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The Assassination of Ahmad Ibn Ismail: Power Struggles in the Samanid Empire

By Adam Ali

The emir Ahmad ibn Ismail was assassinated in the year 914. This is the story of why he was killed and the power struggle that took place in the aftermath of his death.

Ahmad ibn Ismail (907–914) was a member of the Samanid dynasty, which ruled over a vast empire that dominated the eastern part of Abbasid Caliphate from the late ninth century through the tenth century. The official history give two reasons for his murder. The first was that he showed excessive favor towards the scholarly and religious class in his capital city of Bukhara (which is now found in Uzbekistan). Ahmad’s slaves’ were unhappy with being neglected and with the patronage and wealth that their master showered on the scholars of the city. The second reason given in official histories is that Ahmad ibn Ismail had executed a number of his slaves for misconduct and their comrades were eager to avenge their deaths. 

However, there is another account given by a medieval author, Ibn Zafir, which sheds much more light on the events that transpired that led to the emir’s murder and to the fallout in the aftermath of regicide. Ibn Zafir’s account brings to light the bitter rivalry between two groups: the Turkish slaves who formed the elite emir’s elite guard and the Bukharans (primarily the free gentry/nobility and freeborn members of the army). Ibn Zafir’s manuscript, describing these events, has been translated by Luke Treadwell, and it is through this account that I will outline the series of events that would lead to the emir’s assassination.

Iran and Central Asia circa 1000 AD – Inspired by Historical Atlas of Georges Duby (p.208, map A), this map was made by Fabienkhan the 26th of august 2006 with Inkscape and GIMP. Credits: Arad for the translation

Who were the Samanids

Before jumping into the story, I would like contextualize the events that will be told by presenting a brief outline of the Samanid dynasty, their origins, rise to power, and their importance in Islamic history. I will also briefly discuss “slavery” and its various forms in the pre-modern Muslim world, which differs greatly to the standard understanding of what slavery is/was in western history.

The Samanids first appear on the scene during al-Mamun’s governorship of Khurasan.  Al-Mamun was the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid’s (r. 786-809) son. His father had appointed him as the governor of an autonomous Khurasan and as the second in line of succession to the caliphate after his older brother al-Amin. Al-Rashid’s arrangement for his succession was one of the major causes for the devastating Abbasid Civil War between the brothers during the years 811-813 (lasing until 819 in Iraq until the victorious al-Mamun marched back to Baghdad from Khurasan). The Samanids supported al-Mamun prior to the civil war against the rebel, Rafi ibn Layth and also during the civil war against his brother.

The members of the Samanid family were local East Iranian nobles who claimed descent from the Sassanian noble family of the Bahram Chubin of the royal Mihran clan. We’re not sure if this claim is true, but it is certain that the Samanids were descended from old Iranian aristocratic and/or priestly lines, not unlike the famous Barmakid viziers of the Abbasids. The sources state that Saman khuda accepted Islam from the Arab governor of Khurasan, Asad ibn Abdballah al-Qasri (723-727). Saman named his son Asad after the governor. It was the four sons of Asad: Nuh, Ahmad, Yahya, and Ilyas, who were rewarded by al-Mamun in Khurasan for their support to the caliph with a number of governorships. Nuh received Samarqand, Ahmad received Farghana, Yahya received Shash, and Ilyas received Herat. With these governorships, the Samanids were able to establish themselves as the main power in Transoxania (referred to in Arabic as ma wara al-nahr meaning the land beyond the [Oxus] River). Their patrons were the Tahirid governors (descendants of Tahir ibn Husayn, al-Mamun’s victorious commander during the Abbasid Civil War) and the Samanids were initially dependent on their support. The Saffarids took Khurasan from the Tahirids in 870 but within a few decades were defeated by the Samanids at the Battle of Balkh in 901.

By this point all of the Samanid domains were ruled by Abu Ibrahim Ismail ibn Ahmad, the great grandson of Asad Ibn Saman. He had risen as the sole ruler of the Samanid principality after a series of family struggles. After he defeated and captured the Saffarid ruler he started to reintegrate Khurasan into the caliphate. In essence it was Ismail ibn Ahmad who was the true founder of the Samanid dynasty and its empire.

