The Ghaznavid Dynasty in Light of the Iranian Kingdom and the Abbasid Caliphate

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 From the earliest days of the Abbasid revolt against the Umayyads (661-750) the Iranians strove actively to find a way to political independence. With an ideal picture of the Iranian pre-Islamic Empires in mind, the Iranians chose to establish their unique political structures in their own territories. Local dynasties of Iran from the Tahirids (821-873) to the Buyids (932-1055) attempted several ways to distinguish their own political structures from the Abbasid Caliphate. To expand their territories, these local dynasties were in persistent conflicts with each other; but they joined forces to approach Iran to achieve independence from the Abbasid Caliphate. The presence of Turks within the political structure of the Abbasid Caliphate and the local dynasties in Iran, in particular, the Samanids (874-1004) provided appropriate conditions for the establishment of the Ghazvanid dynasty (975-1187), the first Turkish Sultanate in Iran.

The Ghaznavids were descended from a Turkish Ghulam of the Samanids. They were brought up in the Perso-Islamic tradition of the Samanids, and despite their Turkish origin they were culturally and de facto the natural successors of this Persian dynasty.[1]  Persian historians acknowledged Sultan Mahmoud, the founder of the Ghaznavid dynasty, as the first Iranian King of an Islamic dynasty.  Drawing on earlier local dynasties to link himself to the ancient Iranian Empires, Mahmoud named himself Sultan to identify an independent identity for himself. Supporting the Abbasid Caliphate against the Shiite Buyids, the Alavids and particularly the Ismailis called the Bad-din, Sultan Mahmoud expanded his territories in Iran and India through Ghazi-e Islam and Jihad. He established a splendid court with an already developed bureaucracy to rule over vast territories from India to Rayy. While considering the political structures of the Abbasid Caliphate and other local dynasties including the Samanids, Saffarids (861-1002) and the Byuids (932-1055) this article addresses Sultan Mahmoud’s measures to introduce the Ghaznavid dynasty as a distinguished political structure of leadership in medieval times. This paper raises the question that did the Sultanate proceed in the line of the pre-Islamic kingdom or did it have a unique identity?

The thesis presented is the idea that Mahmoud took advantage of the structures of the leadership including the caliphate and Iranian local dynasties which considered themselves linked to pre-Islamic Iranian kingdoms to establish his Ghaznavid dynasty. The political structure of Sultanate, however, had its distinguishing features. Even though many Iranian poets and historians in Mahmoud’s court refer to him as the Iranian padishah, the sultanate had its different features. In other words, Sultan Mahmoud was the founder of a new kind of leadership in Iran which was followed by other Turk dynasties of the Saljuqs and the Khwarazmshah.

Keywords: Sultan Mahmoud, Abbasid Caliphate, Ghaznavid Dynasty, Independent Political Structure.

Researchers of history need to be more precise about the meaning of words which have a specific history in the past. The words Shah, padishah or in Old Persian Khshayathiya, the Pahlavi Patakhshah, and in Arabic Malik have an extensive history. Padishah, (Persian: پادشاه‎‎, Turkish: padişah) is a superlative royal title, composed of the Persian pad "master" and the widespread shah "king", which denotes king of kings, or the highest rank of leadership.[2]

This title was challenged by the title Sultan in the 11th century. The term Sultan, according to the Qurʾān, means moral or spiritual authority and later came to denote political or governmental power. Mamoud of Ghazna (reigned ad 998–1030) was the first Muslim ruler to be called sultan by his contemporaries, and under the Seljuqs of Anatolia and Iran, it became a commonly recognized title. Thereafter it was frequently conferred on sovereigns by the caliph (titular head of the Muslim community) and came to be used throughout the Islamic world.[3]

One of the main concerns of the Persian historians was to identify the concept of Shah and Padishahi (king and Kingdom). In the worldview of Persian historians, padishah was situated at the highest point of leadership. They used the terms of padishah, Sultan and Malik interchangeably: “In every age, Izad (God) selects one among others and attributes him with praised kingdom arts”.[4]

In the introduction to Saljuqnama, Zahir al-Din Nishapuri places Padishah besides the prophets and emphasizes that the kings should be equipped with true  religion and Adl, justice. Knowledge and prayer are the adornments of Prophets and justice and politics are the adornment of Shahs.”[5] 

In this viewpoint, the Iranian kingdom as a single representation of leadership challenged the caliphate which had been regarded the highest rank of leadership after the prophet in the world of Islamic religion and politics. It was during the revitalization of the kingdom with roots in pre-Islamic Iran that the identity of Iranians from the rest of Islamic world under the caliphate could be distinguished.

