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Seljuk Dynasty

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Seljuk Dynasty

    A Turkic dynasty of Central Asian origin, the Seljuks ruled much of the eastern Islamic world from 1038 to 1194 . The Seljuks converted to Islam in the late 900s, probably inspired by Sufi missionaries. Led by two brothers, Toghril Beg and Chaghri Beg , they invaded Iran and defeated the Ghaznavid sultan Mas'ud in 1040 . Chaghri remained there to guard the east while Toghril marched westward, entering Baghdad in 1055 and ending the rule of the Shi'i Buyids.

    By the time of Toghril's death in 1063 , the Seljuks controlled all of the area that is now Iran and Iraq, as well as parts of Central Asia. They later expanded into Syria, and one branch of the family established a sultanate in Turkey. Seljuk rule began to weaken after 1092 , when divisions developed between the eastern and western parts of the empire. The sultan of the eastern realm, Sanjar , claimed authority over the entire empire but in practice had little control. Seljuk rule in Iran ended after Sanjar's death. Nine Seljuk sultans ruled Iraq between 1118 and 1194 . The last, Toghril III , died in battle against the shah, who took over the eastern Seljuk empire. In Turkey, the Seljuk sultanate continued until its defeat by the Mongols in 1243 .

    The Seljuks had a loose, decentralized reign in which the government had little control over individual towns and villages. Local amirs and members of the ulama governed small areas and taxed the inhabitants. Sultans expanded the empire with slave armies. They encountered resistance, however, from certain Shi'i sects, especially the Nizari. The Nizari established a network of guerrilla groups designed to overthrow the Seljuks and to destroy Sunni Islam. The Seljuks circulated stories about the Nizari in order to crush their credibility, including one stating that they used hashish, a mind-altering drug, in order to give them the courage to fight their enemies. The word they used to describe the Nizari, hashishin, eventually led to the creation of the English term assassin. The Seljuks massacred many Nizari, but the Nizari established a small state in Alamut, in Iran, that lasted for 150 years.

    Despite the attacks of the Shi'i minority, Seljuk rule marked the revival of Sunni Islam after a period in which Shi'i Islam had dominated. It freed the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad from subservience to the Iranian Buyids and restored much of the caliphate's stature. Some of the most notable Sunni intellectuals, particularly the theologian and legal scholar Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (died 1111 ), flourished under the Seljuks. The vizier Nizam al-Mulk (died 1092 ) made the most notable contributions to Middle Eastern culture, establishing the first network of madrasahs in the Islamic world. This system ultimately brought about a heightened sense of Islamic unity as students traveled all over the Middle East to study with different teachers. The ulama gained more influence and prestige, and theology, philosophy, and the sciences flourished.

    The Seljuk conquest served as the first major invasion by the Turks into the Islamic world. It marked the beginning of many centuries of Turkish political and military dominance in the Middle East, culminating in the reign of the Ottomans. Sufism also developed under Seljuk reign. The Seljuks created a lasting administrative legacy, including the establishment of governmental systems that continued into the 1800s. See also Ghazali, Abu Hamid al-; Iran; Iraq; Turkey.

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