The importance of The Samanid State in the history of Islamic Civilization


by Abdulmuhammad Hiloli
Provided by Mr. Taher

A factor, which came to have importance in the political, social, cultural, and religious life of the Muslims during the Abbasid period, was the disintegration of the regions and the establishment of local dynasties in the western and eastern parts of the caliphate.

The emergence of independent dynasties in some instances was possible due to political weakness, which accompanied the Abbasids during all period of their rule. The caliphs could never have real authority, either political or religious, over the Islamic world, and they always unsuccessfully tried to establish it relying on the support of Persians and later nomadic Turkish tribes. Replacement of the Khurasan recruits by the Turkish in the time of the caliph al-Mu’tasim (833 – 842) increased political struggles in the court of the Abbasids, and caused restriction of the caliph’s authority. As a matter of the fact, the caliphs were not able longer control the huge territory, from European Spain to the deserts of Central Asia, and a process of disintegration was expanded.

Thus, the conflict from the court of the Abbasids spread to the regions, where some local dynasties established their authority. Although, some of them were in many respects independent from the Abbasids, like the Fatimids, the majority of those dynasties formally recognised the legitimacy of the Abbasids. To the list of that kind of dynasties we can enter the Samanids (872 – 999) of Central Asia, which is the theme of discussion for this paper. Alongside with the other Iranian dynasties of the Tahirids (821 – 873), the Saffarids (861 – 908), and the Buyids (932 – 1055), the Samanids had made some contribution to the process of Iranian Renaissance.1

This paper aims to have a brief look at the development of economy, culture, art, the new Persian language and literature, which took place under the Samanids rule in Mawar-alnahr (Transoxiana), and Khurasan. Also to discuss the long-term consequence of the Samanid State, and the image of which was created by the Soviet oriental historiography, and the use of this image by the nationalistic groups in today’s Tajikistan. In order to make a statement about these issues; it is necessary to have brief look at some of the historical background of the Samanid state.

It should be emphasised that our information about the early history of the Samanid family is very contradictory. However, all three places, which are shown by the sources about the origin of the Sammanids, i.e., Tirmidh, Balkh, or a village near Samarqand, are located in Transoxiana, today’s Central Asia and Afghanistan.2 There is also uncertainties about the name of the dynasty, Saman, which according to J.J. Saunders is the name of a village near to Balkh, where the dynasty came from.3 Nevertheless, the majority of our sources state that it is a name of the founder of the dynasty, dihkan (landowner) Saman-khuda, who accepted Islam in the time of Asad b. Abd-Allah (723 – 727), governor of Khurasan, and gave the name of governor to his only son.4 Later on, the four sons of Asad were appointed the governors of main cities of Mawar-al nahr and Khurasan by the Abbasid governor of Khurasan, Ghassn b. Abbad in 819, because of their support to the Abbasids during the rebellion of Al-Layth.5

The Samanids became more important in the time of the first real governor of this dynasty Ismaili Samani (892 –907), who was the victorious in the struggles with the Saffarids, and was recognised by the caliph as a legal ruler of Khurasan. Ismail conquered many places, and a territory of his kingdom was wide spread all over today’s Central Asia, Afghanistan, and eastern Iran, however in the time of his successors we can observe the autonomy of the regions. The image of Ismail came in the history of Central Asia not only as a strong and capable politician, but also as an equitable ruler, who changed the heavy tax weights, and confiscated the possessions of some landowners. Due to the strong political regime of Ismail, Transoxiana, and his capital Bukhara was so safe, from the nomadic Turks that the walls around of some cities were neglected, although later on these walls were necessary.6

The successors of Ismail could not continue his policy, and they left under the influence of their Turkish guard, who became dominant in the court (Alp-Tegin and later established by him Ghaznawid dynasty), and alongside with the Qarakhanids ended the rule of the Samanids in 999. However, in some aspects the time of Ismail’s successors was more important that his own. For instance the time of Nasr b. Ahmad (914 – 943) is described by many authors as the golden age of the Samanid rule, because of flowering of literature and culture. The main role in this process was played by the Samanid vazirs, the primer ministers, who themselves were the danishmands (scholars) of their time. Here we should mention the names of two important primer ministers Abu Abd Allah al-Djayhani, and Abul Fadhl Muhammad al-Bal’ami. They gathered many intelligent people in their court and made Bukhara the cultural centre of Iranian civilisation.

