How did the Iranians lose Zoroastrianism

The Zoroastrian communities in Iran and their current situation

Current situation of the Zoroastrian communities in Iran

Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest religions in our history, has undergone many drastic changes. In the course of its early history it spread over the whole of Central Asia, only to almost completely disappear again in the course of the Islamic expansion. Some communities around the world have been able to hold up and are still subject to demographic fluctuations. Estimates range from 120,000 to a maximum of 190,000 believers.1 But how exactly is it in post-revolutionary Iran, its old and new homeland? What is your current situation like?

1 Modern Zoroastrianism - Changing Demography

Zoroastrianism as a religion is inextricably linked with the region of today's Iran. As a religion, it became the state religion in Sassanid Persia (224-651). From here the religion of Zoroaster spread throughout Central Asia along the Silk Road to western China. The heyday of the cult ended with the conquest of the Sassanid Empire between 635 and 651 by the Muslims, and today we only know of a few Zoroastrian communities that have survived to this day. Under Muslim rule, the surviving communities shrank so much that many sought their hope in exile.

From the 18th century onwards, large parts of the Zoroastrian population migrated to other countries, including India and from there to Arabia, Africa and southern China, where small communities flourished but disappeared over time. Other small, still lively communities in England and Germany emerged in the course of colonization from the 19th century. Even in North America, an estimated 10,000 followers of Zoroastrianism have lived since the 1960s. The largest still existing community of the so-called “Parsi” has existed in India since then, with the majority of the Zoroastrian population being concentrated in the metropolis of Mumbai. However, according to more recent findings, these numbers are also declining; current estimates from 2011 amount to 70,000 believers in India.2

International organizations such as the London-based “World Zoroastrian Organization” (WZO) and the “World Alliance of Parsi and Irani Zartoshtis” (WAPIZ) ensure an international network that ensures constant contact and lively communicative exchange between Communities, families and individuals strive. Due to time constraints, however, the essay will concentrate on the original homeland of Zoroastrianism and thus consider today's Iran, since a consideration of the Indian Parsi would go beyond the scope here.

2. The most important Zoroastrian communities in Iran today

In contrast to the communities in India, which flourished and prospered in their new cultural environment, the communities remaining in Iran went through times of severe discrimination under the Muslim domination. Although Shiite Islam in Iran has a much more “persistent” orientation (similarities between Shiite Islam and Zoroastrianism are more pronounced than between Zoroastrianism and Sunniism), it has even assimilated Zoroastrian cultural assets (e.g. the non-Islamic Nourus festival, which today is a fixed cultural component in Shiite Islam around the world and is celebrated with minor deviations by Zoroastrians and Shiites alike)3, for centuries the climate between Islam and Zoroastrianism in his homeland remained icy, sometimes openly hostile. Nevertheless, some municipalities were able to hold their own in the long term, and have even gained in importance through immigration in recent decades. Special attention is paid to the centers in Tehran, Yazd and Kerman. However, there are also diaspora communities in Shiras, Isfahan, Zahedan, Ahwaz and Karaj.

2.1 Tehran

At the end of the 19th century, Yazd was still the cultural center of Zoro-astrism, but the situation has changed steadily since then. The emigration of many (not only Zoroastrian) families to Tehran in the 1940s to 1960s was primarily economically justified, as many villages had lost the ability to support themselves economically over the years, but urbanization increased under Reza Shah Palavi at the same time. While the majority of the Zoroastrians lived in the city in Tehran, the majority in Yazd belonged to the rural population. Since then, the Zoroastrian community has seen a steady trend towards the rural areas being increasingly abandoned. The importance of the places of worship remained, however.

In terms of infrastructure, Tehran has been well positioned since the 1950s. The city currently has four Zoroastrian schools, which are allowed to teach Zoroastrian beliefs separately according to sex, provided that Muslim content is taught to the same extent. Also in 1958 there were reports of two fire temples, a kindergarten, a meeting house and other administrative institutions.4 Likewise, in the 1960s, Tehran gave the impulse to address the conversion of non-Zoroastrians and ultimately to allow it.

The community of Tehran is currently facing the challenge of building a motorway through its cemetery.5 Elsewhere, too, the cultural heritage of the Zoroastrians seems to have to give way more and more to progress.

2.2 Yazd

The city, which is considered to be the birthplace of the oldest Iranian religion, has now lost its status. Of the more than 430,000 people who live there today, only a few are Zoroastrians. Estimates are at a generous 8,0006 People up to an alarming 2007. The funeral towers have not been in use for decades and remain a monumental tourist attraction.

Zoroastrians who want to be buried according to the traditional rites have to be transported to India by testamentary order, where the last still active "Tower of Silence" is operated near Mumbai.8 However, the importance of the places of worship that are still in use remains unbroken. Zoroastrians from all over the world visit them for traditional festivals and holidays. Yazd has several denominational kindergartens and a Zoroastrian elementary school.


1 Deena Guzder (2008): "Postcard From Yazd: The Last Of The Zoroastrians", Time Magazine Online

2 Michael Stausberg (2011): "Zarathustra And His Religion", 2nd edition, Nördlingen, Verlag C. H. Beck, pp. 9-11

3 Reservoir, "The religion of Zoroaster", Pp. 509-525

4 Reservoir, "The religion of Zoroaster", P. 249

5 Jamsheed K. Choksy (2011): "How Iran persecutes its oldest religion", CNN Online

6 Reservoir, "The religion of Zoroaster", P. 241

7 Deena Guzder: "Postcard From Yazd: The Last Of The Zoroastrians"

8 Ibid.

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