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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 Azerbaijan,[1][2] Anatolia and Kurdistan from the late 13th century onwards, some of which contributed to the foundation of the Safavid dynasty of Iran.[3][4]


  • Etymology 1
  • Origins 2
  • Organization 3
  • Beliefs 4
  • "Turk & Tājīk" 5
  • History 6
    • The Beginnings 6.1
    • The Battle of Chaldiran 6.2
    • The deprivation of the Turcomans 6.3
    • Qizilbash in the Mughal Empire 6.4
  • Legacy 7
    • Afghanistan 7.1
    • Syria/Lebanon 7.2
    • Turkey 7.3
  • See also 8
  • References 9


The word Qizilbash is Ottoman Turkish (قزلباش; Turkish pronunciation: ), meaning "Crimson/Red Head[ed]".[5]

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),[6] 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.[7] The name was originally a pejorative label given to them by their Sunni Ottoman foes, but soon it was adopted as a provocative 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[3] and dressed in red, for which they were termed "the red-haired ones" (Arabic: محمرةmuḥammirah) by medieval sources.[8] In this context, Turkish scholar Abdülbaki Gölpinarli sees the Qizilbash as "spiritual descendants of the Khurramites".[3]


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.[9]


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.[10]

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.[11] 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.[12] Some of these greater Turcoman tribes were subdivided into as many as eight or nine clans, including:

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:[12][13]

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.[14]


A Safavid - Kızılbaş (Qizilbash) soldier.
In Jean Chardin's book.

The Beginnings

In the 15th century, 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 7,000 supporters from the local Turcoman tribes of Asia Minor (Anatolia), Syria, and the Caucasus – collectively called "Qizilbash" by their enemies – rallied to his support in Erzincan.[15] 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 and incorporating his kingdom, he moved south into Azarbaijan, where his 7,000 Qizilbash warriors defeated a force of 30,000 Aq Qoyunlu under Alwand Mirzā[16] and conquered Tabriz. This was the beginning of the Safavid state.

By 1510, Ismail and his Qizilbash had conquered the whole of Iran and Azerbaijan,[17] southern Kartli and Kakheti his vassals.[18][19] Many of these areas were priorly under the control of the Ak Koyunlu.

In 1510 Shah Ismail sent a large force of the Qizilbash to Transoxiania to fight the Uzbeks. The Qizilbash defeated the Uzbeks and secured Samarkand 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.[20] This defeat put an end to Safavid expansion and influence in Transoxania and left the northeastern frontiers of the kingdom vulnerable to nomad invasions, until some decades later.

The 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 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, a pro-Safavid revolt known as the Shahkulu Uprising broke out in Teke. An imperial army that was sent to suppress it, was defeated. Shah Ismail sought to turn the chaos within the Ottoman Empire to his advantage and moved up his borders even more westwards in Asia Minor. 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 Alevis[21][22] and the massacre its adherents in the Ottoman Empire.[23]

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 badly defeated;[24] 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.[25] 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.[26] 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.[27] During Tahmasp' reign, he carried out multiple invasions in the 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,

