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Islam in Iran, Safavid Era
Encyclopedia Iranica

ʿĀmeli scholars began traveling to Persia already in the time of Shah Esmāʿil. The most significant of these early arrivals was ʿAli Karaki Moḥaqqeq, born at Karak in 870/1465, a student of prominent scholars in Ḥella and Najaf. He took the initiative of visiting Esmāʿil at Isfahan in 910/1504, and six years later he was invited by him to Herat and Mashad to help propagate Shiʿism in those still largely Sunnite cities. Karaki’s influence was consolidated during the reign of Shah Ṭahmāsb, who bestowed on him land and, more significantly, titles such as mojtahed al-zamān (jurist of the age) and nāʾeb al-Emām (deputy of the [Occulted] Imam); the monarch even went so far as to proclaim Karaki more entitled to kingship than himself and the ruler, simply one of his executive officials (Lambton, p. 77). This was, of course, a fiction, but one convenient for both parties: it enabled Ṭahmāsb to claim a species of religious legitimacy, mediated from the Occulted Imam by Karaki, and it placed Karaki at the hand of the nascent hierarchy of Shiʿite divines. The task he and his colleagues faced in the propagation of Shiʿism was twofold: to normalize the Shiʿism professed by the Safavids and their soldiery, and to persuade recalcitrant Sunnites of the veracity of Twelver Shiʿism. In a sense, the two goals were linked, for the ʿĀmeli scholars disapproved of the violent methods applied by the Qezelbāš in confronting the Sunnites and regarded their own learning and powers of debate as more efficacious (Abisaab, pp. 16-17). They did not, however, repudiate the activities of the tabarrāʾiān, and Karaki wrote a treatise justifying the cursing of Abu Bakr and ʿOmar. Several of his descendants inherited his prestige, most notably his grandson, the philosopher Mir Dāmād (d. 1041/1631; see DĀMĀD), and the hereditary transmission of scholarly prowess and power within a handful of families was to become one of the hallmarks of Persian religious life, in the Safavid period and beyond.

A number of other factors were also influential in suffusing Persian culture with the ethos of Shiʿism. Pilgrimage (ziārat) to the shrines of eminent Sufis had been widespread in pre-Safavid times, for such purposes as the making of vows and the seeking of intercession; now emāmzā das—the tombs of descendants of the Imams—became the encouraged focus of pious visitation. It is worth noting, however, that most of the important emāmzādas antedated by far the rise of the Safavids; that they had attracted Sunnite as well as Shiʿite visitors; and that no wholesale validation of dubious emāmzādas can be shown to have taken place. The pre-existence of emām-zādas on Persian soil was a fortuitous circumstance that helped in what might be called the geographical conversion of the land. Foremost among the sacred sites was the shrine of Imam ʿAli al-Reżā in Mashad and the complex of buildings surrounding it. Already much adorned by the later Timurids, it was the object of special attention by Shah ʿAbbās (q.v.), whose pilgrimages on foot to the shrine were an inspired form of dynastic propaganda. Qom, site of the burial of Imam ʿAli al-Reżā’s sister, was second only to Mashad as a goal of pilgrimage, but it was overshadowed by Isfahan as a center of learning despite its earlier prominence in the development of Shiʿite scholarship. Like Mashad, Qom was the object of royal attention in the Safavid period; four successive rulers chose to be buried there: Ṣafi (d. 1052/1642), ʿAbbās II (d. 1077/1666), Solaymān (d. 1105/1694), and Shah Solṭān-Ḥosayn (d. 1135/1722).

The calendar also played a discernible role in the lasting popular assimilation of Shiʿism. The commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Ḥosayn on ʿĀšurāʾ (q.v.), the tenth day of the month of Moḥarram, came effectively to be the most significant religious occasion of the year, marked by ceremonies of mourning that became progressively more elaborate throughout the Safavid period, culminating in the dramatic performances known as taʿzia. The recitation of verse or prose depictions of his sufferings, together with those of other members of the Prophet’s lineage, was regarded as a meritorious act that might be undertaken at any time during the year. Widely celebrated, too, was the ʿId al-Ḡadir, Ḏu’l-Ḥejja 18, the day on which, according to Shiʿite belief, the Prophet had nominated Imam ʿAli as his successor. The negative counterpart of this occasion was the annual festival of ʿOmarkošān, the often ribald celebration of the assassination of ʿOmar, the second caliph.

