How an Indian Religious Minority Shaped Modern Iran

June 13, 2021   •   By Nile Green

Exile and the Nation: The Parsi Community of India and the Making of Modern Iran

Afshin Marashi

TODAY, IRAN’S ZOROASTRIAN minority comprises a tiny proportion of the country’s overall population, considerably less than half a percent. The Zoroastrian community of India — where they are known as “Parsis” — is even tinier. But around a century ago, they became an object of fascination for a series of influential Iranian intellectuals, both Zoroastrian and Muslim, who repositioned their country’s pre-Islamic religion at the center of a new national identity. Coupled with the glories of the ancient Achaemenid Empire, this veneration for the Zoroastrian past won increasing state support during the half-century heyday of the Pahlavi monarchy before being pushed back into the margins of official culture by the Islamic Revolution of 1979.


Seen in the context of the other secular nationalisms that developed in the 20th-century Middle East, little seems unusual about the Iranian case. From Egypt to Lebanon, Turkey and even Afghanistan, pre-Muslim monuments such as the pyramids of Giza and the Buddhas of Bamiyan were by the 1930s being emblazoned on stamps and banknotes as evidence of both the deep roots of the nation and the prestige of inheriting an ancient civilization. But the Iranian case differed in one crucial way: whereas in Egypt no one had worshiped Osiris since the end of the Roman Empire, and Afghanistan hadn’t been home to Buddhists for more than a millennium, the sacred flames of Ahura Mazda quietly kept burning in a handful of fire temples in remote Zoroastrian villages skirting Iran’s central desert.


The old rituals had also been maintained by the long-separated Zoroastrian community of India. By taking advantage of the trading opportunities of Britain’s expanding empire, these Parsis (or “Persians”) had become some of the wealthiest citizens of Bombay (now Mumbai) during the century that saw it become the economic hub of the Indian Ocean. Looking across the seas through which their merchant ships traded as far as China, and across which their ancestors had sailed from the coasts of southern Iran, these wealthy Parsi businessmen made pledges to aid their impoverished coreligionists.


Renewing these connections was no small task. Over the course of 12 centuries in India, the Parsis had forgotten the spoken Persian of their forebears and now conversed in Gujarati or in English. But in 1854, after founding the Society for the Amelioration of the Condition of Zoroastrians in Persia, they dispatched from Bombay their educational and philanthropic representative, Manekji Limji Hataria. During the following decades, the tireless Manekji forged ties between the two tiny religious minorities that would transform the way in which millions of members of Iran’s majority Muslim community, including its ruling classes, conceived of their own identity.


When I first traveled to Iran in the 1990s to research the last traditional remnants of the old religion in the villages around Yazd, I had read about Manekji and the impact of his mission. But when I walked into the offices of the Anjoman (or community association) Manekji helped found in Tehran, running polite Persian phrases through my head, I was little prepared to be greeted in the impeccable English and Indian cadences of the mobed (or senior priest). Decades earlier, he had studied in Bombay as Manekji’s educational connections continued through the mid-20th century. But by the time I met them, the Zoroastrians were again in retreat, undertaking new migrations to California and Canada, and founding new Anjomans from Orange County to Ontario. Now, in Exile and the Nation, Afshin Marashi recounts the fascinating middle section of this story: the waxing and waning of modern Zoroastrianism as the links between two religious minorities in late colonial India and early Pahlavi Iran transformed the cultural politics of an entire country.


Through five chapter-long case studies of the most influential figures, both Zoroastrian and Muslim, who brought about this transformation, Marashi argues that these “intellectuals and nationalists came to imagine an Iranian modernity rooted in a rediscovered, reconceived, and reconstructed culture of Indo-Iranian classicism.” Here, as throughout his book, he presents the recovery of the Zoroastrian past as the romanticized promotion of a “classical” heritage for a modern nation-state whose secularizing leaders tried to replace their compatriots’ Muslim identity with a uniquely national culture that had the allure and legitimacy of antiquity.


In focusing mainly on scholars rather than politicians and ideologues, Marashi also uses “classicism” to hint at the intellectual methods that his Indian and Iranian protagonists shared with the European savants who taught some of them and whose own philological investigations into the Zoroastrian past had first emerged from the study of the Greco-Roman classics. Because the study of ancient languages — in this case the Avestan and Pahlavi Persian of the Zoroastrian scriptures — that laid the basis for this Indo-Iranian classicism emerged not only between Bombay and Tehran, but also involved the universities of Paris and particularly Berlin. By the 1930s, as this academic axis increasingly overlapped with its political counterpart, Bombay and Berlin acted as the competing transmission points for the rival ideologies of liberalism and nationalism. And so, through his meticulous and dispassionate investigations, Marashi documents how the recovery of the Zoroastrian past became ensnared in the political entanglements of the interwar age of extremes.


