Safavid Iran: Shi‘ism, State, and Society
During the Safavid period the Usuli school, associated with the ruling establishment, burgeoned. In 1501 Shah Ismacil, chief of the militant Safavi Sufi order, became Shah of Iran with the aid of Turkish-speaking Shi‘i tribesmen from Anatolia. The new rulers imposed Twelver Shi‘ism on Iran, ideologically reinforcing their territorial victory. They required that imprecations be ritually pronounced upon caliphs holy to Sunnis, burned Sunni mosques, and expropriated the land of Sunnis. Shi‘i folk practices spread in Iran, such as the feast of the killing of Umayyad commander ‘Umar b. Sacd, an enemy of Imam Husayn. Meetings (rawzah-khvani ) for the recitation of the sufferings and death of Imam Husayn began to be held. Religious processions began to be taken out during the mourning month of Muharram, commemorating the martyrdom of Husayn on the tenth day (‘Ashura').
From the reign of Shah Tahmasp (1533-76), the second Safavid monarch, a corps of Shi‘i ulama attracted from southern Lebanon and Iraq began making extensive changes in the practice of Twelver Shi‘ism which reflected the change in the religion's status from persecuted minority to reigning orthodoxy. The immigrant Arab Twelver clerics went far beyond the Hilli school, or the simple recognition of independent legal reasoning in jurisprudence. They permitted the central functions of the state to be undertaken by someone other than a divinely appointed Imam, making themselves general proxies for the Imam and legitimizing the Shi‘i Safavid regime. They also moved toward the creation of a Shi‘i religious hierarchy, staffed largely by Arabs and based mostly on the newly created offices of Shi‘i prayer leader and Shaykhu'l-Islam (jurisconsult). Safavid Usulism became the ideology of the Arab immigrant ulama within Iran, who wanted upward mobility and the implementation of a new vision of Imami Shi‘ism in cooperation with the Safavid monarchy—an activist, dominating Twelver Shi‘ism rather than the quietist, sectarian version of the religion that had largely predominated before 1500.
Prominent among these innovators was Shaykh ‘Ali al-Karaki (d. 1534), from Jabal ‘Amil. In the first year of Shah Tahmasp's reign al-Karaki
ordered that a Shi‘i prayer leader be appointed in every town and village. Since many Shi‘i ulama held Friday congregational prayers invalid in the absence of the Twelfth Imam, this move dismayed conservatives, especially Arab Shi‘is who still for the most part labored under Sunni rule. But al-Karaki wished to create a religious institution under his own authority. The Safavids cooperated in the endeavor, since Shi‘i Friday prayer leaders throughout Iran said blessings on the Shi‘i monarchs in the Friday afternoon sermon. Al-Karaki also allowed the collection of land tax (kharaj ) in the Imam's absence, and wrote instructions for Safavid tax collectors. In so doing he opened up a source of revenue for the fledgling Twelver state. He ordered that Shi‘is stop dissimulating (taqiyyah ) their faith out of fear of Sunnis, since they now had government protection, and instituted the public cursing of the first two Sunni caliphs on a country-wide scale.
Two groups opposed these institutional innovations. Within Iran, Ar-jomand has demonstrated, the old Iranian families in charge of religious institutions such as judgeships and pious endowment supervision, many of whom embraced Shi‘ism, resented the immigrant Arab clerics. Moreover, the Shi‘is of the Arab world found many of al-Karaki's innovations inappropriate to their own situation. Typical of the Arab Shi‘is outside Iran (until the sixteenth century probably the majority of Twelvers) was Shaykh Ibrahim al-Qatifi. A former student turned enemy of al-Karaki, he cautiously accepted the necessity of independent legal reasoning (ijtihad ) and so could be categorized as an Usuli. But al-Qatifi, from the Sunni-dominated Persian Gulf, advocated a conservative Usulism that would not exacerbate Sunni persecution of Shi‘is and clung to the conservative political culture of minority Shi‘ism. He rejected the legitimacy of holding Friday prayers during the absence of the Imam of collecting kharaj land taxes, and of associating with rulers. After 1530 the Sunni Ottomans conquered Iraq, including the Shi‘i shrine cities of Karbala and Najaf where al-Qatifi and many other Arab Twelvers were based. Thereafter the shrine dries remained centers of a more cautious, conservative kind of Shi‘ism similar to that advocated by al-Qatifi.
