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Islam in Iran, Safavid Era
Encyclopedia Iranica

After an incubation lasting some eight decades, the Noqṭawi movement surfaced in Kāšān during the reign of Shah Esmāʿil I. Despite the measures he took against it, the Nokṭavi community in Kāšān persisted into the time of Ṭahmāsb, causing him to arrest many of its members, notwithstanding their intimations to him that he might be the Mahdi. The movement had spread meanwhile to other cities, including Sāva, Nāʾin, Isfahan, and most importantly Qazvin, where its leadership was assumed by a certain Darviš Ḵosrow; he housed his some 200 followers in a takiya (Sufi lodge) and managed to survive into the reign of Shah ʿAbbās I. For a while, the monarch tolerated the Noqṭawis and even permitted himself to be initiated into their ranks, either out of curiosity or as a means of surveillance, but in 1002/1593, fearful of the movement’s insurrectionary potential, he had Darviš Ḵosrow arrested and put to death. Further arrests and executions ensued in other cities, notably Qazvin, where the sect briefly resurfaced in 1041/1631 only to be suppressed most bloodily. Artisans and literati in a handful of cities attracted by its millennarian promise had been its principal supporters, never numerous or powerful enough to pose a real threat to the political and social order (Algar, 1995b, p. 116).

Another element of urban turmoil was provided by the factions (see ḤAYDARI AND NEʿMATI) that regularly battled each other in all three of the successive Safavid capitals: Tabriz, Qazvin, and Isfahan. It has been speculated that their designations went back respectively to Mir Ḥaydar Tuni (d. 830/1426) and Shah Neʿmat-Allāh Wali and that their mutual hostility arose from the Shiʿite proclivities of the former and the Sunnite loyalties of the latter. This, however, is uncertain; what is clear is that by the Safavid period neither group was aware of, or interested in, its origins. Their enmity showed itself with particular violence during Moḥarram, when the factions vied with each other in the extravagance of their mourning ceremonies. These irrational contests must be regarded in the first place as another surfacing of the perennial tendency to factionalism in Persian cities, not unlike the Shafeʿite-Hanafite riots that had marred cities such as Rayy down to the Mongol invasion. Thus Tabriz was divided into five Ḥaydari and four Neʿmati wards, and Isfahan into two roughly equal halves. The Ḥaydari-Neʿmati conflict was far from unwelcome to successive Safavid monarchs, who clearly saw in it a means of weakening urban solidarity; in a display of the imaginative sadism that frequently characterized his policies, Shah ʿAbbās I even went so far as to command battles between the two factions for his personal amusement (Mirjafari, p. 158). So deeply rooted was their mutual enmity, however, that it far outlasted the Safavid period, and temporarily divided the ranks of the constitutionalists in early 20th-century Tabriz.



The destruction of the Safavid state by Afghan invaders in 1722 served to demonstrate the most signal accomplishment of the dynasty: the conversion of the great majority of Persians to Shiʿism. For despite a lack of significant state endorsement for three decades or more, Shiʿism survived as the distinctive, quasi-national creed of Persia. Isfahan, however, lost its allure as a major intellectual center of the Shiʿite world, largely because of the devastation wrought by the Afghan invaders, and the focus of scholarly actvity shifted to the ʿatabāt (q.v.), the shrine cities of Iraq.
The Afghan invasion was the result, in part, of renewed persecution of Sunnites. Mir Ways, leader of the Ghalzais (see ḠILZI), the dominant element in Qandahār, had found himself exposed to sectarian insult during a sojourn in Isfahan; and, taking certain Shiʿite books with him to Mecca, he was able to receive a fatwā authorizing rebellion against Safavid rule as a religious duty (Algar, 1976, p. 290), some years before the invasion began. When it did, the Afghans also found something of a welcome among the Shafeʿites of Lārestān and other Sunnites, presumably on the basis of religious solidarity, but they were unable to form a stable polity on the ruins of the Safavid empire, let alone assault the supremacy of Shiʿism in Persia.

The challenge mounted by Nāder Shah Afšār (q.v. at iranica.com) was somewhat more substantial. When he elevated himself to the throne of Persia in 1148/1736, abandoning the pretense of loyalty to a Safavid claimant, he declared that his exercise of kingship was to be dependent on the abandonment by his subjects of Shiʿism as then practiced. He laid particular stress on the repugnance of rafż, the rejection of the legitimacy of the first three caliphs, and sabb, the ritual vilification of the same personages. Persians were instead to content themselves with the legalistic ( feqhi) dimensions of Shiʿism, that is, the Jaʿfari school, so named after Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq, the sixth of the Twelve Imams. This was a maneuver designed to place Shiʿism on a par with the four of legal schools of Sunni Islam. With one exception, the ulema present gave Nāder Shah their written assent, for this was clearly an occasion for the exercise of taqiya (prudential dissimulation). Some seven years later, during his protracted campaign in Iraq, Nāder Shah convened in Najaf a meeting of Sunnite and Shiʿite ulema to endorse this project for the incorporation of a truncated Shiʿism into Sunnite Islam. The chief representative on the Shiʿite side was Mollā ʿAli-Akbar Ṭālaqāni, Nāder Shah’s pliant mollā-bāši, and on the Sunnite side, Hādi Ḵᵛāja, the chief judge of Bukhara; ʿAbd-Allāh Sowaydi, a leading Hanafite scholar of Baghdad, was on hand to observe and arbitrate. The meeting concluded with an undertaking by the Shiʿite participants to foreswear both rafż and sabb and by their Sunnite counterparts to cease treating the Shiʿites as unbelievers (Algar, 1976, pp. 291-96).

