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Zorvanism (also given as Zuvanism, Zurvanism) was a sect of the Persian religion Zoroastrianism which emerged in the late Achaemenid Empire (c. 550-330 BCE) and flourished during the Sassanian Empire (224-651 CE). It is often referenced as a Zoroastrian heresy because it departed significantly from two central Zoroastrian beliefs:

  • That the Supreme Deity Ahura Mazda was the One Uncreated God
  • That human beings had free will to choose between good and evil

Zorvanism claimed that Ahura Mazda (here known as Ormuzd, principle of good) was a created being, the twin brother of Angra Mainyu (known as Ahriman, principle of evil) and the Supreme Deity was Zorvan Akarana ("Infinite Time", also given as Zurvan and Zurvan Akarana). Time brought all things into being and caused them to pass away and, since time was implacable and human beings were helpless in resisting it, human existence was directed by fate, not free will.

After the Muslim Arab Invasion of Persia in the 7th century CE, Zoroastrianism was suppressed and Zorvanism all but disappeared. Its influence continued, however, in that the Zorvanite version of Zoroastrianism was the first to reach the West and so dictated how that religion was understood - as a dualist, instead of a monotheistic, faith – an interpretation which still affects how Zoroastrianism is understood in the present day. The concept of fate as more powerful than free will also influenced later Persian poets and the literary motifs which inform some of the greatest works of Persian literature and, through them, world culture.

Zoroaster Preached That The divinities the people were worshipping were not gods but emanations of the single divine principle: Ahura Mazda

Early Persian Religion

The early Persian religion was polytheistic with many gods under the Supreme King, Ahura Mazda (Lord of Wisdom) who had brought everything into being, including the younger gods. Ahura Mazda's enemy was Angra Mainyu, lord of the dark forces of evil and chaos whose sole purpose was to disrupt Ahura Mazda's order and thwart every one of his plans for the greater good.

The sky, earth, water, and fire had all been created by Ahura Mazda who also made vegetation, animals, and human beings and every attempt by Angra Mainyu to disrupt the universal good was transformed by Ahura Mazda to positive ends. When Ahura Mazda created the beautiful Primordial Bull, Gavaevodata, Angra Mainyu killed it; but Ahura Mazda brought the bull's corpse to the moon where it was purified and, from its purified seed, all animals were generated. When Angra Mainyu poisoned the minds of the first mortal couple – Mashya and Mashyanag – causing them to turn away from Ahura Mazda, their descendants were given purpose in life through the exercise of free will; they had the power to direct their own lives and choose good over evil and higher values over self-interest.


At some point between c.1500-1000 BCE, a Persian priest named Zoroaster received a vision from a supernatural entity calling itself Vohu Manah (“good purpose”) who informed him the earlier understanding of the divine was wrong. Ahura Mazda was the sole, uncreated, god and there was no other. The divinities the people were worshipping were not gods but emanations of the single divine principle which was all-good and all-powerful and needed no “other gods” to assist it.

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Zoroaster began preaching his new revelation and, unsurprisingly, met fierce resistance from the priests of the old religion who were living very comfortably from the sacrifices and donations of the people. Zoroaster was forced to flee his home, preaching wherever he went, until he came to the court of the king Vishtaspa. Here, he engaged the priests in a debate on the nature of Ultimate Truth and, though he is said to have won, Vishtaspa had him thrown into prison, allegedly after he was denounced as a sorcerer by the priests who had lost the debate.

While in prison, Zoroaster healed the king's favorite horse and Vishtaspa set him free and, soon after, converted. Vishtaspa's conversion opened the way for the wide-spread acceptance of Zoroaster's vision in his kingdom and so the new faith – known as Mazdayasna (“devotion to wisdom”) – was founded.

Zoroastrianism was based on five principles:

  • The supreme god is Ahura Mazda
  • Ahura Mazda is all-good
  • His eternal opponent, Angra Mainyu, is all-evil
  • Goodness is apparent through good thoughts, good words, and good deeds
  • Each individual has free will to choose between good and evil

Adherents expressed these principles by:

  • Telling the truth at all times
  • Practicing charity
  • Showing love for others
  • Practicing moderation in all things

The purpose of human life was to take the side of Good against the forces of Evil and maintain order against chaos. Every human born was required to choose a side simply because that was the nature of human existence. Those who chose to follow Ahura Mazda would live full, productive, satisfying lives and be rewarded after death; those who followed Angra Mainyu would lead lives of confusion, strife, and petty self-interest and be punished in the afterlife.

The life after death was envisioned as comprising a bridge between the living and the dead (the Chinvat Bridge) which led to judgment by the angel Rashnu who sent the soul either on to paradise (the House of Song) or down to hell (the House of Lies). Neither destination was eternal, however, because a messiah would come – the Saoshyant (“One Who Brings Benefit”) – who would inaugurate the Frashokereti (End of Time). Afterwards, the old world would pass away, those in hell would be redeemed, Angra Mainyu would be destroyed, and all would be reunited in Ahura Mazda to live in eternal bliss.

This was the religion adopted by the Achaemenid Empire, most likely from the reign of Darius I (the Great, r. 522-486 BCE) onwards. The problem presented by Zoroaster's vision, however, was the origin of evil. If Ahura Mazda was all-good, and the source of all creation, where did Angra Mainyu and his legions of demons come from? How could an all-powerful, all-good, uncreated supreme being create evil when evil was, in no possible way, part of its nature?

The earliest mention of the Zorvanism sect in Western Literature comes from the Neo-Platonist philosopher Damascius (l. c. 458-c.538 CE).

This, of course, is the problem facing any monotheistic religion and scholars have pointed out that it is possible some answer was given by Zoroastrian theologians which was lost after the destruction of Zoroastrian libraries in the Muslim Arab Invasion of the 7th century CE. This is entirely possible but it seems as though, whatever answer may or may not have been given, people needed a resolution to this problem and this was supplied by Zorvanism.

Sources on Zorvanism

There is no known founder of Zorvanism and when it developed is unclear. There is a minor deity known as Zorvan (“Time”) in the Zoroastrian text Denkard, a collection of beliefs and customs, and it is thought this god was invoked during the latter part of the Achaemenid Empire in religious rituals. Zorvan does not seem to have been a particularly important god but perhaps was appealed to, or thanked, for the time in which the service (yasna) was held. How this minor god became the Supreme Deity of the Zorvanite movement is unknown.

The earliest mention of the sect in Western Literature comes from the Neo-Platonist philosopher Damascius (l. 458-c.538 CE) in his work Difficulties and Solutions of First Principles who references the earlier writer Eudemus of Rhodes (4th century BCE) as his source. Damascius was the head of Plato's Academy in Athens when the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565 CE) closed the school along with all other pagan temples and institutions of higher learning and culture. Damascius fled Athens for the court of Kosrau I (r. 531-579 CE) of the Sassanian Empire.

Here he would have learned of Zorvanism first hand, since it was during this period that the movement was at its height, but he makes no mention of any direct knowledge of the sect and, instead, cites Eudemus of Rhodes. Zorvanism receives only the briefest mention as a “religion of the Medes” which claimed that Time had given birth to the twin gods of good and evil. Zorvan is featured more fully in the earlier Manichaean text Sabuhragan written by the religious visionary Mani (l. 216-274 CE, founder of Manichaeism) who was a guest of the Sassanian king Shapur I (r. 240-270 CE) and lived at his court.

In Mani's text, Zorvan is the Father of Greatness in the Realm of Light and the creative force in the universe. Manichaeism was influenced by Buddhism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism as well as Gnostic teachings and Mani's own revelations. It seems clear that his understanding of Zoroastrianism was actually more Zorvanite and this suggests that Shapur I was himself a Zorvanite since he assisted Mani in developing and spreading his new faith.

This is entirely possible, as a number of ruling Sassanians appear to have been Zorvanites, but the Persian empires were well known for their religious tolerance and encouraging new faiths and Shapur I's efforts on Mani's behalf could simply be another example of this. Either way, Zorvanism was already developed by the time Mani came to Shapur I's court and it is clear he drew upon the central image of Zorvan/Time-as-Creator in developing his own religious belief system.


The fact that Damascius alludes to Zorvanism in his Difficulties and Solutions of First Principles suggests how important an answer to the problem of the origin of evil was. Damascius' work attempts to define the nature of the Divine and Source of All Things and finally concludes that human beings simply cannot grasp the concept. The allusion to Zorvanism is a nod to an earlier attempt at explanation which Damascius seems to feel is inadequate. The mention of the belief in this work, however, suggests the problem was also addressed in other works, possibly Zoroastrian, now lost.

Mainstream Zorvanites seem to have differed little from traditional Zoroastrians except that now Time was the Supreme Deity.

Zorvanism departs from Zoroastrianism initially in designating Zorvan the Supreme God. The androgynous Zorvan wishes for a son and prays, presumably to himself, making sacrifices for this to happen. His prayers and sacrifices go unanswered and he experiences a moment of doubt and, in this moment, Ahriman is conceived and, in the next – once he has regained his faith - Ormuzd is engendered. Zorvan proclaims he will give mastery of the world to whichever twin is born first but Ahriman, hearing this, cuts his way out of the primordial womb and so assumes the superior position. Zorvan corrects this by decreeing that Ahriman will only have dominion for a time (9,000 years) but Ormuzd will then assume control and have final victory.

Ormuzd is still the creator of the world and humanity but now Ahriman has control over this world and immediate influence over humanity. This dualism would influence the vision of Manichaeism in dividing human experience between the physical (evil and material) and spiritual (good and invisible). Justification for this faith seems to have been an oral tradition but sections of the Denkard, and commentary on those sections (the Zand) were used once the Avesta (Zoroastrian scriptures) were written down during the Sassanian Period.

Sects Within the Sect

Mainstream Zorvanites seem to have differed little from traditional Zoroastrians except that now Time was the Supreme Deity. This understanding encouraged the belief that human free will could not possibly count for much because no one, and nothing, could stand against time. This reasoning, in turn, produced three sects of Zorvanites within the system:

  • Materialistic
  • Fatalistic
  • Mainstream

Materialists (Zandiks) believed there was no spiritual world at all – no gods, no demons, no House of Song and No House of Lies – because all had begun with Time. Since Time had no beginning and no end, neither did the world. Everything that existed had always existed and always would. Human beings were born, lived, and died and there was no reason to act one way rather than another because, eventually, one would die either way with no hope of reward.

Fatalists believed that, since Time had created all things, Time was in control of all things. A person was born, lived, and died in accordance with Time – not by the will of a god – and one's story was already written at the time of one's birth. Ormuzd and Ahriman did exist but, in their war with each other, human free will was a casualty. The constellations – which directed one's path in life - were on the side of Ormuzd, while the planets – which influenced human thought, action, and fate - worked for Ahriman, so even if Ormuzd meant a person only the best, and arranged an auspicious birth, Ahriman's planetary influence would interfere and bring pain and disappointment. In this view, there was no room for human free will to accomplish anything.

Mainstream (so-called Proper) Zorvanites believed in the duality of the celestial twins and Time as their father (and so fate as superior to free will) but patterned their belief more closely on accepted Zoroastrianism. This view seems to have been the original Zorvanite vision which sought to answer the problem of the origin of evil. Scholar R.C. Zaehner explains how Zorvanite writers were able to deny the central tenet of Zoroastrianism of free will without contradicting the Zoroastrian vision or coming into conflict with Sassanian nobility who had made Zoroastrianism the state religion:

Their resolution of the dilemma was ingenious, if disingenuous. It so happens that the Avestan word eresh occurs in [a stanza of the Denkard] and though they knew that this word meant 'rightly' and usually so translate it, they preferred on this occasion to feign ignorance and translated it with the Pahlavi word arish, which is one of the names of the demon of envy; and so it was possible for the author of the Denkard to represent the offensive doctrine as being the invention of the demons! The whole thing is passed off as being 'a proclamation of the Demon of Envy to mankind that Ohrmazd and Ahriman were two brothers in one womb'. So was the Zovanite heresy dismissed as being the invention of devilry. (6)

Even so, this vision could be accepted because the stanza of the Denkard Zaehner is referencing is a commentary on a part of the Avesta (Yasna 30.3) in which Zoroaster himself alludes to twin deities, one Good and the other Evil, without developing the concept. If questioned, a Zorvanite could claim that Zoroaster could have meant that this reference to the twin deities was the true vision or say he could have been referencing a delusion cast by dark forces, without necessarily denying the value of free will outright.

One could still exercise one's ability to choose, even if the end results were already decided. A modern illustration of this would be a person's decision to smoke cigarettes. One can choose to smoke or not smoke – this is within human power – but one is going to eventually die no matter the choice – that is outside human power. Even so, by choosing to not smoke, one will, statistically, live a healthier, and longer, life. In the interests of resolving the origin of evil, then, dualism was expounded by the mainstream Zorvanites even though the supremacy of Time denied the final efficacy of free will.


This version of Zoroastrianism served to introduce the faith to the rest of the world and this is why, to this day, scholars continue to debate whether Zoroastrianism was the first widely accepted monotheistic faith or a dualist religion. The dualism of Zorvanism, as noted, would influence Manichaeism which would then affect the later development of other belief systems, such as the Cathars of Southern France during the Middle Ages, and so became well-known in the West. Further, Muslim scholars and historians also popularized this version of the older faith in their works and Christian theologians would do the same.

The fatalism of Zorvanism would also influence later Persian writers. One example of this is the great Persian astronomer, mathematician and poet, Omar Khayyam (l. 1048-1131 CE), who is best known for his famous Rubaiyat. Khayyam's work has a number of stanzas on fate and destiny but the best known is 51:

The Moving Finger writes and, having writ,

Moves on; nor all your piety nor wit

Shall call it back to cancel half a line,

Nor all your tears wash out a word of it.

