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A History of Medieval Islam - IX The Turkish Irruption

The entry of the Seljuk Turks into Western Asia in the second half of the eleventh century forms one of the great epochs of world history. It added a third nation, after the Arabs and Persians, to the dominant races of Islam; it prolonged the life of the moribund Cali phate for another two hundred years, it tore Asia Minor away from Christendom and opened the path to the later Ottoman invasion of Europe, it allowed the orthodox Muslims to crush the Ismailian heresy, and provoked in reprisal the murderous activities of the Assassins; it put an end to the political domination of the Arabs in the Near East, it spread the language and culture of Persia over a wide area from Anatolia to Northern India, and by posing a grave threat to the Christian Powers, it impelled the Latin West to undertake the remarkable counter-offensive of the Crusades.

The Turkish family of nations first emerged into the light of history in the mid-sixth century, when they built up a short-lived nomad empire in the heart of Asia, the steppes which have ever since borne the name Turkestan, the land of the Turks. When it broke in pieces, in the manner of such confederacies, fragments of the Turkish race, under a bewildering variety of names, were scattered over a vast area, from the Uighurs, who once dwelt in Mongolia, to the Polovtsians of the Russian steppes, familiar to us from Borodin's opera Pnnce Igor. Despite the wide differences between them -- some came under Chinese, others under Persian influence -- some were pure nomads, others were settled agriculturists -- they all spoke dialects of the same tongue; they possessed common folk memories and legends; in religion they were shamanists, and they reckoned time according to a twelve-year cycle named after animals, events being placed in the Year of the Panther, the Year of the Hare, the Year of the Horse, and so on.

The Oxus was the traditional boundary between civilization and barbarism in Western Asia, between Iran and Turan, and Persian legend, versified in Firdawsi's great epic, the Shah-namah, told of the heroic battles of the Iranians against the Turanian king Afrasi- yab, who was at last hunted down and killed in Azerbaijan. When the Arabs crossed the Oxus after the fall of the Sassanids, they took over the defence of kan against the barbarian nomads and pushed them back beyond the Jaxartes. The Turkish tribes were in political disarray, and were never able to oppose a unified resistance to the Arabs, who carried their advance as far as the Talas river. For nearly three centuries Transoxiana, or as the Arabs called it, Ma Wara al-Nahr, 'that which is beyond the river', was a flourishing land, free from serious nomadic incursions, and cities like Samarkand and Bukhara rose to fame and wealth.

From the ninth century onwards the Turks began to enter the Caliphate, not in mass, but as slaves or adventurers serving as soldiers. They thus infiltrated the world of Islam as the Germans did the Roman Empire. The Caliph Mu'tasim (833-842) was the first Muslim ruler to surround himself with a Turkish guard. Turkish officers rose to high rank, commanding armies, governing provinces, sometimes ruling as independent princes: thus Ahmad b.Tulun seized power in Egypt in 868, and a second Turkish family, that of the Ikhshidids (from an Iranian title ikkshid, meaning 'prince'), ran the same country from 933 until the Fatimid conquest in 969. The disintegration of the Abbasid Empire afforded ample scope for such political adventurism, but so long as Transoxiana was held for civilization, the heart of Islam was safe from a massive barbarian break-through. When the Caliphs ceased to exercise authority on the distant eastern frontier, the task was shouldered by the Samanids, perhaps the most brilliant of the dynasties which took over from the enfeebled Abbasids. In the end it proved too heavy a burden, and the Samanid collapse at the end of the tenth century opened the floodgates to Turkish nomad tribes, who poured across both Jaxartes and Oxus into the lands of the Persians and Arabs.

