ZOROASTRIANS IN IRAN
iv. Between the Constitutional and the Islamic Revolutions
The late Qajar era: from persecuted minority to early successes. In the mid 19th century, a few Zoroastrians began settling in Tehran to take advantage of new commercial opportunities. They also were eager to escape the prejudice and persecution suffered by Zoroastrians in the southern provinces of Yazd and Kerman. However, travel was difficult and precarious, and the early numbers of migrants were small. The Gazette estimates that there were 450 Zoroastrians in Tehran in 1877 (Ruz-nāma-ye Irān, no. 318, 9 Rabiʿ II 1294, p. 6, apud Kondo, p. 20).
A building survey carried out in 1899-1900 indicates that there were forty-five Zoroastrian homeowners in Tehran concentrated in two districts. In the Grand Bazaar, there were a Zoroastrian caravansary, used as a small bazaar and rest house, and a Zoroastrian commercial district in the districts of Aḵtar Taʾin va Sab Sangilaj (Kondo, pp. 20-21). A number of Zoroastrians worked as gardeners in northern Tehran (Ošidari, apud Kestenberg Amighi, p. 143).
The Alley of the Zoroastrians (Kuča-ye Gabrhā [the latter word is a perjorative term for Zoroastrians]) was developed as a center for Zoroastrian residents and institutions by an eminent Zoroastrian businessman, Arbāb Jamšid Jamšidiān. After considerable commercial success, Arbāb Jamšid bought a piece of land in the alley and settled himself and many of his Zoroastrian employees there. As a result of efforts by individual Zoroastrian merchants and Parsi co-religionist supporters from Bombay, the small community was able to build a fire temple (ādoriān), a celebration hall, a public bath, and a primary school for girls (Iraj) and another one for boys (Jamšid Jam; Kestenberg Amighi, p. 373, Table 4; Ringer, 2011, p. 166; Šāhroḵ, tr., pp. 17-18), at a time when secular schools in Iran were rare. In the early 20th century, Zoroastrians in Tehran and in communities in Yazd and Kerman began seeing improvements in their lives as a result of several factors, specifically those related to their identity, including Parsi connections, education, the commercial niche, and the rise of pre-Islamic-based nationalism.
A key factor was the special relationship of Zoroastrians in Iran with their supportive Parsi co-religionists in Bombay. The Parsi representatives from Bombay helped bring over funds for many community projects, such as schools and repair of religious structures (Šāhroḵ, tr., p. 17). They applied political pressure through the British to improve treatment of Zoroastrians, and Parsi connections gave Zoroastrians priority access to international trade with India. Zoroastrians, long excluded from Muslim religious schools (maktab), attended either the new schools financed by the Parsis and wealthy Iranian Zoroastrians or British and American missionary schools. These schools significantly raised literacy rates among Zoroastrians and offered Western styled education that helped them in international commerce (Kestenberg Amighi, p. 146; Yeganegi, 1974). In contrast, even by the 1950s the majority of Iranians were illiterate (Dargie, p. 21).
The commercial niche in which Zoroastrians were concentrated helped create intra-community cohesion and intercommunity connections. Arbāb Jamšid’s merchant house provided housing, loans, and medical services for employees. Zoroastrians often preferentially hired co-religionists for positions of trust in their enterprises. For example, of Arbāb Jamšid’s 4,600 employees, 100-150 were Zoroastrian, most of whom were hired in sensitive accounting positions (Māhnāma, 1977, apud Kestenberg Amighi, p. 152; Mehrfar, “Jamshid Jamshidian,” n.p.). The father of eminent community leader, Farhang Mehr, first worked in Arbāb Jamšid’s company and later was hired as accountant in the Majles with the help of another leader-to-be, Kayḵosrow Šāhroḵ (Alphonse, p. 12), who himself had worked for Arbāb Jamšid and had gained considerable influence in the royal courts of Iran.
Successful Zoroastrian merchants also established trade and personal relationships with elite Muslim businessmen and often used these to further promote other Zoroastrians (Kestenberg Amighi, p. 164), such as the commercial firm (tejārat-ḵāna) of Jahāniāns in Yazd. Soon, their reputation for honesty gave Zoroastrians hiring advantages in the broader commercial niche as well as in government positions.
Finally, Zoroastrians benefited from a developing revivalist nationalism in Iran. The floundering Qajars tried to link themselves with the great pre-Islamic empires, and some of this past glory adhered to the present day Zoroastrians. Thus, the Qajars heaped honors on several Zoroastrians, for example, Moẓaffar-al-Din Shah (r. 1896-1907) dubbed Arbāb Jamšid with the title Amin-al-Tojjār (Trustee of businessmen) and Arbāb Dinyār Kalāntar as Amin-al-Fārsiān (Trustee of the Persians; Šāhroḵ, tr., p. 49, note 23 and p. 28). The Qajars patronized things pre-Islamic, such as public readings of Ferdowsi’s Šāh-nāma. They decorated their palaces with Zoroastrian empire art and commissioned sculptures of themselves to be engraved into the rocks near those of the Achaemenid and Sasanian rulers (Abrahamian, pp. 19-20; Tavakoli-Targhi, pp. 98-100).
The anti-Qajar, pro-democracy intelligentsia, such as Mirzā ʿAli Khan Kermāni (1853-1896; Parsinejad, pp. 68-93), Jalāl-al-Din Mirzā, and Mirzā Fatḥ-ʿAli Aḵondzāda, rejecting Western imperialism and what they saw as backward clerical influences, had also turned to the pre-Islamic era to find a source of Persian authenticity and salvation (Grigor, p. 10; Marashi, p. 72; Ashraf, p. 59). The first Parsi representative to the Zoroastrians of Iran, Maneckji Limji Hateria, was apparently instrumental in directing their attention to Iran’s Zoroastrian heritage (Marashi, p. 61; Sharma, pp. 94-96). So enchanted was Aḵondzāda that he wrote to a Zoroastrian friend, presumably Maneckji Hateria, that “this [Zoroastrian] religion of yours should be preserved and protected” and efforts should be made to prevent Zoroastrians from converting to Islam (Hairi, p. 27). Nationalist writings, such as found in the magazines Irānšahr, published in Berlin (1922-27) by Ḥosayn Kāẓemzāda, and Āyanda, published in Tehran by Maḥmud Afšār, and books such as Mirzā ʿAli Khan Kermāni’s Āʾina-ye sekandari (Grigor, p. 10) devoted considerable attention to women’s issues and to pre-Islamic culture (Abrahamian, p. 123).
