“Our fates, from the very beginning, have been tied up with Iran,” Karen Armstrong said.
Armstrong, the recipient of the 2008 TED Prize, decided to use her award to help humanity understand the importance of compassion and emphasize the Golden Rule and its prevalence in major philosophies. She is an author, specializing in world religions; many governments and universities have called upon her expertise.
Her lecture on Monday in the Hall of Philosophy was “Ancient Iran: Its Links with Us.” Armstrong began by giving context to the week with the question, “Who were the Iranians?”
But before she delved into the history of Iran, she emphasized that ancient Iran is still relevant to modern-day Iran. Armstrong shared the story of her journeys to Tehran. A trustee of the British Museum, Armstrong was part of a contingent delivering the Cyrus Cylinder to the National Museum of Iran in Tehran in 2010.
Upon its arrival, a military cavalcade accompanied the cylinder to its destination. Two thousand people attended the exhibit every day the cylinder was on display. There was more press about the cylinder than the rumored Quran burning in Florida -- Armstrong had arrived on Sept. 11.
Through all the speeches welcoming the new addition, Armstrong noted the focus was on Persian culture, not Islam.
“The watchword is secularization,” Armstrong said. “They were sending a very tough, a strong message to the mullahs to say they wanted a more secular regime.
“That’s not to say they’re giving up Islam,” she added.
The early Iranians were not an ethnic group but began as a conglomerate of tribes on the steppes of Central Asia and the Caucasus around 3500 B.C. About 1,000 years later, these groups, known as Aryans, had established a common language and culture. Eventually, they migrated as far away as Scandinavia and other locations in modern-day Europe.
“Their language, often called Indo-European, is the basis of many Asiatic and European tongues,” Armstrong said.
Two groups remained in the original area; one group spoke Sanskrit, the other, the Avestan language. The first group migrated to India. The second group remained in Iran.
Their philosophy was based on a spirit of peace and reciprocity with an emphasis on the divine natural order. When the Sanskrit speakers migrated to Mesopotamia and elsewhere, this changed; they were exposed to urban centers but also to materials of war. Cattle rustling became the trade of choice, thanks in part to their newfound mobility. The Avestan-speaking groups “reeled” from this violent change, Armstrong said.
One significant part of early Iranian culture was Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism was supposed to be a universal faith, Armstrong said, yet in the end, it was a faith only for Iranians. Armstrong delved into the tenets of Zoroastrianism and its impact on the three Abrahamic monotheistic religions, and she encouraged the audience to take note of the parts of Zoroastrianism and its birth that ring true in religions practiced today and current societal situations.
Zoroastrianism may have been propagated by the day’s royalty; its presence was palpable. But it was founded by a young priest named Zoroaster.
“He was appalled by his fellow Aryans, with their war chariots and their war ethos. They’d become unrecognizable,” Armstrong said.
Zoroaster had a vision in which he was called “to mobilize the people in a holy war against violence and terror,” she said.
“What Zoroaster did in his … traumatized way was project what was happening in this terrifying society around him onto the heavenly world,” Armstrong said.
It was Zoroaster who founded the dichotomy of good and evil, a paradigm still pervasive today.
“He saw the whole world as rushing towards a hideous catastrophe,” she said.
Zoroaster also predicted the resurrection of the dead, a final battle of good and evil, a day of judgment and a renewal of the world.
But he also thought the end and renewal would come in his lifetime. When the end did not come, he prophesied there would come a messianic figure to succeed him.
“What he was able to do was to give the suffering Aryans an explanation for what had happened to them, and a task to do,” Armstrong said.
Such tasks included purity laws. Zoroaster introduced morality to religion and posited that everyone, not just the elite, had the opportunity to go to heaven.
Armstrong emphasized that she wasn’t suggesting the three Abrahamic faiths copied Zoroastrianism outright, but she did explain that this partially sparked the eschatological thinking present in other traditions.
