Farroukh Jorat: Zoroastrian Toponyms in the Republic of Azarbaijan

The article below has been written by Farroukh Jorat and first appeared in Fravahr.org.

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For a thousand years, from the Achaemenid era (VI century BC) [1] to the fall of the Sassanid Empire (VI century), the Caucasus was part of the Zoroastrian Iran [2]. The presence of the Zoroastrian religion in the past is confirmed by archaeological remains, as well as place names in some regions of the republic. Here, we hint to some of this toponyms related to Zoroastrianism.

Mentioned in Avesta, the Vourukash sea is actually associated by some scientists with the Caspian Sea [3].

By tradition, Zoroastrian doctrine later was perceived by the Median tribe of Magi/Mugi. The name of this tribe is preserved in the name of Mugan (مغان), which is an area located east of Karabakh to the Caspian Sea coast. Starting from the early Middle Ages the word mug (مغ) has come to mean “Zoroastrian” in general.

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Iranian Zoroastrians in Ateshgah (Source: Farroukh Jorat); for more see Jorat’s article “The Atashgah (Fire Temple) of Baku” …

In 930, Estakhri writes in the Book of Routes and Countries that there were many villages in the Mugan, whose inhabitants were Zoroastrians [4].

It is known that when referring to Zoroastrians, Muslims used the word Gabri. The word Gabr (گبر) is preserved in the name of the south-western part of the Mugan plains, located between the Aras and Bolgarchay — (“plain of Gabrs”). There are remains of ancient fortresses Gebrbar (“Wall of Fire Worshippers”), which are located along irrigation canals — so called Gabr-arkh (“canal of Gabrs”).

Currently, there is no single point of view about the time of construction of these canals. In his book Nuzhat al-kulub, Hamdallah Mostoufi Qazwini (XIV century) writes:

Gushtasfi is the province located along the shores of the Caspian Sea and was founded by Shah Gushtasb ibn Luhrasb. He dug a great canal from the Kura River to the Aras, which diverts water from the small canals in the villages along its shores. [5]

As you can see, this area at the mouth of the Kura is called Gushtasfi, on behalf of the Shah Gushtasb, patron of Zartosht. Qazwini attributes the Gabr-arkh canals to Gushtasb.

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Ateshgah and balakhani (house above the entrance) at present days (Source: Farroukh Jorat); for more see Jorat’s article “The Atashgah (Fire Temple) of Baku” …

Archaeological excavations have allowed Meshchaninov to suggest that Gabr-arkh was built in the IV-VI century, i.e., during the Sassanian times [6].

Moses of Chorene (V century) [7] and Ghevond (VIII century) [8] mentions the Bhagavan city on the Caspian coast, where eternal fires were burning and there were also fire temples. Ghevond mentions this place as Atshi-Baguan. S. Ashurbeyli believes that Atshi is a corruption of atesh (“fire”), and Ateshi-Baguan means “a place of sacred fires” [9], which implies the current city of Baku. J. Saint Martin, the French Orientalist of the early XIX century wrote:

Baku city anciently revered by Parsis […] as a sacred place because there are many sources of oil and free access of gases to the land surface, burning of natural lights. In many places, these “eternal” fires are maintained by fire-worshipers, who created a whole group of fire temples. Baku city has been transformed by their rulers and their subjects to a place of fire worshiping. [10]

To the west of Baku is located a desert area, which until the 1940’s was called Gabristan (گبرستان). In the 1940’s, after the discovery of rock paintings, this place has become famous, and the name Gabristan was deemed invalid because of its consonance with the word gabir (قبر) (“grave” in Azeri) and the district was renamed the “Gobustan”. However, as noted archaeologist Gardashkhan Aslanov, in fact stated, the name Gabristan has no relation to the word “grave” and actually means “Country of Gabris”. It is likely that this desert area was a place for Zoroastrians who were trying not to attract the attention of Muslim rulers. Now the new name Gobustan stuck and few people know the old name of the area.

