The Safavid Empire (1501-1722)The Safavid Empire was based in what is today Iran.
This Islamic Empire was strong enough to challenge the Ottomans in the west and the Mughals in the east.
- The Safavid Empire lasted from 1501-1722
- It covered all of Iran, and parts of Turkey and Georgia
- The Safavid Empire was a theocracy
- The state religion was Shi'a Islam
- All other religions, and forms of Islam were suppressed
- The Empire's economic strength came from its location on the trade routes
- The Empire made Iran a centre of art, architecture, poetry and philosophy
- The capital, Isfahan, is one of the most beautiful cities in the world
- The key figures in the Empire were:
- Isma'il I
- Abbas I
- The Empire declined when it became complacent and corrupt
OriginsThe Empire was founded by the Safavids, a Sufi order that goes back to Safi al-Din (1252-1334). Safi al-Din converted to Shi'ism and was a Persian nationalist. The Safavid brotherhood was originally a religious group.
Over the following centuries the brotherhood became stronger, by attracting local warlords and by political marriages. It became a military group as well as a religious one in the 15th century.
Many were attracted by the brotherhood's allegiance to Ali, and to the 'hidden Imam'.
In the 15th century the brotherhood became more militarily aggressive, and waged a jihad (Islamic holy war) against parts of what are now modern Turkey and Georgia.
The Safavid Empire dates from the rule of Shah Ismail (ruled 1501-1524).
In 1501, the Safavid Shahs declared independence when the Ottomans outlawed Shi'a Islam in their territory. The Safavid Empire was strengthened by important Shi'a soldiers from the Ottoman army who had fled from persecution.
When the Safavids came to power, Shah Ismail was proclaimed ruler at the age of 14 or 15, and by 1510 Ismail had conquered the whole of Iran.
Religion in the Safavid Empire - the negativesOne of Shah Ismail's most important decisions was to declare that the state religion would be the form of Islam called Shi'ism, that at the time was completely foreign to Iranian culture.
The Safavids launched a vigorous campaign to convert what was then a predominantly Sunni population by persuasion and by force. The Sunni ulama (a religious council of wise men) either left or were killed.
To promote Shi'ism the Safavids brought in scholars from Shi'ite countries to form a new religious elite. They appointed an official (the Sadr) to co-ordinate this elite - and ensure that it did what the Shah wanted. The religious leaders effectively became a tool of the government.
The Safavids also spent money to promote religion, making grants to shrines and religious schools. And most craftily of all, they used grants of land and money to create a new class of wealthy religious aristocrats who owed everything to the state.
In specifically religious terms the Safavids not only persecuted Sunni Muslims, but Shi'ites with different views, and all other religions. Alien shrines were vandalised, and Sufi mystic groups forbidden.
This was surprising, since the Safavids owed their origins to a Sufi order and to a form of Shi'ism that they now banned. They also reduced the importance of the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca), replacing it with pilgrimage to Shi'ite shrines.
Religion in the Safavid Empire - the positivesThe early Safavid empire was effectively a theocracy. Religious and political power were completely intertwined, and encapsulated in the person of the Shah.
The people of the Empire soon embraced the new faith with enthusiasm, celebrating Shi'ite festivals with great piety. The most significant of these was Ashura, when Shia Muslims mark the death of Husayn. Ali was also venerated.
Because Shi'ism was now a state religion, with major educational establishments devoted to it, its philosophy and theology developed greatly during the Safavid Empire.
StrengthsThe Safavid Empire, although driven and inspired by strong religious faith, rapidly built the foundations of strong central secular government and administration.
The Safavids benefited from their geographical position at the centre of the trade routes of the ancient world. They became rich on the growing trade between Europe and the Islamic civilisations of central Asia and India.
Art and cultureUnder Safavid rule eastern Persia became a great cultural centre.
During this period, painting, metalwork, textiles and carpets reached new heights of perfection. For art to succeed at this scale, patronage had to come from the top.
This was not entirely for love of beauty. Much of the early art was devoted to celebrating the glories of the earlier Iranian kingdom, and thus, by implication, making legitimate the Safavids as that kingdom's current heirs.
The Safavids were often artists themselves. Shah Ismail was a poet and Shah Tahmasp a painter. Their patronage, which included opening royal workshops for artists, created a favourable climate for the development of art.
IsfahanThe artistic achievements and the prosperity of the Safavid period are best represented by Isfahan, the capital of Shah Abbas.
Isfahan had parks, libraries and mosques that amazed Europeans, who had not seen anything like this at home. The Persians called it Nisf-e-Jahan, 'half the world', meaning that to see it was to see half the world.
Isfahan became one of the world's most elegant cities. In its heyday it was also one of the largest with a population of one million; 163 mosques, 48 religious schools, 1801 shops and 263 public baths.
DeclineThe Safavid Empire was held together in the early years by conquering new territory, and then by the need to defend it from the neighbouring Ottoman Empire. But in the seventeenth century the Ottoman threat to the Safavids declined. The first result of this was that the military forces became less effective.
With their major enemy keeping quiet, the Safavid Shahs became complacent, and then corrupt and decadent. Power passed to the Shi'a ulama (a religious council of wise men) which eventually deposed the Shahs and proclaimed the world's first Islamic Republic in the eighteenth century. The ulama developed a theory that only a Mujtahid - one deeply learned in the Sharia (Qur'anic law) and one who has had a blameless life, could rule.
In 1726 an Afghan group destroyed the ruling dynasty. After the conquest a division of powers was agreed between the new Afghan Shahs and the Shi'a ulama. The Afghan Shahs controlled the state and foreign policy, and could levy taxes and make secular laws. The ulama retained control of religious practice; and enforced the Sharia (Qur'anic Law) in personal and family matters.
The problems of this division of spiritual and political authority is something that Iran is still working out today.
Iran after the Safavid EmpireHowever by this period the Empire was disintegrating, and for the next two centuries it lay in decay. Bandit chiefs and feudal lords plundered it at will, further weakening the Empire, and people yearned for strong central rule and stability.
The rise of the Pahlavis (1925 -79) saw the reaffirmation of a strong central authority in Iran and the re-emergence of the dynastic principle. The discovery of oil early in the twentieth century and the interest of it to the British and then the Americans determined the style and role of the second Pahlavi Shah. The wealth from oil enabled him to head an opulent and corrupt court.
The ulama continued to tolerate the non-religious Shahs right up until the 1970s but they finally overthrew the monarchy in 1979. This led to power being exercised through the highest officials of the ulama, the Ayatollahs. Ayatollah Khomeini's challenge to the Shah's Royal authority confirmed a deep religious tradition in Iranian society and history.