As discussed by Ahmad Ashraf, the developing ode to nationalism among the pro-constitutionalists in Persia was also entangled with their devotion to modernization (p. 159). The Zoroastrian religion and its pre-Islamic monuments offered useful symbols, not only for the anti-clerical feelings and nationalist impulses of the constitutionalists, but also for their modernism. The engravings of the distant past could be interpreted as monarchist, but they also lent themselves to whatever modernists ideals the nationalists might graft upon them (Abrahamian, 2015).
As a result of their own reforms, Zoroastrians themselves were taking on a modernist aura. Under the influence of Manekji Hateria, Ebrāhim Purdāwud, the scholar of Zoroastrianism, and educator, Kayḵosrow Šāhroḵ, Zoroastrianism was slowly being transformed in ways that accorded to some extent with Western notions of modern ethics and rationality (Boyce, pp. 220-21, apud Sanasarian, note 81).
The fact that Zoroastrian leaders were often adept at cultivating a positive image also supported their rise in status. In the town of Yazd and especially Kerman, the Zoroastrian elite had for centuries adopted a survivalist strategy of developing good relationships with important Muslims. For example, Kayḵosrow Šāhroḵ, as a young teacher in the Zoroastrian schools in Kerman, gave English lessons to the governor; others served in provincial courts (Šāhroḵ, tr., p. 19). The wealthy often paid ulama to stop outbreaks of mob violence against Zoroastrians and entertained Muslim elite in their homes (Rostam Amighi). In Tehran, where Muslims were less familiar with Zoroastrians and less accustomed to discriminatory practices, similar strategies were even more effective. The large merchant houses of Arbāb Jamšid and Arbāb Šāhjahāniān included Muslim partners in their extensive trade networks (Bayat, p. 49). Arbāb Jamšid invited his Zoroastrian employees, but also Muslim poets, merchants, and intellectuals to his daily luncheons (Mehrfar, “Jamshid Jamshidian,” n.p; Šāhroḵ, tr., p. 57). Furthermore, Arbāb Jamšid was not just a philanthropist within his own community. He built water storage tanks (saqqā-ḵāna) and fountains throughout Iran for wayfarers, irrigated land in northern Tehran for farming, and even contributed to Muslim religious institutions. He gave generous gifts to Muslim friends and confirmed the Zoroastrian reputation for honesty and generosity (Māhnāma, 1972, apud Kestenberg Amighi, p. 156). Zoroastrians also benefited when their quality schools opened their doors to children of the Muslim elite, a valuable investment in the future.
The gains made by the Zoroastrians in the early 20th century were most evident in Tehran, then a multi-ethnic city of about 250,000 people (Majd, p. 74), where minority groups were minimally harassed (Konda, p. 21) and important commercial and political connections could be made. These successes in Tehran also helped ameliorate conditions in the still vulnerable Zoroastrian communities of the provinces.
The Constitutional Revolution: Zoroastrian involvement. Although the Zoroastrians generally were loyal to the monarchs who had offered them some degree of protection, a few individual Zoroastrians found themselves siding with other merchants against the disastrous policies of the Qajars and with the pro-Constitutional Parsis and the British. They were particularly encouraged by the ideology of secular nationalism adopted by key Iranian figures advocating Constitutionalism. There was hope that with a constitution conditions would improve for all religious minorities. In Kerman and Yazd, newspaper articles were being published deploring the humiliations that minorities continued to suffer (Kasravi, p. 316-17 apud Afary, p. 104). Thus, Zoroastrian leaders were encouraged to undertake the kind of risks they usually avoided. A few Zoroastrians participated in early constitutionalist meetings (Bayat, p. 49). When the revolution broke out, several Zoroastrian merchants, including Arbāb Jamšid and Arbāb Jahaniān contributed large sums, purchasing guns from India and on the local black market (Mehr, 1970, apud Kestenberg Amighi, p. 158). Arbāb Jamšid even helped finance the first bast (taking refuge for protection) at the British embassy (Bayat, p. 145).
In 1906, Moẓaffar-al-Din Shah, under considerable nationalist pressure, promised a constitution for Iran. Intensive lobbying for inclusion of minority rights began early, led by Kayḵosrow Šāhroḵ, Arbāb Jamšid, wealthy Parsi merchants, and even some Muslim supporters (Sanasarian, p. 49; Šāhroḵ, tr., p. 58; Bayat, p. 190). The reformist cleric, Mirzā Naṣr-Allāh Malek-al-Motakallemin, who had traveled to India, lectured in mosques about Iran’s great pre-Islamic heritage and the Zoroastrians (Bayat, p. 145). Thus, pressure from different quarters led to Supplementary Fundamental Law (Motammem-e Qānun-e asāsi), Article 8, stating “equal rights for all (eligible male) citizens of the Persian Empire” (Šāhroḵ, tr., p. 580; Foundation for Iranian Studies; Browne, pp. 373-76; Ādamiyat, pp. 408 ff.). Male Zoroastrians could now testify in court Moẓaffar and theoretically see their murderers punished, and there would be representatives in the Majles (Parliament) for each recognized religious minority.
Article 8 aroused considerable fury among conservative Muslim clerics who had otherwise supported the constitutionalists. Shaikh Fażl-Allāh Nuri stated: “See how the master of Shariʿah (sharʿ) has granted you honours because you have been embellished with Islam. He has granted you privileges but you deny them by saying that you must be equal (and) brothers with Zoroastrians, Armenians and Jews; God’s curse may be upon those who approve this ” (Nuri, in Malekzāda, IV, p. 215; tr., p. 334). Two Zoroastrian constitutionalists were murdered in Tehran, but not without some degree of protest from Muslim liberals. In one case, large crowds gathered in front of the Majles and demanded that the murderers be executed (Bayat, pp. 216-17). As a compromise between the warring factions, minorities were asked to accept a Muslim cleric as their representative in the Majles. While Jews and Armenians agreed, Arbāb Jamšid successfully insisted on being seated. It was probably due to a combination of his generosity to the prominent supporter of the constitutional movement, Sayyed ʿAbd-Allāh Behbahāni (Afari, p. 263; Bāmdād, I, p. 280), Parsi lobbying, and Arbāb Jamšid’s long-term loans to the insolvent Qajars (Mehrfar, “Jamshid Jamshidian,” n.p.), who still played a role.
