Local Aristocrats in a Time of Critical Dynastic Change

Two Notable Families of Tabriz Facing the New Ṣafavid Order [DYNTRAN Working Paper 26, July 2017]


The Ṣafavid conquest of Tabriz in 906/1501 marks a watershed in the history of Iran and the Islamic Middle East. By taking control of the city the young Ismāʿīl earned the right to proclaim himself king of Iran. In this capacity he also declared Imami Shiism to be the official creed of the kingdom. Yet the Ṣafavids themselves still needed some time to come to terms with their religion then. Ismāʿīl’s ancestors had started out as a family of Sunni Sufi leaders in the town of Ardabil not far from Tabriz in the 8th/14th century and adopted some form of messianic Shiism in the 9th/15h.

But not everything changed with the coming to power of the Ṣafavids notably in Tabriz. Jean Aubin showed long ago that many aristocratic families in western Iran kept positions of leadership across that dynastic change, especially in government and administration (Aubin 1959). The Kujujīs are one family noted by Aubin and yet it seems worth to take another fresh look at them (Aubin 1959, 60-3; Newman 2006, 16, 22, 27, 44, 123; Mitchell 2009, 28-9, 46, 50). Moreover it seems beneficial to compare the trajectory of the Kujujīs in the late 9th/15th and early 10th/16th centuries with that of another leading family of Tabriz, the little-known Sayyids of Lālah. A comparison of both families may shed new light on the transmission of power and authority in such a critical historical period.

The discussion of each family shall be preceded by a section with some additional information on the Kujujīs and the Sayyids of Lālah. This section also includes a few words on their status as local aristocrats of Tabriz, on the general history of the period and on sources. The conclusion will then summarize commonalities and differences between the Kujujīs and the Sayyids of Lālah. All in all I will try to explain why the former seem to have been more successful in transmitting their positions of leadership than the latter.

Aristocratic families in Iran and the authority of the local

The Kujujīs and the Sayyids of Lālah shared with the Ṣafavids similar roots in the thriving Sufi traditions of the Mongol and post-Mongol periods (Werner et al. 2013). The Kujujīs were the most ancient as a Sufi family and their members the only actual natives of Tabriz and its hinterland. The early Ṣafavids credited them with a role in their own Sufi beginnings and in the 8th/14th century the Kujujīs led a Sufi movement in Azerbaijan comparable to that of the Ṣafavids (Werner et al. 2013, 18-24, 33, 36-9; Ibn Bazzāz 1993, 67-8, 190-2; Ibn Karbalāʾī 1965-70, 2:83-7).

The Sayyids of Lālah emigrated from Azerbaijan to Shirvan farther north in the 8th/14th century and had Sufi ties to the Ṣafavids at some point (Ibn Karbalāʾī 1965-70, 2:110-2). Their most prominent member also spent much of the 9th/15th century with Sufi masters in Khurasan before settling in the village of Lālah just south of Tabriz which turned into a part of the family name. He became a close Sufi associate of a member of the Kujujī family that had always retained a base in their native village of Kujujān, likewise located south of Tabriz (Ibn Karbalāʾī 1965-70, 2:43, 112-8, 146-52).

Although the Sayyids of Lālah were originally no natives of Tabriz they came to share with the Kujujīs into distinctly local Sufi traditions to which the Ṣafavids had only remote connections (Ibn Karbalāʾī 1965-70, 1:522, 2:61-5, 148). But the Kujujīs had increasingly moved beyond their Sufi activities already since the middle of the 8th/14th century. They became more and more prominent as officials serving the successive royal courts based at Tabriz (Werner et al. 2013, 27, 30-6). The Sayyids of Lālah also forged close ties to the Aq Qoyunlu court in the late 9th/15th century and the Ṣafavids even had marriage relations with this Turkmen royal dynasty of Iran Ibn Karbalāʾī 1965-70, 2:154-5, 167; Newman 2006, 10-1). Yet, unlike the Kujujīs and the Sayyids of Lālah, the Ṣafavids did not belong to the local aristocracy of Tabriz.

However by the late 9th/15th century they had successfully claimed the only type of aristocratic distinction formally acknowledged in Islam, that of sayyids, descendants of the prophet (Morimoto 2010). The Kujujīs also came to be considered as sayyids by some in the course of the 10th/16th century (Ibn Karbalāʾī 1965-70, 2:9, 38; Iskandar Beg Munshī 1998, 3:1815). The descent of the Sayyids of Lālah from the prophet seems to have been established beyond dispute way earlier.