According to R. Frye the well-known process of Iranian renaissance began in Central Asia rather then in Iran, and he sees the reason for that in the difference of the social groups in these two parts of Muslim world. The mercantile, trade society of Central Asia was much more suitable for the development of an egalitarian Islamic society than a hierarchical caste society of Iran.7 Therefore the Samanids, who were the real rulers of Transoxian could be seen as a pioneers of Iranian renaissance. Indeed the changes, which took place under that process, occupied every sphere of life: cultural, linguistic, social, art, economy, politics, and scientific.

The changes, which came with the emerge of the Samanids in the agriculture, commerce, architecture, city building, coinage, textiles, and metalwork, were due in many respects to the stability and safety political situation of the country. The merchants had good opportunities to enter into commercial relations not only with their nearest neighbours, but also with the far countries as well, like the Khazars of Volga, through whom an active traffic developed, with the Vikings of Scandinavia. Due to them the textiles and metalwork of Samanids were exchanged for the furs and amber of the Baltic lands. 8

The Samanid amirs had control over the most important silver producing veins of Central Asia in Badakhshan and Farghana, which made possible the development of the coinage system. The Samanids coinage, due to its vast quantity, was popular not only in the Islamic world, but also outside it in Russia, Scandinavia, the Baltic lands, and even in British Isles. 9

The Samanids contribution to Islamic architecture indeed is very significant. Examples of this could be observed in the growth of the cities in ninth and tenth centuries. Here we can code the to capital of the Samanids, Bukhara, which became the cultural, political, and economic centre of Central Asia for the centuries, until the Bolshevik revolution in 1920 (when the Soviets ended the rule of the Bukhara Emirate). The Registan of Bukhara – a large square, where the ten divans (ministries) were located, is still the most beautiful part of the city, and a tourist attraction. There are also some other historico-architectural memorials remaining from that time, like the mausoleum of the Samanids in Bukhara, the mausoleum of Arabato in Tim, the mosque Nuh Gunbad in Balkh, and so on. Along with Bukhara many other cities in the Samanid empire began to develop such as Samarqand, Balkh, Usturusha, Panjacant, Shash, Marv, Nishapur, Herat. The cities in many respects were the signs of new Persian civilisation represented by the name of Islam, because mostly the development of literature, language, art, architecture, trade, took place in the cities.

Perhaps the most important sphere of activity that benefited from the Samanid patronage was development of new Persian literature. The poets, who lived in that time, were indeed the most respectable people in the society as long as they supported political and religious interests of the Samanids. The best example of can observe in the poetry of one of famous poets of that time Abu Abdullahi Rudaki, who describes the amirs as the moon, and their capital Bukhara as the sky:
Mir moh astu Bukhara osumon,
Moh sui osumon oyad hame.

Mir (amir) is the moon and Bukhara the Sky,
The moon is appearing up on the Sky.

However, the Samanids as the partisans of the Sunni branch of Islam could not forgive Rudaki for his support of Qaramati movement in the court during the rule of well-known amir Nasr b. Ahmad, who himself was involved in that movement. In the anti-Qarmati repression, which was organised by the Sunni ulama and the Turkish guard, and led by Nasr’s son Nuh II (943 – 954) many intellectuals like amir Nasr himself, vazir Bahlami, poet Rudaki and others were taken out of the court.

Rudaki was not the only representative of the new Persian literature under the Samanids, and alongside with him there were other poets like Shahidi Balkhi, Abushukuri Balkhi, Pbiai Balkhi, and Ahmadi Daqiqi. Daqiqi lived in the time of amir Nuh II (976 –997), and had order from amir to write an epic history of the pre-Islamic Iran in verse, but the death (was murdered by his Turkish slave) could not allow him to finish it. Nevertheless, iMOMDOD Page 5 25/01/02Daqiqi’s work was not stopped, and later on another Persian poet Abdulqasim Firdausi spend thirty years of his life in writing the Shah’nama, (the king’s book) where he collected pre-Islamic Iranian legends in a form of prose. Firdausi clearly states that his aim in writing the Shah’nama was to revive the Persian culture or Ajam, and he was sure that he had done it:
Base ranj burdam dar in sol si,
Ajam zinda kardam badin Porsi.

