Chapter 10 The Rise of Islam

Section 4 The Coming of the Turks  

By the year 1000, substantial numbers of Turkish speaking peoples, often nomads who had converted to Islam and were known as Turkomans, had begun to move from Central Asia into the Middle East. Their military power soon enabled them to found their own dynasties. The rulers of these dynasties, usually called sultans, tended to follow policies aimed at legitimizing their right to govern Muslim societies. These included support for religious wars to expand Muslim territory, encouragement of the social institutions and high culture previously developed in Islamic Persia, promotion of the Abbasid caliphate and the Shari’a oriented civilization of Sunni Islam, and patronage of Sufism. These policies had many far-reaching consequences in expanding the political boundaries of the Islamic world and laying the foundations for a mature Turko-Persian civilization that would dominate the central Islamic lands for centuries.

The First Turkish Dynasties

The conversion of Turks to Islam and their movement into the Middle East led to a renewed surge of energy and creativity in Islamic civilization. One significant change that resulted was simply demographic, namely the diffusion of Turkish speaking peoples over a broad area. At the same time, new territories came to be incorporated into the Muslim domain, new political structures were formed, new social institutions spread throughout the region, the Persian language and Persian culture acquired greater importance among the Muslim elites, and new attitudes towards religion and religious practice began to develop. This important chapter in the development of Islamic civilization ended with the outbreak of the Crusades and the Mongol invasions.

Turks and the Islamic World

The Muslim encounter with Turks began as the wars of expansion moved into the Caucasus and Central Asia. Many Turkic tribes had been dispersed across this area as a result of the rise and fall of the two Turkish kaghanates. At first, there were mere skirmishes between the Turks and the Muslims. The campaigns of Qutayba b. Muslim across the Oxus (705-715), the Turkish counterattack, and the decisive victories of the Abbasid forces in Central Asia under Abu Muslim, Abu Dawud, and Ziyad b. Salih (notably the Battle of Talas in 751) all led to more extensive contacts. In their battles with the Turks, the Muslims came to appreciate the valor and skillful horsemanship of their opponents and soon began to find ways to incorporate Turks into their own military forces. The early Abbasid caliphs began to acquire Turkish slaves in considerable numbers, and al-Mu‘tasim (833-842) used them to form the backbone of his army. It was not long before these Turkish mamluks, or “slave-soldiers,” became the true masters. They made and unmade caliphs and some, such as Ahmad b. Tulun in Egypt (868-884), established themselves as the de facto rulers of provinces they were sent to govern.

            Although the Turkish mamluks in the Arab world were thus of considerable military importance, they were too few in number and too isolated in society to produce much more than limited political change. The rise of Turkish dynasties in eastern Iran and Central Asia, however, did lead to more dramatic changes in the character of Islamic civilization. This process also started with the use of Turks as slave soldiers.

One of the most important sources of Turkish slaves was from the northeastern Iranian province of Khorasan, which was then governed by the Samanid dynasty (819-1005). The Samanids successfully attacked the Turkish steppe nomads on their frontiers and captured or acquired many Turks in the process. Since the Turks were not yet Muslims, they could legally be enslaved. The Samanids controlled and regulated the lucrative trade in such slaves to meet the demand from purchasers such as the Abbasid caliphs.

Eventually, the Samanids began to use the Turks in their own court and military service. They also devised a system for the year-by-year training of their Turkish ghulams or “pages” to prepare them for military command and administration of a province. As was the case with the Abbasids, some of the Samanid Turkish commanders, or amirs, soon began to take personal control of areas to which they were sent. One of these was the general Alptigin, who used his own contingent of slave-soldiers to conquer Ghazna, in the eastern part of what is now Afghanistan, around 961. The Turkish garrison at Ghazna, although technically still servants of the Samanids, continued to choose its own commanders and was largely self-governing. Eventually, one of the commanders founded a truly independent dynasty of rulers known as the Ghaznavids (977-1186).

