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  • The Encounter of Zoroastrianism with Islam
  • Marietta Stepaniants, Director

Among the many stories of encounters between different cultures the meeting of Zoroastrianism and Islam may be one of the most dramatic. After many centuries in which it was the dominant religion of the ancient Iranian states and after having achieved the status of official religion in the Sassanid empire (224-651), Zoroastrian teaching was practically driven from its homeland and replaced by the religion of Muhammad. The number of Zoroastrians in modern Iran today does not exceed forty thousand. Between the eighth and tenth centuries some of the followers of Zoroastrianism left Iran for India, where today there are about one hundred thousand, known as Parsi. There are small communities of Zoroastrians in other parts of the world (e.g., Pakistan, Canada, the United States, Great Britain, and Australia), and the total number worldwide is reckoned to be less than 120,000.1 It is difficult to describe the fate of Zoroastrianism more precisely than was done by James Dar-mesteter in 1879 in his Introduction to the translation of the Zend-Avesta:2 "As the Parsis are the ruins of a people, so are their sacred books the ruin of a religion. There has been no other great belief in the world that ever left such poor and meager monuments of its past splendor."3

What caused this virtual "extinction" of Zoroastrianism? It is quite common to put the entire blame on Islam. However, the truth is not so simple, and a one-dimensional explanation is not satisfactory here. There were, in fact, a number of causes, and I would like to point out some that, in my view, are of greatest significance.

The first direct encounter of the two cultures took place soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632. The first Caliph, Abū Bakr, who became the head of the Muslim umma, initiated the expansion of Islam beyond the borders of the Arab world to include the lands of Sassanid Iran. In 635 Muslim forces won a decisive victory at al-Qadisiya over the armies of the last Shahinshah, Yazdergerd III. In 637 they seized the capital of the Sassanid state, Ktesiphon. It took almost fifteen years to put an end to the independence of Zoroastrian Iran and to incorporate the latter into the Arab Caliphate by 651.

Yet, I would suggest that prior to this devastating (for Zoroastrianism) encounter, an indirect meeting had already taken place that had had a quite opposite conse-quence: the borrowing by Islam of a number of Zoroastrian ideas. A claim for the legitimacy of this statement could perhaps be made if we are willing to question the views of those like Richard Zaehner4 (referring mainly to Arab sources) who affirm that Zoroaster was born in 628 B.C. (since, allegedly at the age of forty—that is, in 588 B.C.—he succeeded in converting king Vishtaspa, most likely a king of Choras-mia, [End Page 159] and thus brought about the flourishing of the Zoroastrian tradition 258 years before Alexander the Great), and instead favor those like Mary Boyce,5 who dates the origin of the Zoroastrian religion to between 1400 and 1000 B.C., at a time when Zoroaster's people were perhaps still dwelling in the northern part of Central Asia. In that case, Zoroaster would have been a contemporary of Moses, and it is easier to support the contention that religious influence spread from Iran to the eastern Mediterranean world, and not the reverse.

An Indirect Encounter: Cultural Parallels

In a paper presented at the World Congress on Mullā Ṣadrā (Tehran, 25-27 May 1999),6 Lenore Erickson from Cuesta College, California, summing upher research on the different opinions concerning the problem of Zoroastrian influence on Judaism and Christianity, offered a number of arguments both for and against the view that Iranian ideas had an influence on Islam. Arguing against Iranian influence, she asserts that (a) the parallels that have been noted are, on the Zoroastrian side, in the Pahlavi texts, which were written in the seventh to ninth centuries—too late to have had any effect on Judaism in the period from...


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