It is certainly one of the curiosities of history that Shaykh Safiyud-Din, the founder of the Safawi House (vivebat circa AD 1252-1334), should not have been a Shia. Yet there is no evidence of his having held Shia tenets or even of his having had Shia proclivities, while he is positively asserted to have been a Sunni in a letter addressed to Shaykh Safi’s descendant Tahmasp Shah Safawi by the Uzbeg Prince Ubaydallah Khan. The first head of the Safawi House whose Shiaism is beyond question is Shaykh Safi’s grandson and second successor, Shaykh Khwaja Ali (pontificali munere fungebatur AD 1392-1427). The conversion of the House of the Imami (i.e. the Twelve-Imam) version of Shiaism – whether abruptly or gradually (as is perhaps more probable) – must have been taken place between the pontificates of the grandfather and the grandson.
This exceptional case of conversion from Sunnism to Shiaism round about the fourteenth century does not appear to have occasioned, on either side, any immediate outbreak of either aggressive or defensive fanaticism. Indeed it is Shaykh Khwaja Ali, the first of the Safawi line who was unquestionably a Shia, who is reported to have prevailed upon Timur Lenk to liberate a number of his Osmanli prisoners of war, notwithstanding the fact that the Osmanlis were a Sunni community. And the tolerant and humane attitude towards the adherents of the opposite sect, which this story ascribes to an enthusiastic Shia, appears to have been also the attitude of the Sunnis in this age towards the Shia. The tolerance of the Ottoman Government, which was one of the principal Sunni Powers of the day, is attested by the fact that Shah Quli, who was a propagandist of the Shia faith in the Ottoman dominions and a political agent of the Safawi Power into the bargain, was receiving a pension from the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II (imperabat AD 1481-1512), and was in friendly relations with Bayezid’s son Qorqud, who was the Sultan’s viceroy at Manysa, down to the eve of the great rebellion of AD 1511-12, in which Shah Quli sought to overthrow the Sunni Ottoman Power in order that the Shia Safawi Power might reign in its stead. In fact, the normal relation between the Sunnah and the Shia, during the two centuries ending in the first decade of the sixteenth century, seems to have been the relation of ‘live and let live’ which still prevails between the Sunnis and Shias of India at this day.
This amiable and reasonable relation between the two ancient sects of Islam in the Iranic World augured well for the prospects of the rising Iranic Civilization. Unhappily, persecution was substituted for toleration and hatred for indifference or goodwill by the action of two princes : the Safawi Shah Ismail (dominabatur AD 1499/1500-1523/4) and the Osmanli Sultan Selim I (imperabatAD 1512-20) – an adversary in whom the violent and implacable character of Ismail found its match, to the undoing of the Iranic Society which had given birth to both these men of blood. In this savage encounter, which changed the course of Islamic history by reopening a breach which has only begun to close again within living memory, the initiative was taken by Ismail; and it continued to remain with him even after his signal discomfiture by Selim in AD 1514. Accordingly, the career of Ismail, and not the career of Selim, is the guiding thread which we have to follow.
THE CAREER OF ISMAIL SHAH SAFAWI DOWN TO AD 1511
Ismail’s career provokes two questions: First, how was it that the heir to the headship of a religious order – and an order which was committed to non-violence by its tenets – now burst upon the World as a military conqueror and became the founder of a political empire? And, second, what was Ismail’s ultimate military and political aim?
The answer to the first question is that the metamorphosis of the Safawi organization from a religious order propagating itself by pacific missionary enterprise into a political power extending its dominion by military force had been accomplished already by Ismail Shah’s grandfather Shaykh Junayd (militabat AD 1447-56), who was the grandson of Shaykh Khwaja Ali and the great-great-grandson of Shaykh Safi. Shaykh Junayd was evidently tempted to abandon Imami principles, revolutionize Safawi practice, and try his fortune in the political and military arena by the political vacuum that was created in Iran and Iraq by the utter disintegration of the Timurid Empire after the death of Shah Rukh – an event which occurred in the very year of Shaykh Junayd’s accession. Shaykh Junayd raised a military force of ten thousand ‘Saint Militant’ (Ghuzat-i-Sufiyah); and his son and successor Shaykh Haydar (militabat AD 1456-88), who was the father and predecessor of Shah Ismail, gave the Safawi troops their distinctive uniform, the scarlet cap of twelve gores, which gained them their nickname of ‘Red Heads’ (Qyzyl Bash). Both Shaykh Junayd and Shaykh Haydar fell in battle. It will be seen that the Safawi military tradition was inherited and not created by Ismail, though Ismail himself was the first of his line to pursue the military career with success. For weal or woe, however, the Safawi House had taken decisively to militarism between Junayd’s accession in AD 1447 and Ismail’s in AD 1499/1500.
