The dynasty which created Iran

By Razib Khan | January 13, 2012 12:26 am


Shah Ismail I

The BBC Radio 4 program In Our Time just had an episode on the Safavid dynasty. If you want to understand how Iran as we understand it came to be, and you know nothing about the Safavids, this program is essential. Because of its outsized role in Western antiquity the pre-Christian Achaemenids are well known, while Iranian nationalists may look to the pre-Islamic Sassanians immortalized in the Shahnameh. Obviously these dynasties are important, just as the House of Wessex and the Plantagenets are essential in understanding how Britain came to be. But to truly comprehend England as a Protestant nation with a distinctive identity in relation to the continent the England of the Tudors and Stuarts, who happen to be contemporaneous with the Safavids, are much more important.


For example, it is routinely unknown that before the Safavids Iran was a predominantly Sunni domain. This is not to deny the presence of Shia within the borders of modern Iran, but aside from periods of state patronage (e.g., the Buyids) the status of Shi’ism was as it was in most of the Muslim world after the year 1000, a marginal minority, tolerated at best, oppressed at worst. It was the Safavids, originally a cosmopolitan Sufi order of variegated Greek, Kurdish, and Turkic origin (albeit, culturally Turk by the period of the Safavids) which realigned the identity of the Iranian nation with Shi’ism in the 16th and 17th centuries, recruiting Shia clerics from Lebanon and Iraq to reform and convert the multi-ethnic populace of the Iranian plateau.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture
MORE ABOUT: Iran, Safavids, Shia
  • http://www.parhasard.net/ Aidan Kehoe

    I haven’t checked with this particular recording (I like In Our Time in general, and will get to listening to this episode), but the BBC iPlayer and Radio 4 combination is annoyingly bad about getting the start and end times of broadcasts right. The Podcast option is much better; the MP3 link via it is here, and should be a reasonably stable URL. The In Our Time podcast home page is here.

  • leviticus

    Wasn’t there probably a Sunni brain drain from Iran because of the Safavids? I’d imagine if one wanted to make a career and get in on some of that state patronage, and was a Sunni, it was a choice of Central Asia or Mughal India.

    That aside, In Our Time is a must for any serious dilettante.

  • Danny

    In Europe, the Protestant Reformation erupted in 1517 but by the end of the 17th century at the latest the religious map of Europe had sorted itself out- England Protestant, France Catholic, Germany divided, etc.

    So in the Islamic world, apparently, this wasn’t the case. The the split in Islam occurred already in the 7th century, but the religious map of the Middle East would keep changing for a long time to come: Egypt, which has hardly any Shiite nowadays, was ruled for 200 years by a Shia dynasty, and Iran is Shia only since the Safavids.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    I’d imagine if one wanted to make a career and get in on some of that state patronage, and was a Sunni, it was a choice of Central Asia or Mughal India.

    india. big and wealthy in aggregate terms. but a lot of the shia in india descend from persians. so i don’t know.

    So in the Islamic world, apparently, this wasn’t the case. The the split in Islam occurred already in the 7th century, but the religious map of the Middle East would keep changing for a long time to come: Egypt, which has hardly any Shiite nowadays, was ruled for 200 years by a Shia dynasty, and Iran is Shia only since the Safavids.

    the shia-sunni split is not analogous in many ways. to a great extent what is shia is

    1) very diverse

    2) but also more clear and distinct than sunni

    really the categories were relatively fluid until ~1000, when the fatimids in egypt asserted their own distinctive shia caliphate. though do note that the majority in egypt was always sunni, even under the fatimids. but, these fatimids themselves came from heterodox movements in the maghreb, which today is overwhelmingly sunni (there is a small ibadi minority still i think).

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Danny, the changes in Islamic lands were limited to shifting sects of Islam. “The Lost History of Christianity” is chiefly concerned with currently marginal orthodox churches who persisted in large numbers for centuries under islamic rule. He notes that much of the decline even happened in the early 20th century. This is also leaving out Manicheanism, which nearly became an imperial religion and is now a curiosity.

  • omar

    About where the Sunnis may have gone, I am not sure there was a big brain drain to India. There doesnt seem to be much mention of such an exodus, but I may just be ignorant.
    There was a major SAFAVID Persian connection with the Mughal court (Humayun, second Mughal emperor, spent some years in exile in Persia and then returned to India with Persian help, this was 1555 or so) and himself nominally converted to shiism while in exile. Thereafter a large cadre of Persians (presumably all or mostly Shia) came to India and became an important component of the Mughal court.

  • Y ddraig verdd

    @3
    I don’t think that there where that many changes in Islamic sects in the Middle East. Except the Fatimids and the Safavids there haven’t been any important non-Sunni state in Islam in the last 1000 years. Shias (and other sects) managed to have some degree of power only at the periphery (Lebanon, Yemen, Oman, Pamir) . The Safavids are the only big exception and success story. And it could have been very different. A lot of regions where influenced (or converted) by Sufi orders but in the end become mainstream Sunni states.
    The rise of the Shia Savafids had a important effect also in the contested regions between Iran and the Ottoman Empire. The heterodox sects in the region become more, at least outwardly, mainstream. I mean nobody even knows for sure how many Alevis are there in Turkey.

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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