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Islam in Iran, The Mongol and Timurid Periods
Encyclopedia Iranica

The cataclysm of the Mongol invasion resulted not only in Persia coming under non-Muslim rule for the first time since the Arab conquest; it also caused vast devastation and demographic dislocation. Its consequences for the religious configuration of the Perso-Islamic world were less immediately apparent. Rule by sultans professing Islam was restored a mere thirty-seven years after the sacking of Baghdad, when in 694/1295 the Il-khanid ruler Maḥmud Ḡāzān Khan embraced Islam and required of all the Mongols in his realm that they do likewise or depart. Although traces of Mongol custom remained embedded in royal practice for several centuries, Islam had been restored to unchallenged supremacy in a fairly short time.

It is sometimes assumed that the general predominance of Sunnism in Persia was significantly weakened by the destruction of the ʿAbbasid caliphate by the Mongols in 1258, starting a drift toward Shiʿism that found its natural conclusion in the changes wrought by the Safavids. There is little to recommend this theory; no new territory was won for Shiʿism in the period of Mongol domination, and the main center of Shiʿite learning was the city of Ḥella in Iraq. It is true that the Il-khanid ruler Öljeitü (r. 1304-17), repelled by an unseemly wrangle between Hanafites and Shafeʿites, was persuaded by Ebn Moṭahhar al-Ḥelli to embrace Imami Shiʿism and tried in 710/1310 to have at least some of his subjects follow him. However, his envoys were met with strong resistance in Shiraz and probably elsewhere as well, and Öljeitü himself appears to have reverted to Sunnism before his death (Ebn Baṭṭuṭa, pp. 204-7; Spuler, 1955, pp. 190-91).

As for Timur, he is definitely classifiable as a Sunnite, in the technical sense of the word. He associated with a number of dervishes, notably Šams-al-Din Kolāl, Sayyed Baraka, and Zayn-al-Din Ḵᵛāfi, eponym of the Zayni Sufi order. Moreover, he patronized Sunni scholars such as Šaʿd-al-Din Taftāzāni (d. 791/1389) and Šarif Jorjāni (d. 816/1413), bringing them, sometimes forcibly, to his capital of Samarqand. It was no doubt activities such as these that gained him a reputation for piety summed up in the highly questionable epitaph, Timur mord wa imān babord (Timur died, and he took faith with him; cited approvingly by Serhendi, p. 92). Sometimes, however, he subordinated his Sunnite allegiance to political expediency, as when he proclaimed himself protector of the Shiʿite community of Aleppo. Sunnite loyalties prevailed also among his successors based in Samarqand. Tendencies to Shiʿism can, however, be discerned in Sultan Ḥosayn Bayqarā, the Timurid ruler of Herat from 875/1470 to 912/1506; it was only the persuasions of his minister, ʿAli-Šir Navāʾi, that prevented him from openly embracing the creed (Szuppe, p. 122). Bayqarā’s initial inclination to Shiʿism may have either reflected or encouraged a growing sense of confidence in the Shiʿite minority of the city and its environs.

