The Future of Iran's Past

Nizam al-Mulk Remembered

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Neguin Yavari
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Neguin Yavari returns to the topic of her 1992 doctoral dissertation (“Nizam al-Mulk remembered: A study in historical representation”, Columbia University) with a much more ambitious goals in mind. While the re-examination of the persona of the famous Saljuq vizier in medieval sources is still one of her main objectives, as is the issue of representation in pre-modern historical writing, in The Future of Iran’s Past: Nizam al-Mulk Remembered both are also pathways to a larger goal: challenging the narrowly Eurocentric views regarding the roots of modern political thought, “and the exile of the non-Western world from modern history” (141). According to Yavari, one of the consequences of what Reinhard Schulze called “colonial modernity” is that public intellectuals of the Pahlavi era in Iran have abandoned non-Western traditions of political thought, thus contributing to an interruption in the development of indigenous intellectual history (141). For Yavari, the ideals of good governance—embodied in the figure of Nizam al-Mulk, and the pragmatic advice to the ruler in his treatise Siyar al-Muluk—are among the foundational stones of modern Iranian political thought. The appropriations of his persona in current Muslim political discourses, especially in Iran, testify to the “coming of age of a nation armed with its past,” which mobilizes hallowed examples from its own history to shape its political vocabulary, and to assert its “newly acquired sovereignty” (148). The continuation of that trend—both in the internal Iranian ideological debates as well as internationally—is arguably “the future of Iran’s past,” to which the title of the monograph alludes.

The monograph comprises a preface, five chapters, copious endnotes containing valuable information on additional sources and alternative points of view, an extensive bibliography, and an index. 

Apart from the customary overview of the contents, the Preface briefly introduces Nizam al-Mulk and the era of the Saljuqs—particularly the 11th century—a time of “pivotal change” (xiv), heavily impacted by the famed vizier’s stewardship. Yavari recognizes the dangers in identifying an era with a single individual, but—given the difficulties in writing a history of Saljuq rule, too unsettled and decentralized to lend itself to a comprehensive overarching study—she proposes that a focus on the biography of Nizam al-Mulk “may be the closest we can get to a coherent monograph on the Saljuq period” (xvii). The Preface also advances the first of the major claims of the text: that the time of Nizam al-Mulk was one of rupture between the Turco-Mongol-dominated Iranian cultural zone and the Arab Middle East, which will continue broadening in the succeeding centuries and up until the onset of 19th-century Modernity.

Chapter 1 takes the first step towards opening up a space for Iranian political thought within the Western-dominated discourse through a comparison of two almost-contemporaneous medieval biographies of ideal rulers: the life of Charlemagne (r. 768-814) by the Carolingian scholar Einhard (d. 840), and the accounts of the Umayyad caliph Umar II (r. 717-20), compiled by Ibn 'Abd al-Hakam (d. 829). Since the roots of modern political thought are at issue, Yavari looks for early traces of secular mores and values in the representations of these two exemplary rulers arising in the pre-modern Christian and Muslim milieus, respectively. She first explores the genre differences between biography and history in Classical Greece and Rome, and then notes the divergent conventions of medieval life-writing in the two sources—rooted in the Classical tradition in Einhard’s case, and in the hadith compendiums in Ibn Abd al-Hakam’s). Of essence is also the “afterlife” of the two rulers, lauded in subsequent writings both for capable stewardship of their realms, and for their personal piety. Despite the many differences in the approaches of the Christian and Muslim authors to the depiction of an exemplary ruler, Yavari highlights a common trait: the distinction which medieval sources make between the political vision and the religious leadership of the central character (more explicit in the case of Charlemagne who was not a pope but an emperor, than in the case of caliph Umar II, the titular head of the Muslim polity, but evident in both). Yavari’s conclusion—that Muslim intellectuals, too, “probed the divide between sacred and profane” (29)—implies that the seeds of the secular in the assessment of political authority were not exclusive to the Christian West.

The fissure between religious and political authority is further accentuated in chapter 2, “Origins,” which creates the historical backdrop to Nizam al-Mulk’s rise and rule, and bears witness to Yavari’s claim that the 11th century was a turning point in the history of the Muslim East. First, she demonstrates “the diminished status of the caliphate” (34) by outlining the political fragmentation of the Abbasid realm. The rivalries among the Sunni law schools and the ideological factionalism among the major theological schools of thought also lend credence to Yavari’s contention that the caliphate was becoming only “an intellectual construct,” a political ideal (37), rather than a reality. Secondly, Yavari critically examines the historical narratives about the true holders of political power—the Sunni Turkic regimes (Saljuqs included) which presided over much of the Muslim world at the time. Medieval narratives generally represent “the Turks” as uncouth nomadic warriors in need of tutelage in the arts of statecraft from Persian and Arab viziers. That image –Yavari points out--is not supported by recent scholarship (including anthropological research on the origins and social organization of the so-called “Turks”). She also reiterates the legitimizing function of dynastic histories, which endow the Saljuqs with aristocratic lineage, set them apart from the “uncouth Turks” by emphasizing their early conversion to Islam, and their defence of the realm against nomadic predators. Thus, the limitations of premodern texts as sources for factual information is highlighted.

