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SHAH. One of the most common titles used by the dynastic rulers of Iran and the Turko-Persian cultural area, shah (Ar. and Pers., shah) when employed by the monarch of a large territory, is often used in a compound form such as padishah (“emperor”) or shahanshah (“king of kings”). However, it can also appear as part of the title of a regional authority (such as the Kabulshah or Sharvan-shah) or as part of a ruler’s personal name (Turanshah, Shah Jahan, etc.).

Philologists trace this word’s origin back to an Old Persian root, khshay (“to rule”), from which the Achaemenid kings (559-33 BCE) derived their title, khshayathiya. The subsequent forms shah and shahanshdh were routinely applied to the princes and kings of the Sassanian dynasty (224-651 CE). After the Arab conquest of Persia, the title fell into disuse except by a few petty provincial dynasts; the term shahanshah in particular acquired a pejorative connotation and was condemned in some hadiths as blasphemous. As the empire of the caliphs began to break up into provincial polities, some ambitious regional dynasts reportedly aspired to revive the imperial title of shdhdnshdh. The first Muslim rulers definitely known to have used it were the Buyids of western Iran (perhaps as early as 936), probably to emphasize their independence from the authority of the `Abbasid caliphs and later as a way of ranking authority within the Buyid family hierarchy. Thereafter, it became common for Muslim rulers to include shah as part of their titulature; it appears not only among Iranian dynasties, such as the Khwarazm-shahs but also among various Turko-Mongol rulers from the Seljuks to the Kara-koyunlu, Timurids, and Ottomans, as well as numerous Indian dynasties in Bengal, Kashmir, Jawnpur, Malwa, and elsewhere. However, such rulers generally used the term merely as one of many pompous and high-sounding titles without attaching any special significance to it. This was not the case with Isma’il Safavi, who took the title shah following the conquest of Tabriz and establishment of the Safavid dynasty in 1501. Shah once more became the particular and distinctive title of the dynastic rulers of the Iranian plateau, and it continued to be used in this sense not only by the Safavids but by virtually all the subsequent rulers of Iran. In 1925, Reza Khan, after having briefly flirted with the idea of establishing a republican form of government, also opted to assume the title shah.

The term shah is invariably translated into English as “king,” but this does not convey fully all its nuances. Like tsar or kaiser, the title is rich in historical associations and suggests an institution of great antiquity, legitimacy, power, and authority. In its original and most distinctive usage, it is closely linked to the Persian ideal of sacred kingship. The wish to capitalize on this concept of the shah as the possesor of an awesome “kingly glory” who must be respected and obeyed has doubtless been a major factor in the various revivals of the title. A recent and ill-fated example of this may be seen in Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s extreme glorification of the monarchy as the unifying force of the Iranian nation-state, a tradition which was brought to an abrupt end by the Islamic Revolution and the consequent abolition of the office in 1979.

[See also Iran; Monarchy.]


Buchner, V. F. “Shah.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, vol. 4, pp. 256257. Leiden, 1913-1938. Useful overview of the philological aspects of the term.

Dihkhuda, `All Akbar., “Shah.” In Lughatnamah. Tehran, 1947Lexicographical explication of the term with many references to its usage in literary sources.

Filipani-Ronconi, Pio. “The Tradition of Sacred Kingship in Iran.” In Iran under the Pahlavis, edited by George Lenczowski, pp. 5183. Stanford, Calif., 1978. Interesting interpretation of the concept of sacred kingship in Iranian history.

Madelung, Wilferd. “The Assumption of the Title Shahanshah by the Buyids and `The Reign of the Daylam (Dawlat al-Daylam).’ “Journal of Near Eastern Studies 28 (1969): 84-1o8, 168-183. Important article dealing with the usage of the title in early Islamic times.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/shah/

  • writerPosted On: July 29, 2017
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