Meanwhile, inspired by the creation of associations (anjoman) throughout much of Iran, the Zoroastrians began to resurrect their own lapsed leadership organizations. In 1907 the Tehran Zoroastrian Anjoman was re-established with Kayḵosrow Šāhroḵ as president (Šāhroḵ, tr., p. 28). It was rather dominated by merchants, and, unlike the Anjoman of Yazd, there was no participation of priests (mobad; Mehr, p. 287, apud Stausberg, 2015, p. 175). Most Zoroastrian merchants contributed funds for community institutions (Šāhroḵ, pp. 20, 22), reflecting the community interdependence.
However, at the same time that progress was being made politically and institutionally, Šāhroḵ (tr., p. 59) complained that the Zoroastrian community was rife with internal conflicts challenging his leadership. Beyond the usual regional discords, there were two potent conflicts. One concerned the extent to which Zoroastrians would focus on modernizing versus retaining their traditions. The leader of the liberal faction was Šāhroḵ, who had defied convention before. He had long condemned common practices such as animal sacrifice, polygyny, and exposure of the dead in daḵmas (towers) that, he pointed out, were not mentioned in the Gathas (Šāhroḵ, tr., pp. 12-15, 38).
The second conflict concerned how the community should respond to the significant numbers of Zoroastrians who were converting to Bahaism or were supportive of Bahais. Apparently unconcerned, liberal Iranian Zoroastrians and Parsis had formed close relationships with Bahais, even with Bahāʾ-Allāh, the founder of the faith. In Yazd, they had hired a Bahai as a teacher in the Zoroastrian school and permitted several (former Zoroastrian) Bahais to remain on the Anjoman council (Fischer, 2002, p. 236). However, conservatives, led by school principal, Master Ḵodābaḵš, who was also rumored to be a liberal and/or a Bahai, complained that reforms would dilute the Zoroastrian religion and undermine mobad authority, and association with Bahais would unduly open the community to proselytization and Muslim backlash (Fischer, 2002, pp. 234-36). Furthermore, they resented Parsi intrusions into their religious and political affairs (Farahmand, n. p.; Šāhroḵ, tr., p. 18). For them it was a matter of survival, while liberals believed that survival in the coming secular environment required change and openness (Yeganegi, 1974).
Master Ḵodābaḵš and the second Parsi representative, Kei Khosrowji, were both murdered in 1915, either stemming from the internal conflicts or from anti-Bahai sentiment among Muslims (Kestenberg Amighi, p. 166; Farahmand, n.p.). It was emblematic of the troubled and chaotic times in Iran, soon to worsen during World War I and its aftermath. Confiscation of food by occupying British, Russian, and Ottoman troops greatly exacerbated the impact of droughts and poor distribution of resources, leading to widespread famines. Over 40 percent of the population, about 90,000 in Tehran alone, perished during this period (Majd, p. 2). However, the usual backlash against Zoroastrians in troubled times did not materialize. In fact, Kayḵosrow Šāhroḵ was called upon by Aḥmad Shah Qājār to oversee acquisition of food and distribution of wheat to the famished (Šāhroḵ, tr., p. 63).
A backlash came from an entirely different and unexpected source. Both the British and Russian banks in Iran called in loans to the Jahāniāns and Arbāb Jamšid, seeking to destroy these competitive financial empires and their dream of creating a national bank of Iran. Zoroastrian commerce, which was already devastated by the fall in international trade, was hit by the bankruptcy of these two important businesses and the loss of the many investments that Zoroastrians had made with them (Mehrfar, “Jamshid Jamshidian,” n.p.). The most powerful political response to the post World War II conditions was anti-British feelings and the resurgence of nationalism (Kia, p. 18).
The era of Reżā Shah: nationalism, secularization, and Zoroastrian integration. By 1922, almost all parties were eager to see greater stability in Iran. The rise of Reżā Shah Pahlavi, originally an army sergeant, to power was reportedly backed by the British (Matin-Asgari, p. 347). Reżā Shah (r. 1925-41) was a strong nationalist. As he centralized authority, he too promoted the pre-Islamic empires as a model of the powerful state and a foundation of a united Iranian national identity (Vanessa Martin, apud Keddie, 2003, p. 103; Kia, p. 18). Nationalism was also expressed in the establishment of the Society of The National Monuments Council of Iran (Anjoman-e āṯār-e melli-e Irān) with Kayḵosrow Šāhroḵ as one of its founding members. Its goal was to “invent and diffuse the notion of cultural heritage … reviving Persia’s cultural grandeur” (Grigor, pp. 9, 20). Its first project was the building of Ferdowsi’s mausoleum (Ārāmgāh-e Ferdowsi) in Ṭus, Khorasan, a task overseen by Šāhroḵ, who incorporated in it much of pre-Islamic architecture (Grigor, pp. 13-18).
The Zoroastrian religion and its rituals were barely conceived as features of nationalistic image, but its symbols in secularized form were thrust into the national scene. After his coronation in 1925, Reżā Shah adopted the pre-Islamic solar calendar using Zoroastrian nomenclature for the names of the months and placed the Faravahar (Mid. Pers. Frawahr, winged man figure) of Persepolis on Air Force airplanes and the national Iranian bus service (Kestenberg Amighi, p. 228). Pre-Islamic motifs were referenced in government statements, popular literature, and architecture (Keddie, 1980, p. 99), strengthened by results of 1930s archeological excavations in Persepolis (Mousavi, pp. 160-62). Western interest and respect reinforced this revivalism. The American art historian Arthur Upham Pope argued that early Iranian culture was foundational in relationship to world art (apud Grigor, p. 27).
Reżā Shah also opened many doors to Zoroastrians, permitting them for the first time to join the army and promoting several officers to high military posts (Ošidari, apud Kestenberg Amighi, p. 169; Stausberg, 2015, p. 178). Many were hired in government positions. The symbolic elevation of pre-Islamic Persia thus was also associated with improvements for contemporary Zoroastrians themselves.
