The Safavid conversion of Iran from Sunnism to Shiism made Iran the spiritual bastion of Shia Islam against the onslaughts of orthodox Sunni Islam, and the repository of Persian cultural traditions and self-awareness of Iranianhood, acting as a bridge to modern Iran. Through their actions, the Safavids reunified Iran as an independent state in 1501 and established Twelver Shiism as the official religion of their empire, marking one of the most important turning points in the history of Islam.
Iran’s population was mostly Sunni of the Shafi`i and Hanafi legal rites until the triumph of the Safavids (who had initially been Shafi`i Sunnis themselves). Ironically, this was to the extent that up until the end of the 15th century the Ottoman Empire (the most powerful and prominent Sunni state and future arch-enemy of the Shia Safavids) used to send many of its Ulema (Islamic scholars) to Iran to further their education in Sunni Islam, due to a lack of Madrasahs (Islamic schools) within the Empire itself. The Sunni Iranians had always held the family of Muhammad in high esteem. In contrast, before the Safavid period, a minority of Iranians were Shia and there had been relatively few Shia Ulema in Iran.
From 1500-02 Ismail I conquered Tabriz, Azerbaijan and Armenia. He would take most of the next decade to consolidate his control over Iran, where most of the Persian population was still Sunni. His army spread out first to the central regions in 1504. He captured southwestern Iran between 1505 and 1508 before finally conquering the Khorasan region and the city of Herat in 1510. From the very beginning the Safavid Dynasty was established on two foundations. One was Shia and the other was Persia, and Ismail concentrated more on the first than the second. His hatred of the Sunnis knew no bounds and he was the most intolerant Shia ruler since the fall of the Fatimids and his persecution of Sunnis was ruthless. He aimed at no less than the complete destruction of Sunnism. Thus, the alternative for the majority of the Persians (who were Sunnis at the time), was either convert to Shiism or accept death. Consequently, in the territory that came fully under his control he was astonishingly successful in enforcing the conversion of the populace from Sunnism to Shiism.
Reasons for Ismail’s conversion policy
More than most Muslim dynasties the Safavids worked for conversion to their branch of Islam and for ideological conformity. The reasons for this conversion policy included:
- One of the main reasons why Ismail and his followers pursued such a severe conversion policy was to give Iran and the Safavid lands as distinct and unique an identity as was possible compared to its two neighboring Sunni Turkish military and political enemies, the Ottoman Empire and, for a time, the Central Asian Uzbeks- to the west and north-east respectively.
- The Safavids were engaged in a lengthy struggle with the Ottomans- including numerous wars between the two dynasties- and this struggle continuously motivated the Safavids to create a more cohesive Iranian identity to counter the Ottoman threat and possibility of a fifth-column within Iran among its Sunni subjects.
- The conversion was part of the process of building a territory that would be loyal to the state and its institutions, thus enabling the state and its institutions to propagate their rule throughout the whole territory.
Methods of converting Iran
Ismail consolidated his rule over the country and launched a thorough and at times brutal campaign to convert the majority Sunni population to Twelver Shiism and thus transform the religious landscape of Iran. His methods of converting Iran included (sources have to be checked):
- Imposing Shiism as the state and mandatory religion for the whole nation and much forcible conversions of Iranian Sunnis to Shiism.
- He reintroduced the Sadr (Arabic, leader) – an office that was responsible for supervising religious institutions and endowments. With a view to transforming Iran into a Shiite state, the Sadr was also assigned the task of disseminating Twelver doctrine.
- He destroyed Sunni mosques. This was even noted by Tomé Pires, the Portuguese ambassador to China who visited Iran in 1511-12, who when referring to Ismail noted: “He (i.e. Ismail) reforms our churches, destroys the houses of all Moors who follow (the Sunnah of) Muhammad…”
- He enforced the ritual and compulsory cursing of the first three Sunni Caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman) as usurpers, from all mosques, disbanded Sunni Tariqahs and seized their assets, used state patronage to develop Shia shrines, institutions and religious art and imported Shia scholars to replace Sunni scholars.
- He shed Sunni blood and destroyed and desecrated the graves and mosques of Sunnis. This caused the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II (who initially congratulated Ismail on his victories) to advise and ask the young monarch (in a “fatherly” manner) to stop the anti-Sunni actions. However, Ismail was strongly anti-Sunni and ignored the Sultans warning and continued to spread the Shia faith by the sword.
