Empires rise and fall. Rustic pastoralists take over docile farmers to rule, the beginning stage of empire. Ibn Khaldun used asabiyyah to explain why; social cohesion and group consciousness allows for a stronger force not yet corrupted to conquer and rule.
Long lost are the mechanisms that make these groups not only rule over ashes, but build empires. What is forgotten is that to build a successful order, a männerbund and founding myth are necessary, but not sufficient. All important nodes within the network must also be aware and recognize the use of the myth, as well as their place within the network.
A wonderful historical example of this is the founding of the Safavid Empire. Before it developed into an empire, the Safavids in the humble town of Ardabil was nothing more than a Sufi religious order, which for 200 years pulled in believers and recruited rustic tribesmen in an era where the Caliphate had been destroyed and the Mongols had shaken the confidence of Muslims.
The skeleton of this order would provide important spiritual influence and power, as the shahs would still claim their old right as murshid-i kamil, the perfect spiritual director. This director had a deputy, the khalifat al-khulafa, and the Sufis within the Order had to obey him as they would the murshid-i. Even when the Safavid leaders moved from spiritual rule and power to seeking political power and even after attaining it, they would still command obedience from some of the Sufi who became shahi-sevan. This loyalty was so strong, despite never being formalized in the later Safavid state, that in the reign of Shah Abbas, he called upon it when securing authority. The Order’s leadership passed down from father to son.
The Order itself used effective propaganda to convert Turcomen tribesmen, particularly in poetry, consultation, and guidance. While the Safavids had moments of nearly being wiped out and eras of growth and strength, the religious order consistently increased its power. By the end of the 15th century, the religious order that had started as a local phenomenon was a full-throated movement seeking a true kingdom of its own. The thede had formed, with Turcomen becoming known as qizilbash. These qizilbash were the skilled warriors who would win the kingdom for the Safavids, as well as form the backbone of competent soldiers for nearly its entire existence.
The strength of this Order and its myth was tested by the deaths of three consecutive leaders. The deaths in combat did not even slow the movement down, as by this point the propaganda of the head of the Order had shifted to making him almost a living god. The key to this movement’s vitality was an inner circle of seven Sufi Safavids known as the ahl-I ikhtisas. Historian Vladimir Minorsky described the Safavids as the single party of a totalitarian state; these specific men were akin to Lenin’s Politburo. Asabiyyah was so strong in the qizilbash that prior to their ascension to power, other local warlords would take advantage of their fighting elan in a mercenary capacity.
These were the men who kept the dream alive when the Safavids were stuck with just a seven-year-old as the coming leader. The future Shah Ismail bode his time and wrote inspirational poems and letters to the qizilbash, only to emerge at the young age of 12 in 1499 to take his kingdom. He would be crowned in 1501 at 14. Any adult with a seven-year-old son knows that a seven-year-old is not writing inspirational letters to grown men to bring them to a fever pitch for killing and dying. Any adult knows that a twelve-year-old, even a physically mature twelve-year-old, is not the main physical reason for victory.
Ismail was a Schelling point. Ismail was the figurehead future God-Emperor. Ismail was the qizilbash’s opportunity for political dominance that had no chance in Anatolia, but possibly had a chance in the chaos that was fragmented Persia. This is why during regime change chaos, the king and all male descendants were routinely murdered. No chance should remain for a potential rallying cry of the old order. In the face of the seven-year-old held up as future God-Emperor was the hopes and aspirations of an order.
With a fighting force of 7,000 qizilbash, the Safavids won an empire, and immediately a flurry of activity began in the formation of the Safavid state. The zeal and fervor of the unique religious warriors found outlets in the new state, but also posed several challenges. How could this movement effectively channel its energy and activity into the form of a state? There were new roles dreamed up and overlap of functions. Above all else stood the aura of invincibility in the living god who had delivered on the battlefield, Shah Ismail. Manipulating all pieces of a coalition to attain power is far different from organizing a coalition and deciding who shall rule. The religious and social glue of the Safavid Order would forever alter in the transformation process into the Safavid state.
