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SELJUK DYNASTY. A Turkish family of Central Asian origin which ruled much of the eastern Islamic world beginning in the mid-eleventh century, the Seljuks (or Saljuqs, 1038-1194) were converted to Islam in the late tenth century, probably by traveling Sufi missionaries, while still living by the Jaxartes River, on the borders of the ddr al-Islam (Muslim lands). They and their followers were hired as mercenaries by the Samanid and Kara-Khanid rulers of Transoxiana, and then moved into the eastern Iranian province of Khurasan in 1035, under the leadership of two brothers, Toghril Beg and Chaghri Beg. They defeated the dominant power in the region, the Ghaznavid sultan Mas’ud, at Dandanqan in 1040. Chaghri was left to hold the east while Toghril marched westward, entering Baghdad in 1055 and bringing to an end the rule of the Shi’i Buyids.

By the time of Toghril’s death (1063), the Seljuk empire included modern Iran and Iraq, as well as parts of Central Asia. There was later expansion into Syria, and a cadet branch of the family established the Seljuk sultanate of Rfim in Anatolia in the aftermath of the Byzantine defeat at the hands of Toghril’s successor, Alp Arslan, at Manzikert in 1071: such was the origin of what ultimately became Turkey. The stability of the empire did not last much longer than the reign of Alp Arslan’s son, Malikshah (r. 1072-1092). Between 1118 and 115’7, the overall supremacy of the sultan Sanjar, ruler of the empire’s eastern half, was recognized at least in theory; but after Sanjar’s death, Seljuk rule in Khurasan ended. In Iraq, there were nine Seljuk sultans between 1118 and 1194. The last, Toghril III, was killed in battle with the Khwarazm-shah, the effective successor to the Seljuks in the east. The Seljuks of Rum retained their independence until their defeat by the Mongols at Kose-Dagh in 1243.

The lasting significance of the Seljuk period was considerable. Their arrival marked, if it did not necessarily cause, a revival in the fortunes of Sunni Islam after a period in which Shiism, under the sympathetic rule of the Fatimids in Egypt and the Buyids in Iraq and Iran, had seemed triumphant. The `Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad was freed from subservience to the Buyids, and its standing was enhanced, even if relations between the caliphs and the Seljuks were often strained. The title of sultan was conferred on Toghril Beg by the caliph alQa’im, thus recognizing, in practice if not in theory, that some kind of distinction between religious and secular power existed. Some of the most notable Sunni intellectuals, above all Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. l i 11), flourished under the Seljuks. Such developments as the encouragement of the foundation of madrasahs (religious colleges) by Nizam al-hulk, vizier (Ar., wazir) to Alp Arslan and Malikshah, and others supported the revival of Sunnism. A threat to Sunnism, however, grew with the establishment in the Alburz Mountains of northern Iran and elsewhere of the strongholds of the Nizari Isma’iliyah, otherwise known as the Assassins, who remained a thorn in the side of Sunni Islam until their near-extirpation by the Mongols in 1256. [See Isma’illyah.]

Individual Turks had been well known in the Islamic world before the Seljuks, especially in their role as mamluks (military slaves). But the Seljuks were the first major incursion of Turks as a large, coherent grouping still organized tribally. As such, their arrival marked both the beginning of many centuries of Turkish political and military dominance throughout most of the Middle East and the introduction of a major new ethnic element into the region. It may also have resulted in an increase in the pastoral nomadic sector of the population, especially in Iran. The Seljuks’ administrative legacy was also lasting. The governmental system associated especially with Nizam al-hulk, which drew on the practice of earlier regimes, nevertheless established a pattern which prevailed in Iran until the nineteenth century.


Boyle, J. A., ed. The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 5, The Saljuq and Mongol Periods. Cambridge, 1968. Standard work on the period, with valuable chapters especially by C. E. Bosworth on political history and Ann K. S. Lambton on administration.

Cahen, Claude. “The Turkish Invasions: The Selchfikids.” In A History of the Crusades, edited by Kenneth M. Setton, vol. 1, pp. 135176. Madison, Wis., 1969. The best introduction to the Seljuk period.

Humphreys, R. Stephen. Islamic History: A Framework for Enquiry. Princeton and London, 1991. Chapter 6, “Ideology and Propaganda: Religion and State in the Early Seljukid Period” (pp. 148168), is a very useful discussion which provides extensive bibliographical information.

Lambton, Ann K. S. Continuity and Change in Medieval Persia: Aspects of Administrative, Economic, and Social History, 11th-14th Century. Albany, N.Y., and London, 1988. Profound analysis with much of importance on the Seljuks.

Morgan, David O. Medieval Persia, 1040-1797. London, 1988. Chapters 3-5 (pp. 25-5o) are a short survey of the period and its significance.

  1. O. MORGAN

Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/seljuk-dynasty/

  • writerPosted On: July 24, 2017
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