Shia Islam Turns into the Official Religion of Iran by Safavids

  December 24, 2023   Read time 10 min
Shia Islam Turns into the Official Religion of Iran by Safavids
On his accession to the throne, Isma'Il did in fact proclaim Shi'ism the official religion, or state religion, as it might be called. As he extended his sphere of influence, he then proceeded to implement it throughout Persia with the aim, so it is claimed, of distinguishing Persia from the Ottoman empire.
This may not, however, have been his sole intention or at all premeditated, but merely a more or less unconscious motive. What he proclaimed was ostensibly the Twelver Shl'a, a creed which certainly cannot be reconciled with his own personal religious views. These we know from what is a quite unimpeachable source of personal testimony, his own poems. In them he claims to be the reincarnation of 'All, an emanation of God and indeed God himself. Such notions have no place in the Shi'a, indeed they are sheer heresy from an orthodox Shl'I point of view, a fact which cannot be denied by arguing that they are perhaps merely the literary extravagances of a mystically impassioned youth, along the lines of such sufi conceptions as unto mystica, union with God {tauhid). In fact they were by no means merely obsessive mystical speculations but articles of faith which were widely held by the supporters of the Safavids and had powerful practical consequences. Isma'Il's enthusiastic disciples {muridan) took them so seriously that they were firmly convinced of his invincibility. Imbued with such ideas, they marched into battle, going from triumph to triumph until the whole of Persia had been subjected to the sway of the Safavids. Admittedly the defeat at Chaldiran destroyed Isma'H's charisma, but even after this reverse he continued to be revered like a god by many of his subjects, and the same is also true, incidentally, of his son Tahmasp.
The state founded by Isma'Il was a theocracy, comparable with the empire of the caliphs but based on ShI'I rather than on SunnI principles. The distinction is important because it meant that ShI'I theories of the state and of succession, radically different from those of the Sunnls, were to be authoritative. Instead of the elected caliph, the head of state was to be an imam descended from the Prophet Muhammad, at any rate as long as such a person existed, i.e. until 260/873-4, the date of the disappearance of the Twelfth Imam. Subsequently the office passed to a vakil whose entitlement did not depend on direct descent from the prophet, but rather on being nominated by a legitimate predecessor (nass). This regulation remained in force until 329/940—1, when the vakil Abu'l-Hasan al-Samarrl passed away without having exercised his right to designate a successor. According to the doctrine of the Twelver Shl'a, from that point onwards until the return of the Mahdl - i.e. for the duration of the great ghaiba which still continues today - a given mujtahid was to be considered as the latter's steward. The mujtahid is that singular dignitary who without being appointed, without either office or clearly defined responsibilities, has a commanding influence within the Shl'a community in matters of religious law and practice purely by virtue of his personal authority, based on his learning and his exemplary conduct. It must be emphasised that neither the vakil nor the mujtahid is required to be a descendant of the Prophet.
Bearing in mind these considerations, how legitimate was the Safavids' claim to sovereignty over Persia? Neither in Isma'Il's case nor in that of his father, grandfather or any other ancestor can there be any question of nass, and indeed none of them claimed to have been designated ruler by a legitimate predecessor. Nor was any one of them a mujtahid. In these circumstances, how could they have become sovereigns? Can it really be the case that so fundamental a qualification for the post of steward of the imam was disregarded, perhaps, as has been suggested, on account of Safavid propaganda, deliberately designed to divert attention from it?
To consider the matter of Isma'Il's accession in such a theoretical light is in all probability inappropriate. Because it was markedly religious in character it is of course tempting to judge it from a theological point of view. But this is surely a mistake. Obviously Isma'U was a personality with a pronounced sensitivity for things religious. For some years he had received Shl'I religious instruction, but he had certainly not acquired any theological knowledge. Nor can one assume that those around him possessed any. Moreover, the Shl'a he caused to be proclaimed in Tabriz by no means accorded with the theology of the Twelver Shl'Is. True, this neglect of theological considerations was not to last, but for the situation to change Shl'I theologians had to come from outside the country, a fact which in itself points to a certain paucity of theological knowledge at the outset of his reign. It would appear that the young Isma'Il and his advisers were not even aware of the meaning of the concept of nass.
Although initially the sharp distinctions of theological concepts may have been foreign to the young Isma'Il's world of ideas, it by no means follows that he was totally ignorant of legitimist theories as such. He was probably just as familiar with general ideas of this kind as were his contemporaries. Whereas SunnI theories of sovereignty allow for the recognition of a usurper, in Shl'I teaching the principle of legitimacy finds particularly strong expression. It is encountered also in popular thinking, a concrete example of which is the quasi-legendary tale in which the hidden Imam performs the investiture of Isma'Il before the eyes of a dervish in a dream.2 Here the underlying idea of the necessity for the ruler to be designated in accordance with divine wish or approval is unmistakeable, even though the concept of nass is not mentioned. To that extent the tale does not necessarily contradict our supposition that Isma'Il and his loyal supporters could scarcely have been familiar with so complex an idea.
