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Shadow of God

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Shadow of God

    The ancient Persians believed that their kings possessed divine grace and ruled by divine will. A king served as a mediator between his subjects and the gods and could thus bring good fortune to his people. After Islamic rule came to Persia, the Muslims integrated the concept of kingship into their government. Muslim caliphs and kings called themselves Zill Allah, or the Shadow of God. As such, many rulers considered themselves accountable only to God and allowed no public questioning of their actions. Classical Persian texts instructed Muslims that “God has two guardians over the people; his guardians in heaven are the angels, and his guardians on earth are kings.”

    After the Safavid dynasty ( 1501 – 1722 ) came to power in Iran, Shi'i doctrines helped to reinforce the idea of divinely guided kingship. Shi'is regarded the tribal leader Haydar ( 1460 – 1488 ) as the son of God and viewed his son Ismail, the founder of the Safavid dynasty, as a forerunner of the Mahdi, or Hidden Imam. Although the Islamic doctrine of tawhid forbids the idea of human divinity or reincarnation, Safavid kings sometimes used Shi'i traditions to claim these attributes without significant criticism from religious leaders.

    Under Karim Khan Zand ( 1750 – 1779 ), however, the monarchy in Iran dropped claims to divinity. Zand instead took the title Vakili Ra'aya (Regent of the People), and acted as a tribal leader. During the Qajar dynasty ( 1796 – 1925 ), though, Persian rulers again took the title Shadow of God, but Qajar rulers did not claim to represent the Mahdi. Religious scholars took their place in assuming some of the authority of the imams.

    During the Pahlavi dynasty ( 1926 – 1979 ), the monarchy became increasingly secularized. Despite this trend, both Pahlavi monarchs used the tradition of divinely guided kingship to bolster their power. The second king, Muhammad Reza Shah , believed that the monarchy could not survive without its traditional connotations. He also believed that the monarchy had such deep roots in Iranian culture that if he lost the throne, another king would replace him. He stated that the Iranians expected their king to be “a symbol of earthly redemption … because the king was the linkage with the Almighty.”

    The authoritarian attitudes and corruption that existed in Iranian public institutions caused the symbol of the divinely guided or appointed king to take on even more importance. The figure of the Shadow of God served as an image of divine protection, binding the nation together and giving it a sense of purpose. Even so, Ayatollah Ruhollah al-Musavi Khomeini abolished the Iranian monarchy and deposed Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1979 . He seemed however, to continue in the tradition of the Shadow of God by proclaiming himself the religious leader of Iran who had been granted authority over the region in the absence of the Mahdi. Although he did not consider himself divinely appointed, he established a firm Islamic rule that caused some followers to refer to him as imam. See also Iran; Khomeini, Ruhollah al-Musavi.

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