A Sufi pilgrimage guide to the cemeteries of Tabriz and surrounding villages authored by one of their local Sufi followers in the 970s/1570s is the main source on the Sayyids of Lālah. The author is known as Ibn Karbalāʾī and his work also offers the best overview of the early Kujujīs. Chronicles from Ṣafavid court circles cover political activities of members of both families. But it is often difficult to recognize relevant individuals and usually impossible to determine the exact nature of their family relations.

From the 10th/16th century onwards Tabriz was continuously threatened by the Ottomans who repeatedly occupied the city, first after the battle of Chaldiran in 920/1514. This continuous threat was one reason why Ismāʿīl Ṣafavī’s successor Shāh Ṭahmāsp chose Qazvin as new main base of the court in the 940/1540s; scholars tend to speak of a “transfer of the capital” and to indicate slightly later dates but do not agree on when this supposed transfer happened (Newman 2006, 20-1, 27-8, 32; Trausch 2015, 69). Religious antagonism was a key aspect of the Ottoman threat to Tabriz and also affected the Sayyids of Lālah and the Kujujīs. I will return to this issue in the conclusion.

The Kujujīs as court officials and the transmission of political leadership

The Kujujīs served as eminent court officials under the major successor dynasties of the Mongols in western Iran, the Jalāyirids and the Qara Qoyunlu (Werner et al. 2013, 27, 30-6). The latter lost Tabriz to the Aq Qoyunlu in 874/1469 and the influence of the Kujujīs declined a bit. They reappear as decisive political actors during the fights which led to the collapse of the Aq Qoyunlu and out of which the Ṣafavids emerged as the new royal dynasty (Budāq Munshī Qazvīnī 1999, 92-3). Shams al-Din Zakariyā Kujujī was vizier of the last Aq Qoyunlu ruler of Tabriz and changed sides to Ismāʿīl Ṣafavī before the contenders clashed in battle in 906/1501. He then became Ismāʿīl’s first vizier, shared this post with a notable of Qazvin from 909/1503 to 915/1509 and then probably served as an official in Khurasan; upon his death in 918/1512 he was buried in Mashhad (Yaḥyā Qazvīnī 2007, 272, 274, 280, 284; Budāq Munshī Qazvīnī 1999, 117; Rūmlū 2005, 2:968; Qumī 1984, 1:63, 124).

There are no details about the role Shams al-Dīn Zakariyā played in the troubled attempts to establish Ṣafavid rule in eastern Iran but we know a bit more about three of his relatives. Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Kujujī Tabrīzī was promoted from deputy vizier to the post of vizier in 929/1523 (Yaḥyā Qazvīnī 2007, 288-9; Ghaffārī Qazvīnī 1964, 280; Budāq Munshī Qazvīnī 1999, 138-9; Rūmlū 2005, 2:1135; Qumī 1984, 1:152). His predecessor Shāh Ḥusayn Iṣfahānī was killed this year but Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad had been on good terms with him and also gained some renown in courtly correspondence (inshāʾ) and as a poet (Sām Mīrzā Ṣafavī 2005, 90-1; Iskandar Beg Munshī, 1998, 1:251). He met the same fate as Shāh Ḥusayn the following year when the Turkmen military elite of the Ṣafavids reasserted their power against the Iranian aristocracy after the death of Shah Ismāʿīl. Div Sulṭān Rūmlū, the tutor of Ismāʿīl’s infant successor Shāh Ṭahmāsp who would control the affairs of the kingdom for a few years ordered to burn Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad in 930/1524 (Ghaffaārī Qazvīnī 1964, 282; Budāq Munshī Qazvīnī 1999, 147; Rūmlū 2005, 2:1135-6; Qumī 1984, 1:156; Iskandar Beg Munshī, 1998, 1:251-2).

The second eminent member of the Kujujī family at the Ṣafavid court is variously introduced as a brother or paternal nephew of Shams al-Dīn Zakariyā. He was named Muḥammadī Beg Kujujī and became chief court chancellor (munshī) in 943/1536 upon the death of his predecessor (Ghaffaārī Qazvīnī 1964, 292. Qumī 1984, 1:262-3). Muḥammadī Beg had intimate ties to a certain Mīrzā Muḥammad Kirmānī and perhaps initiated the latter’s descent from the Kujujīs on his mother’s side (Iskandar Beg Munshī, 1998, 1:263). This Mīrzā Muḥammad Kirmānī would later briefly serve as a vizier of Shāh ʿAbbās (Iskandar Beg Munshī, 1998, 3:1815). We don’t know how long the tenure of Muḥammadī Beg Kujujī as chief munshī under Shāh Ṭahmāsp lasted. In any case he had already had a career as Ṣafavid court official before obtaining this post which was allegedly not reassigned for some time after his death (Iskandar Beg Munshī, 1998, 1:263).

