The political revival of the Abbasid caliphate: Al-Muqtafi and the Seljuqs.

Author:TOR, D.G.

The reign of the Abbasid caliph al-Muqtafi (r. 1136-1160) was one of great historical significance. Despite his having been chosen and elevated to the caliphate by the Seljuq sultans during the nadir of Abbasid power, after they had murdered one caliph and deposed another, it was al-Muqtafi who finally succeeded in reestablishing Abbasid political rule over Iraq. This article traces the course of al-Muqtafi's relations with the Seljuq sultans, analyzes how and why he succeeded in reviving Abbasid political rule, and considers the import of the events that transpired during his reign.


A new era in world history began with the Seljuq Turkmen invasion of the Islamic heartland in the eleventh century, which resulted in the almost millennium-long Turkic political and military domination of the central Islamic lands. (1) The arrival of the Seljuqs in the central Islamic lands was also fraught with significance for Islamic civilization. Among many other milestones, the Seljuq dynasty was the first and only non-caliphal dynasty in the pre-Mongol period to conquer the entire Middle East, from Central Asia to Syria, and the only Sunni Persianate dynasty ever to conquer the caliphal heartlands in Iraq while the caliphate lasted. The Seljuq conquest of the Middle East therefore also marked a turning point in the history of the caliphate.

The caliphate itself was, of course, the formative, fundamental political institution of Islam, and until the coming of the Seljuqs, in Patricia Crone's words, "all legitimate power flowed from the [caliph], so that all public offices would be void in his absence [...]." (2) Even after the political power of the caliphs had crumbled and local and regional rulers seized rule by force throughout the Islamic lands, these rulers, unless they were sectarian, had never claimed for themselves any special political authority independent of the caliph's; indeed, they called themselves by the traditional title used by caliphal governors from the beginning: amir, or commander. (3) Although they did concurrently adopt additional, more grandiose titles of rule taken predominantly from pre-Islamic Iran, (4) conceptually, in Islamic terms, they were still caliphal governors, even if in fact the caliphs had no control over their actions and rule.

This Islamic legal fiction of the caliphs' remaining the font of legitimate political authority could no longer be maintained, however, once the Seljuqs came upon the scene--first, because they were "much too powerful to masquerade as governors," (5) and second, and more importantly, because after "liberating" the caliphs from the control of the Shi (') ite Buyids and their generals, the Seljuqs themselves discarded the fiction of governorship that had held sway since the ninth century. Instead of restoring caliphal political power, the Seljuqs became the first Sunni dynasty to claim for itself universal political authority. This was explicitly manifested in their arrogation of the formerly caliphal title of sultan as their own official title; (6) they also encouraged the formulation of new Islamic political theories that exalted this new sultanic political authority at the expense of the caliphate. (7)

For a long time the accepted scholarly consensus regarding the Abbasid reaction to Seljuq claims was that although there were ample grounds for conflict between the Seljuq sultans and the Abbasid caliphs, the caliphs accepted--or were at least resigned to--the radically new political situation and concepts that came to prevail at this time. This quondam consensus, however, has been shattered by scholars over the last several decades, who have convincingly challenged the myth of Seljuq-Abbasid cordiality. (8) Despite this, however, little study has been made not only of Seljuq-caliph relations, but also of the caliphate itself during this period. (9)

The present article therefore addresses one discrete but highly significant portion of the historical lacuna that constitutes the history of the Abbasid caliphate in the twelfth century, particularly with respect to the state of sultan-caliph relations during the time when the Seljuqs were the main obstacle standing in the way of a restoration of caliphal rule: the reign of the caliph al-Muqtafi (530-555/1136-1160). The aim of this article is to trace al-Muqtafi's relations with the Seljuq sultans throughout his reign and his own recorded attempts to wrest political power from them, utilizing the full range of Arabic and Persian sources available in order to elucidate the path by which al-Muqtafi finally succeeded in realizing the dream of his two immediate predecessors in reestablishing both Abbasid independence and temporal rule.


