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An Introduction to Shi'i Islam:
The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shi'ism

by Moojan Momen

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Chapter 6


                      Shi'i Islam in Modern Times

                              AD 1500-1900

The Safavid Period (10th/16th-12th/18th Centuries)

Political Developments under Shah Isma'il

The early history of the Safavids has already been described in the
previous chapter. When Isma'il became the leader of the Safavid order
of Sufis in 900/1494, the Aq-Quyunlu Empire was being seriously
weakened by civil war between rival claimants. Rustam, the Aq-Quyunlu
claimant who had killed Isma'il's brother, 'Ali, for a time pursued
Isma'il and the latter went into hiding in Ardibil and later in
Lahijan. But soon Rustam was embroiled in fighting other claimants and
was killed in 1497 leaving Isma'il free to organise his followers.
  It is clear that Isma'il was representing himself to his Turkoman
Qizilbash followers at this time as not merely the representative of
the Hidden Imam, but the Hidden Imam himself and beyond that even
claiming divinity for himself. Isma'ili's followers are said to have
gone into battle without armour, confident that no harm would befall
them, saying: 'La ilaha ila Allah, Isma'il waliyu'llah (there is no
god but God and Isma'il is the Friend of God)', thus equating Isma'il
with the Imam 'Ali.
  Gathering all his men from Anatolia and Syria, Isma'il (only twelve
years old at this time), set out in 1499 to carve out an empire for
himself. The initial campaign was not very successful, but after
wintering his troops in Gilan, Isma'ili in 1500 attacked the kingdom
of Shirvan whose rulers had killed his grandfather. The king of
Shirvan was defeated and killed and Baku captured. Then one of the Aq-
Quyunlu marched against him with four times as many troops as Isma'ili
had. But Isma'ili defeated this army and the whole of Adharbayjan fell
into his hands. In the summer of 1501 Isma'ili was crowned king in
Tabriz. He proclaimed that the official religion of the new state
would be Ithna-'Ashariyya (Twelver) Shi'ism.


   It took Isma'il another ten years to conquer all of Iran as far
east as Herat as well as Diyarbakr and Baghdad in Iraq. During this
time his Qizilbash troops served him with fanatical devotion and
Isma'il incorporated within himself the military, administrative and
religious leadership of the country. He instituted the post of Sadr
whose function it was to co-ordinate the propagation of Shi'ism in
Iran while the Safavid agents called Khalifas were also busy in Syria
and Anatolia.
  It is probably insufficiently appreciated how close Isma'il came to
winning over the Islamic heartlands ideologically. For even while he
was conquering Iran, his emissaries were preparing the ground for an
extension of his empire westwards. For several generations large
numbers of the Turkoman tribes occupying west and central Anatolia had
been devotees of the Safavid order and had assisted in the conquest of
Iran. The rising Ottoman Empire claimed sovereignty over this area but
it was obvious that its hold was shaky with the loyalty of many of the
tribesmen leaning towards the newly-emerging Safavid state in Iran.
Even the loyalty of the Janissaries, the pre-eminent corps of the
Ottoman army, was in doubt since they were followers of the Bektashi
Sufi order and were thus outgrowths of the same religious roots as the
Safavid order. Isma'il's religious poetry enjoyed wide circulation
among the Bektashis. In Syria also there were large numbers of
followers of the Safavid order and contemporary accounts of Aleppo,
for example, speak of a 'party of Ardibil' within the city[1] while
the Mamluk state in Egypt was inclined to an alliance with the
Safavids against the Ottomans. Thus Isma'il was poised to add eastern
Anatolia, Syria and perhaps even Egypt to his domains after completing
his conquest of Iran.[2]
  So worried were the Ottomans that Sultan Bayazid II ordered large-
scale deportations of Shi'is from eastern Anatolia to Morea in AD
1502. In 1511 Baba Shah-Quli began a pro-Safavid revolt among
tribesmen in the province of Tekke on the Mediterranean coast of
Anatolia. The rebels advanced as far as Brusa before being defeated
and driven back. The following year, 1512, Sultan Selim I acceded to
the Ottoman throne and determined to act decisively against the danger
of the whole of eastern Anatolia seceding to the Safavids. He drew up
a list of every known Shi'i in his dominions and massacred them to the
reported number of 40,000, deporting and imprisoning large numbers of
others. In the same year one of Isma'il's close aides raised a force
from among the Sufis of the Safavid order in eastern Anatolia and
raided the Ottoman domains.
  In 1514 Sultan Selim decided to march against Shah Isma'il and
reached the plain of Chaldiran in Adharbayjan with an army of over
1,000,000 men against which Isma'il could only muster 40,000. Although
the Safavid forces had the advantage in the hand-to-hand fighting, the


deployment of artillery and hand-guns by the Ottomans (when the
Safavids had had no experience of these) decided the day. The Ottomans
won and occupied Tabriz. At this stage, instead of pressing home the
advantage and overthrowing the Safavid state completely, Selim
withdrew. This withdrawal has been attributed to the difficulties of
the extended Ottoman lines of communication but may also have had
something to do with fears of the effects that a prolonged campaign in
Iran might have had on Selim's Janissary troops whose loyalty was
under question because of their religious affinities with the Safavids
through the Bektashi Sufi order.
  Had Isma'ili won the day there was probably no other force in the
Middle East that could have withstood him, and Anatolia, Syria and
perhaps Egypt would have fallen easily to him. Whether Isma'il could
have imposed Shi'ism on the population of such a large area in the
same way as he did in Iran is a question that is as fascinating as it
is impossible to answer.
  Isma'il was a broken man after Chaldiran. He retired to his palace
and withdrew from active participation in the affairs of the state,
leaving these to his minister, Mirza Shah-Husayn, an Iranian, whose
power grew so great that he was eventually assassinated in 1523 by
Turkoman Qizilbash. In the following year, on 23 May 1524, Shah
Isma'il himself died.

Shah Isma'ili's Religious Policy

Although Isma'il had proclaimed Twelver Shi'ism to be the religion of
the state, there were anomalies in his position. The Safavids as a
dynasty were greatly concerned by the question of legitimacy. Although
in Sunni Islam the legitimacy of the defacto ruler had been
established by Sunni scholars in the early medieval period, there had
been no similar work done in Shi'ism and indeed no comparable
circumstance had arisen in Shi'i history. Isma'il's own position
rested on three bases: firstly, the ancient Persian concept of
kingship which was expressed in the concept of the king being the
'Shadow of God on Earth'; secondly, on his position as head of the
Safavid order of Sufis thus commanding the absolute obedience of his
followers, the Qizilbash; thirdly, on the basis of an alleged descent
from the Seventh Imam, he and the succeeding Safavids claimed to be
the representative of the Hidden Imam, and, as such, to be imbued with
infallibility ('isma).
  It is this last claim which is the most interesting for it runs
clearly counter to some of the most fundamental tenets of Twelver
Shi'ism. Even if the Safavid claim to 'Alid descent is accepted (and
most modern scholars consider it to have been a forgery), mere descent
from the


Imams confers no spiritual or temporal authority. Twelver Shi'ism is
quite clear that in the case of the Imamate, both heredity and
designation (nass) are necessary, neither being acceptable without the
other. Indeed, in the case of the four representatives of the Hidden
Imam that existed during the Lesser Occultation (see pp. 162-5),
designation was the only important basis of their authority for none
of them was descended from the Imams. Moreover, the doctrines of
Twelver Shi'ism are also very clear in stating that after the death of
the fourth of these representatives and the start of the Greater
Occultation, no-one can claim to be the special representative (na-'ib
al-khass) of the Hidden Imam until the return of the Imam occurs. It
was clearly impossible for the Safavids to claim designation (except
in visions of the Hidden Imam) and the great stress in their
propaganda on their descent from the Imams can only be seen as a smoke
screen to hide the fact that this was an irrelevance. In fact, the
Safavids were claiming power on the basis of a Zaydi-style Imamate
(see pp. 49-50) while claiming to be Twelver Shi'is.
  Why then was there no protest at this irreligious claim by Isma'il?
There appear to be two factors involved in the lack of response by the
ulama to his claim. Firstly, there were, by this time, very few
prominent native Iranian Twelver ulama. The old Shi'i centres in Iran,
such as Qumm, Nishapur, Tus, Kashan and Rayy were no longer important
centres of scholarship and were producing very few ulama and none of
any prominence. Among Isma'ili's own Qizilbash forces there appears to
have been a profound ignorance of Twelver Shi'ism. When Tabriz was
taken and Twelver Shi'ism proclaimed the religion of the state, for
example, there was not a single book on Twelver Shi'ism to be found in
Isma'il's army and eventually a copy of a book by 'Allama al-Hilli was
located in the library of a qadi of Tabriz to provide guidance on the
new religion of the state. None of those appointed to the office of
Sadr (in charge of the propagation of Shi'ism) in the early period had
received formal training as Twelver ulama, and the Shi'ism of one of
them was even in doubt.3 The Arab Twelver ulama resident in Iraq,
Syria and Bahrain were the only ones that could have provided informed
authoritative opposition to the Safavid claim. These were brought to
Iran in increasing numbers, especially during the reigns of Isma'il's
successors, but they probably felt their position, as immigrants
dependent on the largesse of the state, too vulnerable to take on the
Shah and, in any case, it is doubtful if they would have wanted to
undermine the newly-emergent state that was propagating Shi'ism and
was under attack from Sunni powers. Thus in the early period of the
Safavid dynasty there appears to have been an uneasy alliance between
the state and the ulama with the state supporting the ulama by
enforcing Shi'ism on the populace while the ulama supported the state
and kept quiet about


the inconsistencies in the religious stance of the monarch.
  It is clear that the Shi'ism that Isma'il was enforcing throughout
his domain at this stage consisted of no more than the Shi'i form of
the call to prayer (adhan), the acknowledgement of 'Ali's position
during the address in the mosque (the khutba) and the public cursing
of 'Ali's enemies. For the majority of the people, it involved no more
than exalting 'Ali and cursing his enemies. The tombs of Sunni saints
and scholars were desecrated and here and there a few Sunni ulama
resisted the change and were dealt with harshly. But there does not
appear to have been the major upheaval and opposition that might have
been expected in a predominantly Sunni country. This is undoubtedly
due to the activities of the Sufi orders and the futuwwa brotherhoods
who had been inculcating a love of 'Ali and the family of the Prophet
among the people for the past two centuries. The religious toleration
of the Ilkhanid and Timurid rulers had also served to diffuse much of
the old Sunni-Shi'i hatred.

Conscious of the fact that another Sufi order could emulate what the
Safavids had done, Isma'ili set about destroying the organised Sufi
orders. The Sunni Naqshbandi and Khalwati orders were extirpated. The
Nurbakhshi and Dhahabi orders that were pro-Shi'i were initially
tolerated but gradually emasculated and lost their influence. Only the
Ni'matu'llahi order, which proclaimed itself Shi'i on the
establishment of the Safavid state and allied itself closely to the
Safavids, was allowed to continue its activities without opposition.

Shah Tahmasp

At the time of Isma'il's death, his son Tahmasp was only ten years
old. There followed a decade of disorder when the various Qizilbash
factions fought each other for supremacy until in AD 1533 Tahmasp was
able to assert his authority. But he was in a perilous position with
the state severely weakened and serious incursions being made by the
Uzbegs in the East and the Ottomans in the West. Between 1524 and 1538
there were five major Uzbeg attacks and between 1533 and 1553 there
were four major Ottoman invasions.
  In 1555 Tahmasp signed a peace treaty with the Ottomans and at about
the same time moved his capital from Tabriz to Qazvin. The rest of his
reign was comparatively tranquil.
  On the religious side, Tahmasp was still considered a divine figure
by his Sufi followers but he had no inclination to assume this role
and took steps to suppress the tendency to extremist Shi'ism (ghuluww)
among his followers. He crushed one Turkoman tribe in 938/1531 for
irreligion (ilhad) and another group of Sufis who proclaimed him Mahdi
in 1554


Other manifestations of extremism such as the Nuqtavi movement
(derived from the Hurufis of the previous century) were also
suppressed and a community of them in Kashan massacred in 983/1575
  On the other side of the coin, Tahmasp did much to encourage the
spread of orthodox Twelver Shi'ism. The leading Shi'i scholar of the
day, Shaykh 'Ali ibn 'Abdu'l-'Ali al-'Amili, known as Muhaqqiq ath-
Thani or Muhaqqiq al-Karaki (d. 940/1533), who had visited Iran in
Shah Isma'il's time, was now encouraged to settle in Iran. He
travelled about the country propagating orthodox Shi'ism, appointing
prayer-leaders in each town and village who could teach the people
Shi'ism, and openly attacking Sunnism. It is reported that his open
cursing of Abu Bakr and 'Umar had repercussions in Mecca and Medina
where the Shi'i ulama were persecuted in retaliation.4
  Tahmasp died in AD 1576 and was succeeded by his son Isma'il II. The
latter was sympathetic to Sunnism and the fact that he thought it
feasible to try to reverse Safavid religious policies and found
support for doing so even in the capital city of Qazvin, shows how
superficial conversion to Shi'ism had been in Iran up to this time.
But the Qizilbash would not tolerate this and Isma'il II was
assassinated after a reign of only one year. His successor, Sultan-
Muhammad Shah, was a weak and ineffectual ruler who reigned from 1578
until 1588 when he was forced to abdicate in favour of his son, Shah
'Abbas I.