In Persian historiography, padishah is praised after God and the prophet; therefore, even though they report the history of the caliphs in their works, never do the caliphs have the same significance in Persian historian’s accounts as the Amirs and Sultnans. They regard the selection of kings based on God’s will to execute his commands and develop justice among people as preeminent.[6]

 Historians including Ravandi and Khwaja Nizam al-Mulk regard (Sultan) Shah as the shadow of God and emphasize that Shah must be equipped with both religion and justice.[7] Religion and Justice or Adl are the two characteristics of Padishah which are emphasized by Iranian historians such as Ravandi in Rahat al-Sudur. Khwaja Nizam al-Mulk enumerates several examples of kings and refers not only to Ardishir and Anushirvan but also Iranian Amirs such as Amir Isma’ili Samani, ‘Azod al-Dula and al…as well as Sultan Mahmoud.

“The most important thing which a king needs is sound faith, because kingship and religion are like two brothers; whenever disturbance breaks out in the country religion suffers too; heretics and evil-doers appear; and whenever religious affairs are in disorder, there is confusion in the country; evil-doers gain power and render the king impotent and despondent.”[8]

Referring to the 58th verse of Nisa, Ghazali (1058-1111), the great theologian, regards Sultans as the most prominent prophets (Ulu al-Amr),  Muslims must, therefore, obey them since God has endowed them with padishahi (kingdom).[9] Najm al-Din Razi (1171-1256) a great Sufi of 12th and 13th centuries also stresses that the orders of Shah should be obeyed as the orders of God.[10]

It needs to be taken into account that during this time Iran was not as a unified independent territory as it had been under the pre-Islamic empire of Sassanids. Therefore the efforts of scholars were in line with Ferdowsi (925-1035), the revered Iranian poet and the author of the epic book of Shahnama. This was the book of kings whose ideal Iran was a unified country under an Iranian king. Now the question arises whether Sultan Muhammad was indeed that ideal padishah?

Mahmoud, as a Turk slave in the service of the Samanids, gradually founded an independent power which was indebted to the Pre-Islamic power structure of Kingdom “Shah” or “Padishah”. Like pre-Islamic Iranian kings before him, he established a glorious court with the presence of poets and other scholars and including historians who linked Mahmoud to pre-Islamic kings by creating a special genealogy for him. They referred to Mahmoud as the first Muslim Iranian Shah. The title of Shahanshah (King of Kings) was formerly used for ‘Azod al-Dulah,[11] the Buyid Amir, but the Persian historians mostly regarded Sultan Mahmoud as the first padishah of the Islamic world.[12]   

Like the Amirs of previous local dynasties, Persian historians define the Ghaznavids in relation to pre-Islamic kings. Sebuktigin (942-997), Mahmoud’s father who developed the foundations of the Ghaznavids, was regarded as the descendant of Yadgird III (624-651), the last king of the Sassanids (224-651).[13] Being seen as the descendant of Yazdgird III endowed the founders of the Ghaznavids with a significant legitimacy in the mind of Iranians. Yazdgird III had been killed anonymously in Khurasan and Sabuktigin claimed independence from the Samanids (819-999) in Khurasan. By connecting the Ghaznavids with the last ring of Pre-Islamic kings, Persian historians attempted to introduce them as the descendants of Iranian kings and so distinguish them from Turks, Turans and Aniran, all non-Iranians who had no legitimacy in Iranian minds. The persistent attempt of Sebuktigin and then Mahmoud to dominate from India in the east to Rayy in the west and so to expand to Baghdad (although it was left unfinished with the death of Mahmoud) was ultimately aimed at dominating the territories once ruled by the Sassanids.

