MESA Banner
Safavid Revolution: Conversion, Polemical Encounters, and Sectarian Violence in the Early Modern Middle East

Session II-10, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, December 1 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
This panel explores various aspects of the Safavid revolution of the sixteenth century and accompanying developments that swept through the region, reconfiguring the balance of power and confessional dynamics. Individual papers analyze the complexities of this movement through a number of concepts and questions. The notion of conversion and the rich corpus of written material developed around it is one of the central themes in the panel. The papers-as a whole- challenge the modern conception of conversion, i.e., a definitive volta face or deliberate break with past religious beliefs and practices. Instead, they offer a broader understanding of the act of conversion, according to which religion is not merely a private matter of conscience but also a badge of social identity and political belonging in the Middle East. The panel thus corrects the lopsided historiographical focus on conversion in the existing literature depicting it as an act from Christianity/Judaism to Islam by bringing intra-religious conversions to the fore, especially in the context of conversion to the Shiite/Qizilbash religious discourse in the Safavid Empire and the neighboring Ottoman lands. This panel also dissects the proliferation of polemical writings among Sunni and Shi’i communities following the rise of the Safavids to power. As a repertoire of contention that sustains collective memories of the traumatic and schismatic episodes, Sunni-Shi'i apologetic literature proved instrumental in mobilizing animosity, demonizing the other, and constructing and deconstructing confessional identities. As opposed to the common view that privileges the doctrine of imamate as a defining characteristic of the Sunni-Shi'i conflict in this period, the papers in this panel give precedence to legal practices and institutions, cursing rituals, and warmongering in its analysis of the confessional rift and sectarian violence. Finally, this panel highlights the role that the dead played in animating sectarian politics in the early modern religiopolitical warfare in the Middle East by investigating the Safavid revolutionary exhumations. By not only revising some prevailing assumptions but also ushering new angles in our understanding of the revolutionary emergence of the Safavids, this panel asks and answers significant questions ranging from the shifting religiopolitical dynamics in the early sixteenth century Iran to the long-lasting outcomes of the Safavid revolution in the broader Middle East. The conclusions drawn here provide the scholars of the region with an ample opportunity to see the crucial role of the Safavids in forming states, constructing and maintaining confessional identities, and destroying adversaries.
  • In "The Bone of Contention," I investigate somatic and semiotic violence inflicted upon the corpses of eminent Sunni authorities and archrivals through revolutionary exhumations by the Safavids in the early modern Middle East. The Safavid revolutionaries exacted posthumous vengeance by disinterring and mutilating cadavers of those associated with the structures of power that sustained the hegemony of Sunni discourse and suppression of Shia. The carnivalesque mockery of the corpses further dramatized the macabre spectacle of the desecration of graves to humiliate the legacy of the dead and their social personality among the living. As Patrick Gary stated, the dead were still a community, and they played vital roles in the social, economic, and cultural spheres of a living community, especially in premodern societies. Therefore, violence against the dead was also an act of hostility toward the living, aiming to fracture the relationship between the living and the dead. Despite the grave role the dead played in animating sectarian politics in the early modern religiopolitical warfare in the Middle East, they hardly receive the credit they deserve in modern scholarship. My research attempts to bring the dead to center stage in the theatre of war that emerged following the rise of the Safavids by studying the registers of contemporary Safavid, Uzbek, and Ottoman sources about the dead body politics adopted by the Safavids. I interrogate why the dead figured so prominently through the public display of exhumations in the Safavid context and what their perpetrators meant to communicate and accomplish through them. I argue that as the "site of memory" and "reservoir of feeling," the tombs and corpses offered profound symbolic capital that the Safavids exploited to command emotions, deal psychological blows to their enemies, and embed formidable ideological defiance in their rivals' consciousness. The physicality or concreteness of the dead proved exceptionally conducive to sensory and sensational subversion of the religiopolitical status quo. Moreover, I demonstrate that the Safavid desecration of tombs occurred primarily in major geopolitical fault lines such as Baghdad and Mashhad. As such, the destruction or construction of tombs represented not only ideological but also territorial assertions of the competing rival forces. "The Bone of Contention" adopts a global historical perspective to situate the Safavid revolutionary exhumations in a broader picture of similar events around the world by highlighting the ancient Biblical precedents and their contemporary reverberations.
  • Sunni-Shiite polemics form a large discursive tradition within Islamic letters, one that continues to be salient at present and is arguably a major factor in fostering sectarian prejudice, discrimination, and persecution in many regions of the Islamic world. Secondary scholarship has not yet attempted to map out this complex tradition for the reader, though Abd Allah al-Hasan has gathered many such texts from the Twelver Shiite tradition in his four-volume Munazarat (“Disputations”; 2006). The issue of the Imamate looms large in that tradition, but it would be wrong to reduce the confrontation between Sunnis and Shiites to a conflict over the Imamate, as Henri Laoust did in Les schismes dan l’islam (1965), even though many famous polemical works, such as al-Allamah al-Hilli’s (d. 726/1325) Nahj al-sidq, focus entirely on the Imamate. In this study, I examine a number of sixteenth-century polemical texts, both Sunni and Shiite, in an attempt to sketch the specificities of Sunni-Shiite polemics during the Safavid period. These are, on the Shiite side, Ali b al-Karaki’s (d. 940/1534), Nafahat al-Lahut, Husayn b. Abd al-Samad al-Amili’s (d. 984/1576), Munazarah ma`a ba`ḍ `ulama’ Halab, and Mukalamah-yi Husniyyah and Risalah-i Yuhanna, both attributed to Abu al-Futuh al-Razi (d. 12th c.) but probably written in Safavid Iran in the mid-sixteenth century; and on the Sunni side, al-Nawaqid by Safavid minister Mirza Makhdum al-Shirazi (d. 995/1587), who defected to the Ottomans, al-Barahin al-nawaqid by the Syrian Sunni jurist Ma`ruf al-Sahyuni (d. 975/1567–68), and Shamm al-`awarid, by al-Qari’ al-Harawi (d. 1014/1605–6), a native of Herat who sought the patronage of the Uzbeks in Bukhara. An examination of these works reveals 1) the relative downplaying of the issue of the Imamate; 2) focus on the institution of the legal school, rather than the Imamate, as a defining characteristic of the two sides; 3) focus on the issue of cursing the Companions; 4) the Shiite use of Shafi`i legal literature in order to denigrate the Hanafi legal tradition; 5) the connection of sectarian polemics with jihad; and 6) focus on arriving at a verdict of kufr “unbelief” as a means to justify jihad. Other prominent features include the recourse to personal, even hidden, experience and the use of various techniques of dramatization, including the production of fictional accounts, both in order to convince the audience and to create a compelling text.
