How Iran was transformed into a Shia Country

Islam in Iran, Safavid Era
by: Hamid Algar
Encyclopedia Iranica
Shi’ism in Iran, since the Safavids

The Safavids originated as a hereditary lineage of Sufi shaikhs centered on Ardabil, Shafeʿite in school and probably Kurdish in origin. Their immediate following was concentrated in Azerbaijan and Gilan, although they enjoyed broad prestige over a much wider area. The lifespan of the eponym, Shaikh Ṣafi-al-Din (650/1252-735/1335), corresponded almost exactly to the period of Il-khanid rule in Persia, and Rašid-al-Din Fażl-Allāh, the celebrated vizier, was among those who bestowed land and other favors on the family. The meticulous piety that, according to hagiographical tradition, Ṣafi-al-Din displayed in childhood led him in early youth to embark on a search for a preceptor that took him to Shiraz, where he had hoped to join the circle of Najib-al-Din Bozguš, a Sohrawardi shaikh. Bozguš died shortly before his arrival, and Ṣafi-al-Din was advised instead to return to the northwest and seek out a reclusive member of the same lineage, Zāhed Gilāni. It was only after lengthy enquiries that Ṣafi-al-Din was able to locate him, in the Helyakarān district of Gilan. He was eighty-five years of age at the time, having passed much of his life in what has been described as “rural obscurity” and “prolonged medocrity” (Aubin); it was Ṣafi-al-Din’s connection to him, cemented by marriage to his daughter, that came to earn him a degree of historical prominence.

The transformation of the Safavids from a hereditary Sufi order of conventional Sunnite orientation into a politico-military grouping espousing a deviant species of Shiʿism began with Ṣafi-al-Din’s grandson, Ḵᵛāja ʿAli (d. 833/1429), a full half century after his death. In accordance with royal precedent, Timur had exempted from taxation the land holdings of the Safavids around Ardabil, but a more signal consequence of his favor came in 804/1402, when, at the request of Ḵᵛāja ʿAli, he released into his custody the captives he had taken from the Ottoman Sultan Bāyazid at the battle of Ankara (Sümer, pp. 6-7). Ḡolāt Shiʿism was infinitely more rife at the time in Anatolia than in Persia, and it seems entirely possible that Ḵᵛāja ʿAli, although the benefactor of these former prisoners and the effective head of the Safavid order, found it opportune to assimilate their beliefs rather than attempting to modulate them. Whatever be the case, the liberated prisoners became the nucleus of the Safavid fighting force, while at the same time Ḵᵛāja ʿAli established a network of agents and propagandists—called ḵalifa in keeping with Sufi usage—in Anatolia, the southern Caucasus, and parts of Azerbaijan and Gilan. The tenure of Ḵᵛāja ʿAli’s successor, Shaikh Ebrāhim (d. 852/1448), was relatively uneventful, but the switch to militant ḡolāt Shiʿism became unmistakably clear with the next Safavid leader, Jonayd. He went by the title of sultan but in typical ḡolāt fashion also intimated that he was a divine incarnation. After a period of exile in Anatolia, he gathered a force of 12,000 in order to raid the Christian kingdom of Georgia but was killed in 865/1460 by the ruler of Širvān before he could reach his destination (Mazzaoui, p. 75). Similar fates attended Jonayd’s son, Ḥaydar (killed in 894/1488 by the ruler of Širvān), who bestowed on the Safavid strike force both its distinctive red headgear and the resulting designation, Qezelbāš, and in front of whom his followers made devotional prostration; and his grandson, Solṭān ʿAli , killed in battle by the Āq Qoyunlu ruler, Rostam. It was against this background that Shah Esmāʿil (q.v.) arose; proclaiming himself in ecstatic profusion a reincarnation of Imam ʿAli, the Twelfth Imam reappeared, and none other than the godhead himself, he lost no time in beginning the coercive propagation of Shiʿism, initially in its ḡolāt form.
It will be noted that almost all the events accompanying the rise of the Safavids to power took place in Anatolia, the southern Caucasus, and Azerbaijan. The events underway in those regions can be viewed, inter alia, as an intra-Turkoman struggle, in which alignments were not consistently shaped by religious allegiance. Not only did the Safavids find themselves at odds with the Qarā Qoyunlus, a dynasty with Shiʿite tendencies; they also intermarried with the Āq Qoyunlus, the Sunnite dynasty whose rule Shah Esmāʿil brought to an end. The triumph of the Safavids thus spelled an end to these Turkoman rivalries, and its principal consequences might have been felt principally in Anatolia rather than Persia had it not been for the formidable power of the Ottomans; the Safavids had, after all, been able to generate far more enthusiasm for their cause in Anatolia than in Persia, and it was primarily there that the Qezelbāš were recruited (Sümer, passim) It might indeed be argued that the rise to power of the Safavids constituted another Turkic invasion of Persia, one proceeding from the west rather than the east; insofar as the ancestors of the Qezelbāš had once passed through Persia en route to Anatolia, it might also be called a case of nomadic reflux. The ultimate result was, however, the formation of a distinctively Persian state dedicated to the propagation of Shiʿism. Although coercion played a large part in the initial stages of this venture, it is plain that far more was involved in the profound and lasting assimilation of Shiʿism that took place, which transformed Persia and made of it the principal stronghold and even—in an ahistorical sense—the homeland of Shiʿism.

