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Nader Shah Afshar (r. 1736-1747): A Short Overview of the Career of an 18th-Century Iranian Conqueror

Perhaps one of the most significant rulers of Iran in the post-Safavid period was Nāder Shah Afshar (r. 1736-1747). Although most students of Islamic history are somewhat familiar with the Safavid rulers (1501-1722) or the later Qajar sovereigns (1785-1925), Nāder Shah and the Afsharid dynasty that he founded are usually less well known. In this short piece, I want to provide a very short outline of Nāder Shah’s career. I also wanted to shed some light on his coinage, which I personally find to be one of the most interesting aspects of his rule since it emphasizes the concept of universal sovereignty while excluding any explicitly sectarian (Sunni or Shi’ite) identification. In a future post, I will look in a bit more depth at his religious policies–which have remained largely misunderstood–and connect them with this concept of universal sovereignty.

Nāder Shāh, an Afsharid Turcoman, attempted to realize a grandiose imperial vision, modeled upon that of Tīmūr (r. 1370–1405), of a Turkic empire extending across the Iranian plateau. As part of his attempts to realize this broader objective he adopted a strategy of engaging with various modes of legitimacy—Sunni, Shi’i, Turkic, and Iranian—in conjunction with major military expansion. However, despite some important military and political successes, by the end of his reign his strained relations with the Iranian populace—as a result of his harsh fiscal policies and violent repression of dissent—erupted into major rebellions across his empire, which he attempted to quell with increasing brutality before he was assassinated in 1747.

Nāder Afshar, born around 1688, was born into the Qirqlū clan of the Afshār Turcoman tribe, which was one of the original Kizilbāsh oymāqs (tribal groupings) that had helped bring the Safavids to power in the early sixteenth century. Following the devolution of the Safavid polity, which culminated in the Afghan invasions and the occupation of Isfahan in 1722, Nāder became involved in the power struggles that took place around Mashhad in northeastern Iran.

https://i1.wp.com/wps.ablongman.com/wps/media/objects/419/429222/illustrations/WALL5295326.gif

By 1726, he had joined the ranks of the Safavid prince Tahmasp Mirza (d. 1740), the son of the late Shāh Sulṭān Husayn (r. 1694–1722) who had been killed by the Afghans shortly following the conquest of Isfahan. Nāder increased his proximity to Tahmasp, becoming one of his closest advisers, before being elevated to the rank of qurchī-bāshī (or commander of the guard) enabling him to wield significant influence and power; it was around this time that he was bestowed with the title Tahmasp-kulī (“servant of Tahmasp”) by which he would be primarily known by his contemporaries in Europe. Shortly afterwards, in September 1729, he engaged the Afghans in battle at Mehmandust, near Damghan, and decisively defeated them, paving the way for their expulsion (or evacuation) from Iran.