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The Baku Ateshgah as it appears today (Source: Farroukh Jorat); for more see Jorat’s article “The Atashgah (Fire Temple) of Baku” …

In the Gakh district of the Azerbaijan Republic, there is a mountain named Armaiti (Armatian), on top of which are the remains of a round temple dating from the V-VI century. Among the local people, it is called Peri-Gala (“Tower of the Virgin”). The name “Armatian” probably relates to Armaiti, one of the Amesha Spenta. [11]

It is known that in Zoroastrianism paradise is called Behesht or Gardman. The term “gardman” is linguistically linked to the name of the ancient province of Gardman/Girdiman known from the IV century and this area covers the territory of modern Tovuz and the Shamkir districts where there is also the village Gardmanik (Minor Gardman). The name of this province could be interpreted as “a place with a heavenly climate”. This region has long been famous for its pleasant climate and is famous as a favourite vacation spot.

In addition, there is also the river Girdiman in the Ismailli district where there are located the ruins of the Girdiman fortress built in the Sassanian time (V-VI century). The Girdiman toponym in the Ismailli district is notable in connection with the legend of Shah Key Khosrow, and existing in Lahij village is a cemetery with an old tomb engraved with “Key Khosrow” (کیخسرو).

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Worshiped fire and small fires stand in line in the background cells (1865) (Source: Farroukh Jorat); for more see Jorat’s article “The Atashgah (Fire Temple) of Baku” …

According to Zoroastrian tradition, Key Khosrow reigned for sixty years, after which with his soldiers he migrated to the mountains. There, the Shah mysteriously disappeared, and his soldiers were killed during a blizzard. According to the legend, Khosrow was lifted up to heaven (Gardman) by Ormuzd. The Lahiji people believe that Key Khosrow made his last campaign in Shirvan, and then he disappeared in the Girdiman province. Probably the basis of this legend was the reason for the construction activity in Shirvan by Shah Khosrow Anushirvan (531-579), whose legendary image combines the features of the mysteriously disappeared Key Khosrow. In addition, the Lahij village is remarkable in that its people speak a language very close to Persian.

Toponyms of Zoroastrian character are found not only on land but at sea as well. Sangi Mugan and Stone of Ignatius are two close-lying uninhabited islands off the west coast of the Caspian Sea, situated about 60 km south of Baku Bay and 20 km north-east of Cape Bandovan. The islands are not more than 1 km in length and 1 km wide, with sparse vegetation and their two craters of mud volcano are surrounded by shoals.

The name of the Sangi Mugan island (سنگ مغان) means “Stone of Magi” in Persian. The name of the neighbouring island (Stone of Ignatius) is a carbon copy (Ignatius derived from Latin Ignis, “Fire”, i. e. Stone of Fire).

The connection of the islands of the Caspian Sea with the Zoroastrian religion is indirectly indicated by Hamdallah Qazwini who wrote:

About […] the islands of the [Caspian] sea is told in the treatises on cosmogony.

The only cosmogonic treatise, which allegedly mentioned the Caspian Sea, is a Zoroastrian text called Bundahishn.

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Persian (Zoroastrian) inscription in Ateshgah (Source: Farroukh Jorat); for more see Jorat’s article “The Atashgah (Fire Temple) of Baku” …

Footnotes

[1] KROLL Stephan: “Medes and Persians in Transcaucasia: archaeological horizons in north-western Iran and Transcaucasia”, in G. B. Lanfranchi, M. Roaf, R. Rollinger, eds., Continuity of Empire (?) Assyria, Media, Persia. Padova, S.a.r.g.o.n. Editrice e Libreria, 2003, pp. 281-287.

[2] DASXURANCI Movses: The History of the Caucasian Albanians, transl. by C.J.F. Dowsett, London, 1961.

[3] BRUNNHOFER H.: Arische Urzeit. Bern, 1910, pp. 39-42.

[4] آذری یا زبان باستان آذربایجان: احمد کسروی.

[5] ‎نزهه القلوب حمدالله مستوفی.

