Niẓām al-Mulk

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NIĀM AL-MULK (ah 408485/10181092 ce) was a celebrated Persian vizier. Abū ʿAlī al-asan ibn ʿAlī ibn Isāq al-ūsī was born in Nawqān, a village near us in Khurāsān. He served two Saljūq sultans, Ālp Arsalān (r. 10631073) and his son Malikshāh ibn Ālp Arsalān (r. 10731092), and held the honorifics Niām al-Mulk (administrator of the realm), Qawām al-Dīn (upholder of religion), and Ghiyâth al-Dawla (mainstay of government). Niām al-Mulk was a Shāfiʿī in law and an Ashʿarī in theology. He befriended ūfīs and built numerous educational institutions, known as madrasah s. He was assassinated in 1092 in a small village outside of Ifahān. In his seventy-four years, Niām al-Mulk rose from being a member of the bureaucracy of the provincial governor of Balkh (in present-day Afghanistan) to the de facto ruler of a vast empire, with a final apotheosis as the archetypal good vizier in the world of Islam.

Modern appraisals of Niām al-Mulk, often based on an uncritical distillation of medieval sources, tend to cast him in the mold of later reformist but absolutist rulers, who promoted religious orthodoxy, particularly through the founding of religious institutions, to counter latent forces of anarchy inherent in a world of steadily disintegrating spiritual authority and ever increasing tribal incursions and political conflicts. But a reading of the same sources, shorn of these underlying assumptions, reveals other traits and priorities. The ideal medieval statesman emerging from the scattered references to Niām al-Mulk in chronicles, biographies of viziers, manuals of conduct, panegyrics of court poets, and other sources is not the homogenized single icon of a bureaucratic state-builder, but the emblematic site where seemingly discordant civic and personal virtues can be fused together in a concatenated bio/hagiographical account of a life depicted in distinct stages. Thus, as in the biographies of many an outstanding spiritual figure before and after him (including, for example, the Prophet himself or the great poet and mystic Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī), his precocious gifts are at once spotted and remarked upon, and so in a sense authenticated, by an outstanding contemporary luminary, in his case the great ūfī master Shaykh Abū al-Saʿīd Abū al-Khayr (d. 1049). Later we see Niām al-Mulk climb up rapidly on the slippery bureaucratic ladder, stepping on his rivals' toes whenever necessary.

Although biographical information in the medieval Islamic sources on Niām al-Mulk is sketchy and the sources often contradict each other, almost all concur on his arduous early years, fraught with financial and political difficulties, before he became a vizier. Although born to a dihqān (landed aristocracy dating back to pre-Islamic Iran) family, Niām al-Mulk (or his father, for here sources vary) witnessed several injustices in his youth, and the family possessions were confiscated several times when he (or his father) served Ghaznavid (r. 9771186) officials in Khurāsān. But Niām al-Mulk's fortune changed when the Saljūqs entered Khurāsān in 1038. He was recommended to the new sultan either by the provincial governor of Balkh or by the imām al-Muwaffaq (d. 1048), the respected leader of the Shāfiʿī faction of Nīshāpūr, again depending on the source one uses. In so doing, al-Muwaffaq bypassed another student of his, the ʿamīd al-Mulk al-Kundurī. Although al-Muwaffaq recommended Niām al-Mulk, al-Kundurī also entered into Saljūq service, serving the governor of Khurāsān, who was the brother of the reigning sultan.

In 1063, when Ālp Arsalān succeeded his father and uncle as the sole ruler of the Saljūq Empire, he kept al-Kundurī in office, as recommended by his father. Although initially a Shāfiʿī and Ashʿarī himself, al-Kundurī initiated the public cursing of Shīʿah and Ashāʿirah from the pulpits in Khurāsān in 1062, in retaliation for the imām al-Muwaffaq's support of his rival. Several eminent Ashʿarī/Shāfiʿī figures, among them the imām al-aramayn al-Juwaynī (d. 1085) and the ūfī master Abū Qāsim al-Qushayrī (d. 1072), left for Mecca in protest. They did not return until Niām al-Mulk reversed these divisive policies and brought the downfall of his rival. Even in the most sympathetic accounts of the life of Niām al-Mulk, he is held responsible for the execution of al-Kundurī in 1064, whose office he inherited. The dramatic aspect of the episode is enhanced in a number of sources by inserting al-Kundurī's oracular last words, addressed to Niām al-Mulk: "You have taught these Turks the practice of killing their viziers."

The long years of Niām al-Mulk's administrative reign are regarded as the halcyon days of the dynasty he served, with his own personal retinue reflecting the opulence of the realm he managed. Al-Subkī's (d. 1369/70) entry on Niām al-Mulk in his abaqāt al-Shāfi ʿīyah al-kubrá suggests that he had a personal army of Turkic slaves numbering over eighty thousand men, that he was one of the richest men in the Islamic lands, and that he conducted the affairs of the vast empire with effortless ease. But worldly riches are nicely balanced in the sources by unworldly concerns, and many anecdotes depict him identifying himself with ūfīs and their spiritual interests and taking an active part in religious debates of his time. In his Ghiyāth al-'umam fī iltiyāth al-ulam, written between 1072 and 1085, the imām al-aramayn al-Juwaynī alludes to Niām al-Mulk as the most qualified and capable administrator of his time, clearly surpassing the reigning Abbasid caliph in both real power and spiritual legitimacy, a significant compliment, coming as it does from one of the leading jurists of the eleventh century.