            Meanwhile, many of the free Turkish tribesmen in Inner Asia had converted to Islam[11][11] and began to found their own states. (Scholars generally refer to these Muslim Turkish converts as Turkomans, to distinguish them from other Turks.) The first of these Turkoman states was ruled by the Qarakhanid dynasty (992-1211). The Qarakhanids brought an end to the Samanid dynasty and partitioned its territory with the Ghaznavids. They thus came to rule an area reaching from Bukhara to Kashgar. Although the Qarakhanids were Muslims and regarded themselves as legitimate Islamic rulers, their society and culture remained essentially Turkish and rather isolated from the rest of the Muslim world.

            The Seljuks (1038-1194) were by far the most important of the new Turkish dynasties. Seljuk, the clan chief from whom the dynasty took its name, apparently broke away from the Khazar Turkish confederation and established himself in the area of a market town named Jand, near where the Syr Darya flows into the Aral Sea. Having converted to Islam, Seljuk and the followers he attracted became ghazis, or warriors for the faith, fighting against the pagan Turks and offering their assistance as volunteer soldiers at various times to the Samanids, Qarakhanids, and Ghaznavids. At the same time, they cultivated good relations with the populace, and especially the religious leaders, of the cities in the region. As the numbers of their confederation grew, and under pressure from rival groups, the Seljuks sought to move into Khurasan and even Azerbayjan; this eventually brought them into conflict with the Ghaznavids.

Under the leadership of two brothers, Chagri and Tughril, the Seljuks occupied Nishapur and proclaimed an independent sultanate, or principality, in 1038. They then attacked and destroyed the Ghaznavid army at the Battle of Dandanqan (1040). Chagri took control of the territory in eastern Iran, and Tughril began to annex new areas to the west. In 1055, Tughril reached and occupied Baghdad. His very capable successors, Alp Arslan (1063-72) and Malik Shah (1072-92), both guided by the exceptionally gifted Persian vizier, Nizam al-Mulk, made the Seljuk sultanate one of the most powerful states in the region, dominating an area from Syria to Central Asia.

Characteristics of Turkish Rule

Turkish dynasties such as the Ghaznavids and especially the Seljuks had to deal with a number of problems and challenges. They were the ruling elite, but they were still an ethnic minority in the lands they governed. Although they were Muslims, many of their Muslim subjects would have regarded them as crude barbarians. They were sensitive about their own servile or humble origins and quite conscious of the more sophisticated culture and civilization of the people over whom they now ruled. One of their greatest concerns, therefore, was to legitimize their power and win acceptance as good Muslim rulers from the subject population. The interests of the sedentary inhabitants of the cities and countryside, however, were not identical with those of the Turkoman warriors, particularly the nomadic and tribal elements on whom the Seljuks depended for their power. The Ghaznavids or Seljuks thus needed to pursue policies that would produce accommodation with the subject population while maintaining control over their military retainers. This would have far-reaching consequences.

            One of the most obvious ways to pursue these dual goals was for the Turkish rulers to encourage warfare aimed at expanding the amount of territory under Muslim rule. Loosely connected to the Islamic concept of jihad, or striving for the faith, this typically took the form of what was known as ghazw, or raids against the infidels, and those who participated in them were known as ghazis, or warriors for Islam. Initially, this had been a rather haphazard activity by bands of individuals motivated as much by mercenary as religious concerns. The Ghaznavids and Seljuks transformed ghazw into a large scale and relatively organized, disciplined and systematic enterprise aimed at the permanent acquisition of non-Muslim territory as well as spoils and booty for the ghazis.

The Ghaznavids directed their raids towards the Punjab and Ganges plain, carrying out at least 17 expeditions into India. Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna (998-1030) was particularly famous for his wars in India, but he was more interesting in filling his treasury than annexing territory. During his raids, many Buddhist and Hindu religious sites were demolished and vast quantities of slaves, jewels, and precious metals carried off as spoils.

The Seljuks also undertook raids against Christians in the Caucasus and Asia Minor. In 1071, Alp Arslan inflicted a major defeat on the Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikert. Although the Seljuk sultans were not interested in following up on this victory themselves, they did encourage tribal groups of ghazis, which might otherwise have proved troublesome, to move into Anatolia. Led by junior members of the Seljuk family, this eventually established a separate branch of the dynasty there known as the Seljuks of Rum (1077-1307).