[6] Мещанинов И. И. Краткий осведомительный отчет о работе Мильской экспедиции 1933 года. Труды Аз. ФАН СССР, 1936, т. XXV-Баку: Аз ФАН СССР, с. 5-31.

[7] Moses of Chorene: The History of Armenia.

[8] Histoire des guerres et des conquêtes des Arabes en Arménie, par l’éminent Ghevond, vardabet arménien, écrivain du huitième siècle.

[9] С. Б. Ашурбейли. Очерк истории средневекового Баку (VIII – нач.XIX в.в.), Издательство АН Азерб.ССР, Баку 1964. 336 стр.(21 п.л.).

[10] SAINT-MARTIN M. J.: Mémoires historiques et géographiques sur l’Arménie I, Paris, 1818, p. 153-154.

[11] Карахмедова Л. А. Христианские памятники Кавказской Албании (Алазанская долина). Баку, 1986.,16-17.

The Jasz of Hungary: an Iranian Connection

The Jaszbereny of Hungary are named after the Jasz which is derived from a northern Iranian Alano-Sarmatian tribe known as the Jazygians (also: Iazygians), who migrated to Hungary from around the Caspian Sea in the mid 1200s. It is believed that these arrivals were the result of the devastating Mongol attack into Hungary in 1242 (Kiev in the Ukraine had already fallen just two years previous). Mongol local rulers were eager to recruit excellent horse archers around the late 1240s or early 1250s, and this is when the Iranian-speaking Jasz arrived. These were then allotted land in the Heves county of the region which were to be known as Jaszsag.

Jaszbereny ChurchExcellent view of the Jaszbereny Church (Source: Wojsyl in Public Domain).

Nevertheless, the first arrivals of Iranian-speaking Alanic peoples into ancient Pannonia (the name of Hungary before the arrival of the Huns) had occurred by the 4th century CE or perhaps earlier. Note that the Huns were dominating the Germanic Ostrogoths and Alans in Eastern Europe at the time. The land of Hungary is named after the original Hunnic Magyar settlers who arrived in Pannonia.

Over the centuries many of the Alans had been either destroyed or absorbed by various Turco-Hun tribal confederations (notably the Khazars of the northern Caucasus who had converted to Judaism by the 8th century CE).

Jaszbereny is now a Hungarian town, situated approximately 50km east of Budapest. A number of other towns and villages in the region bear the Jasz– prefix, yet there is nothing except the name itself to set apart the Jasz today. For more on this topic consult for example:

  • Engel (2005). Realm of St. Stephen: A History of Medieval Hungary. IB Taurus, pages 103-105.
  • Turp (2007). Hungary. Penguin Books, pages 254-255.
  • Hebbert, Longley & Richardson (2002). Hungary, page 372.
  • Bedford & Dunford (2009). Hungary, page 251.

With the passage of time, a number of other towns emerged as well, resulting in a regional Hungarian culture bearing Iranian roots.

Osetia_woman_workingA Russian photograph of Ossetian women of the northern Caucasus working with textiles in the late 19th century (Source: CAIS). Ossetians are the descendants of Iranian speaking Alans who migrated to Eastern Europe, notably modern-day Yugoslavia and Hungary, where their legacy remains in the Jasz region.

The Jasz continued to speak their Iranian language well into the 15th century as seen by their lexical influences on Hungarian; on this topic consult for example:

  • Andras, Rona-Tas, Hungarians and Europe in the Early Middle Ages: An Introduction to Early Hungarian History, Central European University, 1991 & 2001, page 104.

The descendants of the Alans are known today as Ossetes or Ossetians, but the Ossetians  refer to themselves as Ir-on. Only two dialects of Alan remain in the Caucasus today: Ir-on and Digor.

A Short Overview of Iranian Languages and Influences on Turkic and Hun Languages

There are in general two general categorizations for Iranian Languages:

  • Middle Persian or Pahlavi – generally Parthian and Sassanian Pahlavi
  • East (or Northeast) Middle Iranian languages such as Khotanese-Saka, Bactrian, Soghdian, Khwarazmian and Alanic.

