Safavid Dynasty

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The image attributed to Shah Ismail I, which is kept in the Florence Museum

Ṣafawīyya (Persian:صفویان) (Arabic:صفویه), reign: 907/1501-1135/1722) was a dynasty of Shiite rulers in Iran who sought to give a unified identity to Iranian nation by making Shiism as the official religion in the country. They founded the first Shiite government throughout Iran.

The Safavids were members of a Sufi tariqa (path of spiritual journey) founded in the 7th/13th century by Shaykh Safi al-Din Ardabili. In the second half of the 9th/15th century, a religious, political and military movement was initiated under the leadership of Shaykh Junayd and Shaykh Haydar, the grandfather and father of Isma'il I. After the conquest of Tabriz at the beginning of the 10th/16th century, the movement overtook the political power by the Qizilbash army under the leadership of Isma'il. The Safavid dynasty lasted until 1135/1722 when Isfahan was occupied by Afghan riots.

In the Safavid era, there was remarkable military, jurisprudential, and artistic progress in Iran. The invitation of prominent Shiite fuqaha (jurisprudents) to Iran, especially those from Jabal Amel in Lebanon, led to the strength of the theoretical and intellectual foundation of the Shiite government of Safavids. It led to the rise of well-known jurisprudents and scholars, such as Mir Damad, Fayd Kashani, Mulla Sadra, and Muhammad Baqir Majlisi. In this period, the Persian literature found a Shiite and religious tone and there were many composers of marthiya (elegiac poems concerning Ahl al-Bayt (a)).

Some people believe that the power of the Safavid kings rested on three foundations: first, the theory of the divine right of Persian kings (Khvarenah); second, the claim to represent Imam al-Mahdi (a) on the Earth, and third, the position of Safavid kings as full masters of the followers of the Sufi tariqa, known as Safawiyya.

Safavid Family

The Safavids were from Ardabil. The first person from this family was Firuz Shah Zarrin Kulah who lived in Ardabil in the 5th/11th century. According to sources, the family's lineage goes back to Imam Musa al-Kazim (a), the 7th Shiite Imam. However, some contemporary researchers have cast doubts over the siyada of this family as well as the Shiism of Shaykh Safi al-Din.

The rise of Shaykh Safi al-Din Ardabili led the Safavid history to a new era. Because of his talents, he became the head of Zahidiyya tariqa for 35 years.   His leadership of the tariqa created regular contacts between Ardabil and the followers of the Safavid tariqa in other areas which expanded to eastern Anatolia and Syria. When Junayd, the son of Ibrahim, undertook the leadership in 851/1447-8, the movement entered a new stage, showing its tendency to take over the mundane, monarchial power. He was the first Safavid leader who was known as Sultan.


The Safavid government was founded in the period of Isma'il I, a grandson of Shaykh Safi al-Din. He led his followers and 7000 people from Qizilbash to defeat the Ağ Qoyunlu and enter Tabriz, announcing Shiism as the official religion. He had based his movement on the Shiite denomination. different tribes as well as Turkmen played a fundamental role in the establishment of the Safavid government. The King Isma'il was not only considered as a mundane king, but also as a full master of the tariqa who was believed to carry the divine right and to manifest the divine essence.

Successors of Ismail I

After the death of Isma'il I, internal conflicts within the Safavid government which had begun in the last 10 years of his monarchy, were intensified. In addition to foreign enemies, the unrest led to 10 years of conflicts and tensions in the Safavid monarchy. It seemed at the time that Isma'il I's heritage would not last for long. However, Sultan Tahmasp I took over the power and, with having had the longest Safavid reign, he turned the turmoil into a peaceful period for the Safavids. In this period, the foundations of the Safavid government were solidified. Although the last decade of Tahmasp I's monarchy faced domestic crises and social conflicts leading to future unrests after him, his achievement in his 54 years of reign lasted more or less until the end of the Safavid government in Iran.

