Prophet Muhammad’s revelation as the period of jahiliyya, ignorance – best forgotten. Which is one thing for those like the Arabs, who first enter the full spotlight of history with the advent of Islam, but quite another for those to whom the Muslim conquest brought an end to a thousand years of spectacular achievement. Persians, particularly, could never forget what they once had been. The Persian national epic, Ferdowsi’s Shah-nameh, written around the turn of the first millennium by a Muslim poet for a Muslim ruler, and still regularly recited in the Iran of the Avatollahs, tell the creation of the sacred Aryan land in ancient times, of the breakup of that Iranian world into the warring states of Iran and Turan and their subsequent reunification. The Prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathushtra or Zardosht), his one supreme God Ahura Mazda, and Ahriman, the Power of Evil, all play a major part in the story:

Zardosht, the prophet of the Most High, appeared in the land.
And he came before the Shah and instructed him.
And he went out in all the land
And showed the people a new faith.
And he purged Iran of the power of Ahriman.
He reared throughout the realm a tree with beautiful foliage, and men rested beneath its branches.
And whoever ate of its leaves became learned
In all that regards the life to come,
But whoever ate of the branches
Became perfect in wisdom and faith.
And Zardosht gave men the Zendavesta,
And he bade them obey its precepts
If they would attain everlasting life.

Bald translation cannot convey the true flavour of the Persian verse, which Iranians declaim for the sheer pleasure of its sound a well as for its story.

Though the Shah-nameh is openly Zoroastrian in subject and treatment, somehow converting ancient history to myth and legend has purged nostalgia for the past of its apostasy. Even so, Iranian Islam, passionate as it is, has an uneasy quality about it, as if it could tip over at any moment into something older and much more complex than the simplicity of the Prophet’s desert faith. ‘Underneath they are still Zoroastrians through and through,’ Lazar Rempel said of the Central Asians. And in Iran, too, pre-Islamic history lies very close to the surface, even though it was buried more than thirteen hundred years ago.

From In Search of Zarathustra by Paul Kriwaczec