According to Abaev and Bailey in the Encyclopedia Iranica article on the Alans:

“The name “Alan” is derived from Old Iranian *arya-, “Aryan,” and so is cognate with “Īrān” (from the gen. plur. *aryānām).”

Alan-WarriorIranian-speaking Alan warrior circa 5th century CE. The descendants of the Alans are found in Western and northern Iran as well as the Caucasus and Eastern Europe. Large numbers of Alans also assimilated with Europe’s Germanic tribes, notably the Ostrogoths (Painting by the late Angus McBride).

Iranian language terms have entered Old Turkic-Hun languages from eastern Central Asia and/or the Western Mongolia region for centuries (see for example: Khotanese Texts Volume 7, (edited by Harold Walter Bailey), Cambridge University Press, 1985, pages 105-106). Examples include:

  • Oxs into Turkic Oksu.
  • Avestan Thavana, Khotan-Saka Thauna (cloth, silk) Ossetian Tuna (Ir-on: Tyn) into Turkic Ton (dress)
  • Old Iranian Avestan Vara (IE: Var) [or surrounding or enclosing of walls protecting a city or settlement] in Middle Persian or Pahlavi is: Gurtih (enclosed place) note that the Hungarian term Var – Varos (city) is derived from the Jasz people.

r1achartjan31[Click to Enlarge] Interesting diagram outlining common genetic markers between peoples of Europe, the Near East and the Tatars (Source: Zeta Board).

Other examples of Ossetian type loan words into Hungarian (see also Cheung’s article in the Encyclopedia Iranica titled “Ossetic loan words into Hungarian”):

  • Gazdag “rich, wealthy” ~ qæznyg, qæzdyg/ǧæzdug “rich” (< *gazna– + -yg/-ug)
  • Méreg “poison” ~ marg “poison” (< *marka-)

Conversion to Zoroastrianism

The article below by Hannah Michael Gale Shapero originally appeared in the CAIS website hosted by Shapour Suren-Pahlav  in London.

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Hannah Michael Gale Shapero is an artist, illustrator and scholar. She was born in Boston, Massachusetts, US and grew up in the Boston area and in Rome, Italy. Shapero studied Classics-Greek and Latin as an undergraduate at Brandeis University and as a graduate at Harvard. She was also active as an artist and writer during that time. In 1978 she left academia for an art career and in 1981 became a professional artist. She has studied art at the Boston University art school but most of her training has been with private teachers, especially her mother.

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The question of whether Zoroastrianism should allow converts is one of the most divisive and bitter issues facing the whole community. While other religions, such as Christianity and Islam, depend on converts to increase their numbers, Zoroastrianism has been, at least in recent centuries, strictly based on ethnicity. You have to be born a Zoroastrian in order to be one; you cannot enter into the faith from outside. But the question is continually asked: why must this be true? Can this policy be changed? And has this always been true in the long history of the faith? In this essay I will try to describe the many problems, arguments, and reasons on both sides of the question.

Can you convert to Zoroastrianism? The official answer, which is given by the Parsi priestly hierarchy in Bombay, and supported by a large number of traditional Zoroastrians, is NO. In order to be a Zoroastrian, you must be born of two Zoroastrian parents. One is not enough! No children of mixed marriages are officially Zoroastrian. In practice, however, the children of Zoroastrian fathers and non-Z. mothers are sometimes given admission to the faith – but not the children of Zoroastrian mothers and non-Z. fathers. Zoroastrian identity descends through the father’s line, unlike Jewish identity, which is defined by the mother being Jewish.

Why has this rule against conversions come about? There are many levels of reasoning behind it. Conservatives who support the ban on conversions will cite philosophical, religious, political, social, and emotional reasons for it. Here are some of the arguments against conversion, which are commonly used by Zoroastrian traditionalists to justify their belief in the ethnic exclusivity of their faith.

