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    * Safavid conversion of Iran from Sunnism to Shiism *

    رسمی شدن تشیع در ایران توسط صفویان

    (Wikipedia) - Safavid conversion of Iran to Shia Islam   (Redirected from Safavid conversion of Iran from Sunnism to Shiism) For the related Iranian-Shi’ite tariqa, who led to Safavids, see Safaviyya. For the mainly Turkic Alevi tribes, see Qizilbash.   Part of a series onShīa Islam Beliefs and practices Holy days History Current Branches of Shi''ism Ahl al-Kisa Holy Women
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    The Safavid conversion of Iran from Sunnism to Shiism made Iran the spiritual bastion of Shia Islam against the onslaughts of Sunni Islam, and the repository of Persian cultural traditions and self-awareness of Iranianhood, acting as a bridge to modern Iran. It also ensured the dominance of the Twelver sect within Shiism over the Zaydiyyah and Ismaili sects – each of whom had previously experienced their own eras of dominance within Shiism. Through their actions, the Safavids reunified Iran as an independent state in 1501 and established Twelver Shiism as the official religion of their empire, marking one of the most important turning points in the history of Islam.


    Pre-Safavid Iran

    Iran’s population was mostly Sunni of the Shafi`i and Hanafi legal rites until the triumph of the Safavids (who had initially been Shafi`i Sufis themselves). Ironically, this was to the extent that up until the end of the 15th century the Ottoman Empire (the most powerful and prominent Sunni state and future arch-enemy of the Shia Safavids) used to send many of its Ulema (Islamic scholars) to Iran to further their education in Sunni Islam, due to a lack of Madrasahs (Islamic schools) within the Empire itself. The Sunni Iranians had always held the family of Muhammad in high esteem. In contrast, before the Safavid period, a minority of Iranians were Shia and there had been relatively few Shia Ulema in Iran.

    Ismail IShah Ismail I, the Sheikh of the Safaviyya Tariqa, the founder of Safavid Dynasty of Iran, and the Commander-in-chief of the Kizilbash Armies of the Safavid Empire.

    From 1500–2 Ismail I conquered Tabriz in Iran, as well as Azerbaijan. He would take most of the next decade to consolidate his control over Iran, where most of the Persian population was still Sunni. His army spread out first to the central regions in 1504. He captured southwestern Iran between 1505 and 1508 before finally conquering the Khorasan region and the city of Herat in 1510. From the very beginning, the Safavid Dynasty was established on two foundations. One was Shia and the other was Persia, and Ismail concentrated more on the first than the second. His hatred of the Sunnis knew no bounds: he was the most intolerant Shia ruler since the fall of the Fatimids and his persecution of Sunnis was ruthless. He aimed at no less than the complete destruction of Sunnism. Thus, the alternative for the majority of the Persians (who were Sunnis at the time), was either convert to Shiism or accept death. Consequently, in the territory that came fully under his control, he was astonishingly successful in enforcing the conversion of the populace from Sunnism to Shiism.

    Reasons for Ismail’s conversion policy

    More than most Muslim dynasties the Safavids worked for conversion to their branch of Islam and for ideological conformity. The reasons for this conversion policy included:

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    Methods of converting Iran

    Ismail consolidated his rule over the country and launched a thorough and at times brutal campaign to convert the majority Sunni population to Twelver Shiism and thus transform the religious landscape of Iran. His methods of converting Iran included:

    The fate of Sunni and Shia Ulema (scholars) Sunni Ulema

    The early Safavid rulers took a number of steps against the Sunni Ulema of Iran. These steps included giving the Ulema the choice of conversion, death, or exile and massacring the Sunni clerics who resisted the Shia transformation of Iran, as witnessed in Herat. As a result, many Sunni scholars who refused to adopt the new religious direction lost their lives or fled to the neighboring Sunni states.

