The Islamic World to 1600


Zoroastrianism Title


Fire Temple
An early 19th century engraving of a fire temple near Baku, Azerbaijan
Courtesy of Virtual Ani

Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest religions still practiced today. It developed in Persia around the same time as Judaism in Syria, and only an early form of Hinduism is older than Zoroastrianism and Judaism. The religion's name is based on that of Zoroaster, also called Zarathustra, a prophet who lived sometime between 1500 and 1000 BCE. It is difficult to date the exact time of Zoroaster's life because of poor records, but historians and religious scholars have placed him in this time period because of his style of writing. Zoroastrianism is based on the belief in a universal struggle between good and evil, a dichotomy religious scholars call "dualism." Good is represented by the all-powerful deity, Ahura Mazda, or "Wise Lord," while evil is represented by a devil-figure named Ahriman, or "Destructive Spirit." In ancient times, settled people believed that they represented good, while nomads represented evil. Good was destined to triumph over evil, according to the Zoroastrian holy book, the Avesta, which would result in the forces of good being rewarded with eternal paradise, and the forces of evil being condemned to hell. The religious sentiment thus expressed against nomadism in Persia - Zoroastrianism's home - may account for the long tradition of settlement and empire-building there. Zoroastrians also believe that a Saoshyant (Saviour) will be sent to earth by Ahura Mazda to raise the dead and conduct a final judgement. Many religions that followed Zoroastrianism also adopted this idea. The Zoroastrian place of worship is a fire temple, where fires burn during the worship of Ahura Mazda. Fire itself is not worshipped by the religion; it is simply a symbol of worship.

Zoroastrianism became the state religion of Persia in 226 CE, when Ardashir I overthrew the Parthian dynasty and founded the Sassanid Empire. Throughout the Sassanid Empire's 400-year history, Zoroastrianism remained the official religion, and it also developed a distinctly Persian character. The religion was so closely integrated with the Persian identity that very few non-Persians adhered to it, while it was so intertwined with the Sassanid state that the religious bureaucracy collapsed along with the Sassanid Empire in the mid-7th century.

The collapse of the Empire at that time came at the hands of invading Muslims from the Arabian Peninsula. Over several centuries, Islam began to gain converts in Persia, and under the Abbasid dynasty in the 8th century it eclipsed Zoroastrianism to become the state religion of Persia. Most Zoroastrians who did not convert to Islam fled to India, which still has the largest concentration of Zoroastrians - now known as Parsis - today. The religion also survives today in small populations in Iran and Afghanistan.