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January 13, 2012

The dynasty which created Iran

Filed under: Culture,Iran,Safavids,Shia — Razib Khan @ 12:26 am


Shah Ismail I

The BBC Radio 4 program In Our Time just had an episode on the Safavid dynasty. If you want to understand how Iran as we understand it came to be, and you know nothing about the Safavids, this program is essential. Because of its outsized role in Western antiquity the pre-Christian Achaemenids are well known, while Iranian nationalists may look to the pre-Islamic Sassanians immortalized in the Shahnameh. Obviously these dynasties are important, just as the House of Wessex and the Plantagenets are essential in understanding how Britain came to be. But to truly comprehend England as a Protestant nation with a distinctive identity in relation to the continent the England of the Tudors and Stuarts, who happen to be contemporaneous with the Safavids, are much more important.


For example, it is routinely unknown that before the Safavids Iran was a predominantly Sunni domain. This is not to deny the presence of Shia within the borders of modern Iran, but aside from periods of state patronage (e.g., the Buyids) the status of Shi’ism was as it was in most of the Muslim world after the year 1000, a marginal minority, tolerated at best, oppressed at worst. It was the Safavids, originally a cosmopolitan Sufi order of variegated Greek, Kurdish, and Turkic origin (albeit, culturally Turk by the period of the Safavids) which realigned the identity of the Iranian nation with Shi’ism in the 16th and 17th centuries, recruiting Shia clerics from Lebanon and Iraq to reform and convert the multi-ethnic populace of the Iranian plateau.

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