It is funny how Pope Benedict XVI did not mention the atrocities masterminded by his 11th century predecessor (Pope Urban II during the First Crusade) when giving a speech about how Islam was spread by the sword. It is even funnier to witness the ever so predictable reactions Muslims worldwide have given since the controversial remarks took place. All in all, it all adds up to yet another continuation in the vicious cycle of conflict involving the two most influential religions on earth, a conflict that has persisted for over a millennium primarily due to misunderstanding and ignorance.
Amidst this conflict lies the fact that all monotheistic and scriptural religions were, at the time of their revelation, pure and unadulterated. Over time, there were bound to be innovations and corrupt practices incorporated into them. The original teachings were supplanted by misguided ones, their original message altered and the true essence buried forever. While we Muslims believe that Judaism and Christianity have suffered that fate long ago, many of us do not realize that Islam is gradually sinking into the same abyss of corruption. Part of the problem stems from our misunderstanding of other religions and lack of knowledge about their history. If we were to avoid the same fate, it only makes sense for us to learn more about these religions and the factors that brought about their degradation. One such religion from which much can be learned is Zoroastrianism.
Background and History
Contrary to popular beliefs, Zoroastrianism, or is better known as Majusi in the Muslim world, is not a fire-worshipping pagan religion. In fact, it is considered to be the first monotheistic religion that predates the three Abrahamaic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). It arose from the teachings of Prophet Zoroaster, the Persian prophet who lived around 1500BC.
Like Muslims, Christians and Jews, Zoroastrians believe in one unbegotten God (Ahura Mazda) from which everything in the universe originates. They believe in Creation, Judgment Day, heaven and hell, the soul's afterlife and the appearance of a savior before the end of time, just like we Muslims do. And unlike what we have learned from traditional Islamic sources, Zoroastrians are not fire worshippers. Rather, fire is simply a symbol of Ahura Mazda, much as the cross is the symbol of Christianity. Therefore, claiming that Zoroastrians worship fire is as absurd as saying that Christians worship the cross.
However, it is important to note that fire did not become part of Zoroastrianism until the arrival of Jesus 1500 years later, the details of which will be explained later in this article.
Cyrus the Great and the Spread of Zoroastrianism
Another common misconception that Muslims have is regarding the real identity of Zulkarnain. More and more Islamic scholars have come to the conclusion that Alexander the Great is not the Zulkarnain mentioned in the Quran. Of all the conquerors who reigned before the advent of the Quran, there is no one to whom the attributes of Zulkarnain are most fitting other than the Persian Emperor, Cyrus the Great.
Cyrus the Great was the one responsible for the spread of Zoroastrianism through out his empire until its emergence as the de facto religion of the Kingdom of Persia. Being a fervent believer in the oneness of God (tauhid), not only did he rule Persia justly but he also freed the Israelites who were living in captivity in Babylon and ordered the rebuilding of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem so that God could once more be worshipped in place of pagan gods. His success as the uniter of the kingdoms of Persia and Media afforded him the title the "two-horned one", or Zulkarnain.
People of the Book
While orthodox Muslims (with the exception of Malays due to reasons beyond yours truly) believe that Jews, Christians and Sabians constitute the People of the Book, some Muslim scholars argue that Zoroastrians should also be included. This argument stems from Surah Al-Hajj verse 17, in which Allah says:
Those who believe (in the Qur-an), those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Sabians, Christians, Magians, and Polytheists, Allah will judge between them on the Day of Judgment: for Allah is witness of all things.
The Magians (or Majusi), during the advent of Islam, were in fact followers of Zoroastrianism. Even Imam Malik himself had argued that since the Magians are specifically mentioned alongside the Jews and Christians, they are in fact among the People of the Book. Although the holy scripture of Zoroastrianism, Avesta, is not among Islam's four holy books, the fact that Zoroastrianism is the monotheistic precursor of Judaism, Christianity and Islam certainly earns it our reconsideration.
Magians and the Fire Temple
The Magians were an ancient Persian tribe who prior to Cyrus the Great's era, were the people responsible for religious and funerary practices. The word "Magi" is the origin of the English word "magic", which explains why some people in the English speaking world refer to the Magians as sorcerers and wizards. After the formation of the united Kingdom of Persia by Cyrus the Great and the eventual eminence of Zoroastrianism, the Magians were driven into obscurity due to their pagan beliefs and practices. Even though they would eventually embrace Zoroastrianism later on, they did not do so without altering its original teachings, as described in one of Marco Polo's writings:
"He [the infant Jesus] presented to them [the Magi] a closed box, desiring them not to open it till their return home. After having traveled a number of days, however, they were curious to see what was in the box, and opened it, when they found only a stone, which was meant to express that they should remain firm in the faith which they had received. They did not understand this meaning, and, despising the gift, threw it into a well, when immediately a great fire came down from heaven, and began to burn brightly. When they saw this wonder, they were quite astonished, and repented that they had thrown away the stone. They, however, took a portion of the fire, carried it to their country, and placed it in their church, where they kept it continually burning. They revere it as a god, and use it for burning all their sacrifices; and when at any time it goes out, they repair to that well, where the fire is never extinguished, and from it bring a fresh supply. This is what all the people of that country tell, and Messer Marco was assured of it by those of the castle, and therefore it is truth."
- Marco Polo, Travels
The text above clearly explains how the Magians, much like their Jewish and Christian counterparts, went astray from their original religion by incorporating a paganistic element into it. Although fire was regarded as a mere manifestation of God, there were bound to be misguided followers who would soon return to their pagan roots and mistake fire as the son of God.
Whether it is Saint Paul's idea of the divinity of Jesus, Emperor Constantine I's introduction of the paganistic concept of Holy Trinity, or the triumph of the Talmuds over Torah and Psalms, much can be learned from our Abrahamaic and Zoroastrian counterparts in the hope that we Muslims can avoid the same pitfall. This is especially relevant in this day and age where Islam has become synonymous with barbarism and violence, while more and more false practices have become more or less part of its new fabric.
And in our overzealous denunciation of other religions, much more can be studied about them so that we do not make unwarranted and uninformed statements. Not only will this further solidify our faith in Islam but it will also help us live in harmony along side Christians and Jews, much like our Muslim ancestors did during the times of Saladin and the great Ottoman Empire.
And do not dispute with the followers of the Book except by what is best, except those of them who act unjustly, and say: We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you, and our God and your God is One, and to Him do we submit.
- Al-'Ankabut, verse 46