In Persia and the greater Central Asian region, two religions once fought for dominance. In the end, Zoroastrianism—which still enjoys adherents to this day—was forced to give way to the more powerful Islam. While at first some Muslims found ways to incorporate Zoroastrians into the empire of Islamic law, they subsequently had been less accommodating.
In this interview, Andrew D. Magnusson describes the interaction between Zoroastrianism and Islam and notes its flexibility. He also discusses how Zoroastrianism, which originally came from Central Asia, coexists with Islam in the Islamic Republic of Iran today and how it has influenced other religions.
Andrew D. Magnusson
Andrew D. Magnusson, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern history in the Department of History & Geography at the University of Central Oklahoma. Before coming to UCO, he taught at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. Magnusson earned a Ph.D. in Islamic history at the University of California in Santa Barbara.
In your book Zoroastrians in Early Islamic History: Accommodation and Memory, you examine the historical inclusion and exclusion of Zoroastrians in Islamic society. What were the differences and/or similarities between the Zoroastrians and the ancient Muslims? Who were Zoroastrians really, according to your findings, and why have they had such a lasting legacy?
Zoroastrianism is a modern umbrella term for a group of religious beliefs that center around recognition of a prophet known as Zoroaster (Ζωροάστηρ) in Greek, or Zarathustra in Persian. This is a prophet who lived in Central Asia, probably near Balkh, what is today Mazār-e Sharīf in Afghanistan. Maybe as early as 1800 BCE, or as recently as 1200 BC — it’s a little bit difficult to determine Zoroaster’s time period. But in any case, Zoroaster was an Indo-European priest who taught people to worship Ahura Mazda. Central Asians at that time recognized a wide variety of angelic figures and demonic figures. But Zoroaster brought this message that Ahura Mazda was the one to focus on; he also taught that Ahura Mazda was engaged in a struggle with Ahriman, who was this force of darkness and the personification of evil. People who worshiped Ahura Mazda could engage in this struggle: they could weaken Ahriman by practicing purity in their lives. This was purity not only in the physical sense of washings and things like that, but also in the sense of moral behavior that conformed to the teachings of Ahura Mazda. This purity could be maintained by connecting with the priestly class—Zoroaster being a member of this priestly class, known as the Magi—who would perform rituals or liturgies. These liturgies were often hymns; they were later collected and now form a book that is today known as the Avesta. The Avesta is kind of the Zoroastrian book of scripture, if you will, although other books, commentaries, etc., have been added since then.
Zoroastrians built places of worship for the Magi for these ritual ceremonies. These were called “fire temples” in English. I would say Zoroastrianism really became established when, in the third century CE, the Sasanian Persian Empire made Zoroastrianism its official religion. Before that, it had perhaps been the official religion of various emperors, Persian and otherwise. But when it became the official state religion, that’s when Zoroastrianism began to spread, and we know that it had great influence from what is today Turkey to maybe as far as China—certainly in the Middle East, from places like Armenia all the way to Yemen. So it’s one of the great world religions and one of the most significant in the history of the world, but it’s not very well known today, in part because the number of Zoroastrians has declined significantly over the years. The reason for this decline is actually one of the mysteries that got me interested in this research.
We know that in antiquity Zoroastrianism is very influential and by modern periods there were relatively few Zoroastrians, so what happened in the middle? This is what my research looks at. There are so many stereotypes or assumptions about what happened to Zoroastrians in this middle period, and my research really tries to plug some of those holes with actual facts from the sources.
One of the interesting issues that comes up in the study of Zoroastrianism is to what extent Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic religion—that is, believes in one God—or a dualistic religion—that is, believes in two gods, because there are Ahura Mazda and Ahriman, of course. So one of the fun and difficult parts of studying Zoroastrianism is simply classifying it: Is it monotheistic, dualistic, or polytheistic? I would say most Zoroastrians today consider themselves monotheistic, which I think is an important thing to note.
