Seljuq Turks and Mongols in Iran

The Seljuq Turks

Toghril I had proclaimed himself sultan at Neyshabur in 1038 and had espoused strict Sunnism, by which he gained the caliph's confidence and undermined the Buyid position in Baghdad. The Oguz Turks had accepted Islam late in the 10th century, and their leaders displayed a convert's zeal in their efforts to restore a Muslim polity along orthodox lines. Their efforts were made all the more urgent by the spread of Fatimid Isma'ili propaganda (Arabic da'wah) in the eastern Caliphate by means of an underground network of propagandists, or da'is, intent on undermining the Buyid regime, and by the threat posed by the Christian Crusaders.

The Buyids' usurpation of the caliph's secular power had given rise to a new theory of state formulated by al-Mawardi (died 1058). Al-Mawardi's treatise partly prepared the theoretical ground for Toghril's attempt to establish an orthodox Muslim state in which conflict between the caliph-imam's spiritual-juridical authority on the one side and the secular power of the sultan on the other could be resolved, or at least regulated, by convention. Al-Mawardi reminded the Muslim world of the necessity of the imamate; but the treatise realistically admitted the existence of, and thus accommodated, the fact of military usurpation of power. The Seljuqs' own political theorist al-Ghazali (died 1111) carried this admission further by explaining that the position of a powerless caliph, overshadowed by a strong Seljuq master, was one in which the latter's presence guaranteed the former's capacity to defend and extend Islam.

The caliph al-Qa'im (reigned 1031–75) replaced the last Buyid's name, al-Malik al-Rahim, in the khutbah and on the coins with that of Toghril Beg; and, after protracted negotiation ensuring restoration of the caliph's dignity after Shi'ite subjugation, Toghril entered Baghdad in December 1055. The caliph enthroned him and married a Seljuq princess. After Toghril had campaigned successfully as far as Syria, he was given the title of “king of the east and west.” The new situation was justified by the theory that existing practice was legal whereby a new caliph could be instituted by the sultan, who possessed effective power and sovereignty, but that thereafter the sultan owed the caliph allegiance because only so long as the caliph-imam's juridical faculties were recognized could government be valid.

Toghril Beg died in 1063. His heir, Alp-Arslan, was succeeded by Malik-Shah in 1072, and the latter's death in 1092 led to succession disputes out of which Berk-Yaruq emerged triumphant to reign until 1105. After a brief reign, Malik-Shah II was succeeded by Muhammad I (reigned 1105–18). The last “Great Seljuq” was Sanjar (1118–57), who had earlier been governor of Khorasan.

Alp-Arslan had nearly annihilated the Byzantine army at Manzikert in 1071, opening Asia Minor to those dependent tribesmen of the Seljuqs of whom Iran and the world were to hear more in the period of Ottoman power. Transoxania was subdued, the Christians in the Caucasus chastised, and the Fatimids expelled from Syria. An empire was for a short time achieved whose extent and stability enabled Alp-Arslan's and Malik-Shah's great minister, Nizam al-Mulk (died 1092), to pay a ferryman on the Oxus River with a draft cashable in Damascus.

Building and maintaining such a great empire necessitated a military regime and a vast war machine. The price to be paid later was oppression by military commanders and their units, set free to compete with each other and harry the land after the machine fell out of the grasp of powerful sultans. The soldiers had been remunerated by grants of land called iqta's, which were originally usufructuary but developed over time into hereditary properties. The grants later became nuclei out of which petty principalities grew with the decline of the central power. The cultivators were left at the mercy of military overlords in possession of the soil.

The great minister Nizam al-Mulk was typical of the Iranian bureaucracy, which, in an area prone to invasion, was often called on to attempt to cushion the impact of the brute military force of nomadic invaders and contain it within the bounds of administrative, economic, and cultural feasibility. For his Turkish masters he wrote the Seyasat-nameh (“Book of Government”), in which he urged the regulation of royal court procedures in line with Samanid models and the restriction of the arrogance and cupidity of the military fief holders. His book is the measure of the Seljuqs' failure to provide enduring stability and equitable government. Had they done so, such a work would have been unnecessary.