Despite their brief rule of little more than a hundred years, the Samanids had much to their credit. Of Persian origin, they set up a strong centralized government in Khurasan and Transoxiana, with its capital at Bukhara; they encouraged trade and manufactures; they patronized learning, and they sponsored the spread of Islam by peaceful conversion among the barbarians to the north and east of their realm. It was during their time that the vigorous and commercially-minded Vikings gained possession of Russia, and traded their furs and wax and slaves in the markets of the south in exchange for textiles and metal goods, evidence of this trafflc being provided by the hoards of Arabic coins dug up in Sweden, Finland and North Russia. One of the main international trade routes of the age ran through the territory of the Bulghars, a Turkish race living in the region of the middle Volga, who accepted Islam before 921, in which year a mission from the Caliph Muktadir visited them and reported on life among this most northerly of Muslim peoples. The Bulghars in turn tried to convert the Russians, but Vladimir of Kiev decided in 988 in favour of Christianity, thereby barring Islam's advance into Eastern Europe. Most probably the Bulghars were converted by merchants from the Samanid kingdom, who also brought the faith to the Turks beyond the Jaxartes, nomads who did a brisk trade in sheep and cattle with the frontier towns. About 956 the Seljuks, destined to so glorious a future, embraced Islam, and in 960 the conversion of a Turkish tribe of 200,000 tents is recorded: their precise identity is unspecified. Thus the tenth century witnessed the islamization, under Samanid auspices, of a large section of the Western Turks, an event of great significance.

Notwithstanding the prosperity of their kingdom, the Samanids failed to keep the loyalty of their subjects. Their heavily bureaucratized despotism was expensive to maintain, and the burden of taxation alienated the dihkans, on whose support the regime depended. One of their rulers, Nasr al-Sa'id, who reigned from 914 to 943, favoured the Isma'ilis and corresponded with the Fatimid Caliph Ka'im, thereby forfeiting the sympathy of the orthodox. Following the example of the Abbasids, they surrounded themselves with Turkish guards, whose fidelity was far from assured. In 962 one of their Turkish officers, Alp-tagin ('hero prince'), seized the town and fortress of Ghazna, in what is now Afghanistan, a wealthy co mercial centre whose inhabitants had grown rich on the Indian trade and set up a semi-independent principality. He died in the following year, and after an interval another Turkish general, Sabuk-tagin, won control of Ghazna in 977 and founded a dynasty which gained immortal lustre from his son Mahmud. The Samanid kingdom fell into anarchy; the Kara-Khanids, a Turkish people of unknown antecedents (they may have been the tribe converted to Islam in 960), crossed the Jaxartes and captured Bukhara in 999, while Mahmud of Ghazna, who had succeeded his father Sabuktagin two years earlier, annexed the large and flourishing province of Khurasan. Thus Persian rule disappeared along the eastern marches of Islam, and Turkish princes reigned in Khurasan and Transoxiana. Barbarians though they might be, they found a certain favour with their subjects: they stood for order, they allowed Persian officials to run the government, they protected trade, they were orthodox Sunnite Muslims, and they professed themselves ardent champions of the faith against heretics and unbelievers.

The fame of Mahmud of Ghazna rests upon his expeditions into India. In the thirty years between 1000 and his death in 1030 he led some seventeen massive raids into the Indus valley and the Punjab. Ghazna was an admirable base for such attacks; the vast Indian sub-continent was a mosaic of principalities great and small; no strong state existed capable of throwing back the invader, and there was no trace of national consciousness. Mahmud's motives were a mixture of cupidity and religious zeal: when he was looting Hindu shrines he could claim to be destroying idolatry in the name of God and his Prophet, and he received congratulations and honours from the Caliph for his services to the faith. He fought not only against the unbelievers of Hindustan but against the Isma'ili heretics among them the Muslim ruler of Multan. His most celebrated expioit was the capture of Somnath in Gujarat in 1025, where he stormed the temple of Shiva, one of the most richly endowed in India, and levelled it to the ground amid frightful carnage. Ghazna was flooded with Indian plunder, and the multitude of prisoners was such that they were sold as slaves for two or three dirhams apiece. Some of the wealth was used to promote art and learning, and the court of Mahmud was adorned by such notabilities as Firdawsi, Persia's greatest epic poet, Biruni, the most distinguished scientist of the age, and Utbi, the historian of the reign.

