Persian Nader Shah vs. Moghul Empire

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2997-3027:

Crowned shah, with his western frontiers secure and in undisputed control of the central lands of Persia, Nader set off eastward to conquer Kandahar. The exactions to pay for this new campaign caused great suffering and in many parts of the country brought the economy almost to a standstill. Nader took Kandahar after a long siege, but he did not stop there. Using the excuse that the Moghul authorities had given refuge to Afghan fugitives, Nader crossed the old frontier between the Persian and Moghul empires, took Kabul, and marched on toward Delhi. North of Delhi, at Karnal, the Persian army encountered the army of the Moghul emperor, Mohammad Shah. The Persians were much inferior in number to the Moghul forces, yet thanks to the better training and firepower of his soldiers, and rivalry and disunity among the Moghul commanders, Nader defeated them. He was helped by the fact that the Moghul commanders were mounted on elephants, which besides proving vulnerable to firearms were liable to run wild—to the dismay of their distinguished riders and anyone who happened to be in their path.

From the battlefield of Karnal, Nader went on to Delhi, where he arrived in March 1739. Shortly after his arrival there, rioting broke out and some Persian soldiers were killed. So far from home, and with the wealth of the Moghul Empire at stake, Nader could not afford to lose control. He ordered a ruthless massacre in which an estimated thirty thousand people died, mostly innocent civilians. Prior to this point, Nader had generally (at least away from the battlefield) achieved his ends without excessive bloodshed. But after Delhi, he may have decided that his previous scruples had become redundant.

With a characteristic blend of threat and diplomacy, Nader stripped the Moghul emperor of a vast treasure of jewels, gold, and silver, and accepted the gift of all the Moghul territories west of the Indus River. The treasure was worth as much as perhaps 700 million rupees. To put this sum in some kind of context, it has been calculated that the total cost to the French government of the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), including subsidies paid to the Austrian government as well as all the costs of the fighting on land and sea, was about 1.8 billion livres tournois (the standard unit of account in prerevolutionary France). This was equivalent to about £90 million sterling at the time—close to the rough estimate of £87.5 million sterling for the value of Nader’s haul from Delhi. Some of the jewels he took away—the largest, most impressive ones, like the Kuh-e Nur, the Darya-ye Nur, and the Taj-e Mah—had a complex and often bloody history of their own in the following decades.

Nader did not attempt to annex the Moghul Empire outright. His purpose in conquering Delhi had been to secure the cash necessary to continue his wars of conquest in the west, for which the wealth of Persia alone had, by the time of his coronation, begun to prove inadequate.

Nader’s campaigns are a reminder of the centrality of Persia to events in the region, in ways that have parallels today. A list of some of Nader’s sieges—Baghdad, Basra, Kirkuk, Mosul, Kandahar, Herat, Kabul—has a familiar ring to it after the events of the first years of the twenty-first century. It is worth recalling that Persians were not strangers in any of the lands in which Nader campaigned. Although he and his Safavid predecessors were of Turkic origin and spoke a Turkic language at court, the cultural influence of Persian was such that the language of the court and administration in Delhi and across northern India was Persian, and diplomatic correspondence from the Ottoman court in Istanbul was normally in Persian, too. Persian hegemony from Delhi to Istanbul would, in some ways, have seemed natural to many of the inhabitants of the region, echoing as it did the Persian character of earlier empires and the pervasive influence of Persian literary, religious, and artistic culture.


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The Veil as Status Symbol

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 3561-82:

Traditional tribal costumes vary enormously across Iran even today, and are often colorful and eye-catching, with no veil in sight.

Of the remainder of the population, the majority were peasant farmers and laborers. But among these people, too, women had an essential economic role and some independence (insofar as anyone in the poorer classes could properly be thought of as independent). Women had to work hard in the fields and probably did the majority of the routine work—of all but the heaviest sort. Again, a veil of the enveloping chador kind was normally quite incompatible with that sort of activity.