Islam obviously started in the seventh century with the Prophet Mohammed in Arabia, who preached the idea that God is one—which is similar, in a sense, to Zoroaster’s message about Ahura Mazda being the singular deity to worship. The Prophet Mohammed provided a series of Arabic-language revelations or recitations that were later gathered into a book called the Quran. This message that Mohammed brought spread very quickly from Medina, where he was initially based and established his political power, to conquer Mecca, which was his hometown, where he had not originally been successful in spreading his message. Ultimately, Mohammed became the political leader of most of Arabia. But after his death, Muslims struggled about what to do next.
Mohamed was generally recognized to be the last prophet, and so after his death there was some question about the status of his political power. That tended to devolve to a Caliph—a successor to Mohamed. Then those Caliphs ended up spreading Islam all the way across North Africa into Central Asia. So looking at some of the similarities and differences between Zoroastrianism and Islam, there’s an emphasis on prophets. Although Muslims recognize Mohamed as the last prophet, they would not necessarily recognize Zoroaster as a prophet. There are different scriptural traditions: Muslims generally recognize Jewish people and Christian people as having legitimate books of scripture, whereas Zoroastrians have a book called the Avesta that is not always recognized by Muslims as legitimate scripture. So there are many similarities between Islam and Zoroastrianism, but not all of them are recognized as similarities. In fact, ironically, they are often emphasized as differences.
If you look at early Islamic history, Muslims were not the majority in the Middle East or anywhere for a very long time. So early on, I think there was much more of a sense of connection with other religions—for instance, Islam got its start in Arabia, where there were a lot of Jewish people and so there were some interactions. There were also some tensions and some problems there, admittedly. The same with Christianity: I think that Islam initially differed from Christianity, for instance, in saying that Jesus is not divine, but there was also a lot of praise for Christians in the Quran, in Mohamed’s life, and so on. So I think some of the tensions and some of the ideas that Muslims are different from all other believers may in fact represent modern understandings of Islam, or even just later understandings, but not this early period. This early period, I would say, is much more ecumenical in the sense that there is a shared connection between these groups that is generally recognized.
You write that some Muslims considered Zoroastrians pagans and sought to limit interaction with them, while others found ways to incorporate them into the empire of Islamic law. How did the final acceptance of the Zoroastrians happen, and why, according to Arab historians, is there no shared history between Zoroastrians and Muslims?
That’s a really great question. That’s the question that really motivated this history. And I think the title of the book gives you some insight into how I approached this question.
The title of the book is Zoroastrians in Early Islamic History: Accommodation and Memory. So I’m really looking at the encounter between these two peoples through two lenses: accommodation and memory.
Accommodation is the idea that powerful groups in society would give special privileges or exemptions to groups that were not normative—that didn’t fit the mold. I think Zoroastrianism fits this description because Muslims, as I said earlier, struggled to classify Zoroastrianism. Where did it fit? Were these people like Jews and Christians? Were they different? You might be familiar with the idea of “people of the book” —this is a Qur’anic term that generally refers to Jews and Christians, who read the Bible. Could Zoroastrians be “people of the book”? Well, they had a book, the Avesta, but that book wasn’t in the Bible. So Muslims struggled with that idea. The Quran says that “people of the book” are people that Muslims can interact with, can socialize with, can tax, and can marry. Could they do those things with Zoroastrians? That was the question that really perplexed a lot of early Muslims. So this is what I was studying as I was reading Quran commentaries and taxation manuals and judicial rulings.
I was looking for answers to this question: Can they interact? Can Zoroastrians be accommodated? And the answer that I found was “yes.” Muslims generally agreed that they could tax Zoroastrians, that Zoroastrians could exist in their empire and live side by side with them. But at the same time, Muslims generally agreed that they would not recognize Zoroastrians as “people of the book.”
So this is where the idea of accommodation comes in. Muslims decide to allow these people to integrate in their society, but at the same time do not recognize them as one of the acceptable classes theologically. And that, to me, beautifully describes accommodation. To accommodate means to extend a special privilege or exemption to a group in order to benefit from their useful endeavors.
