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Qizilbash Definition

(Wikipedia) - Qizilbash For the surname, see Qizilbash (name) . For the related Iranian-Shi’i tariqa that led to the Safavid dynasty, see Safaviyya. The Fourteen Infallibles Principles Other beliefs Practices Holy cities Groups Scholarship Hadith collections Related topics
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Mannequin of a Safavid Qizilbash soldier, exhibited in Sa''dabad, Iran

Qizilbash or Kizilbash (sometimes also Qezelbash or Qazilbash) is the label given to a wide variety of Shi''i militant groups that flourished in Anatolia and Kurdistan from the late 13th century onwards, some of which contributed to the foundation of the Safavid dynasty of Iran.

  • 1 Etymology
  • 2 Origins
  • 3 Organization
  • 4 Beliefs
  • 5 "Turk & Tājīk"
  • 6 History
    • 6.1 The Beginnings
    • 6.2 The Battle of Chaldiran
    • 6.3 The deprivation of the Turcomans
    • 6.4 Qizilbash in the Mughal Empire
  • 7 Legacy
  • 8 See also
  • 9 References


The word Qizilbash is Ottoman Turkish (قزلباش; Turkish pronunciation: ), meaning "Crimson/Red Head".

The expression is derived from their distinctive twelve-gored crimson headwear (tāj or tark in Persian; sometimes specifically titled "Haydar''s Crown" /تاج حیدر Tāj-e Ḥaydar), indicating their adherence to the Twelve Imams and to Shaykh Haydar, the spiritual leader (sheikh) of the Safaviyya movement in accordance with the Twelver Shi''i doctrine of the Imamate. The name was originally a pejorative label given to them by their Sunni Ottoman foes, but soon it was adopted as a provocating mark of pride.


The origin of the Qizilbash can be dated from the 15th century onward, when the spiritual grandmaster of the movement, Haydar (the head of the Ṣafawiyyah Sufi order), organized his followers into militant troops.

Connections between the Qizilbash and other religious groups and secret societies, such as the Mazdaki movement in the Sasanian Empire, or its more radical offspring, the Persian Khurramites, have been suggested. Like the Qizilbash, the latter were an early Shi''i ghulat group and dressed in red, for which they were termed "the red-haired ones" (Arabic: محمره‎ muḥammirah) by medieval sources. In this context, Turkish scholar Abdülbaki Gölpinarli sees the Qizilbash as "spiritual descendants of the Khurramites".


The Qizilbash were a coalition of many different tribes of predominantly (but not exclusively) Turkic-speaking Azerbaijani background united in their adherence to Safavi Shia Islam.

As murids of the Safavi sheikhs (pirs), the Qizilbash owed implicit obedience to their leader in his capacity as their murshid-e kāmil "supreme spiritual director" and, after the establishment of the kingdom, as their padishah, changing the purely religious pir – murid relationship into a political one. As a consequence, any act of disobedience of the Qizilbash Sufis against the order of the spiritual grandmaster (Persian: nāsufigari "improper conduct of a Sufi") became "an act of treason against the king and a crime against the state", as was the case in 1614 when Padishah Abbas the Great put some followers to death.

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The Qizilbash adhered to heterodox Shi’i doctrines encouraged by the early Safavi sheikhs Haydar and his son Ismail I. They regarded their rulers as divine figures, and so were classified as ghulat "extremists" by orthodox Twelvers.

When Tabriz was taken, there was not a single book on Twelverism among the Qizilbash leaders. The book of the well known Iraqi scholar al-Hilli (1250-1325) was procured in the town library to provide religious guidance to the state. The imported Shi''i ulama did not participate in the formation of Safavid religious policies during the early formation of the state. However, ghulat doctrines were later forsaken and Arab Twelver ulama from Lebanon, Iraq, and Bahrain were imported in increasing numbers to bolster orthodox Twelver practice and belief.

"Turk & Tājīk"Shah Ismail I, the Sheikh of the Safavi tariqa, founder of the Safavid Dynasty of Iran, and the Commander-in-chief of the Qizilbash armies.

Among the Qizilbash, Turcoman tribes from Eastern Anatolia and Azerbaijan who had helped Ismail I defeat the Aq Qoyunlu tribe were by far the most important in both number and influence and the name Qizilbash is usually applied exclusively to them. Some of these greater Turcoman tribes were subdivided into as many as eight or nine clans, including:

  • Ustādjlu
  • Rūmlu
  • Shāmlu (the most powerful clan during the reign of Shah Ismail I.)
  • Dulkadir (Arabic: Dhu ''l-Kadar)
  • Afshār
  • Qājār
  • Takkalu

Other tribes – such as the Turkman, Bahārlu, Qaramānlu, Warsāk, and Bayāt – were occasionally listed among these "seven great uymaqs".

