Reign of Shah ‘Abbās II Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

ՙAbbās II, who considered Ṣafavid rulers to be sacred and infallible, took an active role in government matters and intervened in provincial affairs on the side of the peasants. Under ՙAbbās and his successors, however, Jews, Christians, and nonconformist Muslims faced persecution, and the declining Ṣafavid Empire was plagued by mismanagement, corruption, injustice, and social polarization.

Summary of Event

ՙAbbās II came to power in the shadow of a domineering and dissolute father, Shah Ṣafī I Ṣafī I (r. 1629-1642), who was the grandson of ՙAbbās the Great ՙAbbās I the Great (r. 1588-1620), the renowned Ṣafavid ruler. Ṣafī was an alcoholic, a paranoid, and cruel. He executed the ablest generals, courtiers, and provincial authorities left behind by ՙAbbās the Great as well as several wives, a sister, and even his own mother [kw]Reign of Shah ՙAbbās II (1642-1666) [kw]ՙAbbās II, Reign of Shah (1642-1666) [kw]ShahՙAbbās II, Reign of (1642-1666) Government and politics;1642-1666: Reign of Shah ՙAbbās II[1440] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1642-1666: Reign of Shah ՙAbbās II[1440] Diplomacy and international relations;1642-1666: Reign of Shah ՙAbbās II[1440] Economics;1642-1666: Reign of Shah ՙAbbās II[1440] Middle East;1642-1666: Reign of Shah ՙAbbās II[1440] Iran;1642-1666: Reign of Shah ՙAbbās II[1440] ՙAbbās II Ṣafavid Dynasty[Safavid Dynasty]

International affairs bored him, so he left such business to his grand vizier, Saru Taqi Saru Taqi (1634-1645). In 1639, the vizier negotiated a peace treaty with the Ottoman Empire (the Treaty of Kasr-i Shirin Kasr-i Shirin, Treaty of (1639)[Kasri Shirin, Treaty of (1639)] ), which established sound defensible boundaries between the Ṣafavid Persians and their hostile neighbor to the west. However, terms of the treaty compelled the Ṣafavids to relinquish Iraq to Ottoman control, placing the Shia Muslims of that territory under the control of a Sunni government. As a result, factions and intrigues soon arose in the Ṣafavid court between “peace” and “war” parties.

When Ṣafī died after a drinking binge, ՙAbbās II took the throne in 1642 at the age of eight or nine. Although virtually unprepared for leadership, he learned quickly and soon impressed the regency and his tutors with his energy, sharpness, and sense of justice. His first test came in 1645 with the murder of Saru Taqi by a faction of army officers and courtiers angered by the treaty of 1639. Despite his youth, ՙAbbās demanded an exhaustive investigation and insisted on imposing the death penalty for even the highest officers involved. Out of this crisis, the young shah emerged as an unexpectedly energetic ruler who took the reins of power as soon as he attained maturity.

ՙAbbās II soon revived the old custom of holding public hearings on chosen cases involving corruption, venality, or abuse of authority by public officials and officers. Over time, he also heard cases outside government affairs where peasants or the urban poor might seek redress from some powerful landlord, tribal leader, or merchant house. In so doing, ՙAbbās II quickly gained a popular image for his strong sense of justice, for morality in rule, and for protecting the weak from those who might exploit them. Of course, because of this sense, he reasserted also the absolutist ideal that the shah held final—and ultimately total—power over all his subjects and their affairs. ՙAbbās thereby laid the groundwork that made other major changes appear legitimate and beneficial to the public.

Change, ՙAbbās believed, was vital to the power of the dynasty. More than a century before, when the Ṣafavids had come to power in Iran, they had established an absolutist ruling style. Their shahs combined their Islam with the traditions of Persian divine-right rule, the ancient alliance of semipastoral tribes, and the control of the peasantry by rural landlords, and they brought it all together with a support for progress: urban centers of commerce, culture, and bureaucracy.