The Isma'iliyyah

Of one disruptive force Nizam al-Mulk's book is dramatically descriptive, in terms betraying near panic. The Seljuqs failed to nip in the bud the power of the Isma'iliyyah, originally spread throughout the eastern Islamic world by clandestine Fatimid da'is—many of whose cells later split from the mainstream of events in Egypt to become an independent organization within the Seljuq empire. This organization exercised power by terrorism, and the name given its adherents by Europeans in the Middle Ages, Assassins (from hashishi, denoting a consumer of hashish), has become a common noun in English. Isma'ili doctrine consisted of an esoteric system combining extremist (Arabic ghulat) Shi'ite beliefs and a complex theology heavily permeated by the form and content of Hellenistic philosophy. Isma'iliyyah recognized only 7 of the imams in descent from 'Ali and Fatimah, whereas the Ithna 'Ashari Shi'ism—that followed by the Buyids and the dominant sect of modern Iran—recognized 12.

The movement in Iran crystallized under the leadership of Hasan-e Sabbah, who had been trained in Fatimid Egypt. In 1090 Hasan gained the castle of Alamut in the Elburz Mountains, and the order's principal cells were thereafter situated, so far as possible, in similar impregnable mountain strongholds. From these centres, fida'is, or devotees ready to sacrifice their lives, issued forth and permeated society, spreading their mission as peddlers and itinerant tailors and gaining influence among the urban artisan and weaving classes. They were also often able to win the confidence of many highly placed women and children, whom they could please with novelties of dress or toys. Nizam al-Mulk himself was assassinated by one of the fida'is, but it is possible that this was done with the connivance of one of Malik-Shah's wives, whose son the vizier did not support for the succession.

The Isma'iliyyah were able to puncture Seljuq power but not destroy it. In the end the Seljuq empire collapsed where it had begun—in Khorasan, where Sultan Sanjar ultimately failed to control Turkmen tribes related to him by blood. Sanjar could not rely on military commanders his family had raised to high posts and had rewarded with land and provincial powers. The tribesmen refused to be coerced into paying taxes. In 1153 they captured the old sultan and, although allowing him all the respect of his regal position, kept him captive for three years.

The Khwarezm-Shahs

Atsiz was the military leader who, after Sultan Sanjar's capture in 1153, succeeded in supplanting Seljuq power in northeastern Iran. His ancestor, Anustegin, had been keeper of Malik-Shah's kitchen utensils and had been rewarded with the governorship of Khwarezm on the Oxus, where he founded the Khwarezm-Shah dynasty (c. 1077–1231). Regions elsewhere in Iran, on the passing of Seljuq supremacy, became independent under atabegs, who were originally proxy fathers and tutors sent with young Seljuq princes when these were deputed to govern provinces. At first the atabegs took power in the names of Seljuq puppets. When this fiction lapsed, atabeg dynasties such as the Eldegüzids of Azerbaijan (c. 1137–1225) and Salghurids of Fars (c. 1148–1270) split Iran into independent rival principalities.

The Salghurid court in Shiraz especially fostered the arts, as parvenu, competitive courts are wont to do. The poet Sa'di (died 1292) was a contemporary in Shiraz of the Salghurid atabeg Abu Bakr ibn Sa'd ibn Zangi (reigned 1231–60), whom he mentions by name in his Bustan (“The Orchard”), a book of ethics in verse. Abu Bakr's father, Sa'd, for whom Sa'di took his pen name, conferred great prosperity on Shiraz.

Sa'd ibn Zangi came to terms with the Khwarezm-Shahs. Their power in Transoxania was secured by acceptance of tributary status to the non-Muslim Karakitai empire of Central Asia. They endeavoured to emulate the Seljuqs by following an expansionist policy in Iran south of the Oxus. Sa'd ibn Zangi, in his relations with the Khwarezm-Shah, set the pattern his successor Abu Bakr followed later. These atabegs saved Fars from outright invasion by northern military powers by paying heavy tribute. This tribute was the price of Shiraz's remaining the peaceful haven of the arts in which Sa'di and after him Hafez (died 1390) flourished, to continue the Persian literary tradition begun under the Samanids and continued under both the Ghaznavids and the Seljuqs.

The collapse of the Karakitai empire northeast of the Oxus was partly accelerated by the unsuccessful bid of Khwarezm-Shah 'Ala' al-Din Muhammad (reigned 1200–20) to win Muslim approval while releasing himself from the Khwarezm-Shahs' humiliating tributary status to an infidel power. But the coup de grâce to the Karakitai empire was delivered by its own vassal from the east, the Mongol leader Küchlüg Khan, who from 1211 onward was to be a direct opponent of the Khwarezm-Shahs in Central Asia. The Karakitai had been defeated, but the situation on the Khwarezm-Shah's eastern border had worsened.