Shah 'Abbas I

'Abbas I came to the throne at a critical time in the fortunes of the
Safavid Dynasty. The Qizilbash chiefs, under his father's weak rule,
had lapsed into internecine warfare. The Ottomans and Uzbegs, taking
advantage of the situation, had seized Adharbayjan and Herat
  'Abbas I, realising that he could no longer rely on the Qizilbash,
raised a standing army from the ghulams, the Georgian and Circassian
slaves which Tahmasp had brought back from his campaigns. Using these,
he launched a campaign in 1598 which drove the Uzbegs out of Khurasan.
In 1603 he started a campaign which lasted until 1607 and cleared the
Ottomans from Adharbayjan. Finally in 1624 Baghdad and the whole of
Iraq fell to the Safavid forces. This final victory was of great
symbolic importance because of the existence in Iraq of the great
Shi'i shrines. In 1597 'Abbas I transferred his capital to Isfahan.
 In the field of religion, the policies of Isma'il I in suppressing
the organised Sufi orders and that of Tahmasp in suppressing
expressions of Shi'i extremism (ghuluww) while encouraging the growth
of orthodox Twelver Shi'ism were continued by 'Abbas I. The
Ni'matu'llahi order of Sufis that had allied itself to the Safavids
and had been allowed to


continue under the early Safavids was now subjected to pressure and
eventually withdrew to India.
  The old Sufi organisation of the Safavid order had, by the reign of
'Abbas I, become an empty form. 'Abbas, having seen in his early years
how fickle and unreliable was the loyalty of the Qizilbash, took every
opportunity to undermine and diminish the importance of this aspect of
his power base. In 1592 and again in 1614 a number of Sufis of
Qarajadagh, who were among the oldest adherents of the Safavid order,
were executed on the charge of collaborating with the Ottomans, thus
demonstrating how little was left of the old loyalty. Among the
Georgian and Circassian slaves (ghulams) who replaced the Qizilbash,
the former appeal to Sufgari (Sufi probity and obedience to the
Shaykh) as the basis of loyalty to the Shah was replaced by Shahi-
sivani (love of the Shah).
  At the beginning of his reign 'Abbas I was attracted by the Nuqtavi
doctrine which was based on the old Hurufi ideas. But in 1593 he
turned on this group and had large numbers of them killed in Kashan
and Isfahan. From this date on 'Abbas I surrounded himself with
orthodox Twelver ulama and worked towards the propagation of that
  During the reigns of his predecessors Iranians had been sent to
Jabal 'Amil to study Shi'ism. After 'Abbas moved his capital to
Isfahan in 1597, he built there a number of theological colleges
(madrasas) and encouraged ulama from Jabal 'Amil and Bahrain to come
to Iran and particularly to Isfahan. This heralded a major change in
the education of Shi'i ulama at the beginning of the 11th/17th
century. Whereas Sunnis had since Seljuq times built up a system of
education at religious colleges, Shi'i religious students had tended
to gather around individual prominent scholars, often being taught in
the home of that scholar in the villages of the Jabal 'Amil or Bahrain
or even in the town of Hilla. Now with the advent of a Shi'i state
that was able to fund such enterprises, the system of religious
colleges was started in Iran and particularly in Isfahan. These were
the precursors of the religious colleges that were built in Qajar
times at Najaf, Qumm and Mashhad and are now the most important such
institutions in the Shi'i world.[5]
  The principal centre of Shi'i scholarship was thus transferred to
Isfahan during the reign of 'Abbas I. A prominent role in this build-
up of the importance of Isfahan as a religious centre was played by
Mulla 'Abdu'llah Shushtari (d. 1021/1612). After spending thirty years
studying in Najaf and Karbala, particularly under Muqaddas Ardibili,
Shushtari arrived in Isfahan about one year after Shah 'Abbas
transferred his capital there. He became the principal religious
teacher in the town and it is stated that, whereas when he arrived
there were only 50 students in Isfahan, by the time of his death,
fourteen years later, there were over


1,000. The leading Shi'i scholar of the time was Shaykh Baha'u'd-Din
Muhammad ibn Husayn al-'Amili al-Juba'i, known as Shaykh Baha' (d.
1031/1622). Shaykh Bahá'í, in the breadth of his knowledge and his
achievements in many fields, resembled Khwaja Nasiru'd-Din Tusi. He
was an eminent theologian, jurist, philosopher, mystic, astronomer and
poet as well as playing a major role in the planning and construction
of Isfahan.
  By the reign of Shah 'Abbas I, the claim by the Safavid kings to a
semi-divine nature or to being the representative of the Hidden Imam
was fading rapidly. 'Abbas I appears himself to have been a pious man.
He greatly embellished the holy shrines at Qumm and Mashhad and
performed several pilgrimages, on one occasion walking the entire
distance from Isfahan to Mashhad on foot. Nevertheless, a few remnants
of the old extremist trend remained, such as the custom of prostrating
before the monarch (in Islam prostration should only be to God). The
role of Sadr, which was a political appointment, was decreasing in
importance, and a new position of Shaykh al-Islam was created to which
recognised members of the ulama were appointed. This began the process
of a separation between the church and the state, but during the days
of 'Abbas I the position of the ulama, as newly arrived migrants, was
too insecure and the position of the king too strong to allow any real
independence to the ulama. For the time being, the state remained in
firm control of the ulama.
  Shah 'Abbas died in AD 1629 and was succeeded by his grandson Shah
Safi. This monarch appears to have been addicted to opium and alcohol
and to have had little interest in the affairs of state. Under his
rule Baghdad was lost to the Ottomans in 1638 and Qandahar to the
Moguls of India in the same year. He died in 1642 and was succeeded by
his son, 'Abbas II, who was eight-and-half years of age.
  'Abbas II had some of the character of his great-grandfather and
succeeded in reviving the fortunes of the dynasty to an extent.
Qandahar was recaptured in 1648 and the frontiers were maintained
intact. Although also addicted to wine, 'Abbas I did not allow affairs
to slip from his grasp and was for the most part just and tolerant as
a ruler.

The School of Isfahan

The major intellectual development in Islam during this period began
during the reign of Shah 'Abbas I but reached its full flowering in
the reigns of his successors. This was the development of Hikmat-i
Ilahi (al-Hikma al-Ilahiyya), divine philosophy or theosophy, under
what has come to be called the Ishraqi (Illuminationist) school of
philosophy or the so-called 'School of Isfahan' (see pp. 217-19). The
origins of this


school within an Islamic context go back to Shihabu'd-Din Yahya
Suhrawardi (killed in Aleppo in 1191) who believed that to obtain true
wisdom it was necessary to develop both the rational and the intuitive
aspects of the mind. While the former could be achieved through the
philosophy of Aristotle and ibn Sina (Avicenna), the latter required
the purification of the soul which could best be achieved through
asceticism, mysticism and gnosis. The School of Isfahan also drew on
the works of Sayyid Haydar Amuli and ibn Abi Jumhur in bringing
together Sufism and the esoteric aspects of Shi'ism.
  The founder of the School of Isfahan was Muhammad Baqir Astarabadi,
known as Mir Damad (d. 1040/1631). The greatest figure in this school
was Sadru'd-Din Muhammad ibn Ibrahim Shirazi, known as Mulla Sadra (d.
1050/1640). Other prominent names in the movement include Abu'l-Qasim
Astarabadi, known as Mir Findiriski (d. 1050/1640), and Mulla Rajab
'Ali Tabrizi (d. 1080/1669). Mulla Sadra retired at one stage of his
life to Kahak, a village near Qumm. Subsequently, an important branch
of this movement was centred in Qumm with the presence there of Mulla
'Abdu'r-Razzaq Lahiji (d. 1072/1661), Mulla Muhsin-i Fayd of Kashan
(d. 1091/1680) and Qadi Sa'id Qummi (d. 1103/1691). Mulla Muhsin-i
Fayd is of great importance also as a scholar of Shi'i hadith. His
book, al-Wafi, which is a synthesis and commentary on the four early
canonical books of Shi'i hadith, is considered one of the most
important works on this subject.
  So influential became the Hikmat-i Ilahi movement that it embraced
several prominent individuals from both the state and the orthodox
Shi'i ulama. The Grand Vazir of 'Abbas II, Sayyid Husayn, Sultanu'l-
'Ulama (d. 1064/1654), was a patron of this circle as indeed was
'Abbas II himself. Mulla Muhammad Taqi Majlisi (d. 1070/1659), a noted
jurist and father of the even more famous Muhammad Baqir Majlisi, was
connected with this circle, as was Mulla Muhammad Baqir Sabzivari (d.
1090/1679) who was appointed Shaykh al-Islam of Isfahan.
Shah Sulayman
  'Abbas II died in 1666 and under his successor Shah Sulayman the
decline of the Safavids resumed. Sulayman abandoned himself to the
pleasure of wine and the harem and took no interest in the affairs of
state. His successor Sultan-Husayn Shah began his reign in 1694 as a
pious and austere man but soon declined into drunkenness and
debauchery. He too refused to involve himself in the business of
governing the country, leaving this to ministers and the eunuchs of
the Court as well as to the increasingly powerful mujtahids.
  The only reason that the Safavids remained in power for as long as


they did was the fortunate circumstance that the powers on their
borders were not in a position to attack them. The Ottoman Empire was
embroiled in Europe, the Mogul Empire was in decline and the Uzbegs
had disappeared from the scene. When the end came for the Safavids, it
was the result of a revolt from within their own borders. The Ghilzay
Afghans rose in rebellion. At first it would appear that they, being
Sunnis, only wished to throw off the Shi'i Safavid yoke, but when they
saw the Safavid forces collapse before them, they pushed on in
anticipation of booty. With an army of only twenty thousand, they
penetrated to the heart of the Safavid realm and took Isfahan in
October 1722, terminating effective Safavid rule.

The Ulama of the Late Safavid Period

In the religious sphere, the ulama of the late Safavid period, who
were mostly Iranians, had a much firmer power base within the country
and thus felt secure enough to take an increasingly independent stand
vis-a-vis the Safavid state. Already by the reign of Shah Sulayman,
foreign observers such as Chardin noted that the ulama were saying
that these immoral Safavid kinds were not worthy of kingship and that
the mujtahid is the real ruler as representative of the Imam.[6] This
must, however, have remained a minority view among the ulama for
although the na'ib al-'amm concept (see p. 190) was developed in this
period, there is nothing in the important Shi'i works of this time to
indicate that they considered the concept to include political rule.
This idea of the mujtahid as the ideal Shi'i ruler had to await
Ayatu'llah Khumayni in the twentieth century for its full development
(see pp. 195-6).
  It cannot, however, be denied that the ulama were taking an
increasingly prominent role in the affairs of the country and were
becoming more assertive with respect to their demands. This process
came to a head in the time of Muhammad Baqir Majlisi (who became
Shaykh al-Islam of Isfahan in 1687 and Mullabashi--Head Mulla--in
1694) and particularly during the reign of Shah Sultan-Husayn, which
began in 1694.
  It is necessary to take a close look at the activity of Muhammad
Baqir Majlisi (d. 1110/1699) since he was one of the most powerful and
influential Shi'i ulama of all time and since his policies and actions
reorientated Twelver Shi'ism in the direction that it was to develop
from his day on. Majlisi was an important scholar in his own right.
His encyclopaedic collection of hadith, the Bihar al-Anwar, would
alone have established his reputation but he was one of the most
prolific writers and produced numerous other works that have continued
to be important. It is, however, in the social and political role that
he played rather than in his scholarly work that his importance lies.


