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Ṣafavid Dynasty

Biancamaria Scarcia Amoretti
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World What is This? Provides global coverage of the Muslim experience from the end of the eighteenth century through the twentieth century

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Ṣafavid Dynasty

The Ṣafavid dynasty ruled Iran from 1501 to 1722, its end occasioned by the Afghan invasion. After 1722 a few members of the Ṣafavid family, particularly between 1729 and 1736 and between 1749 and 1773, were nominally shah, but in fact they were without real power. The Turkish‐speaking Ṣafavids came from Azerbaijan, although they probably had ancient Kurdish origins. In the early years of the dynasty, the Ṣafavids settled in the western regions of the Iranian highlands. The first Ṣafavid capital was Tabriz, then Qazvin. From the time of Shah ῾Abbās I (1588–1629), however, the main Ṣafavid residence was in Isfahan, from which the dynasty controlled a territory corresponding more or less to that of modern Iran.

The origin of the Ṣafavid name is traceable to Ṣafī al‐Dīn Isḥāq, who was the founder of the Ṣafawīyah (Ṣafavīyeh), a mystical and paramilitary order that had its center in Ardabil and spread to the southwest of the Caspian Sea. The birth of the Ṣafawīyah corresponds in time to the fall of the Baghdad caliphate under the pressure of the Mongol tribes and the consequent breakup of the Islamic East into different autonomous entities.

The history of Ṣafī al‐Dīn's successors is connected to that of a series of tribal groupings and confederations, most of which were ethnically Turkish, that settled in the eastern regions of Anatolia and across the Caucasus mountains in the second half of the fourteenth century. Some of these tribal groupings, like the Kara‐koyunlu and the Ak‐koyunlu, were organized in statelike systems. Ismā῾īl, the first of the Ṣafavid shahs, entered Tabriz after having defeated the rival Ak‐koyunlu. The main social characteristics of these groups and confederations were the preeminence of the nomadic element and the peculiar, substantial tendency to expansion that was normally associated with nomadism.

Coincidentally, the Ṣafavids were brought to power also because of the support of a few of these warrior tribes. These same tribes tried at that time to monopolize the power of the Ṣafavid state itself, but their influence was constantly reduced by Ismā῾īl's successors in favor of the more sedentary and rural social groupings of the Iranian highlands, and they gradually disappeared into the ethnic patterns of Iran. Other than the attitude bespeaking fighting potential that inhered in these tribes, what is of fundamental importance in defining them is their religious spirit. They fostered an extremist popular religious belief strongly suffused with syncretism—which was typical of the Anatolian and Caucasian context of that period. This was an environment in which Christian, pre‐Islamic Turkish, and Muslim cults formed an intricate mixture, endowing practically all the local religious expressions of the time with Shī῾ī themes of devotion to Imam ῾Alī and his family.

During the fifteenth century, the shaykhs of the Ṣafawīyah, one of whom was al‐Junayd, promoted a singular political alliance with one of the former tribal groups, the Qizilbash. The Qizilbash represented a relatively homogenous tribal whole. The Ṣafavid alliance with them was one of the reasons for the Ṣafavid change from Sunnism to Shiism. In terms of doctrine, the Qizilbash cannot be defined as Shī῾ī, especially Twelver Shiism, since their religious identity was too syncretic and extremist. But they did possess some distinguishing elements that identified them as Shī῾īs, for example, the twelve bands, representing the twelve imams of the Imāmī Shī῾ī tradition, of their distinctive red headgear, which gave them the name “redcaps.” They were at the same time an ideological and military movement that, together with ῾Alid devotion, was strongly focused on a messianic kind of expectation. Such religious fanaticism was concentrated on the leaders of the Ṣafawīyah.

Ismā῾īl's biography for the years preceding his seizure of power traces the commonplace hagiographic outlines of great charismatic leaders: his having been an orphan, his loneliness, persecution, the help of a few close friends. Nevertheless, he had some initial success, and this was interpreted as a proof of his “elected status.” On the grounds of this success, he was able to make the most of the Qizilbash military force, and of the ideological impetus deriving from their worship of him as a god on earth. But Ṣafavid religious extremism soon ended for two main reasons.

The first reason lay in the necessity of obtaining a religious consensus in Iran. This need brought first Ismā῾īl and then—with greater determination—his successor, Ṭahmāsp (1524–1576), to cast off the theocratic form of power. They came to embrace a belief system that departed from leader worship by making Twelver Shiism the state religion. Iran at this time was mostly Sunnī, but ῾Alī's descendants and Shī῾ī ῾ulamā' had acquired a privileged role and were widely recognized by the masses. The second reason was the inevitable clash between the new Ṣafavid power and the Ottoman dynasty, which by then was firmly established and determined to maintain control over the whole of Anatolia, including the eastern regions. Although the Ṣafavid defeat at the Battle of Chaldiran (1514) permanently demolished Ṣafavid ambitions toward Anatolia, it also caused a crisis in Ismā῾īl's rule, diminishing his power by reducing the aura of his link to the divinity.