She provided the example of the tumult endured by the first-century Jews in the time of the Roman Empire; a strong strain of eschatological thinking manifested itself then. Indeed, the end times seemed near as Jerusalem was seized and the Temple destroyed.
In the time of Jesus, St. Paul felt similarly to Zoroaster in that he thought the second coming would happen in his lifetime. Armstrong suggested that demon exorcism spiked during times of foreign occupation. She cited Jesus’ casting out of demons who say “We are legion,” referring to Roman legions, according to anthropologists.
Armstrong shifted to a focus on Shiite-era Islam. Muhammad, she said, knew some of the tenets Zoroaster espoused, including the concepts of judgment day and the Antichrist.
“Something that you may find it difficult to deal with, as Americans, is that for Muslims, politics has a religious dimension, not just because they can’t separate church and state, but because they feel -- and I must say, I’m with them, here -- that suffering and depression and injustice and poverty are religious issues, that you can’t sit by just saying your prayers while watching your fellow beings suffer,” Armstrong said.
She described the difference between different Muslim groups -- not religious differences, but differences in legitimate leadership. Muhammad had not appointed a successor before his death; a majority of Muslims chose one of his companions to take charge, but a smaller contingent thought that Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali, should have control.
Muslims saw the mistreatment of the majority of the workers by a tiny percentage of the wealthy and agonized over it; such mistreatment denied the Quran. Out of this angst, Sufism, the mystic tradition within Islam, developed.
Shia Islam developed at this time as well, with its focus on the direct descendents of Muhammad.
Muhammad’s grandchildren and Ali’s sons were Hasan and Husayn. Hasan was poisoned. Husayn, one of Muhammad’s grandsons, was to be assassinated in Mecca. Husayn gathered his family and marched into the city of Kufa before the emperor in an effort to move him and the rest of the community. The caliph at the time, Yazid, sent his army out and slaughtered the vast majority of Husayn’s family.
“By all Muslims, this is regarded as an absolute horror: This is the prophet’s grandson killed by a so-called Muslim ruler. … It was not Muslim,” Armstrong said.
The Shia were devastated; they regarded Husayn as their third imam. In Shia Islam, the imam is not only the prayer leader but the community leader as well. They vowed to avoid politics altogether and developed “the ideology of the imam,” as Armstrong termed it.
“Each of Muhammad’s male successors had inherited his charisma, and he was a repository of sacred knowledge … he was the guide of his generation,” Armstrong said.
Meanwhile, the tensions between the imams and the caliphs increased; the former often were poisoned by the latter. After the 12th imam disappeared, the Shia decided they would take no part in politics, delve into study and wait for the hidden imam who would appear at the end of time.
“I think it’s a wonderful image, that of how we experience the divine: certainly a presence in our world, but hard to get at, hard to see … and constantly, the divine is imperiled by our greed and selfishness, cruelty and injustice,” Armstrong said.
So it is Shia Islam that is our essential link to Iran, Armstrong said. Secularism has been of the utmost importance to the Shiites ever since. Even after they gained state status, the clergy spoke on behalf of the hidden imam, not the government.
“(Secularism) is another stage of the revolution,” Armstrong concluded.
Contemporary and historical religion's most prolific author, Karen Armstrong is a highly sought-after lecturer around the world, and is called upon by governments, universities, and church and secular organizations alike to educate about the world's religions and to inform regarding their place in the modern world. A former Roman Catholic nun, she was educated at Oxford and has taught at London University and London's Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism.
Her writings include A History of God: From Abraham to the Present, the 4000 Year Quest for God; Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths; The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; Islam: A Short History; The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions; and Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time. She has been honored around the world especially as a bridge-builder between the Abrahamic Faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Her most recent works are A History of the Bible, The Case for God, and 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life.
One of the 2008 winners of the TED Prize, chosen for her world-changing work and continuing potential to inspire others to do something great for the world, in November of 2009 the TED community helped Armstrong to launch her Charter for Compassion to help to restore the Golden Rule as the central global religious doctrine.