Religion in the Achaemenid Period

In Iran, according to available sources, there existed a faith called Mizda'i which professed faith in one god named Ahura-Mizda, a name, having a root which is similar to a Greek word, meaning ,

great and possessor of wisdom', hence Ahur-Mizda would mean the great god of wisdom and reason. This faith professed belief in god as the unique creator of the world, and a belief in a number of secondary and tertiary gods, and in angels, in the resurrection which is all very significant, and also in good deeds as something very essential. Thus it is a highly interesting point of note that as a result of such basic religious education in ancient Iran, Islam spread so swiftly eastward.

The Mizda'i religion during subsequent periods became corrupted with superstitions so that a man called Zoroaster appeared to reform the Mizda'i religion. His place of appearance has been a subject of controversy in history.[28]

Of course Zoroaster is not a prophet but a reformer of the Mizda'i code. As to the appearance of Zoroaster quite odd accounts are related in history about the place and the date of his appearance, though generally historical indications place his appearance about six centuries B.C. simultaneously in regions which had a common origin and similar conditions, namely India and Iran.

In Iran Mizda'i faith is an ancient religion, and in India Brahmanism is an ancient faith, but no evidence is available about the date of origin of either of them. Mizda'i faith was later on corrupted by superstitions, and Zoroaster as the reformer makes his appearance in Iran. In India Brahmanism, too, gets mixed with superstitions, and a man named Buddha appears to reform it.

There is a great resemblance between the life of Zoroaster and Buddha in all the phases from the beginning to the end. In the Semitic regions, too, six centuries later, namely concurrent with the rise of Jesus[29] Christ (a.s.) the main faith had been the monotheistic religion of Judaism. This religion to faith was spoilt by superstitions, and a man named Jesus rose to fight those superstitions.

In this way the life of Jesus Christ (a.s.) resembles those of Zoroaster and Buddha. I do truly wish that I could have delved in deeper study in the similarity present, especially in the case of Zoroaster and Buddha, as both of them have a fifty percent resemblance with the lire of Jesus. There is another common characteristic between the lives of Jesus and Zoroaster;

the history of Christianity shows that Jesus was ordained as a prophet at the age of thirty. It is said that Zoroaster, too, rose at the same age as a reformer to correct the Mizda'i code by the order of Ahura-Mizda.

Before the rise of Zoroaster, according to the available testimonials of history a class named the Magi held responsibility for religious practices in Iran especially in Azarbayjan, as keepers of the fires. It is has been said that Zoroaster himself was at first either of the Magi class or in contact with them and had even wished to become a Magus. There is a frequent mention of Magus and Magi in the Achaemenid inscriptions, but no mention is made of Zororaster.

In Zororaster's hymns, called 'Gathas', no mention has been made of the Magi except in one place, and no mention is made of Darius and Achaemenids at all. Thus it is not clear for us whether the religion in the time of the Achaemenids and Darius' era had been Mizda'i faith or zoroastrianism or different schools of Budaism.

What is certain, however, is that Judaism had existed as a religion and then had been patronised by Darius.[30] This point is mentioned in the Jewish holy books as well as historical records.[31]
What also appears certain is that in those days in 'he realm of Iran various faiths had been prevalent, and there may not have been a formal or a state religion as such especially since no mention is made of Zoroaster in the inscriptions of Darius, nor has there been a mention of the Achaemenids in the 'Gathas'.

This could lead us to deduce that state and religion had separate existence, allowing people to practice their own religion and letting the government proceed with its own function. It is in the Sassanid period that religion gains the government' s support and there is a state it became the religion of the country. This aspect warrants an exclusive and objective study of the Sassanid period since it is closely related to the age of the rise of Islam.

To sum up, this eastern neighbour of Arabia was twelve centuries ahead of Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, in extent, greatness, power, natural resources, social, technical and administrative progress and attainment of central governmental organisation and also historical precedence. How, then, did it happen that such an advanced country should succumb so easily to a newly-risen movement originating in Hejaz, is the topic for our further discussion.

