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Generally speaking, since the Shiite faith considered the establishment of the caliphate following the demise of the noble Prophet of Islam (s) as a deviation from pure Islam, excluding the period of the caliphate of Imam ‘Ali (‘a), it attracted the interest of non-Arab groups of Muslims and especially the Iranians who were already exasperated with the tyranny of the racist Ummayid rule and it is for this reason that Shi’ism has played a significant role in the political and cultural destinies throughout the history of Islamic Iran, exerting various influences in all the social spheres. One of the first incidents that can probably throw light on the Shiite inclination of the Iranians is the movement of Mokhtār Thaqafi that took place in Iraq between the years 64-67 AH/684-686 AD. The mawālis or the converted Iranian Muslims played a fundamental role in this movement and according to certain sources their association with Mokhtār’s movement was mainly inspired by his spurning of the Arab aristocrats and the special attention he paid towards the mawalis with the aim of procuring the rights of the oppressed from the oppressors.Besides some Shiite teachings, and especially those disseminated through the Imams (‘a) which were free of the suggestion of any kind of pan-Arabism, certain Shiite beliefs – like a belief in the appearance of a Divine Savior – which the Iranians were already familiar with through their own pre-Islamic teachings, played a crucial role in attracting them towards Shi’ism. Thus, the presence of a large number of mawālis among the companions of the Shiite Imams, particularly during the reign of the Ummayids is noteworthy. Moreover, the mawālis also had a share in almost all the movements that took off particularly in Iraq at the hands of the Alavids with the aim of overthrowing the Ummayids. For instance, when a well organized movement was formed in Kufa towards the end of the 1st Century AH/7th Century AD, which subsequently spread to as far as Khorāsān, people like Bokir ben Māhān and Abu Salamah Khalāl were two mawālis who played a fundamental role in the formation and leadership of this movement. The prime objective of this movement was to lead anti Ummayyid struggles and to promote one of the descendents of Prophet Mohammad (s), even though the presence of an inclination towards certain Alavid and Abbasid clans cannot be denied; a claim that can be verified through the efforts of Abu Salamah Khalāl’s to convince Imam Sādeq (‘a) to accept the caliphate on the threshold of the downfall of the Ummayyid rule.Alongside the efforts of the leaders of this movement, Yahyā bin Zayd bin ‘Ali (‘a), the grandson of the fourth Shiite Imam (‘a) – whose father’s uprising had been violently thwarted by the Ummayyids and had met indifference from the supporters of the Abbasids in Iraq – managed to win the support of some Shiite Iranians in Khorāsān and the other Eastern regions of Iran like Sarakhs and Balkh to an extent that he could lead a movement in Bayhaq and Neishābur and then spread his activities to Balkh and Herāt. However, Yahyā’s movement was defeated by the Ummayyid army led by Nasr bin Sayyār, the governor of Khorāsān, in Juzjān in the year 125 AH/743 AD and he was himself killed during the course of the battle. Yahyā’s murder was so painful for the Shiites of Khorāsān that they tried to gain solace by naming their sons after him for years to follow. 

On the other hand, the Iranians also played an active role in the rather radical movements referred to as the “gholāt” that were considered as part of Shiism. Some ancient historians have even considered these Iranian elements to be of a “magi” origin, perhaps for the simple reason that they found some common elements between their beliefs and the beliefs attributed to the Zoroastrians by the predecessors. The existence of certain elements from Manichaeism and Mazdakism in the belief structure of these groups cannot be totally ruled out.

Nevertheless, in its general sense, the influence of Shiism in the various regions of Iran was so profound that one of the first Alavid rules was established in the Tabarestān of Iran in 250 AH/864 AD, which was led by Hasan bin Zaid – even though it belonged to the Zaidi sect – and lasted until about the first half of the 4th Century AH/10th Century AD. Another Shiite rule in which the Iranians played a far greater role than in the Alavid rule of Tabarestān and through with they ruled for about 130 years over large parts of Iran and Iraq was the government of the Buyids whose reign marks one of the most shinning period of the Islamic culture and civilization and which made a categorical impact on the permeation of Shiite customs and traditions among the people of Iran.Alongside the Buyid rule, there were also other Shiite dynasties that emerged in some parts of Iran such as the Āl-e Hosnaviyah who ruled over parts of Kordestān, Lorestān, and the present-day Khuzistān for about half a century during the 4th and 5th Centuries AH/10th and 11th Centuries AD. There were also some regions in Iran including Rey, Qom, Kāshān, and Sabzevār whose people by and large followed Shiism even though the Shiites did not always rule over these regions. The role of some renowned and influential families of these regions like that of the Ash’aris of Qom, who were the followers of the Shiite Imams (‘a), in the spread of Shiism cannot be taken for granted.

One of the oldest Shiite sects that emerged in Iran was the Ismā’iliyah, which was a well-organized sect whose followers carried out underground and secret political activities. As per historical records, traces of the activities of Mohammad bin Esmā’il can be found in the northern regions of Iran. In the periods that followed they continued to be noticeably active in the territories under the Sāmānid rule as well as in Transoxiania and had managed to attract some of the rulers and commanders of that region to their sectarian faith.