Time – here imagined as a moving finger – dictates all of human experience and there is nothing the individual can do about that. One must accept that one's ultimate fate is in the hands of Time, not one's own, and free will is simply an illusion.

The later poet Jahan Malek Khatun (l. 1324-1382 CE), a princess of the Inju Dynasty in Shiraz who wrote in Persian, makes a similar observation in her poetry. In one of her many untitled works, she writes:

The roses have all gone; “Good-bye,” we say; we must;

And I shall leave the busy world one day; I must.

My little room, my books, my love, my sips of wine,

All these are dear to me, they'll pass away; they must.

(Davis, 41)

Khayyam's and Khatun's sentiments here reflect a specifically Zorvanite view, even though neither were Zorvanites and even if they themselves were unaware of the origin of that view, and its effects were far-reaching. The literary conceit of time as a thief, used by writers for centuries, was not invented by the Persians – it appears in Egyptian literature of the Middle Kingdom (2040-1782 BCE) and elsewhere earlier – but it was developed by Persian artists influenced by Zorvanite theology whose works were available to a wide audience long before Egyptian and Mesopotamian language systems were deciphered in the 19th century CE.

Further, the Manichaeism which Zorvanism influenced would become one of the most popular religions of the ancient world, rivalling Christianity, and would influence aspects of that faith as well as the many heresies it fought to suppress. Even in the modern day, when few people have ever even heard of Zorvanism, the concept of time directing destiny is a familiar concept and the debate on the supremacy of free will over determinism continues in academic settings, popular literature, and media. Zorvanism itself may have vanished after the 7th century CE but its influence continues to be felt.

Religions in Iran

To learn better about the ancient religions in Iran, we must have an idea bout the ancient beliefs at this part of the world first. The inhabitants of the ancient eastern world worshiped the Sun, the Moon, stars, rain, water, river, spring, cows, camels, horses, etc as well as the opposite extremes such as darkness, lightning, clouds, winter, snakes, eagles, wolves, etc to be away from their harms.

Iranians were influenced by Semites, Babylonians and Assyrians’ incantation sayings, magic and spells. Zarathustra rose against such superstitions and the beliefs of Iranian plateau local people like worshiping the Sun, the Moon and stars.

Ancient Iranians believed in dualism, life after death and rewards for human deeds. Aryans also believed in animism and fetishism. The influences of these beliefs are still observed in modern-day Iranians’ beliefs and superstitions.

Zorvanism - History

A Glorious Civilization Lost to Religious Persecution

The Persian civilization is among one of the most glorious civilizations of the bygone world history. At its peak, it was one of the most developed and progressive civilizations and sort of the first superpower in the Western world. This civilization was also unique from the point of view that the Persian prophet Zoroaster had successfully introduced religious reforms from polytheism to monotheism much before the advent of Jesus Christ and in due course, the Zoroastrianism served as a paradigm and precursor religion for the later Abrahamic religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam in the West. Sadly, the Persian people were also the ones who had to bear most the brunt of fanaticism in the form of religious persecution that nearly wiped out Zoroastrians from Persia (now Iran) with only those few surviving who were able to leave their motherland and home secretly under the cover of darkness.

History of Persia

Remains of ancient Persepolis in Iran

Rock carvings in the necropolis of Naqsh-e Rustam near the ancient ruined city of Persepolis, Iran.

The earliest traces of human inhabitation in Persian land had been found as the archaeological artifacts comprising of Mousterian stone tools in the Kashafrud and Ganj Par sites which are considered to be more than ten thousand years during the Paleolithic period. Similarly, the early settled dwellers of the agricultural communities such as Chogha Golan and Chogha Bonut are believed to have flourished in and around the Zagros Mountains region in western Persia as back as eight to ten thousand BCE. The earliest-known artefacts suggesting organized human settlers based on carbon dating technique are the findings of clay vessels, jars of wine and modelled human and animal terracotta figurines in these areas. Possibly, the south-western part of Persia was the Fertile Crescent where most of the Persian people raised their major crops with few identified settlements at locations such as Chogha Mish (6800 BCE) and Susa (4395 BCE).

During the Bronze Age, the Kura&ndashAraxes culture of Persian people (3400 - 2000 BCE) flourished in the parts of Persia what is called the modern-day northwestern Iran, which stretched right upto the neighbouring regions of the Caucasus and Anatolia. The name of the aforesaid culture is derived from the Kura and Araxes river valleys. The Caucasus region represented the area between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea while the Anatolia, also known as Asia Minor, is a large peninsula in Western Asia and the westernmost protrusion of the Asian continent, largely representing the modern-day Turkey. Archaeological records suggest the existence of several lesser-known ancient groups and urban settlements during the fourth and third millennia BCE, and one such rather prominent one being the Jiroft culture in southeastern Persia province of Kerman. Elam was another prominent ancient culture in the far west and southwest of Persia, and archaeologists have recovered a variety of objects decorated with distinctive engravings of animals, mythological creatures and architectural motifs at these sites.

Around 2000 BCE and through the Iron Age, with the rise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, apparently more and more tribes from the Pontic&ndashCaspian steppe and other areas made incursions in the Persian land. Their arrival and aggressive maneuvers forced the Elamites to retreat and relinquish their areas to take refuge in Elam, Khuzestan and other nearby areas. According to Western historians, mostly people of Persian, Mede and Parthian origin populated the Persian land by the mid-first millennium BCE. During this period, the Assyrian civilization was on rise and the Assyrian king ravaged through Susa in 646 BCE ending Elamite dominance in the region. Persia remained under the constant threat from Assyrians for over a century that compelled the small kingdoms of the western Persian plateau to coalesce to form larger and more centralized states.

The period of the Median and Achaemenid Empire (650 &ndash 330 BCE) was more pronounced and powerful in the Persian history. Persians were constantly troubled by the Assyrians for several decades however, combined forces of Deioces&rsquos grandson Cyaxares and Babylonian king Nabopolassar later invaded Assyria and convincingly defeated them leading to fall of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Ordinarily, the Medes are given credit for founding Persia as a nation and empire, till finally Cyrus the Great (559 &ndash 530 BCE) established a unified empire of the Medes and Persians, which was later known as the Achaemenid Empire (550 &ndash 330 BCE) in the Persian history. He was one who subjugated the Median, Lydian and Neo-Babylonian Empires, thereby himself creating an empire greater than Assyria. Cyrus is also considered an able ruler and warrior who followed somewhat benign policies to take along his subjects as a popular king.

Details of a relief on the stairs of the ruins of the Apadana Palace at Persepolis. Persepolis is situated 70 km northeast of Shiraz, Iran, and was the capital of the Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BC).

Darius I, also known as Darius the Great, was third Persian King of the Achaemenid Empire, reigning from 522 BCE until his death in 486 BCE. He is not only remembered for expansion of the empire through constant military campaign including Egypt and Greece but also for introducing many reforms. For instance, he built a canal between the Nile and the Red Sea, which is considered a forerunner of the modern Suez Canal and standardized the coinage system. Under the two great kings, Cyrus the Great and Darius I, the Persian Empire became the largest empire in human history until that date. His successor Xerxes had prolonged wars with Greeks, in which initially Persia succeeded in consolidating their position by nearly occupying half of the Greek territories but later Greeks had repeated victories and Persians lost control over Macedonia, Thrace and Ionia. The decades of war between the Achaemenid empire and combined Greek city-states under Delian League eventually ended in a truce in 449 BCE.

However, Gecko-Persian rivalry for supremacy continued and Greeks invaded Persia again under Alexander the Great, who defeated Persian King Darius III and conquered the Persian Empire by 331 BCE. Although Alexander did not live long to rule but his general Seleucus Nicator established his own empire to reign Persia, Mesopotamia and other territories in the region.

Alexander the Great vs Darius

Though Seleucus was assassinated by Ptolemy Keraunos in 282 BCE, his Seleucid Empire lasted for three more decades till 248 BCE through his inheritors. The Seleucid empire was replaced by Parthian Empire, comprised of people of Persian origin only from the northwestern Persia, who had reunited to overthrow Seleucids of the Greek origin.

Parthian Empire lasted nearly for five centuries till 224 CE. During this period, they intermittently controlled Mesopotamia and parts of the eastern Arabia. This period was remarkable for the Parthians&rsquo continued feud and wars with the arch-rivals and enemy Roman Empire, in which the former kept the latter in check largely due to own superior cavalry. While the Romans largely depended on the heavy infantry, the Parthians engaged two types of cavalry one, the heavily armed and armoured cataphracts, and two, the lightly-armed yet highly-mobile mounted archers. Though they remained invincible to Romans but the end of Parthian Empire came at the hands of their own vassal people, the Persians under the Sasanians in 224 CE.

Persia under the Sasanian Empire (224 - 651 AD) regained its lost civilizational glory and flourished well with their contemporary Roman and Byzantine Empires. The first Shah Ardashir I of the Sasanian empire introduced many economic and military reforms. At its peak, the empire encompassed and influenced nearly all of the modern Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Republics of Abkhazia and Dagestan, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, parts of Afghanistan, Turkey, Syria, parts of Pakistan, Central Asia, Eastern Arabia, and parts of Egypt. The period was also remarkable for the sustained Persian-Roman wars and many Persian conquests. The Sassanians preferred to call their empire Eranshahr (i.e., Dominion of Aryans) and their period was one of the most important and influential span of the Persian and world history.

Ironically, apart from the glorious peak, the Sassanian period also turned out a doom for the ancient Persian civilization. While the Sassanian Shah Yazdegerd III ruled over the Persia, Umar led Muslims invaded the country in 633 CE when the empire was already in a mess due to civil war following the mutiny by some noble families and military generals. The Persian Shah Yazdegerd could not survive double whammy of Arabs onslaught and inhouse mutinies he fled from place to place and was finally assassinated by a local miller in 651 CE. Arab Muslims had conquered Greater Khorasan by 674 CE and more territories in the following years. The Muslim conquest of Persia marked the end of the Sassanian Empire and subsequent systematic Islamic persecution ensured the eventual decline and end of the Zoroastrian religion in Persia. Over a period, the most of Persian people were either converted to Islam or killed as kaffirs. According to the Qissa-i Sanjan, few Persians (Zoroastrians) were able to migrate to the Indian coastal state of Gujarat, where they were given asylum between the 8th to 10th centuries CE to escape persecution from the Muslim tyranny.

Persian Pantheon and Zoroastrianism

Prior to the rise of Zoroastrianism in Persia, the ancient Persian religion was a polytheistic faith with a pantheon led by the supreme god Ahura Mazda (Lord of Wisdom). He was considered as champion of order against the dark forces led by Angra Mainyu (Destructive Spirit) and his legions of chaos. This position was somewhat akin to all other contemporary religions of the world with polytheistic faith, wherein each god had their own field of expertise over which they presided and common people or devotees would pray them as per their specific problems and needs.

Zoroaster was an ancient Persian prophet who founded what is now known as Zoroastrianism based on the monotheistic order. His sermons challenged the existing Persian pantheon based on numerous deities and his articulated teachings were forceful enough to usher in a movement followed by the contemporary Persian masses. Ultimately, Zoroastrianism became the dominant religion of the ancient Persia which was formally adopted too. There is no scholarly consensus about his birthplace, or when and where he lived. However, the common belief is that he was a native speaker of Old Avestan, who lived in the eastern part of the Persian Plateau. Some scholars suggest a period somewhere between 1500 &ndash 1000 BCE citing linguistic and socio-cultural evidence while others believe that he actually lived in the seventh and sixth century BCE.

Zoroastrianism became the official religion of Ancient Persia most probably between the seventh and sixth century BCE. Zoroaster had conceived of a new concept in which one Supreme Deity, Ahura Mazda could take care of all human problems and needs. He insisted that it was always like this and people mistakenly believed that there were many gods. As Zoroaster's concept had greater acceptance, the worship of multiple deities in the pantheon reduced and became centric to &ldquoAhura Mazda&rdquo. People were still occasionally praying such figures as goddess Anahita for conception but treating her only as an aspect of Ahura Mazda. Zoroastrianism had a dualistic cosmology of good and evil, and apart from monotheism, it had other ingrained elements of messianism, judgment after death, heaven and hell, and free will, which probably heavily influenced other contemporary and futuristic religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

To sum up the ingrained principles of Zoroastrianism, monotheism is the belief in only one god that created the world, and is omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient. Although the Western historians and Abrahamic religions often boast about this being unique and eternal, the Vedas and Upanishads of Hinduism which are undoubtedly of older origin have always held &ldquoBrahman&rdquo as the Supreme Truth of the universe with the similar and many more universal attributes, Who is responsible for all creation, sustenance and withdrawal and various deities only being His aspects/manifested forms. Messianism is the belief in a prophet or messiah who acts as the savior or liberator of people and that is what Zoroaster was himself. Judgment and afterlife with the commensurate reward or punishment has been a central theme in various religions, only methodologies differ, and so is the concept of heaven and hell. Free will implies to the concepts of moral responsibility, praise, guilt, sin, other crucial actions, and so on that are freely chosen by the followers. Zoroastrianism is believed to have served as the state religion of Persia for about a millennium and declined from the 7th century AD onwards following the Muslim conquest of Persia and subsequent persecution of Zoroatrians.