|Mehmed the Conqueror|
When we inquire into Ismail’s ultimate aim when in AD 1499/1500, at the age of thirteen, he started to turn his inherited military power to account, we find that he aimed at nothing less than the military conquest of the entire Iranic World and he proposed to use his power in order to impose the faith of the Shia minority of the Iranic Society upon the consciences of the Sunni majority by sheer force. The two objectives have to be distinguished, because the second was a sensational and deplorable departure from the Iranic practice of ‘live and let live’, whereas the former was a natural reflection of the social unity of the Iranic World, which had remained unbroken down to Ismail’s day. (The history of the Safawis is one example of the historical phenomenon of a would-be universal church becoming militant and paying the penalty of military success by turning into a local state. Other examples are the transformation of the Zoroastrian Church into the Sasanian Empire, and the history of the Sikhs. ..)
Ismail’s oecumenical ambitions are revealed in the organization of his army. Two of his army corps bore the names of Turkmen tribes – Avshars and the Qajars – and this Turkish tribal element was perhaps the nucleus, since the Safawi battle-cry was in the Turkish language, and a Turkish vernacular was Ismail’s own mother-tongue, as is testified by the evidence of his poetical works. The majority of the corps, however, bore geographical names which corresponded to the dominions of various Sunni Powers of the day. (Sections of the Avshars ranged as far afield as the Uzun Yayla, the watershed between the Euphrates and the Halys, on the west and Khurasan eastward. The Khurasani Avshars gave birth, two centuries later, to Nadir Shah. The Qajars, who had established themselves in the Caspian Provinces, gave birth to the Turkish dynasty that ruled the Empire of Iran from AD 1779, officially from 1796, to AD 1925.) Presumably the soldiers who served in each of these Safawi corps were actually recruited from the respective countries after which the corps were named; and the names were tantamount to an announcement of Ismail’s intention to extend his rule over each of these countries through the military prowess of his local adherents who had already rallied to his banner. ........
The collapse of the Timurid Power had given the Osmanlis relief without tempting them either to take their revenge for the wanton blow which Timur had dealt them, or again to indulge their ambitions by occupying the new vacuum on their Asiatic frontier. They contented themselves with restoring their Asiatic dominions to the limits at which they had stood before Timur intervened in Anatolia: and when, half a century after the overthrow of Bayezid I by Timur at Angora in AD 1402, Bayezid’s successor Mehmet the Conqueror (imperabat AD 1451-81) found the Ottoman Power sufficiently recuperated to go into action again, he deliberately pursued the established policy of his House. In spite of his name and fame, Mehmet Padishah Osmanli was not a ‘conqueror’ in the same sense as either Timur Lenk or Ismail Shah Safawi; for he was not aiming at an oecumenical dominion. He is famous because he set himself with success to round off an empire which had expanded steadily within definite limits. The Osmanlis were an Iranic community which had started life in the borderland between the Iranic and the Orthodox Christian worlds and had acquired an empire by conquering Orthodox Christian territories. This historical function of the Ottoman empire-builders was to bring the Orthodox Christian Society’s ‘Time of Troubles’ to a close by uniting the whole of the main body of the Orthodox Christiandom politically into one universal state under an alien Pax Ottomanica. And this Ottoman task, which had been interrupted, on the verge of completion, by Timur’s tempestuous passage, was duly completed by Sultan Mehmed II. ........ Until the appearance on the scene of Ismail Shah Safawi, with his programme of oecumenical conquest and forcible conversion to Shiaism, there is no indication of any Ottoman ambition to expand in Asia, outside the historical limits of Orthodox Christiandom, at the expense of other Islamic Powers, just as there is none of any Ottoman intolerance towards the Shiah. The military and religious aggressiveness of Ismail eventually forced a profound change of policy upon the Osmanlis on both these heads.
|Bayzid II, 1481-1512|
At the outset, however, the persistent and deliberate passivity of the Ottoman policy in Asia worked together with the disintegration of the Timurid Power to give Ismail Shah Safawi’s ambitions a free field. The derelict Timurid domain was virtually at the disposal of the first comer; and the portion of the prize that lay nearest to Ismail’s base of operations in Gilan was the western half, in which the Timurid regime had not only broken down but had disappeared altogether. .... Ismail’s first military success was the defeat and slaughter of the King of Shirwan (the slayer of Ismail’s father Haydar) in AD 1500. The decisive victory in this first stage of Ismail’s career was the overthrow of the Aq Qoyunlu at the Battle of Shurur in AD 1501/2: a triumph which was followed by the crowning of Ismail in Tabriz and by the sensational inauguration of his religious policy of wholesale conversion by force. Between AD 1500 and AD 1508 (the year of his conquest of Baghdad), Ismail had eliminated all powers and principalities, great or small, that challenged his mastery over an area which extended from the province of Shirwan, at the south-eastern foot of the Caucasus, to the province of Kirman on the south-western border of the Dash-i-Lut, the Central Desert of Iran. .....
