Persian Civil Wars Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As the Ṣafavid Empire weakened in the seventeenth century, tribal leaders fought one another for control of Persia. Political stability was maintained intermittently under Nādir Shāh and later under the benevolent rule of Karīm Khān Zand. Periods of anarchy nevertheless marked much of the eighteenth century until the establishment of the Qājār Dynasty in 1794 finally brought a stable government to Persia.

Summary of Event

After the fall of the Ṣafavid Dynasty, marked by the Afghan Persian-Afghan Wars (1709-1747)[Persian Afghan Wars] siege of Eşfahān E{scedil}fah{amacr}n, Siege of (1722)[Esfahan] in 1722, Persia fell into a state of dissolution. Russians attacked from the north, Ottoman Turks attacked from the west, and the Afghans consolidated their positions in the south and east. Ṭahmāsp II, the third son of the Ṣafavid king Ḥusayn I, had escaped from Eşfahān during the siege, and after the city’s fall he proclaimed himself king in Qazvīn. He managed to maintain authority in the central and Caspian regions only with the aid of Qājār chief Fatḥ ՙAlī Khān. [kw]Persian Civil Wars (1725-Nov., 1794) [kw]Wars, Persian Civil (1725-Nov., 1794) [kw]Civil Wars, Persian (1725-Nov., 1794) {Ssubdot}afavid Empire[Safavid Empire] Iran, control of Persian Civil Wars (1725-1794) [g]Iran;1725-Nov., 1794: Persian Civil Wars[0660] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1725-Nov., 1794: Persian Civil Wars[0660] [c]Government and politics;1725-Nov., 1794: Persian Civil Wars[0660] Mahmud Ghilzai {Tsubdot}ahm{amacr}sp II Fat{hsubdot} {ayn}Al{imacr} Kh{amacr}n N{amacr}dir Sh{amacr}h Sh{amacr}h Rukh Kar{imacr}m Kh{amacr}n Zand Mu{hsubdot}ammad {Hsubdot}asan Kh{amacr}n {Amacr}z{amacr}d Khan Zaki Kh{amacr}n {ayn}Al{imacr} M{umacr}rad Kh{amacr}n Ja{ayn}far Kh{amacr}n Lo{tsubdot}f {ayn}Al{imacr} Kh{amacr}n Zand {Amacr}gh{amacr} Mo{hsubdot}ammad Kh{amacr}n Fat{hsubdot} {ayn}Al{imacr} Sh{amacr}h

Ṭahmāsp stayed in power for several years, largely because of a split between the Afghans in Eşfahān and those in Qandahār caused by the assassination of Mahmud Ghilzai in 1725. Ashraf, the Afghan shāh in Eşfahān, was left without ample troops and unable to pursue the Ṣafavid heir, and enmity between Russia and Turkey held those two forces at bay temporarily. In 1726, Nādir Khān, a member of the Afshar tribe, joined Ṭahmāsp II’s army, and soon he was recruited as a protector to the king along with Fatḥ ՙAlī Khān and his troops. As Persia was in the process of being dismembered by the Ottomans and Russians, Ṭahmāsp designated Nādir Khān his military commander, and because of his military successes, Nādir was able to oust Fatḥ ՙAlī from his position at court and have him executed.

By 1736, Nādir had inflicted several defeats on the Afghans and had succeeded in driving the Turks out of northwest Iran. On the plains of Mughan, he was proclaimed shāh of Iran, ushering in a period of political stability. This stability ended after the death of Nādir Shāh in 1747, when the kingdom degenerated into anarchy. Nādir’s various relatives struggled to maintain power, until his grandson Shāh Rukh sought to unite these disparate forces under his rule. However, Shāh Rukh was blinded by Mirza Sayyid Muḥammad, a distant relative of the Ṣafavids who feared that Shāh Rukh would promote his grandfather’s pro-Sunni agenda. As a result, the period of turmoil was resolved in a fierce struggle between Muḥammad Ḥasan Khān, the head of the Qājār tribe in the north, and Karīm Khān Zand, leader of the Zand tribe in the south.

Karīm Khān was victorious. Taking the title of vakil (regent) to a child he placed on the throne as Esmāՙīl III, Karīm Khān ruled over a peaceful kingdom from his capital at Shīrāz for almost thirty years between 1751 and 1779. First, however, Karīm had to defend Eşfahān against a series of claimants, including the Qājār Muḥammad Ḥasan Khān, the Afshar Fatḥ ՙAlī, and the Afghan Āzād Khān. During a fierce struggle for the throne, Muḥammad Ḥasan was murdered by his own tribesmen in 1759. Fatḥ ՙAlī and Āzād Khān were soon forced to join forces with Karīm in 1763 and 1765 respectively. Though he emerged as the undisputed ruler of Persia, Karīm had to defend against revolts from local rulers and tribes in Khūzestān, Kuh-i Giluya, Kermān, Fārs, and the Persian Gulf and to defeat Ḥusayn Kuli Qājār in Astarabad and Māzandarān. Nonetheless, his rule eventually brought a period of peace to Persia.

