Persian Jews and Their Social Status

  September 05, 2021   Read time 2 min
Persian Jews and Their Social Status
As with the Zoroastrians, it is difficult to evaluate the situation of the Jews during the earliest phase of the Safavid period.

The only record we have of their treatment comes from Tomé Pires, who visited Iran between 1512-1516, during the reign of Shah Isma'il (1501-1523). He said that ‘Sheikh Isma'il (...) reforms our churches, destroys all houses of all Moors who follow Muhammad (Sunna) and never spares the life of any Jew."

Incontestably, Shah Isma'il I was a zealous Shi'ite. Apart from imposing the Shi'ite creed on the Sunnite population, he waged war against the Georgian Christians, as mentioned above. In view of this political scene, it is possible that Shah Isma'il had some non-Muslims killed along with the Sunnites. Shah Isma'il was fully engaged in his struggle against the Sunnites and establishing his own hegemony. As a result, the Jews most certainly suffered along with the rest of the population. Nonetheless, there are no other sources that refer to his harming Jews and even Tomé Pires does not provide any specific examples, so their suffering may have been a side effect rather than the result of persecution.

The later Safavid period, until the reign of Shah Sulayman I, seems to have been a time of relative tranquillity for non-Muslims. Fischel portrays Shah Abbas I as a tolerant monarch, and says that the Jews of Zagrum or Zagam (in Georgia) willingly settled on the Caspian coast after helping him in his expedition of 1613 against the Ottomans.567 However, Shah Abbas is renowned for having deported and resettled many communities, including Muslims. There were some parts of Iran in particular, which Shah Abbas wished to populate with non-Muslims, namely Isfahan and the Caspian area. Thus, he deported the Jews of Zagrum to the Caspian coast in the hope of benefiting from their commercial, agricultural and handicraft skills, as they were already involved in the silk culture and trade. Shah Abbas had no intention of losing them to the Ottomans.

Despite assertions that Shah Abbas was a tolerant monarch, the position of the Jews in his reign was ambiguous. This was mainly due to the rivalry among the Jewish leaders, which may or may have not been instigated by the Muslim authorities. The main Jewish source for studying the Iranian Jewry of this period is the chronicle produced by Babai b. Lutf, the Kitab-i Anusi: The Book of the Events of the Forced Conversions of Persian Jewry to Islam.

Through a study of this book and the analysis of the information provided by other sources, we will determine whether Iranian Jewry was a passive and impoverished community, repetitively subjected to persecutions, as they have been traditionally viewed; or a dynamic community, with social and economic assets which allowed them to play an important role in their country.

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