Chapters 3 and 4 probe, respectively, Nizam al-Mulk’s biography as represented in medieval sources, and his attitude towards various Muslim “others”—the Abbasid caliph (versus the Saljuq sultan), the Turks (versus Persians), Shi'i “heretics” (versus the Sunni majority), and Sufi sheikhs (versus Muslim jurists and theologians). In both chapters Yavari probes traditional perceptions about the Saljuq vizier, and finds that many of them are taken over from these medieval sources on trust by modern scholarship, which generally depict protagonists according to literary convention rather than historical reality. Thus, broader political and ideological conflicts are often represented as personal animosities, such as the rivalry between Nizam al-Mulk and the vizier al-Kunduri ending in the assassination of the latter (75). In other cases, some initiatives of Nizam al-Mulk, considered ground-breaking, turn out to be short-lived and far less consequential. Such is the case with the establishment of the Nizamiyya religious colleges, credited by modern scholarship with fostering a new Sunni administrative elite and triggering the so-called “Sunni revival”: according to Yavari, the historical record does not support that claim, for the colleges lost much of their influence after the death of their patron (91, 93). Yavari’s explorations lead her to the conclusion that many of Nizam al-Mulk’s lauded policy innovations “[belong] to the fiction rather than the history of his role” (97), and are variations of the emblematic accomplishments that—in premodern writings—single out the capable and righteous ruler. 

Yet, in Yavari’s re-reading of the sources (and in tune with our own predilection for interethnic and interreligious harmony) Nizam al-Mulk emerges as a much more tolerant and broadminded character than some of his own writings suggest. Thus, as Yavari points out, the belligerent anti-Shi’i rhetorics of Siyar al-Muluk are at odds with the historiographical record of pragmatic Saljuq policies towards the non-Isma’ili Shi’i, who—unlike the Islma’ilis—were not a threat to the established central authority (116). She sees Nizam al-Mulk is a statesman who “sought to diffuse religious and ethnic differences” (108); who strove for the preservation of caliphal authority not as a “bastion of fanaticism,” but as a locus of shared ideology (110); and “sought to redefine the caliphate to make it separate from government but symbolically indispensable” (111). These early foreshadowings of modern-day secularism are complemented by Nizam al-Mulk’s pragmatism. Even his patronage of leading Sufis may be read in the light of political expediency: the mystics “espousal of non-denominational religiosity” matches his “commitment to non-partisan policies” (118). His alliance with them “obviated the possibility of religious challenges to his rule,” while also assisting him in “[undermining] sectarianism and factionalism, and [domesticating] religious zeal and extremism” (125).

Chapter 5 addresses not only the reasons behind the enduring fame of Nizam al-Mulk in both pre-modern times and at present, but also the socio-political and religious changes that shaped Iran in the intervening centuries. Yavari sees the “Turco-Iranian adventure” (135) during his term in office as the beginning of an eastward drift that would eventually separate Muslim Iran from the Arab Middle East, and would spread its linguistic and cultural “oikoumene” all the way to India (136). This split is compounded by a gradual “Shiaization” of Iranian civilization, finding expression in a “philo-'Alid piety, especially among the Sufis” (134). It culminates in the Safavids’ coming to power when Shiism becomes the religion of state, and extends into the present, evident especially after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 (135). Nizam al-Mulk’s legacy, according to Yavari, also undergoes gradual Shi'ification. The first signs of this crop up in the hostile remark of his arch-enemy Tarkan-Khatun—as reported by the Sunni historian Khwandmir—that the vizier’s “twelve sons” have become as dear to the people as the progeny of 'Ali b. Abi Talib (an implicit reference to the Imams of the Twelver Shi’i). Avowedly Shi'i Safavid sources also reference Nizam al-Mulk’s advice. In our own time, Yavari notes a sudden surge of official and public interest in Nizam al-Mulk following the Iranian Revolution. At times, the blatant appropriation of his legacy flies in the face of the historical record, as in the case of a spurious medieval treatise published in Qum in 1979, which claims that Nizam al-Mulk and Malikshah both eventually embraced Shiism (140). More often, though, it is Nizam al-Mulk’s pragmatism and political vision that is held up as example in the Iranian political discourse, by intellectuals and high officials alike (143-46). The tendency to resort to the greats of the Islamic political past—including Nizam al-Mulk—is noticeable in Sunni-majority countries, too, but there, according to Yavari, his writings are used to evoke “a Sunni-dominated golden age” (147). 

Whether or not one accepts unreservedly Yavari’s reassessment of Nizam al-Mulk’s persona and legacy, the importance and timeliness of her monograph is undeniable. Her study is timely given that—in the era of globalization—it points to the imperative to broaden the political discourse, and to look for the seeds of modernity not only in (alien) Western, but also in various indigenous traditions of governance. It is important considering the breadth and interdisciplinarity of her meticulously-documented research, which may also serve as an overview of recent scholarship and of major scholarly debates on the topics she discusses. There is originality in her employment of literary reception to complement the analysis of historical evidence, as well as in her resort to anthropology, numismatics, and architecture to test the received wisdom from medieval Muslim sources and traditional Western scholarship alike. 

Written in an articulate, lucid prose, The Future of Iran’s Past is aimed primarily at scholars of Islamic Studies and of Comparative Literature, but it envisages a broader public as well. Testament to that is the care with which specialist terminology is explained in-text, and a brief political and intellectual history of the caliphate from its inception (31-39) is provided for those who do not have a background in the subject. Quite apart from its academic worth, one might argue that it is also a representation of Nizam al-Mulk for the 21st century, which delves deep in the complex, multifaceted legacy of the fabled Saljuq vizier, and brings forth the components most relevant for our day and age.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Marta Simidchieva is Adjunct Professor in the Department of Humanities at York University in Toronto, Ontario.

Date of Review: 
August 28, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Neguin Yavari is Senior Fellow at the Humanities Centre for Advanced Studies at the University of Leipzig. She studied medieval history at Columbia University, and has written on medieval Islamic history, political thought and international history. Her books include Advice for the Sultan: Prophetic Voices and Secular Politics in Medieval Islam (2014) and the co-edited Global Medieval: Mirrors for Princes Reconsidered (2015).



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