After Tahmasp I, in the wake of domestic divisions within the Safavid government, conflicts amongst the rulers and heads of Qizilbash which had begun towards the end of Tahmasp's life, Isma'il II was finally released after being imprisoned for 20 years. After killing Haydar Mirza and defeating his advocates, Isma'il II went to Qazvin where he was enthroned. His monarchy was a period of bloody cleansing of his opponents carried out to secure his power. Isma'il II's one year and some months in power counts as a period of crisis in relationships between the religion and the state. Representatives of the religion—the scholars—were against the government and the king. The crisis was rooted in the religious policy of Isma'il II which was totally at odds with that of his father, Tahmasp.

After Isma'il II's cleansing the Safavid princes, Muhammad Khudabanda, the oldest son of Tahmasp, who had lost the monarchy because of his weak eyes, was nominated for sultanate by the rulers of Qizilbash and Pari Khan Khanum and was invited from Shiraz to the capital, Qazvin, in order to be enthroned.

Muhammad Khudabanda's monarchy was a period of conflicts between Qizilbash rulers and the king as well as conflicts among the rulers themselves. Such problems, fueled by his weak character and lack of competence and individual power, turned his monarchy into a dark period. Social and economic crises of his time were exacerbated by the depletion of the treasury—which was full of money gathered from laypeople in the period of Tahmasp—as a result of his incalculable donations to senior staff of the government, Qizilbash rulers, Sadat, and scholars in order to attract their support for his shaky monarchy.

Return of Power

In 996/1588, Abbas I was enthroned in Qazvin with the help of Murshid Quli Khan Ustajlu. At the beginning of his sultanate, domestic and foreign circumstances were chaotic and it seemed that the Safavid government was on the verge of collapse. However, Abbas I managed to overcome the difficulties. Not only did he quench domestic riots, but he also could create a powerful, stable government in Iran and spread the borders of his government.

The Fall of the Safavid Dynasty

When Abbas I died, signs of the collapse of the Safavid government began to emerge. The four years of Shah Safi were the darkest years of the Safavid era and the beginning of their fall. When Shah Safi died, Abbas II was enthroned. In the first years of his sultanate, he was under the influence of the Harem, the eunuchs, and women. However, he displayed his independent, powerful character over time and could revive the period of Abbas I during his 25 years of monarchy by exhibiting the stability, concentration of the government, and his absolute power in statecraft. He retook Kandahar from Timurids.

With the sultanate of Suleiman I, the Safavid dynasty's fall seemed imminent. He had inherited all defects of the kings before him. Finally, after his period, during the monarchy of Sultan Husayn, the Safavid government was toppled down by a not much heavy riot of Afghans and thus, the Safavid dynasty ended in 1135/1722.

Safavids and Shiism

Shiism as the Official Denomination

During their reign, the Safavid kings announced Shiism as the official denomination of Iran. Although some researchers speak about the social predisposition of Iranians for the acceptance of Shiism and have alluded to the spread of Shiism in years before the beginning of the Safavid dynasty, sources of the Safavid history admit that Shah Isma'il took strict measures to make Shiism the official denomination in Iran. Shah Isma'il obliged the orators of mosques to recite the Twelve Imams (a) in their sermons and curse the first three Rashidun Caliphs. He also formed a group called "Tabarra'iyyun" who marched on the streets and loudly cursed the caliphs. Shah Isma'il ordered the recitation of adhan in the Shiite style and the murder of everyone who performed the prayers in the Sunni style. Some sources speak about the murder of a great number of opponents of Shiism who had resisted the new religious policy. On the contrary, some researchers believe that, despite Shah Isma'il's pressures, Iranians converted to Shiism without any violence. Some people believe that the stories regarding the strict Safavid actions for Shiism are fictions not based on historical evidence. They appeal to some evidence to support their position.

In addition to strict measures against Sunni Muslims and the coercion of people to convert to Shiism, Shah Isma'il employed other procedures to propagate and establish Shiism. For example, he asked Shiite scholars to immigrate to Iran. When Shiite scholars moved to Iran, many Shiite seminary schools and scholarly centers were founded in the county. Another action by the Safavids to establish Shiism was the holding of Shiite rituals, such as mourning in the Muharram month. It helped provoke sympathies to, and establish, Shiism.

