CALIPHS AND THE CALIPHATE, as viewed by the Shiʿites of Persia.

Shiʿite attitudes in rejection of the legitimacy of the first three caliphs, as well as the caliphs of the Omayyad and ʿAbbasid dynasties, first entered Persia toward the end of the Omayyad period with the establishment there of the earliest Shiʿite communities. During the period of Buyid supremacy in Baghdad, the various rites per­formed by the Shiʿite community of that city in commemoration of the imams and condemnation of the caliphs were presumably imitated by Shiʿites living in the Persian portions of the Buyid domains, but there is no record of this. We know, however, that in the Saljuq period singers and poets known as manāqebḵᵛāns would publicly recite verses that often had as their corollary abuse of the caliphs (Ketāb al-naqż, quoted by Bausani, p. 293). This was, in a sense, inevitable, since tawallā (proclamation of loyalty to the imams) has its com­plement in tabarrā (proclamation of dissociation from their enemies).

The recitation of such material continued throughout the Mongol period. Although Sunnites, especially Sufis among them, displayed increasing respect for the Twelve Imams of Shiʿite belief, there was no reciprocal grant of esteem by Shiʿites toward the first three caliphs. Indeed, when the Safavids imposed Shiʿite beliefs on Iran at the beginning of the 10th/16th century, the ritual cursing of the first three caliphs (as well as ʿĀʾeša, wife of the Prophet, and many other of his companions) became both a hallmark of Safavid rule and a means for eliciting consent to the change in religious direction. On the first Friday after his conquest of Tabrīz in 907/1501, Shah Esmāʿīl assembled the people of the city in the Masjed-e Jāmeʿ and instructed them to curse the first three caliphs. One third of those assembled did so willingly enough, lustily shouting, “may it (the cursing) be more, not less” (bīš bād o kam mabād), a phrase that was to become the conventional response to the rite of cursing. The remaining two-thirds of the congregation joined in only from fear of the heavily armed Qezelbāš and a special officer of the shah called tabarrāʾī who patrolled the mosque carrying a battle-axe (ʿĀlamārā-ye Ṣafawī, pp. 63-65). Similar scenes were enacted elsewhere in Persia, and every major provincial city had its own tabarrāʾī.

A temporary reversal of policy took place under Shah Esmāʿīl II (r. 984-85/1576-78), who posted guards in the mosques of Qazvīn to prevent the caliphs from being vilified and rewarded inhabitants of the city who could prove they had never engaged in the practice (Hinz, pp. 78-79). Before long, however, the cursing of the caliphs and the sentiments it implied became absorbed into the religious culture of the masses, being sustained not only by the official tabarrāʾīs but also by wandering dervishes who perpetuated the traditions of the manāqebḵᵛāns.

The Safavid interpretation of tabarrā as sabb (vilification) or laʿn (cursing) appears to have been an innovation, derived—like much else in early Safavid religion—from the traditions of ḡolāt (extremist) Shiʿism rather than those of Twelver Shiʿite belief. Certainly the emphasis placed on it was new. Shaikh ʿAlī Karakī found it necessary, in 917/1511, to write a treatise demonstrating the obligatory nature of cursing (Ḵatūnābādī, p. 448). A century and a half later, Moḥammad-Bāqer Majlesī devoted substantial por­tions of his books in Persian to the vilification of the first three caliphs, including a vast amount of fantastic and defamatory material not found in earlier Shiʿite sources (see, e.g., pp. 154-219).

The ritual cursing of the first three caliphs was a lasting irritant in the relations of Persia with its Sunnite neighbors, especially the Ottoman empire. Sabb and laʿn figured prominently in the Ottoman polemical writings (some penned by Sunnite refugees from Persia) that were directed against the Safavids, and on several occasions—notably the Treaty of Amasya in 963/1555—the Ottomans insisted on Persian abandon­ment of the practice as a condition for concluding peace (Eberhard, pp. 104-07). It was not until the time of Nāder Shah (1148-60/1736-47) that a sustained attempt was made from within Persia, independently of Otto­man pressure, to ban the cursing of the first three caliphs. Motivated by a variety of political consider­ations, Nāder Shah demanded at his coronation in 1148/1736 that the ritual vilification of the first three caliphs should cease and even that the Shiʿite ʿolamāʾ of Persia should recognize the legitimacy of their rule (Astarābādī, p. 270; Marvī, III, pp. 978-88). His command was obeyed, by way of taqīya (dissimulation), but the practices of sabb and laʿn were resumed after his death in 1160/1747.