  The first point that must be noted is that Majlisi was all-powerful
in whatever field he chose to initiate his policies. The government of
Sultan-Husayn Shah made almost no effort to control his activities.
The three inter-related areas in which Majlisi exerted his efforts
were: the suppression of Sufism and philosophy, the propagation of a
dogmatic legalistic form of Twelver Shi'ism and the suppression of
Sunnism and other religious groups.
  Sultan-Husayn Shah made almost no effort to control his activities.
The three inter-related areas in which Majlisi exerted his efforts
were: the suppression of Sufism and philosophy, the propagation of a
dogmatic legalistic form of Twelver Shi'ism and the suppression of
Sunnism and other religious groups.
  Sultan-Husayn Shah had come under Majlisi's influence whilst still
in the harem. When it came to the coronation ceremony, Sultan-Husayn
insisted that it be Majlisi who invested him with the symbols of
state. He then asked Majlisi what he desired by way of recompense.
Majlisi requested royal decrees forbidding the drinking of wine, the
practice of faction-fighting and the sport of pigeon-flying. In
addition, he asked for the expulsion of all Sufis from Isfahan. The
decree forbidding the drinking of wine had later to be revoked when
the Shah himself became addicted to alcohol, but the attack on Sufism
  In the preceding chapter and this chapter, it has been seen that up
to the time of Majlisi, Shi'ism and Sufism were closely linked and
indeed Sufism had been a vehicle for pro-Shi'i sentiment among the
Sunnis. Even the most eminent members of the Shi'i ulama in the
preceding centuries had come under the influence of Sufism and such
persons as ibn Tawus, 'Allama al-Hilli, Shahid al-Awwal, ibn Fahd al-
Hilli, Shahid ath-Thani and Shaykh Bahá'í were either sympathetic to
Sufism or considered themselves practising Sufis. Even Majlisi's own
father, Muhammad Taqi Majlisi, was a member of the Dhahabiyya Sufi
order. In addition, the development of the School of Isfahan could be
considered (and was considered by Majlisi) as a form of philosophical
or 'high' Sufism.
  Majlisi set out to counter and reverse this trend of Sufism and
philosophy in Twelver Shi'ism. Sufis, whether they were the wandering
dervishes of 'low' Sufism or the philosopher-ulama of 'high' Sufism
came under relentless pressure from Majlisi and his Shari'a-minded
colleagues. The Sufi teachings of the mystical union with God and its
connotations were stated to be heresy (that 'foul and hellish growth')
while the philosophers of the School of Isfahan were considered
'followers of an infidel Greek'.[7]
  The process of suppressing Sufism pursued vigorously by Majlisi and
his contemporary Shaykh Muhammad al-Hurr al-'Amili (d. 1104/1693) was,
in fact, an intensification of a trend that had begun in the previous
generation of ulama. One of the teachers of both Majlisi and al-Hurr
al-'Amili, Muhammad Tahir ibn Muhammad Husayn Shirazi (d. 1098/1686)
had been active in preaching against Sufis and had written a treatise
in refutation of Sufism. This process continued among the succeeding


generations of ulama, several of whom distinguished themselves as
persecutors and even slayers of Sufis. The ultimate result of this was
that Sufism was divorced from Shi'ism and ceased to influence the main
stream of Shi'i development. Philosophy was also down-graded and
ceased to be an important part of studies at the religious colleges
There was some degree of rehabilitation of these subjects in later
years (see p. 218), but for the most part the distrust of and distaste
for these subjects engendered by Majlisi has remained the attitude of
the majority of the ulama to the present day.
  The second area in which Majlisi exerted himself was in the
propagation of the 'dry', formal, dogmatic, legalistic style of
Shi'ism that he considered to be the true Shi'ism. Up to this time, it
would be true to say that Shi'ism had sat lightly on the population of
Iran, consisting mostly of mere expressions of love for 'Ali and
hatred of the first three Caliphs. Majlisi sought to establish Shi'ism
firmly in the minds and hearts of the people. This he did in three
main ways. Firstly, he encouraged many specifically Shi'i rituals such
as mourning for the Imam Husayn and visitation (ziyarat) of the tombs
of the Imams and Imamzadas (descendants of the Imams). This last
activity he invested with unprecedented importance and was largely
responsible for a great elaboration of the rituals involved. Secondly,
he emphasised the soteriological aspects of Shi'ism, stressing the
concept of the Imams as mediators and intercessors for man with God.
Thirdly, he wrote a large number of books on theology, history and
manuals of ritual in Persian, thus bringing this knowledge to the
level of understanding of ordinary Iranians. Although the writing of
books of Shi'i doctrine and law in Persian was begun as early as the
reign of Shah Isma'il by Kamalu'd-Din Husayn Ardibili,[9] Majlisi was
the first to write in Persian so much, on such a wide range of
subjects and in a manner that could be understood by the ordinary
  The third direction in which Majlisi exerted his efforts, and which
was in obvious parallel to his goal of propagating Shi'ism, was in
suppressing Sunnism. Although much of western and central Iran was now
Shi'i, the Afghans in Khurasan remained for the most part obstinately
Sunni. Other Sunni strongholds included the Kurds in the west and the
Muslims of the Caucasus. Majlisi waged a relentless campaign of
persecution wherever he found any Sunnis. But in this aspect of his
policies Majlisi failed. Not only did he fail in converting these
remaining pockets of Sunnism but he aroused such resentment and
hostility that he sparked off the Afghan revolt that toppled the
Safavid dynasty and brought Iran back under Sunni rule.
  Paradoxically, then, Majlisi's activities both partially caused the
revolt that replaced a Shi'i dynasty with Sunni rule and also


Shi'ism sufficiently firmly within the hearts of the Iranian people to
ensure that the efforts made in the post-Safavid period to return Iran
to Sunnism would fail. Apart from the two Majlisis, father and son,
the prominent ulama of the late Safavid period were: Mulla Muhammad
Salih ibn Ahmad Mazandarani (d. 1081/1670); Mulla Muhammad Baqir ibn
Muhammad Mu'min, known as Muhaqqiq Sabzivari (d. 1090/1679); Aqa
Husayn ibn Muhammad, known as Muhaqqiq Khwansari (d. 1098/1686);
Shaykh Muhammad ibn Hasan al-Hurr al-'Amili (d. 1104/1693); Sayyid
Ni'matu'llah Jaza'iri (d. 1112/1700); Sayyid Mir Muhammad Salih
Khatunabadi (d. 1116/1704), who succeeded Muhammad Baqir Majlisi to
the position of Shaykh al-Islam of Isfahan; and Shaykh Sulayman ibn
'Abdu'llah, known as Muhaqqiq al-Bahram (d. 1120/1708).

The Usuli-Akhbari Division

It was during the 11th/17th century that another issue came to the
fore among the Twelver Shi'i ulama and this was the controversy
between the Usuli and Akhbari Schools. Since it was the Usulis who
eventually won this debate two hundred years later at the end of the
12th/18th century, Shi'i historians have tended to view the struggle
from the Usul point of view which seeks to represent the Akhbari
position as an innovation started by Mulla Muhammad Amm Astarabadi (d.
1033/1623) at the beginning of the 11th/17th century. It is clear,
however, from the writings of the Akhbaris themselves (and is probably
a closer approximation to the true position) that the Akhbaris
represented a stream of thought that had been present among Shi'i
ulama from the earliest days of Twelver Shi'ism and that the
controversy only occurred because of the increasing predominance of
the mujtahids. The nature of the Akhbari position is detailed
elsewhere in this book (see pp. 222ff.) but can be briefly described
here as being against ijtihad and the increasingly dominant position
of the mujtahids in Twelver Shi'ism. It sought to establish Shi'i
jurisprudence on the basis of the Traditions (Akhbar) rather than on
the rationalist principles (Usul) of jurisprudence used in ijtihad.
  It is probable that there had always existed within Twelver Shi'ism
a school of thought that rejected the rationalist ideas of the
majority and decried the increasing use of reason rather than
Traditions as a source of law. The Akhbaris themselves pointed to such
figures as Kulayni, ibn Babuya, and other eminent Shi'i ulama of
previous generations as having been basically in line with their mode
of thinking."
  The advent of the Safavid dynasty had presented a large number of
questions of jurisprudence to the ulama and it may be that too free a
use of


the licence granted them by the practice of ijtihad provoked the
Akhbari reaction. Certainly Muhaqqiq al-Karaki had been criticised on
this score.
  Thus rather than being an innovator, it may be that Muhammad Amm
Astarabadi was merely vocalising a sentiment that had been current
among the ulama. Certainly there was no immediate outcry against
Astarabadi's attack on ijtihad and mujtahids, while several ulama of
the first rank either adopted this position or were at least
favourably disposed towards it. Thus, for example, of the 'three
Muhammads' of modern times in the field of the study of hadith (see p.
174), two (Mulla Muhsin-i Fayd and al-Hurr al-'Amil-l) were outright
Akhbaris, while the third, the formidable Muhammad Baqir Majlisi, was
by no means against the Akhbari position and even praised Astarabadi
in his major work, Bihar al-Anwar.[12] Other prominent ulama who were
either Akhbari or favourable to the Akhbari position were Sayyid
Ni'matu'llah Jaza'iri (d. 1112/1700), Muhammad Taqi Majlisi, the
father of Muhammad Baqir Majlisi (d. 1070/1659), Mulla 'Abdu'llah Tuni
(d. 1071/1660) and Shaykh Yusuf al-Bahram (d. 1186/1772).[13] At
Bahrain, the leading Shi'i scholar Shaykh 'Ali ibn Sulayman al-Bahram
al-Qadami (d. 1064/1653), known as Umm al-Hadith, adopted the Akhbari
school and Bahrain became predominantly Akhbari. The small group of
Shi'i ulama at Mecca and Medina which included Mulla Muhammad Amm
Astarabadi himself were Akhbari. The Akhbari doctrines were also well
received in Jaza'ir (Shatt al-'Arab region of southern Iraq), 14 Najaf
and Karbala[15] and, indeed, it is reported that by the end of the
Safavid period the Akhbaris were predominant in the shrine cities of

The Popular Religion

With the advent of a Shi'i state under the Safavids and the gradual
conversion of most Iranians to Shi'ism, there were, of course, many
major developments in the popular religion in Safavid times. Most of
these developments occurred towards the end of the Safavid era. The
role of Muhammad Baqir Majlisi in promoting Shi'ism at the popular
level has been noted above.
  The main trends in the evolution of the popular religion in this
period was the increased importance of pilgrimages made to the shrines
of the Imams (in Iraq and at Mashhad) and the descendants of the Imams
(called Imamzadas). There was also an increased popular involvement
with Muharram ritual commemorating the martyrdom of the Imam Husayn at
Karbala (see pp. 240ff.). As mentioned in the previous chapter
Kamalu'd-Din Husayn, known as Wa'iz Kashifi (d. 910/1504), although


a Sunni, had written a work called Rawdat ash-Shuhada--which portrays
the events of Karbala in an emotive manner in the Persian language.
During the Safavid period it became popular to organise meetings at
which this book was recited to the accompaniment of much weeping and
wailing. These meetings became known as Rawda-khani (recital of the
Rawdat ash-Shuhada and the reciters became known as Rawda-khans, which
soon became a profession in its own right. The Safavids were, of
course, not averse to this development since not only did it
strengthen the hold of Shi'ism upon the population but increased
enmity of the people towards the Ottoman Turks who as Sunnis were
identified with Husayn's enemies at Karbala.
  For the ordinary people, the late Safavid period marked an important
watershed during which the influence of the Sufi orders and their
spiritual leaders, the murshids, declined under attack from the ulama.
The latter, and especially Muhammad Baqir Majlisi, were able to assume
some of the aura left vacant by the Sufi murshids, but, to a far
greater extent, the devotion of the common people was transferred to
the persons of the Imams, who now became the spiritual intermediaries
and intercessors of the masses. Pilgrimages to their shrines, and the
Karbala mourning ceremonies, of course, greatly facilitated this

