Seljuq Ascendancy in the Central Lands of Islam

Written By Dinda Revolusi on Minggu, 20 Februari 2011 | 15.07

The Seljuqs were a branch of the Turkic Oghuz tribe that had ruled a Central Asian empire in the 2nd/8th century. In the early years of the 5th/11th century, Seljuq tribal princes consolidated power in Persia. The character of Seljuq rule in the following decades would reflect Persian links forged during this period—the Seljuqs often endorsed Persian culture and language, even to the exclusion of their own Turkic roots and the Arab heritage so integral to the Islamic faith. In 447/1055, the Seljuq leader Tughril Beg replaced the last Shīʿī Būyid prince as military sovereign in Baghdad. As a Sunni partisan, at least in name, he was fêted with honorary titles by the ʿAbbāsid caliph. Thus, in the official propaganda, the illiterate Seljuq warlords had become heroes by freeing Sunni Islam from the clutches of its Shī’ī opponent.

Makdisi has argued that, contrary to the standard portrayal, Tughril Beg was no savior. In fact, the caliph did not need saving. Makdisi points out that the Shīʿī Būyid dynasty was fast disintegrating and harbored no animosity toward the caliphate. After all, the Būyids had refrained from molesting the caliph during their tenure in Baghdad (since 343/945). Nonetheless, Tughril Beg was more than a cynical tribal warlord tolerating the caliph in order to legitimize his conquest. The Sunni Seljuq tribal warriors that he commanded were better equipped than apathetic Būyid princes—in military and ideological terms—to defend the caliph against external threats, especially the Fatimid-backed Ismaʿīlī insurgents. In actuality, the Caliph al-Qāʾim chafed under the Seljuq warlords. They allowed him even less freedom than had the feuding Būyids. The Seljuqs officially recognized the primacy of the 'Abbāsid caliph, although they were firm in retaining coercive force for themselves. Despite its shortcomings, the Seljuq arrival in Baghdad created a theoretical opportunity for the caliph to resume his historical role as the head of the Islamic community. In fact, this reinstatement did not occur, forcing theorists like al-Ghazālī to reckon with an imperfect reality.

The Seljuq offensive did not flag after the conquest of Baghdad. Tughril Beg marched on Mosul in the next year, laying siege to Tikrīt along the way. The caliph was a convenient legitimizing accessory to these campaigns, receiving protection in exchange for his blessing. The Seljuqs maintained a strong military force to execute their ongoing operations. Unlike other Islamic powers, Seljuq leaders commanded fellow tribesmen. While this uniformity lent vertical cohesion to the Seljuq command, tribal traditions, especially those of succession, sometimes troubled the Seljuq state. In the Oghuz tribal heritage, an office did not pass from father to eldest son, but instead to the oldest male family member. The tension between this arrangement and the hereditary model prevalent in Sunni regions contributed to several upheavals that disrupted al-Ghazālī’s life, notably in the years preceding his great crisis. These internecine conflicts disabused him of his intimacy with political power and deeply affected his thinking.

The Seljuq army was active not only in border regions, but also in territories already under firm Seljuq control. The court of the Seljuq rulers was primarily a military headquarters, though frequented by bureaucrats and ulamā. From his court, the sultan dispatched expeditions against enemies like the Ghaznavids in Persia, Byzantine Christians beyond Adharbayjān, and internal rebels. He also deployed troops within Seljuq territory in order to demonstrate his power. Nizām al-Mulk, vizier to Tughril Beg’s successors, also favored this strategy of intimidation and preemptive suppression, which was especially effective in al-Ghazālī’s homeland, the Seljuq East.

Hogga has laid heavy emphasis on this facet of Seljuq rule, arguing that a state of permanent war pervaded civil society.18 New garrisons were installed in the towns, and military replaced civilian police. In many cases, the soldiers that composed these detachments were Turkic tribesmen, an unfamiliar element in the urban social fabric. Their presence was not always welcome. The 7th/13th century Arab historian Ibn al-Athīr relates that when Tughril Beg entered Baghdad, local mobs rose against his soldiers and inflicted casualties. The Seljuq troops responded by looting in the city. “The people were sorely oppressed and in great terror.” Citizens throughout Seljuq domains experienced similar traumatic events whenever tensions rose with their occupiers.

As they continued their conquests, the Seljuq sultans needed sustainable mechanisms for controlling their far-flung holdings. Administration lay not in the hands of the tribal leaders themselves, but with the ʿulamāʾ and the existing educated Persian administrative class. The great Seljuq viziers were eminent representatives of this class. They were often the real rulers of the Seljuq empire, even while paying lip service to the sultan and caliph. Nizām al-Mulk was only the most prominent of these men; he was not unique. His predecessor, the vizier of Tughril Beg, Amīd al-Mulk al-Kundūrī, gained fame and influence alongside his master. Before al-Ghazālī’s day, the Ḥanafī al-Kundūrī decreed that Ash'arī theologians be denounced from the pulpits of mosques in Seljuq lands. His decree drove al-Ghazālī’s famous teacher al-Juwaynī (d. 478/1085) from Khurasān, as well as al-Qushayrī (d. 465/1072), perhaps al-Ghazālī’s most direct Sufi forbear.

When Alp Arslan succeeded Tughril Beg in 455/1063 the vizierate passed to Niẓām al-Mulk, who had risen to prominence with Arslan. As Nizām al-Mulk consolidated his administration, it grew unclear which of the two was actually master. After the assassination of Alp Arslan in 465/1072 and the accession of Malikshāh, there was no doubt that Nizām al-Mulk held the reins of control. The story of Alp Arslan and Nizām al-Mulk closely parallels the life of al-Ghazālī. Nizām al-Mulk, like al-Ghazālī, hailed from the city of Ṭūs in Khurāsān; this commonality may have played a role in al-Ghazālī’s appointment to the Baghdad Nizāmiyya. Alp Arslan had governed Khurāsān before his ascent to the Seljuq sultanate in 1063/453.

Niẓām al-Mulk used his position to promote the religious factions that al-Ghazālī would later adhere to: Shafīʿī fiqh and Ashʿarī kalām, both prominent in the Khurāsānī context. He also favored Sufism, of which Khurāsān was a hotbed. These correlations hint at partisanship. They also demonstrate that religious allegiances penetrated the political domain in medieval Islam via the regional sectarian affiliations of political leaders. When Ni'ām al-Mulk brought al-Ghazālī to prominence, he was privileging the young scholar’s doctrinal convictions. These convictions could then be called upon to shore up the legitimacy of Seljuq control. Regional affinity was only one path by which religious knowledge entered the political scene. The proliferation of sectarian madrasas under the Seljuqs cannot be divorced from the influence of sponsors like Nizām al-Mulk, who had strong regional attachments that entailed doctrinal convictions.

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