Ahmad ibn Ismail, the Samanid prince whose assassination this column discusses, was the son of Ismail, and technically the second ruler of the unified Samanid domains. The Samanids were the most loyal and respectful to the Abbasid caliphs among the autonomous dynasties that emerged in the wake of the Abbasid Civil War. They identified strongly with Persian culture and were also ardent Sunni Muslims. Their rise to power saw the reshaping of the provincial administration and power structures that saw much of the eastern and central parts of the caliphate fall under Iranian rule during the late ninth and tenth centuries at the expense of the Abbasid family and their earlier supporters. This era is often referred to by historians as the Iranian interlude, which was the period in Islamic history following Arab rule which was ushered in by the Islamic conquests and the coming of the Seljuk Turks in 1055, which was followed by almost a millennium of military and political domination in much of the Muslim world by Turkic dynasties.

Slavery in the Islamic world

Slavery was practiced in various forms by different cultures throughout history. The image most of us have of slavery correlates to its practice in the western world for example the chattel slavery practiced in the New World or the slaves working in the mines and estates of the Roman Empire or in the households of the elites. In the Muslim world, the primary form of slavery was household slavery. There was experimentation with plantation slavery in Southern Iraq during the 8th and 9th centuries (similar to that in the Americas centuries later), but it failed and no other such attempts were made.

A unique form of slavery in the Muslim world was military slavery. Military slaves were usually acquired from beyond the boundaries of the caliphate and they were incorporated into the households of the rulers and elites. They were educated and trained by their masters (or at their expense) and came to form the elite units in the militaries of the Muslim dynasties and some of the most powerful administrators and governors throughout the Islamic world.

The terms ghulam and mamluk were used to designate these elite military slaves who were most often fair skinned (primarily Asiatic Turks, but also included Iranians, Mongols, Caucasians, Greeks, Armenians, Georgians, and Franks) and almost always mounted serving as heavy shock cavalry and heavy mounted archers. These slave soldiers were often manumitted at the completion of their training. However, due to the bonds of brotherhood the slaves formed among themselves and the bonds of loyalty they had to their master (whom they often viewed as a father figure) they stayed in their master’s service even if they were granted their freedom. Additionally, all mamluks and ghulams, whether they were manumitted or not, were very well paid. They also had the opportunity to climb the social ladder based on the merit of their service.

Thus, the most capable of these slaves were promoted to positions of power and filled roles such as generals in the army, provincial governors, viziers, and personal advisers to the ruler. For example, Alp Tegin, who was a slave of the Samanids (during the mid-10th century), was the commander of the army of Khurasan (numbering between 30,000-100,000 men according to the sources). He also possessed 500 villages, 1,000,000 sheep, 100,000 horses, camels and mules, palaces, workshops, bathhouses and gardens in every major urban center of the Samanid empire, and a contingent of 2,000 of his own mamluks. This made this slave wealthier and more powerful than most of the freeborn nobles of the Samanid domains.

Mahmud of ghazni attacks Zarang – Alp Tegin, the founder of the Ghaznavid dynasty, started his career as a slave of the Samanids

It is important to note here that not all slaves had such opportunities, it was the group often referred to by historians as “elite slaves” that enjoyed such prestige and these were limited to the military slaves serving the rulers and nobility and the concubines (jariya pl. jawari) of the harems several of whom were also very well educated, independent, wealthy, and powerful. Often this “elite slavery” is conflated with the conventional slavery with which we are all familiar and conveys a negative image because we employ the term “slave” in its designation, which in the English language has a very negative connotation. We do not have terms such as mamluk, ghulam, or jariya that designate the elite slaves that dominated many Muslim societies and who were in fact very powerful and wealthy and nothing like the slaves in the western world.

The Samanids were on the eastern frontier of the Muslim world and were involved in constant warfare against the nomads of the Eurasian Steppe. In these wars they either captured or purchased large numbers of Turkic slaves who filled the ranks of their armies and those of the caliphs and other dynasties further west.