            When they first came to power and built up large empires, the Turkish dynasties had to confront the problem of how to govern and administer the territories they acquired. Not surprisingly, they elected to model their government after that of the Persian dynasties they replaced, the Samanids in particular. Of necessity, they relied heavily on the existing Persian bureaucracy for their officials, administrators, and advisors. Under the influence of the Persian statesmen, the greatest of whom was the Seljuk vizier Nizam al-Mulk (1019-92), they adopted the concepts and values of traditional Persian theories of kingship and justice. They expanded and professionalized their military, and introduced the practice of policing major cities by a garrison of the standing army under a commander known as the shihna. Probably following the example of the Buyids, they also began to finance their regular army and other government posts through the institution of iqta’ (grants of land or its tax revenue to soldiers and officials in lieu of salary). These and other social institutions would spread from Persia to other areas under Turkish control.

            At the same time, the Turkish rulers became enthusiastic supporters of the Perso-Islamic culture of eastern Iran and eventually carried it throughout the region from India to Anatolia. Arts, literature and the sciences all flourished under their patronage. Mahmud of Ghazna was notoriously determined to project the image of an enlightened ruler, even going so far as to kidnap scholars he could not otherwise persuade to come to his capital. The scientist al-Biruni, who used knowledge gained during the Ghaznavid operations in India to write famous books about India and Indian civilization, was perhaps the greatest of the men of learning patronized by the Ghaznavid court. In literature, the Turkish rulers especially encouraged the production of Persian poetry. A galaxy of talented Persian poets thrived during the Ghaznavid period, including Farrukhi, Manuchehri, Anvari, Mu’izzi and above all Firdausi, author of the magnificent epic poem of Iran, the Shahnameh. The greatest poet of Seljuk times was undoubtedly Jalal al-Din al-Rumi, author of a masterpiece of Sufi poetical literature, the Masnavi.

Ghaznavid and Seljuk Religious Policies

In addition to administrative and cultural policies, the influence of the Persian ministers from eastern Iran can also be detected in the religious policies followed by the Ghaznavids and Seljuks. While proving themselves as warriors for Islam, the Turkish rulers also positioned themselves as champions of the Abbasid caliphate, defenders of Sunni Islam, and patrons of the Sufis. The ramifications of these policies make them very important to understand.

            The Ghaznavids quickly realized that recognition of their position by the Abbasid caliph would help camouflage what was really their usurpation of power and would provide a useful weapon against potential rivals. Rulers like Mahmud were careful to have the caliph blessed in the Friday sermons, to put his name on coins, and to persecute or destroy the pro-Fatimid Ismai’ilis who were his enemies. In return, the caliph confirmed the Ghaznavid ruler as the caliph’s “deputy,” as the “right hand of the state,” and “protector of God’s religion.”

Very early in their history, the Seljuks had also claimed to be servants of the caliph, and the ostensible reason for Tughril’s advance to Baghdad was to liberate the Caliph al-Qa’im (1031-75) from the oppression of the Buyid amirs. Once that had been done, the Seljuks also made the defeat of the Fatimid caliphs and suppression of all forms of Batini (“esoteric”) Shi’ism one of their prime objectives. In return, the caliph was more or less obliged to confirm Tughril’s legitimate authority as sultan and have him mentioned in public sermons. Tughril was thus in a position to style himself as “Emperor of Emperors, King of the East and the West, Reviver of Islam, Lieutenant of the Imam, and Right Hand of the Caliph of God.”[12][12]

In the new political theory that developed during the Seljuk era, the notion that the caliph was the ruler of the entire Muslim world (which had long been a fiction) was finally abandoned. Now authority was recognized as being divided between caliph and sultan, with the caliph being essentially a symbolic religious leader and the sultan in charge of secular affairs. Despite the ritual profession of loyalty to the caliphs, there was little doubt as to who was really in control—when Tughril wanted to marry al-Qa’im’s daughter, for example, he did not hesitate to coerce the reluctant caliph by threatening to withhold his income.

