A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, June 1, 2015

Are Kurds Turning to Zoroastrianism? Thoughts on the Cultural and Historical Context

Juan Cole at his blog reproduces an article from niqash.org by Alaa Latif: "Kurdish Muslims abandoning Islam for Zoroastrianism in Disgust at ISIL/Daesh?" The original article at Niqash carries the title "The One, True Kurdish Prophet?Thanks To Extremism, Iraqis Revive Ancient Religion."
An excerpt:
For the first time in over a thousand years, locals in a rural part of Sulaymaniyah province conducted an ancient ceremony on May 1, whereby followers put on a special belt that signifies they are ready to serve the religion and observe its tenets. It would be akin to a baptism in the Christian faith.
The newly pledged Zoroastrians have said that they will organise similar ceremonies elsewhere in Iraqi Kurdistan and they have also asked permission to build up to 12 temples inside the region, which has its own borders, military and Parliament. Zoroastrians are also visiting government departments in Iraqi Kurdistan and they have asked that Zoroastrianism be acknowledged as a religion officially. They even have their own anthem and many locals are attending Zoroastrian events and responding to Zoroastrian organisations and pages on social media.
Although as yet there are no official numbers as to how many Kurdish locals are actually turning to this religion, there is certainly a lot of discussion about it. And those who are already Zoroastrians believe that as soon as locals learn more about the religion, their numbers will increase. They also seem to selling the idea of Zoroastrianism by saying that it is somehow “more Kurdish” then other religions – certainly an attractive idea in an area where many locals care more about their ethnic identity than religious divisions.
I don't know to what degree this overstates the supposed trend; it seems to be regionally localized and there are no numbers cited. And Zoroastrians traditionally do not proselytize, though that is perhaps a response to living in Islamic-dominated areas.

A few side thoughts, however. While orthodox Zoroastrianism itself has much declined in the Middle East proper there are a number of small, syncretiistic religious groups in Iran, northern Iraq, and Eastern Turkey that incorporate elements of Zoroastrian tradition, including to a greater or lesser degree the Yazidis and Shabak in Iraq, Alevis in Turkey, ‘Ali-Elahis and Ahl-e Haqq (Yarsanis) in Iran, and even the Syrian ‘Alawites,  Most have secret or semi-secret doctrines and retain elements of Zoroastrianism, Mazdakism, Mithraism, or other Ancient Persian beliefs overlaid with elements of Shi‘ite or Sufi Islam. The strong influence of Sufi orders in Kurdistan (Naqshbandi and Qadiri foremost among them) also may predispose many to an openness to heterodox ideas. During the siege of Jabal Sinjar and the Yazidis, I considered writing more about these small, syncretist, heterodox groups whose links to Islam are tenuous at best, and will get to that eventually. 

Zoroastrian revivals are not a recent phenomenon. Babak Khorrami, who led an uprising against the ‘Abbasid Caliphate in 9th Century AD Azerbaijan, led one such movement attempting to revive either Zoroastrianism or its offshoot Mazdkism. Patricia Crone's The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran: Rural Revolt and Local Zoroastrianism is now the standard source.

The article definitely overreaches in its opening paragraph:
[Zoroastrianism] was founded by Zoroaster, also known as Zarathustra, who was born in the Kurdish part of Iran and the religion’s sacred book, the Avesta, was written in an ancient language from which the Kurdish language derives.
Most linguists class Avestan as originating in northeastern Iran not Kurdistan, All the ancient Indo-Iranian languages derive fom a common origin, but modern Persian has at least as much claim as Kurdish to "derive" from Avestan.

Biographical details of Zoroaster/Zarathustra/Zardusht are much disputed. The various scriptures were composed at varying times, and there is some uncertainty about dating the Prophet, even to whether he belongs in the First or Second Millennium BC. So too, there is uncertainty about his birthplace. Many older traditions point to northwestern Iran, to Azerbaijan or to Rayy in Media, near Tehran. But others point to northeastern Iran and even Central Asia, and the language of the Avesta is Eastern. The Encyclopedia Iranica has extensive treatment of the uncertainties of Zoroaster's history.

In any event he represents a religious figure and culture hero to not just Persian speakers but to speakers of other Iranian languages, including Kurdish. Claiming him as a Kurd may not reflect the consensus of Zoroastrian Studies scholars, but then, there really is no consensus of Zoroastrian Studies scholars on where he was born, or even exactly when.

Update: For more see Brian Ulrich's comments in the Comments, and the link.


Brian Ulrich said...

Ages ago, in a blog post on the Yezidis (http://bjulrich.blogspot.com/2014/08/yezidi-pilgrimage.html), I called attention to the role of an Iranian religious substrate surviving in the mountains from eastern Anatolia into Iran. This has been most thorough studied, of course, by Patricia Crone. It wouldn't surprise me if some element of Kurdish nationalists are therefore picking up on Zoroastrianism as an authentically Kurdish religion. I agree, though, the reporting on Kurdish religious trends has a habit of portraying local phenomena as something more widespread.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

I've added a note to the post pointing to the comment nd link.