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Isma'il I

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Isma'il I
The first Safavid king
شاه اسماعیل اول.jpg
Birth 892/1487
Place of Birth Ardabil, Iran
Death/Martyrdom 930/1542

Shāh Ismāʿīl Awwal Ṣafawī (Persian: شاه اسماعیل اول صفوی), known as Ismaʿil I, was the first king of the Safavid dynasty and was also known as Abu l-Muẓaffar Bahādur Khān Ḥusaynī (Persian: ابوالمظفر بهادرخان حسینی). The most important events in Iran during his kingdom include: the foundation of the Safavid dynasty, the announcement of Shi'ism as the official religion in Iran, and the Battle of Chaldiran.

Name and Lineage

Isma'il Mirza, known as Isma'il I, the son of Shaykh Haydar, was born in Ardabil on Tuesday Rajab 25, 892/July 26, 1487. His lineage goes back to Shaykh Safi al-Din Ardabili through 5 generations. His mother, Baygum Agha, was the daughter of Uzun Hasan Aq Qoyunlu. The original name of Isma'il's mother was Marta; she remained a Christian until her death, and was buried in the monument of Shaykh Safi al-Din al-Ardabili.


After Shaykh Haydar's murder, Yaqub Beg imprisoned the son of Uzun Hasan and his sister, Halima (Isma'il's mother), as well as his nephews, 'Ali, Ibrahim, and Isma'il in Rajab, 893/July, 1488. Isma'il was just one year old at the time.

Rustam Beg, Yaqub's son, succeeded his father. In order to combat Farrukh Yasar—his former ally and his enemy at the time—he needed the help of Shaykh Haydar's sons and their followers. Thus, in 898/1493, he released Halima Baygum and her sons after about four and a half years, and took them to Tabriz.

When Rustam Beg achieved his goals with the help of Sultan 'Ali and his followers, he allowed Shaykh Haydar's family to go to Ardabil, but when their followers in Ardabil remarkably increased, he sensed a threat, and thus, he decided to return them to Tabriz and kill 'Ali and the senior members of Sufism. Sultan 'Ali and his men escaped overnight after learning about the plot. Rustam Beg sent an army of 5000 soldiers under the commandership of Aybe Sultan to chase them. The army encountered the Sufis in a village called Shimas, near Ardabil. Sultan 'Ali, who knew that he would be killed in the encounter, appointed Isma'il Mirza as his successor.

Religious and Military Trainings in Lahijan

When Sultan 'Ali was killed, his brothers, Ibrahim and Isma'il, went to Ardabil, and they secretly lived there for a while. He was then taken by the Qizilbash to Lahijan upon the invitation of the Shi'ite ruler of Gilan, Karkia Mirza 'Ali. Isma'il stayed for 5 years in Lahijan where he learned Persian, Arabic, the Qur'an, and the principles of the Imami Shi'ite beliefs, under the supervision of Shmas al-Din Lahiji, a scholar of Lahijan. Moreover, he also learned military techniques under the supervision of seven prominent Sufi figures of Lahijan.

Defeating the Father's Killer and Entering Tabriz

Isma'il Mirza moved to Ardabil together with seven prominent figures of Sufis in Lahijan. The number of his followers increased as he approached Ardabil. In 905/1500, he fought with, and defeated, Farrukh Yasar, the killer of his father. He went on to conquer the Maiden Tower (Baku Fort), destroyed monuments, profaned the tomb of Khalil Allah, the killer of Shaykh Junayd, exhumed his bones, and burned them down. He then waged a war with Alwand Beg, the ruler of Azerbaijan. He entered Tabriz after defeating Alwand Beg.

Isma'il I's Actions

Announcing Shi'ism as the Official Religion in Iran

Isma'il Mirza was enthroned in the summer of 907/1502 in Tabriz at the age of 15. Since then, he was known as "Shah Isma'il". After his enthronement, Shah Isma'il ordered all preachers to deliver sermons in the names of the Twelve Imams and to add the phrase, "ashhad 'anna 'Ali wali Allah" (I testify that Ali (a) is the wali of God), to the Adhan.

Historians in the early Safavid period were aware that Iranians widely and politically tended to Shi'ism since the period of Sultan Muhammad Khudabanda the Mogul Ilkhanate (680/1281-716/1316). They usually mention Khudabanda as well when they point to Isma'il I's efforts to propagate Shi'ism. However, since the Ilkhanate government was established as a Sunni state and Sunni Muslims had a strong influence in it, Khudabanda faced many oppositions to his religious policies which eventually led him to withdraw from the policies. Thus, there were 200 years between the efforts of the two kings in the propagation of Shi'ism.

With the establishment of the Safavid government, Shah Isma'il could unify the then divided ancient lands of Persia. He established a political unification in the country. The announcement of Shi'ism as the official religion of Iran by Shah Isma'il reinforced the national identity of people, and thus, it made the government stronger and more centered.

