There were attempts to convert Armenians and Georgians too. While The persecution and virtually complete annihilation of Sunni Muslims in Iran by Safavid Empire is well known and undisputed even by Modern Iranian historians, the treatment of non-Muslim minorities requires deeper discussion.
Reasons behind Ismaili Conversion Campaign
First of all, we have to understand why did Ismail I undertake religious conversion of Iran.
Following are the reasons cited by historical sources:
- Ismail I's hatred for Sunnis was known to have no bounds. No wonder
he sought to destroy them altogether in his domain when he got
- One of the main reasons why Ismail and his followers pursued such a
severe conversion policy was to give Iran and the Safavid lands as
distinct and unique an identity as was possible compared to its two
neighboring Sunni Turkish military and political enemies, its main
enemy and arch rival the Ottoman Empire and, for a time, the Central
Asian Uzbeks — to the west and north-east respectively.
Particularly, since the elite Qizilbash army was of a Turkic origin,
fighting Turkic Ottomans would have caused a major uprising among
them. Hence conversion to Shi'ism was a necessary step in deepening
the enmity between Safavid and Ottomans.
- The Safavids were engaged in a lengthy struggle with the Ottomans —
including numerous wars between the two dynasties — and this
struggle continuously motivated the Safavids to create a more
cohesive Iranian identity to counter the Ottoman threat and
possibility of a fifth-column within Iran among its Sunni subjects.
- The conversion was part of the process of building a territory that
would be loyal to the state and its institutions, thus enabling the
state and its institutions to propagate their rule throughout the
- By aligning religious interests of the general populace to that of
the ruling dynasty (Especially as Iran was surrounded by Sunni
states from all sides and thus was threatened), Safavids ensured
continued loyalty of populace as they would have been seen as
bulwark of Shiism against onslaught of Sunnis.
As you can see, Safavids were not really bothered by Christians, Jews or Zoroastrians or other minorities in their lands.
Their primary threat was the Sunnis who they saw as possible fifth-column in service of their rival Ottoman Empire and other Turkic sunni independent Lords of the region.
That in no way implies that Christians, Jews etc. escaped the misery and grief that was inflicted on the Sunnis. Safavid Empire's general attitude towards them was of indifference/contempt/tolerance (Choose your word).
Not to mention, Non-Muslims were a source of income as they paid Jazya. Safavids could not declare Sunnis as non-Muslims and extract Jazya from them so the hardest blow fell on the Sunnis.
This part is heavily derived from Roger Savory's, one of the leading experts on Safavid Empire and Iranian studies, excellent paper on the subject Relations between the Safavid state and its non-Muslim minorities.
Religious minorities in medieval Muslim empires usually fared better than any where else at that time but however this does not imply that Non-Muslims had equal rights or they were treated with full respect as any Muslim would be. Muslim Kings and Shahs simply did not care what the Non-Muslims did as long as they did not make trouble or the said ruler did not get a fit of fanaticism.
Muslim rule in Iran at beginning of Safavid Empire was almost 8 centuries long. During that long period, the attitude of successive Muslim governments had been one of tolerance/indifference/contempt , punctuated from time to time by outbursts of religious severity which rarely escalated to the point of actual persecution.
Quoting from Jews of Islam by Lewis, page 55 (My own comments included in parenthesis):
The enthronement of the Safavids, a militant Shi'ite dynasty with
Messianic claims, in Iran at the beginning of the sixteenth century
also led to a worsening in the position (Along with outright destruction of Sunni Muslims) of the non-Muslims, Jews,
Christians and Zoroastrians. Under the Safavid shahs, they were
subject to frequent vexations and persecutions, and at times to forced
Before examining the evidence for this statement, I would like to suggest a couple of theological and ideological reasons, peculiar to Ithna Ashari Shi'ism, as to why this change in attitude might have occurred:
a. The doctrine of najasat, or ‘ritual impurity’, which might be termed the Shi'ite ‘added touch’;
b. The special Ithna Ashari doctrine of the Imamate and its messianism
To take these points in order:
First, if one religion considers the adherents of other faiths to be unclean (najis), it is hard to argue that relations between the two can be based on goodwill and mutual respect.