Each of the five core chapters follows the itinerant career of a key figure in this intellectual and ideological traffic between India, Iran, and Europe, a triangulation which lies at the heart of Marashi’s original approach to the lineage of Iranian nationalism that has too often been told as a two-way story of the Middle East and the West. Instead, he places Bombay — and its wealthy Zoroastrian Parsis — at the forefront of his history: they are the “exiles” who shape the “nation” in his book title. Or, rather, the Parsis are the exilic prime movers. For they draw to Bombay a sequence of subsequent exiles, or at least erstwhile émigrés, whose studies in India pave the way for the later sequence of studies in Paris and Berlin that imported to Iran a new awareness of a Zoroastrian past whose prestige was bolstered by the wealth of Parsi industrialists and the praise of German professors.


The first case study starts out in the early 1890s, when a provincial Iranian Zoroastrian called Arbab Kaykhosrow Shahrokh disembarked in Bombay for studies funded via the philanthropical ties initiated 40 years earlier by the port city’s wealthy Parsis. On returning home, Shahrokh brought with him the reformist approach to his religion which the Parsis had developed through their own interactions with Protestant Christian missionaries. As his studies in India also introduced him to Anglophone scholarship, Shahrokh’s subsequent writings — which included a Christian-inspired Zoroastrian catechism and a treatise on liberal theology — drew on the ideas of European and American “philo-Zoroastrians,” who romanticized Zoroaster as a blend of mage, mystic, and monotheist. During the more than three decades Shahrokh subsequently spent as president of the Tehran Anjoman, his career as a community leader in the capital city saw him improve the legal and social position of his fellow believers. Through what Marashi considers nothing less than his “reinvention” of Zoroastrianism, Shahrokh also raised the status of the religion in the eyes of Iranian Muslims, who, as a result of the cultural policies of the Pahlavi dynasty, were starting to see Zoroaster as their own ancestral — and national — prophet.


None of this could have happened had it not been for the wider promotion of Iran’s pre-Islamic heritage through the archaeological and historiographical projects associated with the ascendant Pahlavi nationalist elite. But while the European input into these developments has long been recognized, Marashi highlights the importance of Indian scholars, particularly the Bombay-raised Parsi Dinshaw Irani. After taking a degree in Persian and English literature at the University of Bombay, Dinshaw began studying the Avestan and Pahlavi languages in which the Zoroastrian scriptures were written. Later, as a Parsi public intellectual, he put his philological skills to broader use by writing three popular books that placed Zoroastrianism at the heart of Iran’s ancient, and now national, heritage.


Published in Bombay with the support of a Parsi charitable foundation, Dinshaw’s books were


intended to promote new understandings of Zoroastrianism that would enable the local Zoroastrian community to gain a new modernist understanding of their faith, and to help promote a sympathetic understanding of the faith to audiences of non-Zoroastrians. Both of these goals were ultimately intended to elevate the social and cultural status of the faith in the eyes on non-Zoroastrian Iranians, to encourage an ecumenical and pluralistic dialogue between the Zoroastrian tradition and Iranian Shi’ism, and to bring Zoroastrianism more fully into the center of emerging debates surrounding Iran’s national identity.


By the early 1930s, even as prestigious a figure as Rabindranath Tagore, the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, was seduced by this new vision of a pre-Islamic past that linked Zoroastrianism with Hinduism. And here is one of the key tensions that Marashi explores with exactitude and sensitivity. The articles and speeches in which Tagore celebrated a shared “Indo-Iranian civilization” divorced both regions from their 13-century-old Islamic heritage by emphasizing the more ancient ties between Avestan Persian and Vedic Sanskrit, as though this offered linguistic proof for essentialist visions of a Zoroastrian Iran and a Hindu India. Through the publicity that surrounded Tagore’s high-profile, state-sponsored tour, his nationalist hosts went further still in this eliding of over a millennium of Muslim history. If in Iran this was arguably less dangerous in that Zoroastrians were still a tiny minority compared with Muslims, then in India the stakes were far higher insofar as Muslims were themselves a minority compared with Hindus.


