For the surname, see Qizilbash (name).

Qizilbash or Kizilbash (قزلباش; Ottoman Turkish for "Crimson/Red Heads"; sometimes also Qezelbash or Qazilbash)[1] is the label given to a wide variety of Shi'i militant groups (ghulāt) 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.[2][3] The expression "Red Heads" 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),[4] 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'ite doctrine of the Imamate.[5]


The origin of the Kızılbaş (Qizilbash) – whose name originated from their Sunni Ottoman foes, and who later adopted that name as a mark of pride – 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'ite ghulat group[2] and dressed in red, for which they were termed "the red-haired ones" (Arabic: محمرهmuḥammirah) by medieval sources.[6] In this context, Turkish scholar Abdülbaki Gölpinarli sees the Kizilbash as "spiritual descendants of the Khurramites".[2]


The Kizilbash were a coalition of many different tribes of predominantly (but not exclusively) Turkic-speaking Azerbaijani background, united in their adherence to the Safavid doctrine of Shi'ism.

As murids of the Safaviyya sheikhs (pirs), the Kizilbash 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 padshah ("king"), changing the purely religious pir – murid relationship into a political one. As a consequence, any act of disobedience of the Kizilbash Sufi against the order of the spiritual grandmaster became "an act of treason against the king and a crime against the state" (Persian: nā-sufīgarī, "improper conduct of a Sufi") – as was the case in 1614 when Shah Abbas I put to death some Kizilbash.[7]


The Kizilbash adhered to heterodox Shi'a doctrines encouraged by the early Safaviyya sheikhs Haydar and his son Isma'il. They regarded their rulers as divine figures, and so were classified as ghulat extremist by orthodox Ithnāʻashari Shias.[8]

When Tabriz was taken, there was not a single book on Twelver Shiaism among the Kizilbash leaders; the book of the well known Allama Al-Hilli was procured in the town library to provide religious guidance to the state.[9] The Shia ulema did not participate in the formation of Safavid religious policies during the early formation of the state. However, later, the ghulat doctrines were forsaken, and Arab Twelver Shia ulema resident in Lebanon, Iraq, and Bahrain were brought in increasing numbers. Initially the Shia ulema did not voice dissent about the religious stance of the monarch, but during the following century they were able to impose a stricter version of Shia Islam on both the population and the state.

"Turk & Tājīk"


Among the Qizilbash, Turcoman tribes from Eastern Anatolia and Azerbaijan who had helped Shah 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.[10] Some of these greater Turcoman tribes were subdivided into as many as eight or nine clans, and included:

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 Mahmoud Al-Kāshgharī. 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 Tājiks by the Turcomans and included:[10][11]

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 Kizilbash 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.[12]


The Beginnings

In the 15th century, Ardabil was the center of an organization designed to keep the Safavid 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 Safavid propaganda was active. The khalīfa, in turn, had subordinates termed pira. Their presence in eastern Anatolia posed a serious threat to the Ottomans, because they encouraged the Shi'ite population of Asia Minor to revolt against the sultan.

In 1499, Ismail, the young leader of the Safavid order, left Lahijan for Ardabil to make his bid for power. By the summer of 1500, ca. 7,000 supporters from the local Turcoman tribes of Anatolia, Syria and Iraq – collectively called "Kizilbash" 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 7,000 Kizilbash warriors defeated a force of 30,000 Ak Koyunlu under Alwand Mirzā,[13] and conquered Tabriz. This was the beginning of the Safavid state.

In the first decade of the 16th century, the Kizilbash expanded Safavid rule over the rest of Persia, as well as Baghdad and Iraq, formerly under Ak Koyunlu control.

In 1510 Shah Ismail sent a large force of the Kizilbash to Transoxania to support the Timurid ruler Babur in his war against the Uzbeks. The Kizilbash defeated the Uzbeks and secured Samarqand for Babur (Battle of Marv). However, in 1512, an entire Kizilbash army was annihilated by the Uzbeks after Turcoman Kizilbash had mutinied against their Persian wakil and commander, Amir Nadjm (Battle of Ghazdewan).[14] 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'ite population of Asia Minor to Morea. However, in 1507, Shah Ismail and the Kizilbash overran large areas of Kurdistan, defeating regional Ottoman forces. Only two years later in Central Asia, the Kizilbash 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 Kizilbash 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 Kizilbash on their own soil. In addition, he ordered the persecution of Shi'ism and the massacre of all its adherents in the Ottoman Empire.[15]

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 Kizilbash as much as three to one. The Kizilbash were heavily defeated;[16] casualties included many high-ranking Kizilbash 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.[17] 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 Kizilbash 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 Kizilbash amir Ali Beg Rūmlū (titled "Div Soltān") who was the de facto ruler of the Safavid kingdom.[18] However, Tahmasp managed to reassert his authority over the state and over the Kizilbash.

During the reign of Shah Tahmasp, the Kizilbash 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.[19]

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 Khurasan, 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. In order to weaken the Turcomans – the important militant elite of the Safavid kingdom – Shah Abbas raised a standing army from the ranks of the ghilman who were usually ethnic Armenians and Georgians. The new army would be loyal to the king personally and not to clan-chiefs anymore.[13]

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.

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.[10] By 1598 an ethnic Armenian from Georgia had risen to the position of commander-in-chief of all Safawid armed forces.[21] 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 Kizilbash remained an important part of the Safavid executive apparatus. The Afshār and Qājār rulers of Persia who succeeded the Safavids, stemmed from a Kizilbash background. Many other Kizilbash – 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.

Nadir Shah had reintroduced elite Qizilbash troopers into the Mughal Empire after the Battle of Karnal, these Qizilbash consisted of Georgian servicemen, who were provided asylum by the Nawab of Awadh, Safdarjung. These Qizilbash also served during the Battle of Burdwan under the command of Alivardi Khan.

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.



Kizilbash 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 Kizilbash 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.[22][23] They are Persian-speaking Shi'ite Muslims and are usually linked to the Fārsīwāns and Tājīks of the country.

Sir Mountstuart Elphinstone described the Kizilbash of Kabul in the beginning of the 19th century as "a colony of Turks," who spoke "Persian, and among themselves Turkish."[24] 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".[25] Lady Florentia Sale (wife of Sir Robert Henry Sale) and Vincent Eyre – both companions of Sir Mountstuart Elphinstone – described the Kizilbash of Afghanistan also as "Persians, of Persian descent".[26][27]

The influence of the Kizilbash in the government created resentment among the ruling Pashtun clans, especially after the Kizilbash openly allied themselves with the British during the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839–1842). During Abdur Rahman Khan's massacre of the Shi'ite minorities in Afghanistan, the Kizilbash were declared "enemies of the state" and were persecuted and hunted by the government and by the Sunni majority.[28]


see: Alevis

Some contemporary Alevi and Bektashi leaning religious or ethnic minorities in Anatolia are referred to, pejoratively, as Kizilbash. Template:Cquote

See also


Template:Islamic Theology

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