Fealty & Patronage in the Safavid State


A review of The Foundation of the Safavid State: Fealty, Patronage, and Ideals of Authority (1501-1576), by Hani Khafipour.

Narrating the downfall of the provincial governor ‘Alī Khān, the early seventeenth century Safavid historian Iskandar Beg accuses the governor of the offense of ingratitude (kufrān-i ni‘mat) towards Shah ‘Abbas. Hani Khafipour re-tells this story in his dissertation, and notes that since ‘Alī Khān was unable to see the benefits his benefactor (valī-yi ni‘mat) had awarded him, his eyes were removed from their sockets and he was deprived of the benefit (ni‘mat) of sight (pp. 53-54).

Hani Khafipour studies ‘Alī Khān’s example of betrayal and gruesome punishment along with other intriguing accounts to determine the mechanisms that allowed the Safavids to retain and expand their authority during the turbulent years of transition after the death of the dynasty’s charismatic founder, Shah Isma‘il (d. 930/1524). Khafipour’s dissertation investigates the ties of loyalty and the patron-client relationships between Isma‘il’s successor, Shah Tahmasb (d. 984/1576), and his military elite as the prime vehicle for restoring and reasserting his royal supremacy in a period of crisis in Safavid rule. The bonds of loyalty surrounding the Safavid house, in particular with the Qizilbash tribes, are often considered through the prism of the dynasty’s role as leaders of the Safavid Sufi order (for a recent example, Ayfer Karakaya Stump, “Subjects of the Sultan, Disciples of the Shah: Formation and Transformation of the Kizilbash/Alevi Communities in Ottoman Anatolia.” PhD diss., Harvard, 2008). Khafipour, however, offers a new perspective on the topic of Safavid loyalism by exploring the cultivation and regulation of the bonds between the shah and his generals from the vantage point of patronage and clientelism during a period of intense political instability and general discord in the shah’s camp. At the heart of Khafipour’s dissertation is the question of the ideological transformations that Safavid rule underwent with the waning of chiliastic excitement after Isma‘il’s death. Khafipour argues that Tahmasb’s reign witnessed the re-articulation of the Safavid claim to sovereignty with a new (-old) ideological basis that replaced its earlier Mahdistic message with the promotion of ideals of loyalty to the Safavid house.

The first chapter examines the articulation of the notion of the shah as patron through the cultivation of his image as valī-yi ni‘mat, the purveyor of divine bounty. The author argues that the ideal of ni‘mat (beneficence) creates “a religio-political bond that deeply affects how social groups perceive the king and vice versa” (p. 29). Based on Perso-Islamic ideals of kingship, writers related to the court equated political disloyalty with (religious) ingratitude/denial of benefit (kufrān-i ni‘mat), or outright blasphemy (kufr), and argued that ingratitude to the shah was the cause for misfortune, disorder and injustice in the realm. “In the Safavid milieu,” Khafipour observes, “political treachery was never separated from its spiritual implications” (p. 45). Khafipour examines several examples of treason showing how the discourse of valī-yi ni‘mat was utilized on the one hand, by the shah’s supporters to reinforce bonds of fidelity, and on the other, by the transgressors themselves to negotiate their position at court and retain their office and life when faced with accusations of betrayal.

The second chapter asks how the Safavid disassociation from Shah Isma‘il’s millenarian legacy affected the ideological paradigms at the basis of Tahmasb’s rule. Khafipour argues that, while in the public sphere, Tahmasb’s authority was reasserted by stressing his role as the just Shi‘i ruler, a dispenser of justice on the basis of Divine Law; when addressing his military elite, the notion of complete fealty to the head of the Safavid house was the primary focus. Focusing on changes to chancellery terminology, Khafipour observes how the message of ‘Alid loyalism during Shah Isma‘il’s reign was replaced in the Tahmasb-era official letters with terms expressing devotion and loyalty to the Safavid patriarch. As the royal decrees (farmāns) suggest, the affirmation of absolute fealty to the shah “became the cornerstone of Safavid political patronage and clientelism” (pp. 210-211).