Bayhaqi and Jurfadqani,[14] unlike other Persian historians do not feign a special genealogy for the Ghaznavids nor for the Saffarids or the Buyids. He considers Mahmoud one of the ordinary people. Instead of highlighting the power of their sword, Bayhaqi emphasizes God’s beneficence to the founders of these dynasties and includes Mahmoud:

“Amir Nasir al-Din Sebuktigin was a Turk Slave, endowed with God’s beneficence and ornamented with glories of padishahi and Sultanate.”[15]

“And if a mighty and commanding prince from the stock of Mahmoud and Mas’oud has ascended the throne, there is no cause for wonder. Ya’qub ibn Layth was the son of a coppersmith, Bu Shuja’ ‘Azod al-Dowla wa al-Din was the son of Bu’l Hasan ibn Buya, who fled as a rebel to the Samanids from the midst of the Dylamites, and by dint of his own mettle and firm resolution, and through the grace of the divine decree of God Most Mighty, he turned from the state of being a rebel to becoming king. Then his son ‘Azod, through his lofty resolution and bold spirit, became even more powerful than his father and his kinsmen, and he wrought those deeds and attained those achievements which had been set forth in the Ketab’’I Taji of Bu Eshaq al-Sabi. They also recount many tales of Bu Moslem, the leader of the Abbasid’s successful bid for power of Tahir Dhu’l-Yamineyn and of Nasr ibn Ahmad amongst the Samanids. God the most Exalted One, has said, in regard to Saul (Talut)- and He is the most veracious of those who speak-“And He increased him amply in knowledge and bodily strength”Whenever the care and solicitude of the Creater Most High come into play, He makes evident virtues and acts of greatness, and out of the ashes He kindles a blazing fire”.[16]

The ashes from which Mahmoud as a fire rose were the measures he did to establish the first Sultanate dynasty in Iran. His persistent effort to establish a glorious court with the presence of Iranian viziers and scholars and including scientists, men known for their knowledge, historians, and poets was in line with the policies of Samanids whose court represented the pre-Islamic court. Mahmoud never concealed his Turk ethnicity, but he recognized the presence of Iranian elites and intellectuals as necessary to a flourishing court. His attention to including the Persian language and Iranian culture was a rich heritage of the Samanids which was effectively used by the Samanids. While the Buyids particularly ‘Azod al-Dula were the first who called himself Shahanshah,[17] it was the court of Sultan Mahmoud and Masoud in Ghazna where the Persian language as a scholarly language flourished.[18]

It is mentioned in Majma’ al-Ansab that “Sultan Mahmoud was particularly interested in poetry and recognized the poets superior to other scholars.”[19] Through his steady military campaigns he brought many books to Ghazna and was interested in assembling the proficient people in every field and craft in Ghazna”[20] When he sent ultimatum to Abu al-Abbas Ma’mun Khwarazmshah, he stated his request openly: “I’ve heard that there are some rare scholars in the court of Khwarazmshah  including …You should send them to our court to be honored in our court. We would ask this favor from Khwarazmshah”.[21]

Under the Ghaznavids, Persian literature developed. On the other hand, Mahmoud’s attention to Baghdad and the Abbasid caliphate caused the Persian language to be influenced by Arabic as well.[22] Divan’i Rasa’il or the epistle which was in Persian under Abul Abbas Fazl ibn Ahmad Isfarayini turned to Arabic under Ahmad ibn Hassan Maymandi.[23] The Wise men of the Arabic language were welcomed in the court of Ghaznavids which influenced the Persian language.[24]

 One cannot deny his service to the Persian language. Great Persian historians such as Khwaja Nizam al-Mulk and Jawzjani and many poets including Unsuri, Balkhi, Farrukhi Sistani and Manucherhi Damghani[25] referred to him as the padishah, but the controversies around Ferdowsi and Sultan Mahmoud remain a controversial issue in the workbook of Mahmoud. Whether or not Mahmoud declined to be the patron of Shahnama, the book of Kings, the masterpiece of Ferdowsi, points to the discrepancy between Mahmoud as a Turk Sultan and the Iranian Shahanshah.

Like the Samanids, the Ghaznavids were devout Sunni Muslims and supporters of the Abbasid caliphate. The caliph’s name was regularly mentioned in the khutba as well as on coinage. They regarded his endorsement as essential and set a high value on the titles he bestowed.[26] 

 Defining themselves as supporters of true Islam and fighters against bad-dini represented by several groups of Shiites put Mahmoud, like the Samanids, in line with the policies of the Abbasid caliphate. In the name of Ghazva and Jihad, he legitimized his sword by fighting with Shiite powers in greater Iran including the Shia Isma’ili Alavids and the Buyids.[27] He also fought the non-Muslim people of India, the Kuffar.  In each case, Mahmoud represented himself as a true Moslem. It was in such conditions that these structures were supported by the Fatimids, as the main rival of the Abbasid caliphate and so Mahmoud was able to point to the true support of the Caliph to introduce himself not only as a supporter of Islam but also as the sole ruler of the eastern territories. As Mas’oud specifies, Mahmoud intended to invade Baghdad and expelled the Buyids from Baghdad and so position his power over the caliph left unfulfilled by the death of Sultan Mahmoud.[28]

The ashes from which Mahmoud rose as a rekindled fire, are the measures he took to establish the first Sultanate dynasty in Iran. In line with the Amirs of Samanids like Amir Isma’il Samani and Yaqub layth, the founder of the Saffarid dynasty, Sultan Muhammad launched campaigns against the Non Muslim people of India in the name of Ghazva and Jihad. We should take into account that war in medieval times was not merely an absurd and anti-value measure. Being a prominent military commander was a special characteristic of a successful leadership and necessary to maintain influence and authority.