So Zoroastrians could usefully pay taxes, which would help the Muslim empire thrive, but Muslims didn’t have to recognize them as “people of the book.” So that is the first way that I studied Zoroastrians and the Muslim encounter: through the idea of accommodation. Muslims are willing to be flexible in allowing these people in, but they’re not willing to compromise their standards.
The second way that I chose to look at this issue was through memory. Because even though there was this idea of flexibility in early Islamic history—recognizing Zoroastrians in some ways, but not in others—Muslim sources later remembered things very differently. As I read sources like local Persian histories, they didn’t talk about accommodation and flexibility when they described what happened; they said Islam arrived in Persia in the seventh century and destroyed all the religions that came before. And so those sources have a very harsh memory of this history. In the Central Asian context, for instance, we’re talking about Ta’rikhi Bukhara (“History of Bukhara,” by Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Ja’far al-Narshaxi), which says something along the lines of “Qutayba ibn Muslim came in—he was the first conqueror that came in—and he destroyed all the fire temples and built mosques on top of them, and then Muslims were in charge.” So those early sources talk about flexibility and accommodation and the later sources talk about inflexibility and conquest and domination.
And so what I try to do in the book is show that this Muslim-Zoroastrian encounter has different shades to it, and has different parts, depending on which sources you read. There are accounts that emphasize flexibility—I think those are the earlier sources—and there are accounts that emphasize domination—those are the later ones that are projecting memories into the past.
After the Arab conquest of Sasanid Iran, many Zoroastrians eventually converted to Islam. Under what conditions did ancient Zoroastrians live under Islamic rule? How severe were the restrictions on and the persecution of Zoroastrians? How did they manage to maintain their traditions, like the Nowruz celebration, which is probably the strongest Zoroastrian tradition that is still alive today?
As I mentioned earlier, I see in a lot of Islamic sources an accommodation of Zoroastrians. But accommodation has limits. There were areas in which Muslims were not willing to be flexible or compromise with Zoroastrians: Muslims allowed Zoroastrians to live in the caliphates, but never recognized them as “people of the book.” So what was the consequence of not recognizing them as “people of the book”?
The Quran says that Muslims can marry “people of the book.” The Quran says that Muslims can eat food, particularly meat, prepared by “people of the book.” But if Zoroastrians were never recognized as “people of the book,” then theoretically Muslims should not marry them and should not eat food, particularly meat, prepared by them. And so when you’re asking about what life was like for Zoroastrians under Muslim rule, there were lots of restrictions. In some cases, Zoroastrians suffered the same restrictions that all non-Muslims did: they had to pay an extra tax called Jizyah, they often had to dress differently than Muslims, they sometimes couldn’t build new houses of worship or other things. But Zoroastrians, because they were not “people of the book,” also had additional restrictions on them—that is Muslims could not marry them and could not eat their meat. And this has been well documented. One of the questions that I ask in the book, then, is: How effective were these restrictions?
Because it’s one thing to say, the law said something, but it’s another thing to say, what did people actually do? And so I started looking at some of the most common restrictions on Zoroastrianism. And if you dig a little bit deeper than just reading the laws, we find ways that Zoroastrians were not following those rules and that Muslims were not following them. This gets into the shared history that they have together. For instance, I mentioned that Muslims were not supposed to eat meat prepared by Zoroastrians. Interestingly, there are many Hadiths—these are statements attributed to the Prophet Mohammed—that permit Muslims to eat cheese made by Zoroastrians. Now cheese and meat are different things, but in the past, the way that people made cheese was they would slaughter an animal—let’s say a cow—that had milk curdling inside it, and then use that curdled milk to make cheese. And so meat and cheese are very similar objects in Muslim conceptions of food laws. So there were all these rules or statements attributed to Mohamed that said, well, it’s okay to eat Zoroastrians’ cheese. Michael Cook at Princeton University has found that these statements were often promoted by Muslim lawyers in places like Kufa, Iraq. Iraq was one of the places that had a large Zoroastrian population in antiquity. And so Michael Cook proposes, and I extend, the idea that Zoroastrians and Muslims interacted in the markets: they bought each other’s food and goods. And so Islamic law became flexible enough to include those goods, like cheese.
