Shi'a

The Safavids


   The first large, lasting Shi'ite state was the Safavid state in Iran. The Safavids were originally a Turkish Sufi order; Sufism is a mystical branch of Sunni Islam. The leaders of this movement, the tariqa , passed on this leadership through hereditary means. The Safavids, then, were a kind of hereditary mystical spiritual authority. In the fifteenth century, the Safavids converted to Shi'ism and evolved a militant theology that demanded the supremacy of Shi'ism through force of arms. These militant Safavids claimed to be the direct descenedants of the seventh Imam. As their influence grew, they converted many Turks in Iran, Syria, and Anatolia

Isma'il

   Claiming to be the Representative of the Hidden Imam, Isma'il, a young Safavid master, expanded Safavid control over much of Iran, Mesopotamia (Iraq), Azerbaijan, and the Caucusus south of Russia by 1506 AD. He had assumed control of the Safavids in 1494 AD / 900 AH (at the age of seven!), and appears to have gained a fanatical following by not only calling himself the representative of the Hidden Imam, but by claiming to be the Hidden Imam himself (later he would claim divinity). His followers believed that the Hidden Imam had returned and that they were soldiers in the forces of righteousness. Their victory, which was certain, would inaugurate a period of world-wide justice and spirituality.

   In 1499 (at the age of twelve!), Isma'il led his army in a war of conquest. In 1500, he conquered the kingdom of Shirvan, and in 1501, he was crowned King of Tabriz (at the age of fourteen). He then declared Shi'a Islam to be the state religion of Tabriz.

   By 1512, he controlled all of Iran (do the math yourself). Adopting Persian models of government and bureaucracy, Isma'il declared himself Shah of Iran and became the first Shah of the Safavid dynasty. He enforced Shi'ism on everyone; at the time, Sunni Muslims vastly outnumbered Shi'ites in Iran. He forced them to curse the first three Caliphs and to be ruled under the Shi'ite ulama . Here's a surprise. He succeeded. His efforts to turn Iran into a Shi'ite population was remarkably successful, and Iran to this day is almost entirely Shi'ite.

   Isma'il, however, came in conflict with the Ottomans; in a battle at Chaldiran in 1514, Isma'il was defeated by Selim I. From that point onwards, the Safavids and Ottomans were continually at war for more than two hundred years. The Ottomans slowly took territory from the Safavids; Isma'il's successor, Tahmasp I, who ruled from 1524 to 1576, lost enormous amounts of territory to the Ottoman Sultan Suleyman I. The Ottomans, however, never succeeded but they never succeeded in deposing the Safavids.

   Isma'il based his political authority on two claims. The first was his claim to inherit the Persian monarchy; the title of the Persian monarch was "Shadow of God on Earth." The second was his claim to be descended from the Seventh Imam and to be the "Representative of the Hidden Imam" (na'ib al-khass ). This latter claim, however, was heretical, for the doctrine of Greater Occultation asserts that the Hidden Imam will have no representative on earth until his reappearance. This heresy, however, was accepted and Shi'ites happily believed the Safavid Shahs to be the Representatives of the Hidden Imam. In the nineteenth century, this title would be transferred to the Shi'ite ulama . This is again heretical, but it lies behind the Iranian respect of the ulama and is a fundamental reason for the position the ulama occupies in the current Islamic republic of Iran.

Abbas I

   Both Islamic and Western historians agree that the reign of Shah Abbas I (1588-1629) was the greatest period in Safavid history and culture. He turned back the Ottoman tide and reseized vast amounts of territory, including Azerbaijan and Iraq. He was the first Iranian ruler to turn to Europe; in order to check the Ottomans, he made alliances with European enemies of the Ottoman empire and so forged a long and continuing relationship between Iran and Europe. His greatest achievement, however, was economic. He broke the Portugese monopoly on trade with Asia and forged incredibly productive commercial treaties with Great Britain and the Netherlands. As a result, the Safavid court and territories were rolling in wealth.

   This increasing prosperity brought about an energetic period of cultural invention and creativity that rivalled the Italian Renaissance. The greatest of the Safavid arts was architecture; the Safavid mosques, palaces, and parks built during the reign of Abbas I are among the greatest architectural achievements in Islam. The greatest of these architectural triumphs are the monumental buildings built in Isfahan, the center of Shi'ite learning.

   Safavid book illuminations are among the most perfect and balanced paintings in the world. These miniature paintings were originally a Timurid art form; the Safavids developed it to its highest form. In textiles and tile-work, the art of the Safavids displays a complexity, balance, and technical genius unrivalled by all their contemporaries.

Isfahan

   Perhaps the greatest cultural activity was in the area of Hikmat-i Ilahi , or "Divine Philosophy" in a philosophical movement called "The School of Isfahan" or the Ishraqi (Illuminationist) school. The Illuminationist school believed that true wisdom was the product of both reason and intuition. One could arrive at part of the truth through the philosophy of Aristotle (a Greek rationalist philosopher) and Avicenna (an Arabic rationalist philosopher). This truth, however, was not enough. In order to arrive at full truth, one would have to achieve mystical vision or illumination through fasting, self-denial, and mystic practices. They called this world of visions the "realm of images"; these images gave the individual access to divine truth. The Hikmat-i Ilahi became a vitally important school of philosophy; many of the most prominent officials and members of Iranian society were influenced by Illuminationist principles.

Decline

   Both Islamic and Western historians believe that Safavid decline began shortly after the death of Shah Abbas I. The later Shahs were never as firm or disciplined as Abbas, and the Empire slowly disintegrated under the invasive pressures of the Ottomans and the Uzbeks in the north. The economy also declined, primarily because wealth began to concentrate in only a few hands.

   The most direct reason for the fall of the Safavids was religious persecution. The Shi'ite ulama enforced Shi'ism ruthlessly and actively stirred up animosity against Sunnis. This produced a series of revolts, especially among the Sunni tribes in Afghanistan. One such tribe, rising up against persecution, conquered Afghanistan itself and in 1722, seized Isfahan and forced Shah Husayn I to abdicate. From this point onwards, the Safavids controlled only a tiny bit of territory, but the real power lay with a new Sunni monarch named Nadir Shah.

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 2-27-97