The Assassination

Ibn Zafir’s account of Ahmad ibn Ismail’s assassination begins with the arrival of Ibn Qarin at the Samanid court. Ibn Qarin, identified by Wilfred Madelung as Shahriyar ibn Baduspan, was a scion of the Qarinvandid dynasty that ruled parts of Northern Iran between the sixth and eleventh centuries. Ibn Qarin was seeking the Samanid ruler’s protection and military aid against rivals in his homeland. He remained at the Samanid court for several days without being granted an audience with the emir.

Ibn Qarin complained to one of Ahmad ibn Ismail’s generals, who was a fellow north Iranian form Daylam. After inquiring about this matter from Abu al-Hasan, the court secretary, the Daylami general informed Ibn Qarin that a bribe of 6,000 dinars was necessary to get an audience with the ruler. Ibn Qarin borrowed the money from the local merchants and passed them on to Abu al-Hasan. Within three days Ibn Qarin was granted the audience he sought. Ahmad ibn Ismail became fond of his visitor and treated him with honor showering him with favors and gifts. Upon his departure, Ahmad Ibn Ismail gave Ibn Qarin robes of honor, horses, funds, and a military escort. He also provided him with letters for the governors of the Samanid domains with instructions to provide lodgings and support for Ibn Qarin along his journey.

During his stay at the city of Merv Ibn Qarin revealed to its governor, Muhammad ibn Ali al-Suluk, that he had purchased his audience with the Samanid ruler for 6,000 dinars. The governor inquired to whom the sum was paid and then had a message sent by the chief intelligence officer of the city to the capital. Upon hearing this news the Samanid emir commanded that Ibn Qarin should be brought back to him. When Ibn Qarin returned he was brought to Ahmad ibn Ismail’s camp. The emir had left Bukhara on a hunting expedition. It should be noted that royal hunting expeditions were grand undertakings that sometimes involved thousands of men and often a large proportion of the court accompanied the ruler on these excursions. Ahmad ibn Ismail questioned Ibn Qarin to ascertain what had happened. After he found out the truth he dismissed him after presenting him with more gifts. He then summoned Abu al-Hasan and reprimanded him for taking advantage of the prince who had come to Bukhara bearing gifts and seeking aid far from his home territories. He then promised to deal with his corrupt courtier upon their return to Bukhara.

Abu al-Hasan, fearful for his position at court and his life, plotted to kill the Samanid emir before he could return to Bukhara. He was joined in this conspiracy by a group of ghulams. He promised to increase their stipends and to grant their officers governorships. They all agreed to place Ahmad ibn Ismail’s uncle on the throne after they had killed the emir. That night, the Keeper of the Privy Purse and the Master of the Wardrobe (both high ranking slaves and members of the royal household) entered the emir’s tent and cut his throat. Ibn Zafir notes that usually there were two tame lions that slept at the entrance of Ahmad ibn Ismail’s tent, but that night they were not present. The author only specifies that the emir neglected to place the lions at his tent that evening and paid for his negligence with his life.


Coin of Ahmad Ibn Ismail –
Image: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com

The plot to seize Bukhara

After killing the Samanid emir, the assassins had to move quickly. Abu al-Hasan seized the royal treasury and made good on his promise paying the ghulams handsomely for their support. Ibn Zafir specifies that it was mostly the “elder” ghulams who were involved in the conspiracy and who gained the most from the emir’s death. I will come back to this detail and discuss its importance at the end of this article.

After paying the ghulams, Abu al-Hasan commanded them to ride back to Bukhara with haste and to seize the citadel, the governor’s palace, and the treasuries before word spread of what had transpired. He wanted to prevent Muhammad ibn Ahmad, the emir’s deputy in Bukhara, from organizing any resistance to the coup.