These conditions determined the subsequent fate of Iran. Shī῾ī assumptions became the main distinguishing element of Iranian religious life, in comparison to the Sunnī Ottomans, on the one side, and the Sunnī Uzbeks and Mughals, on the other. At the same time, Iran became an imperative reference point for various Shī῾ī dynasties that imposed their rule in various regions of the Islamic world: for example, the Deccan sultanates of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; Shī῾ī social movements generally speaking; and the Shī῾ī community in Iraq (probably the most homogeneous and well structured of them all).

The imperial yearning of ruling dynasties in Iran, beginning with the Ṣafavid era, was never to be appeased. This has great relevance even today. Iran, unlike other countries in the area, was already a national or protonational state in the sixteenth century. The confessional imprimatur that characterized Iran did not really change the country's multiethnic and multicultural structure. Despite the fact that just over a century later Shiism was the religion of the overwhelming majority, initially conversion to Shiism was slow. It came about gradually through the mechanism of the administration of justice. The rulers sought to import jurisconsults from Bahrain and Lebanon, especially the Jabal ῾Āmil region in southern Lebanon. From Iran, some of these jurists moved on to India and elsewhere.

Certain changes began to occur in the administrative realm, as the rulers increasingly centralized state power. This led to the replacement of the administrative apparatus that had been inherited from the Timurid tradition (1360–1460s). This process of centralization reached its peak under Shah ῾Abbās I. Clashes with former nomadic elements led to the creation of special military forces recruited mainly from the ranks of those with Georgian and Circassian origin, paid by the shah and answerable only to him.

The shah's continuing need for revenues to sustain his military expenditures led to a progressive transfer of landed property into the hands of the crown (khāṣṣah). A consequence of this was the strengthening of the shah's power according to a historical pattern that was to repeat itself up to the Pahlavi dynasty, despite the monarchy's loss of political prestige. The transformation of the monarch into the country's largest landowner brought about the breakup of the traditional structure of the rural areas, where every family in a particular village had had the right to a plot of land to cultivate, to a certain amount of water to irrigate, and to free pasture areas. In spite of the relative opening up to the West, Ṣafavid Iran stayed anchored in the old economic dynamics, characterized by scarce displays of initiative, no entrepreneurial manpower, and an economic profile not far removed from autarky.

Another feature of the Ṣafavid dynasty was the ideological and religious nature of the state. Shiism came to be identified if not exclusively with Persia, then certainly predominantly, a development that entailed the scrapping of the memory of its Arab origins, both from the religious and political points of view. It is true that in the context of Iranian popular religion, with its historical memory of pre‐Islamic cults and conceptions, the spread of Shiism was not traumatic. On the contrary, Shiism served as a means of islamizing certain religious attitudes. It is also true that Sufism, which was officially resisted at the end of the seventeenth century, was one of the principal vehicles of conversion to Shiism by virtue of nothing more than the importance of the family of ῾Alī and the practices of devotion directed toward it. By ascribing to themselves religious values by dint of a false descent from ῾Alī, the Ṣafavids' image was strengthened.

All this led to a literary and philosophical renaissance fostered by the growth and spread of the Shī῾ī faith. It is this kind of renaissance that shaped the distinctively Persian element of Shiism in respect to neighboring countries. It is not a mere coincidence that it was at that particular stage (the mid‐sixteenth century) that the juridical cleavage occurred between two groups. These were the Uṣūlīyah, those advocating ijtihād (“independent judgment”); and the Akhbārīyah, those according preference to tradition, rather than to the free interpretation of the religious sources.

It was the Akhbārīyah who, even though the more conservative in their theological and juridical approaches, were to give birth to some radical schools of modern Shiism. Thus the social and religious ferment of the nineteenth century was to foster the Bābī movement and the Bahā'ī religion. Religious vitality would bring about a progressive division between temporal and spiritual power, to the point that the mullahs and the jurisprudents would begin to organize themselves as a separate body with faculties similar to those of Western clergy, that is, many of the elements that characterize contemporary Iran have their roots in the Ṣafavid period. The religious policy of the Ṣafavid shahs was to be interpreted by ῾Alī Sharī῾atī (a contemporary ideologue to whom the Iranian Revolution of 1979 owes a great deal) as “regime Shiism,” in contrast to the genuine ῾Alid Shiism of Imam ῾Alī. However, when the weakened Ṣafavid dynasty was followed by the Qājār dynasty (1785–1925), as well as in other times of crisis—for example, the already mentioned period of the Afghan invasion—at the popular level people sought after the Ṣafavid model. In so doing, they hoped that its reinstitution could guarantee the maintenance of the peculiar cultural physiognomy of modern Iran.

See also Iran.


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  • Scarcia, Gianroberto. Intorno alle controversie tra Akhbārī e Uṣūlī presso gli Imamiti di Persia. Rivista degli Studi Orientali 33 (1958): 211–250.
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