            It was not just to receive recognition from the caliphs that the Ghaznavids or Seljuks adopted their publicly pro-Abbasid and anti-Shi’ite stance; the larger objective was to win the support of the Sunni legal establishment and the Sunni religious scholars, the ulama, and through them the allegiance of the urban population to which they were so closely linked. Consequently, the Turkish sultans also put their full support behind the revival of traditionalist religious scholarship and orthodox Sunni jurisprudence, which had been developing in reaction to the rise of Fatimid power and the influence of Isma’ili Shi’ite missionaries.

At much the same time that the Fatimids were establishing al-Azhar, a large mosque and official center for the study of Isma’ili law in Cairo, a similar institution was appearing in the east, particularly at Nishapur. This was the madrasa, a kind of college devoted specifically to the advanced formal study of Sunni law. The Seljuks encouraged the establishment of madrasas throughout their empire. The madrasas were supported financially by charitable endowments of real property, known as waqf, the revenue from which was used to maintain the buildings, pay teachers, and accommodate the students. The madrasas would come to dominate higher education in the Sunni world, being the institution of learning responsible not only for training the members of the ulama but also the judges and bureaucrats on whom the governments depended.

            A third important element in the religious policies of the Turkish rulers was the promotion of Sufism. It is fairly clear that wandering Sufi missionaries had played a significant role in the conversion of Turks in Central Asia to Islam. Sufi mysticism had some similarities to the shamanistic religion of the pagan Turks, and the Sufi holy men were not radically different from the shamans with whom the Turks were familiar. Historically speaking, the affinities of Sufism and Turkish culture have always been deep and strong. On a more pragmatic level, the Sufi “friends of God” no less than the ulama enjoyed tremendous popularity and respect among the Muslim masses. Patronizing them was another way in which the Turkish rulers could cultivate the support and loyalty of their subjects. Finally, Sufism and Shi’ism were bitter enemies and rivals during this period, so encouraging Sufism was a weapon the Seljuks could use in their assault on the Fatimids and their supporters.

Sufism clearly flourished during the early Turkish period, but it also underwent two fundamental changes: It was integrated more closely into conventional Sunni Islam, and it was institutionalized. Early Sufism had been a highly personalized and emotional form of religion which would often manifest itself in ways far removed from the norms of behavior envisaged in the Shari’a—singing, dancing, or celebration of drunkenness or erotic love as symbols of mystical experience at one extreme and excessive fasting, devotional exercises, asceticism and celibacy at the other. This had aroused the suspicion and sometimes the hostility of the more conservative religious scholars. By Seljuk times, however, either many members of the ulama had become Sufis or many Sufis had become members of the ulama. The man most often cited as a leading example of the reconciliation of Sunnism and Sufism was al-Ghazzali (1058-1111).

Ghazzali was a respected scholar of Shafi’i law who became a Sufi. He was highly critical of Shi’ism, philosophy, and speculative theology; in the interest of social order, he also argued for acceptance of the authority of the sultanate. Most importantly, he championed the cause of a liberalized and spiritualized approach to the law that would tolerate many Sufi practices and of a “sober” Sufism, which would keep its practitioners within the general boundaries of the Shari’a. This synthesis of ideas would be characteristic of the new Sunni-Sufi mainstream of Islam.

About the same time, Sufism ceased being a highly individualistic activity and took on a collective and institutional form. Students of Sufism attracted to a charismatic Sufi master (the shaykh or pir) began to group together in an association known as a tariqa (“path” or “way”). These tariqa orders had their own particular initiation rites, and the members followed the rules of behavior, rituals, and spiritual exercises established by the master. They typically maintained monasteries or hospices in which the followers could reside during spiritual retreats; these would often be built around the tomb of the founder of the order or the tombs of prominent disciples of the order. The first of these orders was probably the Qadiriyya, founded in Baghdad by the Hanbali scholar and Sufi ’Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani (d. 1166). Dozens of others soon followed, and they spread throughout the Muslim world.

