The crowning of Ismail as king of Iran in Tabriz in 1501 was low-key, as was his announcement that Shia Islam would henceforth be the official state religion. And yet this was a turning-point in Iranian history, with repercussions up to the present day.

Like most Iranians the Safavids (1501-1722) were Sunni, although like many outside Shi’ism they venerated Imam Ali (601-661), the first of the 12 Shia imams. The Sufi orders, sometimes based on trades or guilds, were the main way religion was organised, and they encouraged self-discipline, spirituality and mysticism in varying degrees.

Historians have differed on the nature of Iran’s ‘conversion’ under the Safavids: was Iran ripe in some way for Shiism? But they generally agree that the motivation of the new dynasty was political rather than religious. (Read more...)