SUMMARY:The Safavid conquest of Iran in 1501 is held up as a watershed moment that religiopolitically transformed the Persianate world: Shah Isma'il's aggressive politics of polarization and strategic imposition of Twelver Shi'ism as state religion created a new Sunni-Shi'i binary that cleft early modern Islamdom and initiated a centuries-long Ottoman-Safavid conflict. While hindsight is not wrong in deeming 1501 a turning point, certainly, to contemporary actors -- naturally more attuned to continuities than to ruptures -- it was far from being so sharp or incontestable. During the decades bracketing the Safavid conquest the meaning of Shah Isma'il's political and religious claims was indeed fiercely contested by various observers and their implications only gradually constructed.
The present panel explores this contest by examining the evolving and alternating perspectives of self-exiled men of Persian letters on the one hand and Safavid propagandists on the other as they variously reviled, accommodated or promoted the emergence of the Safavids as shahs of Iran. As to the first: Because the Safaviyya sufi order rose to power as an extremist Shi'i military force in northwestern Iran in the last decades of the 15th century, the threat they presented was initially gravest for the Aqquyunlu Empire due both to geographic proximity and to Safavid claims to Aqquyunlu legitimacy (Shah Isma'il being, of course, Uzun Hasan's grandson). As a consequence, scholars connected to the Aqquyunlu court were the most discomfited, and hence the first to develop sophisticated forms of anti-Safavid and anti-Shi'i propaganda that would shape Ottoman-Safavid and Uzbek-Safavid politics throughout the 16th century. The most influential of these were two high-ranking members of the Aqquyunlu chancery: Fazl Allah Khunji Isfahani (d. 1521) and Idris Bidlisi (d. 1520). Upon the Safavid conquest, the first fled to Uzbek Transoxania, the second sought refuge with the Ottomans; while their strategies and emphases differed, both deployed their powerful literary talents to construct a comprehensive anti-Safavid platform for their Sunni patrons and push them to save Iran from the depraved Qizilbash horde. The Safavids, naturally, did not take such propagandizing lying down: they countered by launching a pro-Safavid propaganda campaign in Ottoman Anatolia, the original stronghold of the Turkmen Qizilbash. This campaign was successful to the point that the Ottomans were forced to come to terms with a permanent, healthy Qizilbash population within their own domains. Qizilbash countermeasures aside, however, even as late as 1520 a Safavid Iran did not appear inevitable.