The End of the Seljuk Era

In 1092, the powerful vizier Nizam al-Mulk was murdered, supposedly by one of the Nizari Isma’ili Assassins. Malik Shah died the same year, and the Seljuk Empire began to disintegrate. One reason for this was internal disputes over the succession that sometimes amounted to virtual civil war. In addition, young Seljuk princes were sent out to act as nominal governors of the provinces. Each was assigned an atabeg or guardian chosen from the commanders of the slave soldiers in the Seljuk army. Some of the atabegs in fact took over the provinces for themselves and founded their own petty dynasties. Another element of instability came from a new influx of nomadic Turkomans into Seljuk territory. They were very difficult to control, and wrought considerable havoc in the countryside. In 1157, they killed Sanjar, the Seljuk sultan, and proceeded to overrun much of the Seljuk Empire.

            It was external forces, however, that really put an end to this period of Islamic history and civilization. In 1097, forces of a resurgent Christian civilization in Western Europe, the Crusaders, defeated the Seljuks of Rum and went on to capture Antioch, Edessa, and Jerusalem (1099). Although the Crusader states occupied only a small portion of the Islamic world for a relatively short time, they did produce some important changes. One of the most important was the fall of the ineffective Fatimid caliphate and thus the further decline of the Isma’ili Shi’ite cause. Syria and Egypt emerged as the new center of Sunni power under the Ayyubid dynasty (1169-1250) and subsequently a dynasty of mostly Turkish slave soldiers, the Mamluk Dynasty (1250-1517).  



1 Statistical Abstract of the United States 1992 (p. 60) lists 950,726,000 Muslims around the world in 1991. However, it gives a figure of 2,642,000 for the number of Muslims in "Northern America." See next footnote. (It lists its source as 1992 Brittanica Yearbook, which is the source for the next fact.)

2 1992 Brittanica Book of the Year (p. 725) lists Muslims as 1.9% of the U.S. population in 1990. Statistical Abstracts (p. 8) lists the 1990 U.S. population as 248,709,873. (248,709,873)(.019) = 4,725,487.

[1][1] On pre-Islamic Mecca see Mahmood Ibrahim, "Social and Economic Conditions in Pre-Islamic Mecca," International Journal of Middle East Studies (IJMES), vol. 14 no. 3, August 1982, pp. 343-358. Also see article in Gibb and KJramers, eds., Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, and E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1965.

[2][2]R.A. Nicholson, A Literary History of the Arabs, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 84.

3 Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples. Warner Books, New York, 1991. From the Qur'an, 96: 1-8.

[3][3] al-Tabari, quoted by Nicholson, Literary History of the Arabs, Cambridge university Press, Cambridge, 1969, p. 185.

[4][4] Ibid, passim.

[5][5] For the status of people of the book and dhimmis see articles in H.A.R.Gibb and J.H.Kramers, eds.,  Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1965. For Umar's role in establishing the foundations of the new system see any of the above texts dealing with the caliphate.

[6][6] Quoted in Nicholson, Literary History of the Arabs, p. 195.

[7][7] On Rabi'a see Margaret Smith, Rabi'a the Mystic and her Fellow-saints in Islam, Cambridge, 1928. Also see entry in Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam, Cornell University Press. Quotations are taken from the latter, pp. 462-463.

[8][8] This section is drawn primarily from Hitti, The Arabs .

[9][9] Quoted in Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples, the Belknap Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1991, p. 54.

[10][10] For Islamic Spain see Hitti, The Arabs, pp. 136 to 161; and especially W. Montgomery Watt, A History of Islamic Spain, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 1965.

[11][11] The Turkish tribes that converted to Islam are often referred to as Turkomans (Türkmen) to distinguish them from the non-Muslim Turks.

[12][12] Recorded by Ibn al-Jawzi in the Muntazam fi tarikh al-muluk as translated in J. A. Boyle (ed.), The Cambridge History of Iran, Volume 5, The Saljuk and Mongol Period (Cambridge, 1968), p. 48.