There is one more example that I deal with in the book because I don’t want to give the sense that life was just rosy for Zoroastrians under Islamic rule. Obviously, there were restrictions and some of those restrictions were enforced—and they were harsh at times.
One of the ways we know this is because I found a document called the Ahdnameh. It is a document that the Prophet Mohamed supposedly gave to Salmān al-Fārisī. Salmān al-Fārisī was one of the Prophet’s earliest companions. He was Persian, as his name implies, and some sources tell us he converted from Zoroastrianism to Islam.
And so we have this document that Mohammed supposedly gave to Salmān al-Fārisī. This document is not authentic, so let me be clear about that. But it is important as a historical record to see what it says about ways that Muslims and Zoroastrians imagined their encounter with each other. This document supposedly given by the Prophet Mohamed says that Zoroastrians have freedom from many stipulations in Islamic law.
So for instance, this document Ahdnameh says that Zoroastrians do not have to pay Jizyah—the extra tax. This document says that Salman’s family, for instance, can control their fire temples and that Muslims should not go near their fire temples. This document says that Salman’s family doesn’t have to dress differently than Muslims.
And so a lot of the rules in Islamic law that were there to separate Muslims and Zoroastrians actually, in this document, were flouted. But again, just because we have this document doesn’t mean it was followed. So I’ve been able to study the history of this document and how it got passed down from generation to generation, and I have found that Muslims were very interested in this document. They consistently copied and transmitted this document all the way to the modern period. In fact, Muslims brought this document to India, where there was a small group of Zoroastrians living called Parsis, and Parsis copied this document, and that’s when this document became very famous among Zoroastrians.
So again, on this question of what restrictions did Zoroastrians live with under Islamic law, we have lots of rules, lots of laws, but we always have to ask to what extent they were followed. Because we have documents like Ahdnameh that say some Zoroastrians get exemptions. And then we have other things, like Zoroastrian cheese, that show that Muslims were keen to flout their own restrictions. And so we always have to ask to what extent these rules were enforced.
So how did they manage to maintain traditions like Nowruz?
I think that you’re right to identify Nowruz with Zoroastrianism. It was certainly a practice in the Sasanian Empire—probably earlier, probably as far back as we have Persian history. Nowruz is a celebration of the vernal equinox. It’s very much tied to agricultural cycles, to the position of the sun, which influences those cycles.
So we have Nowruz documented well before the Islamic period. Yet you are right to note that it is very popular as a holiday today in Iran and Central Asia—really, in any place influenced by Persian culture. So I think this again shows that one way that Muslims and Zoroastrians got along is that they found ways to combine their religions to draw on each other’s traditions.
So much so that today I think we would call Nowruz a Persian holiday as opposed to a Zoroastrian holiday or a Muslim holiday, even though Zoroastrians and Muslims both celebrate it. What’s the commonality? They all kind of celebrate Persian culture. This applies equally to Central Asia. Central Asia is a Persian realm—that is, Persian culture had a lot of influence there—and so Nowruz is very influential there as well. So this is a great example of ways that Muslims and Zoroastrians found to get along. There are customs that Muslims adopted from Zoroastrians that are well known and well acknowledged, and there are also customs that Zoroastrians adopted from Muslims.
Have you ever wondered how Zoroastrians’ situation changed with the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran?
I admit here, first, that I am an historian of the ancient world and not the modern world. So I apologize for not being as familiar. I also want to acknowledge that because I’m trained mostly in Middle Eastern studies, my knowledge of Central Asia is not always as deep. I’ll tell you what I know. But let me tell you about Iran, which is the area that I have studied the most.
Obviously, big changes came to Iran in 1979 with the revolution that overthrew the Shah. In the 20th century, Iran was very accommodating of Zoroastrianism. The Shah often promoted ancient Persian history as the basis of Iranian identity, and that included Zoroastrian symbols and customs.
