Did Zoroastrianism Shape Islam?
A simple answer is yes. Two points here – very few people know what Zoroastrianism is, and it can be said that Zoroastrianism shaped Islam and Judaism. Zoroastrianism is an ancient religion that has been here longer than Judaism, and its impact on history is enormous. Stories in the Bible and Qur'an featured Zoroastrians, but you would not know this as their affiliation was never mentioned. Many of the outcomes that affected Judaism and Christianity directly resulted from Zoroastrianism. Even in modern history, events and people are tied to this religion. So, let's start with what it is.
Zoroastrianism is a Persian religion and one of the world's oldest organized faiths based on the teachings of Zarathustra, sometimes better known by his Greek name of Zoroaster. The religion has an eschatology that rivals Judaism. There is a single benevolent supreme being that must contend with a less powerful evil being who brings his temptations to this world. The concepts of free will, resurrection for all, a final judgment, heaven, hell, angelology and demonology, and six days of creation are presented as the pillars of a fully developed religion. Does this eschatology sound familiar? You will find bits and parts of these concepts in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Ahura Mazda, the name of the supreme deity, was considered a God of the light, and his temple became recognized as a fire temple where a fire would be kept burning all the time.
Depiction of a Zoroastrianism guardian spirit with wings. Could this be the forerunner of what we know as angels? This image comes from a religion that predates Judaism. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
What is unique about this religion is that most academic scholars place Zoroaster around 1500 to 1700 BC. This time would put him shortly after Abraham (circa 2100 to 1800 BC) but before Moses (circa 1400 to 1300 BC). The Bible tells us that Moses was "educated in all the learning of the Egyptians," so he would have been familiar with the major writing systems of his time. We know that God gave Moses "two tablets of the Testimony, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God" (Exodus 31:18). All this leads to the conclusion that the earliest writings in the Bible were set down around 1400 BC. Moses is credited with the first five books of the Bible, but the other books in the Old Testament range from the tenth century to the second century BC. While Abraham is considered the progenitor of three religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Moses is the father of Judaism. Thus, Zoroastrianism slightly predates Judaism.
Zoroastrian Stories in the Bible
Two biblical stories in the Bible are directly related to Zoroastrianism. Between 602 and 586 BC, the Jews in Israel revolted against Babylon, and Nebuchadnezzar came up and took prisoners back to Babylon. In 539 BC, Persian ruler Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon and permitted the Jews to return to Jerusalem. The Bible does not say that the Persian King was a Zoroastrian. Zoroastrianism was the state religion of the Persians for over a millennium between 600 BC to 650 AD. The Jews regarded Cyrus the Great as their benefactor and a servant of their God. In Isaiah 45: 1-3, he is actually called God's anointed.
The second story deals with the three wise men, aka three kings or the three Magi, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew is the only established gospel to mention the Magi. Matthew 2: 1-2 states that they came "from the east" to worship the "king of the Jews." In the Middle East, tradition sets the number of the Magi at 12, but Western tradition sets their number at three, probably based on the three gifts presented to the infant. Just like the Jews had a hereditary priesthood starting with Aaron (Leviticus 8-9), Moses' brother, the Zoroastrians also had a hereditary priesthood starting with Zoroaster. Magi was the designated term for the Zoroastrian hereditary priesthood. Again, at the time of Jesus' birth, Zoroastrian was still the state religion of the Persian empire.
A third story that, while not in the Bible per se, did affect Christianity. The Roman Empire's greatest enemy and greatest threat were not the barbaric hordes overflowing the northern Roman border in Germany, France, and Britain. The Roman Empire's greatest worry was the Persians on the southeast edge. The Parthians (circa 247 BC to 224 AD) and the Sasanians (circa 224-651 CE) were still Persians and worshiped one God. While the Persians were fully united on their religion, the Romans were torn between the Roman Gods anchored by Apollo with 30-40 subservient deities and Christianity with one God. In 313 AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great started the movement to make Christianity the state religion. While there is nothing in writing to confirm that decision by Constantine, it must have weighed on his mind that the Persians worshiped one God in their state religion of Zoroastrian.
The Romans placed many of their gods on their coinage. Here is one coin with Libertas, the Goddess of Liberty.
How Zoroastrianism Influenced Islam
One of the most critical features of Zoroastrianism is the recognition that order will overcome chaos. It is the charge of the Supreme Being for Zoroastrians to bring order out of the chaos brought about by non-believers. Consequently, the goal of the Persian Kings was to conquer and establish order. Similarly, Muslims believe that there are two divisions in their world – Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb. Dar al-Islam is to recognize that territory where Islamic law prevails. Dar al-Harb, or "house of war, " refers to countries that do not recognize God, Islamic law, or Islamic treaties. Under classical Islam, it was the duty of Muslim rulers to bring the world under Islamic sovereignty. A state of war was presumed between Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb. This conflict was the new goal of bringing order over chaos. Islamic law represented order.
Zoroastrianism influenced Islam in other ways as well. The ultimate purpose of the life of a practicing Zoroastrian is to bring happiness into the world. Their worship focuses on the central values of "good thoughts, good words, good deeds." Their religion emphasizes deeds and actions within society, and a person's goodness determines their ultimate fate after death. In Islam, great emphasis is placed on charity (paying zakat for example) and actions to help others. Muslims place importance on the intentions of the person performing the good deeds. If the intention is earthly gain, then the act is invalid. One's actions will be invalid if they lack the correct intention. The right choice is to act solely for God's sake. The purposes of a person are what determine how God will judge them. While Christians place faith in Jesus as their key to salvation, Muslims place their salvation in actions to please Allah.
Other obvious similarities include praying five times daily, cleaning oneself ritually before prayer, and using wedding contracts.
The Decline of Zoroastrianism
In 224 BC, Alexander the Great invaded Persia and captured their capital, Persepolis. Most of Zoroaster's texts, scripts, and hymns were burned, many adherents were killed or taken into slavery, and the religion was dealt a chronic setback. Adherents rewrote some of the scriptures they had saved and re-established the faith, but it was never as strong as before.
In the seventh century AD, Islamic Arabs captured Persia. Since many of the precepts were identical, many Zoroastrians converted to Islam, many migrated to India, and many kept the old beliefs and accepted dhimmi rule, subservient to Islam. Muslims look at Christianity and Judaism as having legitimate books of scripture. The Zoroastrians also had a book of scripture, but it was destroyed before Muhammad's time. Muslims accept Zoroastrians but not as "people of the book." They accommodate them, but there is no kindred spirit as with Christians and Jews.
Most people are unaware of the world's oldest monotheistic religion. Estimates of adherents range from 150,000 to 200,000, with the majority in India, Iran, and North America.
In 1883, many Europeans became familiar with Zoroastrian founder Zarathustra through the 19th-century novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra by German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. In the story, Nietzsche follows the prophet Zarathustra on his travels. It is an ironic twist that Nietzsche, an avowed atheist, would write about the founder of the world's first religion.
One celebrity we have all heard of is British musician Freddie Mercury, lead singer for the rock band Queen. His heritage comes from India, where his forebears and immediate family practiced Zoroastrianism.
In summary, Zoroastrianism predates Judaism as the world's first monotheistic religion. Many of the concepts practiced can be found in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. While the faith itself did not fare so well, it is still around, and many of the concepts have proven their reliability over time. Understanding Zoroastrianism helps us know how other religions have evolved.
Accompanying image: Sasanian Empire coin showing a Zoroastrian firepit, minted 420-438 AD.