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Shah Abbas opens Iran to the West

Abbas I (r. 1587-1629) drew from his family's experience with the local Qizilbash chiefs. He broke their power and confiscated their wealth. He extended state-owned lands and lands owned by the shah. Provinces were now to be administered by the state replacing the discredited Qizilbash chiefs. He strengthened his government's bureaucracy and managed to relocate tribes in order to weaken their power. Having eliminated Qizilbash chiefs as a source of military recruitment, he established a strong military force of his own, with artillery and muskets, with soldiers recruited from Iranian villages and from among Christians, Georgians, Armenians and others. The Christians proud to serve the shah and to call themselves "slaves of the shah" although slaves they were not.

Shah Abbas was open to the idea of an alliance with Europeans in common cause against the Ottomans. He welcomed to his court two young Englishmen with military training, Anthony and Robert Sherley, and employed them as military advisors. Thanks to Robert Sherley, in a short time Shah Abbas created a formidable army. In 1602 he drove the Portuguese from Bahrain. In 1603 Abbas reopened hostilities with the Ottomans. In the coming years he drove the Ottomans back from the gains they had made against the Safavids in previous decades. In 1623 he allied himself with the British effort that expelled the Portuguese from the island of Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf.

Abbas was mentally active. He was curious and in ways more tolerant than his predecessors. Previously, "infidels" (foreigners and non-Muslim subjects) had been denied entry to the shah's court to prevent its defilement. Shah Abbas welcomed foreigners and his non-Muslims subjects to his court. He took an unusual step among Islamic rulers by allowing Christians to wear what they wanted and allowing them to own their own home and to ride horseback. He enjoyed discussing with foreigners the complexities of religious ideology.

Shah Abbas patronized the arts, and he built a new capital at Isfahan, including palaces, mosques and schools, Isfahan becoming the cultural and intellectual capital of Iran. Abbas encouraged international trade and the production of silks, carpets, ceramics and metal ware for sale to Europeans. He advanced trade by building and safeguarding roads. To Iran he welcomed tradesmen from Britain, the Netherlands and elsewhere. He used Christian merchants to sell his state produced silk, and with his governmental monopoly over the silk trade he enhanced state revenues.

The Ulama and Philosophy

Moreso than some other Islamic societies, Islam in Iran remained influenced by Hellenism. Greek philosophers had been translated into Persian centuries before, leaving Islam in Iran more theological than some other places. Islam had scholars called ulama. In Iran the ulama were trying to unite Shia beliefs with what they thought was best in ancient philosophy -- mainly Aristotelian and neo-Platonic influences. Among these ulama in Safavid times emerged philosophers whose influence was to extend into the twentieth century, to Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini among others.

A major Iranian philosopher in the early 1600s was Mir Damad, the founder of the School of Isfahan. He was interested in "eternity" and God having organized this eternity. Seeing time as absolute rather than relative to the motion of things as would be seen by future physicists, he labeled time as the essence of things. Unbothered by contradiction, and with a complexity that equaled Christian scholasticism, he described ranking in the order of things in relation to time while holding that all things had both an eternal essence and a temporal essence – with the temporal world pre-determined. He argued against happenstance, as those who believe in godly power do. He wrote of the material world constantly renewing itself and remaining connected to nature – in other words, that change is determined by laws of nature.

Damad's student, Mulla Sadra, was to be regarded as Iran's greatest philosopher. He also worked on the problem of time and the nature of things and overcame the contradiction between the eternity and the temporal. He too described the universe as having been created by God as both eternal and temporal. The essence of permanence he described as a mental construct in the minds of people as well as the mind of God, more so, of course, in the mind of God, who had knowledge of all. He argued in favor of Aristotle's natural science. Against Mir Damad and with the Aristotelians he argued that essence was an abstraction and subordinate to concrete existence. With the Islamic mystic philosopher Ibn al-Arabi, he spoke of existence (also called being) as having varying degrees of intensity and perfection. He spoke of an upward movement in the scale of being, from the simplest elements to the more complex human body with a soul. And beyond the body-soul complex is, he reasoned, a purer manifestation of the heavenly body-soul complex – the highest rank of order in the corporeal world. And beyond the corporeal world is God.

Ulama philosophers associated their ideas with the teaching of the Koran, as Islam demanded. Where necessary, the ulama philosophers applied allegory to the Koran, to match their point of view. But the ulama philosophers, Mir Damad and Mulla Sadra among them, were under pressure from those Shia who were not interested in philosophical complexities. Mir Damad, Mulla Sadra and other ulama philosophers were frequently rebuked by those ulama holding the majority point-of-view.


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