- He persecuted, imprisoned and executed stubbornly resistant Sunnis.
- With the establishment of Safavid rule, there was a very raucous and colourful, almost carnival-like holiday on 26 Dhu al-Hijjah (or alternatively, 9 Rabi’ al-awwal) celebrating the murder of Caliph Umar. The highlight of the day was making an effigy of Umar to be cursed, insulted, and finally burned. However, as relations between Iran and Sunni countries improved, the holiday was no longer observed (at least officially).
- In 1501 Ismail invited all the Shia living outside Iran to come to Iran and be assured of protection from the Sunni majority.
The fate of Sunni and Shia Ulema (scholars)
The early Safavid rulers took a number of steps against the Sunni Ulema of Iran. These steps included giving the Ulema the choice of conversion, death, or exile and massacring the Sunni clerics who resisted the Shia transformation of Iran, as witnessed in Herat. As a result, many Sunni scholars who refused to adopt the new religious direction lost their lives or fled to the neighboring Sunni states.
Arab Shia Ulema
After the conquest, Ismail began transforming the religious landscape of Iran by imposing Twelver Shiism on the populace. Since most of the population embraced Sunni Islam and since an educated version of Shiism was scarce in Iran at the time, Ismail imported a new Shia Ulema corps from traditional Shiite centers of the Arabic speaking lands, such as Jabal Amil (of Southern Lebanon), Bahrain and Southern Iraq in order to create a state clergy. Ismail offered them land and money in return for loyalty. These scholars taught the doctrine of Twelver Shiism and made it accessible to the population and energetically encouraged conversion to Shiism. To emphasize how scarce Twelver Shiism was then to be found in Iran, a chronicler tells us that only one Shia text could be found in Ismail’s capital Tabriz. Thus it is questionable whether Ismail and his followers could have succeeded in forcing a whole people to adopt a new faith without the support of the Arab Shiite scholars. The rulers of Safavid Persia also invited these foreign Shiite religious scholars to their court in order to provide legitimacy for their own rule over Persia. 
Abbas I of Persia, during his reign, also imported more Arab Shia Ulema to Iran, built religious institutions for them, including many Madrasahs (religious schools) and successfully persuaded them to participate in the government, which they had shunned in the past (following the Hidden imam doctrine).
Conversions beyond Iran
After conquering Tabriz, Azerbaijan and Armenia from 1500-02, one of the first acts of Ismail was to declare Twelver Shiism to be the state religion, despite the predominance of Sunni Muslims in the newly acquired territories. After the declaration, a conversion campaign was launched and Muslim peoples of the Caucasus, came under heavy pressure to accept Shiism. The imposition of Shiism was especially harsh in Shirvan, where a large Sunni population was massacred. Thus, the population of Azerbaijan was forcibly converted to Shiism in the early 16th century, when the Safavids held sway over it.
Ismail peacefully seized Baghdad in 1508. However, his armies zealously murdered Sunnis and actively persecuted them through tribal allies of the Shah. His armies also destroyed several important Sunni sites, including the tombs of Abū Ḥanīfa and Abdul-Qadir Gilani. The Safavids even expelled the family of Gilani from Mesopotamia. After declaring Shiism the official form of Islam in Iraq, Ismail forced his new Iraqi subjects to convert to Shiism and outlawed Sunni practices. He then returned to Persia. These draconian actions by the conquering Safavids caused the Mesopotamian Sunnis to seethe with resentment.
Likewise, under Tahmasp I, central and southern Iraq, including Baghdad and Basra had remained in Safavid hands and efforts were being made to establish Shiism in place of Sunnism in these lands. Sunni scholars who refused to accept Shia doctrines were executed and Sunni tombs and shrines were destroyed once again, while the main mosques were converted for Shia use only. While not extensive, some conversions did take place, and those remaining faithful to Sunnism were subjected to persecution until Suleiman the Magnificent expelled the Safavids from most of Iraq.
When the Safavids returned In 1624 under Abbas I of Persia and reconquered Baghdad, they once again massacred the Sunni inhabitants.