Two consequences of immense importance flowed from Mahmud's repeated incursions into India. First, the collapse of Hindu resistance in the Punjab turned this province into an area of Muslim settlement and exposed the whole Gangetic plain to invasion from the north-west. The early raids up and down the Indus in the days d Muhammad b.Kasim had only touched the fringe of a vast country but Mahmud's expeditions penetrated deep into Hindustan, disoganized its defences, and opened the way to later Muslim invaders, fom the Ghurids to the Moguls, who gradually brought all nortbern and central India within the domain of Islam. Secondly, the preoccupation of Mahmud and his son and successor Mas'ud with their Indian campaigns left them little time or opporunity to observe and check the steadily mounting pressure of Turkish nomads along the Oxus. While their backs were turned, so to speak, the Seljuks rose to prorninence and power in their rear and bcame the masters of all Western Asia.

The pasture-lands to the north of the Caspian and Aral Seas had long been the home of a group of Turkish tribes known as the Ghuzz or Oghuz, later styled Turkomans. About 950 a number of clans withdrew from the Ghuzz confederacy, and settled in and around Jand, along the lower reaches of the Jaxartes, under a chief named Seljuk. A few years later they abandoned their ancestral shamanism for Islam, a change of faith as momentous for the future of Aia as the conversion of Clovis and his Franks to Catholicism in 496 was to Christian Europe. Seljuk is a semi-legendary figure who is said to have lived to the patriarchal age of 107, but he seems to have been an able leader, who welded his people into a first-class fighting force and by adroit diplomacy played off one neighbouring prince against another. He supported the Samanids against the Kara- Khanids; his son Arslan ran into trouble with Mahmud of Ghazna, to whom he boasted that he had 100,000 bowmen under his command, whereupon Mahmud's minister advised his master to have these men's thumbs cut off, so that they could no longer draw the bow ! However, Mahmud contented himself with holding Arslan as a hostage for the good behaviour of his people, some of whom he brought into Khurasan and settled in widely-separated areas in the hope that they could thus be kept under control. The hope was vain: the tribesmen began raiding all over northern Persia and holding towns to ransom. After Mahmud's death in 1030, the rest of the tribe, led by Arslan's nephews Tughril-Beg and Chaghri-Beg, after encamping for a time in Khwarazm, along the lower Oxus, pushed their way into Khurasan and in 1036 seize Merv and Nishapur. Mahmud's son Mas'ud, attempting to bar their path, was routed with heavy loss at Dandankan near Merv in 1040, and retreated on Ghazna. From this battle dates the foundation of the Seljuk Empire.

The Seljuks now moved westwards into the disintegrating realm of the Buyids. Conditions in Persia and Iraq favoured their intervention. Political power had been split up among the various members of the Buyid family. The semi-feudal practice had grown up of paying high officials out of the taxes of certain fiscal districts: hence there was a serious loss of control by the central government. The Fatimid policy of diverting trade with the East from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea had impoverished the Buyid State. Isma'ilian propaganda helped to undermine its authority. It had no outlet to the Mediterranean since the Byzantines and the Fatimids had divided Syria between them. The urban merchant class resented the loss of trade and the arrogance of the military aristocracy. Local dynasties, some Arab, some Kurdish, sprang up and drained the strength of the regime. Orthodox Muslims chafed under the rule of Shi'ites, especially those unable to maintain peace and order. The Abbasids, humiliated by their impotence, yearned for deliverance from their heretic masters, and entered into negotiations with Tughril. One by one the towns of Persia fell into Seljuk hands. In Iraq power was held by the Buyid general Basasiri, who asked for help from Cairo in order to stop the advance of the Seljuks by declaring for the Fatimids. An extraordinary struggle ensued, with Tughril defending the Abbasid Caliph Ka'im and Basasiri striving to get the Fatimid Caliph Mustansir recognized in Baghdad. The Seljuks occupied Baghdad in 1055, but the excesses and indiscipline of the tribesmen provoked a reaction among the populace, and Wasit, Mosul and other places went over to the Fatimids. Tughril recaptured Mosul, and returning to Baghdad in 1058 was solemnly re- ceived by Ka'im and given the title of 'King of the East and West'. Called away by a rebellion of his younger brother Ibrahim, he was unable to prevnt Basasiri recovering control of Iraq and proclaiming the Fatimid Imam in Baghdad itself. For forty Fridays the khutba was recited in the Abbasid capital in the name of Mustansir of Cairo. Finally in 1060 the Seljuks fought their way back into Baghdad; Basasiri was killed, and Tughril replaced the Abbasid on his throne.