It was, however, nothing less than a reign of terror that inaugurated the new dispensation. On capturing Tabriz in 907/1501, a city two-thirds Sunnite in population, Shah Esmāʿil threatened with death all who might resist the adoption of Shiʿite prayer ritual in the main congregational mosque, and he had Qezelbāš soldiers patrol the congregation to ensure that none raise his voice against the cursing of the first three caliphs, viewed as enemies of the Prophet’s family. In Tabriz and elsewhere, gangs of professional execrators known as the tabarrāʾiān would accost the townsfolk at random, forcing them to curse the objectionable personages on pain of death. Selective killings of prominent Sunnites occurred in a large number of places, notably Qazvin and Isfahan, and in Shiraz and Yazd, outright massacres took place. Sunnite mosques were desecrated, and the tombs of eminent Sunnite scholars destroyed (Aubin, 1970, pp. 237-38; idem, 1988, pp. 94-101).

An integral part of the Safavid imposition of Shiʿism was the eclipsing or suppressing of the Sufi orders, most of them Sunnite in their orientation. As Ebn Karbalāʾi lamented, Shah Esmāʿil “uprooted and eradicated most of the lineages of sayyeds and shaikhs” and “crushed all the selselas [lines of succession], destroying the graves of their ancestors, not to mention what befell their successors” (II, pp. 159, 491). The extirpation of the Kāzaruniya, the oldest Sufi order in Persia existing at the time, was certainly abrupt and thoroughgoing: when Shah Esmāʿil conquered Fars in 909/1503, he desecrated the tomb in Kāzarun of its founder, Abu Esḥāq, and massacred some 4,000 people in its vicinity (Aubin, 1959, p. 58). In general, however, the process was gradual and sporadic, if unmistakable in its tendency; the mid-10th/16th century appears to have been a turning point. Although the Lālaʾi branch of the Kobrawiya to which Ebn al-Karbalāʾi belonged never converted to Shiʿism, one of its members served Shah Esmāʿil as ṣadr (q.v. at before all trace of this hereditary line of shaikhs disappeared.

