Ancient Persia is the land of Zoroaster a great prophet and teacher of a monotheistic tradition that explained the world and creation in dualistic forms. Zoroaster taught that Ahura Mazda was all light, goodness and order, asha – while Ahriman, the lord of darkness, manifested himself in druj, disorder and chaos. The human being is that battle ground between these opposing forces, and the use of reason and intellect, coupled with faith and ethical behavior helped humankind defeat the forces of evil. Followers of Zoroaster were mistakenly called ‘fireworshippers’, as the holy flame that was lit amid the center of their worship represented the light of asha and the eternal victory of Ahura Mazda over the forces of the dark. Like the Quran, the Torah, the Gospels and the Baghavad Gita, the book known as the Zend Avesta teaches humans to be compassionate, kind, tolerant and dutiful to their fellow human beings, and to develop a strong sense of faith and a deep personal spirituality. Cyrus ‘the Great’, named by historians for his legacy of human rights and tolerant rule of equality over his subjects, invaded the Near East and is credited with introducing to the monotheistic Hebrews to many Zoroastrian concepts, such as the levels of heaven and hell, the hierarchy of angels, and the accounts of the last days, when good and bad will do a final showdown that will result in a victory of light over dark, which became the victory of God over Satan. The Biblical books of Ezekiel and Isaiah, Revelations and the battle of Armageddon, as well as some of the the well known ‘short surahs’ of the Quran are all very Persian in character and style.
In the name of God, the beneficial, the merciful.
When the Earth is shaken up with the final shaking.
And the Earth brings forth her burdens.
And Man asks “what aileth her”
On that day she shall reveal her tidings
Because your Lord has inspired her.
On that day men shall issue forth in sundry bodies that they may be shown their works.
So he who has done an atoms’ weight of good shall see it.
And he who has done an atoms’ weight of evil shall see it.
In surah Qariah The Calamity, we read another example of Persian religious scripture style when we read such verses that tell of “men being scattered upon the Earth” and “mountains becoming as carded wool”. Elsewhere “the heavens are rolled up as scrolls” or we learn that Man will see that if he willfully commits evil in the Earth “his abode for eternity is the everlasting fire”. Such language, like that found in the story of the Apocalypse, is clearly the influence of Persian Zoroastrian spiritual literature. Seven levels of Heaven, with all it’s rewards and delights are countered by seven in Hell, with the torments and trials all described in gory detail, tended by different groups of angels and demons accordingly who guard the mighty celestial gates. Indeed, the ancient religion of Zoroaster lives on in Judaism, Christianity and Islam in a thousand and one ways. The legacy and influence of Zoroastrianism on the Abrahamic faiths can be found in Cyril Glasse’s excellent study ‘The Once and Future Religion’.
It was the Arab invasion of Persia that was the death knell of Zoroastrianism. Many fled to India, where they are known to this day as Parsees. Some managed to escape to Anatolia and then on to the Balkans, where dualism found fertile ground in the neo-pagan Christianity of a southeastern Europe that was politically and religiously split between the dogmatic hegemony of the church of Rome and that of a unitarian creed-minded Byzantine Constantinople. The Bogomils [lovers of God] came about, and their dualist ideas of the Earth being the contaminated work of the evil Satanel, redeemable only through the process of death, spread to France, where the Albigensians and Cathars became so popular that they threatened the very power of the Catholic Church. A crusade was preached against them to wipe out what became a heresy that almost tore Europe apart long before Luther did. Ironically in the Balkans, like in Persia, the oppressed Bogomils surrendered not to Christianity but to Islam, which came in with the arrival of the Ottoman Turks.
Iranian thought and spirituality therefore plays an important role in ancient/medieval history and religion. Slowly, as the Arab conquerors settled down to reap the rewards of their conquests, the people of Iran under pressure to convert to Islam became Muslim.
While the Zoroastrian religion as it was previously identified faded, the teachings and thought of that once and future religion could now be found in Islam’s simplicity, tolerance and acknowledgement of all previous faiths a place in the Sun. Rather than being transformed by a simple faith from the desert, the Persian mind embellished Islamic thought with a color and a feel that was essentially Persian in character.