Persecution of Zoroastrians is a dark phase of the Persian history which started with the Muslim invasion and conquest of Persia. The religious persecution was inflicted upon the followers of the Zoroastrian faith initially as sparse violence and forced conversions. Gradually, the places of Zoroastrian worship were desecrated, the fire temples of the faith were systematically destroyed and replaced by mosques, and people were forced to pay the jizya tax. Libraries of Zoroastrian literature and faith were identified and burned to destroy cultural legacies and knowledge bank. Further, widespread discriminatory laws were increasingly forced regulating and limiting Zoroastrian conduct and participation in society. Such measures and increasing violence against the community led to significant decrease in the number of Zoroastrians. Most of them were either forced to convert or killed, a small number of them managed to leave Persia by sea route and survived in India as Parsis community.

Persian Gods and Goddesses

Ancient Persian people, before the advent of Zoroastrianism, believed and worshipped a large number of prominent as well as lesser gods and goddesses like other contemporary civilizations in the world. This polytheistic pantheon was, however, centred around the supreme god Ahura Mazda (Lord of Wisdom) and his associate gods, and Angra Mainyu (Destructive Spirit) and his legions of chaos representing the dark forces. Each such god or goddess had their area of specialization and people worshipped them accordingly. Twelve of these more prominent deities were also retained in the new order with Ahura Mazda as the Supreme God of Zoroastrianism and Angra Mainyu as his chief opponent. These gods and goddesses continued to be worshipped as powerful aspects of Ahura Mazda, are briefly described here.

1. Ahura Mazda

Ahura Mazda is the creator and principal deity of the Persian pantheon and Zoroastrians and is remembered with several names such as Ohrmazd, Oromasdes, Ahuramazda, Hormazd and Hurmuz. He is the creator and highest deity of Zoroastrianism. He was the first and formost worshipped god and in later period he was often invoked in a triad with god Mithra and goddess Anahita during yasna, which is an Avestan nomenclature of the main act of worship. The literal meanings of the terms Ahura is "lord," and Mazda is "wisdom", accordingly, he is considered the king of gods. He is believed to have created everything including sky, water and earth, all creatures, and covered earth with plants and flowers in the same order.

According to ancient Persian belief, Ahura Mazda first created the Primordial Bull Gavaevodata which was so beautiful and unique that it immediately created the attention of the evil god Angra Mainyu who killed the bull. Then Ahura Mazda purified the body of bull on the moon and from its purified seed, he created all animals and first human prototype Gayomoartan, who was again killed by Angra Mainyu. This time from Gayomoartan&rsquos purified seed, the god created the first mortal couple &ndash Mashya and Mashyanag &ndash who lived a blissful life till the evil Angra Mainyu's lies corrupted them. Consequently, the couple lost the paradise but descendant human species was granted &ldquofree will&rdquo by Ahura Mazda to enable them to chose for self if they wanted to follow good or evil. In ancient Persia, kings were known to have an empty chariot drawn by white horses in the army, which was symbolic to inviting the principal god to accompany the army on battles.

2. Angra Mainyu

Angra Mainyu has remained the god of Evil, Chaos and Discord as the principal rival and challenger to the king of gods, Ahura Mazda and/or the Spenta Mainyu, which is a group of seven divinities in Zoroastrianism emanating from Ahura Mazda. He is believed to unleash the legions of dark spirits known as the daevas with the sole objective of disrupting the world order created by Ahura Mazda by destroying everything which is good and beautiful. According to the Western scholars and historians, he does not find a mention in the early Persian pantheon and was probably highlighted after Zoroastrianism came in existence. Apparently, he was also a creation of Ahura Mazda like other emanations but turned hostile and malevolent towards the creation. In a derivative belief system, Zurvanism or Zorvanism, the god Akarana Zorvan was the primordial creator god and Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu were twin brothers born out of him with equal status and powers.

Mithra or Mehr was the god of the rising sun, covenants, contracts and kingship in the early Persian pantheon and laterin the Zoroatrianism as well. Besides he was also considered the protector of truth, and the guardian of cattle, harvest and waters. As the most powerful and effective warrior against the dark forces, he is depicted as riding the chariot drawn by the white horses and armed with a silver spear, golden bow and arrows, daggers, axes, and also a mace as his most formidable weaponry. In early pantheon, he was also a deity of the cosmic order and systematic change of the seasons. He was often linked with the haoma plant as an usherer of the enlightenment. The common belief was that a king gets the right to rule with the blessings of the god Mithra and if the former violates his righteous duties, the divine grace of the latter is withdrawn to find another worthy successor.

Ancient relief of the necropolis Naqsh-e Rustam that shows the ordination of Narseh by goddess Anahita, Iran, Sasanian civilization 4th century AD.

Ardvi Sura Anahita or just Anahita was the Persian goddess of fertility, health, water, wisdom and war. She was among the most popular and venerated deities of the Persian pantheon since the ancient times. Goddess Anahita is usually depicted in Persian art as a beautiful woman wearing a white gown with the embroidery of gold, a golden crown, golden necklace and earrings, carrying the consecrated barsom twigs of life in one hand. At times, this has been likened with the stalk of haoma plant thereby linking Anahita with the god Haoma. Her vehicle is a chariot drawn by four horses representing wind, rain, cloud and sleet that links her with the weather too. People especially worshipped her seeking her grace for a safe and healthy delivery of a child. Due to her association with water, she was considered necessary for all life on earth together with god Hvar Ksata. There is also a temple after her name in the present day Iran.

5. Hvar Ksata

Hvar Ksata or Hvare-khshaeta in Persian pantheon was the god of full sun. In the Avestan language, &ldquohvar&rsquo relates to sun and &ldquoxsaeta&rdquo implies to radiant so Hvar Ksata was the god of the fully radiant sun while god Mithra represented the rising sun. After Ahura Mazda, two gods Hvar Ksata and Mithra were among the most popular and widely worshipped gods of the Persian pantheon. As the sun god, he was responsible for the life on earth and good crops. Although Mithra eventually assumed the exclusive role of sun god, people still continued to venerate Hvar Ksata for his role in supporting life on earth.

6. Verethragna

Verethragna was the mighty god of war who was supposed to fight constantly against the evil forces. As he carried no other responsibility, he was considered most effective and greatest protection against the evil designs of Angra Mainyu. He possessed martial traits akin to god Mithra and in the post-Achaemenid period, he was often compared with Hercules of Greek mythology and remained a favourite deity of kings. His name itself carried a connotation of &ldquothe smashing of resistance or obstruction", he was known as a god who blessed people with his divine grace to overcome hurdles. His another remarkable feature was ability to assume different forms and shapes, both anthropomorphic and theriomorphic, that included the wind (god Vayu), a bull, a stallion, a rutting camel, a mighty boar, a great ram, 15-year boy, a deer, a warrior, and a legendary bird Simurgh.

Rashnu was actually a divine angel and righteous judge of the dead, who passed judgment on the souls of people after death. According to Persian mythology, as a righteous judge he stood on the Chinvat Bridge, the mythical link between the world of the living and the dead, read the account of the spirits&rsquo deeds in life, and directed them to the paradise or hell accordingly. Rashnu was assisted by two other crucial angels to perform his pious duty. The common belief in the pantheon was that the process of closing the spirit&rsquos account including the delivery of judgment required three days and the spirit lingered around the mortal body during this period. Once the decision was delivered, the spirit would move on to its new abode in the afterlife. Possibly, this role of Rashnu was later assumed by Mithra as the judge of dead.

8. Tishtrya and Tiri

In Persian pantheon, Tiri and Tishtrya are gods of agriculture and rainfall both were considered as the astral deities. Tishtrya was the prominent god of rains and the harvest, Tiri is sometimes associated with him as twin god of agriculture. In mythology, Tiri is not well attested and at times treated just as another name for Tishtrya or possibly he was an earlier god but later merged with Tishtrya. Tishtrya is often depicted as a white horse with golden ears and gold trappings and is known for a mythical battle with the demonic star Apausha (drought) over the rainfall and water. Tishtrya and Apausha are said to have engaged in a mythical war with the former assuming form of a white stallion and the latter an ugly horse. Despite initial setback, Tishtrya eventually won the war of the water and rainfall for the people after receiving appropriate worship. His strength was said to be based on the level and quality of worship if humans did not perform correct rites and rituals with appropriate commitment, Tishtrya would weaken allowing the dark forces to prevail followed by the drought and bad harvest.

Variously named as Atar, Atash or Azar, these terms symbolize the Zoroastrian concept of holy fire, at times described in abstract terms as the "burning and unburning fire" or "visible and invisible fire&rdquo. Atar is the god personified for the element of fire in the early pantheon, the fire symbolized the presence of Atar himself in rites and rituals but after the advent of the Zoroastrianism, the fire symbolized the presence of Ahura Mazda himself. In Persian mythology, Atar is closely associated with Mithra and a decisive factor in their battle with the dragon Azhi Dahaka who is said to have stolen the Divine Grace. Atar cornered the dragon scaring him to ultimately release the captive Divine Grace. In the ancient Persian texts, Atar also finds mention as a medium or faculty, through which judgement is passed suggesting the pre-Zoroastrian institution of ordeal by heat. In these texts, Atar is also depicted as the light of revelation through which Zoroaster was chosen by Ahura Mazda.

Haoma is basically an Avestan term used for the god of the harvest, health, strength and vitality as also for a genus of plants considered to have been divinely created having a special holy power. He was associated with many gods particularly Mithra, Anahita and Atar. People prayed to Haoma for healthy and strong sons, so much so that the divine haoma plant is said to have been instrumental in Zoroaster's conception as his father mixed the haoma with milk and husband and wife duo consumed it before the Persian Prophet was conceived. Some references are also found in Zoroastrian tradition about the angel Haoma, who personified the holy essence of the Haoma plants. The twigs of Haoma plants are still used by Zoroastrian priests to extract its juice and mix with the essence of pomegranate twig and leaves, water and milk to prepare parahaoma drinks consecrated during the central Zoroastrian priestly ceremony Yasna. Efforts have also been made by the scholars to derive parallel between the Persian Paoma and Indian Soma plants.

In common parlance, Vayu is the god of wind in Persian pantheon that chases away the evil spirits. In Avestan language the term carried duel-natured divinity of the wind i.e. Vayu and the atomosphere i.e, Vata hence the term Vayu-Vata was also used for the divinity but Vayu alone too carried same implication. He was the god of wind that lived between the realms of Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu. Therefore, he could be angelic and yajata i.e. worthy of worship or daeva i.e. evil spirit depending upon the situation and circumstances. In Persian arts and paintings, he is mostly depicted as a mighty warrior god with golden weapons especially a sharp spear, who fights withj the dark forces and scatter them to maintain worldly order.

Zorvan or Zurvan was considered a minor god of the time and space in the early Persian pantheon and later he was rechristened as Zorvan Akarana as the god of Infinite Time. In this glorified form at a later point of time in the Achaemenid Empire, he was personified with Time, who was supposed to have created the twins Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu with equal powers. This concept of Zorvan being the original creator of both good and evil probably received more acceptance during the the Sassanian Empire. According to this concept of creation, Ahura Mazda as the king of gods too was created by the Time as the supreme being.

Any written record of the Persian pantheon&rsquos early religious vision do not exist and such details about the Persian civilization are known mostly from the Zoroastrian works recorded in the the Sassanian Period and even later from literature and folklores such as the Shahnameh or the One Thousand Nights, etc. Though the aforesaid twelve gods are listed as the prominent and more important deities, actually, there was a large number of divinities in the early pantheon. For instance, Airyaman was the Persian god of friendship and healing Asman, the god of the Sky Allatum, the goddess of the underworld in early Persian mythology Baga, the god of prosperity and wealth Bahram, the god of planets and victory Drvaspa, the goddess who protected cattle, children and friendship Izha, the goddess of the sacrifice Mah, the god of moon Neriosang, the messenger god and Zam, the deified earth. This is only an illustrative and not inclusive list. In addition, there was a long list of Daevas - the evil spirits, as legions of Angra Mainyu responsible for various kinds of ailments and chaos in human lives. Other supernatural entities such as dragon, jinns and fairies find frequent mention in the Persian literature and folklore.

Persian Mythological Legends

According to Western scholars and historians, the mythology of ancient Persia developed in the Greater Persia region largely comprised of the Caucasus, Central Asia, South Asia and West Asia. The ancient Persians addressed themselves as Aryan, meaning &ldquonoble&rdquo or &ldquofree&rdquo, instead of usual understanding of the term as a race. Arguably, one stream of these Aryans were settled in and around the region of the modern Iran prior to the 3rd millennium BCE and the other stream settled in the Indus Valley of the Indian sub-continent. This, however, is only a view point of the Western scholars and Indologists, supported by the left-leaning Indian historians, which is not accepted by traditional Indian scholars well versed with the history of the Indian sub-continent based on what is recorded in rich ancient literature and other reliable sources.

The Western viewpoint is that as both ancient Persia and India shared similar environment and culture, they also had many common elements of the cultural and religious belief system. However, in contrast to Indian culture which had highly developed and systematic oral tradition of knowledge sharing as Vedas and Upanishads, followed by a vast literature and recorded text in the form of Epics, Puranas, and so on, the Persian religious traditions were mostly passed down orally with the reforms and written text mostly occurring after the prophet Zoroaster. The Avesta is the primary Zoroastrian scriptural source dealing with the pre-Zoroastrian deities, supernatural beings and other entities. Hence even the events of early Persian times are also narrated largely through the Zoroastrian lens, and some other later works such as the Bundahisn, the Denkard and the Vendidad.

The major sources of the Persian mythology, however, remains the Shahnameh (The Book of Kings) written by Ferdowsi about a millennium (977 - 1010 CE) back and the One Thousand Tales (The Arabian Nights) written during the Sassanian Period (224-651 CE). These stories are mostly about the gods, spirits, strange creatures, supernatural beings and Persian heroes. Particularly, the Shahnameh is an enormous epic narrating stories of the forces of good symbolizing the kingdom of Persia versus the forces of evil and chaos personified as the kingdom of Turan. A few such representative mythical and legendary tales are briefly illustrated in the following paragraphs.