The secularization efforts of Reżā Shah even more significantly improved conditions for Zoroastrians. Reżā Shah took the judicial and educational systems out of the hands of the Muslim clergy (an action which reduced discriminatory attitudes), recruited top bureaucrats from universities (not from clerical schools), and opened government hospitals (which would not refuse to treat Zoroastrians), all of which invited greater active participation of Zoroastrians in various aspects of the Iranian society.
In the socio-cultural domain, Reżā Shah, following Kemal Ataturk, combined pre-Islamic forms of nationalism with many Western practices to create a model of modernization. Because Zoroastrian culture and practices were to some extent pre-adapted to both, many of the social changes mandated or guided by Reżā Shah in effect reduced cultural differences and boundary markers between Muslims and Zoroastrians. When Reżā Shah ordered the exclusive use of westernized dress styles for Iranians (e.g., removal of the veil) and encouraged the adoption of Persian surnames (Stausberg, 2015, p. 180), it decreased the outward differentiation of Muslims and non-Muslims. Opening of wine shops, gender mixing in public, public acceptance of music, and co-educational schooling (Fischer, 1980, pp. 112-13) that decades later became a point of severe criticism by Ayatollah Khomeini, all drew Iranian urban society closer to Zoroastrian patterns.
In the linguistic domain, Reżā Shah and other Persian nationalists reinforced the movement that had started in the 19th century to decrease the number of foreign words, especially Arabic, and to develop a purified Persian as the national language (Kia, p. 20; see FARHANGESTĀN). In the same era, the secret Zoroastrian language of Yazd and Kerman, a local dialect (see BEHDINĀN DIALECT) adopted and called Dari (a term actually referring to the literary language of New Persian), which is not comprehensible to Persian speakers, was disappearing due to the people’s migration to the capital city, especially among the more assimilated Kermanis (Gholami, section 1, n.p.). The decline of Dari and the development of Persian as a symbol of Persian identity fractured long-time linguistic barriers between Zoroastrians and other Persian speakers.
Reforms in Zoroastrian practice furthered this homogenization process. During the period of 1940s-1950s, Zoroastrians of Tehran were abandoning puni (the custom of segregating menstruating and post-partum women). Many purification rituals that involved nirang (consecrated bull urine; Stausberg, 2015 p. 185), the practice of sagdid (the custom of bringing dogs to view the dead), and polygyny were being questioned or rejected. Zoroastrianism, stripped of many of its Vendidad-based customs and Muslim accretions, long criticized by the Parsis reformers and Kayḵosrow Šāhroḵ (Ringer, 2012, p. 273), merged well with the new secularizing and modernizing direction of the capital city. They also accorded well with the slowly developing status of Zoroastrians as representatives of the very modern “true Iranians.”
This wave of change would gradually spread to the provinces. In 1926, under the guidance of Šāhroḵ, Zoroastrians of Tehran raised funds to build a modern cemetery (rather than repair the daḵma). In 1936, in consultation with Arbāb Soruš Sorušiān in Kerman, Šāhroḵ helped convince people there to create a cemetery as well and give up the embarrassing daḵmas (Šāhroḵ, tr., pp. 12-13, 16). In a few other instances, innovations and reforms evolved outside the capital. For example, in 1925, Yazdi women created the first Zoroastrian women’s association with the stated purpose of raising the community’s level of knowledge and fighting superstition and backwardness (Ringer, 2012, p. 272). Thus, many of the changes seen in 1960s Tehran were being foreshadowed early during Reżā Shah’s rule.
However, at the same time, the new Zoroastrian community in Tehran was successfully developing institutional complexity and vitality. Its leader, Kayḵosrow Šāhroḵ, was able to be in many different places at the same time (Yeganegi, 1974). In addition to serving as head of the Tehran Anjoman and parliamentary representative, he raised considerable funds for new community structures and served the shah (Šāhroḵ, tr., p. 28). Between 1918 and 1936, new, highly regarded boys’ and girls’ schools were constructed in Tehran. The boys’ high school, Firuz Bahrām, was considered the best school in the country (Šāhroḵ, tr., p. 49, n. 25). When these schools adopted a more open admission policy, the Muslim elite began flocking to them. Many Zoroastrian families were pleased to have their children gain experience with Muslim society and make connections important for the future (Yeganegi, 1974).
Šāhroḵ developed contacts at the national level, following the traditional pattern of Zoroastrian leadership. As a measure of his stature, in the late 1920s he was sent by Reżā Shah, along with Moḥammad Moṣaddeq, to the United States to restore relations between the two countries (Deboo); he helped establish both the railroad and telephone systems in Iran. His good relations with the elite allowed him, in 1937, to push the parliament to allow recognized religious minorities to observe their own family law and religious laws. Then, integrating expert advice, he helped formalize (and standardize) the family laws for Zoroastrians (Šāhroḵ, tr., p. 30). He ran a business, Šerkat-e Zartoštiān, which provided electricity for several towns in northern Iran, employed many Zoroastrians, and was capitalized with Zoroastrian funds (Kestenberg Amighi, p. 173). The alleyway where the Zoroastrian schools and the fire temple (ādoriān) were located was named after him in his honor.
Zoroastrians at times speak of their past victimhood and travails, but they usually prefer stories of their heroes. These include Shah ʿAbbās I, who is said to have saved Zoroastrians from a massacre, and more recently, Maneckji Hateria, Arbāb Jamšid, Kayḵosrow Šāhroḵ and others. By telling the tales of rescue and accomplishment, people share in the glory of their heroes (Goldstein, p. 94) rather than being reminded of their past humiliations. Although Šāhroḵ presumably maintained close relationship with the monarch, it is believed that, in 1940, Reżā Shah ordered his assassination. It occurred during the time when Šāhroḵ’s son, Bahrām, was disseminating German propaganda from Berlin, including statements critical of the shah (Yaghubian, p. 134; Azimi, p. 461, note 90; ʿĀqeli, II, p. 858).
In 1941, Reżā Shah himself fell, forced by the Allied Forces to abdicate. He went into exile, leaving his young son to continue as a figurehead through the next thirteen years of war, famine, disorder, and rebellion. The loss of key community leaders and a powerful though despotic ruler, the rise of Islamic activism, and the economic depression of the post-World War II period coalesced to suspend the era of growth of the Zoroastrian communities.