The near-complete eradication of Sunnism from the Iranian plateau, achieved by these and other means, must clearly have been gradual, and at least in some places it consisted initially of the pragmatic and superficial acceptance of a coerced creed. The Sunnite notables of Qazvin in particular proved obdurate, and several of them were executed during the reign of Shah Ṭahmāsb for religious deviance (Bacqué-Grammont, p. 83, n. 231). Nonetheless, enough of them survived to qualify (or claim to qualify) for the reward offered by Esmāʿil II during his brief Sunnite interregnum to all who had steadfastly refused to curse the first three caliphs (Golsorkhi, p. 479). There is evidence, too, for the persistence of Sunnite loyalties in some localities into the reign of ʿAbbās I, particularly in eastern Persia. In 1008/1599 he launched a campaign of persecution against the Sunnites of Sorḵa (Semnān), but three decades later Sunnism was still widespread in the city, although less so in its environs. The same monarch’s exclusion of Sunnites from the tax exemptions he occasionally decreed points both to a significant survival of Sunnism in certain areas and to a determination to eradicate it. As far west as Hamadān, the Sunnites were numerous enough to provide the headman (kadodā)of the city; he was executed by Shah ʿAbbās in 1017/1608 (Arjomand, pp. 120-21). In only one recorded instance was ʿAbbās ready to countenance the unmolested profession of Sunnism in a territory under his control; on a visit to Tāleš, he resisted suggestions that he compel its people to abandon their hereditary Shafeʿism, citing the military services they had provided to his ancestors (Algar, forthcoming). Some areas of Tāleš did convert to Shiʿism, but it may have been as late as the 19th century.

Generally speaking, however, by the end of the 16th century, Sunnism had effectively vanished from most of the central Safavid domains. The patchwork of pre-Safavid Persia yielded to a fairly straightforward pattern of Shiʿism dominating the central plateau and Sunnism relegated to frontier areas that were either contested with neighboring powers or inhabited by ethnic minorities. The Kurds ruled by Persia retained their traditional Shafeʿite loyalties (excepting, of course, the Ahl-e Ḥaqq), although the amirs of Ardalān as well as some Kurds in the city of Kermānšāh and its environs did make the transition to Shiʿism. Herat passed back and forth between the Safavids and the Uzbeks, and each period of dominance was accompanied by the persecution of Sunnites or Shiʿites according to the order of the day. The misery visited on the Sunnites by the Safavids, especially during the reign of Shah Esmāʿil, was, however, more severe than that endured by the Shiʿites under Uzbek dominance; while the Safavids engaged in wholesale massacre, to a degree that alarmed even the indigenous Shiʿite population, the Uzbeks tended to focus on well-to-do Shiʿites, whose wealth could be confiscated under the pretext of combatting heresy (Szuppe, pp. 121-42). As a result of these and subsequent contests lasting into the early 19th century, both Sunnites and Shiʿites were to be found on either side of the eastern frontier of Persia when it was finally demarcated. Jām (also known as Torbat-e Sayḵ Jām) became the most significant city in Persian Khorasan with a Sunnite population; Zayn-al-ʿĀbedin Širvāni (d. 1253/1837) remarked of its population, with obvious displeasure, that “they are all Hanafites and extremely fanatical” (p. 197). The population of Širvān (Šarvān), a principality in the southern Caucasus ruled by Persia, with intervals of Ottoman rule, from the time of Esmā’il I until its annexation by Russia in 1813, remained Hanafite, although a Shiʿite minority came into being. Severe clashes between Sunnites and Shiʿites were frequent as late as the 19th century, with occasional involvement of Daghistani tribesmen on behalf of the Sunnites (Širvāni, p. 325). Most of Lārestān and the northern shore of the Persian Gulf was able to retain a Shafeʿite character, in large part perhaps because of the region’s traditional mercantile links with Arabia and India.

