Safavid Dynasty - Background – The Safavid Sufi Order

Background – The Safavid Sufi Order

Safavid history begins with the establishment of the Safaviyya by its eponymous founder Safi-ad-din Ardabili (1252–1334). In 700/1301, Safi al-Din assumed the leadership of the Zahediyeh, a significant Sufi order in Gilan, from his spiritual master and father-in-law Zahed Gilani. Due to the great spiritual charisma of Safi al-Din, the order was later known as the Safaviyya. The Safavid order soon gained great influence in the city of Ardabil and Hamdullah Mustaufi noted that most of the people of Ardabil were followers of Safi al-Din.

Extant religious poetry from him, written in the Old Azari language – a now-extinct Northwestern Iranian language – and accompanied by a paraphrase in Persian which helps their understanding, has survived to this day and has linguistic importance.

After Safī al-Dīn, the leadership of the Safaviyya passed onto Sadr al-Dīn Mūsā († 794/1391–92). The order at this time was transformed into a religious movement which conducted religious propaganda throughout Persia, Syria and Asia Minor, and most likely had maintained its Sunni Shafi’ite origin at that time. The leadership of the order passed on from Sadr ud-Dīn Mūsā to his son Khwādja Ali († 1429) and in turn to his son Ibrāhīm († 1429–47).

When Shaykh Junayd, the son of Ibrāhim, assumed the leadership of the Safaviyya in 1447, the history of the Safavid movement was radically changed. According to R.M. Savory, "'Sheikh Junayd was not content with spiritual authority and he sought material power'". At that time, the most powerful dynasty in Persia was that of the Kara Koyunlu, the "Black Sheep", whose ruler Jahan Shah ordered Junāyd to leave Ardabil or else he would bring destruction and ruin upon the city. Junayd sought refuge with the rival of Kara Koyunlu Jahan Shah, the Aq Qoyunlu (White Sheep Turkomans) Khan Uzun Hassan, and cemented his relationship by marrying Uzun Hassan's sister, Khadija Begum. Junayd was killed during an incursion into the territories of the Shirvanshah and was succeeded by his son Haydar Safavi. Haydar married Martha 'Alamshah Begom, Uzun Hassan's daughter, who gave birth to Ismail I, founder of the Safavid dynasty. Martha's mother Theodora – better known as Despina Khatun – was a Pontic Greek princess, the daughter of the Grand Komnenos John IV of Trebizond. She had been married to Uzun Hassan in exchange for protection of the Grand Komnenos from the Ottomans.

After Uzun Hassan's death, his son Ya'qub felt threatened by the growing Safavid religious influence. Ya'qub allied himself with the Shirvanshah and killed Haydar in 1488. By this time, the bulk of the Safaviyya were nomadic Oghuz Turkic-speaking clans from Asia Minor and Azerbaijan and were known as Qizilbash "Red Heads" because of their distinct red headgear. The Qizilbash were warriors, spiritual followers of Haydar, and a source of the Safavid military and political power.

After the death of Haydar, the Safaviyya gathered around his son Ali Mirza Safavi, who was also pursued and subsequently killed by Ya'qub. According to official Safavid history, before passing away, Ali had designated his young brother Ismail as the spiritual leader of the Safaviyya.

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