Iṣfahān (Persian: اصفهان, romanized: Esfahān, historically also rendered in English as Ispahan, Spahan, Sepahan, Esfahan or Hispahan and known in classical Arabic as Aṣbahān/أصبهان) is the third-largest city in Iran after Tehran and Mashhad, but was once one of the largest cities in the world, it is one of the ancient Persian cities and is known in Persian as Nesf-e Jahan, “Half the World”.
Iṣfahān was conquered at the end of year 20, during the reign of ‘Umar b. al-Khaṭṭāb (may Allah be pleased with him). Several reports mentioned that the Prophet’s (ﷺ) companion, Abū Mūsā al-Ash’arī (may Allah be pleased with him), took part in the conquest of the city. Other companions are cited as well.
Iṣfahān – like other major Persian Sunni cities – used to be one of the strongholds of Sunni Islam in Pre-Safavid Iran, it was a major source of Sunnī and ḥadīthist scholarship.
Early reliable transmitters, such as ‘Abdurraḥmān Ibn al-Aṣbahānī (d. 106-120), existed in biographical and primary sources. With time, the incidence of notable transmitters associated with the city continued to increase. The city eventually was the origin of many early renowned scholars, such as al-Layth b. Sa’d (d. 175), al-Darāwardī (d. 186), ‘Abdul’azīz b. Abī Salamah al-Mājashūn (d. 164), Nāfi’ al-Madanī (d. 169), the famous muqri’ to whom the qirā’ah is ascribed.
Yūnus b. Ḥabīb (d. 267), the compiler of Musnad al-Ṭayālisī, was from the city as well. In fact, the book was transmitted to us through Aṣbahānī scholarship. After Yūnus’ time, observe an increase in native Aṣbahānī ḥadīthist scholarship.
Muḥammad b. Yaḥyā b. Mandah (d. 301) ‘Abdullah b. Ja’far al-Aṣbahānī (d. 346) Abū al-Shaykh al-Aṣbahānī (d. 369), author of طبقات المحديثن بأصبهان والواردين عليها, a biographical source that listed the names of transmitters in the city and those that visited it.
Ibn al-Muqri’ (d. 381), author of the Mu’jam. Muḥammad b. Mandah al-Ḥāfiẓ (d. 395), the Imam of Ahlussunnah. The one and only, Abū Nu’aym al-Aṣbahānī (d. 430), author of Ḥilyat al-Awliyā and many other notable works, such as Tārīkh Aṣbahān, which he dedicated to its history.
The era between the late-3rd and mid-5th centuries seems to have been the golden age of Aṣbahān’s Sunnī scholarship, with many other notable figures coming from the city. It continued to flourish until the late 5th century. The city seemed to have gained a reputation for being staunchly Sunnī and opposed to Shī’ism. Shī’ite biographer, al-Najāshī, mentioned that the Kūfan Shī’ite, Ibrāhīm b. Muḥammad al-Thaqafī (d. 283), authored a controversial book on Ali’s merits and the Ṣaḥābah’s blunders. The Kūfans thus advised Ibrāhīm to discard it, to which he asked in response: “Which of the lands are most distant from the Shia?” They said: “Aṣfahān,” so he swore that he would only transmit the book in that city, and he moved to it.
In another ex. , Abū al-Shaykh mentioned that a man from the city once tended a gathering of ḥadīth where he narrated the merits of Abū Bakr and Umar. After that, he asked: “With whom shall we begin, Uthmān or Alī?” He was thus abandoned and accused of being a “Rafidhi”
The extreme reaction mentioned in the previous quote stems from a tradition among Ahl al-Ḥadīth to precede the transmission of ‘Alī’s merits with the merits of the caliphs before him. The staunchness of the people of Aṣbahān seemed to persist for quite some time.
Perhaps it should not come as a surprise that one of the earliest Sunnī works authored in refutation of Shī’ism came from the city of Aṣbahān: Abū Nu’aym’s (d. 430) “al-Imāmah wal-Radd ‘alā al-Rāfiḍa”
Muḥammad b. ‘Abdulwāḥid al-Aṣbahānī (d. 516) authored a fascinating personal document that is akin to his personal memoirs throughout his pursuit of knowledge. In it, we get a glimpse into the ḥadīthist culture of the city that followed Abū Nu’aym’s era.
