Before Islam emerged across the Middle East there were ancient religions that dominated Middle Eastern culture. These included Zoroastrianism. This ancient Persian religion follows the teachings on the prophet, Zoroaster, whose notions of duality created a religion that has been deemed heretical over the centuries.
In the modern world Zoroastrianism does not have the global reach it once had, but it is still present and still facing the same struggles with Islam that it did over 1000 years ago. On the mountains of Northern Iraq the Yazidis (ideological inheritors of Zoroastrian traditions) are under continual attack from the militants of the Islamic State. The aims of the Islamic State is to purify Iraq; removing ‘heretical’ elements that would threaten the rise of a Sunni orthodoxy throughout the nation. This includes Christians and Shi’a Muslims, but they have critically targeted the modern descendants of Zoroaster, including the Yazidis.
But what is Zoroastrianism, who are the Yazidis and why are they so reviled by the Sunni militants of the Islamic State?
Zoroaster simplified the pantheon of Ancient Iranian gods into two forces; one the progressive mentality, the other the destructive mentality. Together these opposing forces are under the authority of one God. This religion became a dualist ideology (essential a world of good and evil). With the emergence of Islam the position of Zoroastrianism in the Middle East became untenable. One of the essential foundations of Islam is that monotheistic religions were acceptable as they came from the same tradition as Islam; they were ‘People of the Book’ . However, religions that do not subscribe to an understanding of a single supreme being, such as Zoroastrianism, were deemed heretical. Within monotheism there is a central figure; a ‘God’ who is creator, ruler etc. and although they are different, Islam believes that these alternative Gods are just derivations of Allah. By contrast Zoroastrianism does not align itself to one understanding of divine spirituality and for this, Islam (on its great expansion during the 7th century) sought to wipe it out.
The Islamic State sees itself as the inheritors of this original rise in Sunni Orthodoxy. They believe, like so many in the past, that heresy needs to be eradicated to create a pure Islamic nation. In this desire, they have pursued the modern inheritors of Zoroastrian traditions; the Yazidis. The Yazidis’ faith is not uniquely Zoroastrian, and in fact includes strands of Sufi, Shi’a and folk traditions. But their belief in holy beings that control, on behalf of God, the events of the world had them labelled as heretics and like the Persian Zoroastrians of the 7th century, the Yazidis today are suffering from an extreme and violent form of Islam.
In modern Iraq the Yazidis make up just a small minority of this otherwise Islamic state and yet they represent the important cultural diversity that has sustained the nation over the centuries. Iraq is an Islamic state, but it is also a state built on the bedrock of Ancient religions (such as Zoroastrianism) and a historic centre for Jews and Christians alike, all of whom have found their zenith in the heart of Iraq. The Islamic State, in its pursuit of Iraq’s ‘purity’ is actually corrupting the essence of the Iraqi state, a state where the Zoroastrian legacy continues after 3,000 years.