Shi’ism’s Politicization

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Sharif Fatourehchi

This essay is part of the MEPC’s Emerging Voices series, highlighting scholarship from rising academics focused on Middle Eastern studies. Author Sharif Fatourehchi is an undergraduate students of Political Science and Economics at The University of Toronto. He engages in reading and research on Middle Eastern political economics, energy economics, and Iranian domestic and foreign policy.

Iran, after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, has been accurately described as a Shi’i state both in the majority of citizens’ religiose beliefs and official state governance. Shi’ism within the Middle East plays a far greater role than merely a belief system for its citizens; it has a fundamental political trait that allows the Iranian regime to incorporate it within their domestic and foreign affairs and distinguishes them from other Arab Sunni majority countries. However, the politicization of Shi’ism is not a modern phenomenon that can be solely attributed to the current regime in Iran. The employment of Shi’ism will be demonstrated for the purpose of gaining political power in a historical context. This will be carried out through an analysis of the political function Shi’ism served under Safavid rule and how the historical suppression of Shi’is’ self-proclaimed right to rule motivated the Safavid to employ Shi’ism as a means to exercise power.   

By the time the Safavids declared Shi’ism as their official religion, there were historical grievances within the Shi’i community vis-a-vis leadership of the Islamic community as well as a doctrinal belief in Shi’i leadership ushering “in a period of just rule.”[1] Following the assassination of Ali in 661 CE, Muʿawiya, the Governor of modern-day Syria during Uthman’s reign and rival to Ali’s succession after Uthman’s assassination, seized leadership;  Shi’is were subjected to rule they did not fully deem legitimate due to the absence of familial ties to the Prophet.[2] This continued throughout the dynasty and persisted in the later Abbasid dynasty.[3] Although there were sporadic cases of Shi’i-inspired mini-empires within the Abbasid Empire, the Fatimids in 1003 CE and the Hamdanid dynasty in 890 CE for instance, they were never completely free from Sunni authority.[4] Though, the presence of these mini-empires could possibly point to a Shi’i desire to exercise power and autonomy. 

The origins of the sect can also be primarily traced back to a complex power struggle for, what was asserted by the followers as, the rightful place of Ali as the caliph. This power struggle spurred a debate on the “imamate and leadership.”[5] The Shi’is claimed that the community should be ruled by the Prophet’s family and thus, dismissing the legitimacy of the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasty and even the three caliphs that came after the death of the Prophet.[6] These are the foundational underpinnings of Shi’ism. Throughout the development of the sect, theological differences and variances in rituals began to form. However, it is evident that the parting of the Islamic community and the growth of a Sunni-Shi’i divide was a matter of legitimacy of rule and a complex struggle for power. Therefore, there exists a historical bedrock for the use of Shi’ism as a means of exercising power.

The Safavids utilized the evolving denominations of Islam to “[begin] the pattern of confessionalization,” a pattern that would allow them to distinguish themselves from the Sunni Ottomans and allow for the growth of a national identity.”[7] Their revolutionary agenda consisted of addressing the Shi’i grievances of the family of the Prophet.[8] The Safavids substituted rituals, publicly condemned Ali’s enemies and employed other methods to build up a sense of unity and opposition to Sunni authorities.[9] The development of this Shi’i identity allowed the Safavids to root their legitimacy to religious affiliation and therefore building a “politico-religious” foundation in the Iranian national identity and strengthening their geopolitical foothold. [10] 

As a consequence of the state representing an official religion, the Shi’i scholars as well became gradually politicized and “complicit in political power.”[11] Nadir Shah, after becoming de facto ruler, attempted “to integrate a radically ‘reformed’ Shi’ism into mainstream Sunni Islam” as a primary method to lead the Islamic community.[12] This presents valid proof for the employment of Shi’ism as an agent of power. Whether or not this was the intention of the Safavids is unknown and can be debated. However, it is evident that the historical foundation of Shi’ism and the proclamation of Shi’ism as the official state religion of the empire provided legitimation from a community of Muslims with a desire to live under Shi’i free from what they claimed to be, the illegitimate authority of the Sunni’s.

The Safavid imposition of Shi’ism in the region known in modern-day as Iran can be viewed as a precursor to what we are witnessing in the Islamic Republic following the Islamic Revolution of 1979.[13] A state with Shi’ism as its official religion whilst employing it, not solely for theological and religious matters like implementing Sharia, but to gain legitimacy through religious affiliation. Parallels can even be drawn with the politico-religiose climate in the modern-day Middle East. 

Iran has become the flag bearer of opposition to Arab Sunni rule through regional confrontation both directly and by proxy. Parallels can be found with the circumstances that allowed the Safavids to maintain power in opposition to the Sunni Ottomans. Shi’ism has a theological underpinning that differentiates itself from Sunni Muslims and this very distinction has allowed the seekers of power to employ it to gain legitimacy and, once attained, keep hold of their power. Shi’ism has a historical foundation of grievance and struggle when leadership is in question; therefore, this foundation enables it to be politicized effectively. This politicization was carried out by the Safavids in the past and is currently in action in the modern Islamic Republic of Iran.



Amir-Moezzi, Mohammad Ali, Christian Jambet. “The Historical Evolution of Shiism.” In What is Shi’i Islam? An Introduction, 103-119. London: Routledge, 2018.

Haider, Najjam. “The Politicization of the Twelver Shi’a.” In Shi’i Islam: An Introduction, 200-217. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Hughes, Aaron W. “Islam Beyond the Arabian Peninsula: A Historical Overview.” In Muslim Identities: An Introduction to Islam, 95-114. Columbia: Columbia University Press, 2013.

Saeed, Abdullah. “Political Thought.” In Islamic Thought: An Introduction, 113-124. London: Routledge, 2006.

Streusand, Douglas E. “The Safavid Empire.” In Islamic Gunpowder Empires, 135-200. London: Routledge, 2010.

Waines, David. “Empires of the Sultans.” In An Introduction to Islam, 184-196. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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