Chapter 10 The Rise of Islam
Coming of the Turks
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
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
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
Meanwhile, many of the free Turkish tribesmen in Inner Asia had
converted to Islam 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
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
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
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
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.”
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
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
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.
 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.
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.
 al-Tabari, quoted by Nicholson, Literary History of the Arabs, Cambridge university Press, Cambridge, 1969, p. 185.
 Ibid, passim.
 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.
 Quoted in Nicholson, Literary History of the Arabs, p. 195.
 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.
 This section is drawn primarily from Hitti, The Arabs .
 Quoted in Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples, the Belknap Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1991, p. 54.
 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.
 The Turkish tribes that converted to Islam are often referred to as Turkomans (Türkmen) to distinguish them from the non-Muslim Turks.
 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.