Iran in the Sassanid Period

Iran under the Sassanids went through a glorious age distinct in its history. Observations related from this period reveal why Islam spread so rapidly in Iran. Also to be kept in mind, there had existed their natural propensity, dating back three or four centuries for the acceptance of such a faith as Islam. This subject, too, will be discussed briefly.

In the year 224 A.D. almost four centuries before the rise of Islam in, Iran the Sassanids succeeded the Ashkanian dynasty.[32] The Achaemenid rule had its root in Fars, but the Ashkanis were not from that region. The Sassanids once again rose from Fars, and a chief named Ardshir Babakan who was a descendant of Sassan and a governor of Ardavan V, the last Ashkani king, decided to set up a central government modelled after the Achaemenid dynasty with greater Fars as its base including the present Khuzestan.

Within a short time Ardshir managed to gather forces and mobilise them and seize the control and then, after much struggle, establish the government of Iran on the same model and the same extent as the Achaemenid realm.

Supremacy of Religion and Political Power

Ardshir was a descendant of Sassan who was a priest, and as such in his psychological, hereditary and personality make up, it asserted decisive influence so that at the assumption of power he decided to establish a government on the basis of religion, and make that religion the state religion of the country so that the two pillars of power, politico-military administration and religion should form as the foundation of his rule.

Whether this concept originated from a personal inspiration of Ardshir attributable to descent from a priest, or whether it was a social dictate of the time which his observations led him to believe and which would make his rule smoother, is not an easy question to answer. What is certain, however, is that, though in the Achaemenid period a religion existed, yet a religious freedom existed in the whole of the Achaemenid empire, each group practising its own religion.

Though the prevalent religion was Zoroastrianism, yet alongside of it Judaism and some other local faiths also existed. Christianity had not till then made its appearance. It we were to regard Sabean as an ancient faith, it, too, existed in the region of Syria and Phoenicia. During the Achaemenid period there was no religion as the state religion, although the priests were regarded as a distinguished class, yet they had no official recognition. During the Ashkani period, too, the position was the same.

Zoroastrianism as the State Religion

Ardshir got the idea of giving a state religion to the country and that the government should have an official religion, and this religion was Zoroastrianism. There may have existed some evidence to show that this matter was based on a social necessity in the sense that Ardshir intended to revive a kind of Iranian nationality based on past history, and link his lineage to the Achaemenids and so prove himself as a kin and descendant of Kurosh; also as Zoroastrianism was an Iranian religion with a considerable following,

he figured that by reviving that religion, he could exploit both the lines of propaganda to expand and reinforce his rule. If this was the case, then by establishing a state religion and linking religion with politics was a dictate of his time. Or perhaps these considerations were never relevant and the matter was wholly personal. In any case with the assumption of power by the Sassanids, a new factor entered the social life of the Iranians,

namely that the government recognised a state religion that is Zoroastrianism. During the Achaemenid period, Greece was a powerful rival of Iran on its western frontiers, a Greece which frequently included parts of Turkey and Syria. Although until the rise of Alexander no strong government existed in Greece,

yet even those small governments asserted some weight. For instance even though Athens was much smaller in area and population as compared with Iran, still it held a high position from the viewpoint of philosophy, civilisation, political concepts and naval power and military potential. Thus they were always a source of trouble for Iran.

In the Achaemenid time other antagonists on the western borders were Chaldea, Babylon and Assyria in the region of Iraq, and Syria and a part of Turkey, but the Achaemenids removed these obstacles and conquered them, leaving Greece as a strong opponent. In the Sassanid period there was no powerful Greece any more.

In the Achaemenid period although there were governments in Rome and Italy, yet they were not of much importance. But during the Sassanid period that is for eight centuries,

there rose a powerful government and a great empire in that part of the world with its center in Rome. This empire, too, had a state religion which was Christianity In north Africa, Egypt still retained its position as an ancient civilisation, and the islands of Crete[33] and Sicily,[34] too, possessed an ancient history and civilisation.