The Islamic ‘Golden Age’ was replete with Persian scholars who interpreted the Quran and spiritual knowledge with a variety that astounds scholars and historians even to this day. The inquisitive minds of Persian scholars contributed to the establishment over 130 schools of thought within Islam in the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries. Mathematics, astronomy, medicine and physics were nearly all the domain of the Persian scholars who were to be found in universities as far afield as Balkh in modern Afghanistan and Cordoba in Spain.
Al Farabi, studying the ancient texts of Pythagoras, wrote a treatise on music and the effects of music on the mind and the soul. The Sufis taught that music was a way to reach union with God, encouraged poetry and preached a tolerance and pantheism that embraced all mankind. Their ‘religion’ was an Islam that included within it’s tenets the basics of the former Zoroastrian ideal of a personal, intimate relationship with God, coupled with eastern Christian mystical devotion, and became influential in the Islamic world and has contributed a great many poets and thinkers, without whom Islam would seem boring and void of character. Like the pointed and spiraling domes that top mosques and Taj Mahal-like palaces in the east, like the slender minarets or the lilting and dainty tea carafes and aftabs, as in the flowing and elegant ‘arabesque’ script that we have come to know as lovers of calligraphy, as in the romantic miniature paintings of Bihzad and Sultan Muhammad or the melancholy Timurid and erotic Moghul paintings of Akbar’s era, the silver serving trays and decorated plates that hold sumptuous dishes such as stuffed cabbages or eggplant, delicately grilled meats served atop elaborate rice dishes redolent with fruits and nuts, all these are contributions of Persian cultural genius. The poetry of Jalaluddin Rumi remains among the most commonly read collections of poetry verse in the world to this very day. Iran was Islam’s outer garment, it’s suit and tie, as well as it’s socks and undershirt and has been an elegant, beautiful and important garment for centuries.
Shi’ism as a faith developed over time, originally based on what has been perceived as an injustice committed by a Sunni dominated community. Unlike the Sunni world, which by the 14th century was falling into a dogmatic literalism, Iran was united as Shi’ism became the state religion under one Shah Ismail, who is famous for ordering the creation of the classic work of art known as the Shah Nameh or Book of Kings for his son.The Shi’a in Iran maintained a hierarchy of learned scholars that continued for a time the tradition of debate and critical thinking that was the hallmark of such later Shahs such as Abbas the Great.
During his reign “Isfahan was half the world”, and Iran maintained itself independently as an empire under the Safavids. As in the years before, Iranian Islam was characterized by a sense of open mindedness, scholarly pursuit, and a somewhat less dogmatic approach to religion than what characterized many other Muslim domains.The Shahs saw to it that religion and state each had their place, and that religion knew it’s place too. Indeed, one well meaning and overly respectful 18th century English ambassador was astonished to find that he was asked to leave the presence of one angry and insulted Shah whom he had refused to join in partaking of a flask of sweet wine. So much for the edicts of mullahs and the cultural correctness of non-Muslim ambassadors, but the clergy wasn’t about to issue fatwas condemning a Persian Shah’s drinking habits. Wine, women and song were highly prized in Safavid Persia.
As Islamic civilization sank into the abyss, Iran was able to maintain it’s head above water a bit longer, though time wears all civilizations down. Perhaps their dependence on a monarchy rather than implementing a modern democracy, as some will say was a forced dependence, a result of western ambitions and influence, held Iran back from being the great modern nation it could have been. Indeed, many Iranians saw the American supported Shah Reza Pahlavi as an enemy of the people when the popular Mossadegh, who wished to nationalize the oil companies, was brought down in favor of the Shah during the years of the cold war. Such anger at foreign intervention caused the Iranians to oust that Shah in 1979, in an attempt to set up their own government. However, the inability of the different groups, which sprang from the educated intellectuals of Teheran university, left a power vacuum that was filled by what neither many Iranians nor westerners could ever have imagined. One who called himself an Ayatollah named Khomeini arrived via a 747 jet and proclaimed that Iranians throw out the ‘great satan’, the USA. Gathering the lesser educated mullahs of the countryside who represented the poor and disenfranchised farmers and small town laborers of Iran, Khomeini with the help of his supporters turned Iran overnight into an Islamic republic.