The hostility between the Seljuq and Abbasid camps became particularly overt and politically important from 1118 onward. This was the year in which strong and ambitious rulers succeeded to both the Seljuq and the Abbasid thrones: the supreme sultan Ahmad Sanjar b. Malikshah on the Seljuq side and the caliph al-Mustarshid on the Abbasid side. (10) In fact, the key timeframe in Abbasid revival stretches throughout the period of Sanjar's rule, from 1118 until 1157. This was at least in part due to his relocation of the political center of the empire from western Iran to the city of Marv, located some 1,000 miles from the caliphal seat in Baghdad. He thereby left only a much weaker subordinate sultan in Iraq and western Iran, which meant that the Abbasids had much greater scope of action. (11) From that point, the history of the caliphate is rife with repeated attempts on the caliphs' part to restore their erstwhile temporal rule, all of which, up to the reign of the caliph al-Muqtafi, ended in disaster. (12)

In order to understand fully al-Muqtafi's successful attempt, one must be conversant with the historical context of the earlier part of this period, 1118-1136, that of al-Muqtafi's three immediate predecessors. In the spring of the year 511 (1118) the Seljuq Great Sultan Muhammad Tapar died and was succeeded in the supreme sultanate by Ahmad Sanjar, who had been ruling Khurasan and the East for twenty years as regional sultan and had constituted the power behind his brother's throne; (13) just a few months later (512/1118) Muhammad Tapar's brother-in-law, the Abbasid caliph al-Mustazhir bi-llah, died at the ripe age of forty-one. (14) Al-Mustazhir had earlier tried to assert some kind of caliphal authority to intervene in Seljuq affairs, as reported by Ibn al-Athir. (15) This report, with its revelation of the beginnings of Abbasid attempts to flex political muscle, displays perhaps the seeds of conflict that bore such bloody fruit in the reign of his successors, his son al-Mustarshid and grandson al-Rashid. The following events surrounding al-Mustazhir's death suggest this.

Immediately upon Muhammad Tapar's death, his son, the Seljuq prince Mahmud, sultan of the Traqayn and aspirant to the position and title of Great Sultan, requested of al-Mustazhir that the Friday sermon (khutba) be made in his name. (16) Among Mahmud's first actions was to dismiss Behruz, the military representative (shihna) of Baghdad, and to appoint to the post, first, the amir Aqsunqur al-Bursuqi, (17) and then the amir Mankubars (Mengu-bars), (18) one of his greatest commanders. Mankubars sent his own stepson, the amir al-Husayn b. Uzbek, (19) to serve as his deputy in Baghdad and Iraq. (20) Upon his dismissal, however, the amir Aqsunqur appealed to the caliph al-Mustazhir, who wrote to the new Seljuq appointee, al-Husayn, ordering him to halt his advance toward Baghdad while he corresponded with Sultan Mahmud on the matter. This attempted caliphal intervention in political affairs proved unsuccessful; al-Husayn replied that if the caliph gave him a direct order (in contravention of Mahmud's) to retreat, he would obey it, but al-Mustazhir apparently did not dare do so and in the end the issue was decided by a battle between al-Bursuqi and al-Husayn, which the former won. Ibn al-Athir notes specifically that this attempted caliphal intervention took place "a few days before the death of al-Mustazhir bi-llah," and it is not inconceivable that the proximity of the two events might even have been cause and effect rather than coincidence. (21)

Whatever the circumstances behind al-Mustazhir's untimely demise, his son al-Mustarshid bi-llah Abu Mansur al-Fadl b. Abi l-'Abbas Ahmad al-Mustazhir bi-llah succeeded immediately to the caliphate (r. 512-529/1118-1135). (22) During the seventeen years of his rule, al-Mustarshid slowly but persistently expanded the political and military scope of caliphal power to a level unprecedented since the ninth century, a policy that ultimately resulted in 1135 in his being first taken captive by the Seljuqs and then violently murdered while in their custody. (23) The tension between the Seljuqs and the Abbasids did not end there: alustarshid's son and heir, al-Rashid (r. 529-530/1135-1136), was immediately estranged from the Seljuq sultans whom he blamed, quite vocally, for his father's murder. (24) Al-Rashid set about forming alliances with various atabegs and strongmen, most notably 'Imad al-Din ZengI, "in order to oppose Sultan Mas'ud," who was by this time Sanjar's subordinate sultan in Iraq and western Iran. (25) Mas'ud soon received intelligence of the coalition al-Rashid was gathering against him and marched upon Baghdad, which the caliph fled. Mas'ud then forced the religious clerics of Baghdad to declare al-Rashid deposed. (26) In sum, at the opening of the period this article will be examining, the Seljuqs had just ended two consecutive caliphal reigns by force in an untimely fashion: that of al-Mustarshid, by murder; and, less than a year later, that of al-Rashid, who was first deposed and subsequently murdered.


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