Recently on Twitter someone asked why people of subcontinental backgrounds who leave Islam don’t refamiliarize themselves with the religion of their ancestors. One response could be “well actually, my ancestors weren’t really Hindu…” I think this is a pedantic dodge. In places like Iraqi Kurdistan and Tajikstan some people from Muslim backgrounds are embracing a Zoroastrian identity.
In a ceremony at an ancient, ruined temple in northern Iraq, Faiza Fuad joined a growing number of Kurds who are leaving Islam to embrace the faith of their ancestors — Zoroastrianism.
Years of violence by the Islamic State jihadist group have left many disillusioned with Islam, while a much longer history of state oppression has pushed some in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region to see the millennia-old religion as a way of reasserting their identity.
“After Kurds witnessed the brutality of IS, many started to rethink their faith,” said Asrawan Qadrok, the faith’s top priest in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region.
But to be clear, not all the ancestors of the Kurds were Zoroastrian. Some were Christians. Others were probably Jews. The largest numbers on the eve of the Arab conquest were probably a mix of folk mountain pagan, with a patina of Zoroastrianism among the elites. Additionally, modern Mazdaist Zoroastrianism is only a single stream, and one strongly shaped by its Islamic captivity.
And yet on some level, it makes sense that Kurds convert to Zoroastrianism to reconnect with their ancestral Iranian tradition. It is part and parcel of that tradition. Similarly, people of Muslim subcontinental background turning toward Sanata Dharma is not crazy, even if their ancestors were Buddhist or pagans of some sort.
But there’s a problem with “converting” to Hinduism: modern Hinduism is organized around jatis, and being Hindu means being part of the community, and membership in that community is a matter of birth, not choice. Someone who was raised a Muslim and converts to Hinduism can’t just join one of the many local jatis. Of course, there are devotional sects such as ISKON, but these are exceptions, not the rule.
Obviously the same problem occurs in Islam and Christianity. I have read of converts to Islam who were single talk about the difficulty of finding a spouse since they have no “connections” within the community, and being single as a Muslim convert can be very isolating. But, Islam has within it more of an acceptance, like Christianity, that conversion of individuals is possible and even meritorious. Hindus are more ambiguous and ambivalent.
In the premodern world, Hindu communitarianism was a good fit. But in a more individualistic world, it puts Hinduism at some disadvantage.