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Shah

By:
Elton L. Daniel
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The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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Shah

One of the most common titles used by the dynastic rulers of Iran and the Turko-Persian cultural area, “shah” (Ar. and Pers., shāh), when employed by the monarch of a large territory, is often used in a compound form such as pādishāh (emperor) or shāhānshāh (king of kings). However, it can also appear as part of the title of a regional authority (such as the Kābulshāh or Shārvān-shāh), or as part of a ruler's personal name (Tūrānshāh, Shāh Jahān, etc.).

Philologists trace this word's origin back to an Old Persian root, khshay (to rule), from which the Achaeme-nid kings (559–330 B.C.E.) derived their title, khshāyathiya. The subsequent forms shāh and shāhānshāh were routinely applied to the princes and kings of the Sassanian dynasty (224–651 CE). After the Arab conquest of Persia, the title fell into disuse except by a few petty provincial dynasts; the term shāhānshāh in particular acquired a pejorative connotation and was condemned in some ḥadīths as blasphemous. As the empire of the caliphs began to break up into provincial polities, some ambitious regional dynasts reportedly aspired to revive the imperial title of shāhānshāh. The first Muslim rulers definitely known to have used it were the Būyids of western Iran (perhaps as early as 936), probably to emphasize their independence from the authority of the ʿAbbāsid caliphs and later as a way of ranking authority within the Būyid family hierarchy.

Thereafter, it became common for Muslim rulers to include “shah” as part of their titles; it appears not only among Iranian dynasties, such as the Khwārizm shahs, but also among various Turko-Mongol rulers from the Seljuks to the Kara-koyunlu, Timurids, and Ottomans, as well as numerous Indian dynasties in Bengal, Kashmir, Jawnpur, Malwa, and elsewhere. However, such rulers generally used the term merely as one of many pompous and high-sounding titles without attaching any special significance to it. This was not the case with Ismāʿīl Ṣafavī, who took the title “Shah” following the conquest of Tabrīz and establishment of the Ṣafavīd dynasty in 1501. “Shah” once more became the particular and distinctive title of the dynastic rulers of the Iranian plateau, and it continued to be used in this sense not only by the Ṣafavīds but by virtually all the subsequent rulers of Iran. In 1925, Reza Khan, after having briefly flirted with the idea of establishing a republican form of government, also opted to assume the title “Shah.”

The term “shah” is invariably translated into English as “king,” but this does not convey fully all its nuances. Like “tsar” or “kaiser,” the title is rich in historical associations and suggests an institution of great antiquity, legitimacy, power, and authority. In its original and most distinctive usage, it is closely linked to the Persian ideal of sacred kingship. The wish to capitalize on this concept of the shah as the possessor of an awesome “kingly glory” who must be respected and obeyed has doubtless been a major factor in the various revivals of the title. A recent and ill-fated example of this may be seen in Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi's extreme glorification of the monarchy as the unifying force of the Iranian nation-state, a tradition that was brought to an abrupt end by the Islamic Revolution and the consequent abolition of the office in 1979.

See also IRAN and MONARCHY.

Bibliography

  • Büchner, V. F.“Shāh.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, vol. 4, pp. 256–257. Leiden, Netherlands, 1913–1938. Useful overview of the philological aspects of the term.
  • Dihkhudā, ʿAlī Akbar. “Shāh.” In Lughatnāmah. Tehran, 1947–. Lexicographical explication of the term with many references to its usage in literary sources.
  • Filipani-Ronconi, Pio. “The Tradition of Sacred Kingship in Iran.” In Iran under the Pahlavis, edited by George Lenczowski, pp. 51–83. Stanford, Calif., 1978. Interesting interpretation of the concept of sacred kingship in Iranian history.
  • Madelung, Wilferd. “The Assumption of the Title Shāhānshāh by the Būyids and ‘The Reign of the Daylam (Dawlat al-Daylam).’ ”Journal of Near Eastern Studies28 (1969): 84–108, 168–183. Important article dealing with the usage of the title in early Islamic times.
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