“But most of the accounts I have from Amir Mahmoud peace be upon him was what I witnessed. What splendid measures performed in India as well as in Nimruz {Sistan}, Khurasan, Khwarazm, and Iraq; a large number of castles seized, how he has passed through the deserts, mountains and how many scary ways he has gone; how he had launched campaigns, how he has raged the kings. Nobody has ever seen or even heard how remarkable warrior cunning one person can be”.[29]

Holy battles were not just against the non-Muslim people of India but also against the Shia who were regarded bad-din by the Sunnis. The Shia communities were scattered throughout the Islamic territories from Transoxiana to Egypt which led to political and religious disputes. The Turks had proved themselves as biased Sunnis in the Islamic world and subsequently took advantage of the name of the caliph to launch expanding campaigns in the name of Jihad. It was particularly true of Sultan Mahmoud whom the Abbasi caliph called Yamin al-Dula or Amin al-Milla.[30] He massacred a large number of Shi’i particularly the Isma’ili who were seen as the representatives of the Fatimids and bad-dini and could challenge the dominance of the Sunni in Iran.[31]

Even though the historians and poets referred to Sultan Mahmoud as the Iranian padishah, the word Sultan by itself distinguished him from other Iranian dynasties of the Samanids, Saffarids, and the Buyids. Despite all the advantages that Mahmoud took from previous local dynasties, such as the Tahirids and the Samanids who put themselves in line with the Pre-Islamic structure of Iranian Kingdom, and despite taking advantage of the legitimacy of the Abbasid caliphate in the name of Jihad and Ghaza, Mahmoud established the first Sultanate, as the first Turk dynasty in the world of leadership in Iran. Having the superior military power in comparison to his Iranian rivals he gradually achieved his goals and called himself Sultan. This was far superior to the most general term of Amir which represented the military commanders and not necessarily the ruler of the dynasties. It was more in line with the Padishahi rather than the previous military commanders who called themselves simply Amir. He founded his power on the foundations already developed by local dynasties and supported by the Abbasids; but sultanate was a unique and distinguished kind of leadership. The continuance of this form of leadership with the Turk dynasties of the Saljuqs and the Khwarazmshah serve to reinforce this thesis that the Sultanate was not a mere duplicate of Iranian padishahi represented by the local dynasties of Tahirids to the Buyids but instead a new and particularly distinguished construction of leadership.

This paper was presented at MESA on December 22, 2015

Maryam Kamali


[1] . Tetley, 2009, p. 3.

[4] . Khwaja Nizam al-Mulk, 11.

5 . Zahir al-Din Zahiri Nishapuri, Saljuqnama, ed. Mirza Isma’il Afshar, Muhammad Ramizani Sahib Kulala Khwavae, Tehran: Asatir, 2011; pp. 9-10.

6 . Ed. Muhammad Taqi Bahar & Bihjat Ramizani. Tehran: Kulala Khwavar, 1939, p.1.

[7] . Ravandi,

[8] . Hasan ibn Ali Khwaja Nizam al-Mulk, Siyar al-Muluk (Siyasatnama), ed. Dark, Tehran: Elmi wa Farhangi, 1999, p. 80. ; Herbert Darke, The Book of Government or Rules for Kings, The Siyar al-Muluk or Sirat-nama of Nizam al-Mulk, London: Persian heritage foundation, 2002, 60.

9 . Muhammad ibn Muhammad Ghazali, Nasihat al-Muluk, ed. Azizollah Alizada, Tehran: Ferdows, 2010, pp. 81-82.

[10] . Najm al-Din Razi, Marmuzat Asadi dar Muzat Davudi, ed. Muhammad Reza Shafi’I Kadkani, Tehran: Sukhan, 2002, p. 112.

11 . Mujmal al-Tawarikh, pp. 390-391.