Shi'ism in the Arab World

To the west of Iran, Shi'ism was on the defensive. In Iraq, Hilla,
which had been the most important centre of Shi'ism in the pre-Safavid
era, declined markedly and there is not one important scholar of this
period named as being from that city, although it remained
predominantly Shi'i. Similarly, by the early part of this period Mosul
in north Iraq and Aleppo in north Syria had ceased to be important
Shi'i centres and lost most of their Twelver Shi'i population. Najaf
and Karbala were, however, growing in importance during this period.
The residence in Najaf of Muqaddas Ardibili (d. 993/1585), one of the
foremost Shi'i ulama of his age, drew to that town numerous students
from Iran and the Jabal 'Amil. Although Najaf had been a centre of
Shi'i studies since the time of Shaykhu't-Ta'ifa, the building of
religious colleges there, as in Iran, dates from this period. Two
brief periods of Safavid rule over Iraq resulted in some repair and
construction around the holy shrines.
  During this period Lebanon, although nominally part of the Ottoman
Empire, was effectively controlled by feudal overlords. In 1517, after
he overcame the Mamluks, the Ottoman Selim I placed a Turkoman, Amir
'Assaf, in control of the region of Kisrawan (the coastal strip north
of Beirut). With their seat in the village of Ghazir, the 'Assaf
family ruled over this area for most of the sixteenth century until
the last of them was


killed in AD 1590. They are reported to have been Shi'i and under
their rule the area prospered and a number of Shi'is from other parts
of Syria moved into this region although it remained predominantly
Maronite Christian. In the last part of the sixteenth century the
coastal strip north of Kisrawan (also predominantly Maronite)
gradually came into the control of the Twelver Shi'i Hamada family who
are reported to have been Iranian in origin and who also controlled
the area around Hirmal in the Biqa' valley. The Shi'i area around
Ba'albakk in the Biqa' valley was dominated by the Twelver Shi'i
Harfush family. The first of this family to be appointed as Amir of
the Ba'albakk region by the Ottomans was 'Ali ibn Musa in 1001/1592.
The family remained in power in the region, occasionally extending
their power as far as Tripoli and Sidon, until the nineteenth century.
The Jabal mil area, for most of the sixteenth century, was, however,
controlled by the Druse Ma'n family.
  The last third of the 9th/15th century had seen the transfer of the
main centre of Shi'i scholarship from Hilla to the Jabal 'Amil in
Lebanon. Although the foremost scholar of the early Safavid period,
Muhaqqiq al-Karaki, left the Jabal 'Amil and took up residence in
Iran, the most important teaching was still being done in the villages
of the Jabal 'Amil area such as Juba', Mays and Karak-Nuh and students
were sent there from Iran. Shaykh Zaynu'd-Din ibn 'Ali al-Juba'i,
known as Shahid ath-Thani (the Second Martyr, killed 966/1558), was a
pupil of Muhaqqiq al-Karaki and became the most prominent Shi'i
scholar after him. Both he and his son, Abu Mansur Hasan Sahibu'l-
Ma'alim (the author of the Ma'alim ad-Din, d. 1011/1602) remained in
Syria and maintained the tradition of learning there despite the
relentless pressure against Shi'ism from the Ottoman authorities.
There are varying accounts of how Shahid ath-Thani was killed and his
head presented to the Ottoman court. But after 'Abbas I transferred
his court to Isfahan, many of the ulama of this region migrated to
Iran and it declined in importance as a centre of scholarship.
  The capture of Bahrain by the forces of Shah 'Abbas I of Iran in
1602 was an important turning-point for the Twelver Shi'is of this
island. It allowed them the freedom to establish their religion and to
build up centres of scholarship on the island. Shaykh Muhammad ibn
Hasan al-Maqabi (d. 1050/1640) was the first to perform the public
Jum'a prayers according to the Shi'i formula after the Safavid

Shi'ism in India

Contemporary to the Safavid dynasty in Iran, there was a great
flowering of Shi'ism in India. Out of the disintegrating Bahman
kingdom several independent Shi'i states arose.


  Yusuf 'Adil Shah, probably a Persian or Turkoman from Savih and
adopted son of Mahmud Gawan, the Shi'i chief minister of the Bahmani
kingdom was made Governor of Bijapur district. After Mahmud Gawan's
execution, Yusuf proclaimed his independence in 1489. In 908/1503 he
followed the Safavid precedent and made Shi'ism the official religion
of his state. Yusuf's son Isma'il established links with the Safavid
dynasty and for a time his troops wore the red, twelve-pointed cap of
the Qizilbash. The 'Adil Shah dynasty lasted until 1686 when it was
overrun by the Moguls under Aurangzeb.
  Hasan, a converted Brahmin prisoner of the Bahmani kings, seized the
opportunity presented by the collapse of the Bahmani kingdom to set up
a Shi'i kingdom of his own centred on Ahmadnagar in 1490. He took the
name Ahmad Nizam Shah. The Nizam Shah dynasty ruled until overrun by
the Mogul Empire in 1633.
  Sultan Quli was an Iranian who established his independence of the
Bahmani kingdom in 1512 with Golconda, near Hyderabad, as the seat of
his government. This Shi'i dynasty, the Qutb Shahs, continued until
overrun by the Moguls under Aurangzeb in 1687.
  During this period a number of Iranian Twelver Shi'i ulama migrated
to India and helped to establish Shi'ism there. Among the most
important of these was Shah Tahir of Qazvin (d. 1549) who is reported
to have converted Burhan Nizam Shah to Shi'ism in about 1522, and Qadi
Nuru'llah Mar'ashi Shushtari (1542-1610) who reached India in 1585 and
was executed for his Shi'ism by the Mogul Emperor Jahangir.
  Further north in Kashmir there arrived at Srinagar in AD 1492 Mir
Shamsu'd-Din 'Iraqi from Gilan in Iran. He was a follower of Muhammad
Nurbakhsh (see p. 102) and propagated a strongly pro-Shi'i doctrine.
He succeeded in converting a number of the notables of Kashmir and in
particular the Chak family (who had arrived in Kashmir at the
beginning of the fourteenth century and had gradually been extending
their influence) and Musa Rayna, a member of the powerful Rayna
family. The king, Sultan Muhammad Shah, became worried at 'Iraqi's
success and the ensuing reaction among the Sunnis and so exiled him to
Skardo in Baltistan, where 'Iraqi also had success in converting many
to his Shi'i-Nurbakhshi doctrines.
  But the Chak family under Shams Chak and Musa Rayna conspired to
overthrow Sultan Muhammad Shah in 1505 and for the next thirty-five
years there was a constant see-sawing of power with the Chak family
sometimes in power, with a puppet king, and sometimes out of power.
Then in 1540 Mirza Haydar Dughlat with a Mogul army occupied Kashmir.
He suppressed Shi'ism and ruled firmly until defeated and killed in
battle in 1551 by Ghazi Chak. After a series of puppet kings, Ghazi
Chak eventually proclaimed himself king in 1561.


There followed a succession of Shi'i Chak kings until 1586 when the
Mogul Emperor Akbar overran Kashmir and terminated the dynasty.  
During the period of the Chak dynasty and after the Mogul conquest,
there were often major episodes of Sunni-Shi'i conflict in Kashmir.
Some of the Chak rulers aggressively promoted Shi'ism and during this
time a considerable proportion of the peasantry of the area became
Shi'i. The Moguls maintained a neutral religious policy. The Afghans,
however, who succeeded the Moguls and ruled from 1751 to 1819 were
severe on the whole population but particularly on the Shi'is.
  The Mogul dynasty itself, although posing for the most part as
champions of Sunni Islam, were not without Shi'i influences. Babur,
the first Mogul Emperor, was assisted by the first Safavid monarch,
Isma'il I, on the condition that he accepted Shi'ism. His troops wore
the red, twelve-pointed cap of the Qizilbash for a time. Humayun, the
second of the Mogul dynasty, was at one time driven from India and
sought refuge in Iran, where Shah Tahmasp gave him assistance in
recapturing his throne on the condition of his accepting Shi'ism and
of his troops wearing the Qizilbash cap which was, in those days, a
symbol of being Shi'i.
  Shi'ism continued to have a marked influence on the Mogul dynasty
over the succeeding generations with several princes being either
Shi'i or having Shi'i leanings and also with many Shi'is among the
ministers and close companions of the Royal Family. The Barah Sayyids,
a Shi'i family, became so powerful that on the death of Aurangzeb in
1118/1707 they were able to place Bahadur Shah, a Shi'i, on the Mogul
throne and dominated the affairs of state until their overthrow in
1737. During the whole of the Mogul period, the court was divided into
two factions, Iran, which was in effect the Shi'i faction, and Turani,
which was the Sunni faction.

Geographical Spread

A noticeable change occurred among the ulama in the late Safavid
period. After five centuries when the most prominent of the ulama had
been Arabs, there arose the first of a stream of prominent Iranian
ulama that has continued to the present day. This change can most
clearly be seen by comparing the places of origin of the most
prominent ulama who died during the 11th/17th century and the 12/18th
century as contained in the biographical work of Mirza Muhammad 'Ali
Kashmiri, Nujum as-Sama (see Table 5).
  From this table it can also be seen that apart from those places
already mentioned, the region extending from Huwayza and Shushtar in
southwest Iran to the Shatt al-'Arab (Jaza'ir) in south Iraq had by
this time become one of the most important centres of Shi'i


Table 5: Geographical origins of Twelver Shi'i ulama dying in the
eleventh (AD 1591-1687) and twelfth (AD 1688-1784) Islamic centuries

    11th/17th Century                12th/18th Century

Jabal 'Amil           100       Isfahan                  22
Bahrain                33       Jaza'ir (S. Iraq)        16
Astarabad              15       Bahrain                  15
Jaza'ir (S. Iraq)      11       Mazandaran               13
Khurasan               10       Gilan                    12
Shiraz                  8       Shiraz                   12
Najaf                   8       Qazvin                    9
Huwayza (S.E. Iran)     8       Khurasan                  8
Qazvin                  6       Jabal 'Amil                    6
Mazandaran and Gilan    6       Khatunabad (near Yazd)    5
Shushtar (S.E. Iran)    6       India                     5
Isfahan                 5       Hamadan                   4
Kazimayn                4       Khwansar                  4
Yazd                    3       Burujird                  2
Damascus                3       Qa'in                     2
Qumm                    2       Kashan                    2
Tafrish (near Qumm)     2       Najaf                     1
Hamadan                 2       Huwayza                   1
Hilla                   1
Karbala                 1
Tabriz                  1
Kashan                  1

In surveying the Safavid period of Shi'i history, the following appear
to be the major developments:

I. The ending of the relative mutual tolerance between Sunnis and
Shi'is that existed from the time of the Mongol conquests onwards and
the resurgence of hatred and hostility between the two sects.

2. The change from a broad inclusive church to a narrow outlook
concentrating on law and the external observances of the religion,
rejecting Sufism and philosophy and minimising the esoteric aspects of
the religion.

3. The beginning of a separation between church and state and the
emergence of an independent body of ulama capable of taking a
political stand different from the policies of the state.

4. The change from Twelver Shi'ism being a predominantly Arab
phenomenon with its principal centres of learning in the Arab world to
a preponderance of Iranians and the centre of learning moved to Iran.


