Safavid and Qajar dynasties (1502-1925)
Further deterioration in the treatment of Persian Jews occurred during the reign of the Safavids who proclaimed Shi'a Islam the state religion. Shi'ism assigns great importance to the issues of ritual purity — tahara, and non-Muslims, including Jews, are deemed to be ritually unclean — najis — so that physical contact with them would require Shi'as to undertake ritual purification before doing regular prayers. Thus, Persian rulers, and to an even larger extent, the populace, sought to limit physical contact between Muslims and Jews. Jews were not allowed to attend public baths with Muslims or even to go outside in rain or snow, ostensibly because some impurity could be washed from them upon a Muslim.
The reign of Shah Abbas I (1588–1629) was initially benign; Jews prospered throughout Persia and were even encouraged to settle in Isfahan, which was made a new capital. However, toward the end of his rule, the treatment of Jews became harsher; upon advice from a Jewish convert and Shi'a clergy, the shah forced Jews to wear a distinctive badge on clothing and headgear. In 1656, all Jews were expelled from Isfahan because of the common belief of their impurity and forced to convert to Islam. However, as it became known that the converts continued to practice Judaism in secret and because the treasury suffered from the loss of jizya collected from the Jews, in 1661 they were allowed to revert to Judaism, but were still required to wear a distinctive patch upon their clothings.
Under Sunni Muslim Nadir Shah (1736–1747), who abolished Shi'a Islam as state religion, Jews experienced a period of relative tolerance when they were allowed to settle in the Shi'ite holy city of Mashhad. Yet, the advent of a Shi'a Qajar dynasty in 1794 brought back the earlier persecutions. In the middle of the 19th century, a European traveller wrote about the life of Persian Jews: "...they are obliged to live in a separate part of town...; for they are considered as unclean creatures... Under the pretext of their being unclean, they are treated with the greatest severity and should they enter a street, inhabited by Mussulmans, they are pelted by the boys and mobs with stones and dirt... For the same reason, they are prohibited to go out when it rains; for it is said the rain would wash dirt off them, which would sully the feet of the Mussulmans... If a Jew is recognized as such in the streets, he is subjected to the greatest insults. The passers-by spit in his face, and sometimes beat him... unmercifully... If a Jew enters a shop for anything, he is forbidden to inspect the goods... Should his hand incautiously touch the goods, he must take them at any price the seller chooses to ask for them... Sometimes the Persians intrude into the dwellings of the Jews and take possession of whatever please them. Should the owner make the least opposition in defense of his property, he incurs the danger of atoning for it with his life... If... a Jew shows himself in the street during the three days of the Katel (Muharram)..., he is sure to be murdered."
Another European traveller reported a degrading ritual to which Jews were subjected for public amusement:
At every public festival-even at the royal salaam [salute], before the King’s face — the Jews are collected, and a number of them are flung into the hauz or tank, that King and mob may be amused by seeing them crawl out half-drowned and covered with mud. The same kindly ceremony is witnessed whenever a provincial governor holds high festival: there are fireworks and Jews.
In the 19th century there were many instances of forced conversions and massacres, usually inspired by the Shi'a clergy. A representative of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, a Jewish humanitarian and educational organization, wrote from Tehran in 1894: "...every time that a priest wishes to emerge from obscurity and win a reputation for piety, he preaches war against the Jews". . In 1830, the Jews of Tabriz were massacred; the same year saw a forcible conversion of the Jews of Shiraz. In 1839, many Jews were massacred in Mashhad and survivors were forcibly converted. However, European travellers later reported that the Jews of Tabriz and Shiraz continued to practice Judaism in secret despite a fear of further persecutions. Jews of Barforush were forcibly converted in 1866; when they were allowed to revert to Judaism thanks to an intervention by the French and British ambassadors, a mob killed 18 Jews of Barforush, burning two of them alive. In 1910, the Jews of Shiraz were accused of ritual murder of a Muslim girl. Muslim dwellers of the city plundered the whole Jewish quarter, the first to start looting were the soldiers sent by the local governor to defend the Jews against the enraged mob. Twelve Jews, who tried to defend their property, were killed, and many others were injured. Representatives of the Alliance Israélite Universelle recorded other numerous instances of persecution and debasement of Persian Jews.