12 . Minhaj al-Siraj Jawzjani, Tabaqat-i Nasiri, ed. Abdul Hay’ Habibi, Tehran: Dunyayi Kitab, 1984, I, pp. 228 & 230.

[13] . Jawzjani, I, p. 226.

14 . “Amir Nasir al-Din Sebuktigin was a Turk Slave, endowed with God’s beneficence and ornamented with glories of padishahi and Sultanate.” (Muhammad ibn Abdul Jabbar Utbi, Tarikh-i Yamini, tr. Abul Sharaf Jurfadqani, ed. Jafar Shua’r, Tehran: Elmi wa Farhangi, 2003, p. 19). 

[15] . Jurfadqani, p. 19.

[16] . Tarikh-I Bayhaqi, I, 516; The History of Bayhaqi, tr. C.E. Bosworth and revised by Mohsen Ashtiyani, II, New York: Center for Iranian Studies, 2011.

17 . Mujmal alTawarikh, pp. 390-391.

[18] . Clifford Edmund Bosworth, The Ghaznavids; their Empire in Afghanistan and Eastern Iran, 994-1010, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1963, p.131; Furouzani, 1381, p. 414; Salim, 1383, p. 151; Zarinkoub, 1392, 229; Safa, 1379, I, p. 100.


19 . Muhammad ibn Ali Shabankare’i, Majma’ al-Ansab, ed. Mirhashim Muhaddith, Tehran: Amir Kabir, 1997,  p. 69.

20 . Abul Fazl Bayhaqi, Tarikh-i Bayhaqi, ed. Khalil Khatib Rahbar, Tehran: Mahtab, 1995, I, p. 254.

21Ahmad ibn Umar Nizami ‘Aruzi, Chahar Maghala wa Ta’liqat, ed. Alama Qazvini & Muhammad M’u’in, Tehran: Sidaya Mu’asir, 2009, p. 118.

22 . Muhammad Taqi Bahar, Sabkshinasi or Tarikh-i Tatavvur Nasr Parsi, Tehran: Farasugustar, 2003, , II, p. 554; Muhammad Qulam Qubar, Afghanistan dar Masir Tarikh, Tehran: Jangal, Javdana, 2009, , I, p. 213; Bosworth, p. 38; Seyed Abulqasim Furouzani, Tarikh Tahavullat Siyasi, Ijtima’I, Iqtisadi wa Farhangi Iran dar Duriya Samaniyan, Tehran: Samt, 2002, p. 401.

23 . Muhammad Ali Islami Nudushan, Sarv Sayifekan, darbaraya Ferdowsi wa Shahnama, Tehran: Yazdan, 1995, p. 38.

24 . Zabihollah Safa, Tarikh Adabiyat Iran, ed. Muhammad Turabi, Tehran: Ferdows, 2000, I, pp. 477-484 and II, 984 Abdul Rafi’ Haqiqat, Vaziran Irani az Buzurgmihr ta Amirkabir, Tehran: Kumish, 1994, p. 78; Muhammad Amin Riyahi, Ferdowsi, Tehran: Tarh Now, 2001, p. 115; Furouzani, pp. 414-415.

[25] . Roy Parviz Mottahedeh, “Finding Iran in the Panegyrics of the Ghaznavid Court”, {Medieval Central Asia and the Persiante World, Iranian Tradition and Islamic Civilization}, ed. A.C.S. Peacock and D.G. Tor}, London: IB Tauris, 2015.

[26] . G.E. Tetley, The Ghaznavid and Saljuq Turks, poetry as a source for Iranian history (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), p. 3.

27 . Mujmal al-Tawarikh wa al-Qisas, p. 404; Jurfadqani, p. 182.; Ibn Imad Hanbali, Shazarat al-Zahab fi Akhbar min Zahab, Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-‘Ilmiya, 1998, III, p. 332.

[28] . Bayhaqi, I, p. 66; see also Mottahedeh, “Finding Iran in the Panegyrics of the Ghaznavid Court”, p. 132.

29 . Abu Sa’id Gardizi, Zayn al-Akhbar, ed. Abdul Hay’ Habibi, Tehran: Dunyaya Kitab, 1984, p. 379.

[30] . Gardizi, p. 209.

[31] . Ibn Al-‘Ibad Hanbali, III, p. 332.

Image reference:  Edinburgh University Library, MS. Or. 20

Mahmud of Ghazni receiving a richly decorated robe of honor from the caliph al-Qadir in 1000.


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