Many things were decided by this episode. First, the Fatimids bst their last chance of repeating the success of the Abbasids in 750: the failure of Basasiri's coup in Baghdad meant that the Alid Caliph would be restricted to Egypt and the neighbouring lands and would never acquire universal dominion in Islam. Secondly, the fall of the Buyids and the coming of the Seljuks registered a great triumph for Sunnite orthodoxy: the power of the State could now be employed to put down Shi'ism of all kinds and Isma'ilism in particular. Thirdly, the Abbasid Caliphate was restored to some sort of life and independence, but its character was changed, and a new institution -- the Sultanate -- was created in an endeavour to reestablish the political unity of Islam. For the Caliphate, as a centralized monarchy ruling all Muslim peoples, had woefully failed. It could not even preserve the religious and spiritual unity of the umma: half Islam had fallen to the Fatimids. It never developed into a Papacy, for the interpretation of the law and the faith had long passed to the ulama, the canonists and judges. Yet even in its weakness it was still reverered by the new Turkish converts as the symbol of religious legitimacy: the Vicar of the Prophet alone could confer lawful authority on Muslim kings and princes to whom in theory he delegated his powers. Mahmud of Ghazna had been glad to win recognition from the Caliph, and his court poets had hailed him as 'Sultan', a word meaning originally 'governmental power' but henceforth used as a personal title. The Seljuks were even more anxious to have their rule legitimized: as aliens and barbarians they were unpopular with the civilized townsfolk of Persia and Iraq, and Tughril's investiture by the Caliph in 1058, in a magnificent ceremony during which two crowns were held over his head as symbols of his regal authority over East and West, informed the people that the Commander of the Faithful had delegated his sultanate to his Turkish lieutenant. It was now the Sultan's duty to act as the early Caliphs had done, to defend the umma, to extirpate schism and heresy, and to resume the jihad against the nations who rejected God and his Prophet. Politically, the Seljuks were to play Shoguns to the Caliph's Mikado.

Two enemies were obviously marked out for attack by the new protectors of Sunnite Islam: the Byzantines and the Fatimids. In the previous age the former had thrust deep into the heart of Islam, had conquered a good deal of Syria and annexed Armenia to the Empire. But the Byzantine revival had now spent itself: the vigorous Macedonian dynasty was no more; the central government was in conflict with the great landed families of Asia Minor and in order to reduce their power, had cut down the military establishment, thereby rendering the Empire defensively weak against the new assault from the East. The Turks drove towards the Byzantine frontiers, partly by design, partly by accident. Their coming had produced something of a social crisis in the Persian and Arab lands. In a society where the fundamental distinction was between believer and unbeliever, the fact that the Turks were Muslims counted for much; but even so, the educated city-dweller could scarcely avoid a feeling of disgust at the presence of these coarse and uncouth sons of the steppes. The chroniclers of the time draw a sharp contrast between the Sultans and their people: 'Their princes are warlike, provident, firm, just and distinguished by excellent qualities: the nation is cruel, wild, coarse and ignorant.' To make matters worse, once the barrier of the Oxus was down, the regular Seljuk forces, cavalrymen of slave origin, were followed by swarms of Turkomans', free and undisciplined nomads seeking pasture and plunder, who raided estates, destroyed crops, robbed merchant caravans, and fought other nomads, such as Kurds and Bedouin Arabs, for the possession of wells and grazing-lands. Many of them poured into Azerbaijan, a fertile province of orchards and pastures which in a few generations became mainly Turkish-speaking, and from there began raiding Byzantine territory. When Tughril died childless in 1063, the Sultanate passed to his nephew Alp Arslan ('hero lion'), Chagri's son, who was probably anxious to divert the stream of nomadic violence away from the lands of Islam towards Christendom and at the same time to win glory as a ghazi, or champion of the faith. His armies pushed into the valleys of Armenia and Georgia, while the Turkomans plunged deeper and deeper into Anatolia. An appeal from the enemies of the Fatimids then diverted him into southern Syria, but his plans for an invasion of Egypt were abandoned at the news of an impending massive Byzantine counter-stroke.