The Moṣaddeq era: Political turmoil and internal orientation. With the decline of law and order, discriminatory practices increased in the provinces. In Kerman, mobs attacked the Zoroastrian district, killing two men (Abrahamian, p. 174). Members of Fadāʾiān-e Eslām reportedly assassinated several individuals deemed too close to the West or anti-Islamist, such as the nationalist historian, Aḥmad Kasravi, and an eminent Zoroastrian merchant (Keddie, 1980, p. 100), Parviz Jahaniān, one of the Jahaniān brothers.
Economic hardship fell hardest on those involved in commercial activities. International trade had again been curtailed by World War II. Economic decline also cut off Parsi aid (Kestenberg Amighi, p. 188). Drought and food shortages sent many poor Zoroastrians into Tehran, seeking not entrepreneurship, but aid. In 1940 there were an estimated 1,800 Zoroastrians in Tehran (Ošidari, in Kestenberg Amighi, p. 188). The census of 1956 recorded 4,992 Tehran Zoroastrians, many of whom were of low income.
Interregnums were almost always dangerous times for the Zoroastrians, but this one also offered a temptingly open environment for political discourse, which presented a challenging combination. The nationalist parties (such as Āzāda and Irān), which flourished during this period, were open to Muslims only (Alphonse, pp. 22-24; Abrahamian, p. 388). This encouraged some progressive Zoroastrians to turn to the then legal communist party, Tudeh (Abrahamian, p. 385). Farhang Mehr, in his memoir, recalls attending such communist meetings and exploring new ideas (Alfonse, pp. 22-24).
However, the Zoroastrian community leadership was by and large conservative, led by businessman Rostam Giv. It was the more conservative merchants who had survived the economic crises best, and now they would assert control (Kestenberg Amighi, p. 188). In a liberal, but chaotic and potentially dangerous environment, the Anjoman leaders closed ranks, avoiding involvement in national politics (Mehr, pp. 3-4) and strengthening community boundaries between themselves and Muslims. Non-Zoroastrians were no longer invited to attend community events; intermarriage was severely frowned upon, as well as close relations with outsiders. The mobads of Tehran refused to marry Rostam Ṣarfa, a prominent Zoroastrian, to a foreign woman, although ironically he found a willing Zoroastrian cleric in Yazd. In contrast, much earlier Kayḵosrow Šāhroḵ’s son married a foreign woman, who was allowed to convert to Zoroastrianism. (Kestenberg Amighi, p. 190).
These conservative merchants were generous leaders, offering funds to help the poor, keep the schools running without Parsi aid, and provide jobs and housing. Arbāb Rostam Giv established a large charitable foundation that supported both Zoroastrians and Muslims in need. He built low-rental houses equipped with modern amenities for sixty needy Zoroastrian families on his land in Rostam Bāḡ at Tehrān Pārs in the suburbs of Tehran. There people were encouraged to speak Dari and uphold rituals that were dying out among middle and upper classes (Kestenberg Amighi, pp. 200-202). Rostam Bāḡ included two public schools, a fire temple (ādoriān), and a water reservoir. It served its intended philanthropic purpose, but reinforced the segregation of lower-income Zoroastrians.
The most serious problem faced by the Anjoman was its eventual inability to finance the Zoroastrian school system adequately. With the acceptance of government aid, the Anjoman was forced to accept students (Muslim and Zoroastrian) tuition-free, to give up enrichment courses, and to cede control of the curriculum (Alphonse, p. 15; Kestenberg Amighi, p. 192). The involved community members, whose future prosperity rested on the basis of their schools, protested the changes (Amighi, p. 192). Their readiness to protest was encouraged by the open environment of the times and new Zoroastrian organizations.
In 1943, a number of young men had joined together to create a youth club, Sāzmān-e Javānān-e Zartošti (Alfonse, pp. 25-28), which was later called Sazmān-e Faravahar. They had sufficient resources to develop and expand without Anjoman sponsorship. Soon they were holding lively community ceremonial gatherings, offering educational courses, concerts, etc., more often than the burdened Anjoman could provide. Oriented toward the youth, working class, and conservative middle class Zoroastrians families, Faravahar sent buses to pick people up from Rostam Bāḡ and central Tehran, where lower income Zoroastrians also lived; they held initiation rites (sedra-pušun “putting on the sacred shirt”; see KUSTĪG), free of cost, and trained lay priests to overcome the shortages in this field (Kestenberg Amighi, pp. 244-50).
Although they had a competitive relationship with the Anjoman, they developed many similar policies (Parki). The young leaders of Sāzmān-e Faravahar promoted a Zoroastrianism cleansed of complex Vendidād (“the law repudiating the demons”) rituals and focused on the earliest and most philosophical works of the Avesta, the Gathas. Like the Anjoman, they maintained a delicate balance of using Muslim resources when needed and being concerned with Muslim opinion, but also guarding community boundaries. For example, no upcoming events were announced in the Zoroastrian publications; Muslims were not invited to social events for young people, and Zoroastrians preferred to utilize Zoroastrian resources when possible. But Muslim government officials and scholars were often invited to speak at opening sessions of festivities (Parki).
However, the two organizations frequently clashed over control and degree of liberalism. In response, the Anjoman formed its own youth club called Bāšgāh-e Zartošti, which was headed by Anjoman members. The formation of a competing organization cemented the dispute and forced interested community members to take sides (Kestenberg Amighi, p. 203). The strategy revealed how the presence of dispersed, rather than concentrated, resources could easily lead to institutional fragmentation.
Also coming out of this relatively free environment was the establishment in 1950 of the Zoroastrian Women’s Club (Sāzmān-e zanān-e zartošti) in Tehran. The club was founded by eight women from prominent families, including Farangis Šāhroḵ Yegānegi (daughter of Kayḵosrow Šāhroḵ), Laʿl Nawḏar Jamšidiān, and Dawlat Lorāsp, the wife of the chief mobad, Rostam Šahzādi (Sāzman-e zanān, n.p.). At first they followed the model of the National Women’s organization. They offered literacy classes, sewing, hygiene, and cooking skills to low-income Muslim and Zoroastrian women, many arriving from rural areas. As applicants’ numbers grew, they limited themselves to helping Zoroastrians (Kestenberg Amighi, p. 197) and began to hold socio-religious functions.
