The Qizilbash have been defined to a large extent by historical circumstances. The Qizilbash were formed out of several Turkish Shia groups that were living in northwest Persia (Azerbaijan) in the fifteenth century. These groups were oppressed by the Osmanli Turks in the early years of the Ottoman Empire. Shaykh Heydar, a charismatic Sunni religious leader, attracted a large following of Shia from Azerbaijan. He called his most loyal Turkic followers "Qizilbash" and created a special hat for them to wear. The Heydar hat was red, and "Qizilbash" came to mean "red hats," "red heads," or "red beards."
Shaykh Heydar was killed in 1488 in a battle between his Qizilbash and other Turks. Civil war in Azerbaijan ensued. In 1501 Heydar's son, Esmā'īl, founded the Safavid dynasty and conquered most of what is Iran today. Shah Esmā'īl spread Ithna Ashari Shiism throughout Persia, the religion that is still dominant in Iran today.
The Qizilbash became known as skilled warriors. They could put 70,000 armed horsemen in the field at one time. Some became mercenaries, but most of them supported the Safavid shahs who were fighting against the Sunni Ottoman and Sunni Uzbek Turks.
The Qizilbash, though not always aligned with the shahs in power, seemed always to have a central role in the power struggles that were constantly in play over the centuries. Their formidable military organization was utilized by various shahs and played a prominent role in the expansion of empires, particularly the Durrani Empire (1747-1793), which extended through Afghanistan and into India. When not at war, the Qizilbash served as personal bodyguards of the shahs and as household troops. Such forces were used to quell rebellions within the empire.
In the course of expansion, groups of Qizilbash (and others) were left at various places to protect communication and supply routes, to maintain law and order, and to collect tribute from conquered peoples.
The Qizilbash became better situated (if not more numerous) in what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan than they had been in Iran. In Afghanistan, the Qizilbash gradually accepted Dari (Afghan Farsi or Persian) as their primary language. Because they remained Shia and maintained a strong influence in the Afghan court, the predominant Sunni population resented their presence, and the Qizilbash felt the discrimination. Nevertheless, the Qizilbash became an entrenched part of the Afghan population, particularly in urban areas, where they became administrators, clerks, traders, and artisans.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the Qizilbash influence in the Afghan court had diminished. The Qizilbash supported, or were thought to be supporters of, the Hazarajat, who fought unsuccessfully against the ruling emir. For these reasons, and others, the emir tried forcibly to convert the Qizilbash to Sunni Islam. Those who refused were forced to wear red turbans. Because of the threat of persecution, many Qizilbash claimed to be Sunni, but secretly remained Shia.
This adoption of a dual religious identity, known as taqiyya, still occurs today. Obtaining accurate population figures for the Shia Qizilbash in Afghanistan and Pakistan is virtually impossible because they claim to be Sunni, Tajik, Farsiwan, or Pashtun, or they identify themselves according to their place of origin in India. Population estimates for Afghanistan range from 30,000 to 200,000, but some suggest the figure is closer to one million. The story is similar in Pakistan. Few influential Qizilbash live in Iran, their original home.
The Qizilbash are no longer considered a warrior class, but they are still thought to be within the upper strata of power and among the intelligentsia. They also tend to be predominantly urban professionals—doctors, teachers, engineers, and lawyers. Because of physical dispersal and taqiyya, they are no longer a cohesive group; nevertheless, they have maintained their strong ethnic pride.
Dupree, Louis (1979). "Further Notes on Taqiyya: Afghanistan." Journal of American Oriental Society 99(4): 680-682.
Dupree, Louis (1980). Afghanistan. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Dupree, Louis ( 1984). "Qizilbash." In Muslim Peoples: A World Ethnographic Survey , edited by Richard V. Weekes, 637-642. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.
Tapper, Richard (1979). Pasture and Politics. London: Academic Press.
Watkins, Mary Bradley (1963). Afghanistan: Land in Transition. Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand.