Oklahoma University Professor Travels to India to Research Zoroastrianism

Afshin Marashi, OU professor of International and Area Studies, will travel across the globe to further his research on Iranian nationalism and Zoroastrianism, the religion of most Iranians before Islam was adopted.

Marashi will travel to Bombay, India for the first time in January to study the influence on this faith on the development of Iranian identity.

Marashi teaches a wide range of courses dealing with Middle-Eastern and Iranian history, culture and politics. Marashi said he also conducts specialized research that sometimes overlaps with and, in a broad sense, informs his teaching.

Some courses he teaches are more directly connected to his research, such as the one he is currently teaching about modern Iran.

“The issue of nationalism and national identity and the role of Zoroastrianism in Iranian national identity comes up often,” he said.

This longterm project, which he says is destined to become a book, focuses on how Iranians began to rediscover and remember their ancient civilization.

“Zoroastrianism was the religion that most Iranians adhered to before Islam and, in the medieval period, there was a process of conversion to Islam but, in the 19th and early

20th century, Iranians began to revive their pre-Islamic Zoroastrian, cultural identity,” he said. “So, the focus is related to that revival of pre-Islamic Iranian national memory.”

Marashi said the Zoroastrian community of Bombay first promoted and encouraged that revived identity within Iran.

“The reason I’m going to Bombay is because it is in India where the world’s largest remaining Zoroastrian population resides,” he said.

“There are a number of archives, libraries and institutes still there that have records of publications that were produced and exported to Iranian audiences.”

Marashi said the issue is important for understanding Iranian history, nationalism and identity but, in a broader sense, it helps to illustrate how significant a role diaspora communities play in the world, because they can really shape the culture and politics of a country.

“The diaspora community is a community that lives outside of its homeland,” he said. “In a sense, the Zoroastrian community of Bombay came to see themselves as a diaspora community of Iranians that were living outside of Iran and, in the early 20th century, they were very successful in reconnecting with their ancient homeland.”

Marashi hopes that during his 10-day trip to Bombay, he will get to know the people there well enough to later return for a research fellowship.

Marashi said he also is in the works of organizing a major conference related to the topic that will take place in the spring semester of 2014 at OU, inviting national and international scholars to present their research papers on the relationship between India and Iran that will, ultimately, become another book.

“All of this is part of two book projects – my own monograph and an edited volume of various, collected essays,” he said “All of this is, also, part of the OU Iranian Studies Program.”

According to the website, the program coordinates a variety of curricular, research, and outreach activities that explore the history and culture of Iran and the Persian-speaking world. These activities include lectures, conferences, research symposia, film screenings, museum exhibits, and musical performances.

“This research project is part of the larger mission of this program – to teach, do outreach and research,” he said.

Alex Reisner, international studies major, is both Marashi’s current and future student, as he is taking Modern Iran this semester and is enrolled in U.S – Iranian Relations next semester.

“I find the topics of nationalism and Zoroastrianism very interesting,” he said. “I’ve learned so much that I had no idea about before from him.”

Reisner said learning about this powerful force in history through Marashi has been really enjoyable.

“He’s a really good lecturer,” he said. “He’ll go an entire class period just talking and is always passionate, so he really

keeps everyone interested.”

Reisner said what he’s most hopeful of is seeing pictures of Marashi’s trip to Bombay to try and get a feel for the exciting experience.