In the nascent Safavid state, Shah Ismail and his inner circle made a decision that still shapes 21st century geopolitics. The Shah proclaimed Twelver Shi’ism the official religion of the Safavid state. This move allowed Shah Ismail to separate his growing empire from the Sunni Ottomans and mold a new national identity that would differentiate Safavid Persia from all other Muslim states. This declaration played into the Safavid Order and movement’s strengths, as the Safavid leaders claimed to be representatives of the 12th Imam; there was the Sufi perfect spiritual director concept, and they had carefully encouraged the legend that a daughter of the last Sasanid king had married Husayn, Muhammad’s grandson.
It is easy to dismiss this move as myth-making, but the legitimacy of a new state is always an issue. The Husayn connection is key. Anyone doubting it can watch the festivities in Shia regions on the Day of Ashura. Husayn’s tragic martyrdom, where he knows he will die yet still fights on against insurmountable odds at Karbala, is used in plays to encourage the Shia men and boys in Lebanon to aspire to join Shia militias like Hezbollah in their seemingly impossible fight against Israel.
The Safavids had spent centuries spreading their propaganda to incite Turcomen fighters, but they lacked technical and religious expertise to convert what was a Sunni region to Shia. The Persian aristocracy was nearly unanimous in their Sunni faith. Shah Ismail sent out a call for Shia experts that would have his political backing to do their work, but ran into another problem. Shah Ismail lacked a critical mass of Shiite experts to help in this standardization of Shi’ism in Persia, as well as centralize his power. There was also the problem of Shiite experts not recognizing temporal rulers as just during the Occultation. Shah Ismail was rebuffed by some scholars from Najaf or Karbala because they clung to a tradition where no Shiite state had ever existed before and because they could not see the opportunity for power present.
One group of Shia scholars eagerly answered the Shah’s call. ‘Amili scholars from Syria arrived and saw the benefit of a temporal Shia ruler who had a zealous following and mystical reputation among the new ruling crowd. The ‘Amilis came from the Ottoman empire, which had marginalized them and kept them outside of power channels in their Sunni state. Shah Ismail was offering riches, land, status, and the opportunity to craft a state with a Shia foundation. What set the ‘Amilis apart from other imported Arab Shia scholars was their renowned knowledge of Sunnis for refuting objections in the Persian conversion process and their liberal use of ijtihad that allowed for a rational approach to converging state power and Shi’ism. These scholars gave the Safavids legitimacy in the eyes of the community, while the Shahs poured money, lands, and prestige on the ‘Amilis that they had never known in the Ottoman Levant.
This dynamic mood in Persia allowed these ‘Amili scholars to practically reinvent or invent Shi’ism with the guiding principle that they had to support the temporal ruler. It unleashed debate and allowed for tremendous change that has persisted to the present. The energy of the Safavids and the ability to create a state out of whole cloth was challenged a bit by the long-standing history of the Persian bureaucracy passed down from temporal ruler to temporal ruler since the days before Christ. As such, there was friction and a power struggle between the qizilbash warrior class and the Persian clerical “men of the pen” class. Due to the centuries of propaganda and energy of an army that racked up victories, the initial favor was on the side of the qizilbash. There was also the issue of the Shah himself being a teenager and fed the invincible God-Emperor line.
In this initial state creation period, the Safavids drew up interesting positions to strike a balance between the rough warrior caste and the refined bureaucrat class.There were five positions of power that the Safavids created to satisfy both wings. There was naturally a vazir who would lead the bureaucracy. There were the commander-in-chief of the army and also a commander-in-chief of the qizilbash regiments. Shah Ismail’s attempt at a balance was in making the sadr, head of the religious class or bloc, a political appointee, and then creating a new office called the vakil-i nafs-i nafis-i humayun. Before discussing the vakil, it is important to note the two military posts went to qizilbash, naturally, and the vizer and sadr were both Iranians.