The philosophical and religious reasons are represented by educated Zoroastrian conservatives. They say that all great religions are equally true, and that no one faith is better or more desirable than any other. All religions that lead to righteous and constructive actions are inspired by God, and will lead their good believers to a heavenly reward. Therefore there is no reason to choose one religion over another. These conservatives recommend that a spiritual searcher should seek within his/her own faith, without trying to adopt other religions. In this view, not only should there be no conversion to Zoroastrianism, but the need should not even arise. Christians should be good Christians, Muslims good Muslims, and Jews good Jews – without coveting the illusory benefits of someone else’s faith.

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Sedreh Pushi of a group Russian converts to Zoroastrianism – Moscow, Russia (Source: CAIS).

A religious version of this argument claims that God Himself has placed everyone in his/her faith in a kind of religious destiny, and thus conversion is a disobedience against the God who has given you your specific religion. Many Zoroastrian traditionalists, especially Parsis, believe that the soul, which pre-exists birth into a material body, has chosen, in union with the will of God, to enter a specific religion. Attempting to convert is going against the true nature of one’s own Soul. For traditionalists, conversion to Zoroastrianism is just short of blasphemy – an act of contempt for the God who has given you birth in a specific tradition. It is true, the traditionalists admit, that many of the great faiths were originally built on conversions from other religions, but these early, founding conversions are justified because they were done under the inspiration of a true Prophet – such as Moses, Jesus, or Mohammed. Once the era of the Prophet is gone, then conversions again become invalid, for only a divine Prophet has the authority to convert people.

This leads to the conclusion that hundreds of millions of people are worshiping invalidly, because their ancestors, without the benefit of a Prophet, chose an alien faith – whether willingly or because of coercion. This includes numerous Iranians, who were originally Zoroastrian but were converted to Islam. The conservatives, though they are aware of this, still maintain that even an Iranian Muslim whose Zoroastrian ancestors were forcibly converted to Islam cannot return to the faith of his/her fathers. God, and those individual souls, chose that particular birth, no matter what went on historically. History cannot be reversed. Only a divine Prophet can convert people back to Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrian traditionalists rely on their religious beliefs about a coming Savior – the _saoshyant_- as a final answer to the problem of conversion. When the Savior arrives (a Zoroastrian idea that pre-dated Jewish Messianism and may have inspired the Jewish idea of the Messiah) this divine man will have the authority to convert people. Zoroastrians then hope that all people will be converted to Zoroastrianism through the power of the Savior, who will appear at the End of Time.

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Sedreh Pushi of a group Iranian converts to Zoroastrianism by Dr Vandidad Golshani in London, United Kingdom (Source: CAIS).

Meanwhile, traditionalist Zoroastrians wait patiently and continue to oppose conversion to their ancient faith. The next reason they use to justify their opposition is political and cultural. When groups of Iranian pilgrims fled an oppressive Muslim regime in Iran in the 10th century AD, they came to Gujarat, a kingdom on the west coast of India. The Kisseh-i-Sanjan, an epic poem written by a 16th-century Parsi priest, documents the history of his people in India. According to the poem, the pilgrims negotiated with the rulers of Gujarat for safe haven there, and they worked out an agreement. The pilgrims were required to explain the tenets of their religion to the ruler; they were also to learn the local language and speak it rather than Persian. They were also required to adopt the dress of the area rather than wear Iranian garb, they were to celebrate their weddings in the evening rather than in the morning, and they were to put aside their weapons and not wear them at any time. Other traditions say that the Zoroastrian pilgrims were never to convert their Hindu or Muslim neighbors. This promise of non- conversion may not be documented in the poem or other surviving texts, but it is oral tradition, handed down in Zoroastrian culture for a thousand years and more. And the Parsis, as these pilgrims to India were called, have kept their promises. Thus the prohibition against conversion has a longstanding political background.

