Persia/Chapter 17

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The followers of Mahomet, when they subdued Persia during the caliphate of Omar, introduced into that country the religion of their prophet, which has predominated there ever since.

The whole of the Mahometan religion may be reduced to seven points, two of which relate to faith, the other to ceremonies: 1. To profess that there is but one only God; 2. that Mahomet is his apostle; 3. to observe corporeal purifications; 4. to recite the stated prayer; 5. to give alms; 6. to fast during the month of Ramazan; 7. to perform a pilgrimage to Mecca. To these fundamental points of Islamism the Persians add another, which they place next to the second, and which consists in confessing that Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet, is the lieutenant of God. This article of faith, which is rejected with horror by the Turks, occasioned the grand schism which divides the Musulmans; the partisans of Ali being called by the Sunnites, or orthodox believers, Shias, or Shiites, that is, heretics.

The hatred of the Sunnites and Shiites increased in the sequel. Under the caliphs of the dynasty of the Abbassides, it frequently degenerated into fury; and it was considered a meritorious action in a man, to kill another of a contrary opinion to his own. The Shiites found warm protectors among the Abbassides, whose zeal, however, only paved the way to fresh scenes of carnage. How often have the streets of Bagdad, the city of peace, the Rome of the Mahometan world, been drenched with. the blood and strewed with the carcasses of its inhabitants!

The sect of the Shiites made great progress in Persia. The provinces bordering on the Caspian Sea, and the mountains which separate them from the centre of the kingdom, afforded an asylum to the descendants of Ali. The Bouides were Shiites, and Adhad-ad-daulah, the greatest prince of that house, even caused splendid tombs to be erected in honour of Ali and his son Hossein. The destruction of the caliphate of Bagdad by Holagou, put an end to the religious dissensions, or at least to the fanaticism which kept them up: a million of inhabitants perished by the hand of that Tartar. Among his successors, however, there were some who adopted the doctrine of the Shiites: such were Gazan Khan, and his brother, Mohammed-Koda-bendeh, though the latter, indeed, afterwards recanted. At length Ismail Ardebili, founder of the house of the Sofis, embraced it; he spread it with his victories, and in his zeal, laid sacrilegious hands on the tombs of the Sunnites, destroyed their mosques, and cruelly persecuted such of his subjects as rejected his doctrine. Selim I. who then occupied the throne of Turkey, availed himself of the pretext of religion, to declare war against Ismail: and in the letter which he addressed to the Persian monarch, previously to this declaration, he gives a curious exposition of the motives of piety and zeal by which he professed to be influenced. Ismail was vanquished in the battle of Tchaldiran, but nevertheless continued his efforts for the propagation of the tenets of the Shiites, which the majority of the Persians have ever since his reign espoused. This difference of creed has laid the foundation of that antipathy which prevails between them and the Turks. Their wars are religious wars, of which politics are never the apparent motive.

When Nadir Shah had contrived that the crown should be offered to him, he accepted it only on condition that the Shiites should in future abstain from anathematizing the first three caliphs, and holding festivals in honour of Ali and Hossein. It must have been a singular spectacle, though not unparalleled in history, to see that ferocious conqueror assembling the doctors, entering into theological discussions, and arguing like a casuist. Toleration appeared to be his virtue: he exhorted the Persians to return to more moderate opinions, to adopt merely the explanation of the Koran by the Imam Djafar-el-Sadik, one of Ali's descendants, and to assume the name of Djafari. These indications of extraordinary moderation were at first persuasive; but the persecution by which they were followed, displayed Nadir's character in its true light: it was not, as may easily be conceived, either philanthropy or piety that had actuated this barbarian. His object was to conciliate by this conduct, the Arabs, the Courds and the Turcomans, who composed the greater part of his army, and who were Sunnites. It was probably his intention also, to pave the way to the more easy conquest of Turkey, by removing the cause of religious animosity. These designs he thwarted by the impolicy of his own conduct: he imagined that a new point of faith may be established by force of arms, and that it is not more difficult to rule consciences than to govern men. He increased the hatred of his subjects, shook his power, and perished without obtaining the least success. Had he been better informed, the history of past ages would have taught him that a religion never shines with brighter lustre than when it is furiously attacked, and that periods of persecution furnish occasions for its proudest triumphs.