The Emperor Romanus Diogenes had resolved on a desperate effort to clear the Turkish raiders out of his dominions, and at the head of a motley army of mercenaries, including Normans from the west and Pechenegs and Uzes (Turkish tribes) from southern Russia, he marched eastwards into Armenia. Alp Arslan, hurriedly returning, met him at Manzikert, near the shores of Lake Van. The Normans started a quarrel and refused to fight for the Emperor; his Turkish mercenaries, perhaps unwilling to face their kinsmen, deserted, and this, combined with Romanus's bad generalship, produced (August 1071) a catastrophic Byzantine defeat. For the first time in history, a Christian Emperor fell a prisoner into Muslim hands.

Alp Arslan stands out a not unattractive figure, his name indissolubly connected with the momentous battle which turned Asia Minor into a Turkish land. We picture him as an impressive soldier in his thirties, his long moustaches tied over his tall Persian cap to prevent them interfering with his shooting. In his humanity and generosity he anticipates Saladin. He treated the captive Emperor with courtesy, and when the ransom money was paid sent him home with a Turkish escort. Perhaps he hardly grasped the significance of his victory. He had no plans to conquer Asia Minor and destroy the Byzantine State; he was soon called away to deal with a Kara-Khanid invasion from Transoxiana, and in 1073, while interrogating a rebel chief, the man suddenly sprang at him and stabbed him dead. In fact, Manzikert struck a fatal blow at Christian and imperial power in Anatolia. With the Byzantine field-army gone, the Turks spread over the central plateau, so well adapted for pastoral settlement; in the struggles for the throne which now ensued, rival pretenders hired Turkish troops, and in this way the nomads got possession of towns and fortresses they could never have taken otherwise. The Greek landlords and offlcials fled; the peasants, deprived of their natural leaders, in time adopted the religion of their new masters, and the faith of Muhammad was taught in the lands where St. Paul had proclaimed the gospel of Christ. With Asia Minor, its principal source of soldiers and revenue, lost, menaced by the aggression of the Normans from Italy and the Pechenegs from across the Danube, the Byzantine Empire faced total ruin, and appeals for help to the Pope and the Latin world went out from Constantinople which produced twenty-five years after Manzikert the preaching of the First Crusade.

On the murder of Alp Arslan, he was succeeded as Sultan by his son Malik-Shah, a youth of eighteen whose twenty years' reign (1073-1092) marked the fullest ezpansion of Seljuk power. Malik-Shah was a more cultivated man than his father and great-uncle, who were essentially rough tribal chiefs, and he wisely entrusted the civil administration to the great Persian minister usually known by his title Nizam al-Mulk, 'order of the kingdom'. A just and humane ruler, he received the praise of Christian and Muslim historians alike. His suzerainty was recognized from Kashgar to the Yemen, but risings and disturbances were not uncommon in his vast dominions, and he was obliged to leave to others the conduct of operations against the Byzantines and the Fatimids. A cadet of the Seljuk family, Sulaiman b.Kutulmish, founded a durable State in Asia Minor, the so-called Sultanate of Rum; he captured Nicaea in 1081 and threatened Constantinople itself. The war on the Fatimids was inaugurated, not by the Seljuks, but by a Turkoman chief named Atsiz, who in 1070 marched into Palestine and drove the Egyptians out of Jerusalem. Malik-Shah could not tolerate this, and gave his brother Tutush charge of the Syrian front. The Fatimids proved tougher opponents than might have been expected: the Seljuks were not destined to heal the schism that had rent the Muslim world for nearly two centuries.