https://ballandalus.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/nader-shah-defeats-ashraf-the-afghan.jpg?w=500Battle of Mehmandust (1729)
Following the capture of Isfahan in late November 1729, Tahmasp Mirza was enthroned as Tahmasp II and the Safavid dynasty was nominally restored, although under the increasing influence of Nāder Afshār, who was granted direct control of the provinces of Khurasan, Sijistan, Kirman, and Mazandaran. After defeating the Afghans, Nāder turned his attention to western Iran where the Ottomans had occupied several provinces during the chaos which had engulfed the Safavid polity throughout the early 1720s. He defeated the Ottomans and reestablished Iranian control over Hamadan, Tabriz and Kurdistan by August 1730 and even besieged Baghdad for several months in 1733. He then campaigned in the east, conquering Herat and routing the Abdālī Afghans who had entered into alliance with the Ghilzai Afghans who had occupied Iran; significantly, many of these (Sunni) Afghans would be recruited into Nāder’s army, thereby lessening his reliance upon Persian (Shi‘i) troops. Shortly thereafter, following the disastrous policy decisions made by Tahmasp II—who suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Ottomans and was forced relinquished a significant amount of territory in the Caucasus to the Russians—Nāder convened a council of the Qizilbāsh tribes and had Tahmasp deposed and exiled “on the grounds of the Shāh’s drunkenness and incompetence” and elevated the latter’s infant son—‘Abbās III (r. 1732–1736)—to the throne.
https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/51/Persia%2C_sci%C3%A0_thamasp_II%2C_decuplo_afshari_d%27oro%2C_1722-1732.JPG
(Coin of Shah Tahmasp II)
It was during this time that Nāder refrained from referring to himself as Tahmasp-kulī and adopted the more significant titles of vakīl-i dawla and nā’ib-i salṭana, allusions to his own status as the Chief Minister (I‘timād al-Dawla), a position which gave him executive powers and full authority to act on behalf of the Shāh. In his capacity as vakīl-i dawla, Nāder represented himself as an ardent champion of the Safavid dynasty, and portrayed his victories against the Ottomans and Afghans in Iran as a restoration of Safavid rule. According to a late-eighteenth century chronicle, the Tārikh-i Alām-ārā-yi Nādirī by Muhammad Kazim Marvi, Nāder declared that he would “throw reins around the necks of the Ottoman sultan, Husayn Shah Afghan, Muhammad Shah of India, and Abu al-Fayz Khan, the ruler of Turan, and make them serve the magnificent [Safavid] court.” More significantly, he depicted himself as a champion of Shi’ism, proclaiming that his victory over the Ottomans in 1731 occurred “under the auspices of the House of Haydar [‘Alī] and the Twelve Holy Imams” and that it was a day “great with the ruin to the enemies [of the Imams] and the joy to the sect of Shi’a.”
In January 1733, Nāder invaded Ottoman-controlled Iraq, besieging Baghdad between January and July before being defeated by a large Ottoman force commanded by Topāl Osmān Pasha. Later that year, Nāder was able to inflict a heavy defeat upon the Ottomans, in the course of which Topāl Osmān Pasha was killed, but he was nevertheless forced to abandon his Iraq campaign in order to deal with internal rebellions and disturbances in Iran. A peace treaty was signed with Ahmad Pasha, the governor of Baghdad, on December 19th 1733 which restored all Iranian territory which had been conquered by the Ottomans since 1722; in effect, this restored the Ottoman-Iranian frontier to the boundaries as established by the Treaty of Zuhab (1639). Throughout 1734 and 1735, he was occupied with campaigns in the Caucasus which ended with the signing of the Treaty of Ganja (1735) with Russia whereby Darband and Baku were returned to Iranian sovereignty and the northern flank of Iran was secured. By late 1735, therefore, Nāder had regained all former Safavid territory, with the exception of Kandahar, and was even capable of taking the offensive against the Ottomans in Iraq and Anatolia. In February 1736, he took an extraordinary step in furthering his own authority by deposing the last Safavid shah and elevating himself to the throne as absolute sovereign of Iran.

https://ballandalus.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/5040598832_723e72ba39_z.jpg?w=500(This statue, built in the late 20th century by the Iranian government, is constructed above Nader’s mausoleum. It shows the Afsharid ruler as a glorious conqueror)

Now known as Nāder Shāh, his military leadership and expansionist policies were key pillars of his legitimacy. This aspect of his legitimacy, as well as his self-identification with Timur, is reinforced by the contemporary chronicle, the Tārīkh-i jahān-gushā-yi Nādirī by Muḥammad Mirza Khān Astarabādī, in which Nāder is referred to as “the scourge of the enemy on the battlefield,” “the manifestation of divine power” and as “the man who is chosen by God…and wins his place by his own sword and not by the efforts of his tribe or clan…The Timurid dynasty is the scabbard of his iron sword and the lineage of Chingiz and Tatar are the topknots of his lasso.” Between 1736 and 1743, Nāder Shāh expanded his empire significantly, conquering parts of Central Asia (including Balkh, Qandahar, Bukhara, and Samarkand), the southern Caucasus, and the Persian Gulf, including Muscat in Oman. Perhaps his most important act of conquest was his successful invasion of India in 1739, during which he occupied and sacked the city of Delhi, and forced the Mughal ruler, Muhammad Shah (r. 1719-1748), to cede all his provinces to the north and west of the Indus River and pay an immense tribute.

