World History 2 58 - 4.3.2 Establishing Shi‘ism as the State Religion

The Safavids declared Shia Islam the state religion of Iran in the early 1500s, and it remains so to this day, encompassing about 10 percent of the worldwide Muslim population. The Shia movement originated with a dispute over Muhammad’s successor after his death in 632. One faction, which became known as the Sunnis, supported the candidacy of Abu Bakr al-Sadiq, Muhammad’s father-in-law. The other faction wished the leadership to remain within Muhammad’s biological family and backed Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, whom they believed the Prophet had chosen as his successor. This group became known as the Shia.

The Shia believe Ali, who finally succeeded Uthman to become the leader of the Muslim community in 656, was the first legitimate imam, the title they give their spiritual leader rather than “caliph.” They view the line of Muhammad that descends through Ali and his wife Fatima, Muhammad’s daughter, as the only source of definitive religious guidance. About 95 percent of Shia also believe Ali was the first of twelve infallible leaders chosen by God, so this sect is often called the Twelvers. Twelvers hold that the twelfth and final imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, went into “mystical hiding” in the ninth century and will return, along with Jesus, to defeat evil on earth and herald the Day of Judgment. The remaining 5 percent of Shia are Zaydis or Seveners, a sect established by Zayd, the great-grandson of Ali, who disagree with Twelvers over the identity of the seventh imam.

Sunnis respect Ali and all the Twelve Imams, but they do not believe the Twelve alone were divinely chosen to lead the Muslim community. In their view of Islam, any pious man who followed the example of Muhammad could lead the Muslim community.

Shi‘ism was not officially tolerated by the Sunni caliphs of the Umayyad and Abbasid Empires because of its perceived challenge to their rule. For this reason, most Shia movements developed far outside the control of these caliphates, in places like Morocco, Yemen, Iran, and central Asia. After the Mongol conquest of Baghdad in 1258, the Sunni caliphate became a weak figurehead position that held only symbolic authority. During the period of Mongol rule over Iran and the Caucasus, the distinction between Shia and Sunni became less important than it had been. When Ismail crowned himself Shah in 1501, most of Iran’s population was Sunni. When he declared Twelver Shi‘ism to be the state religion of Iran, he hoped to unify his Iranian subjects by having them adopt a form of Islam that gave them a unique identity and distinguished them from their military and political enemies the Ottomans and the Uzbeks, who were both Sunni.

Historians generally agree that the Safavids’ efforts to convert Muslims in their empire to Shi‘ism utilized coercion and force. Shah Ismail, who saw himself as infallible and semidivine, believed his strong religious convictions had won him the Iranian throne, and he used his political and military authority to impose his religious ideology on the country (Figure 4.23). He ordered all Iran’s Sunni Muslims to become Shi‘ites. Sunni clerics and theologians were given the choice of conversion or exile. Sunnis who resisted conversion but remained in Iran faced death. To spread the new beliefs and win converts, Ismail brought Shia scholars to Iran from Lebanon and Syria. He used state funds to construct schools where Shia beliefs were taught and to build shrines to Ali and members of his family. Ismail also invited foreign Shi‘ites living in places where they were persecuted by the Sunni majority to move to Iran, promising them land and protection.

An image of a man in a long white coat with black pants and an elaborate hat is shown. He is in the middle of the drawing standing on a raised platform with a sheath on his belt and a sword raised over his head. Above him on a brick wall next to a window with a tree in the background a man stands in flowing robes over a long garment with a turban with loose pieces on his head. His face is not clearly drawn. He is holding a book in his right hand and his left hand is above the man on the platform. At the bottom left of the drawing eight men stand dressed in long dark robes, turbans, hats, and beards. On the bottom right of the drawing six men stand in long robes with ornately decorated hats and moustaches. Many of the men have a finger on their mouths in a thoughtful pose. Script is visible at the top and bottom of the image.
Figure 4.23 In this image from a Persian history of his reign written about 1650, the Safavid ruler Shah Ismail (dressed in white) stands on the steps of a mosque prior to his coronation, having the sermon read in the name of the Twelve Imams and effectively declaring Shi‘ism to be the state religion of Iran in 1501. (credit: “Shah Isma'il, History of Shah Isma'il, by Mu'in Musavvir, Isfahan, Iran” by Muin Musavvir/British Library/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The conversion efforts of the Safavids have left long legacies in the Islamic world. Though the majority of Muslims in Azerbaijan and Iran considered themselves Shia by the time the Safavid era ended in 1736, Nader Shah attempted to restore Sunnism as the dominant sect. But there was little public enthusiasm, and after his death most who had claimed to adopt Sunnism during his reign quietly reverted to Shi‘ism. At the same time, however, the Safavids’ conversion policy brought tensions between Sunni and Shia to a level not seen since Muhammad’s death. The hostility between the sects that continues today is usually traced to the Safavid era and the dynasty’s military rivalry with the Ottomans, especially after the sultan acquired the Sunni title of caliph in 1517.

The Safavids were generally more tolerant of non-Muslim subjects than they were of the Sunni. Nevertheless, Safavid rulers were aggressive toward the Armenians, Georgians, and other Christians in the Caucasus region, whom they considered potentially rebellious. They sought to control these populations by enslaving or deporting their members, and nobles were often requested to convert to Shi‘ism. Christians elsewhere in the Safavid realm, however, were given considerable freedom to build churches and honor their own customs and beliefs. Abbas I was particularly lenient toward the Armenian Christian population of Isfahan, due to their participation in the lucrative manufacture and export of silk. Spain and the Vatican sent several embassies to Iran hoping to enlist it as an ally against the Ottomans. The pope also hoped Abbas would allow the construction of a cathedral in his new capital city of Isfahan, but on their arrival his emissaries found three Roman Catholic churches already there (Figure 4.24).

A photograph of an interior of an elaborately decorated room is shown. A small gazebo is located in the right portion of the photograph with a blue starry domed top and a steeple with white grates and a green roof. Part of an altar is shown to the left. The walls of the rest of the room are filled with paintings of people in long robes, women and children, as well as other religious scenes. Around the paintings the walls are decorated with flowery tiles.
Figure 4.24 The interior of the Armenian Christian Holy Savior Cathedral in Isfahan, built in 1606, incorporates both Christian imagery, such as scenes from the life of Christ, and Islamic-style decorative tilework. (credit: “Armenian Frescoes” by David Stanley/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax