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Timurids and Turcomans: Transition and Flowering in the Fifteenth Century

Abstract and Keywords

The infighting and turmoil following the demise of Timur was exploited by a lone bearer of the Safavid dynasty, Isma'il, who rather than having a military/nomadic background hailed from a religious one. His reign marked a departure from the hitherto predominant militarized polity, with the incorporation of Shi'a as the state religion, thus providing his followers with a much stable trait to identify with, rather than personal charisma, which resulted in the misfortune of the Timurids. During Timur's reign, the hereditary land-grant (Iqta) system, allotted to the amirs (commander), led to enhanced exploitation of the people, thereby projecting the failure of elite Islam. It led to the rise of an alternative, Sufi'ism, as an inherent protest mechanism. Social protest movements were complemented with the context of an emerging Ottoman Anatolia, with strong affiliation with the Sufi/Shi'a orders. Timur's excesses on the artists–exporting them to his homeland–proved a major source of decisive discontent.

Keywords: Timurid, Safavid, Isma'il, state religion, Iqta, amir, social protest movement, Anatolia

The winter of 1405 was a desperately cold one. The layer of ice on the River Oxus (now the Amu Darya in Uzbekistan) was so thick that even after digging over four feet down the scouts still did not reach water. A massive army of warriors crossed over, led by their seventy-year-old commander and king, Timur (Tamerlane), who had conquered or plundered all the lands between India and the Balkans and who had also set off the greatest artistic flowering in Western Asia to date. He was beginning a jihad against China. On Wednesday night, the eleventh of February, Timur drank excessively at a night gathering and ended up with a fever. He died the following Wednesday, February 18, 1405. For the next hundred years, his empire disintegrated into smaller units held and fought over by his sons and descendants, none of whom could dominate the others. This was an all-too-common pattern that had characterized politics in the region for the past five hundred years.

Almost a century after Timur's death, a twelve-year-old boy by the name of Isma‘il rode out of Ardabil (in today's northwestern Iran) and began his rapid capture of the lands between the Tigris and Afghanistan. His family, the Safavids, had been the leaders of a religious shrine who had gradually entered politics and championed Twelver Shi‘ism. Apparently, some of Isma‘il's core followers believed him to an apocalyptic figure. They reportedly did not wear armor in battle because they thought his charisma protected them. They won an astonishing series of victories (p. 272) until 1514, when they were decimated by the artillery power of the Ottoman army. Isma‘il withdrew from the public, retiring to a life of feasting and hunting. He died when he was only thirty-seven years old, having secured for his descendants the territory of today's Iran and parts of Iraq, Afghanistan, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. In some ways, Ismai‘il's lightening conquests recalled those of Timur a hundred years earlier. However, unlike the realm of the Timurids, the Safavid Empire did not fracture after its founder's death. The bond that glued it together was not personal but something else.

Thus, the fifteenth century (plus an additional decade or so on either end) was a classic phase of transition: the spectacular conclusion of the Middle Period (ca. 1000–1500), and the foreshadowing of the Early Modern Period (ca. 1500–1750). This chapter will examine the nature of this change in society, religion, and politics, searching for an explanation for the momentous events that took place by the end of the period, altering the history of Western Asia for the next several centuries.

The Political Landscape

In some ways, the political, social, and religious trends of the fifteenth century were rooted in events that dated back to half a century before. Since about the year 1000 ce, politics in the region had been militarized. Most dynasties were not able to control their domains, and therefore groups with de facto power (like the army) would often overthrow a ruler and proclaim the commanding general as a new sultan. Moreover, from the eleventh century, the importance of nomadic groups had increased, a fact accelerated by the Mongol invasion and rule in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Thus, politics often involved rapid conquests by larger-than-life charismatic soldier-monarchs, followed by subsequent disintegration and infighting. Timur, for instance, had started his career as an army officer serving Mongol forces in Central Asia, thus conforming to the dual pastoralist-militarist role of the period. Gradually he rose through the ranks, and finally managed to gain enough supporters to first defeat his major rivals, and then turn around and destroy his allies. He was very ambitious and tried to restore the Mongol empire, but in Islamic trappings. By 1380, this illiterate Turkic nomad who limped because of battle injuries (hence his sobriquet Timur-i Lang, ‘lame Timur,’ which gave rise to the form Tamerlane) was the sole ruler of Central Asia, and from there, he spent the next twenty-five years invading and conquering Iran and leading immensely destructive raids into Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and India. Following his death, however, Timur's sons and former tributaries all began to vie for independence. The historian Khwandamir vividly describes the confusion that gripped Timur's camp following the world-conqueror's death:

