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Jamsheed K. Choksy
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


The Zoroastrian religion developed from the preaching of a devotional poet named Zarathushtra (New Persian or Farsi: Zardosht). The Greeks and other Europeans rendered his name as Zoroaster. Zarathushtra lived sometime between 1750 and 1500 B.C.E. in Central Asia among proto-Iranian tribal people. When those tribes migrated southwestward to the Iranian plateau between 1500 and 800 B.C.E., they carried his teachings with them. There, under the influence of Middle Eastern images of holy men such as Abraham, Jesus, and Muhammad, Zarathushtra's hagiography was revised posthumously to depict him as a prophet who established a faith named after him. Zoroastrianism became the major religion of Iranians from the Achaemenid dynasty (550–330 B.C.E.) through the Sassanian dynasty (224–650 CE).

Zoroastrianism currently has a global following of approximately 137,250 to 208,000 individuals. They include Iranis or the Zoroastrians of Iran, Parsis or the Zoroastrians of India, immigrants from those groups, and recent converts. Population estimates include 90,000 in Iran, 69,600 in India, 7,000 in Uzbekistan, 2,100–2,800 in Pakistan, 1,500 in the United Arab Emirates, 1,000 in Tajikistan, 300 in Oman, 125–130 in Bahrain, 100 in Kuwait, 100 in Saudi Arabia, 75 in Qatar, 25–30 in Malaysia, and fewer than 10 per country in Azerbaijan, Jordan, and Yemen.


Devotees refer to their faith as the Zarathushti dīn, “Zoroastrian religion.” They call themselves Zartoshtiyan, Zardoshtiyan, or Jarthushtis. Zoroastrians also call their religion Mazdayasna daena or den i Mazdesn, “religion of Mazda,” and themselves as Mazdayasna, “worshipers of Mazda,” because they venerate Ahura Mazda (also called Ohrmazd), “the Wise Lord,” as God and creator.

Medieval Muslim authors writing in Classical Arabic and New Persian designated all Zoroastrians as al-Majūs (Magians), based upon the technical term for Zoroastrian priests or magi (New Persian: mobed). Many Zoroastrian acts of worship customarily are conducted in the presence of fires on altars inside ātish-kadas (fire temples). Consequently the New Persian term ātish-parast (fire worshipper), adopted from medieval Iranian Christian usage, became an insult directed by Muslims at Zoroastrians despite the latter's protests that their actions were similar to Muslims facing miḥrābs (prayer niches) and the Kaʿbah. Another New Persian designation utilized by medieval and premodern Muslims to deride Zoroastrians as nonbelievers in God was gabr, “hollow, empty, one lacking faith, infidel,” despite the latter community's claim that their scripture, called the Avesta, is a holy book just like the Bible and the Qurʿān.

History under Medieval Muslim Dynasties.

Arab Muslims conquered the Middle East in the seventh century. To facilitate peaceful governance, medieval Muslim rulers and scholars drew upon ḥadīth, “traditions,” attributed to the prophet Muhammad and Rāshidūn caliphs like ʿUmar I and ʿAlī ibn ʿAbī Ṭālib to incorporate Zoroastrians into the ahl al-dhimmah, “religiously protected communities.” Not all Muslims recognized Zoroastrians as a dhimmī community, but the Umayyad (661–750) and ʿAbbāsīd (750–1258) caliphates and subsequent dynasties did. Despite protected status, most Zoroastrians in Iran and western Central Asia converted to Islam over the next six hundred years. Many Zoroastrian religious buildings either were transformed for Islamic use or abandoned and destroyed. The chahar taq (four-arch) style of fire precinct with its gombad (domed roof) was assimilated into Muslim religious architecture as domed mosques. Zoroastrian notions of afterlife across a bridge leading to heaven and of an apocalypse followed by an eschaton entered Sunnism and Shiism.

As they became a political and demographic minority, Zoroastrians clustered in central and southeastern Iran, especially in the desert cities of Yazd and Kermān and surrounding villages. They were required to pay the jizyah (poll tax) to Muslim authorities to ensure their freedom of worship. Payment of the jizyah and dhimmī status did not prevent sporadic persecution as infidels, events contributing to their adoption of Islam under Sunnī regimes established by the Seljuks (1037–1194) and the Il-Khanids (1256–1335) among others. Discrimination and violence against the Zoroastrian minority became more systematic after the Ṣafavid dynasty (1501–1722) transformed Iran into a Shīʿī state. Many Zoroastrians living in Iran during the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries had their homes raided and their religious texts burned. Most rites had to be performed indoors, out of the view of Muslims. Only after intercession by other Zoroastrians in British India was religious freedom enhanced and the jizyah abolished by a royal decree from the Qājār dynasty (1779–1921) in 1882. Thereafter, Zoroastrian anjomans (associations) were established, as were women's societies and secular schools for Zoroastrian boys and girls.

