastrians lived under the leadership of their High Priest, since they had no king. The great fire temple of Adar Gushnasp was still functioning up to the middle of the 10th century. Zoroastrian priests and even some lay persons wrote books on our religion. It was at this time that the Dinkard was written. This book which is still available to us has many discussions on our religion. Most importantly it summarizes the contents of the 19 of the 21 Nasks (the religious literature written in 21 books). By this time one of the Nasks was entirely lost and another only existed in its Avesta form, its Zand (the Phalevi commentary) was lost.

At the beginning of the 10th century a small group of Zoroastrians living around the town of Sanjan in the province of Khorasan, decided that Iran was no longer safe for Zoroastrians and their religion. They decided to emigrate to India. They traveled to the port of Hormazd on the Persian Gulf and set sail for India. They landed on a small Island called Div on the coast of Gujarat in the year 936 CE. There they lived for about 20 years in great difficulty. They learned the local language and presented their case to Jadi Rana, the king of that region. Jadi Rana in return for some promises of behavior, allowed them to settle in his kingdom. The Zoroastrians founded a settlement, which they called Sanjan, after the town they had left behind in Iran nearly 30 years ago. They consecrated their first Atash Behram fire within five years of coming to Sanjan. This attracted other Zoroastrians from Iran and also some Zoroastrians who had individually come over the years and settled in various parts of western India. This was the start of the Parsis in India.

It is said that on their journey by sea from Div to Jadi Rana’s kingdom on the mainland, their ships were battered by a violent storm. The Zoroastrians made a pledge to Ahura Mazda that if they survived, they would consecrate an Atash Behram fire. They fulfilled this pledge in five years. This first fire consecrated in Sanjan by our Parsi forefathers still burns today. It is called the Iran Shah fire and is kept in a temple in Udvada, a small town 100 miles north of Bombay.



ZOROASTRIANS IN IRAN 10TH TO 20TH CENTURY

The tenth century BCE was a period of calm for the Zoroastrians in which they could follow their religion, write religious books and make a calendar change to bring Noruz back to the spring equinox. This was the calm before the storm.

Early in the 11th century the Seljuk Turks swept into Iran killing Moslems and Zoroastrians alike as they conquered Iran. Once established they persecuted the Zoroastrian Iranians like the regimes before them. As if this was not enough the 13th century brought the Mongol invasion of Iran under Chengiz Khan. The Mongols were fierce barbarians, who killed Moslems, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians without discrimination. They destroyed all kinds of books and killed all those who professed learning. It was probably in this holocaust that the last great collection of Zoroastrian books perished. The last of the great fire temples was also destroyed.

Within 50 years of their conquest of Iran the Mongols, themselves were converted to Islam. Islam revived in Iran but for Zoroastrians, persecution continued, now by these new converts to Islam.

For the Zoroastrians, now, the best way to survive was to be as inconspicuous as possible. The high priest of the Zoroastrians moved to an obscure village called Turkabad, near Yazd, in the early 14th century. The fires from the two great temples Adur Faranbagh and Adur Anahid were brought and placed in an obscure mud brick building, in the village of Sharifabad. These two villages became the religious centers for the Zoroastrians. A priest school was maintained there to educate new priests. A pilgrimage to the province of Yazd became an obligation for all Iranian Zoroastrians. Kerman also became a center of Zoroastrianism.

From 1502 to 1747, the Saffavid dynasty came to power in Iran. Shah Abbas the great who ruled from 1587 to 1628, was the most famous king. The Saffavids made Isfahan the capital of Iran. Because of the stability and prosperity brought about by the Saffavids, Zoroastrians came to settle in Isfahan. They worked here as laborers, carpet weavers, gardeners and field hands. There was a large community of Zoroastrians, about 3000 families who lived in a suburb of Isfahan, which was called Gabr-Mahal, Gabristan or Gabrabad. The word Gabr was an insulting term that the Moslems used for Zoroastrians.

Many western travelers visited the court at Isfahan and described the Zoroastrian community in Gabrabad. They described the Zoroastrians as mild, gentle people who lived under the guidance of their elders. The women, unlike the Moslem women wore no veils and talked readily to strangers. Both men and women were modestly dressed but the Zoroastrian men were not allowed to wear clothes which were dyed. They could always be made out by their dress. The western travelers found the Zoroastrians were not willing to talk about their religion and their customs because they did not want the Moslems to learn about them. By now the Zoroastrians had invented a new dialect, which only they could understand, which they called Dari. The Zoroastrians built a psychological wall between themselves and the Moslems in order to survive. Even the sacred fires were now hidden away in the fire temple. A false fire would be kept in the open, so that any marauding Moslem who came to defile the temple would most likely destroy or pollute the false fire. Living in this tyrannical atmosphere, the Zoroastrians still managed to enjoy life as much as possible, celebrating their festivals with merry making.

