Watch the trailer for Zoroastrians Today
Watch the trailer for "Zoroastrians Today"
Zoroastrian filmmaker Tenaz Dubash's documentary, "Zoroastrians Today," addresses the quandary of "what happens when followers of the oldest and smallest world religion seal themselves off from change."  She recently spoke to Beliefnet senior editor Alice Chasan about her community's struggles.

Your film shows that Zoroastrians are responsible for their faith’s dwindling numbers. Can you explain this conundrum?
You’re absolutely on target when you say that Zoroastrians are responsible for the dwindling numbers. But, it’s a certain group of Zoroastrians; there are very liberal Zoroastrians such as myself, who believe that there’s nothing in the theology that says that people cannot intermarry or cannot convert into the faith. But then there’s a die-hard group of Orthodox Zoroastrians that believes that you have to be born into the faith and people cannot convert to Zoroastrianism. That’s the huge debate and the conflict within the community, and that’s what’s causing the problem of dwindling numbers.

Has the view that you could only be a Zoroastrian by birth always been a tenet of the religion?

As one of the people in the documentary said, you know, God didn’t one day throw down a million Zoroastrians in the world and said, here, we have a new faith. Logically, we have to believe that the first Zoroastrian was converted by the prophet Zarathushtra, so definitely, there was conversion. We know Zoroastrianism spread in ancient Iran about 3000 B.C.E. Predating Zoroastrianism, there was really no sort of organized monotheistic religion.
Once the Muslim faith spread in the Middle East, thousands of years later in the 7th century, C.E., the Zoroastrians were persecuted, and a large number left Iran and came to India by boat and these folks were called Parsis, or the people from Persia. To this day, Parsis are very conservative and closed-minded, because of their history of persecution. Because of what happened in Persia and because of the fact that they were persecuted, they now have closed themselves off from change.
I think what’s happening to the community now is a reaction to history. But we’re at a crucial point, where if we do not look to see what’s going on within our community, we could die out 50 years from now. So, we need to question this--to say, hey, these beliefs are not theologically based. We’re no longer in India. We’re in a second diaspora all over the world, and we need to look critically at the issues and figure out what we’re going to do.
Is the American Zoroastrian community the place where more progressive views have developed?
It’s not really black and white, but I think it’s safe to say that Zoroastrians in North America, Europe, Australia, the folks who have moved away from India, are definitely more progressive.
Having said that, I’ve met some very rabid and angry priests in this country who do not have a conversation with someone who is married out of the faith. So, in general terms, I would say, yes. I would say the Orthodox fundamentalist folks are India, and other folks who have moved out to the West tend to be more liberal and progressive.

Watch the trailer for Zoroastrians Today
Watch the trailer for "Zoroastrians Today"
Can you explain why Orthodox Zoroastrians oppose conversion and believe that you can only be a Zoroastrian through blood?
I can’t, because, to me, there’s nothing logical about their argument. I think it’s a very emotional argument. In our religious texts, the Gathas, there’s no talk about not allowing people to enter [through conversion]. They’re just beautiful poems, very much like Rumi’s poems, very sublime, very—just wonderful, beautiful information about being a Zoroastrian, about using your mind, about making the best choices–those kind of things.