Things changed with the revolution in Iran, when Shia (Shīʿa) Islam became the official religion of the new government. But there were spaces carved out for Zoroastrians in this new Islamic Republic. For instance, the Islamic Republic guarantees one seat in the Majles—the parliament—for a Zoroastrian representative. Other ways that Zoroastrians receive special accommodations are that Zoroastrians are allowed to worship in their houses, in their fire temples. They are allowed to mix with each other in mixed-gender groups, which is not possible for Muslims in Iran in the same way. Zoroastrians in Iran are also allowed to consume alcohol. These exceptions exist because they are not Muslim citizens of Iran and the state is explicitly Islamic. So this harks back in some ways to this idea that Muslims should make accommodations for people who are different. But that does not mean that Zoroastrians do not face a lot of difficulty in Iran today.
Zoroastrianism, which comes out of Central Asia, influences almost every other religion in the world that I can think of, particularly the three biggest monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Let me emphasize just a few. There is a lot of discrimination in Iran, particularly in the areas of employment and education. Zoroastrians often get passed over for promotions or positions of leadership because they are not Muslim. It is also difficult for Zoroastrians to get into universities in Iran because the university entrance exams test your knowledge of Islam. But being Zoroastrians, they are not trained in Islamic theology. In fact, high school curriculums allow Zoroastrians to study their own religious history while Muslims study Islam. Yet when it comes to the admission exams, everybody has to be tested on their knowledge of Islam, which is inherently unfair. Those pose difficulties for Zoroastrians. There are other difficulties. Zoroastrian spaces have been appropriated by the Islamic Republic. So there is a large cemetery in Tehran that’s been owned by the Zoroastrian community for a hundred years, but the Islamic Revolutionary Guard has taken it over and uses it as a training ground. So Zoroastrians have a hard time burying their dead because they cannot get into their own cemetery at times. As a result, a lot of Zoroastrians have ended up migrating. They have left Iran. Many of them come to the United States. They’re able to get special visas related to religious persecution, among others. There are special agencies set up that make that transfer possible. So a lot of Zoroastrians have got out of Iran and the population of Zoroastrians in Iran is slowly decreasing. That represents one side of how Zoroastrians have dealt with this new situation in the Islamic Republic.
In Iran today, there’s a movement that’s slowly gaining ground to identify Zoroastrianism as the original religion of Iran. People who object to the current government of Iran—to its Islamic foundation—say, “Well, Islam is not really true to Persian identity. Persians were originally Zoroastrians. Therefore, if we want to be true to our religious faith, we should revert to Zoroastrianism.” And so there are movements among young people, for instance, to wear the Faravahar, which is a symbol of Zoroastrianism.
Is there anything exciting about Zoroastrians in Central Asia? It is known that the Sogdians were Zoroastrians and were able to spread the religion along the trade routes between East and West. Did they reach China with their religion? How did religious propaganda work in those times?
I like this question because it allows me to talk more about the Central Asian aspect, because I feel like we’ve focused mostly on Iran and other places, but I think this is really important.
I would say the most exciting thing about Zoroastrianism for Central Asia is that Zoroastrianism comes from Central Asia. It was originally born there, on the steppe, with Zoroaster in 1200 BCE in what is today Mazar-i Sharif in Northern Afghanistan, and it became one of the world’s most influential religions. And that’s very exciting because I think that brings a recognition to Central Asia that the region often doesn’t get. It’s too often overlooked. But it was the crucible that brought this religion to us.
I think you’re right to note ways that trade with Sogdians and others took Zoroastrianism beyond its original confines, because of course Zoroastrianism gets established in Central Asia with Zoroaster, then it’s taken to Persia and becomes the official Persian religion. Then it spreads even more broadly from there. And I think it does go all the way to China. And so this was an important point that you brought up.