Shiism and the National Identity

Contemporary researchers consider the Safavid government to be the first national government in Iran. Some people take the recognition of Shiism as the official denomination in Iran to be the main factor in the formation of a national identity in the Safavid era. Shiism, they maintain, led to the unification of the Iranian people and their power towards their Sunni enemies. In their view, Shiism was a factor to unify Iranians and to distinguish them from their enemies, particularly the Ottomans.

Relationship between Shiite Scholars and the Safavids

Although Shiite scholars did not play a role in the establishment of the Safavid government at the beginning, they entered the structure of the Safavid government towards the end of the reign of Shah Isma'il and held positions such as ministry and judgeship. In the period of Shah Tahmasp, fuqaha entered the Safavid system more rapidly. In the meanwhile, al-Muhaqqiq al-Karaki proposed a new theory to justify the presence of scholars in the Safavid system in terms of sharia. According to this theory, in the period of the Occultation of an Infallible Imam, it is up to a qualified faqih to control the government, but the faqih can concede his legitimate political power to a Sultan because of certain exigencies. Shah Tahmasp accepted the theory and considered himself as a surrogate for the qualified faqih.

Although scholars faced ups and downs in their relationships with the Safavid government, they always had a crucial effective role in the political structure of the Safavid government. In this period, the scholars concerned themselves with the execution of the laws of sharia by undertaking positions such as judgeship, mawqufat (endowments), leadership of Friday Prayers and the like. However, it should be noted that they were always appointed by the kings and thus, their power was restricted by the power of the king and his fellows. Some Safavid kings, such as Abbas I, gave very limited authorities to the scholars and other positions, and some others, such as Abbas II, gave them a greater authority regarding religious and governmental affairs.

Positions of the Scholars

Sadr al-Islam: the position was devised since the period of Isma'il I. It was the highest-ranking religious position in much of the Safavid era. The extent of a Sadr's power somewhat depended on the person who held the position. When a very high-ranking scholar held the position of Sadr al-Islam, he had much more influence and authority over the king and his fellows.

Sadr al-Islam was in charge of supervising the affairs of the judges, other scholars, Sadat, and mosques. One of his most important duties was to administer the endowments. In the middle of the Safavid era, the position was divided into two parts: Sadr Khassa (Sadr of Nobles) and Sadr 'Amma (Sadr of Commons). Sadr Khassa was in charge of administering the governmental endowments, and Sadr 'Amma was in charge of administering non-governmental endowments.

Shaykh al-Islam: the title, Shaykh al-Islam, was first used by Shah Tahmasp for al-Muhaqqiq al-Karaki. Tahmasp highly regarded of al-Muhaqqiq al-Karaki, and thus, by assigning the position of Shaykh al-Islam to him, he gave him a position higher than Sadr al-Islam and gave him a great authority even in governmental affairs. Other people who held the position of Shaykh al-Islam include Sayyid Husayn Mujtahid Karaki, al-Shaykh al-Baha'i (d. 1030/1620-1), Muhammad Baqir Sabziwari (d. 1090/1679), and 'Allama Majlisi (d. 1110/1699).

Another position held by Shiite scholars in the Safavid system was Wakil Halaliyyat (agent of halal business) who was appointed by Safavid kings who tried to acquire money and property in a halal way.

Another official position held by scholars was Imam of Jum'a (leader of Friday Prayers) who was usually appointed by Shaykh al-Islam.

Mulla Bashi was also a position to which Muhammad Baqir Khatunabadi was appointed in the period of Sultan Husayn. The king highly honored Khatunabadi and considered him to be higher than Shaykh al-Islam.

Oppositional Scholars

Although most of the Shiite scholars had friendly relationships with the Safavid government, some of them avoided any interactions with the government and reproached the scholars who interacted with it, because of their view that it is wrong for scholars to cooperate with mundane governments. Shaykh Ibrahim Qatifi, al-Muqaddas al-Ardabili (d. 993/1585), Sadr al-Muta'allihin al-Shirazi, and Shaykh Hasan al-'Amili (d. 1011/1602-3), were among prominent figures who reproached interactions of scholars with the Safavid government.

