Political Structure and Legitimacy in the Saljuq Dynasty (1055-1092)

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When the Turkmen Saljuqs stepped into the world of policy, Iran had passed through the historical experience of establishing semi-autonomous powers in the Abbasid Caliphate Era. These local dynasties left their precious heritage of political structure and legitimacy to the Saljuqs to establish the first Islamic Empire in the Medieval ages. Over nearly a century and a half, the Saljuqs ruled the vast territories from Transoxiana to the Mediterranean by using a combination of their nomadic procedures and Iranian brueacuracy methods. They organized their legitimacy by establishingdeveloped interactions and divisions of power among the main agents and institutions in society. This purpose of this paper is to introduce the Saljuq’s political structure from the time of government formation until the end of the Sultan Malikshah Era (1040-1092) and the processes they used to legitimize their power, which are unprecedented in Iranian history.

Statement of the Problem

The decline of the Sassanian Empire (224-651 AD) marked a new chapter in Iranian history. Indebted to the magnificant empires of Achaemenid (550–330 BCE) and Parthian dynasties (250 BC. to 226 AD), the Sassanian left a lasting political structure for the Islamic dynasties. The Abbasid Caliphs (750-1285 AD) modeled their administration on Sassanian Empire. Their political structures were based on those of Iranian ministers and bureaucrats. Since the Caliphate streched from the Mediterranean to Transoxiana, it was nessesary for the Caliphs to recognize local dynasties in Iran as legitimate governments.

The local dynasties in Iran including Taherid (821-873), Saffarid (861-1002), Samanids (819-999), Buyids (945-1055), and Ghaznavids (977–1186) gradually extended the scope of their power to Baghdad were considered as small competitors for the Abbasid Caliphs. Within 150 years of gaining control of Iran, the Caliphs were forced to cede power to local dynastic emirs who only nominally acknowledged their authority.  The local dynasties left their heritage of political structures and the methods of legitimizing their power to Saljuq dynasty. The Great Saljuqs, a Turkish-speaking tribe hailing from Central Asia, ruled the eastern half of the Islamic world for a great portion of that time.

The Saljuqs applied these valuable experiences to develop a great enduring empire. They adopted their own traditions and institutions to the objectives of the Islamic world and emerged as empire-builders with a constructive sense of statecraft. The Saljuq dynasty amended the previous Iranian political structures with respect to their own nomadic experience to establish a great empire. They created a new kind of legitimacy that developed through the interaction and division of labor among various formal institutions.

This paper aims to introduce the Saljuq political structure from the formation of the government until the end of Sultan Malikshah Era (1040-1092) and the methods established by them to legitimize their power that is unprecedented in Iranian Islamic history.

Research Question

What were the particular features of the political structure in the Saljuq dynasty that assisted them to establish a great legitimized empire?

Research Hypothesis

The Saljuq dynasty developed the interaction and the division of power among the Sultanate, Caliphate, Ministry, and Military institutions to create a new kind of legitimacy that ensured the continuation of Saljuq power over vast territories of the empire from the Mediterranean to Transoxiana.

Research Background

“The Politics of Knowledge in the pre-modern Islam Negotiating Ideology and Religious Inquiry” written by Dr. Omid Safi is one of the main works about the legitimacy of government in the Saljuq dynasty. Relying on the votes of Foucault and Althusser, Dr Safi examines the relationship between the knowledge institutions such as schools (madrasas) and monasteries (Khanaqahs) and the political structure in Saljuq dynasty in order to specify the role of the scholar institutions in legitimizing this dynasty. Other studies fundamentally examine the historiography or the general chronological order of events in the Saljuq dynasty.

The Theoretical Framework

This paper outlines Max Weber’s definition of the legitimacy of power. Later on, another kind of legitimacy will be introduced based on the interaction and division of power among the main Saljuq institutions that are Sultanate, Caliphate, ministry, and military services. If the legitimacy is interpreted descriptively, it refers to people's beliefs about political authority and sometimes political obligations. Max Weber puts forward a very influential account of legitimacy that excludes any recourse to normative criteria (Weber, 1964, p. 382).

 According to Weber, a political regime is legitimate, meaning that its participants have certain beliefs or faith in regard to it: “the basis of every system of authority and correspondingly of every kind of willingness to obey, is a belief, a belief by virtue of which persons exercising authority are lent prestige” (ibid). Weber identifies legitimacy as an important explanatory category for social science because faith in a particular social order produces social regularities that are more stable than those that result from the pursuit of self-interest or from habitual rule-following (Weber 1964, p. 124).