All seemed to be going according to plan with the exception that the younger ghulams, who were not involved in the conspiracy, sent a message to the dead emir’s mother in Bukhara informing her of the treachery of the elder ghulams and the secretary. The queen mother immediately informed Muhammad ibn Ahmad and the loyal Rumi (i.e. Greek) eunuch, Sakin. Muhammad ibn Ahmad immediately secured the gates of Bukhara, he then mobilized the local militia (mutatawwia) and the civilian levies (ayyarun). He sent 1,000 of them to guard the governor’s palace and the treasuries and marched out of the city with the remainder and commanded them to form battle lines outside the city walls and await the arrival of the rebel ghulams.

As he approached Bukhara, Abu al-Hasan sent forward a troop of 500 mamluks to ascertain what was going on. Simjur, the commander of this advance unit, realized that he had walked into a trap and made a deal with Muhammad ibn Ahmad. Simjur offered to join the Bukharan army along with his troops on the condition that the security of his family and property were guaranteed. A deal was struck and Simjar and his mamluks dismounted and handed their weapons over to the militiamen of Bukhara.

The conspirators were ignorant of the preparations that were being made by the emir’s mother and his deputy. They arrived at the city in groups numbering between a few hundred and a thousand men. The militia and the civilian levies did not have trouble unhorsing, disarming, and capturing their surprised, disorganized, and outnumbered adversaries. In a short time they had captured 4,000 ghulams whom they had imprisoned in a large timber yard. Archers and naptha throwers were stationed on the walls surrounding the yard and had orders to shoot any of the prisoners who so much as moved or spoke.

The Ark fortress in Bukhara, Uzbekistan – it was first built in the 5th century – photo by Stomac / Wikimedia Commons

Abu al-Hasan arrived last with a company of 2,000 ghulams along with the royal baggage train. He had donned the emir’s clothes and his tall sable cap, hoping to gain entrance to this city disguised as the dead ruler and to take control of the capital before anyone could find out what really happened. Muhammad ibn Ahmad had deployed a detachment of 4,000 cavalrymen and 2,000 infantry men between the two rivers beyond the city gate. This force had orders to cut off the ghulams’ escape routes and to capture all of them.

When Abu al-Hasan entered Bukhara he was immediately set upon by Muhammad ibn Ahmad’s men, shackled, and dragged away. His surprised followers attempted to flee, but they were attacked from all sides, and captured. Muhammad ibn Ahmad also sent troops to round up the families of the ghulams and to stand guard at their homes.

In the meantime, the dead emir was buried and all the troops, both freeborn and ghulams prayed at his funeral. Muhammad ibn Ahmad did not waste any time and immediately addressed the issue of succession shortly after the funeral. He declared that Ahmad ibn Ismail’s second, son Nasr ibn Ahmad, should be raised to the throne. Nasr, who was twelve years old at the time, was chosen over his older brother, Abu al-Fadl, because the latter was sickly.

The Turkish ghulams were reluctant to swear allegiance to the boy and preferred the uncle of the murdered emir, Ishaq ibn Ahmad, who at this time was the governor of Samarqand and the leader of a large army. The ghulams started an uproar when their leaders refused to swear allegiance and it looked as though a battle between the Bukharans and the Turks would break out. It was at this point that Muhammad ibn Ahmad commanded his men to bring forward a group of the Turks’ families and made them stand on the walls of the citadel so all could see. A herald then announced that any ghulam who departed without swearing allegiance would be killed and his property would go to the man who killed him. The Turkish ghulams realized the gravity of the situation and grudgingly swore allegiance to the young emir. Muhammad ibn Ahmad took the precautionary step of not returning their horses and weapons for several days until they had sworn a second oath of allegiance.

With the conflict at an end, Abu al-Hasan’s fate was sealed. He was gibbetted on the walls of Bukhara for two hours every day along with the two ghulams who had carried out the murder of Ahmad ibn Ismail. They were displayed in such a manner for all to see for forty days. They were then executed and their corpses hung on the city walls for seven years. Ibn Zafir claims that they were there for so long that birds eventually built nests in their skeletal cavities.