The Sasanian Empire was the last Persian empire that Muslims conquered, and its last emperor in antiquity was Yazdegerd III. And he ran from Muslim forces as they chased him across Iran. He was ultimately killed in Merv, in what is today Turkmenistan. But his family continued running and they ran all the way to China. They ran to the Tang Dynasty in China and the Tang Dynasty hosted them. So there are a few documents—not many, and most of them are in Chinese—that describe these Persians living in China. And eventually the Tang Dynasty sent Yazdegerd’s son back to Persia. He lived on the frontiers of Persia, what is today Sīstān (also spelled Seistan)—kind of that border between Afghanistan and Iran—and for a while there was hope that he would restore the Persian empire, that he would defeat Muslim forces. Obviously, that didn’t happen, but that does show the interest and the influence of China in Central Asia all the way back to the eighth, seventh centuries.
Zoroastrianism, which comes out of Central Asia, influences almost every other religion in the world that I can think of, particularly the three biggest monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Zoroastrianism is probably the origin of the idea of a heaven and a hell as rewards for believers. Zoroaster emphasized that there’s this god of light, Ahura Mazda, and there’s also this god of darkness, Ahriman, that kind of separates rewards for believers here on Earth into two separate realms. This idea that there’s a malevolent tempter or a devil out there is very Zoroastrian in its origin. The idea that humanity will face a final judgment is straight out of Zoroastrianism. Also, for instance, Jewish people lived in Babylonian captivity for several generations before the Persian empire liberated them. And we now know that Jewish scripture has a lot of Zoroastrian influence in it. Then Christians picked up that influence as well—not only from Jewish people, but also because the Roman Empire interacted with the Persian Empire. These were the two great rivals: the Roman Empire had Christianity, the Persian Empire had Zoroastrianism, and they competed. And so places like Iraq were religiously mixed. Places like Armenia were religiously mixed. And that had an influence on Roman religion. For instance, there was an official kind of cult of Mithras in the Roman religion. Mithra is a Zoroastrian deity. So I think this is a really exciting thing for people to know about Zoroastrianism.
In your book, you draw an analogy between the problems of the ancient Zoroastrians and the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2014. What is the link between these historical events?
I appreciate this question because it allows me to demonstrate the contemporary significance of this work. Sometimes people say, “You study ancient history, it’s all in the past, it doesn’t matter anymore,” but this is a very concrete way to show that this history matters today.
One of the things I do in the conclusion of my book is talk about the origins of the Islamic State. In 2014, when the Islamic State came out of Syria and invaded Northern Iraq, they began massacring the indigenous people that live in Northern Iraq. In the Sinjar region of Iraq, there are Yazidi people. Yazidi is a Kurdish religion that has a lot of different religious influences. I think it’s best to describe it as the indigenous religion of that region, but there are certainly some influences that appear to be Christian, some that appear to be Islamic, and some that appear to be Zoroastrian.
When ISIS came into Northern Iraq, they did not recognize the Yazidi religion as legitimate. They said, “Yazidis are not ‘people of the book,’ therefore we can kill them.” And so ISIS massacred Yazidi men and enslaved Yazidi women. It was a horrific scene. And ISIS justified this by reference to the idea that these people were not religiously legitimate.
One of the examples that I point to, then, is the ways that Islamic scholars have challenged this notion that Yazidis are not religiously acceptable. A lot of scholars issued an open letter to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—a self-proclaimed Caliph of the Islamic State—and called him to account. They comprised more than a hundred Muslim experts in Islamic law from places like Egypt and Malaysia, and even Uzbekistan, and they all wrote and they said, “No, Islamic law regards Yazidis as Zoroastrians and Zoroastrians were accommodated in the past. Therefore, ISIS killing and enslaving them is totally illegitimate on Islamic grounds.” And the arguments that these scholars use for saying that Zoroastrians should be accommodated are the exact same ones that appear in my book.
And so this was an exciting discovery for me: to see the ways that my research has uncovered an authentic Islamic past that people today recognize. And it’s a past that can be used to avoid some of the extremes of the present. If you do research, if you really look at the past, you will find ways that Muslims were accommodating, they were flexible, and they were able to incorporate non-normative groups into their society. I think that’s a valuable lesson for the present.