 As is well known, Weber defines three main sources of legitimacy—understood as both the acceptance of authority and of the need to obey its commands. People may have faith in a particular political or social order because it has been there for a long time (tradition), they have faith in the rules (charisma), or because they trust its legality—specifically the rationality of the rule of law (Weber 1964, p. 385). Traditional authority is legitimated by the sanctity of tradition. The ability and right to rule are passed down, often through heredity. It does not change over time, does not facilitate social change, tends to be irrational and inconsistent, and perpetuates the status.

In fact, Weber states: “The creation of a new law opposite traditional norms is deemed impossible in principle.” Traditional authority is typically embodied in feudalism or patrimonial. In a purely patriarchal structure, “the servants are completely and personally dependent upon the lord”, while in an estate system (i.e. feudalism), “the servants are not personal servants of the lord but independent men” (Weber 1958, p. 4). However, in both cases, the system of authority does not change or evolve.

Charismatic authority is found in a leader whose mission and vision inspire others. It is based upon the perceived extraordinary characteristics of an individual. Weber saw a charismatic leader as the head of a new social movement, and one instilled with divine or supernatural powers, such as a religious prophet. Weber seemed to favor charismatic authority and spent a good deal of time discussing it.

Legal-rational authority is empowered by a formalistic belief in the content of the law (legal) or natural law (rationality). Obedience is not given to a specific individual leader - whether traditional or charismatic - but a set of uniform principles. Weber thought the best example of legal-rational authority was bureaucracy. This form of authority is frequently found in the modern state, city governments, private and public corporations, and various voluntary associations. In fact, Weber stated that the “development of the modern state is identical indeed with that of modern officialdom and bureaucratic organizations just as the development of modern capitalism is identical with the increasing bureaucratization of the economic enterprise (Weber 1958, p. 3). Regarding the Saljuqs as a medieval Islamic Empire, this paper does not deal with the legal-rational authority found in the modern states.

In this paper, another type of legitimacy is introduced that seems to be more accommodating with historical events in the Saljuq dynasty. This theory may have some shortcomings due to the innovative nature of its theoretical foundations; however, it is considerable and significant regarding the historical events in this era.

The Saljuqs developed the interaction and division of labor among the main agents that are caliphate, Ministry, and Military Service to institutionalize their power. The Sultanate as the main agent in the Saljuq dynasty applied the traditional and charismatic legitimacy of the caliphate, ministry, and military service institutions to establish one of the greatest Medieval Empires.

However, the existence of the Saljuq dynasty is based on the Sultan power as the center of the political structure and his presence is inevitable. The Sultan power is always challenged by these institutions and they try to limit the arena of Sultan’s authority in order to broaden their own ones. The bilateral relation between Sultan and other institutions is a problem that should be studied carefully. In other words, the Sultan ensures the continuity of other political institutions, and the presence of the Sultan’s power is guaranteed by other institutions.

Mawardi as a great theorist in (10-11AD) has provided detailed interpretations of transferring power to other institutions and agents that are granting (Tafviz) and enforcement (Tanfiz). “Tafviz” means possessing partially authority in all matters except in some cases like the matter of Sultan replacement and the choice of Crown Prince whereas “Tanfiz” deals with the authority of doing orders which have already commanded by the Sultan. Therefore, the obedient has the authority to perform according to the orders (Mawardi 1996, pp. 25-22).

This paper is to study the function of Sultan in transferring power through “Tafviz” and “Tanfiz” in order to examine the legitimacy applied by the Saljuq dynasty unprecedented in Iranian Islamic history.

The Sultan and Caliphate Relationship

The great theologians al-Ghazali(d.1111) and Mawardi (d.1058) demonstrated that the Caliphate and Sultan were two distinguished institutions that had their own authorities. The Caliphate was responsible for the religious community and the Sultan managed the political affairs (Mawardi 1996; Ghazali 2010). The relations between the Caliph and Sultan were formalized by al-Ghazali (d. 1111) as follows: “Government in these days is a consequence solely of military power and whosoever he may be to whom the holder of military power gives his allegiance, that person is Caliph. And whosoever exercises independent authority, so long as he shows allegiance to the Caliph in the matter of his prerogatives of sovereignty, the same is a Sultan, whose commands and judgments are valid in the several parts of the earth” (Ghazali 2010, p. 134). The Saljuqs assumed the role of protectors of the Abbasid Caliphs of Baghdad against threats to their dominions. The Saljuqs had become Muslims before their invasion to Transoxania and Khorasan and were considered the "religious brothers" for Muslims.