The Fatimid regime had, in fact made a surprising recovery from what had seemed certain ruin. A dreadful six years' famine had paralysed Egypt from 1067 to 1072; the civil government virtually broke down; thousands fled from the country, and the misery of those who remained was heightened by the brutal lawlessness of the Turkish, Berber and Sudanese slave soldiery who killed and robbed in quest of food and plunder. The Fatimid Empire all but vanished. The Maghrib had long been lost; Sicily was conquered by the Normans from South Italy, Atsiz seized Palestine, and the Abbasid Caliph was once more prayed for in the Holy Cities. But in 1073 Mustansir called in the governor of Acre, Badr al-Jamali, a brilliant general of Armenian birth, to restore order; the mutinous troops were disciplined, the defences of Cairo were strengthened, trade revived, the revenues rose, and prosperity returned. The price paid was the creation of a military dictatorship, Badr, with the title of Amir al-Juyush, 'Commander of the Armies,' replacing the civilian wazir, and the Caliph being reduced almost to the level of the Abbasids under Buyid rule. Badr then set out to recover Syria, and though he failed to regain Damascus, which fell to the Seljuks in 1076, he succeeded in checking Tutush's advance to the Egyptian frontier and in re-establishing Fatimid authority along the Levantine coast as far as Tyre and Sidon. The Alid Caliphate, though shorn of much of its glory, was put on its feet again and enabled to survive for another century. When Badr died in 1094, a few months before the aged Caliph, Seljuk hopes of restoring Egypt to orthodoxy had been frustrated, and the rival parties were still struggling for the control of Syria, a situation highly advantageous to the Latin Crusaders who broke into the Levant three or four years later.

The Seljuks rendered notable service to Islam, but their successes were balanced by many failures. They brought a new vigour and unity into Western Asia and put an end to the decadent regime of the Buyids. They dealt a staggering blow to Byzantine power by winning Asia Minor for Islam, a feat the Arabs had never been able to achieve, thereby breaking down the last defences of Christendom on the Asiatic continent, and opening up this ancient land to Turkish colonial settlement. Their vehement orthodoxy checked the spread of Isma'ilism, which was in future able to operate only as an underground terrorist movement whose agents became notorious as the Assassins. Under Seljuk protection the champions of Sunnite Islam launched a strong propaganda drive against heretics and deviators from the true faith: madrasas or 'college-mosques' were founded in the principal cities for the instruction of students in fikh (Islamic jurisprudence), according to the teaching of the four orthodox schools. The best known of these institutions was the Nizamiya Madrasa in Baghdad, named after Nizam al-Mulk and dedicated by him in 1067. Orthodoxy produced at this time its ablest defender in al-Ghazali, who died in 1111, and whose massive and comprehensive system of theology has won him the title of 'the Aquinas of Islam'.

On the other hand, the Seljuks proved unable to create a strong, durable and centralized Empire or to destroy the Fatimid Anti-Caliphate in Egypt. Their conceptions of government were primitive, and despite the efforts of Nizam al-Mulk to instruct them in the principles of ancient Persian despotism, which he regarded as the only satisfactory form of rule, they treated their realm as family property to be divided up among sons and nephews, who if minors were entrusted to the care of atabegs ('father-chiefs'), usually generals of servile origin who governed their appanages until their wards came of age and who often became hereditary princes in their own right. Until the death of Malik-Shah in 1092 some degree of unity was preserved, but under the fourth Seljuk Sultan Berkyaruk (1095-1114) the Empire was changed into a kind of federation of autonomous princes, not all of them Turks, for in certain localities Buyid and Kurdish chiefs held sway while admitting only a vague Seljuk suzerainty. Incessant struggles for the succession further weakened the Empire and gave the Abbasid Caliphs a chance to recover some of their power by playing off one candidate for the Sultanate against another. Political disintegration was hastened by the spread of the ikta system, by which military officers were paid out of the revenues of certain landed estates, ikta meaning literally a 'section' or portion of land 'cut off' for that purpose, and in some respects resembling the knight's fee of Western feudalism. Ikta holding tended to become hereditary and the 'fief thus escaped from the jurisdiction of the central government. By 1100 the best days of the Seljuks were over, and it was precisely at this Juncture that the Franks chose to launch against Islam the strange Christian counter-offensive which we know as the Crusades.

http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/med/saunders.html
J. J. Saunders. A History of Medieval Islam.
Routledge, London, chpt. 9.

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