Some of these names consist of a place-name with addition of the Turkish suffix -lu, such as Shāmlu or Bahārlu. Other names are those of old Oghuz tribes such as the Afshār, Dulghadir, or Bayāt, as mentioned by the medieval Uyghur historian Mahmud al-Kashgari. The origin of the name Ustādjlu, however, is unknown, and possibly indicates a non-Turkic origin of the tribe.

The non-Turkic Iranian tribes among the Qizilbash were called Tājīks by the Turcomans and included:

  • Tālish
  • The Lurs
  • Siāh-Kuh (Karādja-Dagh)
  • certain Kurdish tribes
  • certain Persian families and clans

The rivalry between the Turkic clans and Persian nobles was a major problem in the Safavid kingdom. As V. Minorsky put it, friction between these two groups was inevitable, because the Turcomans "were no party to the national Persian tradition". Shah Ismail tried to solve the problem by appointing Persian wakils as commanders of Qizilbash tribes. The Turcomans considered this an insult and brought about the death of 3 of the 5 Persians appointed to this office – an act that later inspired the deprivation of the Turcomans by Shah Abbas I.

HistoryA Safavid - Kızılbaş (Qizilbash) soldier.The Beginnings

In the 15th century, Ardabil was the center of an organization designed to keep the Safavi leadership in close touch with its murids in Azerbaijan, Iraq, Eastern Anatolia and elsewhere. The organization was controlled through the office of khalīfāt al-khulafā''ī who appointed representatives (khalīfa) in regions where Safavi propaganda was active. The khalīfa, in turn, had subordinates termed pira. The Safavi presence in eastern Anatolia posed a serious threat to the Ottoman Empire because they encouraged the Shi''i population of Asia Minor to revolt against the sultan.

In 1499, Ismail, the young leader of the Safavi order, left Lahijan for Ardabil to make a bid for power. By the summer of 1500, about 7000 supporters from the local Turcoman tribes of Anatolia, Syria and Iraq – collectively called "Qizilbash" by their enemies – rallied to his support. Leading his troops on a punitive campaign against the Shīrvanshāh (ruler of Shirvan), he sought revenge for the death of his father and his grandfather in Shīrvan. After defeating the Shīrvanshāh Farrukh Yassar, he moved south into Azarbaijan, where his 7000 Qizilbash warriors defeated a force of 30,000 Aq Qoyunlu under Alwand Mirzā and conquered Tabriz. This was the beginning of the Safavid state.

In the first decade of the 16th century, the Qizilbash expanded Safavid rule over the rest of Greater Iran as well as Baghdad and Iraq, formerly under Aq Qoyunlu control.

In 1510 Shah Ismail sent a large force of the Qizilbash to Transoxiania to support the Timurid ruler Babur in his war against the Uzbeks. The Qizilbash defeated the Uzbeks and secured Samarkand for Babur at the Battle of Marv. However, in 1512, an entire Qizilbash army was annihilated by the Uzbeks after Turcoman Qizilbash had mutinied against their Persian wakil and commander Najm-e Thani at the Battle of Ghazdewan. This defeat put an end to Safavid expansion and influence in Transoxania and left the northeastern frontiers of the kingdom vulnerable to nomad invasions.

The Battle of Chaldiran Main article: Battle of Chaldiran

Meanwhile, the Safavid da''wa (propaganda) continued in Ottoman areas – with great success. Even more alarming for the Ottomans was the successful conversion of Turcoman tribes in eastern Anatolia and Iraq, and the recruitment of these well experienced and feared fighters into the growing Safavid army. In order to stop the Safavid propaganda, Sultan Bayezid II deported large numbers of the Shi''i population of Asia Minor to Morea. However, in 1507, Shah Ismail and the Qizilbash overran large areas of Kurdistan, defeating regional Ottoman forces. Only two years later in Central Asia, the Qizilbash defeated the Uzbeks at Merv, killing their leader Muhammad Shaybani and destroying his dynasty. His head was sent to the Ottoman sultan as a warning.