Finally there is Jalāl al-Dīn Amīr Beg Muhrdār Kujujī who held several important posts but also spent almost half of his life in captivity. As relatively early sources, the biographical dictionary of poets and artists written by Shāh Ṭahmāsp’s rebellious brother Sām Mīrzā (d. 973/1566) and the universal history authored by Qāżī Aḥmad Ghaffārī Qazvīnī either do not mention the captivity at all or simply note Amīr Beg’s arrest in 958/1551 (Ghaffaārī Qazvīnī 1964, 300; Sām Mīrzā Ṣafavī 2005, 92). Later sources provide more and more precise information on his career, especially the universal history of Qāżī Aḥmad Qumī which even reproduces a letter allegedly written by Amīr Beg himself requesting pardon from Shāh Ṭahmāsp (Qumī 1984, 1:611-4).

The letter which may indeed have been authored by Amīr Beg Kujujī, gives 11 Ṣafar 979/4 July 1572 as the date of writing and states that his captivity had already lasted 27 years. Among other things, Amīr Beg mentions his troubles during the machinations of Div Sulṭān Rūmlū and enumerates stations of his career from service with Ghāzī Khān Tekkelū, first in Baghdad for two years and then in Khurasan for four years, afterwards as administrator (mutawallī) of the shrine of Imām Riża in Mashhad and finally as vizier of Khurasan (Qumī 1984, 612-3). Taking the date of writing and duration of captivity stated in the letter seriously, Amīr Beg must have been imprisoned at least since 952/1545.

In his contemporary universal history, Ḥasan Beg Rūmlū also suggests that Amīr Beg Kujujī had already spent time in prison before his arrest in 958/1551 (Rūmlū 2005, 3:1347). As vizier of Ghāzī Khān Tekkelū, he was once banned to Kirmān, then released and vizier of Amīr Sulṭān Rūmlū, mutawallī of the shrine of Imām Riża and vizier of Khurasan. After his arrest in 958/1551 Amīr Beg Kujujī was first held in the Qahqaha fortress in Azerbaijan and finally imprisoned in Alamut where he still lived in 980/1573, according to the historian Rūmlū (Rūmlū 2005, 3:1347-8; Qumī 1984, 1:349-50, also reports the arrest in 958/1551). The slightly later Qāżī Aḥmad Qumī notes that Shāh Ṭahmāsp did not grant Amīr Beg Kujujī the pardon requested in the letter of 979/1572 and that he spent six more years imprisoned in Alamut and died there suggesting the date of 6 Ṣafar 987/4 April 1579 (Qumī 1984, 1:611-14).

The historian Iskandar Beg Munshī lists Amīr Beg known as Sealkeeper (muhrdār) among the viziers of Shāh Ṭahmāsp noting that he was a relative of Zakariyā Kujujī and vizier of Ghāzī Khān Tekkelū Muhrdār from whom he must have earned the honorary epithet (Iskandar Beg Munshī, 1998, 1:253-4). Iskandar Beg adds that Amīr Beg Kujujī was then vizier of Khurasan, imprisoned in Alamut for a period, released in the reign of Shāh Ismāʿīl II (r. 984/1567-985/1577) and died shortly afterwards without giving a date (Iskandar Beg Munshī, 1998, 1:254). It is an earlier source, namely the biographical dictionary of Sām Mīrzā Ṣafavī, that gives another important detail about Amīr Beg Kujujī and introduces his brother Ghiyāth al-Dīn who was vizier of Baghdad for some time (Sām Mīrzā Ṣafavī 2005, 92-3).

Sām Mīrzā mentions that Amīr Beg Kujujī was born in Naṭanz thus making clear that the Kujujīs did not only assume office all over the Ṣafavid realm but that the family had also established bases away from their original homeland. Nonetheless at least one family member still seems to have been a local government official in Tabriz as late as the end of the reign of Shāh Ṭahmāsp (Newman 2006, 177 n. 20). In his letter, Amīr Beg Kujujī also suggests the continuous adherence of the family to Sunni Islam and an awareness of three centuries of attachment to Sufism (Qumī 1984, 1:613). It is highly likely that the Kujujīs had always retained Sunni convictions and they probably also preserved a memory of their Sufi past. However at the time of Amīr Beg Kujujī the majority of family members had been far more prominent as court officials for two hundred years.