The death of Karīm Khān Zand was followed by another fifteen years of anarchy. On Karīm’s death, Āghā Moḥammad Khān escaped from imprisonment in Shīrāz and began to consolidate power in Astarabad. Because Karīm had failed to make provisions for his succession, his sons were exploited in a brutal struggle for power between Karīm’s brothers and cousins. His brother Zaki Khān executed most of his rivals for the throne before Karīm Khān’s funeral.

Zaki ruled in Shīrāz in the name of Karīm’s son, Muḥammad ՙAlī. ՙAlī Mūrad Khān, a member of the Hazara line of the Zand tribe, seized Eşfahān in the name of Karīm’s son Abū՚l Fatḥ. Before Zaki could reach Eşfahān to contest the seat, he was murdered by one of his own soldiers. In the meantime, another brother of Karīm, Sadik Khān, took Shīrāz in 1780, only to be killed by ՙAlī Mūrad as he claimed the city in the following year. In turn, ՙAlī Mūrad was killed on his way back to Eşfahān after a battle with the Qājārs in the north.

From this point on, the Zands relinquished control of northern Persia to the Qājārs. Sadik’s son Jaՙfar Khān was driven from Eşfahān to Shīrāz on two accounts by Āghā Moḥammad Khān and was ultimately poisoned and beheaded in 1789. Jaՙfar’s eldest son, Loṭf ՙAlī Khān Zand, sought refuge and reinforcements, and, aided by the local mayor Hājjī Ibrahim, he secured the capital. He managed to defend the city against a Qājār assault and to take back his former stronghold at Kermān.

In 1791, Loṭf ՙAlī marched on Eşfahān; however, in the meantime, Hājjī Ibrahim had fomented a mutiny in his army and seized control of Shīrāz. In 1792, Āghā Moḥammad entered Shīrāz, and Loṭf ՙAlī was driven from his refuge in Kermān, where the Qājārs killed or blinded the entire male population in retaliation for their decision to shelter their enemy. Eventually, Loṭf ՙAlī was handed over by the governor of Bam, and Āghā Moḥammad had him tortured and executed in Tehran in November of 1794.

From this turmoil, the Qājār Dynasty Q{amacr}j{amacr}r Dynasty[Qajar Dynasty] emerged, ending not only the Zand line but also the rule of the Afshars in Khorāsān. In 1796, Āghā Moḥammad Khān was crowned shāh in Tehran, bringing the whole country under his authority. One year later, he was assassinated by two of his own servants; however, the accession of his nephew Fatḥ ՙAlī Shāh established the Qājār Dynasty, which would rule until 1925.


Constituting decades of intermittent warfare, the Persian Civil Wars effectively ended a century of dissolute rule. Karīm Khān Zand succeeded in welding together an army from pastoral tribes and managed to form alliances among the bureaucrats and magnates of major cities such as Eşfahān, Shīrāz, Tabrīz, and Kermān. The years preceding and following his rule, however, were rife with turmoil. His failure to designate a successor left the region open to two decades of internecine warfare and anarchy, which was subdued only with the establishment of the Qājār Dynasty. Though the reign of Āghā Moḥammad Khān was short-lived, he founded the line that would usher in Persia’s modern era. From the close of the eighteenth century through the nineteenth century, Persia was unified under the Qājār Dynasty, shifting the locus of power from feuding tribal confederations to a centralized monarchy and renewing the imperial splendor last witnessed in the Ṣafavid court.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Avery, Peter, Gavin Hambly, and Charles Melville, eds. From Nadir Shah to the Islamic Republic. Vol. 7 in The Cambridge History of Iran. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. The most comprehensive source on political developments between the fall of the Ṣafavid Dynasty and the rise of the Qājār Dynasty. Contains plates, maps, illustrations, genealogical tables, and a rich bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Daniel, Elton L. The History of Iran. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001. A general survey, which locates Karīm Khān’s rule in the broader scope of Persia’s history. Contains maps, a glossary of terms, and current bibliographical essay.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Perry, John R. Karim Khan Zand: A History of Iran, 1747-1779. Publications of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies 12. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979. Among the most thorough sources on the events of the eighteenth century. Incorporates the chief Persian histories and contains a comprehensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources from both premodern and modern eras. Contains maps and illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Zand.” In The Encyclopedia of Islam, edited by H. A. R. Gibb. Vol. 11. Rev. ed. New York: Brill, 2002. Synopsis of scholarship on the era of Karīm Khān Zand’s rule and the struggles that followed his death. Includes a thorough bibliography complete with sources published in Persian.

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