The visionary shah who inspired an Islamic republic

Shah Abbas I, the fifth Saf­av­id ruler, came to power in 1587. Under his rule Iran became a great polit­ical power, transforming international trade and diplomacy. His legacy, however, goes beyond political ambition and culminates in a clear and decisive vision for cultural and artistic expression and development.

Shah Abbas created a distinctive national identity by blending the ancient Iranian cultural identity with Shiism. (Intriguingly, this paralleled early nation-state developments in western Europe.) Today Shah Abbas occupies a special place in the national consciousness, as many look upon him as the founder of the modern state. His efforts to position Iran as a commercial and artistic centre between east and west have been inspirational for modern politicians who find in him a sense of national pride.

Abbas chose the ancient city of Isfahan as his capital. Under his keen eye, monumental architecture – including the famous blue mosque – flourished, as did new styles of painting and calligraphic art. The renowned piazza, Maidan-i Naqsh–i Jahan, with its two magnificent mosque compounds and bazaar, flourished as a hub of international culture and commerce. Other religious communities, in particular Christian Armenians, were accommodated.

As described by Sheila Canby in Shah Abbas, The Remaking of Iran, this piazza "enabled the highly diverse population of Iranians, Armenians, Georgians, Indians, Europeans to interact, conduct business, and participate in public festivals and commemorations". The Iranian new year, a pre-Islamic Zoroastrian festival to mark the coming of spring, was celebrated here. The paintings on Abbas's palace walls show how Turks, Chinese, Indians and Europeans mingled; the showcasing of Iranian art and culture distinguished his entire sensibility from that of previous Safavid shahs.

With the fall of the Safavid dynasty, the power of Shia scholars inevitably declined. However, the idea of Shiism as a modern Islamic school of thought promoted by Shah Abbas remained crucial to later Muslim scholars. Sayyid Jamal al-Din Asadabadi Aghani, an Iranian and Shia scholar, pioneered Islamic modernism. He discussed justice and the rule of law in the context of the state's tendency to colonialism and authoritarianism. Muhammad Abduh, a Sunni scholar, and a pioneer of Islamic reform in Egypt, met Afghani in Cairo, and together they made an enormous contribution to modern Islamic thinking.

Based on this school of thought, the 1979 Iranian revolution, an urban mass movement, was viewed as a powerful counter-narrative to the western ­version of modernity. Ali Shariati, one of many who contributed to the theory of this revolutionary movement, argued that Islamic ideology is compatible with ­liberalism, Marxism and postmodernism; and that it is possible to interpret and re-interpret Islamic concepts according to time and place.

Thirty years after the revolution, these ideas are popular with both Sunnis and Shias, in Iran and the wider region. They advocate the closing of the Shia-Sunni divide and the democratisation of Muslim-majority societies.

Since the 1979 revolution, Iran has gone through many changes. In the early years the process of Islamisation of state and society created much debate between the left, nationalists and Islamists. Nevertheless political repression prevailed. The Iran-Iraq war led to a strong state and the consolidation of the power of the conservative Islamists. It is important to note that Talibanism and Saudi-style conservatism have never existed in Iran. From inception, the Islamic republic – based on Shia ­ideology and inspired by Shah Abbas – has been engaged in the battle between conservative and democratic Islam.

The process of Islamisation has grassroots support. The leaders, a range of very different political figures with very different political views, have won the support of the majority of the population through the electoral process. Therefore, and contrary to a false perception in the west, both state and society in Iran are modern and legitimised, based on dialogue between those who wish to preserve traditional conservative Islam and those who wish to embrace democratic modern Islam. Socioeconomic and sociopolitical circumstances have constantly shifted the boundaries between conservative Islam and liberal-democratic Islam.

Today the majority of the population supports the prevalence of modern ­ideological thinking in the context of Iran and Islam. Today the democracy movement seeks a balance of power between state institutions and civil society, to guarantee the rule of law, good governance, accountability, and collective and individual freedoms – as well as the role of religion in politics. For many such a modern political structure was made possible by Shah Abbas. In the Iranian national consciousness, it was he who offered a vision of the way forward.

Elaheh Rostami-Povey