During the Seljuq rule, a branch of the Ismā’ilis called the “Nazāris” led by Hasan Sabbāh, succeeded in establishing an independent rule in the Alamut fortress around the Qazvin region and by making use of the other fortresses of the region gradually extended their influence to the surrounding mountainous areas. Apparently, Hasan Sabbah was more concerned with establishing the concept of Imamate rather than spreading the Ismā’ili teachings on creation and the universe and he, therefore, opposed the Abbasid Caliphate who were generally served by the Seljuqs and their Iranian ministers. Despite repeated bloody conflicts with the Seljuq rulers, the Ismā’ilis succeeded in preserving their status and position for over 150 years but when the Mongols invaded Iran and conquered the Alamut and other fortresses in 654 AH/1256 AD, they were finally defeated and their power and influence was diminished to a great extent.

Following the collapse of the Abbasid caliphate and the conquest of Baghdad by the Mongols the inclination for the establishment of a Shiite rule (and particularly the Ithanā Ashari form of Shiism) gained momentum and one of the Ilkhanids of Iran, Soltān Mohammad Oljāitu, also embraced Shiism. The Sarbedārān Movement of Khorāsān that apparently began as an anti-Mongol development with Sufi inclinations and later turned into a local rule in Sabzevār and its surrounding regions was perhaps the first outstanding effort to establish an Ithnā Ashari Shiite rule during that period of the history of Iran. The Sarbedārān rule lasted only for about fifty years (737-788 AH/1337-1386 AD) and it apparently faced many conflicts and wars during this period. However, the interaction between Sufi teachings and the teachings of Ithna Ashari Shiism gave birth to a movement started by the Safavid dynasty about a century later. As per historical evidences the Safavids had also toyed with the idea of convincing some of the Shiite scholars of Jabal Āmel of Lebanon, including Mohammad bin Makki popularly known as “Shahid-e Awwal” (martyred in 786 AH), to migrate to Khorāsān to disseminate Shiism.

During the same period a number of radical movements took place in the name of Shiism none of which gained much success. The most important of such movements was that of the Horufis which had even continued under the name of the “Noqtaviyeh” until the reign of the Safavid king Shāh Abbās I. The leader of this sect was Fazollāh Astarābādi who was known to be a Sufi and who had proclaimed himself as the “Awaited Twelfth Imam” of the Shiites in the year 786 AH and had made his followers swear allegiance to him for an uprising, dispatching them to different towns and cities to propagate his movement. However, he did not gain much success and finally sought asylum with Mirān Shāh, the son of Tamerlane, in Shirvān who assassinated him on his father’s demand in the year 804 AH/1402 AD. Following the assassination of Fazlollāh Astarābādi, the Horufis more or less continued under the inspiration of his ideals, and at times, even caused some problems for Tamerlane’s successors. For instance, as narrated in the books of history, one of the Horufis called “Ahmad Lor” had made an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Shāhrokh that resulted in a severe retaliation towards the followers of this sect.

Towards the end of the 8th Century and the beginning of the 9th Century AH a few minor local Shiite governments ruled over some parts of Iran. These local governments included the Mar’ashi Seyyeds of Māzandarān, the Kiā’iyāns of Gilān, and the Mosha’sha’iyān of Khuzestān, during whose reigns the Safavid government emerged as the central government of Iran.

Apparently, during this period there was a strong urge among the Iranians for the establishment of a powerful central government that would recognize the Ithnā Ashari school of Shiism as the official religion of the country. However, none of these minor dynasties were powerful enough to fulfill this urge and it was only the Safavid Dynasty that could establish such a rule, mainly because it had managed to create a strong organization on the basis of the Sufi support that it enjoyed both inside Iran as well as outside the usual boundaries of the country. There is no convincing evidence to show that Sheikh Safi al-Din Ardabili (735 AH/1335 AD), the great grandfather of the Safavids – who was the Sufi Sheikh of his times – had any political inclinations, even though as a Sufi Sheikh, he was immensely revered by his numerous followers as well as some of the elite and rulers of his times. However, his successors in Āzarbāyjān, the Caucasus, and Anatolia - particularly after getting related to the Āq Qoyunlu rulers through marriage - organized the Sheikh’s followers into a devoted army. When the leadership of the Sheikh’s followers fell into the hands of Esmā’il, the son of Khwajeh Ali - one of the great grandchildren of Sheikh Safi - he was no more than a young child. Esmā’il fled to Gilān in order to save himself from the Āq Qoyunlu rulers who had realized the intention of the Safavids. However, in the year 905 AH/1500 AD, while he was still very young, Esmā’il returned to Ardabil, accompanied by a small number of his close and trusted associates who had probably encouraged him on this move, and eventually took the reigns of power into his hands, declaring himself as the king (the Shah of Iran) and Ithnā Ashari Shiism as the state religion of Iran in 907 AH/1502 AD.


* source: Bahramian , Ali "Iran Entry" The Great Islamic Encyclopedia. Ed. Kazem Musavi Bojnourdi.Tehran: The Center of Great Islamic Encyclopaedia , 1989, V.10 ,pp.591 – 593


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