Lewis argues that ‘obsessive concern with the dangers of ritual pollution by unclean persons of another group is virtually limited to Iranian Shi'ism and may be influenced by Zoroastrian practices’, and he asserts that ‘it is unknown to mainstream Islam’.
However, the concept that those who have rejected, or have not yet accepted, the revelation vouchsafed to the Prophet Muhammad are unclean is certainly not absent from Sunni Muslim tradition (There I agree with Savory because I have personally seen some Sunni Conservatives to think that Non-Muslims are unclean).
Toshihoko Izutsu cites the celebrated story from Ibn Ishaq‘s Biography
of the Prophet about Fatima, the sister of the pious Umar, who became the second caliph. Fatima, a recent convert to Islam, refused to allow her brother Umar to touch a manuscript page of the Qur’a¯n that she was reading because he, being still a polytheist (mushrik) was unclean (rijs). [But here I disagree with Roger Savory's otherwise brilliant research and agree with Bernard Lewis instead. Umar's sister only said that he was unclean and she won't let him touch Quran. She did however let him touch it and read it after he had washed his body. If She did believe that Non-Muslims were fundamentally unclean, why did Fatima let Umar touch Quran after he bathed? Muslims themselves don't touch Quran until they clean themselves. I can't presume to tell why did Savory choose to skip the ending and used the
unclean word uttered by Fatima to reinforce his point].
Nevertheless, it is true that Ithna Ashari Shiitism have always laid greater emphasis on the ‘uncleanness’ of non-Muslims than have Sunnis, and, with the resurgence of the power of the religious classes in Iran this century, the issue has once again come to the fore. In 1907 a local shaykh in Kirmanshah, with the support of the merchants and artisans, revived the traditional restrictions governing Jewish dhimmis. Iranian Jews were forbidden to go out of doors when it rained, for fear that a Muslim passerby might be rendered ritually unclean by coming into contact with rainwater that had been in contact with the bodies of Jews.
More recently, of course, Ayatullah Khumaini restated the Ithna Ashari position on impurity with uncompromising harshness; among the eleven things he listed as impure are non-Muslim men and women.
A vignette will show that the principle of naja¯sat was on occasion upheld in Safavid Iran. It concerns the visit to the court of Shah Tahmasp in 1562 of the Elizabethan adventurer Anthony Jenkinson. Jenkinson was not, of course, an indigenous non-Muslim. The Shah, on being told that Jenkinson was not a Muslim,
‘Oh thou unbeliever, we have no need to have friendship with the
The second point concerns the peculiar Ithna Asharı doctrine of the Ima¯mate and the messianic ideology which developed from it. The clergy of Shiites assumed role of regents of the "Hidden Imam" and later even assumed to "qualities/isma of imam". At another point they would term themselves "Ayotullahs" meaning sign of God. This essentially meant that their authority could not be challenged and they were basically sinless. This concept would have dire impacts on both Muslims and Non-Muslims as it can be seen even today in theocratic rule of Ayotullahs on modern Iran.
Relations Between Safavid Shahs of Iran and their Non Muslim subjects
Non Muslim Minorities
Before we consider the impact of these policies on the non-Muslim minorities,perhaps we should spell out exactly who constituted these minorities. At the time of Abbas I, the indigenous non-Muslim communities in Iran comprised Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Hindus (Indians).
The Christians may be broken down into the following groups: Armenians, Georgians, Syrians (Jacobites), and Chaldeans (also known as Nestorians or ‘Assyrians’).
The largest group of Christians, the Armenians, must be further sub-divided into the Uniates, those who were in communion with Rome though keeping their own liturgy; and the majority, termed ‘schismatics’ by the Roman Church, who rejected the ‘real supremacy and infallibility of the Pope’ and were subject to the Armenian see of Echmiadzin. These latter were known as Gregorians, taking their name from Gregory the Illuminator, who established the first Armenian Church in the fourth century AD.
Under Shah Abbas I
The policies introduced by Shah Abbas I attached much greater importance to interaction between the two on different levels, namely the political and commercial. They marked a radical departure from the religious bigotry, already alluded to, of Shah Tahmasp, whose reign of 52 years was longer that that of any other Persian ruler except that of the Sasanid monarch, Shapur II (309–79 AD).