The Eighteenth Century

Political Developments

For a time after the Afghan capture of Isfahan it seemed as though the
country of Iran as a separate entity might cease to exist. Seizing
their opportunity, the Russians attacked from the north, the Ottoman
Turks from the west, while the Afghans consolidated their position in
the south and east. The country was being dismembered.
  Tahmasp, the third son of Sultan-Husayn Shah, had broken out of
Isfahan during its siege by the Afghans and proclaimed himself Shah in
Qazvin after the fall of Isfahan. He managed to maintain a nebulous
degree of authority in the central and Caspian regions with the
assistance of Fath 'Ali Khan, the Qajar chief.
  Tahmasp II, who was an ineffectual leader, was saved from being
completely overwhelmed by a number of fortunate circumstances. Alarmed
at the increasing derangement of the mind of Mahmud Khan, the Afghan
leader, the Afghans rose and killed him in 1725. This action led to a
split between the Afghans in Isfahan and those in Qandahar. As a
result of this, Ashraf, the Afghan leader in Isfahan, was left with
too few men to pursue an aggressive policy towards Tahmasp. The enmity
between Russia and Turkey kept these two powers preoccupied in other
places. The death of Peter the Great muted Russia's desire to expand
while the Turks did advance into Iran but were defeated by Ashraf in
  It was at this juncture in 1726 that Nadir Khan of the Afshar tribe
joined the army of Tahmasp Il. Having risen from humble origins to
command a small tribal force, Nadir attracted the attention of Tahmasp
by his military abilities. Nadir succeeded in ousting Fath 'Ali Khan,
the Qajar leader, from his eminent position in the court and indeed in
having him executed.
  Nadir Khan was made commander-in-chief of the army and proceeded
immediately to capture Mashhad and reassert Tahmasp's authority over
the rest of Khurasan. Then in 1729 he took Herat in the east before
proceeding against Ashraf in Isfahan. He inflicted several defeats on
the Afghans and drove them out of Isfahan and Shiraz. The following
year he drove the Turks out of western Iran and subdued an Afghan
uprising in Herat.
  In 1731 Tahmasp sought to stem Nadir's rising fortunes by himself
taking the field against the Turks. He was soundly defeated. Nadir
took advantage of this to depose Tahmasp in 1732 and placed Tahmasp's
infant son on the throne as 'Abbas III. Nadir himself, of course, took
the position of regent.


  Between 1733 and 1735 Nadir succeeded in driving the Turks out of
the territory they had occupied in northwest Iran and the Caucasus
while the Russians withdrew by agreement from the Iranian provinces
they had occupied under Peter the Great.
  Then in 1736 Nadir assembled a great conference of the notables of
Iran on the plain of Mughan in northwest Iran for the purpose of
choosing a monarch. None, of course, dared to oppose him and Nadir was
duly crowned as Shah of Iran. However, one of the conditions that he
laid down for accepting the crown was that Iran should abandon Shi'ism
and return to the Sunni fold.
  It is clear that Nadir was originally a Shi'i. His tribe, the
Afshars, were one of the six Turkoman tribes that had originally
enabled the Safavids to come to power and thus establish Shi'ism in
Iran. The names of the members of Nadir's family also clearly indicate
a Shi'i background. Moreover, so closely was the Safavid dynasty
associated with Shi'ism that it is unlikely that Nadir could have
risen to the prominent position he held if he had not outwardly, at
least, been Shi'i. Nadir is recorded as having worshipped in the Shi'i
shrines at Mashhad after he had captured that city and at Karbala and
Najaf after his campaigns against the Turks. Furthermore, one of
Nadir's letters written after Tahmasp's defeat by the Turks in 1731
has been preserved in which he writes of his own victories as being to
the glory of Shi'ism.[16]
  Therefore the question must be asked: why did Nadir, at his
coronation, choose to espouse Sunnism and then try to force it upon
Iran? The theory that he was trying to appease Turkey by this move is
scarcely credible as he had just inflicted several heavy defeats on
Turkey and had nothing to fear from that quarter. Much more likely are
the following three reasons: firstly, that Shi'ism was firmly linked
in people's minds to the Safavid dynasty and Nadir felt that his own
position and that of his dynasty would remain under threat as long as
Shi'ism remained the religion of the country; secondly, the majority
of Nadir's army were Sunni Afghans and this move could have been
calculated to ensure loyalty of his troops; thirdly, there is some
evidence that Nadir already saw himself as a great Asiatic conqueror
and his conversion to Sunnism would, of course, facilitate his rule
over the Sunni majority of Muslims as well as the eventual takeover of
the Caliphate from the Ottoman Sultans.
  From the plain of Mughan, Nadir sent a peace offer to the Turks
which included the proposal that Iranians, having given up Shi'ism,
should be accepted as a fifth school of Sunni law under the name of
Ja'fari. In addition, there was to be a fifth column in the Ka'ba in
Mecca for this school of law and an Iranian leader of the Hajj in
addition to the Egyptian and Syrian ones.


  Nadir Shah made an attempt to impose Sunnism on the people of Iran
but Shi'ism was so deeply rooted by this time that he had but limited
success, particularly as he himself spent most of his time absent from
Iran on military campaigns. He did, however, confiscate much of the
waqf (pious endowments) properties controlled by the Shi'i ulama, and
prohibited the referral of cases to the shar' (religious) courts,
limiting all legal decision to the 'urf courts (courts using customary
law). Nadir's Indian campaign in 1730-40 resulted in the capture of
Delhi and the obtaining of a large amount of treasure as booty.
Following this, Bokhara and Khiva were captured and Iran's eastern
boundary now reached to the Oxus and Indus rivers.
  Nadir Shah was now at the height of his achievements. Thereafter his
reign degenerated into savage executions and fruitless military
campaigns. A campaign in Daghistan in the Caucasus in 1741-2 produced
no result. Then after suppressing several revolts, Nadir pursued a
further campaign against Turkey in an effort to force upon the Sultan
his plan for recognising the Ja'fari School within the fold of Sunni
Islam. Although the Turks were defeated, Nadir's object was not
gained. Massacres and executions followed wherever Nadir went. He even
blinded his own son, Rida Quli. At last, in 1747, Nadir was
assassinated by two of his own courtiers whom he had threatened to put
to death on the following day.
  After the death of Nadir Shah the whole kingdom degenerated into
anarchy. There was factional fighting among Nadir's relatives. After
'Ali Quli, Nadir's nephew, and Ibrahim, 'Ali Quli's brother, had held
power briefly, Shah-Rukh (who was a grandson of both Nadir Shah and
Sultan-Husayn Shah, the last Safavid) attempted to unite the opposing
factions under his rule. But he was defeated and blinded by Mirza
Sayyid Muhammad (the son of a mujtahid of Mashhad and related through
his mother to the Safavids) who claimed that Shah-Rukh wished to
revert to his grandfather's policy of suppressing Shi'ism and
promoting Sunnism. After this, there was anarchy until the factional
fighting resolved itself into a contest between Muhammad Husayn Khan,
the head of the Qajar tribe in the north, and Karim Khan of the Zand
tribe in the south.
  At first Karim Khan was victorious and ruled from his capital at
Shiraz for twenty-nine years from 1750 to 1779. Karim Khan was a
devout Shi'i and his reign marks the termination of Nadir Shah's
abortive attempt to reimpose Sunnism on Iran. Under Karim Khan's wise
rule, all the areas under his command prospered. But after his death,
his family fought among themselves and allowed the Qajars to gain the
upper hand. In 1794 Agha Muhammad, the Qajar leader, killed the last
of the Zand dynasty, the valiant Lutf 'Ali Khan, and in 1796 took the
throne as the first of the Qajar dynasty.


The Ulama

The ulama of this period were overshadowed by the towering figure of
the recently-deceased Muhammad Baqir Majlisi. Perhaps because of his
overwhelming influence or because of the unsettled condition of the
time, there was an interlude of some sixty years when there were no
Shi'i scholars of the first rank.
  Initially those scholars of any eminence that there were (mostly the
pupils of Majlisi) continued to live in Isfahan. In particular, there
were Baha'u'd-Din Muhammad Isfahan, known as Fadil-i Hindi, who died
in 1137/1725 shortly after the fall of Isfahan, and Mulla Isma'ili ibn
Muhammad Husayn Khaju'i (d. 1173/1760). However, the quarter century
between the fall of the Safavids and the establishment of Karim Khan
Zand was a troublesome and turbulent period. The occupation of Isfahan
by Sunni Afghans and the attempt by Nadir Shah to impose Sunnism on
Iran, although not causing any large-scale conversions to Sunnism, did
bring a great deal of pressure to bear on the ulama, some of whom were
executed by Nadir Shah. This hostile atmosphere caused the ulama to
flee Iran in increasing numbers and the centre of Shi'i scholarship
moved from Isfahan to the shrine cities of Iraq: Kazimayn, Najaf and,
particularly, Karbala which now became the focal point of Shi'i
scholarship. Among the first to move to Karbala was Shaykh Yusuf ibn
Ahmad al-Bahram (d. 1186/1772) but it was undoubtedly the presence
there of Aqa Muhammad Baqir ibn Muhammad Akmal, known as Vahid
Bihbahani (d. circa 1207/1792), the first major scholar to emerge
after Majlisi, that established Karbala as the foremost centre of
Shi'i scholarship of that time.
  The period from the middle of the Safavids to the time of Vahid
Bihbahani was the period of the dominance of the Akhbari School in
Twelver Shi'i Islam. The doctrines of this school are described
elsewhere in this book (see pp. 222ff.). Although this controversy had
begun as a comparatively minor disagreement on a few points, it grew
eventually into a bitter and vituperative dispute culminating in
Bihbahani's declaration that the Akhbaris were infidels (Kuffar).
  At first, the Akhbaris predominated at the shrine cities of Iraq but
it was Bihbahani who, at the end of the 18th century, reversed this
and, indeed, completely routed the Akhbaris at Karbala and Najaf.
South Iraq, Bahrain and a few cities in Iran such as Kirman remained
Akhbar strongholds for a few more decades but eventually the Usuli
triumph was complete and only a handful of Shi'i ulama have remained
Akhbar to the present day.
  The results of Bihbahani's victory for Twelver Shi'ism were to be
far-reaching. By his takfir (declaration of infidelity) against the


Bihbahani continued the work of Majlisi in narrowing the field of
orthodoxy in Twelver Shi'ism. But where Majlisi had acted to exclude
Sufism and philosophy which were at the periphery of the concerns of
most of the ulama, Bihbahani brought the threat of takfir into the
central field of theology and jurisprudence, where previously only
ikhtilaf (agreement to hold differing opinions) had existed. Bihbahani
was now to exclude by takfir all who disagreed with the principles of
reasoning ('aql) and ijtihad as sources of law. This paved the way for
a great increase in the power and influence of the mujtahids in Qajar
times and for the evolution of the concept of the marja' at-taqlid
(see p. 204). Bihbahani's importance was acknowledged by later
generations of Shi'i ulama who referred to him as Mu'assis (founder of
the Usuli School), Ustad-i Kull (Universal Teacher), Murawwij
(Propagator) and the Mujaddid (Renewer) of the 13th Islamic century.
His achievement was to set the tone and direction of Shi'i development
up to the present time.
  Another development which characterised Bihbahani's period of
primacy among the ulama was his insistence on the right of enforcing
his own judgements. Previously, the ulama had been dependent on the
secular authorities for carrying out their judgements. Bihbahani,
however, surrounded himself with a corps of mirghadabs, servants who
would carry out either corporal or capital punishment, and had his
judgements carried out immediately and usually in his presence.
  During the eighteenth century there was a return to Iran of some of
the Sufi groups who had been driven to India by Majlisi in the
previous century. They again began to pose a threat to the ulama's
dominance in the religious sphere. At Kirman it is reported that
thousands flocked to the meetings of Nur 'Ali Shah and Mushtaq 'Ali
Shah, two Sufi Shaykhs of the Ni'matu'llahi order. The people appeared
to prefer the ecstatic esotericism of the Sufis to the intellectual
hair-splitting of the ulama. Against this threat, the ulama, with
Bihbahani at their head, acted vigorously, writing anti-Sufi tracts
rejecting the claim that Sufism is compatible with Shi'ism. In 1792
Mulla 'Abdu'llah, a mujtahid of Kirman, had Mushtaq 'Ali Shah put to
death and forced Nur 'Ali Shah to flee, thus breaking up the Kirman
Sufi group.

