Most of world’s popular religions have relied on political powers to legitimise their claim, offer protection and support, so the ‘true faith’ can spread far and wide without persecution or harassment. Zoroaster converted king Vistaspa to his religion and Zoroastrism spread after that and later became the state religion under the Sassanids. Constantine the Great (272 AD – 337 AD), converted to Christianity and the brutal persecution of Christians by the previous emperors stopped and Christianity became the religion of the Roman empire. Ashoka the Great (304-232 BCE) Indian emperor, became the strong patron of Buddhist faith and Buddhism spread throughout his kingdom and beyond. There has always been a degree of doubt whether those rulers were true converts themselves or were primarily motivated in the unification of their empires by a single, shared religion. That is another debate and at the end one can only come to his or her own conclusions.
Shiism did not have to convert a king to its creed. Shah Ismail who can be called the rightful father of Shiism (Twelvers) was steeped in the Shiite doctrine from a very early age. He was groomed, indoctrinated, read to by staunch believers in the Shiite doctrine around him as soon as he could utter a word.
There are some parallels between Shapur II and Shah Ismail. During Shapur’s reign Zoroastrism went through a major overhaul and a unified religious doctrine emerged which invalidated all other minor or sub-Zoroastrian religious texts and beliefs. Just as Shah Ismail persecuted the Sunnis, Shapur did the same with the Christians living in his empire.
Shah Ismail legitimised the Shiite claim to Imamate by defeating all the Sunnies rulers in the region and stood up to the powerful Ottomans. He went to battles against armies much larger than his and came out victorious. His father was Shaykh Haydar the leader of the Safaviyya (1460-1488). His mother Martha the daughter of Uzun Hassan by his Greek wife Theodora Megale Komnene who was the daughter of Emperor John IV of Trebizond. This marriage was a bond created to protect the Greek Empire of Trebizond from the Ottomans. Shah Ismail therefore, was the great-great-grandson of Emperor Alexios IV of Trebizond and King Alexander of Georgia.
The Shiite religion (Twelvers) after the rise of Safavid to power became the official religion of the empire through Shah Ismail’s policy of conversion. Gennady Kurin writes,
“Isma’il was only thirteen (1501) when he began his career of conquest, but within a decade he had succeeded in bringing much of Iran and parts of Eastern Anatolia under his sway. One of his first policies was to kick-start the conversion of the country, at the time majority of the population of Iran are believed to have practiced various forms of Sunni Islam, to Twelver Shi’ism. To this end, he invited a group of Shi’a clerics from what is now Southern Lebanon to the Safavid realm. So for those who ever wondered why the Islamic Republic of Iran, in itself a product of Shah Isma’il’s conversion policy, has such close ties with the Lebanese Hezbollah and the country’s Shi’a community, the answer is rather straightforward; those people are the descendants of the clerics who over the course of the sixteenth century worked hard to spread the Shi’a form of Islam in Iran.”
The Safavids challenged the theological legitimacy of the Sunni Ottomans by taking territories from them and defeating and slaughtering their Sunnies brothers. The Ottomans had to defeat the Mamluks in order to cement their Caliphate in the Islamic world. The Turks who had terrtitorial ambition did not like to watch their backs against the Safavids. Selim I letter to Shah Ismail shows that he was angry and belligerent toward him demanding him to repent or face the consequences of his insubordination. In one of his letters Sultan Selim I wrote:
“We urge you to look into yourself, to renounce your errors, and to march towards the good with a firm and courageous step; we ask further that you give up possession of the territory violently seized from our state and to which you have only illegitimate pretensions, that you deliver it back into the hands of our lieutenants and officers; and if you value your safety and repose, this should be done without delay.
But if, to your misfortune, you persist in your past conduct, puffed up with the idea of your power and your foolish bravado, you wish to pursue the course of your iniquities, you will see in a few days your plains covered with our tents and inundated with our battalions. Then prodigies of valor will be done, and we shall see the decrees of the Almighty, Who is the God of Armies, and sovereign judge of the actions of men, accomplished. For the rest, victory to him who follows the path of salvation!”
Selim’s words were stern and threatening. The sooner the Ottomans put an end to the rise of Shah Ismail the better it was for the future of Sunni Islam and their expansion. Turks finally met the Safavids on their turf in case the Safavids thought they were bluffing. The Ottomans had many military advantages over the Safavids. But the Safavids under Shah Ismail had never lost a battle. The Safavids and their military wing the Quizellbash had never before fought against a well-regimented troops equipped with muskets and cannons. Even worse they had none of those hardware to fight back with. There have been a few explanations why Shah Ismail chose not to use the latest military technology in the battle of Chaldiran as the later Safavid kings did. Again Shah Ismail was a unique individual with an unrealistic faith in his Shia God who up until then, he believed, had not let him down in any of his major battles. According to one account, Shah Ismail could not see the manliness of killing his enemies from a distance with a bullet when it was demonstrated to him how the musket worked. His ruling out the usage of artillery is not out of character. Another major mistake he made was that he didn’t allow non-Shiite volunteers to join the battle against the Turks. The Turks instead allowed the Kurds to help them out. Shah Ismail was not aware through his ignorance of modern warfare he was digging his own grave and the graves of many thousands of his soldiers in this very last battle.
The battle was bloody and the Ottomans victory decisive. The Ismail army got decimated. Wounded on the battlefield, he barely escaped capture. The Ottomans entered Tabriz without any resistance and pillaged whatever they could but left before the winter taking booties and Ismail’s favourite wife with them. After this victory, the Turks concentrated their efforts on defeating the Mamluks and finally proclaimed themselves the only legitimate Caliphate in the entire Sunni world.
Ismail dream of a Shiite empire most probably could have ended if he had died on the battlefield. The battle of Chaldiran was his last real challenge in order to prove that he was truly a divine king and the Shiite religion the only true religion. hah Ismail never recovered from his defeat and stayed out of politics and resorted to alcohol to numb his pain and embarrassment. He died at thirty-six. The future Safavid kings did many more battles with the Ottomans and proved to be a force to reckon with until their demise after over two hundred years rule in 1736. The Safavids are considered to be the most important Persian dynasty in Persian history in Islamic Persia.
In 2003, IRI built a monument in Chaldiran to commemorate the battle.
“During Ismail’s reign, mainly in the late 1510’s, the first steps for the Habsburg-Persian alliance were set as well with Charles V and Ludwig II of Hungary in view of combining against the common Ottoman Turkish enemy.”
Without Shah Ismail and his policy of conversion and establishment of the Shia doctrine of the Twelvers, there would not have been an IRI, Basijees, Pasdaran or Hizbollah.
Now do the Hizbollahis know who their true father is?