Loyal exiles rooted in rich traditions

The Zoroastrian Diaspora
July 7, 2006

In our globalised world, religion has ceased to be a local phenomenon. Nowadays there is no major religion that has not spread around the globe. But what characterises many diasporas is, in Ninian Smart's definition, "an element of exile". This applies particularly to a community as microscopic as that of the Zoroastrians, whose numbers are in the region of 120,000 worldwide. Their religion is one of the oldest living prophetic faiths and was inaugurated about 3,000 years ago by the Iranian prophet Zarathustra (also known as Zoroaster). For over a millennium, under the Achaemenid, Parthian and Sasanian kings, Zoroastrianism was a major and influential religion, but was gradually reduced to a minority faith after the Islamic conquest of Iran in the mid-7th century of the Christian era, an event that marks a watershed in Iranian history. Eventually the Zoroastrians were forced to withdraw to the desert towns and villages of the provinces Yazd and Kerman, where they are found to the present day. It is estimated that today between 10,000 and 30,000 Zoroastrians live in Iran as a minority.

Emigration and diaspora, however, proved vital for the survival of the faith and its traditions. The oldest diaspora community is that in India, and this dates back to the early Islamic period. There they became known as Parsis, because they came from "Pars" (Persia). As to the modern Zoroastrian diaspora, John Hinnells aptly distinguishes two main phases of migration, the first in the mid-19th and the second in the latter half of the 20th century. From about 1850 onwards, diaspora communities developed in China, Sindh (then part of British India, present-day Pakistan), East Africa and Britain. The Zoroastrians of this diaspora came from India, and their migrations were linked to trade within the British Empire. By contrast, the migrants of the second phase came not only from India but also from Iran.

In addition, there were "twice-migrants" from Pakistan and East Africa. Their destinations were, again, Britain, but also Canada, the US, Australia and Germany. Their diasporic movements were only rarely for trade, but more typically for education, career development and for leaving alien regimes. In particular, it was increasing Islamisation in Pakistan after Independence and in Iran after the 1979 revolution, together with Black African policies in East Africa, that made Zoroastrians leave those countries. As a result of all such migrations, Zoroastrians are now found in more countries than at any stage in their long history. To the present day, the Parsis of India constitute the largest and most important of diaspora groups, but their numbers are decreasing, while the size, influence and significance of those in the New World are growing.

Contrary to claims made by some scholars, especially W. Safran and R. Cohen, Hinnells argues convincingly that Parsis have a strong concept of, and powerful emotional attachment to, Iran, the homeland of their religion, and therefore do constitute a diaspora. Although it is not uncommon that Parsis consider themselves to be Indians first and Parsis second, they are profoundly aware of their Persian ancestry. Moreover, many second and third-generation Parsis in America regard Persia, rather than India, as their homeland, a sense of belonging illustrated by the film In the Footsteps of Our Forefathers , which records the pilgrimage of American Zoroastrian professionals back to the homeland of their religion.

This tie with Iran is kept alive by the practice of praying in the ancient Iranian language of the Avesta, by motifs of Achaemenid art that decorate the walls of many homes and prayer rooms, and by stories from the Persian epic of the Shahnama , which forms part of Zoroastrian culture. Moreover, places depicted in their religious imagery are located in Iranian lands.

Hinnells identifies several features that characterise all Zoroastrian diaspora communities. One of them is that diasporic Zoroastrians have made considerable contributions to the society and economy of both their sending (India and Iran) and new countries. In particular, much of the wealth of diasporic Zoroastrians flows back to charitable foundations in India, especially Mumbai. For instance, Hong Kong Parsis funded not only two housing colonies in Navsari but also made huge donations to the Parsi General Hospital in Mumbai and funded the new fire temple in Godrej Baug on Malabar Hill, the Shapurji Fakirji Jokhi Agiary, which was inaugurated in 1999. Back in Hong Kong, Parsis had an important role both in the growth of banking and the stock exchange and in the founding of Hong Kong University.

Another example is Sindh, where members of the small community made immense contributions to the economic development of Karachi and served society in leading positions. In Britain, the first three Asian Members of Parliament at Westminster were Parsis.

Another characteristic of diasporic Zoroastrians is a strong sense of loyalty to whichever country they inhabit. When they feel unable to give such loyalty, they move on and emigrate. Furthermore, Parsis in virtually all diasporic groups are proud of the part women play in their societies, and in this, as in other respects, they see themselves as being distinct from other Asian groups. The "coming out" of Parsi woman took place much earlier than it did in other Indian communities. For instance, the first Indian girl to go to school was a Parsi, as was the first Indian woman to study at Oxford University in 1889-92.

A common feature of diasporic communities is that they tend to preserve a traditional religious orientation more than that in the original country.

While the level of secularisation is relatively high among Mumbai Parsis, East African Zoroastrians, for instance, remain religiously orthodox, and when migrating to Britain in the 1960s, it became an important factor in the reassertion of traditional boundaries in the London community. Key issues of communal, highly divisive, disputes are intermarriage and conversion. In earlier Indian society, Parsis were a "caste-like" group and traditionally married within the fold. "In-marriage" is still common in rural areas but is becoming increasingly difficult in small and dwindling diasporic communities. Intermarriage occurs especially among the highly educated cosmopolitans.

With this substantial book Hinnells has delivered an awesome piece of research, the fruit of 30 years of study. He not only undertook an unprecedented survey of Zoroastrian diasporic communities by means of a questionnaire that yielded 1,840 responses, but he also visited the 11 diasporic centres that he writes about, studying their archival sources and living with local Zoroastrian families. His unrivalled first-hand familiarity with communities worldwide enables him, on the one hand, to present fiercely debated topics in a sensitive and impartial manner, and, on the other, to convey personal perceptions of individual Zoroastrians.

The present work is based on his Ratanbai Katrak Lectures delivered in Oxford in 1985. Following Zoroastrians in Britain (1996), it is, in one sense, volume two of those lectures. Volume three is planned to be The History and Religion of the Parsis in Bombay Presidency (1662-1947), which Hinnells and the Zoroastrian high priest Dastur Dr K. M. JamaspAsa are jointly preparing for publication.

With The Zoroastrian Diaspora , Hinnells has made a ground-breaking contribution not only to the study of Zoroastrianism but also to the debate on migration and diasporic communities. This is a book that nobody working in Zoroastrian or diaspora studies can afford to ignore.

Almut Hintze is lecturer in Zoroastrianism, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

The Zoroastrian Diaspora: Religion and Migration

Author - John R. Hinnells
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 865
Price - £137.00
ISBN - 0 19 826759 2

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