Shi'ism in other lands

During much of the eighteenth century the Shi'i overlords of
Ba'albakk, the Harfush family, were overshadowed by the Druse. The
Shi'i Hamada family were driven out of the western side of Mount
Lebanon by the Maronites in 1773 and retreated to Hirmal in the Biqa'
Valley where they have remained an influential family to the present
day. Further south in the Jabal 'Amil, the 'Ali as-Saghir family, who
had been


local chiefs of the Bishara (the area south of the Litani River) since
about the 14th century, rose in the 18th century to become overlords
of the whole area and had control of Tyre for a time. But their chief,
Nasif an-Nassar was defeated and killed by Ahmad al-Jazzar, Pasha of
'Akka, in 1781.
  Bahrain and al-Ahsa during this period were overshadowed by the
growing power of the puritanical Sunni Wahhabis in central Arabia. The
first Wahhabi attack on al-Ahsa was in 1788. A further attack in 1789
overthrew the ruling Shi'i Banu Khalid tribe and in 1792 al-Ahsa
submitted, leading to a ruthless suppression of Shi'ism and the
destruction of Shi'i shrines. A revolt of the people of Hufuf in 1793
was crushed and the province laid waste.
  Iran had conquered Bahrain during the Safavid period, but in 1717 it
was attacked by the Imam of Masqat and, in 1736, the local ruler,
Shaykh Jabbara, refused to acknowledge Nadir Shah's sovereignty over
the island. Nadir Shah sent an expedition which re-established his
control, but in 1782 it was conquered by the Sunni al-Khalifa tribe
from Qatar. This tribe has remained in power to this day although they
were defeated on several occasions by the Imam of Masqat and the
  With the deteriorating conditions, many of the Shi'i ulama of
Bahrain and al-Ahsa fled to Iraq and Iran and consolidated the
importance of Karbala and Najaf as the centres of Shi'i scholarship in
this period.
  In India the suppression of the Shi'i kingdoms in the south by the
Mogul Empire towards the end of the 17th century was followed by the
setting up of the Shi'i kingdom of Oudh (Awadh) with its capital in
Lucknow, early in the 18th century.
  Mir Muhammad Amm Musawi (d. 1145/1732) was descended from the
Seventh Imam Musa and was given the governorship of Oudh in 1722 by
the Mogul Emperor, Muhammad Shah. He became known as Sa'adat Khan and
was an intermediary between Nadir Shah and Muhammad Shah when the
former invaded India in 1738. Sa'adat Khan's three successors, Safdar
Jang (d. 1152/1739), Shuja'u'd-Dawla (d. 1166/1753) and Asafu'd-Dawla
(d. 1212/1797), each held the post of minister (Wazir) to the Mogul
Emperor as well as being initially Subahdars and then Nawwabs of Oudh.
During this period the Mogul court was split into a Shi'i 'Irani'
faction headed by the Nawwabs of Oudh and a Sunni 'Turani' faction.
Safdar Jang built a new capital at Fyzabad but Asafu'd-Dawla returned
the capital to Lucknow. Both at Fyzabad and Lucknow a large number of
magnificent buildings were erected during this period, many of them
for religious purposes. These include several Imambaras (buildings
where mourning assemblies for the Imam Husayn were held).


In summary, then, the period between the fall of the Safavids and the
rise of the Qajars saw some important developments:
a. The fall of the Safavids brought about a cutting of the ties
between the ulama and the state (especially during the reign of Nadir
Shah). This allowed the ulama (in a period of great uncertainty and
confusion) to increase their power and independence; features that
would come into the fore in the Qajar era.

b. It was probably also the period of uncertainty and weak government
during this time that increased the attractiveness of the Usuli School
with its stronger claims of leadership and authority for the ulama and
thus brought about the Usuli victory over the Akhbaris.

c. The main centre of Shi'i scholarship moved from Iran to the shrine
cities of Iraq, where it was effectively removed from the control of
the Iranian government--another development that was to have important
consequences in the Qajar era.

The Nineteenth Century

Political Developments under Fath 'Ali Shah and Muhammad Shah

The Qajars were one of the Turkoman tribes who supported Isma'il, the
first Safavid monarch, in his conquest of Iran. They were rewarded by
being given extensive fiefdoms and, on this basis, became one of the
most important elements in Iran until, in 1794, Agha Muhammad defeated
the last of the Zand dynasty and two years later was crowned as Shah.
His reign was only to last for one further year before he was
assassinated by two of his servants whom he had condemned to death on
the following day. He had by that time, however, consolidated his rule
over all Iran and had recaptured Georgia. The reign of his nephew and
successor, Fath 'Ali Shah (d. 1834), was marked by two disastrous
campaigns against Russia in 1804-13 and 1828 in which Iran lost all
its Caucasian provinces. Apart from Russia, Iran also came into close
contact during this period with other European powers such as England
and France.

   Fath 'Ali Shah deferred greatly to the Shi'i ulama. This was
probably partly due to genuine piety and partly due to the Qajar
dynasty's need to establish its own legitimacy (see p. 194). Fath 'Ali
Shah, apart from numerous pilgrimages to Qumm and Mashhad, spent much
money on the repair and embellishment of these shrines as well as
those in Iraq. As well as making large disbursements to the ulama, he
built a number of mosques and religious colleges (madrasas) and, in
particular, he rebuilt the Madrasa Faydiyya, the foremost college at
Qumm. The Qajars had made Tehran their capital and Fath 'Ali Shah
tried to induce some of the


prominent ulama to come and take up residence there in order to give
the new capital prestige. However, Tehran never became an important
religious centre in the way that Isfahan had been in Safavid times.
This fact is probably a reflection of the changed relationship between
the government and the ulama (see below).

   Fath 'Ali Shah, the progenitor of a record number of offspring, was
succeeded by his grandson, Muhammad Shah (reigned 1834-1848). After
suppressing a number of contenders for the throne, Muhammad Shah had
an unremarkable reign during which he was dominated by his Prime
Minister, Hajji Mirza Aqasi. Muhammad--Shah was much attracted to
Sufism and Hajji Mirza Aqasi was his Sufi guide. There was a sharp
reversal of policy during this reign in that Muhammad Shah favoured
Sufis and expended money on their shrines, neglecting the ulama.

The Ulama during the Reigns of Fath 'Ali Shah and Muhammad Shah

The ulama of the early Qajar period were dominated by the pupils of
Vahid Bihbahani. The most prominent of these was Sayyid Muhammad Mahdi
Tabataba'i Burujirdi, known as Bahru'l-'Ulum (d. 1212/1797). This man
was held in extraordinary awe and deference by his contemporaries and
many miracles are related of him. Indeed, one may even surmise that
some of his contemporaries regarded him to be the Hidden Imam himself
in the state of occultation. Thus, for example, in one of the
biographical works, it is written that one of his contemporaries
stated that had he claimed infallibility ('isma, an attribute
particular to the Prophets and Imams only), none would have been able
to refute it.[17] Bahru'l-'Ulum had been born in Karbala and had
studied under Vahid Bihbahani and the other prominent ulama there but
had transferred his residence to Najaf. Thus when Bihbahani died and
leadership among the ulama fell to Bahru'l-'Ulum, the centre of Shi'i
scholarship shifted from Karbala to Najaf, where it was to remain
until the twentieth century.

   The consolidation of Najaf as the centre of Shi'i scholarship was
achieved by Bahru'l-'Ulum's successor, Shaykh Ja'far ibn Khidr an
Najaf (d. 1227/1812), known as Kashif al-Ghita on account of his
authorship of the Kashf al-Ghita, a popular legal work.

After the death of Kashifu'l-Ghita there was no clear successor to
pre-eminence among the ulama. Among the contenders were: Mirza Abu'l-
Qasim ibn Muhammad Hasan, known as Mirza-yi Qummi or Fadil-i Qummi (d.
1231/1816) at Qumm; Mulla Ahmad ibn Mahdi Naraqi (d. 1245/1829) at
Kashan; Shaykh Musa, son of Kashifu'l-Ghita, (d. 1243/827)and Shaykh
Muhammad Hasan ibn Baqiran-Najafi (d 1266/1850)

[Pages 132; 133; 134 contain a chart.]


at Najaf; Sayyid 'Ali ibn Muhammad 'Ali Tabataba'i (d. 1231/1815) and
Sayyid Ibrahim ibn Muhammad Baqir Qazvini (d. 1262/1846) in Karbala;
while Isfahan made, during this period, a strong bid to regain its
pre-eminence as the centre of Shi'i scholarship with the presence
there of Mulla 'Ali ibn Jamshid Nuri (d. 1246/1830-1), Hajji Muhammad
Ibrahim ibn Muhammad Hasan Kalbasi (or Karbasi, d. 1261/1845) and Haji
Sayyid Muhammad Baqir ibn Muhammad Taqi Shafti Rashti, known as
Hujjatu'l-Islam (d. 1260/1844) who was Shaykh al-Islam of Isfahan. The
last two, in particular, had extensive influence over a wide area of
Iran, Iraq and India and in their prestige appears to be the
beginnings of the emergence of maraji' at-taqlid with influence over a
wide area. However,
this brief resurgence of Isfahan as the centre of Shi'i scholarship
was not to last
and, following the death of Kalbasi, Najaf regained its primacy
although Isfahan remained the most important Iranian centre until the
rise of Qumm in the twentieth century. At Najaf, Shaykh Muhammad Hasan
ibn Baqir Najafi the author of an important work in Shi'i law, the
Jawahir al-Kalam, carried forward the process of consolidating the
authority of marja' at-taqlid within one individual. Indeed, with the
death of both Kalbasi and Shaykh Hasan, the son of Kashifu'l-Ghita, in
1846, he may have succeeded in doing this for the last four years of
his life. In some sources he is called Ra'isu'l-'ulama (leader of the
ulama) and even Na'ib-i Imam (deputy of the Imam). One feature of the
ulama of the 18th century down to the present day is the degree to
which they are inter-related (see chart).

   The major concerns of the ulama during this period were the
conclusion of the Usuli-Akhbari conflict, the appearance of the
Shaykhi and Babi movements, a renewed conflict with the Sufis and the
emergence of the ulama into the political arena.

Although the Akhbaris had been decisively defeated in the time of
Vahid Bihbahani, they were not as yet finished, and, during the reign
of Fath 'Ali Shah, the 'episode of the inspector's head' brought them
a temporary surge of fame and prestige. Mirza Muhammad Nishapuri
Akhbari promised Fath 'Ali Shah the death by supernatural means of
Tsitianov, the Russian General then besieging Baku, in return for the
Akhbari doctrine being made the official creed of Iran. After forty
days, Tsitianov's head was presented to Fath 'Ali Shah. But the Shah
realised that it was beyond his ability to reverse the Usuli triumph
and did not keep his end of the bargain. Fearing that Mirza Muhammad's
extraordinary powers would be turned against him, Fath 'Ali Shah
exiled him to Iraq where he was set upon by Usulis in Kazimayn in 1816
killed, and so bitter had become the animosity between the two parties
that his body was fed to the dogs. After this Akhbari doctrine never
again achieved any prominence.