The Naqšbandiya, an order emphatic in its adherence to Sunnism, survived for a remarkably long period in northwest Persia. Ṣonʿ-Allāh Kuzakonāni (d. 929/1523), a disciple of ʿAlāʾ-al-Din Maktabdār of Herat, fled Tabriz for Bitlis when Shah Esmāʿil took the city, but, impelled by nostalgia, returned there several years later. Although he refused the full prostration before the shah decreed by protocol, he lived out the rest of his life apparently unmolested and left behind two ḵalifas; they were active, not in the city itself, but in its rural hinterland, which may account for their ability to function. One of them, Darviš Jalāl-al-Din of Ḵosrowšāh, was succeeded by Mawlānā Elyās of Bādāmyār (d. 965/1558), but the situation seems to have become untenable soon after his death. Moḥammad Bādāmyāri, a successor to Mawlānā Elyās, found it politic to quit the region of Tabriz for Urmia, a still largely Kurdish and therefore Sunnite city; his line survived there for some three generations, although one of its members, Shaikh Maḥmud, decided, with ultimately fatal results, to seek his fortunes in Diyarbekir. In Qazvin, the propagation of the Naqšbandiya, under the auspices of Sayyed ʿAli Kordi, a disciple of Ḵᵛāja Aḥrār, actually started after the Safavids had taken control. Perhaps because of his success in attracting devotees, he was summoned to Tabriz and executed in 925/1519 (Algar, 2003, p. 22). The five ḵalifas that he left all died peaceful deaths, but they left no spiritual issue. The persecution of Naqš-bandis may have been more general than this sparse record suggests, for Mirzā Maḵdum Šarifi (d. 994/1586), a Sunnite notable who took refuge with the Ottomans, writes that “whenever they suspect anyone of engaging in contemplation (morāqaba), they say ‘he is a Naqšbandi’ and deem it necessary to kill him” (quoted in Eberhard, p. 187).

Few Shiʿite scholars of note appear to have existed in Persia at the time of the Safavid takeover, even in Qom and Kāšān, long established centers of the creed, and many Sunnite scholars chose to migrate to India, Arabia, the Ottoman lands, and Central Asia, rather than rallying to Shiʿism and the Safavids. The positive and pacific propagation of Shiʿism in Persia fell therefore to the lot of Arab scholars hailing from Jabal ʿĀmel (q.v. at iranica .com) in Syria (or, in terms of present-day geography, Lebanon), Iraq (especially the city of Ḥella), Qaṭif in northeastern Arabia, and Bahrayn. Their arrival in Persia has sometimes been designated as a migration, motivated in the case of the ʿĀmelis by alleged Ottoman persecution (see Jaʿfar al-Mohājer). If by “migration” is meant a wholesale and permanent exodus, the term is misapplied, for many of the scholars in question traveled back and forth between Persia and their homelands, with the result that many learned families developed separate but interrelated branches in Jabal ʿĀmel, Iraq, and Persia (a phenomenon that has persisted down to the present). The Ottomans certainly accorded privileged status to Sunnite Islam and more particularly to the Hanafite school, but in accordance with the pragmatism they generally observed in religious matters, they did not systematically persecute the Shiʿites of the Arab lands, and even the militant partisans of the Safavid cause in Anatolia were subject to only sporadic massacre. Persia was, however, a land where substantial patronage awaited the Shiʿite ulema as well as a unique opportunity for the propagation of Shiʿism. For their part, the Safavids welcomed these scholarly guests for several reasons: they represented an element that at least initially was unconnected to any of the military or bureaucratic factions with which they had to deal, and their intimate knowledge of Sunnism was a clear advantage in the sectarian polemics that accompanied the recurrent wars between the Safavids and their Sunnite neighbors, the Ottomans to the west and the Uzbeks to the east.

ʿĀmeli scholars began traveling to Persia already in the time of Shah Esmāʿil. The most significant of these early arrivals was ʿAli Karaki Moḥaqqeq, born at Karak in 870/1465, a student of prominent scholars in Ḥella and Najaf. He took the initiative of visiting Esmāʿil at Isfahan in 910/1504, and six years later he was invited by him to Herat and Mashad to help propagate Shiʿism in those still largely Sunnite cities. Karaki’s influence was consolidated during the reign of Shah Ṭahmāsb, who bestowed on him land and, more significantly, titles such as mojtahed al-zamān (jurist of the age) and nāʾeb al-Emām (deputy of the [Occulted] Imam); the monarch even went so far as to proclaim Karaki more entitled to kingship than himself and the ruler, simply one of his executive officials (Lambton, p. 77). This was, of course, a fiction, but one convenient for both parties: it enabled Ṭahmāsb to claim a species of religious legitimacy, mediated from the Occulted Imam by Karaki, and it placed Karaki at the hand of the nascent hierarchy of Shiʿite divines. The task he and his colleagues faced in the propagation of Shiʿism was twofold: to normalize the Shiʿism professed by the Safavids and their soldiery, and to persuade recalcitrant Sunnites of the veracity of Twelver Shiʿism. In a sense, the two goals were linked, for the ʿĀmeli scholars disapproved of the violent methods applied by the Qezelbāš in confronting the Sunnites and regarded their own learning and powers of debate as more efficacious (Abisaab, pp. 16-17). They did not, however, repudiate the activities of the tabarrāʾiān, and Karaki wrote a treatise justifying the cursing of Abu Bakr and ʿOmar. Several of his descendants inherited his prestige, most notably his grandson, the philosopher Mir Dāmād (d. 1041/1631; see DĀMĀD), and the hereditary transmission of scholarly prowess and power within a handful of families was to become one of the hallmarks of Persian religious life, in the Safavid period and beyond.