Significant figures during the conversion process
Ismail II’s reign (1576-78) was marked by a pro-Sunni policy. With the assistance of Mirza Makhdum al-Sharifi, the new Sadr, Ismail II strove to reverse the anti-Sunni practices among the populace. More specifically he strove to halt the public defamation of Aisha and the ritual cursing of Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman, which rose during early Safavid rule. A few motives may account for his approach to the anti-Sunni propaganda. A primary one was that he was keen to comply with one of the Ottoman demands of the Peace of Amasya concluded in 1555, which called for an end to the vilification of the first three Sunni Caliphs, thus placating the Ottomans and solidifying his own personal position. Another was his attempt to weaken the clerics as he attempted to forcibly demand land grants from Sayyids and Shia Ulema. The shah also clashed with the Ustajlu tribe and a number of Qizilbash amirs who were allied to the clerics. Thus, the public denunciation of Sunni emblems became one stage on which this power struggle between the Shah and the cleric-Qizilbash group was played out. The Shah also hoped to weaken the public appeal of the Amili clerics who administered and encouraged ritual cursing of the first three Sunni Caliphs among Iranians. His Sunni flirtation was also intended to reach out to the still-strong Sunni sympathies among Persians. Despite their quick rejection of Ismail II’s policies, the majority of Ulema and the military-political centre avoided a confrontation with him, even though in place of zealous Shia scholars like the Astarabadis, the Shah appointed Ulema with Sunni leanings such as Mawlana Mirza Jan Shirazi and Mir Makhdum Lala.
Abbas I of Persia
Shiism did not become fully established until the reign of Abbas I of Persia (1587-1629). Abbas hated the Sunnis, and forced the population to accept Twelver Shiism. Thus by 1602 most of the formerly Sunnis of Iran had accepted Shiism. A significant number however, did not accept Safavid rule, prompting Abbas to institute a number of administrative changes in order to further transform Iran into a Twelver Shia state.
Muhammad Baqir Majlisi
Under the guidance of Muhammad Baqir Majlisi (1616–1698) (one of the most important Shiite clerics of all time), who devoted himself to (among other things) the eradication of Sunnism in Iran, the Safavid state made major efforts, in the 17th century to Persianize Shiite practice and culture in order to facilitate its spread in Iran among its Sunni populace. It was only under Majlisi that Shi’a Islam truly took hold among the masses.
During the reign of Soltan Hosein (1694–1722) (the last effective Safavid shah), there was a lot of religious unrest and religiously motivated rebellions in the Safavid state. These were especially provoked by his ill-fated persecution of the Sunnis living under his control. These troubles contributed to the further destabilization of the Safavid empire (towards the final years of its existence) and were factors that contributed to bringing the Safavids into an existential crisis.
When Soltan Hosein tried to forcibly convert his Afghan subjects in southern Afghanistan from Sunni to Shia, the Safavid conversion policies caused Mir Wais Hotak (chief of the Ghilzai Afghans) to start a rebellion in the Kandahar region in 1709. Mir Wais and his Sunni Afghans killed the Safavid governor George XI of Kartli, including the Persian armies, and made the Afghan area free from Persian rule. The declaration of independence at Kandahar in 1709 was a turning point that was followed by the conquest of Herat by the Ghilzai Afghans in 1715 and the invasion of Iran. Mir Wais’ son Mahmud defeated the Safavids in the 1722 Battle of Gulnabad, marching west to besiege and capture their capital Isfahan, thus effectively ending the Safavid dynasty.
During the reign of Nader Shah, an anti-Shiite policy was implemented. Nader made an unsuccessful attempt to return Iran to the Sunni fold by propagating the integration of Shiism into Sunnism as the fifth of the already extant four Sunni Madh’habs (to be called the Jaafari Madh’hab). However, the scheme to establish this form of Sunnism as the state religion failed to win support among most of the population.
The reasons for his anti-Shia policy included:
- Most of his troops were Sunni Afghan, Steppe Turkmen, Khorasan Kurds and Baluchis, since his own pro-Sunni beliefs had alienated his Shiite Iranian soldiers, who included the Shia Turkmen and ethnic Persian soldiers from central and western Iran, who made up the Safavid partisans.
- It was an original religious policy, aimed at weakening Shia power and at promoting his own rule in Sunni lands outside Iran and making of Shiism a 5th school of orthodox Sunni Islam- a proposal rejected by both Sunni rulers and Shiites.
- Nader made various attempts to reconcile his Persian subjects’ Shia beliefs with the Sunni creed and sought to get the Ottomans to recognize this new Persian Sunnism as its own sect with the possible motivation being to facilitate relations with the Sunni Ottomans, but possibly his real aim was to overthrow the Turks by uniting the Muslim world with him as its head.
