When Slaves were Disciples: The Ghulam and the Qizilbash in the Safavid Realm

Activity: Talk or presentation typesInvited talk


Conventional narratives of Safavid history suggest that the turn of the seventeenth century signaled the dynasty’s turn way from the Qizilbash disciples whose ancestors paved the way for the family to establish a state a century before. These disciples were replaced, it is often said, by a new elite: military slaves or ghulam. The most powerful of these, deriving from landed military elites in the Caucasus, were appointed military and political power – including as chiefs of Qizilbash ‘tribes’. With some of these elites having been well acquainted with the customs of the Qizilbash, surprisingly little has been written about the relationship between the Qizilbash and the ghulam. This paper explores the Qizilbash-ghulam relationship and its development until the mid-seventeenth century to argue for an intertwined picture. Rather than viewing Safavid history as a zero-sum game, in which the dynasty distanced itself from their disciples to prioritize Imamate Shi’ism, what emerges is each side contending with political reforms by the dynasty both were ‘married’ into.
Period25 Apr 2022
Held atCollege of William and Mary, United States, Virginia