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Article: A Royal Qur’an in Contest

קוראן מלכותי בעין הסערה

A Royal Qur’an in Contest

Samuel Thrope 

What began as an order of mystics and saints ended as a line of kings. The Safavid order originated in the northwestern Iranian city of Ardabil. While the Safavids first adhered to the dominant Sunni stream of Islam, in the mid-fifteenth century they gravitated toward Shi‘a beliefs, namely that the true spiritual and political leadership of the Islamic community resides with the direct line of the Prophet Muhammad, first among them ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib — the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law.

While the Safavids were already becoming a military power in the fourteenth century, it was under Shah Ismail I (1487–1524) that they completed their conquest of Iran. Ismail declared Shi‘ism the official creed of the Safavid realm — a declaration the Safavids violently enforced. However, his expansion was ultimately blocked by Ottoman Sultan Selim I (1470–1520), whose troops routed the Safavid forces in the 1514 battle of Chalderan and occupied the Iranian capital of Tabriz. The self-proclaimed defenders of Sunni Islam, the Ottomans remained the Safavids’ greatest rivals for the next two centuries.

A magnificent manuscript of the Qur’an bears witness to this Safavid–Ottoman religious rivalry. Copied for the Safavid royal court in the sixteenth century, one of the final pages includes the text of the Shi‘a declaration of faith: “There is no God but God, Muhammad is his Prophet, and ‘Ali is the Viceregent of God.” Sometime thereafter, this manuscript passed into Ottoman hands, as evidenced by the impression of the seal of Selim’s royal library — a seal that remained in use long after Selim’s own reign. A later censor removed the final portion of the declaration of faith, which would have seemed unacceptable to Sunni ears, covering the final phrase “ʻAli is the Viceregent of God” in a thick layer of gold leaf.