Shi’ism in Iran
In this e-mail, I’d like to go into a little more depth regarding Shi’ism in Iran. To start, as we learned earlier, it isn’t true that Shi’ism has been the national religion of Iran since the early years of Islam. Until the 16th century, the great majority of Shi’ites did not speak Persian nor did they live in Iran. In fact, the majority of Iranians were Sunni.
It wasn’t until 1501 that the Safavid dynasty gained power and made Twelver Shi’ism the official religion of the state. In classical times this variant of Shi’ism was politically moderate, providing a way for Shi’ites to reconcile their political loyalty to Sunni caliphs with their belief in the rightful Imamate of Ali and his descendants. At this time, the line between Sunnism and Twelver Shi’ism wasn’t always clear cut. Both ideas and people passed fairly easily from one to the other.
In the 14th and 15th centuries, after the Mongol invasions, very unsettled conditions prevailed in western Asia. Many new Islamic movements sprang up, particularly among the nomadic Turkish tribes. Safavism was one of these.
Safavism started as a quietist Sunni Sufi order and developed into a warrior dynasty which took up Twelver Shi’ism and gave it a militant twist to justify confrontation with neighboring Sunni states, particularly the Ottoman Empire.
The Sufis were Islamic mystics, both Shi’a and Sunni. They wanted to be closer to God, desiring a mystical union where they could feel God’s presence. They developed a way to make Islam more humanistic in response to what they felt was an over emphasis on the Islamic legal tradition.
The first Safavid Shah of Iran was a Turkish-speaker and he established an ideological state centered around Twelver Shi’ism. As I’ve mentioned before, he and his successors imported Shi’ite theologians from Arab countries — southern Lebanon and Bahrain — to indoctrinate Iranians.
Friday sermons were given in the name of the 12 Imams, and the preachers were ordered to publicly curse the first three Sunni caliphs — Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman. After all, these three has usurped the rightful place of Ali.
For the next 200 years, there was war –sometimes cool but often hot — between the Sunni Ottoman Empire and the Shi’ite Safavid Empire. The frontier moved back and forth with the fortunes of war.
Twelver Shi’ism had developed as a minority religion under Sunni rule. Its doctrine implicitly assumed Sunni rule, which wasn’t truly Islamic government, but would continue until the return of the Hidden Imam to redeem the world. The establishment of a Shi’a state in the continued absence of the Imam posed a doctrinal problem of political authority which has never been fully resolved.
The Safavid shahs claimed a religious basis for their authority as descendants of Ali through the 7th Imam. At first, their tribal followers identified them with the Hidden Imam or even worshipped them as incarnations of God. These claims weren’t accepted by the orthodox Shi’ite ulama.
The ulama viewed the Safavids as temporal rulers who happened to be good Muslims, or who (at least) accepted and encouraged a correct interpretation of Islam. This meant that they were expected to enforce the Shari’a.
In the absence of the Imam, the qualified interpreters of the Shari’a (mujtahids) were the most learned among the ulama themselves.
The general tendency of the ulama was to shy away from temporal power, regarding it as something essentially corrupt as long as the Imam himself did not assume it. The Imam in their teaching became more and more a Christ-like figure, and less and less a political ruler. On the other hand, the ulama — or some of them, did feel moved from time to time to condemn the impiety or injustice of actual rulers.
In the 18th and especially the 19th century, when the weak Qajar dynasty was unable to govern the country effectively or defend it against foreign encroachments, the ulama found themselves drawn increasingly into a political role. They served as the guardians of the people against the government rather than as claimants of the right to govern.
The above role continues today. Interestingly, Iran (as the only Shi’ite state) is also the only Muslim state in which the ulama of modern times played an active opposition role. Read more about them in the next e-mail.