Even in the towns and cities, the majority of people were relatively poor, and in those households most women would have had to work outside the home. And there were significant numbers of prostitutes, to whom the rules of respectability certainly did not apply. So the setup we might think of as typical—of heavily veiled women seldom leaving the home and even in the home kept apart from males who were not relatives—was in fact atypical before 1900. When it did occur, it was limited to middle-or high-class families in towns (precisely the class that looms large historically, being the book-writing, book-reading class—perhaps only four percent or less of families overall). But that arrangement was, or became, an aspiration for many men who could not afford to make it a reality. One could think of the heavy veil as a kind of elite fetish, similar to some of the fashions of nineteenth-century Europe that immobilized women, being wholly impractical and incompatible with work of any kind. For a man’s wife to be out of the house and out of his control, especially in the towns, perhaps partly because of the presence of prostitutes in the towns, potentially exposed him to derision and ridicule. But for her to be kept at home and to emerge only veiled was expensive and a sign of the man’s status. It would be easy to overlook or underestimate the significance and implications of this trope among men in Iranian society and elsewhere. Rather than being an outgrowth of traditional religion and society—there is little justification for it in the Qor’an or the earliest hadith, which originated in different social circumstances—it may largely underpin them. Possession of material goods had its patterns and its social consequences, but so also did the possession of women.

As the population later became steadily more urban and in some ways at least more prosperous, more women were more restricted, stayed in the home more, and wore the heavy veil. But we should not think of those arrangements as typical of pre-industrial Iran; one could accurately say that for the majority of Iranian women, they were a twentieth-century innovation.

An interesting comparison with foot-binding in China.

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Safavid Religious Persecution

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2701-18:

The Shi‘ism of the Safavids and the ulema under their rule had from the beginning more than a streak of extremism and intolerance within it, and this tendency was intensified by the religious conflict with the Ottomans. The Safavids from the outset tended to be more earnestly religious than many previous Sunni rulers had been. This is a delicate subject, but it is important to look at it squarely. The Sufis were increasingly out of favor, and intellectual life was channeled into the madresehs. There were always hangers-on and pseudo-mullahs who could attract a following among the luti (unruly youths) of the towns by being more extreme than their more reflective, educated rivals; and the perceived history of persecution suffered by the Shi‘a did not always prompt a sensitivity to the vulnerability of other minorities once the Shi‘a became the dominant sect. Notions of the religious impurity (najes) of unbelievers, especially Jews, contributed to a general worsening in the condition of minorities, and after 1642 there was a particularly grim period of persecution and forced conversions. Orders were issued that Jews should wear distinguishing red patches on their clothing to identify themselves, that their word at law was near worthless, that they must not wear matching shoes, fine clothes, or waist sashes, that they must not walk in the middle of the street or walk past a Muslim, that they must not enter a shop and touch things, that their weddings must be held in secret, that if they were cursed by a Muslim they must stay silent, and so on. Many of these would-be rules (running directly contrary to the spirit of proper tolerance accorded to People of the Book in Islam, and reminiscent of similar ugly rulings imposed in Christian Europe in the Middle Ages and at other times) probably reflect the aspirations of a few extremist mullahs rather than the reality as lived. Conditions would have varied greatly from town to town and changed over time, but they were still indicative of the attitudes of some and appeared to legitimize the actions of others. As authority figures in villages and towns, humane, educated mullahs were often the most important protectors of the Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians. But other, lesser mullahs frequently agitated against these vulnerable groups.


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How Persia Turned Shi‘a

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2546-69, 2585-99:

It is uncertain just when the Safavids turned Shi‘a; in the religious context of that time and place, the question is somewhat artificial. Shi‘a notions were just one part of an eclectic mix. By the end of the fifteenth century a new Safavid leader, Esma‘il, was able to expand Safavid influence at the expense of the Aq-Qoyunlu, who had been weakened by disputes over the dynastic succession. Esma‘il was himself the grandson of Uzun Hasan, the great Aq-Qoyunlu chief of the 1460s and 1470s, and may have emulated some of his grandfather’s charismatic and messianic leadership style. In 1501 Esma‘il and his Qezelbash followers conquered Tabriz (the old Seljuk capital) in northwestern Iran, and Esma‘il declared himself shah. He was only fourteen years old. A contemporary Italian visitor described him as fair and handsome, not very tall, stout and strong with broad shoulders and reddish hair. He had long moustaches (a Qezelbash characteristic, prominent in many contemporary illustrations), was left-handed, and was skilled with the bow.

