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Safavid Dynasty

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Safavid Dynasty

    The Safavid dynasty ruled Iran from 1501 to 1722 . At the peak of their power, the Safavids controlled all of the territory that constitutes modern Iran, as well as parts of present-day Iraq and Central Asia. During the early years of the dynasty, the Safavids legitimized their rule by claiming to be the fulfillment of Shi'i expectations of the messiah. They soon changed their tactics, abandoning extremist religious beliefs for the more orthodox Twelver Shi'ism. Facing violence and persecution, most of the predominantly Sunni population of Iran eventually embraced Shi'ism. The legacy of the Safavids endures. Today, almost 90 percent of Iranians are Shi'i Muslims.

    Strategic Alliances.

    During the mid-1200s, the Abbasid caliphate fell to Mongol tribes, and the eastern portions of the Islamic world separated into self-governing entities. Around this time, Shaykh Safi al-Din , a religious teacher of both Sunni and Sufi traditions, founded the Safavid movement. This mystical and military order had its center in the city of Ardabil in northwestern Iran and spread to the area southwest of the Caspian Sea.

    Safi al-Din's successors allied themselves with some of the Turkish warrior tribes that settled in the eastern regions of Anatolia and across the Caucasus Mountains during the mid- to late 1300s. The tribes held extreme religious beliefs that combined elements of Christianity, pre-Islamic religions, Muslim cults, and the Shi'i themes of devotion to Imam Ali and his family. During the 1400s, the Safavids established a political alliance with the Qizilbash, a group that emphasized the Shi'i teaching that a messiah would soon appear and establish an ideal Islamic order on earth. The Qizilbash became convinced that the messiah would be a Safavid leader. Consequently, the Safavids abandoned Sunni Islam and adopted Shi'ism in an effort to guarantee their support.

    Shifting Gears.

    In 1500 a 16-year-old youth named Ismail became head of the Safavid movement. He identified himself as a descendant of the imams and claimed to be the Mahdi (divinely guided one). The Qizilbash revered him as a representative of God on earth, and with their backing, he captured the Azerbaijani city of Tabriz from the Uzbeks. Shortly afterward, Ismail proclaimed himself shah (king) of Iran. Over the next decade, he and his army conquered the remaining regions of Iran and parts of Iraq.

    Ismail gradually abandoned the extreme Shi'ism of his early supporters. The Safavids needed to obtain a religious consensus among the people of Iran, the majority of whom followed Sunni Islam. Ismail proclaimed the more moderate Twelver Shi'ism, or Ithna Ashari, as the state religion and began an aggressive campaign to eliminate Sunni Islam from Iran. No Shi'i ruler had ever attempted such a large-scale conversion. The country had few Shi'i groups, however, and the process was slow. Ismail hired Twelver Shi'i scholars from Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, northeastern Arabia, and Iraq. By the late 1600s, most Iranians had accepted Shi'ism.

    The shah's assault on Sunni Islam crossed the Iranian border. He fought Sunni Uzbeks in the northeast and Sunni Ottomans in the west. But his attempt to eliminate Sunni Islam outside of Iran failed. In 1514 the Ottomans defeated his army at the Battle of Chaldiran. The Safavid campaign against the Sunnis continued for many years, but subsequent defeats eventually forced them to relinquish territory and relocate their capital.

    In 1524 Ismail's oldest son, Tahmasp I, assumed control of the kingdom. Iran fell into a decline during Tahmasp's reign that continued during the reigns of his successors because of their incompetence and inability to oppose repeated attacks by Turkish forces.

    Reaching New Heights.

    Abbas I came to the throne in 1588 , and under his rule, the Safavid dynasty reached its peak. Recognizing that his army was no match for the Ottomans, he made peace with them and focused his attention on the defeat of the Uzbeks. Meeting with little success, he reorganized his troops and hired someone to train them in the European style of warfare. These reforms enabled him to regain lost territory.

    Under Abbas I, Iran became a great power and a center of culture. His reign is noted for an efficient, highly centralized government and a rebirth of art and learning. The construction of roads and the establishment of royal industries, such as carpet making, silk making, and ceramics, stimulated domestic and international trade. Isfahan, the new capital city, became the centerpiece of the dynasty and a model for Middle Eastern city planning. Examples of Safavid architectural achievement included parks, palaces, monuments, Islamic schools, and impressive mosques, such as the Masjid-i Shaykh Lutfallah. Among the great Safavid painters of the period were Bihzad and Riza-i Abbari.

    Abbas I continued to stress Twelver Shi'ism. He dismissed anyone in the government who still followed the extreme Shi'ism of the early dynasty. He also imported Twelver Shi'i ulama from Arab countries to teach in Iran. He built madrasahs for them and provided the schools with state funding. The Shi'i ulama were granted control of the educational and legal system of Iran, as well as the more religious duties of the government. Although these religious scholars traditionally maintained their separation from the state, they could not refuse such a unique opportunity to spread their faith. They supported Abbas I and his government, even though they believed that they, and not the shah, were the true representatives of the Hidden Imam.

    Decline and Fall.

    The Safavid dynasty lasted for less than a century after Abbas I died in 1629 . By the end of the 1600s, the empire was in a state of decline, owing to a deterioration of trade, economic insecurity, and incompetent leadership. The capital of Isfahan was captured in an Afghan invasion in 1722 . Around 1730 Shah Tahmasp II recaptured Isfahan and regained the throne. Nevertheless, he was soon overthrown by one of his military commanders. During the late 1700s, a few other members of the Safavid family claimed the title of shah, but they had no real power. See also Ali ibn Abi Talib ; Iran; Ithna Ashari; Messianic Traditions; Ottoman Empire; Shi'i Islam.

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