To the east of the Ottomans were another important dynasty, the Safavids, and their successors, the Qajars. Though originally from a Turkic tribe based in northwestern Iran, the Safavids differed from the Ottomans in several fundamental ways. To begin with, their reign never extended far beyond the boundaries of modern-day Iran, and even in their territories they often had to rely on semiautonomous tribal chieftains (uymaqs) scattered throughout the interior of the country. Equally important were the different religious characters of the two dynasties and their respective sources of popular legitimacy. By definition, the Ottoman sultans saw themselves as the successors to the Rashidun and, as caliphs, the protectors of the Sunni umma. The Safavids, on the other hand, traced their genesis to religious mystics (Sufis) who were militantly Shi‘ite. In fact, under the Safavids Shi‘ism became the state religion of Iran, and the royal court was modeled after that of ancient Persian kings (shahs) rather than anything resembling the Ottoman sultanate.
The Safavid conquest of Iran began with Ismail in 1500 (d. 1524). For the next ten years, he consolidated his rule over the country and launched a thorough and at times brutal campaign to convert the majority Sunni population to Shi‘ism. The conversion campaign lasted for nearly a century and succeeded in creating a core of Shi‘ite coreligionists—eventually up to 90 percent—in much of the central parts of the country. It is no accident that today Iran’s Sunni minorities are concentrated among the country’s non-Persian ethnic groups that are scattered along the country’s borders: the Arabs along the southwestern border with Iraq; the Kurds along the western borders with Iraq and Turkey; the Turkmans along the northeastern border with Turkmenistan; and the Baluchis along the southeastern border with Pakistan. The Safavids belonged to the numerically more dominant Twelver (or Imami) branch of Shi‘ism, which, as its name implies, believes in the sanctity of twelve imams (leaders of religious communities), the last of whom, the Mahdi, is in occultation and will return at the End of Time. The Safavids’ own knowledge of Shi‘ite theology and jurisprudence appears to have been scant, so the conversion process was reported to be quick and rather superficial, in some instances consisting merely of reciting a slogan.