Abbas’s new policy of religious tolerance was not altruistic. His main objectives were two fold: first, to make Iran strong enough to expel all the Ottoman and Uzbek forces from Persian soil and to defend its borders against future invasions; and second, to make Iran economically strong and prosperous.
Iran had fallen into relative isolation as a result of the expansion of the Ottoman empire, which lay across its natural lines of communication and trade with the West. In all things a pragmatist, Abbas realized that a good way to circumvent this virtual blockade would be to develop political and diplomatic relations with the Christian powers of Europe.
The Christian powers of Europe were not slow to respond to the Shah’s overtures and by the middle of the seventeenth century, the following Catholic orders were operating in Iran: Dominicans, Augustinians, Carmelites, Jesuits, and Capuchins. The Catholic orders were thus direct beneficiaries of Abba¯s I’s policy of religious tolerance.
To achieve his second goal, that of making Iran a prosperous nation, Abbas I proposed to take advantage of the well-known commercial expertise of the Armenians and other Christian groups, such as Georgians, Syrians (Jacobites), and Chaldeans, whom he had just liberated from Ottoman rule in northwestern Iran and the southern Caucasus regions.
As the Chronicle of the Carmelites puts it, members of these communities had
been ‘found’ by Abbas I:
In towns he had conquered back from the Turk, and transplanted to
Isfahan—there are many of these scattered about the kingdom, living
according to their rites. The first transplantation was in 1602 …
before that there were no Christians to be heard of, neither in
Isfahan or anywhere else in the kingdom, but only Jews in fairly large
numbers, who had, and still have their synagogues… by far the greater
number of Christians living in Persia are Armenians …the Jacobites
were formerly in large numbers, but were forcibly made Muslim, and of
those who renounced Christ the Fathers have reconverted some… and at
present there live more than 600 households of them in the Catholic
faith… they have their churches, where all come to Mass and are called
Syrians; although, because they have increased in numbers they have
been put outside the city by the king, so that they may build houses.
But they have no church there, and are urging the Fathers to construct
a church for the assistance of their souls… About 2,000 Georgians who
had become renegades, have been persuaded by Fr John Thaddaeus to
return to their faith.
(Here I have to note that some historians are of opinion that Abbas did it as no favor to Armenians. He simply transferred them to strengthen his North Western Borders with infusion of Shia settlers in place of Christian Armenians.)
Many Armenian merchants became extremely wealthy, and the office of kalantar was ‘clearly a lucrative one, for Tavernier mentions that the estate of one Khwaja Petrus … included 40,000 tumans of silver, not to mention houses and country properties, jewels, gold and silver plate and furniture’.
In considering the relations between the Safavid state and its non-Muslim minorities, one must make a clear distinction between the state’s treatment of its indigenous minorities, particularly the Jews and Christians, and that of the foreign religious.
The latter, if harassed, could, and did, appeal, however ineffectually, to the Christian princes of Europe, such as the King of Spain.
The former, as Iranian subjects, were just as much under the authority of the Shah as were his Muslim subjects, and the one thing calculated to throw Abbas I into a towering rage was any suggestion by emissaries from Europe, whether lay or ecclesiastic, that the Christian powers of Europe had any jurisdiction whatever over the Shah’s indigenous Christian subjects such as the Armenians.
The Jewish community in Isfahan, though not as numerous as the Christians, was also allocated its own quarter of the city by Abba¯s I.
The Zoroastrians, those ‘honorary dhimmis’, had their own suburb dubbed ‘Gabristan’—gabr, anglicized ‘guebre’, being a pejorative term used by Muslims to denote the Zoroastrians.
The remaining non-Muslim minorities in Isfahan, the Indians, known as ‘banians’, established themselves in the city toward the end of the reign of Abba¯s I, and increased in numbers under his successors Safi I and Abba¯s II. Being Hindus, they were not ‘People of the Book’ but, on the contrary, were considered mushriku¯n or polytheists, and therefore did not qualify for dhimma protection (Ironically, The Muslim rulers of India did consider Hindus as eligible for Dhimma protection).
Consequently, they were at the mercy of rapacious Safavid tax
officials, who took advantage of their non-dhimmı¯ status to milk them of additional taxes in return for turning a blind eye to certain Hindu practices repugnant to Muslims, such as suttee (burning of widow with corpse of her husband, alive). They were, however, granted freedom of worship.
