A look at Iran’s Diverse Religious History
Iran has a large Christian community and over 300 beautiful churches, many of which are on the UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Iranian Christians live in complete harmony and amity with the rest of the country. With the Christmas celebrations over, Iranians are already preparing for their biggest annual celebration; the Persian new year.
Norooz (meaning “[The] New Day“) is the name of the New year in the Persian calendar and is the first day of spring is also referred to as the “Persian New Year“. It is celebrated and observed principally in Iran and has spread in many other parts of the world, including parts of Central Asia, Caucasus, Northwestern China, the Crimea and some groups in the Balkans.
Originally being a Zoroastrian festival why not use this occasion to take a look at Iran’s diverse religious history?
Prior to the foundation of Islam in Iran, Persians are noted for the development of one of the oldest monotheistic religions, Zoroastrianism.
One of the best books written on the religions of Iran is Richard C. Foltz’s scholarly treatise, “Spirituality in the Land of the Noble: How Iran Shaped the World’s Religions.” Foltz is an associate professor of religion at the University of Florida and he writes beautifully about how so many religions have been deeply influenced by Iran.
Some of the religions that have been impacted by Iran include Islam, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Gnostic Traditions, the Bahá’í Faith and the Bábi Movement. Even the ancient religion of Hinduism, followed by over a billion people, most of them in India, has strong links to Iran.
Even though Islam is today the dominant religion in Iran, it’s important to understand that Iran became Islamic only recently. Zoroastrianism and the Bahá’í Faith are ancient religions that originated in Iran. Today, they are followed only by a small minority of people, but have a proud history behind them.
Zoroastrianism, in particular, influenced all major religions and beliefs in the world.
Dr. Foltz writes in his book that the Rig Veda, one of the most sacred Hindu texts, is likely to have originated in Iran, where the Indo-Aryans are believed to have come from. The Rig Veda shares many things in common with ancient Zoroastrian text, the Avesta.
Buddhism was once followed in Iran and was very popular at that time. It is no longer a part of Iranian society, unfortunately. The Buddhism that was practiced in Iran consisted of many Iranian ideas. In fact, the missionaries who carried Buddhism to China and Central Asia were of Zoroastrian background. The Buddhist style of architecture is heavily influenced by Zoroastrian style.
Judaism is closely linked with Iran through the Old Testament, which is really about the history of the ancient Israelis, who spent many years in exile in Persia.
Judaism changed radically following the stay of the earliest Israelis in Persia. The Jewish concept of the messiah is actually derived from the Zoroastrian concept of “Saoshyant” or savior.
Christianity is another religion that is deeply influenced by Iran. There are many religious scholars who believe that the three wise men who came to witness the birth of Jesus Christ were Zoroastrians from Iran.
Islam is the religion followed by the majority in Iran. Iran and Islam are closely linked. Not many know that even though Islam originated in Arabia, it was influenced to a great degree by Iran.
It was mostly Iranians who compiled the Hadith, the sayings of Prophet Mohammad. The concept of an Islamic school or the Madrasa was also derived from Iran.