Exploration and Conquest

There were only a few occasions in Islamic history where Shiites had the opportunity to exercise control over others. Both Buyids and Fatimids adopted a lenient policy regarding the Sunnis, presumably not least for pragmatic reasons since Sunnis constituted the majority of Muslims under their rule. While the Buyids faced the additional difficulty of having no connection with the house of the Prophet and thus acting with the Shiite patronage to a certain extent against their own interests, the Fatimids represented a minority version of Shiism that was highly esoteric and elitist. Their ceremonies thus took place within a restricted area. Yet, the Fatimids and other Ismaili movements remained activist and tried to expand their territories with the ultimate aim of challenging the Abbasid caliph. It was in Iraq, after all, where the movement had started.

The Safavids followed a very different strategy. They originated as a Sufi order in a milieu in eastern Anatolia, Iraq, and Iran shaped by extreme Shiism, Sufism, and pre-Islamic Turco-Iranian traditions. When the order, which was named after a 13th-century shaykh, began to spread at the beginning of the 14th century, it was still a Sunni religious movement. In the second half of the 15th century, the order had started to acquire political power and found its main supporters among the Qizilbash (Ottoman Turkish for 'red heads', a reference to their red headwear), extreme Shiites in eastern Anatolia. In the 15th century the order took on more and more Shiite traits and was marked by extreme notions such as the divinity of their leader. These elements were given up in favor of Twelver Shiism when at the beginning of the 16th century, the Safavids quickly conquered large parts of Iran. Chaldiran, the site of the battle against the Ottomans in 1514, marked the border between Shiite Iran and the Sunni Ottoman Empire, which coincides with the border between the modern states, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Turkish Republic.

As the character of Safavid Shiism transformed from a charismatic, eschatological nature, into a more traditional kind of Shiism, the Shahs (rulers over Iran) relied to a large extent on scholars, even though the ruler maintained the superior religious authority. Since Shiism was not well enough established in Iran, the Safavid Shahs imported scholars from Lebanon and the Gulf region, although the extent of this emigration is controversial. Shiism in Lebanon can be traced back to the 14th century when a certain Ibn Makki al-Amili, who had studied with a son of the rationalist scholar the Allama al-Hilli, returned to his native Jabal Amil. With the scholars who came from Lebanon, the theoretical concepts of the Allama were introduced in Iran where they strengthened the position of the scholars.

Exceptionally for Islamic history, the Safavids persecuted non-Imami Muslims. This included the extreme Shiites who had initially supported the movement as well as Sunnis and non-Muslims and eventually the Sufi orders. The Sufi saints with their charismatic authority were rivals to the Shiite Imams in whose names the Safavids ruled. This rivalry had a material dimension too, since both benefitted from taxes and donations. There were further waves of such persecutions in Iran even after Safavid rule had ended.

The end of Safavid rule in 1736 allowed the scholars to consolidate and further expand their authority. No dynasty that could claim descent from the house of the Prophet rivaled them. In the course of assuming more and more power, the scholars also claimed what had been prerogatives of the Hidden Imam, among other things, to lead the Friday prayer, to declare jihad, and to excommunicate (takfir, i.e., to declare someone an unbeliever).

At the same time, the relationship between scholars and rulers deteriorated, not least because of an increasing tendency of the latter to bring Iran on a par with Western European states. This policy began in the mid-19th century under the Qajars (1796-1925) who challenged, for example, the monopoly of the scholars in education by founding a school for advanced learning. In the conflict with the rulers, the scholars could make use of the long-established Shiite tradition of denouncing governments as secular and unjust. In addition to that, scholars actively involved in politics would employ ideological notions of the left and present themselves as representatives of the people. An attempt led by a coalition of scholars and liberal-democratic forces to allay these conflicts in the Assembly of the National Council of 1906 failed.

Under the new dynasty of the Pahlavis (1925-1979) these absolutist tendencies continued. In 1932, the Shah challenged the monopoly of the scholars on one of the main sources of income, the fees for notarial functions. Following a similar strategy as Atatürk in the newly-founded Turkish Republic, he imposed European clothing and tried to stop Muharram processions. Over decades, these measures had led to little opposition among the scholars who remained often quietist and frequently held liberal and modern views themselves.

In the 1960s, the clashes with radical, activist clerics increased. One of the protagonists, the future revolutionary Khomeini, was deported to Iraq in 1964. Opposition against the shahs also came in a more pronounced manner from socialists and communists, most notably the intellectual Ali Shariati. The Shiite theology of waiting for the Hidden Imam was translated by these left-wing groups into a language of revolution in which the revolutionary leader and his followers have the responsibility of paving the way for a classless society. In 1979, a diverse coalition of communists and socialists, liberals, and clerics of various tendencies ended the rule of the Shah.

The early modern period also saw the establishment of Shiites in India. The Shiite Bahmani dynasty had ruled over the Deccan since the 14th century but disintegrated in the 16th century. It was replaced by several Shiite states, some of which followed the Safavid model and were in close contact with Iran. These were mostly short-lived attempts swept away by the Mughals in the following century. The Mughals sometimes embraced Shiite elements to secure Safavid support.

Study Questions:
1.     What is the origin of the Safavids, and how did this affect their political power?
2.     How did the Shahs of Iran interact with Shiism?
3.     Why is the relationship between scholars and political rulers important in Shiism?

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