The Shiʿism which thus transformed the religious map of Persia was by no means uniform. Among the matters on which disagreement persisted among the ulema throughout the Safavid period was the precise juristic status of the monarchy. Despite public displays of drunkenness and other violations of morality by several Safavid monarchs, and the suggestion, noted by the traveler Jean Chardin (q.v.), that a religious scholar ought ideally to rule directly, not the shah (Chardin, VI, p. 65), the debate centered not on the institution of monarchy, but on two concrete issues in jurisprudence: the religiously mandated land tax known as the arāj, and the Friday prayer. Insofar as the arāj was indistinguishably merged with other sources of state revenue, the acceptance of royal stipends by a religious scholar could be taken to imply full acceptance of the Safavid state as a legitimate dispensation. In keeping with his general validation of Shah Ṭahmāsb—albeit fictively as his own appointee—Karaki justified his levying of the arāj and the resultant permissibility of receiving state funds. He was opposed in this by his contemporary, Ebrāhim Qaṭifi, and later in the century by Aḥmad Moqaddas Ardabili (d. 993/1585, q.v.; Lambton, pp. 271-72).

The permissibility of holding the Friday prayer during the Occultation of the Twelfth Imam, who alone might either lead the prayer or depute someone to do on his behalf, had long been a subject of contention among Shiʿite jurists. In keeping with the status of nāʾeb al-Emām, Karaki declared himself authorized to organize Friday prayers and attendance at them to be religiously incumbent (wājeb). This was the view of many other scholars, including major figures of the period such as Bahāʾ-al-Din ʿĀmeli (q.v.), Fayż Kāšāni, and Moḥammad-Bāqer Majlesi, but it was opposed by Qaṭifi and one of Majlesi’s students, Fāżel Hendi (d. 1137/1724), who saw in the holding of Friday prayers an unauthorized revival of the “special deputyship” of the Twelfth Imam that had ended with the death of his fourth named agent in 330/941 (Lambton, pp. 273-74). In the time of Shah ʿAbbās (1587-1629), the name of the monarch was included in the sermon pronounced before the Friday prayer, in clear imitation of Sunnite and specifically Ottoman practice, and he was himself encouraged to attend, with limited success, making the prayers a celebration simultaneously of royal and clerical authority. The appointment of an Emām-e Jomʿa (Friday prayer leader) was at the disposition of the monarch, as were positions of shifting importance such as the adr-al-mamālek, šay-al-Eslām (administrative head of the religious class in the capital and other major cities), and, towards the end of the Safavid period, the new clerical executive, the mollā-bāši. Despite differences among the ulema on issues touching the Safavid monarchy, it may be said that their view of the institution was instrumentalist: it was accepted as a reality, empirically useful for the establishment of a šariʿa-oriented society, but never incorporated into their system of belief, in marked contrast to the Sunnite embrace of sultans and caliphs.

Another set of differences among the Shiʿite ulema of Safavid Persia related, not to details of jurisprudence with political significance, but to the very methodology of their discipline. Rationalist and traditionalist currents had both long existed in Shiʿite jurisprudence, and by the Saljuq period they had come to be designated as Oṣuli and Aḵbāri respectively. The Oṣulis espoused the permissibility, even necessity, of recourse to juristic exertion (ejtehād) for the deduction of detailed religious rulings from the sources of the šarʿia during the continued occultation of the Twelfth Imam; by contrast, the Aḵbāris laid heavy emphasis on the primary or even exclusive evidentiary value of the traditions (abār) of the Prophet and the Imams. This division of learned opinion should not, however, be regarded as even approximately similar to that which opposed Hanafites to Shafeʿis in pre-Safavid Iran (although Aḵbāris polemically accused Oṣulis of surreptitious borrowings from Hanafite doctrine); the word mahab cannot be applied to these two traditions of Shiʿite jurisprudence. For whatever the historical reality that had played out in the cities of Persia, the Hanafites and Shafeʿites extended to each other a theoretical recognition of legitimacy, a situation that did not obtain between Oṣulis and Aḵbāris; each group identified its own position as the perennially authentic doctrine of Shiʿism and regarded that of the other as an innovation. Moreover, the divide between the contesting tendencies in Shiʿite jurisprudence had no demographic reflection; cities were not separated into localities owing allegiance to the one or the other.

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