The Safavid Administrative System

  January 23, 2024   Read time 6 min
The Safavid Administrative System
Before the principal phases in the development of the Safavid administrative system are discussed in detail, a brief outline of the Safavid administrative and social structure may be helpful. At the apex of this structure was the shah. Never was the Divine Right of Kings more fully developed than by the Safavid shahs.

Shah Isma'Il I, who established the Safavid dynasty in 907/1501—2, considered himself to be the living emanation of the godhead, the Shadow of God upon earth, and the representative of the Hidden Imam by virtue of direct descent from the Seventh Imam of the Twelver (Ithna'ashariyya) Shl'a, Mvisa al-Kazim. It is axiomatic that such a ruler would command instant and unquestioning obedience from his subjects. Since the ruler was directly appointed by God, men were required to obey his commands whether just or unjust. Since the ruler, as the representative of the Hidden Imam, was closer to the source of absolute truth than were other men, opposition to him was a sin. This led inevitably to an assumption of kingly infallibility.

In other words, the Safavid shahs usurped the function which the Ithna'asharl mujtahids had arrogated to themselves, namely, that of acting as the representative on earth of the Mahdi, the Ithna'asharl messiah. The net result of these various Safavid theories of kingship was absolutism.1 In practice, however, there were well defined limits to this absolutism, even when the shah was a strong and capable ruler. Chardin declares emphatically that outside court circles there was no arbitrary exercise of power by the shah, and both Chardin and Malcolm assert that the awe in which the shah was held by the court and the nobility was the primary reason for the relative security and freedom from oppression enjoyed by the lower classes.

Minorsky has written: "It is a moot question how the idea of the State, if ever distinctly realised, was expressed in Safavid terminology". Though the term daulat was sometimes used as an abstract concept, he says, the nearest equivalent in a concrete sense was mamdlik-i mahrusa, the "divinely-protected dominions". This rather extreme statement must now be modified. There is abundant evidence that, long before the end of the Safavid period, the concept of the territories under Safavid jurisdiction as a state had crystallised into a more concrete form. During the reign of Shah Sulaiman (1077-1105/1666-94), the term mamlikat-i Iran is found, but the historian Iskandar Beg MunshI, writing in 102 5/1616-17, frequently uses terms of a similar nature with reference to the Safavid state at the time of Shah Tahmasp I (930—84/1524-76): mulk-i Iran; mamalik-i Iran; 'arsa-yi Iran (the last of these perhaps more geographical than political).

Even if Iskandar Beg Munshi's use of these terms in regard to the reign of Shah Tahmasp represents a case of prolepsis, it nevertheless indicates that, by the time of Shah 'Abbas I at least, Safavid rule had led to the emergence of a more definite concept of a state operating within fairly welldefined boundaries. The meaning of daulat, now the ordinary word for state, gradually evolved from the rather abstract concept of the "bliss" or "felicity" of the ruler, the aura of beneficence which surrounded him and sheltered his subjects, and came to be used in a more concrete sense. Roemer has pointed out that the existence of Iran as an administrative entity was acknowledged by the Ottomans from the time of the establishment of the Safavid state. A letter to Shah Isma'Il I from the Ottoman sultan Bayezld II refers to him as pddishah-i Iran.

The administrative organisation of the Safavid state was divided both horizontally, along ethnic lines, and vertically, by Barthold's classic "red thread", namely, "the division of all the organs of administration into two main categories, the dargdh (palace) and divan (chancery)". On the ethnic plane, the Qizilbash, the Turkmen tribes which had been mainly responsible for bringing the Safavids to power, constituted the military aristocracy of the Safavid state, the "men of the sword" in traditional Islamic terms. The amirs, or chiefs of these tribes, were the military governors of most of the provinces of the Safavid empire during its early period. They filled the most important offices of state, and held a dominant position in political as well as in military affairs.

This state of affairs they considered to be no more than their due in view of their services to the Safavid cause. Differing from the Qizilbash in race, language and culture were the Tajiks, or Persian elements of society, the descendants of those who had traditionally filled the ranks of the bureaucracy under a succession of alien Arab, Turkish, Mongol and Tartar rulers. From the Tajik elements were drawn not only the viziers and the numerous classes of officials in the royal secretariat, but also the accountants, the clerks, the tax-collectors and other officials of the financial administration, and, in general, the "men of the pen" of classical Islamic society. In addition, the majority of the members of the religious classes ('u/amd): the mujtahids, the qddis, the sayyids, the khatibs, and other functionaries of the religious institution, were Persians. The few who were originally of Arab blood had become thoroughly assimilated in the course of time, and thought of themselves as Tajiks. The head of the religious institution, the sadr, was always a Persian.

The administrative organisation of the Safavid state remained fluid during the whole of the period prior to the accession of Shah 'Abbas I (996/1588). Even when the actual administrative institutions assumed more rigid forms in the course of the administrative reorganisation carried out by 'Abbas I, some lateral mobility still existed, and officials were able to cross the boundary between the religious institution and the political institution with comparative ease. During the early Safavid period, the divan, or mamdlik, branch was predominant. From the time of Shah 'Abbas I onwards, however, the power of that branch of the administration which was under the personal control of the ruler (in Safavid terminology: kbdssa) increased at the expense, and to the detriment, of the mamalik branch. Eventually (1077/1666-7), even the office of sadr was divided into a khassa and an 'dmma (i.e., mamalik) branch.

The everyday business of the state was transacted by a council {divan; later: jdnqt) of high-ranking amirs {arkan-i daulat; umard-yi 'dlijdb; etc.). The vizier iya^Jr) was a member of this council. Later, other officials were nominated to it. They included an official known as the majlisnivis, or vdqi'a-nivis, sometimes termed the va^tr-i chap, because he stood on the left of the shah, whereas the vizier proper stood on the shah's right. This official had three functions: he was the official court historiographer; he was the shah's private secretary; and, most important of all, he was a rapporteur to the shah.1 In this last capacity he was in effect the head of a widespread intelligence system. The council of amirs was presided over by the shah, or, in his absence, by the vakil-i nafs-i nafis-i humayiin (later, by the i'timdd al-dauld). The amirs who were members of the council resided at court. If any of them held another office in addition, such as a provincial governorship, he would delegate that function to his son, or to another amir from his own tribe.

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