It is clear that there was a fundamental misunderstanding between European Christians and theShah. The Shah thought he could use the religious to bring pressure on the Christian princes of Europe to further his plans for an anti-Ottoman alliance on two fronts and, when his hopes were disappointed, he could vent his anger on the religious.
The first Carmelite fathers had arrived in Isfahan in December 1607, and two more, Fathers Benignus and Redempt, arrived in May 1608. They had their first audience with Shah Abba¯s only a few days later, and the Shah at once expressed ‘his indignation and disgust at the princes of Christendom and the Pope for deceiving him about operations against the Turks’.
Nevertheless, there was a considerable amount of goodwill on both sides, and hope continued to spring eternal. That the hope of organizing a second front against the Ottomans was never far from Shah Abba¯s’s mind is clearly shown by his jocular remark to the Carmelite religious that they could have his palace 'if the Christians really made war'.
Given this general situation, the action of Abba¯sI in ordering the forcible conversion to Islam of a considerable number of Armenian and other Christians in the year 1030 H/1621–2 CE seems an anomaly. This being so, it is worth quoting in extenso the detailed account of the contemporary Safavid chronicle the Tarikh-i Alam-ara-yi Abbasi of Iskandar Beg Munshi:
Some of the Christians, by God’s grace, embraced Islam voluntarily,
others found it difficult to abandon their Christian faith and felt
revulsion at the idea.
They were encouraged by their monks and priests to remain steadfast in
their faith. After a little pressure had been applied to the monks and priests, however, they desisted, and those
Christians saw no alternative but to embrace Islam, though they did so
with great reluctance.
The women and children embraced Islam with great enthusiasm, vying
with one another in their eagerness to abandon their Christian faith
and declare their belief in the unicity of God. Five
thousand people embraced Islam. As each group made the Muslim
declaration of the faith, it received instruction in the Qur’a¯n and
the principles of the religious law of Islam, and all Bibles and other
Christian devotional material was collected and taken away from the
According to an Armenian of Julfa, Khvajaverdi, ‘the principal cause was the secret hatred which the Shah has [for the Christian faith] … which was fomented by a great Mulla named Shaikh Baha-u-Din, who said that it was expedient that all Christians should be made Muslims’.
We can instantly dismiss the claim that Abbas I had a ‘secret hatred’ for Christians, on the testimony of the first Superior of the Carmelites, Fr Paul Simon, in his report to Rome in 1608:
‘He does not detest them [Christians], for he frankly converses and
eats with them, he suffers us to say frankly what we believe about our
Faith and his own; sometimes he asks us about this’
Another tradition puts the story behind this atrocity like this:
Shah Abbas was in the habit of wandering incognito through the streets and bazaars of Isfahan to find out for himself what people were saying as opposed to what his advisers fed him. In the summer of 1621, he had retreated to his summer quarters at Kuhrang, and on Friday, 7 August he was walking incognito through the countryside of Chahar Mahall when he ‘overheard some Armenian girls chattering together and using hard and rude words about himself. He was consumed with rage and ordered all Armenians of the villages
in the vicinity to be forced to become Shia Muslims’.
Males were forcibly circumcised, some dying ‘from the pain and the affliction of their hearts’. The Shah added a device to compel both males and females to apostatize: ‘he took their wives from the Armenians and gave them to Shia Persians, and he mated the wives of the latter to Armenians’.
The persecution began in five villages, but eventually spread to 43. Some Chaldean families were also caught up in this victimization. The Armenians of Julfa, not surprisingly, feared for their own safety, and advised their co-religionists to send representatives from each village, including headmen and priests, to the royal palace at Isfahan to petition the Shah to end this persecution.
This they did, and some 150 people assembled at the palace gate, and sent a petition to the Shah indicating their willingness to die for their faith, but adjuring the Shah ‘to allow them to live as Christians and order that their sacred book be restored to them’.
The Armenians said they had fled to Iran from the Ottoman empire
‘because of the fame of the justice and good treatment which the Shah used towards Christians’. If he treated them ill, they said, they would once more flee ‘wherever they might obtain better treatment’.
