Isma'il II

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This article is about the Isma'il II, the third king of the Safavid. For other people named Isma'il, see Isma'il (disambiguation).
Isma'il II
The third Safavid king
Well-known Relatives Tahmasp I (father)
Birth 944/1537-8
Death/Martyrdom 985/1577
Activities Laxity with respect to Shia rulings, murdering his brothers and other opponents

Shāh Ismāʿ īl the Second (Persian: شاه إسماعیل دوم), or Isma'il II, (944/1537-8 ; 985/1577) was the third Safavid king after his father, Tahmasp I. He reigned for about one year and six months. The main feature of his reign was his laxity with respect to Shiite rulings after the announcement of Shiism as the official religion in Iran, as well as the murder of his brothers, other claimants of the throne, and his opponents. According to one account, he died of poisoning.

Birth and Childhood

Isma'il II, the son of Tahmasp, was born in 944/1537-8. He grew up in the Safavid palace where he learned military techniques.

Isma'il was 14 years old when he was appointed by his father as the ruler of Shirvan after his brother, Alqas, took refuge to the Ottoman king. He and his warriors attended the consecutive attacks of Sulayman and Alqas. He also gained victories in Caucasus. Since then, he was considered by the Qizilbash as a national hero.

Isma'il was dissatisfied with the compromise between the Ottoman and the Persian governments. Thus, Shah Tahmasp assigned him with the rule of the province of Khorasan not only to keep him away from battlefields, but also to degrade his Qizilbash spirit. Notwithstanding this, Isma'il was an advocate of a Qizilbash attack on the Ottoman realm and the conquest of Baghdad. He was eventually summoned by Shah Tahmasp from Khorasan and was imprisoned in the Qahqaheh castle, and his companions were quenched.

Isma'il was imprisoned in Qahqaheh for 21 years, until his father died in 984/1576-7. He then went back to the political arena.


When Shah Tahmasp died, the Ustajlu tribe as well as a number of Safavid officials recognized Haydar Mirza, Tahmasp's son, as the new king. However, the opponents and other tribes of the Qizilbash, such as Shamlu, Rulu, Afshar, and Qajar, protested to Haydar's selection under the instructions of Pari Khanum, Tahmasp's daughter, killed Haydar, and enthroned Isma'il in Qazvin.

In the first months of his reign, Isma'il II quenched every claimant of the throne. He first disallowed his sister, Pari Khanum, to intervene in governmental affairs. He then ordered the murder of the heads of Ustajlu because of their support for the reign of Haydar Mirza. He then killed many of his brothers and nephews lest they combat him over the reign.

He killed 7 of his 8 brothers and even his nephews, although they were very young children. He also sought to kill his older brother, Khudabanda, but he did not live enough to do that.

People and some Qizilbash heads sought developments and dramatic changes after 50 years of Tahmasp's reign. Thus, they had a great hope in Isma'il's reign, but they were disappointed and distressed by his violent acts of murder and oppression.

Despite domestic tensions, the whole Safavid territory was peaceful and Ottomans did not aggress the Persian borders in this period.

Religious Approach

Isma'il II was not committed to Shiism. He appeared to be anti-religious because of his improper actions. His actions led to extreme public reactions and consequences.

Laxity Concerning Shiism

Contrary to his predecessors, Shah Isma'il was not committed to Shiism and was not kind to the Shi'as. However, he was tolerant of, and even tending to, Sunni Muslims. He prepared the cultural and political arena for prominent Sunni intellectuals.

Some people trace Isma'il's hostility to Shiism to his childhood trainer. And others take it to be a childish, improper behavior.

A number of historians take the anti-Shiite policy of Isma'il to be influenced by a person called Mir Makhdum Sharifi, who had Sunni tendencies and was influential on Isma'il II. According to historiographers, under the influence of Mir Makhdum, not only did Isma'il try to abolish the practice of tabarri in Qazvin, but he also tried to find and help Sunni Muslims who had not yet converted to Shiism. Mir Makhdum was assigned with the task of finding these people. He produced a list of these people and provided them with financial helps.

Relationship with Shiite Scholars

Isma'il II was dissatisfied with the powerful role of Shiite scholars, and so, he treated them with disrespect. By removing the scholars from their positions, he created a new arena in the country. He irritated the scholars by revising the religious practices of his predecessors. Because of the king's tendency to Sunni Muslims and his insistence on suppressing Shiite manifestations, Shiite scholars came to the belief that he was not committed to Shiism and tended towards the Sunni Islam. Thus, they turned their back on Isma'il.

Shiite scholars showed their support for proponents of tabarri by adamantly practicing tabarri (aversion) to the enemies of Ahl al-Bayt (a). A chief scholar who supported tabarri and ignored Isma'il II's warnings was al-Sayyid al-Husayn al-Karaki—the shaykh al-islam in the period of Tahmasp.

In another reaction, Shiite scholars prevented the elimination of the names of the Imams (a) from coins. Al-Sayyid al-Husayn al-Karaki resisted Isma'il's plan to do so. Eventually, the king accepted that his own composed verse be minted on coins. The verse translates as follows: "if there is an Imam from the east to the west, 'Ali and his progeny are sufficient for us".

Isma'il II's actions provoked religious irritations of Iranians. People protested to his anti-Shiistic actions under the leadership of Shiite clergies. The Qizilbash, who were strongly inclined to Shiism, joined the protests as well.

Eventually, Shah Isma'il had to give up to public pressures. The pressures by the Shi'as forced Mir Makhdum out of the palace. He ran to the Ottoman realm where he wrote an anti-Shiite book under Nawaqid al-rafaid.


Isma'il II died in the Ramadan month of 985 (November-December 1577) at the age of 42 after one year and six months of reign. He was found dead in the house of Hasan Beg, because of poisoning or, on another account, opium misuse. Some people wrote that Hasan Beg Halwachi Ughli was complicit with the Shah's enemy in the murder.