Tugrul Beg ( 1037-1063) was crowned Sultan of Nishapur in 1038 and with the help of his brothers and cousins dealt a decisive defeat to the Ghaznavids and began to move westward into the disintegrating lands of the Buyid Empire. By 1043, Khorasan was firmly under Saljuq control and by 1054, they had extended their empire as far as Azerbaijan. He entered Baghdad in1055 to arrest the last Buyid emir al-Malik ar-Rahim (1048-55) (Beihaqi, 2011: 653; Zahir al-din Neishabouri, 2011:926; Bosworth, 1963:124). In 1055, the Caliph al-Qa'im (1031-75) granted Tugrul Beg the title “king of the East and West.” (Barthold, 1977, p. 68; Jozajani 2010, p. 510).

In 1058, with Tugrul busy elsewhere, the Buyid slave general Arslan al-Muzaffar al-Basasiri and the 'Uqaylid ruler Quraysh ibn Badran (1052-61) occupied Baghdad, recognizing al-Mustansir, the Shi'ite Fatimid Caliph of Egypt and Syria, and sending him the insignia of rule as trophies. Al-Basasiri expelled al- Qaim and extended his control over Wasit and Basra (Ibn Athir 1876, V. 10, p. 214; Ibn Taqtaqa 1988, p. 309).

Both the Fatimids and the Mazyadids withdrew their support, however, and al-Basasiri was killed by Saljuq forces in 1060. Tugrul reinstated al-Qa'im as Caliph, who then gave him additional honor, including the title Sultan, found on coins minted in the names of both the Caliph and the Sultan (Barthold 1977: 68; Zahir-al din Neishabouri 2011, p. 43).

The Saljuqs now tried to rid Iraq of all Shiite influences. Exchanging the Shiite Buyid emirs for Sunnite Saljuq Sultans, while perhaps ideologically appropriate, made little practical difference for the 'Abbasid Caliphs, who remained captives in the hands of military strongmen (Ibn Hoqal 1972, p. 510).

The relations of the Saljuq and Caliph strengthened with the marriage of Caliph with David ibn Michael’s daughter and Tugrul Beg with al-Qaim's daughter. This situation was repeated for Alb-Arsalan and Sultan Malkishah (Bondari Isfahani, 1992, p. 22; Zahir-al din Neishabouri, 2011, p. 21; Shabankarei 2002, p. 100). These marital relations strengthened the Sultanate and Caliphate bilateral relations                         (Ibn Jouzi 2001, p. 91).

To the powerless Caliphate, the Saljuqs was protectors of Muslim unity in the face of the Shiite propaganda, capable of restoring Sunnite control over their fragmented realm. In the view of the Saljuqs, the Caliphate was conferring legitimacy on their insecure position as an invading power, alien to the cultural landscape they had entered. Barring a brief Fatimid take over in Baghdad in 1060, the Saljuqs were now the rulers of all of Persia and Mesopotamia (Zahir al-din Neishabouri 2010, pp.18-19, Zabihollah Safa 2000, V. II, p. 176).

 Caliphate had traditional and charismatic legitimacy as the leader of the religious community which could be used by the Saljuq Sultan to legitimize his power. Even though the Caliphs remained more as the spiritual leader with the power to regulate matters of personal behavior and individual relationship, the Saljuqs developed the interaction and the division of religious affairs with them to achieve political authority. Moreover, the government of Saljuqs as the Sunni Muslims was more legitimized for the Abbasid Caliphate as well as the Islamic society occupied by the majority of Sunni Muslims.

The Sultan and Minister Relationship

Having extended their territory, the Saljuqs were confronted with the problem of consolidating their rule and restoring order and prosperity in the Middle East while providing their nomadic vassals with the lands they demanded. The Sultans were the rulers and protectors of the civilization they had conquered as well as the leaders of nomadic Turkmen who have assisted them to dominate vast territories. This led to many conflicts between the Saljuq rulers and their nomadic commanders and followers, who were dissatisfied with the restrictions imposed on them to save the settled populations of the area.

The Saljuqs explored the procedures to strengthen their empire foundations. To do so, they appointed the Iranian ministers and officials to construct the political structure of their government. The ministers who headed the bureaucracy systems were considered as the official and personal representatives of Sultan (Lambton 1985, p. 37).

The Saljuq Sultans tried to use the Iranian ancestry names to legitimize their power and reach out to the Muslim’s hearts. They used the ancient Iranian myths about Touran (Turkish People) common in Sassanid and Islamic era to call themselves the successors of  the Touran kingdom particularly Afrasiab ( Joveini 2006, V. II, p. 88-87; Sadr al-din Hosseini 2003, p.74).

The vast territories made the Turkmen nomads justify themselves with the institutionalized political structure to manage the empire. They employed experienced ministers who had enough experience in the bureaucratic systems. Therefore, the Saljuqs were the heirs of the bureaucratic systems of the Iranian dynasties which have adjusted with the organizational pattern of the Abbasid Caliphate through the historical conditions.