The only movement in the Mongol and Timurid periods that recognizably subscribed—even partially—to normative Twelver Shiʿism was that of the Sarbadarids, which arose, not coincidentally, in an area where Shiʿism had long been implanted: Bayhaq in Khorasan. It originated with a certain Shaikh Ḵalifa, a renegade Kobrawi from Māzandarān, who, arriving in Sabzavār, the main urban center of Bayhaq, some time in the third decade of the 8th/14th century, began preaching doctrines of uncertain content that were welcomed by the Shiʿite population of the city but opposed by its Sunnite ulema. The result was a fatwā for his execution, implemented in 736/1335. Not long after, a local notable by the name of ʿAbd-al-Razzāq killed a Mongol tax collector in the vicinity of Sabzavār and launched a rebellion that eventuated in the capture of Sabzavār in 738/1337 and ʿAbd-al-Razzāq’s proclamation of himself as ruler. The violent factionalism that was to mar the whole history of the Sarbadarids soon showed itself for the first time when ʿAbd-al-Razzāq was stabbed to death by his brother, Wajih al-Din Masʿud (Roemer, p. 23). He not only came to terms with the Mongol governor of Khorasan but also enrolled himself in the following of Ḥasan Juri, successor to Shaikh Ḵalifa, who now in effect became co-ruler with Masʿud. This partnership was inherently unstable; the ambitions of Masʿud were of conventional, monarchical nature, while Shaikh Ḥasan Juri proclaimed the re-appearance of the Twelfth Imam to be imminent and sought to propagate Shiʿism coercively in the predominantly Sunnite areas of Khorasan that came progressively, albeit fleetingly, under Sarbadarid control: Nishapur, Jājarm, Dāmḡān, and Semnān. When Ḥasan Juri was killed in battle against the rulers of Herat in 743/1342, suspicions arose that Masʿud had had him killed under the cover of battle. Two years later, Masʿud himself was killed in renewed clashes with the Mongols (Roemer, p. 26). Complex vicissitudes that defy concise summary punctuated the remaining four decades of the Sarbadarids. Worthy of mention, however, is the last of their line, ʿAli Moʾayyad (d. 788/1386), for the ideological complexity of the movement found its clearest expression with him. He allied himself with a certain Darviš ʿAziz, who had established a shortlived state in Mashad in the name of the Twelfth Imam, but finding him too radical for his taste, he killed him and expelled his followers from Sabzavār. When they in turn regained control of the city, it was only with the assistance of Timur that he was able, in 783/1381, to reconquer it. ʿAli Moʾayyad was nonetheless devoted to the establishment of a stable Shiʿite principality, and to guide him in that task he solicited from Moḥammad b. Makki ʿĀmeli (d. 786/1384) the important handbook of Shiʿite feqh that became known as al-Lomʿat al-demašqiya. It is possible, then, to discern a division in Sarbadarid Khorasan between millennarian enthusiasts such as Ḥasan Juri and Darviš ʿAziz, and a current that was attuned to the learned traditions of Twelver Shiʿism and gradualist in its tactics.

It was dissatisfaction with what may be called the conservative wing of the Sarbadarid movement that caused an adherent of Ḥasan Juri, ʿEzz-al-Din, a member of a family of Marʿaši sayyeds, to quit Sabzavār and make for his homeland of Māzandarān. He died en route, but his son, Mir Qewām-al-Din, succeeded in 760/1359 in establishing a Shiʿite principality based on Āmol. In 795/1393, the city was sacked and its inhabitants massacred by Timur, who also deported the ruling sayyeds to Samarqand. They were able to return to Āmol during the reign of Šāhroḵ and continued to rule for some time. An offshoot of the Āmol principality was established in Gilān by one Amir Kiā; it survived until 1000/1592 (Roemer, p. 35).