Nāder Shah’s initiative was not a religiously inspired exercise in inter-sectarian reconciliation. His conquests had brought under his rule Sunnite-inhabited territories in Afghanistan and Central Asia, and it was from there that he drew much of his soldiery; their religious sensitivities had to be accommodated. Moreover, a certain religiously tinged loyalist sentiment toward the Safavids did persist for some time after the downfall of their dynasty, and Nāder Shah wished to neutralize it with his ecumenical project. Finally, a Sunnite-Shiʿite reconciliation might have gained him some degree of legitimacy and recognition in the eyes of the Ottomans and brought peace to the western frontiers of his realm. None of the significant Shiʿite scholars of the age were involved in his project, and it died with him; his mollā-bāši was killed on the day of his own assassination in 1160/1747 (Algar, 1991a, p. 707). As for the practice of sabb, it continued, at least sporadically, until the late 19th century, when a decree of Nāṣer-al-Din Shah sought to outlaw it.

A development of infinitely greater significance than Nāder Shah’s attempted revision of Shiʿism was the ultimate triumph of the Oṣuli current in jurisprudence over its Aḵbāri rival. Thanks to the devastation wrought by the Afghans and Nāder Shah’s expropriation of the awqāf that supported the city’s scholars, Isfahan had lost its primacy as intellectual center of the Shiʿite world; it was therefore in the ʿatabāt that the final stages in this conflict were played out. Initially the Aḵbāris prevailed; although they are said to have displayed moderation and a willingness to accept some of the Oṣulis’ arguments, their dominance included a virtual prohibition on the public display of Oṣuli texts. The decisive vindication of the Oṣuli position was largely the work of a single scholar, Moḥammad-Bāqer Behbahāni (q.v.), known as the “unique” (waid) in token of his achievement. Born in Isfahan in 1117/1705, he left for Najaf with his father after the Afghan invasion and came there under the influence of Aḵbāri teachers. Perhaps a decade later, he moved to Behbahān, a town in southwest Persia relatively immune to the instability prevalent elsewhere in the country. During a residence of some thirty years, he reverted to a fully-fledged Oṣuli position and engaged in polemics with local Aḵbāris. This was but a prelude to the campaign he waged after his return to Iraq, which ended in the defeat of the Aḵbāris and the rallying to Oṣulism of some of the most prominent among them. The means Behbahāni employed were primarily those of written argumentation and debate, but the plague that ravaged Iraq in 1186/1772 also contributed to the desired outcome: while the Oṣulis regarded it as permissible to flee temporarily to unaffected areas, the Aḵbāris tended to remain behind, with fatal consequences (Cole, pp. 21-22).

Reduced to its essentials, Behbahāni’s formulation of the Oṣuli position affirms the necessity of ejtehād (disciplined reasoning based on the sources of the šariʿa) as a source of guidance for the community during the continued occultation of the Twelfth Imam. Believers fall into two types: those who have attained the technical qualifications required for the exercise of ejtehād—the mojtaheds—and those who, not having done so, are religiously obligated to follow their rulings, a process known as taqlid; a mojtahed selected for taqlid is known as marjaʿ-e taqlid (source of imitation). This twofold division of the community plainly results in a higher degree of authority for the religious scholars than that implied by the Aḵbāri position, which makes of them little more than experts in Hadith. Since the matters on which guidance is sought or proffered are, in the first place, newly occurring situations and problems (mostadaāt), the authority exercised by the mojtahed may also embrace the political sphere. Hence the increasingly visible political role of the ulema in the Qajar period and beyond, in Tehran, the capital, and major provincial cities, especially Tabriz and Isfahan.



The Qajar dynasty, which emerged from the prolonged chaos of the 18th century, presented itself, at least initially, as the heir to Safavid tradition, but without any distinguishing emphasis on allegedly religious credentials. Its early decades of rule coincided with the careers of Behbahāni’s most important pupils: his son, Āqā Moḥammad-Bāqer, resident in Kermānšāh; Shaikh Jaʿfar Najafi, a resident of Iraq but a yearly visitor to Persia; Ḥājj Moḥammad Ebrāhim Kalbāsi and Sayyed Moḥammad Bāqer Šafti, both of Isfahan; and Shaikh Abu’l-Qāsem Qomi. Ulema relations with the second Qajar ruler, Fatḥ-ʿAli Shah (r. 1797-1834, q.v.), were relatively amicable; he sought to gain their favor by ceremonially proclaiming himself subordinate to them and patronizing shrines, especially in Qom (Algar, 1969b, pp. 46-52). Nonetheless, there were instances of friction even in his reign, including the expulsion by powerful ulema of the governors he appointed to several cities and the pressure they brought to bear on him for reopening hostilities with Russia in 1241/1826.

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