The Safavids and the Emigré Arab Jurists

  May 30, 2022   Read time 4 min
The Safavids and the Emigré Arab Jurists
IN 907AH/1501CE, A SUFI order in Ardabil, known as the Safavid, claimed sovereignty in Persia and founded an empire that rivaled the Ottomans in the West.

The empire’s assumption of a distinct religious identity, namely Shi’ite Islam, was concomitant with profound social and political changes in Persia and regional Arab Shi’ite societies during the sixteenth century. The terms ‘Shi’ite’ and ‘Shi’ism’ require explanation. Following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 11AH/632CE, one religious faction, known as the partisans (Shi’a) of ‘Ali (d. 41AH/661CE), the cousin of the Prophet, promoted ‘Ali as the rightful successor and caliph. The aspirations of this faction, however, remained unfulfilled for 30 years, during which three of the Prophet’s Companions in turn became caliphs, namely Abu Bakr, ‘Umar and ‘Uthman. These caliphs came to represent ‘mainstream’ or Sunnite Islam. Their followers argued that they constituted the ‘Sunna’ (the right path) supported by the majority of the Muslim community. ‘Ali and his followers rejected this position, and protested that ‘Umar and ‘Uthman promulgated Islam in ways contrary to the Qur’an and Muhammad’s statements. Shi’ism asserts that its authority originates in ‘Ali, the first Imam (an infallible religious guide), and is transmitted to ‘Ali’s descendants from Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet. Muhammad b. al-Hasan al-‘Askari, the twelfth and last Shi’ite Imam, had no progeny. He disappeared or went into hiding in 260AH/873CE. Shi’ites consider the twelfth Imam to be the Mahdi (Messiah) and await his return to establish the legitimate Shi’ite government.

During the fourteenth century CE, leaders like Sultan Junayd and Haydar of the Turkoman Safavid clan (Safavid Empire: 907–1135AH/1501–1736CE) tried to strengthen their base by calling men to arms in Anatolia.2 The clan’s Sunnite ancestor Safi al-Din (d. 735AH/1334CE) was a local Sufi divine, and the site of his Sufi order, Ardabil, in northwest Iran, became first a shrine and later the center of the tribe’s political and military activities. When the Safavids accepted Shi’ite Islam late in the fourteenth century CE, they espoused a fervent but unrefined Shi’ism, bestowing on their religious guides claims to prophetic ability and divine authority. The Safavids’ military, political and religious objectives coalesced in the reign of the first Safavid Shah, Isma’il I (907–930AH/1501–1524CE), who introduced central changes in the Persian court and its administrative branches. To achieve his goals, Isma’il I relied on Turkoman military forces known as the Qizilbash (‘redheads’, so called from their distinctive crimson cone-shaped, twelve-gored hats; each gore represented one of the twelve Shi’ite Imams). After Isma’il’s investiture, the Qizilbash embellished the military base and political outlook of his young Empire.
Soon after Shah Isma’il I ascended the throne, he mandated that all regions under Safavid control accept Twelver Shi’ism.4 His immediate successors also persevered in their efforts to convert Persia’s numerous tribal groups and social classes to Twelver Shi’ism by trying, though not always successfully, to suppress millenarianism, shamanism and popular Sufi expressions. The Shahs especially wanted the ruling classes to adopt a literate urban Shi’ite doctrine, which lends itself to legal regulation and state structure. This form of Shi’ism was distinct from mystical and folk Shi’ism evident in the Safavids’ own background and that of the Turkoman nomads in the west.5 To achieve this aim, Shah Isma’il I and his son Shah Tahmasb (930–984AH/1524–1576CE) invited renowned Twelver Shi’ite ‘ulama (religious scholars and jurists) from Arabic-speaking countries – Iraq, Bahrain and Jabal ‘Amil in Syria – to reinforce the Shi’ite ‘ulama already in Persia.6 The early Safavid Shahs purposely placed these erudite émigré teachers and jurists in important religious and quasi-administrative positions to disseminate their welldefined Islamic creed based on the Shi’ite School of law or madhhab. Gradually a regional Shi’ite identity emerged.
Although often diverted by internecine and external challenges to their power, the early Safavid royalty welcomed the Arab jurists and divines, of whom the foremost scholars from Jabal ‘Amil are collectively called ‘the ‘Amilis’. The Safavid monarchs realized that Shi’ite intellectuals held ‘Amili scholarship in high regard, yet the decision to patronize these Syrian clerics rested on the belief that the ‘Amilis would provide a much-needed source of legitimacy for imperial sovereignty. For their part, the ‘Amilis consented to such sovereignty, and eagerly sought Safavid patronage. They accumulated significant power and prestige and achieved positions in such civic-religious institutions as shaykh al-Islam, the highest religious dignitary of the important cities, and pish-namaz, prayer leaders for the royal court and the great city mosques. ‘Amili scholars and their Iranian descendants also served as custodians of religious practice (vakil-i halaliyyat), judges (qadis), expounders of Islamic law (muftis), ministers (viziers), professors of theology (mudarris), and even administrators and heads of religious endowments (sadrs). (See Appendix II) Over several generations in Persia, the ‘Amilis and their descendants taught in madrasas (schools) and transmitted their knowledge to an ever-increasing network of students and followers.7 For the entire Safavid period (to the seventeenth century CE), at least 158 scholars (‘alim) are identifiable as first, second and third-generation Syrian emigrants to Safavid Persia.

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