1. Creation Theory and Advent of Evil

Ahura Mazda was uncreated and eternal, who by his sheer goodness created everything which is seen or known in seven steps in the following order: Sky, water, earth, plants, animals, human beings and fire. The sky was suspended in the midst of nothingness, within it he released water and separated the two by creating the earth. Now on earth, Ahura Mazda spread all kinds of vegetation followed by the creation of a beautiful Primordian Bull, Gavaevodta. At this juncture, Angra Mainyu or Ahriman entered the scene embodying the chaos, darkness and evil. The Avesta does not reveal its origin, a later sect of Zorvanism suggested him to be the twin brother of Ahura Mazda but this dualism of the good and evil was not endorsed by the traditional Zoroastrianism.

Some later scholars have suggested that Angra Mainyu did not actually exist but was the symbol of the destructive/negative energy of the creator god himself. Nonetheless, the Primordial Bull was killed by Angra Mainyu as part of his evil design. Ahura Mazda took the Bull&rsquos corpse to the moon and sanctified it. From thus sanctified seed of Gavaevodta, all animals of the world and a human Gayomoartan were created by him. Now Angra Mainyu killed this human Gayomoartan too but Ahura Mazda used its purified seed to create the first mortal couple &ndash Mashya and Mashyanag &ndash who lived a blissful life in complete harmony with the animals of the world till Angra Mainyu corrupted them with his lies that he was the real creator and master of universe and Ahura Mazda was an imposter. Consequently, Ahura Mazda expelled the couple from the paradise but he simultaneously granted them &ldquofree will&rdquo that enabled human species to chose for self the path of good or evil in future.

2. King Yima Saves the World

Probably, the first great hero of the Persian mythology was King Yima (also referred as Yama) who ruled the world with great justice, devotion and dedication. His main objective and efforts were to elevate the lives of his subjects so that they do not incur undue poverty, disease and death throughout his realm. The gods had endowed him with enough grace and powers as a reward of his unclenching devotion and selfless efforts to keep his subjects happy and prosperous. He always wisely used his discretion such as with the population increase, he would enlarge the arena to provide enough space and resources for all creatures, including humans, animals and plants for an amicable and peaceful existence.

Later when the earth became overpopulated and the dark forces gained enough ground, the gods decided to have major overhaul to save the world from a possible anarchy and chaos. So the gods instructed Yima that a harsh winter was approaching so the latter must gather a man and woman, two of each kind of animals and the seeds of all type of vegetation in a three-tiered barn. Yima precisely did as he was instructed by the gods. A harsh and prolonged winter soon ensued and, except the ones protected by Yima&rsquos barn, none of the humans, animals and plants life survived on the earth. Thus with the grace of gods, the righteous King Yima was able to save the world from total destruction. There is a high probability that the similar later stories such as Noah&rsquos Ark and Safina Nuh of the Abrahamic religions were inspired from this tale.

(There is a flip side of the story too. After a successful rule of three hundred years, King Nima succumb to the lies of Angra Mainyu and committed sin so, the divine grace was withdrawn from him by the gods. Henceforth his successors inherited his legacy and ruled their realm with the deception and trickery on usual play in human life.)

3. Zal and Rudabeh

Zal was a legendary Persian hero and king from Sistan, who finds a mention in the Shahnemah as one of the greatest warriors of all time. He was the son of a equally brave and legendary Persian hero Sam and father of an all time Persian iconic hero Rostam. He had a defect of having white hair since birth hence he was named Zal, which in Persian refers to albinism. Rubadeh was perhaps a Persian mythological figure who was extremely beautiful with characteristically long hair. In Shahnemah, she is referred to as the princess of Kabul and daughter of the Kabul ruler Mehrab Kaboli and Sindukht. The two were iconic lovers who later married and had two sons, one of them Rostam became a great Persian hero and warrior of all time.

The story of Zal and Rudabeh has more than one variants in Persian mythology. According to one such legend, as the white hair was considered a bad omen, Zal was abandoned as infant by his parents near a mountain, where he was located and adopted by a magical bird Simurgh (also Simorgh). Similarly, Rudabeh is depicted as the daughter of an evil serpent king. Despite these oddities, the two fell in love with each other. When a secret rendezvous was fixed at a night, Rudabeh let down her hair from the roof and offered Zal to climb up to her. Zal, however, refused to use her hair for support fearing it might hurt Rudabeh and procured a rope to scale the wall instead. Despite some twists and turns due to Persian king&rsquos opposition to their love and matrimony, the two eventually succeeded to get married and live blissfully ever after.

4. Tragedy of Rostam and Sohrab

After marriage, Zal and Rudabeh had a difficult time in giving birth to their son. So Zal summoned Simurgh (the magical bird) who taught them to deliver the child through caesarian process and use of the medicinal herbs. Consequently, their son Rostam (also Rustam or Rustum) grew very soon acquiring a great height and strength of an elephant and became a great hero of Persia against the evil Turan kingdom. He lived in Sistan and was a favourite hero of the Persian King Kaykavous. Once pursuing the trail of his lost horse, he entered the neighbouring kingdom where he became the honoured guest of the king. When Rostam met Princess Tahmina, she was enamoured and requested him at the night to gift her a child in return of his horse. Rostam returned back with his horse after impregnating the princess and presenting her a jewel and a bracelet for the prospective daughter or son, respectively. In due course, she gave birth to a son who was named Sohrab by his mother.

Years passed by and a war broke between the forces of Persia and Turan. By now, Sohrab had grown enough and became a hero and best warrior in the Turan army. Unaware of these developments, the father and son duo Rostam and Sohrab were found pitted against each other in the bitter war. As Rostam had already earned a name as an unmatched warrior of the Persian army, no one else dared to confront him but Sohrab came forward to restle against him. Although Sohrab knew his father&rsquos name but Rostam had no knowledge about his adversary as he had not been in touch with Princess Tahmina after their first rendezvous. A long and heavy bout of wrestling ensued, Rostam eventually defeated Sohrab, who while dying uttered that his father Rostam would certainly avenge his death. Rostam now identified his son through his bracelet, terribly grieved but the life of Sohrab could not be saved.

5. Azhi Dahaka, the Dragon

In Persian mythology, Azhi Dahaka or a dragon is an embodiment of the evil Ahriman or Angra Mainyu. In ancient time, following his constant tussle with the Persian god Ahura Mazda, Ahriman decided to create a fearsome monster who could destroy all the goodness from the realm to enable the dark forces to dominate the world with anarchy and chaos. So he created Azhi Dahaka, the dragon, who had three frighful heads with the body of a huge serpent that eventually became a symbol of evil and terror in the Persia. The dragon vehementally spitted fire, was very powerful and was able to sense any kind of threat instantly. Thus he created hell for the life of people through his indiscriminate killings and targeting everything that was good around.

Finally, a Persian hero Fereydun could not bear with the plight of people and decided to face the evil dragon single handedly. In his ensuing battle, he did not kill the dragon because its corpse would have released numerous demons who could capture and further torment the world but he was able to tie the beast and imprisoned it in the Mount Damawand. The folklore is that the dragon is still chained inside the Mountain Damawand and will remain so until the end of the world. In another version of the mythical tale, Zahhak or Azhi Dahaka is depicted as an evil Persian king, who bore a serpent on each of his shoulders. He was a tyrant ruler who daily fed young people&rsquos brain to his serpents. Eventually, the Persian hero Fereydun overpowered and imprisoned him in the mountain and became the king himself.

Like other glorious and notable ancient civilizations such as Greek, Roman and Egypt of the old world, the Persian civilization too was a great contemporary civilization. Interestingly, The Indian and Persian civilizations had many unique and common traits and legacies in their contemporary culture and religion. Though Persians had constant rivalry and war for supremacy with Greeks, Romans and Ezypt westwardly, they largely remained at peace with India through the large span of history despite being neighbours except a brief spell when the ambitious kings of the Achaemenid Empire tried to expand their empire eastward too. Years later, Hindus of the Indian sub-continent welcomed Persians (Zoroatrians) with open hands and heart when their life, property and faith was threatened at the hands of Islamists in Persia. Today, only few Parsis have survived mainly in India and some other places, but they are contributing much more to their host nation&rsquos prosperity and well-being than their own share and size of the population.

The Early Faith

The polytheistic faith of the Persians was centered on the clash of positive, bright forces, which maintained order, and negative, dark energies that encouraged chaos and strife. The Persian pantheon was presided over by Ahura Mazda, the all-good, all-powerful creator and sustainer of life, who gave birth to the other gods. Ahura Mazda created the world in seven steps beginning with sky (though in some versions it was water). The purpose, it seems, was the manifestation of universal harmony, but this was thwarted by the evil spirit of Angra Mainyu, Ahura Mazda’s cosmic opponent.

The sky was created first as an orb that could hold water, and the waters were then separated from each other by earth, which was planted with vegetation. Once this was done, Ahura Mazda created the Primordial Bull, Gavaevodata, who was soon after killed by Angra Mainyu (also known as Ahriman). Gavaevodata’s corpse was carried to the moon and its seed purified and, through its death, it then gave birth to all other animals.

The first human was then created, Gayomartan (also given as Gayomard, Kiyumars), who was so beautiful that Angra Mainyu had to kill him. His seed was purified in the ground by the sun, and from it grew a rhubarb plant, which became the first mortal couple – Mashya and Mashyanag. Ahura Mazda gave them souls through his breath and they lived in harmony with each other and the world until Angra Mainyu whispered to them that he was their true creator and Ahura Mazda was the deceiver. The couple believed this lie and fell from grace, afterwards left to live in a world of disorder and strife.

They could choose to live well, even under these conditions, by adhering to the truth of Ahura Mazda and turning away from the enticements of Angra Mainyu. This conflict between Supreme Good and Ultimate Evil was the heart of the early religion and almost all the supernatural entities associated with the faith fell on one side or the other (the exceptions being genies and faeries) with humans also forced to make the same choice. The earliest vision of life-after-death was of a dark realm of shadow which the soul moved through, its existence dependant on the prayers and memory of the living, until it crossed a dark river where good souls were separated from the bad.

Later – possibly before Zoroaster but probably after – the afterlife was reimagined to include a final judgment on the Chinvat Bridge (the span between the living and the dead), one’s actions weighed in a celestial balance, and the concept of heaven and hell. If one chose the path of truth, one would live well and, after death, find paradise in the House of Song if one chose to listen to Angra Mainyu, one would live with strife, confusion, and darkness, and, in the afterlife, would be dropped into the hell known as the House of Lies.

Stone carved Faravahar in Persepolis. Faravahar is one of the best-known symbols of Zoroastrianism, the state religion of ancient Iran / Photo by Napishtim, Wikimedia Commons

The soul Ahura Mazda had breathed into the first couple was immortal and, as a gift, needed to be cared for. Ahura Mazda provided the people with everything they needed and only wanted one thing in return: that they care for their souls by listening to his counsel and defending the values he stood for. The meaning of human existence, then, was making the choice to honor that gift or repudiate it through a selfish and willful adherence to Angra Mainyu and his pretty, but ultimately false, promises.

Humans had been given free will and each person had to choose, on their own, which path to follow and how to live a life. To assist people in making the right choice, as well as protect them from the dark forces, Ahura Mazda created the rest of the pantheon of the gods and, among the most popular, were:

  • Mithra – god of the rising sun, covenants, and contracts
  • Hvar Ksata – god of the full sun
  • Ardvi Sura Anahita – goddess of fertility, health, water, wisdom and sometimes war
  • Rashnu – an angel the righteous judge of the dead
  • Verethragna – the warrior god who fights against evil
  • Vayu – god of the wind who chases away evil spirits
  • Tiri and Tishtrya – gods of agriculture and rainfall
  • Atar – god of the divine element of fire personification of fire
  • Haoma – god of the harvest, health, strength, vitality personification of the plant of the same name whose juices brought enlightenment

Rituals centered on the four elements, starting with fire (which was kindled on an outdoor altar) and ending with water (which was honored as a life-giving element) in the presence of air and standing on the earth. The four cardinal points were also acknowledged. There were no temples in early Persian religion just as there were none later in Zoroastrianism because it was believed the gods were everywhere and immanent and no building could or should contain them.

Fire was central to the faith in symbolizing divinity – the actual presence of the god Atar – but earth, air, and water were also deeply respected as sacred emanations from the supreme god. Although the Greeks claimed the Persians worshipped fire and the elements, this is not true they worshipped the divine power who created the elements.

Invented First Refrigerator and Air Conditioning

Yakhchal or ice chamber. Abarkuh, Iran. / Photo by reibai, Flickr, Creative Commons

The Persians invented, or developed, the first system of refrigeration, known as a yakhchal. This was a domed structure made of clay, which was used to store ice but, eventually, also came to be used to keep food cold. The invention of the yakhchal is commonly attributed to the reign of the first Achaemenid king Cyrus II (the Great, r.c. 550-530 BCE) but was actually created earlier either by the Persians or the people of nearby Elam who contributed a number of concepts and innovations to Persian culture. The windmill, however, is without doubt a Persian invention, created c. 500 BCE, and led to the development of the ventilation system known as the windcatcher (or wind tower) which was a structure attached to the top of a building, which would draw cool air down, push warm air up, and keep the building a comfortable temperature in hot weather.

[OC] Between Lucifer and Ahriman

Ahriman is the evil spirit in Early Iranian Religion, Zoroastrianism, and Zorvanism, Lord of Darkness and Chaos, and the source of human confusion, disappointment, and strife.