The social argument against conversion relies on the idea that Zoroastrianism is a strictly ethnic religion. In the traditionalists’ historical view, Zarathushtra was not an innovator, but a reformer who practiced the priestly traditions of his ancient Indo-Iranian people. Zoroastrianism, then, does not break traditions, but continues them – reformed from polytheism to monotheism by the divinely inspired Prophet. And these traditions are from time immemorial the exclusive possession of a people known as Aryans. In the West, the term “Aryan” has been permanently discredited by its misuse by the Nazis, and the more neutral “Indo-Iranian” is preferred. For a conservative Zoroastrian, especially those with a more extreme outlook, only those who are Indo-Iranian Zoroastrian, with an unbroken lineage unmixed with any non-Zoroastrian heritage, can be true Zoroastrians.

Proselytizing and conversion: Parsi Zoroastrians do not proselytize. In recent years, however, Zoroastrian communities in Iran, Europe and the Americas have been more tolerant towards conversion. While this move has not been supported officially by the priesthood in Mumbai, India, it has been endorsed by the Council of Mobeds in Tehran.

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Sedreh Pushi of two Iranian converts in Stohkolm, Sweden (Source: CAIS).

Traditionalists regard Zoroastrianism as more than just a religion. It is an integral culture, which comprises not only faith and practice but an entire lifestyle: language, symbolism, law, clothing, calendar, festivals, food, family life, songs and literature, humor, history, etiquette, gestures, even interior decoration. This integral culture is learned from the earliest moments of life – transmitted from parents to children in an education that no school or sociological study could ever provide. In the traditionalist view, it is impossible to enter into this culture if you have not been born into it – you cannot learn as an adult things you should have learned along with your first steps and words. This culture, and the religion that goes with it, thus cannot be transferred. A non-Zoroastrian married to a Zoroastrian will always be at a loss to understand things his/her spouse takes for granted. And the non-Zoroastrian spouse will bring elements from his/her own culture that are alien to the Z. culture. It is better never to marry outside the culture, as conflict will always follow. The religion is a precious heirloom, which will only be misunderstood and adulterated by outsiders. In this view, intermarriage can only be seen as a threat, which will result in the dilution or even the extinction of the precious culture. And as Zoroastrians, both Iranian and Parsi, migrate away from their native countries, the immigrants are terrified, with good reason, that this heirloom culture will be swept away by the polluted ocean of “Western” culture which surrounds them. Modern culture is a deeply fearsome thing to many traditionalist Zoroastrians.

The third set of reasons that Zoroastrian traditionalists give for their opposition to conversion is emotional and psychological. Zoroastrianism, ever since the Muslim conquest of Iran, has been a minority religion. It has been persecuted in Iran for centuries. Even in India, where the Parsis lived more or less undisturbed by their hosts, the Zoroastrians have always remained separate from the majority. The main reason why these minorities have been able to survive through the centuries is because their religion gives them strength. Zoroastrianism has been the coherent core of the people, the rallying point that keeps them going through hard times, poverty, and persecution. Why, then, should it be given away to those who have not earned it, not suffered through the long years of trial? It would mean nothing to an outsider. And so conversion becomes meaningless, or even an insult.

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Sedreh-Pushi ceremony of a group of Turkish Kurds and Iranians in Istanbul who are recent converts to Zoroastrianism (Source: CAIS).

There seems to be a series of good arguments for banning conversion to Zoroastrianism. The trouble is that the number of “true” Zoroastrians continues to decrease. There are many reasons for this: a low birth rate, economic problems, the difficulty of finding qualified mates and raising families with a high standard of living, emigration, intermarriage, and simple apathy or ignorance of the faith. The resistance to any religious change has alienated many Zoroastrians, who question ancient laws and practices that they say were appropriate for the agrarian society of the past but have no relevance in a modern, technological world. If Zoroastrianism does not accept converts, say these questioners, it risks going the way of near-extinct sects such as the Shakers, whose inflexible practices (in the case of the Shakers, maintenance of celibacy and thus non- procreation) made it impossible to continue as a group.

It must be added that most of the anti-conversion sentiment in the Zoroastrian world comes from the Indian Parsis. Iranian Zoroastrians are much more likely to accept converts, marriages to non-Zoroastrians (who are then welcomed into the community) and people of mixed ancestry. The problems with conversion in Iran are mainly political: converting someone away from Islam is an offense against the Islamic Republic and may be seriously penalized. Therefore, conversions in Iran are done very quietly.

