Strife Series | Complicated relationships #2 – The Safavid Empire and the historical backdrop of Sunni-Shia relations

By Faruk Rahmanovic

Portrait of Shah Abbas I, the 5th Safavid Kings of Iran and one of Iran’s most influential rulers (reigned AD 1587-1629). Source: British Museum Archives.

The role of the Safavid Empire in understanding Sunni-Shia relations cannot be overstated. Lasting from 1501 to 1722, the Safavid Empire was born in modern-day Iran,[1] just as the political situation in the Middle East began to stabilize after nearly 400 years of various foreign invasions.[2] The remnants of political chaos left much of the Central Asian region semi-autonomous, providing some maneuvering room for political aspirations.[3] On the other hand, Central Asia was sandwiched between the Ottomans in the West, Russians in the North, Uzbeks in the North-East, and Mughals in the East and South-East. Thus, those with political aspirations faced a problem: on what grounds could they declare themselves independent of the empires that were already established and expanding, and how to justify the intra-religious violence necessary for establishing and expanding their empire?[4]

The founder of the Safavid Empire Ismail I (1501-1524) understood the need to differentiate his political establishment from the existing competition. He proclaimed descent from Muhammad and Ali and the 7th Shia Imam, the Aq Quyunlu Turks (a major Turkoman tribe), and Byzantine Emperors.[5] This helped cover the political and divine right to rule on all fronts. However, his stroke of brutal brilliance was the imposition of Shiism on the population. ‘Wherever his edict reached, the choice was fixed: conversion to Shiism or death.’[6] The conversion made the local population theologically different from their neighbors in a political way. More importantly, he managed to merge his political position with the Shia religious hierarchy – becoming the head of church and state and making the obedience to the crown a religious requirement.[7] By the time of his death in 1524, Iran had become fully a Shia state.[8]

The conquests of the Safavid Empire spread Shiism to nearly all the regions where Shiism is found today, explaining the anomalous location of the Shia exclaves in places like Turkey, Bahrain, Afghanistan, and not to mention the anomalous position of the Shia center of Iran entirely enveloped by Sunnis. Over the 200-year Safavid rule, the primary Shia identity became inextricably entangled with the political realities of the oft-embattled empire, turning political contests into theological ones. Drawing on Persian, Islamic, and Shia elements, [9] the identity forged by the Safavids continues to underpin much of the modern Shia and Iranian identity. While individual relations between Sunni and Shia have generally been peaceful, the Shia connection of religious identity with the political makes difficult the Sunni-Shia political relations. The issue arises partly because the Shia population of a Sunni state does not merely signify religious differences, but is likely to identify with a different political entity and ideology altogether.[10] A somewhat similar position is present for Sunnis in a Shia state (e.g. Syria).

Grasping these historical developments provides a holistic and contextualized understanding of the nature of the Sunni-Shia relations, explains the bursts of sectarian violence and the periods of peaceful, cooperative coexistence, and helps clarify the diverse modern political alliances throughout the region today.

Faruk Rahmanovic (@FRahmanovic) holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of South Florida, and teaches at the USF Honors College. His research focuses on the intersection of political and comparative philosophy, applied ethics, and war. He also works on issues of cybersecurity and warfare.

This article is part of a series curated by MA student Ashley Pratt on the intricate historical relationships between nations and people that shape current events. Each piece of this four-part series contextualizes and provides a primer to better analyze developments around these relationships. You can read the first piece here.


[1] The historical borders of the Safavid Empire were generally centered on what is today’s Iran. Thus, the use of “Iran” is intended here as both a historical regional designation and modern state.

[2] Most notably including the Crusades (1098), Mongol Invasion (1258), and Timurid conquest (1370).

[3] Ochsenwald, William and Sydney N. Fisher. The Middle East: A History. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2004), Pp. 215-16.

[4] The Ottomans faced the same problem in conquering other Muslim-ruled principalities; which they solved with the creation of the Janissary Corps. loyal to the Sultan alone.

[5] The Shiism of the Safavids seems to have started sometime after 1392, while the claim to the Shia Imamate initially seems to have been started by Ismail’s predecessors in the late 15th century (though that claim was related to being the Hidden Imam of the Twelver Shia position).
Ochsenwald. The Middle East: A History. Pp. 215-16.His HHis

[6] Ibid. Pg. 216.

[7] Unlike the Shia rule of Egypt under the Fatimids (909-1171), the Safavid rule made Shiism mandatory the population. Consequently, the Shia conversion and retention rates were much higher and more persistent than in Egypt, where the difference of faith played no effective part in daily life. Consequently, although the Fatimids lasted longer than the Safavids, modern Egypt has no real Shia population to speak of, while Iran overwhelmingly retained its Shia heritage.

[8] Ochsenwald, William. The Middle East: A History. Pg. 216.

[9] This is not to say that Shia is not part of Islam; it was the rather unique features of Shiism that forged the identity of the people under the Safavid rule.

[10] There is a parallel with the American suspicion of Catholics, viz. their allegiance to the Pope – a foreign political power.

Feature Image credit: Shah Ismail I declares himself Shah by entering Tabriz in the early 1500s. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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