Whether Isma'Il, in emerging from Gllan, intended from the outset to win sovereignty over Iran remains debatable, however much subsequent reports suggest such an interpretation. Initially, of course, he had to establish himself as master of the Ardabll order. This may explain the military campaigns and predatory raids he carried out which were similar to those of his father and grandfather before him with their bands of ghazls. Like them, he was probably inspired by the ghazl concept and perhaps by the idea of vendetta as well. The turningpoint was probably not reached until the emergence of Shams al-Dln Zakariya KujujI, a native of Tabriz who for many years had served the Aq Quyunlu as vizier. For this man, whom Isma'Il made his own vizier, reported that his former masters were in a state of utter chaos.
At all events, his reports demonstrated just how favourable an opportunity had arisen for seizing power. After all, Isma'U was the grandson of Uzun Hasan. Why should he not ascend the throne of his grandfather instead of his cousins? A clear indication that Safavid rule was to represent a continuation of that of the Aq Quyunlu is the fact that the Turkmen capital of Tabriz was retained, whereas no mention is made of Ardabll, which might equally well have been chosen as the royal residence. Further evidence of a desire to follow in the line of Turkmen rulers is Isma'il's assumption of the title Padishah-i Iran, previously held by Uzun Hasan. At the same time it provides documentary proof of the Persian monarchs' continued adherence to the concept of divine right — khwarna, "regal majesty", which under Islam was changed to %tll Allah, "the shadow of God [on earth]".
Isma'U's assumption of power in Tabriz in no way affected his position as murshid-i kamil, master of the order of the Safaviyya. On the contrary, this office — which was relevant only to members of the order and not to his other subjects — had increased in significance as a result of his military and political successes, for in addition to his powers as sovereign it guaranteed him, by virtue of the plr-murld relationship, the particular loyalty of his armed forces, the Qizilbash. As we have seen, these were mostly Turkmen tribesmen from Anatolia, Syria and Azarbaljan. Its importance was not to wane until the defeat of Chaldiran later destroyed the messianic radiance and charisma of the ruler, making him less sacrosanct in the eyes of his supporters. Not surprisingly, the khalifat al-khulafa gained in influence, since he had to deputise for the shah to a large extent in his duties as master of the order. No outright confrontation between the two was to occur until half a century later, in the reign of Shah Isma'Il II, when members of the order made no secret of the fact that they felt a greater obligation to the khalifa than to the monarch. This clear indication of the order's decline was followed by another confrontation, this time with 'Abbas I in 998/1589-90, which practically speaking put an end to its respected status in the realm.
More problematical than the two foundations of Safavid power we have discussed so far was its third basis, descent from the Prophet Muhammad, i.e. the sayyid status of the dynasty. With a touch of dry irony Aubin remarks that the Safavids did not become Sayyids until late on, probably just before the middle of the 9th/15 th century.1 Since that other scion of the prophet, Sayyid Ahmad Kasravl, made his violent attacks on the genealogy of the Safavids fifty years ago the arguments for and against their genuineness have constantly been the object of critical debate, but no clear-cut and definitive verdict has yet been reached.2 Without pursuing the argument further here, we may confine ourselves to the observation that in the absence of proof to the contrary there is no reason to doubt the young Isma'Il's good faith with regard to his ancestry before he ascended the throne. That such a conviction cannot simply be dismissed as absurd is evident from the clearly unobjectionable testimony of a poet who, around the middle of the 8th/14th century, praises the then master of the Ardabll order, Shaikh Sadr al-Dln, as having emerged from the sea of the sayyids.
Since, according to the doctrine of the Twelver Shl'a, what determines the legitimacy of a ruler is designation by a rightful predecessor (nass) and not so much his genealogy, no particular significance should really be attached to descent from 'All. Whether he is a sayyid or not, the man who seizes power without either nass or ijtihad is a usurper. This is a theory which still has its supporters today. Whether it is in fact applicable to the case of Isma'Il is, however, open to discussion. If it were, one would be obliged to deny the legitimacy even of his subjective claim to assume power. In that case the great significance the Safavids attached to their descent from 'All would matter only in terms of the respect it brought them, the great proximity to divine truth resulting from it and the justification of their claim to sinlessness ('isma). This presupposes, however, that Isma'Il actually knew of the paramount importance of designation, which is probably the very opposite of the case. No evidence from the intellectual and spiritual sphere in which he lived, familiar to us both from the chronicles and from his own divan, supports the assumption that he had so sublime a knowledge of Shl'I theory. In the long run, of course, with the increasingly dominant influence of theology, the Safavids must have discovered the existence of this doctrine. Exactly when they became acquainted with it remains to be investigated, but in this context it is not so important. Suffice it to say that no knowledge of it can be attributed to Isma'Il in the summer of 907/1501. The probability, rather, is that on the one hand he considered himself eligible to succeed by virtue of his descent from Uzun Hasan, and on the other hand he saw his 'Alid lineage as giving him the advantage in legitimacy over his Aq Quyunlu cousins and other claimants.

Write your comment