The Vigilante Empire: The Pinnacle of Saffarid Power and the Dynasty’s Fall from Grace

By Adam Ali

In the first part of this story, the coppersmith Yaqub ibn Layth became a warrior to put an end to the disorder and violence in his own region. But as he gained power and followers, his ambitions grew, ultimately leading to a confrontation with the Abbasid Caliphate. 

Yaqub ibn Layth became the amir (prince/ruler/commander) of Sistan in 861. His pursuit of Salih ibn Nadr, Sistan’s former strongman, led him to clash with the pagan ruler of Eastern Afghanistan, the Zunbil. Having defeated both of these rivals, Yaqub spent several years campaigning in the east. He launched a number of major raids and campaigns that saw him and his forces battling various foes in the regions of Kabul, Ghazna, Gardiz, Bamiyan, and Tokharistan in Eastern Afghanistan and along the frontier of India. These campaigns yielded large numbers of spoils and slaves. In fact, in a move to appease the caliph in Baghdad, who was becoming more and more alarmed by the Saffarids’ successes and the expansion of their domains, Yaqub sent fifty gold and silver idols seized from the temples of Kabul. In a bid to show where he stood, he also sent the head of a Kharijite rebel who had proclaimed the title of caliph for himself.


Despite these gestures of goodwill, the relationship between the Saffarids and the Abbasid caliphs was always tenuous during the best of times, and beset with distrust and contempt for one another. However, when Yaqub set his sights on the rich provinces of the caliphate to the west, this relationship turned to one of open hostility.

In addition to gaining vast amounts of wealth in the form of loot and slaves, Yaqub’s activities in Sistan and Afghanistan had political and strategic objectives. He had initially struck out eastward to finish of his rival, who would have presented a continuous challenge to his authority in his home base, Sistan. The Saffarid ruler never forgot his first calling that saw him rise in the ranks of the ayyar bands, which was to pacify Sistan and to rid it and the neighboring areas of the Kharijite sectarians. Incidentally, removing this threat would also strengthen Yaqub’s hold over the domains that he now controlled. His operations against the Kharijites were focused primarily in Northern Sistan and the Badghis region (western Afghanistan north of Herat). During these campaigns he defeated several prominent Kharijite leaders including: Abd al-Rahman, Ibrahim ibn Akhdar, and Ammar ibn Yaser.


The Saffarids used a mixed policy of force and conciliation to overcome the Kharijites. Yaqub killed Ammar ibn Yaser after defeating his force in battle. On the other hand, both Abd al-Rahman and Ibrahim ibn Akhdar were appointed as governors of the Saffarids in their eastern domains after they surrendered to Yaqub. Many of the fearsome Kharijite warriors were also incorporated into the Saffarid military, where they were granted regular pay and formed a special unit. Yaqub was able to reconcile his ayyar supporters and the Kharijites by appealing to their nativist sensibilities. He proclaimed that they were all fighting against the injustices of the Abbasids’ officials and tax collectors and resisting the oppressive rule of outsiders over Sistan. This policy led to thousands of Kharijites joining Yaqub and in essence ended their existence as a militant sectarian group in the region.

