The Rise of the Buyid Brothers

By Adam Ali

Around the year 930 the three sons of a fisherman from northern Iran began their careers as soldiers. Together they would create a dynasty that would dominate the Islamic world in the 10th and 11th centuries. The fifth part of this series on Northern Iran tells the story of the Buyids.

Of all the kingdoms and principalities established by Daylami and Gilaki chiefs, warlords, and mercenaries during the 10th and 11th centuries, the Buyid empire (also referred to as Buhwahid, Bohayhid, or Buyyid) was by far the largest and most significant politically and militarily. While the Justanids, the Bavandids, and Ziyarids, for the most part, remained in the north in their native homelands and set up dynastic principalities that cradled the southern coast of the Caspian Sea (the Ziyarids also temporarily expanded south to occupy large parts of Iran), the Buyids created an empire that extended from present-day Afghanistan to Syria  and even controlled the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad.


The three brothers

The founders of the empire were three Daylami brothers of obscure origin. Ali, Hasan, and Ahmad were the sons of Buya, a humble fisherman from Daylam. Not much is known about Buya or the early life of the brothers. They are first mentioned as mercenaries who had joined Makan ibn Kaki, a fellow Daylami general who served the Samanids. However, they did not stay with Makan very long and joined the forces of Mardvij ibn Ziyar, a Gilaki general. The brothers fought in a war against the Zaydi Alid principality of Tabaristan and then followed Mardavij as he advanced south and carved out an autonomous principality for himself in Central Iran.

It was in the service of Mardavij that Ali ibn Buya, the eldest among the brothers, was promoted and attained the governorship of Karaj and the district of Nihavand (or Nihawand) also known at the time as Mah al-Basra. Ali began to attract large numbers of Daylamis into his service through calculated acts of kindness and generosity towards them. He had attained funds from the taxes of his new appointment and the treasuries and storehouses, particularly of the Khurrami sectarians who still inhabited some of the mountainous regions of Iran. Mardavij became suspicious of his lieutenant’s intentions and prepared to attack him. Ali took the initiative and left Karaj with his army and marched south. He temporarily occupied Isfahan, but was driven out by Mardavij and his allies.


In 933 Ali advanced on the Abbasid province of Fars, where he successfully occupied the citadel of Arrajan and the mountainous regions surrounding it, which was to be the center of his operations during his revolt against Mardavij. Ali was able to strengthen his position in Fars in 934 after he defeated and drove out the caliph’s representative, a Turkish general called Yaqut. Ali was victorious against him despite Yaqut’s much larger army, which was composed of a caliphal force reinforced by the Basran army (at this point Basra was ruled by an independent governor, al-Baridi). Ali was, in turn, supported by some of the wealthy landowners of Fars, who were opposed to Yaqut’s rule, especially due to the fact that he extorted large sums of money from them in order to build up a large private army.

Map of Fars and its surrounding regions in the 9th–10th centuries. Image: HistoryofIran / Wikimedia Commons

Ali’s army was composed of 900 Daylamis (and probably some local volunteers) defeated Yaqut’s much larger army, which is said to have numbered 17,000. There are several factors that led to Ali’s victory against the odds he was facing including: his bold leadership and experience, the Daylami soldiers’ discipline and toughness, and the fact that the battle was fought on rough and mountainous terrain (similar to the Daylami’s homeland) that favored dismounted combat.

One can compare this military encounter to the Battle of Halmyros fought almost four centuries later in Greece between the Catalan Company and the Duchy of Athens. The Catalans carefully selected a battlefield that favored infantry combat because their enemies had a much larger army and more cavalrymen and because a significant proportion of the Catalan force was composed of Almughavars from the mountainous regions of Iberia who fought in a manner similar to the Daylamis.

The years of expansion

Despite his victory, Ali found himself in a difficult position, surrounded by powerful enemies preparing to attack him: the caliph, al-Baridi, and Mardavij. It is at this crucial juncture in 935, when it seemed that the upstart mercenary would be crushed, that Ali was able to negotiate his official recognition as the caliph’s governor in Fars with the vizier, Ibn Muqla. He now received an honorific title Imad al-Dawla, meaning the pillar or buttress of the dynasty/state (i.e. the Abbasids). His brothers, Hasan and Ahmad, received the titles of Rukn al-Dawla (the support of the state/dynasty) and Muizz al-Dawla (the glorifier of the state/dynasty) respectively.