Many contemporaries were alarmed by the political implications. Among them was Sir Muhammad Iqbal, Muslim India’s most distinguished literary luminary and counterpart to Tagore as philosopher-poet, who sent letters of protest to Iranian diplomats. This was altogether ironic insofar as Tagore had previously published strident criticisms of the rise of nationalism in other regions of Asia. But during a decade that saw avowed cosmopolitans become allies of nationalists, these contradictions are precisely what interest Marashi as he dissects his corpus of sources in the manner of an ideological anatomy lesson, laying bare the subtle capillaries linking apparently different lines of thought.


In subsequent chapters, he turns to two Iranian figures: the scholar Ebrahim Purdavud and the activist Saif Azad. Their transnational careers took them to Beirut, Kabul, Paris, Berlin, and, of course, Bombay. Once again, that Parsi-enabled hub of Indo-Iranian exchange provided the neo-Zoroastrian template for the Pahlavi vision of a specifically Iranian rather than more broadly Islamic revival. Language played a key role as both obstacle and enabler of this reconnection with the ancient past of a religious minority. The Zoroastrian scriptures had now to be made both available and intelligible to Iran’s majority population and presented as their heritage as Iranians. Stepping in to satisfy this pressing demand came the Muslim scholar Purdavud and his Parsi associates, who translated the scriptures from ancient Avestan into modern Farsi, then printed them in Bombay for export to Iran. The result was to transform the Gathas and Yasna from mysterious and traditionally memorized liturgical texts, known only to tiny numbers of consecrated priests, into mass-printed, public translations which were not merely now accessible to ordinary Iranian Muslims, but presented to them as their own patrimony.


Once again, there were unintended outcomes of this two-way process of the Parsi rediscovery of Iran and the Iranian rediscovery of Zoroastrianism. These especially emerged as a result of separating an “authentic” classical Zoroastrian past from 13 centuries of “inauthentic” Islamic cultural accretions. Because as Marashi explains, “in practice this meant that the nonclassical elements of Iran’s history — in particular the Arab and Turkish elements — were now defined as external ingredients that had been artificially grafted onto Iran’s cultural heritage.”


Here, as throughout his account, Marashi is alert to the inconsistencies that appeared as intellectuals and ideas moved between the distinct sociopolitical environments of Iran, India, and Germany. At the core of this tension lay the “implicit contradictions between the liberal goals of the Parsis and the more nationalist goals of many Iranians” during the interwar decades of the 1920s and 1930s. By drawing on source materials from across this networked geography of “exile and the nation,” the added value of this approach lies not only in linking modern Iranian history to ideas in Europe (particularly the Paris and Berlin circles of émigré intellectuals and students). It also lies in showing how Iran’s older ties to a “Persianate world,” in which India had played a central part for centuries, continued into the modern era of European imperialism and reactively assertive nationalism. In showing how new scholarly methods, mass audience books, and an alternative national identity were imported from Bombay, then adapted to Iran’s contrasting sociopolitical context in unforeseen ways, Exile and the Nation is as important a contribution to colonial Indian history as it is to understanding the origins of the modern Middle East.


Marashi concludes by noting how, after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, “the intellectual project of Pahlavi nationalism was ultimately swept away by yet newer configurations of culture, politics and ideology,” which pushed the “culture of Indo-Iranian neoclassicism” into another cycle of overseas exile. Yet once reawaked, the memory of a non-Muslim identity was never fully erased, even in Iran’s determinedly Islamic Republic. When I visited the remote Zoroastrian pilgrimage site of Chak Chak 20 years ago, my companions were Muslim art students who viewed the shrine with spellbound reverence.


As that generation has grown older, and the state-sponsored Islam that replaced Pahlavi neoclassicism has increasingly lost its appeal, the search for alternatives has quietly grown stronger. In his recent Iranian Metaphysicals, Alireza Doostdar showed how many Tehranis have turned to imported New Age alternatives to state Shi‘ism. Others have begun converting to Iran’s older minority faiths by way of the Bahá’í faith, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. But all such conversions are illegal. And so, like its counterpart a century ago, this more recent revival of Iran’s ancient religion is again surrounded by political tensions of the kind that Afshin Marashi so deftly reveals.


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Nile Green holds the Ibn Khaldun Endowed Chair in World History at UCLA. He is the author of Global Islam: A Very Short Introduction and host of the podcast Akbar’s Chamber: Experts Talk Islam.