Meanwhile, Sultan 'Ala' al-Din Muhammad quarreled with the caliph; he set up an anticaliph of his own and further antagonized his Muslim subjects, who were unremittingly suspicious of a regime once subject to the Karakitai infidels and whose Kipchak mercenary militia and brutal commanders brought cruelty and desolation wherever they marched. 'Ala' al-Din Muhammad was unable to control his army leaders, who had tribal connections with such influential people at court as his own mother. The post-Karakitai wars between him and Küchlüg Khan damaged the safety of the Central Asian trade arteries from China to the West. The great Mongol leader Genghis Khan took Beijing in 1215 and, as lord of China, was concerned with Chinese trade outlets. The situation between Küchlüg and the Khwarezm-Shah sultan afforded scope as well as a pretext for the Mongols' westward advance, if only to restore the flow of trade.

The Mongol Invasion

Misunderstanding of how essentially fragile Sultan 'Ala' al-Din Muhammad Khwarezm-Shah's apparently imposing empire was, its distance away from the Mongols' eastern homelands, and the strangeness of new terrain all doubtless induced fear in the Mongols, and this might partly account for the terrible events with which Genghis Khan's name has ever since been associated. The terror his invasion brought must also be ascribed to his quest for vengeance. Genghis Khan's first two missions to Khwarezm had been massacred; but the place of commercial motives in the Mongol's decision to march to the west is indicated by the fact that the first was a trade mission. The massacre and robbery of this mission at Utrar by one of 'Ala' al-Din Muhammad's governors before it reached the capital made Genghis single out Utrar for especially savage treatment when the murder of his second, purely diplomatic, mission left him no alternative but war.

His guides were Muslim merchants from Transoxania. They had to witness one of the worst catastrophes of history. During 1220–21 Bukhara, Samarkand, Herat, Tus, and Neyshabur were razed, and the whole populations were slaughtered. The Khwarezm-Shah fled, to die on an island off the Caspian coast. His son Jalal al-Din survived until murdered in Kurdistan in 1231. He had eluded Genghis Khan on the Indus River, across which his horse swam, enabling him to escape to India. He returned to attempt restoring the Khwarezmian empire over Iran. However, he failed to unite the Iranian regions, even though Genghis Khan had withdrawn to Mongolia, where he died in August 1227. Iran was left divided, with Mongol agents remaining in some districts and local adventurers profiting from the lack of order in others.

The Il-Khans

A second Mongol invasion began when Genghis Khan's grandson Hülegü Khan crossed the Oxus in 1256 and destroyed the Assassin fortress at Alamut. With the disintegration of the Seljuq empire, the Caliphate had reasserted control in the area around Baghdad and in southwestern Iran. In 1258 Hülegü besieged Baghdad, where divided counsels prevented the city's salvation. Al-Musta'sim, the last 'Abbasid caliph of Baghdad, was trampled to death by mounted troops (in the style of Mongol royal executions), and eastern Islam fell to pagan rulers.

Hülegü hoped to consolidate Mongol rule over western Asia and to extend the Mongol empire as far as the Mediterranean, an empire that would span the Earth from China to the Levant. Hülegü made Iran his base, but the Mamluks of Egypt (1250–1517) prevented him and his successors from achieving their great imperial goal, by decisively defeating a Mongol army at 'Ayn Jalut in 1260. Instead, a Mongol dynasty, the Il-Khans, or “deputy khans” to the great khan in China, was established in Iran to attempt repair of the damage of the first Mongol invasion. The injuries Iran had suffered went deep, but it would be unfair to attribute them all to Ghengis Khan's invasion, itself the climax to a long period of social and political disarray under the Khwarezm-Shahs and dating from the decline of the Seljuqs.

The Il-Khanid dynasty made Azerbaijan its centre and established Tabriz as its first capital until Soltaniyeh was built early in the 14th century. At first, repair and readjustment of a stricken society were complicated by the collapse of law. The caliphate, as the symbol of Muslim legality, had been eroded by 'Ala' al-Din Muhammad and by its own withdrawal into a temporal state in Iraq and the Tigris-Euphrates estuary region. But it had retained enough vitality for Sultan Muhammad's action in setting up an anticaliph to have alienated influential members of his subject people. After 1258 it was gone altogether, while Hülegü Khan showed considerable religious eclecticism and had, in any event, the yasa, or tribal law, of Genghis Khan to apply as the law of the Mongol state, in opposition to, or side by side with, the Shari'ah, the law of Islam.