When Shi'ism was announced as the official religion of Iran, a clear-cut distinction was made between the Safavid government and the Ottoman empire which was the main power of the Islamic world in the 10th/16th century. Thus, the Safavid government found a territorial as well as a political identity.

Conquest Continued

After defeating his opponents, Shah Isma'il expanded the realm of the Persian government. By defeating Sultan Mura Ag Qoyunlu near Hamadan, he dominated the whole Persian Iraq. In 909/1504, Qizilbash forces occupied Simnan, Fars, and a year later, Yazd. In 914/1508, Shah Isma'il took over Iraq of Arabs.

After defeating 'Ala' al-Dawla Dhu l-Qadr (913/1507) and conquering Diyarbakır and the upper part of Euphrates, Shah Isma'il advanced towards Iraq to take over the last base of the commanders of Bayandari Ag Qoyunlu and the holy cities of the Shi'as. After the conquest of Baghdad in 914/1508, he went to Najaf, Karbala, and Samarra, and concerned himself with the reconstruction of the domes and the shrines of the Shi'ite Imams (a). In 916/1510, Shah Isma'il defeated his traditional rival, Shayabak Khan Uzbek. Shayabak Khan's head was cut, at Shah Isma'il's command, and it was sent to the Ottoman king, Bayezid.

Tensions with the Ottoman Government

Shah Isma'il's advances in Transoxiana and the spread of Shi'ism in eastern lands of the Islamic territories annoyed Bayezid II who regarded himself as the leader of all Muslims in the world. Thus, he first started friendly relationships with Shah Isma'il, but he was angered when Shayabak Khan's head was sent to him; he sent a message to Isma'il warning him about any attempts to influence Ottoman Shi'as and any plans to dominate Roman territories, and threatened that he would wage a war against him.

At the pretext of supporting the Shi'as and Sufis in the Ottoman realm, Shah Isma'il exploited the social and political crises in the Ottoman territories. He supported the riots of Shah Quli Baba Tiklu. He also helped Nur 'Ali Khalifa to destroy and conquer Ottoman cities.

The First War with Ottomans

Shah Isma'il's supports for riots in the Ottoman realm gave Bayezid's successor, Selim I, an excuse to wage a war with the Safavid government. At his request, Shams al-Din Ahmad wrote a hostile essay against Shi'ism, and thus, the Mufti of Istanbul issued a fatwa legitimizing the murder of the Shi'as. Selim considered Isma'il not only as an enemy of the religion, but also as a supporter of Ottoman Alawites and the enemy of his country. Moreover, he was personally hostile to Shah Isma'il, because of the latter's support for the sultanate of Ahmad, Selim's brother. On the other hand, the Ottoman king killed a thousand Shi'as in his own territories.

Battle of Chaldiran

Main article: Battle of Chaldiran

The battle between Selim and Shah Isma'il occurred on Rajab 2, 920/August 23, 1514 in the plain of Chaldiran. It only lasted for one day and led to the victory of the Ottoman government. Some sources have reported the baffling valor and gallantry shown by Shah Isma'il and his army in this battle.

After the battle, Shah Isma'il escaped to Darjazin and thus, Selim could victoriously enter Tabriz, but he could not stay there. After 8 days, he left Tabriz for Istanbul. He took all artists, who had been taken by Shah Isma'il from Herat to Tabriz, to the Ottoman realm, together with a number of craftsmen and noblemen of Tabriz.

When Selim left Tabriz, Shah Isma'il returned to the capital. He always thought of revenging for his defeat in the Battle of Chaldiran. One of his plans was to summon the ambassadors of Hungary and Germany and call the European governments to unite against the Ottoman government.

After the Defeat in Chaldiran

After the defeat, Shah Isma'il mourned, wore black robes, turned his flags into black, and his flags read "al-Qisas" (revenge). He no longer concerned himself with governmental affairs.

Shah Isma'il was seen by Qizilbash Sufis—who were mostly Ghali (exaggerating) Shi'as—as a living god and a manifestation of perfection and power who always won every single battle, but his defeat in Chaldiran put an end to the myth of his undefeatability and the superstitious belief that he was a divine manifestation.


Shah Isma'il died at the age of 38 on Monday Rajab 19, 930/May 23, 1524 after about 23 years of reign. His corpse was buried in the monument of Shaykh Safi al-Din al-Ardabili. He had 9 children, including 4 sons: Tahmasp Mirza, al-Qasib Mirza, Sam Mirza, and Bahram Mirza.

monument of Shaykh Safi al-Din al-Ardabili in Ardabil, Iran.

Monuments and Works

Shah Isma'il was interested in religious and national rituals and was passionate about constructing villages and monuments. The most important works and construction made by him include: the bazar around the old square of Isfahan, Haruniyya mosque, and the Imamzada Harun mausoleum in Isfahan. These two monuments have remained today almost as they were built. Moreover, he constructed a number of villages and buildings in Khoy and Tabriz.


Shah Isma'il composed poems in Persian and Turkish, and his penname was "Khata'i."