A number of other factors were also influential in suffusing Persian culture with the ethos of Shiʿism. Pilgrimage (ziārat) to the shrines of eminent Sufis had been widespread in pre-Safavid times, for such purposes as the making of vows and the seeking of intercession; now emāmzā das—the tombs of descendants of the Imams—became the encouraged focus of pious visitation. It is worth noting, however, that most of the important emāmzādas antedated by far the rise of the Safavids; that they had attracted Sunnite as well as Shiʿite visitors; and that no wholesale validation of dubious emāmzādas can be shown to have taken place. The pre-existence of emām-zādas on Persian soil was a fortuitous circumstance that helped in what might be called the geographical conversion of the land. Foremost among the sacred sites was the shrine of Imam ʿAli al-Reżā in Mashad and the complex of buildings surrounding it. Already much adorned by the later Timurids, it was the object of special attention by Shah ʿAbbās (q.v.), whose pilgrimages on foot to the shrine were an inspired form of dynastic propaganda. Qom, site of the burial of Imam ʿAli al-Reżā’s sister, was second only to Mashad as a goal of pilgrimage, but it was overshadowed by Isfahan as a center of learning despite its earlier prominence in the development of Shiʿite scholarship. Like Mashad, Qom was the object of royal attention in the Safavid period; four successive rulers chose to be buried there: Ṣafi (d. 1052/1642), ʿAbbās II (d. 1077/1666), Solaymān (d. 1105/1694), and Shah Solṭān-Ḥosayn (d. 1135/1722).

The calendar also played a discernible role in the lasting popular assimilation of Shiʿism. The commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Ḥosayn on ʿĀšurāʾ (q.v.), the tenth day of the month of Moḥarram, came effectively to be the most significant religious occasion of the year, marked by ceremonies of mourning that became progressively more elaborate throughout the Safavid period, culminating in the dramatic performances known as taʿzia. The recitation of verse or prose depictions of his sufferings, together with those of other members of the Prophet’s lineage, was regarded as a meritorious act that might be undertaken at any time during the year. Widely celebrated, too, was the ʿId al-Ḡadir, Ḏu’l-Ḥejja 18, the day on which, according to Shiʿite belief, the Prophet had nominated Imam ʿAli as his successor. The negative counterpart of this occasion was the annual festival of ʿOmarkošān, the often ribald celebration of the assassination of ʿOmar, the second caliph.

The near-complete eradication of Sunnism from the Iranian plateau, achieved by these and other means, must clearly have been gradual, and at least in some places it consisted initially of the pragmatic and superficial acceptance of a coerced creed. The Sunnite notables of Qazvin in particular proved obdurate, and several of them were executed during the reign of Shah Ṭahmāsb for religious deviance (Bacqué-Grammont, p. 83, n. 231). Nonetheless, enough of them survived to qualify (or claim to qualify) for the reward offered by Esmāʿil II during his brief Sunnite interregnum to all who had steadfastly refused to curse the first three caliphs (Golsorkhi, p. 479). There is evidence, too, for the persistence of Sunnite loyalties in some localities into the reign of ʿAbbās I, particularly in eastern Persia. In 1008/1599 he launched a campaign of persecution against the Sunnites of Sorḵa (Semnān), but three decades later Sunnism was still widespread in the city, although less so in its environs. The same monarch’s exclusion of Sunnites from the tax exemptions he occasionally decreed points both to a significant survival of Sunnism in certain areas and to a determination to eradicate it. As far west as Hamadān, the Sunnites were numerous enough to provide the headman (kadḵodā)of the city; he was executed by Shah ʿAbbās in 1017/1608 (Arjomand, pp. 120-21). In only one recorded instance was ʿAbbās ready to countenance the unmolested profession of Sunnism in a territory under his control; on a visit to Tāleš, he resisted suggestions that he compel its people to abandon their hereditary Shafeʿism, citing the military services they had provided to his ancestors (Algar, forthcoming). Some areas of Tāleš did convert to Shiʿism, but it may have been as late as the 19th century.

Generally speaking, however, by the end of the 16th century, Sunnism had effectively vanished from most of the central Safavid domains. The patchwork of pre-Safavid Persia yielded to a fairly straightforward pattern of Shiʿism dominating the central plateau and Sunnism relegated to frontier areas that were either contested with neighboring powers or inhabited by ethnic minorities. The Kurds ruled by Persia retained their traditional Shafeʿite loyalties (excepting, of course, the Ahl-e Ḥaqq), although the amirs of Ardalān as well as some Kurds in the city of Kermānšāh and its environs did make the transition to Shiʿism. Herat passed back and forth between the Safavids and the Uzbeks, and each period of dominance was accompanied by the persecution of Sunnites or Shiʿites according to the order of the day. The misery visited on the Sunnites by the Safavids, especially during the reign of Shah Esmāʿil, was, however, more severe than that endured by the Shiʿites under Uzbek dominance; while the Safavids engaged in wholesale massacre, to a degree that alarmed even the indigenous Shiʿite population, the Uzbeks tended to focus on well-to-do Shiʿites, whose wealth could be confiscated under the pretext of combatting heresy (Szuppe, pp. 121-42). As a result of these and subsequent contests lasting into the early 19th century, both Sunnites and Shiʿites were to be found on either side of the eastern frontier of Persia when it was finally demarcated. Jām (also known as Torbat-e Sayḵ Jām) became the most significant city in Persian Khorasan with a Sunnite population; Zayn-al-ʿĀbedin Širvāni (d. 1253/1837) remarked of its population, with obvious displeasure, that “they are all Hanafites and extremely fanatical” (p. 197). The population of Širvān (Šarvān), a principality in the southern Caucasus ruled by Persia, with intervals of Ottoman rule, from the time of Esmā’il I until its annexation by Russia in 1813, remained Hanafite, although a Shiʿite minority came into being. Severe clashes between Sunnites and Shiʿites were frequent as late as the 19th century, with occasional involvement of Daghistani tribesmen on behalf of the Sunnites (Širvāni, p. 325). Most of Lārestān and the northern shore of the Persian Gulf was able to retain a Shafeʿite character, in large part perhaps because of the region’s traditional mercantile links with Arabia and India.

The Shiʿism which thus transformed the religious map of Persia was by no means uniform. Among the matters on which disagreement persisted among the ulema throughout the Safavid period was the precise juristic status of the monarchy. Despite public displays of drunkenness and other violations of morality by several Safavid monarchs, and the suggestion, noted by the traveler Jean Chardin (q.v.), that a religious scholar ought ideally to rule directly, not the shah (Chardin, VI, p. 65), the debate centered not on the institution of monarchy, but on two concrete issues in jurisprudence: the religiously mandated land tax known as the ḵarāj, and the Friday prayer. Insofar as the ḵarāj was indistinguishably merged with other sources of state revenue, the acceptance of royal stipends by a religious scholar could be taken to imply full acceptance of the Safavid state as a legitimate dispensation. In keeping with his general validation of Shah Ṭahmāsb—albeit fictively as his own appointee—Karaki justified his levying of the ḵarāj and the resultant permissibility of receiving state funds. He was opposed in this by his contemporary, Ebrāhim Qaṭifi, and later in the century by Aḥmad Moqaddas Ardabili (d. 993/1585, q.v.; Lambton, pp. 271-72).

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