https://ballandalus.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/7_muhammad_shah_and_nadir_shah-_1740_musee_guimet_paris.jpg?w=987&h=657

(Nader Shah and Muhammad Shah, 1740. Musee Guimet, Paris)

Nāder Shāh sought to present himself as a universal sovereign modeled on Timūr. It is particularly significant that Nader’s legitimacy was not tied to any explicitly Sunni or Shi‘i phraseology, with neither the names of the four caliphs nor the Twelve Imams appearing on his seals or his coinage. Rather, Nader was only mentioned as the “Shāh-e dīn,” the Emperor of the Faith, a title with more universalist implications and which emphasized his own temporal (and religious?) authority. Nāder Shāh’s claims became even more extravagant and his aspirations more far-reaching following his conquest of Delhi in March 1739. Following his subduing of the Mughals, he adopted Shāhanshāh (“king of kings”) as his formal title and issued a raqam (royal edict) which stipulated that he was to be addressed solely with this title.

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/ae/Nadir_Shah_at_the_sack_of_Delhi_-_Battle_scene_with_Nader_Shah_on_horseback%2C_possibly_by_Muhammad_Ali_ibn_Abd_al-Bayg_ign_Ali_Quli_Jabbadar%2C_mid-18th_century%2C_Museum_of_Fine_Arts%2C_Boston.jpg

(Mid-18th century representation of Nader Shah, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

https://ballandalus.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/293308_551077474912354_600587077_n.jpg?w=500

Despite his stellar record as a military commander and conqueror, Nāder Shāh was a highly ineffective and, often, tyrannical ruler. Revolt and discontent were widespread as a result of his fiscal policies, which involved increasingly-high rates of taxation in order to fund his wars, and his confiscation of waqf lands held by the religious elite also alienated many of his subjects. One of the most unpopular events of his reign was the regicide of the Safavid family. While Nāder Shāh had been campaigning in India in 1739–1740, his son Riḍa Qulī, who the former had appointed his deputy in Iran, put to death Tahmasp II and the latter’s two young sons, Abbas III and Isma‘il. Although Nāder severely punished his son for this act, by blinding him, his reign was nevertheless tainted by the regicide of the last Safavids, a fact which severely undermined his legitimacy. His idiosyncratic religious policies–embodied in his Ja’fari mazhab proposal (which I will discuss in a later post)–also probably played a major role in Iranian discontent with his rule.  As a result of this and his violent behavior he was assassinated by a group of his own military officers in 1747.

His legacy in Iran continues to be quite mixed, with a British observer commenting in the early nineteenth century:

The [Iranians] speak of [Nāder Shāh] as a deliverer and a destroyer; but while they dwell with pride on his deeds of glory, they express more pity than horror for the cruel enormities which disgraced the latter years of his reign; and neither his crimes, nor his attempt to abolish their religion, have subdued their gratitude and veneration for the hero, who revived in the breasts of his degraded countrymen a sense of their former fame, and who restored Persia to independence”–Sir John Malcolm (d. 1833), quoted in Ann K. Lambton, “The Tribal Resurgence and the Decline of the Bureaucracy in the Eighteenth Century, “in Studies in Eighteenth-Century Islamic History (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1977) eds. Thomas Naff and Roger Owen, p. 116

https://ballandalus.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/nader_shah_afshar.jpg?w=500

(http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O81782/portrait-of-nadir-shah-painting-muhammad-riza-hindi/)

The following are two examples of his coinage, which provide some insight into his conception of his own political authority.

Gold Dinar
http://www.davidmus.dk/en/collections/islamic/dynasties/safavids/coins/c96

The legends on this gold dinar would hardly have pleased the people who handled it. It does not bear any words from the kalima, either Shi‘ite or Sunni, and while both obverse and reverse display Nadir Shah’s high opinion of himself there is no mention of God. Nadir Shah dated this coin by the Abjad system, where letters have numerical equivalents that form a chronogram. For example, in the Abjad numeration system the sentence bi-tarikh-i al-khayr fi ma waqa‘ (“the best of what has happened”) adds up to the year of Nadir’s accession, 1148 A.H.

