The Coppersmith Vigilante: The Rise of the Saffarids

By Adam Ali

During the ninth century a simple craftsmen would take up arms, hoping to put an end to the warfare and violence plaguing his corner of the world. In the first part of the story of Saffarid Dynasty, Adam Ali tells the story of coppersmith who would form an empire and challenge the rulers of Baghdad.

The years 811 to 819 would see a devastating civil war in the Abbasid Caliphate. Fought between Harun al-Rashid’s sons, al-Amin and al-Mamun, the subsequent chaos allowed the for rise of warlords and rebels throughout the Islamic world. Despite al-Mamun’s victory and the reunification of the caliphate, the subsequent caliphs were slowly losing control over the more distant provinces. The North African territories, west of Egypt, seceded under the rule of the Idrisid dynasty. The Tahirids, the militaristic Arab-Iranian family who had supported al-Mamun against his brother, ruled the rich province of Khurasan; the Samanids, a noble east Iranian family, governed the eastern frontier regions known as Ma Waraa al Nahr (the lands beyond the river) or Transoxania; Ahmad ibn Tulun, a Turkish general who had been sent to govern Egypt, established the Tulunid dynasty. All of these regions were ruled autonomously by these new dynasties; however they all acknowledged the Abbasid caliphs’ suzerainty, paid them tribute, and were confirmed as the representatives of the caliphs in their domains through official certificates of investiture.


Our story begins in the province of Sistan on the south eastern fringes of the caliphate (modern day southeastern Iran and Western Afghanistan). Life was hard in this arid area which saw very little rainfall, making agriculture very difficult. Compared to the other regions of the caliphate such as Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Khurasan, and Transoxania, Sistan was a backwater that received very little attention from the center, except for the annual tax collectors who extorted large amounts of wealth out of an already economically strained province. The most important cities of Sistan were Zaranj and Bust, and the region was a sub-governorate of Khurasan, which was, at this time, ruled by the Tahirids.

17th century map of Persia by Alain Manesson Mallet – Sistan and the city of Bust are shown in bottom right corner.

In 828 a major Kharijite rebellion against the caliphate erupted in Khurasan and Sistan, led by a man by the name of Hamza ibn Adhrak. The Kharijites were a small group of extremist sectarians who were in a constant state of revolt and war against the other denominations of Islam, especially the established rule of the caliphs. They had a reputation for being violent, merciless, and uncompromising. What this group lacked in numbers, they made up in the ferocity of their warriors who were feared throughout the Muslim world. The revolt of 828 was greater than some of the more recent uprisings because it mobilized the support of a larger portion of the population that was resentful of the taxes exacted by the caliph and his governors. The Tahirids were able to bring the situation under control in Khurasan after the death of Hamza ibn Adhrak. On the other hand, in Sistan much of the countryside continued to be overrun and controlled by groups of Kharijites with the central authorities only effectively controlling Zaranj. With the Tahirids busy reasserting control over the rich province of Khurasan and the caliph unlikely to send any troops to restore order to the distant and poor province, the people of Zaranj and Bust, who professed orthodox Sunni Islam, started to organize their own defense by forming bands of volunteer vigilante warriors called ayyarun (s. ayyar) to fight the heterodox Kharijites who roamed the countryside and controlled large portions of the province. These vigilante bands were formed from among the urban street toughs and working classes of the cities.


This is the milieu in which Yaqub ibn Layth was grew up. He was born in the village of Qarnin and moved to Zaranj, where he worked as a coppersmith (saffar – hence the name of the dynasty he established). Yaqub and two of his brothers, Amr and Ali (who worked as mule hirers and stone masons), joined anti-Kharijite ayyar bands serving first under the leadership Salih ibn Nadr and then under the command of Dirham ibn Nasr in Zaranj. These brothers set aside their trades for a life of war and violence. Yaqub immediately distinguished himself as a natural leader and displayed an extraordinary genius when it came to military affairs and leading men. He also distinguished himself as a skilled and fearless warrior. He spent several years fighting the Kharijites in Sistan with his brothers and worked his way up the hierarchy of the ayyarun bands until he emerged as the leader of a sizable army. He first overthrew Dirham ibn Nasr and then defeated Sailh ibn Nadr driving him out of Zaranj to Bust. He then marched on Bust and defeated Salih again, putting him and the remnants of his forces to flight. Salih took refuge with the Zunbil, the pagan ruler of Zabulistan and Zamindawar (the south-eastern region of Afghanistan), who had up to the ninth century successfully resisted Muslim attacks. In 861 Yaqub was proclaimed as the amir of Sistan and had the allegiance of all the ayyar bands that he now merged into formidable army.

Ninth century sword, excavated in Iran. Photo from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Yaqub emerged the sole victor of the power struggle between the ayyar leaders, the master of Zaranj and Bust, and the commander of a battle hardened army of vigilantes. All this was already a great feat for a plebian from among the masses, a mere coppersmith who rose up through the ranks to become the master of the two major cities of Sistan and all the ayyar bands. But Yaqub did not contentedly sit on his laurels. He was a man with a vision of empire and contempt for nobility and royalty. His warriors were loyal to him to the death. They had witnessed their commander lead them into one victorious battle after the other against both Kharijite sectarians and other ayyar bands. His humble origins had made him immune to the privations of harsh military life and even after his rise to prominence he did not acquire a taste for luxury, despite the vast amount of loot that he gained through his military feats.

He set the example for his troops by not accumulating luxuries that would encumber the army on the march. His tent was bare, his bed was an old saddle cloth, and his pillow a shield softened by a rolled up banner. He ate the same food as his men that included boiled mutton, barely bread, leeks, onions and fish. He also set an example for his soldiers on the battlefield and personally led his men into battle. The sources agree that he was a fearsome fighter. Yaqub was a grim man with a great scar running down the side of his face, which was the result of a Kharijite sword blow he suffered in battle that almost severed half of his cheek. It had to be sewn back and it is reported that Yaqub could only consume liquids through a tube for three weeks. Despite this horrendous wound and his weakened state, Yaqub took no respite; he returned to the battlefield and led his men to victory.

After his ascendancy in Sistan his tactical genius and foresight told him that his position was not secure as long as his enemies were at large. So he mustered his forces and marched out in pursuit of Salih ibn Nadr and the Zunbil. In the ensuing fight Yaqub and his forces accomplished what no army of the caliphate could in the past. After several years of campaigning he captured and executed Salih in 865, and later that same year he also defeated and killed the Zunbil in battle. These victories were just the beginning and Yaqub, with his brothers and army in tow set out on a campaign in the east that would mark the first steps of the creation of a vast empire.


Click here to read the second part of the story of Saffarids

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

Top Image: Statue of Yaqub ibn Layth in Iran – photo by Rasool abbasi17 / Wikimedia Commons