In Iran, the rationalist, establishmentarian Usulism of al-Karaki largely won out. Isfahan's Imarn-Jumcahs (Friday congregational prayer leaders) from Shaykh ‘Abdu'l-‘Ali al-Karaki on adhered for the most part to Usulism, at least until the late seventeenth century. The mujtahids gained further power through becoming wealthy supervisors of pious endowment properties in the seventeenth century, and through revenue-free grants of land made to them by the Safavid shahs. The Safavid capital, Isfahan, became the cyno-
sure of the Shi‘i clerisy, a center of learning with 48 colleges and 162 mosques, and a place where important career contacts could be made.
The clergy became so powerful that a few openly preached the necessity for the ruler to be not only a Sayyid but also a mujtahid, or senior jurispru-dent trained in Twelver law. This stance disputed the claim of the Safavids, laymen given often to loose morals, though the shahs asserted their descent from the Prophet. The dominant Shi‘i view supported the legitimacy of Safavid rule against clerical pretenders. Not everyone trusted the ulama, as a seventeenth-century folk saying from Isfahan testifies: "Keep a wary eye in front of you for a woman, behind you for a mule, and from every direction for a mulla."
Most of the clergy neither enjoyed great wealth nor refused to associate with the government, since they believed it legitimate to work for the state whenever they would otherwise fear for their lives or whenever they felt they could thereby help the Shi‘i community. Clerical support for the Safavids led the Shi‘i monarchs often to persecute the enemies of the ulama, particularly the leaders of mystical Sufi orders, who competed with them for the spiritual allegiance of the masses. Since most Sufis were also Sunnis, and had a form of mass organization outside both the Safavid state and the Shi‘i religious establishment, Usuli ulama saw them as a threat.
The main opposition to the Usuli school came from Akhbari revivalism. Akhbarism, as was noted above, rejected the legitimacy of independent legal reasoning and denied the need of laypersons to emulate mujtahids. A major intellectual figure in the revival of this strict-constructionist approach to Shi‘ism, Muhammad Amin Astarabadi (d. 1624), attacked the mujtahids from his base in Medina, in the Arab world. Astarabadi's reformulation of conservative Shi‘i jurisprudence found great acclaim in the shrine cities of Iraq and, as Arjomand demonstrated, in Iran among ethnically Iranian religious officials in competition with the ethnically Arab mujtahids.
Although Usulism probably predominated in the Safavid capital of Isfahan, the situation outside Isfahan in the late seventeenth century is harder to gauge. In some provincial centers Akhbaris remained influential. The Imam-Jumcah and Shaykhu'l-Islam of Qumm under Sulayman Shah (1667-94), Muhammad Tahir, a committed Akhbari brought up in Najaf, caused a row with the court by censuring the monarch's morals. Al-Hurr al-‘Amili (d. 1708 or 1709) immigrated to Mashhad from Syria, becoming Shaykhu'l-Islam.
A staunch Akhbari, he disallowed the use of reason and wrote against rationalist theology. The family of the Akhbari Nicmatu'llah Jaza'iri (d. 1701) settled in the small Iranian town of Shushtar, in Khuzistan, as Akhbari prayer leaders. Southwestern Iran was a major center of Akhbarism. As was noted, the Akhbari school had found favor with many ulama in the shrine cities of Iraq as well.
The Safavid conquest of Iran and promulgation of Twelver Shi‘ism represented the most startling cultural revolution in the Islamic world for centuries. Neither the Ottoman Turks nor the Mughal Timurids did nearly as much to change the religious beliefs of the people they ruled. The rise of Twelver Shi‘ism is comparable in scope—though emphatically not in content—to the Protestant Reformation in Europe. In both Protestantism and Safavid Shi‘ism, regional rulers' desire for political autonomy coincided with the wish of a clerically led group, branded heretics, to establish new religious institutions. Bloody religious and political wars ensued, dividing a cultural area (western Europe, southwest Asia) that had previously been religiously more uniform.