Zoroastrians in Contemporary Tehran

A review of An Alternative Religious Space in Shi’a Iran: Sociocultural Imaginaries of Zoroastrians in Contemporary Tehran, by Navid Fozi.

This dissertation explores the ways that Zoroastrians currently living in Tehran construct their identity and historical consciousness vis-à-vis the majority Shi’i culture of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Navid Fozi persuasively argues that they do so in a discursively dialectical fashion, alternatively emphasizing overlaps and dissimilarities with Shi’i culture. This dialectic is necessary for a number of reasons – to ensure the Zoroastrians’ survival as a religious minority under the Islamic Republic, to highlight the unique and superior qualities of their faith tradition, and to claim for themselves an “authentic” Iranian identity.

A major concern in this dissertation is how contemporary Zoroastrians produce historical consciousness through ritual and religious doctrine. Fozi argues that the Zoroastrian community in Iran is particularly cognizant of its minority status and therefore cultivates historical consciousness among its adherents in order to formulate a distinct modern sociocultural imaginary within the Islamic Republic. In order to understand how it does so, Fozi richly draws on Neil Whitehead’s definition of history as “culturally constructed” through texts, performances, and representations. He accordingly pays close attention to Zoroastrians’ ritual and cultural acts, particularly performances, narratives, and orations, as the technical apparatus by which historical consciousness is mediated and related to participants. Fozi outlines his theoretical approach and includes considerable background context to the status of Zoroastrians in Iran in his first chapter.

A strength of Fozi’s dissertation lies in his clarity regarding his methodology. In Chapter 2, Fozi openly addresses the challenges and limitations he faced as an ethnographer. He astutely addresses what he calls the “preterrain” of his dissertation fieldwork. In doing so, he also critiques the untroubled notion of “native” or “insider” anthropology. Fozi explains the general difficulties of conducting any sort of fieldwork in Iran due to historical and current suspicions towards social scientific research. In his case, he tried to conduct fieldwork with two other religious minority groups, but was forced to abandon both projects – in the first instance, at the behest of the Iranian government, and in the second, upon the demand of his informants. When he finally chose to work with the Zoroastrian community, he faced very different challenges – as a Baha’i, he was subject to suspicion, since many Zoroastrians had converted to the Baha’i faith as a result of proselytism. As an American PhD student, informants suspected him of being a spy. Furthermore, as he points out, religious minorities in Iran tend to be exclusive regarding the private sphere. Informants often attempted to dissuade him from his work or deflect attention away from the importance of their ceremonies. Thus, while he was eventually able to obtain permission via the head of the Mobed’s Council to attend public and semi-private ceremonies held by the Zoroastrian Association and Mobed’s Council, he was unable to secure invitations to their private gatherings. Fozi’s dissertation provides a successful model of how to complete ethnographic research in the face of significant limitations in the field.

Fozi’s argument hones in on three ways in which Zoroastrians create an alternative religious atmosphere to the dominant Shi’i one: they employ a distinct socio-temporal framework, they emphasize joyous celebration (as opposed to the Shi’i inclination towards mourning), and they draw attention to women’s equality and rights under Zoroastrianism. In Chapter 3, Fozi explores the spacio-temporality of Zoroastrian life. He argues that the calendric time sequencing of ritual and occasional events is different than that of the Shi’a – for instance, the days and months are named rather than numbered and there are distinct monthly, bi-monthly, and annual calendric events. Thus, Fozi argues, the calendar is a form of spiritual technology that helps maintain and sustain community identity. Moreover, the Zoroastrian calendar is replete with joyous celebrations of various divinities – indeed, the emphasis is on joy and thanksgiving, even during commemorations for the dead. This is symbolized, he suggests, in their insistence on wearing white at religious gatherings (rather than the customary black that Shi’a don) and disavowing mourning, even for the dead. The chapter contains rich descriptions of Zoroastrian calendric rites, rituals, and commemorations such as a gahambar, or the bimonthly ceremony of Thanksgiving, a sadeh, the main Zoroastrian annual celebration held to celebrate the historic creation of fire, the celebration of Zoroaster’s birth and prophethood, a porseh, or death commemoration, and a nozuti, or mobed initiation ceremony.

