The Persecution of the Jews under Shah ‘Abbās II

A look at the Kitāb-i Anusī and other chronicles

Ausarbeitung, 2015

12 Seiten, Note: 1,3


List of Contents

1. The Kitab-i Anusi and the status of the Jews under Shah ‘Abbas II
1.1 General remarks
1.2 Political aspects
1.3 Economic aspects
1.4 Religious aspects

2. Christian sources
2.1 General remarks
2.2 Arakel of Tabriz
2.3 Chronicle of the Carmelites in Persia

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. The Kitab-i AnusI and the status of the Jews under Shah ‘Abbas II

1.1 General remarks

The primary source of interest when dealing with Iranian Jewry in Safavid times is BabaT ibn Lutf s chronicle Kitab-i Anns!, the ‘The Book of a Forced Convert’ or ‘The Book of Forced Conversion’. Vera Basch Moreen has written an overview of this Judean-Persian account.1 The Kitab-i AnusI (KA) was probably written sometime after 1661 since BabaT ibn Lutf draws on the Jews regaining their religious freedom which happened only after 1661. If the narrative had been composed later than 1665, one might expect to find allusions to the mystical Messiah Sabbatai Zvi and the movement that followed his person and teachings. However, this is not the case.2 !

The KA deals primarily with the persecution waves under Shah ‘Abbas II who ruled over Safavid Persia from 1642 to 1666. BabaT ibn Lutf, a Persian Jew living in Kashan at the time of ‘Abbas II, chronicled the occurrences he might have witnessed first-hand.3 BabaT’s motives in writing the KA include the wish to leave a record of the occurrences to posterity as well as to describe the events as a means by which God tested his people - in his view of course the Jews. Some of the various reasons for the Jews’ persecution are to be analyzed in this paper. In a second step, Christian travelogues and reports and their approach to the Jews’ persecution will be dealt with.

1.2 Political aspects

The expulsion of the Jews from Isfahan and their forced conversion was an “initial act”4 which inaugurated an anti-Jewish policy. But more generally speaking, anti-minority policies were enforced by the Grand Vizier Muhammad Beg who pursued his agenda of assimilation and uniformity.5 In fact, as Moreen shows in one of her articles, almost every religious group suffered from persecution under the Safavids at one time or another.6 Ezra Spicehandler sheds light on some of the political incentives for this new approach towards religious minorities: With the 1639 Accord of Zuhab between the Safavids and the Ottomans one of the great threats to the Safavid Empire had vanished. What had forced Shah ‘Abbas I to maintain friendly relations with the West and treat the Christians (and other religious and ethnic groups) in the Empire cordially was his interest in strong Western allies in the face of the Ottoman threat.] But now the diplomatic situation had changed. In such a context, a nationalist agenda which included the forced assimilation of minorities and a less diplomatic treatment of missionaries was easier to pursue than before.7

1.3 Economic aspects

The Kitab-i AnusI not only describes the persecution under ‘Abbas II but also draws on occurrences during the reigns of his predecessors Shah ‘Abbas I and Shah Safi I. Babal recounts his observations in 25 chapters. In chapter 22-23 he points at the trigger of the persecution: Allegedly, two Jews of Isfahan had stolen and sold pearls of the Shah’s dagger which he had lost while hunting. This event, however, is only described by BabaT ibn Lutf and cannot be found in other sources. So it is definitely to be questioned.8

While first condemning the Jews to death, the Shah later on agreed to force the Jewish community to convert to Islam. The forced conversion of the Jews of Isfahan was reached through threats and intimidation on the one hand and the prospect of economic reward on the other hand. In fact, the KA describes how each (male) Jewish convert received one or two tumans. An Iranian royal chronicle, the ‘Abbas Nama (AN), written by Muhammad Tahir Wahid Qazvlnl, also confirms that the Jews were economically rewarded for their conversion to Islam - thus they would no longer have to pay the jizya, the specific head tax exacted from followers of non-Islamic book religions.9 It is ironical that an important source of income for the Muslim conquest of the 7th and 8th centuries was now given up in favor of/in exchange for the Jews’ conversion to Islam. Of course, the AN comes to an entirely different evaluation of these events than the KA when it speaks of the supposedly free will of the Jews and depicts their forced conversion as a victory for Islam.

Whether there were some economic rivalries in Isfahan which contributed to the growing anti-Judaism cannot with certainty be said. As far as is known, Iranian Jews of their time were artisans and merchants and as such not among the wealthy classes of society. It would therefore be hard to claim that it was financial envy that eventually led to the Jews’ persecution. Still, it cannot be excluded that such prejudices existed.10

1.4 Religious aspects

The ‘Abbas Nama refers to the Jews’ ritual impurity as a reason why they had to be exiled from Isfahan. This is a clear religious prejudice which has its roots in the Shiite concept of najasat- the ritual impurity of non-believers. Shiism became the official religion of the Safavid theocracy from 1501 onwards and a constant Shiite re-education of minorities was pursued. Regarding this, the pretext of the Jews’ ritual impurity was used in order to justify their persecution and expulsion religiously and socially.11

The KA describes all of these events in great detail and understands them in a wider framework of God’s testing of the Jewish people. Babaf ibn Lutf utters Messianic hopes in his chronicle; and he does not shy away from placing his experiences in line with the Jews’ fate in ancient Iran. The Biblical book of Esther resounds on the pages of the Kitab-i Anusi. The causes of the Jews’ calamity listed in the KA does not include the political and economic sphere but focus rather on religious short-comings of the Jews which, in Babaf’s view, led to their forced conversion to Islam.12

The strategy by which forced conversions was carried through was simple: the Rabbi, of a Jewish community had to be converted first. This was reached through threats, torture or bribery. Once the Rabbi had accepted Islam, his Jewish brethren would usually follow his example and convert by saying the Muslim statement of faith. In reality, however, these Jews considered themselves anusim, i.e. forced converts inwardly still adhering to Judaism.13


1 Moreen, Vera Basch: Iranian Jewry's Hour of Peril and Heroism: A Study of Babai ibn Luff’s Chronicle, 1617-1662. New York, Jerusalem, 1987.

2 See Moreen. Vera B. 1987, p. 31. Of course, this attempt to date the chronicle is just an attempt. However, it is a rightful way of incorporating historical events and thus drawing conclusions as regards the probable time the KA was written.

3 See Moreen, Vera B. 1981a, p. 275. Moreen admits that it might be possible that Babai only knew about the events from others who were eye-witnesses.

4 Spicehandler 1975, p. 331.

5 See Matthee 2012, p. 188. Although there is a general consensus that Muhammad Beg was a driving force in the mistreatment of minorities, Matthee here also points to the influence of the clerics in these matters.

6 See Moreen, Vera B. 1981b, p. 134.

7 See also Matthee 2012, p. 182.

8 See Moreen, Vera B. 1981a, p. 278.

9 See Moreen, Vera B. 1981a, p. 283.

10 Compare Moreen, VeraB. 1981a, p. 283 and Moreen, VeraB. 1981b, p. 124.

11 See Moreen, Vera B. 1981a, pp. 282-283 and Matthee 2012, p. 188.

12 See Moreen, Vera B. 1987, pp. 31-33 as well as Spicehandler 1975, p. 335.

13 Compare Matthee 2012, p. 188.

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The Persecution of the Jews under Shah ‘Abbās II
A look at the Kitāb-i Anusī and other chronicles
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persecution, jews, shah, kitāb-i, anusī
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Matthias J. Messerle (Autor:in), 2015, The Persecution of the Jews under Shah ‘Abbās II, München, GRIN Verlag,


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