About Safavids: Why Shiism and not Persianization??


Safavids were not Shi'a. They were Sunni. Ahmad Kasravi has established this as a fact that the ancestors of Safavids were Sunni. Sheikh Safi-eddin Ardebili, the grandfather of Shah EsmAiil Safavi was Sunni although Safavid sheikhs were more like Sufi masters than theologians.

As far as Qizilbash and the Turkish tribes, there were seven Turkish tribes of Asia Minor that moved to Iran because they did not like the absolute centralism that Ottomans were pushing at the time and Safavids were part of that move. The tribes were Shamlu, Rumlu, Ustajlu, Takelu, Afshar, Qajar, and Zolghadr. The first two completely obeyed the Safavid. Afshar tribe [and of course a tribe of Lor origin, Zand] and finally Qajar tribe each became the founders of main dynasties of post-Moghol Iran till the Pahlavis.

Now Shiism was not a unified ideology. Along with esmAiilieh, during the moghol rule, the ghollAt-e Shi'a represented many movements across the land occupied by the Moghols, although not unified in their ideology. They mostly tried to establish their legitimacy thru some alleginace to Prophet Mohammad's lineage. In fact, contrary to the times of the first Islamic Omavid Empire, where the peasant movements raised the flag of pre-Islamic Iran (e.g. khorramdinAn), during the Moghol rule, the opposition raises the flag of a "real" Islam. Persian flag could not unify the whole land of defeated Arab Empires now occupied by the moghols, and thus the reason for a new non-Persian flag. This includes the flag of sufi sects, ghollAt-e Shi'a, esmAiilieh and many others that represented the flags of the opposition during the centuries of the moghol rule. But picking a flag to unite whole land of previous Islamic Empires did not necessarily mean succeeding in the whole territory. For example esmAiilieh tried for this whole empire but succeeded in Egypt to form thie fAtemieh dynasty and failed in mostly others and failed even in their birthplace of Iran.

At any rate, the Safavids were trying to unite Iran at a time when most of the Iranian movements were raising flags of non-Sunni Islam to unite the world of previous Islamic Empire that had been conquered by the Moghols and I think this is why Safavids formed their own non-sunni Islamic religion of Shi'a to encompass the anti-Moghol resistance, although Safavids themselves were Sunni. The Shi'a was not 12-emAmi at first and was a mixture of all these gholAte Shi'a and later the theologians of Safavid era made it a coherent religion. It took some time before it became twelve emAmi.

Safavids just like ghaznaviAn, knew that they had to focus on Persian elements of Iranian culture to form the core of their empire and just like the first post-Islamic Persian dynasties, they moved their capital away from the West of Iran that was close to the Arab world, first to Gazvin and then to EsfahAn. I remember when I visited the tombs of great grandfather of Shah EsmAiil, Sheikh Jebreil, in Ardebil, a tomb which is a lot less commercialized than Sheikh Safi's tomb, and it is more like it has been at the time of Safavids, I could see the art work on the grave very much similar to the artwork of tombs of EsfahAn of that era. So it is obvious that the Safavids had gone back and recreated a Persianized version of their own history.

Finally what follows from here on are basically my very raw conjectures and I could be very wrong but here are my thoughts. I think Safavid's goal was to be the Abbasid Empire of the post-Moghol times and this was the same goal that Ottomans had and that was the reason of their fierce competition. I think as time passed, more and more, their goal changed, and they became a Persian Empire. I think if their original goal had been just to be the unifiers of Iran, maybe they would never have bothered with Shiism as their flag of unification and would have used "Persianization" as their flag of unity from start, the same way GhaznaviAn had done in the pre-Moghol era. Nonetheless, Safavids may still have adopted Shi'a as their religion (and not as their flag of unifying Iran), because most of he Iranian movements during Moghols had some new Islamic religion which was not one of the four Sunni sects, contrary to the time of GhaznaviAn.

Sam Ghandchi, Publisher



March 31, 2002





* The above article was first posted on Jebhe BB on March 31, 2002


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