The rest of that day and during the night Timur's death was kept a secret. The queen lady Gawharshad [Timur's daughter-in-law] for the sake of her son (p. 273) Ulugh Beg sent a trustworthy messenger to Mirza ‘Abdullatif [her grandson who was in the camp] saying, ‘The Lord of people and countries has died. Our people do not have a leader anymore. It would be best if you look after those who are present and make sure general panic does not take hold of the victorious camp.” Mirza ‘Abdullatif consented. The next day cries of mourning spread throughout the camp. Then Mirza Babur along with a squadron of braves who were his personal retainers set off for Khurasan. Mirza Khalil Sultan also headed out that way and joined forces with Mirza Babur's forces. Once their soldiers reached the camp market they began plundering and suddenly chaos broke out on the scene. The cry of the shopkeepers reached Mirza ‘Abdullatif who got on his horse and rode around the camp, punishing a few with his sword and subduing the melee. He spent two or three days trying to control the situation, and thereafter sent a messenger to his father [Ulugh Beg, Timur's grandson] in Samarqand. On the same day he had Timur's corpse placed on a litter on a camel's back and headed out for Khurasan. Along the way however, a few wicked fools told the prince that queen Gawharshad had colluded with the Tarkhani commanders and that she was planning to pull off some kind of a ruse. The prince who certainly exhibited the symptoms of stone cold insanity and also knew the extent of his grandmother's love for prince ‘Alauddawlah, believed those fools. He ordered his soldiers to loot the baggage of the queen and the Tarkhanis and had all the people whom he distrusted to be put in chains.1

The disorientation and uncertainty of the Timurid princes are quite clear in this passage. The events of the next several decades certainly exhibited the same pattern of infighting and disorder. Likewise, just as with the periods before, the political instability that followed Timur's death led to the rise of another strong military ruler who united (by conquest) the various political entities and formed an empire of his own. In this case, the new victor was Jahan Shah, ruler of the Qara Qoyunlu (“black sheep”) Turcoman confederation (originating in western Iran and eastern Anatolia). A poet and warrior, initially a governor in Azerbaijan appointed by Timur's son Shah Rukh, Jahan Shah spent the two decades following his master's death (1447–67) constructing his own vast kingdom, conquering even the Timurid heartlands of Afghanistan and Central Asia. He fell, however, to a man named Uzun Hasan, leader of another Turcoman confederation, the Aq Qoyunlu (“white sheep”). Predictably, the Qara Qoyunlu polity quickly imploded following the defeat of their leader in a rout as incredible as their rapid ascendance to power. Finally, as the Aq Qoyunlu kingdom too devolved into internal strife after Uzun Hasan's death, another new contender, this time Isma‘il the Safavid, took advantage of the power vacuum, defeated his Timurid and Turcoman competitors, and set up a new kingdom. Isma‘il differed from his predecessors in one major way: he came not from a nomadic or military background but a religious one. Moreover, he took pains to institute a comprehensive and exclusive identity for his empire that was not personal, by establishing Shi‘ism as the state religion. This explains in part why his realm did not disintegrate following his death. His subjects had an alternative source of identity and loyalty that was far greater than the leader himself.