Both loyal and disloyal

This account of Ahmad ibn Ismail’s assassination and the events that transpired immediately after it bring to light several interesting points about the political and military situation in the Samanid empire. First of all, there is the clear rivalry between the Turkish ghulams and the freeborn members of the military and the aristocracy. Up to this point, the Turks had entered the Samanid domains and the other parts of the caliphate primarily as slaves (and in some cases as freeborn mercenaries). They were foreigners in a strange land with servile status. However, they quickly rose in power and prestige to become the rulers’ confidants and the lords of the realm. It is clear that the freeborn troops of Bukhara acted out of loyalty to their slain sovereign and his son and also because these events gave them the opportunity to strike a political and military blow against their rivals.

A second point that must be elaborated here is the loyalty of these slave soldiers. Generally, the sources tell us that these troops were recruited for their unswerving love and loyalty to their masters who raised them and through whom they achieved elite status in Muslim societies. However, we have cases such as the one discussed above and several others in which these slave guards either overthrew or assassinated their sovereign. At a glance it is problematic and confusing. If these slave soldiers were so unreliable, then why did everyone think the opposite of them? And why did the Muslims rely on them as the elites of their militaries for almost 1,000 years? The answer is because in most cases they were both loyal and disloyal. What a paradox!

To elaborate, these slaves were extremely loyal to the master who purchased, raised, educated, trained, paid, and in many cases freed them. However, very often this loyalty did not transfer to the original master’s successors. When these slave soldiers rebelled, mutinied, and overthrew or killed their masters, most often it was not their original master, but one to whom they had been transferred after the death of their own patron.

In the case of Ahmad ibn Ismail’s assassination, Ibn Zafir presents nuanced details in his account that support this idea. He explicitly states that the secretary Abu al-Hasan conspired with the “older” ghulams to kill Ahmad ibn Ismail and to replace him with his uncle. On the other hand, the emir’s younger mamluks were the ones who sent word to Bukhara regarding the amir’s assassination. It can be argued that if the young ghulams had not sent this message to the emir’s mother and his deputy, the assassins would have probably achieved their objectives before the freeborn troops could be mobilized to stop them.

The older ghulams who were involved in the plot were probably the slaves of Ahmad ibn Ismail’s father. These slaves did not have the bonds of loyalty to their master’s successor that they had to their original master. On the other hand, the younger ghulams who exposed the plot were probably Ahmad ibn Ismail’s own mamluks who were loyal to their murdered master.

This one generational loyalty was not uncommon among military slaves. The Abbasid caliph al-Mutawakkil was murdered by Turkish mamluks in 861 while he was drinking with some companions in his private quarters. The slaves who murdered him had been his father’s mamluks and were threatened by this caliph who attempted to build a new elite army that was personally loyal to him. Furthermore, almost every successful ruler of the Mamluk sultanate in Egypt (1250-1517) purged the mamluks of his predecessor and replaced them with his own mamluks. The main reason for such drastic measures was that the new ruler could only rely on the loyalty of his own mamluks and less so on that of the slaves he inherited from his predecessor(s).

The major exception to this situation was that of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans succeeded where all others failed in cementing the loyalty of the household troops, both slave and freeborn, to the Ottoman dynasty and not to individual sultans. Therefore, the loyalty of the elite janissaries and the six household cavalry divisions was to the house of Osman and transferred from one ruler to the next. This may be one of the reasons for the longevity of the Ottoman empire (14th-20th century).

Adam Ali is a lecturer at the University of Toronto. Click here to read more from Adam.

Further reading:

Treadwell, Luke. “Ibn Zafir’s Account of the Murder of Ahmad b. Isma‘il and the Succession of his Son Nasr.” In Studies in Honour of Clifford Edmund Bosworth Volume II edited by Carole Hillenbrand. Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2000.

Ali, Adam. “Mighty to the End: Utilizing Military Models to Study the Structure, Composition, and Effectiveness of the Mamlūk Army” PhD Diss. University of Toronto, 2017.

Frye, R.N. “The Sāmānids.” In The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 4, From the Arab Invasion to the Seljuqs. Edited by R. N. Frye, 136-161. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975.

Daniel, Elton L. “The Islamic East.” In The New Cambridge History of Islam, vol. 1 The Formation of the Islamic World Sixth to Eleventh Centuries. Edited by Chase F. Robinson, 448-505. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

 



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