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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.

33. Crete, the old name of which was Kandie, is a Greek island in the south of Greece, with an area of 8,618 square kilometers.

34. Sicily, an island with an area of 25,740 square kilometers, was colonised by the Phoenicians, then Greeks and in 241 A.D. by the Romans. Later on the Vandals and Normans invaded it, and finally in 1860 it was annexed to Italy.

35. The Sassanide rule began in 224 A.D. and ended in 652 A.D. with the murder of Yazdgerd III.

Adapted from the book: "Background of the Birth of Islam" by: "S. T. H. Khwarazmi"

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