(p. 274) Society in the Fifteenth Century

To understand the reasons for this radical divergence in politics, we must take into account a number of socioeconomic and religious factors that characterized events during the fifteenth century. How was society organized during this period? Since several centuries before, at the head of the social pyramid in Western Asia, following the ruler, had stood autonomous amirs (commanders/rulers) living on military land grants (called iqta, or later suyurghal) bestowed on them by their general/king (such as Timur or Jahan Shah) in exchange for military service in time of need. In Timur's case, the amir was also expected to help rebuild what the conquering army had just destroyed. The amirs were garrisoned in large towns, but their income (since they did not receive salaries) was to be earned by taxing the local economy, which was primarily agrarian. The money was considered the personal property of the amir to distribute as pay to his subordinates. Before the fifteenth century, the land grants were not hereditary. The local ruler would have little chance to establish long-term ties to a region under his rule, and would therefore try to collect as much money as possible in the short time granted to him. When the amir came from a nomadic background, the financial exploitation would be coupled with the ruin of the infrastructures of agriculture (such as irrigation channels), either because of ignorance or because the amir preferred farmlands to revert to pasture so that his horses could move freely and graze.

The unavoidable monetary exploitation of this system would of course take a heavy toll on the peasants, who had to bear the bulk of this financial burden. The peasants would naturally try to resist this system. They might hide their income or occasionally fight the tax collectors, though the latter option would often result in merciless reprisals. Sometimes the peasants would escape, joining pastoralist groups. Otherwise they could try to join the army. Finally, a desperate farmer could join a robber band and engage in banditry. All in all, the land-grant system gradually led to a waste of human as well as agricultural resources in the long run.

However, by the fifteenth century (especially toward its end) two major changes took place. The first was that the land grants became hereditary, and the second was that the number of these grants increased exponentially as a result of political instability (the rulers whose treasury would be depleted due to rapid succession and war would need to curry favor with local notables). More research must be done on the effects of these developments, but it is quite possible that such changes reduced the purely exploitative relationship between landlord and peasant and led to a great deal more socioeconomic stability overall.

Certain long-term patterns in the life of townspeople are also important to consider. Earlier, military commanders did not consider urban areas to be their main source of income. The role of the amir would have been more as protector of the town. The town's elite was in an interdependent relationship with the local commander. For instance, the amir would patronize the arts and support the ulema (Muslim scholars and jurists). At times, such men served as spokespeople of the (p. 275) townspeople and their interests, but they still were financially dependant on the amirs for their livelihood, a fact not lost to people from lower social strata.

People belonging to the middling ranks of the society (such as craftsmen, shopkeepers, and artisans) could remedy this situation by organizing themselves according to their craft (guilds) as well as by neighborhood. Each neighborhood would have its own gates that could be closed at night for protection (from thieves or sectarian attacks). Each town would also have its own militia clubs. These were groups of men who would often organize to represent “lower-class” interests. These clubs could be engaged in sports such as wrestling, have common eating areas, and possess specific codes of conduct demanding honor and chivalry from the members. They could help defend a city in times of invasion, but they might also serve to protect their members from the soldiers of the garrisons that had been stationed locally. One or more of these organizations would often be closely associated with lodges belonging to popular religious leaders. Beginning in the eleventh century, popular religiosity in the Middle East had been centered on Muslim mystics and ascetics (Sufis) who congregated in secret or open orders. By the fifteenth century, the leader of these orders, the Sufi shaykh, began to function as the spokesperson of the townspeople in the face of government exploitation, particularly as the ulema became known as the representatives (or at least associates) of the ruling elite. Moreover, since at least the Mongol period Sufism had been focused on reverence for holy men, and had developed disciplines for the attainment of divine rapture. For the quick attainment of spiritual ecstasy, drug use had become prevalent. At the same time, the relative prosperity of the Timurid reign for cities and rural areas, especially in the first half of the fifteenth century, as well as of the nomads in marginal areas (a reversal of the trends of the Mongol period), led to strengthening of urban militias and protest movements. All the while, many common people seemed to believe that the Islam of the religious elite had failed to create egalitarian social justice. Under the shadow of Sufism, which allowed for expressions of opposition to privilege as well as to convention (recklessness toward social norms in search of personal emancipation), there arose a number of anti-elite and millenarian movements—a fact accelerated no doubt in the 1400s as the tenth century of the Islamic calendar (and hence the Muslim millennium) neared. In addition to all this, the close association of Sufi brotherhoods with the interests of the urban commoners had a fundamental economic element to it as well.