Obverse: sikka bar zarr kard nam-i saltanat ra dar jahan nadir-i iranzamin va khusraw-i giti satan darb isfahan  (“the coin has struck the name of the sultanate in the world, the rare one (Nadir) of Iranzamin, the world-seizing Emperor struck Isfahan”)

Image

Reverse: 1148 / tarikh-i julus-i / maymanat-i / manus / al-khayr fima waqa’a (“On the date of the enthronement of auspicious fortune, what has happened is favourable, 1148 [1736]”)

Image

Silver Rupi

 http://www.davidmus.dk/en/collections/islamic/dynasties/safavids/coins/c334

This silver rupi is one from several of the Punjabi mints which struck coins in submission to Nadir Shah. The obverse bears a couplet singing Nadir Shah’s praises, and he revives the mint epithet dar al-aman multan (Abode of Security) that was first used by the Mughal ruler Awrangzib ‘Alamgir. 1152 H (1739 -1740 AD) is the only date of issue known from this mint for Nadir Shah.

Obverse: couplet, reading from bottom upwards hast sultan / bar salatin-i jahan / shah-i shahan nadir-i sa(hib qiran) (“over sultans of earth is Sultan Nadir, Shah of Shahs Lord of the Age”)

Image

Reverse: khallada allah / mulkahu / dar al-aman 1152 / multan (“may God protect his sovereignty, Abode of Security 1152 [1739] Multan”

ImageMore Afsharid coins: http://db.stevealbum.com/php/chap_auc.php?site=1&lang=1&sale=15&chapter=14&page=2

https://ballandalus.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/20100618014949_img_9479s.jpg?w=500

(Kalat-i Nadiri, Nader Shah’s residence in northern Khurasan)

Further Reading

Avery, Peter. “Nadir Shah and the Afsharid Legacy.” In Cambridge History of Iran, Volume 7: From Nadir Shah to the Islamic Republic, edited by Peter Avery, Gavin Hambly and Charles Melville, pp. 3–62. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991

Axworthy, Michael. The Sword of Persia, Nader Shah: From Tribal Warrior to Conquering Tyrant. London: I.B. Tauris, 2006

Floor, Willem. Safavid Government Institutions. Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers, 2001

____________. The Afghan Occupation of Safavid Persia, 1721–1729. Paris: Association pour l’Avancement des Études Iraniennes, 1998

____________. The Rise and Fall of Nader Shah: Dutch

Hekmat, Mohammad-Ali. Essai sur l’histoire politique irano-ottomane de 1722 à 1747. Paris: Les Presses Modernes, 1937

Lambton, Ann K. “The Tribal Resurgence and the Decline of the Bureaucracy in Eighteenth-Century Persia.” In Studies in Eighteenth-Century Islamic History, edited by Thomas Naff and Roger Owen, pp. 108–129. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1977

Lockhart, Laurence. Nadir Shah: A Critical Study based mainly upon Contemporary Sources. London: Luzac and Co., 1938

____________. The Fall of the Ṣafavī Dynasty and the Afghan Occupation of Persia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958

Perry, J.R. “Nādir Shāh Afshār.” Encylopedia of Islam, Second Edition. Edited by P. Bearman; Th. Bianquis; Clifford E. Bosworth; E. van Donzel; and W.P. Heinrichs. Brill: Brill Online.

Tucker, Ernest S. “From Rhetoric of War to Realities of Peace: The Evolution of Ottoman-Iranian Diplomacy through the Safavid Era.” In Iran and the World in the Safavid Age, edited by Willem Floor and Edmund Herzig, pp. 81–90. London: I.B. Tauris, 2012

____________. Nader Shah’s Quest for Legitimacy in Post-Safavid Iran. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006

____________. Religion and Politics in the Era of Nadir Shah: The Views of Six Contemporary Sources. Chicago: University of Chicago PhD Dissertation, 1991

____________. “The Peace Negotiations of 1736: A Conceptual Turning Point in Ottoman-Iranian Relations.” The Turkish Studies Association Bulletin 20 (Spring 1996): 16–37


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