Innovations of the Safavid Era

Shah Ismail, first King of the Safavid Dynasty
December 2, 2022
The Era of Shah Tahmasp
December 2, 2022

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Innovations of the Safavid Era

Shah Ismail introduced a number of innovations within the Shia faith that became a standard of the Shia thereafter. Amongst these are: 


Blasphemy coupled with sectarian persecution

He had adopted cursing the three Rightly Guided Khalifas as a method of testing the Iranians. He instructed such curses be broadcasted along the roads, in the market places, and upon the pulpits.[1] Cursing and slander can be found amongst the early Shia and within their books. However, it was never broadcasted in such a heinous manner and upon the pulpits until the Safavid era.


Self-mutilation and Muharram practices.

Staging annual celebrations in commemoration of the death of al Hussain radiya Llahu ‘anhu together with hitting and slicing themselves with cleavers and axes and lashing their own backs with chains. They also slap their faces and chests. This is coupled with wearing black clothes from the beginning of Muharram. These events begin with the month of Muharram and continue till the 10th, the day Hussain was killed. They also prevent marriages from taking place in Muharram.

These innovations had reared their head in a mild form during the Buyid dynasty; however, Shah Ismail saw to its development and evolution in a manner that resembled mourning, in an attempt to rouse emotion and for it, to become a Shia propaganda tool.

Beginning around the years 907–930 AH to this date the Shia of Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Pakistan deem such practices as an integral part of their faith and present it in a favourable light to their followers. Further, when any person or institution seeks to prevent them from such, they accuse such persons or institutions as anti-Shia. This they do whilst fully aware that Shah Ismail was the first to introduce such innovation in order to spread Shi’ism.

Dr. ‘Ali al Wardi—a Shia—states:


أن الشاه إسماعيل اقتبس هذه المراسيم من النصارى حيث كانوا يقومون بطقوس دينية عن مصاب المسيح والحواريين، لذلك كان يدعو النصارى لحضور مواكب التعزية

Shah Ismail had adopted these practices from the religious rituals of the Christians, specifically that of self-flagellation. It is for this reason that he would invite the Christians to the ‘condolence parades’.[2]


Placing the third ‘shahadah’ in the adhan, i.e. Ashadu Anna ‘Ali Wali Allah

This innovation was introduced by a Shia sect in the fourth century AH.[3] The Shia scholar Ibn Babawayh al Qummi has mentioned this act of theirs and heaped curses on them. One of the more famed Shia scholars, Sheikh al Tusi vehemently opposed them and refuted them in his book Al Nihayah fi Mujarrad al Fiqh wa al Fatawa.

Shah Ismail, however, instructed that the adhan be given with this addition notwithstanding the opposition of the general consensus of the Shia scholars in his own era. This innovation did not enter Iraq until the year 1870 CE. It was introduced by Nasir al Din Shah upon his visit to al Najaf during the era of the Ottoman governor Midhat Pasha[4]. From then up to the present day, this adhan has become the standard across the board for the Shia in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and all the other Shia Masjids throughout the world. Their scholars have chosen to remain silent though fully aware that their early scholars had cursed those who adopted it and that it was an introduction of the extremist Mufawwidahs.

Thus, the ideas of an extreme rejected Shia sect became an integral part of their faith during the era of Shah Ismail and it continues to this day. All of the Shia clerics have adopted silence on this matter. When the Islamic Revolution came in Iran, it revived all of the Safavid practices after some of the Shia had done away with these innovations.


Prostrating on the Turbah Hussainiyyah

This is a piece of clay upon which the Shia prostrate instead of the earth, which they call the Turbah Hussainiyyah. Up to this day, it has become part and parcel of their faith. It is merely a way to differentiate the Shia from those that are not. Shah Ismail gave prominence to it such that it became an integral part of their creed.


The necessity of being buried in al Najaf

Decaying corpses would be brought from across Iran to be buried at al Najaf. A number of professional services were set up for this reason in Iran. They would remove the skin from the bones, desecrate the dead, and transport them to the graveyard at al Najaf after this innovation began. To this day, this innovation continues to the extent that the Shia of Iraq are buried in al Najaf.


Altering the Qiblah of the Masjids in Iran

This is done on the basis that the Qiblah of the Ahlus Sunnah is erroneous. Thus, the Shia to this day perform their salah in a direction that is not in line with that of the Ahlus Sunnah.


Permission to prostrate to humans.

This was an innovation introduced by Shah Ismail for the Qizilbash. He would instruct them to prostrate to him. Today, the scholars and noblemen are honoured in extreme ways. As for prostration itself, this continues to be practiced by the Ismaili Bohra Shia. Yes, all the Shia prostrate to graves, though it may not even be in the direction of the Qiblah. They state this to be a prostration of honour, not worship.