Or one helluva bad-ass sorcerer in warhammer 40k, responsible for the downfall of his legion.

The balance between ahriman and lucifer is a very powerful symbol. I'm neither christian or anthroposophic, but I'll lend Rudolf Steiner's writings (in my own words) for explaining it, because they do strike a certain chord:

When Jesus sat upon the cross, awaiting the nights arrival and with it, his own death, two people had been hanged upon the cross with him. One was a murderer the other a thief. On his left, the thief was to be found, and he looked away from Jesus. On his right, the murderer, who looked to Jesus, and Jesus said to him: "Before morning comes, we will meet again".

On the right was Lucifer, a creature of light and ecstasy of air and spirit. On the left was Ahriman, a creature of earth and darkness, of material brutality.

Essentially, Ahriman is a demon of science, technology and worldly knowledge, while lucifer is a demon of spiritual knowledge and egohood.

Some say that Ahriman's incarnation in the flesh is not far away.

"[T]oday. the spirit-soul is asleep. The human being is thus in danger of drifting into the Ahrimanic world, in which case the spirit-soul will evaporate into the cosmos. We live in a time when people face the danger of losing their souls to materialistic impulses. That is a very serious matter. We now stand confronted with that fact."
— Rudolf Steiner, FACULTY MEETINGS WITH RUDOLF STEINER (Anthroposophic Press, 1998), p. 115.

I love Rudolf Steiners work

Copied from another of OP’s comments:

The balance between ahriman and lucifer is a very powerful symbol. I'm neither christian or anthroposophic, but I'll lend Rudolf Steiner's writings (in my own words) for explaining it, because they do strike a certain chord:

When Jesus sat upon the cross, awaiting the nights arrival and with it, his own death, two people had been hanged upon the cross with him. One was a murderer the other a thief. On his left, the thief was to be found, and he looked away from Jesus. On his right, the murderer, who looked to Jesus, and Jesus said to him: "Before morning comes, we will meet again".

On the right was Lucifer, a creature of light and ecstasy of air and spirit. On the left was Ahriman, a creature of earth and darkness, of material brutality.

Essentially, Ahriman is a demon of science, technology and worldly knowledge, while lucifer is a demon of spiritual knowledge and egohood.

Some say that Ahriman's incarnation in the flesh is not far away.

“[T]oday. the spirit-soul is asleep. The human being is thus in danger of drifting into the Ahrimanic world, in which case the spirit-soul will evaporate into the cosmos. We live in a time when people face the danger of losing their souls to materialistic impulses. That is a very serious matter. We now stand confronted with that fact."

— Rudolf Steiner, FACULTY MEETINGS WITH RUDOLF STEINER (Anthroposophic Press, 1998), p. 115.

I was just reading about this in Steiners works

BRO I literally just finished reading an article explaining this topic in detail, and im not sure if its synchronicity or the post algorithm, probably a little bit of both. )

Copied from another of OP’s comments:

The balance between ahriman and lucifer is a very powerful symbol. I'm neither christian or anthroposophic, but I'll lend Rudolf Steiner's writings (in my own words) for explaining it, because they do strike a certain chord:

When Jesus sat upon the cross, awaiting the nights arrival and with it, his own death, two people had been hanged upon the cross with him. One was a murderer the other a thief. On his left, the thief was to be found, and he looked away from Jesus. On his right, the murderer, who looked to Jesus, and Jesus said to him: "Before morning comes, we will meet again".

On the right was Lucifer, a creature of light and ecstasy of air and spirit. On the left was Ahriman, a creature of earth and darkness, of material brutality.

Essentially, Ahriman is a demon of science, technology and worldly knowledge, while lucifer is a demon of spiritual knowledge and egohood.

Some say that Ahriman's incarnation in the flesh is not far away.

“[T]oday. the spirit-soul is asleep. The human being is thus in danger of drifting into the Ahrimanic world, in which case the spirit-soul will evaporate into the cosmos. We live in a time when people face the danger of losing their souls to materialistic impulses. That is a very serious matter. We now stand confronted with that fact."

— Rudolf Steiner, FACULTY MEETINGS WITH RUDOLF STEINER (Anthroposophic Press, 1998), p. 115.

Types of Fires and Legends

The three Great Fires were:

  • Adur Gushnasp (fire of warriors)
  • Adur Farnbag (fire of priests)
  • Adur Burzen-Mihr (fire of farmers)

All three were said to have come into the world at the beginning of creation and were always kept burning by the priests who tended them. The rivalry of these priests, in attempts to draw the most adherents in pilgrimage to their respective sites, gave rise to a number of legends surrounding them so it is impossible to know how they originated or, for the most part, exactly where. The word Adur means “holy fire” and the second name designates who the fire honored, usually thought to be its founder, although legend claims that all three fires were initially kindled by Ahura Mazda himself and entered the world on the back of the great celestial bull, Srisok, who carried them to where they eventually burned.

Adur Gushnasp was considered the greatest of the Great Fires by the Sassanian monarchs who were themselves of the warrior class and influenced what was written about this subject and every other. Whether Adur Gushnasp was always considered the top-tier of the fires is unknown (and was contested by priests of the time) but it is the only one said to be archaeologically attested to and was kept at Takht-i Soleyman, West Azerbaijan Province, modern-day Iran. Gushnasp means “stallion” and alludes to a myth concerning the fire’s founder (a warrior) in which flames attached to his horse’s mane and were carried to the site.

Ateshgah Fire Temple, Azerbaijan / Photo by Nick Taylor Flickr, Creative Commons

Adur Farnbag is thought to have been kept at Pars (modern-day Fars), Iran. Farnbag alludes to glory or good fortune, and this fire was claimed to be the greatest of the three by the priests of the Sassanian Empire. The “glory” referenced in the name would be that attached to the service of God and the “good fortune” would mean the same as regards the founder of the fire. The priests claimed this fire originated in the time of the first mortal king Yima (a mythological figure) and was, therefore, the oldest and should be held in highest honor. As with Adur Gushnasp, legends of miracles and healings were associated with Adur Farnbag just as they were with Adur Burzen-Mihr.

Adur Burzen-Mihr was the fire of farmers – and seems to have been considered the lowest by the priests of the other two sites – but was highly respected by others. Burzen-Mihr translates as “exalted is Mithra” and is thought to be the founder’s name but could also allude to the fire in honor of Mithra, god of contracts who was also responsible for fertile fields and fought against the demons of drought and bad harvest. This fire is thought to have been kept in northeastern Iran and was possibly initiated in the Parthian Period but, as noted, legend claims it was much older.

All three fires were of the highest grade of flame that could be produced – a grade known as atash behram (“victorious fire”) – which was produced by 16 other different types of fire taken from various locales including fire from a funeral pyre, from a king’s fire, from the hearth of a faithful Zoroastrian, from a shepherd’s hearth, a baker’s oven, a brewer’s shop, etc. These different fires were then combined to create each of the Great Fires. The Great Fires which are kept burning in modern-day fire temples still adhere to this same model and are still kept to stand between the forces of darkness and humanity.


The section closes with a great battle in which Rustum is killed but predicts, before dying, a greater age to come and hope for the future. The third cycle begins with a brief mention of the Arsacids (Parthian Empire) before telling the story of the Sassanians and their struggle against the invading forces of the Muslim Arabs.

Ferdowsi’s chronology of events and history of the empire is accurate though scholars have noted that the depiction of the Sassanians and Muslim Arabs is romanticized, depicting the one along the same lines as Iran and the other as Turan from the Heroic Age. The Sassanians are finally defeated, and Ferdowsi ends the tale with the line, “After this came the era of Omar, and when he brought the new faith, the pulpit replaced the throne” (Davis, 961) in reference to the Caliph Umar and the arrival of Islam in Persia.

Ferdowsi concludes his poem with a few lines on his enduring fame as its creator: “I’ve reached the end of this great history/And all the land will fill with talk of me…And men of sense and wisdom will proclaim,/When I have gone, my praises and my fame” (Davis, 962). This prophecy came to pass as his work was embraced early on by the people of Iran (by the 13th century CE, it had already been copied and images from the poem adorned various structures) eventually becoming the country’s national epic.

The German poet Goethe (l. 1749-1832 CE) and English poet Edward Fitzgerald (l. 1809-1883 CE), through their respective works West-Eastern Divan (a collection of poems inspired by the Persian master poet Hafiz Shiraz) and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, piqued Western interest in Persian literature and translations of Ferdowsi’s work brought the story to an even wider audience. Over a thousand years after its completion, the Shahnameh continues to be admired and Ferdowsi’s name, as he predicted, stands equal in stature to any of the great writers of world literature.

Cult of Angels

Most non-Muslim Kurds follow one of several indigenous Kurdish faiths of great antiquity and originality, each of which is a variation on and permutation of an ancient religion that can loosely be labeled the “Cult of Angels,” Yazdâni in Kurdish. The actual name of the religion is all but lost to its modern followers, who retain only the names of its surviving denominations. The name Yazdânism or Cult of Angels is a variation of the Kurdish name of one of its isolated branches, Yezidism, which literally means “the Anglicans.” There are some indications that Yazdânism was in fact the name of the religion before its fragmentation. An even older name for this creed may have been Hâk (or Haq), which is the name given by this religion to its pre-eternal, all-encompassing deity, the Universal Spirit. A brief argument in favor of the former view is presented in this section under Yezidism.

Only three branches of the Cult of Angels have survived from ancient times. They are Yezidism, Alevism, and Yârsânism(also known as Aliullâhi or Ahl-i Haq). Alevism now also encompasses Nusayrism, which is followed primarily by a minority of Arabs in Syria and most of the Arab minority in Turkey.

All denominations of the Cult, past and present, hold a fundamental belief in luminous, angelic beings of ether, numbering seven, that protect the universe from an equal number of balancing dark forces of matter. Another shared belief, and a cornerstone of the Cult, is the belief in the transmigration of souls through numerous reincarnations, with reincarnations of the deity constituting major and minor avatars.

The Cult believes in a boundless, all encompassing, yet fully detached “Universal Spirit” (Haq), whose only involvement in the material world has been his primeval manifestation as a supreme avatar who after coming into being himself, created the material universe. (Haq, incidentally, is not derived from the Arabic homophone haqq, meaning “truth,” as commonly and erroneously believed.) The Spirit has stayed out of the affairs of the material world except to contain and bind it together within his essence. The prime avatar who became the Creator is identified as the Lord God in all branches of the Cult except Yezidism, as discussed below. Following or in conjunction with the acts of creation, the Creator also manifested himself in five additional avatars (Bâbâ or Bâb, perhaps from the Aranlaic bâbâ, “portal” or “gate”), who then assumed the position of his deputics in maintaining and administering the creation. These are the archangels, who with the Creator and the ever-present Spirit, number the sacred Seven of the First Epoch of the universal life. This epoch was to be followed by six more, a new epoch occurring each time the soul or essence of the avatars of the previous epoch transmigrates into new avatars, to again achieve with the Spirit the holy number 7. Following these original seven epoches and major avatars, new, bur minor, avatars may emerge from time to time. However, their importance is limited, as are their contributions, to the time period in which they live.

In this century three individuals have risen to the station of Bâb, or “avatar”: Shaykh Ahmad Bârzâni (supposedly a Muslim), Sulaymân Murshid (a Syrian Arab Alevi) (see Modern History), and Nurali llâhi (a Yârsân leader). Their impact, however, has been ephemeral. This was not the case with another avatar who appeared a century earlier.

In the 19th century, Mirzâ Ali Muhammad, now commonly known as The Bâb, rose to establish the religion of Bâbism, which soon evolved into the world religion of Bâhâ’ism. The religion spread at the same wild-fire pace as Mithraism in classical times, from the Persian Gulf to Britain in less than a century’s time (see Bâbism & Bâhâ’ism).

The rites and tenets of the Cult have traditionally been kept secret from non-believing outsiders, even when followers were not subject to persecution. In the present century an appreciable number of the scriptures of various branches of the Cult of Angels have been studied and published, allowing for better understanding of the nature of this native Kurdish religion, as well as the extent of its contribution to other religions.

The Cult is a genuinely universalist religion. It views all other religions as legitimate manifestations of the same original idea of human faith in the Spirit. The founders of these religions are examples of the Creator’s continuous involvement in world affairs in the form of periodic incarnations as a new prophet who brings salvation to the living. Thus, a believer in the Cult has little difficulty being associated with Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, or any other religion, as to him these are all just other versions of the old idea. He also has little difficulty in passing as a follower of any one of these religions if need be. Other religions that view themselves as unique systerns of approach to the divinity, with an exclusive monopoly on truth, are viewed as unique as the images in a kaleidoscopc: they are unique only in the configuration of their elements, but are all identical in that the elements that are involved in forming each image were supplied by the Creator at the moment of the universal Genesis of the material world. Hinduism and its similar cosmopolitan approach to other religions come readily to mind.

Meanwhile, the Cult has always been apt to absorb other religions, whole or in part, that have come into contact with it. To do so, new branches of the Cult have formed by incorporating into their dynamic cosmogonies system of continuing avatars the highest personages of these externat religions. Alevism, for instance, was formed in the process of the Cult’s movement to swallow Shi’ite Islam beginning in the 15th century. Such movements, which recur throughout the history of the Cult, should not be interpreted as organized and sinister efforts directed by a central, priestly body in the Cult. Far from it, the Cult as a whole could not have been any more indifferent to such events. These movements were all spontaneous creations of various segments of the followers of the Cult who through intensive exposure to an outside religion would in time adopt and adapt enough of it to be able to pass as insiders, raise a messianic scepter, and try to overtake that neighboring religion.