In this excerpt, we see him vehemently thrashing several Shī’ite figures he met in the city, and even praying against one of them:
He then described another incident, where one of the scholars in the city kicked the aforementioned man’s son out of a gathering because he exclusively used: “عليه السلام” after the mention of ‘Alī, excluding other companions.
He also was a staunch Salafī, perhaps as a legacy of Ibn Mandah. He attacked the Ash’arī madhab several times throughout his epistle, and he prefaced it by affirming Allah’s literal ‘uluww above the heavens and literal nuzūl to the sky every night, as is apparent in a ḥadīth.
Thus, it seemed as though the city was quite militant in its Sunnism, and this was not limited to its scholarship. Al-Sam’ānī (d. 562) mentioned that one of his teachers, a sheikh who used to give sermons, was not taken seriously by the people of the city because he was an Ash’arī.
Ibn al-Athīr, in al-Kāmil fil-Tārīkh, mentioned that the city was eventually occupied by the Ḥashāshīin in around 494 AH. Their continuous transgressions against the people of the city led to a massive revolt, where many of the “Bāṭinī” occupants in the city were massacred.
The people of the city dug pits, which were lit with fire. They then dragged whomever they caught from the Bāṭinīs into the fire. They even assigned a man as a caretaker of the fire, and they named him “Mālik,” which is the name of the angel who tends the Hellfire in the Quran.
In 627, the city experienced continuous Mongol attacks, which it fiercely resisted. Eventually, the Mongols were able to capture it in 633, due to an alleged internal dispute between the Shafi’is and Hanafis in the city. They slaughtered the city’s inhabitants.
The city fell into a degree of irrelevance after that. Ibn Baṭṭūṭa (d. 779) noted that it was mostly in ruins during his time due to a “fitnah between the Sunnah and the Rawafid.” He mentioned that the war between them continued till his day.
In around 789, the city surrendered to Timur (Taymūr Lenk). The transition of power was peaceful until the city’s inhabitants revolted in opposition to his taxes, to which he massacred what is said to be around 70,000 people. In the early 10th cent., the Safavids emerged, and Iṣfahānwas under Safavid influence. Beginning from 908, Safavid rulers continuously visited it with their armies to maintain influence. By this point, it seems as though the city had experienced significant demographic changes. Some sources mention that Shah Ismail I was welcomed into the city in 908/909 and that the 12 Imams were mentioned during Friday prayers in the city.
In 1006, the Safavid ruler, Shah Abbas I, declared the city the capital of the Safavid Dynasty. The Safavids enforced harsh policies and persecuted the remaining Sunni population of Persia in an attempt to bolster Twelver Shi’ism as the official religion of the dynasty.
The presence of the remaining Sunni community of Iṣfahān effectively came to an end in the 17th century when the Anti-Sunni Safavid rulers (with the religious backing of major Twelver Shia scholars like al-Majlisi (d. 1037)), persecuted and expelled the remaining Persian Sunnis from the city (many fled to the southern regions of Iran where ethnic Persian Sunnis can be found to this very day, others fled to Iraq and Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent). It has been a majority Shī’ite city since then with a small but growing Sunni community.
Iṣfahān used to be a fortress of Ahlus-Sunnah, but as the saying goes, all good comes to an end, and the Apostle of Allah (ﷺ) foretold the decline of Iṣfahān and how it will turn from a shining star of Islam and Sunnah to a land of Rafd and Shirk where the followers of the Dajjal will emerge:
يَتْبَعُ الدَّجَّالَ مِنْ يَهُودِ أَصْبَهَانَ سَبْعُونَ أَلْفًا عَلَيْهِمُ الطَّيَالِسَةُ
he Dajjal would be followed by seventy thousand Jews of Isfahan wearing Persian shawls. (Sahih Muslim)
Written and edited by Abdullah Biqai and Hassan Shemrani