At the time of his conquest of Tabriz, Esma‘il proclaimed Twelver Shi‘ism as the new religion of his territories. Esma‘il’s Shi‘ism took an extreme form, which required the faithful to curse the memory of the first three caliphs that had preceded Ali. This was very offensive to Sunni Muslims, who venerated those caliphs, along with Ali, as the Rashidun or righteous caliphs. Esma‘il’s demand intensified the division between the Safavids and their enemies, especially the staunchly Sunni Ottomans to the west. Recent scholarship suggests that even if there was a pro-Shi‘a tendency among the Qezelbash earlier, Esma‘il’s declaration of Shi‘ism in 1501 was a deliberate political act.

Within a further ten years Esma‘il conquered the rest of Iran and all the territories of the old Sassanid Empire, including Mesopotamia and the old Abbasid capital of Baghdad. He defeated the remnants of the Aq-Qoyunlu, as well as the Uzbeks in the northeast and various rebels. Two followers of one rebel leader were captured in 1504, taken to Isfahan, and roasted on spits as kebabs. Esma‘il ordered his companions to eat the kebab to show their loyalty (this is not the only example of cannibalism as a kind of extreme fetish among the Qezelbash).

Esma‘il attempted to consolidate his control by asserting Shi‘ism throughout his new domains (though the conventional view that this was achieved in a short time and that the import of Shi‘a scholars from outside Iran was significant in the process has been put into doubt). He also did his best to suppress rival Sufi orders. It is important to stress that although there had been strong Shi‘a elements in Iran for centuries before 1501, and important Shi‘a shrines like Qom and Mashhad, Iran had been predominantly Sunni, like most of the rest of the Islamic world. The center of Shi‘ism had been the shrine cities of southern Iraq.

But Esma‘il’s hopes of westward expansion, aiming to take advantage of the Shi‘a orientation of many more Turkic tribes in eastern Anatolia, were destroyed when the élan of the Qezelbash was blown away by Ottoman cannon at the Battle of Chaldiran, northwest of Tabriz, in 1514. A legend says that Esma‘il vented his frustration by slashing at a cannon with his sword, leaving a deep gash in the barrel.

After this defeat Esma‘il could no longer sustain the loyalty of the Qezelbash at its previous high pitch, nor their belief in his divine mission. He went into mourning and took to drink. Wars between the Sunni Ottomans and the Shi‘a Safavids continued for many years, made more bitter by the religious schism. Tabriz, Baghdad, and the shrine towns of Iraq changed hands several times. Shi‘a were persecuted and killed within the Ottoman territories, particularly in eastern Anatolia where they were regarded as actual or potential traitors. The Safavids turned Iran into the predominantly Shi‘a state it is today, and there were spasmodic episodes of persecution there too, especially of Zoroastrians, Christians, and Jews—despite the ostensible protected status of at least the latter two groups as “People of the Book.” One could make a parallel with the way that religious persecution intensified either side of the Roman/Persian border in the fourth century AD, in the reign of Shapur II, after Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire.

The Safavid monarchs also turned against the Sufis, despite the Safavids’ Sufi heritage. The Sufis were persecuted to the point that the only surviving Sufi order was the Safavid one, and the others disappeared or went underground. In the long term, the main beneficiary of this were the Shi‘a ulema. This was important because the Sufis had previously had a dominant or almost dominant position in the religious life of Iran, especially in the countryside.


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Safavid Persia as “Gunpowder Empire”

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2728-37:

Militarily, the Safavid state probably reached its apogee under Shah Abbas the Great and Abbas II. But despite its classification with Ottoman Turkey and Moghul India as one of the Gunpowder Empires (by Marshall G. S. Hodgson), there is good reason to judge that the practices and structures of the Safavid Empire were transformed less by the introduction of gunpowder weapons than those other empires were. Cannon and muskets were present in Persian armies, but as add-ons to previous patterns of warfare rather than elements transforming the conduct of war, as they were elsewhere. The mounted tradition of Persian lance-and-bow warfare, harking back culturally to Ferdowsi, was resistant to the introduction of awkward and noisy firearms. Their cavalry usually outclassed that of their enemies, but Persians did not take to heavy cannon and the greater technical demands of siege warfare as the Ottomans and Moghuls did. The great distances, lack of navigable rivers, rugged terrain, and poor roads of the Iranian plateau did not favor the transport of heavy cannon. Most Iranian cities were either unwalled or were protected by crumbling walls that were centuries old—this at a time when huge, sophisticated, and highly expensive fortifications were being constructed in Europe and elsewhere to deal with the challenge of heavy cannon. Persia’s military revolution was left incomplete.


