Zoroastrianism (part 1 of 2): Fire Worshipers or Monotheists?
Zoroastrianism is defined by the Merriam Webster online dictionary as a Persian religion founded in the sixth century B.C.E. by the prophet Zoroaster, promulgated in the Avesta, and characterized by worship of a supreme god, Ahura Mazda, who requires good deeds for help in his cosmic struggle against the evil spirit Ahriman. This is a rather limited definition that actually tells us very little about Zoroastrianism or Zoroaster (also known as Zarathustra). Let us take a journey into the religion of Zoroastrianism and find out just what it is all about and how it compares to the religion of Islam.
From approximately 6th century B.C.E until the 7th century CE Zoroastrianism was the religion of the Persian Empire, however today their numbers are believed to be fewer than 200,000. Most Zoroastrians live in and around the city of Mumbai, India, after a miss migration in the 10th century C.E. The number of Zoroastrians in present day Iran (previously part of the Persian Empire) is believed to be as few as 18,000, most living in Tehran, Yazd and Kernan.
The number of Zoroastrians (Parsees) in India is declining at about 10% per decade. The Canadian web site Religious Tolerance believes this is due to Zoroastrian mobility and adaptability. “They assimilate and intermarry, virtually disappearing into their adopted cultures. And since the faith encourages opportunities for women, many Zoroastrian women are working professionals who, like many other professional women, have few children or none.”
Thus,one of the world’s oldest religions is rapidly becoming one of the world’s smallest and relatively unknown religions. It is believed that Zoroastrianism is conceptually and historically associated with the other predominantly Indian religions, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism. In approximately 225 C.E. the Sasanian Persian Empire unified Zoroastrianism and established rules about what the religion was and was not. A high priest was given authority exceeded only by the Emperor himself and Zoroastrianism was made the state religion. At this time conversions were made to counteract Christian missionary zeal in the area. This in itself suggests that Zoroastrianism was a universal religion not limited to one ethnic group.
Who was Zoroaster?
Zoroaster is also known as Zarathustra, from the Greek word meaning shining light. Academics differ about when he is believed to have been born. Estimates range from 6350 BCE to 600 BCE, there is also significant disagreement as to his birth place. Suggestions are as diverse as, eastern Iran, Azerbaijan (south of the Caspian Sea), Balkh (the capital of Bactria, in present day Afghanistan), Chorasmia and Sogdia in Tajikistan, or near the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan.
Zoroaster was born within the borders of the Persian Empire, his family name was Spitama. He is said to have received a vision from Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord, who appointed him to preach the truth. Consequently he preached a message of cosmic strife between Ahura Mazda, the God of Light, and Ahriman, the principle of evil. Zoroaster taught that humankind has the power to choose between good and evil; that the end of the world will come when the forces of light triumph, and that the saved souls will rejoice in their victory.
What do Zoroastrian’s believe?
Zoroaster preached that there is only One God. He is, according to Zoroaster’s teachings, the creator of heaven and earth. He is the source of the alternation of light and darkness, the sovereign lawgiver, and the originator of the moral order and judge of the entire world. This is believed to be the first move away from the polytheism of the Indian religions and there is no mention of reincarnation or the transmigration of souls. Zoroastrianism is thought to be one of the oldest forms of monotheism known to humankind; however there is an aspect of dualism unlike the pure monotheism of Islam.
The dualism of Zoroastrianism is both cosmic and moral. There is the ongoing spiritual battle between good and evil, Ahura mazda vs. Arihman, and the mind’s moral battle between righteous and sinful behaviours. Zoroastrianism views the world as having been created by Ahura Mazda but meant to evolve according to the divine law or plan, known as Asha. Asha is the principle of righteousness or “rightness” by which all things are exactly as they should be.
In their most basic prayer, repeated every day, Zoroastrians affirm this law of Asha. Via the law of Asha, Zoroastrians are guided by three main principles: Humata – Good thoughts, the intention or moral resolution to abide by Asha, the right order of things. Hukhata – Good words, the communication of that intention. Havarashta – Good deeds, the realization in action of that intention.
Zoroastrians believe in an afterlife , they believe the human soul is judged by God, (Ahura Mazda) and that those who chose good in this earthly life will go to the best existence while those who chose evil would go to the worst existence – heaven or hell. Zoroastrianism is believed by some to be one of the first religions to give the afterlife a moral dimension.
Contrary to popular belief Zoroastrians are not fire worshippers; fire however does play a symbolic central role in religious ceremonies. It is the symbol of Ahura Mazda, along with the sun, stars and light and is also a physical representation of an illuminated mind. Zoroastrian’s worship in places known as fire temples and it is there that an eternal flame is kept burning with sandalwood and frankincense oils.
The Zoroastrian scriptures are called the Avesta, and they are written in an ancient language Avestan, that is closely related to the Sanskrit of the Hindu ancient Vedic hymns. The commentaries are written in several languages and the composition of the entire body of scripture spans vast periods of time.
So far we can see that Zoroastrianism embraces some of the monotheism of Islam, the dualism of Christianity, and that the Zoroastrian concept of heaven and hell has moral elements in common with Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In part 2 we will discuss whether or not Zoroastrians, are the Magian’s mentioned in Quran; do they, because of their symbolic use of the sun and stars have any links to the Sabian’s or the religion of Prophet Abraham’s ancestors. We will also look more closely at whether or not Islamic concepts are inherent in Zoroastrianism and ask the question, did noted Islamic scholar and Quran commentator At-Tabari mention the Zoroastrian’s as People of the Book?