Between the seventh and tenth centuries there had been migrations from Iran by Zoroastrians. Groups of immigrants went to India and formed the Parsi (Persian) community that flourishes to the present. Parsis were compelled to pay the jizyah to the Delhi Sultanate in 1297 after Gujarat was conquered by those Muslim rulers. Dhimmī status with jizyah payments continued when the Mughals took over Gujarat in 1572. But six years later, after being impressed by theological discussions with a learned magus, the Mughal emperor Akbar abolished the jizyah in India.

Life in Modern Muslim Nations.

Zoroastrians in Iran experienced social, legal, and economic parity with Muslims during the Pahlavi dynasty (1925–1979), owing to that regime's secularist policies and its harkening back to Iran's pre-Islamic past. Approximately sixty thousand Zoroastrians lived in Iran during the 1960s. Westernization of Iran in the twentieth century brought change to Zoroastrian funerary praxis, with exposure of corpses being phased out. Iranian Zoroastrians now bury their dead, after washing the corpse and wrapping it in a white shroud, following Muslim praxis.

The advent of the Islamic Republic of Iran witnessed a return to dhimmī status for Zoroastrians. Technically protected under Article 13 of the 1979 Islamic Constitution of Iran, the community is allocated one elected representative position among the 290 representatives in the majlis (parliament). Despite being officially recognized as a minority and represented in public settings, Zoroastrians nonetheless are offered only limited protection on a daily basis from their Muslim neighbors. As a result, they sporadically have been targets of religious and legal persecution. Community records list cases of Zoroastrian women being compelled to marry Muslim men in the presence of Shīʿī mullahs (clerics) and to adopt Islam publicly. More important, on a daily basis, are renewed legal distinctions between Muslims and Zoroastrians which echo ordinances that Zoroastrians experienced under earlier Islamic regimes. A Zoroastrian who converts to Islam is regarded by Iranian law as the sole inheritor of his or her family's assets. A Zoroastrian who even accidentally causes the demise of a Muslim faces the possibility of capital punishment but not vice versa. The concept that Zoroastrians are najis (unclean) has been revived. Chronic unemployment has become prevalent among Zoroastrians of both genders because of discrimination. Consequently Zoroastrians have begun leaving Iran yet again, emigrating to countries in North America and Europe.

Zoroastrians of Iran currently live mainly in the cities and suburbs of Tehran, Yazd, Kermān, Isfahan, and Shīrāz. During the British Raj, Parsis from western India went to the region that became Pakistan, where they continue to reside in the cities of Karachi, Quetta, and Lahore. Communities survived in lands that became the modern nations of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan as well. Recent economic-induced relocations have generated Zoroastrian diasporas in other Muslim countries of the Middle East and Asia. At those locales contemporary Zoroastrians continue their beliefs, rituals, and customs in forms modified to mitigate conflict and facilitate coexistence with their Muslim counterparts.



  • Boyce, Mary. A Persian Stronghold of Zoroastrianism. Oxford, 1977. Reprint, Lanham, Md., 1989. Find it in your Library
  • Choksy, Jamsheed K.Conflict and Cooperation: Zoroastrian Subalterns and Muslim Elites in Medieval Iranian Society. New York, 1997. Find it in your Library
  • Choksy, Jamsheed K.“Despite Shahs and Mollas: Minority Sociopolitics in Premodern and Modern Iran.”Journal of Asian History40 (2006): 129–184. Find it in your Library
  • Choksy, Jamsheed K.“Hagiography and Monotheism in History: Doctrinal Encounters between Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity.”Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations14 (2003): 407–415. Find it in your Library
  • Writer, Rashna. Contemporary Zoroastrians: An Unstructured Nation. Lanham, Md., 1994. Find it in your Library
  • “The Zarathushti World: A Demographic Picture.”FEZANA Journal17 (2004): 22–83. Find it in your Library
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