The Horufi movement (see HORUFISM), which overlapped chronologically with that of the Sarbadarids, might better be described as a fantastic and decadent form of Sufism than as an expression of Shiʿism, even in its olāt (q.v.) version that regarded ʿAli b. Abi Ṭāleb and the Twelve Imams as divine; it did, however, draw on the same expectation of apocalyptic change that informed one wing of the Sarbadarid enterprise. The name derives from the alphabetic obsessions of its founding figure, Fażl-Allāh Astarābādi. Born in 740/1339 to a family that claimed descent from Imam Musā Kāẓem, he was inclined from early life to ascetic devotion, and at the age of eighteen he abandoned the judgeship he had inherited from his father, donned the cloak of a shepherd, and set off on the hajj. On his return he stayed for a while in Chorasmia but then set off for Mecca once more, interrupting his journey with a period of retreat and contemplation in Mashad. Back again in Chorasmia, he experienced visions that imbued him with a sense of mission, and he began gathering a band of devotees (Ritter, pp. 12-14). The nascent community moved to Ṭoqči, a suburb of Isfahan, where it attracted attention for its ascetic mode of life and the skill of its leader in interpreting dreams. This talent earned Fażl-Allāh favor at the court of the Jalayerids in Tabriz, to which he moved in 775/1373, and it was there that he claimed to receive a comprehensive revelation of esoteric knowledge and an address from the world of the unseen proclaiming him “the Lord of the Age and the Sultan of the Prophets” (Ritter, p. 20). Central to his teachings, which defy reduction to a logically coherent system, was the belief that the thirty-two letters of the Perso-Arabic alphabet represent both a compendium of the cosmos and a means for knowledge about it. They were the letters that had been taught to Adam and had therefore been implicit in all humans, but the realization of them had been gradual until the time of Fażl-Allāh in a cyclical scheme that passed through prophethood (from Adam to Moḥammad) and sainthood (from Imam ʿAli to Ḥasan al-ʿAskari, eleventh of the Twelve Imams) to divinity (oluhiyat; Fażl-Allāh himself). The exaltation of the alphabet went together with a numerology that assigned particular significance to numbers, especially seven, that have analogues in man’s physical form, which in its totality bears the palpable imprint of the divine image; man’s body is none other than the divine throne. All this and much else besides was expounded in the Jāvdān-nāma, which purported to be both an esoteric interpretation of the Qurʾan and a new revelation abrogating it (Bashir, pp. 45-84).

Fażl-Allāh was beheaded in Šarvān by Mirānšāh, a son of Timur, in 796/1394 (Ritter, p. 23). His deviance had already been condemned by ulema meeting at a variety of locations, including Samarqand—an indication that awareness of his activities had reached the Timurid capital and aroused a disquiet that was at once religious and political. The Ḥorufi movement nonetheless survived in Persia for another half century. Aḥmad-e Lor, a Ḥorufi who had come from Šarvān, attempted to assassinate Šāhroḵ the Timurid in Herat in 830/1427, and his failure led to a massacre of real or suspected adherents of the movement in the city. Similar events occurred in Isfahan in 835/1431 (Āžand, pp. 87-88). Tabriz, then ruled by the Qarā Qoyonlu dynasty, was initially more hospitable to the Ḥorufis, and the Turkish verse written by Jahānšāh contains explicitly Ḥorufi themes. When threatened with dethronement by the overwhelmingly Sunnite populace of Tabriz and their ulema, he nonetheless permitted the Ḥorufis of the city to be massacred in 845/1441 (Maškur, pp. 133-46). Although a subterranean residue of Horufism survived into the Safavid period, the killings in Tabriz appear to mark the end of organized Ḥorufi activity in Persia; it was in Anatolia and the Balkans that the movement had a much greater prolongation, primarily under the auspices of the Bektāši order of dervishes. Its significance in the religious history of Persia was to have manifested, among a small, scattered but supremely devoted following, some of the same doctrines that animated the Safavids during their rise to power in ther second half of the 9th/15th century.

A somewhat similar movement was the Mošaʿšaʿa of Khuzestan, launched by Moḥammad b. Falāḥ, a native of Wāseṭ in southern Iraq, who, like other aspirants to eminence in the same age, claimed descent from Imam Musā al-Kāẓem, seventh of the Twelve Imams. After studying with one of the major Twelver scholars of the time, Aḥmad b. Fahd of Ḥella, who was also his foster father, he declared himself to be the Mahdi in 840/1436, whereupon his teacher disowned and denounced him. It was, indeed, in an area and among a population remote from formal learning, the nomadic Arabs of the Iraqi marshlands, that he chose to begin his preaching, persuading them to trade their water buffaloes for weapons and form the nucleus of his army. After a number of setbacks, he captured the city of Ḥowayza in Khuzestan in 845/1458; this remained his capital, while his son, Mawlā ʿAli, went on briefly to capture Najaf and Wāseṭ and to threaten the environs of Baghdad. He died in Ḥowayza in 870/1465, but the principality he had founded lived on, briefly expanding into Lorestān under the auspices of another son, Sayyed Moḥammad (Caskel, pp. 49-64).

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