What were to be Ismail’s relations with the petty Timurid princes who still retained a precarious hold upon Khurasan and Transoxania between the north-eastern border of the Central Desert of Iran and the southern fringe of the European Steppe? This question was answered for Ismail by the apparition of a rival aspirant to the Timurid inheritance who had been conquering the north-eastern half of it while Ismail had been similarly engaged in the west. This competitor was a new Eurasian Nomad intruder upon Iranic soil, in the shape of Shaybak or Shaybani Khan, the leader of Uzbegs.
This fresh invasion of the Islamic World by a Eurasian Nomad horde within less than a century after the death of Timur Lenk was a signal proof that Timur’s life-work was utterly undone. It had been Timur’s mission to liberate the oases of Transoxania from Nomad domination and to establish an Iranic military and political ascendancy over the Eurasian Nomadic World. But Timur had turned aside from the completion of this constructive task in order to exhaust the energies of the Iranic Society in barren fratricidal conflicts with the contemporary Iranic Powers in Western Iran and Iraq and Hindustan and Anatolia. The return of the Nomadic tide within less than a century was the nemesis for the wanton misdirection of aim which had wrecked Timur’s career. The Uzbeg invasion of Transoxania and Khurasan in the first decade of the sixteenth century was the more portentous inasmuch as it was not, apparently, occasioned by any deterioration in the physical environment of the Nomadic life on the Uzbegs’ Eurasian ranges. The physical pressure resulting from a desiccation of the Steppe accounts for many of the most violent and sensational eruptions of Nomadic conquerors from ‘the Desert’ into ‘the Sown’; but ‘the Pulse of Asia’ appears to beat in a rhythmical alternation of aridity and humidity; and the turn of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries appears to fall within what was a relatively humid period in the alternating rhythm. Thus the Uzbegs’ irruption into the Iranic World at this date can hardly be accounted for by a physical push from behind; and it must therefore be attributed to a social pull from in front. The political vacuum left by the collapse of the Timurid Empire was drawing in the Uzbegs from one quarter at the moment when it was drawing in the Qyzyl-Bash from the other. .....
Sheikh lotfallah Mosque, Isfahan
Muhammad Shaybani had the choice of seeking his fortune in either of two alternative directions. He might turn towards Russia or turn towards Transoxania; and, if he had come upon the scene a century or so earlier, he would probably have chosen the former objective, for Russia had been one of the easiest as well as the widest conquests of ‘the Sown’ which the Eurasian Nomads had made in their latest and greatest eruptions out of ‘the Desert’, under Mongol leadership, in the thirteenth century. At the close of the fifteenth century, Mongol Khanate of Juji’s appanage which had exercised this Nomad dominion over Russia was still in existence at the Saray on the left bank of the Volga, just below the elbow where that river’s course approaches closest to the course of the Don. (Chagatay and Juji were sons of Chingis Khan whose descendants and followers had received these domains as their appanages. The Khans who ruled at Saray at the close of the fifteenth century were descendants of Toqatmysh, the King of the White Horde who had momentarily united all the hordes of Juji’s appanage under a single leadership in AD 1381 – for the first and last time – and had sacked Moscow in 1382, in reprisal for the first Russian attempt to shake off the Tatar yoke, before he crossed the path of Timur.) But Saray now offered no attractive prospect to a Nomad soldier of fortune; for Russia had become more than a match for the Nomads after the union of the two strongest Russian states – the Grand Duchy of Muscovy and the Republic of Novgorod – in AD 1478; and the Russians did not wait long before they passed over to the offensive. In 1502, when Muhammad Shaybani was busy carving out a kingdom for himself at the expense of his fellow Muslims in Transoxania, Saray was annexed by Russia; and this was the first step in a Russian advance which only found its terms, four centuries later, on the coast of the Pacific and on the summit of the Pamirs.
Meanwhile, Shaybani Khan Uzbeg had made better provision for his own fortunes – though not for the interests of the Iranic Society or of Islam – by turning his face in the other alternative direction. He repaired to Transoxania; took service with the Timurid Government of Bukhara; changed sides in a battle between his Timurid master and the Chaghatay Khan of Western Mughalistan; was rewarded by his new patron with the governorship of Tashqand; and used this post as ‘a jumping-off ground’ for springing, on his own account, upon the Timurid dominions of Bukhara and Samarqand.