   Much more important during the Qajar era was the emergence of the
Shaykhi movement. Shaykh Ahmad ibn Zaynu'd-Din al-Ahsa'i (1753-1826),
the founder of the Shaykhi movement, was a prominent Shi'i scholar of
al-Ahsa, who had studied under Bahru'l-'Ulum, Kashifu'l Ghita and the
other prominent ulama of Iraq. In the second decade of the 19th
century, Shaykh Ahmad looked set to become the leading Shi'i scholar
of his generation, and as he travelled around Iran he was accorded the
highest honours by princes, ulama and even the Shah.
Shaykh Ahmad, however, had a number of views which were considered
heterodox by some of the ulama. A fuller description of Shaykhi
doctrine is given elsewhere in this book (see pp. 225ff.), but for the
purposes of this chapter it will suffice to describe Shaykh Ahmad's
views as being in the tradition of the Hikmat-i Ilahi of the School of
Isfahan (see pp. 2 1719). Had Shaykh Ahmad lived two centuries
earlier, his ideas would have been included in the corpus of that
school and no movement separate from the main body of Twelver Shi'ism
would have resulted. However, in the intervening period, figures such
as Majlisi and Bihbahani had considerably narrowed the field of Shi'i
orthodoxy. And so, when Shaykh Ahmad came into conflict with some of
the ulama, they responded as Bihbahani had done with the Akhbaris, by
pronouncing takfir (declaration of being an unbeliever) against him.
This takfir was first pronounced in 1822 by Mulla Muhammad Taq
Baraghani of Qazvin (he was later killed by a Shaykhi in 1847). After
this other ulama confirmed the pronouncement but it is interesting to
note that none of the contemporary ulama of the first rank such as
Mulla Ahmad Naraqi, Shaykh Musa the son of Kashifu'l-Ghita, Mulla 'Ali
Nuri, Haul Muhammad Ibrahim Kalbasi and Haul Sayyid Muhammad Baqir
Shafti supported the takfir. 18 Indeed, it was not until after Shaykh
Ahmad's death in 1826, under his successor, Sayyid Kazim ibn Qasim
Rashti (d. 1259/1843), that any real separation can be said to have
occurred between the Shaykhis and the main body of Twelver Shi'is.
Certainly it was not the wish of Shaykh Ahmad or Sayyid Kazim to
create a separate movement, but Twelver Shi'ism was no longer a
sufficiently broad church to retain them. Indeed, the ulama used the
Shaykhi controversy to further refine and narrow the orthodox

The reign of Muhammad Shah saw the start of the Babi movement. In 1844
Sayyid 'Ali Muhammad of Shiraz, who took the title of Bab (Gate, 1819-
1850), began to put forward his claims (see p. 231). At first he
commanded his followers to observe the Muslim Shari'a and there was
little conflict with orthodox Islam. But in 1848, shortly before
Muhammad Shah's death, the Bab declared that the Qur'an and Muslim
Shari'a were abrogated and a new religious dispensation with a new


book and a new Shari'a had begun. This was to result in conflict
between his followers and the ulama and government during the next

   Throughout the course of the 18th century, Sufism had reasserted
itself in Iran and remained a major preoccupation of the ulama for the
first few decades of the 19th century. The thrust against Sufism begun
by Bihbahani at the close of the 18th century was continued
vigorously. Bihbahani's son, Aqa Muhammad 'Ali, even became known as
Su-S-kush (Sufi-slayer) on account of the number of Sufis he caused to
be killed; these included Ma'sum 'Ali Shah and Muzaffar 'Ali Shah, two
of the leading Ni'matu'llahi Sufi Shaykhs.

There was a marked change in the relations between the ulama and the
state during the reign of Muhammad Shah who, as noted above, had a
predilection for Sufism. Indeed, the revolt of Husayn 'Ali Mirza,
Farman-Farma, in Isfahan at the start of this reign received the
support of Hajji Sayyid Muhammad Baqir Shafti, probably because
Farman-Farma had no such pro-Sufi proclivities and supported the
ulama.9 During this reign, it was no longer possible for the ulama to
persecute the Sufis as they had during the previous reign. But
although Sufism made progress among the royal family and government
circles, it failed to make any significant headway among the people.

The most important development of this period was, however, the
emergence of the ulama into the political sphere. Although prominent
members of the ulama had been influential at the local level since
Safavid times and had, on occasions, even caused the dismissal of a
Governor, and although the ulama of the late Safavid period exercised
a remarkable degree of independence and even defiance of the
government, it was not until the reign of Fath 'Ali Shah that the
ulama entered the field of politics at the national level. Fath 'Ali
Shah's marked deference to the ulama and his need of them to underpin
the legitimacy of his dynasty no doubt contributed to this.

There was a marked change in the relations between the state and the
ulama in the Qajar period compared with the Safavid era. The Safavids
had claimed authority on the basis of being both the 'Shadow of God on
Earth' (the ancient Iranian concept of kingship, i. e. temporal
authority) and the 'representative of the Hidden Imam' (i.e. spiritual
authority), while the leading ulama of the Safavid period had all been
incorporated into the state apparatus. The Qajars, however, only
claimed the title of 'Shadow of God on Earth' and left the claim of
being the 'representative of the Hidden Imam' to the ulama. The major
ulama of this period were not only outside the state apparatus, but
also most of them resided in Iraq outside the state's jurisdiction.
Even when the ulama were appointed to state positions, such as Hajji
Sayyid Muhammad Baqir Shafti who was Shaykh al-Islam of Isfahan, they
acted independently and often in


defiance of the government.
   The most marked instance of the political involvement of the ulama
during this period was in the case of the Russo-Iranian Wars. During
the first war, 1804-13, Mirza Buzurg, Qa'im-Maqam, the Minister of
'Abbas Mirza, the crown Prince, who was conducting the war, wrote to
the ulama of Iraq and Isfahan to obtain fatwas declaring the war
against Russia to be jihad (holy war). Many of the prominent ulama,
such as Shaykh Ja'far Kashifu'l-Ghita and Mulla Ahmad Naraqi,
responded to this request and issued such fatwas. This first Russo-
Iranian War ended in defeat for Iran and the Treaty of Gulistan in 18
13 stripped her of all her Caucasian provinces.
In the years after the war, reports began to reach the ulama of ill-
treatment by the Russians of their newly-conquered Muslim subjects.
The ulama began to agitate for jihad. Fath 'Ali Shah was reluctant but
when, in 1826, he set out for his summer residence in Sultaniyya he
was followed there by Aqa Sayyid Muhammad Tabataba'i of Karbala (a son
of Sayyid 'Ali Tabataba'i), Mulla Ahmad Naraqi, Mulla Muhammad Taqi
Baraghani of Qazvin and a number of other prominent ulama, who
demanded that Fath 'Ali Shah declare war on Russia. The ulama were in
fact threatening to take control of the affairs of government and
launch the jihad themselves if Fath 'Ali Shah would not do this. They
issued fatwas declaring the jihad to be obligatory and opposition to
it a sign of unbelief (kufr). Fath 'Ali Shah was pressured into
acquiescing. The outcome of the second Russo-Iranian War was as
disastrous as the first. Although the ulama supported the troops in
battle initially, after the first reverses they withdrew and it was
indeed one of their number, Mir Fattah, who betrayed Tabriz into the
hands of the Russians.[20] As the result of the treaty of
Turkomanchay, 1828, further territory and a large indemnity were ceded
by Iran.

The importance of the second Russo-Iranian War from the point of view
of the ulama, however, was their emergence as a force capable of
shaping national policy. This was, indeed, the first of a chain of
episodes where the ulama were to have a marked influence on the course
of Iranian history. The subsequent links in this chain were to include
agitation against Husayn Khan Sipahsalar in 1873, the opposition to
the Tobacco Regie in 1891-2, the involvement of the ulama in the
Constitutional Movement 1905-9, and culminating in the Iranian
Revolution of 1979.

Political Developments under Nasiru'd-Din and Muzaffaru'd-Din Shahs

The long reign of Nasiru'd-Din Shah, from 1848 to 1896, was marked by
several important events. It began with a bloody suppression of the
Babi movement in the years 1848-52 under Nasiru'd-Din Shah's first


Minister, Mirza Taqi Khan (executed 1852). There were a number of
attempts at reforming and modernising Iran, the most notable of which
were undertaken by Mirza Taqi Khan until his downfall in 1851 and
Husayn Khan Sipahsalar in 1871-3. Hand-in-hand with modernisation came
increasing penetration of Iran by Europeans. The Shah, desperate for
revenue, farmed out many of the resources of the country in the form
of concessions to European consortiums. The most extensive of these
was the Reuter concession of 1872 which granted the monopoly of the
working of the nation's mines, construction of railways and the
national bank to Julius de Reuter, a naturalised British subject. This
concession, which became an embarrassment to the British government,
was eventually annulled over a minor technicality, but another
concession, the monopoly of tobacco production and sale in 1890-52,
aroused great public indignation and will be dealt with later in this
chapter. The last years of Nasiru'd-Din Shah's reign saw an increasing
political ferment among Iranians with many issues such as nationalism,
Pan-Islamism and modernisation being the focus of attention. It was an
adherent of Sayyid Jamalu'd-Din Afghani's Pan-Islamism who ended
Nasiru'd-Din Shah's reign with an assassin's bullet in 1896.  
Nasiru'd-Din Shah does not appear to have inherited his father's Sufi
proclivities and showed himself to be religiously devout in an
orthodox way although somewhat fond of an excessive display of
ceremony and ostentation in respect to religious occasions, which was
frowned upon by the ulama. He went on pilgrimages to Mashhad and the
shrines in Iraq and paid for the gilding of the domes of the shrines
at Qumm, Shah 'Abdu'l-'Azim, Karbala and Samarra. He was not, however,
subservient to the ulama in the way Fath 'Ali Shah had been but rather
pursued an independent line that on occasions brought him into
conflict with the ulama.

Nasiru'd-Din Shah was succeeded by his son, the mild and inoffensive
Muzaffaru'd-Din Shah. Muzaffru'd-Din, while Crown Prince in Tabriz,
had been suspected of being under the influence of the Shaykhis but
once on the throne he does not appear to have shown any outward
heterodoxy. The principal event of his reign was the build-up of
increasing pressure for a constitutional government. The ulama became
leading voices in this movement.

The Ulama during the Reigns of Nasiru'd-Din and Muzaffaru'd-Din Shahs

The years of Nasiru'd-Din Shah's reign saw important hierarchical
developments among the ulama. Najaf remained at first the undisputed
centre of the Shi'i world and it has already been noted that Shaykh
Muhammad Hasan NajafI had almost succeeded before his death in 18 50

in concentrating in himself the authority of marja' at-taqlid for the
entire Shi'i world.
   After the death of Shaykh Muhammad Hasan, a number of prominent
mujtahids were recognized as maraji' until, by the mid 1850s, with the
death of other contenders Shaykh Murtada ibn Muhammad Amm Ansari,
originally of Dizful in south-west Iran but resident in Najaf, emerged
as the sole marja' at-taqlid.[21] Interestingly, Shaykh Muhammad Hasan
had tried to determine the succession by specifically appointing
Ansari on his death-bed; this attempt to institutionalize the
succession was not, however, continued by later maraji'.

This emergence of a sole marja' at-taqlid in the Shi'i world and the
frequent references to him as the Na-'ib al-Imam (deputy of the Imam)
concentrated enormous power and, since the zakat and khums were also
paid to him by all Shi'is, enormous wealth in the hands of one person.

Shaykh Murtada was responsible for important developments in the field
of jurisprudence (see pp. 186-7). He steadfastly refrained, however,
despite his extensive influence, from any political involvement. His
biographers present him as an extremely pious, austere man who was so
obsessed with the fear of displeasing God that he refrained from
issuing judgements and ijazas until he was convinced of there being no
possibility of having made an error.

Shaykh Murtada Ansari died in 1864 and by about 1872 his pupil Hajji
Mirza Sayyid Muhammad Hasan ibn Mahmud, known as Mirza-yi Shirazi, had
become acknowledged as sole marja'.22 In 1874 he transferred his
residence from Najaf to Samarra, where the Shrines of the Tenth and
Eleventh Imams are situated and where the Twelfth Imam is said to have
gone into occultation. He built a madrasa and other buildings and
attracted a large number of students there, so that this town became
for a short while the centre of Shi'i scholarship. He died in 1895 and
leadership of the Shi'i world passed to a group of mujtahids in Najaf.

It was also during this period that a number of the ulama of Iran
became extremely wealthy. Apart from their income from donations and
pious benefactions, some of these ulama were not averse to such
practices as hoarding grain during famines and then selling them at
vastly inflated prices to a starving populace. In these ways, such
figures as Mulla 'Ali Kani of Tehran and Aqa Najafi of Isfahan became
very rich.[23]

The second half of the 19th century saw the ulama coming more and more
into political issues. Their principal concerns now became identified
with national issues. These included the response to the Babi
movements and Shaykhism, increasing involvement in criticising the
running of the government, increasing concern with the penetration of
Iran by Europeans, and the issues of Pan-Islamism, modernisation and
the Constitutional Movement.


   Although both Shaykhism and the Babi movement began in previous
reigns, the most violent opposition to these movements began in
Nasiru'd-Din Shah's reign and continued on into the 20th century. It
was the ulama who took the lead in condemning the Bab and his
followers. In Baghdad in 1845 the Governor, Najib Pasha, convened a
court of some of the most prominent Sunni and Shi'i ulama who issued a
joint fatwa declaring the Bab's writings to constitute unbelief
(kufr). In Kirman, Hajji Muhammad Karim Khan Kirmani, the Shaykhi
leader, was one of the first to voice his opposition to the Bab and,
in Qazvin, Mulla Muhammad Taqi Baraghani, who had been the first to
condemn the Shaykhis, now also preached against the Babis.