On the whole southern Europe was under the control of a strong government with its center in Rome and Christianity as its state religion. But whether the wide influence of Christianity at that time or thereabouts and its recognition as the state religion had been a pressing necessity and an effective factor in influencing Ardshir in adopting an official religion for his government, is a question that requires further study. But anyhow the Sassanid empire had as its western neighbour a vast and powerful government in the Roman Empire where Christianity was the state religion.

Between the Persian and the Roman empires were situated the remains of Chaldea, Assyria and Babylon which kept on changing hands between these two. The middle east as far as history can recall, has never been a quiet region, especially at the time when the empires of Iran and Rome were engaged in playing vital rules in the world.

What is known for certain, however, is that the Sassanid government began its work on a new basis, namely the recognising of a state religion, a religion which was patronised by the ruling class and was attended by elaborate ceremonies by the Zoroastrian priests and their organisation which was able to exert pressure upon religious minorities and followers of other religions. This was actually the case in many of the Sassanid years when non-Zoroastrian minorities remained under duress.

In the discussions related to religion tolerance in Islam and before Islam, it is worth remembering that during the 427 years' rule of the Sassanids in Iran,[35] almost no tolerance was shown. The Iranian government recognised a state religion dominated by a powerful organisation of Zoroastrian priests which kept the religious minorities under duress. This of course was the situation for most of the time.

Meanwhile during the period when Iran was formally recognised as a Zoroastrian state, there appeared signs of influence of different views and faiths, namely the influence of Buddhism, certain Indian creeds, Christianity and Judaism upon the thoughts and beliefs of Iranians. This is the first characteristic of the Sassanid rule which lasted four centuries before the advent of Islam.

Administration of the State

The second characteristic of the Sassanid rule was its administration, possessing a developed organisation with official bureaus, correspondence, decrees, accounts and records to a greater extent than before. It could be said that with the arrival of Alexander in Iran and afterwards, Iran went through an evolutionary period in this respect.

Thus in this period the influence of tribes who were called 'clerks' or 'secretaries' and worked in government offices, grew much greater during the Sassanid role than before, and they played a significant role. The art of writing in the Sassanid time was not only limited to government business, but was also important in religion.

In the early years of this dynasty's rule 'Avesta' which had till then not been compiled and existed only in memorised form that was transferred verbatim from person to person, was compiled with the endeavours of the Zoroastrian priests and even commentaries were added in the form of 'Zand' and 'Pazand'. In this way the principles of faith became defined and organised.

Here we quote from a text by the head priest and religious authority of the time of Ardshir Babakan, the first Sassanid king, to show the influence of religion and ecclesiastical organisation in the Sassanid system of government. It says:

"The Mazdai faith was strengthened by my hand, the learned men were rightfully elevated to high placer. Those of the 'Magi' who were seized with doubts and uncertainties, were punished by me, or were pardoned after they had confessed their errors and sins.[36] Fire-temples were built by me and the Magi were assigned to them. God, the King and I confirmed their appointments.[37] Numerous fire-temples were built throughout Iran.

Intermarriage between kinsmen and near relatives was once more forbidden.[38] Under my guidance those had worshiped demons, turned back to God. Crowns were removed from the heads of many a sovereign.[39] Faith and religion found glory and splendour, and God's command overshadowed everything.

If I were to write down all the tasks which have been accomplished, it would prove a lengthy process. Wherever our army stepped, a fire-temple was set up. In Antioch, Talis, Armenia, Georgia ... everywhere we set up fire-temples."[40]

Thus it would appear that in these conditions the Sassanids assumed power in Iran and the influence of clerks, secretaries and government recorders as well as clergymen was paramount. To show the influence of the scribes and clerks, we will quote from Henri Masse, a well-known European Orientalist:[41]

"At the head of the government was the Grand Vazir who, under the direct command of the King, administered the country and acted as his deputy when the king was away on travel or engaged in the battlefield. Next to him was the Zoroastrian high priest. This shows that in those days ministerial position and chancellorship served the king and acted for him, whereas previous to this, the Army commander came next to the king in precedence. At this time, although the field commanders and generals held importance, the highest authority in the administration of the country was vested in the Grand Vazir and Chief of scribes and secretaries."