- In 1736 after being chosen by an assembly of notables to be Shah, Nader agreed to accept on condition that they accept his new religious policy of restoring Sunnism in Iran. The abandonment of Shiism was necessary as the linchpin of a peace treaty he wanted to conclude with the Sunni Ottomans and was probably intended also as a way of diminishing the religious prestige of the Safavid house and of making himself a more attractive figure to the Sunni populations of areas he was planning to conquer. However, his religious policy fueled discontent in Iran itself.
He implemented the following anti-Shia policies:
- Nader abandoned Shiism and instead founded a mixed Shia/Sunni school to add to the other four Sunni schools of law.
- Nader had the leading cleric in Persia strangled.
- He relied on his army, which was increasingly recruited from Sunni Afghans, Kurds, Turkmen, Baluchis and others (who naturally were gratified by the new religious policy).
- The Persians were not simply ordered to adopt Sunnism as practiced elsewhere in the Muslim world; they were to retain their own discrete religious identity.
- Internally, he banned certain Shia practices; the more extreme ones, typical of the early Safavid period. He issued instructions to the Ulema that Imam Ali should be venerated as before, but that the formula naming him as the deputy of God should no longer be spoken, because it had caused enmity between Shias and Sunnis. Externally he presented the policy as a wholesale conversion to Sunnism. In general, this religious policy did not provoke popular opposition within Persia because the people simply adapted.
- In 1736 from Qazvin he issued an edict that was sent throughout the country, enforcing the cessation of the traditional Shia practices that were most offensive to Sunnis.
- Nader made a major effort to redefine the place of Shiism within the Islamic world by working to gain recognition from the major Sunni powers. He attempted to integrate a redefined Shiism into the Sunni tradition. He rejected the Shia condemnation of the first three Sunni Caliphs and enforced that position within his realm. In addition, he tried to secure Ottoman recognition of Twelver Shiism as a fifth Sunni school of law, to be called the Jaafari school after the 6th Imam, Jafar al-Sadiq. The whole pattern of Shiism as built on the idea of the Imamate was to be replaced. However, neither the Sunni Ottomans nor the major Shia scholars of the time accepted his redefinition.
- Nader alienated the Shiite clergy (partly in order to destroy the influential position they held) by trying to bridge the gap between Sunni and Shia by attempting to restore Sunnism in Iran. He also confiscated large sections of the religious endowment lands (Waqfs) belonging to Shia religious institutions. Fearful for their lives and feeling threatened in Iran, many Persian clergymen sought refuge and settlement in Iraq and formed the core of the Shia religious infrastructure that has persisted until the present around the Shia shrines in Iraq, such as Najaf and Karbala.
After Nader’s death and the rapid disintegration of his empire, Shiism was quickly restored and religious properties were built up again in the following century.
Historical outcome of Ismail’s conversion policy
Ismail’s conversion policy had the following historical outcomes:
- Although conversion was not as rapid as Ismail’s forcible policies might suggest, the vast majority of those who lived on the Iranian plateau did identify with Shiism by the end of the Safavid era in 1722. Hence it is no accident that today Iran’s Sunni minorities are concentrated among the countries non-Persian ethnic groups that are scattered along the country’s borders, with their Sunni conationals next door.
- The Safavid experience largely created the clear line of political demarcation and hostility between Twelver Shiism and Sunnism, even though doctrinal differences had long been recognized. Before the Safavids the Twelvers for many centuries had mostly accommodated themselves politically to the Sunnis, and numerous religious movements combined Twelver and Sunni ideas.
- Ismail’s advent to power signaled the end of Sunni Islam in Iran and Shiite theologians came to dominate the religious establishment.
- The hierarchical organization of the Shiite clergy began under Ismail.
- The current borders between Iran, on the one hand, and Afghanistan and Turkey on the other, date from this time and are not ethnic but religious, opposing Shiites and Sunnis.
- The Sunni majority was treated brutally and was most resistant to the Safavids’ conversion policies, which went on at least until the end of the Safavid period.
- The use of the Shia religion to exert control was not completely successful. It resulted in the annexation of large areas of the country, but was followed by centuries of conflict between the Sunni and Shia populations, even after the fall of the Safavids.
- Iran was a Shia country and gradually became an isolated island surrounded by a sea of Sunnism. While regretting the cruelty of forced conversion, modern Persian historians are generally agreed that the establishment of Shia religious hegemony saved Iran from being incorporated into the Ottoman Empire.
January 6, 2011