“There is not a single true Moslem in Persia.”
—Reported statement by a Persian to Arthur Comte de Gobineau
(cited in “Versions of Censorship”, by McCormick & MacInnes)
One of the great accomplishments—or offenses—of Islám was in conquering and subjugating the Persian Empire. Alexander had conquered the Persian Empire a millennium earlier, but it hadn’t been very long until another Iranian empire had taken the place of Alexander’s Hellenistic successors. Even during that short Hellenistic era, Iranians were disenfranchised but they were not so subjugated and humiliated as they would be under Islám.
Classical Islám is known for having been somewhat tolerant of the “people of the Book” (Arabic: أهل الكتاب, Ahl al- Kitâb), but it was far from certain whether Persians qualified as People of the Book at the time of the Arab conquest. Zoroastrianism, as it was practiced, was an oral tradition. The high priests of Persia used books as archives, not as liturgical aids.
It couldn’t have helped that Zoroastrians were generally seen as idolators, because of their use of fire in worship.
Modern Shí‘a (شيعة) Muslims—at least those of Iran—do generally consider Zoroastrians People of the Book, but that is more likely due to the influence of Zoroastrian apostates on the development of Shí‘a Islám than any early Arab view.
It is no secret that one of the closest companions of Muhammad and ‘Alí was a Persian, but that Persian (Salmán) was a Christian. The Arab conquerors had little reason to show tolerance to Zoroastrians, except that the latter were the citizens of a great empire, and may have had a thing or two to share with the Arabs, if only the Persians could be converted.
Many of the Zoroastrian “converts” to Islám were known to be less than dedicated Muslims. There are records of mass apostasies in the years after the Arab conquest. There may have been many Iranians that welcomed Islam, but there were certainly many that did not.
The persecution complex of the Shí‘a is well-known. It is understood to have originated in the persecution and disenfranchisement of the Shí‘a by the Sunni, but I cannot help but wonder whether some of this Shí‘a sense of injustice is rooted in the near-annihilation of Zoroastrian Iran.
The persecution of the Shí‘a apostates of Zoroastrian Iran may have also contributed to the practice of Islam as secretive, esoteric religion that seems rather antithetical to the worldly, practical, and political nature of the Qur‘án.
discretion: … in order to protect one’s own life and security, and those of one’s imam and his companions, as well as the integrity of his doctrine, “secrecy” designated by terms such as taqiyya, ketman and kòab÷ [?] is a canonical obligation for the Shi‘ite.
—Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi
Zoroastrianism, like the Islám of the Qur‘án, is not an ascetic or esoteric faith. Secrecy and esoterism may have been the only means for Iranians (and others) to entertain their heretical epiphanies under the yoke of Islám. If their faith was to survive, it would have to do so in the name of Islám. So I’m not surprised that so many Súfí mystics gave lip service to Islám, or called their heresies “esoteric” readings of Islám. What choice did they have?
Esoterism and secrecy were not Persian passions before Islám. To the contrary, one of the defining characteristics of Zoroastrianism is its aversion to deception. The Zoroastrian notion of Evil, Druj, is typically translated “the Lie”, but alas, it became easier to lie under the shadow of Islamic swords.
It is perhaps best to describe Islamic esoterism as a natural bi-product of Islám. It was probably the might of Islám and its ruthless persecution of heresies (not to be confused with Jews and Christians) that gave rise to Islamic esoterism, so esoterism is an ironic inevitability in the Islamic world. Still, we may yet detect the whisperings of pre-Islamic religion in the orthodox doctrines and esoteric heresies of Islám.
To be continued …
The Divine Guide to Early Shi’ism: Sources of Esoterism in Islam, by Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi.
Encyclopedia Iranica: Shi‘ite Doctrine by Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi (2005)
- The Captive Mind Now: What Czeslaw Milosz understood about Islam in Slate (2004)
- The Persian Version in the Atlantic (2006)
A discussion of chapter three of “The Captive Mind” by Czeslaw Milosz.