Stipulating huge, bloated salaries for the Shia scholars

This included giving them fiefdoms, farmlands, and special endowments; a manner of buying off the scholars so they would pass rulings according to the wish of the Sultan. And, thus, aspirations of gathering wealth grew amongst the scholars. Today, the scholars of the Shia seminaries, the Hawzah, are the wealthiest of people, the Al Khoei Foundation London has a net worth of millions of dollars, and Khomeini had amassed a colossal fortune in Iraq. When he relocated to France after being exiled, he transferred large sums of money. Today too, figures like ‘Abdul ‘Aziz al Hakim, Muqtada, and others are worth millions. This is a Persian innovation to which the Shia poet, Ahmed al Safi, has paid homage to saying:

وكيف يسوغ الشحذ للرجل الشهم

عجبت لقوم شحذهم باسم دينهم

لذاك فإن الجهل خير من العلم

لئن كان تحصيل العلوم مسوِّغاً

لتعطى بذل بل لتؤخذ بالرغم

لئن أوجب الله الزكاة فلم تكن

ولم تكن في أبناء يعرب من قدم

أتانا بها أبناء ساسان حرفة

I am perplexed at those who beg in the name of their faith,

How can begging be tolerated for an astute man?

If attaining knowledge was a justification,

For that, then ignorance is better than knowledge.

If Allah has ordained giving alms, it was not,

To be given with disgrace, but to be taken despite.

The sons of Sasan[5] have brought it about as a profession,

And among the sons of the Arabs this was not. 


Shah Ismail, thus, gave prominence to the idea of scholarly worldly splendour despite history being replete with the abstinence of ‘Ali radiya Llahu ‘anhu and the Ahlul Bayt. Today, the most prosperous are the Sadat[6] and their money related scandals are well documented.

These are some of the innovations and revolutions introduced by Shah Ismail. For further reading on this subject, refer to those books which discuss this in greater detail.[7]

The orientalist, Dwight Ronaldson who lived in Iran for 16 years has hit the nail on the head in his well-known book ‘Aqidah al Shia, by linking extremist ideologies as well as excommunication to the Safavid era as an inseparable phenomenon.


NEXT⇒ The Era of Shah Tahmasp

[1] The Shia of present—Iranian, Iraqi, Lebanon, Bahraini, Saudi, Kuwaiti, Pakistani, and those from other areas wherein the Shia exist—all passionately curse and revile the three Rightly Guided Khulafa, the Sahabah, and the Mothers of the Believers. Further, when they gain political power, as they did in Iraq, they compel those of the Ahlus Sunnah under persecution to curse too. The security service of Iran deal in the very same way with the Ahlus Sunnah that reside in Iran. Today, one of the secular Shia in Iraq has admitted to the Badr Corp stopping passers-by in the south of Baghdad during the early days of the collapse of Baghdad and forcing them to spit on depictions of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib in an attempt to portray the Ahlus Sunnah as enemies of the Ahlul Bayt. Whoever did not comply were killed. All praise is to Allah who has exposed them from their very ilk. This is the Iranian Shia treachery.

[2] Lamahat ijtima’iyyah min Tarikh al ‘Iraq, vol. 1 pg. 51.

[3] This sect is the Mufawwidah sect who held the belief that Allah created the soul of ‘Ali radiya Llahu ‘anhu and his children and handed over the world to them. They then created the heavens and the earth. See, Dr Kamil al Shibi: Al Silah bayn al Tasawwuf wa al Tashayyu’ pg. 156. The Imamiyyah went to war with this sect in the fourth century when they introduced the third shahadah in the adhan. All the Shia scholars vehemently opposed this. A notable book in this regard has been authored by ‘Ala al Din al Basir entitled Al Shahadah al Thalathah fi al Adhan Haqiqah am Iftira. It has been published by Maktabah al Ridwan, Cairo in 2005.

[4] Lamahat Ijtima’iyyah min Tarikh al ‘Iraq, vol. 2 pg. 159.

[5] By Sasan, he means the Persians. An attribution to the Sassanid Dynasty. The poet himself attests to this being a Persian, Iranian, Safavid innovation.

[6] A term used by the Shia for those who attribute themselves to the Ahlul Bayt.

[7] See, Dr ‘Ali al Wardi: Lamahat Ijtima’iyyah min Tarikh al ‘Iraq; ‘Ali Hussain al Jabiri: Al Fikr al Salafi ‘inda al Shia al Ithnay ‘Ashariyyah 1977; Al Muta’amirun an Iranian book translated 1981; Michael M. J. Fischer: Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution 1980; and Carl Brockelmann: History of the Islamic Peoples.