Religion and Economy

Most people living in the region during the fifteenth century were indeed Muslims, but this should not give the impression of a monotonous uniformity of belief and practice. In fact, the religious life of the period was highly divergent and even paradoxical. Timur himself provides a perfect example of this phenomenon. On (p. 276) the one hand he sponsored the ulema, built mosques, and fought wars in the name of Islam with utmost zealousness. On the other hand, the Central Asian conqueror directed most of his aggression toward Muslim, committing massacres in Isfahan, Delhi, and Syria. Destruction and pillaging of cities at the hands of Timur's soldiers often extended to mosques and Muslim schools as well. An account of the sack of the city of Delhi in India exemplifies this apparent contradiction. The text is by a Timurid historian who based his narrative on the reports of someone who took part in the events. The first passage describes the killing of non-Muslim captives in the name of holy war, a perverse application of the term to a practical yet brutal instance of preventive bloodshed.

On this day, the princes and the commanders told his majesty [Timur] that over a hundred thousand Indians including kafirs (“infidels”), pagans, and idol-worshippers had been captured since when the army had crossed the Indus River. They feared lest these captives might decide to join the pagans of Delhi on the day of war and rush to their side. So the World Conqueror issued an order for the execution of all the Indians who had been captured, and a bloody flood was unleashed. Even [the author] who in matters of virtue and bravery possessed various signs and evidence, though he had never before even slaughtered a sheep, took note of the command and killed with the sword of holy war ten Indians whom he held in his tent.2

It is clear from this report that the reason for the execution of the prisoners lay in the fear of the Timurid army's inability to control them in face of attack. However, the slaughter is given a religious justification. The religious rhetoric may have been cynical exploitation, or Timur may have believed that this was precisely how a champion of the faith should behave. When the sack of Delhi is described (and many of the inhabitants there were Muslims), even the author of the narrative had a difficult time making excuses for the behavior of his army. The episode occurs after the submission of the city and the promise of the inhabitants to pay ransom in exchange for avoiding violence.

On Thursday a squadron of the soldiers had assembled at the gates of Delhi, and they were attacking and harassing the local people as hungry wolves go after sheep and as murderous eagles prey on weak birds. Therefore Timur issued an order to the commanders to go and chasten those soldiers. Meanwhile some of the lords came to Delhi for sightseeing, and other commanders were stationed at the gate collecting the amnesty money. A few thousand men too who had documents for sugar and grain arrived at the city as well. At the same time, another order had been issued demanding from the commanders the arrest of the country folk who had turned rebellious and escaped to the city. Before we knew it, a massive number of men and soldiers had poured into the city. His Majesty was at a feast and no one dared inform him of the matter. The commanders tried to put down that disorder by the sword, but nothing availed. The tide of disorder had risen so high that it could not be controlled, and the rush of the army had reached such an extent that it could not be stopped. When God Most High wills the harming and destruction of a people, all the causes will coincide and nothing can stop it. And if God wills misfortune for a people, there is none that can repel it, nor have they a defender beside Him [Quran 13:11; translation by Pickthall, slightly (p. 277) modified]. Thereby in the boroughs of Delhi such as Sari, Jahanpanah, and Old Delhi, Indian pagans began fighting back, and many of them set fire to their own houses and property, immolating themselves along with their women and children. Within an hour the soldiers broke down the doors to the inhabitants’ houses and began plundering. Yet no one dared to inform Timur about all this for he was drowned in feasting and carousing. Yet in fear of him, the commanders locked down all the city gates so that the army stationed outside would not be able to come in. The fifteen thousand soldiers who were inside the fortifications kept plundering as night fell and set fire to the houses. In some neighborhoods the pagans would fight back. When the next day dawned the unruliness of the soldiers reached a climax and there was no way of stopping them … On Sunday they went to Old Delhi where most of the Indians had escaped and gathered at the cathedral mosque [masjid-i jāmi‘] where they were fighting. Prince Shah Malak Bahadur and Ali Sultan Tuvachi went there with five hundred skilled men and dispatched the souls of the enemies of religion and government to hell. They raised a tower from the decapitated heads of the Indians and left the bodies as food for beasts and birds.3

The author's discomfort in describing this scene is clear enough. He simply cannot hide or justify the violence of the soldiers who were left to maraud in the city. Timur is exonerated from direct responsibility, but his negligence due to drunkenness is obvious. Perhaps to whitewash the matter, he claims that most of the victims were pagans, and yet it is obvious that the violence against the inhabitants was general, and the disorderly soldiers certainly make no attempt to separate Muslims from non-Muslims. Finally, in a twisted reversal of the event, the slaughter that takes place in the mosque is justified as a defense of Islam!