As temporal rulers of the Islamic state, the Saljuqs took over, restored, and elaborated the traditional Iranian-Islamic administrative apparatus developed in late Abbasid times, relying largely on Persian ministers who emphasized their own culture, reviving the Persian language and largely eliminating Arabic in government and culture alike, using Persians in most of the administrative positions of the empire, even those in areas inhabited mainly by Arabs.

The bureaucratic systems applied by the Saljuqs to change them to the champions of Sunni in the Islamic world and leaders of the movement eradicated the political, military and religious influence of Shiism. Shias were routed out of administrative positions and replaced by Sunni officials. To provide the latter insufficient quality and numbers, the Muslim educational system was reorganized and centered in the mosque schools and higher madrasa, which strengthened the Orthodox religious institution (Ravandi 2005, pp. 87-83).

The Fatimids remained in Egypt and southern Syria and extended their disruptive Shia missionary activities throughout the Sultan's dominions. The Saljuqs was also undermined by the activities of a new Shia movement that arose within their own boundaries, that of the Ismaili Assasins founded by Hasan Sabbah from his fortified center at Alamut, south of the Caspian Sea. He began a successful campaign of assassination and terror against political and religious leaders of the Saljuq state (Lewis 1985; Daftari 1995).

These and other politico-religious doctrines promoted the spread of a system of educational institutions (madrasahs), which was associated with the powerful Saljuq minister Nizam al-Mulk (d. 1092), an Iranian from Khorasan. The institutions were called Nizamiyehs in his honor. The Saljuqs revived and reinvigorated the classical Islamic educational system, developing madrasah to train bureaucrats and religious officials (Nizam al- Mulk 2010, p: 198; Ibn al-Athir, V. 10, 1876, P.96; Ibn Balkhi 2003, p 166). Nizam al-Mulk argued for the creation of a strong central political authority, focused on the Sultan, and modeled on the policies of the pre-Islamic Sassanid dynasty and early Islamic local rulers (Nizam al- Mulk, 2010, p. 198).

The old nomadic idea that the rule had to be shared among all members of the ruling dynasty prevented the bureaucratic agents particularly Nizam al-Mulk from consolidating the Saljuq Empire as he had hoped to do so. The Sultan had to give large provinces to members of his family, and they began to create their own armies and treasuries (Aghili Qazvini 1994, p. 214).

Under the successors of Tugrul, especially Alp-Arslan and Malikshah, the so-called Great Saljuq Empire attained a certain degree of centralization. However, a large number of feudal estates were managed where they built autonomous power and thus prepared for the day when a weakening of the central authority would enable them to establish independent states. Some of these established their own small states and left them to heirs, thus founded their own dynasties after Malikshah.

Therefore, the Saljuq Sultanate established a dominant political structure through the employment of Iranian ministers and official institutions. The Iranian bureaucratic system legitimized the sword power of nomadic Turkmen. The official agents like Amid-al Mulk Kondori (d.1064) and Nizam-al Mulk who possessed traditional and charismatic legitimacy shared their experiences and founding with the Saljuqs to develop another legitimacy which was the result of interaction and division of power among official agents and institutions.


The Saljuq established a great political structure that dominated the vast territories from Transoxiana to the Mediterranean. Their government was legitimized through the complex interaction among the main institutions of the Sultanate, the Caliphate, Ministry, and Military services.

The Sultans applied two fundamental procedures to promote the interaction among the governmental institutions: Tanfiz to transfer their authority to other institutions and Tafviz to domain on vital affairs like the choice of Crown Prince or the management of other institutions. The traditional and charismatic legitimacy of the Caliphate and Ministry helped the Saljuq Sultans to legitimize the sword power of the military service.

Caliphate had traditional and charismatic legitimacy as the leader of the religious community which could be used by the Saljuq Sultan to legitimize his power. The Saljuqs protected the powerless Caliphate to restore the Sunnite control over their fragmented realm and legitimize their own authority in the face of people. The Caliphs were at first the spiritual leaders with the religious power to regulate matters of personal behavior and individual relationship, but they hoped to pave the way to return to the Golden Age of political power.

The combination of the nomadic procedures as well as the Iranian Bureaucracy system assisted the Saljuq Sultans to give large provinces to the princes and great members of military services to guarantee the management of the vast territories of the Empire. Even though some of these agents led their own small states and left them to heirs to found their own dynasties, they were always known with the Saljuq Empire. The Saljuqs extended their Sunni doctrines through the spread of a system of educational institutions associated with the powerful Saljuq minister Nizam al-Mulk. The Saljuqs revived the classical Islamic educational system, developing madrasa to train bureaucrats and religious officials.

Maryam Kamali


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