The Shah returned to the capital on 20 August; he sent for a leading Armenian and gave him assurances that he would not molest the Armenians further ‘on account of their religion’. In time, ‘he went so far as to say that he would not be displeased, were those forcibly converted to revert to Christianity’, but ‘he showed his annoyance with the Carmelites for encouraging resistance, by procrastinating in giving a reply to the Brief from the Pope brought by the Visitor General’.
An interesting footnote to this whole episode is the use by the Armenian merchants of Julfa of what we would today call ‘strike action’ in order to bring pressure to bear on the Shah. They halted their caravans of merchandise on the roads and, since the Shah personally profited from the silk trade, this weapon proved effective.
Under Shah Safi
Shah Safi was Shah Abbas I's grandson and successor. He confirmed the policies of his grandsire and even built a chapel in Iran. He also accorded rare privilege of ringing bells at will to Carmelites which was unheard of in Islamic lands.
Under Abbas II
With the accession of Abbas II in 1642, although the French traveler, Thevenot, who was in Iran in 1664, claimed the ‘Persians give full liberty of conscience of whatsoever Religion they be’, it was not long before the Christian communities noticed a change in the climate, and the statement is by no means true in regard to the Jews.
The most egregious example of persecution of the Jews of Isfahan was their forcible conversion to Islam in 1656. Not only Jews resident in Isfahan but also those living throughout the Safavid empire were ordered to make public profession of their conversion.
The instigator of this persecution was the itima¯d al-dawla or vazir, Muhammad Beg (An Armenian Convert), described as a self-made man who rose to high office from humble origins, ambitious and vindictive. He seems to have been appointed vazir in 1646. The Chronicle of the Carmelites records the apprehension felt by the Christians at his appointment:
Things are not going well at present for the poor Armenian and Syrian
[i.e.] Jacobite Christians, because a new Grand Wazir has been made.
he is a bigoted Muhammadan and antagonistic to Christianity
The Jewish community in Isfahan initially refused to convert; they were then ordered to leave the city, and were offered the choice of two uncongenial locations in the desert areas outside
Again they demurred, and offered bribes to the vazir, who then said they could go and live in the Zoroastrian quarter of Gabrabad. The Zoroastrians, however, possibly incited by the vazir, refused to receive them, and drove them out.
At some point the Jews appealed to the Sadr, the head of the religious institution, who voiced the opinion that the Sharıa does not sanction conversion by force. In the end, though, he appears to have washed his hands of the whole affair.
Finally, the Jews were ordered to embrace Islam under pain of death. Incredibly, the Jews still refused to submit unless they were rewarded for doing so. After some haggling, every convert received two tumans and, in addition, the community was granted the sum of 5,000 gold dinars from the waqf (pious endowment) of the Fourteen Immaculate Ones (the Twelve Ithna Asharı Imams, the Prophet, and Fatima).
Between 1656 and 1658, the Jewish communities in other Persian cities were subjected to similar persecution. In Kashan, Qum, Ardabil, Tabriz, Qazvin, Lar, Shiraz, and Hurmuz, the Jews submitted, but in other cities they resisted conversion.
A notable example was Farahabad in Mazandaran, where the Jews, despite being subjected to various forms of torture, refused to convert, and in the end the governor gave up the attempt and simply enforced the dhimma regulations regarding dress, etc. Throughout the whole country, according to The Chronicle of the Carmelites, about 100,000 Jews were forced to convert to Shia Islam.
The only contemporary Persian chronicle is the Abbasnama of Muhammad Tahir Vahid Qazvini and the Abbasnama concurs with the Jewish source Kitab-i Anusi in citing najasat, the impurity of Jews as non-Muslims, as the justification for the persecution.
The Kitab-i Anusi quotes the vazir as saying:
‘According to our religion you are all defiled and impure and yet you
brush against our bodies’
In the final analysis, Abbas II seems to have decided that the attempt to convert the Jews was not worth the effort; he realized that they only became Shias for outward show and because they were forced to do so, and so he allowed them to return to their own religion and live as they thought fit.