Shiism and Sufism in the Safavid Era

The Safavid government was of a Sufi origin and was, thus, buttressed with the support of many followers of the Safavid tariqa who were known as Qizilbash. When the government was established, the head of the Safavid tariqa was both the king and the full master of the tariqa. The main part of the Safavid military force consisted of the Qizilbash. However, the close relationship between the king and the Qizilbash soon turned into a conflict. Shah Tahmasp who was trying to reduce the power of the Qizilbash, became close to the Shiite fuqaha. There was an old dispute between Sufis and Shiite fuqaha, and the dispute took a new shape when the fuqaha assumed the power in the Safavid government. Opposition to Sufism increased in the works of Shiite scholars, and towards the end of the Safavid government it turned into a tense apparent hostility leading to Shiite works regarding the rejection, and even excommunication (takfir), of the Sufis. 'Allama Majlisi was a leader of an irreconcilable conflict between scholars and Sufis. He was very honored by the Safavid government in its later period. He wrote works regarding the rejection of the Sufis. By exercising his power as a Shaykh al-Islam, he took measures to restrict the activities of the Sufis. In the period of Sultan Husayn, the Sufis and their khanqahs were cracked down and there were attempts to cut the relationship between people and the Sufis.

Relationship between the Safavids and the Ottomans

At the beginning of the Safavid government, there were tensions between Isma'il I and Sleim I (the Ottoman Sultan). However, their relationships improved over time, leading to friendship and mutual good will.

After a peace treaty between Shah Tahmasp and Suleiman the Magnificent (known as the Peace of Amasya in 1555/962), the relationship between Iran and the Ottomans improved and their letters became more friendly in tone. In later years, Shah Tahmasp sent delegates to Istanbul to give precious gifts on the occasion of the enthronement of Suleiman Kanuni. The friendship lasted until the death of Suleiman in 975/1568 and the succession of his son, Selim II.

Shah Tahmasp considered the Ottoman king to be a "Ghazi (warrior) Sultan" and "Fighter in the Way of Allah" (al-Mujahid fi Sabil Allah), and thus, he took fighting with him to be contrary to the laws of sharia. When Shah Abbas learned about Murad III's battles in Europe and his fights with Europeans, he expressed his satisfactions by writing a friendly letter to him and wishing him a victory.

Shah Abbas II also had friendly relationships with the Ottoman government. Since he felt no threat from the western borders of the country, he conquered Kandahar in 1058/1648. During this expedition, the representative of the Ottoman king (Sultan Ibrahim Khandagar) sent a friendly letter together with innumerable gifts to Abbas II, and in response, the Safavid king sent him a friendly letter together with gifts.

The Treaty of Zuhab was the most important peace treaty between the two countries in which the certain borders of the two countries were determined and to which it was referred in later treaties, such as the peace treaty after the battles of Nader Shah as well as in the determination of borders in the period of Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar. With this treaty, there was a peace between the two countries for about 90 years (in the periods of Abbas II, Shah Suleiman, and Sultan Husayn), particularly at the borders, and ambassadors went back and forth between Isfahan and Istanbul.

According to the extant information, throughout the period of Shah Suleiman (1077/1666-1105/1694) there was peace and safety at the borders of Iran and the Ottomans and the Treaty of Zuhab was respected. During this time, European ambassadors tried to lead Iran to turn hostile against the Ottomans, but Iran refused to do so.

Sultan Husayn's friendly message to the last Ottoman ambassador, Ahmad Durri Afandi, shows such a friendship between the two governments: "I pray for him [the Ottoman king]. He and his back-to-back fathers were warriors and they constantly fought the unbelievers. It is an obligation for us to pray for him".

When Mahmud Afghan overtook Isfahan, and collapsed the Safavid empire, he sought to announced his obedience of the Ottomans, but civil wars among Afghans and the rise of Nader Shah Afshar prevented annexing Iran to the Ottoman government.


  • The material for this article is mainly taken from صفویان in Farsi Wikishia.