In order to further illustrate extent to which the people's political life was mixed with religion, we will quote another part from Henri Masse's writing: "A large number of clergymen intervened in the affairs of the people and controlled their daily life, thereby gaining much wealth, and extending the sphere of their influence, and becoming an independent state within the state.

Occasionally they would even form a front against the king in collaboration with the nobility, and such, confrontation weakened the Sassanid rule." The purpose of quoting these points is to show the degree of influence religion exerted in the social life and in governmental affairs and administration of the country. All this paved the way both positively and negatively, for the spread of Islam into Iran.

Generally speaking the two characteristics of the Sassanid period were: the mingling of politics and the government, with religion and the extraordinary degree of influence of the clergy and their religious organisations to such an extent that it would be interesting to note at that time a seminary and a college of logic existed alongside in the city of Rey, for the training of religious students for various positions. Another important point was the high degree of influence the clerks and government employees and keepers of records had in the society.

As it has been noted earlier, the social life of people was always divided into various clans and in this period the order of classes was undergoing a change.

Social Class Structure

In the Sassanid time the division of the population into the 'haves' and 'have not' became more apparent. The distinguished classes were made up of the clerks, clergy, military and nobles, while the ordinary classes included artisans, farmers and tradesmen.

These upper classes during the most famous and brilliant period, namely in the time of king Khusrow Anushiravan I, enjoyed the most privileged life and were exempted from the payment of taxes and from conscription in wars;

all these burdens were placed upon the class of artisans and tradesmen and especially upon the villagers, The artisans and tradesmen class paid taxes only, while the villagers had to give both money and their lives in return for a meagre livelihood. In this manner there existed a great class difference during the Sassanid rule, especially among the ordinary classes which were made up of rural population and the tradesmen and artisans.

1) Foreign Policy

During the four centuries of the Sassanid rule, from the viewpoint of foreign relations, wars between Iran and Rome were the most significant events in the pages of history. In these wars there were several points worthy of attention, the foremost being the intervention of religion in the conduct of wars.

At the beginning of the 5th century A.D. under the leadership of a priest named Nestorius[42] a sect called Nestorians came into being among the Christians in the region of Syria. This sect differed from the other Christians in their beliefs, and for that reason they were condemned for heresy and excommunicated by the powerful church of that time in Constantinope,

whereas the sect had a large following in the Middle East. Although Zoroastrianism was at that time the state religion of Iran, the government gave asylum to the Nestorians in order to gather a group of supporters between its own realm and Rome, its powerful neighbour. This support enabled the Nestorians to build churches in the realm of Iran and engage in propagating their religion.

The other point is that when the Roman Emperors saw that the powerful and centralised government in Iran had become a source of trouble for them, after revealing its intentions of conquering all of the Roman empire and moreover, owing to its distance from the territories of Iran and its inability to maintain watch over its distant frontiers, a powerful emperor of Rome named Constantine[43] decided to establish an eastern capital for himself.

This coincided with the time when the Iranian emperor, too, had determined to establish a western capital at Tysphon in the territory of Iraq, while the Romans chose the city of Byzantine which later on became known as Constantinople. This change of capital from Rome to Constantinople produced many changes in the past history, the main factor of which was the vicinity of the two powerful neighbours who were engaged in constant dispute, not about any ideology, but about expanding their respective realms and conquering the world, namely personal motives.

Thus the foreign policy of Iran in this period was firstly dominated by religion, and secondly by the continued wars lasting four centuries. For one hundred years, there existed a peace pact between them, but for the rest of the period, namely for three centuries they were continuously in a state of war which became quite intense at the end of the sixth century A.D.

That is in the time of Khosrow Parviz when intense wars raged between him and Heraclius, the Roman emperor. Both these emperors were contemporaries of the holy Prophet of Islam who sent written communications inviting them to embrace Islam.

The war between the Emperors of Iran and Rome continued so long that they were losing their last ounce of strength. We will discuss these wars in more details later on when the subject of the birth of Islam comes up.