In 1511, an Alevi revolt known as Shahkulu Uprising broke out in Teke and was brutally suppressed by the Ottomans: 40,000 were massacred on the order of the sultan. Shah Ismail sought to turn the chaos within the Ottoman Empire to his advantage and invaded Anatolia. The Qizilbash defeated a large Ottoman army under Sinan Pasha. Shocked by this heavy defeat, Sultan Selim I (the new ruler of the Empire) decided to invade Persia with a force of 200,000 Ottomans and face the Qizilbash on their own soil. In addition, he ordered the persecution of Shi''ism and the massacre of all its adherents in the Ottoman Empire.

On the 20 August 1514 (1st Rajab 920 A.H.), the two armies met at Chaldiran in Azarbaijan. The Ottomans -equipped with both firearms and cannon- were reported to outnumber the Qizilbash as much as three to one. The Qizilbash were heavily defeated; casualties included many high-ranking Qizilbash amirs as well as three influential ulamā.

The defeat destroyed Shah Ismail''s belief in his own invincibility and divine status. It also fundamentally altered the relationship between the murshid-e kāmil and his murids.

The deprivation of the Turcomans

Ismail I tried to reduce the power of the Turcomans by appointing Iranians to the vakil office. However, the Turcomans did not like having an Iranian to the most powerful office of the Safavid Empire, and kept murdering many Iranians who were appointed to that office. After the death of Ismail, the Turkomans managed to seize power from the Iranians, they were however, defeated by Tahmasp I, the son of Ismail.

For almost ten years after the Battle of Chaldiran, rival Qizilbash factions fought for control of the kingdom. In 1524, 10-year-old Shah Tahmasp I, the governor of Herat, succeeded his father Ismail. He was the ward of the powerful Qizilbash amir Ali Beg Rūmlū (titled "Div Soltān") who was the de facto ruler of the Safavid kingdom. However, Tahmasp managed to reassert his authority over the state and over the Qizilbash.

During the reign of Shah Tahmasp, the Qizilbash fought a series of wars on two fronts and – with the poor resources available to them – successfully defended their kingdom against the Uzbeks in the east, and against the Ottomans in the west. With the Treaty of Amasya, peace between Safavids and Ottomans remained for the rest of Tahmasp''s reign. During Tahmasp'' reign, he carried out multiple invasions in the Caucasus which had been incorporated in the Safavid empire since Shah Ismail I and for many centuries afterwards, and started with the trend of deporting and moving hundreds of thousands of Circassians, Georgians, and Armenians to Iran''s heartlands. Initially only solely put in the royal harems, royal guards, and minor other sections of the Empire, Tahmasp believed he could eventually reduce the power of the Qizilbash, by creating and fully integrating a new layer in Persian society with these Caucasian elements and who would question the power and hegemony of the tribal Qizilbash. Shah Abbas I and his successors would significantly expand this policy, deporting during his reign alone around some 200,000 Georgians, 300,000 Armenians and 100,000-150,000 Circassians to Iran. With this, and the complete systematic disorganisation of the Qizilbash by his personal orders, he eventually fully succeeded in replacing the power of the Qizilbash, with that of the Caucasian ghulams. These new Caucasian elements (the so-called ghilman / غِلْمَان / "servants"), almost always after conversion to Shi''ism depending on given function would be, unlike the Qizilbash, fully loyal only to the Shah. This system of mass usage of Caucasian subjects remained to exist until the fall of the Qajar Dynasty.

Inter-tribal rivalry of the Turcomans, the attempt of Persian nobles to end the Turcoman dominance, and constant succession conflicts went on for another 10 years after Tahmasp''s death. This heavily weakened the Safavid state and made the kingdom vulnerable to external enemies: the Ottomans attacked and conquered Azerbaijan, the Uzbeks conquered Khorasan, including Balkh and Herat.

In 1588, Shah Abbas I came to power. He appointed the Governor of Herat and his former guardian and tutor, Alī Quli Khān Shāmlū (also known as Hājī Alī Qizilbāsh Mazandarānī) the chief of all the armed forces. Later on, events of the past, including the role of the Turcomans in the succession struggles after the death of his father, and the counterbalancing influence of traditional Ithnāʻashari Shia Sayeds, made him determined to end the dominance of the untrustworthy Turcoman chiefs in Persia wich Tahmasp had already started decades before him. In order to weaken the Turcomans – the important militant elite of the Safavid kingdom – Shah Abbas further raised a standing army, personal guard, Queen-Mothers, Harems and full civil administration from the ranks of these ghilman who were usually ethnic Circassians, Georgians, and Armenians, both men and women, whom he and his predeseccors had taken captive en masse during their wars in the Caucasus, and would systematically replace the Qizilbash from their functions with converted Circassians and Georgians. The new army and civil administration would be fully loyal to the king personally and not to the clan-chiefs anymore.