Yaqub ibn Layth’s Silver Dirham – photo by CoinArchives / Wikimedia Commons

The Road to Baghdad

By the time Yaqub shifted his attention westward in the early 870s, his armies had transformed significantly. No longer composed solely of ayyarun vigilantes from Sistan, the Saffarid now counted men from a variety of ethnicities and social classes in its ranks. As we have seen above, the Kharijites, fearsome veteran warriors one and all, were welcomed by Yaqub and rewarded for joining his army. In addition to these two elements, there were also the azadagan or freemen. These soldiers were the sons of the landowning class (referred to as the dihqans) and were attracted to the Saffarids by the prospects of plunder, adventure, and a military career in Yaqub’s army, where one was rewarded and promoted through merit and loyalty. As Yaqub’s fame spread large numbers of mercenaries and volunteers also flocked to his banners from every corner of the caliphate. Arab tribesmen also formed an element of the Saffarid military, they had once been prominent in the armies of the caliphs but by the 9th century they were displaced by Turks and Iranians. Yaqub also recruited contingents of Indians and other easterners into his army. The fact that many of them were Hindus did not bother this practical military commander.  However, unlike the Ghaznavids who would become the superpower in the region during the 11th century, Yaqub did not employ any war elephants in battle. He encountered these great beasts during his campaigns in the east and simply did not see the tactical advantage of incorporating them into his war machine. In fact, during his fight with the Zunbil, he was able to route his opponent’s war elephants, causing them to turn on their own side and stampeding through the ranks of their allies as they fled in panic.  Lastly, Yaqub also created an elite unit of slave soldiers whose training, pay, and supply he personally undertook and supervised. Yaqub’s army also grew with his empire. In 861 he had marched against Bust with a force of 2,000 ayyars. By 870, there were several Saffarid armies operating on a number of fronts each numbering between 10,000-20,000 men.

Yaqub’s campaigns against the Kharijites and infidels in Eastern Afghanistan gained him fame, renown, and prestige among the orthodox Muslims of the caliphate. Despite his misgivings and reluctance, the caliph, al-Mutamid (r. 870-892), was compelled to recognize Yaqub as the governor of Sistan and the domains that he conquered in the east. However, Yaqub’s real ambitions lay in the west. Much of Sistan was barren and yielded little wealth. Although he gained rich plunder through military victories and raids in the east, Yaqub knew that the yields from such activities were both temporary and sporadic and sought to gain control of rich agricultural and commercial regions in order to ensure a steady flow of income through taxes and tributes.

He first invaded the domains of the Tahirids in Khurasan. He defeated their armies in battle and marched into their capital, Nishapur, in 867. He also launched invasions directly westward into the provinces of Kerman and Fars. The loss of the rich revenues of Fars had a major impact on the Abbasids. The caliph protested against Yaqub’s activities in Fars and Khurasan, only to be ignored. Yaqub now had some of the caliphate’s richest provinces and ruled over an empire that encompassed the entire eastern Muslim world.


Map showing the location of the battle of Dayr al-‘Aqul, as well as the routes taken by the Saffarid (red) and main ‘Abbasid (blue) armies – Ro4444 / Wikimedia Commons

Yaqub and the caliph were now poised to face off against one another. Having failed in his attempts to conciliate the Saffarid ruler or to remove him from power him by inciting rebellions against him, caliph al-Mutamid officially stripped Yaqub of all the titles that he had been granted in retaliation for his aggressions in Fars and Khurasan. In response, the Saffarid ruler invaded Iraq with the intention of taking Baghdad and possibly deposing the caliph and replacing him with a puppet whom he could control directly. Initially successful, Yaqub took the city of Wasit and pushed on toward Baghdad. His advance was halted in the spring of 876 at the Battle of Dayr al-Aqul, a mere fifty miles southeast of the capital. It appears that Yaqub was drawn into an ambush by a letter in which the caliph stated that he would capitulate to him. He found himself outnumbered by the enemy, on unfamiliar terrain, and facing a commander who was his equal. The Abbasid army was led by the caliph’s energetic brother, al-Muwafaq, who was also a brilliant military commander and the true power behind the throne. Despite this defeat, Yaqub was able to extract the remnants of his army from the battlefield and withdrew to his domains in good order. Although he was pushed out of Iraq, Yaqub retained control over Fars and Kirman until his death three years later in 879.

