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Seljuk Dynasty

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Map of Seljuk Empire

The Seljūk (Persian: سلجوقیان) was an Oghuz Turk dynasty who ruled Iran, Iraq, Transoxiana and parts of Anatolia for about two centuries (5th/11th and 6th/12th centuries) after defeating Ghaznavid and Buyid dynasties. The Seljuks were Hanafi Muslims, and were supporters of the Abbasid caliph against Shi'a powers, such as Fatimids and Buyids, thus, introducing themselves as revivers of the Sunni denomination of Islam. In the early years of the Seljuk government, the Shi'as who had gained a tremendous social power in the Buyid period came to be constrained and oppressed, but after the period of Malik-Shah, Seljuk kings exhibited more religious tolerance, and thus, the Shi'as could rapidly regain their social and even political power, occupying high-ranking positions in the Seljuk government. In the Seljuk period, the Shi'as were dispersed in different cities of Iran and had active flourishing seminary schools. One social feature of the Seljuk period was religious quarrels between Shi'a and Sunni Muslims in some cities, such as Baghdad and Neyshabur which sometimes led to widespread battles in cities and districts.

Political History

The Seljuk was an Oghuz Turk Muslim dynasty who resided in eastern coasts of the Caspian Sea and the areas around Aral Sea in the Samanid period. They are called "Seljuks" after one of their heads who lived in the Samanid era. It was Seljuk's grandchildren who began to enter the borders of Samanid, and then Ghaznavid kingdom, and in the Battle of Dandanaqan (431/1040), they defeated the Ghaznavid army and entered the interior lands of Iran. They continued to occupy western areas of Iran, and after defeating the rest of Buyid army in central and western Iran and Iraq in 447/1055, Tughril entered Baghdad, the center of the Abbasid caliphate.

The periods of two successors of Tughril, that is, Alp Arslan and Malik-Shah, was the peak of Seljuk power and their economic progress. In the period of Alp Arslan, the second Seljuk king, their territory expanded eastward to Syr Darya and westward to the Mediterranean Sea. In 463/1070, Alp Arslan defeated and imprisoned the emperor of Eastern Rome.

After the death of Sultan Muhammad, the Seljuk territory was practically divided into two parts. Sanjar and his successors ruled eastern areas of Iran from Rey to Transoxia, and children of Sultan Muhammad, who came to be called Iraqi Seljuks, ruled eastern parts of Iran and Iraq.

On the other hand, since the death of Sultan Muhammad Barkiaruq, some Seljuk rulers in different areas gained independent powers and thus established local governments within the Seljuk territories. For example, Seljuks in Kerman established an independent government there since 433/1041. The local power of Atabegs also accelerated the collapse of the Seljuk empire. In Khwarazm, an independent branch of rulers overtook and came to be called "Khwarazmian" (490/1077-628/1231). They later dismantled the Seljuk government in eastern Iran.

The Beginning of the Seljuk Rule and the Oppression of the Shi'as

A coin issued in the reign of Ghiyath al-Din Muhammad Tapar (r. 491/1105 - 511/1118). It is dated 496/1102-3.

The Seljuks were Hanafis and they entered Baghdad with the slogan of reviving the Sunni power. When Shiite Fatimid caliphs exerted pressures on the Abbasid caliphate, the Seljuks gained part of their political legitimacy from the slogan of reviving the Abbasid caliphate and the Sunni dominance.

When the Seljuks overtook the power in Iraq, they began to constrain the Shi'as, especially in Baghdad. The rule of Sunni kings emboldened biased Sunni Muslims of Baghdad, and led to the expansion of quarrels between Sunnis and Shi'as in Baghdad, which had a long history. It sometimes led to bloody and widespread conflicts.

The Abbasid caliph ordered the Shi'as in Baghdad to add the phrase, "the prayer is better than sleep", in their morning prayers. Since the Shi'as had cooperated with al-Basasiri riots just before the entrance of the Seljuks in Baghdad, part of these constraints was exercised in order to establish the Seljuk power.

Sunni Ministers and their Attempts to Constrain the Shi'as

One of the earliest Seljuk ministers or viziers was 'Amid al-Mulk al-Kunduri who was a biased Hanafi Muslim and cursed the Shi'as and Shafi'is. Nizam al-Mulk al-Tusi, the powerful Seljuk vizier after al-Kunduri, was a Shafi'i Muslim; in his book, he advised the Seljuk king to constrain the Shi'as. However, historical evidence does not give any details of how the Seljuks treated the Shi'as. It seems that the Shi'as were not constrained everywhere or in a similar way. In many areas, the Shi'as retained their freedom, although they no longer enjoyed the support of the government as in the Buyid period.

There are reports of social and political constraints for the Shi'as in the early period of the Seljuk monarch. For example, in his Siyasatnama, Nizam al-Mulk al-Tusi cited that in the period of Tughril and Alp Arslan, no Shi'a could occupy governmental positions. People were only admitted to serve in government or the military after being vetted with respect to their lineage and denomination.

According to some evidence, the strict policy against the Shi'as continued until the end of Malik-Shah's government. After that, there was less dispute between the Seljuk and the Shi'as, and the Shi'as began to occupy governmental positions in the Seljuk government. Thus, despite the hostility of the Seljuks to the Shi'as, some researchers have talked about the policy of religious tolerance adopted by the Seljuks toward the Shi'as (except in the early years of their rule). However, some researchers hold that the Shi'as managed to survive in this period only because of their lenience toward Sunni Muslims and their dissimulation (or taqiyya).