In sum, Timur seems to have thought that the moral teachings of Islam did not apply to him. His personal sense of religion rather reflects popular Islam: respect for Sufis and belief in miracles, magic, and folk precautions. Thus Timur's religion was quite typical of his time. It is possible that he cynically manipulated the Muslim faith for political gain, but it is also quite likely that as an illiterate pastoralist soldier from a marginal territory, he and his commanders genuinely believed their practice to be correct Islam.

However, while Timur personally seems to have preferred the company of Sufis, as a patron he coupled his destruction of Muslim towns with patronage for Muslim religious elites as well. Many scholars and theologians received financial backing from the Timurids throughout the fifteenth century. What is particularly significant about the patronage of high Islam by the courts of Timur and his descendants is that royal generosity extended equally to both Sunni and Shi‘i ulema. The reason for this apparent fairness lies in developments going back to the Mongol invasion. Whereas from the eleventh to the thirteenth century Sunni Islam had enjoyed official sponsorship, with the coming of the Mongols a new form of patronage was introduced in Western Asia. The Mongols did not show particular preference for any of the various religious communities in their empire and rewarded loyalty from any cooperative group. Suddenly Twelver Shi‘ites as well as Buddhists, Jews, and Christians had access to government opportunities that had previously been reserved for Sunni Muslims. The collapse of Mongol rule in the early fourteenth century did not undermine the (p. 278) new gains of Shi‘i ulema in various regional courts, and the Timurids were no exception. This coexistence at the elite level had the interesting result of theological syncretism between Shi‘i and Sunni ulema. For instance, one can observe the spread of Alid loyalism, that is, showing devotion and respect to the family of the Prophet, not just by Shi‘ites (who venerated the Alids as their spiritual leaders) but by Sunnis as well. Regarding the divisive order of the succession to the Prophet Muhammad, many Sunnis also conceded that Ali was perhaps the most qualified successor to Muhammad, but said that the memory of the caliphs Umar and Abu Bakr should not be reviled.

At a more popular and nonelite level, much of popular Islam was basically a mix of Sufism and Shi‘ism, which meant primarily veneration of Ali and his descendants as well as enthusiastic apocalyptic expectations. Sufi masters provided the kind of religiosity that common people preferred and practiced. Essentially, they served as miracle workers and popular preachers who could speak to unlearned masses who probably cared little for the high Islam of intellectuals expressed in Classical Arabic—a language incomprehensible to all but the highly educated. Also important was the fact that Sufi lodges could provide economic security to commoners. Since early Islamic times, Muslim jurists had developed a complex legal canon regarding charitable endowments (waqf ). Generally, it was agreed that any person may endow any property to a religious institution and live off provisions stipulated for him- or herself and family. From the Mongol invasion through the Timurid period, Sufi lodges benefited immensely from this system. At times of invasion or political instability (including most of the fifteenth century), the possibility of seizure of movable property by various armies could make investment in land a good way of protecting one's money. But since army officers might receive land grants and seize or exploit that property, endowing one's land to a religious institution served as further protection and security. The Sufi shaykh would be a great candidate for such waqfs. He was approachable, not hidden away out of reach in some distant court. Moreover, he commanded respect from the very officers and kings who would roam the countryside or be stationed in a region. As we know, most soldiers in this period came from marginal, pastoralist, and uneducated backgrounds and personally venerated popular religious figures whose property they would not violate. Another advantage of the Sufi shaykhs lay in the fact that as the spokesmen of the masses, they were shown a great deal of respect by government officials, who did not wish to incite popular uprisings. All these factors conspired to make Sufi orders throughout the region some of the most powerful, wealthiest, and most influential groups in society.

