Qom is the capital of Qom Province, located 140 km (87 mi) to the south of Tehran. It is situated on the banks of the Qom ephemeral River.
Qom is considered holy in Shi’a Islam, as it is the site of the shrine of Fatimah bint Musa, sister of Imam Imam Reza (789-816). The city is the largest centre for Shi’a scholarship in the world, and is a significant destination of pilgrimage, with around twenty million pilgrims visiting the city every year, the majority being Iranians but also other Shi’a Muslims from all around the world. Qom is also famous for a Persian brittle toffee known as sohan, considered a souvenir of the city and sold by 2,000 to 2,500 “sohan” shops.
The present town of Qom in Central Iran dates back to ancient times. Its pre-Islamic history can be partially documented, although the earlier epochs remain unclear. Excavations at Tepe Sialk indicate that the region had been settled since ancient times (Ghirshman and Vanden Berghe), and more recent surveys have revealed traces of large inhabited places south of Qom, dating from the 4th and 1st millennium BC. While nothing is known about the area from Elamite, Medes, and Achaemenid times, there are significant archaeological remains from the Seleucid and Parthian epochs, of which the ruins of Khurha (about 70 kilometres southwest of Qom) are the most famous and important remnants. Their dating and function have instigated long and controversial debates and interpretations, for they have been interpreted and explained variously as the remains of a Sasanian temple, or of a Seleucid Dionysian temple, or of a Parthian complex. Its true function is still a matter of dispute, but the contributions by Wolfram Kleiss point to a Parthian palace that served as a station on the nearby highway and was used until Sasanian times.
It is difficult to decipher the actual process of the Arab conquest of Qom from the extant Arabic sources. According to Balāḏori, the first tentative conquest of Qom took place in 644 by Abu Musa Ashaari after a few days of fighting. It remains unclear who the defenders of Qom were; probably fleeing Sasanian nobles and local soldiers returning from the great battles against the Arabs formed the core of the resistance. The area remained largely untouched for 60 years after the initial conquest and was probably administered from Isfahan.
The first permanent settlement of Arab settlers in Qom took place during the revolts of Mukhtar al-Thaqafi and Moṭarref b. Moḡira b. Šaʿba in 685–96, when small groups of refugees moved there and Qom itself was affected by the fighting between the Umayyad state power and the rebels.
The decisive step for the later urban development of Qom occurred when a group of Ashaari Arabs came to the area. These Ashaaries originated in Yemen and the first important figure among them was the first conqueror of the area of Qom, the above-mentioned Abu Musa Ashaari. ʿAbd-Allāh b. Saʿd and Aḥwaṣ b. Saʿd were grandsons of Abi Musa’s nephew and led the group of Ashaaries that emigrated from Kufa to the region of Qom. It is not exactly clear why they migrated, but it might have also been a general opposition to the Umayyad dynasty. A central element was the early contact with the leading local Zoroastrian Persian noble Yazdanfadar.
The death of Fātimah bint Mūsā, the sister of the eighth Imam of Shias Ali al-Ridha in the city in 816 CE proved to be of great importance for the later history of Qom. Fātimah bint Mūsā died while following her brother to Khorasan, a region in northern Iran. The place of her entombment developed from 870 CE into a building that was transformed over time into today’s magnificent and economically important sanctuary.
The move of a Hadith transmitter from Kufa to Qom, which took place probably in the middle of the 9th century, indicates the increased importance of Qom as a centre of Shia learning. At about the same time another military attack on the city occurred in 868, when Mofleḥ, the Turkish officer of the caliph Al-Mostaʿin, executed some of its inhabitants because of the city’s refusal to pay taxes. Mofleḥ became governor of Qom and lasted in that position for at least five years. During his governorship, important Alids moved to Qom and there are references to close contacts between the representative of the 11th Shia’s Imam, Hassan al-Askari, in Qom and other Qomis. The representative Aḥmad b. Esḥāq was at the same time administrator of the Fāṭema sanctuary and the agent (wakil) responsible for the pensions of the Alids
The first Friday mosque in Qom was built in 878 on the site of a fire temple. In 881Qom was occupied by the Turkish military leader Edgu Tegin, who tried to collect the tax arrears for seven years which partially ruined the guarantors of these taxes. At about the same time the early orthodox Shias achieved their victory in the town. In 893, at the latest, all extremists were driven out of town by the leading Shia shaikh of Qom, Aḥmad b. Moḥammed b. Isa Ashaari. Probably one year later the famous Islamic mystic Ḥosayn b. Manṣur Ḥallaj stayed in Qom, where he was arrested.