It was also in 935 that his former overlord, Mardavij, was assassinated by his Turkish slave soldiers. With Mardavij’s death, the Ziyarid empire fell apart with the Ziyarids maintaining control in the Caspian provinces in the north, while most of the territories south of the Elburz Mountains fell into Buyid hands. With this shift in his fortunes, Ali was able to enlarge his army by recruiting more Daylamis and Turks (many of whom had been in the service of other North Iranian warlords such as Mardavij). Even though the Buyids were not the kings of Daylam nor did they control any parts of Northern Iran, they were able to attract large numbers of Daylamis through their military successes and their ability to pay and reward their troops handsomely for their services and thus they became the focus of the support and loyalty of their fellow countrymen who left their mountains and flocked to their standards in droves.

With his position secure in Fars and his main enemies either defeated or now allies, Imad al-Dawla (aka Ali) focused on expanding and consolidating his position in Fars and supporting his brothers in a bid to expand the domains of the Buyids. Rukn al-Dawla, who had been a hostage with Mardavij, escaped after the latter’s assassination and returned to Fars. With an army supplied by his older brother, Rukn al-Dawla was able to defeat Vushmagir ibn Ziyar, Mardavij’s brother and successor in a contest over the control of the region of Jibal (Media). He was able to establish himself as the ruler of Central Iran from Rayy to Isfahan.

The third Buyid brother, Muizz al-Dawla, attempted to conquer Kirman (or Kerman) while still in the service of his older brother in 935, but he failed miserably. Imad al-Dawla then dispatched him with an army to Khuzistan to support his former enemy, al-Baridi, who was the independent governor there. Al-Baridi had sought Buyid protection against Ibn Raiq and Bajkam two successive holders of the title of amir al-umara, which roughly translates to chief amir or commander in chief at the Abbasid court. While fighting against the amir al-umara, Muizz al-Dawla turned on the Baridis and took Khuzistan, which he ruled on behalf of his brother. With this last acquisition, the Buyids became embroiled in the power struggles in Iraq, which involved several military adventurers who vied to gain control of Baghdad and the caliph. After a few initial setbacks, Muizz al-Dawla entered Baghdad in 945 and was named amir al-umara by the caliph al-Mustakfi.


The Buyid domains, often referred to as an empire, were in fact a federation of principalities ruled by the Buyid family. The three primary regions of this federation were: Fars with its capital at Shiraz ruled by Imad al-Dawla, Jibal with its Capital at Rayy ruled by Rukn al-Dawla, and Iraq with the capital at Baghdad and which also including Basra and Mosul ruled by Muizz al-Dawla.  While he lived, Imad al-Dawla was the senior amir of the confederation.

The Buyid Dynasty around the year 970.

The Buyid period can be divided into two main parts. The first period, up to 983, is one of growth, initiative, and consolidation with the power firmly in the hands of the Buyid princes. The second period until the final collapse of the Buyids in 1062 was one where they were on the defensive beset by enemies from within and without and it was also a time when the Buyid princes were losing control over the army and their domains to their administrative and military subordinates.

The height of power

The Buyids reached the peak of their power during the reign of Abu Shuja Fana Khusrow, who took the honorific title of Adud al-Dawla (r. 949-983). He was the son of Rukn al-Dawla. His uncle Imad al-Dawla, who was childless, named him as his successor. Adud al-Dawla succeeded his uncle as the ruler of Fars at his death in 949 and then succeeded his father as the ruler of Jibal in 976. Upon his accession to the throne at the age of 13 he faced a rebellion by a section of the Daylami army, which he suppressed with the help of his uncles. He then embarked on a series of campaigns to expand the Buyid domains and to reconquer regions lost to rebels and enemies such as Isfahan in 955.

Muizz al-Dawla died in 967 and was succeeded by his son, Izz al-Dawla, in Iraq. Adud al-Dawla attempted to oust his cousin from Iraq and to seize the important center of the Muslim world and the seat of the caliphate in 974. However, his attempt was blocked by his father, Rukn al-Dawla, who was still alive at the time. After Rukn al-Dawla’s death in 976, Adud al-Dawla became the senior amir of the confederation and he easily ousted his cousin from Baghdad. During his reign he was able to consolidate his control over the entirety of the Buyid Empire and to centralize power in his hands.

