Historical Roots of Shia Revolutionary Ideas in Iran

  August 04, 2021   Read time 3 min
Historical Roots of Shia Revolutionary Ideas in Iran
Shi'ism, which today appears closely mingled with the whole Iranian sense of national identity, was in its origins almost entirely a stranger to Iran. Among the various Orientalist theories that have been elaborated with respect to the origins of Shi'ism it has been said that this was the Iranian response to an “Arab Islam.”

Apart from the inappropriateness of these ethnic categories, there is the simple fact that the earliest Shi'is were themselves, with few exceptions, Arabs, and Iran was for a long time an overwhelmingly Sunni country. Aside from a few centers, traditional centers such as Qum, which we shall hear more about later, and various quarters of other major cities, Shi'ism was little represented in Iran. In the aftermath of the Mongol conquest of the Muslim Near East in the thirteenth century, when the authority of the Abbasid Caliphate was shattered and destroyed, with the consequent weakening at least in the official position of Sunni thought, a gradual increase in the influence of Shi'ism in Iran began to be noticed. The stages of this are difficult to delineate completely and in any event the process was by no means a rapid and irreversible one. On the very eve of the conversion of Iran to Shi'ism, at the beginning of the tenth/sixteenth century, we find that Iran was still an overwhelmingly Sunni country. Strangely enough, despite the fact that within a short period of time a close mingling of Iranian national identity and Shi'ism had taken place, we find that there are two external factors that were crucial for the implantation of Shi'ism in Iran.

The first was the Safavid dynasty (1502-1722), originally a Turkish speaking family of hereditary Sufi shaykhs centered in the northwestern frontier lands of Iran. Transforming itself into a contender for power, it recruited a large number of followers from outside Iran from the Turkic nomads of Asia Minor, Syria, and the southern Caucasus. Afterwards the Safavids for political reasons manufactured a false genealogy for themselves, seeking descent from Imam Musa Kazim, the seventh Imam of the Prophets Family (peace be upon him). Subsequently, historical research has shown this genealogy to be false and that on the contrary they are of Turkic and ultimately Kurdish descent. In any event, the military forces that brought the Safavids to power in Iran were mostly non-Iranian and recruited from outside Iran.

We may even think of the foundation of the Safavid state in Iran as being in many ways one more nomadic invasion of this country, with this difference, that unlike the Mongol invasion, it came not from the east but from the west. After these Turkic nomads had placed the Safavids on the throne of Iran and the decision had been made to convert the majority of the people, if necessary by force, to Shi'ism, it was found that there were barely any Shi'i scholars in Iran and very few books available on Shi'ism in the Persian language. Consequently there took place the second influx of an external element, on this occasion Shi'i Arab scholars from traditional centers of Shi'ism in the Arab world, that is to say, Bahrain and Al-Ahsa in the Arabian Peninsula and Jabal ‘Amil in the southern part of Syria.

These scholars were at the origin of the class of Iranian ‘ulama that we have seen assuming a progressively more important historical role through the centuries until the culmination of that tradition in the Islamic Revolution. Despite this reliance on two external elements for the propagation of Shi'ism in Iran, the Turkic soldiery and Arab scholars, we see that in some fashion the ground must have been very well prepared. Historical research is not yet in a position to tell us how precisely this preparation took place. It is clear that for any spiritual tradition to flourish and take root, the mere process of coercion will not be sufficient. Although the Safavids did engage freely in the use of coercion leading to a large stream of emigration from Iran to neighboring Sunni countries, nonetheless, in a few generations Shi'ism had not only taken root in Iran, it had begun to produce one of the major intellectual and cultural flowering of the Islamic tradition as a whole. For this to have taken place, clearly the ground must have been prepared. Shi'ism found a suitable environment to flourish in Iran.

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