Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Safavid Empire

Many Americans have at least heard of the Ottoman Empire, but only historians, history buffs and other weird people know about the Safavid Empire. Why is it important? A familiarity with the history of the Shiite state provides a broader framework with which to view recent crises in Iraq and Iran. As one of the so-called Gunpowder Empires of the early modern era, it also provides us a look at a time when the Islamic world still competed with Europe but was on the verge of a dramatic decline.

The starting point of the Safavid Empire is easier to define than the endpoint, when those pesky Afghan warlords invaded the area. In 1501 a teenager named Ismail from Azerbaijan conquered a chunk of Persia (aka Iran), became the shah (king), and established Twelver Shiism as the official state religion. This variant of the tradition holds that Ali’s 9th-century descendant was snatched by God, placed in a state of “occultation,” and will return someday to usher in a reign of justice and righteousness. Shiism had been alive and well in Iran prior to the Safavids; the marriage of Husayn, the third Imam, to the daughter of a Persian king centuries earlier cemented and symbolized this connection. The shahs of the new state, however, culled other parts of the Middle East for highly respected Twelver clerics and placed institutional and military weight behind the tradition. In what historians call the “Safavid Contract,” the Shia clerics agreed to support the Safavid rulers provided that the latter maintain their role as protector of the faith. While the ulama (religious leadership) now had a powerful state institution at their disposal to spread their message, the shahs for their part had an ideology with which to subdue conquered lands and consolidate their realm. Consequently, the Shiite ulama in Persia, though not always in agreement with the regime’s policies, maintained a quietist tradition of staying out of politics and awaiting the 12th Imam’s return. This tradition more or less held until the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini toppled the shah of Iran in 1979 and, in accordance with his principle vilayat I faqih (guardianship of the jurisprudent), initiated the Islamic Revolution that has produced a mullocracy hostile to the United States and Sunni neighbors ever since.

All empires reach a highpoint and produce an extraordinary ruler who exhibits the strength and majesty of imperial power. The Ottomans had Suleiman the Magnificent; the Europeans had Charlemagne. For the Safavids it was Shah Abbas I. With a ruthlessness and intellectual prowess that served him well as a statesman in those tumultuous days of yore, he created a strong central bureaucracy, rebuilt the infrastructure of the realm, created one of the most beautiful capitals in the world, and modernized his military. He and his European advisors had one thing in common: a desire to thwart Ottoman territorial ambitions. The new Safavid army, replete with firearms and western training, won success on the battlefield and allowed the beleaguered empire to recover from military setbacks dating from the battle of Chaldiran in 1514.

Iraq, situated between two powerful empires, constantly changed hands in the hegemonic power play between Sunni and Shiite armies. Eventually the Ottomans pushed the Persians out of Mesopotamia, but they had to deal with the large pockets of Shiites in the south. The Sublime Porte (or seat of Ottoman government in Istanbul) partitioned the country into three distinct ethno-religious provinces that reflected reality on the ground: Mosul in the north, Baghdad in the middle, and Basra in the south. The British Empire inherited this tripartite Iraq after World War I and tried to unify it under a puppet monarchy. Years later the Baathist regime brought to power a ruthless strongman, Saddam Hussein, whose brutal tactics, it would seem, were the only antidote to a war-torn and fractious country. Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the U.S.-led coalition and the new Iraqi government have attempted to unify the land; but any settlement must take into account permanent fault lines among Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds that predated even the Ottoman Empire. Some policymakers in our country, like Senator Joseph Biden, have advocated the creation of three sovereign states. This position is understandable given the many years of disunity, but it would create more problems in the region than currently exist.