  • The vast majority of the scholarly work on conversion and proselytization has stayed within the framework of rigid, individualistic, and inter-religious activities. Within this rigidity, the act of conversion has been deemed as a radical and mostly individual process. This paper aims to challenge the inflexibility and individuality of the notion of conversion via expanding its boundaries into an intra-religious milieu: the Qizilbash of the early modern Ottoman Empire, the largest non-Sunni Muslim group of the empire, who constituted the majority of the population in many parts of Anatolia, Kurdistan, and upper Mesopotamia. Via integrating the convoluted story of the Qizilbash into this picture, I argue that that the term “conversion” in the early modern Qizilbash experience denoted a bond that involved various degrees of adaptation, modification, and expansion of one’s religious position within a given socio-political milieu, rather than a complete overhaul or wholesale renunciation of old religiosities, affiliations, and communal practices. In other words, for the Qizilbash of the early modern Ottoman lands, conversion was oftentimes an experience of renewal, extension, and/or adaptation, rather than the replacement of the “old” with a “new,” or the “wrong” with the “right.” Particularly throughout the sixteenth and much of the seventeenth century -when the Ottoman-Safavid imperial rivalry dominated the scene with long lasting wars, both ideological and military- a complex array of motivations and impulses differently weighted in an individual’s or group’s decision to adapt or to renounce adherences, either religious or political, or both. These motivations included preexisting religious sensibilities, universally popular predilections, charismatic leaders, desire for salvation, as well as socio-political and fiscal pressures or enticements.
  • Shah Isma‘il’s defeat of Alvand Mirza, the ruler of the north-western provinces of the Aqquyunlu empire, in 1501 and his subsequent ascension to throne in Tabriz has been accepted as a turning point in the history of the Middle East. Iranian nationalist historians have celebrated this momentous event as a great rupture that marked the Persians’ takeover of their country after a long foreign invasion by the Arabs, Mongols, and Turks. After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the Safavid period gained further significance since the Islamist historiography celebrated it as the end of the long dissimulation period when the proper faith (Shi‘ite Islam) was established on land. Based on these two premises, common wisdom in modern historiography tends to consider the Safavids’ rise to political power an overturn by a Shi‘ite-Persian dynasty of the long-lasting Sunni establishment backed by the Turko-Mongolian military governments. Concomitantly, it assumes that the adversaries of the Safavid project were Sunni inhabitants and Turkish military overlords of Iran, even the Turkish elements that carried the dynasty to power, i.e., the Qizilbash. Challenging the common wisdom, this paper favors continuities over ruptures and maintains that the rise of Shah Isma‘il, or more properly, the rise of the Qizilbash confederation, should be considered another cycle of Turkmen politico-military domination in Iran with some significant changes in the power structures. It argues that the Qizilbash revolution led by Shah Isma‘il initially emerged as a movement against the Aqquyunlu politico-military establishment rather than the Sunni socioreligious establishment in Iran. It was because of that the only group that Shah Isma‘il showed no mercy was the members of the Bayindur, the paramount clan of the Aqquyunlu confederation who became the victims of a genocide at the hands of the Qizilbash. By the same token, the decisive event that marked the shift of dawla or “the turn of fortune” to the Safavid dynasty was not Shah Isma‘il’s victory against Alvand Mirza in 1501 but his victory against Sultan Murad, the ruler of the south-eastern provinces of the Aqquyunlu empire, two years later. That is why, we should accept this date as the effective end of the Aqquyunlu dawla, hence the beginning of the Safavid state.
  • Touching on a rather understudied aspect of the history of the borderland between Iran and the Ottoman Empire in the first half of the eighteenth century, the paper discusses how identity was negotiated in popular Turkophone poetic discourse at the time of the final collapse of Safavid rule and the rise of Nadir Shah’s regime in Iran. It will use as a case study the unique copy of the divan of an otherwise unknown poet by the poetic pen-name Rahima, who lived in the vicinity of Tabriz and was likely at the head of a local Sufi network. Analyzing some of Rahima’s poetry, especially his anti-Ottoman propaganda pieces, his versified commentary on problems in Islamic law, and his narrative poems about the Hajj, I will argue that despite confessionalization and linguistic and literary vernacularization in both the aforesaid realms in the previous ca. two and a half centuries, there was a distinct local literary and confessional discourse in Turkophone Qizilbash networks that was not dominated by either the Ottoman or the Safavid religio-political center, but was constructed in a dynamic dialogue with both and appealed to local sensibilities.