Before Christianity, Judaism and Islam, There Was Zoroastrianism

By: Dave Roos  | 

Fire Temple
A symbol of Zoroastrianism is displayed at the Fire Temple, Yazd, Iran. Thomas Schulze/picture alliance via Getty Images

Zoroastrianism is the world's oldest surviving monotheistic religion and, many scholars think, the original source of religious conceptions of heaven, hell, Satan and Judgment Day in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Yet many people outside of Iran or India have never even heard of Zoroastrianism or think it's an ancient faith that died out with the arrival of these better-known religions.

Today, there are fewer than 140,000 Zoroastrians worldwide, but Zoroastrianism is very much a living religion. Its adherents worship a single, all-powerful and unknowable God called Ahura Mazda, the source of all creation and all goodness in the universe. But there is also opposition, a powerful force of evil that is the source of all lies and death. The purpose of life, according to Zoroastrianism, is to actively choose the good in thought, word and deed.

With an open mind, seek and listen to all the highest ideals. Consider the most enlightened thoughts. Then choose your path, person by person, each for oneself.
— Zarathushtra

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Who Was Zarathushtra?

The founder of Zoroastrianism is a mysterious prophetic figure known as Zarathushtra (or Zoroaster in Greek). Very little is known about Zarathushtra outside of the Zoroastrian scriptures, the earliest of which are believed to have been written by the man himself. Scholars of Zoroastrianism have struggled to pin down the century or even the millennium in which he may have lived.

"The closest thing to a scholarly consensus about the time when Zarathushtra lived is the late second millennium (1,000 to 2,000) B.C.E.," says Benedikt Peschl, a doctoral student in Indo-Iranian languages and Zoroastrianism at SOAS University of London. "He would have lived somewhere in Central Asia near modern-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan."

In the Gathas, a collection of ancient hymns composed by Zarathushtra, the prophet broke with the existing polytheistic religions of Central Asia and established the single divine authority of Ahura Mazda. In those early Zoroastrian texts, Zarathushtra received answers through prayer and inspiration, while later writings described colorful tales of Zarathushtra ascending to heaven to speak directly with God.

Faiza Fouad, Zoroastrian
Iraqi Kurdish woman Faiza Fouad, who embraced Zoroastrianism, takes part in a ceremony in an ancient, ruined temple of the Zoroastrian religion. Years of violence by the Islamic State jihadist group have left many disillusioned with Islam, while a long history of state oppression has pushed some in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region to see the millennia-old religion as a way of reasserting their identity.
SAFIN HAMED/AFP via Getty Images

K. E. Eduljee is a lifelong Zoroastrian living in Vancouver, British Columbia, and author of the impressive Zoroastrian Heritage website. When Eduljee gives presentations about Zoroastrianism, he simply describes Zarathushtra as "the founder of the faith."

"Zarathushtra was just a human being, not God manifested as human," says Eduljee. "He was a wise soul."

Outside of Zoroastrianism, the name Zarathushtra is best known from Friedrich Nietzsche's novel "Thus Spake Zarathustra" (using an alternate spelling), in which the existential German philosopher put his own words and thoughts in the mouth of the ancient prophet. Inspired by Nietzsche, the 19th-century composer Richard Strauss wrote the epic piece of orchestral music also called "Thus SpakeZarathustra" later featured in the wild opening scene of "2001: A Space Odyssey."

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What Zoroastrians Believe: Monotheism and Dualism

Central to the Zoroastrian belief system is the idea that Ahura Mazda, the supreme being of goodness and light, is opposed by Angra Mainyu, a powerful (but not equally powerful) spirit of darkness and evil. The embodiment of this evil spirit is Ahriman, the equivalent of Satan or the Devil.

To Zoroastrians, all of reality is shaped by these dueling forces of light and dark, and every human being is free to choose their own path. The most righteous path is described by the "Zoroastrian Creed," which reads, "On three noble ideals be ever intent: The good thought well thought. The good word well spoken. The good deed well done."

Eduljee says that Zoroastrianism emphasizes action over belief. There's an ethical imperative to lead a good life and treat others with kindness rather than a theological imperative to profess a certain set of beliefs. And it's the actions you take in life, both good and bad, that determine your fate in the afterlife.

"Every single thought, word and deed is written on your soul," says Eduljee. "It's an ancient concept of karma. If you've given out pain and suffering to others, you're going to receive that for all eternity and there's no way of getting around it."

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Zoroastrianism's Influence on Judaism and Christianity

Zoroastrianism flourished in the ancient world and had a strong influence on Jewish thinkers and writers. Peschl says that after the Babylonian exile, when the Jews were temporarily expelled from Palestine, many chose to remain in Babylonian Empire, where they exchanged religious ideas with Zoroastrians.

