Structure of Domination in Premodern Iran

  • Farshad Malek-Ahmadi


After the fall of the Safavid dynasty, as the spheres of religious and political authority became separated in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Iran found itself with a dual structure of authority, which we shall discuss shortly. Way before that, however, Iran had to go through a process of turning from a “predominantly Sunni”1 society into a formally Shi’ite country. This began with the coming to power of the Safavids in 1501, and their establishment of Shi’ism as the state religion of Iran with the aim of “stamping out actual or potential centers of power.” This process was embarked when not “even in Kashan, referred to… as dar-al-muminin (realm of the faithful), a competent Shi’ite jurist was to be found for over a decade.”2 This dearth of Shi’ite expertise existed despite the “religiously promiscuous ambiance” and the “relative religious eclecticism” of the late fifteenth-century Iran. In fact, from both cultural and political perspectives, the Safavids had fertile ground for establishing Twelver Shi’ism as the formal religion of Iran. Not only did they take over a relatively developed socio-political infrastructure, the coercive power of which they could—and did—use, but they also began their rule over a population whose “devotional attachment to ‘Ali, in particular, and to the House of Prophet… in general, was widespread.” This was a society, for example, in which a famous “staunch Sunni opponent” to their rule, a jurist and historian by the name of Ruzbihan Khunji, had written a poem in praise of the Twelve Shi’ite Imams.3


Religious Establishment Actual Ruler Coercive Power Dual Structure Total Domination 
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  1. 3.
    Ibid., p. 106. Shi‘ites manifest a special passion for ‘Ali, whom they believe should have succeeded the Prophet in ruling the Islamic umma. See also Fazlullah-ibn Ruzbahan Khunji Esfahani, 1375 (1996), Wasilat al-Khadem ilal-Makhdum dar Sharh-e Salawat-e Chrdah Ma‘sum (ed. Rasul Jafarian) Qom: Ansarian.Google Scholar
  2. 12.
    Said A. Arjomand, “The Ulama’s Traditionalist Opposition to Parliamentarianism: 1907–1909,” Middle Eastern Studies, 1981, 17, 2: 175.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 16.
    Hamid Algar, 1972, “The Oppositional Role of the Ulama in Twentieth Century Iran,” in Scholars, Saints, and Sufis: Muslim Religious Institutions in the Middle East since 1500, ed. N. R. Keddie, Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  4. 26.
    Nikki R. Keddie, “The Origins of the Religious-Radical Alliance in Iran,” Past and Present 34 (July 1966): 71–72. Keddie cites “the informative French traveler, Chardin,” in making this significant statement: Jean Chardin, Voyages de monsieur le chevalier Chardin en Perse et autres lieus de l’Orient (Amsterdam, 1711), ii, pp. 207–208. Also, as recently as February 12, 1999, Hashemi Rafsanjani told a gathering of Friday congregational prayer that “the religious schools (hawzeh-ha) always wanted an Islamic government.”CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Farshad Malek-Ahmadi 2015

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  • Farshad Malek-Ahmadi

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