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Islam in Iran, Safavid Era
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The Sufi orders of Shiʿite allegiance were thoroughly overshadowed as foci of religious loyalty throughout the Pahlavi period by the prominent ulema we have discussed. Nonetheless, the Neʿmat-Allāhiya in its various branches continued to attract some adherents. Greatly reputed for his piety was Sayyed Ḥosayn Ḥosayni Šams-al-ʿOrafāʾ (d. 1353/1935), whose branch of the order became known as the Šamsiya; he had no notable successors. More influential was Ḥājj Mirzā ʿAbd-al-Ḥosayn Moʾnes-ʿAlišāh (d. 1372/1953), whose title Ḏu’l-Riāsatayn (the holder of dual leadership), although inherited from his father, reflected his proficiency in the world of formal scholarship as well as Sufism. Upon his death, the traditional pattern of discord asserted itself; the most successful of the thirteen claimants to his mantle was Jawād Nurbaḵš, a psychiatrist who managed to recruit many members of Tehran high society at a time when the profession of a certain type of Sufism—one that foreswore political involvement and was ostentatiously loyalist (van den Bos, pp. 111-12)—was becoming popular with official encouragement. The Gonābādi offshoot of the Neʿmat-Allāhiya was largely spared succession crises because of the hereditary mode that had characterized it since its inception; it did, however, produce a defector, Kaywān Qazvini (d. 1358/1939), who wrote several books criticizing what he regarded as the excessively authoritarian nature of all the Sufi orders. Despite certain doctrinal peculiarities, the Gonābādiya earned a reputation as šariʿa-observant which eased its transition into the period of the Islamic Republic; its ḵānaqāh in Qom was, however, razed by the municipal authorities in February 2006 for having allegedly served as a center of subversion (report in Jomhuri-e Eslāmi, 14 February 2006). As for the Ḏahabis, the major figure in their modern history was Mirzā Aḥmad Tabrizi “Waḥid-al-Awliāʾ” (d. 1954), renowned for a high degree of asceticism that led some to believe he enjoyed a privileged relationship with the Twelfth Imam. Shiraz remained the principal center of the order.

No particular developments of a religious nature are to be chronicled for the Sunnite minorities of Persia during the Pahlavi period. In a work published in 1971 but based in part on travels and research undertaken many years earlier, the Austrian geographer Alfons Gabriel estimated the Sunnite population at roughly two million, half of them Kurds. Of the remainder, many inhabited what he calls “enclaves” in Qohestān, such as Bojd near Birjand, Ḵᵛāf, and Zirkuh; in addition, some sixty villages in the region of Ṭabas were purely Sunnite, with a population of some 15,000 (Gabriel, p. 112).



The movement that began in January 1978 and, gradually acquiring revolutionary dimensions, resulted in the overthrow of the Persian monarchy in February 1979 represented a vast, nationwide outpouring of sentiment, outrage, and aspiration that was expressed primarily in religious terms. Comparisons are sometimes drawn between what is properly called the Islamic Revolution and the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-09 in that both were allegedly coalitions between religious and secular forces. It is true that some liberal and leftist forces sought to align themselves with the movement as it approached victory in the winter of 1978, but their participation was belated and marginal. The slogans uttered during the mass demonstrations that marked the progress of the revolution were overwhelmingly Islamic; the principal weapon of the revolutionaries was, until its very last stages, their readiness to embrace martyrdom; the key events in the revolution corresponded to significant dates in the religious calendar, above all Moḥarram; its main organizational unit was the mosque; and its unquestioned leader, in terms of strategy as well as inspiration, was Khomeini.

Post-revolutionary developments are too numerous, complex, and close at hand for even cursory review or analysis. It may, however, be useful to suggest that the governmental system of the Islamic Republic represents a fusion of the constitutionalist legacy with the broad prerogatives claimed for the leader (qua wali-ye faqih [the governing jurist]); it includes both an elected assembly and presidency on the one hand with a leader who has wide discretionary powers on the other. The actual functioning of the system, particularly after the death of Khomeini in 1989, has, however, depended in large part on the relative strength of the personalities involved, so that the constitution does not by itself furnish an infallible guide to the formation and execution of policy. This may be regarded equally as a form of inconsistency, inbuilt in the system, or as a type of flexibility that has helped endow the Islamic Republic with a high degree of resilience. Whatever the case may be, Persia has provided the only example of a revolutionary movement that since its triumph has been consistently engaged in the enterprise of defining and constructing a modern Islamic polity.