The vakil was an incredibly important role in the initial Safavid state, as this was the vice-regent of the Shah, fulfilling both the spiritual and temporal roles. The vakil would act like the human representative or alter ego of the Shah and function like the Shah’s shadow within the state. This played into the idea that the political infrastructure served the Shah and his embodiment of the Shia mission in Persia. This was still a movement with energy and drive. The Shah was still only 14 when these decisions were being made, so it should come as no surprise that one of the inner circle, core conspirator ahl-I ikhtisas of the qizilbash, was named the vakil-i nafs-i nafis-i humayun.
This gave the qizilbash three of the five top spots. The qizilbash held the upper hand during the Shah’s teenage years and even allied with the Arabic ‘Amili scholars to form a bloc against the tightly unified Persians. With the Safavids fighting continuously to control more regions, the military aspect of the state overpowered and stepped on the prerogatives of the Persians. It is also important to note the overlapping nature of roles, where sadrs were also generals and commanders. This is a feature alien to contemporary Western ears, but one can still see elements of this when reading profiles of Iran’s Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani.
The winning continued, as Shah Ismail conquered further east and west. The religious fervor not only slowly converted Persians via both persuasion and imposition to the Shia faith, but inspired more Turcomen to join the Safavids and even expand raids into Anatolia. A switch occurred in the middle of these good times, though, and the magic disappeared. The process going on in Persia became simply statecraft centralization and power consolidation and ceased to be the mystical, religious movement of the Safavid Order.
Shah Ismail was no longer a teenager, and at 21 suddenly figured that strengthening qizilbash was a threat to him. This could simply have been years of court intrigue by the Iranian elements who wished to benefit. Shah Ismail recognized that he had become a mascot of sorts, a Schelling Point, for the qizilbash, and that if they did bring about his ascension to the throne, they could replace him. He neither recognized how much they needed him, nor that he would have to reward the very men who fought and died for him to rise to the throne. Instead of accepting his role as their mascot and empowering the qizilbash in a feudal setup, he decided to chip away at their power and authority.
In 1508, Shah Ismail sacked his qizilbash vakil-i nafs-i nafis-i humayun who had protected and raised him as the orphan, future God-Emperor. He appointed an Iranian to the post of vakil-i nafs-i nafis-i humayun, and never appointed a qizilbash to that post ever again. The Shah insulted some qizilbash chiefs and did whatever he could to contain their power. This affected the fighting spirit and contributed to setbacks, as the qizilbash bristled at the idea of serving Iranian commanders. Were they not the very warriors who had won the kingdom? The post itself would change to just be the vakil and would lose its luster after the shattering loss to the Ottomans at Chaldiran in 1514.
Shah Ismail’s forces lost at Chaldiran due to poor tactics and the odd Safavid reluctance to using firearms. This loss ended the winning streak and destroyed the mystique of invincibility the living god had within his elite. The qizilbash themselves stopped fighting for the movement and the Shah and reorient their focus towards the petty squabbles and territorial fights history also witnessed between Europe’s feudal hierarchy. The cohesion within that warrior caste was impaired, but not nearly as ruined as the connection between the sovereign and his warrior caste.
After this loss, the Shah withdrew from governing, and he never led his men into battle again. The special top minister role of vakil became just another vizer, and the vakil eventually melted away in importance. The time-tested Persian bureaucracy hummed along, serving the state apparatus, not the Shah and his sacred mission. The warrior class lost its elan, and the shah became just another head of state. Shah Ismail died a drunk lush at age 36.
The danger exemplified here is that any group seeking power needs founding myths, god-emperor-like figures, and asabiyyah, but there also needs to be an awareness from the key players that this is a process. The Shah felt insecure about his position, due to the strength of the qizilbash, but had the qizilbash been fully honest about how much they needed him, the entire team would have been in on the process and possibly prevented the young Safavid state from becoming just another nation. It is possible that if key players all admit that it is a mechanism for inciting the foot soldiers, there will be a loss of effort and genuine energy. Any play’s performance is heightened when all can buy into the charade that it is real and not a production. If the key players do not understand this mutual dependency, then the sovereign will not understand his reliance on the key nodes within the machine and will work against not just them but the very social forces that caused the group, as a whole, to gain power.