Chapters 4 and 5 explore the complex ways in which Zoroastrians negotiate their place in broader Iranian society given the majority Shi’i culture. Zoroastrians claim a privileged relationship to Iran as they identify Zoroaster as an indigenous Iranian prophet. Thus, they consider themselves the spiritual progenitors of Iranian culture and regard themselves as responsible for protecting, transmitting, and promoting Iran’s cultural heritage. Fozi provides an ethnographic example of an exhibit organized by the Zoroastrian Students Society at a park in North Tehran that included examples of a sofreh, or traditional spread, that also plays an important role in the Iranian New Year’s festivities. He notes that in their explanations, the Zoroastrian representatives attempted to present rites that are now popular among Muslims as essentially Zoroastrian, thus portraying themselves as progenitors of these rites.

At the same time, Zoroastrians must be careful not to overstep their bounds as a minority community under the Islamic Republic. On occasion, they carefully align themselves with the Shi’i majority against the shared historical consciousness of Sunni Arab invaders. Indeed, the memory of the Arab invasion of Iran is highlighted in Zoroastrian rites and serves both as a point of differentiation and alignment with the Shi’a, since it at once suggests that the Shi’a were Zoroastrians who were somehow corrupted by Arab influence, and that the legacy of the Shi’i struggle against Sunnis marks them as having authentic Iranian roots alongside Zoroastrians. Ultimately, Fozi suggests that Zoroastrians hold that their faith has deeply shaped Shi’i cosmology, modes of prayer, and its ecclesiastic order, but that Zoroastrians are still superior, distinct, and more authentically Iranian than the Shi’a.

In Chapter 6, Fozi considers some of the major challenges facing the Zoroastrian community in contemporary Iran. These primarily revolve around public perceptions of the community, but most importantly, the issue of perpetuity. As Fozi points out again and again, a major issue of the community is its depopulation as a result of conversion, marriage outside the faith, and emigration, especially since Zoroastrianism is not officially open to conversion into the religion. This population loss exacerbates concerns regarding the transfer of religious knowledge, ritual and language. In order to assuage these worries, Zoroastrians have come to frame endurance as transcending the existence of the current community. The transformation of Zoroastrian practices into Shi’i and Iranian praxes has come to represent a triumph of endurance. Furthermore, as Fozi aptly describes, the community has been attempting to leave its legacy through the construction of public works, like hospitals and libraries, that are open to non-Zoroastrians. Under the given circumstances, Fozi suggests that the community is thriving, especially as Shi’i Iranians’ renewed desire to rediscover their past has opened up space for Zoroastrians to enter into dialogue with society at large.

Navid Fozi’s study is a valuable addition to works on Zoroastrianism and the anthropology of religion. It is only the fourth ethnographic study of Zoroastrians to date, and the only one to be conducted in Iran following the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Its detailed descriptions of contemporary Zoroastrian rites, as well as its general introduction to Zoroastrian cosmology and theology, will be valuable to students and scholars of ritual and religion. It contains appendices with further detail on Zoroastrian celebrations and publicity. Lastly, this work speaks to the literature on religious minorities in Iran, and the Middle East more generally, as it directly explores how a religious minority negotiates its identity in relation to a Muslim-majority culture.

Hosna Sheikholeslami
Department of Anthropology
Yale University
hosna.sheikholeslami@yale.edu

Sources

Ethnography of the Zoroastrian community in Tehran, Iran
Interviews with members of the Zoroastrian Association
Interviews with members of the Mobed’s Council

Dissertation Information

Boston University. 2011. 344 pp. Primary Advisor: Charles Lindholm.

 

Image: Photograph by Navid Fozi.

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