Newman has been interested in Safavid Iran, since 1977 when, as a first-year graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles, searching for a PhD topic, he read Laurence Lockhart’s 1958 description of the well-known Twelver Shi’i scholar Muhammad Baqir Majlisi (d. 1699) as ‘an extremely bigoted mujtahid ’, ‘a rigid and fanatical formalist’, an opponent of all philosophical inquiry and a persecutor of Jews and Armenians.
Echoing the decades’ old judgement of E. G. Browne (d. 1926), Lockhart stated that Majlisi’s influence was such as to render Safavid Iran unable to respond to the attacks which culminated in the fall of the capital of Isfahan to the Afghans in 1722. Although alone the 1982–3 Beirut edition of Bihar al-Anwar, Majlisi’s massive, Arabic-language collection of the hadith of the twelve imams, runs to some 110 volumes, Lockhart’s source for such sweeping characterizations was a single, rather short, essay of Majlisi composed in Persian.
In the process of that research he discovered a dearth of secondary-source works on Twelver Shi’ism and the 1986 Ph.D. became, instead, an examination of developments in Shi’i jurisprudence from the disappearance of the twelfth Imam in 873–4 to the years immediately following the establishment of Twelver Shi’ism as the realm’s official faith following the 1501 capture of Tabriz by the first Safavid Shah, Ismail. The present work offers an understanding of the history of Iran under the Safavids, the longest-ruling dynasty in Iran’s history since its conquest by Muslim armies in the 640 s, which differs from that generally accepted to date.
The Safavid story is the story of the growth of its composite constituencies: where from well prior to the capture of Tabriz throughout most of the sixteenth century allied Turk political-military and Tajik administrative interests dominated the project’s political center, Sultan Husayn commanded the recognition of an array of foreign commercial, political and religious interests as well as Turk and non-Turk tribal, Tajik, and Ghulam military, political and administrative and other court elements, and indigenous Muslim, Christian, and foreign artisanal and commercial-political classes.