Post-revolutionary developments touching on minor sects and the Sunnite minorities can be summarized with relative ease. One such development, of relatively minor importance, was the killing, under obscure circumstances, of Ḥāji ʿAbd-al-Reżā Khan Ebrāhimi, leader of the Nāṭeqi faction of the Shaikhi movement, on 26 December 1979 in Kerman (Momen, p. 230). His death brought an end to the hereditary leadership of the movement that had been exercised by the Ebrāhimi family and the transfer of its direction to Baṣra in southern Iraq; the Shaikhis were already more numerous in Iraq, and elsewhere among the Shiʿite communities of the Persian Gulf, than in Persia. In 1985, the number of Shaikhis in Persia was estimated at 200,000, the principal communities being located in Kerman, Tabriz, Khorramshahr, Abadan, Tehran, Ābāda, Rafsanjān, Shiraz, and Zonuz (Momen, pp. 230-31).

The Islamic Revolution and the subsequent foundation of the Islamic Republic have had certain repercussions for the Sunnite communities of Iran but have not affected their geographic distribution or demographic weight. The autonomist or separatist movements that were active in the aftermath of the revolution in areas of Sunnite population—primarily Kurdistan, but also Turkman-Ṣaḥrā—had neither religious leadership nor motivation, with the exception of a Kurdish faction loyal to Shaikh ʿEzz-al-Din Ḥosayni of Mahābād, and the shortlived Sepāh-e Rezgāri (Army of Liberation), organized by Shaikh ‘Otmān Serāj-al-Din II (d. 1997), a hereditary Naqšbandi shaikh who had taken refuge in Iranian Kurdistan in 1958 and been closely associated with the Pahlavi regime. Shaikh Aḥmad Moftizāda of Sanandaj, who had energetically supported the revolution in the hope that it would result in autonomy for Iranian Kurdistan, sought after its triumph to bring together Sunnite scholars from various regions of the country in a nationwide organization, the Šorā-ye markazi-e sonnat (The Central Sunnite Council), but his initiative was viewed with disfavor. He was arrested in September 1982 and died shortly after his release early in 1993. In the summer of 1994, the destruction of the Sunnite mosque in Mashad by the municipal authorities led to widespread disturbances there and elsewhere in the country, which, in order to prevent the rise of sectarian hostility, were blamed by the government on the oppositional Mojāhedin-e Ḵalq organization; they were commonly interpreted, however, as an expression of Sunnite discontent. Despite a sizeable population of Sunnite migrants drawn to the capital, Tehran still lacks a Sunnite mosque. Wahhābi/Salafi influences, emanating from Pakistan and profoundly hostile to Shiʿism, have been reported at work among the Baluchis of Persia.

Demographic factors affecting the present-day Sunnite population do not exhibit a uniform tendency. An increasing influx of Azerbaijanis into the cities of Tāleš—primarily Hashtpar and Āstārā—has resulted in a proportional diminution of the Sunnite community of the region, and the offspring of intermarriages between Azerbaijani Shiʿites and Talishi Sunnites tend to be Turkish in speech and Shiʿite in religion. None of the other areas of Sunnite predominance has witnessed a similar development, although officials appointed from the capital tend to be Shiʿite. The censuses of 1986 and 1996, like those carried out at ten-year intervals under the shah’s regime, provide figures only for the non-Muslim minorities, and it is therefore impossible to make even an approximate count of the Sunnites. It is, however, noteworthy that the provinces registering the largest increase in proportion of the total population of the country between 1986 and 1996 were the predominantly Sunnite provinces of Sistān and Baluchistān; most of the increase must surely have been due to a rising birthrate in the region. Another relevant set of data concerns the maktabs (religious primary schools) maintained in certain areas for the provision of instruction in Sunnite Islam; there is one such school for every two villages in Turkoman-Sahra, and somewhat fewer for villages in Zābol and Baluchestān (Hourcade et al., 1998, pp. 78-80). In 1984, the Sunnites of Persia were estimated to form seven percent of the total population (Higgins, 1984, p. 47). This seems reasonable, and reflects virtually no change from the estimate of eight percent made in 1975 on the basis of the 1966 census (Gehrke and Mehner, 1975, p. 56). According to the 1986 census, 99.38 percent of the total population of Persia is Muslim (Naz5ari, 1989,p. 68); if even 10 percent be awarded to the Sunnites, the Shiʿite population still forms an overwhelming majority of close to 90 percent.

This majority status is reflected in Article Twelve of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, which specifies that Twelver Shiʿism is and shall always remain the official school of the country, but also declares that followers of the Hanafite, Shafeʿite, Malikite, Hanbalite, and Zaydi schools are guaranteed official respect and the freedom to observe their own schools of law in matters of religious education, worship, and personal status (Qānun-e asāsi-e jomhuri-e eslāmi-e Irān, p. 26). This mention of the four Sunnite schools of jurisprudence as well as that of the Zaydis should not, however, be taken to imply the actual existence of Malikites, Hanbalites, and Zaydis in present-day Persia; it seems rather to be a general statement of principle with respect to forms of Islam other than Twelver Shiʿism wherever they may be practiced, for of the groups mentioned, only Hanafites and Shafeʿites have a discernible presence anywhere in the country.