I worked hard during these thirty years,
I revived Ajam with this Persian. 7

The new Persian, which was a sort of mix of old Farsi-Pahlawi with some Arabic vocabulary and letters, had become an official language of the bureaucracy and literature in the Samanids court. The new Persian language represented a new tradition of Islam produced by Persian Muslims, and it showed that Islam is not restricted only in Arabic, which was regarded as ‘a language of God’. By the order of the Samanid amirs many Arabic works were translated into Persian. Among these works were not only religious books, but also many secular works as well. Bahlami translated Tabari’s famous Tarikh-al Rusul wa-al Muluk from Arabic into Persian. On the other hand there developed writing scientific works in Persian in the Samanid court. The most important scholars of that time were philosopher and tabib (medic) Abu Ali ibn Sina, who lived in the last years of the Samanids rule, the historian Abubakr Muhammad Narshakhi, the author of Tarikhi Bukhara (The History of Bukhara), the encyclopaedist the Al-Khwarazmi, and the astronomers Al-Turk, geographers Abu Dulaf and Al-Maqdisi.

However, it is difficult to say that Persian was the dominant language in all spheres of life in the Samanid Empire. Most of the theological and philosophical works were still written in Arabic, which was the academic language in the Islamic world. Even the Persian scholars, who were mentioned above mostly wrote in Arabic, and there also was developed Arabic literature in the Samanids period. A collection of the poems and prose composed in Arabic in eastern Iran was made by Abu Mansur al-Tha’alidi in Yatimat al-dahr. In addition to that, Arabic was the language of religious practice for the Muslims. Hence the use of both Arabic and Persian languages had made the Samanid bureaucracy bilingual.

On the other hand there were many other local eastern Iranian languages like Soghdi, Bakhtari, Kharazmi, Saki, and Masageti in the provinces of the Samanid state. Perhaps the reason for choosing Persian as official language of state by the Samanid amirs was much more in their political interests rather than out of love of Persia. The local people of Central Asia must were familiar with old Persian language since Akhamanids and Sasanids, and Arabs when first came to the area used Persian as a tool for communication with local people. Therefore in order to make administration of the empire easier and to control the people, the Samanids employed the new Persian. On the other hand, by doing so the Samanids may also have wanted to somehow show their difference and independence from the Abbasid caliphs, to whom they did not pay taxes, although in generally the amirs were loyal to Baghdad. Samanid loyalty towards the Abbsaid Sunni caliphs might be explained from the religious point of view as an understandable recognition because of their belonging to the same branch of Islam.

The Samanids had good relations with the Abbasid caliphs, and even they always formally sought the sanction of the caliphate to govern their territories.10 It seems that for the Samanids their religious interest was more important than their ethnic connection to the Iranian race, although they claimed to be from the descendants of the royal Iranian family of Barami Chubina. Moreover the Samanids were far from feeling Iranian conciseness, which today is interpreted by some nationalistic movements, especially in Tajikistan.

