The Also-Rans

Failures on the Messianic Road to Power in Persia

  • Brexton O'Donnell University of Mary Washington
  • Nabil Al-Tikriti, Mentor University of Mary Washington


To better understand the background to the rise of the Safavid Empire in fifteenth-sixteenth century Persia, this paper will examine the predecessors to the Safavid movement, namely the Sarbadar state, the Nurbahkshi, and the Musha'sha. All of these movements shared certain commonalities with each other, particularly in their radical millenarian ideology, and set crucial precedents for the Safavid transformation that would forge an empire. All of these movements emerged from Sufi orders and featured a messianic world-view focused on the figure of the Mahdi, a prophesied savior in Islam who would appear before the endtimes, and the leaders of the later fifteenth-century movements, including the Safavids, would claim descent from the line of the Imams (descendants of 'Ali, the fourth caliph, and the true successors of Muhammad in Shi'i Islam) to enhance their claims to be the Mahdi. My central argument is that the existence of these predecessors to the Safavids demonstrates that the Safavid transformation from a peaceful mystical order into a militant extremist movement was not an anomaly, but rather part of a larger historical pattern of the growth of Shi'i-tinged millenarian extremism out of Sufi groups in Persia during the fifteenth century.

May 1, 2016
How to Cite
O'DONNELL, Brexton; AL-TIKRITI, MENTOR, Nabil. The Also-Rans. Metamorphosis, [S.l.], may 2016. Available at: <>. Date accessed: 20 june 2024.