Though under Shah Abbas the Great, the Zoroastrians were allowed to live near Isfahan and left more or less alone, the later Saffavid kings were not so kind. Shah Abbas II, through them out of Gabrabad, because he wanted to build a place there. The last Saffavid king, Sultan Hossayn decreed that all Zoroastrians in Isfahan should convert to Islam. The Zoroastrians fire temple was destroyed and many Zoroastrians were forced to convert at sword point. Those that refused were killed. A few escaped tom Yazd. Today there are families in Yazd who trace their descent from these refugees from Isfahan. In 1821 a western traveler, Ker Porter, visiting Isfahan described that there were hardly any Zoroastrians in Isfahan and Gabrabad was in ruins.

In 1719 the Afghans rebelled against Iran and invaded it by way of Sistan and Kerman, both Zoroastrian centers. In Kerman, the Zoroastrians were not allowed to live in the walled city. They lived in an area called Gabar Mohalla, outside the fortified city. When the Afghans attacked they first killed all the defenseless Zoroastrian men, women and children in Gabar Mohalla. A few rich and powerful Zoroastrians such as the high priest of Kerman who lived in the city escaped. So many Zoroastrians were killed that there was no way to place them in the Dokhma. The bodies were collected together on the plain and a wall was built around them to create a make-shift Dokhma. This makeshift Dokhma can be seen today some distance from the ruins of Gabar Mohalla, in Kerman.

The Afghans ruled Iran for 7 years and were driven out by the Qajars, a Turkish tribe of northern Iran. The first ruler was Nadir Shah who invaded India and sacked Delhi. Among the loot he brought back was the Peacock Throne of the Mogul kings of India. Nadir Shah was assassinated in 1747. One of his captains Karim Khan Zaid, started the Zaid dynasty. During the rule of Karim Khan, a Parsi, Mulla Kaus, visited Kerman, with the last of the Rivayet questions. He found the Zoroastrians devastated, and still paying the same amount of Jizya tax, they had been paying before, in spite of their far smaller numbers. Mulla Kaus took their case to Karim Khan and obtained relief from the excessive tax.

The Zaid dynasty was overthrown by the Qajar, Aga Mohamed and this dynasty ruled Iran until 1925. Under the early Qajar dynasty the Iranian Zoroastrians saw the worst time of their existence. They were not allowed to ride horses or to tie their turbans neatly or to wear socks! Often they were threatened, beaten and robbed and their religious books destroyed.

The news of their plight reached the Parsis who by this time had become quite prosperous. Parsi funds were set up to help the Iranian Zoroastrians. A Parsi, Manekji Hataria, was sent to help them. He found only 7000 Zoroastrians in Kerman, Yazd and Tehran (now the capital of Iran). Using his influence with the British government he managed to get some of the repression against Zoroastrians removed. He also founded western style schools for Zoroastrians.

As soon as the Zoroastrians got some freedom from oppression, their innate ability to work hard and intelligently, expressed itself. Some Zoroastrians became quite prosperous, helped by the fact that they were the only community in Iran to get a western education, at the beginning of the 20th century. Jamshid Bahman started the first bank in Iran and became a very influential man in Iran. He led the movement for constitutional reform. A parliament was set up in 1906 and he was one of its first members. In 1909 when it was decided that each minority send one representative to the Iranian parliament (Majlis), Kaykhosrow Shahrokh became the first Zoroastrian representative. In 1925 the Majlis deposed the last Qajar ruler and placed Reza Shah Pahlevi on the throne. Reza Shah set out to modernize Iran. Iranian Zoroastrians who were already educated in the western style, started to play important roles in his government. Reza Shah introduced a new Solar calendar, getting rid of the Islamic calendar. It was essentially the Zoroastrian calendar, with dates 1 to 30 instead of the names of the days. The months had the same Zoroastrian names.

A movement of Zoroastrians from Yazd and Kerman to Tehran took place. While the community prospered financially, it failed to keep up some of the institutions that existed in Yazd and Kerman. The priestly schools were not maintained. The number of priests decreased rapidly so that the community had to depend on priests from India or Iranian Zoroastrian priests trained in India.

Under Reza Shah Pahlevi and his son Mohamed Reza Pahlevi, the Zoroastrians were again able to play useful roles in Iranian society. They became prosperous business men such as Arbab Rostom Guiv and Meherban Zarthoshti. Zoroastrians became doctors, engineers and served in the Iranian armed forces earning the respect of non-Zoroastrian Iranians. Dr. Farang Mehr served the last Shah as a deputy prime-minister.

The Islamic revolution in 1979, set the Zoroastrians back some what and led to a migration of Zoroastrians from Iran to the countries of the West.