Safavid Dynasty - Shia Islam As The State Religion

Shia Islam As The State Religion

Even though Safavids were not the first Shia rulers in Iran, they played a crucial role in making Shia Islam the official religion in the whole of Iran. There were large Shia communities in some cities like Qom and Sabzevar as early as the 8th century. In the 10th and 11th centuries the Buwayhids, who were of the Zaidiyyah branch of Shia, ruled in Fars, Isfahan and Baghdad. As a result of the Mongol conquest and the relative religious tolerance of the Ilkhanids, Shia dynasties were re-established in Iran, Sarbedaran in Khorasan being the most important. The Ilkhanid ruler Öljaitü converted to Twelver Shiism in the 13th century.

Following his conquest of Iran, Ismail I made conversion mandatory for the largely Sunni population. The Sunni Ulema or clergy were either killed or exiled. Ismail I, brought in mainstream Ithnā‘ashariyyah Shi'a religious leaders and granted them land and money in return for loyalty. Later, during the Safavid and especially Qajar period, the Shia Ulema's power increased and they were able to exercise a role, independent of or compatible with the government. Despite the Safavids' Sufi origins, most Sufi groups were prohibited, except the Nimatullahi order.

Iran became a feudal theocracy: the Shah was held to be the divinely ordained head of state and religion. In the following centuries, this religious stance cemented both Iran's internal cohesion and national feelings and provoked attacks by its Sunni neighbors.

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