The Ṣafavids seized power with a vision of spreading ithna-ashari, or Twelver, Shiism throughout Islam Islam;Twelver Shiism , and they had imposed this vision upon most Persians through a mix of persuasion, co-optation, and brute force. Their rulers, therefore, presented themselves to the Persian people as agents of God, divinely commissioned by Allah and mystically directed by the twelve imams of the House of Ali to lead the Muslim people to truth and justice. To support this image of charismatic religious rule, the state filled Persia with Shia law courts, mosques, and madrasas (schools), and patronized recruitment of Shia clergy, who were known as mujtahids.

However, under Ṣafī, the power of the shahs had corroded. The Ṣafavid army, in the beginning, had drawn its numbers from various Turkic tribes and people of the northeast who became fanatic partisans of the Shia cause. These forces were known as the qizilbash (feudal armies) Military; Ṣafavid Dynasty[Safavid Dynasty] . To their ranks, the shahs had added slave-soldiers called ghulam, militias drawn from the towns and rural nobles, nomadic levies, and mercenary cannoneers. These additions had been required not only because of technological change but also because many of the qizilbash leaders became landlords and intrigued to preserve their privileges instead of serving the state. The civil service, which also had been recruited from the best families of the towns, also had begun to usurp power. Rivalries among officers and between military and civilians led to defeats in war, local revolts, murders, and state paralysis. Finally, the Shia clergy had begun to challenge the status of the shahs as divinely ordained, arguing that their leaders truly represented the reign of the Hidden Imam and the shah was merely a “guided law enforcer.”ՙAbbās intended to meet these forces head-on

ՙAbbās realized that to attain his ambitions, he needed peace with his neighbors. Shortly after the 1639 treaty, his Ottoman rivals fell into a series of wars on other fronts and into internal revolts that prevented them from launching new attacks on Persian territory. Although ՙAbbās might have taken advantage of these upheavals to attack the Turkish empire, instead, he negotiated improved boundaries and promises that the Sunni Muslim Turks would give greater religious freedoms to the Shia of Iraq. In 1648, however, ՙAbbās did lead a series of expeditions against the Mughals of India, driving them out of the city of Qandahār, which the Mughals had taken from ՙAbbās’s father. Once Persian frontiers with India stood secure, the shah made peace quickly with the Mughals and turned to his real concerns: building the power of the dynasty

With his prestige and credentials as a warrior for Islam now unassailable, ՙAbbās began the systematic confiscation of qizilbash lands and the private revenues of their officers. The lands so acquired then became khassa, “royal domains,” administered directly by the Ṣafavid household. The shah also shrank many of the qizilbash units, demilitarizing them or assigning their members to civilian duties. Some units he ordered to patrol frontier zones, beyond the imperial heartlands where these troops had sometimes raised revolts or oppressed the local folk. This process brought more revenue directly into the royal coffers, allowing the shah to lower some taxes. Benefiting from peace at home and abroad, ՙAbbās could afford to shrink the military, even discharging some of the more advanced forces, such as the artillery corps. Thus, in his own reign, the danger posed by army revolts virtually evaporated

Increased revenue also allowed ՙAbbās to enlarge his patronage in the public arena by building or refurbishing palaces, mosques, marketplaces, schools, hospitals, and infrastructure, such as roads and bridges. Persian crafts in carpets, armor, ceramics, miniature paintings, and lacquerware still commanded high prices. Eşfahān, the Ṣafavid capital, reaped much of this largesse, including the Chehel Sotun (Forty Pillars) palace and gardens as well as several grand mosques. The Khaju bridge over the Zayandeh River was another architectural achievement. Architecture; Ṣafavid Dynasty[Safavid Dynasty] The emphasis on pious buildings, of course, was also intended to underline the religious charisma of the regime, a charisma that was being increasingly challenged by some of Persia’s Shia mujtahids