The Sayyids of Lālah as local Sufis and the transmission of religious leadership

The Sayyids of Lālah became actual members of the local aristocracy of Tabriz only from 872/1467 onwards. They had probably been in contact with local religious leaders before. But it was in this year that the most prominent family member, Sayyid Badr al-Din Ahmad, returned to Tabriz and eventually settled in the village of Lālah (Ibn Karbalāʾī 1965-70, 2:113). Several eminent local Sufis and scholars seem to have warmly welcomed Sayyid Badr al-Din (Ibn Karbalāʾī 1965-70, 1:522, 2:146-8). Most notably, Khwājah ʿAlī Kujujī, the last member of the Kujujī family known as a Sufi, reportedly helped Sayyid Badr al-Din to set up his complex of lodges in Lālah before he died in 884/1479-80 (Ibn Karbalāʾī 1965-70, 2:42-3, 151-2).

Sayyid Badr al-Din’s complex in Lālah was called Darwīshābād and served as a venue for Sufis of various affiliations. These included famous non-local masters who spent some time at Tabriz and representatives of local lineages that had developed over the preceding centuries especially in the villages (Ibn Karbalāʾī 1965-70, 2:150-4). The brief scholarly notes that exist on Sayyid Badr al-Dīn tend to introduce him as a representative of some “Sufi order” without fully agreeing on the details though (Arjomand 1984, 114; Algar 2009). Although the eminent Sufis of Tabriz had always been related to broader mystical traditions usually called “orders” there is no conclusive evidence that distinct groups which would justify such a term actually existed. In contrast local cults had flourished for a long time, often represented by specific Sufi families that were first of all integrated into a complex web of matrimonial ties and master-disciple-relationships in Tabriz and its hinterland.

All four of Sayyid Badr al-Din’s sons were born in the village of Lālah and two of them are relatively well documented as religious leaders of Tabriz and members of the local aristocracy, in addition to the father (Ibn Karbalāʾī 1965-70, 1:71-5/Intr., 2:171, 196). The eldest, Shihāb al-Dīn ʿAbd Allāh, acted as primary teacher and Sufi master to his younger brothers after Sayyid Badr al-Dīn’s death in 912/1507 (Ibn Karbalāʾī 1965-70, 1:71-3/Intr., 2:186). The third son, Ṣafī al-Dīn Shāh Mujtabā was the Sufi master of the author Ibn Karbala’ī (Ibn Karbalāʾī 1965-70, 1:74/Intr., 2:171). However, contrary to some scholarly claims, there is no evidence for a matrimonial relation between the Sayyids of Lālah and the author (Lewisohn 2004; Algar 2009). The family of the latter held the custodianship of the shrine of the not only locally famous 6th/12th-century Sufi Bābā Faraj Tabrīzī to whose cult the Sayyids of Lālah could easily and firmly connect as they joined in the aristocracy of Tabriz (Ibn Karbalāʾī 1965-70, 1:376-7, 381, 2:167-8).

The immersion of the Sayyids of Lālah into the local Sufi milieus of Tabriz may initially also have enhanced their position at court. Sayyid Badr al-Din married the daughter of an influential Sufi at the Aq Qoyunlu court and seems to have remained unharmed when the latter was executed in 891/1486 (Ibn Karbalāʾī 1965-70, 1:75/Intr., 88-96, 2:171). Previously, he had welcomed Ismāʿīl Safavī’s maternal grandfather Uzun Ḥasan Aq Qoyunlu in Lālah at least once (Ibn Karbalāʾī 1965-70, 2:154-5). Ibn Karbala’i claims that Sayyid Badr al-Din was then made to play a quite active role in the takeover of power by Ismāʿīl (Ibn Karbalāʾī 1965-70, 2:159-61). Given the involvement of the Kujujīs in the dynastic change and the Sufi ties between Ismāʿīl’s and Sayyid Badr al-Dīn’s ancestors, there may be some truth in this.

However neither Sayyid Badr al-Dīn nor his sons were very active in politics later on. Sayyid Shihāb al-Dīn briefly held the important post of ṣadr when Ismāʿīl reentered Tabriz after the first Ottoman occupation of the city following the battle of Chaldiran in 920/1514 (Ghaffārī Qazvīnī 1964, 277-8). According to Ibn Karbalāʾī, he was forced into this post and resigned voluntarily but we need not necessarily believe this (Ibn Karbalāʾī 1965-70, 2:186). In any case, the author considers the scholarly achievements and Sufi activities of Sayyid Shihāb al-Dīn and his relatives as much more important (Ibn Karbalāʾī 1965-70, 2:186-95).