Although comprised of many wives of Anjoman members and essentially conservative in their mission, the women’s club clashed with the Anjoman over proper female roles. However, in Iranian custom, married women retain control over their dowries, and many of these women had considerable resources of their own. When they were evicted from Anjoman facilities, they rented space in a nearby Armenian church and later, with funds from women like Laʿl Jamšidiān, acquired their own facilities (Sāzmān-e zanān, n.p.). Their national-level connections gained them formal recognition from the National Women’s Organization (Kestenberg Amighi, p. 198) and membership in the High Council of Women’s Organizations of Iran (Yeganegi, 1983, n.p.).
In 1951, the newly elected Prime Minister Moḥammad Moṣaddeq promoted liberal policies, such as declaring that oaths could be sworn on any “holy book” rather than only on the Qurʾan and in treating all, including Bahais, as equals (Kazemzadeh). It may have been the latter point that infuriated Muslim conservatives and made them support the CIA-instigated coup against the regime in 1953. When Moḥammad Reżā Shah Pahlavi retrieved formal control, he collaborated with ulama in the persecution of Bahais, but he soon followed in his pro-Zoroastrian father’s footsteps.
The secular era of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi: Transformations of the Zoroastrian community. Within a few years the new shah had consolidated his power enough to challenge Muslim authority. Like his father, he was emphatic about elevating the Zoroastrian past over Iran’s Shiʿite heritage as an antidote to Muslim clerical influence. This nationalist approach also countered complaints about undue westernization (Choksy, p. 46). He also frequently adopted symbols of pre-Islamic empires to herald his own legitimacy. When he inaugurated the White Revolution, Mohammed Reza Shah had its principles carved into rock, as did the Zoroastrian kings long before him (Choksy, p. 53). Furthermore, like his father, Reżā Shah, Mohammed Reza Shah’s continuing secularization of society decreased boundaries and differentiation between Muslims and religious minorities, even reaching into the domestic sphere. For example, the Family Protection Law (Qānun-e ḥemāyat-e ḵvānavāda; see GENDER RELATIONS i. In modern Persia) of 1967 brought minorities under almost all aspects of national law for the first time. Zoroastrians did not formally reject this greater level of integration but rather sought to end the last remaining impediments to full integration, such as access to ministerial positions and judgeships.
The late 1950s and 1960s brought a wave of economic prosperity to the Zoroastrians, after the hardships of the post-World War II period. More individuals were attracted to Tehran. The 1956 population of 4,992 Zoroastrians in Tehran almost doubled to 9,353 by 1966 (Census of Iran, 1966). The safe environment and economic prosperity led to a renewal of institutional growth. By the 1960s, there were over 20 Zoroastrian organizations and institutions in Tehran, including a clinic (darmāngāh; founded in 1960 by Esfandiār Yagānegi), a bookstore, a library (founded in 1958 by Farangis Šāhroḵ/Yagānegi), 10 clubs, as well as four different publications (Kestenberg Amighi, pp. 372-73). The youth club, Faravahar, for example, was attracting over 3,000 people to its most popular celebrations, and over 2,000 gathered at the cemetery to mark the death of Zoroaster. One elderly woman recalled watching the streams of cars of the elite crowding the street leading to the site (Kestenberg Amighi, p. 208). The Zoroastrian Women’s club was also attracting large numbers.
Although a Zoroastrian could still not hold the highest office in a government institution, quite a few of them were often promoted to powerful positions. For example Arbāb Faridun Zartošti and Bozorg Mehr were elected as members of the Tehran city council; there were two Zoroastrian generals and several Zoroastrian heads of departments within ministries. Most notably, Farhang Mehr held high-level government positions, including as director of national insurance, general deputy minister of finance, and chancellor of Pahlavi University in Shiraz and then of Tehran University (Alphonse, pp. 30, 88; Kestenberg Amighi, p. 256). Mehr’s access to such positions was in part due to his friendship with the to-be prime minister, Ḥasan-ʿAli Manṣur, a friendship formed during their years at the Zoroastrian high school, Firuz Bahrām. Fahrangis Šāhroḵ was elected secretary of the (national) Iranian Women’s Association (Šurā-ye ʿāli-e zanān) and founded along with Mehr the Ancient Iranian Cultural Society (Anjoman farhang-e Irān-e bāstān) and the National Handicraft Organization of Iran (Sāzmān-e ṣanāyeʿ- dasti-e Irān; Alphonse, p. 47).
Dissatisfaction with the cautious and conservative Zoroastrian leadership encouraged some young professionals to become politically involved in the community, where their national level success won them local status. Not surprisingly, the Anjoman leadership resisted a transfer of power. However, after some delayed elections and other manipulations, the professionals, notably Farhang Mehr and Rostam Parki, prevailed (Alphonse, pp. 48, 56). Their election victory in 1966 led to a significant transformation in the Anjoman and community leadership. In 1939, merchants had comprised 66 percent of Anjoman members (Yearbook of the Anjoman, apud Kestenberg Amighi p. 189). A few years later, the Anjoman began accommodating the growth in the numbers of professionals by forming advisory commissions whose members were primarily physicians and other professionals. After the 1966 election, the percentage of merchants in the Anjoman was less than 30 percent, reflecting the changing composition and orientation of the Zoroastrian population (Hukht, apud Kestenberg Amighi, pp. 207, 256).
There were of course still a few active merchant philanthropists, most notably the very generous Rostam Giv Foundation (Bonyād-e Rostam Giv, founded 1958), the Zartoshti brothers (Mehrfar, “Fereidoon Zartoshti,” n.p.) and the Yegānegis. Esfandiār Yegānegi (Founder of Zartoshti Irrigation Ltd) held the Anjoman presidency briefly and the parliamentary position from 1963 to 1972. His tenure was much like that of leaders of earlier times. Not only was he a philanthropist within the community, but he also cultivated close relationships with the Muslim elite, hosting large dinners, donating irrigation services to Muslim villages, etc., and reinforcing the Zoroastrian image of honesty and generosity (Mehrfar, ”Esfandiar Yeganegi,” n.p; Yeganegi, 1974). Upon his death in 1972, the professionals resumed the leadership.