On the other hand, the constitution is silent concerning the Ismaʿilis, perhaps deliberately so, but possibly because of the statistical insignificance of their community. According to postings on a website maintained by Persian Ismaʿilis resident in the country, some 15,000 to 20,000 Ismaʿilis are now reliably said to live there: the largest community, consisting of migrants from villages in the regions of Birjand and Qāʾen, resides in Mashad, while migrants from Maḥallāt, Shahr-e Bābak, and Kerman have clustered in Tehran. Smaller communities persist in all those places of origin, although it is doubtful that even a single village could now be found with an Ismaʿili majority.


Bibliography: Listed here are only works cited in the text of the article, as well as secondary sources on the history of Islam in the Persian-speaking world. Detailed references for each of the groups, sects and periods treated here may be found in the relevant entries.

Rula Jurdi Abisaab, Converting Persia: Religion and Power in the Safavid Empire, London and New York, 2004. Faridun Ādamiyat, Ideʾoloži-e nahżat-e Mašruṭiyat-e Iran, Tehran, 1977. Meherally Akbarally, Understanding Ismaʿilism: A Unique Tariqah of Islam, Burnaby, Canada, 1988. Shahrough Akhavi, Religion and Politics in Contemporary Iran: Clergy-State Relations in the Pahlavi Period, Albany, N.Y., 1980. Hamid Algar, “The Revolt of Āghā Khān Maḥallāti and the Transference of the Ismāʿīlī Imamate to India,” Studia Islamica 29, 1969a, pp. 55-81. Idem, Religion and State in Iran, 1785-1906: The Rôle of the ʿUlamā in the Qajar Period, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1969b. Idem, “Shi’ism and Iran in the Eighteenth Century,” in R. Owen and T. Naff, eds., Studies in Islamic History in the Eighteenth Century, Carbondale, Ill., 1976, pp. 288-302. Idem, “Introduction to Dāya,” in Najm-al-Din Rāzi, The Path of God’s Bondsmen from Origin to Return, tr. H. Algar, Delmar, N.Y., 1982. Idem, “Imam Khomeini, 1902-1962: The Prerevolutionary Years,” in Ira M. Lapidus and Edmund Burke, eds., Islam, Politics and Social Movements, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1988, pp. 263-88. Idem, “A Brief History of the Naqshbandi Order,” in M. Gaborieau, A. Popovic, and T. Zarcone, eds., Naqshbandis: Cheminements et situation actuelle d’un ordre mystique musulman, Istanbul and Paris, 1990. Idem, “Religious Forces in Eighteenth- and Nine-teenth-Century Iran,” in Camb. Hist. Iran VII, 1991a, pp. 705-31. Idem, “Religious Forces in Twentieth-Century Iran,” ibid. 1991b, pp. 732-64. Idem, “Niʿmat-Allāhiyya,” in EI2VIII, 1995a, pp. 44-48. Idem, “Nuḳṭawiyya,” in EI2 VIII, 1995b, pp. 114-17. Idem, “Éléments de provenance malâmatî dans la tradition primitive naqšbandi,” in N. Clayer, A. Popovic and T. Zarcone, eds., Melâmis-Bayrâmis: études sur trois mouvements mystiques musulmans, Istanbul, 1998, pp. 27-36. Idem, “Naqshbandis and Safavids,” in Michel M. Mazzaoui, ed., Safavid Iran and Her Neighbors, Salt Lake City, 2003, pp. 7-48. Idem, “The Naqshbandiyya-Khālidiyya in Tālish,” Journal of the History of Sufism, forthcoming. Said Amir Arjomand, The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam: Religion, Political Order, and Societal Change in Shiʿite Iran from the Beginning to 1890, Chicago 1984. Jean Aubin, “Les Sunnites du Lārestān et la Chute des Safavides,” Revue des Études Islamiques 33, 1965, pp. 151-71. Idem, “La Politique Religieuse des Safavides,” in Le Shiʿisme Imamite: Colloque de Strasbourg (6-9 mai 1968), Paris, 1970, pp. 235-44. Idem, Matériaux pour la biographie de Shah Ni’matullah Wali Kermani, Tehran and Paris, 1983, pp. 12-17. Idem, “L’avènement des Safavides reconsidéré (Etudes safavides III),” Moyen Orient et Océan Indien 5, 1988, pp. 1-130. Idem, “Shaykh Ibrâhîm Zâhid Gîlânî (1218?-1301),” Turcica 21-23, 1991, pp. 39-53. Idem, “Šāh Ismā’ıl et les notables de l’Iraq Persan,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 2, 1959, pp. 37-81. Yaʿqub Āžand, Ḥorufiya dar tāriḵ, Tehran, 1980, pp. 87-88.

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