Several old, and now extinct, movements and religions also appear to have begun their existence as branches of the Cult of Angels, under circumstances similar to those that gave rise to Alevism. Among these, with due caution and reservation, one may place the Gnostic religions of Mithraism and Zorvânism, and the socioeconomically motivated messianic movements of the Mazdakites, Khurramiyya, and the Qarmatites. The Cult also has fundamentally influenced another Gnostic religion, Manichacism, as well as Ismâ’ili (Sevener) Shi’ism, Druzism, and Bâbism, and to a lesser extent, Zoroastrianism, Imâmi Shi’ism, and Bahâ’ism. The Mithraist religious movement seems now to have been a guise under which Cult followers attempted to take over the old Greco-Roman pantheistic religion, with which the Cult had been in contact since the start of the Heffenistic period in the 4th century BC. Mithraism succeeded impressively. By the time of Constantine and the prevalencc of Christianity, Mithraism had become so influential in the Roman Empire that it may be that the Roman state observance of the birth of the god Mithras on December 25 inspired the traditional dating of the birth of Christ. This date was the one on which the Universal Spirit first manifested itself in its prime avatar, Lord Creator, whom Mithraism presumed to be Mithras.

The Yezidi branch of the Cult of Angels, and the Nusayri movement within Alevism, still retain vestiges of this primary position of Mithras, particularly in their festivals and annual communal religious observations.

Despite the shrinking of its earlier domain and loss of ground to Islam, the Cult still influences all the Kurds at the levels of popular culture and quasi-religious rituals. The reverence for Khidir or Nabi Khizir “the living green man of the ponds,” is a well-accepted practice among the Muslim Kurds. Khidir’s shrines are found all over Kurdistan beside natural springs (see Folklore &Folk Tales). The Muslims have connected the lore of Khidir to that of the Prophet Elijah, who like Khidir, having drank from the Fountain of Life, is also ever-living. An earth and water spirit, the immortal Khidir (whose name might mean “green” or a “crawler”) lives within the deep waters of the lakes and ponds. Assuming various guises, Khidir appears among the people who call upon him to grant them their wishes.

Many communal and religious ceremonies belonging to various faiths of the Kurds take place at Khidir’s shrines, which are a transreligious institution (see Popular Culture and Festivals, Ceremonies, & Calendar). Khidir’s longevity is symbolized in the longevous pond turtles found at the ponds and springs where his shrines are located. As such, realistic, but more often stylized, turtles are common motifs in Kurdish decorative and religious arts (see Decorative Designs & Motifs). The feast of Khidir falls in the spring, when nature renews itself. The exact observation date, however, varies from religion to religion, and even community to community. All branches of the Cult observe the feast, as do many Muslim commoners.

In ancient times the Cult came to be regarded as a contender to the ascendancy of early Zoroastrianism. This must have been before the end of the Median period, and the movement to overtake Zoroastrianism was perhaps sponsored by the last Median ruler, Rshti-vegâ Äzhi Dahâk (r. 584-549 BC). There is now compelling evidence that the slaying of Zoroaster himself and the overthrowing of his patron king Vishtaspa were at the hands of the troops of King Rshti-vegâ Âzhi Dahâk, as he advanced eastward into Harirud-Murghâb river basins in northwest Afghanistan in 552 BC. This did not help Äzhi Dahâk’s reputation among the early Zoroastrians.The Median king Äzhi Dahâk has since been assigned a demonic character and is seen as the arch villain in both Zoroastrianism and the Iranian national mythology and epic literature, like the Shâhnâma. In fact, Azhdahâ has become the only word in the Persian language for “dragon.” The controversial title Âzhi Dahâk for the last Median king was already known to Herodotus, albeit in a corrupted form, as Astyages.

A lasting legacy of this encounter between the two religions was the Cult’s introduction of a hereditary priestly class, the Magi, into the simpler, priestless religion that Zoroaster had founded.

Zoroastrianism and the Cult of Angels share many features, among which are the belief in seven good angels and seven “bad” ones in charge of the world, and a hereditary priestly class. These common features are natural results of the long and eventful contact between the two religions. Other common features may be the result of the religious imprint of the Aryan settlers of Kurdistan, whose original religion must have been the same as that which the Prophet Zoroaster later reformed and reconstituted into the religion of Zoroastrianism. In its present form, however, the Cult shows the greatest mutuality with Islam, which has been its neighbor for the past 14 centuries. Nearly a thousand years after the first attempt on Zoroastrianism, followers of the Cult made another, less successful, bid to take over, or eliminate, Zoroastrianism. This was in the form of the Mazdakite movement.

The cult or movement of Mazdak rose in the Sth century AD in response to the rigid social and economic class system instituted by the Zoroastrian state religion of Sasanian Persia. The movement spread out from the Zagros region led by a native son, Mazdak, who eventually even succeeded in converting the Sasanian king Kavât or Qubâd (r. AD 488-53 1).

The Mazdakites’ fundamental belief in the social equality of people, still largely present in the Cult of Angels, gave this religion special attraction to the poor and the objects of discrimination. Mazdak (whose name may mean “lesser Mazdâ,” with Mazdâ being the shortened form for the name of the Zoroastrian supreme god Ahurâ Mazdâ), preached communal ownership of many worldly possessions, and was accused of having included women in this same category-an accusation of sexual promiscuity still levied on the Cult of Angels.

The practice of communal ownership has prompted many modern writers to flamboyantly brand the cult of Mazdak as the first world communist system (see Classical History). In this religion was also embedded a militancy that continued to manifest itself in several socioreligious movements in the Islamic era, and indirectly through the militant Shi’ism of modern times.

Despite, or perhaps because of, their earlier successes, the Mazdakites were soon subjected to widespread massacres towards the end of Kavât’s rule ca. AD 528 (as he had by then reverted to Zoroastrianism). Under the rule of Kavât’s son and successor, Chosroes I Anoshervân, pogroms were extended to all corners of the country, prompting the king soon to declare them all destroyed. Far from being destroyed, the movement resurfaced, albeit fragmented, after the destruction of the staunchly Zoroastrian Sasanian Persian Empire. Mazdak remains one of the two patron saints of the populous Khushnow Kurdish tribe in central Kurdistan (Sykes 1908, 457).

Muslim rulers in their turn had to face and put down successiva waves of economically driven messianic religious movements originating in this same area of Jibâl (Arabic for “[Zagrosl mountains,” i.e., old Media). The most important movement, that of the Khurramiyya, was led by religious and military leader Bâbak. The Khurramiyya believed in transmigration of souls, especially those of their leaders and religious figures. Bâbak and his followers, like Mazdak and the Mazdakites earlier, were known for their practice of communal ownership of all properties and means of economic production, and lack of social distinctions.

Simultaneously with Bâbak, whose headquarters were among the migrant Kurdish tribes in Azerbaijan, a Kurd named Nârseh (known to the medieval Muslim historien Mas’udi as “Nasir the Kurd”), led a Khurrami uprising in southern Kurdistan (the heartland of the Cult of Angels), which was finally put down under the ‘Abbâsid caliph Mu’tasim. Muslim historien Tabari reports that about 60,000 of Nârseh’s followers were killed by the Muslims, forcing the rest, along with Nârseh, to flee into the Byzantine Empire in AD 833 (see Medieval History).

The hallmark of the Mazdakites and the Khurramis was their use of the color red for their banners and clothing. They were thus called the Surkhalamân, “the people of red banners,” or Surkhjâmagân, “the people of red cloths.” This signature reappeared in the 14th and 15th centuries in another movement from among the followers of the Cult, when the Alevis came to be called the Qizilbâsh, or “the red heads,” from their red headgear (see Alevism and Medieval History).

After its suppression under the early ‘Abbâsid caliphs, an offshoot of Khurramiyya appeared in southern Iraq and later in Lahsâ or Ahsâ (modern Al-Ahsâ in eastern Saudi Arabia). These were called the Qarmatites, and shared with the parent movement the ideals of socioeconomic equality, as well as its cosmogony and theology. The medieval Ismâ’ili traveller Nâsir Khusraw records such practices of the inhabitants of Lahsâ as communal owi-iersffip of property and pointing to the connection between the old Mazdakite movement and Qarmatism. A hotbed of “schism,” Lahsâ remains a predominantly non-Sunni region in the otherwise fanatically Sunni Saudi Arabia. The population is now reported to be mainstream Imâmi Sffi’ite, which may well turn out to be the same kind of inaccurate generalisation as that which classified the Cult of Angels itself as a Shi’ite Muslim sect.

In the 15th century, Muhammad Nurbakhsh, whose Sufi movement turned out to closely parallel the tenets of the Cult of Angels (see Sufi Mystic Orders), came from Lahsâ. In the early 19th century, another mystic from Lahsâ, Shaykh Ahmad Lahsâ’i, moved to Persia to lay the foundations for the Bâbi movement of the middle of the 19th century. A socioeconomic, messianic movement with striking similarities to the old Mazdakite movement, the ideas of Shaykh Ahmad (which were popularized by AliMuhammad Bâb), on which it was based, share at 12ast as much with the Cult of Angels as did the Nurbakhshi movement (see Bâbism & Bahâism).

All branches of the Cult, from the Mazdakites to the modern-day Alevis, have been commonly accused of sexual promiscuity. The Muslims believe they share their women at their communal religious gatherings. Even today the fiction of this notorious ceremony (called mum söndii, “candie blown out” in Anatolia, or chirâgh kushân, “killing of the lights” in Iran) is used by the Cult’s Muslim neighbors to demean its followers. The accusation is levied against many other religious minorities connected in various ways to the Cult of Angels, such as the Ismâ’ilis in Afghanistan (Canfield 1978), the Alevis of Turkey (Yalman 1969) and Syria, and the Druze of the Levant (Eickelman 1981). Oddly, even scholars of the stature of Henry Rawlinson, Macdonald Kinnier, and G.R. Driver chose to believe rumors of this ceremony. Driver compares it with the oriental Bona Dea at Rome, and declares it even more shatneless (Driver 1921-23). Rawlinson states that, although he did not believe it was still practiced in his time (1836), he thought it had been until half a century earlier. He further adds that it must have been the remnant of the ancient worship of fertihty deities found in the cults of Mithra and Anahita, and also in the cult of Sesostris, which practiced the worship of genitalia. Kinnier claimed to have witnessed, if not actually participated in, one in 1818.

The followers of all branches of the Cult of Angels have ritual gatherings called lam, Âyini lam, or Jamkhâna (spelled (7emhane in Turkey), in a designated enclosure where holy scripture is recited, religious masters speak, and community bonds are renewed by the shaking of hands of all those present. Social equality is demonstrated by the forbidding of any hierarchical scating arrangements. The gatherings are closed to nonbelievers for fear of persecution, and the secrecy enshrouding the ceremony may have been the cause of the myth of communal sexual improprieties. The fact that women now are forbidden even to enter the Jamkhâna by some 6ranches of the Yârsân is a reaction to these accusations, even though it runs against the grain of Kurdish society and its traditionauy high status of women (see Status of Women & Family Ufe).

The minor Jam ceremonies occur once every seven days. The all-important major Jam occurs once a year, at different times for different branches of the cult, as discussed under their entries below.

In the Islamic era the religion has influenced and been influenced by many branches of Islam, particularly by the Shi’ism of the lmâmi (Twelver) and the Isma’ili (Sevener) sects. The most important and lasting contribution of the Cult of Angels to Islam, however, came at the time of the Qara Qoyunlu dynasty of eastern Anatolia and western Iran (1380-1468), as well as during the formative carly decades of the Safavid dynasty, beginning in AD 1501. The dynasty’s founder, Ismâ’il 1, had strong Alevi sentiments, and in fact claimed to be an avatar of the Divinity. He is still revered by the Alevis as such, and as a Sâhabi Zamân, a living “Time Lord.” It took many generations of Safavid endeavor to adjust to, and largely expunge, the elements of the Cult of Angels from their original religion. They did succeed, however, and the traditional, standard Imâmi Shi’ite Islam has since dominated Persia/lran. Nonetheless, every impartial report concerning the faith and practices of the carly Safavids points toward the Cult of Angels (Alevism in particular), and not Shi’ite Islam, as their religion.

To distinguish themselves from these non-Muslim “infidels,” the mainstream lmâmi Shi’ites began from the start of the 16th century to refer to themselves as Ja’fari (after the 6th Shi’ite imam, Ja’far al-Sâdiq), instead of by their earlier, and cherished, title: the Shi’a. Shi’ites short for shiat al-‘Ali, is Arabic for “the party of Ali,” Muhammad’s son-in-law. Convinced that the names Alevi and Aliullâhi, Gy which these non-Muslim Kurds, and later Turkmens and Arabs, called themselves, are derived from the name of imam Ali (a notion fortified by the semi-deification of Ali, as one of the most important carthly avatars of the Universal Spirit, by two out of three branches of the Cult of Angels), the lmârni Shi’ites opted for the less-than-desirable, but safer title of lafari. By the time of the fall of the Safavids III 1720, this had become the almost exclusive title observed by mainstream Shi’ites, so real was their fear of association and confusion with the manifestly non-Muslim Alevis and Aliullâhis. To their chagrin, some Alevis in Anatolia began to embrace the name lafari in the 2Oth century, and have reported themselves as such to the Turkish census takers (see Table 5, Remarks).

The ability of the Cult to adapt and absorb alien religions through its belief in the transmigration and reincarnation of souls again reminds one of Hinduism. Indian Buddhism was absorbed by Hinduism when the latter declared Buddha to be yet another, albeit important, avatar of the Spirit, just as Vishnu, Shiva, and Rama are. Some Hindus did unsuccessfully claim such status for the Prophet Muhammad as well.