Medallion of the Buyid ruler Adud al-Dawla. Image: Smithsonian / Wikimedia Commons

Upon his entry into Baghdad the caliph crowned him and bestowed the new honorific titles of Taj al-Milla (crown of the religious community) and Malik al-Islam Shahanshah (the king of Islam and the king of Kings). This last title is interesting as it hearkens back to Sassanian times, and Adud al-Dawla went to great lengths to trace (or create) a lineage to Bahram Gur (or Gor) that linked him to the Sassanian royal family that ruled Iran before the Islamic conquest.

Adud al-Dawla’s centralizing policies concentrated a vast amount of power in the hands of the amir. He was the official protector of the caliph. Adud al-Dawla also had full power over the army, the judiciary and finances. He was also militarily successful in repressing any revolts and uprisings in his domains and expanded his borders. He conquered Oman in 966, Kirman (which his uncle Muizz al-Dawla had failed to conquer) in 967, and was acknowledge as the overlord of Sistan by its Saffarid ruler in 967/968. He also conquered Mosul (which had been lost) in 976.

The Fall of the Buyids

Adud al-Dawla died in 983. He did not designate his successor, which resulted in a number of power struggles between his sons and other male relatives of the Buyid clan. These struggles resulted in the weakening of the Buyid family and the gradual loss of territory and control over the army. There were divisions and rifts within the ranks of the Buyid military as well. Initially, the armies of the Buyids had been composed primarily of Daylamis, but with time the princes recruited large numbers of Turks, specifically elite ghulam/mamluk slave soldiers. As the power of the Buyid princes declined, these factions within the army started to fight against one another, further weakening the Buyids.

This weakening was compounded by the rise of powerful rivals, especially in the east in the form of the Ghaznavids and the Seljuks. In 1029 Mahmud of Ghazna occupied Rayy after the Buyid ruler, Majd al-Dawla, had requested his aid against his rebellious Daylami troops. Mahmud deposed Majd al-Dawla and replaced him with one of his own governors, ending Buyid rule in Rayy. The deathblow to the Buyids in Iraq came in 1055, when the Seljuk chief, Tughril Beg, entered Baghdad and put an end to the dynasty.

How the Buyids achieved so much power

The Buyid dynasty is arguably one of the most important that arose during the era known as the Iranian interlude. This was the period that followed Arab rule which was ushered in by the Islamic conquests and followed by a period during which most of the Muslim world was dominated militarily and politically by Turkic dynasties. First and foremost, the Buyid Dynasty was a military one. The founders of the regime were three brothers of humble origin who rose to prominence through their military careers as mercenaries. Initially, they depended on their fellow countrymen to form the bulk of their armies. However, as they established themselves as the rulers of Iran and Iraq they started, like the other dynasties ruling the Muslim world, to increasingly depend on Turkic mercenaries and slave soldiers.

There are a number of reasons for this shift. First of all, due to the nature of their homeland, most of the Daylamis were infantrymen. Although they were tough, hardy, and disciplined, they nevertheless suffered a disadvantage in open field battles due to their inferior mobility in comparison to cavalry. The Buyids, despite being the leaders of their Daylami followers, were seen as being in the position of primi inter pares (first among equals). Often their commanders and officers viewed themselves as their superiors due to their noble lineage, being scions of the ruling families and clans of Northern Iran (i.e. Mardavij ibn Ziyar and Makan ibn Kaki). In comparison the Buyids were of humble origin, the sons of a fisherman. It was to elevate themselves above their noble compatriots and to put themselves on a par with families such as the Bavandids and the Samanids that Buyid rulers such as Adud al-Dawla tried to elaborate a genealogy going back to the Sassanians.