The Il-Khans' religious toleration released Christians and Jews from their restrictions under the Islamic regime. Fresh talent thus became available, but competition for new favours marred what good effects this release might have had on interfaith relations. It took time for Iranian administrators to resume their normal role after the invasion and to restore some semblance of administrative order and stability. Their process was impeded by the paganism of the new conquerors as well as by jostling for influence among classes of the conquered, not in this instance exclusively Muslim. At the same time, a shattered agrarian economy was burdened by heavy taxes, those sanctioned by the Shari'ah being added to by those the yasa provided for, so that the pressure of exploitation was increased by Mongol tax innovations as well as by the invaders' cupidity.

The pressure was increased beyond the economy's endurance: the Il-Khanid government ran into fiscal difficulties. An experiment with paper currency, modeled on the Chinese money, failed under Gaykhatu (reigned 1291–95). Gaykhatu was followed briefly by Baydu (died 1295), who was supplanted by the greatest of the Il-Khans, Mahmud Ghazan (1295–1304). Ghazan abandoned Buddhism—the faith in which his grandfather Abagha, Hülegü's successor (1265–82), had reared him—and adopted Islam. One of his chief ministers was also his biographer, Rashid al-Din, of Jewish descent. He seems deliberately to have striven to present Ghazan, whom he styles the “emperor of Islam” (padshah-e eslam), as a ruler who combined the qualities and functions of both the former caliphs and ancient Iranian “great kings.”

Ghazan made strenuous efforts to regulate taxes, encourage industry, bring wasteland into cultivation, and curb the abuses and arrogance of the military and official classes. Facilities for domestic and foreign merchants were furnished. Buildings were constructed and irrigation channels dug. Medicinal and fruit-bearing plants were imported and the cultivation of indigenous ones encouraged. Observatories were built and improved—a sure indication of concern with agricultural improvement, for seasonal planning required accurate calendars. He fostered Muslim sentiment by showing consideration for the sayyids, who claimed descent from the Prophet's family, and it seems probable that he wished to eradicate or overlay Shi'ite-Sunnite sectarian divisiveness, for Ghazan's Islam appears to have been designed to appeal equally to both persuasions. Any slight bias in favour of the Shi'ites might be attributed to a desire to capture the emotions and imagination of many of the humble people who had reacted against the Seljuqs' zeal for Sunnism and craved a teaching that included millennial overtones. Shi'ism had been liberated by the fall of the 'Abbasid Caliphate, and its belief in the reappearance of the 12th imam, who was to inaugurate peace and justice in the world, satisfied this popular craving for religious solace.

Ghazan's work was carried on, but less successfully, by his successor Öljeitü (1304–16). Between 1317 and 1335, though he finally relinquished the expensive campaigns against Egypt for the opening to the Mediterranean, Abu Sa'id was unable to keep the Il-Khanid regime consolidated, and it fell apart on his death. Ghazan's brilliant reign survives only in the pages of his historian, Rashid al-Din. Wars against Egypt and their own Mongol kinsmen in Asia had in fact hampered the Il-Khans in accomplishing a satisfactory reintegration of an Iranian polity.

As the atabegs had done after the Seljuqs, Il-Khanid military emirs began to establish themselves as independent regional potentates after 1335. At first, two of them, formerly military chiefs in the Il-Khans' service, competed for power in western Iran, ostensibly acting on behalf of rival Il-Khanid puppet princes. Hasan Küchük (the Small) of the Chupanids was eventually defeated by Hasan Buzurg (the Tall) of the Jalayirids, who set up the Jalayirid dynasty over Iraq, Kurdistan, and Azerbaijan; it lasted from 1336 to 1432. In Fars, Il-Khanid agents, the Injuids, after a spell of power during which Abu Ishaq Inju had been the poet Hafez's patron, were ousted by Abu Sa'id's governor of Yazd, Mubariz al-Din Muzaffar. Thus in 1353 Shiraz became the Muzaffarid dynasty's capital, which it remained until conquest by Timur in 1393.

"Iran." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2004.  Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service.
25 July 2004  <>.

Copyright H. David Marshak, All Rights Reserved