What was the impact of the professionalization of the community leadership? Unlike merchants, professionals rarely have the liquid wealth or time to invest in the community. Under these reformers, led by Farhang Mehr, community organizations increased in numbers and degree of specialization. However, most of them were their own low cost professional groups, such as the Zoroastrian university students association, the doctors’ club, the engineers’ club, the women university graduates’ club, all in the late 1960s and 1970s (Kestenberg Amighi, Table 3, p. 372). Such organizations, however, did not provide unifying frameworks for the community.
The professionals also were strong promoters of the rationalization of Zoroastrian practice, and they surrounded themselves with like-minded individuals. Even the chief mobad of Tehran, Rostam Šahzādi, who had translated the first book of the Avesta, the Gathas, into Persian, promoted reformed Zoroastrianism (Mehrfar, n.p.; “Mobed Rostam Shahzadi,” 1974, n.p.). The de-emphasis on complex rituals and performance reduced levels of participation in community events such as gāhanbārs (Ringer, 2011, p. 273). About 50 percent of Tehran Zoroastrians surveyed in the 1970s by Amighi had low levels of participation in religious rituals (Kestenberg Amighi, Table 1, p. 370). One may wonder what would have been left of Zoroastrian faith if the elders’ knowledge was devalued and the youth had little opportunity to learn about its theology?
Many observers of the community and community members themselves began to predict the demise of the Iranian Zoroastrians. Richard Frye, a noted scholar of Zoroastrian history speaking at the Second North American Zoroastrian Symposium, warned that Zoroastrianism was becoming a frozen relic of the past (apud Kestenberg Amighi, p. 213). Older Zoroastrians themselves deplored the decline and simplification of religious and family observances among the educated young generation (Kestenberg Amighi, pp. 272-73), their ignorance of the Dari language, loss of interest in Zoroastrian culture in general, and the increasing numbers of intermarriages. This view was elaborated upon in a public lecture by chief Mobad Rostam Šahzādi (Šahzādi, pp. 13-20, apud Ringer, 2012, p. 273).
Thus, it appeared that the modernization and secularization of society, which significantly reduced Muslim prejudice against Zoroastrians, was also paradoxically responsible for the growing secularization and assimilation of Zoroastrians themselves. To what extent was this pessimistic view an accurate depiction of the condition of Zoroastrians in the 1970s? Alternatively, to what extent was it the kind of prediction that is frequently made as a new generation comes to the fore and patterns of the older generation appear to be left behind? Was Zoroastrianism dissipating or evolving?
There is no doubt that in 1970s the once ritualized, close-knit Zoroastrian communities of Kerman and especially of Yazd were disappearing. There were no Zoroastrian villagers left in Kerman (English, p. 280), and in Yazd villages were emptying of their Zoroastrian residents due to migration to Tehran or conversion to Islam and Bahaism (Boyce, p. 9). Even the towns were rapidly losing their Zoroastrian populations. Furthermore, these small, once homogeneous neighborhoods were not being replicated in Tehran.
In fact there were many changes taking place in the shape and practices of the religion in the secularizing small cities of Yazd and Kerman and especially in the rapidly growing city of Tehran in 1970s. Most of the changes were part of long-term trends, but the rate of change was accelerating in an environment of rapidly increasing oil revenue and societal transformations.
A significant change was the formalization, centralization, and institutionalization of Zoroastrian religious practice. In Yazd and Kerman, Zoroastrians had lived mostly in compact fairly homogeneous neighborhoods, celebrating most rituals in their courtyards amongst kin and neighbors. In the early 20th century, there had also been a population center in Tehran. However, as immigration continued, families had scattered throughout the city (Stausberg, 2015, p. 185), more on the basis of wealth than ethnicity/religion. Many religious rituals were transported from courtyards to formal institutional settings, where crowds could gather and religious and secular Zoroastrian authorities could guide and oversee practices. Still located on Arbāb Jamšid’s early land holdings, the fire temple (ādoriān), the celebration hall, and schools (with cooking space) provided facilities for a wide range of ritual and social celebrations. Religious practice was thus not so much privatized, as often happens with minorities, as it was becoming centralized and institutionalized.
The nature of the rituals was also changing in several ways. Many of the purification and death rituals of the earlier decades had disappeared, and their symbolic messages of the ever-present struggle between purity and pollution, between good and evil, the Truth and the Lie were diminished. Muslims were hired to wash and carry polluting cadavers; nirang, as a purification agent, was no longer used by laymen. The message of purity persisted, but with the substitution of the secular word “hygiene.” The most modern-sounding aspects of the religion were pressed forward, for instance, equal treatment of women, respect for the environment, avoidance of pollution, and a greater focus on the more secular phrase: “Good words, good thoughts, and good deeds” (Av. humata hūxta huvaršta) reflecting a much more individualistic, less ritually focused, ethic (Ringer, 2012, p. 272).
The Anjoman and other key organizations participated in this trend, offering regular lectures, often delivered by Muslim scholars, focused on the philosophical tenets of Zoroastrianism, and Zoroastrian publications also promoted a similar message (Ringer, 2012, p. 272). This philosophical orientation was embraced by many activists but left behind the majority of elders, who still understood Zoroastrianism through its ritual practices.
The ritual events that continued to be celebrated, such as porsa (funerals), were also being transformed to accord more to modern models. Previously, in ritual purity, the mobad had sat to the side reciting Avesta prayers while crowds mingled during a funerary rite or gāhanbār. In the formal settings, he was placed in front center, facing the attendees who were sitting in church-like rows, while many people continued chatting and socializing. Sāzmān-e Fravahar and the temple functionaries attempted to create an aura of respect and focal attention to prayers (Rastegari; Kestenberg Amighi, pp. 278-79). This change epitomized the losing struggle of traditionalists against the wave of reforms.
A reduction in attendance at rituals, whether at a temple or a social gathering, was reinforced by the exigencies of urban life, such as traffic jams, time constraints, and secular attitudes. Smaller family sizes also meant that there were fewer rites of passage rituals to attend and less social pressure to maintain appearances. Many of the events that attracted people in large numbers were in a secularized form, such as the popular Jašn-e Sada (fire ritual) or women’s club tours and gatherings.
In the tolerant and secular environment of Tehran, religious identity, though important, was becoming compartmentalized. Social relationships with Muslims were becoming more comfortable and convenient. Zoroastrian schools complained that Zoroastrians of means would send their children to more convenient and high-status, secular schools, claiming that their children needed to learn to get along in Muslim majority world (Kestenberg Amighi, p. 236). Zoroastrian identity itself was becoming more secular. However, there were several countervailing forces resisting the apparent assimilation and secularization of Zoroastrians. These other influences were not new, but they were gaining intensity.
