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Senior Thesis: The Safavid Transformation

Posted January 7th, 2016 at 10:22 AM by Viperlord

So, last year I wrote my senior undergraduate thesis, which was essentially an extension of a previous paper I wrote on the Safavid Empire, the dynasty that ruled Persia between 1501-1722. The paper largely focuses on the Safavids between 1335-1501, and is essentially a political and religious history of Persia during that period. Here is the link to the full paper, and the introduction is pasted below, if anyone wants to read that before committing to read 40+ pages.


One of the most significant events in medieval Middle Eastern history was the transformation of the Safavid Order of Ardabil from a spiritual order of Sufi mystics into a radical millenarian movement and then into an empire that would reign in Persia for over two centuries. The rise of the Safavids to power was one of the formative events of Persian and Middle Eastern history. The religious and political orientation of modern Iran as a Shi'ite country, in opposition to most of the Arab world and Turkey, is the direct legacy of the Safavid conquest and conversion of Persia.

The “what” of Safavid history is well known enough in general terms, but the least understood aspect of Safavid history is the “how.” How exactly did the Safavid Order transform from a peaceable order of Sufi mystics, with no apparent Shi'ite sympathies, into a radical Shi'i millenarian movement with an army of fanatically devoted Turkmen warriors, and then into a royal dynasty that would endure for over two centuries?

The topic has certainly not been overlooked entirely by historians, as there are any number of works that either deal with the subject or explicitly focus on an aspect of it.

The story of Shah Ismail Safavi, who founded the Safavid Empire itself, is relatively famous; he also played a significant historical role as an early enemy of the Ottoman Empire. But the Safavids during the time of Ismail's grandfather Junayd, who was responsible in large part for the Safavid transformation, and his father Haydar are not as well known or understood. The Safavids are part and parcel of a larger story about religious transformation and extremism in the Middle East in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, beginning with the collapse of Mongol and then Timurid power, and then the rise and fall of their successors, the Qaraqoyunlu and Aqquyunlu confederations of Turkmen tribes.1

The transformation of the Safavids from a typical Sufi order into a wildly heterodox and militant force has posed a puzzle for historians. This has led to the occasional entertaining of some theories on when this began with fairly thin evidential support, in part due to lack of better or more clear explanations.2

One of the greatest stumbling blocks in explaining the Safavid transformation comes after 1447 with the question of when precisely the Safavids adopted Shi'i Islam as their guiding ideology. While it is often assumed that Junayd Safavi was a Shi'ite from 1447 onwards, the record is murky on that point; Junayd was evicted from Ardabil with his followers by Jahanshah, the leader of the Qaraqoyunlu confederation, over what was apparently a more political than religious dispute.3 The radical ideology preached by Junayd to his followers from this time onward would have horrified any Shi'ite 'alim.4 His Turkmen followers had highly heterodox beliefs by either Sunni or Shi'i standards; the question remains therefore, when Safavid Shi'ism in any formal capacity developed, as opposed to a vaguely Shi'ite-tinged gulat belief system centered around individuals of the Safavi family.5

In order to explain the Safavid transformation, this paper will attempt to place them in the political-religious landscape of Persia and eastern Anatolia in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Safavids were a product of the political instability of the period, which can be traced back to the collapse of the Mongol Ilkhanate (1335, within a year of Safi ad-Din's death) and in the fifteenth century the collapse of the Timurids and their empire, particularly from 1447 (year of the death of Timur's successor Shahrukh, and also of Junayd Safavi's assumption of leadership in Ardabil) onward. In painting a fuller portrait of the Safavids, their times, and their final transformation into a radical force, a number of historical questions such as those detailed above will have to be addressed, but there is in my view a distinct reason for the transformation of the Safavids.

My central argument is that the Safavids, in their development from peaceable Sufi order into militant and millenarian cult, were not entirely exceptional amongst other religious movements of the period, and that they were never formally Shi'ite Muslims prior to 1501, instead representing an entirely heterodox and extremist belief system that, as unusual as it may appear, was comparable to and built upon other millenarian movements of the era.

1H.R. Roemer, “The Turkmen Dynasties,” in The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 6, ed. Peter Jackson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 151. The names of the Aqquyunlu and Qaraqoyunlu mean White Sheep and Black Sheep Turkomans, respectively; the reasons for the naming are obscure, but were likely intended at least partially to define each group in opposition to the other.

2One such notion is that Khwaja Ali, grandson of Safi ad-Din and head of the Safavid order from 1391 to 1429, began the order's shift towards Shi'ism, based on a story about his interaction with the famed conqueror Timur. For reasons that will be discussed later in the paper, this argument is not convincing.

3 Roemer, “The Turkmen Dynasties,” 166-168. Jahanshah, while he may have had some Shi'ite leanings, was probably best described as religiously opportunistic rather than having any rigid allegiance.

4'Ulama means religious scholar/clergy, 'alim is the singular.

5Said Amir Arjomand, The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam: Religion, Political Order, and Societal Change in Shi'ite Iran from the Beginning to 1890 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 31. Gulat (or ghuluww) is a term usually used to describe some extremist Shi'ite groups who lay outside mainstream Shi'i belief, particularly messianic and millenarian movements.
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