Shafii Sunnism was the dominant form of Islam in most of Iran until rise of the Safavid Empire
although a significant undercurrent of Ismailism and a very large minority of Twelvers were present all over Persia, going back to some of the most illustrious Persian intellectuals in history who were Shias, such as Ferdowsi.
Many scholars and scientists who lived before the Safavid era, such as Avicenna, Jābir ibn Hayyān, Alhazen, Al-Farabi and Nasir al-Din al-Tusi and the poet Hafez were Shia Muslims of both the Ismaili and Twelver traditions (some indistinguishably so, such as al-Tusi), as was most of Iran’s elite. There were many Sunni scientists and scholars as well, such as Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, philosopher-theologian Ghazali, and poet Saadii
Nizamiyyas were the medieval institutions of Islamic higher education established by Khwaja Nizam al-Mulk in the 11th century. Nizamiyyah institutes were the first well-organized universities in the Muslim world.
The most famous and celebrated of all the nizamiyyah schools was Al-Nizamiyya of Baghdad (established 1065), where Nizam al-Mulk appointed the distinguished philosopher and theologian, Ghazali, as a professor. Other Nizamiyyah schools were located in Nishapur, Balkh, Herat and Isfahan.
The Sunni hegemony did not undercut the Shia presence in Iran. The writers of the Shia Four Books were Iranian, as were many other great scholars. According to Morteza Motahhari.
The majority of Iranians turned to Shi’ism from the Safawid period onwards. Of course, it cannot be denied that Iran’s environment was more favourable to the flourishing of the Shi’ism as compared to all other parts of the Muslim world.
Shi’ism did not penetrate any land to the extent that it gradually could in Iran. With the passage of time, Iranians’ readiness to practise Shi’ism grew day by day. Had Shi`ism not been deeply rooted in the Iranian spirit, the Safawids (907-1145/ 1501-1732) would not have succeeded in converting Iranians to the Shi’a creed and making them follow the Prophet’s Ahl al-Bayt sheerly by capturing political power.
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