Social Protest Movements

Several protest movements colored by Sufi/Shi‘i sentiments broke out during the period, that of the Safavids being the most successful. Three of these movements play a particularly significant role for understanding the rise of the Safavids later (p. 279) on. The first (though from an earlier period) was that of the Sarbadarids, whose name was popularly assumed to mean “heads on the gallows,” suggesting that the members had accepted death as their fate. Dating back to the fourteenth century, the movement began in the city of Sabzavar in northeastern Iran, where the local people murdered a drunk Mongol tax collector who had been harassing some women. Even if the story is just a legend, it is certainly worth noting how well it fits with the ideals of the urban militia formed to protect townspeople from soldiers garrisoned in their town. The victorious rebels then set up a republic that subsequently assumed a Twelver Shi‘i identity and at times manifested strong millenarian tendencies. We are told that on some occasions the townspeople would be armed and a white horse would be let out of the gates in the expectation that the Mahdi (the apocalyptic figure in Islam) would arrive. Eventually, the Sarbadarids capitulated to Timur.

Shortly after the fall of the Sarbadarids, a Sufi group in Iran declared its leader Sayyid Nurbakhsh to be the Mahdi and seized a castle in preparation for their uprising, but they were found out and put down by a Timurid governor. After a bout of imprisonment, Sayyid Nurbakhsh traveled around until he found in the mountain regions of western Iran a base of supporters who declared him to be their ruler. He was again captured, escaped, and was recaptured by Shah Rukh (Timur's son), who sent him to his capital of Herat and made him publicly renounce his claims. Nurbakhsh apparently asserted his claims again in 1444, because he was captured once again and put in chains. He spent the rest of his days teaching.

An example of a somewhat different model of Sufi movements is that of the Naqshbandis of Central Asia. The Naqshbandis represented a Sufi order that did not make messianic claims and in general toed an “orthodox” line. In the fifteenth century, a certain Ubaydullah Ahrar rose to be the leader of the order. He had already grown to prominence by midcentury and took part in the Timurid succession struggles by promising his favorite candidate the support of his followers. As the victorious Sultan Abu Sa‘id left Central Asia for Afghanistan, Ahrar became a central power player in the city of Samarqand, a factor facilitated no doubt by vast landholdings under his control, most of which were charitable donations (waqfs) made out to him by craftsmen and farmers with small plots of land.

Thus in the Sarbadarids, Nurbakhshis, and Naqshbandis we see examples of the kinds of restless trends that had arisen by the end of the fifteenth century. More “orthodox” Sufi orders commanded a great deal of respect and wealth and were seen as important allies by the ruling monarchs of the day. Other groups, perhaps far less wealthy, could reach for power by assuming a progressively apocalyptic message and rising up in revolts. The Nurbakhshis seem to be a case of this. Finally, popular uprisings against authority could lead to the adoption of apocalyptic Shi‘ism as a form of “state ideology,” as in the Sarbadarid example. We shall see below how the Safavid order in fact combined all these features in its bid for political power. But before dealing with the history of the order, it is important to take into consideration the historical setting in western Iran and eastern Anatolia, the birthplace of the Safavids.

