The Emergence of the Safavid Empire

The Emergence of the Safavid Empire (1501–1736)

Much like the White Sheep and Black Sheep dynasties of an earlier generation, the Turkmen tribes that had established dynasties in Anatolia and northern Iraq were zealously anti-Ottoman and sufi (mystic) in their beliefs.

A member of the Turkmen Shaykhly dynasty from Ardabil (now in northwest Iran), one Ismail Safavi consolidated his hold on eastern Anatolia, Azerbaijan, and Iran in 1500 and prepared to do battle with the Ottomans to regain what he claimed to be the Turkmens’ ancestral homeland, the whole of Anatolia.

In 1501, Shah Ismail (r. 1501–24) ascended to the throne of Iran as the fi rst ruler of the Safavid dynasty. Originally a mystic brotherhood called the Safawiyya, whose leadership believed in “a militant commitment to holy war and also a potent mix of Sufi and shamanistic doctrine” (Berkey 2003, 266), the order attracted thousands of fervent Turkmen supporters; distinguished by their red hats, they were accordingly called Kizilbash (“redhead,” in Turkish).

The Kizilbash tribesmen retained their special status as devotees of the Safavid monarchy for a very long time, even though the latter began to recruit Georgian slave soldiers into their army some years later.Very early on, Shah Ismail and his successors began an aggressive campaign to convert Iran’s mostly Sunni population to Twelver Shiism, a transformation so radical that it may safely be considered as one of the foremost developments of the 16th century.

The development had wide ramifi cations not only in Iran itself but throughout the Arab-Islamic world. However, contrary to the received wisdom that Iran’s Shiism formed an impenetrable block against the Ottoman advance, there was far more interaction between the Safavid state and the surrounding region than envisaged by the older histories on the subject, especially where Safavid infl uence coincided with support of Shii communities in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Anatolia (Cole 2002, 16–30).

Yet in some periods of history, the establishment of a Shii state so close to Ottoman territories indeed posed a very great challenge.To be sure, Sunni-Shia polemics contributed a great deal to the friction between the two “orthodoxies,” the staunchly Sunni Ottomans and the unfalteringly Shii Safavids. As explained by the late Hamid Enayat, a scholar of Islamic political thought, those polemics have not changed for hundreds of years.

The anti-Sunni polemics basically emerged out of the quarrel over the succession to the Prophet, which, over the centuries, had “[taken] on an increasingly scurrilous tone, and were eventually institutionalized into the practices of sabb (vilifi cation) and rafd (repudiation of the legitimacy) of the fi rst three Caliphs” (Enayat 1982, 33). The Shii persistence in cursing the fi rst three Rashidun caliphs as well as Aisha, the wife of the Prophet, infuriated and still infuriates Sunnis.

The Sunnis countered with anti-Shia polemics of their own. Basically set down by Ibn Taymiyyah, a 14th-century scholar, the Sunnis claim that the imamate cannot become a “pillar” of Islam, the idea of Ali’s succession is illogical, and the doctrine of ilm, or special knowledge, which Imam Ali and his descendants are supposed to have been endowed with, is untenable (Enayat 1982, 34–37).

The Ottomans reserved their most severe hostility for the Shii sects they deemed to be the most extreme, such as the Kizilbash. Frequent massacres of the latter were the result; Ottoman jurists even declared them beyond the pale and therefore expendable. As Juan Cole has shown, however, much of the Ottoman antagonism for the Kizilbash nomadic pastoralists stemmed from the Kizilbash’s total and unswerving dedication to the Safavid shahs (Cole 2002, 18).