A number of Western historians have given Abbas II a favorable report card in
regard to his treatment of the Christian minorities in his realm. For example, Sir John Malcolm, in his History of Persia, says:
‘He was as tolerant to all religions as his great ancestor, whose name
he had taken. To Christians, indeed, he showed the most marked favour’
Laurence Lockhart says: ‘to sum up we may regard the reign of
Shah Abba¯s as the “Indian summer” of the Safavid era’, and he accuses Jewish sources like the Kitab-i Anusi of poetic license in exaggerating the persecution of the Jews by Abba¯s II.
Under Shah Suleyman and Shah Sultan Hussain
Under these two shahs, the Safavid state entered a period of decline which lasted for more than half a century. ‘The mujtahids fully asserted their independence of the shah, and reclaimed their prerogative to be the representatives of the Twelfth Imam and thus the only legitimate source of authority in a Shıa state. Thus began another reign of terror by bureaucracy backed by clergy as Shah Suleyman was a weak and corrupted man who spent his days in wine and herems.
In 1669, the darugha (Governor) of Isfahan, under orders of the itimad al-dawla, tried to sell the Carmelite house in Isfahan, saying that the Shah needed the money. The Carmelites, by dint of bribing various officials, obtained a number of documents attesting to their right to reside in this house and got them registered in the Safavid chancery, and thus hoped ‘to be free of such vexations’. (It must be noted that the said house was not property of the Christian order but was granted to them by Shah Abbas I for use even though Persian Empire still retained ownership of the said property).
In the absence of strong central government, non-Muslim minorities were also subject to harassment by the populace.
In May 1678 there occurred one of the worst instances of the persecution of Jews under Safavid rule. Shah Sulayman, while under the influence of drink, was persuaded by some Muslim ‘zealots’ that ‘the Jews and Armenians by the unbounded license of their tenets had contrived the harm’ of Islam, and he ordered that some leaders of both faiths be put to death.
Several rabbis were brutally put to death, but the Armenians, and other
Jews, managed to escape death by lavish bribes. Sulayman does not appear to have been personally a bigot, but this incident makes it clear that, in the absence of a strong shah to curb the bigotry of the ulama’, the dhimma status of non-Muslim minorities afforded them no protection from persecution.
Just before his death in 1694, Shah Sulayma¯n is reported to have said
‘If you wish peace and ease, choose as your sovereign Shah Sultan
Mirza, but if, on the other hand, you wish the power of the monarchy
to increase and the kingdom to expand, select Abbas Mirza instead’
(Mirza was a title of nobility. In this case, it means Prince).
The choice of incompetent Prince Sultan Husayn instead of able Prince Abbas, made by his great-aunt Maryam Bagum and the chief eunuchs, ensured more years of weak rule and spelt the doom of the Safavid dynasty.
Two rival factions, the powerful mujtahid Mirza Muhammad Baqir
Majlisi and his supporters, on the one hand, and the royal women of the harem and the eunuchs, on the other, vied with each other for dominance over the complaisant Shah, whose standard reply when his advisers brought state matters to his attention was:
The Shah’s nickname of ‘Mulla Husayn’ says it all.
Muhammad Baqir Majlisi saw it as his mission to root out heresy wherever it might be found and, in the absence of the controlling hand of the Shah, not just non-Muslim communities, but all non-Ithna Asharı Shıa, suffered from his bigotry. Thus remnants of Sunnı¯ Muslim groups, such as the Kurds and Sufıs (Islamic mystics), once again became targets of his persecution.
Many key Sufı doctrines and practices were denounced as bida, ‘innovation’, the nearest Islamic equivalent of heresy.
‘The Shah was persuaded to sign a decree for the forcible conversion of Zoroastrians, and many Jews were forced to embrace Islam… The Christian minority groups … suffered less’, but a black law promulgated by Abbas I and revived by Abbas II, ‘entitling a Jew or Christian who became a Shia to claim the property of his relatives, was from time to time enforced’.
In 1722 Afghan invaders besieged the Safavid capital and starved it into surrender after the populace had suffered appalling hardships for six months. At an early stage of the siege, the Afghans
occupied Julfa; it is noteworthy that the Armenians there put up a stout resistance without any help from the Safavid central administration.
By 1724, no member of the Carmelite community was left at the Isfahan convent. Armenians and Georgians, being indigenous however stayed. A huge Armenian population still exists in Iran.