    Arab Shia Ulema

    After the conquest, Ismail began transforming the religious landscape of Iran by imposing Twelver Shiism on the populace. Since most of the population embraced Sunni Islam and since an educated version of Shiism was scarce in Iran at the time, Ismail imported a new Shia Ulema corps from traditional Shiite centers of the Arabic speaking lands, such as Jabal Amil (of Southern Lebanon), Bahrain and Southern Iraq in order to create a state clergy. Ismail offered them land and money in return for loyalty. These scholars taught the doctrine of Twelver Shiism and made it accessible to the population and energetically encouraged conversion to Shiism. To emphasize how scarce Twelver Shiism was then to be found in Iran, a chronicler tells us that only one Shia text could be found in Ismail’s capital Tabriz. Thus it is questionable whether Ismail and his followers could have succeeded in forcing a whole people to adopt a new faith without the support of the Arab Shiite scholars. The rulers of Safavid Persia also invited these foreign Shiite religious scholars to their court in order to provide legitimacy for their own rule over Persia.

    Abbas I of Persia, during his reign, also imported more Arab Shia Ulema to Iran, built religious institutions for them, including many Madrasahs (religious schools) and successfully persuaded them to participate in the government, which they had shunned in the past (following the Hidden imam doctrine).

    Conversions beyond Iran Azerbaijan

    After conquering Tabriz in Iran, along with Azerbaijan and Armenia from 1500–02, one of the first acts of Ismail was to declare Twelver Shiism to be the state religion, despite the predominance of Sunni Muslims in the newly acquired territories. After the declaration, a conversion campaign was launched and Muslim peoples of the Caucasus, came under heavy pressure to accept Shiism. The imposition of Shiism was especially harsh in Shirvan, where a large Sunni population was massacred. Thus, the population of Azerbaijan was forcibly converted to Shiism in the early 16th century, when the Safavids held sway over it.


    Ismail peacefully seized Baghdad in 1508. However, his armies zealously murdered Sunnis and actively persecuted them through tribal allies of the Shah. His armies also destroyed several important Sunni sites, including the tombs of Abū Ḥanīfa and Abdul-Qadir Gilani. The Safavids even expelled the family of Gilani from Mesopotamia. After declaring Shiism the official form of Islam in Iraq, Ismail forced his new Iraqi subjects to convert to Shiism and outlawed Sunni practices. He then returned to Persia. These draconian actions by the conquering Safavids caused the Mesopotamian Sunnis to seethe with resentment.

    Iraq Map

    Likewise, under Tahmasp I, central and southern Iraq, including Baghdad and Basra had remained in Safavid hands and efforts were being made to establish Shiism in place of Sunnism in these lands. Sunni scholars who refused to accept Shia doctrines were executed and Sunni tombs and shrines were destroyed once again, while the main mosques were converted for Shia use only. While not extensive, some conversions did take place, and those remaining faithful to Sunnism were subjected to persecution until Suleiman the Magnificent expelled the Safavids from most of Iraq.

    When the Safavids returned in 1624 under the rule of Abbas I of Persia and reconquered Baghdad, they once more again massacred the Sunni inhabitants.

    Significant figures during the conversion process Ismail II Further information: Ismail II

    Ismail II’s reign (1576–77) was marked by a pro-Sunni policy. With the assistance of Mirza Makhdum al-Sharifi, the new Sadr, Ismail II strove to reverse the anti-Sunni practices among the populace. More specifically he strove to halt the public defamation of Aisha and the ritual cursing of Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman, which rose during early Safavid rule. A few motives may account for his approach to the anti-Sunni propaganda. A primary one was that he was keen to comply with one of the Ottoman demands of the Peace of Amasya concluded in 1555, which called for an end to the vilification of the first three Sunni Caliphs, thus placating the Ottomans and solidifying his own personal position. Another was his attempt to weaken the clerics as he attempted to forcibly demand land grants from Sayyids and Shia Ulema. The shah also clashed with the Ustajlu tribe and a number of Qizilbash amirs who were allied to the clerics. Thus, the public denunciation of Sunni emblems became one stage on which this power struggle between the Shah and the cleric-Qizilbash group was played out. The Shah also hoped to weaken the public appeal of the Amili clerics who administered and encouraged ritual cursing of the first three Sunni Caliphs among Iranians. His Sunni flirtation was also intended to reach out to the still-strong Sunni sympathies among Persians. Despite their quick rejection of Ismail II’s policies, the majority of Ulema and the military-political centre avoided a confrontation with him, even though in place of zealous Shia scholars like the Astarabadis, the Shah appointed Ulema with Sunni leanings such as Mawlana Mirza Jan Shirazi and Mir Makhdum Lala.

