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The Safavid Empire (AD1501-1736) ruled the lands of Persia which would become modern day Iran and Iraq. Founded by Shah Ismail, this native Persian dynasty was powerful enough to challenge the supremacy of the Ottoman Empire. It challenged the majority Sunni sect within Islam and, claiming descent from a Shi'a Sufi order, adopted Shi'a Islam as its official religion. Shi'as differed on issues related to leadership, doctrine and practise (Sunnis, in fact, had no priesthood or identifiable religious structure). Shi'as claimed that Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali, and his descendAnts were the only rightful rulers of the Muslim community. These rulers were called Imams. Different groups of Shi'as stopped at different Imams in the line of the family tree and considered their chosen man to be the last and most authentic final guide. There were 'Fivers', 'Seveners', and 'Twelvers' Shi'as, each with diverse religious doctrines.

Shi'a views, propagated with the help of clerics recruited from Jabal Amil (today in Lebanon) and Iraq, gave the Safavid Empire an identity distinct from its Sunni neighbours. This was significant for its impact on the religious identity of the Persians and modern-day Iranians. At its height, during the reign of Shah Abbas I, the Safavid Empire comprised Iran, Iraq, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and parts of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Shah Abbas established Isfahan as his capital, transforming it into what was known as an architectural wonder.

Rise of Safavid rule

The origins of the Safavid dynasty lie in the Sufi orders of Shi'a Islam. The Sufi was thought by other Muslims to consist of radical mystics, popular among the Turkmen of north-western Iran and eastern Anatolia. During the 15th century, the Safawiyya order of mystics engaged in jihad (holy war) against the Ottomans (which by this time had expanded across Anatolia and centralised control by outlawing the Shi'a sect). Through their combination of militancy and Sufi extremism the Safawiyya acquired a loyal following among the Turkmen, known as the qizilbash ('red heads') because of their distinctive headgear.

In AD1493 the order came to be led by a 15-year-old, Ismail I, who expressed his claims to leadership in ways that were astonishing by any common Islamic standards: for example, that he was descended from Imam Ali and his wife Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, through the seventh Imam Musa al-Kazim, or that he was an incarnation of the deity. The qizilbash were inspired by these claims and went on to conquer much of Iran and Iraq in the first decade of the sixteenth century, establishing the Safavids as rulers with the power to challenge the supremacy of the neighbouring Ottoman Empire. Refer Image 1

Safavid rule reached its height during the reign of Shah Abbas I. The Shah, however, was forced to accept Ottoman occupation of the western parts of his empire, and he concentrated his efforts on creating a standing army to prevent Uzbek incursions from the east.

Shi'ism and religious identity

In the long term, the rise of the Safavids is significant for its impact on the religious identity of the Persians and modern day Iranians. The Safavids were not the first Shi'a rulers in the Islamic world but played a crucial role in introducing Shi'a as an official state religion. Before the Safavids, there were large Shi'a communities in cities that included Qom and Sabzevar in the 8th century, and Fars, Isfahan and Baghdad in the 10th and 11th centuries. The majority of the population remained Sunni, however, up until the Safavids' reign. Ismail I made conversion to Shi'a mandatory, and Sunni ulama (scholars) were either killed or exiled. He then brought in Shi'a religious leaders, granting them land and money in return for loyalty.

The process by which Persia and modern Iran became overwhelmingly Shi'a took longer than has often been thought and it is uncertain what all of the beliefs held by Safavid shahs were. There were suspicions among Shi'a ulama over the sincerity of Ismail's embrace of Twelver Shi'ism and the remaining claims of the Safavid shahs to the authority of the Imam. Eventually, however, Shi'a scholars came to support the Safavid state, and moved there from the centres of Shi'a learning in Lebanon and Bahrain. Mosques and schools were built to support the Shi'a scholars, to whom the Safavids entrusted the campaign to persuade and coerce the population to embrace Shi'ism.

Despite the Safavids' Sufi origins, a ban was put on Shi'a Sufi groups in later years. The Safavid Empire became a feudal theocracy, in which there was no separation of religion and the state, and in which the Shah was held to be the divine head of both. Further, conflict with the Ottomans provoked defensive feelings of patriotism and uniqueness from the rest of the Islamic world. Shah Abbas I moved the Safavid capital deeper inland from Qazvin into the city of Isfahan, and with its Persian monarchy, the state took on a more Persian national character. Refer Image 2

Decline of Safavid rule

The Safavid dynasty's conflict with the Ottomans, who were an ongoing threat to European powers, sparked European interest. While Europeans competed for empires overseas, the Islamic Middle East was becoming a strategic area. Shah Abbas, in fact, received military aid from the Europeans in exchange for helping them in these conflicts. This allowed the Shah to expand into Ottoman territory, annexing the holy Shi'a cities of Karbala and Najaf.

The death of Shah Abbas brought about a period of upheaval, and Ottoman pressure from the west and Mughal attacks from the east led to the significant loss of territory. In AD1722, Isfahan was invaded by Muslim forces from Afghanistan, who forced the then current Shah Husayn (AD1694-1722) to abdicate. This effectively ended Safavid rule. The empire, however, did not officially end until AD1736, when Afshar Nadir, regent of the young Shah Abbas III, deposed him and took his place.

Modern Iran

With the decline and finally the disappearance of the Safavids in the 18th century, the Shi'a ulama assumed a more authoritative position as interpreters of the will of the Imam, and laid the groundwork for the emergence of the doctrine of vilayat-I faqih, the 'guardianship' or 'governance of the jurist'. This doctrine went on to influence the revolution in Iran in the 1970s and the regime established by the Ayatollah Khomeini (Ayatollah was a Shi'a term for a top-level cleric, meaning sign of God).

The major difference between Persia during the time of the Safavid Empire and modern-day Iran has been the influence of Europe since the early 20th century. In World War I, the British used Persia as a strategic outpost against the Ottoman Turks and left behind the institutional framework for Iran's government prior to the 1970s revolution. Much of Iran's art and social structures are still based on the European model.

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1. The Safavids were considered powerful enough to challenge the supremacy of what?


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