One of Sayyid Shihāb al-Dīn’s main teachers was the influential local aristocrat Sayyid Ismāʿīl Shānb-Ghāzānī (d. 919/1513) (Ibn Karbalāʾī 1965-70, 1:434-5, 2:70, 186). This Sayyid Ismāʿīl had already been a close associate of Sayyid Shihāb al-Dīn’s father Sayyid Badr al-Dīn. As requested, he had directed the mourning ceremony saying the prayers upon the latter’s death in 912/1507 and forged matrimonial ties to the Sayyids of Lālah, too (Ibn Karbalāʾī 1965-70, 2:183). Sayyid Shihāb al-Dīn’s brother and Ibn Karbalāʾī’s Sufi master Sayyid Ṣafī al-Dīn was married to a daughter of Sayyid Ismāʿīl Shānb-Ghāzānī (Ibn Karbalāʾī 1965-70, 1:74/Intr., 588).

The sons of Sayyid Badr al-Din died between 914/1509 and 982/1575 and were buried next to their father in the Gajīl cemetery of Tabriz where the shrine of Bābā Faraj was likewise located (Ibn Karbalāʾī 1965-70, 1:71-5/Intr., 2:183, 186, 196). They had gathered a circle of companions and disciples some of whom were likewise buried in the enclosure of Sayyid Badr al-Din (Ibn Karbalāʾī 1965-70, 2:196-9, 204-6). However those of his sons who lived through the reign of Shah Ṭahmasp, notably Sayyid Shihāb al-Dīn and Sayyid Ṣafī al-Dīn, also seem to have spent much time away from Tabriz. It is possible that the family was temporarily exiled to Isfahan where a son of Sayyid Ṣafī al-Dīn died in 1548 (Ibn Karbalāʾī 1965-70, 1:74/Intr.).

Being Sunni Sufis the Sayyids of Lālah probably faced pressure from the Ṣafavids (Shushtarī 1995, 1:82). The repeated Ottoman invasions of Azerbaijan and occupations of Tabriz must have made the Sayyids of Lālah a great concern to the Shii rulers of Iran. In the generation of Sayyid Badr al-Dīn’s grandsons there was obviously nothing left of the family and their Sufi community in Tabriz. The author Ibn Karbalāʾī, for instance, left to settle in Damascus after the death of his master Sayyid Ṣafī al-Dīn (Ibn Karbalāʾī 1965-70, 1:62-70/Intr.). He does not condemn the new ruling dynasty altogether and even speaks quite favorably about the dynastic founder Ismāʿīl but also stresses that the Ṣafavids destroyed most lines of sayyids and Sufi shaykhs (Ibn Karbalāʾī 1965-70, 2:159-60, 200-3).


We have seen that the Kujujīs served the Ṣafavids as high-ranking court officials for much of the 16th century. Occasionally individual family members were caught in intrigues or became victims of purges at court. But on the whole the family was relatively successful in transmitting positions of leadership across the dynastic change. We have also seen that the Sayyids of Lālah remained influential religious leaders at Tabriz at the beginning of Ṣafavid rule. They had only limited contact to court and as Sunni Sufis they seem to have faced more systematic pressure from the new Shii dynasty especially given the Ottoman threat.

Now the religious orientation of the Kujujīs may not be as clear as that of the Sayyids of Lālah. Nonetheless there are strong indications that they likewise continued to stick to Sunnism after the Ṣafavid takeover of power as a family member himself suggests. Aubin rightfully remarked in the classic article already referred to above that there is no adequate definition of the precise contents of the categories Sunni and Shii in 9th/15th-century Iran (Aubin 1959, 55). The same is probably true for much of the 10th/16th century.

This kind of religious antagonism seems to have played a minor role in determining the different fates of the two families of local aristocrats of Tabriz anyway. Instead the different kind of activities each family pursued appears as more important. The Kujujīs continued the path of leaving behind their Sufi past and serving as court officials. As such they also detached themselves increasingly from the local setting of Tabriz even if they did not completely lose touch with their original homeland. In contrast, the Sayyids of Lālah continued the path of immersing themselves into the local aristocracy of Tabriz through their roles as religious leaders. Most notably the family connected to a strong local Sufi tradition. This must have constituted a serious competition to the Ṣafavids and a risk to undermine their own regional Sufi credentials which still mattered a lot to the new royal dynasty.

Daniel Zakrzewski (July 2017)


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To quote this publication:

Daniel Zakrzewski, “Local Aristocrats in a Time of Critical Dynastic Change. Two Notable Families of Tabriz Facing the New Ṣafavid Order”, DYNTRAN Working Papers, no. 26, online edition, July 2017, available at:  http://dyntran.hypotheses.org/1972


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