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Problems of Dynastic Succession

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2645-58:

Succession was a common difficulty for many monarchs. In Europe, the problem was that every so often a ruler could not produce a son. This could create all sorts of difficulties—attempts at divorce (Henry VIII, for example), attempts to secure recognition for the succession of a daughter or more distant relative, disputes over succession resulting in war. In the Islamic world, the problem was different. Polygamy meant that kings did not normally have a problem producing a son, but they might, on the contrary, have too many sons. This could mean fierce fighting among potential heirs and their supporters when the father died. In the Ottoman Empire such battles were institutionalized—rival sons who had served their father as provincial governors would, on hearing of his death, race for the capital to claim the throne. The winner would get the support of the janissaries, and would then have the other sons put to death. Later, the Ottomans adopted a more dignified arrangement, keeping the possible heirs in the Sultan’s harem palace until their father died. But this meant they would have little understanding of or aptitude for government, and the new practice helped to increase the power of the chief minister, the vizier, so that the vizier ruled effectively as viceroy. It was a conundrum.

Many fathers have disagreements and clashes with their sons, and history is full of feuds between kings and their crown princes. Abbas was no exception; he had come to power himself by deposing his father. Following the Ottoman precedent again, he imprisoned his sons in the harem for fear that they would attempt to dethrone him. But he still feared that they might plot against him, so he had them blinded, and he had one of them killed. Eventually, he was succeeded by one of his grandsons. The unhappy practice of keeping royal heirs in the harem was kept up thereafter by the Safavid monarchs.


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Schisms in Islam and Christianity

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2431-40, 2477-88:

The great schisms of the Christian church, between East and West, and later between Catholic and Protestant, came centuries after the time of Christ. But the great schism in Islam that still divides Muslims today, between Sunni and Shi‘a, originated in the earliest days of the faith—even before Karbala, in the time of the Prophet Mohammad himself. Comparisons with the Christian schisms do not really work. A more apposite analogy, as noted by the historian Richard N. Frye and others, can be drawn between, on the one hand, the emphasis on law and tradition in Sunni Islam and Judaism and, on the other hand, the emphasis on humility, sacrifice, and the religious hierarchy in Christianity and Shi‘ism. The public grief of Ashura is similar in spirit to that which one can still see on Good Friday in some Catholic countries. The purpose in making comparisons between Shi‘ism and various aspects of Christianity is not to suggest that they are somehow the same (they are not), nor to encourage some kind of happy joining-hands ecumenism (naïve), but rather to try to illuminate something that initially looks unfamiliar, and to suggest by analogy that it may not be so strange or unfamiliar after all. Or at least, that it is no more strange than Christian Catholicism.

Despite the schism, in the early centuries there was a fairly free interchange of ideas, a considerable pluralism of belief, and considerable diversity of opinion among the Alids or Shi‘a themselves. Overall, Shi‘a theology and law tended to be looser than in Sunni Islam, more open to the application of reason in theology, more inclined to a free will position than a determinist one, and more open to some of the more heterodox ideas circulating in the Islamic world. This was partly the result of a broader hadith tradition, which included the sayings and doings of the Shi‘a Emams. Shi‘a theology also differed because it addressed problems that were specific to the Shi‘a, such as conduct under persecution.

The sixth Shi‘a Emam, Ja‘far al-Sadiq, developed a strategy for the evasion of persecution that was to prove controversial. The doctrine of taqiyeh, or dissimulation, permitted Shi‘a Muslims to deny their faith if necessary to avoid persecution—a special dispensation that has striking similarities with the doctrine of “mental reservation” granted for similar reasons by the Catholic church in the period of the Counter-Reformation, and associated with the Jesuits (though it originated before their time). Just as the Jesuits acquired a reputation for deviousness and terminological trickery among Protestants (whence in English we have the adjective “Jesuitical”), so the doctrine of taqiyeh earned the Shi‘a a similar reputation among some Sunni Muslims.


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