Iran under the Buyids

  December 23, 2023   Read time 7 min
Iran under the Buyids
During the first decades of the 4th century Iran was divided into three important spheres of power. The east(Transoxiana and Khurasan) was subject to the Samanids, who also exerted a varying degree of authority over the provinces of Sistan and Kirman beyond the desert area of Dasht-i-Kavir and Dasht-i-Lut.

The Iranian highlands by the Caspian Sea were controlled by the Zaidite rulers of Tabaristan and by various local potentates. In the south they were ruled by 'Abbasid governors directly dependent on Baghdad, whose constant ambition however was to establish themselves as independent dynastic rulers. The Sajids of Qazvin had already succeeded in doing this by the end of the 3rd/9th century in Azarbaijan in the northwest. The Zaidite rulers of Tabaristan and the other smaller princes joined the Sajids, though often involuntarily, to form a barrier effective enough to halt the westward progress of the Samanids. Iran's fate for the next hundred years was to be decided in the region on the south shore of the Caspian Sea, an area barely two hundred miles long and sixty miles wide. Within a few years an entirely new power was to emerge in this vacuum, the Buyids, who were able to wrest central and southern Iran from the 'Abbasids while the attention of the latter was being diverted by conflicts in Mesopotamia.

Thus for the first time in Islamic history this area was released from the centralized control of Baghdad and united under the rule of an Iranian dynasty. In other words, the formation of native states, which had already been in progress for some time in eastern Iran, now began to take place in western Iran. The Buyids achieved even more than this; from the Iranian plateau they descended on Iraq and brought the caliphate itself under their domination. The Buyid period therefore also marks the opening of a new era in the history of the 'Abbasid caliphate. The weakening of the central power of the caliphate, it is true, had already begun after the turn of the century; nevertheless it was the Buyids who were to stabilize the situation in Baghdad after a period of considerable confusion. The occupation of Baghdad by the Shi'i Buyids might well have dealt a mortal blow to the caliphate if they had not decided, for reasons of political expediency, to countenance its continued existence, thereby assuring themselves of the possibility of using it as a political tool both at home and abroad. This gave their rule a more legitimate appearance in the eyes of the majority of their subjects, who were Sunni, and also increased the respect in which the Buyids were held by foreign powers. Their most dangerous opponents remained the Samanids in the east, who in contrast were pursuing a deliberately orthodox Sunni policy which gave them an excellent pretext for continuing their expansion westwards. The struggles which took place along the frontier between them were to affect Buyid policy for decades to come. It was from this direction too, that in the nt h century the Ghaznavids and then the Saljuqs delivered the counter-blows which first reduced and then annihilated the Buyid state.

The form of government established by the Buyids may be described with reservations as a military dictatorship. The Buyids were Dailamites and were largely dependent on soldiers drawn from their own people. The Dailamites, whose home was in the mountainous area north of Qazvin, had a long tradition of military prowess dating back to pre-Christian times and including campaigns against Georgia as allies of the Sasanians. Like the Turks, they already had been playing an important role as mercenaries in the period which preceded the emergence of the Buyids, and they had been active in Iran, Mesopotamia and even further westward. This was a factor of some importance in the rapid success of the Buyids, for it was easy to persuade the Dailamites to follow the victorious leadership of one of their own number. Their fighting methods, their strategy and their accoutrement were much the same as they had always been. Being a peasant race possessing cattle but not horses, they were infantry men. Each man was equipped with a shield, a sword and three spears, and, as Islamic sources tell us, they were able to form an impenetrable wall with their large shields when advancing in close formation. They specialized in hurling lances to which were attached burning rags soaked in crude oil. Islamic sources emphasize their hardiness, and their bravery was proverbial. On many occasions the Buyids were able to win victories although their forces were far outnumbered by their opponents.

Because the Dailamites could only be employed as infantry, the Buyids were also obliged to make use of the Turks, whose mounted archers provided a tactically essential complement. In addition they also enrolled Kurdish mercen aries in Iran and Arabs in Mesopotamia. The combination of Dailamites and Turks as the backbone of the Buyid army soon led to serious problems. The question of the direct payment of the army out of the state treasury was at least partly solved by the introduction of a form of feudalism. Since the Buyids depended for their initial successes largely on the assistance of their own people the Dailamites, there soon grew up a sort of military aristocracy largely hereditary in character. As a result there was constant friction between them and the Turks, which in turn affected the outcome of many internal Buyid squabbles. Later the Buyids of Iran tended to rely on Dailamites while those in Iraq depended on Turkish support. In addition to this, the feudal system had grave disadvantages, and the supremacy of the military was detrimental to the civilian population. Dailamite oppression became proverbial, as a reliable witness reports.

The roots of this military dictatorship lie partly in the conditions under which the Buyids set up their rule and partly in the situation prevalent in many parts of Iran before they appeared on the scene. The central government was so ineffectual that the mercenaries in Shiraz and Isfahan were left to themselves; consequently they could only be paid and maintained by a leader who possessed a combination of initiative, outstanding military proficiency, conviction and organizing ability. The lack of administrative experience could easily be supplemented by the co-operation of professional civil servants. As we shall see, 'Imad al-Daula, the founder of the Buyid empire, possessed all these essential qualities. In Iran he found the mood of the mercenaries ideally favourable for a take-over of power. The words attributed to the Isfahan mercenaries after the death of Mardavlj are particularly revealing in this respect: "If we remain without a leader, we are lost."2 In this mood both Turks and Dailamites embraced the Buyid's leadership ; the fact that he outstripped numerous rivals is indicative of his qualities.

It lies in the nature of a military dictatorship based on a military aristocracy that attempts to ensure a strictly hereditary line of succession are fraught with difficulty. The Buyid empire was no exception, and it only succeeded in establishing a regular pattern of succession when it was already too late. The army was repeatedly to decide the matter either by an official election or simply by force of arms. Women had always held an important place in Dailamite society and they were to wield great political influence and were even to achieve personal rule. An example is Sayyida at the end of the 4th/ioth century in Ray. The unique structure of the Buyid empire gave rise to a further problem. It was from the start divided into three spheres of influence, Shiraz, Ray and Baghdad. In consequence, questions of the unity of the empire and its government occupy a position of the greatest importance in the history of this period. From this point of view Buyid history may be divided into three sections: first, its foundation and rise; secondly, its apogee and the establishment of unity under Rukn al-Daula and cAdud al-Daula; and thirdly, the struggle for the succession of*Adud al-Daula which led in due course to the decline and final collapse of the empire.

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