The image of the Samanids as ‘the first feudal state of the Tajik nation’ was created by the Soviet Oriental historiography, which looked at every historical event through class struggle, and fitted them into five social-economic formations such as primitive society, slave-holding society, feudalism, capitalism, and socialism. According to them, the Samanid state appeared as a result of a struggle of the East Iranian people for independence against the Arab conquerors. Despite the fact that the notion of nation appeared approximately 8 centuries after the Samanids, the former director of the Moscow Oriental Institute B. Ghafurov claimed that in the Samani period the process of Tajik national formation had finished, and that Tajik-Persian language was completed.11 Although after the collapse of the Soviet Union the methods of historical approaches also have changed, there still exist nostalgia for the Samanids state in Tajikistan, and it is very strong and even in some aspect very dangerous. In September 1999 by the order of Tajik government the 1100th anniversary of the Samanid state was celebrated, and the memorial centre to the Samanids with 50 meter monument of Ismail in central square of Dushanbe, the Ozodi (freedom) in front of the Parliament, was opened. Indeed the nostalgia for the Samanids shown by the Tajik government might have political character, because after the break up of the Communist ideology, and the five year civil war (1992 – 1997), which divided people of Tajikistan into different political factions, some political groups wanted to take advantage of nationalistic issues. However, another dangerous side of this nostalgia is that it already damaged the relationships between two neighbouring countries, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The reason is that the main cities of the Samanid state such as Bukhara and Samarqand were left in Uzbekistan’s territory after the National Administrative Division of Central Asia (NADCA) in 1924 by the Soviet government. Thus, the Tajik nationalistic movements in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (there are a huge number of Tajiks in Uzbekistan) regard themselves as a victims of an unfair policy of the Soviet government in 1924, and the Pan-Turkism movement demanded the establishment of historical justice, that is ‘returning’ these cities to their ‘origin’. Therefore the new Tajiko- Iranian renaissance has become a theme of concern for Uzbekistan. Thus, a lack of the understanding of the spiritual, social and cultural developments of human history led Soviet historiography to create a false image of the Samanids, which later on caused the trouble described above. Indeed, it might be true that the Samanids being a Persian dynasty, have closeness with the today’s Tajiks, the only Persian speaking ethnic group in Central Asia and Afghanistan, because of their common language and the Sunni faith. However, it would be wrong to use them as a tool for nationalistic demands, and destabilisation of the political situation in the region. I think the best suggestion for being proud of the Samanids perhaps is continuation of that progressive tradition in the spheres of culture, literature, science, art and architecture.

Living in Middle Ages, the Samanids could never define themselves as Tajiks or even Iranians, and they might not have a consciousness of what they were doing for a so-called Iranian renaissance. It would be wrong to describe the changes, which took place in the cultural life under the Samanids as a revolt against Islam or Arabs. Although, a kind of great- Iranian nostalgia was shown in literature such as the Sh’ubiyya movement or later in Firdavsi’s Shah-name, we cannot say that Iranian renaissance had a nationalistic character, or aimed to revive pre-Islamic Iranian style of life. It was a process of introducing new Islamic culture expressed by new Persian language, the appearance of which in many respects was due to Islam and the Arabic language. The new Persian, side by side with Arabic became the language of Islam, and a tool for producing a new culture and tradition in the name of Islam. Later on in this language produced a great literature, which is famous in the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. Every intelligent person in the world is familiar with the names of Avicena (Ibn Sina) Hafiz, Sa’di, Khayyam, Rumi, and other Persian poets and thinkers.

The Samanids were the first centralised dynasty in Central Asia, which could unify people with various culture and social backgrounds under one rule, and contributed to the economic, social, cultural life of that people. In doing so they somehow opened a way for the spread of Islam among the pagan Turks, and other Zoroastrian Iranian ethnic groups of Central Asia. On the other hand, patronising the new Persian literature and culture they saved this ancient culture from extinction, and gave to it new life through Islam. They could combine the ancient Iranian culture with the new Islamic culture, which originated from Arabo-Bedouin traditions, and had made Islam an international culture. I would like to end this essay by quoting from R. Frye, when he says that: ‘Greek civilisation served as a vehicle for Christianity so did Iranian civilisation for Islam.’12

1.Encyclopaedia of Islam, article Samanids, vol.v. pp. 1025 – 1031.
2.Frye, Richard, The Heritage of Persia (The new American Library, New York, 1963).
3.Frye, Richard, Islamic Iran and Central Asia (Variorum Reprints, London, 1979).
4.Ghafurov, Babajan, Tadjiki (Nauka Press, Moscow, 1972).
5.Morgan, David, Medieval Persia 1040 –1797(Logman, London and New York, 1988).
6.Saunders, J.J, A History of Medieval Persia, London, 1965.
7.Siddiqi, Amir, Caliphate and Kingship (Porcupine Press, Philadelphia, 1977).
8.Sir Percy Sykes, A History of Persia, London, 1951.
9.The Cambridge History of Iran (Cambridge University Press, 1975), vol.4. pp. 136 –595.

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