Review of Parsis: A People of the Book by S M Taher Rezwi by Shahin Bekhradnia

This book is a reissue of the original published in 1927, and is a remarkable work in that it is authored by a very young Muslim man from Calcutta, of Iranian descent, apparently aged merely 19 at the outset of his endeavours, and put into print just 2 years later.   His treatment of the subject is,  by his own admission,  an Apologia, in which he examines “the theology of the Zoroastrians as well as the Muslim tradition and history in an attempt at a correct evaluation, a just appraisal and a thorough reconstruction of the Parsi faith in its original setting”.

The time of his writing is very significant– in Iran, the new regime of Reza Shah Pahlavi had only recently come to power in 1924 and with Reza Shah came a very important change for the Zoroastrian community of Iran.  This may well account for the founding of an Iran League in Bombay around that time where the bulk of Irani Zoroastrians were concentrated and its relevance was probably not lost on Rezwi.   In Iran for the first time in decades  (the last being during the late 18th century at the time of Karim Khan Zand),  the pre-islamic era of Iranian history was being given a significant and respected position, a rehabilitation and a prominence which had not previously been experienced among the Zoroastrians of Iran. Sadly their recent history at the hands of the Qajar dynasty  had been notoriously brutal and their numbers had dropped at the end of the 19th century to an all-time low of just 7500 survivors.

Rezwi’s book therefore appeared at a time when intelligent  Muslim Iranians were waking up to the fact that  the Zoroastrians were perhaps not quite as despicable as they had been led to believe by their own Islamic teachers.  Reza Shah and one of the principal literary figures of his era, Eshqi, were glorifying the pre-Islamic order of things and as an example of how this affected everyday life, the Islamic lunar month names were  replaced by Zoroastrian month names that are still in use. Seen in that context, while the views of the author might perhaps seem  somewhat bold and outspoken, they struck a chord with the zeitgeist and of course in India where the work was written, intellectual freedom was a privilege that was taken for granted.    The sentiments expressed by the author are frank and given the present-day political turmoil in Iran, his comments are ironically apt even for today: …Persia has been a hotbed ….where despotic governments of the so-called followers of Muhammad, having  not the least intention to follow the Commandments of their holy Prophet, has ever proved a plague to the peace of the nation.

Rezwi makes it clear from the outset that he is going to set the record straight about the principles and beliefs of Parsi faith, and it should noted in passing, that almost without exception, apart from the quotation given in the introductory paragraph above, Rezwi uses the word Parsi when he means Zoroastrian, falling into the unforgivable habit that even today some Parsees are guilty of.   And yet the error is understandable since  at his time, even more than today, his contact with living Zoroastrianism was probably exclusively through Parsees who mistakenly tended then and continue to conflate the two terms.

Rezwi picked out a number of beliefs or practices within Zoroastrianism which had become the excuse for ridicule and rejection by Muslims.  He said explicitly that it was his purpose  to dispel such negative attitudes which he made clear were based on ignorance and a misapprehension of Zoroastrianism.

Having identified the main areas of concern as being  accusations of Fire Worship, Dualism, not being People of the Book next-of-kin marriage, being Unbelievers in God,and  Polytheism,  Rezwi takes numerous examples from Christian, Jewish and Islamic holy texts and historical documents to support his arguments in dispelling such mistaken criticisms.  He seeks to  demonstrate that for every accusation traditionally levelled against Zoroastrianism there are parallels that have developed in other religious traditions too and he holds up examples for particular scrutiny  within Islam.  Rezwi also cites a number of well respected Parsee religious authorities to  further uphold his views as well as references to Zoroastrian literature.

He helpfully presents a short summary of the main texts of the Zoroastrian corpus and then,  thanks to his ease and familiarity with Zoroastrian literature, he is able to use appropriate textual sources, (mainly the Gathas) to support his arguments pertaining to Zoroastrian principles and morality.  Furthermore  his ability to produce  appropriate textual parallels from the other different faith traditions is impressive.

He is very careful not to say anything unflattering about the Muslim faith as it is not his purpose to denigrate any other religion but merely to show up the evident prejudice against Zoroastrianism which has developed over the centuries.  He delves into the early history of Islam and goes to some length to argue that in its first 30 or so years, the Arab/Islamic rulers of Iran during the first Caliphate were favourably inclined towards  the original religion of Iran  as well as towards its practitioners.  Indeed the author cites many Suras to make his point that Islam did not condone the acts of “later Muslim chiefs who, … were either newly converted Muslims with their infamous zeal to convert to the same faith their own brethren at the point of the sword, or were led by their greed for much more land in India, Africa, Spain and other far and remote places.” He squarely lays the blame for such poor behaviour at the door of the Omayyids.

The book is not very long and despite its occasional quirky turn of phrase that is both dated and slightly foreign, it makes for an interesting read, complemented by the  impressive wealth of references many of which were unknown to me, but which were apparently sourced in the Calcutta libraries to which the writer had access.  If there is just one thing that could be improved, for me that would be to remove the endnotes at the back of each chapter and place them at the back along with the bibliography and to also to move from the front and place at the back  the  abbreviations for some cited books.  I found myself having to find the endnotes at the end of each chapter which often merely gave an abbreviation as the reference, then go to the front of the book for the abbreviations list to ascertain the name of the book and then go to the full bibliography to get the full details such as date of publication etc. I also found that some of the endnote numbers  did not actually correspond correctly to the references given which I found somewhat annoying.  Others may be more forgiving than myself!

Shahin Bekhradnia

April 2014

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