The reorganisation of the army also ended the independent rule of Turcoman chiefs in the Safavid provinces, and instead centralized the administration of those provinces.

Shah Tahmasp I provides the exiled Mughal Emperor Humayun, 12,000 Qizilbash

Ghulams were appointed to high positions within the royal household, and by the end of Shah Abbas'' reign, one-fifth of the high-ranking amirs were ghulams. By 1598 an ethnic Armenian from Georgia had risen to the position of commander-in-chief of all Safawid armed forces. The offices of wakil and amir al-umarā fell in disuse and were replaced by the office of a Sipahsālār (Persian: سپهسالار‎, master of the army), commander-in-chief of all armed forces – Turcoman and Non-Turcoman – and usually held by a Persian (Tādjik) noble.

The Turcoman Qizilbash remained an important part of the Safavid executive apparatus. The Afshār and Qājār rulers of Persia who succeeded the Safavids, stemmed from a Qizilbash background. Many other Qizilbash – Turcoman and Non-Turcoman – were settled in eastern cities such as Kabul and Kandahar during the conquests of Nadir Shah, and remained there as consultants to the new Afghan crown after the Shah''s death. Others joined the Mughal emperors of India and became one of the most influential groups of the Mughal court until the British conquest of India.

Qizilbash in the Mughal Empire

The first Mughal Emperor Babur is known to have attained battalions of elite Qizilbash during the Battle of Ghazdewan, they then served during the Battle of Panipat (1526) and particularly during the Battle of Khanwa where the Mughal Empire won a decisive victory against armed Rajput''s led by Rana Sanga.

In the year 1556, Qizilbash troopers are known to have served victoriously under the command of the teenage Mughal Emperor Akbar during the Second Battle of Panipat against armed Rajput''s led by Hemu.

Later onward''s Ahmad Shah Durrani also sought the assistance of the Qizilbash during the Third Battle of Panipat against the Maratha Confederacy, once again those Qizilbash were conscripted by the Mughal Grand Vizier, Shuja-ud-Daula in service of the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II.

Legacy AfghanistanMohammad Naib Sharif, leader of the Qizilbash group in Afghanistan during the First Anglo-Afghan War of 1839–42

Qizilbash in Afghanistan live in urban areas, such as Kabul, Herat or Mazari Sharif, as well as in certain villages in Hazarajat. They are descendants of the troops left behind by Nadir Shah during his "Indian campaign" in 1738. Afghanistan''s Qizilbash held important posts in government offices in the past, and today engage in trade or are craftsmen. Since the creation of Afghanistan, they constitute an important and politically influential element of society. Estimates of their population vary from 60,000 to 200,000. They are Persian-speaking Shi''i Muslims and are usually linked to the Fārsīwāns and Tājīks of the country.

Sir Mountstuart Elphinstone described the Qizilbash of Kabul in the beginning of the 19th century as "a colony of Turks," who spoke "Persian, and among themselves Turkish." Described as learned, affluent, and influential, they appear to have abandoned their native Turkish language in favour of Persian, and became "in fact Persianized Turks". Lady Florentia Sale (wife of Sir Robert Henry Sale) and Vincent Eyre – both companions of Sir Mountstuart Elphinstone – described the Qizilbash of Afghanistan also as "Persians, of Persian descent".

The influence of the Qizilbash in the government created resentment among the ruling Pashtun clans, especially after the Qizilbash openly allied themselves with the British during the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839–1842). During Abdur Rahman Khan''s massacre of the Shi''i minorities in Afghanistan, the Qizilbash were declared "enemies of the state" and were persecuted and hunted by the government and by the Sunni majority.


Between the late seventeenth century and 1822 the term “ Qizilbash” was also used in Ottoman administrative documents to identify Twelver (Imami) Shiites in what is today Lebanon. The Ottomans were aware they had no link to the Anatolian or Iranian Qizilbash, employing the term only as a means to delegitimize them or justify punitive campaigns against them. In the early eighteenth century, a part of northern Lebanon is even described as the “Kızılbaş mukataa” tax district.


see: Alevis

Some contemporary Alevi and Bektashi leaning religious or ethnic minorities in Anatolia are referred to, pejoratively, as Qizilbash.

It has been reported that, among the Ottoman Turks, kızılbaş has become something of a derogatory term and can be applied to groups that aren''t necessarily associated with the Kazilbash of Central Asia. The Bektaşi in Turkey are often referred to as Kızılbaşi

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