Beginning in 928 Qom fell into the sphere of interest of Daylami warlords and was relieved from the direct authority of the caliph, although it changed hands several times between 928 and 943. The Daylamites brutally exploited the city through harsh taxes. With the firm establishment of Buyids control from 951 on, the political circumstances were less troubled than before, although the economic situation deteriorated.
No outstanding events are reported for the relatively stable political period until 989, but Qom seems to have been isolated inside Persia because of its Shia creed. At the same time, the Fatima sanctuary was enlarged and the number of sayyeds residing in Qom reached a considerable number. In 984 Qom and its environs were affected by the revolt of the Kurdish Moḥammad Barzikāni against the Buyid Fakr-Al-Dawla.
The population amounted to 50,000 inhabitants at the most and consisted of Persians and Arabs who had adopted the Persian of the time as their language and many social customs from the Persians, whose proportion was probably smaller than the Arabs. The Kurds lived in the countryside to the west. The Twelver Shia constituted the great majority of the population and many important Shia scholars of the time came from Qom or lived there. As many as 331 male Alids lived in Qom in 988, and they produced a good number of community leaders and there is also mention of one prominent female ʿAlid besides Fātimah bint Mūsā. These Alids descended from the Imams and were supported by pensions.
In 997, Qom became involved in internal Buyid quarrels and was subsequently unsuccessfully besieged. In 1027, Qom fell under the rule of Šahryuš from the Kakuyid dynasty and a few years later (1030–40) it became part of the Ghaznavid domain. The Seljuki did not occupy Qom at once but left the town and Jebāl in Kakuyid hands for ten years. From 1050 on, the city was under Seljuk rule and nothing is known about its fate until 1094. Afterwards, the growing instability of the Seljuk empire involved Qom in the power struggles between the competing Seljuk factions in Jebāl and the city changed hands many times. The most stable period seems to have been the 14 years (1119–33) when Qom lay in Sanjar’s sphere of power and witnessed the construction of a second Friday mosque.
Surprisingly, Qom enjoyed relative prosperity in its economy in the Seljuk period. The rigidly Sunni Seljuks seem to have practised a pragmatic policy and one of the main sources of this time (ʿAbd-al-Jalil Qazvini) speaks of good relations between the famous vizier Nizam al-Mulk and Seljuk sultans on the one hand, and members of the local nobility on the other. Sultans reportedly visited the sanctuary (although no specific sultan is mentioned by name) and in general no religiously motivated punitive action against Qom is known to have taken place. Under Seljuk rule, a considerable number of religious buildings were erected. At least ten madrasas are known by name. Two Friday mosques seem to have existed in Seljuk times: the old one was renovated and a new one, located outside of the town area, was built in 1133 by the order of Sultan Togrel II. Qom must have expanded during this period, but precise reasons for its prosperity are not known. A family of Ḥosaynid Alids was influential and provided a number of community leaders. Another important Shia family was that of the Daʿwidār, whose members were judges in town, which indicates the transformation of Qom from a town governed by the Sunnis to a completely Shai domain.
The Mongol invasion led to the total destruction of Qom by the armies of the Mongol generals, Jebe and Sübedei, in 1224 and left the city in ruins for at least twenty years.
In the late 14th century, the city was plundered by Tamerlane and the inhabitants were massacred. Qom gained special attention and gradually developed due to its religious shrine during the Saffavid dynasty. By 1503, Qom became one of the important centres of theology in relation to Shia Islam, and became a significant religious pilgrimage site and pivot.
The city suffered heavy damage again during the Afghan invasions, resulting in consequent severe economic hardships. Qom further sustained damage during the reign of Nader Shah and the conflicts between the two households of Zandieh and Qajar in order to gain power over Iran. Finally in 1793 Qom came under the control of Agha Muhammad Khan Qajar. On being victorious over his enemies, the Qajar Sultan Fath Ali Shah was responsible for the repairs done on the Holy Shrine of Hazrat Mæ’sume, as he had made such a vow.
The city of Qom began another era of prosperity in the Qajar era. After Russian forces entered Karaj in 1915, many of the inhabitants of Tehran moved to Qom due to reasons of proximity, and the transfer of the capital from Tehran to Qom was even discussed. But the British and Russians defeated prospects of the plan by putting Ahmad Shah Qajar under political pressure. Coinciding with this period, a “National Defense Committee” was set up in Tehran, and Qom turned into a political and military apex opposed to the Russian and British colonial powers.
As a centre of religious learning, Qom fell into decline for about a century from 1820 to 1920 but had a resurgence when Shaykh Abdul Karim Haeri Yazdi accepted an invitation to move from Sultanabad (now called Arak, Iran), where he had been teaching, to Qom.
In 1964, before his exile from Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini led his opposition to the Pahlavi dynasty from Qom. After the Islamic revolution in 1979, Khomeini spent time in the city before and after moving to Tehran