Shia Sunni Conflicts under Safavids

  August 24, 2021   Read time 4 min
Shia Sunni Conflicts under Safavids
In spite of his great tolerance towards non-Islamic confessions, there was a limit to his indulgence regarding the Sunnis among his own subjects.

The Iran of the end of the 10th/16th and the first quarter of the 11nth/17th century: the rebirth of the Safavid state out of chaos; the emergence of a state enjoying high regard abroad among the powers of the Near East which had already begun to expand into Persian territory; widespread revival of economic life; the development of an indigenous cultural style, accompanied by an admirable flowering of the arts - all this was the work of Shah 'Abbas I. And though his historical significance has long been known there has as yet been no adequate appraisal in the West of 'Abbas as a ruler — for he was the ruler without whom Persia's transition to the modern age cannot be understood — in spite of the wealth of material available. In what follows we will attempt to trace out at least the most important features of his personality.

Robert Sherley, who of course knew the shah personally, speaks of him in the following terms: "His person is such as well-understanding nature would fit for the end proposed for his being — excellently well-shaped, of most well-proportioned stature, strong and active; his colour, somewhat inclined to a man-like blackness, is also more black by sun-burning; the furniture of his mind infinitely royal, wise, valiant, liberal, temperate, merciful; and an exceeding lover of justice, embracing royally other virtues as far from pride and vanity as from all unprincely sins or acts." Of these qualities, it is his liberality of outlook which is expecially striking in contrast with his bigoted father, Tahmasp I, not to mention other oriental potentates of the day. It was clearly evident in his tolerance towards Jews and Christians, for instance, not only in his permitting them to exercise their religion and to build churches, but in the fact that he himself even had a church built for the Armenians brought to New Julfa.

There was no question of his indulging in libertarian attitudes in questions of religion. He is, rather, described as a good Muslim, and in this connection there is a reference to a pilgrimage to Mashhad which he made on foot; we hear, too, of the repair work he had carried out to the mausoleum of the Eighth Imam, damaged by the Uzbeks, and his fondness for visiting the famous Shl'I places of pilgrimage at Ardabll, Mashhad, Karbala and Najaf. It is significant that he insisted on keeping his role as master of the order of the Safaviyya among the population, as can be seen on the occasion of his visits to Ardabll. This is consistent with his having regarded himself as a sayyid, that is to say, his claiming descent from 'All, whose memory he held in honour along with that of the Twelve Imams. In his personal life he kept in a high degree to the religious commandments except where he allowed himself to be driven into breaches of it by his fundamentally sensuous approach to life. Numerous pious foundations (auqdf) were the work of Shah 'Abbas, such as grants of land from his demesnes in Azarbaijan, Qazvin, Kashan and Isfahan; and he maintained close relations with many religious scholars ('u/ama), especially those who eschewed worldly ambition.

In spite of his great tolerance towards non-Islamic confessions, there was a limit to his indulgence regarding the Sunnis among his own subjects. Though he would go no further than to make unmistakeable allusions to his own Shia faith in his dealings with the ambassadors of neighbouring Sunni countries, his Sunni subjects or Sunni prisoners of war, especially theologians amongst them, could count on no consideration and clemency from him; far less the adherents of heretical movements, of which there were many at the time, e.g. the ahl-i nuqta, also known as the Nuqtavtydn, followers of Mahmud PasikhanI GllanI, who had proclaimed a doctrine with metempsychotic characteristics around the year 1400. Enthusiasts for these and similar views, who were to be found in various Persian cities and in various social classes up to the highest strata of society, were persecuted on the orders of the shah, and where it was possible to arrest them or to trace them in his entourage, they were sentenced to death. Such movements were in fact not without a dangerous aspect, since they generally entailed political aims, as for instance in the case of Mulla Qasim, a Nuqtavi who challenged the shah's right to the throne. This being so, the shah's reaction was no different from those of his Sunni opponents to the west and east of his empire in their attitude towards Shia tendencies.

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