    Ismail II also wanted to do away with the inscribed names of the 12 imams on the Safavid coinage, but his attempt came to nothing.

    Shah Abbas I entertaining Vali Muhammad Khan of Bukhara. Ceiling fresco at Chehel SotounAbbas I of Persia Further information: Abbas I of Persia

    Shiism did not become fully established until the reign of Abbas I of Persia (1587–1629). Abbas hated the Sunnis, and forced the population to accept Twelver Shiism. Thus by 1602 most of the formerly Sunnis of Iran had accepted Shiism. A significant number, however, did not accept Safavid rule, prompting Abbas to institute a number of administrative changes in order to further transform Iran into a Twelver Shia state.

    Muhammad Baqir Majlisi Further information: Muhammad Baqir Majlisi

    Under the guidance of Muhammad Baqir Majlisi (1616–98, one of the most important Shiite clerics of all time), who devoted himself to (among other things) the eradication of Sunnism in Iran, the Safavid state made major efforts, in the 17th century to Persianize Shiite practice and culture in order to facilitate its spread in Iran among its Sunni populace. It was only under Majlisi that Shi''a Islam truly took hold among the masses.

    Portrait of Allamah Muhammad Baqir Majlesi.Emergence of a clerical aristocracy

    Because of the relative insecurity of property ownership in Persia, many private landowners secured their lands by donating them to the clergy as so called vaqf. They would thus retain the official ownership and secure their land from being confiscated by royal commissioners or local governors, as long as a percentage of the revenues from the land went to the ulama the quasi-religious organizations run by dervishes (futuvva). Increasingly, members of the religious class, particularly the mujtahids and the seyyeds, gained full ownership of these lands, and, according to contemporary historian Iskandar Munshi, Persia started to witness the emergence of a new and significant group of landowners. From then on many seyyeds also further propagated the idea that Ali should have been the first caliph and that by becoming the first caliph Abu Bakr had broken the link that proved that they should have more rights.

    Sultan Husayn Further information: Sultan Husayn

    During the reign of Sultan Husayn (1694–1722) (the last effective Safavid shah), there was a lot of religious unrest and religiously motivated rebellions in the Safavid state. These were especially provoked by his ill-fated persecution of the Sunnis living under his control. These troubles contributed to the further destabilization of the Safavid empire (towards the final years of its existence) and were factors that contributed to bringing the Safavids into an existential crisis.

    When Sultan Husayn tried to forcibly convert his Afghan subjects in southern Afghanistan from Sunni to Shia, the Safavid conversion policies caused Mir Wais Hotak (chief of the Ghilzai Afghans) to start a rebellion in the Kandahar region in 1709. Mir Wais and his Sunni Afghans killed the Safavid governor George XI of Kartli, including the Shah armies, and made the Afghan area free from Shia''s rule. The declaration of independence at Kandahar in 1709 was a turning point that was followed by the conquest of Herat by the Ghilzai Afghans in 1715 and the invasion of Iran. Mir Wais'' son Mahmud defeated the Safavids in the 1722 Battle of Gulnabad, marching west to besiege and capture their capital Isfahan, thus effectively ending the Safavid dynasty.

    Nader ShahNader Shah’s portrait from the collection of the Smithsonian Institution.Further information: Nader Shah

    During the reign of Nader Shah, an anti-Shiite policy was implemented. Nader made an unsuccessful attempt to return Iran to the Sunni fold by propagating the integration of Shiism into Sunnism as the fifth of the already extant four Sunni Madh''habs (to be called the Jaafari Madh''hab). However, the scheme to establish this form of Sunnism as the state religion failed to win support among most of the population.

    The reasons for his anti-Shia policy included:

    He implemented the following anti-Shia policies:

    After Nader’s death and the rapid disintegration of his empire, Shiism was quickly restored and religious properties were built up again in the following century.

    Historical outcome of Ismail’s conversion policyMap showing ethnic and religious diversity among the population of Iran.  

    Part of a series on Nizari-Ismāʿīli Batiniyya, Hurufiyya, Kaysanites and Twelver Shī‘ism

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    • * Safavid conversion of Iran to Shia Islam
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    Ismail’s conversion policy had the following historical outcomes:

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