Later, during a time known as the "intertestamental period" (the period between the dates covered in the Old and New Testaments in the Bible, roughly the third and second centuries B.C.E.), Zoroastrian-style dualism showed up in apocryphal Jewish literature.

"That's the period when certain elements of Zoroastrianism entered into Judaism," says Peschl, "including the increased importance of the Devil figure and the idea of a Final Judgment."

In Zoroastrianism, the soul departs the body four days after death, at which point it crosses the Chinvat Bridge or Bridge of Judgment. Good souls are greeted by a beautiful maiden and ushered into heaven, while evil souls are captured by an old hag and dragged down to hell. Our word "paradise" is derived from the Old Iranian word pairi-daeza, which roughly translates to "celestial garden."

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Zoroastrian Holidays, Rituals and Symbols

The traditional Zoroastrian calendar allots 30 days to each month with an extra five or six days tacked on at the end of the year to make up the difference. Every month starts with the first day of the first week and Zoroastrian holidays fall on the same dates every year.

One of the biggest and most widely celebrated Zoroastrian holidays is Nowruz, the New Year's festival held on the first day of spring. (It's celebrated by people of Iranian descent, even if they belong to other faiths beside Zoroastrianism.) Eduljee says that growing up, the preparation for Nowruz started a month before New Year with a good spring cleaning.

Nowruz
Syrian Kurdish women dance together traditional "dabke" dances in a meadow as they celebrate the spring holiday of Nowruz. The Persian New Year is an ancient Zoroastrian tradition celebrated by Iranians and Kurds that coincides with the vernal (spring) equinox.
DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

"The whole concept is that you're starting life afresh, cleaning the soul and cleaning the house," says Eduljee. "If there are old quarrels, you're supposed to settle them."

During Nowruz, every house lays out a festive spread complete with fruit, sweets and long-stemmed white flowers called tuberoses. Then gifts are exchanged, especially new clothes for the New Year.

While Zoroastrians don't have "churches" with regularly scheduled times for worship, larger communities support one or more temples in which Zoroastrian priests or "magi" conduct ritual prayers in the ancient Avestan language during special days of the year. Otherwise, members pray individually.

Fire is the most sacred element to Zoroastrians and figures prominently in temple rituals like the Yasna. An eternal flame is kept alight in Zoroastrian temples 24 hours a day. According to the Shahnameh or "Book of Kings," one of Zarathushtra's first teachings was about the transformative power of fire.

Other sacred elements include water, air and earth. For this reason, Zoroastrians traditionally buried their dead in special towers (later called "Towers of Silence") where the corpses would be left to be eaten by birds of prey — that way not polluting the air, earth, fire or water. The bones would be bleached by the sun and then placed in a pit. Currently this is only practiced in India, as in most parts of the world this would be illegal or considered inappropriate. Modern Zoroastrians may bury their dead in graves protected by concrete or stone.

Tower of Silence
A woman dressed in white walks through a village at the foot of a hill with a Tower of Silence near Yazd, Iran on Sept. 18, 2018.
Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The most visible symbol of Zoroastrianism is the Farohar or Faravahar, what looks like a large winged eagle with the body and head of a bearded man. This image is famously carved into the ruins at Persepolis, the ancient capital of the Zoroastrian Achaemenid Empire in Iran, and now graces Zoroastrian temples and gravesites.

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The Rise, Fall and Future of Zoroastrianism

Peschl says that Zoroastrianism reached the peak of its power and political influence during the Sasanian Dynasty (224-651 C.E.) of Iran, the last Zoroastrian empire to rule Iran before the arrival of Islam. The Sasanians ruled from the Black Sea in the West down through the Persian Gulf and all the way East into India.

"Zoroastrianism lost its political power within a very short period as a consequence of the Arab conquest of Iran in the seventh century," says Peschl. "Right from the beginning, there was a strong incentive for Zoroastrians in Iran to convert to Islam."

Those who didn't convert faced terrible persecution in Iran, says Eduljee, which is why many Zoroastrians chose to migrate to India starting over 1,300 years ago. In India, Zoroastrians became known as Parsees, a word derived from the same root as Persians. Eduljee himself was born in India to a Parsee father and a mother whose great-grandparents migrated from Iran to India more recently.

The Parsee community in India still boasts the largest concentration of Zoroastrians in the world. An estimated 60,000 to 70,000 Parsees live in India, mostly in upper-class enclaves around Mumbai, although their numbers are shrinking. Traditionally, Zoroastrians have not converted people to their faith. However, recently, they have begun to accept those who choose to become Zoroastrians through their own choice. Low birth rates are, however, taking a toll.

Eduljee, whose Vancouver Zoroastrian community is about 1,000 people strong, admits that he's "very concerned" about the future of Zoroastrianism, although he believes "we might just survive."

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