Parsí Dualism in Shí‘a Islám

Continuing from our discussion of ketman

Some aspects of Islám are reminiscent of Zoroastrianism in ways unique to Islám, for example As-Sirát (Arabic: الصراط), the Bridge of Judgment, which is reminiscent of the Zoroastrian Chinvat Bridge. Other Zoroastrian influences, such as those involving eschatology and angelogy, appear to have entered Islám by way of Judaism and Christianity.

All this pales before the deeper common themes between Zoroastrianism and Shí‘a (شيعة) Islám.

One aspect of Shí‘a Islám that bears a striking similarity to Zoroastrianism is the Shí‘a catalog of najis (ritually unclean) (Arabic: نجس‎) people and things. Shí‘a Islám has historically singled out non-Muslims and human corpses as unclean, whereas, before the advent of Islám, Zoroastrians had considered foreigners and human corpses as unclean. Even to this day, many Zoroastrians refuse to bury or cremate their dead, for fear of contaminating the elements of nature.

A more fundamental similarity can be found in the dualism of Good and Evil common to Zoroastrianism and Shí‘ism:

Concurrent with this dual vision [of exoteric and esoteric], Shi‘ite doctrine is based upon another fundamental belief: a dualistic vision of the world. According to this, the history of creation is a story of a cosmic battle between the forces of Good and Evil, between light and darkness. Given the vital role of initiation and knowledge, as we have just seen, one might say that Good is knowledge and Evil is ignorance. The battle between these respective forces, of these universal antagonistic powers, is woven into the fabric of existence. According to cosmogonic traditions, what marks creation ever since its origin, is the battle between the armies of cosmic Intelligence (al-‘aql) and those of cosmic Ignorance (al-jahl), …
—Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, Encyclopedia Iranica

As in Zoroastrianism, we see that Shí‘ism associates light with the Good. Furthermore, the struggle is metaphysical, that is, “is woven into the fabric of existence”.

“Zoroaster was the first to discover in the fight of good and evil the very wheel in the machinery of things: the transposition of morality into the metaphysical, as a force, cause, and end in itself, in his work.” —Friedrich Nietzsche

The cosmic aspect of this struggle cannot but remind one of Zoroastrianism, presuming that one knows anything at all about Zoroastrianism. How much, I wonder, was Zoroastrianism conquered, subjugated, and humiliated, but how much did it survive in new garments?

What then follows from this cosmic struggle is a worldly, political struggle between the forces of good and evil that culminates in the return of the Shí‘a saoshyant, the Imam Mahdi:

According to theories of cycles, which are far from being clear, ever since creation, the world has known two kinds of government (dawla): of God in which prophets and imams, as guides of light and justice, are able to openly teach esoteric truths, and that of Satan in which these truths can only be transmitted and practiced secretly, as the world in this case is under the influence of the guides of darkness and injustice. Satan having been the adversary (zµedd) of Adam, the history of adamic humanity is marked by adversity and violence by demonic forces of Ignorance; during the adamic cycle, these forces will remain dominant–a majority driving the minority of persecuted initiates towards marginality and isolation. Thus it will be until the End of Time and the advent of the Mahdi, the eschatological savior, who will definitively conquer the forces of Evil.
—Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, Encyclopedia Iranica

Closely related to this struggle between Good and Evil is the Shí‘a belief that God does no evil, which is quite similar to the Zoroastrian idea of a Good Creator (Ahura Mazda).

Also tightly bound to moral dualism is a belief in freewill, as a distinguished from the Quranic doctrine of predestination (for example: the Qur‘án says in many places that God misleads men into evil). The Semitic God of the Qur‘án is truly, consistently omnipotent; the Shí‘a and Zoroastrian Gods are not, but benevolent instead.

What does this mean? Shí‘ism is certainly a form of Islám, in spite of all its esoterism, secrecy (ketman), and moral dualism. It has been a de facto division of Islám too long to be cast aside as heresy, regardless of what the Wahabis assert. Shí‘ism’s submission—however twisted by esoteric interpretations—to the God of Islám makes it irrevocably Muslim, yet it seems quite clear that Shí‘ism shows in its very soul the signs of Iran’s Zoroastrian past.

Further Reading

Encyclopedia Iranica:

Najis Stuff:

  • The Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s Unclean infidels page.
  • Majalla’s list of Unclean Things
  • Bernard Lewis, “The Jews of Islam” (1984). See pages 33-34 in particular.

2 comments on “Parsí Dualism in Shí‘a Islám

  1. Tim says:

    Very interesting and insightful. If I may, one source you might want to add is my book “Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, their Jihads and Osama bin Laden” (Praeger, 2005), wherein I talk about the dual messiahs concept of Zoroastrianism and its possible influence on the roles of the Mahdi and Jesus in Islam.

  2. Dan Jensen says:

    Hi Tim,

    Looks like I ought to read your book. Scary stuff. I’m hopeful for reform in Islam, but I think reform has to begin with open eyes. It’s an honor to hear from you.


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