It is not a simple matter to collapse the events of a 42-year reign within the compass of a very short book aimed at the general reader, especially if that reign is one of ceaseless activity and continual, complex interventions on a range of issues, from military campaigns, urban planning, economic affairs and international diplomacy to the politics of art and religion. One could imagine doing the same for another reign of comparable length, such as Shāhrukh’s, the youngest son of Tīmūr (r. 1405–47), who fought his way to power and left behind a flourishing state in eastern Iran—but whose personality is entirely elusive, despite excellent studies of his reign, which was not, of course, uneventful (see, for example, the fine book by Beatrice Manz, Power, Religion and Politics in Timurid Iran, Cambridge, 2007). Perhaps the contrast is due to the different nature and range of the sources available for these two monarchs living 150 years apart. For Shāh ʿAbbās, we have the benefit of many travel accounts and archives of the missionaries and merchants who engaged with Iran to supplement the traditional approach of the Persian chronicles. Notwithstanding these factors, Shāh ʿAbbās was a doer, a builder, a man of action, who left the stamp of his powerful personality on the events of his time and on the imagination of future generations. Though Shāhrukh must have been an impressive figure too, we do not have so strong an impression, as we do from contemplating Shāh ʿAbbās, that ‘l’état, c’est moi!’ If there is a regret on reading and rereading Sholeh Quinn’s engaging attempt to achieve multum in parvo, it is perhaps that this forcefulness and vigour does not really emerge from her succinct account of all the deeds of his reign. She gives us an excellent summary of all the highlights of the period, in a well-ordered and coherent narrative; there is a little bit about everything of importance that has to be included in a comprehensive account of his achievements and it is hard to think of the omissions—although there were failures too, such as his expedition against Balkh in 1602, which ended in an ignominious withdrawal. Clearly, there were natural limits on how far Safavid power could be projected. ‘Highlights’, of course, are never the same as the whole opera, but the trouble here is that there are so many highlights that none of them can be given the full treatment. One way round this might be to focus on how he achieved what he did, and exactly how ‘his policies and actions altered the political, religious, social, and cultural landscapes of Safavid Iran’ (p. 121, also p. 54). His mercurial and contradictory character is one aspect of this—it is, after all, a biography of ʿAbbās and not just an account of his reign—and drawing a sharper contrast between Iran before and after Shāh ʿAbbās might be another. The material for such an analysis is all there; it becomes a matter of emphasis. The recent British Museum exhibition and splendid catalogue produced by Sheila Canby went under the title, Shah ʿAbbas. The Remaking of Iran (London, 2009), echoed in Quinn’s ‘refashioned’. It would be welcome, and appropriate, to spend some space debating what this refashioning or remaking consisted of. What permanent differences did ʿAbbas make to Iranian history, as opposed to reinvigorating the Safavid dynasty and putting it, briefly at least, on something approaching a par with the wealthier and more powerful neighbouring Ottoman and Mughal Empires? It could be argued that he merely overcame the problems recently generated by his unfortunate predecessors (especially Muḥammad Khudābanda) and restored the path on which the Safavid state was set by his grandfather, Ṭahmāsp. He recovered the territories secured by Ṭahmāsp, ardently promoted Twelver Shi‘ism while still asserting his royal authority and developed a new capital in the way that Ṭahmāsp had beautified and favoured Qazvin, the physical evidence of which is now sadly lost. He continued Ṭahmāsp’s policy of developing a ghulām force to counter the unruliness of the Qizilbāsh—a problem faced by every new dynasty from the ʿAbbasids onwards, of working out how to deal with the military elements that brought them to power while trying to establish a centralized bureaucratic government and at the same time retain coercive strength. We can never know what would have happened if the young Shāh ʿAbbās had indeed been eliminated along with the other princes on the orders of Ismāʿīl II, but if such a strong figure had not emerged, presumably we would have witnessed some such political fragmentation as occurred on the collapse of the Ilkhanate in the 1340s (Quinn, p. 2, puts this rather early, in the late thirteenth century: the high point of Ghāzān’s reign) and, indeed, when the Safavid kingdom did eventually fall apart in the eighteenth century. In the greater flow of Iranian history, therefore, Shāh