Shah Abbas I and His Struggle with the Turkmens

  January 23, 2024   Read time 5 min
Shah Abbas I and His Struggle with the Turkmens
The final chapter of these dramatic events saw the destruction of Turkmen supremacy by Shah 'Abbas I in the course of a thorough reform of the armed forces carried out at the beginning of his reign.

The Turkmen tribal aristocracy was stripped of all power, new types of weaponry were introduced and a regular corps established which can be regarded as the model and source of later efforts to create a standing army. One of the most significant consequences of the reform was the fact that members of the Georgian, Armenian and Circassian ethnic groups were now recruited to the armed forces and the highest offices of state. The reorganisation of the armed forces, completed by the end of the ioth/i6th century, also involved administrative and financial reforms. Payment of troops from the funds of the royal household replaced the feudal system on which the army had previously been based. Increasing numbers of provincial governorships, until now in the hands of Turkmen military commanders, were transformed into crown lands, with the result that their levies and taxes accrued to the shah and could be used for the maintenance of the new contingents.

The destruction of Turkmen autonomy was not the only consequence of these measures. They also led to large-scale social change and restratification which still await closer investigation. Qizilbash tribes continued to exist, and some of their leaders even retained their posts as governors, but all in all the reform of the army constituted an advance along the road towards the integration of the Tiirkmens with the Persian population. Even in the 12th/18th century, Turkmen tribes still supplied Persia with royal dynasties like the Qajars whose rule came to an end a mere fifty years ago. Alliances between Turkish and Persian elements - the example of Isma'H's marriage was repeatedly followed by his successors - in the long run became a possibility for wider circles in the community. Even more important was the fact that just as Persian and other non-Turkish dignitaries could, from the end of the ioth/i6th century onwards, occupy military commands and offices of state, so Turkmen tribesmen were able in time to play an active part in various spheres of Persian cultural life.1 A few examples from the field of history alone will suffice: Sadiql Beg Afshar and Hasan Rumlu, both born shortly after 1530, and their younger contemporary, Iskandar Beg Turkman, usually known as Iskandar Munshi, one of the greatest historians of Islamic Persia.

One final consequence of the reform of the army needs to be emphasised. The ensuing transformation into crown lands of provinces previously ruled by governors lasted for decades, indeed until the time of Shah 'Abbas II (1052—77/1642—66), and went hand in hand with a strong policy of centralisation, affecting the administration and other spheres of life. This was of enormous importance for subsequent developments, even up to the present day. Ultimately it put an end to the polycentric system, inherited from the days of TTmur, which might have been of significance, especially in terms of artistic and intellectual development. A further contributory factor may have been 'Abbas I's decision to discontinue the practice of appointing the royal princes to governorships in particularly important provincial cities.

At the start of Safavid rule, religious fanaticism, as we have seen, played a far more prominent part than theological knowledge, which would have been useful in confrontations with established Sunni theology. At that time Persia was a largely Sunni country, with numerous theologians of that persuasion. In the circumstances, the advisers of the new shah, and presumably Isma'Il himself, must quickly have recognised the disadvantages of their theological ignorance. Significant evidence of this is the search — albeit not exactly successful — for specialist literature on the subject, which is mentioned in a chronicle of the period.2 Soon the situation changed as the call for Shl'i theologians was answered. They came from areas in which there was a Shl'I tradition, from Bahrain and from the Jabal 'Amila in southern Lebanon, and brought Safavid religious views, which bore the imprint partly of popular piety and partly of the extremist currents of the early period of the empire, into line with the official tenets of the Twelver Shl'a. The extent to which they became respected in Persia can be judged, for example, from the fact that Shah 'Abbas the Great married the daughter of one of them, Shaikh Lutf-Allah MaisI from the Lebanese Mais al-Jabal, whose memory is kept aliveJm this day in what is one of the gems of Persian architecture, the little mosque on the Maidan-i Shah in Isfahan which is named after him.

However, not all the consequences of this increase in the influence of Shl'I theology proved welcome to the Safavids. The concept of divine right, so important to the shah's reputation, especially amongst large numbers of the common people, had no place in the doctrines of the Shl'I theologians. They, of course, were familiar with the theory of nass, according to which any representative of the departed Imam needed to be designated by a legitimate predecessor. They were only too aware that the Safavids had not been designated in this way and could not make up for this deficiency by claiming descent from the Prophet. The dynasty had thus usurped the power which rightfully belonged to the mujtahid of the time. At first the theologians probably acquiesced in this without too much difficulty since both they and, of course, the mujtahid enjoyed a better position under the Safavids than under any SunnI regime, however magnanimous.

As their activities gradually influenced the beliefs and religious practices of the population, and the official doctrines of the Twelver Shi'a supplanted the heresy introduced by Isma'Il, so the shah lost the preeminent position he had held previously in religious matters. Eventually, by the end of the nth/17th century, he retained only executive power, and the people showed a greater devotion to the mujtahid. There is therefore a certain parallel here with previously discussed developments within the Safavid order, in which the khalifat al-khulafa was able to assert his superiority over the shah in his capacity as murshid-i kamil. More than a century later, the Qajars, who after decades of indecision finally resolved to grant the Shl'I theologians ('ulama) their former privileged status, thus hoping to give their rule the semblance of legitimacy, were also disappointed. The theologians could not change their fundamental beliefs. Monarchs, no matter whether they were Safavids or Qajars, were and remained in their eyes usurpers. Instead of supporting those to whom they owed a debt of gratitude, they contributed, in the case of both dynasties, to their downfall.

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