The illustration above shows the third of four alcoves from the Masjed-e-Hakim three of which carry the names of Muhammad's daughter, Fatima and her children and grandchildren, who are revered in Shi'ism as leaders or imams. This one contains the names of Muhammad Al-Baqir, Ja'far Al-Sadiq, Musa Al-Kazim, and 'Ali Al-Reza, the fith, sixth, seventh and eighth Imams, respectively.
Tradition has it that the earliest Shi'ite settlement in Iran is Qom, on the road between Tehran and Isfahan. This is said to have been settled as early as 712 CE by Shi'ite arabs who had been forced out of Kufa. Its religious importance was sealed when the eighth Imam's sister, Fatima, died there in 817 CE, while searching for her brother. From there Shi'ite sympathies seem to have spread throughout western Iran. By the middle of the tenth century, the power of the Abbasid Caliphate was largely nominal and when the Buyid rulers took effective control of Iran, spreading southward from their stronghold in Deylam, on the borders of the Caspian sea, they promoted Shi'ism, and in particular the Buyid, Al-Hasan ruled a substantial portion of western Iran from Isfahan. The Caliphate was forced to recognise their importance by the confernment of he title Adud Al-Daula (Arm of the Dynasty), on the Buyid ruler Fana-Khusraw, whose notional support for the Caliph was emphasised by his taking the title of 'King of Kings' and claimed descent from the Sassanid kings who had been wiped out by the invading Muslim armies two centuries earlier. It is interesting that not attempt was made to replaice the Abbasid Caliphs at the time with Alid ones, and this probably arose from political temporising. However there was still frequent factional fighting between Sunnis and Shi'ia up to the middle of the eleventh century.
The century of Buyid rule which had been so favourable to the Shi'ites was followed by a less favourable period under the Turkish Seljuks who were Sunni zealots and were backed by the Abbasid Caliphate. Toghril Begh, their leader had the Shi'ites cursed in the mosques under his control in Iran. However as their empire grew more secure, they seem to have moved towards a position of tolerance towards the Shi'ia, and Nizam Ul-Mulk's position seems to have been typical - praised by the Shi'ites for his promotion of the grandchildren of muhammad, the sayyed, while demanding the expulsion of Shi'ites from all public offices in his book on Government, the Siyasat Nameh. His master, Malek Shah, had no wish to alienate populist Shi'ite support and in 1086 made a pilgrimage to Karbala. From this time on Shi'ism seems to have become more respectable and Nizam Ul-Mulk's strictures against the employment of Shi'ites in office went largely disregarded, and by the middle of the twelfth century, two of Sultan Sanjar's six viziers were Shi'ite. The increasing tolerance of the mainstream Shi'ites probably developed as the Sunni rulers learned to differentiate the twelver Shi'ites who followed all twelve Imams from the Sevener Shi'ites or Ismailis, also known as the Assassins, who were a more serious threat to the stability of the Government.
The Mongols who followed the Seljuks as rulers of Iran were advised by an influential Shi'ite, Nasir Al-Din Tusi, a famous astronomer and mathematician, who was responsible for encouraging Huleghu Khan to execute the last Abbasid caliph in 1258 CE. The Mongols themselves were notionally Buddhists and religously neutral, but probably cultivated Shi'ism for political reasons. However Iran at this time was still predominantly Sunni, and when Ghazan Khan converted to Islam in 1295, it was under the influence of a Sunni. His brother, Oljeitu, who was originally a Christian, eventually adopted Shi'ism, and went so far as to have the names of the twelve Imams stamped on his coins. His mehrab in the Masjed-e-Jomeh has a particularly Shi'ite affirmation of belief. However he died a Sunni, and his support for Shi'ism was marked by outbreaks of serious factional fighting between the rival sects. After his death the tendency was for the Il Khanid rulers to be Sunni but to employ Shi'ites as ministers and advisors.
Timurlane and his successors, together with the Aq-Quiunlu rulers who followed them seem to have preserved the tradition of dealing impartially between the two sects. Jahanshah's coins have Shi'ite professions of faith on one side and the names of the first three Caliphs on the other, for example, while Ghawar Shad, who was the Sunni wife of Shah Rukh made major architectural contributions to the shrine of the eight Imam at Mashad, whie at the same time arranging for the death of the Imamzadeh, Sheikh 'Ala Al-Din Muhammad in 1447, who traced his descent from Al-Husayn, and in whose honour the shrine of Shahshahan was erected in Isfahan.
The ecomonic and political devastation that Timurlane left behind him provided a fertile breeding ground for several opportunists to present themselves as the Mehdi, however the most succesful of these was Shah Ismail, who traced his descent from a colony of Sufis on the Caspian sea. He was brought to power by Turkomen tribesmen, the Qizilbash, who wore twelve-stringed tassels in their headgear in memory of the twelve Imams. Their Shi'ite tendencies were hardly mainstream, after his defeat of the Uzbeks he had a drinking cup made out of the head of their leader, and it is probable that much of his later fame as the founder of a Shi'ite dynasty is based on 17th century Safavid propaganda. His followers, were however, undoubtedly fanatically devoted to him, and his role as a Saviour was only called into question at the disastrous battle of Chaldiran in 1514.
Shah Ismail enforced Shi'ism from the time he took control of Tabriz in 1501. The three first Caliphs were ritually cursed and orders were given that anyone who failed to copy this example should be killed. 300 prostitutes were killed, just to get things going. The enforced conversion of the still predominantly Sunni population seems to have proceeded somewhat slowly, largely, because of a lack of any books on government of a Shi'ite persuasion, it seems. Shah Ismail's son and heir, Tahmasp , was still busy establishing Shi'ism towards the end of the 16th century, but by the time Shah Abbas I took over the empire, at the end of the century, Shi'ism had been effectively put in place as the state religion, a position which it has occupied until the present time, except for a brief period under Nader Shah (1736-47), who had it dropped, probably in an attempt to secure friendship with neighbouring Sunni states while he embarked on his conquest of India.
Last Updated: 17 April 2001