Since the late 1980s, new Zoroastrian congregations have been founded hroughout the world, including Brazil, Norway, Venezuela, Germany, Sweden, United Kingdom and the newly created republics of Central Asia. The yare mainly inspired by the missionary organization The Zarathushtrian Assembly, based in Los Angeles, California, and in line with Zoroaster’s original teachings, these congregations have, contrary to the Indian Zoroastrians which accept converts. 

What arguments do the “liberal” Zoroastrians use to counter the conservatives? The liberal reformists claim documented history as their strongest argument in favor of conversion. According to the scriptures of Zoroastrianism, which range from the original Gathas of Zarathushtra to doctrinal works written in medieval times, conversion has not only been mentioned but accepted as a practice throughout the long history of the religion.

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Sedreh Pushi of a group Iranian and Norwegian converts, Oslo, Norway (Source: CAIS).

There are many passages in the original hymns of Zarathushtra, the Gathas, where the Prophet explicitly claims a mission to convert all people – not just Indo-Iranians. References to conversion occur throughout the Avesta and even in the latest book of the Avesta, written about 200-400 AD, the Vendidad. Scholars both Western and Zoroastrian have written extensively on the spread of Zoroastrianism to Armenia, Central Asia, and as far east as China; other historical texts and archaeological studies prove that Zoroastrianism had spread, through Persian traders, as far west as Asia Minor, Syria, and possibly even Eastern Europe. In lands bordering Iran, many people became Zoroastrians who were not of Indo-Iranian ethnicity. Even after the Islamic conquest, Zoroastrianism was still open to converts, especially servants in Zoroastrian homes who were adopted into the faith by their employers. The strict ban on conversion only dates from the nineteenth century AD.

Notable converts to Zoroastrianism include Swedish artist and author Alexander Bard. and became one of the founders of the Swedish Zoroastrian congregation, currently the largest in Europe.

The textual and historical evidence provide a strong and convincing argument for conversion to Zoroastrianism. The traditionalists, faced with Zarathushtra’s clear references to converting all people, including non-Indo-Iranians, can only respond with the counter-argument that it is the TEACHINGS and IDEASof the Prophet that are intended for the whole world, while the RELIGION and its rituals belong only to the Indo-Iranian people. In other words, everyone can be inspired by Zarathushtra’s holy words, but only pure-bred Indo-Iranians can practice the actual religion of Zarathushtra. Another variant of this argument is that Zarathushtra’s references to a “universal” conversion only refer to a MORAL conversion from wrong-doing to right action, rather than a RELIGIOUS conversion from one faith to another. The more extreme traditionalists discount any conclusions or evidence provided by Western scholarship, regarding all Western interpretations of the Avesta scriptures as misguided, irreligious, and devoid of spiritual insight. Thus the Gathas, when considered as a separate text, are regarded by these traditionalists as a scholarly reconstruction, imposed by Western colonialists. For these extreme traditionalists, the entire Avesta, not just the Gathas, are the words of the Prophet, given by God, and its interpretation must be done in a spiritual and sometimes mystical fashion.

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Sedreh Pushi of three Iranian converts in Dubai (Source: CAIS).

The “liberal” Zoroastrians are inspired by the text of the Gathas, which they regard as the only surviving words of the Prophet, and the primary text of the faith. They view Zarathushtra as a great innovator, rather than a reformer of a previous tradition. In the Gathas there is no mention of elaborate mythology, sacred time-schedules, coming Messiahs, Indo-Iranian exclusivity, priestly laws, or strict religious and ritual practices. The tone of the Gathas is philosophical, abstract, and ethical. The rituals, myths, and practices that the traditionalists are so intent on keeping, say the liberals, were DISCONTINUED by Zarathushtra, who never wanted them. It was only later that these religious and social elements were re-introduced into the religion. Therefore, say the reformers, there should be no objection to converting to Zoroastrianism, because the exclusive religious privileges of the Indo-Iranian people were never intended by Zarathushtra.