Niām al-Mulk's downfall also bears the teleological stamp of the didactic and polemical reading of history inherent in the sources. In spite of his long years in power, Niām al-Mulk finally fell victim to the arbitrary nature of medieval kingship, like so many of his predecessors and successors. Spearheaded by the sultan Malikshāh's favorite wife, Turkān Khātūn (d. 1094), and exploiting a succession dispute, his enemies at the Saljūq court succeeded in convincing the sultan that the old vizier harbored ambitions to rule the empire. The history of the demise of Niām al-Mulk is cast in the familiar medieval mold of heresy, the stealthy intervention of women in politics, and conspiracy at court. Turkān Khātūn, allied with the Ismāʿīlīs and others accused of being enemies of Islam, persuaded Malikshāh to charge Niām al-Mulk with nepotism and treachery. The vizier wrote back, reminding the sultan that his fate was intertwined with Niām al-Mulk's fate, and that God, who had given one the turban, had given the other the crown. Malikshāh replaced him with one of his wife's allies, the Shīʿī Tāj al-Mulk (d. 1093), a person of unsound religious views, according to the sources. A year later, Niām al-Mulk was assassinated, allegedly by adherents of another unorthodox creed, the Ismāʿīlīs. On that oft-evoked complicity, too, there is much disagreement in the sources, as some hold Malikshāh responsible for his vizier's death and some even claim that Malikshāh himself had, at the instigation of his wife, converted to Ismāʿīlism and was thus manipulated into arranging for the murder of his own vizier, the upholder of orthodox religion. Perhaps the only flicker of truth in this fog of conspiracy was the charge of nepotism, for the Vizier did, after all, secure the continuation of his policies by installing a number of his relatives in prominent positions. Five of his sons, two of his grandsons, and one great-grandson held the office of vizier to one or another of the rulers after him, though none could reach his eminence, as recounted succinctly in Ibn Funduq's (d. 1170) Tā ʾrīkh-i Bayhaq, a rich source on the rise and lingering influence of Niām al-Mulk's family in the Saljūq empire.

The more general attribution that he lived and died a stalwart of orthodoxy, tacitly accepted by many modern scholars of medieval Islam, should be reconsidered. Nearly contemporary Shīʿī sources, such as ʿAbd al-Jalīl al-Qazvīnī (d. after 1189) in his Kitāb al-naqd (1164/65), and the poet Ibn al-Habbārīyah (d. 1115) in his anthology, have praised Niām al-Mulk for his evenhandedness, and it should be borne in mind that one of the vizier's daughters was married to the son of the prominent Shīʿī leader, Sayyid Murtaā al-Qummī. There is praise for his tolerance from opposing sides. In the annals of the year 1077 in his Al-Muntaam, the anbalī historian Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 1200) has preserved a letter from Niām al-Mulk to Shaykh Abū Isāq al-Shīrāzī (d. 1083), whom he had appointed to teach at the Niāmīyah in Baghdad. It concerns a series of riots by the anbalīs of Baghdad following fiery sermons by the Shāfiʿī professor at the Niāmīyah. Niām al-Mulk advises the professor to be prudent in his sermons, especially as many anbalīs lived in Baghdad, and the imām Amad ibn anbal (d. 855), the founder of the legal and theological school that bore Niām al-Mulk's name, was among the most venerated figures of Islam. Niām al-Mulk also informed the shaykh that the Niāmīyah, in line with his overall policy, was conceived to facilitate learning, to protect the learned, and to discourage sectarian strife. Should the madrasahs fall short of this objective, he would have no alternative but to shut them down. This last cautionary statement is significant in the context of the persisting misapprehension that clouds modern scholarship on the madrasah s sponsored by Niām al-Mulk. The Niāmīyah were not generally perceived as instruments of government policy by medieval Muslim historians, nor did they succeed in transforming the highly personal structure of Islamic education. In fact, medieval histories preserve little to document a long-lasting effect of the Niāmīyahs, beyond their founder's lifetime, on the educational infrastructure of Islamic society.

Similarly, and contrary to the tone of most modern studies on Niām al-Mulk, his authorship of a treatise on political and courtly decorum, the Siyar al-Mulūk, does not loom large in the medieval accounts. The Siyar al-Mulūk, rather than a treatise on political thought in the modern sense of the term, is essentially an ethical treatise, which bears more of a resemblance to the ninth-century pseudo-Aristotelian Secretum Secretorum than to Machiavelli's The Prince.


For a general introduction to the life of Niām al-Mulk, see Neguin Yavari, "Niām al-Mulk Remembered: A Study in Historical Representation," Ph.D.diss., Columbia University, 1992. For sectarian strife, see Richard W. Bulliet, Patricians of Nishapur: A Study in Medieval Islamic Social History (Cambridge, Mass., 1972). For a critique of the Sunnī revivalist project, see Roy Mottahedeh, "The Transmission of Learning: The Role of the Islamic Northeast" in Madrasa: La transmission du savoir dans le monde musulman, edited by Nicole Grandin and Marc Gaborieau (Paris, 1997); see especially pages 65 and following. For the madrasa s, see Daphna Ephrat, A Learned Society in a Period of Transition: The Sunni 'Ulama' of Eleventh-Century Baghdad (Albany, N.Y., 2000). For the Siyar al-Mulûk, see Hubert Darke's "Introduction" in Niām al-Mulk, The Book of Government or Rules for Kings, translated and edited by Darke (London, 2d ed., 1978); and Charles-Henri de Fouchécour, Moralia: Les notions morales dans la littérature persane du 3e/9e au 7e/13e siècle (Paris, 1986).

Neguin Yavari (2005)