  1. ^ Cornell, Vincent J. (2007). Voices of Islam (Praeger perspectives). Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 225 vol.1.  
  2. ^ Parker, Charles H. (2010). Global Interactions in the Early Modern Age, 1400–1800. Cambridge University Press. p. 53.  
  3. ^ a b c Roger M. Savory: Kizil-Bash. In Encyclopaedia of Islam, Vol. 5, p. 243-45.
  4. ^ Savory, EI2, Vol. 5, p. 243: "KIZILBĀSH (T. “Red-head”). [...] In general, it is used loosely to denote a wide variety of extremist Shi'i sects [see GHULĀT], which flourished in [V:243b] Anatolia and Kurdistān from the late 7th/13th century onwards, including such groups as the Alevis (see A. S. Tritton, Islam : belief and practices, London 1951, 83)."
  5. ^ The Qazilbash form appears to be used primarily in Pakistan; it is attested, e.g. in Gupta, Hari Ram (editor) (1956) Panjab on the eve of first Sikh War: a documentary study of the political, social and economic conditions of the Panjab as depicted in the daily letters written chiefly from Lahore by British intelligencers during the period 30 December 1848 to 31 October 1844 Department of History, Panjab University, Hoshiarpur, India, page 199, OCLC 460671525; and Khan, Tahawar Ali (1985) "Imtiaz Ali-Qazilbash" Biographical encyclopedia of Pakistan Biographical Research Institute, Lahore, Pakistan, page 101, OCLC 14193680
  6. ^ Note: Tāj, meaning crown in Persian, is also a term for hats used to delineate one's affiliation to a particular Sufi order.
  7. ^ Moojan Momen, "An Introduction to Shi'i Islam", Yale Univ. Press, 1985, ISBN 0-300-03499-7, pp. 101–107
  8. ^ H. Anetshofer/H.T. Karateke, Traktat über die Derwischmützen (ri̇sāle-i̇ Tāciyye) des Müstaqīm-zāde Süleymān Sāʻdeddīn; Brill, 2001; ISBN 90-04-12048-3 (German original)
  9. ^ Roger M. Savory, "The office of khalifat al-khulafa under the Safawids", in JOAS, lxxxv, 1965, p. 501
  10. ^ Momen, 1985
  11. ^ Moojan Momen, "An Introduction to Shi'i Islam", Yale Univ. Press, 1985, ISBN 0-300-03499-7, p. 397
  12. ^ a b c V. Minorsky, "Tadhkirat al-muluk", London 1943, p. 16-18, p.188
  13. ^ Roger M. Savory, "The consolidation of Safawid power in Persia", in Isl., 1965
  14. ^ Roger M. Savory in Islamic Studies: Journal of the Central Institute of Islamic Research, "The significance of the political murder of Mirza Salman", Karachi, 1964
  15. ^ Faruk Sümer, Safevi Devletinin Kuruluşu ve Gelişmesinde Anadolu Türklerinin Rolü, Türk Tarih Kurumu Yayınları, Ankara, 1992, p. 15. (Turkish)
  16. ^ a b Roger M. Savory, Encyclopaedia of Islam, "Safawids", Online Edition, 2005
  17. ^ BBC, (LINK)
  18. ^ "History of Iran:Safavid Empire 1502 - 1736". Retrieved 16 December 2014. 
  19. ^ "Edge of Empires: A History of Georgia". Retrieved 15 December 2014. 
  20. ^ Roger M. Savory, "The significance of the political murder of Mirza Salman", in "Studies on the history of Safawid Iran", xv, pp. 186–187
  21. ^ "Turkey’s Alevis Outraged by ‘Executioner’ Name for Bridge - Bloomberg". Retrieved 2014-12-10. 
  22. ^ "Alevis protest plans to name third bridge after Ottoman Sultan". Retrieved 2014-12-10. 
  23. ^ H.A.R. Gibb & H. Bowen, "Islamic society and the West", i/2, Oxford, 1957, p. 189
  24. ^ M.J. McCaffrey, Encyclopaedia Iranica, "Čālderān", v, pp. 656–8, (LINK)
  25. ^ Savory, R. (2007). Iran Under the Safavids. Cambridge University Press. p. 43.  
  26. ^ Roger M. Savory in Encyclopaedia Iranica, "Dīv Soltān", Online Edition, 2005, (LINK)
  27. ^ M. Köhbach in Encyclopaedia Iranica, "Peace of Amasya", v, p. 928, Online Edition, (LINK)
  28. ^ C. Fleischer, Encyclopaedia Iranica, "Allāhverdi Khān", v, pp. 891–892, Online Edition, 2005, (LINK)
  29. ^ 5. The Rise of Afghanistan, page 124 // Afghanistan: A Military History from Alexander the Great to the War Against the Taliban. Author: Stephen Tanner. First published in 2002 by Da Capo Press; (revised edition) reprinted in 2009. Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2009, 375 pages. ISBN 9780306818264
  30. ^ The Dictionary. — N. — Nadir Shah Afshar, page 305 – 306. // Historical Dictionary of Afghanistan. Fourth edition. Author: Ludwig W. Adamec. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2012, XCV+569 pages. ISBN 9780810878150
  31. ^ Countries and Their Cultures : Qizilbash:..Obtaining accurate population figures for the Qizilbash in Afghanistan and Pakistan is virtually impossible because they claim to be Sunni, Tajik, Farsiwan, or Pashtun, or they identify themselves according to their place of origin in India. Population estimates for Afghanistan range from 30,000 to 200,000, but some suggest the figure is closer to one million. The story is similar in Pakistan. Few influential Qizilbash live in Iran, their original home...
  32. ^ Social Structure. — Ethnic Groups, page 104. // Afghanistan: A Country Study. Editors: Richard F. Nyrop, Donald M. Seekins. Baton Rouge: Claitor's Law Books and Publishing Division, 2001, 226 pages. ISBN 9781579807443
  33. ^ Mountstuart Elphinstone, An Account of the Kingdom of Caubul, pp. 320–321
  34. ^ Henry Yule, "Hobson-Jobson", London, 1886, p. 380
  35. ^ Lady Sale, "A Journal of the Disasters in Afghanistan 1841–42", London, Murray 1843, p. IX
  36. ^ Vincent Eyre, "The Military Operations at Cabul", London, Murray, MDCCCXLIII, p. XXXI.
  37. ^ U.S. Library of Congress, "Afghanistan: The society and its environment", index s.v. Qizilbash, (LINK)
  38. ^ Stefan Winter, “The Kızılbaş of Syria and Ottoman Shiism” in Christine Woodhead, ed., The Ottoman World (London: Routledge, 2012), 171-183.
  39. ^ J.W. Crowfoot, "Survivals among the Kappadokian Kizilbash (Bektash)", Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 30., 1900, pp. 305–20


See also

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

see: Alevis


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.[38]


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.[37]

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."[33] 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".[34] 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".[35][36]

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.[29][30] 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.[31][32] They are Persian-speaking Shi'i Muslims and are usually linked to the Fārsīwāns and Tājīks of the country.

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



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.

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.

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.

Qizilbash in the Mughal Empire

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 far 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.

Ghulams were appointed to high positions within the royal household, and by the end of Shah Abbas' reign, one-fifth of the high-ranking Allahverdi Khan, had risen to the position of commander-in-chief of all Safawid armed forces.[28] and by that became one of the most powerful men in the empire. 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.

Daud Khan Undiladze, Safavid ghulam, military commander, and the governor of Karabakh and Ganja between 1625 and 1630.

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.


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