(p. 280) The Ottomans in Anatolia and the Balkans

The rise of the Ottoman Empire in some ways parallels that of the Timurids. Just as in Central Asia, the collapse of the Mongols in Anatolia led to the breakdown of political order. Various small principalities consisting of small armed bands rose up and competed with each other for political domination. One of these, led by a man called Osman, was strategically located across the Sea of Marmara facing Byzantium. If the economy of Anatolian princedoms was primarily funded by raids, Osman's band had access to the richest pickings. Using wealth from their raids in Byzantine territory and elsewhere, as well as following a very inclusive policy to incorporate manpower (from Christians as well as Muslims), the Ottomans soon crossed the waters and established themselves in the Balkans. A good part of the Ottoman military force consisted of warriors for the faith, or ghazis. Like Timur, Ottoman ghazis seem not to have known or cared for Islam as defined by the ulema. Religion in Anatolia and the Balkans was very much syncretic, involving syntheses between popular forms of Islam and Christianity, and it was expressed by preachers and Sufis who performed miracles and healed the sick. The fourth Ottoman ruler, Bayezid I, was a contemporary of Timur, and he had simultaneously begun to expand his borders into eastern Anatolia. The two rulers clashed at Ankara in 1402, and the Ottomans were trounced. The descendants of Bayezid eventually recovered from this defeat, and finally, in May 1453, Bayezid's great-grandson Mehmed the Conqueror captured the city of Constantinople. However, the events of the early fifteenth century had a number of long-term ramifications. First, the civil war in the Ottoman domain that followed Bayezid's defeat by Timur included at least one major uprising of religious coloring. The leader of this revolt was a certain Shaykh Badr al-Din, who was a jurist in the Balkans. He had developed syncretic ideas that attracted poor Muslims and Christians, who must have also been drawn to his belief in the common ownership of property. The movement was ruthlessly suppressed and Shaykh Badr al-Din was hanged, but his followers remained active and on occasion joined other sects and movements. At the same time, as the Ottoman Empire grew more and more powerful the sultans began to distance themselves from the unpredictable ghazis and created a salaried professional army dubbed the janissaries (from Turkish yeniçeri, “new soldier”). The disaffected ghazis, especially in the second half of the fifteenth century, grew more and more upset at their marginalization. They were often connected with other “heterodox” antinomian Sufi movements that elevated the Shi‘i Imam Ali to a position of divinity. Others, such as the Qalandars, would shave their heads and all their facial hair (including eyebrows) and wear short animal-hair shirts that exposed their pierced genitals adorned with rings. Thus, eastern Anatolia by the second half of the fifteenth century was home to many disaffected armed men with ties to antinomian and populist Sufi/Shi‘i groups.

(p. 281) The Sufi Order in Ardabil

The history of the Safavids will be dealt with in detail in the next chapter. However, the origin of the movement was very much a product of the events of the Timurid and Turcoman periods. The founder of the order, Shaykh Safi al-Din, was a Sufi master who lived in the city of Ardabil in northwestern Iran during the Mongol rule. He seems to have been a highly respected figure among both the common town dwellers and Mongol officials. Hamd Allah Qazvini, a Persian historian in Mongol service, wrote in 1329, “Shaykh Safi al-Din of Ardabil is a living contemporary. He is a blessed man and his prayers are answered. Since the Mongols hold him in high veneration, the shaykh prevents them from harming ordinary people. This is a great accomplishment.”4 There are indeed letters from the early fourteenth century written by high-ranking Mongol officials who tell their commanders to respect the shaykh. Other letters or documents serve as receipts of donations to Shaykh Safi's lodge in Ardabil. All in all, the waqf property of the Safavids was substantial, donated by common people as well as members of the elite. Thus, for over a century and a half, the Safavid order constituted a powerful, wealthy, and influential Sufi brotherhood (in some ways similar to the Naqshbandis). It seems, however, that by the 1450s things had changed for the Safavids. Shaykh Junayd, the ruler of the order, had begun to entertain political aspirations. He began traveling to Anatolia, engaged in a marriage alliance with the Aq Qoyunlu Turcomans, and even led raids against Christian kingdoms on the coast of the Black Sea and in the Caucasus. After his death, his son Haydar engaged in similar campaigns. We are told that Junayd and Haydar managed to attract a large number of Anatolian Qizilbash to their side (probably many were former ghazis disaffected by their marginalization by the Ottoman court), and these men apparently wanted Junayd and Haydar to fulfill their chiliastic expectations. The Aq Qoyunlu historian Fazl Allah Khunji reports, for instance, that after Junayd's death, “The ignorant people of Anatolia who were the forces of darkness and Satanic minions began to blare the unfounded Christian claim … calling Junayd ‘God’ and his son ‘son of God’ ” (Khunji, Tarikh-i Alam Ara-i Amini, p. 264). This quote bears out the contention that religious views in Asia Minor were highly syncretic, combining Christian and Muslim elements. The helpless hostility of high-ranking religious elites (such as Fazl Allah) is also worth noting. It was finally Isma‘il who successfully led his Qizilbash and ghazi forces to the conquest of Iran, eastern Iraq, and western Afghanistan.