The Shi'as' Overtaking the Power in the Period of Malik-Shah's Successors

The Alaaddin Mosque or Yivli Minare Mosque in Antalya is a historical mosque built in 1230 by the Anatolian Seljuk Sultan Alaaddin Keykubad I. The minaret is 38 metres high and has 90 steps to the top.

Shiite Viziers and Officials

Some pressures on the Shi'as were decreased in the period of Malik-Shah's successors, and some Shiite seniors could occupy high-ranking positions in the government, including Majd al-Malik Abu l-Fadl al-Qummi and Sa'd al-Malik al-Awuji. Later, some figures such as Sharaf al-Din Abu Tahir al-Qummi, Anu Shirawan b. Khalid b. Muhammad al-Kashani and Mu'in al-Din al-Kashi, could occupy high-ranking positions in the Seljuk government.

Scattered reports in sources imply that after Malik-Shah's period, many Shi'as had positions in the Seljuk government in different areas. Many bureaucrats and officials of the Seljuk government were Shi'as. Some Sunni authors objected to the infiltration of the Shi'as within the Seljuk government, comparing the period with the early Seljuk era or the Ghaznavid era in which the Shi'as were constrained.

A Common Enemy: Isma'ilis

One factor that led to close relations between the Seljuks and the Shi'as in this period was their encounter with a common enemy, that is, Isma'ilis. Increasing activities of Isma'ilis led the Seljuks to think that the main threat to their government were Isma'ilis, rather than Twelver Shi'as. There are reports of cooperation by the Shi'as, including the commander of Mazandaran, with the Seljuks in combatting Isma'ilis. In this period, a number of Shiite agents and politicians were killed by Isma'ilis. For instance, Isma'ili devotees killed Mu'in al-Din al-Kashi, a Seljuk vizier.

Social and Political Power of Sadat

In the Seljuk era, a number of prominent heads (nuqaba') of Sadat enjoyed a huge political and social power and had interactions with rulers. For instance, Sharaf al-Din Muhammad, an influential naqib in Rey, had interactions with the Nizam al-Mulk family and the Seljuk king, and thus, they could use their influence to support the Shi'as and 'Alawis if necessary.

Local Shiite Governments

A sign of the powerful life of the Shi'as in the Seljuk era was that there were local Shiite governments at the time, the most important of which was the government of Banu Mazid in Iraq. The Banu Mazid family had overtaken parts of Iraq since the Buyid period. In the Seljuk government, they were allowed to stay in power and were in good terms with the Seljuks. The most powerful ruler of Banu Mazid was Sayf al-Dawla Sadaqa. Because of his military power, he had a role to play in political developments in Baghdad as well as the succession of Seljuk kings.

The Burgeoning of Shiite Schools

Reports show that in the Seljuk period, there were many Shiite schools. These schools were usually located in cities such as Rey, Qom, Aveh, and Kashan. According to a report by the book, al-Naqd, some of these schools were founded in the Seljuk era. Seljuk rulers did not prevent the building of Shiite schools.

Tughril Tower in Rey, Iran.

Geographical Distribution of the Shi'as in Cities of Iran

According to reports, in the Seljuk era the Shiite population was usually concentrated in some cities of Iran, including Qom, Kashan, Aveh, and Rey. As Nizam al-Mulk say in his book, residence in any of these cities would mean that the person was a Shi'a. This implies that the Shi'as constituted the majority of the population in these cities.

The book, al-Nadq, by 'Abd al-Jalil al-Qazwini contains detailed information about Shiite-majority areas of Rey. There are reports about the presence of the Shi'as in other parts of Iran, including Qazvin, Tabaristan, Khorasan, Beyhaq, Varamin, Isfahan, and Kashan.

In this period, there were Shiite preaching meetings in Shiite-majority cities, and some people were known as preachers or "Mudhakkir". On the other hand, there were heated debates between the Shi'as and Sunnis. Thus, some Shiite scholars who frequently debated with Sunni scholars came to be known as "Munazir" (debaters). Also, some Shi'as were known as reciters of "manaqib" (virtues of Ahl al-Bayt (a)). They recited Shiite poems regarding the virtues of the Imams (a). On the contrary, there were some Sunni people who were known as reciters of "fada'il" who praised the Sahaba of the Prophet Muhammad (s).

Shiite Scholars and Authors in the Seljuk Era

In the 6th/12th century, Shiite scholars were very active in Iran. A great number of such scholars were prominent students of al-Shaykh al-Tusi and propagated his teachings.

  • Muhammad b. Husayn al-Bayhaqi al-Nishaburi, known as Qutb al-Din Kaydar (alive in 610/1213): he was the author of Hada'iq al-haqa'iq, a commentary on Nahj al-balagha and a Persian work concerning Shiite beliefs entitled Mabahij al-muhaj fi manahij al-hujaj.
  • Muhammad b. Husayn, the author of the Persian work, Ramish afzayi Al Muhammad dar tarikh anbiya' wa imaman (a history of prophets and Imams) which is not available today.
  • Abu l-Ma'ali Muhammad al-Husayni al-'Alawi, the author of Bayan al-adyan concerning Islamic denominations.
  • 'Imad al-Din Tabari, the author of [Bisharat al-Mustafa (book)|Bisharat al-Mustafa]].


  • The material for this article is mainly taken from سلجوقیان in Farsi WikiShia.