What Is Zoroastrianism?

Zoroastrianism is a religion which began in ancient Persia from the philosopher known as Zarathustra, or Zoroaster. Zoroastrianism began in ancient Persia (modern-day Iran) when a prophet, Zarathustra, or Zoroaster, was inspired to teach and preach to others as his peaceful society was being ripped apart by warring tribes. By the fifth century BC, Zoroastrianism had become the dominant religion in Persia, and it has remained that way for centuries.

Early Zoroastrianism had great influence on the other major religions, and some scholars think Jewish eschatology developed from Zoroastrian thought. However, many outside of Iran or India have never heard of Zoroastrianism, or believe Zoroastrianism was an ancient faith that died with the rise of Judaism. Zoroastrianism is an ancient Persian religion, which probably originated up to 4000 years ago.

Zoroastrianism was the state religion of three Persian dynasties, before the Muslim conquest of Persia in the 7th century AD. Zoroastrian refugees, called Parsis, fled Muslim persecution in Iran, immigrating to India. The Muslim conquest of Persia from 633 to 651 A.D. led to the collapse of the Persian empire and a decrease of Zoroastrianism in Persia.

The Sasanians made Zoroastrianism a state religion, and in so doing developed another branch of Zoroastrianism–usually called heresy–known as Zorvanism. When the monotheistic religion of Islam emerged, Zurvanism declined sharply, and the Zoroastrians returned to pre-Zurvanist, and the original beliefs of Zoroaster.

Zoroastrianism, the predominant pre-Islamic religious tradition of the Iranian people, was founded by prophetic reformer Zoroaster in the sixth or seventh century BC, if not before. Zoroastrianism is virtually identical to Mazdaism (the worship of Ahura Mazda, a supreme deity Zoroaster exalted). Zoroastrianism is the monotheistic faith established by the Persian prophet Zoroaster (also given as Zarathustra, Zartosht) from about 1500 to 1,000 BC.

Zoroastrianism (or Mazdaism) refers to the Zoroastrian religion of the Persian prophet Zarathushtra. The Gathas, which illustrates that Zoroastrianism after Zarathushtra integrated the older beliefs and traditions of early Iranian religions, at the same time synthesizing new ideas developed by Zarathushtra, into the Gathas. In the Gathas, an ancient hymn book composed by Zarathushtra, the founder of Zoroastrianism broke away from existing polytheistic Central Asian religions to establish the one god of one. Zoroastrianism developed out of the polytheistic religions of Ancient Persia, which considered Ahura Mazda to be the greatest of the great pantheon of deities, and, as the later Zoroastrianism, saw life as a struggle between forces of light and goodness and forces of darkness and evil.

Ancient Zoroastrian sources call Zoroastrianism a religion of goodness — meaning that it was one that demanded the goodness of its adherents. Once a dominant religion across an area stretching from Anatolia to the Gulf to Central Asia, Zoroastrianism did not have strong defenders (as did Christianity within the Byzantine Empire), and as such, Zoroastrianism has been steadily losing influence and adherents within Iran to Islamic persecution. Zoroastrianism would wax and wane in popularity, encountering an invasion by Greek religious concepts under Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC. Zoroastrianism is the oldest surviving monotheistic religion in the world, and is believed by many scholars to be the original source for religious concepts of Heaven, Hell, Satan, and the day of judgment in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Zoroastrianism currently has approximately 100,000-200,000 adherents around the world, and is today practiced as a minority religion in parts of Persia and India. Today, fewer than 140,000 Zoroastrians live around the world, but Zoroastrianism is a very lively religion. Zoroastrianism today persists in isolated regions in the Middle East, mostly in Iran, but it is most flourishing in India, where descendants of Persian immigrants to Zoroastrianism are known as Parsis, or Parsees. Zoroastrianism survived well into the 20th century in isolated areas of Iran, and is practiced also in parts of India (particularly Bombay) by descendants of Iranian immigrants known as Parsees.

All Middle Persian texts written about Zoroastrianism in this period are considered to be auxiliary works about Zoroastrianism, or Mazdayasna, rather than scriptures. As Richard K. Foltz has noted, Zoroasters prophetic doctrines were not codified until some time during the 3rd century C.E., under the Sassanians. Thus, our historical understanding of Zoroastrianism is most closely described as Sassanian Zoroastrianism, and we must presume the religion has evolved, possibly quite substantially, over the thousands of years after its founder. As Richard C. Foltz has noted, the prophetic reformer Zoroaster doctrine was not codified until sometime in the third century CE, under the Sassanians. The historical understanding of Zoroastrianism is thus more accurately described as Sassanian Zoroastrianism, and we should assume that the religion had evolved, perhaps very significantly, in the millennium since the time of its founder. Zoroaster claimed to be claiming the initial view, actually established centuries earlier, and was so certain of its truth, that it had never needed to seek to repress others. Zoroastrianism was born in the seventh century BCE, spreading from Azerbaijan across all Persian lands, including later Persian Empires.

Zoroastrianism, or Mazdayasna, is an Iranian religion and one of the oldest organized continuous faiths in the world, based on the teachings of Iranian-speaking prophet Zoroaster (also known as Zarathustra in Avestan, or Zartosht in Persian). Some scholars claim that tenets of Zoroastrianism helped to shape major Abrahamic faiths–including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–through influence from the Persian Empire. According to legend, the three ancient Zoroastrian fire temples, known as great furnaces, were said to come directly from Zoroastrian God Ahura Mazda early in time. Zoroasters prayers and questions to a single supreme deity would later be committed to written down and formed a central part of Zoroastrian scripture known as the Avesta.

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