Culture and Contact

The political, social, and religious changes that took place during the fifteenth century marked a transition out of the Middle Period of Islamic history. However, there is another aspect of the history of this century that had long-term (p. 282) consequences—high culture and the arts. The artistic achievements of the Timurids lay behind the arts of the Ottomans, Mughals, and Safavids in the next three centuries.

During his conquests, Timur would always go out of his way to spare the lives of artists and scholars and take them with him to his capital of Samarqand. This forced patronage led to the blending of various artistic traditions in what is often referred to as the Timurid Renaissance. But the art of this period did not express itself as a rebirth of antiquity as did the Italian Renaissance. Rather, it was a flowering of various strands that had already existed in the Islamic world. During Timur's reign, the arts were generally monumental. Beautifully adorned and imposing mosques in Samarqand are an example of this. We are told that Timur himself would often go to the job site and help the workers with the construction. There are also illuminated human-sized Qur’ans. Paintings as often as not were in the form of large murals, like the depiction of Timur's India campaigns.

After Timur's death, many of the artists at Samarqand were allowed to return to their native towns, thereby spreading the courtly styles that had developed in Samarqand all over the Islamic world. Throughout the fifteenth century, art and patronage were concentrated in the capitals of one or another Timurid prince who, in competition over prestige and dominance, patronized high culture with unprecedented enthusiasm. An unparalleled sophistication and artistic self-consciousness developed by the end of this period. We possess autobiographies and self-portraits of artists, as well as scenes from daily life with detailed attention paid to the mundane affairs of common existence. Also important was the cultural and scholarly prestige of Timurid courts. Throughout the fifteenth century, scholars from all over the Muslim world, including potentially inimical ones, would come to study with the great scientists and academicians who resided in Timurid places. High culture was almost exclusively expressed in Persian, though the language of scholarship remained primarily Arabic. The following episode written by an Ottoman chronicler exemplifies this relationship. The events date to the period after the Battle of Ankara, where Timur had defeated the Ottoman ruler Bayezid I. In spite of this political trouble, scholars and scholarship followed a much more intimate exchange. The episode below shows how an Ottoman student of the jurist Molla Fanari eagerly thirsted after the books of Taftazani, the logician who lived off Timurid patronage in Samarqand.

Until the time of Mollā al-Fanārī the students used to have Fridays and Tuesdays free. Then he also gave them Mondays free. The reason for this was that in his time the works of the learned al-Taftazānī enjoyed great fame, and the students were anxious to read them. But these books were not available for sale because too few copies of them were in circulation. The students were therefore obliged to copy them themselves. As they had not time to copy them, Mollā al-Fana-rı- also gave them Mondays free.5

(p. 283) Conclusion

The fifteenth century was a period of transition. While the political instability marking the previous half millennium accelerated in this time, other deeper social, economic, cultural, and religious currents laid the groundwork for a much more stable society. It was up to the Safavids in Iran, the Ottomans in Anatolia and the Balkans, and Timurid Mughal refugees in India to build on these foundations a new order of stable bureaucratic empires. The next chapter will deal with the Safavids.


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                                              (1.) Khwandamir, Habib al-siyar, Tome Three: The Reign of the Mongol and the Turk, trans. and ed. W. M. Thackston (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 1994), 636–37.

                                              (2.) Ghiyas al-Din Yazdi, Ruznamah-i Ghazavat-i Hindustan, ed. L. A. Zimin and V. V. Bartol’d (Petrograd: Tipografiya Imperatorskoy Akademii Nauk, 1915), 108.

                                              (3.) Yazdi, Ruznamah-i Ghazavat-i Hindustan, 120–22.

                                              (4.) Hamd Allah Mustawfi Qazvini, Traikh-i Guzidah (Tehran: Amir Kabir, 1983), 675.

                                              (5.) Ibn Tāshköprüzāde, trans. Lewis, vol. 2, 49.