Shi'a religious parade standard

Contributed by British Museum

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Standards like this were used in religious processions in Iran 400 years ago. It was during this period that Iran changed from being a Sunni Islamic state to a Shi'a Islamic state. This standard is in the shape of the sword of Imam Ali - the husband of Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Mohammad. Shi'a Muslims believe that Imam Ali is the true successor to the Prophet. This sword is inscribed with the names of the Prophet, his family and the twelve Imams revered in Shi'ism.

Who were the Safavid dynasty?

The Safavid shahs ruled Iran from 1501 to 1722. They claimed to be the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. Under their rule Iran became the world's largest Shi'a state and Shi'ism developed many of the forms and practices still dominant today. Standards like this were originally used in battle to indicate the presence of the ruler but were adopted for use in religious processions during the Safavid period.

Safavid ruler, Shah 'Abbas is credited with starting an Iranian fashion for wearing a moustache.

Meet the Safavids

The Safavids ruled Iran between 1501 and 1722. The origins of the dynasty date back to the 1300s to Shaykh Safi al-Din (d.1334), a Sufi master, or Muslim mystic, who lived in the town of Ardabil, in northwest Iran. Shaykh Safi was a popular holy figure who attracted a significant following of dervishes and upon his death he was buried in a shrine at Ardabil.

Although the dynasty began as a peaceful mystical order in northwest Iran, it gradually acquired a military and political dimension which reached its peak under the leadership of a charismatic young man called Ismail Safavi. By this time, at the end of the 1400s, the Safavid mystical order had grown both in power and in numbers and was threatening the political sovereignty of the Turkman dynasty, the Aq Qoyunlu, ruling western Iran at the time.

Ismail Safavi had gained his military support from Turkmen tribesmen originating from eastern Anatolia and Syria who were called the Qizilbash – literally ‘red heads’ – on account of their distinctive red caps. The Qizilbash were fervent supporters of their leader and in 1501 they succeeded in defeating the Aq Qoyunlu thereby wresting control of northwest Iran and crowned Ismail Safavi as Shah Ismail, the first Safavid ruler (r.1501–24).

The reign of Shah Ismail, who was barely 14 years old at the time of his accession, was a turning point in Iran’s history as he proclaimed Shiism, specifically Ithna ‘Ashari or Twelver Shiism, as the state religion, and it has remained so to the present day. During his reign, the dynasty united the eastern and western halves of Iran.

One of the greatest Safavid rulers famed for opening up Iran’s borders to international trade and diplomacy was Shah ‘Abbas I (r.1587-1629).

In 1598 Shah ‘Abbas moved the capital and all his courtiers from Qazvin to his newly-built magnificent city of Isfahan. The centre of Isfahan was a massive rectangular maidan, or piazza, surrounded by royal palaces, gardens, opulently tiled mosques, and arcaded bazars. The Shah settled large numbers of courtiers, Armenian merchants and craftsman within his thriving metropolis in order to drive his ambitions for a booming economy based in part on the luxury silk trade.

Indian and European travellers, diplomats and traders were welcomed to Isfahan, while the city also became a magnet for fashion-conscious youths who advertised the empire’s wealth and success by donning exquisite costumes made of Isfahani silk.

The decline and eventual fall of the Safavid dynasty was set in motion following the death of Shah ‘Abbas. His grandson and successor, Shah Safi (r.1629-42), intent on maintaining his position put to death or blinded possible rivals. His son and successor, Shah ‘Abbas II (r.1642-66), was a more competent ruler but he was less able to withstand pressure from his religious leaders.

The last two Safavid Shahs were weak and pliable rulers and gradually the administration and military strength of the Safavids weakened to such an extent that in 1722, a small band of marauding Afghans succeeded in starving the Safavid capital into surrender.

Fahmida Suleman, curator, British Museum

To be a strong man is not enough

Usually the person who carries the Alams is in the front of his people, the group which goes from one mosque to another mosque. First of all you have to be a good weight lifter because its quite heavy, it sometimes goes up to 100 kilograms, but its not just a matter of 100ks weight it’s the balancing and the shape of the Alam which is huge and wide and as you start to walk it can bounce and take you down and damage your back and discs – you have to be very physically fit for that and the people are either wrestlers or weight lifters and strong and well known by that society.

But to be a strong man is not enough, in that community the people have got to know you as well because it’s sort of tradition to give you admission. It’s keeping the memory alive, for the kind of rights you have to fight and it keeps you strong, you keep singing the songs, keeping the tradition and carry on.

Hossein Pourtahmasbi

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  • 1. At 21:55 on 27 September 2010, alex_no wrote:

    I love the Safavids, but Niall Macgregor just loves Christians, and is quite anti-Islamic. Safavid Isfahan is OK if you introduce it by speaking of the Armenian cathedral.

    No doubt next week he will speak of Mughul India, by reference to Akbar's experiments in syncretism. Including Catholic imagery. And no doubt he will say that the Mughul dynasty failed, because of its return to Islamic orthodoxy under Aurangezeb.

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  • 2. At 11:30 on 30 September 2010, Miles Hodgkiss wrote:

    ?Religious intolerance?. Much vaunted and bandied about by trouble making westerners as a derogatory summary for any culture that they have chosen to oppose or who have as yet small economic influence over. Yawn yawn yawn.

    Did I hear right?

    In contradictory fashion Ian McGregor goes on to point out that, in Iran, the Religious Tolerance begun so successfully by the Safavids has continued unabated to this very day.

    One wonders why an intelligent historian such as he might deliberately include a phrase he is about to contradict in so short a dialog?

    Perhaps there is a contractual obligation to the B.B.C. to incite comment?
    A BBC which is sadly Hell bent on loosing its good reputation for impartial reportage is also likely to be a BBC dumb enough to have planned for a follow up series to discuss listeners? comments?

    I for one am thoroughly enjoying the series and the invitation to comment freely. Thanks very much.

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  • 3. At 04:37 on 15 October 2010, Tmne wrote:

    I am loving this series and will be sad when it ends, but I was most concerned to hear this podcast end with Mr Macgregor stating that there is still religious tolerance in Iran today. Unfortunately Iran is a dangerous and intolerant place for Jewish people today. The current Iranian leadership is bent on the distruction of Jewish people and is happy to persecute them both within Iran and throughout the Middle East. They could take a lesson from the history of their ancestors.

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Made in Iran


Late 17th century


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