A key factor was the continuing elevation of the status of Zoroastrianism that accompanied the secular nationalism of the shah. The inclusion of pre-Islamic history in school textbooks (Fischer, 2002, p. 222) encouraged some Zoroastrian and Muslim youths to learn more about Zoroastrianism. This interest was reinforced by the nativistic anti-Western activists, such as Jalāl Āl-e Aḥmad and Henry Corbin, who were pursuing an authenticity discourse and lauded purely Iranian celebrations and symbols (Matin-Asgari, p. 360). The general public welcomed increased integration into their lives of joyful Zoroastrian celebrations. Not only did they observe Nowruz (spring new year), but also Jašn-e Sada (fire building ritual of winter) and Jašn-e Mehragān (fall festival); thus rituals commemorating the seasons (unlike Muslim holidays) were gaining popularity. Most Muslims in Tehran recognized the Faravahar symbol and approved of its often associated “Good words, good thoughts, good deeds.”
Confronted with Muslim interest and respect, Zoroastrians became more proud of their heritage and more eager to preserve at least some aspects of it. Embarrassed by their lack of knowledge, some Zoroastrian youths consulted books in the Yeganegi library or sent people to Mobad Šahzādi (Kestenberg Amighi pp. 230-31). There was a spark of selective revivalism, which encouraged the Anjoman and other organizations to offer more lectures and educational events. Besides, despite secularization, Zoroastrians were not free of reminders of past persecution and its potential revival by anti-shah ulama. In 1962, when, as part of the White Revolution, minorities were allowed to be elected to town councils, some Muslims of Yazd revolted, replicating a similar event that had occurred during the Constitutional period (Afary, p. 316). The rebel cleric, Ruhollah Khomeini, wrote to Prime Minister Asad-Allāh ʿAlam warning him not to abrogate the Islamic law that being Muslim was a precondition for electing or being elected to office. He wrote, “… If you think you can replace the Qurʾān with the Zoroastrian Avesta … then you are mistaken” (Khomeini, p. 7, apud Floor, p. 85). When Farangis Shahrokh Yeganegi was part of a national movement to improve women’s rights, she was singled out for a death threat (Yeganegi, p. 33). When, in 1971, the shah used the Cyrus cylinder as its symbol of his extravagant celebration of 2500 years of kingship at Persepolis, some Muslims protested that it would provoke a revitalization of Zoroastrianism and further debilitation of the true religion of Islam (Akhavi, p. 162, apud Kestenberg Amighi, p. 225). Even milder public displays of Zoroastrianism were deemed potentially dangerous. There was considerable fear of a Muslim backlash when a television station broadcasted Zoroastrian Nowruz prayers in 1978 (Kestenberg Amighi, p. 228). The backlash could be more virulent in the provinces. A baker in Ahvaz who had converted to Zoroastrianism as an act of nationalism found his shop boycotted by Muslim customers, who labeled him najes (polluting; Kestenberg Amighi, pp. 130-31). Even a single instance of discrimination could spread fear in the community and at least partially revive the observance of boundaries.
Zoroastrians responded to increased numbers of intermarriages by gathering in conferences and congresses to dispute long-held traditions of refusing to admit new converts to the religion. People questioned whether someone who had not undergone centuries of persecution could understand the full nature of Zoroastrian identity (Kestenberg Amighi, p. 230), focusing on the ethnic aspect of Zoroastrian identity. Boundaries were being guarded as well as challenged and reworked.
In the ritual domain, rites of passage, however diminished, could not easily be erased from observance. Thus, the Zoroastrian Celebration Hall (Tālār-e ḵosravi), was perennially booked for wedding parties and death commemorations, in part because it was both well managed and also was perceived as a safe and less flamboyant environment (Rastegari). Funerals were always observed at the fire temple. There was no alternative. Zoroastrian institutions fulfilled required needs and would prevail. Furthermore, although many traditional rituals had faded or ended, new unifying symbols and practices arose to some extent replacing the lost ones. When the Zoroastrian Women’s Organization decided that women should all wear white headscarves at funerals to reflect Zoroastrian tradition and differentiate from Muslims (Ringer, 2012, p. 273), this information was quickly spread during the porsa. These rituals offered opportunities to recreate forms of solidarity and mark boundaries in new ways (Kestenberg Amighi, p. 242).
In fact, what was happening was the development of a great traditional form of Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrians could identify with it in various ways, but the whole nature of the community had become transformed by modernizing forces around it. Thus, the common experiential measures of assimilation were not necessarily as valid as they appeared. Most Zoroastrians, as well as observers, could agree that there was less knowledge of the traditional religion and less intra-group intercourse than had been the case a generation earlier. But there were new institutions being developed. The secular environment challenged both religious and social rituals, but Zoroastrians were far from being assimilated. Just as the community went through a transition of increased boundaries during the political upheavals of the 1940s and 1950s, in the 1970s it was going through a new transition, adapting to an open environment and rationalization of their religion by the leadership. One cannot evaluate how powerful the impact of the secular environment would have been among the next generation.
The Islamic Revolution of 1978-79 would lead to remarkable changes in the Zoroastrian community, challenges that no one would have predicted a few years earlier. One may suggest that it is often difficult to fully differentiate between change in what it means to be Zoroastrian versus community extinction, because, after all, change entails endings as well as beginnings.
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Idem, “Mobed Rostam Shahzadi,” at Vohuman Archive, http://www.zoroastrian.org.uk/vohuman/Article/Shahzadi,Rostam.htm.
Sāzman-e zanān zartošti, at http://www.zananzartoshti.ir/article-topic0-page12.html
Azar Tabari, “Role of the Shi'i Clergy in Modern Iranian Politics,” at libcom.org, 2014, https://libcom.org/library/role-shii-clergy-modern-iranian-politics-azar-tabari.
(Janet Kestenberg Amighi)
Originally Published: February 15, 2016
Last Updated: February 15, 2016Cite this entry:
Janet Kestenberg Amighi, “ZOROASTRIANS IN IRAN iv. Between the Constitutional and the Islamic Revolutions,” Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2016, available at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/zoroastrians-in-iran-parent (accessed on 15 February 2016).