The “high-jacking” of Ali and Muhammad for a while seemed to have given the Cult the means it needed to absorb Shi’ite Islam from the beginning of the 15th century to the time of the Ascension of Abbâs the Great on the Safavid throne in AD 1588. His enthusiastic sponsorship of the mainstream lmâmi Shi’ite theologians, attracted from as far away as Medina, Lebanon, Mesopotamia, and Khurâsân, finally blew away the smoke screen of Ali-worship by the Cult of Angels. Abbâs’ Islamic scholars codified and strictly delineated lmâmi Shi’ism within its traditional boundarics prior to the Cult’s offensiva. The most important of these Shi’ite theologians, Allâma Majlisi, goes to great lengths to danin the followers of the Cult of Angels in his seminal treatise upholding traditional Shi’ism, Bihâr al-Anwâr. Despite all this, Shi’ism in its modern form bears the influence of the Cult in its rituals, specifically those that are considered the most offensive and unorthodox by the Sunnis. After all, it was under the sharp and punishing pressure of the Qara Qoyunlu and the carly Safavids (i.e., in their “Alevi period”) that most Muslims of Iran and the Caucasus were converted from Sunnism. The later reforms and introduction of traditional Shi’ism after the 17th century never succeeded in doing away with the imprint of the Cult of Angels on the common practice of the religion. The Cult survives today in the radicalism, economic and social egalitarianism, and martyr syndrome of Iranian and Caucasian Shi’ism, but not so much of Iraqi Shi’ism. The inhabitants of what is now Iraq were mostly Shi’ite before the arrival of the revolutionary Alevis out of Anatolia and never converted to Alevism. Iraq was not, however, left unaffected by the Cult. It was another branch of the Cult, Yârsânism that had more peacefully been influencing Mesopotamia since the early days of Islam.

In words once interpreted as slander, but that now appear to have been true, the famous 15th century Sunni theologian, Sufi master, and poet, Abdul-Rahmân Muhammad Jâmi (in the Rashahât

i Jâmi) refers clearly to the “Shi’ites” he encounters in Baghdad as the 11 people of Dun ba Dun” (a fundamental relioous tenet of the Cult, denoting continuous reincarnation of the soul see Yârsânism). Jâmi habitually respects the traditionalshi’ite Mushms of central Asia and his home province of Khurâsân. His great antagonism toward the “Shi’ites” of the western Middle East, including Baghdad, is demonstrated by his adamant refusal to call them Shi’ites, but instead Râfidi, i.e., “the apostates.” This and the similarly hostile reception of western Shi’ism by the Sunni theologians of eastern Islamdom (who well tolerated traditional lmâmi Shi’ism), occurred at a time when the Cult of Angels was busily absorbing traditional Islamic Shi’ism.

The Shi’ite beliefs in many saints, the messiah, a living Sâhib al-Zamâm, “Time Lord,” and the like, all naturally appeal to the followers of the Cult of Angels. The Cult embraces all such notions, except that of a messiah to come at the end of the world. It has not, therefore, been difficult for them to pass themselves off as Shi’ites if need be. Even today, some branches of the Cult of Angels comfortably declare themselves bona fide Shi’ite Muslims, despite the fact that their fundamental beliefs clash with the principles of Islam as set forth in the Koran.

The Cult contains an impressive body of cosmogonical and eschatological literature, which is best preserved in the Yârsân branch, and is discussed under Yârsânism. The number 7 is sacred in this religion, and is the number of heavens, the number of luminous angels (as well as of their opposing dark forces of matter), the number of major avatars of the Universal Spirit, the number of epochs in the life of the material world, and the number of venerable families that maintain a hereditary priestly office in the religion. At the heart of number 7 also lies another, more sacred but less often employed, number: 3, which denotes things pertaining to the almighty himself. These numbers of course are sacred, more or less, in many other religions and disciplines of Middle Eastern origin as well. We need only remember the Trinity in Christianity, and the veneration of the number 7 in traditional astrology. What is missing from the Cult of Angels is the veneration of the number 12, which is sacred to Judaism> Christianity, and Islam (e.g., 12 tribes of Israel, apostles of Christ, Shi’ite imams).

Fasting requirements in this religion are limited to three days’ while prayers are required only on the occasion of the communal gathering of Jamkhâna. Dietary laws vary from denomination to denomination, but are lax, or rather vague, at best. Alcohol and ham, for example, are often permitted because they are not directly prohibited in the scripture.

The Cult is fundamentally a non-Semitic religion, with an Aryan superstructure overlaying a religious foundation indigenous to the Zagros. To identify the Cult or any of its denominations, as Islamic is a simple mistake, born of a lack of knowledge of the religion, which pre-dates Islam by millennia. Even though there has been strong mutual impact of the Alevi and Yârsân branches of the Cult and Shi’ite Islam, it is equally a mistake to consider these branches as Shi’ite Muslim sects, or vice versa.

The causes of this common mistake are several, but most important is the high station of Ali, the first Muslim Shi’ite imam, in both Yârsânism and Alevism. Through the elevation of Ali to status of primary avatar of the Spirit, Alevism and Yârsânsim have earned the title Aliullâhi (those who deify Ali) from their Muslim neighbors. The ongoing practice of religious dissimulation-like the Muslim taquiyah-has been also an important factor in confusing outsiders. The Cult’s past attempts to absorb Shi’ism thro’ugh pretensions of a shared identity have also confused many a hapless historian. As extremist Shi’ites, or ghulât, was how the embarrassed Muslim neighbors of the followers of the Cult used to identify them. Today, if asked, most Muslims would readily call Cult followers (with the exception of the Yezidis) Shi’ite Muslims of a “peculiar” kind.

The dwindling number of followers of the Cult over the past 4 centuries, coupled with the religious dissimulation of their leaders, who have openly and persistently called the Cult a Shi’ite Muslim sect, have relegated the question to the realm of unimportance for Muslims. The exception is, perhaps, the Kurdish Muslims themselves, whose persecution of Cult followers in the 19th and early 2Oth centuries Was instigated by the fame- and follower-seeking, demagogue Muslim mullahs. These Muslims alone have kept up the pressure on Cult members (see Early Modern history).

Unlike many major religions, the Cult facks a divinely inspired, sin le holy book. In fact the avatars of the fact such a book would have been out of place, given the multiplicity of the avatars of the Spirit, and the fact that revelation and reincarnation are an on-going affair in this regenerative religion. Instead there are many venerated scriptures, produced at various dates, in various languages, and covering various themes by holy figures in the Cult. In fact Nurali llâhi, himself a minor avatar and the author of the most recent “holy scripture,” the Burhân (see Yârsânism), passed on in 1975. Lack of a single holy book has not by any means hindered the Cult from developing a most impressive cosmogony, catechizes, eschatology, and liturgy, which are shared with minor variations in all denominations of the Cult to this day.

Good and evil are believed by the Cult to be equally important and fundamental to the creation and continuation of the material world. The good Angels, are therefore, as venerable as the bad ones, if one may call them so. In fact, without this binary opposition the world would not exist. Cold exists on] y because there is also its opposite, warm up is what it is only because there is also down. Good would cease to exist if evil ceased to balance its existence. “Knowledge” and “awareness” in man exist only because good and evil exist in equal force, to be used as points of reference by man to comprehend and balance his being. Good, traditionally represented by the symbol of a dog and evil by the symbol of a serpent, join each other in a dog-headed serpent to represent the embodiment of the act of world creation: the mixture of ether and matter, good and evil, and all other opposites that make up this world. Some reports by European travellers of the late 19th and early 2Oth centuries regarding the veneration of dogs by the Alevis, if true, may point to worship of the symbol of good, since there is plenty of evidence of veneration of the symbol of the serpent (and hence evil) in the Yezidi arts, particularly at their shrines in Lâlish (see Yezidism).

The symbol of a dog-headed serpent finds its precedent in the Kurdish art of the Mannaean period of the 9th century BC. Side-by-side representation of the dog and serpent symbols is already well-known through the ancient Mithraic temple art from England to Iran.

The Cult does not believe in a physical hell or heaven, filled with devils or angels to come at the end of time. The horrors of hell and pleasures of paradise take place in this world as people reincarnate after death into a life of bounty and health or conversely into one of misery and destitution, depending on the nature of the life they lived within their previous body. At the end of time, however, only the righteous and complete “humans” who succeed in crossing the tricky bridge of final judgment (Perdivari) will join the eternity of the Universal Spirit. The failed souls will be annihilated along with the material world forever.

The Cult’s belief in the figurative nature of hell and heaven is shared prominently by many Sufi orders, but particularly those that have come under the influence of the Cult (see Sufi Mystic Orders).

In addition to their attempt to absorb Shi’ite Islam, in the past thousand years, the followers of the Cult of Angels went through a period of successful proselytization of the Turkmens of Anatolia and the Arabs of the Levantine coasts of the eastern Mediterranean. There are also notable groups of Azeris, Gilânis, and Mâzandarânis who follow the Cult (Table 5).

It must be noted, however, that not all non-Kurdish followers of the various branches of this religion are just foreign converts. While most non-Kurdish followers of the Alevi branch of the Cult in Anatolia are actually Turkmen converts, the Arabs of the southern Amanus mountains and the Syrian coastal regions are in large part assimilated Kurds who inhabited the region in the medieval period. The same is true of the followers of the Cult in Azerbaijan, and in Gilân and Mâzandarân on the Caspian Sea, most of whom are the descendants of assimilated Kurds who have lost all traces of their former ethnic identity short of this religion (see Historical Migrations and Integration & Assimilation). The multilingualism of the sacred works of this religion may be the result of a desire to communicate with these ethnically metamorphosed followers of the Cult, and to convey the Word to all interested people in the tongue most native to them. This practice is also found in the Manichaean (now extinct), Druze, and Ismâ’ili religions, all of which have had strong past contact with the Cult of Angels.

In the past the religion has also lost major communities of adherents: almost all the Lurs have gone over to mainstream Shi’ite Islam, while the population in Kurdistan itself has become primarily Sunni Muslim. The Laks are fast following the suit of the Lurs. This religious change seems almost always to parallel a change in language and lifestyle among the affected Kurds. The Lurs went from various dialects of Gurâni Kurdish to Persian, an evolved form of which they still speak today. Most of the agriculturalist Kurdish followers of the Cult of Angels switched from Pahlawâni to Kurmânji and its dialects when converting to Islam. Except for the Mukri regions around the town of Mahâbâd, the area now dominated by the South Kurmânji dialect of Sorâni (see Language) was a domain of Yârsânism and the Gurâni dialect until about three centuries ago (see Historical Migrations), while the domain of North Kurmânji was primarily that of the Dimilj language and Alevi faith until the 16th century.

At the turn of the century, 33-40% of all Kurds followed this old religion. The proportion of the followers of the Cult converting to Islam has slowed down in this century, and now about 30-35% of all Kurds follow various branches of the Cult. More statistics are provided below under relevant denominations of the Cult.

The followers of the Cult have been the primary targets of missionary work, particularly Christian. Christian missionaries ‘began work in Kurdistan on various denominations of the Cult as early as the 18th century. These produced the earliest Kurdish dictionaries, along with some of the earliest surviving pieces of written Kurdish, in the form of translated Bibles (see Literature). The missionaries have traditionally found these Kurds (who were mostly agriculturalists) more receptive to their works than the Muslim Kurds (who were mostly pastoralist nomads). Even today, the Primary focus of the Christian and Bâhâ’i missionarics remains the Kurds following the Cult.

Further Readings and Bibliography: A.Christensen, Le règne du roi Kawadh I et le communisme mazdakite(Copenhagen, 1925) O. Klima, Mazdak (Prague, 1957) F. Altheim, Einasiatischer Staat (Wiesbaden, 1954) M. Rekaya, “Mise au point sur Théophobe et I’alliance de Bâbek avec Thèophile (839/840),” Byzantia 44 (1974) J.B. Bury, A Histor-y of the Eastern Roman Em,pire from the Fall of Irene to the Accession of Basil I.- AD 802-867 (Brussels, 1935) H. Grégoire, “Manuel et Théophobe et I’ambassade de jea’n le Grammairien chez les Arabes,” in A. Vasdi-ev, Byzance et les Arabes, vol. I (Brussels, 1935) J. Rosser, “Theophfl us’ Kb urramite Policy an d Its Fin ale: Ile Revolt of Theophobus’ Persian Troo,ps in 838,” Byzantia 6 (1974) W.A. Wright, “Bâbak of Badhdh and alAfshin during the Years 816-41 AD: Symbols of Iranian Persistencc ägainst Islamic Penetration in North Iran,” Mu5lim World 38 (1948).

Sources: The Kurds, A Concise Handbook, By Dr. Mehrdad R. Izady, Dep. of Near Easter Languages and Civilazation Harvard University, USA, 1992

Sufi Mystic Orders

An overwhelming majority of Muslim and non-Muslim Kurds are followers of one of many mystic Sufi orders (or tariqa). The bonds of the Muslim Kurds, for example, to different Sufi orders have traditionally been stronger than to orthodox Muslim practices. Sufi rituals in Kurdistan, led by Sufi masters, or shaykhs, contain so many clearly non-Islamic rites and practices that an objective observer would not consider them Islamic in the orthodox sense.

The Sufi shaykhs train deputies (khalifa), who represent and supervise the followers of various districts in the name of the shaykh, collecting allegiance, and dues, for the shaykh. Anyone may follow a shaykh, but to actually join the order of a specific shaykh, helshe must go through a process of initiation. These members (murids) then participate in many rituals, including the Sufi dances, chants, and prayers. When necessary they will go into combat for their shaykhs. Shaykh Ubaydulldh, Shaykh Sa’id, Shaykh Ahmad BArzAni, and Shaykh Mahmud Barzanji, among others, were Sufi masters who asked for and received armed support from their murids in their political adventures.