ʿAbbās was undoubtedly a success, and his vigour, cunning, opportunism, openness to the outside world, and stimulus of internal and international trade gave Safavid rule a glorious moment; but was he a game-changer in the long run? Of course, we also know what happened next; and the topic of his legacy is a necessary part of the assessment. There is no need to dwell on this here; the excellent book by Rudi Matthee (Persia in Crisis. Safavid Decline and the Fall of Isfahan, London: I.B. Tauris, 2012) explores the subject at length. Suffice it to say that although the system continued to work well enough, thanks to the quality of the bureaucrats who ran affairs—it would be nice to have heard a bit more about some of Shāh ʿAbbās’s own administrators and his reliance on men such as Ḥātim Beg Urdūbadī and his son, Abū Tālib, who served Shāh ʿAbbās altogether for 30 years—his successors were not of his calibre. His policy of keeping the princes in the palace under close surveillance is partly responsible for this—not to mention his killing one and blinding two others. His own dangerous childhood as a puppet in the hands of the Qizilbāsh doubtless explains his neurosis—the career of al-Mālik al-Nāṣir Muḥammad, the Mamluk sultan (d. 1341), offers an interesting parallel of a ruler who was installed and uninstalled on the throne before seizing power himself and then doing his utmost to consolidate it in his own person, together with the resources of the state—but one must wonder what Shāh ʿAbbās thought about how to preserve his legacy. It would be good to know how well he knew his grandson and heir, Ṣafī. Another useful book for a general public, by David Blow, characterizes Shāh ʿAbbās as ‘the ruthless king’ (I.B. Tauris, 2009). In this regard, Sholeh Quinn gives ʿAbbās an easy ride, passing no value judgements on his treatment of his children (pp. 119–20), nor on his elimination of such loyal and valuable commanders as Farhād Khān (pp. 84–5), or the suffering caused to thousands of Armenians deported to Isfahan (pp. 55–6) or the massacres and depopulations in Georgia (p. 113). By the standards of the time, perhaps, such excesses were not remarkable, and certainly the Ottomans routinely eliminated their siblings on becoming sultan. ʿAbbās was obviously an effective ruler and clearly the decision maker in all aspects of policy—but did he rule by fear and unpredictability, or by winning the admiration and even love of his subjects? A thought-provoking paper by Giorgio Rota has recently drawn attention to the fact that Shāh ʿAbbās, for all his skills as a military commander, seldom if ever took part in the fighting himself, leaving this to his generals (‘The mask of Shāh ʿAbbās I’ in M. Szuppe et al. (eds.), Mediaeval and Modern Iranian Studies. Proceedings of the 6th European Conference of Iranian Studies (Vienna, 2007) [Paris, 2011], pp. 167–78). It was important for the Shāh, naturally, to avoid unnecessary risks, but this may not have been how the troops saw it; perhaps this is why, in the later seventeenth century, a series of popular illustrated histories of Shāh Ismāʿīl was produced, celebrating his charismatic leadership and heroic exploits, but surprisingly, no such works appeared about Shāh ʿAbbās, the ‘saviour’ of the Safavid state. Quinn has a good chapter on the construction of Isfahan (pp. 43–60), certainly representing Shāh ʿAbbās’s personal vision and for me, the lasting monument to his reign. There is little to take issue with here (or with the rest of her meticulously crafted survey), though it might have been worth noting that the new bazaar fulfilled the important role of joining the new city (and the new Friday mosque) to the old (p. 53), and that the old Friday mosque continued to be patronized and adorned by the Safavid rulers. Some recent research has suggested that rather than two building campaigns on the Maidan-i Naqsh-i Jahan, work was more or less continuous, and the progress regularly monitored by the Shāh (see my ‘New light on Shah ʿAbbas and the construction of Isfahan’, Muqarnas 33 : 155–76). Whatever the case, this shows Shāh ʿAbbās at his most attractive: creative, enthusiastic, thinking big and impatient with all obstacles. In sum, Sholeh Quinn’s book admirably summarizes the career of Shāh ʿAbbās and allows us to think further about what motivated this remarkable ruler, and it will stimulate the general audience to whom it is addressed. She has successfully achieved her aims (p. xvi) and presented ʿAbbās as a worthy addition—as the cover puts it—to the roster of ‘men and women throughout history who have made a significant contribution to the political, intellectual and religious landscape of the Muslim world.’ © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Journal of Islamic Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 5, 2018
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