Name three Middle Eastern religions, right now, off the top of your head.
Christianity, Islam and Judaism, right? If you’re from roughly the same background as me, you might even have thought of them in the same order. The land between the Red Sea and the Indus Mountains is a diverse mess of ancient religions and creeds, but behind the Big Abrahamic Three you’d be forgiven for forgetting a few. Anyone list Zoroastrianism as one of their three? What about Bahá’í? Druzism? Unless you’re…well, one of these people, I guess you didn’t. The way I see it, to use the most English analogy ever, seeing the Middle East and thinking of it just as a vast Muslim/Jewish expanse is like making tea and thinking of it as boiled water – you’re mostly right, but you’re missing all the flavour. So this Holistic History post is all about the tea leaf religions – the old gods and alternative beliefs that still manage to survive in pockets and enclaves around the Middle East. This is the story of their people, of their faith and ultimately of their persecution, but along the way there are prophets, prophecies and maybe a few world-eating demon gods. And if those three can’t don’t make you want to find out more, I’m not even sure why you’re here.
600 years before a certain prophet was dumped in a manger and given the most extravagant baby shower ever, everything between Israel and Afghanistan was under the rule of one religion – Zoroastrianism. It was the religion of the Persians – that ancient empire that’s probably now more famous for once being at war with some scantily-clad Spartans than any of its colourful, deranged but extremely tolerant kings – and because of that it got spread along with Persia all across western Asia. Zoroastrianism might seem like a fairly familiar religion – good creator god, working class prophet at odds with the priests and ruling class, badass beards for all – but a few bits of it might seem a bit more alien to an Abrahamic audience. For one, there are two gods, one good creator type and one evil creator type. The earth, their joint creation, is their battleground, and good Zoroastrians have to constantly fight what they perceive as the forces of evil, darkness and ignorance. Fire is the symbol of life and renewal and burning away darkness, and so Zoroastrians have prayed in Fire Temples for centuries. Sounding familiar yet, Game of Thrones fans? In any case, the super-duper fire god and his evil counterpart dominated the Middle East from the first teachings of the prophet Zoroaster (or, if you’re a fan of Nietzsche and the film 2001, Zarathustra) in 1000BC for centuries until about 300BC, Alexander the Great tried to replace it with his own religion, worshiping a sun god who had descended to earth. A sun god who just so happened to be Alex himself. The Zoroastrians survived that assault – weirdly, worshiping a 30-year old binge drinker didn’t catch on – but they were so weakened that the attacks of the (Hellenic, then Christian) Romans and (Muslim) Arabs broke them down almost entirely, so much so that the religion that once reached tens of millions now has about one hundred and fifty thousand followers in small communities in Iran (and, because Iran isn’t a huge fan of non-Muslims, India and the US). But that’s not to say, of course, that Zoroastrianism has been forgotten. On the contrary, it’s probably influenced every religion with black and white morality and angels and demons in its wake. After all, remember the prophet in the manger and his ridiculous baby shower? You should probably know what they called Zoroastrian priests. They called them Magi.
Islam is the religion the Middle East is most famous for, and nowhere is it more powerful than in countries like Syria, which is currently being torn up by a civil war between a ruling class from one sect of the religion and a working class from another. But that’s not to say it’s the only religion in the region, because that would be ignoring one of the least-known Abrahamic faiths – the faith of the Druze. To put it simply, the Druze are to Muslims what Muslims are to Christians and Christians are to Jews. They believe in the Qur’an, and the first Shia Caliphs, and that you shouldn’t force people to convert to your religion, and that you should keep your faith secret to protect it. If you’re a Shia Muslim, that’s probably sounding like pretty standard stuff to you. But they also incorporate ideas from other parts of Islam – like Sufism and the idea that there is a supernatural world within our own that holy men can access – and far-flung Eastern religions – like Buddhism and reincarnation. Hell, it’s even partly based on ancient Greek philosophy: they believe in Plato’s “universal soul” and his theories about our senses deceiving us, which means it’s a religion inspired by the same things that inspired the fucking Matrix. The religion was born in the 11th century in Syria when Damascus was the capital of the Islamic world, and scholars from all over the world were trying to delve into religious texts to find some deeper meaning. Druzism was one of those deeper meanings, but it separated itself from Islam in the process and evolved into something very different. And that’s when the secrecy of the Druze came into its own. By keeping their faith secret, they were never attacked by zealous mobs from another religion. By only revealing little bits about their faith to different people, they created small and close knit communities that are debatably an ethnic group of their own. Yes, they might not have survived if the succession of Sultans and Khans in Syria had been particularly intolerant. And they might not have been born at all if Damascus and the surrounding area wasn’t home to so many religious texts and so many ways of interpreting the Abraham faiths. But they created a religion with a built in defense mechanism, and for that reason it’s got around two and a half million followers to this day. Syria is a much more dangerous place now, but their ecumenical cloaks and daggers may well see the Druze through it safely.
Finally, spare a thought for the Bahá’í faith, the new kid on the religious block at a measly 200 years old. Founded in the 19th century in Persia (amazingly, still bearing the name it had when it had been the birthplace of Zoroastrianism almost 30 centuries earlier) but developed in the Ottoman Empire, the Bahá’í Faith does something that damn near every faith before it would have thought unthinkable. It believes every other religion is right. Well, sort of. Bahá’í believes that there’s only ever been one religion, but that religion has progressed and changed to the most appropriate form for its time and place. So it counts Moses, Jesus and Muhammad as prophets. It also counts Buddha and Vishnu, Adam and Eve and our old friend Zoroaster. It even accepts that eventually Bahá’í will be replaced and their own prophet, Bahaullah, will be added to the list. The idea behind it is that each prophet accepts what’s good about the one before and rejects what’s not, kind of natural selection that works towards a perfect faith, but they’re all essentially talking about the same god. Born in the 19th century, the Bahá’í faith also incorporates a lot of modern ideas into its teachings (only in Holistic History are ideas from the 1800s modern, but still) like equality between men and women, a universal language, free education and other things so offensive to Industrial Era sensibilities that all Bahaullah’s letters to Queen Victoria were dutifully ignored. The Bahá’í, where the Zoroastrians spread their faith by the sword and the Druze hid their faith altogether, spread their faith through stuff like that – through letters, and meetings, and newspaper articles about Bahaullah being exiled from a new country, which was…quite often. They’re still growing today, although essentially banned in the country they were born in and plenty of others besides, and have about 5 million followers spanning almost every continent. Of all the Middle Eastern religions, the strange and all-encompassing Bahá’í Faith might be one of the few on the rise.
So why have so many world religions come from the Middle East? The answer to that is probably the same as to why the Middle East is so important to our history. Zoroastrianism spread through one of the region’s largest empires, just as Islam spread through the Arabs and Mongols and Christianity spread through the Roman and West European empires. The Middle East is important to us because it was an integral part of so many cultures, civilizations and kingdoms that spread their wings across whole continents. Druzism came to be because of the rich history of monotheism and philosophical thought that could be built upon and expanded upon in the region. The Middle East is important to us because it’s the home of so much religion and so much philosophical thought. And Bahá’í could only have existed because of the huge variety of faiths, cultures and creeds that places like Persia were in contact with through trade and modern transportation. The Middle East is important to us, more so that for anything else, because it has always served as the connection between different parts of the world, between east and west, north and south, Christianity and Hinduism and plenty more besides. You don’t need to understand the ins and outs of Zoroastrianism to understand that. But when you forget those hidden religions, when you picture the Middle East as closed off and insular, you run the risk of forgetting it.