The close shaykh-murid relationship is also an excellent vote-gathering mechanism for modern democratic elections. As such, in Turkey at least, the shaykhs curry favor with various political parties by delivering their followers’ votes (van Bruinessen 199 1).

Three of the stormiest and most controversial early movements within Sufism were led by Husayn ibn Mansur Haflaj (crucified AD 922),’Ain al-QudAt Hamaddni (crucified AD 1131), and Shahâb al-Din Suhrawardi (crucified AD 1191). They all preached ideas antithetical to the basic tenets of established Islam, and in astonishing conformity with the Cult of Angels. Hallâj, for example, claimed himself to be an avatar of the divinity, by which he proclaimed in his famous formula, an4𔃻 haqq, Arabic for “I am the Haq [the Spirit],” out of the belief in the unity of creation, and that all creatures are ultimately the manifestations of the same original Universal Spirit. He thus also declared Lucifer to have been redeemed and elevated to the highest universal station, as in Yezidism. He was subjected to exquisite tortures before being crucified in Baghdad. At present there is a shrine dedicated to Hallâj in the sacred Yezidi religious center and shrine complex at Lâlish, next to the tomb of Shaykh Adi.

Hamaddni’s ideas revolved around the “unity of existence” that is, like Hallaj, he believed that all creations are manifestations of the original, Universal Spirit. The Spirit is also aloof from events in this world, as the Cult of Angels believes the Spirit to have remained aloof after his original-and final-reincarnation into Lord God, the creator of the material world. His idea of successive reincarnation, and the redemption of Lucifer, added to his other non-Islamic preachings, qualified him for burning on a cross by the Muslim authorities when he was 33.

The same general ideas of Hallâj and Hamadfini are echoed in the work of Suhrawardi. Suhrawardi’s Gnostic teachings under the rubric of the School of Ishrclq, “illumination,” bear so much influence from the Cult of Angels that it is rather an extension of that religion (albeit with strong Hellenistic and Mesopotamian influences) than an Islamic Sufi movement. There exists a hymn by Suhrawardi, entitled A]-Hurakhsh al-Kabir, “The Great Sun [Deity],” which is to be made daily to the rising sun, asking for a personal book at the end. Echoes of the daily Cult prayer to the rising sun can unmistakably be heard in this hymn. “Thou art the strong and victorious Hurakhsh,” writes Suhrawardi, ‘,the vanquisher of the dark … the king of Angels … the proprictor of the incarnate lights of existence by the power of the obeyed God, the luminous matter … the learned scholarly philosopher, the greatest sacred son of the corporeal lights, the successor of the light of lights in the material world … I beg [him] … so that he might beg his God and God of gods … [to give me a boon]” (Mo’in 1962). His idea of the evolution of the worshipper’s soul into that of the Divinity, although not as pronounced as that in the Cult of Angels, finally cost him his life at the age of 38, at the instigation of the Muslim ulema and at the hands of another Kurd, the Ayyubid prince of Aleppo, in AD 1191. Like Hall’a)’, Hamadâni and Suhrawardi have been elevated to the station of minor avatars of the Universal Spirit in the Cult.

Hallâj was born in Baghdad from parents who had migrated from the FArs region in the southern Zagros, where tens of Kurdish tribes were present at the time (see Historical Migrations). The influence of the Cult of Angels on Hallâj’s beliefs is, however, much easier to establish than his ethnic affiliation. This is not so, however, with Hâmadâni or Suhrawardi. Hamadâni was born and lived in Hamadân in southern Kurdistan. Suhrawardi was from the town of Shahraward (often misread as Suhraward), between Shahrazur (modern Sulayni Ania) and Zanjân, 15 miles east of Bijdr. Suhraward’s population, according to the medieval Islamic geographer Ibn Hawqal, was, like today, predominantly Kurdish.

About 300 years later another follower of the Cult of Angels popularized another controversial and stormy Sufi movement. Muhammad Nurbakhsh (the “bestower of light”) began his preaching in the middle of the 15th century. He was from Lahsa (modern AhsA in oil-bearing eastern Saudi Arabia). Lahsh had been a hotbed of extremist movements, like those of the Qarmatites in early Islamic times, whose socioeconomic ideologies, as well as their belief in the transmigration of the soul, connected them with the earlier Khurramiyya and Mazdakite movements of the Zagros region (see Cult of Angels). His connection with the Cult of Angels was revealed when he was given the mantle of Hamadâni. Like Hallâj and Suhrawardi, Nurbakhsh also claimed to be a minor avatar of the Universal Spirit, of the line that included the Prophet Muhammad in the Second Epoch of the universal life (see Table 6). He proclaimed himself a Mahdi, “deliverer, messiah,” and further claimed his father’s name to have beenAbdulldh (like that of the Prophet Muhammad). He named his son Qasim, so his own title would be Abul-Qasim (again, like that of the Prophet). He also claimed supernatural powers consistent with those expected of an avatar in the Cult of Angels, and blasphemy in Islam. For this and other unorthodox utterances, he was attacked by the mainstream Sunni and Shi’ite ulema, among them, his contemporary Abdul Rahmân Jami. He did not, however, meet the dire end of his three predecessors, Hallâj, Hamadân, and Suhrawardi.

Arriving in Kurdistan, Nurbakhsh announced himself also to be the new caliph of all Muslims. The Kurds minted coins in his name (AD 1443). He was arrested by the Timurid king Shâhrukh and imprisoned in Herât, but was released in AD 1444. Nurbakhsh died of natural causes, perhaps only because his movement occurred at the height of the Cult of Angels’ offensive on Shi’ite Islam in the 15th century, and existence of powerful Alevi dynasties in the area.

Nurbakhsh’s son and successor, Qasim, was favored by the founder of the Safavid dynasty, Isma’il I, and he and the Nurbakhshi movement increasingly came to reflect the religious evolution through which the Safavids were going in the course of the 16th and 17th centuries (see Early Modern History). The Nurbakhshi Sufi order has evolved from there into a bona fide Shi’ite order, with its membership from among the Kurds being primarily Shi’ite, but with most members being non-Kurds. There are also many Yarsân followers in this order.

The oldest Sunni Sufi order still followed by the Kurds is the Qâdiri, named after its founder, Abdul-Qâdir Cilâni (also Gaylâni, Kaylâni, or Khaylani) (AD 1077-1166). Many important Kurdish religious families are presently, or are known in the past to have been, members of this order. The Qâdiri order has been in steady retreat since the start of the 19th century, under pressure from another Sufi order, the Naqshbandis.

The Tâlabâni tribe, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, its leadership, and most people in the southern sectors of Iraqi Kurdistan and in eastern Kurdistan (in Iran) are Qâdiris. The order’s headquarters are in the sacred ancient town of Barzanja near Sulaymania. Shaykh Mahmud, leader of many Kurdish uprisings against the British Mandate of Iraq, was also the leader of the Qâdiri Sufi house of Barzanji.

A more recent arrival into Kurdistan is the Sunni Naqshbandi order, founded by Baha al-Din Naqshband of Bukhârâ (AD 1317-1389) and introduced from central Asia, perhaps by the Turkic tribes and/or Turkic Bakshis, whence they were arriving in these parts of the Middle East since the 12th century.

Today, the people in northern, and to some extent western, Kurdistan follow the Naqshbandi order, while central and eastern Kurdistan are still Qâdiri. The Barzani tribe is led by Naqshbandi Sufi masters, who exercise temporal, as much as spiritual, influence in their area. Until late in the last century, however, the Barzftnis and all other tribes and clans in these areas of Kurdistan were followers of the Qâdiri order. This and many other conversions to the Naqshbandi order were the direct result of the energy and fervor of one Mawlanâ Khâlid.

In 1811 Mawlana KhAlid (b. 1779), a Kurdish Naqshbandi shaykh (of the Jaf tribe) from Shahrazur (modern SulaymAnia) set out on a furious bout of proselytization by appointing a myriad of deputies across Kurdistan and beyond. These deputies then proceeded, after Khalid’s death in 1827, to appoint their own deputies. In a short span of time, north central Kurdistan, along with its influential religious center of Nahri/Nehri, near RawAnduz, was lost by the Qâdiri order for good. The change has been so recent and abrupt that the most important Sufi religious family there still bears the name of Gaylani or Khaylani (after Abudl-Qâdir Gilâni). The Iraqi Kurdish Democratic Party and its Bârzâni leadership are thus of Naqshbandi Sufi affiliation.

Under President Ozal’s government (himself of a Naqshbandi family), the Naqshbandis have staged a comeback in Turkey after many decades of official banning and persecution, following Shaykh Sa’id’s uprising of 1925.

Sufi lodges (khtinaqds) pepper Kurdistan, and are much moire common in fact than mosques or any other places of religious ritual (except, perhaps, for the sacred trees and ponds dedicated to Khidir) (see Popular Culture).

Non-Muslim Kurds also follow Sufi orders of their own, or any one of the Cult orders, which are at least nominally known to be Shi’ite Sufi orders (as, for example, are the Nurbakhshi and Ni’matulâhi orders). The Alevis in western and northern Kurdistan are predominantly of the Bektâshi/Baktâshi order. The order traditionally claimed to be a Sunni Muslim order, since none else was permitted under the Ottomans. But the followers of this order remained almost exclusively Alevi, with adherents among Kurds and non-Kurds all the way to Bulgaria, Albania, and Bosnia. The influence of this order on the life of the Alevi Kurds is profound. One of the most important festivals observed by the Alevi Kurds is that of H5ji Bektâsh, the founder of the Bektâshi Sufi order and one of the most important of the primary avatars of the Spirit in Alevism. While long suppressed, the Turkish government, within whose domain the bulk of the Bekthshis live, now allows, and sometimes officially sponsors, these Alevi feasts. A reason may be the influence of Turkish President Ozal. Even though Ozal’s own family is of Naqshbandi background, they are natives of the largely Kurdish city of MalAtya, where both Naqshbandi and Bektâshi orders are present.

The Bektâshis are more commonly, and indirectly, known in the West through their “Whirling Dervishes,” whose white costumes and conical white hats are familiar to most Westerners interested in the Asian religions and practices. The most important center of the Bektâshis is the site of the shrine of the great Sufi master and poet, Mevlana (more accurately, Mawlând Jâlâl al-Din Balkhi, also known as AI-Rumi), in the city of Konya, near the southern fringes of the central Anatolian Kurdish enclave.

The Qâdiri order also practices elaborate dances and plays musical instruments alongside chants, not dissimilarly from the Bektdshi Whirling Dervishes. The Naqshbandis, on the other hand, have traditionally been far more given to meditations and chants to reach the state of ecstasy that is the hallmark of all Sufi orders. The Bektâshis are famous for their dance and music, and use the chants as the supplements to these.

A rather peculiar order, the Rafd’is, should also be mentioned, as they are in a sense a mystic order. Their strong belief in the ability of the soul to transcend the physical body at the will of any well-trained mind provides for ceremonies that include walking barefoot on hot coal, swallowing swords, and driving sharp objects through one’s own flesh, and in all cases, seemingly coming out unharmed.

Further Readings and Bibliography: N. Yalman, “Islamic Reform and the Mystic Tradition in Eastern Turkey,” European Journal of Sociology 10 (1969) S.H. Nasr, Shihdbaddin Yahytl Sohrawardi (Paris: Institut Francais d’lranologie, Bibliothaque Iranienne, 1970) John Kingsley Birge, The Bektashi Order of Dervishes (London: Luzac, 1937) Martin van Bruinessen, “Religious Life in Diyarbekir: Religious Learning and the Role of the Tariqats,” in Martin van Bruinessen and H. E. Boeschoten, eds., Evliya Çelebi in Diyarbekir (Leiden: Brill, 1988) Hamid Algar, “The Naqshbandi Order: A Preliminary Survey of Its History and Significance,” Studia Islamica 44 (1976) Hamid Algar, “Said Nursi and the Risala-i Nur,” Islamic Per5pectives: Studies in Honour of Sayyid Abul Ala Mawdudi. (London, 1978) Halkawt Hakim, “Mawlana Khalid et les pouvoirs,” in Marc Gaboricau, A. Popovic, and T. Zarcone, eds., Naqshbandis: Historical Development and Pre5etzt Situation of a Muslim Mystical Order (Istanbul-Paris: Isis, 1990) Albert Hourani, “Shaikh Khalid and the Naqshbandi Order,” in S. M. Stern, A. Hourani, and V. Brown, eds., Islamic Philosophy and the Cla5sical Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972) Sherif Mardin, Religion and Social Change in Modern Turkey: The Case of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989) Wheeler Thackston, The Mystical & Visionary Treatises of Suhrawardi (London: Octagon, 1982) J.S. Triidngham, 7he Sufi Orders in Islam (New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1971) Martin van Bruinessen, “Religion in Kurdistan,” Kurdish Times IV:1-2 (1991) ‘Ain al-QudAt al HamadAni, The Apologia, A. J. Arberry, cd. and trans., as A Sufi Marty (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1969) Muhammad Mo’in, ” Huraxs”l in W.B. Henning and E. Yarshater, eds., A Locust5 Leg. Studie5 in the Honour of S.H. Taqizadeh (London: Percy Lund, 1962).

Sources: The Kurds, A Concise Handbook, By Dr. Mehrdad R. Izady, Dep. of Near Easter Languages and Civilazation Harvard University, USA, 1992


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