Safavid Empire & How Did Shia Islam Flourish in It?

by Guy Gardner

The Safavid Empire was established in Persia (modern Iran) in the 16th century and expanded to include parts of Turkey and Georgia. Rulers of the Safavid Empire unified Persian society under a native dynasty for the first time since the Muslim conquest of Persia in the seventh century and established Shia Islam as the official religion.

Adoption of Shia Islam

Shia Islam was adopted as a state religion for the first time in history by the Safavid Shah Ismail I. According to Professor Roger M. Savory of the University of Toronto, the Shah’s adoption of Shia Islam was, “in part religious conviction and in part political expediency.” Adopting Shia Islam was a way of differentiating this empire from its neighbors, including the Ottoman Turks, as well as giving it "a dynamic ideology which would unify Iran against these enemies.”

Militant Shia Islam

The Safavids broke from Ottoman control, declaring independence as a result of the Ottoman Turks outlawing the Shia form of Islam. The Safavid Shah Ismail I, was able to attract Ottoman soldiers and military leaders of the Shia faith to his army. The Safavid adoption of Shia Islam and rejection of Ottoman Sunni rule gave Shia Islam a new political strength.

Shia Islam and Persian Identity

The return of Persian rule after centuries of foreign conquest and rule, and the Persian Shah’s declaration of Shia Islam as the state religion coincided with a revival of interest in Persian identity. Shia Islam was linked with this revival, flourished and was adopted by most Persians.

The Prosperous Shiite Safavid Empire

The Safavids' revival of Persian identity and consolidation of its rule over Persia allowed the dynasty to make use of the Empire’s position along the trade routes to grow in wealth and strength. Safavids' policies of tolerance towards minority cultures and religions encouraged these international trade links. Indian and Jewish merchants in Persia became important economic actors within the prosperous and largely Shiite Safavid Empire.

Photo Credits

  • Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images