Sultan Ahmet (Blue) Mosque
Muhammad Shaybani’s conquest of the two chief cities of Transoxania was achieved in the same year – AD 1500 – in which Ismail Safawi made his military debut at the opposite end of the ci-devant Timurid Empire by conquering the Transcaucasian province of Shirwan; and therefore the two conquerors pushed forward into Iran with equal speed from the north-east and the north-west towards ‘the natural frontier’ of the Central Desert. The Timurids were as utterly outmatched by the Shaybani as the Aq Qoyunlu were by the Safawi. In AD 1501-2, the young Timurid prince Babur, who had inherited the small and out-of-the-way province of Farghana, made his first entry upon the stage of history in a gallant attempt to retrieve for his House their lost Transoxanian dominions. He actually recovered Samarqand for a moment – only to be driven out and to lose his own patrimony of Farghana into the bargain. Thereafter, in AD 1502-3, Babur persuaded the Chaghatay Khans of Western and Eastern Mughalistan to join forces with each other and with himself in an attempt to drive the Uzbegs out of Farghana; but the Shaybani was stronger than the coalition. He took the two Khans prisoner and annexed the greater part of the Chaghatay Horde’s ranges, as well as the province of Tashqand, which he formerly governed as their agent, while Babur fled to Afghanistan. Thereupon, in AD 1505-8, the Shaybani conquered Khwarizm with one hand and Khurasan with the other, until, of all the House of Timur, Babur, and Babur only, was left in the field; and Babur was a fugitive from his home. ....
In 1510 Muhammad Shaybani committed the folly of poaching upon Ismail Safawi’s preserves. In this year he crossed the Iranian desert, raided the province of Kirman (perhaps this raid was executed in the same campaign as an unsuccessful expedition, likewise attributed to the year 1510, against the Hazaras, a stray Mongol tribe which had been left stranded on the south side of the Hidu Kush), and sent ‘a most insulting letter in reply to Ismail’s politely worded remonstrance’. The Safawi retorted to this provocation by marching against the Shaybani and bringing him to battle at Tahir-abad, near Merv. In this second decisive battle in Shah Ismail’s career, which was fought on the 1st or 2nd December 1510, the Uzbegs were heavily defeated by the Qyzyl Bash, and Muhammad Khan Shaybani himself was among the slain.
This victory doubled Ismail’s power at one stroke; and the events which followed played still further into his hands. Upon the news of Tahir-abad, Babur promptly issued out of his fastness in Afghanistan and attempted once again to recover Transoxania with the aid of 20,000 Chaghatay Mughals who had been transplanted from Zungaria to Khurasan by Muhammad Shaybani. The Uzbegs, however, had been defeated by Ismail without being annihilated; and Babur found that they were still too strong for him when he measured his strength against them once more in January 1511. At this juncture, when Babur was marking time, baffled, at Qunduz, on the south side of the Oxus, Ismail intervened. He sent an embassy to Babur bringing Babur’s sister (she was Shaybani’s widow) and an offer of friendship; and this courtly gesture on Ismail’s part seems to have been followed by negotiations between the heir of the Safawis and the heir of the Timurids over which the later historians of Babur and his orthodox Sunni descendants have discreetly drawn a veil. (We do not know how Babur handled this delicate and dubious transaction himself, since the relevant section of his Memoirs is lost.) The fact seems to be that the two princes struck an unholy bargain. Babur, on his part, seems to have asked for, and received, a promise of military assistance from Ismail; while Ismail, on his part, seems to have made his military assistance conditional upon Babur’s conversion to Shiaism, and to have received Babur’s assurance that he would accept Ismail’s help on Ismail’s terms. (The lukewarmness, to say the least of it, toward the Sunnah, which this reputed bargain presupposes on Babur’s part, may perhaps be brought into relation with the reported Shiite proclivities of a kinsman of Babur’s in the preceding generation, Sultan Husayn Bayqara.)
The first result was that, in October 1511, Babur returned to the attack with a Qyzyl Bash army supporting him; and that, with this support, he achieved in the autumn what he had failed to achieve in the preceding winter. He successfully reoccupied Samarqand and drove the Uzbeg invaders out of the Transoxanian oases into their native steppes. This victory, won with Ismail’s aid by a fugitive prince who had become Ismail’s lieutenant, was Ismail’s own victory in effect; and thereafter, during the interval between the campaigning seasons of AD 1511 and AD 1512, Ismail stood at the height of his power. ....
At this point, however, which was the zenith of his career, Shah Ismail was overtaken by the nemesis of his dual ambition: the ambition to win an oecumenical empire by conquest and to use this political power in order to impose the minoritarian religion of Shiaism upon a Sunni majority by main force. ..........