In two of the major armed conflicts between Babis and the government
troops (at Shaykh Tabarsi in Mazandaran in 1848-9 and at Zanjan in
1850), it was the ulama who initiated the conflict by preaching
against the Babis and rousing the population against them. However, it
was the government who undertook the responsibility of carrying out
the attempt to suppress the new religion. Following an attempted
assassination of the Shah in 1852 there was a particularly brutal
suppression of the Babis. The movement was driven underground but was
to re-emerge decades later as the Bahá'í religion under the leadership
of Bahá'u'lláh (1817-92). Throughout the rest of the 19th century the
ulama, in particular, initiated sporadic outbursts of persecution
against the Bahá'ís. Particularly active in this respect were Shaykh
Muhammad Baqir, a mujtahid of Isfahan (d. 1883) and his son Shaykh
Muhammad Taqi, known as Aqa Najafi (d. 1914). Thus in Isfahan between
1864 and 1914 there were thirteen violent episodes of persecution.
Adharbayjan, Tehran, Khurasan, Fars and Yazd saw other major
persecutions against the Bahá'ís. It was principally due to Aqa
Najafi, but instigated by the Imam-Jum'a of Yazd, that a particularly
violent outbreak of persecution of the Bahá'ís occurred in Yazd in
1903, leaving over a hundred Bahá'ís dead. These persecutions
continued into the 20th century and have intensified since the 1979

   The Shaykhis too were subjected to persecution at the instigation
of the ulama during this period. The major disturbances occurred in
Kirman in 1878 and 1904-5, in Hamadan in 1897 and in Tabriz in 1848,
1868 and 1903.

   Nasiru'd-Din Shah's first Prime Minister, Mirza Taqi Khan, was too
strong and single-minded to allow the ulama to interfere too much in
the processes of government, but under his successors the ulama
resumed their gradual encroachment onto the field of national
politics. In 1873 the ulama played a leading role in overthrowing the
Prime Minister, Mirza Husayn Khan, whose European-inspired
modernisation they both feared and resented.


   The most important example of the ulama's involvement in the
political sphere during Nasiru'd-Din's reign was in the agitation
leading up to the repeal of the Tobacco Concession in 1891. Whereas
in previous confrontations between the ulama and the state, the nation
as a whole had been largely uninvolved, in this episode the ulama
became the leaders of the people in a protest that involved the entire
nation. A tobacco monopoly concession was granted to a British
syndicate in 1890 and the company began its work in 1891. Almost
immediately there was an outcry against the company. The ulama led the
protests but the people themselves bitterly resented the concession
and rioted in support of the ulama's demands for its abrogation. Then
in December 1891 a fatwa was distributed purporting to be from Mirza-
yi Shirazi, the marja' at-taqlid the entire Shi'i world. This fatwa
forbade the use of tobacco and was universally obeyed throughout the
country. The concession thus became valueless and was eventually
withdrawn by the Shah in order to quell the general agitation. The
ulama had won this major confrontation with the Shah and now realized
the full extent of their political power. The episode itself was to be
but a prelude to the ulama's involvement in the Constitutional
Revolution of 1905-9.
   One other political issue that concerned the ulama during this
period was the Pan-Islamic Movement. This was the proposal put forward
most vigorously by Sayyid Jamalu'd-Din Afghani (Asadabadi, 1838-97)
that the entire Muslim world unite under the Caliphate of the Ottoman
Sultan and thus resist more effectively the encroachment of the West.
Although this proposal occasioned lively debate, Afghani does not
appear to have been successful in obtaining the support of any of the
prominent Shi'i ulama and the whole question gradually subsided
following Afghani's own death in 1897.

With the increasing contacts with Europe during this period, the ulama
became very concerned at the rate and degree to which Western ideas
and technology were being introduced into Iran. Some of these ideas,
such as the notion of a constitutional government, were in parallel
with the ulama's aims and were pronounced to be compatible with (and
even derived from) Islam. Even some of the new technology such as the
telegraph which gave better access to the mujtahids in the shrine
cities to Iraq, came to be accepted. But, for the most part, the ulama
were against change and particularly Western ideas and technology.
They resisted and resented the increasing European penetration of the
country with respect to trade and with respect even to the
administration of the country. They attributed this to the corruption
and venality of the Qajars and therefore put their influence behind
the movement to limit the Shah's authority by means of a constitution.


The Popular Religion

The 19th century saw important changes in the popular religion for the
generality of the Shi'a. It saw the ulama and particularly the
mujtahids pushing their way more forcefully into the lives of the
ordinary Shi'i through the doctrine of taqlid and the rise of the
marja' at-taqlid. From being at the periphery of the life of the
believer and only involved in such social transactions as marriage,
death and inheritance, the ulama were able to thrust themselves into
the centre of the life of the believer, insisting that even in the
ordinary actions of everyday life it is necessary for a devout
believer to turn to the marja' at-taqlid for advice and guidance and
as a model to be imitated.
  In parallel with this development, the people began increasingly to
look to the ulama as their leaders and their voice vis-d-vis the
government. This role of the ulama, which had begun during the Safavid
period, was greatly expanded in the Qajar era. The home of the
mujtahid became a frequent place of sanctuary (bast) for persons being
pursued by the authorities. When the populace wished to protest
against an oppressive Governor or an unpopular government policy, it
was to the ulama that they turned to voice their dissatisfaction. The
ulama, being financially independent of the government and relatively
immune from its pressure, were able to criticise it with impunity.
This role of the ulama reached its climax in the opening years of the
20th century in the Constitutional Revolution.

The religious fervour of the masses was fanned by the increasing use
of Rawda-khani, the recital of Husayn's sufferings, and by the
introduction of the ta'ziya, a highly-stylised enactment of the
Karbala tragedy. The Qajars encouraged this development by the
erection of buildings (takiyyas) for the performance of these plays
which were put on during Muharram (see pp. 240-42). Several of the
Shi'i Holy Days such as the birth of the Imam 'Ali, Imam Husayn and
the Twelfth Imam as well as the commemoration of the day of Ghadir
were declared as public holidays by Nasiru'd-Din Shah.

Shi'ism in Arab Lands

For the Shi'is of Iraq the start of the 19th century saw the emergence
of a frightening spectre from the south in the shape of the Wahhabis,
whose attack on the Shi'is of al-Ahsa has already been mentioned. In
180 I they sacked Karbala. The Wahhabi creed held all shrines to be
contrary to the monotheistic teachings of Islam and so the Shrines of
the Imam Husayn and 'Abbas, his brother, at Karbala, were stripped of
all their gold and precious ornaments. In 1803 and 1806 they attacked
Najaf but were repulsed. Up to about 1811 there were regular Wahhabi
raids upon the


Shi'i tribes and villages in southern Iraq but after this the
Wahhabis, under attack from the Egyptians in the west of their
territories, became less of a threat to Iraq.

   The line of semi-independent Mamluk Pashas that had ruled Iraq from
1747 ended in 1831 with the Ottoman government reasserting its
authority over that province. There now came a series of Governors
appointed by the Ottoman government. It was one of these, Najib Pasha,
who decided to end the semi-autonomous state that had prevailed in
Karbala and Najaf for a number of years due to the activities of gangs
of ruffians. Several previous Governors had been refused permission to
enter and no taxes were forthcoming. In 1843 Najib Pasha invested
Karbala and after negotiations had failed stormed it, causing great
loss of life. The killing even occurred in the Shrine of 'Abbas and
the two Shrines of Husayn and 'Abbas were desecrated by being used as
stables. In 1852 Najaf suffered a similar, if less severe, fate at the
hands of another Governor, Namiq Pasha. But from this date onwards,
the shrine cities of Iraq were left in peace. The extension of the
telegraph to Najaf and Karbala in the 1860s allowed the great
mujtahids of Iraq even closer contact with the ulama of Iran and other
parts of the Muslim world and strengthened the position of the marja'

The period from 1788 to 1840 saw Lebanon comparatively peaceful and
prosperous under its semi-independent Amir Bashir II. There was then a
period of twenty years of intense fighting between the Christians and
Druse until 1860 when, under foreign pressure, a new administration
was set up for the Christian areas under a Christian Pasha who was
directly responsible to Istanbul. Under the new system the area
prospered greatly although, despite this, great numbers emigrated to
Egypt and the Americas. Politically, the region became dominated by
the Christian Maronites and Druse. The Twelver Shi'is, in the main,
remained apart from the factional fighting, nor did they participate
as much in the emigration as the Christians of Mount Lebanon. The
community turned very much in upon itself, practically its only
outside contacts being the ulama who were sent for the final stages of
their education to the shrine cities of Iraq.

For much of the late 18th and the 19th centuries there was a process
of migration whereby the Shi'is on the west side of Mount Lebanon
moved to the Biqa' Valley and Maronites moved in the opposite
direction. The Shi'i Harfush family which had controlled the Ba'albakk
area was overthrown in 1282/1865. In the other main Shi'i area of
Lebanon, the Jabal 'Amil, the 'Ali as-Saghir family was finally
overthrown in 1865. The Shi'i residents in Jizzin came under intense
pressure during this period and left this town which had formerly been
an important Shi'i centre.

   In Bahrain, the rule of the Sunni al-Khalifa tribe resulted in a
gradual attrition in the position of the Shi'i community. Sunni Arabs
were brought in from other parts of Arabia and soon formed the urban
population including the ruling class, the military and many of the
traders. The Shi'is were relegated to the villages. There they
gradually lost ownership of the land through a system of heavy taxes
and other extortions and were reduced to cultivating the palm groves
as feudal peasants of their Sunni overlords.
The beginning of the 19th century saw the Shi'is of al-Ahsa suffering
under the fiercely anti-Shi'i Wahhabis. In 1871, however, after a
split in the Sa'udi dynasty the Ottoman Governor of Iraq, Midhat
Pasha, was able to annexe al-Ahsa and this gave some relief to the
Shi'a there.

Shi'ism In India

In India the principal Shi'i power continued to be the Nawwabs of
Oudh. In 1819 Ghaziyu'd-Din Haydar (d. 1827) had himself crowned King
of Oudh, thus effectively throwing off the Mogul suzerainty. The next
King, Nasiru'd-Din (d. 1837), had coins struck with the inscription:
'the Na'ib of the Mahdi, Nasiru'd-Din Haydar, the King'. He was
succeeded by his uncle, Muhammad 'Ali Shah (d. 1842). During the
reign of the next sovereign 'Amjad 'Ali Shah (d. 1847), the law of the
kingdom which had been Sunni (in accordance with the custom of the
Mogul Empire) was changed to Shi'i law and a Shi'i mufti appointed.
The last King of Oudh was Wajid 'Ali Shah who was forced by the
British to abdicate in 1856.

   Ghaziyu'd-Din Haydar left a very considerable sum of money as a
pious bequest. The income from this endowment was at first sent to the
leading mujtahids in each of the cities of Najaf and Karbala. Later,
after the British annexation, the British government became
responsible for the dispersement of the money and in 1900 it was
decided to increase the number of recipients of the bequest to ten
mujtahids in Najaf and Karbala. The British attempted to use the
bequest to influence the mujtahids politically but with only limited

One of the most important figures of this period is Sayyid Dildar 'Ali
ibn Muhammad Mu'ayyan Nasirabadi (1166/1752-1235/1820). In 1200/1785
he became the first Indian to return to India as a recognised
mujtahid, having studied under Bihbahani in Karbala. He was
instrumental in establishing the Usuli School in Oudh and also for a
campaign against Sufism.

In western India the Khoja community had consisted of a mixture of
Isma'ilis and Twelvers. When, however, in 1842, the Agha Khan fled
Iran and settled in India, he enforced a separation between the two


religious groups. Some Isma'ili Khojas became Twelvers in 1901 in
protest at the leadership of the third Agha Khan. In the 1870s the
Twelvers petitioned Shaykh Zaynu'l-'Abidin Mazandarani of Karbala (d.
1892) whom they regarded as their spiritual leader to send them
someone who could instruct them in religious matters. In 1873 Mulla
Qadir Husayn was sent and he remained in Bombay until 1900 instructing
the Twelver Khojas and establishing the community there on an
independent footing.

   Twelver Shi'ism was spread during this period by Indians and
Iranians, mainly as a result of settlement for trading purposes, into
Nepal, Tibet, Burma, Thailand, Java and East Africa.
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