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Safavid Decline and Fall

Shah Abbas had been strong enough to limit the Shia scholar-priests (ulama) to the law and to preaching, but his successors gradually lost power to the ulama. Shah Abbas died in 1629. He had feared his sons and had put them in the protection and confines of the harem and under the tutelage of eunuchs, which left his successors ill-equipped for governing.

His son and heir, Safi, who ruled from 1629 to 1642, is known for his cruelty. He is said to have eliminated every other possible claimant to the throne, including his mother. While intoxicated he stabbed his favorite wife to death. He executed most of the generals and councilors he had inherited from his father's reign, and he put to death some of his male and female relatives.

Shah Abbas II (1642–66) attempted to eliminate bureaucratic corruption. Under Abbas II, Iran regained some prestige in the world. Shah Abbas II was active in government matters and increased central authority. He pushed the Mughals of India out of Kandahar (in Afghanistan). He intervened on the side of the peasants. He believed that a Safavid rule was sacred – in conflict with the religious establishment, which was moving toward the notion that temporal authority belonged to a mujtahid (a scholar predating the ayatollahs).

Under Shah Suleiman, or Sulayman, (1667-94), and Shah Husayn (1694-1722) Iran declined again. Both have been described as voluptuaries. Shah Husayn was not much interested in affairs of state. He let influence pass to courtiers and eunuchs, and he would not make any significant move without instruction from the ulama.

The ulama had begun claiming that rule by these shahs was God's punishment for Islam's failure to establish a legitimate successor to Muhammad the Prophet. They complained of shahs that scarcely could read, who were impious drinkers of wine and involved in passions. The supreme "throne of the universe," they claimed, belonged only to a mujtahid or some other man who had "sanctity and science above ordinary men." There was little if any criticism of the institution of passing authority from father to son as opposed to institutionalized democracy. Ulama supported kingship much as the Catholic Church in the early Middle Ages supported monarchical rule that was subordinate to the authority of the Church. Ulama held that because a mujtahid would be a holy and peaceful person it would be necessary to have under him a king who "carries a sword" for the exercise of justice. These ulama wanted a wise man of God as the supreme authority over society, including those in charge of violence. note32

The shahs Safi, Suleiman and Husayn brought decline to the power of the shahs. With this, local authorities were left to quarrel among themselves and free to exploit by excessive taxation. Trade declined. Agricultural productivity remained low in Iran. Mountainous terrain and great distances between population centers continued to inhibit the development of markets. International trade remained slow and the economy stagnant in part because of trade having moved from crossing land to crossing the oceans in the ships of European powers. By sea, Iran was a long way from Europe – around Africa and out of the way for ships sailing to and from India and points farther east.

Iran had also declined militarily, leaving it more vulnerable to invasion, which came out of the east. In the year 1722, Afghan invaders, of the Sunni branch of Islam, reached the Safavid capital, Isfahan. Safavid power ended and civil wars followed, which depressed Iran's economy further and brought widespread suffering.


Roots of Revolution: an Interpretive History of Modern Iran, by Nikki R Keddie, 1981

Middle East, Past and Present, by Yahya Armajani, Prentice-Hall, 1970

The Ottoman Centuries: the Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire, by Lord Kinross, 1977

Mehmed the Conqueror and His Time, by Franz Babinger, 1978

Worlds at War, Chapter 7, "The Present Terror of the World," by Anthony Pagden, 2008

Middle East, Past and Present, by Yahya Armajani, Prentice-Hall,

Scholars, Saints and Sufis: Muslim Religious Institutions since 1500, by Nikki R Kiddie, 1978

Crossroads of Civilization: 3000 years of Persian History, by Irving Clive, 1979

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