At his death, Yaqub was the master of a vast empire. His domains included (in terms of modern nation states): Iran (with the exception of the mountainous and heavily wooded Caspian region in the north); Afghanistan, the southern portions of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan; and most of Pakistan. Nicknamed the Anvil, Yaqub was a fearsome warrior and personally led his soldiers into battle. His plebeian origins had made him resistant to the privations of military life. Even after amassing large amounts of wealth he continued to lead a very bare and Spartan existence. As a person, the sources describe Yaqub as an introvert. When he was commanding his forces in battle, he spent most of his time alone. He did not share his ideas and thoughts with anyone and made all the major decisions pertaining to his campaigns and his empire by himself. Only his brothers and one of his favored retainers, who acted as his aid, had direct access to him. He was a stern and grim man who rarely smiled or laughed. The sources paint him primarily as a soldier and conqueror. He only enjoyed himself when he watched his slaves training and conducting mock battles and it seems that his sole motivations were his love of military conquests and his hatred of the Abbasids. Yaqub often showed open contempt to the caliphal rulers of the Muslim world and expressed his mistrust in them by enumerating the long list of men, from among their loyal servants, whom they had betrayed and killed. The Tarikh-i Sistan (The History of Sistan), one of the official histories of the region and the Saffarid dynasty, quotes him as saying: “Haven’t you seen what they did to Abu Salama, Abu Muslim, the Barmaki family, and al-Fadl ibn Sahl, despite everything which these men had done on the dynasty’s behalf? Let no one ever trust them!” The feeling of hatred and mistrust was mutual and Abbasid sources often accuse Yaqub and his brothers of being brigands, rebels, and even Kharijite heretics.

Map of the Saffarid Dynasty at the height of its power.

Decline and Fall

Yaqub was succeeded by his brother, Amr. Although Ali, another brother, had been favored by Yacub, Amr was able to take the throne through gaining the army’s support and ruthlessly eliminating all competition. Amr continued to maintain the Saffarid Empire and to consolidate his rule in its various regions. Amr’s policy regarding the Abbasids was very different to that of his predecessor. He took a more conciliatory approach to the caliphate. He desired to gain the caliph’s approval and sought formal investitures from him to rule his domains.


This approach was welcomed by the caliph and his brother, al-Muwaffaq, who were now free to suppress the decades long slave revolt (known as the Zanj revolt) in Southern Iraq. The peace with the caliphate also enabled Amr to once again launch raids into eastern Afghanistan in order to present himself as a holy warrior fighting against infidels. He was also drawn into a protracted struggle to reaffirm his control over the huge province of Khurasan after it had fallen in the hands of various rebels and adventurers when his brother had been preoccupied with his campaigns against the caliph in the west. By 896 Amr had defeated all of them and sent the head of the most prominent rebel, Rafi ibn Harthama, to the caliph along with idols and other valuable tribute he had captured during his raids in the east. This was the high point in Amr’s career and the caliph confirmed him as the ruler of all the territories that he held. In exchange Amr paid the caliph an annual tribute of a million dirhams.

Despite these successes and the official recognition that he had won from the caliph, Amr was not satisfied. As the legitimate governor and ruler of Khurasan, Amr claimed suzerainty over the easternmost region of Transoxania, which was then ruled by a family of Iranian nobles known as the Samanids. The caliph was more than happy to grant Amr the distant province, provided that he could seize it through force of arms. Amr’s pride, overconfidence, and ambition led him to war in Transoxania. The campaign was a disaster. The march was long and the Saffarid supply lines became very over extended. An attempt at a flanking maneuver from the north by a detachment of the Saffarid army was blocked and turned back by a Samanid force. Amir Ismail, the head of the Samanid family, mustered his forces and marched against Amr and defeated and captured him near Balkh in 900. The Samanids sent Amr to Baghdad in chains, where he was killed in 902.

With the capture and death of Amr ibn Layth, the fortunes of the Saffarid Empire were drastically reversed. Although the Saffarids continued to rule in Sistan until the 11th century they quickly lost most of the domains that the founders of the dynasty had conquered. They were reduced to vassalage first by the Samanids and then by the Ghaznavids who finally invaded Sistan and captured the last Saffarid ruler putting an end to the dynasty that had once controlled a vast empire founded and conquered by Yaqub ibn Layth, the coppersmith vigilante.

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


Top Image: Detail of a 16th century map of Asia by Langren Henricus.