What most Iranians and foreigners were never expecting was the severity of this Islamic revolution. Unlike the Iranian tradition of the past, the new ulema and majlis were not the Avicennas and Khayyams of the present day. The open debates about faith that characterized Shi’a Islam of the past were now confined to a rigid and literal conference by uneducated mullahs who served as both religious leaders and national cheer leaders. Their inexperience in both has brought about a most shameful and depressing era in Iranian history. The war against Iraq pitted unarmed young Iranian boys against the machine guns and artillery of Saddam Hussein. They were mowed down in their thousands, charging armed only with broom handles and a red bandana around their heads that signified their willingness to die for God and Ali, the prophet Muhammad’s son in law who is the central figure of Shi’a faith and thought. All opposition that seems to threaten the leadership is dealt with harshly, whether that opposition comes in the form of intellectuals, journalists, news commentators, students who demand reforms, laborers, or opposing Islamic scholars who stand against the harshness of the mullahs. Whenever a demonstration against the government is organized, the dreaded Basij shoot a few marchers from the rooftops to discourage the protests that the free world sees all too well. Women are stoned, people flogged, minorities oppressed and public hangings all too common. In short, what Iran once was is definitely no more.
The beauty and dignity of the Shi’a faith, based on the life of a noble man such as Ali ibn Abu Talib and his son Hussein, a faith that places so much stress on righteousness, justice and good government, has been altered in a way that can barely be believed. The promise of redemption found in the Shi’a literature of the last days, with the coming of the Mahdi and Jesus, and a promise of redemption to all good people of all faiths, a holdover belief and a piece of literature from Zoroastrianism, has been molded into a promise of Armageddon that is all too real and frightening. The theme of the mullah-dominated religion of Iran is doomsday, and they must arm themselves for the coming of that day and the final battle between good and evil. This battle, a theme for thousands of years in Iranian religion and literature was never meant to be enacted literally, but rather as a moral and spiritual guide, fulfilled by the forces of nature and the universe of alternate dimensions.The literal mullahs have created a religion of martyrdom based on a dogma of us versus them. This is not the way of light, but clearly the work of darkness. They claim to stand for the noble Ali, but instead have become the Yazids, Muawiyas and Ummayads themselves. The oppressors have been transformed into the oppressed and vice versa, as the words of the Nahjul Balagha, the collected sermons and teachings of the noble Hazrat Ali, are interpreted for the benefit of the majlis and the Teheran regime, their spirit of justice and equality transmuted into a method of tyranny, Hitler like in their use of rhetoric and propaganda. Sufis, free thinkers, pluralists and pantheists, liberal mullahs and spiritual dervishes who see God’s face in everything and everyone, once a featured example of open minded Iranian society and religion, are jailed, tortured and put to death. It is clear that while around the world Islam seems to have sunk into the abyss, it seemingly has sunk extra low in the case of Iran. The tomb of Hafez and the ruins of Isfahan and Persepolis stand as gravestones and a testament to what was once a vibrant and thriving human culture that emphasized the mind and the heart, the intellect and the soul, and above all, human dignity.Based on the verses of the Zend Avesta, in the Persian epic the Shah Nameh, the Book of Kings, there is a warning. Beware of the lord of darkness, Ahriman, who takes on many forms to deceive mankind. When the intellect is aware and educated, Ahriman is defeated and hides himself. Never content with defeat by the light of the intellect, Ahriman takes the form of a priest, a man of God if you will, claiming to follow the way of Ahura Mazda. Thus, mankind believes him, and follows thinking the holy man to be a good and just soul. But with trickery he leads all to the very pit of darkness. If this story ever had relevance in today’s world, it does with the situation in modern Iran. There, the lord of darkness has indeed led people astray, making evil seem as goodness, exchanging ahsa for druj. He holds the people in a slavery of the mind and the soul, and oppresses in the name of God. The people fight bravely, risking their lives by marching and protesting, making themselves targets for the dreaded basij who do the evil work of the concealed, mullah-manifested Ahriman.