Like Ṣafavids before him, ՙAbbās claimed to rule in the name of the Hidden Imam of Shiism. After all, Iran was Shia now because the Ṣafavids had converted it from Sunni Islam, and that bold stroke certainly bespoke of divine favor and guidance. Indeed, some Ṣafavids had allowed their supporters to address them with titles and poems that suggested these shahs enjoyed such divine favor that they virtually incarnated the imam himself. ՙAbbās, too, allowed these flatteries and, as a demonstration of his own religious standing, he frequently violated Islamic traditions of religious toleration by imposing discriminatory restrictions on Jews, Zoroastrians, and non-Shia Muslims. At one point, he ordered all the Jews and Zoroastrians of Eşfahān to convert to Shiism, an act flagrantly in disregard of Qur՚ānic protections for religious minorities. Persecution, religious; Ṣafavid Dynasty[Safavid Dynasty]

However grateful they may have been to the Ṣafavids for imposing their Shia faith on Persia, a growing number of mujtahids refused to tolerate such political excesses. First, the absolutist claims of the shahs struck them as virtual blasphemy against the imam. They noted the moral degeneracy of many of the Ṣafavid shahs, insisting that no person, even the shah, dare place himself above God’s law. Second, they cataloged the offenses of the rulers, arguing that even good rulers still did evil things. Third, others began to posit that, since no secular ruler had the knowledge or uprightness to represent the Hidden Imam, then the most logical institution to provide truly inspired leadership had to be that of the shahs. How mujtahids would exercise such power was, of course, the question, and many religious leaders felt that the clergy should serve as advisers rather than take any formal leadership role. Nonetheless, some Muslim leaders had begun to challenge the divine-right absolutism of the shahs just as English Puritans, half a continent away, were defying the Stuarts over the religious vocabulary of political power

Shah ՙAbbās died at the age of thirty-three. Although not in the same league as some of the great debauchers of the Ṣafavid Dynasty, he, too, had begun to succumb to the temptations of indulgence and the arrogance of power. According to one story, the army had deteriorated so badly that, at one state parade held shortly before ՙAbbās’s death, the generals circled the same troops past him several times, hoping he would not notice

Like ՙAbbās, the son who succeeded him also was a teenager, Ṣafī II. Superstitious and decadent, he changed his regal title from Ṣafī II to Süleyman Süleyman I two years into his reign, hoping to reap the possible blessings that could come from changing his name—that of a despised tyrant—to that of a legendary statesman (Süleyman the Magnificent, who had reigned from 1520 to 1566). The strategy failed, however, and the regime slid into a downward spiral from which it never fully recovered, even though the dynasty survived five decades more.


The Reign of Shah ՙAbbās II saw the final flowering of Ṣafavid power and culture. ՙAbbās proved adept at making war as well as making peace. His reforms and reductions in the military, although self-serving, might have eventually led to a more loyal, professional corps. However, under less-vigilant supervision, the Ṣafavid army shrank to where it could not effectively defend the regime and intrigues between border units. Ṣafavid rivals soon led to repeated invasions and collapse.

The reign of ՙAbbās deserves note as well for key cultural and religious developments that remained vibrant through the following several centuries. The most persistent development is the long-standing tension and debate among Iranians over the proper political roles of religious and secular leaders in modern Iran.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arjomand, Said Amir. The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam: Political Order and Social Change in Shiite Iran from the Beginning to 1890. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. An excellent overview of religious and social issues within and beyond Iran.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Foran, John. “The Long Fall of the Safavid Dynasty: Moving Beyond the Standard Views.” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 24 (1992): 281-304. A good article that does not moralize about the character of individual shahs but instead seeks to find wider answers as to why the dynasty collapsed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morgan, David. Medieval Persia, 1040-1797. New York: Longman, 1994. An engaging narrative history that focuses on not only personalities but also social, ethnographic, economic, and religious matters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Savory, Roger. Iran Under the Safavids. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980. The English-language starting point for a general history of the dynasty and its rulers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shaw, Stanford J. History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey. Vol. 1. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976. Provides excellent, detailed analysis of primary sources.
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