Daylamite infantryman depicted in an Iranian textbook from the 1970s. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Turkic troops also strengthened the hands of the Buyid rulers vis-a-vis their rebellious Daylami troops and commanders. As long as the Buyid princes were powerful and assertive, they were able to keep their Daylami and Turkic troops in line. In fact, these early Buyid armies were probably very formidable hybrid forces composed of the most elite infantry and cavalry of the time. The Daylamis formed solid shield wall formations on open terrain and fended off their enemies with showers of double pronged javelins (known as zupins) that they hurled and they were also adept at fighting with swords, short spears, and axes and they were experts at combat in wooded areas and on broken terrain. The Turks formed the cavalry component and fought as both mounted archers and heavy shock cavalry. The Turkish cavalry could also scout ahead, operate as mobile flanking wings, form the vanguard, and cover/screen a retreat or advance by the infantry when it was necessary.

As for numbers, the sources indicate that the Daylamis formed a considerable proportion of Buyid armies. These forces numbered anywhere between 1,500 to 19,000 Daylami infantrymen, depending on the importance and size of a campaign. Several thousand Turkic cavalrymen often accompanied these armies. Sometimes these forces were also augmented with Kurds and Arabs. For example, in 987 the Buyid prince Sharaf al-Dawla occupied Baghdad with an army of 19,000 Daylamis and 3,000 Turks. However, Buyid armies rarely tended to get this large.

By the late Buyid period, which was rife with internecine fighting and decentralization, the rivalry between the Daylamis and Turks escalated and they quarrelled often and sometimes even fought bloody battles against one another. It was also under the late Buyids that the iqta system was broadly adopted to pay the army. The Buyid rulers were running out of revenues to pay their soldiers, so they started to assign land to them. This is somewhat reminiscent to the feudal land grants in medieval Europe, however in theory the iqta holder only had rights to the revenue that the land produced and did not own the land, nor was it hereditary (however in practice powerful iqta holders passed on their lands to their heirs). The iqta system would dominate the Muslim world as the primary means of compensating soldiers for their military service (it was known as the timar system in the Ottoman empire).

Bowl with Two Facing Peacocks, made in Iraq during second–third quarter 10th century. Photo courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Buyids also upheld or reintroduced several Iranian cultural practices. They used the Iranian calendar and celebrated traditional Iranian festivals. They also took the Sassanian title of shahanshah. However, they were careful to always present these Iranian cultural leanings in conjunction with Muslim ideals. They had converted to Zaydi Shiism, and unlike others, such as Mardavij, they were not hostile to Islam or the caliphate. In fact, they presented themselves as protectors of the caliphs and at the same time they ensured that they controlled the caliph, who by this time only held symbolic power and through whom they gained legitimacy among the Sunni majority populations of Iraq and Iran at the time. Thus, with the Buyids we see a fine balance of Iranian traditions and Islamic ideals and values.

Despite being Shias, the Buyids did not persecute the Sunnis under their rule and both sects were represented in their army: the Daylamis (Shias) and the Turks (Sunnis) and to a lesser extent Kurds (most of whom were Sunnis as well). It was also during Buyid rule that Shia scholars were patronized. Some of the Shia festivals, still celebrated to this day, were established and developed during the Buyid period such as Eid al-Ghadir (the celebration of Muhammad’s appointment of Ali as his successor according to Shia traditions) and the mourning of Husayn on the 10th of Muharram. More importantly, it was in Buyid Baghdad that Twelver Shiism (the largest branch of Shiism today) became a distinct and separate sect. In the long run, these developments had a political consequence of dividing Iraq into sectarian armed camps with the crystallization of the Shia and then the Sunni sects (which up to this point had been very fluid in nature) and for conflicts between the two groups to arise.

The story of the Buyids in Iran and Iraq is an extraordinary tale of the rise from obscurity of three ambitious brothers to dominate the core regions of the Muslim world. Born as the sons of a Daylami fisherman, they enlisted in the armies of the Northern Iranian warlords and rose in the ranks to eventually become warlords themselves and to carve out an empire, composed of a federation of principalities ruled by the various members of their family. They had a religious, cultural, and military impact that lasted well beyond their family’s rule.

Their period was a transitional one in the history of the Muslim world between one of universal political domination by the caliphs to one in which the Muslim world was dominated by independent Islamic polities (increasingly dominated by Turkic dynasties) that existed on the authority of their rulers, but still sought to secure Islamic legitimation from the Abbasid caliphs, who by this point had lost all political power and authority.

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

Top Image:Detail from Ortelius World Map Typvs Orbis Terrarvm, c.1570.