One measure of the penetration of popular culture by hostility to the caliphs was a festival in commemoration of the assassination of the Caliph ʿOmar by Abū Loʾloʾ, to whom a shrine was dedicated on the outskirts of Kāšān (Narāqī, pp. 186-88). This festival, known as ʿOmar-košān (killing ʿOmar), is said varyingly to have been celebrated on 26 Ḏu’l-ḥejja and 9 or 10 Rabīʿ I. Effigies of ʿOmar stuffed with straw would be beaten and then burnt to the accompaniment of ribald and abusive poetry, as well as entertainments of an entirely secular nature (Massé, I, pp. 166-69; Rezvani, pp. 105-­07). The festival of ʿOmar-košān formed a burlesque counterpart of the taʿzīa, the dramatic com­memoration of the martyrdom of Imam Ḥosayn. Although the principal target of execration in the taʿzīa was always the Omayyad caliph Yazīd and his associ­ates, material hostile to the first three caliphs was sometimes incorporated into the taʿzīa.

In the Qajar period, peace was finally established with the Ottomans, and religiously inspired hostility came to be redirected against the European powers that were encroaching on Persian independence. There was there­fore a gradual discarding of ritually expressed hostility to the first three caliphs. Elements offensive to Sunnite sentiment were purged from the taʿzīas performed at the court takīya in Tehran; the cursing of the caliphs after the call to prayer was prohibited during the reign of Nāṣer-al-Dīn Shah (1264-1313/1848-96); and by the early twentieth century the festival of ʿOmar-košān ceased to be observed in the chief cities of Persia, although it probably persisted in the countryside for considerably longer. By 1319/1902, attitudes had changed sufficiently to permit some of the Shiʿite ʿolamāʾ to regard the Ottoman sultan-caliph as the potential political leader of all Muslims (Algar, p. 231). The rise of Islamic activism in Persia after World War II with its concern for pan-Islamic solidarity hastened the demise of old habits of the tongue and the mind, and by 1349 Š./1970 Ayatollah Ḵomeynī (p. 56) was able to refer to Abū Bakr and ʿOmar as men who had “adhered to the example of the Prophet in the outer conduct of their personal lives.” Derogatory references to the caliphs are now scrupulously avoided at all levels of official and semi-official discourse in the Islamic Republic.



H. Algar, Religion and State in Iran, 1785-1906. The Role of the Ulama in the Qajar Period, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1969.

ʿĀlamārā-ye Ṣafawī, ed. Y. Šokrī, Tehran, 1350 Š./1971.

J. Aubin, “La politique religieuse des safavides,” Le Shiʿisme imamite, ed. T. Fahd, Paris, 1970, pp. 235-43.

Mīrzā Mahdī Khan Astarābādī, Jahāngošā-ye nāderī, ed. ʿA. Anwār, Tehran, 1341 Š./1962.

A. Bausani, “Re­ligion in the Saljuq Period,” in Camb. Hist. Iran V, pp. 283-302.

E. Eberhard, Osmanische Polemik gegen die Safawiden im 16. Jahrhundert nach arabischen Handschriften, Freiburg im Breisgau, 1970.

W. Hinz, “Schah Esma’il II. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Safaviden,” Mitteilungen des Seminars für orientali­sche Sprachen 36, 1933, pp. 19-100.

ʿA.-Ḥ. Ḵātūnā­bādī, Waqāyeʿ al-sanīn wa’l-aʿwām, Tehran, 1352 Š./1973.

Ayatollah Ḵomeynī, Ḥokūmat-e eslāmī, Najaf, 1391/1971.

Moḥammad-Bāqer Majlesī, Ḥaqq al-yaqīn, Tehran, 1347 Š./1968.

Moḥammad-Kāẓem Marvī Wazīr-e Marv, ʿĀlamārā-ye nāderī, ed. M.-A. Rīāḥī, 3 vols., Tehran, 1364 Š./1985.

H. Massé, Croyances et coutumes persanes, Paris, 1938.

Ḥ. Narāqī, Āṯār-e tārīḵī-e šahrestānhā-ye Kāšān o Naṭanz, Tehran, 1348 Š./1969.

M. Rezvani, Le théâtre et la danse en Iran, Paris, 1962.

(Hamid Algar)

Originally Published: December 15, 1990

Last Updated: December 15, 1990

This article is available in print.
Vol. IV, Fasc. 7, pp. 677-679