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date: 03 March 2021

The Safavidslocked

  • Colin MitchellColin MitchellDalhousie University

Summary

The Safavids (1501–1722) controlled a land-based empire that comprised the modern-day nation of Iran, with extensions into Iraq, the Caucasus, and Afghanistan. The family of the Safavids originated as Sufi mystical sheikhs based in the region of Azerbaijan but were later imperialized thanks to the dynastic founder, Shah Ismaʿil (r. 1501–1524). The transition from Sufi tariqa to imperial polity was not smooth, and Ismaʿil faced external threats from the Ottoman Empire to the west, as well as internal pressure from his popular base, the Qizilbash tribal Turks who revered their shah as both a Sufi sheikh as well as a manifestation of the millenarian figure Mahdi who was popularly understood as the Muslim agent of the Apocalypse. The success of the Safavids was partly based on their ability to distance their family from such decentralized, tribal elements and seek out those constituencies that could help with regard to establishing and building legitimacy: orthodox Twelver Shiʿite jurists and scholars as well as urban Persian administrators and bureaucrats. It was Ismaʿil and his successor, Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524–1576), who proclaimed and enforced Twelver Shiʿism as the new state doctrine, thus contributing to a stark Sunni-Shiʿite division between themselves and their neighboring rival empires of the Ottomans and the Uzbeks. The apogee of the Safavid Empire took place during the reign of Shah ʿAbbas (r. 1589–1629) who, among other things, transformed Isfahan into a city of international stature with fantastic architectural patronage while at the same time enticing European merchants and traders to trade in textiles, silk, and other manufactured goods. Following the reign of Shah ʿAbbas, the Safavid Empire became less stable and more susceptible to outside elements, namely those Caucasian nobles and landed gentry who had been previously incorporated into the Safavid state as court officials, provincial governors, and ranking military officers. Concurrently, there was a rise in conservative orthodoxy among the Shiʿite religious scholars, and the previous era of open trade and strong international relations began to wane as Christians, Jews, and other minorities became increasingly targeted and persecuted. By the end of the 17th century, the Safavid court was politically isolated from the other provinces, so much so that the imperial capital was easily besieged and conquered in 1722 by an invading conglomerate of Afghan tribes.

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