Chapter 3 investigates the inner workings of the Safavid patronage system and examines Tahmasb’s successful cultivation of patron-client relationships with his military leadership in the face of innumerable challenges to his reign. Khafipour focuses on the role decrees played in forging the shah’s reciprocal relationship with the governing elite. Terms such as ikhlāṣ (devotion) with their religious-Sufi connotations added a sacred dimension to the idea of loyalty to the shah, which served in official decrees as reminder of the elite’s commitment to the house. Promises of recompense and pledges of royal patronage in exchange for service and fealty were another common feature of such exchanges, in which the court was essentially negotiating power with the amirs. Petitions to the Shah display a variety of “clientelistic needs” (p. 113) ranging from the search for employment to requests of assistance. They affirm the hierarchical nature of the client-patron relationship and were one of the main mechanisms for political bargaining between the elite and the shah.

The fourth chapter discusses in detail the lives and careers of Tahmasb’s inner circle: three ministers (Savinduk Beg, Shāh Qulī and Qāḍī Jahān) and his youngest sister and confidant (Mahīn Sulṭānum). The author focuses on the instrumental role they played in empowering the shah to recover Safavid supremacy during the political crisis of the 1530s. Khafipour explores the concept of taqarrub (devotional fealty) “as a distinctive type of bond in the Safavid political culture” (p. 127), which expressed the highly personal nature of the relationship between the shah and his intimates.

The fifth and final chapter examines how the rekindled sense of solidarity in the Safavid ranks allowed Tahmasb to expand into the southern Caucasus during the 1540s and 1550s and embark on offensive raids against the Ottomans, thus departing from the Safavid defensive mode of earlier years. The result was the treaty of Amasya in 962/1555. Khafipour also explores how the Safavid campaigns resulted in the integration of politically influential members of the Georgian elite into Safavid court circles, in particular through Tahmasb’s marriages to several prominent women of Georgian aristocracy. Khafipour suggests that “the extension of political patronage into the region” was a clear indication of “Safavid intentions to annex southern Georgia” (pp. 210-211).

As Khafipour points out in the introduction, the fifty-two year long reign of Shah Tahmasb has received relatively less scholarly attention than the earlier period of the foundation of the Safavid polity under Isma‘il (p. 7). The ideological shifts during Shah Tahmasb’s reign have been recently discussed by a number of scholars (for example, Colin Mitchell, The Practice of Politics in Safavid Iran. London: I.B. Tauris, 2009; Kathryn Babayan, Mystics, Monarchs, and Messiahs: Cultural Landscapes of Early Modern Iran. Cambridge, 2002), yet Khafipour’s particular interest in the paramount role of ideals of patronage and clientelism in the Safavid political ethos makes a valuable addition. Furthermore, in addition to narrative sources and other source material, Khafipour’s dissertation makes extensive use of Safavid chancellery records, in particular, internal “Tahmasb-era decrees” (as opposed to diplomatic letters), which are still a fairly neglected source in spite of recent important contributions (p. 14; Mitchell, Practice of Politics, pp. 17-18). Khafipour’s dissertation demonstrates how a close reading of the formulaic language that expressed the Safavid ties of patronage and claims to authority exposes the fragile and tenuous nature of the bond between the ruler and his high command. His study would, therefore, be of interest to anyone concerned with medieval and early modern political culture in the eastern Islamic world.

Jonathan Brack
Department of History
University of Michigan

Primary Sources

‘Abd al-Ḥusain Navāʾī, Shāh Ṭahmāsb Ṣafavī: Majmū‘ah-yi Asnād va Mukātabāt Tārīkhī (Tehran, 1350/1971).
L. Fekete and G. Hazai, eds., Einführung in Die Persische Paläographie: 101 Persische Dokumente (Budapest, 1977).

Dissertation Information

University of Chicago. 2013. 254 pp. Primary advisor: John E. Woods.   

Image: Memento mori in the Shahnama: Rustam talks philosophically to the knight Gudarz and other Iranian generals about the inevitability of death. Attributed to ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Shah Tahmasp Shahnama by Ferdowsi, f. 266v, ca. 1525-30. Museum of Contemporary Art, Tehran, Iran, Tabriz. Pembroke College, University of Cambridge.

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